Phoenix Ashes

By otaku-no-miko

Notes (May 15, 2007): Wow, I'm awful at this speedy update thing. You'd think at least I could offer a nice meaty chapter, but…well, this one was hard, and I've been busy. I graduate in 8 days; I'm going to my college orientation in a week. Still, it's no real excuse, and I apologize. Luckily, with this chapter out I know what I want to do for the next chapter or two, so I shouldn't have my muse leave me paralyzed for another seven months. This chapter is fairly interesting of itself, personally; I like it, at least. I hope you all enjoy!

As usual, I'll e-mail reviewers my thank-you's (I wish I could do more, you guys deserve so much more!), and without NightMare I would be lost.

See you at the bottom everyone!

Chapter 7

5:57…

Couldn't the clock move any faster? It felt to Miaka as if the dumb seconds' hand was actually moving backwards instead of forwards like a proper clock, and she was anxious to return home to Taka and the book.

Oh, I knew I shouldn't have opened the book this morning! Miaka thought as the clock ticked forward one more minute.

5:58...

But who knew that Chosei would end up being in danger?

5:59. Perhaps her boss would let her go a little early? All the kids were gone already, and she'd picked everything up – all that was left was the sweeping, which he could do.

Well, it's at least worth a shot.

"Kaju-san? Do you think I could pack up and leave a little early?..."

-----

Taka sighed. Well, today hadn't gone all that great. He'd been pitching his latest creation – a toy bear that could sing and dance to any song a child recorded into the built-in cassette player – but the company had been disinterested. Said it wasn't modern enough, that his demographic would be uninterested…

But he'd show them. There were other companies out there – soon, Genki Play would be begging for the chance to market his merchandise. For now, he'd just have to explain to the restaurant why he missed work today and hope they didn't fire him.

"Taka? Taka, you're hoooooooooome!!!"

For such a diminutive woman, Miaka had a lot of strength hiding in her, and the force of her tackle nearly knocked Taka over. He caught the doorframe and used it to hold them up, wrapping his free hand around her waist to support her.

"Did you miss me today?" He asked, smiling despite himself. His young wife's smile was infectious.

"Of course." She replied, kissing the tip of his nose. "So did you knock their socks off with Teddy-oke?"

Taka shook his head no, closing the door. "They said it wasn't modern enough, and it would be a waste of time to market."

Miaka frowned. "Well, they obviously don't know quality when they see it." She poked his chest, bringing her husband's eyes back to her face. "It only means they aren't the perfect company to market your merchandise, ne? We'll find that company someday, I know it! For now, though, what do you say we order out and read a little more?"

Taka nodded wordlessly. Normally, he'd probably give Miaka a hard time about wanting to be involved with the dangerous book that had wormed its way into their lives (again), but after today he just didn't have the energy. Genki Play had been rude and uncooperative, and they'd left him feeling tired, angry, and a little depressed. As much as he hated to admit it, curling up on the couch with a blanket and something warm and greasy sounded really nice right now.

"Pizza's on speed-dial. I'll go get some blankets."

-----

Chosei couldn't stand dead bodies; something about the absence of another's ki had always set him on edge, and seeing his father's corpse three years ago, clammy and pale and so empty had reinforced that fear.

The little boy he'd accidentally stepped on wasn't dead, not yet anyways. He was completely naked (who in their right minds would run around in a rainstorm naked?!) and his lips were turning a sick shade of purpley-blue from the cold. The young boy's entire body was covered in deep cuts and scratches, some of them half-sealed and weeping, others new and angry red. He was a mess.

Chosei kneeled carefully beside him, taking off his wet overcoat and ripping a long strip out of the bottom. He wrapped the largest gash, a deep cut that lanced across the boy's lower left arm, and laid his coat over the young boy. It wouldn't do much, but it was better than nothing for now.

That little voice, the past him, came back again. Why don't you heal him? You can do it, you know how to do it, and this boy needs it.

He shook his head fiercely in disagreement. Chosei couldn't heal; if he knew how, if he could control it, then 'tou-san would still be alive. 'Tou-san had believed in him, and in the end, it got him killed. No, he'd find Chichiri and the hideout, and he'd have the bandit's physicians take care of the little boy. They wouldn't mess up like he had.

