by Laura Bryannan

All hell broke loose when that Captain Nunes showed up, so I tend to lay the blame for everything at his feet even though I suppose it's not fair. I came home late one evening after a coworker's party and found the three of them eating dinner at that hour! And the room...I swear it smelled of sex, and yet they were sitting there looking all innocent and proper so I didn't know what to make of it.

They stood up as I entered and the man was impressive, I'll give him that. Taller than Seiji, my blacksmith, very distinguished and handsome. But the way the guys were looking at him made me uncomfortable—like they'd follow him to the ends of the earth or something. And, considering what happened after, it's no wonder I felt the way I did that night.

Mugen introduced me as Fukashi and he asked, “Is this the woman you spoke of?” You could have heard the thunk of three jaws hitting the floor a mile away. Was it that obvious? Mugen gulped a yes and the captain turned back to me and bowed. “How nice to meet you, my dear,” he continued with a smile, ignoring our stupefied expressions.

“Um...nice to meet you, too,” I stammered, feeling a bit overwhelmed by him. He was so big! And I could tell he was really hairy, too. It was coming out of the top of his shirt and thick on his forearms. Was he like that all over, like an ape? Gross! He bowed properly and his Japanese was pretty good, but something about the man bothered me to no end.

“Well, that was delightful,” he said to the guys, and I wondered if he was referring to the meal or something else. “But I should be heading back to my ship. The crew is anxious to see you again, Mugen. Will you stop by tomorrow?”

“Damn straight!” Mugen replied.

“Good,” he said, bowing again, then he took his leave. I hid in my room, afraid Jin and Mugen would say something about the situation I didn't want to hear. Mugen wasn't getting ready for work, which usually meant they'd soon be up to something entertaining out there, but it didn't happen. They both crashed, which made me even more suspicious, and I spent a restless night plagued by unknown worries.

The next morning Jin and I were having breakfast when there was a knock at the door. I opened it to find an older man who looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place him. He asked for Mugen, and I wasn't sure if I should let him in, but when Jin came up behind me and exclaimed, “Yuan-san!” I remembered he was one of Mugen's employers.

“Where's the goodfornothing bum?” he asked with a grin. We backed away from the door to show him Mugen snoring in The Box. “Well, tell 'im to get his ass over to my place as soon as he gets up. I got another bounty hunter locked in the cellar he's gonna wanna meet.”

“Bounty hunter?!?” Jin and I exclaimed.

“Yeah, he asked me to keep an eye out for 'em,” Yuan-san explained. “And since this one's just a kid we were able to grab 'im without too much trouble.” He peered at Jin closely and grunted. “So it's you he's trying to protect. What'cha do to get a thirty ryu bounty on your name, Wakana-sai, or should I say Takeda-sai? I hope you killed lotsa Japs.”

“Uh...well....” Jin stammered, blushing. “Thank you for the message. We'll come by as soon as possible.”

My blood ran cold and my heart was racing, so I had to sit down as it was hard to catch my breath. The nightmare was beginning again, and I thought I might be sick. I hadn't felt that frightened in so long, I'd forgotten how horrible it was. We pounced on Mugen, who was not happy to be awake at that early hour.

“What th'fuck? Lemmie alone!” he cried, pulling the blanket over his head.

“What's this about protecting me from bounty hunters, Mugen?” Jin demanded.

That got his attention, and he emerged from the covers blinking sleepily. “They're after you,” he said. “I killed a guy shopping a poster around a few weeks ago.”

“And you didn't tell me?” Jin fumed. He was so was angry, it was scary to see.

Mugen ducked his head, cringing, as though expecting to be struck. “Didn't know how to,” he explained, looking sheepish. “Didn't want to make it more real, I guess. I like our life here.”

Jin sat down, groaning, his face in his hands. Mugen leaned near and moved to clasp Jin's shoulder, but his hand stopped short and fell to the futon instead. “We're gonna hafta get outta here soon,” he said softly, and my heart sank. If there was a bounty on Jin's head, he was right.

“I can't believe you chose not to mention something so important,” Jin replied, heading toward the door. “Come. Let's go see the beast Yuan-san has caught.”

