Surprisingly, Fuu, Jin and Mugen find a Sunflower Samurai. But not the correct one.
Honestly, the way Mugen was looking at the wizened, monkey-like farmer they'd stopped for directions, Fuu thought it would be improper to be anything but grateful that they were apparently the only people on this road for miles around, because anyone who didn't know him like they did would most likely misunderstand the situation in truly disturbing ways. But why couldn't they have met someone with just slightly better hearing? In fact, someone with any hearing at all would have been better.
"Eh?" squeaked the elderly gentleman shrilly, putting a hand up to his ear while adjusting the weight of the basket full of distracting, ripe, juicy, sweet-smelling peaches over his shoulders with the other. Fuu could feel her mouth watering. "You are looking for some rice? There's a teahouse further up the road."
"No, no," she repeated more loudly, turning red as Jin and Mugen's stomachs growled in unison. "A SAMURAI. Who smells of sunflowers."
"You want some flowers?" the old man asked, looking confused.
"No!" Fuu looked to her companions for help. Jin was distant and gazing unhelpfully into the trees, but that was still better than Mugen, who was looming even closer to the old man, by appearances all but slavering in lust. Fuu swallowed and forced herself to tear her own eyes away from the basket of ripe, ripe peaches. "Mugen!"
"What?" Mugen swayed backwards by an inch, and wiggled his pinky finger about in his ear in truculent fashion, as if he had no idea what she meant.
"Bokken?" quavered the indisputably stone-deaf old man, with an expression of grave misgiving on his weathered face.
It really was impossible, Fuu decided. At least they had learned that there was a teahouse ahead, and that meant food, even if she had no idea how they were going to pay for it. They would think of something when they got there. Best to get away before Mugen's willpower gave out and he jumped on the poor old man.
"Can you read?" asked Jin at last. The old man stared at him in blank incomprehension.
Making a great concession out of respect for his age, Jin bent and wrote the characters "samurai" and "sunflowers" on the ground.
The old man scratched his head and backed away nervously, obviously unable to think of a correct way to respond to the strange samurai drawing in the dirt like a child that would not result in him getting sliced in two.
Mugen stepped forward impatiently and scrawled a stick figure holding a sword in one hand and a large flower in the other. "Oh!" said the old man in relief. "You're looking for the samurai with the flowers!"
Fuu couldn't believe their luck. "You mean you know where he is?" she exclaimed excitedly, before realising in alarm that she would only confuse the old man again.
Fortunately, he hadn't noticed her speak, and simply pointed up the hill ahead, where they could see a red torii, partly obscured by trees. "He's living in the shrine on that hill. Are you-"
"Thank you so much!" Fuu bubbled excitedly, bowing deeply, and hurried away, dragging Jin and Mugen behind her before he could attempt to engage them in conversation again. Mugen cast longing looks back at the basket of peaches receding into the distance.
The path through the forest to the shrine was very peaceful, and scenic, and long, and steep, and winding. Fuu was really wishing they had gone ahead to the teahouse for a meal first, because if the man she was looking for was indeed there, he surely wouldn't just disappear in the time it would take them to get some food, even if they had to make enough money to pay for it first; but if he wasn't there, they would have to go all the way back down; but even if he was there, there might still not be food to be had at the shrine. But...
Fuu's mouth was dry. The convolutions her thoughts had fallen into were making her feel dizzy and weak. Coloured lights flashed before her eyes. Her knees wobbled as she struggled onwards. Jin and Mugen were dismally using their swords as walking sticks, which only made her feel guiltier. And envious, because she did not have a stick to lean on.
When the narrow uphill path abruptly opened into a level clearing beneath a flawless blue sky, Fuu fell to her hands and knees, panting in relief. Jin and Mugen flopped down heavily to either side of her.
"Hm," said Jin, his fine brows knitting slightly.
"What are these?" asked Mugen. He sniffed noisily at the flowers.
Fuu raised her head, and caught her breath as she stared across a field of dazzlingly bright sunflowers rising around her.
And near the distant shrine, blurring in her vision, stood a man in a kimono and haori, bent over the flowers and carefully trimming the buds with a pair of gardening shears.
Fuu blinked. She blinked several times and rubbed her eyes. Jin sat up and straightened, his posture wary and his mouth set in a thin line. "Are these sunflowers?" Mugen yanked down a large bloom and took an experimental nibble. "Blech."
The man continued to trim the sunflowers, oblivious to their presence.
Fuu stared. She made herself take deep breaths to calm down, and looked about her again. The sunflowers were... they... she was sitting on the ground, and the sunflowers were only up to her shoulders.
"These are very short sunflowers," Jin remarked.
The man finally turned around and saw them. "What are you doing to my masterpiece?" he howled, waving his shears threateningly as he ran at them with flapping sandals. "You can't imagine how much time and work I put into making them grow just right!"
