Chapter 33 Homeward Hopes

[A/N]: Atashi ni aitakatta? Another long hiatus. Welp, what have I been up to… Running a guild in Final Fantasy 14, and writing a novel of my own. And yet, I have some unfinished business with all you readers, so guess who is back to writing and finishing this damn fanfiction. This girl. Will I meet your expectations? Do you even have expectations after all this time? I guess only time will tell.

To guest reviewer Closet Otaku, Hope you're still growing those mushrooms TT^TT been so long.

To guest reviewer Woobles, I don't know...sometimes I overdo descriptions. I worry about it being tedious. But thanks for liking them :)

To guest reviewer Francisco, and I love you for using that as your guest username XD Viva el Francisco!

To guest reviewer Update Craver, I too am glad you revisited. The amount of chapters is pretty hefty now. To be honest, I never imagined I would have this many when I started. And I never thought I would even come this far, with so many readers asking for updates. I hope you stick around until the end.

To guest reviewer November 5th, Wow thanks for all the praise! Oh, you read my MugenxFuu essay? Nice! I'm glad it managed to quell any doubts :) I also posted the Samurai Champloo actor interviews recently, further cementing the director intentionally made them a subtle romance. Message me and I'll give a link if you can't find the post. Also, I'm honored this was your first fic that got to introduce you to the world of fanfiction XD

To guest reviewer January 2nd, aww so sweet . This is late but thanks for sharing your Christmas stash haha. If I could, I'd let you take from my Easter basket :) Since I can't do that, here's a new chapter! Yay (chocolate is better).

To guest reviewer January 8th, I have returned dear reader, and have brought the fuugen feels you desire! Keep holding out and the sparks will turn to flames...maybe. ;)

To guest reviewer Lovingadream, so many. Feels. It's painful. Worst part is, the ending is so far away but I promise it will be so damn explosive (figuratively and literally maybe) that your feels will be even worse than they are now. Hope you'll stick around until then, and any dreams you love will become reality.

The theme of this entire chapter is (as the title implies) home. Scenes will switch from Tsuru and Giri and Mugen and Fuu, both of which are musing of home.

IMPORTANT: The song within this chapter is a very old Japanese lullaby from Takeda, Fushimi, Kyoto. The name of the song is called "Lullaby of Takeda" after either the province of Takeda where Kyoto is or the old name of the village. It is on YouTube performed by "The Red Birds". Be sure to listen after or during the chapter.

Also note, Fushimi and Uji are very close to each other.

Disclaimer: I do not own Samurai Champloo, Fuu, Mugen, Jin, Momo etc. And it's a good thing too, because a whole anime would take decades. Literal decades to produce.

Chapter 33 Homeward Hopes

From a soft bed of leaves, Mugen faintly recalled being nudged awake. The more he rolled over to avoid it, the more that annoying nudging grew in force. He peered his eyes open, glaring with hatred at what he knew to be Fuu even before he could see her.

"Ya got one chance to explain what was so damn important ta' wake me up."

She smiled innocently, "Let's get breakfast."

"Good answer."

That's all it took to get Mugen up on his feet, the girl chuckling about the numerous pieces of grass and leaves refusing to let go of his hair and clothes.

The duo had never been particularly early risers, unless of course the danger of government officials loomed. Last night held no such call for concern. Nonetheless, the strangely excited girl had awoken the moment the burning red orb peeked in the east. They had set up camp in the forest beside the road between Osaka and Kyoto, but the determined Fuu readied to continue on despite the little rest they managed to get the night before. Hunger was always a driving force. But he knew now, watching how she excitedly looked down the road ahead, that it wasn't her stomach leading the way.

She seemed set on something. What it was he did not know and definitely didn't care to ask.

With their current funds, they could get by comfortably for a while after their last gambling stint and the help of the woman in the wedding kimono. Even so, Fuu only bought one manjuu bun filled with red bean paste for herself at the road stop. Mugen on the other hand, chose to fill his belly with several of the manjuu, a bowl of rice and a plate of grilled fish. And...a whole bottle of sake.

Less irate, yet still exhausted Mugen took chug after chug of the contents of the porcelain tokkuri. She only took the smallest nibbles from the bread of the sweet pastry. Peckish was just not her. Ravenous was.

She'd barely eaten.

Mugen examined her keenly, though chose to down another gulp of booze rather than voice anything of it. Any moment now she'd announce something anyway, expecting her bodyguard's full attention.

More watchful than ever, her brown eyes focused on a fork in the road heading north….almost like she dreaded that if she looked away for moment, the path would inexplicably vanish. To the left was the straight course to Kyoto city; the old Imperial capital. While the other, cascaded by willow trees, veered slightly to the right, leading to smaller, less known villages following a narrow river.

One such village would not leave her mind.

Resolve affirmed, the once pensive girl stood from the eatery's wooden bench, throwing over half the tasty bun in her mouth with a final chomp.

Right on schedule.

"Lwet's" she started, still chewing on bits of the manjuu. "twaoake a de'twour."

"I knew somethin' was comin'. What detour."

Fuu swallowed. "There's a place I want to visit before we arrive in Kyoto"

Kyoto had already been the detour… Now a detour before the detour? This journey always managed to turn into a giant field trip at every little bend in the road. Maybe some more booze would make the excursion a tad more fun. "Lemme guess, some other shrine to worship a million spirits no one remembers, or more flowers for you ta' smell?

"Actually both." Quite amused at his bewilderment, Fuu continued on without pausing to elaborate on this odd detail. "I haven't been there in three years. It's not out of the way, I promise. It's just a little southeast of Kyoto and we're heading to Kyoto for the food anyway so I figured…"

"...Figured you'd waste more time?"

"It's not a waste of time!" she screamed.

He grimaced at the sudden outburst; he hadn't even said anything that offensive. "Fuck, don't gotta break every glass within ten miles, woman! It's too early for that shit." He too got up from his seat, strolling over to the faded, crinkling map pasted on the road stop diner's clay outer wall.

Southeast of Kyoto?

Very few places were bothered to be remembered by the ever wandering vagrant, and yet he felt Fuu had mentioned something she found significant to be somewhere south of Kyoto.

His index finger traced along painted trade routes as his mouth sounded out the syllables of the many villages and cities nearby. Many he must have seen already. Many indeed. What did one place matter to her?

There it was. Just south of Kyoto, a blot of ink revealed the location of a small town.

He remembered. Only a few weeks ago, at the coming of spring, Fuu fell terribly ill. In the time they spent at the Mt. Koya monastery, she'd spoken a bit of her mother and hometown.

"Uji, huh."

Knowing her desire wouldn't be possible to dissuade, he settled for ripping the already damaged map from the wall so they'd at least know the way without getting lost...and taking more needless detours. Or "scenic routes"—as Fuu often called them.

A commotion of pots and pans came from the interior of the diner and out ran the chubby owner, waving a soup coated spoon. "Hey! What do you think you're doing?!" Fury lingered in his old eyes after seeing his map so carelessly stolen. "I'll have you know, that map has been handed down through my family since my great grandpa opened this place!"

