DISCLAIMER: I don't own Fushigi Yuugi. It's just that simple.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: ...So.
Been a long time, hasn't it? Three years. Well, technically four-and-change for "Market" specifically, three-and-change for anything on this account. I've got no explanations, really. So much stuff has happened in those years that about all I can say is, don't ever expect anything to come out a certain way. You'll almost always be wrong. (And it's not always a bad thing when the unexpected happens. It's simply unexpected.)
So life happened and inspiration threw me a few curve balls for a long time. But I promised myself - and Certain Other People - a really long time ago that I would finish this story. So, more for myself than anything, I'm saying it again here: Market, and Before the Market, will be finished. It may not be soon. But it will be finished. I don't know how many people remember this story; I haven't checked the main FY page in close to five years - probably won't this time either, actually. But if anyone used to read and returns, I'm so sorry for making you wait for this, especially since it's so depressing (you'll see what I mean).
(Addendum: reuploaded with quotes and apostrophes oh dear god why did they all get eaten.)
I'm also at work overhauling my other incredibly huge opus - R&R. A lot of stuff has bugged me about that one since I first put it up, since I began without doing some very basic work, such as any planning stage whatsoever. I don't know how well it's going to work, but I'm starting to lay groundwork into making that one something that I like a lot more, starting with the very basics and gradually working out. If it does work, R&R will probably come down entirely, as I'm seeing a lot of plot overhaul needed. More than anything else, actually.
Good night, everyone. I love you all.
It was over.
The emperor and his empress had taken the small body of their second son into their arms, regardless of the blood, and wept openly in the back of that small room. The guards could only stare in shock for quite a few minutes before stepping forward and lifting Taheiji, taking his body to be burned. They were all still in shock as they left. And the eight of us - but not the proper eight, because we had Yujiro instead of Toroki - hadn't been able to do a thing. Motoki was dead. Motoki was dead. An innocent child, a member of the royal family, yes, but still just a child. He'd come looking for a playmate, and would instead be playing with the ghosts. We'd failed to protect him, failed to protect our emperor. It was over.
It had been awhile before we could carefully lift Toroki and carry him out on a makeshift stretcher that some of the guards brought us. He wasn't dead - we'd never thought he was, because all the while we could see a faint rise and fall in his chest. He'd flown back from the strike and collapsed like a rag doll, his skin was pale, there was a wound just above his left ear that was bleeding sluggishly, and most of the area around that was starting to bruise, but he wasn't dead. But we also didn't know how seriously hurt he was, and without my powers I couldn't fix him. Karasuki took off her sash and tied it around his head as a bandage, and then we left our rulers alone with their grief so we could continue with ours.
Time passed; I don't know how much. We put Toroki in his bed, and some time after that Inoue brought Doctor Yamura to us. The kind man told us that Motoki's funeral preparations had already begun, and that priests from the monastery that was situated on the hill had come down to perform it and prepare the body. The two other children were in shock, while their parents had cried themselves silent and could only hold each other. It was Ebizo that was actually directing things at this point, even though he was grief-stricken as well, having known these children since they were born. We'd nodded, our own eyes still dry from shock, and watched as Dr. Yamura began to inspect Toroki.
The diagnosis was not good: head wound with quite possibly much more damage inside than out, shock, broken blood vessels - he'd looked at us quite directly and said that he didnt know if Toroki would ever recover from those wounds. He wasn't looking at me when he said that; by now, the entire palace had heard of our powerlessness. If I'd had my powers I could have fixed him; as it was, I was nothing more than another pair of hands to hold a bandage in place. The doctor washed off the blood and replaced Karasuki's make-shift bandage with a fresh, clean one after carefully stitching the wound closed. Then, after a quick glance at each of us, he left, leaving Inoue behind, just as shocked and silent as the rest of us.
I don't know how much time passed. An eternity of nothing swept before us as we sat there, held in place by our shock, our voices now as lifeless as Motoki. There was nothing we could do. Absolutely nothing.
That small sound made me shift my gaze away from where it had been fixated on the wall to Suzuno. Our priestess was trying to speak, trying to overcome the stillness, but was finding it nearly impossible. "What... What did we do wrong?"
"Everything." In contrast, Amefuri's voice was grimly solid in the dead air. "We did everything wrong. And there's nothing we can do to unmake it."
"Don't say it like that," Tatara ordered softly, both arms around Suzuno's shoulders as she leaned against his chest.
"Why not?" Amefuri shot back. "It's true. We can't change it."
"But there is no need to be so insensitive about it," Karasuki chimed in, a bit angrily. "We all must feel bad enough as it is, you included. You do not need to pound it into our heads even further."
