Departures

by Talya Firedancer


He could hear it. It was a deafening thunder. It was the *only* thing he could hear, eclipsing even the terrified tripping of his own heart. The roaring of the water penetrated his ears, as he gazed up at Suzaku no Miko Ė Miaka Ė with wide eyes, startled. She had caught him. She was trying to save him.

Miaka grasped the flute with all her strength, desperation filling her eyes.

Amiboshi looked up at her and he couldnít believe it. After what heíd done, after lulling them all into complacency, tricking them into believing he was one of them, that he belonged Ė after disrupting the summoning ceremony, and ruining their chances for calling Suzaku Ė she was still trying to save him.

She was trying to forgive him.

Amiboshi smiled suddenly, understanding all of it so clearly. Nakago had been wrong. The Suzaku seishi Ė they *valued* life; it was Kutou-koku who had been the aggressors all along, as he had been here. He had been intended to ruin, to destroy these people who valued life so, even that of an enemy. *Him.*

Miaka was straining to hold his weight, her knuckles white. But he could see from the look on her face she *would not* let go, even if he pulled her into the swiftly-moving river with him. It was either both of them, or just him Ė and she would not let go. He made the choice easy for her.

He let go.

Leaving the flute in her fingers, still smiling up at her, he thought. . .*one last song for you, Miaka. . .you can still play one last song. . .* She had always thought his songs were beautiful. Sheíd just told him so.

"YOU DONíT NEED TO PLAY THE FLUTE IN CRUELTY!"

He had never *wanted* to.

Amiboshi began to pitch backwards into the roaring water, its relentless rushing filling his ears. Miaka would be safe, and surely, *surely* they would find a way to summon Suzaku. There would be no dreams that wouldnít come true.

A hand closed over his wrist.

*NANI?* he thought in shock, and stared up into Tamahomeís gray eyes. The Suzaku seishi grabbed him with rough fingers, but he was strong. Strong enough to haul him up from the edge, and save him.

Amiboshi lay on the pavement, gasping.

"What the f^&*!! Tamahome, why the hellíd you do that!?" Tasuki yelled at his fellow seishi, brandishing his formidable tessen. "Youíd have gotten rid of a pesky little traitor! Saved us the trouble of doing it later!"

Amiboshi winced.

"Shut up! Now we can take him back to Hotohori, and heíll be held accountable for his actions," the taller seishi replied, glaring toe-to-toe with the fierce redhead. "Iíd be just as willing as you to let him drown! He couldíve killed Miaka! But for some reason, Miaka wanted him to live. She tried to save him."

"So the f^%& what!?" Tasuki inquired rudely, poking Tamahome in the chest with the iron fan. "Sheís too soft-hearted for her own good!"

"Maybe so, but I believe in her," Tamahome replied stubbornly. "If Miaka feels that Amiboshi doesnít deserve to die, I trust her instincts."

Tasuki scowled horribly.

"Chiri Ė no, Amiboshi," Miaka corrected herself, kneeling next to him. "Are you all right?"

He offered the Miko a thin smile. "If they had their way, I wouldnít be. Not for very long."

"Theyíre not going to hurt you. Chir Ė Amiboshi. I know that you didnít really mean to hurt us," Miaka said, her face shining earnestly at him.

Amiboshi was speechless at her blind faith. She was so trusting, so willing to see the best in him even when he himself wasnít sure it was there anymore. Heíd been a Seiryuu seishi Ė he had done terrible things. . .he had even *killed,* all in the name of. . .what? To commit atrocities against people who only believed in the goodness inside each person?

"Címon, then," Tasuki grunted, grabbing at his arm. Tamahome grasped his other arm, less roughly than the fiery-haired bandit. "Letís get you back to the palace."

The way back through the city was much more sedate than the hellraising chase that had led them to the river, although the two tall seishi flanking him jostled their way through the crowd, keeping a secure grip on him. Chichiri led the way, his staff and somewhat odd demeanor causing the crowd to give way. Miaka trailed behind, still carrying Amiboshiís flute.

The Suzaku seishi were still in the temple, soberly regarding the remains of the scroll that were still burning within the depths of the flame. They turned to regard the approach of the Miko and their fellow seishi, and Amiboshi. Captive Seiryuu seishi.

"Eh? What have you got to say for yourself, you cozener?" Nuriko demanded, stepping towards him, a fist upraised threateningly.

Amiboshi shrank back, eyes widening. He knew how strong the purple-haired seishi was; heíd seen Nuriko knock Tasuki into a wall gleefully, and shatter household items with a mere tap.

"Onegai. . .Iím sorry," he replied honestly. "Heika-sama, I throw myself on your mercy."

Hotohoriís beautiful countenance creased slightly as he frowned.