Fuu stomped up to her infuriating bodyguard who chose to disregard the poor man's jabbering entirely, "Mugen! I don't need a map! I know how to get there!" She swiped the torn paper from the senseless vagrant, bowing apologetically to their server as she handed it back.

"It's a day's walk from here. We should arrive right before sunset."

With breaks it could take them at least eight hours...

"Better get a move on then." Mugen downed the last of his sake, and slammed the tokkuri bottle on the bench. Fuu eagerly led her bodyguard to the road on the right. No doubt this little sidetrack would be long, but she knew in her heart it would be worth every step.

Tsuru's mind still remained in dreamland when Giri hoisted her onto the back of the brown mare. It'd taken him little difficulty to do so. She'd almost forgotten his strength. Days had passed since they'd stolen the horse from the Tokugawa samurai, yet she couldn't remember what a nice sleep felt like anymore. The floor provided by nature came with far less comforts than tatami mats, a futon mattress and a pillow.

The princess rubbed at her eyes. Giri placed the disgruntled pup in her arms. It appeared Otachi didn't get much sleep either when his fang lined maw stretched wide in a yawn.

"Giri, where are we going so early?"

"We cannot stay in one place for too many nights. I have set a route for us to be heading to the Fushimi district on the edge of Kyoto. I know of a proprietor there who will provision us for some time. We will have to lay low before continuing on." He too climbed into the saddle, wrapping his arms around her and the dog seated in front of him, as he snapped the leather reins once.

Wind whistled by as the horse galloped onwards. Raven strands of hair fell from the loose knot she'd made; all night she spent practicing and yet failed to tie it properly like the castle maid servants had. Everyone else made everything appear so simple. She tucked her hair behind her ears, thought the constant breeze pulled at it, and wound the yellow kimono sleeves around her tightly. Every few beats of the horse's hooves hitting hard dirt caused Otachi to fidget restlessly, and several times he whimpered though made no move to leap off. Tsuru softly massaged his white coat until he leaned against her chest to nap.

"First we will pass through Uji, and use the bridge there to cross the Uji river." said Giri.

"Uji? The town where the last chapters of the Tale of Genji take place?"

"The very same. And after that, we will follow the road through town to Fushimi."

In the castle archive, she'd read a great number of dusty scrolls and books stored on shelves that towered far above her head. That specific novel had always been so romantic; secret affairs and the forbidden love of nobles...

Impulsively, Tsuru nestled her head against her samurai's cotton clothes, losing herself in imagining as they passed through the countryside she had only seen transparent imitations of in ukiyo-e prints. Not even paintings could capture the true essence of the outdoors that accompanied the sights; the smell of dampened grass after a storm...or the caress of wind billowing passed you.

"I never thought I would be able to see the country like this. The trip to Wakayama from Edo was the most I had ever seen… I was so happy...until I realized I'd be stuck in Wakayama for the rest of my life. I have always been nothing more than a girl in a box."A flock of white birds took to the morning skies, an orchestra of chirping following their ascent. She watched in wonder, hazel eyes aglow. "Tell me, Giri..."

"Yes, Hime-sama?"

"Do you believe what I have done is foolish?"

The muscles in his forearms had gone taut as his grip tightened on the reins. She could feel it.

"It is not my place to say."

Tsuru placed her small hand on his, until his whole body relaxed. "I ask that you speak freely."

He sighed deeply, "...I do not...think it was in your best interests to run away. The life of a vagrant is filled with nothing but struggle. What you want today could very well end up changing a month from now, or a year. And as long as you are alive, your father will search for you."

"I knew that when I decided to run away."

It didn't matter how many times she said that, for Giri doubted she truly grasped the magnitude of recent events.

"While I have never met your betrothed, I have heard from many that Lord Tsunanori is a good man."

"A good man that I had never met until the day before my wedding..." she said. In truth, her betrothed was not at all ugly; the life of decadence made him a bit stockier than most but he'd been a fetching young man all the same. Still...

"Yet, most arranged marriages are with couples with large age gaps. Lord Mitsusaida's son is only four years your senior."

This time, she didn't give any reply. Not long ago, the castle celebrated Tsuru-himegimi's sixteenth birthday, and with the celebration...the surprise of a date for a planned wedding. For many years, she'd managed to use an array of excuses to reject each suitor her father and mother chose. Many others in her family had been married as young as eight. And while the marriages were mere contracts until the women developed enough to bear still made her shudder.

Much to her own surprise, she didn't know Giri's exact age; she had never asked. But he had been under the service of the Mito family since long before she'd been born...meaning he was somewhere in his thirties. She knew all this, yet went over the detail in her head again and again. Why did it make her heart strain?

Quickly her hand withdrew from his on the reins, choosing to pet Otachi's pointy ears. While the princess mostly did it to soothe the hound, she knew she was doing it to soothe her own troubling doubts now.

"Whatever you have chosen to do, I will stand beside you... I am your sworn protector, until my death."

Sworn protector. Until death. Reiterated words that she no longer wished to hear. "Giri...please do not speak so solemnly."

A long yawn escaped her and she forgot to cover her mouth. Just a few days in Japan's countryside already dwindled her manners. Her parents would surely see their unladylike daughter a disgrace to their entire clan.

Who knew what Giri thought. Since she was a child, Tsuru could not remember him do anything undignifying in the presence of others. Never a yawn, or a belch, or even a stutter in his articulate speech. His hair and beard were always trimmed neatly, clothes straight and clean. He was, in every sense of the word...the most perfect samurai she'd ever come to know.

Her father may have been the one the whole castle worshipped...but even he had his days of being a bumbling fool. The best thing he'd ever done for her was give her Otachi to celebrate her engagement… He told her that maybe having a Kishu dog would help her adjust to her new life in the Kishu province. Perhaps that'd been just another way of pushing her away.

Giri was the stable rock that had always made everything right, always made her appear better than she actually was. Self consciousness washed over the princess at the thought of being so close to someone almost inhuman in nature.

"If you are tired, rest Hime-sama. It is a long trek."

"A-alright. Thank you." Already, Tsuru nodded off to the deep baritone that flowed from his lips like the strums of a musician's koto. Despite being on horseback, the steady gallop, and the feeling of her bodyguard's chest and arms holding her securely in place easily lulled her into a gentle slumber.

Giri looked down at his princess, face free from the wedding veil and kasa hat. She'd always had trouble sleeping in the castle since the wedding had been decided upon. A small smile lifted his usually solemn mouth for a fleeting moment. But he knew, as much as he feared it, that she would not have many moments to rest like this.

On the horizon, Giri spotted the diner and the fork in the road. On the outside wall...was a map. They'd fled the castle so quickly and without any prior planning, that this whole time he'd been relying on memory and the movement of the sun to chart where they were heading exactly. He needed that map, else they'd be stuck deciding left or right.

The mare shortened its strides a few yards from the view of the diner and Giri began to dismount.

"Forgive me for disturbing your sleep. I will be right back." he whispered.

Tsuru only nodded dazedly.

There were no customers around this early. That was his opportunity to move. He made swift and silent work of swiping the chart from the wall, slipping it into the folds of his green gi before making his way back to the horse.

