Written by: KittyLynne

Legal disclaimer: I don't own the rights to Fushigi Yuugi or its characters; they belong to the immensely talented Yuu Watase. I do claim the rights to the original elements of plot and characterization in this tale, as well as the narrative and dialogue. Any reproduction of this story in any form without my written consent will be regarded as theft and/or plagiarism, and will be dealt with accordingly.

Author's notes: Rated M for cussing, adult conversation and situations. Spoilers for series warning. Mild sap warning, and another reminder that this story is set a few years after the first OAV where Tenkou was initially sealed away by the four gods. The second OAV hasn't occurred.

I would also like to acknowledge the hard work of my wonderful beta reader. Spak-chan, you're a treasure-your help has been invaluable, and your warm, patient encouragement has kept me going on this when I was ready to throw in the proverbial towel. Thank you so much.

Chapter Three: Stoking the Flame

It was with an unusually strong sense of excitement that Tasuki entered the large stable located behind the inn. He'd never enjoyed traveling on horseback or dealing with horses in general, but today was a notable exception. The thought of having so much uninterrupted contact with Miaka and having the curves of her body pressed against him for hours, had him ready and eager to saddle up.

Wrinkling his nose against the earthy scent of fresh droppings, he walked up to the stall that held Kado, the powerful stallion that had been presented as a gift to him from the Empress Dowager. Though he greatly appreciated the gesture, he couldn't help smirking at the choice Houki had made. Never thought I'd own a white horse. Ain't a good choice for a bandit, that's for sure!

The steed was obviously well trained and stood patiently as Tasuki saddled him and then tied on sacks holding various provisions. After he was satisfied everything was secure, the bandit seishi dipped into one of the bags and pulled out a carrot.

"Hey boy! Got somethin' for ya." He crooned, extending his hand. "A reward for good behavior."

Kado eyed the treat for a moment, then stretched out his neck. After a tentative sniff, he lipped up the treat.

In the next stall, Chichiri paused in saddling his own mount to watch the stallion. "Well done, Tasuki! I think you've just made a friend, no da."

"Sure hope so." The bandit replied. "It'd end up bein' a damn long trek if he decides he doesn't like who he's travelin' with!"

"Then you had better bring a lot of extra bribes if you want to get through the desert in one piece this time, no da!"

Tasuki flashed a sarcastic grin at his snickering friend. He pointed to the bulging sacks hanging over the stallion's flanks. "Thanks for th' reminder, wiseass, but I already got it covered. There's plenty for us both!"

Both men laughed as the horse chose that opportune moment to give his new owner a less-than-gentle nudge for another treat.

After complying with the demand, Tasuki reached out to stroke a hand down his mount's broad, velvety muzzle. "Heya big guy...we're goin' on an adventure with a lady! I'm gonna need your help to keep her safe on th' ride- are ya up for doin' that?"

The stallion nickered agreeably as he lowered his head in acceptance of his master's touch.

The bandit warrior was pleased. "Good boy, Kado. We're gonna get along fine."

Chichiri absently rubbed the side of his jaw where his mask met his neck, pondering on how to broach his next subject. "You know Tasuki...we only have these two horses, no da. They're probably not used to carrying two riders. Maybe we should think about taking turns-"

"Already worked it out with Kado here. Miaka's ridin' with me." Tasuki stated. His accompanying glare made it clear it wasn't a point for discussion.

"I see." The monk stared back. "Is there anything else you need to tell me regarding the two of you?"

The bandit swallowed an expletive, knowing his unreasonable fit of jealousy had enabled Chichiri to read him like a book that began and ended with Miaka.

"Maybe." He hedged, fidgeting under the elder seishi's blandly smiling but relentless gaze. "Okay, yeah, there is. But I don't wanna discuss it right now."

"Why, no da? Wasn't it you who said it's a good thing to get things out in the open?"

The bandit seishi scowled. "It can wait for a time she ain't all alone an' waitin' for us!"

Chichiri turned back to his horse to hide a grin. He'd put a barrier around the inn to keep Miaka safe, but he wasn't about to deprive his friend of the chance to look chivalrous. "Point taken. She should be ready, so you'd better go ahead and get her, no da."

Tasuki looped Kado's reins around his hand. "Thanks."

Miaka could feel her heart thudding with anticipation as she made her way to the lower level of the inn. The few minutes she'd been apart from Tasuki seemed like hours, and she couldn't wait to see him again.

Thankfully, the staff was still busy in the kitchen or serving breakfast to the crowds in the Inn's restaurant, so no one appeared to delay her. It didn't take long to locate the rear exit Chichiri had described. The thick, wooden door swung outwards; she stepped through it onto a small veranda. After taking an appreciative breath of clear, unpolluted air, she walked to the balustrade, and looked out over a spacious expanse of grass to the thatch-roofed, stone building that served as a stable. At present the wooden double doors were closed, and her warriors were nowhere in sight. Glad that she had not kept them waiting, she strolled to the steps, set down her backpack, and then leaned against the railing to survey her surroundings.

The sky was cloudless and as intensely blue as it was possible for the heavens to be. The trees and manicured bushes that bordered the property were in full foliage, and the sweet scent of herbs and flowers growing in a nearby garden filled the air. It was clearly going to be another lovely day in Konan. Nevertheless, she was thankful for the unseasonably cool breeze that somewhat tempered the heat of the sun. Even with the lightweight fabrics used, she wasn't accustomed to being covered from shoulders to feet in the summertime. Shorts and a t-shirt were much more her style.

