Chapter 45 The Altruistic Act
[A/N]:Owari. Here it is, the final installment of the Tsuru and Giri arc! You may want to go over Chapters 32, 33, 40, 41, 42, 43, and 44 if you've forgotten any details to their story! They easily are my favorite original characters, and I may have gotten carried away with all these chapters about them.
I especially loved reading everyone's thoughts and feelings about Giri's character and the dilemna he faced. Thank you everyone, for sharing your thoughts. So glad the cast of this arc has been enjoyed.
Last chapter was updated December 17th, TEN DAYS AGO. So be sure you didn't miss it and accidentally ruin the full story for yourself!
Now then, here we go! As always, enjoy!
Disclaimer: I do not own Samurai Champloo, Fuu, Mugen, Jin, Momo etc. Though I own Giri, Tsuru, and Otachi, the creators can GLADLY have them...though I doubt they'd care.
Chapter 45 The Altruistic Act
Mugen had wanted the fight to be a quick one. No such luck. Too many cuts. And parries. Too many kicks. And side steps.
Against lesser swordsmen, Mugen's wild and erratic swordplay threw them off guard, and off balance. But Giri was no lesser swordsman. The samurai never let down his defenses. He kept him the perfect slashing distance away.
And Mugen, skilled as he was, felt his energy depleting every time Giri deflected his strikes. He snidely blamed it on the fact that he hadn't eaten anything since yesterday—probably why his stomach hurt so badly too.
Another failed attack later, Mugen slid roughly on the sand, the grains clinging to his clothes and stinging his skin, before he managed to get back on his feet.
On the foggy coast, they paced around one another, swords pointed, gazes locked. As they each kept a wide berth, Mugen's geta trampled on the shells and rocks, while Giri smoothly shuffled, barely disturbing the sands beneath his flat zori. Mugen couldn't see Giri's footwork under the haze and his hakama.
Giri however, noticed Mugen's movements had slowed.
The waves surged onto the rocky beaches. As the tide receded, Giri heard that Mugen's breaths had grown labored. His stamina diminished.
Giri knew the opportunity presented itself.
He charged in. He barely sliced Mugen's arm. It tore the sleeve and a small layer of skin.
Their steels scraped against each other. Mugen managed to knock the katana away from him and back up. If not for the fog, perhaps Giri could have made a deeper wound. Or maybe, Mugen wondered, Giri had for a sliver of a moment, hesitated in attacking him.
Before he had the chance to dwell on this, Giri darted forward again, his movement more fast, more aggressive.
Mugen never liked being the one forced on the defensive. The best defense to him, was a damn good offense. To slow his opponent's pursuit, he kicked up sand, and whipped slate rocks at his face. The samurai raised his sleeve, the cloth shielding him from the sharp, jagged projectiles.
So much had Mugen retreated, he felt his back press into the cold boulders behind him.
Giri slashed, but the katana only nicked rock.
Concealed in the mist, Mugen rolled behind the boulder just in time. He climbed its surface.
Sword raised, Giri squinted through the white haze. A shadow descended over him, and then the European blade. At that moment, he moved back. And when Mugen landed right in front of him, back turned, he swung, a fast vertical slice.
Mugen felt the skin on his back tear open.
Wincing, he fell forward on the sand, recoiling as his face smashed into the sharp rocks. They were not deep wounds, but his bleeding back and face stung unbearably. Giri loomed behind him. He raised his arm for a second strike.
Just in time, Mugen turned around. The katana caught on the bottom of his geta, clanging against the steel plate nailed there. Giri thought it an intuitive design; he expected no less from the vagrant. Mugen kicked Giri away.
With the back of his hand, Mugen rubbed off the blood seeping from his nose.
All that time traveling together, Giri had studied him. Every movement he made was read seconds ahead of time. And he'd been privy to Mugen's fighting style a month ago.
His anger was rising. He ran forward again. He missed. Again.
Nearly stumbling, Mugen gritted back the pain, squeezing a palm over the fresh, though luckily not fatal wound at his ribcage That made three strikes. Mugen hadn't even scratched him yet.
Giri was so well guarded, so certain of every movement he took. He never wasted energy he did not need to.
Mugen was starting to believe he was outmatched; the results had more than demonstrated it. And Giri wasn't the first opponent to outmatch him. Sara. Kariya Kagetoki. Inuyama. Opponents he'd never had the chance to beat... The Shogunate only had the best blades at their disposal.
It was true, he loved the thrill of the fight, especially when the opponent was so skilled and the stakes rose so high. He relished the sharp, bitter taste of metal in his mouth and feeling his head filled with a rush that few other things afforded him… This was a thrill. Plain and simple. Dancing closest to death, was what reminded Mugen most that he was alive.
But facing Giri, Mugen couldn't find that same satisfaction...or find concentration.
As his veins coursed with adrenaline, his vision blurred. Across the beach, in that dense curtain of fog, Mugen saw Jin standing there, katana lowered in front of him in a defensive Migi Gedan stance. Skills aside, Mugen had never been able to kill Jin.
And worse even, Fuu lingered at the back of his mind. The thought of her alone, bound up somewhere, awaiting her fate…
All because Giri had betrayed them.
His hands squeezed harder around his bastard sword. The rage was building in his head. And rage only ever made his moves erratic. He knew that.
At this rate, if he lost focus, rushed in wildly, he'd get cut down.
Mugen, for once, couldn't rely on raw instinct. But playing it safe and guarded would not get him anywhere either.
Giri changed his stance to a Moku, raising up his blade to move in for another strike, feet as firmly planted as tree roots.
He knew what he had to do. As foolish as it was, it may have been his only chance. The risk was so high. But with Giri on the offensive, there was no other way to close in on him. He hoped the cover of the fog would be to his advantage.
Again, Mugen viciously whipped a series of rocks at Giri's face. Again, Giri deflected them with his sleeve.
Mugen made his move. In that tiny second, he pitched back his arm, harnessing his rage and his frustration, in this one risky move.
He hurled his sword at Giri.
As Giri lowered his sleeve, he saw his own reflection in steel, eyes growing at the coming blade. And with one downward swing, he easily was able to deflect it, causing the heavy bastard sword to clatter onto the rocks nearby.
Mugen knew Giri would deflect it easily.
Giri thought the action was so...undisciplined, idiotic even. But he only momentarily had the chance to think what a fool Mugen was for throwing away his weapon. Because, in that brief moment it took to guard, Mugen was suddenly there, having already charged forward through the cover of mist. Right in front of him.
Mugen stomped on Giri's foot, the metal on the bottom of his geta digging in so hard, he flinched. In that same fraction of a second, Mugen's fingers squeezed around Giri's wrist, leaving him unable to counter. His other fist drove into his stomach. He lost balance. Cracked rocks across the rough shore dug deep scratches into his back.
As they fell, Mugen rammed his head into Giri's. The impact was so strong, so fast, dark dots filled up his vision for five seconds too many. In that moment of incoherency, Mugen's free hand grabbed the wakizashi tied at Giri's hip.
He heard the soft ring of the short sword sliding from the scabbard.
Like this, Giri was completely prone, unable to defend. Dead.
He knew it was all over; he'd be impaled by his own blade.
A burst of white hot pain shot through his forearm. Blood gushed from the appendage.
The confusion—of why it had not been his chest, or his stomach to be run through by his wakizashi—was only surpassed by the agony of it gouged deep into the skin and bone. It pinned his sword arm to the ground. He couldn't lift his blade. He couldn't stab Mugen. Adrenaline did little to mask the pain.
Mugen's tight hold on Giri's wrist left, gripping instead onto the wakizashi. With the force of both hands, he pushed down harder on the hilt, driving the point deeper into bone and sinew, until the very tip sunk into the sand below Giri's forearm. Every centimeter it cut through the tissue, bellows and unintelligible grunts poured from Giri's mouth. The wound gushed so much red, it spilled across his entire sleeve. The dark green of the cloth turned a deep black.
The thrown European sword rested inches away on the rocky sands. Giri stretched out his free hand, reaching for it, fingers straining. But it was no use. It was too far.
Snarling, Giri instead used his free hand to push and punch at Mugen's chest to get the man off him. Mugen dug the blade deeper into his arm.
"Tell me where the fuck she is!"
Giri didn't answer, still snarling back the pain, still struggling. When he grabbed at Mugen's throat, his nails dug into the flesh and broke the skin there, forming five red lines.
While Mugen's left hand still jammed the sword into Giri's arm, his right hand clenched into a fist. He reeled it back. The impact of his knuckles to Giri's jaw had the samurai spitting blood.
