(Disclaimer: CLAMP owns "RG Veda," I do not. I make no profit off this, duh.)
Zouchouten doesn't scream until much, much later. A few tears fall as she dies before his eyes, but he is strong enough (or coward enough, he thinks grimly) to hold the crushing grief and rage and regret inside until it's all over. But now… now, alone in the chamber they let him have, he lets himself remember. Her scream, the killing blow dealt by the god-king, and the psyche-shaking knowledge that he didn't do enough, he never did.
His animalistic cry can be heard throughout the building, but he doesn't care. He can't even bring himself to be aware of what anyone else might think; no, he's reliving it, and it brings him to his knees.
He failed to protect her. He should have knocked her out once more, taken her, and though it would have been so very dishonorable, abandoned his position. If he had, she would still be alive. She would be here and safe, not gone in a whirl of white feathers.
He caught a handful, tears falling from his eyes, as her body disintegrated and blew away like she had never been there at all. Now all he has left, all he will ever have, is four pure, white feathers. Never will she look at him and smile just because she's happy to see him, never will she come to love him, never will she kiss him and touch his face. Never, never, never, she's gone and there's no way she can come back. This time she's really dead, and even if he lies to the world again and says she's not, the crushing truth will bear down upon him.
"Ah, Zouchouten… I find you crying like an overgrown child."
The voice is loud in the silence, aristocratic and almost bored, but with that snide enjoyment of pain that it often carries. His head jerks up, and Taishakuten is standing three feet away. Tiny cuts are on his form, his third eye bears slashes across the lid, but he has no serious wounds. No, he is almost unscathed, and though this should not be a surprise, Zouchouten is still awed that even Yasha or the fully realized Ashura failed to kill him. But fine. Someone should finish the job, and Zouchouten's just the man.
He wishes desperately for his sword, but that's back in the deathhouse of Zenmi, along with his right hand. His left will have to do, he thinks, as he grabs Taishakuten by the throat and slams him against the wall, snarling, "You bastard. You heartless… cold… evil –"
Taishakuten merely smirks, and Zouchouten is disappointed that the god-king hasn't just destroyed him. He could easily do it, especially now. And maybe that's what Zouchouten wanted when he attacked him, to end it. Suicide by enemy, they call it in the army, and it is a potent lure.
"You killed her," Zouchouten growls out, then can't say anymore, buffeted by grief.
"I did." Taishakuten is smiling, despite the crushing grip on his windpipe, and he goes on, "It bothers you so much? Why didn't you jump in front of her, then?" he mocks, his question the same one that's been running through his minion's head for hours.
The General of the Southland squeezes his eyes shut to stop the tears even as he shakes the god-king, who is still smiling. Damn it all, why?! Why is he just standing there, why isn't he blasting Zouchouten to bits with lightning or an energy ball? Or even slashing at his arm with his sharp nails?
"You should have. I expected you to," Taishakuten continues, even as his voice grows hoarse and he still makes no move to defend himself.
But his words do the job that his power does not. Zouchouten's legs will no longer support him, and he collapses to his knees, tears leaking from beneath his closed eyelids. His grip on Taishakuten's throat trembles for a moment, then finally releases. There's nothing he can do, save kneel here and hurt, because his will has been sapped by those words. And Taishakuten is right, he should have jumped in front of her, by all sense. And then even if they'd both died, he'd be with her in the afterlife.
The younger man takes a deep breath and then smirks down at him, murmuring, "Pathetic. Like she was."
Zouchouten's eyes open, hatred blazing in the slitted golden depths, and he starts to gather a forcebolt around his remaining hand. Taishakuten, however, moves closer, bringing his face inches away from his subordinate's as he quietly asks, "So you'll attempt regicide? And then what? You'll never get away with –"
"I don't want to!" Zouchouten roars, and Taishakuten's eyebrows quirk in slight surprise.
"Ah. Well, you can't possibly hope to destroy me, and your own death won't bring her back, you know," he whispers, sibilant, sadistic enjoyment in each word. "Lady Karura tried to kill me. She had to be made to pay."
Zouchouten crumbles, forcebolt gone, all tension leaving his body and slumping with his head bowed. It's useless, isn't it? Taishakuten survived, though the prophecy foretold his fall. If even Ashura could not kill him, then nothing in this world can.
"You brought this on yourself, you must realize," Taishakuten continues matter-of-factly. "Had you not shielded me that day, she would have been destroyed then and there. Had you not begged me to spare her, I would have executed her. Had you not hidden the fact that she was alive from me, my armies would have crushed the entire Karura tribe and its queen.
"And…" he grabs Zouchouten's jaw, forcing the older man to look up, "…had you stepped in front of her when it really mattered, you would not have had to watch her die."
Zouchouten's soft, broken plea is loud in the silence, and Taishakuten only squeezes harder, a sharp thumbnail digging into his subordinate's skin.
"I destroyed her with this hand, you know. The fact that you have not ripped it off of my body means you have become completely weak," he almost purrs, sounding exceedingly amused by this.
Suddenly the emperor releases the other man, the general's head falling back down to stare at the floor. Taishakuten studies him, a botanist looking at an interesting orchid that has proved unworthy. The smile that blooms on his face then is pure, unadulterated evil. Ho-ho, yes, he has an idea, a nasty idea that amuses him, as his nasty ideas inevitably do. Watching other people suffer, to him, is the best entertainment around.
"You are now in command of the entire Imperial Army. Appoint yourself three new subordinates, for the positions of Generals of the Northland, Eastland, and Westland. Rebuild Zenmi, and…" he laughs, the cruel sound echoing off the stone walls, "live a long life. I will not end it."
He turns and leaves, his sociopathic mirth echoing in Zouchouten's ears: "You have failed at what you tried to do. Your punishment is to exist in Tenkai without her.
Zouchouten stands on a cliff somewhere in the Southland, he doesn't really remember where. Far enough that it took three hours' ride from the mahyah lake to get here, he knows, but he can't really recall in which direction he went. Was it southeast or southwest? Does it matter? He gazes down, and the river beneath him is a shallow one, but rapids lace it. He takes a step towards the edge, shakes his head, and steps back.
The funerals have started. Bishamonten and Kisshouten will be interred in the royal mausoleum, as befits the head of the Four Gods and the daughter of a god-king, but they will not be buried together because Taishakuten refused them that. Lord Ryuu's body was sent back to his people, his cousins' grief nearly tearing them apart and his grandfather's heart finally giving out. The woman from the Souma tribe and her beloved Lady Kendappa burned on a pyre, laid side-by-side and holding hands, Kendappa dressed not as Jikokuten but as the royal musician. Queen Shashi still lies in state, and Zouchouten thinks that they should just let her rot, for giving birth to the abomination that brought this upon them.
And one white feather, a remnant of Lady Karura, is held in his remaining hand.
He sighs, steps to the edge, and steps back again as he thinks, No pyre for her, and no eternal sleep of death entombed. Nothing. No body. Gone, gone forever.
For a third time he repeats the ritual of advancing and standing down, falling back, as before wondering why he doesn't just take that step. What is there left, really? His comrades Koumokuten and Bishamonten, and even Jikokuten? Dead. They might have been the ones to hold him back now that she is truly gone, but they are all gone as well.
Why? Why obey Taishakuten now? You obeyed him for three hundred years and look where that led. Cheat him of his victory. Do it. DO IT NOW!
The frantic voice behind him nearly startles him off the edge, but he takes a stumbling step back and turns as the wind takes the feather. A mere five feet away, Prince Tenou frantically dismounts his winged horse Tenma, practically tripping and pleading, "Sir, no!"
"Let me be, Tenou. Go back to your father and tell him to find another head of the Four Gods," Zouchouten snarls, in no mood for being talked down. "Or take the position yourself, you're strong enough, but don't you dare order me to STOP!"
The rage-filled bellow would have made the young man shrink back in fear and run away two mere days ago, but today, with the Heavens split and having seen the fires of Hell firsthand, Tenou advances. He takes slow steps, as if he's afraid to startle a skittish animal, and spreads his palms wide in a gesture of supplication. His face is nervous but with a determined set to his mouth that Zouchouten's never seen before.
"I'm not ordering you to do anything as a prince, General Zouchouten. I'm begging you to stay as a friend," Tenou says urgently, reaching out a hand. "I need your help. I can't do this alone."
