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.

Row upon row of red paper lanterns spanned the distance between shopfronts, swinging in the warm breeze. Overlapping pools of bright lantern light spilled onto the festival and merrymakers below, imbuing it and them with a dreamy, romantic atmosphere. And high above, the great Silver River flowed across the onyx sky.

Tasuki glanced up at the twinkling band of stars and smiled. This version of Qi Xi he could agree with. Great throngs of people moved to and fro down the long market street, talking and laughing, shopping and eating, and most of all drinking. It was nothing like how his sisters celebrated back home. He would never understand why they had set up an altar and made offerings every year for domestic skills they'd never have since they kept making him do all the household chores for them. At least their dumplings were tasty, even if he did risk a thump on the head for eating them.

"Oh wow! I've never been out in the city at night before," Miaka exclaimed as she looked around in wonder at all the food stalls. "What's this festival called again?"

"Qi Xi. It celebrates the love between the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd." Nuriko watched the girl's eyes light up with every new smell that wafted by and chuckled.

"Yeah, an' girls pray fer sewin' skills an' husbands an' stuff," Tasuki offered, crossing his arms over his chest. He wasn't sure what they were waiting for, but he was there to cheer Miaka up so he figured he'd give her the first choice of what to do.

"That sounds a little like Tanabata where I come from." Miaka started off through the crowds, head swiveling this way and that as she examined the desserts and sweets in each passerby's hands. "At least the Weaver Girl and Cowherd part. Look!" She stopped suddenly, pointing across the busy street and nearly tripping both Tasuki and Nuriko.

"What?" Nuriko glanced in the direction she pointed. The look of confusion on his face dissolved into a slack-jawed, glassy-eyed stare, almost a mirror image of Miaka's own expression.

Tasuki barely managed to stop himself from bumping into them. Stepping to the side, he then nearly ran into a festival-goer leading his son through the masses. Waving an apology, Tasuki scowled at Miaka and Nuriko. "Hey, what th' fuck 're yah doin'? Watch where yer goin'!"

"Let's go eat," Miaka intoned and began to shuffle toward the food stall.

"Yeah, let's eat," Nuriko repeated, following closely after.

Tasuki blinked and watched the two lurch through the throng as if in a trance. What th' hell? They're eatin' again? "But, we just 'ad dinner, didn' we?" he called, but got no response. With a growl, he threaded his way across the street as well.

Miaka jumped up and down, a broad grin on her face. The sleeves of her silk robe fluttered as she flapped her arms in front of the shopkeeper. "I'll take one please!"

"Yeah, yeah! Me too, mister! One for me!" Nuriko waved his own arms, echoing Miaka's enthusiasm. "This will be our dessert," he exclaimed. He leaned conspiratorially toward her, his alto voice shrill.

"Yeah right!" Miaka blurted. Both of them laughed as they watched the older man behind the counter take two magpie-shaped qiaoguo from the display facing the street and place them on small squares of red paper.

"Okay, here you go," the shopkeeper said. He smiled at the delighted looks on their faces as he handed the sweet fried dough treats to them.

Tasuki sighed as Miaka and Nuriko squealed in joy and moved a few paces away from the booth, leaving him to pay the bill as they enjoyed the confections. They might be there to cheer Miaka up, but why did he have to be the only one paying attention to real-world stuff? "Ah, why not? Gimme one too, pops," Tasuki said, plunking three coins into the shopkeep's palm.

"You got it."

Qiaoguo in hand, Tasuki rejoined Miaka and Nuriko. I wish Chiri woulda come with us, he thought. All three of them had asked the other seishi if they wanted to go to the festival, but every one declined: Hotohori claimed state business, Mitsukake claimed he was going to turn in early, Chiriko claimed he wanted to study in the imperial library, and Tamahome just said no. He hadn't personally seen or talked to Chichiri since the aborted kiss the night before, but Nuriko told him that the monk had declined as well. I hope he ain't avoidin' me. He sighed again.

"I knew you wanted to try it, Tasuki," Miaka snickered. "You just couldn't resist, could you?" A knowing smile crossed her lips as she continued to crunch away on the dough.

"No, you just couldn't resist, could you?" Nuriko smirked at him, dabbing at his lips with the edge of the paper.

Tasuki growled at them. This behavior and speech copying thing they were doing was annoying. "Would you two cut it out?!"

The three of them found an unoccupied wooden bench just outside the stream of people to regroup. Miaka and Nuriko took a place on the bench while Tasuki stood. He looked around as he ate his qiaoguo, gaze flitting from one storefront to the next. At one booth, he watched people purchase beautiful jade necklaces and gemstone earrings, gold and silver rings and silk sashes with elaborately knotted tassels and jade disks hanging from them. Another vendor offering bouquets of summer flowers exuberantly hawked his wares to a crowd of young women who tittered and gossiped with each other as they watched a group of young men pass by. Maybe I should get Chiri somethin' while I'm here, Tasuki thought.

"This is great!" Miaka declared, mouth full.

The sound of music floated above the din of talking and laughter. Turning, Tasuki saw a trio of musicians at a low stage further down the street. One small woman cradled a pipa in her lap, leaning her head against the body of the instrument as her fingers danced across the strings. That lute's as big as she is, he snickered to himself. The rhythmic twang of the pipa's silk strings formed the foundation of the melody and the plump woman strumming the konghou to her right took that melody and expounded on it. Hugging the harp between her knees like a child, her nimble fingers plucked deep, mellow chords from the instrument. Setting the tempo for them both was a third woman playing a hengdi. Its haunting trill overlaid the tune, mixing a dream-like, pastoral sentiment into the melody. That instrument kinda looks like that Amiboshi guy's flute... Tasuki's brow furrowed at the memory of the Seiryuu Warrior falling to his death in the rain-swollen canal before he pushed the thought away.

"Tamahome should have come out with us," Nuriko said as he too watched the musicians play.

Next to him, Miaka choked, spitting out some of the qiaoguo as she coughed.

"Yeah. That guy's been real moody fer some reason," Tasuki added. "'E acts like Miaka dumped 'im er somethin'." I wonder if that's got anythin' t' do with Miaka runnin' by last night... That would at least partially explain why she all but ignored Tamahome that morning and why he got so angry when he and Nuriko teased him about it. "We better just stay clear o' him fer awhile."

Nuriko scowled up at Tasuki. "Never mind that for now. We're here to enjoy the festival, so let's have fun, okay?" Expression softening, he looked over at Miaka. Clasping her shoulder, he grinned. "It'll be the last free time we'll have for awhile. Right, Miaka?"

"Yeah." She nodded, finally having stopped coughing. She wiped a few stray crumbs out of her lap.