-----

Chichiri's lungs were screaming at him for air, and his legs were on fire. I'm getting old na no da; I can't keep doing this sort of thing…

He cursed himself for his weakness, pushing forward, looking with his mind's eye for Chosei. The scream had been near here, he had to be close…

There!

He wheeled hard to the right, nearly losing his balance, and continued through the trees. "Chosei!!"

He didn't have to run far before he found the twelve-year-old, huddled in a small ball on the ground, shaking violently. To Chosei's immediate left was a small lump, covered by the boy's jacket. Chichiri sprinted the last few yards, unclasping the kesa from his shoulders. He kneeled beside Chosei, tossing the kesa over his shoulders and rubbing the child's arms to warm them.

Chosei looked up, grey-blue eyes wide. "C-chichiri?"

The mage nodded, feeling the adrenaline flood away as he hugged the boy fiercely. Chosei was burning with the beginnings of a fever, but he was safe. Chichiri had made it.

"Why aren't you wearing your coat na no da?"

Chosei nodded towards the bundle on the ground. "H-he's really hurt, 'Chiri. I covered him up…"

The logical side of Chichiri wondered why Chosei hadn't healed him (after all, he was the reincarnation of Mitsukake), but he pushed that question aside for another day. Mitsukake had never been known for doing things (or in this case not doing things) on impulse; it was likely Chosei had a good reason he didn't want to share at the moment.

Instead of lingering on that rather confusing train of thought, he put one hand on the injured boy's neck, feeling for a pulse. The pulse was sluggish and weak, and Chichiri frowned darkly. He wasn't sure exactly how the young boy had managed to hold out this long, but he wasn't likely to make it for much longer.

He grabbed one of Chosei's hands and one of the pale child's hands (they were both so cold!), whispering the transportation chant as rapidly as possible. With a 'pop' of displaced air, the three figures disappeared into the night.

-----

Yui frowned into the bowl that had been set in front of her, playing with the grains of rice with a chopstick. The food was amazing, and she did enjoy it, but it was hard to concentrate with the only two seishi she had so far missing.

Where could they be?

She nudged one grain towards another one idly, making the rice dance choppy circles around one another.

Well, Chosei wasn't here earlier – it's completely possible Chichiri went after him.

The rice stopped dancing, instead now colliding with one another clumsily as her choreographed jabs became more and more halfhearted.

But he could've said something to me before going…

Pop!

Yui jumped, turning instinctively towards the sound. Chichiri and Chosei were behind her, Chichiri holding both the shivering twelve-year-old and another comatose form. The mage himself looked drained, mask pale and pinched in concentration. Rice now forgotten, Yui rushed to his side, placing one hand to Chichiri's forehead.

"Chichiri, you're soaked to the bone! You'll end up sick!"

The mage smiled wryly at her well-meaning but misplaced care, shaking her head away from his forehead. "Chosei's already feverish na no da, and this little boy is in serious need of help right now."

Yui immediately looked to Chosei, who was shuddering violently in Chichiri's arms. The young healer smiled weakly. "I'm okay. J-just need a little rest."

The nineteen-year-old was tempted to argue with Chosei, but the words died when she looked over the third member of the ragtag group.

How had this kid even managed to hold out this long? He was naked and shivering (probably had a horrid fever, poor thing), and he was positively covered in scars and cuts, most already puffy and swollen with infection. One of her friends working in the ER had told her once of a couple hurt this badly in an ugly car accident – they hadn't made it. The parallels were enough to make her feel a little sick.

The bandits had grown completely silent, watching her expectantly. The physician among them rose and pushed the startled woman aside, taking the injured boy from Chichiri.

"What's wrong with you, never seen somebody cut up from a fight before? I've dealt with a few men this bad in my time." He remarked gruffly, nodding towards the still form in his arms. "I can take care of this one. You can get the other one, right girl?"

Yui nodded, too shocked and numb to even react to his disdainful tone. "O-of course."

Chichiri, however, narrowed his eye. This physician was incredibly skilled, and had patched him up many times over the years, but he still had no right to treat Yui like a stupid village girl.

