The Promise: A Tasuki and Miaka Love Story

By KittyLynne

Usual Disclaimer: I don't own the rights to Fushigi Yuugi and I am not writing this story for profit.

Not So Usual Claimer: I do own the rights to the original ideas, prose, and characters presented in this fan fiction. Using them without my written permission and without crediting me as your source is the same as stealing, so don't do it.(The only bandits I want to see hanging around these parts are the fictional ones from Reikaku. )

Chapter Rating/Warnings: PG-15 for cussin' and canoodlin'.

Author's note: Additional acknowledgments found at the end of the chapter.

Chapter Twenty-Six: On the Threshold

"I understand that you want to see your friends, but I'm not comfortable with visiting such a place!"

Miaka heaved a sigh. Convincing her mother to visit Mount Reikaku was proving to be a very tough sell. Mrs Yuuki was doing an astoundingly good job of remaining calm and controlled in the face of a very bizarre situation, but it was too much to expect that she'd consent to staying at a remote mountain retreat, not least of the reasons being that she'd be one of only two women in the premises where dozens of non-celibate males were residing.

"Mom," she began again, "I know that it's hard to believe you'll be perfectly safe at the Stronghold, especially after the experience you had with those muggers-"

"Those two were mere children!" Mrs. Yuuki stated emphatically. "You're talking about us living with a bunch of grown men!"

"Not all of 'em." Tasuki offered. "Some of the apprentices can't shave yet."

"Thank you for that information, Shun'u, but it doesn't really make me feel better to know there are children in this place of yours who are in training to be thieves!"

Tasuki opened his mouth and then closed it. His brow furrowed.

"Why can't you deal with them the way you dealt with the muggers?" Miaka asked quickly. "You were willing to give those boys a second chance even though they tried to hurt you!"

Mrs. Yuuki looked away. "That's an entirely different matter. I knew those boys personally, they're the sons of my friends."

"And the men at Reikaku are my friends, Mom! It doesn't seem all that different to me."

Mrs. Yuuki moved toward the stone bench placed near them and sat down. "I can accept that they're your friends, Miaka, and I know that things are done differently here..." She gestured helplessly. "But I know nothing about this world or its inhabitants! How can I trust people when I don't know anything about them? I speak Japanese! How will I be able to understand what they're talking about?"

Miaka smiled. "You've had a start. Don't you trust Tasuki and Chichiri to take care of us?"

"Yes...of course."

"And could you understand them when they speak?"

"Yes, of course-" The older woman paused. Now that she considered it, just how did that work? Tasuki and Chichiri were from another world, and presumably had never taken Japanese, so how could they speak the language? Or maybe they weren't, maybe something was translating for them...

"You've only just finished up a college extension course on Ancient China, right?" Miaka asked quickly. This was not the time to explain exactly where they were, hopefully she could forestall any disconcerting questions.

"That's correct." Mrs Yuuki confirmed. "But what does a class on Chinese culture have to do with where we are-"

"Just about everything! The history and customs here are very like what you'd find in Chinese history in our world." Miaka stated. " If you paid attention and did all the assigned reading, then you will have a very good idea as to what this world and its people are like!"

"I'll have you know that I got top marks in that class!" Mrs. Yuuki retorted. "I studied harder than anyone!"

"That doesn't surprise me at all. And of course you did." Her daughter said in soothing tones. "I meant to ask you- just why did you take a class on ancient China?"

"Partly to understand it, as I've always found it fascinating." Mrs. Yuuki smiled. "And I thought the information would be useful if I ever took a sightseeing trip and met a Chinese man that I wanted to spend time with!"

Miaka stared at her mother, open mouthed.

Grinning, Tasuki spoke up. "Ya got good instincts there, ma'am! It's always wise t'be prepared for any unexpected meetin'!"

"Unexpected is an understatement." Mrs. Yuuki responded wryly. "I don't think anything I learned in class would have ever prepared me for going to a different world by flying cape, or spending my vacation with holy warriors and mountain brigands!"

"Probably not." Tasuki acknowledged. "But what's th' difference when it comes to goin' somewhere new? I bet ya wanted to travel for the adventure of it, am I right?"

"If you mean wanting to see and do things I haven't seen and done before, my answer is yes."

"Then ya won't be sorry about goin' to the Stronghold! You'll be an honored guest! It'll be all ya wanted and more!"

Mrs Yuuki made a noncommittal sound, but appeared to be mulling things over. Hoping her parent's objections to a Stronghold visit might be weakening, Miaka pressed for an advantage.

"Mount Reikaku is so beautiful, Mom! The Stronghold is like a fortress, but it's historic, and also a home. And it's not like it was with the guys when I was first here- they have pride in themselves and in being fair and honorable now that they're led by a good person."

"Honestly, can a leader of bandits really be considered a good person?"

Miaka forestalled Tasuki's response with a speaking glance. "Tasuki and his boss before him were both honorable leaders. When Tasuki stepped down, he chose Kouji to be the leader because he knew he could trust his best friend to continue to do what was right and honorable. Yes, it's true that they're bandits...but they don't go and take things from those who can't afford it. Kouji wouldn't ever stoop to or allow the cruel and demeaning things the guys were forced to do to make a living with Eiken in charge!"

Tasuki looked askance at her, his expression one of mixed surprise and pleasure.

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely!" Mrs. Yuuki argued. "People that were once good can do bad things when they get into a position of importance!"

"Kouji is th' same as he's always been." Tasuki said, with an air of absolute confidence that made it very tough to question his judgement. "He'll protect an' take good care of Miaka and you and Keisuke."

"Why? Why would he care?"

"'Cause it's a matter of honor." Tasuki declared, looking his interrogator straight in the eye. "He's got the highest respect for the Priestess who saved us all, an' he also cares about Miaka as a friend. He'd sacrifice himself to keep her or her family from getting hurt on his watch. You can trust me when I say this."

In the awkward pause that followed, Miaka looked from her parent to her seishi and back again, torn between discomfort and admiration at Tasuki's daring to lay the law down to her mother.

"If you say that your friend Kouji is a good man, I will believe you, Shun'u." Mrs Yuuki finally acknowledged. "But you must admit that in a large group there's no way you can predict everyone's behavior! As I recall, didn't Taka end up saving you and Kouji from your own men when they had turned on you? How do you explain that?"

"That wasn't Taka ya saw!" Tasuki bristled. "The guys were afraid of Eiken, an' had to do what he said 'cause he had control of my weapon, but Kouji an' me coulda saved ourselves if Miaka hadn't used my talismans to conjure-"

"What do you mean it wasn't Taka? It looked just like him!"