Mugen lept out of bed, totally naked I blushed to note, throwing his kimono around himself. “Hey, wait!”

“I'm coming too,” I decided. They turned, ready to say no, but took one look at me and wisely kept their mouths shut.

Mugen pulled himself together and we trotted down to Yuan-san's creepy gambling den, which was dank and dark, smelling of opium, stale wine and puke. It was deserted at that time of day, quiet enough that we could hear banging as we walked down the stairs to the cellar. “Hey, lemmie outta here,” came a whiny voice. “I ain't done nuthin'! You gotta lemmie go!”

“Shaddup, ya shit!” Yuan-san bellowed. “I'm openin' the door and if ya come at me again, I'll smack you over the head with this bat just like I did before.” He worked the key and the door opened to reveal a scrawny kid, not yet a teen but still taller than me.

“Daiyu!” Jin exclaimed.

“Jin!” yelled the kid, leaping forward so enthusiastically, Mugen practically tore his arm off stopping him.

“You know this guy?” Mugen and Yuan-san asked, incredulous.

“Yes,” Jin assured them. “What are you doing here, Daiyu?”

The kid was hopping up and down like an over-excited puppy. “I came to find ya. To warn ya,” he said, pulling a piece of paper out of his pants. “See! There's baddies all over Nagasaki looking for ya.”

Jin took the paper and we all saw the drawing. Not the best likeness of him, and no glasses, but close enough for anyone to make the connection. The name, though...Takeda Katsuyori!?! Was that his given name? I got a chill up my back. It was an infamous name, a horrible name! I felt embarrassed for him and almost guilty for learning such a secret.

He sighed and looked at Mugen, who cocked a brow and let go of Daiyu, saying, "Well, I'll leave him with you." Then, eying us both intensely, he asked, “If Captain Nunes will let us sail with the Brightness tomorrow, should we go?”

My guts turned to water and Jin went pale, undoubtedly remembering our horrible voyage to Ryukyu almost a year before. “Go where?” I asked.

“Canton would be the most logical place,” he replied. “The captain's home base is there, and it's a big town. Should be easy to find work and settle in. Far enough away for the Shogunate to leave us alone...I hope.”

“How long would it take to get there?” Jin asked, clearly finding the idea unappetizing.

“About two months, if I'm remembering right,” came the reply, and I swear Jin looked as green as I felt, just thinking about it. Two months at sea!

“The only way out of Ryukyu is by boat, but....” Jin sighed. “I don't relish the idea of such a long voyage. Let's find out if there's room first, then decide, all right?”

I nodded and Mugen yelled, “Right!” leaping up the stairs two at a time.

“I'm coming too!” Daiyu cried, startling me. I'd forgotten all about him.

“We shall see,” Jin said. “For the time being, you can spend the day at our house, if you like. Fukashi-san and I must get to work.”

I didn't trust the looks of him, and figured half our pantry would be cleaned out before we returned that night. Still, I couldn't refuse. I was dying to know what he was to Jin, but we were both late and there wasn't time to pester him. Besides, I needed to spill everything to Yunta, because I was too upset and confused to know what to think. Both Jin and Mugen had really disappointed me in the past month, so the idea of uprooting myself with them, for them, seemed too frightening to face alone. I wanted Yunta with me. She'd become my rock, the strong shoulder I could cry on when the men in my life were thoughtless and hurtful.

I spent the morning counting the minutes until lunch, dying to talk to her, but by the time we actually could I'd come to my senses. First off, if we were leaving because the Shogunate was hunting for Jin, the last thing I should do is tell anyone about it. And the more I thought about taking her with us, the more unfair it seemed. I knew how much she cared for me and, although I found her attractive and her attention flattering, I didn't return her feelings in kind. To ask her to come would have been like proposing, and I couldn't do that, no matter how much I was going to miss her.

So I resolved to keep my mouth shut, but she can read me like a book, and all it took was her gentle, “Fuu, what's wrong? Did one of them do something stupid again?” for me to break down in tears. She held me as I cried, feeling afraid and sorry for myself, wishing it felt wiser to be giving up my dearest girlfriend for my two, often infuriating, men.

“I'm sorry, I don't know what's wrong with me,” I lied, once I pulled myself together. “Thank you for everything.”

