For Paula O'K., for her fantabulous Amalgam web site, and her merry band of Swords and Sunflowers; you folks entertain this lurker no end and set the plot bunny racing. All good things here are strictly due to their school of Samurai Champloo-ness, and all errors mine — as it should be. Also, a disclaimer: I don't actually own Samurai Champloo or any of its affiliated characters, which belong to Manglobe/Shimoigusa Champloos. Chapter titles are also not mine, and are in fact drawn from the haiku of Matsuo Basho (translations by R.H. Blyth); many thanks to Soji, for maintaining the Haiku Poet's Hut web site, where I do my Basho reading and follow Soji's noble quest with great interest.
A/N: This is a post-series tale, so if you've seen - um - all the episodes or have a high tolerance for being confused, you'll be fine. I'm rating this preemptively M, since Mugen (and the author, unfortunately) potty mouth. Plus, since this is Samurai Champloo fun, graphic violence will break out at some point; vases will shatter, sake will spill, and characters will be distracted by imaginary naked women.
I. Yes, spring has come
Without a doubt, she had the worst luck.
And it wasn't as if the gods were being particularly original in her misfortune; this was the — third? No, maybe it was the fourth, there was that time at the beginning with Ryujiro-san in Edo, she'd almost forgotten that — time she'd been held against her will, and the second she'd ended up in a place like this. The last time she'd ended up in a brothel . . . her bodyguards had abandoned her at a crossroads, she remembered, a little smile quirking at her mouth as always when she thought of them these days, and she had been so furious with them. She would have knocked their heads together if they'd been anywhere near her. Or, possibly, pushed them into the river, if there'd been one handy. The looks on their faces, though, when they found her at the whorehouse that same night had nearly made up for it — absolute shock on one, and even the other had let a flicker of what she would have sworn was interest show for an instant before his guard went up again. All hell had broken loose after that, but instead of rescuing her, they'd turned their swords on each other, before coming to a draw . . . again. She'd engineered her own escape and then found the pair in a gambling hall where two rival yakuza factions were playing at dice. Totally useless, the pair of them that day.
She missed them. Terribly.
This place was a little nicer than the first one. The tatami were fresher and instead of the stink of too much rice powder and unwashed hair, it smelled green and fresh from the stand of bamboo outside the room. Pale candles illuminated the room's far corners, adding the clean scent of warm wax to the night air. She wore slightly better silk, the furisode patterned in coppery maple leaves, and normally she would have been pleased to wear something this beautiful but she doubted she'd get to enjoy it for much longer. She sighed and smiled wryly to herself. One thing working in a brothel had over waitressing — the more time you spent off your feet, the happier the customers were.
The voice of Ai, the madam, broke into her thoughts then, and she scrambled to sit upright as steps sounded outside the shoji. She could hear more than one set of footsteps, so the madam and a client. Maybe if she got him good and drunk, she'd be able to convince him he'd had a wonderful time? She bowed quickly and cast her eyes down to the floor as the shoji screen slid open to admit the man with Ai.
"Himawari is our newest girl, honored sir, and I believe you will be very pleased. May I arrange for food and sake?" The man grunted. Yes, by all means, plenty of sake, a barrel or two should be fine for what he had in mind. The girl on the floor before him bowed low, her dark hair gleaming where it was caught up behind her sleek head; a graceful neck flowed into a hint of pale shoulders where the silken edge lay on her skin. She was lovely and irrationally he wondered if his rough fingertips would catch on that smooth flesh— where was that damn sake?
Her eyes moved up from the tatami toward his feet as the shoji closed behind Ai and the footsteps receded; he wore battered geta that looked as if they'd been through the Warring States, twice, and his dusty feet weren't much better, calloused and broad, peasant's feet. And his ankles with their —
Her head snapped up. "Mugen?"
He looked at the girl kneeling before him, finally seeing her face. He gaped at her, completely at a loss for words, then began to laugh. She stared at him, angry — she hadn't seen him in two years, and all he could do was laugh? — before it struck her as funny, and she began to giggle as well.
She poured sake for them both from the tray with the dumplings. "I'm not going to ask what you're doing here, 'cause you'll tell me." Fuu took a sip and settled herself more comfortably; he was already sprawled out, lying on his side with his head propped up on his hand, geta kicked off in the general direction of the door as if they had never been apart. His hair was slightly longer than it had been — she wondered if he was still hacking at it himself with his tanto when it got too long for him — but otherwise he looked remarkably the same.
He grinned wolfishly and popped a dumpling in his mouth. "Your loss."
"What happened to you after we left the island? I was halfway expecting to see you again in Nagasaki, but you totally disappeared."
