Disclaimer: I don't own Fushigi Yuugi.
Musical Accompaniment: Please Remember Me by Tim McGraw. The lyrics are written in during the appropriate setting.
Author's Notes: I'd like to extend my gratitude to Roku Kyu, Ryuen, and Purple Mouse for their very kind (and, in a certain someone's case, very blunt) beta-reading. They were more than helpful, and I cannot express the fullest extent of my gratitude for that help.
Miaka made no sound; no tears fell from her eyes, and her body was no longer shaking. She willed herself to do nothing, to simply sit there with her head bowed in the most humble obeisance possible. The pain she felt was nothing in comparison to that of the seven Seishi pairs before her. She would suffer for them, with them, for that is what the Suzaku no Miko was meant to do.
She must take away their beloved ketsu to save the country.
But I'd rather die if I knew it could save them.
Miaka knew she couldn't handle the pressure of meeting their eyes, seeing them damn her with their unspoken pain, but she had to know what the silence held. She looked at them through lowered lids, and the sight brought the tears back with a vengeance.
Doukun's reaction had been immediate; he caught Miaka's gaze with deadened eyes before fleeing the room and slamming the screen shut. Miaka nearly gave chase until she heard the sound of his crying from the hallway. Ryuuen had a hand over his mouth, his eyes squeezed shut as he softly rocked himself back and forth. Shun'u had slid as far away from Miaka as possible, his back to the wall as his head shook back and forth in silence revolt. The expression he wore was one of utter horror and he refused to touch Genrou. The pain of the others was equally great, and Miaka couldn't bear to look anymore.
"Tell me you're lying."
Miaka snapped her head up and remembered Kishuku, kneeling next to her. He grabbed her hand and held it to his forehead. "Tell me you're lying! Please, Miaka, please…" and when Miaka felt the wetness on Kishuku's cheeks, she lost control. She bent down and held his head as she cried.
"Taiitsu-kun… she wouldn't… I didn't want to! I didn't! I tried yelling at her and she told me how weak I was… that I couldn't even handle hearing about it. And I'm not weak, but it hurts so much because I love all of you and you love your ketsu, and if I take that away you'll hate me!" She spoke in gasping breaths now. "I tried! I asked her if there was any other way, if I could die instead of them. And she didn't say anything, and I was so angry and hurt and scared that all I could do was run away when I saw you guys. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry…"
No one spoke. Comfort wasn't a gift that anyone was in a state of mind to give.
"I don't want to summon Suzaku." Doukun's tone was filled with a quiet, burning ache, so utterly in contrast to his usual voice that Miaka started before looking up. He stood at the door, leaning against the frame with puffy eyes and a red nose. "If Suzaku was really the god of love, he wouldn't take Chie away from me. I don't want to worship a god that steals the one person in this world that means everything to me."
Chie herself responded, her mindvoice sounding both angry and pained. 'Don't say that! We have a duty as the Chosen Seishi, and we can't reject that duty. I won't let you destroy your honor for me!'
"But you can't!" Doukun screamed, clutching his head. "No one can make me give you up! Even if we prepare the summoning again and you're ready to die for Suzaku and I don't want to let you, we can't summon him. I have to let you go, and I won't!"
At this, Chie flew from the rafters and began beating her wings at Doukun's face with a furious might. The only defense the boy made was to put a single arm between himself and his ketsu. 'No! Get out of here! You're not my Doukun! My Doukun told me he's not too young to be strong because he's a Seishi! Get out!!'
'Stop it!' Tama shouted, jumping from Juan's lap and tackling Chie in mid-air. Both went down, Tama landing lightly while Chie staggered up on her talons. Tama's hackles were needles as he spat at the stunned owl. 'How dare you attack your own Seishi! Do you really think making him hate you will solve anything? Look at him! Look at yourself!'
Doukun had fallen to the floor in a renewed flood of tears, with his face turned away from all. Juan's hands rested on the young man's shaking shoulders, offering quiet support. Around the room, Seishi and ketsu watched the scene unfold with the knowledge that it could be their own pain made visible to the world.
Tama's mindvoice softened as he sat beside the Chiriko ketsu. 'We know what you're going through – no one in the world could know better. And it's okay to be afraid and let those feelings conflict with your need to do what's right. But…' his breath caught, so obviously pained, then continued. 'Remember that you do have a choice about this. When the time comes, you can choose to leave with a world of regrets, or you can choose to leave with nothing but the wisdom that you did what was right.'
It was in Chie's reply that Miaka was reminded of that fact that she was the youngest ketsu, that even age and experience affected these creatures of Suzaku. 'You make it sound so easy. I haven't been with Doukun as long as you and Juan or the others have. Is it supposed to be easier for us because we've not been bonded for years, or easier for you because you've had those years?'
Tama couldn't face her. 'Nothing could make this easier. Not even a lifetime is ever enough.'
The next ten days passed by in a blur of tears and silence. It seemed that, despite the brotherhood forming between the Seishi, the desperate need to have as many moments as possible with their ketsu drove them apart. Kishuku and Shun'u almost unconsciously divided up the time spent in their room to give the other a degree of privacy, and when they slept at night they did not speak of their days. Saihitei and Houjun were forced to continue their duties, but it was not hard to sense the hum of unhappiness their spirits exuded. Doukun's pain was twofold. He was ashamed of his actions and felt that he did not deserve to be with Chie, but the knowledge that she would very likely be taken away from him in less than a month's time made him anxious and depressed. Even bouncy Ryuuen had lost interest in daily life, and Juan's comfortable quiet had been replaced by a grave tone. All fought against the veracity of Tama's words, that there would never be enough time to make this separation bearable.
