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.

"So, how long is this journey supposed to take, Chiriko?" Miaka asked as both stood at the rail of the ship's quarterdeck. The trailing ends of each ribbon around her odangos fluttered as a steady breeze played with her bound hair. Ahead of them, the canal stretched out to the horizon, a sparkling stripe under the early afternoon sun. To either side rose steep, rounded mountains covered with thick green forest.

"If we continue at this pace, we should reach Hokkan in another four days." He looked up at her, his eyes alight. "This vessel is magnificent. It's a real honor for His Highness to allow us use of it."

She smiled, tucking a wayward lock of hair behind her ear. "I wish Hotohori could have come with us. I'm sure he would have loved to see this part of Kounan."

"By the way, Miaka," Chiriko said, putting his hands into the sleeves of his coat, "have you seen Tasuki lately? I saw him right after we left the dock this morning, but not since then."

"I don't know." Miaka glanced around the quarterdeck and up toward the weather deck, a wry look on her face. The stern was empty save for two sailors guiding the ship's rudder. With a frown, she looked back toward the stem. "Chichiri, have you seen Tasuki?" she called to the monk, who sat cross-legged at the edge of the ship's open bow.

Chichiri turned at the sound of his name. "Not since this morning, no da," he shouted. Rising to his feet, he walked up the main deck to join them. The wind pulled at his kesa and his ponytail rippled behind him. He cocked his head. "Why, no da?"

"Well, you'd think he'd want to be up here on deck with us since he's usually so excited to go new places."

"I'm not sure that excitement extends to boat travel, no da." Chichiri chuckled. "But, I'll go see if I can find him, no da." I should probably tell him about Tamahome as well, he thought.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

"Go away, Nuriko," Tasuki groaned and pulled his knees in closer to his chest.

Nuriko giggled. "You can't stay in here for the entire trip, no matter how bad you feel." Crossing his arms over his thin chest, he gave him a wry smile. "People are going to start wondering where you are and come looking for you, you know."

"I don' care." Tasuki lay curled up on his side on his bunk, head pillowed on one arm. "Let 'em fuckin' look. I ain't leavin'." With a moan, he closed his eyes and tried to bury his face in the mattress.

Nuriko shook his head at Tasuki's theatrics. "Even if Chichiri was the one who found you like this?"

"I'd get more fuckin' sympathy from 'im than I'm gettin' from you," Tasuki said, words muffled by the sheets.

Pushing himself away from the wall where he stood, Nuriko looked down on the pallid redhead. The subtly flickering light from the bronze oil lamp hanging in the far corner cast the entire cabin in a dreamy twilight. "Did you tell him?"

Tasuki lifted his head just enough that he could peer up with one glassy eye. "I didn' get a chance."

"You didn't 'get a chance?'" Nuriko huffed and rolled his eyes. "What were you doing after I sent you back to the palace? You didn't even talk to him, did you?"

"I did too fuckin' talk to 'im," he growled weakly. "I looked 'im right in th' eye, said, 'Chiri, I gotta tell yah somethin',' an' then th' fuckin' fireworks went off an' 'e left."

"You have to tell him, Tasuki."

"Yah don't think I fuckin' know that?" Tasuki moaned and curled farther into his fetal position. "I'm gonna tell 'im, okay? Just gimme some time."

"Fine," Nuriko grumbled as he reached for the bronze pull on the cabin's door, "but if you haven't done it by the time we find the Shinzahou, I'm doing it for you." Pulling the heavy door open, he stepped out into the narrow hall between the passenger compartments and closed it with a quiet thud.

With a whimper, Tasuki wiped the sweat rolling down his cheeks and forehead away with the back of his tunic sleeve and put his face back into the mattress. His head throbbed in time to the beat of his heart. Gettin' my ass kicked by Tama was easier 'an this, he thought. An' less painful. He groaned and placed a hand over his stomach. Closing his eyes, he could still see Chichiri leading him up the gangway the day before in his mind.

It had never occurred to him until yesterday that the feeling of confidence and caring he got from Chichiri was nearly identical to the feeling he had gotten from Hakurou. He'd felt safe and valued with Hakurou, something he never experienced at home, either from his overbearing mother and submissive father or his domineering older sisters. And when he'd met the leader of the bandits, he knew he'd found someone he could look up to, someone he could give his loyalty to without question. In a lot of ways, it turned out, Chichiri was the same. But I never wanted t' sleep with th' ol' boss... He tried to shake his head before moaning again in pain.

A quiet knock on the cabin door followed by the sound of light footsteps across the wooden floor broke into his thoughts. "Go th' fuck away, Nuriko," he tried to growl, but it came out as a muffled and irritated groan.

"This situation seems very familiar, no da. But you seemed a lot happier to see me the last time, na no da."

"Chiri," Tasuki gasped. He hadn't expected Chichiri to actually come looking for him despite what he'd said to Nuriko. Nor could he let him see him in such a state. Quickly he tried to sit up, but the sudden movement set the room spinning, exacerbating his nausea. Clutching one hand over his stomach and the other over his mouth, he crumpled back against the wooden cabin wall in a heap. A whimper escaped him, half-squelched by his hand.

Chichiri sat down on the edge of the narrow mattress. He took Tasuki's shoulders and guided him to lie back down. "You really shouldn't move around so fast when you're seasick, no da," he said. Tasuki curled into a ball on his side, his hair obscuring his handsome, if pale and sweat-sheened, face.

Tasuki lay still for a long while, the creak of planking as the boat sailed on and his own shallow breaths the only sounds. Closing his eyes, he tried to ride out the tide of nausea rising in his stomach as best he could. The scent of sunshine, sweet, fresh air and Chichiri soon replaced the stuffy atmosphere in the tiny cabin and he felt a bit less anxious. "I feel like shit," Tasuki said finally.

Chichiri chuckled. "I know. You look like it, na no da."

"Oh, ha ha." With a soft growl, Tasuki tried to wipe as much of the sweat rolling down his face away as he could, but really only managed to stick several locks of his unruly mane to his cheek. "Just fuckin' kick a guy when 'e's down, why don'tcha?"

Gazing down, Chichiri couldn't help feeling sympathy for Tasuki's plight. His own younger sister had never gotten over her seasickness, no matter how many trips they'd made down the Shouryuu River to Souen and back. Though, she wasn't nearly as ill-tempered about it, no da, he thought. The perpetual smile of his mask took on a rueful quality. He missed her dearly and his guilt for surviving cut especially keenly when he was reminded of her. Why did she and everyone else have to die? So that I could fulfill my fate as part of the Shichiseishi? He traced the strands of fiery hair that fell over Tasuki's nose and stuck to his face and the lines of his body curled up on the mattress next to him with his eyes. His brow furrowed. So that I could meet and lose control of myself to this reckless teenager? Even if that were true, that somehow fate and Suzaku had some part in all of this, it had to be a cruel joke. Why would Suzaku, the god of love itself, torture him this way? As punishment for Hikou? Hesitantly, Chichiri reached out and placed a hand on Tasuki's tunic-clad shoulder. "Getting some fresh air up on deck would really help with the nausea and the dizziness, no da."

Tasuki sighed at the warmth of Chichiri's touch. "An' how d' you know?" His voice was a sleepy rumble, only a mere hint of his previous irritation remaining. The situation did remind him of the night after they'd returned from Kutou and Chichiri had come to visit him. At that time, bandaged, confined to bed, and delirious from Mitsukake's medication, he'd wanted to fall asleep next to him. An' now I get my wish, he thought with a smile, long as I don't puke.

Chichiri chuckled. "I've been around, remember, no da?"

Slowly, Tasuki shifted closer until he could feel the warmth radiating off of Chichiri's body and smell the traces of the sandalwood incense the man always seemed to be burning. "Yeah, yeah. I remember." He snickered, elated even through the headache, the fatigue, and the nausea that Chichiri didn't hold his attempted kiss that night against him.

Silence descended over the small room. I should probably tell him now, Chichiri thought. He didn't relish what he had to say, but it had to be said. "Tasuki?" he said after a long moment, dropping the silly tone and removing his hand from his shoulder. Tasuki opened his eyes and looked up at him through the curtain of his bangs. "Lighten up on Tamahome for awhile, alright?"

"Tama?" Tasuki leaned his shoulder back against the cabin wall, allowing him to see Chichiri's face more fully. "'S this about this mornin'? He ain't still pissed at me, is 'e? 'Cause I was just kiddin' with 'im."

"Not exactly. He's been through a lot in the past few days."

Tasuki frowned. The brows of Chichiri's mask were furrowed, his perpetual smile nearly absent. The stark seriousness in his expression and his voice worried him. "What's goin' on, Chiri?" he asked. He wasn't quite sure if he really wanted the answer. Fighting both the nauseousness and the vertigo, he managed to push himself up to sitting and leaned heavily on the wall behind him.

Chichiri glanced down at the rumpled sheets on the mattress, tracing the tangle of linen with his eyes. "Tamahome's family was killed by one of the Seiryuu Warriors in retaliation for the death of Amiboshi."

"Holy shit... How?"

Chichiri could hear the shock and the horror in Tasuki's voice. "Amiboshi's brother, Suboshi, sought them out and turned his weapon on them," he whispered. "I'm told the attack came without warning." He shook his head. "It was exceedingly gruesome." A noise, somewhere between a whimper and a growl, caught his attention and he looked up, breath hitching in his throat.

"Those fuckin' bastards," Tasuki hissed, illness forgotten. A look of burning anger and devastating sorrow played across his face. Great salty tears welled up in his eyes. "T' go after defenseless little kids an' ol' men..." The tears began to roll down his cheeks, their paths sparkling in the dim lamplight. His brow furrowed and he drew his hands into fists. A nearly guttural growl worked its way up from deep within his chest. "Damn them! Those fuckin' cowards!" Slamming one fist down into the thin mattress, he lowered his head. He quietly began to cry, shoulders shaking as he tried to keep it in.

