THE CRUSH, PART NINE (zomg!)

Don't Look Back Again

In another part of the castle, there were heated arguments going on over a table covered with maps and battle plans. Yelling, gesticulating, a little inarticulate fury and frustration. Some despair, a lot of frustration.

And a great deal of discipline, as Yaone, Doku, and Ginsei (a recently promoted Temporary Captain of the Guard while his commander was away) all managed not to flinch when the air in the room turned hazy and superheated, a precursor to the firestorm about to erupt between mother and son.

Familial spats amongst the Imperial House were really, really spectacular. So was the collateral damage involved.

The basic gist of the argument was this:

1.) There was a huge fucking army outside the castle waiting to slaughter/take-into-custody-and-then-slaughter all inhabitants come high noon.

2.) They, meaning the Kou-tachi and Rasetsunyo and the surviving soldiers and everyone, equaled in total less than thirty people, including those who were certainly not obligated/able to do any fighting. And while a castle might be successfully defended with less than thirty people for a few days, it was not going to outlast a full scale siege.

3.) Some clever enemy mage (or fifty) had set up a negation barrier to keep anyone else from escaping by teleport or otherwise magical means, which in this case meant 'at all.'

4.) There were precious few options left open to them, and only one certainty. It was going to take a miracle to save them now.

5.) Against all odds they had a miracle, in the form of Rasetsunyo's pet War God. Slaughtering armies of belligerent youkai was his professional career.

6.) He had conveniently refused to fight.

Kougaiji was angry. Furious, even. Bad enough the stranger with the weird aura suddenly waltzing into their lives, blithely informing everyone that Rasetsunyo had been cheating on her husband and that Kougaiji was his son instead of Gyumaoh's, sorry there kid, didn't mean to leave you, you know, laboring under illusions for the majority of your bloody life or anything, can't give you any good explanation for the extended absence either, and look, here, there's a crisis situation, it's a shame I can't help you out with it.

That was all bad enough. But the salt in the wound was that his mother was actually supporting the infuriating demi-deity. Even the gods had rules, she said, and refused to give a better explanation for Shuyin's illogical refusal of aid than that.

Fuming, he'd pointed out that the gods had rules about not fraternizing with mortals too, especially youkai women, especially married youkai women, and rules about not siring children upon them, and not covering it up for 500+ years, and not showing up out of the blue to make announcements about heritage and then sitting back to watch the chaos without the slightest inclination to take responsibility for any of it. It would be a shame for the heretic to break such a tradition of not following rules now, wouldn't it?

Rasetsunyo had given him the We Are Not Discussing This Now look and snapped that Shuyin was not his concern.

Kougaiji had snapped back how, exactly, Shuyin was not his concern.

Someone accused someone of not having their priorities straight.

Someone accused someone of having lied to them since they day they'd been born.

It was at this point that the conversation had degenerated into a screaming fit that had probably been five hundred years and three days overdue.

In the privacy of his own mind, Doku thought it might have been funny under other circumstances. Here they were on the brink of what was going to be the shortest, most one sided war in history, and their fearless leader was having paternal authority and abandonment issues.

But there was reason for this little hissy fit, ample reason. Doku and Yaone knew it. The new Temporary Captain and most of the guards and Chen, if he'd been there, knew it. Everyone had their breaking point. It was truly a minor miracle that their Prince hadn't snapped sooner.

The months leading up to Gyumaoh's resurrection had, ironically (or perhaps karmically), been as stressful for Kougaiji as they'd been for Sanzo. Theft of a certain Westerner's pendant had accelerated the experiments to the point where the scientists no longer needed to use Lirin, and for that matter Kougaiji, although neither of them had known at the time what Gyokumen had been planning for her dear daughter and son-in-law. All of them tried not to think of what they'd found digging through the wreckage of the lab just a day ago. Design drawings, half built containment tanks, wires and cables and pentagrams created for the purpose of turning Lirin and possibly Kougaiji himself into components of the experiment. Living, breathing batteries locked in tanks.

When Gyuomaoh had been awakened, after all, there would be no further need for insubordinate and obsolete heirs.

The pendant made all that living battery stuff moot. What it didn't make moot was the obsolete heir part. So for the second time in his ridiculously fucked up existence, Kougaiji had found himself a virtual prisoner in the castle that was his by birthright.

He had fought, that first time, when the castle came under assault by Heaven's armies. The memories were blurred from time and magic overload, but he remembered battle. He remembered desperation, red fury bloodying his vision and his claws, the stinging of energies that no mortal could hope to control invading his senses, and a cold, cold fear in the pit of his stomach. He remembered futility. He didn't remember how it ended.

Only that it had ended, badly, and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. Helplessness was worse than the fear. Helplessness was worse than anything. So he fought again against his fate.

There were casualties, this time. Injuries that would have been casualties if only luck, or maybe ill luck, hadn't been involved. Gyokumen with a bloody wound on her throat that she covered with fabric and high collars. Nii with his left arm nearly torn off. Members of Gyokumen's personal guard with broken ribs and backs and necks. All or nothing. Doku and Yaone at his side, trailing in his wake, pulled along inexorably by the force of his desperation.

They had watched him fall, and followed him down screaming.

Waking up in the medical ward after the passage of an uncertain number of days was becoming a common occurrence. That had almost been normal, to their horror. Waking up to Kougaiji with bandages wrapped over his forehead and his eyes blank was not normal, but familiar. Nii's smirk was familiar. He said they'd fixed the process that'd gone wrong the first time. He said they'd fixed everything. They hadn't, of course. They'd only made things worse in an already stressed to the breaking point psyche.

The barcoding procedure worked because it compartmentalized what made up a person's behavior. Certain emotions and ideas were separated from each other. Nii had gone into Kougaiji's head with that horrid little smirk of his that cut sharper than any of his scalpels, and divided what he found there into neat sections. He had created the Other. It looked like Kougaiji, spoke with his voice and moved with his body, but It was not the person Doku and Yaone had sworn their lives to. It was something else.

And they had precious little hope that they'd be able to get rid of It the second time around.

This time, though, It didn't take over completely. It shared. They didn't know if it was because Kougaiji was stronger, or the Other weaker, or if by some unholy accident, the two could somehow unconsciously compromise. Unconsciously, because Kougaiji appeared not to remember what happened when his gaze went fixed and his voice turned to ice, or even that it happened to him at all. He would come back to himself and ask, with genuine puzzlement, why Doku and Yaone were staring at him as though they'd seen a ghost.

