Ok, so this last chapter has been hell to get out. I've been so busy and… home for the past week that, that… yeah, sorry this is so incredibly late. I beg forgiveness. I like being home (as in, not at college), but being home means there's… people… around all the time. And people like me to do stuff with them. Doing stuff means I'm not at my computer. Grr… It's frustrating. Sigh. Again, I apologize.

K. As far as where this is going to go… I got one vote for what to do with this chapter and that was ::clears throat:: "DIVERT! DIVERT! DIVERT!" hehehehe. Well… you'll see what I did. I was pretty much left to my own devices, so… yeah. Warning: this gets a bit angsty. Time for mood music ::plops Copeland onto her playlist:: Ah, nothing like a little emo to get the angst flowing.

Fragile Immortality

Rin's felt herself snap as the rope finally gave way to her knife. Without thinking, she leaned back and grabbed Manji's forgotten sword, hand and all, and then hurtled herself from the porch. The garbled screams of the man slowly being decapitated drowned out her approach. The assassin was intent on the death throws of the immortal, eyes wide with fascination and mouth twisted in a grin.

.

.

.

Her scream of rage brought the attention of both men to her. Manji's eye rolled in her direction in surprise, the pain-glaze lifting slightly. The assassin's head came up, eyes widening in disbelief.

Rin gripped Manji's hand and his sword between her own and swung.

It had been a long time since she'd killed someone. It was the only thought she could register for the moment. She stared at the mass of blood and hair as it settled in the grass some distance away. When she'd asked Master Sori for help. That was the last time. The thugs had dropped out of nowhere, forcing Manji and her to fight for their lives in the middle of the artist's yard. Luckily the face wasn't looking at her. She didn't know if she could handle that right now. There would be surprise, probably. There hadn't been much chance for fear or anything else. Why was her stomach acting so funny? She'd never been this weak around blood before. Maybe it was because she hadn't been defending herself against an outside attack. Really, now that she thought about it, had she acted honorably? Maybe she should she have announced herself. Or challenged him.

Something dull and wet hit her in the leg and she looked down numbly. A handless arm was slamming into her thigh again and again, and probably had been for some time. Rin felt the world rush away and then slam back into her face. She stumbled backwards and landed on the ground with a jarring thump. It was enough.

"Oh god," she gasped, clutching at her throat as her senses righted themselves. How long had she been standing there, mind fragmented by shock? She blinked hard, trying to focus her numbed brain back to reality and found herself staring at a baleful eye. Apparently long enough for her bodyguard to start getting blue in the face.

"Manji!" she cried, crawling over to him. She winced in sympathy as she pried the scythe from his throat. Her movements were gentle, but the steel was buried almost halfway through his neck and pain was inevitable as she finally wrenched it free. His breath hissed angrily through the gash in his throat, mouth gaping silently as he tried to yell at her. Rin smiled weakly as he realized his vocal chords and his air source were no longer connected. Glaring at her, he mouthed a few distinct words that she wouldn't fail to understand, voiced or not. Rin understood. She laughed, voice tinged with hysteria, at the strange comfort it gave her.

He was alive.

Stumbling to her feet, she hooked the body of the formerly living assassin under the arms and dragged him far enough away that she wouldn't have to look at him while she tended to her bodyguard. She was already on the edge as it was. Staring at a headless corpse for an extended period of time wouldn't help matters.

Silently, she knelt beside Manji's prostrate form and began to rip long strips of cloth from the bottom of her kimono. It was already ripped and stained beyond salvation, she might as well put it to use. In almost no time Manji's hands were reunited with his body, festive red wrist bands marking the joyous occasion. There had been a bit of angry hissing when she'd tried to introduce his left hand to his right arm, but other than that the bandaging had gone smoothly. She was a bit worried about his neck, though. She didn't want him to sit up because his side was already in the process of healing, but his head was tilted back just enough that the bloodworms were having a problem connecting.

"Human bandage, at your service," she sighed as she knelt behind him and lifted his head and neck into her lap. Perfect. The incline pressed the wound closed and the little worms went quickly to work.

