Shinobi Isekai: Round Four @morrowyn
Chapter 1

I fed the dog today.

That was all the comfort Akira could give their sister as she was shoved into the closet, her terrified sobs drowned out by the wicked beast's growls. The sliding door was slammed shut by a long fingered hand, a single red jewel set in an ornate golden ring catching the light filtering in through an open window. Pale eyes peered through long brown hair and pierced Akira's soul. For a single, terrifying moment, they were certain their words had been heard and the secret they and their sister had been keeping since before their birth was now exposed.

The eyes lost their intensity. Brows painstakingly plucked to match the latest fashion unfurrowed and a charming smile spread across a beautiful face.

"Akira," the woman's voice was unusually low in pitch and unique in timbre. Many a man lay awake beside their wives, chasing the memory of that voice. "Come. Do my hair."

They did as they were told, mindful not to react to the sound of the dog tearing into their sister's clothing. If they reacted, the torture would only get worse. Even she knew to smother her voice. Still, they couldn't help but foster the hatred in their heart as they pulled hair into an intricate updo. The ornate hair pins in their hands would make an excellent weapon. A single downward thrust into the neck is all it would take. Their hands shook with the oppressive need to put an end to the source of their sister's pain and suffering, but they refrained. If the woman brought them into this strange new world died by their hands, their fates would be much, much worse. She was a monster, but she was a territorial one. No matter how badly she treated them, no one else was allowed to lay hands on their children. A small blessing, but the best they could ask for.

Children born in brothels rarely stayed children for long.

Akira remained kneeling as their mother stood, hands clenched in their lap. The growling in the closet had died down, letting small sniffles fill the small room. The mother of the crying child did not react. Instead, she pulled on layer upon layer of kimonos, fastening a large, ostentatious obi just beneath her famously large bosom. She stood in front of a floor length mirror, admiring her reflection. Akira had to admit she was beautiful. Unlike many of the other oiran in the brothel, she didn't cover her face with white makeup. Her golden skin glowed with health and set off her large pale eyes. Their color was trapped somewhere between gold and green and she enhanced them by wearing exclusively those colors. She was like a woodland fairy trapped in the mortal realm, bewitching men and women alike as she climbed the ranks to become one of the capital's most expensive courtesans.

She knew she was beautiful. Expected her children to be beautiful. Hated that one of them was not.

Someone knocked on the door before sliding it open. Kneeling in the hallway was another beautiful woman, her black hair pulled into a simple, but elegant bun secured by a single hairpin. Her kimono had only two layers of black and red silk, setting her starkly apart from the woman in the room.

"Onee-sama," she said demurely, bowing lowly over extended hands. "You have a customer."

Akira watched as their mother turned and walked out the door with measured, graceful steps. She didn't even look over her shoulder as she left her child behind.

That was fine. They didn't want her acknowledgement, anyway.

As soon as she disappeared down the hall, the messenger lost all pretense of humility. She sat back on her heels, back straight as a rod. No longer downcast, her red eyes glittered like rubies.

"Get your sister out," she ordered. "We'll go to my room."

Akira didn't hesitate to obey. They ran across the tatami floor and threw open the closet door.

Inside, huddled into a corner with bloody hands covering her head, was Akiko. Her clothing was tattered and stained and she shook with terror. Akira's heart pounded in their ears as they reached out to wrap her in the tightest hug they could manage—then stopped themself. As much as they wanted to comfort their sister, touching her now while she was already overwhelmed would only upset her further. It was a lesson they'd learned in one childhood, already, but she had somewhat outgrown her sensitivity, before. This time…well, at least they could understand her, this time. If they were a real child, dealing with their sister's rejection would undoubtedly cause resentments to fester between them and their twin.

To quell the need to touch her, they instead turned to the dog. Their mother's favorite pet was often starved in preparation for Akiko's torture, so it was hard to stay angry at it. Still, it hurt her so many times—.

