The characters and some of the details in the following story belong to Daichi Akitaroh, the appropriately named MADHOUSE, Bandai and the Ocean Group. The original OVA of Jubei-chan is very weird and whimsical and not at all as dark as this story.
Notes and Disclaimers:
I have committed one of the great sins of shoujoai fanfic in this story - see if you can figure it out. If you do, be kind, because it's the *first* time I've ever had to resort to it, which, if you think about it, is pretty good in about 100 stories.
This story has some shoujoai elements. If you like shoujoai or yuri, why not drop by Yuricon, a celebration of shoujoai and yuri in anime and manga. We even have a mailing list for fans of the genre.
If you like this story, as always, I enjoy positive feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Negative feedback will be corrected for grammatical and syntactical errors and sent back with a grade.
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The wind whistled through the tall grass plaintively. She inched slowly forward, timing her movements to coincide with the susurrus, careful not to move too much or too little. It wasn't hard; she could feel the wind on her face - gauging its strength, the way it split the high grasses, was simply a matter of practice. And Mikage had had a lot of practice. Not exactly three hundred years but it had seemed like it at times. Mick and she had known nothing else for so long .
Mikage shook her head slightly. Those days were gone, and she had to stay focused on what she was doing here and now. The wind picked up again and she bunched her legs underneath her, ready to move forward, but something made her stop. The sound was wrong, not the whistle of the wind at all Mikage threw herself to the side, just out of range of the sword that would have cut her in half. Her cover blown, she rolled to her feet and faced her opponent. Face and body were covered, unrecognizable, but she knew who it was and knew what she had to do to defeat him.
Her sword became a blur as she struck. She shifted the blade, reflecting the sun into her opponent's eyes, but he wasn't there anymore. She stood her ground, casting about for any sign of movement. She knew better than to move he would have to show himself eventually.
Mikage slowed her breathing, watching, waiting, above all, listening. The motion was presaged by no more than the slightest noise, but it was one second too late and her sword was already there. Her opponent collapsed to the ground breathing heavily. Even in death he did not speak, dying silently, face down upon the dry ground.
Mikage stood over him, her eyes cold. This would not be the last assassin he sent after her nor the worst. Sheathing her sword, she walked away.
The shrine was directly ahead, a rotten corpse of a building surrounded by a lake of detritus. The graveyard was overgrown and choked with weeds, the garden long subsumed into the surrounding woods.
The slithering noise she made was barely audible over the birdsong, but her mutterings and curses were loud and insistent. Slither, curse, mutter, groan, slither. One more slither noise and a soft "thump" brought the birds to a stop. After a moment, neither slither, nor curse, nor moans were heard and the birds took up their conversation once again. She lay in the courtyard, still and quiet, while blood pooled softly beneath her prostrate form.
The water was cool as it drizzled past her cracked lips into her mouth. It felt so good that a shudder of pleasure/pain ran through her body. She found her tongue and moved it experimentally around her mouth before swallowing audibly and painfully. A coughing fit told her that her lungs, though burning, were still working. She still couldn't open her eyes, so she reached out to gain the attention of her savior.
"Sssshhh." The voice was soft and girlish. "You're safe. Don't try to move or talk."
Mikage managed to lick her lips. "Danger," she said. "There's danger."
"I know," the voice said sadly.
Mikage cracked open an eye. She had always assumed that that was a figure of speech, but as her encrusted eyelids painfully and reluctantly separated, she had a sense of unreality, as if all things that were metaphorical had suddenly come to life. Raining cats and dogs, cracking open an eye she lifted a hand to assist with the other eye, but the hand felt funny. What she was able to see was swathed in bandages, looking mummified and clumsy. Her eye closed and she sank into herself with a little whine of self-pity.
There was a noise and she could hear footsteps. "You're awake," the voice said pleasantly. This voice was lower than the other one, older, more mature. "Can you open your eyes?"
Mikage dutifully opened her one eye, but decided against nodding. Something in her head warned her not to move too much. She couldn't see her nurse, but didn't care much. If the woman had wanted to kill her, she would have already.
"You lost a lot of blood and were covered in cuts and bruises. I've had to bandage you up pretty thoroughly, sorry. You had two broken ribs and one hand was cut pretty badly. For some reason, not one vital organ was punctured ."
"Danger," Mikage whispered urgently. "Tell Jubei "
The woman stepped around into her line of vision. She leaned forward and put out a hand to steady Mikage. Yagyuu Jubei's reincarnation looked down at her with sympathy and understanding shining in her one visible eye. "I already know. Relax."
