Samurai Champloo does not belong to me. Anyways, the fic is Mugen/Jin, a bit of a post-series speculation, but there are spoilers for episodes 23 and 26 (barely there). This is also my first foray into Champloo fic, so I hope all characterisations are somewhat passable. Any and all feedback is very much appreciated.
Save the Last One
Mugen thinks, the last bite's mine, even as he reaches for the last piece of shabu-shabu. Chopsticks clash, and he looks up and meets a familiar face, Jin's eyes hidden behind the glare of his glasses. Fuu is whining again, voice high-pitched and sing-songy, lilting in all of its piercing soprano, neee, you guys are so mean! Save one for me.
Meat, vegetable, meat, vegetable, meat, Mugen's chopsticks rattle in his hand, against the ceramic platter. He applies more pressure, not letting this battle go-- not that he lets any battle go. What would I rather eat? Mugen thinks, eyebrows coming together in a cosmic collision, teeth grinding behind a twisted grimace. Meat, vegetable, meat, vegetable. Who would I rather eat? Meat, vegetable, meat, vegetable, meat…
The last piece of sliced beef glints as appealingly as jeweled sashimi, gleaming orange salmon on top of white rice, wasabi smothered in the middle, and isn't Jin like that as well, everytime Mugen looks at him—annoying, just like wasabi, sinus-stinging, deceptively cool.
The ronin's chopsticks rattle anxiously. His index finger is caving in, Mugen notices. So he's double-jointed—but it won't help him here. There's an opening, and like always, Mugen goes for the attack. He loosens the grip on the upper chopstick, letting Jin's slide through, watches as the other man's eyes widen imperceptibly, acknowledgement of the outcome of the battle. Mugen snatches the last piece of shabu, not even bothering to swipe it in the hot water before he crams it into his mouth. His tongue swirls around the fleshy, slimy morsel, savoring every last bit of ox blood, the way the fat melts between his teeth. He smirks at Jin and sets his chopsticks down with a self-satisfied clatter, leaning back and putting his arm around Fuu out of camaraderie and goodwill.
"Huh?" Fuu looks confused by Mugen's sudden burst of fellowship.
"I win," Mugen announces, to nobody in particular.
Jin lowers his head, black hair obscuring his eyes. Mugen can see the hint of a smile hovering above his lips.
They wake up in a shack. Mugen thinks that this is a familiar scene, waking up in shacks, shanties, holes in the walls. He wouldn't be terribly surprised if one day he woke up as a rat, reincarnated cozily in a wall-nest, bandages wrapped around his paws. Of course he would still be armed to the teeth, tanto stashed safely in his fur. He wouldn't be a caught rat, oh no. No rat traps for him.
He is all wrapped in bandages, and his hand aches terribly. Scratch that. He aches everywhere. This is also not new. But something feels new now, something has been interrupted.
Somebody stirs next to him; without opening his eyes, Mugen knows that it is Jin. This should also be familiar, this waking up next to Jin, the sudden surge of feeling, of assurance, quickly followed by a forced apathy. Mugen cracks open an eye just to make sure. Somehow this time it seems absolutely necessary to make sure that Jin is really alive this time. Mugen remembers seeing spirits again, the tribesmen clad in animal skins, bathed in an unholy white light. It was almost his time. He was drifting along in that purgatory and he had almost been sure that he had seen Jin there as well, drifting along with him.
Maybe they had a conversation during that time. Maybe it went something like this,
Mugen probably thought, fuck, this is really it, isn't it.
Jin thought back, thoughts penetrating Mugen's private death-space like his sword sliced through the air—that easily, that quietly. And Jin thought,
No, it's not.
Mugen smiled, you're right. I didn't get to kill you. Pathetic.
Jin floated a little higher, a little out of Mugen's reach. You know, we never specified how we were going to kill each other.
Mugen thought, meat, vegetable, meat. I'll slice you up like shabu-shabu. That's how.
Jin laughed, no you won't. His voice echoed too loudly in the empty white space. The men in animal skins seem to have disappeared. Mugen remembers that he had thought it was rather strange for Jin to be laughing like that. He didn't even laugh like that when he was drunk. Then again, purgatory was probably better at ridding people of their defenses than alcohol.
This is why it's absolutely necessary that Mugen make sure that Jin is alive after all, why he can't completely trust his ears, his other senses, on this one. Jin was in that same place, floating in the same way (although a little above Mugen—does this mean that Jin was heaven-bound?) and Mugen opens his eyes, and is flooded with some emotion that tickles his sinuses and makes his heart race. His mouth feels cool and dry.
"Hey," he croaks, aware of how decrepit his voice sounds.
Jin doesn't move. Dead, Mugen supposes, entertains the thought with some irony. Yeah right. He watches Jin's chest move up and down, just barely, breathing the stagnant air in the shack. The sight of Jin's collarbones stirring like that makes Mugen's chest tighten—or maybe that's just the calling of battle wounds past.
"You." Mugen whispers, eyes closing again. "You and me…"
He let whatever he is about to say drift off. Lets it remain a mystery even to himself. He'll worry more about that later.
