The man bobbed his head in thanks to the fruit seller before hooking his coin bag onto his waist. He was squinty-eyed and thin, dressed in fine embroidered silk. The rich sort, Fuu knew. And he was a traveller, from out of town. The perfect target. She took special note of the position of the coin bag on his waist.
He turned away from the fruit stall. He took a step. In that moment, Fuu struck. She went up to him, striding purposefully towards the stall. A strategic bump. Fingers brushing against soft silk. Then the pouch, she touched it.
The man turned to her, a scowl on his face. When his gaze landed on her, however, the scowl smoothened. Fuu had a sweet smile ready.
"Oh, I'm so sorry, dear sir," she said, bowing repeatedly. A mere flick of her fingers and the coin bag was safely hidden in the folds of her kimono. Barely a whisper of a jingle resounded.
"That's quite alright," he replied, leering at her, eyes darting from top to bottom. Fuu made sure to smile at him again, before walking away.
His steps thumped further and further away from her. Her heart leapt in her chest. This was it. She had succeeded. Releasing a slow breath, she wanted to smile. She would not go hungry that night. The man, behind her, was calling distantly to someone: "Oi. Oi!" In Fuu's hands, the coin bag was satisfyingly heavy.
Then she heard the man say a name. "Mugen."
She stopped short in her steps. Eyes widening, her pulse quickened. Did she hear him right?
"Hey, I'm calling you! Mugen!"
It was true. He did call Mugen's name. Memories swam through Fuu's mind. An ache, a very deep ache, penetrated the centre of her chest. It seemed to let out a sound, like those howls she sometimes heard from abandoned dogs.
"Ha-ah?" Mugen's voice, rough and gravelly, deepened the ache, if that were possible. "Didja say something?" The last word, shithead, was spoken in a low mutter unheard by anyone. Anyone but Fuu. Every syllable he spoke was crystal clear to her.
"Yes, I did," the man said. "Gods, what am I paying you for? You're supposed to be my bodyguard! How the hell are you going to guard me if you disappear every few seconds?"
"Heh." The sound of a spit. "Even if you were a fucking field away I'd be able t'slaughter your enemies. Don't piss y'rself over this, 'kay?"
"Well, just stay close to me," the man replied impatiently. "You never know when anyone'll attack."
"Yeah, yeah—wait. Gimme a ryou first."
A heavy sigh. "Gods, you're insufferable." The man started digging through his clothes. Then he started rummaging even more. "Shit," he said, movements becoming more erratic. "That girl. That girl!" He looked at Mugen. "Find that girl! She had a pink kimono with flowers on it! Fuck, she pickpocketed me!"
"What girl," was Mugen's grumpy reply. Then, "Big breasts?"
"You idiot!" There was a pause in his fumbling. "There. There! There she is!"
Fuu would have ran away but her feet were glued to the ground. She couldn't have taken a single step. The man grabbed her arm, and she was turned around forcefully.
"Bitch!" the man snarled in her face. "Give me my money back!"
"Oi, oi," said Mugen, walking up to them. Then his eyes fell on Fuu. Slowly, they widened. He opened his mouth. But the sound that came out of it was garbled, unintelligible. A complicated series of expressions danced across his face.
Fuu's vision blurred. Why couldn't she see anything clearly? Her cheeks itched. Reaching up a hand, she realised that wetness was causing the itch. At the sight of her tears, colour drained from Mugen's face.
"Mugen…" Fuu said, but it was unintelligible too. Then she felt a sharp pain on her wrist. The man had grabbed her.
"I said, give me my money, bitch!" he spat. "Or I'll get my man here to cut your throat!"
"What?! Fuck." One swift movement later and Fuu's wrist was released. She clutched it to her chest, still staring at Mugen, unable to tear her blurry eyes away from his tall, jagged frame.
"What the hell are you doing, imbecile?" The man was livid. "I'm paying you to follow my orders! Now get my money back from that bitch!"
"Ehh...too bad." Mugen spat at the man's feet. "Sure, you were paying me, but you don't have no money now, m'right? So. Hope I don't seeya 'round." He took Fuu's wrist, dragging her away with him.
Then — "Don't move a single step, Mugen."
