This is part 10 of an ongoing story series. You can read the first part here. Or read the last installment here

It didn’t make sense.

Fumi was loud and careless. Annoyingly overconfident. Always butting into his business. Everything that Moto had struggled tooth and nail for she had simply been given. She was a liability to his plans. She was Soundstealer’s daughter.

But she was alone as she fought for her life. And Moto was mad.

The flame-eaters had done as much as they could, but they could only increase the speed of her natural recovery. The damage to her head was beyond simply closing wounds. They wouldn’t know what impact it had until she woke up. If she woke up.

Moto and Keta had spent the night in the infirmary, speaking little and staying close. But when the morning came, they were called to continue the exam. Daggers had little sympathy for fallen comrades.

Soundstealer never came to visit. When Moto and Keta left, Fumi was alone.

Moto shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts as he climbed the stairs to the platform at the center of the Playground. 50 feet square, its surface cracked and uneven from previous matches, the combat ring stood atop a small mountain. On display for all the Daggers to watch.

At the top of the stairs, Moto clapped Keta’s wrist. He wanted to pull the shapeling closer, but not with so many eyes watching. Iruka gave them a sad look as they made their way to opposite sides of the ring.

Moto couldn’t explain why Fumi’s injury consumed him. She offered no benefit. She didn’t even seem like a good fit for him as a friend. But after three years alone, thinking he would always be that way, the prospect of losing her was unacceptable.

Moto finally understood Iruka’s warnings. There were good people living in Iga. People he liked, who would watch out for him. But the Daggers as an organization didn’t care one way or another. His own ambition didn’t care.

Throwing this new life away to pursue those cold, uncaring ideas suddenly seemed crazy. He wasn’t even throwing it away to achieve success, just to increase the odds on a long-shot. Moto shivered. The thoughts changed too much.

Iruka’s hand dropped and the battle began.

Keta came forward at a run without his resonance. Despite himself, Moto’s mind started churning. Was Keta still fatigued? Or was this a trick?

Moto jumped backward, off the edge of the ring, and swung in a wide arc, coming to rest a good distance from the shapeling.

Moto’s resonance gave him a degree of mobility outside the combat area, where Keta would struggle to follow. The shapeling frowned for a moment, then moved to the center of the ring.

Moto knew he should strike and force Keta to use his resonance on the defensive. If he could weaken his friend’s already lowered stamina, it would be nearly impossible for the shapeling to close the distance.

But why? What was the point of this tournament for him? He thought gaining prestige with the Daggers would give him more access, help him move against Soundstealer.

But if revenge would leave no room for Keta, or Fumi, or Iruka, did he want it? What if one of his attacks caught the shapeling off guard and landed harder than he intended?

“Why don’t you fight?” Keta kept his voice low. Moto thought Iruka could hear, but the other Daggers probably not. The observers shifted along the walls, confused by such a lackluster start.

“I can’t…” Moto’s face screwed up in frustration. He couldn’t what? The last few days felt like running blind through a maze. “I can’t stop thinking about Fumi.”

Keta’s face grew sad, his eyes shimmered. He looked as though he wanted to stop the fight and grab Moto in his arms. Desperate as it seemed, Moto wanted him to. “You have been confused these last few days. I have seen it. Like an older dancer, struggling with a routine they could do while they were young.”

“Everything used to feel so clear. I… you know what I want. But now all I can think about is you and Fumi. And Iruka.” Moto shot an embarrassed glance at their teacher. She seemed surprised before hiding it with an infuriating grin. “I don’t know how you all fit in.”

A smile spread across Keta’s face, joining Iruka’s. His tone brightened. “Only you could realize you cared for people and then decide that you were having a complete mental collapse.”

In the corner, Iruka laughed. Moto bristled.

“There is the man that I love.” Keta dropped into a crouch, thin wisps of steam trailing from his fingers. It seemed his resonance had recovered. At least to some degree. “These feelings. They are like stage fright. And there is only one way to deal with stage fright. You must move faster than the doubt can follow.”

Keta sprang forward, a wicked grin splitting his face. For an instant, Moto felt a surge of panic. The way Keta moved reminded him of Hibana’s lethal strikes. Moto threw a hand to the side and pulled, trying to arc away.

The pull was weak. Instead of flying wide around the shapeling, Moto only moved a few feet. He staggered, surprised. He had meant to go much further. What happened?