Miaka, it could be said, suffered both more and less than her Seishi. It was true that she didn't have a ketsu to call her own, but weren't they all bonded to her in some way? The hardest part was the inability to share the single burden that she forced on herself – guilt. Guilt, that she would sacrifice the ketsu of her dearest friends to their god. Guilt, that she could not prevent such a thing from occurring.
Ten days was a long time to sit alone in one's room and cry.
The only ones who seemed to be looking at the situation with any sort of honest optimism were the ketsu. It could be supposed that since they were the ones leaving, not being left behind, it was an easier fate to accept. However, no one, be they ketsu or human, is untouched by the knowledge of their death. The blessed creatures of the four gods knew that more than anyone; it was they that initiated the soul-binding that would kill their own Seishi upon death.
But really, what was death but a journey back to Suzaku and those who went before them? The idea of a more earthly journey – the sailing away to Hokkan – gave the ketsu hope. It was possible that in this time of traveling, not only could the bonds between Seishi and ketsu be strengthened, but also the Seishi to one another. It would be their salvation, their sanity, when the ketsu were gone.
'Careful, you fool. You'll wake them up and ruin the surprise.'
'Don't worry! Shun's right; you really need to relax, Gen-chan.'
'Hmph… I'm perfectly relaxed.'
'I'm sure. Now let's set these down here, and on the count of three, you'll jump on Shun's back and I'll jump on Ki's. Ready?'
'Whenever you are.'
'One… two… three!'
Both sprang onto their Seishi's back at the same time, causing similar sounds of disbelief and shock to fly out of the boys' mouths. Shun'u instinctively shifted, and wrestled his ketsu until they fell off the bed. Kishuku didn't have a chance at fighting back; Toshi's swift paw batted him right out of bed next to Shun'u's twitching body.
"By the gods, I can't feel my kidneys…" Kishuku groaned.
"The fuck is wrong with you two?" the Tasuki Seishi swore. "Fuckin' ketsu wakin' us up like-"
'Oh, get it over it,' Genrou said, not unkindly. 'Look, we brought you presents!'
Both boys rolled over and saw the ketsu holding small pouches in their mouths. "Hey, wow! What's this?" Kishuku asked, anger forgotten.
'It's something small we found for each of you,' Genrou said, his tail wagging happily as he held a small package in his mouth.
'Why not? It's just a gift. You know, for the journey and all.'
Looks of sadness suddenly crossed their faces, but Genrou bumped his head under Shun'u's and interrupted it. 'No getting upset today. We're heading out to Hokkan tomorrow, and I refuse to ride a ship with anyone in poor spirits. So, open up!'
He dropped the bundle in Shun'u's hands, and Toshi did the same for Kishuku. Shun'u's face lit up like a lantern, warming Genrou's heart; he hadn't seen a real smile for days now.
"Fuckin' awesome! A traveling drinking pouch fer holdin' sake! Get yer furry ass over here, Gen-kun, so I can hit ya!" Rather than following through with the threat, Shun'u merely grabbed the wolf around his neck and rubbed his fist into Genrou's head, much the same way he affectionately greeted Doukun. "Yer fuckin' amazin', Gen-kun."
'So they say,' he replied proudly.
Kishuku's expression was the same as he unwrapped his pack. "By Suzaku's fire, where did you find this?!"
'Hey, we ketsu have to maintain an air of mystique, especially from our own Seishi,' Toshi said smugly. 'I take it you like it.'
"I do…" he breathed, pulling out a small chain with a red, perfectly rounded jewel hanging at the end.
"Hey, nice gem there. Looks kinda like this," Shun'u said, pulling out his own beaded necklace. "You got taste, then."
Kishuku snorted. "I have more money than taste, and I have no money. But this is kind of a personal thing – my mother wore it when she died. I don't even think this is a real gemstone, not that I care, but it's just got important symbolism. But I thought it was left at home for safekeeping."
'You need it more, so I though it would bring you good luck.'
The Tamahome Seishi leaned his forehead against his ketsu's. 'Thanks, Toshi. It's been a tough week.'
'I know, Ki-kun. Just stop worrying at it, and things will work out. Maybe not the way we want it to, but they will.'
They nuzzled for a few more minutes, and then Kishuku put the necklace on and tucked it into his tunic. He glanced around the room with a sardonic smile. "I guess we should clean up, huh?"
'And start packing. It's gonna be a long trip.'
The Suboshi Seishi tensed up as he heard Ayuru's voice. Damn that man for his spies. However, he knew better than to hide from the older man and slipped out from behind a large pillar. "Yes?" he asked sulkily.
"Where are you going? I ordered you to stay with Yui-sama."
"I'm not going to sit still while my brother's murderers go unpunished."
Ayuru smiled derisively. "Seeking vengeance? How quaint. You know you're nowhere near as talented as your brother, nor have you mastered your powers. Don't underestimate the Suzaku Seishi."