All of a sudden, men with swords surrounded Mugen and Fuu. Of course. Rich men like him would always have a team of thugs.
"You can't leave my service so easily!" shrieked the man. "I'm the richest man in these parts!"
Mugen grinned. The sight of that cocky, slightly lopsided curve of the lips that showed all of his teeth nearly made Fuu's knees buckle. She had been seeing it in the night, during restless dreams and the in-between realm of sleep and wakefulness. She saw it more times than she could count.
"Why don'tcha all just try to stop me going," said Mugen. His hand moved to his sword.
"So, how come you've become a thief, anyway?" Mugen asked Fuu, using a dagger to pick his teeth. He had, predictably, made short work of the thugs attacking them earlier. Both of them had then left the mess of a street behind, and headed to a dango stall. They were now lounging on a grassy plain, the wide, metallic blue sky spread out welcomingly in front of them.
For the first time in a long time — since they left her- or was it the other way round? — Fuu felt secure. She no longer had to peer behind every five steps to see if she was being followed.
"After we parted, I came to this town and got a room at a boarding house," said Fuu. "Then I got a job waiting tables - like when you first met me," was it really that long ago? She could remember everything so clearly, "at a restaurant just round the corner from my house. Things were quite good. For a while."
She took a deep breath. "Then Kato came."
"Who the fuck?"
"He's this guy who's...well. He's a thug. He calls himself governing authority and collects fees from everyone for 'general protection'. That's a lie, of course. He just wants to get money. But no one can do anything, because he has a whole team of guards backing him. If anyone doesn't make the fee, they're just...taken. No one sees them again. And that's why I ended up stealing from people."
She flicked her head to Mugen, quickly. "Just small amounts here and there, though!" Why was she trying to justify herself? This was Mugen she was talking to.
"Huh. So things're pretty rough for you." Mugen leant back, slouching on the grass, using a rock as support.
"What about you?" said Fuu.
Mugen shrugged. "Nothing much. Travelled here and there. Got this job protecting that asshole. Well. I used to have the job."
"On your travels. Did you ever meet —" Jin's name was stuck on her tongue.
"Hmph." Mugen snorted. "Glasses bastard? No. Not that I wanna see his shitty face anyway." He turned, so all Fuu could see was his black hair ruffling in the wind.
Silence stretched between them. Fuu was immeasurably sad, all of a sudden. How did things come to this? She had left Jin and Mugen, confident that she had become a stronger, better person. She had been ready to tackle anything. Instead, she ended up reverting to the little girl before. She was waiting tables, like before. She was powerless against a thug, like before. Nothing had changed. She had been so convinced the journey she made with Jin and Mugen was significant in some way. Now it seemed as though it was merely a small bump, on a neverending road of larger, steeper slopes.
"Mugen," she said. "Why don't we travel together again?" If they did that, perhaps she could be happy once more. She couldn't imagine a happier time. Not since they were all together.
Mugen's head whipped round. "What're you, crazy? Why the hell'd we travel together again?" He squinted at her, eyebrows scrunching into his eyelids like knotted ropes. "Don't tell me you've some other flower-smelling samurai we gotta look for again…"
Fuu laughed. "No, no samurai-searching this time. This time it's so that we can all be together again! Come on, Mugen! Let's look for Jin!" She couldn't contain a smile of excitement. "It'll be fun."
Mugen fell silent. After the pause, he said, "You've gone crazy, Fuu. 'Course we can't travel together like before."
"Why not?" Fuu asked urgently. "It'll be just like old times."
He made a noise. "We can't go back t'old times. That's crazy."
"Stop saying this is crazy! I think it's a good idea! Don't you want to see Jin again?"
"Hell no, I don't wanna see that bastard," growled Mugen. "Why're you all hung up about getting back to then? No matter how much you wish it, it can't happen. Trust me, no point thinking 'bout the past. Everything's changed."
"So what if things have changed?" Fuu was getting angry now. Mugen was being so difficult. "Travelling together will be just like before, you'll see. You haven't even tried it."
