WOUNDED by Aenisses Thai

All rights to Fushigi Yuugi belong to Yuu Watase, Shogakukan Shojo Comics, TV Tokyo, Studio Pierrot, and Pioneer Video.

Chapter One.

The first thing I notice is the rain. It flies straight into my face from a churning gray mass, at times whipped into sheets by gusts of wind. I realize I'm lying on the ground, my chin tilted toward the sky, my body numb from the chest down. Blinking to clear my blurred vision, I open my mouth, letting the rain wash away the bitter taste of blood.

The next thing I see is her face, her eyes like green jewels under a sea of tears. You can kill me if you need to; just don't die! she weeps.

I frown, confused. Kill her? Why would I kill her? Doesn't she know she holds my heart? I struggle to remember what I've done to hurt her, and dim memories return to me. A meeting place—a broken promise.

I'm sorry, I whisper as the chill of the ground spreads throughout my body. I promised to meet you when the moon had risen, but I was late.

It's all right, she sobs, the moon has just now risen.

Her tears mingle with the rain, and I know she's lying; I can still see the gray afternoon light around the darkness creeping into the corners of my eyes. I love you, I mouth as the darkness closes in.

Suddenly, there is a flurry of movement: a tall man kneels beside me, his palm glowing with a scarlet light. It warms and strengthens me—and my mind clears as life flows back into my body. Miaka flings herself on me, weeping with joy, as others rush into my line of sight. Chichiri with his smiling mask. Nuriko, purple eyes filled with tears but wearing a grin of triumph. Hotohori-sama, standing still for a moment before stooping by my side, dropping his red-streaked sword to the ground. I am glad to have you back with us, he says, his words welcoming but constrained.

Home. Somehow I've escaped from Kutou and found my way home.

There are strangers here, strangers I feel I should know. The tall man who kneels beside me, checking my pulse with a healer's air. The youth wearing a headband and a frightened expression, nervously clutching a flute.

My friends pull me up and surround me, congratulating me as if I've done something wonderful. I can't help smiling back at them. Can I really mean that much to them—to all of them, not just Miaka?

Movement a few paces away catches my eye. There's someone else there—someone who leans heavily on a staff for support. At first I take him for an old man, but his hair is dark red instead of gray, its dripping strands sweeping across the white bandages that wrap around his head and over one eye. He's covered in dressings, even his legs trailing dirty gray strips of material in the puddles. Other than the bandages, he wears only a thin robe, its folds dark and dripping with rainwater.

He looks as out of place as a beggar at an Imperial feast.

Suddenly he looks up, and I catch my breath at the pain and betrayal in his one golden eye. Why is he looking at me that way? It takes another moment before I realize he's looking at everyone except me: glaring at Miaka with her arms wrapped around me, the others with their hands reaching out to touch me. Everyone is so focused on me that no one else notices him.

Nuriko blocks my line of vision, leaning in for a playful kiss on my cheek. I laugh and push him away and give Miaka a quick hug. By the time I have the chance to look up again, the sullen, lonely figure is gone—and all I see in his place are sweeping curtains of rain.

Who? I begin to ask, but they lift me up and carry me away to the inner palace, already talking about celebrations and strategies and plans.

Hours later, I walk quickly along the outer corridors of the palace, absently noting the sky has cleared enough to show the first dim stars of night. I've given my report and the Universe of the Four Gods to Chichiri and Hotohori, and now I'm impatient to change out of the black silk clothes that were a gift from Yui.

Yui, I think, anger and pity combined in my breast. How could you betray Miaka that way? My steps falter. How could I betray Miaka—and all the rest? Yes, there was the kodoku, but still...

I shudder, suddenly feeling tainted. Although it felt good to wipe that smirk off Nakago's face when I threw the earring back at him, I still hated the way his cold blue eyes had rested on me, calm and possessive, as if I were some plaything that he could punish or manipulate at will. Someday, I promise myself, punching my fist into the opposite palm. Someday I won't need Chichiri's shield when I confront that bastard.

A muffled sob reaches my ears, making me start in surprise. I'm in the western wing of the palace, near the unoccupied guest suites. I didn't expect anyone to be here, yet there's a low, pain-filled moan coming from behind one of the doors, followed by another sob. Someone's in trouble, I think to myself, moving to the door of the nearby suite. My hand is already on the handle when it's caught and held in a delicate yet inhumanly strong grip.

I look down into Nuriko's frowning eyes. He holds a finger to his lips and shakes his head, leading me away from the door. Once safely around the corner, he drops my hand and turns to face me.

"Best to leave him alone, Tama-chan. He hates to be seen when he's like this; pitches a fit if anyone walks in on him, which naturally makes his condition worse. And the way you're dressed right now, you're bound to send him into a raging frenzy if you walk through that door."

My face must look as blank as my mind, because Nuriko moves right up next to me, peering into my eyes in the dim twilight.

"You don't remember, do you." It's not a question.

I shake my head, lost. "What do my clothes have to do with this?"

He hesitates, his gaze flicking from my face back to the corridor behind me. Finally he laughs lightly, his insincere concubine's laugh. "He hates the color black, that's all. Especially when he's in a mood. Listen, Tama-chan, you're late for—"

I stop him with a firm grip on his forearm, letting him know I'm not buying into his act. He could easily shake me off—or slam me into the nearest wall for that matter—but instead he sighs, dropping the pretense.

