Chapter 1: Longing for Her
(The first fan fiction I ever posted online way back in 2006. I've revised the original to improve the flow and characterizations. Hope you enjoy this blast from the past!)
The city of Konan was alive and bustling as its citizens prepared for the yearly planting festival. The week-long event featured parades and theater, circuses and craft markets. It was the one time of the year the entire empire joined together to celebrate as one. Peace within the kingdom was the Emperor's primary goal and keeping the commoners happy and celebrating was an excellent way to ensure that peace remained.
An infectious sort of excitement buzzed through the air as Konan's citizens gossiped about their plans for the celebration, but it could not reach within the palace walls at the heart of the city. A dour-faced young man leaned heavily against the wooden railing to watch the comings and goings in the city below. Turning away from the vibrant celebrations, he gazed out over the palace's well-groomed gardens instead.
Did she feel the same way? he wondered. Did she feel like she didn't belong but had nowhere else to go?
"Tasuki?" Nuriko's call floated to him through the sweet smelling air and pulled him from his thoughts.
Though he chose not to respond he was soon joined in the arbor by his good friend and fellow Suzaku warrior. "What are you doing out here by yourself? We have a great lunch inside if you want anything," he offered cheerfully.
Tasuki remained quiet as he eyed the lavender-hued petals of a nearby rose. With a shrug he offered his friend the most convincing excuse he could muster, "I just need some time to myself, to do some thinking."
They stood in contemplative silence, surrounded by the tranquility of Hotohori's Imperial garden. After a moment Nuriko caught Tasuki's eye and gave him a knowing look.
"I miss her too," he confessed quietly then offered a reassuring smile before he retreated back towards the palace. "Lunch is on if you change your mind!"
Tasuki waved him off, then let out a low sigh and crossed his arms in front of his chest. It'd been nearly three years since the Priestess of Suzaku had left them all behind in this world. In the short time they'd shared together, she'd managed to slowly work her way into his heart. She'd done it so subtly that he hadn't even noticed until it was too late to do anything about it.
It was almost cruel that he hadn't realized just how deep his feelings for her ran until she was already gone. Now he longed for her so deeply it'd become a constant, tangible ache in the centre of his chest. He wanted to hate her for it, and Suzaku knew how hard he'd tried, but he just couldn't do it. He'd never be able to hate Miaka. She was different from the rest, from any woman he'd ever known.
When she'd lived here in the palace with them, there'd always been something to do. Not a day went by where there wasn't some action happening somewhere. Now he was surrounded by a peaceful kingdom he'd helped to create and felt he no longer had a place in it. Someone who wasn't at peace inside didn't belong in a place this happy. He felt useless and lost, and without his bandits utterly alone.
He'd started coming to the arbour each day some time ago, just for something to do. It was nice to get away from the confines of the palace every once in a while and to have some time alone with his thoughts. He hadn't noticed it at first, the way he spent much of his staring longingly at the city gates. It seemed a part of him was still hoping she'd walk through them. The logical side of his brain told him it would never happen, but he was too stubborn to give up now, always had been.
She's probably so happy in her new life with Taka, he ruminated, though not without a hint of bitterness. He wanted her to be happy. If anyone deserved happiness, it was Miaka.
It'd taken longer for him to suss out the source of that lingering bitterness. If he was honest, truly honest with himself, he'd admit that he'd envisioned himself being the one to stand by her side. He'd always known about Tamahome of course, right from the beginning, but that hadn't stopped him from falling for her. It was an odd situation he found himself in. He hated the man, but loved him like a brother. Then, he'd always been a glutton for punishment hadn't he?
What man could resist that smile of hers, and the way she gave her whole heart to others? He certainly didn't blame Tamahome for loving her, but the question that once was only whispered in the deepest recesses of his mind grew steadily louder - what if he'd met her first? Would things have turned out differently? Would she have loved him instead of Tamahome?
Slumping his shoulders in defeat, Tasuki hung his head and expelled a long suffering sigh. It was difficult to picture the rest of his life going on without her, but maybe it was best to finally move on. Miaka would never return to Konan. He had to accept that truth and find a purpose for his life here, something new to drive him. Casting a lingering glance over his shoulder at the city gates, Tasuki strode out of the arbor and toward the palace for lunch.
Author's Note: This is revision number...well I think I've lost count. Honestly one of the best series of the late 90s/early 2000s. This is the first fanfic I ever wrote and now I've posted over 50. It's been an interesting and thoroughly rewarding 10 years of writing for different fandoms and I've met some incredible people along the way. So if you're taking the time to read this little blast from the past, please drop me a line and let me know what you think and maybe share how your fandom journey started.
Chapter 2: Bad Omens
The front yard of the Sukunami residence was ripe with the smell of the fresh plum blossoms, the garden littered with their dusty pink petals. The deceptively warm wind that blew into Hikone from the south, did nothing to offset the ominous presence of the dark clouds looming on the horizon. Silence hung thick in the air, like a dense, soupy fog, until Miaka Sukunami opened the front door of her home. Her green eyes peered anxiously up at the sky and she let out a brief sigh of relief when she realized it hadn't yet begun to storm.
"Are you sure you have to go into work? Couldn't someone else take care of it?" She glanced dubiously over her shoulder at her husband Taka. He shook his head as he draped a rain jacket over his sports coat.
"You know I have to go. Masuyo is on vacation in Tokyo this weekend and Tetsuya and Yui are still on their honeymoon."
He smiled down at his wife to reassure her while accepting the compact umbrella she handed him with a grateful smile. To ease her worries further, he planted a loving kiss against her forehead.
"Don't worry, Miaka. I'm just going to make a quick dash to the office. I'll be back before you know it."
Her rosebud lips pressed together in a tight line, a tell-tale sign she was upset, but she didn't press the issue further. She knew as well as he did that there had to be someone at the office when the IT repair guys showed up to let them into the building.
"I'll be home soon, I promise," he said finally. Miaka managed a small smile and held the door open for him.
"Alright, go on. But drive safely okay? You're no Tetsuya behind the wheel!"
He laughed aloud at her mock disapproving frown and grabbed her around the waist. He planted a lingering 'goodbye' kiss on her lips before planting her feet back on the ground.
"I'll be home soon," he promised gently as he set her feet back on the floor. "I love you."
"I love you too," Miaka replied softly and watched him from the door as he got into his perfectly practical compact car and reversed down their driveway to the street. Taka's car quickly disappeared around the bend of their cul-de-sac with the unmistakable sound of a revving engine.
Miaka sent one last pensive look at the dark clouds rolling overhead, then headed back into the house and locked the door behind her.
Don't be silly! she chided herself. It's just a thunderstorm. How many of those have you seen in your life Miaka? Honestly!
Even so, she couldn't shake the uneasy feeling churning in the pit of her stomach. Taking a seat at the kitchen table, she grabbed an apple out of the fruit bowl and stared at it thoughtfully.
She'd woken up that morning with an overwhelming sense of foreboding, and couldn't for the life of her explain its source. It was just there, from the very moment she opened her eyes. She'd put it off as nothing at first, but it'd only become more pressing as the day wore on. When Taka had gotten the call to go into work, her heart had leapt into the back of her throat. Some deeply rooted instinct told her she had to stop him from leaving, but he'd brushed her concerns aside with a curious look. She had to admit, if their roles were reversed she didn't think she would have listened either. It all sounded so ridiculous!
Miaka glanced anxiously at the door, willing Taka to walk through it drenched head to foot from the rain with his briefcase in-hand. The house remained silent but for the steady patter of rain on the roof. She jumped at the sound of a loud crack of thunder cutting through the silence like a knife. She shot the storm clouds an annoyed glare through the window and tossed the apple back into the fruit bowl. With her stomach tied up in an endless string of knots, she couldn't find the energy to feel hungry anymore.
Taka turned down the car radio and 'tsked' disapprovingly at the sound of hail on the roof. The storm had gotten worse, far worse than he thought it would be. As he neared the city the conditions had gone from bone dry to his car being pelted with bullet-sized hail. He was already regretting taking the call. Being home with Miaka in a warm, dry, haven filled with love sounded more than a little appealing at the moment.
Uttering a resigned sigh, Taka checked the controls of his rapidly moving windshield wipers. With a grunt he realized they were already moving at the fastest setting, and doing very little to improve his already limited visibility. The rain and hail were so thick it was almost impossible for him to see the road ahead. It was like driving into a dense, white, wall of water. It was doubtful the IT guys would even show up in such weather. Besides, fixing a computer system wasn't worth risking his life for, especially not with Miaka to think about. They'd only just started their lives together.
Just as he decided to abandon his plan to go to the office, Taka noticed a dark shape looming ahead on the road. He squinted, trying to make out what it was through the sheets of rain pounding against the windshield. He cautiously hit the brakes, hoping he wouldn't hit whatever it was and gasped when he realized his brakes had no traction on the slick road. With a jerk of his wheel to the right, he swerved to avoid whatever was on the road and inadvertently threw his car into an uncontrollable spin. The car lurched to an unnaturally sudden stop and then changed course, moving back towards the dark shape on the road!
"You can't be serious!" Taka gasped, his eyes growing wide as he realized the car was moving on its own accord. Snapping off his seat belt he tried to force the driver's side door open but it wouldn't budge. No matter how hard he pounded his shoulder into it refused to pop open, almost as though it was sealed shut by some invisible force. There was nothing he could do but sit and wait.
When the car finally stopped, the driver's side door blew open, sending a sudden gust of wind, rain and hail into his face. Shielding his eyes from the worst of it, Taka cautiously stepped out onto the road. Through the sheets of rain was able to make out a figure standing on the road ahead of him, dressed in a black, hooded cloak.
"Welcome, warrior of Suzaku," the figure greeted him in a voice that sounded unnatural in every way.
Taka brows furrowed and he took a hesitant step backwards. Who was this guy? He'd left the world of the book and his life as a Suzaku warrior behind more than a year ago, but he didn't need his warrior's instincts to tell him this guy meant bad news.
He and Miaka had worked hard to build a peaceful life in her world, with no responsibilities to beast gods or anyone else. They were a regular man and woman now, and he had no intention of letting this shadowy figure, whoever he was, take that hard earned happiness from them.
"What do you want?" he shouted back over the deafening thrum of thrum of the hail and rain pounding against the pavement and the hood of his car.
"For you to die," the figure responded with an unnaturally calm tone that set Taka on edge. His hands clenched into tight fights and he glared levelly at the figure before him. He may not be a Suzaku warrior anymore, but he'd be damned if he went down without a fight.
"You think you can kill me so easily? Bring it on!" he challenged, widening his stance and bracing his body for the impending fight.
His opponent did not appear to move, but the air around him suddenly electrified, changed with an unseen energy powerful enough to make the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. His entire body tensed in preparation, even knowing there was little his human body could do against such awesome power.
The vibrant purple glow of his opponent's chi suddenly enveloped him. It was as beautiful as it was deadly and he was utterly helpless to stop it. His body was broken and thrown backwards with blinding speed into the unforgiving pavement. A wicked flash of lightning forked across the sky and the loud rumble of thunder that followed shook the earth.
As his body lay broken, bleeding and drenched atop the pavement, Taka's thoughts fixated on Miaka. What was going to happen to her? Was this mysterious figure after her too? He prayed to Suzaku for her protection. Whatever happened to him, she had to survive.
"Please Suzaku, keep her safe," he uttered before his eyes closed and he was enveloped by the endless dark.
Chapter 3: The Unwelcome Guest
An urgent pounding at her front door woke Miaka from her nap with a start.
She gasped her husband's name and ran down the stairs. With a flick of her wrist she turned the lock and flung the door open, expecting to see him standing there drenched and smiling. Instead standing before her was a cloaked figure dressed all in black.
She took a wary step back, her hand blindly groping for the door handle. She'd never seen this man before but his very presence had her every instinct on high alert. His pale skin and long white hair made his age impossible to determine and his eyes, twin dark pools, fixed her with a stare that made her skin crawl. Miaka tore her gaze from his and tried to slam the door shut. The man's hand snaked out and pushed it open again.
"Who are you?" she demanded. Her hands balled into tight fists at her sides and she retreated backwards from the door towards the kitchen. "Where's Taka?"
What could have been a smile crossed the man's lips, "He cannot help you now priestess of Suzaku."
Miaka's eyes grew wide and her hand flew instinctively to the wedding band on her left hand. Her thumb grazed over it while she silently asked Taka to give her strength.
"What did you do to Taka!" she demanded, her tone passably authoritative. It was a far cry from the bone-deep fear and despair that had her knees trembling beneath her.
The cloaked figure chuckled wickedly in amusement, "Isn't it obvious, Priestess? I killed him."
Miaka's hands flew to her mouth to stifle a horrified scream.
No-he's lying! she told herself. He has to be!
Taka had promised her he'd come back. He couldn't be dead now—not after everything they'd gone through to be together! The cloaked figure took a menacing step forwards and Miaka found herself trapped against the kitchen counter.
"Let me introduce myself, Priestess," the man said with a mock bow. "I am Kenshin, master sorcerer of Tenryo, and I'm here to kill you." With a malicious smile pasted on his lips, Kenshin concentrated his energy to blast her into oblivion.
At least Taka and I will be together again, Miaka thought grimly.
Closing her eyes, she readied herself for the killing blow, all the while praying that it would be swift and painless. She felt a blast of warmth suddenly envelop her. The energy crackled against her skin, lifting the hairs on her arms until they stood on end. Death was surprisingly peaceful and comforting. In fact, it wasn't how she'd pictured it at all.
It wasn't until she heard a distant cry of outrage from somewhere far below that she finally opened her eyes. All around her pulsed the brilliant warm, red light of Suzaku. Hazarding a glance upwards, Miaka found herself face-to-face once more with the beast god who'd changed the course of her life forever.
"We meet again," he said with a kind smile and bowed his head in her direction. With the gentle touch of his palm to her head he communicated without words the only information she needed to know - she was alive and, for the time being, safe.
Miaka could manage little more than to gape up at him in shock. After a long moment an astonished "Suzaku!" slipped from her lips and she collapsed unconscious at the beast god's feet.
Chapter 4: Miaka Returns to Konan
She ran as fast as her legs would carry her toward Taka's broken body sprawled across the pavement. His blood stained the ground dark red. As she drew closer it spread towards her, mingling with the puddles of rainwater. His blood soaked her socked feet and turned them a sickening shade of red.
"Oh Taka!" she sobbed and dropped to her knees next to him. Too scared to touch him for fear of hurting him more, she hung her head and wept bitterly into her hands.
"Don't worry I'll be fine," he lied through painful gasps for air. He gave her his best reassuring smile and took hold of one of her hands. "Don't cry; I'll be all right."
She looked down at his smiling face and wanted desperately to believe him, but her heart knew the truth. She gripped his hand tighter, as though she could keep him with her through will power alone.
"You can't die!" she pleaded through tears, "What am I going to do without you?"
A cold chill ran up her spine and she turned ever so slowly, glancing over her shoulder to find Kenshin standing over them. She narrowed her eyes and clenched her fists so tightly her fingernails dug into her palms.
"You did this to him!" she seethed. Her blood was on fire as rage flooded through her. He would answer for what he'd done. Anyone who dared to try and steal away their hard-fought happiness would have to deal with her first.
Taka struggled to turn onto his side so he could catch her eye. "Miaka, no! You can't win against him! Please, run! Go now! Run!"
He struggled to push himself up and collapsed with a groan to the pavement. Her eyes filled with tears and t he breath caught in her throat, making it impossible for her to speak a single word. Taka turned his head towards her and mouthed, "I love you".
Her breaths emerged in ragged gasps from behind her hand. She saw his eyes close, saw his chest cease to move. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks, mingling with the cool rain as she shook her head refusing to believe the evidence before her.
"Come back," she pleaded and collapsed on top of him. Her fist beat weakly against his chest as heavy sobs shook her. "Come back! You promised me, Taka! You promised..."
"Miaka! Miaka, please wake up!" His face drawn with concern, Chichiri shook the Priestess of Suzaku lightly by the shoulders until she stirred. "MIAKA!"
With a start Miaka's eyes flew open, "Taka!"
She bolted upright and her eyes darted around the unfamiliar room in search of Taka's face. Seeing only Chichiri, her features crumpled and she began to sob uncontrollably. "He's gone," she managed to tell him with her face muffled behind her hands. "Taka's gone!"
The monk could do little more than hold her as she cried. She sobbed into his shoulder for some time before eventually quieting down and pulling away.
"I'm sorry, Chichiri" she apologized and used the back of her hand to wipe the last remaining tears from her cheeks. "I-I had the most horrible dream."
"Suzaku told us what happened when he brought you here, you know? Are you okay?"
Miaka nodded feebly and her eyes briefly scanned the length of her body. Everything was still in tact. She was no worse for the wear after her encounter with that horrible cloaked figure. Even so, she felt hollow inside. Taka was gone, she knew it as clearly and deeply as she felt her love for him. Something terrible had happened to him, and the worst part was she didn't even know why. Who was Kenshin? And what reason did he possibly have for wanting them dead?
It was a long moment before the realization that she was sitting next to Chichiri in one of the guest rooms in Hotohori's castle sank in. She glanced around the room, hardly able to believe her eyes.
"Chichiri, am I back in the book?!"
The monk nodded his head solemnly and stood up, replacing the mask that always made his face appear to smile, "Suzaku brought you here so you would be safe, you know? That guy in your world, Kenshin, he's bad news! It's best if you stay here for now so we can protect you if he tries to come after you again."
Miaka could only nod her head, too stunned to comprehend all of what he was saying. Chirchiri gave a patient smile and tilted his head in the direction of the room's sliding door.
"I think there's someone else who wants to see you too, you know?" With a twitch of his fingers the door flew open and Tasuki spilled in, tumbling head over heels to land clumsily on his face.
"Ow! Wha'd'dya do that for Chichiri!" The fiery tempered bandit shouted indignantly at the monk while rubbing his sore nose. After his temper had subsided he caught sight of the Priestess sitting atop the bed.
"Miaka—," he started and then his words suddenly evaporated. They remained stuck in the back of his throat as he stared at the tear-stained face of a girl he never thought he'd see again. There were a thousand things he wanted to say to her, countless words he'd gone over in his mind again and again, but now that she was here he suddenly couldn't find the courage to give them life.
"Hey Tasuki," Miaka called out meekly and braved a smile. "It's good to see things around here haven't changed! You look older… How many years has it been since I left?"
"Only three…," he replied gruffly as he pushed himself unceremoniously up off the floor.
The two old friends stared silently at each other as they struggled to find the right words. Chichiri coughed and politely and excused himself, making up a half-hearted excuse about having to help the new emperor with his astrology lessons. Once they were alone, the silence in the guest room was practically deafening. Tasuki tried not to take notice of Miaka's state of near undress and instead stared nervously at the floor while she stared fixedly at the sheets balled between her fingers.
A nervous blush rose to colour his cheeks as Tasuki cleared his throat. "I heard about Taka-," he began, a little unsure of himself. "I'm sorry, Miaka.
"If it's okay with you, I'd rather not talk about that just now," Miaka cut in with a false smile. "It still hurts too much to think about. Tell me what you've been up to while I've been gone."
It was a good minute before Tasuki noticed her shoulders shaking with silent sobs. In two quick strides he was at her side, sitting next to her on the bed. He didn't ask permission before wrapping his arms around her and holding her tight against his chest. He could feel her tears forming a large wet stain on his shirt, but he didn't mind. It felt nice to hold her again, tears and all.
When Miaka's sobs had lessened she eventually pulled away and wiped the last remaining tears from her cheeks.
"Sorry, Tasuki," she apologized to him with an indelicate sniffle. "I just can't seem to stop crying. I keep trying to pretend it's all going to be okay. Taka…he's not coming back this time. He's really gone. I don't know what I'm supposed to do now that he's-"
Miaka couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence. The final word, as vile and offensive as it was, stuck in her throat and refused to be spoken aloud.
Tasuki searched his mind for something comforting to say, something that would take away her pain, but no words emerged. He wanted to tell her everything he'd been waiting to say for three long years. He wanted her to know how much she meant to him. And that no matter what she still had him. But it wasn't the right time. Not when tears of grief still ran down her cheeks. It would be a long time yet before she was ready to hear any of what was in his head.
So instead he swallowed hard and took hold of her shoulders, forcing her to meet his gaze.
"Miaka, nothin' I say will make ya feel any better. You're strong. You're gonna get through this. You just have to believe in yourself. You've got all of your friends here in Konan to help you. You can talk to us any time you need to ya know."
Miaka nodded her head solemnly, "I know. You guys are the best friends anyone could ask for." She threw her arms around him, offering a rib-crushing hug. He hugged her back, quietly indulging in the feeling of her arms wrapped tight around him.
"So tell me, Tasuki, what've you been doing while I was away? Are you back with the bandits now?" With each probing question she began to sound more and more like the girl he remembered, the cheerful, ever-hungry Miaka who brimmed with unfailing optimism.
He couldn't help but smile. He felt lighter than he had in months. Whatever horrible circumstances had brought her here, it was good to have her back.
"Everything was pretty boring while you were gone," he confessed with a casual shrug of his shoulders. "Come on, let's go for a walk and I'll fill ya in."
Miaka nodded in agreement and Tasuki lifted her out of the bed, setting her feet down on the floor next to him. With her arm in his, Miaka allowed him to lead her to the Imperial gardens. The very same ones he'd visited daily since she'd been gone. Not that he'd ever tell her that, of course. Not on his life.
Chapter 5: Hidden Attraction
Tasuki gazed into the clear depths of the fishing-hole and frowned at his reflection.
How could I even think I had a chance with her? It was easier before, when she was with HIM; at least then I knew I was beat! But now...
Now he had to compete with Taka's ghost who was irreplacable and perfect in Miaka's eyes. Compared to him, Tasuki knew he just didn't measure up. How do you compete with a dead man anyways? He didn't have a chance.
