Disclaimer: The characters from Fushigi Yuugi are the creations and property of Yuu Watase and related enterprises. I do not own them and do not make any profit from this fiction except for my own enjoyment in spending time with them.

On the other hand, the original characters Mom and Dad are my original creations and they belong to me, as do other assorted family members. So do the original plotline and plot devices AND the text, goshdangit! As for the reviewers and fanfic authors in this fic—they belong to themselves! But I get to "borrow" them for the duration of this fic…with their misguided permission, of course.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: To any newcomers to Casting Stones: This is Chapter Fifteen, not Chapter Five, of this story. For reasons explained in the author's notes in the previous chapter, I'm not permitted to post the intervening chapters 4 through 13 on this site. For those who wish to read those chapters, they are posted on the Fanfic Refugees site listed on my author profile page. Thank you for your patience.

Musical selection: "The Promise" by Secret Garden from their CD "Once In a Red Moon."

Warning: The "fourth wall" will be kicked out as the central plotline of White Stones is called into question—so be prepared for fantasy and reality to collide violently, with attendant fireworks, of course.

Finally, a dedication: This chapter is for all of my friends who have suffered personal sadness in the past year. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, "Though loved ones be lost, love shall not."


Chapter 15. At the End of Everything

Part A. To hold a dream…

Roku raises her eyebrows at Chaotic Serenity's grim tone. "You want a word with me? Can't it wait until the play's over?"

"No, I'm sorry, but I have to talk to you, Roku-san. It concerns the play—and it's important."

"Fine," Roku sighs, then waves Sorceress over. "Listen, girlfriend, I'm going to take five to talk with Chao-chan. Everything on track for Consolation?"

Sorceress glances at the tall, well-dressed fifteen-year-old girl. "Yeah, the bathing chamber plumbing is all hooked up, Nuriko's ready in the wings, and Hotohori's on his way…Er, is there a problem here?"

Roku gives a quick shake of her head. "Nah, we're just gonna have a little girl-chat, and then I'll be back in the wings. I'll be in the greenroom if you need me. Oh, and don't forget that Tasuki has a shadow appearance midway through the chapter, so call him to the stage, all right?"

She takes Chaotic Serenity's arm, steering her to the greenroom while noting that the girl's muscles are taut with tension. Repressing a sigh, she flings herself down on the couch as Chao-chan takes a seat in her considerably more graceful fashion.

"Okay, Chao-chan, you have my full attention. What's this about?"

"It's about the play." The girl's voice is tight. "It's going all wrong."

"Yeah, I know, and there's a reason for that," Roku reflects guiltily on the problems caused by Shin, "but we've taken care of the situation now, and I promise that there won't be any more unplanned intermissions—"

"That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the way you've warped and manipulated the plot of Fushigi Yuugi just to create a completely unrealistic romance between Tasuki and Miaka!"

Roku is surprised to realize that it's anger, not nervousness, that's making Chaotic Serenity so tense…and in her typical fashion, she can't help bristling in return. "Look, we've been through this already. You're gonna have to accept that we're not seeing eye-to-eye on this issue—"

"Yes, but I'm not the one making the public buy into something that's patently untrue! I thought things might get better as the play went on, but it's only getting worse. You're making a complete travesty of Yuu Watase's work!"

At this moment, Tasuki and Miaka enter the greenroom on their way to the stage, Tasuki's arm draped casually across Miaka's shoulder. Both are dressed in their WS costumes: he in his green tunic, breeches, and fawn boots, and she in her brown schoolgirl outfit. They're oblivious to the hostility in the room as they laugh quietly at some private joke. Chaotic Serenity stiffens at the sight of them and turns back to Roku.

"Do you see? This is completely wrong! This romance is completely unfounded. Tasuki never showed the slightest interest in Miaka before, and she never had the slightest romantic attraction to him, but all of a sudden, bam! Hardly any time together, and they suddenly decide to have sex!"

Now she has their full attention. Both actors stop in their tracks and flush red: Tasuki in anger, Miaka in embarrassment.

Roku frowns. "Look, Chao-chan—"

"No, you look! I am so sick of writers like you having people fall into bed together for no justifiable reason. Am I supposed to believe that Tasuki falls truly, deeply, madly in love with Miaka just because he was raped? It doesn't work that way! Tasuki falling for Miaka sounds to me more like the desire to discover that sex isn't all pain and hate; that it's his need for comfort rather than love."

Tasuki drops his arm from Miaka's shoulders and curls his fists while Miaka grows pale at the implications.

