living got pretty good.

Sousuke didn’t like Asuka. He didn’t like many people really, but he especially didn’t like Asuka. He didn’t like the way she talked, the way she laughed, the way she moved or ate or breathed

He was not being illogical. He had plenty of sensible reasons for not liking her. She was loud to start with. And reckless. She didn’t take no for an answer. She insisted on running as fast as him —

Okay, maybe the last one was a little bit useful.

— she made bad jokes. She woke people up with stupid jutsu that hurt and gave you certain morning…issues. She had bad taste in music, and bad taste in clothes. Her fighting…

Well, her fighting was fairly impressive. But Sousuke had seen better.

Of course he’d seen better.

Shut up.

And… well, she was just annoying! With her perfect dark hair and golden eyes. Plus she was a rookie. Rookies were always irritating. It was a rookie state of being.

Content with his logic, Sousuke hung over Asuka’s shoulder and informed her of everything he’d just concluded. Then he coughed and spat blood down her porcelain chestplate.

Asuka, to her credit, didn’t pause; she simply picked up the pace and skidded to one side when a Mist-nin tried to put a terminal end to her day. Fucking Mist-nin. “Yeah,” she didn’t even pant as she ran, “But I’m a damn good catch, you have to admit.”

He also owed Asuka for saving his life. Sousuke added that to his list of things he didn’t like about his mission partner. “No,” he muttered, and tightened his grip as best he could, holding on. “You just got lucky.”

“Works for me,” she said with a hidden split grin. Then she ran faster.

Somewhere between his first birthday and the last, Sousuke got used to the idea of having a life.

It had just never really seemed like an option before; in fact, he’d gotten quite comfortable spending his days balanced on the seraph edge between breathing and — the other thing. Besides, when the average month held at least a ninety per cent chance of something going crack inside his skin, death mostly seemed like an inevitable holiday. Albeit one that might take him somewhere a little hotter than he really wanted to go, but everything had a downside.

So of course it was inevitable that, right when he thought he’d found his place in the world, something or someone would come careening along with nothing better to do than destroy the ruts he’d worn smooth and shiny with the process of not-quite-living.

It was probably even more inevitable that the person arrived with enough strength to be unwavering, enough brains to be fascinating, enough jokes to be annoying, and enough flaws to be human. There were even tattoos, because the tracery of scars over solid muscle and tanned flesh just wasn’t quite sexy enough.

Some days, Sousuke suspected, the universe had it in for him.

There were rough patches to start with; missions that went wrong, bones that got broken, fights that took them nowhere but places that hurt. But sometimes there were good things, too. Missions that went right, bones that healed, and a few precious days where he did nothing but laugh quietly, happy to sit and be and remember what sunshine felt like, reflecting off someone else’s skin.

And somewhere between one day and the next, Sousuke realised he was living. That there were even things to look forward to besides fighting styles so complex it took months to understand them, or minutes spent thinking that maybe — maybe — Yuki had forgiven him. That it was almost okay to spend moments not being a hunter, even if the idea went against bone and blood and every lesson he’d ever learned.

Plus the sex was pretty damn good.

No, scratch that, the sex was pretty damn great, because apparently it got better when you did it with the same person more than once and he was still flummoxed as to why no one had ever mentioned that.

So it took a while, and a lot of fights and bruises and near misses so close they left scars inside and out, but somewhere around his twenty-first, Sousuke tripped over the idea of happiness and even managed not to immediately drop everything and run for the hills.

In fact, he celebrated.

(Mostly because that’s what you were supposed to do at birthdays, according to Asuka, who said she was going to be damned if Sousuke went one more year without a cake.)

So time rattled on with the beat of a taiko drum, finding rhythm in new scars and new stories and days that played out in missions and training and sometimes, rarely, doing nothing but lying between the sheets, furthering an education on both sides. But in the back of his mind, where the red wash of memories lurked, Sousuke knew their days were numbered. That every mission still took a piece of something, and every breath drawn behind the mask that was harder and blanker and never-ever-changing, made his eyes darker and his expression colder and worried the very few people he gave licence to care.

But Asuka wore the same mask, ran the same missions, and somehow, in some way Sousuke didn’t get and could never understand, she only changed in the ways that made her better. With a sharper grin, faster hands, quicker, smarter, stronger. As if she wasn’t strong enough already.

Asuka said it was Sousuke; Sousuke said it was luck — which neither of them believed, but sounded good anyway. And when Asuka finally won herself that coveted page in the Bingo Book, Sousuke laughed at her picture, bought her a cake (because that was how you celebrated), and knew they were one step closer to an end, because that book made you a target, and Sousuke made her a bigger one, and both together was worse than a lightning rod in a thunderstorm.

But somewhere between one breath and the next, Sousuke realized he had a life. That this was living. And whatever he’d done, however he’d failed, he wasn’t ready to give it up yet — because it belonged to someone else. It was tangled with someone else. And even if the city owned his soul, Asuka still had her hands held carefully around something that refused to skip a beat (because dammit, they weren’t that romantic) and she had never once squeezed hard enough to make anything inside Sousuke’s skin go crack.

The least he could do was give back everything he had left.

So somewhere in the space between one heartbeat and the next, he rolled over, buried his face against the petite, tanned curve of throat between jaw and shoulder, and mumbled three words that made Asuka laugh out loud and ask him what the hell had taken him so long.

And after that, just for a while, living got pretty damn good.

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