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Nothing Lasts Forever

Chapter Text

The stars shone bright that night, forming an endless and wide picture in the cloudless sky. Even with their brilliant light in the sheer blackness of the night, they hardly provided enough luminosity to enlighten the numerous, diverging streets leading to the magnificent mansions of the rich, but also to the deepest pits the city had to offer. The lanterns lining the road led the last lost souls at this late hour out of the darkness and to their desired shelter. Their fires flickered wildly, whenever a gush of wind blew through them, making the already cold weather icy.

Guren pulled his cloak closer to keep the last bit of warmth contained under it. There was not much left to begin with. The chilly air got through every fiber of his clothes, freezing him to the bone. He fought down a shiver, as he cupped his numb hands in front of his face and breathed against them. Moving his fingers Guren could feel the sense of touch and agility, which were the most important tools for this task, returning as little puffs rose from his hands and took off to the sky. The darkness was frightening to many, but one could also make a living out of it. Even if the job was more than just uncomfortable. Right now, only the drunk, the homeless and the shady were still crossing his paths, with no place to belong and the despair in their hearts keeping them away from sleep. One would argue he had gotten used to it by now, but being among those people still left a dull taste in his mouth. Hiding in an alleyway behind an abandoned cottage, his eyes followed each and every one of their kind.

Their target was the three story high mansion at the other side of the road, which they had been monitoring for half a week. This was normal procedure, but right now he was just tired of it and wanted this entire mission to end rather quickly. The house belonged to the Rikudous, one of the ten noble families whose ancestors descended directly from the imperial family, making them one of the biggest supporters of the government. The lord living there had exited the building already two hours ago, leaving only the staff members to worry about.

“Guren, we are ready to begin.” The voice close behind him almost made Guren jump. Turning around he had to look down to see the small figure standing in front of him. The woman’s golden eyes fixated him from under her bangs and her hair was as pitch black as the night. Shigure Yukimi’s ability to move around unseen and unheard was formidable and though Guren had grown accustomed to it, she nevertheless managed to startle him now and then.

“Report.” He ordered his subordinate, who nodded at him and obeyed promptly.

“In two minutes Goshi will cause a commotion down the street, thus drawing all the attention to the front gate. Sayuri and Mito have confirmed that only ten members of the staff are remaining in the residence at this hour and the Master has just found a worthy partner at his usual gambling table. It is estimated he will return in the morning. His study lies on the second floor to the right, at the back of the building. We could confirm said object is located in that room.”

“Where are Sayuri and Mito right now?”

“Mito is at the front gate making sure to add to Goshi’s distraction to keep all residence at the front as long as possible. Sayuri is waiting for your arrival in the backyard.”

“Well then, seems it is finally my moment to shine.” Guren answered and stretched his arms to bring some life back to his muscles. It was a pain to think about breaking into a house right now. Still, sitting everything out had always been his least favorite part at work and Guren was finally getting something to do. The faster this was done, the earlier he could get home and out of this cold and dirty mess of a district. Seeing those rich people made him want to puke anyway.

He pointed to the wall, surrounding the backyard in which Sayuri was supposed to meet him. It was almost three meters high and shielded whatever was lying beyond it from any view from the outside.

“You can assure that no one is at the back of the mansion right now?”

Again Shigure nodded eagerly.

“All of them are occupied with chores in the main quarters, so getting to the backyard right now shouldn’t be a problem.”

Guren closed his eyes as a little smile appeared on his face. This was a far easier job than he had at first expected it to be for one of the richest districts of the city. With the regular patrols of the guards and the peaceful and calm environment the locals were much too careless with the actual security of their homes, making this job a piece of cake. It was like they were asking to be robbed.

“Shigure, take a high spot to get a full view and oversee this thing. If something doesn’t go according to plan, give us the usual warning. I want to hear later, if you have noticed some situation which could have turned out dangerously.”

There were more than a few times, when Guren and his group had fled from hounds and owners, due to a mistake in their plan. Alone for the shock and scars those times left him with, he wanted to avoid repeating that at all cost.

His subordinate blinked at him surprised by his command, before she replied confusedly.

“You want me to make suggestions for a fitter plan in the future, if this one is going to fail?”

“Let’s hope it will not fail.”

With this he turned around and walked out of his hideout into the open street. He stopped one step before the wall and put his hand against the cold stone, feeling its surface and confirming his grip against it. One look back told him, that Shigure had disappeared as silently as usual. Closing his eyes he listened to his surroundings. It was late at night and not many people were still on the streets, but it would be unfortunate, if one caught him at the wrong time, while breaking into a backyard of a noble. The guards were expected to pass through this area in two hours again, so he wasn’t really worried about these guys. Still, even if the ones seeing him were just drunks, he wanted the work of the Moon Order to stay as secretive as possible. After all, their future operations and connections with the clients depended on their reputation; or more like the reputation for no information about them whatsoever, since secrecy and discretion was the most important part of their organization.

No steps and voices were audible, the city having quieted down. Right now was his best go.

Taking a deep breath Guren fixated the obstacle in front of him one last time, measuring its height and the speed he would need to climb it with, before he took a few steps back. Stretching his legs and arms he started prancing lightly on his feet, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, to get a feeling for the ground beneath him. With a few skips he broke into a dash, finally jumping against the wall and using it as a stepping stone to lift his body up higher. His fingertips reached the edge of the damn thing and taking another step against the wall Guren obtained enough momentum to place at first his forearms and then his upper body on the top of the wall. Since climbing obstacles was part of his training it all happened in one swift motion in under a second. Now crouching at the top, he took a moment to view the place he was about to enter.

Second floor to the right, huh? This pretentious place was divided in quarters and had so many windows, he only had a vague idea, which one would be correct.

As expected of the Rikudou family, they always had a preference for showing their wealth to the people around them. But who would have thought they would build a palace of this size? It’s possibly the biggest mansion on the hill.

Since doing the Hiragis a favor the Rikudou family had risen in prestige and standing. And with their new social acknowledgment and praise, a home representing all their power had to be build. Even in the dark Guren recognized sculptures at the edges of the rooftop, as well as the ornaments and drawings adorning the sides, descending down to the balconies, which fused with every second window. These decorations alone must have cost a fortune, apart from the golden hangings he could see in the rooms. Displaying their fortune like this, Guren wondered why there weren’t more safety measurements against robberies.

Silently he let himself drop to the ground, hidden behind the shrubbery which accompanied the small fruit trees a few steps back from the wall. He peeked over the bushes and eyed the terrace, bathed in the warm light coming from the dancing hall behind the huge windows. The light reached far enough for Guren to discern the perfect structure of flower beds and hedges leading the way to the small shrine on the other side of the garden.  He frowned as he watched the familiar figure next to the shrine and carefully made his way over. The influence of the Hyakuya Church was strong since centuries – almost as long as the Hiragi family reigned over this city – but he had never seen nobles worshipping the Sect this openly. After all, their religion frequently collided with the political views of the rulers and nobody was permitted to have a different opinion than the Hiragis.

Close to the wall he avoided the small area bathed in light, as he made his way over to his subordinate. With her black cloak Sayuri was almost invisible in the night, hiding her presence from anyone who wasn't supposed to see her. She had observed the house for days now, without even the gardener noticing her.

"Guren!" she quietly called over once he came into her view, now only a few meters away from her. Her voice was nervous as she crossed the last distance with a few hurried steps. While doing so she accidentally stepped on the long cloak, making her lose her balance and with a muffled sound she landed on the grass right before his feet.

"Uwah, I'm sorry for being so clumsy! Seems like my senses are especially numb during this cold weather." The woman whispered as she picked herself up and looked around, checking for some unwanted visitors, who might have noticed her moving. Guren did the same, already used to this kind of thing. He never understood how Sayuri managed to stay under cover during observations like that, while being so clumsy and basically drawing all attention towards her, once she took a step out of her hideout. Even Shigure, who was specialized in creeping up behind people, was always discovered faster by them than Sayuri during practice. It was like she was a mouse, which would turn into an elephant once it changed locations.

"The object is still in place?"

"Yes. The master has left it in the right drawer of his desk in his study." She pointed to a window leading to a dark room at the second floor of the building. "He took it out and polished it this afternoon and I feared he wanted to take it with him, but in the end he placed it back there, right before he left." She glanced up to the tree from which she had checked the windows on the upper floors. For a moment Guren thought again about using this route to enter the study but rejected the idea once more. The space was too wide, even for him and he didn't want to break his neck in the attempt to jump on the balcony, when he could also take the bothersome, but safer route and climb up. But that would require privacy, as well as a commotion. One which Mito and Goshi were right onto.

"Sometimes I really hate these jobs." He replied as he eyed the structure of the building for what it felt like the hundredth time, planning where to place each foot to climb it up and down as fast as possible. Getting into a place was always easy. Getting out of it was a totally different matter.

Next to him Sayuri chuckled.

"You always say that." She replied smiling, giving him a weird look, eyes only being partially visible under her hood.

"I always say that, but in the end I'm still taking those jobs. Talking about a legacy-"

He stopped as his eyes spotted a tiny shimmer on the roof of the house behind them. Any civilian would just think of it as a reflection of the moon, made by the dormer windows which stood out like the tip of a mountain to the rest of the roof top. No one would even think of a small person hiding behind those images of pomp and that was why Shigure was using them to deliver her sign. The operation had started.

"Sayuri, I'll leave the rest to you." Guren told her, as he took of his coat and handed it over to her. He knew that she would follow the orders given to her beforehand. With that he slowly left the comforting security of the trees and stepped closer to the light, that made him feel like thousand eyes were watching him. He stayed there for a few seconds, taking in the silence and waiting for the alarm to be sounded. It was easier to escape when he was discovered now, than when he was already dangling from the balcony two storeys up high.

Guren didn't need to look back to confirm Sayuri being gone, since he wasn't able to sense her presence anymore. The wind picked up a bit, carrying over sounds and voices from the road nearby. Were those due to the commotion or just a group of carefree young nobles, enjoying their night lives as they were spending the fortune of their parents on women and gambling? For a second Guren thought he heard Mito's outraged yelling over the steady mumbling of the rest of the people. Seemed like those two were giving their best as well.

He didn't want to disappoint them.

The next moment he climbed the stairs of the terrace, a chill creeping over his body with the warmth of the cloak gone now. His steps sounded off the polished marble on the ground as he walked over to the seating area, near the huge windows of the hall. Nobody had bothered to take the table and chairs inside with the naive believe that strangers wouldn't be able to enter the back yard. What would those damn nobles think, if they saw him polluting their furniture with his dirty shoes? He had to smile as he imagined the faces of all the people that had looked down on him, calling him a piece of shit. Just like the one under his shoes with which he was covering the table right now.

Jumping lightly, Guren grabbed the top of the parapet attached to the balcony on the first floor. Placing his feet on said balcony he kept his momentum by jumping again, using the parapet as a stepping stone. Like that he was able to enter almost every noble's home, if the security was lacking this much.

What a piece of cake. He thought as he finally jumped horizontally from one balcony to the other and landed gracefully right in front of the glass door of the study. Turning around to confirm any signals Shigure and Sayuri were might sending him, he exhaled his breath slowly, taking in the noises, echoing from the front of the building.

"I never expected something like this to happen in this neighborhood."

"What the hell are the guards doing? Seems like people can't even cross the road nowadays, without those bastards coming after you."

"Why does this have to happen in front of the Master’s home? Thank god he's out tonight."

It seemed like the garden up front was crowded with people. Guren wondered a second what kind of performance Goshi and Mito had come up with, though he didn't really care as long as it sufficed its purpose and kept the people away from the study. Crouching down in front of the door, Guren inspected the lock with the bit of twilight the moon was giving him, while getting his lock picking tools out. The lock was an ordinary one with no safety measures, so he simply slid a skeleton key into the keyhole and eased the door with a light clicking sound open. A gush of warm air met him right after, as he entered the study. He had heard of a new form of architecture, where pipes were running through the walls, flooded with boiling water, heated up by a huge oven downstairs. With this the staff didn't need to prepare the fireplaces hours beforehand to get a fairly pleasant temperature in the rooms, during the cold months of fall and winter. The old man must have been in very high spirits as he had planned the construction, even using new inventions like these. Had he asked the Hiragis for permission beforehand? Guren wondered if they would allow a household to live more comfortable than themselves in their palace. Knowing the imperial family, he was certain they would take it as an insult, if someone was more advanced than them. Under normal circumstances they would ruin the family by framing them for some crime, confiscating anything they found interesting in the process. But most of the ten families had a separate status than the rest of the nobles, so maybe the Hiragis were rewarding them for their allegiance with this kind of treatment.

But a shrine as well as this newly built home? What had the old man done for this reward?

The moonlight illuminated only a small part of the room, the rest was pitch black, but since Guren had stayed hidden in the darkness over the entire evening his eyes adapted faster to it than usual. The study was small, containing a desk with a chair by the window, as well as an armchair next to the door, with several book shelves attached to the walls behind it. At first glance Guren couldn't see any paintings or other personal belongings. The desk was clean and tidy, with not even quill and ink lying around. It only added to the feeling of emptiness the study conveyed, in contrast to the rather overbearing outside. It almost seemed like the guy was hiding something.

Of course the drawers of the desk were locked, only confirming Guren's suspicion. Still the lock was again easy to pick and a few seconds later, he pulled the drawer open.

A little golden piece, sparkling as it met with the moonlight rolled into his view, accompanied by a disarranged stack of letters. The Lord must have put them away in a hurry, to create such a mess. Giving those documents a curious glance, Guren took out the golden ring he was supposed to deliver by tomorrow, holding it up to examine the seal engraved in it.

Even though the nobles had sworn allegiance to the Hiragi family a long time ago, the houses remained suspicious, always trying to top the others in power and prestige. The nobles had been rivals for several hundred years, with houses rising and falling as intrigues and scandals unfolded. In this world of strict hierarchy and casts the ten families had a secure stand, but among the smaller noble families, some had already disappeared forever. In order to improve their social status and gain more power, they would use all kinds of ways to weaken the ones around them.

And that was how the Moon Order got into business.

Even more than ordering his clan to steal pieces of treasure some people were showing off with, nobles were desiring bits of information, that could possibly result in a scandal and impair the reputation of their rivals. Right now Rikudou used the seal of another family to promulgate dangerous documents, with no trace leading back to him. The family had been disgraced already, but if this continued and the Hiragis caught wind of it, they would surely go to prison if not being executed. Playing with people’s lives like that was just disgusting. However instead of announcing their seal had been stolen and giving their rivals an opportunity to belittle them, his clients chose to get rid of the circling documents, as well as hiring a guild of robbers to get the family seal back. There was no way they could accuse one of the ten families without definite proof, so this mission was operated behind the official’s backs in secrecy.

The bright moonlight was enough for him to confirm the accuracy of the seal. With a triumphant smile he threw the ring up in the air, and dropped it in a small bag, hanging on the side of his belt. Looking back at the drawer, he took out the other documents present there. As expected, Rikudou had kept a copy of the writing he had published, sealed and signed by Guren's client. The text was talking about a criminal, who had just been caught by the Hiragi's and was about to be executed by next week. It was a plea to pardon said prisoner, while motivating the reader to think about the injustice and corruption in the Hiragi's ruling.  Ironically the truth was written there, but anyone who would openly agree with it, could drown his hope of a bright future in a river. Impressive, how much damage you could create with a ring and a fake signature.

A list of people killed as traitors and criminals followed at the end of the page. Letting his eyes lazily wander over the names, Guren froze as they stopped at a very familiar one. Holding his breath he stared at the name, before he closed his eyes and sighed shakily. Until now he hadn't noticed, how cold the air had gotten around him, due to the open door. Folding the piece of writing and hiding it in one of the inside pockets of his vest, Guren started examining the remaining letters. To his surprise all of those had been signed and sent by the Hiragi’s and were addressed to the ten families. Since the seal was already broken, Guren opened all of them, reading the confidential content thoroughly.

Interesting. He thought, a grin appearing on his features, which didn't reach his eyes, as he put the documents into order and back to their rightful place, exactly how he had found them. He was especially careful this time as he locked the drawer up again. If someone got wind of him knowing about the content of those letters, he would get into serious trouble.

It was not really something directly written on those pieces of paper that scared him this time. It was more the meaning behind those words, which gave him a shiver, even though he didn't know what said meaning was. Looking back at the desk again as he locked the door, Guren wondered if this time he really had dug something up, he was not supposed to have, before he took a few steps back and disappeared in the night.

 

 


 

 

"Guren!" Shigure and Sayuri called out in unison, as he reached their meeting point a few districts away from the Rikudou residents. Guren greeted them with a nod, looking around searching for the two other members of his group.

"Mito and Goshi are still not back yet." Sayuri answered his silent question, exchanging an uncomfortable look with Shigure.

"What happened?" It couldn’t be that they got caught, could it?

"The commotion was too big. People of the other residences got attracted as well. So..."

Sayuri stopped, as loud voices became audible in the distance. A woman and a man were having an argument, obviously not caring about the late hour and the sleep of the people living around them.

"It hurts! Ahhh it hurts! Why did you have to slap me so hard?"

"Because you deserved it, that's why!"

"That's not an explanation Mito!"

With this the two came into view. Seeing Guren, Shigure and Sayuri already waiting for them, they fastened their steps and made their way over.

"See! Because of your unnecessary action, we are late and everyone had to wait for us. Indeed very professional."

Even in the poorly lit street Guren could see Mito's face had turned a few shades darker, now almost as red as her hair. One could feel anger radiating off her with every step she took, her hair, bound in a pony tail, jumping up and down as if to symbolize her inner turmoil. The black toupee in her hands was a mess, since she carelessly waved it around, to distract herself. She stopped right in front of Guren, arms folded in front of her chest and clearly irritated.

"There is no way I'm working alone with this guy ever again."

She pointed to Goshi, who was following behind her, shoulders hanging and clearly done for today. One hand was raised to his face, gently touching a dark spot there. Nevertheless he smiled as he joined the group.

"Yo guys! Did everything go according to plan?" He smiled at Shigure and Sayuri, before he gave Guren an apologetic look.

"At least on our end. Why are you late? What happened?"

"Well..." Goshi trailed off, still rubbing his cheek. He glanced over to Mito, before he faced the rest again.

"The commotion worked too well -"

"Goshi is a pig -"

Both stopped and looked at each other. Mito was the first to find her voice again.

"You call that a commotion?"

"It worked didn't it? I thought you were committed to your work."

"Well yeah..." She paused for a moment - speechless - but the anger forced her to speak again. "But not like that, you damn idiot."

A slapping sound, accompanied by a cry were echoing through the street as Mito hit Goshi a second time.

"Seriously, for what did I deserve that?" Goshi cried, now holding his other cheek as well.

"Guys." Guren's voice silenced both of them. "Report now."

Guilt was mixed in their eyes, as Mito and Goshi glanced at each other. Then they straightened up, switching back into professionals.

"Apparently, Goshi's commotion was to openly harass me, without letting me in on the plan."

"And since she reacted all but rational, people thought it to be real."

"It was REAL!" Mito yelled, eyes throwing daggers at the man beside her. "However, I did indeed react very rash, so the people we drew the attention from, wanted to help me. And then..."

"They got a hold of me." Goshi finished. "And tried to calm down Mito. In the end someone wanted to even walk her home."

"Someone contacted the guards as well, so we had to hurry and get out of there, before they would lock Goshi up. This guy eventually made a dash for it, while I needed to pretend to be the shaken up young lady, who was very glad for the help she was receiving. In the end I just walked up to an entrance of a random residence and told my guardians to leave, since my father wouldn't want to see me coming home with strangers late at night."

In addition to his sleepiness Guren could feel the pounding of a head ache coming up, as he lowered his head and rubbed his eyes.

"Do I have to remind you, what the Moon Order stands for?"

Seeing Mito and Goshi avoiding his gaze, as their eyes wandered to the ground was answer enough. Still, granting the information he had received this night, maybe the extra time those guys gave him had paid off well.

"Did you at least get the ring?" Mito asked quietly.

"I did. And even more than that." Guren answered, as he turned around and walked off. "Let's go home, before I laugh my ass off, because of the stupid faces you two are making." Head turning to the side he smirked at them, which resulted in their features lighting up.

"So the mission was a success?" Mito asked, voice mixed with doubt.

"For me, it went pretty smooth because of you guys." Guren said as he looked up into the night sky. He wondered about the letters he read tonight and what he would do with the information. What were the Hiragis planning in the future? How would that involve the nobles, the city and the Moon Order? Guren couldn't tell at the moment.

 He also imagined the situation Goshi and Mito had been in and wondered if he would have been amused, if he had seen it. Guren hated to admit it, but sometimes these jobs weren't so bad.

"So yeah. It was a success."

 


 

 

Yuu shifted as a shiver ran down his body, pulling his thin blanket closer with the desperate hope to keep the cold away. The attempt proved to be useless, so he pulled his knees to his chest and folded his trembling hands in front of his face, to warm them up with his unsteady breath.

This all would not have been necessary, if he had been there.

All cuddled up like this, Yuichiro listened to the shallow breathing of the smaller kids and looked up at the dark ceiling. How much longer would it take Mika to get home? During the first nights Yuu hadn't noticed his absence. The guy was always back by morning, though he usually looked tired as hell. But soon after that, Yuu's nightmares returned and he woke up in the middle of the night and Mika’s soothing breath next to him, that would normally lull him back to sleep, was gone. Especially in cold nights like these he missed the company of his friend, who somehow always ended up clinging to Yuu by morning. Yuu would complain about it, but secretly he was glad, since Mika chased  the cold away. If Mika was there, he could sleep peacefully. But now with his friend gone and worries flouting back and forth in his mind, Yuu asked himself again, why the guy had to go through such lengths to support them. They were a family after all. They would figure something out. He didn't need to carry the entire burden by himself!

The door to the floor finally opened and with small and silent steps Mika entered the room. Eyes sticking out from under the blanket, Yuu watched the other, who carefully made his way over, while avoiding stepping on the snuggled up children. Before his friend could properly see him though, Yuu turned around to face the other direction. Mika would always smile when he got back, no matter what had happened and it felt like a stab to Yuichiro's heart. More than anything he feared the day when this smile would disappear from those features. He wouldn't let it get this far.

"I'm back." Mika whispered with a voice light and clear as glass, while he slipped under his blanket and shifted closer to Yuu. The boy didn't reply nor did he turn around. He never did and still the other said these words every night. With Mika’s comforting presence snuggled up behind his back, he relaxed a bit as the worries of the night slowly faded. One thought remained though, before the sleep overcame him.

He needed to protect Mika at all cost and prevent this smile from vanishing forever.

Chapter Text

The food was disgusting. Yuu thought that over the years he would get used to this kind of taste, but nope it was still bitter and impossible to eat. With a pained expression he viewed the indefinable mush in front of him and didn't want to know, what the ingredients used to be. How should the other children and he himself get taller and strong from this garbage? He looked at the smaller kids, which were seated around the table, chatting happily and wondered if they had just accepted their fates. Yuu had been in this orphanage for four years now, but no way was he going to keep living like that!

Finally he took the bowl up to his mouth, pinching his nose with two fingers and gulped the food down. The boy shook as the bitter taste brought tears to his eyes and he felt like throwing up.

"Really Yuu. You should show some manners when eating with others." Mika's voice sounded from opposite him, producing a deathly glare from Yuu.

"I'm not showing manners, if they are giving us muck like this. How can you all eat it?" Yuu complained, while Mika eyes clouded for a moment. From time to time they were given this kind of food. Yuu wasn't sure if it was because of money issues or if it had something to do with the special treatment they were receiving. Either way, the director should take better care of these kinds of things. It was not only the food. They slept on the ground and the number of blankets was barely enough to cover all of them at night. As a result some of the kids had gotten sick and they might lose one or two by the next week. Reading Mika's features under his blond, shining hair, Yuichiro could see how much it got to him. Mika was working his ass off and saving money for all of them to break free of this place – to live on their own. It was an ideal dream, but Yuu was sure, if it was Mika, he would make it happen.

That much he had finally gotten out of the boy by now. Also, that he had hidden the money at different locations in the city, since the housemasters had taken it away from him before. Yuu had told Mika to stop worrying and managing everything on his own. Yuichiro was the same age as his friend. He could work at the same place and they could share the burden. But whenever he offered his help to the other boy, he would earn a panic struck and shocked expression.

"No Yuu! You shouldn't go to that place. Never." Back then, Mika had grabbed his shoulders with both hands and shaken him. Seeing his warily expression however, Mika had pedaled back, giving him a wide smile.

"You have to show manners at that place. Manners are everything! And since you don't have any manners at all and lash out at the simplest and stupidest things, there is no way they would hire you."

Yuu had thought of following Mika secretly once or twice, but since the other went out of his way to keep it a secret, he didn't want to destroy his trust like that. But Mika needed help, Yuu was sure of it. All those tired smiles he was forcing himself to, all the hurt and pain in those blue eyes, in which Yuichiro lost himself from time to time. Not that he would ever say that out loud. The bastard could be annoying as hell, if you gave him just one opportunity.

"Mika! Would you play with us?" Juni, a small kid who used to cry all the time tucked at Mika's sleeve to get his attention. The blonde looked down to the small child with those gentle eyes and his smile reflected on the other’s face.

Glancing over to Yuu, Mika's smile turned into an evil grin and the other already knew, what was coming.

"How about we play our favorite game?"

Yuu groaned disgruntled, as the little kid’s eyes sparkled when he looked over.

"Bothering big brother Yuu!", Juni exclaimed loudly and the other kids cheered from all around the table. Yuu's forehead met the tabletop, as he could already hear the little monsters getting off their seats to run over to him. He sent Mika a deadly glare that said 'I hate you so much' and heard Akane chuckle next to him.

"They are really fond of you." She said right before the first kid landed on his back and two others pulled on his sleeves. With all their power combined, Yuu was wrestled to the ground. Hearing their happy laughter and starting to smile as well, he tried to grab the little brats, as they tickled him. Whenever he got one, the others would head to the rescue and attack together, until they had freed their friend from the fangs of the monster. All the while Mika and Akane would cheer for them from the sidelines, joining in with their laughter.

"I'm giving up." Yuu called out defeated, which was met with voices of disappointment. Having the kids seated all around him, he smiled a wide grin and whispered something. The exact same grin appeared on each face of the children and they turned around to look at their next prey.