Still, she'd been absolutely delighted by the beautiful outfit Chichiri had procured for her, and surprised that he'd found something so strongly reminiscent of the robes she'd worn as a priestess. The only differences were that the underskirt was made of brocade instead of sheer tulle, and that there was an exquisitely embroidered dudao to wear beneath the red over robe, instead of a bejeweled bird's claw necklace. She still blushed a little to think that the monk had given consideration to buying undergarments for her, but she was also grateful for his thoughtfulness. The more substantial brocade would provide protection from saddle sores, and the halter-style breast cloth would provide much needed support during what was sure to be a bumpy ride.

After dressing with great care, she'd been determined to match the rest of her appearance to the elegance of her attire. She'd brushed her unruly hair until it shone, and then gathered and plaited it into a single thick braid that she draped over one shoulder. After that, she had hooked jade teardrop dangles into her ears, spritzed herself with a subtle fragrance, and applied lipstick as her only cosmetic; her glowing eyes needed no artificial enhancement, and the heightened color in her cheeks made blush unnecessary.

A final glance in her hand mirror had shown that she was looking her best. Loving someone and being thoroughly loved in return certainly was a very effective beauty treatment, she thought with a sigh. Though she'd never been one to be overly concerned with her looks, she couldn't help hoping that Tasuki would notice the vast improvement in her appearance.

Sudden movement in front of her caught her eye; the door to the stable was swinging open. Shading her eyes with a hand, the priestess watched as Chichiri emerged, holding onto the bridle of an elegant, chestnut-colored steed. He spotted her in an instant, waved, and turned off to one side as Tasuki appeared behind him, leading a majestic white stallion. Chichiri spoke to the bandit, who turned to look at her, lifting a hand. Miaka returned the gesture with enthusiasm, then felt her pulse quicken as Tasuki turned his mount and headed in her direction with a purposeful stride.

He was coming for her.

The knowledge thrilled her, made her heart catch fire.

Until this moment, she hadn't realized how frightened she'd been that her capacity to love had disappeared with Tamahome. Her powerful reaction to Tasuki proved that it hadn't vanished at all; she'd simply allowed that kind of feeling to freeze over for a time. Much as the ice serpents of Hikitsu had done to her in the Cavern of Genbu, the loss of someone she'd loved so deeply had held her in frigid, paralyzing coils of misery.

In retrospect, it was fitting and right that it was Tasuki that had saved her back then.

"For ice, ya need fire," he had told her at the time. "An' for fire, I'm your man."

Those straightforward words carried more profound meaning than she could have imagined; they were a prophecy wrapped in truth.

Tasuki was her man. His fire renewed her, protected and sustained her, restored love and passion to her life. The flame he'd ignited was eternal; when at last they had to part, the memory of it would continue to blaze inside of her, keeping her hopes alive and a frozen existence at bay.

Though the thought was bittersweet, Miaka smiled.

Getting burned by Tasuki was a risk she was willing to take.

She was a vision in red, Tasuki thought, as he reached the steps where Miaka stood. He brought Kado to a halt with a muttered command, all the while continuing to stare at the woman standing before him.

The sun shone down upon her like a benevolent caress from the gods, turning her auburn hair into a golden red nimbus. Her eyes sparkled, her delicate face was flushed with excitement, and her smile of welcome sent warmth surging through him.

His gaze drifted lower to the long, graceful neck and soft skin visible above the square cut neckline of her tunic, lingered at the suggestion of shadow between her breasts, then dropped down the length of her silk garments. The glossy material slipped gently over her curves, concealing and revealing all at once.

Seeing her dressed this way brought back a host of memories, the foremost of them being the day she'd first tried to summon Suzaku. He'd always thought she was rather cute, but in her priestess garb she'd been beautiful. It was the first glimpse he'd gotten of the woman she was to be...and he'd been transfixed. Since then, she'd definitely realized that potential and then some. In his eyes, she'd never looked more beautiful or desirable than now.

As the silence lengthened, Miaka smoothed her skirt, and then began to fiddle with the gold sash wrapped around her slim waist. "Do you like it? Will I fit in? Did I tie the obi right? I'd almost forgotten how-"

"It's all fine!" He blurted, causing her to glance up in surprise. Clearing his throat, he tried again. "Ya look even prettier."

The words were inadequate, but she looked as satisfied as if he'd recited a romantic soliloquy. She ran her hands down the sides of her tunic, and then lightly touched the edge of its neckline. "Thank you. I hoped that you'd like seeing me in traditional dress."

The comment and the gesture fired his blood. Suddenly, he was no longer tongue-tied. "I'll show ya just how much I like it if ya come down here!"

For a heart thumping moment, it seemed as if she would do that, but decorum won out.

"Um, I think I better not. Chichiri's watching." She murmured, after a furtive glance towards the stables.

The bandit looked too. Sure enough, the monk was watching and waiting.

"Fine. Guess I'll be comin' to you then."

He draped Kado's lead over a railing at bottom of the steps, giving the horse a pat of approval and murmured word of praise as it stood patiently and perfectly motionless. Miaka was standing two steps above him, which put her face just above his eye level. It was only a short reach for her hand, and she didn't try to resist him as he captured it in both of his and brought it to his mouth. He bent his head and pressed a lingering kiss to the back of it, paying homage to her in the manner he'd done the night before. Now, as it had then, her breathing hitched and quickened with feminine awareness.

Hearing the sound made Tasuki smile internally; playing the part of a respectable suitor wasn't his forte, but he figured he could get used to it in a big hurry if Miaka always reacted to him in this way.