"I think you're thinking of Tamahome, Mom." Miaka said quickly. "Taka is Tamahome's reincarnation, remember? But the person you saw wasn't Tamahome either! The real one was being held in Kutou, and the one you saw in the mirror was just an illusion conjured from one of Genrou's magic spell cards that I happened to have written on by, uh, accident." She paused for a breath, pointedly ignoring Tasuki's stifled snort of laughter. "You see, it was in the nature of those spell cards to produce an exact replica of whatever was written on it," she continued, "so when Tasuki threw it and said the incantation, it was as if the real Tamahome had appeared there until the spell ended and he disappeared."

"I see," her mother murmured, looking as if she didn't see at all. Turning to Tasuki, she asked, "How was it with you and Tamahome? From what I hear and saw, it looked became good friends?"

Tasuki nodded. "He became like a brother to me."

"Even though he almost beat you to death when you first met?"


Though Miaka was visibly cringing, the ex-bandit answered without batting an eye."If ya saw that, then ya also know that Tama wasn't himself at that time." He stated. "He'd offered himself as a hostage in good faith to save some border villages from bein' raided by Kutou while Miaka went to find me an' the other warriors. The Seiryu were th' dirty players! They fed him a mind control drug to turn him against the Suzaku and make him think he was in love with Yui instead of Miaka!"

The older woman's eyes had moistened. "It was wonderful how you wanted to go and help my daughter, Shun'u. I'm so very sorry for what happened to you because of it."

The wing seishi shrugged. "Wasn't that big a deal."

"It was a very big deal!" Mrs. Yuuki protested in an unexpectedly fierce tone. Casting a look at her blushing daughter, she added, "I saw how you saved Miaka- how you took the blow meant for her and the horrible beating you took after that! It was one of the most heroic and unselfish acts I've ever seen! Don't you dare make light of it!"

Tasuki rubbed the back of his head and tried his best to look unaffected by the praise, even though it was music to his ears. It was nice to get a little recognition for his trouble; all those contusions and broken bones had fucking hurt, dammit, and he had to admit it still rankled that Little Ghost had never apologized for anything except being too drugged up to remember dishing them out.

And yet, whenever he had been tempted to complain, the thought of holding his unconscious Priestess and looking down into her tear-stained face, and something Mitsukake had said at the time kept him from it.

'I can heal her arm, but there's nothing I can do for her heart.'

He had been fighting for Miaka's heart, a heart that had been shattered to pieces. Somehow she'd stuck it back together and used its power to save the person who had broken it. That same mended heart had held compassion and forgiveness for those who had wronged her, the courage to go into a full scale battle alongside her warriors, and the strength to save two worlds...not once, but twice.

'She wanted to help me, even after I was mean t'her. She was willin' to sacrifice herself just to get my damn fan back before she even knew who I was.'

That was love. That was Miaka.

As if she had sensed the direction of his thoughts, Mrs. Yuuki spoke.

"From what I've been shown, Miaka, you were presented with many difficult situations, and were severely tested during those times." The older woman looked pained. "And Yui...she suffered greatly in coming here to get you back home." She shook her head sadly. "I wish I could take away the pain she experienced. All I can do is thank her when I see her next, for coming to save you, and for giving you the wish that saved our world. And I'm so proud that you didn't abandon hope and give up, even when you thought Yui and Tamahome had rejected you!"

Somehow, Miaka managed to maintain her composure. The happiness in knowing she'd earned her mother's praise was tinged with regret that the praise was based on an incomplete picture. Obviously her mother knew Tasuki had been thrashed because of her request that he spare Tamahome's life, and that the horror of his injuries had made her see Tamahome for what he was at that moment...but she hadn't said anything about that revelation pushing her daugther right to the edge of self destruction.

That seemed to indicate that perhaps Taiits-kun, in her benevolence and wisdom, had spared Mrs. Yuuki from witnessing the aftermath of her daughter's despair. But would Tasuki realize that and keep the secret? Her apprehensive gaze pleaded with him to pick up on her silent message. 'Tasu-chan. Don't say anything about my near drowning and Hotohori's rescue of me from the pond. There's no need for her to know.'

Tasuki frowned, taken aback by the worry in his priestess' expression. His mind raced through the trip in Kutou, his fight with Tamahome and what had happened afterwards, and then cold comprehension dawned as he recalled what Miaka had almost done in her darkest moments. Meeting her gaze directly, he nodded and folded his lips tight, a mute avowal of discretion. Miaka's expression conveyed her thanks before she turned to her mother.

"You're giving me credit I don't deserve, Mom. I was able to do what I did because of Tasuki, Chichiri and the rest of the Suzaku Seven. They were my advisors and my dearest friends. They were totally dedicated to helping and protecting me so I could succeed in my goals... " she blinked rapidly, "... even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice."

"I saw that. I'm forever in their debt." The middle-aged woman's voice held a hint of the tears shimmering in the gaze she lifted to the heavens. "I don't know how things work in this world, but this seems to be a holy place. So Hotohori, Nuriko, Chiriko, Mitsukake...on the chance my words will reach you... know that you will be forever remembered and honored in two worlds for what you've done for Miaka. Thank you for watching over her."

There was a sudden hush, and then a strong, steady breeze filled the garden, setting beds of flowers to swaying. A small flock of birds rose from the banyan tree in an swift uprush of flight, soaring high and away into the clear blue sky, their joyous sounding cries falling to the onlookers below.

When the birds had gone, the breeze faded to the slightest whisper and the flowers stilled their motion. The sun shone down, bestowing a benediction of warmth upon the profound silence left behind.

After a minute of reflection, Miaka went to her parent and laid a hand on her shoulder. "All of this is beyond a huge shock for you. But even if you're scared, Mom, know that you're an incredibly strong woman who has overcome your fears of the unknown to be here with your children."

Mrs. Yuuki's hand covered her daughter's, but her gaze remained glued to the heavens.

"It's up to you." Miaka continued. "I will abide by your decision. If you don't want to go to Reikaku, then I won't go either."

"Me too!" Tasuki stated gruffly. "Whatever ya decide to do, I'm with ya!"

Mrs. Yuuki briefly closed her eyes, then turned to face them. Though her grip on her daughter's hand tightened, her gaze and her smile were unwavering.

"I've decided." She said. "I will go to this...Stronghold... of yours."

'And so the mother of the priestess forgave her daughter's former enemy, and gave her blessing for the journey to Reikaku. Although they did not speak of their inner feelings, Tasuki and the young woman of legend rejoiced in their hearts. In returning to The Stronghold, their past would come full circle and their future could begin.'

Tears streaming down her cheeks, Yui dropped the scroll onto the sofa and went in search of a box of tissues.

"This is unreal!" Keisuke said to Tasuki. "I can't believe you got her to agree to this!"

They were talking quietly as they followed Miaka, Mrs. Yuuki and Nyan Nyan, who had suddenly appeared in the garden and offered to see them all to their rooms if they wanted to sleep. Only Chichiri had declined the invitation, saying that he had an errand to run for Taiits-kun.

