Chapter Three: Returning Ronin
Jin gently shook the pouch of coins before securing the small bundle inside his sleeve alongside a special vial he had purchased earlier in the day. His payment for escorting the farmers to market and back would get him a few much needed supplies, but he would require another job soon.
Barely more than a group of extended families clustered around a cross-road, this village didn’t boast much in the way of amenities. Their entire surplus already sold at market. If he wanted more than a bit of rice, Jin would have to return to the larger town where he had found Mugen.
Mugen... Just what was he going to do about Mugen? The man was trouble, with a capitol T, looking for a place to happen. They had settled into an uneasy truce while traveling together that later morphed into a hesitant friendship. Probably the only friendship either of them had ever had. When they had parted ways, Jin had never expected to see the rebellious man again.
He found himself inexplicably pleased—more pleased than he would have admitted if anyone had asked him—to find his old comrade. Jin shook his head. Now if he could just quit thinking of the rogue as his lover...
Jin strode down the main road, really more of a dirt track, glad to be once more on his way. The few cramped houses dropped behind him in his rush to be quit of this place.
He had more than enough of these peasants laughing and talking behind their hands when they thought he wasn't listening. He was glad that they had obviously not realized who had given him that mark, and even more pleased that they did not know about the other one hidden under his kimono.
All the resentment toward Mugen that he had pushed down came smoldering back to life. The high collar of his kimono didn’t hide the rascal’s brand, making him a laughing stock. He would find some way of repaying Mugen.
Even without the livestock to slow the return, the farmers had taken two days to arrive back at their village. However, without that hindrance Jin might retrace his route to the inn in one, admittedly long, day. He wanted to avoid another night in the open, if he could.
A band of bandits roamed this area unchecked. In fact, the villagers’ fear of the outlaws had offered him employment for the past few days. The villains took what they wanted and weren’t above harming the peddlers and other travelers they waylaid. He did not relish the thought of coming into contact with them on his own. His weapons alone were enough to draw their unwanted attention.
The now empty fields surrounding the handful of dwellings dwindled rapidly. The pathway cut through the man-made clearing that kept the forest at bay. Anything that might have given cover to outlaws or oni had been painstakingly removed.
Jin set a brisk pace, determined to be clear of the nearby stretch of woodlands before the sun set. Lingering along the way only encouraged trouble. He steadfastly refused to admit to any other reason that might prompt a speedy return to Mugen’s inn.
He crossed the farmland rapidly. Pausing to admire the trees, like gaily clad geisha in all their autumn splendor, Jin adjusted his daishō. With nothing to interfere with drawing his sword, he stepped from the bright sunlight into the cool shade of the forest.
Sunlight dappled the trail, scuffed and marred by the recent passage of a dozen men and their livestock. Hoof prints lined with a thin film of water pocked the dark moist loam. The green scent of gently decaying plants rose up with every stride Jin took. On the previous trek, the odor of the animals had masked this soothing smell.
Resisting the temptation to linger, Jin struck out for Mugen’s inn. He didn’t intend to end his day still within the forest’s grasp. One man, even armed, would draw more interest than the same man had while traveling with a group of peasants.
Loping and walking by turns, he made good time traversing the wooded path. He had begun to think that the worst of the journey was over, when he heard a slight rustle in the surrounding undergrowth. Pretending to be unaware, Jin continued on his way, listening intently for the unknown to give himself away again.
The man must have realized his mistake, because no further sounds interrupted the drowsy chirping of the haru-dori as they settled in for the evening. Had the man given up on ambushing him or did he just place his feet with more care?
Jin followed a bend in the trail and found his answer awaiting him.
Ahead, three ruffians blocked his way. They were armed with cudgels and a motley array of padded and leather protective garments. He could tell by the way the men held themselves they were merely a rag tag collection of bullies and indigent ne’er-do-wells. Jin put his hand to his daishō, loosening it in its sheath.