They were restricted to the castle grounds on pretext of injuries, which everyone knew would continue long after their injuries had healed. Kougaiji remembered what he'd tried to do and guilt tore at him that he'd failed, that he'd allowed his temper to finally peak and launched such an ill planned, ill fated offensive. The Other, if It had an opinion on enforced captivity, kept such things to Itself. On the surface It appeared to be perfectly loyal to Gyokumen. And Gyokumen was very, very, very tired of insurrection. She needed the Prince not as a sutra hunter or subordinate, but as a symbol for the people until his father returned. And the Other would do for public appearances. Kougaiji she ordered confined as a prisoner in state. The bars were invisible, the jail cell covered in silk and tapestries, but it was a prison nonetheless.

It had all seemed so very hopeless at the time. So very …final. They had all wondered, in the back of their minds, in the darkest depths of insecurity and fear, what might happen to them eventually in a worst case scenario. Happy endings were for fairy tales. They knew the risks, the precariousness of their positions. And now this was the reality and it was cruel, because they were not even given the chance to escape watching the horrible, inevitable conclusion. They were trapped with no way out. They had nothing left.
And then, one day, things changed. One day, the Other spoke.

They had been in the medical ward, they being the Kou-tachi minus Lirin, along with Nii, Hwan, and some of the other scientists. Doku didn't remember what they'd been talking about. That part wasn't important. The important part was that Kougaiji had stopped mid sentence as if he'd been struck dumb, and shivered oddly, and then It came forward. Its flat, cold gaze had focused, Its flat, cold voice had broken the silence that normally accompanied Its manifestation.

It had looked at Nii and asked, very quietly and deliberately, if he was tired of waiting for the checkmate. And Nii, his cigarette dipping dangerously between suddenly slack lips, had stared back at the Other as if the bizarre question had meant something.

Doku and Yaone had discussed it, later. They'd never figured out any satisfactory explanation. Kougaiji didn't know about it, couldn't know about it, because he didn't or couldn't acknowledge the existence of the Other, and you could hardly interrogate one half of a personality about why the other half had done something.

That very day Nii had told Gyokumen Kyushu in no uncertain terms that the Maten sutra was required for the experiments. That very day Gyokumen, quite against her earlier commands, had ordered Kougaiji and Doku and Yaone and even Lirin, the old hands, to seek out Genjyo Sanzo and bring back his sutra.

Sanzo and his convenient bullets had done the rest. Neither the ikkou nor Rasetsunyo had been informed of the mysterious circumstances surrounding Kougaiji's last mission, which by all rights should never have been ordered in the first place (not because Doku and Yaone had no intention of informing everyone, just, they hadn't yet figured out what they were going to say yet). It made no sense. It made absolutely no sense, and the two people they might have asked about it were conveniently unavailable. The Other hadn't been seen since Its enigmatic conversation with Nii, and Doku's sword had taken care of the good doctor during the castle assault.

Everything had clicked just a little too neatly in place. The crisis situation in Tenjiku resolved in a single day, Gyumaoh dead, Gyokumen dead, Rasetsunyo free, the Kou-tachi free and the ikkou completing their three year mission, Seiten sutra recovered, no more resurrection experiments, with alarming ease. Doku and Yaone hadn't argued with it as events unfolded, but looking back now everything seemed a bit surreal.

It was almost as if someone had planned this out. Almost as if someone had taken into account all the little variables, all the certainties of their realities, both the Kou-tachi's and the Sanzo-ikkou's, like inevitable failure and death and despair, and then found a loophole through the whole mess to an improbably future on the other side where they'd all somehow survived. Not that all of them weren't grateful, of course. Not that Yaone hadn't sobbed with relief into her pillows the first night, before the army arrived. Not that Doku hadn't spent a significant amount of time every day fervently thanking whatever gods happened to listen to the prayers of incestuous matricides who deserted their younger brothers. But he still couldn't get over the feeling that the axe was still in the air, waiting to fall (the army outside of course lent a lot of weight to this theory)
He couldn't get over the feeling whenever he thought about the Other and how It never had stayed dormant for this long before, or watched Shuyin's old eyes slide over his claimed only son with what might have been buried pain, or remembered the look of absolute shock on Nii's face. It was a tiny, niggling thing, like a pebble in one's shoe, or the barest prickling of a chill breeze, miniscule but indismissable.

Somehow, somewhere along the way, he'd missed something vitally important. It had to do with Kougaiji, he was certain. It had to do with the Other. It had to do with Nii, and Rasetsunyo, and Shuyin, and the Sanzo-ikkou, and with the army outside and the Merciful Goddess and Gyumaoh and the man who owned the pendant and with Yaone and with himself and he didn't know what it was.

Kou continued arguing with Rasetsunyo, a feat that one wouldn't have believed him capable of if they'd seen him sobbing over her frozen pillar only a few days before. Yaone fidgeted, torn between wanting to side with her righteously furious master and smacking him upside the head for getting distracted by tangents in a crisis. Ginsei was pale and shaking, certain that he was about to become crispy fried Temporary Captain of the Guard any moment now, and wondering if running screaming for the exit or fainting in terror might get him demoted back to a safer rank. Doku was giving himself a headache trying to figure out what was wrong with this picture.

At least they were having it out, the kappa noted with some resignation. The timing was unfortunate, but it was probably better to fight about it and get everything out in the open instead of bottling up all the resentment and confusion and brooding over it and letting it fester the way ….

….the way Kougaiji normally did. The way Kougaiji had been doing for years.

Doku's expression gave up trying to cover the gamut of emotions currently flickering through his brain. Shock, speculation, confusion and suspicion (among other things) did not go well together.

Fortunately, his mouth could work independently of his head. While trying to puzzle out the meaning behind his revelation, as well as pinpoint precisely what his revelation was, he stopped the argument cold with a single word.

"Um."

He noted with distraction the temperature of the immediate air around him jump five degrees as two identical purple glares snapped to him.

"Um," he persisted undaunted. "I think we're forgetting the purpose of this meeting. Obviously we're outnumbered. Obviously Ko-san would be a great help in overcoming that deficiency. But we're not out to win this battle, are we? All we need to do is hold the castle until Chen returns."

"If Chen returns," Ginsei muttered under his breath, and then yelped. Yaone smiled fixedly as she removed her heel from his instep.

The negation barrier that barred teleports had only gone up after the 'escape' of four youkai soldiers (Chen and two guards, and another who wasn't a soldier at all) from the impending warzone on the back of the last long distance dragon. Most of the construct beasts had vanished during the commotion, being simple creatures but also simple creatures very sensitive to the workings of magic, and they'd been scared senseless or even de-activated by the energies involved in Gyumaoh's revival. It was luck, or coincidence, or suspiciously extreme convenience that Kougaiji's favorite mount, Liatris, had been discovered still hanging around the area. Liat was something of an anomaly amongst her kind, behaving the closest to a living, sentient creature complete with temper and eccentricities, which was why Kougaiji had taken to her in the first place.

