"Hi, everybody!" Tasuki exclaimed gleefully, "Didn't know that you would invite the entire village, are we goin' to party…?"
Everyone stared at Tasuki with looks mixed with incredulity. Nuriko rolled his eyes. Chiriko, Mitsukake and Tasuki had returned two hours ago, and Tasuki had made good use of the time to once again consume more sake than he could hold. Nuriko was debating on whether it would be advisable to dunk Tasuki into a bucket of freezing water or simply box him out of his drunken state when Chichiri noticed the absence of the twins.
"Where's Koutoku and Shunkaku-chan?" Chichiri asked, looking around for the twins.
"Oh, they're watching over Yui," Tamahome answered.
"Yui?" Chiriko asked curiously. Being the latest to join the Suzaku Shichiseishi, Chiriko did not know about the conflict between Miaka and Yui.
"Yui was Miaka's best friend," Tamahome explained, "But then there was this slight…misunderstanding, so Yui ended up as Seiryuu no Miko, and was bent on fighting Miaka. Chichiri met her just now, and uh..." Tamahome blinked, noticing the gaps in his story.
"Chichiri, why was Yui unconscious?"
Chichiri couldn't help but feel a little guilty. Outwardly, though, he merely answered matter-of-factly, "Yui-san was being a little stubborn, and I had to persuade her to come with me."
This time the blatant stares were rather obvious.
"Persuade?" Miaka asked flatly.
Chichiri coughed embarrassedly. "With reason, Miaka."
Chiriko's eyes went wide. "Seiryuu no Miko? She became your enemy after a slight misunderstanding, Miaka? What caused it?"
"Uh…" Tamahome said delicately, "The topic isn't really suitable for children of your age…"
"Miaka's friend was raped…" Tasuki muttered, "The poor gal was probably hysterical about it, so she was mad as shit when…" Tasuki fell with a loud 'plunk!' onto the floor in mid-sentence. Nuriko stood up and brushed his hands calmly.
Chiriko's eyes had grown larger and larger at Tasuki's generously supplied information. "Ra…raped? But…I thought…"
Nuriko butted in quickly. "Don't think about it, Chiriko. It's…"
This time, Chiriko was not about to be distracted. "I thought you said that Yui was the Seiryuu no Miko."
"Yes," Tamahome said, "But Miaka'll settle everything when Yui wakes up…"
"Mikos are supposed to be virgins," Chiriko said, still looking confused, "in fact, it says so right here in the…"
"Chiriko!" Tasuki exclaimed, suddenly awake from his drunken stupor. "Kids aren't supposed to talk so vulgarly!"
"Minna-san," Chiriko said patiently, his voice taking on a lecturing tone, "if Mikos are supposed to be virgins, how could Yui be the Seiryuu no Miko if she was raped?"
The whole room went dead silent.
Miaka blinked. And blinked again. And blinked for a third time. "So…you mean that Yui-chan wasn't…you-know-what?"
Chiriko nodded sagely. "Hai, or she wouldn't be qualified to be the Seiryuu no Miko."
Miaka couldn't believe her ears. "But I saw…I saw…"
"Did you see your friend…being…abused?" Chiriko asked, trying to find a more decent word to replace 'raped'.
Miaka nodded. "I saw her being attacked. She was screaming for help, and…"
"Did her attackers…sexually abuse her? Did you see that, Miaka-san?"
Miaka's eyebrows furrowed in concentration. "No…I couldn't bear to watch anymore…Yui-chan…"
Chiriko smiled triumphantly. "So, it confirms my theory. Miaka, you assumed that Yui was abused because you saw her being attacked. Yui thought she was…um…harmed because she was probably unconscious by then. In reality, your friend was rescued before anything…untoward happened. Well, this does…" he couldn't finish his sentence because Miaka had enveloped him in a tight bear hug.
"Chiriko, you're a genius!"
Nuriko rolled his eyes upward. "Only a glutton can keep stating something that's so painfully obvious."