"You treat the boy, Nergui-san, and learn a little bit more respect before I see you next; I'm sure Tasuki-kun wouldn't appreciate being told one of his bandits couldn't treat a woman properly. Am I understood?"

The physician glared, but nodded yes. He may not have agreed with the mage, but he knew better than to go up against a Suzaku no Seishi, especially Chichiri-sama. All the bandits had heard stories, tales that he didn't fancy checking the truth behind in this lifetime.

Wordlessly, Chichiri rose, shaking slightly from exhaustion but refusing Yui's helping arm. "Yui-san, the infirmary is this way no da."

-----

Yui wrung out the small cloth compress once more, placing it gently on Chosei's head. The twelve-year-old had initially protested being treated like an invalid ("I'm fine, really!"), but as soon as he'd been given some dry clothing and a warm bed, the boy had been out like a light. Chichiri was perched on an adjoining bed, watching Chosei's quiet sleep-breathing.

"He's gonna be okay, Chichiri. He's got a fever and he'll probably end up with a beauty of a cold, but he'll be fine with some re –"

The door slammed open, abruptly silencing the nineteen-year-old as Tasuki rushed in, looking around the room with wild eyes.

Chichiri was up almost as soon as the bandit leader appeared, a calm eye on his younger companion's face. "Tasuki, we're okay."

The bandit sighed, visibly deflating. "Damn, 'Chiri, you baka monk, you had me worried outta my skin…Kouji told me you were stupid enough to run out in the storm and get your sorry ass sick."

The wry grin in Chichiri's voice was audible. "My ass is none of your concern, Tasuki-kun, but I assure you it is in fine shape."

"Smart-ass." Tasuki responded fondly, clapping a hand to Chichiri's shoulder. When he turned to Yui, the smile was firmly in place, all traces of the serious mage she'd heard a second ago gone.

"If it weren't for Yui-san, we'd be a lot worse off na no da!"

Tasuki's amber eyes turned to Yui, almost as if he were analyzing the young woman for the first time. It was an unnerving experience, and Yui squirmed under his gaze.

"What about Nergui? He's a crappy bandit but the best healer I've got."

Chichiri's voice hardened. "He's a pretty crappy gentleman too na no da, but he's working on healing the other boy that Chosei was with."

Tasuki nodded, finally looking away from Yui (who, for her part, felt like she'd just passed a horribly difficult exam). "Nergui's got no manners on him; I'll be sure to talk to him about it. What's up with the other kid?"

"Nergui-san thinks he got on the wrong side of an angry animal; he's got some pretty bad cuts on him no da, but if he can pull through the fever he should make it. That reminds me, I said I'd go back in there to help out…"

" 'Course Chiri. I'll come with you."

Tasuki and Chichiri both began to leave, but Tasuki stopped, his back still turned to Yui.

"Hey, Yui."

The nineteen-year-old looked back up from her thoughts, slightly startled. "Yes?"

"I'll come with you."

Without another word, he left.

-----

Taka put the book down, taking a quick swig from his soda. Well, that had been interesting. From what he could remember of Tasuki, he didn't budge from his beliefs often, and he never did anything lightly – not anything important, at least. His last statement held a lot more weight than it seemed to, and he hoped Yui understood that.

Miaka took the book from the table, ignoring her nearly untouched dinner in favor of the black characters appearing on the page. "I'll read for a while, is that okay?"

Taka nodded.

"Okay, um…there we are! 'The youngest star's recovery was slow and arduous…'"

-----

"Have you seen him?"

"No na no da. Where could he have gone?"

The reply was sarcastic. "Well, its not like he could've gone far – after all, this fortress is tiny, right Tasuki-san?"

"Hey! Don't blame the fuckin' architecture on me! It's not my fault the runt decided he was sick of bein' cooped up an' ran off – who would've known that Mitsukake was so damned good at hiding?"

The three fell silent for a moment, Yui about to speak when she heard something, so soft she at first wasn't sure she hadn't imagined it. Somebody was giggling, and she had a good idea of who it was.

The noise apparently hadn't gone unnoticed by her companions; Chichiri put a finger to his lips and motioned down the hall to Yui. She nodded, and the two of them started to walk purposefully down the hall.