Again, and again, Mugen punched Giri, each hit harder than the last. Frantic now, Giri's nails clawed deeper, every scratch leaving a wake of blood seeping from Mugen's throat.
When Giri's hand nearly ripped the prayer beads from his neck, Mugen punched hardest.
The force of the impact to his eye had his grip on Mugen's throat finally falter. But Mugen didn't stop there. His fist descended, again, and again, wailing away at Giri's face, until there was little left that he could see but a red blur.
Fuu wasn't there to stop him or to pull him off.
He was lost in it. Lost track how many times he'd reeled back his fist. Lost track of how many times it connected with Giri's jaw. He let it consume him.
His rage at being betrayed again.
His rage at himself for letting his guard down again.
His rage of losing Fuu again.
So many times, he punched. The areas around Giri's right eye and cheekbone swelled up an awful purplish red. The skin on his brow cracked open. With every cough, came more saliva, more blood from his mouth and nose, and at one point, even parts of a broken tooth; Giri was certain he'd swallowed the rest of the fragments of the molar.
The dark liquid coated Mugen's fist, sticking to his knuckles and seeping between the webs of his fingers. Sometime during the assault, the struggles of Giri ceased below him altogether, even as he took each hit and was fully conscious for them all.
"Tell me where Fuu is!"
Giri knew the end had already come. He'd failed in killing Mugen. He'd failed in his deal with Kiichi. He'd failed Tsuru.
Perhaps that was part of why he decided to tell him. Perhaps he'd been impressed with his fighting skills. Perhaps it was the honorable thing to do when one lost.
But Giri knew most of all, the guilt had seeped too far in already. It'd grown unbearable for him, seeing a man fight so desperately to save the woman he loved, even if he knew Mugen was not even aware of how strong such emotions made him. He'd never seen someone fight with such passion. Such uncontrollable rage.
"A lighthouse...on the southern part of the island. Fuu is still there...alive."
That was all the information he needed.
It was time to end it.
Either by pulling Giri's wakizashi from his arm, or using his concealed tanto, Mugen had the chance to kill.
But as he looked down at the samurai, bruised and bloody below him, Mugen thought of, of all things...Tsuru—of what Tsuru would do, if she were here now, witnessing the violent fight. How she likely would throw herself on top of Giri, begging him for mercy
"Please don't. Don't kill him." she'd whimper.
Just as Fuu had done once.
Mugen had never been a man of mercy. When you aimed a sword at someone, you either killed them, or they killed you. There was no in between. He'd once said so himself.
So why now...
He gritted his teeth.
One last time, he loaded his fist for a strike. He decked Giri across the face. It was weaker than all the previous hits. But it did not hurt any less.
Then, finally, Mugen heaved, and leaned back, even letting go of the wakizashi that pinned Giri's arm. It still stuck there, wedged into the bone.
"...What are you waiting for?" Giri rasped as blood trickled down his chin, soaking into his beard. "...End it, Mugen."
If Mugen wanted to, he could've just ran his knife right through his chest and been done with it all.
But he didn't.
Tsuru be damned, Mugen lost the desire to kill Giri. Something else stayed his hand.
Maybe it was because, for their small time traveling together, Mugen saw a small fragment of Jin in Giri: one of the few people Mugen had ever trusted before. He had a respect for the man...maybe even an envy.
Maybe even, Mugen saw a glimpse into a mirror...a swordsman bound to a young woman that gave him a sense of purpose, a reason to keep on living, to keep on fighting. A man willing to make questionable choices, willing to play a villain and kill, all if it meant the woman he cared for was safe and happy.
In truth, Mugen did not want to contemplate what the personal reason was. He resented the thought of such pathetic endearment for a man who had backstabbed him and Fuu.
So he spoke none of those reasons; he spoke only of the first reason that had crossed his mind.
Of the one thing that Mugen knew mattered most to Giri.
"Ya still gotta serve your lord, don't'cha."
Giri's death would leave Tsuru lost and alone in this cruel world. No doubt, she'd cry and sob—so much like her, every time he himself neared death's door. The cruel world would devour a tender, untainted girl like that, just as he had always feared for Fuu.
Giri struggled to open his mouth, both from the surprise of it, and from the blood dripping from his cracked lips. But he didn't have time to say anything.
From somewhere in the fog, Giri heard the lever of a crossbow click down. Instantly, his heel kicked into Mugen's unguarded stomach.
The unexpected hit sent Mugen flying onto the jagged rocks behind him, the sharp edges slicing abrasively into the open cut on his back. At that second, Mugen had the intention to lunge back, tanto in hand, and take back his word, gouging the blade right into Giri's throat.
Before he could surrender himself to his fury, Mugen saw the iron tipped bolt shoot through the open space between them.
There, Mugen realized Giri's real motivation in why he had pushed him away; he'd saved his life.
Mugen darted behind a boulder, trying to make a quick estimation of where that shot came from. He was unarmed, aside from his tanto. His European sword still rested several feet from Giri, after he'd thrown it.
Still prone, Giri growled viciously as his fingers grasped onto the hilt of the wakizashi. Using all his strength, he ripped the sword from his arm, even when the pain had him shaking violently and choking up swears and grunts. At the release of the blade, more blood sprayed out of the wound.
Giri resheathed it, and swapped his longer katana to his uninjured left hand.
The crossbow clicked down again.
Just as Giri tried to stand up, it fired.
The force to his shoulder nearly had him fall back onto the rocks.
Mugen watched, eyes widening.
"Disappointing, Giri." said Kiichi's voice from the fog.
Giri heaved. "Kiichi… You…"
"I at least expected you to succeed in killing Mugen before you outlived your use to me."
Before the crossbow reloaded, Giri rolled to the cover of a nearby boulder. Tearing his own green sleeve, he tightly wrapped the cloth around his wounded forearm in an attempt to stay the gush of blood. There was little he could do for the bolt wedged in his shoulder, besides breaking the shaft. Pulling all of it out would only cause more loss of blood that he couldn't afford. He closed his eyes, back pressed to the cold, wet stone, trying to catch his breath, and still his rapidly thumping heart.
Of course it was a trap… He should have known. He should never have been so naive, so hopeful to think a promising fate awaited him and Tsuru, free of the Shogunate's chains.
All along, the oniwaban agent really was the Shogun's favorite pet… Kiichi needed both Giri and Mugen dead. What better way, than to use their skills against each other, weaken them both, and kill whoever was left standing?
Kiichi needed Tsuru back to her father. He needed Fuu for her information.
They were all clever little pieces for Kiichi's scheme, and Giri had been the best played pawn. He'd told himself that in serving Tsuru, cruel decisions needed to be made, that there was no room for pity or sentimentality. But that shouldn't have been aimed towards Mugen and Fuu at all. Three nights ago, when he had the open opportunity, he should've cut Kiichi down without a second thought. Instead, the sentimentality of the past—his love for Kameko and Kiichi's friendship—had clouded his judgement.
But there was little time to contemplate right and wrong decisions. The trampling of over a dozen footsteps surrounded the shoreline.
Each behind a boulder, Mugen and Giri could just barely see each other through the low hanging mist. Mugen's European sword rested only a few feet from Giri. The samurai picked it up, and then threw it the distance. Mugen caught it by the handle.
With a jerk of his head, Mugen motioned for them to make a break for it to the south. If they ran fast enough, they could reach the cover of the forest, and have a better chance taking out the archers there. Here, they were sitting ducks waiting to be picked off.
The risky maneuver would require sprinting through open ground, concealed only by the thinning fog.
The marching drew closer, the straw sandals now crunching on the sands. They were scanning the beaches. There wasn't much time. Giri raised three fingers. He counted down.
Giri closed his eyes.
Simultaneously, the two men burst from the cover of the rocky outcrop, charging towards the archers, who had already taken aim. The sea fog allowed them just enough cover.
Arrows shot their way. With a fast swipe of his blade, Mugen deflected one that nearly could've landed in his head. Another grazed Giri's cheek, slicing the skin. Just as they made it into the forest, they heard more arrowheads puncturing the bark of the surrounding trees with loud thuds.
As they ran deeper into the safety of the treeline, they prepared for the parade of footsteps stomping behind them.
Hand in hand, Fuu and Tsuru sprinted through the dark forest, led only by the distant sounds of Otachi's barks. Tsuru was relieved he had avoided the capture of the Tokugawa guards. Every step of the way, they nearly stumbled on the overgrown vines slithering all along the narrow path. Olive branches snagged at their kimonos, tugging them back. But they pressed on, their breathing heavy, their steps heavier.