"Oh no." Mika said quietly, before he ran around the table to get away from his former army, which now had turned against him. But the kids were just an enemy no one could outrun or defeat, so a few seconds later, Mika ended up the exact same way Yuu did before. His light laughter sounded like a melody, as it was mixed with those of the other children.

"Alright everyone! Let's let big brother Mika live and clean up the table, shall we." At Akane's words Mika gave a sigh of relieve while all the others, including Yuu, complained loudly, but still got up to take on the task.

"You are evil." Mika said, as Yuu kneeled down next to him, grinning sheepishly.

"You are one to talk. That was just payback." Yuu exclaimed, stretching out a hand to help the other get up. Right now he was wearing the expression Yuu wanted to see more on Mika's face. Not a forced smile, which shut away the hurt and discomfort, due to the hardships Mika had to go through. Not the sad look in his eyes, which he couldn't hide even though he tried his hardest, begging Yuu to help him and to make it stop. Right now Mika was smiling because he was happy to be amongst his family, for the love he felt towards each of them. It was a smile, which filled every person looking at him with warmth and lighted up even the darkest features.

 


 

 

With a sigh Guren leaned back in his chair, hands running through his hair in defeat, before he picked up the quill again, looking at the giant stack of paper on his desk, as if it was about to poison him. Almost six hours ago he had locked himself up in this room, working constantly on answering the letters of business partners, as well as reviewing their goods and inventory. Several lists, registers and tables were sprawled out next to him. His attempt to keep them in neat order had failed miserably after hours of checking through them and now they were just piling up on the desk or covering the ground. With each new letter the chaos around him increased. Guren was usually a person to keep his work place tidy, but it seemed even he could turn it into a clutter once in a while. He still wondered how he had managed to answer any letter in all this mess. It was a nerve wrecking and tiresome task and required concentration, which had left him hours ago. Right now would be the best time to take a break, but Guren was too stubborn to give up just yet. His partners were waiting for a reply or at least for acknowledgment, and his future connections depended on the ties he made and cherished. Those were the lives of his subordinates and colleagues and it was the responsibility of a leader to take care of them.

His thoughts trailed off as he watched the shadows run longer and longer with every minute, which felt like an eternity in itself.

Six hours, but still the stack just wouldn't get smaller. He knew he had put off the paperwork a bit, but nevertheless he was surprised, as Sayuri and Shigure brought the documents to his study. His shocked expression must have shown on his face, because both of them eagerly volunteered to help him. As if it wasn't hard enough to concentrate on this boring stuff. He really didn't need those two running around and fussing over him. Besides, he could work more efficiently whenever he was alone. So honoring his wishes, they had not disturbed him since, not even offering him lunch or reporting news. He might as well have died in the meantime and they would only grow suspicious once he missed his third meal of the day.

I could really grab something to eat right now. He pondered, while his stomach kept growling at him after being neglected the entire day. Guren could always concentrate better on an empty stomach and he figured, once he ate something, the tiredness of the day would take him. Unsure how to decide, he eyed the stack of letters again and tried to measure how many hours of work were still to come. How could his father have managed and led an entire organization, without any trouble up until the day Guren had taken over? Watching his father, when he was younger, it had always seemed so easy to be the head of the Ichinoses. People had respected and trusted Sakae. Only when Guren was sixteen he had to learn the hard way that trust, reliance and faith were values which needed to be earned over years of cooperation. Of course, being his father’s son, people had respected him. They also knew what he was capable of - he was said to be the most promising descendant of the clan since a century - but Guren still wondered if they were able to trust him with their lives, as they did with his father.

Even though the guy had been dead for four years, his shadow still seemed to haunt Guren. It was not only with the immense footsteps his son had to fill or the respect and love with which Guren still remembered the man. In Guren's eyes he would never be as great as his father, whether it was in having the trust of his clan, or in dealing with the superiors.

Guren always thought he would have enough time, right beside his father, to learn everything that was important.

Until that day.

He thought the memories of that time had finally left him for good, but reading the letters of Rikudou a few days prior, his father's name was written on the list of the wrongfully killed. Not only was it humiliating to have his father's name used just to anger the Hiragis and get rid of an opponent, but the one who produced these flyers was Rikudou himself, who, four years ago, had sat on the same table with the other eight noble families and voted for Sakae's execution. They were still degrading him, even many years after his death. Like it was such a surprise.

Guren stopped writing mid sentence, due to his hands shaking forcefully. His face however didn't give away any emotion as he dropped the quill, spilling the black ink all over the paper. With a tired and disappointed sign he stared at the mess on his desk, picked up the soaked material and dropped it in the bin behind him. The stack still seemed enormous, so he at least picked up three additional letters and got up from his seat, walking over to the window. Opening it, he was met with a light, fresh breeze of the rainy afternoon, accompanied by the icy mist that still remained in the cold season. Guren took a deep breath of the air, leaning half way out of the window and watched the life of the city take place before him. Being a noble himself, Guren owned a building in the noble district as well as several secret bases in the lower parts of the city. Representing the Ichinose family, he resided in the mansion most of the time, even though he hated the pretentious life in the midst of his enemies, who wore faked smiles and looked down on his entire clan. The Ichinoses were marked traitors many centuries ago and the grudge and humiliation against them still lingered on. Shared hatred was the best way to unite people, so his family had remained the scapegoat and traitors in the eyes of the Hiragis. By giving everyone the same enemy, the Imperial family secured their superior standing and the allegiance of the other nobles.

Guren escaped a smile as he spotted the marketplace in the far distance down the street. How desperately he would like to leave this dull mansion, hide his presence under old, rotten clothes and join the lively hustle.

But dressing up and acting polite and high was necessary, since his name also unified many other families under it. Families which, even with their low standing, were faithfully following the Ichinose Clan for many hundred years. They were depending on Guren as the leading figure and their business relied on his connections. Sayuri’s and Shigure's parents for example had considerably high standing in society and been his father's most trusted subordinates. The Hiragis of course knew which families were associated with him, but Guren wasn't sure if they had made the connection to the Moon Order yet. The organization of robbers and information brokers was the secret business they were pursuing, under the cover of rich merchants. The secret activities of the Moon Order had started with Guren's father and were now also passed on to him. Along with his duties as a noble.

Making your son become a criminal. Father, what kind of education was this?

Guren had asked himself this question many times when he was younger and soon came to realize that they were living two lives. One in the shadows of the night, hidden behind the pretentious and decorated other. If someone saw him attending one of those tedious noble gatherings, where no one gave a fuck about his opinion, it was not hard telling which life he preferred. Although the jobs were uncomfortable from time to time.

Turning around, Guren faced his room again, feeling the wind tingle his skin and play with his hair. After examining the sender he broke the seal of each letter and unfolded the content. Again it stated mostly numbers - calculations and profits of stores the Ichinoses oversaw amongst others - as well as reports about customers, recent troubles and challenges they were about to take, to improve their business. Skipping through the reports, Guren staggered about the absence of problematic incidents, such as robberies, blackmailing and sheer threats, as they had occurred the months before and basically as long as he could remember. His merchants still made enough profit for the Moon Order to support their work, but he usually lost a third of his earnings either to the nobles - who naturally presupposed they didn't need to pay in a filthy Ichinose store - as well as the Imperial Demons, which demanded protection money from every store in the city. The criminal syndicate, which controlled most of the illegal groups, as well as the drug and gambling market, had interfered with some of his jobs from time to time. Since the Imperial Demons were much bigger in size and power than the Moon Order, Guren didn't stand a chance to revolt or even fight against them. His group would be crushed in the blink of an eye, as well as all the people secretly supporting them. The only reason why the Moon Order still existed was because Guren let them keep a low profile to not pose a threat in any way. His organization was probably too small and insignificant. And since the leader of the Imperial Demons always had the opinion to use everything that could still be useful, Guren did have the unpleasant fortune to work for them as well.

Raindrops, being carried by the wind, landed on his neck, sending a slight shiver over his body. The rain didn't stop there, flying past him and dropping on the writing in front of him. The ink dissolved as the drops met the paper, forming black trickles, which began to make the words unreadable. Before any big harm was done, Guren flung the letters over to his desk, setting up his mind to attend to them right away. Or maybe he should head down first to show his subordinates he was still alive? He was pretty sure they both had wanted to check on him several times by now, but never in the world would they disobey one of his commands. Shigure and Sayuri were pretty stubborn when it came to such things.

Before doing any of these however, Guren was interrupted by a knock at the door. Not sure if he should actually admit to being relieved about this disturbance, Guren kept his stand right by the window, as he called out to the person on the other side. The small figure of Shigure appeared at the entrance with Sayuri right behind her, both wearing expressions of worry, accompanied by a mix of annoyance and apology. Their faces alone spoke volumes and Guren already figured who had just entered his mansion.

He sighed, crossing his arms and leaning his back against the window frame, before he opened his mouth to speak.

"Let him in." Was the reply those two were receiving right as Goshi made his way into the room, by lightly pushing Guren's subordinates aside.

"Seems like you are very busy, Guren. I hope you are not dying of boredom." Goshi smiled at him teasingly. Then he took in the open window and pointed in the other’s direction.

"Man it's freezing in here. Were you actually trying to skip work by getting sick? That's not very nice! But I see! That way, Shigure and Sayuri have to nurse you to health. Why have I never thought of it? Giving yourself in the care of those gentle hands, what else does a man want in his life. Guren you are a genius!"

From behind Goshi, Guren's subordinates started complaining frivolously.

"Master Guren would never do such a thing. He's far too considered and proud to take advantage of our care in such an unhanded way. How can someone like you even say something like this?" After her yell filled with rage, Sayuri pedaled back, now turning bright red like an apple. She pulled her hand to her chest and her eyes evaded those of the others.

"But....if he really was about to get sick, I'm sure Shigure and me will be eager to take care of him."

"Oi Guren, do you hear that? How badly I want to catch a cold now."

"If your health was decaying in any way, we would just leave you to die." Shigure's cold reply was delivered quietly and in a monotone voice, but it didn't take away any of the threat conveyed with it.

"My, My. Why are you two always so cold?"

"Goshi, please stop messing with my subordinates." At Guren's words Goshi waved him off, while giving him a wink only he was able to see. At this the young Ichinose sighed, hands rubbing his temples, as he could feel a headache coming up.

"Shigure, Sayuri don't let yourselves get teased so easily by that stupid guy. Also, stop saying things that are uncalled for. You may leave now." He had said these words in a calm manner, not meaning to scold them, but the two still reacted like kicked puppies, heads sinking to their chest, shoulders dropping and their already small figures shrinking. With a guilty, almost sorrowful 'Yes' they left the room, closing the door behind them.

After seeing the reaction of the women, Goshi exhaled the air sharply, almost forming a whistle.

"That was not very nice. You should treat your ladies better." With a thumb Goshi pointed to the door behind him, where the two had just left the room.

"They will get over it", was Guren's simple reply. Then he closed the window and fixated Goshi.

"So why are you here?"

"Since you are caught up in your other duties -" Goshi walked up to Guren's desk, taking the seat for visitors in front of it. He rested one foot on his knee, before his right hand wandered under his vest, to pull out a neatly folded letter, tied with a red ribbon. "I took it upon myself to control the check points and it seems we got mail again." Goshi waved with the stupid letter like it was some kind of special treat.

"Are you interested?"

"Have you looked at it already?"

"Of course I have. That's why I'm here in person and didn't pass it on to another member of the Moon Order. I think this is something you could enjoy. It's been a week since the last job and knowing you, I think you got enough of your noble duties already. So what about a change?" With this Goshi sent the document flying towards the other. Guren caught the envelope in midair, turning it a few times to examine the material. No seal, as usual. There have been a few stupid enough to officially hire a thief. And even those idiots, which basically openly announced to get the houses of their rivals robbed, had been satisfied with the work.

A red ribbon...Seems like the sender has a fondness of decoration. A female maybe?

Opening up the envelope and taking out the message, Guren's hunch was confirmed, as he recognized the familiar handwriting. Seeing the expression of the other darken, Goshi chuckled.

"Seems like this one is becoming one of our most loyal customers."

"Like I would care."

"Oh come on! You know her from those social gathering. Lady Agatha is one of the most respected noble women out there. All those fancy parties, where she is badmouthing every lady not invited and flirting with the blokes? Maaaan why was I never invited to it? Even you have been there." Goshi sounded like he had just been thrown out of paradise, as he leaned back in his chair and covered his eyes. Like it was such a social disgrace, if you had not been to one of Agatha's stupid gatherings. Yes, she always invited the high and important people as well, but those rather chose not to attend anymore. It all seemed like a childish game to get the better of some, who have fallen in her sentiments. Guren had been there once to gather information, but the entire ordeal had been pointless. No productive words were exchanged during any conversation back then.

Interest me? You know I hate her, but I can't leave this job to any of the others.

The skills of the other members of the Moon Order were extraordinary, but those women were the wives of high ranking members of society and some of them put more thought in the security than Rikudou. But maybe there was another way to get a hold of the piece, without entering a home this time.

"At least she doesn't want it to herself." Guren answered as he finished reading the message. As always the letter was completely anonymous, but it was not hard figuring out, who sent them to steal fancy jewelry of women in high social standing. And since Lady Agatha had been offensive enough to wear some of the stolen jewelry, to show her triumph to those around her, many had also hired the Moon Order to get it back. They had to operate tactful to not get caught up between the mischiefs of those women. Guren didn't want to create a stir. If she had not paid so well up until now, Guren would have turned down these jobs long ago, since the only additional information he received in the process had been gossip. Sure one could make use of it as well, but what was the point, if you couldn't confirm the truth behind those words?

Right now, he couldn't care less about this child’s play. In fact he had better things to take care of, like getting to know more about the circumstances described in the letters he had read in Rikudou's study.

Why would the Hiragis and the Hyakuya Church -?

"We can keep the piece this time and she is even giving out additional payment. How about making some extra money?" Goshi said, trying to be convincing.

We've got enough money on our hands. Is what Guren would have liked to say, but the truth was, the merchants working under him needed a loan to advance their business further and the Imperial Demons could also pass by again. Having some savings could prove to be better in the future.

Another look to his messy desk covered with piles of documents helped him decide. He had stayed in this room far too long for his taste. He would get the work done some time during the evening or the next day.

"As much as I hate to do this woman another favor, she does pay really well. And I could also get some fresh air. Who else knows of this?" Guren put the small card with the message written on it back in the envelope, before shifting it in a pocket of his shirt.

A wide, triumphant grin appeared on Goshi's features and his eyes conveyed the words 'See, told ya' with so much smug, Guren would have liked to kick that attitude out of him. It reminded him too much of another person, with a name much too high for his taste and a behavior, that annoyed Guren to the death.

"I told Mito we might be onto something, but nothing more." Goshi replied with a shrug.

"Well then, let's get the team and see what is expecting us this time."

 


 

The sun was setting and after the regular checkups in the evening, Mika took off again. Yuu had just given him a grunt, as he and Akane sent him off. Yuu didn't want to let him go. He wanted to grab the blond boy and lock him up somewhere, so he couldn't hurt himself anymore. Watching the figure disappear from the facility, without the director noticing, Yuu felt again the urge to follow the other. He clenched his fists, rage filling him because of his inability to help Mika. They were mostly overseen during the day and not allowed to leave the orphanage, so the only jobs he could take would be right around this time. But what normal job would be around the evening till midnight and suitable for a kid?

None.

Clenching his fists, Yuu bit his lip. This couldn't go on. The daily routine was most weeks the same, so he knew the best time to sneak out during the day. With the amount of children, they wouldn't notice him being gone an hour, would they?

A hand was lightly tapping his shoulder and he met the eyes of Akane.

"I know what you are thinking. But Mika is doing all this to protect us. You would destroy all of his efforts, if you put yourself in danger as well, Yuu." She trailed off and looked to the ground. The grip on Yuu's shoulder tightened.

"But you should know that I feel the same way you do." Her voice sounded defeated, as if all the energy had left her body. "It's just not fair."

This time it was Yuu who comforted her, by putting a hand on her head to make her look up again.

"Maybe we cannot protect him from the stuff outside, but we can do our best here at home." The words were more meant for her than for himself. Yuu had already decided what he needed to do. "Let him feel welcome and make him happy, so that he can get his energy back."

At this Akane nodded eagerly, tears forming at the corners of her eyes.

"Mmh." She nodded, as the first tear started running down her cheek. "I'm sure he would like that." She smiled at Yuu, then, wiping off her tears, she turned around and put a smile on her face again, before she called out to the kids.

In the four years Yuu had been at the orphanage led by the Hyakuya Church, he had never seen Akane cry before.

 


 

 

The night was as cold as ever. Everyone had gone to bed a few hours ago, but Yuu waited again. Leaning against the cold stone wall next to the entrance, he listened to his own breathing, the only sound audible in the silence. Mika was late. Yuu couldn't really tell by how much and his friend was running late pretty often, but tonight something seemed different. An odd feeling clung to Yuu, dragging him down, while restlessness kept the sleep away. He stayed like that, thoughts spinning down in a spiral, like they were being pulled down by a stream, or engulfed by the darkness.

The door opened next to him and a small figure stepped in. Yuu recognized the golden, curly hair, as the moonlight fell on it.

"Mika."

Surprised the other turned around. As Yuu’s eyes fell on the face of his friend his heart felt like it had just been crushed.

"Yuu...You... s-should sleep already. Really, do you know how late it is?" Mika's voice was breaking, even though he tried to sound steady. He was holding a bag in one hand, which now dropped to the ground as Yuu walked over and shook him.

"What happened to you?" At Yuu's words Mika's eyes widened in shock and for a moment the emotions he had hidden all the while reflected on his face. Like a wave, pain and sorrow gushed over it for just a second, then he closed his eyes and the walls he had put around his feelings rose up again.

"Nothing. I don't know what you mean? You must be tired." He chuckled, but it got stuck in his throat, as the grip on his shoulders tightened.

"For God’s sake, Mika, stop lying to me! Stop pretending!" Yuu hesitated as the other flinched at his words. Surprised at the volume of his voice, he looked past Mika and over to the other room, hoping not to have woken anyone over there. The rage he had kept down all this time had finally made him yell.

Taking a deep breath to fight his feelings down, Yuu fixated the blonde and continued in a whisper.

"You look like hell. You never look good when you come home, but you have never been this bad." He stopped, leaning in closer and his voice grew desperate. "Don't you trust me? I know you want to manage everything by yourself, but there comes a point when you have to share the burden. You will break apart otherwise and I don't just want to sit on the sideline and watch you destroy yourself. Aren't we a family? We protect each other, don't we?" He trailed off, trying to see Mika's eyes, which were now hidden under his bangs. The face of his friend was pale and the blonde looked worn out and hollow. Almost like a ghost.

"Yuu. It's gone." Mika's voice was so faint and light, Yuu had almost mistaken it as his imagination.

"My savings. Everything I have worked for until now. I've checked all the hideouts and all of them have been robbed. I thought -" He started trembling and so did his voice. "I thought I had been careful enough. I.... I always made sure no one was following me, but -" Finally Mika met the other's eyes. He blinked several times, as he couldn't hold back the tears anymore and they started streaming down his face.

"It's all gone. All the hard work and it was for nothing!" With this he broke down in sobs. Mika, the strong boy who always wore a smile on his face. Who lightened up the mood of everyone with his charisma. Right now, he was just a shadow of his old self, being crushed under the strain and struggle of this cruel world. Watching Mika crying on the ground, Yuu kneeled down as well. Glancing in the bag his friend had dropped moments before, he recognized a bunch of vegetables, as well as dried salted meat and sweets, Mika must have bought sometime during the day.

"You idiot. Only because I nagged this morning because of the food." Yuu muttered to himself, feeling even more guilt piling up in his heart. This guy really was terrible.

"Huh?" Mika asked, looking up, while trying to wipe the tears off his face, though they didn't stop flowing.

"You really are an idiot." The other answered, finally grabbing Mika's shoulders and pulling him in for a hug. The trembling boy froze for a moment and Yuichiro feared he might try to shake him off, but then he relaxed in his arms and rested his head on his friends shoulder.

"Yuu is an idiot. You don't understand." His voice was so weak, Yuu feared it might disappear for good the next moment.

"What's there so hard to understand? It's just money, stupid! We can get it back. Together. In half the time! And this time we are doing it my way. Trust me, I have a plan!"

At his words Mika looked at him with red, watery eyes and clearly not convinced. At least he had stopped crying.

"You having a plan sounds like a really bad plan."

Yuu was ready to yell at him, but as the blonde started to smirk, he stopped himself. Instead he crossed his arms in front of his chest, looking like a spoiled brat.

"Well, you are probably right. But I will do it anyway. And it will work. Just watch me."

At his words, the blond boy pondered a moment too long for Yuu’s taste, before he gave his reply.

"Since stopping you doesn't seem like an option anymore, I will have to make sure you don't run into trouble, don't I? You are terrible." Even though he said these words, Mika seemed kind of relieved, as if he had been freed from something horrible. Yes, he still looked awful, but Yuu had the feeling that getting his friend to share at least a tiny bit of his burden had helped him overcome something. Maybe one day his friend would stop these selfless acts and share the secrets which he was keeping locked up so deep in his heart. Maybe one day Mika could accept that they could fight side by side. Until then however, Yuu would protect the idiot from his own actions and those of the ones who were hurting him.  

I will make sure your work hasn't been for nothing. You don't have to leave for the night again. We will live and learn out there. And we will get your money back as well.

 


 

 

That evening, Yuichiro of the Hyakuya orphans made up his mind. And just like that, the wheels of fate started turning.

 

Chapter Text

„Yuu, I still don’t think this is a good idea.“

Rain was pouring down and flooding the streets, as the two kids fought their way through the muddy hell the ground beneath their feet had become. Under the constant water coming down from the cloudy, grey sky above them, tiny streams trickled past the rooftops forming ponds out of puddles, which were impossible to avoid by now. Mika couldn’t recall exactly when his shoes had become completely soggy, his soles squishing with every heavy step and the dampness crawling up his pants. The moisture clinging in the air made it hard to breath – a feeling like drowning without water.

Both of them had just sneaked out of the orphanage since the teachers and doctors were usually taking a break around midday, leaving the children a bit of free time, before additional tests started later in the afternoon. With a frown Mika looked at the clean, fresh cut on his arm, the stinging pain still being present even though the bleeding had stopped hours ago. He could still recall the sensation of the knife cutting through his skin and the glass tube catching his running blood. The doctors were drawing their blood more frequently this month. Doctor Saito said it was for their own good and analyzing blood, while researching a disease seemed to be a normal procedure, but why could no one ever explain what exactly was wrong with them?

Mika’s frown only deepened, eyebrows drawing together as he watched the figure in front of him, leading the way to an unknown destination. He didn’t exactly know what Yuu had planned, but he already had a guess. And that guess was far from reassuring that ‘everything would just work out fine’ as Yuu always used to say during the last days. It was good to see the other’s fighting spirit coming back. He always cheered up and became livelier once he had set his eyes on an interesting and challenging task, which was based on practical skills and techniques, rather than actual brain work. Let’s face it, Yuu wasn’t really the brightest. And that was what scared Mika a bit right now, since he didn’t exactly know what he had to expect, being totally at the other’s mercy. And he wasn’t sure if Yuu knew either, what he himself had planned out. Mika trusted his friend with his life, but was Yuu even capable of taking care of himself, once he stepped out of the protection of the orphanage?

Skipping through the puddles with light steps and being totally unfazed by the depressing weather surrounding him, Yuu almost seemed like a young sheltered bird, leaving his nest for the first time and going on his first big adventure, without knowing the dangers stalking behind every corner. As much as Mika loved seeing the other in such a carefree and light hearted way – it had almost seemed impossible that he would ever smile again, back when he had first come to the orphanage – he also feared the mean predator, catching the bird out of the sky and breaking its small and delicate wings.

“Ah, stop being so critical. I will manage this. You just stay back and watch me.” His friend turned around, a big grin displaying on his face. The idiot was so sure of himself! Mika’s eyes wandered disapprovingly from Yuu’s features down to his totally drowned feet and back up. How were they going to explain their messy and roughed up appearance, while keeping up the charade of not having left the orphanage? Had Yuu even considered this for a second? He probably hadn’t even thought about it, being so keen and fixated on helping Mika out of his desperate situation. With all the worries probably building up inside of him, he had taken the first and fastest route out of this mess, not caring for any consequences. But was that really the best way for both of them? It was one thing for Mika to be caught up in problems, but did Yuu really have to jump off the cliff and fall down in the darkness together with him?

Absentmindedly Mika raised his hand to scratch the back of his neck, to think of a way out of this situation. He flinched as his fingertips grazed over his skin at the nick between his neck and left shoulder, feeling the two tiny wounds, which still stung even though days had passed since they had been reopened. During the first days it had almost seemed like they started to get infected with the flesh turning red and burning up right around the marks, a feeling like a knife being forced right into it, and Mika had barely been able to keep himself from screaming out loud whenever one of the kids thoughtlessly touched his shoulder, but right now no sound left his lips, the pain having mostly subsided. Only a shiver remained, when the memories broke from the depths of his mind where he had stored them away, right through the surface, bringing back images and feelings he wanted to avoid and forget at all costs. Mika was grateful to Yuu setting him free of this place and he never wanted to go back there. And he never wanted to see that person again.

Keeping his gaze on his friend’s back, while skipping past the puddles, the urge to protect this idiot flared up inside of him. Mika would make sure Yuu never needed to meet the people he had to deal with in the past. And if it was the last thing he would do!

“Yuu, would you be so kind and finally tell me what we are planning to do?” He somehow feared the answer that was about to come.

But Yuu didn’t say anything and instead just turned around to him, raising one finger to his lips, signing him to keep quiet, while calling him over with his other hand. They had made a halt at the end of the street and past it the central market place spread out before them. Mika knew this place very well, since he had crossed the market several times, whenever he had left the orphanage in the evenings. By that time, the merchants had already started packing up their goods and Mika had to come up with charm and negotiation skills, to get them to reopen their packages and sell him the remnants of the day. Sometimes he had sit down in front of the giant statue that idolized their current ruler, in the middle of the huge square and taken a break on his way, before his evening shift started. Those memories weren’t particularly bad, but Mika had a bad feeling of them following his old paths. It was too close to the people he wanted to avoid.

