Prologue (A-Side) Faith in Fate
[A/N]: Yoroshiku! This is my first Fanfiction story ever and I hope you like it! I'm hoping it will spread the Fuugen/MuFuu love, my all time favorite pairing ever, as well as provide historical and cultural info on Japan, and even provide solid evidence that Mugen and Fuu were a subtle canon romance in the official anime.
IMPORTANT NOTICE FOR BOTH RETURNING AND NEW READERS in 2022: Because I started writing this story back in 2012 at the age of thirteen, my writing style has DRASTICALLY changed. For that reason, I've gone back and rewritten most of the early chapters from the ground up. However, not all the chapters are fully overhauled in recent years. For that reason, you may notice that the prose quality will drop around chapters 19-32. I assure you, I intend to rewrite all of these, as well as go over all the chapters again. Because the story is so long, it takes me literal years to research, write and edit it.
To celebrate the tenth anniversary year of its posting and me beginning my writing "journey", I've decided to post this rehash on Ao3 as well!
IMPORTANT NOTICE FANART: Fanart is located on Ao3! Over time, my beloved friend ShiroganeR on Deviantart will be doing character sketches and fanart of FTFES...WY?! Check out FTFES...WY?! on Archives of Our Own, where three images are already! (Fanfiction does not allow images, nor links, but please check it out!) Fanart are posted at the start of chapters on Ao3, as well as on his art accounts.
Above all else, I hope you enjoy!
Disclaimer: I do not own Samurai Champloo, Fuu, Mugen, Jin, Momo, the Luv(Sic) Hexalogy etc. If I did, there'd have been a sentimental reunion loooong ago!
"Every morn' I awake from a cavernous night
Sometimes still pondering the previous plight
Seems life done changed long time no speak
Nowadays I often forget the day of the week
Taking it by stride if you know what I mean"
-lyrics of Luv(Sic) Part 2 by Nujabes Feat: Shing02
Prologue (A-Side) Faith in Fate
Black waves lashed at the creaking boat, sloshing cold saltwater over the sides, soaking its motley crew up to the ankles. Hideki—husband, father and self-proclaimed smuggler extraordinaire—knew he was getting way too old for this shit. He could feel it in his clicking elbows and popping knees. But he and the others sailed on through Sagami Bay, no matter how much the spitting sea had resisted them.
Their month-long voyage was almost at its end. And the closer they drew to land, the tamer the waves grew and the thicker the morning mist hung, heavy as a cloak. Most sailors would hate such a sightless landing. But not Hideki.
If the fog obscured them from the eyes of the law, they might not need to rely on that mercenary's bladework after all.
Scary bastard, that one.
It seemed the vagrant only joined their crew for a ride east, as he took the job with little bartering over the pay, though it was lousy even for Hideki's standards. But Hideki was not so much a generous fool to offer more and let it be known just how much gold he carried. Though that young swordsman had been hired as a bodyguard, he worked a boat well enough too. Even better than the other shipmates. No matter how badly the sea rocked their dingy washtub of a vessel, the man never stumbled nor flinched. In the worst storms, his steely eyes were always rooted on the horizon.
Hideki licked his salt cracked lips, twisted the wet, drooping curl of his mustache, and snuck a glance at said mercenary. In all his years fencing contraband, Hideki had never seen a bastard quite like him. Different stock than all the ruffians he hired.
Probably wasn't even Japanese, by the look of it.
Beads of the sea spray glistened in the swordsman's unruly black hair, locks tossed every which way by the wind. His skin was an olive tint, even swarthier than the suntanned men of his crew. A scar nicked his right brow. And there was another too, on his cheek, of three faded claw marks, like from the paw of a tiger.
Everything hinted at a man knee-deep in sin. A man who had no regrets in life. A man who didn't shy away from the worst kinds of deeds.
And yet, the red samue jacket he wore contradicted him. Maybe he killed a Buddhist monk to obtain it. Maybe he killed for everything he owned, from the geta on his feet, to the weighty sword strapped to his back.
"Almost there, eh boy! Pretty soon I can cut you loose."
...If the bastard didn't try to cut his throat and make off with their wares first. Worst case scenario in dealing with robbers, rapists and reprobates, was cutting their throat before they tried to cut yours. Hideki could only hope it didn't come to that.
The mercenary made a fearsome furl of his brow. Conversation did not seem his forte, not for this whole voyage. Barely got more than an annoyed grunt or swear out of him.
It all gave Hideki a bad case of the chills, truth told. But he needed a good sword arm, in case things went sour when they hit shore. Couldn't get himself locked up for another five years. Couldn't do that to his family again.