"Kiko," they whispered, heart caught in their throat. "Did you kill the dog?"

It was a stupid question. No one else could have done it. The creeping vines wrapped tightly around its throat were more than enough proof. If their mother saw this…

"I'll take care of it," their rescuer said with a sigh. "Just get her out of here."

Akira swallowed thickly and nodded. I'm sorry, they said privately as they grabbed hold of their sister's arm. She tensed in response and tried to curl even further inward, but they pulled anyway. You have to come with me, Kiko. Please.

ok…

Relief washed over them as their sister finally let them pull her out of the closet. They let her go as soon as they were sure she could stand on her own, mindful of how tense and oversensitive she was. As it was, she didn't even look at them, rushing through the open door and down the hall to the room that had become their safe haven. Akira threw a hesitant look back at the closet, but their view was blocked by black silk.

They had no idea why the young oiran was helping them, but they weren't in a position to ask. They could only gratefully accept her assistance whenever she deigned to give it.

They stepped into the other room quietly, not at all surprised to find their sister buried under a pile of blankets.

I'm sorry, they said as they came to sit beside the quivering lump that was their twin. I didn't mean to sound so accusatory. I know you hate the dog.

She didn't respond for a long moment. I didn't mean to kill it. I know it's not its fault. It was just hungry.

Akira slowly reached out to place a hand on the pile of blankets. Akiko didn't reject the touch, but she didn't welcome it, either. That was fine. She'd only just escaped the closet, after all.

I know, they assured her. You would never hurt it on purpose.

That dog was a constant source of torment for Akiko, but she'd never retaliated against it. She knew it was just another of their mother's victims, forced to attack her if it didn't want to starve. Of course, knowing that and having to endure it were two separate things.

The door slid open and both children tensed. The red eyed oiran stepped inside, her beautiful face twisted in a frown.

"Is she in there?"

Akira nodded, a little afraid of the look on her face. She marched right over and pulled the blankets off Akiko. The little girl squealed and tried to rebury herself, but their rescuer wouldn't have it.

"Come out of there," she hissed, exasperated. "We need to clean your wounds before they fester."

She's right, you know.

Shut up! I don't wanna!

Despite her words, Akiko let herself be wrestled into a sitting position, her tattered kimono slipping from her shoulders and exposing the bruises on her golden skin. There was little resemblance between Akira and their twin. Where they were slender, she was plump, their hair was straight and fell past their chin, while hers somehow defied gravity and fluffed in every possible direction. The only things they had in common they also shared with their mother. Golden skin. Intensely pale eyes. Thick dark brows that could never truly be tamed.

"Oni-baba," she whined piteously as she tried to dodge the foul smelling ointment. "It's so sticky!"

"Hold still you little brat! And don't call me baba!" Despite her harsh tone, her grip on Akiko was gentle and she slathered generous amounts of the expensive medicine onto her injuries. "My name is Okuda."

Be that as it may, Oni-baba certainly suited her more. She had a foul attitude and rarely ever smiled, her red eyes adding an air of menace to her entire countenance. The other courtesans whispered behind her back, calling her Oni and laughing at her pitiful rank within the brothel, but she never reacted. It was as if she had no ambitions.

Well, beyond forcing Akiko to sit still.

Save me!

Akira disguised their laughter as a cough. If Akiko really wanted to escape, she could do so easily. Trying to dodge the stinky medicine was part of her ritual, the process through which she tried her best to move past her fear and exhaustion. She would complain about the ointment and Okuda would ignore her and Akira would laugh at them. It was the same every time. Except…

"What did you do with the dog?"

Akira's question put an immediate damper on the girls' antics. Okuda closed her red eyes with a sigh and wrangled Akiko into a more comfortable position in her lap. Subdued by the reminder of her impending doom, she let it happen.

"I threw it out the window."

What!?

Both siblings stared at Okuda with open horror, their shared mind space echoing with shock.

She said what I think she said, right?

Yes, she did.