As he joined Yuu’s side, the entire square came into his view and a tiny gasp involuntarily escaped Mika’s mouth. He had never been to this place during the day, since sneaking out in the evening had been suspicious enough already. There were just so many people gathered here, standing around talking, or hurrying from one shop to the next! Compared to the empty and lonely impressions he had received first, this was like the bustling life.

“Look at all these people. And they can walk around freely and buy stuff, not being controlled by some stupid teachers.” Yuu’s words caught Mika’s attention and standing beside him he glanced slightly over to his friend. The sight almost made him jump. Yuu’s eyes were sparkling with so much excitement and anticipation Mika had never seen in them before, while a big and honest smile spread across his face. The blonde couldn’t help but stare at his face, amazed by the emotions displayed on it, as well as his own feelings welling up in his chest. Since coming to the orphanage four years ago, Yuu had never left the property, all the children being constantly watched by the staff. There was a valuable reason for it, but right now Mika couldn’t help but to regret them being locked up behind those walls, with close to no contact to the life taking place outside. How much he wished he had seen that expression on Yuu’s face some time during the last years. If they had sneaked out earlier, would his friend not have looked so lifeless and hateful all the time? Would he have opened up earlier to the children and to him? There was no way of knowing.

His eyes still fixated on Yuu, Mika took in every last detail of his face during that moment, trying to recall it in his memories and saving it for later times.

Then Yuu blinked, his grin becoming childish and wicked, as he returned Mika’s gaze.

“With that many people around those lucky bastards won’t notice their pouches gone, don’t you think?”

“So that was your plan, huh?” He sighed, rolling his eyes as he crossed his arms in front of his chest, looking like he was about to lecture someone. It wasn’t really that Mika was in any way surprised. He knew Yuu well enough to figure he would pull off something risky like stealing from the townsfolk.

“Yuu, I cannot let you become a criminal. Do you really want that? Stealing from people? What if somebody catches us? Do you want to lose a hand or even your head?” Mika wasn’t done yet, only stopping for catching some breath, but Yuu took this opportunity to wave him off before he stepped out of the street.

“Relax. We just have to make sure nobody catches us!” A moment later Yuu joined the crowd and almost disappeared immediately, leaving a dumbfounded and speechless Mika, who finally hurried over not to lose him in the flood of adults. Stepping into the crowd he felt like he just joined a gathering of titans, the people being double their size and heads held up high, no one seemed to notice the two children walking past or right in front of them. Mika’s fear to be recognized subsided, as he kept avoiding the legs and feet. Instead he worried for them being run over at some point. This was almost like being caught in a stampede and if they didn’t watch out, they would be separated and swept away by the sheer masses of people. Keeping his gaze fixated on Yuu’s back, he followed his friend, his light leading him out of this suffocating chaos. At least he hoped for it.

“Yuu!” Finally Mika caught up to him, grabbing his shoulder to turn him around.

“Watch out!” He found himself being pushed to the side, avoiding two fully grown men who had been caught up in an argument, before Yuu grabbed his hand and pulled him along, both of them now walking in the direction the people were leading to.

“If this continues, we might get run over. Do you want us to get hurt? Please, forget about the money and let us get back to the orphanage. There surely is another way for you to help me out.” The whisper started to sound like a desperate plea and as Yuu looked at his face with an earnest expression, Mika’s own features being reflected in his friend’s eyes, he really hoped he had gotten into his thick skull, past the troublesome determination and back to the bit of reason there might be in there.

But then Yuu’s eyes shifted past him, the wide grin the blonde knew so well returning and as the excitement radiated off his eyes, Mika knew he had lost the battle for good.

“Just look how slow and blind they are.“ He said, quietly pointing over to a man, who had just walked past them without even noticing the two. “Their pouches are right at our level and they wouldn’t even notice us stealing them. Here see!”

The blade flashed, the sunlight being reflected by it, as he pulled out the small and elegantly shaped dagger he had been hiding under his shirt and Mika’s eyes widened in shock, the sight of his friend getting hold of a dangerous weapon all so worrying.

“Where did you-?”

Yuu pointed behind him, where the simple argument of the two men slowly developed into a fight, their voices growing louder with every word.

“One of those two guys just now. They had been so focused in whatever they are arguing about, he didn’t even notice when I took it out of his belt. I figured we could need it with what we are planning on doing-” He stopped, catching Mika’s stern, cautionary stare that didn’t want to leave his features. Yuu shrunk a little, as he dug his head to avoid the other’s eyes. Then he took the other’s hand and pulled him along, all the while still trying to explain.

“Their money is dancing right in front of our noses. It’s so easy to take it.” It wasn’t like Yuu was wrong with that. Only being half the size of a grown up, Mika could see the leather bags dangling from the belts right before his eyes. But no matter how easy Yuu wanted to make it sound, they had no experience whatsoever with this stuff and surely someone would catch them at it! He couldn’t be seriously trying to take that risk, could he?

Just as Mika wanted to beat it into his friend’s head that they should go home right now, Yuu let go of his hand, while taking out his new weapon, intently fixating the person walking in front of them. It was a strongly build, black haired man with an intimidating appearance, one of the kind you wouldn’t want to get in a fight with, if you cherished the bones in your body.

No Yuu don’t! Mika would have liked to scream it out loud after him, but then they would get in trouble for sure. Chanting these words over and over as he desperately watched Yuu drawing closer, he couldn’t move a muscle, almost frozen in shock and fear. It was too late to pull the idiot back now, but Mika also didn’t want to get in his way and make everything worse. Damn his friend for putting him into that position.

It was over in less than a moment. Yuu moved at such a speed, for a second he was completely gone from Mika’s sight, the next he already turned around, a triumphant grin spreading across his face and a small, kidney shaped, leather bag in his hands. The drawstring holding it close had been cut short, as Yuu had slid them, disconnecting the pouch from the belt hook it had been attached to.

Both of them stepped to the side, disappearing in the masses and getting as far away as possible from that person.

“It’s heavy.” The idiot next to him commented, as he weighed the bag in his right hand, the content giving off a metallic clinging as he did so. “I wonder how much it is.”

“How did you just do that? So fast –“ Mika had not even seen Yuu move, let alone him actually cut the drawstrings. And there was no way he could have practiced it the last four years. He had acted so fast, the man had not even noticed Yuu’s presence. It was almost like he had disappeared back there.

“Mmmh? I don’t know.” The other said, scratching the back of his head as he tried to think of an explanation obviously failing at it, before his eyes widened and he looked at Mika, a mixture of confusion and amazement in his features.

“Oi! I was totally awesome back there wasn’t I? Now that I think about it, once I get fixated on the target everyone around us seems to move at a slower speed. Like they are frozen. He didn’t notice me at all back there, did he? Who would have thought stealing could be that easy? With this we will get your money back in no time.”

Yuu was so proud of himself he was beaming, as he waved with the bag in front of Mika’s eyes. But the blonde wasn’t caring about the money right now. Somehow he regretted that his friend actually made such a huge success. Encouraged as he was now, there was no way for Mika to make him stop going after other people from this point on. But no matter what incredible thing Yuu did back there, he would get caught for sure one day and the consequences would be fatal. And all because Mika hadn’t been strong enough that night, as his dreams once again had been taken away from him and reality had knocked him over. For just a moment he had shown his weaknesses and Yuu had figured it out right away, now losing his head in this excited game of his that could get him killed. Eyeing that pouch, more than anything Mika felt guilt and fear creeping up inside of him, a terrifying image of a future of losing his best friend forming in his mind. It made him feel sick and cold, like all the blood had just been drained out of his body.

“Mika? You’re alright? Are you feeling unwell?”

Yuu put the bag away, confiscating it safely under his shirt, before he looked over to Mika obviously worried.

“What’s this? Two lost children in the crowd. Have you lost your guardian? Or are you actually lifting people of their money?” The voice was playful and light, almost soothing them into believing they did nothing wrong. Still Mika froze on the spot, as someone completely different forced his way in his thoughts and mind again. Cold sweat started trickling down his spine and only because his hands wouldn’t function right anymore, he noticed that he had started trembling. He could feel the warmth leaving his body as he turned around wide eyed, trying to keep down the fear, the memories, that man.

The man standing in front of them wasn’t him, but the boy felt the same morphed, dark intentions radiating off of him, as he gazed down at them like a carnivore, ready to kill its prey. Even though this one was dressed rather poorly and the way he held himself up, as well as the dark shadows under his eyes, made him seem roughed up and worn out, Mika couldn’t help but to gaze up at him, completely terrified. No matter what form they took, they always looked the same. All of them wore the same craving madness in their eyes that drove them and turned them into the monsters of his nightmares.

“You know, I don’t need to tell anybody.” The voice of the man sounded teasing, like a parent messing around with his children. And Mika still couldn’t move, trapped in his own fears and in the aura of the monster in front of him. Even as the man drew closer, leaning in on them, the boy still remained panic struck, wide eyed and frozen in place.

“It can be our little secret. You just need to offer me a bit of your blood. That’s all. Nothing more.”

His voice was still so light like trying to lure in a cautious animal, while he already stretched out his filthy hands and Mika still couldn’t move. His damn body just wouldn’t move. This disgusting monster was so close and he just couldn’t get away!

“Mika!!”

Yuu’s voice was like the savior that pulled him out from under the water. And suddenly he was set free.

Eyeing the hands stretched out after him one last time, Mika avoided the fast grip of the stranger easily before he flung himself over to Yuu. Taking his friend’s hand, he ran through the masses of people and past them, fleeing from that terrifying man as far away as possible.

“Mika!” He didn’t know how long they had been running like this when Yuu finally pulled his hand away, but the marketplace had already disappeared. Mikaela stopped in his tracks, but still looked around hectically, waiting for the man to come chasing after them right behind the next corner.

“Who was that guy just now? And what did he mean by wanting blood from us? Hey Mika!” Yuu grabbed his arm and pulled him around with so much force, Mika almost lost his footing and tumbled into him. He threw one last worried look over to the street corner, but nobody was about to turn up. The man might not even have pursued them.

“What exactly happened back there? Oi, are you alright? You look pale.”

Yuu was still trying to make sense of the situation and Mika couldn’t keep on ignoring his questions. He inhaled and exhaled once deeply, before he looked up and faced his friend with a serious expression.

“There are some dark places in this city were scary people like him acquire potions, that poison his body and mind. Once they exceed a certain point they are only driven by their desires alone and for some reason start craving the taste of human blood. It’s really not much they take, only a few drops of blood to satisfy their cravings but over the time they start to demand it more and more often. There are a few people out there, who make their money in giving away small bits of their blood to them.”

“How do you kn-“ Yuu stopped as it slowly dawned upon him and the shock became visible on his face. Mika lowered his head and fixated the ground. He had wanted to avoid dragging his friend in all this. And he didn’t want Yuu to know about it either. Just look how great he was at this.

“Please-“ His voice had grown quiet, but a desperate plea was delivered in it. “Please, let’s just get back to the orphanage. We’ve got enough money for today, haven’t we?”

The other let his gaze wander over him as he kept thinking, before he closed his eyes and nodded.

“Fine.” Yuu answered, exchanging an intent look with the boy. “I think we can take a break for a few days. And Mika, you don’t need to come with me if it becomes too painful to bear. I can take care of myself.” He grabbed Mika’s hand and pulled him along as he began leading the way back home. “But you know, you are really amazing. Dealing with people like this one, day after day.” As the blonde looked up he saw the other smiling at him with wide fascinated eyes. He didn’t know why but somehow his heart started to beat a little faster and nice warmth settled into his body.

“And you have been extremely fast back there. Like I didn’t even see you move and then you had us both already running. Really if you start stealing as well, I’m sure we would be unstoppable!”

As Yuu continued praising him to put his thoughts away from the recent situation and to calm him down in his own way, Mika couldn’t help but wonder how indeed he easily avoided the attack just now, as well as the reaction time Yuu had shown when he was stealing the pouch. It almost seemed inhuman and they never had any kind of training, so there was no way they could move that quick. Had it something to do with their disease? Was this the cause of the research of the doctors? He shook his head. There was no way doctor Saito would answer him those questions. Besides, he had something else to worry about.

Watching Yuu talking excitedly while being pulled forward by him, Mika couldn’t help but smile sadly. So they had started stealing. How was he supposed to keep this idiot’s head out of trouble from now on?

 


 

 

With the dark sky above, the statue of Tenri Hiragi seemed even more monstrous and intimidating than it already used to be, its stone features overviewing the market place and possibly even more than that. Whenever Guren visited this place, he felt like the eyes of the monument followed his every move and it brought back memories of the past, when much colder eyes – the original ones – had looked down on him, always disapproving and always without mercy. Even though it was already many years ago, he could still remember how the statue had been build, replacing its predecessor, which had resembled their former king. Back then Guren hadn’t even once been to the palace, still not knowing what kinds of people the Hiragis were or what their relationship to the Ichinoses meant.

But that he got taught soon enough.

At the age of five he had finally been summoned to the palace as well, accompanying his father for the first time. Of course he had been excited. He had never seen the home of the emperor up so close, usually just having his imagination run crazy of what the interior of that enormous place looked like. To finally be able to take a step into the fairytale, to actually see it become reality with his own eyes was what he had dreamt of until then. He had been naive till the last. Even though his father told him to be careful and not to get his hopes up, the sheltered kid had not understood the warnings of the man. Of course he would do whatever the king told him and his father didn’t need to remind him again and again of it.  Tenri Hiragi was the king after all, their leader, the one protecting this land and its people.

He hadn’t understood in the least.

The protection didn’t apply to everyone and certainly not to the Ichinose mongrels. Yes, the kid had known that the Hiragis always saw them as something less important, but never did he believe it could turn out this bad. And his father hadn’t warned him, even though he knew how it would end. He followed the summoning and stepped right into the enemy’s territory bringing his son with him, because there was no other choice. With tears streaming down his face, the boy had to witness his father getting beaten into a pulp right in front of him, unable to help him, unable to do anything against it. Ordered to watch by his majesty, the king. Whenever Guren had begged, whenever he had screamed at them to stop it, the beating only turned out to get worse. With his cold, unmoving eyes the king had watched the struggle, even ordering the boy to hurt his father himself. Guren still remembered the expression in his father’s eyes, when the boy had looked at him for help, just wanting both of them to run away from this nightmare. The insecure and wounded child hoped for his father to solve this situation, to take him in his arms and reassure him that everything would be alright and something like this would never occur again.

Do what the king tells you to do! – was the answer he received from those eyes.

Back then Guren had learned two things. They were all at the Hiragi’s mercy and could be crushed under their feet whenever they felt like it, only being allowed to live for entertainment. If you want to live you follow the Hiragis’ orders without question, no matter what it meant or what they wanted you to do. Bow your head and be the loyal dog that gets beaten by its owner, if you don’t want to get yourself and everyone you hold dear killed.

They also taught him how weak and insignificant he was in the face of the leaders. His father hadn’t been able to protect his son or himself, kneeling on the ground and accepting every humiliation with a smile. And Guren had been unable to help him. Too weak, forever too weak. Too weak to protect the ones dear to him, becoming another loyal dog to the Imperial Family.

It was all to teach the future head of the Ichinose clan a lesson. To never rebel against the Hiragis, to know his place in this god forsaken hierarchy. To remain trash under their shoes and accept every humiliation and punishment they would receive without any fight or backtalk. It was all to lose his free will in this world.

With a sigh Guren looked up at the monument again, wondering what would change once the next Hiragi in line would take over the throne. Right now the choice stood between Seishiro and Mahiru and Mahiru was by far the most capable in the family. But what would a life under her rule be like? Guren couldn’t imagine it; not until the old ass was finally burning down in hell. And that would take many more years and a lot of more pain and suffering to come.

“Guren, pay attention or we will lose her.” Mito reminded him, her voice growing impatient, as the weather kept on getting worse. For a change, she was not wearing a wig today, presenting her uncommonly crimson hair in the broad daylight and people already started to stare, quietly whispering behind their backs. At some point they even made way for her – a descendent of the mighty Jujo family was not usually seen by the common folk without a bunch of escorts and certainly not casually walking around the marketplace – and even though Guren knew her very well, he too noticed the air of a royal that surrounded her.

Naturally this was not a secret operation. One of the problems in having friends from the ten noble families was they always had to disguise themselves, pretending to be a different person while his subordinates like Sayuri and Shigure – who didn’t need to fear of having their high reputation damaged, or being marked as a traitor by their own relatives – could stay in their normal attire, being not as famous as his two other friends. Guren himself, who was usually looked down upon at any social gathering, didn’t believe anyone of the citizens would recognize him as an Ichinose as long as he didn’t wear the family crest out in the open. He wasn’t even sure if every member of the ten families knew what he looked like.

A good point in having important friends – you could use them to enter places you wouldn’t be seen in under normal circumstances and investigate. Even though secretly following a person was impossible, those two could actually interact with the target without having any suspicion fall on them. There was still a possibility of having someone discover Goshi and Mito had robbed them, but the fear of falsely accusing a high ranking noble was too big to even voice their complaint to others.

As long as they didn’t rob one of the other ten noble families or the Hiragis themselves, that is.

Guren scratched the back of his head and yawned, earning a disapproving glare from the other. He could almost hear Mito reprimanding him again, his careless and annoyed behavior at investigations always pissing her off. It was the same as back then, when he had first met her. Times changed people, but some traits stayed the same forever.

“Really though. For once I wanted to visit the shops I like to get my jewelry for the ball. And out of all places it has to be the one I like the least. You don’t expect me to wear the stuff from there later on, do you?”

“If you are willing to spend a fortune on something and then not wear it at all? You are pretty careless with the money of your family, are you not?” He raised an eyebrow at her, as her expression became troubled. Out of all of them Mito was always the most conscientious and even though she hadn’t the best relationship with her family, uselessly throwing their money around still made her feel guilty.

Finally their target entered the expected store and next to him Mito, with a face that looked like everything seemed hopeless, sighed before she took a seat on one of the stone benches lining the outer skirts of the square. Guren took a stance behind her, watching the market and pretending to be a guard of the Jujo’s, making sure the young lady of the house wouldn’t get hurt. Like Mito needed any protection, the woman was probably able to take down all the guards and attackers by herself.

“There are so many goldsmiths in this city, but she had to pick Akure’s. His jewelry is heavy and bulky, you get the feeling he wants to cover your entire existence in gold. Of course it is shiny and eye catching, but most of the time it is just too overbearing. I have never seen something half decent in there.” Mito kept grumbling, obviously complaining to Guren about their target’s stupidity as well as half blaming him for having to sacrifice herself again for the job.

“He is said to be the best goldsmith in town and all the women praise his work. Agatha and her worshipper buy most of their jewelry at his place. Lady Valery is just following the examples of society.”

“I don’t see anyone of the high society wearing Akure’s jewelry. It’s just for those poor souls who need gold and diamonds to appear rich and important. As far as I know their political influence is close to zero, if they don’t seduce someone with a higher ranking. In the end everyone will think I’m trying to get into bed with someone at the ball.” She sounded defeated and embarrassed, as she probably imagined the evening in a few weeks time. To his surprise Guren had been invited as well, but he wasn’t looking forward to it.

“I thought that’s what those festivals are for?” He answered, the temptation to tease the other in that kind of situation was just too big. However, before Mito could turn around and yell at him, Sayuri stumbled into their view.

“Lady Valery Inuoka is about to leave the shop.” She reported, crossing her arms with an almost angry expression, which apparently wasn’t directed at them. “She is leaving the necklace in their care to get it polished and fixed in the next week. As far as I could see, there is an apprentice in addition to Akure himself.”

“Well then, we better give him the customer of a lifetime.” Mito shrugged, her face turning into a grimace as she stood up. She looked like she was about to eat something disgusting.“Don’t you dare ditch me! I don’t care how long it will take, you guys stay here.”

“What? But I thought I could make my way over to Sangiunem. You are no fun. I don’t think Akure ever had a client who is part of the ten families. I doubt he will let you leave that easily, without showing you his entire collection. Why not give your guard some time off to enjoy himself?”

At the mention of the establishment, Mito shook her head, her cheeks turning a feint color of red. He grinned as she turned around grumbling something like ‘terrible guy’, before she walked away from them.

Turning around to Sayuri, Guren exhaled loudly before he let himself drop on the bench as well. His behavior was far from elegant, but right here in the middle of the city he was just a stranger with no one judging or offending him.

“You were back early.” He said looking up to Sayuri, who seemed to have calmed down by now.

“I was kicked out by his apprentice.” She replied, a hint of irritation remaining in her tone. “Seems like I am not the right kind of clientele. I guess he wants only the rich coming to his store, saying I couldn’t afford any of the goods anyway.”

Clearly she was not dressed like a noble woman, wearing leather pants, a vest and a flax shirt under a cloak instead of beautiful dresses; it wasn’t surprising Akure had driven her away. The old man made a fortune reading the wishes of his female customers off their lips and being the understanding soul women would turn to. But with someone in man’s clothes like Sayuri in his store, who looked like she had never been to the richer districts of the city, he saw his business as well as his good reputation going downhill.

Guren’s subordinates were both dedicated to their work and had been trained as thieves all their lives. They were used to look roughed up or even like homeless beggars, all for the purpose of disguising themselves and to gather information. But Guren wondered from time to time, if they had ever wished for a different life, whenever they watched the clients or targets. A life without hiding and following orders, just once being the center of attention. Of course they would never admit to it, even if he asked.

“Lady Valery seemed really fond of the necklace. She must like this man of the Nii family.”

“Either that, or she was just proud of herself for receiving a gift from him instead of her rivals.”

Right now the second son of the Nii family was about to choose a bride and additionally to being among the ten families he was also very handsome, having the ladies marveling at him wherever he went. In the woo of their future husband Valery Inuoka had received an expensive necklace from him, much to her rivals distress. One of those ladies however was in a league with Lady Agatha and so an entire society of noble women had turned against Valery. One could almost feel sorry for her.

“This is just tiring.” Guren said, eyes wandering over to the market as he thought about the unimportant and unnecessary fights those women seemed to hold so dear. They didn’t need to struggle for surviving day after day – having their loving husbands and dear fathers supporting them – and certainly had too much time on their hands, causing trouble for one another as well as different parties. He needed to stop taking on these jobs, dragging the Moon Order into a mess he feared was soon about to escalate. And he needed to stop soon.

Guren resumed watching the people, as Sayuri sat down on the bench next to him. Even with the rain coming down every hour now and then, it was quite busy these days. And masses of people attracted pickpockets of all kinds, moving elegantly through the bulk like being part in a huge swarm, trying to become some of the most peaceful members to not be noticed. Drive their focus somewhere else; be quick and silent like a predator. If you wanted to survive with stealing, there was more required than just reflexes. Watching your target, studying its every move, hiding in its blind spot. In the beginning relying on reflexes and speed might be enough, but over the time one needed to think, since targets started learning as well and if you got caught everything could be over. Guren remembered the days when he was taught all this by his teachers and had made his first clumsy attempts right on this market place. He wondered how many were trying to do the same right now.

As he saw two kids hand in hand fighting their way out of the mass and disappearing into a street at his right, an unpleasant thought returned in his mind.

It’s time to call the youngsters together again. His shoulders sunk in defeat as he remembered a room full of hyperactive kids and his eyes closed tiredly. He had never been the kind of human who could teach well, but somehow they still got all excited whenever they had a session with him. He had lost count of how often Sayuri and Shigure had taken care of these matters and as much as he wished to shove it off to them again, once in a while he had to take responsibility as the leader of the Moon Order.

“Guren.” Sayuri’s strained voice caught him by surprise and he looked up, right as another figure diverged from the swarm of people.

“Is that-?”

“Yeah it’s him.” Guren replied bewildered, watching the man in rags passing by.

“The last time I saw him he was one of the richest merchant in this city. What on earth happened?” Sayuri asked in a kind of wonder, as she watched one of their former targets leaving the market. Lucal Wesker had once been a wine merchant, delivering even to the palace. His appearance was always extravagant even for the taste of the nobles, but what had once been powder on his face and self applied charcoal under his eyes was now exhaustion and sleep deficiency. He used to wear the finest clothes, designed especially for him. The rags that covered his body now made this former merchant look like a beggar.

“Desmodus.” Guren answered her question. They had kept a profile on Wesker in case he would start searching for them. Guren knew the merchant had started to take the drug, which circulated through the population and spread like a disease, but never had he imagined to see a man like Wesker in that kind of state in such a short period of time. The liquid with which the Imperial Demons controlled the people in huge parts of the city, was applied in tiny dosages to the eyes, instantly calming the mind as well as triggering the efficiency of the human body. People became quicker in their reflexes, the body responding better to their surroundings and will, but to keep the effect going they needed more and more portions of the drug. And soon the weird side effects formed as well.

“There should be enough poor souls out there from which he can draw blood. Some sources say they have seen him visiting Sangiunem more frequently as well. Living like this sure wastes the money.” Still he had never expected to see a person ruined this much by Desmodus. Guren knew the drug was a powerful weapon, but maybe he had still underestimated it. For once he was glad the Moon Order hadn’t felt the need for such means, putting their effort in training the recruits instead of helping out with remedies. In the end they would just have been enslaved by it.

 


 

This is not possible.

Frozen in place from the shock, Guren again eyed the stack of paper being placed at the edge of his desk. If he was about to sit down in his chair, he wouldn’t even be able to look above it. He had just finished up the old one two days ago, so how on earth could such an amount of documents be passed on to him in the short time, which had passed since then? Unless…

Slowly he took the first few records and skipped through them, his expression visibly darkening as his eyes hurried over the paper. And he had just wondered about the Demons the other day…

“Guren we could lend you a hand. In times like this you might find our help useful.” Shigure offered, looking at the reports that bound her master to his desk like an enemy she was about to slice into pieces with her hidden knives. They had probably skipped through a few reports as well, already knowing who was responsible for this, even though the letters had been addressed to Guren only. What reliable retainers he had, indeed.

He sighed in defeat, placing the pieces of paper back on the stack while trying to figure out how much time he would need to finish this work. The Imperial Demons had given him some time off, but of course that wouldn’t have lasted forever and now the blackmailing and power struggle had started again as it seemed. But did they really have to attack that many of his stores? It was almost as if someone was trying to give him a hint.

His expression hardened, his eyes becoming stern and unmoving as he remembered a certain person, who would use these kinds of means to deliver a need or message. Why couldn’t he give him an order directly for once, without the representation of the enormous power this organization had at its disposal? Maybe it ran in the family.

