Fushigi Yuugi -- Aienkien

BY : Llanyia
Category: +. to F > Fushigi Yuugi
Dragon prints: 1410
Disclaimer: This fanfic is based on characters and events from Fushigi Yuugi copyright ©Yuu Watase, Shogakukan, Inc., TV Tokyo, et al. 1995. I have no wish to make profit of any kind off of this piece; it is for reading enjoyment only.

"Hey, Tasuki! Wait up, will you?"

Tasuki bristled and scowled to himself, fangs poking out at the corners of his mouth. Nuriko was out to lecture him, he just knew, and after last night, he didn't want to hear it. Jamming his hands in his coat pockets, he kept walking.

"Tasuki! Are you listening to me?! Tasuki!"

"What th' fuck d'yah want?!" He stopped and, with a growl, spun on his heel. A short way down the rough hillside he saw Nuriko hurrying toward him, rubbing his hands vigorously together.

Barely perceptible white puffs of breath streamed from Nuriko's lips into the azure sky as he made his way up to Tasuki. "What is your problem today?" he shot back, eyes narrowing. "You know, you've had an attitude since we got off the boat. Are you angry Miaka showed you up in the battle with Soi?"

Tasuki snorted as his gaze swept back down to the shore and the near-wreck of the ship. It listed gently to starboard where it sat beached like a great whale on the sandy strand. The burned remains of the canvas sails and hemp rigging flapped in the chill breeze. He frowned as he watched the short, round shape of the ship's captain totter around the quarterdeck directing his remaining sailors and the few Kounan soldiers still alive in the tasks of cleanup and repair.

Soi's artificially created storm had blown in just moments after Miaka commanded him to burn a few already-singed strands of her hair. How that Seiryuu bitch had found them, he didn't know, but her lightning had nearly torn the ship apart. Each strike carved gaping pockmarks in the deck and set parts of the ship ablaze. Soldiers and sailors died around them, some tossed into the ocean by the roiling waves as they crashed over the bulwarks, others burned to death or were crushed by debris tossed around by the heaving ship. He himself had been swept overboard as well, and if not for Nuriko tossing him that rope, he would have drowned, he knew it.

After Miaka, Tamahome, and Nuriko had fallen in and been pulled out to sea, Chichiri had tried to use his powers to find them. They'd spent hours searching, all the while battling to keep the nearly destroyed ship afloat. It was a wonder they'd survived at all. Still, in all that time spent looking and even after they'd finally found their missing priestess and seishi, Chichiri hadn't spoken a word to him. Even when the crippled vessel had crashed into the cliffs and Soi had arrived on the ship to finish them off, the monk had said nothing. And even after Miaka had beaten the bitch back with her own lightning and they'd limped to shore, Chichiri had ignored him. It was like what had happened between them had never occurred. Memories of the night before and Chichiri's words filled his mind: "This was a mistake... I-I shouldn't have done this. I'm sorry."

He caught sight of Chichiri coming up the path from the beach quite a few paces behind Nuriko and himself. Chichiri conversed with Mitsukake as Chiriko, obviously lacking his character mark, skipped along in front of the pair. His mask betrayed no hint of his thoughts or emotions behind the perpetual smile it always wore and that irritated Tasuki even more. His eyes narrowed. "A mistake?" What th' fuck's that s'pose'ta mean? An electric spark ran unbidden down his spine as he remembered the warmth of Chichiri's lips and the unbridled passion of his tongue as it searched his mouth. Even after relieving the immediate ache in his groin on deck, he'd still spent the rest of the night in his cabin replaying the scene over and over until his hand cramped. How c'n what I know we both felt be a fuckin' "mistake?" Tasuki growled once more, a low and vicious noise, and turned to stalk back down the trail.

"Honestly," Nuriko sighed, falling into step, "get over it already. Miaka beat her, not you. Let someone else get the credit for once." Tasuki gave no reply and the conversation dropped off into silence. Chill clouds of breath streamed out behind them as they walked, borne away by the constant breeze. Nuriko shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. "I don't know why His Majesty didn't order that we take along some warmer clothing on this trip. It's so cold and it's only midday!" He looked over and smirked. "If you were a gentleman, you'd let me wear your coat," he sang.

Tasuki snorted. "No fuckin' way." His fingertips brushed the edge of the bronze coin still tucked in his pocket. Taking it in his hand, he gently traced the embossed constellations on its surface again and again.

"By the way, what in the world were you doing last night?"

Tasuki's stomach caught in his throat and he whipped his head around to look at Nuriko. So 'e did hear...

"Don't you know it's rude to slam doors that late? You woke me out of a wonderful dream about His Highness."

Tasuki let out his pent-up breath and ran a hand through his unruly hair. "None o' yer fuckin' business," he rumbled.

"This doesn't have anything to do with Soi or Miaka, does it?" Nuriko cocked his head, a slender eyebrow raising as he scrutinized the perturbed redhead.

"Just ferget it." What the hell was going on? He'd asked Chichiri for an answer, a reason for ignoring him, and instead he'd pinned him down and seduced him. And then, he'd just gotten up and left. "This was a mistake..." Chichiri's words echoed still in his mind. He couldn't really feel that way, could he? That being with him was a mistake?

"Oh no, Red. You don't do this whole broody act without wanting someone to say something about it," Nuriko said and grabbed Tasuki's coat-clad arm. "What's going on?"

"Is everything alright, Nuriko?" Miaka called back to the two men from where she walked next to Tamahome several paces further ahead.

"Everything's fine." Nuriko grinned and hugged Tasuki's arm to his chest. "Tasuki here was just offering to lend me his coat."

"I was not!"

Miaka laughed, and with a smile, turned to continue her conversation.