Mikage stared at the young woman in wonder. "How?"
But Jubei was gone again, her voice coming from behind Mikage. "Get some rest, I'll be back with some food."
Mikage closed her eye; sure she would not be able to sleep. There were too many questions to be answered, too much danger to fall asleep
This time it was a cool cloth against her eyes that woke her. After a few passes, Mikage was able to open both eyes. The face in front of her was blurry, but she could clearly make out the eye patch, the full lips, the brown hair of Yagyuu Jubei. The young woman's face was serious as always.
"Good morning," Jubei said. "Do you think you could eat something?"
Mikage searched in herself, looking for nausea from a concussion, or weakness from injury. All she found was an achingly empty stomach. "Yes," she said and ventured a cautious nod.
"Good. Here." Jubei took a spoon and a wooden bowl from a table and placed them on her lap. Looking down at Mikage, she waited for the other woman to struggle to a more upright position.
Mikage's head pounded slightly, but she felt no dizziness, so she turned her gaze on the other woman. "What is it?"
"Rice gruel. Hajime-kun's mother made it."
Mikage reached out for the bowl, but stopped at the sight of her hand. Rounded and blunt, the bandages precluded any kind of dexterity. Jubei smiled slightly.
"I'm afraid you'll have to let me feed you."
Mikage did so, pretending that there was no wound to her dignity. The gruel was soothing, bringing memories of a quiet moment in her childhood. She was glad that it was barely flavored, gladder when the ordeal was over. Jubei wiped Mikage's face one last time and took the bowl with her as she stood.
"Jubei-sama," Mikage ventured, "why you? Why isn't Jiyu-san the one nursing me?"
Jubei turned and looked down at the other woman. "It isn't safe for Jiyu right now. That's why we came here." She gestured around her. "We'll talk more later."
Mikage watched as the young woman left the room and closed the door. She let her eyes droop and pondered her situation. The enemy had returned, she knew that obviously Jiyu, Jubei, knew that too, or she wouldn't be there. But why would Yagyuu Jubei herself tend the wounds of a minor soldier in a great war? There was something she didn't know, something she was missing. With this thought, she fell asleep once more.
When Jubei entered the room the next morning, she found Mikage awake and standing. The woman was struggling into a light robe, but it hung open and loose, since she was unable to tie it closed. Jubei glanced at her and quickly joined the ties; her nimble fingers making small, tight bows.
"Thank you," Mikage smiled. "I wasn't sure how I was going to do that. I didn't know if anyone else is here."
"Not at present," Jubei said. "Hajime-kun and Shiro-kun come every evening, but right now we're alone. Do you think you can walk?"
Mikage shook a leg. "A little, yes. I don't want to stay in bed too long."
Jubei nodded with understanding and put out an arm to steady Mikage, who took a few wobbly steps. She could feel the muscles in her legs protest, but no more than exhaustion and the pain of mild contusions met her efforts. Breathing softly, shallowly, Mikage leaned on Jubei as they walked down a short passage.
"How is your breathing?" Jubei inquired.
"Fine, as long as I keep relaxed." Mikage said, pausing as she spoke.
"The broken ribs were the worst injury you received," Jubei confirmed. "Here." She left Mikage's side and slid a door open. The two women stepped out onto a veranda. The sun shone down on them as Jubei assisted Mikage to recline.
Mikage could see dragonflies flitting through the overgrown garden, hovering for a second, then moving off in a blur of color. She looked up as Jubei's hand was laid across her forehead. The brown eye was expressionless, as the swordswoman considered her findings.
"You feel fine, no fever. Are you up to talking?"
Mikage nodded. "I'd prefer it. There's no time to relax you know, you said, but you can't know everything."
Jubei nodded. "I know that Ryujoji is back and he has more power this time than the last. I know that he is rounding up his former ninja and killing them, I know he is absorbing their energy for some reason and I know," she paused, "I know about Mick." This last was said very softly.
Mikage closed her eyes. "He's dead, isnt he? I haven't seen him in months " Her voice cracked and she felt as if she was slipping into a dark well she opened her eyes quickly, so that the light of the sun and the colors of the garden would impress themselves against her eyes. Look, not black and cold, colorful and warm, look .
"I don't know." Jubei's voice was cool. "Missing, presumed."
