Insert Story: Crossroads

Chapter 1: Beyond The Boundaries

She ran faster than she had ever run before. The sense of urgency she felt, this sensation of something wrapping around her heart and soul, constricting them until she could barely breathe…she had felt this several times in the past, but never had the feeling been so strong or so foreboding. Her lungs burned with the exertion and from the lack of sufficient oxygen, but she did not dare to stop, because stopping would mean losing…

…and Miaka vowed to herself that she would not lose. Not now. Not when it came to this.

It had almost been too late when she finally sorted out all the conflicting thoughts and emotions which had been plaguing her. The realisation had come suddenly, but strangely enough, she had accepted it without much shock or surprise. The truth of the matter was that she was in love with him…had been in love with him since the day he had kissed her in that sunlit glade beside the river… Nakago might have meant it solely as a twisted practical joke designed to enrage Tasuki, but to Miaka, the kiss had been achingly real. Although she had tried to pretend that nothing had changed, deep down she knew that the only person she had been fooling was herself. Even Tasuki, in the midst of a drunken stupor, had been able to see it, she thought bleakly.

He was everything to her. Protector, friend, her greatest critic and her worst enemy…somewhere along the line, Nakago had become the other half of her soul. An important part of her past, an integral part of her future.

She came to an intersection and found, with rising panic, that Nakago was nowhere to be seen… Sometime in the course of the last few seconds, she had lost sight of his tall, distinctive figure. Miaka did not notice the fact that people were hurrying past her with umbrellas in hand, nor did she realise that the sky had darkened ominously until a hard, driving rain began to fall, quickly soaking her to the skin and turning her hair into a wet, bedraggled mess, but she never stopped running…

She lost track of the passage of time as she continued her search. Minutes, maybe hours passed, and still there was no sign of him. The streets were now deserted. She slipped and fell many times on the water-slicked pavements, but kept her spirits up by consoling herself that it was fortunate no one was around to see her fall and thoroughly embarrass herself repeatedly. Each time, through sheer force of will, she managed to pull herself upright and keep going. Until I find him…

Miaka could feel her body trembling with cold and exhaustion. Her legs were beginning to buckle under the strain, and it was becoming more and more difficult for her to keep putting one foot in front the other. She found herself unable to focus her eyes, blinded by rain…or were they tears? Must keep on looking…cannot stop—

The next instant, her foot hit yet another slippery patch of pavement. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion as she felt her body moving against its will, and for one brief moment, she was weightless, flying…

A sharp, searing pain exploded across her consciousness, like a bright flash of lightning across a dark horizon. She was dimly aware that she was on her back now, staring up dazedly into the grey sky. She tried to move, but found that she just could not summon the strength to even lift her head. It was as if her arms had turned into lead weights and she could barely feel her legs. Everything seemed to be getting darker; the black shapes at the edges of her vision were rapidly closing in, folding her into their velvet embrace.

Iie…not now…cannot…lose…onegai…a tiny voice in her mind whispered as she valiantly fought against unconsciousness. There was the faint sound of a footstep somewhere nearby and a vague impression of a shadow falling over her prone form, blotting out the last of the watery light…And then, everything faded to black.

Overhead, the rain continued to fall.

Miaka had been wrong when she had thought that there had been nobody to witness her numerous falls and the pain which resulted from each one. He had watched her, stealthily following her through the rain, barely noticing his own wet clothes plastered to his body. Intellectually, he knew that what he was doing was illogical, unacceptable by his own personal standards, but…

He had not counted on the Suzaku no Miko's persistence…or her recklessness. She had somehow sensed his intention to leave and had come after him. Once again, he had underestimated her. The little waif seemed to have a talent for de-railing all his plans…more disturbing, however, was the distressing tendency he seemed to have for miscalculation when it came to her, given the fact that he never made the same mistake twice with anyone. Nevertheless, even though his initial attempt to distance himself from her had gone awry, it had been a simple matter for him to disappear out of her sight down a small shadowed side alley and wait for her to pass by. The logical thing to do after that would have been to head in the opposite direction, away from her and out of her life once and for all.

And then, it had been at that precise moment that it had began raining.

