Fuu settled into a comfortable position at the low table. A waitress came up to her and took her order. She ordered several dumplings for Mugen, Jin's recent favorite - miso soup with kabocha, and a fragrant but affordable white fish that she'd smelled coming in for herself. They were running low on money, but they could still afford to eat a few good meals.
Jin and Mugen entered the small restaurant not too long after the waitress had walked off to place the order. Fuu had sent them off to find work while she looked for a place to eat. Apparently, this was the only place to eat, and work was scarce around here. They hadn't taken long.
That morning the three travelers had set off from the resort inn where they had waited out the thunderstorm. And, as evening had drawn nearer, Fuu had insisted that they take a detour to a nearby town to get some food and cheap lodging. She'd reasoned that since they were so close to the island, they really didn't have to scrimp anymore.
"How much farther do you think we have now, Jin?" Fuu asked, watching the two men sit across from her. Jin produced the map and traced the familiar course with his finger tips.
"If we leave early tomorrow," he said, pushing his spectacles back up his nose, "We should probably only have one more night on the road before we get to the island.
Fuu nodded, moving her hands out of the way so the approaching waitress could place her meal before her. She hadn't looked to confirm it yet, but judging by the uneasy feeling she was getting, Mugen was watching her. She chose not to make eye contact and concentrated on her food.
The fish was as delicious as she had hoped, but she couldn't enjoy it fully because of the feeling she was getting. Finally giving in, she looked up at the gaunt samurai, expecting to meet those dark gray eyes, but she didn't. Mugen, as usual, was busy shoveling food down his throat like someone was going to steal it out of his mouth if he didn't eat fast enough.
That was strange, Fuu thought, returning to her food. She could've swore he'd been watching her. Having confirmed that he wasn't, Fuu continued as usual, but the feeling didn't go away.
As the three of them sat, waiting for the bill, Fuu casually glanced around her so as not to draw her companions' attention to her. Nothing looked out of place in the small but cozy restaurant. The waitress was bustling to and from the welcoming looking kitchen with food orders. A few local farmers sat in one corner, enjoying a little sake before going home for the evening. Fuu's gaze continued around the room and fell on a woman sitting alone near the wall opposite of them. As Fuu's eyes fell on her, the woman quickly looked away. So, she'd been the one watching her. Fuu wondered if Jin and Mugen had known. If they had, neither acted bothered.
The woman looked stunningly beautiful, even to Fuu. This was the kind of woman that every little girl wants to grow up to look like. Her skin was naturally pale and her almond-shaped eyes glittered with intelligence. The lady's jet black hair was held back neatly with several long pins. In the back of her mind Fuu remembered them being called kansashi. Her mother had had several of them as well. She'd told Fuu that her father had given them to her and that they were very special to wives and daughters of samurai. In fact, Fuu wore two such pins in her hair at the moment, with their sharp ends being concealed in her hair. Her mother had never used them as weapons but that was what they were intended for.
At the woman's side lay a daisho. Unlike Jin's, these were custom made for a woman's smaller hands and were probably much lighter, Fuu suspected. As familiar as the blades were to Fuu, she'd never seen a woman carry them. This woman looked more like a geisha than a fighter anyways.
Mugen, finished with his dumplings looked up briefly at Fuu while Jin was supposedly not looking. She was staring at something as she sipped her tea. He followed her gaze to the figure on the other side of the room. With a glance, Mugen sized the lady up. Probably some rich fucker's daughter or wife carrying swords around to dare anyone to mess with her in her father's or husband's territory. If things hadn't been so tangled up with Fuu, he probably would've made the moves on her just to spite the old asshole.
The bill came, and Fuu paid for it out of the dwindling amount that he'd stolen a few days earlier. Surely there was still enough left for them to be able to stay in a decent place, Mugen figured. After the long day of walking, he was ready for a soft dry place to sleep.
