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the only thing you need protect me from is yourself

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If there is one thing Ryuko hates hearing, it is the phrase, “Meet your new bodyguard.” Or any variation of it.

In the twenty years since her birth, she’s been assigned no less than fifteen bodyguards, perhaps more, each one less competent than their predecessor. Her first has been her most favorite, an elderly old man who is surprisingly spry for his age, though he sadly passes away after her sixth birthday. The ones that come after only incur her disdain when she finds out she can easily throw them off her trail and soon enough, it becomes a game to see just how fast she can make each disappear.

She’s proud to say her record so far is not even a day. Her third bodyguard apparently cannot handle having frogs shoved down his breeches by a nine year old. She’s not so proud to say that her twelfth bodyguard is able to last a little over a year and the only reason he leaves is because a neighboring noblewoman had fallen in love with him.

Her mother finds it outrageous just how fast she goes through her bodyguards, claiming that proper young ladies do not scare off their assigned protectors simply because they didn’t like them. Ryuko begs to differ. She even has a list of everyone she’s ever gone through. Here it is.

-.-

  1.      Soroi Mitsuzo – deceased
  2.      Kuroido Takiji – back to Mother.
  3.      Takarada Kaneo – frog down pants. No longer working.
  4.      Gamagoori Ira – reassigned to Satsuki
  5.      Eldest Toki brother – unknown fate. Most likely no longer working.
  6.      Middle Toki brother – broken ribs. No longer working.
  7.      Youngest Toki brother – unknown fate. Most likely no longer working.
  8.      Obayashi Kyuji – defeated in sword practice. Pride lost. No longer working.
  9.      Sakuramiya Kenta – precious hair cut. Too distraught. No longer working.
  10.    Kinagase Tsumugu – last heard had joined a rebel faction. No longer wears clothes.
  11.    Naito Jack – mysterious stabbing. No longer working.
  12.    Fukuroda Takaharu – married to neighboring noblewoman. Probably still working.
  13.    Mikisugi Aikuro – hung naked from courtyard tree. Now her teacher. Never wore clothes.

She forgets to update after that, but those that come after Mikisugi are, in no particular order: Todoroki Ryosuke, Otte Tatamu, Kagero Kagesaburo, and Uwabami Kusatao. There may have been some others. She can’t recall.

-.-

The large oak tree that stands in the middle of the courtyard is the perfect place to hide when Ryuko wants to avoid people. Or in this case, spy. From her perch, she has a good vantage point of where her latest bodyguard is being admonished by her mother, at least when it’s not being blocked by leaves.

Her skirts have been hiked up to around her knees, tied off in one large knot off to the side, and the edges of her petticoat can been seen, dirt stained and littered with holes from where it had been snagged by the tree. She hates the fancy gowns she has to wear, but there’s a visiting noble today and “she has to look her best to make an impression on the son”. Ryuko shudders in disgust and moves to climb higher up the tree.

“Ryuko.”

She perks up at the sound of her name and settles back onto the branch, legs dangling once more. Leaning forward, she moves aside some branches and finds herself staring down at Satsuki. She doesn’t say anything. Not like it matters, since Satsuki knows this is the first place she seeks out when trying to hide.

Alright, so maybe her hiding spot isn’t such a secret. Everyone in the palace knows of it and knows to look for her there if ever should she disappear. It’s not like she doesn’t have other hiding spots, much more secret and most definitely unknown, but she simply prefers the tree.

Looking up in her general direction, Satsuki asks, “What did you do?”

“What makes you think I had anything to with Yaguruma?”

“I never mentioned Yaguruma.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“Alright then,” Satsuki acquiesces easily. “Let me rephrase my question. What did you do to Yaguruma?”

Ryuko brings her eyes back up to continue spying. Her bodyguard is cowering before her mother and there is little doubt in her mind that after today, he’ll no longer be working as her protector. Good riddance. “Nothing.”

It’s obvious from Satsuki’s tone that she doesn’t’ believe her. “If it’s nothing, then why is he currently being lectured by Mother?”

She shrugs, despite the fact that Satsuki can’t see her. It’s the intention that counts. “Beats me.”

“Ryuko.” This time her name is spoken with an edge of frustration and maybe a little bit of amusement, but it’s hard to tell. After a beat of silence, Satsuki commands, “Come down.”

With a sigh, Ryuko does as her sister says. Moving aside her skirts, she pushes herself into a crouch and hands bracing against the trunk, slowly climbs her way down, keeping an eye out for her dress. Her skirts are a pain to have to worry about and she wishes, not for the first time, that she was instead in breeches. Scaling trees and running from lousy bodyguards would be a lot easier without the extra weight or annoyance.

She lands before Satsuki after much trouble and as she straightens, she undoes the knot and tugs down her skirts until they fall around her ankles again, prominent dirt stains visible to the eyes when they were previously hidden. Her dress has more holes than it did before and she glances down to inspect it, thinking that maybe it was time to retire this dress.

“Do you have any dresses – no, wait,” Satsuki starts, only to cut herself off with a shake of her head. It’s a stupid question. Ryuko lacks dresses that don’t have either stubborn dirt stains or unpatched holes. Except one.

She wonders if she can sneak breeches past her mother at tonight’s ball.

“Well,” Satsuki continues, “have Mako help you change into that one dress. Our guests are arriving soon.”

Ryuko curtsies and as she makes her way down the open hall towards her room, she passes by Yaguruma. Her steps slow, taking the way his forehead’s presses pathetically against the cool stone wall, and she snorts into her hand.

“Lady Ryuko,” he greets bitterly.

“Yaguruma,” she returns.

He straightens, but the weight of her mother’s reprimand still sits on his shoulders. “I hope you’re satisfied. No one in their right mind would want to serve a mistress like you.”

If that’s supposed to make her feel guilty, it’s not doing a very good job. With a wicked grin curling at the edges of her lips, she says, quite calmly, “Good.” She leaves him spluttering and red faced

She meets Mako inside her chambers and her lady-in-waiting helps her change out of her dirty outfit, tossing the heavy garment at the other maids to wash. Dressed down in just her chemise, Ryuko is horrified when Mako holds up a corset.

