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Chigusa. Chigusa. Rakan grabbed at a handhold, missed, and scrabbled frantically as he slid back down the cliff face amidst clattering boulders and a host of smaller stones. A trickle of fine sand dislodged by his flailing poured down onto his face, and he clapped both hands to his mouth, desperate to stifle the sneeze that threatened to give him away.

He knelt for several moments in the lee of a boulder, eyes streaming, and waited till the urge passed, cursing each wasted second. It must be well past noon by now, and he could not afford to lose any more time.

Well, he thought, There's nothing I can do but continue. And bravely onward we march. Only, he didn't feel very brave at all. He felt like an adolescent boy lost in a hostile world that was not his own and whose rules he didn't understand, pursued by a evil ruler while his only allies were gone.

He'd lost half of the progress he'd made up the cliff in his fall, and it was harder going now that his hands were cut and gouged by the rocks he'd tried to grab on his way down. Climbing to the top was going to cost him even more time, and that was the one thing he could not afford to lose.

Chigusa, Chigusa! he cried, and listened with all his heart for a response, but none came. He hadn't really been expecting any - he had yet to master the mental communication that came so naturally to the natives of this world. He must still be doing it wrong.

He hadn't really tried to learn anyway. Of course telepathy was neat, but didn't talking to people the normal way work just fine? He missed the warmth of actual human voices when people spoke to him with their minds. And truth be told, he wasn't entirely comfortable hearing, say, Narushige's voice inside his head; it made him wonder if Narushige could choose to hear all the other things Rakan was thinking about that he didn't want to tell anyone else. So he hadn't really tried to learn how to communicate through telepathy. He certainly regretted that now.

He realised he'd paused, lost in thought, and quickly resumed his scramble toward the top. After all, the last place he wanted to be was an unsheltered position on the cliff face. Get moving, he chided himself. And cheer up! After all, isn't it amusing, that someone as boring as you is living the greatest adventure cliche there is?

Rakan had never understood why some people seemed to dislike cliches so violently. After all, weren't they comfortingly familiar? But now that the fate of this world literally did rest upon shoulders, he couldn't find anything comforting about cliches at all. He had to find Chigusa, because Chigusa was the only person who knew how the Prince could be stopped. Unfortunately, with no answer to his cries, he had no idea where Chigusa was.

He had no idea where he was, for that matter, but that didn't worry him as much. For one thing, it wasn't entirely true. He knew he was midway up the cliff he'd set out to climb, which was a start. After all, it was important not to let the bigger picture overwhelm you while there were still more manageable goals you could reach. He'd worry about the rest once he got to the top.

He made it at last and lay for a few moments on the very lip of the cliff, gasping for breath, the stones beneath him cool under his cheek. Finally, he stood and glanced reflexively at the sky, trying to gauge the time, but the sun was hidden, as always, behind an impenetrable curtain of thick black cloud.

Another world, he thought to himself, but the idea was much scarier now than it had been at the outset, when this was all just a big adventure with new people to meet and new things to try doing.

Another world, and it was doomed unless he could find Chigusa.

Damn it, he had no time!

It was enough to make him laugh, or cry. Not too long ago time was what they'd all thought they had too much of, stranded as they were in this remote outpost on the edge of the wastes surrounding the Prince's kingdom. With no contact with civilization, the Numeric children-turned-guards-turned-bandits had thought they'd been sent there so the world could forget about them. Chigusa, Narushige, and Touji, all much better-versed in the workings of this world than Rakan, had agreed.

So they’d all found it easy to settle in, make one another’s acquaintance, and Rakan especially had enjoyed the slow pace of life here - cooking meals, tending to the cleaning and the laundry and the new garden. Of course the Impostor Prince had to be stopped, but isolated and forgotten as they were, they had all the time in the world to do that.

No one had expected that the Prince would still remember them. No one had expected that he knew where they were. No one had expected that he'd known Rakan was here, in this world, and no one had ever expected that he would personally lead the attack on the outpost in order to kill Rakan, the full strength of his Imperial Army at his back.

And so they had scattered, because they were both completely unprepared to offer resistance and because Rakan's best chance at survival lay in no one, friend or foe, knowing where he was.

