Fushigi Yuugi -- Aienkien

BY : Llanyia
Category: +. to F > Fushigi Yuugi
Dragon prints: 1410
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.

Chichiri wrung out the corner of his tunic into the metal bowl. Soapy, reddish-pink water rippled in the bronze basin, the yellow lantern light giving it a vaguely orange color. Even after three thorough scrubbings, the blood had yet to come completely out. He stood bare-chested but for his prayer beads over the wooden table in his chambers trying to wash out his tunic after returning from the abortive trip to Kutou. Pouring more clean water over the linen from the basin's matching pitcher, he began again. He rubbed the small ball of honey locust soap over the stain and scrubbed the material together in his hands. Getting the blood out of his kesa had been easier; the navy wool hid discoloration much better than ivory linen. Glancing up, he gave it a wry look as it lay rolled in a towel on the dark wood of the table. He turned his attention back to his shirt and continued working.

Kodoku... Chichiri frowned. Mitsukake had told Chiriko, Nuriko, and him at their audience with Hotohori that Tamahome was probably under the influence of kodoku. If that was true, there was very little they could do. He'd not seen the effects of the drug firsthand, but he'd heard stories about it in his travels. Very potent and almost impossible to counteract, it allowed a skilled sorcerer to essentially remake someone's personality as they saw fit. The use of a drug like that would explain Tamahome's transformation into a warrior of Kutou, but why drug him? If the Seiryuu wanted to prevent Miaka from summoning Suzaku, killing him would have been more efficient. The only plausible reason for going to this length was that someone was trying to inflict as much pain on her as possible. For as much as her friend, Yui, purported to hate Miaka, it was unlikely that she could have thought of this. The girls were both from the other world, so there was no way either of them would know what kodoku was, much less how to use it. That left Nakago.

He'd felt Nakago's malicious spirit as he'd tried to break through the wards to escape Kutou. But why would he go to the trouble of drugging Tamahome? There was no reason for him to do it, unless he was being directed by someone with authority over him. That could only mean the emperor of Kutou or the Priestess of Seiryuu. And if the latter was the case, that would mean that the girl had become the Priestess of Seiryuu through her own free will. Chichiri sighed. This just compounds the problem, no da. Picking up the bronze pitcher by its intricately sculpted handle, he rinsed the thick pink lather from the material and his hands.

He blamed himself for their failure to retrieve Tamahome and the scroll. Miaka had insisted on going, to rectify her mistake in letting The Universe of the Four Gods fall into Kutou's hands. He could have refused and traveled there alone, but he decided to let her go and follow along as a watchful guardian. Perhaps it was the deep and abiding love she had for Tamahome that swayed him. During their conversation through the screen in his room, Chichiri could tell just how deeply they felt about each other. He being Miaka's loyal warrior and she being his priestess aside, how could he keep two people that devoted to each other apart? Now they're separated even further, no da.

He'd grossly underestimated the power of their enemies and she'd been injured in more ways than one. Miaka had tried to seem upbeat when Hotohori, Nuriko, and he had stopped by to check on her after Mitsukake had healed her arm, but it was obvious she was just putting on an act. He knew why: her heart was broken, but she didn't want to burden any of them with it. I can understand that, no da. He thought back on his own pain at losing his family, fiancée, and best friend in one night and the years of private suffering that followed. But she couldn't keep all that sadness bottled up inside herself. He knew all too well how that torment could consume someone's soul until the only thing left was a desire to die.

The plink of water droplets into the basin increased as he again wrung out the soaking tunic. The linen was still tinged pink, but the stain was only barely visible now. Once more then, no da. He reached for the honey-scented soap and resumed washing.

Tasuki... His mind turned to the reckless, courageous redhead who had saved their priestess from the enemy and a certain death. He still didn't understand quite why Tasuki had wanted so badly to join them on their ill-fated mission, but he owed him his life. If Tasuki hadn't been with them, he knew that Miaka and he would never have made it out of Kutou alive. But if I had been more prepared, this might never have happened, no da. Chichiri sighed again, brows furrowing.

He hadn't been covered with that much blood since he'd lost his eye, and this time it wasn't even his own. The extent of the hemorrhaging was staggering and it was only after Mitsukake had taken Tasuki's unconscious body from him that he realized just how close to death Tasuki had been. He had seen Chiriko staring at him in horror and, looking down, he himself paled to find his tunic red from hemline to chest and his sleeves from cuff to elbow. The shocked and slightly disturbed look Hotohori gave him and his shirt during his debriefing only made him feel guiltier about letting Tasuki take the brunt of Tamahome's and Nakago's hatred.

Wringing the garment once more, he shook it out and appraised his work in the light of the lantern above him. The stain had disappeared as well as he could make it. Though, his tunic would never be as crisply ivory-colored again. A small price to pay toward the debt I owe him, no da.

Hanging the damp shirt over a rosewood chair next to him, he used the remaining clean water and soap to wash away the bloody residue that had soaked through his clothes. A few stray droplets of water slid down his stomach to be absorbed into his waistband. Drying himself off with another of the small towels the chambermaid had left that morning, he grabbed the bronze basin and opened the heavy wooden door of his room.