"We failed our job," Kokie murmured. "We protected the country, but we didn't keep everyone safe. Our own superior feelings overcame us in the end."
"Joji-chan, you know that's not true." Inoue reached to take her brother's hand, looking absolutely lost. "You won; you protected Sairou, and it will always be protected."
"But we failed Motoki."
"But nothing." Tokaki stood suddenly and began to pace like a restless tiger. "We fucked up. We all know it. We saved the country. Taheiji won't be after anybody again." His pacing gradually slowed, as his internal battle moved outward. "The villages are safe. The soldiers back in Kutou... The borders are protected by a god..." He stopped, leaned his head against the wall. "But I can't get him out of my head..."
I didn't have to ask which 'him' Tokaki meant. I looked down and brushed a piece of Toroki's sandy blond hair between my fingers, watching his expression. Except for the bandage, and the unusual pallor of his skin, he could have been sleeping. His face wasn't twisted in pain, nor in pleasure, his hands lay calmly on the blanket. Oh gods, what I would have given to have him really be sleeping
"Suzuno... You have to, now." A quiet, serious voice brought me back to the present: Yujiro's. "You have to explain. What was going on? What was all that raving Taheiji did in there about? What happened before this?"
Talk fell quiet again as everyone looked at Suzuno, who was looking at the floor. Tatara remained silent as well, his arms still around her, until she softly pushed away and stood up, moving to the table in the room and leaning on it. "Explain... I know."
We waited. She stood there, not moving, for several moments, fingers clutching the decorative molding on the edge of the table and taking several deep breaths. Whatever happened, it hadn't been easy She was going to tell us, but it was going to cost her dearly. And then she began to speak.
"It... was in the prison. In that fort on the border... I was there for a few days before you got there. There are men in the Kutou army who are like you, Tokaki; they can teleport. Not as far. But there are many of them. Taheiji uses them as spies and couriers. They'd smuggled servants into the palace early to spy for them as well as they were able, and when they learned of the appearance of the miko-" her mouth twisted in a bit of a bitter smile "-me, they got them to spy on me as well, and ...kidnap me, before all of the seishi had shown and stopped him. Two failed, but the last- and, well, you know that part. He took me somewhere and handed me off to one of the teleporting men, who gave me to another, and another... I found this out in the fort, because they'd knocked me out, as you know. Taheiji didn't tell me, but his guards... they liked to talk. I simply sat and listened and pieced things together.
"The first day wasn't so bad, because Taheiji had come out and said he wasn't going to kill me. I think he meant the 'at least not soon' to be implied, though I wasn't sure what he wanted me alive for. Probably because if I was alive, another miko wouldn't be called to take my place, and he thought he could keep me from all of you. And he wanted information, which is why he ...took Suba-chan. I couldn't tell him what he wanted." She pursed her lips and shut her eyes, then forced herself to relax and continued. "The guards made comments about me, but nothing worse, and I just disregarded them. I saw that you acted different right from the start," she said as she looked at Yujiro. "But then you were still one of them." He nodded silently; there were no hard feelings. "I was hungry and thirsty, but it was bearable. And th..."
We waited for her to continue, but no words came from her mouth. At last, Karasuki gently whispered, "Suzuno?"
"I know," she said quickly, her voice choked. "I know... It's just... Never mind." She shook her head a little and started speaking before we could open our mouths. "And then that night, Taheiji's guards came to the cell and took me. They took me to a small room where it looked like no one went. And Taheiji was there. He ordered the other men out, and he tried to rape me."
She nodded at our collective outburst. "He tried. It didn't work - I was fighting back, I lost my shoes in the fight, and he yanked my hair and my clothes and everything he could, but suddenly something just erupted from my body and he wasn't touching me any more. I looked up and there was this glowing white barrier around me, between me and him, and he couldn't get through it at all - when he tried it shocked him, badly, but it just felt like some sort of twinge to me, and it didnt even hurt me. I still couldnt get out, but nothing he could do would get him through, so he gave up and called the guards to get me. When they were there, he left, and they tried to get to me, but that barrier wouldn't let them through, either So finally they just left. I stayed there, I didnt know what else I could do, but I must have gone to sleep or passed out or something, because the next thing I knew Yujiro was locking the door to my cell behind me and there wasn't any barrier anymore. I guess it must have vanished while I slept and they just picked me up and carried me back. I still don't know what it was."
"Byakko," Kokie said in a voice that sounded almost dead. He was listening, but he couldnt put aside his grief fully. Nor could any of us. "It had to be Protecting you from harm. You're the priestess, after all." I felt a brief, murderous twist in my middle as to why Byakko couldn't spare me the same consideration, then shoved it away mentally with all my might there was absolutely nothing that could be done about it besides what I'd already done. And the priestess was special; that was something no one would argue with.
