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


Chapter Four.

Sometimes it seems as if my life is one big hustle spent in pursuit of the next coin, the next job, the next short-lived piece of security for the people in my care. I swear that I scheme even in my sleep, dreaming up ways to look after my family and village and, oh yeah, a priestess from another world. I honestly can't remember the last time I let everything go and just let the world take care of itself.

Maybe that's why I'm reluctant to talk or move or do anything that might end this moment. I want to stay like this, quiet and still except for my heart beating in time with his, the rise and fall of my chest against his back. I want to stay here in the muted glow of lamplight, feeling nothing pressing or urgent; just the whisper of his hair against my cheek and our soft exhalations as we breathe the same air. I know that this can't last—and yet it still feels like a blow to my gut when it ends so abruptly.

It's the pain, of course. I become aware of it when his muscles begin to tense against me, the corner of his shoulder blade digging into my chest, the edge of his spine angling into my side. Suddenly he's sitting up, curling into himself as he lets out a frustrated hiss.

"Shhh," I plead stupidly. My hand reaches out to draw him back; no, I mean, pat his back soothingly. But I pause, not wanting to accidentally hit a bruise. Did I bruise his back?

Is there any part of him I didn't bruise?

He pays no attention to my inept attempts at comfort, caught up in a more intense struggle. He huffs out little puffs of breath as his hands clutch convulsively at the coverlet beneath him, and I realize, with a sickening drop in my gut, that he's trying not to scream. But he keeps holding on, and at last the pain subsides. I know this because he uncurls and turns towards me, trying to force a self-conscious grin…until his eyes go wide with horror.

"You!"

He shoves away from me, his gaze focused and clear beneath his sweat-soaked bangs, his eyes snapping back and forth as he takes in everything: my clothes, my features, my wide and guilty eyes.

I don't know what idiotic impulse makes me lunge at him; I just want him to stay still, stay here, just give me a chance to explain! Can I blame him for jumping back, trying to get into a defensive position? But his legs are tangled in the bedclothes, and the next thing I know, he's crashing to the floor, knocking over the side table. The lamp goes flying, followed by the sharp crackle of shattering glass and the instant wash of darkness.

It's pitch black in the room now, and my heart is pounding in my chest, the blood roaring in my ears. Is he alive, is he hurt, is he lying there dead? Some rational part of my mind tells me to send out the mental call for Chichiri, but I'm worlds away from rational, the shame and the guilt overwhelming me so that all I want to do is fix it, make it better so that no one knows.

That must be how I've ended up creeping around the side of the bed, feeling my way through the darkness, reaching out for something, anything— I can't hear him at all, and it takes me a few seconds to realize that it's because my own ragged breathing is ringing in my ears. But then—

"…the fuck?"

I could almost cry with relief, but I settle for crawling over to him, reaching desperately around his prone form to pull him upright…. Ouch! Damn it! I pull the sharp object from my hand, sucking instinctively at the wound. He shifts slightly, his movement accompanied by the soft chime of falling glass.

"Wait, Genrou! Don't move!" I run my hands along the folds of his robe—yeah, I thought as much. He's covered in glass shards from the broken lamp. I brush them off frantically, ignoring the tiny stabs of their jagged edges, until I'm satisfied that he's clean.

"Mind tellin' me what the fuck's goin' on here?"

"You fell out of bed. Broke the lamp." I keep it simple, explaining nothing as I drag him towards me, trying to hoist him back onto the bed.

"Oh. That's all right then," he replies sarcastically. "Now get outta my way. I can get myself back into bed."

He pulls away from me, trying to brace his weight with his unsplinted leg, but suddenly it occurs to me that there might be a stray glass shard on the bed. So I dive across the mattress, frantically brushing my hands across the covers, forgetting that he's just about to—

Oof!

His back slams against mine, collapsing me beneath him and pressing my face into the bed. We both flail around, trying to get untangled, but the thing is, he's on top but has less mobility, so he can only rock back and forth a little. Meanwhile, I'm struggling wildly to lift my face enough to grab some air, but I can't get my arms back far enough to shove him off me, and I start to panic a little. He rocks forward, and I take advantage of his shift in position to push myself backwards, sliding out from beneath him, but too late, I realize that—

Thunk!

—my body was the one thing between his head and the headboard.

Silence.

I hold my breath, waiting.

"Aniki."

"Uh?"

"If this is yer idea of lookin' after me, I'd just as soon ya left me alone."

Another moment of silence, and then a snicker escapes from one of us and takes off from there, until we're both roaring with laughter. I'm kneeling next to him, resting my forehead against the bed as tears leak from my eyes. The mattress shakes with his own laughter, and all I can feel is a surge of relief. Aniki. He called me aniki, so we're back to where we were, and that terrifying moment of recognition seems to have been knocked out of him by his fall.

