After Sara's death, Jin and Mugen have a conversation about loss and its meanings. Spoilers for episodes 16, 17, 20 and 21. Disclaimer: I am not Manglobe, Shimoigusa Champloos, or Shinichiro Watanabe, and I do not own the characters of Samurai Champloo, but I love them and promose to treat them fairly. Appreciation tied with a big indigo bow to my fellow-writer, tireless beta-reader, ace theorist and the best sister a Jingirl could have: Ariel the Tempest. Atigatou gozaimasu. )

At first, when Mugen did not return, Jin was concerned; but as the rain finally stilled and the night began to fade into grey dawn, he knew what had happened.

He sat up and reached for his sandals, hoping to leave without waking Fuu, but she was no more asleep than he was; he saw the big eyes flick open the moment he moved.

Her small voice was grave and sad. "He had to kill her, didn't he."

"I'm sure of it."

She pushed aside her blanket. "I'll come with you."

Mugen had half-finished his task by the time they reached the riverside. He must have been working for hours, Jin thought, looking at the neat mound of river stones over the fresh grave. As they stood there he came into view, dragging another load of stones bundled in his red jacket. There was a streak of fresh blood on his white shirt, he had reopened his wound with this labor, but he paid it no mind. He glanced up as he drew near and saw them, but his face was too drawn and exhausted to show either welcome or resentment. He just nodded, dropped the burden out of his jacket and trudged off for more.

Fuu bit her lip. "Do you think maybe we should let him do this alone?"

But Jin was already peeling off his indigo gi.

"She was a worthy opponent. And your friend."

So they hauled stones, without exchanging a word, as the morning wind swept the clouds and the day began to clear. When Fuu could not take another step, she began choosing the smoothest and prettiest of the sand-polished river stones, and arranging them on the surface of the cairn. Mugen decided they had enough, and joined her in her task, focused and silent, the mound of sand and stone taking on the dignity of an ancient mosaic tomb.

When no more could be done for the mound,. Mugen limped over to a flat boulder close to the river, where he had--they saw--carefully laid out the late Sara's few belongings. Her big straw hat he sent spinning into the river. Her shamisen the same, a tremendous pitch with all the strength of his back and shoulders behind it, that sent the thing flying a good quarter mile before it even touched the water. He picked up her bird-headed walking stick, treacherous thing with its hidden yari blades, and thought for a moment…

…carried it back to the cairn, raised it over his head and drove it straight down, planted at the head of the mound. Fuu and Jin stood at silent attention. Mugen dropped into the sand--not a sit but a weary, childlike plop, as if that had taken all his remaining strength--pulled over his red jacket, and drew the tanto from the butt of his scabbard. With a quick slice and rip, he tore off the garment's entire hem, a red ribbon about four feet long and an inch or so wide. This he wrapped around the staff and knotted in the center, making a long double streamer, a flash of bloody color against the muted shades of the stones.

He stood and contemplated the finished work a moment. Jin folded his hands and bowed his head; Fuu followed suit. Then, still without a word, he turned and headed slowly back troward the cabin they had been loaned by the villagers. Tied to his swordbelt they both saw the owl-talisman of Kishibojin --the demon-mother, fierce protectress of children--that had hung from Sara's shamisen..

They followed him at a respectful distance.

The morning light was short-lived; more clouds soon rolled in, and Fuu decided that the road could wait. They were exhausted, two of them lately wounded and all bone-weary from the morning's work. The townpeople brought a pot of rice and assured them another day was no problem, and Mugen clinched it by adding that he was sure he smelled more rain on the wind. That was that. Nagasaki wasn't going to vanish overnight; they needed a day of rest more than anything, and Fuu so decreed.

She, at least, was asleep in no time.

Jin lay watching Mugen sit in the doorway. Neither of them had stirred or made a sound for at least three hours, but Jin was sure Mugen knew he was awake and attentive, and simply waited. Sooner or later he would speak.

In not much longer, he did.

"Whatcha waiting for, Blue?"

"A chance to talk to you."

"What d'you need, an invitation?"

"No. " Jin sat up. "Just to be sure it's time."

"Time enough." He shifted to one side. "Come on over."

Jin padded silently over to the door and settled beside him, looking out at the river valley in the grey-green rainy light. It was, he thought, like being underwater..

"Tell me what it is."

"…She quit on me, "said Mugen slowly. "She pulled her strike and let me cut her. She wanted to die." He looked out into the rain. "Why would she do that? She was so good.."