Suzuno nodded again, briefly, then slowly resumed her seat, no longer continuing her death grip on the table. "Probably It was definitely a relief to know that they couldn't hurt me, so while the fact that they'd tried was bad, it wasn't nearly as bad as it could be. I didn't even stop to wonder if that was just a one-time thing, just after that I knew that Taheiji, and his guards, wouldn't be trying that again. Or anything. Of course, they ended up doing something, but it was much more subtle" A grimly ironic expression briefly flashed across her face. I think right after that was when they started putting that stuff in my food, perhaps hoping to wear down my defenses enough to try something again. Yujiro nodded in a silent confirmation of her guess; he clearly hadn't known what Taheiji had tried, but he was certainly intelligent enough to put the pieces together once he had them. "And then Suba-chan showed up, and then everything."
"What about farther past that?" Karasuki asked. "Since we have returned to here, since we have had the siege?"
"There isnt much you don't know. We found Yujiro, their drugs worked and I became sick, Suba-chan left and came back. The siege started. We set out to find Amefuri, and found him, and came back here for the summoning. And" She hesitated briefly, but before anybody could prompt her again, she began once more, talking a little faster than she had before. "It wasnt the emperor who convinced me to summon Taheiji. It was Ebizo-sama."
Nothing met her statement but a confused silence. Ebizo-sama was a good friend of ours, had provided well for Yujiro, was a brilliant strategist, closest friend and advisor of the emperor "What do you mean?" Amefuri voiced all our thoughts. Even he had been impressed with the man when meeting him, if grudgingly. But he wouldn't deny the man's talent or not give him due credit.
"It really was the emperor who had the idea first, wanting to question Taheiji to find out his plans and all that, but you know him. He believes that good can come of anything, and that isn't bad, but with someone like Taheiji He'd face him bravely in a fight, but I don't think he ever gave up hope that Taheiji could redeem himself." Amefuri, Yujiro, Karasuki, and Tokaki all snorted loudly at that idea. "Exactly. After being in the fort, and speaking to him face to face, I couldn't believe it at all, but I didn't know how to explain it to him. Besides, questioning him might be a good idea I couldn't decide if it was for the best to bring him here or leave him there. Here put him right in our midst, but stripped, and his commanders still over there. There left him free to attack other countries but only if he could gain support again, and Kutou has been starting to pull itself together at last. Possibly damage Sairou or possibly damage Konan, or Hokkan, or even Kutou itself even more? I couldnt decide.
"But Ebizo-sama is realistic, maybe too realistic it's how he and the emperor balance so well. He came to me after that meeting, and asked to speak to me in private, so I went. And he asked me to bring Taheiji here. So they could kill him."
Again there was only silence, but shocked this time. Suzuno went on, ignoring our still uncomprehending looks. "Killing him, he said, was the only way to be sure he was gone and while I hate killing, I couldn't in any way argue to let him live, knowing what he was. Ebizo-sama was also worried about him banding his army together again and attacking somewhere else, or perhaps starting another civil war, and he knew that that other noble that threw in his lot with Taheiji would also only stay if it was Taheiji in charge. And he of course believes in Byakko, but he confessed and I understood that there was nothing more relief-giving than knowing that the one who was causing all those problems was gone, and gone for good. If 'd just wished for Byakko to kill him, there would always be that doubt among everyone who knew about it that maybe it hadn't come true, as they couldn't see it with their own eyes when he's in another country across a mountain range. So he persuaded me to bring him here, with the proper precautions to keep anything from going wrong" Her voice trailed off, but she didn't cry; she simply rested her head against her knees, which she'd pulled up to her chest, and said in the saddest voice I'd ever heard from her, "And it did anyway."
She blamed herself. We all blamed ourselves for being overconfident, incautious, and reckless, for not having stopped Motoki when he ran in at that awful moment, for underestimating our opponent, for not waiting until we had our powers back to try that. But Suzuno blamed herself for even more for putting us in that situation in the first place. And the hardest thing was it was true. If she hadn't made that wish, none of this would have happened, and she knew it. We all knew it.
But in the end, nothing any of us had done had caused Motoki to come bursting in there, a place he wasn't supposed to be and shouldn't even have known about. We still didn't know how he knew that we were all in that room; perhaps he'd heard some of the soldiers talking, they gossiped just as badly as the maids. We'd never know, now. But we hadn't known he'd do that. He hadn't known what we were doing. It was nothing but sheer, horrible, terrible, bad luck. Suzuno wishing Taheiji there hadn't made Motoki decide to come racing to find us, so excited he wouldn't see what was happening when he crashed through the door. No, the only link through this, through all of this bad luck, was Taheiji.
As he had ever been.
