Musical Selection: "Teppen no Ito" for the monastery scene. "Ryoute Ippai" serves as the Final Ending Theme.
-Fushigi Yuugi: The Next Chapter-
Kiori came out of the bathroom to find Ritsuka sprawled out on the single room's futon. She had her face buried in a pillow. Universe Reawakened lay in front of her.
"Did you read it?"
"No," said the pillow. "I couldn't do it without you."
Ritsuka propped herself up on one arm and used the other to yank at the thin chord around her neck. She pulled up the kirin necklace, letting it dangle between herself and her friend. "Can you believe it? I was actually dumb enough to think that I wanted to forget about them."
Kiori smiled. She took a seat on the futon, holding out the book as Ritsuka struggled into a sitting position. They shared a long, even stare, then Ritsuka held out her hand, flashing another of her lopsided grins. "C'mon. I read us into this mess. I might as well read us out of it."
She took the book from Kiori's willing hands and flipped it open, skimming until she found the paragraph detailing their departure from Taikyoku. The redhead took a breath, gathering strength, and began to read.
"'It was yet another beautiful spring day, so similar to the one that had begun the tale of the Elemental War. This day, however, did not begin in Konan but in Takkan, and the air did not sing with peace but rather with excitement. Preparations were under way – preparations, and one familiar training lesson...'"
Wooden swords crashed against each other, skidded along one another, locked at the hilt and ground together before pulling away again, one pushing, the other retreating, only to twist suddenly and reverse the dance and begin again. A gust of wind ruffled the branches that swung above the circular training pit, whirling blossoms around the brawlers and across the pages of a medical text.
Fuyuko pressed his limp left hand against the book to keep the pages from jumping with the breeze, chancing a quick glance up at the ring and the fighters within. He offered a brief, "Come on, Akai!" before turning his attention to the book again, forming the words out loud, training his tongue to sound out the complex syllables. "If the patient continues to experience trouble, adminsht... ad-min-iss-ter a blend of ginseng, lick-oh-riss, shitrush... ugh, sit-riss with ginger..."
Footsteps behind him made the Element turn. Setsuka stood at the top of the little set of stairs leading down into the ring, dressed in a simple double-layer of periwinkle and white. She hesitated at the sight of him, but he just raised his right hand in greeting, offering a tiny – and perhaps ironic – smile. She gave him a timid one in return, the corpse-pale scar tissue along her cheekbone crinkling with the pull of her lips, then stepped into the building, eyes on the fighters.
They watched together as Akai leaped forward with a cry of victory, her bokken slicing from her shoulder, only to have Hataku narrowly block the attack, twisting her blade to the side. He stumbled on his bad leg but the rest of him never hesitated, and even as he fought to catch himself his sword was on the move, sliding along Akai's exposed side and knocking her in the ribs. Both lowered their bokken and gasped for air, but they were smiling as they did it.
"That was..." Hataku shook his head wonderingly. "Very good, Akai. I believe you're in the process of inventing a new sword style. You'll have to teach it to our men when you've perfected it."
She grinned, pressing fist to palm as she bowed low to him. "If I ever manage to beat you with it, then I promise to teach the entire nation." Her eyes snaked sideways to the woman on the sidelines. "If you ask nicely, I'll even teach it to your kids."
Setsuka must have heard the remark because she pressed a hand to her stomach, the slight swell just barely noticeable beneath her robes. Her eyes met Hataku's across the ring and they smiled, but his quickly turned into a sigh. "I suppose they're asking for me at council?"
"Furosaki-san needs your approval on the additional funds for the, ah... childhood educational facilities that I proposed."
"The palace orphanage, you mean?"
She blushed. "We thought it would sound more professional this way."
"Hmph. You and that actor could make a trash heap sound elegant." He chuckled as he said it, returning his bokken to the wall before offering Akai a short bow. "I'm sorry to cut this short, but it seems they're making me rule again. I'll see you this evening?"
"With bells on, m'Lord."
He grimaced. "My Lord. I think I preferred it when you were insulting me."
Akai giggled, but her laughter was cut short as someone new clattered through the doorway, pulling up in the frame so he could bow to the group. "Er, er, Vice Provost Yoh Kazuo of the City Watch reportin'. Sorry ta interrupt, Hataku-sama, it's jus' that we've received word that th' Imperial procession has been spotted outside th' city, an' you wanted t'know quick-like, so..."
All four faces lit up. Hataku stepped forward, assuming command with another goodnatured sigh and a smile. "Thank you for informing us, Kazuo." He turned to Setsuka, offering her his arm. "I suppose I'd best get cleaned up before our honored guests arrive. Tell Furosaki to stamp my signature on the appropriations. I don't care if we have to sell half the palace treasury to do it, I'm not about to see another wave of children left on the streets. It's not like we need those damned jewel-encrusted chalices from Sairou anyway."
Setsuka kissed him on the cheek. "Very good, m'Lord."
"Would you all stop that?" He led her up the stairs but paused at the top, glancing back at Akai. "Oh, Akai-kun, would you mind...?"
She met him with a bandit salute. "I'll play vassal for the day. Now go make yourself lord-like for Houki-sama."
"And what am I right now?"
"Sweaty," both women said as one.
His eye rolled pleadingly to the heavens. "Surrounded by insubordination. I'm going to have to start beheading people soon if anyone's to take me seriously..."
Akai watched as Kazuo led the Takkan lord and his wife from the rings, then set about tidying up. When she was finished she sidled over to Fuyuko, still hard at work. She leaned forward, sliding the book out of his hands. "That's enough studying for today. How about we head upstairs, clean ourselves up, and go say hello to Houki-sama?" She winked. "I'm a little sweaty myself, after all."