Mikage turned wounded eyes on the warlord.
"I know it's horrible, Mikage-san. I know it's painful. But you must not dwell on it." Something flashed in the brown eye and Mikage bowed her head. But she resented being told that mourning her husband was unworthy. What was she, this young girl, who had never loved, never feared, never lost .?
"Mikage-san," the voice was sharp. "You do not know what I have lost, how much I have lost. I don't make light of this, rest assured."
Mikage turned smoldering eyes on Jubei and saw an answering fire in the other woman's gaze. Mikage shook herself. Three hundred years she found herself speaking quietly. "He, Ryujoji, came back a year ago. At first it was the ninja of the lower ranks. They had scattered when you defeated him, so we didn't notice at first. But there were reports of missing people, mostly low class criminals and the like. Then one of Mick's friends disappeared, then another. Then Koshiro-kun disappeared and we realized something was wrong." Mikage's manner became earnest. "Six months ago he came for us. He sent a few ninjas no one we knew and we defeated them, but then " Mikage paused. She took a slow breath, trying to ease the pain in her side. "Then Mick disappeared. I've been looking for him ever since. I have fought off a few adversaries, but they've been getting stronger. A week ago, as I approached this shrine, I was attacked and you saw the result."
"Another ninja?" Jubei asked, her eye searching Mikage's face.
"One of my childhood friends." Mikage met her gaze. "He and I were trained together we called each other brother and sister. But when he attacked me this time, I could see it wasn't him inside. His face was well, evil. It was awful." She turned away to look out at the wilderness that surrounded the shrine.
Silence fell. The ambient noises of nature sounded like a battlefield to Mikage, with buzzing artillery overhead, punctuated by knocks and whistles. She cringed from the noise.
"What did you do?"
Mikage whirled on Jubei, her nostrils flared with pain. "I killed him what do you think I did?" She breathed hard, holding onto her ribs.
Jubei considered and nodded. "I am sorry. I needed to know if I could trust you."
"Trust me to do what? Kill my friends and family? Yes, you can trust me." Mikage's voice was harsh.
Jubei leaned over, reaching out a hand. Mikage wanted to pull away, but didn't. "No Mikage-san, I wanted to know if I could trust you to love your friends and family enough to protect them from that evil whatever the cost."
Mikage exhaled. She felt deflated, wrung out, weary in body and mind. She turned away from Jubei, her eyes dark with pain. "If Mick returns to me like that, then yes, I love him enough to kill him."
Jubei shot her a hard glance but said nothing.
After a long silence, Mikage said, conversationally, as if they had speaking of this all along, "So, why is it that Jubei-sama nurses me, feels my head for fever and brings me gruel? Where is little Jiyu-san?"
Jubei shook her head. "She can't help you right now."
As Mikage watched the other woman a brief flash of pain crossed her face. "You are too much like her mother."
Mikage's defiance crumbled. She remembered poor Nonohara Sai, desperately attempting to look cheerful as his heart broke when she walked away from him. She felt terrible, but she had Mick and they were happy together. He was sweet enough but she wondered idly if he had ever noticed those two girls watching them from the road. They were Jiyu's schoolmates, she remembered she had met them at the party at the sweet shop.
"Oh," Mikage acknowledged.
Jubei rose from her seat. "I have to go rest. Would you like to stay here, or shall I help you back to your room?"
Mikage looked out on the garden and felt the sun on her face. "I'll stay here and sleep. It's warm and pleasant."
"I'll be back in a little while." Jubei stood and brushed off her pants. "If you wake and need me, call out and I'll be right here." She turned and took a step, but Mikage's hand restrained her.
"Jubei-sama. Thank you."
Jubei gave her a small, tight smile and left her alone on the veranda.
Some time later, Mikage was barely aware of being lifted from her couch and brought back to her room. She could hear several voices, but she was unable to swim out of the well of sleep long enough to identify them.
The next day Jubei removed and reapplied all the bandages on her body. It took what seemed like forever, and Mikage was fidgety by the time the warlord made it to her left hand. This was the hand that had been cut nearly to the bone she wondered that it hadn't been sliced off.
"I don't know why," Jubei mused as she applied the final wrappings, "but nothing but flesh was severed. You should be able to regain full use of it." She looked up, her eye flashing with respect. "You're very good."
"Very lucky." Mikage demurred. "I missed my block and had to fend off a close strike by hand." She pulled her hand from Jubei's grasp and looked at it. "It was poor fighting. I was weak."
