Disclaimer: I don't own Samurai Champloo or any of its affiliated characters, which belong to Manglobe/Shimoigusa Champloos. Neither do I own the haiku of Matsuo Basho (translation by R.H. Blyth, this chapter), nor the Precepts of Kato Kiyomasa.

A/N: Last time pays for all, I think. Thanks, kids; I love every one of you.

Much love to FarStrider, beta extraordinary.

Nenju

XXXVI. Is still tolling the bell

The first time that Jin had died, the sun had been setting: the sky gone the color of ripe peaches, the ocean a quicksilver streak stretching to the horizon.

"A promise is a promise," Mugen told him. "It's time to settle up."

"So it would seem."

He'd never know which of them had struck first, or even remember the act of bringing his father's katana up: he felt the blade strike home against Mugen's sword, and the dizzying sensation of something tearing where Kariya had run him through. He slumped over, the Ryukyuan's face drawn with the same blinding pain in his side.

"Would you look at us?" Mugen told him, as a wave of heat washed over him, his vision condensing to a single point —

— Jin heard himself answering the other man as if from far away, as he thought: I am dying

— as he fell to the hard packed surface of the beach, world gone dark and he'd surrendered himself to it willingly, before the light was in his eyes and the Ryukyuan was stirring next to him.

The second time that Jin died, the sun was rising, sky gone the color of blood.

"We have to get out of here," Mugen called out to him from the direction of the boats, as he cut down another of the shogun's men; use your weight, Mariya-dono's voice lectured over the top of the Ryukyuan. Find your center and follow the sword

— he slashed over, then down, registering briefly the man in front of him as he fell to the wooden planks, face gone blank as a puppet with cut strings —

— another taking his place, as he drew the katana to the side: be aware always of where the momentum will take you, Mariya-dono told him as the man slumped over. He looked up, ready for the next, as the shogun's men readied themselves for another onslaught —

"Quit screwing around," Mugen shouted. "Let's go!"

ah, the boat.

Jin turned, cutting his way through the crowd as he made his way to where the Ryukyuan was climbing into the boat. There were enough of the dead lying on the pier that they would slow the shogun's men, long enough for them to be halfway to the ship by the time the government reached the water's edge.

In front of him, Mugen stiffened, his eyes on something at the far end of the pier; he shouted something as Jin turned. It was the old ninja, the one they'd met on the road from Mihara and the twins, moving as quickly toward them as a bird —

— overhead, crows wheeled through the sky, carking harshly. Jin looked back toward the boat. Was his life worth it, if he could slow them long enough to give Mugen a chance to get her away safely?

Yes.

He smiled at her; she would never forgive him, he knew, but she'd be alive.

"Take care of Fuu," he said to Mugen, and gave the boat a shove to get it on its way.

Then the man was on him: he brought the katana up, blocking the blow, as the strike of metal on metal rang out.

Panting, Jin spared a glance behind him — the boat was out in the middle of the harbor, the rowers pulling for the ship. The government men had their attention focused on him; it was a matter of moments before they noticed the boat was gone and Fuu and Mugen with it, but he'd buy as much time for their escape as he could.

There were more than he could kill, he knew, but he owed a death, anyway.

The ninja attacked again, and he parried the blow —

— as pain and heat bloomed in his side.

Jin looked down; there was a blade protruding from under his ribs, bright blood coursing down the metal.

The fat ninja stopped, wiping his kodachi on his sleeve as he watched Jin drop to his knees. The man looked up as the blade was pulled out, and the ninja who had run Jin through from behind walked around; they began talking about taking him to the shogun's counselor, a man named Kuroda, debating whether or not Jin would die on the way as the world went to darkness —

Time to settle up.

In the first day after he was taken prisoner, Jin woke to find himself inside a cell and a stranger tending the wound in his side.

He closed his eyes, willing himself to feel the touch of small hands combing his hair; the man finished wrapping bandages round his middle and chuckled. "Good enough," the man said. "I don't think you'll collapse in the middle of being interrogated — lucky for you the counselor dislikes torture. Physical kind, anyway."

He was so tired.

He was so tired, and it would have been so easy to give in, to tell them whatever they wanted, anything they wanted.

