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.

"Tamahome," Miaka pleaded, the horror on her face heightened by the ruddy glow of the campfire, "you can't! It's just a poor, innocent bunny!" She gripped his arm with all the strength her cold-numbed fingers could provide.

Tamahome huffed, his breath visible as a foggy cloud despite the warmth of the fire, as he took up the already-dead rabbit from the ground at his feet. "If someone," he raised his head and fixed her with a look of irritation, "hadn't eaten all the food Tomoru gave us, we wouldn't have to catch our own dinner in the first place." Taking a small knife from his belt, he made a few quick cuts around the animal's legs and across its belly and began rolling the pelt off the carcass. After removing the fur, he began gutting the animal.

She put her hands over her nose to block the coppery smell of blood. "But, it's so cruel!" Wrenching her eyes from the rabbit, Miaka looked desperately at Nuriko. "Nuriko! Do something! Stop this!"

Nuriko sighed from his place across the campfire from her. "Miaka, they're already dead. And besides, you were the one complaining about being hungry the entire ride from the village." He handed Mitsukake the short pine branch he'd been carving into a sharp point and brushed the shavings off his lap.

Next to him, Mitsukake reached out and took the newly skinned-and-gutted rabbit from Tamahome. Running the sharpened stake through its body from head to tail with an experienced hand, he planted the spitted animal between two others just outside the reach of the flames.

"Mitsukake, what are you doing?! Don't help him!" Miaka cried.

Tasuki snorted, grabbing his knife back from Nuriko and jamming it into the small sheath inside the shaft of his boot. He shifted in his place on the log with Mitsukake to lean forward, elbows on his coat-clad knees. The fire popped and crackled, throwing up periodic, pine-scented sparks. "You ate all th' food b'fore we even got two li outta th' village, yah moron!" Firelight flickered over his face, the shifting pattern of light and shadow giving his expression a menacing quality. "Three days worth o' food, fer seven fuckin' people, an' we only left this mornin'!" He glanced to Miaka's right, where Chichiri sat poring over Chiriko's hand-drawn map with the young scholar. With a snarl, Tasuki tore his eyes away and clenched both hands into tight fists.

Both Nuriko and Mitsukake followed Tasuki's line of sight to Chichiri before glancing back at the redhead for a moment. Each silently raised an eyebrow.

Letting go of Tamahome's arm, Miaka looked around the loose circle of her Warriors. "Doesn't anyone care about this?! Chichiri?!"

"I'm sorry, Miaka no da," Chichiri said, looking up from the map. "I have to agree with Tamahome, no da. We're still two days out from Touran and according to Tomoru, there aren't any villages between here and the capital, na no da." His gaze turned to Tasuki for a brief moment, then back to the map.

"I understand how you feel, Miaka," Chiriko spoke up, giving her a sympathetic smile. "On an emotional level, I don't like the idea of having to kill small animals, but logically, it has to be done. We just don't have any other options right now."

Wiping his knife off on the moss clinging to the log he sat upon, Tamahome placed it back in its sheath. He got up and took the pelt, viscera, and other castoffs from the rabbit away from the campfire and a short way into the surrounding woods. Upon his return, Tamahome rummaged through the tan canvas pack Miaka had brought with her from Eiyou, and took out a scrap of cloth to wipe his hands on. Stuffing the material into his navy-hued robe, he plopped back down on the log and wrapped his arm around Miaka's slim shoulders, giving her a gentle squeeze. "We're not going to just eat it right off the skeleton, silly. Once it's cooked and off the bone, you'll never know."

Miaka scowled and tried to push him away. "Of course I'll know, Tamahome! I can see it right there!"

With a sigh, Nuriko stood and dusted off the back of his black felt robe. "Why don't we get things set for the night? We have another two days of riding ahead of us, so let's get everything ready for tomorrow, shall we?" He looked over his shoulder into the nearly pitch-black wall of night just outside the fire's glow. "I'm sure the horses need a little attention, too. Wouldn't you say, Tasuki?" Fixing Tasuki with a sharp stare, he motioned with both hands toward the darkness and the makeshift picket on the other side of the tiny clearing in which the group camped.

Tasuki raised an eyebrow and frowned. "What're yah talkin' ab–" he managed before Nuriko ducked behind Mitsukake and seized him by the arm, nearly dragging him off the log. Just before he hauled the protesting redhead away from the camp, Nuriko picked up a burning branch from the edge of the fire to use as a torch.