Rin sighed and let her head droop to her chest, eyes closed. Her work was done for the moment and she could rest. Below her, Manji began to grumble as he healed, but it would be a little while before he could talk again. Cartilage and bone took longer to rebuild than muscles. Judging by how thin a windpipe was, though, it wouldn't be more than two minutes, she calculated absently. Just a few minutes and he would be yelling and growling at her again. Telling her what an idiot she was for throwing herself into a fight with a guy who outclassed her. Berating her for allowing herself to be caught in the first place. Complaining that her lap wasn't soft enough, that the bandages were too tight.

Rin broke down in tears.

"Hey, kid," Manji's voice was subdued when he called her. She shook her head violently at the concern she hear in it. It was too much. All of it was just too much this morning. She felt horrible. Dirty. She wanted nothing more than to throw herself into the river and let it wash away the blood and tears and pain. Maybe if she let it carry her long enough her troubles would be scrubbed away, lapping at the banks with the driftwood. She'd let it carry her all the way to the ocean. There she could float away from everything, losing herself in the salty embrace with the sun warming her skin. Salty like the tears in her mouth. Warm like the hand cupping her cheek.

"Rin," he tried again. Rin opened her eyes, startled. His thumb stroked her neck gently, calluses catching on the downy hairs of her skin. She stared down at him in amazement. His face was a mess of dirt and blood, streaks from her tears creating a patchwork mask of wavy lines. It was also soft with worry and something that looked almost like compassion.

"I-I'm sorry. I'm crying on you," she choked out, sitting up quickly and using her sleeve to wipe the irrational wetness from her face. A tug on the ring in her hair brought her face back down. Rin blinked, paralyzed with shock as she felt the warmth and roughness of his hand slide around the back of her neck, forcing her eyes to meet his.

"You ok?" he asked. Rin stared at his face, full of scars and blood that her tears vainly tried to wash away. His gaze, halved by chance but no less intense, was full of confusion but acceptance. It was sharp and full of life. He was alive.

"You're alive," she sobbed out, a fresh spring of tears flowing unbidden down her face.

"I'm a goddam immortal, what did you expect?" he grouched.

"Shut up!" her arms wrapped around his head beneath the chin and gripped him closer to her, "You're alive."

She was so wrapped up in her hysterical relief that she didn't see the rueful smirk that quirked the edges of her guardian's mouth. She barely even felt him tug her head down, her forehead meeting his own as he let her cleanse them with her tears.

The sun was drooping in the sky when Manji returned from the woods. Rin watched him approach through half-lidded, puffy eyes. She felt like she'd been crying for days. Her former wish to float away at sea didn't seem so appealing anymore. She'd had enough of salt water for at least a couple of years.

"Feeling better, kid?" Manji smirked as he stepped up onto the porch, planting a hand on her head briefly. Rin shot him a halfhearted glare but didn't have the energy to make further protest. She'd been wrung out and stretched dry. He seemed to sense her exhaustion and didn't do more than give her a soft pat before disappearing into the shack.

She didn't know how long they'd stayed like that, hunched and sprawled in the middle of the field. Eventually she'd felt herself dragged to her feet and led to their little home. He'd calmly cleaned and bandaged her rope-eaten wrists and then steered her to her futon, ordering her to sleep. She'd had no objections. When she'd finally woken up, he'd been gone. Her venture to the porch revealed that the body was as well. That small trip outside had expended what little energy she'd gained from the nap and she'd slumped down against the same post she'd only recently been secured to. That's where she'd remained until now, watching the day slowly ebb into its temporary death to wait to be reborn. A lot like her immortal, if she thought about it. Which she didn't. Instead, she tried not to think.

Thinking hadn't been doing her much good today.

