AN: I've been going over this idea in my head for about a week now, and I decided it was finally time to get it down on paper. Yay rah. And before anyone asks, yes, I'm a nerd. I analyze anime characters for fun. I feel no shame. This is the result. I hope you enjoy it.
I also want to stick a dedication on this, to my friend Fred the Mutant Pickle. While he hasn't seen all of FY, Freddie's favorite character is definitely Nuriko, and I promised him a fic with the character. I don't own Fushigi Yuugi, no do I own Chichiri or Nuriko, the stars of this story.
Tearing Down the Wall
The monk, who was leaning against the railing of one of the palace promenades to look out over the gardens, stiffened almost imperceptibly, something that would have been invisible to anyone not watching specifically for such a reaction. And the speaker, the one who called his name, had indeed been watching quite carefully for it.
But Chichiri recovered quickly, and turned to face his visitor with his trademark smile. "Isn't it a little late to be up and about, no da?" The words came out so cheerily. Anyone who didn't know better would think that this was a person who didn't have a care in the world.
It was true that it was late. Not even a sliver of moon was visible, as it was hidden behind a thick blanket of gray-black, cottony clouds. Those clouds had been building up all day, and there was no doubt in anyone's mind that there would be a storm tonight. Probably a big one.
Hanging lamps were hung every few feet along the promenade to light the way, and even at this hour they were lit, swinging a bit in the late-night breeze; the glow fell across Nuriko's face, highlighting the dark frown in place there. His response was fairly level. "I could ask you the same thing, couldn't I?"
"I suppose so, no da. What are you doing?"
Nuriko didn't answer; instead, he moved to Chichiri's side and looked out over the darkened forms and shadowed shapes that were the palace gardens. A roll of thunder galloped across the sky as the gathering storm drew ever nearer.
After a long moment, Nuriko sighed. "Hey, Chichiri?"
"There's something I've been wanting to ask you for a while."
He could feel the monk's slight surprise. "What?"
Nuriko put both hands on the balustrade and let his weight lean against it. It was solid beneath his hands, and somehow, he found that comforting. He took a deep breath. "Chichiri, do you trust us?"
The surprise he felt from Chichiri tripled. "What?" he asked, sounding bewildered. "What do you mean? Of course I do, no da!"
"Do you trust me?"
One amber eye turned a surprisingly suspicious glare in Chichiri's direction, a look laden with doubt and a whole myriad of other emotions that as yet lacked definitive names. And, in an odd voice, Nuriko said softly, "Then take off your mask."
Chichiri froze. "What?"
"Take off your mask."
"What does that have to do with anything, no da?" The familiar suffix sounded forced.
"You said you trust me."
"Then take it off."
Silence met that last, and Nuriko turned to stare angrily at her fellow warrior. Chichiri was standing up ramrod straight, both arms hanging limply by his sides. And he hadn't moved to take off the mask, either. His expression was hidden behind that damn piece of paper—hidden along with his true face, and his emotions. There wasn't a single nuance to betray what he was thinking, and that didn't surprise Nuriko a whit. Chichiri was a master at controlling his emotions, at schooling his voice and appearance so as not to give anything away.
"Nuriko, I don't know what you're talking about," Chichiri said quietly before he turned on his heel and started off for another area of the palace. It wasn't at all like him to run, which meant that Nuriko was onto something.
And furthermore, Nuriko would not be shaken that easily. If he had hit a nerve, then it was best to press while the advantage was there. He had been waiting to ask this for too long now, and the opportunity had presented itself; he would not back down now.
"Why are you running?" he caught up easily, and bounced along beside his friend. "Something wrong? Did I say something to make you angry?" The words were harsh and sarcastic.
"I'm not running. I'm going to bed," Chichiri replied. His tone was flat, completely void of feeling. A prime example of how well the man had managed to isolate himself from his own emotions. "Or is that a crime these days?"
The absence of the endearing 'no da' only drove home Nuriko's resolve to not let the matter slip, and he said so. "Chichiri, you're not saying 'no da' right now, so you're definitely angry—"
"NO DA!" Chichiri rounded and actually barked the words, and in spite of himself, Nuriko stopped dead in his tracks. The monk continued on his way, showing no signs of stopping.
