aww yeahh it's a flashback chapter what up
As the years stretched on, Jin forgot the faces of many of his fellow students. He'd never been very good with faces anyhow. Instead when he thought of the young men he studied alongside he recalled them each by their defining characteristics. Lately the crime of slaying his master had been less heavy on his shoulders, the eyes in his memory less accusative, and he had found himself thinking of his days in the dojo altogether less often. But without fail, whenever the trio lit their nightly fire he would always think of Kazue the poet. The boy was one of the younger students and had never been particularly skilled with his sword. Instead, though the others sometimes made fun at his expense, Kazue had taken an intense pleasure with words and would recite his poetry to anyone that would listen. Jin's silence must have been mistaken for appreciation, because he was subjected to them often.
Jin thought of that boy now as he watched Fuu stoke the coals at the base of the growing flames. They'd taken up temporary residence outside the modest island home of the sunflower samuraiㅡfor obvious reasons Fuu had decided not to bring her two injured bodyguards inside until the body of her father had been laid to rest. Across the fire Jin could see Mugen's limp but distinguishable form. If it hadn't been for the unsteady rise and fall of his chest, Jin would have considered him dead for all the blood staining his clothes and skin. He wondered if he himself also looked that pathetic.
Fuu reeked of exhaustion and emotion as she visibly struggled to keep the fire lit. As prolific as she was attending to their injuries, she'd never been very accomplished at tending fires.
Jin closed his eyes once more. Death still lingered around the corner and it was only through sheer willpower that he was fending off unconsciousness. In his head he recited the only poem of Kazue's that had stuck with him all these years, observing the orange flicker of the flames through his eyelids.
people live like fire
dancing, breathing, consuming
coming, going, gone
. . .
Resting Refrain (Part II)
. . .
Try as he might, Jin could not fight the darkness as it slipped a hood over his head.
Many images plagued his dreams that night. The cold sword of death pierced his stomach again and again, and like lead he dropped from the dock into the ocean, salt stinging his wounds as he sank into the depths. He killed his master, and pressed a hand to the wound to try and stop the bleeding but it was too late and his master cried out. Betrayal. Failure. He was already dead yet still he spoke, the words clawing his insides with nails of fire. Beside his master's corpse Mugen lay bleeding on a beach. Bird calls and gunfire. The sun smelted the shadows of the crows onto the cliffside, and Fuu screamed soundlessly at those that settled on the sand, singing of death. He thought for a moment that she was really going to jump. A death of honor for a death of sacrifice. The cold sword of death pierced his stomach again, and again, and again before he woke.
Fuu had a cold, wet cloth pressed to his forehead. "Jin, you have to stop thrashing," she was saying. "Your wounds haven't closed yet and you're making them worse. Please. Please, if you can hear me…"
Jin worked his eyes open. The lids were so much heavier than normal. "Fuu…?" He felt very confused and could not decide what had truly happened and what had been a dream.
Her face swam into focus. She looked ready to faint. "Jin! You're awake! Oh thank god."
'Awake' felt like a strong word. The sky was a haze of purple and he couldn't tell if the sun was rising or setting. "How long?"
It took her a moment to process his question. She squeezed the rag into a bucket and rewetted it with fresh water. "Oh. You've been out for about two days I guess. Your fever's almost broken, though. You're really doing a lot better!"
Jin nodded once, painfully. "Mugen?"
Fuu smiled, but it was almost a grimace. "He's… alright." She glanced across the fire to where Mugen lay sprawled on a blanket, more or less in the same spot that Jin had last seen him. "That is, he will be. And so will you. I guess it takes more than storms to tear down mountains."
Two days. Jin hmmed quietly to himself as he tried to assess his wounds without moving. His entire body felt like liquid iron in a furnace. When the sword had cut him and he had gone down, Jin had accepted his death with dignity and grace. He'd never expected to live after that.
Of course, Fuu always managed to surprise him.
Jin was in and out for a couple more days. He dreamed in patches between great stretches of gray fog and vivid painful moments of consciousness. The blazing fire in his chest dominated his thoughts at all times and Kazue sat at the edge of many of his dreams, reciting his favorite haiku.
People live like fire, he would say as Jin transitioned back and forth between the real world and that of nightmares.
