[Misc] Secrets of the Heart 07

Chapter Seven – Holding Out for a Hero

I knew that I was being trailed from the very moment I left the relative safety of the festival crowds. I sought solitude and so headed for the surrounding forest. Somehow I should have known better. After all, enough time had passed since Yukimaru had come after me. However, I didn’t expect it to be them. I had assumed it would be someone else.

I was still silently seething over Mugen’s insensitivity. We had traveled together long enough that he knew my ways and how I am. He couldn’t expect me to change… I certainly didn’t ask it of him.

It was, of course, those musings that brought me back to my original line of thought. How different the two of us were… and, yet, thinking of his stubbornness, so much alike. What did I want out of this…? I did not even know what to call it. Tryst, affair, relationship… hardly.

It was the cracking of a twig that made me realize the close proximity of my attackers and just how deep in thought I had been.

I placed my hand on my swords cautiously as I turned slowly to face them, mouth already forming words. “So, you have found me. It seems Shuu has grown impatient.”

I faced the three men, neither shock nor recognition registering on my face despite the fact that both feelings were twisting around my insides.

“Lord Urahara is tired of chasing you, Jin,” the man in the middle spat. He was a squat, balding noble, who I knew to be named Fujisaki. Technically, he was lower in rank than me, but I threw out those privileges long ago.

“And so Shuu sent three,” I noted, hand never leaving my daisho. “He must think highly of me.”

“You killed Ryo, you bastard!” another man cursed at me. He stood to Fujisaki’s right, his shorn hair stirring in the faint breeze. Perhaps Ryo had been more than a friend.

“He tried to kill me first, Nakano,” I responded coldly. “Perhaps he should have possessed some skill before he attempted to become a part of an assassination squad.”

Nakano growled and reached for his sword, but Fujisaki stopped him with just a look. However, the third still intrigued me. He was heavily masked and hadn’t spoken yet.

“What do you hide under that mask?” I urged, “I would know the face of those I defeat.”

A low laugh echoed through the empty forest as a decidedly slim and elegantly fingered hand came out from beneath a set of dark-colored robes and headed for the mask. In one deft fluid motion, the mask was removed, and I could not help but gasp a name in surprise.

“Inoue…”

She smirked at me, eyes still displaying that inner brightness. “It’s been a long time, J-san.”

Fujisaki laughed before I had a chance to respond to Inoue. I cast him a cold glare.

“How does it feel?” Fujisaki sneered.

“Your own brother sends assassins after you, one of which is a former bride-to-be?” Nakano continued, joining in the other man’s taunting.

I narrowed my eyes at them. “You talk far too much.” I would kill Nakano and Fujisaki, but never in my right mind could I hurt Inoue. Shuu was counting on that, I am sure, but I still could not do it.

I drew my sword and leveled it at the three of them. They all mimicked my moves. There was no turning back now.

Nakano attacked first, rushing at me with a vengeance. I easily thwarted his attacks, blocking his clumsy blows and pushing him backwards. Until Fujisaki joined into the fray, coming at me from another side, then things were not so easy.

The two men were skilled in their own rights, though far less than me. Still, it was two to one, and it was all I could do to block their attacks. Fighting back was not much of an option.

Nakano slashed at me from the right, aiming for my mid-section. I pulled my sword to the side, quickly blocking his weapon even as I swung around swiftly and blocked Fujisaki’s downwards swing with a decided clang. Already Nakano was attacking me again. I fluidly moved my body out of the way as I continued to block Fujisaki’s attacks. The two men were relentless; they wanted blood.

Perhaps it was just my time to die… I had lived long enough for my transgressions I suppose. It did not matter that Ichigo deserved it… it did not matter what I thought because my life was on the line. These were the thoughts that went through my mind as I struggled to fight off both Nakano and Fujisaki as my one-time bride-to-be watched on, a tell-tale smirk on her face.

The ripping of fabric, and I finally managed to land a blow on Nakano, slicing up his forearm on his sword hand. He cursed audibly but ignored the pain as he came at me with even more vigor, surprising the hell out of me. I figured – coward that he was – Nakano would back off to nurse his wound. The searing pain in my upper left thigh reminded me of my other opponent as Fujisaki caught me off guard and managed to get in a blow, though non-fatal.

The slice was like fire spreading throughout my entire leg, making it incredibly difficult to walk. I could feel the warm sticky blood dripping down my leg and cold chills raced up and down my spine. Perhaps it really was my time to die…

I did not have any longer to think as both men rushed me again, giving me no time for rest. I blocked Fujisaki’s clumsy swing, though the force behind it sent reverberations up my arm and kicked out with my leg hoping to catch Nakano in the knee. I succeeded, and he went down howling.