The fiery-haired Suzaku warrior made a sound of disgust and threw the stone he'd been tossing in his palm into the pond. His troubled eyes watched the resulting ripples cascade out towards the shore.
I should just forget it. Besides, she'd never be interested in me anyway, he reasoned. I'd be good to her though, I know I would! I've just gotta prove it to her. I need to show her that I can take care of her too!
His mind had been going back and forth like this for hours. The rational, reasonable part of him eschewed the idea entirely, but the part of him that loved her refused to give in so easily. He could have his happiness, too. It was finally within reach if only he was willing to be brave enough to seek it out.
Preoccupied as he was, Tasuki didn't notice Miaka's approach until she plopped down next to him on the grassy bank.
"Hey Tasuki! What're you doing all out here alone huh?" She peered up at him, her wide green eyes blinking expectantly.
Avoiding the sweet look on her face, he shrugged his shoulders and stared out at the mountain-filled horizon. "There's not much for me to do now that I'm not fighting," he explained tersely. "I don't even have a gang of bandits anymore, now that Kouji's leader."
Miaka frowned thoughtfully. "Well if it makes you feel better, I don't have anything to do either," she confided. "Now that I'm not the Priestess of Suzaku anymore, I don't really feel like I belong here."
Tasuki glanced her way but she was too busy staring at her bare feet tapping atop the soft grass to notice. "You know, it feels kind of weird being plain old Miaka Suku—I mean Yuuki again. It feels kind of boring... I mean, if I'm not the Priestess of Suzaku, what am I?" she finished quietly, sounding rather dejected.
The bright smile that'd graced her features when she first arrived suddenly darkened and Tasuki felt his heart sink. He was searching for some words that might comfort her when she looked over at him to reveal a beaming smile. Her abrupt change in mood made him falter and the words stuck in his throat.
"Well I guess that means I've got lots of time to RELAX!" she concluded and stretched her arms high above her head with a long, languid sigh.
Tasuki hadn't missed the slip though, and she wasn't fooling him with her false cheer.
"How could you think that, you idiot?" he demanded gruffly. "You'll always be the Priestess no matter what. You'll always have a place here in Konan. Just 'cause there ain't no bad guys to fight doesn't mean you're suddenly a nobody. We're ALL happy you came back!"
Miaka's eyes were glistening with unshed tears when she looked up at him but there was a genuine smile on her face, "Thanks Tasuki! That makes me feel a lot better. You know, just because there's no bad guys to fight and no bandits to lead doesn't mean you're useless either. You said so yourself!"
Tasuki opened his mouth to insist that it wasn't the same thing but quickly closed it again. He sullenly crossed his arms in front of his chest, feeling as though he'd been tricked somehow. She had a knack for doing that. A stubborn smile tugged at the corners of his mouth until he finally gave in and burst out laughing. Miaka jumped a little, surprised by his sudden outburst.
"Yea you're right," he lamented once he caught his breath again. "That's the first time I've laughed in a while. It's great to have you back Miaka!"
With a grin he patted his hand atop her head and made sure to tousle her hair. Sitting back, he admired his handiwork and started laughing again. Miaka glared up at him through the soft strands of hair he'd thrown over her eyes.
"You should definitely style it like this from now on. It looks so much better! It covers your face-," he didn't get the chance to finish before Miaka punched him.
"Shove it you jerk!" she yelled, only mildly annoyed that her hair was ruined. She really wasn't all that upset, but she didn't appreciate people insulting her face either.
"Alright, alright, I'm sorry!" Tasuki put up his hands in defence. "You have a very pretty face, okay?"
"Really? You're not just saying that so I don't punch you again are you?" Miaka made another fist with her hand and held it purposefully in front of her.
"You have a beautiful face, Miaka. You're a naturally pretty girl. I like that about you." Tasuki suddenly blushed a brilliant red, realizing that he'd said far more than he'd intended too.
Miaka bowed her head, thankful for the curtain of hair that hid the obvious traces of her embarrassment on her cheeks. Not knowing what to say, the pair sat in awkward silence avoiding one another's eyes.
Realizing that if he was going to confess his true feelings to Miaka now was probably as good a time as any, Tasuki cleared his throat and sat up straighter.
"Miaka, I-," was all he managed to get out before Tama dropped from the tree branches above them to land atop Tasuki's head. The once valiant and brave Suzaku warrior flew into hysterics, screaming "Get it off! Get it off!" while he darted back and forth in frantic circles.
Miaka laughed out loud at the scene, thankful to have something to break the tension. She got the feeling that Tasuki had been trying to tell her something important, but she couldn't figure out what it was. She watched him in thoughtful silence until he returned a few moments later holding Tama by the scruff of the neck.
"I hate cats," he grumbled, setting the animal down on the grass. The cat "meowed" haughtily at him and sauntered off into the bushes.
"You really shouldn't hate cats. Some of them are probably smarter than you, you know," came a familiar voice from above them. It was Chichiri's turn to jump down from the tree and join Miaka and Tasuki on the ground.
"How long've you been up there?" Tasuki demanded, his eyes squinting suspiciously into the tree branches overhead.
"Not long," the monk replied, brushing off the question. Giving Tasuki a stern look, he turned all smiles to Miaka.
"Miaka we need to get back to the palace! The Emperor has just spoken with Taiitsukun and she wants us to meet in the Suzaku shrine at once! She says she has information on that evil force from your world!"
Miaka sucked in a gasp and breathed the word "Kenshin" through her clenched teeth. Face set in determination, she jumped to her feet and took hold of Chichiri's arm.
"Let's go then. I want to know everything I can about this guy!" Looking back over her shoulder she called to Tasuki, "You coming?"
Disappointed that his attempt to tell her how he felt had failed so miserably, the red-haired bandit lagged behind. Eyeing her retreating form, he felt a smile pull at his lips and decided to cut his losses. Nothing had happened, so there was nothing to be upset about. After all, now that she was back in Konan he'd have another chance to tell her eventually, right?
Chapter 6: Taiitsukun's Return
A pair of indigo eyes cracked opened and peered blindly into the consuming darkness. The void was impenetrable, soundless...nothing existed inside of it except for him. Oddly, he felt completely at peace. There was nothing to be afraid of anymore. He felt protected in this place, wherever it was, like a child within a womb. Certain he was dead, he cautiously took in one rasping breath and then another. By the third he realized he was very much alive. Each breath felt like a thousand shards of glass piercing the delicate tissues of his lungs.
His eyes blinked wide and scanned the vast expanse around him, eager to find something that would explain where he was or how he'd arrived. Feeling utterly exhausted he quickly gave up his search and closed his eyes-they were useless to him now anyway. A face flashed like a beacon of light through his mind and his breath caught in his throat. An invisible hand squeezed his heart as he whispered her name, "Miaka."
He'd failed her when she'd needed him the most. What use was he to her if he couldn't even protect her? He clenched his fists and struck them against the floor beneath him. I will protect you, he promised soundlessly. As long as I'm alive I'll use every last breath I have in this body to protect you Miaka.
Hotohori, Nuriko, Tasuki, and Miaka cowered as Chichiri led them into the Suzaku shrine where Taiitsukun planned to meet them. A large sacrificial fire stood in the centre of the room burning brightly, casting a warm orange glow along the stone walls and floor.
"What should we do? Go stand by the fire?" Miaka inquired and gave Hotohori's sleeve a gentle tug. The emporer gazed down at her amused and shook his head.
"No. I think it is best if we remain where we are. Taiitsukun will appear when he is ready."
Miaka pursed her lips and turned away. She was too impatient to wait around for the god to show up when he felt like it. "Taiitsukun! We're here! Where are you?" she called out, her voice echoing loudly off the walls.
Chichiri gasped at her from across the room, "Miaka! This is a place of worship, you know?"
She shrank beneath his disappointed glare and offered an apologetic smile. Turning towards the fire she gazed into its burning depths and allowed her mind to wander.
Maybe Taiitsukun will know... If there's any chance at all that Taka is alive...
As the Suzaku warriors dispersed throughout the room, Tasuki caught sight of Miaka lingering near the sacrificial fire. Seeing an opportunity to talk to her alone, he casually sidled up next to her. After a quick glance at Chichiri's turned back, he put his arm around her shoulder and gently pulled her against his chest. Reading the distant look in her eyes, he could tell what was on her mind. As much as it hurt him to know it, he knew she was still thinking of Taka.
"You don't need to worry. I'll protect you in Taka's place," he vowed softly. "I won't let anyone hurt you, okay?"
He felt Miaka's head nod against his shirt and smiled inwardly, thankful that she wasn't shying away from his touch. He subtly bent his head and breathed in the sweet scent of her hair. This was it, this was how all women were supposed to smell. Tasuki closed his eyes and enjoyed the scent of her for a moment longer while his mind wondered about the taste of her soft lips.
"So you've come finally," a great voice boomed from the front of the hall.
All five of them turned towards the figure of Taiitsukun standing before them. Tasuki reluctantly removed his arm from Miaka's shoulders and took a step away from her. Now permanently in his male form, Taiitsukun held a certain majesty over the room that even a man as beautiful as Hotohori could envy.
"Come," the god offered with a gracious sweep of his hand, "Let us go to my chambers where we can discuss this new threat to our world. I have some information about him you all need to hear."
Taiitsukun turned his back and stepped regally out of the great hall, expecting them to follow. Miaka stared after him and after a gentle nudge from Tasuki fell in step behind him. She'd only seen Taiitsukun as a male once before. she had to admit, the god was far less intimidating as an elderly woman.
Tasuki lagged behind, allowing Miaka to walk ahead of him. He stared after her with a look of longing that he no longer bothered to hide. Would there ever be a time when he could call her his? Chichiri roughly grabbed hold of his arm, snapping him out of his daze. He swung around to meet the monk's one-eyed glare.
"I know what you're trying to do. We have more important things to worry about right now," he whispered harshly into his ear. "Forget about Miaka for now."
Eyes narrowed, Tasuki scowled at him and ripped his arm out of his grasp. Turning his back he defiantly strode into Taiitsukun's chamber without a word.
Slipping his mask back into place, Chichiri groaned inwardly at Tasuki's retreating form.
"Nothing can get through that thick skull of his," he grumbled tersely.
With a frustrated stamp of his staff against the floor, the monk ducked through the door of the inner chamber and hurried to catch up with the others.
Chapter 7: The Mission
Taiitsukun and the Suzaku warriors sat together at a long wooden table in the inner chamber. With his hands folded neatly in front of him, the god gave each warrior a grave look. When his gaze settled on Miaka he offered her a brief, apologetic smile before looking away.
From inside his robes the god retrieved a small, mirror-like object and set it atop the table. The object defied gravity, suddenly floating in the air above the table so that everyone could see into its reflective surface. A blinding white light emanated from mirror, forcing everyone to shield their eyes against the glare. When the light had died down into a peaceful glow, the Suzaku warriors slowly lifted their heads one by one to watch the scene being displayed before them.
Miaka gasped aloud at the familiar sight of Taka's car. She sat rigid with her hands clenched in trembling fists atop the table as the group watched a cloaked figure stand over Taka's broken body and envelop it in a ball of brilliant purple chi.
"Taka!" Miaka screamed, horrified, as she watched Taka die right before her eyes. Tasuki jumped to his feet and caught Miaka before she hit the floor in a dead faint. Narrowing his eyes, he glared down the table at Taiitsukun.
"Was the really necessary?" he growled. "She didn't need to see him die!"
Returning to his chair, Tasuki held Miaka in his lap with her head against his chest until she regained consciousness. He glared as Taiitsukun motioned to the mirror.
"It was necessary for you all to see the extent of your opponent's powers. It is unfortunate that Miaka had to witness Taka's death, but it was unavoidable. She will have to overcome her grief eventually, and it is better she do that sooner than later."
Taiitsukun's cool tone snaked around the silent room, leaving a sense of foreboding in its wake. Tasuki made a sound of disgust at the god's lack of compassion for Miaka's fragile emotional state. He briefly gazed down at the Priestess's features and was relieved to see she was still asleep. In time he looked up into the mirror and watched the purple light engulf Taka's body. His mouth dropped open at how easily that guy in the black cloak eradicated one of the toughest men he'd ever fought. This guy, this new enemy, really was as powerful as Taiitsukun suggested.
"His name is Kenshin," Taiitsukun informed them solemnly, "and he does not work alone. He works for another who controls him. The one who controls him seeks to harness the power of all four beast gods. Suzaku is bound to Miaka until her death, so we must protect her life at all costs."
"What does he want the power of the four beast gods for?" Nuriko wondered aloud.
"With the power of all four beast gods he will be unstoppable in this world as well as in Miaka's world. Time and reality will no longer bind him. We must not let this happen! This is why I have called you together—you must protect Miaka with your lives."
"So what's in it for Kenshin?" Tasuki wondered in his typical give something to get something bandit view of the world. Taiitsukun nodded at him and once again motioned to the mirror. As he spoke images of Kenshin watching his entire family die before his eyes at the hands of a rival sorcerer flashed in the mirror.
"Kenshin wants to avenge those he lost. He sold himself to his current master for the promise of eternal life so he could complete this task."
Chichiri removed his mask and set it down on the table in front of him, "What is his weakness? How do we beat him?"
"That I cannot say. Warriors of Suzaku, you must discover Kenshin's weakness on your own. I do not know it myself, but even if I did I would not be able to tell you. Any interference on my part would upset the balance of this world and the world outside the book."
Hotohori stood up abruptly, sending his chair toppling to the floor with a crash, "You bring us here to tell us we must keep Miaka safe, that not only her life but the lives of everyone in both worlds depends on it, but will not give us a helping hand?" he demanded, outraged.
The Emperor angrily paced the room while Taiitsukun remained seated, utterly unaffected by his outburst.
"I have told you all I know," the god replied calmly. Hotohori eventually returned to the table. He rested both palms flat against the wood and bowed his head.
"I hate feeling helpless," he confessed. "I would gladly protect Miaka with my life, but that life will be wasted if I don't know how to defeat our enemy."
Looking around the table, Taiitsukun saw the nods of agreement given by the other warriors. He rose to his feet and departed the chamber, leaving the warriors to their own devices.
"It seems so hopeless," Hotohori bemoaned and glanced at Miaka, who was still unconscious in Tasuki's lap. Nuriko nodded and rested his forehead against his fist. Chichiri finally stamped his staff into the ground and rose to his feet.
"And you call yourselves warriors," he spat, his tone filled with disgust. "We have an opportunity to fight this enemy, to protect this world and Miaka's from harm, and you have all given up before the first battle has even begun!"
The other warriors had the wherewithal to look ashamed. Chichiri looked from face to face around the table, his good eye dark and serious.
"Well what do you propose we do?" Nuriko offered.
"Fight. It's the only thing we can do. We don't have any other choice," the monk answered. "Taiitsukun did all he could for us, now it's time for us to do our part. Are you with me?"
One by one the Suzaku warriors stood and agreed to fight once more for Miaka's sake. As soon as they had agreed to take on the task, a light appeared before each of them on the table revealing an item which would help them in their fight against Kenshin. Each warrior stared down at their new treasure on the table; all but Tasuki. He stared down into nothing—nothing had been left on the table after his ball of light had disappeared.
"That's what you get for mouthing off to Taiitsukun!" Nuriko joked holding up her new golden shield.
"Hey shaddup!" Tasuki yelled back at him. "Don't make me burn that pretty new shield of yours black with my fire!"
Nuriko covered his shield protectively and stalked off giving Tasuki a dirty look. Hotohori held up his new armor and smiled as the light gleamed off its gold plating. The seal of Suzaku was engraved into the chest plate and shone bright red.
"This armor is almost as beautiful as I am," he gasped, giving a pleased nod.
"This isn't a beauty contest," Chichiri scolded even as he examined his new staff. "Each of these new tools will help us in this battle. They all contain great power and are not meant to be taken lightly."
"Give us some credit would ya?" Nuriko chided with his hands on his hips. With his shield braced against one arm he looked at Chichiri annoyed. "We're all adults here. We've battled warriors to protect Miaka before and haven't failed yet. So just relax a little would ya?"
Chichiri sighed and his shoulders visibly drooped. Lowering himself into the chair Taiitsukun had previously occupied he rested his head in his hand.
"I'm sorry," he apologized softly. "Seeing how easily Taka was killed made me realize that we might not win this time. We had too many sacrifices last time..." The room went quiet as they remembered their fallen comrades. "I couldn't bear to lose any of you."
"You don't have to worry, Chichiri!" Four pairs of eyes looked over in surprise at Miaka. Though she was still in Tasuki's arms, she was awake and braving a smile.
"I know you can beat him, I can feel it in my heart," she assured Chichiri. He returned the gesture and slowly got to his feet.
"It's decided then, we'll fight."
Nuriko, Hotohori, and Tasuki all nodded in unison. Miaka's heart dropped in her chest as she looked around the room at her friends who were all vowing to fight to the death to protect her. She couldn't bear to lose a single one of them. Not Chichiri, or Hotohori, or Nuriko, and especially not Tasuki. His heart beat strong and healthy beneath her cheek, just as Taka's had not so long ago. Her fingers curled in the loose material of his shirt. Would she be forced to lose him too?
"Well, where should we start?" Hotohori wondered and set down his armor atop the table with a loud 'clunk'.
"Mt. Reikakku," Tasuki offered with a level of certainty that caught everyone's attention. He set Miaka down on her feet and smiled at her as he rose to his feet. "The bandits are friends. I know they'll help us," he explained with his hands placed confidently on his hips. "They may not have powers like ours, but I figure any help is better than going after this Kenshin guy on our own."
He looked to Chichiri for support and saw his approving nod.
"Alright, we'll leave for Mt. Reikakku in the morning," Hotohori determined and retreated towards the door with his new armour. Nuriko smiled and hurriedly followed the Emperor, calling out not so innocent offers to help him try on his shiny new armour. Chichiri, Tasuki, and Miaka exchanged amused glances and then departed the inner chamber to begin preparations of their own.
Miaka's eyes carefolly followed Tasuki's retreating form. He was strong, one of the strongest of Suzaku's warriors. He would undoubtedly protect her at all costs, she was certain of that fact. In that room he'd promised his life to her, but she truly wished he hadn't. Deep down she wished none of them had.
It felt like such a waste. Chichiri, Hotohori, Nuriko and Tasuki, they were all so determined to fight for her, to do whatever it took to save her life. But since the moment she'd awoken in the book, the moment she knew for certain Taka was gone, she'd longed only for an end to the constant pain. The thought of living without him was unbearable, she couldn't possibly endure it for another day. It had to end!
There was nothing she wanted more than to be with Taka again, wherever that was. The prospect of taking her own life was enticing, but she couldn't possibly do it now-not after everyone had pledged to risk so much for her. With a heavy-hearted sigh Miaka picked up her pace to catch up with the others and resigned herself to enduring just a little while longer.
Chapter 8: Dragon's Blood
Miaka sat on the edge of her bed and stared dismally at the floor. Sleep had evaded her hours ago. Every time she closed her eyes, that same horrible scene played before her eyes - Kenshin standing over Taka's broken body, enveloping him with a fatal blast of his chi. She wiped the tears from her cheeks and sipped at the small cup of lukewarm tea the servants had left for her.
She didn't bother to light the lamp next to the bed. The night was quiet and the blackness of it surrounded her like a comforting blanket. Pushing herself up off the bed, she paced the room barefoot, enjoying the feel of the soft wooden floorboards beneath the soles of her feet. She ran a hand haphazardly through her loose hair and then made her way to the window. With a light push the shutters opened and the cool night air washed over her. Miaka closed her eyes and breathed deeply.
"Taka, I miss you," she whispered. "This is too hard. I'm not strong enough to wake up each day thinking that I'll have to go through it without you." Miaka broke down into fresh sobs and rested her head against the windowsill.
"Why did you have to die? WHY!" she cried softly and weakly pounded her fist against the wall next to her.
When her tears had subsided, she slowly opened her eyes and looked out into the moonlit garden. She took a startled step backwards, her eyes blinking in astonishment at the vision before her. It wasn't possible...it couldn't be him. Running to the door of her room, she threw it open and ran out to the garden. Standing there beneath the branches of a large tree, smiling at her as if nothing were amiss, was Taka.
He motioned for her to come to him and she didn't hesitate. Her body moved towards him as if drawn by an invisible force. He held his arms open to her, welcoming her with a warm smile. She stopped just outside the reach of his outstretched arms and held her breath.
"Taka?" she whispered, her glistening eyes searching his for answers. He smiled down at her before fading slowly away.
"No! Wait!" Miaka's hands darted out into the darkness but met only cool night air. Falling to her knees on the soft dirt she hugged her body and bent her head to her knees. She cried out loud, not caring if anyone heard her now. The pain of losing Taka was too much for her to bear. She needed to rid herself of it once and for all.
Lifting her head, Miaka looked with tear-filled eyes at a flower blooming in the spot where Taka's ghost had been. Realizing what it was, she smiled to herself and gently picked it. Remembering her lessons from Mitsukake, she cradled the blossom gently between her hands and rose to her feet.
"This flower is useful if you're in the wilderness and have no way to defend yourself against an enemy," the healer had told her. "Give your enemy this nectar and they will soon be dead. It is odourless, colourless and tasteless and powerful enough to extinguish the life force of even warriors like ourselves."
Miaka studied the light blue flower cradled in her hands and remarked at how harmless it appeared. It was truly beautiful—without Mitsukake's lessons she would never have guessed its powerful and deadly abilities.
With the deadly blossom in hand, she returned to her room and sat once more on the edge of her bed. The desire to be with Taka again was too much for her to bear alone. She didn't have the strength to live without him, she knew that now. And this flower promised a quick and painless end that would give her what she desired most - to be with the man she loved.