He'd expected her to seek shelter like every other sane person, to give up and go home…but instead, she had never faltered in her search, allowing herself to be drenched in the downpour. Despite his determination to sever all ties with her, the instinctive need to ensure her safety compelled him to shadow her movements. Like a stalker, his mental voice commented acidly. He rationalised his actions by telling himself that the girl was Murphy's Law personified…left on her own, anything that could possibly go wrong often did go disastrously wrong…

Why was she taking this to such extremes? Loyalty to a friend? What does the little fool think she's doing? Nicholas' lips thinned in barely-contained anger.If the Suzaku no Miko did, in fact, possess even an ounce of intelligence, she was certainly doing a very good job of convincing him otherwise. He knew how much she valued her friends; he even understood why she would try to stop him from leaving…but to run herself to the point of exhaustion through the cold wind and rain while looking for him, slipping and falling on the wet pavements every so often? Even the bonds of friendship had their limits, and she was only making things unnecessarily difficult for both of them. It simply did not make any sense. Not unlike so many things about her…Not unlike how I feel about her. He tried not to think about it. It had not been easy for him to watch her hurt herself over and over again; something inside him twisted every single time she fell down, echoing her pain. He saw how she was tiring rapidly, how her slender body shook with pain and fatigue…and how it took her a little longer each time to pick herself off the ground. He closed his eyes briefly, willing himself to stay emotionally detached, fighting against the overwhelming urge to reveal his presence to her.

Silver-blue eyes abruptly snapped open when he sensed that something had happened in that split-second he had been preoccupied with the internal battle being waged between his mind and his heart. Nicholas immediately refocused his attention on Miaka, only to find that she had lost her footing once again. He tensed and waited for her to get up like she had so many times before.

Something was wrong.

A cold trickle of alarm crept through him as the seconds ticked by and there continued to be no sign of any movement from her. Disregarding his earlier resolution to stay away, he was beside her in an instant. Kneeling, he rapidly assessed her condition, reassuring himself that she was still breathing. He allowed himself the luxury of letting out a slow breath and felt the tension in his shoulders ebb slightly when he realised that she was merely unconscious because she had severely overtaxed herself. Still, even though she had been incredibly lucky not to have broken any bones, she had a nasty bump on the back of her head, and there was the very real possibility of a concussion.

Mercilessly repressing the anxiety which was threatening to take hold, he forced himself to think rationally. His first concern was getting her out of the rain…she was likely to contract pneumonia if allowed to stay out here any longer. Mentally running through the very short list of available options, he briefly considered taking Miaka back to her home and letting her family deal with her. Unfortunately, she lived almost halfway across the city, and the weather seemed to be taking a turn for the worse. That only left him with one choice…which also happened to be the least attractive.

It took all the self-control he had at his command to prevent himself from grinding his teeth together in agitation as he gently lifted her limp body off the ground, and started off in the direction of his own apartment which was less than two blocks away. Nicholas was by no means happy about the way things were turning out, but chose not to think of the monumental mistake he was no doubt making. So much for the best laid plans…he reflected bitterly, knowing that however much he wanted to deny it, he would never have left her out in the rain.

Miaka felt herself moving… only problem was, she wasn't doing it under her own power. Dimly, she registered the sound of a key turning in a lock and a door being pushed open. Her entire body was sore, and her head felt as if it was going to split in half. It dawned upon her that she was being carried somewhere, and then, a short while later, she was set down on a soft surface. Nani? What's going on? Where am I?

Memories came filtering back slowly, and she remembered running through the rain, looking for Nakago; slipping on the pavement—…She could still hear the rain falling, but it was at a distance, not beating down on her like before. Apparently, someone had rescued her and brought her indoors. The shadow…I remember seeing someone's shadow…She was having trouble focusing her thoughts because of the throbbing pain in her skull. Trying to open her eyes only served to intensify the agony, so she opted to keep them closed for the moment. It did not take long before another realisation slammed into her. Nakago would be long gone by now, gone forever. She would never see him again. The sense of failure loomed large in her mind and she wanted to cry; the future had never looked so bleak and empty as it did now. Her clothes were still soaking wet, but whatever cold she felt on the outside could not compare to the frozen despair that was spreading within her.