Tasuki... Chichiri watched him for a long moment, unsure of what to do. He knew Tasuki could be exceptionally sensitive, occasionally showing a vulnerability that seemed very much at odds with his outward cocky bravado. Yet, the tears caught him off guard. It still amazed him just how much of his heart, feelings, and thoughts Tasuki was willing to share with anyone and everyone. Some part of him envied his ability to be that open.

Still, Chichiri had never felt very comfortable dealing with other people's sorrow, even as an older brother. Perhaps, he thought, he had too much of his own to deal with without taking on anyone else's. But, against his better judgment and the feeling he was getting much too close, he couldn't just let Tasuki cry without trying to do something to comfort him. "Tasuki?" he murmured and hesitantly placed a hand on his arm.

Chichiri gasped as Tasuki let out a strangled sob and threw his strong arms around him, dropping his forehead onto his shoulder. Chichiri's eyes fluttered closed. The swell of something long forgotten and much more dangerous than physical desire rose in his chest as his heart skipped a beat. Suzaku... He heard Tasuki whimper next to his ear and felt him shudder against his chest as he cried. I can't do this, Chichiri thought disjointedly. I can't... He let out a nearly imperceptible sigh as Tasuki shifted, burying his face in his neck. Faint hints of balsam and leather hung in Tasuki's hair and on his sweat-dampened tunic. Heart pounding against his ribs, Chichiri laid his cheek atop Tasuki's head, unable to resist nuzzling his face into his hair. Gently, he drew his arms around him.

Time slowed to a near-halt in the dream-like dimness of the bronze oil lamp. It swung back and forth on its bronze chains, tracing and retracing shadow and highlight over the wooden walls and plank flooring of the cabin. Tasuki sniffled as he tried to force himself to stop sobbing. He felt embarrassed to let Chichiri see him cry like this, but he was glad the monk hadn't decided to leave. Removing himself from Chichiri's embrace, anger began to outweigh his sadness. "Why? Why'd they hafta die?" he demanded. He wiped at his tears with the back of a tunic sleeve. Blinking a few times, he looked into Chichiri's eyes, vision half-blurred by tears that continued to slide down his pale cheeks."Those poor little kids an' that ol' man didn't do anythin' t' anybody." He growled and again pounded his fist into the mattress. "Damn those fuckin' Seiryuu cowards! We can't let 'em get away with this!"

Chichiri took a tremulous breath. Tamahome's family was dead and he knew no small part of it was due to his preoccupation with the young man before him. He shook his head. If he had detected Amiboshi earlier, before they'd burned The Universe of the Four Gods and lost the chance to summon Suzaku that way, they might still be alive. He had to regain his detachment before anyone else got hurt, especially Tasuki. The only thing he could do now was redouble his efforts to find the Shinzahou and complete their mission. "We won't, but revenge isn't the answer." He looked away, reliving that moment at the river's edge, and another death he'd caused, again in his mind. "Revenge is never the answer."

"Chiri..." Wiping his tears once more with his sleeve, Tasuki regarded him. Something about Chichiri's tone gave him the distinct impression that he wasn't speaking as a monk, but from experience. Why would 'e say somethin' like that? Tasuki wondered. So much about Chichiri remained a mystery to him.

"Just keep the teasing to a minimum for awhile, okay, no da?" Chichiri looked back up. His perpetual smile and silly tone of voice were in place once more. Reaching out, he placed a hand on Tasuki's shoulder. "And consider coming up on deck for some air, no da." With a gentle squeeze, he let go and rose from the edge of the mattress. "You'll definitely feel better, na no da." He crossed the floor and pulled opened the cabin door. As he moved to leave, he paused and looked back at the wan bandit, brows furrowed. "My younger sister always got terrible seasickness on boat trips, no da." He left, pulling the door closed behind him.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

Sunset descended over the canal and surrounding valley, painting the sky in a palette of oranges, pinks, and purples. The sun nestled into the trees just above a forested mountain far to the west. Its vermilion color reminded Chichiri strongly of Tasuki. Pushing the thought aside, he returned his attention to Chiriko.

The scholar pulled an unassuming scroll from inside his teal coat. A grin of pride lit up his face. He untied the neat bow in the red ribbon holding it closed with small, deft fingers. "Mitsukake? Chichiri? Nuriko? Can you all please hold the edges of the map so everyone can see it?" he asked, looking up.

"Of course, Chiriko." Mitsukake took one corner, positioning his big hand as close to the edge as possible so as not to cover the image. Chichiri and Nuriko followed suit and soon the three of them had the meticulously drawn map open for view.

Sailors traveled up and down the main deck lighting lanterns to combat the rapidly falling twilight in pairs. One carried oil and the other flint. Two young sailors lit the lantern hanging from a bronze ring attached to the mainmast above the Shichiseishi's heads with a snap and a small shower of sparks. It cast a bright yellowy sphere of light around them and illuminated the delicate outlines on the paper scroll.

Chichiri examined the drawing. "This map is extremely detailed, Chiriko, no da. Where did you get it, no da?"

"I copied it from several sources I found while investigating the imperial library back at the palace," he said. Mitsukake placed a hand on his thin shoulder and Chiriko beamed.

"You drew this freehand?" Nuriko asked, looking up from the scroll.

"Yes. Although some parts of it I had to guess at as they weren't depicted on any of the older maps and atlases I studied."

Miaka stepped forward and traced the charcoal-black ink lines and shapes with a slender forefinger. "Wow, Chiriko, this is amazing!" she marveled. Looking up from the page, she frowned and cocked her head. "What is it a map of again?"

"'E just told us durin' dinner, yah idiot! Weren't yah listenin'?"

Nuriko turned to see Tasuki descending the short staircase to the main deck. His arms were folded across his chest and irritation was written across his still-pale face. Tasuki had once again donned his leather coat, its long hem flapping in the breeze.

"Glad you could join us, Tasuki," Nuriko giggled. "Feeling any better?"

"I'm fine, thank yah very fuckin' much," he growled. His eyes shone in the semi-darkness as the sun retreated behind the mountains and the sky began to fade to a deep navy. Like I'm gonna tell 'im I had t' puke twice comin' up 'ere, he thought. He made a show of looking away toward the quarterdeck, much to Nuriko's amusement. Once Nuriko returned his focus to the map, Tasuki gazed at Chichiri. A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

"It's a map of Kounan and Hokkan," Chiriko said. "Specifically of the canal and river systems linking the two countries." Pointing to a small stylized image of a grouping of buildings near the bottom of the scroll, he continued. "This is where we started our journey, in Eiyou." Following a winding ink path out from the capital, he stopped about a hand's breadth from where he began. "By my calculations, this is approximately our current location."

"Hey, Miaka." Nuriko looked up from the map. "Shouldn't Tamahome be here for this, too?"

She smiled and shook her head. "Just let him sleep for now. We can tell him about it later."

Mitsukake leaned down, closer to the map, eyebrow raised. "The canal ends inside the Kounan border." Tama-neko stuck his furry head out of Mitsukake's coat and placed a small white paw on the paper. "Tama," he warned and with a plaintive meow, the cat climbed up to his shoulder.

"Yes. At this point here," Chiriko nodded, pointing to a wider, blue ink line running across the upper portion of Kounan, "we will bear west along the Shouryuu River for a time, then continue the trek north across the ocean, ultimately entering this canal here once we reach Hokkan territory."

"The Shouryuu River, no da..." Chichiri trailed off, brows furrowed. He knew it was the only direct way to get across the great inland sea between the four empires and to the canal that ran closest to the capital of Hokkan. Still, the idea of sailing once more on the same waters that had claimed his former life made him uneasy.

"Chichiri?"

He looked up at the sound of his name to find Miaka looking at him with concern. He let his mask and its smile cover his discomfort. "We'll be very close to Kutou's border for several li once we're on the river, no da. We should be prepared for a possible ambush, na no da."

"He's right. The Seiryuu Seven might try to keep us from reaching Hokkan." Chiriko tucked his hands into the sleeves of his coat against the cool night breeze beginning to blow in across the canal.

Tasuki snorted in disgust. "Let 'em fuckin' try it. I'm lookin' forward t' kickin' their sorry asses." Stepping away from his place against the mast, he stalked across the deck toward the rest of the group, fangs bared. "Anybody who can kill innocent little kids like that deserves t' die."

Nuriko's braid slid off his shoulder as he cocked his head. "I take it you told him about Tamahome's family, Chichiri?"

"I did, no da."

"We should cross the Hokkan border in three days at our current rate of speed." Chiriko motioned for Mitsukake, Chichiri, and Nuriko to let go of the map and began to reroll it.

"Great. I can't wait t' get off this damn boat," Tasuki said sourly.

Miaka hugged her arms around herself. "Boy, has it gotten cold out here since the sun went down!" Looking up into the sky, a cloud of moths flitting back and forth around the lantern caught her attention.

On Mitsukake's shoulder, Tama-neko also noticed the moths. Tail twitching with excitement, the cat looked eagerly back and forth as the little insects darted past. A small black-and-white-winged moth flew in wide circles around his head, close enough for him to swat at it a few times. It danced and dived just out of his reach as if taunting him.

"Don't, Tama," Mitsukake warned as the cat adjusted its position on his shoulder in preparation to strike, but it was too late. The animal sprang at the moth, paws outstretched, and sailed through the air straight at Chichiri. "Tama!"

Chichiri turned in surprise at the sound and reached out to catch Tama-neko in his arms. The cat purred and rubbed his head against the man's chest. Chichiri shook his head with a chuckle. "You should probably leave the insects alone, no da. I think fish are much more your speed, na no da."