He shrugged. "There was a ship going north when I got to the harbor. They needed an extra man, so I signed on. Once we got there, I stayed for a little while then headed south when it started getting too cold. I've seen snow now, and that's enough for me."
"North?" She tried one of the dumplings, but left the rest for him. He looked at her oddly, but continued to eat.
He nodded. "Up where Okuru came from, Matsumae. Wanted to see what it was like."
"Oh." She fell uncharacteristically silent and picked at the edge of her long sleeve.
"Anyway, how'd you end up here? I know fish face likes the floating world ladies, but sending you off to work in a place like this would be —" mockingly, he pitched his voice a little lower "— 'unseemly'. I take it you two aren't together anymore?" Mugen drained his cup in one long swallow and poured a refill from the jug, leaving the food for now.
"Come off it, girlie. I saw how you looked at him. And then that little conversation you had at the river before we got to the island? Yeah, I heard you two. Don't try pulling that I'd-never-be-interested-in-him crap with me."
"It wasn't like that! It — gaaaaah!" She wailed and clenched her fists. "Look, I haven't seen him since the last time I saw you. It just — after you — it just isn't what you're thinking. I don't even know where Jin is."
"Huh." He looked at her skeptically, but didn't pursue it. "So. You, whorehouse. What's up with that?"
"Oh." She grimaced. "Actually . . . I sort of got kidnaped. Again."
He grinned. "What's with you? You know this doesn't happen to other girls."
"Tell me about it. I should be waitressing at a teahouse across town right now. I was in Kyoto — but I remembered my mother saying once that she had some cousins who lived near here, so I thought I'd try and find them. When I got there, they'd already died, and no one was left." She shrugged. "I knew they were old when she talked about them, but still, I thought I should try to look for them. They were family, you know? There isn't anyone left except for me, now. But . . . I found the teahouse here, and I had my own little room over the kitchen. I was on my way back from the market when boom, kidnaped, and here I am. At least they let me pick my own name here, as long as it was a flower."She grinned back and drew in a breath. "Maybe the name should have been a clue for you?"
"What were you doing in Kyoto?" he asked, curiously. He was gratified when her cheeks pinkened.
"I was a dice roller for a few months, but there was this guy — I can't believe I was ever interested in him. He was all 'I am the greatest swordsman in Japan' this and 'I have been undefeated in ten duels', when either you or Jin could have — in probably a minute — but, you know. He was sort of like that Nagamitsu guy, remember him? 'I'm gonna be big'?"
"Oh, yeah, the one with the chick with the huge — "
"She got you two drunk and stole our money!" She picked up her cup and drank the remainder of her sake, feeling more relaxed and happy than she could remember being for a long time. "And she was old."
"What? Was not. Hey, go easy, remember the last time you had some of that 'really good water'." He sat up and finished off the plate. "Should've eaten more if you were planning to drink."
She huffed in mild indignation. "So what are you going to do now?"she asked. She had almost forgotten about the scars on his cheek, like tigers' whiskers; they weren't ugly, she decided, just . . . him. And his eyes were really pretty, a sort of gray like the ocean, which she'd never noticed this much before. And the room was so warm and comfortable —
He was getting to his feet, and the really pretty eyes now held a gleam in them she'd never seen, almost predatory. He came over to her and sat down — right next to her. And then his lips were right next to her ear as he chuckled. "Now? I already paid for you, so . . . "
Her eyes widened and she squeaked, "But — you — it's not like that — you already paid for me?" The sake started to feel less and less like a good idea as her heart began to hammer inside her chest. We covered this already, Fuu, the tiny portion of her mind that was less preoccupied with Mugen — eeee! who was reaching around her shoulders and pulling her against him with those long fingers of his, which felt strangely good even though this was definitely bad, not good at all — told her. And then, I wonder how much he paid.
And then she could feel those lips against her ear as he said, "Relax."
"How do you — not a good idea at all — "
He paused and she could feel him grin, that familiar wicked grin. "I'm getting you out of here. What did you think I meant, you dumb broad?"
"Ha!" If there had only been something for her to knock his head against; kami-sama, but she missed Jin. She turned her nose in the air away from him."You thought I was worried about doing that with you? There's no way I would, ever. You're so not my type. You're so far away from my type that — "
"You need to be quiet. You think that big guy at the door is there 'cause he's so damn good-looking? He's not just keeping an eye on the customers, you know," he murmured. "I gave that woman enough for a couple of hours, so we should be out of town by the time anyone comes looking. Unless you want to stay?" Sardonically, he gestured toward the futon at the head of the room.
"No, you jackass. What makes you think I need your help getting out of here?"
