Koi Uta* in Twelve Verses

Shay Sheridan

Fandom: Samurai Champloo.
Summary by elynross: "Mugen and Jin have been fucking since they met. They just haven't noticed it yet."

Written for the Yuletide 2005 Challenge
Thanks to Shrift, Kurage_no_fic and Lyra_Sena for beta and research


I
A desperate sprint
through the corridor of Hell,
devil at my heels


Fire consumed the dry wood of the teahouse with alarming speed.

The samurai was swift and confident, with moves like running water and instincts of a tiger. Mugen wasn't used to such skill in an opponent; he felt his own talents stretch to the limits as he thrust, parried, leapt and whirled away from the other man's flashing blade. Damn. The guy was good!

The samurai struck at him again, so fast his katana made the sound of a thunderclap, so fast it was no more than a blur of silver lightning as it licked at Mugen's cheek. He wrenched his body sideways.

Good? The guy was fucking great. "Yeeaaaaa! Bring it on!"

The samurai stopped, a demon of impossible stillness framed by hellfire. He tilted his head slightly and flames reflected off his glasses. The tiniest corner of his mouth lifted as he raised his sword again.

Mugen laughed, delirious with joy.


II
Won't you come and see loneliness?
One leaf alone on a kiri tree.
Then spring comes.

He had never before seen anyone fight so gracelessly and in so ugly a fashion, with undisciplined movements and no strategy to speak of. He had also never before fought anyone he could not defeat.

His body ached from exhaustion, from the torture, and his lungs were raw from smoke. His own fault -- no one had engaged him to fight the ruffian. There had been no profit in it, no honor, and now he was going to be executed for forgetting the lesson of control.

Still, it was the only possible thing he could have done.

Jin closed his eyes. A cough started deep in his chest, and try as he might he couldn't suppress it. Desperately he wished for a cup of water, but the "Department Store of Torture" wasn't likely to accommodate his request.

"Oi. You awake?"

The other, the absurd swordsman. Close by. Too close. "Of course."

"I almost had you."

"No, you didn't." Yes, you almost did.

"My name's Mugen. Remember that."

"I'm Jin. Burn that into your mind."

"Jin."

"Hm."

"I'll kill you next time."

Pained and exhausted though he was, Jin felt suddenly alive.


III
Lighting one candle
with another candle;
A house ablaze

I don't care about anybody.

I don't work for anybody.

I don't work with anybody.

Words he lived by.

But here he was, back to back with Jin, fighting off a dozen armed men, feeling the muscles of the other man play against his own as they worked together in silent understanding. Mugen could anticipate which way Jin would cut or feint by the tiniest shift of bone and heat against him; Jin was picking up his signals as well, cutting high when Mugen went low, whirling left as he went right.

It was a glorious feeling.

There was a spark of energy along Mugen's spine, and without thinking he ducked. Jin's blade flew over him in a blur of silver light, impaling a man who'd been about to hack off Mugen's head. He swiveled, threw himself into an impromptu handstand and kicked out savagely, one wooden sandal catching an assailant under the jaw. The man crumpled, his knife dropping from nerveless hands that had been mere inches from Jin's back.

Mugen pulled erect and found himself face to face with the samurai. Jin's glasses had slipped down his nose -- who knew how the hell he kept them on -- and the dark eyes looked into his own for the briefest of seconds. Jin said nothing, but another flash of fierce silver light passed between them.

Jin's head tilted up the barest of degrees. There was an itch along Mugen's shoulder and he jumped to the side, allowing another fighter to run right onto Jin's blade. The blade twisted and slid out in a spray of blood, and Mugen laughed. Something twitched in his peripheral vision. He reached out and grabbed a handful of indigo haori, pulling Jin sharply aside as a halberd sliced the space where Jin had just stood. Mugen took out the man with a thrust to the belly and Jin's blade shot out like liquid fire to cut off the arm of a man with a gun. Another whirl of silver blades and all twelve lay dead or moaning in a sea of gore.

Jin stood up, straightened his clothing, and calmly wiped off his sword on the cloth he always carried. With extreme care he slid it into his belt next to its mate. Mugen wiped his blade on a dead man's clothes and shoved it into the scabbard. The entire battle had taken two minutes and not a word had passed between them.

