Disclaimer: Fushigi Yugi and all its characters are the property of its creator, Yuu Watase.

Warnings: This fanfiction is rated M for language, violence, some citrus (but no lemons), and assorted melodrama. Also, it is very, very long. Hope you enjoy.

To read this fanfic, there are a few things you should know:

1. The three OVAs haven't happened, and they never will.

2. When a priestess summons a beast god, it is not for certain that she will return to her world. In fact, it is the priestess's individual choice about which world she will live in, but once she makes the choice she can never cross back into the other. Of course, the gods do have some say…

3. 'Empress' follows canon up until the summoning of Seiryuu and Suzaku.

4. Everything in italics is a flashback.

--

.:Empress:.

Her eyes gave it all away.

Her big green eyes shone with tears that threatened to spill down porcelain cheeks. It broke his heart to see her face now.

"Miaka," he said softly - afraid that too loud a sound would be enough to break her. "Miaka… are ya sure?"

She looked down at her hands, worrying her bottom lip. "Yes," she answered, clearly not sure. Miaka met his eyes, and promptly looked away once seeing what lay there. "I have to do this… for everyone…"

He nodded. "Yeah." His eyes traced her small form, and the expensive silk kimono that was draped over it, in the same brilliant red hue of their god. Miaka's face was made up - eyes lined in blue, strings of beads and jewels intermingled in her long red hair. Her subtle curves pulled slightly at the fabric. She was beautiful… but sad, too. He decided that nothing was worth seeing her like this. If he could have done something, he would have stopped this madness long ago.

"It's good… that you're doing this," he managed, and his voice sounded odd to him; like it belonged to someone else. "You'll save a lot of lives, Miaka… we're all so proud…"

Miaka whirled around, her eyes wide. She looked betrayed... and disappointed. What had she wanted him to say? What could he possibly say that would make that sorrow fade from her eyes, or change the events that had and were about to take place? And yet, Tasuki was prepared to get down on her knees and apologize for something he didn't even know he had done. "Miaka…" He took a single step towards her, his arms rising from his sides of their own accord. "Mi-chan, I'm really gonna miss ya. We all are." The bandit's signature smirk appeared on his face – complete with the little flash of a fang poking out one side – but instead of being comforted, Miaka frowned, sensing the lie in it. "C'mere and gimme a hug."

Miaka seemed to hesitate at first, and then she slipped across the distance and into Tasuki's waiting embrace. She wrapped her arms as far around his broad chest as she could. Tasuki's hold on her was tight, and his eyes closed, wanting to relish in the feel of her body against his for the first and last time. Miaka smells like lilacs, Tasuki thought, and though he didn't care much for the flower itself, the sweet perfume of its nectar on his priestess was a scent that would haunt him for years.

"Tasuki," Miaka murmured, face snuggled in the crook of his neck. Her warm breath sent a tingle up his spine as she spoke softly into the shell of his ear. "I'll miss you so much… You and everyone else… I love you all so much…"

"I know," he said, the strength for complex thoughts escaping him. "I know."

Miaka pulled away, tears falling in quick succession. She struggled briefly with indecision before reaching up to plant a kiss on the stunned man's cheek. Giving him no time to react, Miaka turned and walked away and out of his life; determined to carry a burden she should have never been forced to endure in the first place.

A bitter chuckle worked its way up Tasuki's throat. In a daze, he dragged himself over to the veranda and plopped down on the edge. The setting sun warmed his back, but his arms prickled with cold. In another world, in reality just yards away, Miaka was saying her farewells to the rest of her warriors just before boarding the carriage that would take her hundreds of miles away. She probably will take the longest saying goodbye to Tama, Tasuki thought absent-mindedly, which was only natural, seeing as they'd been lovers for months now. Tamahome was devastated, sure, but what about Tasuki? Did anyone know how deep his love was for his priestess?

He remembered her last words to him, how she had said how she would miss him and how much she loved him. She loved him. Taken out of context, sure, but frankly Tasuki didn't give a damn. She had been right here with him, held in his arms and telling him how much she cared. Tasuki would cherish the memory as the only thing left of the woman he loved… knowing that his love could never be.

XXXXXX

In the inner chambers of the Kutou palace, it was cold and dimly lit. The six celestial warriors of Suzaku sat in various places within this chamber, all tense and impatient as they awaited the audience with the emperor. The royal throne was held high on a platform -empty - before them, decorated lavishly with jewels and tapestries of the finest quality. Hotohori stood with his arms folded directly in front of the platform, waiting in silence; Chichiri, Mitsukake, Chiriko, and Nuriko sat on silken cushions on the floor, their bodies facing forward though their eyes were following a disgruntled pair of men across the room. As the minutes ticked by, the tension in the room only grew, though only Tasuki and Tamahome showed visible signs of it. Tasuki leaned against the wall with arms folded and shoulders tense. Occasionally he would turn and glare at the door and then stare after Tamahome. The aforementioned man paced back and forth across the room with an anxious look on his face. Watching him, Tasuki compared his friend to a puppy waiting for its master to throw him a bone. As Tamahome made yet another revolution across the floor, Tasuki's lips twitched. Was it just his imagination, or did he just hear him whining?

"I wonder what's taking so long," Nuriko mumbled, tracing the stitched designs in the fabric of his pillow with his finger. "It's been awhile… I hope nothing's gone wrong."

"Don't be too impatient, no da," Chichiri answered, though his voice was purposely raised to reach the redhead and brunette on the other side of the room. "The emperor has been working very hard to repair Kutou after the war. It takes up a lot of his time, you know?"

Tasuki sucked his teeth. "If he's so fuckin' great at managin' his own country, then why th' hell does he need Mia- OW!"

"Watch your language, Fang Boy!" Nuriko glared at him. Tasuki glared back, rubbing his sore shoulder. "You're in the emperor's throne room, so show some respect already!"

"I can't take this anymore," Tamahome shouted, and the room quieted. "I'm going crazy just standing here waiting… I'd be better off looking for her myself!" As if to respond to Tamahome's words directly, the large oak door creaked open, revealing the imperial guard, who marched forward in straight disciplined lines. Clustered in the middle, the top of the emperor's crown was visible, as well as the russet hair of the empress. Tasuki reacted immediately, standing at rapt attention. The royal party parted down the middle as it reached the throne, and the emperor and empress sat in their appointed positions.

"Welcome, warriors of Suzaku and Saihitei-dono." Gidayu folded his hands over his lap. His voice was deep and rich, and it echoed briefly in the high-ceilinged chamber. "I am pleased to have you in our kingdom as the honored guests that you are. Rise, Suzaku warriors; you have no need to bow to me."

"Gidayu-dono," Hotohori stood before him and bowed slightly at the waist. "It is an honor to be here as your equal and a humble representative of our fair Konan."

Gidayu smirked, nodding his head once in acknowledgement. "Yes, of course." His gray eyes were cold and his tone clipped, and though it could not be denied that he was handsome, his was a cool and stoic beauty; one better suited to a carefully crafted statue than to the overseer of a country. His head was covered with dark brown hair, and a thin goatee of stubble covered the lower half of his face. Judging from the slight wrinkles spreading out from the base of his eyes, the Kutou emperor was at least in his mid-thirties. Gidayu gestured to the woman in the chair beside him. "And of course, you all know my wife, Miaka, formerly of your own Konan Empire."

All eyes in the room turned to the petite woman, who smiled sadly as she rose from her chair. The sight of her friends brought tears to her eyes, though protocol prevented her from acting on her feelings. "W-welcome to our home," she said softly, bowing. "It is a pleasure to see you all, after so long…"

Hotohori inclined his head, his warm brown eyes sweeping over Miaka's body. "Yes, Lady Miaka… it is a pleasure to see you again as well."

Nuriko waved, breaking the tension. "Hi, Miaka!" The woman flinched, though her lips twitched as she tried to contain her smile. "Er… I mean, Lady Miaka."

"I imagine this must be hard for you," Gidayu supplied, folding his arms. His voice hardly changed in tone, though it was obvious he was trying to convey empathy. "You all are very close to Miaka, and as such it is difficult to speak to her with such complex formalities." He reached out his hand, which Miaka gratefully took. "Please, do not inconvenience yourselves on my account. Speak with my wife as though there are no hierarchy differences between us."

There was a moment of hesitation, and then Nuriko took a deep breath and strode over to his priestess's side. His eyes traveled up and down her body. "N-Nuri-chan?" Miaka said softly. "What is it?"

Nuriko was silent for a while, and then his face broke into a grin. "Well, well, Miaka!" He chirped, slapping her on the back. Miaka jerked forward a couple steps before she regained her balance. "It looks like you've finally grown into a woman. You're still not as pretty as me or Hotohori-sama, of course, but it's a start, at least." Nuriko chuckled. "And look, you have breasts!" With that, he reached over and gave her a nice squeeze.

"NURIKO!" Miaka jumped away, folding her arms protectively across her chest. She blushed.

"Aw, come on, Miaka! No need to act shy now! You're with friends!"

"B-but His Majesty is standing right there…!!"

Nuriko glanced warily back at the emperor, fearing that he had gone too far. Gidayu, however, was laughing, holding his hand over his mouth to contain the soft sound. Nuriko was baffled. He didn't seem like the type to tolerate lapses in etiquette, let alone laugh at them. The emperor sat up finally, regarding his guests with an awkward, reserved smile. "Please, let us converge in the dining hall, so you all may more easily reacquaint yourselves with Miaka."

XXXXXX

"Hotohori, I'm sorry."

He turned to her, a look of astonishment on his beautiful features. "My goodness, Miaka… whatever for?"

She smiled, though face forlorn. "I turned down the Konan emperor's proposal because of my love for Tamahome… but I'm standing here about to get married to the emperor, anyway, only the wrong one." Miaka wiped at her eyes, careful not to smudge her makeup. "I know you feel bad, because you think you didn't do enough to stop this, but it's okay. If it's for Konan, I can do this." She sighed and dipped a delicate finger into a pot of red rouge. The makeup applied smoothly to her full lips as she ran her finger across them, and then she wiped the remainder on a handkerchief sitting on the vanity. Miaka turned to face Hotohori, and he was stunned into speechlessness by the transformation.

"Miaka…"

"If it's for Konan," Miaka continued, closing her eyes. "I can do anything…" She pressed her forehead against the cool glass of the mirror. "If it'll save Yui," she whispered, so soft Hotohori had to strain to hear, "I'll marry Gidayu."

XXXXXX

In the long dining hall was three tables made of rich, lacquered wood and carved with the most intricate designs. The longest was the one the party now found themselves at, with Gidayu at its head. Miaka sat at his right side, the one across from her empty. Tamahome sat directly besides her, looking very much the part of a jilted lover, and the remaining seishi sat haphazardly in the other seats with no particular order. Hotohori sat at the opposite end of the table, his guard and advisors on either side of him.

"Miaka," Chiriko gasped out in amazement. "You've changed so much in three years!"

Miaka smiled and nodded, and as Tamahome watched her, he couldn't deny that it was true. The transition from fifteen to eighteen was vast anyway, but in the young woman it was especially obvious. Miaka seemed much more mature, now – demure, even – and her heart shaped face had been sculpted into the finely angled countenance of an adult. Her chest had filled out just a bit more, and her hips were wider and fleshier. Still, Tamahome thought, chuckling, some things would always stay the same, as was clear as Miaka grabbed yet another bowl of noodles and began scarfing it down.

"Hey!" Tasuki hollered. "Where'd mah dumplin's go?!"

"I think," Mitsukake deadpanned, "it's in Miaka's stomach by now."

"Oops," Miaka mumbled through a mouthful of food, though she covered her mouth with her hand to hide the sight (another change, Tamahome noted). "Was that yours? I thought it was extra."

"Well, you could always ask for it back," Nuriko said with a grin.

"Ah, no thanks! I've eaten some weird an' crazy shit in mah life but tha's one line I ain't never crossin'…"

Miaka choked on her contraband in an attempt to keep from laughing, and even Tamahome had to smile a bit. Yet the presence of the resident emperor just a seat over kept the conversation shallow and strained. Emperor Gidayu sat tall, emotionless and silent as the people around him interacted, oblivious to the fact that he was making everyone extremely uncomfortable. He sipped his tea quietly as his eyes traveled back and forth between his guests.

Hotohori cleared his throat, dabbing the remnants of his wine from his mouth. "So, Miaka, please, tell us exactly what you have been up to these past three years."

Miaka flinched, dropping her chopsticks; Mitsukake coughed loudly into his fist, and Nuriko clapped his hands over his eyes, shaking his head. Hotohori looked around at his friends, confused. Was it something he had said…? "Miaka, is there something wrong?"

Miaka laughed, shaking her head slowly. "No, no, Hotohori! You didn't say anything wrong… I was just surprised, that's all." She pushed her empty bowl aside and interlaced her fingers over the table. "Well… there hasn't been much… I mean, His Majesty-" She smiled shyly at the emperor, "-handles all the political and diplomatic affairs… the courtesans are nice enough, but I am not able to talk with them much… oh! And the palace has the most breathtaking gardens; I love just sitting there and watching the day go by..."