Jin's head ached. Every phrase was laden with meaning, with Kuroda's intent scrutiny, and even the slightest slip would mean they were another step closer to finding them; every word hung like a stone around his neck, and he was so tired, and they were gone and he was alone —

The door clanged shut, with a sound like dirt being piled over it.

In the first few months, Jin told himself he could wait.

He began sleeping as much as he could; he still slept lightly, but in a place where such a large amount of nothing happened, sleep was the only thing he could do. His dreams were vivid, as full of color and sound and life as his cell was not.

He dreamed of arguing with Mugen over how to train flying squirrels to speak.

He dreamed of being a small sleepy boy at the dojo, Mariya-dono carrying him toward his futon.

He dreamed of walking along a riverbank with Yukimaru, the night sky lit above them by burning men falling into the water.

He dreamed of Fuu soft and responsive under him, her back arching as she moved with him.

He dreamed.

Sometime in the fifth month of his imprisonment, Jin realized that he was slowly going insane.

He realized too that he didn't mind, all that much.

"I didn't tell them," he said.

Fuu looked up from the small bundle she held to her breast, as she sat inside the cell. "You'll die," she told him with great equanimity, before holding the infant up for him to see. "I named him Chozaburo, after your father. Do you think he'll fail too?"

The bundle cooed as he took it from her. There was a cloth covering the child's face; Jin drew it back — the child was going to suffocate, he had to do something — only to find another layer of cloth, then another and another. Feverishly, he unraveled the wrappings as Fuu looked on with a smile, swaddling clothes falling at his feet, unwinding them completely to find that the infant was gone.

He raised his head as the last of the cloth slipped through his fingers, soft as plum blossoms; his breath caught in his throat as Yukimaru cocked his head to one side. "Can you do anything right?" the younger man asked, getting to his feet and walking toward him. "Even Ogura was better than you are."

"I — " Fuu was gone, if she had ever really been there. He could smell the thick copper reek of blood on Yukimaru, the rotten meat smell of death and decay coming off him in waves; teeth were clearly visible through his cheek.

"You'll be as dead as I am," the other man said, his mouth close to Jin's ear, and it was all he could do not to keep from skittering backwards into the bars. "As Shishou. What a waste you are — he should've given the Mujuu to anyone but you."

"Yukimaru — " Jin whispered, misery twining cold fingers through his gut.

"You'll die," the corpse repeated, grinning. "But it's going to take such a long time, Jin-nii."

Kuroda watched, his broad face impassive as the unseeing man inside the cell muttered to himself.

"He's been like that for a day, sir," the guard told him anxiously. "We didn't know if he was talking to us, but then Hasegawa heard him say something about the Hand of God, and we knew he had some connection to the Christians, so we thought he had information — I hope we acted correctly in telling you."

The shogun's counselor nodded, his eyes shifting for a moment from the huddled figure to the guard. "Yes," he said. "You're young, it's hardly surprising you wouldn't know of the Hand of God."

"Is he one of the Christians, sir?"

Slowly, Kuroda shook his head. "No. He was not," he said. "The Hand of God was a kenjutsu master. The kenjutsu master — there was no one living who could kill him."

The guard looked back at Jin. "Did he know the Hand of God?"

Kuroda frowned, but did not reprimand the guard for his curiosity; it would keep them on their toes, he thought — "The last time I saw the Hand of God, he agreed to kill this man. That was four years ago: this man is still alive, and the master has not been seen since that time."

The guard's eyes widened. "Do you think he killed him?" he asked, then caught sight of the disapproving expression on the stocky man's face. "My apologies, sir — I don't mean to question you."

The shogun's counselor grunted, his face gone remote once again. "I think you should remember that this is a very dangerous man," he said repressively. "Even now."

"Should we inform you, the next time?"

Kuroda nodded. "Report to me on what he says. And if he comes out of this, tell me. Who knows?" He chuckled. "If nothing else, he could entertain me at shogi."

"What did I teach you?" Mariya-dono asked.

"You're not there," Jin answered tiredly. "None of you are. You'll be gone soon. I just have to wait long enough."

"Really?" The older man's eyebrows rose. "You're a great lord, then, that you can be rude to any guest, no matter how imaginary?"