"No, it won't. I've changed since then. You sure as hell've changed." Fuu was about to protest, but then Mugen did a strange thing. His gaze took on a feral intensity. It raked over her whole body, moving from her face down to her feet. Inching bit by bit, like little footsteps in a span of eternity. As though he was studying, scrutinising every inch of her. Fuu saw something in his eyes. She was suddenly afraid to discern what it meant.
Her throat dry, she stood up. Her motion made him blink; he snorted, then looked away. Fuu turned too. She wanted to get away from that place. For all its openness, she felt claustrophobic.
Barely taking three steps, she paused. From the corner of her eye, she saw Mugen's black hair, scruffy and unkempt. She tried to move, but she couldn't tear her gaze from him. Why was she always so drawn to Mugen?
She cleared her throat. "...if you want to find me, I work at the Ueda restaurant just a few streets from here. Mugen. Please don't be a stranger." Resisting the urge to add another please at the end of the sentence, Fuu strode off.
He didn't say a word, or even turn his head.
For several days after that, Fuu worked at the restaurant as usual. She served tea, udon, soba, gyoza, countless other foods she remembered Mugen salivated over and Jin swept up primly.
("Ho ho! One gyoza left! It's mine!" Mugen had howled one time during their travels. Things like food, they used to squabble over it all the time. Fuu and Mugen then had a chopstick skirmish for a short while before Jin spoke up.
"Both of you have already had three each. This one is mine." He picked up that last gyoza expertly through the chopstick chaos and bit it. One small, demure bite.
Eyes wide, Mugen lunged at him. "Bastard!" He tried to stab Jin's eye out with a chopstick. But Jin deflected the attack with his own. The fight had then turned into an all-out sword brawl in the middle of the restaurant.
They left the restaurant in a tangled table-and-chair molehill. A lot of the places they left during those days ended up that way.)
So it was going to be like this from now on. Everything was going to remind her of them. It used to, before. But since she met Mugen again, it all came back in full force. Like she was constantly pricked by sharp daggers filled with those memories.
Fuu was clearing a table, picking up tea cups and placing them onto her tray (Jin used to preferentially order Oolong tea; Mugen hadn't cared at all) when she sensed a hand. On her butt.
Growling, she snarled, "Get your hand off me, asshole." The customer was a drunken man. This was not the first time this had happened to her.
The drunk merely looked at her lewdly, eyes half-closed. "Hey, hey...cool do-own," he slurred. "Aren't you supposed to se-erve the customer?" He guffawed as though he had said something funny.
Fuu tasted bitterness on her tongue. She opened her mouth, an acid remark on the ready when —
"You'd better listen t'her, pal." Mugen's lazy tones defused her ballooning anger. He slung an arm around the drunk like they were two old friends. "Trust me, this chick over here'n pack a mean hit when she wants to."
"Who the fuck're yo-ou?" the drunk retorted, squirming under Mugen's arm. "I can do whatever I wanna!"
Muen merely grinned -- there that grin was again, would her insides stop lurching? -- and then Fuu saw a blur. One second later, the drunk was howling.
"Argh! My hand! My hand!" Tears in his eyes, the man looked at his hand on the table. Mugen had stabbed a dagger clean through the skin between his middle and ring finger. Blood spurted all over the table.
"Mugen!" Fuu exclaimed in horror.
Snorting, Mugen said, "Just be glad it wasn't the back of your hand, hm?" His grin widened sinisterly. "I could've cut through the bones, easy."
Whimpering, the man pulled out the dagger. Then, his hand clutched to his chest, he ran out of the restaurant, slightly unsteady from the drinking. Fuu immediately slapped Mugen's shoulder.
"Hey…" Mugen rubbed his shoulder, frowning. "That fucker cops a feel at you and I get hit?"
Feeling the eyes of every patron on them, Fuu muttered, "Come with me." Taking Mugen's shirt, she pulled him out of the restaurant, mumbling a quick apology to her gaping manager. Out the back door, the night winds seemed to soothe Fuu's burning face. It had been a long time since she was exasperated with Mugen's antics. The familiar feeling...did she welcome it?
Letting out a quiet breath, Fuu pulled out the bottle of sake she had taken on her way out through the kitchens. She leant against the wall next to the backdoor, and took a long swig. Mugen smirked.