Anyway, she was an escape route for two or three people, a one way trip to the horizon. The attacking army might be taken by surprise by an aerial dash for freedom, but once it had happened they'd know to watch for and guard against it. Lirin had thrown a positively unholy tantrum when she'd been informed that she had the first ticket to the dubious safety of somewhere else, but Kougaiji had threatened her with the old Making Mature Decisions shtick. Chen and two others soldiers were going with her. They were also going to try and extort some of the closest Lords into mustering a royalist army. It was a long shot, but stranger things had happened in the history of armed warfare, and worked.

Kougaiji had confessed some guilt about not offering the escape chance to technical noncombatants like the Sanzo-ikkou. However, Hakkai had informed him in no uncertain terms that Sanzo and Goku traveling anywhere in their comatose states was out of the question. Plus, Hakkai seemed to be taking a healthy interest in the whole political procedure, and Kougaiji wasn't stupid enough to deliberately alienate any desperately needed potential allies by demanding that they pack up and shove off. If anyone could convince Sanzo that staying to fight was the Right Thing To Do, Hakkai could.

But Ginsei was right. No matter who they did or didn't convince to help fight from inside the castle, it would be Chen's ability to persuade the minor Lords to come to their rescue with an army that had the better chance of actually saving their butts.

Kougaiji was unwilling to let his argument go. And unhappy about Doku attempting to interrupt.

"This is still all his fault."

"And so what if it is?" Doku heard himself demanding. "So he's guilty. All of us are guilty. You could have tried to take Gyumaoh's throne before Heaven got pissed enough to knock him off it. Rasetsunyo could have refused to marry him. Yaone or I or you could have murdered or tried to murder Gyokumen at any point, or Nii, or sabotaged the experiments, or something."

Kougaiji glared at him. "Doku…"

"We've all fucked up, Kou. You can't assign all the blame to him— "

"Oh yes I can."

Doku actually took a step back. Kougaiji's fists were clenched, his shoulders granite with tension, but his voice was soft and level when he spoke.

"What kind of deus ex machina," he continued, quietly furious, "won't even lift a finger to save his own family?"

He had only a second for the danger to register before Rasetsunyo's fire charged fist crashed into his cheek, snapped his head to the side and nearly sending him to the floor. The Empress had no use for slapping idiots.

"You child," she hissed, livid and trembling with rage. "You miserable, spineless child. Is that what you want of him? Is that why you think you hate him?"

Kougaiji didn't say anything, one hand going to his split lip. His glare was answer enough.

"How dare you expect that, out of him or anyone," she raged, well beyond fury and into the realm of nuclear. "You are a Prince of Tenjiku, not some … some …helpless abused barwench who dreams of being miraculously rescued! I raised you to be a leader and protector of your people." Her finger stabbed at him, and then at the window. "They are the ones out there right now needing rescue, they are the ones out there right now needing guidance, and they are the ones who need you to give them hope. How dare you whine to me about the irresponsibilities of your father when you're doing the same damn thing."

Kougaiji's eyes, narrowed in anger, suddenly went blank, and a chill rushed down Doku's spine at the too familiar sight of it. Shit on a stick, if Kou lost it here and now, in front of Rasetsunyo and Ginsei ….

The kappa opened his mouth to say something, anything, to forestall imminent disaster, but someone else beat him to the punch.

"You're right," the Other said suddenly, speaking with Kougaiji's voice. Its flat, dead eyes fixed on Rasetsunyo. "You're right. I have been…remiss, in my own duties. I am in no position to place blame on others."

The Empress eyed him suspiciously, which was a good thing, because if she'd looked up, she'd have seen both Doku and Yaone turning fascinating shades of sickly white. Ginsei was cowering against the wall, having given up on all pretense of bravado in face of impending pyrokinetic showdown.

The Other returned Rasetsunyo's searching glance impassively, apparently not having anything more to add. In this instance, It might have been lucky that Its natural expression was a poker face.

"Well then," she said finally, something warring behind her eyes. "If we're done with this little argument…."

"Hardly done," the Other cut in smoothly, prompting a tightening of her mouth. "But for the moment …"

"Paused, then." There was distaste in her statement.

"Paused. Yes."

"Fine. Then let's get on with this." She turned half away from him, towards the map covered table. "We have a war to plan."

And just like that, Kougaiji was back, blinking rapidly as though to clear something from his vision, and momentary confusion swept across his expression like clouds across a sky. Doku made an aborted move towards him, catching himself at the last second before the Empress noticed.

"Kougaiji?" Rasetsunyo was looking back at her son, impatience in her stance.

"Paused," the Prince muttered, shaking his head slightly, and then looked up to wave off Yaone's concerned step forward. "Yes. Of course. We don't have time for distractions right now." And he went to his mother's side at the table without any further hesitation.

Ginsei breathed a distinct sigh of relief, which might have been funny under other circumstances. Yaone and Doku exchanged a Look and a silent, coded conversation. There was something very, very, very weird going on with all this.

An uncomfortable silence fell until Kougaiji said the kappa's name a second later, making him jump.

"Dokugaku, will you go and see if Sanzo's finished speaking with Hakkai yet?" Kougaiji asked distractedly, seemingly unaware of Rasetsunyo's measuring gaze on him while she ostensibly looked over his shoulder at the map in front of him. "He ought to be here for this, if he's recovered sufficiently."

"He seemed lucid enough when I saw him earlier," Rasetsunyo offered, albeit warily. Kougaiji nodded absently, as if he had not just been screaming at the top of his lungs at her for the better part of an hour.

Something very weird indeed.

Yaone decided she'd had about enough of it. She squared her shoulders. "My lord, may I accompany Dokugakuji?"

Kougaiji blinked at the request, and then managed a brief smile. "Of course. I apologize for keeping you three locked up in here listening to us bicker."

She bowed graciously. "Not at all. We shall return shortly."

Ginsei stared at her reproachfully, 'betrayed' by her leaving him alone with these overly powerful (and tempermental) psychos, but she ignored his gaze. She stalked purposefully from the room, dragging Doku with her.

"You wanted to talk to the pissy monk that bad?" the kappa asked with some disbelief once they were down the hallway and out of earshot. He rubbed gingerly at his arm. One would have thought she would rather stay with Kougaiji in case something else strange happened.

"Of course not," Yaone all but snapped. "You are going to talk to Sanzo, as Kougaiji-sama ordered. I'm going to talk to our 'guest' about this …possession or whatever it is that keeps happening. We're not going to be able to hide it for much longer."