He nodded, tucking the book under his right arm and rising to his feet. He slipped his left arm into the sling that hung loosely from his neck, a sturdy cloth-and-leather affair intended for permanent handicaps rather than temporary ones. Fuyuko followed Akai pensively from the rings, so silent that she couldn't help but say, "Mon for your thoughts?"
"Oh, nothing really. I was just..." He glanced up at the recovering finery of the Takkan palace, its trees in full bloom and its courtyards in immaculate condition once again. He smiled sadly to himself. "I guess I was just thinking that Mizu-chan was right."
"She always believed... even when thingsh were really bad, she used to shay – say – they'd go back to the way they were before. That Shet... that Sssetsuka would go back to the way she was, and we'd all be happy again." He paused at the edge of bathhouse. "I never thought I'd forgive her for what she did to them. Kaze, Senpai, Mizu-chan. And me, too." His smile shifted, the sadness lifting, replaced by relief. "But sh – seeing how hard she's been working these past few months... I think I have. And I think Mizu-chan must have been right. Thingsh really can be fixed again." He looked down again. "It's too bad none of the othersh could be here to see it."
Akai pressed a hand to his shoulder. "Somewhere they can."
He nodded. "Yeah. I guess sho. So." He stuck out his tongue. "Shtupid shound."
She giggled, pushing him lightly toward the men's side of the baths. "I'll talk to Hataku-sama about getting it struck from the language. For now, though, I think you should get in there and make yourself presentable for the empress. The letters she wrote me kept saying how excited she was to see you again. Slur and all."
"Slur and all, huh?" He grinned. "Fair 'nough. We'll go to the main hall together?"
"I'll meet you in front of the old willow tree as soon as I'm done. And look your best, okay? I want to impress Houki-sama with how big and strong we've both gotten in the last half year."
"Dowager Empress, it is an indescribable pleasure to see you again!"
Houki stepped down from her carriage and found herself staring at a bowing young man, his topknot hidden under a squared black cap and his body draped in the forest-colored silks of a Takkan official. It wasn't until he raised his head and met her with a blinding smile that she realized it was Furosaki Yuki. "Oh, goodness! I almost did not recognize you!"
"Understandable. My good looks do grow exponentially with each passing month."
Houki sweatdropped. "I was referring to those new robes of yours. Akai had written that you were studying for the government exams, but I did not realize..."
His chest puffed out. "The second highest score of the year and an immediate promotion. I'm the governor of Seida Provnce now, you know. I replaced the esteemed Kou Anrin-sama when she returned to the capital as Minister of the Left."
"Did you now? That's quite the position for such a young scholar." Houki smiled teasingly. "But are you certain that you should be shirking your duties just to attend tonight's ceremony?"
"Nonsense! I'll only be gone for a fortnight, and there are two capable young ladies currently looking after the province for me."
"I don't suppose either is your wife?"
"I daresay Palace Liaison Kirei would skin you alive for such slander." He rubbed at his nose. "Now Ai-chan, on the other hand... but come, let's not get into the sordid details of my love affairs! Those are stories for much later in the evening, after the sake has dulled your refined sensibilities somewhat, hm? For now, I am here to escort you and your son to the main hall, where a veritable horde of old friends awaits your arrival."
"That sounds lovely." Houki took his offered arm, using her other hand to help Boshin down from the carriage. The boy, now in his fourth year, stood solemnly at his mother's side, doing his best to look the part of the young emperor – until Yuki leaned down and tickled his ribs so hard that he fell into the grass, childish giggles filling the courtyard. Houki pressed a hand to her cheek. "Goodness. Between you and Tori-kun..."
Yuki stood again, retaking Houki's arm and leading her across the courtyard. "Ah, so Tori-kun met you at the border, did he? If I didn't know any better I'd say he actually takes that job of his seriously."
"He should be quite proud of himself. Border patrol is vital for Takkan's peacekeeping efforts." She hesitated. "Though I must admit, I was surprised Hataku entrusted him with so much responsibility."
He snorted. "Hataku-sama just wanted the cheeky bugger out of the city. He's been begging for Hourin-san's hand since the war ended, and no number of Watanabe ear-attacks can dampen his resolve." Houki had to clap a hand to her mouth to stifle her laughter. Yuki sighed and raised a layered sleeve, shaking it as if to wave away the whole mess. "Oh, I'm sure Hataku-sama will relent if Tori-kun can prove himself a responsible gentleman. Hourin-san seems rather smitten with him as well - can't imagine why, but love is blind, I suppose, and in this case rather literally."
"Will Hourin-san and her mother be at the ceremony tonight?"
"They have their own quarters in the palace now, so I'm sure they will be." Yuki looked up, rattling off names by memory. "Now my best mates will be absent, of course, but Nii-san and his lovely wife will be there – all but bursting from her skirts, I wouldn't be surprised if that baby of hers popped out halfway through dinner – along with Kazu-kun, Akai and Fuyuko, most of the ministers, Hataku-sama and Setsuka-sama, naturally... oh, and we received word shortly after you'd arrived that Tasuki-sama had entered the capital, so he should be here soon as well."
Houki frowned. "Just Tasuki? What about Chichiri? They left the palace together after the new year, so I had assumed they would arrive at the same time."
"I couldn't say. Seishi, much like gods and women, are an eternal mystery to me." Yuki winked. "Never fear, Houki-sama, I'm quite certain Chichiri-sama will be along when we need him, just as he always is. That's a promise from Furosaki Yuki, so it is, and a promise from me carries a lot of weight these days. Did I mention that I was the governor of Seida Province now...?"