"See what I mean? You have changed. Drinking away your troubles now, huh, Fuu?" The reminder for Mugen's strange look the other day made Fuu stop drinking. She looked away from him.
Mugen took the bottle from her and drank from it. After a large gulp, he pulled it away, letting out a satisfied gasp. "Damn! That's good sake." Cheerfully, he continued drinking from it.
"Mugen," Fuu began. "You can't just cause commotions like that. That was my workplace."
"Hey. I did you a favour."
"You might've caused trouble for us. It's a good thing that guy was so drunk he probably won't remember your face, or the name of the restaurant. With Kato here, it's not good for anything out of the ordinary to happen. He has spies everywhere."
"I don't give a shit 'bout Kato." Mugen shrugged, then leant against the wall next to Fuu.
"You should. He's powerful here."
"Whatever." A shrug, again. Fuu felt his shoulder rising and falling against hers. Both their shoulders were so near.
"Why did you come here, Mugen?"
A short pause, the sound of gulping. Then at last, Mugen mumbled, "You said don't be a stranger."
In a whirl, Fuu turned to him. "Are you agreeing to my suggestion to travel together again?"
"Whoa, whoa. Didn't say nothing like that." Mugen's eyes were half-closed. A shade of red was on his cheeks. He must have drunk more than half the bottle already, Fuu thought. Swallowing a lump, she looked away.
"Then you're leaving soon?" she said. Her fingers moved to pick at her kimono.
"But you will leave? Some day?"
That single word nearly caused her to slide down the wall. She should not have expected anything from Mugen. He was a vagabond. A lone drifter. Travel with companions was not something he would covet. What did she think? That time he rescued her would have changed his attitude? He was like the clouds. Only the winds and the skies knew where they went. And how they disappeared, forever.
"Ya know...you gotta move on."
The unexpected seriousness in Mugen's voice made Fuu turn back to him. He still looked half-drunk, but his gaze on her was steady.
"S'not good to keep going over those times. Can't return to it, no matter how much you want to."
"I don't want to return to the past. Why do you keep saying I want to?" Angrily, Fuu stood up straight. She wanted to walk away but Mugen grabbed her arm. "I just thought it'd be a solution out of the crummy mess I'm in right now," she bit out. "But if you don't want to help me, it's fine. I'll handle everything myself."
"Heh." Mugen smirked. "That sounds like something you used t'say."
"Ugh...you're so drunk." Fuu shook her head disgustedly. "Talk to me when you're more sober."
"Who says I'm not?" Then Mugen laughed, scratchy and guttural like it always was. Ignoring a twinge, Fuu went back into the restaurant, leaving him leaning against the wall.
Mugen used to laugh at practically anything. If Fuu tripped over a stone, he laughed at her. If Jin hit his head on a doorframe due to his height, snorts would overcome Mugen to the point of convulsion. His laugh could be for other things as well, however. Things like when he and Fuu hid Jin's glasses one day. They could not stop sniggering, so Jin found out eventually. Another time was when Jin and Mugen made a new record for themselves, defeating forty attackers in merely fifteen strokes of their swords. Jin hadn't heard Mugen's laugh that time. Only Fuu heard it. A short, confident bark, disguised by the swing of his sword.
His laugh was best when it was for those instances.
The next time Fuu saw Mugen again was when she was buying fruit. Selecting apples and peaches carefully, she suddenly felt a presence next to her. She saw his hand, callous, with his less-than-clean fingernails extend across hers, grabbing a peach right next to her hand.
"Hey, mind buying this for me?" came his husky grunt.
Fuu rolled her eyes. "Fine...Mugen."
He didn't say thanks; he only smirked.
They walked through the market square, peach juices squirting all over their faces. The sun winked down on them. In front, tendrils of dust clouds puffed up, glinting like specks of broken diamonds. Fuu's eyelids were heavy. Being like this, next to Mugen and enjoying a peach, it was almost like a return to their travels.
Then Mugen said, "So I'm leaving town tonight."
Her eyelids flew up. "What? So quickly?"
"Yeah." Mugen yawned. "It's 'bout time I moved again."