Jubei watched her for a moment, then stood, cleaning up the remnants of her old bandages. "When you're healed, we'll make sure that you never do that again."
Mikage looked up quickly. "What?"
"Practice." Jubei looked back at her. "Or will you abandon me as soon as I need you?"
Mikage's eyes widened. "But you, you can't possibly need me you're Yagyuu Jubei!"
"I'm not a fool, Mikage-san. I can't defeat him alone I wasn't alone last time, and I barely defeated him then."
Mikage considered. "Hajime-san, Shiro-san?" she asked.
"I don't like to include them, but yes they are with me." Jubei's eye narrowed. "He will come for them, sooner or later. Will you help me protect them protect Jiyu?"
Mikage's jaw set. Of course. How had she forgotten Jiyu-san, who had saved her not Jubei, but Jiyu, throwing herself into the maelstrom of Mikage's self-deception .
"I will die for Jiyu-san." Mikage said firmly.
Jubei hmphed with quiet amusement. "I don't want to see it come to that."
The days passed quietly. Mikage watched her bandages thin, then begin to disappear. Slowly, she began to exercise lightly. Walking around the shrine grounds helped her rebuild leg strength. Fighting would have to wait until hand and ribs were fully healed.
She did not see Jubei very often. Mikage imagined that the girl left her in the morning, transforming into Jiyu on her way to school, returning in the afternoon to check on her. Once, while walking along a densely grown path, she thought she saw Jiyu cycling on the road below, but wasn't sure. Twice she had managed to catch a glimpse of Hajime or was it Shiro? She thought it was Hajime, his face was more open than his brother's. Feckless, she thought, but didn't dwell on it.
At last the hand had nothing but a light wrapping, more to keep the wound clean than to hold it together. She would have a scar on the hand, but that was a small price to pay for her ability to use it once again. She worked on dexterity exercises during the day, waiting now only until her ribs were fully healed. She woke up facing her sword, cleaned and oiled it every day, contemplated it every evening. She would use it again one day in defense of Jubei, Jiyu and Mick.
Jubei entered after a short knock on the door. Her normally serious face was lachrymose. Mikage's heart skipped a beat and a cold lump settled into the pit of her stomach. The two women stared at each other for a long while. Jubei put a hand gently on Mikage's shoulder as she crouched.
"I'm so sorry," Jubei's voice was low and rough with grief.
Mikage stared at the single visible eye, feeling the cold spread from her stomach towards her heart.
"I knew it," was all she could manage before the numbness spread to her lips.
Jubei watched Mikage, but made no motions, offered no words of comfort. Mikage wondered if any kind of heart at all beat within that deceptively feminine chest.
"Do you want to be alone?" the ancient warlord asked. Mikage started to nod, changing it at the last moment to a brief shake of the head. Jubei, sensing the woman's ambivalence, seated herself where she squatted. Within arm's reach, but no closer.
Mikage looked at her sword. Jubei followed her gaze, her lips tight. Mikage forced the words from between clenched jaws. "I'll kill him."
Jubei nodded. "I swear you'll have your vengeance."
Mikage stared at the young woman with distaste. Jubei met her gaze evenly and, seeing the pain the other woman was suffering, she slowly, deliberately, reached up and removed the patch from her eye. Mikage's vision blurred as the air around the woman bent and swirled. When she was able to see clearly again it was Nonohara Jiyu that was sitting with her.
"Mikage-san," the girl said, her eyes welling with tears.
Mikage's head drooped as the tears came. She could feel herself being drawn forward into a comforting embrace, and the wails of pain began.
When the sobbing died down and only the soft sounds of a soul in torment were left, Jiyu laid Mikage's head on her lap and stroked the woman's hair softly. The older woman could hear Jiyu singing a soft lullaby, the words barely audible, but the tune was familiar.
"What song is that?" Mikage asked. Her voice was strange to her own ears she sounded like a child.
"A song my mother used to sing to me when I was upset,"" Jiyu answered simply. She paused. "You remind me a little of her." They both knew that it was just something that had to be said..
Mikage let the tears fall from her eyes onto her hand and the floor, her chest hollow with an aching loneliness. This feeling was all too familiar she remembered feeling it for many long years before Mick had come into her life. With a start, she realized something terrible.
Sitting up abruptly, Mikage stared at Jiyu. "You feel it too, don't you?"
Jiyu tilted her head quizzically. "Feel what?"