"Yui-chan, you're finally awake." Yui opened her eyes to see Miaka staring down at her in concern.
Yui groaned. She had a terrible headache. Where am I? What happened?
The small room was crowded. As Yui's vision cleared, she noticed that Miaka and all seven of her seishi were there, with the addition of Suboshi and his twin brother as well. Yui's blood ran cold.
Why does Suboshi look at me so? Yui shook her head. That thought was totally random. She was starting to feel the first pangs of panic.
"Yui-chan…you must listen. I can explain everything," Miaka said earnestly.
Reality came crashing down. "No!!!" Yui sat up violently. Ouch, my head really hurts. "It's all your fault! I can't…"
"Yui-chan," Miaka interrupted her, "nothing happened. You weren't raped."
Yui gaped at her former best friend in shock. She must be lying… "Iie, you…" All the Suzaku seishi looked at her knowingly. Tamahome nodded.
No…then there isn't a reason for me to summon Seiryuu, I shouldn't be fighting Miaka…nothing happened.
"No, you must be lying…"
"Yui-chan, you wouldn't be able to become the Seiryuu no Miko if you were raped. A Miko must be a virgin," Miaka explained gently, seeing her friend's distraught state, "Nakago lied to you so that you would become the Seiryuu no Miko. He did it to make you seek revenge against me."
Miaka grasped Yui's hand tightly. "Yui-chan, you know that I'm telling the truth. I would never lie to you."
Yui felt tears seeping out from her eyes. "Miaka…I'm sorry. I was so angry…I thought that you came back only because you wanted to see Tamahome…"
Miaka hugged her tightly. "I came back for you, Yui-chan. I came back for you. I wouldn't have come back if it weren't for you."
"Miaka…" Yui went on crying, but this time, she was crying tears of joy. Miaka hadn't abandoned her after all. It was all a mistake, just a stupid mistake.
Suboshi watched Miaka ad Yui's reunion with huge eyes. So Yui had been manipulated by Nakago as well. On that one count, he could sympathize with her.
But that does not change what she has done…or did not do. She might have been used, but she still could have stopped Nakago from killing otousan.
He still hated her.
Ashitare howled as Nakago's whip came down mercilessly, reminding him of the price of his failure.
Nakago was most displeased. Not only have they failed in killing the Suzaku no Miko, but he had received information from his spies that Yui had somehow been reunited with Suzaku no Miko.
All in all, their total count of loss was alarming. First, they had lost Amiboshi. Then Suboshi had followed his twin. Now he had lost control of the most essential figure in the summoning ceremony—the priestess herself.
But to him, somehow losing Soi had…hurt the most. When the twins left the Seiryuu seishi, he had brushed them off as a minor loss. A barely noticeable inconvenience.
When Soi left, he had felt
something more. An emotion he couldn't quite identify. But it was definitely a negative
When he had learned that Yui was reunited with the Suzaku no Miko, he didn't particularly feel anything. No real anger at his plans coming to nothing, no desperate need to renew his schemes for revenge.
He felt nothing, and he didn't know why he could be so apathetic.
Nakago hated being ignorant. And he was showing his displeasure right now. Losing control of his own feelings griped.
"You will remember that it was I who saved you from humiliation and torture in the hands of others." Ashitare whimpered as Nakago calmly delivered another stroke. "You will remember that it I was who provided you with shelter." Another lash resulted in another howl of pain.
"You must redeem you failure in killing the Suzaku no Miko. Follow the Suzaku seishi, and return with Genbu Shinzaho." He didn't care anymore, but what else could he do? Revenge had been the only reason for his existence.
"You do not want me to remind you of the price of failure again."
Nakago flung the whip onto a table.
He had finally come to a conclusion.
When Soi died, a part of him had died with her.
"We're here at last!" Miaka exclaim happily.