Shunkaku gritted his teeth and looked away in shame and anger. Gods I hate this man.
Shunkaku looked up in hope. "Yes?"
"I do understand how you feel. Perhaps there is something we can –"
Yui came strolling towards the duo, and Shunkaku gave her a small bow. "What are you doing here, Shunkaku?"
"Nothing, Yui-sama. Just…"
"Discussing the upcoming trip to Hokkan," Ayuru said smoothly, not missing a beat.
Yui frowned. "Why? It's not like I really want to summon Seiryuu – I just want to fight Miaka."
Ayuru nodded. "Perhaps the best way to fight her would be to go to Hokkan. If we can get there first and gain a wish from the Genbu no Miko, it's quite possible you could do a great deal of harm to Miaka and her Seishi."
A considering look passed Yui's features. "Maybe… give me a day or so. I doubt she'll move this quickly."
"So you think, but you may be the only one who believes this."
Yui glared at both of her Seishi, then spun on her heel and stomped away.
"As I was saying earlier," Ayuru continued. "There's another way to fight the Suzaku no Seishi that will hurt them as they hurt you."
Shunkaku's eyes nearly glowed as he listened to Ayuru's plan.
"Look at that!" Kishuku breathed. "It's huge!"
"It's gorgeous," Ryuuen gaped.
Kohana tilted her head. 'It's not too bad,' she said teasingly. The ship was a massive creation, large enough to house a small army and the ship's crew with comfort. It would carry only the six Seishi and their Miko, the crew, and less than a hundred soldiers for protection on this journey. The loading of supplies had begun nearly a week ago, and there was still much to be done before they would sail tomorrow.
"It is the vessel that shall take you to Hokkan," Saihitei said with a smile. His palanquin was set down, and he stepped out to enjoy the ship's majestic beauty with the others.
"Gods, I can't believe we'll be sailing tomorrow," Ryuuen said, still gaping up. "Isn't it cool, Shun? Uh, Shun?"
The trio looked around, utterly puzzled as to where their friend disappeared to. It wasn't until Kohana pointed at Genrou, who was looking quite innocently at a large tree, that an evil smile crossed Kishuku's face. He sidled up right next to it, and caught the eyes of a rather nervous looking Shun'u.
'Ohh, your Seishi is up to no good,' Kohana giggled.
'Ohh, as if yours is any better behaved,' Toshi retorted.
Everyone listened closely to the banter. "So! What'cha doin?" Kishuku asked his slightly green roommate, who paled when he realized he had been found.
"Ah, nothin's up," Shun'u said casually. "I'm just… admirin' the ship from back here. Ya know, looks good an' all."
"Uh huh…," the Tamahome Seishi said, then a small light went off in his head. "It wouldn't perhaps be that you can't swim, would it?"
Shun'u couldn't keep the moment of panic from his eyes, but he recovered. "W-why-whatever d'ya mean by that? Ya don't really think I'm some pathetic guy who can't swim, now do ya?"
"Maaaay-be," Kishuku said, dragging out the word. "So… letsfindout!" And without a warning he grabbed Shun'u, tossed him over his shoulder, and ran up onto the ship. As he tipped Shun'u over the railing's edge, the bandit began screaming bloody murder and flailing his arms and legs.
"PUT ME DOWN!"
"Okay!" and Kishuku dropped his buddy a few more inches.
Everyone was rolling with laughter, with the possible exception of Genrou, who looked a little guilty. 'Aw, don't feel bad Gen-chan. You didn't mean to get him into trouble,' Kohana said.
'I know. But I do feel bad that it's kind of funny watching Kishuku finally get the better of him.'
As the amusement wore down, Ryuuen asked about Miaka's absence. After so many attempts on her life, all the Seishi were understandably paranoid about not knowing where she was and what she was doing.
"She is with Shonin and Takeshi at the moment," Saihitei said. "Packing up, I believe."
"I think everyone else is too," Kishuku put in. "I know that Houjun said he had issues to wrap up with the High Priest duties. A shame you can't do the same." Saihitei began to bemoan his situation as Miaka and the rest of the Seishi joined them.
"Hey Miaka-chan," Ryuuen said, putting an arm around her shoulders. "Need me to take your packs? No problem!" Miaka's mouth didn't get a chance to move before Ryuuen took it and tossed the giant bag over a slender shoulder. She grinned at Ryuuen, and while it looked a little forced, the ketsu were pleased to see she was actually trying to be happy.
A few moments of silence passed with just the sound of the waves gently lapping at the ship's prow. Saihitei then cleared his throat, trying to disperse the uncomfortable tension. "Well, I didn't really want to mention this with everyone here but…" he turned to Kishuku. "I've been meaning to talk to you, and I apologize that I didn't see you earlier. But a thought came to us recently… concerning your family."
"Shall we bring them here?" All faces, human and ketsu, turned stunned looks to their Emperor. "While you are traveling, you will be anxious about their well-being, correct? The Crown can provide them a home in the city," he said, and kept going before Kishuku could interrupt. "Mind you, this is not charity. They merely provided us – myself and the other Chosen Seishi – with great hospitality. This is a return of the favor."