Just what Doku didn't want to hear. He swallowed hard. "But…" he started weakly. "He got over it by himself once before…?"

"And can we depend on that now?" she demanded, whirling to face him. "This is an army we're facing, not the Sanzo-ikkou or a band of insubordinate youkai. It won't be a complete shock, at least, to Sanzo and the others, but Rasetsunyo needs to know. Shuyin …." She stopped, biting her lip.

That was a can of worms neither of them wanted to get into. "If Shuyin needs to know, Rasetsunyo will tell him," Doku finished for her with a confidence that almost didn't sound forced. "I mean. Who're we to … you know, this being a family squabble and all ...um. Right?"

"….right. Absolutely. Thank you." She hoped she didn't sound as relieved as she felt. Her personal and official vows to serve and support Kougaiji aside, she simply didn't feel comfortable taking sides in what was essentially a very personal family conflict. Sure, Kou seemed to have every reason to resent Shuyin's almost absurd re-introduction into his life, but Rasetsunyo had suffered as much (or more) from the demi-god's actions, and if she had given up her grudge after her first night back with him, when he'd finally had a chance to explain…

Well, Rasetsunyo didn't strike Yaone as the type to forgive and forget for any reason other than a solid, legitimate one. Especially given her violent inclinations towards the ex-War God. If she of all people had decided that his desertion (or whatever had happened) didn't deserve retribution, Shuyin must have the mother of all Good Excuses already working in his favor.

Or not. She couldn't swear to it, but there was something deceptively painful in the way that Shuyin reacted to his family, and she had to wonder if he hadn't already paid (or was still paying) for the things he had done.

Most definitely not her business, she decided. The same way it was definitely not her business that Doku was fidgeting more the nearer they got to the hallways where the Sanzo-ikkou's rooms were, because he was much more worried about checking in on his brother (who, last anyone had heard, had barricaded himself inside his room with a supply of alcohol more appropriately suited to a regiment than a single person, and strange thumping noises like someone beating their head against the wall had been reported) than about checking in on a foul mouthed Sanzo priest.

All this shit ended up becoming her business anyway, it seemed.

"I'll just head down to the lower levels now, shall I?" she said dryly, freeing him of the necessity of making up an excuse for the detour he so obviously wanted to take. Men were so transparent.

He saluted, the ridiculous bastard, and her lips curved in a smile despite the absolute not-funny-in-any-way seriousness of the situation.

They went their separate ways, mutually disobeying orders. After all, what Kougaiji didn't know wouldn't hurt him, and they were running out of time.

-

Doku rapped sharply on Gojyo's locked door. As expected, he got no answer until he opened his mouth to announce himself.

'Fuck off' wasn't really a polite thing to say to one's older brother, Doku thought as he kicked the door down. Nor was throwing empty liquor bottles in reaction to doors being kicked down, as something heavy immediately shattered against the wall next to his head.

"I hope you plan on cleaning that up," he remarked mildly, surveying the dark room, which was a complete and total disaster area. "This isn't your castle, remember."

Predictably, Gojyo was a mess too.

"Your ears fucking busted or something?" the redhead snarled from his little nest o' misery, which seemed to include himself in badly wrinkled clothes, a precariously balanced fortress of empty bottles, a wadded up sheet from the otherwise untouched bed, a couch and a table pulled next to it laden with a small mountain of cigarette butts. "I told you to -- "

"Yeah, I heard," Doku interrupted, still speaking in that mild and oh so reasonable voice. "I might even take that advice if we weren't, oh, you know, about to withstand a siege or fight a war or anything. Because then there wouldn't be time for pulling such stupid shit." He beamed. "And I just know that you wouldn't be the type of person to do something like that at the worst possible time."

"Fuck off. 'S not our fucking war," Grojyo growled, irritated further by that sadistically painful cheeriness. "Not our fucking problem, any of this mess. So don't come in here and lecture me. I get enough of that goddamn crap from Hak—" He stopped. Scowled furiously. "Just get out, will you."

Doku had no intention of doing any such thing. Instead he flopped down uninvited on the other end of the couch, ignoring his brother's death glare. God was he sick of people with Issues glaring at him today. The sun wasn't even up.

"So. Hakkai." He pretended not to see Gojyo wince.

"Doesn't your Princeling need someone to hold his hand and open doors for him?" Gojyo demanded, cornered, his tone aiming for 'deliberately offensive and distracting' and only hitting 'slightly desperate.'

"Naw," Doku drawled, shifting around a bit to get comfortable. Lumpy damn couch. No wonder Gojyo looked like he hadn't slept in days. "He's with his mom. I'm sure he's doing fine."

"…………"

"So did you get dumped or what?"

If looks could kill, Doku would have been one crispy fried youkai.

"Ooh. Not dumped, then. Jilted?"

The swordsman smoothly ducked another hurled bottle.

"You keep that up and I'll take a belt to your backside," Doku promised cheerfully, grin freezing into place. "Don't think I won't."

Natural stubbornness/cranky bastardness warred with better judgment (and self preservation) across Gojyo's face, until finally common sense gave to the implicit menace and the newest missile was grudgingly lowered, but not set aside. "I'm not a goddamn kid anymore," the redhead muttered sullenly.

"Of course not. You're sulking behind locked doors and drinking yourself to death because that's the mature, adult thing to do. No, shut up, and don't give me that look or I swear I will beat you." Doku leveled his best authoritative glare. "We're in a real shitty situation here, Gojyo. I was hoping I wouldn't have to remind you about no brainer priorities."

Gojyo refused to meet his eyes, mouth still compressed to a hard, bitter line, and Doku groaned inwardly.

"Oh come on. So what, you're in love with him? This just getting to you all of a sudden? It's not exactly a news flash to the rest of the world—"

"I remember him, Doku."

Doku's mouth stopped running as he tried to process that one. "Uh…"

"I remember him." And now Gojyo didn't sound cranky at all, just mortally tired and ..haunted. "All that shit Homura and his cronies ranted about, with us being gods and crap up in the Heavens ….and then Kanzeon and Goku and that asshole in white backing it all up …..I remember it. Some of it. I think." He scowled at nothing, frustration writing itself across his face. "Can't tell one way or the other with the dreams, what's real and what I'm just making up, but it's been getting worse when I'm awake. It's like … flashes of déjà vu here and there, when someone will say something, or do something a certain way, and gods, it fucking happens every single time I even look at him … "

There was a sharp sound as the glass bottleneck under Gojyo's ever tightening grip actually cracked. Both brothers stared at it, until after a long moment Doku wordlessly reached out to pull it from Gojyo's unresisting hands, leaving the redhead to stare at them instead.