"I don't know about you guys, but I'm cold and tired. Why don't we call it a night?" Miaka looked at each man in turn before heading off toward the quarterdeck and the stairway belowdecks. "I'll see you all at breakfast tomorrow," she called over her shoulder.

"Miaka's right. We should all get some sleep. We will certainly need to be fully rested once we get into Hokkan." Tucking the map and his hands into his sleeves, Chiriko moved to follow her.

Sidling up to Tasuki, Nuriko put a staying hand on his arm.

He gave Nuriko a strange look. "Eh?"

Nuriko just shook his head and jerked his chin toward Chichiri and Mitsukake.

Scratching the little white cat behind the ears, Chichiri handed him over to Mitsukake. With a clearly guilty meow, Tama-neko jumped into Mitsukake's arms and wiggled into the warmth of his coat. "Bad boy, Tama," he scolded as the two seishi started off after Chiriko.

"I think it might work," Nuriko said. He crossed his arms over his thin chest and cocked his head as he watched them go.

Tasuki raised an eyebrow. "What 'might work?'"

Turning to him, Nuriko smiled. "You and Chichiri." He giggled as Tasuki's pallid face flushed a bright pink. "I mean, he is pretty weird, but he's also a really nice guy." Sighing theatrically, he clasped his hands together over his heart. "Why does everyone seem to be pairing up around here?!" he lamented. "If only His Majesty, Hotohori, would notice me! It's so unfair!"

Rolling his eyes, Tasuki snorted and turned to walk away.

"I'm serious, Tasuki." Nuriko fell into step with him as they crossed the length of the ship. The main and quarterdecks were cast in a yellowy twilight, lanterns creating small islands of illumination in the dimness. "You need to tell him."

"Damn, yer annoyin'. I told'ja I would an' I will."

Pausing before they descended the stairs, Nuriko gave Tasuki a scrutinizing look. "You'd better. Remember, by the time we find the Shinzahou or I tell him for you."

"Yeah, yeah. I got it th' first time." Motioning for Nuriko to go first, Tasuki waited for him to disappear, then shook his head. Dammit, I know already, but how th' fuck 'm I s'pose'ta do it? A frustrated growl bubbled up from his chest and he slammed his fist into the planks framing the stairway entrance. Irritation spent, he headed down the stairs, boot heels thudding loudly on the wooden steps.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

The wind ruffled Chiriko's sandy hair and tugged at the hem of his coat. "Am I holding it right, Chichiri?" he asked, looking up at the monk next to him.

"That's good, Chiriko no da. Hold it just like that, no da." The late afternoon sunlight bounced off the ship's wake as they sailed down the canal, the ripples glittering like trails of gemstones.

Tasuki stood on the quarterdeck looking down towards the main deck at the two of them, head cocked. The steady breeze that had followed them since they'd left port yesterday morning ruffled Chichiri's long bangs and ponytail and Tasuki smiled. Chichiri had seen him in several states of vulnerability so far this trip that, without the help of sedatives, he had never wanted to be seen in: terrified, seasick, and instead of treating him like an idiot like Tamahome or like a child like Nuriko, Chichiri had only chuckled in that gentle way of his and quietly set about trying to comfort him. No one had ever done that for him before. Maybe there was more to these feelings he had for him than just lust. He still wanted him more than anything else in his entire life, but he began to think that maybe just bedding him wasn't enough. Maybe he wanted more from him than just sex.

"Hey, whatcha doin'?" Tasuki asked as he flopped down on the edge of the quarterdeck between the short set of stairs down to the main deck and the solid wooden bulwarks running the length of the ship. As long as he kept his focus on the shoreline and his distance from the side, the nausea and the vertigo weren't nearly so bad. Chichiri and Chiriko both turned at the sound of his voice.

"Hi, Tasuki!" Chiriko beamed from atop a short wooden crate placed next to the side. In his small hands he held a black lacquered bamboo fishing rod. His eyes sparkled in the sunlight. "I'm going to catch a huge carp!"

Tasuki leaned over and put a hand on the boy's head, ruffling his hair. "Good fer you, Chiriko," he said, a fanged smile on his lips. "I guess th' kid's character's gone again."

Chichiri nodded and smiled himself as Tasuki swung his legs back and forth. His boot heels hit the wall beneath him with sharp, rhythmic thuds. He enjoyed the times when Tasuki didn't try so hard to be something he wasn't. "I'm teaching Chiriko how to fish, no da."

"I see that." Jerking his chin toward the bamboo pole in Chichiri's hand, he put his hands on the deck behind him and leaned his lithe body back on them. "Yah brought yer fishin' pole with yah, eh?" Seeing the simple rod again brought back memories of the night they'd nearly kissed and a shiver ran unbidden down his spine.

Chichiri chuckled. "It'll be a long time before I'll have the opportunity to fish in this canal again, so I thought, 'Why not?' no da." He turned his attention back to the silk thread dangling over the side of the ship to the waters below. "You look a lot better today, no da. How are you feeling, na no da?"

"Yeah," Tasuki said, looking Chichiri up and down with an appreciative eye. "I'm doin' good. I ain't completely back t' normal, but I don't wanna puke as much as I did yesterday."

Tasuki started as something rubbed up against his leather-coat-clad arm, and looking down, he found Tama-neko purring contentedly. The cat had never seemed too interested in him, preferring to spend the vast amount of his time with Mitsukake or Chichiri. Even on the trip to Kutou, Tama-neko had chosen to blaze his own trail or accompany Miaka throughout the palace. Tasuki couldn't remember getting even one backward glance from the cat during that time. Cocking his head, he removed his arm from the deck and the animal laid down right next to him.

Chichiri glanced over at the nonplussed redhead. Tasuki looked down at Tama-neko for a long moment. His hair fell over his nose and into his eyes and his earrings swung at his jaw. Hesitantly, he reached out to scratch him behind the ears. A faint smile graced Tasuki's lips as the cat meowed and purred louder.

Chichiri's mask took on a look of affection and an air of melancholy as he watched him. "Make sure you keep your eyes on the line, Chiriko, no da," he said after a moment and looked away. "Once the fish bites, you'll only have a few seconds to hook it or you'll lose it, na no da."

Brilliant sunshine poured down into the valley over the mountaintops. Dropping his head back on his shoulders, Tasuki gazed up into the azure sky. The sun felt warm on his face. He sighed. Just being on the ship still made him uneasy, but having Chichiri's calming aura nearby helped. High above, fluffy white clouds wandered slowly by, heading east on the breeze.

"Wow, Chichiri! You caught something!" Chiriko exclaimed, pulling Tasuki out of his reverie.

Tasuki watched Chichiri pull up on the fishing pole several times, each time letting it dip toward the water below before again pulling it up. After a few moments, Chichiri put the rod against the railing and leaned his body against it to anchor it. He pulled the silk thread up with deft hands. A small sky-blue fish with rosy gills squirmed on the end of the line. "What kinda fish's that?"

"It's a bitterling, no da," Chichiri replied and held the fish in a gentle hand as he worked to remove the hook. "They're very common in this part of Kounan, no da." Taking the fish into both hands, he leaned out over the rail and let it go. It fell back into the water with a muffled splash.

Tasuki cocked his head. "Hey, why're yah lettin' it go?" The fish was only about half the length of his forearm, but Chichiri had put effort into catching it. "What good's fishin' if yah ain't gonna keep whatcha catch?"

Chichiri straightened up and turned to him, chuckling. "I don't generally keep the fish I catch, na no da."

"What? Why? Don'tcha eat any o' 'em?"

"Only very rarely, no da." The breeze played with Chichiri's kesa, pulling the navy wool against his lean body. "If I can afford a meal, what need do I have to catch fish for food, na no da?"

"What kinda fuckin' sense does that make?" Tasuki muttered. He watched Chichiri rebait the hook with a small balled-up piece of bread and lower it back over the side. A lopsided, dreamy smile spread across his face. A lot about Chichiri confused him, but Tasuki respected the man and his convictions.

"Good afternoon, Tasuki, Chichiri." Mitsukake descended the stairs from the quarterdeck and stopped at the bottom. The two men nodded in greeting.

"Hi, Mitsukake!" Chiriko sang. Eagerness and excitement rolled off him in waves. "Chichiri's teaching me to fish!"

Mitsukake smiled. "That's good, Chiriko." He crossed his arms over his broad chest, the hem of his coat and the ends of his headband fluttering in the wind. "Did his character disappear?"

"Yup." Tasuki resumed banging his heels against the wall.

"It's alright, no da. I'm sure it will return before we reach Hokkan, na no da," Chichiri added over his shoulder.

Mitsukake nodded and watched Chiriko fidget with the lacquered fishing rod in his hands. "Have either of you seen Tama?"

"Yeah, 'e right here." Tasuki pointed at the small white cat nestled against his thigh. Tama-neko looked up at Mitsukake and meowed, but didn't move from his spot. "Fer some reason, 'e just laid down."

"He must like you."

"I'm sure he just wants a fish, no da."

"Hey!"

Mitsukake watched Tasuki scowl at Chichiri's comment and subsequent laughter, eyebrow raised. Aside from Chichiri's visit to see Tasuki after their return from Kutou and at meals, Mitsukake couldn't recall seeing them in the same place at the same time outside of Shichiseishi business. It surprised him to see the brash, cocksure redhead spending so much time with the quiet, reserved monk. Of course, he thought, they were on a ship and there was little chance of not running into the same person several times a day. Still, he was glad Chichiri was starting to interact more.

"You all look like you're having fun over here."

"Good afternoon, Nuriko," Mitsukake said. He nodded as Nuriko walked up next to Tasuki, hands on his hips. His braid flapped against his back.