"Good thing it's dark," I hear him gasp.

"Why?"

"Because we prob'ly looked like a coupla assholes rollin' around on the bed. If any of the guys walked in on us, it woulda started a whole buncha rumors flyin'."

There's a brief pause, and even though I can't see his face, I can tell that he's about to deliver the punchline.

"They woulda thought that yer my bitch."

"The hell!" I shoot right back at him. "You're the one who looked like my bitch!"

"Fuck that! Anyway, that's all shit. An' if they can't take a joke—"

"Fuck 'em!" I finish triumphantly, getting us going all over again.

Stupid, juvenile jokes. Dumb gags with male posturing. The sort of fooling around I'd always seen between the boys in my village but had never been included in. I don't know if I've ever been so mindlessly happy…or envious. Envious of his real aniki and the stupid, fun games they play. Envious for the first time of something other than material wealth.

I'm glad that it's dark, so that he can't see my face. On the other hand, he's invisible to me as well, and it's a little hard to keep an eye on someone you can't see. Guilt makes me push away from the bed and stand up.

"Where're ya goin'?"

It's funny, but for all that I can't physically see him, the darkness somehow helps me to read him better. I can hear the anxiety suppressed under his casual question, so I do my best to sound reassuring. "I'm just going to get a new lamp. I'll be back—"

"No." The casual tone is gone. "No, I don't want another lamp. It's better for me like this, in the dark. That way I don't hafta…look at myself."

I hesitate, caught by the strange note in his voice. "What's wrong? Does it hurt worse if you see your injuries?"

"Yeah." He gives a snort of disgust. "Hurts my pride more'n anything. Can't stand ta see myself lookin' like such a—"

"Warrior," I interrupt. "You look like a warrior."

"The word I was thinkin' was loser."

"No—" I begin, but he somehow finds my hand in the dark and grips it to silence me. I give in, and remain standing beside his bed.

"You remember the name we call them idiots that join the gang 'cause they think they're hardasses, and the first time there's a skirmish of any kind, they bust ranks and go runnin' to the front. Meat walls, right? Assholes whose only use is to be a human wall between the enemy's arrows and those of us who know somethin' about real fightin' strategy. Well, that's what I was the other night—a stupid meat wall between Miaka and whatever Nakago had to throw at her. No fuckin' brains in my head at all."

"You were trying to protect your priestess. There's no shame in that."

"Yeah, there is. 'Cause it was just like the old boss said: if yer gonna beat the enemy, ya gotta think like the enemy. Otherwise, yer just handin' him yer sword to cut ya down. That's where I fucked up, see? I was so busy listenin' to Miaka screamin' and beggin' me not to hurt that fuckhead that I started thinkin' wrong. I started thinkin' that—"

"Wait! Miaka tried to stop you from getting in a fight with m…him?"

He blew out an impatient breath. "Nah, man, we were already in the middle of the fuckin' fight! Fucker kept comin' at me his goddamn sticks, but fer some reason, the tessen started workin' again, an' I almost fried the bastard! I was gettin' the upper hand, and that's when she started with the cryin' shit."

The memories suddenly begin pouring in, and I sink to my knees under their force.

Lashing out with the nanchakus, enjoying the vicious crack as they connect with the metal fan. Flames suddenly shooting out of nowhere, forcing me to leap up and kick over, twisting my body out of their reach before landing hard on my hands and knees. Drawing in ragged gasps of breath; the rage bitter in my mouth as I realize that he has me now, because I'm too winded to pull that same move again.

A female voice screams, Tasuki, STOP!

I blink and shudder, returning to reality as the memory releases me. Didn't she understand what she was asking of him in that moment? Everyone knows that you don't distract a man in the middle of a life-or-death fight! You sure as hell don't tell him to stop—not unless you want him to lose. Everyone in the world knows that.

But then again, she's not from my world.

"Genrou, she…she's not from Konan. She might not've understood what she was saying; at least, I'm pretty sure that she didn't mean for you to get hurt…" I remember the accusation he had made earlier, "…to spare him, or anyone else."

Silence. Silence and darkness, contained and quiet, making me feel as if I'm in the room alone. But finally I hear a deep sigh.

"Nah, you're right. What I said before… Miaka ain't like that. I know she wasn't thinkin' that it was fine for me to get hurt. But here's the thing: she wasn't thinkin' about me at all."

