Manji walks away from her, out of Edo and out of her life.
Three years later, she finds him sitting in a roadside ditch crouched underneath a straw mat during a rainstorm, a cloud of damp smoke wreathing his head. She stands in front of him, holding her mino closed, and watches the top of his head as he stares at her feet. His hair is plastered flat with the rain, dark strands sticking to his forehead.
He starts at the soles of her rain geta. The remains of her old flame-patterned kimono are visible underneath her newer one, the hem around her ankles wreathed in purple smoke, another layer to keep out the cold. Manji pauses on the kodachi tucked through her obi, calculating the length, and then—
He reaches her face.
Neither of them say anything. Manji chews on the stem of his pipe, shifting it between his lips as he studies her. She waits, patiently.
“You cut your hair.”
“I got tired of people grabbing it.” The fifth time someone in a bar had pulled her back by her braid, Rin had remembered how Hyakurin and Makie had chopped their hair short and decided to do the same, cutting both her braids off at the base and pinning back whatever fell into her eyes.
She hardly misses it now.
Manji continues to sit where he is, pipe smoke clouding his face. Rin sticks out her free hand to Manji and it hovers between them, an invitation that she refuses to withdraw. He’s wet all the way through to the skin, mud soaking into his clothes because he's been trying to keep the rain off his head, not off his ass.
“You don’t need a bodyguard,” Manji tells her at last, staring warily at her hand. “What do you need me for?”
“I’m sure I can come up with something.”
Manji takes her hand, and they haul him upright together.
They end up lighting a small fire in an abandoned shed they find half-fallen in, using Manji’s mat to cover the hole in the roof and the upper half of Rin’s mino to block the sagging door. They sit on the skirt, Manji stripped down to his fundoshi and Rin in only her juban, their other clothes hanging from various falling pieces of wood to dry in the smoke and heat, steam rising to warm the room even further.
Rin’s hair begins to frizz and curl in the humidity as they burn off the chill of the late-winter sleet outside.
“How’s being immortal?” Manji asks, abruptly, and Rin almost bites her tongue instead of her rice cracker, coughing as she inhales crumbs. He’s watching her carefully, his hair still dripping onto his broad shoulders. Anotsu’s arm looks awkwardly small compared to the rest of him, especially as he rests his chin on his fist. “Gotten chopped up recently?”
Rin laughs, brushing her hair out of her face. “I got impaled in a rickshaw accident. You have no idea how hard that one was to get out of.” She pulls her juban down to reveal the top of her chest, and puts her fingers between two ribs at the slope of her left breast. “Right there, straight through, and everyone was screaming and panicking and I just sort of...slid backwards off of the pole and tried to cover it and then said it just grazed me.”
Manji snorts, shaking his head, and the fondness of it makes Rin’s chest feel suddenly tight and painful, her cheeks ache with a smile she isn’t even wearing. She grew inured to his absence, became used to it like a sore tooth, but now he is here she cannot imagine his going away again. The smell of him, blood and sweat and freshly-sharpened steel; the way his voice rumbles low in his chest as he hmms quietly to himself; the fact that even despite it’s the middle of January he’s still not even wearing a second layer to his yukata.
They fall asleep tucked together the same way that they used to. It’s too cold to not share body heat, and they lay down under the inner layer of her old kimono, the driest piece of cloth they have, Rin’s back pressed to Manji’s side. She can feel all the muscle of his side and the arc of his hipbone, the even rise and fall of his breathing.
She wakes alone and cold.
Rin finds Manji in holding cells and busts him out with money and flattery. Rin runs into him doing odd jobs. Rin trains against him in her own dojo, and then, thirty years later, in a different dojo. They share nights tangled together in roadside inns, in shacks, under bushes. They never travel too far apart, but they never travel together, either.
Fifty years after they parted ways in Edo, they meet during a summer festival and wander away together until they find a stream that runs on the outskirts of the unnamed town they've arrived in. They sit down side-by-side atop the levee to watch the stars come out.