Light spilled from the open doorway like a knife cutting into the darkness. The fresh, earthy scent of warm summer rain hung heavy in the air. He walked across the veranda running just outside his room to the wooden balustrade and emptied the soapy water over the side into the shrubbery below. A pleasant breeze blew in over the rainy palace gardens, bringing the sound of crickets with it. He took a moment to look out over the quiet imperial buildings and porticoes. Somewhere across the gardens, just under the soft patter of raindrops and the chirp of insects, he heard Chiriko's flute and smiled wistfully.

Turning to return to his room, Chichiri heard a set of footsteps approaching from down the brick-tiled walkway. He looked up to see Mitsukake. Tama-neko lay perched on his shoulder, head resting atop his forepaws. "Good evening, Mitsukake no da," he said as the big man walked up and into the strip of light coming from the open doorway.

"Good evening, Chichiri." Mitsukake stopped a few steps away. In his hands was the wooden box in which he carried his medicinal herbs. "How are you?"

"Fine, thank you. Just trying to wash out my clothing, no da," he replied. Gesturing to the box, he cocked his head. "I take it you've been to see Tasuki, no da?"

The tall healer smiled. "I have." Tama-neko mewed at Chichiri, slowly swishing his furry tail.

"How is he, no da?"

"He had enough energy to curse at me as I bound his wounds, so I'd say he'll be fine."

Chichiri chuckled at the thought of Tasuki putting up a fight as Mitsukake tried to attend to him. "That's good, no da. Is he well enough to have visitors, na no da?"

"I've just administered a decoction for the pain he's feeling, but I think that would be alright," Mitsukake said. The tails of his headband fluttered in the damp breeze. "Well, I should be going. Have a good night, Chichiri." Mitsukake nodded before continuing on down the veranda. Tama-neko looked back over the big man's shoulder at Chichiri as if to say good-bye before settling back down to sleep.

"You too, Mitsukake, no da." Returning to his room, Chichiri put the basin down on the table with a metallic thunk. If he's awake, I should go see him, no da, he thought. I owe him that much, no da. He slipped on the still slightly damp tunic, tying it closed and belting it at his waist. He unrolled the kesa from the towel and clasped it over his shoulder. Pulling his prayer beads and ponytail out of the collar of his shirt with a sharp clack, he strode out into the night, closing his door behind him.

- o - o - o -

Chichiri's soft shoes made little more than a whisper against the ancient brick of the veranda, empty despite the evening's early hour. Given the faint strains of flute music he still heard echoing through the palace grounds, he imagined that Chiriko was playing for Hotohori, and Nuriko wouldn't be far from the emperor's side. Miaka was most probably still asleep in her room. The peaceful atmosphere brought a heavy-hearted frown to his lips. If only it could stay this way, no da. Kutou would not ignore Kounan's incursion into their territory, and the Seiryuu would soon make their move. War seemed more and more inevitable. With Tamahome's loss, not to mention the scroll's, summoning Suzaku was out of the question.

Sighing, he put those sobering thoughts out of his mind as he stopped before the heavy wooden door to Tasuki's chamber. He knocked softly before pushing open the door and stepping inside.

"Tasuki, no da?" he murmured as his eyes fell on Tasuki's bandaged form lying amid tangled sheets and upset pillows. The blood had been washed away by someone, perhaps the royal attendants that had assisted Mitsukake, or maybe even the healer himself. Linen bandages bound Tasuki's chest, his gashed temple, and his swollen right eye. His left was closed as if in sleep, but Chichiri knew he wasn't from his shallow breathing. Splints encased his left arm and leg. A network of bandages held the wooden boards tightly in place. The pungent pine of amur cork and the light, dusty-citrus scent of frankincense in what he assumed was liniment enveloped him as Chichiri came closer to the bed. His breath caught in his throat as a languorous, golden eye met his own.

"Chiri," Tasuki drawled, a lazy smile on his lips. His entire body floated on an analgesic current; he didn't even care if Chichiri saw him in such a wretched state. He eyed Chichiri affectionately as the man sat quietly on the chair at the bedside. "Yah come t' see th' damage?"

"You've looked better, no da." Chichiri let his mask smile for him as he studied the deep maroon of dried blood beneath the layers of bandages ringing Tasuki's chest. He wasn't really prepared to see the extent of Tasuki's injuries, even though Chichiri knew how bad they were from the amount of blood that had been on his tunic. This is my fault... A furrow began to form between his brows.

"An' I've felt better, too, but this stuff Mitsukake's got me on ain't bad," Tasuki replied, satisfied with the faint chuckle he managed to get out of him. He decided Chichiri's pale features were even more attractive when he laughed, despite the mask. "But yer alright, right? No injuries?" Tasuki shifted himself closer to the edge of the mattress and toward Chichiri. The cotton sheets slid up his bare thighs as he moved.

Chichiri shook his head. "No, no. I'm fine, no da."

"That's good." Tasuki inhaled deeply and nestled farther into his pillows. He gazed at Chichiri with a mixture of tenderness and sedation. All Tasuki wanted in that moment was to curl up next to him and sleep away the drugs in his system. Nothing else mattered: not the kingdom, not Suzaku, and not even the lack of proper locks on the doors.

A heavy silence fell over the two men for a long while. The patter of rain in the courtyard outside found its way in through the openwork lattice windows along the right-hand wall of the room. The slight breeze that accompanied the sound made the lantern light flicker. Ever-shifting shadows danced about the small chamber, casting a cozy atmosphere on its quiet inhabitants.

