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.

Why's she gotta eat so much anyway? Tasuki thought to himself as he slipped the handkerchief-wrapped cha shao bao into his coat pocket. The smell of barbecued pork made his mouth water, but he had to stick with the plan. He was betting everything on that little bun.

The heels of his boots rang against the brick floors as he walked to the imperial residence. Tasuki found it interesting that they'd chosen the emperor's own private rooms to work this magic. Though, from what Chichiri had said the night before, it could cause some serious trouble if news got back to Kutou before the mission was complete. Chichiri... Neither the man's face nor their conversation had left his head and Tasuki doubted if either would any time soon. How could Chichiri expect him to just sit back and let him and Miaka do this without any help?

With a sigh, Tasuki continued on. Night had fallen just a few hours before, but the still-full moon was only just clearing the tiled roofs of the palace buildings. A pair of sentries paused as Tasuki passed, bowing low before hurrying away down the lantern-lit veranda in the opposite direction. He glanced out into the moon-drenched gardens. Crickets chirped a slow and sleepy song while fireflies pulsed in the bushes lining the walkway.

The warm evening breeze brought the scent of rosewater perfume with it as it ruffled Tasuki's unruly hair. He looked up to see a handful of courtesans turn the corner of an adjoining corridor directly into his path farther down the portico. The women's silk robes whispered across the tiled floor as they walked and their jet black hair dripped with delicate, silver-filigreed ornaments. Scowling, Tasuki headed toward the slow-moving clump of women. Nuriko was going to yell at him, he just knew it. The courtesans talked and giggled, the group spreading out to take up nearly the entire width of the veranda. Sidling past the mob, Tasuki could feel the women staring as they whispered to each other behind their painted fans. I just hope I'm not too late, he thought as he watched two elaborately armored guards flanking the entrance to the royal quarters straighten and nod as he approached.

"Please enter, Warrior of Suzaku," the guard on the right said, pushing open the large bronze-faced doors.

"You are expected," the guard on the left said with a small bow.

"Uh, thanks," Tasuki answered, a little overwhelmed by the pomp and ceremony, and stepped inside.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

"Where have you been, Tasuki? We've all been waiting," Nuriko scolded, arms akimbo as Tasuki entered the emperor's antechamber.

The rest of the Shichiseishi were spread around the room and the air was abuzz with talk: of the trip, the summoning ceremony to come once Tamahome and the scroll were retrieved, and of the wishes they would receive from the god of the south. Tasuki glanced around the chamber, searching first for Chichiri and then for Miaka. Layers of pale yellow shadow danced about the small room from several lanterns hung from the coffered ceiling. In front of a silk-screened tapestry depicting Suzaku in flight, Mitsukake stood next to Chiriko. The big man nodded at something Chiriko had said that Tasuki couldn't hear, all the while playing with his cat. In the corner, next to a lacquered rosewood table filled with bronze statuary, Chichiri stood talking with Miaka. A wave of relief washed over him; they hadn't left yet. "Sorry, I gotta little lost gettin' 'ere," Tasuki replied. Taking up a place against a lacquered pillar near the door he'd entered through, he patted the slight bulge of the cha shao bao in his pocket.

Seated in an ornately carved rosewood chair near the back of the chamber, Hotohori smiled at Nuriko's irritation. "It's quite alright, Nuriko. We are all here now, so let us begin." He rose and made his way toward the center of the room and motioned for everyone to join him.

"How is this magic going to work exactly?" Chiriko asked, cocking his head and looking around the circle of celestial warriors. Next to him, Mitsukake folded his arms across his large chest. Tama-neko perched on Mitsukake's shoulder. He scrutinized the proceedings with a careful eye, tail swaying back and forth.

"Yes, Chichiri, how is this supposed to work?" Hotohori folded his hands into the voluminous sleeves of his robes.

"I'm going to use my kesa as a channel through which Miaka and I will travel, no da. Sort of a portal, if you will, na no da." He glanced over at Tasuki as he spoke. He remembered the redhead's words from the night before: "Lemme go with yah, Chichiri. I can protect Miaka. An' you." The look in those amber eyes lingered still in his mind's eye, full of clear unwavering determination and something else he couldn't quite place. He watched as Tasuki shifted against the column, his posture easy and untroubled. Maybe he's decided to accept it, no da, Chichiri thought.

"Please, Miaka, don't do anything foolish while you're there," Nuriko said. He took Miaka's hands in his own slender ones.

Miaka smiled and gave Nuriko's hands a reassuring squeeze. "I won't, I promise. We'll be back here before you know it."

"Your Highness, we should get going, no da."

Hotohori sighed as he tried to hold back the worry from his voice. "Most of all, be very careful." The corners of his mouth twitched into a smile as Miaka straightened out the wrinkles in the bow of her uniform.

"Are you sure that we can't go along with you, priestess?" Chiriko asked.

Miaka turned to Chichiri. "Can they?"

"It's really not a good idea to have more than necessary, no da." Chichiri shook his head. "It would put a strain on my barrier, no da. Even with me concealing our life force, the enemy may still detect us, na no da."

Now's my chance, Tasuki thought and stepped forward, away from his place at the pillar. "I'm comin' with yah." He proudly drew up to his full height, looking directly at Miaka. There was no way he was going to falter now, not when he had his ace in the hole.

Miaka blinked a few times in surprise. "Tasuki..."

"I wanna meet Tamahome an' yah might need my fire."

Everyone looked at Tasuki, mouths agape. Miaka spoke up first, putting words to their expressions. "Didn't you hear what he just said?"

Here we go. "Oh, wait, don't say no yet." With a sly smirk, Tasuki reached into his coat pocket and removed the small bundle wrapped in its handkerchief. Setting it gently in one hand, he made a show of unwrapping it, pulling one corner back at a time until the aroma of barbecued pork filled the air. "What about this delicious cha shao bao I have 'ere? I was gonna give it t' you, but..." he trailed off. Shrugging his shoulders for emphasis, Tasuki began to rewrap the treat. He glanced at Miaka to find her staring longingly at the little bun. His gamble had paid off.

Suddenly, she seized a handful of Chichiri's tunic and pulled him down to her level. "Have some pity for the poor guy! Let's take him with us!" she declared, menacing the flabbergasted monk.

"Uh, well, sure, if you say so, no da." Chichiri took a deep breath as she let him go.

Pumping his fist in triumph, Tasuki grinned. Elation and relief rushed through him like a torrent. Chichiri couldn't possibly go against Miaka's wishes unless he wanted to disobey a direct order, and he knew the monk would do no such thing. He felt eyes watching him and, turning to Chichiri, met them with a roguish smile and a knowing look. A sharp yank on his arm tore his focus away from Chichiri's perturbed face. "Eh? Hey, hey!" he shouted as Miaka wrenched the bun, handkerchief and all, out of his hand. "I said yah could 'ave th' cha shao bao, but not th' hand that holds it!"

Chichiri sighed. He wasn't quite certain at what point he'd lost control of the situation. Against his wishes, Tasuki had essentially bribed Miaka with the one thing she would never refuse. Now the mission would be that much more dangerous, that much more complicated to complete successfully. And unless he wanted to defy Miaka's wishes, he couldn't turn Tasuki away. Why do you want to come with us so badly, no da? he thought to himself as he watched the girl wolf down the bun.

Chichiri unclasped his kesa from his shoulder, the brass rings of his shakujou tinkling. With a deft sweep of one well-muscled arm, he cast the navy wool to the ground. It rippled and fluttered until it lay smoothly. "Here, get on the kesa, no da."

Miaka and Tasuki stepped into the middle of the navy cloth as he began to chant. The kesa glowed, softly at first, then brighter until waves of light pulsated throughout the chamber. "Now, let's be off, no da!" With a great crash of metal on metal, Chichiri slammed the butt of the staff down. Under it, the blindingly lit rectangle began to liquify, drawing them all into its depths.

"We're on our way! Bye, everyone!" Miaka called as she sank into the light, Tasuki having fallen through before her.

"You be careful!" Nuriko shouted after her. His words were cut off as Chichiri jumped into the kesa with a loud "Da!" and it and they disappeared from sight.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

The three travelers materialized in a heap in the branches of a venerable ash tree. Roosting birds squawked in alarm, their wings beating against leaves as they fled the treetops around them. Tasuki groaned under the weight of both Miaka and Chichiri. He couldn't move to see it, but one of the branches was digging its way into his abdomen.

"Wow! Chichiri, your magic spell's fantastic! You transported us here instantly!" Miaka twisted this way and that to get a good look at the moonlit gardens below them. "But couldn't you have found us a better place to make our landing?"

Every movement wrenched a grunt from Tasuki's lips. He gasped for air; the limb pushed farther and farther into his diaphragm with each passing second. A sinister crack reverberated through the night and his breath hitched. His eyebrows shot toward his hairline. Oh, no. No. No, no, no.

The priestess noticed it, too. "Now what do we do, huh?!" Miaka cried. She squirmed around, the creaking and popping growing ever louder.