Without warning, she felt something—…no, someone touch her.

Someone was unbuttoning her blouse.

Her eyes snapped open in panic and she lashed out wildly with her arm in a desperate attempt to defend herself. Everything flared white with pain at the sudden movement, and she was unable to see her assailant. Despite the protests from her sore muscles, she began to struggle fiercely when she felt her wrist being trapped in a firm, uncompromising grip.

"I see you've finally decided to wake up. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to undress you myself."

She started violently at the familiar, deep voice which penetrated her consciousness. Her vision cleared slowly and she found herself staring into a pair of piercing silver-blue eyes. Their owner returned her gaze with an impassivity which she had come to associate with him, but had never quite gotten used to. He silently studied her in the most unnerving way for a moment, then released her abruptly, almost as if he had just realised that he'd been holding a snapping turtle.

"Nakago…? Where…How did—" Relief soared through her, making it hard to speak. Somehow, he had come back…

"Your clothes are wet," he interrupted brusquely, not seeming to notice that she had been talking, "I would appreciate it if you didn't stand there dripping on the carpet and the couch. Their value will plummet if they're water-damaged," his voice was flat and matter-of-fact. Tossing a towel and a dry shirt at her, he turned and walked out of the room without another word, firmly shutting the door behind him.

All at once, Miaka became apprehensive, the hope which had reawakened at finding him beside her when she had regained consciousness dimmed slightly. Something about the way Nakago had closed the door was deeply troubling…it was as if he was shutting himself off, distancing himself from her. He had not quite slammed the door in her face but had used enough controlled force for her to suspect that he was extremely angry. As usual, he hid his emotions very well, however, with all the time they had spent together, she had learnt to read the subtle changes which signalled his moods. In other words, Nakago's unnaturally calm demeanour was roughly the equivalent of barely-concealed fury had he been anyone else. It did not bode well for her.

She looked around, taking in her surroundings in detail for the first time and knowing instinctively that she was in his home, the most personal of places. Surely he would not have brought her here if he didn't at least care a little bit about her…would he? She was filled with a sense of wonder as she stood in the middle of what appeared to be the living-room. Stark white walls devoid of any decoration or paintings contrasted with sleek black furniture and the grey of the polished granite floor. It seemed that the rich tones of the intricately designed carpet under her feet and the delicate green from the glass bowl holding a cluster of ferns resting on a glass table-top were the only hints of colour in the room. Sparsely furnished and coldly elegant, everything about it suited him perfectly.

It also made her feel like an intruder.

Miaka shivered. She would catch a cold if she didn't dry herself off soon. Glancing uneasily at the door Nakago had disappeared through, she took a deep breath and quickly stripped off her wet clothes. She used the towel to dry her hair and hurriedly pulled on the white shirt he had given her; her fingers fumbling clumsily with the buttons. The bottom hem hung almost to her knees… more than enough to protect her modesty, while the long sleeves clearly extended past her fingertips. This shirt belongs to him…Miaka slowly wrapped her arms around herself, luxuriating in the feel of the fine fabric against her skin, hugging the soft material to her body. It smelled fresh and clean…Like him, she decided, biting on her lip as she tried to stop the heat rising to her cheeks at the thought.

Okay Miaka, you've found him…now what are you going to do? she wondered nervously. She had been so intent on her pursuit earlier that it had not occurred to her to plan ahead. Tell him how you feel, a voice at the back of her mind suggested. She padded barefoot to the plate-glass window that made up one entire wall and peered out through the rain-streaked barrier into the gathering dusk, watching the colourful pinpoints of city lights coming on one by one. But…how? And what if he doesn't—

The thought went uncompleted when the hair on the back of her neck prickled. She had not heard any sound, but she had a disconcerting sense that she was no longer alone in the room. Whipping around, she nearly had a heart-attack when she found him standing behind her. He had changed out of his own damp clothes into a pair of casual black slacks and a black tank top which showed off the lean, smoothly-muscled contours of his body and contrasted sharply with his blonde hair and icy blue eyes. Her breath caught in her throat at the sight of him, and she once again fought the tell-tale blush that was spreading across her face.