The door to the hall opened with loud, rustic creaks, startling Miaka out of finishing the rest of her sentence. A small servant boy scurried over to the emperor's side and shyly whispered his message to Gidayu. Once relayed, Gidayu turned with regretful eyes to Miaka. "I'm terribly sorry, Miaka, but my presence is needed elsewhere at the moment. I must join my council for an impromptu conference … I will not bore you with the details. It is nothing for you to concern yourself with." He stood, and Miaka and the seishi followed suit. Nuriko hauled Tasuki to his feet amidst hissed protests. "I am sure that I will able to join you all once more by breakfast tomorrow morning. Please, enjoy every luxury my fine palace has to offer." Gidayu bowed his head and Hotohori and the other seishi returned it simultaneously. He gazed down at Miaka, smiling. "I free you from all your imperial duties for the rest of the day. Please take this time to familiarize yourself with your family."

Miaka smiled sadly. "Thank you, Your Majesty."

She closed her eyes, anticipating a kiss or some small display of affection, but all she felt was the slight breeze of the emperor's swishing robes as he hurried past her. Miaka's eyes followed his movement in longing, which was not missed by her diligent celestial warriors.

"Miaka…"

She turned at the sound of her name, spoken softly and tinged with sadness and remorse. Her warriors watched her with kind, concerned eyes, but their sympathy was like a stab to her heart. "What's wrong? Everything is fine," Miaka chirped. After the doubtful looks cast her way, she continued: "Really," she mumbled, almost pleading; begging them to ignore her pain, hoping that sweeping her sorrow under a mat would mean she wouldn't have to deal with it anymore. "Heika-sama is very good to me."

Chiriko glanced down, playing with the dangling threads of his robe. Nuriko smiled at her, his eyes watering. Mitsukake's face remained calm, though Miaka could feel the concern for her radiating off of him in waves. Chichiri removed his mask and held her gaze with his one, inquisitive eye. Tamahome clenched his fists and closed his eyes, but said nothing. Tasuki observed the reactions with distaste, his anger and frustration growing until he couldn't stay silent any longer.

"I call bullshit," he said growled softly, though his tone was bitter and just the slightest bit helpless.

Nuriko's hands slapped the table. "Tasuki!"

"I'm sorry," Miaka squeaked, blinking away tears with little success. "But I really have to go." She gathered her skirts in her hands and fled from the room.

"Miaka!" Hotohori and Tamahome called after her, and then Tamahome made chase. The room drifted into an uneasy silence. Hotohori dropped into his chair and covered his face with his hands.

"This," he mumbled, "was not a haphazard decision. Miaka did not marry Gidayu-dono on a whim… much thought and effort was put into this agreement, and even more time spent trying to find a worthy alternative." Hotohori glanced up, holding the gaze of each of his friends in turn. "So why… why is this still so hard to bear?"

Chichiri shook his head. For once, he did not have an answer, or a solution. Chiriko bit his lip and looked to Mitsukake for guidance, but his only response was to reach over and pat the younger boy on the head. Tasuki cursed, fleeing from the room.

This, Nuriko guessed, was going to be a very long week.

XXXXXX

"Miaka!"

She slowed, but suddenly changed directions and sped through the gardens with her dirtied, torn robes whipping behind her. Already she was feeling winded – imperial life didn't require much activity other than eating and looking dignified – and Tamahome was gaining fast. With a sudden burst of speed he caught up with Miaka and grabbed her wrist firmly. "Tamahome!" She hissed. "Let go!" She twisted and squirmed under his hold, but Tamahome did not budge. He grabbed her other wrist to keep her from flailing and potentially injuring them both. "Tamahome! Your priestess and your empress commands you to let her go!"

Tamahome narrowed his eyes in irritation. "First of all," he grimaced as Miaka stomped on his foot. He whirled her around and held her back firmly against his chest. "-you're not the priestess anymore. You've already completed your service to Suzaku. And-" Miaka poised her foot over Tamahome's once more, but just as she prepared to slam it down Tamahome moved, causing her to jerk forward and lose her balance. "Would you stop that already and listen to me?!" Miaka went still and silent, though her shoulders had a stiff set to them. Tamahome sucked in a deep breath and continued. "…Secondly, you're not my empress; Houki is." His voice turned soft, full of his love for her. "Miaka… you might be an empress here in Kutou, but to me your just plain ol' Miaka, the woman I love." Miaka held her head dejectedly. "I know things didn't work out the way we wanted them to, and I'm sorry you even had to be put in this position, but I will always love you, Miaka." His grip relaxed once he was certain she wasn't going to run out on him again, and he rested his cheek in the soft tendrils of her hair. "Even if we can never be together, I won't stop loving you. But… you have to be strong." Miaka turned around, and their eyes met in a wave of mutual affection. "I promise," Tamahome said softly, captivated by her wide green eyes, "If there's anything I can do to get you out of this, I'll find it. Okay, Miaka?"

Miaka nodded, giving him a tremulous smile. "Thank you, Tamahome. I will always love you, too."

He gave her a sad smile, and with no regards to where he was, who he was with, or who might be watching, Tamahome leaned down and captured her lips.

Miaka's eyes fluttered. So warm. His kiss was warm and sweet, full of every emotion she could think of, both good and bad: love, lust, passion, hope, pain, sorrow, need, desire… It was the most pure, raw emotion, if not the only one, that she had felt in almost three years, and Miaka felt overwhelmed by the intensity of it. She rose up on her tiptoes to get a better angle, and then she opened up to him like a budding flower, allowing Tamahome to deepen the kiss. Miaka's heart clenched painfully and tears slid down her cheeks. It wasn't until she felt the tip of his tongue slide across hers that she realized the hefty repercussions of what they were doing, and reluctantly, she broke contact. Her cheeks were flushed and Tamahome's anguished expression almost undid her.

"Tamahome," she whispered, unwilling to break the fragile atmosphere that had formed around them. "Tamahome… if we're seen together like this we could both get ourselves killed."

Tamahome nodded, though he too felt tortured. "I understand." He reached up to touch her cheek, but at the last moment thought better of it. His hand fell back to his side and clenched into a fist. He chuckled bitterly. "What is it with us, Miaka? First the ceremony, and now this. It feels like Suzaku doesn't want us to be together! Why is it that every time we get over one hurdle, life gives us another? I feel as if I'm cursed."

Miaka frowned. "Tamahome…"

"But… I won't give up! I don't give a damn what the gods think or the emperor of bloody Kutou. I will try, Miaka. With everything I have."

"I know, Tamahome." She beamed up at him. "I'll try really hard as well."

Tamahome laughed. "No… you should do your best to be a good wife-" He spat the word, "-to the emperor. It will obvious if you try to do anything from the inside. In the mean time, I'll look through the Konan-Kutou peace treaty and see if I can find a loophole or something. I'm not an expert on politics or anything, but I'm sure Chiriko will help me."

"All right, but please, don't do anything to get you killed."

Tamahome stared at her strangely for a long time, until finally a smiled worked its way on his face. "All right. Take care… my love." He began walking the way he had come, and Miaka watched his retreating back with longing. The years had treated him well. His sculpted physique was more pronounced, the muscles of his arms lean and hard. His ass, however, looked soft and oh so yummy. Not too big, but not flat, either. Guiltily, Miaka decided that she wanted to cup it in her hands and give it a nice squeeze. She groaned in frustration.

"I need to stop thinking such things," Miaka mumbled, shaking the thoughts from her head, "or Gidayu will begin to notice." She strode through the maze of shrubbery and flowers in the opposite direction that Tamahome had gone, berating herself mentally all the way. And in the shade of an oak tree, a pair of amber eyes followed her every move. Tasuki waited until Miaka had disappeared completely from his sight before stepping out from the ancient tree's shadow, and with a last long look over his shoulder, the bandit went running down the veranda, his destination firm in his mind.

XXXXXX

"On this day, the empire of Konan, country guarded by the god of the South, Suzaku, and the country guarded by the god of the west, Seiryuu, hereby decree a permanent truce between the two nations, so long as the conditions within this document are met. Blood has been shed, and many citizens of both nations have lost their lives in the bitter struggle for power between not only Konan and Kutou, but between Kutou and the other two nations of the four gods: Hokkan and Sairou. No more shall such pointless conflict be. The history will forever be told to future generations, for no one can hope to advance without the guidance of the past, but no longer shall such strife be a reality. The conditions of this treaty are as followed:

All military personnel of one nation must withdraw completely from the boundaries of the other, and must never enter these set boundaries with the intent to do harm or intervene with that country's politics, economy, or general well-being in any way, shape, or form.

No government shall hold citizens of these two nations without proper and just cause. Moreover, prisoners of war will be immediately released upon signing of this treaty, as long as such a pardon is not of direct threat to the holding nation.

Yui Hongo, citizen of Kutou and priestess of Seiryuu, will be released from prison and pardoned of all war crimes committed.

Kutou will pay the amount Konan deems necessary for the initiating of a costly war.

As a final act of peace, Konan will off its priestess', Miaka Yuuki's, hand in marriage to the current emperor of Kutou as a symbolic sign of the newly formed alliance. Let their union be a testament to all citizens of a bright future yet to come.

XXXXXX

"This fuckin' sucks, Chichiri!"

Chichiri opened his eye and regarded his younger friend curiously. The twenty year old man was pacing across the floor with an anxious expression. The oil lamp burning in the corner of the small, dim room danced across his face and hair, accentuating the weary eyes and the dark circles around them. The wandering monk realized, with a start, that in the two days they'd been in Kutou, Tasuki hadn't been getting much sleep.

"I know, no da," Chichiri said, removing his mask to address his friend without barriers. Obviously Tasuki was prepared to bare him his soul, so it was only fair that Chichiri offered his friend the same. "But it's not as if Miaka was forced to do this, no da. She went into this agreement willingly, and her decision saved both countries a lot of grief, no da."

"I know that, Chichiri. Miaka gave up 'er family an' 'er friends an' 'er home so she could save ev'ryone else." He scowled. "It was stupid an' reckless an' one of the most selfless things I've ever seen." Tasuki stopped, and Chichiri watched him curiously, eyebrow raised. "But this is bullshit!" Tasuki roared. "Miaka already sacrificed ev'rything when she summoned Suzaku, an' now she's gotta sacrifice fer the rest of 'er life? What th' fuck do these people want from 'er next? A fuckin' cure fer poverty? A stop ta global warmin'?!"

Chichiri didn't know what global warming was, but if he had to take a guess he could assume it was something Tasuki had learned from Miaka. "Tasuki," the monk mulled over his words before continuing. "You are forgetting that sacrifices are a part of life, no da. They are not something to bitterness towards; they are something to aspire to. A sacrifice is not a curse, it's a blessing. It is a gift given fully and freely out of love, na no da. Sacrifice is not unanimous with coerciveness, no da."

Tasuki stared at his friend blankly. "That," he deadpanned, "is the stupidest shit I've ever heard."

Chichiri shrugged, unperturbed. "Consider it advice from a man of god, no da."

"Don't get me wrong, Chichiri, I understand where yer comin' from. But what Miaka did… it wasn't given outta love. Not completely, anyway. She did it outta duty. She did it ta keep us outta another war, but she's gonna be sufferin' fer it ev'ryday, and she'll keep sufferin' until."

"Until what, no da?"

Tasuki gave him a meaningful look. "Until either me er Tama punch that bastard's lights out, or the emperor drops dead. Either one is fine wit me."

Chichiri laughed silently. "You feel strongly about this."

"Of course I do! An' ya should too, 'Chiri! Of course I'd be concerned about someone I-" Tasuki snapped his mouth shut, but by then it was too late. The damage had already been done. Chichiri's eye widened, and his impressive cognitive skills moved to fill in the blanks. Chichiri took a closer look at Tasuki's overall condition, remembering all his various eccentricities over the past few days. Tasuki hadn't been sleeping, and he was as anxious as ever. He seemed to walk around with a permanent chip on his shoulder ever since they'd arrived in Kutou – well, more so than usual – but in regards to Miaka he was as gentle as possible. His eyes softened ever so slightly whenever he gazed at the priestess, and if Chichiri hadn't been as close to Tasuki as he was, he probably wouldn't have even noticed.

"What," Chichiri murmured, even though he knew damn well what Tasuki had meant. "were you going to say, Tasuki?"

The bandit looked away. "Nothin'."

"Tasuki," Chichiri said softly. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."

Tasuki ran his fingers through his hair, which had grown much longer over the past couple years, and he sighed. "So I'm that obvious, huh?"

Chichiri shook his head. "No. I doubt any of the others would have noticed, but I'm sure they wouldn't treat you any differently if they knew, no da."

"Yeah, it seems we all have a habit of fallin' in love wit our priestess." He plopped down next to Chichiri on the monk's kesa, which was fanned out over the floor and being used as an impromptu mat. "What is it 'bout 'er? I'm 'sposed ta be a badass women-hatin' bandit, goddamnit, not some lovesick moron."

"It's all right, Tasuki." Chichiri clapped his friend on the back. "Everyone knows that you're just a big softie, no da."

Tasuki glared at Chichiri in the corner of his eye. "'Chiri? Do somethin' fer me, will ya?"

"Of course."

"…Shut up."

"Right away, no da."

A comfortable silence formed between the two men, and after awhile Chichiri closed his eye and concentrated on his meditation and prayers. His breathing slowed and his mind cleared of all distractions. Chichiri's prayer to Suzaku ran like a mantra in his head.

'Suzaku, watch over your humble servants. Guide us through our lives with your gentle spirit and lead us to love, whether or not it is returned…'

"…Chichiri?"

The monk opened his eye, easing gently out of his trance. "Yes, Tasuki no da?"

Tasuki fidgeted, looking abashed. "What do ya think she'd say?" He turned to look at Chichiri. "If she knew?"

