Fushigi Yuugi -- Aienkien

BY : Llanyia
Category: +. to F > Fushigi Yuugi
Dragon prints: 1315
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.

Tasuki took a sullen, sidelong look at the black-haired warrior atop the white gelding to his right. The man had been blithely riding that damned horse for miles, the clip-clop, clip-clop of its hooves irritating him to no end. It just didn't seem fair. Why should Hotohori alone have the privilege of riding while the rest of their group had to travel the long, grueling li to the capital on foot? Even the priestess had been forced to walk and the rough, rocky roads linking the northern Kounan city of Choukou to the microscopic eastern village of Hakukou seemed little more than paths in some places.

Tasuki huffed and returned his gaze to the dusty road ahead. The heat-distorted shimmer of the city gates finally emerged from behind the low rise the group had been ascending for the last hour. It wouldn't be long now. At least the weather seemed to be cooperating. After the spring rains had finally passed into the heat of midsummer, all Tasuki wanted was clear skies and some sunshine before the thunderstorms of late summer began. He didn't mind the rain much–the clean scent of sodden earth reminded him of home on Mount Reikaku–but the days of incessant cloud cover drove him to distraction. Mount Reikaku... He sighed. Despite the promise of adventure and a change of scenery joining Miaka and the Shichiseishi held, deep down, he still hoped that his duty to Kounan and Suzaku would end quickly and that he could return to the mountain before the change of another season.

The group passed through the vast bronze-sheathed gates of the city and made their way slowly into the hustle and bustle of the market district. Tasuki watched a small group of laughing children dart away from a fruit stall to his left. The sharp, citrussy notes of freshly cut pomelo met his nose as they passed near him, sticky juice dripping from their mouths and hands as they ran. In another stall, a hunched, gray-haired man hawked earthy-smelling bunches of medicinal herbs, rich, black soil still clinging to their roots. Noble ladies in delicately embroidered gowns loitered under painted oil-paper umbrellas in front of a tailor's booth farther down the row. Their handmaids rifled through the racks of bright silk fabrics, presenting promising finds to their mistresses. Above the women's heads, pre-made robes dotted with minute glass beads hung from the stall's rafters, sparkling in the afternoon sun. Next to the garment seller, raucous and colorful birds flapped and fluttered in bronze cages.

A shift in the light breeze brought an assault of aromas to Tasuki's nose and made his mouth water. Food stalls popped up between the merchandise vendors more frequently as the group continued toward the palace. Smelling garlic and soy sauce, Tasuki glanced at a stall to his right. A sweaty man wearing a bandana and an apron stirred noodles for ganshao niuhe in a massive wok with a wooden paddle. At the counter, another man struggled to keep up with the crowd of people clamoring for a serving. Farther down the market row, smoky, toasted sesame oil filled the air as a woman in a tight bun whisked more noodles in the wok at her stall. She dumped a mass of noodles into a lacquered bowl before a young girl in a too-big apron took it from her. Another nearly identical girl at the counter ladled piping hot, brine-scented fish broth and shrimp dumplings into the bowls before handing the yuntun mian off to eager customers. Tasuki's stomach roared in protest and a disappointed frown graced his lips as they trouped past without stopping.

Passing out of the market, the band of warriors began their ascent of the long causeway leading to the palace. Situated on a low hill at the southernmost end of the metropolis, the complex was ringed by a thick, brickwork wall broken only by a pair of colossal bronze gates. Behind the wall, the pagoda of what Tasuki guessed was the main palace rose high above the rest of the capital. Its vermilion clay-tiled roofs shone in the late afternoon sunshine. They had finally made it to the jewel of the Kounan Empire, Eiyou, seat of the emperor and his court and, most of all, the end of their quest to gather the seven Stars of Suzaku.

Tasuki stifled a weary yawn behind his hand as they passed under the grand lacquered-wood archway and its phoenix-motif lintel. Wow, whatta place, he thought, his golden eyes never stopping long as he looked around. Courtiers and groundskeepers roamed the vast square just inside the gates. Ancient cobbles, worn smooth by centuries of use, paved the tree-lined courtyard. In the southeast of the square, a fountain gurgled in a round stone pond dotted with water lilies. I can't believe th' guards let us in 'ere, even if we are part o' th' Suzaku Seven.

The slap of soft-soled shoes running across brick tiles broke his reverie, but as he turned toward the sound, he saw only a flash of yellowish light and an odd cloud of dense smoke emanating from a nearby hallway. I swear I just heard somebody, Tasuki thought. He glanced around the plaza. No one else seemed to notice the phantom footsteps or the cloud. Frowning, he turned back to the hallway. "Welcome back, no da!" a high-pitched voice chirped.

"What is thaaat?!" Tasuki yelped with a start, pointing unceremoniously at the thin, pale-skinned man who appeared from the clearing smoke. Cerulean-haired, fox-eyed, and with an expression of perpetual mirth, the man laughed and smiled with Miaka as if they knew each other.

"That's Chichiri, one of the Suzaku Seven. Like us," Nuriko said, smacking Tasuki upside the head with a roll of his eyes.

"Ow, fuck," Tasuki growled and rubbed the tender spot, a few strands of hair falling into his eyes. He returned his gaze to the strange seishi just a few paces away. His simple linen garb and deep navy kesa marked him as a monk, but his behavior just didn't match up with the image. Tasuki thought back to the monk he'd met while traveling months before, who had given him the omamori he'd used to regain leadership of the bandit gang. That man had had a certain air of dignity and age to him. This monk certainly did not. How c'n this guy be a monk? 'E can't be any older 'an me. Behind Tasuki, Chiriko spoke up.