What the heck? That's so messed up…

"I can hear your thoughts from here," Okuda said snidely. "I know it's gruesome, but there was nothing else I could do. If I dealt with it the normal way, someone would see it and tell Enogiku. There'd be no explaining it away if that happened."

The sound of their mother's name sent chills down their spines, effectively killing any joy or ease they might have felt. She was like a shadow, growing ever darker the brighter the light they flocked to. Although Okuda hadn't been in their lives for long, if anything happened to her they would…

Die. We'd probably die. Or I would, anyway. The bitch likes you, for some reason.

Akira couldn't deny those words. It was no secret that their mother favored them even as she tried to push Akiko to a death she couldn't be blamed for. Why, they weren't quite sure. Looking at Akiko seemed to push her over an invisible edge. Sometimes, she would let a few comments slip, comparing Akiko to her father—a man neither twin had ever met, nor likely ever would. Though it was hard to confirm, they could guess why Akiko resembling him would be so upsetting.

There were few ways for an oiran to leave the business. The most romanticized was to be bought by a customer who loved them unconditionally. If their mother had expected that from their father and bore his children with that understanding, then it made sense that seeing them would be a sad reminder of what she almost had. What was odd was how she favored Akira while scorning Akiko. They were both that man's child, right? So what if she resembled him more?

Of course, expecting a woman who tried to feed her daughter to a dog to act logically was perhaps a bit too much.

"Don't worry," Okuda said again, her ruby red lips pulling up into a smile. "Have some snacks, instead. I know that bitch doesn't feed you like she should."

Akiko laughed sharply. "Look at me! You think we don't eat?"

Okuda made a big show of looking Akiko's round figure over, hemming and hawing. "You're right. Silly me. I guess your brother's the only one who gets snacks, then."

"Sibling."

"Hm?"

Akiko glared into Okuda's forehead. "My sibling gets snacks."

Warmth filled Akira's heart as Okuda stumbled to correct herself. That's right. Akira had always stood by them, even in their life before where others had not. That was why it hurt to know they couldn't help her here. If anything happened to their mother, they would lose their only protection from the rest of the world. Better the devil they knew, right?

"You sibling won't be getting any snacks if you swallow them all."

Akira came back to themself with a start. Akiko was stuffing her face with rice cakes, cheeks bulging like a chipmunk's. She caught their eyes and grinned.

Hurry up, silly.

They rushed to claim a few of the sweets on the table. You're just gonna get fat.

I'm already fat, she huffed. And there's nothing wrong with it, you meanie.

I didn't mean… They sighed. Is it tasty?

Yep! Oni-baba has the best snacks! The smile on her face was as genuine as it was rare. They had few reasons to smile, anymore, Akiko even less than Akira.

If only this small moment of happiness could last.

If only their mother wouldn't come back.


Akiko pressed her hands over her ears, trying desperately to drown out the sounds of sex filling the room she shared with her whole family. She and Akira had been unceremoniously shoved into a hole in the wall, hidden from view by a wooden slat. Akira, the jerk, was somehow able to shut out the sound of their mother servicing her latest customer, even falling asleep in spite of the cramped position they were forced into. Akiko wasn't so lucky. She hated being stuck in the wall. Hated being cramped and touching someone and being breathed on. It might not be so bad if they were the only things in the hole, but they weren't. Akiko had to share the hole with not just her sibling, but a whole bunch of books and scrolls. It was like a cache for all the things her mother didn't want anyone to see.

A particularly loud moan filled the air and Akiko recoiled.

So gross, so gross, so gross, so gross.

Akira slept on, impervious to the chanting their sister was desperately trying to send into their mind. Curses. She could only press harder, her ears hurting with the force of her desperate need for silence.

Her hands were not enough to block out the sound of her mother choking. It was not a good sound. Her mother was not enjoying it, at all. A trace vestige of filial concern had Akiko shifting her weight to look through a gap in the wood to make sure all was well.