"Least I hope we're close." Hideki went on. "Can't see shit through this fog. But we're not aiming for a dock. See, Shogunate's got a mighty tight chokehold on Yokosuka's ports. Every shipment that comes through Edo Bay is checked so thoroughly that not even a damned rat can be smuggled in. Just my luck, that I'm supplying to an old bitch that won't meet me halfway."
He received only silence as an answer. It made him jittery. His lips had a nasty habit of flapping faster when he got jittery.
"Lucky us, looks like the fog is on our side. Ain't no samurai gonna see us coming! Gotta say though, I'm slightly disappointed I couldn't see your bladework."
This time, the mercenary turned his way, grinned suddenly, white teeth flashing like the fangs of a rabid wolf.
"Could still see it. If ya really wanted."
Hideki did not miss the threat in it. He tried to change the subject quick. Had to keep it friendly. Had to keep it civil.
"I reckon a sword like that costs a fair price!" laughed Hideki nervously, as he braced himself against another choppy wave. "…I've sailed all across the archipelago, but I ain't ever seen a blade quite like the one you're carrying."
Strange as the man was in his entirety, it was the sword strapped on his back by a thick, leather belt that was the most curious thing of all. Perhaps it was of a European design; something one of those mythical, silver armored men of the distant west might use.
"It's gotta be some collector's item, eh? Tell me, where'd you procure a beauty like that?"
"Tell me what kinds a' goods you're transportin', and I'll tell ya where I got my sword." said the mercenary.
So that was the game they'd play. Hideki did not trust him. Not by any means. But the best way to keep thugs under control was to keep the gold flowing; he'd offer the swordsman more work once they landed. That would keep him safe…for a time.
"Got a whole bunch o' poppy seeds in these here chests, hidden in with tea leaves. Refined opium hidden with brown sugar, and the like."
He thumped a hand on one such chest.
The vagrant yawned, seemingly unfazed by this grand reveal. And why would smuggling drugs faze him? The sets of faded cerulean tattoos that decorated his wrists and ankles revealed a besmirched history.
A life of theft.
"Hell, rumor is there's a daimyo's son from Edo that's addicted to this stuff. Ever since we got a supplier in China, we got buyers clambering all throughout the coast. Most o' the opium dens are guised as run-o'-the mill teahouses."
"You ever smoke the shit?"
"Nah. Bad for business to get high off my own wares! You know, play it right…and there's good money in the trade. If you're interested in more work—"
"I ain't interested."
Another awkward pause. The rest of the crew had only listened to them speak in grave silence. Fearful silence. They did not utter a word now either.
Hideki tipped his head to the pommel of the blade by the mercenary's shoulder.
"...You never did tell me where you got that fine sword."
The mercenary's slate-gray eyes averted from his, turned instead to the foggy skies. Dawn had broken out in the east, spilling milky pale light over the darkness and snuffing out the stars, one by one.
"It once belonged to a samurai who smelled like sunflowers." he said blandly, as if it were the most common sentence in the world.
Hideki's bushy eyebrows rose, "What kinda pansy goes by such a name?"
The mercenary snorted to that. And yet, something about it sounded limp and lukewarm.
"Wish you'd have talked more this whole trip, boy. Would've had a good laugh or two at least!"
"You ain't payin' me ta' entertain you, old man."
"What am I paying you for, anyway? Lazy lout! My grandmammy, rest her gentle soul, rowed faster than you!" he grinned.
The mercenary grinned back, and those white teeth suddenly didn't seem so scary. But Hideki knew better.
"You're payin' me ta' make sure these drugs don't get caught by the feds."
"We didn't hit one snag o' trouble this whole trip!" Hideki leaned back. "...So, I take it you killed the sunflower pansy and took his sword?"
"His daughter gave it to me."
"What was the grand occasion?"
"...As a parting gift."
Hogwash , every damn word of it. More likely, he guessed this ex-criminal killed the samurai, raped the poor girl, and stole that priceless sword. Lawless men like this did not receive gifts, let alone from samurai's daughters. But he smartly spoke no such thoughts aloud. He only nodded along to the ridiculously improbable story.
"Ah! What an honor. Sounds like something straight out o' my daughter's fairytales: a fair maiden gifting a fine sword to a dashing rogue. " he chuckled.
"You got a daughter, huh."
A wad of spit caught in Hideki's throat and all his snorkeling laughter died out. He didn't know why he let that personal fact slip to a stranger.
"Why the hell's an old timer like you still in this line of work?" asked the mercenary.
Hideki shrugged, "It's a living. Every man's gotta make one, don't he."
Something seemed colder in those silvery eyes all of a sudden.
"...A man should be there for his family, don'tcha think."
