A/N - I first published this on Fanfiction.net. Garnered quite a following there and a lot of good reviews. I also recall some asshole on there said I talked too much about Mika's hair, and that it was borderline racist.
1-Hotel Red Sand
Cornrows, the black woman’s answer to every hair problem.
The day before they were supposed to leave Europe, Mika Coretti went into downtown Bordeaux to an empty African hair salon. There, a Douala woman from Cameroon played a mix of old songs by Bebey and Dibango as she tightly rolled several cornrows. While Mika sat in a faded, creaky salon chair and stared sightlessly at her reflection, the braider added synthetic hair with copper highlights, braiding them down past Mika’s shoulders. She wasn’t using the silky, overpriced hair, which meant once was she was done, she’d have to bend Mika over a sink, curl the ends in hot water, and bring back flashbacks from as far back as junior high.
Humorlessly, Mika snickered. Her braider was too busy humming along with her music to notice and ask what amused her customer so. Comfortably lost in their own thoughts, the two women did not speak until the braids were finished roughly two hours later.
“This should last you trois mois,” the woman told her, while rubbing in some watered down wrap lotion and then lightly spraying Mika’s whole head with an oil sheen spray—again, not the good stuff. And yet this didn’t stop her from audaciously charging 80 Euros. Mika wasn’t stupid; the braids were tight and all, but she was looking at three to four weeks top, and not a single day over.
I really should just cut all this off, Mika inwardly sighed, handing over the cash without question. A shorn head meant a fatter pocket, but cash was the least of their problems right now. If cash were to suddenly become their biggest problem, Mika would be the happiest woman alive.
Nine clans…she distinctly recalled Maslow telling her there were nine ninja clans total, and even though the Ozunu were dead and gone, that still left eight clans to take their place. And since taking down one clan had brought about a body count high enough to give filmmaker Takashi Miike a run for his money, Mika was in absolutely no mood whatsoever to get hunted by eight.
Travel light, Raizo had said. If it does not aid survival, leave it behind.
He didn’t have to tell her twice! Two weeks ago she might have balked at leaving behind her grandmother’s garish pearl headdress from the old woman’s jazz days. She might have twitched at being told to forget about her father’s journals from where he’d traveled the world in his youth, or the black schist urn of her favorite aunt’s ashes. Mika could practically picture her mother lecturing her about the importance of family heirlooms, and two weeks ago, she just might have feel guilty enough to haul all that stuff. But her mother hadn’t seen whole squads of heavily Interpol officers get mowed down by guys carrying nothing more than swords, so her mom was just going to have to chill.
Besides, Maslow had promised to lock all her valuables in a safety deposit box in one of Interpol’s most secured vault. If she survived the days to come, then she’d get it all back.
If she survived the days to come.
Raizo was a bad-ass and Mika would be the first to tell him so. However, they were alive because they’d gotten lucky, and neither one let the other forget it. One did not normally survive the wrath of a single Ozunu ninja, much less an entire angry clan.
She headed out of the small salon just in time for a very cold breeze to blow in from the Garonne. Winter, Mika thought fleetingly. It wasn’t far now. There hadn’t been snow yet, but it wouldn’t be long. Good thing they were flying out before the storms came.
They’d only arrived in Bordeaux this morning, and Maslow had called to confirm their flights this afternoon. He’d spoken in that quiet, cautionary tone, omitting the words he really meant to say.
Mika…are you sure this is a good idea? You’re not a target anymore. He still is.
Mika honestly didn’t know why she felt the need to go with Raizo, or even why he was allowing it, but she didn’t stop to think about it too much. She just packed her stuff the moment she was discharged from the hospital by a baffled doctor. She’d never imagined having dextrocardia would save her life; talk about her heart being on the right side of her chest!
As she crossed the bridge, Mika paused to look over the waters of the Garonne. She would miss Europe; miss the strong coffee and smoke-filled restaurants. She would miss hearing German in the streets and French in the cafés.
As she mused on thoughts of Berlin, a woman came to stand beside her. Mika didn’t need to look at her to know she was she black-haired and golden skin. The woman had moved as fluidly as a breeze, as swift as a stroke of lightning, and that was never a good sign. In fact, as soon as Mika even remotely sensed her presence, her hand immediately reached under her black leather jacket for her 9mm.
