(Jiro x Kluke, Trio friendship, high end of K+ rating/borderline T)

For Kitty, who has suffered great ordeals, yet still has the strength to continue on. She has weathered her trials and emerged victorious despite the odds. Do not give up on life – your dreams are bright, the future sparkling ahead of you, and I have faith that you will prevail against the things trying to hold you back. Never lose heart, dear one - we may be far, but we will always be with you. This is for you, my friend.

It's dark, in this place where he is. The kind of all-consuming darkness that makes it almost impossible to see even your hand in front of you. In normal situations, he would inwardly quail at the thought of going into a place with such poor lighting (or lack thereof), but not because he's afraid of the dark - it's from a tactical standpoint, as foes could easily creep up and attack from nowhere.

But this is far from normal circumstances.

He tightens his grip on the wooden weapon slung over his shoulder. It's a shame; in this situation, he could really, really use his Shadow. But a semi-permanent Seal spell is on him; using magic will be impossible until it's gone. Well... He had been itching for a chance to try out his newly-acquired weapon - looks like he's going to get exactly what he asked for. (He had never wanted it to be like this.)

A scream echoes through the area; he quickens his pace, and prays that he is not too late.

Hold on, he thinks desperately. Hold on... Just wait for me... I'm coming...

While it's hardly the only thing that describes what's between them, his whole relationship with her could potentially be described as "too late". Too late to comfort her when she lost everything; too late to save her from him; too late to tell her how he really felt...

But he refuses to be too late to save her life.

Pain. Lots of pain.

She bites down on her lip to keep from crying out anymore. She wishes she could use her Shadow... But trying to only makes it worse, causing intense pressure and pain in her heart and head. Stupid semi-permanent Seal spell...

It isn't even fair - she'd spent at least three months, the majority of her journey to save the world, trying to perfect using magic without her Shadow being visible. And these guys had done it without breaking a sweat.

A muffled yelp escapes from her when one of them grabs her wrist and twists. Her hands are already bound - there's no point in doing it beyond making her suffer, which she's sure is the goal of the entire group.

"So then, pretty girl..." He leans toward her, so that their heads are close and level with each other. His breath smells of sour vinegar, and she tries to wrench away. "How 'bout that treasure?"

"I told you," she forces out through gritted teeth, "I have no idea what you're talking about. What do I have to do for you to take a hint?" He grabs her by the chin, forcing her to look at them, and her temper flares like the third-tier spell she had been such an expert at using half a year ago; the teasing she uses with her friends to cover when she gets angry instead transforms into a hard and sarcastic edge, "Oh, I forgot, that's because you're stupid. When people say things, you don't listen. Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but someone has to bring you back to reality." The pause is only a second long, "You're never going to get what you're after. Do you know why? Because you don't know how to look for it. You say you want treasure, but that's something that requires care to search for. And I seriously doubt that any of you care about anything. On top of it all, what you're searching for may not even be there. And yet you still continue on like this, wasting your life on this pointless search." Her hands tighten behind her; she ignores the pain in her recently abused wrist, too intent on her anger. "I hate people like you... People that hurt others... People that cause suffering... You disgust me." She looks up at them then, filled with rage. "I'll never help you. Even if I knew how to find what you're after, I'd never help you. So I don't care what you do to me. I've already been hurt by a person like you, worse than you; they made me lose faith in myself. I've already had my life destroyed by them, the people I care about taken away from me by them. So do your worst!" With those last words, she leans forward and spits in his face.

Her heart trembles a little. Her Boys. That is not something Their Girl would do. They'd be so ashamed of her if they had seen that little display.

She is not aware of the slap, is only aware of the stinging pain afterwards and the fact that she's suddenly looking to the side. She hears the leader curse her, muttering filthy names for her under his breath, and it makes her seethe. They had all sworn not to use Shadow magic to hurt anything or anyone that wasn't a monster or a part of his army, but she wishes she could just burn these evil men and be done with it. (Maybe it is better that she doesn't have her Shadow right now.)

A sudden harsh tug on her hair causes her to shriek as she's forcefully pulled to face the furious leader. "You're going to pay for that little stunt." Suddenly, his lips stretch into a wicked grin. "Say, I bet you'd learn not to speak back to your betters if we cut out that sharp little tongue of yours." With no warning, a knife is suddenly pressed against her cheek, not cutting but close and dangerous. She swallows, and it nicks the flesh of her face.

"Hey, Boss," one of the goons speak; she can't see him, but she can hear the malicious glee in his voice loud and clear. "Why don't we try something a little more fun to teach her lesson? You know."