She grumbles but allows Mako to fit the corset to her waist. Hands gripping her bedframe, she grunts as Mako tugs at the laces, pulling them so that it squeezes uncomfortably at her lungs. Her eyes flicker over to the pair of breeches that hang over her folding screen and she sadly dismisses the idea of slipping them on. Even if she could sneak away from the party, the corset wouldn’t allow her much movement. She’ll barely be able to walk, let alone run. The three layers of petticoats also don’t help.

Mako helps Ryuko slip into her new outfit, a simple blue dress with dark red trim and black lace and the barest hints of golden yellow. It’s the only dress she owns that she likes and it’s the only one presentable enough for the night’s ball. Meaning it isn’t dirt stained and patched up.

“How are you and Gamagoori doing?” Ryuko asks as Mako works on curling and pinning her hair into braids and a bun.

“Oh, Ira and I are doing just great!” Mako gushes, apologizing when she accidentally stabs Ryuko with a pin. “Did you know, Ryuko, that he was asked to train the new recruits?”

She almost shakes her head. “No, I didn’t.”

Mako hums, pinning in place the last of the braids, and lets the last curl fall to frame her face. “It’s a great honor. Or so he said. There! Done!”

Ryuko thanks Mako and takes a moment to admire herself in the vanity mirror. Mako’s done a really good job in making her look like the proper lady she was brought up to be. One of her hands comes up to poke at her bun and it’s surprisingly firm for the amount of pins Mako used.

It would be such a shame to see it destroyed, Ryuko thinks. Well, good thing she can’t do anything brash tonight.

One of the servants knocks at her door and announces that their guests have arrived and with a disheartened sigh, she eases out of the chair. She takes the fan Mako holds out for her, and with a deep, calming breath, steps out into the hall.

Gamagoori is waiting outside as her stand in bodyguard and escort for the night, but Ryuko has no doubt in her mind that by the next morning, she’ll have been assigned a new one.

Might as well enjoy her one night of freedom while it lasts.

-.-

She is roused awake the next morning by a knocking at her door. Groaning, she buries her head deeper into her pillow, hands coming up to fold over her ears. It doesn’t help much and instead she grabs at her extra pillow to clamp over her ears.

She can’t think of anyone who could be at the door. Mako isn’t supposed to be here until at least an hour later and everyone else knows not to bother her until after Mako gets to her first.

The knocking persists. Turning her head, she glares at the door through a curtain of hair, all mussed and tangled from sleep. With another groan, she swings her legs over the edge of her bed and slips on her robe. She pauses as her vision suddenly blacks out, blinking the sleep from her eyes, and sways a bit before drawing in a deep breath. Pushing off the soft mattress, she pads over to the door and swings it open with a scowl on her face.

“What?” she asks in irritation, tightening her sash.

Gamagoori colors at the state of her undress and politely averts his eyes to the side. She simply crosses her arms over her chest and shifts all her weight onto one side, a fine eyebrow arching in expectation.

Clearing his throat, he bows, eyes still to the side, and says, “I have brought you your new bodyguard, Sanageyama Uzu.”

Ryuko sighs deeply, one of her hands coming up to rub tiredly at her temple. She knew it was coming. Well, she certainly can’t deny that she’s curious as to who he is. Eyes darting up from Gamagoori’s hunched body, they land upon the guy leaning against the wall across the hall. She wonders why she didn’t notice him until now.

The first thing she notices about him is that he has two swords on him, one resting against his left hip and the other slung across his back. They don’t impress her. All her other bodyguards had swords and yet they were all horrible at it. She’s not trying to make assumptions, but she’s not holding high hopes for him.

The second thing is that he has a rather nice body. Certainly all lean muscles, what with the way they tense and flex under his uniform with every shift he makes. She makes an appreciative face. He’s certainly not too bad on the eyes.

And then he opens his mouth. “That’s who I have to look after?”

Ryuko’s eyes narrow at his tone and she draws herself up to her full height, which isn’t much when she’s standing next to Gamagoori, surreptitiously fingering the hidden knife she has stashed in the folds of her robe. “I wouldn’t think so little of me, if I were you.”

“What’s a little princess like you gonna do?” Sanageyama sneers, smirk playing on his lips, eyes roaming from head to toe as he scrutinizes her.

“Why don’t you come find out?” Ryuko taunts.

Sanageyama has his sword halfway out its sheathe and Ryuko’s already in position to toss her knife at his throat before Gamagoori has a chance to even step in. Now whether that knife would have hit is debatable. She’s not known for her accuracy.

One hand on each of their shoulders, Gamagoori holds them apart at arm’s length, alternating his glare between them. Neither of them struggles against the larger man and instead they glare at each other, standing in a stalemate waiting for the other to move first.

Sending one last harsh look at Sanageyama, Gamagoori releases him and places both his hands on Ryuko’s shoulders, trying to regain her attention. “Lady Ryuko, I would advise you to not kill your bodyguard this time around.”

Still glaring at Sanageyama, she straightens and catches the sigh of relief Gamagoori releases when she slips her knife back into her robes. Sanageyama sheathes his sword after a moment and returns to leaning against the wall, all nonchalant as though he didn’t just try to cut her.

“I can make no promises,” she finally says, shifting her eyes back to Gamagoori. She pointedly ignores the amused scoff her new bodyguard gives.

“Please try, Lady Ryuko,” Gamagoori asks resignedly.

After a beat of tense silence, Ryuko sighs out her consent. Gamagoori bows to her in gratitude. She waves her hand dismissively and moves to walk back into her room, ready to fall back into bed, when Mako comes running around the corner of the hall.

The front of her skirts are held up as to not hinder her, yet she somehow ends up stepping on the edge of her skirts and comes flying at Gamagoori. He catches her around the waist, her tiny arms wrapping around him as a means of steadying herself. Sanageyama lifts an eyebrow and says nothing.

“Are you okay?” Ryuko asks concernedly.