Chichiri rested his hands on his knees, the corners of his mask's perpetual smile raising and lowering as he tried to figure out how to apologize. His mistake had jeopardized Tasuki's life. Yet, Tasuki hadn't said one word about his injuries. His only words were of concern for him. Chichiri didn't know what to think about Tasuki at this point: he'd actively sought him out just to talk to him, refused to listen to his wishes or advice, and bravely and tenaciously defended him and Miaka almost to the point of his own death. It was apparent that Tasuki wanted his friendship, but could he give him that?

He held Tasuki's glassy look for some time before looking down. He traced the wrinkled sheets falling over the edge of the bedstead with his eyes. "Tasuki–"

"Whatever yer gonna say, save it."

"But–" Chichiri tried again, only to be silenced once more.

"Don't worry 'bout it." Tasuki chuckled to himself at the dumbfounded look on Chichiri's face. He wondered what expression he'd see if he kissed him. "Yah just owe me a few... favors," Tasuki replied, giving him the best roguish grin he could manage. His hair spread around his bandaged, yet flushed, face like a halo.

"Oh really, no da?" Chichiri shot back, raising an eyebrow. What exactly did Mitsukake give him, no da?

"Yah don' think I'd let my ass get kicked fer nothin', do yah?" Tasuki stretched his uninjured arm and let it fall gently to the pillow in a curve over his head. Very little of his lithe body was covered by the sheets at this point and it only served to accentuate his seductive position.

Chichiri shook his head in incredulity and smiled, a faint blush tinting his cheeks. "Perhaps I should leave you to get some rest, no da," he said and rose to leave. He gazed down on Tasuki's supine form, brows furrowed, and sighed. The redhead sprawled over the bed, his lashes brushing the top of his cheek, almost as if he was on the very edge of slumber. "I'll be back to check on you tomorrow, Tasuki, na no da." He turned away and started for the door, only to be halted by a warm hand on his bare wrist. Chichiri turned back in surprise, looking down at the hand and then up at Tasuki.

"I wouldn't let yah die," Tasuki said quietly. The deep tenor of his voice resonated in his chest to produce a soft rumble. Fixing him with a steady, languid look, Tasuki softly stroked the inside of Chichiri's wrist just above the heel of his hand with his thumb. He could feel the tendons in Chichiri's hand tense at the touch. When he was satisfied he had heard him, Tasuki let go and watched as Chichiri left the chamber, closing the door with a soft thud.

- o - o - o -

Driving rain poured from the leaden sky, gale-force winds kicking the river up into a rushing torrent. Uprooted trees flowed down the churning waterway in between the broken wreckage of houses. Blinding bursts of lightning rent the clouds as deafening thunder shook the ground. He raised the knife, silver blade flashing in his hand, and brought it down into the other man's shoulder. Blood splattered from the wound onto his sleeve, his face twisted into a snarl of rage.

The other man cried out as dark crimson flowed down the front of his robe, his own hands clawing desperately at the weapon. "Why?!" he screamed in rage, wrestling for control of the knife with the other man. "Why did you betray me, Hikou?!" He forced Hikou back, toward the river's edge. Behind him, another building crumbled into the raging waters. "Give her back! Give her back to me!" Wrenching the blade away, he slashed at Hikou's cheek, carving a deep gash across his tanned skin.

A brilliant blast of lightning lit up the sky like the sun. Hikou staggered backward in the blinding light, bleeding and fighting for his life. Under his foot, the saturated ground gave way. "Houjun!" he cried as he fell into the seething river, dark eyes pleading in horror.

Houjun dropped the knife and grabbed onto Hikou's wrist, holding on for all he was worth. Hikou tried to bring his injured arm out of the water to grab Houjun's hand, but the rushing water was too fast. Suddenly, a shattered tree trunk borne by the raging river slammed into Houjun, gouging out his eye and loosening his grip on Hikou's wrist.

"Help me, Houjun!" Hikou screamed as the torrent pulled him away from the riverbank, crashing waves breaking over him.

"Hikou!" Covering his damaged eye with one hand, Houjun reached for Hikou but it was too late. Burning scarlet hemorrhaged from between his fingers. Hikou's broken, lifeless body floated away down the river in a crush of debris. Houjun screamed, blood flowing down the front of his robe, the pain in his head and his heart too much to bear. He struggled to his feet and stumbled toward the riverbank. "Hikou!" Stepping off the crumbling bank, he fell toward the churning, muddy waters and closed his remaining eye.

Just as he hit the water's surface, a hand grabbed hold of his wrist in a warm, vice-like grip. It pulled him up onto the riverbank and away from the edge. Houjun coughed and choked, spitting up the river water that had entered his lungs. He lay sprawled on the grass in the pouring rain, his cerulean hair stuck to the sides of his face by blood and water.

The same hand that had plucked him from the river hauled him up and into a tight embrace. Two arms held him close to a strong chest. A steady heartbeat pulsed under his ear and all around him he could smell leather. Houjun struggled to look at this person who had saved him, coming face to face with two golden eyes that gazed at him from under a curtain of fiery red hair. The man's lips curved in a smile.

"I told yah I wouldn't let yah die."

"Tasuki," he breathed.

Chichiri opened his eye with a start, heart racing and dripping with sweat. He stared up at the shadowy, coffered ceiling above his bed. He had no idea what time it was, though he figured it must be close to dawn. The room was still mostly dark: faint ambient light streamed through the openwork lattice windows above his head on the wall next to him. Rain continued to fall outside; he could hear the muffled, constant splash of raindrops on the tiled roof. Sometime during the night, the rain and wind had picked up. What was that? he thought to himself.