And the damn mask still sat comfortably on his face, all happiness and smiles, a friendly ear always ready to listen to a problem or confidence, and a kind or helpful word just waiting to be bestowed upon whomever needed it. That was the face Chichiri presented to the world.
"Chichiri!" Nuriko said as loudly as he dared, not wanting to wake anyone else. He was startled to feel desperation beginning to claw its way into him, an animal digging its teeth into his soul. One hand unconsciously lifted from his side, reaching out towards the retreating figure ahead in a silent, unseen entreaty. "Please…stop."
He didn't expect him to. He expected the monk to keep walking away, disappearing to some unknown corner of the palace. Then he would see him again the next morning, and Chichiri would simply act as though nothing had happened.
So he was stunned when the receding footsteps stilled, and the shadow ahead—faint in the darkness—stopped. And slowly, Chichiri turned…and waited.
Beyond the roof that covered the promenade, the storm that had been threatening them all day finally fell. The heavens opened and a torrent was released to beat against the earth. And a bolt of lightning chose that moment to crack across the sky. The flash illuminated the expressionless face.
"Chichiri," Nuriko began slowly, taking a few steps towards his friend, "I just want to talk to you, okay? That's all. Just talk." His eyes shifted downward. "I'm worried about you. Please? Just for a minute." He was a hair away from begging on his knees, and he knew it.
So he was inordinately relieved when his previously elusive quarry nodded slightly. But he could still feel the suspicion there, lying just beneath the surface. Chichiri was wary and on guard, both of which meant he probably wouldn't be easy to get anything out of right now.
But Nuriko was going to try.
The storm raged outside. And the two seishi were protected behind the doors of Nuriko's own palace room. It had been closer. It was quite late, so it was doubtful that anyone would happen along and eavesdrop. Whatever was said here would be between them and them alone.
Chichiri immediately took a seat on the floor; he sat cross-legged and cross-armed, waiting with some semblance of patience while Nuriko lit candles to give them some light. In spite of the candles, though, the room remained fairly dark.
While waiting, the monk's gaze wandered. Even the faint glow of the candle flames cast large, twisting shadows on the walls. Even the smallest objects in the room were changed as their dark likeness was cast around the room.
But finally, the purple-haired seishi took a seat, also opting for the floor, though there were chairs in the room. He sat about an arm's length away from Chichiri. The candlelight washed over the effeminate features, casting shadows on them as well.
"Go ahead," Chichiri prompted cautiously. His mask was still safely at home on his face.
For a moment, Nuriko did not oblige him, and remained silent. Then he sighed sadly. "My sister died in front of me when I was ten years old. So I made a promise to Kourin's spirit—that I would live her life for her. For eight years, I convinced the world that I was a woman. I even fooled the emperor." He chuckled at that, though there was no good humor behind the laughter. "By the time I got here, and became one of the Seven, I didn't even know who the real me was anymore. Somewhere along the line, Ryuen had gotten lost. I couldn't tell where the line was between me and the persona I'd created."
Chichiri was listening silently. He knew the story of Nuriko's beloved sister. But he wasn't quite sure where this was going. So he waited while Nuriko continued.
"But you all helped me," he went on. "I journeyed with the Suzaku Warriors, befriended you. We protected Miaka together. And I realized something—Kourin's spirit will only be gone if I forget her, something I can never do. I can never forget her, so she'll never be completely gone. And as time went on, I got to thinking. I don't have to pretend to be someone I'm not, especially around all of you. I can be me, just me. And I can be happy that way, too. I realized I was happy, being me instead of Kourin."
Lightning crashed outside, and a draft made the candlelight flicker a bit.
One amber eye looked pointedly at Chichiri. "I learned to let go. But I don't think you have yet. And that's why I'm worried." The smile Nuriko wore was sad. "You're a blessing to all of us, you know that? I think Taka said once that you were our anchor, and that is true in many ways. You're always willing to listen to anyone who has a problem, let someone cry on your shoulder, offer a word of advice. You've seen and helped everyone else at their most vulnerable. But what about you?"