"Hey, stop movin' around!" Tasuki shouted as the branch began to pitch downward.

"Aaaaaahhhhhhhh!" Crackling twigs and snapping wood punctuated Tasuki and Miaka's screams as they both crashed to the ground with a resounding leafy boom.

Empty air rushed up to meet Chichiri as the limb dropped. Instinctively, he reached out and grabbed at another limb just as it fell away. Torn vegetation fluttered to the ground around him as the smell of fresh heartwood filled the air. Dangling by one hand, he scanned the empty garden for movement. He was certain the noise had alerted someone within the palace, but as seconds ticked by, no one appeared and he could feel no other life forces in the area. He hazarded a glance down. "Are you alright, no da?"

"If all wrong is alright, no da," Tasuki and Miaka groaned.

Shaking broken twigs and shredded leaves from his hair, Tasuki shot Chichiri a nasty look as the monk let go and landed quietly on the grass behind him. It irritated him that Chichiri had managed to avoid the fall while he and Miaka had ended up in an aching heap, but he was glad that the monk hadn't been injured. Shit, this whole thing'll be fer nothin' if either one o' 'em ends up hurt now, he thought. Reaching to remove a shattered piece of wood from his lap, his fingers brushed something furry under the leaves. "Huh?" Tasuki peeked under the vegetation and started. Tama-neko lay curled up in a ball next to him. The cat looked up and mewed. "Mitsukake's cat came with us, too."

"Huh?" Plucking some broken shoots from her odangos, Miaka took Chichiri's proffered hand and rose to her feet. She took a moment to smooth out the pleats in her skirt and brush pieces of bark off her blouse. In front of her, Tama-neko jumped out of the brush pile. He gingerly wove around the debris to find a clear patch of ground to stretch on. "Wow! It's our lucky day!" Miaka scooped up the hapless cat and clutched it to her chest.

"Why's that?" Dusting off the shoulders of his coat, Tasuki removed the rest of the branches from his lap and started to push himself to his feet. A pale hand appeared before him and glancing up, he saw Chichiri reaching out to help him. Tasuki grinned, fangs poking out at the corners of his mouth, and firmly grabbed Chichiri's arm. The monk pulled him to standing, looking him over for a moment before dropping his hand. Well, 'e can't be too mad at me if 'e's helpin' me up, Tasuki thought.

A starry-eyed look came over Miaka's face. Tama-neko's tail jerked forcefully back and forth as she spoke. "Well, because I promised Tamahome I'd meet him at the big tree in the middle of the palace gardens that's surrounded by sweet-smelling flowers." Turning to Tasuki and Chichiri, she explained. "See, animals can smell better than we can, so he can find the meeting place for us." With an irritated meow, the cat squirmed out of Miaka's grip and leapt to the ground.

"Right! I get it!" Tasuki pounded his fist into his palm. He'd never thought that the cat could be so useful to them. He was sure it would just get in their way and slow them down. Now they had a shot of completing the mission successfully and sooner than he'd hoped. Maybe Chichiri'll be happy now that we've gotta tracker workin' for us. The monk had been very quiet up till now and that concerned him. "Well cat, it's up t' you t' lead us to 'im." Almost as if Tama-neko had comprehended Tasuki's words, he stalked off into the grass.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

Tasuki glanced around as the three of them made their way through the dark gardens. Cold, silver moonlight brought every plant and structure into stark relief. An octagonal gazebo loomed out of the darkness across a clearing to his left. Its shape and construction weren't too different from the one Tasuki had seen upon his arrival at the palace in Kounan–sculpted dragons graced its roof, not phoenixes–but somehow it just seemed menacing in the harsh moonlight. Even the grass beneath his boots seemed sharp and uncomfortable. Behind it all lurked a vague malevolence that set Tasuki on edge. That's gotta be Seiryuu's power I'm feelin', he thought. Reflexively, he drew one hand into a fist. Just ahead of him, he saw Miaka following behind Tama-neko. She trailed the cat like a shadow, matching its moves step for step. She seemed so happy to get this Tamahome guy back and he wasn't going to stop her from meeting him; he just wanted to be ready if that feeling became a tangible threat.

To his right, he saw Chichiri surveying the dark treeline, his head swiveling back and forth. He knew Chichiri could sense the aura of the place just by the tension in his shoulders. Leaves rustled loudly in the stillness as Miaka pushed through the brush, charged through the hedges, and jumped over flowering plants to keep up with the much lighter, much quieter cat. Tasuki was sure Miaka's borderline disregard of the danger or the need for secrecy worried him. Chichiri needed a second set of eyes to keep her out of trouble, whether he wanted to admit it or not. And, Tasuki thought, I need t' watch 'is back, too.

Parting a tall clump of fountain grass, Miaka sighed heavily. "How much further?" A light floral fragrance washed over the group the moment the grass was disturbed. She gasped as Tama-neko jumped through the plant and into a wide ring of blue hydrangeas. In the center stood a massive oak tree, branches stretching out above them like a leafy roof. "It's our meeting place! Great job, kitty!" She eagerly climbed out of the grass and into the dappled moonlight.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

Nothing moved in the gardens for as far as Chichiri could see. Only the haunting hoot of a far-off owl broke the stillness. The trio had spread out to take up places around the base of the tree, watching for signs of Tamahome's approach. It seemed odd to him that not even crickets, ubiquitous in the four kingdoms, could be heard. Something doesn't feel right about this place, no da. He glanced over at Tasuki. The redhead didn't seem to be too concerned by the weird air that permeated the garden; Chichiri thought he looked almost bored leaning against the dark gray bark of the tree with his arms crossed over his chest. Above them, the moon continued its march across the sky, slowly achieving its zenith then beginning to sink once more toward the horizon. The appointed time had come and gone.

"So, this guy thinks 'e's so hot 'e can blow off dates," Tasuki spat, shifting impatiently against the tree trunk. He'd spent an hour watching Miaka pace back and forth, back and forth, wringing her hands and staring off into the dark bushes. It pissed him off. How dare this Tamahome blow her off? No one deserved to be made a fool of like that, especially not the Priestess of Suzaku. "Or's 'e scared t' show 'cause 'e doesn't want t' give up 'is new girlfriend here?" There was the possibility this guy had found himself someone else to shack up with, but if that were true, he sure couldn't respect a comrade-in-arms who would mess with impressionable girls that way.

Miaka stopped in mid-stride and glared at Tasuki. "Tamahome isn't scared of anything!" she shouted. "He'll come, I know he will! Any minute now, he'll pop out of the bushes with a big smile and say, 'Sorry I'm late.'" Clasping her hands together as if in prayer, she turned back toward the darkened bushes. "Tamahome, please come soon!" Tama-neko's ears perked up and he cocked his head. A faint rustling of leaves rose out of the silence, moving ever closer. Miaka turned toward the sound. "Tamahome?"

Spearpoints, sharp and glinting, burst forth from the darkness, halting just a hair's breadth from Miaka's face. Tasuki and Chichiri immediately dropped into a fighting stance as over two dozen heavily armed and armored Kutou soldiers appeared before them. Sneers of malice contorted their faces. Among them stood a tall and menacing warlord, also armored.

Nakago, Chichiri thought. He'd know that vicious energy anywhere. Nakago glowered at the three followers of Suzaku, piercing blue eyes smoldering with an intense hatred. Next to him stood a thin blonde girl in a brown school uniform.

"It's been a while, Miaka," she said.

"Yui..."

"It seems like such a long time. You are looking well." Her words were cold and her eyes were as hard as the scales of the dragon-god, Seiryuu. She glared at the three of them in turn, but she seemed to save the most punishing of looks for Miaka. Behind her, the soldiers lowered their weapons and stood at attention, waiting for their general's next order.

Mouth agape, Miaka shook her head. "Yui... What are you doing here?"

"You idiot!" Nakago growled, taking a threatening step toward the priestess. "You made so much noise, you announced your own arrival!"

"Miaka, get back!" Tasuki darted forward and shoved Miaka backward, physically putting himself between her, Chichiri, and the Seiryuu. He reached over his shoulder and unsheathed the tessen from his back, bringing it forward with a vicious swing. "Rekka-shin-en!" he yelled, feeling the crackling heat of his celestial power flow into the iron fan. A bloodthirsty grin etched itself across Tasuki's face. Suddenly, the searing energy pouring from him ceased and the fire he'd expected never appeared. "Huh?!" The tessen sat lifeless in his hand. All color drained from him. It was just an ordinary weapon without its holy flame. Eyes widening in horror, he looked up and into Nakago's baleful stare.

"So, you're Tasuki." Nakago's voice dripped with smug malice, his thin lips twisted into a predatory smile. It was not unlike a snake sizing up a rat before eating it. "It's unfortunate that none of you can use your powers within the barrier I've summoned. Now then," he continued, passing his gaze slowly from Tasuki to Miaka and then to Chichiri, "who shall be the first to die? Or will you leave the decision to me?"