The dream had replayed almost nightly for six long years. He was supposed to die; that's how it was supposed to end and how it always ended. So why had he dreamt of Tasuki saving him? He pushed the tangled fabric of his kesa off his chest and sat on the edge of the modest bed. The embrace seemed so vivid, so real, and he could still smell the leather of Tasuki's coat and hear the beat of his heart. Could my conversation with him last night... No. Other conversations have found their way into my dreams over the years but never into that dream, he thought, running a hand through his damp hair. The last words Tasuki had said to him the night before came back to his mind: "I wouldn't let yah die." Gently, he ran his fingers over the spot on his wrist where Tasuki had held him, remembering his soft touch and the way he'd run his thumb over his pulse point. What does this all mean?

Chichiri sighed and rose from his bed. Perhaps this connection he felt was more significant than he'd realized. Especially if he's now turning up in my dreams, no da. Changing out of the white silk tunic and pants the chambermaids had given him to sleep in when he first moved into the guest palace, he re-dressed himself and put his mask back on. Taking up his kesa, he shook out the wrinkles and clasped it over his shoulder. Breakfast wouldn't be served for another few hours, but he knew he wouldn't be able to return to sleep. Maybe a walk would help, no da. Leaving his room, he quietly closed the door and started walking.

- o - o - o -

He wandered along quiet, empty verandas and porticoes, down deserted hallways and corridors. Dark clouds covered the sky and the rain still did not let up. It ran between the tiles on the ornate roofs to the ground like tiny waterfalls. Vast, shallow puddles rippled with raindrops between the formal planting beds of the gardens lining the veranda he walked. A clear, moist, almost cool breeze blew in across the soaked landscape. A lone sentry marked his passage with a gracious bow. Chichiri would never get used to the royal courtesy he was shown in the palace. Such hospitality and regard was something he would almost shun were he not forced to accept it as part of being a celestial warrior.

As the eldest member of the Shichiseishi, he couldn't shy away from his role as advisor and strategist. As emperor, Hotohori needed his counsel now more than ever. With Kutou beginning to actively foment war, the Seiryuu Seven gathering if not already together, and Miaka's fragile state of mind, the young monarch was faced with some very crucial decisions. Chichiri didn't know how to summon Suzaku without The Universe of the Four Gods or missing one of their number, and he was fairly certain Hotohori didn't either. Plans to return to Kutou had crossed his mind, but he didn't think that approach was wise and he knew Hotohori wouldn't have the stomach for it.

The sky had lightened just slightly to a dull and deep gray, the only sign of the first rays of the weak morning sun behind the thick curtain. He continued down the portico. He was curious but not surprised that no one appeared to be up at this early hour. With the frantic pace they'd kept since the last three Warriors of Suzaku had been found, it was only natural that everyone would be exhausted.

Two low-burning lanterns flanked the sculpted bronze-clad doors of the harem's palace ahead of him. Their light flickered in the breeze, illuminating the metal reliefs with constantly moving highlights and shadows. As he came to the palace's entrance, he stopped short as a door opened and a petite, silk-robed figure walked out.

"Oh, good morning, Chichiri," Nuriko said, nearly running into the older seishi. His amethyst braid slid off his narrow shoulder to hang down his back. He smiled brightly despite the weather. "You're up early."

"Good morning, Nuriko, no da," Chichiri replied, smiling himself at the courtier's good humor.

Closing the door behind him, Nuriko motioned for Chichiri to follow. The two men strolled down the quiet corridor toward the main palace. Both were happy for the moment of tranquility the dark, rainy morning afforded. In their own ways, neither of them had felt very easy about the events of the last few days.

"So, what brings you down to the harem's palace, hmm?" Nuriko winked conspiratorially, then clasped Chichiri on the shoulder with a giggle.

Chichiri chuckled at the joke. "I couldn't sleep," he said, "so I thought I'd take a walk, no da." Chichiri appreciated this opportunity to talk to Nuriko. He didn't see much of him around the palace except for at meals, though Nuriko did attend those with almost flawless punctuality.

"Ah, me either. All this rain is just awful." Nuriko cast a glance out into the drenched gardens. "And it sure won't do anything to cheer up Miaka. At least if it was sunny, then maybe we could go to the marketplace for a bit and try to take her mind off of Tamahome." He frowned at the thought of Miaka cooped up in her room with nothing to do but think about her love's betrayal and cry.

Frowning himself, Chichiri remembered the girl's harsh words to Hotohori the previous afternoon and the emperor's hasty retreat. It was painful to watch the people around him, his friends and comrades, replaying his old mistakes. "Do you think she'll be joining us for breakfast this morning, no da?"

"I'm not sure, but I doubt it. We should probably just let her sleep and I'll take her something to eat in her room."

"I see. That's a good idea, no da." It probably is best to let Miaka rest, no da. Perhaps a good night's sleep would help her to heal. "By the way," he asked, looking over at Nuriko, "do you know where we're eating this morning, no da?"

"I would assume Tasuki's room, since the big idiot can't walk."