"That feeling." Mikage laid a hand on her own chest and one on Jiyu's. "That something's gone from here."
Jiyu looked down at the hand that touched her and back at Mikage, nodding slowly. "But I was very young when my mother died I feel it more for other people than myself."
"For your father?"
Jiyu nodded again. "And for you."
Mikage's tears intensified. She removed her hand from the girl and clasped it with her other hand , wringing and squeezing them together.
Jiyu simply waited and watched, her eyes bright and softened by sadness. Night fell, and the room became dark.
Mikage moved slowly, as if pulling herself from a tar pit. "I want to help you defeat him. Three hundred years is long enough."
Jiyu shifted uncomfortably. "I I don't know what I can do "
"You can't do anything," Mikage said shortly. "But Yagyuu Jubei can."
Jiyu sucked in a sharp breath and stood. Mikage could feel the girl vibrating with emotion. Jiyu whirled around on her heel and left the room without another word. Mikage collapsed where she sat and cried herself to sleep.
Mikage paused, her foot hovering lightly over the trap. Stepping carefully around it, she paused again and waited. There was no noise, except for the ever-present birds, but she knew that she was not alone.
The figure came at her in a rush from above. Mikage was ready and easily avoided the clumsy attack, sidestepped the trap, and the secondary snare that was placed where she should have set her foot down. Leaping lightly, she used her attacker's shoulder as a foothold, then flipped as she shoved him off-balance. Landing lightly on her feet, she reached backwards just in time to grab her opponent's arm, saving him from the large pit that waited below the deceptive matting.
She turned and patted the young man on the back as he whipped his mask off and grinned at her. "Mikage-san, that was amazing!"
She gave him a curt nod. "Thank you Shiro-san. You've improved as well."
He pinked with embarrassment. "This is very different from kendo " he deferred the compliment. "I still have a long way to go before I'll be as good as you or Jubei-sama."
Mikage gave him a hard look. "You'll never be as good as Jubei-sama."
The boy's face flushed, this time with something stronger than embarrassment, but Mikage hadn't waited to see his reaction. Her body was feeling good, primed, ready for battle. The adrenaline rush was subdued but present. She chafed against the restrictions the warlord had put on her, and desperately wanted to get the hell out of this obscure place and onto the path of vengeance.
Gruffly, she made her way back to her room and closed the door behind her. She didn't bother with a light, letting her eyes adjust to the gloom.
Her ribs were long healed, her loneliness hardly noticed anymore, except as a vague ache in her chest in the darkness of the night. Summer had passed and autumn was approaching. Her heart burned for vengeance, but she had sworn to serve Jubei, so serve she did.
Mikage looked into the little mirror that served as her vanity, perched over the washbasin. She splashed some water on her face, contemplating the cold visage that was reflected. Something worried her every time she looked at herself, as if a little bit of her humanity was slipping away, day by day. Her eyes were expressionless and she couldn't remember the last time she had smiled.
A knock sounded on the door. Mikage made an affirmative noise and watched as the door slid open. A figure slipped in quietly, almost imperceptibly. Mikage kneeled as Jubei stood before her.
Jubei raised her to her feet, and regarded her seriously. "I wish you wouldn't do that," the young woman said.
Mikage kept her head down. "Yagyuu Jubei should be used to it."
"I am not feeling myself, I've been told."
Mikage looked up at the young woman. Her voice had been wry was that meant to have been a joke?
Jubei turned away, hands clasped behind her back. "It's been months," she said suddenly.
"It won't be long before he comes."
Jubei spun around to face the other woman. "We are not even close to being ready."
Mikage bristled. "We train every day. Our my senses are at their peak even those boys could hold their own against what I was capable of in the past. And "
"And he is one hundred times stronger than that now." Jubei shook her head slowly. "And we have lost our ability to love one another."
Mikage said nothing.
"Do you remember the last time I fought him?" Jubei urged. "It was love that saved me not skill."
"My love is dead." Mikage said.
"But mine is not." Jubei stood very still, her hands still clasped. "I have thought about this a very long time, Mikage-san. Why I was brought back in *this* body and no other.
"I died an old man, one who had had a family, a clan, sons and daughters. Koinusuke was not my best or most devoted servant nor was he my most competent. But he loved me, and I him. And I could see that he would have that same love for me whether I was reborn into a man-child, a horse, a cow, or a beautiful girl. I did not make that choice lightly."
