She finally stops in the port town when she spots the shabby teahouse-cum-bar right by the docks. The building is weathered, beaten, but sturdy in spite of itself. Sailors and swordsmen and travelers of equally disreputable carriage amble in and out. The sight of them tugs at the cork of some bottled emotion deep in her chest. She resolves to get herself hired right away.
Weaving through the crowd, a sense of comfort warms her. She ignores the strange looks the rough men give her and quickly locates the owner towards the back. He is weathered but sturdy, like his establishment: a retired sailor still fit enough to be his own bouncer. Only the weariness in his movements and the limp in his gait belie his forty years, and she easily thrusts herself in front of him as he moves to serve a customer. Their eyes meet, and she shouts her case above the din of the restaurant, begs lodging in exchange for work. He scans her dainty figure, but finally his gaze settles on her face, on the hard set of her jaw and mouth, on the flash in her eyes. He tosses her a tray.
There is a more refined teahouse in the center of town. The moment she secures the old sailor's employ, the town's mature women and young men alike try to court her away. "It's no place for a slip of a girl like you," they tell her when she runs errands for the old sailor in the market, buying food and medicine and fabric for clothes he doesn't know she's making him. "Those rough men will take advantage of you."
She has no fear of rough men. They walk in to that harborside haven, and she smiles and treats them like human beings. She approaches their tables without apprehension, eagerly takes their orders. They study her in wonder as she wanders over during the lulls, sits down, asks their stories, offers sake - her treat. Their lips loosen, and she listens in a dreamy reverie, living their moments. By the time they finish their tales, she is so lost in thought that they can only marvel at her nostalgia for lives that were not her own, lives of adventure and hardship. They hardly care that she has forgotten to deliver their food.
No, she has no fear of rough men. Months pass, and they become her brothers, her friends, her compatriots. They call for her when she passes the docks on her way to the market, all smiles and small tokens: foreign coins, simple gems, soft fabrics. The old sailor, too, cares for her like he would a daughter, and she cleans his home and cooks his food like he is family. The mature women no longer caution her; the young men no longer pursue her. The sailors and swordsmen and travelers scare off these so-called threats to her well-being, for if anything were to steal her away from them, it would be the life she deserves.
It is a day like any other when the strangers enter the teahouse. They wield curious swords and wear even more curious clothes, all decorated with sawtooth patterns. The regulars scrutinize these foreign sailors with suspicion, but her eyes light. She greets them with that smile, offers them a spacious table, asks their orders. Her lack of fear seems foolhardy to the rough men who have grown to love her, forgetting their own suspect morals. The strangers eye her cautiously as they request cheap food. She only smiles and adds free sake when she returns to ask their stories. They snort, dismiss her, and the usual patrons scoff at their ingratitude. Unfazed, she asks offhandedly, "Surely tough guys like you three have some amazing stories about getting off the island?"
The entire bar stares at her now, this girl who would so casually bring up escape from a penal colony, and they all find themselves wondering just how such an innocent flower survives among weeds.
"Not really," the first stranger manages, hiding his dark face with his free sake. The second concentrates on his dango, his body tense, his sword hand itching. But the third locks hard eyes on her pretty, halcyon face.
"What do you know about that, anyway?" he demands.
A wistful smile softens her features. "Don't bother trying to scare me off," she rebukes. "You can't hold a candle to the jerk I knew."
Subconsciously, they all lean towards her, these men who have often wondered what she sees when she loses herself in their lives. The third stranger glares at her fearless smile. "Yeah?" he scoffs. "And who's this badass of yours?"
A smirk twists her lips, knowing and fond. "Just a stray dog," she replies, "named Mugen."
They all watch her, but the strangers register no sign of recognition, and she turns away with a switch of her hips. "Listen," she tosses over her shoulder at them. "If you ever do meet him - on the road, on a boat, on the block - tell him I'm alright for me, would ya?"
Though her request is casual, she loses herself in thought more easily for the rest of the night. The patrons can only pick at their food between darting concerned glances at her and glaring at the strangers, the third of whom still glowers in her general direction. But the Ryukyuans leave without a fuss and don't return.
A few weeks pass, and the equilibrium of the teahouse restores itself. The sailors and swordsmen and travelers watch her with unmasked affection as she moves from table to table, catching up with her regulars. She asks eagerly about their business that day, about their upcoming voyages, always practicing the boating terms that she still struggles to learn. The old sailor thumps on the counter with a smile, and her cheeks flush as she hurries over, having forgotten another tray. No one minds.
Heavy footsteps echo outside the teahouse. The newcomer brushes the door flap aside, and something about his presence commands every eye in the building. They all turn to him as he ducks the door frame, his eyes shut against the sunlight. She gasps, drops her tray.
He looks exactly the same. Blue bands still emblazon his tanned skin. Dark, wild hair still frames his narrow face. He still has that little scruff around his chin and mouth, still has the teal beads in each ear, still has the red haori, the black shorts, those ridiculous metal-lined geta. He still carries with him the smell of salt and the sea. He finally opens his eyes, and they are still grey and intense like the blade of his sword, like storm clouds on the horizon.
And even after more than a year of separation, those eyes still rip the air from her lungs.
"Mugen," she breathes, and a soft smile twitches his lips in spite of himself.
She flings herself into his arms with a shriek, and he embraces her heartily, grinning. Over her head, he eyes the sailors and swordsmen and travelers, who return his suspect look. He splays his fingers across her back as if to shield her from them. She sniffs back tears, and with an expression halfway between alarm and disgust, he pulls away to look her in the face.
"Alright, alright, I don't do waterworks, geez." She frowns at him and opens her mouth to protest, so he interrupts, "Tell me somethin'." She rolls her eyes but snaps her mouth shut anyway. Cowed by her silence, the stranger scratches at the back of his head and avoids her patient gaze. Finally, he gets out: "I always figured I'd find you in some teahouse, but-" He skims wary grey eyes across the rough men, who sneer at him in return. "-this ain't really what I'd expected."
She cocks a brow, a knowing smile tugging at her lips. "Oh, yeah? And just what were you expecting?"
He blinks at her, almost startled, as if the answer should be obvious. "Someplace..." He frowns at the crowded bar, fumbling for words. "Softer," he settles on. "Safer."
She gives an unladylike snort and nestles herself into his chest again despite his half-hearted protests. "Like any of these big lugs would let something happen to me."
A flash of comprehension lights the Ryukyuan's eyes, and he squeezes her a little tighter. His gaze passes over the crowd, filled with gratitude and kinship and something a little like pride. The regulars look on in sudden understanding at the dark man, who gently presses his face into the top of her head and caresses her with scarred, calloused hands. She has the power, they realize, to draw rough men to her and make them soft as seaglass.
Not much to say about this; it just kind of happened. I've been addicted to Samurai Champloo lately. I haven't been doing so hot emotionally as of late, and I always gravitate back to this series when that happens. The bond between the trio is cathartic for me somehow.
Originally, I wanted to include Jin, too - he's as much a "rough man" as Mugen is, in my opinion. But I'm a sucker for Fuugen, and Jin wasn't coming into the story naturally as I wrote it, so I decided not to force the issue. I'll write up something with Jin eventually.
Let me know what you think and, as always, thanks for reading. [EDIT: Minor revision to some lines I was dissatisfied with; nothing to sneeze at. Thanks so much for the reviews and faves, you guys! They mean the world to me.] [EDIT 2: Some more minor revision to Mugen and Fuu's meeting. Made him a little more gruff on the surface.]