Letting go, Nuriko crossed his arms and glanced back at the rest of the Shichiseishi. The three other men were well out of earshot. "Well, let's hear it."

Tasuki bared his fangs. "Dammit, fine! I was this close t' fuckin' 'im last night, then 'e just gets up an' walks away," he growled, a resonant sound that emanated from deep within his chest. "This ain't a fuckin' 'mistake!' How could it be 'a mistake?'"

"Oh, Suzaku..." Nuriko brought a hand to his mouth, his eyes wide. "How could you?"

Tasuki scowled. "What th' fuck're yah talkin' about?"

"You idiot!" With a pronounced frown, Nuriko reached out and smacked Tasuki in the back of the head. "You have no self-control at all! You went and slept with him, didn't you?" he demanded, more of a statement than a question. "I can't believe you'd risk messing everything up just for your own ego. Why did I ever think you'd actually listen to what I told you?" He let out a long, deep sigh, the frosty mist of his breath rising like a column before being dispersed by the wind.

"Ow!" Tasuki scowled and rubbed the sore spot. "Don't fuckin' hit me fer no reason. He threw 'imself at me."

"What?!" Head whipping around to look back at Chichiri, Nuriko covered his mouth with both hands. Fortunately, neither Chichiri nor Mitsukake nor Chiriko seemed to have heard his outburst. Only Chiriko took any notice of him at all. He waved to Nuriko, the sleeve of his teal coat flapping, a cherubic smile on his face. With a smile of his own, Nuriko returned the greeting and turned his attention back to Tasuki. His look of shock was replaced with a scowl. "You have got to be joking. Chichiri wouldn't do something like that," he declared.

"Oh yeah? We were up on deck last night talkin' when 'e pushed me down an' started kissin' me. Got real into it, too. Had 'is hands all over me. I tell 'im I've been wantin' t' fuck 'im since we went t' Kutou an' try t' undo 'is belt, then 'e just gets up an' leaves, sayin', 'This was a mistake.'" Tasuki glanced back over his shoulder at Chichiri. Nothing was right anymore, normal anymore. And it hadn't been since the moment their eyes met. "Dammit! Why th' fuck's this so hard?!" he cried in frustration, running both hands through his hair. "I know what I felt! It ain't 'a mistake!'"

Nuriko shook his head, dumbfounded. He tried to put that revelation and the image that went with it aside for the moment. "Well, what do you expect? Of course he'd leave if you told him that! Honestly, what is wrong with you?"

"Stop fuckin' lecturin' me! I ain't in the mood!" Tasuki retorted, crossing his arms over his chest, and hastened his pace.

The old and disused game trail they had been following dwindled down to nothing before disappearing at the foot of a rocky rise. Half-barren oak and ash trees along with towering pines dotted the boulder-strewn hillside, their branches swaying in the chilly breeze. In the top of one of the nearby pines a squirrel chittered away, its fluffy reddish-gray tail lashing the dark brown tree trunk. Shielding his eyes from the bright yet cold sunlight with his hand, Tasuki looked up to find Miaka and Tamahome nearly at the summit.

"Wow! It's a meadow! And just look at all the fluffy sheep!"

Tasuki heard her excited outburst as he picked his way around moss-covered boulders and rocky outcroppings on his way up. Cresting the rise, the fairly rugged landscape they had been traveling through opened out into a vast rolling plain. It was broken only by clumps of stark white birch trees and low ridges like the one they had just scaled. A large flock of sheep grazed on the still-green grass, bleating softly as they did. In the distance a line of snow-capped mountains stood watch, their peaks shrouded in clouds.

The crisp breeze that had followed them from the ship picked up with no obstructions to slow it. Nuriko came to a stop next to Tasuki. He blew into his cupped hands. "They need that wool. It's cold here!" he exclaimed. "Tasuki, use that fan of yours to light us a fire."

"I don't use it fer stupid things like that, yah moron."

Nuriko took Tasuki's elbow and led him a few paces away from Miaka and Tamahome, just in time to miss Mitsukake, Chiriko, and Chichiri's arrival at the top of the hill. "Just do it, will you?" Tasuki scowled but complied, channeling some of his divine power through his hand and into the tessen. The diamond fan sparkled with a crimson glow, a cozy heat radiating from it. "Do you love him?" Nuriko asked quietly as he warmed his hands.

"What? How th' hell should I know?!" Tasuki sputtered, taken aback by the directness of the question.

Nuriko rolled his eyes and jerked his chin toward Chichiri. "You owe it to yourself and to him to figure it out." Rubbing his hands together, Nuriko sighed. "Some of us just weren't meant to find love and keep it, you know," he whispered and looked away. A long moment passed before he looked up again, staring Tasuki directly in the eyes. "That's why it's so important to say something when you do. I'm serious, Red. Tell him by the time we get the Shinzahou, or I will tell him myself."

Tasuki scowled and glanced over at Chichiri, who stood between Mitsukake and Tamahome. "Do you love him?" Kouji had told him once what love was supposed to be like: heart racing, gut clenching, all senses entranced by the beauty of a woman. He'd laughed in Kouji's face as he described the senselessness of a love-struck man's actions, so head over heels that the poor guy didn't know up from down. Tasuki had been certain he'd never feel that way about anyone. After all, leading the bandit's life was all that he ever wanted: power, prestige, a sense of belonging, pride, and after the boss's death, responsibility, respect. How could any woman match that? But, was that what he felt now? About Chichiri? Love? Tossing his head, he looked away. Dammit.

Mitsukake looked around at the wide plain. "So, how do you think we should proceed from here?" Tama-neko poked his furry head out of Mitsukake's tunic and sniffed the air. His ears swiveled back and forth as he listened to the bleating of the sheep.