"And you won't have to. Your accursed father will never relinquish his control of Tenkai. Nothing in Heaven, Earth, or Hell itself can make Taishakuten fall!" Zouchouten roars, a frightening sound. "Nothing! Do you hear me? Absolutely nothing! Everyone's dead! But I live because he spared me to mock my pain."
He clenches his hand into a fist and snarls, "He said to me that day, 'There's nothing more painful than living in a world without the one you love.' And he was right, and I am weak."
"I watched her die! I watched her die and did nothing! I stood by as Taishakuten killed Lady Karura, the woman I loved!"
His admission to the prince of his desire for her is not a shock. Tenou knew; they all knew. Bishamonten told Zouchouten on the day of her false funeral, "She killed herself, never giving a thought to you," his tone taunting, gloating. Koumokuten would make snide comments about Zouchouten's "little bird." Shashi would watch him, flick her eyes to Karura, and grin nastily. Oh yes… they all knew.
"And the woman I loved killed herself so she wouldn't have to be without the woman she loved!" Tenou yells then. "Don't you see? We can't keep killing ourselves for love, or there will be no one left to stop him!"
"Stop him," the sensible side of Zouchouten's mind muses, but the emotional part laments, How? Nothing will stop the god-king.
Yet Duty, in charge for so long, damps down the smoldering fires of Defiance. And Zouchouten, one final time, gazes at the plateau below him, and falls back, this time to his knees. For over a thousand years a soldier, at this time of bereavement that sense of duty is all he has left.
Tenou looks like he'd like nothing better than to wrap his friend in a hug, but he stays still, saying only, "Thank you. You are an honorable man."
He realizes that might not have been the wisest thing to say as Zouchouten laughs: loud, long, and completely without humor. It sounds like nothing less than the cracked mirth of a lunatic who has just seen that his fevered hallucinations of evil cannot possibly hope to compete with the ugliness of reality. Tenou bites his lip in shame, but there as nothing he can do as his friend continues laughing, then finally halts with a small choking sound, letting his head fall down and his arms support his weight as well.
"Honorable. Yes, she told me that once, you know: 'You are an honorable man, General Zouchouten. You will always protect those under you.' Honorable? No… cowardly, Prince Tenou. An honorable man would have defied your father and turned away from the horrors Taishakuten embodied –"
"And the entire Karura tribe would have been cut down! You helped keep them safe, Zouchouten. Surely that counts for something to you, even now?" Tenou asks, putting a comforting hand to his friend's shoulder. The General of the Southland sighs, admitting, "Yes. To let them die now would be to let it all be for nothing. She would be furious if that happens, after all she did to keep them safe."
So he gets to his feet, his face set in determination, and decides, "Let's go back. I won't end it here, you have my word. As long as you need me, and they need me, I'll stay."
And they do go back.
The next day finds Zouchouten visiting a friend-turned-enemy-turned-friend-again. Lord Yasha, Guardian Warrior of the Northland, looks up from his vigil at the side of a cocooned Ashura. He's missing his right eye, which Zouchouten is startled to see, but it's been bandaged up and he seems to be taking it in stride. But he looks older, much older, with haggard lines on his face as if his sleep has been fitful for a long time, which it has been. He didn't get any sleep the night before the Six Stars attacked Zenmi, because he was fleeing and then battling Koumokuten, and of course the nights after have been taken up by worry about Ashura.
"I should thank you, General Zouchouten, for what you did," Yasha murmurs, polite even now.
"Do not thank me." It's a low growl, one steeped not in malice but self-loathing, and Zouchouten goes on, "You don't have to thank me for such a thing. I should've joined you myself when you came to destroy Taishakuten."
Yasha gazes in anguish at the frozen form of the God of War, and says quietly, "I failed, wherever it really mattered. Not only to avenge my tribe, but to protect him. My son… as good as dead. I failed him."
"All of us failed, Lord Yasha. Some more than others," Zouchouten mutters in a bitter tone, and Yasha turns to him then, his remaining eye suddenly soft as he replies, "And now we both live without our purposes. My Ashura is gone, your Lady Karura is gone," he sighs defeatedly.
Zouchouten shakes his head violently and replies, "My Lady Karura? No, she was never mine. I never had her by any stretch of the imagination. I had only a foolish hope, Lord Yasha," he murmurs, looking up at the sky because it will forever remind him of her.
Yasha studies the other god, and tells him sadly, "That is a pity. You never told her, I take it?"
"No. It wouldn't have made a difference."
How could it have? What could he have expected, that she would have suddenly thrown herself into his arms and let her vendetta go? Never. Karyoubinga, her sister, was the person she loved most in the whole cosmos, and for her to turn aside from her path of revenge, just for him, would not have happened. Even if she'd loved him and they'd been married, she would have most likely left him.
The Guardian Warrior tilts his head to the side, studies Zouchouten as if trying to decide what to say, and then goes with, "Lady Karura always admired you, you know."
Zouchouten turns away. He won't let Yasha see him cry again. Humiliating, to now be the second most powerful person in all of Tenkai, and to be observed with tears on his face by the god who doesn't cry even when his son is gone. Actually, Yasha sobs at night all alone, but no one but Kujaku will ever know that one. Zouchouten, like almost everybody else, thinks Yasha is much more unemotional than he really is.
"I think," Yasha continues slowly, "that in her own way, she loved you –"
"Lady Karura loved only her sister, and by the end, she despised me. As she should have," Zouchouten replies gruffly. He's trembling now, and Yasha feels only sympathy for him.
"General Zouchouten… I'm telling you the truth. You were the only person, besides Princess Karyoubinga, that she ever smiled when talking about," Yasha says to him softly.
But Zouchouten just thinks, Why lie to me, Yasha? Do you think it will ease my pain? No, your falsehoods twist the knife deeper, because I know that she never would have stayed, that she never felt anything for me but respect and platonic friendship. The evidence was all around, and even though I didn't want to see it, I couldn't help but do so.
"Her smile was something I loved to see, Lord Yasha… but she never, ever smiled at me for myself," he growls, and with that he stalks away. And Yasha sighs once more, reaching a hand out and settling it on Ashura's face, still and cold as stone.
And then hope comes suddenly, from an unexpected source, as Zouchouten is gazing out the window later that day, something more than mere depression filling his soul and a white feather held close to his chest. The court is temporarily using a fort near the lake that Zenmi was set in, but everyone knows this will not last long and they must build a new palace. Zouchouten really doesn't care, they could build it out of mud and straw for all it matters to him. It won't hold what he wants it to hold.
His wife is here, Rika, come from Castle South all in a panic once she heard the news that Zenmi was attacked and her husband wounded. He honestly wishes she had stayed there, because how does a man smile at his wife when he's grieving the woman he loved more than her? She has no idea, but that won't last long, he can easily tell that. She knows something is wrong, wonders why he's so closed off, and soon she will put two and two together. If someone doesn't tell her flat-out, "Your husband is grieving Lady Karura, because he was in love with her."
You were a free spirit, Karura, he thinks as he watches a finch flutter around by the windowsill. How could you have loved something like me: tied to what you most hated by choice and perpetuating the system that you loathed… Yasha was lying. He had to be.
"Well, hello there. Don't you look sad."
It's a new voice, a clear tenor, but he doesn't bother to turn and see who it is. Probably some stupid courtier, or one of his men, or some tribal leader, one of the many called here to help plan and build a new palace. Or a guard, or an engineer, or even another annoying healer here to lecture him about caring for his right arm. Hell, even if his brother Lord Revanth – Vatayana, to Zouchouten – comes and tries to talk to him, he won't want to engage.
"Go away, whoever the hell you are," he grumbles, facing resolutely away. "Leave me alone. Hasn't anyone told you yet that I hate talking about what happened?"
"My goodness, that's no way to speak to a new friend," the voice scolds. "C'mon, look at me."
"I told you to leave me be," Zouchouten barks, opening his hand and concentrating on his talisman.
If he ignores this idiot, hopefully he'll get the hint and take a hike. It works on most of them, after all. His guards know to go away when he's like this, and even Rika has picked up on the hints that he wants time to be alone.
The voice sighs, long and sad, and then tells him, "I see you'll only respect a show of strength… okay, you made me do this, you know."
The feather glows and turns immediately to ashes, heat on his palm. Zouchouten stares for a split-second, then whirls with an energy ball summoned to his hand, suddenly enraged that this fucker took another piece of her from him. That was a Karura feather! It was special, it was sacred, it was his, and now it's gone forever.