Mugen straightened up to find Jin blocking his path. "You are the worst fighter I've ever seen," Jin said, frowning.

"Fuck you, too."

Jin made an exasperated sound and strode away. Mugen watched him go. "Fuck you!" he yelled again. Jin didn't turn around.

Mugen waited barely ten seconds. Then he bolted behind the nearest building and jerked off with hard, fast strokes until he was coming, streaks of silver lightning in his hand, silver light filling his head.


IV
Color of the flower
Has already faded away,
While in idle thoughts
My life passes vainly by,
As I watch the long rains fall.

From her vantage point on the hill Fuu watched the straight back of the man on the riverbank. Jin had remained there, eyes turned towards the water, long after the tiny boat receded into the mist, shrouded into invisibility.

There was something about how he stood there, unmoving but for the stirring of his hair in the wind, that sent a shiver up Fuu's spine. Perhaps it had something to do with his utter stillness, eyes on the water, gazing at a point of nothingness where the gray of the river met the gray of the shore beyond.

Then again, perhaps it was how calm he was despite the lifeless bodies littering the ground around him, the bodies of the men he had just slain.

Jin's silences unnerved her. As a warrior Jin was skilled and relentless and very deadly, but Fuu thought him especially strange when he fought. No matter the provocation, no matter how fierce or bloody the battle, Jin never lost his temper or dropped the inexpressive mask that perplexed her so. Really, was it normal to be so in control? To never became angry? To never allow yourself despair or joy? It just wasn't human to be so cold all the time!

She blew out a breath, trying to shake off her unease. Now Mugen, on the other hand, Mugen would still be screaming at the dead men, cursing them long past their ability to hear. He never was silent. Mugen shouted, and ranted and growled like an animal -- but he didn't make Fuu shiver, even when he threatened her virtue or vaulted willy-nilly into a murderous rampage. No, Mugen didn't scare her. Mostly he just made her angry.

Below her, the silent figure finally turned away from the water and calmly wiped the blood from his sword before sheathing it. Fuu retreated slightly as Jin turned her way, unwilling to be seen, unsure why. This is ridiculous, she told herself. Clearly Jin was a human being. Surely so; he'd rescued that woman, hadn't he? Perhaps he really had cared deeply for her, despite the insanely brief duration of their acquaintance. Perhaps he really had fallen in love.

Fuu frowned. Jin hadn't looked like a man in love. She'd never been in love herself, but from what she'd seen love was as upsetting as it was wonderful. People in love acted stupid sometimes, or laughed, or yelled. Sometimes they even cried. But last night, telling Fuu he was running away with that prostitute woman, Jin had been...well, like he always was. Eerily calm. What was the word--? Dispassionate.

Fuu shivered again.

A leaf crunched behind her. Spooked, she turned and came face-to-face with Mugen. Her heart thumped, as it so often did when the Ryuukyuuan criminal stood too close to her. Stupid, she chided herself, covering her momentary fright by shoving him. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"

Mugen grinned at her like the madman he was and held up a handful of coins. "Got 'em back -- and more besides! Heh. I'm gonna get full tonight!" He rubbed his stomach, leering at her.

"You can get stuffed, for all I care," Fuu grumbled, turning away. Jin was moving slowly along the path back toward their lodging, his back straight as ever. "Mugen, you'd better not forget some of that money belongs to me," she called over her shoulder. "Though I suppose you'll want to buy a woman, too."

"Nah," Mugen's voice said, lazily insolent. "'m not like ol' four-eyes. Don't need to buy women. They throw themselves at me, don't they?"

"Hah. You wish." She turned to go, expecting another stupid rejoinder.

But Mugen was no longer paying attention to her. Instead he was gazing down the hill through narrowed eyes, all amusement gone from his fox-like face.

Fuu watched Mugen watch Jin. Ah. She'd forgotten something really important. Jin wasn't always in control. No -- the one person who could make Jin furious was Mugen.

She observed the frown line between Mugen's eyes, the thin line of his compressed lips.

Ah. And the only person who could render Mugen silent was Jin.


V
I caught a petal fallen from a cherry tree in my hand.
Opening the fist
I find nothing there.

She'd wept, in those last moments, after being so strong for such a long time, and called his name plaintively as she reached out to him. But the boat had already moved too far from the dock; there would be no farewell touch between them.