"Suzuno" asked Karasuki, voice quiet almost trembling, "what happened with the second wish?"
The second great, though much less important, question of the day had finally been spoken. I don't know how, but we all pushed aside our grief, shock, and numbness over Motoki to listen to her. Despite what she'd said earlier about us knowing, neither she nor Tatara had explained anything. We only knew about that blaze of light, and somehow they'd ended up crying together on her bed. Whatever it was, it wasn't good but it had been pushed aside in the face of more immediate, universal terror and sorrow.
To our surprise, Suzuno didn't move to answer. Tatara reached to take one of her hands, and then slowly, reluctantly, began to explain, as if the sheer act of keeping the secret was holding back something terrible from happening and he was delaying the telling as long as possible. "Two Two weeks ago, I asked Suzuno to marry me." There was none of the normal joy that would have followed such an announcement; we could all tell that that joy wouldn't last. "She said yes but we received a visit." Unusually, a slightly annoyed look passed over his face. "From a being named Taiitsukun. She if it is a she is named in several books and scrolls as a compatriot of the four gods, even greater than they, and more powerful, guardian of this world. But she chooses where and when to bestow her powers, and only interferes in human events if things are dreadfully desperate nothing less than the end of all people. Apparently Taheiji was just small enough for her to ignore him and let us fend for ourselves, perhaps. But she wouldn't let anything interfere with our summoning, either; I suspect we've been having some rather concealed help from her since the beginning. She's most interested in keeping balance in the world, and seishi are a powerful way to restore that balance. And she told Suzuno and I, that night, that" Amazingly, he blushed a little. "Nothing could happen between us or it would ruin the summoning. When we finally realized she meant physically, we promised to behave ourselves, she went away, and we havent slept in the same room together since." Everyone knew that they'd shared a bed, but everyone also knew that nothing had happened between them, and they did it as a way to be close to each other as much as possible. It was sweet, and endearing, a proof that their love was much more than physical. With the chaos of the past two weeks, though, which was only one or two days before wed set out to find Amefuri, no one had apparently noticed that they'd given up that habit. "The priestess must be a virgin. But we were still engaged. But"
"But I saw Taiitsukun again," Suzuno began when Tatara stopped, "and she told me we'd apparently misunderstood. When she said, 'You can't be together,' she meant forever. For all time. She still hadn't lifted her head from her knees, and her hand clutched Tatara's tightly. "You know I'm from another world The worlds only cross when a miko must come to this world, to summon the god. And beyond the summoning they are sundered again.
I think most of us understood, but we didn't want to believe it. Who would? If she meant what it sounded like For the third time, we all just sat in silence, waiting for what was coming next and feeling a growing dread approaching. "After the summoning, and the wishes, the beast god is supposed to consume the miko. She's supposed to die. But I fought him off, and while he took what he needed from me, he did not take me. I didnt even know if I'd be able to stop the god consuming me, but I asked Taiitsukun what would happen anyway and she said I'd be returned to my world." She broke off as she choked a little, biting her lip slightly and trying not to cry.
"But you're still here" Inoue, who had stayed with us through it all, was more confused than anything. "You're in that chair and touching Tatara-sama and we're speaking to you"
"I know," Suzuno replied with a kind of hiccup. "I know. I decided the best thing to do, the way that would make sure that wouldn't happen, was to use a wish to stay here, or to move back and forth as I wanted. After all, I was a miko; the barriers between the worlds are only opened for us, right? Why couldn't I open it when I wanted to, to be able to stay here and still see my family, let them know I was doing well and not to worry? I thought it would be easy I'm only one small person, after all." She hiccupped again; her tears wanted to come faster now, and she was still holding them back. "So, after we went to the battlefield, I decided to call Byakko and make that wish
"He came. He is glorious, all shining and pure, so pure and that he'll blind you if you aren't careful. And peaceful, that heavy, absolute kind of peace that almost feels like it can smother you. And, together, we asked him."
Tatara squeezed her hand tighter, if it was possible, and began again. "He listened. Every word we said, every pledge of undying love, every cajoling word and he simply said 'I cannot do that.' I don't even know if he was sad about it, but I suppose he was. So we asked if Suzuno could just stay here, no visiting, and he said 'I cannot; don't ask me for things that I cannot grant.' We yelled, we screamed, we cried nothing worked. Nothing could change his mind."
" 'I am not powerful enough to do what you wish,'" Suzuno quoted. " 'There is no one who is, not all the gods combined or even Taiitsukun. The miko is here until the summoning has been accomplished, and then this world cannot hold her.' Byakko, a god, not powerful enough" Her voice was more than slightly bitter. "I trusted in him, believed in him and his ability to do this, this one thing, for me, and he can't. But he" She trailed away for a few seconds, then slowly began to speak again. "He offered me enough time to say goodbye."
