Fushigi Yuugi -- Aienkien

BY : Llanyia
Category: +. to F > Fushigi Yuugi
Dragon prints: 1306
Disclaimer: This fanfic is based on characters and events from Fushigi Yuugi copyright ©Yuu Watase, Shogakukan, Inc., TV Tokyo, et al. 1995. I have no wish to make profit of any kind off of this piece; it is for reading enjoyment only.

Houjun leaned back into Tasuki's hand as it slid behind his head to twine in the long, cerulean hair of his ponytail. His stomach fluttered as the redhead pushed his tongue deeper into his mouth. He felt like he was beginning to drown in Tasuki's arms. Chest heaving, Houjun thrust faster, desperate to ease the tangible ache in his groin. Tasuki growled, a low, seductive sound deep in his chest, and pushed him back onto the mattress. Breaking the kiss, Tasuki straddled his legs, eyes never leaving his face as he pulled off the heavy leather coat and discarded it on the brick floor below. "Nggghh." Houjun's eye fluttered closed as Tasuki pulled open the knots in the sash at his waist, hips rising from the bed as his cock strained to connect with him, any part of him, again. He heard Tasuki chuckle before pulling the belt from his body and dropping it and the long tassel tied to a jade disk over the side of the mattress with a clack. Pushing open the crimson-stained blue silk robe, Tasuki pulled at the belt holding his pants closed. Houjun opened his eye, moaning again as Tasuki brushed lightly against his cock. His back arched at the sensation, steely flesh quivering with anticipation.

Tasuki's other hand deftly untied the closure on the ivory tunic he wore beneath the robe, the last impediment to his lean alabaster chest. A warm, exploratory hand snuck under the linen fabric and Tasuki pushed it aside as he traced the muscles of Houjun's stomach. "Nggh..." Houjun moaned as Tasuki ran his fingertips over a taut nipple, his slow pace agonizing. He pulled impatiently at his waistband, willing Tasuki to work faster. "Please..." Tasuki chuckled again at his insistence, brilliant golden eyes locking with his delirious mahogany as he shifted back on Houjun's legs, pulling the linen pants down. His rigid member springing free from its confinement, Houjun thrust his hips toward Tasuki in supplication, a loud groan of impatience on his lips, fingers flexing in the tangled sheets. With a growl, Tasuki leaned down and engulfed his solid cock with his hot mouth.

"Ahh!" Houjun gasped, his back arching again off the bed like a bow pulled taut. Shudders of pleasure raced up and down his spine as he felt the tight circle of Tasuki's lips slide down his shaft. Searing heat, the likes of which he'd never experienced, wrung a delirious whine from his throat as the redhead's skilled tongue traced the bulging vein running along the underside. The foreskin traveled willingly along with Tasuki's exploration until the tip of his cock was fully exposed to the slick wet of the redhead's mouth. Houjun's stomach and thigh muscles danced under the onslaught, and he clamped his eye shut as Tasuki's nose pushed into the nest of cerulean curls at the base of his member. Electric sparks, nearly overwhelming in their intensity, radiated down Houjun's legs with each rub of the naked, sensitive head against the back of Tasuki's throat.

His heart pounding in time with the thrum of his blood in his ears, Houjun writhed atop the mattress. Tasuki kept up an unrelenting pace, drawing up to the head to run the tip of his tongue across the slit before plunging down to the base once more. Again and again the redhead took him in, deep into the vise of his throat. His legs trapped beneath Tasuki's fevered weight and his mind focused only on release, Houjun fisted the disarrayed sheets as he bucked his hips upward in frantic, messy thrusts. The sharp scrape of teeth over his swollen, weeping cock sent shots of lightning up his spine. "Ngghh!" Houjun groaned again, long and low, as the vibration of a lusty chuckle bubbled up from deep within Tasuki's chest. Searching fingers drew tracks of flame across Houjun's pale stomach. Taking hold of the offending linen, they yanked his pants roughly to his knees.

His eye snapped open as the bottom of his stomach dropped away. "Tasuki," he breathed. He traced the planes of the redhead's now-bare honey-hued shoulders and the contrast of flaming vermilion hair against his own alabaster thighs. His clenched hands shook in apprehension and anticipation. He swallowed hard as Tasuki relinquished his claim on his member with one last lick. A trail of saliva and precum stretched from the slit to the redhead's glistening lips. Houjun's breath hitched and his heart skipped a beat as Tasuki flicked his gaze upward, pinning him in place. Feral lust and boundless devotion shown in equal measure in that look and Houjun let out a shuddering sigh.

"Yer holdin' all th' cards here, Chiri," Tasuki said, his voice a quiet rumble to Houjun's ears. With the grace and fluidity of a tiger stalking its prey, the redhead ascended his now-naked, supine body. Houjun's breath came in short pants, his blood singing through his veins as Tasuki planted his hands to either side of his head and his knees astride his narrow hips. A soft moan fell from his lips as their straining, unclad cocks met. "Yah got everythin' o' me." Reaching out, he caressed Houjun's cheek with a gentle hand, again running his thumb over his sealed eye. "Everythin'." Houjun's lips quivered as Tasuki leaned down. Hot breath fanned across his face. The scent of leather invaded his senses. His gaze flickered to the redhead's own slightly parted lips before returning to those gleaming amber eyes. "I just need yah t' trust me," Tasuki whispered.

"Yes..." His eye fluttered closed.

A sharp yank on Houjun's ponytail wrenched his head back and away from Tasuki's mouth. Beneath him, the mattress liquefied. He scrabbled for some purchase, his eye wide and panic surging through him. "Tasuki!" A raging torrent of black and angry water broke over him then, strangling his shout with a watery gurgle. Coughing and choking, precious air poured from him. The flurry of bubbles raced upward toward the open portal to the surface that had been the bed. Inky spots and flashes of light danced in his vision as his lungs filled with the churning waters. He felt Tasuki grab at his flailing arms. Hands, some skeletal, some still clad in shreds of long-dead flesh, burst from below to seize his limbs, dragging him from Tasuki's grasp. Down, down he sank; the muffled sound of the redhead screaming for him barely audible over his own pounding heart.

"How do you like it, Houjun?" a voice, twisted with rage and steeped with hatred, rasped next to his ear. "This feeling of drowning..."

More and more hands grabbed at his body, taking hold of his throat and shoulders. He thrashed wildly against the steely grip. High above, he could see the rapidly retreating form of Tasuki still reaching for him. He screamed into the darkness, silent but for the tumult of bubbles tearing from his mouth and nose. This was it; he was going to die.

A hideous, mocking laugh rang through Houjun's head. "Yes, suffer. Suffer and know that you will never be free of me." Before him, a misshapen and bloated figure loomed out of the blackness. Houjun recoiled in revulsion, barely moving against the myriad crushing hands holding him. Moldering and distended flesh bulged from beneath the tattered remnants of a dirt-stained and blood-covered robe. The few remaining strands of dark navy hair spread like tentacles from its half-decomposed head. The figure opened its mouth, its shredded lips flapping in the current as if to speak. "I will take everything from you," it said. Dull brown eyes burning with cruel joy bored into Houjun's from sunken sockets. A vicious sneer showed off its rotten, peg-like teeth. "Just as you took everything from me."

As darkness consumed him, Houjun struggled to mouth one last word: "Hi...kou..."

With a half-squelched yelp, Chichiri bolted upright. Cold sweat ran in rivulets down his mask-clad face. Its perpetual smile long gone, the magical implement instead mirrored the terror on his true face. One trembling hand grabbed for his neck, the other his chest to slow his thundering heart. He shuddered despite the heat permeating the room around him. Never before had that dream ended in such a manner.

"Chiri?"

Gulping in breath after breath, Chichiri fisted the front of his rumpled tunic until his knuckles showed white. His lungs burned with the residual sensation of drowning. He stared unseeing at the disheveled pool of sheets in his lap, Hikou's rictus grin and baleful words reverberating in his mind: "Yes, suffer. Suffer and know that you will never be free of me." "I will take everything from you, just as you took everything from me."

"'Ey."

Chichiri let out a sharp gasp as a hand descended to his shoulder. Instinctively, he jerked away from the touch, whipping toward its source as he did so. The sweat-dampened curtain of his bangs did little to conceal his look of wide-eyed horror.

Tasuki pulled his hand away. Concern settled between his brows as he rubbed the sleep from his bleary eyes. He pulled himself to a seated position. In the half-light filtering through the openwork lattice window across the room, his fangs glinted at the corners of his frown. He cocked his head. "Yah okay?"

As Chichiri finally registered Tasuki's presence, the soft rumble of the redhead's whisper set his face alight. Instinctively, he flicked his eyes to the untied closures on Tasuki's tunic and the patch of tanned skin covering his collar bones that peeked from beneath. Images and sensations, nearly forgotten in the swirl of fear and adrenaline, surged to the forefront of his mind: warm, calloused hands on his body, the earthy musk of leather and sex, and those piercing eyes. The scalding flush raced down Chichiri's neck and across his skin, heating his blood and making his own thin shirt stifling.

"What's wrong?" the redhead asked through a wide yawn. He wiped at the tears collecting at the corners of his eyes with the back of his hand.

A shiver made its way down Chichiri's spine as his body–exhausted still from their experience in the desert, aroused by the gauzy vestiges of the dream-Tasuki making love to him, and unnerved by the nightmare it had all become–began to filter the maelstrom of adrenaline and testosterone. The words Tasuki had spoken in the dream echoed in his ears: "Yer holdin' all th' cards here, Chiri." "Yah got everythin' o' me. Everythin'." "I just need yah t' trust me." Chichiri shook his head in an attempt to clear the disjointed thoughts and feelings flowing through him. The close, darkened room seemed much too small in that moment. He needed to get out.

"I'm fine, no da," he said, and began extricating himself from the shared blanket. To Chichiri's left, Mitsukake stirred at the movement. The big man snorted once, his eyelids fluttering, before he resettled and resumed his slumber. Curled up next to Mitsukake's outstretched arm, Tama-neko watched the scene with languid interest, his furry tail swishing back and forth in a slow rhythm.

As hard as he tried to ignore it, Chichiri could feel the weight of Tasuki's eyes on him as he padded barefoot across the room. The barest hint of a breeze trickled in through the openwork lattice windows lining the wall where his effects awaited him. Rosefinches twittered a sprightly tune in the treed courtyard beyond, and somewhere farther still, the city marketplace hummed with trade. Taking up his kesa from a painted rectangular table set beneath the windows, he clasped it over his shoulder before slipping his prayer beads over his head. The subdued clack of jade on jade punctuated the action as he pulled his ponytail out from under the strand. Chichiri paused as his gaze fell on a polished bronze mirror the size of a dinner plate set on a stand near the back of the table. He needed to contact Hotohori and it would serve that purpose well. Tucking it under his arm, Chichiri moved toward the exit. He stepped into his soft-soled shoes and pulled the room's thick wooden door open a crack. Sunlight, shaded by the coffered ceiling of a veranda running along the outside of the room, streamed in through the opening and painted a diffuse stripe across the wood plank floor.

"Chiri?"

Chichiri hesitated, his hand on the bronze door pull. He turned, finally meeting the redhead's eyes. The concern in Tasuki's voice was palpable. Chichiri's brows knitted and a prominent frown curved his lips. They looked at each other, muffled birdsong and the murmur of Chiriko's snores where the scholar lay next to Tasuki the only sounds. A long moment passed, then another, then another. The word hung in the twilit heat between them. With a final shake of his head, Chichiri slipped into the early afternoon, pulling the door closed with a soft thud.