Mako removes her head from Gamagoori’s waist and nods, all bright smiles and sparkling eyes. “Of course, Ryuko! But if Ira hadn’t been here to catch me, I would have been turned into Mako pudding! I don’t think I would taste too good as pudding.”

She laughs. “I would have caught you instead.”

Mako’s eyes brighten and she rushes over to Ryuko, latching their arms together. A large hand clamps over her shoulders and halts them from heading back into her room. Angling her head back, she waits impatiently as Gamagoori relays her mother’s order.

Be down for breakfast with her new bodyguard.

She nods, once, wearily, and Mako wastes no time in herding her back into her room. As the door closes behind her, she catches sight of Sanageyama finally moving from his position. The thump of his back to the wall tells her that he’s simply changed walls to lean against.

It turns out Mako knows Sanageyama. Or, it’d be more accurate to say she knows of him through gossip and secondhand stories.

“Of course,” Mako says, “most of what I know is just things Ira tells me.”

She vouches for his swordsmanship and his ability to use said weapons, despite never having seen him fight. According to her, he is still considered a master swordsman even by the masters themselves and that he had graduated the academy with the highest honors anyone could possibly have. There weren’t many who have fallen to his sword that have walked away alive to tell the tale.

As it turns out, he can use those swords of his and apparently there were plenty of people who would willingly vouch for his abilities, but that doesn’t mean she has to like him. After that disastrous first impression, Ryuko can say with much certainty that she doesn’t like him.

Mako has her dressed and ready for breakfast in record time despite the fact that there is no rush. In fact, she would have preferred that Mako take her time.

“Ready, Ryuko?”

“No,” Ryuko laughs dryly, reluctantly pushing onto her feet. “I’m never ready to meet Mother.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” Mako reassures.

When she opens the door, she’s mildly surprised to find that Sanageyama is still there, leaning just as nonchalantly as when she left him. He pushes off the wall as soon as she steps through the threshold, bowing shallowly to the point where it could be considered disrespectful, but Ryuko’s more annoyed by the smirk playing on his lips.

“I see you haven’t gone running towards the hills yet,” she comments.

“Wasn’t going to give you the satisfaction, Princess,” Sanageyama murmurs confidently.

She blinks slowly, eyes focused on him for an agonizingly long moment. He doesn’t flinch under her gaze. Instead, he meets her squarely and the two of them engage in a battle of wills. Ryuko breaks contact first when she turns swiftly on her heels, the train of her dress sweeping around.

“Mother is waiting.”

Breakfast with her mother is an awkward affair as it usually is and conversation is stilted, uncomfortable. Ryuko manages to escape relatively quickly by reassuring her mother, multiple times, that she would not, under any circumstances, try and lose Sanageyama. She doesn’t promise.

Once she’s sure that no one from the dining room can see her anymore, she takes several turns down the corridors, picking up her pace. Sanageyama is always five paces behind her and short of sprinting, it’s going to take more than just turning corners to lose him.

She gets her chance when she rounds the corner and the door leading to the unused east wing appears. Slipping inside, she doesn’t stop to see if he’s following and continues down the dusty halls, taking several turns one right after another. She knows the layout of the wing like the back of her hands and it takes her no time at all to reach the courtyard where her secret tree stands.

Her skirts are hiked up and knotted within record time and with practiced ease, she heaves herself onto the lowest branch and slowly makes her way up. She hasn’t been climbing for more than a couple minutes when the sound of crunching leaves and snapping twigs alerts her to an approaching body. As quietly as possible, Ryuko edges onto a sturdy branch, never straying far from the trunk.

“Princess, I know you’re up there.”

Ryuko purses her lips unhappily at the sound of his voice. Staring down through the leaves, she finds Sanageyama approaching the tree, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword and the other tucked casually into his pockets.

“Princess,” he repeats, stepping closer. His head cranes further back, their eyes meeting. No chance of pretending she’s not there anymore. “I can see you.”

“What is it, Sanageyama?”

“Nothing, Princess.”

“Quit calling me ‘Princess’,” Ryuko grouses.

“Why?”

“Because I’m not one.”

“Could have fooled me. Now, are you going to come down or do I have to climb up to get you?”

As an answer, she starts climbing higher. She has no qualms about the fact that he can see under her skirts. There’s a reason she slipped on a pair of breeches that morning.

There’s a rustle of cloth and the sound of something heavy being dropped gives her pause. She cranes her neck awkwardly towards where he last stood and all she sees is his swords, lying innocently among the flowers and grass. The flutter of a white coat landing beside the swords catches her attention and she traces it back from where it came, eyes widening at the sight of Sanageyama actually climbing up after her.

She gathers her bearings a little too late because one of his hands has already wrapped around her ankle, effectively halting her advances. With no other choice, Ryuko’s forced to wait as he pulls himself up so that they can see each other eye to eye.

Standing on a lower branch, he arches an eyebrow rather arrogantly at her, almost amused that she would even question him. She briefly considers shoving him off his branch.

“Do I need to sling you over my shoulders like a sack of rice? Because I will, Princess.”

“You’d kill us both,” Ryuko deadpans.

“Then come down on your own.”

“Then I’d advise you to release my ankle.”

Sanageyama lets go of his hold, hand instead coming up in a placating manner. Ryuko tries not to think about how the muscles in his arm flex at the movement but it’s hard when it’s right there and so easy to look at, especially now that the coat he wears is no longer hiding them. His muscles are about the only thing about him that’s even remotely impressive.

He starts climbing down first but every so often he stops and makes sure that Ryuko’s following him, like he doesn’t trust her. The distrust isn’t exactly unfounded on his part, considering she did try to run away his first day on the job, but it nevertheless irks her.

“How did you know about this place?” She thinks to ask once she’s back on solid ground, fingers deftly undoing the knot in her skirts.

He spares her a glance as he shrugs his coat back on. “Lady Satsuki mentioned that it’s your favorite hiding spot.”

Damn that Satsuki.

She really should stop hiding in that tree, anyway.

-.-

It’s been almost a week since she’s been assigned Sanageyama.

Blearily, Ryuko slides open her eyes and peeks at her windows, her room awash in gentle yellows and reds. The sun has just barely risen over the horizon and the only sounds permeating the air are the crickets and the occasional birds.