Mitsukake watched the two younger seishi go, the crunch and crack of twigs and leaves in their wake lingering long after they were out of earshot. His brow furrowed as he turned back to the rest of the group. He didn't know what Nuriko had to speak to Tasuki about, but he was certain the man knew at least something of the situation between Tasuki and Chichiri. He wouldn't have drug him away if he didn't. Perhaps Nuriko's wasn't the most subtle approach, but Mitsukake wasn't going to waste this opportunity to speak privately to Chiriko. "Nuriko is right. Dinner will take some time yet." He pushed himself to his feet. "Chiriko, would you mind helping me set out the bedding?"

"Oh, yes, of course." Chiriko looked to Chichiri. "Would you mind rerolling the map for me, Chichiri?" he asked and stood, dusting off the back of his robe.

Chichiri seemed to pull himself out of a daze at Chiriko's words. He shook his head before looking at him. "Certainly, no da."

- o - o - o -

Mitsukake shook the deep ochre wool, removing the wrinkles from it with a sharp snap. The movement disturbed Tama-neko, who had just lain down to sleep. The cat mewed and paced around on the healer's shoulder before laying back down. Mitsukake placed the bedroll a few paces back from the fire on a bed of dried pine needles. Next to him, Chiriko attempted to shake out a bedroll himself. Mitsukake smiled as Chiriko tried but failed to snap it as he had. The long felt blanket flopped about like a fish out of water with each attempt. "It would be easier for you if you lay it on the ground and smooth it out by hand," Mitsukake suggested. He took up another of the woolen bedrolls. Chiriko sighed, a cloud of warm breath dispersing into the cold night. He nodded and dragged the material across the ground to a spot near where Mitsukake had placed the first one.

Glancing around the camp, Mitsukake made mental notes of the other seishis' and Miaka's whereabouts. Nuriko and Tasuki were still across the clearing attending the horses. He could hear periodic nickering and huffing, punctuated by the trembling hoots of owls echoing through the trees. They won't be back for a while yet, he thought. Miaka and Tamahome had walked over to join Chichiri in scrutinizing the map. Chichiri sat on the log he'd occupied since they'd made camp while Miaka and Tamahome peered over each of the monk's shoulders. Mitsukake watched Miaka reach down and point at something on the paper scroll before she frowned. They seem occupied enough. "Chiriko," he whispered, his baritone voice a quiet rumble.

"Yes, Mitsukake?" Chiriko looked up from where he sat on his knees spreading out a mossy green bedroll.

"Have you noticed the tension between Tasuki and Chichiri these past few days?" Mitsukake snapped another thick felt blanket. "I think they had a fight."

Chiriko nodded, the pine needles under the wool crunching as he leaned back on his heels. He tucked his cold hands into the salmon-colored sleeves of his felt robe. "Yes, I have. Neither of them seems to want to be around the other." Glancing over at Chichiri, he shook his head. "Whatever has happened between them isn't recent, though. I didn't know the cause at the time, but I did notice some tension between them before we left Eiyou. Didn't you?"

Mitsukake hummed in agreement. He had begun to notice a slight difference in how Chichiri seemed to act around Tasuki, especially as they sailed to Hokkan. At the time, he wondered if Chichiri was just becoming more comfortable around the other celestial warriors. It made sense; he himself was shy and taciturn around most people, so he could relate. Yet, Chichiri's current near-silence and deliberate avoidance of Tasuki told Mitsukake that wasn't the case. But, would Chichiri even acknowledge the problem if he asked him outright? Probably not, he thought. And Tasuki...

Tasuki seemed almost recklessly angry. The spot where the redhead had barreled into him the night before twinged as Mitsukake thought about that look of poisonous rage on Tasuki's face. Bottling up anger of that magnitude could only harm Tasuki, emotionally and physically. Miaka couldn't afford any of her Warriors becoming ill or unable to protect her, not at such a critical time. Placing the bedroll down, Mitsukake spoke. "We must do something, Chiriko. This argument may hinder our progress in finding the Shinzahou."

"I agree, Mitsukake. But what do you have in mind?"

"It's likely that once we reach Touran, we will split into small groups to search for information. We should try to pair ourselves with one or the other of them."