“No, that is something I have to attend to on my own.” He answered, looking at both Shigure and Sayuri and hesitating for a moment before giving out new orders. “I need you two to stop anyone from disturbing me. And I really mean anyone. Even if it is someone who thinks highly of themselves and uses the name of the Demons. I don’t want anyone to enter this room during the next hours.”

If Kureto wanted to force him to obey an order he hadn’t even heard of, then he should do it properly without involving the Ichinose’s innocent merchants. Guren wouldn’t just comply with such a behavior. If the Imperial Demons thought the Moon Order would just jump at any order they received, he could give up their integrity for good and become a tool to the syndicate right away. And he knew his people would want for him to do the same thing, after all they also had some form of pride swelling in their hearts for this organization. Forcing this guy to send a second messenger might also not be bad, after all he had already robbed and damaged Guren’s property. For all he knew of Kureto, taking the next step would actually require for the Moon Order to act against the Demons, which they weren’t planning on. So letting the guy hang in thin air once in a while might knock him off his perch and back to reality.

“Also contact the other families of the Order. I might be planning another session for next week. The youngsters need to get beaten into shape once in a while, or we will never be able to use them. They have rested long enough.”

At this both his subordinates stopped in their tracks and looked at Guren with wide eyes.

“You are planning on teaching again?” Sayuri was the one who spoke up first, even though Guren could see the same confused question being reflected on Shigure’s face. Was it that much of a surprise for him to fulfill one of the duties his father had left him with?

“Yeah. And rest assured, I’m not going to pass it on to you this time.”

He exhaled loudly, as Sayuri clapped her hands in excitement.

“That’s wonderful Guren! I’m sure the children will look forward to the lessons as well. It’s going to lift their spirits and encourage them to train even harder.”

They left his room before they could see him rolling his eyes. There was nothing to get excited about, since Guren was literally the worst teacher ever. How these kids had picked up some of his tricks was still a miracle to him. He mostly spent the time with sleeping while they were attending their given tasks, picking difficult locks and having Sayuri and Shigure explain the different tools to them. They needed to learn the basics before they could actually start pickpocketing and night raids. How could one decipher encrypted documents? What to look out for at observations? How to disguise themselves as a different person, imitating a different behavior or lying right to the target’s faces? Guren had neglected the kids for too long, but with the upcoming turbulences he already foresaw, it was important to have more ears and eyes at his disposal.

He sighed, making a mental note to complete their education by the end of this summer. It would require one hell of work for the studying and teaching side. But right now you could consider them mature enough to trust them with some responsibility, so completing their final exams at sixteen still seemed to be a possible option.

Talking about work…. Guren sighed and sat down behind his desk. It was still early afternoon, so he should be able to get a good amount of it done by the end of the day.

 


 

 

He had finished half of the work by nightfall. The remaining sunlight had vanished an hour ago, the days still being rather short, even though the cold season slowly made way for warmer ones. At some point Guren had lighted a lamp, its light now constantly flickering and producing dancing shadows on the walls. It was peacefully quiet.

As expected the Imperial Demons had come to collect their protection money this morning, rampaging his stores in different districts all at the same time. At least no one had gotten hurt, but the material losses added up to quite a sum of money. It was usual procedure how the leader of the syndicate planned to get the attention of his prey and the Moon Order hadn’t been the first of those cases.

Internally Guren cursed the guy and hoped for someone to send him down to hell one day.

It was right when the young Ichinose finally thought about taking a short break, when his ears received a knocking sound coming from the door. He hesitated for a second, a grin flashing across his features, before he called out to the other side. At his words the door opened carefully, much too slowly, the light of the room not reaching far enough to illuminate the hallway as well, letting Guren’s visitor stay invisible in the darkness. No voice rang over from the other side and no person entered the room. Complete silence filled his study wouldn’t it have been for the constant scratching sound of Guren’s quill, as he kept putting down his signatures.

Then, like a lightning spreading out in the night sky, the arrow flew through the air at a speed not visible to the naked eye. It passed by Guren only a few millimeters away from his face and finally hit the wall behind him; the shaft swinging from the force of the impact as the missile got stuck, leaving an unmistakable hole in its target.

Guren however hadn’t even looked up once since calling out to the visitor, still continuing his work dutifully and in silence.

“You know, I actually really liked that wall. I was even thinking about hanging up some family portraits.” He finally said, still not granting the attacker a single look.

“Oh come on! No reaction at all? That is just boring.” The voice replied playfully, with a teasing undertone mixed in. A figure moved in the shadows of the hallway, making the first steps into Guren’s study. The man was dressed in black, making his shining snow-white hair stick out even more. He was covered by a coat from which Guren could tell had many secret pockets to hide weapons, messages as well as tools and that distracted from his otherwise skinny body. However, even though he looked weak, the intruder was far from helpless, implied by the sword hanging from his belt at his right side, as well as the small takedown bow, which was already demounted by now, the parts sticking out among the arrows in the quiver.

“Don’t say you expected me already.” Shinya said, raising his hands and shaking his head in disbelief as he walked over to Guren’s desk.

“I was hoping for it not to be you, but since the Gods hate me there was no other option.”

“Mean! But I know you are just shy Guren. Since you haven’t seen me in a while you must have really missed me.” Shinya gave him a wide, wicked grin before he took the seat in front of Guren’s desk, not asking for any permission as he made himself at home.

“Go die.” The other gave a short answer, placing the quill back in the ink glass, catching himself cursing the second Hiragi on this day.

“Is that how you greet an old friend? Seriously, to think that the Head of the Ichinoses has no manners at all. I’m a guest. So be nice to me at least.”

“What kind of friend or guest shoots at his host?”

“One who is familiar with you.”

Guren sighed. Meeting this guy always meant trouble.

“You know I got better stuff to do than to babysit you.”

“No you don’t~”

“The perfect Hiragi right there. Thinking the world revolves around them.”

“Doesn’t it? Last time I checked this statement was still accurate.”

“Just go die somewhere, where nobody sees you.”

Shinya’s laugh was like a melody as it sounded off the walls in the room. Guren tried really hard to keep a serious expression on his face, after all he had to stay the dignified head of his clan, but somehow a smirk sneaked its way in. He should have known better. No matter how hard Guren always tried to shut the Hiragi up, the banter usually ended up with his heart becoming a bit lighter after it, just forgetting the burden he was carrying for just a moment.

“I’ve been gone for almost a year and that’s how you welcome me after all this time.”

“Actually after the first few months I thought you had gotten yourself killed somewhere.”

“Really? Did you moan me? Did you cry?” Why was this stupid guy always laughing?

As a reply Guren grunted.

“Hell no.”

“Ahhh that’s what I thought. Keeping it all inside and not showing your real emotions. But that is not good Guren, you know? It will slowly eat you up from within. I’m here if you need a shoulder to cry on. You can let all the sorrow of the last months run free and get swept away. After all I’m still alive and kicking.”

“Yeah, that is indeed something to cry about.”

Shinya opened his mouth for a reply, however –

“Master Guren!”

The voices of Guren’s subordinates could be heard in the hallway, coated with panic and uneasiness.

“There might be an intruder-“ Shigure called out, stepping into the light and stopping herself as well as Sayuri, eyes widening in shock, when her eyes took in the situation before her. Shinya who was still seated comfortably in the middle of the room crooked his head and waved over to both women.

“Shigure, Sayuri. Long time no see. I’m sorry for the unannounced visit, but as you can see I already made myself at home. Not much help there from Guren, however.”

If glares could really kill people, Shinya Hiragi would have dropped dead right there. Still, instead of answering Shinya, both women exchanged a look of understanding, before taking a few steps forward, finishing in a bow.

“We are very sorry for our incompetence Master Guren.” Sayuri said, her tone dead serious, honorifics still in place in front of a visitor. “Even though you ordered us to keep out any disturbance, this man escaped our eyes and infiltrated your home. We shall dispose of him, if you wish so.” Both of them stayed like that, awaiting his next orders.

“Look up.” Guren said. He understood how important Sayuri and Shigure saw their positions, with how much pride it filled them to follow someone like him, resulting in them taking the job as a grave matter. They also knew how much the last year had drained him. He had never wanted them to act this clingy, but being drilled to protect and serve him since childhood; those two had dedicated their lives to the duty.

“There was no mistake on your side.” Guren reassured them as they met his gaze. “This guy sneaks in and out of places with a much higher security than we could afford. Just like a rat.”

“Oi!”

“Even I have trouble to stop him when he gets serious and it was no harm done. And since it is my job to deal with the irritating Hiragis anyway, you can leave this guy to me.” As if to prove his point, Guren’s fist shot down on the table, barely missing the hand of said Hiragi, who had just tried to shift one of the letters in his direction. He glared at Shinya with eyes like daggers, but the other just grinned at him and took the report anyway, crossing his legs and leaning back in his chair to get into a comfortable reading position.

“But Master Guren!” Both women spoke up in unison, being that much in sync it made Guren wonder if they had actually practiced it. Of course they would complain. Would it have been anyone other than Shinya, a security breach like that one could have easily cost Guren his life. Even though he was sure they had taken the necessary measurements to protect this place and – had it in fact been any other person than Shinya – his subordinates would have certainly stopped them.

Smirking, he shook his head at them, moving his hand to wave them off.

“We will talk about it later. Now resume to your work, while I take care of this guy.” 

Shigure and Sayuri stared at him for a moment as if waiting for another confirmation, before they nodded and left the room without another word. Once the door was closed behind them, Guren escaped a sighed and he leaned back in his chair.

“Did you seriously just say ‘No harm done’? You still know of the fact that there is an arrow piercing the wall behind you?” Shinya glanced at him from the side, still reading the text on the piece of paper in front of him.

“How could I forget your lovely present?” Guren replied bored, without looking at the other. A second later he shot forward, leaning over the table and snatching the report out of Shinya’s hands. Even though the guy was his friend, having a spy going through the intern secrets of the Order might not really be the best idea.

“Seems like problems have just come up.” Shinya said innocently, looking at the paper on Guren’s desk as well as the report which had just left his grasps. His tone sounded so casual Guren might have believed the subliminal question delivered with it to be real.

“Don’t say something stupid like this, when you guys are the ones responsible for it.” He replied, and for the first time that evening the stupid smile left Shinya’s features and to Guren’s own regret he didn’t know if he was happy or sad about it. “So tell me, what does Kureto want? He must be damn serious if he sends you to persuade me.”

Shinya closed his eyes and held his breath, before he exhaled sharply, straightening up in his seat and turning around to fully face Guren. In his stern gaze, worry and determination fought a battle with no definite winner in the end.

“How much do you know about the Hyakuya Church?” Shinya asked, his voice calm and grave, the complete opposite of his usual tone when he spoke to Guren. The sudden question took the young Ichinose aback, but he didn’t even flinch as he met the other’s eyes, being determined to not give his confusion away in an unnecessary reaction.

“Just as much as anyone else. They are a religious cult, their tenets and beliefs being widespread among the common folk, giving them immense power. Since they are accepted this much by the people, the Imperial Family could not make a direct move against them until now, without angering a huge part of the population.”

It was a vague explanation of the organization, since many knew that the Sect wasn’t all they pretended to be, using the faith and hope of people to manipulate them. Much to Guren’s bother, Shinya clearly didn’t seem to be satisfied with his answer.

“Guren, I know you have robbed at least one member of the Ten Families until now and Kureto knows it as well. So there is no point in hiding it. And while I might be Kureto’s messenger and spy, I’m also your friend, so don’t think I will share information with him that will harm you guys.”

Guren hesitated, letting his gaze drift through the room. This man had saved his life multiple times before and ever since Shinya had become Kureto’s messenger, the Moon Order had stayed a target much too small to bother in the Demon’s eyes. He wasn’t sure how much his friend was responsible for it, but Shinya had already proven to be a friend of Guren’s people.

“I found a document in Rikudou’s study, sent by Tenri Hiragi and addressed to the heads of the Ten Families. Well, actually nine families, since I cannot recall, having ever received such a letter. It stated about a gathering in which the future cooperation with the Hyakuya church should be discussed, considering the achievement both parties have made during the last months. He was satisfied with the results until now and hopes for them to be completed by the end of next year. Of course the letter never said what in fact they were doing.”

“So father called for a gathering, huh.” Shinya repeated the just said absentmindedly, his expression darkening as memories clouded his eyes. In the end he had never been fond of his family, back then just trying to survive every day of his childhood – much like Guren.  

 “The two greatest rivaling organizations in our country suddenly stop facing each other and start working hand in hand. The result could be terrifying. And the cause for those circumstances even more so.” Guren spoke his mind, the fear for the future haunting him during the last days. What were those former enemies trying to accomplish? Who would they turn their combined power against? He just hoped – when the day of their action finally arrived – that the members of the Moon Order survived the ordeal.

Shinya sighed, turning away as he hesitated. Guren figured he knew more about the case, but evaluated whether he should or should not avoid the question.

“I need you to act carefully with the information I’m about to give you. If word got out I shared a confidential Hiragi secret with the outside, I could be executed for it.”

The heavy silence that followed was almost suffocating, as they stared at each other, a million unspoken words between them. They had depended their lives on one another many times before, so for Shinya to act this cautious in front of the other was unusual and meant the circumstances were severe.

“Discretion is my work.” The words were directed rather to a client than to a friend and conveyed a gravity that nailed them both to the ground of the inescapable reality.

“The Imperial Family and the Hyakuya Sect have worked together some time before. Their collaboration stopped four years ago.”

“With the end of the war, huh?” Guren replied in thoughts. A few years ago Caelumos, the country they lived in, had been at war with their neighbor Perdue. It was the basic power struggle concerning territories and resources and since the Hiragis were even feared by ruling families outside of this country, conflicts were common and predictable. The main battle ground had been outside of their territories, the development of the fights mostly unknown to the folk and one day resulted in the Hiragis’ victory. However not many troops had made their way back from the border and those who did never spoke of the war again.

“I don’t know what they did to win the war, but remember that barely any person of royal blood and higher ranking had to join the fights? It’s still a mystery what happened in those lands.”

“So you think they have some kind of amazing weapon and are now producing more?”

“That’s what Kureto wants to know. We got information on the Imperial Family staying in contact with the Hyakuya Sect, but what they are doing exactly is still a secret.”

So Kureto is fearing his own father for once.

“So?” Guren raised an eyebrow, finally understanding the situation. “The Imperial Demons want us to investigate what those two sides are planning. And because the job involves the possibility of making the two most dangerous parties of our country my enemy, as well as being executed for treason once I unravel the mystery, Kureto wrecks my stores to prove a point and force me to accept his orders. No wonder he was sending you.”

Shinya’s smile was sad as he turned around and for some reason Guren’s heart turned heavy as he reminded himself of the positions they both held, working for different sides and being forced to turn against each other, if one terrible day called for it.

“This turns our happy reunion rather dark, doesn’t it?”

“Have you ever delivered no bothersome messages to me?”

“Mmmh, do you remember that one time, when we got rid of –“

“Yes, I know! There is no need to remind me of that.”

“But you looked so relieved afterwards. It’s strange because any other person would have enjoyed –“

“Alright, shut up already!”

The idiot started laughing again and even though Guren tried very hard to glare at him, he couldn’t fight down the grin forever.

“So what can I tell Kureto? Will you accept the mission?” The Hiragi asked, finally rising out of his chair.

“Do I have another choice? With the circumstances this severe, I doubt Kureto would just let me off the hook, maybe even seeing it as betrayal if I decline and hold back important information. He would probably start killing my subordinates to prove his seriousness and get rid of the entire Moon Order, looking for someone different to gather information for him, should I still refuse.” Guren’s voice was calm, already having accepted the situation as it was. They avoided death day after day, always aware of the possibility to be crushed any second, to disappear without anyone left to remember them. Another calamity added to his personal hell was not something to grow desperate about, since keeping a clear head and analyzing any situation throughout was paramount.

“Then I guess I’m looking forward to work with you again Guren.” Shinya answered cheerfully, not really fitting with the heavy atmosphere which still lingered in the air. At least someone was trying to make the best out of it. The man turned around, ready to leave but stopped in his tracks a second later.

“Ah I almost forgot.” He said casually, before turning around in a fluid movement and throwing something in Guren’s direction. For a split second a flash appeared as the object spiraled through the air, giving Guren enough time to move his hands out of the way before the tiny knife landed on his desk, stabbing the table top.

Seriously, what is up with those guys always damaging my property?

He glared at the tiny object, which had just left a hole in his desk, before he took the small piece of paper attached to it.

“I was asked a favor to deliver this message to you. Seems like we both can never say ‘No’ to that person.”

Before Guren could fully read the message, the other was already at the door, ready to leave.

“Shinya.” He called out, stopping his friend before he disappeared in the darkness of the hallway. The Hiragi leaned back his head and raised an eyebrow at him, a silent question forming in his eyes.

“It’s good to see you back. Really.”

“Took you long enough to say it. Don’t worry; I’m not planning to disappear for another year.”

I do hope so. Guren thought as he stared at the door Shinya closed behind him. Although he would never say it out loud, he had missed the guy’s presence and support during the last year. But having him back might also make things more complicated.

Chapter Text

Yuu sighed, as he leaned against the wall and slowly lowered himself to the ground. The room was much too crowded and noisy for his taste, the presence of the agitated and nervous children suffocating him. He always wanted to see them excited and joyful, but once fear and suspense got mixed in with their feelings the atmosphere became too overbearing for him. Especially when he himself was feeling jittery in anticipation for their next trip outside, but gradually saw the time run out with every passing minute. The tests took longer nowadays, having the children wait for hours for their turn amongst the other insecure bunch, resulting in them being completely weary and drained of their mental strength, once they finally got called over to the treatment. The times where the doctor’s had just taken a few looks at them to detect no change in their state of health had moved that far into the past, Yuu finally started to miss them. Even though the constant uncertainty, if finding a cure for their disease was really possible with that little effort coming from the researchers side, had upset him more than enough.

Yuu puffed out his cheeks, the air slowly escaping his lungs as he looked at the bandage around his arm covering the fresh cut, which he had received only a few moments ago.  The amounts of blood and the number of times the researchers took it from them had increased during the last weeks and even the young ones, who had been spared from it until now, were finally taken into consideration. Yuu just hoped they would soon have collected enough knowledge to cure them off their disease and give at least a few of the kids the chance to return home to their families. Not that he intended to go back to that place again. A shiver ran down his spine whenever he remembered the faces of his former loved ones turning into terrifying grimaces filled with horror and rage, as they pointed at him accusingly, blaming their child for the misfortune and disaster that had befallen them and fearing his disease like a curse. He remembered how relieved they had looked, once the Hyakuya church had taken him into its custody, promising them to cure their child off the ill spirits that wavered in his body. Yuu was sure they had been happy to finally get rid of him and he doubted they would still be there waiting, once he returned to his former home. Their gruesome words and rejections stung more than the beatings and it was almost the only thing he recalled from the first eight years of his life, the memory of the merry time when his parents had still loved and cared for him much too painful to bear. 

“Yuu, you are making a face again.” At Akane’s words the images of his once most important people in life disappeared from his mind and his features softened, eyes becoming clear as he recalled that he was save right now – among his new family, which cared for him.

He looked up to her in surprise.

“Am I?”

“Yeah, and it is not a nice one.” She stated, crossing her arms in front of her chest, trying to stand straight even with a small child clinging to her at her left side. The boy had tears in his eyes as he clutched her dress tightly – almost like a lifeline that kept him out of hell – and he buried his face in his arms as quiet sobs escaped his mouth. His small body was only skin and bones and he shook visibly out of fright. The child couldn’t be older than four years and since Yuu didn’t know the boy very well, he guessed he must have joined the orphanage only recently, having his troubles coping with all the sudden changes and new faces. It was always scary to start a new life among total strangers and each and every one of them had felt lost at one point in this orphanage. Luckily there were people like Mika and Akane, who with their never ending glee and kindness, embraced them with warmth many had long forgotten, turning the sadness and nightmares into a mere fleeting moment, which past and set them free. Hadn’t it been for Mika’s positivity as well as Akane’s sympathy and understanding forming the cornerstones each of them could rely on, Yuu would still be sitting in some corner and refusing his food, hiding from the world and waiting for death to take him.

Akane’s gaze drifted down to the boy, a light smile appearing on her face, before she kneeled down to face him, ruffling his hair reassuringly. He sniffed, rubbing his red eyes as she kept talking to him.

“There is nothing to be afraid of. It’s just a shallow cut and stings for only a moment. You will have forgotten about it by the evening, I promise. The doctors are always careful and nice. Some of them even give us sweets now and then.” Her voice was like flowing water steadily running down a river, taking the worries with it and Yuu watched as the kid blinked, while the last tears left his eyes and his hand slowly dropped to the side.

“Really? Sweets?” His voice was filled with amazement. Many of them had come from rather poor families, so toys and candy was still something that could lift their spirits.

“Yes! You know just the other day, this one guy brought cake for all of us! Let me tell you, I have never eaten something this delicious. He said it was because we were all so very brave that day.”

The boy stared at her, eyes beaming as he probably imagined eating the cake himself and Akane kept talking, her presence being so bright it almost blinded Yuu. These people and their amazing charisma always took his breath away.

“Akane.” Right as Juni’s call echoed through the air, he was already landing on Akane’s back, clinging to it tightly by putting his arms around her neck. While the girl groaned under his sudden weight, Juni looked past her with wide eyes, gazing down confused at the crying boy, before a sign of understanding ran over his features.

“You were right Sis.” He lifted his head, nose held up high as he started explaining proudly. “The cut doesn’t hurt at all. Yesterday I didn’t feel it and they were finished so fast I didn’t even notice we were done. I feel really silly, when I remember how scared I was at first.” The boy looked over at Yuu excitedly, as if they were part in a secret plan and winked at him, a wide grin appearing on his face. To think that in the past Juni had been even worse than the child he was trying to impress right now – he had evolved and become a totally different person.

“Juni I still remember you crying and screaming, saying you don’t want to go in there. You were too afraid of the doctors.” Yuu said teasingly, earning a deathly glare from the boy, who jumped off Akane’s back promptly and stepped forward to face him. He hesitated, his hands falling to his sides as he tried to find the right words, then he looked up and exclaimed his opinion loudly and for everyone to hear.

“I might not have been as brave as Yuu, Mika and Akane, but I’m sure one day I will be a spirited hero they can be proud of.” His grin became cheeky and confident as he pointed at Yuu.  “You guys just watch me. I will be the bravest of you all.”

He skipped away, totally unfazed by all the children in the room watching him and joined his friends some steps further. The wide eyes of the small boy followed him over, totally fixated on the figure of Juni and completely forgetting about Akane, who was still kneeling in front of him.

“Amazing.” The boy mumbled and then slowly, with a few unsure steps, started walking over as well.

“Hahaha, a hero he said. That’s just ridiculous.” Yuu said quietly, only being heard by Akane, who now sat down next to him. He hesitated, intently staring at the kids as the smaller boy was happily accepted in whatever game they were playing. “To think the guy had so much trouble to fit in and couldn’t stop crying day and night, it is just incredible how much he has changed since then.”

Akane chuckled at his words, turning around to face him.

“Do I have to remind you that three doctors had to drag you to the treatment, since you fought and screamed and wouldn’t let go of the door handles, because you were too scared of what they might do to you?”

“That was four years ago.” Yuu exclaimed, crossing his arms and turning away like a sulking child. It was true that he had acted this way, but he had still been in shock of what his parents had done to him and without putting his trust in a single person, he had feared what the world might be planning to do to him next.

“Juni is the same age as you back then. He is indeed strong. In sharing his weaknesses, he pulls the others with him as he advances and overcomes said weaknesses. He surely has become the hero of at least one of those children today.”

Akane’s absent look was sad, as she probably recalled the times from the past. She had never talked about what had happened to her, before she had come to the orphanage and everyone accepted it. Once they overcame their past, the kids would start talking about it and move on, though Akane had never done that much. Yuu still wondered if she was in some form holding on to her memories, if there was still something haunting her through all these years she couldn’t share with them, keeping it hidden behind her cheerful smile.

 Letting his gaze wander through the room, Yuu couldn’t help but notice how the mood had changed, since the kid had called out his future plans. The children were much more relieved and free, even laughing as they gathered and started playing games. The anxiety had completely vanished, blown away by the burst of confidence and silliness the boy set free. He had indeed become strong.

Mika.

Akane.

Juni.

They were the people that surrounded them, the shining lights which let them through the darkness no matter how lost someone felt. The happiness and joy of life they carried was received by everyone they met, being reflected in their features. It was something Yuu could never keep up with, even if he tried his best to stay positive.

But the brightest lights were found in the darkest skies and could be the easiest to fade away. They were inescapably bonded with the darkness of the people that surrounded them and not to get dragged down by their sorrow must have been hard.

“Shouldn’t you go to the hall and grab something to eat? You are already done with the testing for today aren’t you?” Akane asked him, raising an eyebrow as she eyed the bandages covering his arm. The question was understandable, since the kids would usually be sent over to the dining hall, exhausted from the treatment and the long wait, and their stomachs grumbling from hunger. Most of them tried to get the weird taste of the medicine out of their mouths, clouding it over with food as soon as possible.

“Mika is not back yet.” Yuu replied, keeping his gaze fixed on the door, which he hoped would open during the next minutes and release his friend for today. After all they still had a job to do and Yuu could feel his body quiver in anticipation, thinking back to the thrill and delight he had experienced during the last days, whenever they had set the first step out of the orphanage. He had lived hidden away during the last four years and it was not like his parents had taken him out a lot as well before. The world had been shut out, a total mystery to him and every day he visited the marketplace a new adventure unfolded before his eyes.

“Are you waiting for him so the two of you can leave the orphanage together again?” Akane asked casually, without any change in her voice, as if she hadn’t just told him their little secret was already unraveled.

At Yuu’s shocked expression, the girl leaned back and chuckled.

“What? You guys didn’t seriously think your absence would just go unnoticed to everyone, did you? But don’t worry. The adults don’t know about it and I told the kids to keep quiet. They probably think you both are out saving children and defeating evil, or at least something like that.” She stopped, glancing over to him slightly and under her stare Yuu grew more and more nervous.

“But that is not what you are doing, right Yuu? Since you started helping him, Mika looks healthier again, but have you noticed, how much he worries every time you guys leave? Can you promise me, you guys will not end up hurt?”