Yunta got up, grinning. “Well, there's more where that came from. C'mon. We better get back before the Kanna Monster notices we're late.” My demanding job occupied my mind enough to keep the willies from nailing me too bad, and I made it through the rest of the afternoon without losing my lunch.

I dashed home after work to find Mugen packing, while Daiyu sat in the corner trying to be unobtrusive. “We got passage,” he told me, and a dreadful exhilaration settled into my gut. Jin walked in a few minutes later and he was informed as well. “So, are we going?” Mugen asked.

“I think we should,” I declared, wanting Jin to know I was willing and offering my bravest smile.

His was wistful in return. “Yes,” he decided, with more certainty in his voice than his expression. “I'm so sorry we....”

“Can it!” Mugen ordered, slugging him in the shoulder. “It ain't your fault. You killed that asshole to save Fuu's life, so we're all in this together, right?”

I thought my heart was going to burst. “Right!” I agreed, smiling through my tears as Jin rubbed his shoulder and gave Mugen a mock Scowl of Doom.

“Thank you both,” he said quietly.

“Business as usual tonight,” Mugen stated, clearly trying to keep his emotions in check. “You guys do your class, I'll go to work—but tomorrow we disappear.”

“Take me too!” Daiyu begged, leaping to Jin's side, startling me as usual.

“We can if you want,” Mugen told Jin, eying the kid critically. “The captain says he'll try you out as a cabin boy. Think you're up for that?”

“I'm as good a lay as any!” he announced proudly, and my heart lurched. He was so young to be saying such things.

“It ain't like that, stupidass,” Mugen snorted. “You're gonna hafta work for your keep from now on. Hefting and hauling and cleaning and mending, not opening your mouth or spreading your legs. Got it?”

“Work?” Daiyu wondered, looking back and forth between Jin and Mugen.

Jin nodded. “Work. The captain's giving you a wonderful opportunity, so do not shame me. You'll obey orders and do your best, correct?”

“Okay, I'll try,” Daiyu promised, practically glowing as Jin smiled his approval.

Class that night was bittersweet, with tears threatening several times. I was going to miss our life here so much, every time my eyes settled on a dear face my heart ached a little bit more. I finally managed to pull myself together by trying to work out my packing list as we went through our kata. We'd lived here long enough that I'd collected quite a few more things than I'd carried on our journey across Japan. If I packed carefully, I could probably bring them all, and the strategizing helped keep me sane during that last class.

Boarding the Brightness was thrilling, I'll admit. The sea was calm that morning, not windy and choppy like the day we sailed here, so I didn't feel sick and I was grateful. Jin was happily amazed as well, and they let us play passenger for a while. We stood at the stern, huddled together, watching the coast get further and further away until there was nothing but water everywhere.

It took a while for the immensity of what was happening to sink into my brain. Life on board the Brightness was unlike any experience I've ever had, so there was nothing to do but go forward and not allow myself to think about things like rats and storms and ships sinking and creepy monsters in the ocean who are waiting to eat you for dinner.

I dropped my I'm-a-boy act and my Japanese clothes as soon as we arrived. With the captain in the know it seemed ludicrous, and it would be way too warm where we were going for kimono and hakama. Ryukyuian clothes were so sensible, it seemed natural to go that route. I wanted to cut my hair to my shoulders like Yunta's, but the guys said they'd murder me if I did, so I'm still wearing it tied up samurai fashion. But, oh, the freedom of shirts and shorts! I love it!

Mugen put his handsome kimono away too, but it mushed me out so much to see him back in those awful gray shorts and the red dobuku I made him, I didn't mind. He was given a position of responsibility right away, and I loved watching him work—except when he was up in the rigging. My vivid imagination insured I couldn't even look when he had to tend the sails. Not one man fell during our voyage, but I couldn't help picturing all of them going splat on the deck or being lost forever, drowned in the deep.

Jin...poor, proud Jin. Mugen and I were dying of curiosity, wondering what clothing choices he would make, both of us dissolving into giggles anytime we imagined him wearing Ryukyuian shorts. He lasted four days in his own clothes before showing up one morning all Chinese, in linen drawstring pants and tunic. Of course, his straw hat was a necessity, as were the long sleeves, but he still got sunburned and it was hard for him at first.