Still holding her hand, he straightened and looked straight into her eyes.

"Pretty lady, will ya do me th' very great honor of sharin' my horse?"

Cheeks ablaze, she simply smiled and nodded.

A single day could make a remarkable difference, Miaka reflected, a few minutes and a mile or so later.

Twenty four hours ago she had been depressed and alone, her only physical contact with men coming from fighting with them for a seat on a train or a bus. Now here she was in an ancient land, riding sidesaddle on a magnificent white horse, dressed in fine silk, and ensconced within the arms of the handsome, chivalrous warrior that she loved with all her heart. It was a romantic fantasy come true, a scene taken straight out of an epic movie or one of her favorite fairy tales.

But there's no guaranteed 'happily ever after' in this book. She thought moodily. It'd be nice to be the first priestess who gets that kind of ending.

Unwilling to continue along that path of thinking lest it spoil a perfect day, Miaka turned her attention back to her surroundings.

They were in the outer ring of the business district, which housed a handful of permanent stalls. By the looks of it, it served as an initial gathering place for those who'd come to try their luck at selling in the city. Although Chichiri and Tasuki had avoided traversing the main thoroughfare of the capital, they were still riding in the midst of a sizeable, bustling crowd.

As they rode along, she also couldn't help noticing that their Imperial- caliber mounts were drawing many curious, interested glances from those making their way into the heart of the commerce district. It wasn't a surprise that a great many recognized two of the riders as Suzaku warriors, and soon began to offer warm hails of praise and blessing, as well as bows of the deepest respect.

Chichiri reined in his mount close to the white horse.

"I was afraid of this, no da." He said in a low voice. "That flaming hair of yours is a dead giveaway, Tasuki."

The wing seishi snorted. "An' th' mask and that weird rooster tail of yours ain't?"

Miaka hastened to interrupt, knowing all too well how quickly the two warriors' bickering could get out of hand. "Please! Don't be concerned on my account!" She urged, glancing from one to the other. "It makes me so happy to see you being honored in this way! For all that you've done for Konan, you deserve the highest respect, and much more!"

Chichiri looked surprised, and then a bit flustered. "Thank you, Miaka. You're kind to say that, no da."

Tasuki gave her a cocky grin. "When ya put it like that, I guess we can't complain!"

"Good." Their priestess replied warmly. Satisfied that harmony had been restored between the two guardians, she looked forward once more, falling silent as her thoughts returned to her previous times in the book.

It was true that many people had seen her back then, but there was really no reason to be concerned or nervous about it, she assured herself firmly. The odds that anyone would connect her, a brooding, mature woman of twenty five, with the cheerful, baby-faced fifteen-year-old who'd served as their priestess were small at best. Not only that, the legend stated that the Priestess had to remain in her world when her duties were finished, so there was no reason for them to think Suzaku no miko would return to their midst.

However, that line of reasoning brought another question to mind- just why had she been able to return to Konan? Had Taiitsukun changed her mind about the rules of separation? Was her own steely resolve to find Tamahome enough to have gotten her here? It wasn't boasting to think that; she knew she had a strong will. If she hadn't, she couldn't have survived the coupling with Suzaku-seikun and the use of his godly powers. Did she carry some lingering effect from that union? And what about about her connection with her seishi? The fact that she'd ended up in Tasuki's lap had to mean it was as strong as ever- had it helped her to return?

A bouquet of wildflowers landed squarely in her lap, interrupting her musing in a startling but very nice way. Miaka looked up, trying to spot who had thrown it.

"A gift for a beautiful and honorable lady!" A handsome young merchant called out as he passed by in his wagon.

She blushed under the warmth of his appreciative gaze, and acknowledged the offering with a shy smile and a nod of the head. Her admirer responded with a quick grin and an elaborate half bow before turning his attention back to his driving.

Still smiling, Miaka turned to display the bouquet to her companions.

"Aren't they pretty? What a nice man!" She declared, happily burying her nose in sweet floral fragrance.

Chichiri glanced sideways at Tasuki, whose expression had darkened. "A very brave man." He observed.

"A man with a death wish!" The bandit retorted, turning in the saddle to glare daggers at the vendor's retreating figure.

"Forget him, no da!" The monk ordered, suddenly sounding tense. "Take a look at what's happening ahead of us!"

Tasuki quickly faced forward, and scowled at what met his eyes. Several young men, some on conveyances and some on foot, were starting to gradually close ranks on them from all sides. "What th' hell is all this?"

"It was Miaka's acceptance of the flowers, no da." Chichiri replied in a low tone. "A lady of high status has shown she favors one of their own, and it's given them hope."

Miaka laid the bouquet in her lap, looking upset. "I'm sorry. I didn't think that thanking him would cause this sort of trouble."

The mage seishi shook his head. "There's no need for an apology, no da. Unconditional love and acceptance are integral parts of your power as Suzaku no miko." He gave her a warm smile. "In addition to that, your chi is much stronger now, so it's bound to attract others to you."

"Oh!" She hadn't realized. Taiitsukun had said she'd possessed her own special powers, but she'd never been certain what they were.

She glanced at Tasuki, wondering what he thought of the matter. The mute inquiry went unnoticed, however, for he was wholly preoccupied with the handful of brash young vendors that had begun to surround them, calling out for the 'beautiful lady' to dismount so they could 'show her their wares'. Though they were seated high above the crowd and still moving, the haranguing was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

When several young men started to run alongside the stallion, it became apparent that Tasuki had had enough. Transferring the reins to one hand, he cinched a possessive arm about her waist and turned a menacing, hard-eyed glare upon the group. They heeded the warning and scattered. The bandit chuckled scornfully as he watched them go, and then turned to his brother seishi.