"And while we search, we should try to coax them into dealing with the matter," Chiriko finished, speaking more to himself than Mitsukake. The scholar nodded, slowly at first, then faster as he turned the idea over in his mind. He couldn't agree more that this situation could put their mission in jeopardy. Both Tasuki and Chichiri looked distracted, as if their bodies were present and attending to the matters at hand but their minds were somewhere else entirely. "Yes," Chiriko said finally, looking up at Mitsukake. "Yes, I think this plan could work."

- o - o - o -

Nuriko frowned as he followed Tasuki across the dark, pine needle-strewn clearing to where the five riding horses and one pack horse Tomoru and his tribe had given them were picketed. The compact animals stood calmly in a rough line, a few of them asleep on their feet. Stopping back a few paces from the picket, he watched Tasuki check the horses' lead ropes and halters in silence. The torchlight flickered across Tasuki's back, illuminating the peaks of the creases and folds in his leather coat and the hard edges of his tessen. "You haven't said more than two words to anyone since we left the village this morning," Nuriko said finally, "and now you're snapping at Miaka. What is going on with you?"

"I don't wanna fuckin' talk about it." Tasuki didn't turn around as he bent to test the knots tying one end of the hemp picket line to a broad-trunked pine tree.

"Oh, get over yourself." Nuriko snorted, a white puff of breath escaping his nose with the sound. He crossed his arms as best he could while holding the torch. "What happened between you and Chichiri last night?" His gaze followed Tasuki as he moved to where the group had stored the horses' tack. Tasuki rummaged around the stack of wooden saddles, the felted horsehair saddle pads having been borrowed to supplement the bedrolls.

Tasuki scowled at the mention of the monk's name. Something in his chest tightened as Chichiri's words the previous night rang once more in his mind: "I don't love you, Tasuki! I have never loved you! I will never love you!" "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." What did Nuriko want him to say? That he'd spilled his guts to Chichiri and what he'd gotten in return was anger, lies, and rejection? That he'd managed to fuck it up after all?

Frustration building, Nuriko grabbed Tasuki's upper arm and spun him around to face him, only just barely keeping his divine strength in check. "You told me yesterday morning that you and Chichiri nearly slept together on the boat before we got here and now you two are avoiding each other like the plague. What happened?"

"Lemme go, Nuriko. Now," Tasuki growled, baring his fangs. Tendrils of warm breath escaped his mouth like puffs of ivory smoke as he tried to pull his arm free of Nuriko's painful grip.

Tasuki's refusal to talk didn't seem too different from his behavior during their conversation on the night of the Qi Xi festival. Yet, something about his demeanor this time made Nuriko suspicious. "Tell me what's going on, Tasuki, or I swear–"

A bitter bark of a laugh cut him off. "Yah 'swear' what? That yah'll tell 'im?" Tasuki spat, a sardonic smile on his lips. "What were yah thinkin' would happen after that, huh?" With one last jerk, his arm came free from Nuriko's grasp and with a shake of his head, he ran his hands through his hair. "I did everythin' yah said. Every fuckin' thing." He shifted in his spot, his boots crunching on the dry pine needles under his feet. "But, it don't matter anymore."

Tasuki's words took Nuriko aback. "'Doesn't matter?' What are you talking about?" he asked, brows furrowed. "Wait..." He blinked once before his eyebrows shot toward his hairline. "What does that mean? What happ–"

"Hey, Tasuki! Nuriko! Dinner's ready!" Both warriors turned toward the campfire as Tamahome's voice rang through the clearing. "You'd better get over here before Miaka eats– Oof!" The shifting flames silhouetted Miaka where she sat on the log she and Tamahome shared as she wound up and planted an elbow in the fighter's ribs.

Nuriko turned hastily back to Tasuki, eyes wide. "Red, what–"

Tasuki made one last check of the horses, patting one on the neck before starting back toward the rest of the group. "Don't worry 'bout it," he said, shrugging off Nuriko's inquiry. "Just ferget I said anythin'." The shifting light of the torch highlighted his scowl before he passed out the glow and his face was swallowed by the darkness. "We've gotta Shinzahou t' find, right?"

- o - o - o -

Chichiri shivered at the wind's cold bite, frowning as steely gray clouds overtook the last rays of daylight. They blotted out the weak sun that had followed the group all the way from the border. Drawing his heavy felt robe tighter around him, he urged his mount a bit faster toward the shelter of the waiting city.