Yui stepped forward and placed a slender hand on his sapphire-hued vambrace. "Nakago, wait. Where's the fun in killing them right away?" she asked, never removing her hateful eyes from Miaka. A smile as harsh and merciless as that of her general's spread over her features. "We have guests so very rarely, why don't we entertain them?"

Burning contempt spread across his face and Nakago turned his head from her. His long blond hair only partially hid his disgust at his priestess' request. "As you wish," he said, mastering himself. He gestured to his soldiers. "Take them to the dungeon."

"Yui..." Miaka stared at the blonde girl, her brows furrowed in dismay. Opening and closing her mouth like a fish out of water, she tried to form words that never left her throat. Blinking twice, she set her shoulders and seemed to come to a decision. Miaka glanced at Tasuki and Chichiri for a long moment before turning back to the Seiryuu contingent. Taking a deep breath, she growled and pushed past Tasuki as she launched herself at the nearest soldier.

"No, don't!" Tasuki yelled. He reached out to stop her, but it was too late. Next to him, he heard Chichiri gasp.

Miaka crashed into the surprised man's breastplate with her shoulder. Both hit the ground with a bone-shaking thud. The impact drove all air from her lungs. Bright flashes of light exploded in her vision. Taking a few shallow gasps, she twisted around to look at her warriors. "Chichiri, Tasuki, run for it!" she cried. Shaking off their surprise, the rest of the assembled soldiers began to rearm themselves.

A guttural roar worked its way up from the depths of Tasuki's chest, harsh and full of fury. "No!" He might die here, at the point of a Kutou spear, but he wasn't going to let Miaka sacrifice herself for his sake. Dropping easily into a fighting stance, fists and tessen at the ready, he prepared to take on all comers. "We won't leave yah!"

Rough hands seized her as the soldiers hauled Miaka bodily to her feet. Desperately, she sought out Chichiri's gaze. "Hurry!" She winced as her arms were pulled sharply behind her back. Chichiri wavered just long enough to see the fervor in his priestess' eyes. "GO!" With a curt nod, he firmly grabbed Tasuki's rage-tensed shoulder. He hurriedly chanted a few words and they disappeared.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

Chichiri had no idea where they would end up when he hastily teleported away from Nakago and the Kutou soldiers. The barrier Nakago had erected was much too strong for him to break alone. That meant they had to still be somewhere on the palace grounds. Jangling armor and marching boots filtered up through the canopy. He leaned slightly out over the branch on which he perched, using the leaf cover to conceal himself. Yet another patrol was combing through the dark gardens to find them. Chichiri frowned. If he could just get an idea of where they were... The sweet scent of hydrangeas wafted in with the slight breeze that ruffled the leaves above his head. Alright. We have to be close to where Miaka was captured, he thought. That meant that the palace compound itself couldn't be very far. If he could get into the general vicinity of the dungeon without being seen, it would be a simple matter for him to impersonate Nakago and walk right out with the priestess.

A bloodcurdling scream echoed through the moonlit gardens, stopping the patrol just below the tree in their tracks. "Where'd that scream come from?" the commander demanded, looking to each of his men in turn. When none of them answered, he growled and pointed back toward the torch-lit palace buildings. "Let's go, men!" The clanking of their armor as they marched away receded slowly until only silence remained.

"They're finally gone, no da," Chichiri sighed, slumping back against the tree trunk. They could relax for the moment and he let some of the adrenaline drain away. He didn't know how long they'd been forced to stay hidden, but it felt like an eternity. And all the while Tasuki silently glared daggers at his back. "What are you so happy about over there, Tasuki, no da?"

Tasuki sat a short distance away on another large limb, cross-legged and seething. He narrowed his eyes. "I'm pissed off!" he growled, arms firmly crossed over his chest. "I can't believe we just abandoned Miaka like that!" Waves of anger and frustration roiled out from him with a tangible intensity.

"What else could we do?" Chichiri shot back, dropping the light tone in his voice. He turned to fully face Tasuki. "With our powers knocked out and the barrier sealed tight, there's no way we could have won that fight."

Tasuki had to admit that Chichiri was right, but he surely didn't like it. He'd planned to die defending them, Miaka and Chichiri both, back there. A light breeze kicked up, stirring the treetops around them. The mat of leaves rippled just enough for patches of silvery moonlight to seep through and illuminate Chichiri's face. The perpetual smile that always seemed to grace his lips was gone, replaced with an all-too-serious frown. Nothin's goin' fuckin' right today... The bandit growled and threw himself backwards against the tree trunk. "So, whadda yah suggest we do now?"

"Wait here, suppress our life force, and move on when the time is right."

"We can't wait!" Tasuki shouted, sitting bolt upright. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. First, they run like cowards and hide, and now they should wait around while their priestess might be tortured or killed? "Are yah fuckin' nuts er somethin'?! We're here t' help an' if anythin' happens t' her, I'll never fergive myself!" Chichiri's expression didn't change and irritated him more than anything. "What kinda fuckin' plan–" he spat, and was promptly cut off.

"Don't worry," Chichiri said. It was only a matter of time before the guards returned and Tasuki's ranting wasn't helping. They needed to move, but he knew Tasuki wouldn't focus while he was still angry. That left only one option: he had to show Tasuki his true face. "They will not kill Miaka. I mean... No, I'm sure of it. The other girl will not let it happen."

Holy shit... Tasuki's eyes widened in shock as he watched Chichiri remove the fox-eyed expression from his face like a mask worn at festival time. Underneath lay the same pale features, except where he'd previously had two eyes, he now had one: a deep, rich mahogany that stole Tasuki's breath. Chichiri's other eye was closed under a crisscross of scar tissue that ran across the bridge of his nose and forehead and down to his left cheek. There was more to this man than Tasuki had even imagined.

"I apologize for upsetting you," Chichiri said, dropping back into his familiar silly tone. His brows furrowed at Tasuki's increasingly uncomfortable stare. "But I had to make sure you understand that I'm absolutely serious, no da." He could feel his face flush under Tasuki's leer and he smoothed the mask back over his features. Tasuki wasn't angry anymore, that was certain.

A breath caught in his throat for a second before being exhaled in a shuddering sigh as Tasuki tried to regain his composure. "Yeah..." A scalding blush crept across his face. Turning his gaze out over the moonlight-dappled gardens, he tried to slow the beating of his heart in his ears. "Serious, gotcha."

Chichiri cleared his throat and continued. "We need to get close to the part of the palace that houses the dungeons, no da. If we can do that without being seen, I can impersonate Nakago and get Miaka out of there, na no da."

"Wait. What?" Tasuki whipped his gaze back to Chichiri. "Yah want us t' sneak in? No fuckin' way." They had already fled before the enemy once and he wanted no part of this skulking business. Real fighters didn't run away nor did they back down, even in the face of overwhelming odds. "If we come in swingin' with a straight-up attack, they'll never expect it an' we'll 'ave th' element o' surprise."

"There's no way we'll survive a full-on assault, no da. We'd be dead within minutes and Miaka, Tamahome, and the scroll would be lost as well, na no da." Chichiri crossed his arms and leaned back against the tree's trunk with a sigh. Tasuki was determined to fight him about everything: firstly whether or not he could come with them and now the best way to rescue Miaka. He couldn't quite tell if Tasuki was overeager about this mission, utterly reckless, or maybe suicidal. None of those possibilities made Chichiri particularly comfortable, but the thought of Tasuki rushing to his death with a smile on his lips bothered him to a degree he hadn't expected.

"Well, we sure as shit can't sit 'ere an' wait. Miaka needs us. Dead er not, it's better 'an doin' nothin'."

"Making sure we come out of this alive is not nothing, no da."

"Hidin' in th' fuckin' bushes an' creepin' around ain't my idea of a fair fight. We should get down there an' start bustin' some fuckin' heads."

"Have you forgotten about the barrier Nakago placed on our powers, no da? Even if we managed to free her, and get Tamahome, and find the scroll, how are we going to leave here, no da? Without our powers, I can't break the seal, na no da." Irritation settled between Chichiri's brows. It had been many years since he'd lost his temper or let his control of a situation slip to such a degree. Now, this brash teenager, through sheer obstinacy, had managed to incite both in one day. Yet, he had no idea why it angered him so much. Chichiri shook his head. They didn't have time for this battle of wills; the longer they argued about tactics, the greater the chance that some harm would befall Miaka or The Universe of the Four Gods. Whether Tasuki liked it or not, he decided, he was going to put his plan into motion.

Glancing down through the branches, Chichiri took stock of their current situation. No patrols had passed nearby in some time, leaving the area around their tree unguarded. Gauging the height of the drop, he swung his legs over the side of the limb. He shot Tasuki a look over his shoulder. "Now is the time to move, no da. Join me if you wish, but I'm going to get Miaka, na no da." Quietly Chichiri pushed off and landed without a sound in the grass below.

Dammit, Tasuki thought to himself. But I can't just let 'im go alone... With a growl, he too dropped from the tree, his jade necklaces clacking together with the force of his landing. He fixed Chichiri with an annoyed look. "Fine, fine. Yah win. We'll do it yer way, at least fer now."