Chichiri smiled, and Tasuki relaxed. "I think she would be very flattered, no da." Tasuki still looked doubtful. "No one considers you a leper, no da. Maybe you would find out how much she loves you in return."

Tasuki's eyebrows knitted together as he looked away. "I guess."

'Jus' not th' way I want ta be.'

XXXXXX

"Miaka-baka-chaaaan!"

Nuriko hurried down the hallway, skipping to his own imaginary beat. The guards glared as he passed, but Nuriko only stuck his tongue out and continued on his way. He was an 'honored' guest to the palace; they couldn't touch him no matter what he did. And they wouldn't succeed even if they tried. Nuriko had enough strength to take on the whole blasted army.

As he approached a sullen Miaka, though – sitting on the bank of a pond and staring off into space – Nuriko almost wished those guards would provoke him. Then he could kick their asses twelve ways to Sunday and bring Miaka home to Konan. "Miaka-baka-chan!"

Miaka whirled around at the loud, sing-song call. "Nuri-chan!" She glared mildly. "Baka-chan, huh?"

Nuriko giggled nervously. "Hey, it rhymes!" He walked over and sat beside her. "What are you doing out here by yourself? Shouldn't an empress always have her guard with her?"

Miaka shook her head. "No, as long as I stay within the inner walls of the palace, His Majesty feels I'm safe enough to be on my own every once and awhile. He doesn't want to suffocate me unnecessarily." Nuriko broke out into a fit of giggles, and Miaka's eyes narrowed self-consciously. "What's so funny?"

"You!" He pinched her cheeks. "You're talking all proper now, Miaka! I didn't know you knew words with so many syllables!"

"Baka! 'Unnecessarily' is not a big word. But I have been taking etiquette lessons; every day at noon."

Nuriko gave her a bitter smile. "Does Heika-sama tell you when to eat, too?"

Miaka smiled sheepishly. "Eight o'clock every evening. Lunch is at four…"

Nuriko sighed. "Ah, well. It can't be helped. But while I'm here, you're gonna listen to me. And I say: you can do whatever you want. We don't get much time to see each other, now that you're the ruler of a country and all, so we've gonna make the best of the time we do have. I'm going to show you all the things you've been missing out on, being holed up in this place all the time."

Miaka raised an eyebrow. "Like what?"

Nuriko poked her in the nose, smiling mischievously. "You'll see." He grabbed her wrist and pulled her with him as he stood. "First," he took an assessment of her current attire – an elegant and elaborate, if not slightly dirty gown – and shook his head in disdain. "We have to get you in something less royal-like and more uncomfortable. Then we'll go have girl talk, just you and me."

"Whatever happened to embracing being a guy?"

"Desperate times call for desperate measures, Miaka." He clasped her hands and looked deeply into her eyes, sending Miaka giggling. "And if it's for you, I can sacrifice my newly found masculinity for the sake of you needing a girlfriend to confess all your troubles to."

Miaka snorted, though a smile crept unto her face. "Yeah, sure."

"Now, now, that was extremely unladylike. I may be letting you out of your royal obligations, but that doesn't give you the privilege to speak of anything less than your royal training. Now!" Nuriko clapped his hands enthusiastically. "Let's go get plastered!"

"W-wait! You never said anything about-"

"Time's a-wastin', Miaka-baka!"

XXXXXX

Tasuki was taking a stroll through the confusing maze that was the Kutou palace when it happened. He had just been minding his own business, taking in the sights and smells of a foreign place. Compared to Konan's, the imperial palace of Kutou was lacking in almost every regard. Although three years had passed since the war, Kutou was still struggling to rebuild its economy and in turn its infrastructure from the devastating damage. The palace had taken a particularly hard hit from Nakago during his first assault, as the shoddy, mismatched walls and neglected, deadened greenery in some areas suggested. Tasuki even believed much of the veranda to be suspect of crumbling right underneath his feet. His anxious feelings left him, however, as he rounded the corner on his way back to his room and 110 pounds of solid something went barreling into him. Tasuki hissed as the wind was knocked out of him.

"Shit!" Momentarily Tasuki lost his balance, but he pulled himself upright just in time to keep him and the bundle in his arms from falling into a heap on the floor.

"MIAKA!" Nuriko was running towards Tasuki, his face flushed and movements wobbly. His eyes lit up as he saw the bandit. "Ah, Tasuki! You found Miaka!"

"Miaka-?" Tasuki looked down at the bundle in his embrace, and Miaka looked back at him, eyes shiny and glazed.

"Hi, Tasuki," she said softly, and Tasuki's nose wrinkled from the faint smell of alcohol on her breath.

"What th'- Miaka, you've been drinkin'?!"

"She only had one glass, I swear!" Nuriko held his hands out, palm up, in a placating manner. "I only wanted to loosen her up a bit, so she'd be more comfortable, but I didn't know after all these years that she was still such a lightweight!"

"Shit!" Tasuki shoved his hand in Miaka's face. "Mi-chan, how many fingers am I holdin' up?"

She squinted. "Um… two?"

Nuriko glanced at his friend's fisted hand and chuckled. "Looks like you grew some extra… er, what's the word for it, Miaka?"

She blinked. "Appendages."

"Right. Appendawhawhosits. You grew some more of those."

Tasuki glared at Nuriko, who was swaying where he stood. "Don't tell me that yer drunk, too!"

Nuriko blew out a raspberry. "No. Please. I can handle my alcohol just fine, thank you." He watched his priestess warily. "…Looks like Mi-chan's about to toss her cookies, though." He hiccupped. "Maybe you should carry her back to her room, Tasuki."

"What? Yer th' one who made 'er like this! You carry 'er! Yer th' one wit th' strength of ten men!"

"Even I get tired. And with Miaka like this, I've had to carry her most of the night anyway. She's been pulling me around all night! I think I tore a-"

"Ligament," Miaka supplied with a dreamy grin.

"…right. Miaka has to get back to her room somehow, and it can't be by me. And if someone finds out we defiled the empress with copious amounts of alcohol, we'll be screwed!"

Tasuki's glare intensified. "We didn't do anything! You-" He blinked, frowning. "Wait, copious?"

"Miaka taught me that," Nuriko chirped proudly. "It means, 'a whole lot'."

Tasuki narrowed his eyes. "Yeah, well you jus' got the empress of Kutou a whole lot of fuckin' drunk."

"Tasu-ki!"

Tasuki groaned. "All right, already! I'll do it!" Tasuki swept his hand under Miaka's backside and pulled her soft, limp form into his arms. Her warm body pressed against him brought a blush to his cheeks, and Tasuki's face softened as he watched Miaka's eyes flutter, on the brink of unconsciousness. She wasn't dressed in the silk kimono he had seen her wearing earlier. Instead, Miaka wore a dusty brown pair of pants that Tasuki instantly recognized as Nuriko's, as well as a green tunic that hung loosely on her slim frame. Even though it was about a size too big, it still tugged against her ample breasts.

"Nuriko, so where is-" Tasuki stopped short as he looked up. Nuriko was nowhere in sight. "NURIKO?!"

He heard faint cackling in the distance. "See you around, Tasu-chan! Ja mata ne!"

"Nuriko! What th' hell! Ya can't jus' leave me wit… NURI-" Miaka stirred in his arms, instantly silencing him. "-ko." Tasuki hissed a curse under his breath. "Goddamnit." Not only had he been left alone with the one woman he loved, but he had no idea where her room was! How was he supposed to sneak a drunken, unconscious empress into her quarters without anyone knowing? If the emperor found out…

"Shit." Miaka was the empress of fuckin' Kutou, wife to the emperor. If he carried the empress to her room, it would really be their room, and at this time of night wouldn't the emperor be there also? If he was, Tasuki was double screwed. But, if he coped out and took Miaka back to his own room, he would attract all kinds of negative attention; not to mention that in both scenarios he'd most likely be killed and possibly rip apart the uneasy truce between the two nations. Allegedly taking advantage of an intoxicated empress was just enough to start another war. Tasuki clenched his teeth. Damned if he did, damned if he didn't. Tasuki didn't consider himself the smartest, but he did know one thing…

He had just gotten played.

"I swear ta god, Nuriko… if I git mah head chopped off, I'm comin' back ta haunt yer ass!"

XXXXXX

"I don't know, Tamahome, but I will certainly try."

Chiriko sat leaned over several large tomes and scrolls on his desk. Without looking up from his studies, Chiriko held a rather one-sided conversation with his older warrior brother, who was lying across the boy's bed and staring up at the ceiling.

"Really?" Tamahome perked at Chiriko's words. "So… you think you can help?"

"I'm not sure." He closed his book finally, turning around to look at the man. "Whenever a document such as the Konan-Kutou peace treaty is made, the officials use a painstaking amount of time creating it so there aren't any loopholes, which is exactly what you're asking me to look for." Chiriko looked thoughtful. "Granted, they may still exist – you have to account for human error, after all – but to examine the document close enough to find such obscure things would take a long time. Maybe even months."

"That's too long! We'll only be in Kutou for a week!"

"I know." Chiriko frowned. "Trust me, Tamahome, I want to help Miaka just as much as you do, but I just don't believe it's possible." Tamahome hung his head, and Chiriko reconsidered. He sighed. "But… I suppose we can give it a shot. I'll need a lot of help, though… we will need some of the others to help. I know Mitsukake will be willing. Perhaps Hotohori-sama may be able to help as well, if he can extract himself from his meetings."

Tamahome grinned. "Thanks a lot, Chiriko! You're the best!"

The young man smiled softly, blushing. "Don't mention it. You're welcome." He picked imaginary lint from his pants leg, and then pointed over Tamahome's shoulder to a shelf above the bed. "Hand me that scroll up there, if you please… never mind, I'll get it." Chiriko stood from his chair and cracked his back before heading over to the shelf by his bedside. Tamahome watched in awe as Chiriko reached effortlessly up and plucked the parchment from its resting place. At Tamahome's astonished expression, Chiriko grinned. "Gods, I never get tired of this," he said happily.

Miaka hadn't been the only one to go through a major change these past three years. Chiriko had gone from a short, wide-eyed child to a tall and lanky teenager of sixteen. His mahogany eyes were slanted and exotic looking, and his face had lost much of its child fatness. Chiriko was still not very fond of sports; his days were still often spent in the dark of his room, studying. His pale skin and paltry muscle tone reflected this, but Tamahome figured it wouldn't be long before Chiriko wanted to branch out from his bookworm image. He was already almost as tall as Tamahome, and quite the looker too, if he did say so himself.

Chiriko pulled the scroll open and scanned the contents quickly. "Tamahome, this is a copy of the peace treaty. Hotohori-sama had me make an extra or two when the conditions were dictated to me. This, however, is the abridged version." He handed it to Tamahome, who pulled it out to its full length. It was about as long as his forearm. Chiriko then reached into a pocket of his robe and presented another scroll, emblazoned with the official Konan insignia. Tamahome inspected the intricate watermark of Suzaku flying across its surface. "Now this is the full version." With a flourish, Chiriko whipped it out and let it roll out onto the floor. It continued to unroll along the carpet until it bumped against the base of Chiriko's wardrobe, clear across the room. Tamahome gaped.

"Well," he squeaked, and Chiriko grinned impishly. "Maybe we can get Chichiri to help, too."

"Hope you don't mind missing a couple hours of sleep, Tamahome." Chiriko's eyes twinkled with mischief as he held up a cup of his steaming hot tea. "We're going to have to pull one hell of an all-nighter."

XXXXXX

"Mi-chan? Ya awake?"

Miaka stirred, though she did not wake. She slept peacefully, her head lolled back against the pillows and her feet propped up on Tasuki's outstretched legs. He ran his hands up and down her legs and feet in a soothing gesture, relishing in the feel of her baby soft skin. Tasuki didn't know quite how much she had drank -he didn't have much faith in Nuriko's veracity - but he figured she'd wake up with one hell of a hangover. The least he could do was make it a little less unbearable when it happened.

"I am so fuckin' screwed," Tasuki murmured helplessly, watching the crescent moon hanging high in the sky through the wide picture window. Luckily, when Tasuki had found Miaka's room, Gidayu and his guards were nowhere in sight. It wasn't until the bandit had pushed upon the bedroom door and become enthralled by the grandness of it all did he remember that Gidayu had left earlier that evening for a meeting. More than likely, he was still there, but Tasuki didn't believe his luck would last for much longer. Soon someone would get curious and come looking for the empress in her room, and when they did Tasuki certainly could not be there. Yet his protectiveness of his priestess made him wait around despite the risk, wanting to see her awake and sober before he dared to leave her alone. "Miaka," Tasuki whispered, brushing a stray strand of hair from her face. His ministrations were just an excuse to touch her, he knew, but Tasuki hardly cared. Curling his fingers into her hair, Tasuki trailed his other hand over her cheek. Miaka sighed from the contact and moved closer to his hand. Tasuki held his breath as she nuzzled into his palm and kissed the clammy, calloused skin that covered it.