"Magnificent! I can't believe we got into the palace." The boy turned this way and that in unabashed awe.

"Hotohori's missing," Mitsukake said, casting his gaze around the sunlit courtyard. "He's gotten lost already." His words drew a ripple of surprise from the group of warriors. None of them had noticed the man take his leave.

Tasuki glanced around himself. He was only mildly curious as to where Hotohori had gotten to. He had long since decided that he just didn't have that much in common with the taller seishi. Hotohori seemed content to keep up a friendly rapport with the rest of the group, but it was obvious he was hopelessly enthralled with Miaka. "Oh yeah, yer right. Where'd 'e run off to now?" Tasuki threw out. He was certain Hotohori would turn up at some point. After a moment, he sank back into thinking. Chichiri, huh?

Glancing back over at Miaka, he felt the pit of his stomach lurch. Just over the girl's shoulder, his eyes locked with Chichiri's. A warm smile spread across the monk's features and Tasuki realized he had been looking straight at him. Was 'e just... How long's 'e been starin' at me? He simpered and gave Chichiri a curt nod, looking away as fast as he could. What th' hell's wrong with me? I'm actin' like a moron, Tasuki scolded the long journey had taken more of a toll on his body and mind than he thought. He had just left his home on Mount Reikaku and given up his place as leader to Kouji after all. And, in becoming part of the Suzaku Shichiseishi, Tasuki had seen more of Kounan in a week's time than he had in all his seventeen years. Yeah, that's it. All this travelin' around an' becomin' a Suzaku Warrior must be scramblin' my brains, he thought. Nuriko's voice sounded to his right, giving him a much-needed chance to regain his composure.

Nuriko snorted in amazement. "You guys still haven't figured out who he is? He's none other than the actual–"

"That's alright, Nuriko." A deeper, more commanding voice overpowered the conversation, silencing them all in only three words. The order came from the hallway from which Chichiri had appeared. A tall, dark-haired man in imperial regalia stood atop the lavish staircase, looking down upon the group with tawny brown eyes. They were the same as those of the missing Hotohori.

Silence reigned over the warriors. Shock and awe were engraved upon each of their faces as it slowly occurred to them that the man before them just might be… "Your Highness. I'm so glad you're back safely, no da." Chichiri turned his gaze to his emperor, greeting him happily in that high-pitched, silly tone Tasuki heard just moments ago. The monk seemed to be the only one unaffected by Hotohori's sudden appearance and revelation.

Then, the information hit him. "He's th' emperor?!" Tasuki barked. Shame sizzled across his cheeks as he thought of his behavior at Mount Reikaku. Ah shit, I'm gonna get it now. Me an' my big mouth… A hint of sandalwood invaded his senses a scant moment before a gentle hand descended to his shoulder. Tasuki's head whipped around. His face flushed as he looked Chichiri right in the eyes again, this time within an arm's length of his own. His heart thumped hard against his ribs and his voice retreated to the safety of his throat.

"It's alright, no da," Chichiri said. "He's not all that bad once you get to know him, na no da." There was something about this particular warrior that was different from the other seishi, something subtle that Chichiri couldn't quite describe. He held Tasuki's gaze, the hand he'd laid on his shoulder long forgotten.

Turning his attention back to the group as a whole, Hotohori addressed them once more. "All of you are welcome here; please consider this palace your home for the foreseeable future. You shall have rooms set aside for your own private use. Nuriko, please show everyone to their chambers."

"Yes, Your Majesty."

"A formal dinner will be held in the banquet hall in two hours' time to celebrate the finding of the last three warriors of the Suzaku Seven. Until then, feel free to explore the palace." His exit flanked by two of his advisors, Hotohori retreated into the corridor from which he had come, vermilion robes flowing behind him on the elaborate brick floor.

Nuriko gave Hotohori a low bow before turning to the rest of the warriors. He clucked like a mother hen as they gathered their things. "Come on, you guys. Follow me, your rooms are this way." Nuriko gently maneuvered the shocked Mitsukake and Chiriko down the hallway. He chided them to pay more attention to what they were doing instead of ogling the beautiful young monarch. Trailed by a burbling Miaka, the group set out into the eastern side of the palace complex.

Chichiri removed his hand from Tasuki's shoulder and quietly moved to follow the rest. Chichiri... Tasuki turned the word over and over in his mind and tried to gather up his scattered wits. What th' fuck just happened 'ere? It wasn't weariness from the long journey and becoming a celestial warrior, he knew that much. From the moment he caught the enigmatic monk's eyes, his tongue had been tied and he'd acted like a fool. Nothing like that had ever happened to him before. A spark of electricity dashed down his spine as he watched Chichiri go. Who was he? There was more to this guy, he just knew it, and he had to find out. Letting out a sigh, he sprinted off toward the rapidly disappearing group, straining to hear the last audible sounds of the conversation moving away from him into the palace grounds.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

"I can't believe we did it, Nuriko. We found all the celestial warriors! Now Tamahome can come back to us. And we can summon Suzaku and have our wishes granted, too." Miaka beamed, clapping her hands together.

Nuriko ruffled the girl's bound auburn hair. An affectionate smile graced his lips. "I knew you could do it, Miaka."

"Well, we can't summon Suzaku quite yet, no da."

Mitsukake turned to the heretofore silent monk, hand absently scratching the cat in his tunic behind the ears as they walked. "What do you mean, Chichiri?"