Miaka hesitated only long enough to exhale a shuddering breath before sipping her head to the flower's petal soft blossom and draining it of its poisonous nectar.
The poison was quick, just as Mitsukake had promised. It stole her breath away, even as her heart hammered wildly in her chest. The blindness came gradually, invading from the peripheries of her vision until everything went dark. She collapsed atop the soft blankets of her bed and listened to the sound of her heart pounding in her ears. As the seconds passed the rhythm became slower and softer until it was barely a whisper, and then there was no sound left at all.
Tasuki walked slowly around the wooden porch that surrounded the palace with his hands in his pockets. He couldn't get Miaka out of his head. He'd been thinking about her even more now that she'd finally come back and it was making him restless. He needed answers, damn it, or he was going to drive himself crazy!
He had little cause to wonder why his feet led him directly to Miaka's room. He stopped just short of the door, surprised to find it ajar. Tasuki poked his head in carefully and waited for his eyes to adjusted to the dark shadows of the interior. They scanned the room, expecting to find Miaka sleeping peacefully in her bed. But when his eyes settled on the bed he flung the door open and boldly stepped into the room.
Her body was strewn across the bed in an unnatural way that held no suggestion of sleep. "Miaka? Miaka, are you awake?" he whispered loudly.
Panic gripped his chest as he neared the bed and caught sight of the light blue flower laying next to her. His eyes scanned her slowly, then fixed on her chest. He stood frozen next to her bed, waiting for the tell-tale rise and fall of her chest with each breath. It was a long moment before he realized there was no movement whatsoever coming from her. Miaka wasn't breathing!
"Miaka!" He called to her again, more loudly this time. He reached down and shook her, hoping to rouse her. Instead her head lolled to the side and the rest of her remained limp. Her face still had colour in the cheeks but it was fading fast.
Lifting her into his arms, Tasuki knelt with her onto the floor next to the bed. His heart was hammering hard inside his chest. What was he supposed to do? He wasn't a doctor like Mitsukake or a magician like Chichiri. He was no use to anyone in situations like these. Shaking Miaka's body once more, he called out to her with a voice that broke as tears flooded his vision.
I'm useless, he thought bitterly. I can't even save the woman I love. Why did I ever think I could protect her?
"We need you here!" he yelled at her.
A part of him clung to the hope that she would suddenly open her eyes and say "Surprise! I got ya!" but she remained silent and still as death. Taking Miaka's limp hand in his, Tasuki looked more closely at the light blue flower on the bed.
hat's Dragon's Blood! he thought. Chichiri had warned him about it last time they were in the woods. He said if any girl tried to give him the flower as a gift he should kill her on the spot because it contained a powerful poison. His brows shot up as Tasuki looked down into Miaka's face as understanding dawned on him.
"Did you want to die this much?" he asked and shook his head in disbelief. "I knew you were in pain, Miaka, but I never thought..."
Tasuki grit his teeth together and racked his brain for some memory of how to counteract the poison's effects. He remembered Chichiri saying something about the leaves.
Yes! That's it!
Tasuki jumped to his feet and grabbed the flower off the bed. If I can just get her to eat the leaves she should be okay.
Mercifully there was one leaf left at the very bottom of the plant. He plucked it from the stem and lifted Miaka's head off the floor.
"Miaka, if you can hear me I need you to eat this. It's going to make you better again."
Tasuki tried in vain to get her to eat the leaf, but she was too incapacitated to do it on her own. Grunting in frustration, he popped the leaf into his own mouth and chewed it until the bitter juices invaded his taste buds. Careful not to swallow it himself, he bent his head and pressed his mouth to hers. He passed on the juice from the leaf to her and prayed to Suzaku and any other god who would listen for their help.
When all the juice from the leaf was gone, he pulled back and waited. It felt like an eternity passed before she finally stirred and opened her eyes. She blinked up at him and her brow furrowed in confusion.
"I'm...alive?" she stuttered, her voice hoarse. Tasuki nodded wordlessly, tears still visible on his cheeks.
"Promise me you'll never try that again!"
Miaka nodded dumbfounded and allowed him to gather her body against his chest. She listened to the sound of his heart hammering in his chest and wondered just how close she'd come to dying. She licked her lips and could taste the lingering remnants of the poison's bitter antidote. Miaka gathered her energy and tried to speak again.
"Please don't tell the others about this."
He nodded and Miaka relaxed against him, allowing herself to drift off into a deep, dreamless sleep. When he was certain she was asleep Tasuki kissed her gently, first on the forehead, then the nose, and finally, on her cheek.
Don't worry Miaka, I won't tell anyone, he vowed silently. It would break their hearts…
"You've just about broken mine," he finished in a grave whisper.
Tasuki lightly stroked her hair and then leaned back against the bed frame. With a weighted sigh of relief and wearily closed his eyes. One of these days she was going to kill him, he was certain of it. With Miaka held securely in his arms, he slowly drifted off to enjoy the first undisturbed sleep he'd had in months.
Chapter 9: The Betrayal
Taka awoke to the sharp sound of heeled shoes clicking atop a tile floor. The sound drew closer and stopped close to his body. Whoever it was, he could feel their eyes boring into him, and kept his own closed. The feet moved once more, this time walking in a tight circle around his body. They stopped next to his head and the silence was broken by a polite cough.
"I know you're awake; it's no use pretending. You might as well get up and face me like a man."
The voice was cool, calculated, and unforgiving. The confidence exuded by whomever was speaking drove him to grit his teeth against the pain and push himself to his feet. When he finally opened his eyes he exchanged glares with the man who'd tried to kill him.
"What do you want?" he demanded. "Wasn't killing me enough? Now you have to taunt me in the afterlife too?"
Kenshin laughed at this and glanced around, clasping this hands casually behind his back. "Some afterlife this is. Personally I envisioned a little more greenery and wildlife myself."
Taka clenched his jaw to keep from lashing out. Kenshin had already proven his superior powers, it was useless to try to fight him now.
"What do you want? Why bring me here?"
Kenshin fixed his cool gaze on Taka and slowly looked him up and down as if sizing him up.
"I did you a favour. I thought I'd show you the truth about the woman you married. You really should thank me. You could have the potential to be a great man Taka if it was't for that girl."
Taka couldn't control his anger any longer and lunged at Kenshin, only to be thrown back by the protective barrier surrounding his body. He glared up into Kenshin's face from his place on the floor.
"I wouldn't suggest doing that again," Kenshin warned. "I might just have to hurt you next time and I'm sure you remember what that feels like?"
"How dare you talk about Miaka that way!" Taka shouted at him, but without his strength as a Suzaku warrior he was helpless to do much more. Kenshin lifted a corner of his mouth into what could have been considered a smile and spoke again.
"Tell me, how much do you trust your wife?"
"With everything I have and more," Taka replied without hesitation.
"Then I'll make you a wager. If I can prove that Miaka is false, you will agree to do my bidding."
"And when you can't?" Taka challenged and crossed his arms confidently in front of his chest.
"Then you are free to go back to her whenever you wish."
The two men locked eyes and Taka shook his head.
"You must also promise that you will stop this war you have waged against Miaka at once. That must be part of our agreement or else you can shove it up your ass,"
Kenshin seemed to consider the idea and thought about it for some time before nodding, "I am a man of my word. The wager will be as you have described. Now, please, look into this mirror."
Kenshin pulled a small handheld mirror out from his floor length cloak and held it before him. A purple light emanated from the mirror and cast outwards like a ring around the moon.
"This mirror," Kenshin explained, "will show you what is happening in the book world at this very moment. You can ask it to show you anything you desire, and you have my word that the image will not be altered by any trickery on my behalf."
Taka looked up at this last statement and gave Kenshin a look that suggested he wasn't the least bit convinced by his reassurances.
"Ask the mirror to see anything you like," he urged.
Taka thought for a moment before asking to see Nuriko. The mirror flashed bright purple for a second before settling down into a gentle haze. The mirror reflected not Taka's pale face but rather an image of Nuriko sitting in a gazebo surrounded by flowers. Taka smiled at seeing his friend so happy and asked the mirror to see Hotohori. The emperor was seated at a long wooden table surrounded by advisers and looking thoroughly bored as they pointed to various kingdoms on a large map. Swallowing hard, Taka exhaled a quiet sigh before asking to see Miaka. The mirror flashed once more and the image it showed him made the breath still in his lungs.
Miaka was in Tasuki's arms, gathered up to his chest, as he kissed her gently on the lips. Taka refused to believe what his eyes were showing him, it had to be a trick! Miaka would never forget about him so quickly, much less lust after another Suzaku warrior! He clenched his hand into a fist and in one angry stroke smashed the mirror to pieces. Little shards of purple glass scattered across the floor.
"It's a damned lie," Taka ground out and glared murderously at Kenshin.
"I assure you it is not. I told you she was false, did I not?"
Taka jumped to his feet and lunged for Kenshin's throat once more but was this time thrown back by a surging bolt of electricity. Taka curled up into a ball as the current ran painfully through him. When it was over, his body still shook and he groaned with pain.
"You can't say I didn't warn you. Apparently you must learn everything the hard way. In regards to our wager, I believe you can safely say I have won."
Taka's lungs worked hard as he desperately tried to catch his breath, "What do you want?"
"I will lend you some of my powers. Your job is to go back into the book and kill each of the Suzaku warriors."
"I refuse," Taka insisted and adamantly shook his head. "They are my friends, I won't hurt them."
"What kind of friend manipulates your wife while she's still grieving your death? What kind of friend forgets about you so quickly? What kind of friend uses the pain of your passing to their own advantage? What kind of friends are these Taka? Certainly not good ones!"
"Shut up!" Taka screamed, covering his ears with his hands.
"These people you call friends will gladly chase after your wife, one after another, until they've all had their fill of her. It's Tasuki now, but you know that Hotohori has always pined after her, and Nuriko himself told you he's always loved her. How can you compete with that when you aren't around? Face it, Taka, they were all jealous of what you had and were just biding their time until they could move have her to themselves."
Kenshin circled Taka slowly, taunting him with his words. He had seen the images in the mirror and knew the feelings of the other warriors all too well. There was no way he could deny the accusations with so much proof.
"You will kill the warriors of Suzaku," he finished solemnly. "You kill them or I will kill Miaka. It's your choice."
"I will not play along with these games!"
Kenshin laughed and turned on his heel to depart. He was at the door before he turned back, one hand braced against the frame.
"I'll leave you to consider my proposal. You're going to wish very soon that you hadn't broken that mirror my friend. It will simply drive you insane wondering what else she is doing with them."
"I am not your friend you bastard. Leave me be!" Taka threatened, his voice low and fierce.
Kenshin's expression lifted in a smug look. With a flick of his hand he conjured an image from the mirror on the ceiling, of Miaka and Tasuki in each others' embrace.
"Just a helpful reminder of what I've shown you today...," Kenshin explained with a sharp laugh. He shot a bolt of purple energy from his hand into Taka's body. It struck his chest and knocked him flat onto his back. The electricity remained in his body rather than dispersing as before, and formed shackles on his wrists and ankles. Kenshin's energy pinned him to the floor, forcing him to look at the reminder of Miaka's infidelity.
"I'll be back to check on you in a few days," Kenshin advised. "Take this time to reconsider my proposal."
Uttering a low laugh, he slipped out the door and left Taka to fight his hardest battle yet, the battle against his own self doubt.
Chapter 10: Tasuki's Kiss
The Suzaku warriors rode on horseback along the dusty road that led into Mt. Reikaku. Birds chirped cheerfully in the trees as the sun beat down, warming the earth. The brightness of the day seemed to reach everyone but Miaka and Tasuki. While the other Suzaku warriors talked and laughed amongst themselves, the pair rode silently on their horse each of them lost in thought.
Miaka was torn between cursing herself for failing and resenting Tasuki for meddling. She couldn't bring herself to be angry with him though. What kind of friend would he be if he hadn't tried to save her? Remembering the tear stains on his cheeks and the look of relief that had washed over him when she'd opened her eyes twisted the knot of guilt in the pit of her stomach even tighter. She'd been incredibly selfish, it was true, but she just didn't see another way. What was the point of living without the man she loved? Simply existing from one day to the next, without joy or passion or love? What was the point?
Tasuki unconsciously tightened his grip around Miaka's waist as they neared Mt. Reikaku. He'd managed to convince himself that if he kept her within arm's reach she'd be safe. He could protect her better like this, he reasoned, even from herself. But she wasn't happy about it. She sat stiffly in front of him, and made no attempt at conversation. He didn't mind the silent treatment for now. At least she was alive enough to be angry with him. Angry was better than dead. He'd gladly take angry over dead any day.
Still, he felt like a complete idiot for not realizing just how badly she'd been hurting before last night. He'd been too wrapped up in his own feelings to notice what seemed glaringly obvious to him now. That mistake had almost cost him her life, and he wasn't willing to take any more chances. So he would keep her close, angry or not, and keep her safe, willing or not, until this all blew over.
Glancing sidelong at his comrades, Tasuki quietly envied their blissful ignorance. The others still didn't know just how close they'd come to losing her. It would be impossible to keep something like this a secret from them for long, especially Chichiri, but if he wanted to gain Miaka's trust he would have to do keep his word. He'd promised her he wouldn't tell the others, but the guilt was slowly eating him alive.
"I think we should stop by that pond over there and get some water, you know?"
The sing song lilt of Chichiri's voice cut through the dark cloud hanging over the pair. They nodded in unison and made an effort to appear pleased at the suggestion. After guiding their horses into a small glade by the pond, everyone jumped down from the saddles. Tasuki jumped off their horse first and offered Miaka a hand down. She ignored him and climbed down on her own. With her face turned away she brushed past him and headed for the nearby trees.
Nuriko watched their exchange and cocked a curious brow, "What'd you do to piss her off?"
Tasuki shrugged and scratched at his head, "I dunno. Maybe one of us should go talk to her?"
Nuriko stared after the spot where Miaka had vanished through the trees before shaking his head, "I think she just needs some time alone. She's had a rough couple of days and having us around all the time doesn't give her much room to grieve on her own. Let's leave her be for now."
With a small knowing smile aimed in Tasuki's direction, Nuriko turned back to his horse and began unloading the saddle bags that contained their lunch. Tasuki lingered, his eyes fixed intently on the space through the trees where Miaka had disappeared. It was tempting to go after her, Suzaku knew he wanted to, but he reasoned that Nuriko was probably right. Going after her how would only make things worse.
With a reluctant sigh, he tied his horse to a nearby tree instead and joined the others for lunch.
Miaka sat beneath a tall oak tree with her knees drawn up to her chest. Tears slipped silently down her cheeks as memories of happier times she'd shared with Taka flashed through her mind. Why was life so incredibly unfair? They'd worked so hard to be together and for what? She pounded the ground with her fist in frustration.
"Damn you, Suzaku," she cursed. "Damn you and everyone in this stupid book. Damn it all, I'm done!"
With a frustrated scream she jumped to her feet and tore through the forest in a blind run. For the first time in a long while she felt utterly helpless. Taka had always been there for her, to guide her or save her. Without him she felt completely vulnerable and alone. She ran deeper into the woods until she was certain she was hopelessly lost, and then she ran some more. She ran until she was so exhausted her legs buckled beneath her and she dropped to her knees on the mossy ground.
When a voice spoke to her from a rocky outcrop ahead she thought it was her imagination at first. But when the voice spoke again she looked up stunned. A man sat amongst the rocks, his piercing dark eyes staring at her intently.
"No warriors out to protect you, today?" he chided. "Tsk, tsk, Priestess. That wasn't very smart. You never know what kind of danger you might run into in these dark woods."
Miaka rose slowly to her feet and angrily brushed the tears from her cheeks.
"Have you been sent to kill me?" she challenged, and narrowed her eyes accusingly. "Well, go on then! Get it over with!"
The man smirked and jumped down to stand in front of her. Dressed in the traditional armour of a warrior, he looked fierce as he advanced on her. Miaka lifted her chin and stood firm, refusing to back down. She'd always shown courage in the face of death before and had no intentions of behaving any differently now. The warrior slowly drew his sword from its sheath.
"I will go down in legends for killing you," he bragged. "Hiku, the man who single-handedly defeated the Priestess of Suzaku! I will be remembered as the greatest warrior who ever lived!"
He grinned and raised the sword above his head to deal her a killing blow. Miaka closed her eyes and prayed her death would be quick and painless. She thought of Taka and let the fear fade from her limbs. She could handle dying if it meant spending eternity with the man she loved. His death had left a raw, gaping hole in the center of her life, a void that could never be filled. Was it so bad to want the pain to end? Was it so wrong to stop at nothing to be with him again?
Hiku halted, his sword still raised above his head. Why wasn't she fighting back? He studied the girl before him, her chest bravely puffed out and her eyes shut tight in anticipation, and it puzzled him greatly. He'd expected her to run, beg for her life even, but her calm acceptance jarred him. It was in that moment he saw what it was that made her the Priestess of Suzaku. The girl before him had more courage than any man he'd fought on the battlefield. It felt wrong to cut such a woman down, but there was too much to be gained by her death.
Raising his sword with renewed drive, Hiku let out a cry and swung it at her exposed with all his might. The blade sliced cleanly through the air and then around, throwing him off balance. He expected to see the body of the Priestess, bloody and decapitated at his feet, but she was gone. A quick, frantic glance around the clearing, and a suspicious lack of blood, was all the confirmation he needed. She'd made a fool of him, and he would make her pay for it.
"I will hunt you to the ends of this earth, Priestess of Suzaku!" he shouted at the trees. "And when I find you, I will kill you!"
Tasuki ran harder and faster than he'd ever run before. He held Miaka tightly in his arms, resisting her pleas to stop. When they'd gotten far enough away from the sword-wielding maniac, he came to a stop behind a tree group of trees and dropped her unceremoniously onto the ground.
"Ouch! What gives, Tasuki! What gives?" Miaka scolded while rubbing her sore behind.
Tasuki paced back and forth, seething with so much anger and worry it practically made his skin crawl. He couldn't believe how close he'd come to losing her again! Whipping round, he grabbed her up by the shoulders and gave her a fierce shake.
"Snap out of it, Miaka! This wanting to die business - forget about it. I ain't gonna let it happen!"
"Maybe it's not up to you!" she countered just as fiercely. She tore her shoulders out of his grasp and stormed a few paces away before turning back, "Did you ever stop think that I'm tired of looking after everyone else all the time? When do I get to do something for myself, huh? Why do I always have to be the one to sacrifice my happiness? I'm tired of it!"
He stared down at his impetuous, fuming Priestess and his expression softened.
"It's what you do, Miaka. It's what you've always done," he reminded her. "It's why you're the Priestess of Suzaku." Her shoulders slumped in defeat and her head dropped low. Even if she wasn't willing to admit it just yet, deep down she knew he was right.
He reached out to gently tip her chin upwards, "The Miaka I know would give anything to protect hers friends and the people she loves."
Her furrowed brow told him loud and clear that she was still angry with him, but she didn't swat his hand away so maybe he was getting through to her after all.
"You're strong, Miaka, and kind. And you have this really annoying habit of putting everyone else first." That earned him a faint glimmer of a smile and a roll of her eyes.
"You know, I didn't realize people could be like that before I met you. Why else do you think I left my old life behind to follow you?"
Miaka's expression softened and she abruptly wrapped her arms around his midsection, hugging him tight. Tasuki blinked down at the top of her head, stunned by her sudden change in mood.
"And all this time I thought it was for the adventure," she quipped.
When he chuckled in response she gripped him tighter and whispered a heartfelt apology against his chest. Expelling a weighted sigh of relief, Tasuki closed his eyes and rested his cheek against the top of her head. He'd lost count of the number of nights he'd lain awake yearning to hold her just like this. She was safe, for now at least. And he'd stop at nothing to keep it that way.
Miaka pulled away with a sheepish look and suggested they return to the others. Finding himself at a loss for words, he could only nod as she turned away from him. Her feet had traveled only a handful of paces before his hand shot out and wrapped around her wrist. He held fast and her wide, questioning eyes searched his.
He wasn't entirely sure what it was he'd hoped to accomplish. It wasn't as though he'd thought any of this through. One moment she was walking away and the next his body had moved on its own to stop her. He took a step toward her, narrowing the distance between them. She stared up at him without saying a word, her body retreating as he moved closer until her back met the rough bark of a nearby cherry tree.
He towered over her, his body close enough that she could feel the warmth of his breath on her cheek. The way he was looking at her now... There was a tenderness there she'd never seen before. His eyes travelled slowly over her features, lingering overlong on her lips. She knew what he wanted. It was there in the way his body leaned subtly into hers and in the light pressure of his hand at her waist, the quiet longing, the desire to touch her in a way he'd never dared to before.
He'd always been a friend to her, one of the most loyal she'd ever had. He'd given up his life as a bandit to become a warrior of Suzaku and she'd always thought he'd done it out of a sense of duty, but the way his thumb brushed softly across her cheek made her wonder. How long had he cared for her this way? She'd been so wrapped up in her love for Taka for so long, she'd been blind to the signs that Tasuki's feelings for her ran deeper than friendship. He'd dedicated his life to her and put everything else on hold without expecting anything in return. Even now, even as his head dipped low to bring his mouth to hers, his movements were achingly slow as though he expected her to refuse him at any second.
The breath hitched in her throat and his lips paused a hairsbreadth from hers. A hundred doubts and fears rushed through her mind in that brief moment, about Taka, the other warriors, and about the man standing before her. She was terrified of hurting him, or saying or doing something that would rob his eyes of that tender look he reserved exclusively for her. She was being selfish, she knew it, but for once she didn't care.
"I'm gonna kiss you now, Miaka" he told her, his voice rough and deep.
His heart was beating so hard in his chest he was certain she could hear it. He'd played out this very moment countless times since the day she left Konan to return to her own world. There'd been so many versions, but none so realistic as this. His fingers lightly tucked her hair behind her ear and he sucked in a breath at the realization this was no dream.
