Adrift III
by Laura Bryannan

My life as I had come to know it ended one fine October evening. Halfway though class I felt my skin prickling, as though someone were watching me, and I assumed Mugen had come home earlier than usual from wherever he wandered to in the afternoons. Scanning the neighbors milling about, my heart suddenly stopped. I knew who it was the moment I saw him and the awareness sent my emotions reeling. It had to be the captain of the Brightness, come for Mugen.

Unable to focus on class any further and needing a better view, I asked Wei-san to take over and went to speak with him. The closer I got, the more impressive he became. I haven't looked up to a man since my seventeenth year, so it was both captivating and disconcerting to find him peering down at me. Mugen's taste was flawless. I could see why he had fallen for such a man, for while his size was intimidating, his face was thoughtful and pleasant. He said something to me that was so kind I was taken aback, and wondered how a foreigner could come to have such insight.

I knew immediately what would happen the moment Mugen found him here and I could hardly contain my excitement, making it difficult to return my focus to my students when there were other, more enticing, things to observe. My eyes kept straying to where he stood, drinking in the sight of him. His physique evoked fond memories of my mentor at the dojo, Harumasa, whom I'd admired and loved, and I could feel my heart ache for that relationship as I gazed at him. Mugen was fortunate to have this man's regard, that was clear, and I was fascinated by how much I wanted to have it as well.

When Mugen finally spied the captain I saw a side of him I had sensed, but never before witnessed. His entire aspect became predator, unobtrusively stalking his victim with steely-eyed precision. To watch such a hunt was chilling but fascinating, and intensely arousing. I wanted Mugen to bag this prey, knowing I'd gain some of the boon, and did what I could to help entice him into our lair.

Shooing my students away as quickly as possible and praying Fuu would come home late as had been her wont recently, I finally escaped into the house to discover a jaw-dropping sight. Mugen had the man's shirt off and his pants open, exposing the largest cock I have ever seen. No longer than mine, but so thick I winced, knowing that Mugen was probably going to attack him anyway. He did, of course.

I was charmed by the captain's incredulousness, how almost innocent he seemed, completely willing to follow Mugen's lead. One expects brutishness from a man that size, but I quickly let down my guard, realizing he was handling Mugen with such reverence and care, I needn't worry. I feast my eyes on the two of them, enjoying my arousal, when Mugen turned to me. I would have been happy to simply witness that evening, but perhaps he wanted to insure I wouldn't join in or otherwise participate.

There is no resisting Mugen's throat, however, and the reality of the man watching made it even more exhilarating. His scent was so unusual, there was no ignoring his presence, even with my eyes closed and such overwhelming distractions. I was touched when Mugen refused to let go after my orgasm, clinging to me as though he were having second thoughts or, more likely, waiting for my permission. So I pulled him up, kissed him soundly, and sent him to his destiny.

The scene did not play out as I expected and I believe Mugen was surprised as well, but I will admit to being grateful for the brevity of it as I'm not sure how long I could have watched them without feeling jealous. As it was, the captain was left high and dry, which put me in a precarious position. I roused myself from my post-orgasmic stupor and got him a towel as he lay the practically-unconscious Mugen down on the futon. Deciding I would not approach my lover's territory, I wasn't sure whether I hoped he would turn to me for resolution or not. When he did not, I found myself admiring him even more.

With a smile and a shrug, he closed his eyes and brought himself off, giving me an opportunity to blatantly stare in appreciation at the scene. The hair on his chest and belly made me want to touch it. Was it soft? Wiry? I'd never seen so much on a man before. I yearned to lay my head on his chest and feel protected by those arms, to be a little boy again and forget all my troubles.

His moan roused me from my daydreams, and I watched him cum discretely into his hand rather than onto his belly. He used the towel again and eyed me, unashamed, then turned to gaze fondly at the snoring Mugen curled up next to him, noting, “I haven't seen fireworks like that in all my life.”

“I believe he finds you inspiring,” I told him.

He made that charming incredulous face again before musing, “Inspiring...yes...he is quite inspiring.”

