All rights to Fushigi Yuugi belong to Yuu Watase, Shogakukan Shojo Comics, TV Tokyo, Studio Pierrot, and Pioneer Video.
This chapter is rated M for language.
Portions of this chapter recount events depicted in "Expecting" by Shunyata Ryuen, for which "Unexpected" is a companion piece. These events have been used with the express permission of Shunyata Ryuen.
I'd like to dedicate this chapter and story to Shunyata Ryuen with deepest and humblest gratitude.
Chapter 4. Embers
How long does it take a dream to end? goes the old question.
How long does it take the world to end? is what I reply.
But I already know the answer. One moment, you're asleep, safe and happy in the space you've made with your lover and your baby…but the next moment, you hear your lover's voice in the darkness, whispering your name with panicked dread. You hear other voices out in the night, shouting to one another as they hunt you down.
Just like that, there's no more time, not to think or feel or anything else. Now there's only running, wrapping up your baby and taking off with your lover through the woods, your breathing too harsh and loud, your heart knocking hard against your ribs. You don't even realize that your dream has ended, your haven muddied from the boots of human scum. Now all you pray for is the chance for a clean escape.
We didn't get it. Not the escape, not even the fucking chance. It was barely morning when those goddamn slavers finally caught up to us, surrounding and taunting us with what they were gonna do to each of us. Including Yu-chan.
No chance, no time, no choice. We readied ourselves for the fight, Tama's hand gripping mine for a moment, Yu-chan resting warm and quiet against my back. It was weird; I could see that there was no way we could win, but I wasn't scared or sad. Instead, this feeling of "rightness" filled me: it was right that we faced the end together, 'cause we were a family, an' standing together is what families do.
Then they attacked, an' it was all about the fighting: a jab here, a well-placed blow there. But there were too many of them and just the two of us, an' all too soon it happened: the guy with the makeshift sword movin' faster than I could block. All I could think was that I wasn't gonna let him get through to Tama or the baby, even if it was the last thing I did in this life.
But look, if you know my other story, you know what happened next.
Chichiri showing up in a windstorm, taking everyone down like the fuckin' Angel of Death. Everyone, that is, except the leader of the slavers, who managed to snatch Yu-chan in the confusion and get his hand around her tiny throat. If I woulda stopped to think, I woulda thought that it was the worst moment of my life—but I didn't stop, my rage feeding Suzaku's gift of speed so that I was able to dash at him, get the bastard's knife, and plunge it deep into his side.
An' as I grabbed Yu-chan and ran back to Tama, soothing her cries, I told myself the worst was over.
Proves what I know.
Turned out that Chichiri had found that goddamn sorceress and brought her along with him. She looked like she didn't know whether to shit or go blind, she was so terrified; while 'Chiri looked like he was gonna kick her ass into the deepest of the seven hells if she didn't do exactly what he wanted. An' to tell the truth, he kinda scared the shit outta me an' Tama, too—I mean, whatever happened to Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky Cheerful Monk?
But I didn't have time to ponder that much, 'cause everything started happenin' so fast. Ya know, apologies an' explanations, an' me learning that the sorceress, desperate and angry, had chosen me to be some kinda stand-in incubator for the baby: her sister's baby, as it turned out. An' then…
Yu-chan's rightful parents turning up.
I didn't hafta give her up, ya know. 'Chiri wouldn't've forced me, an' Tama was crying and begging me not to. The parents couldn't've done anything either, 'cause I was a bigshot Suzaku warrior, an' I could see in the resignation in Yu-chan's father's eyes that he knew that as well as me.
I didn't hafta give her up—but I did it anyway.
Maybe I was Yu-chan's real parent, like Tama said, 'cause I'd given birth to her—or maybe not, and Yu-chan's real mother was the woman staring at me with her tear-filled version of Yu-chan's big blue eyes. Didn't matter either way. 'Cause if you're a parent and you love your child, you're gonna do what's best for her, no matter how much it tears you apart.
An' the truth was that those people were real decent types, people who loved her before even seeing her, and that they'd give her a better life than a cussing, drinking, shithead bandit about to embark on a dangerous mission.
So I pressed my lips to my baby's head and felt her soft peach-fuzz hair tickle my nose for the last time, an' I thought, This is it. This is the worst moment of my entire life.
But I was wrong.
The moment when I placed her in her mother's arms, then backed away, looking at her and knowing that it was the last time, knowing that I was leaving my baby forever—that was the worst moment of my life.
An' suddenly I was running, running for the woods like all the demons of all the hells were after me, running like I could outrun the grief and gut-wrenching agony if only I could run fast enough and far enough. But even with Suzaku's speed beneath my heels, even as I crashed through the trees and underbrush, the pain caught me as easily and fiercely as a fireball from the tessen and slammed me back to earth. An' I couldn't flee it anymore.