"Nuriko, I'm catching fish!" Chiriko turned excitedly and nearly stepped off the crate on which he stood. Chichiri quickly reached out an arm and caught him before he tumbled to the deck. He let out a long sigh as Chiriko regained his footing. The beaming smile never left Chiriko's cherubic face.

Nuriko smiled. "Wonderful, Chiriko." The boy turned his attention back to the side of the ship and his fishing rod and began humming to himself. "His character's missing again, isn't it?"

"Yes." Mitsukake stepped aside to allow Nuriko to descend the stairs.

Nuriko walked over to the rail and glanced down into the cinnamon-colored waters. Silt and sediment stirred up by the heavy rains a few days prior still clouded the canal. "Do you think you'll catch anything today, Chichiri?" he asked, looking back up.

"'E already did," Tasuki replied. The breeze ruffled the lapels of his leather coat.

Chichiri glanced over at Tasuki, brow raised. Something about Tasuki answering for him reminded him of how he used to finish most of Hikou's sentences when he was a child. Shaking his head, he looked back at Nuriko.

"Oh good. Do you think you could catch me a few grass carp for tonight's dinner? I managed to convince the kitchen staff to let me do some cooking and I was thinking about making tangcu liyu."

Chichiri opened his mouth to reply but was promptly cut off by Tasuki.

"'E doesn't catch 'em t' eat 'em, yah moron." Tasuki smirked at Nuriko's frown.

"I wasn't talking to you, Tasuki," Nuriko shot back.

Chichiri looked at Tasuki for a moment, head cocked, his brow furrowed. He wasn't sure if he should be irritated by his interruptions or not. Tasuki seemed to have an uncanny way of inserting himself into conversations, even ones that had nothing to do with him. Or... He blinked a few times as a thought came to him. Is he trying to defend me? Just the idea of it brought a wistful look to his face and an ache to his chest. Why can't you just leave this thing between us alone? Sighing to himself, he spoke. "No, it's alright, no da. I don't mind, no da." He turned back to his fishing pole. "I can't guarantee I'll be able to catch anything else, but I'll give it a try, na no da."

"Thank you, Chichiri." Sticking his tongue out at the angry redhead, Nuriko crossed his arms over his thin chest in triumph.

Tasuki scowled. Why had Chichiri brushed off his defense of his catch and release method of fishing? What th' fuck, Chiri? he thought, baring his fangs in frustration. Yah make no fuckin' sense. He watched Chichiri for a moment before looking away toward the shoreline on the opposite side of the ship with a growl.

Across from him, Mitsukake raised an eyebrow.

"Chichiri! Chichiri! Something's pulling on my line!" Chiriko exclaimed.

"That's great, Chiriko, no da. Hold on tight and pull up on the pole to hook it, no da."

Chiriko tried to lift the lacquered rod with all his might, but the force of the fish on the line pulled the end of the pole ever downward. "Chichiri, I can't..." Big tears welled up in his eyes and he sniffled. "It's too heavy."

"It's alright, Chiriko, no da." Chichiri couldn't help smiling at Chiriko's tendency to cry about something when his character was missing. "I'll help you, na no da." Anchoring his own fishing rod between his hip and the wooden railing, he added his strength to the fight and helped Chiriko hold onto the fishing pole. "Alright," Chichiri said, once he was fairly certain he had it hooked securely, "now let the end of the rod dip down toward the water, no da. We want to tire the fish out so it's easier to pull up, na no da."

Miaka stopped at the top of the staircase to the main deck, hands clasped behind her back. She cocked her head, the hem of her uniform skirt fluttering. "Hi, guys. What are you doing over here?"

Mitsukake turned and smiled at her. "Good afternoon, Miaka."

"Hey." Tasuki looked up and nodded before returning his gaze to the fight between the scholar, the monk, and the obviously very large fish in the canal below. They again raised the end of the rod before allowing it to sink once more.

Nuriko walked over to the stairs just as Miaka descended them. "Chichiri and Chiriko are catching us dinner," he said and pulled his braid back over his shoulder.

A wide grin spread across Miaka's face and a lustful gleam appeared in her eyes. "That's right! We haven't eaten since lunch!"

"Yer hungry again already?" How th' hell can she eat so much? "Oh yeah." Tasuki smacked himself in the forehead. How could he forget? "Yer Miaka. Yer always hungry."

"I haven't seen Tamahome today," Nuriko said. He gave her a look of concern. "Is he alright?"

Miaka nodded. "Yeah, he's still sleeping. He was more exhausted when we got back to the ship yesterday morning than I thought."

"Okay, hold onto the pole and I'll pull up the line, no da."

Nuriko looked over as Chiriko tried to hold the fishing rod and stand on tiptoe to see over the side at the same time. "How's the fight going, Chichiri?"

Chichiri hauled up the silk strand, his biceps and the muscles of his forearms straining against the still-wild squirming of the fish. "Almost there, no da."

Tasuki looked him up and down, a thrill of desire running through him. Suzaku, but yer sexy... He knew Chichiri was fairly muscular despite his willowy frame–he'd seen it in wondrous detail only a few days ago–but watching him straining to pull up the fishing line made him appreciate his body all over again. "Doing it right" or not, he thought, he had to tell Chichiri exactly what he did to him if only to alleviate the near-constant state of arousal he'd been in since they'd met. He jumped down from his seat on the quarterdeck with a thud. He was glad that his long coat hid his erection.

Reaching down over the side, Chichiri slid his hand behind the tired fish's olive-hued operculum. He started as the full size of it sank in. "Apparently we're going to eat well tonight, no da." He hauled it over the side to surprised gasps and low whistles. The grass carp had to be at least as long as his arm and at least four times as heavy as Tama-neko. "Good job, Chiriko, no da," he said with a smile.

"Damn, Chiriko." Tasuki scrutinized the giant fish with admiration. "Yah sure yah never fished b'fore?" Grinning broadly, he ruffled Chiriko's hair as the boy hopped down from the crate, rod in hand. He glanced over at Chichiri as the monk set about removing the barbed iron hook from the carp's lip. Its mouth opened and closed periodically as it hung there.

"It's just perfect!" Nuriko declared, looking the fish up and down. He turned this way and that to see the carp from all angles. Bright sunlight bounced off its large scales, painting it a shining silvery color like that of weathered teak. "I'll get to work on this right away." Taking hold of the fish's tail in one hand, he heaved it over his shoulder and headed up the stairs to the quarterdeck and the ship's galley. "Thank you both for catching this for me!"

Miaka watched him walk away, her expression one of longing. She placed a hand over her empty stomach as it growled. At the same time, Tama-neko's ears perked up. The cat's attention also went straight to the huge fish hanging down Nuriko's back. Miaka and Tama-neko hesitated for just a second before scurrying after him, one talking and the other meowing excitedly. With Tama-neko weaving around Nuriko's feet, Miaka trotted alongside as the three of them continued across the deck toward the stern of the ship.

Mitsukake shook his head. "I hope Nuriko can keep them away from the fish long enough to prepare dinner."

"I haven't seen Miaka eat anything still alive as of yet, but I wouldn't put it past her, no da."

"I just wanna know where she fuckin' puts all that food she's eatin' all th' time."

Mitsukake nodded to Chichiri and Tasuki and started off after his cat. "I should probably keep an eye on Tama. I'll see you at dinner."

"I should probably return this fishing pole to the captain before we eat, no da," Chichiri said as he took the bamboo rod from Chiriko.

Tasuki watched him for a while, looking him up and down as he collected his own fishing line. Chichiri looped the thread around his hand just as he had that night he'd almost kissed him. Dammit, he thought.

"Thank you for teaching me how to fish today, Chichiri." Both Tasuki's and Chichiri's heads whipped toward the voice.

"Chiriko! Yer back!"

He frowned. "I didn't go anywhere, Tasuki. My character just faded out."

Chichiri chuckled at them. "You're welcome, Chiriko, no da," he said. He smiled as Chiriko tucked his hands into his coat-sleeves. Picking up his fishing pole in one hand and holding the captain's fishing rod in the other, Chichiri guided them up the stairs before ascending himself. "We should get cleaned up before we eat, no da. Knowing Nuriko, dinner will be ready very shortly, na no da."

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

"It was very kind of the captain to allow us the run of the ship's galley and dining facilities," Chiriko said as he took a bite of the youcai. He hastily wiped at his mouth with a cotton napkin as the tangy fried garlic and oyster sauce slid off the wilted bok choy and dribbled down his chin.

Miaka and her warriors sat around the modest rectangular dining table in the ship's messroom, bathed in the bright light of several hanging oil lamps swinging from the wooden ceiling. Dinner was a rather modest spread in comparison to the meals they'd eaten at the palace. None of the dishes matched and a few of the porcelain bowls had chips in the rims. The plate of youcai butted up to a heaping bowl of vegetable chao fan. Bits of carrot, onion, broccoli, and whole bean sprouts peeked out from the soy-sauce-stained rice as salty, earthy-smelling steam wafted toward the ceiling. Dominating the center of the small table, the battered and fried carp glistened in the lantern light. It sat on its black and red lacquer serving platter in a pool of golden honey and vinegar sauce, its dark caudal fin curled upward.

To Chiriko's right, Tamahome grabbed a few chopstickfuls of the vegetarian fried rice. He deposited them on his porcelain plate before taking a piece from the tail section of the tangcu liyu. "Well, His Highness did say that the ship belongs to us now."

"You know, Tasuki," Nuriko said as he took a sip from his teacup, "I didn't think you'd want to eat much of anything with your seasickness and all." He turned ever so slowly to his left and smirked.

"I told'ja yesterday," Tasuki growled. "I'm fine." It was true his nausea and vertigo had subsided for the most part, but Tasuki wasn't going to admit to anyone, least of all Nuriko, that he still didn't feel quite like his usual self.