Her eyes became wide and serious as she watched his reaction intently, waiting for some form of reply. Not for the first time the boy was startled about how much Akane noticed, whether it was some fighting between the kids, or secret escapes like those Mika and him were up to. And also not for the first time Yuichiro was at a loss of words, as he felt himself buried under the sheer amount of questions the girl covered him with.

Fortunately he didn’t have to answer right away, due to the door opening at the other side of the room.

“Big brother Mika!” Juni was the first to yell his name, the voice soon mingling with multiple others, as the children ran towards the blonde and gathered around him. Yuu kept his distance at first, waiting for the excitement of the little ones to fade out, as they talked in high spirits, looking up to him like to some sort of hero. Like it was a miracle he had survived the treatment, they all were still awaiting. Mika smiled down on them, ruffling the hair of some as he explained who was treating them today and that the tests hadn’t changed during the week, encouraging the kids to cheer up and stay strong. They were clinging to him tightly and again Yuu had to think of the light Mika shed on others and how important it was to have someone like him amongst them.

Stupid guy. Yuu thought as he locked his gaze onto Mika’s, a grin appearing on his features. If Mika was in such high spirits, it meant the marks on his shoulder hadn’t been discovered and they could still leave the orphanage freely. The boys eyed each other silently across the room, until both nodded, confirming an implicit agreement. They were about to set out again.

 


 

 

Whenever Guren stayed at one of the secret hideouts, he felt relieved like some kind of weight had been lifted off his shoulders, only to be reverted once he returned to the Ichinose residence. Here in the poorer parts of the city he was almost certain no noble or Hiragi was watching him. He didn’t have to care about appearance, social representation or the power struggle of the politics. Right in the heart of the Moon Order all he had to worry about was the next job and in what kind of way they were going to successfully manage it. As for today it was how to train a bunch of over-motivated kids.

Guren looked up at the clouded sky, as he stopped in front of the smithy, the familiar sound of the metallic clinging from the yard reaching his ears. Absentmindedly he rested his left hand on the hilt of his sword, the comfortable weight at his side calming him in some way and unintentionally the edges of his lips started to rise up. Many years ago he had learned to handle and deflect blades, knives and daggers at this place, the smith himself forging him his first sword after he had passed his classes. His father’s most trusted men had taught him their tricks and specialties and even now they were still sharing their knowledge with the younger ones, securing the future of the Order. He remembered how he had bit the mud in that yard, his bones hurting and his muscles screaming at him for rest, but his mind all so demanding, stubbornly forcing his body to keep it up, to not give in until he was satisfied with his effort or his teachers told him to stop. It was right after he returned from the visit in the palace that he had started to desire more power and skill, becoming somewhat overly ambitious with the training. But there had also been another reason for it.

Turning his head slightly he looked over to the north, eyeing the majestic palace on top of the hill. When his lessons among the Hiragi’s had started, he had needed to be prepared in order to defend himself and his loved ones, if things turned out bad. If he had attended their training with no skill in swordsmanship whatsoever, they would soon have killed him in one of their lessons, to prove a point to his father of how weak he was.

Feeling the expectant and confused gazes of his subordinates on his back, Guren finally stepped forward and knocked four times, before he closely leaned against the door and started whispering quiet words. A moment later the doors mechanism could be heard, as someone from the other side confirmed his password and unlocked their safety measurements. The smithy might welcome customers up at the front, but that was just a disguise and once someone took a few steps past the counter and the friendly blacksmith they wouldn’t get far without a knife in their gut or at their throats. The members of the Moon Order were skilled in different fields that ranged from simple pick pocketing to spying and sometimes even assassination. Agility and invisibility were the two most important skills, each of them possessed. Guards and safety measures to such an extend were necessary, since behind those doors laid some of the most well kept secrets of Caelumos.

He might be the leader of the Order, but even Guren had to comply to the rules and say the password when he wanted to enter through the back door.

He took a few steps back as the door swung open, a man meeting him on the other side. It was a tall middle aged guy with light brown hair, being pinned together behind his head. His eyes, which looked proudly down on Guren, had the same color and the young Ichinose remembered them, always watching him in his training, observing each of his movements, not missing the slightest mistake. Those eyes had become older over the years, a sort of tiredness settling down in them, which Guren first grew aware of four years ago. The exact mirrors of those eyes followed him around every day, watching his back and his surroundings to keep any harm away from him.

“Guren.” Seisho Hanayori greeted him, bowing his head slightly and stepping to the side to let his master enter the place. Guren nodded at him, while Seisho closed the door, hesitating for a moment and looking around outside, to confirm the absence of any pursuers.

“The recruits have gathered in the hall upstairs and are waiting for your arrival.” Another voice said from above and before Guren’s eyes could even move up - catching a glimpse of the person hiding on top of the beams in one of the corners under the ceiling– said person had already descended, now standing in front of him. Just like Sayuri resembled her father, Guren also recognized similarities to Shigure as he looked into Samidare Yukimi’s features. The dark haired man was just slightly taller than his daughter and the same air of professionalism, concealed behind reticence, surrounded him. To some people he might have seemed cold and frightening, his unwavering calmness and expressionless face unsettling them. People wanted to see their influence on another, they wanted to see the results of their actions reflected in the others face, all for the sake of knowing their standing and affiliation. Samidare’s ability to not show any reaction at all, whether it was consent or disapproval, still even confused Guren now and then. This man could quietly kill a person and dispose of the body without anyone noticing. People of the Yukimi family were using techniques of hidden weapons and soundless approach, perfecting them over the time of their life. Samidare was the current leader of this family and despite his slender built the strongest when it came to combat skills.

Guren looked at both of his former teachers, his father’s right hand men, who had guided him all his life and raised him alongside with Sakae and sometimes he still felt like the student from all those years ago. But with his father’s death, the responsibility had shifted, turning the student into the leader, while the teachers switched to the supporting roles.

“We are overjoyed that you have taken up the task of teaching again.” Seisho said, stepping up next to his colleague and friend. “The youngsters are promising. Samidare and I have both overseen their progress and advance, teaching them in physical combat and observation techniques, as well as weapon use and disguise. If they keep up the effort, we estimated they will be able to take the tests by the end of summer.”

Seems like they have already beaten that bunch into shape. Guren thought, remembering the little group of excited recruits he had first met four years ago. Back then he had given them in the care of his former teachers, since first he had to secure his position amongst the nobles, showing his followers that he was capable to take care of their lives and fates. During the first days after his father’s death there had been no time to get dragged down by his feelings, the work keeping him busy. There was no time to spend on the education of the recruits either– nor for him or any of the leading figures of the Moon Order – and they had been neglected to an extend where their final tests needed to be put off for at least a year. Having them still graduate at the regular age of sixteen in a few months, showed how much effort they had put into the training, rapidly catching up with the single year they had missed. They were promising indeed.

Guren’s gaze shifted to the stairs, where at the end his students were waiting for him. He would teach them the basics of larceny, just like his father had taught him back in the days. Soon they would also start to enter mansions, gathering intelligence which the Moon Order needed to ensure their survival. The skills they were going to acquire would soon be needed.

“Hopefully they won’t be disappointed…” Guren mumbled, catching a glimpse of his retainer’s expressions darkening at his quiet words.

“You guys stay here.” He ordered them. Their last visit to the smithy had been weeks ago and surely the Yukimi and Hanayori families had a lot of catching up to do; only barely seeing each other whenever the reports were sent to him. And he certainly didn’t need protection among a bunch of kids.

“I need to talk to you later on. Something has come up that requires your attention.” He said to Seisho and Samidare, receiving dutiful nods from both of them.

Then Guren turned around and left Shigure and Sayuri in the care of their fathers.

 


 

 

The room held quiet murmur as Guren opened the door, the students already sitting in their seats stopping their bit of small talk and turning silent as their gazes fixated on him. What was constructed to be a dining hall back in the days when this house had first been build was now filled with a long wooden table and benches, facing the desk up front. While the blacksmith occupied the rooms at the entrance to keep the innocent front, the back of the building – especially the basement – contained stolen documents as well as reports and letters with important pieces of information, whereas the upper floors were meeting rooms, studies and bedrooms. Out of all of them, only the hall provided enough space to fit a hand full of students and let them exercise and practice properly.

Guren ignored the eyes following him, as he walked over to the desk and dropped himself ungracefully in the chair. He leaned back as he put his feet on the tabletop and crossed his hands behind his head. Following each of his movements and watching his bad manners unfold before them, the kids still remained silent, even though – much to Guren’s delight – he caught a hint of surprise and unsteadiness in their eyes.

“Let’s see…” He started, before he leaned forward and took the reports about the recruits placed for him on the desk. Guren skipped through the pages, getting a bit of input on the progress they had made, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. The five kids in front of him were about to turn sixteen in a few months. After succeeding the final test they would stay in a five man group for the years to come, before each of them would slowly start to receive their own missions. To trust in the abilities of an ally, to divide the job so each of them could be used to their best and fullest - those were all lessons they could only teach themselves during the next years and missions. Teamwork was something they had to acquire for themselves and no teacher could show them how.

But right now those five students still lacked the basic techniques, when it came to pickpocketing.

He was not yet done with the reports, as a voice could already be heard.

“Excuse me, Master Guren.”

Guren looked to the boy who had spoken to him, making a mental note to add impatience to the list of his weaknesses. The boy had long brown hair, which he had put up in a ponytail and he had raised his hand, an expectant look in his also brown eyes. His name was Makoto Narumi and he was the son of an amazing Moon Order spy, whom Guren knew personally and had worked with several times. If the young Narumi possessed just a bit of the abilities of his mother there was no misgiving he would turn out to be formidable.
“Makoto!” A dark haired boy sitting next to Narumi whispered, the sharp tone indicating a reprimanding warning as he elbowed the other. Guren recognized his features as well. If it came to intelligence gathering and infiltrating, the Iwasaki and Narumi families were the best calls, both falling under the jurisdiction of the Hanayoris. Makoto and Shusaku had probably been supervised beforehand to contribute to the family business. They had been raised alongside each other, with their shared paths destined to work together in the future.

“We are here to learn aren’t we? I should be allowed to ask questions.” Narumi replied, voice now several volumes quieter, as he eyed the other and held his side. Iwasaki looked about to attack him again, but hesitated, when Guren finally spoke.

“What is it Makoto?”

Both looked surprised in his direction and Guren could see embarrassment and guilt flushing over their faces, as they realized how they had argued in front of their leader.

“What issue are we taking on today?”

At this Guren was taken aback. Confused he looked at each of them, before he asked again.

“Has no one informed you on the topic?”

At this Narumi tilted his head and exchanged a glance with the friend at his side. The one to answer however was Iwasaki.

“No, Hanayori-san said you would be telling us. But we think, if we had known beforehand we could have prepared ourselves and picked up some techniques of our own. Eventually it would have made the lesson easier.”

And eventually you would have done some stupid things and get yourselves caught and killed.

There had been more than one time when recruits had trusted their abilities too much and taken on a task too difficult for them. If Seisho got the impression the keen bunch would – to practice in advance – dash over to the next marketplace and loose a hand by the end of the day, it was reasonable to withhold something from them. That only meant the kids in front of him were really high spirited, which could turn out problematic.

Guren’s eyes fixated the other three members of the group, who shrunk a bit under his gaze. Rika Inoue, Yayoi Endo and Kagiyama Taro, the second daughters and son of merchants, who had sent their offspring to the training, hoping they could guard their stores one day. He was sure Narumi would try stealing before learning any certain technique, but would those people really not be able to stop him – or worse – participate in his idea?

“There is no need for you to prepare for anything. Having a clear mind, that is not being clouded with what you think might be right, is the best way to start with larceny.” Guren said, as he placed the reports back at the table but remained in the same position in his seat. The eye of the five widened as their faces lit up, exchanging excited glances.

“What did you guys expect?”

“Well…” Narumi started, receiving a warning look by his friends. As he turned around to Guren he was obviously at a loss of words.

“We thought it would be something like tool lessons or social manners again.” He finally voiced carefully and Iwasaki, who had been about to kick him under the table, froze as all of them waited for his reaction.

“Huh? So you ungrateful kids thought because I am teaching today, it had to be something dull and boring.” Guren concluded sternly, with a teasing undertone. He couldn’t blame them, since until now he hadn’t really engaged himself with their training and the bits where he was actually present in the class had been far from thrilling.

“We know you’ve got more important work to do as the leader of the Moon Order, so we thought –“

“Stop with the sweet talk kid. I understand. Don’t think I enjoyed studying etiquette and crests when I was your age.” In a swift movement Guren swung his feet back on the ground and stood up. He took a few steps around the desk and leaned back on it, crossing his arms as he watched the recruits again.

“Then tell me, what abilities do you think are necessary to lift a person off their belongings? What is it you need to do in order to achieve that?”

“Swiftness and speed are vital, but I think watching the movements and manners of the target are even more important.” Yayoi was the first to answer, fidgeting nervously with the ends of her glasses. The pink haired girl was usually quiet, only speaking out loud when it was absolutely necessary.

Guren nodded.

“The annoying training to improve your observation skills comes in handy now, don’t you think?” He grinned sheepishly as he watched the faces of the youngsters turn into grimaces, as they remembered the long unnerving hours of lying in wait or following a person, interpreting every movement the target did or word that was spoken. Guren himself knew all too well how challenging it was to not go crazy during those hours.

“Don’t worry. This time I don’t need you to look for a perfect hideout and it won’t take long before something exciting happens. You need to predict the targets movement in a split of a second. If you engage with a person you got about half a second to act so that you can still get away with it.”

“Half a second?” Rika had tried to whisper, but due to the disbelief in her voice it was even audible to Guren.

“Half a second only. If you can’t do it in that time you will abandon the process and escape, otherwise the target will grow aware of your intentions. So never choose a target randomly or out of a whim! Choose wisely! Follow the person a few steps to detect the object of interest and figure out their reaction time and in what relation it stands to yours.” He leaned forward and pulled a silver coin out of his pocket as he walked over, finally placing the tiny piece on the table in front of them. The five eyed the coin confused, before they looked up in his direction, a silent question on their faces.

“One of you will carry this coin and return it to me by the end of this lesson. I don’t care who it is going to be and I don’t want to know. Decide who will take it now!”

He turned around, giving them enough time to prepare themselves; then he started explaining.

“This is about, whether you can conceal your emotions or act suspicious. If someone notices they have been stolen from and you are still around, the worst thing to do is draw the attention towards you, because of your jumpy behavior.” He hesitated, his eyes searching through the room for something. “Now get up. You have sat around long enough. Time to get started.”

He hadn’t even finished the few sentences properly, when they stood already in front of him.

“Assuming you have set eye on a target. What objects would you go for?”

“The belts and bags. People usually look ahead and don’t bother to look down. Especially when they are in a crowd and get distracted from all sides.” Iwasaki answered, receiving appreciating nods from the rest.

“Very good.” Guren said stepping around the group and using his arms to fully explain. “They don’t pay attention to your actions because they are distracted. Now, what we will be doing is to distract them on purpose. The most important thing you have to worry about -” After he had finished the circle around them he raised his fingers. In his hand he was holding a silver coin. It was the exact same coin he had given the group moments ago and just taken out of Narumi’s pockets.

“Is called focus.”

“How –“ Narumi took a step back as he searched his pockets for the coin, failing to find it. In his eyes wonder and incredulousness mixed as he frantically kept checking, finally raising his head to look at Guren again.

“By forcefully driving off the focus of the target, you can act secretly in their blind spots.” The other explained, flipping the silver piece in the air and easily catching it again. A moment later the coin had disappeared from his hand. “You all know those little market tricks the gleemen are using to entertain the townsfolk. It’s basically the same concept. Distraction –“ With a sweeping gesture he raised his hand and pointed upward, a tiny silver flash showing up in the air, before the missing coin dropped to the ground, landing right between them. “and action are the two most important tools that work hand in hand.”

Guren couldn’t remember how many times he had used those tools already, but once on a job they were vital parts he couldn’t relinquish. In more matters than just stealing. He wasn’t keeping Goshi around for nothing.

“So this is what you are going to teach us?” Iwasaki asked while raising an eyebrow at him. “Distraction and action? But that can’t possibly work every time.”

“Of course it depends on the surroundings and the amount of stimulations they provide, as well as your skill level and that of the target. That’s why I want you to watch the target and its interactions beforehand. The smartest thief only steals from those people he is sure to outwit.”

As expected the kid was clearly not convinced, furrowing his brows as he kept thinking.

“How did you know Makoto was the one responsible for the silver piece?”

At this Guren smirked triumphantly. He didn’t need to use clairvoyance to see that Narumi was obviously the leader of the group and the one they put the most trust in. Anyone with eyes and a bit social understanding could see that. As much as it honored them to have their duties divided this early, it was a weakness if they entrusted the wrong person with the part. Still, Guren wondered if any of them had been able to hide the coin, if they had been the ones responsible for it.

“When I told you to get up, his hand subconsciously wandered to his left pocket. It’s something people do all the time, when they are carrying money or things that are precious to them. Sometimes you have to add a threat to the situation to let them reveal the item. But that will be another lesson.”

Narumi shrunk with every word Guren spoke, as if their weight was burying him underneath them. He hung his shoulders refusing to meet the eyes of the others.

“Makoto…” Slowly Inoue put a hand on his shoulder and shook him a little. It was enough to pull him out of his thoughts.

“I’m sorry guys.” He apologized and Guren was surprised by the strength in his voice. To pick himself up that fast and getting rid of the things dragging one down to keep a clear head was an ability a leader should possess. “Seems like I wasn’t the right choice. Next time we should give it to Taro. Do you remember him at gambling table last time? He never bares an eye at anything.” He rubbed the back of his head as he turned around to them, pointing at the boy with wide shoulders and a somewhat intimidating aura. After parting from his head band that held the name of his family store, Kagiyama now used a pitch black piece of cloth to keep his hair tied up. He brought his hands up and frantically waved them off.

“That’s barely true. You are overestimating me.” Despite his refusing words he clearly seemed flattered by the just said, even more so when Yayoi looked at him and started agreeing with Narumi.

Kids these days. Guren could feel himself growing tired again, just looking at them. They took everything so lightly, as if they could easily overtake the world. He chuckled as he noticed how old that sounded.

“The major question right now is not how I suspected Makoto, but how I could get a hand on the piece without anyone of you noticing.” He finally interrupted their little bickering, drawing the attention back to him.

“You circled around us, so we couldn’t watch you all the way.” Inoue stated, tipping her chin as she thought about it. “And you exaggeratedly waved your hands, while explaining. You didn’t do that before.”

“Exactly. People lose their focus pretty easily. If you are presenting them one hand –“ He snapped his fingers in front of their eyes, while moving his other arm in Iwasaki’s direction. “They lose track of the other.” In a split second he held a dagger at the boy’s collar, not giving him any chance to react in time. Iwasaki froze, eyes widening as he watched the weapon. He held his breath, letting it escape as Guren finally lowered the knife.

“That was impressive.” He exclaimed and one could see the tension draining from his body. They had already been trained in self-defense and hadn’t Guren distracted them beforehand, they would surely have reacted faster.

“It’s something you will be able to do soon enough.” Guren answered, the words directed to all of them. “Watch the direction of their eyes. If they watch one of your hands they lose focus of the other. You just have to learn how to act as fast and swift when the moment comes.”

Like a raindrop falling into a river the act will become indistinguishable, merging with the distraction you will have caused – invisible in the flowing water running down the stream.

“But that is not all. Once your training ends, each step you take will be soundless, every movement made carefully and with a purpose in mind. Since Samidare has supervised you already I don’t think it will take you long to become a silent invisible shadow.” He stopped as he looked at them again somewhat bewildered. He could practically feel the excitement radiating off of them, every word of his driving them more on edge, the tension hanging like a silent whisper in the air. Wasn’t he supposed to keep them calm and collected instead of riling them up? Could they still concentrate like this? This wasn’t an ideal starting ground, was it? Again he doubted his abilities to teach a class, when his subordinates were so much more thoughtful of such things.

The next hour he let them practice stealing from each other with copper coins he offered them, watching them intently at their first clumsy attempts, which soon turned confident as the youngsters became more and more handy with the few tricks Guren had shown them at the beginning. Leaning against a wall a little distance away, he voiced remarks and critics in their combinations and plans, but also presented them alternative techniques, as well as the mistakes their opposite had made. He didn’t know if anything he did actually helped them, but no matter if due to his work or their talent, it paid off and the five visibly improved by every minute. It startled even him.

After watching them long enough he finally ordered them to stop and gather in the middle of the room again.

“To be honest, I haven’t expected you guys to pick up so quickly on everything.” He started, producing winning and confidents grins by the five, who looked at each other with determination and pride. Narumi stretched out his hand, resting it on Iwasaki’s shoulder before he squished it lightly, the simple touch delivering the shared feelings as they both beamed at his words.

“However, you still got a long way to go. Your movements are still sluggish and without any grace and fluidity. But most of all they are predictable to a point where any guard could stop them, even though you haven’t even started in the first place.” He smiled at them as their first high spirits slowly started to leave them again. “But this is something that takes time and practice. It’s impossible to learn right from the start. That is why it is important for you to work in a team and reduce the damage if it ever comes so far and one of you is getting caught. Pass the item on to your teammates multiple times, so that the evidence is gone from your hands before anyone can grab a hold of you. Stay close to each other! The exchange must be quick and invisible, so that no one is expecting you guys to work together. Without evidence there is not much the guards can do.” Most of the time they don’t bother to arrest robbers, if it isn’t the high and mighty who ordered them to. And if they aren’t in need of an execution or other demonstration of their superiority.

But that was something Guren saved to say for later times. 

 


 

 

“So tiring.”

Guren leaned against a wall in one of the meeting rooms after what felt like an eternity later, the back of his head pressing against the stone – the cold of the surface being soothing and helping him to arrange his thoughts – as he listened with closed eyes his subordinates enter. The last task he had given the youngsters had proven to be more bothersome than he had expected at first and he wasn’t sure if it was due to their skills or lacking training that they had failed at it. They had been supposed to steal the silver coin from him and moved surprisingly fast and unpredictable for his taste, but in the end it was still easy to avoid each of their attacks, due to their lacking teamwork. If they had really worked together the way he hoped they would at the end of their training, there was no doubt they would be able to overpower him.

But first they had to find their own weaknesses and strengths, as well as those of their teammates, until one day they would function as a union supporting each other without much thinking.

“I wanted to speak to you of a matter of great importance.” He started opening his eyes and signing to the round table in the middle of the room. At his words Samidare and Seisho exchanged a weird look, while their daughters just fixated their master and finally nodded before they took a seat. Taking a few deep breaths to build up his determination again and become the responsible leader, Guren walked over and sat down as well, crossing his hands in front of him and eyeing his most trusted people. The silence that had filled the room before didn’t last long though.

“Is it about the Imperial Demons?” Seisho started, before Guren could even open his mouth to speak. The man was sitting between Sayuri and Samidare who both turned to him, but he didn’t avert his gaze from his leader, whom he stubbornly fixated.

Said leader, however, was not surprised about his reaction. With a defeated sigh he closed his eyes for a moment and then met Seisho’s gaze.

“You noticed?”

“It’s not difficult, if one considers how the simulating attacks have vanished as fast as they have arisen, as well as the proximity of time the incident held with you meeting the messenger sent by the Demons.”

“It is true.” Still letting his hands rest on the tabletop he leaned back in his chair. “I was offered a choice. Either we do a very dangerous and confidential job for the Demons or we will be wiped out by them, starting with our financial support and ending with the death of each and every member.”

The grave silence that filled the room was suffocating like a giant rock had just been dropped on them, burying them under the words all of them feared to speak.

“We have been threatened by the Demons before.” Shigure stated, her stern expression not giving away what she was thinking. “What is so different now? What kind of job are they expecting us to do?”

Guren had not told the two the results of his conversation with Shinya the night before, since he wanted them to decide this with a clear mind, but right now he had wished they had known already. Maybe then it wouldn’t be so hard to say the next words.

“At our last raid I got a hold of a letter, which implied the Imperial Family was working hand in hand with the Hyakuya Church. Kureto wants us to investigate why and what it is they are working on.”

“Interfering with the Imperial Family is a grave crime and with the reputation the Ichinose family holds, it could easily even be called treason. And the Hyakuya Church is an organization one doesn’t want to mingle with either. Many tried and have gotten themselves burned already.” Sayuri stated the facts, while she was still in thoughts.

“Basically it will be a miracle, if we get out of this alive.” Guren gave them a summary. “If we don’t provide information for Kureto, we are dead and if we get ourselves caught, we are dead. Kureto could also dispose of us once we have finished the job, or he just hands us over to the Hiragis.

“We just have to outwit all of them.” Shigure started, her eyes suddenly on fire as she leaned forward, her fingers drumming on the tabletop to an unknown melody. “We hold most of the secrets this country possesses. It has saved us many times before, it can save us now as well. We could just spill some of the bloody crimes the Hiragi’s have committed and a rebellion would start itself. Kureto is not without error either, even though most of his crimes are already known to the common folk.”

“It doesn’t depend on what the people know and what they don’t” Guren shook his head, the dread that he had hidden all the while, clenching his heart again. “It’s the fear that keeps the people in control. Most of them know the shining Hiragi name is rotten and stinking of murder, but would they risk their own lives or the lives of their families to go up against an enemy they cannot win over?”

“What about hiding?” Sayuri offered. “We could feed the Demons false information and disappear to some of the unused hideouts?”

“And stay there for the rest of our lives? Kureto won’t just forget what we did.” Guren rubbed his temples. He had thought about running away as well, but whatever plan he chose, the results always turned out the same. They would be hunted down. “Our team will investigate the case and the rest of the Moon Order shall take preparations to cut all ties with us. If things turn out bad, they will scatter and leave the city. The Moon Order will cease to exist.”

“Master Guren!” Sayuri stood up her hand, clenched to a fist, was pressed to her chest. “Your people will never accept that! Everything your father worked for, everything you worked for. It will all disappear. I’m sure if you inform the members, they would gladly stand by your side, even if it means their death.”  

“I never suspected any less from our followers. The members have proven themselves to be loyal more than just one time.” Guren stated, the serenity giving no doubt in his words and catching both of his retainers off guard. “However, what use would there be for them, if I just let them run to their deaths? I’m telling you guys to prepare, not to give up. Let’s take Kureto’s offer and see how far we make it. Maybe he sees the beneficial effect in our work and spares us. It wouldn’t be the first time. However if he doesn’t uphold his side of the deal –“ He felt a knot form in his throat, but swallowed it without anyone noticing. “The only thing we can do is save as many as possible.”