"We will certainly have to punish him," the emperor began. "Not only did he ruin the summoning ceremony Ė perhaps eclipsing forever our chances of summoning Suzaku Ė but he is one of the Seiryuu seishi."

"Heís evil," Tasuki sniffed, pulling out his tessen and fingering the stiff iron folds thoughtfully. "I say we just fry him here and now."

"A bad person canít play such beautiful music!" Miaka cried, clutching Amiboshiís flute in her hands. He blinked at her.

"I agree with you!" piped up a thin, childish voice.

The guards made a commotion, blocking the path of a short young boy, his hair pulled back into a stiff, upright tail. He gave them all a shy, delighted smile, and lifted a piece of grass to his lips. The melody that bubbled forth was light, sonorous, almost wistful. . .Amiboshiís eyes widened. It was the same song that had disrupted his music, earlier!

"So youíre the one!" Miaka exclaimed, as they all stared at the young boy.

"Yes," the boy agreed, as the guards let him through. "By using my leaf whistle, I disturbed the pattern of the notes." He paused as he approached them, eyeing Amiboshi thoughtfully.

"And there was a disorder in his ki caused by some kind of confusion."

Amiboshi reddened, thinking back on that moment. Ridiculous, my magicís been broken by it! he had exclaimed to himself hastily. Heíd been willing to grab any excuse not to further perpetrate those horrible actions on the Suzaku seishi.

The boy lifted up the hem of his robe, displaying his foot. A red character Ė "Stretching" Ė glowed brightly, unmistakably Suzakuís mark. "My seishi name is Chiriko," he said proudly.

"Guards," Hotohori motioned to them, "take the Seiryuu seishi and place him in a room with the bolt thrown, until we can decide what to do."

Amiboshi hung his head miserably as the guards grabbed him roughly.

The guards escorted him away, and Amiboshi couldnít help but cast one last glance at the suddenly hopeful Suzaku seishi as they gathered around the fire, talking eagerly to Chiriko. The true Chiriko. Even knowing that his good intentions wouldnít mean a jot Ė not coming from a Seiryuu seishi Ė he wished in his heart for them to succeed. It was the least he could do, after nearly destroying them all.

* * *

"Aniki!"

Suboshi flinched, feeling a sudden convulsive shudder wrack his entire body, but knowing instantly that the sensation was not his own. He fell to his knees as a wave of anger/shock/ fear/surprise lapped over him, and his eyes widened. "Aniki. . ."

He blinked as the surprise tingled through him, mind-tasting of sudden. . .acceptance? Then another thrill of shock gripped him. For a moment it was as if their connection had been severed and he gasped, bending over, almost ready to throw up until the blankness reverberating through the link had faded, and he once more sensed his brotherís gentle ki.

"Aniki. . ." Suboshi breathed, the fear receding from his chest. "What happened to you?"

He pushed himself upright, standing in the darkened room as he tried to sort through the strange sensations. Their link was back to its normal, more passive state and he was unable to receive anything conclusive from Amiboshi, but he knew somehow that his brotherís mission had failed.

He must be prisoner of Suzakuís seishi, then.

He squared his shoulders and went to the door, which was partly slid open. Yui-sama Ė Seiryuu no Miko Ė started as he emerged from his room, blinking her wide gray eyes at him.

"Suboshi. I thought I heard you shout out something," Yui-sama said, a little frown puckering her brows.

He was surprised at her concern, after how Ė abrupt Ė she had been to him the other day. He still remembered her words. "Nakago, how could that BOY possibly help us. . ."

Iie, it had been Amiboshi taking all the risks, his gentle elder brother.

He would show her up. Someone would have to go into enemy territory, to rescue his brother. *He* would volunteer, saving his aniki from the Suzaku seishi, proving himself useful in Nakagoís eyes, and showing Seiryuu no Miko she was wrong, all at once.

"Where is Nakago?" Suboshi replied, then added as her eyebrows raised, "Yui-sama."

"Iím sure I donít know," Yui-sama replied with a toss of her short blonde hair. "Youíll have to find him yourself." She moved off, still frowning.

Suboshi glanced after her as she moved away. It was curious. She was Seiryuu no Miko, a highly revered figure of legend, yet she wore clothing that was immodestly short, considered indecent by any respectable girlís standards. For a woman to reveal that much leg. . . in that short little skirt. . . he gulped, then moved on to find Nakago.

As it turned out, the shogun was looking for *him.*

"Suboshi-kun!" a voice called behind him, and he turned to see Nakago approaching. The blond shogun was wearing a dissatisfied expression, which instantly put Suboshi on the defensive. Nakagoís dissatisfaction could mean another manís head.

"Itís my brother, isnít it?"