I just curled up, my hands across my mouth as if I could hold it all in, keep it bottled up and under control. An' that's how he found me, keening cries slipping between my fingers, agonized and low, like I was a trapped animal leaking its heart's blood…
He put his hand on my shoulder, an' I grabbed onto it like I was drowning. He gripped me tight, silent tears dripping onto my hand, and I clung to him like I had during labor, when he'd been my anchor and my last hope. Suddenly, something inside me pulled hard, pulled the way it had when I pushed the baby out—and my soft cries deepened, my clothes shifting and tightening around my shoulders.
It was over. I had my old body back. Which meant that the sorceress and my baby were gone.
It struck me then, as hard and real as a flung stone, and I found myself gasping, struggling for air. Now I understood the real cruelty of the sorceress' spell—the cruelty that had never crossed her mind as she changed me, the cruelty she prob'ly didn't realize even now. It wasn't the humiliation of dealing with my different body, or the danger from the slavers, or even the agony of labor. It was this: she'd altered my life in a way that made me believe that people belonged to me. People like Yu-chan—and Tama.
And now my life was back to what it'd been before.
Just like that, the tears were gone. 'Cause when somethin' rips your heart out, ya ain't got nothin' left to cry with. All you can do is try to breathe around the yawning emptiness in your body.
"Tasuki?" Tama's voice was panicked as he shook my shoulder hard.
"I'm all right," I gasped, and drew in another shuddering breath, turning my head towards him so that he could see part of my face. "I'll be okay. It's just that…it's stupid."
"Yeah. Whaddaya think she weighed? No more than a small sack of rice, I'll bet. So it's stupid that now she's gone, I have this giant hole…" My words faltered, and I made a weak gesture in front of my chest.
Tama grabbed my shoulder, turning me so that I faced him, then wrapped his arms around me and pulled me into his chest. "We'll make it through this," he whispered into my tangled mess of hair. "We'll make it through together."
I forced myself to stand stiffly in his embrace. "No," I said, and pushed away from him. "It's over."
He stared at me, the pain open and pure in his brimming eyes. "It doesn't have to be," he pleaded. "It doesn't all have to end."
"Doesn't it? What are ya sayin', Tama? Ya think we should run away together, maybe have a baby of our own?" My voice twisted with sarcasm. "Guess ya didn't notice, but I'm not equipped to do that anymore."
"I don't care!" In two steps, he was back in my face, grabbing my arms and shaking me. "Do you think that matters to me? All that matters is that I don't want to lose you!"
I couldn't hold back the bitterness. "Name one time during this fucked-up mess when what either of us wanted counted for anything."
"It does now! I…" he stopped and swallowed. His tone was quiet and passionate. "I know that I don't have the right to love you…but I still do."
"You got that straight!" I spat, feeling his words burn into me, the possibilities gleaming before me just before they crumbled into ash. "You don't have the right! You gave those words away, remember? You promised her your love, and I promised her my loyalty. An' as I see it, we've both been doing a piss-poor job of keepin' either promise, an' it's time we got back to acting like the seishi we're supposed to be!"
I turned my back, no longer able to bear the agony in his eyes, the agony I'd just put there. It wasn't fair. The emptiness inside me was supposed to be just empty—not this bleak, cold feeling howling through me like an ice storm. I was tired of it. I wanted it all to end.
"Listen, Tama." Now it was my turn to plead. "There's one last thing I'm askin' ya to do for me. Would ya…would ya wrap my hair around your hand the way you used to, an'…would ya finish this for me?" I drew my dagger from my belt and held it up.
There was a long pause, and then his fingers were trembling against mine as he took the dagger from my grip. I bowed my head, relieved, and felt him wind my hair around his hand as he had in our nights together. But suddenly he was right up against me, his chin pressed into that space between my shoulder and my neck, and it took everything I had not to sink against him.
"I can't," he whispered, and his tears fell hot against my skin. "I can't let you go."
The pain roared up in me, the knowledge of everything I'd had and lost tearing into me until I screamed in agony and rage.
"Listen to me, Tama! We're not a family, I gave away our baby, and I don't need you anymore! Let me go, damn you! DO IT!"
There was a strangled cry, then gleaming metal flashed in the corner of my vision, a whispering hiss brushed against my shirt—and the weight pulling at my neck suddenly disappeared.
I was the way I'd been before, my hair short and jagged against my neck.
Behind me I heard sobs—the low, deep sobs of a man who had lost everything. An' everything inside me wept with him, my entire body burning with the need to turn around.