"Well, we won't find him by standing around na no da."

"True. Tasuki-san, could you check the other half of the fortress again? Maybe we missed him. We'll meet back here."

-----

Chosei felt like he was grinning hard enough to split his face in half. He had tricked them! Chichiri didn't seem to have even thought of doing a ki check, and Yui-san hadn't even noticed him right under her nose!

"I gotta admit Mits, this was a pretty good hidin' place."

Gods! Chosei jumped, whirling to face a smirking Tasuki. How had he…?

"You would've never been caught if you hadn't made a noise." Tasuki rolled his eyes, poking Chosei's chest. "A good bandit never celebrates 'til he's back with the loot."

Chosei pouted. "Tasukiiiii, she'll make me get back in bed. And I'm so bored! My fever broke yesterday and I'm not coughing anymore!"

"She's just worried about you, kiddo. 'Sides, it would've been pretty crappy of her to force you out an' about Konan sick."

The twelve-year-old sighed, flouncing back against the sacks of grain. A few loose pieces fell in a small whirlwind around him. "I guess I get it. But you guys still gotta find Temujin, and he told me he's really good at this game."

"Temujin? Who's that?"

-----

On the other side of the fortress, another little voice giggled, echoing off of the empty room and bouncing against pots and pans. Temujin loved this game! Nee-chan never played with him anymore (she was so serious now, he wasn't sure why…), but sometimes the wolves did, and they were really good at this game too. They told him their secrets, how they managed to hide so well, where to hide so nobody could find you, and it made changing not quite so bad.

Well…normally it did. Last night the wolves hadn't wanted to play. They had been mean, snarling and growling and biting and hurting…

But now, now Temujin had found somebody else to play his game. He didn't need those mean old wolves anymore!

Another bandit passed by, looking straight at his hiding place, and Temujin suppressed a wild urge to giggle. Chosei would never find him!

-----

The other kid was good; really, really good. Luckily, he was in a bandit's stronghold, and there were very few people who could manipulate shadows as well as the Reikaku bandits. After all, if they couldn't hide well enough for an ambush, how could they ever get any loot?

It still took over an hour for thirty men to find the six-year-old, who was hidden in an old cubbyhole in the storeroom.

Yes, Tasuki thought with a wry half-grin, the kid would make a pretty damned good bandit when he got older.

Right now the six-year-old was glaring petulantly at the world, genuinely upset his hiding place had been discovered. He'd refused to come out of his hiding spot, small canines bared in a wolf's snarl when they tried to pull him out. Finally, Chichiri had done some rather nifty magic and pulled the boy loose by force, and the little brat had nearly clawed their eyes out. He was quick and vicious. Animalistic, almost, in his tendencies…

The Seiryu no miko (no, Yui, Tasuki reminded himself; he needed to try using her actual given name) looked a little shocked, as if she were waking up from a dream so real that the real world seemed false in comparison.

"…Ashitare?"

-----

It had to be Ashitare. Yui was used to the ki signature; it was as if a part of her had been missing up to this moment. Her seventh seishi…

She didn't remember a lot of Ashitare; a frightening vicious wolfman with sad eyes, a lifeless wolf…at the time she hadn't wanted anything to do with the "monster". Her seishi hadn't been real to her then; if she got to know and trust and care about them…it would be hard to say they were just characters.

Why hadn't she realized earlier? She'd been so single-mindedly worried about Chosei, trying to make sure he lived, that she hadn't even bothered to check on the small boy Chosei had saved.

-----

Ashitare? Yes, Temujin recognized the name; kaa-san had used it sometimes, usually when she was angry and smelled of fear. But he'd never met this strange light-haired woman before, so how did she know…?

Even if he couldn't place her face or her name, his mind remembered the scent; it had never forgotten. The wolves would have called her the alpha female, the first-in-command, answering only to her mate the alpha male. His human mind supplied a different word though.

Miko.

---

Well, how's that for a character intro? I rather like Temu; uber points to anybody who knows where I got his name from! Anyways, I don't really have much to say, so…please review, and I hope you all stick around for the next chapter!

Until next time,

otaku