The trusting way she tilted her face up towards his made his knees go weak and he was thankful for the steadying weight of his arm against the tree. She had no idea just how much power she held over him, and how could she? He'd never dared to dwell on the notion that she might care for him with any real sincerity. There hadn't been a point with Taka in her life, but now... Maybe... Maybe it wasn't so far-fetched an idea to think that she could care for someone like him.
He sent up a silent prayer of gratitude to Suzaku as his mouth lowered to hers. Her lips were soft and warm to the touch and so very, very real. He let his hand fall to her neck, gently cradling her head as her fingers clutched at the material of his shirt. Kissing her was so much more than he imagined it would be. Every version of Miaka he'd envisioned paled in comparison to the real girl standing before him. The press of her lips against his, and the way her fingers tightened their grip on his shirt to pull him closer...he was undone, wholly and completely undone by her.
When her teeth dragged lightly across his lower lip he gave up all pretense of being in control and actually groaned. His cheeks flamed hot as the sound left his throat, but Miaka didn't seem to mind.
Too soon, much too soon, she pulled away and discretely licked her lips while he struggled to regain some semblance of control. He searched for the right words, his brow furrowing as he fought to get them out.
A faint blush had stained her cheeks rose petal pink and he wanted nothing more in that moment than to kiss her again. His hand tenderly cupped her cheek and a brief smile lifted his lips. The words he'd longed to tell her were there, clinging to the tip of his tongue.
Tasuki felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck. Miaka gasped aloud, her wide green eyes staring over his shoulder at something behind him. He instinctively shifted his body so it shielded hers before turning his head
Behind them engulfed in the glow of purple energy stood Taka. He was glaring levelly at the both of them, his eyes practically white with anger.
"Get away from her, Tasuki!" he bellowed as his hands balled into tight fists.
He was slow to recover from his initial shock at seeing Taka alive and in the book world.
"How are you here?" he managed to blurt out.
"That doesn't matter!" Taka barked. "What matters is that you have your filthy paws all over my wife! I'll only tell you once more Tasuki - get the hell away from Miaka!
He gaped at the figure who looked alarmingly like the friend he'd said good-bye to three years earlier. Was it a elaborate deception? Or was it really Taka, back from the dead? It looked like him, and it sure sounded like him, but he'd never seen such a dark aura around him before.
"I expected better from you," Taka snarled as he advanced towards them. "I guess a bandit's habits die hard—you're still trying to take what's not yours."
Tasuki narrowed his eyes and put his arms out to shield Miaka more fully behind him. He boldly met his friend's rage-filled glare head on and hoped he could find the right words to reason with him.
"Hey man, calm down! We thought you were dead!"
"How long has it been, huh? A month? A week?" Taka demanded, the energy around him flaring with each step he took closer towards them. "You couldn't even let my body get cold in the ground before making your move, is that it? Some friend you are!"
"It's not like that! I love Miaka," Tasuki shot back, his voice hard and unwavering. He heard Miaka's surprised gasp and did his best to ignore it. It might not have been how he intended to tell her, but he wasn't about to let her go without a fight. He would find a way to prove his true feelings to her, even if he had to die to do it.
Taka released a howl of outrage and aimed a powerful blast of energy directly at Tasuki. He threw Miaka out of the way just before it struck. His body slammed into the tree behind him with enough force to crack the trunk. A light shower of pink cherry blossom petals fell around him as he stumbled to his feet and shook his head to clear it. A quick glance to his right confirmed that Miaka was safe. She sat huddled on the ground nearby, her eyes staring in horror at Taka.
With a groan Tasuki wrapped a hand around his aching ribs and righted himself completely. He'd fought Taka before, but this time was different. That purple energy surrounding him wasn't from Suzaku, or any other force in this world. There was something else going on, but he didn't have time to piece it together before he was hit a second time. He barely had time to throw up his hands before he was thrown hard into the ground.
"I don't want to fight you," he shouted as he struggled to raise himself up onto one elbow.
"Too bad," Taka snarled and kicked him in the chest hard enough to send him careening into what the cherry tree he'd only moments ago kissed Miaka under.
Miaka winced with every blow Tasuki received, yet found she couldn't look away. Her body was frozen, watching the scene unfold before her in mute horror. She'd seen Taka die, seen it with her own eyes, but somehow he'd found his way back to her.
"It's not possible," she whispered aghast. "It can't be."
Tasuki was thrown into another tree, only this time he didn't stir. Taka gloated over him with both hands resting on his hips.
Tasuki spit the blood that was pooling in his mouth onto the grass and stubbornly struggled to his knees, "I'm just gettin' started. I've felt harder slaps from women."
Taka scowled and viciously kneed him in the face.
Miaka's scream froze both warriors in their tracks. Their heads turned in unison to look at her, momentarily forgetting each other.
"Both of you stop this right now!" she demanded. "I will not watch one of you die!"
Running to Taka, she grabbed hold of his arm and held it as tightly as she could. Tasuki's heart sank and he turned his head so he wouldn't have to watch their heartfelt reunion.
Taka's expression softened as he looked down at Miaka. His hand lightly brushed her cheek and a smile warmed his lips.
"It's good to see you," he confessed, his words sincere and tender. "But I have to finish this."
Taka pushed Miaka behind him and turned his full attention to Tasuki, "I will not tolerate you lusting after my wife. It's a betrayal I simply cannot forgive!"
"Stop this!" Miaka protested loudly from behind him. "I won't let you hurt him anymore!"
Taka turned slowly to face her, his brows risen nearly to his hairline, "Are you actually defending him? I saw him all over you, Miaka! I saw everything," he replied vehemently, turning an ugly sneer in the warrior's direction. "You don't deserve her."
"You think I need you to tell me that?" Tasuki shot back with a glower.
"It wasn't like that at all," Miaka protested. "You were gone, Taka! I watched you die - we all did! Tasuki was... Tasuki was just..."
"Taking advantage of the situation?" he offered and she gave a frustrated shake of her head.
"No, you have it all wrong. I wanted him to kiss me."
"You what?" Taka gave an angry cry and shoved her away from him. She fell hard into the ground and didn't try to get up again.
"After everything I did for you, you were willing to forget me so easily?!"
Miaka shook her head and stared up at her husband with tear-filled eyes. He had never willingly laid his hands on her in a violent way. She was left shaken, her expression a mask of complete shock.
Tasuki grit his teeth together and managed to retrieve his tessen from its sheath. He ground out the spell that brought his fan to life and watched the flames envelope Taka in a ball of fire. Just as quickly the flames dissipated and Taka stood before him unharmed. The purple energy that surrounded Taka's body glowed even brighter, as if it was shielding him somehow.
"It's time to finish this," Taka promised and placed his hands before him. Between his palms formed a large ball of purple energy that crackled with power. "I will always be the better man, Tasuki."
Beaten in more ways than one, Tasuki understood he had no hope of surviving a blast with that much force behind it. He was glad, in a way. If he had to die, at least it was at the hands of a worthy opponent for the woman he loved. Miaka could have no doubt about how he truly felt for her now. That was one small mercy at least. If he had to die, at least he was leaving this world without any regrets.
Tasuki sucked in a final breath and closed his eyes against the blinding light. The heat of it crackled like electricity against his skin and made the hairs on his arms stand on end. The explosion was deafening, so loud it shook the ground beneath him. Tasuki was certain he was dead until he felt the weight of Miaka's body collapse against his.
He opened his eyes slowly and saw the horrified expression on Taka's face. His eyes were wide and trembling and fixated on the spot where Miaka's head rested just beneath his chin. Tears formed small wells in the warrior's eyes and then spilled freely down his cheeks.
Tasuki eyes lowered to see the top of Miaka's head. His arms moved sluggishly to wrap around her, cradling her against his chest. He waited for her to open her eyes and utter a pitiful "Owwww". But the Priestess of Suzaku didn't stir. Her limp form rested heavily against his chest and he watched helpless as all warmth and colour and life leeched from her body.
Refusing to believe the evidence in front of him, Tasuki gently turned her face towards his. His brow furrowed and he bent his head to place a soft kiss against her lips. They were cold to the touch and tasted of the salt from her tears. Grasping her limp hand in his, he pressed her palm against his chest so she could feel the sure and certain beat of his still-living heart.
"Come on," he pleaded with her, his voice barely above a whisper. "Please, Miaka."
"What... What have I done?" Taka took an unsteady step backwards and stared incredulously at his hands. Tasuki could only watch as a wave of horror and revulsion swept across his comrade's features. There was nothing he could say to reassure him. No words would make any of this better.
Taka's eyes held the panicked look of a trapped animal as they frantically darted around the clearing in search of something, anything, that could bring her back. His gaze settled on his hands and with the empty look of a man who has just decided his fate, he placed his palms against his chest. He called out Miaka's name in a heart-wrenching cry and then his body was engulfed in purple light.
Tasuki shut his eyes tight and did his best to shield Miaka from the blast. When the dust and debris settled Taka was gone. Tasuki bowed his head and let out an anguished cry. The tears he shed weren't only for Miaka but for Taka too. It wasn't supposed to turn out like this! He never imagined that a single kiss would end with him losing two people he cared about so much.
"Please, Miaka," he pleaded with her as his tears wet her cheeks. "Please-!" His throat closed around the anguished words and he found he could no longer speak.
He cradled her in his arms, rocking her slowly back and forth as the birds overhead slowly resumed their song. He was too immersed in his grief to hear the whisper soft sound of his name being called. It wasn't until he felt the brush of her lips against the hollow of his throat that his eyes shot open and he pulled back with a startled gasp.
Miaka's eyes were open and glistening as she tried her best to smile for him.
"You—you're alive!" he exclaimed, too overwrought with joy to manage much else. Miaka nodded feebly and winced in pain. Tasuki's elated grin seemed to spread throughout his entire being. Ignoring the pain of his earlier injuries, he stumbled to his feet with her body still clutched tight against his chest.
"Am I dreaming?" he asked in stunned disbelief.
"Did you really mean what you said earlier?" she prodded as her eyes looked shyly up into his.
There was no sense in hiding it now. Miaka smiled warmly up at him, then closed her eyes. Her body went limp and heavy in his arms as she lost consciousness a second time, but he knew she would be okay.
"I love you," he vowed and lightly brushed his lips across her cheek.
He'd come uncomfortably close to losing her a second time, and knew he wouldn't survive a third. She meant far too much to him. It no longer mattered if she loved him back. Simply being near her and knowing she was safe was enough. Loving her was enough. And if someday she grew to love him too, then he would do whatever it took to make her happy. But for now he was content to remain by her side as a friend and a protector, whatever she needed him to be, until the day came where she would leave him again.
Chapter 11: The Bandits of Mt. Reikaku
The night air was cool and crisp as the Suzaku warriors arrived at the hideout of the bandits of Mt. Reikaku. Halting his horse with a soft 'ho', Tasuki whistled a quick tune into the night air and paused to listen. Before long, a soft rustling could be heard within the bushes. With a loud "TASUKI!" Kouji emerged from the woods flanked by his fellow bandits.
"Is that really you, or am I dreaming that you've come back to join us again?" Kouji teased as he strolled up to the horses. Tasuki laughed and leaned down to grasp arms with his old friend.
"Are you kiddin'? Leave the palace for this dump?" he joked and gave a laugh. "It looks like you've been doing well for yourself," he said as his eyes scanned his best friend from head to foot. Kouji tugged at the collar of his new jacket and grinned.
"Yeah, well, now that there is no more war there's a lot more dough to go around," he replied with a wink.
Tasuki motioned for the other Suzaku warriors to follow him. He eased off his horse with a groan and took a minute to stretch his aching body. After what had happened in the woods, the others hadn't wanted to take any chances. They'd decided against any more unnecessary stops and elected to ride straight through the remaining five hours to their destination. His body would be sore for a week, but knowing Miaka was finally somewhere safe was worth it.
He helped her down from the horse and carried her sleeping form into the bandit hideout. Kouji had kindly offered to let them stay the night and gave each of them their own room. He lifted an inquisitive brow as Tasuki passed by him with Miaka held tightly in his arms, but opted not to say anything. Tasuki would tell him everything, he just needed time to settle in first.
Chichiri watched Tasuki disappear through the cabin door with Miaka and uttered a thoughtful 'Hmmm'. He'd been putting off speaking with the fiery-haired warrior about the wisdom of getting too involved with the Priestess, but perhaps it was time. Miaka had gone through such terrible heartache in her relationship with Tamahome, and later Taka. However much they felt alive in this world, Miaka's appearance was a cruel reminder that in 'reality' they were mere characters in a book. In the end, they were all destined to be separated from her. The sooner Tasuki accepted that hard truth, the better off he would be.
Tasuki carried Miaka into the room Kouji had set aside for her and laid her gently on the bed. He set her collection of bags down next to the bed and then shrugged out of his dust-covered riding jacket. He hung his jacket on the back of the door and then lowered himself onto a nearby stool with a weary sigh. He'd only managed to remove one boot before he noticed her watching him.
"Hey there," he greeted her gently and reached down for his other boot. "How you feelin'?"
She smiled up at him and watched him pull off his other boot, "I feel a lot better now."
He caught the flash of lingering sadness that appeared behind her eyes before she had the chance to look away. She was trying to hard to be strong for him, and the others, too. Typical Miaka, always putting everyone else first.
"Miaka…," he began and fumbled for the right words. They hadn't spoken alone since the forest. There were so many things he wanted to tell her, but he'd never been good at expressing himself that way.
"I'm going to be fine," Miaka cut in and flashed her most reassuring thumbs up.
"You're stronger than all of us put together," he admitted with a light chuckle before going quiet. "You don't gotta love me back," he said softly, "but I'm glad you know the truth now. I'd been wantin' to tell you for a while...just didn't know how."
Miaka smiled tenderly at his words but didn't offer up any confessions of her own. Not that he'd expected her to, of course. His heel bounced anxiously against up and down against the floor and he shook his head in disbelief.
"You know, bein' with you is the only thing I've ever been sure about in my whole life," he confessed with a grin. "I'm gonna protect you from whoever's out there after you. Whatever it takes."
"I wish you wouldn't say that," she said with a shake of her head. "I can't lose you too, Tasuki. I can't!"
Seeing tears on her cheeks he dropped to one knee next t the bed and pulled her into his arms, "Miaka, I ain't goin' nowhere. I can handle whatever's comin' this way."
When she looked up at him he could see doubt lingering behind her eyes. How could he make her understand? Tilting her chin up with one hand, he placed a gentle kiss along her bottom lip. He could taste the salt from her tears and used the pads of his thumbs to brush the last of them from her cheeks. Her hands moved slowly, sliding around his neck as he kissed her. The way her fingers gently dragged through the hair at the back of his head sent shivers jetting down his spine.
He pulled back to catch his breath and was surprised to find himself on top of her. His cheeks flamed red and he slowly retreated until he was sitting next to her instead. It rattled him just how easy it'd been to go from kissing her to... He shook his head to clear it and ran a distracted hand through his hair. He couldn't allow himself to get carried away. He might want her more than he'd ever wanted a woman in his life, but it didn't take a genius to realize she wasn't ready. She was still too hurt, still grieving over Taka's death. It wouldn't be right.
"What is it? What's wrong?" she asked, and he winced inwardly at the wounded tone behind her words.
"There's no rush, ya know? I know the way you feel about me isn't... What I'm trying to say is..." Tasuki made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat and shot to his feet. "I'm sayin' I can wait is what I'm sayin'," he finished lamely as the gusto drained out of him. "You're worth waitin' for."
To hear those words from his own lips was truly surreal. He'd never in his life turned down a woman who wanted him, but this was different. She was different. He'd bedded countless women during his days as a bandit, but never someone he truly cared for. Sex was sex, but making love to a woman was something else entirely and he was terrified to his core of disappointing her.
Miaka smiled sweetly and reached her hand out to him, "Tasuki…"
He bent low and kissed her gently on the forehead. "I need to go speak with Kouji and the others to see if they'll help us defeat Kenshin," he explained before sliding his boots back on and heading for the door.
"Are you coming back?" she asked sounding hopeful.
"I'll check in on you before I hit the sack. Kouji gave me a room just down the hall…"
"No!" Miaka blurted out. "It's just… Would you stay here with me tonight? Please?"
She looked at him with those wide, pleading eyes, and Tasuki found he couldn't refuse her. Smiling at her from the door he nodded in agreement.
"I'll be back soon, I promise."
Tasuki closed the door to Miaka's room behind him and made his way down the stairs to the main room. He could already hear the raised voices of his fellow bandits and comrades as they argued over the details and risks of joining their fight against Kenshin. Knowing Kouji, he would convince them to do it just for the adventure. He had a feeling things had been pretty boring for the gang since the war with Kouto ended.
Jumping down the remaining few stairs, he peeked his head into the main room and saw Nuriko already challenging the bandits to an arm wrestling match. Hotohori was squirreled away in a corner enjoying the adoring affections of a young bandit who had yet to realize he was a man. It was no surprise that Chichiri was absent. He tended to prefer his own company most of the time anyways, but he was always there when it mattered.
Realizing Kouji wasn't in the main room either, Tasuki made his way outside to look for him. It didn't take long to find him. Kouji was a creature of habit and had a very short list of spots where he liked to mull things over. He stood with his arms crossed and his back leaning against the side of the cabin. His eyes gazed up at the starry night sky overhead, studying the various constellations. Tasuki joined him with his back against the wall.
"So whaddya think?" he asked and felt Kouji shrug.
"There's a lot of back and forth, but I think the side that's in favour of fighting this Kenshin guy is winning. It shouldn't be a problem. You know we'll always help out our friends."
Tasuki nodded and smiled grimly. Several moments of silence passed before Kouji braced his arm against the wall and turned to face him.
"So what's the story with the girl? I thought she was Taka's wife."
"He's dead," Tasuki replied with a hint of bitterness. He was too exhausted to recount all the details just yet, but would tell him all of it in time. Kouji's eyes went wide and he gave a low whistle.
"So you really care for this broad," he deduced with nod of his head.
Tasuki's eyes shifted to meet Kouji's, "I love her. Always have."
Kouji grinned wide and clapped his shoulder, "Well good luck to you my friend. I'll warn you though, be careful with her. Goin' through what she has can change a person."
Tasuki nodded grimly, "Yeah. I know."
"I'd better get back inside before that bunch of idiots burn the place down," Kouji said with a jerk of his thumb toward the door. "I'll see you in there."
Tasuki nodded and watched him go before turning his gaze up towards the bright full moon. It felt like a lifetime had passed since he'd last called this place home. His life had been much simpler then. Everything seemed so complicated now, with Miaka and the others. Not so long ago they'd been friends, with that barrier to something more yet uncrossed. Now what were they? Comrades? Lovers? Something in-between?
Just because she kissed you doesn't mean anything, he reminded himself sharply. She hasn't actually told you how she feels about you.
That last nagging thought stuck in Tasuki's mind. There was no doubt about the sincerity of his feelings for her. He was relieved she finally knew the truth. But had she ever expressed more than friendship towards him? Even once?
Tasuki gave a frustrated bang of his fist against the wall. He could be patient for her. Miaka would grow to love him in time, he was certain of it. With one last lingering look at the moon Tasuki pushed away from the wall and stalked into the cabin to join the rest of his friends. He took some small comfort from the knowledge that for tonight, at least, he'd be able to sleep with Miaka resting securely in his arms.
Chapter 12: A Night of Passion
This is fair warning that this chapter of the story contains some sexual content. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy!
Miaka listened to the distant sounds of partying from below. She'd been staring at the ceiling for the past hour, no closer to sleep than she was when Tasuki left. The day's events had shaken her far more deeply than she'd first realized. Seeing Taka again, only to watch him beat Tasuki within an inch of his life and then lose him all over again, Tasuki's heartfelt confession and their shared kiss... Her mind was buzzing with no relief in sight. She turned her face towards the door, impatient for Tasuki's return.
Everything had a way of feeling better when he was around. She felt calmer when he was with her, safer too. He's always been there for me, she thought. From the very beginning she'd felt a connection to him that was different from the rest, a feeling she hadn't been able to put into words before now. She'd always known he cared for her, but to hear him confess that he loved her... Her face grew hot as she remembered his heartfelt admission. She curled onto her side and pulled the sheets close to her body.
Could she learn to love Tasuki the way she had Taka? Or was it better to remain friends? If they became intimate, if they crossed that line, it would change everything between them. They could never go back to just being comrades after that. Her heart clenched tight at the thought of hurting him. Maybe it was better to keep her distance until she knew her own heart and mind better. He meant too much to her to risk losing him that way. It would be hard, but in her heart she hoped it was the right decision.
Miaka slapped her hand against her neck and looked down at a small spider crushed against her palm.
Throwing the sheets off in disgust, she rubbed at the aching bite mark on her neck and made her way to the window. She threw open the shutters and basked in the moonlight as the cool night air washed over her. The dizziness struck so quickly she barely had time to grab the window ledge before her legs buckled beneath her. The wind whipped her hair around her face in a hopeless tangle of brown locks as she struggled to make her way back to the bed.
"Are you starting to feel the effects of my poison, Priestess of Suzaku?"
The voice that emanated from the shadows of her room was practically vibrated with malice. She stumbled and nearly fell to the floor but managed to catch herself on the edge of the bed.
"What do you want?" she demanded over the sound of soft laughter.
"You can't fight it, Priestess. Soon the kodoku will take control of your mind and then no one will be able to help you, not even your beloved Suzaku warriors."
Miaka struggled against the powerful poison coursing through her veins. The bite on her neck burned like fire and she clung desperately to the pain to remain conscious.
"I won't give in! Do you hear me? I refuse!"