All she could see was the naked back of a man, tense muscles illuminated by warm candlelight. He sat straddled over her mother's waist, leaning over her as her long legs flailed beneath him. Akiko watched, transfixed, as her mother dug long nails into his arms in a vain attempt to get him off her.

"Where is it?" The man's voice was pitched almost too low to hear, but Akiko zeroed in on it, every word branding itself into her mind. "Where did you hide it?"

She had no idea what 'it' was, but there was only one place her mother hid anything.

Her mother's strangled response was completely unintelligible, but her ragged gasps sent jolts of terror through Akiko's body. Her limbs were numb with the overwhelming fear that suffused her mind. Akira was still asleep, unconcerned by the very real threat to their lives. The only thing between them and the man clearly intent on murdering their mother was a flimsy slat of wood. Given the way his back rippled with strength, that would be nowhere near enough. She didn't trust her mother to value her children over her own life like all the moms on TV did, so it was only a matter of time before the man turned his attention her way.

She needed to do something.

It was hard to control her limbs, but she somehow managed to press her fingertips against the wood. Though it had been processed who knew how long ago, there was still a spark of life inside it. All she had to do was fan the flame.

Grow for me, babies. Please.

Of all the secrets the twins kept, their powers were the least protected. Literally everyone in the brothel had seen them at some point. Their mother had them, too, and used them to create incredible ikebana works that sold for tens of thousands of ryou. Nobody thought anything of it, though. Magic powers were apparently par for the course in this weird world.

Akiko's own magic began to seep into the wood, reaching out to the tiny flicker of life still left within. Once she had it under control, it was super easy to coax the wood into place, strengthening its connection to the wall and hopefully hiding the fact that a giant hollow space was hidden just behind it. There was little light inside the hole, but she could feel the tendrils of her power moving outward in rootlike growths, connecting to the rest of the wall and the wooden support beams and—.

Her mother stopped moving.

Akiko had kept the little hole clear so she could watch the man, but she was regretting that decision now. There was nothing blocking her vision as the man stood, leaving her mother lying prone on her futon, expensive fabrics strewn about from her death throes. He turned around, giving Akiko an eyeful of his naked body, but not his face. He cursed under his breath, clenching and unclenching his fists. He was breathing heavily, like he'd run a marathon instead of strangling a woman in her own bed. Then, he went deathly still. Akiko, too, stilled in her hole, her lungs burning as she refused to breathe. Beside her, Akira chose the worst possible moment to stir in their sleep.

The world stopped spinning.

The only people in existence were two children and a murderer.

Akiko's heart leapt into her throat as he took a step in their direction. Please, she begged. Grow faster.

The wood listened, rushing to strengthen the only barrier between her and death. She couldn't die. Not again. She refused.

She kept her gaze on the body steadily approaching the wall. She'd killed something before, hadn't she? The memory of the dog growing still and silent—just like her mother—would haunt her forever, as would the still bleeding wound she'd earned for the trouble, but it was proof she could end a life if she had to. As her would be killer came closer, she noticed a scar on his abdomen. It was long and twisty, like someone had dragged a knife over his ribs with a very shaky hand. He came closer and closer, outlined by candlelight. Akiko didn't dare move. He raised his hand.

The sound his fingertips made as he dragged them across the wall reverberated inside the hole. Akira's body jerked in response and Akiko reached out to keep them from moving.

What's going on?

She didn't respond. Her eyes were trained on the man outside. He'd frozen when Akira moved. Through the hole in the wall, she could see the muscle over his ribs moving as he breathed. He was too close. Too close and too still.

This time, he rapped his knuckles against the wood, listening to see if it was hollow. With two children and a private library stuffed inside, it probably passed the test…right? Akiko used more of her magic to bolster the wall. Please let it be enough.

Seriously, what's happening?

Shh! I'm concentrating!