Keta landed on one foot and pivoted, turning to follow Moto’s retreat like a cat stalking a mouse. “You will have to be faster than that.”

Moto’s tactical brain took over. Keta was too close. There would be no time to react to the flame-eater’s rapid movements. He needed to get away.

Mid stride, Keta pulled his right arm back, twisting his hand in a familiar pattern. The shapeling was unwinding the weighted silks around his wrist to extend his range, trying to catch Moto before he could flee.

Moto pulled a small stone at his feet and shot it toward Keta’s wrist, interrupting the movement. At the same time he pulled as hard as he could behind.

Again, he only moved a few feet. Even the small stone he threw at Keta seemed to have less impact than he intended. Dimly, some part of his mind realized that his resonance was weakening. All his confusion was finally disturbing the focus he used to call on stone.

Keta closed, eating the last few feet of distance between them. Fighting someone with his speed required absolutely no hesitation, and Moto was full of that right now.

Keta grabbed Moto’s shoulders, holding him in place as he coiled into a ball. Moto recognized the move. Keta was going to drop kick him, trying to knock him out of the ring. Frantically, Moto slid a foot forward and pulled against Keta’s back, throwing the shapeling’s balance off so his kick went wide.

Keta caught himself on both hands and spun, his legs scything through the air in an imitation of Fumi’s style. Moto ducked the first blow, then pulled against the shapeling’s hands to make him fall.

Keta laughed, tumbling into a roll that brought him closer. “Pulled one way then the other. It is like fighting in a cart as it tumbles down a hill.”

Staying low, stance wide, Keta sent two quick jabs toward Moto’s stomach. He was adapting to Moto’s power quickly. But he had used the same move against Haiyu.

Moto drew his arms across his body, trying as best he could to steer Keta’s hands by pulling on them with his gravity. Keta’s resonance may be weak, but he was still hitting too hard to block. And he was moving with an easy speed that Moto could barely match.

Moto pulled the first blow wide. The second only glanced his shoulder. It hurt, but nothing like a direct hit.

Moto had a moment of shock as he realized he was actually holding his own. He certainly wasn’t winning, and it wasn’t Keta’s full strength, but he hadn’t been completely overwhelmed. The dancer’s moves were so familiar, he knew them almost as well as his own.

The stray observation was one too many. The shapeling blew past Moto’s distracted guard and grabbed hold of Moto’s belt. Keta spun around, muscles surging as he lifted Moto in the air and threw him to the ground.

Moto landed awkwardly on one shoulder, sending pins and needles down the arm, but managed to guide his momentum with his power so he came out standing.

Was the arm broken? He twitched his fingers experimentally. No, but probably dislocated.

Keta appeared, staying low so Moto couldn’t pull him off balance. “Do not think. Move.”

He struck forward with both fists and Moto barely managed to spin around them by using Keta as an anchor. The shapeling didn’t move an inch. He had adapted completely to Moto’s gravity.

Keta’s arm followed in a backhand aimed at Moto’s head. Moto jumped back, pulling to get some distance. He still didn’t travel far, but the shapeling let him have a moment to breathe.

“Always weighing, looking for advantages. Doubting. Too afraid of weakness to take a risk trusting those around you.

“Your feelings are what they will be. There is no logic to them. No predicting whether they will bring you happiness or ruin. You are confused because you’re trying to think of them as something that can be understood and optimized. But it is a blind leap. Accept or reject. Make your choice.”

Keta ran forward again, this time without his resonance. Perhaps his stamina had not recovered much after all.

Moto cursed, realizing he had spent the entire time listening to Keta instead of reclaiming the distance. In a second the shapeling would be on him again. No matter how well he knew Keta’s moves, he couldn’t match the dancer forever.

Funny. Just a moment earlier he could hardly see the point of fighting. But Keta had gotten under his skin, pulled him out of his head. It seemed everyone on the squad was good at that.

“As if you would ever let me reject.” A smile pulled at the corner of Moto’s mouth as his stone cloud rose.

One rock caught Keta on the shoulder, staggering him. Anyone else would have been pummeled by all five, but Keta was top of the class for a reason. He jumped, using the momentum of the first collision to spin as he found the gap between the projectiles.

Moto hadn’t expected to call so many stones at once. It was still short of the number Iruka could manage, but only barely. He could hardly breathe for the focus the cloud required.