Yui couldn't help smiling at her friend's enthusiasm. Miaka looked so happy with Tamahome. Yui no longer begrudged her friend's love for Tamahome. She knew that her own declared feelings for Tamahome had been spawned out of her petty jealousy over Miaka. Now, she was just happy that she and Miaka had finally cleared up their misunderstanding. After Miaka summons Suzaku, she'll be able to return her own world. Miaka, of course, wanted to remain with Tamahome, but at least, Yui knew that she would forever have a place in her friend's heart.
Nuriko easily tossed the gigantic boulder that was blocking the entrance out of the way. Miaka ran in impatiently, with Tamahome going after the erratic Miko like a mother hen.
"Ahh…" Miaka said weakly, "Bones…bones…"
"Fuck! Human bones!" Tasuki shrieked.
"Miaka, move out of the way!" Tamahome pushed her aside as a menacing green light flashed. Miaka stared in horror as multitudes of ice arrows embedded themselves on the ground, right at the exact spot that she had been standing on before.
"You have come for the Shinzaho," a voice said, the speaker shrouded by the darkness of the cave.
"Miaka, no!" Tamahome called as Miaka ran forward. "Who are you? Show yourselves!" she yelled angrily.
Green orbs of light lit up the dark cave. "You are very brave," the voice answered, "I am known as Hikitsu."
"And I," a second voice said, "am known as Tomite."
Two figures appeared. The first one, with long silver hair, had an eyepatch over his right eye, giving him a villainous look. His companion had a quiver filled with arrows slung across his back, and his green eyes were narrowed suspiciously.
"They have a very strong chi no da," said Chichiri worriedly.
"Are they Seiryuu seishi?" Tamahome asked. Both twins shook their heads.
"Then…who the fuckin' hell are you?" Tasuki demanded, his trusty tessen held firmly in both hands.
"We are Genbu Shichiseishi, and we are obeying Genbu no Miko's orders to guard the Genbu Shinzaho."
"Wait!" Miaka cried, dashing forward, "Ahhh!" she screamed in pain as she was assaulted by ice snakes.
"REKKA SHINEN!" The ice snakes melted as waves of burning flames washed over them.
"Prepare to die, intruders," Tomite said coldly, "You will see how deep our loyalty to our Miko goes."
"No!!!" Miaka cried, "We need the Genbu Shinzaho to summon Suzaku, please, Genbu Shichiseishi, we won't be able to return to Konan without the Shinzaho," she fell on her knees, "Please, give us the Shinzaho…"
Tomite paused while he exchanged considering glances with Hikitsu. "So you are the Suzaku seishi with their maiden," he said finally. "Yet I sense a difference of chi," he said, directing his gaze suspiciously at Amiboshi and Suboshi.
"They're Seiryuu Shichiseishi. They are here to help us." Miaka explained quickly.
Tomite and Hikitsu stiffened visibly at the words "Seiryuu Shichiseishi".
"Uh oh, not good no da," Chichiri muttered, "Hokkan was at war with Kutou two-hundred years ago. In fact, they summoned Genbu in defense of their country. I doubt that the Genbu seishi would be amenable to the presence of Seiryuu seishi no da."
"Uh…Chichiri-san," Amiboshi said apprehensively, "We didn't mean…maybe otouto and I shouldn't be here."
"What are Seiryuu Shichiseishi doing here?" Tomite demanded
angrily, "Don't tell me that Kutou wishes to attack our country again!"
"No! No!" Miaka said frantically, "You've got it all wrong! Amiboshi and Suboshi left the rest of the Seiryuu seishi and joined us! They're going to help us summon Suzaku!"
Tomite and Hikitsu looked skeptical. "You defected?" Hikitsu asked finally.
Amiboshi nodded. "Hai, we just want to put an end to the war. The Suzaku seishi helped us, so now we're assisting them in return."
Hikitsu studied the twins thoughtfully. "Maybe, I'll give you the benefit of doubt. But you…" he pointed at Miaka, "You still have to prove that you are truly the Suzaku no Miko."
Miaka nodded, her eyes steeled in resolve. "I understand." Turning towards the others, she said, "Minna-san, don't do anything to help me, I must do this myself."