"So, what do I want to eat next?" Nuriko stood and turned this way and that, one slender hand at his brow like he was looking for land from a boat out to sea. He licked his lips at the symphony of aromas assaulting his nose: the sweet honey of fresh melons, the pungent garlic of fried yifu noodles, the bitter tang of soy sauce. He pretended to drool, though he didn't have to try very hard.

"Stop makin' faces! Yah look like a starvin' bum!" Tasuki growled, grabbing Nuriko by the shoulders. The courtier's incessant swaying was making him seasick. A few festival patrons slowed down to watch Nuriko groan forlornly in Tasuki's grip.

Behind them, Miaka shot up from her seat, fist raised. "Okay!" she cried, grinning broadly. "Let's try to have as much fun as we can tonight before we go!"

"Yeah!" Nuriko smiled and followed. He kept pace with her as she started down the market street, looking at the shops. "What do you want to do now, Miaka?"

Tasuki took up the rear of the group, glancing around while trying to avoid knocking into small mobs of happy children running to and fro, wheeling like flocks of birds in flight. He stopped short as one little girl strayed into his path, a porcelain figure of two lovers clutched to her chest. She looked up at him with wide mahogany brown eyes before smiling and darting off to rejoin her friends. Chiri's eye, he thought. The little girl's eyes reminded him of Chichiri's true eye color, the one hidden by the mask he wore. Tasuki sighed. Dammit, I wish 'e was here.

Ahead of them, a large crowd gathered in a circle around a mountain of a man. He was bald but for a thin mustache and tiny goatee. A huge iron pot, half as tall as the man and just as round, stood in front of him. "Come on! Can't anyone here lift something as heavy as this?" he bellowed, smirking. The warm summer breeze pulled at his open vest, revealing a solid wall of muscle for a chest and stomach. He grabbed the rim of the cauldron with his enormous hands and strained to lift it. Biceps the same size as his head flexed with the stress. With a roar, the man raised the pot above him. "No one?" He guffawed at the lack of challengers. "I guess I win then."

Nuriko grinned at Tasuki and Miaka before pushing his way through the man's audience to the center of the circle. With one slender hand, he lifted the man and the iron pot the man held above his head by the seat of the man's pants. "Okay!" Nuriko shouted. He began to turn the hapless strongman on his palm until the man started screaming. "How long can I keep him spinning folks? What do you think, huh?" Nuriko spun the man faster and faster, smiling in triumph to the cheers of the amazed crowd. "Anybody got a guess? What do you say?"

"Put me down!" The huge man's face burned with both embarrassment and motion sickness. Nuriko finally relented, slowing the spin enough that he could set the strongman and his cauldron on the ground without hurting him.

The organizer of the contest stepped out of the audience and into the circle, flanked by two assistants. Their arms were laden with items. "And the girl jumps in and wins!" He took Nuriko's hand and held it up for all to see. The crowd shouted and applauded for a long while before the silk-robed man let go. With a nod to the two young men behind him, they rushed forward and presented Nuriko with a lavish prize: several pieces of carved jade jewelry, a heavy cast-bronze mirror, a delicate porcelain figure of a court lady in elaborate costume, a fan made of colorful pheasant, crane, and peacock feathers, and two bolts of sheer patterned silk that smelled of rosewater and ginger. "Let's have another hand for the strongest woman in Kounan!"

Slipping out of the adoring crowd, Nuriko made his way back to where he'd left Tasuki and Miaka. "Hey look! Check it out! I won a prize!" He beamed and hugged the items to his chest. "I am totally going to make a sash out of this silk. Isn't it beautiful?"

"Alright!" Tasuki clasped Nuriko on the shoulder with a fanged grin. "'Ey, Miaka! Where to next?" He turned to face her and his smile disappeared. "Eh? Miaka?" The girl was gone. "What th' fuck?" he swore, scanning the throng of people dispersing from the contest for any sign of her. "Aw, come on! We fuckin' came out here fer her an' she up an' leaves?!"

"Oh calm down, Tasuki. I'm sure she's fine. She's probably at another food stall near here," Nuriko said, trying as best he could to see around the crowds walking by. "Besides, this place is crawling with soldiers." He nodded toward the far end of the market street. "Let's start in this direction and see if we see her."

Tasuki growled but moved to follow, crossing his arms over his chest. He sidled past another group of young women dressed in fine silk robes. Their dark hair was swept up on top of their heads in elaborate styles and peppered with ornaments of silver and pearl dangling nearly to their shoulders. The cloying sweetness of jasmine perfume hung about them like a cloud. As he walked by, they giggled, never taking their eyes off him. The attention made him uncomfortable and he scowled.

Ahead of him, Nuriko had better luck weaving through the crowd. Stalls for wontons, dumplings, noodles, and more qiaoguo dotted each side of the street, but he couldn't see Miaka among the patrons at any of them. He began to worry that she really had disappeared. Stepping to the side of the thoroughfare, he turned to tell Tasuki when he caught sight of a familiar navy-haired fighter running past in the mob. "Tamahome?"

"Eh? Tama's here?" Tasuki said as he walked up. He scanned the throng.

"Yeah. I just saw Tamahome run by."

Tasuki grinned. "Well, that explains where Miaka went. She prob'ly ran off t' go be with Tamahome. It is Qi Xi, yah know."

Nuriko snickered. "I guess that means whatever spat they had this morning is over. So," he said, looking up at Tasuki, "what do you want to do now?"

Tasuki cocked his head, a wry bent to his lips. "Hmm..." He looked up and down the length of the festival for several minutes.

The evening was a few hours older than when they'd arrived, but the festivities were far from winding down. If anything, there seemed to be more people milling about. Several enterprising vendors braved the hordes of merrymakers in the center of the street. They called out to one and all the virtues and craftsmanship of their particular style of love pouch. One merchant held up a sample of his wares: a small, cobalt-blue silk bag with a peony embroidered in gold on its side and a matching blue drawstring. The group of girls Tasuki had passed just minutes ago crowded around the peddler, talking and giggling.

"Let's just look around fer awhile," he said finally.

Nuriko raised an eyebrow at his noncommittal attitude. "Okay..." He'd never known Tasuki to equivocate on anything, let alone what he wanted to do. And he certainly didn't expect Tasuki would actually want to remain at the festival now that Miaka had left. Curious, he decided to wait and see what Tasuki had in mind.

They ventured further down the street, making their way past mobs of children trying their luck at games of chance and games of skill. A great cheer rose up from an archery game across the thoroughfare as one young boy managed to hit the center of every target. He beamed and chose a small clay figurine in the shape of Suzaku from a shelf behind the booth's counter to the accolades of his friends.

He's shopping? Nuriko thought, watching Tasuki scrutinize the wares for sale at each stall they passed. The redhead quickly evaluated each object before moving on to the next. Tasuki is shopping?