At the center of the Shu'u monastery stood a sprawling stone temple, its climbing pillars and sweeping roofs boasting centuries of service to the god of the south. It was a modest structure, all wooden floors and unadorned walls, but the boards were swept clean daily and the sandstone corridors scrubbed free of grime, leaving the wide, circular room at its center sacred in its simplicity. An ancient carving of Suzaku in his human incarnation served as the only form of decoration, his hand raised in a mudra of peace and protection, blessing all who chose to seek his guidance. Offerings and incense sticks littered the ground at the statue's feet, but only one of the sticks was currently lit, its gray-white smoke writhing around both god and disciple, flitting past carved eyes and masked ones indiscriminately.
The monk knelt, apparently deep in prayer, but he looked up again as the door behind him creaked open and an aging man in the robes of an abbot entered the chamber. The monk swiveled around and pressed palms and face to the floor, a gesture of utter trust and obedience. "Have you reached a decision no da?"
"And should I start packing?"
The abbot considered the top of the shaven head for a moment before answering. When he did, though, it was with a smile both stern and gentle, somehow forgiving and disapproving all at once. "Suzaku no Chichiri – Disciple Houjun – your transgressions are not light ones. You have both taken lives and broken your vows of chastity. The former you firmly repent, but the latter comes without remorse, as I understand it."
"I was in love with her. I can't apologize for that no da."
"Confession without repentance is hardly a confession." The abbot regarded him closely. "But still, admit it you did, something many disciples would never have the courage to do. You come to us peacefully, without anger or regret, with no intention to leave the order but with the firm belief that we will toss you out of the gates right on your sinning ass. Is that about right?"
Chichiri was used to the bluntness of the enlightened, so he didn't flinch. "That's true, Kanju-dono."
Abbot Sensui turned away from him, studying the waning sunlight as it streamed through one of the room's wide windows. "When you came to me, Houjun, I did not wish to give you the tonsure. Do you remember that?" Chichiri nodded. "Do you remember why?"
"You said I didn't know what I was doing no da. That entering Suzaku's service needed to be a carefully considered choice, and that I was too angry and full of grief to give myself that choice. You said my wish to take the tonsure was an escape, a corner that I had been pushed into by bad karma and chance alone." He pressed his forehead to the floor again. "And you were right no da."
"Would you say that has changed? Would you say that you have a choice now?"
He didn't hesitate. "I would."
"And what choice would you make?"
Chichiri raised his head, removing his mask so he could meet the abbot honestly. "Nothing is permanent, least of all intentions, so I can't say that I'll never fall in love again, that I'll never have to hurt or even kill another sentient being again. It may be that I will forever be breaking my vows, that I won't ever be able to fully understand compassionate non-attachment. But even so..." He looked around the room for a moment, then back to the abbot. He took a breath. "I've come to believe that this is where I need to be. Even if I stray again and again, this is the path I want to keep walking. If you'll allow me to stay, then I'll stay. And I will do all I can to be a follower who will make the order proud."
The abbot's eyes at last curled into a full smile. "Then stand, Disciple Houjun, Suzaku no Chichiri. I absolve you of your transgressions. Don your monk's robes and go out into the world. Aid all you meet and love without clinging, free from the bitterness of craving. Be the hand of Suzaku as he meant for you to be. And should you ever need guidance or sanctuary, know that Shu'u Monastery will always be open to you. Before, you were a guest. But now... now this is your home."
A tear touched Chichiri's eye as he stood, pressing his palms together and bowing low to the venerable old monk. "Thank you, Sensui-kanju. Your words mean more to me than I could ever explain no da."
The older man turned surly again. "Well, don't bother trying. If I remember correctly, you have a ceremony to attend this evening. Your seishi responsibilities are as much a part of your duty to Suzaku as your monastic ones. Best that you not be late for them."
Chichiri's face lit up with a smile that matched his mask. "Of course. I'll be leaving right away no da. I'd hate to keep the others waiting."
Tasuki rode up to the main gates of the Takkan palace, not at all surprised to find his fellow seishi perched atop the wall, waving a chibi mitten in greeting. "You're late no da!"
"Wari!" he called back. "I ain't been ta Shoutei since b'fore the snows set in, so I wanted t'see how th' city was holdin' up. Not too shabby!"
"I hear they have some new ruler who's doing a pretty good job no da."
"No kiddin'? I'll have t'meet th' guy one-a these days."
The two shared a grin, then Chichiri hopped to his feet, calling, "Just a second!" before hurrying off the ramparts. He reappeared a moment later in the gateway. The two clasped hands in greeting, Tasuki following his with a rather painful back slap of a hug.
"Da," Chichiri winced, but he was drowned out by Tasuki's jovial, "Damn, it's good ta see ya again! I think I was startin' ta have me some 'no da' withdrawals!"
"It's only been a month no da..." He wiped away his sweatdrop. "But it's good to see you too. How's Reikaku?"
Tasuki's smile was cautious but genuine. "Good. Yeah. Better... better this time than when I went up in th' fall. Th' memories don't, y'know, don't stick in my throat so bad anymore."
"I noticed that you weren't wearing Koji's headband no da. Is that a part of it?"
"Huh? Oh, sorta." Tasuki studied his bare wrist. "It's crazy. Th' damn thing survived th' fight with Setsuka only ta fall apart when I got stuck out in a thunderstorm." He chuckled. "Maybe that was jus' Koji's way-a tellin' me t'move th' hell on already. I guess that's all right, though."
"I think so no da." Chichiri hesitated. "So you're... and is Hareya...?"
"She's better, too, though I still can't figger out why she won't jus' leave. Keeps sayin' Reikaku's her home now, an' she's too damn stubborn fer me ta convince her otherwise." Tasuki shrugged. "I ain't willin' ta fight her over it. She's got a hawk's eye with a bow an' is damn good with numbers, so I got her huntin' game an' keepin' track-a supplies. I figure even bandits gotta know where their loot is goin'." His smile hesitated. "She's been a little down recently, though. I think all this talk-a Takkan is makin' her think about one-a th' guys who ain't gonna be here t'night."