Mrs. Yuuki had been remarkably calm as she informed her son that they'd be leaving for a visit to the Stronghold first thing after a good rest. It hadn't even fazed her when the monk had pulled out a hat from thin air and disappeared into its depths.

This worried Keisuke. Although he was secretly delighted to be going to Reikaku, this sort of behavior was not normal for his mom.

"So how'd you do it?" He prodded the redhead.

"Do what?"

"Talk my mom into a stay at the Reikaku Stronghold."

Tasuki shook his head. "I didn't do anythin'! She decided that all on her own."

Keisuke snorted. "Yeah. And I can shoot fire out my ass."

After a startled second, Tasuki threw his head back and laughed. "Now that'd be somethin' I'd like t'see!" He chortled, as Keisuke grinned reluctantly.

"I ain't kiddin' ya, though," the seishi added, when his mirth had finally subsided. "Your ma's got a taste for adventure! Said she's wanted to travel, an' that she likes to do new things."

Keisuke pondered this information for a moment, then asked, "What kinds of things?"

Again, the redhead shrugged and shook his head. "If ya really wanna know, I guess you'll have to ask her."

"I think I will." With that, Keisuke excused himself and hurried to catch up to his mother.

When he was out of earshot, Tasuki blew out an extended sigh of relief, thinking wryly that Suzaku must really approve his being with Miaka to have these little encounters working out in his favor. Well, except for the damn monk showing up at the wrong time in the garden. But even that was probably all for the good. Even though he was a monk, Chichiri wasn't a novice. He must realized they would have been going at it hot and heavy if he hadn't stepped in, something that could've resulted in loss of a mother's trust and a spearing of brotherly displeasure...

He'd be sure to thank Chichiri after Miaka was his for good.

His avid gaze targeted his quarry as she followed along behind Nyan Nyan. She was walking on the opposite side of her mother, who was presently engaged in an animated, hand gesturing conversation with Keisuke. It was clear that the Priestess wasn't listening to them, because she was staring straight ahead, her fingers absently twisting and untwisting a lock of her hair.

'She's worried about somethin'. Or someone.'

That thought wiped the smile from his face. He quickened his steps, bringing himself within four or five strides of her.

'It's too soon to be regrettin' anythin', dammit! Just give me some time, Green Eyes, an' I'll show ya how good it's gonna be!'

As if she'd heard him, Miaka turned her head and looked over her shoulder. When their eyes met, her eyes grew bright and she smiled.

It was all the invitation the Wing Seishi needed.

A stirring of air from behind her was the only warning Miaka received before she felt herself being grabbed and carried away. No sound escaped her lips, for she wasn't surprised or alarmed. She didn't struggle, because this was what she had wanted. Her heart was pounding, but with excitement and anticipation. It didn't matter where he was taking her; as long as he was the one taking her there, she was happy.

She did close her eyes as doorways and tapestries flew by at a dizzying speed. She was a feather borne on the wind; a leaf caught in a uprush of air. She relished the feeling until it slowed to a gentle pace; then all movement ceased and she was lowered to the earth, her feet placed on solid ground.

When she opened her eyes, she found herself standing in an open sided room with a breathtaking view of a lush green valley. Thick, emerald green vegetation and profusions of bright flowers framed the waterfall that tumbled from a high, rocky precipice, and surrounded the sparkling pool into which it fell.

"Gorgeous." She murmured, looking out over the landscape with awe. "So beautiful!"

Strong arms encircled her from behind, and a face pressed into her shoulder. "If ya like mountain views, there's some great ones on Reikaku I'd like to show ya."

The words blew warm against the fabric of her t-shirt. Her hand came to rest on his crossed arms. "I'm looking forward to having you show me your mountain, Tasu-chan."

He straightened, then turned her to face him. "Really?"

"Yes." Her gaze was steady as it met the searching intensity in his. "I want to know all there is to know about you."

"Everything, huh?"

And with that, she was yanked into his arms and pressed against his body as a demanding mouth took possession of hers. Miaka responded to the kiss with abandon, then wrenched her lips away.

"The others are waiting for us!"

"It's not gonna kill 'em to wait a little longer."

"But Tasuki-"

"Miaka, right now I wouldn't give a fuck if Suzaku himself was waitin'!"

Further protest was obliterated as he swooped down and recaptured her mouth. Miaka leaned into him, giving back as good as she got as his lips and hands dragged her headlong into sensory heaven.

It could have been minutes or hours until the high, sweet voice calling their names in the distance penetrated their blissful oblivion.

"It's Nyan Nyan." Miaka said, coming up for air. "She must be looking for us."

She made a weak attempt to twist her body away from hot temptation, but Tasuki pulled her back and even closer.

"Too bad, Green Eyes. I ain't done with ya yet."

"You have to be! There's no other way!"

Fangs gleamed in a wicked grin. "Not accordin' to this interestin' scroll I once saw..."

As he took hold of her wrists and drew her arms around his neck. Miaka pulled feebly against his hold, then allowed her body to meld with his, her sigh rife with the acknowledgment that she hadn't the strength to deny him. Despite her protest, the thought of being caught acted as fuel for passion as Tasuki razed her ear with his lips, trailed them down her neck to her collarbone, and then buried his face between her breasts. When she moaned his name, he lifted his head while sliding his hand down to the place where her desire for him was pooling, thick and hot.

"Tell me you're mine!" He growled.


"Say it!"

The rawness of his tone sent ripples of excitement through her. She moaned an incoherent affirmation, her pelvis moving against his palm.

After a moment her own hand rose with the intention of touching him intimately, only to be arrested midway to its destination by the sound of their names being called from close by.

She flinched, all pleasure doused by the intrusion.

"Doesn't anybody know to fuckin' knock?" Tasuki gritted, sending a glare in the direction of the oncoming intruder.

His wandering hand was back at her waist, but he didn't let her go as Nyan Nyan entered the pagoda. The spite stopped short, then went out again to tactfully hover just out of sight of the doorway. "I'm very, very sorry for interrupting, Priestess, but your mother is concerned about the both of you getting some rest before your journey."

Miaka sighed and her body throbbed with frustrated desire. She had forgotten about everything she was supposed to be doing, allowed herself to be led astray. With Tasuki, it was going to be a constant battle to control her impulses.

"Thank you for telling us, Nyan Nyan!" She called. "If you wouldn't mind, could you let my mom and the others know we'll be right there?"

"Yes, yes, I will!"

Nyan Nyan sounded relieved to have a reason to leave. Miaka wished she could have gone with her, as Tasuki turned to glare at her.

"Looks like this wasn't the right time or place for..." she crimsoned, " know..."

"I know, dammit!" He snapped. "It takes two willin' people to make it happen!"