Mugen and Jin wake up about a week later. Mugen says that he is hungry as Jin stretches on the tatami mat, lazily and in pain, like an arthritic cat. The dying sun comes in weak rays through the slats between the wood paneling of the shack, criss-crossing Jin's body like fading memory of so many scars. Jin's eyelashes are long, a dark smudge against his cheeks. Mugen feels his heart ache, his stomach contract. He tells himself that he's hungry.
"I'm hungry," he mutters loudly, for Jin and Fuu to hear.
Fuu is ecstatic that they're awake, that after everything, Mugen is still hungry, that things like that still stay the same. She hurries to get something for the both of them.
She returns with some soggy rice and half-cooked pork ribs. They eat in silence, shoveling the porridge into their mouths. Mugen feels the food settle heavily in his stomach. He wants to vomit, he shouldn't be eating so soon, so quickly.
There's one last piece of stale pork between the two of them. Mugen reaches for it with his bad hand, lets his fingers twitch, opening his defenses willingly. He lets Jin have it, and turns his head away as the other man eats.
His head still feels fuzzy, like the wispy edges of a cloud in the sunset. He wants to fight Jin, wants to fight him forever. They won't have to worry about food or shelter or sunflower samurais—just give them an open space, some fresh air, and they'll fight until the sun rises and sets again. Mugen forgets about hunger when he fights Jin, when their blades clash, it's Mugen's heart and soul out there, feeding on every bitter ring of metal on metal. They might do this for a hundred years.
"Oi, Jin," Mugen says, when they're done. Fuu is talking to the old man outside, commiserating over the squirrel, or something equally inane.
Jin looks up. Mugen thinks he looks different without his glasses. Better? Worse? The other man's hair falls on his shoulders like a black waterfall, unbound.
"When are you going to stop fighting?"
Jin shifts to sit up. He is silent for a moment. "I will stop fighting when my body can no longer sustain itself," he finally says. His voice is quieter than it normally is, a note of irony laced with it.
"So," Mugen murmurs, "till death, huh?"
Jin gives him a condescending, sidelong look, as if this is an obvious conclusion. Well, yes.
Mugen turns on his side and closes his eyes, ready to sleep again. He puts his hands under his head, covering his smile with his arm. His heart feels heavy. "You do what you want. Just save the last fight for me."
Now they've split ways: Fuu to the north, Jin to the west, and Mugen to the east, the way of the sun. He wonders if Fuu is still breaking dishes. Then again, he really can't imagine Fuu in any other profession. She's ill-suited to work in a brothel; her spirit will never break that easily. She can't cook without burning everything, and she can't clean to save her life. So waitressing it is, then.
Mugen looks through the slatted screens of the local brothel. He's in a small, mountain-spring town and the girls through the window seem relatively pretty. He rattles his pockets for any loose change—the ryou he pocketed from the bureaucrat a couple blocks ago barely lasted him five minutes. There's a girl in there who looks like Fuu, big brown eyes and hair done up in a messy bun, kimono pink and worn. But her lips are too wide, her hands too big, to be Fuu.
There's another girl who looks like Jin, and Mugen feels damned for even thinking about it, but she really does look like him; straight black hair done up loosely, eyes black like ink and she's so pale she doesn't even need powder. Her neck is a slender column of marble, her wrists are thin, her fingers are long. He stares so long that she finally looks up, and her gaze is cool, disinterested.
Mugen walks away from the brothel before the mama-san can come outside and bother him about window-shopping. He can't help it, though; he sees them everywhere these days. He sees them in crowds and in the wagons that roll by on dirt roads, in the faces of people he bumps into, brawls with.
The weather is still mild, although recently it has started getting colder. Mugen finds an abandoned storage shack by a general store, tries to forage for some dry firewood before he gives up. Poking around in the decrepit shed, he digs up a moldy sheet and curls up with it, tossing and turning for a few minutes before he falls asleep.
They were walking as they had often walked, but it was different this time around. Jin's arm was around his neck, his head bending to the other man's shoulder. He said, I'll tell you the story of where I'm from and where I'm going. So tell me, said Mugen. But he didn't get to tell. Jin's arm squeezed a pinch and he ran up ahead. Mugen saw Jin's shirt loose in the wind, black hair flowing. He dipped into the hollow of the road. Come on, Mugen heard him say, we don't have all day. Aren't I coming, said Mugen.
They were on the bank of a river now, clear water burbling excitedly past their feet, winding round their ankles. Mugen tried to remember where they were. Jin was already tugging off his clothes, folding them into neat piles. Mugen stripped too. Let's go, said Jin, come with me. He was out in the current where the waves rumbled and the sound came from far away. Let me tell you about where I'm from, and where I'm going. There isn't any story, laughed Mugen. I know where you're going, we're going to see the sunflower samurai. No, said Jin. His hand reached out, and Mugen reached for it, but he pulled it away and Mugen fell into the water.