Roku tries to keep her temper—and her tone—even. "I understand that you disagree with this romance, but you're starting to get a little personal here…"

But the impassioned young woman continues to vent. "And what about Miaka? Is she supposed to suddenly love Tasuki just because he suffered for her? How many times has Tamahome suffered for her? Fighting those guys, getting captured by the emperor, getting butt-kicked by Kutou assassins, being held prisoner, beaten and drugged by Nakago, fighting and almost getting killed by Hotohori, and so on. But all of these events don't seem to matter. Tasuki's suffering far exceeds any act of suffering Tamahome went through, so of course Miaka has to have wild sexual encounters with him!"

Miaka holds her hands up to her face, tears running from her eyes as her betrayal of Tamahome is brutally laid out before her. Tasuki has gone from red-hot anger to white-hot rage, almost snarling at Chaotic Serenity's accusations.

Roku makes a slashing gesture at him, trying to keep him under control and prevent the situation from escalating. Gritting her teeth, she turns back to Chaotic Serenity and assumes a strained but patient tone.

"Look, girl, you don't understand everything that's going on here. Love is not a numbers game; we don't keep score and figure that the winner is the one with the most points at the end. You know, like Tamahome got his ass kicked fifteen times for Miaka, but Tasuki only got his ass kicked eleven times, therefore Tama wins. It doesn't work that way. There is no logic to love and passion—the essence of passion is that it's uncontrollable!"

Chaotic Serenity is unappeased. "Uncontrollable, huh. Well, that's probably the most unbelievable part of this whole thing. I can't just sit here and believe that Miaka would cast aside everything Tamahome has done for her for the sake of a nice oral screw! Yeah, right, like she's going to have sex with Tasuki and make how many other people suffer? Miaka can be selfish, but she's not that bad."

Miaka sobs softly. Tasuki's eyes narrow at the sound of her weeping--the eternal trigger point for his temper--and he starts forward. Only Roku's intense, pleading stare at him makes him pause. He steps back and places his hands on Miaka's shoulders while glaring angrily at the arguing women.

Roku stands up and pulls Chaotic Serenity to her feet as well. She moves them a few paces away from the enraged couple. "Chao-chan, I think maybe you'd better stop while things are still relatively non-violent. I can't promise that--"

The girl ignores her warning, being completely wrapped up in her impassioned argument. "And all this sex bothers me too! Look, I understand that sex is a very important part of a relationship. The problem I'm having with Tasuki and Miaka is that they seem to have more sexuality than tender moments, such as the ones Miaka shares with Tamahome. I don't know; to me, a relationship that starts out tender and non-sexual is far better than one that starts off with a near sexual encounter. In this case, it seems as though the two are in it just for the… for the physical pleasures, and nothing else!"

This is the last straw for Miaka, who wrenches out of Tasuki's grasp, and runs towards her dressing room. Tasuki leaps after her, almost catching her, but she reaches her room just ahead of him and slams the door in his face.

Tasuki stands in shock as she clicks the lock in place. Suddenly, he whirls around and reaches the greenroom in a few swift strides, where the two women are still facing off. The bandit has been pushed well past his breaking point, and he surges forward, catching Chao-chan's shoulder and turning her around to face him.

Roku jumps between them and places her hands on his chest. "Please, Tasuki, you have to understand! She's just a kid—she doesn't know about the reality of adult love, just the theory!"

Tasuki grips Roku's shoulders and moves her gently out of the way. "Don't worry, Roku, I ain't gonna hurt her—I'm only gonna talk to her."

"But Tasuki, her feelings get hurt so easily."

"Well, if she can dish it out, she better learn how to take it."

He scowls at Chao-chan. "You keep bringing up this shit and harpin' on it till I'm ready to scream…so now it's my turn to let you know my point-of-view." He takes a deep breath. "Here's what your problem is: you don't like me."

Chaotic Serenity flushes. "That's not true! This isn't about that!"

"Yes, it is! You like Tamahome, and that's fine. You think that he's better-looking, more heroic, and an all-around better human being than I am. Fine, that's all true! But you can't leave it at that. It pisses you off somethin' royal that Miaka might actually feel something for me—or at least she did, before you made her believe that I was in it only for the sex!"

He catches his breath and tries to bring his temper back under control. "Okay, maybe that ain't what you set out to do. But it's still the end result, so I got a right to be angry, just like you got a right to your opinions!"

Chaotic Serenity bristles defensively. "I do have the right to my opinions! Just because I'm young doesn't mean that I don't know what I'm talking about. How can you stand there and try to make me believe that you're truly in love with Miaka, when you never once showed any sign of it before OVA 2?"

"Don't you tell me what I do and don't feel! YOU DON'T FUCKING KNOW ME!"

Chaotic Serenity flinches back before the force of his rage.

Roku jumps between them, shoving Tasuki back. "You'd better settle your ass down, Tasuki, before I kick it all the way back to your dressing room!" She turns and glares at Chao-chan. "And you'd better become aware of the provocative tone you use when you criticize this relationship. Oral screw, indeed! That one stung!"