For a split second, Miaka wanted to cry. Couldn't the idiot see that she was just as frustrated as he was? But then her tears dried up at the thought that maybe he did know and was trying to goad her into doing something reckless! He'd done it before. And if that was the case, she wasn't going to rise to the bait! Her eyes shouted that intention as she returned his glare.

"So...that's why I'm glad we're goin' someplace even better." Tasuki said quickly, at seeing her stormy expression. "I'm lookin' forward to showin' ya those views even more now, Mi-chan."

The reminder of their previous agreement soothed her.

There was a right place. A meaningful and lovely place, where expressing their love physically wouldn't be hurried or inhibited.

"It's Reikaku, then?" She asked, lifting her chin a little with the assertion.

Her hair slid back, exposing the prominent markings of a love bite.

Tasuki smiled a little as he touched it with a fingertip.

"Yeah." He agreed huskily. "It's Reikaku."

Though the hood of deep night had covered Mount Reikaku, the bandit hideout was ablaze with torchlight as preparations continued for the future arrival of the Priestess of Suzaku and her party.

The Stronghold was classified as a fortress, but the men who lived there thought of it as much more than that. It was a shelter for the homeless, a sanctuary for outcasts, and a place of worship for the appointed guardians of the mountain. Keeping it in good repair was a matter of highest consequence; defending it and those who dwelt within the walls was a matter of pride and honor.

The Reikaku bandits had engendered a healthy respect and a formidable reputation for legendary fighting skills and proficiencies in using a variety of weapons before and since the Kutou War had been won. The words 'impenetrable' and 'impervious' were often applied to describing their hideout. There had been and would always be those who bore them ill will, of course, but no one had been able to gain entrance by storming the ramparts. Rival bandits, ninjas, hardened mercenaries; all of them knew that attacking the Reikaku Stronghold was tantamount to suicide. Potential enemies knew and feared the legendary stealth of the mountainside patrols, and the platforms that had been erected at the top of the Stronghold's high, thick walls, tailor made to hold an ever vigilant guard of skillful archers.

Any gathering of forces or attacks mounted from below could be spotted from a great distance, which put the aggressor at an instant and huge disadvantage. And the fortress was embedded just below the pinnacle of the mountain and encompassed its girth, which eliminated all chance of a surprise attack from above or from behind.

It was rumored that the Emperor himself had asked to use it as a second command post should Konan's neighbors ever see fit to wage war in the future.

All of these things meant the bandits hadn't had to exercise their talents for a fairly long time. The only danger at present was complacency from within, but Weapons Master Shing and his two able assistants made it a priority to see to it that the men did not rest on their laurels.

One of those assistants was presently having a little talk with two of his charges in the outermost courtyard.

Sheufeng was a burly man, brown haired and bronzed from hours spent in the sun with his various projects. His thick fu manchu mustache was his pride, and the envy of the young men who both looked up to and feared him. His gravelly voice, though pitched low in deference to the lateness of the hour, still carried through the stillness of the night to the ears of those men already stationed at their posts.

"Kenshiro, this snot-nosed brat has gotta make it as a sentry. Kouji says it's Kazuchi's last chance ta prove he isn't useless."

The man called Kenshiro nodded, his lone earring glinting against smooth, midnight black hair caught back in a braid. "I'll make sure he knows everything I know. He'll be fine."

The older man turned to glare at the younger of the two bandits. "It's time to grow up, kid. The Boss is tired of hearin' excuses for yer slacker ways an' pranks."

"I'm sorry, sensei!" The fifteen year old proclaimed miserably, tugging at the black breeches beneath his tunic. They'd gotten a lot tighter and shorter since his last growth spurt. "Don't throw me out! I swear I'll make ya proud!"

"Ya damn well better!" Sheufeng boomed. "I know ya got a brain somewhere inside that thick skull o' yers, so use it! Pay attention! No slackin', no jokin' around, no raidin' the food stores, no breakin' into the private sake stash, and no trickin' Lord Momo into doing yer work for ya! Ya got that?"

"Yes sensei!" Said Kazuchi earnestly. "I won't let ya down this time, I swear it!"

The older man moved until his face was inch away from the youngster's. When he spoke, it was with a quiet intent that was much scarier than if he had yelled. "This job is more important than anythin' else you'll ever do here. It's either vigilance or stinkin' death, 'cause if ya screw up when the Priestess is here, th' Boss will kill ya an' then I'll shit on ya afterwards! Understand?"

Kazuchi didn't answer. His eyes were wide with fear as he focused on the triangular straw hat that had just appeared in mid air behind his fellow bandits. He gulped as he saw a hand emerging from its depths. His mouth opened, but no sound emerged.

Thinking he'd done an extra good job of getting his message across, Sheufeng relented a bit. "Yer friend Kenshiro here," he continued, slapping a huge, calloused hand down on the young man's muscled back, "has stuck out his neck an' offered to take ya on as his apprentice. He's been doin' the night watch fer a long time, so stick with him. Fall asleep on th' job, and you'll be cleanin' out latrines fer a- "

"S-Someone's right behind ya, sensei!" Kazuchi interrupted, still staring at the disembodied hand that was giving him a cheery wave. Waving? Was it actually trying to get their attention? "Look there!"

"Ya got iron balls, kid!" Sheufeng roared as Kenshiro turned his head, turned it back, then did a rapid double take as another hand joined the first. "But if ya think I'm gonna fall fer that half-assed old trick-"

Kenshiro abruptly cut him off by drawing his sword and sending his sensei reeling out of harm's way with a shove.

"You there! Show yourself, friend or foe!"

Kazuchi stepped forward, his nun-chucks at the ready. "No, let me, 'Shiro! I can take care of-" His voice died on a gasp at the impossible sight of a smiling but oddly blank-faced monk emerging from the confines of the hat. "H-Holy sh-shit! It can't be human!"

Sheufeng had righted himself and spun around, daggers appearing in both hands as if by magic. At getting a glimpse of the intruder, however, he made an impatient noise and immediately lowered his weapons to his sides. "Stand down!" He barked to the two young bandits, and to the sentries above who had drawn their weapons at Kenshiro's yell. "This man is a Suzaku warrior, you idiots! Show him some fuckin' respect!"

The monk looked around, unfazed at the sight of the amount and variety of weapons being lowered. "Whoops, I was supposed to come out over by the Great Hall, you know. My deepest apologies for the trouble, Sheufeng." He said calmly.

"No apology necessary." Sheufeng said, sheathing his daggers as he made a deferential bow. "What can I do for ya, Chichiri-sama?"

"I have a message for Kouji. Do you know where he is?"

Kazuchi was excited. To think he would have a chance for a meeting with Chichiri, the Celestial Warrior who had honed his powers with the Oracle and who had fought alongside Genrou, the greatest warrior of them all! To say the very least, this man would have amazing stories to share!

It was too good an opportunity to pass up. The young bandit stepped forward eagerly, intending to kowtow for the honor of showing their prestigious guest to the Boss' quarters, only to be forestalled by his comrade in arms.