- o - o - o -

He walked along an ancient brick-tiled path rambling across the vast estate. Groves of stately camptotheca trees spread a dappled shade across the gardens to either side of the walkway. At the base of a clump of slender white birches to his right, a handful of turtle doves strutted and picked about in the grass. Their placid cooing formed the bass line of the grand symphony of birdsong resounding from overhead. A warm, steady breeze ruffled his clothes and kesa, and set his ponytail swinging across his back. He could smell hints of incense in the air, with its scent of sandalwood mixed with the spicy musk of spikenard and the honeyed, grassy notes of saffron. Under the leafy canopy and with the wind embracing him, the temperature seemed almost balmy. It was a far cry from the scorching heat of the desert. He frowned. The desert...

Unbidden, Tasuki's drunken declaration echoed in his ears: "I still love yah, Chiri. That ain't never changed, since th' day we met. I love yah, an' I want yah, with everythin' I got. An' I'm gonna keep on lovin' yah 'til th' day I die." Chichiri ran his free hand through his now-dry bangs, a frustrated sigh escaping his lips. No matter how hard he tried to banish Tasuki from his thoughts, it seemed, the brash redhead never strayed far from them. Everything keeps coming back to him... Fragments of his dream stole unasked back into his mind's eye. His stomach fluttered as Tasuki's phantom hand tenderly caressed his cheek once more. Scowling at his own weakness, Chichiri shoved the thoughts and sensations away. How they felt about each other was irrelevant, especially in light of what they faced.

After their narrow escape from the illusory city, he, Mitsukake, Chiriko, and Tasuki had arrived to find Miaka and Tamahome fending off Suboshi. But, it was Amiboshi's presence there as well, unconscious but alive, that shocked him. The day of the failed summoning ceremony flashed through Chichiri's mind. After a frantic chase through Eiyou, Amiboshi had fallen into the rain-swollen canal not far from the palace, seemingly to his death. How had the boy survived the raging waters? I saw him swept away myself... The monk's expression darkened. And to find his way to Sairou now, with the Seiryuu seeking the second Shinzahou, of all times? It seemed too convenient to be a coincidence.

Then there was the dead man he'd seen on the cliff with Miaka. Chichiri was certain that the man–Tomo, Tamahome had called him–was another of the Seiryuu Seven, most likely the sorcerer who'd created the trap in the desert. The Kutou soldiers they had encountered on the trade road several days earlier, and the three celestial warriors on the cliff at sunrise just that day: the Seiryuu were undoubtedly in the capital. Should they gain possession of the Shinzahou of Byakko, they would become nigh unstoppable. And, if the dragon-god was summoned, Kounan would fall to Kutou's armies. Tens of thousands would die, he had no doubt. He gripped the bronze mirror under his arm tighter, until the flowing scrollwork embossed into its reverse imprinted itself in his palm. He couldn't let that happen.

As he rounded a bend in the meandering path, the grove he'd been walking through became an open, grassy lawn. A section of the high, tile-roofed wall that ran the perimeter of the property cut through the gardens to his left. It ran parallel to the walkway like a sun-bleached backbone behind waving stands of vibrant green bamboo fronted by masses of delicate carmine spider lilies and contrasting sapphire-blue aconitum.

Ahead, the path forked. One leg of the brick walkway he followed continued on across the grounds, while the other disappeared under a rounded arch set into the wall. As he got closer, he could see a set of wide stone steps leading down the hill on which the estate sat. On the top step, her knees pulled up to her chest and her chin pillowed on her arms, Miaka stared off across the rooftops of the Sairou capital.

Chichiri came to a stop just a few steps behind the priestess. His soft shoes made nary a sound against the brick and she seemed completely oblivious to his presence. Readjusting his grip on the mirror, he opened his mouth only to be promptly cut off.

Letting out a frustrated growl, Miaka surged to her feet. She stomped her foot and threw her hands in the air. "And after he gave me such a good, deep kiss, too!" Her shout startled songbirds flittering in the nearby trees. They took hasty flight to escape the noise. The monk gasped in surprise and she finally turned toward him. Embarrassment seized her features and a bright pink flush stained her cheeks. "Chi-Chi-Chichiri!" she stammered. "How long have you been standing there?!"

"Oh, not long, no da." Chichiri chuckled to himself as she stiffly smoothed her skirt before again taking a seat on the top stair. Raising an eyebrow, he cocked his head. "So, tell me: what's a 'good, deep kiss' anyway, no da?" As the last word left his mouth, the feeling of Tasuki's tongue sweeping over his own, their lips locked in passion snuck to the forefront of his mind. His breath caught in his throat and he coughed to clear it. Thankful his mask hid the blush on his true face, he shoved the thoughts away.

Miaka fiddled with the hem of her skirt. "Well, it's sorta...um..." She simpered, then shook her head. "Never mind that. Are you alright?"

"Oh, I'm doing much better now, no da." Chichiri took a seat next to her on the stone step and glanced himself out across Sairou's residential and commercial districts. A rainbow of sweeping clay-tiled roofs filled the valley in which the capital sprawled. Just below them, colorful silken flags like those he'd seen in the desert illusion fluttered in the breeze from every balcony, awning, and storefront. Brilliant sunlight glinted off gold-trimmed gables and spires across the entire skyline. The chorus of people going about their day, of birdsong, and of the wind winding though the treetops lent the entire valley a sense of peace. His brows furrowed.

Brilliant sunlight caught the rim of the bronze mirror and Chichiri looked down. "Oh, yeah." He held the item out to Miaka. "I want you to take a look at this, no da."

Gingerly, she took the mirror from him and cradled it in both hands. Its smooth surface reflected her confused expression but nothing else. Cocking her head, she looked up at the monk. "Should I just keep looking into the mirror like this?"

Chichiri nodded. "The picture will come soon, no da." Forming a mudra with both hands, he began to chant just under the edge of his breath. Suzaku's power built within him and his character mark glowed softly through his pant leg. The mirror's surface shivered. Miaka's reflection skewed and undulated before gradually clearing to reveal a surprised Hotohori.

"Miaka?" he asked, his eyes wide.

She gasped and thrust the mirror away, barely keeping a hold on it at arm's length. "Hotohori!"

Chichiri leaned around the bronze edge to see the young monarch. "Your Highness! I'm sorry for how late this report is, no da."

"Do not trouble yourself over it," Hotohori said, a faint yet genuine smile curving his lips. "You both seem in good health. What about the others? Is everyone alright?"

Miaka's brows furrowed and the ghost of a frown passed over her face before she caught herself. "Yeah, we're all exactly the same as we were."

Hotohori nodded. "I am glad." He paused for a moment, as if weighing his words. "Well then," he said at last, "what about the Shinzahou?"

"I'm sorry. We had one in our hands, but Nakago stole it." Miaka did frown then. Chichiri thought he saw a flicker of actual rage behind her eyes but he couldn't tell for certain. With a shake of her head, she continued. "But there's another one here in Sairou and we're going to do our best to find it."

Hotohori shifted in his chair. A small furrow dug itself between his brows. "Miaka, take care of yourself and try not to put yourself into any danger. If anything goes wrong, you and Tamahome will never be able to be together. I want you and Tamahome to be happy, once we get the Shinzahou and summon Suzaku, and ensure the future of the Kounan Empire." He folded his hands in his lap before he spoke again. "While I cannot be there at your side to defend you, I constantly pray for your safety and success."

"Hotohori..."

"Well," he said after a moment. "I do not want to keep you." A faint smile touched his lips. "I am sure Tamahome is waiting."

Miaka started, her eyes wide. She blinked, her mouth opening and closing without a sound. Clearing her throat, she simpered and nodded. "Uh, yeah. I should get back to him." Pulling the mirror in closer, she held the monarch's gaze. "Be careful, Hotohori," she said, "and thank you." Miaka passed the heavy bronze object over to Chichiri and pushed herself to standing. Dusting off the back of her pleated skirt, she walked away back down the path Chichiri had taken just a few minutes before.

Brow raised, the monk watched her round a bend and disappear from sight. Hotohori continued and Chichiri returned his attention to the mirror.

"Miaka's unfailing concern for others is remarkable," he said, the smile he'd worn since the priestess left taking on an air of both affection and sadness. "And her optimism and determination are heartening."

Chichiri chuckled softly. "She could have more resolve than all of her warriors combined, no da."

The emperor chuckled as well. "She may well, indeed."

After both men's amusement subsided, Hotohori continued. "Sairou." A note of surprise made its way into his voice. "I did not know that your journey would take you so far from Kounan, but I am thankful that you all made it there safely. Please," he said, "tell me of what has happened since leaving Kounan."

Taking a breath, Chichiri nodded. "Yes, Your Highness," he said, dropping his silly tone, and made his report. He told Hotohori of Soi's attack and the near-sinking of their ship, of their arrival in Hokkan and Tomoru's village, of splitting up in Touran and the discovery of the shrine on Mount Koku, of the two Warriors of Genbu and the stealing of the Shinzahou by the Seiryuu, of their trek to Sairou and the illusory city, and of their reunion in the capital at the home of Tamahome's teacher and mentor. As he recounted each situation and event, he avoided speaking about Nuriko's fate. Whether Miaka didn't want to relive that pain herself or just wanted to spare Hotohori, she hadn't mentioned it and Chichiri decided that he wouldn't either. It was callous to keep the emperor in the dark, he knew, but necessary. They both had duties to Kounan and its people that he would not, could not, compromise. If he had to keep that information back to ensure their success, he would do it. There would be time to mourn after Suzaku had been summoned.

"I see," Hotohori said as Chichiri ended his briefing. A brief beat of silence passed between them before the emperor spoke again. "What of the Seiryuu's search for the Shinzahou of Byakko?"

Chichiri frowned. "There's no question they're operating in Sairou. After the encounter with the cavalry unit on the road, the seishi Tomo's death, and Suboshi's subsequent flight with Amiboshi, I have no doubt there is a sizable Kutou presence here in Sairou. Yet, I've felt no other traces of Seiryuu life forces." He let out a frustrated breath. "It seems likely that someone, maybe the last Seiryuu warrior we've yet to meet, or perhaps Nakago himself, could be shielding their strength and number from my powers. In either case, Your Highness," he said with a shake of his head, his bangs bobbing with the motion, "we should assume the enemy will use any means necessary to prevent us from retrieving the Byakko Shinzahou." The image of Nuriko's drawn, bloodless face flashed across his mind's eye and he tightened his grip on the edges of the bronze mirror.

"I see." Hotohori nodded slowly as he mulled over the information. Chichiri could see plain the worry and concern that creased his brow and clouded his tawny eyes. "Please, be wary when dealing with the Kutou contingent. I fear that they have already taken the acquisition of the Genbu Shinzahou as an opportunity to further escalate the campaign against Kounan."

"'Escalate?'" A lance of ice made its way up Chichiri's spine at Hotohori's words. The brows on his mask furrowed, but thankfully betrayed nothing else of the expression on his true face.

"As you know," Hotohori said, a pronounced frown on his lips, "Kutou has spent the last few months conducting raids on farming villages near the Kounan-Kutou border crossing in Jusou province."

"I do. I met with several provincial governors, including Jusou's, while I sat in for Your Highness during the search for the remaining seishi."

