During a rare quiet moment on the journey, Fuu considers her companions. One shot.
Though handling was a pretty vague term for what would happen. It wasn’t as if she ever handled them properly at all. They stayed by her side for some reason known only to them. She wasn’t stupid; she knew they did not travel with her because she could win the world championship for wheedling and nagging and pouting. If she were honest with herself, she had no idea why they were still there every morning. For Jin, it very well might be his training and his samurai ethics.
Not that all samurais kept their word and stuck by you through everything. Some were… Well, some were not Jin. Who was impenetrable. Fuu sneaked a glance at the silent man from under her eyelashes. His hands rested lightly on his bent knees and, eyes shut, he bowed his head. He appeared as unconcerned as ever, a finely-carved statue in a tumbled-down hut.
Which was in direct conflict with the way her other companion lay, sprawled on his back with his tatty shirt riding up to show an expanse of washboard-flat stomach, apparently counting the spiders in the rafters. That or thinking of the girl at the river they had passed on the way, Fuu thought sourly. The very idea nearly brought a disgusted grunt to her lips but she bit it back. Any sort of noise would be fatal to her ego. But the man was all perverse appetites, a complete dog that obviously had no time for anything he couldn’t screw, eat, or fight.
Her fingers stilled on her hem and she wrapped her arms tighter around her legs, pulling in until she could drop her chin to rest on her knees. She may not be the most brilliant and, to herself, she could admit that sometimes she was more a clumsy child than a woman grown, but she did have a working brain. That brain sometimes put out the most astonishing things, really, and the miniature lightning bolt of an idea had her positioning shift to the protective ball.
He was a dog that did not give a damn but he had stayed that day. He had listened to her when she pleaded for Shinsuke’s life and he had turned his fury on the other men. He had not stopped her from going after Shinsuke.
Then, even after everything and he had to have seen her cry, he said nothing.
Mugen never ever said nothing. Never.
But that one time, when it meant the most, when she probably would have killed him if he had unloaded all of his insensitivity upon her… He remained silent. Silent and compliant. Fuu half wanted to shiver at the concept. There was a quality to the situation that made her think of tying her obi around the neck of a dragon. Except Mugen was not anything so elegant as a dragon. Maybe a wicked kappa or something. Tilting her head slightly, she looked at him sideways. He had not moved an inch yet she had the uncomfortable feeling that he knew her gaze had come back to him. Suddenly, he rolled over onto his side, giving her his back, and she jolted back to herself. Looking over at Jin sheepishly, Fuu tried to decide if he noticed anything unusual that night. He, too, had been quiet and said nothing after they left the town. He had not even asked why she insisted they stop at the tumbled home of the pickpocket before continuing their journey.
She was almost completely one hundred percent positive that Jin still remained in the dark about the full story. She could not imagine Mugen and he sitting down and sharing. The very idea broke through her concentration, stirred up a cartoonish image, and she nearly giggled out loud. Then the memory of the story that would have been told returned and she sobered abruptly. No, Jin did not know. Chances were, he did not care either. Screwing up her mouth, Fuu fought back the sudden, renewed urge to tears. Jin’s ability to care or not care made no difference, she told herself. It was simply his way to internalize everything, to build that wall so high and strong that nothing else could breach it. Except Mugen who could slip through anyone’s defenses and needle them to fury.
It was just the dog’s way.
When she told them she had a stop to make, Mugen and Jin wandered off to wait at the crossroads; within moments, Mugen had brought Jin near to drawing his sword again. That almost coaxed a smile. All teeth and snarl and bite. The smile evaporated when the door slid open to reveal Shinsuke’s mother, tired and drawn. For an instant, it was a year ago and she was coming home after yet another night spent outside, who knew where, and there was her mother, looking just as tired, just as drawn, the fatal sickness already clawing up her throat. No words came to her and she felt light-headed, unreal and wavering. She nearly reached for a supportive wall that was not there before the world snapped back into focus and it was Shinsuke’s mother. Not her mother. Her mother was dead.
And so was Shinsuke.
In the end, she lost the words and could offer his mother nothing but a few weak reassurances. She dared to touch her hand for a moment, gripping in a silently desperate way, and smiled as brightly as she could. Her cheeks hurt but, as his mother returned the look, the pain in her heart hurt worse and so she smiled harder. Then she waved good-bye. No more words and no words that meant anything except some empty comfort.
She would have to try again. Some day. Maybe at the end of the journey, when her own heart was settled, she would find the words.
Fuu started as a weight settled over her shoulders. Reaching up, she felt rough fabric and, looking up, she watched as Jin moved back to where he had chosen to sleep for the night. She bit her lip to hold back the wavering smile produced at the silent kindness. Then she pulled it closer around her shoulders. Tilting her head to better tuck it beneath her chin, she caught a flicker of movement where Mugen lay and glanced over to see what it was now. His eyes met hers for a moment, a lock that rang strange and unbalanced, and then he closed his eyes deliberately and rolled over, once more showing her nothing more than his inexpressive back. Somehow that was only expected, though, and she nearly smiled again. Quietly, to herself, she made another promise. To her guardians, stray dogs and samurais, some day they would have her words, too.
But, at the moment, some day was a long, far way off and, as Fuu allowed herself to drop to the floor and curl up facing the banked fire, that was just where she wanted it to stay.