"It's not as bad as Goku or Sanzo," Gojyo admitted after another lengthy pause. "Isn't like we had anything directly messing with our heads. All Hakkai did was ask Gou…that guy to explain a few things, just so we'd know what to expect, but it …it was all so fucking weird once he started talking. I couldn't stay and listen."

"But Hakkai did," Doku said, and got a morose nod in response.

"Hakkai didn't get so weirded out by it. I wonder …I wonder if that wasn't the idea." Bitterness crept into the halfbreed's voice. "They knew each other back then, him and that guy. I mean, so did I, according to what he said, but if he's been following Hakkai like this through all his lives …for hundreds of years…. " He stopped and looked up. Doku had a hand over his face.

"You," the older youkai groaned, eying him accusingly, "couldn't possibly have picked some kind of normal conflict in a relationship for big brother Doku to dispense sagely advice about, now could you? No, you gotta bring in big guns like reincarnation and gods and stalking/devotion past death and .."

"That's me, overachiever," Gojyo retorted, then resumed scowling. "Don't you dare think I wanted it to be like this."

"No. No. You're a twisted little brat, but you're not that much of a masochist," Doku agreed, reigning in his exasperation. "So. I take it this has been more or less consuming your brain since Hakkai's pet cum divine stalker showed up and started telling tales."

A nod.

"And you haven't talked to Hakkai about it because it's fucking weird and because that guy knows a whole hell of a lot that you don't about it, about Hakkai and you and all your past lives because he somehow remembers them, and you feel like you can't possibly measure up to that and you hate feeling inferior."

Another nod.

"And you won't go talk to Hakkai about it even though that's the only thing that would make you feel better because you're in love with him, at least in –this- life, and you're desperately afraid of getting slapped down or finding out what dragon guy has to say about it."

Hesitation. Nod. It was pretty pathetic to deny reality at this point.

"So you thought you'd run off and ruin your liver and your lungs because you can't cope, hoping that he might eventually notice you were sulking like a selfish brat and take pity on you and come ask what's wrong without dragon guy, even though dragon guy's been pretty stuck to his side."

"…..that wasn't really how I'd thought about it."

"I should hope not." Doku shook his head. "Bad angle. Very bad angle to work. Our buddy in white is probably telling him right at this minute how childish it is to be so hung up over a thing like that with an army sitting on our doorstep. That's not going to cut you a very flattering figure in front of your objet d'amour."

"This isn't some village barwench I'm trying to impress and woo away from another guy!" Gojyo snapped, temper flaring. "Dammit Jien, I'm asking you to take this seriously."

"I'd like to kid, really I would. Just as soon as I figure out how it's not just a glorified version of 'I'm in love and can't deal with it,' because we really don't have time for that."

"That's why."

Doku quieted at the real desperation in his brother's voice.

Gojyo stared sightlessly up at the ceiling. "That's why," he repeated softer. "Because we really are running out of time."

"You think we're going to die here, don't you." It was a statement, not a question.

"Everybody runs out of luck sometime," Gojyo said bleakly. "First thing you taught me in poker."

"Yeah. Well. Remember the one about 'the only certainty in life is that nothing is certain?" Doku asked, strangely irked at being mocked by his own words of so many years ago.

"You got that off a fortune cookie."

"And you never listened to any good advice I tried to give anyway."

"You were always screwing around with subtext!"

"It was really obvious subtext!"

They glared at each other. Telling each other not to give up was a waste of effort. They already had their reasons why they wouldn't or couldn't, and their causes to fight for, and if they died along the way, that was just too bad.

Doku felt compelled to offer an escape anyway. He was the older brother. Older brothers were supposed to do things like that for their brainless younger siblings.

"…you don't have to do this, Gojyo," the bondsman said, knowing the futility in even saying so. "There's …you don't need to fight this fight. You could run…."

"Fuck you," Gojyo returned predictably.

"I'm serious. You don't owe me anything."

"I owe you everything, and that's not why I'm staying."

"Oh?"

Gojyo looked distant for a moment, and shadows moved behind his crimson eyes. "I'm here .."

Pain. Red on black, red on white, green eyes and the horror in them that took his breath--

"Because he won't run. He never has."

"I wasn't asking about him."

"It's the same goddamn thing, isn't it?"

"No?"

"Idiot doesn't suit you, aniki," Gojyo said patiently. "Stop pretending you don't know what I mean. You wouldn't leave either, because Red Boy is still here."

The other youkai couldn't much argue with that. "So you're going to stay."

"I have to. That's what I'm here for."

Doku let his voice sharpen. Gojyo could be a horribly codependent brat, but he was also old enough to make his own decisions about what was good for him, and this didn't sound like a particularly healthy one. "That's an awful narrow focus you've got."

Gojyo shrugged. "It's traditional."

"What the hell does that mean?"

The halfbreed didn't answer at first. His hand moved of its own accord to the ache in the hollow of his shoulder, where a General named Kenren had once been pinned to the floor by a celestial crossbow bolt. Then seven more.

The eighth had been point blank through his forehead, while Tenpou screamed his name and had to hold back Konzen, Konzen, from trying to come back for him….

"I remember dying for him."

Doku stared. "You…"

"Not like Sanzo. I said that already. It's just ….bits and pieces." Gojyo's hand tightened on his shoulder, squeezing the phantom injury. "I remember his expression. I remember …. "

A floorboard creaked in the darkest corner of the room, halting whatever Gojyo had been about to say, but when they both turned to look, there was nothing there.

"Gojyo," the swordsman asked carefully, a suspicion gnawing at him, "what exactly do you mean by 'traditional?' One time doesn't count as .. "

"Not one time," Gojyo said softly. "There were others."

"How…"

Flatly. "Too many."

Doku twitched despite himself. "I see."

"Over and over again," Gojyo continued in that same creepy soft voice, as though he were talking aloud to himself. "I can't get the images out of my head. If I'm only making them up to dream about them, they're pretty goddamn realistic. And I can't help but feeling that this is going to turn out the same."

"You don't know that." A pause, as Gojyo's bleak expression didn't change and no argument was raised. Christ, thought Doku, maybe he did know that. "This is really why you're hiding in here, isn't it. Why you haven't spoken to Hakkai."

Bitterness seeped into the redhead's voice. "What can I tell him? What can I say? That his buddy in white pisses me off, but only because he'll be able to follow Hakkai after I'm gone and I'm worried that that means something? That I think I'm going to die before he will, so could we please get a few things straight before heading off into the next life? Don't worry about what will happen, one of us isn't going to survive anyway and it had better be you? That I can't – "

"—can't do this again."