"Even if Tamahome were here now, we still don't have the scroll of The Universe of the Four Gods that Taiitsukun gave to Kounan, na no da." A set of heavy footsteps echoed through the corridor. Glancing back, Chichiri found Tasuki jogging to catch up with them.

"So what if we don't 'ave that scroll thingy? We've got all o' us together now, don't we? That's somethin', ain't it?" Unaffected by the exertion, Tasuki fell into step next to him. He drew up to his full height, about half a hand's breadth taller than the monk. Chest thrust forward in a display of pride, he smirked in triumph at the slightly raised eyebrow gracing Chichiri's face.

"Tasuki," Miaka said, giving him a incredulous look.

"Um, Tasuki, don't forget that Tamahome is still in Kutou," Chiriko pointed out. Next to him, Mitsukake shook his head.

"Yeah, well... I knew that."

Rolling his eyes, Nuriko sighed. "You can be such a blockhead, Tasuki."

Sunlight glinted off the lacquered-wood balustrades edging the path as the six of them moved through the imperial complex. The winding series of porticoes and verandas connecting the tightly packed buildings that they'd been traveling soon opened out into a vast garden area. Tasuki looked around at the landscape as they walked. Damselflies darted and hovered above the rippling surface of a pond that stretched out to the left. The small crests reflected and refracted the setting sun's light back at the breezeway, splashing gold across the underside of the structure's wooden roof. The heady fragrance of gardenia tickled his nose as the group passed clouds of white-flowered bushes kneeling before hunched and gnarled pines that swayed in the warm breeze. Across the garden, Tasuki saw an octagonal gazebo on the edge of the pond surrounded by ancient willows, their weeping branches switching lazily. Pale pink and rich red camellias nestled among the trees' roots around the structure. The bushes' sweet and delicate floral scent hid beneath the stronger scent of the other flowers, but Tasuki could still smell them.

Chiriko gaped openly at the scenery. "The palace grounds are beautiful. Don't you think so, Mitsukake?"

The big man nodded, his own gaze flitting from one side of the breezeway to the other. In his tunic, Tama-neko shifted, pushing his furry head out to see what the fuss was all about. The cat cast a scrutinizing glance at the five warriors, the priestess, and the gardens around them, and, finding nothing of real import, returned to his nap in the confines of Mitsukake's saffron-colored coat.

Tasuki inclined his head slightly toward the silent monk at his side. He studied him from the corner of one almond-shaped eye. He took in the gentle sweep of Chichiri's jaw, the graceful arch of his neck, and felt his heart jump in his chest. The monk allured and intrigued him more with each passing minute. What was he hiding behind that expression and that strange behavior? He blushed furiously as Chichiri looked over and caught his sidelong gaze. The monk's face was impassive but for that smile, and Tasuki knew he'd sensed the weight of his stare immediately. He swallowed hard and returned his eyes to the path with a toss of his head, his fiery hair doing little to hide the scarlet spreading like wildfire across his face.

As the group left the breezeway and gardens behind, more lacquered palace buildings swallowed up the wide open space along the path. A series of wide, polished brick stairs flared out just past the first building. The short flight led down to another bricked veranda perpendicular to the one they traveled. "We're almost there, everyone. The guest palace is just a little further." Upon reaching the last step, Nuriko slipped to the right side of the passage to avoid two giggling courtiers exiting the harem's palace. Both young women eyed the Shichiseishi, whispering behind their hands as they climbed the stairway and headed toward the gardens the warriors had just left.

"Damn, these rooms 'is Highness gave us're really far away," Tasuki commented, turning to look back the way they had come. "How're we gonna get back there b'fore dinner's ready?"

"Yes, it does seem a very long way to travel," Mitsukake agreed. Chiriko nodded distractedly, still enraptured by the rapidly setting sun's gilding along all the rooftops and trees.

"Oh, I guess I should have told you," Nuriko giggled behind his hand. "If you take a left at the bottom of the staircase we came down instead of the right we took, you can get to the royal audience chamber in just a few seconds."

"What?!" Tasuki scowled, fangs bared, a deep growl rumbling in his chest. "Yah asshole, yah knew that an' then took us on this fuckin' wild goose chase through th' entire palace?!" He took a menacing step toward the shorter man, eyes narrowed to slits.

Chichiri grabbed Tasuki's coat-clad shoulder with a firm yet gentle hand, effectively checking his forward movement. "Calm down, Tasuki, no da. The passage Nuriko mentioned is only used by harem members and royal advisors, no da. I'm sure His Highness wanted to be brought up to speed on what's happened in Kounan during his absence, so there was no point in all of us parading through his meeting just to save time, na no da. Besides," he said, letting go, "we're here, no da."

"Okay, everyone," Nuriko announced, stopping before an unassuming brick-tiled veranda that stretched out into the fading afternoon light. He gestured down the hallway. "His Highness has graciously allowed us, as Suzaku Warriors, the run of the entire guest palace. There should be more than enough space for all of you here."

"Aren't you and the priestess staying in the guest palace, too?" Chiriko cocked his head to the side, the light breeze tousling his blond hair.

"Well, I already have a room in the harem's palace, so I don't need one."

"Don't worry, Chiriko," Miaka said, "Nuriko will be here with us most of the time. And I have a room here in the guest palace, so we'll all be together." Glancing at the darkening sky, the girl turned her attention to the group as a whole. "We still have a little time before dinner, so why don't you all try to get settled in your rooms and we can all meet back up in the banquet hall?" She smiled and twined her arm around Nuriko's. They headed off toward the harem's palace and the courtier's room, laughing and whispering as they went.