Chichiri tensed a bit.
"You watch out for the rest of us. So who watches out for you?" Nuriko pressed on, knowing full well he now had Chichiri's full attention. "You've always held a lot in. It's not right. It's not healthy."
"I'm fine." The protest was weak, as though Chichiri himself didn't even believe it. The shell was already cracking—surprising, given how little pressure Nuriko had actually applied. What did that mean, that he was caving so easily?
Nuriko's gaze grew a bit harder, and when he spoke again, his tone had become sharp enough to shave with. "The last time I can remember you not burying your feelings was when Hikou came back as a demon and you had to fight him again." This time, he actually saw Chichiri withdraw a bit, and he mentally punched himself for his harsh words and harsh tone over something that he knew damn well was still a source of pain and guilt—though Chichiri continued to hide it well.
"I'm making a mess of this, aren't I?" Nuriko shook his head; it was a rhetorical question, so he went on, "You say you trust us. But you keep your mask on. You know we accept you and your past, and you know that your scar doesn't bother us. So why? Why won't you just let us see you for you? You lock everything up inside. It has to be hurting you, 'Chiri. It'll just keep cutting you up inside, more and more, until you bleed to death. And Chichiri…that scares me."
Chichiri didn't answer. His chin had dropped. In his lap, his hands were clasped; they were shaking, and they were gripped together so hard that his knuckles were white. There was no reason, no excuse. One heartbreak had been enough; this way, he was protected; no matter how small the safeguard might be, it was a protection.
He had been laying the bricks, one by one, for a long time, and now a formidable wall had been constructed to defend himself. But from what? That was the question Nuriko was asking, and it was one question that he just didn't have an answer for.
"You know," Nuriko said slowly, seeming to sense that the wheels in Chichiri's head were turning, "I'm really good at keeping secrets. I kept my gender a secret for eight years. So maybe…maybe if you wanted to talk to me? It could just be between the two of us, nobody else has to know."
Chichiri's masked face was expressionless, which probably meant that he was thinking. But finally, he nodded. "I'll try…" It was a start. A tiny start, but a start nonetheless.
"Why not start now? Just tell me something. Anything that's on your mind right now," Nuriko prodded. "It doesn't matter if it's ridiculous or stupid or what. Just something you're thinking about."
Silence hung over them just long enough for Nuriko to begin to think that this was, indeed, hopeless, or that maybe he'd pushed a little too hard. The wall had cracked, but it was by no means ready to tumble down. But just as he was about to give up and send the monk on his way, Chichiri turned to look towards the door, and whispered, "I hate storms."
Three words. Three tiny little words. That was all.
But Nuriko jumped on them as though they held the answer to life itself. An admission, a confession of a weakness, however small. A fear. It was a baby step, but nothing was to be taken for granted or discarded as insignificant. "Is it because of…" The sentence trailed off, but the implications were fully understood. When he got a nod, he took a chance, in the gentlest voice he had. "Do you just not like them, or are you afraid of them? You can tell me."
After a long moment, Chichiri nodded slowly, pulling his knees up to his chin and wrapping his arms around them. He rocked himself back and forth a little bit. "Not little ones…big ones. Just big ones." He was using the basic speech patterns of a small child—half-sentences, small words. And his voice, a mere whisper, carried to Nuriko and nowhere else, not even filling the room. "It makes me think…"
Nuriko nodded, understanding. Even with the mask still securely hiding Chichiri's face, he could hear it—something he had so carefully suppressed and buried. It had been dug up by a few well-placed, well-directed words, and brought fully out into the light by the very object of it: the storm.
"Can I tell you something, too?" Nuriko leaned a little closer. When Chichiri nodded, Nuriko went on, "I want to tell you what I'm afraid of. I haven't told anyone this, but this seems like as good a time as any, don't you think?"
Chichiri nodded again, relieved to surrender the burden of attention for the moment.