Fuu stood, followed by Jin. Mugen rose after the dark-haired samurai, taking a second to glance back at the woman that Fuu seemed so interested in. The woman was watching Fuu over her tea cup, and she caught the pirate looking at her. She smiled politely and bowed her head slightly. Mugen shrugged it off for once and followed after his two companions.
Fuu rented one room for the three of them for the night at the local inn. Used to the looks she got by now, Fuu didn't even blush at the woman's stunned expression at Fuu choice of roommates.
The room was very small, but it was quiet and dark. And, that was all they needed. The uneasy feeling had followed her from the restaurant to the inn, so Fuu chose to sleep between her bodyguards for once with Jin on her right and Mugen on her left, between her and the door. At first she'd thought she wouldn't be able to sleep a wink, but after only a few moments of the comforting sounds of Jin's steady breathing and Mugen's buzzing snore, Fuu was out cold.
It couldn't have been long, maybe an hour at most, before Fuu woke with a start feeling a warm hand on hers. Opening her eyes and turning her head, she saw that Mugen's eyes were open a crack and he was looking at her sleepily. Fuu opened her mouth to question his boldness, but he shook his head, looking over her at Jin who's sleep was more like a deeper than normal daydream. The dark haired samurai made no move to indicate that he had woke at the sound of Fuu's gasp.
Tired beyond words, Fuu didn't have it in her to fight Mugen anyways. Instead, she rolled over to face him, giving them as much privacy as the situation allowed. 'What?' she mouthed. Even if he couldn't read lips, the tired frown on her face asked it for her.
"Are you okay?" he asked in a nearly inaudible whisper. Fuu's trained ears heard him well enough in the quiet room. "You're jumping in your sleep."
Fuu nodded her head and mouthed, 'I'm fine.'
Mugen let her hand go, reluctantly and let her roll onto her back again. In a few more moments, he was asleep again, but Fuu's mind was once again wide awake, and she couldn't sleep for now.
'I will never love a samurai,' she repeated over and over again in her head as she stared at the ceiling. She hadn't actually promised her mother that she wouldn't fall in love with a samurai with those exact words, she told herself, but Fuu didn't feel like it would make her mother very happy seeing her falling for the worst of the worst when it came to samurai. It might have been one thing if Jin had found out and fallen for her like Mugen had. He would've at least done the honorable thing and courted her properly. She didn't think her mother would've minded as much if the samurai was an upstanding citizen who would make a good husband and father.
Mugen, she thought, couldn't do either of those for her. But, he had nearly died protecting her, Fuu argued to herself. Didn't that count for something? No. She'd saved his life a couple times too. Fuu owed Mugen nothing, she thought and was surprised to feel a twinge of remorse.
"This is going to make me crazy," she whimpered softly, feeling hot tears misting her eyes. She squeezed them shut to prevent them from oozing over the brim and sliding down her cheek, but it was in vain. Hastily, but noiselessly, she wiped it away with her left hand. Mugen's snoring never faltered.
Mugen cracked an eye open at the feeling of her intentionally slight movement and watched as she wiped away the wetness on her cheek. He wanted so badly to pull her into his arms, tuck her warm head under his chin, and hold her all night. What was wrong? If she'd just tell him, he could beat it. He could help her.
Fuu opened her eyes just before the night began to turn into a gray dawn. She was done sleeping and didn't feel like laying around waiting for the guys to 'wake her up.' Even after a year without morning routines and exercises, Fuu always woke up before morning. She didn't need Jin suspecting anything from her early start, so she'd always made sure that she was the last one out of bed every morning.
Jin wouldn't be awake for another hour, she figured as she silently rose and readjusted her kimono. Mugen wouldn't wake up until Jin came back from his practicing.
That's what Fuu needed right now. The drills and exercises her sensei had made her do had been difficult and painful at first, but now, after so long, Fuu found comfort in them. The previous morning at the spring, she had done them again for old time's sake and hadn't realized how much she missed it.
The screen door slid open quietly, and Fuu went outside into the chilly but moist morning. In the room, Mugen awoke, feeling Fuu's warmth leave. After he was sure that she was gone, he got up and followed after her.