"Hes strong enough to hold the barrier open for a little while," Tatara spoke over our sudden confused jumble of voices. "Half a day. Perhaps a little longer. Not a full day, for certain. And that will be all."
As everyone else erupted out of their places in a cacophony of questions, I could only sit there, one horrible thought repeating over and over in my mind: We lost him, we're losing her, we lost him, we're losing her, we lost him, we're losing her. Over the past months Suzuno had become more important to me than Hatoko, my eldest sister, closer to me in every way possible except blood, even closer in some ways than Masame, who was still too young to understand much of what we'd been going through. She knew my secrets, my fears, my hopes, as I knew hers. Wed become inseparable in so many ways And we would be forced to separate.
Tatara hadn't moved from his seat, but he had put both arms around Suzuno and pulled her to lean against him, which she'd done willingly. He wasn't taking for granted any of the now precious time he still had left with her, mere hours if he was correct. And if I, and the other seishi, would feel as if a piece of us had been ripped away, Tatara would surely feel as if he'd lost all his heart. It hadn't been as much time as some courtships I'd seen, but they hadn't needed as much time. From the beginning, they matched perfectly, her touch of laughter and his touch of seriousness blending well, two intelligent minds, two thoughtful and kind souls. They were made for each other, and they'd known it, and run with it, and loved it, and each other, as fully as two people could. What could possibly be worse to such a relationship than to be torn apart, fully and forever, with no hope of meeting again?
And Suzuno not only would she be leaving her heart behind, but also the rest of us. While the seven of us would be there for each other, grief-stricken but supported, she would have no one. She had her family and her friends, yes, but they weren't us we had formed a bond in these months that few could ever know, made stronger by the force of the god within all of us. We were eight parts of a whole, and we knew it. But now, we were being broken apart.
Did Suzuno have a way to receive news of us in her homeworld? We had no such way here, but she'd spoken of marvelous things occasionally that none of us could picture in any way, not even Toroki. Things like cameras, and automobiles, and airplanes They were mysteries to us, but could they help her find us somehow? Would she ever know about Motoki's funeral, to be held several days in the future, or our wedding, or Toroki's hoped-for recovery? Would she know how the rest of us went on to spend our lives, our work, our families? Was there any way we could somehow stay together, even if we couldn't see her again?
Over the next few hours we spoke little, in quiet voices, retelling stories of our journey together as if trying to fix the details in our minds before we were separated. But it was too somber to really enjoy it. Several amusing anecdotes, such as my drunk episode or making Tatara and Suzuno finally confess to each other, only received a small, quiet laugh from us, half-hearted at best. Tokaki had taken my hand a long time before and not let go, and I was grateful; it gave me something to anchor myself to. After all the confusion, panic, and sadness of the day, I sometimes felt like simply floating off into the sky, letting the wind push me wherever it wanted, to land in a place where surely there was less hurt than this.
We all silently expected Tatara and Suzuno to leave us, to savor their precious few remaining hours together alone, but neither of them made a move. They stayed in their chairs, holding hands much as Tokaki and I were, talking with the rest of us and refusing to cry. It seemed theyd already done their crying together; after they were separated, they were sure to cry again, but now was too important to waste with tears.
Various faces peered in at us, none of them really registering to our blurred minds as we sat in our protective shell, isolated from the world around us. Once, Dr. Yamura silently instituted himself inside with us to check on Toroki, and managed to convey that there'd been no change and leave without us even really understanding. We dimly heard bells tolling at one point, Motoki's death bells, which silenced us all again. There was simply no way we could pull ourselves out of that on our own.
And then Toroki stirred. No one noticed it at first, still sunk into our individual miseries, but when I turned my head in just the right way I saw his arm moving slowly across the blankets. I dropped Tokaki's hand as if it was a hot coal, in turn startling him out of his trance and making him yell in surprise, which startled everyone else. Within no time all nine of us had realized he was waking up and had gathered around his bed. Amefuri and Karasuki began dragging people back, yelling to give him light and air, dont crowd him, dont startle him. His head began slowly and minutely moving on the pillow, back and forth, though it was clear that each movement cost him a great deal of pain, and his fingers began to curl themselves under in infinitesimal margins. He said nothing, but his movement gradually and slowly, so slowly improved with every movement.
"Give him AIR!" Amefuri bellowed as he became entirely fed up with the crowd of seishi, guard, and maid around the bed
And a sharp, chilly gust of wind burst through the room on his last word, smashing Tokaki and Yujiro up against the wall in a bizarre reenactment of our meeting with the last seishi. Amefuri was as startled as all the rest of us but he wasted no time in sitting down and yanking the left leg of his trousers up his calf, and the white symbol of "rain net" was glowing there above the knob of ankle bone just as it should.