"Oh…" Fuu looked down. Her feet, all she could do was drag them. This was entirely expected, she told herself, It's Mugen's character.
Mugen elbowed her. "For a little bitch, you're doing pretty alright for yourself 'round here. Sure, there's Kato, but...uh. Just keep it up, 'kay?"
"Yeah…" Fuu tried to smile.
"Never would've expected it, you being unable t'hold yourself on your own last I remembered..."
Fuu was nodding bleakly at Mugen's words. She could barely feel the sun's warmth on her skin anymore. What would she do after Mugen left? Go back to serving at the restaurant? Try to scrounge up money day after day to pay Kato's fees? Those didn't seem like tasteful prospects. Mugen being here — at least it had been a distraction. A welcome interlude from the present, for her to play with memories in the past.
"Hey! Stop! Give me my purse back!" Fuu heard, all of a sudden. She turned to the noise, saw a young man sprinting away from a well-dressed woman. A wave of recognition came over Fuu. The woman was one of the richer people in town, and a close acquaintance of Kato's.
The man was running towards her and Mugen, a frantic look in his brown, hooded eyes. When he reached them, Mugen stepped aside to let him through. Fuu, however, grabbed the man's arm.
"Don't," she whispered urgently. "You'll get caught by Kato." The man shook her off, continuing his desperate flee. Inside, Fuu already knew. The moment he chose to steal from that woman, his fate: it was only to be caught.
She watched the man turn a corner, then saw guards, Kato's guards, surround him. Wide-eyed in horror, Fuu's insides turned over when the guards slammed the man to the ground. The purse flew out of his grasp. He struggled, but it was in vain. To Fuu, it was as though the desperation in his eyes was tugging her, pulling her towards him.
She turned to Mugen. "We have to help him! I don't know what Kato would do!"
"What?!" Mugen looked at her incredulously. "We don't even know the guy. Why should I risk my neck to help some random bastard? He had shitty luck. Let it go."
"How can you say that? That guy could've been me. It could've been anyone in this town! We're all at the mercy of Kato!"
"I said let it go, damn it."
Fuu grabbed Mugen's shirt. "I can't. I won't! If you won't help me, I'll do it myself." Releasing his shirt, she made to walk towards the man. She barely took a step.
"Fuck, woman," came Mugen's voice behind Fuu. His warm breath on her ear, then Mugen's hand went over her mouth.
The last thing Fuu saw was the young man being dragged away by Kato's guards, before Mugen placed a hand over her eyes.
When Fuu came to, it was already dark. She was in the grassy plains where she first talked to Mugen. The sky was cloudy, she could not see the moon. Sitting up, a sharp pain ran through her neck. Wincing, she rubbed it, then glared at Mugen lying down on the grass a few feet away. His arms were crossed beneath his tousled hair, he was looking contemplatively at the sky.
"I can't believe you hit me!" said Fuu.
Several seconds of silence passed, before Mugen shrugged. "Eh...it was an accident. Was trying t'pull you away then my elbow kinda hit your neck."
Fuu waited for an apology but none came. Sighing, she went over to Mugen. "I'm going to rescue that man," she told him.
Mugen threw her a look of exasperation. "Fuck, that guy again? The hell's wrong with you?"
"I can't just leave him, Mugen. I can't stop thinking about the fact that it could've been me, in his position. And besides…" Fuu turned her eyes downwards. "...you're leaving tonight, anyway."
Silence, for a moment. Then Mugen snorted, in laughter. The sound was so unexpected, Fuu blinked.
"Well...this reminds me of last time." Mugen stretched his lips into a smirk, settling deeper into the grass. "You used to go after whoever trying t'help whoever. Not that you managed to do anything much. It was always down to me...and that bastard."
"I did manage to help people! A lot of people!" Fuu protested.
"Nah...you really didn't."
"Mugen!" Fuu exclaimed indignantly. She couldn't stay mad at him for long, however. Soon, they were both snorting and sniggering. Just like they used to, last time. Fuu leant over, smelt Mugen's breath. She crinkled her nose.
"Mugen...you drank, didn't you."
Fuu hit him immediately. "I can't believe you just drank while I was unconscious!"