As the boat carrying Shino disappeared across the river, Jin thought, she'll be safe, now.

He remembered the softness of her body against his, the long-denied pleasures he had enjoyed with her. Shino's mind and body were beautiful; she was a woman of strength and heroic character. Their parting had all the elements of tragedy.

And yet his eyes remained dry as he watched her go.

Once back in their lodging, he was acutely aware of the palpable tension, almost a fourth presence in the room. He felt Fuu's furtive scrutiny and Mugen's deliberate avoidance; both made him angry, though he was careful not to show it, since to give reign to such a strong emotion made one weak. He waited for Fuu to fuss over him, for Mugen to make crude remarks about sex. Neither happened. They pity me, he thought, because they think I am grieving for her.

The next day they moved on toward Nagasaki. Jin wondered why he did not miss Shino more.


VI
Ocean
in your white hand
tears drown

The girl's screams suddenly ceased as she shoved her hand over her mouth. "I can't believe this is happening!" She sank to her knees on the dock. "Mugen. . ."

Beside her Fuu's eyes were wild; unlike Kohza, she did not seem to be able to control her horror. "Mugen," Fuu wailed, wracked with emotion. "There's no way--" Her voice rose with every word until she was shrieking. "There's no way he'd die that easily! Mugen!" The shriek became wild sobbing as Fuu suddenly bolted away from the sea.

Jin's hand shot out, grabbing her roughly by the arm. "Calm down!"

"But--"

"Calm...down."

Fuu stopped, and calmed, the horror becoming desperate sadness. She began to weep quietly, and Jin released her.

Calm down. Easy enough to say. Less easy to keep himself composed. The roiling sea gave physical form to the churning inside, as if the water itself cursed the injustice of the deed. Jin wanted to shout himself, to pierce the waves with his sword and cry vengeance for the murder. But he did not. A cool head was needed, if true revenge was to be effected.

Impossible. Impossible to believe the fool was really dead.

On the horizon, the ship, still engulfed by flames, sank slowly into the white-capped waters in a cloud of steam.

And yet he must believe it.

Fuu clutched his sleeve. Kohza stared up at him in mute supplication. Flanked by the two women, Jin looked at the empty sea and felt terribly alone.


Damn, how he hurt.

Mugen limped along the sand, dragging one foot and leaning heavily on his sword. The rain was cold and he'd begun to shiver; wet sand sucked at his feet, making each step agony. He didn't think about how his foot was probably broken, or how a piece of driftwood had left a gouge in his side four inches long, or how his lungs still ached from lack of air, or about the gnawing nausea wracking him from swallowing half the sea. He tried not to remember weird visions of skulls and hellfire, of barren landscapes peopled with death crows, but they hovered still in the back of his brain and refused to leave. Perhaps they'd never leave him.

Shit. There was no time for any of that. There was only revenge.

Mukuro, you are a dead man. His feral smile held no hint of amusement.

There was a soft scrape of sand behind him and an exhalation of breath. Mugen stopped, tensing, and lifted his sword before turning.

A soft word blew towards Mugen on the wind: "You. . ."

Jin was standing there, stock still, shock on his face. Staring as if he'd seen a ghost.

For a brief moment Mugen forgot about killing Mukuro. He raised his head and managed a cocky grin. "Stupid. How could I die before you kill me?"

The death crows flew away.


VII
Like Michinoku prints
Of the tangled leaves of ferns,
It is because of you
That I have become confused

Thrust.

Retreat.

Cut.

Evade.

Cut, cut, thrust.

Parry; parry; retreat.

"Why do you only evade?"

"I don't want to kill you," Jin answered, and I will kill you, Yukimaru, if we continue, because you haven't the skills to defeat me. You're not like him.

He almost missed the next thrust because his mind's eye was suddenly suffused with red, the faded red of a tunic fluttering in the breeze as that insolent bastard Mugen turned and walked away.

One moment the two others were arguing, as they so often did, and the next Mugen was insulting him for no apparent reason except it was his nature to be insulting to everyone, and to Jin in particular. Angered, he heard himself protest the insult -- foolish, futile behavior! Now Mugen and Fuu were shouting and then stalking off in opposite directions and suddenly he was left standing alone in the crossroads, perplexed by the rapidity at which things were falling apart. He watched Mugen's figure grow smaller and fainter in the dappled shadows; he turned to look at Fuu, so small and so determined, stalking off with her nose in the air. He stood frozen, for once not knowing what to do.