It took the rest of us about three seconds to try our powers as well. A seed sprouted in Tatara's palm, Kokie pulled a metal candleholder off the table and to him, Tokaki blinked and was across the room, Karasuki yanked her string into a knot and a protective dome sprung up. I had to settle for making my symbol light; my power wasn't good for a simple demonstration, and I didn't want to injure someone just to have an opportunity to-
"Subaru!" Yujiro yelled at the exact same time my thoughts caught up to themselves. Without any more prompting, I grabbed Toroki's wrist and quickly murmured the healing spell, then held my breath.
We all knew that our powers weren't as strong as they could be; barely a third of the way back to normal, if I was any judge at estimating. But they were back. There was a great deal of comfort to take from that fact alone and a great deal of bitterness as well, knowing that if we'd waited until now to confront Taheiji, we could have would have saved Motoki's life. But now was not the time for that.
Toroki's bruises were shrinking behind his bandages; apparently I didn't have enough power to make an instantaneous healing possible, but actually watching it happen was in a way even more satisfying. We knew he was getting better; the proof was right in front of our eyes, not here one moment and gone the next. The blood that had seeped into the bandages began to fade and shrink, and his skin gradually lost its pallid look as the color returned to his cheeks and forehead, his slight movement becoming more confident the longer it went on. His breathing evened, and deepened, and soon he resembled himself again much more than he resembled a corpse.
Suzuno reached forward and carefully removed the bandage, and we let out varied sounds of relief as the bruising and blood was proved to be gone entirely. I blindly reached back and pushed whoever was behind me back a step or two, taking his hand and checking his pulse as I now had the most medical knowledge of anyone in the group. Its beat was strong beneath my fingertips, making me sigh with relief. "Come on, Toroki," I whispered, gripping his hand and wishing with all my strength. "Come on come back to us"
Then I felt his fingers slowly closing around my hand, gripping it tentatively in return, and I nearly sobbed with joy. His eyes slowly flickered open as his head tilted from side to side a little on his neck, left arm raising slowly to carefully finger his right temple, where he'd been hit. "Where where am I?" he whispered, almost a croak.
"You're in your bedroom. We brought you back here afterwards." Tokaki knelt next to me, watching him carefully, but with relief.
"What what happened?"
"Taheiji you jumped at him, and he swung the sword, and you've been hit in the temple," Karasuki answered, finished moving people around.
Toroki shook his head a little again, with a tad more energy, and once again tightened his fingers around my hand. He placed his other hand over his eyes for several moments, as if thinking, then pushed his sandy bangs away from his face and sighed. "Who am I?"
Shock. Total, utter shock. No one answered him, as no one could answer him. No one was willing to say the one word we all knew we were thinking: amnesia. We all knew Toroki more than well enough to know that jokester he might be, but never about something like this. He wouldn't play with our thoughts and emotions this badly, paralyzing us with fear. And paralyzed we were, as none of us could move or even speak for several moments, apparently long enough for him to become worried. "What? What is it?" His voice was gradually growing stronger, and more worried and panicked. "What's happening? Whats going on?"
"You" Yujiro began, having to stop and swallow to clear his throat. "You don't remember anything?"
"Nothing, and what is going on?"
"Do you remember any of us?"
"No! Someone answer my question!"
"No," Suzuno choked, turning to bury her face into Tatara's shoulder. "It can't be happening like this!"
"What is going ON?"
Even newly-healed he could yell as loudly as he wanted, and the rest of us fell silent. How were we supposed to explain to him about about everything?
"NO!" Suzuno screamed again, loud enough to match Toroki. "NO! YOU PROMISED! YOU PROMISED!"
She was she was glowing, our miko, glowing a white that slowly grew brighter and more opalescent, as if she was simply a channel for something else again. Her skin and hair were being bleached of all color by that light, and Yujiro grabbed Inoue to turn both of them away and cover their eyes with their hands to save themselves from going blind, the man leaning over the girl protectively. We seishi flinched back and raised our hands to shield our vision except for Toroki but we could still see Suzuno in the midst of that blaze, clinging to Tatara with all her will, he a dark figure of strength holding her to himself just as tightly.
Suzuno had been right. What we'd felt at the ceremony, what we'd felt as the wishes were made it was Byakko in all his terrible peacefulness. Not one of us had ever thought of "peace" as a weight, but it was, and as it settled in all our chests we visibly bent over slightly under the new burden. It seemed to whisper to me, "You brought this. You must care for it, nurture it, allow it to grow," and I was finally able to identify the weight as duty, responsibility.
