Aaaahh, the final chapter. I've been dreading this. But first a thank you to everyone who'se reviewed me so far:

KittyLynne: Probably the most thorough reviewer I have. XD I'm sorry for all the weird wording sometimes, editing is NOT my strong point. At all. But I'm always flattered when you review, and I hope your daughter liked the Hotohori stuff, too.

Psychodahlia: Ahh! You give me ideas! Every since I read that, I've been preoccupied with the idea of "After-Life Lessons". But anyway, your reviews always give me encouragement, and I cheer when I see new ones.

K. A. Maples: I found that I had a chapter of "Masks" on the brain when I read this chapter (I'll bet you can tell which one!). Thanks for fluffy feelings and inspiration. :D

Yume Matsuri: I don't have as much to say… but thanks for reading anyway. Hey, it rhymed…

Okay. Let's go give Mitsukake some love, and cheer Chiriko on.

Tomorrow we leave for the northern lands to search for the Shinzaho. Miaka and Nuriko left with Tamahome to go visit his family, Hotohori continued to makes plans for the trip with Chichiri, and Tasuki was doing what he could to avoid helping pack the boat. That left Mitsukake and me to get a few last minute supplies.

"How's your hand, Chiriko?" he asked, a little under his breath.

"My hand?" I looked down at it. Only a little scar was left from where his cat had bit me a few days ago. "It's just fine, thank you for asking."

"Oh." He turned away. It looked like he had been beating himself up a bit for Tama-neko's behavior. I would have said something to comfort him, but that might have just made him dwell on it more. He wasn't going to let it go, though, until he felt he made up for it. "Do you mind if I have a look?"

"Um, if it'll make you feel better, go ahead," I offered my hand up to him. He bent it a around a little a looked it over, possibly a little bit miffed there was nothing he could do to help it along. He bent my wrist over in an uncomfortable way, and a few people around us in the market place took notice of my yelp of pain.

"What do you think you're doing to that poor little boy?" an elderly woman raised her voice in Mitsukake's ear. "Let go of him, you pedophile!"

"Ahh-- no, I-"

"Really, young men today are all such--"

"It's alright ma'am! He's a doctor," I said in his defense.

"This man is a doctor? He doesn't look…" she searched him up and down. "Oh, I'm sorry. I seem to have mistook your age, doctor."

It's not likely she misjudged his age to begin with, but Mitsukake was very embarrassed either way, and kept this head lowered for a while after that.

"Are you alright, Mitsukake?" I finally asked, but expected a placid answer.

"I don't think the city is the best place for me," he groaned a little. I was secretly pleased that he gave me an honest answer, since he never really complains to anyone.

"You won't have to stay here much longer," I tried to put a positive spin on the situation. "What are your plans for after we summon Suzaku?"

"My plans?" he looked back inside his head. "I hadn't really thought of that."

I took a seat next to him and continued to ask him questions, since everyone in the team knew my plans for exams, but I didn't really know anyone else's plans. "What were you doing before you met Miaka?"

His face struggled to come up with a good expression when I said that. "It wasn't a very… desirable lifestyle, we'll say that." Mitsukake never ceases to interest me. Perhaps that's just a part of how secretive he is. He'll probably never be the kind of person to completely open up to just anyone. Seeing that, however, I was very surprised by his next comment: "I really wish we didn't have to leave."

"…Mitsukake?"

"Somewhere in the back of my mind, I'm dreading this journey," he clentched his fists together. "But maybe that's just how pessimistic I am." I wasn't sure what to say, so I just looked down at his hands with him, until he looked back up at me. "How do you feel about it?"

"Me?" my eyes widened a bit. "Well, I've been learning a lot lately getting myself prepared for it."

"Oh?" he raised his eyebrows, wondering how one might study for something like that.

"Yes," I grinned. "I've learned I have companions to keep me strong, but I still have to have my own strong attitude. I can't give up, because I have people here I want to protect."

Mitsukake looked at me wide-eyed. "That's quite a daring mindset."

"Heh, maybe it is. But I've also had to learn not to get upset when things don't work out."

"I see," he smiled wistfully. "All that in just a few days, it seems. You pick things up very fast."

I blushed but tried to ignore the flattery. I'm so thankful that Mitsukake is such a good listener, and I don't feel fake around him at all. However, today he seemed a little more talkative than usual.

"So how did you feel about this upcoming journey before all of that?"

It was that question that floored me. Not so much the question itself, but my thought process answering it. I was so proud of myself for everything I had been learning, and so proud of being able to try to help summon Suzaku to protect Konan. After all my childhood studying my role as a warrior, now I was excited to finally take up my responsibility. With my character shining, anyway.

But without my without that, my true personality shines through. And it's that personality that is still reluctant to risk everything important to me. I'm still small, scared, ignorant, and weak. And I still have my whole life ahead of me here.

The truth is, the confident personality that came with the mark of Suzaku was just an excuse to make myself go. I still didn't want to go for so many reasons. And then the tears fell. Tears more honest than all the ones I had been shedding since I came to the capital.

Mitsukake, I think, was completely aware of everything I was thinking, but he didn't say a word. He didn't hold me, or try to make me feel better, but only offered a hankerchief for me to hide my swollen face behind, and finally said a few words after we had been silent for a while.

"That's alright, Chiriko. You're still growing up, and you have reason to be afraid. Wouldn't it be nice if everything you've learned was already a part of you? It just doesn't happen that way. Those virtues aren't just things you can study; they have to be practiced."

I sniffed back the last few tears, not looking back at him yet. "But I…"

He put his hand on my head to quiet me back down as he gave me a gentle smile. "The real Ou Dokun doesn't learn everything right away. You still have a long time to learn it all at your own pace. But for the moment, just keeping trying in your own way."

If Suzaku blessed Mitsukake with more than just healing powers, it was definitely a gift for words. We finished gathering the last supplies, and returned back for our last night at the palace. The five of us here stayed busy all evening, and well into the night. I can now honestly say I'm both dreading and looking forward to finding the Shinzaho, because I'll really learn what I've heard lectures about recently. It won't make me a different person, but I'll come back with everyone as a better version of myself. I look forward to seeing what kind of man I'll grow into someday, once I finally help my fellow warriors and priestess summon Suzaku and save our country.