“Don’t bother,” the stranger chuckled. Her accent bore only the slightest hint of a Japanese inflection. Indeed, she sounded more French than she did Japanese.
She’s probably stationed here, Mika figured. In an almost metallic tone, she flatly told the stranger, “I’m not looking to get stabbed in the chest again…or lose any limbs. See, I’m kinda fond of my arms and legs.”
“I wouldn’t take you out in midday in front of hundreds of witnesses, Mika,” the woman snorted. “We prize discretion, remember?”
“Which clan?” Mika snapped back at her, never moving her hand from her gun.
“A good one,” the woman laughed, shrugging casually. “A…nice one.”
“You’re not funny.”
“Tell Raizo he’s caused quite a stir amongst the remaining Eight,” the woman sighed breezily. “He has enemies—this he already knows. The sisters of Ozunu, however, bear him no ill will.”
Mika nodded, briefly recalling names and lore from her research. “Followers of Takako,” she nodded grimly. “Murasaki Clan.”
The woman laughed gaily now, her voice sweetly musical, though Mika suddenly noticed the lack of emotion. “‘I who am Takako,’” she whimsically quote an old poem, ‘lie naked and awash against the burning red sand….’”
“‘My vault of secrets deep as the ocean’s heart,’” Mika finished with a curt nod. “Something you’re trying tell me?”
“Not you—him,” the woman replied, and here note of impatience entered her voice. “Just…tell him of the red sand.” She started to walk away, and Mika finally looked at her. Of course, she could only see the woman’s back now, but she watched anyway. She…they…seemed to struggle when walking amongst people. She’d noticed this about Raizo too; they seemed to work very hard to pass as “normal” when they moved around in the daytime, amongst people. Slower steps, carefully measured, polite nods…all carefully calculated body language geared toward assuring strangers they were harmless.
Raizo had once likened ninjas to wolves. Now Mika had to tack on “in sheep’s clothing” to that.
She headed back to their hotel room, located about a kilometer or so from the airport. Hopefully Raizo was back from wherever he was right now, which was another thing…where did he go? Whom did he speak to and what about? It bothered her that she knew so little about him, while he knew pretty much everything about her. But by the way she resolutely returned to their room, Mika knew it didn’t bother her enough.
She was the only one with the key, but she locked the door securely behind her anyway. Something told her he wouldn’t have any trouble getting in.
She flicked on the lights in the room, plopped down into a chair near the bed and lit a cigarette. She didn’t really inhale, and she wasn’t even sure why she kept doing this now. The Ozunu were dead, but now the Murasaki had her scent.
Like with many other things, it had become a habit of hers. She always showered with plain, unscented soap now. She rubbed her skin with unscented oil and didn’t spray on any perfume. She didn’t even wear jewelry anymore, or heels. Jeans, plain shirts, a black leather jacket, combat boots and a 9mm—this was her life now.
Mika put out her cigarette and went to the bathroom to brush her teeth with baking soda. When she returned, Raizo was sitting on the edge of the bed, slowly sliding out of his long black coat. The pale gray thermal he wore hugged those giant biceps of his, and stretched tightly across his broad and perfect chest.
Mika felt her heartbeat quicken, and her voice quavered slightly when she spoke.
“I knew you’d find a way in,” she said simply, smiling a little and leaning against the door way.
He shrugged that easy, almost mocking shrug of his while he unlaced and slipped out of his boots and replied, “Hotel rooms are easy.”
Raizo spoke with a heavy bass to his voice. It surprised Mika every time, because his voice contrasted sharply with his smooth and youthfully innocent face. And whenever he smiled with those full, perfect lips of his, Raizo looked absolutely angelic.
But Mika knew better. She’d seen this innocent, angelic-looking man bash open human skulls, eviscerate, and maim fellow clan members. And how could she forget…underneath that deceptively plain gray thermal were innumerable vicious scars across his back, chest, and even those wonderfully broad shoulders.
However, when he looked up at her, noting her new hair with the slightest twinkle in his dark, slender, seemingly harmless eyes, Mika instantly forgot about all those things.
“The copper is good with your skin,” he nodded in approval. “You remind me of earth and sunset.”
Mika lowered her head, suddenly shy. “Thank you.”