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

Chichiri crept up to the edge of the brick veranda, eyes darting right and left as he peered down the corridor. Torches burned along the building's length, the orangey light unsettling as it flickered off the blue-lacquered columns and walls. Above, the moon hung like an unblinking eye as it slowly sank toward the palace roofs. Nothing stirred around them, not even a breeze. No one, he thought, cautiously rising to climb over the stone balustrade. Dropping down into a crouch next to one of the large columns, he did his best to stay out of the direct glow of the torch. He heard the whisper of fabric and the soft click of boot heels next to him and knew Tasuki had vaulted the railing as well.

As far as he could determine, they were on the eastern side of the imperial complex not far from the shrine to Seiryuu he'd nearly destroyed during his last trip to Kutou. Still, Chichiri had no idea where the dungeons would be. The palace in Eiyou had a detention area, but it was small, only a few cells. Given the size of the Kutou army and how bold their assaults on the border villages had become in the last few years, their prison had to be massive, perhaps encompassing an entire building by itself. It was obvious their search would be time-consuming and labor-intensive if they had to search every structure. This would be a lot faster and safer if I assumed Nakago's image, but Tasuki is not going to stay put while I search, no da. He hazarded a glance at Tasuki, just a hand's breadth away over his left shoulder. Perhaps he had a solution...

"I'm gonna take a look down th' corridor," Tasuki whispered. Rising to a half-crouch, he started off down the veranda. He moved quickly, trying to stay low and keep to the shadows. Fuck, I hate all this sneakin', he thought to himself. But, he had told the monk he'd cooperate with his plan, so he had to abide by that promise. Coming to the corner of the building, he leaned around it just enough to see another torchlit corridor stretch out before him. The veranda ran off into the distance until it intersected a perpendicular, but just as empty, portico. Where th' fuck is everybody? he thought. How could the palace be so empty when the grounds had been crawling with soldiers looking for them just a short time before? An' if everybody's gone, why th' fuck am I still crouched down like this? He stood up and shook his head, hair falling into his eyes as he contemplated their next move. Apparently, something had drawn all the servants and the entire garrison away. It smelled so much like a trap, but it could also be an opportunity. If they didn't have to keep to the bushes and side corridors to avoid confrontation, which slowed them down immensely, they might be able to rescue Miaka, find Tamahome, and get that scroll before the Seiryuu knew they were gone. I've gotta tell Chichiri...

Tasuki turned back and his stomach leapt into his throat. Down the veranda he saw Chichiri gagged and bound to one of the columns. The monk squirmed under the tight hemp bonds, his brows drawn together in silent terror. Tasuki sprinted back down the tiled walkway, his coat rippling behind him. Each strike of his boot heels heightened his panic. What happened? How did he get tied up? Had they been discovered? Was he hurt? What do they do now? Questions swirled like a tornado in his mind. Suddenly, from behind another pillar stepped the familiar, loathsome shape of Nakago and Tasuki skidded to a stop mere steps from him. His heart pounded hard against his ribs. "You! Yah sonova bitch! Whad'd yah do to 'im?!" he demanded. Dropping into a fighting stance, he narrowed his eyes to slits. "If yah've hurt 'im, I swear I'll kill yah with my bare hands!"

"You're in no position to make threats, Tasuki," Nakago said with a smirk. The orangey torchlight picked out his talon-like shoulder guard in a sickly luster. He turned his piercing blue gaze to Chichiri. "You and your friend here will not elude me again."

"Damn you!" A growl rose from his throat as Tasuki sprang at the warlord, fist streaking past Nakago's head with a flutter of his blond mane. The punch missed by only a hair's breadth. Chichiri... He had to protect the monk, even if it meant his own life. Tasuki jabbed at Nakago's jaw, missing again as the taller man deftly stepped aside. "Stand still, yah bastard!" Tasuki growled, dropping to a crouch then leaping up like a coiled spring. Fist at the fore, he stretched out in a vicious uppercut that just barely missed connecting with Nakago's chin. Spinning on his heel, Tasuki swiped a long leg at Nakago's skull only for the man to duck seconds before impact. Hit after hit whizzed by its intended target. Tasuki snarled in frustration. He wound up to deliver a devastating right hook when his whole body froze. An unseen force held him fast, constricting around his body like a great invisible snake.

Nakago raised his right hand, a faint blue glow emanating from his palm. "I suggest you give up now. You can't win. Have you forgotten about the barrier I placed on your powers?"

Tasuki sputtered as Nakago shoved him into the column where Chichiri stood bound. How could he have been so naïve as to think that no one had still been looking for them? Stupid, stupid, stupid. How could he have let this happen? How could he have let Chichiri get captured, and by the worst possible person? He flinched as Nakago drew the coarse rope tight around his chest and legs. Maybe, he thought, his presence on this journey had doomed it to this failure. If he hadn't been so insistent, so determined to go... Pain blossomed in Tasuki's mouth as Nakago gagged him. His body sagged against the rope as the paralyzing spell that held him disappeared. Soft locks of scarlet veiled his stricken gaze as he traced the pattern of bricks in the veranda floor. What th' fuck 'm I gonna do now?

"Now, stay put and I'll be back soon with Miaka, no da."

Huh? Tasuki raised his head, brow furrowing. "No da?" Only one person says that, an' 'e's right 'ere... Craning his neck, he saw that Chichiri stood tied as he was to the column. Yet, the monk wasn't fighting his bonds like he had been. He just stood there, motionless, like a statue. Wait a minute, how come 'e's not fightin' t' get free anymore? "Fhifhiwi? Ya ofay?" he asked, words distorted and muffled behind the gag. Chichiri didn't respond. His face was impassive, gaze focused out into the moonlit gardens. "Fhifhiwi?" What was wrong with him? Tasuki's eyes widened as his head whipped back to the blond man looking him over and he knew. The words from his conversation with Chichiri the previous night flooded back into his mind: "It's not too much trouble for me to assume the shape of someone I know or have seen before, no da. I can conjure pretty convincing illusions that most people can't distinguish from the real thing, na no da." "Noh faiwr! Noh faiwr! Dahn iht, Fhifhiwi!" The bandit threw himself against the rope holding him, yelling into his gag with little of the coherence he'd hoped for. Dammit, dammit, dammit! How th' fuck did I fall fer that?! he thought, angry that Chichiri had tricked him, but more hurt the monk hadn't trusted him.

I'm sorry, Tasuki, I really am, but I couldn't risk us getting caught or you getting injured, no da, Chichiri thought to himself as he watched him struggle with all his strength. The hemp ropes creaked ominously but held firm. He turned from Tasuki and walked away down the corridor, each step punctuated by the redhead's muffled cries. Chichiri's borrowed blue eyes closed briefly with regret as he rounded the corner of the building and was gone.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

The ring of boot heels against brick-tiled floor reverberated through the oddly empty palace as Chichiri stalked through its halls in the guise of Nakago. Torches dotted the verandas he walked, their light periodically breaking the long stretches of duskiness. The moon sat nestled on the back of an ornately carved dragon running up the slope of a building's roof to his left like a rider straddling a wild steed. Time seemed to be moving at an accelerated pace since he, Miaka, and Tasuki had arrived in Kutou to find Tamahome and The Universe of the Four Gods, but the great silver eye had barely moved in its descent.

Tasuki... He felt guilty for having deceived him, but if Tasuki had known that it was really him instead of Nakago, he would never have gotten away with the ruse. Tasuki's fighting skill had kept him on his toes and more than once he'd come close to being struck. He'd finally employed his paralysis spell when it was obvious he was no match for Tasuki's preternatural speed and agility. And he knew he would fight: for in the short time he'd known him, Tasuki had proven he wasn't the type to hesitate or to quail in the face of danger. Still, something about his words nagged at the back of Chichiri's mind: "If yah've hurt 'im, I swear I'll kill yah with my bare hands!"

Chichiri could understand that sentiment from Tasuki if it had been Miaka who'd been captured by Nakago since he'd seen him put himself between her and the general once already. It made no sense for Tasuki to feel that way about him. They'd known each other for little more than twenty-four hours. Tasuki's decidedly negative reaction to his plan the previous evening also seemed a bit excessive. He might not be a trained fighter, but Chichiri thought he could definitely take care of himself and Miaka well enough. Why would Tasuki be so anxious about his safety? Still, no matter how sincere Tasuki's desire to protect Miaka was, Chichiri couldn't let their mission here fail completely. Suzaku's summoning was far too important and the consequences of failure far too dire.

Kutou was preparing a full-scale invasion of Kounan, that much was clear. The country had been secretly amassing troops at the border of the empire, a direct violation of the peace treaty that was supposed to be in place. Chichiri had seen the burned-out villages and destroyed cropland himself in his journeys and, as Hotohori, he'd read reports of skirmishes and been briefed by terrified provincial governors. It was only a matter of time before the emperor of Kutou broke the treaty completely and sent his forces over the border en masse. If that happened, nowhere in Kounan would be free of fighting and the casualties, military and civilian, would be staggering. That thought alone steeled his resolve. He had to find Miaka, Tamahome, and the scroll and make it back to Eiyou as soon as possible.