"And what's all this talk of Takkan doing for you no da?"
"I'm... me." He rubbed the back of his head, forcing a grin. "I hit rocks an' bounce up like a toy ball. A little banged around th' edges, but still flyin' high." He thumped his friend's kesa with the back of his hand, changing the subject. "What about you? Didn't get booted out on yer sinnin' ass after all, huh?"
"Looks that way no da." He smiled. "But there's a party tonight, and with you and the RAFT around I'm sure I'll be able to heap on enough sins to make the kanju change his mind no da."
Tasuki laughed, clapping him on the back and shoving him toward the palace. "That's what I like ta hear! Now c'mon, we don't wanna keep th' others waitin'. We are th' guests-a honor after all."
"Really? I could've sworn that honor was awarded to the rulers whose peace treaty we're celebrating no da."
"Nah, it's us. We're gods-chosen warriors, 'Chiri. So trust me. It's always us."
The main Takkan banquet hall rang with the clatter of dishes and the chatter of guests as servants hurried from table to table, refilling drinks and serving new courses while officials, soldiers, former rebels, and so-called "heroes" of the Elemental War shared news and gossip, slipping into comfortable conversation as if they had never been separated at all.
Houki sat at the head of the main table, her chatty son beside her and the seishi filling the first two seats on the right side of the table. The Watanabe women sat across from them, with Aji and his very pregnant wife Kita just to their left. Akai and Fuyuko sat parallel to the former rebels, quite happy to join the seishi on the Konan side of the table. Yuki fluttered between their table and the one reserved for the government officials, bragging shamelessly to anyone who cared to listen about the "great strides" he'd made in protecting the Seida crops from drought and flooding. Two seats stood at the head of the table just to Houki's right, currently empty but clearly reserved for the Takkan lord and his wife. Neither had been seen since the welcoming ceremony that afternoon.
"An' then, an' then, Haha-ue, hey listen," Boshin tugged at his mother's sleeve, "right after that Jin-kun says I bet you can't do it, so then Haha-ue, are you listening, so then I say I bet I can, and then I did it, Haha-ue, I climbed right up and stood in the tippy-top an' I wasn't scared even a little bit!"
"Mm, you're such a brave boy," Houki murmured distractedly, her eyes straying once again to the unclaimed seats beside her. She bit her lip. "Oh, I do hope everything is all right... it is nearly time for the main course, and still they have not arrived..."
The Takkan citizens shot each other knowing glances. "Must be the old sickness," Hourin remarked.
"You know." Fuyuko swept a hand across the table. "Everyone together from the Elemental War, honoring the new trade pacts and peash - tch, peace - pledges between Konan and Takkan, celebrating the rebuilding of the two nationsh, remembering those whose livesh were lost in the war..."
"...A war that wouldn't have even happened if one Takkan lady had never been around," Akai finished meaningfully, and the other Konan natives nodded. "She's been a lot better about it recently, but tonight must've dredged up all the worst memories for her." She pressed her hand to her chin, sighing. "No doubt Hataku-sama will manage to coax her out before they serve the final course, but don't expect anything before that, Houki-sama. Convincing Setsuka that we're not all sitting here silently damning her is like convincing Tasuki-san's tessen to shoot flowers instead of fire."
"What th' hell would be th' point-a that?" Tasuki muttered to no one.
Aji stood, bowing low to the table. "Well, I suppose I'd best join the efforts. Seeing as how I argued the loudest regarding her, ah, 'thousand deaths' when she first returned to Takkan, perhaps a bit of convincing will mean more coming from me."
Kita cocked an eyebrow. "So's y' really ain't sittin' there silently damnin' 'er, na?"
"She's housing homeless children within the palace, love, and offering a minister's education to anyone who shows an interest in it." He leaned down so he could first kiss her cheek and then pat her swelled stomach. "Now how in heaven's name could I damn a woman who is helping to build such a brilliant future for our little Mariko-chan?"
"Or Jiro-chan, of course," he echoed. Aji offered her another quick kiss, then stood, facing the group with a grin. "'No doubt they will be hovering in the wings, our lady fretting and our lord cajoling. I shall return shortly, hopefully with a guilty little canary in my wake."
He was halfway across the dining hall before Tasuki hissed a curse and stood as well. "I'll be back, damn it."
The bandit followed Aji through a curtained entrance and into a private nook, likely intended for guests who needed a moment to prepare themselves for some speech or announcement. Sure enough, Setsuka and Hataku stood in the shadows, his hands on her shoulders and her head swaying from side to side. He was trying to speak, but Setsuka just shook harder, clenching her fingers into her skirts and hissing, "I can't, I just can't, everything they are celebrating could have been prevented if I wasn't so – if I'd only been a little—"
They jerked around, Setsuka blinking first shyly at Aji and then shrinking back when she caught sight of Tasuki in the entryway, the curtain held above his head so the lamplight could filter down around him and across the nook. Aji bowed low, sweeping an arm back to the dining hall. "Our honored guests from Konan wish to share their table with the Takkan rulers. T'would be rude to refuse them, don't you agree?"
She hesitated, her gaze shifting back and forth between Aji and Tasuki, watching the bandit with a mingling of shame and guilt. "I... ah... that is to say... if the honored guests from Konan truly... that is, if they truly wish..."
Tasuki sighed and jerked out a hand, grabbing Setsuka's wrist and dragging her into the light. "Oh, get th' hell out here already. We can't exactly fergive ya if we never even see ya. B'sides," he added, throwing a grin at her husband, "ol' Shogun-sama there don't know how t'have fun without you around."