I had no time to gloat over my one victory as Fujisaki bore down on me. It was at this point that Inoue decided to take part in the fight. I caught her movements out of the corner of my eye as she lazily reached for her sword and did a few stretches. A small shiver of fear raced through my body. I knew who her father was… I knew which dojo she had grown up in… and I knew that, being his only child, Inoue’s father had demanded that she learn to wield a sword. They were a rather liberal family being as no one else would even tolerate that sort of behavior… and from a female no less.

Nakano struggled to get to his feet, attempting to shift his weight onto his uninjured leg. I had struck his knee pretty hard. I would not be surprised if I had shattered his knee cap.

Fujisaki slashed mercilessly with quick, vicious strokes. I blocked them easily enough, but I was more worried about Inoue now approaching me from my left. Nakano had been pushed far out of my mind. That was a mistake that I should have realized sooner.

“I have been looking forward to this for so long…” purred Inoue in a voice that I well-recognized. Fujisaki pulled away from attacking me and the three of them stared me down. I got a moment’s reprieve and barely noticed the fact that I was breathing heavily. I longed to staunch the wound but did not want to show weakness in front of my assassins.

“To beat the famous Urahara Jin [1]… do you wonder why father never let me face you before?” Inoue asked, cocking her head to the side.

“He didn’t want me to kill you,” I managed to say without gasping or sounding short of breath. All hail the power of stoicisms and pride.

She frowned then snorted in a very unladylike fashion. “Hardly. He didn’t want me to kill his best friend’s favorite student.”

I shrugged, ignoring the blood dripping down my leg and soaking my footwear. I pretended as if I was not in such pain. “Then show me this skill that you boast so highly of… it has yet to be seen.”

She growled angrily and raised her sword. I did the same, prepared to fight to the death. I could hear Nakano gasping as he struggled to rise to his feet and then both Inoue and Fujisaki were attacking me at once.

She came at me with a series of vicious attacks, each one seemingly faster than the first. I had heard that she was quick with a blade, but it appeared she had grown even faster in the time since I had last seen her. I managed to block each one of her blows with grace but I couldn’t move from the barrage of their combined strikes. My leg was beginning to go numb.

Fujisaki had flanked her, going in for an attack when he thought I wasn’t looking or when I seemed too busy with her. He was dishonorable the way he aimed for my neck or stomach with diligent attempts.

Fighting Inoue was like trying to slice leaves as they fall out of the autumn tree. She was quick and flitted as if she danced on the wind. Dueling with Fujisaki was like trying to cut down a tree. His attacks were slow but powerful and more often than not made me take a step back on legs that were growing tired of supporting my weight.

A heavy, hot fire raced through my back, and I realized that in the midst of battle, I had forgotten one of the more important rules. Keep your eyes on your enemy. I had neglected to watch Nakano.

As more blood dripped down my back, and I could feel the wind creeping inside my clothing to blow across the wound, I just managed to push back Inoue and Fujisaki enough to pull out my other sword and slash at the backstabber with my weaker hand as I turned slightly. I caught him viciously across the chest and he went down, eyes rolling to the back of his head and blood pooling around his body. I had cut deep, and I doubted that he would survive.

The crunch of fallen leaves, and I turned just in time to block both Inoue and Fujisaki’s combined attack with my dominant hand. I hurriedly sheathed my sword, no time to clean it, and put all of my rapidly descending strength into pushing them off of me.

It occurred to me that I might not survive this time.

That thought made its presence known at the same time that I pushed back hard against the two and caused them to stumble backwards. I slashed at Fujisaki, catching him in the shoulder, albeit on his non-sword arm, but still it was a hit.

I hurriedly raised my sword to attack Inoue, but she had already regained her balance. She slashed downwards at me, putting much of her strength behind the blow. I brought up my sword to block, and my leg gave out beneath me. I dropped to a kneeling position, still managing to defend against her attack. She shifted her weight to attack again, and I felt the whoosh of air as Fujisaki attacked from the right. I hurriedly brought up my sword to block but looked him in the eye and knew it was over as Inoue angled her weapons downwards toward my defenseless left side. My eyes closed in silent defeat. My last thought was of Mugen… and how I had last seen him… and I was instantly filled with regret.