"Chiri! Let's haul ass before I end up havin' to fry these poor fools!"

The monk gave him a curt nod of approval. "Let's go, no da!"

They first urged the horses to a fast trot as a warning, unwilling to take a chance on trampling anyone. When the crowd around them fell back to a safe distance, they upped the trot to a canter, and then broke into a gallop as they finally cleared the outer rim of the throng.

A bit unnerved by the precariousness of her position, Miaka leaned into the hollow between Tasuki's shoulder and chest, as her hand reflexively rose to grab hold of one of the leather straps crossing his chest. She relaxed as she managed to steady herself, only to tense once again in dismay as she realized she'd forgotten about the flowers resting on her lap. As her other arm was trapped against her seishi's hard torso, she was powerless to prevent the mass of blossoms and greenery from slipping from its perch and falling to the ground.

Tasuki glanced down just in time to see the bouquet disappearing under Kado's hooves. For a moment what looked like intense satisfaction flickered in his expression, but it was gone so quickly, she couldn't be sure.

"Sorry, Mi-chan, but we can't stop or we'll be surrounded by that gaggle." He jerked his head towards a large caravan of merchants approaching from the opposite direction.

"That's all right, it's my own stupid fault for dropping them! " She replied with forced cheer. I've never gotten any as a gift before. I wish I could have kept one for my diary. "At least I got to enjoy them for a little while. I'd forgotten how much I love flowers."

"I'll get ya some more!" Tasuki promised at once. "The best ones you've ever seen!"

She stared up at him, amazed by the offer. Even over a matter as petty and inconsequential as this, Tasuki cared about her feelings. Knowing that he did was a far better gift than the flowers, and one she didn't think she deserved.

"Thank you, Tasuki." She said, giving him what she knew was a blatantly adoring look. "I'll love them that much more if they're from you."

He didn't reply, but his soft-eyed glance told her all she needed to know.

They rode onward, through flat, low lying farmland, which eventually transformed into rolling pastures bisected by streams and wandering side roads. After almost two hours, they came to a wayside pavilion, a perfect place for a break. The bamboo roofed, open walled structure provided welcome respite from the sun, and the public well next to it provided sustenance for the thirsty travelers and their sweaty mounts.

As she stretched out her cramped muscles, Miaka delighted in watching as the two horses stretched out their heads, sniffed each other, touched noses, and then began to nuzzle one another's necks. She'd never really paid much attention to the magnificent creatures in her previous time in the book; they had just been four legged transports to her. This time around she found them fascinating to watch. If the extremely friendly way they were grooming each other was anything to go by, it appeared that this budding acquaintance could blossom into a full-blown romance!

Aware that her companions would probably think her overly fanciful, Miaka kept the notion to herself; however, it didn't stop her from thinking it romantic and very sweet that both animals were contentedly taking turns in munching the carrots that Tasuki had brought to them.

It occurred to her then that she didn't even know the horses' names. She asked Chichiri, who had come to stand next to her.

"The stallion is called Kado, and the mare is Aya." He informed her cheerfully.

"They make a beautiful couple." She said, smiling.

"An unlikely one as well, no da." The monk responded. "Kado was trained by the head stable master for the Imperial army, and Aya was broken to be ridden by the ladies of the court, so they were housed in different quarters. If they had stayed where they were, they couldn't have met."

"An' if they hadn't, the lady would've missed out big time!" Tasuki added, as he joined them.

His eyes sparkled with unholy laughter, but Miaka refused to let herself get flustered. "What do you mean?"

The bandit seishi smirked. "Are ya sure ya really want to know?"

"Tasuki means that Kado and Aya have to be kept apart at night unless we want a colt on the way, no da." Chichiri interjected, with an exasperated glance at the younger man.

"Ohhh..." With widened eyes, Miaka glanced at Kado, just in time to see the stallion's gender extend to full length and emit a yellow stream. She blinked, then stared in disbelief, not sure if she should be horrified or impressed. To put it bluntly, the thing was...huge. There was no way that the smaller and finer boned mare could ever handle something that big- could she?

"If I were Aya, I'd run like crazy." She said, half under her breath.

"Kado would chase her down." Tasuki informed her. "It'll be better if she doesn't resist. An' besides, nature kinda has a way of takin' care of these things..."

Though his tone was matter-of-fact, his sidelong glance was rife with sexual mischief. Miaka's tummy fluttered, and her face felt as if it had caught on fire. Were they still talking about the horses? "I...I suppose it does."

Their gazes held as the air grew heavy with pleasurable tension- tension that quickly dissipated when Chichiri gave a discreet cough.

"Would anyone like a carrot, no da?"

After they went to rest in the shade of the pavilion, Miaka's discomfiture over the horses gradually faded. Stuffing her mouth full of carrot had helped, because it kept her from saying anything that could be construed as provocative. It also helped that Tasuki took pity on her and kept his teasing to a minimum.

Soon it was time to move on. Though she could have mounted Kado all by herself, Miaka found she enjoyed being lifted into the saddle as if she weighed no more than a feather. Tasuki's gallantry made her feel wonderfully feminine, as did riding within his protective embrace. She loved how he was taking care of her, and relished being treated like a lady for once in her life. It was a step backwards for a modern, independent young woman to admit that, she supposed, but she didn't feel one iota of feminist guilt. There was no harm in letting him pamper her, as long as she made sure to do things for him in return.