After much time navigating the maze, they heard more than the dog's barks; they heard the grating clangs of steel clashing steel. Deep shouts and distressed hollers surged through the forest.
Tsuru and Fuu slowed in their stride. As they drew closer, they crept quietly, pushing back the bushes and ferns, until they knelt to peer into a clearing.
In the misted grove, they saw the figures of countless samurai navigating the woodlands, the gold hollyhock crests on their kimonos gleaming in the lantern light and faint moonshine. Amidst them, they also caught sight of two familiar shadows dodging arrows and bracing their backs against the trunks of trees.
The two cut down man after man. So many carcasses decorated the grass.
When Fuu saw them there, she was given some tiny ounce of relief that Mugen and Giri were not fighting each other at all. Back to back, the two bodyguards fended off the enemies closing in on them. She wondered if they had fought already, if Mugen had convinced him...or if that strange man outside the lighthouse had betrayed Giri.
As Giri and Mugen unknowingly drew closer to their hidden refuge in the bushes, Fuu and Tsuru could finally see their bodyguards' injuries up close. Half of Giri's face was swollen with injury. He used his left hand to fight, not his right, as blood seeped from a gash in his arm, and his shoulder.
When Tsuru saw his awful condition, she immediately moved to stand, but Fuu squeezed onto her hand to keep her still. They were in the bloody thick of combat, arrows flying, swords slicing through the cloudy haze. Perhaps though, holding Tsuru back had been to prevent herself just as much from charging into the fray. When she saw Mugen's injuries, the blood seeping from his back, side and arm, and the arrows barely missing him as he carved his way through the samurai, she too felt her pulse rise.
Their bodyguards were forced to separate. Mugen effectively slayed the archers hidden behind the trees, while Giri had taken a guarded stance in the center of the clearing. Three men ran at him. He sliced through their abdomens. Two bodies dropped to the ground.
Despite his skill...he was so vulnerable out there in the open. Another archer knocked back an arrow.
Giri grappled the last of the incoming samurai and pivoted, using him as a human shield. The shaft struck through the chest of the man, before he too fell limply to the dirt. By the direction of the arrow, Mugen located the hidden bowman, and did not hesitate to cut him down.
The mist thinned. Moonlight poured into the grove, leaving Giri fully visible now. Another samurai came up from behind him. He blocked the coming blade.
A crossbow bolt shot towards him.
It pierced into Giri's back, just at his shoulder blade.
Tsuru inhaled sharply.
He staggered forward, gasping for the breath that had escaped him.
Through the grip on her hand, Fuu felt Tsuru shaking. The younger girl's unsteady breaths turned to quick bursts, and then near hyperventilation.
Giri impaled the samurai in front of him. Before another could stab him from behind, he tore out the bolt from his shoulder, blood splashing, and used it to stab the man in the throat. With a sharp tug, he finally ripped his katana out of the first corpse.
His eyes scanned for the source of the bolt: for Kiichi.
Tsuru's eyes misted. She'd risen to her feet, but Fuu tugged on her hand again. Through Fuu's eyes, Tsuru stared into her own reflection, seeing her fear in them. All Fuu could do was shake her head, squeezing her fingers harder around Tsuru's.
Giri stumbled from his injuries. Two more samurai approached. He was losing his stamina. He could taste the blood in his mouth. The earlier altercation with Mugen had left him not only badly wounded, but exhausted.
Fuu and Tsuru could hear footfalls on the grass, and the sharp reloading of the crossbow. Then, they saw the dark figure who had discharged the bolt draw closer into the clearing, the tendrils of mist parting around him.
Giri was too preoccupied trying to stop the new opponents.
The dark figure shot another bolt. It drove into Giri's thigh, forcing him to buckle to his knee.
He inhaled raggedly, gaze looking up to find Kiichi, who closed in on him for an accurate shot. He'd loaded the crossbow a third time.
"Forgive me, old friend, that it must end this way. But I will not betray the Shogunate, as you have."
Tsuru darted up. Fuu tried to hold her back. But the grip on her clammy hand hadn't been tight enough. She slipped right from Fuu's hold, and burst from the bushes, sprinting into the clearing of the grove.
Kiichi raised his weapon, the crosshair pointed directly at Giri's head.
Rapid footsteps grew close. So close.
Kiichi didn't hear. He hadn't turned. His finger squeezed.
Tsuru screamed, just a half second before he pressed the trigger.
A half second too late. The bolt discharged.
Giri felt a hard impact drive into his body. He collapsed on his side.
He'd seen, for but a moment, a flicker of pale yellow in the dissolving mist.
It hadn't been a bolt to topple him.
It had been a shove.
Shaking off his disorientation, he looked up from where he'd been pushed to the ground, the pain in his body nearly keeping him rooted to the grass. His eyes, though coated by the blood dripping from his forehead, saw why he'd heard his lord's scream, why he saw the color of her kimono, when she should not have been on Kakui Island at all.
Tsuru collapsed beside him.
Kiichi stood there, frozen. More of the samurai closed in on the scene.
"Halt!" he screamed at them.
Giri crawled to her side. He turned her to face him, lifting her up in his tensing arms. Blood flooded the fabric of her yellow kimono, drowning all the paper cranes embroidered on its surface.
His hands shook around her shoulder and back. He didn't know what to do. Press his hand to the wound. Rip the bolt out of her chest.
He had no idea what to do.
From her hidden place in the bushes, Fuu watched, eyes wide, mouth dry. Her trembling hand was still open from the moment she'd let go of Tsuru's hand. She didn't know how to close it.
She had no idea what to do.
Only Mugen was able to move.
He bolted through the trees, dodging arrows and blades, slaying any samurai he could find. The distraction of the events allowed him this opportunity. Ten slain archers later, he found Fuu huddled in the bushes. Her eyes were still fixed on the scene.
Blood spilled from Tsuru's lips. She choked up so much of it.
She stared up at her bodyguard, eyes desperate as she gasped for air. She tried to raise one of her hands towards his worry stricken face, but could not find the strength. It fell back to her side.
"Ju... once…" she whispered through ragged breaths. "...hear it...fr...you..."
But Giri could barely make out her words.
"Hear what, Hime-sama?"
A tear slid down her cheek. She attempted to shake her head, even when the blood kept flowing from her mouth.
Tsuru tried to give him a weak smile. Her face was paling.
"S...ave them… Please."
Giri stared down at her.
He watched as her glassy eyes stilled.
Giri shook her. Tsuru didn't blink.
She didn't answer.
She didn't move.
Slowly, Giri raised his head.
His darkening eyes found Kiichi's.
He stared up at her killer, his breaths growing heavy. Kiichi did not move, standing there in stunned silence.
Gently, Giri placed Tsuru's body on the ground. Gritting his teeth, his left hand found the katana he'd dropped, squeezing so tightly around the hilt, that his fingers, coated in her blood, went entirely numb.
"Take Fuu and go!" he bellowed.
Kiichi spun around in confusion. Through the evaporating mist, he saw that Mugen had grabbed Fuu's arm. He didn't even have the chance to reload a bolt into the crossbow. Giri swung. The blade cut through the oniwaban's side, but he'd managed to leap backwards to avoid a fatal injury. Shocked, he touched his abdomen, pressing his hand to the seeping wound.
Mugen and Fuu watched from a distance.
"Giri-san!" she screamed.
Giri looked first to her, and then to Mugen.
Mugen tugged on Fuu's arm. "Come on!"
She braced on her heels, even as he vigorously pulled her away.
"We can't leave without him! WE CAN'T!"
Giri moved to pursue Kiichi, but he backed away, as two samurai closed the gap between them. The oniwaban agent had reloaded his weapon, aiming at the fleeing pair. At the press of his finger, the bolt flew. It stuck into the bark of a tree, so close to Mugen's head.
"Kill Giri!" Kiichi yelled to his men. "I'll pursue the vagrant and the Christian."
More of the samurai surrounded Giri, closing in.
Fuu looked back, watching as he cut through them, staggering with every unstable swing. There were so many. So many...
"Let me go, Mugen! LET ME GO! WE HAVE TO HELP HIM!"
Mugen snarled. When pulling her did nothing, he picked her right up off the ground, throwing her over his shoulder. She punched his back, in the heat of the moment, unaware of how her fists hit the open cut there.
"PUT ME DOWN! PUT ME DOWN! PUT ME DOWN!"
Again, and again she screamed, her weak fists bashing into his back as hard as she was able to. Though he flinched at the pain, not once did Mugen's hold on her lessen.