Ahead of them lay the fortified capital of Hokkan, Touran. Its lights glittered like gems against the snow-capped mountains surrounding it. It had been three days now since they had set out upon the route Tomoru had given them, first traveling west through the foothills to pick up a disused trade road about a hundred li from the village. Following it and the map Chiriko had made from the old man's information, the warriors had had little trouble except with the harshness of the terrain. The horses labored over the deeply rutted, rocky trail as the land became steeper and more jagged the nearer they drew to the mountain ranges in the center of the country.

As they crested the final wooded bluff before the steep descent into the valley where Touran sprawled, Chichiri chanced a glance at Tasuki. He rode next to Miaka and Tamahome half a li ahead of the remaining warriors. Tasuki's anger had seemed to dissipate as their journey had gone on, getting to the point that he had returned to bantering back and forth with both Nuriko and Miaka and even joking with Tamahome around the campfire at night. Yet, Chichiri knew that it wasn't that simple. Tasuki's words from that night echoed through his mind: "I think I'm in love with yah, Chiri." "I just want you!" He shook his head. Even if Tasuki did love him, he couldn't return that love. Duty to his priestess, his country, and his god was too important.

Mitsukake and Chiriko rode in silence next to Chichiri, each granting him occasional troubled looks. Both men knew whatever argument had occurred between Tasuki and Chichiri was eating at the monk. Chichiri's distracted glances and stubborn determination to avoid Tasuki for the past three days only proved the severity of it.

"Come, Chichiri. Miaka and Tamahome have reached the city gates. We should hurry if we don't want to be left behind," Mitsukake said, urging his horse on to catch the rest of the group.

- o - o - o -

Massaging his cold hands, Chichiri took in their surroundings. Towering stone walls jutted from the frigid ground. The group reined in their mounts just before the main gates of the city, both the horses' and the riders' breath forming as frosty clouds of mist with the dropping temperature. The leaden sky closed in, pushing down on the seishi like a great gray blanket. The chill wind burned Chichiri's nose as he breathed. To his left, Nuriko craned his head back to watch a lone sentry pace the battlements high above.

"Wow, the walls around the city are even thicker than the ones around the palace in Kounan," he said, dropping his gaze back to street level. Nuriko gave Chichiri a smile and a quick dip of his head before urging his horse onward.

Tamahome led the band under the soaring gate and into the wide thoroughfare that served as the central marketplace. His dark navy hair rippled in the cool wind as he swayed back and forth with each step of his steed. "So, this is Touran," he said as he looked around. The buildings were shorter and thicker than in Kounan and the stonework much more simple and utilitarian as well.

Nestled against his back, Miaka sat bound up in her thick robe. The matching coral hat atop her head tipped back and forth as she gawked. Shops and stalls lined the streets and alleyways radiating from the entrance to the city. Spice stalls overflowed with the scents of nutty cardamom, grassy cilantro, and woody cinnamon, while the food stalls brimmed with the tang of smoked horse meat and the sharp scent of caraway in the mutton budaatai khuurga. The sizzle of frying yak khuushuur dumplings and the bubble of boiling goat-meat-and-vegetable khorkhog underscored the excited cries of merchants and peddlers hawking their wares. Felt-robe-bound shoppers moved in dense throngs through the market under the threatening sky.

"Yeah. We finally made it 'ere," Tasuki commented, keeping his attention focused away from the group and away from the quiet monk just a scant pace behind him. He couldn't bring himself to look at Chichiri without the anger or the deep ache in his chest that now accompanied it. He knew Chichiri shared his feelings and his desire, no matter how much he tried to deny it. An' that kiss... Even now he could feel the electric tingle, the delicious throb as he crushed their lips together and he ran a finger over them. He remembered the sensuous moan that had slipped from Chichiri's throat. Then 'e acts like nothin' fuckin' happened, he thought bitterly.

Nuriko had demanded repeatedly after that first night at camp that he tell him about what had happened with Chichiri, but he'd refused to give an answer. He didn't need Nuriko going on about how he'd screwed everything up and how Miaka wouldn't be able to summon Suzaku because of him. He'd had his fill of hearing about duty and Suzaku from Chichiri. With a frown, he shoved the thought aside in deference to the conversation continuing behind him.

"It's cold here," Chiriko said, shivering as he rubbed his hands together. He drew farther into his felt robe, hugging Mitsukake's back a bit tighter.

A gentle smile crept onto Mitsukake's face.

