Mugen is a light sleeper.
This should come as no surprise. As it is, a rogue ronin won't last long if they can't hear an assailant coming up on them while they're catching a wink. This is why Mugen wakes when he hears the sound of Fuu's sandals scraping the ground by his head. She walks a bit, down to the river's shallow edge, and he hears the gritty sound of rock as she bends lower to the water.
Jin doesn't take long to wake.
Mugen hears him get up as well.
"Is something wrong?" He says, voice nearly inaudible over the running water of the stream.
Mugen hears Fuu's surprise.
"No." She says, that easy, cheerful tone seeping back into her voice. "It's nothing." She rises, he thinks, even though he's faced with his back to the river and to them.
"It's nothing," she repeats, trailing off, but it sounds less convincing this time, as though she's telling herself instead of Jin.
"Fuu." Jin's voice. Mugen doesn't think he's ever heard him say Fuu's name that intently. Mugen's eyes finally open, slits in the muted darkness. He stares at the straw mat under him. This seems like a private moment between two people. Jin is a damned softy, and Fuu is a chick- he's not smart, but he's not dumb, either.
Fuu makes a soft noise of surprise.
"Once you find the sunflower samurai..." Jin says, voice catching in slight hesitation, which Mugen can tell is, for the unshakable Jin, an emotional breakthrough, "what do you intend to do after that?"
His tone is even, but strangely heartfelt, in that stupidly gentle way that only Jin can manage when he's being surprisingly caring- Mugen hates him. Mugen hasn't had much to envy of other people in his life- fuck 'em, and if they have something he wants, he'll kill 'em and take it- but this feels like something astronomically out of his reach. There is a strange longing in his chest. Every time Jin speaks, Mugen hates him more.
"That's a good question." Fuu says, lightly, but there's no smile in her voice. It sounds like resignation, more like. Mugen thinks she might begin to cry at any moment. He tells himself he's glad he's not the one at the riverbank who has to console her, but his mind hisses like he's lying to himself. "I really ought to give that some thought."
I wish this journey could last longer, she seems to say, like an undercurrent to her spoken words. Mugen knows not to wish for things, but something in his gut twinges.
"If I should-" Jin begins, in a low, hesitant voice, then pauses, and Mugen's expression doesn't change, from where he's pretending to be sleeping, eavesdropping, curled up and lain out on his straw mat. He knows Jin is about to ask if she would accompany him, after, if Mugen doesn't kill him. If he kills Mugen.
That idea shouldn't twist him something ugly inside. The two of them, going off alone. Without him. His body, lying grimy and bloody in the dirt. The concept has never bothered him before. His expression doesn't change.
"You know, I don't really want to think about stuff like that." Fuu says, getting a little choked. "If you did, that jerk Mugen would-"
Mugen almost smiles. Almost.
"Sorry." Fuu cuts herself off in a whisper. "I'm sorry."
He hears the rustle of clothing, and Fuu's soft, hiccuping sobs, and knows Jin has drawn her into his arms. He hates Jin for being so stupidly brave to ask to have what he wants. He hates himself for not knowing what he wants. He hates himself for not having the balls to admit to the gross, painful, tearing sensation in his chest when he thinks of killing Jin and leaving Fuu, now.
He's such a coward. Maybe this is what it's like to love. Mugen's never loved before. He doesn't get what all the fuss is about. Right now, really, it kinda sucks, actually, because if he didn't have this twisting mass of feeling in him, he could kill the four-eyes and ditch the chick and be on his way again.
He listens for a while, to the mingled sounds of the night bugs and the running stream and the two people who have upended his entire life at the riverbank.
The next morning.
They finally reach the water.
They're fucking starving.
The heavy discussion of the previous night not quite forgotten, but pushed aside in favor of their established dynamic in daylight, Fuu scolds them for their growling stomachs even though hers is twice as bad- Mugen can't think of much but food, because it feels like his insides are trying to eat themselves.
When they get to the weird European-style restaurant, with their weird thin meat and weird hot water cooking, and Fuu starts instructing them how to eat the meat, and they ignore her instructions and stuff themselves, and she shouts in frustration, and they start fighting with their chopsticks, Mugen can put aside the feeling of impending doom he has every time he hears the phrase "Ikitsuki Island". He doesn't let himself think he'll miss this. He doesn't let himself think at all. It's too much work. He stuffs his face instead.
It comes back when they approach the seashore. It floods him when Jin opens the money bag and reads the note inside, and they realize in the same moment that they've been played, and something seizes so badly in his stomach he wants to throw his shabu shabu up all over the gleaming castella cake display counter.