“I'm hungry. I'll make dinner,” I announced, changing the subject before any green monsters arrived. “Would you like some too?”

“Yes, please.”

And so I stuck yesterday's leftovers on the fire and pulled our meal together while he washed up and dressed. Mugen woke a short while later, blushing and apologetic, and we had as normal a dinner as one could have under the circumstances.

The enormity of what had happened didn't begin to sink in until Fuu returned home, clearly confused by the situation but wisely unwilling to pursue the matter. And I realized how hurt she might be by Mugen's actions, or even mine in encouraging him. I suppose it's a measure of how my mind works that I look to that fateful evening as certainly the cause of everything to follow, and sometimes the punishment for it.

Life on board the Brightness was awful, and I often considered it a well-deserved fate for all my myriad misdeeds. The continual motion beneath my feet insured I felt nauseous all the time. Sometimes it was better, sometimes it was worse, but it was always there, no matter what I was doing or how hard I was working. And on top of everything else was the reality I hated to admit to myself: I was afraid. The idea of men sitting inside a wooden barrel bobbing along in the vast ocean terrified me. I was confounded by the hubris of it, at how the gods must surely be laughing at anyone so foolish to believe they could survive, one tiny ship against the wind and the waves.

It took all my self-control to function each day, to smile, do my work and act as though everything were normal. There wasn't one aspect of my life that wasn't disrupted. The sun and heat forced me out of my own clothes early on, and while I'll admit my new outfit was more comfortable, I looked diseased with my skin continually peeling, and the ache of it was yet another discomfort to manage along with the others. The experience tested everything I understood about myself and showed me to be a fool, not that I didn't already know that, but it was difficult to have my nose rubbed in it every waking moment.

Despite my complaining, there were three worthwhile aspects of this journey. The first was sleeping with Mugen, a tradition we had fallen out of while we lived in Ryukyu. Unfortunately it involved one of the many trials of life on board the Brightness: a contraption called a hammock. And while I'm sure it was wiser than a bed in such an environment, you cannot stretch out your legs, the ropes dig into your skin, and it is quite uncomfortable for anything longer than a short nap. Add to these realities a lover snoring in my ear, his body typically cutting off the circulation in one or more limbs, and it amounted to never having one good night's sleep for the entire voyage.

But I needed him there to keep me sane, his tongue in my mouth and his hands on my body, distracting me from all my worries and discomforts. It took some getting used to, being sexual with Mugen when men were hanging on either side of us, almost literally within arm's reach. It was worse than the dorm when I was a youth at the dojo, and I protested at first. “Look,” he whispered. “It's the rules on a ship that what's happening in the next hammock ain't happening, got it? Whatever the guy is doing—jacking off, eating his boogers, fucking his lover—you don't see it, you don't hear it, and he ignores you back. That's the way it works.”

I had to admit it seemed the truth. The crew dealt with their sexual urges in the varied ways men will, and there didn't seem to be any animosity or curiosity toward those who chose to handle them with another crewmember. And so Mugen's visits became my reward after all my travail each day, and I anticipated them like a fine meal or a bowl of opium. For an hour or so every night, before I passed out from sheer exhaustion, I would have a spate of normalcy: his wiry body in my arms, his scent surrounding me, his strength and confidence quieting my perpetual distress.

The second wonderful thing about the voyage was shore leave. I lived for the days we could escape the ship and walk on the blessed earth. It was the only time I got to spend with Fuu, so that was a treasure in itself, and to feel like myself again was just as great a gift. We developed a ritual, wandering around in shops first, hunting for the various items we required or desired, then locating an amenable place to dine. The awkwardness would disappear from our conversation by the end of the meal, and it would feel like we were sitting around the fireplace at home once more, sharing our experiences of the day while secretly planning other adventures for dessert.