"Don't even think about it, Kazu! You got more important work to do here."

"Aw 'Shiro, c'mon! If he agrees, I won't be lo-"

But Sheufeng put a swift end to the matter. "Th' Boss is in his quarters right now." He told the waiting mage. "I'll take ya to' then maybe after yer done, if you ain't too busy, that is...maybe ya could come take a look at something I just put together?"

Chichiri looked both amused and intrigued. "I'm sure I'll have time, you know. Did you ever get that pumpkin catapult working?"

"Oh hell yeah, it works great! Th' best one I ever built! You can test it out fer yerself if ya want..."

The monk and the bandit walked off into the night, chatting away.

"Chin up, brat!" Kenshiro said, at seeing his friend's keen disappointment. "You're forgetting that I'm your sensei and captain! If you get serious about your training, maybe I'll recommend you for the Priestess' personal guard detail."

Kazu's face brightened. At least he'd gotten to see Chichiri in action; heck, most people went their entire lives without even seeing one celestial warrior, and he'd gotten to see two!

Besides that, Genrou had once told him that there had been no higher honor for him than the privilege of protecting the Priestess. If Genrou felt that way about doing his duty, then so should he.

Squaring his thin shoulders, the young apprentice turned to his appointed mentor.

"Well what are we waitin' for? Let's get to work!"

Miaka had been so keyed up, she thought she'd never fall asleep after being shown to the room she shared with her mother. It didn't help that she knew Tasuki was sharing a room with Keisuke and Chichiri just across the hall. Knowing Keisuke, he was probably grilling Tasuki right now about their wherabouts and what they'd been doing for the past half hour.

Thankfully, Takara Yuuki didn't ask any questions save for if her daughter would like to sit in the nice hot springs bath. She pointed to a curtained alcove, and Miaka was delighted to see a huge stony recess filled with steaming water in the middle of it.

Both women maintained a comfortable conversation while they took turns in the bath. After shampooing and washing herself, Miaka indulged in a long soak which left her feeling more relaxed, if not quite sleepy. Emerging from the pool, she slipped into her waiting yukata, brushed her teeth, then set about finding an outfit for the journey, as well as some fresh undergarments.

Though she had three possibilities for outfits, she was perplexed to find she was unable to locate a bra, save for a red one that was completely unsuitable. Most likely they'd been wedged between other garments during their wild ride into the book, but she lacked the ambition to empty out her suitcase just to look for them.

She rinsed out the purple lace bra, and hung it up to dry. As she stood considering her choices of what to wear, her mother came over.

"It's easy when you only have two outfits in your bag." She laughed ruefully. "Need some help?"

They decided on a lavender wrap around skirt and a matching scoop necked top with lace insets. The choice of shirt made Miaka wonder if her mother hadn't spotted her hickey yet; she couldn't imagine she had, or she would have selected a turtleneck! But on the other hand, given the way Mrs. Yuuki had been acting since their arrival here, maybe a love bite wouldn't be such a big deal? Her mother had been showing a very different side of herself, and Miaka suspected there could be even more surprises to come.

It was then that Nyan Nyan appeared, bearing a gift of kiminos and obis for Mrs. Yuuki, who was overwhelmed. Each had its own color and patterns in green, blue, white, red, and violet; all completely unique and very beautiful.

"How can I choose?" She moaned. "I love them all!"

"Then you must take them all!" Nyan Nyan told her happily.

"Oh, thank you, but they're much too valuable. I couldn't-"

"The Mistress wishes it so!" Nyan Nyan said, folding her arms and speaking with the firmness of a little girl determined to get her own way.

"You can take them, Mom." Miaka advised gently. "It's rude to refuse a gift."

"I feel like I have a fairy godmother." Mrs, Yuuki said in wonder. "And a fairy godchild too," she added, smiling warmly at Nyan Nyan.

And so it was settled. The covers were turned back on the huge bed, and the two women clambered into it, giggling as Nyan Nyan tucked them in for the night.

In spite of her frustrations over Tasuki and apprehensions about what the next day might hold, Miaka felt very much at peace. It was rather nice sleeping with her mom, something she hadn't done since she was a little girl.

A lengthy silence fell, but there was still one thing left to take care before she could fall asleep.

"Mom, are you still awake?"

"Yes dear."

"I need to ask you to do something for me for the time that you're here. Something that's really important."

"What's that, dear?"

"You know the book you mentioned earlier? The one that I found in the National Library?"

"Yes, what about it?"

"Well, Tasuki and Chichiri don't know much about how that all worked, and so I'd rather that you don't bring it up."

"All right, I won't mention it if you don't want me to. But may I ask why?"

Miaka bit her lip. How could she explain without really explaining? Her mother didn't have all the details when it came to how she'd first come to Konan, or she would have been much more freaked out over where they were, and Tasuki and Chichiri being characters in a book. As for her seishi, the calm and logical Chichiri might be okay with hearing it, but she didn't want to think about Tasuki's reaction to the truth. Somehow she knew he wouldn't take it in stride, or even with his usual optimistic, never-say-die attitude...

Until the time came for the revelation, it would be best for all concerned for her to give a partial version of the truth.

She wouldn't let it hurt them the way it had hurt Taka, and Tamahome before him.

"Miaka, you're a million miles away!" Her mother prompted. "Have you heard what I said?"

"Yes, Mom. And it's because I want to tell them myself." She answered steadily. "I'm their Priestess. It's my responsibility to deal with their questions."

Mrs. Yuuki turned from her back onto her side. "I understand. I'll do as you ask." A suppressed yawn muffled her voice."You and I have a lot more to talk about, but I need some sleep first. I'm sure we'll have plenty of time for discussion at the Stronghog."

"That's Stronghold, Mom."


Taka Sukunami boarded the chartered flight that would take him across the ocean with an apathy that was completely unlike him. Flinging his carry-on into the jetliner's overhead compartment, he slouched his way into a seat and stared out the window. The lightening predawn sky and dimly lit tarmac made it possible to distinguish some details of the American air base or the goings on around the plane, but for once he didn't care. Any excitement and curiosity he might have otherwise felt had been supplanted by overwhelming concern for what was in the knapsack he'd set on the floor between his feet.

It wasn't really stealing to have taken the book from the National Library archives, he thought, rationalizing his actions of the previous night. He was only borrowing it for a time in order to protect the woman he loved. Once she was safely home again, he would return the book to its rightful place.

Or maybe not. Maybe it would be better if the book stayed behind in America when Miaka returned. There were plenty of hiding places, or maybe it would meet with an accident so that no one else could leap from its pages to disrupt and destroy their happiness...

"Excuse me, soldier, but is the seat next to you taken?"