I felt the jarring strike of blade on blade as I blocked Fujisaki’s attack and waited for the searing pain that would accompany Inoue’s completed lunge. Instead, I heard the rustling of leaves on a bush and the familiar clang of blade meeting blade. I pushed up tiredly at Fujisaki even as I opened my eyes. It hardly registered that I was not yet dead as I slashed violently at the older man’s legs and succeeded in dealing him a deadly gash to his inner right thigh. With any luck I would have managed to slice his femoral artery.

Inoue kicked at me even as she battled her new opponent. I barely registered a bright red coat as her foot made contact with my head and her footwear sliced a gash in my forehead. I slumped forward and used my sword to prop me up as blood filled my vision.

Was that… Mugen? I observed the scene before me with surprise and a tired air.

Nakano still lay in a pile of his own blood, face down on the ground. I would not have to worry about swords to the back from that one any longer. Fujisaki had slumped to the ground and was frantically trying to staunch the continuously flowing blood from the wound in his leg. I was right… I had gotten the artery and he knew it too.

His skin was ashen and his fingers trembling as he continued to wrap the wound, knowing the entire time that it was futile. I looked at him impassively and we exchanged glances. He grinned then, something subtle and mysterious. I frowned at him, but I could not keep it as my world was beginning to go grey. I had wounds that needed to be treated.

Fujisaki stopped binding his wound and dug around in his pockets. In seconds he had pulled out a small pouch, hardly large enough to hold anything of worth, and tossed it to me. I watched through dim vision as the leather pouch landed near me, where my sword was currently buried in the ground to hold me up. I didn’t recognize the pouch nor did I reach to take it. That would have used up what little energy I didn’t have. When I next glanced at the older man… he had slumped completely to the ground, either passed out from blood loss or completely dead. I was not able to get up and check.

I briefly registered the clang of blade on blade yet again and looked through a vision of blood to see Mugen and Inoue still fighting. He was able to hold his own against her… I suppose I should have expected it. After all, the man was nearly a match for me. I could hear muttered curses… but they were going dim too. The battle lust that had kept me going… the rush of adrenaline was fading. I could feel my hands slipping from my sword as I began to slump forward, the blade toppling over without me to hold it up.

“Jin!” I heard him call out my name, but I could not respond.

So much blood… the air was full of it. I could taste it and smell it, that thick warm and coppery essence that ultimately made the bile want to rise up in my throat. It was not as if I hadn’t killed before, but still no matter how many times I had to, the very thought of it was sickening. Human lives were so short… our very existence seemed not to matter. There was a flash of red across my dim vision… I barely registered a voice… and then I knew no more.

* * *

I woke up sometime later; I could not be sure how much. I was lying back in a bed, I assumed back at the inn. I was undressed with my hair unbound and all my wounds were wrapped up tightly. Someone had done a good job on the bandages; they were clean and well done. I tried to move but only groaned with the pain. It felt as if a fire had ripped across my back. Apparently that one attack from Nakano had been worse than I had initially thought.

I turned my head to the side, trying to avoid the bright sunlight streaming in through the window and ignoring the sounds of merriment and happiness that drifted up from the celebrations still going on in the town.

I looked around the room and found that my assumptions were correct. It was our room at the inn. I saw my clothing draped across some sort of drying rack. Someone had been thoughtful enough to fix them for me. My swords and glasses were sitting near to my hands within easy reach on the floor next to me. They knew me well.

There was a red coat lying haphazardly in a chair with a sword slung across the back of it. I recognized the items immediately as belonging to Mugen. So it wasn’t my imagination then… it had been the Ryu-Kyuian that had `saved’ me.

The door to the room opened, and I looked up to see Mugen entering, Fuu and Kenji on his heels. The girl was carrying a small tray and the bodyguard had an armful of bandages. Mugen stopped in his tracks when he realized that I had awakened, causing both to nearly slam into his back.

I was quite amused by this. I instantly remembered the last conversation we had and felt just a bit of shame. We had argued… I had nearly died on a bad note such as that. I never thought that when I died there would be regret. However, to be honest, if I had died on that day… I would have regretted ending on such a sour note.

I shifted restlessly on the bed and looked up at him, opening my mouth to speak. My throat felt hoarse and dry but I still managed to croak something out. I had originally intended to say something witty and perhaps sarcastic, but that was not what came out.

“Arigato.“

He heaved a big sigh of relief and continued on entering the room, his early moment of hesitation forgotten. He plopped down near the bed and reached for my shoulder. I had not even realized that I had gotten hurt there. Most of the fight was a blur that I would have gladly forgotten.