Placing a large hand on Chiriko's shoulder, Mitsukake gave him a small smile. "Come, Chiriko. We should take some time to rest after the long journey we've had." He looked up at Chichiri as the monk stood silently back from the remaining Suzaku Warriors. "We'll see you and Tasuki at dinner, then." The two made their way down the hall, leaving the monk and the bandit alone.

"I've got a few things I want to do before the banquet, so I'll see you later, no da."

Tasuki whirled at his words, the first he'd spoken in quite some time, to find Chichiri walking off down the darkening brick portico. The moon crested the tops of the trees as the last vestiges of the sun retreated, repainting everything in a cool silver glow: the buildings, the landscape, and Chichiri's hair. His long ponytail swayed across his back with each step, his kesa rippling against his lean body in the cooling night air. Tasuki could still feel the monk's hand on his shoulder, warm and strong and gentle. A powerful twinge of desire hit him then, to unravel the puzzle that was Chichiri, and to be near him again, even for just a moment. Yer in way over yer head, Tasuki, he thought to himself, eyes following the monk until he disappeared around the corner at the end of the veranda.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

As the warriors filed in, Tasuki looked around in appreciation. Lavish silk tapestries and bronze statuary lined the walls of the sumptuous banquet hall. Only seven place settings, one place for each seishi including Miaka, the priestess, graced the long, mahogany table, yet the amount of food was enough for three times that number. His mouth began to water when he saw the food. The briny tang of steamed yuntun filled with shrimp and minced pork wafted from one black lacquerware plate. Ban mian heaped high with vegetables sat next to it, a few noodles snaking over the side of its celadon bowl. A shallow dish of suanrong zheng shanbei steamed nearby, scallops and green onions emerging like tiny islands from its pungent garlic and ginger sauce.

Hotohori commanded the head of the table, flanked by two eager chamberlains. One clutched a large bottle of wine while the other waited patiently to clear the empty dishes for the next course. "Now then," he said, "how do we return Tamahome back to Kounan?"

To Hotohori's left, Miaka, Nuriko, and Chichiri ate as if they were at a family dinner. They reached across the table to grab bits of food with their chopsticks, laughing and talking all the while. To Hotohori's right, the newest warriors sat in silence, unmoving.

Tasuki frowned down at his still-empty plate. He wanted so badly to start eating, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he'd be hauled away by the guards before he got the chance. I hit th' emperor an' yelled at 'im an'... Tasuki berated himself, chagrin vying with mortification. There was no way his crimes could be overlooked. He'd kidnapped Miaka and attacked both Hotohori and Nuriko...

"Relax, my friends," Hotohori laughed, a smile touching his lips at their expressions. "I am still the man you traveled with, one of the Suzaku Seven." When they calmed down enough to start helping themselves to the myriad dishes, he continued, adopting a more serious tone. "The main problem is that we must retrieve Suzaku's scroll, The Universe of the Four Gods, as well as Tamahome, from the enemy. The scroll contains the details of the complex ritual to summon Suzaku. I can only remember a bit of it. We must find some way of reclaiming it without triggering a war."

With no hesitation, Miaka spoke up. "I'll go and get it. I'll go to Kutou and free Tamahome, then I'll figure out how to get Suzaku's scroll back, too." She looked at Hotohori squarely.

The emperor shook his head, a small frown on his lips. "Miaka, what are you saying?"

"It's my fault The Universe of the Four Gods was taken in the first place," she said. Guilt flickered across her face.

"But–"

"I could go with her, no da. However, before we leave, I think we should discuss the operation with Tamahome himself, na no da."

At the sound of Chichiri's voice, Tasuki looked up from his meal and stared at the monk. 'I could go with her, no da...' What? Wait. He an' Miaka 're goin' t' Kutou? That's fuckin' crazy. They'll both be injured er captured er worse. How could he possibly let his priestess, a fifteen-year-old girl, run off to a hostile foreign country with only the monk to look after her?

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

Tasuki meandered through the nearly deserted palace. His heavy boots rang through the scarlet-lacquered hallways. Coming to another perpendicular veranda at the end of the interior corridor he traveled, a moonlit garden opened up before him. He took in the comfortably cool night breeze, the sounds of crickets chirping, and the robust silver moon standing watch above and he found his thoughts turning once again to Chichiri.

From the moment Tasuki had arrived at the palace and first lain eyes on the monk, he hadn't been able to get him out of his mind: his strange speech pattern, the way he seemed to know more than he let on, the graceful, confident way he carried himself, his exceedingly handsome alabaster face, permanently amused look notwithstanding. He stopped to admire the moonlight and sweet perfume of night-blooming lilies beneath an ancient and gnarled ginkgo tree. Throwing his arms casually over the balustrade, Tasuki leaned on its firm weight as the wind ruffled his hair. He could have sworn he'd seen Chichiri blush when he caught his not-quite-secret appraisal, but he couldn't be sure. That expression of his made it nearly impossible to read him or his true demeanor. Ah well, no use worryin' 'bout it right now.

He grinned and straightened, continuing up the staircase to his right. He'd go see Chichiri later, if he could think of a good excuse for his visit. Rounding a lantern-lit corner, the veranda he'd been traveling had become the covered balcony of another building. Below, another veranda led to the eastern wing of the imperial compound. That's where th' guest palace is, ain't it? He followed the tiled hallway with his eyes and, in his reverie, nearly bumped into Hotohori. He stopped just short of walking right through the man. "Yer Highness, what're yah doin' out here?" An air of melancholy surrounded the emperor and Tasuki raised an eyebrow. "Yah look like yer best friend just died."