"How dare you?!" he roars, launching the energy ball at the figure. "You son of a bitch!"
It feels good to let it out, to be aggressive, because he's spent far too long holding his anger in. His rage-filled attack was powerful, probably overkill… only Taishakuten, he thinks, could possibly hope to withstand it without serious injury. And that makes him happy, that whoever this is paid dearly for taking away part of Karura, who cares how nice or important he was? But when the smoke clears, a god is standing there, not even singed.
"Oh my that was needlessly violent," he sighs as Zouchouten gapes and takes a step back in fear. What the hell… who is this? Or rather…
"What are you?!" he gasps out, taking another unconscious step away. It's a demon in the form of a god or man, it has to be: the being before him has purple eyes and black wings. He wonders then if perhaps it's here to kill him, and he brightens up. Wouldn't that be nice?
"My name," the god bows, "is Kujaku. I'm pleased to meet you, Lord General Zouchouten. Yasha tells me you're as sad as he is, but for a rather different reason."
"Are you here to destroy me?" An idea occurs to Zouchouten then, and he bargains, "Kill Taishakuten first, because I'll bet you could, demon. Do that and I won't fight you. You have my solemn promise," he swears with his remaining hand held over his heart, excited to have found an excuse for checking out of this plane of existence. See, if he's killed, it's not his fault and he's not breaking his promise to Tenou.
"Whoa, hold your horses there, Zou," Kujaku laughs, twirling a seer's staff. "The god-king's not a threat to me, and neither are you." He grins and adds, with a cheeky wink, "It was a nice energy ball, though. I bet it made you feel a whole lot better."
As the confused Zouchouten starts to wonder if he's gone mad with grief, Kujaku steps forward and continues, "Sorry about your feather friend, but I need to talk to you, and you wouldn't listen otherwise. Oh well, you still have two left," he says casually.
Kujaku shrugs and answers matter-of-factly, "Oh, I know a lot. I like to pull strings from behind the scenes. That's why I'm here."
Zouchouten narrows his eyes and snaps, "Hasn't Taishakuten already won? Why does he send you to mock me? He's done that enough, thank you. He laughs at my pain and Tenou's pain, and he laughs most of all at Lord Yasha's pain," he growls quietly, recalling Tenou's sobs for Shashi and Kendappa, and Yasha's haggard face, and most of all Taishakuten's condescending laughter at the mention of both.
Kujaku laughs himself, but not a cruel sound of mirth, and replies, "Of course he's won. That's why he's pulled back. He has no challenge to live for now, but of course, there are those who would attempt to destroy him, and plunge Tenkai into yet another sea of blood. The most immediate threat will come from the Westland, the Palace of the Dragon King to be precise," he says seriously, tapping the staff firmly against the floor.
Zouchouten hesitates. This is true. While the Karuras are angry but do nothing, the Dragon tribe in particular wants Taishakuten's head. Their new king, by all accounts a decent man who had wanted his cousin to obey the emperor, has called secretly for a war. Many others would join him… and all would fall.
Because Taishakuten defeated the God of War himself, and twice, he must have. Though no one but he, Yasha, and one secret other now know what exactly happened in Zenmi when everyone else died or left, the fact that Ashura sleeps eternally and that the god-king still lives leads Zouchouten to an inescapable conclusion. No one has told him otherwise, both Yasha and Taishakuten remain silent. It doesn't occur to Zouchouten that the enigma before him might know exactly what happened that day, and exactly what happened three hundred years ago as well. In fact, he will never realize how much knowledge Kujaku keeps in his mind.
Kujaku holds a hand out and teases, "Aw, enough with the pouty face. Come on and smile through your tears! I'm quite good at it myself, and I've seen an awful lot of pain. All my life, pal."
Why in the world, Zouchouten wonders, does such a being cloak his power with the mask of a jolly fool?
Wiggling his fingers, Kujaku waits for a response. Getting none but a distrustful stare, he tries another tactic: "Okay then, Zou, I think you can be useful to those of us who'd rather not have another knock-down, drag-out fight with our good buddy Taishie. I could tell you it'll help Tenkai, and it'll save poor Tenou from going 'round the bend, which would all be true… but I think the best leverage would be your little bird."
An irrational hope blooming in his chest, Zouchouten breathes, "Is she still –?"
A shake of the head from Kujaku makes his heart plummet once more, and the brunette sighs sadly, "Sorry General, but she's gone. Nobody can bring the dead back to life. But," he grins brightly, "we can do what they would have wanted us to do."
Yes… like Tenou said, her tribe must be protected. I cannot break my vow, Zouchouten thinks, suddenly feeling that fighting instinct rouse again despite the grief. So he nods, his soul so heavy he's surprised he can still stand, and agrees, "Yes. You want me to do as Taishakuten asked?"
The beaming Kujaku nods vigorously and answers, "Yes. Help us rebuild. If someone like you, who everybody knows despises Taishakuten now, tells the world to keep its head down and obey, they'll do it."
"That's rather sad that they wouldn't obey Prince Tenou," Zouchouten mutters, and Kujaku twirls his staff again as he responds with, "Some would, some wouldn't, not yet anyway. In time, when he gets stronger, everyone will. But for now, somebody like you can intimidate them into behaving. If they don't, you have my permission to lob forcebolts and fireballs and catapult shots at 'em," he adds with a smirk.
"Hmph." The warrior sizes the other man up and finally murmurs, "So you say you know a lot."
"I probably knew more that was going on than anybody else did for years, new buddy. Even Taishakuten with his little mirror thing couldn't keep up with me." Kujaku flaps his wings, a rather preening gesture, Zouchouten thinks.
He takes in a breath, and quietly asks, "Then did she love me?"
Kujaku gives him a half-smile and replies, "Maybe. Perhaps she wanted you as well, perhaps she just respected you… she never spoke of it aloud, and though I can read the stars, I can't read someone's mind."
"Oh." Zouchouten seems to deflate as he decides, "Then… she probably didn't, as she went off and got killed without saying goodbye. I begged her to stop, and she just turned her back and went for Taishakuten. She said she wouldn't really be living if she weren't living as she wished, and I wanted to say that in time she might wish to live differently, but it was too late. And you know," his voice is starting to get choked up, "she didn't even thank me for all I did for her."
Kujaku cocks his head, saying, "Her fate, like that of all the Six Stars, was to die. Destiny ruled her life with an iron fist –"
"I know!" Zouchouten snarls then. "Don't preach to me about Fate! She did what she felt she needed to do, she did what was right."
Kujaku nods as Zouchouten spins away once more, and murmurs, "Yes, she did. Lady Karura lived her life without regrets. A strong woman if ever there was one… but has it never occurred to you that she might have done things differently had she known all the information?"
He lays a hand on the distraught Zouchouten's shoulder and whispers, "You cannot stop the wheel of Fate from turning, General of the Southland… but it does not crush Love into nothing."
A hoarse sob is his only answer. Kujaku gazes out the window, letting Zouchouten pull himself together, and murmurs, "Lady Karura is waiting."
Zouchouten freezes then turns back around, asking, "What do you mean, waiting? In the Land of the Dead?" He shakes his head and snorts, "But you just said I must –"
"Yes, of course you must live. You now play a greater part in the story of Tenkai than I." Kujaku toys with the rings on his staff and continues, "The epic of the Six Stars is over. A new age is beginning. Tenou must take the throne, and Taishakuten must not be allowed to destroy any more tribes… history has spoken. Heed it. You won't find your penance in suicide, Lord General Zouchouten of the Southland, but in servitude."
The black-winged enigma turns to go, and one more sentence floats back: "And if you can do that… she will receive you. Perhaps not in the Land of the Dead, but somewhere, sometime. Make your choice, head of the Four Gods."
And Zouchouten does make his choice, for it's an easy one to make after a statement like that. He grits his teeth and obeys the god-king, appointing new leaders and sending messages that insubordination will not be tolerated. Taishakuten smirks and laughs, but looks rather disappointed when the first reply comes back. The Dragon tribe will stand down, and Hakuryuu – no, now they must call him Lord Ryuu – even offers his services in building a new palace, but only because Seiryuu so passionately argued against a second rebellion.