As soon as the words sunk in, Kishuku's face and eyes lit up like fireworks. "Thank… thank you, heika!" Then, surprisingly, Kishuku began hugging his Seishi brother with an insane amount of gratitude. Kohana and the ketsu bubbled over with excitement and began to parade and dance around Saihitei's rather self-conscious form. "Thank you!! Thank you so much!! I'm forever in your debt!!"
"Oh, Saihitei-kun, you're such a sweetie!" Miaka squealed, hugging Saihitei's other side.
"Ah, well… it wasn't…," Saihitei stuttered.
'You're the best, and don't try to deny it!' Kohana said.
"This is so wonderful, Kishuku-kun! Yuiren and all the others will be thrilled!" Miaka grinned, leaving the blushing emperor to his own devices.
"Come with me."
Kishuku continued. "My family really likes you, and I thought you'd like to come along and see Yuiren."
Miaka's cheeks warmed up under Kishuku's kind look. "I'd like to go. But how are we going to get there in under three days?"
Kishuku grinned. "How else? Get Houjun to teleport us there!"
"Daaa…" the High Priest groaned, but nonetheless agreed to take them. "Whenever you're ready to go, I'll be waiting here, no da."
"But if it takes so long to get to Hakukou, what'll happen when we sail tomorrow? Will your family be all right?"
Saihitei answered that. "I will send a number of soldiers to the Sou house today, retrieve Kishuku's family, and bring them to a specified house on the outskirts of Eiyou. I know your family is a farming one, so I took the liberty of finding a place that is still part of the city, but not in one of the more overcrowded sections."
Again, the Hotohori Seishi was bombarded with 'thank yous' and the like. Shun'u and Ryuuen joked about coming along, but Kishuku quickly hit them and ran off with Miaka and Toshi to the marketplace before either could follow.
At this time of day, the market was still bustling with vendors and buyers. The items being sold were of good taste and not too expensive. In short, there were multitudes of things to look at and buy.
"Let's see… I've got this for Chuuei, and this for Shunkei and Gyokuran… what else do I need?"
"You're buying gifts?" Miaka asked incredulously. "Aren't you… you know, saving money?"
"Huh? Money? Where?" Kishuku looked up and around, his eyes distant and unseeing. Miaka leaned away from him.
'He's just a little excited, you know. It's not often he'll just randomly buy gifts.'
'I can tell.'
Toshi snorted. 'I'll bet you can, Miko-chan. In any case, it's best to just let him be. He'll be back to normal in a bit.'
The Tamahome Seishi was blissfully unaware of their conversation. "I already bought Yuiren a doll. I wonder what else I could get her."
Miaka smiled, her fondness for the little girl hardly hidden. "You really care a lot about Yuiren, don't you?"
"I love all my siblings, of course!" Kishuku grinned, and his smile suddenly became softer and just a little sad. "But Yuiren… my mother died a little while after bearing her. My dad was starting to get sick, so I ended up raising her and taking care of her. So I'm close to her in a way that's different from all my other siblings." Then, realizing where he was and what he was talking about, the wistful look in his eyes went away. "I'm sorry, Miaka-chan. I didn't mean to go on so much."
"No, it's okay. I can understand how you'd be so close. How about I pick something out, okay?"
As Miaka searched the table of gifts, a small line furrowed her brow. 'Toshi, is it wrong that I feel a little jealous of their relationship?'
'Hardly. They have a closeness that you'd like to have not only with Kishuku, but also with your own brother. But don't worry too much about it. You love Yuiren too – now choose something nice.'
Miaka drifted her hands over the rows of toys when, at the back of the counter, a sweetly decorated toy caught her attention. She leaned over to get it.
"Perhaps this ball would be a good gift."
Miaka screamed when she saw Ryuuen crouched down behind the counter, holding the toy. Kishuku laughed as he paid for the trinkets while the other two argued. They returned to the ship where Houjun, Saihitei (wearing his traveling clothes), and the ketsu were waiting. The other three Seishi stood on the side and watched.
"You're coming too, no da?" Houjun turned to Ryuuen.
"Come on, monk man! Let's get going!"
An "accidental" whap to the back of Kishuku's head with Houjun's shakujou momentarily silenced the younger man's excitement. Houjun tossed his kesa on the ground, and then whispered a quick prayer. The kesa glowed with an unearthly light. The travelers stepped onto it, and within moments they were teleported to the forest's edge with a perfect view of Hakukou.
"Good to be home," Kishuku sighed in contentment.
"Kohana, Toshi, Takeshi – whenever you are finished talking to the Sou family, 'call to Shonin and we will come and teleport the seven of you back to the Palace, no da."
'Can do!' Kohana said.
"I'll be here when you 'call, no da." Houjun gave a quick bow to Saihitei, silently asking for permission to leave, and teleported back to Eiyou after the Emperor nodded his gratitude.
The walk through the forest was a quick one. Miaka and Ryuuen continued their banter while Kishuku and Saihitei led the group.
"I mean, you really took us by surprise! I could have fainted with shock!"
"How dare you say such things! I have a wonderfully gorgeous face – not to compare with Saihitei-san's lovely visage, of course – but still! I'm nothing to be afraid of!"
"Those two are really quite… loud."
"That's more polite than what I'd say, Sai-san. Fights between girls are insane, and one 'em's a guy." Finally, they arrived. "Finally, I'm home!"