Rounding the corner of a building, he entered an interior hallway of pale blue walls and heavy navy-colored wooden doors illuminated by lanterns instead of torches. Chichiri saw three soldiers at the end of the hall before him roughly escorting a young girl in a brown jacket and skirt. A small white cat with brown patches on its head and tail wove protectively around her feet. Miaka, he thought. His eyes narrowed as he walked toward them, watching how they grabbed her arm and pushed her forward even after she stumbled. "What are you doing there?" Though he'd meant only to feign Nakago's haughty, scornful tone, a lot of the anger in those words was his own.

Miaka gasped, brown eyes wide with terror at Nakago's approach. She took a small step back as the guards holding her let go and came to attention.

"Do you really need all these men to attend to one young girl?" he asked, looking down at Miaka. "While my preference would be to simply kill you right here, you are the Priestess of Suzaku." The corners of his lips curled in a predatory smile. The lanterns threw orange highlights into his blond hair. "A public execution will be much more useful to us."

He grabbed her wrist and pressed down on the back of her head with one vambrace-clad arm. "Aaaaah! Let go of me!" Miaka struggled hard against his overpowering force. She winced when her arm bumped her hip as he pushed her down.

"You may all return to your positions. I will take her to her chamber." The soldiers bowed low and scurried off to attend to their duties. Letting up his grip on her head, he pulled her along the corridor toward where he had left Tasuki. He tried hard not to be too rough with her, but didn't want to be too lenient either.

"Let go of me!" she cried, jerking her caught wrist this way and that. "I said let me go and I mean it!" Miaka threw her weight backward in what he imagined was an attempt to either knock him over or wrench herself free. She stumbled as he yanked her forward again. "I have to go back to see Tamahome! I have to talk to him again!"

"Go back?" he repeated, taken aback by her statement. "You still think he'll be waiting under the tree like he said he would?" Their mission was coming very close to complete failure: Miaka had been taken prisoner, he and Tasuki had been pursued by Kutou soldiers, and no one knew where Tamahome was. Yet, she still clung to the notion that if she just stayed under the tree, everything would work out? In a way, he sort of envied that kind of tenacity and faith, and it reminded him very much of Tasuki. In some ways, they are very similar, no da... "If you don't behave, there's no telling what will become of your companions, as well as yourself. Look there."

As they turned down the column-lined portico, Nakago pointed toward the bound forms of Tasuki and Chichiri, each squirming against the ropes that held them. Miaka gasped. "Chichiri! Tasuki!" she breathed, abandoning her attempts to break free, and instead rushed toward her warriors.

"Hold it." Nakago stopped her short with a jerk of his arm.

Miaka turned back to the tall general, her eyes wide. Mouth opening and closing in mute terror, she cowered as he raised his hand. His palm glowed with a menacing blue light. As his hand descended slowly toward her, she squeezed her eyes shut.

"Just kidding."

A gentle hand landed in her auburn hair. "Huh?" Opening her eyes, she looked at Nakago's kind smile with suspicion. "What, 'just kidding?'" Scrambling back a few feet, she pointed at him, her expression a jumble of fear, disbelief, and shock. "Stay away! What's going on here?!"

With a great puff of ivory smoke, the Nakago in front of her changed back into Chichiri, face graced with the same smile. "It's me, no da!" The fake Chichiri disappeared in another puff of smoke.

Tasuki glared at Chichiri as the monk walked to him and reached behind his head to untie the gag. The heady mix of sunshine, fresh air, and travel that was Chichiri enveloped Tasuki's senses and his outrage was temporarily forgotten. His eyes fluttered closed for a mere moment at the feeling of Chichiri's fingers in the hair at the nape of his neck. The man was close enough that he could hear his quiet breath in his ears and feel it fan hot against his face. Holy fuckin' Suzaku, this ain't fair, Tasuki thought. He took in an uneven breath at the brush of Chichiri's long blue bangs against his cheek and the closeness of his body. The blood singing in his veins and the heart pounding in his chest nearly overcame his anger, but not quite. "Chichiri, how dare yah just leave me 'ere tied up t' a pole!" he growled once his mouth was uncovered. He grimaced, his fangs visible, as he tried desperately to conceal just how aroused Chichiri's proximity made him.

Chichiri plucked the knots holding Tasuki bound apart with deft fingers. As the rope fell to the brick, he glanced back up and held Tasuki's glare without hesitation. "Well, you needed to believe it to pull the whole thing off, no da," he said with an impish grin. Turning his attention back to Miaka, Chichiri chanted a few words and resumed the shape of Nakago. "I look like him, don't I, Miak–" The girl backed away again, this time falling unceremoniously on her ass. Tama-neko jumped into her lap and licked her face as she sat, unresponsive. Maybe too much, no da. I dazed her.

Again returning to his own form, Chichiri crouched down next to Miaka. She held the cat to her chest as she regained a little of the color in her face. Tasuki joined them, taking up a spot just to Chichiri's left. "Don't scare me like that!" Miaka scolded. "I really thought it was him, and he can be risky business!"

"Yeah, sorry about that, no da," Chichiri said, his smile a mixture of amusement and regret. "But that disguise did help me walk into the palace without any trouble, no da." The whole mission thus far had been one terrible turn of events after another. Despite the brave face she put on, Chichiri knew Miaka was near her breaking point. If he could do just a little something to lighten her load or take her mind off it for awhile, he would. With a laugh, he turned into Nakago again and leaned down towards her with a deeply serious look in his eyes. "Can you forgive me, na no da?"

"Don't do that! You're scary!"

Tasuki rolled his eyes and smacked Chichiri on the shoulder. "Quit clownin' around, would'ja?" Chichiri finally returned to his own form, still chuckling to himself. Glancing down, Tasuki noticed a darkened wet area on the arm of Miaka's brown uniform jacket. "'Ey, what happened t' yer arm?" Curious, he touched it. Fresh blood came off on his fingers. An agonized yelp tore itself from Miaka's throat and she covered the injury with her good hand. He recoiled in stupefaction, staring at the slowly coagulating crimson on his fingertips. "Whad'd they do? Break yer fuckin' arm? It's been hurt real bad!"

"Miaka! Who did this to you?!" Chichiri demanded.

"N-nobody," she stuttered, a flimsy smile coming to her lips. "I just fell when I was escaping from the dungeon." She giggled weakly. "Anyway, we have to find Tamahome."

Chichiri and Tasuki exchanged a long look over Miaka's head. Tasuki nodded. Placing a gentle hand on Miaka's shoulder, Chichiri rose to his feet. "We should go back at once and have Mitsukake heal you, no da. But I'll go look for Tamahome, na no da." Once more donning the mantle of Nakago, he stalked off into the palace, indigo cape fluttering about his legs.

"Chichiri'll find Tamahome. In that disguise, 'e can go anywhere," Tasuki said, watching the older man walk away until he was out of sight. Be careful, Chichiri. "I'd go with 'im, but you need help." His brows furrowed at the extent of the bloodstain on the jacket. "We hafta stop this bleedin', an' anyway, Nakago's spell's wiped me out." He rummaged through his coat pockets in search of something to bandage her arm with. If he'd just held on to the handkerchief he'd wrapped that cha shao bao in... Aha! There it is! he thought as she pulled a delicate pale yellow handkerchief from her skirt pocket and held it up to him. Taking it, he helped her to her feet, then tied it firmly around her upper arm to stabilize the injury. "Okay, this should do it fer a little while at least."

Miaka stared down at a little piece of paper in her hand, lips setting in a firm and determined line. Suddenly, she pointed off into the moonlit gardens. "Ahh!" she cried. "Nakago's doing a strip-tease for the troops!"

"Eh?" Peering in the direction Miaka pointed, Tasuki tried to figure out what she was talking about. If the Seiryuu general really was entertaining his troops that way, it would be quite a spectacle. The Kutou army definitely had some strange ideas about morale. Of course, if the Nakago in question was really Chichiri in disguise, that would definitely be worth it, he thought. But no matter how hard he looked, he couldn't see anything in the half-darkness. He stumbled as she shoved him into the pillar, the grassy scent of hemp filling the air as she tightened the rope around him. "What're yah doin'?!" He squirmed and fought against his bonds, watching as Miaka managed to tie a decent knot with one hand. "Why tie me up now?!" This predicament was getting tiresome. "If I said I liked it, I was just jokin'!"

She gave him a brief glance over her shoulder as she ran off down the empty portico. "Sorry, Tasuki," she called.

"Miaaakaaaa!"