Tamahome's head shot up at Nuriko's words. "You're seasick, Tasuki?" He sputtered, hurriedly covering his mouth with one hand, and cackled. "You can't swim and you're seasick?! That's hilarious!"

"Tamahome," Miaka warned, shaking her head. Using her lacquered chopsticks, she cut off a corner piece of the xiaren chao doufu. Some of the shrimp, scallion, and ginger stuffing inside the block of fried tofu spilled out onto her plate as she took a bite.

Tasuki growled deep in his throat, his eyes narrowed to slits. He wasn't going to let Tamahome get away with making his aversion to boats and water the butt of a joke without getting in a few jabs himself. A sneer spread across his lips and his fangs poked out at the corners of his mouth. "Yer just pissed that Miaka dumped yah."

"She did not dump me!"

"Admit it! She dumped yah!"

"She did not!"

Nuriko rolled his eyes. "Oh why can't you two grow up?" Taking a spoonful of the hai huang geng, he looked pointedly back and forth between Tamahome and Tasuki.

Tasuki jerked his head around to glare at Nuriko. "What th' fuck? You started it, yah asshole."

Across the table from the angry bandit, both Chiriko and Mitsukake calmly watched the fireworks. Apparently, Mitsukake thought, Tamahome was feeling much more upbeat today. He missed the quiet Tamahome's exhaustion had brought despite the reason behind it. Only two days had passed since they'd set out for Hokkan, but the two were arguing again already. He shook his head. A soft sigh caught his attention and he looked up at Chichiri. The heretofore silent monk put down his chopsticks on the edge of his plate and picked up his teacup.

"Tasuki, no da," Chichiri admonished. He cast a sidelong glance at Tasuki as he brought the porcelain vessel to his lips.

Mitsukake raised an eyebrow as Tasuki turned to look at Chichiri, seemingly to argue, but merely scowled. Grabbing the lacquerware bowl next to his plate and his bronze spoon, Tasuki took a bite of his own steaming seafood soup. He bristled, growling softly as Nuriko snickered next to him, but said nothing. That Tasuki didn't pursue the argument with Tamahome anyway or launch into a quarrel with Nuriko was surprising. But, it shocked Mitsukake that he didn't say one word in protest of Chichiri's rebuke. Even Miaka's warning to Tamahome hadn't met with that much success.

"I wonder what Hokkan's like." Miaka tapped the ends of her chopsticks thoughtfully against her lips. "Taiitsukun said the god Genbu rules there and that it's far to the north, but I don't know what to expect other than that." Scooping up the shrimp filling and some chao fan, she cocked her head. "Have any of you ever been there before?"

"It's very mountainous and it's cold most of the year, snowing quite a bit during the winter, but I've never traveled there," Chiriko said. "Most of the information I have I gleaned from the atlases and historical references I found in the imperial library."

Mitsukake poured Chichiri some more tea before pouring some for himself. "Chichiri, you've said that as a monk, you've traveled a great deal. Have you ever visited Hokkan?"

"I have, no da."

Miaka perked up at his words. "Really? What do you know about it, Chichiri?"

I guess 'e wasn't lyin' when 'e said 'e was a wanderin' monk, Tasuki thought. Putting down his soup spoon, he folded his arms on the table edge and turned to listen.

Chichiri smiled as the whole table waited for him to speak. "I passed through Hokkan several years ago, before I went to train at Mount Taikyoku, no da." He certainly wasn't going to volunteer the reason why he was there. None of the celestial warriors or Miaka needed to know about the years he'd spent searching for absolution for Hikou's death. Taking a sip from his teacup, he continued. "I don't know much about it aside from what I saw, but I'll tell you what I can, na no da."

"Have yah been t' all th' other countries, too?"

He turned to Tasuki, who sat not an arm's length to his right. Tasuki had propped his head up on his hand just as he had after breakfast that morning after the trip to Kutou; even the scrutinizing look in his eyes was the same. The pit of Chichiri's stomach fluttered and he looked away. "All but Kutou, if you don't count the two trips there in the last month or so, no da."

"Wow, really?" Miaka shifted forward on her chair at the head of the table. "I'd love to hear more about your travels, Chichiri."

"We should let him finish telling us about Hokkan first, silly." Tamahome chuckled and tapped Miaka on the head. He grinned as she rubbed the spot, her bottom lip stuck out in a pout.

"It's late summer now in Kounan. I'd imagine the change of seasons will have already started in Hokkan." Chiriko took a bite of the vegetarian fried rice.

"Yes, no da. It was already snowing in the mountains the last time I was there, no da." Retrieving his nearly forgotten chopsticks, Chichiri put a few pieces of carp on his plate. "Following the route we've chosen, along the canals and the Shouryuu River, we'll end up only few li from the outskirts of the capital, Touran, no da."

Nuriko frowned. "What about the Seiryuu Seven? Kutou borders Hokkan too, doesn't it? If they take an overland route, won't they get there ahead of us?"

"The reason His Highness, Chiriko, and I chose the canal option is that traveling overland through Hokkan is difficult and time-consuming, no da. The Seiryuu won't find their journey easy, na no da."

Nuriko nodded, braid sliding off his shoulder. Hazarding a glance at Miaka, his brow furrowed. She sat with her hands folded in front of her, her eyes downcast and a frown on her lips. "Well," he said, trying to change the subject, "I, for one, am not looking forward to the cold or the snow." Sighing, he brought his hands to his cheeks. "How am I ever going to stay beautiful in such an awful place? Dry air just ruins my complexion." Tamahome and Tasuki snorted in unison.

"Oh, please." Tamahome rolled his eyes. "We won't have time to worry about that. We're going to be looking for the Shinzahou, remember?"

With a smirk, Tasuki jumped in. "Yeah, an' just whadda yah think yah need t' pretty yerself up for, anyway? A–" He stopped in mid-sentence, blinking a few times, and turned to Chichiri. "Hey, Chiri. What kinda animals do they got in Hokkan?"

Mitsukake raised an eyebrow. "Chiri?"

"What?!" Nuriko sputtered. "'Animals?!' How dare you, you jerk?!"

Chichiri chuckled and shook his head. He'd seen Nuriko's glance at Miaka and the girl's crestfallen expression. He knew what Nuriko was trying to do even if Tamahome and Tasuki did not. Well, I guess I should play along, no da... With a smile, he took a piece of the tangcu liyu on his plate in his chopsticks. "Yaks, no da."

Tasuki grinned and turned back to Nuriko. "What d'yah think yah need t' look so pretty fer, huh? A yak?" He threw back his head and burst into laughter. Tamahome chortled at Tasuki's joke. He tried unsuccessfully to cover his amusement behind a series of feigned coughs as he caught Nuriko's withering glare. Soon, the whole table was engulfed in snickers and chuckling.

Nuriko scowled, crossing his arms over his thin chest. "You are all just horrible!" he declared. Exchanging a silent look with Chichiri, he glanced again at Miaka. She tried to stifle her own laughter with little success. My job here is done. "Just see if I make dinner for you ingrates ever again."

"We're sorry, Nuriko," Miaka tittered, finally extracting a smile from the incensed courtier. "We really appreciate you making dinner for us."

"Thank you, Miaka." Giving the rest of the seishi a look of suffering, he took her small hand in his and brought the back of his other hand to his forehead. "You're the only one who really cares about me." Tasuki howled with laughter at Nuriko's overwrought act, wiping away a tear from the corner of one eye.

"I suppose this means dinner's over now, doesn't it?" Chiriko gestured to the two horrified-looking serving women peeking in through the door at the far end of the messroom. Cautiously, they approached the diners and began to remove empty plates from the table onto large lacquered trays. Each wore a nervous expression.

Across the table from Chiriko, Nuriko elbowed the cackling bandit in the ribs. "Give it a rest, would you?"

"Ow!" Tasuki wheezed at the impact. Coughs racked his body as he held his injured side. He glared. "Yah didn't hafta fuckin' hit me."

Handing one of the women his plate, Chichiri wiped his hands on the hot towel she gave him in return. "We have a little over a day before we reach the Shouryuu River, no da," he said, pushing his chair in as he stood. "We should get as much rest as we can if we're going to be ready for a Seiryuu attack and to find the Shinzahou, na no da."

The rest of the Shichiseishi rose from the table as well. Mitsukake nodded to the serving woman taking his plate and gestured for Chiriko to go in front of him to the messroom doorway. He pushed the thick wooden door open for him and allowed him to walk through first. "Good night, everyone," he said over his shoulder.

Tamahome, Miaka, and Nuriko followed close behind. "Okay. We'll see you guys tomorrow then." Tamahome took the door from Mitsukake and held it until Tasuki took it from him.

"Yeah, good night." Tasuki waited, posting himself in the doorway, and watched the rest of the Shichiseishi disappear down the lantern-lit interior hallway of the ship's belowdecks. When he was satisfied they were out of earshot, he looked back into the messroom at Chichiri as he walked to the door. Just as Chichiri reached the doorway, Tasuki reached out and planted his hand on the doorframe, using both his body and his arm to block the exit.

Chichiri traced the length of Tasuki's arm, his heart beating faster in his chest. His eyes slowly moved from Tasuki's fingers flexing as he adjusted his grip on the wooden jamb, up his coat-clad sleeve to the pair of jade- and glass-beaded necklaces, to finally the wry, almost desirous smile on his lips. Chichiri swallowed hard. The smell of leather and of sex radiating from Tasuki elicited an involuntary shudder. Not a hair's breadth separated them as they stood in the messroom doorway. He felt Tasuki's warm breath fan across his face and the intense heat from his body. Being this close, with those eyes boring into him, a potent and insistent erection threatened to betray his outward calm. Again, he was faced with the truth that he'd willingly put himself into this situation. He'd thought he could continue to stay close to Tasuki while keeping his desires separate from his duty. He'd thought he could deny this powerful attraction between them, but it had been untenable from the beginning. He cursed himself for thinking he could somehow control the feelings Tasuki dredged up within him. He took a shaky breath. "What–"

"I still got somethin' I gotta tell yah, Chiri," Tasuki murmured. His voice was a low rumble meant only for the two of them to hear. He knew what being this near to him did to Chichiri, as he felt the same: the thrill of his blood through his veins from the scent of his hair, the warmth of his skin, the urgent throb of his cock when they touched, even accidentally. Reaching into his coat pocket, he took the bronze coin charm he'd bought during Qi Xi nearly five days before in his hand. "I'm–"

"Please pardon our intrusion, your lordships."