The ninja turned back to the window. The light was pale, featureless, the sounds of the night loud in the background. Mikage could hear the two boys preparing dinner, along with the few other people who knew of this place.
"I chose to be a woman, so that I would better understand loss and pity and compassion. I have learned a great deal from this Jiyu this Jubei-chan. She is a very strong soul in a very soft body." Jubei turned and smiled. Mikage thought that this was the very first time she had ever seen Jubei smile like that. Something in her swelled, something aching to break free, but she swallowed it.
"It hasn't stopped her from losing those she cares about," Mikage protested.
"No. But she has gained a great deal of strength from that. More than I would have more than you have." Jubei took a step towards the other woman. "Mikage-san, we *all* lose those we love eventually. I have lost everyone in my clan, all my family and my beloved wife and children. They are all dead 300 years."
"And my loss is mere months? Is that what you mean to say?"
"No, I mean to say this. You have not yet grieved properly for Mick and I am sure he would not want you to seek vengeance. I mean to say that this sharp edge of hatred and need for revenge will be what defeats you ultimately."
"So be it." Mikage's will was adamant.
"And," Jubei said casually, as if this was just something extra that occurred to her as an afterthought. "I mean to say that if you die, I will miss you terribly."
Jubei's face was shadowed. "I have come to care deeply for you, Mikage-san. You alone on this planet I consider my equal." And with that, the ancient warlord in the young body made a quick bow and exited the room.
Mikage stood for a long time and watched the door.
Mikage knocked and slid the screen back. Stepping into the room, she kneeled quickly, then walked upon her knees to the required distance for a senior officer to her lord. Removing her sword, she laid it beside her, and touched her head to the mat. "I humbly request a favor," she said to the ground.
Jubei spoke without looking at the woman. "What is your request?"
"I request a duel."
This made the ninja look up sharply. "Against whom?"
There was a shocked silence, then, "Why?"
"If I win, you will grant me two favors. If you win, I will grant you one."
Jubei's lips quirked. "That seems unfair."
Mikage lifted her head. "In light of what you will request, I do not think it at all unfair," she said calmly.
Jubei considered her words. "I see," she said at last. She seemed to withdraw a little into herself. "If it will make you happier and avert this challenge, I will grant one of your requests right now. The second and lesser one. I know what you will ask and now I am prepared to answer the question."
Mikage shook her head, lowering it once again to the ground. "No. I will win the right to ask you this question, or will go to the grave not knowing."
Jubei's eyes narrowed. "Mikage-san, this is stupid. If you know what I want and I know what you want to know, then why should we not set this charade aside and address the issue directly?" She took a breath audibly. "And you clearly *already* know the answer to your question."
Mikage shook her head once again. "I will hear it from your lips."
"I'm prepared " Jubei began.
"NO!" Mikage said, one had clenching in front of her. "I will win my right to hear it."
Jubei glared at the woman. "Fine. When and where?"
Mikage looked up, her eyes burning. "Now. Here. Until one of us yields."
Jubei nodded shortly. "Now."
And the two women simply sat, staring at one another. Time passed, neither of them moved. Their eyes were locked upon each other, each searching out a weakness, an intent upon which to act.
In a heartbeat, Jubei was up and moving towards Mikage, her sword drawn, held behind her. Mikage moved as quickly, drawing her own sword in a single motion as she stood.
Their movements were so fast they were almost invisible to the eye. Swords moved in mere flashes of light, their footsteps practically inaudible. Their breaths came quietly, soft, hushed noises, as they moved time after time to strike and counter one another.
The door opened and Hajime entered. He ducked as Mikage's sword whistled above his head and quickly, he retreated. Mikage could hear the boy's voice crying out, but she couldn't pay attention to his words, as Jubei had once again closed with her.
Swords and bodies pressed against one another, the two women swayed momentarily, then parted with an outburst of heavy breathing. Mikage retreated outside, trying to lure Jubei into a trap.
The fight was too evenly matched and Mikage found herself wondering if she hadn't been wrong about this woman. Maybe Jubei's motive had been as simple as
Swords met, and were immobilized, arms met and were neutralized. Mikage sought to gain a foothold, a lock, any position of control, but always Jubei was right there to meet her, to counter her. Mikage felt the hopelessness welling up within her. Tears sprang to her eyes and the blackness filled her.
Her hair darkened as she stared at her implacable enemy, markings of evil painting themselves on her face and her sword began to glow with a dark energy that burned. She gathered her muscles underneath her and shoved Jubei violently to the ground.