Surely he should accompany Fuu until she finished her journey, as he had promised - it was, after all, the honorable course of action. He turned and looked down the other path, at Mugen's retreating back.

Choose.

Startled, he realized he did not want to go with Fuu, any more than he had wanted to follow Shino.

Honor. Desire.

Choose.

Wind blew across his ear. Jin came back to himself and evaded just in time.

Yukimaru seethed with frustration. "Why won't you fight me, damn you!"

The air by the waterfall was thick and moist, the spray dampening the back of Jin's neck as he stood on the cliff's edge. He felt like he was dying, though Yukimaru had yet to leave a scratch on him. He raised his sword.

Breathing heavily, more from emotion than exertion, Yukimaru scraped his blade against Jin's in blatant provocation. Jin studied him. He wasn't much more than a boy, really, and though they were separated in age by only a handful of years, Jin felt years, eons older. Once -- so long ago, in his other life -- Yuki had fought him in the dojo, hero-worshiped and befriended him when others would not. A younger brother, in some ways; what had been between them Jin never dared think about anymore. To do so made the part of him that was not yet dead twist with regret.

Honor.

Desire.

Honor was all he had left. "Killing you would rust my sword."

He saw Yukimaru flinch, saw the dark eyes glitter and hands tighten into a white-knuckled grip.

"What's wrong, Yukimaru? Are we going to hell together?"

a flash of red at the crossroads

Live, die. What did it matter? Jin released his breath and sheathed his katana. Yukimaru's eyes widened in surprise.

the red spot growing smaller in the distance

"You can tell them that you killed me."

Mugen vanishing into the dappled shadows

He turned to face the rushing stream. "I might as well be dead, anyway."

Honor, and desire.

Jin leapt.


VIII
His grave
Covered with
My sky

Mugen combed the shore by the whirlpool, fury building inside him. Fucking woman! What the hell had happened on that rope bridge to bring the fucking thing down, the woman and that damn son-of-a-bitch Jin with it?

Behind him Fuu was calling for him, her little girl voice wracked with desperation. Probably she was telling him to give up and come back, help her carry Sara-san to shelter. He didn't give a fuck what Fuu was saying -- no doubt it was something totally fucking useless, but the tone grated on his nerves, because right now he didn't give a damn about Sara either, though a day earlier he would've been perfectly happy to fuck her till he went blind, too.

Right now the only thing Mugen cared about was finding Jin's drowned body, because as far as he was concerned, until he found him the stupid jackass wasn't really dead.

He was wet to his waist from wading through the water, and his sword would have to be dried before it rusted, but his eyes still sought some sign of dark hair or billowing black hakama beneath the white foam of the rapids.

Nothing.

Mugen's hand hurt; when he looked at it, he found he was clenching Jin's glasses so tightly the wire rim cut into his palm. Suddenly he was overcome by rage. "Damn you!" he screamed. "You don't get to die until I kill you!"

He drew his arm back to hurl the spectacles into the water. Anger coiled in him, as strong as the undertow in the whirlpool below. For a moment Mugen stood there on the rocky outcropping, body tensed and hand upraised. And then, slowly, he lowered his arm.

"Damn you," he said again.

Later, beneath the moon, Mugen staggered upright on the same rocky banks, clutching his side and feeling the blood pump warmly through his fingers. He fought against a wave of vertigo that momentarily blanked out his vision. When he opened them again the goze was turned towards him, her blind eyes hooded by darkness. She seemed almost a ghostly presence -- come to take him to hell, was she?

Her voice was soft, so hushed he had to strain to hear her words. "You have so much anger and hate," she said, "but perhaps it's really sadness. Have you never been loved by anyone, Mugen?"

Bitch. Mugen raised his sword for a final attack, aware as he did so of the futility of his actions. He was seriously wounded; she was frighteningly skilled. He'd never fought anyone of this level before, not even--

It struck him that maybe this really was the end.

And yet in that moment he thought not of his life, or his sins, or of Fuu, who remained in danger. Oddly, what came to his mind was, So she really did kill you after all, Jin.

Until that moment he had never known true despair.