He thought about Narumi and his friends, so eager to grow up and put their overflowing talent and energy to use, their eyes sparkling as they imagined their future. What kind of future would that be, if the Moon Order was to be disbanded – or worse destroyed – before they could even graduate? Would their families survive? Would those kids survive? Why did he spend his time teaching them, when maybe they had no future ahead of them?

“What else did Lord Shinya say?” Shigure had stopped moving her fingers and started playing with one of her hidden knives instead, the spinning blade reflecting her inner turmoil. For the first time the stoic and expressionless woman showed some sign of nervousness. “Does he think Kureto will let us live afterwards?”

The deep breath Guren took felt sickening as it filled his lungs. “He didn’t tell me to run at least.”

“Ever since your father started the Moon Order, we knew it would turn out like this one day. We don’t possess enough manpower to rival any of the big organizations, be it the Hiragis, the Demons, Sangiunem or the Hyakuya Church.” Samidare spoke up for the first time since the meeting had started. Both him and Seisho had been unusually quiet, even though Guren wanted to hear their opinion more than ever.

“Your decision is right.” Seisho nodded, before leaning back and crossing his arms. “However, the members of the Moon Order are here by choice and they will also leave by choice. If they want to stay by your side, you cannot send them away.”

“I figured that much.” Guren responded, eyes casted down for a moment before he looked up again and held Seisho’s gaze. “I suggest we call the families together, so they can decide.”

“We will see to that.” The head of the Hanayori family answered, nodding to himself. Then he looked over to Samidare, as if confirming unspoken words. Their eyes met and the other spoke up an instant later.

“Guren, we will take the mission.”

“You?” Guren was surprised both at his suggestion as well as the dropped honorifics. If his father’s men started to speak privately with him, they normally advised him like the teacher they once used to be. “Since the mission is dangerous, I see it as my responsibility to attend the matters myself.”

“In dangerous times the Moon Order is in need of their leader more than ever. You can’t go on a job, risking your life and letting the families deal with the problems themselves. Taking responsibility means being there for the clan, if things turn out grave, not getting yourself killed. Also you might be the most skilled person among us, but for this experience is needed more than ever. We have managed risky missions like that even before you were born. Leave the matter to us.”

Guren bit the inside of his cheek. The sight of losing his best men in a battle he was unable to stop or win was something he could not easily accept. But even though the guilt of shifting the suicide mission to someone else was boiling inside him, he had to admit the truth to Samidare’s words. Being lectured by his men made him feel like a silly recruit again, who was too overwhelmed to lead the clan.

“Father?” Shigure turned to the man, a questioning look in her eyes.

“You will stay at Master Guren’s side.” Samidare stretched out his hand and touched his daughter’s cheek, the gesture making the small woman seem like a child. “He needs your help more than ever.”

“It troubles me to send you into battle like this.” Guren said, still trying to find a way to switch their positions. “This is not your responsibility.”

“It is exactly our responsibility. And you know it, Guren.” Seisho said, the finality to his words almost making it impossible to object any further. “You are the one who needs to step up to your position, like Sakae wanted you to. He left the Moon Order in your hands and trusted you to take good care of the lives serving you. Now is the time to show them what kind of leader you are.”

Just now Guren noticed how his hands were shaking. How dare they use his father against him!

“Fine.” Despite his inner fight his tone was calm. “I’ll leave it to you then.”

Their approving expressions felt like the daggers, with which he had just delivered their death sentences.

 

Chapter Text

It all could have been so easy.

Everything just went too smooth that day, leaving the uncomfortable feeling that something unexpected and horrible just had to turn up. They had reached the marketplace just in time for the cattle auctions, the gazes of the people fixated up front as they bit their money, pushing the price higher and higher to sums Mika’s mind started spinning just imagining it. Once they had joined the crowd, the guards were not a matter to worry anymore, leaving them to act as they pleased and by the time the children wanted to return to the orphanage, both of them had gathered enough money to participate in the auction.

They should have followed their first intention and just gone home at that moment.

But unfortunately stealing had turned out to be an exciting game, where failure just wasn’t permitted and success became as addicting as a drug, pulling them both in a hyper state until they lost their calm mind and threw away all caution. That’s why, when Yuu pointed at their last target, Mika didn’t stop him, although they had already agreed to leave.

Mika bit his lip as he jumped by another street and turned right, being followed by Yuu only a step behind him. What lay past that was something he didn’t have the time to look at, but the sound of the heavy armor the guards were wearing was sufficient enough to tell him, how close they had come in their pursuit. How could those guys run so fast with the amount of metal covering their bodies? With every step Mika felt the weight of the stolen leather bags, which he had attached to his belt, drop, the coins pulling him down accompanied by a clinging sound. Maybe they should just leave the booty, but then all the trouble would have been for nothing and the escape still remained questionable. To make matters worse, with an entire squad chasing after the two, people started staring, making in nearly impossible to get away unseen.

“All because you had to pick the guy with the personal guards.” Mika yelled over under his hitching breath, unable to get enough oxygen in his lungs to continue this chase for long. He noticed how he gradually slowed down, the exhaustion taking rapidly over. If things continued like this, the guards would catch up with them in no time and Mika didn’t want to think about what might happen to them afterwards. Neither of the kids had recognized the uniform the man had been wearing, realization hitting them far too late when they had already approached too closely, resulting in the cold hands of the guard grabbing Yuu by his shoulders, before Mika jumped at him to free his friend.

“How could I have known he was protected? It was not like they wore armors and judging by their built, they don’t resemble those big guys surrounding the market place.” Yuu’s words were shaking either because of exhaustion or growing panic, which Mika also tried to fight down. Desperation wouldn’t help them right know.

The man had been surrounded by four guards, but to be fair they had looked like civilians, being dressed just like any usual citizen. Not that Yuu’s and Mika’s target had a very welcoming appearance, in fact, it was quite the opposite. An intimidating aura had surrounded him and he had looked down at them with fierce, fiery eyes, a gruesome smile spreading across his face, as if he was enjoying the image of torturing the children that had dared to come near him. However, to Mika’s relief that expression turned into shock once the two took off and fled the captivity. Mika didn’t know what position the guy held, but by now the boy was pretty sure he had to be part of the nobility. Maybe even close to the royal family itself. It needed only his presence and a few yelled words to mobilize the entire squad, which had guarded the crowd, to neglect their orders and join the pursuit.

A shiver ran done Mika’s spine. Having that much authority and power at ones hands scared the boy and let him fear for the consequences which awaited them once they met the guy again. Looking at Yuu, who had finally gained on and was now running beside him, the blonde could hear his heart beating in his ears, while ice cold hands slowly reached towards his lungs, clenching them slowly but steadily, making it impossible to breath. He was afraid. Not only for his own sake, but even more for the destiny Yuu awaited, since he was the one who had attacked the man. He should have stopped his friend, not only today, but also back then when the idiotic idea of stealing had first formed in this thick head of his. It was Mika’job to take care of all the children in the orphanage, including Yuu, and finally on this day the mistakes had caught up with him, presenting his failure right before his eyes. Hadn’t his desire for survival extinguished every unnecessary thought, Mika would be breaking down in dread for his incompetence to protect anyone or anything that was precious to him.

The blonde blinked as he felt his eyes become watery and stubbornly he kept telling himself that it was due to the wind, even though he already knew better than to lie to himself. He was useless. So utterly, utterly useless and the regret and guilt of his inability kept screaming at him as an unmerciful voice in his head, most of the time quietly, although never truly disappearing and holding him awake at nights. But right now he could hear it clearly, like a desperate person shouting for help. There was no way for Mika to change anything. He had tried before and he had tried now and always failed, the world he built with his life shattered like glass shards in the end. He knew if he lost Yuu – Mika didn’t even want to think about it – he would break for good. Stupid idiot was the one person, who never lost hope, no matter how grave the situation would turn out, who always reassured him that life would be better someday, that he would forever stay at Mika’s side and never leave him. The boy was his cornerstone, keeping him grounded next to him, stopping Mika from getting swept away by the dark waters of misery.

Lost in thought Mika was almost too late to register Yuu calling his name and stumbled slightly as the other pulled him off the road and into an alleyway. By now he had no clue in what direction they were heading, the streets passing by one after another, without leaving any mark of recognition in his mind and with the cloudy sky above not even the sun was visible to guide them. Running in circles the voices of the people gathering at the marketplace became quieter and louder time after time, but the two didn’t dare to set a foot on there again, too afraid of the noble waiting for them there.

They turned right, left and right again, changing directions like a rabbit on the run, trying to outwit its pursuer. Mika hoped the guards would split up with each turn, giving the children a higher possibility to outrun them and to his surprise the shouts of the men grew quieter with every new road they entered. Finally, when Mika’s legs were shaking, his body close to breaking down, Yuu stopped.

“Yuu-” Mika’s voice was filled with panic and despair as he looked back and stopped as well. If Yuu was about to give up now, they had lost. An image of the face of the noble turned up in his mind and the blonde had to fight down a sickness as he imagined the ugly grimace filled with satisfaction it would display, once they met him again. His hand trembled as he stepped up to the still hesitant boy. His fighting spirit couldn’t be broken already, could it? Giving up was not an option.

To make matters worse, they were close to the market again, the calls of the merchants participating in the auction echoing over to them, mixing with the shouts of the approaching guards. If they didn’t want to risk going out there, they would be surrounded soon.

Yuu was still calm as he pointed upward.

“We will go through there.”

With that he took a rock from the ground and threw it at a glass window in the first floor of a nearby building. Before the glass even broke, Yuu had already jumped on the sill of the window below and reached up. With an additional jump he caught the frame of the second window and climbed upward with the elegance of a stumbling newborn.

“Yuu get down here!” Mika whispered, but still followed him. Maybe this was a clever way out of this mess, but they also risked to anger the occupant of the room, another person they didn’t need to have pursuing them. Although, if said person was present they should have shouted out by now.

When Yuu was finally high enough to enter, he reached through the opening created by the rock and unlocked the window from the inside. With a click the lock loosened and the sad remains of what used to be a glass window swung to the inside, shoving Yuu with it before he dropped to the ground on the other side.

“Mika!” Yuu whispered stretching out his hand and as Mika took it he was pulled forward right over the window sill. Without time to gain any save footing he was dragged forward and Yuu who hadn’t really thought his actions through, collapsed under the sudden unexpectant weight, resulting in the blonde landing right on top of him.

“You’re heavy. Move!” Yuu formed the words in the heat of the moment as the air was pressed out of his lungs, but somehow felt a sting of regret, as the other immediately complied to his wishes and rolled to the side, remaining there. The sensation of Mika’s head resting on his chest, the curly hair tingling his chin remained, as Yuu wondered what the hell had gotten into him.

“That was a close call.”

“Stating the obvious, huh. That’s an idiot for you.”

Both of them stayed like this for the next minute or two, just listening to the guards passing through the now deserted street and the heavy breathing of the other, as neither of them made a sound, too frozen and daunted of drawing the slightest bit of attention on them. Finally it was Mika who sat up and letting his eyes wander through the room he began to speak.

“So where are we?”

“I’m not having the slightest clue.” Yuu answered, getting on his feet himself, before he walked over to the window and looked down to the alley. “Looks like a sleeping chamber to me.” He concluded absentmindedly, without investing any second thought in it.

“That’s not what I meant. I wonder what this chamber is connected to.”

“I know what you meant. Shit they are still there.” Yuu reacted a little irritated as he dropped back to the floor and crossed his legs while facing Mika. “I guess we are about to find out. Those guys are still patrolling down there, so we have to use another way to get out of here.” Hadn’t it been for the sigh that accompanied his explanation he would have sounded far too lighthearted, stating these words like he was going on a stroll to pick up some food from a kitchen.

“ You are planning to go that way?” Mika raised an eyebrow in disbelief, his voice jumping an octave higher as he pointed to the door, which would most likely lead to a hallway. “What else do you want to do? Knock on every door and introduce yourself directly as a trespasser to the people? Do you have a speech prepared?” There was no humor in his voice as the joke got almost stuck in his throat, the gravity of the situation turning him into a cynic.

“Look, I know it is not the best idea, but do you know of any other option? We cannot leave the same way we got here, unless you want to wait for the guards to go away. But someone could show up in this room any moment.”

“What makes you so sure they are not waiting for us at the front door? The market should be right around the next corner. Maybe we run directly into their arms.”

“That would be…quite unfortunate.” At these fading words Mika just wanted to grab Yuu’s shoulders and shake him, until he hopefully came back to his senses.

“You don’t even know where we are! How should we get out here, if we haven’t even a general direction? Also judging by the proximity to the market, this is probably a merchant’s home, which means the store is occupying the ground floor. How do you want to get past the shopkeeper and the customers, Yuu-chan?” Mika frowned disapprovingly as he crossed his arms and watched his friend, only to sigh as the other stared at him wide eyed, but couldn’t come up with an answer.

“If there is really a shop underneath our feet, then the people of the house are probably working down there right now and are not likely to come to this bedroom.” Mika walked over to one of the cold stone walls and leaning his back against it, he sat down, before signing next to him, a silent order for Yuu to do the same. “I’d say we wait here a little longer until the guards have finally given up and then we return to the orphanage.”

The other hesitated, watching Mika skeptically, before he shrugged.

“Alright.” Yuu stated and then sat down next to the boy. “Don’t blame me, if we are discovered.”

“Of course I blame you.” Mika muttered before leaning his head against Yuu’s shoulder, while staring at the opposite wall. “But I blame myself as well. We never should have started this in the first place. See where our little adventure has gotten us.” He closed his eyes as the others presence at his side calmed and reassured him. He felt so tired all of the sudden. Wouldn’t matters be so grave Mika would have wanted to stay like this for a longer time.

“It still turned out better, than you leaving home every night. At least we are dealing with this mess together.” Of course Yuu would stubbornly defend this mission, but his tone had no edge to it, as if he didn’t want to tease Mika any further. He didn’t complain about the blonde’s decision of staying either, the comforting silence between them almost lulling Mika to sleep, as Yuu stayed in his position, not even moving an inch in the attempt not to disturb his friend. Was he trying to be considered?

“Yuu, if you remain this calm I will soon fall asleep.”

“Rest. You need it. I will watch out for changes.”

“Like hell I could leave that much of responsibility to you.” Mika muttered, but his mind already turned away from reality.

 


 

He couldn’t really say how much time had passed, but the boy woke up again as Yuu’s shoulder shifted under his head, the realization that he had passed out driving him instantly on edge and he removed himself from the other quickly.

“Sorry, I didn’t want to wake you.” Yuu apologized as he eyed the leather bag in his hand for which he must have shifted and woken Mika in the process.

“How long was I out?” the other asked panic struck. He had meant his words to be a joke and never expected to seriously fall asleep in a situation like this. “And what are you doing there?” He asked looking down on the other’s hands as they dumped the bag and brought different objects to light.

“Barely ten minutes. I just wanted to know what’s the cause for all of our trouble. That’s the stuff the noble was carrying with him. Nothing thrilling if you ask me. What a turn-down. To think we were chased by the guards for this!”

Almost carelessly Yuu arranged the objects on his hand in an order. A small copper ring was amongst them, as well as a silver key and a vial of glass, filled with a colorless liquid. The few silver coins that were dispersed around the latter, were picked up by him and gathered in a tiny stack.

“He probably reacted that harshly because he is a proud person.” Mika concluded, shrugging as Yuu put the booty back in the pouch. “Maybe he felt disgraced. If that many guards were alarmed, he must hold quite a bit amount of power.” He stood up, stretching before he slowly walked over to the window. No sight of the men down in the street right now, but that could still change any minute.

“Yuu…” Mika started but was interrupted as suddenly footsteps in the hallway became audible. Instantly Yuu was on his feet and by Mika’s side, almost pushing him out of the open window, pulling him right back as the other was wobbling on his feet dangerously on the window sill. Yuu was about to follow him outside, as the door to their room opened.

The funny little melody the man that came into their view had been whistling, faded from his lips as he eyed them, stopping in his tracks with a feature full of horror. Mika only looked at him for a brief second, but the jewelry draped on the massive body was an image that unfortunately stayed in his mind. Then the guy seemingly pulled himself together as rage filled his eyes and he clenched his fists.

“You filthy robbers!” He shouted and came rushing forward. The two trapped children looked at each other and nodded as they confirmed a shared thought. Right before the man’s hand could reach them, both of them jumped.

 


 

 

Guren’s eyes narrowed as he walked down the long hallway, avoiding looking at the paintings on the wall. They were displaying fictional events, that might delighted art specialists but didn’t trigger any emotion in him, bearing nothing personal, only producing annoyance whenever his eyes caught a glimpse of one of them. The paintings were hanging there ever since he was born and maybe even quite some time before that, never changing, only being moved once in a while for cleaning purposes, but always returning to their rightful place at the end of the day. Since he was visiting his mansion mostly for meetings and feasts with important guests, who invited themselves over and had too much influence for him to refuse them, the pictures were just a façade, like most of the furniture in this building. Many years ago some Ichinose must have thought of them as a pretty addition to the interior, or just didn’t care at all like Guren did and picked something random that nobles might enjoy. Sometimes he felt like the paintings belonged more to the mansion than he did himself, mocking him, as he prepared himself for the uncomfortable encounters that awaited him.

But fortunately today was not that kind of meeting awaiting him. As the room came into view the first person that caught his eyes was Goshi, who sluggishly leaned against the doorframe, while discussing something with his retainers.

“You will never consider coming over to my house, will you Sayuri? I hear you once in a while cook for Guren. Why not share your tasty food with all of us as a deed to the team? I bet it would lift our spirits! Also I would pay you double, if you come and work for me.”

“What we cook for Guren is for his sake alone and conveys the deep feelings of loyalty and commitment we share for him. I bet if we would cook for you alone, the food would turn out dull and without any taste, since that is how we feel towards you.” Shigure retorted, her small figure standing like a strong pillar protectively in front of Sayuri.

“Even if it were like that, I would still eat it.” Goshi purred, but turned around a second later rising a hand for a greeting.

“Yo Guren.”

“Remind me please, how many times have you already tried to steal my subordinates from me? I’ve lost count by now.”

“And I shall never stop. One day they just have to come to their senses.”

The one who never comes to his senses is you. Guren thought as he welcomed his friend by patting the guy’s shoulder, before stepping past him into the meeting room.

“Guren.”

“Yahoo.”

He nodded over to Mito, but to his surprise there was an additional person present in the room, that had called out to him.

“Who the hell invited the Hiragi over?” He asked his voice calm as his eyes shoot daggers in Shinya’s direction, who was already seated comfortably at the table and smiled like an idiot.

“I just happened to wander through the town and meet two dear friends and as I got to know that they were in fact visiting a third dear friend of mine, I figured it would have been bad manners on your part, if you had left me out. Now I can’t let my friends show bad manners, can I? That’s why I was gracious enough to overlook your blunder and to pretend I got called over as well. By the way, that is actually the moment where you should get on your knees and thank me for being such a considerate friend.” Shinya’s smile never seemed to disappear as he explained and as Guren looked over to Mito, the woman avoided his glance guiltily.

“There is no way we can disobey a direct order of Lord Shinya, is there?” Goshi exclaimed as he stepped over to Mito and took a seat at the left side of the table.

“Inviting yourself over, huh. For saying that you hate your family that much, you sure eagerly act like them more than just a few times.” Guren retaliated, before he signed to Shigure and Sayuri to take a seat as well.

“One shall use all the weapons to their disposal, if you deem it necessary. What fun is there being in the family, if it can’t be convenient once in a while?”

Guren ignored the last comment and proceeded with the task for which they have all gathered that evening.

“Since Shinya probably already knows what we are going to do, I will start right with the topic. Lady Valery is planning to pick up her necklace from Akure’s store tomorrow. It’s the best chance we can receive to get our hands on it. However, as it turns out an incident has occurred that might make this job more difficult. So we have to move away from our normal procedure.”

“What exactly happened?” Mito asked, looking at each person in the group, waiting for someone to answer her question.

“Someone broke into Akure’s store today.” Sayuri repeated the same words she had told Guren already earlier that day, which is why he had called everyone in for the meeting, rather than sticking with their first plan. “Nothing of the goods was taken, since they broke into his personal quarters, but they scared him quite a bit. He must be on guard for the next days.”

“Who in their right minds would break into the house of a jewelry shopkeeper?” Mito reached with one hand to her chin, frowning while she wondered. “The gold is stored elsewhere and the assets are less than a few in numbers. Moreover when they didn’t steal anything, why even bother? Could it maybe be the Demon’s trying to disturb our work again?” Involuntarily many gazes shifted over to Shinya.

“Don’t look at me. As far as I know Kureto isn’t interested in a woman’s necklace that much. And if he really wanted to trouble the Moon Order he would use other means.”

Guren nodded at his words. “Shinya’s right. This is not how Kureto does things. Judging by Akure’s description himself, it was the doing of some kids.”

“Kids?” Mito almost choked on her words. “What the hell were they doing  there?”

“Who knows?” Goshi lifted his hands in a shrug and shook his head “They are kids. They always do stupid things. Maybe it was some form of dare or maybe they thought he had the real treasures stored there. If I remember correctly we did all kinds of stupid things back when we were still children.” He lowered his hands onto the table and faced the others with a serious expression. “What counts is the result. If people catch word that Akure’s store is poorly protected and even kids can rob him, they won’t come to his shop anymore. Which means he has to act. And that fast. So by tomorrow he will probably be fully prepared and since he can spend quite a bit amount of money, he will hire personal guards.”

“Goshi’s reasoning is right. But that is something we can deal with, or even use for ourselves.” Guren replied, but before he could explain any further he was interrupted by Shinya.

“There might be something else.” The Hiragi started hesitantly, waiting for everyone to focus on him. Then he sighed and leaned back in his chair.

“Seishiro was robbed today.”

Just these few words had an incredible impact. Sayuri and Shigure exchanged an uncomfortable look, while Mito groaned and landed with her forehead on the table top. Goshi leaned forward and rubbed his eyes while his frown deepened visibly. As for Guren, he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, clearly thinking about the situation.

“I assume you’re telling us this, because whoever did it succeeded and he is still searching for the person, to get his revenge and punish them for the imprudent behavior?”

“That’s about it. Although he seemed quite enraged. Even for Seishiro’s standards it was over the top. He mobilized all the guards to search for the perpetrator and compelled them to not lose a word about what had happened. However taking into account the fuss he had made beforehand, the entire city knows already. Yet, the guards didn’t tell anything about the robber though.”

“As much as it is something to be furious about, he probably feels like he has disgraced the family with it.”

At his words Shinya just shrugged.

“Father hasn’t made a statement to it yet. He barely leaves the palace, so maybe he really doesn’t know about it yet. All I’m saying is that performing your business in that area might become troublesome, since Seishiro will still look out for robbers in the hope of catching the ones responsible for it.”

“That indeed is troublesome.” Guren concluded, scratching the back of his neck, before he looked up to Goshi.

“How effective are your traps?”

“Depends on the number of people.” Goshi replied, a smile spreading across his face as he understood without further explanation. “How many do you have in mind?”

“Well let’s say prepare for a big attraction.” Guren answered as the plan slowly took shape in his mind.

 


 

 

After the discussion, the mood was divided. While Goshi was his usual laid back self, Sayuri and Shigure were even more unresponsive than normally and even Mito had become quieter. A simple job had suddenly turned into a fairly dangerous operation. Of course they went to bed with mixed feelings that night.

As Guren wanted to follow his friends out of the room he was grabbed by the arm from behind.

“Guren, wait.” A look back in those wary eyes confirmed the tone that had sounded in Shinya’s voice. Guren nodded at his retainers to close the door behind them, before he fully turned around.

“What is it?” He asked with a blank face.

Shinya’s eyebrows drew closer as he studied Guren’s face, trying to find any kind of reaction in it. “Come on. Don’t be defensive like that. I see when something is bothering you Guren, even when you do your best to hide it. So speak up. I’m here to listen.”

“What makes you think something is bothering me?” At his words Shinya rolled his eyes and let go of him, before he took a few steps back and leaned against the table.

“Stubborn as ever, are you? Well, if you want it so dearly, I will play your little game. It’s the way you hold yourself up. It makes one think you could collapse the next moment. You also sigh more than usual – which is quite an accomplishment if you ask me – and if you continue to frown like that it will stay there forever, you know? Also you might not notice it, but your hands start shaking whenever you pay attention to someone else than yourself.” Shinya pointed at him before he pushed himself off the table and stepped in front of him again, fixating Guren’s eyes as just a few centimeters separated them. “When was the last time you slept? And I don’t mean a half an hour nap, but a full night of sleep.”

“You have been gone for an entire year and now suddenly you feel the need to ask how I’m doing?” Guren himself was surprised by his words and regretted them as he saw a flicker of hurt in Shinya’s eyes but the close proximity between them reminded him of the unnecessary painful feelings from all those years ago, when Shinya had made his decision. By now the guy had left many times and Guren had given up the hope to keep his friend close. But disappearing without a word of goodbye, not sending a single message over an entire year sure had hurt, even though he would rather die than to admit it to himself. As much as he trusted in Shinya’s abilities to stay alive and return, a bit of worry always remained over the year, challenging his believes for the guy to ever come back, tearing on his insides until he felt hollow and weak. He thought he was fine with Shinya’s return, but his words just now proved him otherwise.  Under normal circumstances he wouldn’t have dared to mention something like this ever, but with the concern and anxiety he faced for his subordinates and the future, things had become a little overwhelming lately.

“Look, I’m sorry.” Shinya was visibly searching for the right words to say, but no way in hell would Guren make this easier for him. “I didn’t want to go. But I had no other choice.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Guren closed his eyes. He suddenly felt so very tired, he just wanted to leave. It has always been the same. The guy returns only to leave again someday, when Guren finally started missing his presence. “Are we done?”

“No. “ Suddenly Shinya’s confidence was back, as if it had never wavered in the first place. “You still look like shit.”

“Thanks for your kind words. I think you are dazzling as well.” He answered in a flat tone. The other was still unimpressed and to cap it all grabbed Guren’s shoulders with both hands to hinder him from running away.

That bastard.

“I know times are rough right now, but beating yourself to the bone is not a solution. People rely on you! And it’s probably because of it, that you never share your worries with anyone, until they finally destroy you from within. You did the same back when we were still children at the palace. You never grow up, do you?”