Hotohori smiled, a faint curving of his thin, delicate lips. "No, I'm quite all right, Tasuki. I'm just enjoying the evening air tonight, that's all." The sadness in the emperor's eyes and words both confused Tasuki and piqued his curiosity. He opened his mouth to ask Hotohori what was wrong, but before he could continue, the echo of rushed footsteps cut him off. Both men turned toward the sound. Miaka ran down the corridor below them at a break-neck pace. It was then that Tasuki remembered the meeting Chichiri had set up with this Tamahome Miaka had gone on about at dinner.

"Hey, Miaka!" he called, but was promptly hushed by Hotohori.

"No, Tasuki, don't call her. She will finally be with Tamahome, so let's leave them both alone."

"Huh?" Tasuki turned and stared at Hotohori, eyes wide. "What?" Was this Tamahome interested in Miaka too? So, why wasn't the emperor trying to stop her from seeing this guy? How could Hotohori be so calm when he was essentially backing down and giving Miaka leave to be with another man? Tasuki had heard the tender words shared between them at the bandit stronghold and again in Choukou. He'd seen the looks Hotohori had given her, the death-defying risks he'd taken for her. There was no way Hotohori could pretend all of that never happened. Tasuki stared in stupefaction. Was this really the same man that he'd met at Mount Reikaku?

"What's goin' on? I figured you an' Miaka were goin' together..." Suddenly, he looked up, a fanged grin of comprehension spreading across his face. "Ah! I get it, a love triangle!"

As soon as the words left his lips, pain blasted through him like a shot, doubling him over and leaving him gasping for air. He hadn't noticed Nuriko's quiet entry into the conversation. Apparently, the slight, yet powerful, seishi had decided he needed to defend his emperor's honor by suckerpunching him. Though, Tasuki had a sneaking feeling he did it just to do it. As he tried to catch his breath, he looked up to see Nuriko smirking and dusting himself off. "I had to do it. He's an insensitive country clod, Your Majesty," he said, the self-righteous tone of his voice tinged with smug satisfaction. "And as for you, Tasuki, watch your mouth in the presence of your emperor." Nuriko lent him a hand to help him up, sunny smile still in place despite Tasuki's wheezing.

The redhead glared as fiercely as he could. "Hey, what th' fuck was that for?!" he tried to shout, though it sounded more like a cough than the growl he had hoped for. That fact just made Nuriko giggle. He winked, finger wagging in mock severity. Snarling in frustration, Tasuki bared his fangs, hoping to add an air of danger to his outburst. The plan backfired. Nuriko doubled over, howling with laughter, and, with one slender finger, wiped away tears collecting at the corner of his eye. Slapping away the hand offered him, Tasuki scowled and stomped off, his own hand held gingerly over his stomach.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

Fuck, I hate that guy sometimes, he thought with a frown. The heels of his boots echoed off the lacquered wooden walls of the veranda. The far-off quivering peal of an owl joined the trilling symphony of crickets and cicadas reveling in the midsummer night in the garden just beyond the reach of the lanterns. Above, the moon sat higher in the deep black sky, having risen since the banquet's end. Tasuki's mind wandered back to Chichiri and how his spell was progressing. It had been a while since Miaka had rushed to the monk's chamber, but he knew she was still talking. The thought of her prattling on with Tamahome while the monk tried to keep the spell going as long as possible brought a smile to his lips. I know, I'll go see how they're doin', he suggested to himself, thrilled to have found his excuse. He was already past his own door and halfway to the other man's before he had even noticed.

He reached out to grasp the bronze door pull just as Miaka bounced out of the room, nearly bowling him over. With a mumbled apology, she skipped off down the hallway. Her unbound hair fluttered behind her as she rounded a corner and was gone from sight. Shaking his head, Tasuki returned his attention to the now-open door. That same scent of sandalwood he'd smelled earlier was there again and stronger. He flushed with anticipation. Leaning into the quiet room, Tasuki planted his hands on either side of the doorframe, bracing himself as he looked around. "Hey, Chichiri, where are yah?"

"Tasuki, no da? What are you doing here, no da?"

Chichiri's light, playful voice sounded from inside the room to the left. Turning towards the sound, Tasuki took in the sight before him. Thick, white candles flickered in tall, bronze holders while incense curled out of a small, ornate censer in the shape of a mountain. The items were arranged before a large, patterned screen dominating the far end of the chamber. This was obviously the medium the monk had used to speak to Tamahome. Chichiri himself sat cross-legged, hands steepled as if in prayer. Upon seeing Tasuki, he raised an eyebrow. Tasuki's face lit up, a fanged grin coming unbidden to his lips, and he took a small step into the room.

"Well, I was just passin' by an' I thought maybe yah might want some company."

"You do realize your room is at the opposite end of the hall, right, no da?" Chichiri chuckled. He was surprised and a bit flattered to find the bandit at his chamber door mere seconds after Miaka had left. It was almost as if he'd known the exact moment he'd be alone. "Come in, na no da." He extinguished the half-spent candles and, lifting the bronze lid of the censer, tapped out the smoldering cone in the tiny hill of sand at the bottom of the vessel. Rising to his feet, he motioned for Tasuki to enter as he made his way to the small, ornately carved table hugging the wall near the door. Chichiri lifted a plain black-lacquered tray containing a porcelain tea service and waited as Tasuki strode fully into his room. Their shoulders brushed very lightly as he walked past, and Chichiri pulled the door shut behind him.