"I'm pretty sure this country is three times larger than Kounan, no da," Chichiri said, crossing his arms over his chest to ward off the chill. He hazarded a glance at Tasuki. He let his mask and its perpetual smile hide the troubled look on his true face. The storm and the subsequent battle with Soi had prevented any discussion between them about what had happened the night before and Chichiri was glad about it.

What would he say? What could he say? That his actions were merely the result of loneliness? Pent up frustration? Weakness? Could he laugh it off? Pretend it didn't happen? He sighed to himself. No, he couldn't ignore that"Suzaku, I want yah... I've wanted t' fuck yah since that night we went t' Kutou." Those lusty, breathless words echoed through his mind still, punctuating every thought, every action, every moment since they'd been whispered into his ear. This magnetic attraction was purely physical, an immediate gratification, wasn't it? Sex for its own sake, right? It had to be; he couldn't allow himself to think of it as anything else.

"Three times?!" Tamahome shouted as he spun to face the two older seishi. "So how are we supposed to find the Shinzahou if we don't even know which direction to start off in? We're completely clueless!" Receiving no answer, he huffed and threw up his hands. He turned to look out over the vast plain, a pronounced frown on his lips.

Miaka patted him on the arm. "Don't worry, we'll think of something. I know it," she said, smiling up at him.

Letting out a long sigh, Tamahome placed a gentle hand on her head. "How you can be so optimistic about this, I have no idea."

A hint of movement nearly a li distant caught Tasuki's eye and he cocked his head, a wry expression on his face. "Hey, you guys see that?" Sheathing his tessen, he stepped away from the group, putting his hand to this forehead to block the bright sun.

"See what, Tasuki?" Miaka placed own her hand on her forehead and squinted in the direction Tasuki was pointing.

"There's a rider comin' this way."

"What? Are you sure?" Tamahome scanned the sheep-filled plain for a long moment before frowning. "I don't see anything."

Tasuki dropped his hand. "I ain't lyin'. There's a horse headed this way."

Several tense and quiet minutes passed as the Shichiseishi waited for the rider Tasuki predicted. The only sound was the bleating of sheep and the rush of the wind. Slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the deep, thunderous cadence of hoofbeats rose out of the background noise, growing steadily louder with each second. The shape of a horse with a small rider coalesced, galloping across the grassland with frightening speed. As the rider raced closer, terrified, high-pitched screams cut through the chill air.

Miaka gasped. "A little boy!"

The child clung to the dark brown horse's neck. His small fingers tangled in the animal's thick black mane. His short legs struggled to keep hold of the horse's compact body, but as it zagged to the side to avoid a clump of grazing sheep, he lost his balance and began to slip. "Help me!"

"He's about to fall off!" Tamahome cried, jumping into the path of the runaway animal. It screamed, nostrils flaring. The whites of its eyes showed as it spooked and it reared back on its hind legs. Tamahome leapt up and snatched the child from its back, tucking him under his arm as he came to land a few paces away. "You're safe now, kid!"

"Tamahome!" Miaka's eyes went wide and she clutched her hands to her chest.

Tamahome looked back over his shoulder just as the animal shifted back to all four legs, bringing its full weight down on him and the boy. Cradling the child to his chest, he took the brunt of the horse's hooves as it bucked and kicked at him. Each wicked blow wrenched an anguished cry from him, but he didn't let go of the boy or move from the horse's path. Fear spent, the animal trotted off into the sea of sheep to graze.

Miaka rushed to Tamahome's side. She traced the dirty hoofprints on the back of his crimson silk tunic with a forefinger. "Tamahome? Are you alive?"

"Oh, mister. Are you okay?" the boy asked. He peered at his savior from beneath the edge of a mossy-green woolen felt hat.

Tamahome grunted as he pushed himself up to his knees, brows knitted with pain. "Fine. Fine."

"Let me take a look at your injuries, Tamahome." As Tamahome gingerly untied the clasps holding his tunic closed, Mitsukake rummaged in his coat pockets and pulled out a small earthenware jar. "This may sting a bit." He removed the jar's oiled leather cover and gently applied the salve to the amaranth u-shaped bruises rising from Tamahome's back.

Miaka reached out a hand to the boy. "Are you okay?" She smiled at his skeptical look. "Don't worry, we're not going to hurt you. I'm Miaka, and this," she said, gesturing to the fighter and the healer, "is Tamahome and Mitsukake." Rising from her place next to Tamahome, she waited for the child to stand as well. Once he had, she gestured to the other four seishi. "And these people are Chiriko, Nuriko, Tasuki, and Chichiri."

"H-hello," he squeaked, keeping his head bowed. "Thank you for saving me." He fidgeted with the hem of his felt coat and toed the grass with his boot. Looking up at Miaka, he suddenly took on a very serious expression. "You're not going to tell the other boys in the village about this, are you?"

Miaka giggled and shook her head. "No, we won't tell."

Chichiri cocked his head, his kesa ruffling in the breeze. "Where is your village, no da?"

The boy pointed across the plain in the direction he had come. "It's only a few minutes ride from here, past the grazing lands and at the foot of that mountain."

"Great," Tasuki growled, fangs bared, and crossed his arms over his chest. "So since we're walkin', it's gonna be fuckin' hours 'til we get there."

With a cry of alarm, the boy threw himself at the now-standing and redressed Tamahome. He clutched at Tamahome's leg with all his strength. He peeked over his shoulder at the group, brown eyes wide.

"Aw, come on, Tasuki." Tamahome placed a reassuring hand on the boy's head. "Don't scare the poor kid with that scary face of yours."

