Disclaimer: I neither own nor profit from using the characters of Samurai Champloo, and all credit for said characters goes to their creator, Shinichiro Watanabe, and those who helped bring the story to the fans.

By the Water's Edge

Whenever the tide changed, the water rushed into the caves, over craggy grey rocks and its weight pushed the little sand hills tighter into the ground, and the waves ceased to fall as harshly upon the silken beaches he had come to love more than idea of the life that, ultimately, evaded his grasp. 'Two long years is nothing to the world,' thought Jin, 'but humans have no choice but to shift and bend with the force of nature in that short time.' In truth, Jin had believed he would be heartbroken when Shino said to him softly, "I cannot leave my sanctuary. This is my home now, but I thank you for your kindness and release you from any obligation you have felt for me," yet he'd discovered his feelings for the pretty and gracious woman had melted into nearly nothing. She'd gently closed the shrine doors, and Jin had turned and walked away, refusing to consider what might have been or what could be if only she felt differently, but he also found the incident affirmed to him that people are, if nothing else, indecisive or, less often, inscrutable creatures. He included himself amongst the inscrutable. Despite his personal feelings, he had never once thought Shino would have decided to move on-women always seemed, at least to him, to be more sure of their attachments than men were. In his brutally honest moments, he could say to anyone who might ask that he was grateful Shino had let him go so easily.

Two years after he'd walked away from Shino, Jin still wandered, and he frequently found himself dwelling on memories of another woman, Fuu, but he was too concerned he would disrupt her life to search for her and possibly cause her an unnecessary inconvenience. 'Let her be,' he told himself, 'Fuu deserves better,' and he continued his nomad's life, believing he was being honorable and decent where the girl was concerned. He brushed aside the voice that frequently told him she really wasn't a girl any longer and never had been when he'd known her even if she behaved like a child much of the time back then. Jin missed her petty squabbles with Mugen almost as much he missed her endearing compassion and intense sense of wonder over seemingly trivial details.

He finally settled gracefully into a life as a sword for hire, reluctant hero when needed and man at ease with his own past; people from whatever village he happened to come upon were always glad to have him at their tables for Jin never denied anyone, no matter how poor, protection or even manual labor. He sometimes wondered what Mugen or Fuu would think of the life he led; he lived simply, quietly and gave most of his profits to shrines for the care of the poor, keeping only what he needed for necessary living requirements. He was certain Mugen would call him a fool, but Fuu? She probably would have looked at him with her great, doe eyes and soft smile and, clapping her hands together, said, "Jin, that's so wonderful!" Fuu always thought the best of people even when she shouldn't, and the ronin didn't delude himself in the least. He gave the money away because keeping it would only mean more responsibility and one hellishly large headache. It was easier to wander, set up temporary homes in abandoned shacks and move on as needed, but he never failed to return to the sea where he'd once stood with a girl of fifteen and come very close to begging her to stay with him, forget about her quest, damn honor and damn promises, but he'd let her go and kept his own honor intact by doing so. Still, four years was a long time not to see the people he had come to love.

In the fifth year after leaving Fuu and Mugen at the crossroads, he heard news of the pirate's death, and it saddened him to think he would never have the opportunity to see his former companion again. Now he stood on the beach-their beach he called it-a small fire burning, thoughts of an enemy turned friend in his mind and dusk on the horizon; Jin wished he could find solace easily, but nothing worth having is easy to acquire, he believed. The salty, moist breeze pulled at his hair, haori and hakama, and his eyes watered as the stinging mist from the sea sprayed over the smooth lines of his face. Jin allowed himself to fall into his memories, contemplating his friends, their shaky beginning and wistful ending, and he even took a moment to consider Shino. He still couldn't forget the sense of relief he'd felt and not wanted to admit when the woman released him from his promise… Contemplating Shino meant thinking of Fuu and what she'd come to mean to him, and he had to wonder if she too knew of Mugen's death. He had no idea how the rough and rude man had died, and he assumed he would never know the answer. Staring into the deepening shadows and listening to the soothing caress of the waves against the beach, Jin was startled when a woman's voice said, "I've missed you."