"What, you think I smuggle opium for shits and giggles?" he frowned. "For a man who's got some fine words to say on family, why're you not with yours?"
"Ain't got a family."
"Not even a wife, eh."
The mercenary scoffed at the word.
"If it's not family…what the fuck's got you coming so far east? You seemed mighty hellbent to hitch a ride with us."
"Do people always gotta have a damn reason ?"
"Only the sane folks, I reckon."
Life was all the easier when you had only to rely on your own capabilities and owned nothing to no one. Hideki always perceived life was lived to its fullest when you drew breath only for yourself. But then he went and got himself a wife who tolerated him, and she birthed a spunky little rascal he adored.
A man like this though, a sellsword, a criminal, had an obligation to nothing and to no one. The mean bastard probably lived only for self-satisfaction and nothing more. A man like this made him sick.
Maybe that was why Hideki couldn't hold his tongue. Maybe that was why he challenged this bullshit story of sunflowers and swords and nonsense.
"…So what about that gal? That daughter o' the sunflower whosit."
The mercenary's eyes slid to his. Dark, glinting eyes, fathomless and frightening, like they led straight to the gates of hell itself. It sent a scurry burrowing across Hideki's skin, made every single hair stand on end.
"What about her?"
But Hideki was a brave man. Got to be in this line of work. Couldn't show fear. That was exactly how you got your throat slit.
"Where is the lass? Must've mattered a lot to her, to be given such a precious gift."
The mercenary's jaw set tightly. In the end, he never bothered to answer that question.
That hard glint in his eye seemed to flicker. But he turned back towards the horizon, before Hideki could catch what meaning it might hold.
Probably raped and killed that poor girl. Sick, evil bastard.
"We're 'bout to hit shore, old man." said the mercenary.
Hideki peered through the foggy shroud, and glimpsed a break in the ocean. Just to the north, a strip of dry land awaited.
"About fucking time, eh boys?"
A thrilled chatter emerged among the crew. They lowered the sail, and pulled out the oars, making fast strokes against the tide. But the deep frown on that mercenary's lips never quite faded.
They beached their boat with little resistance, and the mercenary and Hideki's other hired hands toted their crates into a mossy alcove on the shore. He scanned the sands. Save for the licking waves of high tide, and a distant bird keening from the forest beyond, all was silent.
"No patrols. We can walk to Yokosuka from here."
"Then my job here's done." grunted the mercenary.
He took a step too close. What a bad gamble he'd played, hiring him.
Hideki's quivering fingers rooted through the pockets and creases of his kimono, and briefly felt for the knife haft concealed against his hip. All the while, the mercenary watched him with those glinting eyes. Maybe he already read his mind. Maybe he'd draw his sword faster, and cut him down.
In the end, he fished out the coin purse, not the knife, and thrust it forward, while simultaneously blabbering off his very last gamble.
"Y'know, I got more work in store here! These goods still gotta be delivered to Yokosuka! We could use a bodyguard along the roads, 'case we hit any trouble."
A man like this was loyal to nothing but money. A man like this would definitely take the job.
The mercenary gave no hint that he'd heard. He dumped out the measly pay into his calloused palm.
"My employer will pay more than that, I'll tell you! Double, no, triple as much!"
After counting out each coin with his fingers, the mercenary stuffed them back into the purse, and shoved it into a pocket of his dark gray shorts.
"Already told you, I ain't interested in more work."
"...All play and no work, eh? W-well, if you take the job, I'm sure my employer will give you a sample of our product! High quality stuff!"
A man like this only lived for himself and the pleasures life offered. A man like this would definitely be tempted by the sweet prospect of opium.
The mercenary squinted down at him. Hideki shriveled under his gaze.
No. He'd judged him wrong. Surely, a man with those tattoos, that sword, that frightening glint in the eye, could only be sated by one thing.
"I ain't your courier boy. And I ain't a fuckin' drug addict neither." he said.
Hideki's gut dropped. Should've grabbed for the knife. A man like this would surely rob him blind. Kill them all. Take the opium and sell it somewhere.
The mercenary leaned forward.
There was a harsh sound of scraping metal.
"This line a' work don't suit you, old man."
When Hideki's eyes slowly peeled open, he saw that the mercenary had turned on his heel, his steel lined clogs scraping against sand and shingle. He trudged northward, leaving Hideki gaping, blood thudding in his ears, still expecting a sword to skewer him through the ribs.
"You sure you don't wanna take my place then!" Hideki shouted. "This whole damn shipment needs to be delivered by nightfall and my knees are too damn old for this shit!"