"Tamahome…it's a complicated situation, and I'm not the right person to fill you in, since I wasn't there. Why don't you ask Miaka? She's been pacing the grounds ever since Chichiri transported you back to Kutou, and now... She asked me to find you and tell you she's waiting on the bridge by the ornamental pond."

I release him, guilt flooding through me at the thought of causing Miaka any more distress. "All right, I'll hurry there. But first I'm going to change out of this damned outfit."

I'm already pulling at the silk headband as I dash away, leaving Nuriko and the sobbing stranger far behind me.

I thought that I knew guilt before, but any pangs of remorse I might have felt in the past are nothing compared to the waves of shame and humiliation that now wash over me. If anyone else were telling me these things, I would call them a liar—but her eyes shine with truth, innocently unaware of the effect of her words.

"I attacked the Emperor in his own palace," I repeat numbly. Why didn't Chichiri and Hotohori tell me about this? Why did they only tell me about my brainwashed determination to kill Miaka?

Probably because they knew that the complete truth would knock me stupid, and they needed me to have my wits when I traveled back to Kutou to retrieve the scroll. Smart decision on their part, since I now seem to be incapable of the simplest task, like closing my dropped jaw.

Miaka is so happy to have me back at the palace that she doesn't notice my agitation. She goes on chattering, blissfully certain that everyone in the world is as naïve and forgiving as her. "Don't worry, Tamahome; no one blames you. Hotohori isn't angry at you for pulling a sword on him, any more than I'm angry at you for tearing up your love letter to me or breaking my left arm."

I flinch under each new blow, my mouth opening and closing like a fish drowning in open air. How can she stand to even look at me? How can any of them stand to be around me, after all that I've done?

I guess I must've covered my face with my hands, because I feel her pulling at my fingers, trying to get me to look up. Her brow is creased above worried green eyes. "Tamahome, don't be upset. I told you I don't blame you for any of it. It was the kodoku that was responsible for the things you did to me and Hotohori…and oh yes, Tasuki. You're not the kind of man to beat a fellow warrior to the point of death."

Breathe in, Tamahome. Now out again. Come on, get some air into your body so that your brain will stop screaming, and start thinking again. Ask the question. Just put the words together and ask.

"I beat…a fellow Suzaku warrior…to death?"

Now she looks as horrified as I feel. "No, no, Tamahome—he's not dead! At the last minute, Chiriko broke the shield, and Chichiri was able to…" She stops, finally aware there's little comfort in knowing the only thing that kept me from killing a brother warrior was Chichiri.

It feels as though all the blood in my body has fallen to my feet, so that they're heavy and clumsy and unable to support my weight. I lean against the rails of the bridge, my mind numbly trying to do simple math. Hotohori, Chichiri, Nuriko, and me. The original four Suzaku warriors. The tall healer, Mitsukake. Five. Chiriko, the boy with the flute. Six.

Who is the seventh? Why can't I remember him?

Suddenly, brief images, little pieces of memory, flash through my mind. Bright red hair. Pointed teeth bared in a snarl of rage. Slanted golden eyes—gold eyes.

The wounded man.

The angry man. The man who hates the sight of me.

Another memory surfaces. "Best to leave him alone, Tama-chan…you're bound to send him into a raging frenzy if you walk through that door."

The stranger who sobs in pain, alone behind closed doors.

Miaka keeps talking over my obvious distraction, trying to get me to respond to her cheerful plans with more than absent sounds of agreement. But she's never one to give up easily or to stop looking on the bright side of things. She places a hand on my arm in a comforting way. "Tamahome, everything's going to be wonderful now that you've come home! We're going to summon Suzaku and save Konan—and you and I will be together forever. Everyone's going to be happy...and Tasuki will get over his problems with you, you'll see. He can't carry a grudge forever. You two will end up being the best of friends; I just know it!"

Shock finally gets me to focus on her. Can she possibly be that insensitive or…? No, she's not self-centered. She's just naïve, believing the world is kind and made up of people who are as soft and silly as she is. No, not silly; well-meaning is what I meant. Her innocent belief in the goodness of human nature is what I love about her, right?

All the same, I suddenly feel the need to get away from her and go somewhere to do…I don't know what. But I need a quiet place to think. So I point out that it's getting late, and the next few days are going to be busy as we prepare for the summoning. I kiss her on top of her head and wish her a warm good night.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that my steps have led me back to this room. After all, the only thing I've been thinking about as I've paced around the palace grounds for the past half-hour is what might be happening behind this door.

I stand undecided, trying to think of what to say. Hi, remember me, the guy who beat you to a pulp? I just want to know how you're doing.

Ugh. Try again. You know, we were never properly introduced. My name is Tamahome and you must be…

I'm getting more stupid by the second. I almost turn and run, hoping the next day will gift me with some intelligence—when I hear another moan of pain. But this one is different, rising in intensity until it culminates in an almost angry shout.

I can't walk away from him. I have to do something for him, even if it's as simple as getting him a cup of water.

Reaching out, I grasp the door handle, only to feel it already turning in my hand. I'm pulled off balance as the door begins to open inward.

Someone is coming out.

To be continued…

Aenisses 9-Feb-2005