(Author's Note: This story is set just after the end of episode 26. Not really angst, not really humor, just a neat idea I had. I'll promise not to add a whole crapload of author's notes at the beginning of every chapter if you promise to review.)
-His Mother's Son-
The bone was lying between them.
It didn't have much meat on it—just a few sparse strings, covered in grit from the ground. Flies were buzzing around it. But that hardly mattered.
The tan dog's lip quivered as he struggled to keep it raised in a snarl. He could sense his opponent was not weakening. Both kept their bodies tense and their throats in a constant, ferocious rattle. They'd been standing over the bone and growling at each other for nearly ten minutes. The tan dog was starting to wonder if it would be better to go back to town and beg. But last time he'd tried that, he'd been kicked and shouted at and chased away.
Finally, he made his move. He lunged at the bone. His opponent lunged at him, and the two fell to the ground, kicking up the reddish dust of the road as they rolled around.
"Not so tough now, are you?" yelped Mugen as the dog began whimpering. "Son of a bitch!" he exclaimed as the dog bit him.
Mugen and the dog may have been enemies, but both grudgingly recognized their similarities. Both were stray, feral, and tan. Mugen had come from the southern islands of Ryuukuu; the dog had come from a town several miles away. Both were outsiders, both were shunned, and both were hungry.
The dog received a sharp kick to his ribs and decided he'd had enough; Mugen was wearing shoes harder than anything the dog had ever been kicked with.
He squirmed out of Mugen's bear hug and limped away, tail between his legs, casting woeful glances at the bone which he'd gone to great lengths to obtain, only to have stolen from him.
Mugen sat in the middle of the road, his skinny legs stuck out in front of him, and took the bone, gnawing at it happily. The dog sat on the side of the road and watched him miserably.
Mugen sighed contentedly after he'd stripped away the last bits of meat and cast the bone to the side of the road. The dog walked over it to tentatively and sniffed it, but no meat was left, so he turned and left. Mugen, on the other hand, flopped onto his back and put his hands behind his head, feeling an almost-affection for the world.
Mugen was a great believer in freedom, and to him, there was no better sense of it than being able to lie down where ever and whenever he wanted and sleep, preferably with a full stomach. For a long time he'd been fairly independent, wandering from city to city looking for food, girls, and fights. Maybe he'd taken it too far, because after picking one such fight, he'd found himself indentured to a ditzy girl to search for some stupid samurai he didn't know or care about. Her name was Fuu, and Mugen could practically still hear her annoying giggle and see her stupid pink kimono. She wasn't even hot. And then there was Jin, the other guy Fuu had dragged onto her pointless little quest. Not only was he boring, but pompous. Just because he had a stupid samurai kimono with his little ka-mon on it, and his stupid glasses, he thought he was so much better than Mugen. Mugen agreed he could be a pig, but at least he wasn't a stupid four-eyed loser like Jin.
All things considered, thought Mugen, he should be happy to be rid of the two of them. Even though it was harder to come by money, and food, and girls, and rooms, and adventures without Fuu and Jin, he was again his own man. He could do anything he wanted—anything at all!
He crossed his ankles and tapped his foot, dangling his geta toward the ground with his toes.
Yep, anything. Not like Jin and Fuu. Fuu had probably gotten herself kidnapped or something immediately after parting their company, and Jin was probably already miles away, doing something boring. Mugen entertained himself with the thought of Fuu calling her kidnappers jerks, and Jin trying to meditate while his glasses slipped farther and farther down the bridge of his pale nose. What a dork.
Mugen sighed and rolled over, resting his chin on his dusty arms. He heard the sounds of hooves on the road but didn't move.
"Hey! You! Get out of the damn road!"
"Piss off!" snapped Mugen. He could feel his hackles rising.
Behind him, he heard a man getting off his horse. "You looking for a fight, kid?"
"Always am," said Mugen breezily, and he heaved his tired body up to satisfy that craving that never really went away.
Fuu wasn't sure why she was crying.
Here were the facts: she knew, in her hearts of hearts, she and Jin and Mugen would all go their separate ways eventually. She had found her sunflower samurai, her father. They'd finished their quest, and separated on good terms. The guys hadn't killed each other, anyway. She'd been walking for over two days without them now. And suddenly, out of nowhere, she was crying.
She reached inside her kimono for something to blow her nose with and accidentally used Momo, her squirrel. Momo squealed with rage and scratched her across the nose, which just made Fuu cry harder.
She was sitting on the side of a road lined with rice paddies, on a log which she prayed wasn't home to termites or ants. Through her tears, she watched shapeless forms in wide hats bending over the rice. She sniffled and wondered why she was crying.
She guessed it was the way they parted. They had said good-bye and everything. But in retrospect, she should have thanked them more. She should have hugged them, even though Mugen would have said something snotty and Jin would have gone colder and stiffer than a winter corpse. Maybe she even should have kissed them. (She couldn't even begin to envision their reactions if she'd done that.)
And now—here she started sobbing with renewed vigor—she couldn't. Now it was too late because they were already far, far away. She'd probably never see them again.
"Hey, girly. Why are you crying? Are you hurt?"