The man knocked on the wall again, checking several different spots. Akiko watched as he crouched, his face finally coming into view. It was an ordinary face. Just like all the other men who'd paid for a night with her mother. There was nothing distinctive about him at all.

Of course, he might be the most amazingly handsome man in existence and it wouldn't make a lick of difference. Her memory wasn't built to hold faces. The instant he stood again, taking his face with him, she forgot it.

Her body had only just started to relax when something hit the wall. Hard. Akira's hand grabbed hers, squeezing her fingers tighter than she liked. Through the hole she could see the bridge of the man's nose as he pressed the side of his head to the wall, listening. Could he hear them? Hear them breathing? Hear the frantic beating of their hearts?

No. He couldn't.

He stood, this time without returning. Akiko watched, stone still, as he put his clothes back on. When he was dressed, he looked like any other merchant on the streets of the capital. He also dressed her mother, wrapping her corpse in a pale white sleeping kimono and putting away her expensive silks. By the time he was done, it looked like their mother had simply laid down to sleep.

Then, he disappeared from Akiko's view.

Kiko.

She turned her head in her sibling's direction. She's dead. He killed her.

What!? They squeezed Akiko's hand again and she let them. What do you mean? Why would someone kill her?

He was looking for something. Something hidden.

Akira grip loosened. Something in here.

She nodded.

They both sat in silence for a long while after that. They couldn't be sure the man was gone. Only once the night crier shouted the hour did they try to leave the hole.

What did you do, Akira asked, mental voice tinged with awe. They ran their hands over the inside of the wall, tracing the rootlike protrusions holding the wooden slat in place.

He was gonna find us, she huffed. And you were asleep.

Akiko pushed her magic into the wood, thanking it for coming to their rescue and asking it to pretty please let them out, thanks. The tendrilous growths retreated, curling in on themselves and allowing the children to leave their makeshift prison. Akira held out their hand, stopping Akiko from pushing the wall open.

Let me.

If he's there, we'll both die anyway, she replied blandly. Does it matter who goes out first?

Akiko couldn't see her sibling's face, but she knew exactly which expression they were making. Can you even walk? I know how you get when you're scared.

She looked away, embarrassed. I can! To prove it, she pushed the wall open with perhaps a little too much force. The wooden slat fell to the ground with a loud thud and they both froze, waiting for their mother's killer to jump out of the shadows and kill them, too.

He didn't.

I told you, Akira scolded as they crawled out of the hole, taking slow careful steps toward their mother's body. Stay there. I'll check it out.

She's dead, Akiko assured them as she tried to follow on shaky legs. Good riddance.

Kiko!

She pouted. She was allowed to be a little happy, right?

While Akira putzed around the futon, she started pulling out the books and scrolls Enogiku had died to protect. Though they were often forced to share space with them, the twins had never actually looked inside. Their mother had made it quite clear that they were never to disturb her secret library on pain of death. Well, now she was dead and Akiko could do whatever she wanted.

With childish glee, she unrolled a scroll, letting it trail across the ground. Something fell out of it with a quiet clink.

Uh…Kira…you should come look at this.

What is it?

Just come.

Akiko stared at the metal plate where it lay on the floor, the symbol etched into it laughing at her as it warped her reflection. Akira inhaled sharply when they came to stand beside her.

Is that…

It was. A Naruto forehead protector lay on the tatami mat, answering a thousand questions even as it spawned a million more.

Curses.


I'm sure you noticed, but Akira is nonbinary. I personally struggle with the they/them pronoun irl and I'm hoping that writing this story will help me fully integrate it into my vocabulary and the research I do to write Akira as realistically as possible will help expand my understanding of nonbinary as a gender identification. As with Round Three and Beni's transness, please feel free to hold me accountable with Akira. If I do something wrong or offensive, tell me! I'm learning. (´。• ᵕ •。`)

Also, I don't know if this came across quite as well, but Akiko is neurodivergent. As am I. The behaviors and limitations she exhibits are also mine. So, please be nice. (>﹏<)

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