Tasuki... Chichiri was relieved that his mask hid the faraway look on his face as he thought about the dream again. The look in those eyes was the same he'd seen there the night before the mission to Kutou and again just before Tasuki had passed out in his lap. That together with the tangible warmth of the embrace in his dream and the intimacy of Tasuki's hand on his wrist gave Chichiri much reason for pause. Respect and camaraderie didn't seem to describe his feelings about either of these developments. Yet, he knew that something had changed between them. What is it about you, no da?

"I am glad that Tasuki's going to be okay though. He was a mess when you brought him back," Nuriko admitted, noticing Chichiri's lack of response.

"He's very lucky, no da," Chichiri said at last. "Tamahome didn't pull any punches during that fight, na no da."

The conversation slacked off to silence. The constant rush of water on the roofs and trees was the only sound apart from their footsteps. Dawn came and went, the vague brightening yet again of the overcast sky and the faint ringing of the morning bell the only indication of its passing. A pair of guards hurried by to their posts for the daybreak shift change. They bowed to the two seishi as they went.

Nuriko glanced at Chichiri as they walked and watched him look out over the gardens. The smile on his face never changed, but Nuriko could tell he was deep in thought. He knew Chichiri had to have been shaken by Tasuki's condition; he saw the amount of blood soaking the monk's tunic as the attendants carried Tasuki out of the throne room on a litter and the look of shock engraved on Chichiri's face. Something like that would undoubtedly unnerve anyone, Nuriko thought, but he hadn't been the one who'd held the redhead as he slowly bled out in his arms.

"Well, it looks like the sun's up, if you can call it that," Nuriko said, breaking the long silence. "I suppose I'll go see if the cooks have breakfast ready yet. Why don't you find Mitsukake and Chiriko and I'll meet you in Tasuki's room?"

Chichiri's eyebrows raised. "Is His Highness not joining us this morning, no da?"

"No. His Majesty is meeting with a delegation from Jusou province today."

Jusou province... That's the area along the Kutou border, no da. Chichiri thought back to Hotohori's absence from the court and the audiences he'd attended in the emperor's guise. The governors of several of the provinces on the eastern border of the kingdom had come to plead for assistance against Kutou's cross-border raids. At the time, his hands were tied since he was just pretending to be Hotohori and had none of his authority. Apparently, another delegation had been sent almost immediately after the first one, unsuccessful in its request, had left Eiyou. The situation must have gotten much worse since then, no da. Time was running out to summon Suzaku. "Hmm. Alright, I'll get Chiriko and Mitsukake and head to Tasuki's room, no da."

The two men parted ways in front of the heavy bronze doors to the main palace just as the morning bell rang for the one-hundred-eighth time.

- o - o - o -

"So, how do you feel this morning, Tasuki?" Mitsukake asked as he added some roasted pork and green onion slices to his bowl of congee. Next to him, Chiriko reached across the table for the sliced ginger.

The five men sat talking and eating around a modest wooden table in the center of Tasuki's lantern-lit room, meal laid out before them in porcelain vessels of all shapes and sizes. Bowls of toppings for the rice porridge sat next to dishes of youtiao torn into small pieces. Another plate loaded with zhongzi wrapped neatly in bamboo leaves steamed next to a dish of pan fried noodles. A slight breeze wafted in through the room's open doors, the full force of the wind blowing harmlessly past down the veranda outside. The gentle movement of the air wafted the delicious aroma of breakfast around the room.

"Eh, alright I guess. Th' unbearable agony's down t' a halfway-tolerable agony now," Tasuki replied and took a bite of his noodles. And it was true: whatever the medication was that Mitsukake had given him the night before had dulled the edge of the pain in his limbs better than he thought it would. Putting down his chopsticks, he picked up his teacup and took a drink. Chichiri sat to his right though he couldn't see him with the bandage around his swollen eye. The proximity of the monk to him brought a smile to his lips and a giddiness that he tried hard to suppress. "Any o' you guys know how Miaka's doin'?"

To Tasuki's left, Nuriko held up the teapot to Chiriko. "Tea?"

"No, thank you." Chiriko dipped a chunk of the fried dough into his congee. Shrugging, Nuriko poured himself another cup.

Chichiri untied the string holding the bamboo leaf around the small rice ball and, pushing the leaf to the side, took a piece in his chopsticks. "I think she's still asleep, no da." He was glad to see Tasuki was feeling better and moving around a bit on his own, but he couldn't shake the strange feeling he'd had since he'd awoken.

"And we should let her sleep. She's been through a lot lately," Nuriko said, reaching across to take a zhongzi and a few chopstickfuls of noodles.

Mitsukake stirred the pork and onions into his porridge and took a few bites. "I agree. Time is the only thing that will really help to heal her wounded heart."

"And food," Nuriko said. He smiled faintly at the subdued chuckles from the other men. "I'm going to take her some after breakfast."

"I think she'll like that." Inside Mitsukake's coat, Tama-neko stirred from his nap and stuck his head out to sniff at the pleasant scent of food. Looking up, he meowed at Mitsukake in supplication. With a smile, Mitsukake took a piece of pork from the bowl and held it out to the hungry cat. Purring loudly, Tama-neko devoured the meat and moved to where he could look out of Mitsukake's coat and stare at the meal in hopes of another treat.

"I can't believe Tamahome's been given kodoku." Chiriko nodded his thanks as Mitsukake placed a few more pieces of youtiao on his plate.

Propping his head up on his good arm, Tasuki frowned. "He sure didn't seem all that drugged up t' me."