Fuu wiped her face hastily on her sleeve and looked up. One of the field workers had come up to her. He was younger and had a nice face under his hat, even though it was smudged with mud.
"No," said Fuu.
"Then why are you crying?"
"Because I've lost someone."
"Then why don't you go find them?"
Fuu was stumped. "Because they're probably already really far away."
"Then why don't you go find them now, instead of crying, since they're getting farther and farther away the longer you wait?"
"I don't know if they want to see me."
"Then why don't you go find them and ask?"
Fuu bit her lower lip. Would Jin and Mugen resent her if she went to all the trouble of tracking them down, just to hug them? It sounded sort of stupid, even to her. But she needed more closure. She couldn't help it. She had formed a very close bond with them, after traveling with them for so many months. She couldn't bear to just leave like this.
"I will!" she declared, standing up determinedly. "Thanks!"
"Sure," said the rice worker; looking confused, he went back to his fields, glancing over his shoulder as Fuu began walking back down the road.
Jin sat hunched over his sake, surveying the bar quietly over the tops of his glasses when he was sure no one was looking. He was in the Akako Reizei Teahouse, and he was looking for the legendary and possibly mythical Akako Reizei. If the sign told true, Akako Reizei was a beautiful, delicate courtesan. And Jin was in need of some company.
He took a long swig of his drink. Logically, he knew he was being stupid for spending the little money he had left on drinks. But truthfully, he didn't care. He hated to admit it, but after traveling with Fuu and Mugen for months, he'd grown used to their loudness. Walking by himself made him uneasy. It was too quiet. That was one of the reasons he had entered this particular teahouse. As far as he could see, it was the loudest, brightest, most active place in the entire town. And that meant there would be plentiful drinks and plentiful women.
He cast a furtive look over the room while everyone's attention was arrested by two men getting into a fight. He wasn't looking for anything in particular. Just a cute girl. Or a guy in drag. Frankly, he wasn't picky.
He saw only two lookers in the whole crowd, and their attention was being jostled for by a huge group of men. Jin could have taken them, but it wasn't his nature. He wasn't going to cause a scene and cut down a dozen people just for fifteen minutes of pleasure. Thirty, he corrected himself; there were, after all, two of them.
Now, Mugen—Mugen wouldn't even think. He'd just go berserk and kill everyone and drag away his prizes while laughing manically. Jin could picture him swaggering up to the girls right now, and Fuu clinging to his clothes and dragging her heels into the floor trying to stop him. The usual arguments, his deep, suave voice against her sweet, tingly one.
Jin sighed and hunched further over his drink. He never thought he'd build up a reliance on people like this. It just wasn't his nature…
"Hey, pal! Are you just gonna sit there all night?"
Jin looked up at the bartender and imagined Mugen slicing his head off, for no other reason than he wouldn't like the way the bartender was looking at him. "Get me another sake," he mumbled.
"Can you pay for it?"
Jin tossed coins across the counter without making eye contact.
"Pleasure doin' business with you."
Here was something Mugen didn't understand:
He had just had a very large meal. He'd gotten it after getting into an argument with another guy. The argument had ended with a head rolling across the floor, and the restaurant owner bribing Mugen with food so that he wouldn't cause any more trouble. As he was walking out of the place, a girl came up to him and told him she thought that a man who knew what he wanted, and could get it, was very sexy. They'd had a short fuck in an alleyway, and to top it all off, Mugen had just filched several momne from an unsuspecting passerby. So, in short, his day had fulfilled every item required to make it good: violence, food, sex, and money. Now he was ready for a nap, and was lying on some nice soft grass under a cherry tree, staring up at the blue sky between the pink blossoms and wondering…
Why wasn't he happy?
Normally, after a day like this, he'd have felt great. Fulfilled. But he didn't.
He began scratching his ear. Oh, he knew why. It was that stupid girl! Even now that he'd gotten rid of her, she was bringing him down. She'd done that constantly while they were traveling together. He would be having a wonderful time and then she would start in on him. "Mugen, don't kill him!" "Mugen, you're a pig!" "Mugen, stealing's wrong!" She was so whiny… and hypocritical too. If Jin had acted the same way, she probably wouldn't have been so harsh on him.
And now she was finally gone and Mugen couldn't even enjoy himself.
He rolled over and snorted quietly to himself, blowing dust up from the ground. He watched sandals passing and thought of his own feet and all the miles they'd walked, just so Fuu could find her stupid samurai. What a stupid quest. Why did she ever care, anyways? If her dad hadn't been there for her, why would she want to go find him, after fifteen freakin' years? Mugen had never known either of his parents and he wasn't whining about it. He didn't remember what either one looked like, and wasn't even sure of his mother's name.
And then the nerve! The nerve of that girl, just leaving after that dragging him on that huge quest, all alone without anything to do! She had been so clingy, but after finding her stupid samurai was so… so content. So fulfilled. Walked away with a new, reborn confidence. Could anyone really make someone else feel so good?