The words were spoken in Japanese with a decidedly American accent. The voice was feminine, low in pitch, rather sultry, and struck him as familiar. Taka found himself jerked away from his ruminations as a tantalizing fragrance tickled his nostrils. Fatigue covered breasts, one decorated with a bar of ribbons, the other with the flag of the United States of America, loomed in his peripheral vision. Though his face was averted, it was impossible not to notice and appreciate the charms of a well endowed female at this close range. He'd been- and would be- away from Miaka for a long, long time... memories of her womanly softness and warmth were all that he had...

"Helloooo there, are you awake?"

As a long fingered hand gracefully waved in front of his face, Taka felt the prickly heat of a blush creeping up his neck. He hadn't really wanted company, he wanted to look at the book. Unfortunately, maintaining good foreign relations dictated that he issue an invitation to this female, whoever she was. Forcing a smile to his lips, he answered her question in careful, very polite English.

"I beg your pardon for my inattention, Miss. The seat is not taken. Please sit down."

He turned to look out the window, feigning interest in a Hummer that was driving by as the woman hefted her bag into the overhead compartment. He would have offered to do it for her, but she was an American and would most likely take offense at the implication that she couldn't handle a man's job.

He shifted uncomfortably as she sat down, a surge of guilty pleasure shooting through him as a warm and shapely thigh came in direct contact with his.

The hand appeared again, this time extended in greeting as its owner spoke in english.

"Sergeant Karen Miller, Special operative-in-training, United States Marines...but please, just call me Karen."

Without looking at her, Taka clasped her hand and shook it in the Western style. "I am Sukunami Taka, and also a special operative in training. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miller-san."

"Are you sure it's a pleasure?" She replied, a hint of amusement in her voice.

Taka blinked and frowned. "I'm afraid I don't understand."

"If it was a pleasure, then there's no reason you can't call me Karen...unless, of course, you have something against Americans."

Taka's blush deepened. "I wouldn't have signed up for this venture if I did." He said stiffly. "I apologize, I meant no offense. Karen is a pretty name, but it would be very presumptuous of me to call you that."

There was an awkward pause, followed by the sound of skin meeting skin as the woman next to him smacked her forehead with the heel of her hand.

"Last names are first, first names are last." She recited, as if reading from a guidebook. "It's essential and proper etiquette to address a stranger by their last name along with the proper honorific. Great! Not even in the air yet, and I've already fucked up my first protocol lesson-"

She stopped, putting the hand across her mouth. "And the second as well," she added, in a muffled voice. "Sorry about the rude language."

Despite his reluctance to get into the conversation, Taka found himself grinning. She was honest and friendly, and trying so hard to do things the right way. The only rudeness happening here was his lack of response to an overture of friendship.

"Don't worry about it." He stated, as his innate gallantry rushed to the fore. "I'm the one who's going to be living in America, and I should be the one adapting to your customs." He hesitated, then asked, "so if I remember that it's okay to use your first name, will you call me Taka in return?"

Karen chuckled, a warm and pleasing sound. "I'm afraid it's no deal until I can see your face, Mister Sukunami!" She teased. "Are your boots and backpack really that interesting, or do Japanese men have something against looking women in the eye?"

Blushing again at this second breach of etiquette, Taka looked up. He had also intended to offer an apology, but it died on his lips as the reason why Karen Miller's voice had struck him as familiar became clear. He stared at her, speechless and open mouthed, his recognition of her jolting through him like lightning as his brain feverishly assessed the ramifications of the situation.

It was impossible, wasn't it?

Well no, not really. He was living proof that it wasn't.


Yeah. As implausible as someone from another world stealing away with his girlfriend.

Okay...then it was just a coincidence.

"Hello, Taka Sukunami. It's very nice to see you."

He closed his mouth and met her gaze straight on, not missing the slightly mocking light of challenge in it. That too, was familiar. Really, he thought, what were the chances that Soi would have ever chosen to leave that guy to his solitary peace so she could be reborn into this world?

"Thank you, Karen-san." He said, surprised that he had managed to sound passably calm. "It's nice to see you too."

She smiled, and a tingling current of something enveloped him. The aura around her was concentrated, like the calm before a storm, crackling and popping with highly charged particles of energy.

A warrior's chi.

So he wasn't mistaken.

Apparently, the chances had been pretty damn good.

Tasuki bolted out of bed, uncaring if he'd slept five minutes or five hours. His body felt rested, and that was good enough for him.

At Chichiri's suggestion, the three men held a meeting in which Tasuki briefed Keisuke about the workings of the Stronghold, what he could expect from the men who live there, the weapons training, the sake cellars and any other thing he might want give a try–just for research purposes of course. Keisuke was all ears, and taking prolific notes, even when the women joined them and the conversation turned to safer topics, like food preparation and building maintenance.

When they'd eaten a healthy and hearty breakfast, Taiits-kun bid them to join her in her sending room. It was best if Chichiri saved his power for protection of Miaka, she said, and so she was going to be the one to send them on.

Mrs. Yuuki and Keisuke made sure to thank the Oracle for her hospitality. She smiled broadly as she accepted their gratitude, and Keisuke had to pretend to cough to hide his shudder of revulsion. Holding pieces of baggage, they joined the waiting Chichiri, Miaka and Tasuki on the monk's outstretched cape, and after a brief incantation by Taiits-kun, they were on their way.

This trip was quicker and easier than the one taken between worlds the day before. The bamboo sided panels of the Oracle's sending room simply faded away, and after a few seconds, were replaced by the massive stone walls that enclosed a large room full of tables and benches.

When their surroundings came into complete focus, Tasuki announced that they were in the Great Hall, the eating and gathering place for the men of the Stronghold. The room was empty save for two bandits, who were looking a bit shocked to see them. From the looks of it, they'd just finished having breakfast.

Both also looked tired, Miaka thought. One was a lean, dark haired man of around Tasuki's age, who wore a black tunic, dark blue breeches and a single, dangling earring in his left ear. The was other a boy of fifteen or so, wearing a long purple tunic over tight black pants. His demeanor expressed shyness, excitement and nervousness all at once.

"Why, he's just a baby!" Mrs. Yuuki exclaimed. Her voice carried, and the young bandit blushed.

"Nah, he's not anywhere near that young!" Tasuki corrected her. Exchanging a nod of greeting with the older bandit, he strode over to the crestfallen boy and clapped him on the shoulder. " Kazu's gonna be a man sometime this month, ain't that right?" He eyed the young apprentice, who was nodding eagerly and looking much happier. "Things been goin' all right for ya? Been stayin' outta my private stash?"

"Yessir!" The boy stood up straighter. "I can't be drinkin' anymore, 'cause the Boss put me on the night watch! I'm going to be protectin' the Priestess while she's here, just like you do!"

"An' you'll do one helluva job!" The man formerly known as Genrou declared. "But speakin' of your boss, would ya mind goin' an' scarin' him up? I don't think he was expectin' us to get here this soon."