He had never told Kazue but he had always found insight in that particular poem during his time at the dojo. People did indeed behave like fire, coming and going on unforeseeable whims, providing life and snatching it away. He himself often felt a bit like fire. A kind of steady-burning gas flame. His energy was perpetual and renewable and he fought to keep himself reliable in form, as unwavering as a rock, and as long as he had kerosene to burn then he knew his flame would never go out.
Of course, that had been the arrogance of youth. To think himself faultless and immortal… It had been nothing short of foolish to think of himself that way. He had abandoned this notion entirely after the death of his master, and hadn't thought about the haiku again until the day he met Mugen.
If Jin was a gas flame then Mugen was a bonfire, and bonfires only ever ended in one of two ways. The moment Jin laid his eyes on the stray Ryukyuan he had known it, that this fire burned so hotly that it would either burn itself out and die young, or else bring down the entire forest with it. Although… in the end, it was both of them that burned down Fuu's tea shop. So his judgement on Mugen hadn't made Jin any better of a man.
At one point when Jin awoke, Mugen was sitting up by the fire. The sun was shining from behind a low-hanging layer of clouds, and seabirds were flocking toward the sea. It was good to know for sure that he wasn't dead. Soon Fuu emerged from the back of the house with a shovel in hand and threw it to the ground when she saw him.
"Mugen! You shouldn't be sitting up like that!"
Mugen shrugged her off, wincing. "Let me be."
An intense pout came over her then and she settled her fists on her hips. "I just barely got your bullet wounds to close, you idiot, you're going to ruin your stitches."
"What about yours, huh?"
Fuu froze, leaning away. "What do you mean?"
Mugen ogled her from his hunched over position, lazily pointing at her chest. "You're the one limpin' around, shovelin' dirt with broken ribs. So don't tell me what to do."
With one arm draped protectively over her ribcage, Fuu scowled. "It's not the same."
Mugen went back to prodding the fire, sending a couple stray sparks skyward. "Sure it ain't."
At this point Fuu screwed up her face at him and mouthed a couple unreadable words, before finally noticing that Jin was awake. For some reason this helped her calm down. She rolled her eyes, gesturing at Mugen as if to say "Can you believe this jerk?"
Jin could, in fact, believe it.
Then she knelt next to Mugen, placing a forceful hand on his shoulder. "Look," she ground out, "I can handle the fire by myself. Please lay back down."
Mugen growled and threw his stick into the fire. "I'm bored," he grumbled. "I'm sick of sleeping. Why don't you sleep and I'll take my shift telling everyone what to do all the damn time." But he was still weak, and succumbed quickly to her pushing.
"I'll sleep when you guys are better," she snapped back as she guided him back to a prone position on the mat.
Jin watched her carefully as she arranged a couple of fish over the fire. Dirt was caked around her fingernails. He wondered if she had just returned from burying her father. Now that he noticed, she did seem to be favoring her left side, and cringed whenever she had to bend over. He felt foolish for not realizing sooner how badly she'd been injured. He was only partly aware of what had happened here on the island before his arrivalㅡmost of what had transpired between Fuu and Mugen and the three vengeful brothers was as yet a mystery to him.
"Have you slept at all?" Jin asked her.
Fuu flipped the first fish and looked his way. There were dark circles beneath her eyes, and a mottled bruise on her right cheekbone. "Somewhat," she answered at length. "I've been a little busy, you know, between the two of you."
Mugen grumbled again on the other side of her. "Coulda just let us die."
"Shut up Mugen." She flipped the third fish a little too hard and almost dropped it in the fire.
So much had happened between the fire in the tea shop and this fire on the island. It struck him that they would probably be parting ways soon after he and Mugen had finished healing. It was strange that this thought saddened him. He hadn't expected to feel sorrow.
That night Fuu moved the men inside the small hut where her father had lived his final days. She helped them one at a time stumble inside, one arm draped around her shoulder. Jin bore the short journey in terse, strained silence. Mugen swore all the way.
She left them then for an hour or so and returned with fresh water. She brought them each a bit to drink. Jin thanked her with a nod, but Mugen grabbed her wrist, spilling the water everywhere. "Will you go to fucking sleep already?"
Dripping water and astonishment, Fuu ripped her hand away. "Are you insane? I can't."