Fuu knew she could do nothing. Even if he had set her back down, there was little she was capable of. From over Mugen's shoulder, all she could do was watch helplessly as Giri cut into more of the hoard, his silhouette absorbed by the surrounding samurai and the last fading traces of fog behind them.
Kiichi limped through the vegetation, keeping his targets just barely in his sights. First, he'd have to kill the vagrant Mugen and recapture Kasumi Fuu. Then, he'd have to kill every single samurai that witnessed Tsuru-himegimi's death. Accident or not, the Shogun would never forgive him for shooting her. Returning to Edo would be a death sentence. And more than anything, Kiichi's loyalties resided in one thing and one alone: survival.
As much as he pitied Giri, he knew he was a sentimental fool, in the end.
Kiichi scanned ahead of him, seeing that Mugen carrying Fuu over his shoulder; the wanted criminals had just made it back to the northern shore of the island, where their boat awaited them. Stalking them from the incline of the cliff, he stayed perched in the shadows, watching just long enough to find an open spot to take aim.
First, Mugen placed Fuu in the boat, and then struggled to push the vessel from the sand. The physical exertion of the task caused the cut on his back to reopen, bleeding rivulets all down his spinal column.
From the forested cliff looming over the beaches, Kiichi raised the loaded crossbow, one eye squinting shut. His finger lingered over the trigger, aligning the center of the ex-pirate's back in his crosshairs.
A sharp snap of a branch came from somewhere nearby. His finger eased on the trigger. He whipped around, eyes darting through the patchy streams of pale moonlight, searching for the source of the sound. He expected to find Giri there, half dead and an easy kill.
Kiichi barely saw the flash of white, before it descended upon him, tackling him into the hard earth.
Knives dug into his throat. Sharp and hot.
Not like the cold steel of a blade at all.
No, he realized. Not knives. Teeth.
The jaws of a hound clamped down on his jugular. Kiichi flailed, grabbing for the tanto at his pant leg. But so far had the fangs sunk into him, that he could not breathe, nor move to reach for it. Crimson gushed from his jugular, speckling up his already blurring vision. Then, the oniwaban agent found himself spiraling down a dark tunnel.
From the shoreline, Mugen and Fuu had heard a holler and vicious struggle behind them. They looked back, where on the small cliff, Otachi hunched over the flailing body of the oniwaban agent that had shot Tsuru. They heard the wet crunch of teeth gnashing into flesh, and the snarls of a vicious beast.
In moments, his body stilled.
"Otachi-san!" Fuu shouted.
The dog lifted his head, peering at them from a distance. His mouth still dripped from the kill, staining most of the white fur of his neck a dark scarlet.
"Come with us, Otachi-san!"
Fuu called and called again, unable to bear losing Tsuru's dog too. But from the clifftop, Otachi just stared down at her and Mugen, his stance as resigned as a statue carved from stone.
"There ain't any time, Fuu. We gotta go."
Mugen pushed the skip again, and pulled himself in, grabbing for the oars. Fuu's fingers squeezed onto the rim of the little boat. As he pushed them away, her blurry gaze stayed fixed on the hills of Kakui Island, unblinking.
For the whole mile, Mugen continued rowing, but did not say a word.
At some point, when the island faded behind them, Fuu had pressed her forehead against the rim of the boat. Her fingers still squeezed on the wood, so hard that they'd turned white long ago. At the very least, they'd stopped shaking.
Much time passed before they were able to reach the shore of Hinase Peninsula again. They were farther west than before, towards the city of Okayama now. He beached them on an isolated bank. Fuu's sobs had turned to weak whimpers. She couldn't move. She just sat there, the last of her feeble strength left behind somewhere in the forests of that destitute island.
When they'd landed with an unpleasant lurch, Mugen threw down the oars, and had to peel her bone white fingers from the edge of the boat. Still, she barely budged, and he found himself forcefully dragging her from the shore. They could not linger. If any of the samurai survived on Kakui Island, it was only a matter of time before they'd send reinforcements for their capture. When she finally seemed able to walk on her own, he unthreaded his fingers from hers, and took a fast pace ahead of her. In the darkness and the silence, they carried on and on, until the haunting hum of the ocean faded behind their backs.
In the woodlands of Hinase Province, Fuu finally gave in to it all. She collapsed to her knees, unable to feign a strength that had already shattered the moment Tsuru was shot.
Mugen turned around, "There ain't any time. Come on!"
"I can't!" she sobbed.
Face buried in her hands, repeated mutters fell into her quivering palms. It took for Mugen to walk back to her, to finally hear what it was she kept on whimpering to herself, over and over again.
"It's all my fault. All my fault… All my fault..."
He crouched down on his haunches, jerking her hands from her face. She didn't resist at all. Though they may have trembled, her clammy fingers fell limp at the smallest pull.
Fuu's face was soaked in sweat and tears, her brown side bangs sticking messily to her cheeks. A bumpy combination of too fast inhaling and hiccupping interrupted a word between nearly every sentence. No matter how hard she tried to calm herself, Fuu couldn't remember how to breathe.
"Had I...held onto her hand just a little tighter…I...I could've stopped her… Had I talked to Giri...convinced him…"
He kept one of his hands on hers. His other hand traveled to her shoulder, squeezing, in a failing attempt to still her violently shaking body.
"Had I…Had I never agreed to travel with them...Giri would have never...had to make that choice!"
"It was that bastard's fuckin' fault. Not yours." Mugen spat.
Fuu looked up suddenly, "We shouldn't have left him behind! We-"
"Yeah we should have! He deserved everything he got!"
Her brown eyes darkened. Her hand, wet with tears, slipped right out of his grip. But Mugen went on.
"And Tsuru too. She was a fuckin' idiot, jumping in to save the same asshole who fucked us over. They both deserved-"
She slapped him. Mugen's face turned.
The harsh impact echoed throughout the forest.
"Don't." she snarled, the tears still running rivers down her cheeks. "Don't talk about them like that!"
She knew he didn't mean any of those words. He knew too. But anger was his way of dealing with it. It always had been. But she couldn't take it. Not now.
"Giri betrayed us to give her the life she wanted! And...Tsuru didn't know. She had no idea what he did for her!" she shouted.
That was the only thing she could take solace in tonight. In death, Tsuru saw her beloved bodyguard as the noble hero he had always been for her. In the end, it was better she had not found out. Yet, Fuu knew...that while it would have hurt her, she still would have loved him all the same.
"And even if she did know, she still would have jumped in the way to save him!"
Fuu swallowed back another sob, slamming her hands against the ground beside her. Her pink nails started to claw into the grimy dirt, crushing the grainy particles into her fingers.
"She died to save him! And we...we just left him back there!"
"Dyin' for him was a stupid decision! She shoulda' never-"
"You have no right to say that!" she screamed.
"I don't, huh?"
"No! You just don't get it at all… Do you think she could have stood there and just watched as he died right in front of her?! He meant everything to her!"
"You think I don't know that?!"
"Then why...why are you saying this?! How can you just stand here and say her sacrifice was meaningless?!" Her voice cracked once again, even worse than before. "How...How can you be so cruel?!"
"BECAUSE THAT COULD'VE BEEN US!"
Fuu flinched. The harsh bellow hit harder than the slap of earlier, and the echo traveled much farther beyond the forest.
Mugen stared down at her, his breathing so heavy, his eyes wild.
She stared back up at him, unable to breathe, her eyes welling.
If Kiichi had aimed the bolt at Mugen and not Giri...Fuu would have not hesitated to do the very same thing Tsuru did. No use denying it. No use in reassuring him she wouldn't. They both knew it was true.
After all, she'd done something similar already. Everything about the situation was far too familiar.
Harsh clashes of metal reach Fuu's ears. Each bang sends a jolt to her chest, and a sinking to her gut. She scans the dark woods, the light of the lantern in her hand not reaching far. But under the full moon, she catches sight of Mugen and Sara, with weapons in their hands, raised at each other.
Sara's cross shaped magari yari tears right into Mugen's stomach.
The chochin lantern slips from Fuu's fingers. It falls, the impact of it hitting the ground snuffing the flame.
The same second the pain registers in his brain, he hears the sound of his own name. He flies back, falling into the stream. All the water around him alters to the dark red of his blood. It pours from his abdomen.
Her voice. Fuu's voice. It staggers him almost as much as the cut. He's losing his strength, and his vision, but he sees her pink silhouette, wishing he hadn't seen it at all.
"What's going on?! What are you two doing?!" she screams again, hands clenching,
From the river, he rises, a stagger and an inhale, his fingers still gripping onto his sword.
"Who the hell are you?!" Mugen grunts.
Sara stands there, still, her polearm lowered at her side.