“Baka,” he said softly as he unwrapped the wound. I winced slightly as the bandages pulled away from it. Fuu appeared at his side with the tray. I noticed it had a bowl of water I could only assume was warm, some type of washing cloth, and a bottle of salve. Kenji moved to his other side and laid the bandages down.

“You knew about them, didn’t you?”

I shook my head. “Not until after I had left you three. Yet, how did YOU get there so fast?”

“I told him about three men that I had noticed were asking about you,” Fuu said quietly. She set down the tray and stood back up. She and Kenji exchanged glances and the two left the room. They appeared to be wanting to give us privacy.

I followed their movements with my eyes. Mugen caught this.

“Yeah, they know. Kenji apparently was the one to figure it out.”

He began to clean my wound yet again, applying the salve and recovering it with bandages. Whatever he was using managed to not only dull the pain, but it seemed to be helping me to heal faster.

It was a subdued and abnormally quiet Mugen, who was tending to my wounds. He reached to pull the blanket down to get at a few other wounds, but I grabbed his arm. He had yet to really look at me and this forced his eyes to meet mine. I recognized the look that I saw there. I made my decision and gave him a yank, forcing him down on me. A look of surprise registered moments before our lips met, and I was hungrily devouring that mouth.

With only the slightest wince of pain, I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him closer. He shifted his weight so that he could rest more comfortably and returned the passion, holding most of his bulk up with one hand laid flat on the floor and burying the other in my hair.

I slipped my tongue into his mouth, reveling in his familiar taste and proving to myself that I was still alive, and he was still here with me.

For a moment in that battle, I had believed myself dead… and the last thought on my mind had been him. I had underestimated his importance to me… I truly loved the arrogant baka.

He nipped at my bottom lip playfully as he ran his hands through my hair and teased the back of my neck with a finger. I was never happier to be alive. Until him, I was plodding through life, just living for the sake of not wanting to end it.

With a need for breath and to tell him, I broke from the kiss and looked him in the eyes. “I am sorry, Mugen.”

He grinned, that lopsided cocky grin that I had fallen in love with. “Took you long enough.” He gave me another quick kiss before pulling back and returning to his ministrations on my leg. That wound wasn’t very deep, but it was long and shallow, stinging more than hurting.

We didn’t speak as he redressed and rewrapped the wound. I was content to be near him, and I was glad that we were no longer fighting. Once he finished with the leg, we worked together so that I was lying on my stomach and he addressed the wound that was worse on my back.

Finally, Mugen spoke. I suppose he couldn’t stand the silence.

“They were more assassins, from your master’s dojo?” he questioned quietly.

I thought about how to answer that. It was true and yet it wasn’t. Inoue was, of course, as was Nakano, but Fujisaki… He was of my brother’s guard, a samurai in his own rights, but from a lesser family with a larger brood of children.

“You could say that,” I answered vaguely. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to completely explain to him my past.

“And… she was?”

Ah, now he came to the true question he wanted to ask. I propped myself up on my elbows and looked over my shoulders at him as he smoothed the salve over the wound. It was comforting and made me feel sleepy again.

“No one of importance,” I answered, looking him in the eye.

His jaw set firmly, unhappy with the answer I had given him. He wanted more… he wanted explanations, and well, I was not ready to speak of them just yet. He did not say anything else as he continued to wrap the wound, but I noticed his movements were just a bit jerky and coarse.

“Thank you for attending to my wounds,” I said quietly, easing into a more comfortable position as he tied the last knot in the bandages.

“I can’t have you dying on me just yet.” He smirked, a bit of that old fire beginning to creep in. “Only I get to kill you, remember?”

I huffed slightly and settled down, suddenly feeling very drowsy. He moved as if to get up from the floor, but I reached out quickly and snatched him back down. I pulled him towards me. I received a look of confusion in return.

“You can stay in here… with me,” I said softly, moving over just enough to give him some room to curl up in front of me.

He eyed me cautiously, noticing the state of my wounds and debating whether or not it would be alright. I sighed and gave him another pull. He took me up on my offer and lay down in front of me. I wrapped an arm around his waist and pulled him close, using his fire to warm my cooling body.

“I will tell you, Mugen, just… not yet,” I spoke quietly in his ear as I settled into sleep, feeling comfortable and satisfied. It felt like I was where I belonged, despite the bandages.