The emperor nodded. "Indeed. Just over a week ago, Kutou soldiers again crossed into Kounan, this time south of the main border gate. Two battalions from the Hou Kuang garrison were dispatched, but by the time of their arrival, another farming village had already been destroyed and the intruders fled. I am told very few survived." His brows drew together and he glanced down and away for a long moment.

Chichiri's heart sank. Yet more villages destroyed and lives needlessly lost... Brows drawing tight and a deep frown on his lips, he let out a long, low sigh.

With a slow shake of his head, Hotohori at last brought his gaze back up to meet Chichiri's. "My efforts to forestall Kutou's invasion have become increasingly fruitless over the last few weeks. And with this most recent of raids, the mood in Kounan has taken a turn for the worse. Ministers who had previously only asked for aid have begun preparing their own forces for battle."

"So the nobles have lost patience with our mission," the monk murmured, more to himself than Hotohori.

Shifting back in his chair, Hotohori continued. "I fear it is worse than lost patience. To redress what the provincial governors claim as gross negligence on the part of the crown, they have begun an effort to form their own military forces separate from those of the Kounan army." He brought a hand to his brow and rubbed his forehead. "It is not that I do not understand their desire to protect the people from these unprovoked attacks. I understand it all too well, but we do not have the luxury of foolish action." Hotohori sighed, a sound that carried a weight and weariness with which Chichiri fully sympathized. "Placing even a defensive force near the border could be seen as a provocation. If Kutou should take the troop movement as a pretense to invade, there would be little to stop them. The Kounan army measures only a fraction of Kutou's strength."

"They've gone so far as to take matters into their own hands?" Concern took up residence between Chichiri's brows, and he shook his head. If the provinces had begun to take up arms, Miaka's quest to summon Suzaku no longer held the same sway at court as it had only a month earlier. At this rate, he thought, it was only a matter of time before all-out war was declared, with or without the Shinzahous.

"Yes." Folding his hands in his lap, Hotohori's brow furrowed. "While the ministers agitating for a military response have given no indication of further dissatisfaction with the kingdom, other factions within the court have seized on the instability created by these events, perhaps bolstered by the open defiance."

"Your Highness," Chichiri began. The rest of his thought trailed away as he watched Hotohori's eyes narrow. In their tan depths, a hardness the monk hadn't seen there before replaced the fatigue and frustration of a mere moment prior. As the emperor continued, the lance of dread that had crept up his spine moments earlier became a slow yet ever-increasing icy drip that pooled in the pit of his stomach.

"Rumors of rebellion began to trickle out of Souun in the days after the attack and the provincial governors' declaration, but attempts to determine their veracity were unsuccessful. Ultimately, one of my father's concubines and a eunuch working in the harem and their forces attempted to seize the throne using my elder brother as their pawn."

Chichiri's eyes went wide and a sharp gasp fell from his lips. Treason?! For a moment, the only sounds he could hear were the pounding beats of his own heart. An attempted coup?! Jumbled, panicky thoughts swirled in Chichiri's mind. How had this happened? Were Kutou or the Seiryuu involved? Could there be a second attempt? Hands sweaty and shaking, he fumbled with shock-numbed fingers to catch the mirror before it hit the stone step on which he sat. "Your Highness," he blurted, "are you alright?!"

"I am fine, but my brother..." Hotohori let out an uneven breath. Myriad emotions clouded his eyes and he looked away.

My fault... The familiar strains of guilt began to rise above the discord in his head. It's my fault... If he had prevented the Genbu Shinzahou from falling into the enemy's hands, if he had prevented Nuriko from going alone to Mount Koku... And now Hotohori's only brother had been killed in the midst of a coup. My fault... A long moment passed as Chichiri fought to swallow the great knot of remorse and self-loathing that had lodged itself in his throat. "I'm sorry," he said finally, his words quiet and steeped with regret.

Hotohori shook his head. "No, do not apologize. The conspirators were captured and Kounan is safe for the time being." He pursed his lips into a resolute line. "You must focus on retrieving both the Shinzahou of Byakko and the Shinzahou of Genbu. We can no longer force the voices calling for war into silence. Summoning Suzaku may be the only way to prevent Kutou's invasion now."

"Yes, Your Highness."

"And do be careful yourselves. We do not know what the Seiryuu will attempt next to thwart your mission."

Chichiri nodded, his gaze steely with determination. "We will, Your Highness. We will retrieve the Shinzahous and summon Suzaku. Kounan can't afford for us to fail."

- o - o - o -

Resting his forearms on the cool stone of the balustrade, Chichiri looked out over the estate's grounds. Mid-afternoon sunlight gilded the lawn that stretched out before him just steps from the veranda on which he stood. Bounding the grassy expanse, the groves of camptotheca he'd walked through that morning swayed. The trees' large, glossy leaves glimmered with refracted sunlight. High above, clumps of fluffy, fair-weather clouds wandered westward across an endless blue sky. His bangs fluttered in the breeze and he let out a deep sigh.

He'd told Hotohori they would summon Suzaku, but where could he even begin to look for the Shinzahou of Byakko, let alone the Shinzahou of Genbu? How could he keep his promise if he couldn't even locate the Seiryuu he knew were in the capital? He looked down at his hands. His powers were returning and he felt stronger than he had just after the illusory city disappeared. Still, he wasn't back to his full strength and he knew the others weren't either. Chichiri shook his head. The last time he'd chosen the expedient path at the expense of caution, Nuriko had been killed.

"I'm not sure about this."

"Ah, come on. It'll be fine."

Voices drew Chichiri's attention back to the courtyard and he looked up in time to see a nonplussed Chiriko trotting out into the open space near the guest quarters they had used earlier that day behind a grinning Tasuki. Tucked under the redhead's arm was a ball. A patchwork of worn, sepia-colored leather covered the item's surface. Chichiri's breath caught for a brief moment before it slipped out in an uneven sigh. His eyes lingered on Tasuki's confident swagger and the way the sun played in his hair as the two younger seishi made their way across the yard.

"Alright," Tasuki said, placing the ball by his boots in the ankle-high grass. With practiced ease, he pulled the sash across his chest and the tessen it held over his head and dumped them on the ground with a muted clank. He unbuttoned and shrugged off his heavy leather coat until it, too, lay in a heap nearby. He ran a hand through his wind-tousled hair. A handful of strands fell into his eyes and back across his nose. "This," he continued, scooping up the neglected sphere, "'s a cuju ball."

Chiriko tucked his hands into the sleeves of his teal coat. Cocking his head, his topknot bobbed in the breeze. "Tasuki, I'm not sure that our hosts would appreciate us using their things without asking permission first."

"Couple o' geezers like that? Trust me, they ain't usin' it. Don't worry 'bout it."

Chichiri hadn't seen the redhead since he'd stolen out of that claustrophobic room that morning. Once more, thoughts of the dream and Tasuki's words crept into his mind: "I just need yah t' trust me."

The brows on his mask furrowed. How can I trust you when I can't even trust myself?

"Is that where that old thing got to?"

A soft, amused voice sounded to his left, startling him from his musing. Chichiri looked over to see the lady of the house. Her round face broke into a smile as she watched the two celestial warriors in the middle of the courtyard. "You and your companions seem to be doing better, I see." She glanced up at Chichiri before turning back to Tasuki and Chiriko. "But, you shouldn't overdo it. You still need some more rest and a few good meals before you've recovered completely."

"Thank you for allowing us to stay at your home, no da," Chichiri said as he too turned his gaze back to the younger men. "We really appreciate it, na no da."

"Of course." With a delicate, wrinkled hand, she pushed a few locks of her long wavy hair back over her shoulder. Their snowy white color marked a stark contrast to the deep violet of the sleeveless dress she wore over a flaxen blouse and matching trousers. "You all were in such a dreadful condition when you came that we just couldn't let you leave without doing something. You'd get yourselves killed."

Chichiri turned again to the old woman, but she kept her eyes on the courtyard. Since they had arrived at the estate after the ordeal in the desert, he'd felt a strange aura permeating everything around him. It was a warm feeling, as if a vast well of power slept beneath his feet, but standing next to the stooped old woman that nebulous energy sharpened to a distinct point. He blinked once, then twice. "You're a celestial warrior, no da."

Finally turning to the monk, she chuckled. "You needn't look so surprised, young man." Another smile crossed her lips as Chichiri belatedly realized he was gaping and shut his mouth with a click. "Like often recognizes like."

The breeze played with the hem of Chichiri's kesa and he shifted on his feet. He was thankful that his mask hid most of the dumbfounderment on his true face. A celestial warrior, he thought. The sheer fatefulness of their party ending up in the home of a seishi set his mind reeling. As the silence that had descended between them stretched on, both he and the old woman returned to their observation of the impromptu lesson.

In the courtyard, Tasuki continued. "Me an' th' guys used t' play cuju back home all th' time," he said. He dropped the ball in a smooth arc to his knee. It hit the dove-gray linen of his pant leg with a solid thwack. The rebound reached the height of his head before falling once more toward his thigh. "Yah can't use yer hands though." With a grace and fluidity of motion that Chichiri still marveled at, Tasuki easily kept the leather orb bouncing back and forth across his knees. The jade- and glass-beaded necklaces he wore clattered with each strike.

Chiriko watched the ball for a moment as Tasuki juggled it from leg to leg. Looking past the spectacle to the redhead, his lips adopted a wry bent as his brows furrowed. "I don't know about this..."

Seeing the scholar's concern, Tasuki caught the ball in mid-bounce and put it back under his arm. He sighed. "Ah, come on, Chiriko. Lighten up a little." Shifting his weight to one leg, he cocked his head and frowned. The sun glinted off the fangs poking out at the corners of his lips. "We're s'posed ta be takin' it easy. Werk with me 'ere." A few long moments passed and neither man spoke. When it became obvious that Chiriko wasn't going to go along with Tasuki's plan, he rolled his eyes and let out an overwrought sigh. "Fine. Yah win." He pushed the strands of hair blown into his eyes away, only to have them fall back into his face once more. "I'll apologize ta th' ol' lady fer takin' 'er ball later. Happy now?"

Chiriko nodded, the unease in his face dissolving into a shy smile. "Yes. Thank you."

"Blackmail. Fuckin' blackmail." Tasuki scowled but couldn't keep up the irritated act for long. The incandescent grin that had been on his face when the two of them had walked out into the courtyard resurfaced, sweeping away his feigned displeasure. He reached out and ruffled Chiriko's sandy hair.

Without removing his attention from the courtyard, Chichiri spoke once more, his voice low. "Then you must know about our mission, na no da."

The old woman nodded. "Your duty to Suzaku is the same as ours to Byakko long ago."

"Byakko..." The word slipped from Chichiri's lips as the pieces came together. His brows shot toward his hairline. A Warrior of Byakko... Whipping his head toward her, his heart skipped a beat.

"I am Subaru and my husband is Tokaki of the Byakko Seven." She glanced up at the monk. "We have known Tamahome was a Suzaku Warrior for many years now. Then the rest of you appeared, along with Miaka, and it wasn't all that difficult to piece together. "

He stared at her, eyes wide, as she confirmed his suspicions. Even as the knowledge that any members of the Byakko Shichiseishi were even still alive began to sink in, myriad thoughts swirled in his head. But, of all of them, only one sounded gong-like in his ears. "Do you know where the Shinzahou of Byakko is, no da?"