The mercenary merely gave a lazy wave without ever looking back, the click-scratch, click-scratch of his wooden geta fading farther and farther on the road. Perplexed, the smuggler watched him go, arms folded over his chest that only now had stopped thumping so hard.
"Scary fucking bastard…" he murmured.
One of his skittish crewmates crept beside him, wide eyes still fixed on the back of the wild haired rogue.
"Did…Did you offer him another job?"
"...Surprised he didn't take it."
"More surprised he didn't gut us all and leave us for the crows! …That fucker's got a shine in his eye. He's on a mission. He's looking for something."
Maybe gold nor opium could sate him. Maybe blood could. Or maybe it couldn't. Whatever the case, the mercenary in red was an enigma he'd rather not solve. Shaking out the shivers from his body, Hideki was just glad that he wasn't standing in the way of whatever that scary bastard must have been searching for.
His wooden geta played out a steady beat on the dirt track.
Each step brought forth a gnawing ache in his empty belly and an increase to his boredom. He couldn't tell which was worse anymore. But Mugen plodded along the dusty road, for hours upon hours, in a constant silent debate. He wished that stupid smuggler never opened his fat mouth and asked.
Why the fuck had he bothered to come all this way east?
By midday, the forested road filled up with other travelers, whose destinations seemed far more determined than his own. Huffing servants jogged past, curtained palanquins toted on their shoulders. Wooden carts trundled along, pulled by yelling merchants and their groaning oxen. Most everyone moved faster than his leisurely stride, even the elderly.
What was the point in rushing when you didn't even know where the hell you're going?
Overhead, the noon sun watched him, a blinding white eye of malice. Only the patchy shade cast by the gangly cedars and pines ever offered any respite from its stare. On more than a few occasions, Mugen squinted up at the sky and cursed the sun. It still glared down at him the whole way. At this rate, his eyes might burn out of their sockets.
Perspiration accumulated on his brow. Sticky rivulets dripped down the base of his neck, seeping beneath his red samue collar. Worst of all, the sweat made his armpits and crotch chafe to the point of painful. After the third time reaching into his shorts to give himself a good ol' scratch, which always earned him some disgusted leers from passersby, he grew fed up with the effort.
Summer had come again. A hot, treacherous summer.
Mugen had never been one to keep track of dates. He couldn't even remember the day of the week.
Why keep track of time when you had no schedule?
But, he was mindful of the ever shifting seasons; only way he tallied his age, and how many years he'd eluded death. Twenty-one years old, give or take, and still alive... It almost became a game now, betting on when he might bite the dust, and beating those odds.
This melting heat and pitiless humidity now, could only be the start of July.
Mugen's fingers twitched in his pockets, counting off the months.
He couldn't recall the exact day they'd separated. But he knew it must have been sometime in late August. It was a detail that stuck out to him, only because there was a field of sunflowers on Ikitsuki Island. They'd just begun to wilt and wither, same as the Sunflower Samurai had.
August… His fingers curled into his fist, until he ran out of them. …Now July.
That would make it eleven months…
Nearly a year since turning left on the crossroads near Nagasaki.
Nearly a year since they parted ways.
'How the time flies…' he thought.
But as his geta dragged against cracked earth, he knew that time had dragged on too.
No sign of them.
No aspirations beyond finding his next meal, or finding a straw bed to curl up in.
All he could hope for, was that by nightfall, he'd reach a town, any town. Somewhere to eat, drink, fight, fuck. To feel something, anything but this monotony.
Stale food. Staler fights. Women that he always forgot the name and face of by the morning. And life would go on…if it could be called living.
Maybe all that was the monotony. He couldn't really tell anymore. Strange thing about it was, this was no different that what it'd been like before. Before them. And yet, it sure didn't feel the same.
Mugen hawked up phlegm and spat. Another traveler passed by on his right, heading the opposite way, and that giant glob nearly landed on the man's tabi covered toes.
Mugen's eyes jumped to his face. …But he was an old fellow, face drawn and sagging, white hair thinner than spider silk. The traveling samurai stopped dead in his tracks, and frowned down at the fresh puddle of spittle. Probably got the big idea that Mugen had been spitting at him. His wrinkly fist clutched onto the katana at his hip.
Their eyes met dead on.
Mugen's clogs scraped to a stop. He flexed his fingers. Every muscle in his body itched for action. Something. Anything.
He offered the samurai a sharp grin. Daring him.
'Do somethin' about it. Draw your sword. Make my fuckin' day.'
To his disappointment, the old samurai bowed his head and skittered past, too afraid to draw his blade, or to even utter a word. That was the sorry state of things.
'A whole buncha' nothin'.
He hadn't had a good fight in…well…
Since Ikitsuki Island. Since Kariya Kagetoki. Since the three Satsuma brothers.