"Take off your clothes," Tomite ordered.
Miaka blushed brightly. Tamahome's face turned purple with rage. "Hentai! Ecchi!" he screamed, "How could you ask Miaka to do something like that!"
"You don't have to do it if you don't want to," Tomite said lazily.
"I'll do it," Miaka said firmly, starting to strip herself of her clothes.
Tamahome's eyes bulged. "Don't look!" he yelled, jumping in front of the other seishi.
"That's enough." Hikitsu said when Miaka had stripped everything but her underclothes.
Tamahome looked weak with relief. "Phew! She didn't have to take off everything." His relief was short-lived, however, when Miaka was slowly encompassed in an unbreakable wall of ice.
Cold…it's so cold… Miaka shivered. I can't feel anything anymore…
No! I cannot lose! I must send Yui-chan back home. I want to be with Tamahome. I promised to help Amiboshi and Suboshi as well…I cannot die here…
Miaka closed her eyes in a silent prayer. Suzaku, help me. Tamahome, Nuriko, Tasuki, Chichiri, Chiriko, Mitsukake…please lend me your strength.
Gradually, she felt a comforting warmth suffuse her—the individual chi of her seishi. Slowly, the pain and numbness caused by the ice wall receded as the warmth grew in strength and intensity.
With a blazing crimson light, the ice wall shattered into a million shards.
"Miaka!" Within the blink of an eye, Tamahome had Miaka held tightly in his arms.
"Miaka, are you all right?" Yui asked anxiously.
"Hai…I'm fine." Miaka said, smiling jubilantly. "I did it!"
Hikitsu nodded. "Yes, we've witnessed your power, Suzaku no Miko. We've seen the fire of Suzaku."
"Come," Tomite beckoned, "we will take you to the Shinzaho."
"It's beautiful," Miaka said breathlessly as they entered a grandiose chamber.
"Come with us, Suzaku no Miko."
"This is the Genbu Shinzaho," Tomite said. There, lying on pale green silk, was a sparkling necklace with an amethyst jewel encrusted in the middle.
"The Genbu no Miko was wearing this when she performed the summoning ceremony. It has the power to summon a beast god," Hikitsu said.
Finally, I can summon Suzaku. Miaka clutched the necklace to her chest protectively.
"Sorry," Tomite's voice startled Miaka from her moment of self-congratulation, "But you can't summon Suzaku with only this."
"NANI!!!!!" everybody screamed.
"Without the Byakko Shinzaho from Sailo, the Genbu Shinzaho is unable to exert its power," Tomite explained.
"Ehh," Chichiri said sheepishly, "Come to think of it, I recall that Taiitsukun said we must journey to the lands of Hokkan, she didn't say that it would accomplish our mission of summoning Suzaku."
"SHIT!" Tasuki yelled, "Why didn't you tell us earlier!"
"It's all right, minna-san," Miaka said soothingly, "We've already acquired the Genbu Shinzaho, I'm sure we'll get the one from Sailin as well."
"Sailo, Miaka," Nuriko corrected dryly.
"You're right, Miaka," Chiriko said brightly, "I'm sure we'll be able to do it." The rest of the seishi agreed.
Tamahome, however, looked like a man who had just reached the heights of his existence…only to find all his hopes cruelly dashed.
"It feels wonderful to be out in the sunshine again," Miaka exclaimed, stretching herself.
Just then, a hulking figure pounced—and snatched the Shinzaho from Miaka's hands.
"Ashitare!" Nuriko gasped.
Tamahome hurled a colossal chi-blast at the beast's direction. But Ashitare, with the ferocious speed of a wild animal, had already bounded off, the Shinzaho within his grasp.
"Miaka!!" Tamahome yelled as she went running after Ashitare.
Must get him… Miaka ran as fast as she could, barely keeping the massive figure within her sight.
Suddenly, her right foot connected with a rock—and sent her sprawling forwards.
Give it back to me…Tears started running down her cheeks. Give it back…
"Miaka!" She found herself in Tamahome's warm embrace.