Her door creaks open softly and Mako slips inside, bright-eyed and ready to start the day. Ryuko feels the corner of her lips tugging up into a smile at the sight, Mako’s lively demeanor slowly rubbing off on her. Suppressing a yawn, she pushes herself into an upright position, her covers pooling around her waist.

“Good morning, Ryuko,” Mako greets in a hushed voice, coming over to her bedside.

“Good morning. Is he out there yet?”

Mako shakes her head. “Not yet.”

“Good.”

She knows, as a general, unspoken rule among the guards, the bodyguard is supposed to wake up before their charge does. In addition to waking up earlier, it’s implied and followed religiously that they go to bed after their charge does. And Ryuko plans to use that rule to her advantage.

For the past three days she’s taken to waking up early and would approach Sanageyama’s quarters bright and early, ready to start the day. She’s also taken to falling asleep late. She doesn’t get much sleep as a result but when he leaves, it’ll all be worth it. She just feels guilty for dragging Mako into it as well.

She’s hoping he’ll cave soon and resign because all she wants to do is sleep for a week.

The halls are silent as she strides down the cool stone floors towards the servants quarters, the clicking of her shoes jarring in her ears. The first day she travels down these halls with her plan in motion, Mako accompanies her. The silence of the morning wasn’t so bad with her lady-in-waiting chatting next to her, filling up the space with her words. Now, however, with only herself as company, it unnerves her.

Without so much as a knock upon reaching Sanageyama’s room, she opens the door and waltzes in. He stirs on his bed at her intrusion but doesn’t wake up. She comes to a halt by his bedside and stare down at his sleeping form in contemplation.

In the end, she says in her most authoritative tone, “Wake up.”

He stirs again, but still doesn’t wake up.

“Wake up, Sanageyama,” she repeats, louder this time.

His eyes crack open groggily and he almost buries his face into his pillow when it registers that Ryuko’s standing by his bed. He immediately sits up upon the realization and in a voice still heavy with sleep, he asks, “Princess? What are you doing here?”

She answers his question with a question of her own. “What kind of bodyguard still sleeps while his master is awake?”

“I wasn’t aware you awoke this early on a daily basis, Princess.”

“Of course I do,” Ryuko lies. “So you’d better do well to remember it.”

“Yes, Princess.”

She finds him nodding off on more than one occasion, though a cleared throat will often snap him back to attention. She wonders if she should let up a little and let him have a full night of rest when she catches him dozing off whilst standing for the tenth time that day and it wasn’t even noon. But then she thinks of her freedom without any bodyguards and all thoughts of compassion fly out the window.

Besides, she thinks, he’s keeping up with her rather well for someone lacking sleep. He’s certainly able to keep up with her while they’re sparring, that’s for sure.

It doesn’t take much to talk him into it. Not like her previous bodyguards. He hears about her skills with a sword from both Mako and Gamagoori and he’s curious how much of it is true and how much of it is exaggerated. So when Ryuko approaches him about a sparring match, he doesn’t even think about declining.

They spar until they reach a stalemate, both of them falling to the ground tired. Her muscles ache, something she hasn’t felt since having Gamagoori for a guard, and she’s having trouble calming her racing heart. Sanageyama doesn’t seem to be faring any better, leaning heavily against the tree next to her, coat and swords discarded on the ground beside his feet.

Mako brings her a cup of water and after a moment’s contemplation, Ryuko has her bring another for Sanageyama. He furrows his brows in confusion, hesitantly taking the cup of proffered water from Mako and shoots Ryuko an inquisitive look.

“I didn’t poison the water, if you’re wondering.”

“I would never wonder, Princess.”

“Don’t call me ‘Princess’.”

“Princess.”

For the first time in three days, Ryuko falls asleep early. She’s too tired from the lack of sleep and the scuffles to even consider staying up late. It’s also the first time she thinks that maybe having Sanageyama for a bodyguard wouldn’t be so bad.

The next morning, she finds him already at her door when she goes to open it and she begrudgingly admits that he might be worth keeping.

-.-

About a month after receiving her new bodyguard, Ryuko stops sleeping late and waking early. Not because she feels bad for him, since she doesn’t, but because her body can’t take it anymore and is protesting by having her fall asleep at every chance she gets. She can barely go through a day anymore and her lack of sleep leads to a week of fever. So in order to nurse herself back to health, she goes back to sleeping normal hours. There’s a grateful look in Sanageyama’s eyes every time she catches his gaze.

She’ll admit, now, that that was a stupid plan on her part.

A week after she starts sleeping right again, her mother sends Ryuko to a neighboring land under the pretense of trade negotiations. She has no doubt in her mind that her mother is hoping for a union to come out of it. After all, most girls her age were already mothers. Even Satsuki is married, though Ryuko doesn’t approve of her husband.

The talks take a couple of days to settle. The lord would not agree to a trade unless he got something of equal value out of it and with the way he keeps eyeing her, she understands exactly what he wants. Despite the lord’s attempts at coercing her into an unwanted marriage, Ryuko comes out of it fiancée-less, much to her relief.

She departs the next day without so much as a look back.

Just as her party reaches the outskirts of the town, an arrow nicks her on the cheek and embeds itself into the shoulder of the servant before her. She yanks on her reins, pulling her horse to a halting stop as arrows continue to rain from above them. The servants around her begin to fall, one by one, and the dirt path is soon littered with dead bodies.

Ryuko immediately orders those still alive to hide as she dismounts her horse, her sword swinging up to deflect an incoming projectile. The moment her feet touch the ground, she rolls forward, leaving behind a trail of arrows. She’s given no time to ensure that her people are safe before the ambushers drop out of the trees and charge.

She manages to parry her opponent’s swing, grunting from the force of the impact. Her eyes dart around and find that Sanageyama and Mako both dismounted as well and are engaged in their own battles. She brings her attention forward just in time to block another incoming attack and her attention is focused entirely on fighting off the thugs.