 

 

- o - o - o -

 

 

Chichiri motioned to Tasuki to have a seat at the small circular table near the center of the chamber. A lantern hanging from the coffered ceiling above it suffused the room with a cozy, orangey glow. Tasuki pulled his tessen over his head and shrugged off his black leather coat. The ivory tunic he wore underneath accentuated his athletic frame and Chichiri could see a bit of Tasuki's tanned skin where the tunic was loosely tied at his shoulder. Tasuki draped the coat and tessen over the back of the chair, dropping himself into it as if he owned it.

Placing the tray on the table, Chichiri took a seat himself. "So, what can I do for you, Tasuki, no da?" he asked, pouring them both a cup of tea. Wispy tendrils of steam rose from the liquid's surface as Chichiri handed him the celadon teacup. Their fingers touched briefly as Tasuki accepted the cup with a nod.

"Well, I came t' see how yah were doin'," the bandit replied, "'cause that spell looks like it wore yah out." Raising his cup to his lips to take a sip, Tasuki forced himself to look as evenly at Chichiri as he could. He didn't want to make it obvious that he was sizing the monk up.

"Miaka did spend a lot of time getting ready, no da. I had to keep the channel open for nearly twenty minutes before she finally arrived, na no da." Miaka's talk with Tamahome had gone on much longer than Chichiri had anticipated. Though, he really should have known the two lovers would have wanted to see and talk to each other for as long as possible. And I can't blame them, can I, no da? He smiled ruefully. It reminded him that he had also been that young once. He pushed the thought away before it could become too painful.

"Yah know, I've been meanin' t' ask yah, are yah really a monk? 'Cause th' only other monk I ever saw sure wasn't as weird as you," Tasuki said, eyebrow cocked. The bizarre, almost childlike way Chichiri had acted prior to dinner was so at odds with his now-calm, almost reserved demeanor. "I was just wonderin' 'cause o' how yah came runnin' up t' us when we arrived, that's all."

"Well, that's rude, no da." Chichiri chuckled. "And I'm your basic wandering monk, no da. Are you really a bandit?" Taking another sip of his tea, he peered at Tasuki over the rim of the cup. He smirked and made a quick gesture toward the gemstone earrings and necklaces gracing Tasuki's ears and neck.

"Damn straight," Tasuki declared, sitting up just a bit straighter in his chair. A roguish fanged grin spread across his face. "I'm th' leader of th' world-famous bandits o' Mount Reikaku." He watched one of Chichiri's eyebrows rise slightly. The monk said nothing, but his eyes darted immediately to the pearly fangs peeking out from the edges of his smile. Tasuki frowned. "I suppose that means yah haven't heard o' us."

Chichiri chuckled into his tea. He enjoyed the tenor rumble of Tasuki's distinctly western Kounan accent. It did make him wonder about the redhead's background though. He'd not had much occasion to pass near Mount Reikaku in his journeys as a wanderer. If I had, would I have still been as struck by him as when we met just hours ago, no da?

"So, how come yah didn't come out t' Mount Reikaku with Miaka an' th' others? I know fer sure I didn't see yah anywhere 'round there an' I didn't see yah at Choukou village either. I thought all th' Suzaku Warriors were s'pose'ta help protect th' priestess."

"Even though His Highness is one of the Suzaku Seven, he can't just go off into danger, no da. If the nobles knew he had gone off to find the remaining celestial warriors, they would have had a fit, na no da. Not to mention the opportunity his absence would present to our enemies, no da. So, we decided that the only way he could go and not arouse suspicion was if I took his place, na no da."

"Yah mean yah got t' be th' emperor fer awhile?" Tasuki asked. How could anyone, especially a blue-haired monk, could get away with impersonating Hotohori? Not only did they not look alike, there was nothing Tasuki could think of that was even remotely similar about the two men except for their celestial characters.

"Yes, and the boredom nearly killed me, no da." Chichiri laughed, a true smile on his lips behind his grinning mask. All those meetings and audiences and reports and disputes: how Hotohori managed to stay sane dealing with all those issues was beyond him.

Setting down his teacup on the tabletop, Tasuki shot the still-chuckling Chichiri a dubious look. He cocked his head, his hair falling across his nose and in front of his eyes. "How'd yah pull that off? Yah don't look anythin' alike."

Chichiri sat down his own teacup. He made a show of pushing up the mid-length sleeves of his tunic past his elbows, giving Tasuki an impish smile. "Well, like this, no da," he said. Tasuki arched an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest. With a deep breath, a loud "Da!," and a puff of ivory smoke, Chichiri transformed into an exact copy of Tasuki, right down to the pearly fangs and the iron tessen he wore slung across his back. "Whadda yah think?" he asked, imitating Tasuki's country accent perfectly.

"Aaaahhhhh!" Tasuki launched himself backward and away from his copy-self. The chair tipped up on its rear legs and, for one endless moment, both Tasuki and the chair teetered between standing and falling. His eyes went wide in horror and he fumbled for the table edge, but it was too late. Almost as if in slow motion, the precarious balance gave way. Tasuki hit the ground in a jumble of leather and clacking jade beads, his head smacking sharply on the dark brick. "Ow, fuck," he groaned and rubbed the back of his head. A scalding blush spread across his face as embarrassment seized him. He looked up and into another cream-colored cloud.