Miaka smiled as well. A large snowflake landed on her nose, diverting her gaze. "It's snowing!" she exclaimed, holding out a hand to catch another.

The rest of the seishi also reached to claim their own flakes. Chichiri shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. He cast a troubled glance at the fluffy snow lighting on Tasuki's hair before turning his attention to the whitening ground.

Nuriko studied a rapidly melting snowflake in his hand. Wiping the wet remnants on his heavy robe, he too smiled at the joy in Miaka's words. "Wow, you almost never see snow back home in Kounan," he replied, glancing up. "The weather is too nice there."

Tamahome nodded in agreement, turning his gaze to the sky as the downy white snow began to coat the dark robe cloaking his knees.

"It's been so long!" Miaka sighed, resting her head against Tamahome's shoulder. "Back home, where I come from, it sometimes snows a lot during the winter months." She sighed again, eyes drifting closed as she snuggled closer.

The conversation soon slacked off to silence. The horses snorted and pawed at the ground as snow began to pile up around their hooves and frigid rivulets ran down their sides and legs. At last, Tasuki chanced turning to the group. Melting snow plastered his hair to the sides of his face. "We should prob'ly get ourselves a room er somethin'. If we stay out here any longer, we're gonna freeze an' th' horses don't look so hot either." He turned his gaze to Chichiri. Tasuki's eyes locked on his downcast face for a long moment. I love yah, yah bastard. Mouth set in a grim line, he dismounted, never taking his eyes from Chichiri. Why?He let his gaze drop to the snow-laden ground, frosty breath belying a soft growl. Why won'tcha let me? Sliding his cold fingers into his mount's leather bridle, Tasuki gently pulled its head around and stalked off toward a stable just a few paces from the gatehouse, his felt robe fluttering in the breeze.

"He has a point." Nuriko slipped from his saddle to the snowy ground. He pushed his long braid back over his shoulder as he waited for Miaka and Tamahome to dismount. Casting a glance after Tasuki, he raised an eyebrow. What is it you aren't telling me? he thought. He shifted his gaze briefly to Chichiri. And why aren't you telling me? After a moment, Miaka patted him on the arm and the threesome, horses in tow, trailed after Tasuki to the stable.

As Tasuki disappeared into the dark interior, Mitsukake looked back over his shoulder at Chiriko. Both men's brows furrowed. They had seen and felt the tension brewing in Tasuki's stare as it bored into Chichiri's face even if the monk had not. They turned to look at Chichiri and were surprised to see him dismount as well. Gaze absorbed in his task, Chichiri swept the fallen snow off of his horse's mane and neck. Mitsukake exchanged one more look with Chiriko before patting him on the knee in silent signal to dismount.

- o - o - o -

Inami's Garden lay tucked into an alley a few steps from the stables behind a thick bronze-clad wooden door. Inside, the tavern's pale green walls and stone floors were well-lit by several bronze lamps hanging from the coffered wood-beam ceiling. Near the back of the establishment, smoke and the smell of grilling meats wafted over the half-wall separating the kitchen from the dining room. Just to the left of the food-crowded pass-through, a simple wooden staircase led upward to what was most likely a handful of guest rooms.

Leaving Tamahome in charge of securing a meal, Tasuki and Nuriko led the others through the crowded common room. Serving women hefted large lacquered platters laden with steaming foods and beverages as they made their way between the close-set tables. The clink of copper chopsticks on bronze dishes and the thump of heavy metal cups on wooden tabletops mingled with the cheerful hum of conversation. Drunken patrons roared with laughter at the antics of their equally drunk friends, their eyes watery and their brown faces tinged with red. Dodging loose elbows and sidestepping milling patrons, the Shichiseishi made their way to a small, rectangular table in the center.

A middle-aged, brown-skinned woman in a green robe with a high embroidered collar approached before any of the celestial warriors could take a seat and silently began a slow circuit of the table. Taking bowls of tsuivan and plates of khuushuur from her platter, she placed them around the tabletop along with pairs of chopsticks and simple linen towels.

"Yah know," Tasuki rumbled as he dropped onto a wooden bench across the table from Nuriko, his voice low and conspiratorial. "I think Tama should pay fer our food. Miaka's 'is whirlwind after all." He grinned at Nuriko's stifled laugh, fangs peeking from the corners of his mouth.