Black spots invaded the peripheries of her vision and no matter how many times she blinked they would not go away. The darkness closed in steadily, blocking out every last bit of light. Laughter taunted her as she fell hard to the floor, her elbow smashing painfully against the wood. She felt the control she had over her body slipping as the energy steadily drained from her limbs. She managed to dig her fingers into the rough wood of the floor. The pain of the splinters kept her awake long enough for her to feebly cry out for Tasuki. Her voice was so weak, there was no way he could hear her. She stubbornly tried again, but this time no sound emerged at all.
"Pleasant dreams, Priestess..."
The voice was much closer than before, swimming just above her head. She wanted to claw at it, to fight it with every ounce of her being, but her body refused to obey. Try as she might, she couldn't fight it the pull of the endless void. It dragged her down into its black depths,
Tasuki slowly made his way up the stairs to Miaka's room feeling exhausted and a little drunk. Catching up with his fellow bandits had gone late into the night and at the moment he could think of nothing better than collapsing into bed after an impossibly long day with Miaka sleeping next to him.
He entered her room quietly, determined not to wake her. He removed his boots at the door and then tip-toed towards the bed. Noticing that the sheets had wound up in a pile on the floor, he laughed quietly to himself and fanned them out over top of her. He rearranged her limbs just enough to make room for himself on the narrow cot and then squeezed in next to her.
He couldn't for the life of him imagine how Taka had managed to sleep next to her without ending up on the floor every night. Tasuki rested his head on the pillow behind her and pulled her warm body against his. It felt nice to hold her like this. He may not ever be able to be with her the way he longed to, but he was content to have moments like this. He liked the way she shifted to bring her body flush against his and the peaceful way she murmured his name in her sleep.
His eyes had only just drifted closed when he felt her turn in his arms. Though he couldn't see her face in the dark, he could feel her eyes on him studying him intently.
"Hey," he whispered. "I hope I didn't wake you." He smiled warmly down at her even though he knew she couldn't see it in the dark.
"Tasuki..." Miaka turned her body fully in his arms and sought out his lips in the dark. He pulled back in surprise and felt the back of his head connect solidly with the wall.
"Ow! Hey...maybe we should just sleep tonight, okay?" The wall provided minimal space for him to retreat and when her lips found his a second time he could feel his resolve begin to waver.
"I don't want to sleep," she replied languidly. Her hands moved suggestively beneath his shirt to explore the bare skin of his chest. His heart hammered hard against his rib cage as he played mediator between his warring mind and body. He had to make her stop before things went too far, before he crossed a line he dared not cross. His body had other ideas in mind though and he moaned pitifully when her mouth descended hot and wet against his throat.
That last drink he'd downed with Kouji was making his head swim. He wanted her, Suzaku only knew how much, but not like this...
His pleas sounded unconvincing, even to his own ears. Her hands felt hot like firebrands against his skin, claiming ownership over every plane and valley they touched. She slid her leg over his hips and shifted her weight so she straddled his hips. He gave an exasperated sigh and let his head fall a back against the pillow. Her palms rested lightly against his chest, right over the spot where his heart was hammering away.
"You want this," she said, speaking low as her eyes peered directly into his. "You want me."
Tasuki said nothing. He couldn't lie to her, but didn't trust himself to admit it and still have the strength to walk away. Instead he gathered her hands up in his and held them away from his body.
He looked up at her imploringly, determined to make her understand, "Miaka, I'm askin'. Please. I can't control myself much longer an' I don't wanna leave ya alone after all you've been through today."
"Tell me you don't want me," she demanded softly and pulled her hands from his grasp.
"Miaka I-," Tasuki faltered, finding himself at a loss for words as her hips moved invitingly against his. She teased him a moment longer before stopping and repeating her request.
"Tell me that you don't want this. I need to hear you say it, Tasuki."
He sucked in a sharp breath as her lips found his neck. He closed his eyes and exhaled a soft moan. His fingers tightened around her hips, trying desperately to hold them in place. Bit by bit she was stripping him of all semblance of self-control. He needed to stop this now. He needed to leave, to get up and walk out of her room and not return until morning.
But he'd never been good with self-control and was failing miserably at it now. It would be so much easier to just give in. She wanted this. Miaka wanted him, not as another friend or comrade but as a man. And for Tasuki it was more temptation than he had the strength to resist.
Still, he managed to utter a strangled, "Miaka, we can't" and gently pushed her off of him. His body was too hot, the blood pounding through his veins like a team of horses pulling a runaway carriage. With a trembling hand he pushed the hair back off his face and sucked in a deep breath.
"Why'd you stop?"
He shook his head in the dark and jammed his eyes shut tight. He didn't know why he'd stopped, only that he had. Every hungry, wanton cell in his body was demanding that he shut up and pick up where they'd left off. Miaka certainly wasn't helping matters any. Her hand slid suggestively up his thigh and he managed to catch hold of her wrist just in time.
"I want you," he confessed in a rush. "You know that I do. I just think we should wait."
"Why?" she pressed. "We could die tomorrow and what would waiting have gotten us then?"
He uttered a frustrated 'Tch' and tried again, "Miaka..."
The Priestess slid her hands around his neck, "I know you're worried about me, Tasuki, but I'm not a 15 year-old girl anymore," she explained patiently. "I know what I want, and tonight I want you, okay?"
He could hear the smile behind her words and felt his head give a feeble nod of defeat. With her next searing kiss every one of his good intentions flew out the window. He gave in completely, having no will or desire to stop now. Loving her tonight was only going to make things complicated come daybreak but they would have to cross that bridge when it arrived. For the moment he was too wrapped up in the feeling of her mouth on his to think of anything more complicated than where to put his hands next.
His hands moved with care, gently pushing down the top of the robe she'd been sleeping in. Her skin was creamy soft underneath and it appeared luminescent in the pale moonlight. He ran his calloused fingers down the soft skin of her arms and back, just barely suppressing a smile. Her skin was unbelievably soft and when she wrapped her arms around him it was like he was covering himself in pure silk.
He froze when her fingers began slipping through the knots of his pants, loosening them one by one. His mouth went suddenly dry and he swallowed hard. She wasn't going to...was she? The fear that he would somehow disappoint her nearly paralyzed him, but the feeling of her warm mouth wrapped around him silenced every single one of his objections.
"Oh god...," he gasped, grabbing tightly to the blankets on either side of him. He couldn't breath, couldn't move… He'd never felt something so incredible in all his life! He knew that intimacy between men and women could feel like heaven on earth, but he'd never imagined it could feel this good! His fingers slid through her soft hair, gently urging her onward and she rewarded him with a soft moan. His body tightened in response, his head falling back as he fought to hold on just a little longer.
His eyes shot open at the shock of the cool night air wrapping around his heated flesh. He almost blurted out a pitiful "Don't stop", but caught himself at the last moment. His entire body was throbbing, demanding release, but Miaka pulled away instead. She stood next to the bed and slid completely out of her robe, letting it fall to a heap on the floor. He stared at her wide-eyed, admiring the curves of her naked body. Her hands gently caressed his face as she returned to kiss him and he felt his cock twitch with impatient expectation.
Her body wound languidly around his and his hands slid down the smooth skin of her back, memorizing the feel of her in his arms. Their eyes met as she took hold of his hardened length and guided it slowly inside of her. His fingers dug deep into the flesh of her hips and he uttered a strangled moan as his forehead fell against her shoulder.
"Wait," he pleaded, his voice so rough it barely sounded human. When he was certain he had control, Tasuki exhaled a shuddering breath and ever so slowly guided her hips into the rhythm that would be his complete undoing. His head fell back against the wall and he moaned aloud, no longer caring if the others heard. He'd never experienced sex quite like this, something so deep and raw it invaded every part of him. She moved against him in a rhythm that was surely designed to drive him mad one thrust at a time; shallow then deep, quick then tortuously slow. His head fell forward against her shoulder and his eyes clenched shut as he fought to delay the inevitable.
"I'm close," he warned her as every muscle in his body tensed in expectation.
"It's okay," she replied. Her teeth grazed the lobe of his ear as her warm wet center slid along his length, fast and deep. "Don't fight it, Tasuki. Make me yours."
Those words whispered so invitingly into his ear pushed him firmly over the edge. He grabbed hold of her tight as his hips drove upward to meet hers. He hit deep, again and again, his body shivering at the way she gasped and cried his name. Her hands buried into his fiery red hair, clinging tight as his mouth sealed tight around one pert nipple and then the next. When he couldn't bear it any longer he flipped her onto her back and drove as deep into her as he dared. Her hips rose to eagerly meet his next thrust he cursed softly under his breath when her fingernails dragged down his back. He was certain of it now, this woman would be the source of his complete undoing.
The celestial symbol on his arm burned bright, more intensely than he'd ever seen it glow before. He clung to those last glorious thrusts, entering her once, then twice more before finding his release. He gasped as he filled her, making her his just as she'd asked him to. His head felt heavy and his body weak. The breath he'd been holding escaped his body in an audible 'whoosh', and he collapsed next to her. He couldn't speak or move, only breathe as the blood pounding in his ears slowed and then quieted altogether. He'd lost count of the number of women he'd slept with, but he was absolutely certain that none of those encounters had ever felt as earth shattering as this one had.
Miaka's fingers slid across his skin, lightly tracing the lines of his chest. She smiled up at him and kissed the underside of his neck.
"That was nice," she said softly.
He nodded in agreement and fought off the alluring pull of sleep. He watched as Miaka moved to the side of the bed and retrieved her robe from the floor. She kept her back to him as she slid the material over her shoulders and loosely tied it at the front. What should he say to her? Was there something he was supposed to say in a moment like this? He reached for her, but his hand only made it so far before dropping weakly to the bed.
"Thank you," he managed to say once his voice had returned. Miaka sat at the edge of the bed and quietly plaited her hair. When she was finished she stood and turned to look at him.
"Don't thank me, Tasuki. Thank Lord Kenshin."
Tasuki's heart stuttered - what did she mean 'Thank Lord Kenshin?' A wave of unease settled in the pit of his stomach and he pushed himself into a sitting position. He felt weak, his energy utterly drained.
"What the hell are you sayin?" he demanded as he tried to force his body to obey through willpower alone. Miaka laughed coldly and the sound made goosebumps ripple across his flesh.
"His Lordship commanded me to make love to you, so I did," she answered with a carefree shrug of her shoulders. "It must have slipped my mind to mention that when a celestial warrior becomes intimate with their Priestess he sacrifices his life force in return."
Tasuki's mouth fell agape. She couldn't possibly be serious! Not after everything they'd been through. His heart clenched tight in his chest even as he shook his head in disbelief, "Miaka, tell me you're joking!"
"You didn't think I actually wanted to be with you, did you? Here I was, the grieving widow, and you took full advantage!"
Tasuki shook his head, his eyes staring unseeingly at the floor in utter disbelief.
"You don't mean that," he insisted. "This isn't you, Miaka!"
He dug his fingers deep into the mattress to propel his body upward. The room swam before his eyes and he collapsed back onto the bed gasping for air. It was like he was living through a horrific nightmare, watching it play out before his eyes while completely unable to stop it.
"I didn't hear you complaining while you were inside of me, Tasuki. You seemed to like me just fine then."
He uttered a pained groan and lifted his head to see her standing at the window, basking in the moonlight. She'd changed into a man's riding outfit and had a travel bag slung over her shoulder. He rolled off the edge of the bed determined to stop her but his legs buckled beneath him and he crashed hard into the floor.
"Miaka, stop!" he called after her, his voice rough with pain and anger. Her words had bit him deeply, tearing open old wounds and rehashing insecurities he'd long thought buried. She gazed down at him, her eyes cold.
"You ain't Miaka," he determined, absolutely certain now that it wasn't her. "What the hell did you do to her?"
Tasuki dragged his legs beneath him and used the bed to pull himself onto his knees. His body trembled with the effort it took to do that much, but he was determined to know the truth about what had happened to her.
Miaka's hand suddenly shot out and gripped the window sill for support while the rest of her doubled over in pain.
"Tasuki? What's happening to me... Please, make it stop!" She shut her eyes tight and doubled over, releasing a gut-wrenching cry of pain. Tasuki reached for her and managed to get his arms out in time for her to crumple into them.
"Miaka? Miaka! Yer gonna be okay. Chichiri'll help, he'll fix it! Chichiri! Damn it, CHICHIRI!"
"I'm sorry, Tasuki," Miaka spoke softly with her head cradled against his chest. "I really do care for you, but since I can't have you following me…"
The breath caught in his throat and he instinctively gripped her tighter as the piercing hot blade slid between his ribs and into his chest. Looking down at the knife in disbelief, he felt his arms to limp before he collapsed to the floor. Miaka retrieved her knife and calmly wiped his blood from the blade with the bed sheets. She smirked down at him as he lay there struggling draw each breath.
"Why?" he rasped and coughed violently as blood filled his mouth. He thought he saw her pause for a moment at the window, her hand outstretched towards him as if to help, but in the next instant she was gone. His body drew into itself as he coughed hard and spit more blood onto the floor. The room was getting colder, so cold he couldn't seem to stop shivering. If Chichiri didn't get there soon he'd be a goner for sure. He would have chuckled at the thought if he wasn't so damned worried about Miaka. If he died now, the others wouldn't know what'd happened to her, or the danger they were in.
Summoning what little breath he had left he called out a final "CHICHIRI!" before going still. The blood pooled around him, spreading slowly across the floor. It glistened black in the moonlight, like dripping hot tar. He couldn't feel the cold anymore, or the pain. Just tired, he felt tired to his very bones. As the shadows filled his vision, he slipped into unconsciousness the way one would slip into a warm bath, with a long sigh and the gentle closing of his eyes.
Before the darkness took him, he caught a glimpse of Miaka's face one last time - those smiling green eyes, that unfailing smile. And in that moment he could have sworn he felt the soft touch of her lips against his.
Chapter 13: The Aftermath
"I just don't think Miaka could have done this!" Nuriko exclaimed, throwing his hands up in frustration. He'd been pacing back and forth for the better part of an hour arguing back and forth with Chichiri. The monk, for his part, maintained a stony silence. He sat perched on the edge of the cot they'd set up for Tasuki and remained intently focused on tending to his wound.
"I thought I sensed a demonic aura, ya know," he commented softly. "But it was so faint that I ignored it."
"Well that's just great. Way to act on that one monk boy," Nuriko spat and he threw himself into the nearest chair. Crossing his arms in a huff, he put his feet up on the table top and glowered menacingly at nothing in particular.
"Perhaps this might have been avoided had we all been a little more vigilant," Chichiri chided while giving Nuriko and the Emperor a long look. Nuriko replied with an emphatic roll of his eyes.
"I think the most important thing is that Tasuki is alive and he will be recover," Hotohori interjected softly. "Once he has regained his strength we can go look for Miaka and hopefully get to the bottom of this mystery."
The three warriors abruptly turned their heads at the sound of Tasuki groaning. He stirred atop the cot, his eyelids fluttering as he fought to regain consciousness. The group let out a collective sigh of relief and the earlier tension in the room evaporated. They waited patiently for the fiery-haired warrior to open his eyes. Still half-conscious, Tasuki grimaced and moved his hand to the bandage around his midsection, instinctively shielding his body from further harm. Chichiri laid a soothing damp cloth across his forehead and said a quick prayer to ease his pain.
"Miaka…" Her name emerged as little more than a hoarse whisper. Tasuki's eyes shot open and he bolted upright in the cot. "Miaka! Where's Miaka?" he demanded, his eyes wide and glistening with delirium. He cried out in pain and doubled over, clutching at the bandages slowly soaking red with blood. Chichiri eased him down onto the cot and offered what reassuring words he could.
"Tasuki take it easy, ya know? You'll rip your stitches if you move like that again. What happened? Do you remember?"
Tasuki blinked and looked dazedly about the room. His eyes settled on Nuriko, then Hotohori and finally Chichiri. They found me in time, he thought and look of relief softened his features. Chichiri's question circled through his mind and he struggled to remember what had happened to him. The visions flashed before his eyes, bringing him back to the last time he'd seen Miaka.
I can't believe you actually thought I would want to be with someone like you!
Her words cut into him like a dull blade and the pain of heartache filled his chest. Tasuki felt hot tears spring to his eyes and turned his face away so they could fall unseen. Miaka was the one who'd done this to him. She'd tried to kill him. His hand brushed across the neatly wrapped bandage around his chest and he felt lucky to be alive.
"Miaka… She…" Tasuki couldn't allow himself to finish. He heard Nuriko curse and kick over a chair then stomp out of the room. Hotohori sighed softly and put his head in his hands. Chichiri said nothing; his suspicions had unfortunately been confirmed. He put a hand comfortingly on Tasuki's shoulder and squeezed it gently.
"I failed…" He admitted piteously, his words barely above a whisper.
"This wasn't your fault, ya know. We are all to blame for what happened," Chichiri reassured him.
Tasuki took in a shuddering breath and let it out slowly. He shook his head, still stubbornly refusing to look his friend in the eye. "You weren't there, Chichiri. This was my fault. If only we hadn't…" his voice trailed off and the monk nodded his head in understanding.
"You coupled with the Priestess."
Hotohori's head popped up, his interest suddenly piqued, "You did what? Since when were you and Miaka ever-?"
Tasuki remained stubbornly silent.
"It's important you tell us the truth," Chichiri urged. "It's the only way we'll be able to help Miaka."
Tasuki expelled a low sigh and closed his eyes, "To make a long story short, what I thought was a romantic night with Miaka turned out to be all part of Kenshin's plan. He'd possessed her somehow so he could weaken my chi. The coward…!"
Tasuki grit his teeth angrily together and slammed his fist against the cot. That small bit of movement reduced him to a fit of coughs and he spit a small amount of blood before his head to collapse back against the pillow.
"Save your strength, ya know?" Chichiri urged as he offered a ladle of water for him to sip.
Miaka… he thought as he fought off the heavy pull of sleep. If you can hear me, I'm going to save you. Just hang in there!
Kouji retreated unseen from the doorway. He'd warned his old friend about getting involved with that woman. Now that he knew Genrou would survive, it was time to seek justice for his friend. With a quick word to the other bandits, Kouji threw a sword over his shoulder and leapt onto the back of his horse. He took off at a breakneck pace down the dusty road that led to the bottom of the mountain.
No one hurt Genrou without paying for it, not even the Priestess of Suzaku.
Chapter 14: The Dinner Guest
Miaka awoke in a dark room with the cool stone of the floor beneath her cheek. She had no idea where she was or how she'd gotten there. The last thing she could remember was standing at the open window of her room in the bandits' hideout and staring up at the moon. Why couldn't she remember anything after that? And where were the other Suzaku warriors?
A sick feeling settled deep in the pit of her stomach and she quickly pushed herself up off the floor. The room was so dark she could scarcely see. Were it not for the small glimmer of light coming from beneath the door it would have been black as pitch.
"Tasuki?" she whispered loudly. "Chichiri, Hotohori, Nuriko? Are you guys here?"
She waited with bated breath, but only silence answered. She was alone. Moving cautiously, she explored the room one tentative step at a time. She'd mapped out the room's perimeter in a matter of minutes. It was a small cell with stone walls and a stone floor. And as far as she could tell, she was the only occupant.
Miaka followed the light to the door and felt along its length for a way out. When her fingers wrapped around the cool metal handle, she gripped it tight and pulled with all of her strength. The door stuck tight, refusing to budge an inch. Determined not to give up so easily, she braced her foot against the wall and tried again with another mighty pull. The heavy wooden door creaked and then slid open with a low groan.
"All right!" she cheered and ran excitedly into the corridor beyond. Her feet hesitated as she looked left, then right, down what appeared to be two identical halls. Each was filled with doors, all exactly like the one she'd just emerged from. Which way should she go? Where would she find the other Suzaku warriors? Miaka looked thoughtfully left, then right, before trying her luck and turning left.
Every so often when she arrived at a door she would push it open and look inside. None of the other cells were locked, and the interiors were all as dark and empty as hers had been. Her stomach clenched tight as she opened a fifth empty cell, and then a sixth. Maybe she should have turned right, instead. Maybe she should go back...
It was in that very moment she was assaulted by the unmistakable aroma of freshly cooked food. Tilting her nose up into the air she sniffed just to be sure.
"Mmmm! Smells like roast beef!" she exclaimed, greedily rubbing her hands together as her mouth watered.
"No, Miaka, this is probably a trap," she reasoned with herself, her expression turning serious. "Stay focused!"
Determined to find the others, she resumed backtracking down the hall but the scent of food only seemed to grow stronger. Her stomach gave a traitorous growl and she practically whimpered at the thought of having to deny herself such a delicious meal.
"There will be plenty of time to eat later."
She knew it was true, but that didn't make it any easier to pass on roast beef. And was that pork dumplings she smelled? And miso ramen? She paused mid-step and braced her hand against the stone wall. Her stomach was grumbling in waves now, reminding her that it'd been countless hours since she'd eaten dinner.
"Well, maybe just a snack..."
It was then that she noticed a door she hadn't seen before. It appeared seemingly out of nowhere at the end of the hall. On either side of it stood two guards, though they didn't appear the least bit concerned by her presence. She cautiously headed towards them.
"Excuse me, I was hoping you could tell me whose castle we're in?"
The guard made no acknowledgement that he'd heard her or even knew she was there. His eyes stared straight ahead but looked through her as though she were a ghost. Miaka tried her luck with the second guard. Maybe he was more talkative than his comrade.
"Hi, Miaka Yuki," she announced with a wave. "Am I allowed to go in?" The guard said nothing but moved aside and pulled the door open to grant her access.
With a satisfied nod, Miaka thanked him and stepped into the room where the scent of delicious food was practically overwhelming. It was all laid out on a table, as though it was waiting just for her. She breathed in deep and swallowed down the rush of saliva that pooled in her mouth. Experience had taught her not to trust banquet style feasts that appeared for no apparent reason, but what harm could a little nibble do? She sidled up to the table and darted a quick glance around to confirm she was alone before greedily shoving several meatballs into her mouth.