"Ow! Crazy bitch," muttered Mugen. "You were out a long time, 'kay? I had to do something while waiting."
"And you chose to drink?!"
"Nothing wrong with that," he replied.
"You're unbelievable," said Fuu, shaking her head.
"That's my charm." That was all it took for Fuu to split her sides again.
It took a while for her laughter to subside. Once it did, Fuu finally said, in complete seriousness, "I hope you find a place worth staying in for good, Mugen." She smiled. "I really do."
"Fat hope," was his reply. But Mugen turned to face Fuu fully. Through the alcoholic haze, he took note of Fuu's smile, her large brown eyes. The way her hair fell against her throat, white and pale against the wide, dark pink kimono collar. Something about the darkness from that cloudless night sky seemed to highlight how much Fuu had changed, physically, from that little girl in the past. How much time had already passed since then? He raked a glance across her breasts, felt his lower half stir in appreciation.
Fuu was still smiling when Mugen sat up. Wind blew, ruffling her fringe. She lifted a hand to hold it in place. Within that short time, Mugen was right in front of her, all of a sudden. She raised her eyebrows questioningly.
Then Mugen's arms were around her. His lips were on hers. They were rough and callous, just like his hand on the back of her neck, digging slightly into her hair. His breath, warm and tinged with alcohol, was all she felt on her skin.
In panic, Fuu pushed Mugen away, scrambling to stand up. Mugen did not even budge an inch. He only looked up at her, sharp eyes hooded. Clear in his eyes was that something she dared not interpret.
"I have to go strategise a rescue plan," she said, voice hoarse. "Good luck on your travels then." She quickly left him.
On the way back to her boarding house, Fuu felt each and every step acutely. Her footsteps steadily became heavier, then turned into outright stomps. How could — why would Mugen do such a thing? She was not like one of the women she used to see Mugen hankering after, periodically, frequently.
All of a sudden, Fuu wished she could see Jin again.
Among the three of them, Jin was the level-headed one, Fuu used to think. It was reflected in even his sword style. The structured way he practised his kata day after day, early in the mornings. Fuu liked observing his movements: fluid and flawless, not a single movement out of place. She knew it used to irritate Jin that Mugen could sleep deep into the afternoon, and still be able to fight so well.
"All you do is snore and drool on the ground," Jin used to say to Mugen exasperatedly. "Like a fat, lazy mongrel."
"Whatcha say to me, bastard?!" Mugen would retort at once, flying off the ground, sword pulled out in a whirl.
Fuu's preconception was untrue, however. Jin wasn't the level-headed one. Fuu was.
Mugen had always known, viscerally, subliminally, that Jin was just as prone to rage as he was. The realisation only hit him consciously when either he or Fuu was in danger. Jin quietly and methodically sliced down their enemies. Because his quiet was disguised by Mugen's boisterous violence, no one saw the undercurrent of anger, soft and silent like a snake. Only Mugen saw it in the ruthless way he cut down every opponent. You're a sneaky bastard, aren'tcha, Mugen would think during their fights.
Mugen found Jin three days after leaving the town in which he met Fuu.
It had been a deliberate hunt. He went around asking for a bespectacled, stiff-looking samurai with a long ponytail and a face that made you want to punch him. Town after town he went. But all he got were negatives. One did not get answers merely by 'asking around'. Even if that method had worked for him last time when they searched for Fuu's father. So Mugen started throwing punches.
Flinging open the door into an izakaya, he yelled out, "Okay, now who's seen a guy with glasses and a shitty ponytail?"
He was met with silence.
"People better start giving me answers or I'll wreck this whole place!" Mugen threatened.
This time, the izakaya owner spoke, "Young man, even acting like a violent, idiotic buffoon won't get you anywhere if we don't have the answers." She was an old lady, her back hunched up and a disapproving frown etched on her brow. Or maybe those are her wrinkles, Mugen thought, You never know with old people.
Mugen sheathed his sword. "Well, you could at least tell me something," he mumbled defensively, sinking into a stool at the counter.
"What would you like to drink," the izakaya owner asked.
"Eh...nothing," replied Mugen. "No money on me." Inwardly, he wished he had thought of taking some off Fuu.