At first, our leaves together were exquisite, life-affirming and quite lascivious. It was such a relief to be off that wretched ship, bathe to my heart's content, lay on a proper flat futon and play until I couldn't move another muscle. We created many arousing memories I cherish to this day that first month of our voyage. But somewhere along the way it became less easy. The awkwardness remained as we faced each other in our room and we felt inhibited and shy. At home we had a natural closeness that was denied us on board the Brightness, and it was painful to discover how that bond had been so tied to our life in Ryukyu. It didn't seem to carry into this environment, which kept us ever busy and separate from each other.

And then, the unimaginable occurred. I am still trying to understand what happened the last time the three of us were together. The evening had begun so well, and I savored the time Fuu and I had to spend alone. Mugen tended to appropriate her when he was there, which often left me with no one but him to attack. That wasn't a bad thing, of course, but I did miss being intimate with Fuu and felt our relationship was suffering due to the lack of it. I could tell from the marks on her body that he was finding ways to have her when I was not around but, being unfamiliar with the ship, I didn't know how to accomplish that, and the closet she roomed in was far too tiny for anything but sleep.

The memory of that night remains painful, for Mugen had never mishandled me in such a way before, and I was so shocked I didn't know how to respond. I would like to blame it all on his drunken state, but it's hard to believe he wasn't aware of how he was hurting me as he clumsily sought entry into my body. In fact, I became convinced he intended to wound when he jubilantly promised to fuck me until I screamed and then proceeded to do so.

The intensity of my orgasm and the wonder of having it in Fuu's arms was completely destroyed by one word: bitch. The man called me a bitch in front of her, a word he has never used before. I felt dumbfounded and humiliated, my head spinning in miserable confusion. Why was he doing this? I didn't understand then and I still do not. But I was so angry the mere sight of him sickened me, which made the last week of the voyage difficult, for I couldn't bear to see or speak to him.

It's strange how Spirit contrives to set you on a path, one you are certain you have not chosen, but find yourself on nonetheless. Mugen brought Captain Nunes into our lives, and if I had to point to one overriding factor causing our current predicament it would be him. Once we created The Disaster at New Star Inn ourselves, our relationship was ripe for the plundering and he did so expertly. But I get ahead of myself.

The man in question, Captain Nunes, was the final gift of this voyage and also the bearer of many surprising gifts himself. At first we barely interacted, and I spent my days mopping and scrubbing, or helping various crew lug the continual flow of boxes, barrels and sacks in, out and around the various holds of the ship. We would put into port and drag out the things we were selling, then drag back the things we'd bought. It was grueling, monotonous work, but anything that kept me busy was a distraction from my body and so I welcomed it.

I was surprised when he called me into his quarters a few weeks into the voyage, asking if I could take down a letter he needed to send to a business associate in Edo. I was willing, of course, and so he dictated and I wrote it up for him, becoming instantly curious about his connections in the capital city and elsewhere. It was the beginning of our friendship, and I always knew when we were a few days out of port, for he would usually have several to send and would call me in to play secretary before we arrived at a new city.

The more I wrote, the more I realized what trust he was placing in me, for it became clear in ways I had never considered that a European tradesman surviving successfully in the East had to have many friends in high places and influence of his own he was willing to wield. He was a fascinating man to talk to, for he had been so many places and knew so many different cultures, he seemed an endless font of knowledge about the world. I never ran out of questions for him, and it was a pleasant diversion during more unpleasant duties to daydream about what I could ask him next.

I had forgotten what it was like to share adult conversation with another person, having lost all that when I was cast from the dojo. Mugen and Fuu, I love them well, but neither have been interested in conversing much beyond What are we going to eat? or What should we do now? So it was thrilling and soul-satisfying to listen to him discuss his strategies circumventing the trade barriers and tarrifs each country throws in his path, or of the glad handing and bribery that must occur everywhere for his business to continue. The man was a wily fox, that was clear, but he never ventured an underhanded deal in my presence, thus my admiration for him continued to grow unabated.