Their attention consumed by the stones, the two of them fell into a rhythm like a dance. Keta’s body steamed again as he flipped and rolled, sometimes being forced to knock a stone off its course with the flat of his hand. He had turned his back to Moto, stepping closer. The stones whirred faster as Moto mirrored the dancer’s steps, keeping him at the edge of the cloud.

A stone flying low caught Keta’s ankle, pulling him off his feet. Just like that, the dance was done.

Two stones rushed towards Keta at high speed. One for his stomach and one for his head. In horror, Moto grabbed hold and wrenched their orbits wide, sending them flying toward the walls.

A pair of Daggers ducked as one of the stones exploded against the wall. The rest of the stone cloud disintegrated with Moto’s lost focus.

Keta caught himself on his hands and retreated in a series of flips. His breathing came heavy and there was a trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth, Moto must have clipped him once without realizing. He felt a pang of concern.

Keta smiled, a mix of exasperation and exhilaration. “Do not give me that look.”

The dancer straightened, wiping the blood from his mouth. “It is like teaching the children their first routine. Once I get the right foot in line, the left goes wandering out of place.

“But I will not wait another year for you to understand this lesson. You are too stubborn to be left to find it on your own.”

He dropped into a crouch, spreading his stance wide and balling his hands into fists. “Going from using others to protecting them like your collection of fine porcelain is a quarter turn at best. I want the full pirouette. If you cannot accept the risks of working together, all the risks, then you are still trying to pull the strings.”

A torrent of heat erupted from Keta. A stiff wind picked up, swirling around the ring and pressing hard against Moto. “If you are going to let me in, then let me in.”

Moto had seen that look on Keta’s face before. It was the same determined look he had when he wanted to save the workers in the burning warehouse. The same look when he was determined to save the other prisoners in the spider cave, even though it meant certain death.

It was the same look Moto’s father gave the last time he ever saw him alive.

Moto had little more than a heartbeat to pull his stone cloud back around him before Keta vanished and reappeared at the swirling barrier, catching one of the stones and hurling it into the distance.

The shapeling’s legs tensed and he was gone. Then he was upside down above Moto’s head, plucking two stones from the air and throwing them away as well.

Moto pulled in more to replace them. He was up to seven, desperately trying to keep the barrier dense enough to hold Keta out. But with frightening ease the shapeling danced inside the cloud, landing in a crouch as he smirked at Moto.

Moving this fast couldn’t be good for his body. Not with his resonance still exhausted by the battle with Hibana. But Keta was loving every minute of it. His eyes never left Moto’s face.

The fool was going to get himself hurt. Why couldn’t he realize that all his heroics left others picking up the pieces? If Keta died, did he have any care for the sadness Moto would feel? The loneliness that would be left?

But then, that was the point of this performance, wasn’t it? Keta was showing him that he was strong enough to survive. Strong enough that he wouldn’t bend as Moto pleased.

If Moto wanted Keta in his life, he had to let the shapeling choose his own risks and make his own decisions. Worse still, he would drag Moto along on the same foolish quests.

Keta’s grin widened as he spun behind Moto. With one hand, the shapeling knocked away a stone. With the other, he gripped Moto’s dislocated shoulder. A surge of heat filled Moto’s arm as it healed. Keta danced away, laughing.

Moto bristled at the shapeling’s challenge. He was strong enough to make good on every one of his lofty ideals. The only question was whether Moto was strong enough to keep up.

Moto sent the stones in his cloud careening toward the shapeling. Keta’s body twisted with seeming nonchalance as he dodged the stones. In reality, his motion was a blur. Moto cursed. The dancer was too fast to hit with anything he threw.

Fine. If Keta was determined to be as dumb as his father, then Moto had no other choice. But see if Keta could get himself killed with Moto there to watch his back.

Keta stumbled as Moto’s power pulled in all directions, shifting gravity toward him. But that was only a side effect.

Iruka mentioned that the strongest resonants could do more than manifest energy through their bond. They could enforce their will on their element, shaping it in the world around them.

Keta had made his point, and Moto accepted it. Grudgingly. But not a chance would he let the shapeling go dancing around, showing off like he could get his way whenever he wanted.

All traces of hesitation were gone as Moto reached out and grabbed the stone at Keta’s feet. He could dodge anything Moto threw, but how would he handle this?

The rock shifted. Keta’s eyes widened in surprise, but it would take more than that to catch him flat footed. A wave of steam rolled off his muscles and he was gone.