"Had anything changed? Perhaps a message from her masters-"

"Said she realized her boy was already dead."

"Ahh…" Jin rested his chin on his fingers.

"But why? Why just give up? Did she think there was no chance to--maybe.." Mugen stumbled to a halt.

"I really liked her," very quiet. "I thought she liked me too, that's all."

Jin let that be a moment.

"You did her a kindness. She'd have been killed anyway if she'd come back without your head. At least, with you, it was her own choice."

"Yeah. Like always. People always throw themselves at me to die." Shake of the shaggy head; deep sigh.

"I thought…I thought we might even have a chance, you know? I only wanted to fight her, not kill her. Not even hurt her…"

It took a long time for the last words to come out. "I feel bad, being her death."

Jin rested a hand on his shoulder.

"I don't think anything can feel worse," slowly and quietly, "than being tricked into killing someone you never meant to harm. Using your own skill against you… so it's over in a moment, and past recall."

Another moment's silence.

"That boy from the dojo. Yukimaru." Mirthless snort of laughter. "The last one we buried."

"Yukimaru," Jin repeated softly. "I would never in a hundred years have hurt Yuki. I would have given my life to protect him. And look what I've done."

Mugen leaned his head against the hand on his shoulder, his voice dark, full of pain.

"You think we're cursed?"

"No. I think…I think we draw desperate people. We're the end of the road."

"Maybe we'll die too." He stared out into the rain unseeing, desolate. "That's what Fuu thinks. She told me she doubts any of us will come back from Nagasaki."

"Perhsps not. We can't know that." Pause. "But I know I'm tired of killing people I like.."

Did the long hand tighten on his shoulder, just for a moment? He wasn't sure, but he didn't mind. Leaned a little deeper; he was so tired. "Gets old, all right."

A stretch of rainy silence before Jin spoke again..

"Do you really think she didn't care for you?"

"If she did…" Mugen sighed. "I think she'd have given me her best shot, even if she wanted to lose. Or asked me flat out to kill her. Not…cheated me like that."

"Perhaps…" he hesitated; would this help Mugen see?
"…she didn't tell you the story of Kishibojin."

"Nah, we didn't talk about that…"

Jin rested his chin on his knee.

"Once she was a killer of children. A demon, with a hundred young of her own, and she loved them fiercely. Their favorite food was human babies." (He glanced out of the corner of his eye; Mugen was already hooked, listening raptly; slighest smile. The pirate boy loved stories.)

"Every night she raided a village and stole them away. Their mothers' cries reached the ears of Buddha, and he took one of Kishibojin's children, and hid it. Desperate, she searched everywhere. Finally she humbled herself and begged Buddha to help her. He showed her the child was safe, and explained that now she must understand the hearts of the human mothers she had robbed." The grave soft voice paused.

"She saw what she had done: that the ones she had killed weren't animals, but children, with mothers of their own. She swore to never harm another, so long as she lived."

Jin paused again, glanced at Mugen. " you see? While she cared only for her own child, killing was easy for her; but when that changed, she couldn't…"

He could almost see the idea open behind Mugen's dark eyes.

"She…ohh." Understanding and a quick, sharp ache. "She didn't quit on me at all. She knew she could kill me…but… she didn't want to."

Jin nodded. "She'd lost her child. She couldn't bear to lose you both."

"She did that for me…"

Mugen buried his face in Jin's blue sleeve. Jin let him.

They thought killing her son would break her will to resist. They underestimated her. She found a way to spare Mugen and escape their grasp, and there's not a thing they can do about it. He felt satisfied. We did well to bury her with honor. Any samurai would be proud of such a death as that.

When Mugen spoke again his voice was calm.

"She told me to live. She told me who sent her, and she said, 'please live.' So you better not stop me before I find them."

'You have my word."

"But you are still gonna kill me, right?"

"When--" Jin reclaimed his hand and sat up, stretching his arms in front of him--"I am quite ready to see you die. Not before." He glanced back into the room. "We should be asleep."

"Sounds good to me too."

'Not killing you yet, or sleep?"

Slight, corner-of-eye grin. "Or you.--Both."


Half an hour later. Steady rain on the roof. A voice from one of the futons.

"One last thing. When their mom reformed and quit bringing home babies, what did all the demon kids eat?"

Voice of infinite patience. "Buddha made them all vegetarians."

"Aaah, you made that up."

"The mercy of Buddha is infinite. Not mine. Go to sleep."

Mugen grinned and closed his eyes.