He dove and came back to the surface, his feet on the rocks. Jin was gone, and for a minute Mugen couldn't find him. Then he saw him back over by the riverbank and he ran out of the water. Jin! Where are you going?
The river rocks tore at the skin of his feet and when Mugen got to the banks he saw that Jin was even further away. He was walking up into the forest. Mugen didn't know if he could catch up with him.
Jin! he called. Jin, will you wait a minute! He was getting angry now and he shrugged on his clothes, geta in hand as he sprinted into the forest after the other man. Then he called out, I'm not following you any more! But Jin kept walking. Hey, Jin—!
He bolts up from the floor. His breath comes fast and shallow. Mugen coughs in the dark, moves from his spot on the floor. It's cold.
In the morning, Mugen rolls up the blanket and ties it to his back. The sun is coming up in the east.
He heads the other way.
It's a cold, rainy night when he finds what he's looking for.
He's spent afternoons earning himself some honest cash (Fuu would be so pleased) by way of entertaining the townsfolk with various antics and martial arts; slicing apples off kids' heads and splicing chopsticks vertically, the like. Performing like this has usually earned him enough for two or three nights at the inns each time. It is necessary, he tells himself.
This time, Mugen is in a seaside town, the smell of seaweed pungent in the air, fish markets every which way he turns his head. The sun was out earlier and he had managed to attract a moderately-sized crowd. He'd done backflips, sliced up some things, punched through bricks. Ooh, ahh, the spectators crooned, wiggling in anticipation for Mugen's next tricks. Mugen grit his teeth and continued on even though he felt like a beetle; sometimes honor has to be sacrificed for other things.
Mugen reaches the inn just as the first drops of rain start to descend. The inn manager greets him, and Mugen sticks his hands into his pockets, recites a familiar verse, one he has said a hundred times by now.
"Have you seen a guy, on the tall side? He's got black hair tied back in a ponytail. He's a ronin. Dressed in blue. Glasses, you can't miss the glasses. Damn it, you can't miss the glasses."
He'd beaten the answer out of the people he'd met as he headed west, with great restraint, had managed to keep himself from slicing them up. He'd gotten some good leads, some bad leads. It doesn't matter now; from all the leads he had managed to get, he's sure he's close now.
The inn manager blinks, old-man eyes as black and shiny as beetles, hidden beneath sagging eyelids. Mugen sighs, and repeats himself. "Guy with glasses pass through this way?"
The old man looks at him speculatively, runs his wrinkled fingers through his beard. "The ronin who plays go?"
Mugen rubs his chin. "That's the guy."
"He's down at the restaurant past the bridge. You—"
Mugen doesn't wait for the rest of the answer. He takes off, a spring in his step, wooden geta clicking excitedly against the cobblestone pavement, rain echoing his walk. The sky rumbles thunder, sonorous with fate, and the raindrops fall like fish, fat and heavy, squirming their way down Mugen's skin.
He arrives at the restaurant completely drenched. The restaurant is deserted with the exception of Jin and somebody else, a samurai, Mugen sees, and the two of them are playing go. Mugen wonders how long they've been playing. A hundred years, maybe. He feels old all of a sudden, like he has been thinking too long, too hard.
"Ah," Jin says, looking up from his game, eyes reflecting some surprise. "Mugen."
Mugen sits down at a table nearby, waving his hand in dismissal. "Don't mind me," he says. "I'm just stopping by for some food." He orders some edamame, the only thing he can afford with what's left in his pockets. He savors every single bean, tongue and gums rasping pleasantly against the fuzzy pea pods. He draws the meal out for as long as he can. Damn beans.
Twenty minutes later, the game is over. Jin and his samurai companion are getting up. Mugen eats a little faster.
"The last game?" His companion is saying. "Well, it was a good one."
The other man departs, leaving Jin and Mugen in the restaurant. It's still raining outside, quieter now. "Oi," Mugen says, mouth full of edamame. "That's not your last game."
"Oh?" Jin raises an eyebrow. Mugen swallows.
"Well, it's not like I can play, anyways." Mugen slaps a couple coins down on the tabletop. "But everything else, though."
They walk to the door. Jin has an umbrella, and opens it. Smart man, to have brought an umbrella. Mugen envies him sometimes.
"Everything else," Mugen tries again. "When there's a last."
They're walking now, slow, small footsteps, not in a hurry to get anywhere except somewhere, not to Nagasaki, not to Ikitsuki Island. Mugen's shoulder brushes Jin's as he edges his way under the umbrella.
"You're wet," Jin says, but it's not a complaint.
"Get over it," Mugen replies. He keeps his eyes straight ahead. His hand brushes Jin's, almost accidentally. His fingers snake around, stroke the underside of Jin's wrist, barely feeling the tendons and veins there. Mugen's skin is like sandpaper, the other man's skin is smooth like silk, pale like the moon. Jin stops walking, and he stops too. Mugen's breath burns in his lungs. He waits.
Jin's hand comes up, slowly, tentatively, grasps Mugen's shoulder through the wet cloth. "Ah," Jin smiles, as if knows everything.