Startled, both men turned abruptly. The two serving women who had taken up their empty plates at dinner stood behind them, laden trays in hand. They kept their heads bowed in deference.

"We mean you no disrespect, Warriors of Suzaku," the younger of the two women said, bowing her head even lower. "To reach the kitchens, we must use this doorway."

"Oh, sorry," Tasuki said, shaking his head to himself. This was the second time he'd been interrupted while trying to tell Chichiri how he felt about him. He removed his arm and stepped out of the way.

Chichiri let out a pent-up breath. There would come a time, he knew, when Tasuki wouldn't let him back away after the flirting and the games had ended and he would have to make his choice. But, it wouldn't be this night. Taking the opportunity, he slipped out the doorway ahead of the serving women. "Good night, Tasuki, no da."

Dammit, not again. "Chiri!" Tasuki moved to go after him, only to run into the older serving woman and her tray. Porcelain dishes, bronze utensils, bamboo chopsticks, and lacquerware spilled over the edge and onto the wood plank floor with a mighty crash. "I'm sorry," he said, trying to help the frightened woman retrieve and upright the contents of the tray. "Chiri!" he called again as Chichiri disappeared into the twilit hallway and was gone.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

Chichiri sat cross-legged at the very edge of the ship's open bow. The vessel cut through the light wind-driven waves running across the surface of the water. The mid-morning sun emerged from behind a bank of fluffy cumulus clouds wandering eastward. The sunshine was warm on his mask-clad face. Sometime during the night the ship had left the canal behind and begun its westward trek along the Shouryuu River. The familiar wide channel of the river, its sandy, horseshoe-shaped bends, and sparkling blue waters: it was at once comforting and unnerving to him to be sailing on it again.

"Good morning, Chichiri!"

He turned to see Chiriko walking down the quarterdeck toward him. His arms were laden with paper, brushes, and boxes of inks. A broad smile graced his lips. Mitsukake followed Chiriko carrying a small rosewood table and a matching chair. The two seishi descended the short staircase to the main deck before stopping next to the mainmast. "Good morning, no da!" Chichiri called in reply. He pushed himself to his feet and moved to join them. "How are you both, no da?"

"Quite well, thank you." Mitsukake set the pieces of furniture down on the wooden deck with a soft thud.

Chiriko dropped his load on the tabletop and looked up at Chichiri. "I happened to find a set of brushes and inks His Highness had sent along with the rest of the provisions for the journey when I was unpacking my trunk a few days ago," he said, placing two ivory-handled brushes, one sable, the other goat, to the left of a large scroll of paper. "I thought I might use them to do some painting, but I hadn't had the chance until today."

"I didn't know you painted, Chiriko, no da." Chichiri knew the boy, from a rather well-to-do and scholarly family, had to be versed in calligraphy and by extension ink painting, but he was still impressed.

Chiriko smiled, placing a handful of small wooden boxes containing ink sticks and pigments as well as an ink stone to the right of the paper. "I've never been very good at landscapes, but my parents and my master always praised my figural studies." One of the serving women who had taken up the dishes from dinner the previous night brought a jug of water to them. She handed the porcelain vessel to Mitsukake before bowing low to the three seishi and returning aft across the quarterdeck. Chiriko nodded his thanks as Mitsukake filled two celadon cups with the clear water. "I haven't decided what my subject should be though." He looked back and forth between Mitsukake and Chichiri. "Do either of you have any ideas?"

"Well, how about–" Chichiri began and was promptly cut off.

"Come on, Tama! It'll be fun!"

"For the last time, no, Tasuki."

Chichiri looked up to see Tamahome striding across the quarterdeck toward them, a pronounced frown on his lips. The light wind ruffled the hem of his robe as the red and white silk whispered about the tops of his black leather boots. Tasuki dogged his steps. He wore a look of excitement, his fangs poking out at the corners of his mouth. Trailing behind them at some distance were Nuriko and Miaka. They conversed among themselves between glances at Tamahome and Tasuki. His brow furrowed. Tasuki...

"Chichiri, will you tell him to leave me alone?" Tamahome asked, coming to a stop at the edge of the quarterdeck. He put his hands on his hips. "He keeps following me around and won't take 'no' for an answer."

"Hey, Chiri. Tell 'im 'e's bein' a fuckin' wuss an' I'd stop followin' 'im if 'e'd just agree t' do it." Tasuki stood next to Tamahome, arms crossed over his coat-clad chest.

Thankful his mask covered what he knew was a look of concern on his true face, Chichiri looked at both younger warriors for a moment. "'Agree to do' what, no da?"

"Tasuki wants Tamahome to spar with him, but he said no," Nuriko said, walking up to the conversation. "They've been arguing about it ever since breakfast." He let out a long and frustrated sigh. "I don't care what you tell them, just please make them stop talking about it!"

"Hmm." Chichiri looked back down at rosewood table and its painting implements. Chiriko had taken a stick of black ink, embossed with characters lined with gold foil, out of its bamboo box and placed it next to the ink stone. A small pool of water sat like a cabochon of quartz on the slate's surface. Maybe I have an idea, no da... "Chiriko wanted to do some painting this morning, no da." He watched Chiriko blush a bright red and tuck his hands into the sleeves of his silk coat. Turning back to the two quarreling seishi, he smiled. "Why don't you let him use you as subjects, no da?"

"Paintin'?"

"Subjects?"

Chichiri chuckled at the confused looks on their faces. "Why not, no da?" Tamahome and Tasuki exchanged a look as he continued. "The only stipulation is that you can't use your celestial powers, no da. We can't let the Seiryuu know our movements and using any of our powers would allow them to find us immediately, na no da."

"That's a wonderful idea, Chichiri!" Miaka piped up, clapping her hands. "You'll do it, won't you, Tamahome?"

Tasuki, imitating Miaka, clasped his own hands together and batted his eyelashes. "Yeah, 'you'll do it, won'tcha, Tamahome?'" He laughed as Tamahome took a swing and barely missed his face.

Tamahome sighed and gave Miaka a small smile. "Okay, fine."

Tasuki pumped his fist in triumph. "Alright!" He pulled the ornate gold belt hanging across his chest over his head, setting it, along with the tessen it holstered, on the planking of the quarterdeck. When he'd first asked Tamahome to spar with him, he had no idea that Chichiri would end up seeing the match. Chichiri had disappeared after breakfast was over and he hadn't seen him again until he, Tamahome, Nuriko, and Miaka had walked out onto the quarterdeck from the belowdecks stairway. Why do yah keep runnin' away from me? he thought as he quickly unbuttoned his leather coat and slipped it off his shoulders to the deck as well. It can't be yah don't want me, 'cause th' way yer lookin' me up an' down right now, there's no way yah don't, he thought. He gazed down at Chichiri with a roguish grin. "Thanks, Chiri."

Mitsukake raised an eyebrow as Tasuki trotted to where Tamahome stood in the center of the quarterdeck. Tasuki had an incredible reserve of energy that impressed even him. "Try not to hurt yourselves," he called as the two combatants squared off. "I didn't bring all of my medicinal herbs with me." Shaking his head, he glanced over at Chichiri. The monk stared for a long moment at the coat laying in a heap at the edge of the quarterdeck in front of him. Something seemed off about Chichiri, particularly since the journey to Hokkan began and Mitsukake had no idea what was wrong or why. He might be able to chalk the subtle change in Chichiri's demeanor up to just how important finding the Shinzahou was; everyone seemed slightly agitated since they'd left Eiyou. But, that didn't quite explain the feeling that there was something more to it than that. I'll keep an eye on him for now. I want to know what I'm dealing with before I mention it to anyone.

Chiriko began to grind the black ink on the ink stone as Tasuki threw a powerful right at Tamahome, his fist streaking toward Tamahome's jaw. Tamahome blocked, deflecting the punch with his forearm. Bringing his own fists to bear, he directed a rapid succession of blows at Tasuki's ribs. Tasuki dropped low to avoid the hits, bringing his leg around in a swift arc to sweep Tamahome off his feet.

Tamahome darted backward, easily avoiding the attack. With a smirk, he kicked at Tasuki's chest as he jumped up, the sole of his boot connecting with a loud smack. Tasuki fell backward to the quarterdeck with a grunt and a hard thud.

"Come on, Tasuki," Tamahome taunted. "You were the one who asked me to fight. You can't give up now." Dropping back into a defensive stance, he waited for him to get back up.

Looking down, Mitsukake watched Chiriko move the finer, sable brush across the scroll of paper. He had a considerable eye for detail. His small arm seemed to float above the page as he recorded the details of the scene: the individual planks in the quarterdeck, the way Tamahome's thin ponytail fluttered in the breeze as the two warriors traded blows, even the number of closures on Tasuki's linen tunic. Chiriko smiled to himself as he worked, and Mitsukake smiled himself.

Jumping back to his feet from the deck, Tasuki took a deep breath. What th' fuck? His reaction times were way off. I should be fine today since I ain't nauseous anymore... Apparently his body hadn't recovered from the seasickness as completely as he'd thought, but he couldn't quit before the fight had even really begun. He'd done too much badgering to get Tamahome to agree to spar with him for that. He smirked. "Oh, I ain't done yet." He dropped back into a fighting posture and they slowly circled one another.

