Resting in the teahouse doorway, she sighs and gazes out over the water. The wind today is strong, easterly - moving into port. She purses her chapped lips against the breeze and squints at what might be dark spots on the horizon. Quickly she realizes that they're nothing more than the sun burning holes on her retina. She closes her eyes and chases the ghostly dots across the shadows of her eyelids.
All the ships are out, and for once, the old sailor's establishment is hauntingly empty. In a way, this is a good thing. Though he tries not to show it, he has grown wearier still in the past month, and his bad leg has been troubling him more than it ought. When she comes to him with poultices and ointments from the herbalist on the outskirts of town, he gently waves her off and limps past her to the back room. Those nights, he clatters in the kitchen more forcefully than is necessary - not angry at her, per se, but assuring her, in a gruff sort of way, that he has a handle on things.
Still, she leaves the medicine on the counter, and by the time she returns, it is gone. And the next day, he walks a little straighter, and the men try not to show their relief when he doesn't sag onto the bar that night.
The men. She opens her eyes and peers at the horizon. The ships are out, but they'll be docking sometime tonight, and her rough men - her brothers, her friends, her compatriots - will be coming home. As always, they've promised her exotic gifts from distant lands, their dedication and affection ever unwavering. They've hugged her and rumpled her hair and squeezed her shoulders, wrists, and hands reassuringly before they boarded; they've waved with their free hands as they navigated the boat out of port.
And he's looked at her with those eyes like storm clouds on the horizon, and brushed his knuckles against her cheek like there was something important he had to say, only to withdraw, mutter a terse goodbye, and clamber onto the ship.
She presses her back into the doorframe and stares at the empty horizon, willing shadows to materialize on the water.
With another sigh, she turns and walks back into the teahouse. She tugs a cloth from where she's tucked it into her obi, snaps it in the air to clear any clinging motes of dust, and sets to wiping the tables with practiced efficiency. She can hear the clatter of the old sailor readying food in the kitchen, and the familiar noise soothes her as she prepares the front of the house. In a matter of minutes, she dusts every surface, washes and dries the counter, sweeps and scrubs the floor to a spotless shine, and straightens every chair in the establishment. She retrieves a tray of sake cups from the back and sets one at every seat. The old sailor limps out from the back with the liquor, and together they set a jug on each table. By the end of the hour, they are ready, and a hearty sort of thrum is emanating from outside.
Swaying, she wanders to the doorway and peeks out. And sure enough, the ships are pulling in, sails caught by that easterly, homeward wind. Beaming fiercely, she ducks back inside and pours the first round. She finishes the last cup just as the sailors swagger through the door. They are bursting with pride as they hug her, rumple her hair, squeeze her shoulders, wrists, hands. They present the promised gifts: purple silk for a new kimono, tasteful jade earrings, a child's handful of heavy coins tied with red cord. She praises these trinkets effusively, but in reality she is telling them, I'm glad you're home.
They settle in to their usual seats, talking and laughing amongst themselves now, relating tales of their voyage for her benefit as she takes their orders to the old sailor. When she returns with the tray of food, the teahouse is full with her rough men, all smiling as if they've woken from a long slumber. But as she serves the first dish, she notices: the bench to the right of the door is conspicuously empty.
She frowns, furrowing her brow. The patrons follow her gaze to the bench, and then to the doorway, where no one enters. They look back at her, their faces lined with worry, but she has returned to setting out the food with a flinty expression. The celebratory mood evaporates. Her rough men exchange anxious glances. They drink and gabble in a stilted way, trying to entice her with snippets of stories. Someone gets out a bawdy joke. Everyone laughs, their eyes darting to their waitress. Her smile is a feeble thing. She serves the last plate, excuses herself, and steps into the back.
The old sailor catches her as she chokes on a sob. He encases her in his arms and strokes her hair, whispering fierce assurances into her ear. He bids her go home early, and for once, she nods against his chest. She takes a breath, dries her eyes, and steps back into the front to say a brave goodbye. Her rough men watch guiltily as she exits into the cold night air.
Somehow, she makes it to the small house she shares with the old sailor. She fumbles with her key, unlocks the door, and staggers into the dark front room. A bar of moonlight falls on that narrow face, and she shrieks involuntarily, jumping back.
"Mugen!" she gasps, her heart throbbing against the confines her ribcage. "What are you-"
He wraps his arms around her tightly, silencing her. Then, slowly, she returns the embrace. He holds her like that for a while, one hand cupping the back of her head, another splayed across her back like a shield.
The uncharacteristic tenderness of his gesture worries her. "Mugen," she repeats. "What are you doing here?"
To her surprise, he squeezes her a little tighter and mumbles something into the top of her head that sounds a little like "missed you." She blinks.
It would be rude to ask. She has to ask.