There was a quiet and secluded place not too far from the inn, but not too close either. Just in case she had to curse at her clumsiness, Fuu smiled to herself.
Awareness, explosiveness, speed, strategy, and balance: all of these are qualities that are highly prized and honed in tantojutsu. Strength, Mugen had told her was important. Fuu had always grouped it into the explosiveness category along with stamina. At the time, these two were her weakest links, and she intended to fix it.
Fuu gracefully dipped down and assumed a well-balanced handstand. She'd seen Mugen do this familiar exercise and thought it would be a good way to get back some of her balance and strength. She swayed unsteadily at first and her head swam, but eventually Fuu found her nitch and settled back in. First with both arms then with one at a time, Fuu did sets of a sort of handstand push-up.
After some quick and showy balancing of her tanto, Fuu rested and meditated for twenty minutes, unknowing that she had an audience. Mugen was about to make his presence known when a familiar person appeared. It was the woman from the restaurant. Mugen stiffened, seeing the woman's daisho and her intent stare at the meditating Fuu. He was about to walk out to join Fuu, but Fuu was already standing and facing the woman.
"Kasumi Fuu," the woman said, approaching her. Fuu nodded, solemnly and met her gaze. "I am Keibou Kotomi, and it is my orders to take your life," she said without much regret in her voice. Fuu could hear the surfacing smile in her voice.
Fuu has suspected as much. As soon as she had heard that her father was part of the Hidden Christians, she realized that her own life might be in danger because she was his daughter.
Wide eyed, Mugen made to break into the clearing, but Fuu caught his gaze and shook her head 'no.' What the fuck was she trying to prove?! She was going to get herself killed. This was a damned Shogun assassin, not a fucking pickpocket.
"Stay out of this, Pirate," Kotomi said, looking to exactly where he was hidden with her cold stare. "Your time is coming. I'm pleased to tell you that you share a very similar sentence."
"You crazy bitch!" Mugen roared at the newcomer, but she only granted him a curt smile. He stepped out into the clearing and moved toward them.
"MUGEN!!" Fuu screeched, making him stop. "I said no," she told him, and his blood boiled at being commanded like a dog. "We're even," she said more calmly before he could reply. She met his confused stare. "You've kept your promise, and I release you from it," she said softly, but her eyes sparkled with unshed tears. Fuu didn't want him risking his life again and making their situation anymore difficult for her to cope with. Besides, this was her fight.
"Fuu . . ." he said, wanting to reach out for her again. "I can't. I lo . . ."
"DON'T," she said firmly, squeezing her eyes shut. Fuu didn't know how much longer this Kotomi chick would wait for their tender moment, but she suspected she was sopping it all up like some evil sponge. "Go back and tell Jin I ran away and that you don't have to help me anymore! Now, leave!!"
Later, Mugen wouldn't be able to recall why he did as he was told for once, but it might have been the fact that she was in tears, practically begging him. Had he really almost said it? Was that why he left? Did he really love her?
Fuu watched as Mugen disappeared back into the woods and toward the inn. He wouldn't leave. She knew him too well. He'd come to his senses before he got back to the room, grab his sword and race back here ready to take on an army. That definitely put some limits on how long she had to kick this crazy woman's ass.
"How sweet," Kotomi chimed, "He thinks he actually loves you." She laughed, and the sound made Fuu's blood run icy. "A man like that doesn't 'love,' dear," she crooned. "He fucks, and he's a fantastic fucker too, I'm sure," she said approvingly. "But you don't even look like his type," Kotomi said, her smile fading dramatically.
Fuu fought the urge to run at her and tear her hair out by the roots and scratch her damned eyes out. But that's what she'd want. No doubt, this woman could do more than look pretty with those swords tucked in her perfectly tied obi. This was going to be a real fight. Kotomi wouldn't be holding back like Mugen did, but Fuu wouldn't be either. It would be her first real test on how much she'd learned.