He ignored her and stared out of the window over the city, "You should never have followed me today, Suzaku no Miko," he stated in a dangerously quiet voice, his tone cool and remote. He wasn't talking to her…he was talking at her in the way she hated most.

Miaka flinched as though she had been slapped, "Don't call me that," she said weakly. She did not understand why he would want to leave…or why was he pushing her away. Had she done something wrong?

"No? What would you have me call you? Miaka?" Nicholas forced himself to say with biting sarcasm, "I don't wish the familiarity. Do not mistake me for one of your loyal pets." The deep hurt that flashed through her expressive hazel eyes at his harsh words clawed at his conscience and tore into his soul. It did not help that she looked so small and vulnerable wearing one of his shirts…he refused to let his mind proceed any further down that particular avenue of thought—no conceivable good could possibly come from such distractions—and ruthlessly tuned it out. For both our sakes, he reminded himself, trying to justify his actions and ignore the unexpected ache in his heart. He wished that she wouldn't make things any more difficult than they had to be, but if he had to destroy the friendship he had with her in order to protect her…then so be it. His mind was made up; he would leave Tokyo the following morning.

She stood stunned by the cruelty of what he had just told her; her fair skin turning a whiter shade of pale. When she found the strength to speak again, her voice trembled with pain and she sounded close to tears. "But…I thought we were friends…" she stammered desperately, "You were going to leave without a word! I couldn't let you—"

"It was none of your concern. The choice to leave is entirely mine. I am merely exercising that right," he enunciated the words slowly and very deliberately, speaking in the manner he often used when conducting a business transaction. Nicholas purposely avoided looking at her, and instead kept his eyes fixed on the window behind her; knowing that his resolve would waver if he had to watch her crying. His nerves were fraying rapidly, I should never have brought her back here. "It has stopped raining," the statement came out terse and clipped. "Go home, Suzaku no Miko. You don't belong here." The strain of holding the expressionless mask in place was beginning to show…and he did not want her to be anywhere near him when his hold over his emotions finally snapped. Go home, Miaka. Go back to Tamahome. Don't force me to hurt you any more than I already have.

"I don't believe you…Why! Why are you doing this…?" she whispered. "I forgave you for deceiving Yui and killing Hotohori. I forgave you for…for everything…but the one thing I would never have forgiven you for—…I would never have forgiven you for leaving…" Miaka knew that she had to somehow show Nakago how much he meant to her, or she would lose him forever.

She was moving even before she could give herself a chance to think, impulsively hurling herself at him. Crossing the short distance between them with a speed borne from fear and desperation, she was driven to act by sheer instinct as she grabbed his upper arm. The hard bicep muscle under her fingers tensed instantaneously at the contact, but she did not give him a chance to push her aside. Standing on her toes, she stretched upwards as far as she could and kissed him on the mouth, pouring everything she felt into the kiss…

All the others, he had taken from her. This was the first kiss she had given him willingly.

He did not respond.

Taka had been wrong, Miaka thought, her heart sinking. It was as she had feared…Nakago did not feel anything for her. And now, she had taken the biggest gamble of her life…and lost.

Nicholas had not been prepared for the small body which had hurtled at him so quickly that he barely had time to register what was happening before he felt her lips on his. He froze as she kissed him, his mind going uncharacteristically blank at the unexpected turn of events. A raging torrent of emotions flooded over his senses, swirling around him and entwining themselves with his soul. It took him a moment to identify the emotions as belonging to her; everything she was feeling…all the pain and the fear, the confusion…

…and all the love she felt for him. It poured over him like liquid light. Clear. Pure. Unconditional.

She was trying to tell him that she loved him. The discovery and the accompanying realisation raced through him, uncovering truths he could not ignore or deny, leaving him feeling slightly light-headed and making it hard to think. She had come after him; risking life and limb to follow him, first in Kutou, and then again in this world, not out of friendship as he had assumed, but because she loved him, not Tamahome. Now, she was risking her fragile heart, leaving herself open and defenceless. His rejection would crush her. All he had to do was to stand here…and do absolutely nothing.

