"Okay," said Taka, "hypothetical situation."

We were clustered around the coffee table, Ryuen, Saihitei, Miaka, and I on the long couch, Houjun and Taka in the recliners, and Genrou--whose name I'd finally remembered--sitting cross-legged on the floor.  Genrou, I'd discovered, was actually quite talented at Trivial Pursuit, despite the fact that his appearance--and relaxed, hardly-grammatical speech--seemed more fitting of some hoodlum who'd dropped out of high school.  But, no, he actually answered the majority of his questions correctly, even one on Greek Literature, which really surprised me.  Of course, I won the game, anyway (I really don't like to brag, but I've never lost a game of Trivial Pursuit in my life), but Genrou came in a close second, and Houjun a near third.

Forcing my thoughts away from the game, which had only just ended with some cheering and celebratory popcorn throwing, I let my gaze fall on Taka.  I'd thought he was talking to everyone, but strangely, his eyes were only on me. 

"O-Okay," I managed, unnerved to find--once again--everyone staring at me.  Well, with the notable exception of Miaka.  She had eyes only for the popcorn bowl, and was shoving the fluffy kernels into her mouth so quickly that I swear her hands blurred.

Taka cleared his throat, shifting in his seat.  To his far right, the movie we'd had on in the background--one of the Marx Brothers movies, which Genrou let out a guffaw of laughter at every few minutes--charged bravely onward, at the moment showing a solemn Harpo Marx lip-synching to a record player tied on his back. 

"Okay," Taka said again, "so I, ah . . . I have this friend, and he's a writing major.  And he's writing this story, but he can't figure something out and he asked me to, ah . . . well, to ask you guys about it--"  His gaze suddenly flickered to everyone, not just me.  "--and see if you can help him out."

"Well," said Ryuen enthusiastically, "we'll certainly try."

Sai, who had his arm around Ryuen's shoulders, gave a small nod.  "Yes, Taka, we'd be glad to assist your friend."

Genrou burst out laughing, poking a finger at the T.V., but Taka didn't even seem to notice.  His attention was on his hands, and from the way he was chewing on his lip, he seemed to be struggling to find the correct phrasing.

"Okay, so in my friend's story," he began slowly, "there's this . . . book."

A story about a book?  I frowned.  And this person is a writing major?

"So, the story starts with these two girls, ah-- "  For some reason, his gaze flickered to Miaka, who had actually stopped eating to gape at him.  "--M-Mimi and Yuuuu...Yolanda."  Miaka groaned, but Taka seemed to be ignoring her.  "Anyway, so Mimi and Yolanda find the book in this library, and when they start reading from it, it transports them into another world."

"Gee, Taka," Miaka said, speaking overly-slowly, "I really hope you're not going to tell us your friend's entire story, because that might take a really long time..."

"Nonono," Taka assured her.  "I'm going to summarize, don't worry.  Okay, so the two girls get transported into the other world--which looks a lot like Ancient China--and Mimi finds out that she's a priestess for the god Suzaku, and that she has to find seven special warriors so she can call that god and make three wishes."

"Isn't that a little clichéd?" I offered hesitantly.  "Three wishes, I mean?"

Taka blinked at me for a few seconds, but finally shrugged.  "Y-Yeah, I guess it is.  But, anyway, so Mimi gathers up all the warriors and they call the god, and she gets sent back to her world.  But, she was in love with one of the warriors, a very strong, good-looking guy named Tamahome, but she couldn't be with him since they were from different worlds.  Tamahome was able to be reborn in her world, though, so they got to be together in the end.  Anyway, so a little while later, Mimi realized that all the warriors had been reborn into her world, but none of them remembered who they had been.  The first one she met was the youngest of the warriors, Ch..."  He hesitated.  "Chiriko, but he didn't remember and so Mimi thought he never could.  But a few months later, Mimi met two other warriors, Nuriko and Hotohori, and they did remember--but only when all four of them were together.  So, Mimi figured out that maybe the warriors would only remember if they were all together, and so she started looking for Chiriko again, because she really wanted him to remember.  But...well, while she was looking for Chiriko, she and Tamahome found two more warriors, Tasuki and Chichiri, and once they all got together--Mimi, Tamahome, Nuriko, Hotohori, Tasuki, and Chichiri--they both remembered.  Soooooo, anyway, finally Mimi found Chiriko again, but when she brought him together with all of the warriors, he didn't remember." 

Taka leaned forward in his chair, staring at me questioningly.  "So, why doesn't he remember?  Why can all the others remember when they come together, but Chiriko can't?"

"Well," I said slowly, chewing on my lower lip, "could it be that the person they've found really isn't the reincarnation of Chiriko?"

"No," Miaka said immediately.

"No," Taka agreed, "they're sure that it's him. He looks exactly the same, acts exactly the same--they're sure it's him."

I glanced at the others, thinking that perhaps they might want to contribute to the discussion, but none of them seemed ready to speak.  As a matter of fact, they were all staring expectantly and almost hopefully at me, and I felt a nervous tingle starting to creep up my back.  Turning back to Taka, I frowned and struggled to think logically.