"Even though I can't see you, I can still sense it."
"Say what?" Mugen spits up.
"Powerful hatred and rage swirl within you. They are so powerful, that I cannot tell if it's actually...sadness."
His hand squeezes over the gash in his stomach, yet no matter how tightly he clutches, it is unable to keep in the blood spilling out of it, muddying his entire hand up to the wrist.
"It's as if you've never been loved by anyone."
His eyes narrow. His heart pounds. Just like the blood, his anger can't be contained.
Sara continues, a sadness in her voice a cruel mockery to his ears.
"It's as if...you're like me."
Isn't it true? But what did any of that matter? Without love, there's no worry of dying. Without love, he can carry on, as he always has, not concerned that the world won't miss him. Without love, he can throw himself back into the fray. Something as pitiful as love is a needless distraction. He's lived twenty fucking years without it. He didn't need it now.
"Are ya tellin' me, that you know how I'm gonna come at you?"
Sara's eyes open. Blind she may be, she sees through his brave faced transparency.
"What a' load of SHIT!"
Mugen sprints at her.
"Stop!" Fuu screams. "Please, just STOP IT!"
How can he focus on anything, when she's standing right there. She's gonna get in the way. She always gets in the way.
Seven pitiful swings later, the strength fades from his arms, then his whole body. He loses balance, his back crashing into the ground, his tsurugi sword rattling beside him.
Fuu charges to his side.
The blood floods out of him. She stops in her tracks.
"DON'T COME CLOSER!"
But how can she stand by and watch as Sara drifts closer to him. How can she.
Sara stands right above him. Through his blackening vision, he sees her dark shadow below the moonlight.
Mugen didn't want Fuu to see any of this. She can't come closer. If she does, she'll get in the way. She'll die.
But Fuu knows she must come closer. If she doesn't, she'll see it happen. She'll lose him. He'll die.
Sara raises the magari yari spear, ready for the strike. Mugen knows it is the end. As he stares up at the assassin, and the full moon hanging behind her, he hears the sound of steps, frantic and rapid, and too close now.
Fuu crashes on top of him, caught between his life and the blade ready to end it.
Sara gasps. Or is it him gasping? Her blind eyes are wide in the dim light. Or are his eyes?
"No… Please, please don't kill him!" Fuu pleads.
Her petite body collapsed on top of him, is so light, yet every time she trembles, its crushing his chest unbearably.
What is this feeling?
Wind whispers through the trees. Clouds veil the moonlight. They may die together. Here. So far from Nagasaki: so far from the end of their journey. But Fuu doesn't move. Neither does he.
Weapon lowering and pivoting on her heel, Sara departs without a word. Mugen struggles to sit up, pushing Fuu from him, but she clings so tightly to him, even when the rest of her feels weightless.
"WAIT!" he bellows. "Get back here, bitch!"
Something rises in his stomach. It rises faster than he can stop it: a splatter of vomit and blood cascades all over the ground. He chokes and coughs on it, the taste enough to have him gagging even when there's nothing left in his stomach. He stares at the earth. Fuu's still behind him.
Why did she do it? Why did she get in the way?
He wants to push her. Even more, he wants to grab her arm and pull her closer, scream in her face, and squeeze so hard on her wrist that it hurts, until she slips far away from him and never returns.
Everything he wants does not occur. All he does is stare at his pile of blood and vomit.
Why did she risk her own life to save him?
He thinks of asking all these things, yet before he can, Fuu's hand presses hard on the wound on his waist, staying the blood that still pours out, like she's all that's holding him together.
Her other hand grabs his arm, swinging it over her shoulder, to help him to stand. The weight of him is heavy on her, as he's collapsing. Every slight move Mugen makes feels like the wound is tearing open wider than before. He tries to move away from her, stand on his own, but her grip on him is so tight, despite the fact that even now, she's shaking. Holding him against her, the two stagger down the rocky path together, into the thick of the forest.
Mugen's vision blurs. But his gaze darts around as they trudge on, searching behind the bulk of every tree, squinting at every tall bush. He's searching. Not for Sara, or some other assassin. Not for Jin to appear, alive and well. No.
Where are those dark figures? They've never waited before to swarm him, attracted to the stench of his blood, like a murder of crows descending to feast on a decaying corpse.
They're nowhere to be found.
Higher they climb, stumbling more than walking, up and up the hill to the lonely shack. Each hard step up, the wound seeps against her fingers, but she doesn't stop pressing down on it, impeding its flow with what little strength she still has. They stumble to the entrance. Fuu pries open the shack's door with the arm once propping him up. He nearly collapses into her. Before he can, she's pressed against him again, pulling him in with her.
The pair nearly fall into the darkness. He can only see the glint of her eyes.
It's strange, how completely familiar this feels: stumbling into a dark room with a woman hanging off him, her hands tearing off his clothes, touching his bare skin beneath, whispering words he doesn't even listen to.
And yet this is also unfamiliar, for it to be done in such a different circumstance. There's nothing arousing about any of this. Not Fuu tearing off his clothes, blood soaked and torn. Not Fuu pressing hands on his exposed wounds. Not Fuu hushing to him gently. There shouldn't be.
His haori flies off first, thrown to the floor. Then comes his crosshatched shirt; she's not shy at all about lifting it over his head, leaving his torso bare.
He's freezing. But the warmth of her hands feels even worse. Pulled down to the wooden floor of the shack, Fuu lays him on his back. She takes hold of his larger, calloused hand, and presses it over his wound. And then her touch is gone.
"Don't move your hand! Press down on it! I'll be back as fast as I can."
Laying there, bleeding out, his arm reaches for her, to grab her wrist, to keep her there. It's too unsafe out there, not that he could even protect her if he wanted to, in this pathetic state. But she's too quick on her feet, charging first to grab a wooden water pail against the wall and then flying out of the dark shack and down the incline of the moonlit hill.
Mugen's hand falls back to his side. Half nude and shivering, he's left to stare at the black ceiling, a palm pressed to the gash. His skin still tingles everywhere Fuu touched. His mind hones in on that feeling alone, that small trace of warmth, that somehow subdues the pain, despite his unease with it.
As he adjusts to the lack of light, he catches it in the corner of his eye.
There's a shadow in the room, watching him. It's darker than the darkest corners, wrapped in that grimy, frazzled cloak of muddy leaves that resemble crude, messy feathers. It's perched there, a hunch in its shoulders, yet still so tall, watching silently. Its presence alone is enough to wrench out the last bit of oxygen he's barely hung onto.
"Came for me after all, did ya?" he grunts.
It floats closer.
"Fuck off… It ain't my time yet..."
It stands over him.
"I still got somethin' to do. Made a promise…"
Though his vision is blurred, he sees its black, expressionless mask of a face staring down at him. Close enough now, to lean down and touch him if it wanted to.
But then he hears footsteps. Struggling, he turns his head to the doorway There, Fuu's silhouette, illuminated softly by the full moon's rays, rushes through the doorway. The far too heavy pail of water hanging from her one hand splashes droplets all over the dirt floor. The crushed bundle of herbs in her other hand nearly slips out of her grip. There's nothing ethereal about the sight. Huffing raggedly, she moves forward, inelegantly and clumsily.
When Mugen glances back above him, the dark figure hovering over him is gone without a trace. And he can feel air fill his lungs again.
A scrape of her kiribi, agate against metal, and sparks fly, until the tinder in the irori pit catches flame. She pours the water from the pail into the pot over the pit, waiting for it to heat. For the first time since they've stumbled into the hut, the light permits them to see each other properly.
When she sees Mugen, laying there, all red, yet in contrast, his skin the palest she's ever seen it, her heart leaps into her throat. It's enough to have her shaking again.
As he keeps his hand pressed to the wound, he watches Fuu. While she waits for the water to boil, she diligently works to grind down the herbs into a green paste, using the agate rock of her kiribi. Maybe it's the faint light casting deceiving shadows, but he wonders if Fuu always looked that mature.
He'll blame it on the deliriousness of blood loss, but he thinks what a doting little wife the whiny brat will be someday. For a guy like Jin, no doubt…
"He's dead." Mugen finds himself saying aloud.
"We don't know that for sure."
"You saw what that bitch was capable of. Ain't no way she downed me and didn't down him."
Maybe it helps his pride a little to think such a thing. Yet pride is the least of his worries.
When he looks at Fuu again, he expects to find her crying for Jin, just as she's cried for him. He expects her fortitude to snap to pieces, just as his is. To his surprise, Fuu doesn't stop pulverizing down the herbs into a green, unseemly paste.
"Mugen, please… Don't speak. Just relax."