"Sure, Genrou! I'm on it!" The boy ran off to find Kouji.

"A good man in the makin', that Kazu!" Tasuki said, watching him go with a smile.

A few feet away Keisuke began to chuckle, but was stopped by an elbow to his ribs.

"The kid's name is Ka-zoo!" He whispered defensively under Miaka's quelling glare. "Kazoo, like the musical instrument! Don't you think that's funny?"

"No I don't!" She replied sternly.

He poked her. "Hey, maybe he's the guy that will invent the thing! Wouldn't that be cool?"

"Shut up, Keisuke!"

Miaka stuck out her tongue at her snickering brother before diverting her attention to the young man who was approaching her in a very respectful manner. He was taller and more muscular than Kazu, and had a long black braid draped over one shoulder. To her surprise, she could see thick threads of silver hair intertwined with the black.

"Ah, hello." She said brightly, realizing that an awkward silence had fallen.

"May this humble person request an audience with Your Eminence?" The bandit asked, keeping his gaze averted from hers.

"Um...yes, of course you may." Miaka responded. One thing hadn't changed from her teenage years in the book; she still felt uncomfortable with such formal displays of deference. Bowing, she added, "My name is Miaka. May I have the honor of knowing yours?"

To her chagrin, the handsome young man dropped to his knees in front of her and lowered his forehead to the floor before addressing her in a deep, mellow voice. "Thank you, Your Eminence. I am Kenshiro, First Captain of the Night Watch. It's a great honor for me to be the first to bid you and your family welcome, but I must apologize to you for my apprentice's and my own unsightly appearance. We came here straight from guard duty and haven't had a chance to don more suitable attire."

Judging by their expressions, Keisuke and Mrs. Yuuki were clearly impressed by this display of good manners. Tasuki's expression was one of satisfaction. Chichiri watched them all through his mask, which wore a tiny smile.

The heat of a blush added to Miaka's general discomfiture. "Oh, please get up, Kenshiro! I don't know what you've been told, but I'm just an ordinary person! Bowing and scraping to me isn't necessary, and I'd much rather look you in the eye when we're speaking to each other!"

Though the bandit murmured a polite protest, she thought she caught a hint of approval in his face as he obligingly got to his feet and looked at her. His steady gaze briefly dropped to her neck, widened a little, then met hers once again. If possible, his expression held even more respect than before. "I am forever in your service, Priestess of Suzaku. If there is anything this humble person can do for you, all you have to do is ask."

"I'll be sure to do that." She said weakly. "Thank you so much for your kindness." 'My goodness, what was that all about?' She thought, as Kenshiro bowed and took several deferential steps backwards.'I don't remember seeing anyone with blue eyes...he must have joined up after I left here!'

"Are any of you hungry or thirsty?" Kazu asked, as he returned. "If ya are, I'll be happy to go an' round up some-"

Whatever the boy was going to do was cut off by the sound of a gong, followed by a shout and a door crashing open on the far side of the room. Following that rukus, a deep voice called out,

"Knock knock! Who's there? Why it's Chichiri, bringing Genrou, the Priestess of Suzaku and her entire family to visit you! Then why are ya just standing there? Heck if I know! Then why don't ya come in? I will, thank you very much!"

Miaka smiled from ear to ear at seeing Kouji. It was clear that the ruggedly handsome leader of the bandits had acquired a more polished look since she'd seen him last; the expensive clothing and jewelry he wore were a far cry from what he'd worn when she'd met him, as was the headband made of embroidered silk that contained his unruly black hair. Nevertheless, his greeting had reassured her that his personality and outlook hadn't changed a bit.

Tasuki went to greet him in their usual style, with many 'heys!' and 'no ways!' Keisuke and Chichiri watched them with a bemused look on their faces as a widely smiling Mrs. Yuuki sidled up to her daughter.

"That little dance of theirs is even cuter in person!" She whispered.

"Yes, I know." Miaka whispered back, gazing fondly at the two friends.

Sensing eyes were upon them, Kouji stopped in mid spin. "Ah, sh- ah, sorry about that," he said, sheepishly pulling his arm out of Tasuki's. "Ya see, it's like this-"

Tasuki interrupted. "I already told 'em it's 'cause ya hate huggin'."

Miaka couldn't resist some teasing as Kouji gave his friend a thoroughly disgusted look. "And Kouji, I have to say was very sorry to hear that, because I love getting hugs!"

The two bandits known as Kazu and Kenshiro turned and goggled at her, as did Keisuke and Chichiri. Mrs. Yuuki shook her head at her daughter's brashness, but a small smile was lurking as Tasuki's sudden scowl did not go unnoticed by her- or by Kouji, whose frown had changed to a sly grin. "Well since ya put it like that, Priestess, I should tell ya I have been known to make exceptions for special people on special occa-"

Tasuki cut him off by briefly hooking an arm around his friends neck. The gesture appeared brotherly, but his half-whisper carried an impact of a warning growl as he pulled Kouji's ear level with his bared fangs.

"This ain't one of them. Look at her neck."

As soon as he was released, Kouji did. In rapid fire succession, his expression turned from teasing to astonishment to something approaching acute envy.

"I'll be damned." He said, pitching his voice so that only his friend could hear. "She's yours? Ya got with her already?"

Narrowed amber eyes pierced him with a look. "Do ya think that's any of your business?"

"No! But can ya blame yer best friend for wantin' some good news?"

Tasuki glared for a moment more, then relented. "Nothin' is certain yet. The old lady wants her to spend time considerin' if she wants to stay for good."

Kouji slid him a knowing look. "And you're gonna do your best to convince her, right?"

"Damn straight! I ain't leavin' nothin' to chance! Like th' Old Boss used to say- "

"'Who would let another man sleep by his own couch?' " Kouji quoted the oft-used proverb, his tone returning to normal. "So, as a reward for helpin' ya, am I gonna hear how all this went down?"

Good humor restored, his best friend grinned and playfully punched his arm. "Maybe, providin' ya don't do anythin' to piss me off."

"Um, excuse me for interrupting, but is everything all right?"

Miaka was looking anxious as the two men turned to her.

"Sorry, I thought I should fill Kouji in on th' plans." Tasuki explained.

"But it can wait for later." Kouji said, elbowing his friend. "Outta my way, Genrou, I gotta give your lady a proper greetin'!"

Miaka's perplexed expression eased into a warm smile as her host approached her. His answering smile was friendly, but his overall demeanor had changed to one of respectful reserve that said she wasn't going to be getting a hug.

Her gaze slid to Tasuki, who stood watching with arms crossed over his chest, and then slid back to Kouji. Had something been said to bring on such a change? Had she been wrong to tease?

"It's so nice to see you again!" She blurted, now internally cringing at the thought that she'd probably committed a blunder in being too familiar. "Thank you for allowing us to stay with you. "

The bandit leader reached out as if to ruffle her hair, but his hand stopped halfway to its goal and dropped to his side.