As Kishuku put a hand on the fence, four voices, screaming in abject terror, tore through the air from the little house in front of them. The sound of dishes breaking, furniture being pushed over, and children running echoed through the voiceless outside.
Everything began happening too fast after that. Toshi was the first to move, literally knocking down the door as he forced his way inside, snarling with such rage that Miaka actually felt scared of the normally gentle leopard. Kishuku, his face white as snow, followed just a heartbeat behind.
"Everyone! Go in and help!" Saihitei ordered as he pulled out his sword. Ryuuen and the ketsu followed their emperor's words without a single moment of hesitation. The sounds of violence and chaos increased a hundred-fold to Miaka's ears. "Miaka, you and I will stay out here! I cannot risk getting you killed!"
"But Yuiren! Kishuku's brothers and sisters! We have to help!"
"If you follow my orders, we can!"
Miaka nodded fearfully, tears pricking the backs of her eyes. She'd never seen Saihitei so… powerful or commanding. She'd never seen that look of deadly seriousness in Ryuuen's eyes. She was afraid, but it wouldn't stop her from helping the children.
When they entered the doorway, Saihitei still protecting Miaka with his body and sword, they were shocked beyond words to see Koutoku standing on the dining table with the children huddled behind him against the wall. To her relief, they all appeared to be alive. A pair of large thick balls lined with metal and feathery tassels was floating around Koutoku's body, occasionally shooting forward and hitting the children to keep them from moving. On the table in front of him was a pure white badger.
The Suzaku Seishi and ketsu stood facing him, their sei symbols shining like red suns as they glared hatefully at him.
"K-K-Koutoku! I thought… I thought you were…"
"You thought wrong, Suzaku no Miko!" he snarled.
A light went off in Saihitei's head. He snapped his head back to Miaka. "This isn't Koutoku! Get out of here!"
"NO! I want her to hear this too," the boy said. "I am Bu Shunkaku, Suboshi Seishi, and all of you killed my brother."
Miaka's jaw dropped. "Brother?"
"Hey, idiot! We didn't kill Koutoku! He saved us and was taken away for healing!" Ryuuen snarled.
"You liar! It's time to die along with these brats!"
Shunkaku spun on his heel, and threw one of the balls straight at Chuuei's chest.
"NO!!!" Kishuku yelled, jumping in front of his siblings and blocking the hit. "You're mine, you sonofabitch!" He literally tackled Shunkaku, sending both of them tumbling off the table. "You guys, take care of my family and stay the hell outta this!"
They needed no further encouragement. The ketsu went to the children, protecting them from Shunkaku's ketsu and the floating bobs. Kohana ran up to Shunkei, and he jumped onto her back. Ryuuen, to Miaka's surprise, ran behind the battling Seishi. It wasn't until he pulled an unconscious and bleeding Sou-san from his room that Miaka understood what happened. Saihitei went and grabbed Gyokuran, who clung to him for dear life.
"Miaka, get out of the house before you get hurt!" he yelled, taking her arm and pulling her with him. It snapped her out of her daze.
"No, Chuuei and Yuiren are still in there! We have to help them"
Saihitei quickly handed Gyokuran to Ryuuen than headed back in with Miaka. "You grab Yuiren, I'll help Chuuei out." She nodded, glad that someone could take control of the situation. Inside, Takeshi was still protecting the two, but space was rapidly being overtaken by the fight. Saihitei had to gently coax Chuuei to come with him before the younger man would leave his brother. Yuiren, though, nearly jumped into Miaka's arms, happy to know that her nee-chan was here to save her.
As Miaka stopped to hug the child, rather than run after Saihitei, she saw one of Shunkaku's weapons come at her. Time slowed down. She saw the look of horror on Kishuku's face as he blocked another hit. She heard Shunkaku laugh. She screamed and turned her back, using her body to shield Yuiren. The child buried her face into Miaka's shoulder and wept.
A pained roar caught Miaka's ears, and she spun around to see Toshi standing there, his side a mass of blood where the ball had entered.
'Run, Miaka! Get her out of here! RUN!' Toshi screamed, and Miaka obeyed.
"Don't underestimate my ryuuseisui," Shunkaku sneered as he pulled the single bob out with a wet slurping sound. It made Miaka's heart stop to hear.
The second Shunkaku's back was turned, Kishuku's symbol changed and the air crackled with energy. Miaka couldn't help it – she turned around. There were no words to describe the subtle change from the oni symbol to this beautiful, fluid character. With that change came a large burst of energy from Kishuku's hands, aimed directly at Shunkaku's back.
Miaka ran outside, still holding Yuiren like a precious piece of china. She was surprised to see that most of the children were well, if only a little bruised and cut. Sou-san was still unconscious – "I had Kohana contact Houjun. He's gonna bring Juan back here." – and Chuuei was looking more beat-up than his siblings, but they were all alive. Kohana and Takeshi were outside, looking enigmatically at the house, and Saihitei was still holding Gyokuran with a stunned look on his face.
"Thank Suzaku you're all okay," Miaka said into Yuiren's ear.
"Nii-chan and Nee-chan came back to save us," she whispered back.
The sound of wood breaking cut all conversation. The whole house began to fall in on itself, and Miaka saw Shunkaku's body come flying out of it through one of the walls. Kishuku followed him, his body almost glowing with red energy.