Truly gone. The shapeling moved so fast Moto’s eyes didn’t even catch a blur.

He reappeared in Moto’s face, legs brought up to his chest, but Moto knew how the shapeling fought. He had already grabbed the stone at his feet, reshaping it into a shield. Keta’s legs snapped out and the rock wall shattered.

Moto caught the stones, accelerating them in a tight loop and launching them at the shapeling before he could land. Somehow Keta spun as he fell, knocking away the rocks with two tight kicks.

But the stones were only a distraction. Moto grabbed the earth below and sent a pillar crashing upward. The shapeling grunted in surprise as he was knocked back to the sky.

Moto coiled the earth beneath his own feet and launched into the air as well, building momentum. He latched on to Keta and pulled.

The shapeling managed to unfurl his silks and land a solid blow against Moto’s shoulder before he was careening past, helpless as he flew off the edge of the ring.

The last thing Moto saw before Keta went crashing into the trees was the shapeling’s smile. Moto landed roughly, barely managing to pull behind and stay inside the ring himself.

He heard Iruka calling his name. He had won.

It was Moto’s turn to lean against the railing at the edge of the Playground. Keta was gone, hauled off to the infirmary to treat his falling injuries as well as his extreme exhaustion. Moto wanted to go with him, but he needed to watch the match between Hako and Hibana first.

The two recruits— chunin now, Moto corrected himself— stood in the ring, waiting on Iruka to begin the match. Moto watched with a feral glee.

He hoped Hibana would win. With his newfound ability, he wasn’t afraid to meet her in the finals. And he had some payback to deliver on behalf of Fumi. Hibana had joined his list for revenge.

If she lost, Moto hoped she fought tooth and nail, and that Hako left her badly battered. His only fear was that one of them might concede like Haiyu had.

As if enacting his thoughts, Iruka dropped her hand and Hibana turned toward the stairs. She stalked like a caged panther, shoulders hunched with the difficulty of restraint.

“I concede.” She bit the words off like a deer’s throat.

Moto ground his teeth, his fists balling against the railing. What were they up to? Not knowing bothered him. Almost as much as the fact that he couldn’t pound Hibana flat.

Moto pushed off in a huff, muttering a string of curses under his breath. Another time. Hibana would regret what she did to Fumi. For now, He would have to settle for venting his frustrations against Hako.

Moto’s knees wobbled, still weak from his battle with Keta, and he cursed at that too.

When Moto and Iruka entered the infirmary, Keta was sitting upright in bed. Apparently, the shapeling had insisted his bed be brought next to Fumi’s under threat of moving it there himself. He sat now with one hand protectively on the girl’s unconscious shoulder.

Keta tipped his head sideways inquisitively. “So soon?”

“Hibana conceded.” Moto immediately regretted his sharp tone. “Sorry. I just wanted to fight her.”

“For one so new to having friends, you are quite practiced at swearing vengeance for fallen comrades.”

Moto’s eyes widened. It was all he could do not to glance nervously in Iruka’s direction. But the teacher hadn’t noticed Keta’s reference to multiple vendettas.

“You’ll get another go someday, kid. The Daggers never miss a chance to pit us against each other.”

“Good.” Moto dropped himself onto Keta’s bed, carelessly enough to make the shapeling wince. That would have to do as punishment for now. Five minutes working together and the shapeling was already making him regret it.

Keta adjusted his feet into Moto’s lap and Moto felt a flash of discomfort.

Apparently he didn’t like feet. It was a realization about himself that he’d never had the opportunity to have. Moto couldn’t help but laugh as he pushed Keta’s feet away.

The shapeling looked at him quizzically, but seemed content just to see Moto happy. He adopted a hurt air as he pulled his feet beneath him on the bed. “Hardly a day as squad leader and already you can’t be bothered to give a foot rub.”

Moto blinked, momentarily confused until he got Keta’s reference. “That’s right, isn’t it? I got further than you and Fumi, so that makes me squad leader.” Moto grinned.

“Fumi might take issue when she wakes.” All three of them ignored the sliver of hesitation in Keta’s final words. “She will claim the bet was for whoever won the tournament.”

Iruka looked between them. “Sounds like you three have decided to stay together then?”

Moto nodded as he wrestled Keta’s legs out from under him, forcing past his discomfort to give the shapeling the foot rub he requested. Iruka smiled as Keta began to squirm. It turned out the shapeling was ticklish. Moto clamped down on Keta’s ankles, the shapeling’s discomfort paying for Moto’s own.