Her legs kick out, catching one of them in the stomach and another in the back of his knees, bring both of them down to the ground. Without any hesitation, she brings her sword down and with one swift motion, slices their neck. They’ve barely hit the ground dead as she springs forward, sword drawn, ready to cut open the next guy. She’s completely unaware of the man behind her.

“Princess.”

Ryuko whirls around, ready to attack, and finds Sanageyama behind her, blood splatters prominent against his white coat. His eyes, however, aren’t looking at her, instead focused on something behind her.

“Please be more aware of your surroundings,” he simply says, darting forward to cut down a charging bandit.

“I could say the same for you,” Ryuko returns, ducking under his swing to swipe at another. “Thug on your right.”

“Two on your left.”

Turning sharply on her heel, Ryuko plunges her sword into the chest of one, the sword of the other slicing a thin red line up her arm as she dodges. She winces at the hot pain that flashes through her but lunges forward despite it all, bringing down the first guy with her as she rolls away. Hopping immediately to her knees, she yanks out her sword, a horrible, wet sound accompanying the motion, and slices upward in one fluid motion, cutting her opponent across the chest.

She grimaces at the feel of warm blood splashing her cheeks, but feels a sense of triumph in watching the bandits fall, lifeless, to the ground. Using her thumb, she wipes away the blood, smearing it across her cheeks.

The pain that she had been ignoring comes rushing back to her all at once and she drops to her knees. The blood from the bandits is soaking into her dress and she’s covered in drying blood, but Mako’s safe and she’s not dead and everything’s going to be okay. There’s just pain and she probably won’t be able to use her left arm for a while.

Mako rushes over, bloody hands wiping on her even bloodier dress. She falls to her knees, hands reaching automatically for Ryuko’s wounded arm. Fingers skimming gently over the open wound, Mako asks anxiously, “Are you okay, Ryuko?"

Ryuko nods, using her teeth to grip onto the fabric of her petticoat as she rips a long piece to use as a bandage. She cuts away the bloodied end and settles in on her lap, going to rip away her damaged sleeve so that she could access her wound.

“Ryuko! You shouldn’t!”

“It’s fine, Mako. This dress wouldn’t survive this, anyhow.”

“But still!”

“It’s fine,” Ryuko reassures, handing the ripped fabric over. “Just help me clean and bandage my arm.”

Mako agrees and pushes herself onto her feet, running over to a pile of dead bodies. Ryuko furrows her brows curiously as she watches Mako rummage through the bodies, searching for something. In the meantime, she presses her ripped sleeve against her wound to slow the bleeding and grimaces as another flare of pain shoots up her arm.

The feeling of something wet hitting her neck has her whirling around in a heartbeat, fingers dropping her makeshift rag to grab at her sword, ready to strike. She stops short of hitting the person behind her upon realizing that it’s Sanageyama, with his own sword sticking out from a bandit’s chest, having just saved her from getting herself beheaded. His grey eyes shift until they land on her, the intensity in his gaze startling her.

“I told you, Princess, be more aware of your surroundings.”

“I’m fine,” she mutters, shifting onto her knees.

His eyes fall to her arm, widening at the sight of the gash. In two long strides, he’s beside her much like how Mako was, large hands gently cradling her arm. Upon the realization that she’s hurt, his hands start skimming the rest of her, searching for other wounds. She protests but it doesn’t stop him and each subsequent injury he finds creates a darker shadow over his eyes.

“You’re not fine,” he grits out just as Mako returns with a canteen in hand. He releases her, moving back to give Mako space to work. His eyes remain locked on hers, still as intense.

Ryuko’s about to argue but it’s cut short as a hiss escapes instead, the water stinging against her wound. Mako apologizes immediately, worried eyes coming up imploringly. She gives a shaky smile and assures Mako that she’s fine.

“Princess –”

“I’m fine, Sanageyama. Besides, I’m not the only one hurt here.”

Like she hasn’t noticed the way he clutches at his left arm, wincing with every movement that arm makes. His sleeve’s stained red and blood is still dripping off his fingers, mixing in with the rest of it on the ground. It makes Ryuko wonder just how deep his wound is.

“It’s nothing, Princess. Just a scratch.”

“Bull,” she deadpans, though her tone pitches higher when Mako accidentally agitates her injury. With her good hand, she gestures for him to come closer. “Come here.”

Almost reluctantly, he approaches. Ryuko’s hand is immediately pushing aside his and grapples at his coat, trying to push the heavy fabric off his shoulder without jostling his arm. He tries to pull away, reassuring her that his wound isn’t worth looking at but she’ll have none of it. In the end, he relents and helps her shrug him out of his coat.

He hisses through his teeth when Ryuko’s fingers lightly brush against it, his face twisting in pain. She immediately retracts her hand, muttering an apology. Without another word, she has Mako hand over the canteen of water as she rips two more long strips of fabric of her petticoat.

Wetting one, she gently cleans around the wound, watching his face for any signs of discomfort. She works in silence, pouring more water onto a cleaner patch of fabric when the previous one was too soaked with blood to continue using, his wound slowly appearing.

“Why are you so concerned if I’m injured?”

Her movements pause at his sudden inquiry, eyes flitting up and locking with his apprehensive ones. She brings them back down as she returns to dressing his injury. “You are probably the best bodyguard I’ve had in a really long time and despite my protests, my mother will most likely just assign me another if you’re dead.”

“You don’t want a new bodyguard.”

“Pretty much.”

He falls silent at her admission, instead watching as her deft hands easily wrap the makeshift bandage around his arms, tight enough to stop the flow of blood yet still loose enough to allow circulation through. She ties off the ends and tucks the tips neatly under so that they don’t rub against his skin when he moves. Taking his coat into her hands, she assists him in putting it back on, taking care not to jostle his wound.

She moves to stand, hands braced against her knees, when his fingers wrap around her wrist, halting her movements. There’s a pensive look on his face, tinged with a slight edge of pain, and Ryuko almost asks him to release her so she can call for their horses when he mutters, “Thank you.”

Ryuko blinks but then offers up a tired smile. “You’re welcome. Let’s just get home and have the doctor look at our wounds.”