Immediately, the owner appeared from the entrance.

"Hey! What's the big idea?! Why is everyone taking my map?!" He hobbled after him, waving a pan and ladle that spilled bits of curry and potatoes onto the dirt. A low growl emerged from Otachi's throat. As the owner neared the princess, that growl altered into an aggressive slew of barks. The shocked Tsuru gripped onto the scruff at the base of his neck to keep him from lunging off. Luckily, Giri already climbed into the saddle and kicked the horse with his heels. With a pained whinny, their mount darted onto the right side of the fork.

Tsuru looked back at the man at their rear, still chasing after them, with no hopes of ever catching up. "You just stole that map!"

"I did not want him to see our faces…"

Tsuru felt a twinge of guilt, but laughter betrayed her.

This confused Giri greatly. "What is it?" he frowned.

"Oh nothing. It just is exciting is all."

Even the honorable Giri, when the situation required, could do something undignifying after all.

They covered considerable distance in a short time and sure enough, the once restless Tsuru and Otachi were pulled back into their dreamland. The willow branches blotted the sun from view, allowing their eyelids to rest in the shade of the massive trees. Only Giri saw the two figures ahead on the narrow forest road. He steadied the mare to a trot until they could be more clearly perceived. Thankfully, it was not the shogun's men, and yet he recognized the red and pink figures all the same.

Mugen heard the clopping horseshoes coming up fast from behind them. Without any warning to his companion, he full body tackled the feather light girl into the brush beside the road.

"What are you doing?!" she shrieked, smacking his shoulders.

"Get down!"

The horse blazed passed. In that brief moment, the criminal and the samurai locked onto each other. Both of their hands drifted over the hilts of their swords, bating a move from the other. After making significant distance from the pair, they heard the rider snap the reins harder, leaving dust flooding the trail ahead of them.

"That was them! The people from the carriage!" Fuu jumped to her feet, pointing out the very obvious fact.

"We should stay off a' the roads, in case any others come this way. They might be bein' followed. You know your way to Uji through the woods?"

"Yeah. We'll be fine."

Fuu marched off, steps affirmed, though he was more than positive they'd be lost in a few short moments.

"We have arrived."

Giri got out of the saddle first, and held out a hand to aid his lady. She grasped it with complete trust, though being so exhausted, stumbled beside him. When they had passed through Uji, Giri had the courtesy of nudging her awake to see the commemorative statue of Lady Shikibu, author of the Tale of Genji. The quaint village had been beautiful in every right, simple...yet colorful but they passed through quicker than she would have liked.

Now, she was off to see another village...Fushimi. They however dismounted on the outskirts, in front of what appeared to be an abandoned farmhouse.

He did not stable the mare, nor lead it along. He merely tugged on the horse's straps, turning it around and yelled. After being roughly smacked on the thigh, the neighing horse bolted back towards the direction they came from.

Seeing that distressed Tsuru greatly, "Where will she go? Will she not get lost?"

"Do not worry. Horses know the way home."

Eventually the animal's silhouette disappeared and Tsuru looked up at Giri with a smile that he'd set such a majestic creature free. She'd been entirely unaware that he had done such out of kindness, but rather for their protection. While true they could cross large distances by horseback, people of Uji would more easily remember that crossing through, rather than a pair of pilgrims or vagrants walking from town to town. If they so desired another steed, they could easily afford it. For now, this would be their best shot at blending in with the general populace.

"I will be heading into town for provisions soon. I want you to stay here unti-"

"May I come with you?" Her eyes glimmered in the midday sunlight beating down on them. The stern samurai stroked his moustache, then tugged at the pointed hairs at the tip of his beard...contemplating.

"It is not safe for you to be walking the streets."

"Would it not be safer in large crowds? And with you by my side?"

Much doubt remained, but Giri humored her just this once. After all, they'd run from the castle to set her free; to see the countryside. Locking the inquisitive young woman in abandoned huts and dirty hovels would be no better than the inside of her bedchambers; much worse in fact. They'd come all this way. Surely, his princess should be given to chance to see what she dreamed of.

"Do not talk to anyone and stay close to me. It is best if you keep your head down."


After donning his large kasa hat and tightening the chin strap, he did the same for her, though the wedding veil was now removed.

Within the town, it was not the architecture nor the merchandise, but the people Tsuru found herself captivated most by. There were those of countless different occupations and walks of life here, all whose faces and styles of dress were unique. Giri watched her and every passerby that got too close to her, and the peculiar interest in them she displayed.

He'd never made mention they'd passed the two from the carriage they shared after departing from Wakayama. That girl in pink had been the first peasant she'd spoken to, and she took far too much interest in her, would continue to be indebted to her and that criminal. And with how lonely her caged life in the castle walls had been...surely she'd want to foolishly befriend them.

A lady, even one who forsook her title, deserved better than their ilk.

And yet… as he thought of how pitiful the peasants were that she found such interest in...he sought information in an area filled with them.

As they walked through the poorer district of Fushimi, it was as if the color from the people turned into a monochrome haze. Their drab clothes became dark and torn, their worn and sour faces drained of all life. Tsuru stuck closer to his arm now, and her smile soon faded. She still looked at every person they passed, not with fear, but with overwhelming pain.

He easily found the curio shop, and told her to wait underneath an awning as he went inside. There were things he needed to know...what information they'd released to the public about the princess' disappearance.

Restless Otachi repeatedly itched at his ear with his leg. She merely stood there, ever watching the stark reality of poverty.

A particular person caught her eye: a little girl stumbled along, steps awkward and clumsy due to the great weights teetering her small form one way, then the other. She carried a large sack of grain in one hand and a bundle on her back—a sleeping baby—nestled in fancier fabric than the child wore. Over the other peasant's rabble, the child sang a lullaby that Tsuru had never once heard in all her years.

Unwilling babysitting, beyond Bon Festival

The snow begins to fall, and the baby cries.

How can I be happy when Bon Festival is here?

When I have no kimono or sash to wear.

This child continues to cry, and is so mean to me,

As I grow thinner by the day.

I would quickly quit here and go back

To my parents' humble home over there

The sorrowful melody clutched at something deep in her chest. Tears formed at the tips of Tsuru's lashes. No one even took notice of the singing child…no one offered to help her carry the giant heap of grain, or complimented her soothing voice. While Tsuru watched through the constantly shifting tides of people, the curious Otachi took notice of the child and had approached first. While first jumping back, the little girl then reached out her open hand to pet the white dog who eagerly licked her arm in greeting.

"Hi doggy. Where did you come from?"

Discarding all her bodyguard's previous words, the princess left her post at the awning, meandering through the crowds to approach them.

"He is mine." Tsuru said.

As if struck with terror, the little girl didn't even bother to look up and bowed her head low. "Sorry…" She began to saunter off once more. The baby on her back awoke suddenly. She could only continue singing to hush the child whose cries pierced her ears.

Unwilling babysitting… If Tsuru had gone through with the marriage to Lord Tsunanori, it would have been her own child she'd be forced to bear. Even so, she would've had it so much easier than this poor girl before her now. This girl was most likely a servant; taken from her home to pay back a debt to a higher class family for her parents. Time and time again, she'd witnessed it at the castle. Girls like this...would've been her subjects.