Abruptly, Iruka’s face became serious. It took Moto a moment to realize why she was clearing her throat. He could still hear Keta’s protests, but otherwise the room had gone silent. The ruffling of covers, faint breathing, the sounds of people walking by outside the window. All were gone.

Moto turned, knowing what he would find.

“Soundstealer.” Iruka nodded to the man, her face harder than granite.

“Stonesong.” Soundstealer inclined his head a fraction, then turned his attention to Moto.

Moto dropped Keta’s feet like they were hot coals, shooting to his feet as fast as he could. His heart leapt into his throat. The man had a presence that permeated his surroundings with threat. The air itself seemed to be pressing in.

It probably was, Moto realized. Just as he had commanded stone earlier, Soundstealer was probably holding the air around him. Unlike Moto, he didn’t have to be selective. Every scrap of air in the room was held in Soundstealer’s iron grip. Moto wondered if the man even let go in his sleep.

Somehow, understanding the power better only made it more intimidating.

“A word, Moto.” It was not a request, and Moto was three steps in following before he even stopped to consider.

Moto wiped his palms along his pants. What did the man want? He thought back to the beginning of the tournament. Had Soundstealer been staring at him after all? Did he know?

Moto turned back to Keta. His nerves must have shown on his face, because the shapeling pushed himself to the edge of the bed, getting ready to follow.

“I did not request your presence.” Soundstealer had reached the door.

“These kids are trying to spend time with their teammate. Your daughter, Soundstealer. Though I wouldn’t expect you to trouble yourself on that account.” Iruka looked as though she had bitten into something sour.

“She will still be here when he returns.” Soundstealer turned back to Moto. He did not look impatient. Nor did he look like there was any choice but for Moto to do as he was told.

“It’s OK Iruka. I’ll make it quick.” Surely Soundstealer couldn’t just kill him? Not so blatantly. If he could, if he had evidence of Moto’s intervention and it was enough to justify his death, then surely he was beyond saving whether he went with Soundstealer now or not. At least he could keep the others out of it.

Besides, after all his actions, all his eagerness to work with Soundstealer, it would be suspicious to refuse an audience now. Moto took a steadying breath. He wished it wasn’t so hard to keep a clear head around the man.

Keta squeezed his shoulder and gave an encouraging nod as Moto walked to the door.

Walking outside in Soundstealer’s bubble of silence was disorienting. At least indoors, it was easy to forget and think the room was simply quiet. But now Moto could see the sources of all the sounds that did not reach him.

“An impressive showing today. You are the first Terran with a bond strong enough to command stone in many years. I thought Iruka might have, but then… The flame-eater holds potential as well.”

“Thank you.” Moto’s skin crawled at the compliment. Soundstealer was the last person he wanted to hear it from. Except maybe Hibana.

“Why do you thank me? The power is your own. I do nothing but acknowledge it. You have come to the ability recently, I imagine. Else there would have been some sign of it in the ashes of Genji’s warehouse.”

In any other scenario, Moto would have been proud that the surprise tactic did not make him miss a step. But he did not think Soundstealer was even trying a tactic. The man spoke casually because he was completely unconcerned by whatever Moto chose to do.

Besides, Moto’s heart was beating so loud in his ears that Soundstealer had to hear it, whether Moto gave the truth away with his stride or not.

“I’m not sure—.”

Moto’s voice cut off in a strangled gasp as a massive weight wrapped itself around his chest and throat. The breath in his lungs wheezed out as he was compacted by the air around him. Moto reached for his throat reflexively, but his arms were held at his side.

“Do not waste my time. Two men clad in the robes of Daggers were seen running from the warehouse, meeting your description. If you did not want me to know, you should not have stayed to help those useless workers. Whatever stupidity gripped you then, do not infect my presence with it now.”

The pressure subsided. The exchange had been fast enough that no one noticed Moto’s brief paralysis. But the point had been made. Moto gasped for breath. He was certain no one around them could hear it.

“What do you want?” Moto rubbed his throat as casually as he could manage.

“Which one of the fools do you work for?”

“I don’t—.” Pins and needles, sharp as blades skittered across his throat and Moto came up short. He had stepped into something bigger than he realized here, and it didn’t seem there was much room for error. He needed time to think. “They’ll kill me.”