Tamahome went on the offensive, delivering punch after punch to Tasuki's face and torso. Tasuki blocked and dodged each nimbly, deflecting a punishing left before grabbing Tamahome's arm with both hands. Using his hip as leverage, he knocked him off-balance and flipped him over his back, throwing him down heavily to the quarterdeck.

"Take it easy over there," Nuriko shouted from his seat next to Miaka at the ship's side. They sat several paces from Chiriko, Mitsukake, and Chichiri. He used the navy blue silk of his sleeve to shield his eyes from the sun now shining directly down on the deck. "You're sparring, not trying to kill each other, remember?"

Taking Tasuki's proffered hand, Tamahome pulled himself back to his feet. "Where did you learn to throw like that?" He backed up a few paces, returning to his previous stance as the two squared off once more.

"Back when th' ol' boss was in charge at Mount Reikaku, 'e had all th' guys trainin' in different fightin' techniques," Tasuki said as they probed each other's defensive postures for weaknesses. "One o' th' guys was real good at grapplin', so th' boss had 'im give th' rest o' us lessons." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chichiri watching them. Chichiri hadn't taken his eyes off of him since the fight started. I can't stop now, not with Chiri watchin', he thought. There was no way he was going to surrender and lose face in front of him.

Hazarding another glance at Chichiri, Mitsukake raised an eyebrow. He hadn't moved from where he'd stood at the beginning of the match at all.

Tasuki's muscles flexed and relaxed under his tunic with each movement of his body. A sharp twinge of desire raced through Chichiri as he watched the two warriors circle each other. Breath a soft pant, his already hard cock throbbed with the blood beginning to pound through his veins. Tasuki glanced at him, his bangs curtaining a look of smoldering sexuality that sent an electric spark down Chichiri's spine. Suzaku...

Ducking low to avoid another kick, Tamahome swept his leg around in an arc, knocking Tasuki's feet out from under him. Tasuki hit the deck with a grunt and rolled to his left, barely missing a kick to the face. Jumping up, Tasuki sprang at Tamahome, delivering a string of powerful punches and knees to the stomach. Dodging back and away, out of range, Tamahome put several paces between them. "You actually have to hit me, Tasuki."

"How is the painting coming, Chiriko?" Mitsukake asked as he shook his head. The brash redhead's pride was going to get him injured if he wasn't careful.

Chiriko traded his fine weasel-hair brush for the wider and softer goat-hair brush as he began to add pigment to his black-ink-outline figures. "I'm so glad Chichiri suggested that I paint Tasuki and Tamahome's sparring match. I just wish I had brought my seal and seal paste along with me so I could properly sign the piece."

Chiriko's words brought Mitsukake's thoughts back to Chichiri's odd behavior. Still concerned about him, he looked over at him again and started. Chichiri shook his head vigorously, his ponytail swishing across his back. The perpetual smile on his face was gone, replaced with a pronounced frown. Silently, he turned and started up the short staircase from the main deck to the quarterdeck. Where is he going?

Tasuki growled. He'd only managed to get in one good attack during this entire fight. Dammit. Tamahome was beating him soundly and he looked like a fool. And to make matters worse, Chichiri had seemed almost depressed when he'd glanced at him just a moment before. Dammit!

Tamahome resumed his offensive, striking at Tasuki's chest and face with several fast jabs before darting out of his reach again. Movement behind Tamahome caught his attention and Tasuki's eyes went wide. Chichiri ascended the stairs to the quarterdeck, striding purposefully past the fight toward the stern of the ship without a word. What th' fuck? Chiri? What was going on? Where was Chichiri going? Was he that disappointed with him and his performance? The sound of running pulled him out of his musing and too late he turned to see Tamahome leap into the air, lean body sailing at him, leg outstretched for a damning side kick. Tasuki put up his forearms to block, but Tamahome's boot connected with his ribs, blasting the air out of his lungs and he fell to the quarterdeck in a heap. "Fuck," hewheezed, watching Chichiri disappear down the belowdecks stairway.

Rising from his spot, Nuriko dusted off the back of his robe. "Okay, I think that's quite enough from both of you."

"Tamahome! You weren't supposed to go all out!" Miaka scolded, brows furrowed as she walked up. "You could have really hurt him!"

"I wasn't trying to!" Tamahome shot back. "How was I supposed to know he was going to space out in the middle of the fight?"

Mitsukake frowned as he ascended the stairway Chichiri had just a few minutes before. Why had he left so abruptly? He'd seemed rattled at breakfast, leaving before any of the rest of the Shichiseishi had finished their meals and now he'd disappeared again. He seemed much more at ease when Chiriko and I came up on deck earlier. And yet, Mitsukake had no idea what was really going on with him. He shook his head. Chichiri had always seemed rather tight-lipped about himself, but after seeing him with Tasuki yesterday afternoon, Mitsukake thought he'd started to open up some. I wonder, he thought. The only connecting factor in all of it seemed to be Tasuki. Did they have a fight of some kind? "Are you alright, Tasuki?"

"Dammit!" Cradling his side, Tasuki slammed his fist down onto quarterdeck before pushing himself to standing. Chichiri's actions were starting to piss him off. What the hell was wrong with him? He growled and tossed his head, a scowl dominating his expression. "Yeah, yeah, I'll be fine."

"At least let me treat the bruises to keep down any potential swelling."

"Come on, Tasuki. Let's take you below and let Mitsukake patch you up," Nuriko said. He maneuvered Tasuki aft across the quarterdeck toward the stairway as they followed Mitsukake.

"I said I was fine!"

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

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.

Tasuki leaned in slowly, warm breath fanning over his face. Houjun felt him brush his lips against his and gasped. His heart pounded in his chest, echoing Tasuki's heavy exhalations. Again Tasuki slowly brushed his lips against Houjun's, this time more forceful, more insistent. Houjun shuddered as Tasuki brought his hand up to the side of his face. Tasuki caressed his bloody cheek, running his thumb over the scar tissue that sealed his eye. "Ngh," Houjun moaned, surprised by the throb in his groin the touch evoked.

Tasuki smiled before taking the opportunity to deepen the kiss. Houjun moaned against the redhead's mouth as Tasuki pushed his tongue between his slightly parted lips. He clutched at the leather-coat-clad expanse of Tasuki's back. He thrust his hips and arousal against the evidence of Tasuki's own.

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

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

"Suzaku," Chichiri rasped into the stillness. His voice was husky as his senses slowly awakened from the dream, his heart pounding. He lay there looking up at the dark ceiling of his cabin. Cold sweat tracked rivulets down his unmasked face. Blinking drowsily, he brought a torpid hand to his forehead and brushed his bangs out of his eye. The same dream, only now... Fragmented images and sensations ran through him: Tasuki's mouth on his own, the scent of leather, warm, seductive hands on his body, silk sheets twined between his fingers. Chichiri shivered. He hadn't had an erotic dream like that since Hikou died.

Sitting up, he perched on the edge of the bed, his weight making a deep depression in the thin mattress. The movement drew the linen of his pants tight against his groin, and he could feel his morning erection hardening into one of desire. He inhaled sharply. Electric sparks of lust ran through him, bringing the dream again into explicit focus. He ran an unsteady hand through his damp and tangled bangs. He couldn't stay there, in the dark and stale atmosphere of his room, nor could he hope to get back to sleep. Not after that. He rose, pulling his rumpled kesa around him, and padded on bare feet across the wooden floor. Opening the door, he stepped out into the dim hallway and quietly closed it behind him.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

A ruddy last quarter moon hung low above the river valley. It painted the ship's decks, sails, masts, and the landscape as far as the eye could see with a dim silver glow. Gauzy clouds clung in places to the starlit sky, ringing the moon with a hazy halo. None of the lanterns that served to illuminate the quarter- and main decks were lit; they had been extinguished hours before. The low rush of water streaming past the ship's sides and the deep wooden creak of the rudder were the only sounds on the nearly deserted deck. A pair of sailors stood watch on the weather deck, keeping an eye on the ship's heading and adjusting the tack accordingly.

Chichiri silently crossed the quarterdeck, descending the short staircase to the main deck, and headed for the bow of the ship. The night had put a chill into the constant breeze that blew over the water. It ruffled his ponytail and he pulled his kesa tighter around himself. A few paces back from the ship's open bow he dropped down to the deck. Hugging his knees to his chest, he pillowed his chin on his tunic-clad forearms. So many times in his teens he'd gone down to the river in the small hours of the morning to think, to clear his head and satisfy his body after a dream like the one he'd just had. Only then, the subject of his fantasies was Hikou.

Dark hair and dark eyes. Thin, willowy even, and only slightly taller. Older, but only by a year and a half. Quiet, reserved, and well-spoken around his elders. Witty and with a bawdy sense of humor around Kouran and himself. Chichiri watched low, silvery waves break upon the sandy riverbanks far ahead. Whether Hikou had ever known how he felt about him, he had no idea. They'd never spoken of it, even on the few occasions Hikou had found him down by the river's edge in the middle of the night. But what he wouldn't have given to feel the warm weight of Hikou on top of him, his lips and tongue eagerly exploring his mouth, his hands fervently working his member until they both came in a mess of cum and sweat and tangled limbs.

He shuddered, the fire in his groin now an inferno that even the cold seeping into him from the deck beneath him couldn't extinguish. He'd loved Hikou more than anything he'd ever known, save maybe his mother and his sister. Six long and agonizing years had passed since Hikou's death at his hand. Yet, the thought of him still made his pulse race and his breath stop, made his cock hard and his heart ache. Exactly how he felt about Tasuki now. He gasped. Holy Suzaku...