The calmness in her own voice shocks even her. In truth, it takes everything inside her to not crumble to pieces before him again. She knows she has to keep calm, for his sake more than her own. Otherwise, anger will get the better of him. He'll try to get up, reopen his wounds, go out on a vendetta to kill Sara and avenge Jin. Already, she's expected that Jin may be gone forever...
Still Fuu tries to smile weakly for him. "We can worry about Jin when you're healed, okay?"
There's too many things to worry about. When he thinks of what she's done...it has his blood rise so much, he's sure it's gonna start pouring out of his arteries again. If she saw Jin on the ground, she'd definitely do the same thing for Jin.
He tells himself this again and again.
But she chose Jin to go with Sara. And chose him to stay.
Sara's words won't stop replaying in his mind.
"It's as if you've never been loved."
When the water reaches a boil, Fuu pours it into a bowl, and then dips a clean cloth in it. When it's not scalding, she wrings it in her hands. Still on her knees, she slides from the stove pit and back to his side. Removing his hand, she runs the hot, damp cloth on the open cut. He cringes. Briefly, she stops, waiting for his fingers to uncurl from his fist, and his shoulders to untense. One of her hands touches his arm to soothe him. It works wonders, and back to washing the cut she goes.
Despite how the rest of her is shivering, her hands stay so steady as she cleans the open cuts, and wipes the crusting blood from his flesh. When most of the blood is off, she coats her fingertips in that green ointment. She brushes them to the cut. It stings so bad, he gives a loud shout, abundant with curses. Each swear bounces around the walls.
There is nothing pleasant about it. Everything aches. But he can deal with the pain in his muscles, or bones, or the sting of that fucking ointment seeping into the open cut. Pain was part of life. He can handle it.
It's that pain in his chest, making his breaths short and mind fuzzy, that is the real trouble. That pain lingers there, only surfacing hardest when her fingertips glide on his bare skin. Even when he's freezing so hard his teeth are clacking, the brimstone in his chest burns him from the inside out.
Fuu doesn't say a word. He doesn't either; he only grits back the pain, and finds that all he can do is stare at her as she works.
Her brunette hair, damp and glossy with sweat keeps getting in the way of her gaze. Fuu swipes away her side bangs from her face, accidentally splodging a fair amount of his blood and the ointment on her cheek. She doesn't even notice, continuing, with such intense diligence and care.
It looks awful. He wants his blood off her. His hand rises from the floor. It's hard to lift. Mugen barely finds the strength. And yet he musters it. Rougher than he intends, the pad of his thumb presses down on her cheek, attempting to brush off his own blood...and only smearing it worse on her pale skin in one red streak.
In the faint firelight, their eyes meet. Another tear slips from her dewy lashes. It lands on his thumb, pooling there and soaking the pad of his calloused finger. He doesn't brush it away.
It's not the first time he's touched her face. He's done so before, squeezed her cheeks many times out of annoyance. Why is today any different? He should pinch her cheek now, snap her out of this. Snap himself out of this.
All his hand does is fall back to the floorboard, a loud thud, his finger still wet with too many pints of blood and one too many tears.
Mugen looks away. Fuu returns to the task. They say nothing of it. They say nothing of what Fuu had done for him. In this tiny little shack in the middle of nowhere, it isn't the place to. It's too hard to form words when there are far too many things to say.
The wood cracks in the fire, tossing up a barrage of embers. Cicadas chirp, their bittersweet mating calls flowing through the open window. Every time she rubs the salve over a new cut, Mugen winces. Every time he winces, Fuu's breath catches.
When the wounds are coated in enough ointment, the bandages come next. He has to sit up so she can wind them around his stomach and back.
"Easy… Easy…" she whispers, as she helps him to rise.
As he grunts and moves, his body gives out, hunching forward. Strength withering, all his weight leans against her body.
His sweat sheened forehead lands on her shoulder.
Her eyes widen. The tears come again.
He can barely keep his eyelids open anymore, let alone move away from her. Fuu leans in closer. Every time she applies the dressings, she's forced to embrace him. But if it's forced, it doesn't explain the tenderness of it. The softness of her breasts press into his abdomen. Warm fingers glide over his skin and flatten out the bandages. Silky strands of hair tickle his bare neck. Too bad he's half dead. The hot pain in his chest is starting not to burn so bad anymore.
It's the closest they've ever been. Closer than the time he grabbed her wrist...months ago, as she leaned down to him, and he answered that he was hungry: such a silly thing to say. As if it's food that he'd wanted at that moment, and not for her to stay close, even if the thought dispersed, the very moment he actually felt her wrist in his grip.
She was too close. Not close enough. Then. Now. He can't tell which is which anymore.
Is he dying? He must be.
Fuu's touch never felt this good before.
Has anything that hurt this much ever felt this good?
"Mugen… Stay with me, okay?"
He wants to. But with every careful coil of the gauze around his waist, the more he feels himself fading away.
Her touch keeps him conscious, and yet is relaxing him. Not just her touch; something else too.
Leaned into her, he catches a whiff of a sweet scent. Sweet as honey. The cloying aroma somehow overtakes the stifling stench of blood densely permeating the whole musky hut.
Takes a moment for him to realize it's Fuu's scent, radiating off of her too soft skin, and her too silky hair. And when he realizes it, he tries, oh he tries, to hold in a breath. But he's damned himself, leaning onto her shoulder like this. It's already filled his nostrils and his head, and somehow, his chest too, because that pain is back, stronger than ever before, even though her scent isn't strong at all. It is nothing like the perfume in a brothel, rank and overpowering. It's subtle. And familiar. No woman ever smelled like that before.
So why is it so familiar though? He could've sworn he's smelled it a dozen other times.
...Whenever she's close to him.
…Whenever she tends to him.
On this journey, Fuu has already become so familiar, a fixture in his life and his memory. A reason to stay grounded.
He doesn't want to die. Even when he feels his consciousness slipping, he wants to live. For this. Until she finds her Sunflower Samurai… For her.
She applies the last of the bandages.
But Mugen doesn't move.
"...Mugen?" she whispers against his neck.
Gently, Fuu pushes on his chest with one hand, while her other hand stays against his back, to help him lay down. As she pulls away, she realizes he still has not moved. His eyes are closed. It's so dark. The firelight is not enough to tell if he's breathing. Her fingers reach for his shoulders, his bare skin clammy and cold to the touch. She squeezes him, transferring to him all the warmth she has to give.
When he says nothing, fear grips her throat. Fuu leans down and presses an ear to his bare chest.
Finally, she hears it: his pulse is a faint, low pound. Quiet as it may be, it is there, the steady beat the only proof she has that her bodyguard yet lives. Even when she knows this, she keeps her cheek to Mugen's chest, listening intently.
Jin must have been killed by Sara.
Mugen nearly died.
Fuu shuts her eyes, hands slipping from his shoulders, pressing into the cold skin of his chest. She knows she must move. She should clean his bloody clothes and sew them. She should look for Jin again...even if it means finding a corpse. She should do something. Despite all that...she finds herself immobile, unable to do anything at all. To move means to drift away from him. And to drift away means to stop honing in on Mugen's heartbeat. If she ceases listening for his pulse, it could very well be the last time she ever hears it.
So for a time, in the darkness, as Mugen lays unconscious, Fuu stays pressed to him, lulled by the sound of his heartbeat. Her own throbbing heart steadies until it falls into rhythm with his own.
She'd almost lost him. Again.
Tears soak into his skin. Fuu had never been ready to die. Not before today. There were too many things she had yet to do, too many goals and dreams left unfulfilled.
But if finding the Sunflower Samurai means losing Mugen, she'd rather not find him at all.
Fuu also knows now, if dying meant a chance of saving Mugen, she will gladly take that chance again.
They've seen it all before, under different circumstances. A betrayal of a friend. An act of self-sacrifice.
What she had done...throwing herself in the way to save him… just as Tsuru did for Giri…it was…
An act of love; a word Mugen had long avoided.
He couldn't take any of this anymore.
"You think he wanted her to throw her life away for him?! She had a future ahead of her! And what the fuck does he even got now, without her?!"
"Life! That's what Giri had, if we hadn't left him behind!"
"Dammit Fuu, don't you get it?! He woulda' gladly fuckin' died if it meant she was still alive!"
"Then they were the same!"
"No it ain't the same! Because it was HIS fault, puttin' her in harm's way! Not hers! If he never sold us out to the Shogunate, she woulda' never even been in danger!"
"You're wrong! She put him in danger too by being wanted by the Shogunate in the first place!"
"Puttin' himself in danger to protect her was the choice he made!"