Eventually, his skin adjusted somehow and he started tanning along with the rest of us. I got used to seeing him with his nose, cheeks and shoulders always peeling. It was cute. Mugen couldn't stop himself from picking at it, which drove Jin nuts, and their squabbling over it was pretty funny, even though I had to pretend it wasn't so as to not take sides.

Unfortunately, toward the end of the voyage, Jin switched from loose Chinese pants to the European kind Captain Nunes wore, with these stupid things called buttons where it counts. Mugen called them chastity pants, because the buttons were so frustrating to undo. He looked really good in them, I won't deny it, but somehow it didn't seem right. I hoped that once we got to Canton, he'd revert back to proper clothes.

The Brightness' two eensy passenger berths were usually used for storage, but one was cleared out and designated Ladies Quarters, as Jin, Mugen and Daiyu bunked with the rest of the crew. It had a bed built into the wall with a rail so you wouldn't fall out, and just enough room for my sack of belongings and the chamber pot. I didn't want to go over the side like the men, so happy joy, I got to go in my cell. That's what it felt like, my one-woman convent, and I avoided it as much as possible except to sleep.

When Captain Nunes found out what I did to earn my keep in Ryukyu, I was put to work helping the cook. What a surprise! I didn't mind, though, as I knew I couldn't handle any of the seamen's jobs. Shii-san was a sweet old man, and I enjoyed working with him much more than Kanna. His easygoing ways put (to put it kindly) into sharp focus, and it was great to not be tip-toeing on thin ice at work anymore. I'm good at what I do, so whenever I'd finished my given task he'd shoo me topside for a break. “Flowers need the sun or they'll wilt,” he'd say, and I'd happily agree.

Life was always more interesting on the main deck, of course, and I'd sit on a barrel in my usual spot and watch everyone work. The crew consisted of glaringly healthy men of all colors and sizes, usually wearing little more than fundoshi—quite a stirring eyeful. I got to know many on my breaks, as they'd stop by and briefly say hello. “You're as pretty as my Nue.” “I've got a daughter in Singapore your age.” “You cook as good as my wife.” I heard so many stories of loves and home, it warmed my heart. I imagine any smiling feminine face would have been equally welcome, but they made me feel special and it was lots of fun to get to know everyone, so I was glad to be the girl they turned to.

I could peek at Jin and Mugen topsides too, but the most fascinating person on board was the boy Cristo. He was the most beautiful creature I have ever seen, his hair the color of sun-dried wheat. I'd never met anyone with hair like that, and I honestly didn't believe that's what it was at first. I needed to touch it to prove to myself it wasn't a halo or some other unearthly attribute. He was given the task of showing Daiyu the ropes, and seeing the two of them together was always amusing—pretty, bright Cristo and dark, scowly Daiyu—the angel and the demon. Mugen kept insisting that Cristo was far from angelic but, since he was always sweet to me, I didn't believe him.

Being unfamiliar with ship's work, Jin got stuck mostly cleaning at first, until Captain Nunes decided the boys needed educating and designated him schoolmaster. He'd taught Cristo his letters in his own European language, but wanted him to learn one of the native tongues as well. Daiyu, of course, had had no educating at all except what he'd learned on the streets. Jin gratefully accepted the job, as it cut down on his mopping schedule, and his students were eager for the same reason. I'd see them sitting together at one of the tables in the mess, scribbling out a lesson or pouring over the lurid reading material Jin used to teach them. It looked as though books like “Torrid Twins” motivated them as much as they had Mugen, and I laughed at the memory, even though I continued to doubt the sanity of the male species.

So, I settled into my new job, finding the experience mostly enjoyable, and all the hard work, sun and fresh air insured I'd fall asleep in my little cloister before I got too lonely at night. Missing Jin and Mugen the way I did, it was hard to be patient, and I counted the days until we put into port.

When things are right with us, there's no place on earth I'd rather be than snuggled between the two men in my life, and our first shore leave together after six days at sea was one of those magical times. We rented a room, had a glorious bath (one of the many yucky things about life on a ship is the inability to bathe properly) and fell into bed. Normally I don't like the middle position, since being the center of attention is way too intense, so I usually contrive to join one of them in attacking the other. But that night I just closed my eyes and let it happen.