She feels cold all over. He may not be saying it outright, but she knows what he means. For that... For that to happen now... I don't even know these men. I'm still young, and for them to do that... She had thought Nene was the only person capable of acts of evil.

And then she has to remind herself that Jeelala hadn't had anything to do with him.

The main one suddenly looks thoughtful - she wants to let out a sharp laugh at that, but she doesn't dare, not with the blade so close - and then the smirk filled with malcontent returns. "Y'know, boy, you're usually not too bright. But I think you're onto something this time."

He pulls back, leering at her as he slowly slides the knife off her cheek (it leaves a thin and shallow cut, easily healed if she manages to survive this), and she forces herself to not flinch away or show fear. They can try to take her dignity, but she will stay strong; she will never admit defeat to them. She thinks of her boys, and is filled with courage; she will be strong for them.

Even so, she is not able to stop the involuntary twitch of horror throughout her whole body when the small blade suddenly nears the area of her collarbone and sinks into the fabric of her black dress-

In the dim lighting from an overhead lamp, she sees something wooden swing out of the unlit darkness and over her head - a bow, she realizes belatedly, it's a bow - and smack the leader in his temple, rendering him unconscious before he even hits the floor.

Too stunned to say anything or try to free herself, she watches as the suddenly panicked bandits begin to flail and others cluster around their leader. She hears something snick, and then her hands are suddenly unbound. Before she even has time to wonder about it, a hand is grabbing her wrist, pulling her out of the chair and into the dark.

Even as the men start to shout and holler about her sudden disappearance, she is filled with warmth and serenity. Because she knows this person - she knows the pattern of their gasping, recognizes the sound of their quickened breath just ahead of her; she knows the bow they used, recognizes the unusual use of swinging it like an up-close weapon that everyone had called that person crazy for doing; she knows the hand wrapped around her wrist, recognizes the soft skin of the thumb that's pressed tightly against the back of her hand.

She knows who she is with, and recognizes that she is finally safe.

They run in the near-sightless expanse for a long time, the bandits' furious cries a companion as constant as each other. Eventually, they spot a patch of light from a crack in the cave's ceiling and dash towards it.

When they make it, her wrist is released and she sees him collapse forward, bracing himself on the glimmering rock wall with his right hand, the same that had been holding her. She examines him from a few feet away, looking him over - his left hand clutches his bow, which he's looped his arm through so that it hangs on his back along with his quiver (he probably can't let go of it, though, or it'll fall off); his breathing is hard, as if he's been running a long distance, and the hair at the nape of his neck looks damp like he's been sweating; the pouch that he keeps items in is tucked neatly into the belt on his left, but on the right is another bag that isn't his, and she wonders about it until she realizes that it's her own; everything else is immaculate, even under the circumstances, and it's so descriptive of him that after everything she's been through today, she could cry.

He turns around and looks at her, the lack of decent light making his eyes look black without a hint of gray. But they are still his. "Kluke," his voice trembles on her name, thick with relief and another emotion she can guess at but not properly identify. "Are you alright?"

Warmed by his concern, she says, "I'm fine, Jiro." She steps towards him, further into the light-

And he freezes in horror.

Kluke is confused until she discovers that he's staring at her chest, where the knife tore at her dress just below the collarbone, leaving a hole around the size of her fist. She notes that it barely even penetrated the skin, though that had probably been unintentional - the leader had been more focused on cutting other things. She only manages to get out, "Oh-"

And then Jiro is grabbing her by the arms, his face a picture of misery; he looks like the world's ending. "They... They hurt you..." His hands tighten on her, and she can see a range of things flitting across his face - anguish, worry, self-hate, fury. Before she can even attempt to reassure him, he's asking, "Did... Did they touch you?"

"No." She swallows hard. "Not like that. They roughed me up a little. Scared me a whole lot. But they didn't do anything like... that." Kluke drops to a whisper. "But... they almost did. If... If you hadn't gotten there when you did..."

"You... You shouldn't thank me, Kluke. It's my fault we're in this mess." He looks away from her, shoulders tensing.

"What?" Kluke's head jerks back, too shocked to say anything else. Why would he even think that?

"I... I should have protected you!" Jiro's yell chases any thoughts out of her head. His body is shaking. "... I should have been able to protect you. If... If I had been stronger, then I would have been able to stop them from throwing that Sealing Powder on us, and then we never would've ended up in this mess. You- You never would've been hurt- It's my fault-"

He goes rigid as Kluke places a hand on his back. "Jiro," she says his name gently. "Why are you blaming yourself for things that are not your fault?"