Tasuki flinched but didn't pull away. He caressed her cheek, stroking a single finger along the curve of her neck. It was as if his hands had a mind of their own. Tasuki knew good and damn well that he shouldn't even be here, let alone touching Miaka like this, but he couldn't pull away. Her skin was so soft… so warm, and her touch so inviting. Suddenly the thought entered into his mind to kiss her, and idly he wondered what it would feel like, having her lips pressed against his…

Miaka squirmed and chuckled as his fingers brushed over a particularly sensitive spot on her neck. She seemed to be fighting back a smile. Despite himself, a grin worked its way on Tasuki's face. "Well, well, well," he drawled. "So th' empress of Kutou is ticklish…! Well I wouldn't want ta wake 'er up… maybe I should stop…" He pulled his hand away, and Miaka made a soft sound that could only be described as disappointed. Her smile faded until her face had returned to the blankness of sleep. Tasuki took her feet into his hands, one in each, and with a devious grin began tickling her soles and instep. Miaka squirmed again, trying to wrench her feet from Tasuki's hands but his grip was firm. She tried desperately to contain her laughter, but finally Miaka lost the fight and broke into a fit of incessant giggles.

"Ah… Tasuki! Stop, stop… okay, I'm awake… ah, stop that! I give up!"

Miaka opened her eyes to see her redheaded troublemaker hovering over her, grinning a mile a minute. "You knew all along I was awake," she said softly, "didn't you?"

"Of course I did! Ya've always been an awful actress Mi-chan. Even after three an' some years that hasn't changed."

Miaka sat up, pulling her feet from Tasuki's lap and tucking them beneath her. Her head swam at the movement. "Whoa…"

"Here," Tasuki said, placing a mug in Miaka's hands. "Drink this. It'll take the edge off." Miaka grimaced as she took her first sip, and Tasuki chuckled. "Yeah, I know it ain't too great taste wise, but it does work. I think Mitsukake made it taste horrible on purpose, hopin' I wouldn't drink so much th' next time. He ain't never seen me drink, apparently."

"Blegh," Miaka mumbled, rubbing her forehead. "I think… I may never drink again."

"Ya should've eaten somethin'," Tasuki stated matter-of-factly. "Makes the alcohol absorb slower."

Miaka smirked. "You're an expert at this, huh?"

"More o' an expert than I'd care ta be, actually."

Miaka smiled over her cup at him as she forced down another mouthful of the horrible concoction. She coughed as she looked around. Somehow she had ended up in her room. She could only assume that Tasuki had brought her here, though the last thing she remembered was the cool grass underneath her feet as she and Nuriko walked through the gardens, talking about everything and nothing. That had been early afternoon, and now it must've been far into the night. "You brought me back here, didn't you, Tasuki? Thank you."

Tasuki blushed and averted his eyes. "It's nothin'… I couldn't let ya wander off alone, and that damn Nuriko split so fast he left a dust trail. He better hope I don't see him again tomorrow, or he'll be meetin' th' edge of my foot ta his face."

Miaka giggled. "I'm sure he didn't mean to ditch you."

"Th' hell he didn't! But, I don't mind." Tasuki reached over and ruffled Miaka's hair. "I've been wantin' ta be alone wit ya since we got 'ere, Odango. We've got a lot of catchin' up ta do."

"Hey," Miaka mumbled indignantly, jutting her chin out. "I don't wear my hair in buns anymore. You can't call me that now."

"Oh yeah. I guess yer right." Tasuki followed the line of her hair as it trickled down her shoulders and back. "Ah, well! No harm no foul. Ya'll still be Mi-chan ta me, even if I can't call ya Odango."

"Yes, but… I've changed a lot since you called me that." Miaka looked down and continued, a little sadly: "I don't know if Mi-chan truly fits me, anymore." The nickname 'Mi-chan' reminded Miaka of her younger days, when she was a naïve but hopeful fifteen year old with the world on her shoulders. It reminded her of days walking through the Konan palace, of sitting in the gardens while Tamahome whispered sweet nothings in her ear. It reminded her of the many weeks she spent searching for her seishi; of the frightened anticipation of summoning a god, and the warm feeling that bloomed in her chest as she began to think of her warriors as family. 'Mi-chan' reminded Miaka of the things she had left behind, and it hurt. Perhaps Tasuki was sitting here with her now, but soon he and the others would have to leave, and Miaka would be left to pick up the pieces in order to mold herself back into the perfect, demure wife.

"So?" Tasuki replied, interrupting her depressing inward thoughts. "What's yer point? Ev'ryone goes through changes in their lives, but at yer core, yer still Miaka. That's all that counts, isn't it?" He gestured at himself, which attracted Miaka's attention to his broad shoulders and thickly muscled arms. Much different than the Tasuki she remembered. "I ain't exactly th' same as I was three years ago neither. But ya'll always be the Suzaku no Miko, and mah friend, no matter what ya go through."

Miaka frowned down into her cup, her sad green eyes reflected in the surface of the drink from Hell. "But… I'm not the priestess anymore, Tasuki. I gave up my right, as soon as I married the emperor…"

"An' so what? So ya can't summon Suzaku anymore an' yer duties are finished. Big deal." He raised his right arm, showing the pale pink kanji etched into his skin. "As long as I have this mark on mah arm, ya'll still be th' priestess o' Suzaku, and I'll always be yer warrior. No matter what ya do, an' even if yer here in Kutou an' I'm a hundred miles away up at th' stronghold on Reikaku, I'll always be here for you, Miaka, if ya need me." He smiled, a tiny fang poking out. "I'll always be here ta protect ya."

"You really mean that, Tasuki?"

"Of course I do!" Tasuki leaned back, watching her with raised eyebrows. "Why are ya lookin' all surprised, Mi-chan? That's what friends'r for."

Miaka shook the last of her melancholy musings away and smiled. "I guess I shouldn't be. Thank you, Tasuki. That means a lot to me."

At her warm assurance, Tasuki continued. "An' even if yer not some lil' girl anymore but a woman, it don't make any difference ta me."

Miaka frowned. "But Tasuki… I've been considered a woman since I turned thirteen. Why is it that you're only just now realizing it?"

Tasuki grimaced. He should've stopped when he was ahead. The last thing he wanted to do was try and explain the definitions of a woman according to a country bandit man such as himself. "Uh…" He scratched his head nervously. "How do I put this? Well, ya see, Miaka, I think a woman's perspective of what makes a woman a woman an' th' perspective of a man is kinda diff'rent."

"Why?"

"Well, back where I come from, a girl isn't considered a woman until she… you know."

Miaka's frown lines deepened. "No, I don't."

"Well, a girl has ta be intimate wit a man before she reaches womanhood." Tasuki blushed as the words left his mouth.

"Oh," Miaka said quietly, blushing as well. "That." She slid the half empty cup of tea onto her bedside table and clasped her hands. "What makes you think that I've already become a woman, Tasuki?"

"Yer married," He murmured. "An' that's jus' a part of it." As Miaka stared off into space, Tasuki cursed his tactlessness. The absolute last thing he should've done was remind her of her of her unwanted marriage and the 'duties' that came along with it. But it was too late now. The words had already come out of his mouth, leaving him to regret them as Miaka sat in silence, mourning over what she'd lost. He hated that sad look on her face. Only Tamahome – and Gidayu, but that was a whole other type of evil – was supposed to make her look like that. Tasuki was supposed to be the happy-go-lucky bandit that made her smile.

"It's okay if yer not," Tasuki blurted. "I mean, shit, I ain't exactly a monk neither, but I was jus' thinkin' that it's a shame Tama couldn't be yer first. Not that it matters now, anyway." A dark look crossed Miaka's face, and her eyes watered. "Ah, I didn't mean it like that, Mi-chan! I'm sorry, I was jus'… but ya know… what I meant was..." She regarded him with trepidation as he continued rambling. "Er… I jus' think that it's a shame that ya have ta roll over an' see that ugly bastard ev'ry mornin'." Miaka winced, and Tasuki slapped a hand over his eyes. Insert foot into mouth. Chew, chew, chew. "Shit, Miaka…"

Miaka tucked her head into her shoulders and hid behind her hair as her shoulders jerked up and down. There was a strong impulse for him to say something stupid to make her laugh, but this time Tasuki kept his teeth clenched. Sit there an' take it, he scolded himself. Ya deserve it. Tasuki was right in the middle of an elaborate fantasy of the perfect way to kill himself when Miaka jerked her head back and laughed. Her eyes were leaking, but they were tears of joy, not sadness. Tasuki knew he must've had a 'what-the-fuck?' look on his face, but try as he might he couldn't get his face muscles to produce anything else. "Uh… Miaka?"

"Oh god, Tasuki!" Miaka gasped out, launching herself into his arms. "I've missed you so much!" And then she started bawling.

Tasuki sat dumbfounded, enjoying Miaka's proximity but not understanding in the least what he had done to deserve it. "Miaka… are ya okay?"

She shook her head. "I'm fine!" She laughed hysterically, tears falling down her cheeks in quick succession. "I'm sorry… I don't know why I'm crying… I can't help it."

"It's okay, Mi-chan. Cry all ya wanna. Let it all out…" Tasuki held her silently as Miaka soaked the front of his shirt with her tears. He closed his eyes and reveled in her faint, pleasant fragrance. After all this time, she still smelled like lilacs. The realization brought tears to his eyes; to think that he would have the chance to be with her again like this, after all that had happened… Tasuki wasn't stupid. He knew things couldn't always stay the same, but he still wished that Miaka was free to choose the life she wanted to live; and selfishly, he hoped she would've chosen a life with him.

Hah. As if. Still, Tasuki would take whatever he could, and only hope that he could do whatever he could in return to make the transition just a little easier for her. Much too soon, Miaka calmed down and pulled away from him, wiping her eyes and smiling, abashed. "I'm sorry for getting your shirt all wet," she murmured, though Tasuki dismissed her concern with a careless wave of his hand. "I just don't know what to do! Gidayu isn't cruel or unreasonable… he treats me more or less with respect and doesn't push me to do anything I don't feel comfortable with, but he's not Tamahome! I don't love him, and I thought that I could learn to love him but it hasn't happened yet. I don't believe it ever will happen." She sniffled. "I miss Konan. I miss my mom, and Yui-chan, and all of you. I miss the palace. I miss all the fun we used to have and I wish I could get to see Boushin-chan, but…" She trailed off. Words couldn't describe the closed off, frozen feeling she felt in her chest.

Tasuki frowned down at her. "Do ya ever regret doin' this, Miaka?"

She bit her lip. "I wish I could've been able to marry Tamahome like we planned, but… do I regret it? No. If it's for Konan, I'll do it."

Tasuki narrowed his eyes in confusion. "I thought ya did it fer ya friend… that Yui girl."

"Well, yes, of course. Even if there wasn't threat of war I still would've married Gidayu for Yui-chan."

Tasuki had never known anyone so selfless in his life. It made him angry; it infuriated him that after all she had already done, it seemed like Miaka could never catch a break. She was so strong, but Tasuki wanted to whisk her away to somewhere hidden away from the world, where the world's problems couldn't touch her anymore. He wanted to be her knight. He wanted to protect her from every pain, every hardship. Not that it would do any good; Miaka was the kind of person who would go looking trouble, hoping to fix it. Couldn't fault him for trying, though. "Miaka, I know it's gonna sound weird fer me ta say this, but ya can't be thinkin' about other people all the time. Sometimes ya have ta take a breather and jus' take care of yerself, ya know? I ain't sayin' ya shouldn't help out other people, but if ya don't slow down and put yerself first sometimes, all ya'll end up doin' is hurtin' yerself."

Miaka sighed. "I guess you're right."

"Sometimes, Mi-chan – and I don't mean all the time neither – it pays ta be selfish. Ya need ta start thinkin' "I want", instead of "they want". You've done just about ev'rything for Konan that ya could possibly do already. It would be diff'rent if ya did all of this an' perfectly happy 'bout it, but if yer gonna be unhappy wit th' consequences, it's better not ta do it at all." Tasuki tilted her chin up so Miaka could look right into his eyes. "Right now, I want ya ta promise me somethin'."

Miaka's lips twitched. "What is it, Tasuki?"

"From here on out, ya'll do more things jus' fer yerself. Jus' cause ya want to."

"That would be nice, but there are too many rules! An empress can only do what the emperor and the council says she can. They control me."

Tasuki grinned mischievously. "Only if ya let 'em." His infectious grin spread to Miaka, and giggling, she allowed herself to relax. Tasuki reached over and tickled her sides until she laughed 'til it ached and her face flushed pink. Miaka swatted his hands away and Tasuki let out a chuckle. "Hah! See? I like that pink on ya, Mi-chan. It matches yer hair."

"Oh hush you," she retorted, but her blush deepened. "Thank you though, Tasuki. I haven't talked to anyone like this in a long time. It feels better to get it all off my chest."

"No problem, Mi-chan. But I should prob'ly git goin' before someone comes an' accuses me of somethin' less than gentlemanly." He got to his feet, though he seemed reluctant to go. Suddenly, the thought of being alone in the large room while she waited for her indifferent husband to return made Miaka panic. Before Tasuki could walk away, Miaka pulled him back by his arm and held him tight around the waist.

"Tasuki..." Miaka blinked in confusion as she realized that she couldn't get her arms all the way around him anymore. Her hands stopped just short of each other. "Eh?"

Tasuki let out a loud guffaw. "Sorry, Mi-chan, but I ain't jus' skin an' bones no more." He flexed a bicep and waggled his eyebrows, making her laugh. "I'm 100 percent kickass bandit extraordinaire."

"Yeah, right," Miaka laughed. "You're just like sourdough bread – all hard and crunchy on the outside but warm and soft on the inside."

"Why does ev'ryone keep sayin' that?!"

Miaka cocked her head in confusion. "That you're like sourdough? I was sure that I was the first to come up with that."

"No, no, not th' sourdough – whatever th' hell that is – the big softie part."

Miaka smirked. "But, you are a big softie, Tasuki."