Since breaking his sword against Jin's.
He tried to remember the last time he'd even drawn his sword.
Three months back…he'd seen a samurai in gray sipping daintily at a cup of tea, black ponytail flowing down his back, and with a posture so straight, that a pole had to be jammed up his ass to keep him upright. Instantly, he drew his blade, and charged him. He aimed for the back of his head with the intent of giving ol' Four-Eyes a little haircut for a hello, under the presumption that his long time rival would easily deflect the hit anyway.
Thing was, the samurai didn't deflect the blow, wasn't Jin, and…got his luscious locks sliced clean off. When the stricken man turned around, Mugen was just as chagrined by the awkward situation as he was. The confused coward groveled and begged for forgiveness for whatever crime he had committed to incur his wrath. All Mugen had done, slack-jawed and annoyed as he was, was sheathe his blade, mouth off some half-assed comment of "Mistook ya for someone else!" and skulk away, shoulders slumped and head hanging.
That had been the last time.
He thought he needed some kind of thrill: something to get his blood pumping and someone else's spraying. He used to breathe in violence like an addict breathed in opium. Maybe he was a drug addict after all, and one sorely deprived of a dose.
And yet… Mugen wondered if some action would even thrill him like it used to. Fighting had been all he used to live for, ever on the hunt for someone stronger, to test his mettle, his very limits. But after being pitted against so many opponents that he couldn't best—Sara, Kariya Kagetoki…Jin among them—he had come to terms that perhaps there will always be someone better.
Maybe your time just comes.
So why rush headfirst into the grave, when death eventually meets everyone halfway?
A sour taste filled his mouth. Perhaps something in that journey to find the Sunflower Samurai had turned him soft. Made him lose his hard edge. He was like a blunt sword, rotting in its scabbard.
Mugen spat again.
He'd been half hoping that thieves or law enforcement might have stirred up trouble with those opium smugglers. It would have at least given him a reason to draw his sword. Funny thing, how he used to think one didn't need a reason to fight… Now, he couldn't even fight without one.
Why the hell did he bother to come all this way east?
A squealing herd of children scurried past, nearly bumped right into his legs, as they chased after their father. Mugen snarled at them. But the giggling urchins were too busy waving around and whacking each other with the colored pinwheels they sported in their grubby hands.
Mugen's gaze latched onto one of those pinwheels: a yellow and orange one, spinning in the gentle breeze. His ceaseless beat on the road staggered suddenly. He couldn't take his eyes off that twirling pinwheel, until the child carrying it had run further on the road, and the pinwheel became an eddying blur, fading, fading, until its wending petals were entirely lost to the same old scenery.
He sighed. He trudged on.
What other choice did he have?
Overhead, the golden sun crawled west, leaving behind streaks of reds and oranges against the encroaching darkness. All the other wayfarers rushed ahead of him, until they too became mere specks in the distance, same as the pinwheels.
By dusk, the road emptied out completely.
Mugen was alone again.
Even the faint chirping of the birds dwindled out, as they retired to their nests in the surrounding vegetation. Strangely, Mugen found himself missing the chatter. He even missed those annoying songs and tales spun by that crew of smugglers he'd traveled with for a month.
Too often, the silence crept in, and ensnared him in his own head. He didn't like to reflect. Hated introspection. Hated thinking much in general.
Living for tomorrow was a luxury he never had. Living for yesterday was a tragedy he never wanted.
The present suited him just fine, Mugen always thought… But… That whole journey to find the smelly sunflower guy had cursed him. Those days were long over. And yet, he always dredged them up.
If he looked to his right on the path, he'd imagine stupid Four-Eyes propped against a tree, polishing his katana, or wiping the fog from his glasses.
If he looked left, he'd think about the stupider girl, weaving crowns from the daisies she plucked in the fields, or playing with her ugly, little flying rat.
Those images made him want to backtrack, retrace his steps, figure out where exactly he'd gone wrong, got lost. But Mugen knew it was far too late for all that sappy shit.
But if that were true, then why the hell had he come all this way east?
Eventually, Mugen's steps slowed, until he dragged to a full stop. He frowned at the junction in the road.
A crossroads. Just like the one they parted ways on. Three different paths awaited him. Who knew where any of them led. He stroked his stubble, his calloused thumb faintly running along the claw scars that streaked his cheek. He scratched the side of his sweaty neck, yawned.
Left. Straight. Right.
Decisions, decisions. He hated making them.
So, finally, Mugen bent down and picked up a hefty stick from the side of the road.
With all his strength, he hurled it into the air. The stick flew high, high above the treetops, so far up into the bleeding sky that it became less than a dot among the peeking stars. He stared.