Tasuki maneuvered around a large group of people overflowing into the market street from a makeshift theater to his right. Glancing over, he saw a carved wooden stage in front of a packed seating area. He paused as the maroon curtain went up to a round of applause from the audience. A sheet of white silk covered the performance area, backlit by several lanterns and glowing brightly. The crash of a gong followed by the wail of a hengdi accompanied the appearance of a colorful shadow puppet of a girl. She walked back and forth across the screen a handful of times before she was soon followed by a boy puppet and an ox. Tasuki smiled and continued on as the narrator began the story of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd.

Nuriko ducked past an elderly man and his wife, deftly avoiding running into them as he struggled to keep up. Where is he going?

On and on they went down the line of shops: Nuriko dogging Tasuki's steps from several paces back as he moved from store to store. Who could he be buying something for? His brow furrowed as he lost sight of Tasuki behind a large red banner hanging from a storefront some way ahead. Slipping through another dense throng, he caught a glimpse of blazing vermilion hair in front of one store and relaxed a bit. Ah, he must be getting Miaka a gift. Nuriko smirked as he walked up to the counter. The vendor had several lovely gemstone necklaces and brooches for sale that he wouldn't mind wearing himself. One brooch in particular sported three dainty flowers carved from a copper-colored piece of jade set on a field of carved snowy-white jade leaves. "I thought you didn't like girls," he teased. He watched Tasuki pick up and examine several small pieces of bronze statuary, a handful of gleaming palm-sized bronze mirrors, an ornate brass box with a tiny hinged latch, and countless cast bronze coin charms.

"I don't." Tasuki never looked up from the display counter as he rummaged through the box of charms to the clink of metal on metal.

"You're not looking for something for Miaka?"

"No."

Nuriko stood in confused silence for a time. Tasuki wasn't buying a gift for Miaka? Then who was he shopping for? Tasuki, who he'd never seen leave the palace without magical means or talk to anyone aside from his bandit gang or the balance of the Shichiseishi, who consistently got into petulant shouting matches and fistfights with pretty much anyone anywhere at any time,and constantly and loudly decried women as sneaky, mean, and annoying, wanted to buy a gift for someone. Either he was buying something for himself, which Nuriko found unlikely, sending it back home, which was even more unlikely, or... "I knew it."

"Knew what?" Tasuki glanced up from the display of coins.

"That's so cute!" Nuriko exclaimed. He clapped his hands together as best he could with all the items in his arms. "The big brawny bandit leader has a crush on someone."

Tasuki swallowed hard, glancing around first at the people browsing through the wares near him, then at the throngs of people passing by behind him. No one seemed to be interested in their conversation. "Shuddup, Nuriko. I do not," he growled and looked back down.

"Oh come on, Red. You can tell me." Nuriko grinned at the deep crimson blush working its way across Tasuki's cheekbones to his ears. "What's he like?"

Tasuki picked up an unassuming bronze coin that had fallen out of the box he dug through onto the silk scarf covering the counter. "I-I don't know what yer talkin' about."

Nuriko sighed. "Don't give me that. You know exactly what I'm talking about." Oh, for Suzaku's sake, give it up already. He leaned toward Tasuki, trying to steal a glimpse of the charm in his hands. His braid slipped off his shoulder. A sneaky grin formed on his lips. "Who is he? Is he cute?" He began shifting the prizes he held to free the movement of one arm.

"I told yah I don't know what th' fuck yer talkin' about." Holding the charm by its edges, Tasuki turned it over and over under the bright lantern light of the booth. This's perfect.

Nuriko made a quick grab for the coin, snatching it out of Tasuki's hand. "Then who's this for, hmm?"

"Give it back now, Nuriko," Tasuki snarled.

Nuriko turned this way and that, eluding Tasuki's ever more angry attempts to wrest the item from him. The coin was rather unassuming compared to the other items on the counter. It shone a bright gold as he examined it, the yellowy light bouncing off its polished rim and reliefs. The smooth, round edges felt cool despite the warm night and the substantial heft of it in his hand belied its small size. The back read "bi xie," an invocation to protect the bearer from evil spirits. Both characters rose in shining relief over a deep black field. Turning the charm over, his eyes widened and his jaw dropped. On the coin's front were stamped in relief, also on a black field, the I Ching hexagram Li, a stylized image of Suzaku, and the representation of two of Suzaku's constellations. One for the constellation Tasuki and the other for... "Chichiri?" Nuriko stopped and looked up at the scowling redhead. "Our Chichiri?" he asked in utter disbelief. It had to be someone else. "You have a thing for our Chichiri?"

"Chichiri? One of the celestial warriors who serves the Priestess of Suzaku?" The old shopkeeper looked up from the hand mirror he was wrapping at the commotion. The young woman who had purchased the mirror also looked over, as did two other patrons at the other end of the counter.

Tasuki could feel the eyes on him and his face flushed hotter. "Heh, yeah, t-those celestial warriors're great, aren't they? Here's hopin' th' priestess summons Suzaku real soon an' saves Kounan, right?" Savagely, he grabbed the charm out of the shocked courtier's hand.

"Oh, yes. Praise Suzaku, his priestess, and her warriors." The old man smiled as Tasuki plunked a few coins in his hand for payment before stuffing the charm in his coat pocket. "Thank you," the man said and turned back to his work.

Tasuki seized Nuriko's arm and hauled him down a small alleyway between two nearly deserted jewelry booths. They were well out of earshot of the vendor and patrons at the stall they'd just left. He let go and spun on his heel to face him, eyes narrowed to slits, earrings swinging wildly at his jaw. "What th' fuck, Nuriko?!"

"Oh, stop it with the indignant act," Nuriko said bluntly, reshuffling his prize items in his grip. "I've known you were since I first met you."

Tasuki backed off his anger a bit in surprise at Nuriko's words, but didn't let it go completely. "What? How?" He scowled.

"Woman's intuition," Nuriko proclaimed with a smile. "A lady just knows these things."

"Yer not a lady. Yer a cross-dresser."

Nuriko frowned himself. "Maybe so, but I still know a guy who likes other guys when I see one."

Crossing his arms over his chest, Tasuki looked away down the quiet, deserted alley, scowl deepening. The diffuse light from the lanterns hanging over the festival street a few paces away gave the hair falling over his nose a golden aura.

With a deep sigh, Nuriko shook his head. "You are so transparent, Tasuki." Holding up a hand, he raised two fingers. "First, you don't shop and second, both of your constellations are on that coin." Tasuki didn't reply, only continued to stare off down the alleyway. Several moments went by without a response and Nuriko sighed louder. "Do you even know if he's interested in men, let alone you?"

An image of the desire in Chichiri's eyes flashed through Tasuki's mind, sending a thrill down his spine and bringing a lascivious grin to his lips. "Th' look on 'is face last night seemed pretty damn interested."

Nuriko's eyes widened in horror. "What?! You idiot! You slept with him?!" He smacked Tasuki in the arm, not bothering to check his strength.