Tasuki glared mildly at her. "Am not!"

Miaka snickered. "Are too."

Tasuki rose to his full height, folded his arms, and glared harder. "Am not."

Miaka was not impressed. "Are too."

Tasuki smirked, crawled over to Miaka and pushed her onto her back. "Am not." He crouched over her, restraining both hands in one of his.

Miaka squirmed underneath him. "You are too! And stop trying to intimidate me!"

Tasuki raised an eyebrow. "Is it workin'?"

"NO!" She tried to yank her arms free, but Tasuki's grip tightened. His thighs were on either side of her legs and kept her from moving them. "Let go, Tasuki!" She snorted a laugh as he poked her in the stomach, but she forced herself to maintain an irked, superior expression. "Tasuki of the Suzaku Seven," Miaka boomed in a haughty voice. Tasuki rolled his eyes and grinned. "I command you to release the empress of Kutou this instant, or else."

"Oh yeah? Or else what?"

Miaka wiggled again. "Or else I'll beat you senseless!"

Tasuki busted out laughing. "Oh my," he said, his voice trembling. "I'm shiverin'."

Miaka groaned. "Why doesn't anyone take me seriously?!" Tasuki tickled her again, and Miaka laughed so hard that she arched off the bed. Tasuki froze as her soft body pressed up against his. Miaka squirmed, trying to escape his grip, and her lower half rubbed intimately against his. Jolted into awareness, Tasuki looked down at her face, noticing the soft red blush, the bright smile, and the sensuous mouth. The lower lip that she bit as she tried to keep herself from laughing. Suddenly, his body was hypersensitive to her touch and the fact that she was only inches away from him. And he was on top of her. Tasuki realized in horror that he was turned on. Gods, this was the last thing he needed! His loins tingled and his breathing grew labored. Tasuki jerked back as if burned, slumping down at the end of the bed and covering his face with his hands. He took deep, shaky breaths as he tried to calm himself down.

"Tasuki?" Miaka sat up, staring in confusion at his stiff back. "What's wrong? What did I do?" She crawled over to him, leaning over to look at him over his shoulder. His big hands blocked his face from her sight, and trying to pull them away proved useless. "Tasuki, please, talk to me! Say something, you're scaring me!"

Tasuki lifted his head up, and Miaka gasped. His smoldering gaze drew her in; hypnotizing her until she couldn't look away. She saw a heat in his eyes unlike anything she'd ever seen before. Not from Tamahome, and certainly not from Gidayu. Tasuki looked at her as if he wanted to ravage and coddle her at the same time, and surprisingly, she was not the slightest bit afraid of him. In fact, somewhere deep inside of her, Miaka actually wanted him to act on his obvious desires. An abysmal feminine energy had awakened within her under the red hot intensity of Tasuki's gaze, and Miaka wanted desperately to keep it alive.

"Tasuki," she repeated, her voice soft. "What's wrong?" But she knew exactly what was wrong; he was trying to hide his attraction while restraining himself from jumping her bones right then and there. By the telltale bulge in his pants, he seemed to be failing at one of the two. Miaka stared at it in impressed fascination. Oh dear.

"Miaka," Tasuki whispered hoarsely, looking down at his hands. Miaka blinked as she was freed from his hypnotic gaze. "I should go." Unlike the last time he had uttered those words, Tasuki made no move to leave. He did not meet her eyes though Miaka pleaded with every fiber of her being for him to do so. "If yer husband comes back while I'm here, I'm toast."

"I wouldn't worry about that," Miaka mumbled, her tone sad and bitter. "His meetings run far into the night most days. Usually he doesn't return to the bedroom until right before dawn." She placed her hand on his shoulder. "Please don't go, Tasuki. I'd be lonely if you left."

Tasuki shook his head. "I don't think I should." He spared her a sheepish glance. "Stay, I mean. You should go ta sleep. It's way past midnight an' ya need ta look right an' proper by breakfast tomorrow. 'Sides, I ain't th' best company."

"That's not true. I prefer your company over anyone else."

"Ya don't know what yer talkin' about," Tasuki growled, but Miaka was unfazed. She scooted closer to him; so close that Tasuki could smell the faint sweetness of alcohol on her breath. Even if he was stupid enough to lust after her, he thought, he'd never try anything, especially with her like this. It was the sake talking, Tasuki was convinced, not her heart. Her heart belonged to Tama.

And, as much as it pained him to admit it, her body belonged to the emperor.

"Miaka, yer drunk," Tasuki whispered, pleading, as she leaned her head on his shoulder. "Ya need ta prepare yerself fer one hell of a hangover and rest up for tomorrow and- shit, stop rubbin' me like that."

Miaka blinked innocently, her fingertips pressed lightly against the flesh of his forearm. "Why? Is it irritating you?"

Tasuki laughed without humor. "Hell, no! It feels so good that I never want ya ta stop. It's givin' me wrong ideas. Are ya tryna drive me crazy?"

"Yes." Miaka grinned.

Tasuki hid his face in the crook of his arm. "Mi-chan, what th' hell are ya thinkin'?"

Miaka licked her lips, an action that didn't go unnoticed by Tasuki's hungry gaze. "I'm thinking… that I want you to kiss me."

Tasuki's eyes widened, and then softened as Miaka reached up to caress the teardrop earring dangling from his ear. "Miaka, I am not gonna do that. That's me jus' beggin' fer a spear up my ass."

Miaka's hand moved again, this time stroking his stubbled cheek. Tasuki's hand closed over her own. "The empress commands it," she whispered. Tasuki had to chuckle at that.

"All right," he growled softly. "If m'lady commands it…" After a moment of hesitation, Tasuki leaned forward until his nose was just shy of touching hers. They crossed the last few inches between them together, and their lips brushed in their first kiss. As soon as it happened, Tasuki tried to pull away, but Miaka had other ideas. She looped her arms around his neck and tugged him back to her. Tasuki could've easily resisted if he desired it, but his heart wasn't in it. Ah what the hell. Giving into his baser urges, Tasuki crushed Miaka to him and kissed her within an inch of her life.

This time was different. More hungry, more demanding. It was only a kiss, but Miaka felt like she was on fire. Tasuki was an extremely passionate kisser, and she could expect no less from the fire seishi. Before she knew it, Miaka was clutching him to her, taking all he had to give and giving just as much in return. She moaned as Tasuki gently tugged on her bottom lip with his teeth. He growled as she trailed her tongue over the roof of his mouth. Tasuki's hands settled around Miaka's waist, his eyes wide open as he drank in the sight of her. This was a dream come true, and he didn't want to miss a second of it. Almost as if sensing his gaze, Miaka's eyes fluttered open, locking with his. A million different sensations filled her at once: Tasuki cupping her breast through her shirt. Her nipple instantly peaking at the gentle, attentive contact. Tasuki's tongue undulating against hers. The steady vibration of their moans intermingled in the air. The thundering beat of his heart, and the scorching warmth radiating from his body…

Miaka was bursting into flames, and she couldn't believe that she had never felt it before. With Tamahome, it had always been gentle and affectionate, with desire sprinkled sparsely on top. But this… this was a completely different experience. By the way Tasuki was assaulting her senses and her very being, it seemed that he wanted to devour her, and Miaka was more than willing to be devoured. His molten amber eyes scorched, his cerulean earrings glimmered, and under the light of the oil lamps Tasuki's tanned skin seemed to glow. Gods, he was beautiful. Why hadn't she ever noticed before? When was it last, when a man had touched her at all, let alone like this? Never, Miaka thought in surprise. She whimpered as Tasuki broke the kiss, but it turned into a building moan as he began trailing feather light kisses over her cheeks, forehead and jaw. She drew in a breath as his fangs grazed her sensitive neck. Her mind grew hazy as Tasuki lowered her to the bed, pulling up her shirt to tease and caress the supple skin underneath…

"Miaka…" Tasuki curved his tongue suggestively into her navel, his fingers trailing down, down, down… over the hills of her breasts and the flat stomach. He stopped as he reached the waistband of her pants.

"Tasuki, I-"

Somewhere in the distance, a door slammed, and the couple jumped apart. Shadows from outside slipped underneath the door as guards continued their patrol.

"You take the east wing," a deep male voice boomed. "I'll take this corridor… and be quiet, before you wake Her Majesty." The irony of that statement was not missed by the room's occupants, and after a short exchange, the guards went separate ways, their footsteps fading away to nothing.

Left alone once more, Miaka and Tasuki sat on opposite sides of the bed, looking everywhere but at each other. Tasuki closed his eyes and counted to ten before he dared open his mouth. "Miaka, I-"

"Don't," Miaka interjected, whirling on him. "Don't apologize, Tasuki. It was… I started it." She blushed and stared down at her hands. "I… I don't know why I… I mean, I don't-"

"Don't worry 'bout it," Tasuki murmured. He got to his feet, straightening the jacket that had gone askew during their passionate kissing. "It's just the sake talkin', I understand. I'm th' sober one… I should've exercised some control." He retied his tessen holster to his back and strapped the weapon into it. "Look… tomorrow, you'll ferget all about this… you'll go right back to lovin' Tama, an' we can ferget this ever happened." Miaka's face contorted in anguish, and she reached for him only to have him swerve quickly out of the way. "Ev'rything will go right back to th' way it was." Tasuki hid his displeasure with this fact behind a shallow smile, but Miaka was not the least bit fooled. "G'night, Mi-chan. Don't let th' bedbugs bite." With a ragged sigh, Tasuki shuffled over to the door.

"Tasuki! Wait."

Despite himself, Tasuki turned around, his hand poised over the doorknob. "Yeah, Mi-chan?"

"I don't regret it," she blurted. Miaka shook her head at his doubtful expression. "I won't say sorry, because I'm not." She wringed her hands. "I'm sorry that we both have to get our feelings hurt, but I don't regret kissing you, Tasuki."

Tasuki chuckled, smiling sadly. "Can I hold ya to that tomorrow mornin', Mi-chan?" As Miaka tried desperately to cultivate a response, Tasuki pulled the double doors open and strode into the cool night air, never looking back.

Once the doors were firmly shut behind him, Tasuki slumped against the wood and groaned. Oh gods, what a night. Just thinking about kissing Miaka's petal soft lips again made his knees weak and his heart clench with longing. What the hell was he thinking? Tasuki covered his eyes with a trembling hand as he tried without success to regulate his erratic breathing. Suddenly he glanced up. Over his own growled, self-deprecating curses, he could've sworn he had heard voices. Turning his head, Tasuki raised his eyebrows at who he saw.

It was the emperor, hunched over and talking in hurried whispers to the young servant boy beside him. His breath created little puffs of white smoke in the cold night, yet he was wearing nothing but a sheer shawl over his bare arms.

'What's he doin'?' Using the stealth Reikaku bandits were famous for, Tasuki crept across the porch and slipped behind a pillar nearby. He pulled out his tessen, and used the smooth metal surface as a mirror. Flashed at the right angle, it showed Tasuki who was standing just on the other side. Closing his eyes and concentrating, the bandit was able to catch a few angry words carried on the wind.

"I don't care what you have to do," Gidayu hissed. "Even if it takes you over… see that it is done. And don't come back otherwise." He scoffed at something the boy said. "That is not important. I didn't spend three years… watching them… need to… can't… trust…"

Tasuki narrowed his eyes. 'Over? Over what?' He pressed his fan to his chest as the hollow thud of footsteps creaked across the rotted wooden floor. As the shadows grew closer, Tasuki held his breath, but at the last moment the sounds stopped and then retreated. His heart thundered against his chest, and he didn't dare release his breath until both shadows faded away completely. Tasuki pushed off the pillar and stood in silent contemplation as he stared into the distance.

'What th' fuck was that about?'

XXXXXX

Yui sat in the center of the room, her legs tucked under her and her hands resting palm up on her thighs. She sucked in a deep breath and then blew it out slowly, allowing all the tension to wash from her muscles. Slowly, she began to chant. "Face yourself to overcome yourself. The greatest enemy lies within. To defeat that enemy is to defeat all other obstacles." She took another deep, deliberate breath. As her eyes slipped closed, she allowed herself to dream. For a short time, she would let herself remember all the things, good and bad, that she had left behind.

It wasn't too difficult. Yui could remember her school, her friends, and her family with a startling clarity. Her mother and father, though often away from home, made it their tradition for the family to have at least one sit down dinner together a month. Yui remembered how awkward it was, having to get use to people all over again; people that you never should have drifted apart from in the first place. Her father was an aloof man, anyway, and these family meetings often meant quiet dining with only the sound of scrapping utensils and clinking of plates to fill the emptiness. Finally, her mother would bring up some obscure topic – school, perhaps – and Yui would quietly, slowly, began to recount the events of the day, leaving out the most important details in favor of a vague description. Let them guess, she decided. Let them wonder. Only her friends, her real family, could grasp who she really was.

Nevertheless, the topic got her rambling, and the awkwardness of the interaction would begin to lessen somewhat. By the time an hour had gone by, the three of them were laughing and talking over each other, desperate to pick up all the scattered pieces of their lives that they'd left behind. Once the morning arrived, though, the Hongo family went back to being strangers.