As we spent more time together, I learned why his scent was so unique. His drinks of preference were coffee—awful, vile stuff—and brandy which, while overly sweet, I found enjoyable, so long as I kept myself to one snifter. His smoking tastes were strange, however, indulging in a leaf called tobacco, which held no interest for me whatsoever even though it came all the way from the mysterious New World. He claimed it relaxed him, helped him think, besides being a pleasant pastime. I could grant the pastime aspects, but experienced absolutely no benefits I could discern. Opium produces very obvious benefits, tobacco none at all, so his interest in the product was mystifying.

However, it was during one of his many pipes that the bombshell dropped and our relationship was forever changed. He was puffing thoughtfully after dictating his letter, and I was unobtrusively observing him, as always, when he ventured a startling question. “When Mugen asked for passage on this voyage he said, 'They're after Jin,' and I've always wanted to ask why. Would you tell me?”

He had this way of looking at you that made you want to pour your soul out to him, so I did. “There was an assassin sent after us and I dispatched him. It appears he was more important to the government than our simple selves would merit.”

He gasped and dropped his pipe, then scrambled, cursing, to wipe the embers off of his pants before they burned the fabric. “You're the one?!?” he cried. “You killed Kariya Kagetoki?”

It was my turn to gasp. “How do you know that?”

“Oh, my boy, it was the talk of Edo. At least, among those of us who care about such things.”

I could only stare, dumbfounded, when he continued.

“I'm a Christian man in a heathen world, if you'll pardon my saying so, and I've found the pogroms and persecutions of those of my faith hard to stomach, in your country in particular. We were angered to learn that the Hand of God had been called out of retirement to put down a new alleged Christian threat, but then our spies began reporting the most surprising news: the man had not returned from his assignment! Eventually, the obvious conclusions were drawn, as it was unlikely he would abandon his post, and there was much rejoicing. But why was he sent after you three? I don't understand.”

“He was sent to kill Fuu and her father," I informed him. "I didn't arrive in time to save her father, but....”

“Fuu and her father?” he interrupted. “But that would mean.... Could it be? What was his name?”

“Seizou Kasumi, I believe.”

“Astounding!” he shouted, leaping from his chair. “And Fuu-san is his daughter?”


He was beaming with joy. “Of all the.... No one is going to believe this when I tell them.” He chuckled to himself, shaking his head, and then turned to me. “This calls for a drink, Jin-sama.” My eyes widened as he bowed formally. “Seizou Kazumi was a great man who sacrificed much for the Christians in Japan. I am grateful you were able to save his daughter from the Shogunate.”

I was stunned, to say the least, and didn't know how to respond, so I sipped on my brandy even though it was too early in the day to be drinking while he ran off to tell his brother the news. I wondered if he knew Fuu's father personally. He certainly seemed to know more about him than Fuu did, for he shared information I had never heard before. One thing was clear, however, he looked at me differently after that, and I'm sure it's why he pressed me about a certain fateful matter shortly before our voyage ended.

“Speaking as a father—my eldest daughter is only a year older than Fuu-san—I must ask you a personal question,” he began. “What are your intentions toward the young lady? I speculate about the three of you and I become concerned.”

He eyed me intently and I quailed, not having given it much thought. “Have you asked Mugen this question?” I stalled.

He chuckled, glancing toward the person in question wistfully. “Of course not. Mugen is a child, a wild, impulsive one. He will happily take what he is given without remorse or care for any consequence. But you, Jin? Surely you can't expect to continue taking advantage of her situation this way. Seizou-dono's daughter deserves better.”

I felt a pang of guilt. Were we taking advantage of Fuu? At first I bristled, but then I realized he was right. We had fallen into happy debauchery without intending to, and circumstances had contrived to allow us to continue on that path because of Fuu's choice to become a boy. It would have been easier to dissemble, but I couldn't lie to the man. I faced him and said, “I'm ashamed to admit I hadn't considered the situation from...a father's perspective.”

He gave me a fond look that made my knees weak. “Then I trust you'll find a way to do right by the girl, yes?”

I nodded, basking in his gaze. “Yes sir, I will.”