To not know not have a reason to smile. No one should suffer a life like this.

"Little girl? Excuse me, little girl." Tsuru followed the child until she finally turned around. Her eyes looked so dreary as if they were looking far off into nothingness.

She took the little girl's open hand into her own and placed in it, a flat koban coin made of solid gold.

The child vigorously shook her head, "Miss, I don't know you." There was fear in her eyes...but at least the lost dreariness passed, " I don't-"

"Take this. Buy yourself something nice. Don't spend it all at once. And don't let anyone know about it. Use it only for you, okay?"

The little girl nodded slowly, and then beamed. "Thank you miss, thank you!"

Tsuru merely smiled and headed back into the crowds, the tail wagging puppy following after. The little girl looked on until the pretty lady and her pet disappeared passed the other residents of Fushimi.

Nearby, the silent samurai leaned against the building, arms folded in his sleeves. He watched the small exchange between Tsuru and the grubby child with the baby on her back but made no move to intervene. She thought that as she returned to him, he would've scolded her for running off and talking to strangers. He didn't.

"You cannot help everyone, Hime-sama. There is probably a thousand more children in Kyoto suffering the same fate, or worse."

"I can do a my part."

"If you had been in a position of power, you would have had the chance to help the whole country."

Her heart sank.

"Alas, those in power never understand the suffering of the feeble, the poor or the ill unless they have seen it with their own eyes. Ironic, is it not?"

After that, neither of them said another word. They soon left the district.

Fushimi Castle loomed far above the other buildings, reaching to the very heavens that the lower class strived to see. She never thought she'd find herself standing in the shadow of an imposing structure her own ancestors built. For once Tsuru felt small and insignificant; a lone ant beneath a mountain. If she had been in a position of power...there would be much she'd change. Alas, it might be too late.

A part of her wanted to go home, to sprout wings like her namesake and land in the midst of the palace garden. She'd play with her little sisters…and sit beside her parents at dinner like before. Home was so very far away now. Even if she returned, Edo would no longer be home. Home would be the side of strangers who would give their fake smiles.

She bent down to Otachi, wrapping her arms around his furry neck. "You and Giri are my home now, right boy?"

Otachi, whose ears flattened against his head, whined and furiously licked her check as if to tell her how much she meant to him. She giggled, hugging him all the tighter.

Before they'd left, Giri had struggled in his decision of bringing the princess' best friend along. But seeing her embracing Otachi, who had his tongue hanging out like a doofus, he knew he made the right choice that day.

It must have been seven hours ago since they began this walk. Hands shoved deep in his pockets, feet kicking stone after stone, Mugen watched Fuu's back as she pressed through bushes, and ducked under low hanging branches. Clumsy as always, she did trip, but always managed to steady herself and continue on. Amidst the shrubbery, an abundance of rabbits hopped and dashed from every corner. A sure sign of Spring. Not in all his life had Mugen seen such a great many of the pole eared creatures. He wondered what they tasted like. Pork? Or beef?

'Probably rat.' he affirmed in his mind.

One such rabbit bounced ahead of them on the grassy path, then stopped; the more they walked it would merely look back at them, nose twitching, and ears quirking before it set off again.

"I ain't seein' no village." He finally spoke up, spitting out the dry piece of chaff stuck in his gum. "Shoulda' let me take that map back there."

"You mean steal that map." Fuu rolled her eyes. "Well lucky us, we don't need a map. See? We have a guide." The beyond befuddled ex-criminal saw her finger aimed right at the little brown rabbit that had been feet ahead of them for the majority of their trek. "Usagi-san will show us the way."

He stopped, looked at her, brow quirked. Momentarily he believed she may really be as stupid as he always mocked her for. "...What ya gonna do? Ask it for directions?"

Her mouth fell open, "No I-"

"Oh I get it, your pet rat's gonna ask him for us. Or maybe Francisco the Mighty will."

The beetled that rested on his shoulder raised his horn. Little Momo squeaked. All three of them seemed like they were questioning her intuition and sense of direction. Or doubting...more likely.

"Ugh listen! Uji is known as Rabbit Road. They say if you follow one that looks back at you, you'll find your way."

"More a' your stupid superstitions. Face it girlie, we're lost."

"It was a joke, Mugen. I don't need a map, or a guide, or a superstition to tell me how to get home!"

A sensation of cold ice rippled through her body, forming goosebumps across her flesh. Home… That simple word had almost been stricken from the pages of her vocabulary. Upon the day that her mother died, the elusive concept of home had been buried along with her.

"The more time ya stall, the more you're provin' my point. Ya said it's this way, right?"

...They must have been walking for another hour...

"I see ya only complain about the walkin' when it's convenient for ya."

She didn't retort, instead ran to the edge of the forest cliff. Once lazily walking behind Fuu with hooded eyes, the moment he stood beside her on that hill, his eyes fully opened. Lush green valleys stretched for miles, overlooking a little hamlet centered within, thriving with colorful movement. A shimmering snake of crystal blue coiled through the middle of town, mirroring the glow of a hundred lanterns. Speckles meandered through the riverside markets, the colors of their clothes blending into a rainbow. They could see more little dots of what they guessed were fishermen casting their lines from a scarlet bridge.

Acres of tilled farmland surrounded the town on the river: the famous tea fields of Uji. The herbal aroma wafted into their nostrils even from the elevated distance.

She was home.

Time and time again, she had avoided this place, for it only ever served as a bleak reminder of an unalterable past. And yet she knew it would always linger on her conscious if she could not return and see it for what it was. Beautiful.

She was really here again. Three years gone by, and her wayward feet brought her back. They started down the steep hill, Fuu practically skipping all the way down til they reached the flat land. The walking now didn't seem the least bit tiring; the vibrancy had awoken their every sense.

By the time they made way through the bustling town streets, twilight arrived.

The further they traveled passed the many buildings, the more faces became haunting images of history. Dozens of pairs of eyes watched she and Mugen on the avenues, their hissing whispers worming into their ears. Fuu recognized them all; shopkeepers who she'd bought groceries from every other day; people who she shamefully begged to help buy her mother's medicine; and the...children who used to find pleasure in tormenting her.

One boy—now a young man that towered above her head—pointed their way with a group of others she recognized. Back then, she'd stood her ground, tumbling in the dirt, scraping knees, fighting back with all the strength her child self had. Her mother had always been the one to stop them.

How they laughed when her father never came back. How they never cared when her mother grew ill.

The seventeen year old kept her head down, but that didn't fool anyone. She couldn't hear precisely what they said….but it could only be insulting judging by their tones.

"Girlie, you know 'em?"

"...No." she lied, biting hard on her lip until the taste of copper coated her tongue.

"They seem ta' know you."

Those bastards snickered some mocking name even now, as if she was still that same child they viciously bullied all those years ago. The more the memories of the past flooded her brain, the more white hot rage clouded her better judgement. When one smirked at her, it was the final straw, and that's when she stomped towards them, fists ready to deck out a blow to the jaw.