Yui often vented to Miaka about the intricate eccentricities of her family. Her friend listened to her complain about pressure to get good grades, the lack of intimacy, and the fact that her parents wouldn't let her get a puppy. Yui suspected she could get annoying and bitchy when she was in that sort of mood, but Miaka took it all in stride. After all, Yui was usually the rock in the relationship - the intelligent, logical thinking one who could solve every problem with the least amount of effort. What kind of friend would Miaka be if she didn't give Yui the same treatment? From the time they were six years old, Miaka and Yui were inseparable. They were complete opposites, but they complimented each other. Ying and Yang. Black and white. Fire and Ice. It remained that way up until they were fifteen years old, when they discovered a certain book in the library near their school…

That was three years ago, and Yui was eighteen now. She'd changed considerably, and her outward appearance only supported this. Her hair, once cut short and framing her face, now flowed down to her shoulders. Her eyes held a deep understanding of the world that was unparalleled in other women her age. Trapped by the revenge of the gods, Yui lived her life in Kutou, perhaps permanently, and she hadn't laid eyes on Miaka since their reunion in the capital. Yui accepted it as a just punishment for all the trouble she had caused; for doubting the sincerity of a friend, she'd aided in the starting of a war and the killing of thousands. Nakago had been the pulling all the strings, it was true, but Yui was not some stupid girl who couldn't think for herself. Yet she allowed someone to do all the thinking for her, and to Yui, that was one of the greatest sins she ever could've committed.

"Face yourself," Yui whispered again, "to overcome yourself. The greatest enemy lies within. Blame no others for your misdeeds, for all decisions at their root are your own."

The door to the chamber creaked open, and a young servant girl poked her head in. "Lady Yui?" she called softly. "It's time." Yui nodded once in acknowledgement, and the girl slipped in to the room's interior and began styling Yui's hair into a long braid. Yui sighed at the contact, the warmth of the girl's fingers against her scalp relaxing her all the more. 'Overcome yourself… overcome… Come on, Yui, you can do this…'

"Lady Yui?" The girl curled the braid into a bun against Yui's head, holding it in place by decorative pins. "I've recently received word from the capital, I thought you should know. The Suzaku no shichiseishi entered the Kutou border en route to the palace early this morning. They will be visiting the royal family for the first time since the betrothal."

Yui opened her eyes, blinking to readjust to the dim. "I see."

"However, a group of soldiers have been planning to usurp the emperor and kill all loyal to him. Even after all this time, they still do not trust Konan. They remain loyal to Nakago… and to you, Lady Yui." Yui digested this information, saying nothing. "What do you plan to do, m'lady? What would you like me to do?"

"We will go to the capital," she replied simply. "It violates my terms of pardon, but if it will prevent more conflict, I'm sure Heika-sama will allow it. Plus, Miaka would never let him do anything to me, anyway." She rose, straightening her robe and putting out the small candle beside her with wetted fingertips. "Those soldiers may feel loyal to me even after Nakago's death, but they have to realize that I'm not in support of their actions."

"Of course, Lady Yui."

Yui turned around, addressing her young charge directly. "Mizuki-chan, how do you feel about all this? Do you see Konan in the same light that everyone else seems to?"

Mizuki shook her head. "No, Lady Yui. The war was awful, and Konan was involved, but I can't fault them. They are no different than us, really."

Yui laughed. "If only the world's majority were as wise as you, Mizuki-chan." Mizuki blushed and smiled at the compliment. "But I want to know something else, also. What do you think about me?" These words were said softer, Yui's vulnerabilities finally brought to the surface. "Do you think I am a bad person, Mizuki? Do you blame me at all for the war? For what happened to your parents?"

Mizuki flinched at the mention of her dead family, but she was quick to refute Yui's claims. "No, no, of course not! Lady Yui is nothing if not good. You took me in when I was cold and alone. No one bad would do a thing like that. Nakago-" she spat the name, "was the evil one. He manipulated you, m'lady. He used you, and tossed you away like trash. It is he that I don't like. I hope he rots forever in hell for what he's done."

Yui stared at Mizuki for a long time, as if assessing her. "Mizuki," she said, and her voice was firm. "I realize that you hate Nakago, and you have every right to, but I would prefer if you didn't speak of him so negatively."

"But… why? He deserves everything he got in the end."

"Nakago… he did some awful things, but he was still human. Most people could only see that evil side of him, but I knew him personally. I feel angry every time I think about it, but I can't hate him. Not completely. His whole tribe was slaughtered by Kutou soldiers. He saw his own mother raped and murdered before his eyes. He had a tough life. It's no excuse, but it does make me sympathize with him, a little."

"Maybe so, but you mean the only reason you can't be angry with him is because he had a few hard times?" Mizuki snorted. "Honestly, Yui, that was at least twenty years ago. Talk about holding a grudge."

"I guess the reason why I forgive him is because, in the end," She smiled sadly, turning around and walking through the open doorway, though she raised her voice accordingly, "He's just like me."

XXXXXX

Miaka squinted her eyes and groaned. The sunlight across the woman's face had stirred her from her slumber, and true to Tasuki's words, she did have one hell of a hangover. Purple spots danced in front of her eyes and it felt like a drill was hammering at her skull. "Oh gods…" Sighing miserably, Miaka hauled herself up to a sitting position and glanced at the place beside her. Her husband was nowhere to be seen. With a heavy pang in her heart, she realized that he must've spent another night in one of the rooms of the inner seraglio… not surprising, since Gidayu hadn't so much as touched her in weeks. Not that Miaka was complaining. Just the thought of that man - or anyone other than Tamahome, for that matter – touching her sent unhappy shivers up her spine.

Except Tasuki. The thought came to her unexpectedly, but once it had appeared hundreds of memories came with it. Miaka's eyes widened as she remembered what had happened just the night before…

It was only a kiss, but Miaka felt like she was on fire…

"I'm sorry that we both have to get our feelings hurt, but I don't regret kissing you, Tasuki."

"Can I hold ya to that tomorrow mornin', Mi-chan?"

Miaka flushed. How could she? How drunk had she been?!

Despite her monstrous headache, Miaka jumped from her bed and tried to proceed with some semblance of a normal morning. Her personal servant girl, Ai, appeared soon enough, helping her complete her daily morning routine of bathing and primping. Reluctantly, Miaka mentioned her headache, which Ai offered her a cup of tea for. After slipping on a sky blue kimono with embroidered cherry blossoms, Miaka hurried from her room to join her guests in waiting for breakfast.

The dining room was empty when she arrived. Miaka situated herself at the appropriate spot and waited. One by one, her seishi appeared with their eyes still glazed from sleep. Tamahome's arrival sent her heart fluttering, only to be promptly crushed by the notion that she had committed the worst sin against him. Her marriage to Gidayu couldn't be helped, but Tasuki-

"Hey, Mi-chan."

Miaka whirled around. Tasuki stood before her with his hands in his jacket pockets, flashing her his trademark grin, though it was sullied by his wan countenance. Swallowing over a lump in her throat, Miaka grinned back at the redhead and bid him good morning. Tasuki returned it with much less enthusiasm, and with one last shallow grin, walked away. Miaka furrowed her eyebrows. Tasuki thought she didn't remember. Well, fine. Let it be. Maybe it was better this way. Like it or not, a hot and heavy tryst with the bandit was not a luxury she could afford. Too much was at stake, and besides, she loved Tamahome. Miaka bit her lip. Well, maybe… no, of course she loved Tamahome; there was no doubt in her mind. They were destined to be together – they had overcome trial after trial; their love had been tested countless times and they always pulled through in the end. No matter what, Tamahome would always be her first and truest love.

If that's true, a bitter side of her whispered, then why are you with Gidayu? It couldn't be helped, Miaka reasoned. She had to marry the emperor, in order to save millions from yet another pointless, blood soaked war. Still, destiny didn't count for much then, did it? Nonetheless, even if she could speculate something more happening between her and her wing seishi, it amounted to no more than her star-crossed love with Tamahome. While pondering over all of this, Miaka watched Tasuki and Chichiri converse, the bandit's full, sensual lips curved into a sardonic grin and both his fangs exposed. Immediately Miaka thought of those same odd fangs grazing down the nape of her neck, and she shuddered as pleasure rippled through her. No, she told herself. Stop that. Tamahome was her soul mate.

…wasn't he?

"Hey, Miaka!" Tamahome's hand waved in front of her eyes. "Hey in there! Come back to me!" He smiled softly as Miaka blinked herself back into the now. "What are you thinking about so deeply?"

"Oh, it's nothing, Tamahome." She beamed up at him. "I was just thinking about what they're serving at breakfast. I was hoping there will be natto."

Tamahome rolled his eyes playfully. "Of course you'd be thinking about food."

Miaka shrugged. "Of course."

"Actually, I thought I smelled natto. Anyway, where's that bastard?"

Miaka frowned. She knew immediately which 'bastard' he was talking about. "Tamahome," she chided. "That's my husband and the emperor you're talking about."

"Ha. Don't remind me." He rose from his seat. "Me and Chiriko have a lot more research to do, so do you mind me leaving you alone now? It'll only be for a little while, I promise. I should be back before the food arrives."

Miaka shook her head. "Of course not." Tamahome leaned down, and, sweeping his gaze across the room to make sure that the coast was clear, planted a deep kiss on his lover's lips. Throwing a warm farewell over his shoulder, he and Chiriko retreated from the table and started off to some unknown destination, probably either of the men's rooms.

Left alone now, Miaka slowly came apart. The sorrow worked through her veins with much the same effect of being drenched with ice cold water. Suddenly she had her head in her hands, trembling as she tried to hold back tears while her heart dropped into her stomach. Miaka mourned. Her last anchor, the one constant that had made this whole arrangement just the least bit bearable had been yanked cruelly and utterly from her. "Oh, Tamahome," she whispered. Oh gods, the spark

It was gone.

XXXXXX

"Hey, Tasuki, wait up!"

Tasuki turned around. It was after breakfast now, and he had been in the process of retreating to his room to sulk when his name had been called. Chiriko jogged towards him, panting. "Hey, Chiriko. What's up?"

Chiriko skidded to a stop and leaned over, trying to catch his breath. "Geez, I've been calling you forever? Get your head out of the clouds sometime!" Tasuki opened his mouth to retort, but the gentle smile on the boy's face made him relent. Seeing Chiriko grow into the person he was today filled Tasuki with pride. He'd always been particularly fond of his youngest brother, and their relationship had only grown over the past few years. It was hard for it not to, after all that they had been through. Remembering the blood seeping into Tasuki's tunic as he held Chiriko still sent shivers down his spine…

Chiriko poked him and feigned a pout, jolting Tasuki back to the present. "Ah, sorry. What were ya sayin'?"

Chiriko rolled his eyes. "It doesn't seem like we're doing anything important until late afternoon, and Miaka went off somewhere with Hotohori-sama and Heika-sama. So, me and Tamahome-tachi are conducting "business". I wanted to know if you were interested in joining us."

Tasuki narrowed his eyes. "What sorta 'business' are we talkin' 'ere?" Chiriko appeared sheepish, which made Tasuki even more suspicious. "Chiriko…"

"It's… complicated." Chiriko lowered his voice. "We don't want anyone outside the seven of us knowing, so keep quiet, all right?" At Tasuki's nod of agreement, Chiriko continued. "We're trying to figure out a way to get Miaka out of the treaty."

Tasuki's eyes widened. "What?"

Chiriko shushed him. "I know, it seems awfully foolish, but I'm willing to try. I know this arrangement is for the best, but Miaka is unhappy. I was against this plan at first, too, but…" Chiriko frowned, his eyebrows knitting together. "I just want what's best for Miaka. I want her to be happy. After all she's been through, she deserves it, don't you think?"

Tasuki let out an unsteady breath. "Chiriko…"

"…I'm not going to try to make you change your mind, and I'm not going to force you… I… I just wanted to put the invitation out there."

The bandit snorted. "I don't remember ever sayin' I was against it." Chiriko blinked. "I wanna see Miaka happy jus' as much as you, so… as long as we're careful about it… sure, why th' hell not?"

Chiriko grinned. "Great, then let's go!" The teenager led Tasuki off to his room, and he had to chuckle at the boy's enthusiasm. But, considering who and what they were dealing with, Tasuki couldn't entirely blame him. Once they reached their destination, Chiriko threw open the door to reveal the rest of their family sprawled out in various places in his bedroom. Nuriko waved happily from his spot on the floor.

"Hi, Chiri-chan! Tasu- eep!"

Tasuki glared hard enough to melt solid steel. "You! I've been lookin' fer ya since breakfast, ya damned, dirty-"

Nuriko was quick to pacify. "Aw, come on, Tasu-chan! You have no sense of humor! I was only kidding around!"

"Ya left me alone wit 'er, ya crazy cross-dressin' fool! I could've been kill-"

"Da… which 'her' are we talking about here, no da?"

Tasuki went silent. His face flushed in embarrassment as he realized he had been moments away from revealing his sins to everyone in the room. "Ah, well…"

Tamahome grinned, turning from the desk he was sitting at. "Sounds juicy. We've only been in Kutou for a day, and you've already found a girl? Ha… you masher, you!"

Chiriko smirked. "So, Tasuki, who is she? I saw a couple of the courtesans… very pretty, but most of them are much older than you, aren't they?"

"Yes, Tasuki," Nuriko drawled. "Tell us who she is." For a moment, Tasuki seriously considered wringing the man's neck, but he figured that would only get him thrown into a wall.

"Ah…" Tasuki sighed, running his hand through his hair. "Well, she was really drunk…"

"Ha! I'll say!" Nuriko sat up and laughed. "Poor Tasuki… that woman couldn't keep her hands off of him!" He shook his head in mock pity. "I guess it gets so lonely, being in the palace with no one to talk to… I suppose she really had no choice but to jump his bones."