The rusty chuckle coming from his own throat surprised Jin; it sounded like the creaking of a door, but it was a chuckle.

"Hn." His shishou looked around the cell with interest. "They've decided to keep you. How very interesting."

"Mm?"

"If you were not worth keeping, you'd have been dead for months and your head would be rotting on a pike," Mariya-dono pointed out. "Really, Jin, I expected better from you. I would never have made you heir to the Mujuu, had I known you could become this dull-witted. What are the two greatest weapons you have? You learned this even before you learned to count beyond your fingers."

"My sword and my mind," Jin whispered.

"Your sword and your mind. Exactly." His guest rubbed his thumb over a rough place on the iron bars, tsking with disgust at the corroded metal. "You may not have your sword, but you still have your mind. Or all its pieces, at any rate."

Jin was silent.

"This will not last forever," his shishou told him, holding up his hand to show him the red-brown stain on his palm. "Be patient. Learn what there is to be learned."

Sometime in the second year of his imprisonment, Jin slowly began to put his pieces together.

"So," Kuroda said, as he moved his pawn. "Your guards tell me you've decided to live."

"Do they?" Jin answered, not raising his eyes from the game set between them. "I was not told of this."

The shogun's counselor laughed. "Still making up your mind?"

Jin picked up a knight in his long fingers, moving it carefully instead of answering.

"Hm." Kuroda scratched his scalp. "The girl and the criminal are hardly worth dying for — her father was a traitor to this country, and it's no secret the criminal threatened to kill you himself. I'm sure by this time, they've forgotten all about you. Why would you be loyal to people like that, who left you here to rot?"

Jin tucked his hands into his fraying sleeves, absorbed in studying the board.

"I'm sure they think of you often. They might even talk about how noble you were, sacrificing yourself for them. Who knows," the stocky man said, voice sly. "Maybe she even forgets and calls him by your name when his head is on her pillow."

"Hn."

Kuroda eyed him, then slid a silver general toward the side. "Your move. What will you do?"

"'Having been born into the house of a warrior, one's intentions should be to grasp the long and the short swords and to die,' Jin told him, moving the knight in for promotion.

The shogun's counselor saw that his king was in check; Kuroda crossed his arms over his chest. "You're so ready to die?" he asked, as he would ask again, and again over in the months that followed.

His answer, as always, was a bleak smile.

His first thought as they crossed the courtyard was that, somehow, it was snowing.

The air was full of swirling flakes, the thick smell of fire in the air. It was summer, he thought, appalled; he couldn't have missed a full season, he couldn't have — The guards on either side of him paid the snow no attention, hurrying him across from the wing of the building that contained his cell toward the room where he met the shogun's counselor for shogi — he put his hand out, snow landing on his outstretched palm.

Instead of the icy sting he was expecting, there was nothing; Jin rubbed the pads of his fingers together, smearing the flakes into a dull gray streak over his skin. It was ash, he realized.

They walked past a fire laid in the center of the courtyard, and now he saw footmen feeding scrolls and record books into the flames, too quickly for the fire to burn everything clean; the stones of the courtyard were becoming sooty with the charred fragments, his feet sliding on the slickness.

The guards marched him through the courtyard, into Kuroda's room. The table was not set for shogi, covered instead with paper and inkstones and — Jin caught sight of what was on the table, sitting amid the clutter, as his heart began to thud like a war drum inside his chest. It wasn't possible, after all this time —

The older man made a notation in his ledger, a quick scrawl before looking up at his prisoner. "You're very fortunate," Kuroda said, the familiar sardonic edge to his voice. "We're letting you go. The shogunate has no use for someone like you." He nodded to the guards. "Once you have broken his hands, return the swords to him."

"Break them, my lord?"

The shogun's counselor nodded absently, as he ran his finger down a list. "There are few enough people who play shogi well," he said. "But neither do I want him able to use a sword again."

In the end, the pain was not as bad as he'd thought it would be.

It was, in fact, worse.

They left him at the bottom of the bridge leading to Deshima, cradling his wounded hands against his chest.