Red suddenly covered her field of vision before she even made it to punching range. An inhuman growl interrupted any thought of what she planned to say.

"The fuck you smilin' about, kid? Want me to help ya make that grin a little wider?"

Fuu let out a small gasp as Mugen sized up the party mocking her, hand already gripped on the handle of his European blade. Cutting through the abdomens of such scrawny pansies would literally cost less than a minute of his time; would be well worth it too.

They saw his tattoos...and the scar on his brow and cheek. The roaches were smart enough to scamper into one of Uji's unnamed alleys, where the shadows of twilight concealed them.

Fuu's bout of adrenaline subsided and yet her heart continued thumping away. " didn't have to do that for me. I can stand up for myself."

"For you? I'm the one who's gettin' laughed at for hangin' with a whiny bitch that's got no figure."

"You jerk! They didn't say that." She raised a hand to slap his head, though the cocky man easily sidestepped the attack.

"They were thinkin' it."

She shook her head, but a smile snuck its way to her face. It'd be best to not broach him on the subject of doing nice things, as badly as it flattered her. Though their walk continued, Fuu didn't hang her head to avoid the stares of her old neighbors anymore. They could say anything they liked. But they couldn't touch her—not with this guy around. "After my mother died, I could barely afford enough to get by. I couldn't pay the taxes on the the regional daimyo and his retainers ended up confiscating the land to be sold again."

"Then why'd ya want to come back so bad?"

"Even if it isn't my house anymore, a new family is bound to have moved in. Maybe they renovated some parts of it." Incoming memories of a happier time came to mind, a time when Seizou and Kagami both sat at the dinner table, or grasped each of her hands when they walked through town. "For once…I'd like to see a whole happy family living there."

Fuu made one last stop on this side of town to an old wooden inn, that despite its appearance, had stood the test of time. There, a saggy skinned old man sat outside one of the windows, nursing a thin kiseru pipe. Breaths of smoke billowed towards the sunset that had tinged the whole sky a fiery orange.

"Hello again, Touma-san." Fuu approached him, bowing.

No smile tightened the fleshy skin of his jowls. Touma didn't even bother getting up from the bench. He'd only looked to the origin of the girl's voice, and then exhaled another puff at the flaming clouds. "My, you've grown. It's been quite a while."

"Yes, three years. I just came by to say hello to you and your wife." Usually, the old woman sat outside beside her husband when there were no customers, sipping a cup of green tea every evening; Fuu remembered this vividly. "Anou, where is your wife?"

"...She fell ill two winters passed. Hososhin took her in the night."

Hososhin… So the locals still believed demons caused the disease. Fuu knew, though didn't dare say, that the old man's wife had passed away from an illness same as her mother.

Mugen—choosing to remain quiet—recognized the peculiar name from his years in the Ryukyuan Islands. Many sailors on the docks, and even the native people would sing poetry to appease the "nasty little devils" so they did not spread the disease to the entire crew. All bullshit to him. If he couldn't see the demon known as Hososhin, it couldn't possibly exist. As for the lame idea of using poetry, that never ever worked to cure the ill.

"I'm sorry for your loss. She was a wonderful woman. Always kind to my mother and I."

"We are being cursed for our disloyalty to our lords…"

Fuu and Mugen looked to each other, then to the old man whose wrinkly lips thinned into a unseemly frown. His drooping eyes landed on Fuu now, causing her to hold in a breath. She wanted to back away, but found herself stuck there, only able to lower her own gaze to the dirt again in shame.

The innkeep blew smog right in their direction this time, the foul tendrils invading their lungs. "Tell me child, what has brought you back here after three years gone?"

"I finished my journey." she exhaled. "I wanted to see my old house again. And to show my traveling companion my village of birth."

"Do you plan to stay?"

"No. I'll be leaving again soon. I was going to ask if we could re-"

"Good." He interrupted her harshly. "It wasn't good of you to come. There is nothing for you here anymore, Fuu-chan."

"I don't...I don't understand."

Three times, he rigorously tapped the edge of the pipe against the bench, spilling out a pile of ash that carried off in the oncoming breeze. Touma stood up, though his back bended so crookedly, he could fold in half and snap like a branch. A man so feeble terrified her. "It'd be best for us all if you finish your business here quickly and leave." With that, the old man shuffled back into his inn, slamming the sliding door closed. He hadn't bothered to ask if they planned to stay the night.

Mugen scoffed, "Are all your old neighbors stuffy pricks?"

"No… He was never like this. Maybe his wife's death took a toll on him."

She pulled her companion from another bad memory, refusing to allow these strange encounters ruin the rest of her homecoming. They crossed the bridge to get to the lively strip on the other side of the river, passing the elegant statue of Lady Shikibu, knelt with scroll in hand.

At one point they sat down to eat a large portion of snacks at a gift shop. They watched a young dock hand on the riverfront training a bird to catch fish. Though enormous in size, Fuu could tell it was still young. It preened its brown feathers, pecking aggressively at the arms and hands of his owner who seemed fatigued by the constant display of disobedience. In the summer, Fuu remembered watching the locals use cormorant for fishing. ….She probably wouldn't be back here in time to see that this year.

After their small break, they pressed on. She looked at Mugen, who'd been very relaxed the whole trek through the village, while she'd been incredibly jumpy, expecting some other familiar face to dampen her mood.

It occurred to her then...what she had needed to come back here. The people were so unfriendly for reasons she could not understand, and Mugen, an outcast everywhere wasn't the least bit concerned over being judged or looked down upon… She needed his courage or at least a piece of his uncaring disposition. If she'd have come back last year, when she'd traveled alone from Nagasaki, the awful experience would've probably eaten her alive.

Orange and pink further engulfed the last traces of blue from the sky. Along the road, she stopped and bent over many times, picking any flower that caught her fancy until her hasty fingers arranged a small bouquet of pink and violet. All of the blossoms were spring azaleas: her mother's favorite.

They eventually neared two buildings nestled beside one another: a Shinto shrine and Buddhist Temple.

"What's with all the damn rabbits?" Mugen pointed to a shrine maiden selling porcelain bunnies. Everywhere they went, some dopey eyed rabbit statue watched them.

Fuu laughed, "Maybe if you would've let me finish before, you'd get it. It's Uji's symbol. The "looking back rabbit." Long ago, a Prince lost his way, and a rabbit brought him back to Uji. Now, the Ujigami shrine is dedicated to them."

Fuu's mother used to buy Mikaeri Usagi charms, a fond memory Fuu often revisited whenever she would buy fortunes for herself. Here, the mother and daughter had prayed many times. Only a little more walking now, and soon they'd be at the start of the plot.

Her old house was situated on a small hill that overlooked acres of tea and sunflower fields. While it had always been secluded, she liked it that way, as her and the other children didn't get along very well. After her father's unexplained departure, the relationship between her mother and the other villagers only grew more strained.

They were approaching….any minute now. Any minute.

They should've been there already.