"Eh?!" Tasuki's mouth dropped open. "How th' hell did you know about that?!" The room erupted with laughter at his own expense, but Nuriko did not join in. His violet eyes widened as they met Tasuki's across the room. Soon, though, the surprise had melted away, leaving a solemn expression in its wake. Tasuki could easily interpret the way Nuriko's eyebrows were raised.

You are going to tell me everything. Tasuki wasn't looking forward to that inevitable confrontation.

"Come on, Nuriko, what happened next?"

Effortlessly Nuriko weaved his tale of fabricated drunken debauchery, and Tasuki sat down in a corner and shut the hell up. Despite whatever conclusions Nuriko had drawn from Tasuki's outburst, he was still covering for him. For that alone Tasuki could be grateful, but otherwise it appeared that he was digging himself further and further into a really fucked up situation. If Tamahome found out… no, if the emperor found out…

Tasuki scowled, grabbed a piece of parchment and started the fuck reading.

XXXXXX

Later on, after the laughter had finally ceased, the seishi went to their task of reading and researching. The room was quiet and the mood solemn as the six brothers worked to find a solution for their priestess's dismal situation. No one wanted anything but Miaka's happiness, but no one wanted it more than Chiriko.

Every breath he took was because of her. The very beating of his heart was because of her actions for his –and their- sake. Chiriko felt a love and respect for Miaka like nothing else in the world. If not for her, he wouldn't be there.

Surreptitiously, Chiriko pulled up his shirt and observed the smooth, pale skin underneath. His chest was flat and undefined, and bared no signs of the trauma it had suffered just a few years ago. It was odd; in his mind's eye, he could see every detail, he could feel every vicious, slicing pain, but to look at the state of his body it was as if it had never happened.

"Odd, isn't it?" Mitsukake leaned over to whisper in the boy's ear. "To remember. But then you look around, and things appear the same."

"Not exactly," Chiriko said softly, offering his leg as evidence. The slim calf was lined with sinewy muscle and covered with light, almost transparent hairs. He smirked. "It took long enough, but I finally hit puberty."

Mitsukake nodded. "Late bloomers always grow the fastest." He showed off his forearm, covered in thick wiry brown hairs. "Though, you might be wishing for those hairless, diminutive days soon." Chiriko paled, and Mitsukake chuckled. "When your hair gets thick enough to see, I'll teach you how to shave." With a soft gasp of horror, Chiriko's eyes widened to the size of dinner plates, sending Mitsukake off into one of his rare laughing fits.

In every sense of the word, Chiriko owed Miaka his life. He remembered clearly the hideous pain that had engulfed him as he plunged the needle deep into his chest. He remembered his own piercing screams laced with Miboshi's mental ones. Despite the pain, he recalled quite a bit of satisfaction at that fact. At least that demon hell beast would die with him.

When he was a Suzaku warrior before, Chiriko had never felt so alone. Everyone else was so much stronger; so much older. He had come too late, and the meat of the group, the close camaraderie of brothers, had been formed without him. Chiriko had thought rather bitterly that a Seiryuu warrior – the imposter Chiriko – was closer to their inner circle than he would ever be. But the bitterness was tawdry. Under that, he was just lonely. But for those last few minutes of his life, Chiriko had never felt so happy.

"At least now I can be useful," he'd murmured. He had seen his entire distant family cry for him, and suddenly Chiriko had felt foolish. They'd been there for him all along, yet he was too blinded by his own selfish desires to see it. At that moment, Chiriko had never been happier, but if he could go back in time with a different perspective, would anything be different? He thought so, and he couldn't wait until he was reborn and could see all his brothers again.

Little did he know, the chance would come sooner than he thought.

Chiriko felt a tug at his being; a sort of lurching feeling that he hadn't felt since being dead. "Nuriko, did you feel that?"

Nuriko's body jerked, and he squealed. "Chirikooooo!" He floated over to the boy. "Do you know what this means?!"

"Um… it feels like I'm about to vomit, only without the chunks and bodily fluids."

"Ew, Chiriko!" Nuriko stuck his tongue out at him. "That is not what I meant! We're being summoned!"

"For what?"

"We're about to be reincarnated!"

"Already?" Had Suzaku really been summoned? Was it really all over? Hotohori appeared before them with a resounded 'pop!' and Chiriko jumped. Good thing he was already dead, because the habits of ghosts would've surely killed him.

"Chiriko! Nuriko!" Hotohori looked at each in turn. "Just now, did you-?"

"Yes, yes, yes!" Nuriko crowed. "We're being reborn!"

Chiriko looked around. "Where is Mitsukake?"

"He has already left us."

Taiitsukun's large wrinkled face materialized before them, and Hotohori could not keep himself from flinching. 'So… ugly…' Taiitsukun's eyes bore into his, and Hotohori tried his best to look respectful. "So Hotohori, how do I look today? I've been working on a new facial treatment; it's not too bad, is it?"

"N-No." Hotohori closed his eyes and turned away. "Ah, I cannot hide my thoughts from the gods. I cannot stand the ugliness!"

"Hotohori-sama, you're turning green… Can spirits turn green?"

Nyan-Nyan popped in. "Yes! Yes! Yes! Spirits can change colors! Watch, watch!" She closed her eyes in concentration until she literally turned purple. "Purple is my favorite color!"

"SHUT UP!" The heavens grew dead quiet at Taiitsukun's loud exclamation. "Let me explain the conditions of your spirits, before I toss you down to Earth on your heads!!" The seishi looked infinitely confused. "Now, all of you will get your lives back. Mitsukake has already returned to the living."

"So… that means we will be reborn, right?"

"I never said anything about a reincarnation, child. All of you will return to your bodies. It will be as if you all had never passed away."

"Wait," Chiriko frowned. "I thought it was impossible to resurrect someone because they wouldn't have a body to return to? That's what Chichiri said."

"In a way, he is correct. A human's spirit never dies, but a flesh and bone body is decomposable. After death it will continue to be broken down until only the bones remain. That is the cycle of life. From where one comes, there one will return. It would do no good to try and rejoin a spirit with a dead body; there would be nothing left to sustain a life. Yet, I am telling you three that you will return to the lives you have left behind, even though it defies the very laws of this world. Do you know why?" Taiitsukun was met with puzzled silence. "It is because someone has made a desperate wish on your behalf, and her love burns so brightly that it is a request I have decided I will not ignore."

Nuriko's eyes widened. "Miaka…"

Taiitsukun nodded. "The Suzaku no Miko has used her last wish to restore her four fallen warriors to the state they were in before her arrival to this world. Normally, I would not allow such blatant attempts to bypass the my precedents… I find it an insult to my omnipotence. However, Miaka's earnestness surprised me. The depth of her love far surpassed her concern for herself. I have no doubt that if I demanded it, she would sacrifice herself for you all. That would not be wise, though, since her services will be needed in the near future."

"What do you mean, Taiitsukun-sama?"

Taiitsukun flashed a secretive smile. "I'm afraid that is something you will just have to find out for yourselves." And without ceremony, the spirits shot down to earth, into the bodies they had long ago left behind.

And then, Chiriko opened his eyes and took his first breath.

Tasuki sat cross-legged on the bed, reading over one of the condensed copies of the treaty. He groaned in irritation. "Looks like nothin' but a bunch of gobbledy-gook ta me. Hey, Chiriko, what does this crap under number one mean? So a Kutou guy can't even visit his family in Konan if he's a soldier?"

Chiriko shook his head. "No, the treaty doesn't prohibit that. If a single soldier wants to go visit relatives or friends, it isn't in violation of the treaty. However, during times of peace, for a whole regiment to enter the country is seen as a threat." He shrugged. "What else would an army be present for except for battle?"

"Couldn't they jus' be passin' through? After all, th' faster way ta Hokkan is usin' th' Konan waterways."

Chiriko shrugged again. "I guess that's one of the major weaknesses of the treaty. There's no way to truly determine the will of a man. You can't decide just by looking at someone whether they intend to help or harm. There are extensive checks at every border, but they are not perfect. Plus, just because a single soldier crosses the border does not mean he is innocent. What if he's a spy? What if he is working independently of his nation? There are a lot of questions the treaty fails to answer, but I don't believe they can be answered. We'll just have to address those issues as they come up. Too many grays instead of blacks and whites."

"Gray, huh…?" Suddenly, it dawned on him. The scene back on the veranda the other day flashed in Tasuki's mind.

'I don't care what you have to do… even if it takes you over, see that it is done.'

'Over?' Tasuki thought. 'Over what?'

Tasuki jumped to his feet. "Shit!" The other occupants of the room started at his loud curse. "The border!" He proclaimed. "They're goin' over th' border!"

"Who, no da?" Chichiri said in alarm. "Kutou?"

"Yes, goddamn Kutou! They're gonna attack Konan an' we aren't there ta protect it!"

Mitsukake put his hand on Tasuki's shoulder. "Wait, Tasuki. Hold on. Where are you getting this from?"

"Th' emperor!" He hissed. "It came from th' fuckin' emperor's own mouth! I heard 'im talkin' yesterday… He set us up! He brought us 'ere so Konan would be defenseless! He said it was so we could see Miaka, right? But he waited three fuckin' years! He waited jus' long enough to git our trust an' then he led us 'ere!"

Chiriko considered this. "…He did let Hotohori bring his royal guard, which is in direct violation of the treaty, using the excuse that an emperor would still be in danger amongst the citizens. Our army lost more than half of its forces during the war, when it was small anyway, and if only five percent of the remaining forces are used as imperial guards…"

Tamahome gasped. "Right! And no one felt there was a need to gather more soldiers because the war was over, and they just needed to focus on rebuilding…"

The room fell into silence as the warriors digested this disturbing news. Had they really been fooled? Did the emperor plan all along to pull them within his circle of 'trust' before stabbing them all in the back?

"We must find Hotohori-sama," Chichiri said solemnly, getting to his feet. "Lady Houki and Boushin-chan may be in danger."

XXXXXX

"So, it is settled." Gidayu nodded to Hotohori, flashing one of his rare, though small, smiles. "I must admit, Saihitei-dono, I am impressed with your military strategies. For such a… small nation you seem to handle your affairs quite well." The thinly veiled insult was not lost on Hotohori, but he wisely chose to ignore it.

"Thank you, Gidayu-dono. And let me be sure to point out that your methods of reconstruction are most admirable. Under your careful watch I am certain that Kutou will bloom once more."

Gidayu nodded, pleased. "Yes, the movement has already begun." He gestured to the three guards standing watch near the door. "Much of the Kutou army was wiped out during Nakago's war, and our stability was easily shattered with the slaughter of our former emperor – may he rest in peace." The respectful words were for the sake of protocol only; it was quite clear from the firm set of his mouth and the hard glint in his eyes that Gidayu was not very fond of his predecessor. "But, in the last three years much good has come to this nation. I am proud to say, new recruits to the army pour in each day; many of them are young, capable warriors who were personally affected by the war. They hope to bring about great change in their service."

"Very magnanimous of them. Now, about this proposal you had…"

"Yes, about that…" Gidayu folded his arms and placed them in his lap. "This treaty has worked quite well for both of us, correct? Both our countries are recovering quite nicely, and I'm proud to say that Miaka is a fine asset as my wife."

Hotohori's mood dampened, but he believed he hid it well. "Yes, I'm sure she is."

"I have to say, she is marvelous, isn't she?" Gidayu smirked, and Hotohori got the strong impression that the man was egging him on. "When the proposal was first made for me to take her as my wife… looking at her, barely a woman… I really didn't think it a wise choice. After all, I have no desire for the wide-eyed, innocent type. That was more of the previous emperor's preference. But, I must say, she has grown into one of the most attractive women I've ever laid eyes on." He shook his head in disappointment. "Pity that she isn't the firecracker I once thought her as." Underneath the table, Hotohori's clenched fist shook with fury, his fingernails biting into the palm of his hand. "I hope that Lady Houki is more satisfactory to you, hmm?"

"Enough." Hotohori jumped to his feet, startling both himself and the man across from him. The guards watched with mild curiosity. "For the remainder of my stay here," Hotohori said through clenched teeth, "I must request that you speak of neither Miaka nor Houki in such a manner."

Gidayu cocked his head and narrowed his eyes in confusion. "Why ever not?"

"Because," Hotohori's shoulders were tense. "I respect and honor both women, and hearing them spoken of as if they were… if they were mere objects is something I simply cannot tolerate."

Gidayu snorted. "Such honorable intentions, but your actions are wasted, Saihitei-dono. They are only women."

As much as Hotohori wanted to refute him, he knew he had no palpable argument. His respectful attitude towards women was, unfortunately, amongst the minority. Gidayu would most likely never understand his views, as Hotohori would not understand his. Yet, Hotohori actually began to pity him. "I concur, but still, I ask that you refrain from such comments. They do not bode well with me."

Gidayu shrugged, his guest's criticisms discarded as easily as dust on the wind. "As you wish." He spread a map out onto the center of the table. It showed the four great nations – Konan, Kutou, Sairou, and Hokkan – in meticulous detail. "Now on to my proposal… I firmly believe that both our nations are great, but we could be so much more. I propose that, to strengthen our might, we establish a commonwealth." Hotohori's eyes widened. "There are many small… flaws to work out, but I put the option on the table all the same." Gidayu interlaced his fingers on the tabletop. "What is your opinion of this, Saihitei-dono?"

"I… what you are suggesting is a monstrous task. The relations between our countries have always been tumultuous…"

Gidayu nodded. "Which is why I suggest this."