"Are you alright, Tasuki, no da?" Chichiri chuckled as the veil of smoke cleared and he was again his own shape. Honestly, I didn't think it would shock you that much, no da, he thought, a twinge of regret passing through him. He rose from the table and moved to help Tasuki up. Holding out a hand, Chichiri hoped he hadn't been injured.

"That was not fuckin' funny, Chichiri!" Tasuki growled. He grabbed the proffered hand and, with Chichiri's help, hauled himself to his feet. Fangs bared and eyes narrowed, he scowled at the monk. Tasuki hastily uprighted the chair and flopped down into it. Crossing his arms again over his chest, he pouted as Chichiri finally managed to master his amusement.

Seating himself, Chichiri grinned. Tasuki's anger was belied by the faint hints of scarlet still tinting his face. "I'm sorry, Tasuki, no da. I didn't mean for you to hurt yourself, na no da," he said, waving his hands in mock surrender.

With a soft "humph," Tasuki leaned forward onto the edge of the table, propping himself up on his folded arms. Retrieving his cup, he took a long swig to regain some of his lost composure. "How'dja do that, anyway? I didn't see yah use any omamori er anythin'," he said after a moment.

"It's not too much trouble for me to assume the shape of someone I know or have seen before, no da," Chichiri said, tracing the soft shadows playing across Tasuki's face with his eyes. He hadn't been able to forget that face since he'd seen the redhead staring at him over Miaka's shoulder earlier that afternoon. "I can conjure pretty convincing illusions that most people can't distinguish from the real thing, na no da." Raising an eyebrow, he cocked his head to the side. "And how do you know how to use omamori, no da?"

"Well," Tasuki began, "before joinin' up with Miaka an' th' others, I'd been on a journey t' find a cure fer th' ol' boss' illness. He got real sick an' needed help, so I left t' find one. While I was out there, I ran inta this monk who gave me a stack o' paper talismans an' said they'd summon phantom wolves if I said some magic words over 'em." He paused as Chichiri refilled his teacup before refilling his own. The politeness of the monk's manner continued to intrigue him. "But when 'is Highness, Nuriko, an' Miaka came t' find me as th' fifth celestial warrior," Tasuki continued with a scowl, "Miaka wrote all over 'em an' wasted th' one's I had left!"

"Miaka can definitely be a handful, no da," Chichiri agreed. Stifling a yawn, he appraised the younger seishi. Under his gaze, Tasuki fidgeted with the smooth porcelain vessel in his hand. He shifted restlessly on his chair, first one way then the other. His body seemed barely able to contain a passion Chichiri had never seen before. It was an energy that had little to do with the gifts bestowed upon them by Suzaku. Waves of life energy radiated from Tasuki, bathing them and the entire chamber in a warm glow. It wasn't the blinding red light of their celestial brands, but a familiar, more subtle heat. Chichiri wondered briefly if it was the recognition of a fellow Warrior of Suzaku, but the magnetic pull he felt toward the fiery seishi was different, something he couldn't quite remember. I guess I'll just have to wait and see, he thought and turned his head to look at the robust moon outside his windows.

Several long minutes ticked by as Tasuki watched Chichiri's focus shift from the conversation to the openwork lattice windows lining the wall behind his modest bedstead. The perennial smile on his face seemed to dim somewhat, the edges curving down ever so slightly into a tiny frown. He never expected such a morose aura from Chichiri: maybe reservation, maybe thoughtfulness, but not the pensive, almost brooding air that seemed to consume him now. The man's inconsistencies fascinated him. "So, what's th' plan fer this trip t' Kutou tomorrow night?" he asked finally, hoping to draw the other man back out of his unexpected melancholy.

"Going into the enemy's stronghold is going to be dangerous, no da," Chichiri said. He brought his gaze back to Tasuki's, the heaviness of his mood still apparent despite the return of his smile. "The Kutou general, Nakago, is an extremely powerful adversary, no da. Tamahome and I had a difficult time with him the last time we were there, na no da." He looked down at the rapidly cooling tea in his hands for a moment before draining the cup. The lukewarm liquid rolled over his tongue like a small, slightly bitter flood, and he reached for the teapot. "Would you like some more tea, no da?"

"Nah. Still workin' on this cup," Tasuki replied. He watched the way Chichiri's slender fingers embraced the round, pale-green vessel as he lifted it to refill his cup. There's no way 'e's my age, he thought. He blinked a few times as he remembered Chichiri's words. "Wait a minute. Yah went t' Kutou? When was that?"

"Before Miaka found the rest of the Suzaku Seven: you, Mitsukake, and Chiriko, no da. She wanted to find her friend who the Seiryuu are trying to force to become their priestess, to try to save her, no da." Setting down the pot, Chichiri took another sip of tea. "Unfortunately, the girl stayed behind and I was barely able to hold off Nakago's attacks so Tamahome and Miaka could escape, na no da."

"Why'd she just run off like that? She could've been killed. You could've been killed." Tasuki leaned forward on the edge of his chair, brow furrowed in concern.

"She feels responsible for what happened to her friend when she left the Universe of the Four Gods, no da. Apparently, when Miaka left, the other girl was transported here because their clothing linked them together, no da. And when she arrived, she landed in Kutou, to a particularly nasty welcome, na no da." Chichiri shook his head to remove the painful images they'd watched in Taiitsukun's mirror from his mind. He set the porcelain teacup down and sat back in his chair, taking in Tasuki's worried expression. Every emotion Tasuki felt was displayed on his handsome, open face and in his clear, untroubled eyes. He admired that youthful enthusiasm and saw in Tasuki a little bit of the man he himself had once been.