I wonder to this day if I asked Fuu to marry me in the inane way I did solely because Captain Nunes shamed me into it. My intentions were honorable but, at that time and place, it was the absolute wrong thing to do. I only realized that in retrospect, unfortunately, and not just because it's surely what goaded Mugen into sailing away. The situation between the three of us was already precarious, so to make such a proposal without considering the consequences was most unlike me. I can only say in my own defense that the captain's impassioned concern for her was so overwhelming, he had me convinced poor Fuu required rescuing, completely forgetting the true nature of the damsel in question.

By the time I reached that level of wisdom, however, both my lovers were out of my reach, and I had no idea whether the situation would be permanent or not. The Nunes family whisked Fuu away from us with ninja-like efficiency, but I could see at dinner that night she was not going to protest the action. The captain's eldest, Biyu, whom everyone called Bella, was instantly smitten and wanted to hear all about her adventures. There was another girl, Yue, who was eleven and Zhu, nine, who were also old enough to be fascinated by Fuu's worldly past. To her credit, Mother Chan never treated Fuu as a fallen women, which she certainly could have, or appeared to even think such a thing. It gave me hope that others might feel the same way, and seeing Fuu so happy was the greatest reward of all.

“I never had sisters or girlfriends growing up,” she said to me one evening several weeks later, “and I'm having so much fun! Maybe that's why I can't bear to leave just yet, even though I'm imposing. Mother Chan has been so nice. I guess it's what I need right now.” I agreed because it was clear she was right. The nest she'd landed in comforted me greatly, and Fuu's well being was never a worry in my new life here. I was pleased she was receiving the mothering she missed so much, since neither Mugen nor I could give it to her.

So, despite our status as lovers, in Canton, Fuu and I began at the beginning. Under the protective wing of Mother Chan, she was treated as one of her daughters, and thus I courted her the way I would have courted her had we met under different circumstances. Every evening I came over and we would visit in the Nunes' library, with the door open, of course, all the while being disrupted by children peeking and giggling. It was both charming and entertaining...but very tense at first, for once she realized Mugen had left us, she could take out her frustration on no one but me.

“Why were you fighting?” she asked more than once, and I never knew how to respond, so I tended not to. “Did you tell him to leave? Did you want him to leave?”

“No, Fuu, I didn't.”

“Everything was fine until that last time we were together, but it was so wonderful, I can't understand what went wrong.”

My jaw dropped. “You thought it was wonderful?” It had been so not-wonderful for me, I didn't believe her.

“Well, yes.” She eyed me, blushing but clearly certain. “Both of us making you happy like that. It was something I've always dreamed about.”

I felt amazed and relieved she hadn't been aware of what he'd put me through and didn't want to burst her bubble, so answering her questions about why we'd been fighting became impossible.

The unanswered question I'd asked her remained between us, as well. I didn't want to bring the matter up again, she never did herself, and I will admit to feeling hurt by that. I had hoped she'd be pleased and flattered by my proposal, at the least relieved, but instead it felt as though I had trapped her somehow—backed her into a corner she didn't want to be in. So matters were quite awkward between us at first, but as our individual lives moved onward there were finally things to share with each other besides all that we didn't wish to discuss.

Fuu went to work at Peach Garden, the restaurant Bella served at, but as prep cook, not as a fellow server. Bella knew Miss Ling needed the help and Fuu was happy to find another boss more tolerable than Kanna-san. She continued using Wakana as her family name, as did I. Perhaps I wanted to cling to my one remaining connection to her, but since there was no denying the wanted posters coming out of Nagasaki, there were other reasons not to flaunt my true name even this far away from Japan.

My own work situation developed more slowly. I moved out of the Nunes' home after a few days and took a room near the Peach Garden, but had no ambitions for myself. The idea of becoming a bouncer again did not appeal. My work transcribing Soon-ojiisan's biography had suited me well, but little voices whispered to find something that would keep my fighting skills sharp. When that proved difficult, I wandered about, spending money and not earning it, without a clue in the world.