Subaru pursed her lips at the question, the wrinkles around the corners of her mouth deepening as she did so. Her brows furrowing, she again looked back out on the two younger seishi in the courtyard. "Don't push yourselves before you're ready. From what Tamahome has told us about your search, you shouldn't be so eager to put yourselves into danger. The Shinzahou is safe for the time being. Rest and regain your strength for now and we can take you to it tomorrow."

Chichiri frowned. Some part of him wanted to move to secure the Byakko Shinzahou as soon as possible, but he knew she was ultimately right. Their contingent was weakened and tired from their ordeal, and ill-prepared to face the Seiryuu. Chichiri let out a soft sigh and returned his gaze to Tasuki. He would not make the same fatal mistake he had with Nuriko. They would stay with Subaru and Tokaki for another few days until they all were back to full strength and then they would set out as a group to find and recover the stolen Shinzahou of Genbu. At least we now know the Shinzahou of Byakko is within reach, he thought. It was a small consolation after all they had been through. Still, it meant that, the challenges before them notwithstanding, their mission had a fighting chance, and he was going to take it.

In the courtyard, Tasuki had moved about three paces from Chiriko. He stood arms akimbo, his foot atop the ball where it sat nestled in the grass. "Since yah can't use yer hands, yah gotta use yer feet t' move th' ball back 'n forth." Taking a half step back, he tapped the brown sphere with the toe of his boot. It made a soft swish as it rolled across the lawn. Stopping it with his left foot, he tapped it again, this time back toward his right. Again and again he passed it from foot to foot.

Chiriko followed the movement of the leather ball as he watched Tasuki dribble. A corner of his lips quirked as both interest and a deep doubt warred across his face. The teal silk of his coat fluttered about on the wind. Catching the hem of one billowing sleeve, he fidgeted with it as he spoke. "I don't know, Tasuki. I've spent my entire life studying to pass the haizi kaoshi. Scoring well on that battery of exams has always been my main focus. I've read nearly every text and tome to be found in the whole of Jouzen, but I've never participated in a sport before."

Tasuki stopped the ball with his foot. He raised an eyebrow and shrugged, his earrings swinging at his jaw. "So what if yah ain't never played a sport 'fore? Big fuckin' deal. Just kick th' ball when I pass it to yah."

The furrow between Chiriko's brows deepened as the glimmer of interest in his eyes dimmed at Tasuki's dismissal. His shoulders sagged as he looked away toward the treeline.

After a long moment, Tasuki sighed. Placing one hand on his hip, he scratched at the back of his head with the other. The movement ruffled the long vermilion strands and they shimmered in the sunlight. He watched the younger seishi scuff the toe of his soft shoe through the grass. "Look," he said. "I know yer worryin' 'bout lookin' dumb an' all, but I don' care if yah ain't perfect or if yah can't play fer shit. Yah don't gotta be perfect with me." He watched as Chiriko shifted his weight from foot to foot as if uncertain of his response. "Come on, Chiriko. Play with me?" Tasuki frowned, his fangs reappearing at the corners of his mouth. "Please?" As Chiriko gradually inclined his head toward him, a look of relief crept across Tasuki's face. "I'll let yah 'ave th' ball an' everythin'."

Chiriko cocked his head and studied Tasuki out of the corner of his eye. After a long moment, a crooked simper made its way to his lips. "Okay," he said at last, turning to face Tasuki once more. "I'll try, but please don't expect too much of me."

Joy twinkling in his eyes, a brilliant smile broke over Tasuki's features. He pumped his fist in triumph. "Alright!" He gave the ball a short kick and it bounced its way over the grass to stop at Chiriko's feet. "Okay, so whatcha wanna do is try kickin' th' ball t' yerself like I was doin'. Don' worry if yah miss er it rolls away from yah. Just focus on keepin' it movin'."

On the veranda, Subaru glanced up at Chichiri. A snowy eyebrow rose. The monk's expression had become quite a bit more serious since they returned to watching the two young men play cuju. Cocking her head a fraction, she watched him. Chichiri stared off into the courtyard, his eyes never moving from a single point. She turned and followed his gaze to its redheaded focus. Her brows furrowed. "Allowing your personal feelings to dictate your actions is a dangerous path to tread."

Their minutes-long silence broken, the perpetual mirth on Chichiri's mask wavered for just a second as Subaru's words registered. Lips parted in surprise, he jerked his head toward her. His long bangs bobbed as he did so. The old woman stood watching him with a scrutinizing eye. The slight purse of her lips set him on edge.

"You shouldn't get so involved while your duty has yet to be done," she said. Her voice carried the authority of years and experience, but it lacked the overt scolding tone Chichiri had expected. "I, too, was young once. Tokaki and I also met while we both served as celestial warriors. But, we were determined to keep our feelings separate from our duty to Byakko and the priestess."

The looped braids of white hair atop Subaru's head wobbled as she looked back out at Tasuki and Chiriko. Exertion painted the scholar's cheeks as he struggled to keep up with the ball. The redhead grinned wide, calling encouragement with Chiriko's every step. "We knew that how we felt for each other was a potential liability to our mission. A situation where we would have had to choose between protecting the priestess and protecting each other could very well have doomed everything, including ourselves."

Chichiri's own brow furrowed. He was thankful his mask managed to hide the turmoil he was certain dominated his true expression. What she said wasn't wrong; he'd been trying to convince himself to do just that since he'd realized how he felt about Tasuki. He'd even tried, at Tomoru's village, to make the redhead understand that their duty was more important than their desire for each other. But despite his efforts, their dance of rebuff and rejoin had only become more complex and more frequent.

Subaru looked back up at Chichiri, her gray eyes reflecting a sad sort of sympathy. "As a celestial warrior, no matter what your intentions, personal feelings can only produce divided loyalties. Serving the priestess and summoning the beast god must take priority. It may seem cruel, but you must leave your wants until after your duty has been completed. Only then can you act as you choose."

Chichiri looked at her for a long while. Slowly, he nodded. The concern on Subaru's face gave way to a small, motherly smile. She placed a warm, dainty hand on the monk's arm. Giving it a squeeze, she adjusted her grip on the shallow woven basket she carried tucked under her other arm and walked away down the veranda. Chichiri watched her go until she disappeared around the corner of one of the compound's white-walled buildings. He could respect her intent, but nothing she had said was anything he hadn't already thought about countless times before. Silently, he looked back out on the courtyard. Still, maybe he needed to hear it from someone who had already faced such a situation. He frowned as he found his gaze following Tasuki almost instinctively.

Chiriko panted as he stopped the ball with a soft-soled shoe. Rosy-cheeked, he wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. "That was more enjoyable than I first imagined it would be," he puffed. He smiled as he worked to get his breathing back under control. "Thank you, Tasuki."

"See? I told'ja yah'd do great." Tasuki reached out and ruffled Chiriko's hair. He beamed down at the short blond boy with brotherly affection. "When we get back t' Kounan, I'll introduce yah t' th' guys an' we'll play a real game. 'Course yah still gotta lot t' learn," he said, his grin slipping into the familiar cocky smirk he usually wore, "but, if yah get real good, yah can do this." Levering the toe of his boot under the patchwork sphere, Tasuki lifted the ball into the air. It rose in a tight arc nearly as high as his head. Just as it reached its apex, he spun into a roundhouse and, with one long leg, launched the ball across the courtyard.

As Tasuki completed the pivot of his kick, Chichiri noted the distinct jolt that ran through the other seishi as he finally noticed him on the veranda. Their eyes locked. Time seemed to slow, as it had in his room the night they'd written the letter to Mount Reikaku and again in the belowdecks of the ship on which they'd sailed to Hokkan. The wind pulled at the redhead's clothes, revealing the contours of his muscular body beneath, and tossed his unruly mane across his nose. As Chichiri beheld Tasuki staring back at him, wreathed in golden sunlight, his heart hurt.

Perhaps fifteen paces from where Tasuki and Chiriko stood, the worn leather ball impacted the corner column of a veranda edging another of the estate's buildings with an ominous thwack.

"Oh! Look out!" Chiriko cried, his eyes as wide as saucers and focused at a point just over Tasuki's shoulder.

"Eh?" Wrenched from the moment, Tasuki raised an eyebrow at the horrified expression on the boy's face. "What're–" He turned his head to follow Chiriko's line of sight, and directly into the path of the ricocheting cuju ball. Whatever he had been about to say died in a deafening fleshy smack that reverberated off the nearby rooftops. The force of the impact hurtled him off his feet and slammed him to the ground in a flurry of fiery hair and bone-colored linen.

On the veranda, Chichiri winced.

The ball sailed into the treeline. "Tasuki!" Chiriko rushed to him, his small hands clutched together over his mouth. "Are you alright?!"

Laid out flat on his back in the grass, his necklaces draped haphazardly across his chin, Tasuki blinked owlishly up at the afternoon sky. The fluffy white clouds whirled in lazy circles on their way across the azure expanse. Twittering songbirds, alarmed by the noise and the errant ball, fled from the treetops in oscillating triplicate. His head lolled back and forth in a vain attempt to clear it. "'M'okay," he slurred, "but could'ja make everythin' stop spinnin'?"

- o - o - o -

The sounds of commerce engulfed him as Chichiri made his way through the busy market. Prayer flags strung from the tops of the buildings hemming the street fluttered in the late afternoon breeze. People bustled from overflowing stall to overflowing stall. Bronze censers decorated with hand-etched mandalas and embossed depictions of Byakko hung from the rafters of one of them. More bronzeware sat on low wooden tables out front. Chalice-like yak butter lamps, some lit, clustered with lotus-shaped offering bowls, hand-forged prayer wheels, and myriad devotional statues, including some of the tiger god himself.

The grassy scent of cut vegetation and the heady perfume of myriad flowers met Chichiri's nose. Just beyond the bronzeware stall, he noticed a young girl in a forest green sleeveless dress and royal blue blouse sitting cross-legged in the center of an ocean of cut flowers. She waved an oversized bouquet of bright orange chrysanthemums and rich carmine roses at the passersby all the while calling out to one and all in a high-pitched, singsong voice. Above her head, strings laden with dainty cobalt poppies, lilies with ruffled amethyst petals, huge, round peonies with blushing pink centers, as well as more chrysanthemums and roses of every color and shape hung from wooden pegs like a botanical curtain. He smiled at the sight of her, nearly lost in the riot of hues but for her dark braids, as he slipped past.

Continuing on through the throng, he edged around a large group listening to a trio of street performers singing and dancing to a lively folk tune. The rich, earthy sweetness of pipe smoke hung about the crowd and followed him down the street even after the sound of the music had faded away. He glanced down at the modest wooden box in his hands. A small oiled leather bag decorated with a colorful geometric pattern sat almost forlornly in the center of the felted interior. He hoped Tokaki would find the tobacco he'd chosen acceptable. Since he himself didn't smoke, he had no idea what the differences between cuts or curing methods were or what constituted a good variety. Fortunately, the shopkeeper he'd purchased from had been very patient and recommended a blend a good many of the city's smokers preferred. Now he had only Subaru's fruit left to buy.

After managing to convince Tamahome–with the solemn promise of repayment with interest–to lend him a few coins from his personal stash, Chichiri had taken it upon himself after dinner to venture out into the market to buy their hosts a few gifts. The elderly celestial warriors had gone out of their way to aid Miaka and their contingent and it was only right to acknowledge their help. And if they were to be brought to the Shinzahou of Byakko's resting place the next morning, there was precious little time left to thank the two of them properly before they began their search for the missing Genbu Shinzahou and, in turn, made their way back to Kounan.