"Have this on the house then," said the owner, placing a sake bottle in front of him.
"Gee thanks, old lady." Mugen picked up the bottle, chugging it down enthusiastically.
"It's quite alright," she replied. "Just remember to recommend this place to other people."
"I sure will!" Mugen placed his sword on the table. Then he picked up the sake bottle with both hands. Before he could drink any, however, the old lady thwacked his hand.
"No swords on the table!" she admonished severely. As Mugen yelped, she mumbled, "This one sounds as bad as what that other one was talking about the other day…"
"Ha-ah?" Mugen slammed the table. "Someone was talking shit 'bout me? Just who is this bastard, huh? Huh?"
"Don't you get all angry at me," the lady scolded Mugen. "A nice-looking gentleman, or should I say, samurai, came in the other day. Like you, he didn't have any money, so I gave him a free drink." She paused, thoughtfully. "It wasn't too soon before he ended up talking about all sorts of things. In particular, he complained a lot about a man who was foul-mouthed, selfish and an absurd maniac with a sword. Strangely though, he said he would never have chosen any other person to fight with in battle."
The owner turned away, moving to serve other customers. "Come to think of it, that young samurai did have a pair of spectacles on. But it can't have been the same person you were blathering on about, right? That'll be too coincidental!" With a short laugh, she started walking off.
Mugen nearly flew across the counter to intercept her. "Wait, which direction did that guy go?" It can't be Jin, Mugen thought, his heart beating rapidly.
But there was a chance it was him, no matter how small. Mugen went in the direction indicated by the izakaya owner, thin sandals slamming on the dusty road. He swung his sword by his side, sometimes scraping the gravel, letting the screeches wash over him for fear of letting his hopes rise. The day turned to night. Mugen kept going on, the path twisting and winding in front of him. Night sounds reverberated: loud cricket chirps, gusts of wind howling, an occasional frog croak. Sounds familiar to Mugen. In the darkness of the night, the only company he had was the noise.
Back on Ryukyu Islands, he used to guess the origin of these sounds with Mukuro and Koza, before power played its corrosive role, altering them for good. On the Islands, the stars in the skies were the thousand companions they had along with those sounds. Mugen could remember the contentment during those times. He would never be able to forget it.
At first, he thought he would not feel that sense of peace ever again. It was like a spark from a flame, bright and brilliant, but infinitesimal. Then he met Jin and Fuu.
After what seemed like a neverending series of steps, Mugen looked up to see he had arrived at another small town. He refused to hope, even though he kept glancing at every man wearing a hakama. Eventually, he had walked through the whole town, past many izakaya and street stalls, arriving at the outskirts. Spotting a stall selling grilled octopus, he went to it, then slumped onto one of the few stools in front of the small, protruding counter.
"Hey, couldja spare me just a small piece of your food, huh? I'm so hungry…" Mugen whined, leaning face down onto the counter's surface.
"No. My food has to be purchased. Seek charity elsewhere," came a monotonous reply.
Mugen's eyes widened in his arms. That voice. It was that bastard's voice, wasn't it? Slowly, he lifted his head. His eyes met a pair of glasses. Jin's glasses.
"Oi! It's you!"
Jin blinked. His eyes widened as well, but only momentarily. He soon schooled his face into its usual taciturnity.
"Mugen. What a surprise." He busied himself flipping over the pieces of octopus on the grill.
There were several moments of silence. Mugen continued staring at Jin, his mouth open. It had been easier than expected to find Jin. Perhaps it was because the bastard stood out so much. There couldn't be many samurai around who was like Jin. Mugen was not going to question his good fortune.
He scowled. "Bastard! I've been looking for you!"
Jin raised an eyebrow. "Is that so? I was under the impression when we separated that the parting would be for quite a long while." He flipped over a few pieces of octopus. Then he said hesitantly, "So...how...has it been...for you —"
"Cut all that shit," Mugen interrupted impatiently. "I've been looking for you 'cause of something. Jin." He made sure to look him in the eye. "Fuu needs our help."
Jin took his time laying down his chopsticks, primly, by the side of the grill. After that, he looked up to face Mugen. His eyes were dark and serious.
"What has happened to Fuu," he said.