It…hadn't come down yet.
Always did have a habit of overdoing it, especially when he was frustrated and cranky and deathly bored. Maybe it wasn't a fight that would fix all his problems. Maybe he just needed to get laid. That might do the trick.
He tried to remember the last time he even had a woman.
Once the memory came to mind, his gut dropped far faster than that stick, which still had yet to come down to earth.
A month ago…
In June, while wandering half-drunk through a Red Light District, a heavy coin purse jangling in his pocket, and heavier thoughts weighing down his steps, his eyes had been drawn to a girl in a brothel.
To her brown hair, done up with a dozen golden sticks, far more than the two he saw every day for a year.
To her big brown eyes, glancing around the crowds, and finally landing on him.
Her gaze pinned him for only one second, and in that moment, his stomach rolled and his heart flew into his throat. In the next moment, he'd roughly shoved aside a fancy businessman and barged an old man in the shoulder, ignored their yells and gripes, and practically ran his way to her cage.
But when he'd drawn close enough to the wooden lattices that he could reach in and touch her, he saw that the courtesan behind the bars looked nothing like her at all. Didn't have the same bright chocolate eyes, nor the chestnut tinge of her hair. It had only been a cruel trick of the red lamps, and the booze in his blood, that made her hair and eyes appear a touch lighter. It made his gut sicken to even imagine to find her in such a place. Caged. Sold. Exploited.
But if she'd have been there, he'd have finally found her, broken her out of that place. And he'd have killed any and everyone who got in the way.
That young courtesan, barely old enough for the place, had smiled excitedly as he'd drawn close. Her lips, daubed in bright coral, didn't have that little pout he remembered, nor the open mouth of surprise he expected. Fuu would have never smiled, being stuck in a place like that. Her face would have contorted into the ugliest grimaces imaginable. And the moment she'd spot him in the crowd, she'd have pressed her face to the bars, and screeched, whined, demanded that he helped her escape.
As if it was his only fucking purpose. Hauling her ass out of trouble.
Mugen didn't usually go for girls so young. Slender girls with no chests, and high voices just didn't do it for him. But before he could turn around and stalk away to some other more voluptuous, more mature prospect, this girl, this not-Fuu, but almost-Fuu, had reached through the bars and boldly caressed his tightly clenched fist.
"...Seems like you're looking for someone special here, darling." she'd said sweetly. "For just two ryo, your searching can finally end. …I'll be all yours tonight."
Worst part of it all…was he actually fished into his pocket, slid his clammy fingers against those two gold pieces, cold to the touch…
The stick thwacked him across the head.
It instantly knocked the memory of that awful night spent in the Red Light District right out of his mind.
Once the branch bounced off his skull, it clattered into the center of the crossroads, falling in just a way that the end with a single leaf on it pointed down the right path.
So that left him with two options: go straight, or go left.
Because, no way in fucking hell was he gonna let anyone tell him what to do, or where to go, let alone a flimsy, skinny little damn stick that whacked him in the head.
Shoving his clenched fists back into his pockets, Mugen chose left and set off down the road. Just like he had back then. He didn't look back. He only trudged on, clogs kicking up dust cloud after dust cloud.
The light was fading from the sky.
The farther Mugen walked, the stronger a feeling settled in his stomach. It wasn't the ache of hunger, though that hadn't gone away much either. His hackles rose. His muscles stiffened. He had the strangest suspicion…that he was being watched.
Bastard was probably hiding in the hedges that lined the road.
He could not help wondering, if it were those... Those masked figures cloaked in black.
They had not cared to pay him a visit either. Not since Ikitsuki island.
Could a person die from boredom?
Thing was, they only ever came around when he was closest to death. Maybe he hadn't gotten close enough. Or maybe she chased them all off for good with her damn crying. On that crazy journey, there were plenty of times where he didn't think he'd make it through for one more day to lie in the sun. But she'd pulled him back from the brink.
Just with the sound of her voice. The memory of her face.
Her eyes, bright and brown, wet with tears.
That sickening feeling crawled up from the pit of his stomach.
But Fuu was no longer around to chase those masked apparitions off. Often, when he was alone in the night, he would stare into the shadows, wondering if those dark figures stared back.
From his flank, came the sound of a bush rustling. Mugen tensed instantly, his hand shooting for the hilt of his bastard sword. The more the leaves violently quivered, the tighter he gripped his blade. He clicked it out from the sheath.
Finally, some action! Some—
A bird flew from the hedges.
Mugen tripped backward, sword flailing forward, as he nearly lost balance from the ridiculous unexpectedness of it. The little bird, its plumage a fiery orange, landed some feet away, pecking at a grain laying on the ground.