“A very…efficient hairstyle,” he remarked, a slender eyebrow raised.
Self-conscious, she patted the side of her head. “Yeah…I thought it would be.”
Raizo tsked and shook his head, rising to slip off his gray thermal. “You’re starting to think like a ninja, Mika.”
Which reminded her…. “I met one today.”
Raizo paused, having only pulled his shirt up halfway up his chest. In this frozen pose, he looked as though her were flashing her. Mika deliberately forced herself not to look at his stomach; it was too finely honed and his skin was too beautifully golden, even beneath the scars.
“She wanted me to tell you about red sand.”
Raizo let go of his thermal; letting the gray fabric fall and cover his body.
“Murasaki,” he murmured, sitting back down on the bed.
“What do they want?” Mika asked, oddly not caring about the Murasaki. She wanted him to lift his shirt again. She wanted him to take it off, hop in the shower like he did every evening, and then come back out with his long, silky black hair deliciously dripping wet.
“They wish to grant us asylum,” Raizo answered her stiffly.
Mika blinked, standing up straight now. She hadn’t been expecting that. But then again, it explained why the messenger didn’t kill her.
“What?” she asked. “Why would they do that?”
“Clan war,” Raizo said simply, and he seemed to bite out the words while staring at the floor. “Now that Ozunu is gone, others will try to take its place as the Elder Clan.”
“And Murasaki is, what…enlisting you as an ally?”
Raizo shook his head. “Murasaki is neutral. The Clan of the Red Sand is always neutral.”
“But…why?” Mika pressed, using this as an excuse to come sit next to him.
“The Followers of Takako are not like the other clans; they prize wisdom over warfare, Mika,” Raizo said mildly. He finally lifted his head to look at her. The soft, almost weary look in his eyes endeared him to her, warming her insides. And the way he said her name….
I feel safe with him, she realized. I had to stay with him, because I’ll never feel safe alone again. She couldn’t ever go back to her old life.
“I still don’t understand why they’d want to keep us safe,” Mika admitted softly. “I don’t see how it benefits them.”
“Nor do I,” Raizo sighed, laying back. Mika swallowed to see him sprawl out like that, stretching those strong arms and looking so inviting. She had to resist the instinct to lie down next to him. “But we cannot refuse their hospitality; they will see it as an insult and we cannot withstand the wrath of all eight clans.”
Mika nodded, understanding immediately. “Do we cancel our flight?”
“Yes,” Raizo answered, his eyes locked onto the ceiling. “The Murasaki have a safehouse here in Bordeaux. It’s based out of an old hotel.”
“Do we go now?”
“No,” he shook his head slightly, his black hair lightly falling away and revealing more his perfect face. “Tonight…should be just us.” He looked at her again, even more wearily this time. “For tomorrow….” He trailed off, and Mika understood.
“Gotcha,” she nodded, even though she wasn’t entirely sure what he meant about tomorrow. As daylight drained from the window, there was an awkward pause for some reason, and then it hit her. “Um…Raizo,” she started uncomfortably, avoiding his eyes, “about the bed—”
“I prefer to sleep on the right,” he told her simply, shift his head slightly to look at her. Though she wasn’t looking back, she could feel eyes on her neck.
“Okay,” she nodded nervously, swallowing as her heart began to pound. She cursed it once she remembered he could hear it. “Okay,” she repeated stupidly. “Uh…I’ll go slip into a…uh, T-shirt or something.”
She rose and entered the bathroom, shutting the door behind her and stripping down even as she remembered she’d forgotten to bring a T-shirt with her.
“Mika—” Raizo entered the bathroom suddenly, large white T-shirt in hand (one of his), holding it out to her very calmly. Startled, Mika stood froze as she realized she was standing in front of him wearing nothing but panties. Immobilized by shock, she didn’t even think to lift her arms to cover her breasts.
“You forgot this,” he told her neutrally, eyes drilling unreadably into hers.
Mika gawked at him like an idiot, her heart thudding wildly in her chest as her mouth remained hanging open. Finally, she mustered up the mobility to take the shirt from him. His eyes suddenly skipped from her face to her breasts, and that slender dark eyebrow immediately went up again.
“Nice,” he told her with a slight nod, before turning and exiting the bathroom.