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

Miaka's hiding something, no da, Chichiri thought as he walked through the deserted palace corridors. She didn't hurt herself like that, no da. It's obvious someone did it to her, intentionally, na no daThere was no way a girl of Miaka's stature could possibly crush her arm by falling down. Too much force was required for it to happen by accident, much less cause that much trauma. But who could have done it? He was certain that Miaka's friend wouldn't harm her; there was a bond between them that he could feel from the first moment she'd appeared during the fight in the shrine of Seiryuu. So, who then? Nakago? If that girl was indeed the Priestess of Seiryuu, would her seishi defy her wishes like that? I've got a bad feeling about this, no da. The amount of blood on the arm of her jacket was excessive, and that was only what he could see on the outside. It was likely that even more blood had soaked into the arm of her blouse inside the jacket sleeve. Her injuries might be even more severe than he first thought. Maybe I should go back, no da... Turning the corner of an ornately adorned building, he entered another interior hallway.

"G-general?"

At the sound, Chichiri looked up and the pit of his stomach fell out. Before him, in the center of the corridor, stood Nakago addressing two of his soldiers as the blonde girl in the brown uniform looked on. He skidded to a stop, borrowed eyes wide with horror. The soldiers gaped openly at him. Oh no. Chichiri's heart beat loudly in his chest, his body momentarily paralyzed by fear. The real Kutou general slowly turned around. Nakago's eyes were wide and his expression was one of genuine surprise. We are in big trouble, no da. "Uh, sorry, can't stick around, no da!" Spinning on his heel, he sprinted back the way he'd come. He had to get back to Tasuki and Miaka before they too were found.

"Patrol! After that fake general!"

The rhythmic pounding of his boot heels against brick echoed around him, mixing with the ragged inhalation and exhalation of his breath. Blond hair streamed out behind him as he ran and his cape pulled at the cowl around his neck as it rippled in the wind. Nakago's appearance was slowing him down and even now he could hear the clanking of armor from somewhere close behind him. Chanting a few hasty words, Chichiri shifted back to his own form without missing a stride. The ring of hard-soled boots disappeared, replaced by the soft whisper of cloth, and he relaxed just a little. Maybe he could bypass the soldiers if they couldn't hear his approach. Reaching out a hand, he used one of the large blue pillars lining the balustrade as leverage to round a corner onto another veranda without slowing down. The palace was a true labyrinth. Corridors intersected and diverged at all angles while only the more widely used hallways were fully illuminated by torchlight. If he hadn't spent so much time walking the halls as Nakago, he would have been lost completely by now. Somewhere ahead of him, he could faintly hear Tasuki's voice.

"Get me outta here!"

Turning another corner, Chichiri saw Tasuki standing where he had left him. "Tasuki!" he yelled as he sped down the veranda, lungs burning. "Our cover's blown, no da! We've got to get out of here, no da!" Chichiri's bangs bobbed as he came to a stop in front of Tasuki. Tama-neko sat next to the column looking up at him. Miaka was nowhere in sight. "Now, where's Miaka, no da?" he asked, glancing over his shoulder toward the palace proper.

"She's th' one who tied me up like this!"

What? Turning his gaze back to Tasuki, he finally noticed the hemp rope once again wrapped tightly around him. "Miaka did this?" He fumbled for the knot. His exhausted fingers were not nearly as adept as before. "And you just let her, or what?"

Tasuki gave him a dirty look. "I've said it a million times: I hate girls, they're cheaters, an' they don't play fair."

Chichiri sighed loudly. "Dummy, she outsmarted you, no da." He pulled the last bit of rope through the knot and began pulling it loose as fast as he could.

Embarrassment colored Tasuki's face a bright red. Yah've got no idea... "Shuddup!" Stepping out of the heap of rope, he massaged his elbows to get the blood flowing back into his extremities. "She headed in th' direction o' that tree. We gotta go find 'er right away! She's alone out there."

Taking one more look at the palace behind him, Chichiri started to climb over the balustrade they'd originally entered by. Tama-neko jumped up on the railing as well, using it as a springboard to Chichiri's shoulder, and wiggled into the soft folds of his kesa. "We should cut across the gardens, no da. It will be much faster this way, na no da." He didn't wait for Tasuki's reply before he jumped down into the moonlit bushes and started running again.

Tasuki growled in annoyance and vaulted the railing in one fluid motion. He landed in the grass just beyond the weigela hedge at the foundation of the portico. We sneak in here, now yah wanna run straight inta th' fight? Ahead of him, Chichiri kept to the ground, running under the tree cover. Dappled silver filtering through the canopy illuminated his lithe form in fits and starts as he raced through alternating patches of light and shadow. A smitten grin spread across his lips as he watched Chichiri get further away. Yer full o' surprises, ain'tcha? Pushing off from a crouch, Tasuki sprinted after him.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

They arrived in time to see Miaka, eyes red-rimmed and cheeks tear-streaked, standing under the ancient oak. Small pieces of paper fluttered at her feet in the slight breeze that had kicked up. Before her stood a black-clad Tamahome, a set of wicked-looking nunchaku at his waist. "He's gone!" she wailed. Her knees looked on the verge of buckling from the uncontrollable sobs wracking her body.

Calmly, almost as if he wasn't moving by his own accord, Tamahome pulled the weapon from his sash, raising it above his head as if to strike. "Time to die." At his word's, Miaka's eyes rolled back in her head and she fainted.

Chichiri veered to circle the scene from the right and yelled back over his shoulder. "Tasuki!"

"On it!" Tasuki leapt over the ring of hydrangeas into the clearing, body stretching out to scoop Miaka into his arms just before she hit the ground. A stinging pain bloomed in his head as he leapt again, this time away from Tamahome. Landing on his knees several paces past the tree's trunk, he grunted as something warm slid down the side of his face.

"Tasuki, are you alright, no da?" Chichiri ran over, dropping to his knees in the soft grass next to him. His fingers went reflexively to the gash at Tasuki's temple. Blood coated his fingertips as he gingerly touched the wound.

Tasuki inhaled sharply through clenched teeth. "Don't worry 'bout me, what about Miaka?" he said, focusing on the girl's pallid face. Drop after drop of dark crimson splattered on his sky blue lapel.

Removing his hand, Chichiri too looked down at Miaka laying still in Tasuki's arms. "Miaka, please say something to us, no da." Her chest rose and fell with each breath, but she didn't respond.

"She's unconscious. Well, I'm not surprised. She was hurt real bad." Tasuki's face twisted into a snarl, his voice a deadly rumble. This guy ain't gonna fuckin' get away with this.

Tamahome smirked at them from across the clearing. The tails of his cobalt headband waved in the breeze. "The Suzaku Warriors," he spat. "You saved me the trouble of looking for you." He took up a fighting stance, nunchaku held taut in front of him. "Now I'll destroy you once and for all!"

"Tamahome!" Chichiri shouted, brows furrowed. "Hey, what happened to you, no da?" How could he attack his allies?

"You broke Miaka's arm, didn't you?" Tasuki lifted Miaka into Chichiri's arms and threw a sidelong glance over his shoulder at their supposed comrade. "Didn't you, Tamahome?!" he growled. His shoulders shuddered with barely controlled fury. Pushing himself to his feet, he turned to face Tamahome fully. His eyes narrowed to slits. "You did this t' her!"

"Tasuki! Settle down, no da!" This situation was spiraling out of control. There was some other force at work here than just Nakago. There had to be; there was no other explanation. And if Chichiri couldn't figure out what was happening, Tamahome and Tasuki might kill each other.

Tasuki ignored Chichiri and continued, taking deliberate, menacing steps toward Tamahome. "Not only 'er arm, you shattered 'er feelings! How could you?!" Clenching his hands into fists, his knuckles turned white under the pressure. "After she looked forward so much t' seeing yah again, you went an' tore all 'er hope an' joy apart! There's no fuckin' excuse fer that!" Dropping into a fighting posture, he met Tamahome's challenge. "I'll never forgive you!"

"So, you won't forgive me, huh?" Tamahome sneered. "What are you going to do?"

"Tear you t' fuckin' pieces!"

The two warriors began to slowly circle each other, guards up, probing for any weakness in the other's defenses. Tasuki is seriously going to kill him, no da, Chichiri thought as he watched them square off. "Tasuki! Don't do it! Tamahome's a Suzaku Warrior too, no da! He's one of us, na no da!" Why was Tamahome attacking them? They were supposed to be allies, part of the god of the south's chosen. Try as he might, he couldn't feel any specific force controlling Tamahome's actions, only a pervasive malevolent energy.

"Yeah right! After what 'e did?! No fuckin' way! One o' us would never do that t' her!" Win er lose, I'm takin' him on.

With a roar, Tasuki launched himself at Tamahome, pulling back and delivering a powerful right as he flew at him, only to have it deflected by a forearm. Tasuki followed the movement, spinning to the left as Tamahome countered with his nunchaku, swinging one bronze-capped wooden handle at Tasuki's face. It slid harmlessly past as Tasuki dodged back, his jade necklaces jangling.