A sharp cut opened on his cheek.

“And I will not? I assure you neither Danzo nor that brute Breaker has enough sway to protect you here. Even if I had no interest in killing you, Amaya’s little pets seem bent on removing you.

“Your master has served you poorly, boy. If you have any sense you will realize that your only hope to live lies in pleasing me.”

The first name meant nothing to Moto, but he had heard Breaker before. For one frantic heartbeat he feared he wouldn’t be able to recall where. But then blessed memory clicked into place. The thugs at the warehouse had been interrogating their prisoner about Breaker. But what was this about Amaya? What did the Silence of the Four Seasons have to do with anything?

Moto let his face fall in what he hoped was a broken look. At the very least, the fear was not feigned. “Breaker.”

Soundstealer nodded curtly. “I thought as much. The whole thing reeked of his particular brand of clumsiness. Tell me, what did he hope you would achieve? Does he wish to expose me, having you attach yourself to my daughter as you have?”

This was the crucial moment. There was no way Moto could keep a charade like this up for any length of time. He needed to sell Soundstealer something that would foreclose further questions.

He had a guess, based on what he had heard during the interrogation in Jidoka and the way powerful people generally treated underlings. But it was only a guess.

“I wasn’t told much. Something about a town being destroyed. He wanted me to figure out which of your clients had ordered it, then take them out.”

It felt weird to skirt so closely to the truth. But it was also close to what the warehouse thugs had been interested in.

Soundstealer paused for a moment, staring at Moto’s face. Under that glare, it was a challenge not to swallow like a frightened rabbit.

“Fool.” Moto’s stomach tightened before Soundstealer continued. “Three years and he’s still upset about something so trivial? He knows I had no choice. My connection to Sadashi’s network is too valuable to throw away. Certainly not over his pet Hero. The Last Standing himself was there. If I hadn’t acted, Hisoka’s plan would have been laid bare for all to see.”

Moto felt like he had been slapped in the face. There was so much packed into that single outburst. It clearly was not meant for him to hear. It carried the tenor of a well worn debate, something rubbed raw and emotional for Soundstealer. That meant whoever this Breaker was, Soundstealer had a long history with him.

It sounded like they worked together. But Breaker opposed whoever this merchant was that Soundstealer worked for.

It had to be wrapped up in this plan of Hisoka’s. Iruka had mentioned Soundstealer abandoned her on some sudden request from Iga’s ruling Champion.

All of these thoughts were processed dimly at the back of Moto’s mind. At the forefront was the realization that this well worn frustration between Breaker and Soundstealer was Moto’s village. Three years was exactly the right amount of time. Whoever the Last Standing was, Moto added him to his list.

Soundstealer composed himself with visible effort, rubbing his eyes with two fingers. “You are lucky, boy. I believe there is a way for you to be of use to me, so I will make you an offer that lets you keep your skin.” With a sickening dread, Moto realized that might not be a figure of speech.

“You are strong. Your showing today showed as much. Strong enough to be effective. If I can move against Sadashi, more than simply spying, the rewards from Hisoka would be immense. Immense enough for me to share a fraction with any who would help me achieve such an end…”

“You’re asking me to betray Breaker?” Moto put just a touch of indignation in his voice. Let Soundstealer think he had broken through some barrier and he would believe the lie. How was it that manipulating a master assassin was so much easier than dealing with Keta when he was angry?

“I’m asking you not to be an idiot who throws his life away. Breaker has obviously told you precious little. He probably thinks he’s being coy and devious. But that lack of information has left you blundering around like a fool in the dark. I’ve tried to keep you away from my daughter to minimize suspicion, but look how that turned out. You’ve practically gotten her killed.”

Moto tried to hide his confusion. Soundstealer spoke like Fumi’s fight with Hibana was his fault. Then realization smacked him in the face.

Amaya’s pets. Hako and Hibana were both from north of the Fox Fangs, where the coldest of the Four Seasons made her domain. And Haiyu’s last name was Threerivers, for the waterways that divided Jidoka.

Were they spies? But for what? There was so much he didn’t know.

“The merchants that Breaker would have you move against, I would also like to see investigated. For more intelligent reasons, of course. Sadashi always has his spies around, so my hands have been tied. But with you supposedly acting on Breaker’s commands, I suddenly have a path before me.