“Hmph,” I heard him respond as he settled himself more comfortably, worming around a bit before he found the exact perfect position. A hand clasped over mine, the one I had wrapped around his waist, and I smiled as I drifted off into slumber.

ve known better. After all, enough time had passed since Yukimaru had come after me. However, I didn’t expect it to be them. I had assumed it would be someone else.

I was still silently seething over Mugen’s insensitivity. We had traveled together long enough that he knew my ways and how I am. He couldn’t expect me to change… I certainly didn’t ask it of him.
It was, of course, those musings that brought me back to my original line of thought. How different the two of us were… and, yet, thinking of his stubbornness, so much alike. What did I want out of this…? I did not even know what to call it. Tryst, affair, relationship… hardly.
It was the cracking of a twig that made me realize the close proximity of my attackers and just how deep in thought I had been.
I placed my hand on my swords cautiously as I turned slowly to face them, mouth already forming words. “So, you have found me. It seems Shuu has grown impatient.”
I faced the three men, neither shock nor recognition registering on my face despite the fact that both feelings were twisting around my insides.
“Lord Urahara is tired of chasing you, Jin,” the man in the middle spat. He was a squat, balding noble, who I knew to be named Fujisaki. Technically, he was lower in rank than me, but I threw out those privileges long ago.
“And so Shuu sent three,” I noted, hand never leaving my daisho. “He must think highly of me.”
“You killed Ryo, you bastard!” another man cursed at me. He stood to Fujisaki’s right, his shorn hair stirring in the faint breeze. Perhaps Ryo had been more than a friend.
“He tried to kill me first, Nakano,” I responded coldly. “Perhaps he should have possessed some skill before he attempted to become a part of an assassination squad.”
Nakano growled and reached for his sword, but Fujisaki stopped him with just a look. However, the third still intrigued me. He was heavily masked and hadn’t spoken yet.
“What do you hide under that mask?” I urged, “I would know the face of those I defeat.”
A low laugh echoed through the empty forest as a decidedly slim and elegantly fingered hand came out from beneath a set of dark-colored robes and headed for the mask. In one deft fluid motion, the mask was removed, and I could not help but gasp a name in surprise.
“Inoue…”
She smirked at me, eyes still displaying that inner brightness. “It’s been a long time, J-san.”
Fujisaki laughed before I had a chance to respond to Inoue. I cast him a cold glare.
“How does it feel?” Fujisaki sneered.
“Your own brother sends assassins after you, one of which is a former bride-to-be?” Nakano continued, joining in the other man’s taunting.
I narrowed my eyes at them. “You talk far too much.” I would kill Nakano and Fujisaki, but never in my right mind could I hurt Inoue. Shuu was counting on that, I am sure, but I still could not do it.
I drew my sword and leveled it at the three of them. They all mimicked my moves. There was no turning back now.
Nakano attacked first, rushing at me with a vengeance. I easily thwarted his attacks, blocking his clumsy blows and pushing him backwards. Until Fujisaki joined into the fray, coming at me from another side, then things were not so easy.
The two men were skilled in their own rights, though far less than me. Still, it was two to one, and it was all I could do to block their attacks. Fighting back was not much of an option.
Nakano slashed at me from the right, aiming for my mid-section. I pulled my sword to the side, quickly blocking his weapon even as I swung around swiftly and blocked Fujisaki’s downwards swing with a decided clang. Already Nakano was attacking me again. I fluidly moved my body out of the way as I continued to block Fujisaki’s attacks. The two men were relentless; they wanted blood.
Perhaps it was just my time to die… I had lived long enough for my transgressions I suppose. It did not matter that Ichigo deserved it… it did not matter what I thought because my life was on the line. These were the thoughts that went through my mind as I struggled to fight off both Nakano and Fujisaki as my one-time bride-to-be watched on, a tell-tale smirk on her face.
The ripping of fabric, and I finally managed to land a blow on Nakano, slicing up his forearm on his sword hand. He cursed audibly but ignored the pain as he came at me with even more vigor, surprising the hell out of me. I figured – coward that he was – Nakano would back off to nurse his wound. The searing pain in my upper left thigh reminded me of my other opponent as Fujisaki caught me off guard and managed to get in a blow, though non-fatal.
The slice was like fire spreading throughout my entire leg, making it incredibly difficult to walk. I could feel the warm sticky blood dripping down my leg and cold chills raced up and down my spine. Perhaps it really was my time to die…
I did not have any longer to think as both men rushed me again, giving me no time for rest. I blocked Fujisaki’s clumsy swing, though the force behind it sent reverberations up my arm and kicked out with my leg hoping to catch Nakano in the knee. I succeeded, and he went down howling.