It was Mother Chan who finally pushed me in the right direction. “One of my friends needs to send a letter to Japan. Will you write it for her? My husband mentioned you have schooling.” I was happy to do it, and soon discovered that other merchants and merchant's wives had business dealings, family matters and missives of a romantic nature, all requiring someone who could transcribe their spoken Chinese into written, or translate it into Japanese. My services became in high enough demand that I decided to stop running hither and yon making house calls and set up shop in town. I could afford the lease on a small building with a storefront and a room behind, which suited me well, and I moved in the day I hung up my shingle.

And so I earned my honest living and courted my lover, although it felt strangely inappropriate to approach her sexually. We could have snuck off to my place and none would have been the wiser, but she didn't hint she wanted to and I didn't try to lure her. I was content to observe and appreciate, as she seemed a butterfly dancing amongst the blossoms of the Nunes household. I enjoyed spending time there and was often invited to dinner, the chaos of so many children pleasantly reminding me of my own childhood. There had been five of us versus Mother Chan's six, although the eldest boy, Dani, who was a year younger than Fuu, was crew on another ship and wouldn't return for a few more months. Fuu was fast friends with Bella, big sister to the girls in the middle and honorary nanny to baby Sun, who was three and lord of the household.

I had come to know Fuu on our journey across Japan, of course, but we had been faced with so many trials and struggles, only certain aspects of her personality were revealed. She was literally blooming in this loving environment, and I was endlessly fascinated by the remarkable creature she was becoming. Since lovemaking was denied us, you might think we would feel less close to each other, but the situation was actually the opposite. Our time together felt more intimate than before and we gained a comfortable way with each other that I treasured very much. And finally, enough time passed that we could discuss our mutual lover without recriminations or accusations, and come to certain agreements about how he should be handled once he returned.

Mugen. As angry as I was with him, I missed him horribly. My life had mutated from heavenly to hellacious in one day, and that reality still shook me to the core. After experiencing such closeness, such a sense of family and commitment, to now be feeling as alone as I felt in Nagasaki was quite dispiriting. Contemplating the future did not buoy my mood. It seemed likely that Mugen might want to stay on the Brightness, close to Captain Nunes. The career suited him like a second skin, whereas he would probably get into nothing but trouble in a city like Canton, so I could hardly fault him if he made such a choice. The helplessness I felt in the face of my need for him was overwhelming, so I had to keep such yearnings out of my mind if I wanted to be able to get out of bed each morning and face the day.

I tried to let go of my expectations and focus on Fuu, as we both waited impatiently for the week the Brightness was due to put into port. We finally received word and I was grateful for the invitation to dinner, for Mugen arrived at the captain's side, eyes flashing like a cock facing the dawn. Seeing him again after so long was both intoxicating and infuriating, for as beautiful as he looked to me, my heart remained wounded by his abandonment. He'd filled out and put on some weight, although he was still sleek as a panther, but I forced myself not to stare. I noticed that Fuu's regard was wary as well. For although she was flushed, she was quieter at dinner than usual, and I never once caught her gazing at him.

Finally the meal was over and the three of us could retire to the library for some much-needed private conversation. I had expected an awkward silence, but Fuu wasted no time. Rounding on Mugen, she demanded, “Why did you leave like that?”

He shrugged. “I figured if the two of you were gonna get cozy, I didn't wanna get in your way.”

“You didn't wait around long enough to find out what I wanted, did you?”

“Maybe I didn't wanna know.”

“Well, that's just great!” she fumed. “Is this what what we can expect from now on? Are you taking off again when the Brightness sails? Have you chosen Captain Nunes over us?”

Glancing at her sharply, he spat, “I ain't chose nothing! But I can't stand around and play footsies, waiting for you to decide what the fuck is going on with you. If you don't know what you want after all this time, you ain't never gonna know.” And with that, he stood up and headed toward the door. He was going to leave without acknowledging me at all, and I wouldn't allow it.

“Mugen,” I called, praying he would stop. He did. He turned and regarded me, the ice in his gray eyes freezing my heart. “Don't leave without learning what is happening here,” I insisted.

He snorted. “I can see what's happening here and, hey, I wish you all the best. But don't expect me to play the pervy uncle on the side who's sporking mom and dad after the kids are asleep. Fuck that!”