She grabs the two by their wrists, clamping down hard to get their attention. "All right, you want to have this out, then go right ahead. But here's the thing: you can have a discussion on your philosophical differences only so long as you keep it civil. Otherwise, I'm ending everything right here and now!"

The two combatants separate, grumbling. Sorceress and Chichiri poke their heads in the greenroom, alarmed by the shouting.

Chichiri looks from Tasuki to Chaotic Serenity to Roku. "Is everything all right in here?"

"Yeah; we were just setting the ground rules for a civil discussion. Listen, Sorceress, would you mind—"

"I'm already on it." The assistant director sends a pointed look at Roku. "In fact, I was just about to raise the curtain on Nuriko's bathing scene when all the yelling began. It's going to be a little difficult to achieve the right atmosphere for this scene if you guys continue to shout over the background music."

"Don't worry, it won't happen again. We're done venting for now. Chichiri, in case this discussion goes longer than I'd like, could you cover for Tasuki in the 'shadow listener' scene?"

"Ochanoko sai-sai…" Seeing that his quip has failed to make Roku smile, Chichiri finishes by merely nodding in agreement, then escorting Sorceress back to the stage wings.

Roku pulls up two folding chairs from against the wall and motions for Tasuki and Chaotic Serenity to take a seat. Chaotic Serenity seats herself elegantly, sweeping her dress gracefully over her knees, while Tasuki flings himself into his chair in an angry sprawl.

Roku folds her arms. "Okay, here are the rules of combat. Each combatant may state his or her opinion without interruption. Points of fact may be argued, but no personal insults are allowed. And in that line, no cursing is allowed, either."

Tasuki starts up from his chair, angry. "Then how the fuck am I supposed to talk?"

"You're just going to have to figure out a way, Tasuki. I won't permit you to win by intimidation, and your cursing can be intimidating to some people."

Chaotic Serenity mutters grumpily. "He doesn't scare me."

Roku frowns at her. "That reminds me: no provocative implied insults either. Okay, let's go! Chao-chan, since Tasuki had the last word, you get to start now."

Chaotic Serenity sits up straighter in her chair and meets Tasuki's glare. She turns her gaze back to Roku.

"I don't know why I'm doing this anyway. I was having a discussion with you, Roku-san, not him. And I'm not sure if it's fair that you're the referee, since you're obviously on his side!"

Tasuki flushes angrily but keeps silent at a look from Roku.

The Director assumes a pleasant expression. "Yes, well, on the other hand, we didn't pick this fight—you did. And as Tasuki pointed out earlier, you've picked this fight over and over again, and we've tried to steer clear of conflict as best we can, but now it's finally time to clear the air. So if you want to stop here, that's fine…but we are giving you the chance to air your opinions. So take it or leave it, as you wish; no hard feelings either way."

There's a determined light in Chaotic Serenity's eyes. "I'll take it." She pauses to gather her thoughts, then looks over at Tasuki. "Look, I didn't mean to hurt anyone's feelings. But I couldn't just sit there and watch you and Roku-san warp the story of Fushigi Yuugi so badly. I think the thing that makes me angriest is that Roku-san has done such a good job on the other aspects of this story; the characterizations of the other seishi and the strong brotherly bonds between you really touched me. The plot is exciting so far and the humor, deliberate or not, is refreshing. But I cannot accept that the story I fell in love with, the love story of Tamahome and Miaka as written by Watase-san, is just pushed aside for the sake of some prurient sexual thrills."

Tasuki's knuckles whiten as he grips his arms tightly, but he remains silent as agreed.

Chaotic Serenity begins addressing Roku again. "As I said before, this love story is just completely unbelievable to me. I'm sorry, I just cannot see this as realistic. Not when there is the entire series, two OVAs, and several novels focusing on and around the total and complete love Tamahome and Miaka share for one another. Not when Miaka shows no sexual, physical, mental, or romantic interest in Tasuki throughout the entire series and even into the OVA series. I also cannot see Tasuki in this situation when he shows no physical or romantic interest in Miaka—other than the one time he tried to kiss her for the sake of frightening her and angering Eiken—until the OVAs where it is now two years later and he's under Hikou's spell. And even that's debatable as to whether or not it's true love. Friends, yes. Lovers? I don't think so. Look, Tamahome crossed entire dimensions to be with her, gave up every single memory of his past life in order to be with her. For the bulk of the series, Miaka's wishes after she fell for Tamahome were about staying with him somehow. Tamahome came back to life because of the strength of their love! Their rings, a physical representation of their love for one another, became the Suzaku shinzaho! How can you sit there and say that something is missing from their love?"

There is a moment of silence as she pauses for breath.