Pleasure quickly faded to remorse at the thought. She hadn't taken care of Tasuki. Telling him she loved him was only the first step; she also needed to show him how much he meant to her. She had no right to be satisfied and content when she hadn't made him feel everything he'd made her feel. That was going to change right now. Of course, there was only so much she could get away with out in plain sight, but she would do as much as she safely could to express the strength of her feelings for the fiery seishi.

Taking a deep breath, she allowed herself to sway towards her protector until her cheek was pressed lightly against one side of his muscular chest.

"You okay?" Tasuki asked.

"Couldn't be better." She replied, liking the way concern roughened his voice.

"Go ahead and get some sleep if ya want." He offered. "I don't mind."

"I'm not sleepy." She said, and proved the statement by moving her head so she could gently nuzzle the side of his neck, much as she'd seen Aya and Kado do to each other at the pavilion.

His audible intake of air gave her pause, but when no objection followed, she continued. After a moment, she felt his chest lift and drop in a deep sigh, and the clear acceptance of her affections encouraged her to improvise, adding feather-light touches of her tongue tip and a teasing nibble or two to her repertoire. When her mouth fastened onto his neck, he tensed slightly, his fingers flexing on her waist. Nevertheless, she kept going, drawing tiny circles on his skin with her tongue tip before daringly sucking in a bit of his skin into her mouth to give him a small but noticeable love bite.

Retaliation was sudden and swift. Rivulets of shocked pleasure coursed through her as the masculine hand splayed over her ribs shot upwards to cup her breast.

She gasped and stopped what she was doing to look up at him."Tasuki, no!"

He simply slanted her an unrepentant grin before directing his gaze back to the road.

His hand stayed in place.

A quick glance forward told her that Chichiri was riding slightly more than two horse lengths ahead of them. Another glance down showed her that her uplifted arm hid the position of her seishi's hand from all from the most discerning view. As long as she didn't move her arm and they stayed behind the monk, and all he did was hold it, things would stay discreet. If not-

As if in answer to her thoughts, Tasuki began to mold and caress the mound of flesh he held with a confident and unhurried sensuality. As the warmth of his hand seeped beneath the silk, her nipple hardened in response, poking through the silk and into his palm, shamelessly begging for attention. He responded with gratifying speed, first rubbing it lightly and then grasping and rolling it between finger and thumb. When he began to tug at the aroused peak, Miaka tipped her head back and bit her bottom lip hard to keep from whimpering.

Her seishi's breath caressed her ear, and his lips pressed a brief, hot kiss against her temple before he spoke in her ear,

"Ya don't have to hold it in, y'know. I'll make sure no one can hear ya but me."

Her eyes closed against temptation. So unfair! How the heck was she supposed to administer to him while reeling under the erotic barrage of his attention? Not only that, she didn't dare move her free arm, lest Chichiri or someone else along the road would see what was being done to her! Really, the only thing she did still have use of was her mouth!

Her mouth and words.

Now there was an idea. No need to hold it in, he had said. Well then, she wouldn't! She'd simply have to tell him what it was that she wanted to do! Granted, it was something she'd normally never think of doing, but nothing about this situation was normal. There was no time to lose. She had to prove to Tasuki that his needs were of paramount importance to her before it was too late. Embarrassment and girlish modesty had no place in that equation. If she held back, she'd bitterly regret it for the rest of her life.

Her breathing quickened in anticipation, and her heart thundered in time with the rapid pounding of hooves. Sly fingers continued their work, teasing and arousing her. A slow, throbbing pulse began to beat between her legs, but she forced herself to ignore the seductive rhythm.

"Tasuki." The heat of arousal was in her voice.

He glanced down at her. "Do ya like that?"

A quiet gasp of affirmation slipped through her lips. It would be so easy to submerse herself in the sensations he was creating. "You're getting me that way again."

"What way is that?"

He gave her a smirk, clearly thinking she'd be too bashful to reply.

He was in for a surprise.

"Warm and tingly." She wiggled a little for emphasis. "And wet."

The smirk disappeared. He swallowed hard, and the sensuous motion of his hand slowed a bit. "For me?"

Her gaze was heavy-lidded. "Mmm hmm. And you know what else?"

"What?" He asked, sounding a bit hoarse.

"I would love to touch you like you're touching me."

His response was delayed as his hips shifted a little. "Ya would, huh?"

"Oh yes!" Her eyes closed as she imagined herself doing it, then slowly opened to reveal the blazing desire those thoughts had ignited. "I want to run my hands over your body and feel the warmth of your skin beneath my lips." She paused at his sharp inhalation. "I want to put my tongue on you."

Amber eyes went wide, then black with passion. His voice was a feral growl. "Miaka..."

Her lips parted as she moistened them. "I bet you'll taste like cinnamon, all hot and sweet and spicy." The fiery heat of a blush singed her skin. "You have a beautiful body, Tasuki. I can't wait to see all of it..."

The muscular thighs on either side of her moved restlessly. His hand opened, encompassed the whole of her breast, rousing her to further revelation.

"I want you to moan my name," she whispered with reckless abandon. "I want you as hot and weak as you make me! I want you to give all of yourself to me -"


Her name was an explosion from between clenched teeth. Undaunted, she released her grip on his holster strap to gently run her hand over his chest, no longer caring if anyone saw the caress. A ragged breath escaped him as she pinpointed his nipple. She circled it with a fingertip, bringing it to a pebble-like peak, delighting in the deep groan the action elicited. A pulse visibly throbbed just below his jaw line; she bent forward to press her closed lips to it, and then parted them so her tongue could take measure of its rapid beat. Another low groan vibrated beneath her touch, and she peered up through her lashes to see if her ministrations had produced the desired result.