This makes it easier for Zouchouten, that the biggest threat has become an ally, and he grins humorlessly as Taishakuten sighs. Zouchouten doubles his efforts for peace, and in the end, he doesn't have to attack anyone, because Tenkai is tired of bloodshed. And now… now they have hope, because of Prince Tenou.
The young man throws himself into keeping the peace and rebuilding, but more importantly, he throws himself into raising the people's long-downtrodden spirits. He rides out himself, no guard, at first sneaking out from under his friend's watchful eye, and talking to absolutely anyone, from a lady of the court to a crippled child on the street, who he of course made sure had a better place to go. Zouchouten lectures him, then pleads with him, then thinks about threatening him but decides that it will do no good. Tenou is determined to be a people's prince, and that, far more than anything else, turns the tide.
Two months pass, and there are four Four Gods again, two of which are women, all of which are accomplished warriors, and none of which will ever be secret. They work well together, and Zouchouten can't help but feel that this is how it was ever supposed to be. The others are never far from his thoughts, though: Bishamonten, conceited and manipulative, sending spies to watch the others as Taishakuten's personal enforcer; Koumokuten, profane and practical, serving the emperor because he feared him; and Jikokuten… the most terrible of all, the hidden Eastern General who killed her own lover for her master Taishakuten.
Zouchouten shakes his head. He would rather think of Kendappa as Kendappa, the musician who knew Karura was alive and said nothing, the woman who smiled at him and played along with his flute lie. And the other Jikokuten, the honorable man who loved his daughter and who defied Taishakuten's cruelty, dying at his hand without an ounce of fear.
Old friend… you would have liked this new order.
There are new Guardian Warriors as well. Yasha has made it clear he will not move from his son's side until Ashura awakens, and he himself suggested finding a new tribal leader to fill the position. A grim-faced Lord Ryuu takes up the Dragon Fang Sword, and a second new tribe is appointed for the East. And today Zouchouten finds himself standing in the Sky Castle once more, the next Guardian Warrior of the Southland having just been crowned leader, and kneeling before him for the next ceremony.
The new queen of the Karura tribe is nearer to his age than anyone else's, with two grown children and a gimlet-eyed hawk of a bird. Heavyset and brusque, she is a cousin of the former Lady Karura's, and she looks him right in the eye as she swears, "I will serve you happily and well, Lord General Zouchouten of the Southland, as the Guardian Warrior of the Southland."
The crowd murmurs approvingly; such impeccable manners!
"And I accept your service… my lady."
The hall goes quiet in shock. People start to mutter underneath their breaths about this insult, because she addressed him by his title so he must address her by hers. What the heck is going on here? But she herself smiles slightly, studying his embarrassed yet stubborn expression.
"I will never truly be Lady Karura to you, will I, General," she says softly, understandingly, and not insulted in the least. "Because she was always the Sky Queen even before she was Lady Karura."
"No," he tells her honestly. "I'm sorry."
Her smile broadens as she suggests, "Why don't you just call me Syena. That's who I have been my entire life, up until today. I'll be Lady Karura to everyone else, but not to you."
He is ridiculously relieved as he agrees, "That will be fine, yes."
A year later, on the plain beneath the Sky Castle, he kneels before a shallow hole in the ground. Gently placing a single white feather inside it, he murmurs, "Be at peace."
He stands up, cape blowing in the wind, after carefully covering the feather with dirt. There's a fist-sized stone at the head of the small mound: a white rock, quartz, catching the light and sparkling. Appropriate, for the white lady whose brilliance nearly blinded him sometimes, a beauty whose personality was hard and yet attractive too.
All alone, he stares at the stone. It's always bothered him that she had one funeral with no body, and for there to be nothing now, when she is truly gone, is unbearable. He feels that she must at least have some words and a resting place for part of her, even if it is just him here. He probably should have told at least Kujaku, who has become a valued friend, but perhaps, he realizes, this is more for him than for her. After all, the dead no longer care what happens on the plane of the living, what their mortal remains come to.
But he cares. Oh, how he cares.
"You know, Lady Karura," he murmurs, "I would have married you in a heartbeat. I was actually thinking about asking you about a year before Kuyou escaped, but when I tried to get close to the subject at that ball, you very bluntly told me you would put off marriage as long as you could. I said nothing else, but maybe I should have kept pushing, if Yasha and Kujaku were right. And then Rika came along, and I stupidly thought, 'Well, I'm coming to love her too, and Karura ignores me so I should have a consolation prize.' But I shouldn't have done that, because it nearly killed her when I divorced her six months ago. So that's one more person I hurt, in addition to you.
"When your sister was taken, I saw the hatred in your eyes in the courtyard that day. It nearly broke my heart. And when she died, all I wanted was to comfort you and make you feel better, but had I reached out and touched you, you would have tried to kill me. Who knows, you might have succeeded."
He smiles slightly and goes on, "Because you, out of everyone I've ever known, had the strongest soul of us all. You died with a smile on your face because you lived as you wished. And do you know, I understand now that to have stolen you and run away would never have made you happy. You would have fought me, even if I'd never laid a hand on you, and run back to attack Taishakuten even after all your allies were dead."
He laughs, even as tears form in his eyes, and continues, "By the Bhagavaana, you had spunk. You killed so many demons, and I was so damn proud of you. I was so lucky to have you as my Guardian Warrior. Yasha may have been more powerful, the Dragon King may have been more aggressive, but you had such fire in your heart that I was a moth to your flame.
"I would have died a happy man if you'd burned me, you know. Koumokuten once said, 'Carry her off and fuck her, you know you want to,' but I knew you'd hate me for that. I never would have forced myself on you, because I loved you too much. Although… when I did carry you off, I seriously wanted to bring you back to my rooms. I mean, it was just a thought and I put it out of my mind quickly, but," he smiles though tears slip down his cheeks, "I used to lie awake and wish you'd come to me.
"Oh well. You never did. You never will, now. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that I loved you for your passion. Not your body, because I could have never physically possessed you at all but if you'd told me you loved me, I would have done anything for you."
He sighs as the wind picks up. It feels… nice to let all this out, cathartic perhaps. He's never spoken aloud of his feelings for her in depth, and it's healing, in a way. So he continues, "I loved you, Lady Karura. I still love you, I always will. Be at peace, with the sister you could not truly live without."
He bows to the tiny grave and finishes with, "Yes… be at peace, my beloved Sky Queen."
Five more years pass, and Tenou comes into his own. Intelligent like his parents and compassionate like no one else, the prince of Tenkai devotes all his energy to keeping the world safe. Zouchouten wonders, as he watches Tenou skillfully defuse a tense situation with diplomacy, if this is what a father feels like when a child not only walks, but runs far ahead of him. Tenou is becoming a man, much more confident, standing up for himself against even Taishakuten when he needs to, which thankfully and surprisingly is not very often.
Leaving all day-to-day affairs to others, Taishakuten has withdrawn almost completely from the pubic eye, and everyone save Kujaku wonders why this is. The blind stargazer Hanranya tries to reach the god-king, but he sends her away with a sharp, "You are no longer of any use to me."
She cries, tears slipping from her ruined eyes, and she hyperventilates and mopes about, when she's not following Zouchouten around like an attention-starved puppy. He lets her, because she is not a bad woman and they understand each other to an extent. He likes her well enough, she likes him much more than she used to, and it makes him sad to watch her want Taishakuten, even after all he's given her nothing in the way of returned love.
But Tenou smiles, despite his lingering grief. He finds happiness in serving his people, but Zouchouten thinks the young man deserves something more. And so one day, as they pore over correspondence from distant provinces in the new, airborne palace dubbed Zenmi Two, he makes a suggestion: "My prince, I think the time has come for you to wed."
Tenou sighs dismally, but it is a resigned sigh. Zouchouten can tell he's not thrilled about this idea, but knows the reality of the situation. The redhead nods solemnly and says, "I suppose so. But who? You do know the woman I loved is gone, and there will never be another."
"Well, there's always Tamara," Zouchouten points out carefully, and almost laughs as Tenou's face blanches.
"Absolutely not," the prince manages, and his friend smiles and replies, "Yes, I thought that might be the case. Still, there are many others. I seem to recall beautiful women fighting over the chance to help you when you were hurt, and trying to cheer you up after your mother's death. Some women are just naturally maternal, and find injured men dashing."
An idea occurs to him then, and he suggests, "What about… Hanranya? She knows what you've seen, and with the man she served so obsessively now closed off and no longer needing her, she suffers depression, I think. I'd like to see the two of you happy."