-.-

Their wounds aren’t anything life threatening, though she does receive a rather harsh lecture from her mother about how a lady is supposed to act in that given situation and she’s forbidden to leave the grounds even after her injuries have healed. She doesn’t consider it much of a loss.

As they leave the medical wing, Ryuko orders Sanageyama back to his quarters with the firm command of resting for the remainder of the day and to not bother her until tomorrow morning. She plans on doing the same, the enormity of the day’s event suddenly hitting her. She’s feeling rather drained and all she wants to do is sleep. Preferably for a month. Maybe two.

He regards her rather quizzically, almost like he wants to argue. But he’s just as tired as she is and his injuries are much more extensive that hers so he bites his tongue, murmuring out a word of thanks. True to his word, he doesn’t come by her room until the next morning, well after the sun has risen.

There’s not much Ryuko can do with a bandaged arm without injuring herself further and so she spends the next few days sitting in the library, book balanced on either her lap or the armrest of her chair, Sanageyama either standing behind her or settled on the floor beside her chair. Sometimes Mako would join, but more often than not, it’s just the two of them.

He still calls her ‘Princess’, though it’s become less mocking, less derogatory, and more teasing, affectionate even. He hasn’t uttered her name once since working for her and Ryuko starts to wonder if he even knows it.

“Why do you keep calling me ‘Princess’?” she finally thinks to ask.

“Does it bother you?”

Ryuko shakes her head and gently closes the book that’s settled on her lap, thumbing her page. She leans an arm on the armrest and glances down at him. “Not really, not anymore, at least. You’ve just never said my name.”

“Lady Ryuko?”

“Yeah.”

He shrugs, picking up the nearest book and leafing through its pages. “I don’t know. I guess ‘Princess’ has just grown on me.”

She chuckles softly and murmurs amusedly, “I’ve certainly gotten used to hearing it.”

The smile that surprisingly graces his lips stuns her. It’s not his usual smirk nor is it the amused sneer that will sometimes appear. Not this time. This is a genuine smile, stretching across his face and dimpling his cheeks. It’s soft and, dare she say, slightly affectionate, something that shocks her even more than the smile itself.

Feeling her face heat up from the unexpectedness of it all, she quickly averts her eyes back to the book in her lap. There’s a slight shift against the armrest from where he leans back and Ryuko is suddenly acutely aware of how close he is. She shakes the feeling off as her eyes skim the page, trying to locate where she last left off.

She keeps getting distracted however, having read the same line for the past five minutes. All she can focus on is Sanageyama and the little things he does that she’s never noticed before. Like the little puff of air he gives when his bangs fall into his eyes or the way the tip of his tongue would unconsciously poke out of the corner of his mouth. He catches her gaze on more than one occasion and other than a curiously arched brow, he doesn’t say anything.

At length it gets to be too much and she snaps her book shut, announcing that she’s retiring for the night. She pointedly ignores the fact that it’s still light out and that she hasn’t had dinner yet.

He walks her to her quarters, with Ryuko keeping her gaze forward and her gait brisk. He remains a respectable five paces behind her, though she can feel his gaze on the back of her neck. It leaves an unsettling feeling in her chest.

In front of her doors, he bids her a good night, an amused smile playing on his lips. “Sleep well, Princess.”

As her doors close behind her, she realizes that he still hasn’t used her name.

-.-

The majority of Sanageyama’s wounds have healed but the cut on his arm is still recovering and Ryuko has him on restricted duty until all of his injuries completely heal. She can tell he’s getting antsy with the fact that he is forbidden to use his swords unless absolutely necessary. She is too, since Gamagoori refuses to practice with her and Mako is generally useless with a sword. Fighting with Satsuki just isn’t the same.

Meanwhile, Ryuko has to meet with and entertain the single noblemen who are coming for the ball her mother’s scheduled for the next full moon with the intention of finding her a suitable husband. She wishes her mother would stop it but it’s about as wishful as hoping she’d never get another bodyguard.

She hates it and just wants the ball over with, but it’s not happening for another week and four days.

She’s been stuck all day in the drawing room entertaining the latest one, Mako and Sanageyama prohibited from being in the room with them. She fidgets impatiently in her seat, fake smile plastered on her face as she pretends she’s interested in everything that comes out of his mouth. Except everything that falls out is vapid and cringe worthy. As he continues to brag about himself, her smile drops and she openly scowls. He’s completely oblivious to her glaring distaste, chattering on about some conquest or other that means nothing to her.

Ryuko can’t take it anymore and politely excuses herself from his company. With her back to him, she rolls her eyes, scoffing at the indignant stare that follows, as though her companion can’t believe that she’d willingly walk out on him.

She’s back in her tree, relishing the freedom, when Sanageyama approaches, Mako trailing not far behind him.

“Princess.”

“What is it, Sanageyama?”

“If you would permit me –”

“Not until your wounds are completely healed.”

“I understand your concern, Princess,” he says, “but you need an outlet for all that irritation before you rip a nobleman’s head off.”

“That’s the least some of them deserve,” she mutters. But he makes a valid point. Any more time spent with another nobleman and she can make no promises what will happen. With a long-suffering sigh, she climbs down and rounds on Sanageyama, hand held out in front of her. “Hand me one of your swords.”

The smirk on his face makes her scowl return and she snatches his sword out of his hand. As she waits for him to shed his coat, Ryuko pulls her hair back and reknots her skirts. Now that she’s consciously thinking about it, she can feel her irritation building. By the time they’re ready to start, she can’t wait to let loose.

The first strike of metal against metal is extremely satisfying and she forgets that Sanageyama is wounded. The more they clash swords, the more relaxed she feels. She can tell he’s enjoying this chance as well, if the large grin on his face is anything to go by.

This is what Ryuko misses.

They engage in an elegant dance of swords, the sun glinting off the edges as they come together again and again. Even with the short hiatus they’ve been involuntarily put on, their moves still flow together with ease, guided by muscle memory and instinct.

They fight until they can’t anymore, until their muscle start protesting and they’re panting for breath. Ryuko drops lifelessly underneath the shade of the tree, relishing the feel of the cool breeze against heated, sticky skin.