Jiro starts turning towards her. "It is-"

"It's not." She makes her voice firm. "It is not your fault that we ended up in this situation. Jiro, how can you blame yourself for this? You're the one that saved me." Kluke smiles at him, tilting her head to the side and letting a bit of a teasing lilt color her words. "So no more of that, okay?"

"Kluke..." He stares at her for a long moment before nodding, mostly to himself. "Alright." He lifts his head. "We'd better get moving soon; we shouldn't stay in a spot they'll easily be able to find us."

A soft smile curves her mouth as she takes the hand that isn't grasping his bow. "Then lead the way, Jiro."

Jiro racks his brain, trying desperately to remember the way out. In his blind rush to save Kluke, he took so many twists and turns that there's really no telling which way to go. He's just going with his best guess; they can't afford to sit around and ponder which direction to take.

Especially now that the treasure hunters are closing in on their location.

Jiro ups his speed, hearing Kluke cry out and feeling her stumble. Guiltily, he pulls her along anyway, hoping she didn't injure herself but not taking the risk to check; stopping, even for a moment, would be a costly mistake.

His heart leaps in his chest when he sees light up ahead, but he fears that it may already be too late - the men chasing them begin whooping and whistling as they catch sight of him and Kluke, their silhouettes likely revealed by the sunlight leaking out of the entrance. Jiro pounds his feet against the ground, not caring if they ache, desperate to escape.

As soon as they hit the grassy field outside, Jiro throws Kluke forward amidst her protests before whirling around, notching an arrow and letting loose immediately when he catches sight of one of their pursuers.

The missile catches the man by the shirt, pinning him to the cave wall. Good; not a killing blow. Much as he hates these people, Jiro doesn't plan on becoming a murderer (the only person he might have wanted dead is already gone, anyway), and especially not for some lousy bandit that doesn't even have half a brain.

Jiro gets another arrow ready, trying to back up towards Kluke, but he's already becoming aware of the dire situation he's in. Fatal blows or not, there are too many of the men for him to disable - not without some of them reaching him and Kluke. He tries making calculations, trying to figure out the best course of action, but there's little that they can do without their Shadows; Jiro is not yet experienced enough in archery to swiftly take down all of the enemies with his bow, at least on his own, and Kluke doesn't have her boomerang to back him up with. A solution, Jiro. There's always a solution. But he can't find it - and definitely not in the limited time they have-

"Jiro!" Kluke shrieks behind him.

Too focused on the main group. He doesn't see one of them coming at him from the side until the brute is on him.

Jiro slams onto the grass-covered ground, hearing his arrows dump out of his quiver to land in the dirt, head reeling. To make matters worse, the arm he landed on is hurting in a way that does not seem average. He'll never be able to use his bow like this... If only he had his White Magic; he could heal himself!

"Jiro," Kluke says his name, desperate and choked - almost as if she's crying. He can hear the bandits laughing at them. "Jiro, are you okay?"

He shakes his head but rapidly pushes himself up - pushing through the pain, even though it's hard; he's done it before, he can do it again. As soon as he's standing, Jiro shoves Kluke behind him and starts to backpedal, keeping himself between her and their approaching would-be attackers.

The leader, smirking, steps takes several slow steps towards them. He stops purposely when his boot hovers over the fallen bow. Jiro's eyes meet with the man's before the leading hunter brings his foot down hard.

The resounding crack is like a broken bone to Jiro - worse, even - and he has to force himself to not give them the satisfaction of hearing him scream.

Shu had given him that last November, for his fifteenth birthday.

"I know you're really serious about this archery thing... And you're finally out of the beginner stage, right? So you need something that works well!"

Jiro's nails dig into his palms. He will never forgive them for it.

"Oops." The leader's grin is cruel, tinged at the edges with a kind of manic glee. "How clumsy of me."

"You-!" Kluke shouts. Jiro anticipates her movement and catches her before she can get past him, keeping her carefully behind him. He can feel the anger radiating off her in waves - anger on his behalf, and Shu's. "You'll pay for that, you twisted-!"

"Kluke, enough." He doesn't like saying it to her, but Jiro wants the attention off of Kluke and on him. He doesn't want them anywhere near her.

"Quite a mouth that one's got, eh? Girl really doesn't know when to keep her mouth shut." The leader speaks to him almost conversationally, and it makes Jiro's stomach twist. "Tell you what, though. You help lead us to some treasure, and we'll kill both of ya real quick like."