Kounan... Chichiri's perpetual smile fell to a grim line. Not only was it in danger from without, it was now in danger from within. Hotohori's revelation that parts of the imperial court were overtly moving against his authority shocked Chichiri to the core. He had seen no indication that the throne's power was disputed, let alone in such a precarious state. The disagreements between the ministers over the correct response to Kutou's aggression didn't seem anything but mere differences of opinion, even during the time he'd spent posing as the emperor. The constant raids had taken a toll on the country's sense of security, he knew, but to attempt a coup? While under direct threat by a foreign army that could take any sign of instability as an invitation to invade?

His brow furrowed. Hotohori had said that the conspirators had been dealt with, but with provincial governors now ignoring imperial purview to build their own military forces, was that truly the end of it? Supposing for a moment that Suzaku had been successfully summoned and Kutou repelled, could Kounan truly be considered "saved" if subversive elements still existed within the court? Chichiri let out a small sigh and shook his head. They hadn't even secured one Shinzahou yet; speculating about what would come after the summoning and the completion of their mission was premature at best. Securing the box under his arm, he put the thought aside and pressed on.

As he walked, rich golden sunlight draped a shimmering cloak over the entire city. It streamed down the narrow alleys off the main thoroughfare to puddle on the timeworn cobbles under the shoppers' feet. The tops of ancient cypress trees peeking up through the crush of buildings swayed in the breeze, wreathed in auric fire. High above, the gilded clouds drifted across the deep azure sky.

The items for sale at each stall gradually shifted from ritual and household necessities to local delicacies and ingredients. Baskets, boxes, crates, bags, and bins brimming with goods peeked out from every storefront for as far as Chichiri could see. Spices in deep ocher, sienna, and madder hues filled heaping hemp sacks crowding the entrance to one stall. A handful of women haggled with the stooped old proprietor in animated fashion, the gemstone beads in their intricately braided hair clattering together.

At another, the enticing aroma of browning meat drew quite a crowd. Behind a worn wooden counter, two plump, sweaty young men labored to keep up. One placed strips of what Chichiri imagined was yak meat into a hand-forged wok along with pungent onions, spicy peppers, and meaty broth, while the other dropped rolled, pale ivory buns into a bamboo steamer basket. Hungry shoppers shouted each other down as they clamored for a serving. The monk's stomach let out a plaintive growl as the scent of the stir-frying shaptra and steaming tingmos reached his nose. After the less than filling dinner he'd had, he was sorely tempted to buy himself a serving, but he decided against it.

Chichiri turned to continue down the thoroughfare when a flash of green caught his eye across the street from the shaptra stand. Shoppers buzzed about in front of another teeming shop. He craned his neck to see what was being sold, but the traffic streaming past obscured his view. The quick glimpses of earth- and jewel-tone colors piqued his curiosity. Perhaps it was the greengrocer for which he'd been searching. Carefully, he threaded his way toward it through the crush.

Fruits and vegetables of all kinds sat in heaps and bunches in front of the stall on a thick-legged wooden table. Behind it, even more produce spilled from countless willow baskets. Shiny yellow apples formed neat pyramids next to fat bundles of crisp green scallions. Stacks of bitter melons rose from a shallow sea of scarlet-hued goji berries like knobby, chartreuse islands. Thick swathes of mustard greens and dill hung like bunting off the edge of the table. Piles of juicy golden apricots and bright red-orange mandarins dueled for attention with crates of vivid burgundy pomegranates and fuzzy pink peaches. The sharp tang of pomelo and the delicate sweetness of ripe pears filled the air around the storefront. Perfect, he thought.

Chichiri slipped into an open space next to two old women haggling with the vendor over their purchase. One woman, her graying hair parted into two equal braids to either side of her head, shook the bunch of bok choy she held at the flustered young man behind the counter to punctuate her every sentence. The other woman thrust a gnarled hand containing a few intricately embossed gold coins at the man, all the while picking up, squeezing, and putting back a succession of diminutive, bell-shaped kumquats with the other. He allowed a small chuckle at their antics as he took in the wares.

As he scanned the myriad fruits and vegetables, his lips took on a wry bent. What exactly should he get? He didn't know much about Sairou customs, and the last thing he wanted to do was insult their generous hosts. Glancing up and down the table for several minutes with no real ideas, Chichiri shook his head. He'd just have to hope that fruit considered auspicious in Kounan would also be considered so in Sairou. Taking a mandarin in his hand, he surveyed it for blemishes. Finding none, he gave the orange a quick squeeze to test its ripeness. The thin peel and the fruit inside gave easily. Satisfied, he placed it in the wooden box next to the tobacco pouch. A shopper next to Chichiri paid for his haul with a middle-aged woman also tending the stall and left, allowing access to another section of the produce stand. The monk sidled down the table to fill the vacancy in front of the heaps of apples and peaches. He picked out a large, firm apple the color of sunshine at daybreak and placed it too in the box.

That just leaves a peach, he thought. Running his eyes over the fruits on offer, he spied a particularly fuzzy one near the top of the pile. A swirl of gold near its stem crowned the near-flawless dark salmon hue of the rest of the fruit. The hint of a true smile managed to assert itself on his mask. It would make a beautiful gift. Chichiri reached out for it, only for his hand to collide with another also making a grab for the same peach.

"Sorry. You can 'ave it."

A deep tenor sounded close to Chichiri's ear and he started. Whipping his head to his left, his eyes widened. "Tasuki," he breathed. The familiar fluttering in his stomach threatened to steal the air from his lungs as he found the redhead standing not a hand's breadth from him. Subaru's words rose from the chaotic threading of his pulse through his veins: "As a celestial warrior, no matter what your intentions, personal feelings can only produce divided loyalties." "Serving the priestess and summoning the beast god must take priority." The old woman's warnings repeated again and again in his mind, as if the recitation of a sacred mantra.

"Chiri?" Tasuki's brows rose toward his hairline. He turned toward the owner of the voice and his heart skipped a beat. A thrill arced up the redhead's spine and a giddy smile seized his lips. Reflexively, he ran his eyes over the monk's lithe body.

Chichiri's brows furrowed. Now that Tasuki had noticed him, flight was the only option. Taking the contested peach, he placed it between the mandarin and apple in the box. He jammed a hand into an interior pocket in his tunic and fumbled for his money. The cluster of golden coins jangled as he fished for the correct amount. Pulling out three, he held them out to the shopkeeper. "Thank you, na no da," he said as the woman took them with a nod. Using the press of people as a barrier, he ducked behind a newly arrived customer and strode off down the street.

Tasuki scowled, his fangs poking out at the corners of his mouth. Of course Chichiri would try to run from him. A low growl worked its way up from the depths of his chest. He grabbed another peach and plopped it on top of the pile already in his basket, tossed a handful of coins to the proprietor, and slipped through the throng in front of the produce stand and into the thoroughfare. A few paces ahead, he saw Chichiri's distinctive cerulean hair bobbing in the crowd. "'Ey, Chiri, wait up," Tasuki called. He jogged after the monk, easily dodging around slower shoppers.

As the redhead closed the distance between them, Chichiri scowled. He cursed himself for underestimating Tasuki's tenacity and divine speed. With the younger seishi hot on his heels, he could see no good way to get out of the coming conversation short of using his own powers. He sighed and shook his head. I guess I have no choice, he thought. Slowing his pace to allow Tasuki to fall into step, Chichiri attempted to keep his voice neutral. "What are you doing out here, no da?"

Tasuki didn't answer right away. Instead, he inclined his head toward the monk, scrutinizing him out of the corner of one almond-shaped eye. Chichiri's sudden seeming willingness to talk after trying only moments before to lose him in the market put Tasuki on guard. They hadn't been on the best of terms–since they'd arrived in Hokkan, let alone Sairou–and the battle of wills outside that abandoned monastery nearly a week earlier hadn't helped matters. There was still so much tension lingering between them, even after the ordeal in that illusory city had blunted the keenest edge of it. The corner of his mouth quirked, revealing a pearly fang. 'E just tried t' ditch me, fer fuck's sake... Still, on the off chance that this could be Chichiri's attempt at extending an olive branch, he had to seize the opportunity. He had no choice. Letting out a small sigh, Tasuki held up the basket of peaches in front of him so the monk could see it before tucking it back under his arm. "Chiriko said I should get somethin' fer Miaka t' say sorry fer hurtin' 'er feelin's at dinner."

Chichiri nodded, his long bangs bobbing in the breeze. "I see, no da."

The sounds of the market around them filled the void as the fledgling conversation stalled. Shadows thrown by the surrounding buildings and woven fabric awnings above many of the shops crept after the tide of sunshine ebbing by degrees down the stone-tiled street. The puffy bottoms of the clouds floating overhead grew ever more yellowy with each passing minute. Chichiri glanced over at Tasuki, watching him for a moment before returning his attention to the way ahead. The redhead's dogged determination to engage him, even after everything that had happened between them, was impressive, he had to give him that. The monk had never encountered anyone as persistent. Or as obstinate, he thought with a tiny smile. Unbidden, Subaru's words rang through his mind once more: "Allowing your personal feelings to dictate your actions is a dangerous path to tread." The brows of his mask furrowed for just a moment before the item's magic returned it to its usual mirth. He knew the woman was right, but what was he supposed to do? Limiting contact with each other was difficult as they still had a mission to complete. And, deep down, he missed the easy conversation and warm companionship Tasuki offered so readily. With a minute shake of his head, he took a deep breath and let it out in a slow, resigned exhale. He would probably end up regretting this. "That really was some terrible food, no da."

Tasuki threw his head back and belted out a laugh that made his guts hurt and drew stares from passersby. "Holy crap, it was awful!" he roared. "How th' hell c'n she eat so damn much an' then cook so damn bad?!" He laughed again, this time more subdued. Glancing over at Chichiri, a brilliant fanged grin spread across his face from ear to ear. The monk had decided to actually talk this time instead of continuing to avoid him. He didn't know why and it might be only a small gesture, but it was something and he'd take it. "Yah know who I feel bad for, though? Tama. If 'e's got that t' look forwerd to fer th' rest o' his life, I don' envy 'im one bit."

Chichiri chuckled. "I hope Mitsukake managed to make something for his stomach, no da. After eating all that, he's going to need it, na no da."

"Damn straight," Tasuki said, laughing once more as he remembered the sickened, green-tinged expression on Tamahome's face as he choked down every bit of Miaka's disgusting meal. "An' what's with Mitsukake an' Chiriko, eh?" His amusement fading, he looked back over at Chichiri. "Both o' 'em runnin' t' grab th' seats next t' Tama so we gotta share a bench?" It was so obvious that Mitsukake and Chiriko had forced him and Chichiri to sit together on purpose. After they'd taken their seats, both the healer and the scholar had feigned interest in the geometric patterns adorning the tablecloth, but watched him and Chichiri like hawks when they thought no one was looking. It had made Tasuki laugh just how bad they were at being sneaky, and there was no way the monk hadn't noticed the strange behavior. Returning his gaze to the street, Tasuki's wide smile shrunk to a wistful curving of his lips. Of course, whether their effort mattered in the long run, he had no idea.