“Shut up. Let me go.” Guren’s voice had become dangerously quiet, just like the calm before a storm and he refused to look Shinya in the eyes. This guy really wanted him to share his inner worries? He would disappear anyway like all the times before, so what good was there?

“No. You will not leave this room until that ugly expression disappears off your face. Not until I can be sure you are not killing yourself with your recklessness.”

“I’m not the one everybody should worry about.” As Guren looked up again his eyes had become fierce, fixating Shinya as if he was his main enemy. “Have you seen Shigure and Sayuri? Just two days ago I sent their fathers on a mission to investigate the Hyakuya Church. I was the one who agreed with Kureto’s commands and I should be the one heading into danger for this. They have served this family for their entire lives and I might be sacrificing them like some worthless pawns.  And now stop looking at me with those stupid, hypocritical, understanding eyes of yours.”

Only because Shinya grabbed his shoulders tighter, Guren began to notice how he had started shaking. Damn that bastard for always getting him to talk, even though he wanted to kill himself for doing so. When would that stupid Hiragi finally stop sticking his nose into things that weren’t his business? It had always been that way ever since they had been kids. Who was the one, who never changed here?

“So that’s what all of this is about.” Shinya nodded and finally let go of him, but still didn’t move away. “Seisho and Samidare probably insisted am I right? It’s a mission that is suitable for their position, in fact their duty should order them to do it. Those old men have their pride as well. – “

“Damn, them and their stupid pride. Pride doesn’t keep you alive.”

“They had to watch their first master getting killed four years ago. Those two would rather go down fighting for you, than see you die just like your father. You made the right choice. And Sayuri and Shigure know that as well. They are a lot like their fathers, so I think they are relieved to keep you sheltered at home.”

“I’m not a stupid sheltered child, Shinya.”

The other laughed at his words. “You most certainly are not. The Moon Order wouldn’t respect someone like that as their leader.” He didn’t explain any further and Guren was almost thankful for it. He didn’t need another person reciting him his rights and duties after the lecture he had received two days ago.

“You trust them, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.”

“Then what is there to worry about?”

That reasoning was the dumbest thing he had ever heard. But nevertheless somehow he felt a little lighter after this conversation. Not that he would ever acknowledge that.

Guren crossed his arms, the usual glare with which he faced Shinya returning to his features, as the other tilted his head and answered him with a careless, wry smile.

“Just get out already.” There was no edge in Guren’s voice whatsoever, just the calm tone of understanding and utter defeat – which revealed Shinya that he had won – as he pointed at the door behind him.

“Alright I will take my leave.” The Hiragi complied easily. “But before I do, there is also this.” He took out another rolled piece of paper that was bond by a seal, much like the one from the other day and held it in front of Guren. “You shouldn’t ignore her. She might get angry over time.”

“Why does she always send you? She used other means before, so why now relying on a fellow Hiragi?” Guren asked, before he took the message with a sigh and decided to drop it at the stake in his study, where all its other unopened fellows resided.

“No idea. Maybe she trusts me more, than any other man.”

The deadly look Shinya received was met with the brightest smile he could come up with.

 


 

 

The rain was pouring that evening as Shinya landed on the rooftop of a neighboring house. With his dark cloak he was almost invisible against the night sky if it weren’t for his snow white hair that shone brighter than the stars, as he pulled back his hood to get a better view of the Ichinose residence, which he had just left. He couldn’t help but feel a slight sting of pain in the heart, as he watched the lights fading in the rooms one by one. Whenever he visited his friends he brought bad news, forcing Guren and the Moon Order to shift into a direction they never had wanted to head. It was almost like he was a bad omen. Thinking back to their shared time four years ago, he was probably right on that front.

The rain calmed his thoughts as he raised his head high, letting the little drops of water land on his face.

Seeing Guren worn out like that, without being able to lift the burden just a little hurt more than he had expected. What was his existence worth, if he couldn’t even protect the people dear to him?

He hated himself for it.

Shinya continued his silent watch until finally the last light in the mansion had faded, then he smiled sadly.

“Sleep well Guren.”

With these words he pulled his hood back up and disappeared into the night.

Chapter Text

Amongst the wealthy occupants of the capital Takuya Akure was known as a formidable man. Born to a line of rather unknown foreign merchants, who immigrated centuries ago from Perdue, he was the first in his family to bring together a dozen of craftsmen, starting to coordinate their work under his financial support and supervision.  With the sudden turn in the war four years ago and the new control over the mines in the neighboring country, rare and overly desired resources – mainly gold, silver and even diamonds – were treasures which were not that hard to come by anymore.

In his early days Akure had been a handsome, dazzling young man, who spoke openly and wore his heart on his sleeve, becoming a presence, people liked to have as their company. Weaving merchants, business leaders and nobles alike around his fingers and subconsciously letting them dance to his will was a well developed skill he never became tired off. He had been an outstanding young man and finally the day arrived, when he had achieved everything he had ever wanted. Wealth, fame, a leading business and powerful customers, who recommended him to their friends and family, ensuring an increase in his influence even in noble circles.

But everything came with a price. The once honest and eager youngster with sparkling eyes and the iron strong, unchanging will to fulfill his almost impossible dream – who lived with his heart rather than with his mind – and the magnificent, stunning personality that attracted so very many people towards him had become remnants of the past by now. Akure after fulfilling his dream. Akure of today.

Now with the realization of his wishes, his only aim had changed into keeping the wealth he already had gathered, as well as thirsting for more power to ensure his position. His keen ideals have become corroded by fear and insecurity, the possibility of loss at any time present in his mind. He had turned into a cunning, scheming man; speaking gentle, placid words with cold thoughts, always striving for his own benefit. Whenever his customers raved about his great accomplishment, he would kindly disagree with them, playing his humble, modest self, however secretly he himself was the one who believed in their words the most.

 


 

 

A frown almost deeper than usual formed on his forehead, as his eyes furrowed in disapproval, watching the hands of the boy working next to him. It was this kind of glare that his apprentice grew to fear so much and again, this time around Akure noticed how the small frame of the boy shook under his steady gaze. Maybe he had already yelled too many times at the boy today, but he simply couldn’t help himself, hating the incompetence that kept surrounding him during the last few days. This incompetence only grew bigger by the time those ponderous, huge and intimidating men appeared at his door step this morning, claiming to be the help he had requested. He knew intimidation was exactly the right way to keep the filth outside where it belonged, but how could he advise his precious customers, if the mood became thick and heavy as soon as they entered the shop? Those guys were clearly scaring the people away and by now he came to regret the hasty precautions he had taken the day before. But it was necessary, since his rivals never rested, always watching him and waiting for an opportunity to dethrone him. If word got out, someone had successfully managed to enter his store and in fact stolen something, he would be done for. So although hiring the guards was a choice made in the heat of the moment, his decision was still consequential in the end. Or so he hoped.

“For the Gods sake! Please step back from the counter.” Akure ordered one of the guards in a much too sharp tone to count as still acceptable, earning an annoyed glare from the man.  He didn’t care if they came to hate him, but not in the world did he want to see any of them touching the jewelry, he put so much effort in creating and polishing. One could argue that five guards sent from the sentinel were really necessary after an attack of two children, which he had encountered by accident. And there was no way he would let any of them behind the counter to the store rooms and workshop, so the only way to keep some of the space he had wanted to offer his customers, was to kick some of those men out, under the pretense of ‘guarding the door’. Which in fact they did rather brilliantly, but still the problem remained that the ladies would refuse to pass those guys.

Akure grimaced angrily as he turned around and headed to the store room, grasping for the little key that was dangling from his neck. There was just no way to handle this situation right. Either he betrayed his customer’s trust or he threatened them involuntarily. And of course, it had to be the day when finally a member of the ten families was going to purchase one of his goods. This was a one time opportunity and he just started out with the worst premises ever.   

With a snap of his fingers he ordered the boy to follow him, the usual proceeding of the day having become a calming routine for both of them. Even if those men were disturbing their work, even if they had to face the rage of the customers, right now the best they could do was to accept the situation, without making a big deal out of it. He just hoped, if they stuck to the plan of a normal working day, nothing extraordinary would occur.

As he stopped in front of the small casket, he finally pulled the string over his head, connecting the key with the locket in a swift motion. Carefully, as if he feared a too rough touch could break it, he lifted the lit, hesitating as he marveled at the golden shine that met his eyes. He had entrusted this order to his best smith, a man able to create delicate shapes, figures and traceries, which, no matter how tiny they were, never lost their elegance.

The necklace turned out very beautiful and he was almost too sure that Lady Valery would love it. The poor thing had to bear so much nowadays, it was only a small gift he could make her. But a gift nevertheless.

The boy brought the small violet cushion, which they would use to present it to her. The lady had announced her arrival during the afternoon, but before he would give this treasure away, he at least wanted to show it to another person. If the Jujo family was finally recognizing his skills with jewelry maybe he would get more significant orders from wealthier customers in a few weeks. He could almost picture it in his head and a smile spread across his face, the carefully chosen words he would exchange with them lingering on his tongue already. By now it was midday and he expected her visit with every passing minute. His life could take a turn for the better in just a few minutes!

“Boy, tell those men to stand at the side and make themselves rare. I don’t want to hear any words out of their mouths, when Lady Mito enters the store. It’s crucial enough that they are present. I don’t want to disturb the lady any more. Be fierce about it, you hear me? I want them to understand their place here.”

The boy of half of his size was the son of a friend of his, back in the days when he was still a keen youngster striving for the great things he had now achieved. His friend hadn’t been as ambitious with his life, only overtaking the business the family had been leading for generations. Unfortunately he owned the guy a favor and here the young boy stood, pale and frail and without a clue of how the world worked. Basically there was no material to work with here.

He didn’t think it was possible for his apprentice to turn even paler at this point, but the boy sure made it happen. Such a simple task. But he was always afraid at those simple things. As if he had ordered him to face the Hiragis themselves! These men barely held any threat!

“You can do it, can’t you?” He asked in a demanding manner, the last little push that was needed to strengthen the others determination. More than anything the boy wanted to prove himself to him. It was a nice trait his father had never possessed and was mainly the reason why Akure had not completely given up on the boy yet.

The other’s eyes narrowed for a second before he looked back up and nodded with new resolve.

“Of course! I will explain it to them.”

Too much energy. The merchant thought, as he watched his student heading back to the front of the shop. Sometimes the boy reminded him of his younger self, just without the charm and the confidence to do, what was necessary. But slowly he was learning and maybe one day the boy could really surprise him.

 Drawing his attention back to the task at hand, Akure gently lifted the necklace up and arranged it on top of the cushion, only to put the cushion back in the casket. That way he could quickly present it, without leaving it in the open during the wait. Slowly he locked the casket again and headed to the back room, preparing the collection he had selected to help Lady Mito decide. He did admit, he had been barely prepared for her spontaneous visit last time and only being able to offer her his standard jewelry had been a blunder that still kept nagging at him. Of course, nothing of the presented goods had been to her liking, it was far beneath anything a member of the ten families would wear, but fortunately he had persuaded her to come back again to a later time, when he had finished his arrangements. With a satisfied grin he had to acknowledge that his clever way to talk still worked on influential people. Some things never changed over the years and he was glad he hadn’t lost his wits yet, even though he had noticed how the taste and behavior of the younger generation had turned into something unpredictable from time to time. 

“Sir! We got customers.” The face of the boy peaked up at the door frame and the strange glimmer in his eyes told Akure more than enough. Hopefully he had managed his job otherwise they would stumble in their performance on their first step already. Signing to the other room at the back of the shop, Akure nodded at his apprentice and sent him off to gather the other pieces, before he took a deep breath, straightened up and stepped to the front to welcome his most important customer in years.

 


 

Guren took his time as he patiently looked around the marketplace, checking for anything unusual or inconvenient and out of the corner of his eye he could see Mito doing the same. Side by side they had stood in the alleyway, watching the shop all morning, before they had gotten off to change into their ‘appropriate attire’, which included Mito getting rid of her wig as well. By now it was midday and the operation was about to begin.

Despite Seishiro’s tantrum the day before, they had yet to note real reinforcements in numbers. However the city guards had changed, as if someone had sent an entire new staff from the sentinel, who had received a proper training and had the guts to actually be intimidating and threatening to thieves. For a change, those were people he didn’t recognize and had no information on, a worrisome detail too important to just ignore. It meant those guys hadn’t been trained and drilled in this city, probably being special forces the Hiragis had secretly formed outside of the Moon Order’s reach.

Grinding his teeth, Guren eyed the men at the other side of the market once again, before he looked slightly up, catching Sayuri’s expression as she nodded at him, seated at a bench not far away from Akure’s store. If Shinya was right, Tenri Hiragi still wasn’t informed of the recent incident, so it was probably a mistake Seishiro wanted to keep hidden from his father. But hiring special personal right after what happened yesterday would make even the king suspicious, wouldn’t it? Seishiro was simple minded and arrogant, but even he couldn’t be this dumb. Guren had first thought of this robbery as a simple inconvenience and disgrace on the prince’s part, but this move made him suspicious. Had Seishiro maybe hired men he trusted the most, in hope to catch the culprit of yesterday? That would mean he was quite desperate to find the person who robbed him and doing so without his father knowing. Guren had drawn these conclusions immediately and made a mental note to look more into this case in the future.

“Those guys I know.” Mito next to him was hiding her red hair under the hood of a beautiful silky cloak, a piece of clothing some people would kill for, if you accidentally stepped in some darker and poorer part of the capital. With a look she signed over to the three guards positioned outside of Akure’s store, two taking a stand at the door, while the third one was positioned at the left side of the shop, where the road from the palace finally entered the market.

“It’s good to see at least some familiar faces, isn’t it?” Guren chuckled, but his nervousness remained. Akure’s guards they could deal with. The problem was with the people they didn’t know.

“Seems like our rich merchant is stingy, when it comes to actually spending some money instead of earning it. If he really wanted to increase his security, he should have hired professionals. These guys are more for the show than anything else.”

Mito shrugged, a hint of a grin appearing on her features. “Some kids accidentally broke into his personal chambers, without stealing anything. I bet even he knows he is overreacting, but since he is anticipating a significant visitor today, he has to prove that he is reliable. They are probably really just for show.”

“Significant visitor, huh?” A laugh escaped from Guren’s lips, as he eyed Mito teasingly. “The Ten Families on their high horses. I wonder what treasures he had especially ordered for you. Maybe you can actually find something really to your liking.”

“I really doubt that.” She answered, annoyance making her voice a little sharper – her normal reaction to most of his words. “Despite – “ She turned around to him, glaring eyes meeting his under the hood, as she pointed a finger at him. “You are from the Ten Families as well. How come I have to be the distraction all the time, if you or Goshi could do the job as well?”

“Goshi is already busy with his task. As for me…” He shrugged, a perfect image of cluelessness plastered on his face. “The Ichinoses might be part of the Ten Families, but nobody tends to like us.”

“I’m making their leader responsible for it. With that behavior of yours, no wonder people react that way.”

“Be careful Mito, I might start crying, because of your harsh words. Not really ladylike, if you ask me.”

“Just shut up and ge –“

They almost missed Sayuri getting off the bench and heading to the left, right after the fourth guard opened the door and marched outside. Receiving the sign ended their light-hearted banter abruptly and Mito and Guren eyed each other for a second before the former slowly lifted her hood, revealing her fiery crimson hair.  Without any further word, Guren took a step back, taking his stance of a personal guard right behind her. Now it was their turn.

Due to her hair and attire, Mito was immediately recognized by the guards at the door, who nonetheless gave Guren a suspicious glance, but didn’t dare to say a word, as they let both of them pass.

“Lady Mito!” Akure opened his arms in a wild gesture as he entered from the back to greet them. “I am so honored by your visit. Welcome to my humble place again!”

Guren fought back a grimace and, even though he couldn’t see her face, believed Mito to do the same. Being in a prestigious family, you somewhat got used to the sweet-talk, obedience and groveling, but that didn’t mean you would start to enjoy it. Ever since she was a child, Mito had been drawn to people, who didn’t hide their true intentions behind sugar-coated words, but spoke their mind without caring for the consequences it might bring. Maybe it was due to the lack of those people during the most part of her life that she liked them so much.

And maybe it is just so she can respond in kind, without worrying to keep up a polite and presentable behavior. But is yelling at me all the time really necessary? Guren thought, fighting down a frown as he couldn’t help but marvel at the way Mito could talk so patiently with a person she truly resented. There was a limit for the etiquette Goshi and Guren used, when engaging with higher ranks, but Mito could always smooth things out, no matter if it was a Hiragi or a simple store owner. It was actually a thing she was really admired for throughout the Moon Order, without even recognizing said obvious talent.

“I’ve heard only the best of your work! And I’ve got to apologize that my taste might be a little different than those of common women. I’m sure it was due to my sudden and unannounced visit last time that I couldn’t find anything to my liking.”

“Th-There is really no need to apologize! It was a mistake on my part for being unprepared. Never had I imagined meeting a personage like yourself.” The man wrung his hands, as he smiled at her nervously. However his eyes didn’t fit the picture of someone who was overwhelmed and excited. Guren’s team had played these games with many people already and no matter how hard their target tried to keep up a façade, the eyes always showed a hint of their true intentions. Cold, concentrated, calculating, the eyes of a predator carefully making each new step, while slowly drawing in on its prey. Under all that flattery, Akure was a skilled player as well, who shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Your words are too kind. And I’m sure I won’t be the last member of the Ten Families to frequent your shop in the future.” While taking a look around the store, Guren could see Mito’s back tense a bit for a moment. The reaction was brief and even for skilled eyes almost unnoticeable, but it showed how much she still hated dealing with people like Akure. He couldn’t blame her for it. Just one look at the man’s oversized form, the soon to be bald head and the massive jewelry, which seemed to prove as a desperate attempt to distract from former issues, was enough to ruin Guren’s first impression of him. No way could he do the talking here.

Instead he returned to judging the situation. With their action starting any moment, he had to keep an eye on the number of enemies as well as the exits. Any alteration of the conditions could lead to the need of fast actions and decisions to commence the mission, or – in a worst case scenario – call the operation off entirely. He was dancing on the delicate line dividing those choices and it was his duty to judge and create new options without possibly stepping off said line.

The shop was filled with six people in total, the two guards remaining by the door, while Akure’s apprentice was hurrying between the room in the back and the front, delivering jewelry his teacher had stored back there. Meanwhile Akure had started explaining exactly why he had picked this special piece for Mito and what meanings the precious stones engraved in it carried. Guren had expected the man to stretch out their previous conversation further, but he had to admit Akure took his work seriously and didn’t lose any time with flattery once it came to talking business. With great care he handled each of the pieces, his touch only remaining for a second on them and his undivided attention was set on the customer. So Sayuri had observed him correctly all those days prior, before he had kicked her out. The situation had proven useful in more than one aspect, since they also got to know of how Akure reacted to unbidden guests.

Glancing at the guards behind him out of the corner of his eye, Guren took a step to the side as if trying to catch a look at the other jewelry Mito might consider. He couldn’t quite pinpoint, if Akure was so captured by his work that he grew inattentive of his move, or if he just dismissed it as an action Mito’s men naturally did, but he didn’t even look in Guren’s direction once. Unlike the two guards at the door, who very well seemed to keep an eye on him. So much for an easy job. Who would have thought these guys were even suspicious when it came to the Ten Families?

“Those look beautiful. But I’m not sure, if they are what I need for that special occasion.”

“I totally understand what you mean! I shall start with the pieces, I actually wanted to show you.”

If you understand, then why not show her right away? Guren chuckled inwardly at the ongoing excuses of the man. There was only one specific necklace, they were interested in and Mito would keep refusing until he decided to get it out as well. The observation during the last days had proven that he liked to show off with the pieces left in his care, as if they were his own and it was this special trait of his they were betting on. Otherwise they would need to rely on one of the back-up plans. But with the recently growing inconveniences, he hoped at least Akure was playing into their cards for once.

With his eager words he stepped to the back, joining his apprentice as they cleaned up the counter with the rejected jewelry and gathered up a new load. Guren fought back a sigh, as he recognized a casket that might be the one his people were telling him off, but as long as the box was yet not opened, he couldn’t really confirm it. Slowly he could see Mito growing more impatient as well, doing her best to feign interest.

As Akure’s hand moved to a small key dangling from his neck only to open the box a moment later and reveal Valery’s necklace, Guren almost let out the breath he was holding. Finally. After days of observations and worry, the object of their desire was finally within their reach. Now the hard part was starting.

“This one looks promising as well.” Mito pointed at the box, stopping Akure to close it right away again.

“Well, unfortunately this one is already taken. But I’m glad you know to appreciate a true treasure, when you see one. Nothing less expected from the mighty Jujo family!” For a second Guren thought he saw a spark glimmer in the man’s eyes, only to disappear again. So he had indeed longed for this to happen. “It’s a piece of real beauty and I had my best smith take care of it.”

“Do you have anything else in that kind of style? What materials did you use here?” While Mito continued asking the store owner unnecessary questions, Guren took the moment to raise his hand to hide a yawn.

He hadn’t even lowered his arm again, when a noise to his right broke the peace of the store. A downside, when having big windows, was the constant insecurity they brought, leaving a big area unprotected. By positioning guards in front of them, Akure had tried to get rid of this insecurity. But to no avail in the end. With one strike the window broke, glass shattering and shards scattering on the floor, revealing a rock the size of Guren’s hand in its middle.

For a moment everyone in the room stared at the sudden newcomer, frozen in shock. Then hell broke loose.

While Guren took a protective stand in front of Mito, the first guard at the door ran over to the broken window. The second quickly left the shop, joining his comrades outside, a clear sign that they didn’t know how to do their job properly. Shouts were being heard outside, but they didn’t compare to the raging shouts of the shopkeeper, as he rounded the counter and headed to the window as well.

“What on earth is going on out there? I didn’t pay you lot to just stand there all day and do nothing!” Akure was pretty courageous given the present situation, rage filling his voice, as he made no move to protect his goods. The next moment he took a surprised step back, turning to the guard left in his store.

“Where is everyone?”

“They all chased after the attacker!” The second guard said as he returned through the open door. “The city guards went chasing after him as well. They said a small person on the roof aimed for the window.”

“Akure, what is the meaning of this?” Mito started, her voice commanding, having lost even the last trace of sweetness. It took just one look of her eyes to let the man loose the rest of his confidence.

“Of course I’m keeping my guard with me out of protection, but that didn’t mean I intended to put him to use, when I’m visiting this shop. Are you telling me your security is lacking this much, when a member of the Ten Families is visiting you?”

“Of course not!” The shopkeeper had lifted his hands to his face, trying to stay calm, but failing at it. He even forgot to speak politely. “I’m sure this is just meant as a bad joke! The competition is quite fierce in this business. I think, it was just supposed to scare us a bit.” He wrung his hands as the words got away from him. Then he signed to the guard at the door to step outside and protect the entrance, while the second one was ordered to stand closer to the windows now.

“Why don’t we go to a safer place for now?” He asked apologetically, taking the box and a few remaining pieces of jewelry with him as he stepped to the back room, being followed by a visibly irritated Mito and Guren. On their way they passed several showcases as well as the stairs leading to the upper floors. The apprentice, who had stayed at the back, received a not very nice order to tidy up the counter at the front and keep things from escalating any further.

“I can’t apologize enough to you, Lady Mito. I can ensure you, your safety is guaranteed and there are no further incidents to occur.” The panic in his voice was unmistakable, as he tried to return to his work. Guren smirked at this. Confronted with a threat, humans tended to take their precious things to the safest places, hiding in the furthest corner available. But what, if said corner was soon to become unsafe as well?

 


 

Goshi yawned, as he moved his stiff limbs into a more comfortable position. Damn that Guren, being able to relax at Mito’s side in a cozy and warm shop, while he had to stay on this roof with nothing to protect him from the cold. Well, almost nothing. His most loyal companion always stayed by his side, he thought with a smile, as he sucked in the smoke produced by his pipe. This stuff had an amazing effect, the smoke tickling in his throat, the components slowing his heart beat and relaxing his mind.  Even the cold was driven away for a moment.

Far in the distant he could hear the bells of the church ringing, luring people to their daily prayers. With a tired sigh Goshi shifted forward, checking on his preparations on the barrels down in the alley one last time, while waiting for Sayuri to show up and finally release him from this position.

He heard the shouting before he saw the men chasing after her. As soon as the small figure of the woman got into his view, Goshi raised an arm to sign his accomplice at the other road to start as well. Sayuri was unrecognizable, completely hidden under a big dirty cloak, as she tried to increase the distance between her and the guards. If he didn’t know better he wouldn’t even be able to distinguish the gender of the person they were chasing. Goshi took one last breath out of his pipe, as Sayuri passed the checkpoint, then he tapped it lightly against the edge of the roof, emptying it. The hot ash trickled down, landing on the rope holding the stacked barrels together, which he had prepared with explosive powder beforehand. The tiny explosion setting off was almost silent, but still enough to disconnects the strings, cutting the rope in two and give the stack a little push. As the barrels started moving, Goshi had already moved away from the edge, crawling over to the main road, which Sayuri set foot on that moment.  The roofing tiles which he had loosened a few hours prior were now pushed forward, heading straight for the ground and shattered on it. The carriage his accomplice was driving, stopped abruptly right in front of the alley as the horses balked, blocking the way for the guards a second time.

When the men finally stopped yelling and fought their way free, there was no trace left of either Sayuri, Goshi or their third man. 

 


 

This situation was just the worst possible outcome, Akure thought, as he tried to use the little patience, Lady Mito had left, to save the last bit dignity he still possessed.

He wasn’t sure if the attack had been the result of actual thieves or if it was the work of his rivals, who were trying to ruin him. Who was responsible didn’t matter right now, rather how he was able to dissolve this mess. At least he had navigated them to the safest place in the shop. Usually he wouldn’t allow customers to see the little stuffed backroom, because it had limited space and he kept most of his goods locked up in here, but this situation was calling for drastic measures.

“Lady Mito maybe we should leave and look for something elsewhere.” The personal guard, the lady had brought with her, said as he stepped closer to her. How badly Akure wanted this man to shut his mouth right now!

“I won’t be intimidated by some scum throwing rocks at foreign property. What would the city think of me? I’m keeping you around so you can interfere, if things come to worse.”

The lady really was brave. But that was to be expected of one of the families that ruled over this city.