Roku taps her fingers together. "Anything else, Chao-chan?"

"No, that just about covers it."

"All right then… Tasuki?"

Tasuki leans back in his chair, his eyes dark and thoughtful. He finally looks over at the two women.

"Okay, guess it's my turn. I'm not gonna argue with what you have to say about Miaka and Tamahome, 'cause it's all true. I oughta know, I was right there watchin' as it happened. I'm also not gonna tackle the bigger question of Fushigi Yuugi canon, 'cause I'm just a little too close to that situation to have a clear view of it. But the one thing I can argue about, 'cause I know it better than anyone else, is what I feel for Miaka."

He sits up straighter and uncrosses his arms, dropping his defenses. "I've been in love with her since I was seventeen, and that's been how many years now? No, I never made the fancy speeches that Tama and Hotohori and Nuriko did, but that just ain't my style. But the fact that my heart ain't on my sleeve for everyone ta see, don't mean that I don't have one. Anyway, I didn't want to admit it to myself. I didn't even like girls, so I sure as hell wasn't keen on making myself a slave to one! But if you're fair and you watch carefully, you can see what I feel; it ain't in my words but in my actions, which in my opinion count for more. But I don't wanna keep arguing about what is and isn't canon—like I said, that's not the point."

He leans forward and fixes Chao-chan with an intense stare. "What I am gonna tell you about is how I feel right here, right now. And the simple truth is that I'm in love with her—crazy, star-crossed love. She's everything I ever wanted and more. And yeah, there's a strong sexual attraction between us…" he blushes, "…that gets outta control sometimes. And I know that all this bothers you, 'cause you don't understand it yet. Like Roku said, your knowledge about adult relationships is just theoretical. And that's the way it should be, at your age! Suzaku knows, if I had a little sister your age, that's all that I'd want her to know!

"Anyway, I know that it ain't my place to educate you, but you're so damned insistent that this ain't the way things work in real life, that I'm just gonna hafta explain a couple of things to you…" Tasuki nods at Roku's warning gaze, "… and I'm gonna do it as delicately as I can.

"Look, everythin' that you said about the way people should fall in love is right. In a perfect world, people'd meet each other, decide if they were suited, and only then feel physically attracted to each other, hopefully after their union was legally or spiritually sanctioned. And a lotta the time, that's how it works. But the trouble is that we're only human, and we have human faults. Ya see, there's this type of love that can be very dangerous—the poets call it star-crossed love. It don't follow any rules, it crosses all lines: race, gender, religion, class, anything. This love has nothin' to do with intelligent, logical decisions—it just is. An' it can also be a hungry, destructive force that's willin' to risk everything for love: family, home, friendship…"

He trails off for a moment, his gaze darkening as he looks down the hall towards Tamahome's dressing room.

"Most people never experience this kind of love; they lead sensible lives and they fall in love with the right people…and I ain't puttin' that down, 'cause it's just as true and real a love as any other. But a few of us are lucky—and unlucky—enough to be burned in the fires of this kind of love. Ya gotta understand somethin'. It don't take long to fall into star-crossed love. It can happen in less than a day or an hour; hell, it can happen in an instant! Yeah, you can be goin' along, thinkin', 'Here I am havin' a nice time with a good friend,' then all of a sudden, you look at that person and it hits you—WHAM! They're suddenly real to you. You're suddenly aware of how they're breathin', how their heart beats—and you're lost. There's nothin' and no one else in the whole universe but you and them. And passion flares up, and you don't give a damn about morals or commitments or about the past or future; it's all just NOW! Maybe they're all wrong for you or you're all wrong for them, and there's pain and heartbreak in your future…but you don't care, because you'll sell your soul for this one wonderful, unbelievable moment in time—and it'll be worth every last part of yourself that you have to give!"

Tasuki's eyes are burning now, his voice low and fierce. "And that's the truth of how I feel about her—and I know that's how she felt about me!"

He stops suddenly, his lips trembling with suppressed emotion. "…felt about me…"

Turning his face away, he fights for control. "Like I said, maybe it's all wrong in the real world…and you're not worthy of that person." Tasuki meets Chaotic Serenity's eyes once again. "You're right, ya know; I don't deserve her. Not as much as Tama does, anyway. And maybe she realizes that now, and she's rethinkin' everything that happened between us."

He looks down, staring at his hands as they lay palm up in his lap, slightly cupped as if he held a crystal ball…or a fragile bubble.

"But for one crazy, unbelievable evening in my life, I held the dream in my arms. For one moment outside of time…she was mine."

His voice changes, remaining soft but now trembling with passion.

"And no matter what it costs me in the end, I can't regret it! No matter what anybody else thinks, it was worth it to me—and it...was...real."