Stealing a glance at the younger man, Chichiri's brows furrowed beneath the cheery façade of his mask. "It was odd, no da," he said, in as noncommittal a tone as he could muster. He didn't want to pursue this line of thought, and he surely didn't want Tasuki to pursue it. He knew exactly what Mitsukake and Chiriko were trying to do, with the dinner seating and most likely with forcing him and Tasuki to share a horse in the desert. They probably engineered the sleeping arrangements this morning so that I would be next to him then as well. Letting out a small sigh, he let the topic and the conversation drop.

The two seishi continued on in silence. Even as the sun sank slowly toward the spiny peaks of the western mountain ranges, the market brimmed with activity. Yak butter lamps in the backs of stalls flickered to life, banishing the shadows left by the receding sunlight and casting a cozy yellow glow on the merchandise displayed at the front. The quavering calls of kites soaring overhead added a shrill overtone to the hum and bustle. A refreshing cool breeze swept down the thoroughfare, spreading the delicious aroma of grilling meats, simmering broths, and baking breads from food stands all along the street. Small knots of shoppers milled around the shops' counters, talking and laughing as they ate and smoked.

The wind blew a few strands of hair into Tasuki's eyes and across his nose. Shifting his grip on the basket under his arm, he ran his free hand through his unruly mane. The offending locks fell back into his face the moment he released them. Glancing once more at Chichiri, he ran his eyes over the monk's profile. The sky-blue tassels hanging from the string of prayer beads around his slender neck danced against his chest. At his slim waist, the unmoored hem of his kesa flapped lazily in the breeze. His long blue ponytail swung across his back, periodically caressing his shoulders like a lover. Tasuki frowned and returned his attention to his path. The soft grunt of frustration that bubbled from the back of his throat trailed into an almost-inaudible sigh. If I wanna keep talkin', I guess I gotta do it myself. "So," he said, trying to keep his voice upbeat, "whad'd you get?" He flashed Chichiri a crooked smile. "Peaches, obviously."

At the sound of Tasuki's voice, Chichiri turned to look at him. "Oh." Taking the box housing his purchases from under his arm, he gazed down into it for a moment before looking back up at the redhead. "Just a few gifts, no da." Resettling the item back under his arm, he looked away down the market street. "Tobacco for Tokaki and some fruit for Subaru. To thank them for helping us, na no da."

Tasuki hummed thoughtfully, and he too set his eyes forward. "C'n yah believe those two geezers 're celestial warriors like us? What're th' chances, eh?"

"It is pretty lucky, no da."

Tasuki glanced at Chichiri. "An' that they've got th' Shinzahou o' Byakko?" A skeptical expression on his face, he shook his head before looking away again. "Kinda hard t' swallow, 'specially after what happened with th' Shinzahou o' Genbu." He couldn't keep the hard edge out of his voice as the words passed his lips. In Hokkan, they'd had to search for clues and information about the Shinzahou's whereabouts themselves. Fanning out across the city, each scrap of hearsay or ancient legend the lot of them had been able to acquire seemed like a victory after starting off with nothing whatsoever. Then that frantic ride to the mountain, only to find Nuriko dead by Seiryuu hands. Tasuki bit back a growl and clenched his fist until his arm shook. And after burying the courtier in a tomb of rock and snow, they'd had to prove their worth to some long-dead seishi or be killed. Now, they'd miraculously ended up being taken in by just the people they were looking for, and come the morning, they were set to have the Shinzahou of Byakko handed to them on a silver platter. He sneered, his fangs glinting. It wasn't fair, to Nuriko or to the rest of them.

Hearing the raw emotion Tasuki tried to contain, Chichiri turned to the redhead. The perpetual smile on his mask dwindled to a mere line as he watched Tasuki grapple with his feelings. Anger suffused his entire being, giving his stride a rigid, fierce quality. It set his broad shoulders and twisted his handsome face into a vicious snarl. But, just below the roiling surface, Chichiri could feel the heavy aura of loss and sadness radiating from him. The slight bow of his head that curtained his eyes with fiery hair did little to hide the deep sorrow clouding their usually gleaming depths. His brows furrowing, the monk returned his attention to the road ahead. Every failure in the search for the Genbu Shinzahou was a result of his decisions. Watching everyone, Tasuki included, break atop Mount Koku after Nuriko's death, and knowing he had been the one that caused it... Chichiri took a deep breath and let it out in a long, quiet exhale. "How's your head, no da?" he asked, redirecting the conversation. "You took quite a hit from that ball earlier, na no da."

Tasuki turned his gaze back to Chichiri. The subject change wasn't unanticipated, but the shift in the monk's demeanor did catch him off-guard. It had been a long time since the older man had allowed such a candid expression in front of him, mask or no. Whether Chichiri meant for him to see what Tasuki was sure had to be the older seishi's true feelings he didn't know, but the surprise of it shook him from his angry musing. Releasing his fist, he flexed it a few times to stretch the abused muscles. The crescent-shaped indentations Tasuki had left in his palm ached as feeling flowed back into his hand. He look away once more. "'S alright." A lopsided smile tugged at his lips and he turned back, his voice a soft rumble. "I've 'ad worse."

Chichiri looked over, meeting Tasuki's eyes. Visions of the mission to Kutou and Tasuki, bloodied and bruised, coursed through his mind: squaring off against a drugged Tamahome in his and Miaka's defense; enduring a savage and unrelenting beating at the hands of their ally; choking on that makeshift garrote as he fought to save them from certain death. As they held each other's gaze, other images insinuated themselves into Chichiri's mental narrative: the look of unabashed devotion in Tasuki's uninjured eye as he stared up from his lap, the younger man's bandaged, nearly naked body sprawled before him, the warm hand on his wrist and its gentle touch. Chichiri's heart ached under the weight of Tasuki's ingenuous scrutiny. "You shouldn't get so involved while your duty has yet to be done." Subaru's warning rose specter-like from the depths of his mind. "It may seem cruel, but you must leave your wants until after your duty has been completed. Only then can you act as you choose." Brows furrowing once more, Chichiri purposely looked away, breaking the spell. "I know, no da," he murmured.

As the two of them walked along, the white-plastered buildings and crowded stalls of the market district gradually gave way to treed park areas lining the banks of the wide, placid river meandering through the heart of the city. People sat talking on low benches lining the stone-paved street while others enjoyed the afternoon on the grass beneath the spreading arms of ancient maples and poplars. Raised beds of chrysanthemums, thick with white, red, and gold flowers, fronted by much smaller gentians dotted with tiny cobalt blooms, echoed the bright colors of the prayer flags that fluttered above nearly every street in the city. Scintillating dapples of sunlight flittered across the time-worn thoroughfare with the wind-tousled leaves, tracing shifting patches of light and shadow on its ancient surface.

A loud, piteous gurgle punctured the silence that had grown between the two warriors. Tasuki instinctively put a hand over his stomach to squelch it. Their dinner just hadn't been enough, it seemed. He took a soft, salmon pink peach off the top of the pile in his basket and brought it to his lips. The smell alone elicited another more insistent growl. With relish, he sunk his teeth into the ripe flesh. Sweet juice welled from the pulp left by the bite, running over his fingers and down his chin. He leaned forward, attempting to keep the sticky syrup off his coat's leather lapels. Swiping his tongue over his lips and what he could reach of his chin, Tasuki cocked his head. He glanced down at the half-eaten peach. "Oh, hey," he said, looking over at Chichiri. He held the fruit out to the monk. "Yah hungry?"

Chichiri raised an eyebrow and eyed the chunk missing from the peach before turning his attention to Tasuki. "Those are supposed to be an apology to Miaka, na no da."

Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Tasuki smirked. Chichiri hadn't actually said no, despite the look of skepticism on his face. He waggled the fruit at him. "Ah, come on. Yah gotta be hungry. Miaka ain't gonna miss one with a basket full." As he watched the monk's struggle play out between his brows, Tasuki chuckled. "An' she kinda owes us fer that horrible food anyway."

Chichiri gave the smug redhead a wry look. It was true they hadn't had much of a dinner left after Tamahome took all of Miaka's spoiled dishes for himself. The other girl who'd helped cook, Xi-Fang, had only made a handful of items, probably in anticipation of Miaka's effort, and there just wasn't enough to fill his, Tasuki's, Chiriko's, and Mitsukake's bellies. Xi-Fang had apologized profusely after it became obvious dinner was going to be a spartan affair, but they couldn't in good conscience ask one of their hosts to make more food. He glanced down at the peach in Tasuki's hand. Where the redhead had taken his bite, the creamy white flesh blushed a deep maroon around the craggy pit. Drops of juice caught in the fruit's fuzz sparkled in the patches of sunlight filtering through the trees. The sweet, delicious aroma wafted to his nose, making his mouth water. A long, loud growl issued from his stomach and he flushed beneath his mask. He let out a defeated sigh. "Yeah, alright, no da." Chichiri took the peach from Tasuki's hand, their fingertips brushing lightly as he did so.

Tasuki's smirk softened into an expression of pure affection as he watched the monk nibble at the edges of the bite he'd made. Turning his eyes back to the road ahead, he licked the drying syrup off his fingers.

Around them, the peaceful afternoon began to give way to early evening. To the east, the azure of the sky slowly retreated from the coming indigo of night. Overhead, the undersides of the clouds took on a coppery tone. With each step, the sights and sounds of the citizenry dwindled as they left the market and its outskirts behind and traveled farther into the less populated, more natural areas closer to Subaru and Tokaki's estate. Groves of russet-barked cypress peppered with the odd clump of white-trunked birch rose to either side of the street, adding their own textures and colors to the landscape. At the river's edge, graceful herons waded in the marshy waters as they hunted for their own meals. The melodic croaking of frogs accompanied the whistling and twittering of thrushes and rosefinches unseen in the trees.

Tasuki watched a few turtle doves poking around in the sparse grasses and scattered rocks between the roots of a venerable maple. The tree cover swayed with the caprices of the wind, occasionally forcing a heretofore hidden songbird to find a new perch in the canopy. As the breeze stirred the branches, the ever-present mountain ranges surrounding the city were revealed and obscured by turns. He breathed deep the scent of clean air, fresh water, and moist earth. "'S nice 'ere, ain't it? Th' mountains an' th' trees kinda remind me o' home," he said, a wistfulness in his voice. He glanced over at Chichiri. "Yah ever been there b'fore? Mount Reikaku?"

Wiping a few stray drops of juice at the corner of mouth with the back of a knuckle, Chichiri shook his head. "I've passed through Souun on a few occasions, but I've never spent much time in western Kounan, no da."

"Well, it's got way more trees fer starters," Tasuki said, a nostalgia-tinged smile spreading across his face. He looked off into the distance down the nearly empty street. Images of the dense forest cloaking the mountain filled his mind: of how the morning mists closed in on the trees until it seemed as if the bandit stronghold was the only thing that existed in the world; of the crystal-clear spring and ancient, moss-covered shrine to the mountain god he and Kouji had found in a secluded glade deep in the woods; of the whirring of the cicadas and the droning of the katydids in the spring and summer, and of the musty, earthy scent of leaf mold and the sweet, ashy smell of wood smoke in the autumn and winter. Realizing he had let the conversation lag, he turned again to Chichiri. "An' it's just me an' th' guys livin' up there, so there's no big city like this." Tasuki swept his free arm in an arc to encompass the whole of the Sairou capital. "Just a few buildin's. An' we gotta go inta Souun t' get supplies an' stuff since there's no market either..." As he trailed off, his lips quirked and a fang poked out. Small, unremarkable details that he'd never paid attention to in his life floated to the fore: that one wooden water bucket in the kitchen that always leaked, no matter how much pine resin they tried to patch it with; the bronze hinges on the door to the barracks that made a horrible scraping noise whenever anyone tried to push it beyond about half-way open; the three broken clay tiles on the roof of the stronghold's main building that little pine seedlings tried to grow from every spring; the uneven grooves worn by thousands of feet before his in the wide stone stairs leading to the compound that had been cut from the side of the mountain itself. A twinge of longing ran through him. He missed it so much, more than he'd thought possible. "So," his voice was a soft rumble, "it's really nothin' like this."