"Hey!" Tasuki took a menacing step forward, eyes narrowed. "Yah asshole!"

"Mr. Scary-face! Mr. Scary-face!"

"Now yah've got 'im callin' me names! Thanks a fuckin' lot!"

Nuriko rolled his eyes. "Really, grow up, you two." He breathed into his cupped hands. The warm air became a cloud of mist as it streamed away from his lips. Wrapping his arms around his narrow chest, he shivered. "I, for one, am cold, tired, and hungry. So, why don't we put the name-calling aside and start walking already?"

Tasuki growled and gave Tamahome a dirty look before starting off across the grassy plain, his hair tousled by the wind.

Chichiri watched him go for a moment before looking over at Miaka. "The village elder might know something about the Shinzahou's whereabouts, na no da."

"That's a great idea," she said. Skipping off after the angry redhead, she stopped several paces ahead of the slower-moving balance of the Shichiseishi. Turning back with a wide grin, she waved them on. "Come on, let's go! We missed lunch already. I don't want to miss dinner!"

- o - o - o -

The group made its way into camp close to sunset, just as the cold sun began its descent behind the snow-capped peaks in the distant west. Bright oranges and pinks painted the bottoms of the clouds hugging their summits, gradually darkening to reds and purples and finally to the deep navy of twilight. No less than a dozen whitish yurts sat clustered together in a small grove of pines at the base of a rocky outcrop that abruptly became a sheer cliff face not far above the treetops. A crude split-rail wooden pen flanked the dwellings on the right edge of the camp. Several horses milled about inside while the bulk of the herd grazed farther from camp.

The boy rushed from Tamahome's side toward a yurt near the center of the camp. "Over here!" he cried, turning back to urge the tired seishi on. As they approached, he flung open the heavy felt door and ran inside to a short, brown woman clad in bright maroon and tan felt clothing. "Mother!"

"Chuluun!" she exclaimed as her son embraced her. "What happened? Your horse came back alone several hours ago..."

"We may be able to explain that, no da." Chichiri held up the colorfully embroidered door flap to allow Miaka and the rest of the group to see into the warm yurt.

"Mother, these people found me in the grazing lands and saved me when I nearly fell from my horse."

The woman beamed and beckoned them in. "Please, come in, travelers," she said, bustling around the small dwelling. A rainbow of reds, blues, oranges, greens, and yellows covered every painted surface and piece of fabric. The same geometric pattern on the yurt's door was echoed on the few pieces of furniture and in the plush, handwoven wool carpets the woman pulled out for them sit on. Placing them on the floor near the firepit in the center of the yurt, she removed the lid from a bubbling iron pot nestled in the coals. The savory scent of pepper, garlic, and boiled meat filled the air. "Sit, sit. Please, you must be hungry."

Flopping down onto a pile of embroidered carpets close to the pot, Miaka watched the woman fill a small, embossed bronze bowl with a hearty soup brimming with vegetables, noodles, and meat. "Yes, ma'am!" She eagerly took the dish and a pair of slender copper chopsticks.

"Oh bless you," the woman said after passing out servings of the soup to each seishi as they took a place around the fire. "You saved my son's life. How can I ever repay you?"

Tamahome, directly to Miaka's right, looked up from his meal. "How about fifty cash?"

A scowl on her face and a frown on her lips, Miaka slapped him in the back of the head.

Chichiri sat cross-legged on a carpet with delicate red and blue geometric designs further from the fire and a bit apart from the rest of the group. "We have nowhere to stay, no da. It would be a big help if you could put all of us up for the night, no da." He took a bit of noodle in his chopsticks and glanced across the firepit at Tasuki, who sat between Chiriko and Nuriko. Tasuki glared at him from beneath his bangs, eyes steadily boring into his own as he ate. Frustration, anger, and irritation played in turn across his face as Chichiri had expected they would. He let out a deep breath. Damn.

"Yes, of course. By all means." Seeing Miaka watching the soup pot with eyes as round as the bowl in her hands, the woman took her dish and chopsticks and gave her a bronze spoon and another bronze vessel. It was filled this time not with soup, but a fermented cream. "You must all make yourselves at home here. And I'd love to hear about your travels."

Miaka squealed with glee. "Wow! This is great! It tastes like yoghurt!"

Nuriko took a bite of the soup and looked down at the meat in his chopsticks. "I've never tasted anything remotely like it!" Cocking his head, he looked back up at the woman. "Is this lamb?"

"Yes, it's a traditional dish called tsuivan." The woman sat down on one of the carpets near Miaka. The woman's son sat next to her as his sister, a small girl clutching a stuffed leather horse, climbed into her lap. Looking at each seishi in turn, the woman's brown eyes scrutinized every detail of their faces and clothing. "From your exotic dress, I'd say you travelers are from the south beyond the sea. You're quite far from home. What brings you to Hokkan?"

"Yes, ma'am, we're from the empire of Kounan. My name is Miaka and I'm the Priestess of Suzaku." She gestured clockwise around the fire with her spoon. "These are my celestial warriors: Tamahome, Chichiri, Mitsukake, Chiriko, Tasuki, and Nuriko." A ripple of greeting ran around the circle as she continued. "Hotohori, another Warrior, couldn't come with us so he stayed back in Kounan."

The woman raised an eyebrow. "I'm sure I don't know very much about it, but the legends say that though the Priestess of Genbu was not of this land, her seven Warriors were indeed from our country. Forgive me if I seem rude, but if you serve Suzaku, the god of the south, why are you here in Hokkan?"

"Well," Miaka said sheepishly, a simper on her face, "we had sort of an accident with Kounan's copy of The Universe of the Four Gods." She put down her bowl and fidgeted with the hem of her pleated skirt. "I kind of burned it before I found all seven Stars, so now we can't summon Suzaku with it anymore."