Because she was too busy worrying about me. Another memory forces its way into my mind, this one sharp and complete, unclouded by any drug. Stones falling in the Temple of Seiryuu. Miaka calling for Yui as Chichiri shouts for us to escape through his hat. A blast from Nakago rips Chichiri's mask away, and yet his shouts continue to be ignored as Miaka keeps pleading with Yui; another blast, and another, the last one driving Chichiri to his knees as he desperately holds open the portal for us. Pain flashes across his scarred features, and still Miaka doesn't notice, all of her attention focused only on Yui.

It's all so clear now. Miaka loves who she loves—me, Yui—and she's willing to do anything for us, up to and including sacrificing herself. But now I realize the dark side of that kind of single-minded devotion: for the sake of her beloved, she's also willing to sacrifice those who are sworn to protect her.

Chichiri. Tasuki. And if Hotohori had held back with me, then him as well. They might all now be dead by my hand.

"Stupid, ain't it?"

It takes me a second to realize that he's answering his own thoughts instead of mine.

"It don't matter what Miaka was thinkin'; there's no excuse for havin' my head up my ass. Puttin' the tessen away was the dumbest move I ever pulled. Guess I bought into the hype around that asshole, and thought that there'd be enough Suzaku warrior left in his brain to put down his sticks and fight me like a man. Or maybe I just wanted to bash his face in front of her. But either way, I wasn't thinkin' straight. The boss taught us better, right? 'Never lower your guard till yer enemy is dead!' But I went ahead and sheathed the tessen, and challenged him to fight me hand to hand, no weapons or nothin'. Not two seconds later, BAM! He hit me with those damn sticks, an' it was all downhill from there."

"No!" I'm choking, almost gagging. "I didn't—I couldn't—"

Nanchakus are a distance weapon, able to strike an opponent from a point far out of reach of his arms. To attack an unarmed man during a battle—there is no greater dishonor for a warrior.

Except to attack a helpless girl.

The darkness presses in, swirling around me. I'm more than scared; I'm terrified—of what I did, of what I became—and a whimper escapes my lips, because the most frightening thing for me is to be left alone to die in the darkness—

A warm hand grips mine again, and I grab onto it helplessly.

"Aniki…you all right?"

I press his hand to my forehead so that he can feel me nod, since I can't trust my voice to answer just yet.

"Aniki, what did you mean when you said that you couldn't…what?"

No help for it: I'm going to have to speak up. My voice is raspy but surprisingly steady as I lie to him with as much sincerity as I can muster.

"I couldn't…I can't…I can't believe it. That a Suzaku warrior would ever—"

"Beat the livin' shit outta an unarmed man? Dishonor himself in combat fer the sake of an easy win? I couldn't believe it either, which prob'ly made me too surprised to fall down when he first hit me in the chest. But right after that, he made me into a believer real quick."

He goes on describing the battle between us, painting in every detail until I think I'm going to scream. His words are breaking through the barrier around my memories, dragging them from soft oblivion into the harsh, unforgiving glare of reality.

"And then he got me down on the ground, and he put his foot on me—"

Grinding my heel into his spine, feeling him arch up against me, struggling to get up—

"And I heard the air whistling as those damn sticks came flyin' down and bam!"

The satisfying crack as the nanchakus hit muscle and bone—

"And he kept on beatin' me and beatin' me, like I was nothin' more than an animal, some stray dog in the street—"

His blood flies up and spatters my face, and something savage inside of me exults in the feeling of triumphal vengeance, because how dare he protect her, how dare he think that he's the one to stand between her and mortal danger, how dare he take my place?

Finally I know—I know. Whatever powers the kodoku might have had, it didn't create those dark feelings of jealousy and possessiveness. Sure, it played on them and used them, but in the end, those feelings were mine.

I, Tamahome, wanted Tasuki dead at that moment, because he stood between me and Miaka.

I can't seem to stop my shuddering; it's as if the mattress itself is shaking beneath my hands. But then I realize that the mattress really is shaking but not because of me. He's fallen silent, the battle finished in his mind but raging on in his body.

"Genrou?"

"Cold, aniki. I just got a ch-chill."

I reach out and find him; his skin is damp and clammy now that he's moved into the chilled part of his fever state. I pile the blankets around him, tucking them in behind his neck.

"Better?"

"Yeah. Y-yeah, I'm fine."

He's lying to me. Without pausing to think, I kick off my slippers and slide behind him under the blankets, trying to absorb his shivers into myself and maybe give him some body heat as well. This is what I always do for Yuiren when she gets fever chills.

It isn't until his shudders taper off that I stop to think about what I've done. But it's too late; I can feel him growing tense against me.

"Aniki."

I brace myself for his anger, knowing that I have no explanation or excuse. "Yeah?"