"Please, have a seat."
Miaka froze and looked sheepishly over her shoulder. It was only then that she noticed a tall figure standing along the opposite wall with a glass of wine held casually in his hand.
"Who are you?" she demanded. "And what have you done with my friends?"
The man chuckled and downed the contents of his glass before approaching. As he emerged from the shadows Miaka let out a shocked gasp and hastily grabbed a knife off the table.
"I assume I need no introduction," Kenshin remarked and calmly took a seat at the table.
Miaka remained standing, her entire body strung tight like a bow. Her brow furrowed as she glared at him and her fingers tightened their hold on the knife in her hand. There was no realm in the universe where she would ever find it in her heart to forgive him for what he'd done. She would kill him, even if it cost her her life.
"How did I get here?" she demanded. Kenshin poured himself another glass of wine before answering her. He held the bottle towards her but when she made no move to take it he set it down atop the table with an indifferent shrug.
"You came here yourself," he informed her and took a sip of his wine. "You arrived a few hours ago."
Miaka was stunned into silence. What was he talking about? She didn't even know where this place was! And she certainly didn't remember leaving the others behind and traveling to wherever this was all on her own. Maybe they'd come with her? She eyed him steadily, unwilling to trust anything he said.
"Rest assured Priestess, your friends will be along shortly. Though I don't imagine they'll be happy to see you after what you've done."
The sick feeling returned and left her head swimming. What was he talking about? Her mind reached into the black abyss, searching for those lost hours she couldn't seem to remember. The way her heart clenched inside her chest told her something terrible had happened, something her mind couldn't bear to remember.
"What are you talking about?" she managed to ask around the lump in her throat. "I don't remember anything like that."
"You wouldn't would you," he said soothingly. "That is an unfortunate side effect of the poison."
Miaka gasped, "Poison? What did you do? I swear to you, if you hurt my friends I'll-"
Kenshin barked a laugh and grabbed her wrist in a vice grip. The knife in her hand fell to the floor and her knees bent under the crushing pressure of his grip.
"I have no need to hurt your friends, not when I have you to do it for me."
Miaka struggled against him but it was no use, his fingers were like steel digging into her flesh. She cried out in pain as he jerked her body towards him.
"You are the perfect bait, Priestess. That hot headed one, Tasuki, is very fond of you. He would have given me the most trouble, but thanks to you he is no longer a concern."
His words slid down her spine like ice water and she ceased struggling. "What are you talking about?" she asked, even as awareness pickled at the back of her neck like a thousand ants crawling across her skin. It came to her in snippets, flashes of memories that felt like a dream. She shook her head to block them out, refusing to believe it.
"No! You're a liar! I would never help you hurt Tasuki!"
Kenshin sneered down at her, amused by her adamant denials.
"I never touched your beloved Tasuki," he informed her snidely. "It was your cunning that lured him into your bed, Priestess. And your seduction that weakened his life force."
"You're a rotten liar," she insisted and glared menacingly at him. "I don't believe a word of it."
She didn't want to believe it. She didn't want to think she was capable of hurting him so deeply. More memories flashed before her eyes. The pained expression on Tasuki's face as he looked up at her. A dark red blood stain seeping into his shirt... No! It wasn't true! It couldn't be true!
Kenshin threw her unceremoniously into the nearest chair. "It does not matter whether you believe me, Priestess. The truth will make itself known in time." He chuckled at this and retrieved his wine from the table. "Maybe in a few months when you begin showing, perhaps?"
Miaka's eyes lowered and she placed a trembling hand over her abdomen. Could it be true? she thought. I can't possibly be pregnant…can I? It's too soon. There's no way he could know something like that!
"When the time is right I will use you to destroy the last of your beloved Suzaku warriors. Not one of them would dare to lay a hand against you, even if it meant their own demise."
Miaka balled her hands into tight fists and shot to her feet, sending her chair crashing violently to the floor. "NO! I will not let you do this!" she shouted and slammed her fists against the table. "I will find a way to stop you! My friends and I will defeat you together."
Kenshin was wholly unbothered by display. He rose slowly from his seat and lifted a contentious brow, "I recall you saying something very similar before you succumbed to the influence of my poison. What makes you think anything will be different this time?"
With that he retreated from the room leaving her stunned and trembling from head to toe. With her hands braced against the table, she stared fixedly at the empty plate in front of her.
It's not true... It can't be true...
Her head swam as her chest grew tight and it became harder to breathe. She didn't want it to be true, but deep in her heart she knew that she'd done something terrible to Tasuki. The now vivid memory of blood blooming across his shirt made her gasp and cover her mouth to stifle a sob. He could be dead and it was all her fault!
"I never wanted to hurt you, Tasuki," she whispered as tears flooded her vision. "I'm so sorry!"
Her legs crumpled beneath her and she collapsed onto the floor next to the table in a fit of sobs. A part of her stubbornly clung to the hope that Kenshin was telling the truth about the rest of the warriors coming to rescue her, but another part of her dreaded the thought of seeing them again. If what she'd seen was true, if she'd really done that to Tasuki, she didn't deserve their help at all.
Chapter 15: Kouji's Revenge
Kouji crouched low in the bushes near the castle, his horse tethered to a tree a few meters away. His face was set with grim determination as he surveyed the landscape for possible entrances. He could feel that Miaka was inside, just a couple hundred meters away. All he had to do was get in and then she was his. It had taken him over a day's ride to reach the castle and every moment of it he thought about how he would kill her.
Would he make her suffer and kill her slowly, or pierce her right through the heart and end it quick? He'd decided it was probably best to slit her throat from behind. That way she would make no sound. It was much easier to kill someone when you didn't have to look them in the eye. Even so, the thought watching the life drain from her eyes was a very tempting idea.
Kouji's hand tightened around the sword in his hand, the leather handle creaking under the pressure. A grim smile played across his lips as he rationalized his decision to kill the Priestess.
Tasuki will be better off without this woman complicating his life. He'd lay down his life for her in a heartbeat and she couldn't give a damn. Well, once she's gone he can be happy again. He'll rejoin the bandits and the two of us will grow old together reminiscing about the good old days.
He spat on the ground next to him to remove the bitter taste of hatred from his mouth. The sooner Miaka was dead the better.
Kouji made his way soundlessly to the windows along the main level of the castle. Looking around for guards, he quickly slipped in the first open window and paused, holding his breath. He surveyed the bedroom he'd climbed into. Realizing it was empty he released the breath he'd been holding in a controlled exhale and crept to the door. All he had to do now was find the Priestess, kill her and go home.
The hallway beyond the door was dark and still. This place gave him the creeps. It felt deserted, but he kept every one of his senses piqued, searching for any sign that would tell him where Miaka was.
Rounding a corner, Kouji noticed a girl at the end of the hall. She stood on a pavilion looking out at the gardens through a window. She wasn't the Priestess, but she was alone and unguarded. Taking his opportunity, Kouji sneaked up behind her and roughly covered her mouth with his hands before dragging her into a darkened doorway. The woman struggled against him and strained against his hand, trying to call out for help. He easily overpowered her and stifled her screams with a dagger held at her throat. The girl froze and went silent the moment she felt the cold touch of the blade against her skin.
"Tell me where she is. Where is the Priestess?"
The woman was breathing heavily through her nose, her eyes open wide with fright. She nodded as if to say she knew who he spoke of. Kouji removed his hand from her mouth but kept the point of his dagger pressed at her neck. The woman swallowed hard, her breath coming in short ragged gasps.
"She-she's in the gardens." The girl pointed to the window she'd been looking out of moments earlier. Kouji nodded and removed his knife from her neck. Throwing her in front of him he motioned for her to leave. Not wasting a second, the frightened girl stifled her sobs and ran down the hall. Kouji watched until her figure disappeared around the corner before making his way out onto the pavilion to survey the gardens.
Had he the time to appreciate the scenery, Kouji might have enjoyed the design of the gardens that surrounded the interior of the palace. They were lush and tropical, full of varying colours, textures and smells. Fireflies lit up the bushes here and there with their luminescent glow, making for a beautiful and romantic setting. If he'd ever been interested in women, Kouji imagined this would be the kind of place he'd want to bring one of them. With a dismissive shake of his head he hopped over the railing and landed softly atop the grassy earth.
The blood was thrumming in his veins with expectation and he gripped tightly at the dagger in his hand. It wouldn't be long until he found her. He was so close he could practically taste it! He took off at a swift run, making his way deeper into the gardens in search of the Priestess.
Nearly an hour had passed before he took a moment to catch his breath beneath a tree. To call the gardens extensive was a bit of an understatement. In all the time he'd been searching he felt as if he'd been running in circles. Everything tree and bush looked the same! With one hand braced against the tree, he stood up straight and surveyed his surroundings for what seemed like the hundredth time. His hand clenched into a fist when he realized he had no idea where to go next.
Kouji was disturbed from his thoughts by a low giggle from above him. Looking up to find the girl he'd been looking for perched casually on a large branch overhead.
"Look who decided to join the party," Kouji said with a sly grin. "Why don't you come on down here so we can have a little chat?" He sheathed his dagger and slowly pulled his sword from its sheath.
Miaka glared down at him from her perch in the tree and laughed again, "Tell me, how is our dear friend Tasuki?"
Kouji grit his teeth and a low growl emitted from his throat. How dare this woman talk about Tasuki like that, as if his life had no worth! He suddenly wished he could fly just so he could leap into the tree and slice her laughing head off with one clean blow. The Priestess saved him the trouble by jumping down out of the tree to land on her feet in front of him. She pulled a sword out of the sheath on her back and held it in front of her.
"Well Kouji, you came all this way. I suppose I should make it worth your while."
Kouji didn't need an invitation. With a cry of rage he charged at her, his sword held high above his head.
This will be over in one blow, he thought, and was shocked when his sword hit the earth with a thud. He spun round and found the girl standing behind him blinking innocently.
How had she done it? How had she moved in the blink of an eye?
Kouji didn't have time to think things over before she attacked. She came at him fast and hard, backing him up against a tree and kneeing him in the groin. He dropped to his knees like a rock and glared up at her. Using his sword for leverage he picked his body back up and tried to ignore the pain.
"That was a dirty trick," he chided her and took a swing at her head. She dodged his blade easily and put a few paces of distance between them.
When had this woman become an expert swordsman? She'd always seemed so weak and fragile before…
Maybe all of that was an act too, he reasoned, just like her feelings towards Tasuki. Feeling the rage boil over inside of him, Kouji attacked again, this time managing to knock her off balance. She hit the ground hard and winced from the pain. Not giving her time to pick herself up, he kicked the sword from her hand and placed his own at her throat. Miaka watched her sword sail through the air and land blade down in the soft ground a few feet away. Her eyes turned back to Kouji defiantly. They betrayed no fear or anxiety and it angered him even more.
"Have you no remorse? You nearly killed Tasuki and I wanna know why! What did he do to deserve being treated like that?"
"That fool? He deserves to die," she replied with an indifferent shrug. "What a pathetic excuse for a man. Every warrior knows that it's forbidden to sleep with the Priestess but he just couldn't resist. He's wanted me from the moment he met me, did he tell you that? He waited all this time for me only to realize now that he can never have me. I almost feel sorry for him."
Kouji's blade shook from the rage that coursed through his veins.
"Tasuki is the best of men!" he shouted at her. "You could never deserve someone like him and I'll make sure to kill you slowly so you never forget that!"
Miaka laughed aloud, and kept her eyes fixed on his. "You can't kill me Kouji. I'm carrying Tasuki's child. Just think of how heartbroken he would be if he found out that you, the man he thought of as a brother, had killed his only progeny."
Kouji's mouth dropped open and his sword wavered slightly. Was it possible? Could this woman truly be carrying Tasuki's child? Becoming a father would be one of the greatest moments of Tasuki's life. No amount of adventure with the bandits could top fatherhood. But it couldn't be possible. There's no way she could know for certain this soon.
Stiffening his resolve, Kouji pushed the blade of his sword into Miaka'a neck until a small bubble of blood formed and trickled down her skin.
"You're lying," he said evenly. Placing his foot on her chest Kouji lifted his blade into the air to deliver a fatal blow. He brought his blade screaming down but was stopped short by the sword Miaka had driven through his chest. He gazed down with astonishment at the sword as his mind tried to piece together how she'd managed it.
The Priestess got to her feet and and placed her foot against his chest to push him off her blade. He stumbled back and she advanced on him, sword still in hand. Blood poured down is chest, soaking his shirt bright red. He was brought up short by the trunk of a tree against his back. He held tight to his sword but was disappointed to see just how badly it shook in his hand. How had she managed it? How had this girl bested him? He couldn't piece it together, but it didn't matter anymore. He wasn't long for this world, but that didn't mean he intended to go down without a fight. If he had to die, he'd do it with courage and strength.
"Good-bye Kouji," Miaka said with a smile. "You truly were a good friend to Tasuki. He will miss you greatly." With that she shoved her blade through his chest and into the trunk of the tree behind. He cried out as the blade skewered him, pinning him helplessly to the tree. He stared down at the handle in disbelief and vomited up a mouthful of blood.
All of the good times he'd shared with Tasuki flashed before his eyes in those last moments. They'd only been kids when they'd met. Growing up together as part of the gang, they quickly became inseparable, like brothers almost. When he'd nearly died in a knife fight Tasuki was the one who'd come to his aid and then cared for him after. The scar that sliced down the left side of his face was a daily reminder of the strength of that friendship.
They had always planned to grow old together. They were going to retire from the gang and live off their riches in the mountains somewhere. But this death put a hollow end to that dream. He'd always thought dying in battle was a respectable way to leave this life, but all he could feel was fear – the fear of having to die alone with no one there to comfort him. With the bitter taste of iron still in his mouth he dropped his head to his chest and took his last breath.
Miaka watched him die then turned on her heel and headed in the direction of the palace. One down, four more to go.
In the garden, nothing stirred but for the wind. It caressed Kouji's body and whipped through his hair. As if doing him one final justice, it carried the tears from his eyes away so that he looked ever valiant and brave. No one would know about his final moment of weakness. He could always be remembered as a martyr and a hero, just the way he would have wanted it.
Chapter 16: The Haunting
Tasuki bolted upright in his cot, his body drenched in a cold sweat. His eyes darted wildly around the darkened room while his hand groped blindly for his tessen. His fingers found only empty sheets next to him and he cursed under his breath. What the hell had happened to him? His heart continued to hammer inside his chest and his lungs burned with each breath he sucked in. Panic. That was the best way he could describe it. It was the feeling of an all consuming panic that'd ripped him from sleep, but he couldn't put his finger on the cause. His brow furrowed as he tried to think back to what he'd been dreaming about but felt the images slip further from his reach.
"Damn it all to hell," he cursed and pulled his sweat-soaked shirt over his head. A shiver jetted down his spine as the cool air snaked over his damp skin leaving goose bumps across his flesh. That must have been some nightmare, he thought. The gnawing pain in his side went from a distraction to an annoyance and he tsked as he pulled his hand away and saw fresh blood staining the bandages. Chichiri wouldn't be too happy to see that he'd ripped his stitches open. Some warrior he was. Miaka was gone and could be fighting for her life this very minute while he was stuck in bed shaking like a leaf over a stupid dream. He was glad she wasn't around to see him like this. He couldn't bear to look her or any of the other warriors in the eye after such a pathetic display.
With concerted effort and a pained grimace he managed to push himself up off the cot and to his feet. Fiery pain tore through his left side, stopping him short. He braced his shoulder against the wall and waited until the room had stopped spinning before he chanced moving again. For such a small wound, it sure was causing him a lot of trouble. He'd been beat up far worse than this before, so why did he feel as weak as a mewling pup now? It didn't make any sense! When the pain had subsided enough to make movement possible again, he grit his teeth and shuffled step by step to the window. With his hands on the sill for support, he caught his breath and stared moodily out over the rocky landscape of Mt. Reikaku.
The moon had waned considerably since the night Miaka disappeared. His mouth pressed into a frown at the thought of how much time he'd wasted. Her trail would be long cold by now, making tracking her down nearly impossible. His hand balled into a tight fist and he struck it against the window sill. He hated feeling useless, especially when it came to Miaka. He refused to believe she'd attacked him of her own free will. Kenshin had to have been controlling her somehow. Maybe he'd put her under some sort of spell, or poisoned her with kudoku. There had to be an explanation. He simply wouldn't accept that Miaka could have done that to him!
He couldn't shake the feeling that something was horribly wrong. Somewhere Miaka was in trouble and needed his help and he was stuck in the bandit's hideout barely able to stand without help. He knew he could find a way to sneak out and go after her, but in his condition what good would it do? He couldn't protect her against anyone the way he was now. Hell, he couldn't even protect himself if he was being honest about it.
Like it or not he'd have to wait until he'd regained some of his strength, though he was sure the wait would kill him. Pushing away from the window he began to pace slowly back and forth across the floor. Maybe he could use this time to devise a plan to get her back. He crossed his arms in thought and considered a half dozen different scenarios but each had so many possible outcomes that it didn't take long before his head began to hurt. Strategy was Chichiri's thing which usually worked out just fine since he'd always been more of a doer than a thinker. But where the heck was the monk now when he needed him?
Wearing a scowl, Tasuki threw himself into the nearest chair in a huff and growled as fiery pain tore through his side once more. He would have to remember to be more careful if he wanted to have any hope of healing quickly enough to help Miaka. He looked up as a sudden knock sounded at the door.
"Knock, knock. Who's there? Genro's old buddy, Kouji, that's who! Well come on in, Kouji. Don't mind if I do!"
Tasuki chuckled at hearing Kouji play out their old joke. Shuffling over to the door he let him in with a relieved smile on his face.
"I was wonderin' when you were gonna come visit me ya old lout!"
Kouji shrugged and waved him off, "What can I say? I've been busy!"
Returning to his seat, Tasuki invited his friend to sit. Kouji declined, preferring to stand. He strode over to the window and looked out.
"It's a beautiful night…," he said and then was silent for a long moment before continuing. "Say Tasuki, I wanted to talk to you about something."
"It's about that Miaka girl... I want you to be careful when you go searching for her. I think that Kenshin guy is controlling her somehow."
Tasuki's curiosity was piqued, "Why do ya think that?"
"Just a feelin' I got," Kouji replied gravely. "Promise me you'll be careful. I don't want to see you hurt again, Genro."
Kouji turned to look at him and he noticed how the scar along the left side of his face appeared to glow stark white in the moonlight. He nodded in understanding and uttered a quiet promise that he would be careful. A grim smile played across Kouji's lips. As always, more was said by glances between them than there ever was with words.
"You now where she is, don't you," Tasuki challenged. Kouji nodded.
"She's in the old palace just outside of Kouto. I know you're gonna go after her even if I tell you not to, so just remember to keep your guard up. I think that Kenshin guy wants you dead, so don't make it easy for him."
"Hey whad'ya' sayin'!" Tasuki blustered. Had he the strength he would have shot out of his seat and given Kouji a good shake. "I'm gonna kick that Kenshin guy's butt, and you'll be right there next to me when I do it!"
Kouji laughed softly and held his hands up, "Oh excuse me. I forgot I was in the presence of a Suzaku Warrior."
Tasuki glowered at his best friend but his lips betrayed him, twitching with the effort it took to suppress his laughter. The two of them finally cracked up, chortling loudly until tears came to their eyes. When their laughter eventually died down, Kouji's face became serious.
"I need to leave you now. There are some things I gotta take care of."
"Hey, wait!" Tasuki protested, but Kouji made his way determinedly to the door.
"Take care of yourself, brother!" he called over his shoulder and then disappeared into the shadows of the hallway.
Tasuki watched him leave and sat back against his chair with a heavy sigh. Kouji never called him 'brother'. It was always understood of course that their relationship was like that of two brothers, but they'd never said the words aloud before. Tasuki was so perplexed by Kouji's odd goodbye that he hardly noticed when Chichiri entered the room.
Soundlessly, the monk sat opposite the red headed warrior at the table. His mask had been left behind and his face appeared grim.
"Tasuki…" he began, but paused to choose his words carefully. "Something has happened that you need to know about."
Tasuki's ears perked up. Did they finally have news about Miaka? He was certain Chichiri had been searching for her life force. Remembering Kouji's tip about the castle outside of Kouto, he opened his mouth to share it but the monk held him off with a raised hand.
"I was monitoring everyone's life forces in case of another attack, ya know. A couple of hours ago I felt Kouji's life force vanish, so I went to investigate..."
To Chichiri's surprise, Tasuki sat back in his chair and laughed out loud.
"Jeez you must really be losing your touch, Chichiri! Kouji was just here in my room talkin' to me! I can't believe you didn't see him in the hall. He must've walked right past you!"
"What? You saw him here?" The monk sat back a moment, his features drawn in a pensive frown. In time he nodded and directed his gaze at Tasuki.
"I thought something like this might happen, ya know. You two being so close and all..."
"What're you talking about, Chichiri?" Awareness trickled down the back of his neck like cool water. He knew what Chichiri was going to tell him before the words even had a chance to form on his tongue, but he refused to believe it. It couldn't be true! He would know. If Kouji was really... Damn it, he'd know!
Expelling a low sigh, the monk forced himself to deliver the tragic news, "When I couldn't detect Kouji's life force I went to search for him. I found him at the palace outside of Kouto."
Tasuki stubbornly shook his head even as tears flooded his eyes, "You're wrong! He was just here, Chichiri! He couldn't possibly have ridden back that fast! You must be mistaken-"
"He's dead, Tasuki."
The words tore through him like knives. In that instant a part of his soul was permanently torn from his body. He saw Chichiri's pained expression, watched his mouth moving to form words, but he couldn't hear them above the incessant ringing in his ears. Chichiri reached for his hand, but he snatched them away and shot to his feet. His chair toppled to the floor behind him and he stumbled to the window.