Tasuki gets up quietly and folds his chair, replacing it against the wall… then turns and walks back to his room. Roku starts after him, but hesitates, looking back at Chaotic Serenity.

"You okay, kid?"

"Yeah…." Chaotic Serenity rouses herself from her thoughts, and grins with her usual spirit. "Hey, I'm not saying that anyone's changed my mind, you know."

Roku turns back and places a hand on her shoulder.

"Like I said, you're entitled to your opinion. And considering your level of experience, you made the best judgment you could. But Chao-chan, there are some things about love that only life can teach you…although hopefully, you'll wait as long as possible before learning it for yourself." She smiles sadly. "But I can't stay and talk right now; I have to look after my boy."

She turns and hurries towards Tasuki's dressing room. Chaotic Serenity looks around the quiet, darkened greenroom for a few moments more, then returns her chair to the wall and walks out.


Part B. Real

Roku reaches Tasuki's dressing room and stands outside for a moment, undecided.

"Should I respect his privacy? But what if he needs me? Oh, hell, there's only one way to find out!"

She knocks on the door. There's no answer for a few seconds, but then a muffled voice calls out "Just a sec!" She waits a few moments more, until the door swings open. Tasuki stands in the doorway in his old outfit of white silk shirt, cream breeches, and black boots with crimson ankle bands, fastening his old necklaces around his neck. He's getting ready for Chapter Fourteen, Redemption, since he's too late for the current chapter now going on.

For some reason, the sight of his familiar clothes makes Roku choke up. Tasuki looks at her keenly, then motions her inside, closing the door behind her.

His voice is soft and wry. "Yeah, off with the dream outfit of green-and-tan and back to the real world and the same old, same old..."

He trails off, smiling a sad, crooked smile. Roku feels her heart drop down to her feet, and struggles for the right words.

"Tasuki... I, uh... I, uh..."

Her expression crumples, and tears escape her. He gathers her into his arms, letting her cry against his chest. She continues to soak his shirt, gasping broken phrases of apology.

"...so sorry... my fault... should hate me... I set you up for this!"

"Yeah, I hate you. You're a terrible person, ya know, settin' me up for the greatest night of my life," Tasuki gently mocks her. "Never been happier than I was in the last few hours, but I still hate your guts."

He strokes her hair, but Roku pulls back.

"But it's over now... and you're hurting... and it's all my fault!"

"Listen ta that, aren't we the one with the giant ego? Hotohori's a rank amateur compared to you! Yeah, you're responsible for everything that happens in our lives, like you're the personal Director of Fate for each of us." He drops the mocking tone. "Look, Roku, all good things hafta come to an end, some sooner than later."

Roku is still upset. "But I should have known this could happen. I should have seen it coming!"

"I did see it coming; I told ya so way back! I'm not stupid, ya know; I knew that there was almost no chance that she would choose me over Tama. But I was willin' ta take that risk for the little bit of heaven I ended up with." Tasuki frowns impatiently. "Listen, Roku—I choose my own risks and I can handle the hits when I'm wrong. I don't need you or anybody else shielding me!"

She flinches back at his vehemence. Tasuki gathers her back to himself, remorseful.

"Sorry; I didn't mean ta yell at ya. I just don't want ya blamin' yourself when I'm so fuckin' grateful that ya opened that door for me in the first place."

Roku narrows her eyes. "You're determined to be all macho and strong about this, aren't you? You won't accept a shoulder to cry on, no matter what, huh?"

Tasuki stands silent for a moment, then takes a deep breath.

"I can't, Roku. Not yet anyway. We're in the middle of a play here, and I hafta see it through. Ya see, I'm afraid..." his voice catches for a moment, but he forces himself to go on, "…I'm afraid that if I start, I won't be able to stop. And that's not the way I want this to end. That's another thing, ya know; if I start cryin' about it, then it really will be over. I guess I want to keep foolin' myself that the dream is continuing, at least until the end of the play. I'll save my tears until the 'Nightfall' chapter, and then maybe I can let loose. It'll make the scene that much more real."

Roku is infuriated. "I don't care about that! I don't give a flying fuck about the goddamn play anymore! As far as I'm concerned, it can go to hell right now! Do you think that I want to use your real-life pain for my profit?What kind of a self-centered bitch do you think I am, anyway?"

"That's not what I meant! I just thought that we hafta do the best we can with what we're dealt!" Tasuki grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her. "And how dare you give up on this play? After all that you and me and everybody else have gone through for this thing, you don't have the right to give up on it! You tried to pull the plug on it at the beginning, and I hadda stop you then. Do you have any idea of how sick I am of fighting you about this? Why can't you just believe in it, for fuck's sake?"