"OW!" Tasuki's focus whipped back to Nuriko immediately and he bared his fangs. He cradled his excruciatingly painful right bicep. "What th' fuck?! No! Fuck no!" He glared, gingerly massaging through his coat sleeve what was going to be a massive bruise the next day. "Not that I don't really, really wanna..." he admitted, continuing to eye Nuriko warily. "No. I tried t' kiss 'im."

"You tried to kiss a guy you've known for less than a week without finding out if he liked you first? You are an idiot." Nuriko rolled his eyes.

Tasuki growled. "Well, what th' fuck d' you suggest, then?"

"Tell him you like him. Right now, before you do anything else stupid."

"Tell 'im I like 'im? Yah don't think me tryin' t' kiss 'im woulda done that already?"

"Look," Nuriko said, "I don't know what's going on in that brain of yours, but do this the right way if you're going to do it." He looked Tasuki straight in the eyes. "If you end up pushing him away and ultimately prevent Miaka from summoning Suzaku because you have no sense of restraint, I will hurt you, Tasuki." The tone of his voice lightened as he smiled but the threat remained. "You don't want me to hurt you, do you?"

"Fine," Tasuki spat, "I'll tell 'im." He put his hand protectively over the bruised area on his arm. "An' I ain't gonna mess anythin' up."

"Good." Sunny smile still in place, Nuriko maneuvered the leery bandit back down the alley toward the festival. When they reached the market street and the jubilant throng of merrymakers, he pushed Tasuki out into the crowd. "Now get going, lover boy," he called as Tasuki was swept away in the sea of people.



- o - o - o -

A large gibbous moon peeked over the palace roofs. Its light drowned out much of the Silver River as it rose, but it left sparkling Vega and equally bright Altair easily visible. Much of the palace lay deserted; the Qi Xi festivities going on in the city marketplace drew many of the courtiers, servants, and attendants away. Chichiri almost regretted staying behind while the others went to enjoy themselves, but with the meeting to finalize the route the Shichiseishi would take to Hokkan that morning, the outfitting of their ship scheduled for his oversight the next day, and anything else he needed to do potentially cropping up at any time, he needed this time alone.

Leaning against the carved wooden balustrade edging the empty veranda, Chichiri gazed out into the moon-soaked grounds. The scent of jasmine wafted through the warm Kounan evening. His conversation with Miaka earlier that afternoon had stayed with him all day, never straying far from his thoughts. He hadn't wanted to keep things from her, but it wouldn't have done any good to tell her the whole truth either. If he had told her of the real circumstances behind Hikou's death, of his suicide attempts and recurring nightmares, his deep-seated self-loathing and the crushing loneliness he felt, the entire quest to summon Suzaku and save Kounan would fail. She and the rest of the Suzaku Seven depended on him to be their compass and their anchor. Perhaps he wanted it that way to some degree, but it was becoming harder and harder to keep everything to himself, not to mention maintain his distance and his objectivity. And it was all because of him. Tasuki.

He saw in the boisterous redhead a connection to his past, to the days before the flood and Hikou's death. Tasuki symbolized all that he had thought long extinguished in himself and being near him brought all those dormant feelings and emotions rushing to the surface. Under Taiitsukun's tutelage, Chichiri had been able to put the pieces of his shattered soul back together and bury everything that wasn't necessary as a Warrior of Suzaku and protector of the priestess. Years of strict discipline and intense training kept him from continuing to attempt suicide, narrowing his scope to a single-minded devotion to his mission. And, concealing it all was a feigned silliness and the mask he wore even now. Taking the magical object in his hand, he stared down at it. He saw not only the smiling face he showed the world but also the restraint it had represented for so long. The rekindling of this passion within him was also reawakening all the things he had tried to forget. His carefully constructed façade was beginning to crumble and that scared him more than anything.

"Hey."

He started at the deep tenor voice that broke into his thoughts. His bangs bobbed as he whipped his head toward the sound. Tasuki stood not a hair's breadth from him and his heart jumped into his throat. How? His face flushed and he reflexively looked the younger man's lithe body up and down. How is he here the moment I think of him? "H-hey, no da," he stammered when he finally remembered how to breathe. "I thought you went out to the festival with Miaka and Nuriko, na no da."

"Well, we got there alright, but then Miaka took off somewhere an' then Nuriko wandered off, so I decided t' hell with it an' came back here," he lied, half-smirking at Chichiri's wide-eyed appraisal. Chichiri's lips were parted in shock and so close that he was tempted to finish what they'd started last night. Suzaku, I want yah, but I gotta do this right. The thought of Nuriko doing worse to him than just bruising his arm for scaring Chichiri away was not appealing in the least. He folded his arms over the wooden balustrade in a mirror image of Chichiri's own stance.

"Hmm."

Silence prevailed once more as the crickets hidden in the bushes just beyond the veranda returned to their lazy song. Guess he's not tryin' t' avoid me... Inclining his head to his left, Tasuki watched out of the corner of his eye as Chichiri returned his gaze to the gardens. Moonlight painted the bridge of his nose, cheeks, and chin, revealing to Tasuki the slightly raised scar tissue that radiated from Chichiri's unseen left eye. He'd witnessed it twice before: briefly on their ill-fated mission to Kutou and again before Miaka's thankfully unsuccessful drowning attempt. Yet, Chichiri had never spoken of it. He didn't want to pry, but he did wonder why he chose to conceal it. To Tasuki, scars and wounds meant life, that you were alive and vital; they showed honor and bravery, trophies of battles won and enemies conquered. He'd never met anyone who wanted to hide that before and it intrigued him. What would a monk have to hide?

"Yah know, I bet we could see those fireworks they're gonna set off from 'ere," he said, trying to break Chichiri's nearly reverent quiet.

Chichiri nodded, eyes drawn to Vega and Altair. Why him? Why now? Perfumy jasmine mingled with the familiar scent of leather and earth as Tasuki slid closer. The movement pressed their arms together in a comfortable heat that sent an involuntary shudder down his spine. Why bring him into my life now? he thought. He couldn't abandon his obligations and god-given duty without guilt and giving Tasuki, and ultimately himself, false hope would be just as harmful as an utter rebuff.

Tasuki watched Chichiri's face grow progressively darker. His smooth brow furrowed as the minutes went by, his warm and inviting lips curving into a frown. The moonlight accentuated the change in his demeanor. "'Ey, Chiri. Yah okay?" Tasuki asked after some time. He clenched his hands into fists as he fought the urge to place a hand on his arm. "Somethin' happen while I was gone?"