Chichiri nodded his thanks as the serving woman placed a small bronze drinking bowl on the table in front of him before filling it with suutei tsai from a bronze tea pot. A tendril of steam rose from the surface of the salty, milky tea only to disappear a hand's breadth above the cup. Chichiri took a seat next to Nuriko, making certain to keep Mitsukake and Chiriko between Tasuki and himself. His brows furrowed. The amused smirk on Tasuki's face as the redhead took a heavy bronze cup of what looked to be some sort of liquor from the woman and thanked her seemed out of place, almost as if their argument had never happened. Tasuki couldn't have really decided to back off, could he? Chichiri looked away just as Tasuki caught his stare. He turned his attention to untying the silk cord fastening the map he'd taken from inside his robe.

"What was that?!" Tamahome demanded. He slapped the still-chuckling Tasuki on the back of the head. Taking a seat between Tasuki and Miaka, he smiled in triumph as Tasuki frowned and rubbed at the stinging spot. "Well, then," Tamahome said upon seeing Chichiri unrolling the map of Touran, "where do we go from here?"

Chichiri stood, pushing the crisp edges of the paper as flat as he could. He finally motioned for Mitsukake and then Chiriko to hold the corners of the map so it didn't reroll itself. "Right now," Chichiri said, pointing to their location among the myriad ink lines and place names, "we're at the city gates, no da. We should split up and search for clues about the Shinzahou, na no da." He felt the eyes of the group on him, watching, waiting for his expert opinion. He could not, would not pair up with Tasuki after what had occurred between them. The tension Chichiri felt even sitting at the same table with him made him uncomfortable. Never taking his eyes from the map, he made his choices. "Since Chiriko is just a kid, I'll team up with him, no da."

"My pleasure."

Mitsukake and Chiriko glanced at each other, exchanging a subtle nod. Chiriko mulled Mitsukake's plan over again in his mind as he nibbled on one of the yak dumplings. If they could get to the bottom of this rift between Tasuki and Chichiri, perhaps they could find a way for the two to reconcile. The harmony and morale of the group and of their priestess was paramount.

"And since Tasuki's such a hot-head, the even-tempered Mitsukake should go with him, na no da."

Tasuki's head jerked up, eyes widening only to narrow to slits. "What's that s'pose'ta mean?" he shot back, fangs bared. Bastard, he thought, his grip tightening on his bronze cup until his knuckles showed white against the tan of his hand. Yet, beneath the outward ire, Chichiri's words wounded him more than he wanted to admit. Hot-headed: was that what Chichiri thought of him and his feelings? Chichiri had gone out of his way to avoid sitting, sleeping, or riding anywhere near him during the journey from Tomoru's village to Touran. Now, he was throwing out snide comments and wouldn't even look him in the eye. He loved the monk, he truly did. Why couldn't Chichiri just love him back? Growling deep in his throat as Chiriko placed a hand on his arm, Tasuki let the challenge drop.

"And naturally I should go with Miaka." Tamahome smiled at her, crossing his arms over his chest.

Miaka looked pointedly at Chichiri and then to her right at Nuriko. She paused, chopsticks halfway to her mouth, and frowned. "What about Nuriko?"

"Hmm." Nuriko placed his teacup down on the wooden table and pondered the idea. He cocked his head, his long braid slipping from his shoulder to dangle nearly to the floor behind him. "I'd prefer to go with Miaka and Tamahome," he said finally, clasping a braceleted fist to his chest. "As steward of His Majesty, Hotohori, I have to protect you in his place." He smiled. Nuriko had always known that no matter how close he and Miaka had become over the months since her arrival in Kounan, he would never hold the same place in her heart as Tamahome or Hotohori. He could only do his duty as a celestial warrior and protect her on her mission. Hoping to find some sympathy, he glanced over at Tasuki only to be greeted with a raised eyebrow. Following Tasuki's line of sight, he turned around and into a grimy green robe.

"Hey, baby."

Nuriko blanched and reeled back as fast as he could away from the owner of the voice. A thick cloud of long-spoiled alcohol and stale sweat enveloped him as the man grabbed his chin with a grubby brown hand and turned his face this way and that. Nuriko grimaced, his brows drawn in disgust. A deep reddish flush underlaid the man's unshaven features and the lecherous grin that spread across his chapped lips.

"Oh yeah, you're a pretty one. How's about you share a drink with me?"