"Kodoku is not just a drug. It involves the combination of a number of poisonous herbs and magical incantations to control the recipient." Bowing to the cat's begging, Mitsukake held out another morsel. Tama-neko devoured it almost as quickly as it had been offered.

"And I'm certain that whoever made it is a very powerful sorcerer, no da," Chichiri added, putting down his chopsticks to drink his tea.

Tasuki gave Chichiri a quizzical look. He watched every move the monk made with what he hoped seemed like nonchalance. "Yah think it was Nakago?"

"I don't know, but it's possible, no da."

"Well, gentlemen," Nuriko said, wiping his hands on one of the hot towels the chambermaids had provided for the end of the meal, "I hate to eat and run, but I should probably see that Miaka gets some food before the cooks start preparing lunch." Putting down the towel, he stood from his chair and pushed it under the table.

"When you see her, please tell her that we're here for her if she needs anything," Mitsukake said. Nuriko smiled and turned and left the room.

Tasuki picked up his chopsticks again, hoping to get one more zhongzi before they were gone. He reached out across the table toward the dish, but the sling and the splint kept him from reaching it. Dammit, I hate not bein' able t' do stuff fer myself, he thought with a scowl. He slapped his chopsticks down across his plate in frustration. Just as he decided to forget about breakfast all together and grab a towel for his own hands, he watched as Chichiri picked up one of the small rice balls with his chopsticks and placed it on the plate in front of him. Chichiri said nothing, only giving him a small nod before returning to his own meal. Tasuki sat for a moment looking down at the leaf-wrapped bundle on his plate. A glowing grin spread across his face as he picked up his chopsticks and began untying the string.

"Wow, the weather outside has gotten a lot worse since yesterday," Chiriko remarked as he glanced out the open door, taking a towel and sitting back in his chair. Two chambermaids entered the room and began removing the plates from the table onto large lacquered trays. Chiriko nodded as one woman hesitated before taking his empty congee bowl, and wiped his hands.

"Summer storms are more rain producing than anything, though you'll still get pretty frequent thunder and lightning, no da." Chichiri placed his chopsticks on his plate as a chambermaid gathered up his place setting, leaving only his teacup. He also wiped his hands as he glanced out at the rain falling hard in the courtyard beyond the open door. His mind wandered back to the dream and Tasuki's embrace. Tasuki had said nothing about Hikou's death or his part in it, almost like it was an afterthought or he hadn't noticed it at all. And the smile on his face and the look in his eyes showed no sign that he cared about any of that, as if he hadn't even seen him stab the man. What did that mean? How could Tasuki hold him like that after he'd killed someone?

Mitsukake gave Tama-neko one last piece of pork as the chambermaids took up the remainder of the plates and collected the now-warm towels from each man. Standing, he joined the already-standing Chiriko. "Thank you for good company and conversation this morning," he said as he looked down at Chichiri and Tasuki, still seated at the table. "I'll be back later this afternoon to heal your wounds, Tasuki."

"Great. 'Bout time."

"Yes, thank you for a good meal," Chiriko said as both he and Mitsukake turned and left. The chambermaids followed behind carrying their laden trays.

"So," Tasuki said after a long moment, turning his body to face Chichiri, "what're we gonna do 'bout summonin' Suzaku now?" He leaned on the back of the rosewood chair and propped his head up on his hand. The sleeve of the silk robe he wore slid down his arm to pool around his elbow. Ivory linen bound his forearm, a stark contrast to his honey-hued skin. The robe's collar hung open, exposing the web of bandages around his chest as well. He looked Chichiri up and down, excited to be alone with him at last.

"I don't know." Chichiri sighed and, slumping back in his chair, he removed his mask. "Without Tamahome and The Universe of the Four Gods, I don't think we can, no da." Just how much should I say to him? he thought. It probably wasn't wise to mention his suspicion that the Seiryuu Seven were already gathered until he'd had a chance to talk to Hotohori about it.

"'Ey, what th' fuck's with th' lack o' confidence, huh?" Tasuki studied the older man's face: the furrowing of his smooth brow, the frown on his delicate yet masculine lips, and the concern and frustration in that beautiful mahogany eye. Chichiri really was very handsome, despite his downcast expression. "Those Seiryuu fuckers want us t' fail an' if yah get all wishy-washy now, we will fail."

Chichiri traced the features of the mask as he fidgeted with it in his hands. He dropped the silly tone from his voice. "Kutou's massing their army along the border and every day reports come in that another village has been destroyed by their raiding parties. Right now His Highness is meeting with a delegation from Jusou province to discuss their options." There just didn't seem to be any way he could see to avoid a protracted and costly conflict without divine intervention. Shaking his head, he looked up and into Tasuki's gaze. "War is coming, Tasuki. It's not a matter of 'if,' it's a matter of 'when.'"

"An' that means just fuckin' givin' up an' lettin' 'em beat us? I told yah yesterday that yah owe me fer keepin' Tamahome an' Nakago off yer ass, didn't I?" Straightening up in his chair, he poked Chichiri in the shoulder with his good hand. The defeat in Chichiri's voice bothered him a lot. Such dour sentiment just didn't suit him at all; he much preferred the almost flirtatious banter they shared to the melancholy he saw now. "Yer a fuckin' monk, fer Suzaku's sake. Have some faith, would'ja?" he said, fixing him with a fanged grin.