Hotohori frowned, staring down at the table while he was deep in thought. If it worked, joining the two nations under a single, greater cause may just be able to lessen the pains of hundreds of years of conflict, but that was speaking optimistically. If the idea failed… The lines of Hotohori's frown deepened. "This is certainly not a decision I can make overnight. I must return to the palace and speak with my advisors. This is a dangerous step you are proposing, Gidayu-dono."

"Believe me, I am aware. However, do not stress over it just yet, as nothing is for certain. Return to your palace in a few days time, and think about it. We have all the time in the world, Saihitei-dono."

"I think not."

Gidayu and Hotohori turned. The guards had advanced on the table, their swords drawn and at the ready. The emperor of Kutou rose to his feet. "What is the meaning of this? Stand down, and sheath your weapons. There is no need for such aggression."

One of the guards sneered. "Actually, I believe there is." He gave a jerk of his head, and the two remaining guards had restrained both Gidayu and Hotohori from behind, their swords against the men's throats. They moved with blinding speed, startling even Hotohori, with his enhanced seishi senses. "Don't make any sudden moves, and neither of you will be killed. Yet."

Gidayu hissed as the blade brushed against his skin, causing a small line of blood to bubble up. "What do you want from us? What are your intentions?! Whatever they may be, you will not succeed; the other guards will soon realize something is amiss and will come searching for us." The guard holding him captive shook with laughter.

"Now, now, Your Majesty," he mocked. "You don't actually think we are the only deserters, do you?" Gidayu said nothing in reply, though the growl that emitted from his throat was answer enough. "You have brought Kutou down long enough. And now…" Simultaneously, Gidayu and Hotohori were forced to their knees. "It is time for the people to rule once more." The blades were removed from their throats, but with the same blinding speed as before the sword hilts were rammed into the back of their heads. Gidayu crumbled immediately, but Hotohori was slow in both falling and losing consciousness. The world blurred and tottered as he felt a warm, sticky wetness at the base of his neck. Blood. Muffled, triumphant words sounded from all three guards right before everything faded to black.

"All hail Nakago."

--

Boushin broke into a run, laughing as the bright sun overhead warmed his young body and the gentle breeze stirred his hair. Occasionally he glanced over to see if his mother was still following, – which she was – though her meandering walk irritated him. Mothers could be so slow! She stopped often to lean over and smell a flower or inspect a particularly interesting blade of grass, all along noticing her son's growing impatience with her.

"Mama!"

Houki laughed softly. "Calm down, Boushin. There's no need to hurry. We have all the time in the world." These words did not seem to placate the three year old, who sighed in frustration and scampered off on wobbly legs further down the garden path. Houki chuckled. Her son was just a bundle of energy these days, but she appreciated his extra energy. Boushin had been quite upset when his father had left for Kutou a few days ago; it was nice to see him back to his regular old, rambunctious self again.

"Hey, who are you?"

Houki looked up to see a broad-shouldered, mountain of a man towering over her son, his eyes narrowed and his face grim. He was dressed entirely in blue, and his long blonde hair was tied back into a messy ponytail. This man could be picked out from a hundred people from a mile away, and Houki had never seen him before. A feeling of dread gathering in the pit of her stomach, Houki rushed over to her son and scooped him into her arms, addressing the man with growing anxiety. She began to back away.

"Who are you? How did you get into the palace?"

The man flashed his perfect white teeth. "I'm a new recruit."

Houki narrowed her eyes, continuing to back away as she shook her head. "No, you're not. You're not wearing the Konan armor, and there is no insignia on your clothing." She pressed Boushin deep within the valley of her breasts. "You are not of this place; I know this because I have never laid eyes on you before. And no new recruits would ever be allowed within the deepest quarters of the palace. No new recruit would be allowed near Boushin and I…" She was stalling, and she knew it. Her heart hammered in her chest. This did not bode well. The man before Houki could easily overcome her and harm both Boushin and herself. Running out of options, she opened her mouth to scream.

"Don't bother," the intruder said, smirking. "No one is coming to save you."

A shadow loomed over Houki from behind. Instinctively she turned around; a mistake, for the blonde man took this opportunity to strike her across the face. Hard. Houki dropped to the ground, twisting her body at the last moment so she could shield her son from the impact. Boushin wailed in her arms. Houki tried to get to her feet, but a large boot slammed right down on her hand. The woman let out a strained and anguished cry as several bones in her hand were crushed. Boushin's cries strengthened at his mother's pain.

"All hail Nakago," Two men mumbled reverently. Houki gazed up through squinted eyes. There was another man beside the first now, just as menacing but not as large. He was dressed in the same all blue uniform, and Houki realized that he was the shadow that had distracted her earlier.

"N-Nakago?" Houki clutched Boushin as tight as she possibly could, staring up with wide violet eyes. The men advanced, pulling out short daggers from somewhere on their person.

"Be nice and quiet," the blonde one whispered, "and we won't hurt you. You're not the prize we want. Only the bait."

Houki closed her eyes as the blonde crouched down to bind her hands. Boushin reacted immediately, reaching up to claw at the man's face. The victim let out a hiss and struck the boy quickly across the face. Boushin began screaming, and Houki's heart went cold.

'Oh gods…' Everything in her was telling her to run; to fight back… kick, claw, punch, something, but the pain lancing through her hand made it impossible to think clearly. And she couldn't do anything that would risk Boushin. 'Suzaku, give me strength…' The second man pulled her arms behind her, and Houki shrieked as the pain intensified. Her wrists were bound together by thick ropes, Boushin pulled from her lap by the collar of his shirt. "Boushin!" The blonde cuffed the boy once for good measure, which stopped Boushin's helpless cries. The toddler stared at his mother from where he dangled, eyes wide and shining. "Mama!"

Houki felt tears forming in her own eyes. "Oh, Boushin…" She closed her eyes as she was dragged to her feet, and, with Boushin and the blonde before her, allowed herself to be led to some unknown destination. She gritted her teeth as she prayed for someone, anyone, to help them. If she could not be saved, she prayed, then please, please, please let Boushin survive this. He was her life's greatest joy…

"Saihitei…"

--

Miaka was in the middle of etiquette training. Boring as always, she thought, watching the woman's lips move but not hearing a word she was saying. Really, how much learning did she need? The basic manners and eccentricities of royal life, Miaka could understand, but that had been covered in the first few weeks. She knew all about the proper way to address the emperor and other men of power, and how she should remain quiet and unobtrusive at all times unless directly spoken to… but honestly, what was the point of learning so much about polite manners of speaking when she never actually said anything?

"Your main purpose, to put it in lamest terms-" Miaka focused on her instructor once more. "-is to make His Majesty look good. His every whim is your command, and you should never refute nor refuse any of his requests. The most blatant example of this would be the private manners of the bedroom." Miaka hid her disgust behind a carefully placed hand. "A man's, let alone the emperor's, pleasure is always priority. A woman has no reason to be catered to. A woman should not feel pleasure from the act, for it is not her place…"

Miaka snorted inwardly. 'Oh, trust me. No problem there.' She couldn't remember a time when she had received pleasure from her… 'duties' to Gidayu. If anything, it only made her shudder. The man gave selfish a whole new meaning.

She didn't get that vibe from Tasuki. Somehow Miaka knew that Tasuki would make love in much the same way he did everything else – passionately. It made her body hum with feminine awareness at the mere thought of it.

Miaka frowned. She and Tamahome had never been able to get to know each other intimately. When the arrangement was made, Miaka had been a virgin, and Gidayu was very adamant about it staying that way until their marriage. As cut off from basic human emotion as he was, even the stoic Gidayu had noticed the intense heat flowing between them. Unfortunately, Gidayu would be her one and only lover. Miaka sighed. Didn't mean she couldn't fantasize.

"Lady Miaka!" Miaka snapped to attention. "Please pay attention. It is important that you retain all the information I am giving you…"

Miaka nodded pristinely, the mask back in place. "Yes, Chisato." The woman gave her a disapproving frown before continuing her lecture once more. It was going to be a long morning… Dozing in her chair, Miaka was aware of a very sudden, very unnerving silence. She blinked, and a pair of creamy white, slender hands wrapped around her throat from behind and squeezed. Miaka squealed and flailed, but the movement only made the grip on her windpipe tighten.

"Don't worry, Miaka," Chisato purred in her ear. "This isn't punishment for your daydreaming, though I'm very displeased in your inattentiveness today. You are only the means to an end." The woman's fingernails bit into Miaka's neck as she shook her. "I was ordered to leave you alive, but that doesn't mean I can't have a little fun, does it? Konan scum," she spat.

Miaka's eyes bulged out and her vision blurred with tears. Her throat went dry as she struggled to breath. "W-Why…why are you doing this?!"

"Because we can," Chisato responded flatly. She squeezed harder. Miaka's face grew a deathlike pallor before she fainted, her head lolling forward. Chisato chuckled, running her fingers through Miaka's silky red hair. "Let Nakago's memory reign supreme," she grunted, and then she began to prepare for the operation.

XXXXXX

Chichiri closed his eyes and pressed his index and middle fingers against his lips. He concentrated on finding the ki of his friends, but so far he had found nothing. He pushed himself harder, searching mentally through every nook and cranny of the palace until… yes, right there. Hotohori's energy level was weak, but there all the same. Miaka's was in the same location, and just as weak. Chichiri frowned. This was not good. Not good at all…

"So?" Mitsukake put his hand on the monk's shoulder. "Did you find them?"

Chichiri closed his eye and sighed, slipping his mask off. "Yes, but we-"

At that moment, the door to the room was forced open, sending it clear off its hinges. Shadowed by the sunlight, at least a dozen men stood in the threshold, brandishing blades of various sizes and natures. The six celestial warriors were at their feet in seconds, each crouched into a defensive position.

"What th' fuck do ya want?" Tasuki barked, pulling his tessen from its holster. "Don't try ta fight us, 'cause ya won't win!"

"You warriors of Suzaku could easily defeat us," A man at the forefront said dryly. "But your emperor and the priestess have been captured. If you want your friends to live, I suggest you come with me."

"The hell we will!" Nuriko pulled up his sleeves, the light causing his bracelets to sparkle. "What have you done with Miaka and Hotohori, you bas-"

"Saihitei didn't put up much of a fight, unfortunately," the same man continued. "It was quite easy, I hear, to beat him in the head and knock him unconscious. I hear there was quite a bit of blood, too. Oh well. I suppose Saihitei will have to live with this indignant lose of perfection, hmm?" Nuriko tensed. "And the priestess… dear Seiryuu, what a lightweight. I believe Chisato said she had choked her into unconsciousness within a matter of seconds. Good thing she's much disciplined, otherwise she might've snapped the poor girl's neck, if the dark bruises on her neck are any indication…"

"Why you…!!" Tamahome and Tasuki prepared to charge, but Chichiri stopped them with a hand. "Stop," he said, and his expression grim. "You've said enough. We will go quietly." And with those words, Chichiri lifted his staff… and let it drop noisily to the floor. His warrior brothers watched him with confusion before they too resigned themselves to their fate and dropped their weapons. The soldiers moved in to apprehend them immediately.

'So,' Tasuki thought, and Chichiri glanced in his direction as it reached him. 'What's yer plan?'

Chichiri looked straight ahead as he was led into the hallway. 'There isn't one.'

'WHAT?'

Chichiri could feel the heat of Tasuki's glare on his back. It was obvious that the redhead was waiting for him to elaborate, but there was nothing left to say. Only a few moments ago, Chichiri had been quite deep in creating a plan – a couple, in fact – but now, his blood had run cold. A startling new development had reached his attention, and now the mask of calm was just that much harder to maintain. Hotohori and Miaka's ki were dwindling, and fast. Their lights were being snuffed out like candles.

Even if he hadn't sensed it himself, Chichiri could tell as soon as it happened. As one, his five brothers' heads snapped up, eyes widened in horror. Tasuki stopped right in his tracks, which a soldier remedied by kicking him in the back. The man stumbled forward and began walking again, but his walk was that of a zombie, his tanned skin three shades too pale. Nuriko bit his lip and looked Chichiri in the eye. Panicking, but wanting reassurance. Tamahome tensed as if he was about to snap, and Chiriko shook like flimsy tree branches in the wind. Mitsukake grimaced and sighed, but his most intense emotions were directed inward. Chichiri narrowed his eye as he tried to focus again, but once more, came up with nothing.

Hotohori and Miaka's ki were completely, unequivocally… gone.

--

Story Notes:

-dono: A highly respectful honorific that is somewhat archaic in modern day Japan. I intended to keep honorifics completely out of this 'fic in order to preserve my sanity, but I think it's necessary in this context… Although Hotohori and Gidayu address each other with –dono attached, they use it as a way to show that they are equals, while still being as respectful as possible. I just had to use it since there isn't any real English equivalent.

Heika: "Your Majesty," "His/Her Majesty" ("Heika-sama" refers to Gidayu)

Suzaku no Miko: 'Priestess of Suzaku'

seishi: short form of 'Shichiseishi', a.k.a the seven celestial warriors.

-tachi: Suffix that implies a group. When Chiriko says "Tamahome-tachi", he is referring to the group including Tamahome; the Suzaku seven.

A/N: Yes, it's long. But if I had made it into a one-shot like I had originally planned, it could've easily gone on to about 40,000 words. So, now it's two parts, three if my muse refuses to shut up. Shouldn't take long to get the next part out though. Hope you all like so far! Feedback greatly appreciated!