"It's gone…I lost it," she muttered.
"Miaka, it's all right. There is still another Shinzaho, remember? We can get it before Nakago does," Tamahome said gently.
"But it won't…work without this one…" Miaka sobbed.
"Shhh…Nakago won't be able to do anything with this one either. As long as we get the other one before he does, we can still try to get this one back."
Miaka rubbed her tears away. "Really?"
"I'll get the Shinzaho back for you, Miaka. For us. I swear I will." From the look on Tamahome's face, it seemed possible that he might be able to blast Nakago into a million minute pieces if Nakago had showed up right then.
Yui watched in pity as her best friend cried in disappointment. That Shinzaho had meant a lot to Miaka. And to Yui herself as well. She turned away from Miaka and Tamahome, and for that one moment, her eyes met with Suboshi's.
Suboshi himself wore a look of utter despair. The lost of the Shinzaho seemed to have hit him even more hardly than it did Yui. And for the one moment that their gazes connected, Yui unconsciously tried to console his grief and pain.
Then that brief moment had passed. Suboshi seemed to suddenly realize who he was looking at and wrenched his gaze from hers. It happened so quickly that Yui began to wonder if that flash of understanding between them had really happened at all.
I must talk to him. I must ask him why he hates me so much.
Yui walked down the stairs to the common room where Miaka and the others were. Tomorrow, they were going to begin their long trek through the desert. If she was going to talk to Suboshi, she had better do it now. The boy had been avoiding her like a plague. He was never within sight, and if he were, he would always glare at her so fiercely that Yui would back away.
His brother, Amiboshi, was certainly friendly enough. Yui found it amazing that two people who were identical to the very last hair could be so different in personality. Amiboshi always answered everybody with a smile. But then, Suboshi had been nice enough when he talked to Miaka or the Suzaku seishi, especially the monk with the smiling mask, Chichiri. She seemed to be the only who was receiving this cold, bitter reception. Yui was certainly beginning to question her luck. Out of her own seishi, Nakago had fed her with lies, trying to manipulate her to his own ends. Soi and Tomo's loyalty lay with Nakago and not with her. Ashitare was half-beast, with animal instincts, and was loyal only to one master—Nakago. Miboshi scared her, with his sinister third eye and sadistic nature. Suboshi treated her as if she were some kind of lethal disease. The only Seiryuu seishi with a semblance of standard seishi behaviour was Amiboshi. Miaka's seishi were all so devoted to their Miko. Her own seishi weren't even concerned about her welfare.
She found Amiboshi in the common room, but his twin wasn't there. She took the empty seat next to Amiboshi.
"Amiboshi, do you know where Suboshi is?"
Amiboshi looked surprised. "Otouto is in the gardens," he answered, still staring at her in disbelief, "But…uh…Shun isn't in a very good mood right now…"
Yui understood his concern. From the way Suboshi stared daggers at her, any wise person would know better than to go within close quarters of him.
"It's nothing, Amiboshi. I was just curious, seeing that he isn't here with you." Yui stood up. "Good night, Amiboshi."
Yui pulled her cloak tightly around her as she walked through the gardens. The frosty night was silent, with the pale half-moon casting its silver glow onto the serene surroundings. Yui experienced a strange calm as she walked past the snow-covered trees and shrubs. The snow reflected the moonlight, giving the garden an almost divine and surreal appearance. Amidst it all, she saw a lone figure sitting next to the pond, its surface already covered with a thin sheet of sparkling ice, breaking the pale moonlight into a thousand multi-coloured facets.
"Suboshi." He turned his head at the sound of his voice. As usual, Suboshi's eyes narrowed visibly when he saw her. He got up to leave.
"Suboshi, wait!" Yui called, running towards him. He stared at her coldly as she moved to block his way.
"I need to speak to you," she said.
Suboshi turned away. "There is nothing that we need to talk about. Excuse me." He tried to squeeze past her.
"Suboshi! Why do you hate me so much?"