"Sorry, can you repeat that?" she says.
He tenses, and for a moment she thinks he'll pull away, but then he tightens his grip in a defiant sort of way and snaps, "I said I missed you, alright?!" He huffs petulantly and refuses to look at her, tucking her head under his chin. "Dumb broad," he mutters.
The insult bounces right off her. Her eyes well up, and she squeezes him very, very tightly, and he sort of looks at her as best he can from his angle.
"When you didn't show up at the teahouse, I thought you'd left," she confesses.
She realizes her mistake too late. He grabs her shoulders and forces her back in order to give her a look somewhere between offended and incredulous. Before he can curse her out, though, he notices the tears gleaming on her face, and his expression turns flustered. He steps back, releasing her, and scratches the back of his head, avoiding her gaze. A heavy sigh leaves him. "Damn it, Fuu," he growls. "Why do you always think I'm gonna ditch you?"
She has no answer. She watches while he scuffs his geta on the packed dirt in the entryway. His face is frustrated and sad.
"I just didn't want the rest of 'em to see, okay?" He scuffs again. "They don't need to see me huggin' you or nothin'. And I didn't want to hafta sit there and watch you talk to all of 'em."
A little of the old anger flares through her - what, she's not good enough to be seen with him, but she's not allowed to have friends, either? She builds up a good head of steam, crossing her arms and stamping her foot like she's fifteen again. But when she looks him in the eyes to give him a piece of her mind, the helplessness in his face quickly fades her resentment. She steps forward and touches his arm as delicately as she can manage. "Mugen, the guys hug me all the time."
"It's not the same," he answers sharply.
She expels a breath, summoning patience. "Mugen-"
"It's not the same, damn it!" he snaps, glaring at her. She stares at him, at the vulnerable look in his narrowed eyes. His fingers clench and unclench at his sides. He's practically begging her to find the words for him. His resolve wavers, and he glares at the floor. "Bitch," he mutters, but there's no force to the insult.
They stand there for a moment, then she takes one more step and wraps her arms around him. He allows the hug, stiff-backed, and she squeezes him to make sure he's paying attention. "Mugen," she says, her voice firm. "I'm only gonna say this once, so listen up." He doesn't answer, and she shifts to press her ear against his heart. She listens to his erratic pulse for a moment, then admits, "I'm only worried you'll leave because it would kill me if you did." She finds the statement lacking. "You jerk," she adds.
She actually hears his heart stutter. She stays there, holding him very, very tightly, while he stares at the top of her head. For once, he is very, very deep in thought.
"Oi. Fuu," he finally says. "Up here."
She reluctantly loosens her grip to look up at him properly, and he promptly hauls her up to his level for a long, yearning kiss.
Later that night, she stirs awake to find him sitting up, hunched over the edge of the bed. A pang of fear tugs at her heart. She sits up and touches delicate fingers to his back. "Mugen? What's wrong?"
He looks over his shoulder at her. His eyes are skittish. Lowering them, he turns and unclasps his hands to reveal a bracelet of small, oddly shaped beads. She has to touch them to recognize the worn-smooth texture of seaglass.
"Made you a thing," he mutters.
He doesn't mention the effort that must have gone into finding the pieces, the patience it must have taken to thread them together. It is a voyage-length labor of love, and he is treating it like junk. She skims her fingers over the beads in his palm, all soft edges against hard, calloused skin, and marvels at him. It occurs to her that after Chinese silk and jade earrings and heavy coins, he might think his simple gift inadequate by comparison. She slips the bracelet onto her wrist and kisses his shoulder.
"It's beautiful," she tells him.
"It's dumb," he mutters.
"I love it," she says. "It's the ocean. It's you."
He looks at her in startlement, and she kisses him.
She draws away enough to breathe. He is staring at her, eyes dark and intense. "It's you," she repeats.
He catches her jaw and pulls her back in.
I wrote this last night to commemorate Rough Men's sixtieth Favorite! In case it's not apparent, that's more Favorites than any other story I've written.
I don't know if I've ever mentioned it, but I'm always impressed by the devotion of SC fans. This was a steady trickle of Favorites over the course of nearly a year. I think that sort of long-term readership in fanfiction is so rare and impressive.
Obviously, this is a sequel to Rough Men. However, Rough Men and Seaglass are distinctly their own narratives, so I decided to publish this as a separate fic rather than as a chapter.
And now, for a special announcement: I am taking one-shot requests! I'm trying to become more active/prolific as a writer, and I'd like your ideas and prompts. If I get enough SC requests, I'll publish them as a multi-chapter fic under a single title and use the requesters' names for chapter titles.
So, let me know what you think, send me your requests, and as always, thanks for reading.
P.S. I'll be on vacation until Tuesday, so I won't be able to get back to any comments/requests until then. Sorry!