The old wooden bridge had been replaced, he saw, one of stone taking its place; Jouji had been busy, he thought, as the distant buzz of people came out from the gate.

He ignored them, focusing instead on staying aware of the world around him through the haze blurring the edges of his vision. There was excited chatter, voices ebbing and flowing around him, then the familiar deep boom as Jouji's face peered down at him. The European looked appalled — Jin wondered how horrifying he looked, a moment before losing consciousness.

He woke to find the firefly assassin tending his wounds, Jouji hovering anxiously at his shoulder. "I've given him as much of the syrup of poppies as I can without killing him, but his hands — " the man said, as Jin tried to remember his name. "At least there were only two that broke the skin. He'll have some use once they heal, but he'll never draw a sword again."

"Can you reset the bones?" Jouji asked. "If they're — "

The assassin shook his head. "There's no way to know how much damage was done." He picked up Jin's hand, beginning to bandage the twisted fingers; there was a dull throb there, enough to rouse him from sleep, but not enough to keep him awake.

"The shogun is dead," Jouji told him.

The firefly assassin was nowhere to be seen, the European trader pouring the tea for both of them; Jin sat openly in the chief factor's house, after sleeping for what the man told him was a day and a half.

"He was succeeded by his brother, Tsunayoshi, who is . . . " Jouji frowned into his cup. "A very different person. I'm afraid he will be most challenging for my successor."

"Your successor?" Jin carefully grasped the tea in his bandaged hands, before noting that they were steadier than they had been. He took a sip, blinking at the sweetness; the other man had insisted on adding a generous amount of sugar.

"Yes. I should have been replaced a few years ago, but I managed to persuade the directors I should be kept on. I will miss this country," Jouji said wistfully. "I've grown accustomed to this life."

"Hn." Jin gave him a faint smile.

Jouji raised an eyebrow at him and grinned. "Yes. I go to Batavia, next — poor Inuyama, I've convinced him to come with me. Or the shogunate has. Either way, we leave in a matter of months, once someone is chosen by the directors and makes his way out here," he said. "But the shogun — things were lax, even before you three arrived here, but they became much worse in the last year when he became ill. He hadn't named an heir, so . . . he managed to disappoint many people before he died: maybe choosing his brother was a way to atone for that, I don't know. We should be fine — the shogun has already expressed an interest in meeting us, and as it is, you are fortunate. One of the Takata vassals has already been ordered to suicide, for misgovernment, and from what I hear, it's believed that he was the first of many."

"I see."

Jouji nodded to himself, smiling faintly. "I take it you don't plan to stay, new shogun or not."

"I'm too late, for what I am — I don't belong here."

"Then this is goodbye," Jouji said. "His ship will come to meet you halfway, so you'll see him soon — it will be a little longer to see her, but you'll arrive."

"Ah." Jin smiled.

Jouji chuckled. "Tell them . . . " He shrugged. "Just tell them."

"I will." There was the comforting click of beads from the nenju at his wrist, as familiar to him as the polished floor at the Mujuu where he'd received it; Jin pulled the prayer bracelet off, handing it to an astonished Jouji. "Here."

"But this is yours — "

Jin shook his head. "I have what I need."

He waited, scrubbing a hand through his hair, as Jin turned to face him.

"Mugen," he said by way of greeting.

Life in Ryukyu had agreed with Mugen: he was still lean and wiry, but he was no longer the same starveling creature he'd met in the Edo teahouse. He'd filled out — his arms were thicker, probably due to life aboard ship, and the sharp bony knees were surrounded by heavy muscle. The tattooed wrists were the same, though, as was the scarred cheek and the wild hair.

And, of course, the personality.

"You look like shit, fish face." Mugen said, his voice slightly rough. "You dead?"

Jin shook his head. "No."

The Ryukyuan grunted, his eyes moving to the bandages. "What happened?"

"They were broken."

Mugen drew in a quick, hissing breath before nodding. "She'll be happy, anyway," he said, before raising his voice. "Oi, Shuri — turn this piece of crap around."

"What?" The skinny sailor jerked around, keeping hold of the tiller while staring incredulously at Mugen.

"Home, dumbass."

"Aw, man!"