Nothing about the oncoming scenery looked right at all. For a moment, Fuu thought to turn back and keep walking. All the plant life here had already died here. Charred and ruined piles of what once looked to be overgrown weeds landscaped the remains of the farmland. The withered weeds that were not burned and chopped away still stood, yet pathetically drooped to the soil below rather than reach for the rays of the sun. They were mere ghosts of their former selves.

Mugen saw his companion's pace had quickened. "You sure ya ain't lost? This place looks like shit."

Fuu ignored him, speed growing to a light jog, then faster and faster, until she sprinted up the incline of the hill, passed the forest of death closing in on each side of her. Suffocating every memory that remained... Several times the dirt felt as if it gave way beneath her, causing her to stumble, panting heavily as she did. Never once did she stop.

"Girlie...I think…"

Mugen could only run after, knowing not what to say.

It was the place. Of course it was. She'd run up this hill a thousand times over. These weren't weeds. No. Not weeds at all. They'd never been this...this ugly.

These were burnt, decaying sunflowers.

Mugen caught up to her only a few seconds after Fuu had stopped running, reaching the apex of the incline. Back facing him, the winded girl stood there for a time, inhaling, exhaling, inhaling. Again and again. It didn't help.

Azaleas slipped from her loosened grip. Her knees, once so resilient to press on, sank to the dirt.

Passed her, the ex-pirate did not see a beautiful farmhouse surrounded by blossoming kaede trees, nor any little children chasing after rabbits and butterflies, nor the new owners watching on fondly from the porch decks.

There was nothing. No house. No new tenants.

Just collapsed planks, and burnt stumps, and charred rubble. The kaede trees that did remain were already dead, their bark horribly mangled by fire. There was one thing new however: a sign stuck in the very center of the pitiful plot of land.

Let the fate of Kasumi Seizou serve as a warning to all Kakure Christian scum and their sympathizers.

"It's all gone."

The house and surrounding sunflower field had been torched less than a year ago judging by the appearance of the debris.

"It's all gone." Fuu repeated with a feeble whimper, the only sound she could muster. Until anger rose from the back of her throat. "Those bastards...the shogunate did this!"

If Fuu's mother had been alive and if Fuu had stayed,the shogun's men surely would've captured, tortured and left their corpses on public display. Perhaps they would have imprisoned them there and barred the doors from the outside... Instead, they used Fuu to find her father, following her across Japan until Kariya Kagetoki slit her father's throat right before her clouded eyes.

Mugen stepped beside her, "Just be happy ya weren't inside when it all burnt down."

Fuu's eyes flashed his way, and he knew now wasn't the time to say any other word, be it semi-sympathetic or not.

The girl got up and darted off once again, this time, a far distance from the back of where the house once was. Another Japanese maple—half of the rough surface of the bark already gone—slouched over a pathetic gathering of white stones. Some laid far from the others, kicked or thrown most likely. She frantically scrambled to right the appearance of the rocks, placing them back into an orderly fashion. It suddenly occurred to Mugen that this collection of stones used to mark a grave. And this tree… When their journey first began, she had said she'd watched for her father's return from a tree branch and fell, injuring her ankle.

"I didn't even have enough to afford a gravestone." she whispered.

Near it, laid another, smaller clump of rocks. It too had been damaged.

Her head tilted towards the smaller grave. "That was for our cat, Kabocha. He used to follow my mother everywhere before he died so I had her buried beside him."

Her hands continue to carefully stack the rocks on top of each other. Before she knew it, Mugen squatted next to her, also working to balance the arrangement. He didn't say a word, neither of them did, as they toiled to fix the desecrated graves. When their work was done, Fuu went back to retrieve the flowers she dropped, and stuck them in the crevice between two pebbles. While Mugen got up, brushing off his hands on his shorts, the girl remained knelt, back slumped.

"...I think I'd like to be alone for a while."

While he may not have ever had a home…and the idea of returning to Miyakojima down in the Ryukyus was an utter laugh, Mugen could only imagine what it felt like to cherish a memory...only to see it scattered to ashes in the wind. The least he could do was give her some private time.

"I'll find us a place ta' sleep."

She made a small noise of affirmation. Momo nuzzled her shaky palm once and scampered off ahead of Mugen.

He chose to go around where the house was, and through one of the old trails where the dead tea plants and sunflowers once stood. Scampering around in front of him, the flying squirrel sniffed at the dry, cakey earth and occasionally rose on his haunches to pick up a scent. Mugen didn't really know where to go; better to move aimlessly while he waited for Fuu to be done. He just followed the squirrel in case the damn thing wandered too far and Fuu had another panic attack. The day has already been bad enough as it was.

His gaze stayed on the clouds melding into warm colors for most of the walk, as his lungs breathed in the air that even now smelled of tea leaves...and a faint sweetness. Over time, the once tilled ground no longer felt like hard dirt and no longer did the dead plants crunch loudly underneath steel plated steps. Feet ahead, a grassy opening formed in the path and for once decaying sunflowers didn't surround it. Stalks of lively green sprouted at the rim of the circle and beyond. Their parasol leaves were full and healthy, not curled up like the rest of what he'd seen here.

At the edge of the small spot of grass, Momo crunched away at something. With his back turned, he did well in hiding some devious little secret. Brow raised, Mugen crept behind the animal who only moved away the closer he got. If his suspicions were accurate, he needed to make certain of what the animal ate.

"Whatcha' got there, ya little rat?"

Momo didn't turn around. Mugen did the only logical thing…

He pounced on the animal. Or at least tried to. The spry little rodent easily hopped out of the way, fleeing between the stalks of plants with the item stuffed in his puffy cheeks.

But he didn't need to give chase. Right at the tip of his nose, more of what he'd rightfully expected were scattered all across the soil. Mugen picked up one of the hard, shiny little black seeds and threw it in his mouth—shell and all. Sunflower seeds tasted pretty good. Though, the sweet smell of the flowers belied a much less sweet taste.

He got up, brushing off his haori and saw Francisco had flew to an umbrella sized leaf of the now unmistakable plant when he'd pounced on Momo.

The beetle had been with in their small party for quite a few days now… With the money they had, surely he wouldn't be needing to gamble in the foreseeable future.

"Well Francisco, this is it. Won't gotta spend seed money ta' feed ya anymore."

The lackadaisical beetle crawled along the leaf, nonplussed by the words of his owner.

"You hear me?! You're retired. You'll find a whole buffet here."

Mugen watched on, heart swelling with pride as his victorious beetle spread his little bug wings and took to the stars that began to appear in the dark blue canvas, perhaps to find more of his kind, or more seeds to eat. Maybe this growing field could serve as a new home… At least one of them could have that today.

That beetle, Francisco the Mighty, had been a legend in his own right, deserving a pedestal beside Rodrigues the Great before him.

"So long buddy." Mugen saluted.

It took time...but Fuu finally mustered enough courage to speak aloud. Drinking in a large gulp of air, Fuu promised herself she would not cry.

She would not cry.

"Okaa-san. I'm back." She didn't feel embarrassed for praying aloud like she thought she would've. If anything, a great weight had been lifted.

"I'm sorry it took me so long. A lot of stuff happened since I left home. I've been to so many places, and met so many people...and saw things that sound like they're straight out of story books. Sometimes it was scary. Other times, so much fun. And...I...I found my father…"

Wind flew through the surrounding field of dried husks, emitting a chattering rattle.