"Kishuku!" Miaka screamed. She almost ran towards him, but Ryuuen's arm on her shoulder prevented her from moving. "I want to help."
"He's doing fine," Ryuuen said, his voice sounding close to relieved. "He'll be all right. He's gonna win."
They all watched as Kishuku stood above a moaning Shunkaku. "You're dead now," he said, his voice holding no inflection, no feeling. "You tried to kill me and my family. You're dea-" And he cut off.
A bolt of lighting, barely heralded by the sound of cracking thunder, shot down to hit everyone. Kishuku barely dodged it. The ketsu didn't. They and Ryuuen took the lighting hits to protect the children and their Miko. Saihitei quickly put Gyokuran next to Chuuei and caught the falling Takeshi. Ryuuen and Kohana, both barely conscious, writhed on the ground in pain. Miaka stood in front of all the Sou children, protecting them.
"How troublesome…" a bored voice caught their attention. On top of a nearby house stood a robed figure, its arms supporting a very injured Shunkaku. "You see what happens when you get involved in this kind of combat, especially when you're not ready for it?"
"Shut… the fuck up…" he said between gritted teeth. "Just 'cause… you're Chosen too…"
Saihitei gasped. "Another Chosen Seiryuu?"
"Just a little greeting to you Chosen Suzaku from the Chosen Seiryuu no Soi," the figure explained. With a brief look to the right, they watched the bloody badger jump into Shunkaku's arms. "I hope that when we battle again, it will be a more impressive fight."
With that, Soi and Shunkaku disappeared into thin air. Ryuuen and Kohana began to regain their bearings, and Takeshi was flapping his wings and testing his strength.
"Are you well?" a deep voice asked from behind, and they saw Juan and the other three Seishi standing there. He knelt beside Sou-san and put a hand on the multiple lacerations on the man's stomach. "Give me room." He quickly healed Sou-san and bandaged up the hurts on the children. Questions and answers flew between everyone, wanting to know what happened and what would be done now.
"Hey… where's Kishuku?" Ryuuen asked. "I didn't see what happened to him after the lightning hit."
Miaka frowned and looked back at the wood pile that was once a house. "I'll go check."
She walked softly, pushing away some of the debris. The roof was, relatively, in one piece, and remnants of one of the walls still stood, so it created a triangular formation. It made for a very off-centered bit of rubble, but she noticed a thatch of blue-gray hair in the space between the roof and wall. She headed towards it, filled with relief as she saw her favorite Seishi was still alive.
Then she noticed his posture; Kishuku was kneeling on the ground, slumped over and cradling something in his lap. Something was wrong. He was oblivious to everything around him, and as Miaka got closer she saw it was Toshi he was holding so tightly.
Oh Suzaku! Oh gods no no NO it's not what I think it is please no… a horrified thought hit Miaka right between the eyes. She ran to him.
"Kishuku…" Miaka gasped, falling at his side. Looking quickly, her fears were affirmed as she saw the mangled body of Toshi lying on the ground, his head resting on Kishuku's legs. She swallowed thickly – oh gods, the smell! The blood! – and put a hand on Kishuku's arm. "Ki-chan?"
"He's not moving," Kishuku whispered in a voice to break her heart. "Toshi won't move. But we were just fighting the Seiryuu… why won't he move? Why won't he answer me? He can't be gone… he can't… he can't…"
And he turned a tear-streaked face to her and she knew - NO!!! – by all the Gods, she knew. His eyes, once storm-borne blue, were now a deadened ash-gray and utterly bereft of all emotions save absolute despair.
They told her more than she wanted to know.
Toshi, Kishuku's ketsu and bondmate for all time, was dead. And by that same token, Kishuku would die with him.
"No!!" Miaka cried out, grabbing Kishuku's collar and nearly pushing Toshi out of his hands. "No, you're not leaving us! I won't let you! You can't, Kishuku! You can't! You told me you loved me!!!"
All he did in reply was pull Toshi closer to his chest, his head bowed over his ketsu's remains. Miaka's heart broke as she heard him begin to weep. Her tears mingled with his as she wrapped her arms around his head and held him for all she was worth.
And all our tears have reached the sea
A part of you will live in me
Way down deep inside my heart
The days keep coming without fail
A new wind is gonna find your sail
And that's where your journey starts
He had known from the beginning of their bonding that if Toshi ever died, he would die too. But he never truly believed it. He thought he would hurt for a while, but because of his family and Seishi friends, he would eventually become a living member of society again. He would still go on.
He never expected this depth of mourning and longing. He never expected to feel as if he had only half a soul. But most of all, he never expected to feel his own body turn against him. His lungs weren't allowing him to breathe easily, and his muscles felt as if they were simply melting away. His heart, once so powerful and full of life, was getting weaker with each beat. Soon it would completely betray him, and he knew he would die. Not by his choice – never by his own choice – but because of the bond that Toshi formed with him, he would not survive the day. If Toshi's heart did not and would not beat, then Kishuku's would not either.
His memories became flashes, blurring moments and events.
Miaka's tears falling with his own.
Shun'u helping him walk to his family.
Ryuuen picking up Toshi with all the care in the world and laying him gently by the garden.
Hugs and kisses from his siblings.