“Feeling better?”

Ryuko hums contentedly. “Much better.” Cracking an eye open, she motions for him to come closer. “Let me see your wound.”

“You needn’t concern yourself, Princess.”

“It’s my concern when my bodyguard is hurt.”

“So you acknowledge that I’m your bodyguard.”

“Don’t change the subject, Sanageyama. You’re bleeding.”

He protests that he isn’t, shifting so that his left arm is concealed behind him. Ryuko arches a brow with disbelief and cuts his objections short by tugging on the leg of his pants, bringing him down to sit beside her. Her fingers go immediately for the soiled bandages as she instructs Mako to grab a new roll of gauze and the healing balm she has on her vanity, as well as a wet towel.

The bandages fall away to reveal puckered skin, red and angry, and her breath hitches at the sight. He tries to play it off as she cautiously runs a finger around the edges, feeling horrible that she is part of the reason why his wound had reopened.

His eyes are trained on her as she silently works on cleaning and redressing his wound. She can feel his gaze, just as intense as when he found out she was hurt, its weight heavy. She keeps hers downcast, unwilling to look him in the eye and find out just what emotions are present in his gaze.

“Lady Ryuko.”

Her head jerks up, eyes wide, at the unexpected use of her title and name and her hands still. He looks surprisingly solemn, mouth set in a determined frown as he stares at her, unblinkingly. Ryuko finds that she can’t look away.

“I –”

“What is a young lady doing alone with her bodyguard?”

Simultaneously, the two of them whip their heads around, glaring at the nobleman who had interrupted. He looks utterly scandalized, prompting Ryuko to roll her eyes. Tying off Sanageyama’s bandage, she dusts off the seat of her dress as she rises, rounding on the nobleman authoritatively.

“What do you want, Lord Obayashi?”

Ryuko wonders, as she stalks across the courtyard, what Sanageyama was going to say that had him so serious. Chancing a glance over her shoulder to make sure he and Mako are following, she doesn’t miss the disappointment that flits across his face.

-.-

The ball is in full swing and Ryuko just wants to leave.

For the event, her mother has a new dress specially tailored for her: white with blue accents. It looks a lot like the dress Satsuki had to wear when she had her ball. The only difference between hers and her sister’s is that she has on an extra two petticoats and more frills.

Ryuko weaves her way through the throng of people, heading for the open balcony doors, politely declining invitations to dance through gritted teeth and fake smiles. She can barely breathe in her stupid dress and they want her to dance? Are they trying to make sure she faints in their arms? She just wants fresh air and the use of her ribcage again.

Passing by a servant with a tray of drinks on hand, she grabs a flute glass and downs the wine in one shot. It’s not quite as satisfying as she thought it’d be but it’ll have to do until she can get out of here.

Eyes scanning the crowds, she finds no signs of either Sanageyama or Mako but she does find Gamagoori with ease, leaning against one of the many pillars lining the ballroom. Altering her course with reluctance, she makes her way over.

“Lady Ryuko,” Gamagoori murmurs respectfully, bowing as she comes to a stop before him. She smiles her first genuine smile of the night.

“Gamagoori,” she greets. “Do you know where Sanageyama is?”

“Last I saw he was heading for the courtyard.”

“And Mako?”

“Down in the kitchens.”

Thanking Gamagoori, Ryuko pushes through the crowds, finding the task much more grueling than even the toughest fight. She curses her corset and petticoats and resolves to rid herself of this torture as soon as possible. With minimal accidents, she stumbles out into the night air. The cool breeze that hits her is sudden and unexpected.

Picking up her skirts, she gingerly makes her way through the gardens, stopping every so often to catch her breath. At one point, she reaches behind her back and tries to undo the laces to her corset, but Mako is good at what she does which means Ryuko can barely move. She struggles, fingers brushing against the end of her laces but unable to get a grip on them. In the end, it becomes too much and she gives up, resigned to walking around in constricting clothing.

Her eyes sweep the courtyard as she steps through the archway, searching for any signs of her bodyguard’s telltale green hair or his swords. She edges slowly along the perimeter of the square, spotting Sanageyama’s form as she rounds the second corner.

He’s settled against the trunk, swords and coat discarded beside him, arms crossed loosely over his chest. As she nears it becomes apparent that he’s asleep, what with the way his chest rises and falls at a slow and steady pace.

It takes her four tries and a lot of shifting to be able to even kneel in her dress, but she manages it at last. She’s unable to lean back comfortably and so forgoes it, instead simply tilting her back to stare at the stars that litter the dark sky.

This is the first time since storming his room early on in their partnership that she’s seen him asleep. At the time, she had been too absorbed in making his life miserable to really pay attention to him, but now she finds herself studying his sleeping face, relaxed and no longer wearing that infuriating smirk of his. His mouth has fallen slightly open and the tip of his tongue can be seen poking out. It’s kind of adorable, she thinks.

His head bumps into hers and she jerks back at the impact. Her sudden movement jostles him awake and he blinks blearily, eyes squinting at her.

“Princess?” he mumbles, still somewhere between dreaming and reality. As if suddenly realizing the situation, he reels back in shock, the sleep completely gone. “Princess! What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be inside?”

“I needed some air.” Ryuko dusts some dirt off her dress. “Besides, I don’t particularly like social functions.”

“Neither do I.”

He’s leaning back against the tree, arms folded once more over his chest, as she turns a wry smile on him. It’s silent once more, with the occasional crickets and the soft music wafting through from the ballroom.

She shifts her gaze up to the sky, teeth tugging lightly on her lower lip in thought. It’s been weighing on her mind, what he never got to say. Ryuko thinks she knows what he wants to tell her, but then again, she’s known to make wrong assumptions. So she wants to hear what he has to say, if only to find out if she’s right. She hasn’t had time to ask him, either, and she wonders if she should bring it up now or wait.

“Sanageyama,” she says, deciding to get it over with. “About the other day –”

“Princess, please forget about it.”

Her lips purse unhappily and she shifts her gaze from the sky to stare at him. “Not until you finish what you were going to say.”