"No, no," Chichiri replied. He shook his head before giving Tasuki a small yet unconvincing smile. "Just thinking about a conversation I had with Miaka this afternoon, no da." He looked down just as the mask held so long in his hand vanished, its magic finally evaporating with disuse, but he hesitated to conjure another. If he began trying to avoid Tasuki now, the implications for the mission to Hokkan and to summon Suzaku seemed dire. Kounan, and Miaka in particular, couldn't afford disunity among her celestial warriors. Any perceived weakness could be interpreted by Kutou and the Seiryuu as an opportunity to strike.

"Miaka? Whad'd she say?" Tasuki noted the disappearance of the mask as he watched him. He was a bit surprised that Chichiri hadn't conjured another to take its place. Did he really trust him that much? Even after last night?

"She's confused, no da." Chichiri laced his fingers as he looked up and back into the silvered gardens. His eye followed a pair of snow-white swans as they slid across the glass-like surface of the pond just beyond his reach. So am I, no da. He felt Tasuki's arm move against his, accompanied by the soft whisper of his coat and the click of his boot heels as he shifted his stance. So am I. "Mostly about her friend and the Seiryuu, but also about her relationship with Tamahome, na no da."

Tasuki turned his head toward Chichiri as he moved, gaze tracing the line that melded his ebony coat into Chichiri's ivory tunic. "I figgered somethin' funny was goin' on. She blew 'im off real bad earlier," he said, gaze moving slowly up his arm and over his shoulder. His eyes lingered for a moment where Chichiri's jaw met his neck, just below his ear. In his mind, Tasuki could hear him moan, a breathy sound against the side of his face as he kissed him there, tongue eagerly exploring the soft flesh of his earlobe... Heart racing, he took a deep breath and sternly reminded himself he wasn't there to fantasize. He continued upward to his face before settling on his eye. "But we saw 'im at th' festival. An' Miaka took off just 'fore me an' Nuriko saw 'im, so they musta made up er somethin'."

"Perhaps, no da." If only it were that easy, no da, he thought. For both of us...

Silence reigned once more between them. "Yah shoulda come with us," Tasuki said finally, turning his gaze back out into the quiet gardens. "Lots o' people wanderin' around, but there was music an' shows an' people sellin' stuff." He reached into his pocket and rummaged around for the coin charm. His fingers brushed against the cool metal and taking it in his hand, he held it tightly. How th' fuck am I s'pose'ta do this?

Sex he understood. The rather frequent trips to the brothels in Souun with Kouji had taught him much, even if on only one of those trips had he been with a man. Lust and passion, the feel of another willing body under his, the rush of release: those things came naturally to him and he prided himself on his ability. But he was totally out of his depth with this mushy relationship stuff. He yearned to fuck Chichiri with all of his being and he had no clue what would happen after he did, but the need to be around him all the time, the overwhelming giddiness he felt in his presence, and the intense desire he had to protect him were things he'd never experienced with a prostitute or anyone else before.

"Nuriko gotta prize fer winnin' a strength contest, too."

Chichiri chuckled, a wry smile on his lips. "Well, that's not very fair, is it, no da?"

"He picked th' other guy up an' got 'im spinnin' 'round on 'is hand like a fuckin' top." Tasuki smiled himself as he heard Chichiri laugh aloud and turned back to him to see a wide grin spread across his face. "Th' guy was screamin' so loud yah'd think 'e was gonna fuckin' die." He kept his focus on that one beautiful eye, tracing the gentle slant it made toward the side of his face. "By th' time Nuriko put 'im down," he said, nearly beaming, "'e was so fuckin' dizzy yah just knew 'e was gonna puke."

Chichiri shook his head, still laughing. "That sounds exactly like something he'd do, no da."

"Called 'im 'The Strongest Woman in Kounan' when 'e won. They didn't even notice 'e was a guy. An' they gave 'im all this girly stuff, too."

"I wish I'd been there to see that, no da."

A nervousness Tasuki hadn't expected flooded his stomach. His heart beat faster as he turned the coin over and over in his palm. "I wish yah'd been there, too," he whispered.

Chichiri's laughter died away as he turned to Tasuki, his brow furrowed and his lips slightly parted. Please don't...

"Chiri, I gotta tell yah somethin'–"

A deep, resonant boom cut through the moonlit night, effectively silencing him. The pair of swans on the pond leapt into the air in a cacophony of honking and flapping that reverberated across the water and the palace buildings. As the birds flew toward the north, a bright flash of crimson light exploded in the sky high above the treetops followed by a deafening crack. A shower of sparks fell earthward just as another bass rumble sounded and another flash lit up the garden with an emerald hue. More and more fireworks thundered into the sky from the direction of the marketplace.

Chichiri let out a small sigh of relief. "It's getting late," he said in the relative quiet between blasts. Standing up, he broke contact with the warmth of Tasuki's arm. The spot on his own arm where they'd touched seemed cold in the balmy night air. "I have an early day tomorrow, so I'm going to turn in, no da." I'm sorry, he thought as Tasuki looked at him in confusion. Words said in anger and in passion were nearly impossible to take back after being said. There could be nothing but broken promises and broken hearts if he let him finish that statement. With a word, he conjured another mask and smoothed it over his face, hiding his wistful look under its smile. "Good night, Tasuki, no da." Turning toward the guest palace, he walked away down the veranda.

A deep, guttural growl of frustration worked its way up from his chest as Tasuki watched him go. The bursting fireworks painted Chichiri's body in a succession of hues. He clamped his hand around the charm in his pocket, the rounded edges of it biting into his palm. He'd been here before: Chichiri's long ponytail swaying across his back as he walked away, the kesa around his shoulder rippling against his body. And Tasuki felt just as much in over his head now as he did when he watched him go that first night. "Dammit!" He slammed his fist down on the wooden balustrade in front of him with a powerful and resounding thud.



- o - o - o -

Flocks of gulls cried out in the warm mid-afternoon sun as they circled around the ship's bare masts. The ship's captain directed a handful of men with a list of last-minute preparations for their departure the next day. Sailors shouted to each other as they crossed and recrossed the deck, checking over the furled sails and rigging. The clank of armor rang throughout the harbor as soldiers rushed about carrying all manner of items to be loaded. Chichiri rifled through a crate one of them had brought onto the deck, searching for the week's worth of salted pork the manifest in his hand clearly showed was supposed to be there. A stiff breeze blew in over the canal, bringing with it the muddy mustiness of the water and the familiar grassy smell of hemp rope as it ruffled his bangs. This was the third item today that had been mismarked. He stifled a yawn behind his hand.

Miaka, Nuriko, and Tamahome had left for Tamahome's village hours ago and he still wasn't done inventorying the provisions. Chichiri knew it was his duty to oversee the packing of the ship and he would see it through, but he would much rather put his things in his cabin and go down into the marketplace for awhile. But I have to find that salted pork, no da. He sighed.

"Hello, Chichiri. How is the outfitting coming along?"