I had no time to gloat over my one victory as Fujisaki bore down on me. It was at this point that Inoue decided to take part in the fight. I caught her movements out of the corner of my eye as she lazily reached for her sword and did a few stretches. A small shiver of fear raced through my body. I knew who her father was… I knew which dojo she had grown up in… and I knew that, being his only child, Inoue’s father had demanded that she learn to wield a sword. They were a rather liberal family being as no one else would even tolerate that sort of behavior… and from a female no less.
Nakano struggled to get to his feet, attempting to shift his weight onto his uninjured leg. I had struck his knee pretty hard. I would not be surprised if I had shattered his knee cap.
Fujisaki slashed mercilessly with quick, vicious strokes. I blocked them easily enough, but I was more worried about Inoue now approaching me from my left. Nakano had been pushed far out of my mind. That was a mistake that I should have realized sooner.
“I have been looking forward to this for so long…” purred Inoue in a voice that I well-recognized. Fujisaki pulled away from attacking me and the three of them stared me down. I got a moment’s reprieve and barely noticed the fact that I was breathing heavily. I longed to staunch the wound but did not want to show weakness in front of my assassins.
“To beat the famous Urahara Jin [1]… do you wonder why father never let me face you before?” Inoue asked, cocking her head to the side.
“He didn’t want me to kill you,” I managed to say without gasping or sounding short of breath. All hail the power of stoicisms and pride.
She frowned then snorted in a very unladylike fashion. “Hardly. He didn’t want me to kill his best friend’s favorite student.”
I shrugged, ignoring the blood dripping down my leg and soaking my footwear. I pretended as if I was not in such pain. “Then show me this skill that you boast so highly of… it has yet to be seen.”
She growled angrily and raised her sword. I did the same, prepared to fight to the death. I could hear Nakano gasping as he struggled to rise to his feet and then both Inoue and Fujisaki were attacking me at once.
She came at me with a series of vicious attacks, each one seemingly faster than the first. I had heard that she was quick with a blade, but it appeared she had grown even faster in the time since I had last seen her. I managed to block each one of her blows with grace but I couldn’t move from the barrage of their combined strikes. My leg was beginning to go numb.
Fujisaki had flanked her, going in for an attack when he thought I wasn’t looking or when I seemed too busy with her. He was dishonorable the way he aimed for my neck or stomach with diligent attempts.
Fighting Inoue was like trying to slice leaves as they fall out of the autumn tree. She was quick and flitted as if she danced on the wind. Dueling with Fujisaki was like trying to cut down a tree. His attacks were slow but powerful and more often than not made me take a step back on legs that were growing tired of supporting my weight.
A heavy, hot fire raced through my back, and I realized that in the midst of battle, I had forgotten one of the more important rules. Keep your eyes on your enemy. I had neglected to watch Nakano.
As more blood dripped down my back, and I could feel the wind creeping inside my clothing to blow across the wound, I just managed to push back Inoue and Fujisaki enough to pull out my other sword and slash at the backstabber with my weaker hand as I turned slightly. I caught him viciously across the chest and he went down, eyes rolling to the back of his head and blood pooling around his body. I had cut deep, and I doubted that he would survive.
The crunch of fallen leaves, and I turned just in time to block both Inoue and Fujisaki’s combined attack with my dominant hand. I hurriedly sheathed my sword, no time to clean it, and put all of my rapidly descending strength into pushing them off of me.
It occurred to me that I might not survive this time.
That thought made its presence known at the same time that I pushed back hard against the two and caused them to stumble backwards. I slashed at Fujisaki, catching him in the shoulder, albeit on his non-sword arm, but still it was a hit.
I hurriedly raised my sword to attack Inoue, but she had already regained her balance. She slashed downwards at me, putting much of her strength behind the blow. I brought up my sword to block, and my leg gave out beneath me. I dropped to a kneeling position, still managing to defend against her attack. She shifted her weight to attack again, and I felt the whoosh of air as Fujisaki attacked from the right. I hurriedly brought up my sword to block but looked him in the eye and knew it was over as Inoue angled her weapons downwards toward my defenseless left side. My eyes closed in silent defeat. My last thought was of Mugen… and how I had last seen him… and I was instantly filled with regret.
I felt the jarring strike of blade on blade as I blocked Fujisaki’s attack and waited for the searing pain that would accompany Inoue’s completed lunge. Instead, I heard the rustling of leaves on a bush and the familiar clang of blade meeting blade. I pushed up tiredly at Fujisaki even as I opened my eyes. It hardly registered that I was not yet dead as I slashed violently at the older man’s legs and succeeded in dealing him a deadly gash to his inner right thigh. With any luck I would have managed to slice his femoral artery.