"Oh, my."

Seeing Miaka's discomfort, Chichiri spoke up. "We were told that the Shinzahou of Genbu could help us summon Suzaku, so we traveled here to search for it, no da."

"I see." The woman patted her son on the back and jerked her chin toward the heavy felt door. "Chuluun, run and get your uncle and tell him there are travelers here who wish to speak with the elder." The boy nodded and jumped up, running out the door with all haste. "The elder knows of all the ancient tales of our land. He may be able to tell you more of what you seek."

The heavy flap of felt covering the entrance to the yurt was pushed aside and a brown-skinned middle-aged man with a thick black mustache stepped through. "Wayfarers," he said with a wide smile, "we have brought our elder to meet you." He guided a frail old man leaning heavily on a wooden staff through the doorway with the help of another, much younger tribesman.

"Sure!" Miaka nodded vigorously as she watched the three men make their way around the fire and close to where she sat.

The old man took a seat, flanked by the two other men. His forehead scrunched as he looked her over. His eyes were entirely hidden by his bushy white eyebrows. In a thin, reedy voice, the old man began to speak, his mouth lost under the enormous white beard and mustache adorning his wrinkled face. "I am called Tomoru, high elder of the To Tribe."

Miaka bowed her head. "Nice to meet you."

After a long pause, Tomoru began once more. "So, you've come from Kounan in search of the Shinzahou."

"Yes, sir. That's right." Miaka leaned forward, eyes sparkling. "Do you know anything about it?"

"Perhaps I do." Tomoru stroked his beard and cocked his head. "Please remember though, that this is a legend I heard from my grandfather. Supposedly, some two hundred years ago, the Priestess of Genbu came here from an exotic foreign land." A murmur of excitement rippled around the fire. "At that same time in history, Kutou began a violent expansion and targeted this country for attack. But the Priestess of Genbu and the Genbu Seven rallied together to save Hokkan for all time."

Placing his bowl next to him on the dark burgundy carpet, Nuriko raised an eyebrow. "So, you're saying that the priestess summoned the beast god, Genbu?"

Tomoru nodded. "Supposedly. Genbu created a treasure, the Shinzahou, that he bequeathed to us."

"Huh?" The mustached man frowned. "Elder! That's not right! I heard from my father's friend's cousin that the Shinzahou is a small jewel and that Genbu is sealed inside of it."

The younger tribesman shook his head. "No! I heard from my mother's brother's friend that the Priestess of Genbu made it from the hair of the Genbu Seven and that it has great magical power."

Tomoru's wizened fingers tightened around the gnarled shaft of his walking staff. "Are you daring to call my grandfather a liar, young man?"

"Well, I think the Shinzahou is a piece of Genbu's shell that he left behind," said the mustached man as he smoothed out the wrinkles in his felt tunic.

The younger tribesman snorted. "That's not what you just said a few minutes ago!" he cried, jabbing a finger at the mustached man.

"Enough!" Tomoru raised a thin hand to silence his quarreling people and sighed. "In any case, if you go to the central region of Touran, I'm sure that you'll discover where to find the Shinzahou."

From further back in the yurt, Tamahome spoke up. "Can I ask a question?" All eyes turned toward him as he continued. "The Priestess of Genbu. After she summoned Genbu, did she leave this land and return to her own world?"

"Well, that's what I was told but I don't know the details."

"Oh. I see." Tamahome looked off into the fire for a moment before taking another bite of his soup.

- o - o - o -

Black and frigid night held the small encampment fast. The crescent of the waning moon had set by mid-afternoon and now the only illumination came from the stars and what little light escaped around the felt doors and through the vents at the top of each yurt. Chichiri pulled the borrowed woolen blanket draped over his shoulders tighter as he walked into a sparse patch in the stand of pines surrounding the camp. Few trees blocked the view of the wide sky and the glittering constellations here. Sitting down next to a large tree trunk, he laid his shakujou across his lap. The brass rings chimed softly as he began to polish the ornate scrollwork with the corner of the blanket.

They now had a solid lead in their search for the Shinzahou, he thought. Tomoru had gladly spoken with Chiriko and himself at length after their meal to discuss the necessary preparations for journeying overland to the capital. Tomoru had even offered to collaborate with Chiriko to draw up a map of Hokkan. Chichiri sighed, his breath a ghostly cloud just barely brighter than the surrounding night. Three days ride to reach Touran, then potentially another week to find where the Shinzahou rests... If they were lucky, they might even be back in Kounan before the end of the month. A month... A month before they could summon Suzaku and he could leave his obligations to the god of the south and the priestess and be free again to travel the four kingdoms as he chose. He paused in his polishing, the smile on his mask falling to a grim line. A month, he thought, and then...

"Damn brat," Tasuki growled as he threw open the yurt's felt door. A portal of yellow light lit up the starlit darkness for a moment before he walked out. "Won't fuckin' shut up 'bout my face." He stopped short as he caught a glimpse of Chichiri sitting a short way into the grove of pines from the encampment just before the door fell closed. Chiri... This was the first time he'd found Chichiri alone since... Since last night, he thought, running a hand through his unruly hair. A shudder coursed unbidden down his spine as the memory of Chichiri's lips on his rushed back to the forefront of his mind. As did his words: "This was a mistake..." He scowled. There was no way he could leave things they way they were now.

"Dammit. Whad'd I ever do t' that fuckin' kid anyhow?"