Chichiri turned to see Chiriko standing just steps from where he stood waist-deep in boxes and crates. He smiled. "Hello, Chiriko, no da. It's going about as well as you'd expect, no da."

"I see. Do you need any help?" Chiriko's green eyes sparkled with excitement. The hem of his teal silk coat flapped in the breeze and he tucked his small hands into its ample sleeves.

"No, no. I only have a few more crates to go through, no da. Thank you for the offer though, na no da."

The pounding of boot heels on wooden planking floated up from the staircase leading belowdecks. It sounded like someone was running up the stairs. Both Chichiri and Chiriko looked toward the sound in time to see Tasuki burst from the doorway.

"Hey, Chiriko!" he yelled as he hit the top step. Tasuki stopped short as his gaze found Chiriko before focusing behind him on Chichiri. "Oh. Hey." He never took his eyes from Chichiri even as he addressed Chiriko. "Yah want me t' help yah put yer stuff in yer room?"

Chiriko looked first at Tasuki, then following his line of sight, at Chichiri before returning his focus to Tasuki. "Yes, please. One of the soldiers carried my trunk onto the ship and put it over there by the gangway." With a nod, Tasuki continued past the pair toward the assortment of cartons and trunks still left to be distributed to their proper places in the lower decks. The wind caught the hem of his coat and ruffled his hair. "It's the one with the bronze padlock on the front," Chiriko called after him. "Excuse me, Chichiri." He gave Chichiri a small nod before following after Tasuki.

Chichiri watched the two of them walk away, a wistful smile on his lips. He shook his head and returned to his cataloging.



- o - o - o -

"Alright, which one 's it again?" Tasuki asked. It seemed that nearly every trunk that had been put on the ship had a bronze padlock. He cast a glance back at where Chichiri rummaged through yet another box. Why'd yah walk away last night? Tasuki thought as he watched him prop himself on the lip of the crate with one arm before leaning into it. The breeze pulled at his ponytail, spilling long blue strands down his shoulders and back.

Why did he feel so differently about Chichiri than he did about any of the other people he'd slept with, or wanted to? What exactly was it about him that made Tasuki want to take that beating he'd gotten in Kutou? He wanted to protect him and Miaka, he knew that, but it didn't really explain why he'd fought so long and so hard against such overwhelming odds. And what was it that made him leave Chichiri's chamber that night they'd nearly kissed without protest? He would never have given up an opportunity like that before, especially when he knew the other party was even halfway interested. And why was he even listening to Nuriko about this whole "doing it right" thing, aside from threat of injury?

"It's that one there." The sound of Chiriko's voice wrenched Tasuki's attention back to the matter at hand. Chiriko pointed to a modest black-lacquered chest painted with pleasant pastoral scenes in cinnabar.

Looking toward where Chiriko pointed, Tasuki hesitated a moment, brow furrowing. The trunk sat atop a short stack of crates closest to the ship's railing. Fuck. Turning back, he saw Chiriko watching him expectantly, a smile on his face. He couldn't beg off now. Not when he'd been the one to offer his help. Fuck. He took a deep breath to calm his racing heart and wiped his sweaty hands on the linen of his pants. Alright, Tasuki, yah can do this, he thought. Slowly, he turned back to the pile of boxes and keeping his focus on Chiriko's trunk, he waded in.

Tasuki picked his way past box after box, trying hard to avoid looking down over the side. Beads of sweat rolled down his face and he wiped his forehead with the back of his coat sleeve. This 's th' last fuckin' time I get on a boat. Any kinda boat. Ever. Attempting to drown out the cry of the gulls and shouts of the sailors on the pier below, he focused on the heavy sound of his inhalations and exhalations. He reached out and put a hand on the trunk. He let out a halfway-relieved sigh. Now he just had to get the thing down without paying attention to the harbor below or tripping on the other crates. He grasped the bronze handles on either side of the trunk and rested his forehead on the edge of its lid. Movement and the glint of metal out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. Huh? Temporarily forgetting his fear, Tasuki looked down over the side of the boat toward the dock.

He could make out the shape of a person behind a stack of boxes on the pier. As two dock workers walked past, it ducked down out of sight. What th' fuck's that guy doin'? He raised an eyebrow as the person popped up again and looked around, head whipping this way and that. He sidled along behind the screen of chests and trunks only to stop behind a rather large crate Tasuki knew held some of the rations Hotohori had given them for the trip. Wait a minute... The person looked around again then began to remove the lid. "Hey you!" he roared.

Chichiri's head jerked up at the sound of Tasuki's shout. He watched him leap easily over the tumult of crates and tear off down the gangway. Chichiri shot to his feet. "Tasuki!" he yelled and started after him.

"What's going on, Chichiri? Tasuki just–" Chiriko fidgeted with the hem of his sleeve as he watched Chichiri dash across the deck.

"Chichiri, what's wrong?" Mitsukake cut Chiriko off as he reached the top step of the stairway to the lower decks, brow furrowed. "I heard shouting," he called after Chichiri as the monk reached the top of the gangway.

"I don't know, no da." Chichiri looked down over the side of the ship, searching for Tasuki. Catching a glimpse of orange streaking down the pier, Chichiri sprinted after him. "Stay here, na no da," he threw over his shoulder.



- o - o - o -

"Stop, you!" Tasuki bellowed, fangs bared in a snarl. He leapt to the wooden pier from halfway up the gangway, landing with a loud thud before he was up and running again. The person behind the crates dropped the lid and took off down the pier. "Yer not gonna get away!" His divine speed quickly closed the distance between him and his quarry. Instinctively he reached for the tessen slung across his back. Dock workers and sailors ran for cover as he sped past and he hesitated. I can't flame all these people... He growled. Clenching his fist, he left the weapon in its holster.

Ahead of them, the pier ended abruptly out over the wide and still rain-swollen canal. The person he pursued stopped short at the edge. He looked down into the swirling water before turning back to face Tasuki. "Don't kill me, Warrior of Suzaku! I wasn't stealing from you!" he cried, bringing a vambrace-clad arm to his armored chest in salute. It was the same salute given to the Shichiseishi and the emperor of Kounan.

"What th' fuck?! Yer one o' our soldiers?!" Tasuki shouted, eyes wide. He stopped several paces in front of the soldier. "Why th' fuck were yah sneakin' 'round those boxes?" Crossing his arms over his chest, he scowled.

"I'm getting out of here," the soldier shot back. "Kounan isn't safe anymore. I'm going to Hokkan and getting away from this damned place while I still can."

"What th' fuck are yah talkin' about?"

"Kutou has thousands upon thousands of troops all massed at the border where my unit is stationed. Everyday, groups of soldiers dressed in black armor cross into Kounan, destroying villages and farmland." He took a step toward Tasuki. "Don't think those raiders aren't Kutou soldiers. Those savages don't just burn crops and houses. They kill every man and boy, rape every woman and girl, and steal everything that isn't too heavy to carry. They're butchers!"