She stumbled into the dining hall with Hataku limping behind her, pressing a steadying hand to her shoulder. The guests turned like a wave to face them... and then burst into applause, the table of former rebels and Konan Warriors clapping the loudest of all. Setsuka ducked her face to hide both blush and smile, her hand squeezing against Hataku's and her eyes sliding nervously to the bandit beside her. "Thank you, Tasuki-sama. I... thank you."
Tasuki slumped back into his seat along with the others, his scowl a little less prominent as he dove into his newest mound of food. Chichiri leaned over to help himself to another cup of tea, remarking into his friend's ear as he did, "That may have been the bravest thing I've ever seen you do no da."
"Yeah, well..." He shifted in his chair, though the monk didn't miss the proud little grin twitching on his lips. "I'm a leader now, ain't I? This is jus' th' kinda stuff that leaders gotta do."
Chichiri smiled but spared his friend any further embarrassment by turning to the rest of the table, greeting Setsuka with a short nod and clasping Hataku's hand briefly between his own. "It's a pleasure to see you both again no da. You look well. And Setsuka-sama, I hear you've been busy no da. Aji-san mentioned something about a palace orphanage?"
"Childhood educational facilities," the lady and the actor corrected as one, but then Setsuka continued on her own, keeping her eyes away from the monk's face. "And yes, the Minister of the Interior approved the project today."
"Congratulations," Houki said. "Knowing palace ministers as I do, I am sure it was a difficult proposal to pass."
"Yes, but it was something I'd been after for years, since my father was the lord, even. I was never able to convince any of the ministers then, but..." She set her jaw, and for a moment both seishi caught a flash of the strong, passionate woman that Setsuka would one day become, once the old ghosts had quieted a bit more. "But that was before. I can't let minor setbacks deter me anymore. I have to be better than I was." Her eyes at last flitted across the table, daring to meet the monk head on. "Isn't that right, Chichiri-sama?"
He smiled softly, bowing his head in deference to the ruler. "I suppose so. But really, you honor me too much no da. A simple 'san' is more than enough for a wandering monk like me."
Akai chuckled. "You're the same as ever, Chichiri-san. Too bad you're going to have to put up with a little fanfare for a while longer. There are all kinds of ceremonies and celebrations scheduled for the rest of the week, and don't think for a second that you and Tasuki-san are getting out of them."
"I never said I wanted to!" Tasuki cried.
"Sorry, but I think Tasuki is going to have to be your seishi representative after tonight no da. I've had enough recognition to last me a lifetime. I'll be a lot happier when I can go back to being that weird stranger who showed up, helped out, and left by sunrise no da." Chichiri sobered again. "Besides, there's still work that needs to be done. Houki-sama, Hataku-sama, what's the situation in Konan and Takkan?"
The two rulers looked at each other, blinking, then back to the monk. "Excellent," Houki said. "Trade is back to its prewar levels and all major damage within and around the capital has been repaired. The shadows of the deceased will continue to haunt our streets for a while yet, but the worst has certainly passed."
Hataku's reply was more guarded but no less reassuring. "There's still a lot of work to do, but the winter wasn't nearly as hard as we'd expected, and the lowered tariffs will make trade with Konan considerably more profitable." He looked to Aji and Kita. "Most importantly, the people are optimistic. That goes a long way toward prosperity, and an even longer way toward stability." Hataku offered Chichiri a careful smile. "I'm inclined to agree with Houki-sama. The worst seems to be behind us."
"That's a relief no da."
"An' all th' more reason why you oughta stick around fer a while!" Tasuki grabbed his friend around the shoulder and shoved a sake bowl into his hands. "We been runnin' ourselves ragged dashin' back 'n' forth b'tween nations – now that things've finally settled, why not kick up yer feet 'n' enjoy it? Where've you gotta be that's so damn important, huh?"
"Kutou, actually no da."
Tasuki's jaw dropped. Watanabe Shundou shifted in her seat. "But Chichiri-san, Kutou is in shambles right now. The in-fighting for the throne has left the nation—"
"Starving, ravaged, and burning. I know. I visited the capital – or what was left of it – before I returned to Shu'u Monastery. Smoke covers the city like fog no da. The buildings are crumbling, fire-blackened rubble. And the people..." He shook his head slowly, taking a moment to compose himself before he slipped off his mask, meeting the empress with a silent plea. "It wasn't the Kutou people who decided to burn our fields and decimate our villages, Houki-sama. They don't deserve to suffer for a war they never wanted. I used to bite my tongue and tell myself I didn't understand the politics, but after seeing this," he waved his hand around the table, "and how much Konan and Takkan have done for each other, I don't think I can turn a blind eye anymore. So I intend to go there no da. To help as many people as one weird stranger can."
Fuyuko's free hand clasped Akai's arm. They looked at each other for a moment, then nodded once, turning back to the monk. "We'll go with you," Fuyuko said. "The Kutou-jin will need as many doctors and defendersh as they can get."
"No." They whirled on Houki, ready for a fight, but the empress straightened her back and met them head on. "Fuyuko-kun, can you swing yourself onto a running horse?" He looked at his crippled hand and shook his head. "Then you must come to Konan so we may teach you. Perhaps Akai has not warned you, but she learned her battle tactics from an insanely brave bandit who had a tendency to return to the palace with an army at his heels." She sighed. "Sadly, Chichiri is not much better. You will need to be well-versed in speedy escapes if you wish to travel the world with the likes of them, I assure you."
Akai's face lit up. "And once he can do that?"