"Chigusa! Narushige-san! Please! I won't!" he'd protested, searching frantically for an ally in the sea of familiar but implacable faces surrounding him. But there was no ally to be had, and even as he spoke, he was being spirited out the back of the outpost by Kazuhi and Touji, protesting "No, I won't, I won't" the entire time, as if he were a spoiled child and not a Sanome Prince at all.

"Rakan."

Chigusa hadn't raised his voice, but then, he hadn't needed to. Everyone in the room stopped, and for one wonderful moment, Rakan had believed that Chigusa was not going to send him away after all.

"Understand. You must remain safe."

"No!" The protest erupted unbidden from his mouth.

"We swore that we would protect you."

"No! You can't - not like this!" A sudden, desperate idea occurred to him. "I am your Prince, and I won't allow it!"

"Will you make us into liars then?" said Narushige quietly from Chigusa's side.

"No! No, no, of course not, but there has to be some other way, let’s escape together, or I'll stay and fight with you, it doesn't matter which—" Their expressions were so full of pity, and so unyielding.

"Don't make me go!" He was babbling, and it was hopeless. Kazuhi and Touji exchanged a grim look and, taking him tightly by the upper arms, began once more to steer him toward the exit. Once again, they halted in their tracks at the sound of Chigusa's voice.

"Rakan."

I will not look. I will not look, he swore fiercely, but in the end he had to, because what if didn't look, and he never saw Chigusa again? Chigusa appeared to be smiling, a real human smile that mixed affection and sadness, but Rakan knew this was only an illusion – Chigusa was half-plant; he didn't have emotions. Yet even so, it was the illusion of that smile that made Chigusa's next words seem even more of a betrayal.

"Go now. You will find me again."

"How?" he'd despaired, even as he knew it was pointless – there was no time, not for explanations, not for anything, and he was not going to change Chigusa‘s mind.

"You will know." And then Kazuhi and Touji had led him inexorably toward the tunnel, and away from Chigusa.

That had been days ago, although he couldn't have said how many. They'd fled as quickly as they could through the desert, Kazuhi leading the way, and although Kazuhi seemed to know where he was going, Rakan lost all sense of direction within the first panicked hour.

That panic had never really gone away. He couldn’t stop thinking of their faces - Chigusa, Narushige, the bandits, all the people who were even now fighting and dying for him. It was unbearable.

"They'll win," Touji had said at some point during their flight. "They have to."

Kazuhi had said nothing, only navigated them deeper into the wasteland.

Rakan had thought there could be nothing worse than separation from those at the outpost, but then had come the moment when Touji said he saw figures on the horizon and dropped back to investigate. He hadn't come back.

And then had come the moment when Kazuhi said he saw them too, and Rakan had been made to go on by himself.

He discovered a strange reserve of courage then. They all believed that he would find Chigusa, that he would save their world, and he owed it to them to continue.

Half of him had dared to hope that their belief in him would be enough, that he would find Chigusa through the power of that belief alone. But it was increasingly harder to believe that now as he put the cliff behind him and stumbled off blindly into more featureless desert.

It was pointless, and more importantly, he was tired of having everyone depend on him, tired of having the fate of so many resting on his shoulders. Rakan knew that there was no such thing as fair, not on a universal level, but he'd always believed that it existed in interactions between individual people. But this wasn't fair. This wasn't right. He didn't want to have to find Chigusa, he wanted Chigusa to be with him, now.

And in the end, that had been all he'd needed to do. Because as soon as he gave himself over to that thought - I want Chigusa here, now - he knew, with every cell in his body. Chigusa is this way. This way. He is there. Go this way.

He'd stumbled off into the desert, heedless of his direction, heedless of any landmarks, heedless of anything but that one persistent call. Chigusa is here.

And then had come the glorious moment when Rakan not only felt it, but heard Chigusa's voice, directly in his head. Rakan. I am here. Come to me. You found me. It will be all right.

Chigusa. He let the call loose with everything he had.

