by Lady Grey

Arrangements had to be made. It was the proper thing to do, and Japanese culture prided itself on propriety. Sark approved in principle, though he hated the time spent in ceremonial, smiling negotiations. A gun to the head of a select few would have accelerated the process. It had in the past.

Instructions, however, had been explicit. One did not bring weapons into the presence of O-Ren Ishii. It was an insult. If the lady in question did not take it as an insult, her bodyguards would. And if those bodyguards (Sark could not decide whether having a mob of eighty-eight masked swordsmen as onešs personal army was over-the-top or an excellently obvious display of power) did not take his life in payment for that perceived insult, the lady likely would.

If he needed a weapon, his Tokyo contact had assured him, O-Ren would be gracious enough to provide him with one so that he could make the necessary effort of defending himself and thus die with honor. He found the concept intriguing, having had no honor (save that among thieves, which really was no honor at all, a small but pretty paradox) at any time before.

O-Ren Ishii, if he were to judge from appearances (porcelain-skinned but for the freckles he was warned not to even notice, straight posture, kimono white as a paper crane) had the same sort of honor. Perhaps she would share. Or perhaps she would share the schoolgirl by her side. Pleated skirt and loose dark hair, sweet pouty mouth and downcast eyes. And a mace on a length of chain. Far too many weapons for so small a girl. Miss Bristow (Sydney) kept her weapons, physical and material, discreetly hidden until they were needful.

"Please state your request." Courteous and cool, in elegant English, her voice as white as her clothing.

"The use of one of your Tokyo facilities, for no more than three hours. I shall be present in the background, and another will be undercover as a geisha. We shall remove a client from the premises, after which we will not trouble you further."

Her head tilted the barest fraction. "Whom will this affect?"

"The Alliance. Possibly the CIA. I have no way of knowing for certain until the job is done."

"You had no need to come to me."

"It was the polite thing to do." He allowed himself to visibly look at the others, at the woman in grey with a bland/pretty face, at the masked man whose eyes glinted hard behind a half-skin of black, and at the schoolgirl whose tonguetip just peeked from her candy lips. "Honorable allies as we all are."

The girl said something in a tiny, fluting trill of Japanese. "He may ally himself with my mace, if my Mistress wishes." Sark smiled at her, and did not show his comprehension.

"Gogo." O-Ren did not even look at her, but the girl dropped her head. "Forgive her rudeness. She is young."

"The young often overestimate the wisdom of their elders, even when reminded of it." He spoke in perfect Japanese, and watched Gogošs knuckles whiten around the chain. "Such loyalty is commendable." And would no doubt get the girl killed, eventually.

"A surprising commendation, coming from you." She smiled slightly, though it did not reach her dark eyes.

"My loyalties are different from yours, perhaps, but not lacking." He had learned long ago to be flexible.

She nodded, tolerant. "The facility is yours. Please stay within the parameters of time, place and disturbance that we have discussed, or steps will be taken."

There was a sword at her side, and he did not doubt her. "Domo. If ever you require a favor--"

"Your aid is as fluctuating as your loyalties. I have all the help I need." The woman in grey smiled a small victorious smile. The masked man straightened even further into taut attention. The (Gogo) girl beamed sunnily at him, still stroking the chain.

He bowed, thinking of his one reluctant ally. Singing in a Paris nightspot, brandishing an ice axe, even having acid scrubbed from her body, her loyalties remained. Yet still a different kind of loyalty. O-Ren Ishii would not understand. "With respect, someday, it will not be that easy."

A schoolgirlšs disbelieving giggle followed him out.


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