And as we each accepted that responsibility, one by one, straightening again, the weight becoming an unconscious part of us, the light was fading from Suzuno. Her strength seemed to diminish with the light, until she was being held up by Tatara more than holding on to him, and we could see tear tracks glistening on her cheeks and his as well, running down into her soft hair. And as the light vanished completely, she whispered, "It's over"
Her borrowed time was gone. Any moment now, Byakko would call her home, and she'd never return to this world again. Never return to us again. For a fraction of a moment I was once again perfectly ready and willing to murder my patron god for ripping us apart like this, but the impulse died as she slowly moved from Tatara's arms to face us, not bothering to wipe away the tears.
"I'm" But her voice died with a quiet sound, and she simply looked at all of us, from Amefuri in the corner to Toroki in the bed, Yujiro still somewhat shielding Inoue to Karasuki shaking her head, just a little, in denial. She didn't try to speak again, but moved swiftly and grabbed Karasuki in a hug at the same time the other practically ran forward. Suzuno struggled to hold back the tears, but Karasuki lost her control, and I knew this would be the only time I ever saw her cry. They said something, whispers, to each other, and Karasuki nodded a little, and only after several moments did they let go and Suzuno propel herself towards Kokie, being caught in a grip that could break iron but took extra care with our miko.
"Suzuno," he choked out, and she just shook her head, not trusting her voice, and hugged him as hard as she could while he held her with just as much fervor. Once again Suzuno didn't cry, trying to grab as many precious moments with us as she could and not ruin them by not being able to see through tears, but the trails trickled silently down Kokie's face and didnt stop after she kissed his cheek and moved away from him.
Amefuri was next, and what was surprising was that he returned her embrace at all. He was somewhat stiff and faltering, as he was out of practice at physically expressing his emotions, but his arms went around her waist and he allowed her to press her face into his shoulder. "I won't lie and say I've enjoyed it all," he remarked, trying to be gruff and failing miserably as we heard the waver in his words, "but I thank you," he finished simply.
She nodded, and only replied, "Thank you and be happy," before letting him go. Tokaki was there to pull her to him in a rib-crushing hug, which she returned just as hard as I could see the breath go out of him a little. He kissed her on the cheek, exactly like a brother, and she kissed him back, and he pushed her away before he could lose control, a hand rising to cover his face as he turned away to compose himself.
I didnt even hesitate, and Suzuno swooped on me so hard we nearly went tumbling onto the bed. For a long, long while, we did nothing but hold each other as tightly as we could, knitting together the last pieces of our sisterhood firmly, communicating everything without words. Wherever she was, I'd have my sister it was as much as I could expect now.
"Take care of our brother," she whispered for me alone, and I nodded slightly, hugging her once more before pulling back to look at her. Strangely, I hadn't felt the urge to cry as we stood there, and it didn't return to me now. Instead, I kissed her in the middle of her forehead, directly over where the symbol of Byakko had briefly shown, brushing her stray hair wisps aside. There was everything to say, and nothing to say, and we did both, communicating without words. Eventually, she moved away, and I sank into a chair slowly, now fighting the urge to sob.
She moved past Toroki for the moment, who was looking entirely bewildered but who hadn't said anything yet, and Yujiro simply opened his arms and took her in. "You probably saved my life," he said, fairly calmly but still with a tremor. "I can't thank you enough for that."
"Go back to your family and be there for them That's all the thanks I need." He nodded, squeezed her again, and let her go, and Inoue pounced on her before she could move a foot. "Inoue-chan" Suzuno half-whispered, "I need you to keep them in line for me."
Inoue half-gulped in fear, but she nodded as well and whispered, "I'll do my best Suzuno-san. Suzuno kissed Inoue's cheek as well before drawing back, then moving back in my direction to kneel at the bed. Poor Toroki was still utterly confused, lying in a room filled with people who were clearly in distress but unable to help and not even knowing who those people were. It was no wonder he flinched a little when Suzuno gently took his hand, lacing her fingers in with his and watching his face.
"Toroki" she began, and paused to find the right words. "My name is Suzuno." The look on Karasuki's face could make any heart break as she heard her miko introduce herself again to her seishi. "You may not remember it now, but you are very, very important to me, and to everyone here" She bit back a sob, continuing through sheer determination. "Youve helped us, saved us, guided us, played with us, and so much more Youre our brother. You're my my wonderful, wonderful brother, and no matter what you remember, or where you are, or where I am, I'll always love you, and I hope you'll soon remember just how much I do. The tears were threatening to spill down her cheeks again, but she fought on. "Be safe, be well be loved." Then she leaned down and kissed him gently on the mouth, then wrapped her arms around his chest even in that awkward position and miracle of miracles he hugged her back, calming under her arms and accepting the fact that we, no matter who we were, cared about him even the one who was leaving now. He didn't try to speak, and she didn't either, but eventually she slowly drew back, and he let her go reluctantly, but without a fight, settling back in the bed and looking nearly as lost and broken as he had when he'd first lost his powers. Suzuno couldn't look at him when she stood, turning back to the last one of all.