"Yeah. You can. Will you tell her, four eyes? Dumb broad won't listen to me."
Jin was surprised to be dragged into the argument, and resolved to let them work it out themselves. He simply pushed his glasses up his nose and sipped his water.
Grumbling loudly at Jin, Mugen scratched at his bandages, which earned another indignant response from Fuu. "Would you calm down?" he barked. "We ain't dyin' anymore. Shut your freakin' eyes and go to sleep. You look like you're gonna fall over."
"But…" she glanced at the door, which still stood half ajar. "What if you… or what if...?"
Mugen blinked at her, unimpressed. "Good point."
Fuu threw the empty cup at him.
It was time for Jin to intercede. "If you're worried about our wounds, then we'll keep watch on each other while you rest. Would that be alright? We'll wake you if you're needed."
Fuu glanced between them, first at Jin's stony face and then at Mugen's rugged one. "I suppose that'd be alright," she admitted. "I am very tired."
She spread out a blanket in between the two men and laid herself down gingerly, still clutching her ribs. Jin hoped she had at least tried to tend to that amidst her watch over the two of them. She must have been understating her exhaustion, because it took less than a minute before her labored breathing evened out into the telltale pattern of sleep.
"Fuckin' finally," Mugen grumbled. "She gets so uptight when she hasn't slept."
Jin did not honor that accusation with a reply. Instead he voiced the concern that had been plaguing him all day. "Mugen. Tell me what happened to Fuu. How did she come by those injuries?" He didn't say what he was really thinking, but his icy tone managed to convey it well enough. You were supposed to protect her. I sent you in my place.
Mugen shot Jin a nasty glare. "How d'you think? The shitheads roughed her up before I got there." He afforded Fuu a quick, angry glance, and after a second he ruffed up his matted hair and flopped back down on his mat. "They knew me. Wanted revenge for something I did, took a little bit of it from her."
On cue, they both looked at the girl sleeping between them. Fuu face was peaceful in sleep, and she seemed far less troubled than she had been these past few days. A horrifying thought struck Jin. He frowned intensely. "You don't think they…"
The question went unfinished, but Mugen seemed to catch his drift because his scowl also deepened. "Fuck if I know."
In her sleep Fuu began to fret, and didn't settle down for another hour. Jin thought about waking her, but knew she desperately needed the rest. So he didn't. When her nightmares finally abated, Mugen stopped rapping his empty cup on the cottage wall and rolled onto his side.
This alone got Jin's full attention. He wasn't entirely certain that Mugen had ever used his actual name before. For this occasion Jin managed to sit up, sure that whatever Mugen was about to say was important.
But Mugen didn't seem to notice Jin's rapt attention. He was rolling his cup between his hand and the floorboards. "You think she'll be alright on her own?"
People live like fire, Jin thought. Coming, going, gone. It was true that soon both Mugen and Fuu would be gone from his life, and he had come to accept this long ago. But Mugen was not the bonfire that Jin had judged him for a year ago when they'd met. He'd thought then that Mugen would without a doubt bring about his own destruction. But he was sure now, as Mugen posed that loaded question, that Fuu was the only one with the power to truly break him.
Jin considered the question with great thought. Mugen eventually grumbled his disinterest and turned back toward the wall to continue his staring contest with it. But Jin was still thinking about Mugen's question. Would she be alright without the two of them?
Jin had always considered that if he was a gas flame and Mugen was a bonfire, then Fuu would be a candle. She'd always been delicate to him. Fragile. So often in their travels they'd had to save her from one fate or another, always with the unspoken fear that they would arrive too late. Always the fear that her flame would be snuffed out. She was so easy to break that it wouldn't take much. Perhaps just a passing wind. There would be only smoke where she had once stood.
But he had been wrong about that as well. He'd been wrong about so many things, but in his judgement of Fuu he had been the most wrong. He saw now that she was not fragile at all; if anything she burned brighter than either of her two companions. The girl who had once spoken so softly of the smell of sunflowers on a samurai's robe had buried that same man today, all on her own, and Jin knew now that Fuu was no mere candle.
"Yes," Jin said, prompting Mugen to glance at him over his shoulder. "To your question." It must have been two hours since Mugen asked it, but Jin had at last settled on his answer. "I think Fuu will be just fine."