That stupid bitch, Mugen thinks. That idiotic girl. If she had wanted their journey to go on forever, why hadn't she said anything? He could have been persuaded to endure looking at four-eyes' skinny face for a while longer. It wasn't like he had anything better to do, anyways, besides wandering around alone and killing any poor bastard who got in his way and looked like he might put up a half-decent fight. Wondering if she was strong enough to live on her own? Worrying over being split up? Hadn't she just done that herself, taken the choice from Mugen and Jin to even protest by sending them on some half-ass mission to buy some stupid cake that tastes like whipped eggs made solid with a bit of sugar and leaving some bullshit note? "Bye, I'll take it from here, and by the way, don't kill each other!" What kind of stupid fucking horse shit-
Too soon, Mugen finds himself chewing on that too-sweet cake, crumbs sticking to his fingers and the corners of his mouth, gazing unseeingly at the sea, a feeling of emptiness descending on him.
"I hope we meet again someday."
Mugen can picture her walking through a field of sunflowers.
Some guy walks up beside them.
"Only hope can give rise to the emotion we call despair." The random dude says, and Mugen is still eating his cake and frowning, but he might get up and stab him in a minute. "But it is difficult for man to live completely without hope. In other words, man has no choice but to live with despair as his companion."
Mugen is fully prepared to brush the guy off as some weird hippie nutjob who gets his kicks by saying cryptic shit to strangers at the seashore, but he says Kasumi Seizo's name, and suddenly all his attention is on the guy. Jin is the same way. He turns around almost immediately. The guy says some crap about religion and exile Mugen thinks is stupid- if anyone thinks this nice, pretty island with its ferries and castella cake shops is exile, they should see the Ryuuyuks- but he continues to say that their whole journey has been a setup by the government to find Fuu's old man's house, and then says he's going to kill them, so Mugen falls back into the familiar routine of baiting, then cutting people down.
He won't admit he feels more secure with Jin by his side. He could take care of the guy himself, of course, but it's nice to have someone to use as a decoy if he needs it, he tells himself.
And then the guy does some crazy shit, repels all of Mugen's attacks, and Jin isn't doing anything to fucking help, the lazy bastard- spouts some weird analysis of his fighting, which pisses Mugen off even more, but he can't fucking hit him. Mugen scrambles for footing over a floor of red beans and tumbles headfirst into the water. He leaps out as Jin and the stranger are fighting. Neither of them can hit him. He falls face-first into the same fucking beans. Another weirdo shows up, but this weirdo has stupid hair, and a stupid voice, and knows Mugen's name, and wants to kill him, so it could be anyone, really, except he says through where his teeth are clamped around his hand that he has Fuu, and suddenly Mugen and Jin's full attention is on him.
"What?! Look, we're kinda busy here!" Mugen shouts.
The guy turns his back. He still has that freaky-sounding grin in his voice when he replies.
"If you don't hurry, we won't be responsible for what happens," he says, and, "you should go there before she ends up in little pieces!"
Mugen spits out a curse after him. Jin tells him to go, the cocky bastard, and says he'll take care of weird guy number one, even though both of them combined couldn't land a hit on the guy, and this is where Mugen knows Jin is in just as deep, if not moreso, than he is.
"Look after Fuu," Jin says, and Mugen's eyes widen in shock, because surely, surely the crazy bastard doesn't think Fuu likes him better, would rather see the vulgar shithead from the island of criminals come to her rescue than the graceful skinny milk-pale samurai, but Jin looks so determined that Mugen is speaking before he knows what he's doing. He feels more untethered than he ever has in his life. He feels like his insides are unraveling. He feels like he's never felt in his life, like suddenly he has something he might not be alright with losing, and it scares the shit out of him, and all he knows is Jin and Fuu, the two stupidest and most self-sacrificing people on the planet, are part of it, and his heart is hammering with fear instead of that familiar race of adrenaline and anticipation.
"Don't get yourself killed," he shouts, "you and I have unfinished business, got it?!" He wonders when "I'll be the one to kill you" had become "you're not allowed to die without me". He's terrified at the prospect of abandoning one part of this thing that has become so frustratingly precious to him to save another. He's never treasured anything in his life- not his sword, not his skill, not himself. This is a strange new feeling. He hates it on principle.
He sprints away and leaps onto a nearby boat.
"Get moving!" He spits, and the guy with the hat looks too terrified to do anything but comply. He sees Jin's head turn to look at him, and thinks he's probably smiling in some stupid self-satisfaction that only people who are idiotically self-sacrificing for no reason can feel. Mugen wants to kick the shit out of his face when he comes back, he tells himself, because Jin will be alive when he comes back. He's going to come back, Fuu in tow, and Jin is going to be there, and he's going to call them both fuckheads and make them bow and apologize for making his chest hurt so badly he'd rather be shot and almost burned alive again.