Nuriko growled and grabbed the man's wrist in a crushing grip before jumping up and punching him squarely in the jaw. "Sorry, buddy," he said as the unconscious drunk's body sailed over the heads of several serving women and passing patrons to land with a crash several paces away, "I'm not that kind of girl." The man lay sprawled like so many sacks of grain tossed from a passing wagon in the wreckage of one of the wooden dining tables. His friends cackled and hooted at the spectacle. Cracking his knuckles, Nuriko dusted himself off with an exaggerated flourish and returned to his seat. He tossed his braid over his shoulder once more.

"Hey, baby," Tasuki drawled with a smirk, hoping to tease Nuriko about the unwanted attention. Yet, he found himself looking at Chichiri, anxious for some reaction to his words. Come on. Say somethin', dammit, he thought. His quick glance became a long, smoldering stare. When it became obvious Chichiri wouldn't react, Tasuki chugged the arkhi from his cup and welcomed the slightly fizzy, alcoholic fire that ran through him. Still, the milk liquor only did so much to dull the edge of his anger and sadness. "Maybe it's not such a great idea fer yah t' pair up with Miaka. Looks like there's plenty o' yokels 'round this joint." He returned his attention to Nuriko, gesturing in a wide arc to include the whole of the tavern.

"No kidding," Tamahome put in as he glanced around at the whistling and cat-calling crowd. "If the sight of two girls together here causes this much excitement, we're never going to get anywhere without a bunch of hassles along the way."

Nuriko sniffed and crossed his arms over his thin chest. "Yeah, yeah. I get it," he grumbled. "The problem is I look like a girl." Looking around, he saw a young man get up from the table behind where the Shichiseishi sat and start toward the tavern's door. "Hey, you. Give me your knife," Nuriko said and, without waiting for an answer, grabbed it off the man's belt. Smiling to himself in triumph, he pulled the dagger from its sheath, its silver blade glinting in the yellow lamplight. He heard the entire table gasp as he reached a delicate hand behind his head and, grasping the warm bundle of purple hair, sliced it from his head.

A shocked silence descended over the group.

"What a waste," Tamahome whispered and shook his head.

"Nuriko!" Miaka dropped her chopsticks with a metallic clatter against the wooden table. Eyes wide, she grasped Nuriko's arm. "Are you sure about this?" She stared for a moment at the coil of braided hair, consternation engraved on her face. "You'll give up looking like a girl?"

Tossing the knife back to its owner, Nuriko chuckled and patted Miaka's hand. "It's alright, it's done. I don't feel the need to do the cross-dressing act any longer." A wistful smile touched Nuriko's lips for a brief moment before he glanced around the table at the rest of the Warriors. Balling one hand into a fist, he pounded it into his palm. "Besides, I can't have this mane of hair flapping all over the place while I'm trying to fight the Seiryuu Seven, can I?"

"Yeah, the Seiryuu Seven. That's right." With a frown, Tamahome wrenched his eyes from the severed braid. "They may attack us when we least expect them to."

Chichiri shook his head as he too looked away from the lock of hair. That braid embodied years of work and dedication toward Nuriko's dream of becoming empress. Yet, he now seemed at peace with leaving that dream behind to start anew. Chichiri's brows furrowed as he considered his own life. His thoughts turned to the redhead staring at that same lock. Drawing a breath, he pushed the thought away and looked up at the rest of the group. "Exactly, no da. The biggest problem is finding a way to keep in touch with each other while we're split up looking for the Shinzahou, no da. But if I use any of my magic, the enemy will be able to find us, na no da."

"Yeah. That's tricky," Tasuki muttered. His gaze fixed on the amethyst plait where it curled loosely around itself on the tabletop. With that one cut, not only was Nuriko sacrificing his identity for his duty to Suzaku and Kounan, but the courtier was essentially giving up on what Tasuki thought Nuriko had wanted: Hotohori. It didn't make any sense. How did duty as a Star of Suzaku have any impact on whether Nuriko and Hotohori or even Chichiri and himself could be together or not?

Tasuki knew duty. As a recruit under Hakurou and as the leader of the Mount Reikaku bandits, he'd had responsibilities and obligations aplenty: to protect the mountain and his fellows, to collect tolls from travelers while upholding the bandit code, even to properly worship the god of the mountain. He'd done all of those things without fail and never once was anything about love being off-limits mentioned. Chichiri's words from that night replayed again in Tasuki's head: "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!" "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." How many more times would someone hold up "duty" as an excuse? Turning his gaze to Chichiri, he scowled.