Inoue kicked at me even as she battled her new opponent. I barely registered a bright red coat as her foot made contact with my head and her footwear sliced a gash in my forehead. I slumped forward and used my sword to prop me up as blood filled my vision.
Was that… Mugen? I observed the scene before me with surprise and a tired air.
Nakano still lay in a pile of his own blood, face down on the ground. I would not have to worry about swords to the back from that one any longer. Fujisaki had slumped to the ground and was frantically trying to staunch the continuously flowing blood from the wound in his leg. I was right… I had gotten the artery and he knew it too.
His skin was ashen and his fingers trembling as he continued to wrap the wound, knowing the entire time that it was futile. I looked at him impassively and we exchanged glances. He grinned then, something subtle and mysterious. I frowned at him, but I could not keep it as my world was beginning to go grey. I had wounds that needed to be treated.
Fujisaki stopped binding his wound and dug around in his pockets. In seconds he had pulled out a small pouch, hardly large enough to hold anything of worth, and tossed it to me. I watched through dim vision as the leather pouch landed near me, where my sword was currently buried in the ground to hold me up. I didn’t recognize the pouch nor did I reach to take it. That would have used up what little energy I didn’t have. When I next glanced at the older man… he had slumped completely to the ground, either passed out from blood loss or completely dead. I was not able to get up and check.
I briefly registered the clang of blade on blade yet again and looked through a vision of blood to see Mugen and Inoue still fighting. He was able to hold his own against her… I suppose I should have expected it. After all, the man was nearly a match for me. I could hear muttered curses… but they were going dim too. The battle lust that had kept me going… the rush of adrenaline was fading. I could feel my hands slipping from my sword as I began to slump forward, the blade toppling over without me to hold it up.
“Jin!” I heard him call out my name, but I could not respond.
So much blood… the air was full of it. I could taste it and smell it, that thick warm and coppery essence that ultimately made the bile want to rise up in my throat. It was not as if I hadn’t killed before, but still no matter how many times I had to, the very thought of it was sickening. Human lives were so short… our very existence seemed not to matter. There was a flash of red across my dim vision… I barely registered a voice… and then I knew no more.
* * *
I woke up sometime later; I could not be sure how much. I was lying back in a bed, I assumed back at the inn. I was undressed with my hair unbound and all my wounds were wrapped up tightly. Someone had done a good job on the bandages; they were clean and well done. I tried to move but only groaned with the pain. It felt as if a fire had ripped across my back. Apparently that one attack from Nakano had been worse than I had initially thought.
I turned my head to the side, trying to avoid the bright sunlight streaming in through the window and ignoring the sounds of merriment and happiness that drifted up from the celebrations still going on in the town.
I looked around the room and found that my assumptions were correct. It was our room at the inn. I saw my clothing draped across some sort of drying rack. Someone had been thoughtful enough to fix them for me. My swords and glasses were sitting near to my hands within easy reach on the floor next to me. They knew me well.
There was a red coat lying haphazardly in a chair with a sword slung across the back of it. I recognized the items immediately as belonging to Mugen. So it wasn’t my imagination then… it had been the Ryu-Kyuian that had `saved’ me.
The door to the room opened, and I looked up to see Mugen entering, Fuu and Kenji on his heels. The girl was carrying a small tray and the bodyguard had an armful of bandages. Mugen stopped in his tracks when he realized that I had awakened, causing both to nearly slam into his back.
I was quite amused by this. I instantly remembered the last conversation we had and felt just a bit of shame. We had argued… I had nearly died on a bad note such as that. I never thought that when I died there would be regret. However, to be honest, if I had died on that day… I would have regretted ending on such a sour note.
I shifted restlessly on the bed and looked up at him, opening my mouth to speak. My throat felt hoarse and dry but I still managed to croak something out. I had originally intended to say something witty and perhaps sarcastic, but that was not what came out.
“Arigato.“
He heaved a big sigh of relief and continued on entering the room, his early moment of hesitation forgotten. He plopped down near the bed and reached for my shoulder. I had not even realized that I had gotten hurt there. Most of the fight was a blur that I would have gladly forgotten.