Chichiri turned to Tasuki, his mask revealing the sympathy on his true face. He could hear the sadness and homesickness in the redhead's voice and he knew how keenly those feelings could cut, given the opportunity. "It sounds nice, no da," he said, trying to keep his own silly voice upbeat.

Tasuki gave Chichiri a heartfelt smile. "It is." He watched the monk return the smile and look away once more. Despite his attempts otherwise, Chichiri couldn't pretend he didn't care. Tasuki's gaze lingered on the older seishi's lips as he finished off the last few bites of the peach. The longing for home he felt was quickly supplanted by a distinct ache of need for the man next to him. Returning his own focus to the way ahead, he slipped his free hand into the pocket of his coat. His fingers brushed the cool metal edge of the coin charm and he took it in his palm. "I'll hafta take yah there sometime."

Tasuki's quiet, fraught words brought a frown to Chichiri's lips even as they made his heart ache. For a long moment, he studied him from the corner of his eye. Even if he could take Tasuki up on his offer, would either of them even live long enough to summon Suzaku, let alone to see Mount Reikaku, or Kounan for that matter, again? Brows furrowing, he looked away and let out a small sigh. He tossed the now-bare peach pit into the undergrowth to the side of the street and once again let the conversation drop.

The road made a gentle curve west, away from the river, and began to climb. With each step they took, the jagged peaks of the western mountain ranges emerged like row upon row of pointed, dull brown teeth from the tree-covered valley floor. And just beyond the tallest snow-capped summits lay the unforgiving desert that encompassed nearly half the country. Heat rising from the sun-blasted sands cast a shimmering veil over the entire horizon, smearing the emeralds of the foliage, the ivories of the scattered buildings, the golds of the sunlight and rooftops, and the sepias of the mountains together into a blurry kaleidoscope.

Birdsong and the thud of Tasuki's boot heels against the ancient stone filled the silence between them. He turned the bronze charm over and over in his hand. He'd thought many times of giving it to Chichiri since he bought it during Qi Xi, but every time he'd actually tried, his attempts had been stymied. Even with all the pain, anger, and rejection that had festered between them in the weeks since he'd purchased the charm, none of the desire he felt for Chichiri had waned. If anything, it had become stronger, deeper, and more intense. And the monk's presence not an arm's length from him–willingly, he reminded himself–didn't help.

Chichiri squinted through the evening sun at the mountains li distant as they continued their trek back to the Byakko seishis' home. Across the nearest mountainside, an extensive temple monastery with stark white walls and yellow-glazed roof tiles sprawled like a vast, gold-flecked avalanche frozen in mid-tumble. Nearly a hundred pagodas and towers rose like stair steps around a central u-shaped building dominating its center. Strings of ragged prayer flags fluttered from some of the lower roofs. He'd visited many temples during his last visit to Sairou, but the one dominating the skyline before them was the largest he'd seen by far. With a complex so large, he thought, thousands of monks must live and train there.

Tracing the constellation of Chichiri that rose from the coin's obverse with his thumb, Tasuki inclined his head toward the monk and let his gaze wander over him. Sunlight shone on his long bangs, short cropped hair, and ponytail, a gilded counterpoint to the silvery moonlight Tasuki had seen there the night they'd met. The muscles in Chichiri's bare forearm flexed as he adjusted his grip on the box he held, reminding Tasuki of the strength the monk used to push him down on the deck of the boat to Hokkan. The redhead's mind immediately began supplying the explicit details of that night: the invading tongue and the taste of Chichiri's mouth on his, the monk's exploring hand and its scorching, passionate touch, the scent of sandalwood and sweat and something uniquely Chichiri, the lascivious moans and heaving breaths that had fallen from the older man's lips. Tasuki's cock stirred as his blood began to heat in his veins, and he looked away. He growled softly. Dammit. How much longer would he let Chichiri get away with insisting they were merely allies, bound by duty? How much longer could he force himself to sit on these feelings and do nothing?

As Chichiri took in the temple and studied its layout as they walked, the pleasant hum of birds and insects that surrounded them yielded to a bass rumble that seemed to fill the entire valley. Faint at first, but growing louder with each step, the noise was bolstered by the cacophonous clanging of metal on metal and the blaring of horns. Countless voices rose in a haunting, guttural drone, repeating the same few syllables again and again and adding yet another layer to the discord. He'd heard a similar dissonance during morning and evening prayer at many of the smaller monasteries and temples he'd stayed at in his wanderings, but there was something wrong about this sound. An ominous energy pervaded each note and its familiarity sent a chill down Chichiri's spine. The monastery...

It was the same feeling he'd had at the ransacked monastery that he, Tasuki, Mitsukake, and Chiriko had escaped through into the desert. It had lingered in the air of that broken place and clung to the smashed statuary, ruined murals, and burned books. He'd been wary of it at the time, but it had had nothing of the insidiousness it had now. It rode the crest of the music as it washed over the city like an oily sheen. Filling every nook and forgotten back street, the sinister feeling swirled about him, probing the strength of his chi. It set every hair on his body on end.

As they arrived outside of Subaru and Tokaki's estate, Tasuki cocked his head and made a face. "What's with that noise?" he asked, more to himself than to Chichiri. The cacophony ringing throughout the city grated on his nerves. The two of them stopped at the base of the wide stone stairs up to the compound's main entrance. He left the coin in his pocket and shaded his eyes with his hand. "'S it comin' from up there?" Looking up at the temple, he studied the building and its attendant structures. Even with his divinely enhanced vision, he couldn't make out a single person on the long path up to the place or through any of the myriad windows or in any of the small courtyards he spied. The only things that moved at all were the prayer flags in the wind and fleeting shadows that seemed to disappear when he tried to look at them directly. His nose wrinkled. Glancing at Chichiri, Tasuki's eyes widened. The monk looked absolutely unnerved. He stared at the temple with such intensity Tasuki could only follow his line of sight. Turning his head, he looked at it once more. Nothing he could see had changed. There were no other signs of life beside the sounds coming from it. Bringing his focus back to Chichiri, he dropped his hand and frowned. "Yah alright? Somethin' wrong?"

"What?" Startled by Tasuki's voice, Chichiri gave a sharp shake of his head. He glanced at the younger man. Tasuki's concerned expression told him immediately that the look of apprehension on his true face had bled through his mask.

With one last bass blast, the cacophonous music stopped. Reverberating through the valley off of buildings and mountains alike, its raucous echo bounded and rebounded across the city in steadily fading peals, until it too disappeared. The birds blithely resumed their songs. The strange power that had flowed through the sound had vanished as well, as if it had never been.

The invasive testing of his defenses ceased along with the noise. Its sudden end, as well as its presence in the capital at all, concerned him. Would that unsettling energy and whatever had produced it eventually turn its attention to Miaka and their mission to find the Shinzahous? Chichiri took a calming breath and schooled the magical item's expression back to its usual mirthful smile. He turned his full attention to Tasuki. "I'm fine, no da."

Tasuki's eyes narrowed. "Yah said th' same thing this mornin' after that nightmare yah 'ad." He watched Chichiri's masked visage for a long time, but it betrayed none of the emotion he'd seen just a moment before. "Yah sure?"

The mention of the dream brought it vividly back to his mind's eye. "Suffer and know that you will never be free of me..." Chichiri felt the demons inside him clawing at his flesh. He swallowed hard at the vestigial grip of skeletal hands on his throat. Hikou's hideous, dead-eyed sneer haunted him and would for the rest of his life. But, under the weight of that searching amber gaze, a quiet tenor whispered through the chaos in his head: "Yah got everythin' o' me." "Everythin'." "I just need yah t' trust me." His heart constricted in his chest. Even if he wanted to leave his past behind, he would never be able to escape from it. Subaru's words rang in his ears anew: "...how we felt for each other was a potential liability to our mission. A situation where we would have had to choose between protecting the priestess and protecting each other could very well have doomed everything, including ourselves..." Their sacred duty was just too important to allow himself to take the hand proffered him. Tasuki and everything the younger seishi represented–who Chichiri had been, who he could become, an end to the cycle of guilt, regret, and self-loathing, and ultimately, freedom itself–would forever remain out of his reach. "It's fine, no da," he lied, letting his mask smile for him. He started up the steps, his soft-soled shoes making but a whisper against the stone. "It's nothing, na no da."

A scowl settled between Tasuki's brows. He watched the monk ascend the stairs, his ponytail and bangs fluttering in the breeze. It was the exact response Chichiri had given that morning before his unceremonious retreat from the room. Tasuki frowned, his fangs peeking from the corners of his mouth. It seemed that no matter what he did, the wall of distance stood just as solidly as it had that night in Hokkan, when Chichiri had slammed his shakujou down between them. Frustration squirmed in his chest like a living thing and he let a soft growl rumble from his throat. He took a half-step forward. "Chiri."

Chichiri paused mid-stride at Tasuki's call. Turning, he looked back over his shoulder.

Tasuki met Chichiri's eyes and held them with a tight and unrelenting grip. They faced each other, saying nothing, for a long time, until the sinking of the sun stretched their shadows into spindly columns. He gazed in earnest up at the monk a handful of steps above him as if a supplicant on his knees. "In that fake city..." he said finally, his deep tenor voice clear and firm. "I meant ev'ry word."

The only outward indication that Chichiri had heard him was a subtle furrowing of his brow. Without a word, the older man continued up the stairs and disappeared through the bronze-clad gates, leaving Tasuki at the bottom of the steps, alone.

- o - o - o -

"'Ey, Miaakaa!" Tasuki called as he wandered down the veranda. He scanned the grassy courtyard in the center of the estate. Nothin'... Quirking his lips, he continued on, his gait unhurried. The thud of his boots echoed off the façades of the buildings around him. He tried again. "Loooook! I got some peaches for yah!" Holding up the basket in both hands, he paused to listen for a response. Only the birds and the breeze answered. His brows drew together. I hope she ain't still mad at me... Tucking the peaches back under his arm, he cupped a hand to his mouth. "It's a peace offerin'. Let's eat 'em t'gether!" His words rang across the compound but there was no reply. Turning to look out at the courtyard once more, he scrutinized the shaded groves near the back of the property. Still, there was no trace of Miaka. Where th' fuck is she?

Tasuki continued on, coming to a small sitting area tucked into the corner between the building Subaru and Tokaki lived in and the building they'd eaten dinner in earlier. Several carved stone benches lined the perimeter of the open area. Thin screens of emerald, lance-leafed bamboo swayed in front of the white-plastered wall ringing the estate that made up two sides of the secluded nook. On one of the benches sat Tamahome, staring off into the distance at the mountain ranges beyond the compound. Tasuki stopped and cocked his head. "'Ey, Tama. Where's Miaka? 'Ave yah seen 'er?"