"An' yah think you'll be spared 'cause you'll be in Hokkan?" Tasuki growled. "Kutou ain't gonna stop till every country's ground under their heel. Sure, you'll miss 'em destroyin' Kounan, but then what?" His eyes narrowed to slits. "Yah fuckin' coward!"

"Suzaku isn't coming to save us now! The summoning ceremony failed and now there's no way to call Suzaku to help us!" The soldier clenched his fists. "I heard that from someone in the palace, so stop acting like you don't know!"

"Yeah, th' ceremony failed! Yeah, we can't call Suzaku that way now! But that ain't th' only way t' do it, yah asshole!" Tasuki snorted in disgust. "What th' fuck is it with people givin' up so fuckin' soon?" he muttered.

Chichiri saw Tasuki standing in front of a young Kounan soldier several paces ahead of him down the pier. As he approached, he watched the angry teenager look at Tasuki for a moment, brow furrowed in suspicion. Chichiri stopped a few paces behind Tasuki just as the soldier spoke.

"There is?"

Returning to his tirade, Tasuki took a menacing step toward the soldier. "What are yah? Deaf? That's what I fuckin' said!" He growled again. "Yah make me fuckin' sick! Kounan's yer fuckin' country fer Suzaku's sake!" Drawing himself up to his full height, he stared the man down. "We've all got somebody we wanna protect, somebody we wanna keep safe no matter what, so be a man an' protect 'em like yer s'posed to! Now get th' fuck outta here 'fore I kick yer ass inta that canal!"

Tasuki... Chichiri watched Tasuki in awe for a moment. His vehemence surprised him.

"Yes, sir!" Eyes wide, the soldier scrambled past the furious redhead, giving him a wide berth before sprinting back down the pier the way he'd come.

"Fuckin' asshole kid," Tasuki mumbled to himself. The breeze tossed his hair into his eyes and across his nose as he turned to go back down the pier himself. He stopped short. His stomach jumped into his throat. "Chiri..." 'E came after me?

"Well, that's certainly one way to motivate people, no da," Chichiri chuckled, a wry smile on his lips. "I doubt the army will have trouble with him again, no da." He motioned for Tasuki to go ahead and fell in step next to him. "So, what was that all about, no da?"

"Some fuckin' kid was gonna hitch a ride t' Hokkan t' get away from war with Kutou," Tasuki said, arms still crossed. "'E said somebody in th' palace told 'im 'bout th' summonin' ceremony failin'."

"Hmm."

He turned to look at Chichiri as they walked. The brows of his mask furrowed as the edges of his perpetual smile dipped into a frown. The wind pulled at his kesa. "So what if people know 'bout it? That kid's gonna spread it around we can summon Suzaku anyhow," Tasuki said. "Don't worry so damn much."

"I hope you're right, no da. We can't afford a loss of morale, no da."

"Damn, yer depressin'. Why'd yah come down here anyway?" he asked, turning to Chichiri and giving him a roguish grin. "Worried 'bout me?" Tasuki snickered as a hint of red spread across Chichiri's pale cheeks.

Chichiri cleared his throat and returned his gaze to the pier before them. "We should let Mitsukake and Chiriko know everything's alright, no da."

Tasuki also looked off down the pier and smiled to himself.



- o - o - o -

Tasuki blanched upon reaching the bottom of the gangway. His eyes widen in horror as he glanced down over the side of the pier. "Ah, fuck." He swallowed hard. Chichiri started up the gangway without him and he grabbed his shoulder in panic. Sweat broke out on his forehead and he quickly looked up into the sky, heart racing. "Don't go."

Chichiri tensed at the touch, an electric spark running down his spine. He turned back, brow furrowed slightly. Tasuki, usually so brash and self-assured, trembled where he stood. His grip was so tight that his knuckles stood out white against the tan of his skin. Why? Tasuki shifted nervously back and forth. He looked more vulnerable and young than Chichiri had ever witnessed. Why do I feel this way about you... Standing there, watching him like that, Chichiri felt both deep longing and a deep sadness. ...when I can't have you? With a sigh, he pushed the thoughts aside and gave Tasuki a wry smile. "You got down here by yourself, no da."

"Yer fuckin' evil, yah know that?" He clung to Chichiri's arm as if it were life itself.

Chichiri winced. Chuckling softly, he shook his head. "Alright. I'll help you out, but I refuse to carry you, no da."

Tasuki squeezed his eyes shut and rested his forehead on the hand he'd put on Chichiri's shoulder. He let Chichiri lead him up the gangway, one small step at a time. Somewhere above him, he could hear hard-soled shoes on wood, the creak of hemp ropes in the stiff breeze, and the plaintive cry of gulls. He breathed in deeply, focusing on the feel of the soft and warm linen under his fingers and the familiar scent of Chichiri around him. Under any other circumstances, he would be much too aroused by how close they were to really notice the calm confidence Chichiri exuded. But, blind and anxious, Tasuki reveled in it. Reminds me a lot o' th' old boss, he thought and let out an uneven but contented sigh.

"Chichiri, Tasuki. Is everything alright?" Mitsukake asked as the two men reached the deck of the ship. He looked back and forth between the monk and the redhead clinging to him. Chiriko stood next to him, mirroring Mitsukake's concerned expression.

"Everything's fine, no da. Tasuki just decided he needed to scare the wits out of one of our soldiers, na no da." He chuckled as Tasuki's head jerked up, his eyes flying open with a snort of indignation.

"What?!" Tasuki scowled, fangs poking out at the corners of his mouth. Removing his hand from Chichiri's shoulder, he crossed his arms over his chest. "Shuddup, Chichiri! Th' guy was desertin' 'is post an' tryin' t' sneak outta th' fuckin' country!"

"This isn't a good omen." Chiriko stepped forward and looked up at the three taller men. "Even one of Kounan's soldiers attempting to desert could signal weakness to our enemies."

Mitsukake crossed his arms over his broad chest and frowned.

"Ah, fer Suzaku's sake, stop yer fuckin' worryin'." Tasuki looked back and forth between the scholar, the healer, and the monk. "Do yah get together an' decide ev'ry mornin' how yer all gonna act fer th' day er somethin'? That kid's goin' straight back to 'is post. I made damn sure o' that." He looked to each man for a reaction to his statement, but he found none. The same disconcerted look graced their faces in turn. Rolling his eyes, Tasuki threw up his hands and started for the pile of crates he'd left earlier. "Fine, do whatcha fuckin' want. I'm takin' Chiriko's stuff below like I said I would," he threw back over his shoulder.

"We should be especially vigilant from here on," Chiriko said as the three of them watched the irritated redhead wade hesitantly through the boxes and grab Chiriko's trunk. "If war does become inevitable, the morale of the populace will be of utmost importance."