Nuriko sat back and put his elbows on his knees so he could let his chin rest in his hands. "When I died, fighting Ashitare, I wasn't actually scared. It was after that. That's when I got scared." He sighed. "I was watching all of you. I saw Chiriko die. I saw Hotohori die. I saw Mitsukake sacrifice himself."
Chichiri felt his stomach clench at that particular memory, being forced to stand there helplessly as once again, a friend perished in front of him. Mitsukake had died by his own choice, finding peace there, but that did little to soften the ache.
"And that is what I'm afraid of," Nuriko closed his eyes. "There isn't anything that scares me more than that feeling. Seeing my friends die…and that feeling of helplessness. I couldn't do anything to help any of you, and that is something I never, ever want to go through again." He actually shuddered.
"When Nyan-Nyan gave me the chance to go back and help out," the purple-haired seishi went on, seemingly talking more to himself than to his audience, "I jumped at the chance. I could be useful again, I could do something!" He suddenly shook his head. "I'm sorry, I completely went off track. But…I guess the point is that everyone's scared. I'm scared of being helpless, you're afraid of storms."
As if on cue, a flash of lightning flared, momentarily brightening the room. Chichiri jumped, but immediately clamped down on the reaction, keeping the calm, neutral front he always did. But his hands unconsciously twisted around purple fabric.
Silence fell then, as they listened to the rain. Chichiri soon pulled his knees back up to his chest, sitting in the fetal position once again. He could hear the wall around him cracking, feel the vibrations as it shook, see the shower of dust that feel as the stones grated against each other. And it was…he felt…
"Nuriko…" he hesitated, then blurted out the truth. "I'm scared right now."
Amber eyes turned to him in surprise, and before he knew it, he was babbling; the words poured from him like a verbal waterfall, spilling out and flooding the room. Nuriko had been right; the last time he'd really let anything loose, emotionally speaking, was when Hikou had kidnapped Miaka. It had been so very long since he had just poured everything out to someone. In fact, the last two people he had ever confided in like this were…
Hikou. And Kouran.
He said that as well, barely noticing Nuriko's relieved expression. The words just wouldn't stop.
"Shhhh…" He was suddenly enveloped in warm arms, his face pressed against wrinkled blue fabric. Nuriko. Nuriko was hugging him. "It sounded like you really needed that. It's okay to be afraid. You understand that? And you don't have to hide that from us. I promise." After a moment, he released him, and sat back, looking at him expectantly. "'Chiri," Nuriko said softly, "would you…?"
For a long moment, Chichiri didn't move. Then, finally…
One hand slid up to the side of his face, and with a practiced ease, Chichiri slowly peeled the mask away. The scar, so prominent on his face, was barely visible in the dim light; his good eye, a deep mahogany, was shimmering, and downcast.
Nuriko wanted to scream with relief, to dance and sing for joy, but instead he simply smiled and said, "You know, you're a pretty good-looking guy. You really do look better without it." He watched carefully for a reaction. And he got one.
Chichiri actually laughed softly. And the slightest of smiles stayed on his face as one lone tear escaped from his good eye to run down one pale cheek, leaving a long damp trail in its wake. He made no move to brush it away. But he felt so…exposed without it. Naked. Vulnerable. It was like an extension of himself, like his arms. It had been that way for a very, very long time.
A hand reached out and closed over his—the hand holding his mask now. "It's okay," Nuriko was smiling broadly. "Just take it one step at a time. It'll get easier."
Sensing that he was, in a sense, being given permission, Chichiri placed the mask back on his face. But instead of the usual comfort it provided, the sensation was alien, completely foreign. He felt cold.
"You know," he muttered wryly, feeling a little more like himself nonetheless, "now you've got me all mixed up, no da." The usual suffix was completely natural—unforced, just another normal part of a dialect that was all Chichiri's own.
"Glad I could help," Nuriko risked the joke, and felt utterly vindicated when he heard a laugh.
The first brick had fallen from the wall, leaving a gaping hole.
A hole that someone had taken the opportunity to reach through.
One down, so many more to go.
But it was a start.