Chichiri's heart leapt into his throat as Tasuki flopped down next to him, throwing himself back against the tree trunk in a display of irritation. Turning his head minutely to his right, he watched him fold his coat-clad arms behind his head. Taking a few deep breaths to calm the rush of blood in his ears, Chichiri continued to polish his staff. The silvery clink of its rings against the ornate brass metalwork was the only sound for a long moment. "What happened, no da?" he hazarded after several minutes of tense silence.

"I asked th' damn kid if 'e wanted t' play catch er somethin', but 'e just cried an' ran t' hide behind Tama." Tasuki turned his head to glance at Chichiri. The monk kept his focus on his shakujou and didn't look up. Tasuki's scowl deepened and he dropped his head back on his arms to gaze out at the star-filled night.

Down the small hill on which the encampment sat, the vast plain stretched out toward the horizon. The blacker shapes of sheep and horses milling about broke the almost uniform dusk of the grass, though just barely. Without the moon's light, everything lay steeped in varying degrees of shadow. It was a world of dim and murky gray under a sky of vibrant reds and mellow blues and sparkling silvers.

"Do you love him?" Nuriko's words came back to Tasuki as he sat there under the weight of another uncomfortable silence. How 'm I s'posed t' know? he thought angrily. Nuriko hadn't told him anything about what love was and how to tell if he was in it or not. Even Kouji's description didn't really describe what he felt for Chichiri. He wanted him in body, but he also wanted just to talk to him, to be near him, to protect him. Was that love? Or just friendship with a healthy dose of lust thrown in? Dammit, this ain't gettin' me anywhere... Tasuki sneered, baring his fangs in the starlit darkness. He turned again to Chichiri. "Chi–"

"Oh! It's cold!" Miaka exclaimed as she stepped out of the brightly lit yurt, rubbing her upper arms. "Huh?" In the long stretch of yellowy light that poured from inside the dwelling just before the felt door fell closed, she caught sight of Tasuki and Chichiri sitting on the edge of camp under a large pine tree. "Where's Tamahome, guys?" she asked as she walked up. Her footfalls crunched across the thick pad of dry needles littering the ground.

Tasuki grimaced. Interrupted again... "'E took off somewhere with that fuckin' little kid in tow."

Raising an eyebrow, Miaka leaned down toward Chichiri's ear. "What's the matter with Tasuki?"

"Tasuki's face scared the kid so bad that he started to cry and then he ran away, no da." Chichiri silently thanked Suzaku for Miaka's timely appearance. He knew what Tasuki wanted to say and he wanted no part of it.

"Oh!" she giggled, covering her mouth with one hand.

An angry growl worked its way from deep within Tasuki's chest. "How could that li'l fuckin' pipsqueak think that my face's scary?!"

"Don't blow up at us, no da. Calm down, no da." Without dropping the silly tone, Chichiri allowed a subtle note of irritation to creep into his voice.

A sudden brilliant flash blasted away star and shadow as the yurt door opened. A portal of light once again illuminated the woods around them for a moment before disappearing. "I saw them head into the woods."

"Nuriko," Miaka said, turning toward his voice as she scrubbed her eyes with the backs of her hands.

Nuriko walked over to the near-blind priestess and handed her two woolen blankets. "Bring him a blanket."

She smiled. "That's a good idea." Wrapping one around her shoulders, she took off across the encampment, cradling the other neatly folded blanket to her chest.

Letting out a sigh, Nuriko watched her go for a moment before turning to look down at the two seated seishi. First, Miaka and Tamahome, and now these two. He shook his head, his braid sliding off his shoulder. Honestly, do I have to do everything around here? He turned and started back toward the encampment. The dry pine needles and fallen twigs crunching under his feet infused the air with the faint scent of balsam. "Don't stay out here too long, you two. We have a long ride ahead of us in the morning," he called back over his shoulder.

Silence pervaded once more, broken only by the gentle rustle of tree branches in the cold night breeze and the soft chiming of the shakujou. One moment passed without a word, then another, then another until Tasuki couldn't take it anymore. He gritted his teeth, his lip curling into a snarl. How could Chichiri just sit there polishing the brass rings on his staff like nothing was going on? Didn't he give a damn about what happened last night? "Yah gonna ignore me all fuckin' night?"

"I'm not ignoring–"

"Don't even start with that shit again," he growled, cutting Chichiri off in mid-sentence. "I ain't in th' mood, Chiri. I wanna know what th' fuck happened last night. Now."

Chichiri dropped the corner of the blanket in his hand and turned deliberately toward Tasuki. He let out a deep breath. His hope of resolving the situation reasonably had died the moment he'd opened his mouth, apparently. The starlight hid most of Tasuki's features in shadow, but he could see his expression clearly in his mind's eye: fangs peeking out at the corners of lips twisted in a scowl, brows drawn tight, eyes aflame. Quietly, he pushed himself to standing.

Tasuki was on his feet in seconds as Chichiri started to walk away. "Oh, no yah don't!" He grabbed Chichiri's arm. The brass rings of the shakujou clattered as he pulled him close, violently checking his forward movement. "Yer not walkin' away from me again." Tasuki could feel Chichiri tense against him. He heard his breath quicken, clouds of warm breath fanning across his face in the darkness.

Heart pounding, Chichiri struggled to maintain his composure. He glanced back toward the cluster of yurts. Thankfully, none of the villagers or their companions seemed to have heard them. "I am not having this conversation here." Jerking his arm out of Tasuki's grip, he turned and continued down the small hill away from the encampment.

The two walked for a long time through the thick grasses of the starlit plain. The short blades swished about their shoes as they moved farther and farther from the village and the wood in which it sat. Tense minutes passed in leaden silence until only the barest glimmer of light from the tops of each yurt could be seen. High overhead, the Silver River split the heavens in two as it flowed southwestward across the onyx sky. Shining Vega was left stranded on one shore and brilliant Altair on the other.