Mitsukake looked down. "I agree. Hope can be the difference between a person's will to live or die." He glanced up at Chichiri, looking for a response and raised an eyebrow.

Chichiri only nodded, eyes following Tasuki across the ship's deck to the stairway belowdecks. A frown graced Tasuki's lips. His unruly hair was tossed about his handsome face by the wind. As he stomped down the stairs and disappeared into the deep shadow, Chichiri sighed.

Mitsukake and Chiriko turned toward the stairway in unison before turning to the distracted monk.

"If you'll excuse me," Chiriko said, exchanging a silent look with Mitsukake, "I need to direct Tasuki where to put my things." He gave both older seishi a smile before he walked off.

Shaking his head, Chichiri looked up at the position of the now-late-afternoon sun. "I need to get the inventory completed before we leave tomorrow, no da." Bringing his focus back down to Mitsukake, he was surprised to see the healer looking at him already. "I'll see you later, Mitsukake, no da." With a smile, he headed toward the almost-forgotten stack of crates he had been searching earlier that afternoon.

"Of course," Mitsukake said. He watched Chichiri for a moment before he moved toward the stairway and the resumption of his own unpacking.



- o - o - o -

"It is beyond comprehension. Those poor children..." Hotohori shook his head, eyes downcast. Next to him, Chichiri mirrored his look of shock and sadness.

Miaka watched the two men react to the news of Tamahome's family's death, her brow furrowed. She clasped her hands in front of her. Warm morning sunshine bathed the city harbor in a golden glow. It was a sharp contrast to the somber mood now enveloping them.

"'Ey, Tamahome!"

The three of them glanced up from their place on the pier at the sound of Tasuki's voice. He stood on the deck of the ship, a fanged grin on his face. His arms were crossed and a light breeze tousled his hair.

"You look exhausted. Whatcha been doin', eh? Havin' a little too much fun?" He guffawed at Tamahome's irked expression. A smirk of victory crossed his face, but just as quickly, it turned to a look of terror. Tamahome rushed toward Tasuki and grabbed his leather coat, hauling him bodily to the wooden bulwarks around the ship's main deck. Tasuki struggled to free himself, kicking and fighting against both Tamahome and the panic rising in him. "Nooo!" Tasuki cried. He clamped his hands down on the rail with all his might as Tamahome tried to push him overboard.

"Let them be for now," Hotohori said, watching as Tamahome grinned and smacked Tasuki in the head before relenting and letting him stand.

Chichiri watched Tasuki take a few hasty steps back from the side and rub the back of his head. Tasuki frowned and a look of embarrassment played on his face. "I'll tell Tasuki about it a little later, no da. I think Tamahome likes his reckless cheerfulness, na no da."

"I suppose." Hotohori smiled. "That's fine."

Chichiri sighed. If he and Tasuki had met years ago, in another time, another life, then maybe... He started as Tasuki glanced down over the rail at him. Tasuki's frown evaporated, replaced by a beautiful, if crooked, fanged smile. He waved down to him.

Suzaku, why are you doing this to me? Chichiri's heart hurt as he waved back and looked away.

"Hotohori." The two men returned their attention to Miaka. She looked up at the emperor. "Please be careful, Hotohori. I don't know when the enemy will show up here again."

He smiled. "Do not worry about me, Miaka. You must all stay alert and on your guard."

"I'll be fine now," she said, her eyes full of determination. "I finally decided to fight."

"Miaka..." Hotohori regarded her for a long moment before he spoke again. "Take this sword with you, Miaka." He held the ornate sword, sheathed in its cinnabar-hued lacquered scabbard, out to her. Its gilded hilt shone in the sunlight, rainbows of iridescent colors flowing across the inlaid mother-of-pearl surface of the sword's cross-guard.

"What?" Miaka gaped as she looked down at it, then up at Hotohori's face. "But that's the sword Taiitsukun gave to you," she said, taking it very gently into her hands.

"I cannot go along with you on this quest. So, I am committing my strength into this sword and entrusting it to you. If anything should go wrong, use it to save yourself."

Hugging the sword to her chest, she smiled. "Thank you, Hotohori. Thank you. I promise to take good care of it."

The sound of creaking hemp rope and the shouts of sailors on the ship's deck heralded their imminent departure. Chichiri guided Miaka to the gangway before following after. Above them, the massive canvas sails rose up the towering fore-, main-, and mizzenmasts, their bamboo battens clacking. Two young sailors rushed Miaka and Chichiri up on deck before pulling the gangplank aboard and stowing it against the bulwarks.

"Take care of yourself," Hotohori called as the sails caught the morning breeze and began to pull the ship away from the dock.

Miaka, flanked by the balance of her celestial warriors, waved to Hotohori, still clutching his holy sword. "Until we meet again," she shouted.





Glossary of Terms for Chapter 5

Silver River → Chinese name for the Milky Way

The Legend of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd → A mortal young boy (cowherd), with only his magical cow for company, sees the immortal weaver goddess taking a bath at the riverside. Sneaking over, her takes her clothes, forcing her to stay on Earth. They marry and love each other very much, eventually having children. The magical cow dies and instructs the cowherd to keep his hide for emergencies. Word of their union eventually gets back to the god and goddess of the heavens, the Jade Emperor and Empress, and they are not happy. The Jade Emperor sends his warriors to bring the weaver goddess back to the heavens when the cowherd was not home. Finding his wife gone, the cowherd dons the magic cowhide, takes his children, and goes after the weaver goddess. He manages to catch up to the weaver goddess at the shore of the Silver River and wades in after her. The Jade Empress uses her hairpin to turn the river into a churning torrent, preventing the cowherd from following. The weaver goddess and cowherd were so heartbroken they stood at opposite sides of the river, pining after the other. Eventually, the Jade Emperor and Empress relented and let the couple meet one day a year. On this day, magpies from Earth would fly up and make a bridge of their bodies across the Silver River for the weaver goddess and cowherd to meet each other.

Qiaoguo → thin dough made of oil, flour, sugar, and honey and pressed into shapes relevant to Qi Xi (when it is traditionally served) before being fried to a golden color

Pipa → 4-string Chinese lute played with the fingernails of the right hand

Konghou → Chinese harp; the strings are folded over to create two parallel rows

Hengdi → Chinese flute played horizontally like modern flutes

Love Pouch → silk bag, usually meant to be filled with perfume and worn on one's person, exchanged between lovers (idea came about due to perfume pouches being intimate objects)

Li → a hexagram in the I Ching symbolizing fire

Fore-Main-and Mizzenmasts → the forward-most, center, and rear-most masts on a three-masted ship

Batten → a thin strip of wood inserted in a sail to keep it flat

Souun → western capital of Kounan, located in the valley between Mount Reikaku and neighboring Mount Kaou




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