Using Tamahome's forward movement against him, Tasuki kicked, his boot heel barely missing Tamahome's cheek. Tamahome continued forward under Tasuki's outstretched leg. Seeing his chance, Tasuki brought his heel down with devastating force. At the last second, Tamahome threw himself backward and away, his thin ponytail fluttering. Tasuki dropped low, bringing his leg around in a swift arc at the off-balance Tamahome's ankles, hoping to knock him to the ground. Tamahome jumped to avoid it with a smirk.

Enraged, Tasuki sprang upwards, fist rocketing at Tamahome's face. He growled with fury as Tamahome dodged to the right with almost unearthly speed. Tasuki's body followed after his fist, leaving an opening for the other seishi. "Huh?" he breathed, eyes wide as he realized his mistake. "Uhhh!"

Tamahome kicked straight at Tasuki's chest, connecting with such intensity that Tasuki flew backward into the tree, barely missing Chichiri and Miaka. The tree's trunk shuddered with a deep and resounding crack. Flecks of blood spurted from his lips as the air was knocked from him, a sickening wet snapping sound coming from inside his chest. Splintered gray bark tore from the tree as he slid to the ground. His breath came in agonizing, shallow gasps. He couldn't tell how many, but at least one rib had been cracked with that hit.

Tasuki... Chichiri gazed in rapt horror at the stream of blood trickling from the corner of Tasuki's mouth. It slid down his chin to land on the intricate embossing of the gold belt slung across his shoulder.

"That fuckin' does it. How dare you?!" Pushing himself up the tree trunk to standing, Tasuki spit a mouthful of coppery-tasting blood to the ground and wiped his lips with the back of his coat sleeve. It left a dark, scarlet smear across his jaw. He had to keep going, no matter the cost. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chichiri, still cradling Miaka. The monk's mask did nothing to hide the look of fear and concern on his face. Keep 'er safe, Tasuki thought. I won't let anythin' happen t' either o' yah. A wry smile broke out across his features, blood again dribbling from his lips.

"Yah sure like wavin' those fuckin' toys around, don'tcha?" He reached over his shoulder and grasped the handle of the tessen. The cool iron felt comfortable in his hand. "If we're gonna fight with toys, then I'll use this!" Bringing it around in a vicious arc, he was surprised as he felt the celestial brand on his arm flare to life, divine energy flowing through him into the weapon. "Rekka-shin-en!" he roared, a searing spiral of flame gushing forth like an inferno. Tamahome quickly dodged away, but the arm of his coat singed with the blistering heat. Pressing the advantage, Tasuki charged at him, pushing the ribs of the fan together for use as a makeshift dagger. "Now, yer mine!" Tasuki slashed savagely at Tamahome, forcing him back with the sheer ferocity of his assault. Tamahome ducked and dodged as fast as he could, the tessen's sharp edges slicing shallow cuts on his cheeks and forehead. Not quite ducking one of Tasuki's strikes in time, his headband was cut through.

Chichiri gasped as the cobalt fabric fluttered to the ground. The ogre symbol isn't appearing like it always does when he's in battle, no da. "Tasuki, stop fighting, no da!" he yelled as the two fighters continued to exchange blows, iron ringing as it connected with wood. "That might be Tamahome, but it isn't Tamahome, no da!" He was certain now that someone had done something to manipulate their ally into fighting them. He still didn't know how they did it, or what they did, but it obviously wasn't a willing act. Tama-neko jumped down from Chichiri's shoulder, landing on Miaka's chest and licking her pale cheek.

Managing to regain the momentum of the battle, Tamahome went on the offensive, using his nunchaku as a bludgeon in one hand and trading punches with the other. Tasuki growled as he dodged back and forth. His cracked ribs were slowing his movements as pain began seizing up some of his muscles. "I...don't know what...yer...talkin' 'bout!" he shot back at Chichiri between blows. "Uhhhh!" He miscalculated the distance between himself and Tamahome and a fist slammed into his jaw, another spurt of blood flying from his lips. "Stop distractin' me!"

Sensing a weakness, Tamahome sprang at him and jammed his knee into Tasuki's diaphragm and ribs. Air blasted out of Tasuki's lungs as he fell to the ground with a heavy thud, an anguished groan wrenching from his throat. Tamahome pulled back and swung the nunchaku, its wooden handle streaking toward Tasuki's head.

Opening out the tessen once more, the bronze-clad butt of the weapon bounced off the iron fan, giving Tasuki a chance. He took the fan's handle in both hands. "Rekka-shin-en!" Another gout of flame burst from the tessen at near point-blank range. Tamahome leapt backwards, barely missing death in a blazing holocaust.

Chichiri looked down as Miaka began to stir. Her eyelids fluttered before slowly opening, the brilliance of Tasuki's fire bathing them in a ruddy glow. Even from this distance, the heat was sulfurous and scorching. As Tamahome landed several paces from the now-upright Tasuki, ready to begin the battle anew, Miaka fought her way to sitting against the weight of the cat on her chest. Tears rolled down her face. "No more! Tasuki! Oh please, stop!" She struggled against Chichiri's hold. "Please don't kill Tamahome!" Letting out a muffled groan, she went limp.

"Miaka!" Chichiri cried and tightened his grip. He managed to stop her from collapsing to the ground. In front of him Tasuki stood frozen, mouth agape.

"If Tamahome dies," she whispered, "if he dies, I don't know what I'll do." Her tears began to fall faster. Some soaked into the soft linen of Chichiri's sleeve. Her shoulders started to tremble. "I can't let it happen. No, don't do it!" She crumbled into a sobbing heap in Chichiri's arms.

With a smirk, Tamahome rushed at the distracted redhead, roaring with contempt as he sprang into the air for another damning kick to his chest. "Uh?" Tasuki whirled toward his attacker, throwing up his arms to guard just as the strike landed. He slid backward from the impact, falling to his knee with a grunt.

"Pay attention."

I hafta let this fucker live? Tasuki thought to himself. Maybe this guy was their ally at one time, but he found it unbelievable that Miaka still wanted to protect him. The guy was trying to kill them. Chichiri's assertions that Tamahome wasn't acting like his usual self also confused him. There sure didn't seem to be anything wrong with his ability to fight, that was certain. But if this Tamahome was so important to Miaka, he figured he'd try to pull back a bit on his attacks. Yer a lot nicer 'an me, Miaka, that's fer sure. He growled, spitting out another mouthful of blood, and grudgingly sheathed his tessen.

Eyes narrowing, Tamahome took up a defensive stance. "Now what are you doing?"

Tasuki bored into him with his gaze as he slowly pushed himself up. "I'm not afraid t' fight one on one with my bare hands." Clenching his fists, he once again dropped into a fighting posture. "Like a man," he spat, smiling wickedly as the insult struck a chord.

Tamahome charged forward with incredible speed, nunchaku drawn back to strike. Tasuki's pain-dulled limbs reacted too slowly and Tamahome hit home. The wooden handle slammed into the side of Tasuki's head, knocking him off balance. Tasuki lurched and fell to his knees once again, great splatters of blood flying from the force. As he bellowed in agony, hot crimson flowed down the side of his face and his right eye quickly swelled shut. Tamahome spun on his heel and delivered a sharp kick to Tasuki's chin, snapping his head back and driving him to the grass with a resounding crash.

"What's the matter, flame boy?" he asked, lips twisted in a sneer. "You through fighting so soon?" He ground the heel of his boot into the back of Tasuki's head. "Why don't you use your hands 'like a man,' huh? Well, I have no reservations about using my weapon." He raised his nunchaku high into the moonlit sky and began to rain blows down on the prone bandit.

"Tasuki," Miaka breathed. Each jangle of the weapon's bronze chain drew a wet thump-crack and a tortured scream. Dark blood splattered the silvery grass. "He'll be killed." She grabbed a fistful of Chichiri's tunic, wide-eyed with terror. "Chichiri, do something! We can't let him get beaten up like that!"

Tasuki... He couldn't look away from Tasuki's blood-smeared face. A vast, shallow pool of crimson spread from under his head. It made him sick to admit that Tasuki was the only thing standing between Tamahome and the priestess. If he tried to help, whatever evil had turned their fellow warrior against them would turn its full fury on him and Miaka. It's just like that time...

The circumstances were different, but the bitter helplessness he felt was exactly the same as during the flood, when he'd watched Hikou drown. No matter how desperately he'd reached for him, he could do nothing as his friend was swept away. And he could still do nothing. "Sorry, I can't, no da. And even if I could somehow intervene at this time, it wouldn't make any difference, no da." Please Suzaku, please don't let him die. Please don't let him die.

Turning back to the brutal scene, Miaka watched Tamahome yank Tasuki up by the hair and viciously kick him in the stomach. Blood sprayed from Tasuki's mouth and he landed hard on his knees. "Tamahome!" she screamed. "What are you doing?! Please stop hurting him!" Despite her cries, Tamahome slammed his fist into Tasuki's cheek. He smirked as more blood trickled from the other side of Tasuki's mouth.

