Disclaimer: I don't own any of the Fushigi Yugi characters, places, etc.

Chapter 20: Only A Future

"Mm…Nakago?" Soi shifted, trying to find him. He wasn't anywhere near, and for a moment, she panicked.

"He's not here," came Belu's soprano. The world seemed to swirl in around her, the fire lit sky appearing, as the trunks of trees dribbled into place like wet paint. Soi searched her sky-turned vantage point, and only found the girl because of the nauseating smell of burning flesh. Rolling onto her hands and knees, Soi saw the great bear-beast lighting up in flames, crumbling forward over the more powerful and larger Grendel. Belu's astral form ghosted into focus, seeping from the charred bodies like smoke. She wavered delicately, like she was the misty tip of an incense stick.

"Where is he?" Soi asked.

"I don't know. Maybe he crossed over?" Belu replied. The calmness in her voice did little to reassure Soi, who wobbled upright. Belu extended her hand, and focused very hard to make the fingers come back together. With a bit of doing, she offered a full hand to Soi. "I've got to hurry…will you help me to Tasuki?"

"Where is Nakago?"

"If you don't help me, we won't have the energy to look for him. I'm not strong enough to get to Tasuki on my own." Belu sounded exhausted, not that there was much juice left in Soi. Soi debated searching the area, and even attempted to disperse and scan the burning mountainside. There was the unsettling realization that if she did so alone, she would disband and slide into oblivion.

There was no other option. Thus far, Belu had helped her. Soi had to give her the benefit of the doubt. She joined hands with Belu and instantly knew where to find the two Suzaku warriors. They moved as quickly as they could, drifting towards the corpse and monk while maintaining themselves. Both were about to collapse.

Chichiri was unconscious, and Tasuki looked blue-gray, even in the light cast by the now distant forest fire. Soi wondered if the town was burning too, but couldn't conjure the emotions to care. She was wrought with concern for Nakago.

"Monk, wake up," Belu whispered. She had lost all form, appearing as just the faintest trail of mist. She fluttered around his face as if disturbed by his breathing, and slowly Chichiri's red eye rolled open. He focused on the stars, and Belu slithered into his body as he lay dazed.

"Belu…" he frowned, shivering as she integrated with him. Soi watched, also reduced to a mist form, barely holding herself together. Bai Hua-Wan…she recited meditatively in her mind.

Chichiri's face drew pale for a moment as his pupils dilated, and then a faint smile curled upward on his lips. He slowly sat up, and Soi could see how exhausted he was. His spiritual power was entirely drained, and physically he was in no shape to move at all. But he moved in spite of this and Soi listened to the joints in his arms and fingers crack as he extracted a blank sutra, proceeding to smear a character onto it using mud and his fingers. With great effort, he managed to place this sutra down atop the claw jutting from Tasuki's chest.

Nothing happened for a moment, before Soi realized that Belu was funneling down through Chichiri and into the claw. A moan of pain escaping him, Chichiri applied pressure and drove the claw all the way into Tasuki's heart until his palm was flat. Heat and sparks leaped from the flesh and as Chichiri gave Tasuki a pat over the injury, the red-head choked and arched upwards, gasping like a fish. He rolled onto his side hacking in bone rattling coughs. To her surprise, Soi was smiling.

"Never again," Chichiri collapsed backwards. "You are never allowed to do that again…"

Tasuki struggled onto his hands and knees, and it became apparent that he was in real pain. His face was drenched in sweat suddenly, looking flushed and alive as his eyes dilated. He clutched at his chest, biting back on a scream. Steam curled around his fingers, hissing from that point on his body, as his nails dug into the cloth.

He convulsed and fisted his hands, seeming to gouge into the recently restored injury. Pulling his fist back, he held in his palm a small gemstone. It roiled with internal anger and he gazed at it in fascination. Soi felt herself drawn to it and crept forward. Tasuki closed his fingers and squeezed, the tendons in his arms standing out. She felt the crack and for a second panicked.

Belu was suddenly there, her ethereal form draped in Tasuki's arms, and Tasuki's coughing and trembles subsided. He looked down at the transparent girl confused, with large tears in his eyes. Soi recalled...yes, she recalled faintly that he was a crybaby as she folded her knees and called up all those times when Tasuki had shed tears for his fallen comrades. She had always thought him weak for such emotional outbursts.

"It was a game," Belu smiled. "If we won, we got to find the things we wanted the most…got to find ourselves and souls." Tasuki was still clenching the broken gem in his palm.

"She gave 'em back…" he said, eyeing his white knuckled grasp. He moved to ease it when Chichiri's hand closed over his.

"Say goodbye first," he cautioned.

"Thanks," he said instead, putting his forehead against Belu's. Soi could see the moonlight through Belu's cheeks as the girl looked up at him. "For coming back for me…"

Soi realized that Chichiri was smiling at her, and looked over at him. She had no words to express the turbulence of her state, no anchor to hold her against the conflicting memories from different lives and circumstances.

"I'm sorry I can't stay longer," she said honestly.

"It's enough. Another time, another place, we got to be friends," Chichiri's pleasant smile lit up his face. "That's all that really matters." These men had put their lives on the line for her, first as a stranger, and then as an enemy. She owed them a great deal and only wished they understood how much she had come to value them.