Chichiri chuckled at Tasuki's upbeat assessment. How can you be so blithely optimistic? Tasuki was right though: he was a monk. If he didn't believe that things would work out, how could he expect to shepherd the rest of Suzaku's celestial warriors toward their goal? Though he wasn't quite sure if Tasuki was trying to berate him, encourage him, or guilt him, his words did bolster his confidence a bit. And why can you so easily convince me to be optimistic as well? "Really? All you want is for me to just 'have some faith?'" he shot back, giving him a wry smile. "I would have thought you'd ask for something a little more grandiose than that."

"Why?" Tasuki rumbled, wide grin now a sly smirk. "Yah got somethin' yah wanna offer?"

Chichiri blinked twice, eye wide, and lips parted slightly in stupefaction. The rhythmic pounding of his heart in his ears was all he could hear. He watched Tasuki drape his good arm over the back of his chair once more and lean his powerfully muscled body toward smell of salve, soap, and Tasuki enveloped Chichiri as he did so. That golden eye bored into him with a heavy expectation. "I-I–" Chichiri stuttered.

"Chichiri! Tasuki!" Chichiri breathed again and looked away as the sound of their names and someone running down the veranda toward the room floated in through the open door. "Chichiri! Tasuki!" Exchanging a silent look of confusion, both men turned to the doorway as the shouting and footsteps got louder and louder.

Chichiri smoothed his mask back over his face just as a breathless and almost hysterical Nuriko burst into the room. The courtier gasped for air, chest heaving as he rushed toward the table. "She's gone!" Grabbing the back of one of the rosewood chairs, he sagged against it, eyes wide with fear and horror. "There was a note and His Highness–"

Chichiri rose from the table, his brows furrowed. "Who's gone, no da?" A feeling of dread crept into him, settling like a cold stone in the pit of his stomach.

"He went after her by himself–" Nuriko's narrow shoulders shook violently.

"Nu-ri-ko." Tasuki enunciated to get the babbling man to focus. "Who's gone?" Fear slunk up his spine as he watched Nuriko come unglued in front of them.

"Miaka," Nuriko cried, grabbing Chichiri's arm. "She wasn't in her room and I couldn't find her anywhere and there was a note on the bed I couldn't read so I showed His Highness and he ran off to look for her..." Pulling the taller man closer Nuriko took a deep, but shuddering, breath. Tears welled up in his reddening eyes and rolled down his face. "Please, you have to help me find her. I don't know what to do." He let go and buried his face in Tasuki's robe-clad shoulder as the redhead hobbled around the table to him.

Tasuki patted Nuriko's back as he continued to cry. Looking over his head, he locked eyes with Chichiri. "Can yah sense 'er, Chichiri?"

Taking a few deep breaths to calm his mind, Chichiri took his prayer beads in hand and closed his eyes. He began to chant, quietly at first then louder. The repetition of the words focused the power of Suzaku as it welled up within him. His character mark blazed to life, creating a halo of holy radiance around him. Somewhere in the background, he heard Tasuki gasp, but the heavy sound of his own breathing in his ears quickly swallowed up all sound. Hazy reddish clouds coalesced and floated through his mind's eye, parting and merging and parting again, showing him nothing but blackness.

Please Suzaku, please help me find her, he prayed. Seconds ticked by without an answer and he struggled to remain as calm as he could. Then, as if responding to his request, brilliant, searing energy rolled off him in tangible waves, rippling his clothes against his body and whipping his ponytail across his back. The canvas of his mind's eye turned a solid vermilion, then slowly moved off as Chichiri realized he was seeing Suzaku take flight before him. As the god of the south retreated from his view, he suddenly found himself standing in the palace garden on the bank of the storm-frenzied lake. "Thank you," he shouted into the storm, and opened his eyes.

Tasuki stared in awe as the blinding red light faded away and Chichiri was himself once more. "Whad'dja see? Did'ja find 'er?" he asked, heart pounding, face burning with a scarlet blush. The raw power he'd felt coruscating off Chichiri was overwhelming. He'd only seen a glimpse of it in Kutou just before he lost consciousness, but that brief look paled in comparison to what he'd just witnessed. What else're yah hidin'?

"She's in the gardens. We have to go now." Chichiri strode quickly toward the door. Don't do it, Miaka. Don't do it. Nuriko looked up at his words and, wiping his eyes with his sleeve, he took off after him.

- o - o - o -

They rushed down the veranda toward the palace gardens in silence. Both men were too afraid to speak for fear of bringing the dark thoughts that swirled in their minds to life. Just like then. Just like it, Chichiri thought bitterly as the wind and rain continued to assault the palace. The storm swept across the capital in great wet curtains. Ginkgo leaves flew off in all directions. Willows and pines thrashed about, their branches lashing like leafy whips. The only difference from the day of the flood that destroyed his previous life was that he had yet to see one flash of lightning or hear one crash of thunder.

Some way down the brick portico, Chiriko walked toward them, attention focused out into the stormy gardens. Hurried footsteps drew his attention and he looked up just as the two seishi reached him. "Chichiri, Nuriko, what's going on?" he asked, confusion and apprehension written on his face. He fell into step with them as they continued on. "Why are you running?"

"Miaka's gone missing and His Majesty went after her." Nuriko's brows furrowed, his gaze fixed on Chichiri. The monk had said nothing since they left Tasuki's room. The mirthful smile on his face had flattened to a firm and determined line. "Chichiri said he felt her life force in the gardens." Chichiri's never like this. I hope Miaka and His Highness are okay, Nuriko thought.