Tears in his father's eyes.
You'll find better love
Strong as it ever was
Deep as the river runs
Warm as the morning sun
Please remember me
"I'm sorry," Kishuku said first, sitting down and resting against the tree. He knew everyone was listening, and that was a comfort. "I'm sorry this happened. I don't want to go."
"You… you're coming back, right?" Chuuei asked, his voice uncertain. Kishuku just shook his head.
"I'm dying, and I can't change that. I'm sorry."
"NO!!!" Yuiren screamed, tackling him and sobbing with a passion that only a child can feel. "You can't go away any more! You left before, and we got hurt! You can't leave again!"
"You'll still have Miaka and the others, Yuiren. I know that's not what you want, but it's what I can give you." He pried his sister off his chest, ignoring her screams as his father came forward and took the child. "I'm sorry, Tou-san."
The man simply nodded and closed his eyes. The children were so shocked they were quiet and obedient.
Kishuku turned and looked at his Seishi family. "I need your help. I don't want to die here. I'd like it if we could walk… together."
Ryuuen again picked up Toshi, suffering no other man to carry such a burden. Houjun, wanting to protect Kishuku's dignity and honor, came to his aid. He put a finger under Kishuku's elbow, whispered a spell of telekinesis, and gave Kishuku the ability to walk tall with his unobvious assistance.
They walked him out of the housing fence, not a word spoken aloud. He carefully directed them through the woods into a small opening, like a tiny valley in the midst of the forest. On the far side, Kishuku pointed to a well-worn cairn.
"My mother is buried there. I think… I think it would be best if Toshi and I were laid to rest here, too."
"Ki… Ki-ku, yer really not gonna… you know… die, are you?" Shun'u asked, his voice wavering between doubt and panic. "I mean… yer just tired after the fight. Yer not gonna…"
Kishuku closed his eyes.
Just like the waves down by the shore
Are gonna keep on coming back for more
Cause we don't ever wanna stop
Out in this brave new world you seek
Oh the valleys and the peaks
And I can see you on the top
"NO!!!" Miaka shrieked as she stumbled in front of him. "No, I won't let you die! You won't leave me! You can't leave us!!" Kishuku opened his eyes, not only clouded with emotional pain but physical suffering. Miaka ignored that pain, too intent on hers.
"Miaka… I can't stay. It's not my choice anymore. My ki… it's draining away. It's doing things to me…"
She stamped her foot, tears flowing down her cheeks like an angry river rapid. "As your Miko, as the Suzaku no Miko, I command you to Stay! Here! Now!!" She stood in front of him, and although she was shaking and crying and looked so frail she might fall from the least of winds, she radiated an aura of power that no one could ignore. "I will give you some of my ki! All the Seishi would give a little of their ki to make you well." Her eyes lit up, and she pointed at Juan. "You! You can make him better! You can heal him!"
Juan shook his head, regret running through his veins. "Miaka… I can't."
"Why not?! " she shouted, all her hurt and anger unfairly directed at him, but Juan bravely took the blow and kept going.
"Not because I healed Sou-san earlier, but because Toshi was literally half of Kishuku's life and the rest of it is draining away. I cannot replenish his ki; it's as if something is eating him inside-out. If I were to give him some of my ki it would simply disappear. We healers have been trying since the beginning of time to heal this wound, and it has never and will never heal." Then he looked directly at Kishuku. "But I will try."
She looked at Juan as if he had betrayed her, not hearing his final words. "All my life, things have happened to me without care for my feelings, my beliefs, my wants," she said, a dark tone to her voice. "It's always about what my family wants, what Suzaku demands I do, what Konan needs from me. And now…"
Miaka paused, looking into Kishuku's eyes and seeing nothing but death, and a new flood of grief washed over her. Her voice began to rise in volume and pitch. "Now my god going to take one of the men I love more than anything on both sides of the Heavens, and for once I want to defy destiny and hold him as long as I can! Is that so wrong?!"
Ryuuen came to Miaka's other side, and pulled her close. "No, it's not wrong. And believe me when I say we all feel the same way. But sometimes the only thing you can do is to say how much you love them and let them fly without anything to chain them down is the greatest love you can give. No guilt, no sorrows, no regrets… just pure untainted love."
And with those words of pain and empathy cutting through her tears, Miaka buried her face in Ryuuen's chest, the truth of them ringing so clear that she couldn't face the rest of the world. He put his arms around her, giving as much comfort as he could offer, putting aside his own grief to alleviate hers.
You'll find better love
Strong as it ever was
Deep as the river runs
Warm as the morning sun
Please remember me
"I want… I'd like to have a few minutes alone with everyone. Is that okay?"
They all nodded; they would acquiesce to anything their dying brother wanted. Houjun walked with him to a nearby tree and released the spell as Kishuku sat down. Juan knelt beside the Tamahome Seishi and held out his bottle of holy water. "I cannot give you your life, but I can give you time," he said kindly. "Drink."
Kishuku took a small sip, and felt his strength slightly return. It would be enough.
Saihitei came next, his face lined with pain. "All the power of the emperor… and I cannot even save my brother's life. How worthless this power is."
"It's not worthless," Kishuku said. "Make other lives better. You can't help me, but help everyone else. Take care of my family, okay?" Saihitei nodded, bravely keeping up his emotions in check.