"Even though I promised myself I'd beat him up for abandoning the end, I couldn't bring myself to. We didn't get much time together, but I know the truth. I know why he left us and why you were never angry. And, I'm able to forgive him for everything now. I never understood so much as a child. I was so naive. And there's so much more I could've learned from you, had I just listened for once."

So many times she disobeyed. So many times she never apologized.

"In my travels, I even met my Grandmother. Crazy, huh? I understand what happened between you and her...and my father. I think...I would have done the same thing and left too. If you hadn't chosen to leave, well, I wouldn't even exist. She was very kind to me...but then, I was off on the road again to continue on my own journey. She misses you, Okaa-san. She still misses you every day. One day, after this journey ends, I will go to see her again. For both of us." she smiled. Remembering her tanto, Fuu retrieved it from the pleats of her kimono. On the red string, the charms—one a dog, the other a cat—were carved by hand for a beloved daughter. Fuu vowed to take good care of them.

"Right now, I have another loose end. ...I'm searching for one of the two men that helped me find my father. He's only five years older than me but….in a way he provided the paternal guidance I needed along the way."

Upon the day they all split ways, Jin had taken her father's old gray kimono and katana… This further cemented how he filled the once blank image of what she thought her father to be like when he was young. The outfit suited him greatly.

"Don't worry though, I'll be safe. I learned that traveling around isn't a very smart idea for young girls. My other companion is still my bodyguard. After two years I still owe him a debt. One hundred dango, as stupid as that sound. He's a bit...rough around the edges but I think you would've liked him if you met him."'

...Would her mother have approved?

"Truth is, Okaa-san...I...I think part of him is burdened by taking care of me. And I'm just hurting myself the more I stay with him. But...I'll be brave. By the time this journey ends, I'll be able to speak my mind to him…and even say goodbye if it comes to that. I don't want to live my life with regrets anymore."

A part of her suddenly feared Mugen would hear her, but she pressed on with her words, determined to finish.

"I wish you were here. You always knew the right things to do. I've missed you so much. Sometimes I feel like I've lost sight of what I want for my life. I wonder if I'll ever know what my future will hold. And Okaa-san...I'm sorry if I ever disappointed you."

"Been talkin' to your ma?"

A chill erupted from every bone in her body until her back straightened like a beam; Fuu hadn't the slightest clue how long he'd been standing there. "Y-yeah,"

Once more, Fuu lowered her head in respect to the stone monument. "This time, I won't run anymore. I'll come back here again, sooner than before. I promise. See you again, Okaa-san."

Although strands of chestnut hair concealed most of her face...he knew what her expression held.

Usually, Mugen said whatever the hell he felt, whenever the hell he felt like saying it. But this time, he didn't want to say that the dead couldn't hear, that praying was all bullshit to make people feel better about the concept of death, or when they just couldn't let go. For once in his damn life, he wished the fantasies he had always spat upon could come true for this utterly soul crushed girl kneeling there.

Fuu stood, legs quivering, not even bothering to brush the dirt from her knees. "I know what you're thinking. And maybe you're right. Maybe I'm wasting my time. ...But my mother prayed to Shinto Gods. My father prayed to a foreign one. And I'm their daughter. Even if my parents can't hear me, praying is the only way I have to honor their memory."

Mugen didn't say a word. Maybe at some point his fatalistic view of life had infected hers.

"Kasumi Seizou…" Fuu paused, then restarted. "My father built this house before I was born. Him and my mother both. They planted those sunflowers and the tea plants...toiled in the fields for hours on end even when I was a child. And now everything my father and mother loved… Everything they worked so hard for is gone."

"Not all of it."

He didn't say anything else, choosing instead to pivot and head back to the pathway of dead vegetation he'd emerged from only moments before she'd finished paying her respects.

The sun finally said its farewell after its long journey, resting behind the westward mountains. Darkness fell upon the acres of land they stood in, and the once gentle breeze dropped considerably in temperature. She shivered, hiding her hands within her pink sleeves, and hugged herself to shield off the cold of night.

"Where are you going?" Fuu questioned, though followed close behind.

"Followin' the scent of sunflowers, or whatever shit ya used to say."


All sources of light were snuffed out in this path of death, making the trail more of a black tunnel with no end. The shriveled leaves and stalks reached out towards her, tickling the bare skin of her neck and ankles until she felt itchy all over.

"It's so dark. I can't see-ah!"

Her feet must've tripped over a root or some dead vine, plummeting forward. A sharp tug on her wrist steadied her back on her heels.

"Shit, you're pathetic. Can't even walk right."

He didn't retract his hold on her wrist. Instead, he maneuvered through the path of plants, yanking the stumbling Fuu along at his brusque pace and stride. She thanked the blanket of void darkness now; Mugen wouldn't be able to see the warm glow adorning her entire face.

"I ain't no expert but, those are your smelly flowers right?"

He'd stopped in the little opening in the sunflower field abruptly, Fuu's forehead crashing into his shoulder. She winced, squinting to see what he was talking about. Green buds surrounded by pointy leaves topped the tall stalks. In this particular spot, the wind carried trace aromas of sweet honey, sending the sunflower girl tumbling down into a spiral of nostalgia. She would've recognized them anywhere.

"Yes. Yes they are. They're growing. By summer...they'll bloom."

It was no longer bearable. The sharp sting in her eyes grew… One tear came, and the rest followed in a stream that made her cold cheeks burn. As his hand slipped from her wrist, it gave the opportunity to cover her soaked lashes in the crook of an arm.

"Thank you Mugen. Thank you so much."

"Ey, cryin' just makes ya look more pathetic."

"I know...I just can't help it." She half laughed, gasping for air through strangled sobs. "Everything keeps disappearing...and I can't hold onto it. It's like I'm always late. So so late."

He sighed as she sniveled, making no more moves to comfort her. He'd done so in the past...and it ended up breaking something inside of him that he very much wanted to keep together. He collapsed, back first, onto the mat of grass below them,"Tears ain't gonna change nothin'. Your old house is gone. Your parents are gone. The shogunate's still after us. But right now, we're still here. And if Four-Eyes is careful, he's still out there somewhere. All we gotta do now is find his dumb ass."

Containing her waves of emotion as much as she could, Fuu laid down a small distance from him. Every breath escaped erratically in recovery bursts closer to hiccups than exhales. He knew the stupid woman probably couldn't even speak in this state. He did the talking for her.

"...You were wrong before. Praying ain't the only way ya got to honor them. You can live. Live and remember them. Talk about every memory ya got until ya just can't forget. Tell Four-Eyes… And…someday, tell your little brats about 'em too. If the memory don't live on, then you're the one who killed 'em."

Fuu was taken aback by the clarity in his words. But more than that, the glance into a possible future for her… Children one day hadn't ever crossed her mind. Most girls must have dreams of their wedding day with their handsome husband, the perfect ceremony, the house they'd share and the children they'd come to raise. Regrettably, when she started her first journey, all hopeful thoughts like that simply ceased to be.