Yes. The answer was faint, but immediate, and his heart soared on a wave of triumph. He was doing it! He'd done it! He was talking telepathically with Chigusa. He wasn't going to let them down after all. Now that he'd managed it, it was like turning on a spigot that he didn't know how to turn back off as the questions spilled from his mind into the atmosphere in relentless succession. Chigusa! Are you all right? Are the others safe? Where are you? Where are we? What happened?

It was impossible to detect any sort of emotion in Chigusa's voice or manner when he spoke to you directly, but Rakan thought he detected a faint sensation of amusement in Chigusa's thoughts. There was a battle. We have scattered.

Rakan's effervescent happiness blinked out in a heartbeat. Battle? Are you all right? Is everyone all right? Where are the others? Where are we now?

Don't worry about those things now. Just come to me.

But where are you? He cast about frantically, and almost lost the thread in his distress. He stopped short for a moment, panting, and willed his sweaty palms to unclench. He would gain nothing by rushing. He would gain nothing by rushing. Slow and easy does it.

Chigusa, he tried again, swallowing his fear and impatience. Where are you? But try as he might he couldn't quite keep the desperation from his thoughts. He'd been following Chigusa's mind for some time now, but Chigusa's voice seemed to be getting weaker, not stronger, as he approached.

When Chigusa's response came it was faint and spotty, like bad reception on a television. Still, the words were comforting. Rakan, I can see you now through the rocks. I am near the red boulder. You are almost there - go slowly and carefully.

And he went slowly and carefully, because Chigusa had asked, but every far-too-slow step was torture, until finally he'd reached the red boulder, and there was Chigusa, propped against it in the shadows.

"Chigusa!" He fell to his feet beside Chigusa, crying his name out loud, not caring anymore who might hear him. "Chigusa! Are you all right?" But he only asked for form's sake, because he was the sort of person who always followed form. It was perfectly obvious that Chigusa was not all right.

Rakan longed more than anything to do something heroic, like the leading idol in an evening drama, but his brain wasn't willing to cooperate. They're all depending on me to save them, he thought with disgust, and I can't even manage to do something, anything, when it counts.

It must have been plain on Rakan's face, because Chigusa laughed, a horrid phlemmy rattling in the back of his throat. Rakan reached for him, then checked at the sight of Chigusa's unblinking eyes, emotionless as always despite the horrors that had been wracked on his body.

"Rakan," Chigusa said. "It will be all right now that you're here." A small quantity of sap oozed from his veins as he spoke, as if trying to please Rakan, but it was all too clear that it wasn't congealing into the bandages that would save Chigusa's life.

One day this body will reach its limit. And when that happens, you must cut my chest open, reach inside, and grab my heart. When you do that, I'll be able to go on living.

When Chigusa had said those words to him he'd been horrified, and tried to cover that horror with anger. But the truth was that he'd secretly been angry at himself for being such a coward, because he'd doubted that he ever would be capable of cutting anyone open, even if it meant saving their life.

But now he found that far from being afraid, his resolve was set in stone. He'd never felt such a sense of calm, single-minded determination in his entire life. He began to cast around for a rock, a withered branch, something sharp.

Chigusa's eyes tracked his movements. "It's too late for that," he said with his husk of a voice. And then in Rakan's head, I've been too badly hurt. It won't work.

Rakan's heart dropped to the very pit of his chest. He was too late. He'd failed them after all, failed everyone - the border guards, Narushige-san and Kou, this entire world. But most of all, he'd failed Chigusa. The world blurred into an ashen grey mess through his tears.

He hadn't been able to do it, hadn't been able to find Chigusa in time, and he'd as good as let Chigusa die. His chest constricted so tightly he couldn't breathe. He was so miserably sad. He was so angry. "You told me it would be all right!" he howled, and his hands clenched around Chigusa's shoulders and shook even while his mind raged at him to stop, stop, Chigusa is dying.

Rakan, Rakan, said Chigusa's voice, aloud and in his head. He ignored it, sobbing, and shook harder.

"Rakan, please."

He stopped as suddenly as if he'd been struck. Chigusa never said please. Chigusa never asked for anything.

"Rakan," Chigusa whispered. A thin trail of blood escaped from one corner of his mouth. "It would take to long to cut me open, and I am too wounded--"

"But how?" he wailed.