"There sure was a lotta stuff happenin' b'fore I got 'ere. So, yer sayin' we can't just walk in th' front door this time, huh?"

"No, definitely not, no da," Chichiri said, shaking his head. "After my spell blew apart their shrine to Seiryuu, I know for certain they've increased their guard patrols and reinforced the barrier around the capital, no da. And when I connected Miaka and Tamahome earlier this evening, I could sense a barrier around him and his room specifically, na no da."

Tasuki propped his head up on one hand. He quirked his lips and one pearly fang poked out from the corner of his mouth. "How're we gonna get Tamahome an' th' scroll then?"

"Well, the plan is for Miaka and me to sneak in where the barrier is weakest, find the meeting spot she and Tamahome agreed upon, get him and the scroll, then get out as quickly and quietly as possible, no da." Across the table from him, Tasuki raised his head. Chichiri watched Tasuki's eyes widen, his expression shifting seamlessly from concern to surprise to anger as he continued to speak. "There's a lot riding on getting this right, no da."

Tasuki shot up from the table, knocking his coat-clad chair to the ground with a resounding thud. He slammed both hands down on the wooden tabletop. "Are yah fuckin' crazy?!" The jade- and glass-beaded necklaces he wore clattered together and his earrings swung wildly at his jaw. "Yah just said this Nakago guy's gonna be tough. Yer gonna need some backup, so take me with yah."

"Tasuki," Chichiri gasped, his pulse racing at the bandit's sudden ferocity. The earthy scents of leather and the forest enveloped him as Tasuki leaned in toward him across the table.

Tasuki doggedly stared the older seishi down. Adrenaline coursed through his veins. "Lemme go with yah, Chichiri. I can protect Miaka. An' you." There was no way he was going to let anything happen to Miaka on his watch. But, the mere suggestion that he might never see Chichiri again should something go wrong... He could not and would not let them go alone if there was even a small chance he could protect them.

"I'm sorry, but I can't, no da. My magic will be taxed enough getting there and getting out while trying to hide our life force from the Seiryuu and the Kutou army, no da. Bringing along more people will only endanger the mission, na no da."

Dammit! Yer gonna get yerself killed. Tasuki's brow furrowed in dismay. How could Chichiri refuse? Didn't he know what kind of danger he would be facing? He tried once more to convince the monk. "Yah hafta lemme help yah. Yah can't do it by yerself. If somethin' happens..." Clenching one hand into a fist, Tasuki struck the table again in desperation. "Chichiri, please. Lemme go with yah."

"No, Tasuki, no da." Chichiri stood. "I'm sorry, no da." Their eyes met, each man staring at the other for a long moment. It was a mute test of wills waged and lost. Tasuki looked away first, seemingly unable to hold Chichiri's look any longer. He uprighted the nearly forgotten chair, reclaiming his coat and tessen as he did so. Chichiri smiled a bit ruefully. No one else needs to put themselves in danger, he thought as he gently guided the now-quiet redhead to the door. Tasuki stepped past him and into the hallway, boots clicking across the polished brick.

"Now, if you don't mind," Chichiri said, mask beaming cheerfully despite the tension between them, "I need to get some sleep, no da. This trip isn't going to be easy, and in this climate of unrest, it'll be even harder, na no da." He began to push the heavy door closed, casting the veranda slowly back into hazy lantern-lit shadow.

Tasuki started to turn away, shoulders set squarely to disguise the frustration and hurt swirling in his mind. Did the man have a death wish? No matter how powerful Chichiri's magic might be, Tasuki believed with every fiber of his being that the monk couldn't handle everything by himself. An unspoken attraction had passed between them, he was sure of it: it licked at the back of his mind, fluttered in the pit of his stomach. He was falling for him and, whether Chichiri liked it or not, he would find a way to accompany them to Kutou. And he knew just how to do it.

"Wait, Tasuki, no da."

"Eh?" His coat whispered about the tops of his boots as Tasuki turned at Chichiri's quiet words. He squinted in the sliver of illumination backlighting the face gazing from the doorway.

"Thank you," Chichiri said softly, allowing himself to drop the silly tone in his voice. He regarded Tasuki for a moment before pushing the door closed with a gentle thud.

 


Glossary of Terms for Chapter 1

Li → (lowercase) a traditional Chinese unit of measure for distance, roughly equal to a third of a mile
Choukou → a city in northern Kounan where Mitsukake and Shouka live(d)
Hakukou → a village in eastern Kounan where Tamahome's family live(d)
Eiyou → the capital of Kounan, located in the south of the country
Ganshao Niuhe → Beef Chow Fun, rice noodles stir-fried with beef, beansprouts, onions, and soy sauce
Yuntun Mian → Cantonese-style soup dish with shrimp dumplings (wontons) in a light fish broth with egg noodles
Suanrong Zheng Shanbei → Cantonese dish, steamed scallops with ginger and garlic
Ban Mian → stir-fried wheat-flour noodles with vegetables, Chinese term for "Lo Mien"
Kesa → a Buddhist monk's stole worn over the left shoulder
Celadon → the name for a jade-green glaze used on ceramics and also a type of ceramicware created in China starting in the Eastern Han dynasty
Omamori → in Shintoism, prayers to gods written on strips of paper or wood for good luck, oftentimes ascribed magical powers in literature or anime



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