He pulled away from her slightly. "Shut up, will you? I couldn't bring any rope with me, but that'll do. Pack what you need, but we're traveling light." He began methodically to fashion a makeshift rope from the bedding, fingers expertly weaving knots from the smooth fabric, smiling to himself. No! I won't let you rescue me from the whorehouse! sounded ridiculous even to her, so she crossed to the small tansu where she kept the small belongings that hadn't been taken from her: her tanto was gone, taken when they'd brought her in, but she took her comb, and a tiny sack with some coins she'd secretly been hoarding. She paused a moment before hurriedly wrapping a cake of soap in a piece of scrap cotton and sticking that in with the coins, thinking of what it had been like to travel with him before. At least she could smell prettier than she had last time. "You ready?"
She nodded, and came to stand next to him at the window, where he'd tied the rope to the window frame. It looked secure enough, tied better by far than the one she'd put together to escape the time before. She grinned to herself, thinking suddenly of O-Suzu, who'd stood by the window then, staring at her as if Fuu had suddenly admitted to being a tengu in her free time. She missed the older girl and wondered if she'd ever married; she remembered how Sousuke looked at his tutor as she and Jin had made their goodbyes . . . He gave her an impatient nudge.
"Yo. I'll go first. Once I hit the ground, you come after me as quick as you can. Got it?"
"Yeah." He leapt to the window and twisted lightly to grasp the rope. He made it look easy, slipping down noiselessly and landing on the shadowy ground without incident.
Okay. I did this before. And I'm not up that high. She perched on the edge, her zori dangling off her feet as she brought her legs over the sill, cursing the sumptuous furisode under her breath with some of the choice phrases she'd learned from the man standing under the rope. The cloth was surprisingly rough under her palms, which were becoming slick with sweat, as she stretched her toes out in the direction of solid ground. And don't think about him looking up, think good things. Udon noodles. Wading in the ocean. The sticks in Mama's hair. Is he looking up my kimono? Shit. Yakimanju. She grasped the rope and pushed herself off, the cloth biting suddenly painfully into her hands as her arms took her weight, slight as she was; she made a small noise of pain as she automatically loosened her grip on the rope, swinging into nothingness, falling — before he caught her. The impact knocked the air out of her and she looked up at him, panicked, eyes wide and shadowed under the light of the moon.
"Dammit!" His arms tightened. "Don't do that!"
She sucked in a breath painfully. "You said as quick as I could," she hissed back, when she could speak again. "You didn't say anything about not letting go! And, waaah." She winced as he set her down, jolting her palms.
"Let me see." He took her hands and turned the abraded palms up for his inspection. His hands were warm and calloused and fit around hers like — she cursed the bad, bad sake again. "They're gonna hurt a little. You'll be all right for now, but you'll probably want to soak them for a while tonight when we get to camp."
"Camp?" she said, stupidly. She hadn't thought ahead that far, or even to ask where he was taking her, if he was taking her anywhere. He wasn't going to just leave her by the side of the road, was he, after breaking her out, and — no, they were making camp, so he wouldn't do that. She'd ask him in the morning, she decided.
He shot her a look. "Yeah, camp. Come on, girlie — move your ass." He set off rapidly down the side of the building, heading west toward the ocean. "Stupid — fish face should be the one to break you out, he's the one that pulls this sort of shit — "She trotted along behind him as quickly as possible, trying to keep to the shadows as best she could, until light spilled out not far enough behind them from an open door.
"HEY!" Behind her, she heard shouting, and — her heart sank like a piece of ice dropped into her stomach. "Runner!" Mugen swore viciously.
She recognized the voice of Ushiwakamaru, the guard who sat inside the brothel's front door. And he was coming up behind her; she could hear the sound of his heavy feet thudding along the ground, along with the sound of more men moving to intercept them.
Mugen dropped back slightly as they ran, pushing her ahead; she found a burst of speed from somewhere, drawing in air in great burning gasps, willing her legs to stretch out, to fly across the ground toward the edge of town. She saw him out of the corner of her eye slip into a crouch, then spring toward the first of their pursuers. "GO!" She could hear the whisper of steel then, the sibilant promise of a blade in its arc through the air, then the chime of katana — shouting, and the choked sound of pain — her feet slowed imperceptibly. He was —
"GO!" he shouted again, and then he was running alongside her, away from the men still in chaos, his hand a vise around her arm as he pulled her forward toward the forest and safety ahead, air like knives in her lungs. Then, she could smell it, the stink of men dying behind her, shit and blood, blood like copper in the air threading through the reek of voided bladders and living breathing bodies being turned into partially emptied sacks of slippery organs, as her fear quickened her feet.