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Grace

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Grace

When the pale dawn light fell into their tumbledown shack through the tiny windows, things glowed silver, as if they were enchanted objects in a myth or a fairytale. For a while, Fuu could almost forget that things were dirty and broken, that even this humble place could never be called home, that in a few weeks they would likely be holed up in some other shack. She never got tired of watching the transformation because it was nice to have something easy and good for once in their world.

The three of them lay together on a pallet covered in old blankets, in this place in the forest that had once been the guest house for a temple that now lay in ruins about fifteen minutes walk ahead of them. On her right slept Mugen, hand on her thigh, as usual groping her in his sleep; she in the middle and Jin on her left, with her hand curled on his hip.

Jin moved then and she shut her eyes, listening to the rustles and scratching of movement, the sounds that meant he was getting up for his morning bath. Another advantage: the pools nearby, heated by some underground source. She had spent several hours with Jin cleaning them of leaves and dirt once they had settled in; Mugen, who only bathed if it happened to start raining while he was outside, was entirely uninterested and repeatedly told them so while he stretched out, lazy under one of the maple trees. He didn't shut up until they threw him in.

Fuu waited until the sound of Jin's sandals died away, then got up herself, pulling her kimono straight. Even asleep, Mugen noticed when she pulled away, and opened his eyes to check.

"Where the fuck're you going?" he rasped, propping himself up on one arm, sleep cutting into his voice.

"Out to the bath with Jin," she whispered back, fumbling with her sash, her bare feet beating a little dance against the chill of the floorboards as she looked for her sandals. When had it gotten so cold?

Mugen grunted at her answer and dropped back down, taking all the covers with him and winding them around and around his body until only the very top of his head could be seen. "Whatever," he said, his voice muffled by reams of cloth. "Just fucking keep it down, would you?" He lowered the blankets enough so she could see his eyes, narrow with indignation or laughter. "Shouldn't go too rough on him because of his wound, you know. Besides, the only time I want to hear you screaming in ecstasy is when I'm the one actually fucking you."

"Oh, just shut up and go back to sleep, Mugen! Nobody asked you!" She clacked away, head high, making as much noise as possible before she got outside, then slammed the door behind her.

Jin was already in the bath, his bucket, cloth and soap set neatly besides the smaller pool they actually used for bathing. Fuu hurried to join him, breath puffing in the air, hands pulling the sash she had just tied apart again.

He inclined his head very slightly once he saw her. "Fuu."

"Morning!" she said brightly, folding her kimono so it would hang on a nearby branch without slipping off into the dirt. "Getting really cold isn't it?"

Jin's eyes took in her goose-pimpled skin, and cloudy breath as she finished stripping and hopped quickly into the cleaning pool to wash off; having seen enough, he closed them."You didn't have to come out."

"I don't mind," she told him with perfect truth as she scrubbed her hair. "Besides, it's been a while."

"It certainly has," he said quietly as she finished cleaning off, picked up the comb she kept on a little shelf besides the bath, and came to sit behind him, bare legs over his shoulders and his hair in her hands.

Fuu held her breath as she began to comb his hair, a little worried over what he would do. This had been their morning ritual for as long as they had been here, which was the more or less astonishing length of several months. Of course, she thought silently as she combed, we probably would have been long gone by now if we hadn't gotten hurt. He's just now gotten well too. Maybe...maybe that's why he doesn't seem interested.

It was a well-honed routine. Jin and Fuu bathed; she combed his hair, he massaged any kinks out of her shoulders and feet, and then they had sex. Jin had the bath, Mugen had...wherever he picked (which was usually in a dark alley, or up against a tree) as long as Jin wasn't around to see. Funny, she wondered, that the two of them, normally so competitive with each other, always made sure that the other wasn't around (at least within seeing distance) whenever they were with Fuu. Especially since the first times had taken place right next to the other, but they had been in danger of freezing to death at the time. She pulled at a stubborn tangle, trying to draw a response, but nothing happened.

Then his hands began to rub her calves and Fuu almost cried with relief. Everything's okay. She combed a little more gently. I think. Even the silence was good, because it was a happy silence.