Even Doku heard the echo that time, and the two half brothers both flinched.

"That's goddamn creepy, Gojyo."

"He thinks so too," said someone who wasn't Gojyo.

Gojyo clapped both hands over his mouth in absolute horror. Doku matched his petrified expression.

"What the – "

The door burst inward. "Kenren Taishou!"

"What?" Gojyo responded automatically, he and his brother both turning without thinking to look --

Goujun tackled the halfbreed off the couch and into the carefully balanced tower of glass.

"Er," said Doku, and then winced at the following crash and shriek of agony. "Er. What the fuck?"

"What did you do!" the Dragon King demanded, splitting his attention between sounding commanding and imperious and trying to maintain his grip on a yowling, bleeding, furious Gojyo.

Who had gone batshit. Not that a little righteous indignation (or furious retaliation) at being attacked out of nowhere wasn't warranted, but Gojyo didn't normally go from angst to bloodlust in a matter of seconds, even when he was drunk. It was as if it wasn't Gojyo at all who snarled, rage transforming his features, and lashed out with serious intent to maim.

Goujun must have been a hell of a lot stronger than he looked, because even a half blood youkai could punch holes through walls if they were angry enough, and Gojyo wasn't holding anything back.

"I didn't do anything!" Doku protested, shocked at the sudden ferocity in his younger brother. Funny, this was almost exactly how he had imagined Gojyo would end up dealing with his jealousy, by trying to beat the living hell out of the Dragon, but he hadn't foreseen himself getting blamed for it or that the fight would be so ….

….ow.

"You must have done something!" Goujun spat the words along with a mouthful of blood.

"I didn't!"

Goujun's answer was lost in a snarl as Gojyo's fist found and cracked bone. Doku rapidly vacated the couch and summoned his sword, not sure which psycho he was supposed to brain with its flat: the one who had appeared out of nowhere to accost his brother and accuse him or the one trying to prove that ripping out a person's spine and beating them with it wasn't just an expression.

In the end, neither. He waded in with all the surety of a tall, well built youkai who'd been in far too many melee fights before the age of sixteen. He caught one fist. The other he let bounce off his sword. The Dragon's expression didn't change, which made Doku wonder furiously about the consistency of the thing's skin. Perhaps those scales weren't merely for decoration.

An impromptu stalemate was introduced. Gojyo glared, breathing heavily and madness still in his eyes. Goujun glared, but icily and sanely.

Doku ignored the looks he was being given. "Now then," he said quite calmly. "What in the bleeding hell is going on?"

Gojyo started to growl, but Doku's grip tightened unmercifully on his captive hand, and something cracked unhealthily under the pressure. The halfbreed's expression went from outrage to pain.

"I wasn't asking you, brat."

Goujun took a step back. His pristine white outfit wasn't anymore. He didn't look so much enraged as annoyed. "This is not your affair, youkai."

"Family rights," Doku retorted with grim cheerfulness. "Out with it."

"Kenren would have such ill grace to be born as a youkai," the Dragon King muttered, and Doku was sorely tempted to point out that Hakkai, who Goujun seemed to get along so well with, was more youkai than Gojyo.

He decided to defend his species later, as more importantly, he noticed that Gojyo flinched at the name 'Kenren.'

Goujun did as well, and something flickered behind his unreadable, unearthly eyes. "Very well. Keeping secrets can hardly afford advantages now. You are surely aware of the circumstances of the Bosatsu's gift."

"Unfortunately."

"It was meant only for the boy."

Shit. "Sanzo has it."

"All four of them have it."

"What the hell, contagious memories?"

"Something very like. Anything can set it off. Anything can become a trigger."

The halfbreed spoke for the first time. His lip and knuckles were split and bleeding, and there were shards of glass sticking out in random places. "We were ..just talking. Don't get so bent out of shape." There was something odd about his voice.

"You were—and still are-- stirring waters best left untroubled," Goujun snapped. "The past is dead. Calling it back will bring you nothing but pain."

Something that wasn't quite Gojyo glared out of the redhead's eyes. "I am used to pain, sir."

"Gojyo," Doku breathed, shocked.

'Gojyo' looked at him without recognition. "Let go of me."

"Gojyo!"

"He can't hear you." Goujun didn't give anymore warning than that, just blurred into motion around the swordsman and launched himself at his trapped opponent. Doku saw too late the strange glow around white claws. They went down together, halfbreed and Dragon in a blur of scarlet and ivory. There was a sickening crack as skull met unforgiving floor.

The glow faded. Gojyo didn't get back up.

Goujun did, hauled straight up courtesy of an angry youkai's fist in the front of his shirt a few moments later.

"The matter is resolved," the Dragon said, unruffled. "Physical trauma is the simplest method of containment."

"I'll give you physical trauma – "

"The sealing charm on its own has proven ineffective, given the way that all three of them have been burning through memory seals." Goujun made no move to separate himself from Doku's grip, but his distaste and exasperation were clear. "Would you prefer I damage him more permanently?"

"I would prefer you not damage him at all," Doku growled, still shaken by the apparent possession-by-dead-incarnate he had just witnessed in his brother, which alarmingly echoed Kou's current predicament. Ally or not, Goujun provided a convenient target for all the frustration and unease he was feeling right now. "If you've hurt him…"

Goujun snorted derisively. Doku looked down.

"Ow. Ow ow ow fuck." Gojyo sat up, rubbing at his head. His eyes weren't focusing properly. "Aniki?"

Doku dropped Goujun.

The Dragon King straightened his mussed uniform as best he could and ignored the disgustingly sincere familial idiot fest. This was ridiculous, expecting him to manage these circumstances by himself. Ridiculous, expecting him to deal not only with the Sanzo-ikkou and their gaggle of dubious allies, but the ghosts of Tenpou, Kenren and Konzen. The very difficult, rebellious ghosts of Tenpou, Kenren and Konzen.

And that wasn't even mentioning the other, less manageable ghosts, like the things that followed Konzen in this life and the things that followed the Red Prince and the things that followed Shuyin. And the Oathbreaker himself, the most unmanageable ghost of all. The bastard bloody well owed him for this.

At least the ghost of Kenren seemed to have been booted back to its proper place. The sealing charm he had cast was weak, unfortunately, he was not the mage his elder brothers were, but it would hold for the moment. The Gojyo creature was protesting his state of perfect health, no, he didn't feel weird at all, why do you ask, what happened in the last five minutes.

"You fell off the couch," Doku replied instantly. "Like an idiot. You hit your head on the way down."