"Sorry." Jiro bites out coldly. "Not interested."

"Oh, come on now. You don't want anything... unseemly to happen to your lady friend there, do ya?" The leading bandit's eyes rove over his shoulder, presumably to where Kluke is, and Jiro moves himself more to hide her from view, his teeth grinding together. How dare he... The thought of them looking at her that way makes his blood boil. "Don't be stupid, friend. I'm offering both of you a clean death. A good death."

There's nothing good about it. Everything becomes clear in that moment. He knows what he has to do. And he'll do whatever it takes to do it. Calm and steady, Jiro speaks. "I don't care what you think. I don't care what you try to do. But you will not lay a hand on Kluke." He takes a step, then two. "If you want her," he throws his arms out to the side, determined to protect her even if it's with nothing more than his arms; if that's what it takes, he'll defend her with his dying breath, "you'll have to go through me! ! !"

"J... Jiro..." Kluke whispers, voice trembling with something he cannot discern. But it only hardens his resolve; if they want to harm her, it'll have to be over Jiro's dead body.

"Well, well, well," the leader slides a blade from its sheath. "Looks like we've got a hero."

And then, all of a sudden, one of the lackeys looks afraid. "B-Boss-!"

It's the only warning the treasure hunters have before something blue and roaring is descending on them.

Azure wings stretch as the Shadow creature straightens, revealing the small figure that is its wielder. "Yeah, right - like I'll let you get away with hurting my friends!" Shu pulls back for a punch. "You're mine! !"

Two more figures dart by, one on foot and one not - "Maro won't let anybody hurt Maro's friends, either!" "Shu, Lazy Zola specifically forbid you from jumping out of the ship while it is in the air!" - and Jiro can hear the sound of a mechat engine cutting off after landing. He lets out a breath, feeling some of the tension leak out of his body.

"Hey! ! !" Shu practically screams. "You stinking jerks broke my bow for Jiro! ! You're dead, you hear me? ! You're dead, you son of a-! ! !"

They're finally safe.

Even so, Jiro does not stop shielding Kluke until the battle is good and over.

Kluke's heart sinks as she watches Jiro go up to Shu, his face a window to his sadness. The younger boy cradles the broken halves of his present; the elder clears his throat before talking softly, "I'm sorry about the bow, Shu... If I had been faster, then maybe-"

"What are you apologizing for? It was yours - it's not like you wanted it to get broken. Anyway, I should be the one saying sorry; I should've gotten you a better one." Shu grins brightly, bouncing back as always. "Hey, maybe I'll make one for you made out of metal."

Jiro smiles as if he didn't even know he was going to. "Don't be ridiculous, Shu..."

Broken bow in hand, Shu gets to his feet and slings an arm awkwardly around the older boy; Jiro's always been the tallest of the three, but he's grown since the last time they saw the youngest of the trio. Shu turned thirteen a month ago and he's still as short as when he was twelve (she doesn't think he's even grown a centimeter). "Tell you what - when you get around to giving me that late birthday present, I'll break that and then we can call it even. Deal?"

"No deal. Belated or not, if you break my present," Jiro glares in mock seriousness, "I'm never getting you anything for your birthday again."

"Aw, Jiro, that's mean!" Shu feigns hurt, and Kluke watches giddily as they have this pretend back-and-forth; they haven't seen Shu in ages, and it feels incredible for the three of them to be together again, even if it's under such unfortunate circumstances. "You wouldn't do that to your best friend, would you?"

"Well, I don't know," Jiro puts a finger to his chin as if he's thinking about it. "If you broke my present, I'd have to think about if we were even still friends or not."

"What? ! You can't be serious!" Shu holds his fists in front of him, his expression pleading. Jiro turns away, which causes the other boy to start tugging on his sweater. "C'mon, Jiro, really! Don't say that! You know I'd never break it on purpose! Seriously, where is the trust?"

Kluke is suddenly overcome by a feeling welling up in her, and before she's even aware of it, she runs toward the two of them and embraces both. The boys murmur her name worriedly, but she only shakes her head. "I... I just missed this, is all. I... I missed us being... us."

The phrase shouldn't really make sense, but it does to Shu and Jiro; she knows it does, because then both of them are hugging her back.

Kluke has both of them with her... She has her boys close, and she feels safe and home at last.

Jiro stares into the depths of his cup, unsure of what he's actually looking at. He knows that it's supposed to help him, but... He'd be a little more reassured by that fact if the contents had a definable color.