"None of that," the central figure warned. "There's no need for violence. Just give us those swords, and whatever is in your sleeves."
No violence, indeed. Standing there doing his best to look all intimidating. Did the man actually expect anyone to believe him?
Reserving part of his attention on the man hiding behind him, Jin drew his daishō and charged the three in front of him. He did not have time for this.
The men had obviously only dealt with farmers or the occasional lone traveler so far. They stood too close to one another to fight effectively, hampering each other’s movements. The looks of surprise on their faces as he bore down on them were an amusing mix of stunned disbelief and horrified comprehension. The ruffians didn’t even have the sense to flee.
Jin didn’t worry about finesse, merely cut them down as they attempted various defensive stances. He grunted as one of their staves connected with his hip. That last desperate attempt did not check his forward motion and his daishō came to rest in the third man. Jin allowed himself to stumble as the man fell, dragging his blade with him.
There was a sudden loud thrashing from behind him. Jin whirled ready to defend himself, but the unseen man was bolting for safety.
One of the downed men chuckled hoarsely before spitting blood. "He's gone for the rest. You will follow me soon."
Surrounded by the lifeless proof of his encounter, Jin took stock of his situation. The unseen man had gotten away and even now no doubt alerted the other members of his band to Jin’s presence. He didn’t have long before they would be hunting him.
Jin hurried with all the speed that his hip would allow. He could manage a stiff jog for short stretches before he had to drop into a limping walk. Maybe he could still escape the bandits. Even though he had nearly reached the end of the forest the road seemed to stretch on forever.
Sharp pain seared through him with every step, overwhelming the throbbing ache in his hip. He had to walk longer and longer each time before he could manage to pick up the pace again. Jin began to fear that he might not make it back to the town after all.
Even though exhausted, he must not stop until he was safely at the inn. If those outlaws caught him, there would be nothing for Mugen to do but avenge him. A thought that he did not relish for several reasons.
Up ahead, Jin saw the bright golden glow of sunlight not filtered through layers of leaves. Nearly free of the forest, Jin broke into a lope. He wanted out, and he wanted out now.
Jin cleared the woodlands while the sun was still in the sky, although not by much. Soon it would be dark, and he couldn’t continue to jog at that point. He could see the rising smoke from the cooking fires in the distance. A quick glance over his shoulder showed that the pursuit was either delayed or not forthcoming. He rather hoped it was the later, but feared it was the former.
Hastening over the open road, his footfalls stuttered in staccato bursts. Jin forced himself to cover as much ground as he could. Only dropping into a walk when he could no longer bear the pain and picking up the pace again as soon as possible.
Darkness fell and he still had a ways to go. Jin slowed to a walk. He couldn’t risk quickening his pace until the rising of the moon could afford him enough light to see the terrain by.
He felt like he had walked forever. In fact, he had walked most of the night. When he saw the welcoming glow of the inn in the near distance, without sign of pursuit, he dared hope.
Jin finally stumbled, disheveled and limping, through the front door of the inn. The few remaining patrons gave him a less than warm welcome. All conversation stilled and he was the object of every hostile stare in the common room.
Mugen turned from the man he had been talking to and looked at him with some surprise. "You look like shit."
Jin sank onto a bench with a pained grunt. "They look worse," he muttered darkly.
Mugen barked out a laugh. "Of course, they do..."
After eating what Mugen could scrape up at this late hour, Jin wobbled back to Mugen's room. He pointedly ignored any offers of help that might have been forthcoming. His muscles had tightened up in the short time he had sat to eat.
Jin slumped down on the futon with his hand pressed to his hip. Pealing his kimono and hakama off revealed a nasty purple bruise covering much of his side, hip, and continuing down his flank. Mugen let out a low whistle of admiration.
"Get me some sake and salve," he gritted out between clenched teeth.
Mugen just nodded and left the room.
When Mugen returned, he offered Jin the sake and set about applying the salve.