"But Zouchouten…" Tenou gazes at him helplessly, "I thought she –"
"No." Zouchouten doesn't even let him finish the sentence, barreling on with, "Hanranya transferred her allegiance to me because I stopped her from killing herself. She's the type of person who must have an anchor in this world, another person to strive to please. I won't make her happy, she can't possibly hope to make me happy, but the two of you, I think, could in time grow to love each other. Woo her now and in six months, I'd be willing to bet, she'll accept your proposal."
He pins Tenou with a penetrating gaze and commands, "Marry her. Produce an heir, because you must do so anyway for Tenkai's sake, and it'll be easier with someone who understands you. Have as many children as possible, they are a joy."
Tenou nods determinedly, and assents, "Yes. I have always loved children." He thinks for a while, and then cautiously asks, "Do you like them?'
Zouchouten smiles then as he replies, "Of course I do. I've always regretted not having any of my own." Little white-haired moppets with my skin tone and eyes… I even picked out hypothetical names: Sahen for the boy, Minami for the girl. Stupid I know, but harmless enough.
Tenou meets his eyes, soft brown against slitted gold, then says firmly, putting every ounce of authority into his words, "Then as your future god-king… Zouchouten, I order you to start a family and be content."
So he is quite disappointed when Zouchouten waves his hand and stands up, clearly disobeying him. "No, my prince. That won't make me content," he replies, honestly and rather hopelessly.
Tenou tries again with an insistent, "Then start a family and be in less pain?"
Zouchouten shakes his head and passes it off with, "Oh, you know me, Prince Tenou… I can withstand an awful lot."
He walks to the door, cape billowing behind him, and leaves. Tenou gazes after him, sighs, and goes to find Hanranya, muttering inside his head about stubborn middle-aged gods.
Zouchouten was wrong… it takes only four months before Tenou proposes to Hanranya. Tenkai throws itself into the ceremonies, because after so many funerals a royal wedding is a welcome distraction from death, a defiant celebration that life does indeed go on. This is the start of new possibilities, hopefully soon a new generation of royalty, and since very few people don't like Tenou, the world wants to see him happy.
Koumokuten's daughter at first locked herself in her room and loudly proclaimed that she would starve herself to death, but sharp words from Zouchouten ("Your father would be ashamed of you, Tamara. He would have dragged you out and lectured you in front of the entire court, so stop being so damn dramatic before I imitate him") quickly made her sniffle, nod her head, and eat a huge meal because she was hungry, darn it. She accepts it in the end, and on the third day of celebration Zouchouten notices her singing quietly to a young warrior from his own tribe of origin. Tamara heals, Tenou and Hanranya actually look happy, and Kujaku bounces around and eats eight plates of food.
Zouchouten smiles into his wine, notices a white bird out the window, then puts down his goblet and practically runs out to the balcony as the partygoers look on in confusion. A white bird, like before! It's –
But it's only a seagull.
Stupid. A seagull. How could you mistake a seagull for a phoenix?
"Wishful thinking tends to do that, General," Syena's voice comes from behind him, solemn and soft. "I saw it too, and I knew you would think that."
He sighs and fights back the urge to bawl. Pressing his fingers into his closed eyes, he mutters, "This sort of thing happens an awful lot. Like whenever I see a white-haired woman with a similar hairstyle, I have to look twice because I think it's her. Or when I hear a voice that sounds like hers, no matter how faintly, I whip my head in that direction, even though I logically know it can't be Karura."
"Yes. It does happen an awful lot. When my husband died I was the same, I saw him everywhere. Although," he can hear a smile in Syena's voice, "his bird was a condor, and I found myself looking at geese, so I think you at least are a little more sensible."
Zouchouten laughs, because he can do nothing else, and it helps. He goes back inside, toasts the royal couple, and continues with his lonely life.
Three quarters of a century have now passed. The humans multiply, generations passing, whispering their legends of the cataclysm of the heavens, the tale growing each time it is told. The gods begin a new generation as well: Lord Ryuu's wife bears a daughter and his brother Seiryuu now has triplets of his own. Syena is given grandchildren, Tamara has a son and names him after her father, Lord Kendappa's wife is with child again, and Princess Hanranya is also pregnant – twins, who will turn out to be a boy and a girl.
"Let's hope there's not a battle for succession," Zouchouten teases Tenou, who shakes his head, smiling and replying, "Not a chance. The firstborn will inherit the throne, and their sibling will be raised to understand that they, in fact, are the lucky one."
They both laugh, because it is true. And speaking of children…
Lord Yasha, despite the passing of so many years, still refuses to move from where his adopted son is enshrined. Kujaku takes care of him, makes him eat, talks to him, manages to even make him smile a couple of times. Every day he goes to visit, bringing food for Yasha, and telling him all the news of the world. Yasha listens, occasionally giving advice or smiling at a joke, and if not for Kujaku, Zouchouten thinks, Yasha might have lost his mind.
They know each other well, and one day Zouchouten glances down and finds the two locked in an embrace. He says nothing, despite being very surprised and a little disturbed at this. But love is love, and he's seen the look in Kujaku's eyes at Yasha's name, a melancholy longing. He would have thought that Yasha, who had stunning women literally throwing themselves at his feet before he rebelled, would not have had such proclivities... but then again the former Guardian Warrior of the Northland always flushed and made them leave him alone, so maybe it was there all along.
"Have you succeeded in turning his mind from Ashura?" the general asks the stargazer the next time they meet. Zouchouten expects, hopes for, an answer in the affirmative, but the black-winged man shakes his head emphatically and tells him, "Nothing in this world can turn Yasha's attention from his son."
He gazes down at the figure at vigil, continuing, "I can distract him from his grief for a little while, but his attention always returns to Ashura. And that's how it should be. They were the first, and now they're the last of the Six Stars. They were always apart from the rest." He faces Zouchouten and says simply, "I would do anything to make Yasha happy. He may not realize this, but to have him know joy as his child awakens… that would be all I ask for."
Zouchouten's gaze turns panicked as he protests, "You can't awaken him, you can't. He would destroy all we've –"
"No, not this Ashura. Lord Ashura, God of War, was beaten back by this Ashura, the child who loved his father Yasha. If he awakens, he will be so very ashamed and fearful of himself. But with Yasha, he would live, and the man I love would truly live again as well," Kujaku murmurs and smiles down at Yasha, whose hair is now longer than Kisshouten's.
"But enough of that," Kujaku says with finality, turning towards Zouchouten again. "You're getting old, General of the Southland! I'm surprised every time I see a doddering old fossil like you is still alive!" he teases exuberantly.
"Well, you know, fossils are stone: they're always there," Zouchouten responds nimbly. Kujaku smiles, and Zouchouten smiles, and both know that age is catching up with the head of the Four Gods, brought ever faster by weariness of the soul.
He feels tiredness in his bones now, he cannot do as much, the lines on his face are ravaged and deeper. His hair has gone completely white, and even his eyebrows, so much darker, have lightened considerably. He can still fight, and he does, but each time he wonders for how much longer.
How much longer before I finally see Karura again?
He dreams of her often, but this is nothing new. The unconscious flights of fancy used to involve passion, lovemaking, confessions of "I waited for you" from her and "I always wanted you" from him… but now they have settled down into her simple presence, her smiling at him, eternally young, and him not as old, how he was the day he had to let her go.
He has let her go, he realizes – he's given her permission to have left him. Not that she ever needed his permission to do anything she had to do, he reminds himself with a smile, but he's given it to her anyway. He's accepted the fact that she is dead, and he is still alive, and while his love for her remains and always will, he lets her memory rest.
That doesn't mean he ignores the fact that his time is running out. No, he is glad about this, because every day is still difficult without the Sky Queen. Nights are lonely and little things still make him sad, but even so, it's gotten better than the raw, crushing grief that almost tore him apart, in the weeks and months immediately after her death. For a very long while he tormented himself with thoughts of, What could our lives have been like if she had lived?, imagining her next to him, bearing a child or two, her smile open and no longer full of pain.
But… might-have-beens bring only torture. And he no longer feels the need to torture himself needlessly. And when Zouchouten realizes that, realizes that he lives for Tenkai and not in personal pain, Taishakuten, in this at least, has finally lost.
And the god-king knows this. The next time they meet, Zouchouten meets his gaze head-on, and Taishakuten cocks his head, murmuring, "So. I see you no longer fear me, my God of the Southland."