Suboshi turned back suddenly, his eyes blazing in sudden fury. "Do you really want to know?" he inquired impassively.
Yui tried not to recoil at the sight of those violet eyes, burning with wrath.
"If you have to ask, that means you're really as heartless as I thought," he said coldly.
"Suboshi!" Yui said, grabbing his arm, "I really do not know, you could at least tell me! Is it because of what had happened in the dungeons?" I'm sorry, Suboshi. But I really couldn't help you then. Yes, he must be blaming me for that.
Suboshi merely stood there, his face expressionless, only his eyes betraying the anger that he was feeling.
"Suboshi, I couldn't help you. I wanted to, but I couldn't. Do you know that Nakago had already whipped Tamahome before that?" said Yui, "Suboshi, Nakago knew that I loved Tamahome. At least, I thought I loved him. But he whipped Tamahome because Tamahome tried to return to Miaka. Nakago knew that I would never agree to anything like that, but he did it anyway. Yes, I could have told him to stop whipping you, but I wouldn't know if he did anything similar in the future behind my back. Suboshi, I didn't want to let you get hurt for a second time, don't you understand?"
"No!! Even if what you've just said is true, you should have done something when Nakago killed otousan!" Suboshi yelled, pulling away his arm from Yui's grip, "You didn't do anything!"
Yui went rigid with shock. "Otousan?" she whispered in confusion. "Suboshi, what did Nakago do? Tell me!"
Suboshi glared at her. "Don't tell me you didn't know about that!"
Yui shook her head dazedly. "Suboshi, I didn't…I really didn't. Nakago doesn't tell me a quarter of his plans. Suboshi…what happened to your otousan?" She watched numbly as Suboshi's eyes started to fill with tears.
"Nakago killed him, because Aniki and I left…the Seiryuu seishi. He did it…so that we would go back…he has okaasan now…" Suboshi sank down onto the grass weakly. Yui sat down beside him, commiseration welling up within her. It took all of her self-control to stop herself from bringing her hand to her mouth to stop the bile that was rising in her throat.
He blames me for that…he thought that I knew, and stood by while Nakago murdered his father in cold blood.
"Suboshi," she began awkwardly, "I'm…sorry. I really am. I didn't know, or I would have done something."
Suboshi looked at her tearfully. There was…something in her words that had a ring of truth. "Are…you…speaking the truth?"
Yui nodded. Something stirred inside her. Right now, she sees a young boy, without a home, without his parents, not knowing if he would ever see his mother alive again. She did something that she thought she would never do. She wrapped her arms around him, drawing him closer, trying to ease his pain. She had never done that to any other man before, with the sole exception of Tamahome. Suboshi looked up at her in surprise.
"I think…I know what you're feeling. You're lost, and you don't know what to do…"
Tears still streaked down Suboshi's cheeks. "I'm so afraid, I'm scared that I'll lose okaasan too…"
He didn't know why he was telling her this. He had never talked about his fears to anyone except Amiboshi.
"And most of all…I'm afraid that I'll lose Aniki…"
"But you're fighting for everybody now," Yui said softly, "As soon as Miaka summons Suzaku, your family will be safe. As long as you never give up, there's always hope." She gazed into his eyes, their lavender depths still brimming with tears.
"I was…like you…once," she said, "I thought that Miaka had abandoned me, and that I was…raped. Everything was going wrong…Tamahome didn't love me… I wanted revenge. I hated Miaka, and I did what I did out of rage and jealousy." She smiled at him. "Sometimes, you can decide your own fate. If you choose justly, I'm sure that events will follow the path you choose. You're not alone…you still have your brother, and your friends."
Slowly, and hesitantly, Suboshi returned her smile.
"Gomen nasai, Yui-sama, for being so rude…" he said uneasily.
Yui-sama? Oh, Nakago had introduced me to him as Yui-sama. She sighed. Their first meeting had been less…than fortunate.
"It's all right. We'd better go back, the others must be wondering where we are now." She offered him her hand. Tentatively, Suboshi accepted it.