IX
The table set with
two broken plates.
Their designs differ;
A match!

Fuu finished sewing the rip in her hem and bit off the thread with a sigh of satisfaction. There.

She stood up and stretched, noticing as she did so that Mugen watched her with rare interest. Probably hoping my kimono will gap. "I'm going to have a bath."

"Okay, I'll come scrub your--"

"No! Sheesh, what an animal! Jin -- keep an eye on him. Make sure he doesn't follow me, all right?"

Jin said nothing, just continued to sharpen his sword.

"Oh, for heaven's sake! Do something useful, the two of you. I won't be back for a long time. About an hour. You hear me? An hour!"

Neither paid the slightest bit of attention to her announcement. Honestly, the two of them! One of them pale and gloomy, as uncommunicative as a fence post except with a sword in his hand, the other a dirty-minded animal who couldn't keep his paws to himself. Some bodyguards! I--

I love them.

She slid the door closed behind her, eyes bright with tears, turning for a last peek before shutting it completely. Mugen and Jin were seated on opposite sides of the room, not even looking at each other. Idiots!

Fuu leaned against the shoji frame and closed her eyes. Soon she'd know what lay at the end of her quest, and what would happen then? How could she part from them? The tears spilled over onto her cheeks and she put a hand to her mouth to stop any sounds from escaping. I don't want our journey to end.

Oh, Jin! By the stream, in the middle of the night he'd found her wrapped in melancholy, mourning their approaching separation. And in that serious, careful tone, he'd offered to - what? Remain with her? Marry her? She'd stopped him before he said something foolish. At first she thought she'd hurt him by her reply, but in her heart of hearts she knew he offered out of a sense of duty, that code he lived by. Well, damn the code! As far as she was concerned, if it kept Jin from doing what it was obvious he wanted to do, instead of making him do what he thought he was supposed to do, well, it was a pretty stupid code. And to think for the longest time she'd thought him cold! -- well, perhaps she was the idiot then. Now she understood: Jin was deeply honorable. Wonderfully kind. Terribly lonely--

--And totally impossible! She could no more have accepted him than she could have hoped to marry the Shogun's son. Or, or Mugen.

Ah, well, Mugen.

She did love Mugen, perhaps, as a women loves a man, but she wasn't that much of an idiot. He said provocative things to her, pretended to be after her virtue, sometimes, in that crude way of his, but she had eyes, didn't she, and sense, too. All of that was just habit to him, like how he pretended to care for no one but himself. After all this time together she knew the truth about Mugen, and it had nothing at all to do with the moronic things he said. All she had to do was consider how he looked at her, and how he looked at. . .others.

She'd cried when she realized he'd never want her, not the way she wanted him.

Fuu put up a hand and wiped away the last of her tears. Well. It was time to be practical about such things. No matter which way you cut it, Mugen was a criminal, a savage, an impossible match.

For her.

I do love you, Mugen. I want you to be happy.

Jin, I don't want you to be lonely any more.

An hour, maybe two. That's what she'd give them.

Idiots.


IX
His body
Curved on a mat
A smile

Grayness replaced the blackness by slow degrees. With it came the first stirrings of sensation: stiffness. Hunger. Pain. Lots of pain, pretty much everywhere, but centered in his back and stomach. He flinched with growing awareness and the pain crested briefly and then finally ebbed.

Mugen opened one eye. No crows. No strange guys standing around.

Huh.

He was more than a little surprised to be alive.

Smells came next: dust. Old, dry wood. Blood. Sweat, his own and another's. Someone known to him. It wasn't an alarming smell.

For a moment he was disoriented, though the sense of deja vu was almost overpowering. Shit, this was awfully familiar, wasn't it, as if it was normal for him to wake up thinking he was dead. Huh, well, maybe it was normal for him. His stomach rumbled, which did nothing good for the bullet wound. Damn, he thought, I'm hungry! He forced himself to lift his head, which pulled at his bandages, and he sucked in a breath.

"Oi," said a weak voice. "Are you awake?"

He turned his head slightly; Jin was lying half a dozen feet away, his long hair covering his face.

"I--" Mugen stopped. What he didn't say was I thought you were dead.

And, I'm glad you lived.

What Mugen did say was, "Yo."