He sneered and kicked a pebble at it, not really aiming to hit the bird, but meaning to scare it off. The bird appeared nonplussed by his provocation. It only chirped loudly at him, and flew to the safety of a nearby tree.
Wildly, he waved his sword at it. "Don't sneak up on people! Ya fuckin' loudmouthed, little bi—"
Mugen caught himself, the swear lodging in his tightening throat.
It quirked its head and chirped again. He slapped his sword back into its scabbard, and carried on walking, roughly jerking more unfortunate pebbles out of his path. His clogs clomped and clacked against the dirt track more loudly than ever. That damn bird tittered as if to challenge his footfalls, all high and squeaky—just like her —before it fluttered off into the forest, where he'd probably never see, nor hear it again.
But the thought was a fragile thing, and shattered instantly. He gritted his teeth tight, tried not to think of it, tried not to wonder as he often had, where she was now. What she was doing. Who she was with. What kind of trouble she was getting herself into without him there to bail her out of it.
If she was even alive.
For the first time all day, Mugen's aching feet picked up speed.
Click-scratch. Click-scratch. Click-scratch .
'The dumbass better not be dead.'
Jin would be fine. He knew it. But her?
'The broad should'a really hired a 'tougher model' bodyguard like she always threatened us. We'd always be hullin' her ass outta trouble.'
And when he thought of 'we', he knew he only meant himself. Jin, upstanding and honorable as he was, had only saved Fuu a small handful of times.
He snorted. 'Lazy prick.'
When Jin was too busy playing chess or sharpening his blades or whatever the hell else he did, he'd been running across towns, vaulting over gates, sprinting up flights of stairs, swimming literal oceans to rescue her. Funny thing, how well he played the role of bodyguard for someone he so often considered hating.
'Four-eyes mighta' been lazy. But at least he wasn't outta' his goddamn mind…'
Funnier thing…how much he came back for a girl he had always wanted to abandon.
' ...Shoulda' been rescuin' chicks with REAL sex appeal, slammin' bodies, and got somethin' good out of it. Not savin' some flat-chested plank on legs!'
He kicked another pebble into a dried patch of scrub off the side of the road. It was at that moment, that Mugen realized that she had once again taken residence in his mind for too many long minutes.
"That little BITCH! "
His shout echoed across the landscape, so thunderously, that the lithe trees covering the road seemed to visibly shake from it. A flock of disturbed birds sprung from the boughs, and took flight, soaring off into the fiery skies overhead.
Why the hell had he really come all this way east?
But Mugen knew the answer to this question very well, as much as he hated to admit it. He had something of a vague idea where he was headed. Hell, the first opportunity of a boat heading east, he seized it, practically forced his way into the job of guarding that smuggler Hideki's boat.
It'd been one of the little towns on the Tokaido Road, in a dingy teahouse...where they'd first met. Didn't know which one exactly, where he found her in trouble, just about ready to get her fingers chopped off. He never bothered to remember details like that.
Why remember where you rested your feet, when you'd always leave?
Whichever town it was, it had to be close. Still, Mugen highly doubted she'd have even come all this way back east.
So why come all this way, then?
Because it was all he had to go on.
Why go through all the trouble?
''Cause the little bitch still owes me.'
Simple as that.
Not for all the times he saved her. Not for finally taking her to her father. Not even for tricking him with that coin toss he'd actually won. Before all that, before he became her bodyguard, before Jin even, the two of them had struck a deal. And Mugen was not one to let her get away with swindling him more than once. She couldn't just run out on a debt. That was supposed to be his job.
The fact of the matter was, Fuu owed him those damn dumplings. One hundred dumplings, to be exact.
And that was reason enough to find her.
His stomach rumbled again. Fuck, but he was hungry.
His fists clenched tight, teeth grinding. There was an even bigger question that had been hammering away at him. Out of all the questions he often asked himself, it was the worst one of all.
Why hadn't he just turned back on that crossroad back then. Why hadn't he fucking followed her back then and got what she owed him.
Because he'd been a stupid fool, that left far too much faith in fate. But he knew now, fate was all a bunch of bullshit. And without fate, finding her, and more importantly, getting his free dumplings, seemed an implausible, impossible venture. A needle in a stack of needles. Fuu always had been a giant pain in the ass.
If destiny existed at all, would their paths not have crossed somewhere?
Truth was, he thought he'd given up the search six months ago.
After all, if destiny existed, if he was meant to be repaid, wouldn't he have already gotten a sign?
Mugen's sickening musings only ceased, when he noticed something laying smack dab in the middle of the road.