"Then I will have the two of you lead as many hired swords and healers into Kutou as we can spare, along with whatever excess supplies our wealthier merchants and monasteries are willing to donate. We will have to work quite subtly on the political front, but I will see what I can do about settling these imperial disputes in a more civilized fashion. Perhaps a request to our allies in the north and west will bear some fruit as well." She tilted her head at Chichiri, her lips quirked in a teasing smile. "You are getting quite crafty in your old age, my friend. You never once asked for my help, yet you must have known I could never let you travel there alone."
"I studied the art of subtle suggestion for months under a very cunning empress no da," he said innocently. "But I'm glad it worked. I wouldn't have expected any less from you, Houki-sama." His gaze shifted to Hataku. "I know Takkan's coffers aren't nearly as full as Konan's, so please don't think I expect you to beggar yourselves for this no da. However, if there's anything you can do..."
"Of course there's something we can do!" Setsuka cried, hands slapping against the table. The others all sweatdropped and she blushed, looking to her husband. "There is, isn't there?"
"We don't have the political clout that Konan carries, so I doubt we'll be able to do much to stabilize the capital itself, but..." Hataku nodded slowly. "A small force, I think, led by one of my more capable patrol captains, to help defend the villages along our shared border. Perhaps we can set up some of our seamstresses and weavers in one of the outer townships as well. Haha-ue, Hourin, you could go with them if you wanted. You've the talent for the work, and it would be easier for me to keep in touch with Yoh-taii that way."
"You mean you're sending Tori's border force?" Hourin's sightless eyes shone. "Oh, Ani-ue...!"
Hataku and his mother shared twin sighs of resignation, but before either could voice their grudging approval Kita spoke up. "Reckon some-a th' ol' RAFT gang'd be willin' t'go 'long. Knows they way 'round cities right well, they does, 'n' 'ow t'deal wiff some-a th' gangs ye're likely t'meet. Might be able t'change some 'earts 'n' minds too, like." She glared at her swollen belly. "Bloody shame I can't go wiff 'em."
Aji's half-hand curled around hers. "We have our responsibilities too, love."
Tasuki rubbed at his arm but said nothing. Chichiri glanced at him sidelong for a moment, then back to the table, pressing hands to thighs and bowing from his seat. "That's much more than I could have ever hoped for no da. It's easy to see how Konan and Takkan could have prospered so quickly, with people like you leading them. I am truly honored to call you my friends. Thank you, everyone."
Once the seriousness of Kutou was behind them, the evening soon returned to merriment. Laughter, song, and chatter continued into the early morning hours, until one by one hosts and guests alike trickled away, leaving only the night owls and the dedicated drinkers to the informal after-party.
With the laughter of the remaining guests as his background music, Chichiri stood beneath a roofed pavilion, leaning against the rail and staring out at the trickling waters that wove their way through the Takkan gardens. It was not the same as Konan's tranquil pond and swaying willows, but there was a nostalgia to it all the same, and Chichiri found his unmasked eye turning up to the stars. The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd winked back at him. His hand trailed sideways along the railing and flipped palm-up, as if he were waiting for another's fingers to curl into his own. They never did, of course, but he coiled his hand into a loose fist anyway, closing his eye as he breathed in the dew-choked promise of spring.
"A little early in th' year t'be wishin' on th' lovers, ain't it?"
Chichiri turned at the voice, pulling his hands back to his sides – though not hurriedly, there was no shame in his movements – as he faced the bandit at the edge of the pavilion. "Not wishing. Just... remembering no da."
Tasuki rubbed at the back of his head, stepping into the archway and joining his friend by the rail. "Kinda unfair, ain't it? How every time we all get t'gether t'be happy 'bout th' future, we always gotta start thinkin' 'bout th' past. Damn depressin', th' way that works."
"It'll get better no da. I think it already has. Akai didn't tear up when Houki-sama mentioned Koji, did you notice that? I hadn't realized it before, but maybe Fuyu-kun's been as good for her as she's been for him no da. And Setsuka-san was actually able to look me in the eye for once." Tasuki didn't reply. Chichiri took another breath. "I hope you won't hate me for this, but I think I finally forgave her today."
"...Yeah," he grumbled, swirling the sake bowl in his hand. "I think I must have, too." Tasuki looked to his friend again. "But what about you, huh? How you holdin' up under all this rememberin'? This past winter, you weren't... I mean, once th' cold set in an' we couldn't go runnin' 'round th' nation anymore, you sorta..."
"Went crazy?" He smiled thinly. "Idleness is an over-thinker's worst enemy no da. Losing her... I told myself I'd be all right, but you can't prepare yourself for it, not really, for that kick of loneliness every time you reach for a hand that isn't there, or you..." He shook his head. "Well. You know what I mean no da."
Tasuki looked to his side, to the spot where another grinning redhead wasn't. "Yeah. I kinda do."
Chichiri gave his head a little shake. "But it's not as bad as it was no da. Keeping busy helps. And I'm... glad... that I came tonight. Despite the memories, or maybe because of them no da. Because everyone really is doing so much better, you know? It was good to see that. It reminded me of all the things we fought for – and all the people who were made that much happier because of it no da. I think we can take some solace from that. I hope that Kiori and Ritsuka can, too."
"Wherever they are," Tasuki muttered.
"Wherever they are," Chichiri repeated, then finished, "I'm certain they're all right."
"Eh?" He looked to his friend's kesa. "Are you 'n' Kiori still...?"
Chichiri shook his head. "I lost my connection to her as soon as we sent them through the gates no da. But it doesn't matter. I don't need it. I can just tell no da. Can't you?"
"I think I can, yeah." Tasuki took a swig from his sake bowl, then set it against the pavilion railing. He stared out across the blooming gardens. "It don't matter how far away ya are, a best friend is a best friend. Some know-it-all bandit told me that once. Maybe it ain't jus' true fer best friends. Could be it's true fer all kinds-a people."