Another kick connected with his chin, followed by another into his sternum, and Tasuki fell back hard against the tree trunk. His body was bruised and a good bit of it was broken. He couldn't keep up with Tamahome's relentless assault anymore. One of those attacks had broken his left arm and possibly also his left leg. Pain clouded all his senses, making every breath ragged, every step a torment. Copper-scented blood ran down his arm inside his coat, flowing over his hand and dripping off his fingers to the ground beside him. I hafta protect 'em. Give 'em a chance t' escape at least.

Tasuki laughed, a weak sound almost like a cough. "Yer not too fuckin' bright, are yah, buddy?" He slowly pushed himself up using the tree for support, his eyes holding Tamahome's gaze in an iron grip. "Yah thought I was out..." Drawing himself up to his full height, he smirked. "Not yet. It takes a lot fuckin' more 'an that t' keep me down." Suzaku, if yer listenin', let 'em get outta here in one piece.

"Oh really? Then it's time to stop playing around."

"Chichiri!" Tasuki shouted over his shoulder. "Get Miaka outta here now! I'll buy yah as much time as I can!"

"We can't!" Miaka pleaded, still staring at the battle.

Forming a mudra with one hand, Chichiri began to chant. He had to take this chance; Miaka had to survive. The power of Suzaku began to flow through him, a bright, divine aura that expanded out around him and Miaka. Suddenly, a piercing blue light engulfed the fledgling red. Crackling energy exploded right next to them and Chichiri shielded Miaka with his body.

"It's him, no da!" He could feel a looming presence in his mind, a baleful life force he recognized right away. "He's around here some place, no da. The guy's a pain, na no da." Redirecting his focus, he chanted another spell and winked out of sight with Miaka and Tama-neko in tow. Just as they disappeared, Nakago materialized in front of Tasuki.

This guy's a helluva lot more dangerous 'an Tamahome, Tasuki thought. If I can keep 'im busy, maybe Chichiri can find a way outta here. "So, yah finally decided t' show yer fuckin' face. Well, I'm ready fer you." Gritting his teeth and grasping the iron handle of the tessen at his back, he leapt at the blond. "I've been waiting!"

Nakago turned toward him, the celestial brand emblazoned on his forehead flaring blue. Tasuki howled as a shock wave of Seiryuu's power blasted into him, slamming him back to the ground in a crumpled heap. Tasuki tried to get back up but his vision clouded over as his eyes shut of their own accord. Darkness claimed him then, and he blacked out.

Looking down on the unconscious Suzaku Warrior, Nakago's lip curled in disdain. "Moron. I turned your fire power off. He was an annoying distraction, wasn't he?"

Tamahome just smirked.

Deep in the shadowy trees just beyond the ring of hydrangeas, Chichiri cradled Miaka close to his chest, hand over her mouth. "No! Tasuki!" she cried into his palm. Tears streamed down her face.

"Just hold it in, no da," he hissed. "We can't let Tasuki's sacrifice go to waste, na no da." When they'd teleported, Chichiri had felt a definite difference in the energy of the barrier around them. Nakago wasn't the only one using magic; at least one other spell caster was helping to seal the area and his celestial powers. That meant the Seiryuu Seven were gathering, and without the priestess having to search for them. He glanced at Tasuki's prone form, brows furrowing. Don't die. Please don't die. Tama-neko jumped up into Miaka's lap and meowed at him. "You keep quiet too, no da," he whispered. Suddenly it hit him and he gasped. The cat! It's not a servant of Suzaku and it can perceive certain wavelengths that human beings can't, no da. Which might mean...

"Your name's Chichiri, right?" Nakago called into the darkness. "You might as well give up. There's no way you can break out of this barrier." He scanned the silent garden, eyes narrowed.

Let's hope this works, no da. Placing two slender fingers on Tama-neko's furry head, Chichiri closed his eyes and began to chant. Warm life energy channeled down his arm and into the cat. Gradually, the cat's form began to pulse with a dull red light, washing out its features until only a scintillating cat-shaped portal to the Kounan palace remained. Through the gateway, he could hear the muffled voices of Hotohori, Nuriko, Chiriko, and Mitsukake, but his magic wasn't strong enough for him to see them. "Your Highness, no da! I'm using the cat's form to penetrate the seal, no da. I want you to try and break the barrier from your end, na no da."

Nakago turned to look straight at them through the bushes. "There!" Raising his hand, he shot a crackling bolt of Seiryuu's energy at them. It flew through the shrubbery, setting leaves and limbs aflame.

Hugging Miaka to him and grabbing Tama-neko by the scruff of the neck, Chichiri chanted quickly, watching the ball of chi slicing through the darkness at them. Miaka screamed and hid her face in his cream-colored tunic. Scorching heat and the smell of static electricity washed over them as they teleported away just as the bush they had hidden behind exploded in a ball of fire.

The deafening shriek cut through the blackness in Tasuki's head, bringing him back to the present and the agonizing throb of bloody wounds and broken bones. Blinding red-orange light burst into his vision. Craning his neck, he saw the bushes aflame as Nakago flung blast after blast of energy into the moonlit gardens. The acrid smoke from burning vegetation hung heavy in the air. Chichiri... Miaka... Sheer force of will brought him to his feet, clotting gashes tearing open to pour crimson once again. "Stop it, yah fuckin' bully. You were...fightin' with me."

A cold bronze chain looped around his neck from behind, pulling tight with crushing force. He choked as the metal links dug into his Adam's apple. Instinctively, Tasuki tore at the garrote, white flashes of light peppering his vision as his windpipe was squeezed closed.

"Exactly," Tamahome said, constricting the nunchaku's chain even further. "And you were fighting with me, weren't you?"

Another blast destroyed the last bush Chichiri could easily teleport to and he tried to put himself between Miaka and the approaching Nakago. Behind the Seiryuu seishi, he could see Tasuki struggling to pull the chain away. Tasuki...

"Now it ends." Swirling blue light coalesced in Nakago's raised hand and he smirked.

"I...I think this might be it," Chichiri breathed. He knew it was his duty to lay down his life for the Priestess of Suzaku, but he didn't want her to die this way: trapped in a foreign land with no hope of fighting back or of escape. He should have been more vigilant, more prepared, better able to protect her. The Warriors of Seiryuu were much more powerful than he had thought possible and, in hindsight, he was spectacularly unready for the level of resistance that met them. He should have forced her to stay in Eiyou with the others and gone alone. And Tasuki... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry...

From somewhere behind them, the strains of a familiar melody played. They were quiet at first but quickly rose in tempo until the song rang throughout the garden, echoing and reechoing off the trees. Miaka gasped. "The flute... Chiriko!" Brilliant vermilion light exploded around them, growing brighter with each note.

A warm and boundless affection suffused the moonlit palace grounds, enfolding Chichiri in its embrace as the power of Suzaku flowed through him. The celestial mark on his knee flared to life with the intensity of the sun. It shone even through the deep olive of his pant leg. "Now's the time!" Suzaku's radiance lit up his face as he shattered the chain around Tasuki's neck with a flick of his wrist. Tasuki fell forward and into the god of the south's unseen arms, hovering above the ground like a leaf caught in a spider's web. Chichiri summoned Tasuki to him with another quick mudra.

Nakago snarled, throwing bolts of energy, but with another wave of Chichiri's hand, Suzaku's power enveloped them and rendered the attacks useless. Reaching out to take his battered body, Chichiri sank to his knees under Tasuki's weight as the redhead floated down into his arms and came to rest in his lap.

"Tasuki! Tasuki, say something please!" Miaka cried as fresh crimson seeped from Tasuki's still-bleeding wounds, soaking into Chichiri's tunic and sleeves.

"You did a great job, no da. It's alright now, we'll be home soon, no da." Chichiri let out an uneven sigh of relief as Tasuki groaned and opened his golden left eye just a crack to look up at him. The same look Chichiri had seen in his eyes the night before was there again, just beneath the glassy deliriousness.

A weak, lopsided smile graced Tasuki's lips and he struggled to speak. "This always...happens...when...when I get...mixed up...with girls. 'Swhy I hate 'em." With a small exhalation, he passed out again.

Miaka gasped as his eye closed. Tears ran down her face once more. "Tasuki!" Taking a handful of his ebon coat in her slender hand, she shook his arm. "Tasuki!"

"He'll be alright, no da," Chichiri assured her. "He's just unconscious, no da." He could feel the rise and fall of Tasuki's chest against him and he looked down at his bruised face with a soft smile. Thank you. Forming another mudra, Chichiri chanted the familiar incantation to send them back to Kounan.

 

 


 

 

 

Glossary of Terms for Chapter 2

 

Cha Shao Bao → Cantonese-style, barbecued-pork-filled, dim sum buns

Shakujou → a Buddhist monk's staff topped by brass rings used for walking meditation and protection

Odango → Japanese term for a bun or dumpling, it also refers to any bun-type hairstyle on women; in anime, it usually refers to the double bun style as worn by Miaka; in Chinese, the umbrella term for the bun style is "jiaoji," or "ox horns," and is a unisex style

Mudra → symbolic or ritual hand gestures used in Hinduism and Buddhism

 



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