That same damn stick with the stupid leaf sticking off the end. And as if to taunt him, it still pointed down the path he'd not traveled. Two of the paths must have been connected and he'd circled right on back to the crossroads, too lost in his own head to realize it. Teeth bared, he kicked that stick hard, sent it skittering into the nearby foliage.
It was fucking bullshit. Destiny, the Gods' grand design, the red string of fate. All of it, nonsense.
But, as much as he wanted to defy the stick, he went on down the road it pointed at anyway, hands shoved back into his pockets. He was sick of backtracking. Time to just keep moving forward. Maybe he was getting closer to the Tokaido Road.
His walking fell back into a steady rhythm.
Not long later, he saw footprints and deep runnels impressioned into the road, far more than the last path. He must have been nearing a town, or a rest stop at the least. A light wind pushed at his back. It felt nice, after trudging through dense humidity all day.
In the spreading darkness, he passed more trees…more rocks…more bushes… more trees…
Just when this purgatory of endless walking seemed it would never cease, and the sun had finally set over the mountains, his eyes caught the flicker of light just down a sharp dip in the road. His head cocked up.
Soft lamplight illuminated the entrances of shops. Candles burned from the windows of houses.
"Finally, a damn town!"
Mugen gave a triumphant shout, and sprinted down the hill with energy he didn't even know he'd had on reserve, wooden geta slipping and scraping against grass and stone.
A town also meant the possible prospect of a brothel. Between the thighs of a beautiful woman, perhaps he might pretend he was still living, for a moment. Even if that moment might be as fleeting and fickle as a breeze on a summer day. Once that thought struck him however…the memory of last month bubbled back.
After he bought that last woman…
Amidst his intoxication, his lust, he made that awful, awful slip of the tongue…
That sickening feeling crawled back up, coiling round his guts, and a romp with an enticing woman suddenly lost all its grand appeal.
He chalked it up to hunger. Had to be. Hadn't eaten anything since yesterday, on that rickety old boat, after all. Cold rice. An apple rotted through to the core with a green worm poking out of it…which he ended up eating too. Maybe that little brat had been right about him, way back when. Maybe, his cravings to eat outweighed his cravings to fuck.
Thus, it was settled. Food first then. A romp with a woman could wait until later. Then, after his belly was full, his loins satisfied, and his pockets emptied, he could be on his way to the next town. And so the cycle would perpetuate itself. Until...
Until what, exactly?
Why had he really come all this way?
Even now, Mugen debated if destiny truly existed. If the cruel bitch was real, he wondered if it had more in store for him than getting hit in the head by a damn stick.
To Be Continuedつづく~
Mugen (無幻)- "Nothing" and "Dream/Illusion/Phantom". When combined, his name means "no illusions" or "not a dream". "Reality". The real thing. There is a misconception that his name means infinite. While yes, Mugen makes a pun on this in Episode 18, as Mugen also means limitless, the original kanji used in all official material is the previous. There will be further discussion as to why this is, in a far future chapter.
Mugen's New Attire- His appearance is that of his outfit in the very ending of the anime: a red samue jacket to replace his red haori, and a European bastard sword to replace his tsurugi sword with the sai shaped guard.
Samue ( 作務衣) - The samue was an outfit worn by Buddhist monks when engaged in working or cleaning in a monastery. In modern times, they are a form of casual wear. It seems that Mugen wears it casually, but may be a symbolism of his connection to Buddhism that is often given throughout the anime.
My personal headcanon is that it is a symbolism of his atonement for his past sins and crimes by the end of the anime, and that he may now be on a path of self growth and enlightenment. In comparison, Jin similarly wears a prayer bead bracelet on his wrist, which is a sign of being on the start of the path of enlightenment. This would put them on equal footing.
Bastard Sword- Also known as a "hand and a half sword", that are between the lengths of shorter longswords and longer greatswords. Bastard sword were used in the medieval ages of Europe. Like the samue, there is no explanation how he got it in the last episode, only that he does, and the most logical headcanon I can assume is it once belonged to the Sunflower Samuarai, as he was a Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christian) and therefore had ties to Europe, and specifically Portugal. The Knights templar themselves fled to Portugal in the 12th century.
My personal headcanon on its significance is that he got it as a representation of becoming a "knight in shining armor" for Fuu, as he saved her countless times throughout the series. The bastard sword is depicted often as the sword of a knight. And again, this puts Jin and Mugen on equal footing, as the knight and samurai are comparable, as they represent the same social class in European and Japanese medieval hierarchy, each with warrior codes of honor and chivalry.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them! In the meantime, I will be hard at work writing and revising the rest of the chapters!
End of Prologue (A-Side)