"Oh no, sire, I fear you. I'd be a great fool not to," the bigger god answers. "But the tide has turned. Tenkai has come back to life, and try as you might, your grip on it has weakened. No one will obey you now if you order more bloodshed. And even you," he smiles, holding his master's eyes, "can't stop an entire world set against you."
"Yet you, Zouchouten, for all that you could overthrow me and set Tenou on the throne, do not," Taishakuten observes, leaning his head onto a long-nailed hand.
Zouchouten just shrugs, "Why? I've seen enough death. Your time is coming, as is mine. We'll both be dead eventually, and you can kill me and I'd thank you for it, but –" he grins then, the smile of a wolf, "you won't."
"I could break my promise to you, Zouchouten," Taishakuten murmurs, flexing his fingers as the long nails catch the light, perfectly manicured into their vicious points. "I could destroy you so easily…" But he shakes his head and decides, "I will not. That would be giving you what you most want: to see her again."
They study each other, and Taishakuten smiles, humorless and haughty, then tells him, "You're old before your time. By all rights you should have probably lived a thousand more years. But the torture of being without Lady Karura is killing you, slowly, painfully, and relentlessly."
"It is, my king."
There's no point in denying this basic fact, and who would believe it anyway? It's plain to see, and such a lie would just be more ammunition to Taishakuten's arsenal. He doesn't need any more of that, but at least he doesn't seem to be using it as much as he would have before.
He studies Zouchouten for a little while longer, then admits, "I thought that you would end it. Perhaps you are not so weak after all."
Zouchouten shrugs again and vows matter-of-factly, "I'll see you in Hell before I leave this world. We'll most likely meet there anyway."
They smirk at each other, and the emperor nods and purrs, "Indeed we will, because for all you have done these past seventy-five years, what you wrought while in my service was unforgivable. I will find all of my original Four Gods there, you are no exception."
Zouchouten turns away and nods, "I agree that I committed terrible acts… but I, at least, will meet my punishment with open arms, not clinging to the last shreds of my stolen power."
He leaves then, walking away from Taishakuten, god-king only in name now, the monster who has defeated himself because no one else ever could.
It's been one hundred years since the Schism of the Heavens, down to the day. Three of the survivors of the first Zenmi stand gazing down at the ruins from the new palace: Tenou, a father now and fully a man; Hanranya, a surprisingly sweet mother and affectionate wife; and Zouchouten, even older and lonelier than ever.
"There's no one left," Tenou whispers, "who remembers what happened there." Save Taishakuten, but none of them count him because he never interacts with them if he can help it.
"Even so," Zouchouten murmurs sadly, "the circle of life goes on, eh?"
Tenou turns from Hanranya to look at him, determination on his face, and says, "And… we three will never forget those who lived under the cruelest of destinies." All of them think the words the prince whispers: "I will never… forget."
Another survivor smirks, watching them from ten feet away. Taishakuten says nothing. He never has spoken of what happened there; of all of them, he knows the whole truth. And he will take it to his grave, leaving Tenkai to forever ponder his cruel motivations.
Zouchouten walks over to him. He is aware that the god-king keeps much from the rest of them, and today, he is no longer prepared to just accept that. He looks Taishakuten in the eye, and murmurs, "Before, you said you were living to keep a promise you'd made. So what will you do now?"
Taishakuten just gazes at him, as another question falls from his subordinate's lips: "What will you do now that you've kept your promise?"
The emperor smirks, but does not answer. Instead he points to the gnarled ruins of his palace, and says, "There's yet another keeping his promise over there."
Ah, poor Yasha… his child will never wake up, Zouchouten thinks with pity. He'll die there, never seeing his son again. What a waste of a life, of a warrior, of a god. Yasha would have made a wonderful General of the Northland, but Zouchouten didn't even bother asking him because he knew what the answer would be. Yasha would have made a wonderful life partner for Kujaku too, but his focus is on his son, no matter how much Kujaku would like him to spare more of his attention and love on him. Taishakuten knows this, and of course, he is amused by such a sad thing.
Waving a hand, Taishakuten now dismisses his son, his son's wife, and his head of the Four Gods. They are his servants all, but only for duty in Zouchouten and Tenou's cases. Only Hanranya will mourn his passing, but he couldn't care less about her. Sadly, she still harbors a secret wish for him to take her again, like he used to before the Six Stars, back when she was useful to him. Yet even she is wise enough to realize he never will, and her love for him has, while definitely not gone away, faded a little.
An hour later, Taishakuten dies smiling from poison, three eyes closed forever. He speaks no words of praise to his son, no words of sadistic pride to his general, and no words of thanks to his stargazer. Tenou and Zouchouten, along with the entire world, heave a sigh of relief as Taishakuten's remains are taken for burial preparation. It's over. Finally, it's over.
But there is an epilogue to this tale of pain. Zouchouten gazes at the sky when all others have left, until a hoarse yell of "Kujaku!" reaches his ears. He looks down just in time to see the black-winged being destroy himself, staff plunged through his heart, his body starting to disintegrate into black feathers as Yasha screams his name again.
And then Ashura's eyes open, as Kujaku takes his hand even as his arm starts to disintegrate, smiling at the boy. His voice rings in Zouchouten's memory: "I would do anything to make Yasha happy… To have him know joy as his child awakens… that would be all I ask for."
Zouchouten watches Lord Ashura's child fall forward into Yasha's arms, tears falling from his face at the devastation he has wrought. And it is true, what Kujaku once said – he is the God of War no longer, just the boy who always wanted to be loved. Ashamed, distraught, horrified, carrying mental scars that will never go away, but this is Regular Ashura, not the monster that killed his friend and his own mother, in addition to so many other people. He looks traumatized as well he should, but he's alive again.
Zouchouten bows to the father and the son and the black feathers, and turns to leave. Yasha and Ashura will live their lives, have their happy ending, at the cost of so many others.
And at the cost of one more.
"Again I find you standing on a ledge, Zouchouten."
He turns from the cliff in the ruined castle of Zenmi where the earth split, where Karura died, to see the person who spoke that soft sentence. Tenou, god-king now, has escaped the celebration after his coronation and followed his friend back here, back to where it ended and began and will truly end for one of them. He has taken the crown off and his hair is loose, but he is still clad in the richest robes he's ever worn, and the plentiful jewelry too.
Zouchouten bows and sighs, "My liege. Surely your empress wonders where you've gotten to?"
Tenou shakes his head vehemently and answers, "Hanranya wants me to bring you back. She was very clear on that point." He smiles, melancholy and understanding at the same time, and adds, "And Princess Kenda started crying when she heard that you left."
Zouchouten glances away, then meets Tenou's eyes as he murmurs, "I'm sorry."
He is; the little moppet has adopted him like he's some sort of favorite uncle. The heir to Tenkai's throne would run shrieking over to him, bowling her brother over and jumping up and down, giggling, "Pick me up, pick me up!" And of course he always would, as she'd wriggle around and make it difficult, and it was like being a father…
He shakes his head and repeats, "Tell them I'm very sorry." He smiles then, a bittersweet expression, and urges, "Tell young Kenda she'll make a fine Empress one day, and that I love her."
Tenou nods and solemnly replies, "I will. So you do mean to end it now."
Zouchouten sighs again, the sound of a man whose mind has been made up for a century, and tells him, "Yes, I do. It's been so long… I am old, Emperor Tenou, in body and soul. And I've waited a hundred agonizing years to see her again."
He expects the new god-king to argue, but instead, Tenou clasps his hand and agrees, "You've kept your side of the bargain, Zouchouten. Her people are safe, and Tenkai is safe. I'll miss you very much – we'll all miss you very much, but we'll understand." He starts to turn away, then stops and finishes, "May you find what you seek, in one new plane or another."
Zouchouten gratefully smiles at him and farewells, "Take care, my dear friend."
Tenou leaves, back up the world of the living, climbing onto Tenmagoku (a descendent of the original Tenma) and lifting off with a wave. Zouchouten waves back, and again he feels pride. Tenou is a true Emperor of Heaven, and with him at the helm, things will be fine without Zouchouten, no matter what trials may come up. Yes, Tenou is the guiding hand and hope Tenkai needs, and Zouchouten's role in the epic of this world is finally, finally ended.