Okay.  Okay, so when the warriors get together, they remember.  But, obviously all the warriors don't have to be there, because if that was the case, then none of them would remember until all seven were there.  So, why can't Chiriko remember?  And why didn't he remember when he met Mimi in the first place?  I guess it was because Tamahome wasn't there, but...

"When...when Mimi and Tamahome met Nuriko and Hotohori--"  It seemed remarkably strange to me that I could remember these odd foreign names, but I was too immersed in my logic to give it much thought.  "--did they remember right away?"

Miaka and Taka exchanged glances.  "Well, they met Nuriko first," Taka explained, "but he didn't remember until he, Tamahome, Mia--err, Mimi, and Hotohori were together."

I shook my head.  "Well, that doesn't make any sense at all.  Why would Nuriko not remember until Hotohori came?  What about the other two, Chichiri and Tasuki?  Did they remember right away?"

Miaka answered, which seemed strange--but then, by now I'd gathered that she must've read the story, too, which made a lot of sense considering that she and Taka were most likely both friends with this confused writing major.  "Chichiri remembered right away," she said.  "Oh, and he and Tasuki were already friends."

"Did Chichiri remember before Tasuki did?"

The girl nodded.  "Hai, he did.  After he remembered, he realized that Tasuki was one of the warriors, too, and so he brought him to meet everybody else.  Tasuki remembered right away, too."

My goodness, what a complicated plot.  I certainly hope this writer can form sentences better than he can form storylines, or else he's not going to go very far.

"All right," I said, "so Nuriko didn't remember right away, but when Hotohori came, he did.  Chichiri remembered right away, and Tasuki remembered right away, but Chiriko didn't.  What about the last warrior?"

Miaka shook her head.  "They haven't found him yet.  They, ah..."  She threw a blushing smile at Taka.  "They thought they saw him on a commercial once, but they're pretty sure that wasn't him."

"It might've been him," Taka countered.  "He was dressed as a doctor."

"But, they only saw him for a second," Miaka said, "and so it probably wasn't him."

"Well, maybe Mimi needs glasses."

"Or, maybe Tamahome should just--"


I jumped, spinning towards Ryuen with wide eyes.  He didn't appear to be hurt, just sitting there with Sai's arm around him, staring into space with a shocked look on his face.  His lips were still slightly parted from that sharp little yell.

"What?" Taka demanded.  "What is it?"

"Are you all right no da?"

Saihitei, meanwhile, had turned concerned eyes to his boyfriend and was trying to peer into his face; Ryuen hardly seemed to notice, however, and for a moment, I began to fear that he was having some sort of elevator flashback, and would start screaming any moment--

But, just then, he shook his head and turned startled eyes to Taka.  "The order!" he exclaimed.  "It's the order!"

Taka frowned.  "What?"

"Ryuen," Saihitei said softly, "are you all right?  Do you need to lie down?"

"No, no, it's okay--I just..."  He shook his head.  "They have to be found in order, Sai!" he continued emphatically.  "Chiriko wasn't the sixth one found in the Book, he was the seventh, and so until Mitsukake shows up, Chiriko's not gonna remember!"

Taka sat a little straighter in his chair.  "That's why Nuriko didn't remember at first," he said, "because in the Book, Hotohori was found first."

"I suppose that does make sense," I agreed.  "But, why would they need to find everyone in order for them to remember?"

They stared at me blankly.

"Won't readers expect some sort of explanation for it, I mean?"

More blank stares.

Beginning to feel truly uncomfortable, I shifted in my seat and considered excusing myself to the bathroom.  Before I could do so, however, Genrou--who had been remarkably silent during the entire conversation, but most likely because he'd been staring at the T.V. screen--cleared his throat and turned to look at me.

"Ya don't fuckin' need to explain everything," he said matter-of-factly.  "Some stories, you're just not s'posed to know.  Look at fuckin' Groundhog Day.  I mean, shit, ya never get to know why the guy has to keep repeatin' the same goddamn day over'n over, he just does."  He shrugged, the movement rattling the chains at his neck.  "Just the way stuff is sometime.  Ya don't get to know."

After that, the very strange and complex conversation dwindled into talk of more mundane things--Houjun's work, Miaka's classes, how many new accounts Taka had signed on at the bank.  Attentions drifted thankfully away from me, and I took advantage of the shift to seek out the bathroom, moreso because I needed to clear my head than anything else.  Smiling a bit as Miaka dove into her second bowl of popcorn, I rose from the couch and started across the wide expanse of carpet towards the hallway.  The bedroom, I assumed, was back here, and unless Saihitei had installed one on the balcony, the bathroom would be also.

Upon entering the hallway, dimly lit and stretching only about eight feet before halting at a broom closet, I spotted the bathroom on the left.  The door hung open, probably so I wouldn't go wandering into the bedroom across the hall by mistake, and inside, I could see an elegant old-fashioned cabinet with brass knobs and a bottle of mulberry soft-soap on the counter.  I was actually halfway in the door and reaching for the light switch when something stopped me.  I'd noticed Saihitei and Ryuen leaving a few moments earlier, claiming they needed to retrieve something from somewhere, but I hadn't quite put it together that they'd retreated to the bedroom.  For a moment, my cheeks got very warm as I considered just what circumstances might bring a loving couple into such a room--but then I realized that the voice I was hearing was tinged with concern, not...erm...anything else.