The tantō that Rin once wore in her sash became a kodachi, became a wakizashi, became a katana, tucked in with her two older blades. Her golden wasps are hidden in her hair, grown back long and pinned up, blades keeping it in place.
For a long time neither one of them speaks. They’re far enough from the festival that it’s quiet, out on a lover’s lane, the low buzzing hum of the cicadas and the rising moon barreling into night. It’s hot—Rin is sweating even through her summer yukata, dripping down the nape of her neck. She keeps pulling her obi further and further away from under her bust to keep sweat from gathering there.
Rin stands. "It's too hot," she snaps, hot and grouchy, shucking her swords, undoing the knots of her obi. “I’m getting in the water.”
Manji stares at her. “You...” he trails off, and can feel his eyes on her, but not what part. Is he staring as she kicks off her geta? Is he watching her wrestling with her yukata, stripping naked in the early dark? Is he following the arc and sweep of the dark hair that is sweat-damp at the nape of her neck. “You still swim?”
“Of course I still swim,” Rin finally manages to get her yukata off. Ten years ago, she would have second guessed every action, checked if Manji was watching her. When they’d first met, she would have been terrified, even if she had wanted him to. Now, they’ve seen each other in every possible stage of undress through the decades. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Shira,” Manji says, just as Rin steps ankle-deep into the water.
She roots to the spot. Freezes. Her breath bottles up in her lungs, her throat grows tight. The water, which looked inviting and cool moments before, now seems to have a low mist rising off of it, chilling her with icy cold straight down to the bone. Rin blinks her eyes clear.
“Fuck that guy,” she snarls, biting the words as she wades deeper into the water, wrenching her body into motion. She can hear clattering behind her as Manji drops his entire arsenal, his footsteps rustling through the grass as he follows her. “I’m not letting him steal anything from me.”
“He stole your life,” Manji’s voice cracks as he speaks, and Rin can read what he isn’t saying in his words, the way he avoids putting a name to what it is he really means.
Rin turns around, in the water up to her thighs.
Manji is still in his yukata, one foot in the water and one foot still out. He steps toward her, sets a hand on her shoulder. He isn’t looking down: he’s looking only at her face, his mouth partway open. Like he wants to say something. His brow is furrowed, the corners of his eyes drawn in tight.
Rin realizes all at once. “You’ve been avoiding me,” she accuses. He looks away, shoulders hunching. “Do you—Manji, it’s not your fault.” She grabs his sleeve, his hand, in both of hers. When he still won’t look at her, she reaches up to touch his face.
There is so much they are not saying, words that they can't speak without reliving that day in the bone-dead cold of winter, the ice of the water packing in around her as she shuddered, tried to pull her knees to her chest to get warm. The feeling of the bloodworms crawling deeper into her skin, eating her apart (and yet not). Knowing Manji could die because of her. And he blamed himself for it, as if it had been his fault that Shira was—
“He didn’t steal anything,” Rin snaps, and she knows how brittle her voice sounds. She touches Manji’s cheek, fingers sliding down his jawline. “He gave me—“ her throat closes around the words, because she doesn’t know how to speak what it is she thinks of, how to explain what she means. She doesn’t know how to put into words the gift of being able to make sure Manji is never alone.
Instead, she grabs onto the collar of his yukata, halfway open as it always is, and pulls him down far enough that she can kiss him. He holds totally still, hands not touching her, stuck out to either side, panting for breath. He doesn’t kiss her back, seemingly frozen to the spot, gasping ragged in the back of his throat.
When Rin pulls away, Manji’s eyes are wide, his mouth still open and damp from her kiss. His hands are shaking when she takes them both, but he doesn’t stop her. “I,” Rin begins, voice sharp with fury, her frustration vehement in a way she hasn’t felt in twenty years or more, “Am glad Shira made me immortal. Because I want to be with you. Because I know this way you aren’t alone.” Manji’s hands aren’t the only part of him that shake: he trembles all over.