"Do ya…think less of me? After what I just told ya, about the way I got beaten?"

"No! No, why would I?"

Some of the tension leaves his body. "I dunno. Seems like the rest of them ain't so… I mean, I know I matter in a way, 'cause I'm Tasuki, an' they need me for their fuckin' summoning ceremony. But I think that's all that matters to them—my seishi role, not me."

I frown, remembering Nuriko's compassion towards Tasuki, Mitsukake's tireless tending of his wounds. "What makes you think that?"

"The way they acted when he showed up at the palace. I dunno if I told you 'bout that. That bastard came back to Konan, all ready to kill Miaka, but Hotohori got him with his sword first. Then Miaka ran up and cried her eyes out, an' that broke the kodoku spell. An' Mitsuskake healed him, so everything was absolutely fuckin' wonderful.

"Then it was all hurray, and let's have a party, 'cause Tama-fuckin-home's back, an' everything's forgiven, 'cause all he did was nearly kill Tasuki, so no real harm done, right?"

I can see it again: the falling rain, the arms reaching out to embrace me. The lonely, battered figure standing forgotten on the edge of the crowd. My face heats once again in shame; how can I tell him he's wrong?

"That's not the only thing, though. Guess how many times Miaka came to visit me after I got my ass kicked in front of her?"

I have no idea. "Only once?"

"Nope, too high. Try again." His attempt at humor fails to disguise his bitterness. "Can't say I blame her, though. I mean, who wants to look at some banged-up loser?"

I start to protest, but he cuts me off. "Nah, don't bother, aniki. Yeah, there's prob'ly a buncha reasons we can both come up with fer the way they all forgot about me, but it don't change the facts. I don't belong with 'em. I'm not really part of 'em. That's why I came back here."

Now I understand, really understand. Nakago's plan is still working. Maybe he failed at getting me to kill Tasuki or Tasuki to kill me, but this is the next best thing. Drive us apart, make us feel unworthy to be Suzaku warriors. Make us feel like we don't belong.

Make him feel the way I felt when the village boys would throw stones at me and call me "Obake-chan."

Somehow, this seems like the worst thing of all, and the words come pouring out of me, thoughtless, jumbled, falling over one another.

"Tasuki, listen, that's not right. You do belong with them; you are part of them. Just as much as…him, and maybe more. Without you, Miaka would be dead, and maybe Chichiri as well. You never gave up, and you fought to the end. If you're not a true Suzaku warrior, then no one is. And if they forgot you today, it was just that too much was happening too fast. Everyone was confused, the rain made things blur together… but you matter to them, I know that you do!"

Suddenly, he pushes away from me, and I hear his gasp of pain from the violent move. I put out a hand to find him, but he strikes it away.

"Genrou, what—"

"Don't give me that shit!" His voice is hoarse. "'Tasuki' is what you said just now—since when did you start callin' me that? An' I never said anything about the rain, so how the fuck did you know about it?"

Another beat, and then—

"Who the fuck are you?"

My breathing stops. "Nobody," I choke. "Nobody."

"Don't you fuckin' tell me, 'Nobody'! I ain't here talkin' to myself, an' I ain't goin' crazy, so fer the last time—who are you?"

"A friend. I'm just…a friend."

Stupid answer, I know, so I'm not surprised when he growls in frustration, the growl turning into a groan. I can hear everything in his voice: pain, frustration, and…fear. The same fear as mine.

Just like that, I know what he needs, the way I know what Yuiren needs when she cries in the night. I find him in the darkness and pull him into me once again, murmuring mindless, wordless sounds of comfort. I can feel him tensing to strike, so I brace myself for his blows, and then…

Nothing. He slumps against me as if defeated, his muscles trembling. I move my face close to his cheek, words finally forming in my crooning. "Don't worry," I whisper. "Just sleep. Don't think about anything at all."

He doesn't reply, not even to argue, and I know why he's holding back. He doesn't want the true answer to his question. Neither of us does.

So here we are in this place together, caught between knowledge and need, where the brain tells us one reality but the body chooses another. We lie together as close as brothers, accepting the only truth that matters: the animal need for comfort, for the warmth of a body curled next to one's own.

I wait and listen as his breathing grows slower and deeper, and I know that he's finally asleep. Matching my breaths to his, I relax against him, the soft darkness covering us, concealing our secret pain.


"Tamahome."

The voice is soft, barely above a murmur. I sleepily tighten my arms around the body before me, moving my face deeper into the soft hair, nestling into the warm angle between neck and shoulder.

"Tamahome." The voice is firmer now, and a strong hand grips my shoulder. My eyes fly open, taking in the unfamiliar features of the room bathed in golden lamplight.