The second weird guy comes back, which freaks Mugen out a little, because they're in the middle of the friggin' ocean, and this guy is fucked in the head, but he draws his sword all the same and they duke it out. This part is boring, so I'll skip it, but the boat capsizes and the water blossoms with the weird guy's blood and Mugen drags himself to the shore of that stupid fucking island that has been the goal of this entire idiotic journey.
Fuu looks like shit.
That's his first thought. There's blood down the front of her kimono, and she's tied to a giant red cross and being beat half to death by some rude fuck who Mugen doesn't even recognize, and there's a guy in a wheelchair in the corner, for some reason.
"You're gonna give her back," Mugen says.
"So, we meet at last. That makes me so happy." The nameless guy says, except Mugen is already pretty whacked and sopping wet like a soaked dishrag at a half-price teahouse, so he's not too interested in humoring these peoples' delusions of supreme villainy or whatever it is they're playing at.
"Who the hell are you people?" He asks.
"Don't play dumb with me." The stranger says. As if Mugen is supposed to recognize him. Bully for him, Mugen has always had shit facial recognition. "Even if you've forgotten, the three of us will never forget until the day we die."
Apparently, the guy tells him, they're brothers from Satsuma, or something, and that bastard Mukuro had picked their raw sugar ship to rob when he had betrayed Mugen for the first time, and a whole bunch of other shit had happened that made them have some kind of grudge, and they'd been tracking him since. Mugen doesn't listen to his foes' revenge stories. There's too many of them.
Ah. Three brothers. That means the weird guy number 2 he'd killed on the boat had been-
He smiles. He tells the guy this. This seems to piss him off pretty bad. He threatens Fuu, and Mugen draws his sword in one motion and relinquishes it in the next, sending it spinning to slice through Fuu's bonds, perilously close to her abdomen.
She looks shocked. She shouldn't be. She should have known this would happen, and that he and Jin would both end up dying for her, and that she would get to meet her sunflower samurai in the end. It's kinda nice, having something worth dying for, Mugen thinks, but it also sucks, because he's just given up his sword in front of one and a half guys who really want to kill him.
Who are the morons who write songs and stories about how great love is? Mugen would like to teach them a lesson. Obviously they've never been in love, because loving is terrible and painful and takes disgusting amounts of courage, and Mugen can't muster that, so all he can do is die.
"I can't do that." Fuu says, voice wavering. "I can't leave you."
"Cut the crap." He says. "What d'ya think we came all this way for?"
He tells her to go. She trembles. She seems afraid.
"I ain't gonna die." He mutters, even though he knows he's probably about to kick it. This is an impossible situation, even for someone of his caliber, but he's gonna do his damnedest nonetheless. "Have some faith in me."
Fuu looks sad. He has to get her out. She has to see the sunflower samurai. He says something, and something else, and shouts at her to run, and she runs.
Turns out, blades on ropes hurt like a bitch. The steel is wicked between his ribs. He wonders if Jin is already dead.
He needs to get to his sword.
He's bleeding everywhere, and screams when the guy grinds his heel into his hand and presses the point of his sheath into the wound in his side, but his blade is stuck in that stupid cross, and if he could just- if he could just get his fingers around it-
The guy spins him around like a toy on his chain, probably breaks his arm, slams him up against a pillar and Mugen thinks he really might die- says something about teaching him disgrace, but Mugen turns to him and grins like a wild animal, because he was born in the Ryuukyu fucking Islands, with no parents and no siblings and surrounded by the lowest of the low- the idea that this shitbag, who faced one difficulty in life and collapsed because of it, could teach him anything about disgrace is laughable at best. He tells him that. Torture is for pussies. He wants to feel the bite of steel in his neck.
The guy shouts, and puts him through the pillar, and Mugen uses his last trump card when he flings the dagger he keeps hidden at him, but the distraction gets him enough space to scramble for his sword. He feels the familiar grip under his fingers. He's suddenly flush with adrenaline. This guy's reach may be nuts, but Mugen is Mugen- vicious, infinite, and now with the desperation only love can cause flooding him to the fingertips. Every movement tears at his tendons and pulls at his muscles until he feels he may come undone.
And then the building starts to come down.
After that, the fight is a blur of rock and seawater and a taunting voice and the far reach of a sickle on a chain- the tearing of fabric, and a tussle, a scream and the singing of a blade.
He's soaked in blood. He staggers heavily to his feet. He takes a gunshot to the abdomen, which he's not sure where it came from, but it's the guy in the wheelchair, and he shouldn't have counted him for half a person. What an idiot. He really might die.
He wonders, vaguely, where Fuu and Jin are now.
A voice comes floating over the cliff.
"If you are a samurai's daughter, choose to die a brave death," it says, and fuck, it's the guy who Jin had been fighting, which means Jin is dead and Fuu is not- not yet, at any rate-
"Jin?!" Fuu's voice.