Confusing, thought Mugen, pushing out his upper lip and blowing away a spike of hair that was wilting in front of his face. Maybe he should go on his own crazy, stupid quest. Ha! Wouldn't that be a riot? Him, Mugen, searching for family. He'd never wanted family. He'd never needed family. And they sure didn't want him! And it was probably better that way… what would he say after twenty years? Who knew if they were even alive? Probably back in Ryuukuu. Yeah. No use getting all worked up over something so stupid.
No! Mugen shook himself out like a wet dog, propped up his body with his hands, stretched his back luxuriously, and rose. He definitely wasn't gonna get any sleep… he might as well go looking for a fight.
Fuu paused before the crossroads. She'd been here fours days ago. Mugen had gone that way and Jin had gone that way. So now she needed to make a choice.
"What'd you think, Momo?" she asked.
"Ee," came the sleepy answer from inside her kimono. She looked both ways, trying to get her priorities straight. Jin would probably be less angry to see her again. But then again, Mugen was more likely to walk away from the path, so he'd be harder to find. Jin would follow the road, so Fuu wouldn't have trouble finding him. Actually, now that she thought about it, she wouldn't have trouble finding either. They caused so much commotion where ever they went… well. She'd start with Mugen. He was the bigger wanderer. Better to catch him early and go after Jin later.
She turned down Mugen's fork and began walking. It was a bright day, just like it had been four days ago, when she'd seen Mugen's retreating back for the last time. Red kimono, probably the closest to new clothes he'd ever worn. Hands in his pockets, sword over his back.
She passed by waving fields of grass, shimmery in the sun, and over streams of dancing fish. She felt good. And even better when she smelled food.
"Hi!" said Fuu breathlessly, shoving her face into the narrow window of a rice ball stand that was set up haphazardly at the other end of the bridge. The man sitting at it looked unfriendly; he had dark, glaring eyes, deep-set under bushy eyebrows.
"May I help you?" he demanded gruffy, sounding like he'd rather do anything else.
"I'm looking for a guy, he was wearing a red—"
"I don't sell guys. I sell rice balls. Do you want a rice ball?"
"Yes. But first, have you seen a guy with tattoos on his—"
"Buy a rice ball first."
"Well, I can't buy one, I don't have any money."
"Then I don't have any information. Beat it!"
Fuu scowled. Her good mood had evaporated. She felt Momo stirring in her kimono from all the noise; the squirrely face poked out from between her breasts, and before she could do anything, Momo launched herself at the food.
The man yelled and slammed his fist down, narrowing missing Fuu's pet.
"Don't hurt her!" squealed Fuu, trying to scoop up Momo, who was dashing around trying to cram rice into her cheeks before she was apprehended.
"Enough already!" yelled the man. "First crazy vagabond foreigners and now thief squirrels! Can't a guy sell rice balls anymore?"
"Crazy vagabond foreigners?" cried Fuu. "Wearing red? With spiky hair? Tattoos on his wrist and ankles?"
"You know him?" shouted the man. "He stole nine rice balls from me! I demand compensation!"
"I told you… I don't have money!" cried Fuu desperately. She finally grabbed Momo and crammed her down her front. She gave the man a cute, apologetic smile and then dashed away. He chased her; she had gone at least five blocks before he gave up and trudged away.
At least I know I'm on the right track! thought Fuu optimistically. Mugen was probably close by. She'd just follow the trail of thievery, and, why, she'd probably come across him in the next three days! And then, onto Jin! He was probably hanging out in a town. Fuu hoped, at least, that he would manage to suppress his urge to wander in favor of civilization.
She began to walk down the street, swinging her arms happily and looking for any sites of destructions that might imply Mugen's presence.
"I'm not buying you a drink," said Jin grouchily.
"Come on, big guy," purred the woman next to him. "You look decent enough. Shouldn't you buy a nice sweet lady a drink?"
"I'm not interested," snapped Jin, trying to tug away his arm from her grip without spilling his drink. The woman was old enough to be his mother, for one thing; she had lines around her eyes and a habit of nervous squinting that made her seem shifty. She was wearing a ripped, patched, and threadbare skirt that had only a vague outline of purple and green zigzags left; like the rest of her, it was too worn to be overly flashy. Her hair was pulled back by a scrap of cloth that was in the same zigzag design. It vaguely reminded Jin of something, but he wasn't sure what.
"Aw, c'mon, sure you are. You like older women, don't you? By the way, my name's Shino."
"No it's not. You heard me talking about Shino earlier," snapped Jin.
"Wow, cute and smart! Okay, my real name's Kana. Sorry, what did you say yours was?"
"Oh. Let me guess! Mariya Kiyoshi!"
"Not even close. And I don't appreciate you eavesdropping on all of my conversations."
"I'd think better if I had a drink."
"I'm not buying you a drink."
"So much for the legendary generosity of the samurai," mumbled Kana, finally releasing Jin's arm and pouting. The bartender came over, smirking at Jin's hunched form and Kana's sulky one.
"His name's Jin."
"Jin! What a lovely name! Do you come here a lot, Jin?"
"I won't anymore," growled Jin, glaring at the bartender, who winked.
"Would you leave the poor guy alone if I gave you one on the house?" he asked.
"Would I?" repeated Kana, suddenly forgetting all about Jin. He sighed and took a deep draft of his drink.