His heart began to speed up, even as he felt her starting to pull away. Her abject disappointment and despair tugged at him…she was giving up, mistaking his lack of response for indifference. Somehow, the thought of not caring about her—of even wanting to leave—seemed ludicrous now…

In one single moment, everything had changed. The last of the barriers which he used to keep his feelings locked away and separate crumbled into nothingness, and all at once, he was free. Free to stop hiding how he truly felt…

Free to love her.

Suddenly, the need to rectify the conclusion she had no doubt reached regarding his apparent apathy towards her became a matter of the utmost importance.

Sliding his hand up to cradle the back of her head, he held her to him as he moved his mouth against hers, effortlessly taking control. She jerked in startled surprise. Her eyes flew open and she tried to say something, but he silenced her by carefully deepening the kiss. Masculine satisfaction surged through him when she submitted with only the slightest of hesitations and sagged warmly against him.

Strawberries. Fresh, sweet and powerfully intoxicating. There had been others before her…women older and more sophisticated than she was, many of them spectacularly beautiful, but none of them had ever had the same profound effect on him as she did. None of them had ever managed to capture his heart. He kept his lips gentle but demanding, allowing himself to taste her fully.

Miaka let out a tiny whimper of need and unconsciously pressed closer to him, her body's innocent reaction alerting him to the fact that things were going too far, too fast. Enough for now, he decided reluctantly, studying her through half-lidded eyes as some semblance of logic reasserted itself once more. The terms of their relationship had altered dramatically, but it was still too soon for anything else. If he permitted this to go any further, they would end up in a situation for which neither of them were prepared…in the future, perhaps, but not now. She wasn't ready to take that step, nor would he allow himself to take advantage of her. Certain things, were well worth waiting for…Nicholas gradually eased the passionate intensity of the kiss, stroking the sensitive nape of her neck with his fingertips in consolation and making her shudder with heightened awareness at each fleeting touch of skin against skin. With one last feather-like caress, he slowly lifted his head, finally breaking the kiss.

She stood very still for the space of three lilting heartbeats, flushed and breathless from his sensual assault, before she uttered a small indecipherable sound and hid her face against his chest, her ears turning vividly red. She mumbled something, but the words came out muffled and indistinct. The corners of his mouth curved with genuine amusement at her behaviour, the first he had felt in what seemed like a lifetime. It felt…good. Languidly tracing a path along the delicate line of her throat to the underside of her jaw, he sent silent thanks to whatever divine power which had granted him the precious gift of her love, even after everything he had done to her…especially after everything he had done to her. Cupping her chin with his hand, Nicholas tilted her head up, coaxing her to look at him. She trembled in his grasp, and her big hazel eyes held the tense, frightened expression of someone desperately wanting to believe in the reality of something but at the same time afraid that it might turn out to be only an illusion. Arigatou, dear little miko…for being stubborn enough not to give up. He ran his thumb along her quivering lower lip, rosy and temptingly kiss-swollen.

"I love you," she whispered almost inaudibly. A single tear ran down her face, splashing on his fingers. "You were always there…always helping me. It didn't feel the same with Tamahome anymore…I was so scared…felt so guilty…then suddenly you were going to leave and I couldn't imagine my life without you. I didn't know what to do…" she broke off, her small body shaking with sobs as she began to cry in earnest, "I…I didn't know how else to tell you and—"

He gave in to the urge to kiss her again and lightly brushed her mouth with his own, stilling her tormented cries. Meant to soothe and ease her doubts, the tender pressure of his lips held a unspoken apology for all the anguish she had endured because of him. It served to heal them both, now when nerve-endings were still so bruised and raw and this sharing was still so new. He might never be able to bring himself tell her how deeply he regretted hurting her, but for the moment, he could show her.


1) By Request! This is the story of how Nakago and Miaka get together as we see them in the last chapter of Walking A Thin Line. This takes place between chapters 21 & 22 of Walking A Thin Line.

2) Please bear with me here…writing WAFF is not one of my strong points…

3) Actually, I never intended for Nakago and Miaka to end up as anything more than friends… but since we're already here, it's too late to turn back now! Let's see where this takes us, shall we?