“Princess,” he say, voice strained, “I would prefer if you would just –”

“I am not letting it go.”

“And why not?” he asked, utterly frustrated.

“You called me ‘Lady Ryuko’,” she says simply. “Had you called me ‘Princess’, I’d be more inclined to drop the subject.”

“I’m calling you ‘Princess’ now, so can you please drop it?”

Ryuko shifts as best she could so that she could frown at him. “Is it something bad? Is that why you don’t want to tell me?”

Sanageyama shakes his head. “It’s not –”

“Then what?” she pushes a little more desperately than she liked. “What is it?”

“I can’t be your bodyguard anymore!” he snarls, not quite screaming, scrambling up onto his feet. His fists ball at his side and for a moment, Ryuko thinks he might hit her but she knows instinctively that he won’t. “Okay? I just can’t.”

She rises to her feet with as much grace she can muster, rather resembling a newborn fawn. She sucks in a deep breath, which isn’t really deep given her restraining corset, and sneers to mask the hurt that hits her, “So what’s stopping you?”

“Everything.”

She snaps her mouth shut and swallows, suddenly feeling very unsure of herself. His face is flushed and he’s heaving for breath and there’s a discomfited expression gracing his features that’s she only seen one other time. It makes her heart clench painfully and she wants to reach out and take him in her arms. But she refrains because she’s still exasperated him and because she doesn’t think he’d appreciate it much.

“What?”

“Everything,” he repeats, softer and resigned. “Everything’s stopping me.”

“What do you mean, everything?” Ryuko’s own voice has gone soft as well and she practically whispers her question, almost afraid that any louder will make him run.

“I mean,” he steps closer, just one step, as if gauging her reaction, “everything about you is what’s keeping me with you.” When she makes no move to leave or even to tell him to stop, he takes another step forward. “You’re stubborn, you antagonize me, and you’d like nothing more than to have me gone.”

She opens her mouth to argue but he stops her with a shake of his head. One more step and he’s standing directly in front of her and it hurts to have to crane her neck. She takes a miniscule step back so she can properly look at him.

“But you’re also kind, and caring, and I think if I weren’t your bodyguard, we might actually be friends. You’re the only person I know of other than Lady Satsuki who can hold her own in a fight with me. I respect you. I don’t mind serving you.”

She still doesn’t understand. “Why?”

“Because I also like you, as a woman.” He says it so simply, so straightforward, that it catches Ryuko off guard. “And because of these feelings, I can’t stay your bodyguard. Not if I wish to court you properly.”

“Because it wouldn’t be proper,” she scoffs with a tiny, humorless laugh. She can already hear her mother’s voice reprimanding her.

“No, it wouldn’t,” Sanageyama parrots.

Silence befalls them as they stand there, Sanageyama too nervous to continue and Ryuko just a little bit more confused by everything he’s thrown at her. Her eyes dart across every corner of the courtyard, resting on everything but his face as she processes it all, fingers playing idly with the fabric of her overskirt. Finally, she glance at him through her lashes.

“So what are you going to do?” she asks.

He shrugs, hands tucking into his pockets. He doesn’t answer her.

“Are you going to resign?”

“I don’t know,” he says uncertainly.

They fall silent again and Ryuko flickers her eyes over towards the gardens from whence she came in thought. He fidgets a little nervously and reaches out to touch her when she suddenly speaks up, startling him.

“You know, Sanageyama, I was never one to follow rules.”

His hand stills and when her eyes dart back to him, she finds him looking unsure and apprehensive and maybe a little bit hopeful. He swallows and it takes him a minute to find his voice.

“Princess?”

She reaches across the distance between them and takes his hand in hers. “I don’t care if you’re my bodyguard or not. If you wish to court me, so long as you’re sincere, I don’t see the problem with it.”

“And your mother?” he asks, the hope in his voice palpable.

“What about Mother?” Ryuko says tersely. “In any case, Satsuki married someone of her own choosing, so why can’t I?”

“Princess?” he utters again, more hopeful than the last.

She turns to stare back up at the twinkling stars. “Just so we’re clear, Sanageyama, you’re still my bodyguard.”

“Of course, Princess.”

Ryuko pretends not to notice the way his hand tightens around hers or the soft, shy smile that stretches across his face. She pretends that she doesn’t squeeze back.

-.-

Her mother’s not too happy when Ryuko tells her she’s not going to choose any of the noblemen. It takes a lot of convincing and a lot of fighting for her mother to back off and allow Sanageyama his courtship. Mako blubbers happily at the news and envelops the two of them in a hug. Gamagoori simply congratulates them as he untangles Mako from them. Satsuki smiles knowingly, as though she had anticipated it all happening. Ryuko wouldn’t put it past her sister to have somehow had a hand in it.

He doesn’t stop calling her ‘Princess’ and she supposes it means more to him than any other endearment he could think of to call her. She doesn’t mind, really, finding that she’s actually quite taken to it, especially after the ball. He does, however, start calling her ‘Lady Ryuko’ more often, mostly in private. It makes her heart flutter and her cheeks warm every time. She just wants to ferret away those moments and lock them in her memory.

He’s awkward and hesitant at first, as though he still can’t believe he’s given this opportunity and he doesn’t want to muck it up. She finds it oddly endearing. When Ryuko makes no attempt to dissuade him, even silently encouraging him, it emboldens him and he becomes more confident in his approaches.

He doesn’t kiss her, even in private, nor does he say he loves her. She’s okay with it. There have been too many thoughtless confession thrown her way for political gain and there’s no need for such grand gestures when she knows he does. It’s in the way he watches her, in the way he protects her and cares for her, and in the way he smiles at her like she’s all he ever wanted.

Other than the now romantic advances made by Sanageyama and his occasional , nothing else about their relationship changes much. They still spar and Ryuko makes it absolutely clear that she will not have him holding back on her. She still runs from unpleasant situations and hides in her tree, despite her promise to herself that she wouldn’t, and he still knows where to find her.

She still hates the phrase ‘meet your new bodyguard’ and every variation of it and it’s a good thing she’s never going to have to hear it anymore. Because she’s not planning on letting this one go.