Lamplight. That means….

I loosen my hold and turn my body, staring up to meet the cool blue gaze of Mitsukake. My mind is still befuddled by sleep, so instead of being embarrassed, I'm resentful of his interruption.

Leave us alone; let us sleep in peace.

It isn't until I see Chichiri's smiling mask at Mitsukake's shoulder that reality sets in, and I scramble off the bed. But even in my self-conscious haste, I take care to move gently, so as to keep from waking him. He's had a hard time; he needs his rest. Shivering, I pull on my shoes, trying not to think about how I already miss his warmth.

Chichiri steps back and beckons me to join him in the other part of the room, Mitsukake a silent presence beside him.

"I take it that all went well," he says, his voice soft and serious instead of his usual lilting chirp.

"Yeah." What else can I say?

Mitsukake makes a gesture towards the screen. "But the lamp and side table are broken because…?"

"An accident." It occurs to me that my curt replies might be taken as signs of resentment, and I wouldn't want them to think that I— To hell with it. I'm sick of being on the defensive.

"You were gone a long time." I fling the accusation at Mitsukake.

"Only as long as necessary," he replies.

"Necessary for what?"

He holds up a small, steaming teapot. "The infusion, of course." His expression is just bland enough to rouse my suspicions.

"Well, while you were taking your time, Genrou was in a lot of pain, and—"

"Genrou?"

"Tasuki's bandit name," Mitsukake informs Chichiri, then turns his attention back to me.

"So you're on good terms with Tasuki now?"

"No. He was delirious and thought I was his aniki. He never realized…" I pause, suddenly unsure of the truth, of what exactly passed between us tonight. There's one thing I know for certain, though.

"You can't tell him." My voice is sharp, lacking the respectful tone I would normally use with the senior seishi.

But as usual, Chichiri doesn't take offense. "We won't," he answers mildly, drawing a lifted eyebrow from Mitsukake.

There's an awkward silence, during which time I realize that I'm unconsciously craning my neck to catch a last glimpse of Tasuki sleeping behind his screen. I feel Chichiri's and Mitsukake's eyes on me, and my face heats.

"Are you…are you going to give him the medicine now?" Stupid question, but I can't think of anything else to say.

"No," Mitsukake replies, surprising me. "His fever seems to be down, and he's sleeping easily, so I won't disturb him. I don't know what you did, Tamahome, but whatever it was, it seems to have worked fairly well."

I mumble something, I don't know what, then mutter goodnight and make my escape from his room. I'm irritated by the way Chichiri and Mitsukake were looking at me. Oh, their expressions were completely serious, but I can feel the smiles behind my back, if that makes any sense. At any rate, I don't feel like explaining anything to them, because they don't understand…

…or maybe because they do.

I look up into the sky, shivering in the cool night air. The clouds are breaking up, revealing stars piercing the darkness, and it seems to me that every one of them is shining a thin ray of light into my head, exposing my innermost thoughts.

Tomorrow, I'll see him again. Tomorrow, I'll act as if it's the first time that we've met. We'll start over, and what we become—friends, enemies, reluctant comrades—will be up to the gods, and Tasuki's own capacity for forgiveness.

No matter what happens, I'll never let him see what he's done to me this night: the way that he's stripped away my illusions and opened my eyes. He's made me see the evil that I'm capable of, and my ignorance in behaving as if there's nothing more important than mine and Miaka's love. It's not that I love Miaka any less; well, not really. What's changed is a new understanding that there are other people in the world—people we can't allow ourselves to forget, whose well-being we must consider as important as our own. Otherwise, our love will turn into a blood sacrifice of our friends, as it had just two days ago.

He could've died that night. I could've killed him, and not only would that have destroyed our chance to summon Suzaku, but…I would never have known him. Sounds stupid, almost embarrassing—but I can't help shuddering at what I almost lost.

The wind gusts suddenly, striking me in the face and forcing the moisture out of my eyes. I brush the drops from my face impatiently, ducking my head as I move off towards my room. But no matter how quickly I move, I can't escape the irony.

I attacked him. I injured him. I made him feel shame and pain. Yet he's managed to wound me more deeply than I ever wounded him.

The difference is that unlike him, I can never show my wounds in the light of day. I'll keep them hidden, secret, revealed only to the night and the cold, distant light of the stars

The End


Thank you for reading. Warm appreciation to those of you who have waited patiently for the last chapter of this story; I apologize for the extended delay. To the reviewers, I offer my special thanks. Site rules do not permit me to acknowledge you individually, but each one of you has my deepest gratitude for your generosity. I am indebted to you all.

Aenisses 6-December-2005