"Chiri? What're you doin' up this late?"

Chichiri jumped, heart pounding in his chest, stomach in his throat. Tasuki... Eye wide, he whipped around to find Tasuki standing a few paces behind him next to the foremast, leaning his shoulder against the massive pine column. His loose-fitting pants fluttered in the light breeze, pulling taut against his powerful body and outlining the bulge of his member. Chichiri couldn't speak as Tasuki padded closer, barefoot, and gazed down at him.

"Damn, it's cold out here."

A ring of linen bandages bound Tasuki's ribs, tied off just below his bare chest. Chichiri swallowed hard as the silver glow picked out Tasuki's nipples, firm and erect in the cool night air. Blood thundered in his ears, its tempo equaled only by the throb of his engorged cock in the confines of his pants. Heat spread across his face as his entire body flushed a scalding crimson.

"Yah mind if I join yah?"

"Yeah. Yeah, sure," Chichiri said, his voice a husky whisper, and shifted to sit cross-legged. He shuddered as his pants pulled against his erection. The near-constant arousal was beginning to physically ache. He watched Tasuki drop down cross-legged to the deck. Taking the end of the kesa, Tasuki wrapped it around his own shoulders before snugging up against him on his left, pressing their arms and sides together. Inhaling sharply at the warmth of Tasuki's body next to his, Chichiri's eye fluttered closed. Images from his dream returned to the forefront of his mind with renewed vehemence.

"So..." Letting the word float off his tongue and disappear into the night, Tasuki looked out across the moonlit river's surface. The breeze tousled his hair and blew the long strands back from his face. The chill air felt invigorating on his skin, but he much preferred to be huddled with Chichiri under the soft wool of his kesa. Their bodies were so close he could feel the subtle rise and fall of Chichiri's chest as he breathed. Warm and surrounded by the scent of honey, sandalwood, and masculinity, Tasuki didn't know exactly what to do. "Couldn't sleep," he said. And it was true: he'd spent most of the afternoon and evening after Mitsukake had bandaged his ribs and a good portion of the night thereafter brooding over Chichiri's hasty departure. "How 'bout you?"

Chichiri said nothing and an awkward silence descended over the two seishi. Tasuki. Fiery red hair and golden eyes. Thin, but powerfully muscular. Younger and by nearly seven years. Brash, loud, and foul-mouthed around almost everyone. Quiet and thoughtful seemingly only around him. Nearly the exact opposite of Hikou, but he wanted him just as much. He could feel Tasuki shift next to him. Chichiri's mind was drowning in the fantasy of giving in to the feel of his lips, the scent of his hair, the sound of his voice, the sight of his naked body, the taste of his skin. Guilt and loneliness, self-loathing and self-deprivation, fear: Chichiri knew all these things. But maybe, he thought, maybe he could forget about them in Tasuki's arms. At least for a little while.

Tasuki looked over at Chichiri. The moon's light highlighted the scar tissue closing his eye and dusted his hair with silver, just as it had the first night they'd met. "Why're yah avoidin' me?"

Chichiri felt feverish next to Tasuki's body and the linen of his tunic was much too stifling in the wash of scorching heat radiating from his own. "I'm not." Tasuki...

"Like hell yer not," Tasuki shot back. "Ever since dinner last night, yah've been doin' everythin' yah fuckin' can t' stay away from me an' I wanna know why."

The faint scent of dried sweat on Tasuki's skin sent a spark of electricity down Chichiri's spine, his breath now a quiet pant. He struggled to keep his voice even. "I'm not avoiding you." His head swam as he sat there silent under the intense scrutiny, his heart pounding, his face flushed, his body tense. He could feel his resolve wavering. Soon, it would fail completely.

Tasuki growled deep within his chest and scowled. "Don't fuckin' lie t' me, Chiri." Throwing off the half of the kesa he'd had draped around his broad shoulders, he turned his body to face him and sat up on his knees. The night air felt many degrees colder away from the warmth of Chichiri's touch.

The last vestiges of Chichiri's better judgment warred with the blind need of his body and he turned away. He couldn't face him. If he looked at Tasuki now, if their eyes met, he knew that he couldn't stop himself. He didn't want to stop himself.

"An' don't fuckin' ignore me," Tasuki growled and grabbed Chichiri's chin. He jerked Chichiri's head around to look him in the eye. He started when he finally met his gaze. Holy... Chichiri's eye was wide, its color a smoky onyx in the moonlight, much darker and much more intense than the black of the sky behind him. Lips parted, Chichiri's expression was one of horror and of a ravenous desire Tasuki hadn't seen since that night after the summoning ceremony had failed.

I... That close and with Tasuki's hand on his chin and hot breath fanning over his face, Chichiri let the remainder of his restraint slip away. With a burst of testosterone and adrenaline, he seized Tasuki's shoulders and pushed him down to the cold wooden planking of the main deck. Tasuki looked up at him in mute stupefaction, his bare chest heaving with the force of his ragged breaths. Please... Straddling his thigh, Chichiri planted his hands to either side of Tasuki's head and quickly leaned down to capture his lips. He moaned into Tasuki's mouth as he pressed their bodies together. A shudder ran straight through him as his aching cock met Tasuki's hip.

Shock and awe warred within Tasuki as he felt Chichiri's rock-hard erection through the linen of his pants. His own groin throbbed as his member sprang to life under Chichiri's thigh, each movement of the monk eliciting a breathy gasp from him. Chichiri ravished his mouth with his tongue, lust and desire making for passionate enthusiasm if not refined technique. Coherent thought came in fits and starts. His mind was a jumble. All that time Chichiri had spent trying to act as if nothing was going on between them had been a lie. Chichiri wanted him. Badly. Just as badly as he wanted Chichiri. He moaned as Chichiri began to thrust against him with increasing urgency.

The smell of sweat and of sex invaded Chichiri's senses and he ran a shaky hand across Tasuki's chest, nimble fingers brushing past his nipple. Tasuki arched his back and groaned, a deep, impatient sound full of need and desire. Chichiri's head spun as Tasuki slid his hand between them and pulled roughly at the knot in the linen belt holding his pants closed. Sliding his other hand behind Chichiri's head, Tasuki cradled the back of his neck. He twined his fingers in the long ponytail and slowly pulled back from the kiss. Hot lips and hotter breath against his ear sent a shiver down Chichiri's spine.

"Suzaku, I want yah..." Tasuki buried his face in the hair at Chichiri's temple, breathing deep the monk's scent. "I've wanted t' fuck yah since that night we went t' Kutou."

Kutou... Chichiri's eye widened in panic and the pit of his stomach dropped out. Images of soldiers fighting, bleeding, and dying flashed across his mind's eye. Eiyou burned around him and above it, the dragon-god Seiryuu hovered with a broken Suzaku hanging from its jaws. No... Desperately, he fought his way out of Tasuki's grasp and pushed himself up to his knees.

"Huh?" Confusion swirled in Tasuki's mind amidst the persistent throbbing of his cock and the rushing of blood in his veins. He reached out to touch Chichiri's cheek. "Chiri? What–"

Chest heaving, Chichiri flinched away from Tasuki's outstretched hand. As celestial warriors, they had a duty to summon Suzaku to prevent Kutou from invading Kounan. If they didn't find the Shinzahou, more innocents would die. He couldn't turn his back on everything just for this. People were already dead because of him. Their deaths could have been prevented if he'd only been more focused on his mission and less on his feelings for the redhead beneath him. And, he knew in his heart, those feelings would only harm Tasuki in the end. Giving himself up to this selfish desire would be to betray his country, his priestess, and his duty. "This was a mistake..." he breathed.

"What?" Tasuki let his arm fall back to his side at the stricken look on Chichiri's face. "What's wrong?"

"I-I shouldn't have done this," Chichiri stammered and came quickly to his feet. Brow furrowed, he shook his head and glanced down at the supine redhead. Tasuki's eyes were dark with desire and his expression was one of almost pained bewilderment. "I'm sorry." He stooped mid-stride to grab his nearly forgotten kesa from the deck as he retreated back up the main deck to the quarterdeck staircase.

"Chiri! Wait!" Tasuki struggled to his knees. "Dammit! Chiri!" Slumping back on his heels, he ran an unsteady hand through the windblown mane of his hair. He watched Chichiri's shadowy form disappear into the blackness of the belowdecks stairway.

 

 


 

 

 

Glossary of Terms for Chapter 6

 

Weather Deck → on a vessel, the uppermost continuous deck exposed to the weather (in this story, the third and uppermost of three decks on the ship)

Quarterdeck → the part of a weather deck that runs aft from the midship area or the main mast to the stern or poop of a vessel (in this story, the second and middle of three decks on the ship)

Stem → the forward part of a vessel

Shouryuu River → a river in northern Kounan running roughly east-west; near its eastern end, it flows into Kutou; it runs very close to Choukou, Souen, and Chichiri's village

Souen → city in northern Kounan, it's the neighboring city to Choukou and is close to Chichiri's hometown

Bitterling → Spiny Bitterling (Acanthorhodeus macropterus), a temperate freshwater fish native to China and measuring up to 6 inches in length

Grass Carp → (Ctenopharyngodon idella) an herbivorous, freshwater fish native to China that can measure up to 3.5 feet in length and weigh up to 115 pounds

Tangcu Liyu → Sweet and Sour Carp, traditional Cantonese seafood dish

Operculum → technical name for the gill cover of fish and amphibians

Youcai → blanched greens in oyster sauce

Chao Fan → fried rice

Xiaren Chao Doufu → tofu stuffed with shrimp, scallions, and ginger, then fried

Hai Huang Geng → Cantonese seafood soup, literally "sea emperor thick soup"

Touran → capital and largest city in Hokkan, located near the center of the country

 



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