But if I turned around, I was gonna take him in my arms. And if I took him in my arms…
…I was never gonna be able to let him go.
So I didn't turn around. I took a step forward…and then another and another, moving away, leaving him behind. I didn't stop until I reached the place where I'd given my baby away. Chichiri stood alone, patiently waiting, his bamboo hat pulled low over his eyes and his shakujou held out before him.
"I'm ready to go back."
The bamboo hat lifted, and he stared keenly at me, his one eye shining with reflected grief. "Where's Tamahome?"
"He'll come later."
"Maybe we should wait…"
"'Chiri, please!" My voice was a harsh, ragged plea.
"All right." Chichiri unclasped his kesa and tossed it, watching it flutter smoothly to the ground. "I'll send you back, but I have to wait for him. Are you sure you'll—?"
"I'll be fine." I stepped onto the blue cloth, not scared this time when I felt the darkness whoosh past me. In fact, I welcomed the darkness and the feeling of disconnection, and wished I coulda stayed there a long, long time.
So that's how the whole thing ended. After thinkin' on it a while, I figured that everything turned out for the best. Yu-chan made it into this world alive because of me, and now she's got some nice, decent parents who are gonna treat her right. An' all us seishi are back to planning out the mission to Hokkan, an' we figure we got a pretty good chance of everything turning out the way it's supposed to.
Yeah, it's a good ending for all of us. An' I'm real happy that things turned out so good.
I guess maybe some of them female juices are left over in my body, 'cause sometimes I just hafta go to my room, to be by myself an' cry. It's no big deal. I figure that time will take care of these stupid crying jags. I hope I'm done with 'em before the mission, though, 'cause it'd probably shock the shit outta everyone if I start bawlin' whenever I hear a baby cry.
Well, not everyone. I think Chichiri would understand. He watches me sometimes, an' even through that smiling mask, I can tell that he's worried about me. I'm pretty sure that I could go an' pour my heart out to him at any time.
But the thing is, he wasn't there. There's only one person who really understands what I lost—'cause he lost it, too.
Not that I'm about to dump my shit on Tama's shoulders. For one thing, things ain't the same between us. For another, his life is back the way it's supposed to be, an' I ain't about to mess with that.
He's with the one who needs him most.
Sometimes I watch them when they don't know I'm lookin'. I ache a little inside as I watch her keep him at arm's length. I know why she's doin' it, an' I guess that she's got no choice. But even though my own heart feels kinda warm towards her—which is a seishi/priestess thing, I guess—I still feel like going up an' giving her a good shake.
"Don't be such an ass, Miaka!" I wanna shout in her face. "Don't do anything to lose him, 'cause ya don't know how good ya got it!"
But I keep my mouth shut—another thing I musta picked up while I was a woman—'cause in the end, it's not my business. I'm not involved in his life anymore, except as another seishi brother.
Sometimes I'll see the cook's youngest daughter go racing by. She's all of three years old, an' she has the same black hair an' sky-blue eyes my baby had. My head turns to follow her and my eyes go distant, 'cause just for a moment, I'm imagining…. It's funny, but almost every time this happens, I look up—and there he is, lookin' at me. He never says anything but he doesn't need to; I know that he's remembering too, and that's enough.
There's one more thing that's changed between us. We still brawl, 'cause the others would think it was weird if we didn't—and to tell the truth, Tama can still get me pretty pissed off.
But there's a difference now.
The punches don't connect as hard, if they connect at all. My fist follows the contours of his chest, feeling the smooth muscles ripple beneath my knuckles. His hand comes up to my jaw, brushing past in a light caress.
It's not about sex; nah, that's not it. It's about touching each other, connecting with each other. It's like he's saying, I'm here with ya. I'm still here with ya, buddy.
And I know I'm not alone.
Author Note: My first and most profound thanks go to Shunyata Ryuen for her help over many months, but most of all, for her support in this undertaking. As I had told you, Shunyata, on a cold December day long ago: the greatest gift one author can give another is inspiration. Any expression of thanks is sadly inadequate for the joy this project—and your gift—has brought to me, but I will attempt to express my gratitude nonetheless. Simply put, thank you for everything.
To the readers and reviewers, my warmest thanks for your patience, support, and encouragement. This small work has meant a great deal to me. It has forced me to grow as a writer and a person, and to find value in the effort as opposed to the result. Your kind words have been a beacon for me in hours of darkness and doubt, and I will always treasure the way you reached out to an unknown, untested author.
With this story concluded, my project is complete and I have no current plans to extend it, although nothing is impossible, as they say. Other responsibilities demand my time, however, and I must leave this persona for the time being.
Thank you all once again.