“Mugen, that's not....” Fuu cried, but he was gone. She looked at me helplessly and I sighed. “If he leaves again he won't be back for almost six months,” she wailed, getting up and and pacing the room for a full minute before stopping in front of me, her intense expression making my breath come a little faster. “If he leaves again, that's it.”

She looked at me meaningfully, to insure the offer still stood, and I smiled. “All right, Fuu. I'm pleased.”

I reached for her and she came into my arms, whispering, “I'm sorry I made you wait so long for my answer.”

“I'm sorry it took me so long to ask.”

“It's all because of that stupid jerk,” she declared.

I wasn't willing to agree with her and blame my own obtuseness on Mugen and it was a good thing, for the stupid jerk didn't leave. He stayed in town, shocking us both, although we only heard about it through Mother Chan, not from himself. He kept his distance until the events that catalyzed everything to follow.

Old Miss Ling, the queen of Peach Garden, passed away quietly in her sleep a month after he returned and all was in an uproar. Fuu and Bella, as well as the rest of the staff, were facing the end of their livelihood as there was no one in the family who wished to take over the restaurant. The solicitor was ready to close the doors permanently when Fuu surprised everyone with an offer to buy the place!

As it turned out, between a legacy she'd received from her father and money she'd saved in Ryukyu, she had enough to accomplish the task. “Am I crazy to do this, Jin?” she asked, looking so sparkling and determined, I knew there was no stopping her—not that I had any intention of trying.

“No, I think it's perfect for you,” I replied sincerely, feeling so proud of her, I thought my heart would burst.

She set to turning Peach Garden into her own creature immediately. Small changes, but meaningful ones, that made the space brighter and less crowded-feeling. Many dishes were permanently retired, while new ones she'd learned in Ryukyu and on the Brightness were added. The customers responded and the place became even more popular than before.

Fuu also owned the apartment over the restaurant that Miss Ling had lived in. It was a large space, and the family left many pieces of furniture behind, so she was able to make it quite cozy very quickly. Mother Chan wasn't happy about her moving out, but there wasn't much she could do about it considering Fuu was now a proper member of society with a thriving business.

I was having lunch there, as I often did, when Mugen finally made an appearance. He didn't sit down to eat, but wandered back into the kitchen, not noticing I was there. The sight of him was so unsettling, I found it hard to continue my meal, especially since he never exited so far as I could tell. I waited for quite a while and finally decided he must have left through the back door, but I needed to know for sure because, if he had upset Fuu, I wanted to be able to comfort her.

I stuck my nose in the kitchen and saw an amazing sight. Fuu was blustering about in her usual fashion, poking, stirring, tasting, and there was Mugen with a massive knife in his hand, chopping cabbage. “When you're done with those, start on the carrots, will ya?” She dumped a large bunch on the table next to him, wearing the happiest face I'd seen in months.

He snorted, grousing, “Yeah, yeah,” but he was pleased, there was no denying it.

My heart soared and I couldn't suppress a smile, which he caught when he looked up and saw me in the doorway. His face betrayed excitement, wariness then finally a grudging acceptance. “Guess I'm the new prep cook,” he told me.

It should have made me jealous, but it didn't. I felt deliriously happy. “That's good,” I replied, sincerely. “Fuu needs the help.” We looked at each other for some moments, and I knew the hurts in our past had to remain there if we were going to try anew, but an important question remained. “Are you in this for the long haul, Wakana Mugen?” I asked, eyes locked with his, demanding the truth.

Fuu stopped what she was doing and turned to him, waiting.

He blinked, mouth open, looking back and forth between us. “Wakana...Mugen?”

She walked toward him, gesturing so emphatically with her long wooden spoon, oyster sauce spattered on his nose. “So, are you a member of this family or not?”

He stood incredulous for some time longer, not even wiping his face, when he finally appeared to come to himself. Rubbing his chin in mock-thoughtfulness, the familiar smirk was belied by an unfamiliar blush when he promised, “Yeah, I'm in.”