He turned to face the speaker, his back to rushing waves, and Fuu appeared before him like a spirit summoned from the underworld, but this woman was flesh and blood.

"You should not have come here alone," Jin cursed his awkward words as he looked at the woman in front of him. In five years, her figure had filled out some, and she'd grown taller. Her beautiful hair, loose and blowing about in the wind, reflected a silvery blue sheen in the moonlight, but Fuu's eyes hadn't changed in the least. Her eyes were warm, filled with humor and the most beautiful shade of deep brown he'd ever seen. In short, every emotion of the girl she'd once been could still be seen in the depths of her eyes.

Fuu smiled at the ronin and joked, "I don't think you've ever said that much to me at one time since we met. How are you?"

"Well, and you?" asked Jin, and again he cursed himself for not saying more, or at least asking her more.

"Sad," Jin winced as he heard her tone and saw the underlying melancholy stamped in Fuu's features that somehow made the young woman even lovelier, "I take it you heard of Mugen's death."

"Hn," the samurai nodded.

She brought a sword, Mugen's sword, from behind her and continued speaking, "He brought this to me—he wanted you to have it if he died, Jin, he knew you'd come here," tears slipped down her face.

"How did he die?" asked Jin, berating himself for not being quick to comfort the crying woman who stood looking at him so earnestly in the ethereal light.

"He came to me one night…I don't know how he found me," said Fuu, "He never told me anything, but he found me working in the tavern where I live with the owner and his wife, oh, probably two years ago, and he kept coming back to me. He was looking for both of us. A man brought him to us three months ago…perhaps four. Mugen was so sick, Jin, his skin was yellow, and he was wasting away to nothing."

The young woman began crying again, and Jin moved forward, reaching out to comfort her as he said, "Fuu, it is not necessary to relive this."

She leaned into him, clinging to him and sobbing quietly, "Please…I have to tell you…he said he loved us, Jin, he was sorry he," she sniffled and tried to catch her breath before continuing to speak, "he was sorry he left us that day at the crossroads, and he wanted you to have his sword." Fuu released him, looked up at the ronin and smiled, and he stroked her cheek softly, enjoying her warmth even while he grieved alongside her.

"How did you know I was here?" asked Jin, curious to know how the ever-resourceful Fuu had found him.

"I wasn't sure you'd be here at first, but there's been talk of a rogue swordsman, and when a traveling merchant staying in the area said a tall man with a katana and glasses helped him fend off bandits, I knew it had to be you. Just before dying, Mugen said he'd heard word that you come here sometimes, but he was never able to find you," Fuu's voice was laden with the grief only one who has held a dying loved one knows. "I've been here every night since Mugen died. I knew we'd eventually run into each other—especially since I knew it had to be you who helped that merchant."

Jin held Fuu tightly, and he marveled over how easily she trusted him despite not having seen him in years; it would be so easy to slip into their former roles, but he had no idea what she wanted. Hell, for all he knew she'd married this tavern owner's son and had a growing brood of children waiting for her at home, to be sure, Fuu probably assumed he was married to Shino. As the breeze died, the tide began to recede, and Jin continued to rock the crying woman gently. He felt her shaking against him and lifted her-she'd grown too thin since he'd seen her-and carried her closer to the campfire he'd started earlier in the evening. Her soft crying ceased, and he felt the young woman relax against him, sighing deeply and shaking away her tears to look up at him and grin. For a moment, she appeared fifteen again and absolutely innocent. She was still his Fuu. He reluctantly released her from his grasp, and Fuu sat next him, staring into the orange blaze

"I will accompany you home," Jin said softly, "you should not be out alone like this."

Fuu laughed, "You know, I'm not a little girl anymore, Jin, and I did learn something from you and Mugen…like how to be quiet and to hide when necessary. Okay, I didn't learn the quiet part from Mugen," she giggled and then continued, "It's pretty easy to slip through the shadows at night when you dress like a beggar or a boy."