Fuu realised she was sitting on a crushed stalk and hastily got to her feet. "I'm so sorry! Are... are you..."
"You can cultivate sunflowers as bonsai?" asked Jin sceptically. The ranting gardener stopped short and paled, apparently just noticing that the two men flanking Fuu were rather tall and sword-bearing, then relaxed after a moment when neither Jin nor Mugen made any overtly hostile moves.
"I'm just getting started. I'm sure I can get them even smaller with practice," the man said defensively, and then began to warm up to his topic as Fuu stared blankly at him. "No one's tried it before, but I'm sure it can be done! I'm also trying to create miniature landscapes of sunflower fields using chrysanthemums and dandelions, but it really takes a lot of care. Um... Was there something you wanted?"
He looked kind, if a little sun-baked, with a peeling tan and slightly frizzy sun-bleached hair that had green and brown bits of plants caught in it. Fuu looked around the sunflowers, then hesitantly, at Jin and Mugen. She turned back and tried to meet his gaze, drawing a preparatory breath to speak.
"Food," said Mugen definitely. "Have you got any food?
"We've been travelling for a while without seeing any eating places." Jin pushed up his spectacles, his eyes hidden by the reflections on the glass. "We would be grateful if you can spare us something to eat."
"Ah. Well... I usually eat at the teahouse down the road," he said, as Fuu's heart plummeted, "but if you don't mind, I have some yams I keep for my midday meal."
"That will be very good, thank you."
In the small wooden shack tucked to one side of the shrine, the man blinked uneasily at the trio as they fell like starving beasts on the large bowl of yams he had set out. "You wanted to ask me something?"
Fuu chewed her dry mouthful of yam as quickly as she could and swallowed hard. "You... you haven't been planting sunflowers long, then, Katou-san?" Jin glanced at her, and frowned as Mugen took advantage of that moment of inattention to grab the yam he had been reaching for.
The man looked down and sighed deeply. "No, I've been cultivating bonsai all my life, but only started growing sunflowers this year. Before, I was only working with traditional plants. I believe that all plants are worthy to become beautiful bonsai, but..." He fell into a grim silence, lost in his own thoughts, then gave a sharp shake of his head, and glared up at Fuu defiantly, as if expecting her to protest.
Fuu was disappointed, but the disappointment was mixed with a strange feeling of relief she couldn't explain to herself. "So, um... Hey, leave some for me!" She launched herself across the table and grabbed for the last yam before Mugen could take it.
It was at that same moment that the door burst open and grim-faced samurai spilled in, brandishing bared blades. "Finally we have found you, you honourless heretic," said their leader, a lanky man with greying hair. He looked at the sunflower seedlings growing in small troughs at the window with clear distaste. "This cannot continue. You shame the ancient and noble art of bonsai with your deviant creations, Katou."
Their host sprang to his feet, drawing his own katana. "Bonsai needs to be rejuvenated with new ideas and take advantage of the new plants available to us in order to keep up with the times! Your hide-bound rules will only cause the art to become a useless fossil that only retired old men with nothing better to do care about!"
"They're arguing over potted plants?" asked Mugen in disbelief as Fuu backed away from the impending battle.
"There are always those who feel strongly about preserving the sanctity of the traditional arts," murmured Jin, briefly sliding his spectacles lower down his nose with a finger to peer over the frame at the newcomers.
"What do we do?" Fuu scrambled behind Jin and looked out the back window. "There are so many of them!"
"Die, you heretics!" The grim defenders of the art of bonsai attacked.
"Like hell I'm going to die over something like this," Mugen growled, and kicked down the flimsy wooden back wall. Jumping over the shattered planks, he slashed a startled samurai out of the way, and Jin and Fuu hurried after him.
"Follow them! No one must escape!"
The sunflower samurai threw himself between them and the main body of the charging samurai. There was a tremendous crash of metal, and sparks flew. "Run, my children, I will block their way! Spread this knowledge, and let the beautiful art of bonsai bloom and flourish forever!" Fuu looked back in horror to see more samurai setting the beautiful fields of sunflowers alight with flaming brands, then Mugen stepped through the dense brush and fell down the steep slope on the other side. Jin tried to halt their rush, but slipped on some loose rocks, and as Fuu was holding on to his sleeve, the two of them went tumbling down after Mugen.
It is well known that Fuu, Jin and Mugen got away safely, but as none of them had any particular interest in bonsai or horticulture, the ultimate fate of the brave Sunflower Samurai is lost to history, as is his name and even the fact of his existence. Thus, for centuries afterwards, and even today, the same plants are used in traditional bonsai in Japan as the bonsai of the distant past.
However, since that time, varieties of dwarf sunflowers have been developed. And so, his dream of growing miniature sunflowers lives on in spite of his enemies' best efforts. Indeed, this only goes to show that the course of progress will ever flow onwards, undaunted by any obstacles placed in its way.