Tasuki crossed his arms over his chest, as much in irritation as in an attempt to ward off the cold. The night wind seemed much sharper away from camp and out in the middle of the plain. It seeped in at the collar and cuffs of his leather coat, freezing his fingers and sending an involuntary shiver down his back. "Alright," he declared, coming to a stop, "this's far enough, so start talkin'. What th' fuck's goin' on?"

Chichiri stopped a few paces from Tasuki, back to him. Looking off across the plain toward the way they had come earlier that day, he gazed up into the starlit sky. It reminded him of the night of the Qi Xi festival. He'd known then that this time would come, that Tasuki would finally demand an answer. But, despite his own feelings, he couldn't give him the answer he was looking for. It's better this way, he thought. Voice devoid of any of its usual silliness and purposefully even, he finally spoke. "Nothing. Last night was just a case of bad judgment."

"Like hell!" Tasuki spat. "We both know if yah hadn't walked away, we woulda fucked, so don't even give me this 'bad judgment' crap." The rustle of grass in the wind and the low nickering of horses slowly filled the silence as it became clear to him that Chichiri wasn't going to answer. Dammit! he swore to himself. Why? There was a deep and powerful attraction between them, something he couldn't explain. He'd known it since the moment they met and last night wasn't the first time he'd felt it. And he knew Chichiri felt it, too. So, why was Chichiri trying to deny it? What was he hiding? "I'm sick of yah fuckin' ignorin' me! Say somethin'!"

"I made a mistake. I'm sorry."

"'A mistake?!'" Tasuki glowered in the darkness. "Who th' fuck d'yah think yer kiddin'?! That hard-on pressed int' my hip last night said yah wanted it just as much as I did!"

Chichiri shifted where he stood, the rings of his shakujou chiming with the movement. The cold numbed his hands and assaulted his bare ankles. He pulled the woolen blanket tighter to him. For the pleasure of one night, he had been willing to destroy everything, to doom the mission and Kounan. He cursed himself for ever acting on his selfish desires.

"Dammit!" Tasuki roared, startling a handful of sheep grazing nearby. The animals bleated in alarm and retreated back toward the encampment. "Fuckin' talk t' me! Tell me why yer doin' this shit, Chiri!"

"What do you want me to say, Tasuki?"

"I wantcha t' tell me th' fuckin' truth!"

Chichiri scowled, frustration rising within him. He had already told him the truth: he made a mistake and he had apologized for it. What else did Tasuki want from him? Did he not realize just how tenuous the situation was for them? He turned to face the angry redhead. "Kounan is on the brink of war. The Seiryuu Seven are likely already in Hokkan searching for the Shinzahou themselves. I won't give the Kutou army any more reason or opportunity to invade than they already have."

"What?!" Tasuki snorted, biting back a laugh. "You think Kutou's gonna invade Kounan if we fuck? That's th' stupidest damn thing I ever heard!"

Chichiri gritted his teeth, tightening his grip on his staff. How dare Tasuki trivialize the importance of their fate and their mission? And for what? Nothing more than his own gratification? "We have a sacred duty to Miaka, as the priestess, and to the people of Kounan to summon Suzaku and I will not jeopardize that to appease your libido!"

"Stop dodgin' th' fuckin' issue, dammit!" Tasuki surged forward, catching Chichiri's shoulders in an iron grip. Leaning down in one quick, fluid motion, he clamped his burning lips over those of the monk, crushing them in a bruising kiss.

Chichiri struggled to free himself as Tasuki forced his tongue between his slightly parted lips, deepening the vicious kiss. An involuntary moan escaped his throat as Tasuki's powerful body pressed tightly to his. A wash of heat and the scent of leather engulfed his senses. The coppery hint of blood invaded his mouth and desperately, he shoved Tasuki away. He trembled, shaken by the flame and desire he felt and powerfully aroused by the kiss's brutality. Planting the shakujou between them like a wall, he took a few hasty steps back. "What do you think you're doing?" he panted, wiping his lips with the back of his hand.

Tasuki breathed hard as well. Thick clouds of vapor poured from his mouth as he fought the impulse to kiss him again. His lips throbbed in time with his pounding heart, a fierce and near-instant erection aching for release. Summoning Suzaku, finding the Shinzahou, the mission, Kounan: all of it seemed to pale in comparison to the want, the desire, the need he felt for Chichiri. Maybe, he thought, that was the feeling Kouji meant. "I think I'm in love with yah, Chiri."

"No, you're not," Chichiri retorted. No, he thought, Tasuki wasn't in love with him. He wouldn't allow it.

Tasuki bared his fangs at the condescending tone in Chichiri's voice. He wasn't a child and he wasn't about to let anyone treat him like one. He knew what he felt. Crossing his arms once more, he drew up to his full height. "That's bullshit an' you know it!" he growled. "Yeah, I wanna fuck yah so bad it hurts, but I wanna be with yah even if I never fuck yah at all! I've never felt like that before in my whole fuckin' life!"

"You're not in love with me! Whatever this is, it's purely physical. Nothing more!"

"Yer lyin'! Yer lyin' t' my fuckin' face! You an' I both know it's more than that!"

At every turn, Tasuki barred his way, rebutting every argument and refusing to back down. Nothing he said seemed able to stop Tasuki's stubborn inquest and Chichiri felt trapped. He couldn't love him, nor could he accept the love Tasuki professed. Yet, neither could he tell him of Hikou nor his death at his hand and its aftermath. Backed into a corner, his heart at war with his mind over Tasuki's declaration, his own feelings for the redhead, the guilt and self-loathing over the flood and Hikou's death, his fate and that of his friends, his priestess, and his country, Chichiri shoved back hard. Raising his shakujou, he slammed the butt-end of it down with a horrendous crash of metal on metal. Horses and sheep grazing nearby scattered at the noise. "What do you want from me, Tasuki?! Sex? A relationship? What?!"