"--sure you're all right?" Saihitei was asking, his words clear through the slightly-ajar bedroom door.

There was a moment's pause and a rustle of fabric--despite how morally opposed I was and had always been to eavesdropping, I couldn't help creeping over to the door and, very slowly, knowing I would probably alienate myself from these people forever if I was caught, peering in through the crack. 

Neither Ryuen nor Sai was even looking in my direction.  The two stood in the middle of the room, a king-sized bed with a cream comforter and brass bedposts an inch or so away from them.  Saihitei's features were wrinkled with concern, and Ryuen's face was hidden, swallowed up in the tight embrace the two were sharing.  At the sight of the hug, which was so clearly not my business, I almost turned and retreated into the bathroom--what I was doing was wrong, anyway, and certainly not an opportune way of repaying these two for having me over.  My legs, however, didn't seem to wish to move, so despite my inner qualms, I remained where I was.

After a few moments of just standing there, wrapped in each other's arms and swaying slightly as if to music audible only to them, Ryuen lifted his head from Saihitei's shoulder, and I couldn't help but notice the moisture swimming in his eyes.  "I'm sorry," he whispered.  "I...I know it shouldn't still affect me like this.  I mean...it was such a long time ago.  But I-I still...I mean, I can't--"

"Shh," Saihitei murmured.  Smiling gently at the smaller man, he wrapped his arms more snugly around the slender shoulders and tugged Ryuen close.  "It's all right," he said softly, smoothing a hand over thick violet hair.  "This isn't something you need to overcome right away, or at all, if you don't want to.  Something--"  His voice trembled slightly.  "Something horrible happened to you, sweetheart, and it's only natural for you to want to avoid being in the place where it happened."

Ryuen shook his head, and although his body seemed relaxed and comfortable in Saihitei's arms, his voice was tense, and barely above a whisper.  "Why can't I get over this, Sai?  It was eight years ago.  Why can't I get over it?  I mean--"  He laughed, but it came out sounding sharp and flat.  "--if I can get over memories of being skewered to death by a werewolf, why can't I get past this?"

Saihitei's features constricted in real anguish, making me forget for a moment that what Ryuen had just said made no sense at all; when he answered, the words seemed to be coming with real difficulty.  "Sweetheart, when you...when you faced...Ashitare, you knew who you were.  You knew that you were a Suzaku Shichiseishi and that strength was your gift and that even if you died, it would be for some greater good.  But...but Ryuen, when you were fourteen, you didn't know any of that--you didn't know your strength, or any of us, and certainly what...happened in that elevator didn't serve any greater purpose.  It's okay that it still affects you.  It's okay.  I'll do whatever I can to help you get past it, but if it takes another five or ten or fifty years before you do, then that's all right."  The taller man drew back from the embrace so he could smile down at Ryuen, and as their eyes met, I saw so much love passing between them that it made my chest ache.  "I'll be here, Ryuen.  For as long as it takes.  And longer."

I drew back, then, as Saihitei leaned down to press his lips to Ryuen's, and hurried into the bathroom, where--after closing the door--I went immediately to the toilet and sank down on the seat cover to think.

There was definitely something strange going on, here--definitely.  No question at all about it.  One didn't have to be a scholar of logic and reason to notice that, however, and the real test would be if I could piece together enough of the clues to figure out just what that something strange was. 

The fact was, however, that no matter how nonsensical Ryuen's talk of werewolves had been, no matter how deeply I got the impression of a secret tying these people together, I still liked them.  We had only just met, some of us for the first time tonight, and yet being here felt somehow as if I'd stumbled into a family reunion--minus the fruit salad and great aunts pinching my cheeks, of course.

Shaking my head, I rose to my feet and walked soberly to the sink.  In the half-moon mirror, I saw a pale, thin boy with spiky hair just starting to droop, features lined with confusion, and cheeks just chubby enough to offer a good grip:  me.  The same image--aside from the hair, naturally--that I'd seen staring back at me for all my life, and one that despite not being entirely pleased with, I'd learned to accept and possibly even like.

But tonight, something was different about him--about me.  No matter how long I stood there staring at my reflection, however, I couldn't seem to pinpoint just what it was--but something was different.  It wasn't until I heard, "Neeeeeeee, Doukun, are you all right in there?" from the other room that I realized that maybe, just maybe, this was what Ou Doukun looked like when he had friends.

With a small grin, I turned from the mirror and opened the door, and pledged to let myself forget what I'd overheard and just enjoy the night.  There would be time enough to analyze it later, after all, when I was back in my lonely dorm room with nothing better to do. 

Yes, I thought, settling in on the couch between Ryuen and Genrou, who had—if the debris was anything to judge by, at least—apparently been hurling popcorn at one another before I showed up.  There'll be lots of time for that later.

LOTS of time.