Jin kissing me in the delicate sweet way he does, stroking my face, my neck, my breasts. Mugen below, being so naughty I blush to describe it. Surrounded by their strength, I feel like the most precious, delicate flower. They've tended and protected me well, helping me blossom into the me that I am—the me they continue to unwind and unfold, open and reveal. They've discovered a me I never imagined, and I like what I see reflected in their smiles. So how can I resist when they look at me that way? How can I not want to continue to become?

Snuggled behind, Jin entered first, plundering deep, touching my heart. I relaxed into his arms, relishing the cool skin of his belly against my bottom, shivering as he nibbled on my shoulder. He withdrew and Mugen took his place, his thickness always requiring the most delicious pushing to gain access, my lower body aching so good as he worked his way inside. I hugged him and he pulsed, nudging himself deeper.

A gentle finger encircled my clit while something not so gentle was happening at my nipple. Mugen had the other in his mouth and I could hear them both chuckle as I gasped and squirmed. He pulled out and I mourned the emptiness until Jin returned once more. Mugen reached between us and I felt his fist against me as he held them both, guiding their thrusts. They took turns entering, first one and then the other, until I lost track of how many orgasms I had and fell into oblivion tangled in their loving arms.

Yes, that first shore leave was exquisite, but as the weeks went by it became harder and harder to exist so cut off from them. They'd say hi when I was topsides, or swing by the galley while I was working, but our conversations never amounted to more than silly small talk. We weren't spending time alone together every evening like we used to, having dinner, drawing, laughing and sharing stories about our respective days. I missed the closeness of our friendship so much, a dull ache settled around my heart like some horrible fog that wouldn't lift.

After our next shore leave, five days later, I walked away uncertain. I was utterly satisfied, of course, but it had felt strange to be so intimate with them physically when we'd barely interacted for days before. Our lives on board the Brightness kept us separate, with no room for simple existing together, so it became harder and harder for me to jump into the raw nakedness and emotion of sex.

Mugen would drag me off into some secret place in the depths of the hold every now and then and we'd pull a quickie, which was lots of fun at first and sure helped to let off steam, so to speak. But after a while I started feeling weird about it, like we were doing something behind Jin's back. And this horrid little voice kept whispering, Dohzu, don't forget about Dohzu. Reminding me that even though he'd come back to us much grown up, Mugen was still Mugen, and I wondered—yet again—why I was setting my sights on such a man.

I rarely saw Jin without the boys in tow. He was doing secretarial work for the captain on top of everything else, so he was a busy man. It didn't surprise me that he wasn't initiating private time together, but I did miss it. He was different with me when Mugen wasn't around, and I yearned to be with that part of him. He came to my rescue one night during a storm, though—one of the two really bad ones that happened during our voyage. The ship was tossing so much, I had my bedrails in a death grip to keep from bouncing onto the floor. It was always pitch black in my room at night, but the dark seemed so much more ominous with the wind howling and the ship creaking and moaning as it was battered about by the storm.

I lay there, too terrified to scream, when I heard banging. “Fuu! Are you in there?” Jin yelled. He yanked the door open just as a bolt of lightening cracked across the sky, and I saw him for a moment in the rain and wind before he slammed it closed.

“I'm okay,” I lied. “Thanks for coming. Please hold me!”

He was soaked to the skin, so he dropped his clothes and climbed into bed, needing to curl his knees practically to his chest to fit. We clung to each other and it was the best comfort, although I'm not sure who benefited the most. He was being brave for me, but I could tell he was just as scared as I was, which made me feel less afraid, strangely enough. It was so good to be in his arms again, it made me believe everything was going to be all right. I just focused on his scent, his heartbeat and the gentle rhythm of his breath. He was talking, the rumble in his chest a sweet lullaby, but I couldn't hear what he was saying over the storm. It didn't matter. We survived it together and I got my fill of him, so I was grateful it happened...once it was over.