Fuu vigorously shook her head, "And running away from an arranged marriage was the choice she made so she could be with him! She knew the risks! But living a life in danger was what she'd wanted, so long as she could be with him!"
His hand squeezed on her shoulder so hard it was painful. For Mugen, this wasn't just about Tsuru and Giri anymore.
"Well when she killed herself for him…she fuckin' cursed him! At that point, he wanted to be left behind! Leaving him behind was givin' him some last goddamn dignity! Better he dies fighting to help us, than livin' with her death on his conscious for the rest of his life."
Finally, his tight grip on her shoulder loosened. Mugen stood up.
"Livin' a pitiful life like that...he's already dead anyway."
Silently, he walked away from Fuu, approaching a nearby tree. His hand rose to the hilt of his bastard sword.
Enraged, he thought of drawing it, swinging it into the bark, hacking the tree into pieces again and again and again, until his sword was so badly dulled and damaged, and the tree would be left as little more than a ravaged stump.
"Keep your blade and your wits sharp, so that they may always serve you in protecting your purpose." Giri had once said.
Mugen gritted his teeth. He kept his blade sheathed. Instead, his closed fist slammed into the tree trunk.
It was all so frustrating. Maybe if Tsuru had not jumped in the way, she would have lived and escaped. Maybe, regardless if Giri betrayed them or not, they would have been caught by the Shogunate anyway. Or, maybe they would have never been caught at all.
But these were all hypotheticals. Not realities. No matter how fate could have been altered, it didn't matter. What was done was done. Tsuru was dead. Giri probably joined her.
And they were still alive. The Shogunate was still after them. And Mugen did not know if he was capable of protecting Fuu from them, or protecting her from a fate like Tsuru's.
But what he did know, was that he'd do his fucking damndest to try.
He punched again, and again, throwing his whole weight into each hit, until his knuckles cracked. Even when blood seeped out, pouring down the calloused digits, Mugen kept on going. Hit after hit, the thick bark of the tree had whittled and cracked away to reveal the lighter splinters below, and he was sure to have sprained the small bones of his hand.
Fuu looked up, heard his grunting and yelling and the repeated crack of the wood breaking under the weight of his fist, even when his knuckles ran red with injury.
Teary eyed, she crept up from where she'd collapsed, until she stood on her wobbly legs.
He reeled back his arm for another punch.
Before he could, he felt Fuu crash into his back, embracing him.
Her hands clung to the front of his shirt, squeezing onto the bloody cloth so tightly so she could ground herself to something. The tears burned. Her throat was so sore, constricting itself, that Fuu thought she might suffocate.
Slowly, he uncurled his bloody fingers. Finally, he allowed his tattooed arm to fall back to his side.
One of them lost their grounding; they weren't sure who had first, but it didn't matter. Together, Mugen and Fuu fell to their knees, dragging each other down with them. Still, Fuu clung to him the whole time, as he hung his head, his jaw clenched to the point of pain. Fuu buried her face into his injured back, sobbing, not carrying that his blood smeared her face, and him not caring that her salt laden tears soaked into the open wounds.
Under the shadows of the trees, Mugen and Fuu allowed themselves this small moment to grieve for their companions. It would not last long. They couldn't let it. Dawn was rising in the east, the unwelcome light already peeking through the shuddering leaves hanging over them.
All too soon, they would have to move on.
Giri was soaked in sweat and blood. Some of the blood was his. Most of it was not.
He had cut down so many men at this point, he'd lost track of the body count. Some were old faces he recognized from Edo. Some were husbands, leaving their wives widowed. Some were fathers, leaving their children orphaned. None of that mattered to him.
If wearing the mantle of the villain would give him his revenge…
Then he'd wear it. And wear it proudly.
A younger samurai, a boy yet, barely having reached his prime, had begun to weep. He crawled away on his back, until the top of his head bumped into the base of a large tree. Sword raised up pathetically, he weakly swatted it at Giri as he shrank against the roots. Easily, Giri's katana found his throat, until the boy's whimpers turned to gurgles, and his shaky fingers dropped the sword.
When the light faded from the boy's eyes, the entire grove fell silent. Giri ripped the blade from the corpses' neck.
He needed to find Kiichi.
A labored limp in his left leg, Giri made his way back to the direction of the shore.
On a small cliff over the beaches, he found his old friend's bloody body, his throat torn into. Staring down at Kiichi's face, frozen in horror, Giri felt nothing at all. Pity, sympathy...not even a little joy. None of it. Giri looked on. Down the decline to the sands, he saw that the fishing boat that he and Mugen had taken to get there was long gone now. They'd made it out safely. He had fulfilled Tsuru's dying request.
Otachi appeared beside him, maw dripping.
"...You could have gone with them." Giri said.
The dog made no noise. He merely turned back towards the center of the isle, loping away. Giri followed after him.
So many bodies were scattered across the ground. And in the center of the clearing, there laid Tsuru in the silver light. Only when the woodlands fell silent around him, did Giri finally wipe his dripping katana onto his sleeve and sheathe it.
After he'd limped passed the other corpses, he crouched down beside her and leaned forward, placing his hand over her eyes to close them. He slipped his arms beneath her blood soaked back, and the backs of her knees. Already, her muscles and joints had begun to stiffen. He struggled to pick up her body, the bone of his left arm fractured, near useless. But he managed as best he could, pressing her against his chest.
She was so light, just as she was when she was a child.
Holding her body in his arms, he shambled deeper into the island, past the gory scene of the grove. Such an unseemly sight did not suit her final resting place at all. Otachi followed, tail and ears down.
These steps away from the battlefield were the heaviest he had taken in his life. But Giri trudged on in the darkness, his gait stilted, but his grip on Tsuru tight.
Her body was so cold in his arms.
It did not feel real.
His heart did not accept it. It was steady. And numb. So numb. Despite all the grievous injuries, he couldn't feel the pain any longer. Only a deep emptiness filled every wound.
Eventually, Giri found himself at another cliffside, this one overlooking the southern tip of the island. In the distance, the form of a smaller island stood over the misty waters, a fraction of the size of Kakui. With much care, he placed her body down, folding her hands over her chest.
From his gi, he withdrew the sunflower corsage picked by Fuu, and clipped it into Tsuru's black hair. It suited her. Bright. Cheerful. Just as she was in life.
After the hair ornament, Giri took out a scrap of origami paper that he'd bought in the Hinase markets. Carefully, he folded it. It was pitiful, that he struggled with the simple task that he'd long since mastered, due to the injury of his good arm. But when he managed it, he placed the small yellow paper crane upon Tsuru's chest, slipping it between her stiffened fingers.
He hung his head.
"Forgive me...Tsuru." he whispered.
In her sixteen years, she'd never heard him call her by name. Ever and always, she was his lord, when all she ever desired was for him to see her as a normal woman. But to say her name now, when the two syllables would never even reach her…
He knew this was just another way he had failed her.
Giri stood again, and went to work delving his hands into the softened earth nearby. He returned to her, covering her body with dirt. For a time, he solemnly worked in silence, digging with only his hands, until, after the span of nearly an hour, they were not only caked in dried blood, but the soil.
First, he had covered her feet, then her legs, pouring the dirt across her whole body, until he reached her neck. But when he finally lifted the soil to cover her face, hesitation enfeebled him. Even in death, her face such a pale white and her lips tinged the faintest blue, Tsuru still looked so beautiful.
Pain finally set in his chest, a sudden sharpness twisting around his ribcage. And then it spread to his lungs, drained of air, as if they'd been violently wrenched by invisible hands.
The dirt slipped through his fingers, falling across her pallid cheeks. Giri forced his eyes closed. Only when Tsuru was entirely buried beneath layers of dirt, did he unscrew his eyes.
Giri could no longer see her. Tsuru was gone.
Only then did the reality sink in, bearing down hard on his shoulders.
He toiled quietly, pouring more dirt, until after much time, he had built a leveled, sizable burial mound.
The time passed on, but he did not move. On the cliffside, Giri stood motionless. Beside him, Otachi remained silent, head hanging.
He listened to the thrum of the coming tides, and the breeze stirring through the dry leaves overhead. The sun had risen, adorning the burial mound with sparse light that had slipped through the foggy overcast, and the branches hanging over the grave. Under the boughs of the trees, the light did not reach Giri.
When a samurai dedicated himself to a sole purpose, there also was only one option that remained for failing that purpose.
Giri knelt in front of his lord's grave.
With a resigned calmness, he tugged open the front of his green kimono, until his bare chest and the sarashi bandages over his stomach were exposed. Slowly, he drew his wakizashi from his hip. His hands were steady, his breaths even.
