They are leaving him.
Fuu marches off before him while Mugen strides away to the left, and he is left helpless in the center, unable to stir even a finger to keep them from going. Neither look back.
Adrift. Alone. Again.
These thoughts rain on him in the space between two minutes, in the tiny amount of time it takes for the slender threads that had woven together to form a semblance of life for him to unravel and fray apart. He had not thought they would be so fragile.
They move further away. Will he follow? Neither seem to want his company. Go where; forward or to the left, towards life or death? His feet are rooted to the ground and he cannot decide.
It is not like him to be indecisive, to stand waiting while others determine the course of action for him. But yet those two constantly manage to catch him between, in a place where he can no longer act , but only wait silently to see what new twist they bring forth.
But they are no longer with him.
He makes a decision and walks off to the right, alone.
Mugen was to be his end.
He could see it the first time he encountered Mugen; an animal beaten but not bowed, brimming with an energy fierce enough to set the town afire, a creature set against him in every possible way; rapacious, greedy, full of life when he had had none. Facing off with him, Jin had stood there for a moment, his mind full of glad recognition; here is everything I do not stand for. Here is everything I wish to erase.
Yes, here is the one who can give me an acceptable death.
Then they had moved, and Jin had forgotten everything about death as he lost himself in the euphoria of battling an equal. His shadow self, come to destroy and be destroyed. Fitting to erase himself through battle. The world shrank happily, encompassing only the flames around them and the space between their blades and bodies. No matter the outcome of their battle, the end result would be entirely the same.
There was no shame in killing your own self.
That ending he had once longed for had not come. He hadn't known it, but Fuu had already marked out Mugen for herself, placing herself in their midst from the start, from before the start, making it so they could not function independently of her. There had been other outside interfearence. Afterwards, Fuu had ruthlessly plucked them up and forced them together, and as they grew used to each other, Mugen's vitality had turned out to be slowly, insidiously infectious. Jin kept his vision of the perfect death hidden within the dark spaces of his mind and pretended not to notice that another wish was growing strong beside it; the wish to keep prolonging the inevitable so he could have the pleasure of fighting Mugen again and again.
He kept making excuses as to why he could not kill Mugen. The girl would be annoyed. They were too busy journeying. Fuu would cry. Fuu was constantly being kidnapped or else needed saving from some other ridiculous situation. They were always hungry, always broke, always tired, always somehow on edge; a proper duel could not take place under such circumstances. Strange people kept attacking them, and Fuu's need to find the "Sunflower Samurai" drew them all forward as inexorably as if they were on strings moved by invisible puppeters.
Slowly and quietly, the others from his dojo began to slip into their lives, all bent on death and retribution. He could not allow himself die at their hands. They might kill Mugen and Fuu simply for accompanying him; that was unacceptable. If by some calamity he died before all this was brought to an end, Mugen would be needed to protect Fuu. Doubtless they would end up killing each other before long without him around to mediate.
It is cool and dim in the forest, and Jin's feet crunch on leaves fallen underfoot. He is still in a state of mild shock despite his best efforts at control, and his thoughts struggle like worms in wet soil. Where exactly am I going?
Mugen was to protect Fuu if something happened to him but it had all gone wrong now. Never had he thought that Fuu would be the one to split them apart like this. She was the binder, the one who draw them forth and kept them together, force and drive behind this...failed? quest. Her outburst had taken him entirely by surprise; Fuu's temper flared against Mugen on a regular basis but this time she had attacked them both, her anger a cloudburst out of a clear sky. He had expected her to rage at Mugen, had not expected Mugen's unusually vitrolic response, had most definitely not expected her to fire them both and march away on her own. He and Mugen had always been the ones to stray; she was the one who pursued them until they returned--at first grudgingly, then more recently, relieved--to her side.
How often had he watched as Fuu and Mugen clashed, scratching and slapping for dominance in their little band, his ice waiting to melt their fire if things went out of hand. Both burned brightly; Fuu from longing and determination, Mugen out of greed—for life, for everything--and he was content to sit back and let them supply the energy. It wasn't difficult to see the ties that sprang between them, despite their best efforts. Perhaps their constant squabbling was a futile effort to pull themselves apart before they burned in their mutual heat, never minding that it brought forth more sparks than extinguished them.
He wonders if Fuu truly understands the meaning of revenge. He is alive. He will live until I can pummel him. In those words, he heard not vengeance, but rage and sorrow, and the sound of a young girl who desperately wants to ask why.
"He is someone she knows, or thinks she knows," he says aloud, breaking his silence for the first time in over an hour. It is something he has suspected from the start, when she refused to give a straight answer about this man or their quest, in the way she managed to neatly dance around and misdirect all direct questions on the subject.
He thinks that she is not seeking mere vengeance, but cannot tell if she knows that yet herself. Does she intends things to end with this man's death?
If so, he wonders how far she is willing to pursue him, and how much of her innocence will be lost when that time finally comes. Fuu had managed in the past to forgive and find mercy for those who had wronged her; now he asks himself if she is also willing and able to kill off that part of herself in order to gain the revenge she is seeking. He has sometimes thought that he and Mugen had been hired not only to protect Fuu herself, but to hand death to the Sunflower Samurai when he is finally found. Now that they are apart, will Fuu be tempted to end things herself?
Mugen is Death cloaked in Life; Fuu is Life willing to dirty itself in Death.
He stops. Around him, the birds fall silent, and there is a faint clanging in the distance, like metal on metal.
"There is no choice after all."
Death walks in Life and Life walks in Death; no matter who or what he chooses, the ending is the same either way. But he knows now where he must go, and turns around to retrace his steps, back in the direction he has just come from.
If Mugen had stayed by Fuu's side, this would not be necessary, but he cannot leave Fuu alone. If he must, he will stay by her side and be Death for her; if they are together, Mugen will surely find his way back to them eventually. The red strings of fate are looped around them more tightly than he had realized, and Mugen will surely not be able to go far without feeling the pull of strings on his body.
Together, they will be Death for Fuu. It is both thanks and protection for the girl who bound them together into this strange life, but it is life all the same, and Jin is finding it harder to give up than he realized.
Ahead, a woman screams and Jin breaks into a run, trusting that he will be there in time to help. Perhaps he find Mugen running out of his side of the forest at the same time; together they will recover Fuu and resume their journey.
No, he is not ready to give up on life—or them—at all.