They had. Tasuki's ruddy cheeks, blazing eyes and quick breathing all attested to the fact that he was enjoying what she was doing to him. Nevertheless, his lips parted to issue a protest.

"Dammit Odango, ya hafta stop this."

There was no heat or conviction in his voice. But even if there had been, it was too late for having second thoughts; she'd sent propriety and restraint to hell in a hand basket and didn't care a whit about getting them back. Tasuki deserved to hear the truth about how he made her feel, and nothing mattered more than expressing her love for him. Nothing.

"I can't." She said quietly. "I won't. Not until I've made love to you."

She was tormenting him with pleasure, and killing him with words. He was so hard that he was actually in peril of exploding without any physical contact at all! But could he summon the strength to look away, to stop her from fooling around with his nipples, or to even get his hand off her breast?

Hell no.

Could he imagine her touching and tasting and making love to him?

Dammit, he could. In vivid detail.

What was this sweet agony?

"Tell me what you want, Tasuki!" She exhorted. "Tell me what you want and I'll do it!"

A litany of sexual positions instantly flew through his brain, knowledge garnered from a handful of professionals. However, their practiced, experienced ways had absolutely nothing on his sweet, virgin priestess. A single touch from her untutored hand would bring him more ecstasy than he'd ever known...

His control was fraying and they were miles away from an inn or any suitable place-although, to be honest, where and when had never mattered to him before. But he wasn't going to settle for a quick romp in the field or a haystack. Not with this woman.

Since when did I become such a fuckin' paragon of virtue? He silently asked himself.

Since ya fell in love, his conscience replied. You love Miaka, and you want it to make it as good as ya can for her.

It was the truth, he couldn't deny it. Her needs came first with him, and always would. But he needed to put a stop to this madness before it ended up costing her the first time she deserved.

"Please let me touch you, Tasuki."

Her voice was a siren's call. He took a deep breath and stoked his resolve, then promptly lost it as he felt a caress moving along his inner thigh.

Her intent was clear. He grabbed her hand before it could achieve its objective.

"That's enough, Miaka!"

She looked up, and the hurt in her eyes made him wince.

"Have I offended you?" She asked in a small voice.

"Ain't offended." He gritted the reply. "What you're sayin' just ain't a good idea."

The rhythmic thud of hooves on the hard packed dirt road filled the silence.

"Do you not like the idea of me doing those things?" Miaka ventured.

He gave a short, sharp laugh. "Like it? It's all I can do not to strip down an' have ya do it all right now!"

"Then why don't you?"

She was dead serious, he could tell. His body responded to that knowledge by sending a fresh surge of blood to his groin, which made his erection almost unbearable.

"Look around!" He exclaimed, failing to hide his agitation. "We're out in the middle of fuckin' nowhere! For your first time you should have a nice room, an' a bed, an' all of th' frills!"

"I don't care about frills. I care about being with you."

Her voice poured over him like honey, submersing his qualms in a thick flow of unrelenting desire. "Me too! But-"

"No!" She interrupted. "No buts. There is no wrong time or place if it's you! I love you, Tasuki."

He had no defense against those three little words; control and chivalry were incinerated by the passion those words invoked. He surrendered by taking her lips in a swift, hungry kiss before he cast a quick look around them. There. To their right, an overgrown trail leading into the woods. They'd stop for a break. A leafy bower, or a clearing with a fallen tree would give them some privacy-

"Tasuki! Everything all right?"

Chichiri's magically amplified hail hit him with the shocking impact of a bucketful of cold water. Too shocked to utter a curse, he glared at the figure in the distance.

Miaka sat up straight in his embrace. He could feel her dismay in every line of her suddenly rigid form.

A muscle worked furiously in his jaw as he fought to control his own frustration and anger, both of which were quickly turned inward as he realized that in the throes of his carnal scheming, he'd forgotten his duty as a protector and carelessly allowed Kado to drop into a meandering plod. Chichiri was right to show concern; his mare had gotten so far ahead that the next bend in the road would've taken them completely out of sight-a bad scenario when traveling on a road that came with its share of miscreants. A beautiful woman like Miaka was an especially obvious moving target. Though he could handle any trouble that came their way, it was asinine to put her in a dangerous situation because he couldn't wait to get his own hands on her. Chichiri was watching out for their combined safety, not trying to interfere. It wasn't like the guy would have any idea of what he'd interrupted. And the mere idea of what his celibate friend's reaction might have been if he had been eavesdropping on their priestess was a mood killer.

"Tasuki!" There was impatience and worry in the monk's voice. "You slowed down! What's going on?"

Not a damn thing, Tasuki thought sourly. "Just givin' Kado a rest!" He shouted with false cheer. "We'll speed it up!"

The blue-haired seishi waved an arm in acknowledgement before facing forward and pulling on the reins to slow the pace of his own mount. Though it was the right thing for the warrior to do, Tasuki glowered at Chichiri's back.

"Oh dear."

He switched his glare to the object of his frustration as he jerked his clenched hand back to her waist. Paradise denied, once again. "That ain't the words I'd use."

She flinched at the bite in his tone. "I...I'm so sorry!"

"Little late for that!"

"I know! I-I forgot he was there-I wasn't trying to-I really want to do what I said!"

The misery and frustration etched in her expression mirrored his own, and he softened a bit. "I know ya do. It's my fault for lettin' things get outta hand."