"It's an honor to have ya here." His bow was one that conveyed respect, and included all three visitors. But as he straightened, his next words were pitched for Miaka's ears alone. "And I'm gonna be makin' amends to ya for what that scum Eiken did, no matter if you're Genrou's woman or not. "

His sudden intensity flustered her, and Miaka stammered her reply. "It-It's all right, really! Please don't trouble yourself! And I should apologize for the very short notice we gave you-"

"Don't worry about it, it wasn't a problem. " Kouji assured her, looking more cheerful. "The guys are excited you're here, an' I'm lookin' forward to gettin' acquainted with your family." His smile was very white and very debonair as he turned it towards Mrs. Yuuki. "Genrou had told me Miaka had a brother, but he didn't say anythin' about her havin' a beautiful sister!"

Mrs. Yuuki looked startled, but recovered herself and returned the smile. "The Reikaku Leader is being very kind."

"First thing ya should know is that my name's Kouji. The second is I never say things that I don't mean."

"Ah, all right...well... I thank you...Kouji."

Mrs. Yuuki's expression said that she was not immune to the rough charm of the grinning young man.

'She's blushing!' Miaka thought, staring at her parent in fascination. 'Is Kouji flirting? Does he have a thing for older women?'

Catching Tasuki's gaze, she raised her eyebrows in mute inquiry. After a glance at the unlikely couple, he raised his eyebrows and gave her a wolfish grin in return.

This proved too much for Keisuke, whose gaze had been frantically darting from person to person. He sent a disgruntled look at his sister, who seemingly had no objections to their mother being hit on by a man young enough to be her son, then decided he'd have to be the one to correct things.

"With all due respect, Kouji, she's not our sister, and a lot older than you think!" He stated, a bit too loudly. "She's-" he nodded at Mrs. Yuuki- "our mother!"

At that, Tasuki immediately turned away from the group.

'Trust my brother to put his mouth in motion before engaging his brain', Miaka reflected, eyeing Tasuki's shaking shoulders with a rueful grimace. The mother was now glaring daggers at the son, and they hadn't even been here for half an hour. Even in a completely different world, this situation had all the earmarks of a typically dysfunctional Yuuki family vacation.

"All right, that's enough, Keisuke! I think I can speak for myself, thank you very much!"

"I know, Mom, but -"

"But nothing! You're being presumptuous and rude!"

Preparing to leap into the verbal fray, Miaka drew in a breath and then exhaled it in a sigh of relief when Kouji forestalled her.

"No offense, but ya got a lot to learn about women, kid!" He said smoothly to Keisuke. "As my old boss Hakaru used ta say, 'any man worth his salt prefers the fragrant flower in full bloom to the unopened bud.'"

Miaka barely refrained from laughing at the look of smug satisfaction on her mother's face, and the scowling chagrin on her brother's at being so effectively silenced. The bandit leader's gallantry and diplomacy came as a wonderful surprise and at a most opportune time. She was grateful to him for trying to calm troubled waters, and even more thankful when another reverberating crash of a gong put an end to further arguments.

"That's the signal that th' guys are all ready!" Kouji announced. "If you would just come with me, Priestess? Genrou will walk with yer family."

Miaka gladly accepted the invitation, and walked with her host to a set of huge double doors, her entourage trailing in her wake. Kouji opened the doors with a flourish to reveal a second set of even larger doors, which were left open to the outside and the din of male voices rising from somewhere below her line of vision.

Despite her relief and good intentions, she found herself instinctively hanging back.

'Sounds like a big gathering...I hope they haven't gone to a lot of trouble on my account!'

Her reaction had made her the focus of her companions' attention, something that she definitely had wanted to avoid. There were inquiring looks, and Keisuke was watching her with narrowed eyes. Any display of uncertainty now would be used as an excuse for her brother to relentlessly hound her to give it up and go home. He wouldn't believe that her hesitation was just from the nervous excitement of beginning a new adventure combined with a bit of stage fright. He very likely wouldn't believe that she didn't have serious doubts about the same group of men who had trapped her for personal gain and then turned her over to the reprehensible Eiken for his amusement...

Thinking fast, she pretended that she'd been brought up short because a rock had gotten into her sandal. Hopefully, going through the illusion of removing it would allow her to hide her expression, and would give her the time she needed to calm herself.

An upward, furtive glance told her the shoe ruse seemed to have fooled her sibling, because his gaze and attention had wandered.

But the man standing at her side was a different story.

"Priestess, I swear that you an' your family are welcome and safe here." Kouji murmured, while bending down and looking for the non-existent stone. "After what ya did for us an' all of Konan, ya gotta know that there's not a man livin' here who wouldn't lay down his life for you."

Miaka smiled, feeling a rush of warn affection for him. Apart from his reassuring words, the fact that he'd noticed her misgivings and wanted to assuage them showed that Kouji would be just as good a friend to her as he'd been to Genrou.

She straightened, and so did he.

"I'm not worried, Kouji." She said quietly. "I will admit to feeling nervous about what lies ahead for me, but not about being here. You're Tasuki's loyal friend. I trust you, and I'm really happy to have the chance to thank you all for helping to save us during the invasion by Kutou."

He looked surprised. "Ya heard about that?"

She nodded, smiling up at him. "I'm not afraid to live amongst men of honor and courage. I will consider it a privilege."

Kouji's mouth opened, then closed. As he stared down at her, Miaka had the sense that he would really have liked to have given her the big hug they had joked about earlier, whether Tasuki approved of it or not.

"If ya know that, then ya know that we're a family' what's ours is yours." He said gruffly, taking a couple steps to her side. "So, Priestess. Genrou's glarin' at us, an' your loyal subjects are eagerly waitin' to see ya. Ya ready to greet them?"

She placed her hand on the forearm he held out to her. "Lead the way."

To be continued...

Important people I wish to thank:

A huge, heartfelt thank you to Roku Kyu, whose encouragement and excellent suggestion helped me break out of the endless and obsessive editing cycle I'd been locked into for so long. (Mayfic lives! )

The characters Kenshiro, Kazuchi and Sheufeng are the brainchildren of Lance the Flamesniper, Silent Messiah and Chibi Kaz, respectively. I thank them for sharing their creativity with me, and for putting up with all of my 'character interviews'! :D

Last but not least, a thank you note to the readers of this story. The reviews, kindness (and concrit! :D) that you've sent my way are deeply appreciated and have kept me going through the times when I was tempted to throw in the towel on writing fan fiction. I dedicate this chapter to all of you with heartfelt thanks and the promise that I will persevere and finish this fic no matter what obstacles life insists on throwing at me.

And on that note, it's onward to the WOR (World of Reikaku- trademark pending ).

Hugs and good wishes,


Jan. 2012- new chapter coming soon