"He stood right here and spoke to me," he insisted and shut his eyes tight. He shook his head, adamantly refusing to believe the truth in the monk's words. "He was here, Chichiri!"
The monk rose slowly from his chair and joined him at the window. He put a comforting hand on his shoulder and squeezed it tight.
"I saw him myself," he said, his voice low and patient. "His body is in the gardens of the palace."
"ENOUGH!" Tasuki's eyes snapped open and with a howl of rage he grabbed the monk by the scruff of his shirt and slammed his back against the wall hard enough to make the wood creak. His eyes were burning red like fire with a rage unlike anything he'd ever felt. It threatened to consume him whole and take Chichiri right along with him.
"I don't want to hear any more!" he growled in the monk's face. "Kouji ain't dead!" Even as he said the words he knew that they were nothing but his own empty denial. Chichiri was his friend. He wouldn't lie about something this important. After a moment's hesitation Tasuki released his hold on the monk and watched him slide slowly to the floor.
Chichiri made no effort to get to his feet. He brought a knee in close to his chest and rested his arm across it as he caught his breath.
"I forget how strong you are sometimes, ya know?" he commented, with an effort at keeping things light-hearted in case he should set him off again.
Tasuki felt his knees buckle under him and he dropped to the floor in front of his friend.
"I believe the Kouji you were speaking with was a ghost, ya know," Chichiri offered, his voice pained. "He cared about you so much in life that he couldn't be at peace in death without seeing you one last time."
Tears were flowing freely down Tasuki's cheeks now and he made no move to wipe them away. Kouji was... Kouji was...
"How?" was all he could manage to say around the sizable lump that'd formed in the back of his throat.
"He died by the blade," the monk replied gravely and placed a comforting hand atop his shoulder. "He died a hero, at least that much you can be thankful for."
Tasuki wordlessly nodded his head. If Kouji had to die, at least he'd died well. The knowledge that his best friend had returned to him for one final visit offered some small comfort, but it would never be enough to fill the void left in his heart. He had two people he cared for in this world more than life itself and now one of them was gone and the other was dead. And he hadn't been able to save either of them.
Walking like a broken man, Tasuki made his way soundlessly to his cot and collapsed on top of it with his face to the wall. Chichiri took his cue to leave and quietly closed the door behind him. The monk lingered in the hall with his back against the door and grimaced as he listened to the sound of his comrade's choking sobs. His hand balled into an angry fist and he slammed it against his thigh.
How much more will he have to endure, Suzaku? Hasn't he been tested enough?
With a defeated shake of his head, Chichiri retreated soundlessly down the hall to his quarters.
Chapter 17: Farewell
It was mid-day before Chichiri knocked politely on the door to Tasuki's room. Hearing no sound from inside, he turned the latch and poked his head in. The fiery-haired bandit sat in the window sill staring out at nothing in particular. He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn't notice Chichiri had entered the room until the monk placed a gentle hand on his shoulder.
Tasuki started and snapped his head around before expelling a heavy sigh of relief. Chichiri was shocked to see how haggard his comrade appeared. Weary, bloodshot eyes met his and held them in a pained gaze that spoke volumes about his inner torment. It was difficult to miss the dried tracks left by his earlier tears on Tasuki's cheeks either. It was obvious he hadn't slept, having spent the entire night mourning the loss of his friend instead.
Chichiri offered him an encouraging smile but Tasuki didn't acknowledge it. He turned his head away and stared out the window once more.
He's really taking this hard, poor guy, Chichiri thought. Pulling up a chair, he sat next to the red-headed warrior and tried to find the right words to comfort him. He felt awful for having been the one to deliver the news of Kouji's demise. He realized afterwards that he could have found a more gentle way to break the news to him, maybe used words that were more considerate of the deep bond they'd shared. He'd been so focused on devising a strategy to rescue Miaka he hadn't been thinking straight and seeing Tasuki now made him regret it deeply. His friend deserved better. He should have stayed with him. He should have comforted him. But instead he'd left him on his own at a time when he absolutely shouldn't have been alone. He'd taken the coward's way out and Tasuki had paid the price, but he intended to make amends for it now. And the best way he could do that was by tapping into his own long-buried pain so he could help Tasuki get through his.
"I know how hard this is for you," he said simply. "When I lost Hojun, it felt as if a part of my soul had been ripped from my body. I knew in that moment that my life would never be the same again. That I would never be the same."
Tasuki didn't reply, but he was listening and it encouraged Chichiri to keep talking. If Tasuki was willing to listen then maybe some small part of what he said might get through to him, to help him understand that he wasn't alone.
"I never had the chance to bury Hojun," Chichiri told him with a hint of bitterness behind his words. "I will regret letting the flood waters take him for the rest of my life. I will never have closure, but you can Tasuki. I can take you to see him. You can say goodbye to Kouji the right way."
Tasuki said nothing for a long while but eventually his head gave a single nod, "Take me to him."
His voice was raw with emotion and when Tasuki stood Chichiri pulled him into a tight embrace.
"I'll be right here with you," he promised. "You aren't alone."
Chichiri softly chanted a transportation spell and within seconds they were surrounded by the warm red light of Suzaku.
Tasuki closed his eyes and leaned his head against Chichiri's shoulder. He felt weak and numb. He'd never felt so much pain and anguish in his life. Nothing had felt real since he'd crawled into bed with Miaka. He kept asking himself if this was all some horrible dream, some kudoku laced nightmare he hadn't been able to wake from. The thought was tempting, because it meant Kouji was alive and well somewhere just beyond his reach. But the pain in Chichiri's eyes told him this was no dream. This was hard for him, too. He could see it clearly every time the monk remembered the day he lost Hojun, his dearest friend. But Chichiri was willing to break open those old wounds to help him through this, and it left him in awe. What had he ever done to deserve such a good friend?
Suzaku's red light dissipated, leaving them in a darkened garden. The thick canopy of trees overhead provided a cool shade for the earth below and blocked out most of the midday sun. The lush, green garden smelled and looked beautiful, but Tasuki eyes remained transfixed on Kouji. Chichiri stood back, his presence alone reassuring as Tasuki took one tentative step after another towards the body of his friend.
For several moments he did nothing at all. He simply stood there frozen, his eyes drinking in the gruesome scene before him. If it weren't for the blade rammed through his chest, Tasuki could almost trick himself into believing Kouji was merely sleeping. Despite the blood caked onto his shirt and the blade protruding from his body, Kouji's expression was peaceful. At least he hadn't been in pain when he'd passed. It was one small mercy he could be thankful for.
Tasuki bit back a sob but his shoulders trembled violently. There was nothing he could do for Kouji now. Nothing he said or did would bring him back. He was gone...just gone. It filled him with a rage unlike any he'd ever experienced. It wasn't fiery hot like the temper that'd led him to slam Chichiri into a wall the night before. No, this was colder, darker, the kind of rage that simmered deep in your belly until it was time for it to explode in pure, hate-fueled revenge.
The only thing he could do for now was make sure Kouji's body rested in peace. Tasuki wrapped his hands around the handle of the blade and tore it from the tree. He cried out as pain ripped through his side, but he ignored it. In a way the pain felt good. It was the reminder he needed that all of this was real. It was the only thing keeping him grounded as he prepared to bury his best friend, the only thing keeping him sane.
He tossed the sword to the side as if it burned him and caught Kouji's body as it fell. He scooped him up into his arms and carried him to Chichiri, refusing to succumb in to the searing pain in his side that threatened to tear him in two. He could feel fresh blood seeping through his bandages to stain his shirt, more of it running in small rivers down his stomach. He didn't care though. What mattered now was getting Kouji safely home and giving him a proper burial. His body would be laid to rest in the tomb next to their old boss, just as he would have wanted it.
Locking eyes with the monk, Tasuki nodded and waited to be transported back to the bandit's hideout. He felt the warm light of Suzaku envelop his body and seconds later the hard wood of the floor was beneath his feet. Chichiri departed in search of fresh bandages, leaving him to lower Kouji's body onto the cot so he could prepare him for burial.
He started by stripping off his blood soaked clothes and using some of the water left in the wash basin to clean the blood and dirt from his face and body. When he was satisfied, Tasuki used what was left of the bandages from when Chichiri had last bound his wounds and wound them around the large gaping hole in Kouji's chest. The wound was black and ugly, torn flesh and muscle surrounded by black pools of inky blood. Tasuki couldn't wind the bandages around Kouji fast enough. Anything to hide the hideous, irrefutable proof that Kouji was well and truly dead. No one could have survived a wound like that, not even someone as strong as Kouji.
Once he'd dressed his friend in fresh clothes, Tasuki stood back to admire his handiwork. Now that he was cleaned up, the bandit looked even more like he was only sleeping. Tasuki knelt down on one knee and gathered his friend's cold hand between his palms.
"Forgive me, Kouji," he began softly. "I wasn't there to fight with you and look what happened." Fresh tears sprang to his eyes but he grit his teeth together to hold back a sob.
"I swear on my life," he ground out from behind clenched teeth, "I'll kill whoever's responsible for this."
Tasuki rose to his feet and grimaced in pain. Putting a hand inside his shirt, he pulled it out and found it covered in blood. Cursing his own weakness he stumbled a few steps towards the door. The room swam before his eyes and his knees buckled before he could reach the door. He fell hard to his knees atop the wooden floor and managed to catch hold of the edge of the cot. Clinging desperately to consciousness, he smiled up at his friend and managed a breathy laugh.
"Thanks for comin' to warn me. You were always lookin' out for me, weren't ya. You were a good friend, Kouji. A damn good friend."
Too weak to hold on any longer, Tasuki's arms slid off the edge of the cot and he landed atop the floor. The impenetrable blanket of unconsciousness son enveloped him, dragging him down into the endless dark.
Chapter 18: The Battle Begins
In the days that followed, Tasuki, the warriors, and the bandits held a funeral for Kouji. They buried him alongside the old Boss, just as he would have wanted it. Tasuki lingered in the tomb long after the others had gone. He laid a hand atop the smooth, polished wood of Kouji's casket stared at the empty space to the right of it. Some day this place would be his final resting spot as well. Though they weren't related by blood, he, Kouji, and the Boss had been the closest family any of them could have asked for. The Boss had taken them in on a gaff, just a pair of misfit orphans looking to cause trouble. Over the years he'd become a mentor to them, teaching them the tricks of the trade. They'd looked up to him, loved him like the father they never had, and then one day he was gone. His horse had taken a tumble off a cliff on a rainy night and brought him down with it.
The Boss's death hit him hard. It was the first time he could remember losing someone close to him, someone he truly cared for. It was months before he felt ready to return to the bandits and take up the mantle as their new leader. If it weren't for Miaka and the other Suzaku warriors arriving, he might have continued on that path indefinitely, wandering lost without purpose or direction. He'd recovered then because at the end of the day he still had Kouji at his side, but now...
The hollow pit that had been carved into his heart by Kouii's death remained unfillable. For the first time in his adult life he felt truly alone, like that scared orphan he'd been all those years ago. The last time he'd lost someone important to him, Miaka and the others had given his life new meaning and a reason to go on. Even now, when he wanted nothing more than to disappear, if was their support and the desire to protect Miaka the kept him going. It was all he could do simply to get out of bed each morning, but knowing Miaka was out there and that she needed his help became a driving force. He was a man on a mission, driven by his single-minded desire to find her and save her no matter what the cost.
There was a part of him that held a grim secret, one he could never share with the others. If this mission was dangerous enough, if he was reckless enough, he wouldn't have to endure the pain of missing his friends for much longer. He could die a hero and be reunited with Kouji and the old Boss in heaven, where they could live for all eternity thieving and joking about just like they had in the good old days. It sounded like a pretty damn good idea to him.
He'd wanted to leave as soon as Kouji's funeral rights were complete, but Chichiri insisted they stay with the bandits until his wounds were healed. Perhaps the monk sensed what was really driving his stubborn desire to go after Kenshin and find Miaka as soon as possible. They fought about it daily, and the monk's warnings were always the same.
"It won't help anyone to have you passing out in the middle of a fight, ya know," he chided. "Just be patient! Let your body heal itself and then we'll go find her."
Be patient. He said those same words over and over again, and each time he heard them Tasuki felt his anger grow. He was sick of being patient. He didn't have a single patient bone in his body. Couldn't Chichiri see how hard this was for him? To sit around waiting for his body to heal knowing that Miaka was in trouble? They had more than one verbal sparring match over it, and even came to blows one night when he got particularly drunk. But in the end (and with considerable physical restraint from Nuriko) he was forced to wait.
When the day finally arrived, Chichiri entered his room with a solemn look and announced, "Let's go."
The bandits voluntarily joined their entourage to lend their support. No one quite knew what to expect from Kenshin, not even Taiitsukun, so the larger their numbers the better. And though outwardly Tasuki grumbled about the extra men slowing them down, he was thankful for their support. Their presence offered him the freedom to search for Miaka while they took care of distracting the palace guards.
It took them nearly a week to reach the palace on horseback. Once they arrived, Tasuki's impatience reached new heights. He paced endlessly back and forth while Chichiri, Nuriko and Hotohori huddled together to review boring details like counting the number of guards on duty, monitoring the guard routines, and mapping out the various entrances to the palace. All Tasuki wanted to do was leap over the wall of the garden, grab Miaka, and retreat. But he knew jumping into action would result in a lot of his comrades being hurt or killed. Their way was the better way, but that didn't make it any easier.
Tasuki ran his hands through his red hair making it stand up on end more than usual. His body felt as if it would explode purely from the tension.
"Tasuki!" Nuriko beckoned to him. "If you don't stop pacing like that I'm going to have to break your legs! You're driving me crazy here!"
Glaring at Nuriko, Tasuki threw himself to the ground. Wearing a scowl, he sat cross legged with his back against a tree and waited for someone to tell him it was time to go kick some bad guy butt and rescue Miaka.
By nightfall the three warriors had worked out a plan. The bandits would attack the main gates to distract the guards while Nuriko and Hotohori would enter the palace from the East entrance. Chichiri and Tasuki would go through the gardens and find a way into the palace from there.
"If something goes wrong we'll meet back here in an hour, understood?"
The group nodded at Chichiri's instructions, all except Tasuki. The monk nudged him in the side and fixed him with a stern look, "Understood?"
"Yeah, yeah," Tasuki replied with a roll of his eyes.
With a final farewell, the teams silently departed for their missions.
Chichiri and Tasuki made quick work of carving their way through the underbrush in the garden without much resistance. As they drew closer to the palace they slowed their advance, their every sense piqued and waiting for any sign of an impending attack. Their leather-sled shoes barely made a sound on the soft grass beneath their feet. The gardens were surprisingly still. Nothing stirred within, not even the wind. It felt unnatural, and the hairs on the back of Tasuki's neck stood on end. He glanced over at Chichiri and the monk nodded in agreement.
"I sense it too."
Without warning the monk cried out and his body flew backwards into the trunk of a nearby tree. With a sickening thud that shook leaves from the tree's branches, Chichiri's back met the tree and then dropped lifelessly to the ground.
"Chichiri!" Tasuki's eyes went wide and his head whipped back and forth, searching for the source of the blast that'd taken out one of the strongest warriors in Suzaku's arsenal. Then he heard it, that sickeningly sweet laughter. The sound of it sent a chill rushing up his spine and he hoped he was wrong about its source. A moment later Miaka dropped soundlessly from the branches of a tree in front of him.
"Hello Tasuki," she greeted him with a cold smile. "I've been waiting for you."
Chapter 19: The Killing Blow
Tasuki feet remained rooted to the ground as he gaped wide-eyed at the figure standing before him. She looked like Miaka in every way but one - her eyes were dark and cold, not the soft inviting green he was normally swept up in. The specter smiled sweetly at him, but he wouldn't be fooled so easily. Not after the last time.
"Where is Miaka?" he demanded. Tasuki drew his tessen and held it threateningly in front of him.
The girl put a hand to her lips and laughed, "Whatever do you mean, Tasuki? Surely you recognize the woman you love..."
The fiery-haired Suzaku warrior grit his teeth together and his eyes glowed bright red with the rage burning through him, "I don't have time for your games! Where's the real Miaka!"
He released a burst of scorching flame from his tessen, forcing the specter to dodge out of the way. She glowered at him and he made ready to strike at her again.
"I'm only going to ask you once more before I kill you," he growled. "Where the hell is Miaka?"
The girl launched an attack of her own, tossing a spread of razor sharp shuriken in his direction. He was fast, but not fast enough. He dodged out of the way but felt the sting of one of the blades as it sliced across his cheek.
"Now you've gone and cut up my pretty face," he remarked with a sneer and launched at her. He managed to distract her with a shot of flame from his tessen and then landed his fist directly into her gut. She flew back into the nearest tree and then collapsed to the ground gasping for air. He stood over her with his tessen resting lazily atop his shoulder and pressed the heel of his boot atop her chest to keep her down.
"Any last words?" he asked before chanting the spell that would get rid of her for good.
The specter opened her eyes and his words stopped short. Those eyes... Soft green just like he remembered. Only now they were filled with fear.
She struggled for breath beneath the weight of his foot, her face screwed up in pain. He sheathed his tessen and dropped to his knees next to her, "Miaka?"
"Oh Tasuki! I was so scared!" Fresh tears coursed down her cheeks and she fumbled forward to throw her arms around him. His guard was still up but he felt it waver as her tears soaked into the material of his shirt. His hand went lightly to her back, holding her close.
"Is it really you?" he asked softly, uncertain whether he could trust it was her. He pulled back and brushed the hair from her face so he could see her eyes. They were tear-filled but the look of them was warm and familiar. She was Miaka, his Miaka. He exhaled a quiet sigh of relief and wiped the tears from her cheeks.
She clung to him, her fingers gripping tight at the fabric of his shirt, "Oh Tasuki, I've been so scared! Kenshin told me he was going to kill all of you! I'm so glad you're okay."
"What happened to you?"
"I think he poisoned me somehow," she replied with a confused shake of her head. "I can't remember hardly anything, but I keep having these nightmares where I..." She closed her eyes shut tight and stifled a sob. "I dream that I'm killing people, Tasuki!"
He held her close and spoke reassuring words in a low voice as he stroked her hair.
"It's gonna be okay," he told her. "We'll get you out of here. I'm gonna take you home."
Miaka's next words felt like ice water being poured through his veins.
"I-I think I killed Kouji," she admitted through dry sobs. Her wide green eyes lifted to his and he could see the horror in their depths. "I think I really killed him."
The hand stroking her hair stilled. There had to be a mistake. Miaka wouldn't have... She couldn't have...
"What if my nightmares aren't just dreams?" she pressed, her voice rising in panic. "What if I'm really hurting these people? What if I'm really killing-"
"Stop!" His hands grabbed her shoulders tight and her jaw snapped shut. He grimaced, fighting back the grief and anger that threatened to overwhelm him. "Don't say any more."
She stubbornly shook her head, "Tell me Kouji's okay," she pleaded desperately. "Please, Tasuki! Tell me I didn't-"
He turned his face away, unable to look her in the eye. He wished he could tell her what she wanted to hear, that it'd been nothing more than a bad dream. He'd wished for it every morning since the day of Kouji's death.
"Kouji's dead," he told her, his voice muted by the rawness of his grief. "I buried him a fortnight ago."
Miaka's hands went to her mouth to stifle a cry. She seemed to fold in on herself, curling forward until her head practically touched her knees. His hand moved to settle on her back to offer some small comfort but he let it fall away instead. He'd come to think place intent on murdering the one who'd taken Kouji from him and now...
Rage flooded through him at the knowledge of what Kenshin had done, what he'd forced Miaka to do. She hadn't been in control, she hadn't killed him intentionally, somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that, but it didn't make it any easier to look at her knowing her hands had been the ones to take Kouji's life. His best friend, his brother - dead because of her!
Tasuki's face contorted into a barely controlled mask of fury and he hurriedly got to his feet. Miaka lifted her tear-streaked face up to his.
"Tasuki, I'm so sorry," she said pitifully, but he couldn't bring himself to look at her just yet.
He took a few steps away to give himself room to breathe and think. The symbol on his arm burned red hot as he quietly raged over the nightmare he now found himself in. His best friend murdered by the woman he loved. It was too much to accept! He'd never felt the urge to kill something so strongly in all his life. His hands practically shook with the desire to pull out his tessen and burn everything and everyone around him to the ground. He couldn't take it! Miaka had killed Kouji? It was a truth too horrifying to be real. But it was. It was...and now he had to decide what he planned to do about it.
By the time his feet had stopped pacing, Miaka had risen to her feet. She looked uncertainly at him and kept her arms wrapped around her body to stop herself from going to him. She realized he needed time and space, but knowing she wanted to comfort him even in this state made his decision a simple one. In two quick steps she was in his arms, her small body crushed against his. He buried his face in the hollow of her shoulder and breathed deep, the familiar scent of her putting his heart put at ease.
He'd made his choice. Kouji represented his old life with the bandits and everything it stood for. Before meeting Miaka and the Suzaku warriors, that life had meant everything to him. Those bandits had been his family, just as Kouji was his brother. But he couldn't live in the past forever. From the day they'd met Miaka had changed his world. There'd been pain and loss and hardship, but there was love too. If they could overcome this next obstacle, if he could destroy Kenshin, they might just have a chance at being happy together. He'd risk anything to love her the way he wanted to, spending the rest of his days at her side.
Their tender moment was interrupted by Chichiri's strangled cry, "Tasuki! Get away from her ya know! That isn't Miaka!"
His eyes shot open and he abruptly pulled back. Not Miaka? He looked into her eyes and felt his stomach drop at the sight of the soulless black orbs staring back at him. It was as Chichiri said - she wasn't his Miaka anymore. The specter that wore the face of the woman he loved smirked cruelly and drew a knife from a sheath strapped to her thigh.