She should have known it wasn't going to last though. "Fuu," he said suddenly and tilted his head back, forcing her to stop; she found herself looking at his dark eyes instead of his hair. Both were black as ink and just as shiny; when you looked into Jin's eyes, you saw only yourself looking back, never him.

"Tell me," he said, and Fuu's heart began to beat faster. "The story. What happened after you found me." He went quiet again, and Fuu knew without even asking that he was looking at the scar on her arm. Now, six months after the attack, it was barely more than a deep pink line slightly rough to the touch; she had healed very well. But that hadn't been enough to reassure Jin and three days later, he had left.

"Of course," she said, trying to sound strong and bright and unaffected; she put a hand to the back of his head and made him look back down, so she could continue combing as if nothing had happened. "You were out of it for a long time. Of course you want to know."

oooooo

Sometimes Fuu thought that they walked with the shadows of a million people dogging their steps, a quiet mob that followed them everywhere they went, ate everything they ate, slept where they slept, watching in patient silence for the slightest slip on their part, an opportunity to step forward into the light and cut her and her boys down where they stood. She could feel them rustling around her with every second that passed and it made her restless and itchy; not exactly frightened, but always painfully aware of what the next minute could bring. Unless they left Japan entirely, there would be no rest, no way to escape. They would be blown about the country like leaves, like sleepless ghosts watching everyone else's lives go by; they might visit in the land of the living every now and then, but in the end, they would always be pulled back by their shadows, into the dark.

One broke through while she and Jin were gathering mushrooms together in the forest. Mugen had gone off to a job for a nearby farmer, so Fuu took full advantage of the opportunity to be alone with Jin; she stole more kisses then they picked mushrooms. Unfortunately, Jin, clinging to the last shreds of his fastidiousness, drew the line at actually having sex in the dirt.

She was picking mushrooms and trying to think up ways to convince him--trees weren't dirty, right? So why not up against a tree--when Jin's hand came down hard on her arm and he told her, in no uncertain terms, to go into the cover of the trees and stay there. Before she could move, the subject of the warning came forward into their little clearing, his sword held at the ready.

His name, he informed then curtly, was Kobakuuya Mashiro; he was a student of the late, great Mariya Enshirou, forever honored be his name, and he had come to take Jin's head as retribution for his crime.

"You always had an overdeveloped sense of the dramatic, Kobakuuya," Jin said dryly, and the fight began.

Fuu stepped away and placed the basket of mushrooms down carefully by an old tree's root, so it wouldn't get trampled accidentally. Once he kills this guy (again), we can go home and I'll fry them for supper, she thought. Thinking about dinner was better than watching the fight; she'd already seen three of Jin's former schoolmates die by his hand. The man who beat Mariya and "The Divine Hand"--what were any of his former classmates to him?

Poor things, she thought and had to lean against the tree.

Then the strap of Jin's sandal, old and much-mended (in fact she had fixed it herself only last week) broke with an almost audible snap and he fell to his side on the leaves, wide open for Kobakuuya's blade.

Fuu only remembered little flashes of the events after that: the grunt of surprise (and perhaps resignation?) that Jin made when he crashed onto the forest floor, her chest aching as if it had been crushed down by a giant and struggling to breathe through the sudden pressure, Kobakuuya racing forward, sword glinting almost prettily as it swallowed down all the world's light. All of a sudden she was in front of Jin, shielding him with wide pink sleeves and her own frantic desperation. "Jin! No! Please don't! Please!" she begged. As if in answer, Kobakuuya's blade struck her arm, slicing through the top layer of flesh, shattering her shield away.

That was the moment when everything stopped. Fuu could not do anything except stand there and let the blood run down her arm, little streams dripping down into the soil below. She looked at her sleeve, now bloody ribbons of bright cloth, then up at Kobakuuya, whose face had twisted up into something startled and dreadful. She thought he might have said "I didn't mean to...Women are not--"

Behind her, Jin made the loudest sound she'd ever heard him make, a sort of gasp and cough that became her name. "Fuu." Then even louder. "Fuu!" She could not answer him, for her knees were trembling so badly she was going to fall, and she did, down into the leaves besides him.
Everyone was screaming.