Shu gives him a hard slap on the back, causing Jiro to nearly drop the cup onto the floor (which would have put an end to his misery). "C'mon, Jiro. You want to get your Shadow back, don't you?"

"Yeah, but..." I don't want to die from the cure, either. Shu's still looking at him expectantly, though; Jiro sighs and answers, "I guess you're right."

"'Course I am!" Shu laughs. "Now drink up."

Jiro silently promises himself that if he starts throwing up, he's aiming for Shu. Sending up a prayer to whoever will listen that he'll survive this, he tilts his head back and swallows the cure in one gulp.

... Well, like expected, drinking that is up there on the list of the worst things that have ever happened to him. Jiro holds his hand up near his mouth, unsure if he's going to be sick or not; he can't tell if what's burning his throat is bile or that foul concoction. "... My tongue is going to hate me forever."

He hears her giggle; looking up, Jiro spots Kluke standing nearby, arms behind her back and eyes closed as she smiles. "Medicine isn't supposed to taste good, Jiro."

"What did you put in there? It's putrid." If this thing works, he may, in fact, have to cast a Heal spell on his mouth.

"Antidote and Cure-All, along with some herbs to increase the potency." She says it almost apologetically. "On their own, the ingredients don't taste too bad, but together... Well. You can taste the result for yourself."

"Well, it's definitely potent," Jiro grabs his throat, only half-conscious of it. "You covered that real well."

"Sorry." She sits down beside him. "Do you feel any better, though?"

"I do." And he does - he can feel the magic flowing through him again. A temporary Seal effect is annoying; having it on long-term, like what happened to him and Kluke, is agonizing. "Thank you."

Kluke suddenly seems embarrassed - she blushes, of all things, and stares down at her lap. "Y... You're welcome..." And then, with no warning whatsoever, she stands up rigidly, "I, uh- I just remembered that I have to- I have to do something! So, uh... I'll see you two later!" She runs out of the room.

Shu scratches the back of his head. "Yeesh. What's gotten into her?"

Jiro's eyes are trained on the doorway Kluke left out of. "I wish I knew."

She finds him on the balcony of Neo Jibral's inn, leaning on the banister and watching the deep orange sky as it gradually darkens from the setting sun.

Kluke grips the present behind her back, nervous hands holding onto it with a slight tremor. She shouldn't be so nervous, and yet... "Jiro." Her voice sounds terribly loud to her ears in the silence.

"Kluke?" He looks over his shoulder at her, curious. "What are you doing up here?"

"I..." She forces down the sudden waves of nervousness. What's wrong with her? "I was looking for you."

"F-for me?" He turns around fully, seeming startled.

She nods. "I... I have something to give you." Kluke removes the item from behind her back, holding the long, wrapped present awkwardly in her arms. "Here," she smiles as Jiro takes it from her. "I hope you like it."

Kluke sees the way his eyes flicker; he's guessed what it is - she can tell from his repressed excitement - but he's trying not to seem like it. "Can I open it?"

She nods. "Please do."

He pulls at the string holding the brown paper together. It comes undone, and Jiro gasps as he lays eyes on what's inside. "Kluke-"

Kluke lets out a light laugh. "We can't have our soon-to-be master archer going without a bow, can we?" She watches as he smoothes his hand over the wood, face alight with appreciation. As he pulls back on the bowstring, testing its efficiency, she adds, "It's made out of Alumaru birch wood; they say it's some of the last of it from before we made the move to the Cube Worlds. That's what gives it that yellow tint." She traces a finger along the bow-

-and, somehow, their hands touch.

Both of them jerk away from each other at the same time. "U-um..." Jiro adverts his eyes. "S-sorry..."

"I, uh... I-I'm sorry, too..." She folds her hands behind her back, unsure of what else to say.

A long moment passes in silence, until Jiro finally breaks it, "Th-thank you, Kluke... For the bow, I... I really appreciate it." He gives her that gentle smile of his, and everything suddenly seems so bright.

"Jiro, I..." She reaches towards him, then stops before her hand can rise very high. Kluke doesn't even know what she's going to say until it's out of her mouth. "Would you... mind terribly if I watched the sunset with you?"

He blushes, seeming exceedingly surprised - but soon enough, he's smiling again despite his flush. "Yes... I- I'd like that."

Each of them goes up to the banister; both place their hands upon it, looking out over the city and the steadily fading light.

And then, Jiro's hand is lying atop Kluke's. Maybe she moved her hand towards him. Perhaps he moved his hand first. But it doesn't matter.

Because this time, neither of them pull away.