Houjun came next. He laid a tender hand upon Kishuku's forehead and closed his eye. Words too soft and arcane to be understood flew from the Chichiri Seishi's lips, and Kishuku could feel a soft cadence of warmth pulse under his fingers. It lasted for just a heartbeat, the pulse of memory.
"What was that?" Kishuku asked as Houjun removed his shaking hand.
"A blessing," he whispered. "A prayer. A piece of my soul, so that you may know how much I care even though I might never have said a word."
Kishuku reached for the feeling and found it, surprised at how deep the affection ran. "Thank you," he whispered back.
Then Houjun looked to Kishuku's other shoulder. "You have someone else that wants to say something."
"Yer damn right I wanna say somethin'!" Shun'u snarled, his hand clamping tightly on Kishuku's shoulder. "You fucker, how the fuck can you think 'bout dying when we're gonna save the country! What the fuck are we gonna do without'cha?"
Kishuku didn't say a word; he just wrapped his arms around his fiery brother and pulled him close. And all of Shun'u's walls, created by his anger and bravado and sorrow, shattered and vanished as he in turn grasped Kishuku, sobbing his desperation into the other's neck.
"Fuck, man… fuckin' hell, I don't wanna to see you die! I just… Ki…" his fists clenched, holding Kishuku's hair and collar as if it would tie him down to the world. "Please don't…"
Shun'u looked at him, swollen amber eyes shocked and confused. "Wh…?"
"I promised Miaka I would always take care of her, but I lied. I can't do it anymore… and when I'm gone, I want you to watch out for her," he said quietly. "I would ask this of no other man."
Kishuku tried not to sound injured or distressed, but Shun'u knew the truth. He knew that Kishuku wanted to keep that promise, just like Shun'u knew it hurt his brother to have to break it.
"Yeah…" he whispered. "I'll do it. Damn you for breaking her heart, and damn you for leaving, but I'll take care of Miaka just like you would have wanted to."
One more embrace, and they separated. Right behind him was Doukun, who simply hugged Kishuku with all his strength, knowing the uselessness of words.
And finally… the last two, and possibly the hardest ones to face. Doukun moved away as Ryuuen came close. Ryuuen wasn't crying yet, but his rose-colored eyes were glistening suspiciously. Miaka still had her back to Kishuku, unable to face reality.
"You damned baka… you just have to be so goddamn dramatic, don't you," Ryuuen said with a false smile. "I wish I knew what to say, but… " he faltered.
Kishuku shook his head. "You don't need to say anything. Just let me say that I thought you were one of the most incredible people I know. You were strong, more than in a physical aspect. You were always good to me, and there's no way I can repay that."
"You have, though," Ryuuen said, reaching out to touch Kishuku's cheek. "Gods, it burns to say this, but… I hope the next world loves you as much as this world did."
Kishuku was pulled close to Ryuuen. He felt something clench in his chest, and knew that it was almost time.
Remember me when you're out walking
When snow falls high outside your door
Late at night when you're not sleeping
And moonlight falls across your floor
And I can't hurt you anymore
"Ki-chan…" Miaka's husky voice caught his ear. He opened his eyes and saw she had finally turned around.
She knelt beside her Tamahome Seishi. "Ki-chan…."
He suddenly wrapped his arms around her small form. "Help me. I'm scared. I don't want to die. Miaka, please help me… " And a sob escaped his lips with these words.
Of all the things that could have happened, this scared Miaka beyond thought. Kishuku never cried, he had never shown any sign of fear before. This wasn't supposed to happen. How could she, a stupid country girl, help him?
It came in a blinding flash of insight. Her Kishuku was afraid, and he needed her. He needed to be held, to be touched by someone who loved him. He needed to know he wasn't going to die alone.
He didn't say one word of this to any of the Seishi, but he had freely cried in her arms.
He loved his brothers, but he trusted her.
She would help him. There was nothing she couldn't do.
Gently slipping out from his grasp, Miaka leaned him away from the tree and sat down. With their combined efforts, Kishuku was able to slide himself forward enough so that she spooned him, holding him tightly in the circle of her arms so that he would have both support and warmth. Her cheek brushed his hair and he rested his head against her shoulder. She pretended not to notice his tears falling on her hands.
"I love you, Sou Kishuku."
"I love you too, Miaka."
You'll find better love
Strong as it ever was
Deep as the river runs
Warm as the morning sun
Please remember me
"Go with Suzaku…" Miaka whispered.
And he did, his labored breathing quietly coming to a stop as his struggling heart gave way to death.
All around them, the song of the six ketsu lifted up and conveyed their mournful message across the Konan lands.
Please remember me
And so it came to pass that Sou Kishuku was called home to the Heavens and Suzaku, to be rejoined with his ever-cherished Toshi. His untainted warmth, his spirited nature rivaled the blaze of the sunset, and even in death he wore a look of contentment. When the graves had been filled and there was nothing but darkness and tears and the song of two thousand ketsus grieving the loss, it was Miaka who swore she saw Kishuku and Toshi's spirits smiling down upon them as the sun fell below the horizon.
Author's Notes: This is the concluding chapter of Between Seishi and Gods. However, the story is far from over. Its sequel, Between the Lines of Fire, will begin in the summer of 2005.