Jin gulped several cups in quick succession, trying hard not to betray how badly every touch hurt. Finally, it was done and he was numb. He didn't know if that was due to the salve or the sake. And just then he felt too wrung out to think about it.
He leaned against Mugen, and with a heartfelt sigh, allowed himself to relax. He’d returned, safe and alive, something that he hadn't been sure of earlier in the day.
Now that he didn’t need to drive himself, reaction set in. He was thankful the sake blunted it, but that only made another part of his reaction more pronounced. He had heard that surviving a life or death situation was often one of the best aphrodisiacs. Now he found that in his case it was true.
Mugen chuckled warmly and looked pointedly down at his lap. Jin followed the direction of his gaze, mildly surprised to see just how aroused he was. His cock strained, dripping precum from its swollen tip.
"Well… What do you want to do about that?" Mugen waved in the general direction of Jin's groin.
Jin blushed furiously. Don't ask such questions!
Mugen's hands wandered down Jin’s naked body, brushing places that affected him in ways he would never have suspected. The way he reacted to having his nipples stroked was no real surprise any more, but his navel and flanks were uncharted territory. Mugen’s gentle touches had him trembling and sighing in no time.
By the time those talented hands reached the destination Jin had in mind the whole time, the other man's name had slipped through his fervent lips more than once.
Mugen leaned forward and sealed those lips with his. His kiss was surprisingly gentle, not the usual battle that they engaged in. Light butterfly touches on the roof of his mouth and tongue.
Jin moaned and increased both the depth and heat of the kiss, his turn to explore the other's mouth. Mugen chuckled at his new found ardor.
"You really want this. I'll try to do it without hurting you."
"Just do it!"
Chuckling once more, Mugen eased Jin back onto the futon. Mugen began to remove his own clothing. He was somewhat hampered by Jin's awkward attempts to help. But Jin soon gave up, instead stroking any exposed skin he could reach. That also slowed things down a bit, but Mugen didn’t complain.
Once the last of Mugen’s clothing was gone, it was abundantly clear that he was in no better state than Jin.
Taking care that the bruised hip was uppermost, Mugen maneuvered Jin onto his side. Then he moved in close and took both of their cocks in his hand.
Jin clutched him close, murmuring his name. He attempted to move his hips, but with a small cry of pain stopped abruptly.
"Shhh… I've got it." Mugen stroked Jin's back until he relaxed once again, and then went back to pleasuring them both.
His hand slid easily up and down their shafts. The gleaming drops seeping from their cocks smoothing the movement. Jin tried to help, but the pain of reaching down was too much. So he wrapped his arm around Mugen and burrowed tightly into his warm body.
Jin’s mouth sought the rogue's neck. He nibbled on Mugen’s collar bone, and sucked on the pulse point before moving higher up. Jin licked the edge of the other man’s ear, dipping his tongue in to explore before nipping the lobe. He amused himself by playing with the dangling blue stone earring. When he tugged on the hoop holding the stone, Mugen arched against him and gave out such a groan that Jin gave it another tug to see if he could get the same reaction again. If anything, Mugen’s groan was deeper and ragged, filled with more longing than any one sound should be able to convey.
Mugen's hand moved faster and began a twisting motion over their crowns, wringing a deep moan from Jin. Mugen pumped his hips, pushing the head of his cock over Jin's and dragging the edge back down the length of him.
Jin’s body shuddered and shook with desire. He could feel the hunger building in him, looking for an outlet. He held off as long as he could, just letting the fierce heat burn him until he had to find release or burn up with his need.
Pressing his face firmly into his lover's neck, Jin bit down to keep from screaming Mugen's name as he came. The semen pumping out of him with every stroke of Mugen's hand made it impossible for him to release his grip upon the other man. In fact, he found his jaw tensing more with every pulse.
"Oh… Fuck yeah!" Mugen yelled raggedly as he came.
Dimly Jin realized that a little pain seemed to have a positive effect on his lover. He would have to explore that in more depth later when he was capable of logical thought once again.