“Baka,” he said softly as he unwrapped the wound. I winced slightly as the bandages pulled away from it. Fuu appeared at his side with the tray. I noticed it had a bowl of water I could only assume was warm, some type of washing cloth, and a bottle of salve. Kenji moved to his other side and laid the bandages down.
“You knew about them, didn’t you?”
I shook my head. “Not until after I had left you three. Yet, how did YOU get there so fast?”
“I told him about three men that I had noticed were asking about you,” Fuu said quietly. She set down the tray and stood back up. She and Kenji exchanged glances and the two left the room. They appeared to be wanting to give us privacy.
I followed their movements with my eyes. Mugen caught this.
“Yeah, they know. Kenji apparently was the one to figure it out.”
He began to clean my wound yet again, applying the salve and recovering it with bandages. Whatever he was using managed to not only dull the pain, but it seemed to be helping me to heal faster.
It was a subdued and abnormally quiet Mugen, who was tending to my wounds. He reached to pull the blanket down to get at a few other wounds, but I grabbed his arm. He had yet to really look at me and this forced his eyes to meet mine. I recognized the look that I saw there. I made my decision and gave him a yank, forcing him down on me. A look of surprise registered moments before our lips met, and I was hungrily devouring that mouth.
With only the slightest wince of pain, I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him closer. He shifted his weight so that he could rest more comfortably and returned the passion, holding most of his bulk up with one hand laid flat on the floor and burying the other in my hair.
I slipped my tongue into his mouth, reveling in his familiar taste and proving to myself that I was still alive, and he was still here with me.
For a moment in that battle, I had believed myself dead… and the last thought on my mind had been him. I had underestimated his importance to me… I truly loved the arrogant baka.
He nipped at my bottom lip playfully as he ran his hands through my hair and teased the back of my neck with a finger. I was never happier to be alive. Until him, I was plodding through life, just living for the sake of not wanting to end it.
With a need for breath and to tell him, I broke from the kiss and looked him in the eyes. “I am sorry, Mugen.”
He grinned, that lopsided cocky grin that I had fallen in love with. “Took you long enough.” He gave me another quick kiss before pulling back and returning to his ministrations on my leg. That wound wasn’t very deep, but it was long and shallow, stinging more than hurting.
We didn’t speak as he redressed and rewrapped the wound. I was content to be near him, and I was glad that we were no longer fighting. Once he finished with the leg, we worked together so that I was lying on my stomach and he addressed the wound that was worse on my back.
Finally, Mugen spoke. I suppose he couldn’t stand the silence.
“They were more assassins, from your master’s dojo?” he questioned quietly.
I thought about how to answer that. It was true and yet it wasn’t. Inoue was, of course, as was Nakano, but Fujisaki… He was of my brother’s guard, a samurai in his own rights, but from a lesser family with a larger brood of children.
“You could say that,” I answered vaguely. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to completely explain to him my past.
“And… she was?”
Ah, now he came to the true question he wanted to ask. I propped myself up on my elbows and looked over my shoulders at him as he smoothed the salve over the wound. It was comforting and made me feel sleepy again.
“No one of importance,” I answered, looking him in the eye.
His jaw set firmly, unhappy with the answer I had given him. He wanted more… he wanted explanations, and well, I was not ready to speak of them just yet. He did not say anything else as he continued to wrap the wound, but I noticed his movements were just a bit jerky and coarse.
“Thank you for attending to my wounds,” I said quietly, easing into a more comfortable position as he tied the last knot in the bandages.
“I can’t have you dying on me just yet.” He smirked, a bit of that old fire beginning to creep in. “Only I get to kill you, remember?”
I huffed slightly and settled down, suddenly feeling very drowsy. He moved as if to get up from the floor, but I reached out quickly and snatched him back down. I pulled him towards me. I received a look of confusion in return.
“You can stay in here… with me,” I said softly, moving over just enough to give him some room to curl up in front of me.
He eyed me cautiously, noticing the state of my wounds and debating whether or not it would be alright. I sighed and gave him another pull. He took me up on my offer and lay down in front of me. I wrapped an arm around his waist and pulled him close, using his fire to warm my cooling body.
“I will tell you, Mugen, just… not yet,” I spoke quietly in his ear as I settled into sleep, feeling comfortable and satisfied. It felt like I was where I belonged, despite the bandages.
“Hmph,” I heard him respond as he settled himself more comfortably, worming around a bit before he found the exact perfect position. A hand clasped over mine, the one I had wrapped around his waist, and I smiled as I drifted off into slumber.
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