Unfortunately, those kinds of moments came too few and far between to keep the worries from plaguing me. I missed Yunta something awful. It was weird, since I'd spent my entire life without any female company except my mother's. But now that I knew how fun a girlfriend could be, it felt like the biggest mistake to let her go. There was no one on board I could talk to—not like she and I used to talk, anyway. No one to gossip and giggle with, no one to run to when things got strange with Jin and Mugen.

And things were definately strange. At first, I thought it was just me, feeling cut off from their lives and jealous of Captain Nunes. It was clear they both adored him, always shining in his presence, although I couldn't understand what the big deal was. He was always nice to me, stopping by to chat every day as he made his rounds, but I would play shy and noncommittal whenever he asked me anything and eventually he stopped trying. I don't know. He just seemed phony to me. And while I could grant he was a fine captain, I didn't trust him one bit. There was a certain hunger in his eyes whenever he looked at my men, and even when they looked at him sometimes, so I continued to wonder what was going on there, but I was too afraid to ask.

Eventually, I got a clue, realizing it wasn't me at all. Jin and Mugen were keeping their distance from each other, and the tension between them became impossible to ignore. I believe the problem began during our last shore leave, even though it was the most amazing experience of my life. I've played it back in my mind hundreds of times, for lots of reasons, but I'm still not sure what went wrong.

It began atypically, in that Mugen couldn't leave the ship until later, so Jin and I had dinner and took a room at the local inn. It was nice, just the two of us, and we had a particularly lovely time in bed after. Contemplating a second round, Jin was lazy between my legs, barely thrusting, when Mugen finally showed up.

“Looking good,” he grinned, dropping his clothes in two seconds flat. Coming near, he smooched us both, depositing the taste of sake into my mouth before disappearing.

Soon Jin began sighing and my curiosity was aroused. “Mugen, stop it,” he demanded, unconvincingly, as he shuddered and gasped, losing his rhythm with me.

“You promised,” Mugen stated. His hands were at Jin's hips and I realized what he was doing to make him squirm like that. It always made me squirm, so it was really something to experience what it did to Jin.

“Not now,” Jin declared firmly. “Not tonight.”

“No time like the present,” Mugen argued. I peeked over Jin's shoulder to see him smirking so evil, I broke out in goosebumps. Jin growled under his breath, every muscle in his body tense. Mugen leaned down and thrust his tongue into Jin's ear, causing me shivers too as he circled the rim. “C'mon, lover,” he whispered huskily. “Lemmie in.”

“No, Mugunuunnhhh!” Jin lurched in my arms, and I gasped as he thrust deep.

“Ahhh, that's right,” Mugen purred. “Just relax. You know I'll do ya good.”

Suddenly it dawned on me. Mugen wanted to take him! It was something I'd never witnessed before, and I got so excited, I nearly melted on the spot. Jin's face was next to my ear, so close I could hear his breath catch as Mugen continued to persuade him. I could only imagine the methods he was employing, considering that Jin's thrusting lost all its rhythm and turned into something jerky and sporadic.

Mugen knelt up and Jin's weight shifted on my hips, his body suddenly slick with sweat. His erection faltered, so I pulled him tightly toward me and his moan caused my heart to skip a beat. I could hear him softly grunt and hiss, his muscles alternately tensing and relaxing, and felt so in love with him I thought I'd die of the yumminess.

“Easy...easy,” Mugen whispered, kissing his shoulder. “There. That's the worst of it. Me and Fuu are gonna do you right, ain't we?”

I opened my eyes to swoon at his lusty wink, and gave Jin a hug inside that caused us both to shudder. “Um hmm!” I promised.

Mugen began thrusting in earnest, pushing Jin into me, and thus began the most erotic experience of my life, and I didn't even have an orgasm! All my focus was on Jin, the way he was trembling, the groans he bit back, his whimpers every time Mugen moved forward. It was an ordeal for him, that was clear, and while part of me sympathized, the rest of me found it spine-meltingly hot. I matched Mugen's movements, shifting my hips to receive Jin all the way, holding him as tight as I could in hopes of evoking even more noise. It was lecherous and naughty, but oh, so glorious!

I could feel the tension building in him, tightening up down there, and soon he whispered, “Fuu...gods...ungh...may I...cum inside?”