Goujun regarded this unexpected source of help with some surprise. He hadn't been expecting any aid in the cover up, since Doku had no reason to know that flat out telling the redhead what was really going on would only weaken the memory seal (along with other, more dangerous seals) and trigger more incidents. The less he thought about his former lives, the better. Of course, explaining this would force him not to think about anything else, as it was probably quite unnerving to be told that at any moment a former personality of yours could simply take over.

How odd. Dokugakuji acted as though he'd had experience in keeping such secrets. He argued with his brother, who didn't believe that simply falling off the couch into a pile of empty glass bottles would leave him so bloody or senseless.

"Why's he here, then?" Gojyo demanded a little wildly, stabbing a finger at Goujun. His head hurt like hell and his back was up, he didn't remember the last ten minutes at all and there was something inexplicably Not Right about the things Doku was telling him. "And why's he all roughed up?"

"Some of us have been spending our time productively preparing the castle defenses, instead of sitting around," Goujun answered in a tone that had never failed to get a rise out of Kenren. It worked just as well on Gojyo, who completely forgot to ask just what kind of preparations, exactly, would leave someone looking as though they'd been in a barfight.

"You got something to say, go ahead and say it," the halfbreed hissed. "I know what you're after with Hakkai—"

"Oh please, Taishou."

"Don't you dare patronize me, you arrogant bastard!"

Goujun was visibly losing his patience. "We do not have time for this."

"Make some time, asshole," Gojyo purred dangerously. "If we all die tomorrow, I want the satisfaction of having this settled."

"There is nothing to settle. You are irrational."

Doku looked back and forth between the two and was irresistibly reminded of a scene upstairs. He hadn't (sort of) diffused that confrontation only to watch another one escalate.

"As much fun as it is to watch you two bicker," he declared irritably, "I actually came down here to retrieve anyone who wanted to talk about, oh, the war, since I assume that anyone who plans to fight it might want a say in the decisions. We can all put aside our differences and act civil to each other for a few hours in mixed company, now can't we?"

Gojyo started to protest.

"Hakkai will be there."

Gojyo shut up.

Perhaps ten minutes later, after Doku had bullied his sibling into getting cleaned up and making himself slightly more presentable, it was a resentful (Gojyo), stoic (Goujun) and cranky (Doku) trio that vacated the room. Goujun was last, his ruby gaze lingering over the shadows on the walls. His impassive expression soured.

"I'll be along shortly," he told the brothers. They eyed him suspiciously, until Gojyo shrugged in acceptance and started off. If the Dragon would rather run his own errands than tag along to fetch Hakkai, Gojyo wasn't going to argue about it.

Goujun waited until they were out of sight. Mentally cursed Shuyin again for being useless and always somewhere other than where he ought to be. Then turned around to plant himself firmly in the middle of the hallway the youkai had taken, challenge clear in his stance. The rasp of his sword clearing the sheath was very loud in the silence.

"Come," he challenged.

The watching darkness obliged.

-

In a lower part of the castle, next door to what had unofficially been dubbed 'the barracks' (since that was where all the soldiers were bunked), Yaone felt the beginnings of a headache as she turned a corner and found the 'cell' that had been converted for their single prisoner ….

……absolutely devoid of that prisoner.

She eyed the empty space. The empty space eyed her.

"This is ridiculous," she told it, and spun on her heel to backtrack. She quickly reached what had turned into the soldiers' common room. One stumbled out of it as she approached, muttering about card cheats and easy marks never working out.

"Xuan," she said very calmly, pretending not to notice his startled yelp and sudden scramble to attention at the sight of a superior. "Why is it that the cell next door is empty?"

"Oh! Um. Well."

"Was it an escape?"

"Er. No ma'am. Well, not exactly."

"Removed to another, more secure location then?"

"Yes'm. I mean, uh, sorta." He fidgeted, unable to meet her gaze. "It's just … er…"

She stepped around him while he was still stammering to eye the tableau inside the common room from the doorway.

The 'escaped prisoner' was seated at a table in the center of the room, gaze intent on the cards about to be played as a small ring of guard were on their own. From the pile of cheap coins and liquor, the prisoner was winning and had been for quite some time.

"I didn't know you played poker, Hwan-hakase," Yaone observed mildly. She leaned against the doorway and ignored the guilty/stricken/sheepish looks of the guards. Males of any species had all the same weaknesses.

Hwan smiled as she laid her cards down. "Oh, I'm just an amateur. Royal flush, boys. Cough up that cash, come on now."

There was general grumbling from the soldiers as they emptied their pockets. Yaone only raised an eyebrow when two or three looked to her for help. The normality of the scene gnawed at her briefly, aching where it collided with her thoughts of what was to come with the morning, but she shoved that aside. These were soldiers under the command of the crown. They had all made their vows regarding duty long ago, and Kougaiji would not keep them here against their will if they changed their minds.

Not that changing their minds would do them much good, in a castle surrounded by enemies.

"You realize that, as a prisoner of war, you're supposed to stay where we put you," the apothecary remarked once the fleecing of unwary soldiers had been completed.

"I apologize for the inconvenience, of course." Hwan removed her cracked glasses and brushed the hair from her face, mindful of the large bandage wrapped around her forehead. They'd found her in the wreckage of the castle during the last expedition made there, before the army had appeared, a scrap of white fabric marking her underneath the crushing rubble. Miraculously she had survived the collapse, and they pulled her out bloody and unconscious but breathing, and only suffering from a few fractured bones, rather than pulverized ones.

There had been little indecision over her fate. Hwan might have been one of Gyokumen's pet scientists, but she had been as disturbed and aggravated by Nii as any of the Kou-tachi, and in their minds anyone who didn't like Nii had something going for them. Also, within her own limited capacity (she was not the head scientist and had never gotten over her resentment about it), she had been kind to Lirin while Nii was busy cackling over tubes and wires and things that a head scientist had to busy himself with. Kougaiji was willing to forgive the human woman a great deal just for that, though he'd been a little puzzled at Doku and Yaone's fierce arguments for her preservation.

Simple logic was behind it, really. There was little advantage in taking revenge on Hwan for everything she'd been involved in. The past was dead, they had a hell of a lot more to worry about for the future, and Hwan happened to be one of the few who knew anything about the barcoding process and the manifestations of the Other. Kou had no clue, but they desperately needed someone who could give them any information on the Other, either from personal knowledge or from deciphering Nii's scrawled, barely legible notes on the subject. Hwan understood the arrangement quite well. Be useful, and she would be protected.

Yaone fixed a smile on her face. Convenience or inconvenience, they needed this woman. Kougaiji's well-being depended on it, and both Yaone and Doku had pledged that they would do anything in their power to keep him safe, which meant ensuring the safety of those who could help him where they themselves could not. If necessary, Yaone would defend Hwan at spearpoint.