"Did you enjoy your little reunion?" she mocked. "Now it's my turn!"
She thrust her knife at him and he just barely managed to somersault out of the way in time. He rolled up onto his feet and quickly drew his tessen in front of him. The specter's next attacks were quick and vicious. He found he was just barely able to avoid one before the next one struck. Her boot planted firmly against his chest and he felt his back connect with a nearby tree trunk.
"Chichiri! You wanna give me some help over here?" Tasuki groaned and pushed his body up off the ground. "Tell me how I can defeat her!"
A fresh onslaught of shuriken clanged loudly against the iron tessen as he deflected them away, punctuating his request. He dodged another attack and managed to kick her feet out from under her, sending her flying into the dirt on her back. Killing her would have been easier. One good shot from his tessen would be enough to do it, but somewhere inside she was till his Miaka. He couldn't kill her. There had to be a way to get her back!
Chichiri had managed to pick himself up enough so he could rest against the tree behind him, but it was clear he was going to be no help in this fight.
"This is your battle, Tasuki. She's under Kenshin's control ya know? She won't allow either of us to leave here alive."
Tasuki stubbornly shook his head, "There must be another way! Think Chichiri – isn't there another way I can bring Miaka back?"
The specter dodged out of the way and tossed a handful of shuriken directly at Chichiri. They stuck in his chest with an audible thunk and Tasuki spun round, his eyes going wide.
"That's what you get for meddling, monk! Stay out of this!" The specter jeered and used the distraction to land a glancing blow across Tasuki's shoulder. Blood shot out of the wound in his arm, staining his sleeve bright red. He gripped his shoulder, grimacing in pain as he blocked her next blows.
Slowly and painfully, Chichiri ripped each of the blades out of his chest and tossed them aside. They hadn't gone deep enough to do any real damage, except to make moving even more difficult for him than it was before. Chichiri glared at the specter and used a small amount of what remained of his spiritual energy to cast a small spell. It wasn't much, but he was able to knock Miaka onto her back and send her knife flying.
She was quick to jump to her feet and glared menacingly in his direction, "I warned you, monk!"
"Miaka!" he yelled at her, in a last ditch effort to make some sort of connection with the Priestess imprisoned within. "If you can hear me, you have to fight it! You must battle the poison. You can do it, I know you can!"
Wincing in pain, Chichiri fell forwards. He caught himself before his face hit the dirt with his palms braced against the grass. Twin rivers of blood escaped at the base of his long sleeves and trailed across the top of his hands. His body rebelled against him, seizing up in pain, but he refused to give in. If he couldn't help Tasuki and Miaka... If he couldn't stop this they would all end up dead!
Using his staff, Chichiri slowly, achingly, pull himself to his feet. Tasuki spun round and gawked at the sight of him, "Chichiri! What are you doin'? You can't fight her like this!"
Chichiri shook his head and struggled to move a few paces closer to his friend, "You're wrong," he ground out from behind tightly clenched teeth. "You need my help. You can't defeat her alone. I'm going to lend you my strength so you can end this."
"How pathetic!" The specter laughed cruelly and the sound of it send chills up their spines. "You actually think your Miaka will come back to you? The poison has completely taken control. She will never regain consciousness again!"
Tasuki's hand clenched into a tight fist as he glared at the woman before them. Miaka was still alive, he could feel it! He wasn't going to give up now, not when he was so close.
Lashing out, he struck the specter hard in the chest. Her body crashed heavily into the ground and was quickly enveloped by a light blue aura. The monk leaned heavily on his staff but he kept his eyes closed as he chanted the spell that would keep the specter at bay.
"You must do it now, Tasuki," Chichiri instructed and fixed him with a hard look. "If you ever want Miaka to be free you have to do it!"
Tasuki's eyes lowered to his tessen. He knew what the monk was asking of him but couldn't bring himself to do it. He shook his head 'No' and gripped his iron fan tight.
"I can't hold her for much longer," Chichiri warned.
How could he do it? How could he take the life of the woman he loved? It was too much to ask of anyone! He clenched his eyes shut tight and pictured Miaka the way he remembered her. That sweet smiling face, those inviting green eyes, that carefree laugh she gave whenever she teased him... It was those little things that set her apart from the rest, that'd made him fall maddeningly in love with her. He'd been so close to having it all, and in a moment his dream of a life with her would be reduced to nothing but ash. He would kill her and then himself, it was the only way.
Before his resolve could waver, he drew his tessen back for a killing blow. He cried out the spell that would end it all with tears streaming down his cheeks.
A bright orange ball of fire shot from the end of the iron fan and engulfed Miaka inside of it. Tasuki closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to watch, but he couldn't block out the blood curdling screams that came from her as she burned in the flames.
The weight of his guilt made his legs buckle and he dropped to his knees in defeat. Tears streamed steadily from his eyes and showed no signs of stopping anytime soon. Chichiri's hand settled around his shoulders, offering what little comfort he could, but it couldn't help alleviate the crushing pain in his heart. With a single swing of his fan he'd killed a part of himself right along with her.
"She's gone, Chichiri," he sobbed and let his fan slip from his hands. The monk's features softened and he bowed his head.
Chapter 20: Ashes to Ashes
Her body was cold, her skin smudged with dirt and ash, and yet she was still the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen. Miaka's body lay outstretched on the grass, her eyes closed as though she were only sleeping. The serene expression on her face clashed with the violence done to the rest of her body. Tasuki could hardly bear to look at the damage he'd caused. He'd done this to her - not Kenshin, him. Tasuki. The man who'd sworn to protect her with his life.
His eyes drank in every inch of her, committing it to memory so he would never forget. With a shuddering breath he lifted his hand and traced his fingertips along her cheek. He wanted to remember this moment every single day for what remained of his retched life.
Taking up Miaka's limp hand in his own he stroked it gently and placed a soft kiss upon her wrist. Chichiri and the garden had long since faded away. It was just the two of them now, but the task ahead of him was no easier. How could he possibly say goodbye to her? His arms ached to hold her and so he gathered her singed and broken body against his chest he bowed his head to ask for forgiveness.
He would have done anything, given anything, in that moment if he knew it would bring her back to him. He looked down at her with weary eyes and tenderly brushed the hair back off her face. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Miaka was the one who was supposed to survive, not him. It all seemed so unfair, an utterly cruel twist of fate. He'd never been a good person. He'd robbed and killed with impunity for most of his life. Nothing in him had been worth redeeming until he'd found her. Miaka was everything he wasn't - pure and thoughtful and caring. Her heart was good to its very core, so how had things ended up like this? How had she ended up being the one to die?
Cradling her head in his hand, he brought his lips to hers for a soft kiss. It was his final goodbye and most heartfelt apology. He could never ask her to forgive him, but he hoped that wherever her spirit was now she understood why he'd done it. Her lips were cold beneath his and left the lingering taste of ash in his mouth. He bowed his head then and cried.
In time the garden returned and he lifted his face to see Chichiri leaning heavily against a nearby tree, using his staff for support. His clothes were stained crimson and his face solemn. Only the glistening of his eyes gave any hint as to his true emotions. Miaka's death would be a significant blow to them all. Tasuki and Chichiri's eyes met and they nodded in understanding.
"We should bring Miaka to the others."
Tasuki slowly rose to his feet with Miaka's body held tightly in his arms. He shook his head, his features an expressionless mask.
"No." The syllable came out sounding rough, his voice still raw from his tears. "This ends now."
With Miaka still in his arms, he walked purposefully to the palace. Chichiri made a move to stop him but was brought to his knees by a sharp save of pain. Even if he were at his full strength, there was nothing he could do to stop Tasuki now. His grief had pushed the stubborn, red-headed warrior beyond reason. He wouldn't stop until Kenshin was dead, even if it cost him his life.
Chapter 21: Showdown
The hard heels of Tasuki's boots clacked against the polished marble floors of Kenshin's palace. He walked with determination, following the long, maze-like corridors. There was no one else around, no guards, no staff. The entire place was eerily silent. Tasuki's feet drew to a halt before a large pair of wooden doors. His eyes swept over them and then his boot slammed against the spot where they met, forcing them open with a loud crack.
A commotion behind him kept Tasuki from entering the room beyond. The sound of feet pounding hard against the marble floors grew louder, and then Nuriko and Hotohori came flying around the corner running at full speed. They were followed closely by a large group of soldiers brandishing swords and other weapons. Tasuki lowered Miaka's feet to the ground so he could retrieve his tessen. Hold it out in front of him, he shouted the words that would bring the iron fan to life.
With yelps of surprise Nuriko and Hotohori leapt out of the way and hit the floor hard, covering their heads. The soldiers behind them weren't as lucky and were engulfed by a large ball of orange fire. Satisfied, Tasuki wordlessly put the tessen back in its holder and lifted Miaka up once more.
"Nice shot!" Nuriko cheered and grinned at the now empty hallway. Hotohori rose to his feet and re-arranged his armour. The red phoenix of Suzaku still blazed brightly on the chest plate. He glanced over at where Tasuki stood and his expression faltered.
"What has happened to Miaka?" he demanded, his voice smooth and rich despite his distress.
Tasuki's eyes lowered to Miaka's face to avoid meeting Hotohori's probing gaze. Within two strides Hotohori was before him, peering down at Miaka's deahtly pale features. Tasuki turned his face away, unable to bear it as the emperor felt the cool skin of Miaka's face and the stillness of the pulse in her wrist.
"Tasuki, is Miaka-?" The rest of his words fell away and the emperor held Miaka's limp hand tightly in his. Nuriko stepped forward, his hands clasped together at his chest as if holding himself back from touching the priestess's body.
"What happened, Tasuki? And where's Chichiri?"
Nuriko looked to him for answers, but an uneasy silence hung on the air. Tasuki kept his jaw clenched tight, refusing to speak. If he didn't have to tell them, if he didn't have to speak the words...
"This is Kenshin's doing, isn't it," Hotohori deduced, his voice trembling with rage. Nuriko reached a hand out to lay it comfortingly atop Tasuki's shoulder but he shied away. He couldn't meet their eyes, and he certainly didn't deserve their sympathy. Not after what he'd done.
"Don't," he muttered, his voice thick with emotion. "Once we kill Kenshin I'm leaving. I don't deserve to be with any of you after what I've done."
Nuriko pulled his hand back, stung by Tasuki's words, "You can't mean that. This was Kenshin's doing, Tasuki. You couldn't stop it!"
Hotohori nodded in agreement but Tasuki clenched his eyes shut tightened his grip on Miaka.
"You don't understand. I did this. She's dead because of me."
Silence fell over the pair until Nuriko uttered a pained sounding, "Tasuki..."
"Come on, let's get this over with!"
Turning heel, Tasuki strode through the wooden doors into the room beyond. Exchanging worried glances, Hotohori and Nuriko followed close behind.
The room they entered was cold and dark. The marble floor from the hallway extended inside this room as well and the stone walls only made it all the more bleak and foreboding in appearance. From what they could tell, the room was empty with the exception of a large throne upon an altar which lay far ahead of them.
Tasuki trudged forward without a care as to whether the others followed him or not. His life had one purpose now, to avenge Miaka's death. Once that was complete he didn't care what happened to him. Stopping before the large stone altar, he kissed Miaka gently on the forehead and then set her body on the ground. Pulling out his tessen, he held it at the ready and scanned the room for Kenshin's ugly face. As the seconds dragged on and the villain still did not reveal himself, Tasuki felt his rage reach its boiling point.
"Dammit Kenshin, you coward! Come out here and fight me like a man!"
A large purple light shot out suddenly from the shadows, striking Tasuki full in the chest. He was thrown back and landed hard against the floor. It took him a moment to recover from the shock and then he was on his feet, his features contorted with rage.
"Are you so weak you gotta fight me from the shadows?" he taunted.
As if on cue, Kenshin emerged from the shadows and into the light. A dim purple glow surrounded his body like a shield and glinted off the shiny metal of his armour. A smirk spread across his lips as he took in the sight of the three warriors and their dead priestess. With a flick of his wrist he engulfed Nuriko and Hotohori in a barrier constructed out of his own spiritual power. Their bodies remained trapped, helpless to do more than watch the scene unfolding before them.
The smirk never left Kenshin's face as his attention turned from the trapped warriors to Tasuki.
"You are no match for me," he stated matter-of-factly.
Tasuki scowled at him, baring his teeth, "Yeah, yer probably right. But if I'm goin' down, I'm takin' you with me."
With a cry Tasuki leapt at Kenshin with his tessen blazing. He heard the iron tessen 'ping' as it made contact his armour and the reverberation traveled up his arms in waves. He leapt backwards to shake off the numbed sensation creeping up his arms and readied for his next attack. Kenshin had used the opportunity to put some more distance between them, which only aggravated him more.
"Stop running an' fight, you slimy bastard!"
Kenshin smiled and directed a ball of condensed energy at Tasuki. It moved too quickly for him to possibly avoid it and it struck him square in the chest. He was thrown back and skidded several meters across the floor before coming to a stop. Using his tessen as a prop, he grunted and pushed himself to his feet.
"That's all you got? I'm disappointed," he taunted him with a dark laugh. Sneering, Kenshin released another blast of energy. This one sent Tasuki careening hard into the floor. He skidded across it until his back connected with a stone pillar. He was slower to get up, but stubbornly rose to his feet.
"That one couldn't even keep me down," he remarked and focused his energy on remaining upright. The room was spinning and he blinked hard to bring Kenshin into focus. That last blast had knocked the wind straight out of him, but he refused to give up. Not until the bastard was dead at his feet.
"Give up now or your friends will suffer," Kenshin warned.
Tasuki ignored his threats and gripped his tessen tight, "Blah, blah, blah."
Kenshin lifted his hand into the air, palm upwards, and curled it into a tight fist. Tasuki understood at once what he was doing when he heard the screams of pain from behind him. Whirling around, he saw Nuriko and Hotohori writhing in pain. Tasuki eyes went wide. He'd already lost Miaka to this monster, would he now lose everyone else he cared for, too?
"Kill him, Tasuki!" Nuriko yelled, using every ounce of his willpower to overcome the torture.
Tasuki nodded and turned his attention back to Kenshin, "You won't break me, you bastard. Don't ever underestimate a Suzaku warrior!"
Kenshin almost looked disappointed, and then his eyes settled on Miaka's body. With a cunning look at Tasuki, he sent a blast of energy towards her. Tasuki broke into a dead run. This monster had tortured her for weeks. He was damned if he was going to let him do it again now that she was dead. He threw himself on tp of her just in time, absorbing the brunt of the blast.
Tasuki cried out is the electricity coursed painfully through his body, burning him from the inside out. When the crackling energy finally dissipated, he lay with his body draped over Miaka's panting heavily. Everything felt numb. Was he even still alive? He looked down with relief to see that Miaka had remained untouched. He'd finally done something right. Even if it was only sparing her body one last indignity at that monster's hands, it was something.
He heard Kenshin's boots on the marble floor, drawing closer. Let the bastard kill him if he wanted to. It'd be worth it if it meant he could be with Miaka again. Kenshin's boot connected painfully with his side and sent him flailing onto his back. He gasped as pain radiated through his ribs. Kenshin peered down at him looking positively satisfied by his current state. Tasuki stared back defiantly, daring him to make a move.
He knew what was coming next. There was no mistaking the murderous gleam in Kenshin's eyes. He only hoped it was quick. Tasuki closed his eyes in defeat and waited for the pain that would bring his deliverance. Instead he felt a soothing warmth envelop his entire body. Startled, he opened his eyes and saw the brilliant red glow of Suzaku's light.
Suzaku? he wondered as he studied the pulsing red mark on his arm.
His mind was spinning, desperately trying to understand. Was this what death felt like? Had Kenshin really done him in? He couldn't piece it together until he heard a sound that made his heart stutter inside his chest.
From out of the dark came a soft, painfully familiar voice, "It's over for you Kenshin. This time your fight is with me."
Chapter 22: The Beast God Returns
Kenshin took an unconscious step backwards as the piercing green eyes of the priestess burned into his own. The red light of Suzaku surrounded her body just as it had done to the red-haired warrior.
How is this possible? She was dead; I felt it. There was no warmth within that body! Kenshin felt himself going mad as he tried to understand how the priestess could have possibly been resurrected. After working so hard, would this mere mortal girl now be the end of him?
Sneering at the thought, Kenshin threw a volley of powerful energy blasts at the Priestess. Each one deflected off Suzaku's barrier, leaving her untouched. She was immune to his powers completely. Kenshin backed up, determined to retreat and regroup.
Miaka wasn't willing to let him leave so easily. She clasped her hands together and prayed aloud to the priest god for help.
"Suzaku, hear me now. Help me to defeat this evil, for all of our sakes."
She closed her eyes in concentration, silently whispering her prayer to the beast god over and over.
Tasuki finally gathered the courage to look at her and the breath caught in his throat. She was a vision – her beautiful body, no longer broken or scorched, was surrounded by the red light of Suzaku. Her eyes turned to him and a tiny smiled crossed her lips.
Tasuki's mind was left reeling. How was this possible? Had she come back? Or was she helping them from beyond the grave? He was certain she'd been dead!
The barrier around them suddenly increased in size and intensity. The beast god's spiritual energy began to swirl around her in a powerful cyclone that whipped her hair back from her face. The figure of the beast god slowly appeared in the light, his body becoming more and more solid as the spiritual energy around them increased. The beast god closed his eyes and placed his hands overtop of Miaka's. He slowly took possession of her body, making them one being.
When Suzaku had completely entered Miaka's body her eyes opened wide. Turning a fiery red gaze on Kenshin, she placed her hands before her and formed a large ball of energy between them. Kenshin remained rooted to where he stood, unable to move or run. Miaka released the ball of concentrated energy directly at him and watched as it it engulfed his body in one sweep.
The resulting blast was so powerful it shook the palace to its very foundations, causing pieces of the ceiling to fall and smash to pieces on the marble floor. As the smoke and debris dissipated, the warriors could see that Kenshin was gone; his body completely annihilated in the blast. The barrier around Nuriko and Hotohori disappeared as well and they crashed unceremoniously to the floor.
With the fiery glow still surrounding them, Miaka turned to Tasuki and stared at him as if she were looking into the very depths of his soul. Tasuki grimaced, certain the beast god would do him in for what he'd done to Miaka. Suzaku's deep baritone voice emerged from Miaka's small frame and seemed to reverberate in the air around them.
"Tasuki of the Suzaku Seven. You have proven yourself worthy as one of my warriors today. Your willingness to sacrifice yourself to protect the priestess, even in death, has awoken me from my dormancy. I will give her back to you, but only if you will swear to protect her with as much dedication as you have shown here today until the day of your death."
Tasuki nodded wordlessly and pushed himself up off the floor, "Thank you for bringing her back to us, Suzaku. It means more than I can say."
The beast god shook Miaka's head back and forth, "I did not bring the priestess back to life. That was entirely your doing."
"What!" Tasuki's eyes opened wide. "How's that possible?"
"When each of you was given a gift at the start of this journey, yours was the gift of life."
"So THAT'S what he got!" Nuriko whispered to Hotohori behind his hand. Hotohori nodded silently, secretly miffed that all he'd received was some lousy armour. They had long wondered why Tasuki's gift had failed to appear along with their own.
"When you kissed the priestess that night many months ago, it was not the leaf of the Dragon's Blood flower which saved her - it was your desire for her to live. Your kiss also brought her back from death when she sacrificed herself to save you during your battle against Taka. The same was true tonight. While you could not release the hold Kenshin's poison held over her, by killing her out of mercy you were able to once again bring her back from the brink of death."
Tasuki stared up at the beast god, stunned. Suzaku nodded once, knowing that the warrior finally understood his power. He then looked at each of his remaining servants in turn and nodded once more as if thanking them for their efforts. Everyone bowed back with the exception of Tasuki who was still in too much shock to move.
"I will give your priestess back to you now."
They watched in awe as the red light slowly began to fade from around Miaka's body. She became limp once more and crumpled with a sigh. Tasuki was there to catch her before she could hit the floor. He held her tight, his eyes anxiously studying her features as he willed her to wake up. She stirred and opened her eyes slowly, blinking once before settling her gaze on him.
He felt butterflies take over his stomach as a smile crossed her lips. Tears of happiness flowed freely from his eyes as he returned the gesture.
"Tasuki… You saved me," she said softly and settled her hand lightly against his cheek.
In a rush the others ran to help them up, smiles of relief written clearly across their faces.
"Miaka! I'm so relieved!" Nuriko exclaimed and examined her for any signs of broken bones or bruises. The healing power of Suzaku had been thorough, there were no lingering scars from her encounter with Kenshin or Tasuki's tessen.
Miaka nodded and hugged each of the warriors in turn, "I feel fine now! Suzaku used his powers to heal me!"
"He couldn't have healed me while he was at it?" Tasuki grumbled under his breath.
Miaka turned to hug him as well and was slow to pull away. Her hands lingered on his arms as her eyes held his. A faint blushed turned his cheeks pink and he quickly looked away. What would happen to them now that they finally were free to be together? Would she stay in the book world with him, or return to her own world alone? Miaka let her hands slip away and offered him a shy smile.
"I think we'd better go check on Chichiri," Hotohori announced, catching their attention.
Miaka nodded eagerly, following after him, "I most definitely owe him an apology."
"Apology?" Nuriko asked with a curious tilt of his head.
Tasuki stared after the trio as they retreated, listening to the sounds of their easy conversation. It was almost like old times again. If he could have it his way, things would stay like this forever. But it was entirely up to Miaka where things went from here. He couldn't ask her to stay, even if it was what his heart most wanted.
By the time he realized he was being left behind, his comrades were already at the door.
"Hey!" he shouted and hobbled after them. "You guys, wait up!"