But here Mugen was, of all people, bringing up such a domestic, normal idea. The picture of her children and future still remained a hazy mess.

And yet…the idea…sounded rather nice.

Her broken breaths finally steadied, "You think I could...have a family one day?"

"By how often ya get kidnapped, I'm surprised ya ain't knocked up already."

In this dark field, they could barely see each other's faces...but hearing the sound of her laugh was reassurance enough.

"Or maybe some chump will actually fall for a girl as unattractive as you."

"I bet a lot of chumps already have."

"You wish." he smirked. But it faded quickly.

How long did he plan to kid himself on the subject? Not once had his final plan changed for the end of this trip; he'd deliver her to Jin, now the owner of a dojo in Hiroshima. There, she'd have a home, and a husband where they could start all over and live happily ever after. With all their stupid, fish faced, four-eyed, mute children. That'd be the end of it.

No. It wouldn't be the end of it. It hadn't ended every time he fled their promise. Hadn't ended when their journey ended. Not when he saw her again, by chance, or fate...

Not even now.

Fuu, still hanging off of his earlier words, spoke again, "Can someone have a family if they're always running from the law?"

"Don't know. Never knew anyone who tried."

She rolled over to her side, fingers almost reaching...wishing with all her might, that she'd be able to see how close in the darkness he laid beside her. Her wish was answered.

Streaks of lunar light prodded the clouds open, landing on their private little nighttime sanctuary. Mugen laid there in all his lazy glory and she realized...she hadn't even needed the sight to imagine him perfectly. His arms were folded behind his bushy head and his legs were sprawled out, taking up far more space in the grass clearing than her. Except...his expression was not what she pictured at all. His eyes traveled from one star to another. The tightening of his brow and the frown on his face revealed his contemplation was of something...something she did not know. Another thought she would never be able to scrape out of his mind... But she wanted to know.

She wanted to know everything...everything about this enigmatic man.

How could he be so far away at arm's reach…



"I will live. And I'll keep the memories of my parents alive."

He grunted, gaze never leaving the sky. Fuu wasn't finished.

"And...let's make more memories together, okay?"


"Memories I can tell Jin and his children about. And one day my children. day yours too."

The crafty woman had flipped his words back at him, and he heard the strangeness of the statement for himself.

Mugen's eyes widened, as he finally rolled his head to see her. Her twinkling brown eyes caught his, unblinking, and there he saw she'd dried her tears and smiled. Neither removed their gazes, watching how both their breaths grew heavy, how both their mouths parted to say some word, any word. ...Words were not what they desired to speak nor hear.

She readied to move closer.

He readied to do the same.

...until a cloud shrouded the crescent celestial body, leaving them in pitch darkness once more. And suddenly, they were in reality again. She was just Fuu, and he was just Mugen: two unlikely travelers off to find Jin.

So neither did a thing, only laid there, waiting...for nothing at all.

Mugen knew Fuu had been right; a person who was wanted by the law...or followed by those fueled by vengeance could never settle down. He doubted he'd even live long enough to have a child, let alone raise one.

Fuu had a future, but he knew he just wasn't a part of it.

"Yeah. Sure." he said, answering her previous statement, though it sounded very disregarding. "Now wipe the snot from your face and go ta' sleep."

"Kay, night night Mugen."


Fuu realized then… that she wouldn't need a looking back rabbit to tell her fortune anymore. Just as she didn't really need a looking back rabbit to guide her across this journey. She'd let Mugen walk ahead...and he could look back if she strayed too far behind his heels. From there, they'd make their own path, and make their own fortune. Good or bad.

She rolled back over, and looked up at what had once captivated Mugen's attention. So many platinum gems glittered above..never to touch. Never to find their way to each other through the roiling waves of clouds in the sea of black. Fuu always wanted to ask Mugen what he thought of the stars, but he'd probably already closed his eyes. Another night where she'd lay awake, and couldn't ask.

They'd look up at the countless stars together again, when the timing was just right… Maybe they could make shapes out of them. Or make wishes.

Someday, on another bed of grass, under these same stars, they would make another memory.

~To Be Continued~

[A/N]: I have always wanted Fuu and Mugen to sleep in a sunflower field. It may be one that is only growing….but also feels like it better suits them and their growing relationship. Nothing looks perfect.

Lullaby of Takeda: the song tells of a servant girl forced to take care of a baby, and wishing to go home to her family across the mountain. It is unknown when exactly this song originated, but it is from the Fushimi area. This is where Tsuru and Giri are. Because of it pertaining to poverty, and being forced to work far from home, the song became the theme for the Buraku Liberation League in the 1960s. Buraku were a mistreated community at the lowest of Japanese social order due to their occupations involved with death. These included undertakers, slaughterhouse workers, tanners, etc.

This song will be Tsuru's theme for all her future chapters.

"A Girl in a Box."- Tsuru describes herself as this to Giri. The term "Hakoirimusume" in Japanese is a metaphor for a rich noble who has little freedom due to being overprotected. The western saying for this would be: "a bird in a gilded cage". Tsuru's name literally means crane as well.

Hososhin- "smallpox demon". In old Japan, people believed the rampant disease may have been caused by small, impish demons. They were said to fear dogs and the color red. (Guess Mugen is doubly safe). People would display red dolls to scare them away. In the Ryukyuan Islands, they had a very unique tradition where they would sing poetry and also perform "lion dances" for a patient in red clothes to glorify the creatures, and thus cure the ailment. Since multiple epidemics occurred until its eradication in 1980, this seems to be a plausible cause for Fuu's mother's death since sickness was the only information provided to us about it.

The Tale of Genji- Considered by many to be the first novel ever created. It was written by the noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century.

Uji- historical town southeast of Kyoto. The Ujigami-jinja is said to be the oldest shrine in all of Japan. The last chapters of the Tale of Genji take place here and there is a statue and museum commemorating this. In the summer, there is an event where people use cormorant birds to catch fish. Most of all, Uji is known for growing the highest quality green tea.

As was mentioned in an earlier chapter, this is what I imagine Fuu's village of birth to be. This was based off of the mention of Uji in the lyrics to Shiki no Uta. On my tumblr I made a small essay furthering my belief. Fuu is called "Beauty looking backwards" or "Mikaeri Bijin" and the symbol of Uji is the "looking back rabbit" or "Mikaeri Usagi". Also, in the image of the ending credits showing Fuu's father looking back...we can see small green plants beside him that look very much like tea leaves. Let me know if you'd like a link to the full essay.

Francisco: *rolling along an unconscious animal with his horn*

Momo: *collapsed on his back*

Fuu: Momo-san! What happened to you?!

Mugen: Looks like he's in a food coma. Bastard was probably eatin' sunflower seeds all night.

Fuu: How many did you eat?!

Momo: *squeeeak* (More than 50….less than 1000)

Sad to say, the princess, the samurai and the dog will not be reappearing for several chapters. Some time needs to pass first before they become involved again. PLEASE do not forget them!

So do people still read this? Follow, Favorite and most all Review your thoughts or questions :) And does anyone want some angst? Next chapter will be an angst overload.

End of Chapter 33