"It's my fault! I shouldn't have done that when I knew we weren't alone!"

That was certainly true, but he couldn't blame her. Women had a lot harder time controlling their emotions, so he should have put a stop to it before she went too far. And in all fairness, he'd given in to the temptation of wanting to know just how far she'd go. It had been damn exciting to have her taking the lead in talking about that stuff, not that he'd ever admit it! "It's okay, Miaka-"

"No it's not!" She insisted. "I need to explain myself!"

He was in no state of mind to listen to a drawn-out, overly complicated analysis of the situation. He even opened his mouth to tell her so, but faltered under the impact of her imploring gaze.

"Please?" She whispered.

He made a helpless, impatient gesture. "Fine. Explain."

She was blushing, and and her fingers toyed in a nervous way with her braid. "I wanted to make up for what happened between us this morning. Because...of what I didn't do for you."

He gave a curt nod, his eyes riveted on her moving fingers as they continued to play with the rope of hair. It was easy to picture her stroking his flesh in the same way...but he wouldn't, because he'd go crazy!

Clenching his jaw, he focused on what she was trying to tell him.

"Sacrificing your needs for mine is something you've always done. You gifted me with this incredible pleasure, and I took what you gave without thought to when I'd be returning it." She said softly. "That was wrong. I should have-"

He had to interrupt, had to set her straight right now. "It wasn't no sacrifice! It was what I wanted, Miaka!"

"But it's still not fair! I thought letting let you know how much I want to touch you and to make you happy would at least be a start to making things even." Her hand stilled, and her eyes were glistening with remorse as she gazed at him. "I messed up in doing that, Tasuki. I upset you instead of making you feel wanted and loved."

He stared at her as a glowing warmth filled his chest, a source of heat that owed nothing to physical need. Miaka had taken a risk in what she'd said. She was a virgin, but she'd put aside shyness and embarrassment in confessing her feelings for him. Sure she'd been trying to goad him, and sure she'd used her wiles to almost get him to take her in less than ideal circumstances, but it was all because she had wanted to make him happy.

It was the kind of contorted logic only a female could come up with. But what the hell, he loved her for it.

"I wasn't expectin' to hear stuff like that from ya, Mi-chan." He told her with a half-smile. "The idea of you talkin' dirty to me kinda threw me, y'know?"

"You thought I sounded like a whore." She murmured, looking abashed.

"That's not it!" He barked, cursing himself for the clumsy words. "Look, a whore would be talkin' like that to any guy she was with! You'd never be that way. If you'd ever done it before, it would have been with the guy you loved- "

"I've never talked like that to anyone before you." She stated.

His eyes went wide. "Never? I mean, I believe ya, but I thought maybe-"

Her gaze was unwavering. "Not even to Tamahome."

So this was also a first, shared with him. He was humbled and awed. And intensely curious.

"So why me and not him?" He blurted, then thought better of it and quickly shook his head. "Eh, don't answer that, it ain't none of my-"

"It's okay. I don't mind." She said. "It's because of you, Tasuki. You never hold back, and that makes me want to do the same. I wanted you to know that given the chance, I will love you with everything I have to give."

Words would not pass the sudden thickening in his throat, so he simply tightened his arm to bring her closer. Bending his head, he captured her mouth with an urgency that spoke of his intentions to make her his as soon as humanly possible. She pressed even closer, her lips parting to admit his seeking tongue, and he tasted her with a thoroughness that made her quiver and added kindling to the embers of his unfulfilled desire.

When that ache escalated to the feeling of an impending explosion, he pulled back.

"I liked it, Mi-chan." He said, breathing unsteadily. "I liked all of it, an' I got absolutely no problems with you talkin' that way just to me! If I'm actin' like an ass, it's because I want ya to do what ya said, an' I've never been good at waitin' for what I want!" He shifted his hips in an attempt to ease the tightness of his loins. "Damn that Chichiri! I'm so hard for ya it hurts!"

"Oh Tasuki..."

"There's no need to cry!" He admonished, as tears of apology gathered in her eyes. "It's all gonna be good!"

She blinked, spiking her lashes with moisture. "It is?"

"Hell yeah!" He assured her. "After hearin' what you're plannin', there ain't any doubt that you're gonna be makin' me the happiest guy in Konan."

He had hoped to make her smile, but she was too distracted.

"That's my intention." She said. "I just hope I'm going to be permitted to do it."

"Hey! Just 'cause ya couldn't do it now, doesn't mean I'm sayin' no to anythin' once I get ya alone!" He teased. "Ya got my permission t'do anythin' ya want!"

She smiled this time, but he knew it was forced. "That's good to know. But it's not what I meant."

His bemusement changed to concern when she laid her head on his chest. She looked so sad.

"What is it?" He asked. Was she worried about Tamahome? Or someone else? "Tell me."

She sighed. "Well you know, it was breaking celestial law of this world for me to come back here. Taiitsukun told me I couldn't stay here after the legend was fulfilled. I've been wondering ever since last night how and why was I able to return?"

Damn. Tasuki thought, as his mouth turned downwards. The old coot wouldn't do that to us. Not again.

But even as he thought it, he knew it was possible. Sacred law did mandate eternal separation between the two worlds- though the rest of it was wide open to interpretation in his opinion. But Taiitsukun didn't need any more reason than that to suddenly show up and send Miaka home. She'd done it before when Tamahome had been forced to break things off and return his ring to her. It had been the worst kind of agony having to stand by and helplessly watch as Miaka turned her back on love, holding the token of its existence between tightly clasped hands, her heartbreak etched in her every step and glance. It had felt as if a knife had been plunged into his heart when, amidst a deluge of tears, she had sunk to her knees and managed to utter a few choked words of thanks to all of her warriors.