"Now, be a good little girl, and die like a samurai's daughter," she said, drawing her sword. "I was born for this duty, you see. I too am the daughter of a samurai, and in all properness and fairness only I should be the one to kill you."
"What the hell do you know about being proper and fair?" Fuu growled, making Kotomi arch and eyebrow. "You drew your sword at the wrong time, you stupid bitch," she spat. If only Mugen could see her now, she thought, smiling inwardly at the image of his reaction to her sounding just like him. "If your father was a real samurai, he would've taught you that."
"You're supposed to wait for me to draw my weapon first," Fuu said drawing her tanto, to illustrate her point. Of course her own father hadn't told her that, but she'd learned it from watching Jin fight.
"A knife," Kotomi laughed. "Oh, please. Spare me the theatrics."
Fuu didn't reply, only took her stance. Kotomi blinked, but was only stunned for a second before lunging at her.
Fuu met her downward slash with her tanto, and the blades twanged loudly on impact. Kotomi was nearly Fuu's size, and their strengths were well matched. To Fuu's surprise but more to Kotomi's she was able to actually hold the striking blade for a second before whipping it to the side and counter striking with amazing speed.
Kotomi was caught off guard, but was not unprepared. She parried and twirled around in a cloud of silk before slicing upward. Fuu barely managed a backflip in an attempt to avoid the swipe. The tip of Kotomi's katana sliced deep across the left side of her clavicle, leaving a searing pain in its wake. Fuu yelped, but didn't have time to dwell on it. Just as she was regaining her balance, another attack was in progress. Kotomi thrust at her, and Fuu dodged to the right, grabbing her wrist and going through the motions similar to how she had dealt with Mugen's similar attack. Only, this time, Kotomi didn't allow herself to be pulled into the trap.
Somehow, she managed to stop her forward motion and pull Fuu back to her. She laughed, moving to cut her across the throat, but that was her fatal mistake. Fuu, in the beginning stages of panic, stabbed her tanto into Kotomi's thigh. She felt it strike bone with a sickening hollow feeling thud.
There was a scream, and the tight grip on Fuu loosened. Kotomi slumped back, putting her weight on her good leg. She hissed between her teeth in anger at Fuu's lucky strike. "You bitch!"
Fuu backed away from the maimed adversary. She wouldn't be doing anymore lunging, judging by the rapidly spreading red stain on her silk kimono. But, Fuu knew better than to step within sword length of her. She looked like a viper ready to strike.
"You'd better kill me if you can, Fuu," she said smiling wildly, probably delirious from the pain. "Because if I walk away from this, I won't fail next time. So go ahead," she insisted, mockingly, "kill me."
Fuu stepped forward, but suddenly an image of Tsuchi the farmer sprang to her mind. Could she really take another life? The thought of his screams and the blood on her hands was maddening, and she backed away, making Kotomi smile.
"I'll kill you, Fuu," she hissed, "And him too," she said looking beyond Fuu.
"NO!" Fuu cried, stepping forward again and holding her tanto up for the strike. But, a hand grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back. She fought it but not much. She didn't want to kill this woman, no matter how dementedly hell-bent Kotomi was on killing her.
"Don't do it," a soft voice said in her ear. "Not for me." It was a familiar voice and a familiar scent, and her world began to come back into focus again.
"Mugen," she whimpered, drying the fresh tears on her face on his shirt sleeve. He gently pushed her to the side. Fuu turned away; she couldn't watch. There was the sound of a sword being drawn followed by a sound not unlike a ripe pumpkin being split by a cleaver. There was not a scream or gurgle of pain. Fuu didn't need to look to know how he'd finished what she'd started.
Then he was at her back again and leading her into the woods. When they were finally out of sight of the grizzly scene, Fuu's legs wobbled under her weight, and she let Mugen pick her up without so much as a frown.
"I'm sorry," she said, finally seeing his face. His expression was blank. "I just couldn't do it again."
"You fought your fight, and you won," he said.
Fuu leaned into his chest and relaxed.
Thanks again for reading and for all of your reviews!