Tatara still stood where she'd left him, having watched her say goodbye to each of us with the same steady expression, though we all knew he was breaking inside as badly as she, worse than any of the rest of us. Their eyes met, and there was no keeping them apart; she didn't run, but she moved quickly and almost desperately to him, grabbing him as he grabbed her and holding each other as if trying to meld into one being. They didn't kiss, they didn't move, they only stood there clutching each other with that same note of desperation Suzuno had been carrying since the last blaze of light, no sound or tear issuing from them. None of us could look away, none of us was capable of giving them privacy right now; their palpable despair calling to ours as a lodestone calls to a needle. It was their last moment together, and they were a perfect set that was doomed to be broken apart.
Soon, all too soon, the room began to brighten. Much slower than the last time, though still coming from Suzuno, the white light slowly and steadily increased. Instead of being almost solid, this time it was flowing, muted, liquid light, so soft you could almost drown in it. Even Yujiro could see, though his eyes showed as much grief as the rest of ours. It spread around Tatara and Suzuno, bit by bit engulfing them in scarves of light, both of them at the center as neither would move away from the other. At last, the light cloaked them both completely and when it disappeared, in a scattered explosion of motes, only Tatara was left, his arms limp at his sides as he slowly sank to the floor and the tears began to fall.
Five days later, Motoki was buried in the royal cemetery located within the palace grounds. The Emperor and Empress had wanted as few people there as was possible, but there were certain rituals and courtesies that had to be observed, and politicians that had to be satisfied, even in the burial of one of the beloved children of grieving parents. We were fortunate that everyone had the decency to at least pretend that no ministers were fighting with each other, that lords and nobles of every sort weren't constantly trying to curry favor with their ruler and, Byakko only knew, maybe today they meant it. The death of a child, one who had so much to live for, tended to make everything else seem trite. It was certain that those men who had already had at least one brush with death, be it on the battlefield or in everyday life, were remembering exactly what it felt like to open their eyes after that and realize they were alive and would continue to live, and survive whatever had befallen them. Realizing again just how precious life was was a lesson many of the politicians seemed to need.
But it took a child's life to give them that lesson.
We seishi were present, of course, even Toroki. While he was as healthy as he ever was before the confrontation, nothing we could say or do could bring back his memory and, depressingly, his powers hadn't returned either, and the white "turtle snout" had stubbornly refused to show itself. The rest of us were back to normal, but no matter how much energy I poured into healing spells, there was just nothing we could do. There had been that flicker of empathy with Suzuno, when she'd said goodbye, that we didn't know the cause of perhaps it had been entirely natural, as the emotions that had been in that room had felt if they could crush a person, or perhaps it had been a small sign of his powers. We didn't know, and unless he manifested some more symptoms soon, he might never get them back.
We were the only people Tatara had talked to since Suzuno. Emperor, servant, it didn't matter who, he would only speak to the people who had been in the room when Suzuno had disappeared. He had a wound as deep as Toroki, but this wasn't one I could heal.
It's impossible to heal someone who has lost half their soul.
He was between Kokie and I, watching the grave and the priests lifting their arms to Byakko in the heavens more closely than anyone. But all of us were watching carefully as the painstakingly selected servants, in brand-new robes, moved in to begin the burial. Breaking almost completely with tradition, which required new Byakko-white attire, the royal couple had flatly insisted that Motoki be buried in his favorite clothing which turned out to be the outfit he'd been wearing when I'd first met him, made of sturdy green material with white and blue accents. Mercifully, though I knew what it had cost Dr. Yamura, his wound had been cleaned and bandaged, and he was adorned in a short white overshirt with a high neck to hide any sign of how he'd died. I knew that none of us could have remained there if we could see it.
His dark red hair and eyes, closed as if in sleep, at last disappeared under the dirt of the slowly growing mound, as the priests continued to chant. It lasted for what seemed an eternity, and no time at all, until finally they were lowering the elaborate marker into the ground at his head and packing the dirt around it, and placing a bowl of sand for burning incense beside it. The servants packed the dirt down, to prevent it being washed away in what little rain came this far, and broken at last from the entrancement of seeing him, I looked up.
The sky, which had been unusually cloudy for months, as if reflecting the desperation in our war-savaged country, was clearing, slowly but surely. It seemed appropriate, somehow, for Byakko to welcome home his child with the sun, rather than the rain.