Throwing a glare in the guard’s direction, Akure opened the casket again and resumed where he left off before. Lady Mito’s reaction to the jewelry had turned out just like he had expected and he was glad he held on to the necklace a bit longer for this exact reason.

He had finally calmed his nerves, as sudden noise from the front caught his attention, only moments before his apprentice stumbled into the room. Following close behind was a child in dark clothing, whose face he couldn’t see. Before Akure could even open his mouth and start to yell, said child had jumped two feet up in the air and hit the poor boy with a piece of wood on the head. Like a broken toy his apprentice dropped to the ground, unconscious and unmoving. As the child made another step forward the guard shifted in front of Lady Mito, drew his sword and attacked. In a movement almost too fast for Akure’s eyes he dashed towards the intruder, aiming his first strike at the child. That, however, dodged the attack by sliding over the ground before heading towards the store owner, who was still frozen in shock. The child was moving so fast, Akure couldn’t make out any feature, or even react as the well placed kick aimed at his stomach, hit its target. From one second to another, Akure felt all strength leave his body, as his knees gave away and he grabbed his stomach, hunching forward. As the disgusting taste of bile filled his mouth, Akure finally began to realize what was happening. He needed to protect his customer! If Lady Mito was to be hurt, he would face by far more severe consequences than a terrible reputation. There was nothing more fearsome than the fury of the Hiragis. And those were known for punishing the ones, who dared to raise any complaints against their closest people.

“Well, who do we have here?” Lady Mito’s voice was cold and unmoving like ice. As Akure raised his eyes, he saw that the lady didn’t need any protection at all right now, as she had grabbed the kid by the collar and lifted it up, pressing it down on its back on top of the table. Jewelry was dispersing in all directions as the kid kept struggling against the lady’s tight grip. In the dim light of the window Akure could see that the child’s face was covered in coal dust, the black color alienating the features.

Just as Lady Mito was about to place a knife at the little devil’s throat, the child drew one out of its pockets just as quickly, swinging it at the lady’s arm. She flinched back, trying to avoid the attack, but was not fast enough. The knife left a shallow cut where it connected with the skin, the kid turning around at lightning speed, grabbing the jewelry left on the table, before it jumped past the distracted and worried guard. Before any other person left in the room could react, the kid had run out of the entrance, disappearing just as fast as it had first appeared.

“Lady Mito.” In the blink of an eye the guard was by her side, as she placed a hand on the wound to stop the bleeding.

“The little rat has stolen my family ring.” She muttered in surprise as she inspected her hand, a deadly look on her face. Akure could feel the blood in his veins freeze, as she looked over to her guard and gave a single order.

“Get it back for me.”

 


 

Guren didn’t waste a single look at the unmoving body in front of the door, as he headed outside, the remaining, confused guard in the store following him close behind. He caught a glimpse of the small figure of the attacker at the corner to his right and dashed forward without hesitation.

The hunt went on for about twenty more minutes, until he had finally caught up with the culprit. The guard behind him yelled something not understandable, as Guren lunged himself at the person in front of him, grabbing the cloak as it was waving in his direction. Just as he had thought to finally have caught Shigure in her costume, the girl used the knife to disconnect the strings around her neck, which were holding the cloak in place. With the cloak left in his hand, Guren watched as Shigure used the next opportunity to head towards the roofs and disappeared out of their view.

“We lost her.” The guard next to him said angrily, his breath going uneasy, as he stopped and rested on hand on the wall beside him.

“That is unacceptable.” Guren replied monotone. “Such an action against Lady Mito should not go unpunished. All of you will soon be held responsible and face the consequences.”

The guard turned white at those words, while Guren kept impatiently searching inside the pockets of the cloak, unraveling one of the stolen treasures after another, until he finally pulled out Mito’s ring.

“Is that everything that was stolen?” The guard asked almost hopeful.

“Barely.” The other said, as he stuffed the rest of the stolen good back in the pockets of the cloak and passed it over to the man. “But what do I care? Just be glad, we got the lady’s ring back. She is angry enough as it is.”

 


 

Yuu-chan never ceased to surprise him, but not in the world had Mika ever expected him to be this ignorant. After they had barely escaped the guards AND the angry shop owner the day before, Mika thought Yuu had finally learned a valuable lesson and understood what Mika was trying to warn him of all this time. But again he was wrong.

His eyes fixated at his friends back, Mika tried to swallow down the knot forming in his throat – the uncomfortable feeling becoming a faithful companion over the last days. It seemed Yuu hadn’t learned anything through the experience. That was Mika’s conclusion after he had begged the other to stop these pointless and dangerous actions and just stay home at least for the next few days and wait for things to calm down. He really tried to make his best friend understand how worried and scared he got, whenever they went out there. But Yuu had just looked at him with empty, almost hurtful eyes and offered him to stay behind.

Like Mika could ever do that! Sitting at home at the orphanage and wait for the guards to drag his friend’s dead body back to them. Even if Yuu wasn’t going to get caught, Mika couldn’t stay calm if his friend wasn’t right by his side – safe – without these trying risky attempts. So no, the blond boy couldn’t just stay behind, letting Yuu head into his doom and followed him without comment as he sneaked out again. Didn’t Yuu realize that he automatically dragged both of them into the mess he constantly created? Or was he just cruel enough to accept it? Mika had seen many sides of his friend during the years they already knew each other, but never had he thought of Yuu as cruel. Not until today.

Yuu stopped at a passing and signed Mika to lean closer to the wall to not attract any curious eyes. He had to admit his friend seemed more careful now, avoiding the market the entire time and circling around it, like an animal slowly drawing in on its prey. As a result however, they just wandered the streets aimlessly, hiding from time to time, without closing in on any specific person. Mika would have wondered what the point of it all was, but he was too glad the other hadn’t done anything dangerous until now and didn’t want to place any more risky ideas into Yuu’s mind, which were probably there already.

It turned out he was right again. As Yuu looked down the street, something in his features changed, the insecurity giving in to determination.

Please not again. Mika thought as his friend turned around to him. However, as Yuu looked at him his expression became softer, a little smile passing over his lips as he reached out his hand and stroke Mika’s cheek.

“Mika, please stay here.” Losing himself in the sweet action done by his friend, Mika had almost been fooled and missed to process these words. His thoughts finally becoming clear again – as he slowly redirected his mind from Yuu’s innocent smile and his warm hand on his cheek, which somehow left a weird and similar warm feeling in his chest – he began to understand the meaning of the just said.

At Mika’s horrified expression, Yuu just crooked his head and chuckled lightly.

“It’s alright. I will just check out the market for a second and then come right back. No need to worry. I know you don’t want to go back there and I want to know you are safe. So please, just stay here for a minute.”

That’s not it. Was Mika’s first thought to Yuu’s statement. But more than anything he didn’t want Yuu to go there alone.

As Yuu dropped his hand and was about to turn back around, Mika couldn’t just keep watching anymore.

“Yuu-chan.” He almost yelled at the other, as he grabbed his arm to keep him in place. To hold him close. To stop him from leaving. He hadn’t said a word to Yuu the entire day, which made this moment even more meaningful for him. “Please.”

Nothing could hinder Mika from just following the other where he was heading to. What made Yuu think he could just order Mika to stay behind? The one who needed protection was Yuu-chan.

But somehow, something in the way Yuu looked at him, kept Mika stuck in place. Why did these few words have such a big impact on him?

Things became worse, when his friend almost looked at him regretfully, gently unweaving Mika’s fingers from his arm and placing his hand between his, meeting his eyes with a pleading.

“You trust me, don’t you?”

Mika could feel his stomach turn. This was just not fair. Of course he trusted Yuu-chan. In his life, where he had headed from one calamity to the next, Yuu had been the first person he had placed trust in again. He believed in his friend like he had never believed in anyone before. He trusted Yuu to understand him. To never betray him. To always stay at his side and not throw him away like all the other people did before. To always want the best for him.

He just couldn’t trust him, when it came to his own reasoning and common knowledge.

Completely startled, Mika couldn’t move as Yuu smirked at him and just walked away.

 


 

 Yuu’s smile faded as soon as he reached the market. Since yesterday he had thought many times over, if he should just stop and listen to his friend. After all Mika had begged him to it and Yuu didn’t expect it to hurt that much, seeing the other like that. But as much as Yuu wanted to put Mika’s mind at rest, he just couldn’t shake off the feeling, that the other would someday try to shoulder everything on his own again. He didn’t want to see Mika hurt like that one night, back when his friend had crumbled and all Yuu could do was pick up the pieces that were left of him.

He would do anything to keep Mika safe and right now all he could do was to carry the burden this way as long as possible. If they quickly raised enough money, the probability of Mika leaving was decreasing. Yuu was not the brightest, but that was the easiest conclusion he came up with. Of course it was dangerous, but he only needed to live with it for a little while longer and then none of them would need to risk their lives again.

Drawing back from his thoughts and focusing on reality, Yuu stopped at the corner of a building, throwing some glances to the crowd gathered at the center square, which became visible from this angle. Slowly and carefully he moved closer to get an even better view, without actually setting foot on the market place. After all he had promised Mika to not go there today and he always kept his promises.

“Here take it, before someone sees me with it. I will be right back.”

Startled Yuu took a few hurried steps back, only to move forward again and peek around the corner of a small crossing. The alley, the young man was standing in, was narrow, only leaving enough space for two people to pass without bumping into each other. The stranger, who had just looked at something placed on his palm, now moved his hand to a pocket at his waist. For a very short moment Yuu saw a golden shimmer, before the object creating it disappeared.

With a quiet huff Yuu turned around and contemplated on what to do. Of course he had headed outside today to make a catch again. It was always risky to sneak out, since the teachers had started to pay closer attention to them, the last few days. For the last hour Yuu didn’t make any attempts, since Mika was right there to face the danger with him. But the time was running out. They would return very soon and every unsuccessful day was another step Mika took away from him. Taking a deep breath Yuu closed his eyes to make up his mind. He felt so very torn and stressed during the last days and Mika was worrying as well. He needed to get this over with as soon as possible.

In the heat of the moment, Yuu, being his naïve self and not having his voice of reason in form of a blonde boy with him, decided that he basically had no other choice.

The stranger was far taller than him and without any distraction around, Yuu knew that this attack would proof rather difficult. He could just hope the stranger was as clumsy as the people they had stolen from before.

Glancing one last time down the alley, Yuu tried to guess how the man would react. He wasn’t dressed like a noble man at least. Although, his guessing turned out to be wrong the day before as well. But this time the booty seemed to be something expensive, other than the useless stuff the noble had carried with him.

As the boy finally dashed towards the startled man, he was glad Mika wasn’t with him.

 


 

Guren almost felt sorry for the shop keeper as he returned to pick up a clearly upset Mito. The man was wringing his hands, desperately looking in her direction, as if he was trying to build up enough courage to say something, only to falter at the aura of rage and annoyance that surrounded her. It was probably better not to say another word, even though things could barely turn out any worse at this point.

“So?” Hadn’t Guren known it was all just an act, he would have shivered at the stone cold tone in her voice, a last warning to better please her, if you wouldn’t want to end up in a grave yard that night.

With a respectable bow Guren greeted her, presenting the ring with a totally unfazed expression.

“Good. At least one person doing their job right.” Mito muttered, loud enough for Akure to hear and shrink under each of her words.

“Let’s go.” The Lady ordered, without sparing another look on the store’s direction or the person owning it. From one moment to another Akure’s prestigious business had turned into something filthy, not worth of her time. Word would get out, how he ruined Mito’s well-meant visit and in order to not enrage the Ten Families even more, people would start neglecting the store, or anything Akure was involved with. 

“Please wait.”

Guren fought back a laugh as he turned around. This guy really wasn’t giving up. At first glance he had never expected the man to be brave.

Mito’s eyes narrowed, eyebrows drawing together, while her eyes stayed unmoving as she fixated the person. It seemed like she was looking at a bothersome stranger, who even dared to speak up to her. Final. Imperious.

“You should be glad, I haven’t held you responsible for these irritating actions. I’m in a gentle mood today and don’t feel like escorting another person to the dungeons. It would be a bother to have another name added to the execution list. I seriously don’t enjoy them and they ruin my appetite right before dinner. And also-”

Waving her hair back she didn’t wait for a reaction of Akure as she started walking away.

“I told you, you have disappointed me. What gives you the right to even speak to me? I should get your tongue ripped out for it.”

 


 

“Sometimes you really creep me out.”

At one point on the way to their prepared hideout Guren had slipped out of his jacket and taken off the sword, which had both been part of his disguise. It was not far from the store, but they had chosen the house because barely anyone passed the small alley in front of it, giving it secrecy in itself. That and its proximity to the marketplace made it a strategic point for missions.

“I know. That was a drastic decision. Even for me.” Mito muttered, turning her head to look back, while she continued walking in front of him. “I shouldn’t have mentioned the execution. I mean he did try to prepare for my visit, but things got so out of hand, I just couldn’t let it pass like that. I am responsible for my reputation as much as for the Hiragi family’s. The Hiragi’s wouldn’t have hesitated to have his head. They have executed people for smaller things, after all.”

“You have become intimidating. Scary.”

“I wonder, if he will be alright. Sure, he is conceited and thinks he can manipulate you with his talk. But he built this business out of his own strength. He has a right to be proud of what he achieved.”

“If word gets out, that you wanted him executed, people will never pass this doorstep of his again.”

“Arrrgh.” At his words Mito fully pulled around and pointed a finger at Guren’s chest. “You are no help at all!”

“What kind of help?” Guren stopped.

“You are supposed to say, that he will soon recover from this.”

“Why?”

Speechless Mito facepalmed.

“Because…because.” Searching for words she shook her head, hand rising to entangle her hair in her restlessness. “Because I feel terrible.”

“Heeeh?” Guren raised an eyebrow at her and with a voice dripping with sarcasm, he leaned against the wall to his right side. “So you do have feelings once in a while. I must say, I never expected that.”

“And I should have never expected any kind words from you.” Mito replied dryly. “Just shut up. And wipe that stupid, smug grin off your face!”

“I thought you didn’t like him.”

“I don’t. I just feel like he didn’t deserve to have his entire life destroyed.”

“It would have been even worse, if you really had him executed.”

“You are still not helping, Guren.” She started walking off again.

“Did it occur to you that maybe Akure wasn’t such an innocent person as you suspect him to be?”

Guren still hadn’t moved from his spot as Mito whirled around.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You always assume the rotten minds in the hostile environment of the nobles, but did it occur to you that other citizens are just as reprobate and deceitful?”

“They don’t hold that much power to abuse.”
“That’s not the point. For instance Akure was frequently becoming involved with Sangiunem. Did you really think his charms got him this far? There were other – better – men doing the same and being more successful. If you want to stand at the top, you have to get rid of your rivals one after another. And as you see, his methods were more than just questionable.”

Mito just looked at him, then finally beginning to process the meaning of his words her eyes widened.

“Why did you keep such important information from me? I didn’t think he was that mischievous.”

“You were complaining enough as it was and it was getting annoying. I didn’t want to add another factor for you to rage over. Also I didn’t see how any of this information was necessary for the success of the mission.”

For a moment Guren expected her to yell at him again, but quite the contrary she let out a breath, while her hands dropped loosely to her side.

“I shouldn’t have expected any different from you.”

“It only proves I saw you fit enough to handle him during the situation, even though you didn’t know its full content considering the circumstances.”

“Yeah, right. I feel flattered.”

Mito let out a tired sigh, rubbing her eyes, before she absentmindedly searched her pockets to finally reveal the necklace she had stolen off the table, while everyone’s attention had been set on Shigure.

“Here take it, before someone sees me with it. I will be right back.”

With that she handed him the necklace, taking the jacket and sword from him in turn, and set a few steps in the opposite direction, only to open a door to the right and disappear inside the building.

Eyeing the little treasure in the palm of his hand, Guren let out a heavy breath, leaning his head against the cold stone wall in his back. Feeling exhausted but relieved at the same time, he slipped the jewelry in one of his pockets, where no one would see it.

Only as he heard steps coming down the alley, Guren startled and freed himself out of his sleepy state. But it was just a skinny boy in dirty clothing, running towards him. Right at the first look at the child, there was no further questioning necessary to know, what it was about to do. Only a small amount of children you saw in these part were actually outside to play and enjoy themselves. An innocent façade played well and used as a weapon in their struggle for survival. Of course Guren wasn’t about to underestimate the kid, but he had dealt with those little, sneaky pick-pockets more than enough in the past.

As the kid had almost reached him, Guren’s fingers pulled back inside his sleeve, holding onto the hidden weapon there and preparing himself for the attack. Shifting his stance so the pocket of interest would be facing the wall and become practically unreachable, he tried to signal the child to give up. He was not in the mood to scold children right now.

As he was about to draw his knife out to scare the boy away, the child changed its course. Eyes unable to keep up with the speed of the kid’s movement, Guren took a staggering step back, his reflexes kicking in, as comprehending the situation in the split second was impossible for him. The boy had basically just vanished in front of his eyes! Before he could even fully realize what was going on, his body moved automatically to deflect the attack that was aimed at him from the left side. It was only because of his fast reflexes, that he moved his body out of the kids way in time, before stretching out his arm, hand meeting fabric and gripping it. Using the momentum the boys speed had given both of them, Guren whirled the kid around, while lifting him up. Pressing him up against the wall and holding the knife to his throat, Guren finally got a good look at his attacker.

“So who do we have here?” He had grabbed the boy at his collar and even with the threat of the knife, the small one wouldn’t stop struggling against his grip.

“Easy there. You’ve been a little too eager. Do you want to be killed so fast?” For a second the kid stopped, green, wide eyes staring at him in shock, before determination filled his features again.

“Let me go!” He yelled with a strained voice, aiming kicks towards Guren’s chest, which the latter avoided. This kid really was asking to be cut open.

“Why should I, when I have caught a clumsy, little thief? After all, you were just about to rob me.” He chuckled. “And what kind of attack plan was that even? Heading straight towards me, do you think I’m stupid enough to not expect what was going to happen?”

“I….I” The brat looked around quizzically, his raven hair sticking out in all directions, while his hands tried to push the knife at his throat away. At the tragic sight, Guren inwardly held back a sigh. This was exactly why he was giving lessons to the recruits, even though it took away a good amount of his precious time. He never wanted to see Narumi or his friends caught up in such a situation.

After confirming that the boy was not going to pull out a weapon without him noticing, Guren lowered his knife, letting it disappear inside his sleeve again. Instead of being relieved, the other just looked at him suspiciously.

“You are not going to kill me.” There was disbelief and uncertainty in his statement.

“I don’t enjoy killing brats.”

“I’m not a brat.”

“You clearly act like one. Heading straight at someone is openly asking for a fight. One of your size should better avoid confrontation with the stronger. Otherwise you will be dead by the end of the day. You are a stupid, suicidal brat. There are better ways to meet death without involving other people.”

Lecturing kids – didn’t he have better things to do? Wasn’t it a lost cause, since the boy would die in a year of sickness or hunger, anyways?

As Guren looked in these green, flaming eyes he froze. The brat had stopped struggling, his hands now resting on Guren’s wrist, as he was still holding him up. Even though the boy was basically dangling in the air, he gave off an aura of determination.

“I will not die. I will keep struggling and build us the better life we deserve. Our lives will not be meaningless.” The words spoken with an even tone were quite the opposite of the fire and fury blazing behind those eyes. The boy had a strong force driving him and a brave mind to try the impossible and keep surviving until the end. In this grey world, this one showed remarkable resolve. Guren was almost unable to doubt his words.

But the reality was much crueler than that and sooner or later even the lively ones would turn quiet.

“Nice speech. Though despite your words, you could have been killed only a moment ago. A complete meaningless death in some gutter, by the way. Sometimes it is best to keep your head down and shut up, kid.”

“Just let me go already, you stupid jerk!” Clearly not happy with Guren’s words, the boy started kicking again.

Catching the boy’s leg with one hand, Guren’s response was to only lift him up higher.

“Now, now. Is that how you treat a person, who just decided to not kill you?”

“I don’t care what you decided to do and what not. I treat every person the way they deserve. And you are a jerk.”

“Hahaha. You’re a brave one, aren’t you? Brave is basically another word for dumb, they say. Continue with this unpleasant jibberish and I might reconsider my decision of not killing you.” A true wide grin appeared on his face, as he watched the groveling kid up there, putting up a fight with no prospect of success.

“What do you want from me, then? Are you doing this because you need to bully a kid? Are you afflicted for getting kicked around all day and having no friends to talk about it, that you have to take it out on me?”

Guren couldn’t even fathom why he was wasting time with this child. It was true the boy’s incredible movement had made him wonder – even interested him. That a fully trained Moon Order officer like Guren, who made his living by improving his speed and dexterity in addition to observation and prediction, had been forced to only rely on his reflexes was remarkable. The last time something like that had happened was back in the days, when he had still crossed his sword with Kureto. If Guren hadn’t known the child’s movement was due to a speed accelerating his by far, he would have thought the boy had disappeared and reappeared in front of his eyes. It was an unbelievable skill, which could proof pretty useful with the right training. But it still didn’t explain, why he kept teasing the kid so much.

 Maybe it was because the banter proved to be a change from the routine. Guren didn’t really mind getting insulted, since it was quite entertaining to watch the kid fight back and get mad so easily. But there was something else, that kept him from releasing the kid just yet and letting him disappear back into the crowd of expressionless faces. It was the spirit that drove him to fight back at Guren’s words, to keep struggling even though your enemy was far more powerful than you. It was the resolve to not give up until he had achieved his goals, no matter the sacrifices. This one was still lively, whereas his other fellows in the same business had long since turned into gloomy and heartless souls.

At the sudden realization, Guren took a step back in bewilderment and released his hold on the kid. The boy, completely taken aback by this, dropped unceremoniously to the ground.

“Augh! You really are a jack-“ The boy started, rubbing his backside during his cursing, before Guren took a step forward and looked directly down at him.

“Oi, kid.” The child’s eyes trailed to the side for a moment, but Guren was blocking his ways of escape. “What is your name?”

“Why the hell should I tell you?!?” The brat stared back at him with a steady gaze, before a grin appeared on his face. The same moment, Guren noticed something incoming from the side. Just in time he kneeled to the ground, avoiding the stranger trying to punch him, while he grabbed the brat at his collar again and pressed him against the wall to stop him from escaping.

A second attack never came. The other kid might have been fast, but Mito, who had just opened the door and entered the scene, was faster. Easily, she caught the second boy and pinned him on the ground.

“Mika!!” As he yelled, what was obviously the others name, the brat clawed his nail into Guren’s arm, trying to get released from the hold. The bravery he had displayed just seconds before had given way to utter fear, which was now visible in his features.

“Let me go, you bastard!” He was not even looking at Guren anymore, eyes fixated on his friend as he kept struggling desperately.

“Yuu!” The boy called Mika shouted, but was silenced as Mito whipped a knife out and held it close to his cheek.

“Guren, what’s the meaning of this?” She demanded to know, looking up from her captive and taking in the brat that was still fighting against Guren’s hold.

“Wow. We are only leaving you guys for a few minutes and see what happens.” Goshi’s voice rang out from above, before him, Sayuri and Shigure climbed down from the roof at an amazing speed and positioned themselves between their two teammates. “Since when have you guys switched over to babysitting?”

At his words Guren chuckled slightly, before he turned back to the boy in front of him.

“Look, Yuu. Seems like my not existing friends have arrived.”

“I feel utterly sorry for them, since they are friends with such a jerk!”

From behind Guren, Goshi’s laugh became audible. “Hahaha you’re so right, kid. Finally someone else points out, how hard it is to put up with him.”

“Guren.” Shigure took a step forward, watching the boy with deadly eyes after his insult. “Who are these children?”

“Just some brats who tried to rob me. I think teaching them a little bit of respect is appropriate.”

“Yuu! No.” Now the other one started struggling as well. What a bunch of idiots they were.

Mercilessly Mito rammed the knife to the ground, only millimeters away from Mika’s face.

“Shut up, blondie. Or I make you shut up.”

“Don’t you dare touch him! I swear I will make you regret this.” If words could actually cut people open, Guren could have sworn Mito to be a bloody mess by now.

Still holding the kid under control, Guren turned around to his team and sighed in the most exaggerated way possible.

“You see what I’m talking about? Kids these days don’t have a single bit of courtesy.”

“And you are the one trying to teach them respect? Don’t make me laugh!” Despite his words Goshi chuckled.

“Are you guys forgetting that this mission is not over yet? Could we please stop goofing around and get done? We are still out in the open and any moment from now, people could detect us. Please everyone, stay focused til the end.” Mito, the voice of sanity and reason, reminded them all so clearly of the risk they were putting themselves into. Scolding himself for his imprudence and childishness, Guren fixated the boy in front of him one last time.

“Yuu, right? I think I don’t have to tell you this anymore, but the stunt you pulled just now was born of complete stupidity. I know you don’t like hearing these words, but people out here are not as nice as I am and you will end up seriously hurt or dead in just a matter of time. And not only you, but also the people you keep involving in this.” Automatically the boy’s eyes wandered over to his friend still lying on the ground and troubled he bit his lip. “You might have a special gift with that speed of yours and it might have proven incredibly useful a few times before, but only recklessly relying upon it will do you no good. There are enough people out there who will not be fooled by it. You will get yourself killed. You will get your friend over there killed.” Guren pointed in the direction of the blonde boy. “And all your efforts until now will have been pointless. You will die a meaningless death, without ever fulfilling that dream of yours.”

“I don’t have another choice.” The boy replied in a whisper, finally a hint of defeat mixing in his tone. “Everything else just makes things worse.”

“I can give you another choice.” At his word, the kid blinked confused, eyeing the man before him thunderstruck.

“Guren you can’t be serious.”

“I think you should maybe reconsider.”

With a move of his hand Guren silenced Mito’s and Sayuri’s objections. Then he took a deep breath, released the boy and stood up.

“If you want to continue like this, I cannot stop you. But if you want to put these skills of yours to good use and improve even more, there is a way. Of course you guys would also get enough money, that strolls and accidents like these won’t be necessary anymore.”

As he took a few steps back, finally starting to walk away, he nodded over to a perplexed Mito, who released the other boy immediately. With a yelp Yuu almost crawled towards his friend and flung himself in the arms of the other.

“If you are interested, show up at Aiko’s bar in the craftsman district.”

Without looking back another time Guren waved over his shoulder. He had done his part, now it was their turn to decide. If he would ever see them again, only time would tell.