"I don't know! I just want you!" Tasuki shot back, alarmed by the sound and the change in Chichiri's demeanor. He'd never heard him so angry before and it confused him. Where was this vitriol coming from?

"I don't love you, Tasuki! I have never loved you! I will never love you! We are celestial warriors, bound to Suzaku and in service to him and Kounan, nothing more!" Chichiri shouted. Hikou's death terrified him. He'd killed him. He'd killed him and only after Hikou had been swept away did he realize what he'd lost. If those feelings of jealousy and hatred returned, would he kill Tasuki as well? He couldn't take that chance. He had to push him as far away as he could, for Tasuki's sake as well as his own. Allowing his mask to hide the turmoil on his true face, he forced himself to continue, voice even and emotionless. "After we retrieve the Shinzahou and summon Suzaku, our duty will be done and I will be gone. We won't see each other again. Until then, we have to work together. I suggest you keep that in mind."

Tasuki's eyes narrowed, fangs bared. Everything Chichiri had said was bullshit. Rather than trust him with the truth, Chichiri had decided to hide behind half-assed reasoning and lies. He was sure Chichiri loved him, but he'd rather run than face him or how he felt about him. Stepping forward, Tasuki bypassed the staff and glared down at him. "Fuck you, Chichiri. Fuck. You," he snarled, stabbing a forefinger into Chichiri's chest to punctuate his words. Turning, he stormed off across the dusky plain, back toward the encampment, his leather coat swirling about his boot tops.

- o - o - o -

Mitsukake smiled at the little girl's amusement. Sitting cross-legged on a heap of wool rugs next to the fire, he watched her toddle about across the floor, her leather horse clutched to her chest. She dangled a scrap of string above Tama-neko's head just out of the cat's reach, giggling and screaming in delight as he jumped for it again and again. As he watched the girl run around the yurt chased by the cat, Mitsukake wondered if this was what it would have been like to have a daughter of his own. Shouka... A gust of cold air cut through the yurt, ruffling his hair. Looking up, he saw the heavy felt door open and the girl's mother enter.

"Come here," she clucked, stooping down. The child abandoned her game with Tama-neko. She ran to her mother's outstretched arms and the woman scooped her up. "It's time for you to sleep." Settling the girl on her hip, she turned her attention to Mitsukake. "Please, feel free to use our home for the night. We'll be staying next door with my brother."

Getting to his feet, Mitsukake nodded. "Thank you for your hospitality and for allowing us to stay here."

She smiled. "It's no trouble at all. We rarely get visitors to our village, and never such interesting ones."

Following her to the door, he swept it open with a large hand and held it as she ducked through and walked out into the night. "Good night," he said, watching them disappear into the darkness beyond the light pouring from the doorway. The little girl looked back at him over her mother's shoulder and waved before letting out a wide yawn. Mitsukake sighed. Suddenly, from behind him came the crash and crack of branches and the heavy thud of boots on dry pine needles rushing through the trees. What– He turned just as Tasuki emerged from the grove into the pool of bright firelight, his eyes narrowed, fangs bared, and his face twisted in rage.

"Move," he snapped and barreled straight into Mitsukake, knocking him back a step as he pushed past.

Turning his head to follow Tasuki's charge into the yurt, he frowned. Tasuki ripped the golden sash sheathing his tessen off his chest and over his head. He dropped it in an unceremonious heap before throwing himself down on a rug back from the fire. Mitsukake shook his head and massaged his bruised shoulder with his free hand. He knew Tasuki had a temper; he'd seen it while attending his wounds after the failed mission to Kutou. Yet, even when his dander was up, while he was yelling about some thing or another and threatening violence over it, Tasuki never went so far as to actually hurt someone he considered a friend.

The faint chiming of metal floated to his ear on the cold night breeze, interrupting his thoughts. He turned toward the sound. Long moments passed as it moved closer, getting louder and louder. "Chichiri," he said as the monk finally appeared in the doorway's light. The mirthful smile that usually graced his lips was little more than a grim line. The aura of cheerfulness he usually exuded was gone, replaced by a sobriety Mitsukake had never seen.

"Good evening, Mitsukake, no da," Chichiri said. The corners of his mouth rose just barely. "Pardon me, na no da." Sidestepping him, Chichiri continued into the yurt. His bangs bobbed as he ducked under the felt door.

Mitsukake watched him lay his shakujou atop a pile of rugs before sitting down himself. Several paces away, on the opposite side of the yurt, Tasuki lay on his side with his back to the central firepit as if asleep. Mitsukake raised an eyebrow. The situation reminded him of the sparring match between Tasuki and Tamahome on the ship the afternoon before. At that time, Chichiri had a similar expression just before he walked off. Well, that confirms my suspicions, he thought. The two seishi were obviously fighting, but why? Tasuki he could understand; the redhead could get irritated over the slightest thing. But Chichiri? What would someone as easy-going as him have to fight about? I'll mention it to Chiriko tomorrow. Perhaps he'll have an idea. As he turned to reenter the warmth of the yurt, he let the heavy felt flap fall closed behind him.

Glossary of Terms for Chapter 7

Cash → cast coins, usually of copper, brass, or iron, rarely of silver or gold, used as currency in China from near the end of the Zhou dynasty (2nd century BCE) until the middle of the 20th century CE

Tsuivan → traditional Mongolian stew dish, generally composed of mutton, vegetables, and noodles

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