"Pissing me off, Shuri — I'm starting to wonder if Iehisa would make a good pilot," Mugen warned, the other sailors beginning to laugh as the skinny man grumbled and did what he was told. Mugen subsided, but quietly kept his eye on Shuri; Jin realized the Ryukyuan was —

"This is your ship," Jin said, as Mugen nodded.

"Started out Fuu's," the Ryukyuan said. "She won it off Shuri, there — could've told him don't gamble against women, because you're going to lose your ass." He rocked back on his heels.

"She won it?"

Mugen grinned. "I wanted to kill her when she made that bet with him — knows her dice, though: she won it off him in one throw, and turned around and gave it to me because she doesn't like boats."

Jin chuckled.

"Anyway, almost there." The Ryukyuan pointed at a green mass rising out of the ocean. "I'll drop you off — we should be able to reach the mainland in a day, day and a half. Once you're on the beach, there's a path that goes up the hill — go up the path, and you can't miss it."

"Thank you."

Mugen cocked an eyebrow. "I'd take you up there, but then . . . don't think I wanna stay to see it."

Jin climbed the hill, the path scuffed and worn underfoot. He looked around him, hoping to see some sign of her presence: this was the path she used, he thought. When she walked this way, these were the trees she saw, the same rocks that crunched underfoot.

There was a clacking sound coming from the comfortable-looking house at the top of the hill, as he reached the end of the path. Most of the screens had been pushed open, away from the wooden posts that supported the low tile roof; the house angled round a small, tidy courtyard, a stone wall at one end with what looked like a tiny fruit tree blooming extravagantly in a tub against it.

The clacking grew louder as he crossed the courtyard, the level ground kinder to his body. It had been so long since he'd walked any distance, he realized, his stomach gone to knots; she couldn't want him the way he was, how could she, he was useless and weak —

He froze, the step up squeaking loudly as he put his weight on it. It was audible even over the noise of the house, the clacking coming to an abrupt halt.

"Mugen?" she called. "Are you back already?"

Jin climbed the next step, stepping onto the engawa; she was seated in front of a large wooden frame with an oblong of cloth stretched inside it, her back to him. She wore a brown kimono for working, her hair pulled back untidily and the collar drooping low between her shoulder blades, and she was so beautiful that it hurt.

"Mugen?" She was weaving, he saw; she finished doing something to the cloth, standing up slowly as she twisted round —

— and looked directly at him.

For a long moment in which he heard only the sound of the ocean and the beating of his own heart, they stared at each other, her eyes gone wide and dark. It was impossible to move; he opened his mouth, knowing that any words he could have found were as nothing —

— then, as she began to sink to the floor, the moment was gone and he moved to catch Fuu: they ended in a huddle on the wooden planks, her mouth pressed to his temple and his thighs against her hip. "Jin," she said.

Her wooden shuttle dangled off the edge of the dark indigo cloth, the loom forgotten.

"Your hands — "

"It's nothing," he said patiently, feeling dissatisfied with how this was going. This . . . was not how he was supposed to find her; she was supposed to throw herself at him, he'd catch her, he'd take her to bed and then he'd go find the Ryukyuan, to thank him for getting her here and then to beat him soundly for setting her up in a house where anyone could find her, though he was willing to compromise on the last part to giving him a good kicking. "They're not important. What — where does Mugen sleep?"

She gave Jin a distracted look, still holding his hands as if they were made of glass. "Mugen? At home, unless he's at sea. I haven't seen him for a few days."

"He's not living here?"

"No. This is my house," she said. "Your house now, too."

"Ah." She was older than he remembered her, sharper, as if he would be able to feel the long angular edge of her bones if he touched her cheek. Slowly, he brought his hand up to brush the inside of his wrist against the fluttering at the base of her throat; she closed her eyes as he leaned forward to press his lips there.

"I missed you," she whispered.

She swallowed hard, her hands threaded into his hair, her breath quick and soft on his skin. He bent toward her, as careful as a courtier — and at the instant he touched his mouth to hers, at that instant, he realized it was not Ryukyu he had come to so much as it was the country that was Fuu.

Slowly, the world unfolded around them again, as she leaned into him and languorously pulled away. "Um," she said.