“Rin,” his deep voice cracks on her name. “Rin, you can’t mean that—“
“I love you,” she hisses it, so soft that she can barely hear herself say it, words she has never said but has felt in the well of her soul longer than she can really remember, a truth that coalesced out of the morass of the complexity of her feelings for him. “I can’t leave you alone.” She steps closer to him. His hands are on her shoulders now, her thumbs against the pulse that beats quick in the hollows of his wrists. “I love you,” she says it again, louder this time. “Shira meant to hurt me. To use me to hurt you. To break you, with me. To break me, with you.” She steps into the cage of his arms, pressed almost against his chest, and she stares up into his face, the moonlight catching on his dark eyelashes. “He really thought I wasn't protecting you, too.”
Back then, everyone always made the same mistake. They always looked at Manji and Rin, bodyguard and employer, and saw it in black and white terms: that Manji protected Rin because she had hired him. Not that they were tied together, an even give-and-take in all things. He killed for her, kept her alive, and she protected his soft heart, his gentle goodness, the kindness he hid deep inside himself where nobody could get to it.
“Rin,” Manji’s voice breaks, and she pulls him back down to kiss her again, tugs his arms until his hands slide to her breasts, still damp with sweat, her hard nipples pressed against his palms. He makes a low noise in the back of his throat, presses closer, fingers curling to feel her.
Rin opens her mouth into the kiss, catches his lower lip between her teeth and pulls on it.
“I,” she gasps, “Am not the girl who came crying to you to kill Anotsu Kagehisa. I killed Anotsu Kagehisa. Shira did not break me.” She grabs Manji’s wrists, presses him closer against her, pushes against him and feels him hard against her. “And you won’t either.”
Manji grabs her around the waist, pulls her up to kiss him, and they end up tangling, tripping, toppling into the water where it’s shallowest, in the mud and the reeds on the banks of the river, feet still immersed. She pulls his yukata open, presses into the heat of him. Rin has slept behind him so many nights, in contact with his side or his back, lay next to his chest, but she’s never savored the map of his scars with her hands, dragged her nails across his skin to feel the way he growls and twists against her.
“Rin,” Manji gasps her name, and then gasps her name again when she grabs his hand, pulls it from her breast to between her thighs, presses against his fingers until two slide into her, slick and wet. “Rin, you can’t—“
“Love you?” Rin snaps back, pulling the knives from her hair, catching the way Manji’s throat bobs and his cock, hard, jumps against her thigh, presses against her, hot and damp at the head even through his furisode. Of course he’s turned on by her having blades in her hair.
She straddles his waist, drags him up by the back of his neck, and bends down to kiss him so hard she tastes copper.
They bury their blades at the riverside together forty years later, Manji shoveling mud free as Rin sorts them into their places in the crate while Yaobikuni watches, her hands folded atop her cane.
Afterward, they walk away arm-in-arm, the past buried beneath wet soil and the future stretching on before them. Tokyo looks nothing like it did when it was Edo and they were still young, lifetimes ago. The world is changing, and so are they—slowly, slowly, but changing nevertheless.
“Do you regret it?” Manji asks in the dark that night, a hot presence wrapped around her back, one broad arm thrown over her waist. It’s his arm, the arm that was always his, and Rin traces the scars up and down the outside of his elbow and wrist, hair catching under her nails.
Rin snorts, rolling over so that his right arm—Anotsu’s arm, but his arm, too, now—rests beneath her neck, pillowed on his bicep. She watches his face, lit from the gas lamp outside their window. “And leave you to live alone in the age of peace? You’d get arrested before you finished breakfast.” Manji’s hair is down, a dark curtain that falls around his shoulders as he leans down to press stubbled kisses against the column of her throat, savoring the tangled geometry of their bodies, thighs and knees and ankles twisted into impossible knots. “You’re stuck with me until you find a way to worry bloodworms to death.”
Rin understands why for Manji his immortality is a curse, the horror it has turned his life into again and again.
But hers is a blessing, because it means that she spends every day certain of where Manji is, the promise of his safety by his breathing as he falls asleep in the embrace of her arms.
They are embedded deeper into one another than any scar any long-forgotten monster might have left.