"Xuan," she called, and he hurried over, "I need to speak to the good doctor alone for a moment. Would you be so kind as to …"

"Of course, miss Yaone." He saluted smartly, apparently recovered from his earlier attack of bumbling, and efficiently cleared the room of unwanted spectators in record time. When the last of the now penniless guards had filed out, he bowed to the two women and exited himself.

"They'll have all their ears to the door, you realize," Hwan said. Yaone dropped into a vacated chair, glad to be off her feet.

"I'm sure they will," the apothecary replied wearily, and then raised her voice slightly. "Which is why I released a powder in the air before I came in, that anyone who breathes it in will suffer from short term memory loss and other convenient side effects."

There was a sudden muffled noise outside the door, as though a half dozen or so people had abruptly vacated the immediate area.

Hwan looked at Yaone with interest. "Did you really?"

"Of course not." She sighed. "If I had anything to destroy memory, I'd be using it on myself so I could get some sleep."

The scientist immediately picked up on what wasn't being said. "It's happened again, hasn't it. A manifestation."

A nod. "During an argument with Rasetsunyo-sama. He …. it … stepped in to end it. It took the Empress' side and somehow ..I don't know, convinced Kougaiji-sama to drop the argument. He acted like it hadn't occurred when he returned to himself."

"It took someone else's side?" Hwan asked sharply. "It didn't act in Kougaiji's defense?"

"Only if one considers diverting Rasetsunyo-sama's anger acting in his defense."

Hwan was up and rummaging through messily packaged sheaves of paper on a nearby table, some of the contents of her room apparently having been brought over. "Nii's notes mentioned something about this. About what might happen if it developed itself as a separate entity capable of independent thought."

Yaone felt a chill run down her spine. "But that's not possible. It's not …it's not a separate entity. It's Kougaiji-sama. Brainwashed, or whatever, but it's all Kougaiji-sama. Nii even told us that. How could it be otherwise?"

"Split personalities can do the same thing," Hwan explained absently as she leafed through papers covered in spidery, cramped handwriting. "However, I'm not sure that's the case here …"

"What do you mean?"

"It's a little difficult to explain. I'm not sure I understand it myself." The brown haired scientist held up the fruits of her search, a battered handbound notebook, and carefully laid it on the table in front of Yaone. "I found this tucked into a binder in the middle of some useless lab reports. I do believe that man was trying to keep it inconspicuous."

"Or else he was just messy."

"Or that."

"What is it?"

"Miss Yaone," Hwan inquired softly, instead of answering. "Have you ever heard of the Crimson King?"

-

Earlier

"The Crimson King?" Rasetsunyo gave her lover a blank look, combing through her long hair as she sat on the edge of the mussed bed. "That old legend?"

Shuyin was facing away from her, the line of his back a wordless declaration of tension. "Didn't your father ever teach you not to dismiss old legends?"

"No, that was my mother. She was the one who insisted that our family had some kind of divine spirit that could be summoned for protection."

"I could have done with you disbelieving that one, actually."

"You loved it."

"You loved it. You were fifteen and in love with my horse."

"He cut a much more magnificent figure than you did."

Shuyin rolled over on his back, gold eyes picking out her slender figure even in the dark. There were marks on her skin. He'd been gentle, or had tried to be, until she ordered him in no uncertain terms to stop treating her like she was made of glass. They hadn't seen each other for the better part of several hundred years, she had said practically, while her fingers tangled in his hair and her hips rolled agonizingly above him, so why not make the reunion memorable.

There had been pain involved after that. But it was a good kind of pain.

He had almost forgotten how much he loved her, during his long sleep. During the long centuries of his duties. He had tried his best for all of them, to be guardian, guide, and savior for the children their souls had been born into, but she was the one who had finally driven him to madness.

"Give me a child, Shuyin. Give me an heir to the throne, to become Emperor when Gyumaoh is dead."

Madness. To think he could change the way the world worked. To think he could impose some kind of morality on the corrupt system, to give a child, his child, the right position and the right opportunity to bring about a lasting peace. He would pave the way with sword and fire, making it his sin, his murders, his judgment on both divine and mortal souls, and his son would be able to step in after to a place where there was still some semblance of justice alive. A long time ago, he'd thought it possible to force that kind of evolution.

Yet nothing ever changed in the way Heaven and Earth were run because, at some level, there were always those who didn't want anything to change.

Kanzeon's mocking smile made sense now. His father's despair made sense now, though Shuyin had surely become what he'd died to see put in place—an incorruptible soul in Heaven. A deus ex machina strong enough to challenge the system, and win. Someone strong enough to save a few innocents.

And yet here he was, with all his accomplishments set to end in blood and misery and frustration. His own son at risk. All these children at risk, their futures at risk, their sacrifices about to be discarded and overlooked. And yet here he was, brought back full circle to how he'd been his first day in Heaven, chained to the wall and bleeding to death, unable to do more than howl his frustration and cry for his losses. Their pet and pawn, their mad dog to mock and provoke.

Some savior.

"I need you to do something for me, Rasetsunyo," he said quietly into the silence. "And you must promise me that you will not question or argue."

"That sounds ominous." She stopped fussing with her hair and looked at him. "Is this the part where I finally get an explanation of where you've been all these years?"

"If you want to hear an unpleasant story."

"I'm sure I can handle it."

He told her. The stillness in her told him more than any horrified noises or gaps in breathing. She did not weep, over the part the pertained to Kougaiji, or what Shuyin had done, perhaps mistakenly, to protect him. An Empress never weeps unless it serves some purpose for her.

An Empress especially does not weep for someone already long dead.

"You will have to be very careful," he finished somewhat lamely. "I don't know how much I will be able to help out, given ….er, circumstances."

"You aren't telling me everything. Are you." Her voice and face were composed, remote, but the look in her eyes cut him to pieces. "Again."

Stronger wills than Shuyin's had been dissolved by that particular tactic, but the first rule of the job for those who would be guards for Tenjiku's Empress was to know when not to obey her commands, either spoken or unspoken. "It would serve no purpose, dearest," he told her gently. "That, and doing so might endanger you further. There's no reason to risk it."

"I hate it when you play martyr, Ko Shuyin. It makes the rest of us mere mortals feel horribly inadequate."

"It's not all that much fun for me either."

She kissed him rather suddenly. "I will do as you ask. But."

"But?"

"But." She put her hand over his mouth. "I'll think of the condition later. So you can worry about it in the meantime."

"Thanks," he grumbled into her palm, until her other hand moved and he abruptly lost track of what either of them had been saying.

"Don't mention it," she whispered.

Neither of them did, for the rest of the hours they had left together alone.