Jin moved gingerly, wincing at his own injuries, and shifted slightly until his hair was out of his eyes. "It seems this isn't hell."

For a moment they looked at each other, dark eyes locked together. Something passed through Mugen's gut, not pain from the wound, exactly, but something stranger and more wrenching, an oddly welcome kind of hunger that terrified him. His mouth went dry. There were words in his mouth but he couldn't say them.

Instead he found other words. "When there's someone stronger than me, I can never be satisfied until I kill them. But right now I don't feel like killing you."

Jin's guarded eyes changed, his face becoming completely open between one breath and the next. The something in Mugen's gut spread up into his chest.

Jin's voice was even quieter than usual. "I somehow feel. . .that I know what I was looking for. Being by myself all the while...I've finally made friends for the first time."

Mugen understood. Jin didn't mean friends.

How strange he felt! He found himself blinking rapidly because his eyes stung and something was clouding his vision, like the mist over the river. Weird. Maybe it was because he'd been asleep so long -- yeah, that was probably it. He hoped it would pass soon, because it was making it hard to see. He closed his eyes so he wouldn't notice.

There was a soft rustle and the sound of something moving slowly across the floor, and then a cool palm closed lightly over the blue tattoo on his wrist. After a moment Mugen turned his hand over until they were palm to palm. He felt better now.

"I'm hungry," he said crossly.

There was a soft snort of mirth close by. "You're so articulate."

"Thanks."

"I was being sarcastic."

"Oh yeah? Well you're articulate too, dork."

"'Articulate' isn't an insult, moron."

"Then what the fuck does 'articulate' mean?"

"Ah. It's not important."

"Yeah? Says you."

"Please shut up."

"Make me."

Jin's hand squeezed his.

"Yeah," said Mugen. For some reason he was grinning. He turned his head so Jin wouldn't see, and the bandages pulled against his healing wound. "Ow."

"I wish. . ." Jin trailed off.

"I know," Mugen said. Something else seemed needed. "I'm -- Me, too."

"I'm. . .glad."

He lay there quietly a moment, taking stock of himself. Truly pitiful. "Hate to tell you, though, I'm not up to much at the moment."

"Just as well." Jin sighed. "Because if you were, I'm pretty sure that right now it would kill me."

Mugen yawned, already half-asleep. "Told you I'd win."

He fell asleep smiling at Jin's sputtered protest.


XI
This summer
a hundred summers long
leaves falling

Crossroads. They were always at a crossroads, it seemed.

"Later," Mugen said.

"We'll meet again," promised Jin

Fuu took a last look at them but her heart was too full to say what was in it. She turned down the center path away from them, these strangers, protectors, friends and brothers who had become closer to her than lovers, and who she held in higher esteem. Well, life had its seasons, and just as spring was sure to return, someday the three would meet again. Her heart lightened by this thought, Fuu set off down the road.

Mugen didn't watch her go. He turned back toward Nagasaki; cities were always good for him -- lots of money to be made. Lots of women. Lots of scams to pull and opportunities to have a decent fight. Someone like him could make out just fine in a place like Nagasaki. And if not, hell, there were other cities.

Jin turned his face to the West, into the afternoon sun. The sun was deceptive; autumn would come soon, and with it the need to find a position, a place with honorable work where he could be of some use, and where he might pass the winter in reasonable security. But there were still men on his trail, all with vengeance in their hearts. Perhaps a long sea voyage, then, to the Continent. He'd heard interesting things about their martial arts. It would be good to learn new skills.

Mugen reached the edge of a tall field of flowers and stopped. Sunflowers -- didn't it just figure! A bright splash of light caught his eye. Before him was a small pond, the waving golden flowers mirrored in it like fluttering flames, fire reflecting in a pair of glasses--

He frowned.

Jin paused to look westward out to sea. The sea was dotted with small islands, each one separate in the vast ocean, each alone, lonely--

A small furrow appeared between his brows.

Fuu continued on without stopping or turning to look behind her.

And so she did not see two men, one tall and narrow, one angular and bushy-haired, drop their swords and close the distance between them.


XII


"Dork," Mugen said. "Clueless four-eyed dork."

"Your fighting still sucks in every possible way," Jin said. "Idiot."

And in the end
I have not left my heart
behind after all.


* Koi Uta: literally, "Love Song."

redchance @ aol.com
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