"I brought dinner, hey," Manji announced as he returned to the porch. Rin shrugged her shoulders listlessly. She hadn't eaten all day, but she wasn't hungry. Somewhere she rationalized that it was the combination of stress and shock making her depressed. However, Rin firmly reminded herself, she was done with her brain for the day. So she watched her bodyguard build a fire and spit two fat rabbits over it to roast. She hadn't even noticed them when he'd walked up. He must have done some hunting while he was in the woods burying-

Rin tried desperately to shut her mind off.

A fat drip of blood hissed in the fire.

She stumbled to the side of the shack, clutching her sides as they heaved. But there was nothing to be purged.

Manji didn't bother to disguise his scrutiny when she limped back to the porch, hugging onto the wooden post like it was a life support. He knew the last two days had been hard on her but he hadn't realized how hard until earlier. She looked like death. Smelled like it too, he thought, remembering their earlier proximity. Well, he could do something about that later.

"Eat," he commanded when the rabbits were cooked; thoroughly, for her benefit. She stared at the stick with the food hanging enticingly from it like she'd never even heard of meat before. Manji sighed and moved to the other side of the fire, plunking himself beside her on the porch.

"Look, I know you're dealing with some tough shit right now, but you need to eat, hey," he said reasonably, even managing to sound somewhat guardian-like. He would never admit it to her, but he really didn't feel like much of a guardian. Bodyguard, certainly, but it was hard to maintain the sense that he was older than her. Sure, he had years over her, but he got the distinct impression that as far as growth was concerned, she was leagues ahead of him. Already, she was a completely different person from the naive little whelp he'd first met. He could almost watch her mature with each day and each new challenge they faced. Still, growing up fast had its drawbacks. Times like this were one of them.

He sighed, irritation at not knowing what to do for her making his voice clipped, "Damn it, Rin, if you can't eat by yourself I'm gonna force feed you," he threatened, brandishing the stick with the rabbit in her face menacingly. She looked at him, mild surprise bringing some spark back into her eyes. Manji smirked, self satisfied. That was all she needed, a little friendly ribbing.

"I can't believe you're a samurai's daughter!" he went on, "A little blood and you're fainting and puking everywhere," he scoffed, glaring at her as he snatched his own rabbit from the fire with his free hand and began to dig in. Any minute now, the sputtering would start. He'd probably earn a pretty good sized dent in his head for it, but he didn't mind. It made him itchy when she brooded like this.

"Yeah, pathetic," she agreed softly. Manji stared at her, meal forgotten, shocked by the tone of her voice. Shit, was she going to start crying again? He waited nervously for what would happen next, but she simply took the stick he was still offering her and began to eat with slow, deliberate care. She didn't even seem to notice that he didn't do anything but watch her for a few long minutes before he belatedly realized that there was grease dripping onto his lap from his half-eaten supper.

The rest of the meal fell into an uneasy silence. Manji kept stealing glances at his young companion, unable to shake the feeling that there was something much different about this pout session. Was he supposed to do something more? He'd talk if she wanted, but didn't know where to start. Hell, he wasn't even sure what was bothering her this time. Well, only one way to find out.

"So what the hell is your deal?" he asked gruffly, tossing the remains of his meal on the fire and leaning back on his elbows. Rin shrugged listlessly, head leaning against the post and hands lying limply in her lap. She looked normal, he decided, but didn't… feel normal. What was so different about this fight that she'd be acting like this? A rare flash of insight prompted the next question.

"Did you really think I was going to die?" he asked incredulously. Rin flinched, her eyes darting towards him for a moment, guiltily. Manji stared at her and then threw his head back, laughing.

"What?" she demanded. He sat up and hooked an arm around her shoulders, hauling her into an awkward hug. She was just too damn funny sometimes.

"Manji, what're you doing?" Rin sputtered angrily, trying to keep herself from falling off the porch. His impromptu embrace had twisted her sideways and her legs were sliding over the edge.

"Knocking some sense back into your damn head," he chuckled, and suddenly her legs were being hauled up and settled across his lap. Rin would have been flustered by the sudden intimacy if she hadn't been busy trying to throw insults back in his face.