Laughing at his enemy's weakness, Ryujoji Daigo, head of the Ryujoji clan, and implacable enemy of Yagyuu Jubei, stood over the girl, gloating.
"Thank you, Yagyuu Jubei, for training my weapon on my behalf. Had you not been so meticulous in her training, I would not have the chance to defeat you today." Ryujoji laughed again as he struck downward with his sword. To his dismay, the little ninja girl was not there. Turning, he barely avoided her attack from above and behind, managing to catch her on the ear as she moved past him. Teeth bared he shifted his grip on his sword. This time, he would have his victory.
He moved forward, his sword leveled at the staggering warlord's heart. There was a scream, several voices crying out the hated name, as his sword entered her chest. His cry of victory was cut short, however, as his own flesh parted to let her sword enter into him.
Mikage could feel a tearing sensation as sword rent flesh, and the tormented soul ripped away from her with a cry. Jiyu pushed Mikage out of the way of the locked combatants, as they once again fought their eternal battle to the death.
Jiyu rolled off Mikage's body, unconscious, and Mikage's vision swam. Before she passed out, she had to know "Jubei-sama?"
And all went dark.
Mikage was up and about before Jiyu was able to get out of her bed. The former ninja met the young woman at the door of her room, and assisted her onto the veranda to sit in the sunlight.
"How are you feeling today, Mikage-san?" Jiyu asked politely.
"I'm fine, thank you." Mikage smiled at the girl.
"I'm glad." Jiyu's voice seemed reserved.
"And you?" Mikage let a little worry slipped into her own question.
Jiyu looked away. "I feel odd."
"Mmmm." Jiyu looked back at the older woman. "Like I've been asleep for a long time and am now waking up. Or just getting over a flu, or just had a heavy period."
Mikage's eyebrows rose at this. "Oh?"
"Mmm." Jiyu nodded.
They sat in the sun and let the cicadas serenade them.
"I don't mean to be selfish, you know." Jiyu said as a non-sequitor.
"Selfish? You?" Mikage was amazed. "Who said that? Jubei-chan is the least selfish person I know!"
Jiyu smiled. "I know you have unfinished business with her, with Yagyuu Jubei - but I am so comfortable being me right now...I know I'm being unfair."
Mikage laid a comforting hand on her arm. "It can wait."
The conversation strayed then, to what Jiyu's father was writing, what the boys thought of the battle, of the Ruffians latest antics, of anything except what concerned them.
Hajime and Shiro's mother had once again cooked and the shrine demesnes were filled with light and song (courtesy of Bentaro) and laughter. Mikage made her excuses early, feeling suddenly at a loss among so many smiling, youthful faces.
She was patting down her sword in order to remove the accumulated oils from the blade, when the soft knock came. Without looking up, Mikage said, "Come in."
Jubei stepped in, her manner diffident and embarrassed. "I'm sorry," she began, but Mikage waved her words away impatiently. She slid rice paper over the blade, wiping away the bran and dirt, then took the oil in one hand. She applied it evenly to the sword, her motions following a soft, insistent rhythm.
Jubei sat and watched her, her legs crossed comfortably. When Mikage had completed her task, she sheathed the sword, cleaned up the materials and at last, turned her attention to the other woman.
"You won," she said firmly. "You saved me from him, from despair and death and I owe you my life yet again." She scrambled to her knees and touched her head to the floor. "I'm yours, body and soul. Ask me for anything and it will be yours."
Jubei did not answer.
Mikage looked up. "You won. Ask."
Jubei said nothing. Angry now, Mikage lifted her head and leaned on one fist, the other tucked into her waist. "Jubei-sama !"
Jubei shook her head. "It was a draw."
"We had a deal." Mikage insisted.
"It was a draw. You ask first." The young woman's voice was implacable, her gaze impenetrable.
Mikage pursed her lips.
Jubei's eye was clear as she said, "Fine. Then I'll answer your question, as I would have before you challenged me. Your question was is 'Why does the great Yagyuu Jubei tend my wounds, comfort me in my darkness and train me personally?' The answer, as you must have realized, is "
"That you needed to spend as much time as you could in this form, to be ready for him when he returned," Mikage said quickly. "I knew that."