He positioned the point of the blade in front of his abdomen.
Giri did not fear it. Months ago, he had already prepared for the day he would have to return Tsuru to Wakayama, and would be forced to commit seppuku for abducting her.
How plans had changed… Never had he expected his ritual suicide would be performed for any other reason.
In the creeping silence, deafening to his ears, he readied himself for the painful plunge. How he longed for it: the sweet release of death.
The blade neared, the edge just pressing against his stomach, though not yet breaking the skin.
But he couldn't move.
"I value your life as much as my freedom."
One by one, his nerves frayed apart, until the faintest tremble showed clearly in his once still hands. Hot tears stung his eyes. The wakizashi shook in his grip.
To die was to preserve one's honor. Thus was the samurai's way.
Such a beautiful lie. To end it all here had little to do with honor or the warrior code anymore. For Giri, it was only a mercy. Death meant being free of all this. No physical pain, not even disemboweling himself, could compare to the agony of living.
But to commit seppuku would make Tsuru's sacrifice meaningless. To take his own life, was to betray her.
Without Tsuru, Giri already would have been a dead man walking long ago, on the day Kameko had passed. Even at the loss of his love, Tsuru had rekindled his will to live. She had brought him sixteen years of happiness.
But her death would bring him only a lifetime of grief.
Guilt would not only haunt him; it would corrode him, until nothing remained but the shell of a man.
But he had to live. He had no choice. This was the fate Tsuru had forced upon him. Were her wishes not always his command?
Otachi raised his head, letting loose a pained howl. The long, low cry carried across the cliff and the ocean beyond it, echoing even to the island far to the south.
The ronin lowered his arm. He set down the shortsword at his side.
He wept, the soft sound of it drowned out by the gentle surge of the waves, and muffled into his hands that were smeared with the dirt of the grave, and stained with the blood of the only lord he would ever serve.
~To Be Continued~
*please stand by*
Manzou the Saw: ...Hello again, dear reader… The writer has emotionally checked out, and has asked me to finish the tale of this chapter for you, as I had often done (questionably accurate) historical inserts in the anime. Allow me to do this tale justice... *clears throat*
Many years after Tsuru's death, it is said that a stray white dog could be seen roaming the island of Kakui, hunting down deer to survive. From then on, it became a hunting ground for deer, and was never populated, even to the present day. It is said that this white dog would often stand at the cliff that housed Tsuru-himegimi's grave. Flowers were seen left at the grave by an unknown individual. Any attempt to catch the white dog, or to find the person who left the flowers ended in failure.
As for Tsuru's bodyguard...he was never found, nor seen again.
Supposedly Shogun Tsunayoshi, Tsuru-himegimi's father, often took his dog to Kakui Island to hunt...but what few knew, is he was actually visiting to pay his respects to his deceased daughter. The small island that her grave faced was even named Tsuru Island, in her honor.
Tsuru-himegimi's close relationship with her dog is likely what inspired the Shogun to create numerous policies that protected animals, and in particular: dogs. Homes and facilities were built all throughout Edo for stray dogs, and from hereon, Tsunayoshi was given his nickname "The Dog Shogun".
Later, in the 1830s, Tsuru Island became a penal colony for Christians from Nagasaki. Why this island was chosen...is likely because the government knew that once, a Shogun's lost daughter had befriended the daughter of a cryptic Christian. Of course, all these details have since been lost to the pages of history.
How much is this true? Well, the Dog Shogun is real… Kakui Island as a hunting ground is real, as is the smaller Tsuru Island south of it. Real history? Who knows…
Ah yes, you may enjoy listening to Lullaby of Takeda, as the ending theme for this chapter.
Now then, time for some author's notes that will be longer than the actual chapter.
Giri (義理)- There is no direct English translation for this word. But it is best compared to "Duty" or even "the burden of obligation". Giri is opposite to the concept of "Ninjo" which is "human emotions and feelings".
Giri versus Ninjo- The entire Tsuru-himegimi arc is a battle of Giri (Duty) versus Ninjo (Human Emotion). Tsuru, running away from her obligations of marriage, has been swept away by Ninjo, following her heart, just as Fuu does. Meanwhile, Giri is bound to his duty. Mugen was torn between the two throughout the course of this arc: the obligation of taking her to Jin to protect her and give her a more stable life, versus the emotion of his romantic and intimate feelings for her. Giri and Ninjo never align. It is often the subject of dramas, and is shown in Double Suicide stories, where lovers are forced to die together because of the conflict of their feelings for each other, yet are being kept apart by outside obligations.
In the end, Giri, who had always lived up to his namesake, is now conflicted with Ninjo: his guilt, and his overwhelming sorrow.
Seppuku/Harakiri- "ritual suicide". More specifically, Giri wished to performed "Oibara" which is a specific act of seppuku, in which a retainer commits suicide at the death of his lord. It is considered honorable, and showing one's loyalty
To be a samurai, one must serve their lord. When a samurai allows his lord to die, to commit seppuku is expected. Not killing one's self is considered shameful. But what does he serve more: his identity as a samurai or serving his lord? Giri is in a catch 22, because the sole purpose of a samurai IS to serve their lord. Yet, living as a ronin, is to walk a path of shame: the failure of allowing your lord to die. However, Tsuru wanted him to live on, even at the expense of her own life.
Tsuru's sacrifice has tested Giri's identity as a samurai.
Kiichi- Previously mentioned to mean Yew Tree in Chapter 32. The Yew is poisonous to the dog. And it was Kiichi to kill Otachi's master. Otachi was able to kill Kiichi and enact his revenge...but in the end, he lost his irreplaceable master. The Yew Tree is also symbolic of Doom and Death, especially in Christianity.
Tsuru- I went into detail in Chapter 42 what her name means, as she is based off of a real historical figure. However, the ironies of her name are that the crane is a symbol of marital fidelity, and long life. Not only did she run away from her marriage, she dies at the young age of 16.
Kameko- Tortoise Child. Like the crane, the tortoise is a symbol of long life, and is often paired with the crane in art.
Both of the women Giri has cared most for, have names that mean "long life" And yet, ironically, both women die young.
There were many foreshadows that Tsuru was bound to die. I will name just a few though, that possess cultural meanings.
Camellia Symbolism in Chapter 44- The camellia (tsubaki in Japanese) is an early spring flower. When camellias wilt, the flowers "behead" themselves from the stem. Among warriors and samurai, the red camellia symbolized a noble death. Otherwise, the red camellia means love.
Shinobazu Pond Symbolism in Chapter 44- The Temple on the island of this pond houses Benzaiten. Benzaiten is the only female goddess of the 7 Buddhist Gods of Virtue. She is the goddess of things that flow, such as music, speech and water. However, she possesses a story in which a god spurned her advances. As a result, she grew envious of other women, believing all men to belong to her. It is believed that if she sees a happy couple that do not pay their respects to her, she will grow jealous and strive to split them apart.
Love Suicides of Sonezaki in Chapter 43 is another example of foreshadow, but because Tsuru and Giri were not lovers, only one of them died, rather than dying together. This is different from Mugen and Fuu, whose feelings are not unrequited, and would have died together in Episode 21 to Sara.
Would love to know if you guys spotted the other symbolism, or saw any other sort of connections!
Gedan-no-Kamae (Earth Posture)- A defensive Kenjutsu and Kendo stance in which the blade is pointed down. (Jin is called out for using it in Episode 23 during the baseball game, hence Mugen's affiliation with Jin using it.)
Moku-no-Kamae (Wood Posture)- An offensive Kenjutsu and Kendo stance, in which the left foot is forward, and the blade raised straight up, resembling a tree.
IMPORTANT NOTE- To those who wish to review, I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings. All I ask is that you refrain from stating exactly what happened in this chapter, as I know some people probably read the story's reviews before reading. The death of Tsuru is probably the biggest spoiler in the story thus far. But please tell me what feelings you felt in the chapter, if you have any questions, or if any foreshadowing/symbols of the events surprised you!
Happy 2020 everyone… Now let's make 2021 a better year…
On a serious note, to all those who have lost loved ones, always remember the fond memories you shared together, so that they may live on through you.
There will likely not be a new chapter for several months, as I will be revising and rewriting all chapters, especially those before Chapter 16. Check my Fanfiction Profile for any info on estimated update dates!
You all have made 2020 not only bearable for me, but even fun. I had a great time writing throughout this year, and reading your comments and thoughts. So from the bottom of my heart, I thank you all for helping me carry through all this. Stay safe, stay positive, and stay wonderful.
End of Chapter 45