"Shut up," he told her, voice calm as the last of his laughter died away. She glared up at him. It died when she saw his solemn expression.

"What is it?" she mumbled, wary at the surreal nature of the situation. Since when did Manji hold her? And since when was Manji solemn? She stared at him, unable to look away from his grim face. He seemed almost like a different person.

"I'm not going to die, Rin," he said, "I'm immortal."

She blinked at him, surprised by his serious attempt to comfort her, "I know that," she finally managed, tearing her eyes away to watch her hand pick at the bandage on her wrist.

"So why the hell did you get so friggin' weird back there?" he demanded. Rin frowned. He was being surprisingly gentle with her.

"Well…" she struggled to find the words, "Knowing in my head that you can't die and really knowing that you can't die are two different things."

"Idiot," he snorted. Rin felt herself bristle in defense.

"Ok, so maybe he couldn't have killed you, but what if he'd cut you to pieces and buried you all over Japan?" she demanded, shuddering as the image of her being forced to haul parts of her bodyguard across the country flashed through her mind again. It was frightening to think how fragile his immortality really was.

Manji sighed and tucked her head under his chin.

"I guess that could have happened," he conceded quietly, "But it didn't. So forget it. You'll make yourself crazy if you dwell on that kind of shit."

Rin nodded absently, more than willing to take him up on his advice. Still, it was hard to push away the ache of fear in her chest. Lately, every battle was close, but this had been too close. It had been awhile since she'd seen him so near death, even if he couldn't really reach the ultimatum. And the assassin had been so confident and casual about the way he'd win. He almost did. If she hadn't stepped in when she had…

Maybe that was it. The thought that Manji's life could rest in her hands, her woefully incapable hands, was more frightening than his possible death. He protected her. It wasn't meant to be the other way around, and with good reason. She'd been lucky these past two days. Next time…

"Manji," she muttered after awhile, almost lulled to sleep by the rock of his chest as it rose and fell.

"Mmm,"

"I want you to make me stronger."

"…Shiiiiiiit," he groaned, free hand scrubbing his face wearily, "this again? Kid, you're not giving me a goddam chance. I'm trying to help you, what more do you want? I mean, it's not like you can just wake up one morning and be tough," he sucked in a big breath to continue and started coughing, "And damn it, you friggin' smell like a horse's ass!" he roared. Rin yelped as she felt herself hauled roughly to her feet.

"W-what?!" she stammered, reeling on her feet as he disappeared into the shack. He appeared seconds later, her sleeping yukata and the bath bucket in hand. Growling under his breath, he took a firm hold of her upper arm and began the walk down to the river. Rin stumbled after him for a few minutes before she truly realized what was going on.

"What are you doing, you pervert?" she shrieked, trying to break free of his grasp. Manji turned on her, dipping down as he did. Rin blinked as she watched the ground bounce beneath her over his shoulder. Again, it was a few minutes before her exhausted brain could process this new information. By the time it did, they were already at the river.

She'd just started struggling when he suddenly bent forward and she was shivering in the river's cold water.

"Here," he squatted before her on the bank and fished in the water until he found her hand. When he did, he shoved both soap and washcloth in it and stood.

"You'll feel better if you clean up," he advised as he sat down and turned his back on her.

Rin stared at him, the coldness of the water forgotten for a moment.

"What are you doing?"

"Quit asking so goddam many questions and just take your damn bath!" he barked without turning his head.

"Why don't you go back to the cabin?" she demanded.

"Because I can't trust you not to get your scrawny ass in trouble!"

She couldn't argue with that. "How do I know you won't peek?" she returned instead.

He chuckled at that, "I could if you want," he leered at her over his shoulder. She could practically see the trickle of sweat roll down his face when she did nothing but glare at him. That was usually her cue to grab something dull and heavy to pound his head with. In fact, he'd been trying for that the whole evening. She wasn't stupid, she'd noticed. And while it was touching that he was trying to make her feel better, it wasn't the method she wanted. He'd been doing better on the porch.