"Thank you, Chichiri. For everything." Soi gave him a smile.

Her mind turned to Nakago. She needed to see him, to make sure that he had been restored as well. Chichiri understood, and uncurled his fingers from around Tasuki's hand. Tasuki tightened his grip for a fraction of a second, before he released it. A shimmering dust fell from his palm, and Soi felt the world give way as she tumbled backwards and vanished from sight.

It was mist and shadows as she fell, mosaics of history unfolding in a dance of shadow puppets. Nothing was concrete, all happening at once, but it did not frighten her. Some stories she knew, others played out in dramas she was fascinated and horrified by. But the only thing she wanted was to find Nakago.

- Bai Hua-Wan -

Everything was warm. Hua-Wan could feel dappled sunlight on her skin, and see the brilliant red illumination coming through her eyelids. She frowned a little, and slowly pulled open her eyes one lash at a time. Leaf patterns veiled an azure sky dripping with honey-melted sunlight. The scent of apples tickled her nose, along with the churned spring earth of the road and a tang of winter. A heady breeze drifted by, laden with the smells of a city.

Lethargically, she shifted. Bark scuffed past her shoulders and against her thighs, along with the soft shift of airy cotton. She glanced down and recalled the light garments from her childhood. A soft white dress enveloped her, trimmed at the sleeves, hem, and neckline with plum colored, geometric designs. Her feet were bare, and she carefully set them down on the bark limb she perched on. Looking down, Soi realized she was cradled in the low branches of a tree.

There hadn't been a perfect day like this in ages. Hua-Wan couldn't remember the last time she had felt so good, but her temper was dampened as she realized she was alone. Sighing, she tilted her head back and could not find the energy to get off her branch and look.

"I'm an old maid," she sighed to a few apple blossoms. "I'm so tired of looking, and yet it's all I want." Blankly, she wondered what it would have been like to be one of the Suzaku Seven, to belong to a closely knit group of friends, a group loyal to its members with a Priestess it loved. That silly bun headed girl had all the luck in the world…but then I suppose there has to be the unhappy antagonists in a fairy tale…

"I didn't think there would be such pretty apple blossoms so early this year," a man said close by. Hua-Wan jumped, not having heard his approach. She turned with a start, nearly falling out of her perch. A hand reached out and pulled her upright. "I thought these last years were too harsh for such delicate blooms."

"Nak-!"

"Gi Ayuru," he cut her off. He was not in his customary armor, but dressed in the tradition of his ancestors with their colorful, layered garments.

"Gi Ayuru?" she frowned, quite perplexed. She searched her memory for some connection.

"My promise," he explained, his hand still on her wrist.

"Your name," she realized. "I thought you'd forgotten…was sure you'd forgotten." Her smile was accompanied by a pink blush.

"Why did you come here?" he changed the subject, looking up through the branches towards the shards of skylight.

"It's always been my sanctuary," she answered, recalling the harsh bark against her back and Nakago – Ayuru's – radiant arrival into her life. This was the place that had sealed her fate. Hua-Wan turned her eyes away from Ayuru's contemplative profile, more brilliant then she had ever seen it, and instead ran along the curves and delicate stamens of an apple flower. The fragrance around them intensified. "I'm tired, Gi," she spoke his family name, feeling for the first time like she could reach him. "I'm tired of chasing after you, so I'll be blunt. The only thing I want is to be with you, but I am through hunting for your true feelings."

Neither of them looked at each other. Hua-Wan was aware that his hand still rested on her wrist, but she was bone weary and could muster no yearning to reach him. She had thrown everything away, poured herself into the mold that was Soi, and had lost everything. The least he could do was give her a straight answer.

A bird shot past and dove for an insect, snatching it up. The clouds moved along over their heads, and Hua-Wan found herself oddly calm. A great burden had been peeled back from her, as though heavy blankets had been pulled away and she felt the warmth of the sun directly on her skin for the first time. She quietly appreciated a moment of neutrality, not focusing on what Ayuru's answer would be.

"You were the only person I ever mourned," Ayuru said after a long time. "It was the first thing I had felt since I was a boy…" Hua-Wan responded to the warm pressure of his head on her shoulder, allowing her cheek to touch down on the silky hair sliding down his shoulders. "You were only my puppet because I could convince you to keep looking…I was not your master for long."

Hua-Wan smiled, happiness seeping into her. Tears swept down her cheeks, the excess elation she couldn't keep contained. Her fingers tightened over his.

It had been a long hunt. She suddenly found herself standing next to Ayuru on a dirt road, looking across wide open fields. Ayuru started walking first, but Hua-Wan stopped him with her refusal to move.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"I don't know," he replied.

"You don't know?"

"No. I haven't tried walking towards a future yet." He studied her with his blue eyes, eyes she still couldn't read. "Will you come?" She looked forward, and then glanced backwards. There was nothing in either direction, nothing in any direction, except the field, and this serpentine road, beginning exactly where she stood.

She took two steps to reach his side, tucking her fingers into the crook of his arm, and silently agreed. Besides, it would not really have mattered. She would have hunted him down all over again anyway.

- Fin -