Tamahome didn't turn to look at Tasuki at all. "Miaka," he said, a note of resignation in his voice, "went off to that tower up there."

Tasuki raised an eyebrow. Following the fighter's line of sight, he found himself looking once again at the temple dominating the mountainside at the edge of the city. An image of the rattled expression on Chichiri's face when they'd returned from their trip to the market flashed through his mind. "She went t' th' tower? Yah mean, she just took off an' went up there all by 'erself?" The same strange feeling he got earlier while listening to the discordant music returned. "Why'd she do somethin' like that?" he murmured, more to himself than to anyone. Returning his attention to Tamahome, Tasuki watched him just sit as if it didn't bother him Miaka was gone. It reminded him of the insults the fighter had hurled at dinner that sent the girl running from the room. He scowled. "Whad'd you do?" he demanded. "Yah've been actin' real strange again." Even if Tamahome had ended up eating all of Miaka's food after that, it didn't excuse his callousness then or now. He growled deep in his throat and bared his fangs. "Why th' fuck 're yah sittin' there bein' all mopey?!"

"She went to the tower? That little idiot!"

Tasuki turned to find Tokaki striding toward him on the portico perpendicular to his own, his lined face twisted in both fear and outrage. The scent of tobacco smoke followed in his wake. "There are all sorts of monsters wandering around near that temple!" Coming to a stop next to Tasuki, Tokaki fixed Tamahome with a disapproving scowl. "It's forbidden to enter the tower now, anyway. Why in the world would she go there?"

"I..." Tasuki looked over as Subaru and a shaken Xi-Fang walked up. The old woman's brows were drawn and she sported a frown, but she said nothing. Xi-Fang covered her mouth, her indigo eyes wide with worry. "I told her about the legend of the tower. But," she said, wringing her hands in front of her, "I told her to stay away from it, too!" Subaru patted her arm.

Tamahome rose from the bench. He shook his head. Tasuki could see the concern that should have been on his face all along finally manifest. "That idiot!" The fighter moved to head back down the veranda Tasuki had traveled just a few moments before.

"Wait, Tamahome!" Tokaki shouted. The older warrior's voice carried an authority even Tasuki felt hesitant to disobey. Tamahome got three paces before he froze in mid-stride like a trained dog. "You mustn't go there. I'll go, and Fang-Boy can come with me."

Tasuki's lips quirked and he shot the man a sidelong glare. "'Fang-Boy?'"

Shaking his head, Tamahome didn't turn to look at Tokaki. His shoulders tensed beneath his ebony tunic. "Master... I think I..." His voice was soft, almost conciliatory. Tasuki's brows furrowed. He had never heard the other man use that tone before, not even when Nuriko had died.

Tokaki grimaced. "Do I have to explain it to you again?!" he bellowed. His words rang off the buildings and carried across the courtyard. Taking a step toward the still-static Tamahome, the old man shook his head. The large hoop earrings he wore bounced against the sides of his neck. "You and that girl are not going to stay together! You'll split up. Or, be forced to split up."

"'Split up?'" Tasuki blinked a few times in confusion.

"You were going to wish that she become part of our world when Suzaku is summoned. That absolutely won't work! It's the one wish the beast god will not grant! When the beast god appears, the priestess' purpose is fulfilled. Then, she must return to her own world. That is the rule. It is unequivocal. No matter how hard you both may fight it, you cannot change that. This love will end tragically!"

Tasuki's brow furrowed. No one had ever mentioned something like that before. Wait... Eyes widening, Chichiri's words from their fight that night in Hokkan played through his mind: "After we retrieve the Shinzahou and summon Suzaku, our duty will be done and I will be gone. We won't see each other again." Tasuki felt like he'd just been punched in the gut. He whipped his gaze to Tamahome's back. He knew just how much the fighter loved Miaka, because it was how much he loved Chichiri. And he knew just how Tamahome was feeling with such an ultimatum before him. The mere thought of having to give up on Chichiri after they finished their duty to summon Suzaku stabbed at his heart. If the monk really did disappear like he said he would, Tasuki had no idea how he'd keep going. He frowned deeply enough to show his fangs. Tama...

"It sounds romantic, doesn't it?" Tokaki's expression shifted from anger to worry to concern and then to a sort of bitterness. He clenched his fist at his side. Behind him, Subaru looked away, her own face reflecting a sorrowful pity. "However, in reality, it is torture. It will tear you both apart!" he railed. He took another step toward Tamahome, an almost pleading note in his deep voice. His snowy eyebrows drew together. "Stop loving her now, before it's too late or–"

"Please, Master." Tamahome's quiet words cut the old seishi off. Turning just enough to look back over his shoulder, he gave both Subaru and Tokaki a tiny smile. "It already is too late."

"Tamahome!" Tokaki shouted as the fighter took off down the veranda.

Tasuki's eyes widened and his jaw dropped. Ever since he'd joined Miaka as one of her warriors, he'd heard plenty about duty. That old sand witch, Taiitsukun, harped on it every time she came to bother them or chew them out for screwing up. Nuriko had used it to justify discarding his dream to become empress and his decision to give up on being with Hotohori. Chichiri had used it as an excuse to pretend nothing was going on between them and again as a reason to reject him in the most forceful way possible. Mitsukake had told him in Touran after the details of his rejection came to light to wait to pursue the monk until after they'd finished their mission. And, not five minutes after he'd returned from the market, Subaru had cornered him to lecture about focusing on his duty instead of his desires. With so many voices telling him "duty this" and "duty that," even he had started to buy into the idea, at least a little. Yet, Tamahome, also of the Suzaku Shichiseishi and having the same sacred charge as the lot of them, just flat out dismissed Tokaki's exhortations in deference to his love for Miaka.

As he watched Tamahome disappear around the bend in the portico, his face hardened into an expression of resolve. If the other seishi could reject the notion that duty and love had to be kept separate, that one could not exist in the presence of the other, then so could he. He wasn't going to tiptoe around anymore. He'd wasted enough time already.


Glossary of Terms for Chapter 11

Rosefinch → (Carpodacus pulcherrimus) Himalayan Beautiful Rosefinch; a small songbird with a rosy head and breast and brown markings along its breast and back; found throughout the Himalayan region, including Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan
Camptotheca → (Camptotheca acuminata) also called Happy Tree, Tree of Life, Tree of Joy, Cancer Tree, and Xi Shu; a medium-sized deciduous tree native to eastern Tibet and southern China; fast-growing, the wood is used mostly for fuel, pulp, and furniture; has some use in Traditional Chinese Medicine, but is more important in Western medicine due to cancer- and HIV-inhibiting compounds in its seeds and bark
Spikenard → (Nardostachys jatamansi) also called muskroot; an herbaceous flowering plant with pink, bell-shaped flowers used for incense, perfumes, and some herbal medicines; found in the eastern Himalayan region, mainly northern India, Nepal, and Bhutan
Turtle Dove → (Streptopelia orientalis) Oriental Turtle Dove, or Rufous Turtle Dove; a member of the dove and pigeon family, it can be recognized by the distinctive black-and-white-striped patches on its neck; widely distributed through Asia, including India, Japan, China including Tibet, and parts of Russia
Spider Lily → (Lycoris radiata) Red Spider Lily, or Hurricane Lily; a flowering perennial native to Tibet and Nepal that grows from poisonous bulbs; its irregularly shaped flowers are arranged in umbels, or a number of short flower stalks that meet at a central point, and curve backwards with long, protruding stamens
Aconitum → (Aconitum gymnandrum) a member of the monkshood genus, it is an herbaceous flowering plant native to the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau area of China; like most monkshoods, it is poisonous
Cuju → also tsu'chu, it is an ancient game played by kicking a ball through a hole in a net; started as a military exercise in the Zhou dynasty (2nd and 3rd centuries BCE) before becoming popular with all classes by the Song dynasty (mid-10th to late 13th centuries CE); despite having different rules, it is cited by FIFA as the earliest form of soccer for which there is evidence
Haizi Kaoshi → the entry-level Chinese civil service exam, it is divided into three parts: the Xian Kaoshi ("county exam"), the Fufu Kaoshi ("prefectural exam"), and the Yuanshi ("college exam"); passing all three parts allowed one to take higher level exams, eventually attaining a government post and higher social class
Prayer Wheel → also mani wheel; a devotional item in Tibetan Buddhism composed of a metal, often-embossed cylinder mounted on a metal shaft or pin in a wooden or metal handle; a rolled strip of Buddhist mantras is placed inside, and spinning the cylinder is said to create positive energy, allowing the practitioner to accumulate wisdom and merit
Tobacco → native to the Americas, it was introduced into China by both traders doing business with Europeans and by the Manchu during the later Ming Dynasty (16th century CE); the government attempted to stem its popularity with harsh punishment, but its use had become almost universal by the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911 CE)
Cypress → (Cupressus gigantea) Tibetan Cypress, or Tsangpo Cypress; a slow-growing, coniferous evergreen tree native only to the valleys surrounding the Yarlung Tsangpo river and its tributaries in southeastern Tibet
Madder → a deep reddish color ranging from maroon to ruby; the pigment is extracted mainly from perennial bushes in the genus Rubia, and has been used for centuries in Eurasia and northern Africa as a natural colorant in paints, glazes, and dyes
Shaptra → a Tibetan dish of stir-fried meat, traditionally yak, beef, mutton, or goat, in a thin, spicy gravy
Tingmo → a Tibetan steamed yeast bread; slightly sweet, it can be filled with a variety of meats and vegetables, but is most often eaten plain as an accompaniment to another, spicier dish
Auspicious Fruit → fruit that has taken on special significance in Chinese culture, and are often given as gifts on holidays and other occasions; these include apples (peace), oranges (good luck and prosperity), and peaches (long life and immortality)
Kite → (Milvus migrans) Black Kite; a medium-sized bird of prey with brown upper plumage and a paler head and body; an opportunistic hunter and often scavenger, it is native to temperate and tropical Eurasia and Oceania
Gentian → (Gentiana tianshanica) Tian-shan Gentian; a herbaceous perennial flowering plant with dark- to sky-blue flowers; native to alpine slopes in the Himalayan region
Heron → (Ardea cinerea) Grey Heron; a large, long-legged wading bird with gray plumage, a white head and neck, and a black stripe from its eye to its crest and along its flanks; it is native to temperate regions of Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa
Frog → (Nanorana parkeri) High Himalaya Frog, or Parker's Slow Frog; a medium-sized frog with grayish-green skin speckled with olive-green spots, it lives in high-altitude grasslands, forests, marshes, and rivers in Tibet and Nepal
Thrush → (Turdus kessleri) White-backed Thrush, also Kessler's Thrush; a medium-sized songbird with a black head, a white band around its shoulders, upper chest, and back, and rusty orange on its stomach and upper wings; it is native to temperate forest and shrubland in western China, northern India, Bhutan, and Nepal
Dungchen → the Tibetan name for a long horn, made in sections for ease of storage, and traditionally crafted of brass and silver; used in Tibetan Buddhist ritual for preludes, processions, and morning and evening calls to prayer; similar to the European alphorn, South American erke, and Australian digeridoo
Silnyen → the Tibetan name for a cymbal-like percussion instrument with a small or no central boss; it is struck using a horizontal movement and used in Tibetan Buddhist rituals
Gyaling → the Tibetan name of a double-reeded horn made of hardwood with a bell made of copper and brass, similar to an oboe, used in Tibetan Buddhism during worship to accompany chanting and prayer



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