"I need...your sap. A Sanome's sap..."

Rakan swallowed, dashed the tears from his eyes with the back of a hand. "But I'm a person, not a plant. I don't have any sap," he whispered.

In answer, Chigusa's hand lifted, hung precariously for a moment in midair, then fell to his thigh. Chigusa was looking at him with huge, serious eyes. I need your sap. Please. Hurry.

He cast about, at a loss as to what Chigusa was talking about. Maybe he was so badly hurt he didn't know himself. Rakan had seen Chigusa severely wounded on several occasions during the few weeks they'd known one another, but never as badly as this. "I don't understand," he whispered. Unless...

Blood! Chigusa meant his blood! It was only natural - Chigusa had sap in his veins, of course he'd think Rakan did too. But, if Chigusa had to drink his blood, did that mean he was a vampire? That didn't make much sense, Chigusa didn't seem like a vampire...

That didn't matter! Chigusa was dying - he had no time for anything but doing whatever it took to make him better. But, Rakan realised in horror, he was right back where he'd started - with no knife or way to open a vein, there was no way he could get his blood to Chigusa.

Teeth? Scraping against a rock? He swallowed, did his best to keep his voice steady. "I need a way to cut myself open," he said.

"Cut?" Chigusa echoed. "What would you need to cut?"

"To get you my bloo-- I mean, sap," he whispered.

"No," said Chigusa. "Not from your veins. From here."

A split second later Rakan understood. He opened his mouth to say...something, but all that came out was laughter, huge wracking gulps of it that left him lightheaded and even more panicked than he'd been already, but he couldn't make himself stop. The very idea that Chigusa was telling him to, that he was going to, that that could help him, that Rakan had to...
He buried his face in his hands and tried desperately to calm down, but couldn't, tears were starting to mix with the laughter and how on earth could he agree to do this?

Then came the wave of disgust, and the hysteria evaporated in its wake. A moment ago he'd been prepared to cut Chigusa open, to cut himself open, and if he could do either of those things without a moment's hesitation, how could he refuse to do this?

He swallowed thickly, nodded, and said through a strangely blocked throat, "You need to do it."

"Help me move," Chigusa said, and Rakan did.

The weight of Chigusa's head was heavy and unnatural on his thigh, and he winced despite himself, away from Chigusa's fumbling fingers, away from the sudden cold on his skin, away from the reality of what was about to happen. And then Chigusa's mouth...

Rakan screwed his eyes shut and pressed back into the boulder. I won't think about it, he swore. Don't think about it. Don't think about anything. Don't think about what's happening. Don't, don't, don't.

Rakan. Chigusa's voice was ringing in his head and he tried to shut it out but he couldn't concentrate to do it. Rakan. You must.

No, no, I can't. Chigusa, I'm sorry but I can't do this. You don't understand, this is, I can't. He didn't even know if Chigusa could hear him, but the thoughts continued unbidden. He couldn't. He couldn't go through with this.

But it was so cold and Chigusa's mouth was so hot and oh Ggd, thought Rakan, it was making noises. It was hot and moist and his penis quivered and hardened, he couldn't stop it, and all he could think was: Chigusa's throat. Chigusa's tongue. Chigusa's hands.

Chigusa's voice. Rakan, relax. It will be all right. Everything will be all right.

I'm trying, he thought back. Chigusa...

Chigusa's voice again. Don't try. Just relax. Just feel.

But he was feeling, that was the problem, he was feeling all of it, he had never thought anything could feel like...he'd thought he'd known but he hadn't, not at all. His hands trembled, rose, reached for Chigusa's silver hair, Chigusa I want...

Chigusa's mouth was so soft, so gentle, and then he felt it.

Sap. Rising from the base of his spine and flowing out into Chigusa's mouth, and god help him that made noises too, he had never imagined, he couldn't breathe, he was shuddering and shuddering.

And then Chigusa rose, swallowing, and Rakan watched with dazed eyes as the bandages spiraled out from his wounds and healed him. Rakan, Chigusa said. It will be all right, and he collapsed into Chigusa's waiting arms.