"What, you want me to watch you bathe?" he scoffed, but his voice held a note of reluctant curiosity. Rin chucked the wash bucket at his head.

"Of course not!" she shrieked, more outraged by the depths of his density than the actual proposition. But she couldn't tell him that. Well, she could if she wasn't the coward she knew she was.

"Well then what the hell do you want?" he asked, obviously exasperated by the entire conversation.

What do I want? The question echoed in her head. It was simple, really. She'd lost sleep to see that he was healed, she'd ripped her own body to shreds to save him, she'd succumbed to a black depression at the thought of losing him. Could anyone really be so blind?

Well, he did only have one eye.

Rin sighed and sank back into the water. The small burst of adrenaline that came with the bickering had dissipated, and the day was politely tapping her on the shoulder. Her body thrummed with pain and exhaustion in response.

"Nothing," she finally answered. It was a lie, but right now she was too tired to care.

"Go back to the shack, Manji," she ordered softly, "I'll be fine."

He watched her carefully for a while before pushing to his feet and sauntering into the trees.

It took her longer to bathe than normal. Her obi was heavy with water and difficult to unravel, even as simple as it was. The soap had to be fished out of the current a few times as well, slipping easily through her tired and cold-numbed fingers. When she finally wrapped her yukata around her chilled flesh, she was shaking with more than just cold. Still, she did feel better, just as Manji'd promised.

As if thinking about him conjured his presence, he was suddenly there, stepping from the trees and moving towards her. Rin blinked in surprise and had just enough time to wonder if he'd really been peeking when he scooped her up into his arms. She stared up at him as he began the walk home, but he kept his gaze forward. When she realized he wasn't going to explain himself, she gave in to the odd luxury and let her head droop onto his shoulder.

"You're like a block of ice, kid. Why the hell did you stay in there so damn long?" he growled as they entered the dimness of the shack. He deposited her on her futon and moved to find the extra blanket. She watched him tiredly, eyes heavy with sleep. When he settled the blanket around her shoulders, she automatically fell to her pillow and the nothingness it offered.

Instead, she met a pair of arms. Rin felt herself stirred back into wakefulness as Manji tugged her into his lap again, leaning against the wall behind her bed. She looked up at him questioningly as he crooked the leg behind her back up so she wouldn't slump over. He gave her what was probably supposed to be a scowl.

"Returning the favor, hey," he explained shortly and closed his eye determinedly, settling his head against the wall. Rin smiled at him wanly, too tired to let the sensible side of her talk her into retreating to the futon. It was his idea anyway.

With a small sigh of content she snuggled against his chest, finding the crook of his neck with her forehead, and gave herself to sleep.

"Is this what you want?" he murmured suddenly.

Rin was already halfway immersed in oblivion as she whispered a drowsy reply, "Close enough… for now." Then she was lost to the world, not knowing or really caring if he'd heard her.

He did.

In the darkness, Manji smiled.

::falls over:: It's done! It's over! I…. FINISHED SOMETHING! WAH HA HA! ::sputters to a stop with a rueful grin:: Yes, well, I'm one of those conceptual writers. Good with concepts, not so good with seeing them carried through. I've been writing for about six years now but it's still a shock and thrill when I see something completed. Heh. So much for the published life, eh? Do you like the "hey" thing? I was looking over my copies of the manga for dialogue reference and realized he does that a lot. A bit OOC, too, I think. Oh well… it wasn't terribly out of character and I liked it. Rin certainly did, I think. Hehe.

So, as you can see, I decided to go somewhere in between the two paths of "lost chapter" and "divert-from-storyline." Things are pretty much the same, but there's been a bit of resolve. A hinting at future development, if you will. Yeah, I'm a coward, but I got really scared that any "development" attempts I made would be hugely out of character, and one of the things I was going for with this whole thing was keeping them in character.

Ah… I like it. It came out a lot better, and darker ^_^;;,than I'd anticipated, but I like it. Well, thanks for all the fun and support, guys! Let me know if you want to see something else, whether BOTI related or otherwise. Ja!