The stranger sounds impressed. Jin had, apparently, avoided a fatal blow. Then he had waited, and taken a boat all the way to the island, and come to save Fuu, maybe because he didn't believe in Mugen, and maybe because he hadn't finished his job. Maybe because he didn't want Mugen to die if he could help it, either. Blood stains Mugen's shirt scarlet.
"Why are you here?" The man says. "Are you trying to throw away the life that you so narrowly managed to keep?" The man clearly understands nothing. Mugen agrees with him. Jin is an idiot, and a fool, and the biggest fucking tightwad bastard he's ever met in his life, and he's come back to give himself to Fuu, just as Mugen had. "There are no lords worth risking your life for. As I recall, that's what you said."
He doesn't understand anything about Fuu, either. Mugen wonders what is making him think these things.
"Yes." Jin's familiar low voice- somehow gentle, even carried over a cliff by a seashore breeze, even in this situation where he walks towards the blade that will rend his flesh and stop his heart and he lays his life down for another. "For my whole life, I've fought only for myself. My study of the sword was for no one but myself."
A seagull caws. Mugen feels nothing but pain.
Another pause. Jin seems to be remembering something.
"I swear." He says, and now there's something fond in his voice, and it feels so much like a farewell that if Mugen could do anything like move, he would leap up the cliff face and strangle Jin with his own hands. "I always get the short end of the stick..."
He drags himself towards wheelchair guy nonetheless. The guy has a match in his hand. His wheelchair, apparently, is full of tricks.
Everything is sulfur, and heat, and sudden darkness, and Mugen blacks out.
The same familiar apparition.
"You guys again." Mugen mutters. The men in leaf-cloaks seem to mock him. He can never escape the islands. "I can't move. I think it really might be my time to go."
There's the vague sensation of being covered in birds, and then falling, and then Fuu is above him with a terrible expression on her face.
"Mugen!" She almost sobs when he opens his eyes.
"Oh." He croaks. "It's you. I thought you were Death."
She hiccups a laugh, then leans back to wipe her eyes.
"It seems all I do is cry," she says, voice watery, still trying to hide her tears. "And here I was trying to go off on my own, too..."
"You dumb broad." He mutters. "Did you meet the sunflower samurai?"
She whimpers and nods. He feels relief flood him. He sits up. Jin is still alive, apparently, so Mugen lifts his sword in challenge.
"A promise is a promise," he says. "Now it's time to settle things with you."
Jin is already getting to his feet, like he had expected it.
"So it would seem," he says roughly.
They rush each other. Both of them are weary beyond recognition. Jin's hair is out of its carefully kept ponytail. He looks a right mess. Mugen is sure he doesn't look much better.
"Ain't we a sorry sight," he grins, as the shattered pieces of their blades fall to the ground.
"You can say that again." He says.
Mugen wakes up on a floor.
"Are you awake?" Jin says.
"It would seem this isn't Hell," he continues, and Mugen almost laughs.
"This feels weird." He mutters. Neither of them move. He pretty much confesses his love to the guy, in the most straightforward way he knows how- basically, 'I don't want to kill you anymore'- and Jin beats him by a thousand degrees with some poetic proclamation that he's finally found what he's been searching for, or something like that, which is just like him, and says something disgustingly sappy. Mugen can't hold it against him, now.
Fuu returns, with some strange old man. Mugen is starving. He says so. Fuu smiles.
Their parting is hopeful.
Mugen recalls what he had said, back when they had just started this stupid, bullshit, pointless journey.
"It seems like no matter how hard we try to avoid each other," he'd grinned, "it was always meant to end like this,"- he had rushed Jin with his blade, and thinking back on it now, walking down a sunny meadow's path, alone, a fond smile graces his face. The blossom of fresh love fills him. Not that he would ever call it anything like that- all he knows is it's a warm feeling settled and spreading in his chest, and it beats when he thinks of seeing Fuu and Jin again. This might be what it's like to have something to live for. He'll have to get used to starting his own fires, and doing solo work again, and he wonders if the others are thinking the same thing, but he's not afraid- if he knows he'll see those two again, and he does, then how could he be afraid? Power given by the willingness to discard one's life for nothing is one thing, strange and wild and unpredictable in all its inhumanity, and only those who have never loved and never been loved know even a fraction of its sensation, but power given by love is entirely different. A spirit that treasures nothing, not even itself, is weak for not having known the desperation of love and loss. A spirit that has loved has magnitudes more courage. Mugen feels the hope in his bones like a warm bath. A person cannot know if they had been living in darkness until they have experienced light. Likewise, they cannot know if they have lived in despair until they have felt a glimmer of hope. The prospect of meeting his friends again already lightens his step and buoys his spirits. If those two are alive in the world, how could he ever be alright with dying? If those two would see him again and be glad of it the same way he would, how could he wish for more?
Just kidding. Or something like that.