Jubei smiled a little. "Are you that scared of the truth, Mikage-san? Yes, at first I determined that this was the only way to gain the strength I needed to fight Ryujoji. The last time I was unable to defeat him in this form because I was weak. But as we trained, as we talked, ate and lived in this place, I realized that I was never going to be able to defeat him. Not in this form, or any other. It was Jiyu's father that defeated him last time. And it was Jiyu herself this time who stopped him from killing us both. I will never, no matter how long I train, be able to defeat the 300-year old Ryujoji grudge. I will never be strong enough."
Mikage met the warlord's gaze with her own.
"Many lifetimes ago, I was a young man, and I fell in love. She was as beautiful and sweet smelling as a tennyo, as mild as a doe and not of my rank. She knew perfectly well that we would never be anything but lovers. And we were content with that." Jubei smiled. "She did not look at all like you, but she had your fire your spirit. I loved her, all those hundreds of years ago, Mikage-san."
Mikage felt the world swim behind her eyes. Of course, she had known. This Jubei was not just a young woman whose name was coincidentally Jubei this was the great warlord himself Yagyuu Jubei, chief retainer to the Shogun, who had been brought back to life to finish fighting a battle begun three centuries ago. A battle she herself had been drawn into.
"You don't have to " Mikage began.
"I want to." Jubei said with finality. "I am not Nonohara Jiyu, nor am I Nonohara Sai, who fell in love with a woman who looked too much like his late wife. I am Yagyuu Jubei, and I love you." Jubei passed a hand over her brow. "There, that was your first request and by far the harder. Your second, well, I'm sorry I couldn't allow you to do that."
Mikage stared. "Was I that predictable?"
Jubei's face softened and she smiled broadly. "Yes. You were so hungry for revenge and obviously chafing at my restrictions on your movements."
"So you used me? Kept me here to draw him here?" Mikage asked, full of deeply conflicting emotions.
Jubei shook her head. "No. It was a risk, of course, that your unhappiness would draw him to you but I was more concerned for you, and Hajime-kun and Shiro-kun. They had both been his pawns and I was unwilling to let him get to them, or you, outside my control. For better or worse, I find myself now bound by the feelings Jiyu has for her friends." She hmphed. "Mixed with my own emotions, of course. I feel strongly that Shiro-kun and Hajime-kun are *my* responsibility, as well as caring for them for Jiyu's sake." She paused deliberately. When she spoke again her voice was dark.
"I also kept you here because of the magical wards on this place. 300 years ago this shrine was a place where exorcisms were done as a matter of course. If Ryujoji attacked us here, there was a good chance to dispel him forever. Unfortunately, I don't think that is what happened."
"Why not?" Mikage asked.
Jubei gave a sharp, little laugh. "Because I am still here."
"It will take time of course, but he will be back."
"And we will defeat him again," Mikage said confidently.
"We?" Jubei's one eyebrow lifted.
Mikage nodded. "You've answered my question, and granted my request." She looked up at the young woman, her face kindly. "It's your turn, since we had a draw."
Jubei turned away. "I can't."
Mikage reached out, but pulled her hand back before she touched the other woman. "You are an old man in a young woman's body. It must be hard for you."
"You have no idea," Jubei said dryly. "But more than that I am myself, not Yagyuu Jubei, not Nonohara Jiyu. I am somewhere in between and it is my own emotions that confuse me the most."
"I'll grant your request," Mikage said softly, invitingly.
Jubei looked at the other woman, her eye dark with emotion. "Then I'll make it. Stay here. Stay with me for six months. If, after that time, you want to leave, you'll be free to do so."
Mikage let the surprise show openly on her face. "That wasn't "
"Six months," Jubei repeated. "And then you can leave me."
"And what if I don't want to leave after six months?" Mikage asked, a small smile forming at the corner of her lips.
Jubei watched her carefully, as she answered. "Then we can have another match to determine whether you stay or go."
Mikage was smiling openly now, as was Jubei. The older woman nodded, as if coming to a final decision. "Fine. Six months."
Jubei gave a short bow, then stood quickly. She turned away, sliding the door to Mikage's room open, then turned back to address the other woman.
Mikage held up a hand to stall her. "We'll talk about it in the morning. Right now, Jiyu-san should probably go home."
Jubei nodded, and stepping out through the door, closed it behind her without a word.
Mikage sat on the floor and listened to the sounds of the night fill the darkness. Without light, there was still life, but with light, there was also hope.
She laid herself down on her bed and for the first time in months, was asleep within seconds, sleeping a dreamless, peaceful sleep.