Jin looked down at her and realized she was indeed dressed as a man, but her youth and beauty gave her the appearance of a teenage boy who is too pretty for his own good-something men had said of him when he was young. With her hair down, she also managed to look fierce and even a little deadly.

"Fuu—"

"So," she interrupted, "tell me what you've been doing, aside from wandering and playing sword for hire. Any children yet?"

Her question, seemingly casual, sounded a bit anxious to the ronin, and he struggled to suppress a smile, "No children—yet. You?"

She frowned, "No kids here either—not that it'll happen anytime soon. I'm good enough to wash a few dishes, serve some food and play maid here and there, but as much my friends care for me, they can't make me more desirable as brides go. I'm a girl without family, connections or money, Jin, I'm afraid I don't have much to offer a husband."

"You have yourself," he said, wishing he could just grab her and drag her way from the village, but for all his courage in the face the cruelest warrior, he found it difficult to express himself with any woman he'd ever met. Fuu had been the exception until he realized he'd fallen in love with her; the night on the beach with her five years ago had been one of the most terrifying of his life, second to this night, he thought.

"Fat lot of good it's done me," Fuu smirked playfully, but her tone was sad and even a little angry.

Jin stared intently at the young woman and murmured, "You are worth more than any woman I have known."

"Jin? What about Shino?" and there it was in the open, the question for which he'd been waiting.

"At her temple, and she is content to stay there for the rest of her life…" Jin stopped, considering his words carefully, "You couldn't possibly know—"

"How sad were you to lose her? You're right, but I'd rather not—"

"Let me finish, please," Jin said, and Fuu nodded her head. "You have no idea how elated I was the day she released me from my promise, Fuu," the young woman's eyes widened in shock or surprise Jin assumed, but he continued speaking before any ounce courage had drained just as the nearby caves drained of the tidal waters, "I didn't want to interrupt your life…I hated the thought that my coming back to you might hurt you. For all I knew you were married or with the Christians. What right did I have to disrupt your life?"

Fuu's eyes were wide, and for a moment, Jin was afraid he'd frightened her until she screeched, "Disrupt my life?! DISRUPT MY LIFE?! First Mugen and now you! Oh, he was so careful when he came to see me, HA, that big goon! He shows up in the middle of the night and tells me he doesn't want to be a bother, and you know what he did?"

Jin stared at her, unsure of whether to be amused or terribly afraid, and Fuu continued her ranting, "That's right, just be all tall, dark and quiet now, YOU! He died on me, yeah, he swore to me he'd never leave, and then the bastard would disappear for weeks on end until he finally came back and died on me, and in all that time he didn't even tell me he knew how to find you until he needed me to bring you that damned sword of his! Men! What the hell is wrong with you people?!"

"In all fairness…" Jin began to say, but decided maybe now was the best time to take action. After all, he'd spent so much of life analyzing every nuance and detail of any given moment that he was past due a little spontaneity; he grabbed Fuu and kissed her. He wanted her to feel what he had and to let her know that he was finally here for her, and he wasn't going anywhere. To his astonishment, Fuu put her hands on his shoulders, pulled him closer, and returned his kiss with a ferocity that matched his own, and he couldn't imagine how he'd managed to survive so long without this woman.

He felt her hands push him away, and he realized he must sound like a dog panting on a hot summer day. Fuu's chest rose and fell rapidly in time with his, and she whispered, "Do you know how long I've waited for you?"

"Not as long as I've waited for you," he said, "Come with me."

"Always," she smiled.

In the darkened hours of the night, Jin didn't want to rush. He wished to savor each moment with the woman walking next to him. All the details had suddenly become so precious, and he was happy to simply take Fuu's hand in his and begin a new journey.

AN: I normally don't write SC fic, but I was watching the series again recently and whining to a friend how much I wished this one hadn't ended quite the way it did. Oh, and Mugen fans, I swear I didn't kill him out of dislike-he's a character who always struck me as a little sad, and I can just picture dying of cirrhosis.