“I can feed you the information you need, so that you can pick targets more intelligently. Breaker will think you are making outstanding progress, which should keep him from coming after you. And when you ultimately find what I am after, you will be rewarded far beyond whatever pittance Breaker offered.”

“And what are you after?”

Soundstealer raised an eyebrow. “So you accept?”

Moto slumped his shoulders, looking defeated. “It doesn’t seem like I have any other choice.”

Soundstealer nodded. “Prudent. I am looking for a child. Or rather, one of many children. Sadashi has sent me on many missions involving children. Escorting them. Retrieving them. Killing them.

“He’s doing something. But I could never investigate a mission he had given explicitly to me. I will give you the locations where several of these children were taken. I want you to find out what Sadashi is doing and retrieve one of the younglings if you can.”

“Won’t Breaker be suspicious if I change targets?”

“You won’t be. The first place I’d have you look is the very same woman who ordered his precious little Hero killed.”

Moto hoped he was keeping his eagerness hidden. Could he really be this lucky? How had certain death become exactly what he sought?

“We will discuss logistics further at another time. With your victory in the exam, no one will look askance at me courting you.”

“I haven’t won the tournament yet, though.”

“But you have. What with Hako and his squad disappearing in the night. Consider it an early payment from your new benefactor.”

That answered the question of whether Soundstealer really could just kill anyone he wanted. If that had ever really been in doubt. “Won’t that make others suspicious?”

“It is necessary. If you fought him, there is a good chance you would die, even with your newfound ability. Besides, you winning will create a useful cover for us to communicate. I can have it handled without being implicated. I’ll have to make Amaya believe you handled them, though.”

“Perhaps if you only drive them off. Amaya would never believe you would do something so obvious. If you make your involvement hidden but easy to weed out, maybe it will seem like revenge for what Hibana did to Fumi and nothing more. The easiest way to sell a lie is to let them think they’ve figured out the trick.”

Soundstealer was thoughtful for a moment before nodding. He seemed mildly impressed. “It is not an altogether foolish idea. I will think on it.”

There. Keta couldn’t say he hadn’t at least tried to take the higher path. He wasn’t altogether concerned if Hibana did an untimely end, though. Baby steps.

“What about Keta?” Moto felt a moment of hesitation. He didn’t want to draw the shapeling into this. But he knew what decision Keta would make if he had the choice.

Moto had promised to respect that. Even if that promise came in the form of a pillar of rock knocking the shapeling through a few trees. “He’s my partner.”

Soundstealer waved a hand. “You can keep your squad. I would have preferred you not involve my daughter, but I suppose it can’t be helped. If you’re found out I can claim that you got your information from her and safely excise all three of you. If she doesn’t wake up, I’ll find someone else with tenuous connections to me who can serve the same purpose.”

Moto knew color had risen to his cheeks. How could the man talk about his daughter so callously? Moto looked away to hide his anger.

As he turned his face away, Moto realized they were back at the infirmary. He had been so absorbed with keeping up with the conversation, he hadn’t looked at all where they were going.

“I will leave you for now. We will talk again once Hako and the others are gone and you are declared winner. If anyone asks, I am considering you for one of my teams, but want you to prove yourself further first.”

Just like that Soundstealer was gone. Moto stepped into the infirmary, taking a shaky breath. His hands quivered so badly he had to hold them behind his back as he entered the room with his squad.

Keta caught his eye and gave a questioning look. Moto gave a quick nod that said he would tell him later. And he would. He was decided now.

Iruka cast a nervous glance at the cut on his cheek, but Moto brushed it aside as he sat down.

“Well, in that case you missed some news. The doctor said Fumi looks like she’ll make it through. They’re still concerned she might have some permanent damage from the head wound, but she’s going to wake up.”

A flood of relief washed over Moto. It was such a stark contrast to the tension from Soundstealer’s presence, he gasped out loud.

Moto clamped a hand over his mouth and looked at his squad. Iruka was tilting back in her chair with boots up on the end of Fumi’s bed. She seemed pleased with the reaction elicited by her comment. Keta was covered in bandages but looking at him tenderly. Fumi was lying unconscious beside them, yet somehow looking stubborn and cocky while she did it.

Everything had changed. He was suddenly playing a much more precarious game. But all he could think about now was Fumi. And spending time with the team. Idly, Moto wondered where these bonds would take them now that he was allowing them to take root.

Moto shook his head ruefully. He shouldn’t let himself get too carried away. But still, he smiled.