"Hn," he agreed and kissed her mouth.

She cuddled against him, her breathing evening out as she reached up to tug the leather tie away from where it hung drunkenly in his hair; he watched, amused, as her eyes fluttered closed with tiredness, then sprang open again as she fought against sleep.

"Go to sleep," he soothed, feeling the strong pull of the comfortable futon.

She tugged the quilt up over them both. "Will you be here when I wake up?"

"Ah." Jin pressed his lips to the soft hair at her temple. "Always." He waited until she fell asleep, then closed his eyes.

He woke to find that the space next to him was empty; he blinked, looking up — she sat in front of a silver mirror, the long pins for her hair in a tray in front of her.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey." She looked over at him.

He rolled onto his side, watching her, waiting —

Fuu began to comb her hair, long careful strokes through the rich chestnut strands. "He thought you were dead," she said, her voice stilted. "When you — when the shogun's men were there, and we didn't see you, he thought they'd killed you. They took you away."

"Ah." He came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her shoulders; his hands throbbed, a dull pulse of pain that no longer mattered. "Did you?"

She put the comb down, looking at his reflection. "No." Her hands came up to touch his through the bandages, cupping them tenderly. "I couldn't."

Jin nodded.

"It feels like I'm dreaming," she said, and smiled. "A really good dream — you know, I've never seen you look that smug."

"Hm?" He bit the inside of his cheek to stifle the pleased grin that threatened to spill over.

She shook her head and grinned. "See? I can't even remember what I was talking about, now that you're here."

"Ah. Mugen," he prompted.

She chuckled. "You won't believe me, unless you see it."

He cocked an eyebrow in enquiry.

"Yatsuha." Fuu chortled, her eyes alight with what he recognized as sheer naughty glee.

His other eyebrow shot up alongside the first in surprise. "The ninja?"

She nodded, grinning, as she twisted round inside the circle of his arms to look directly at him. "She got here four months after we did," she said, her hands coming up loosely around his waist. "And then — "

"And then?" Jin pulled her closer, resting his chin on the top of her head. Her hair smelled of ginger and sweet fruit; he closed his eyes, content to breathe her in.

"Another four months after that, their first baby."

His eyes snapped open. "Baby?" He stepped back a little, just enough to look into her face as her laughter bubbled over.

"A little girl — Yatsuha named her Nadeshiko. And by the way, this makes you an uncle, apparently," Fuu added. "I keep looking around to see who Yatsuha's talking to, when she calls me Auntie in front of her."

"A baby . . . "Jin sat down abruptly on the rumpled futon and tugged Fuu onto his lap, as warm and light as sunlight against him. He used his forearms to adjust her so that she could rest against his shoulder, her heavy chestnut hair a silky river over his arm. "You said, 'their first'?"

She nodded, giggling, as his eyes widened. By all the gods —

"How many?" he said, hardly daring to ask.

"Two so far. The baby is Izumi — another girl — but Yatsuha's pregnant," she said. "Again. And she's in the stage now where everything makes her sick. I've been making so many things with ginger for her that I think it's soaking into my skin."

There was no resisting it; he laughed until the tears came, lying back on the wrinkled bedding. The thought of Mugen surrounded by a tribe of squabbling daughters — all of whom would eventually grow to look exactly like him, he had no doubt —

Fuu rolled off him, smiling, and leaned her head on her palm as she lay on her side against him. She ran her hand down over his chest, over his ribs and the sharp ridge of his hips; her eyes were thoughtful as her fingers traced the line of his bones, before splaying her hand over his belly. "You're so thin," she said. "I think I'm going to feed you until you can't move."

"Mm." He touched the curve of her hip. "Until I can't move?"

"Until you can't move," she agreed. "As a matter of fact, I don't think I want you to get up for the next month. Maybe two. We'll see."

A short huff of amusement escaped him. "I've slept too long already," he said, but nudged the pillow over to share it with her, curling around her body, his eyelids growing heavy.

She smiled and pressed a kiss against his shoulder. "Jin?"

"Mm?" He closed his eyes, content to drowse. They had more than enough time, he decided, a lifetime — he'd find Mugen later.

"Welcome home," she said, and he smiled.

-fin-