"I do believe in it." Her voice drops, subdued. "I always have, even when I thought nobody else did. I'm just afraid of the cost, Tasuki—the cost to you. I got scared at the beginning because you almost got hurt, and now I'm bitter at the end, because you did get hurt. And I know that a lot of people out there will laugh to hear me say this, but…I am so goddamn sick of hurting you!" Roku catches her breath. "You know, I didn't see this coming, as stupid as it sounds. I thought that this would be all light and happy, and that we would have a lot of laughs, putting on this play. I never meant things to turn so dark. It just kinda happened...and I can't explain how or why."

She looks up at him again, her eyes dark and troubled.

"Do you think that I'm a liar? Do you think that there's something in me that wants to hurt you?"

"No...but I think you're pretty stupid." Tasuki laughs at her surprised expression. "Look, no matter how you dress the part, you're not Taiitsukun, the Controller of the Universe. Hell, even Taiitsukun does a pretty piss-poor job at controlling the universe—'cause it can't be done! Nobody controls anything; shit just happens, and the story unfolds the way it has to. All you can do is roll with the motion, the highs and lows alike. Here's the thing, though: somewhere in your heart, you gotta believe there's an overall reason. And even if you never find out that reason, you gotta believe that there's meaning in one thing--and that's that what you do, you do with love. That makes the difference…all the difference. I can get through any shit you throw at me, just as long as I know that you love me."

Roku reaches up to cup his face in her hands and smiles a sad, tremulous smile. "I do, Gen-chan; I really, really do."

Tasuki smirks down at her. "I know that, baka girl! You say it often enough. But there's one thing you hafta know..." He grins, showing his fangs. "Zee feeling is mooch-ell!"

She finally breaks and laughs, flinging her arms around him. "You know, I came here to make you feel better—and you're the one who ended up comforting me."

He turns to the mirror and preens Hotohori-style. "What can I say? I'm the best!"

Roku hugs him while peeking at their reflection from around his shoulder. "Yes, you are, my beautiful boy."

There is a soft tap at the door…and the smiles leave their faces.

"I guess that's my cue to exit." Roku squeezes Tasuki's shoulders. "You know where to find me if you need me."

He's equally subdued. "Thanks, Roku."

Roku pulls the door open. As she had expected, Miaka stands there, twisting her hands together with a miserable look on her face. She looks at Roku nervously, as if expecting the door to be slammed in her face.

Roku suddenly feels a surge of pity for the girl, and smiles at her. "I was just leaving."

She steps aside so that Miaka can enter the room but catches her arm as they pass, speaking low so that Tasuki won't hear.

"Could you… would you try not to…?" Roku stops and shakes her head. "Never mind…stupid of me…never mind."

Miaka just looks at her helplessly, her lips trembling. Roku squeezes her arm, then closes the door firmly after herself.

Miaka looks up to see Tasuki at the far end of his dressing room with his back to her, fastening his second necklace. She gathers her courage and takes a few tentative steps towards him.

"Tasuki, I just came to say that… I want to tell you that I… I don't know how to put this, but…"

Tasuki finishes with his necklace but keeps his back to her. "Yeah, I think I know what you have to tell me." He suddenly switches to a light, flippant voice. "Don't worry about it, Mi-chan; we just had some laughs, that's all. Didn't mean nothin'. No need to fuss, I'll never tell Tama."

Miaka stops in her tracks. Her eyes go dark, and she fixes his back with a hard stare.

"You really suck, you know that? You really, really suck!"

Tasuki straightens and turns to face her at last, an insincere smirk on his face, his eyes a little too bright.

"Well, whaddaya expect from a guy like me? Ya know that I think girls are only good for one thing…" he grins fangily at her, "and I gotta tell ya, sweetheart—you're one of the best!"

Miaka flushes with anger. "No, you don't understand. I mean that you really suck at lying—you're pathetic. So take my advice and drop the act."

The smirk leaves Tasuki's face, and he stares at her, momentarily at a loss for words. But he manfully makes another attempt, his eyes narrowing coldly.

"Believe whatever you want, sweetheart; it makes no difference to me."

She stares at him, incredulous. "You just can't stop, can you? You just have to keep protecting me! You're so damn determined to spare me pain that you'll go to any lengths, including putting on this pathetic tough-guy act!"

"That's the second time in the last thirty seconds that you've called me pathetic." Tasuki's voice is tight and angry. "So, fine; message delivered! It's over—I'm pathetic—You're leaving—Good-bye. Anything else, or can I just sign on the dotted line and leave it at that?"

Miaka suddenly flies at him in a fury, striking him hard in the chest with both fists. He staggers back, shocked, as she continues to hit him, punching and slapping him, her breath coming in short, gasping sobs. He struggles to defend himself without hurting her, trying to catch her flying fists and pin them to her sides, but he overbalances. They crash to the floor, Tasuki twisting his body so that Miaka lands on top of him. She pushes off him, still hitting at him...but her fists slow, and suddenly she's grasping his shirt and crying bitterly into his chest. Tasuki wraps his arms around her and buries his face in her hair, his body shaking with his own sobs.