"Miaka is missing?" Chiriko looked back and forth between the two men. "Why? What happened?"

Chichiri took an abrupt left and continued down the bricked walkway, now a covered breezeway, through the sprawling imperial gardens. The driving wind brought the rain under the tiled roof. It tore at their clothes and drenched the three seishi to the bone. Ahead of them stood an elaborate, scarlet-lacquered pavilion that overlooked the seething pond. It was just as he had seen in his vision. He left the pathway and hurried out into the rain-slick grass and the full fury of the storm, Nuriko and Chiriko following close behind.

"Miaka! Your Majesty!" Nuriko called. His voice trailed away under the sound of flowing water and the howl of the wind. "Where are you?!" He took a few steps closer to the bank, eyes scanning the wind-thrashed bushes and treeline. Oh please, let them be okay. "Miak–" Nuriko stopped short when he saw a faint glint of metal out of the corner of his eye. Moving closer, he stooped to pick the object up. Sitting in a shallow puddle near the base of the pavilion lay a golden coronet, delicately lacquered with cinnabar and inset with jade.

"What is it, Nuriko?" Chiriko looked over Nuriko's shoulder at the beautiful crown in his hands.

"I know this belongs to His Majesty."

Out in the center of the pond, a faint red light began to spread through the layers of water, accompanied by a soft bass rumble. The pond's surface roiled and bubbled contrary to the force of the wind. The water rose upward, creating a dome of dark, grayish-blue suffused with crimson and Chichiri knew his original suspicion was correct.

"Ah!" Chiriko cried and pointed at a large water bubble floating up from the pond and into the air above. The sphere spun dizzily, the water coating it swirling this way and that like a drop of ink on glass. "What is that?!" Suddenly, the water on the surface of the sphere exploded in a shower of vermilion light, revealing Hotohori cradling Miaka, apparently unconscious, in his arms.

"Miaka! His Highness!" Nuriko ran toward the hovering couple as they came to rest in the rain-soaked grass next to the pavilion. "Miaka..." he breathed, dropping to his knees in front of them with a splash. He felt her cheeks and forehead for any sign of life with trembling hands.

Dropping down on his knees next to Nuriko, Chichiri gently pushed the courtier aside and held two slender fingers against the side of Miaka's neck. Her skin felt cold and clammy to the touch, but the faint throb of her pulse was definitely there. "It'll be alright, no da," he said, moving another hand under her nose to check for breathing. Shallow, warm breaths fanned over the palm of his hand and he released a pent-up sigh of relief. "She's still alive and breathing, na no da." Rocking back on his heels, Chichiri stood, allowing Nuriko access to Miaka once again.

"Thank goodness." Hotohori pushed a wet strand of hair from the priestess' face.

Blue hair plastered to the side of his face, water running in rivulets down his back from his soaked ponytail, Chichiri was again reminded of the flood. He wanted to die that day, the day he killed Hikou, but at that time, he didn't. Maybe it was by Suzaku's will, or maybe it wasn't, but residents of a neighboring village managed to pull him from the raging waters before he could drown or bleed to death. So many times since then he'd tried to end it: the guilt, the pain, to rectify the mistake of his survival when everyone he loved was swept away. But each time, someone or something stopped him. Is this why you made me a Star of Suzaku and brought us all together? To keep others from replaying my mistakes? To give me a reason to live? he thought, looking down at Miaka's unconscious face.

Two retainers came running down the breezeway toward them. Gently, they took Miaka from their emperor and placed her on a litter. Nuriko helped the soaked Hotohori to his feet, and along with Chiriko, the group began to move off toward the guest palace and Miaka's rooms. "Are you coming, Chichiri?" Chiriko called back over his shoulder.

Chichiri looked out over the gardens as the storm began to slack off. The wind died from a gale to a stiff breeze. The rain lightened from a downpour to a steady shower. A sudden flash of Tasuki's smile and the words from his dream went through his mind: "I told yah I wouldn't let yah die." Chichiri's eyes widened as the possibilities unfurled themselves before him. Is that why he's here? Bringing his hand to his wrist, he looked up into the steel-gray sky. Is that why I felt such a connection to him when we first met? The rain continued to fall, even as the wind finally dwindled down to stillness. Is that why, he thought, pausing at the implications of it, I feel so attracted to him now? "I'm right behind you, no da," he said finally, shaking his head, and turned to follow.

Glossary of Terms for Chapter 3

Honey Locust Soap → soap made from the seed pods of the Chinese Honeylocust tree (Gleditsia sinensis)

Decoction → the extraction of the water-soluble substances of a drug or medicinal plants by boiling, and the liquid obtained thereby

Amur Cork → (Phellodendron amurense), used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for a range of ailments, in this case used for abdominal pain

Frankincense → (Boswellia carteri) hardened tree resin used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for improving circulation and repairing muscles

Jusou Province → area in which Tamahome's home village is located

Congee → a type of rice porridge or soup made by boiling rice with a lot of water and flavorings

Youtiao → strips of fried dough eaten with congee for breakfast in southern China

Zhongzi → glutinous rice balls filled with various meats and vegetables and wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves, then steamed

Cinnabar → an ore of mercury used to create a reddish pigment for paints; in Chinese art, usually used in a suspension of lacquer

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