It was her anguished, wailing denial of fate as the red light took her away that had totally shattered his composure. As Miaka and Yui vanished, he'd knelt, and twin rivers of tears had coursed down his cheeks as he prayed aloud, "Great Suzaku, watch over Mi-chan! And if there's anything she needs, I beg ya to let me help her!"

So had his prayer been answered? Had there been a miracle? He was inclined to think so. If Miaka's presence was a requirement rather a granted wish, Taiitsukun would have been involved. She'd have appeared and made it clear as to why Miaka was needed. Whenever the priestess was summoned, the seven warriors would also assemble to give her aid. That couldn't happen if Tamahome was missing in her world, so was it an intervention by Suzaku, perhaps to protect the life of his priestess? After all, in her first time in this world, Miaka had attempted suicide when thinking she'd lost Tamahome for good...

But she wasn't a mixed up kid any more, Tasuki thought, silently dismissing that notion. Miaka had grown up before their eyes, had made the hard decisions and defended her friends' lives at immense risk to her own. She'd faced down Nakago and withstand coupling with Suzaku. At the end, she was as strong willed as all of the warriors put together. With all of the leaders of Kutou's evil empire overthrown and Tenkou sealed away, peace had at last been established between Konan, Hokkan, Sairo and Kutou, so why would a priestess be needed? What had been left undone?

Those questions brought him back to Suzaku and what purpose his priestess now served.

"Tasuki? I have a confession."

He looked down into a face gone pale and eyes that held the shadows of an anxiety that pulled forth his most protective instincts. "I'm listenin'."

"There's something that I'm scared of more than anything else."

He tightened his hold on her, knowing what it was and that he shared that fear. "I ain't goin' anywhere, Mi-chan, an' neither are you!"

"Not on purpose, I know. But think, how much time do I have left here? How much time do we have left to be together?" Miaka's voice was steady, but she was trembling with suppressed emotion. She leaned against him, her hand gripping star shaped folds of his tunic as she continued. "If you were living as a man of my world, it would be different. There would be assurance of a long term relationship. But here...with things as they are, there are different rules for love. My experience with Tamahome has taught me not to wait, that having beautiful memories of the man I love means seizing the moment- whether it's proper or not- before I'm forced to leave you."

Tasuki set his jaw, thinking fast. To his knowledge, only the supreme beings could change the rules, since they were the ones that set them in the first place. No fluke occurrence or random stroke of luck could have brought them together like that. It would have taken the might and will of a deity. A god, who by his very nature, would want his priestess to find love once again. So, it stood to reason that Suzaku had been responsible for the priestess' return to Konan, and for dropping Miaka into his arms. Though what had followed was based on personal feelings and choices, there was no doubt that their reunion had been conceived by a deliberate act of destiny.

That thought made him sit up taller in the saddle.

As a celestial warrior, he'd sworn to protect the Priestess of Suzaku with his life. As her friend, he'd fought equally hard for her happiness. As a man, he loved her with all that he was, and all that he had, the way she deserved to be loved. That was why he'd given her up- because he knew only Tamahome would have made her happy. But Tamahome hadn't come to her, and what Miaka had been suffering in not knowing these past years was a poor reward for her faithful service and sacrifices for Suzaku. It was only right that she had been allowed to return to seek the love that had eluded her...or to find a new one.

And here they were. She had entrusted her heart to him, and by the four gods, he was going to make her the happiest woman alive..."Miaka!"

She jerked a little, startled by the urgency in his tone. "Yes?"

"I've been thinkin'. Suzaku's not some sadistic bastard of a deity playin' with our lives just for kicks. Suzaku's about loving and bein' loved, right?"

She nodded.

"You are the chosen of th' god of love, but ya had your heart broken the last time ya came here and that ain't right."

Her smile was sad. "I can't blame Suzaku for that."

Tasuki shook his head. "Not sayin' ya should. What I'm sayin' is that I figure, if Suzaku broke th' rules of th' universe to bring ya back, it means he wants ya to have love. It's the one an' only way he could reward ya properly!"

A dainty hand sought his and their fingers entwined. "That's a nice thought, Tasuki...but Suzaku doesn't owe me anything! I fulfilled my duties to him and the three wishes were my reward, as Taiitsukun said."

"Maybe so, but I also seem t'remember Grandma sayin' it's the heart that helps make miracles." He persisted. "Didn't ya wish to come back here when it wasn't supposed t'be possible? And didn't you believe you could with all yer heart?"

"Yes." She sat a little straighter and stared down at their joined hands. "I really did!"

"And it happened! Your heart called out to Suzaku, an' he answered your wish." Tasuki declared, tightening his hold on her hand. "You know I ain't one to take anythin' for granted. Let's live like there's no tomorrow, okay? But if faith can move the heavens t'bring ya back to me, then I gotta believe everythin' is gonna work out for the best!"

Miaka looked up at him, and his heart was knocked sideways by her radiant smile.

"I believe that too, Tasuki." She said. "It already has."

May 2012

Dear Readers,

This story has not been abandoned. I'm planning to update this fic over the summer.

If you have read this story before, you may have noticed I've made some changes in the hopes of making it a better read for you. For those who may be wondering, there are approximately four more chapters to go.

Thank you for reading - I hope you will continue to enjoy the rest of 'Burned'. : )

With deepest gratitude,