"I guess we're going to have to find out." Chichiri considered his next words, then said lightly, as if remarking on the scenery, "You didn't say anything at dinner tonight. About my going to Kutou no da."
Tasuki bit his lip and looked away. "Shit, 'Chiri. You know I wanna go with ya, but I jus'... I jus' can't, y'know? Reikaku needs a leader, an' now that I finally feel like I'm ready, like I can be the leader Hakurou wanted, the leader Koji was so sure I'd b'come, I jus'..." His hands flailed helplessly. "A month 'r two, sure, I c'd head out ta help, be th' seishi ambassador 'r somethin', but yer talkin' about years here, y'know that? Kutou ain't somethin' we c'n pop over an'," he snapped his fingers, "fix jus' like that. I know you need me, I do, but I ain't... free... anymore, so I jus' can't—"
"Tasuki, it's all right no da. I didn't expect you to come with me. To be honest, I'm a little relieved that you aren't." Chichiri turned to look at him. His masked face matched his tone to perfection, offering nothing but slight amusement and absolute acceptance. "It's like Aji-san said: We all have our responsibilities no da. Yours and mine just don't happen to be the same ones this time. And while I'd be happy to travel with you again, I really don't need you, not the way your bandits do." He smiled. "So you should go home no da. Back to Reikaku-zan. It's where you belong... and where you want to be, right?"
"Hm." Tasuki surprised himself with a chuckle. "You know me too damn well." He shifted again, staring into his empty sake bowl. "So what now? Is this gonna be sayonara fer us too, Chichiri?"
"I don't know if it needs to be that final." He smiled, tilting his head. "I am the seishi Onii-san, after all. I'll always be around if you need me no da."
"Shoulda known ya'd never leave me alone."
"You'd hate me if I did." He nodded across the gardens, to the distant sounds of laughter and song. "And anyway, there's no need to say goodbye just yet. I'll be around for a little bit tomorrow, and there's still the rest of tonight. If I'm not mistaken, you still have a couple of Furosaki brothers to drink under a table no da."
"Both of 'em? Sounds like a tall order. How 'bout if I take one an' you take th' other?"
"You know I'm not supposed to—"
"Aw, c'mon! Consider it payback. You never did go bar-hoppin' with me in Miaka's world like ya promised."
Chichiri sighed, but he was smiling as he did it. "Fair enough no da. Lead the way."
The bandit marched victoriously out of the pavilion, but stopped when he reached the walkway. He hesitated. Then, as if pulled by gravity, his eyes shifted to the sky again. He frowned, studying the light of the crescent moon. "Hey, 'Chiri?"
"We're... gonna see each other again... ain't we?"
"You and me, or everyone?"
Chichiri slipped off his mask, studying the heavens without pain or doubt or denial, but honestly, openly, considering Tasuki's question with all of the wisdom that his still-young life had given him. His eye squinted closed in a smile. "Yes. Absolutely. Someday, we'll all meet again. I'm sure of it."
The bandit looked down once more, smiling to himself. Then he and his friend shared a single nod and returned to the world, taking strength and sorrow and hope and leaving nothing but memories to stir the air.
"'...And still the stars looked on, the seishi in their places and the lovers in theirs, out of reach but always in the other's thoughts, awaiting the day when they would surely meet again.'"
Ritsuka was silent for a long moment, staring at the story's final character. She repeated Chichiri's words in a whisper, her voice lilting as if in prayer. "Someday, we'll all meet again." She turned her crying eyes away from the pages, offering both promise and plea to the woman beside her. "And we will, won't we?"
Kiori looked at her friend and smiled, but it was a smile that no longer seemed sad or darkened by grief. Instead it held all of the love, all of the faith that any one person could ever carry. Her eyes curled upwards, matching her lips smile for smile, and her words rang with no tears, but only belief.
"You know something, Ritsuka? I think you're right."
-Till We Meet Again-
Final Author's Note: December 25, 2010
I said it eight years ago, and I'll say it again today:
I've been trying to work on this author's note for the better part of a month now, hoping I could say everything that I wanted to say with Shakespearean eloquence, but y'know, I just can't seem to get it to come out right. It's about as jumbled as my own emotions, a crazy blend of pride for the work, love for the characters – both the ones I made and the ones I borrowed – and sadness because, after all these years, it's actually over. So maybe eloquence is a lost cause at this point. Heck, I'm not even sure I can organize all of this coherently, but I'll at least do my best to manage the second one. Here we go.
The Million-Dollar Question
So first off, let's get the inevitable PMs out of the way by saying that no, I have no immediate plans to write a sequel. If the story itself ever hints at one, then it's likely foreshadowing Eikou Den (this story does follow the anime canon, after all). However, I'd be lying if I said there was no chance I would ever write a sequel, either. Truth is, I've had the better part of a decade to think about these characters, and at this point I pretty much know everything that happens to everyone... ever. (Hell, I can even give you the life stories of Setsuka and Hataku's kids.) And yeah, there are days when all that information demands to be turned into a story.
I've toyed with a sequel several times - I even gave it a title and an opening/ending theme - but I never seem to get further than the first few chapters. I think it's because I'm reluctant to write a sequel that doesn't absolutely live up to the original, and I just don't know if my current storyline accomplishes that. I've had a hard time letting these characters go (deep down I want to give them that fluffy Harry Potter ending as much as you guys probably want to see it), but right now, I really think the story works best as it is.
Besides, I'm rather pleased with the current ending. It refuses to be either a tragedy or a Disney movie, and I'm quite proud of that balance. It's one of the reasons I chose "Ryoute Ippai" for the final ending theme – a slow-paced but up-tempo song, with lyrics that simultaneously acknowledge the sadness of transience while offering hope for tomorrow. (Yeah... there was no way to say that without sounding cheesy. (sweat) Moving on...)