After a while, they begin to calm, their grief abating slightly. Miaka hears Tasuki mutter something into her hair.



Tears trickle from her eyes. "I know. It hurts so much, I can hardly bear it."

Tasuki lifts his face from her hair. "No, I meant your elbow in my ribs—it hurts."

"Sorry, sorry!"

Miaka rolls off him, and they get to their feet awkwardly, not looking at each other. Tasuki finally breaks the silence.

"This doesn't change anything, does it."

"No. I'm sorry, but…no."

Tasuki stares at the floor. "I didn't think so." He sighs deeply. "So that's that, I guess. Well, I'd better finish getting ready—"

"Would you just—?"

"Would I just what? Tasuki meets her eyes, his own dark with pain. "I don't understand what you want!"

Miaka's voice is edged with desperation. "Just a little honesty! I'm just asking for—"

He interrupts with a sharp gesture towards his tear-streaked face. "What, isn't this honest enough for you? What more do you want from me?" His voice rises in frustration. "No matter what I have to give, it's not enough to change anything, so why are you so hell-bent on dragging this out?"

"If you would let me finish a sentence for once, maybe you would find out what I want!"

Tasuki grows quiet. "Fine. Just say what you have to say, then let's end it."

Miaka looks at him in despair, but he is looking away from her.

"I'm trying to say that I'm the one who needs to be honest with you!" Her voice drops. "You're right, you know. I know that every word I speak is just dragging out this ending…but I can't let it end like this, with you thinking that somehow you're not enough for me. That's not true! That's so far from the truth it's not even—!" She swipes impatiently at her tears. "You're more than good enough for me—more than good enough for any woman!"

Tasuki smiles bitterly at the hopeless cliché.

"No, don't think that! Maybe I'm too stupid to say anything that doesn't sound mindless, but if you'll just give me your patience for just a little longer…please!"

Tasuki crosses his arms. "I ain't got any plans, but I can't speak for Roku. Eventually she's gonna hafta knock on this door an' haul our asses onstage, so if there's somethin' ya gotta say that ya can't send in a Hallmark card, ya better get around to it in th' next hour or so."

Miaka flinches. "I know that I deserved that. All right, I'll get straight to the point. Ten years. That's how much time I've spent believing that Tamahome was the only man I could ever love. That's a long time, Tasuki—a very long time to throw away on the basis of just one night…" she chokes up, "…no matter how wonderful or magical that night might be. Before I decide anything, I have to understand why this happened between us. This is one time that I can't rush impulsively into the next part of my life…because I've finally grown up enough to understand that I have the power to destroy all three of us!"

Tasuki keeps his arms crossed but finally meets Miaka's tearful gaze without resentment, his eyes dark and reflective.

"Tamahome never failed me in any way; he never treated me badly or neglected me…so I don't understand why I betrayed him! Maybe it is because you and I are meant to be together, but until I make sense of this, I can't go any further. I can't risk being wrong about us, because if this is just some terrible character flaw that I have…then some day, I may do it to you as well. And that's one thing I could never forgive myself for."

She catches her lip in her teeth and forces back a sob, closing her eyes. "So what I need to do is to go back to Tamahome and really study our relationship; I have to see if I can find the flaw that led me to this night, and if I can fix it…if I can live without you. Right now, I don't think that I can face life without you, Tasuki—but I'm not sure if I can face life without him, either. Furthermore, I don't know how long it will take me to work through my confused, jumbled mess of a life. So I'm telling you not to wait for me. I'm telling you to go on with your life and find happiness wherever and with whomever you can, because I don't have the right to ask you to wait!"

"You're right about one thing—you don't have the right ta tell me ta do anything!" Tasuki's voice is harsh. "So you can stop tellin' me ta go on with my life. If I decide to wait another lifetime for ya or if I decide ta marry some fangirl next week, it's my decision and my life, not yours!"

Miaka flinches and closes her eyes. She hangs her head in shame…and is surprised to feel hands gently cupping her face, forcing it up again.

Tasuki's eyes have softened. "So don't worry about me; I can take care of myself. You just go on and take all the time you need to figure things out. And maybe—just maybe—at the end of everything—I'll still be here. Waitin' for ya."

This is too much for Miaka, who bursts into tears and flings her arms around Tasuki's neck. He holds her lovingly, closing his eyes to memorize the feeling of her in his arms…then gently pushes her back, wiping away her tears.

"Come on now, Miaka; it's time to go."