"Perhaps I have a solution." Chiriko's voice broke through the contemplative silence that had descended over the group. All eyes focused on him.

"What's your idea, Chiriko?" Miaka asked.

"It's these!" He dropped three small tubes upon the table, hollow bamboo stalks stuffed and sealed, each trailed by a short silk cord. Chiriko smiled in triumph as he folded his hands into the sleeves of his robe. Not only had he managed to find an alchemist in Hotohori's court who was willing to make the volatile recipe, but he'd retrieved them from the boat and tucked them away in his robes just before his character had faded again.

Tamahome scratched his head. "Fireworks?"

"They're signal flares." A chorus of acknowledgment worked its way around the table as understanding spread across each face. "If you find out anything about the Shinzahou, just light one of these to let the rest of us know. They can be seen from anywhere within the city boundaries."

Tamahome, Miaka, and Nuriko stood and took one of the flares for their group. "These will really come in handy," Nuriko said as he pushed it into the belt holding his robe closed. "Thanks, Chiriko." To his left, Miaka nodded as she hoisted her pack onto a slim shoulder. She pouted for a moment as Tamahome pushed her coral hat down over her eyes, then faced the rest of the seishi.

"Alright everyone, let's get going and remember to use your flares if you find anything. Most of all, be careful," she said before starting through the crowd for the tavern's door, Tamahome trailing behind.

Mitsukake nodded and patted Chiriko gently on the shoulder in thanks. He took a flare from the two remaining as he stood. Next to him, Chichiri rolled up the map of Touran and tied it shut.

"I'll see to the horses, Chiriko, no da," Chichiri said simply as he stood. He tucked the map into an interior pocket in his robe. Never looking back at the table, he slipped around a serving woman with a laden tray and moved toward the exit.

"Of course." A frown tugged at the corners of Chiriko's lips. Taking the last flare from the table, he tucked it into the belt holding his teal silk coat closed under his felt robe. He looked up at Mitsukake as the healer put a hand on his shoulder and nodded toward the door. Chiriko sighed and let Mitsukake usher him through the crowd.

Tasuki watched Chichiri go in silence. Gulping down the last of the arkhi in his cup, he pushed himself up off the bench. The tessen jangled at his back with the movement. A hand touched his shoulder and he paused, but didn't turn to look. "Whadda yah want, Nuriko?"

"Tasuki, you and Chichiri can't go on like this." Nuriko removed his hand and crossed his arms over his chest.

Tasuki snorted. "I told'ja t' ferget about it, didn't I?"

"How can I? You've been irritable for days and no matter how many times I ask, you won't tell me anything," Nuriko replied. "Neither you nor Chichiri is talking to the other and if Miaka doesn't know something weird is going on now, she will if you don't get whatever it is under control and soon. Our duty to–"

Tasuki growled, cutting Nuriko off. The sound drew the attention of patrons at nearby tables. "I don't need a fuckin' lecture an' I sure as shit don't need you tellin' me 'bout 'duty.'" He finally turned toward Nuriko, his eyes narrowed and veiled by his bangs. "Yer tellin' me what I gotta do, but what're you doin', huh? Hidin' from Hotohori behind a fuckin' haircut an' some bullshit 'bout fightin' th' Seiryuu Seven."

"What? That was my choice and it has nothing to do with you, or Hotohori, or anyone," Nuriko shot back. He scowled. "You won't tell me what's going on and you're angry at me for I don't even know what. How do you expect me to help you?"

Over Nuriko's shoulder, Tasuki saw Mitsukake pause halfway to the exit and look back at them. Flicking his gaze back to the angry courtier, Tasuki shook his head. "Keep yer help. I've had enough o' it t' last a fuckin' lifetime." He pushed past Nuriko, the hard soles of his boots thudding against the worn stone tile as he headed for the tavern door.

Glossary of Terms for Chapter 8

Budaatai Khuurga → a thick stew made of meat, usually mutton, rice, and vegetables

Khuushuur → pocket-shaped dumplings filled with meat, usually mutton, and deep fried in oil or fat

Khorkhog → a meat dish, usually made of lamb or goat and root vegetables, cooked in a closed container with the help of hot stones

Suutei Tsai → Mongolian tea made with milk, traditionally from a mare, and salt

Arkhi → a light and slightly fizzy alcoholic beverage made from fermented and distilled mare's milk

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