Alone now, he holds out his hand, the last white feather materializing in it. He brings it to his lips in one last symbolic kiss, then lets the wind take it.
And he steps into space.
Epilogue: Modern-day Chuo-ku, Tokyo
The man watches the birds as they take flight from their perches, landing on the ground and the food their keeper has just set out for them. This aviary has always been a haven for him, away from the rapid, frantic pace of the rest of the city, ever since he was a child. Ah, how he likes birds: little free, thrumming, energetic, feisty creatures, and the miracle of flight never really seems to dim for him. Right now he's watching sparrows, but he watches all birds when the opportunity arises, especially the white cranes he's sometimes fortunate enough to see.
A smile lifts the corners of his stern mouth as a fledgling sparrow looks at him, chirps indignantly, and then resumes pecking at the millet. He can't really blame it for being intimidated, he thinks wryly, because he's aware that he makes an imposing figure: seven feet tall, broad-shouldered, powerful muscles even at age forty-eight, and poofy blue hair swept back from his face.
He holds out his left hand, unadorned by a wedding band, and a sparrow lands on it. Most of them are used to him by now, as he's been coming to this aviary for many of their generations. It… soothes him. So many times in his frantic life he's needed soothing, but when he can empty his mind of all else and watch his feathered friends, everything seems all right again.
The keeper bows to him and cheerfully greets, "Good day, Mr. Yusaku."
"Good day, Kenji," is Yusaku Zouchouten's pleasant reply. He inclines his head and comments, "I see the nestlings are fledging."
Kenji proudly smiles, "Indeed, sir. Taking wing at last –" Something catches his eye, then he nods to the right and adds, "It is your friends the sparrows' lucky day, Mr. Yusaku. I see another friend approaching, one who the birds also trust and flock to."
They watch the upright, perfect figure of a young woman walk up the path, striding towards them on powder-blue heels that match her business suit. The skirt is somewhere between short and long, certainly longer than what most women her age wear, but it shows enough creamy, toned leg to make some men get whiplash turning their heads. Her hair seems quite unusual but very nice anyway: white, so white it has pale blue shadows, and worn with half in a long bob, the other half longer and twisted up into a high bun.
"Does she come here often?" the bigger man asks, cocking his head to side slightly.
Kenji smiles again and tells him, "Every day, Mr. Yusaku. Usually in the afternoon, but today she seems to be much earlier. Her routine must have been interrupted, as routines inevitably are."
The woman strides purposefully forwards, head held high. She bows at the two men, and asks Kenji, "Are the nestlings starting to fledge yet? I know some seemed eager to get out of the nests yesterday."
But Zouchouten is the one who answers, "Yes. Looks like only the late bloomers are left in there."
She looks at him, smiling a small yet beautiful smile, and asks him, "You enjoy the birds too?"
She blinks then, as he's staring in shock for a reason he cannot comprehend. There's something familiar about this woman, and it's driving him crazy that he can't remember why. He's never met her before, has he? He searches his memory, and his brain tells him no… but his heart tells him he has. When their eyes met, it was like meeting the eyes of an old, close friend, as strange as that is, and it vexes him that he cannot understand.
"Um, sir? Sir?" she tries again, sounding a little worried.
Damn it, he knows her, knows those eyes and that hair, that fair face and musical alto. But from where? Is she a neighbor kid all grown up? No, none of them had that coloring. Well, did he know one of her parents back in his youth? Possibly, but that still doesn't seem like the answer.
"Zouchouten," he hastily tells her, snapping out of it. "Yusaku Zouchouten."
Her eyes widen at that, and she frowns slightly, as if trying to place him. "Zouchouten… that's an unusual given name," she murmurs, more to herself than to him.
"Yes, it is. My parents wanted an ambitious, auspicious name. But what's yours?" he asks with great urgency, uncaring that the keeper is beginning to look at him strangely. Her frown is still there, but she answers willingly enough with a calm, "I'm Shirihime Karura."
The name strikes a chord deep in his being, and he needs to know who she is, because if he doesn't, he'll go crazy. Something tells him that his whole life has been leading up to this moment, this meeting, to her, and if he loses this woman again he'll – Wait, "again"? She's a perfect stranger! How can he have lost a perfect stranger? What the hell's going on here?
"Have we met?" she asks suddenly. "I feel like I know you…"
She steps closer, a hand reaching towards him before she realizes what she's doing and pulls it back, flushing a tad at such an intimate gesture directed at a stranger. But he doesn't even notice her flush because something's stirring at the back of his mind, a long-buried memory of pain and loss, and he can feel tears come unbidden to his eyes.
She looks shocked, but then she says abruptly, "Have dinner with me." She flushes a bit more at the rude command, then hastily amends, "I mean, would you like to have dinner with me, please?"
He is ridiculously relieved as he answers, "Yes, of course I would, Ms. Shirihime. Do you like French food? I know a wonderful French restaurant here in Chuo-ku. Just make sure to dress to impress," he urges with a smile, suddenly picturing her in a beautiful, exotic Indian-style dress that bares a lot of leg, yay.
They exchange numbers as Kenji looks on with waggled eyebrows, then she nods at the city and reluctantly sighs, "I really must get to work. I'm cutting it close as it is, Mr. Yusaku."
"Oh yes, me too."
They walk out of the aviary, head in the same direction, and study each other out of the corners of their eyes. He notices that her walk is confident and brisk, businesslike and almost like a man's, even with the swaying hips and the high heels she's wearing. That's the walk of a strong woman, someone who takes no shit from anyone and lives life on her own terms, he can tell that easily. And she keeps up with him easily, for all his legs are longer – but then again, he's slowing his pace so he won't lose her.
He stops in front of a giant skyscraper, and tells her reluctantly, "This is mine. Goodbye Ms. Shirihime, I'll call you tonight."
He walks into the lobby but she's right behind him, her footsteps echoing on the expensively-tiled floor. He turns, perplexed, and asks, "Why are you following me?" Not that it's a bad thing, but it's still odd.
She answers rather testily, "I'm not following you, I work here as well. I've worked here for two years, and we just seem to have missed each other. This building is massive after all, you could never see everyone who works in it," she logically points out.
But somehow, this seems a little too neat to be completely random, and he asks, "Oh… are you a secretary?" even as he has a hard time picturing this woman at a receptionist's desk, answering the phone with a fake smile.
She shakes her head emphatically and replies, "No, I could never be a secretary, I'd get so bored. I'll be a vice-presidential assistant, I just got promoted yesterday."
He almost pinches himself to see if he's dreaming, because he's a vice president, and… "I just fired my assistant yesterday for sleeping with an intern, on the premises no less. I'm getting one from another department today," he tells her, suddenly extremely hopeful.
"That's… a coincidence," she says slowly, like she doesn't believe it's a coincidence at all. "I'll be working for the Vice President of –"
They say it together: "Real Estate."
She stares at him, he stares at her, and neither has to say the obvious conclusion. What are the odds of this? It seems so strange, and yet – yet it also seems like she's always been meant to be his assistant, or some sort of underling. That gives him an almost giddy feeling, and he smiles at her with so much hope and happiness, even though he doesn't realize that's showing.
She nods her head firmly then and decides, "Right. Let's not wait for dinner. Let's go to breakfast, I know this great little café two blocks from here," she urges, turning to go and expecting him to follow.
Zouchouten's stomach tells him he's already had breakfast, but the rest of him shoves it into a soundproof box as he lets Karura lead him away.
The café is small but tidy and doing brisk business, yet they're able to get a table immediately. No sooner has the hostess bustled off than the waiter bustles in, with a cheerful whistle on his lips and a friendly sparkle in his eyes. He's one of the most beautiful men either of them has ever seen, with his long-lashed eyes and fashionable purple-black hair, trendy bangs falling into his right eye. Zouchouten thinks the guy really shouldn't have picked such vivid purple contacts, but he seems competent enough. And slightly goofy.
"I'm Kujaku, and I'll be your server today!" he says cheerfully, setting out menus. "Now, what'll we have for the most important breakfast of our lives?"
Zouchouten thinks that the man is a tad too enthusiastic, but he sighs mentally and answers in a pleasant voice, "I'll just have the green tea, thank you. I'm not that hungry, really. I just, uh, really like tea," he justifies his order, feeling a little unnerved by Kujaku's knowing grin.
The waiter nods and writes it in his little notepad, then queries, "And for your lovely subordinate?" That sentence was directed at Karura, who's studying the menu with a slight frown on her face, deciding what to eat.