"Wait! There's one more thing that I have to say. When I said that this night was magical, I meant it—but I didn't mean that it wasn't real. Everything that happened between us, Tasuki…everything that I felt for you…still feel for you…it's all real." Her voice drops. "I wanted you to know that."

Tasuki closes his eyes and draws in a deep, trembling breath…then opens them again and meets Miaka's tearful gaze. "Of all the things that you could have said to me, that meant the most." He smiles wryly. "Well, maybe not. Maybe if you said that you were leavin' Tama an' runnin' away with me, that woulda meant the most, but…this is the next best thing."

He takes her arm and leads her gently to the door, opening it for her.

"Thank you, Miaka…and good-bye."

"Good-bye, Tas—" Miaka turns and rushes off, covering her mouth to contain her sobs.

Tasuki closes the door, then turns back to his dressing table. He bends down and looks in his mirror, taking in his reddened eyes, his mussed hair. He goes into his bathroom and splashes some water in his face, then returns to the main room while running a brush through his hair. After shrugging on his signature coat, he takes one last look in the mirror.

"It's showtime, folks…"



Author's Note: (2-22-06) Special Acknowledgment: A very warm expression of gratitude to Chaotic Serenity, wherever she may be, for giving me permission back at the beginning of this fic to utilize her author avatar in this story. Please be aware that—just the same as with all other fanfic authors who have guest-starred in this story—the actions of "Chaotic Serenity" in this chapter are the invention of myself, and not the author being depicted. Although the discussions between myself and Chao-chan actually took place, they were in the nature of a friendly debate, not the tension-filled confrontation I depicted for the sake of drama. So please do not diss Chao-chan; she would probably be surprised to find herself as the deus ex machina that ends the Tasuki-Miaka romance.

Hooooooo-kay. Questions, anyone? Like…wtf just happened here? Is Roku so addicted to unhappy endings that she has to tack them onto her comedies as well as her dramas? Does this chick need therapy?

Answers: Errrrrrr…well. All I can say in defense is what Tasuki says to Roku: the story just unfolds the way it has to. Yes, as in all of my stories, this emotional climax was written right at the beginning, back in (takes on creaky voice and shakes her cane) the summer of Aught-Two, you whippersnappers! (That's nearly four years ago, for those of you who don't understand "old-timer" speak. :P )

Now, as for the explosive disintegration of the "fourth wall"—you guys did notice it, right? To be perfectly straight with you, this intermingling of realities has been Casting Stones' hallmark from the start, although this chapter is the most blatant in its line-crossing. Just as an example—who is Tasuki in this chapter?

Is he the fire-wielding bandit from canon Fushigi Yuugi?

Is he the touching rape victim from White Stones in the Moonlight?

Is he an actor who has portrayed Tasuki in Fushigi Yuugi, the way he is now portraying Tasuki in White Stones?

Is he Roku's personal friend? Muse? Best-Beloved?

The answer is: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and sometimes.

Although I need to emphasize that Tasuki only becomes Roku's Best-Beloved when they are declaring their mutual affection for one another. At all other times, he's a different version, since I do NOT allow, let alone encourage, my beloved to pursue romances with mikos or anyone else. :P

That's why Casting Stones has always been a joy for me to write. I can let go of my demon need for historical accuracy, and slide in and out of multiple realities, the way I do with every single character in this play, Tamahome most obviously. No one ever questioned me about why his name is Tamahome, not Taka, and why—although he is savvy enough to sign a contract to be in the play, and make microwave popcorn for that matter—why does he not understand modern currency?

Same goes for Chichiri, displaying a great deal of his Bridge Over the Abyss abilities—and let's not forget Chiriko, the digital videocam and computer expert who still appears to be a child, although at least on one timeline, his age is 23.

See what I mean? Nonstop fun, this is.

I think I'll wrap things up here, since I'm suffering from a Big Damn Infectious Ailment that actually has my fingers aching, forcing me to type slowly. Well, more slowly than even my usual snail's pace, that is. I had originally finished restructuring this chapter when the bug took me down on Sunday, and it's taken me this long to re-edit and write author's notes—sad, isn't it?

/self-indulgent pity party.

Enough of my whining! World perspective: lots of people have serious, more permanent ailments than my temporary "Everythin' huuuuurts" malady, so it's time for me to stiffen that upper lip!

I hope to be back soon with a new chapter of Hidden Paths, but first I must retrieve my brain from the mush of overactive sinuses in order to write anything coherent. Related to that, I hope that this chapter came out at least half-coherent; let me know if it hasn't. Oh, and in case I was less than clear about CS—this isn't the final chapter. We have at least one or two more, plus an epilogue (yes, it's already written!) to go before I can stamp Complete on this fic.

Thanks, and wishes to you for continued good health!

Ja ne!