I couldn't remember if it was safe or not, but said yes anyway, as you couldn't have paid me a million ryu to stop what was happening. He was moaning non stop and I was too, every nerve in my body sparking fire. Mugen was singing, “Oh sweet....” in time with his grinding, as Jin began to emit a low keen.

“You're too quiet,” Mugen complained. “I'm gonna fuck that scream right outta ya.” He shifted his position and it happened.

Jin's back arched and he cried out, his nails digging into my shoulders.

“Oh yeah!” Mugen cried, triumphant, thrusting even harder. “That's right, bitch. Gimmie more of that.”

Jin slid his arms around my waist, grabbed me in his it's-happening-now bear hug, and let go with a roar. Mugen came soon after, cursing, “Shit yeah, take it bitch, fuck, fuck yeah,” and I lay there, stunned by the experience.

Jin was heavier on me than usual, panting, his heartbeat pounding against my chest. Mugen leaned down to knaw on his shoulder, then kissed me soundly before flopping beside us, crashing almost immediately. My leg had fallen asleep, but I didn't want Jin to get up and break the spell. Unfortunately, he stirred all too soon, acting unusually shy with me as he dressed to visit the necessary. I fell asleep before he returned, so it wasn't until the next morning when I woke to find he had rolled out another futon rather than sleep with us that I discovered the first clue that something was up.

We were only a week out of Canton, so there was tons of work to do. It was my job to organize and catalog the food we had on board, know what food we needed to buy and pack the food we wanted to sell. I was so busy, it took a while before I stopped blaming myself and realized they were mad at each other. I played detective and decided things were fine until our last shore leave, but that's as far as I got. I'd had an amazing time that night, so it made no sense. The problem was obvious enough that Cristo and Daiyu asked me about it, as did Captain Nunes, but I was honestly clueless. They were both being nice to me, but the tension leaking out of them was like a miasma, so it was really worrisome.

It got weird enough that I feigned women's yuckies the last chance we had for shore leave together, just to stay clear of all the weird vibes between them. I didn't know what I would do if their friendship ended, and I ached to help them but had no idea how, as neither was copping to a problem. Their rivalry was ages old and they'd had some serious issues in the past, but this felt different in a way I couldn't put my finger on, so it scared me to death. Here we were starting new lives in a strange city and my two pillars of strength were crumbling. I wanted to knock their heads together like I used to in hopes of beating some sense into them, but ended up avoiding them instead.

When we stood on the bow together watching Canton come into view, it was the first time we'd faced each other in many days. I guess we were all too excited to care about how things were still awkward between us. As large as Nagasaki, maybe even larger, the port was filled with hundreds of boats, big and small, and I silently offered a prayer that our lives would return to normal once we got off of this godforsaken one.

“We can make it in a place like this,” Mugen stated with certainty, breaking the silence, and the two of us smiled in agreement. “You gonna stay a girl, Fuu, or go back to being a boy?”

“I'm staying a girl,” I told him.

“Have you thought about the living arrangements you want?” Jin asked.

“I figured we could all rent a place like we did in Ryukyu, and....” One look at his expression and I had a horrible realization. I was a girl again. It was one thing to be traveling across Japan with two men, never in any place longer than a few weeks, but now? “Do you think we could get away with that here?” I asked. The ol' What would the neighbors think? worries reared their nasty heads—all those stupid rules I hadn't had to consider when I was a boy.

“Why couldn't we?” Mugen asked, bewildered.

“If this is the place we'll be putting down roots,” Jin began, “Fuu's reputation needs to be considered.”

“Her reputation?”

“Yes, Mugen,” Jin stated in schoolmaster tones. “A single woman living with two men would probably gain an unfortunate reputation in any community.”

“Aw, fuck 'em all. Who gives a shit?”

My face went up in flames and my heart sank to the bottom of the harbor. More cloister for me. Oh joy. “Jin's right, Mugen,” I admitted with a sigh, cursing him for reminding me about such an important, blucky truth.

Jin took my hand, his eyes so wild and solemn I got chills up my spine. “I know of only one solution. Fuu...will you marry me?”

I stood there, abashed, as Mugen spat, “Like hell!”

to be continued...maybe