The next thing she knew, she was up in Jin's arms, looking dizzily at the light spaces between the leaves above her. Kobakuuya opened his mouth, but never spoke, because Mugen was suddenly behind him, out of nowhere like a ghost, driving his sword into his ribs. Kobakuuya crumpled and Mugen kicked his body aside so Jin could pass with her.

"I could hear the commotion all the fucking way through the forest," he growled as they ran, Jin trying to keep from jostling her as best he could. "Goddamned stupid woman! What the hell were you thinking? And what the fuck is wrong with you," he spat at Jin " that you let her do something like that?"

oooooo

They took her to a little, smiling doctor who lived on the edge of town and had a face that looked as if it had been carved from a nut a million years old. She would live, was in no danger, he told them, smiling all the while, unless infection set in, of course. They paid him all the money they had, and took her back to the tumbledown guest house, to heal.

Even though there was no infection and Fuu healed beautifully, Jin remained silent, his body bent into a meditative pose, by the fire pit, shut off to the world by his closed eyelids. On the third day, Fuu woke early, her wounded arm aching. Mugen's hand moved sleepily against her hip, but on Jin's side their bed was empty.

Mugen grunted when she woke him, looking utterly unperturbed by her worry. "Probably just went out to get a job or something. After all, we're fucking broke now because that shitty doctor took all our money for your frickin' arm," he said, but when she grabbed his arm with her good one, trying to shake him into action, she could feel the tension all along the muscle under her hand.

They shuffled out together into the grey light, Mugen yawning and scratching every third step. "Goddamned Fish-face," he muttered through a yawn, "when I find you I'm going to beat the living shit out of you, because God only knows the last thing I want in this fucking world is Fuu nagging at me over your bony ass." He added, almost as an afterthought, "And I can't even fuck her to make up for it," which sent Fuu into a frenzy of kicking and one-handed slapping until he grudgingly apologized.

Jin was not in the town. Nor was he with the farmers who lived scattered widely on the outskirts a few miles away. By the time they verified the complete lack of Jin anywhere in the vicinity and made it back into town, half the day was gone and Mugen was cursing. "I'm going to cut off his fucking head and shit down his neck once we find him for the trouble he's caused," he muttered. "Fucking dumbass."

Fuu didn't even have the heart to tell him to shut up.

Lunch was eaten quickly and in silence. Once they were done, Mugen rose and waiting for her to catch up to his longer strides, headed towards the forest that surrounded them. They walked around and around over the uneven terrain, Mugen pausing every now and then to examine a leaf, a print in the dirt, the way a twig was broken. Hours passed, in silence.

They did not find Jin that day.

She spent the night sitting on what had been the porch of the ruined guest house, hands in her lap, staring up at the full moon. It shone white and smooth in the sky, silver light glittering against indigo-black. Like his skin, she thought, throat tight and all of her body aching, like the highlights in his hair.

In the morning they left again, Fuu half in a daze, watching the moon until it sank below the red light of dawn and vanished. Mugen grunted when he saw her sleep-drawn face and grunted again when she refused to eat. He threatened to force-feed her, then when that didn't work, told her he was going to leave her ass in the woods for the bugs to eat once she collapsed from hunger and sleeplessness. She ate the food and followed Mugen through the woods once more, this time in a different direction.

Hours later, they had just come to a little clearing in the woods when Mugen suddenly put out a skinny arm and stopped her. Fuu stood on her tiptoes to look and saw, over the faded scarlet of his sleeve, a body, face down, dressed in blue--but the hair's much too short, it's another student, poor thing-- with a sword laying broken and stained old red in the dirt besides him. She strained a little higher on her toes, looked out a little further and saw him.

Jin lay propped against a tree, in its shade, one hand flat over the border between his ribs and belly, as if to conceal the dark stain spreading quietly over his kimono. His eyes were closed, the lids smudged blue-blacked, and they didn't open, not even when she pushed Mugen aside, ran over and stood right besides him.

"Jin!" she demanded, heart hammering so hard she could barely hear herself over its noise, "Wake up! Look at me, damnit! Jin!" He remained silent, and unmoving; Mugen was curiously quiet behind her.