Wait… how did he know that? Zouchouten's brain points out, rather suspiciously. How did he know I'm her new boss?
"Green tea for me too, and, let's see… just some miso, I think," she decides with a firm nod, folding the menu and still frowning a bit. "I'm not that hungry either."
"Very good, milady." Kujaku smiles and picks up the menus, then tells them, "Enjoy your meal, General! You too, Your Highness. It'll be the best breakfast ever for either of you, let me tell you." And with that he walks off, whistling a different tune, and they stare after him, feeling completely perplexed.
"Is that some sort of nickname he has for you, Mr. Yusaku?" Karura finally asks, turning back to face him. "Are you a regular here? He certainly seems friendly, like he knows you. I haven't seen him before, but maybe he's new."
"No. I've never seen him before in my life," Zouchouten hastens to reply. He frowns and mutters, "Why he said 'General' I have no idea…." He smiles then and adds, "But 'Your Highness,' for some inexplicable reason, suits you very well, Ms. Shirihime."
She studies him, not warily, but as if she's trying to work something out in her head. She takes a deep breath and softly asks, "Why do you think that?"
A castle in the sky. A warbird in flight. A burning phoenix... Zouchouten's mind whispers, showing him visions of all that, then changing into a glorious picture of an armor-clad Karura backlit by the sun bursting from the clouds. Her arms are out with the sheer joy of flying on that massive bird she's on, and his mind now reverently breathes, Sky Queen…
"I… I don't fully know." He meets her gaze helplessly and manages to tell her, "It just… does."
Yes, it does. She is like a queen, a beautiful royal with so much poise it takes his breath away. She cocks her head and looks at him, and he looks back at her, thinking that she at least doesn't seem too weirded-out by his inexplicable words and actions. Is she, perhaps, feeling and seeing strange things too? Does it work like that? Or is she just very polite, and thus isn't showing the way she's beginning to think he's too odd to want to spend time with?
The server comes back with the drinks, quickly and downright grinning now. He sets one cup of tea in front of Zouchouten, with a peppy, "Here's yours, Lord Zouchouten, and here's yours, Lady Karura. Enjoy, enjoy! I'll leave you two alone to get reacquainted, goodness knows it's been long enough," he laughs with a wink.
Zouchouten reaches for his tea, opening his mouth to say, "I'm not a lord of anything, you dolt," but the woman in front of him is already asking seriously, "How do you know my given name?"
Kujaku winks again and chuckles, "Oh, I just do. Give my regards to little Karyoubinga, Karura, and give Zouchouten a napkin because he just spilled tea on his tie."
I'm going insane, Zouchouten thinks almost desperately. I'm having visions and I'm probably lying in a padded room right this minute, instead of sitting here with the most gorgeous woman I've ever laid eyes on, feeling like I'm fulfilling some sort of destiny I can't remember –
"Sir, here's a napkin." She's holding one out to him, Kujaku gone now and completely forgotten as she goes on, "For the tea, hopefully it won't ruin your tie."
"Thank you. Yes. Thank you…" he manages, taking the napkin almost in a daze. "I… you know what, never mind."
She watches him dab at his stupid stained tie like she's gazing at history, and says quietly, "You look different now, without those sideburns and the slitted pupils. But you still look like you…"
"Yes, they were rather – what?" he chokes out, startled that he felt like he did have really stupid sideburns, practically down to his chin and so long they looked like icicles on the sides of his face. But how the heck did she know that?!
"I don't understand why I said that!" She stands up suddenly and almost sobs, "Something's going on here that I can't comprehend, and today has just been so odd, and when I look at you I feel like I'm safe and that I've knownyou forever! I feel like you're an old, old friend who I trusted absolutely, and that makes no logical sense!" she practically rants, making the people next to them look over with great interest.
He nods in confusion and agrees, "Yes, I –"
She looks him in the eye and insists, "I know you. I'm sure I do. I know you probably better than I know myself, today."
And then, in a move he has been both hopefully expecting and is completely taken aback by, Ms. Karura Shirihime leans forward, grabs his suit jacket, and kisses him full on the mouth, a bit clumsily but it's still heart-racingly sweet. And the moment her lips touch his, the barrier in his mind shatters, and he understands. She's Lady Karura, she's the Sky Queen, and he is the General of the Southland who loved her so much. They were gods, they were warriors, they were friends, they were enemies, but at the end they were close again, and he felt like he didn't want to live in torment after she died.
"Is it true that Karyou is being kept in the palace, Zouchouten?"
"Let her go…"
"For my sake, please pardon Lady Karura her failure."
"I know exactly what I'm doing!"
Karura. My beloved Lady Karura… he thinks so happily, his heart pounding in joy as his past life whirls through his head, but this time the pain is faint.
Because she's here, she's kissing him, he's found her again and this time, he'll tell her everything. No more will he hide his feelings and suffer, no longer will he torment himself by empty speculations, and judging by her kiss and her words, Yasha and Kujaku spoke the truth. Karura had feelings for her commander, and while he wonders why she never let them show, they have all the time in the world to develop those feelings more.
She finally pulls back, sudden recognition in her own eyes, mouth dropping open as a man at the counter gives a wolf whistle and woman at the next table takes a picture with her phone. Then she beams like the sun, a bright white smile so full of happiness and love that it takes his breath away for a moment, but he regains it as she closes her eyes and take in a deep breath.
"Karura…" Zouchouten whispers, hand tracing her cheek. "I…"
He kisses her then, as he's wanted to for who knows how long, and she throws her arms around him and returns it, happy tears streaming down her face. When they finally break apart for air, he stokes her hair as he confesses, "Karura, I should have told you then, but –"
She cuts him off by squeezing him tighter as she sniffles, "I know. I should have told you that I loved you too. But I'm not going anywhere this time," she whispers against his lips. "I promise."
"Good," he murmurs, pleased by this like nothing else in this life or the last one, "because I'm never letting you go again, little bird."
In the kitchen, Kujaku hangs up his apron, walks out into the restaurant proper, gives the affectionate new couple a fond glance, and then steps out into this strange world of concrete palaces and boardroom warlords, his work here done. Yes, Zouchouten and Karura are happy now, Kujaku has succeeded in this part of his sacred task. Two others have been helped already and there are eight more to go before he can see Yasha, but for now, Kujaku can only think of his friend and that friend's beloved. They missed their chance in Tenkai, but that's the entire reason they're here in Tokyo.
Kujaku gives a thumbs-up to the sky, and thinks contentedly, You cannot stop the wheel of Fate from turning, General of the Southland… but it does not crush Love into nothing.
(Author's Note: "Rika" means "valued fragrance" in Japanese, and was chosen for Cutesy Wife's name because of those magical flowers accompanying her peppy, bouncy, supposedly perfect woman entrance. I still think she came out of a plot hole; why was she never even hinted at before or after that omake? A little foreshadowing and continuation would've helped there, CLAMP.
Also, the idea that Taishakuten killed Karura to give her soul peace does not add up, people, use your brains. Did he care about her soul's peace when he kidnapped and killed Karyoubinga for no reason? Did he care about her soul when he fed Karyou's body to his saramahs? Did he care about her soul when he so happily informed her of that action? Of course he didn't, he just likes to make people suffer. And if he's willing to exterminate countless tribes to keep his promise, he sure as hell would be willing to keep Karura alive to help stop Ashura. I mean, seriously, how easy would it have been for a guy that powerful to knock her unconscious and lock her up somewhere Ashura couldn't get her?
"Revanth" is a Sanskrit word that means "rider," and is my headcanon name for Zouchouten's tribe. "Vatayana" means "horse," because in my imagination, Zou comes from a barbarian tribe known for their horsemanship. "Bhagavaana" means "holy," and who they are will be explained in the sequel to this. I have no idea what "Yusaku" means, but it's from Yusaku Yara, who voiced Zouchouten in the OVAs. "Shirihime" means "white princess" in Japanese, and is also a reference to a character from CLAMP's "Angelic Layer" who sort of resembles Karura. "Syena" means "hawk" in Sanskrit.
So that was "Four Feathers." I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you can also give me some feedback… please? The sequel "Fourteen People" will be finished and posted soon , and involves most of the other couples I like reincarnated in Tokyo as well. And don't worry, you get Karuzou too – you even get M-rated Karuzou sex!)