Anyway, I hope everyone felt that the ending was appropriate, but I'll also understand if you didn't much like it. I'd be more than happy to answer any questions you all might have (within reason) about both FY:NC and its universe, and I strongly encourage the displeased to come up with their own "happily-ever-after" conclusions, if they so choose. (smile)
Where the Doumo Goes
Regardless of how you felt about the finale, the fact that you made it to the ending after six years and 400+ pages means you deserve some kind of medal. Thank you so much for following this fic from its humble beginnings to its climactic finish. I am of course grateful to everyone who added another "hit" to FY:NC's traffic stats, but those of you who loyally, eagerly, and sometimes angrily reviewed chapter after chapter (after chapter!) deserve a special round of applause. Your comments not only encouraged me through this fic, but also gave me the confidence to branch out into original fiction. I feel like I've been thanking you by name at the end of each episode for years (probably because I have), but just in case you missed it: doumo arigatou gozaimasu! This final-chapter Christmas present doesn't even begin to show how much I appreciate your kind words and dedication.
Sometimes I forget that FY:NC went through an "original airing" before I sat down for this years-long monster of a rewrite, but there were tons of loyal reviewers through Round One as well, so thanks to all of them, too. I'll be sure to forget people if I try to name them now after all these years, but online friends Akia, Akira, and Val were a big support both on FF and in other forums; roommate-and-editor Alicia should've gotten paid for putting up with all those late-night plot discussions; and real-life friend Haley deserves a special thanks not only for reading my rough drafts but for dragging me into the Fushigi Fandom in the first place. Her story Fushigiggles – a loving parody of both FY and self-insertion fics – still makes me chuckle after all these years... and I'm not just saying that because I helped her write it. (grins)
Down Memory Lane
Looking back, I still can't quite believe how long I've been working with this story. FY:NC had its beginnings in St. Louis - I was there for the 2002 NCAA Midwest Regionals to watch KU kick some tail! - as a few (bad) character designs and the first couple pages of chapter one. It traveled with me in notebook format to Atlanta (Final Four for my dearly beloved Kansas Jayhawks), to Texas (chapter 14, I believe, kept me company while I was suffered the sunburn from Hell), and even to the Rocky Mountains to visit Colorado (chapter 17 and a Hataku character sketch found their birth there). It went through 3 notebooks (one of which is frayed beyond belief), 3 floppy discs, God knows how many kilobytes and over 300 pages. And that's just the original version, which I wrote in a creative sprint that took exactly nine months to post. The six-year rewrite was written in five different bedrooms and on three different computers, went through two schools, four roommates, a change in majors and a National Championship (Dee's Personal Timeline is littered with basketball landmarks, in case you hadn't noticed). In other words, me 'n' FY:NC go way back.
So maybe it's not surprising that I had a really hard time getting this final chapter ready for its Christmas deadline. Not because it wasn't written – in fact I'd finished it back in August – but just because I couldn't get myself to leave it alone. I kept going in and tweaking scenes, changing the order of events, even rewrote most of the ending a couple of times. At first I thought it was because the ending "just wasn't quite good enough yet," but the more I think about it the more I think that I just didn't want to be finished because that would mean FY:NC was finished. And to be honest, the thought of ending such a massive project is not only sad, but a little bit scary. I mean, this thing was a part of my life for eight years. If it were a child, it would be in the second grade. I still can't wrap my head around that one.
Professional writers sometimes talk about their novels as "their kids," and the more I write the more I understand where they're coming from. As I fleshed out the cast – again, both the ones I made and the ones I borrowed – I became more and more attached to them, until it got to the point where they kinda started to feel like real people. I had more fun writing and put more of myself into this story than is probably healthy, as you could probably tell from my sometimes-giddy author's notes, and I'm going to miss each and every one of these characters dearly.
But, like all good things, it looks like this has to come to an end as well. I hope you'll all join me in bidding a fond sayonara to the cast –from the Konan Warriors to the Elements and on down to those loveable scamps in the RAFT – as we turn the final page on The Next Chapter. It's been a joy to write and an even greater joy to share.
So What's Next?
The fic may be over, but that doesn't mean that I am. Assuming there's a grad school out there that'll take me, I plan to chase after a Master's degree in creative writing, which means I'll basically be doing nothing but working on my writing for the next two years. While I don't have any future fanficcin' plans (at this point Broken Wings is probably trapped in Backburner Land), I do have a whole mess of original novel and short story ideas kickin' around, one of which is actually based on China's "four gods" legend (and who said TV couldn't teach you anything?).
Right now I'm working on publishing an original humor novel – something that may happen sooner rather than later, in fact – and will be sure to keep everyone posted on what happens with that. I also have future plans for a website/blog where I can post all of my short pieces, day-to-day silliness, and song translations in a more-or-less organized fashion. For now, though, those interested can follow my sporadic updates on LiveJournal (name: itsthedee), DeviantArt (name: rihga), and Xanga (name: otakugraffiti). I don't post all that frequently, but you'll be sure to know (probably in huge block letters) when and if I ever make my way into the published world.
And, of course, there's always my humor website, NoCommas, where you can read the highly ridiculous "Noses Off!" webcomic. Just go to www . no-commas . com.
I've appreciated all your support in the fanfic world, and I'd love it if you could continue supporting me with my original works as well. With luck I'll be hearing from you all at some time or another, but if not, then thanks again for taking this wild ride through Watase's Yuu-niverse with me. I hope you all laughed, squealed, cheered and booed, and maybe even shed a few tears here and there. Mostly though, I just hope you enjoyed this wonderful trip as much as I did.
Till We Meet Again – Dee