Gritting her teeth through the tears pouring down her face, she raised a hand to slap him. As she moved her arm, his eyes opened and he squinted up at her, his face drawn into wrinkles and looking strangely old in the dim light. He smiled, or grimaced, and his lips moved into a word: "Fuu."
She burst into tears all over again and fell on him (carefully, for they were both wounded) covering his face with kisses and speaking threats all the while. "You idiot! Stupid Jin! How could you--I'll never forgive you as long as you live, and you better live, because if not I'm going to kill myself and come into Hell to follow you and make your life miserable! Stupid moron--" and she couldn't speak any longer because she was choking on her tears.

"Dumbass." Mugen had moved to her side when she wasn't looking, and was now leaning over, trying to get an arm under Jin's shoulders so he could lift him up. "Look what you've done; you got her fucking crying and now you'll never hear the end of it. And neither will I, because I have to live with you shits."

The smiling old doctor got more money from them, or rather the promise of money through odd jobs and labor in his tiny, smelly pharmacy. Jin was stitched up, plastered with herbs that smelled like sweat and garbage, and carried home, to a pallet by the fire, to be watched by Fuu every minute of the day.

"Fuu," Mugen asked one night, after she had finished bathing Jin's face with cool water and come to sit sleepily by the fire, staring into its shimmery fans of light . "Got a question." She looked up and blinked the sleep out of her eyes. "Huh? What?"

He jerked his chin towards Jin. "If that was me--and understand that unlike him, I'm too fucking smart to ever do something that dickheaded, but if that was me--would you be crying and carrying on the same? Or was that only a Jin-thing?" Eyes hooded, he waited for her response.

That woke her up all the way. "Dummy, I already did cry all over you, remember?" she snapped. "Let's see, I did when you almost drowned, and oh, how about when the two of you nearly died when we found my father and you were in a coma for a week! I cried every night! Of course I'd cry over you! What kind of stupid question is that?"

Mugen laughed silently."Just curious," he said and with an unmistakable look of triumph curling his lips, he called over to Jin. "You hear that fish-face? Don't go thinking you're anything special, cause she'll cry over us both the same."

Fuu just shook her head.

oooooo

As she came to the end of the story, she fell silent, while Jin's hands moved slowly against her calves. "And then I woke up," he prompted, smiling very faintly.

"And then you woke up," she agreed, putting her hands back through his hair. "But not for a couple of days after that, and even then you were really out of it. I had to keep reminding you to do everything. You shouldn't--" she hesitated, then started again. "It was really stupid of you to run off like that. It's not like I'd be any safer with you gone. We all have people after us. Better to stand together than fight alone."

He was silent, but his hands were still moving. "I missed this, you know?" she continued. "Coming out here and bathing with you--I mean, it's not just the sex, don't think it's just because of the sex," she amended hastily. "I need your quiet in order to survive Mugen's loud. And," she added in a whisper because she could feel the tears start to come. "I liked to think you needed me too, but now I'm not so sure."

Even while she was crying, she got a small thrill of satisfaction out of seeing Jin's face actually contort with shock. "Oh, Fuu," he said, and his hands stopped. Jin was very good with most things, but despite his months of experience with her, still very bad with women; it was really unfair of her to bait him like this.

"Were you trying to die?" she asked, voice shaking. "How could you even think of that? Leaving me alone. With Mugen! Like you wanted to punish me," she finished, and gulped down a huge sob.

Water sloshed all over as he stood up in the bath, turned and put his arms around her, skin against skin, breast against breast. "I would never think it. Never," he said, his voice growing firmer with every word; she put her mouth against his shoulder and sobbed. The contact was infinitely soothing and though she kept crying, she stopped shaking. "I panicked when you were hurt. I did not think clearly; it is something that seems to come with too much attachment." His lips moved against her hair as she moaned, her small hands gripping his back.

"I-I am still not used to living this way. Even still, I behaved abominably. In fact, I was--" he hesitated, "a dumbass. Entirely a dumbass."

"My dumbass, though," she whispered. "Promise me you'll never do that again."

The early light made him glow; he looked almost holy and entirely too beautiful for words. "I promise," he said, and kissed her throughly to show that he meant it.