Nakago inclined his head. "Most perceptive of you. Yes, one of our spies in Konan has just reported to me. Your brother Amiboshi has been captured."

Suboshi hung his head. "So itís true."

"You knew?" The voice was mild, but there were rippling undercurrents of threat.

"I was just looking for you to tell you something had happened to aniki when you found me."

"So," Nakago responded. "There are several things that we could do now."

"Let me go!" Suboshi said at once, eagerly. "I can rescue my brother! No one knows him like I do. He can tell me exactly how to get to him, to get past the traps of Suzaku, and then we can strike together at their very heart!"

Nakago frowned at him very slightly. "Your powers are less well-developed compared to your brotherís," he began.

"I can do it," Suboshi responded, voice low and intense. "Please give me the chance!"

Nakago turned away, a slight smirk playing over his lips. "Very well. But you understand, I will have to punish failure *very* severely."

Suboshi shuddered, thinking of Ashitare and how Nakago chose to punish *him.* But he shoved the thought aside and bowed to Nakago. "I wonít fail you."

"Best see that you donít."

Nakagoís eyes were cold blue chips, icy but intent. Suboshi wavered uneasily for a moment, transfixed by his basilisk stare, then left to grab the few belongings he would need.

* * *

His fingers twitched towards something that was no longer there. Amiboshi curled his fingers around the end of his sash as they idly twitched of their own accord, playing a melody he didnít have access to.

Miaka-sama still had his flute, he remembered wistfully.

He sat cross-legged on the bed of the perfectly comfortable room they had given him, no dank dungeon cell, this. . . more proof of how good-hearted the Suzaku seishi truly were. They couldnít bring themselves to mistreat him, even after heíd used them so badly.

The only feature of the room that really made it prison-like were the high, thin slits that served as windows, and the door that was barred from outside. He sighed as his fingers twitched again. Considering the nature of his power, though, he wasnít likely to get his flute back anytime soon.

It was okay. He didnít want to hurt anyone, not anymore.

There was a murmur of voices from outside the thick door, then the sound of the bar sliding back. Amiboshi looked up alertly, but didnít move from his relaxed position.

"Mmrow?"

Amiboshi was startled into a smile at the unexpected sight of Tama-neko peering around the chink in the doorway, his little head at a six-foot tall vantage point. "Eh?"

"Konbonwa, Amiboshi-kun," said a quiet, deep voice, as the door opened wider and the healer Mitsukake entered the room. Tama-neko was perched on his head.

"Mitsukake-san!" Amiboshi started, sitting bolt upright. He remembered how the gentle healer had taken care of Miaka-sama after her near-drowning, and how the big man had been friendly to him in the days before the botched Suzaku summoning. . .the ceremony *heíd* botched.

The healer pushed the door shut with his heel, and looked around. "Good, the guards gave you a decent room," he remarked quietly. "You should know. . .the ceremony failed again, even with Chiriko."

He cocked an eye at Amiboshi. "The real one," he added.

Amiboshi flushed and tried to sink through the blanket, wishing he had Chichiriís kasa to shove himself into.

"The Emperor and Chichiri are discussing what to do with you. Suzaku no Miko has asked them not to sentence you too harshly. . .she mentioned that being without your music should be a difficult punishment, as it was."

An unwilling smile tugged at his lips. Miaka-sama was such a deeply caring soul, she couldnít even bear for an enemy to be mistreated!

He wished, wistfully, that he didnít *have* to be an enemy to the Suzaku seishi. From what he had seen of them. . .if only. . .he had been born of a different power.

"I decided to come see how you are," Mitsukake continued quietly. "Suzaku no Miko said you nearly fell into the river today. Are you hurt?"

"Why are you being so nice to me!?" Amiboshi burst out, confused. That was all heíd ever received from them! Kindness! And Nakago had ordered him to. . . He buried his head in his hands. What he *hadnít* told the Suzaku seishi was that Nakago had wanted him to kill them all, no matter the cost. He had decided on his own that disrupting the ceremony was probably enough. And now he wished he hadnít even done that much.

A faint smile tugged at Mitsukakeís lips. "What did you expect me to do, torture you?" he inquired calmly, unruffled by the outburst. "Surely you know by now that the Suzaku people are not like that. We all believe, no matter harsh the actions, there is always some portion of the self that can be redeemed."

Amiboshi listened, speechless. Mitsukakeís words only confirmed what heíd been thinking about the Suzaku side. Miaka. . .she and Tamahome had saved him. Despite what heíd done, despite striking out at her, and the rest of the seishi.

"So if youíre expecting to be whipped, or put on public display and executed or humiliated, rest assured that Hotohori-sama would never consider such a sentence."

Amiboshi straightened, meeting Mitsukakeís eyes with his own amber gaze. The big gentle healer was still smiling faintly, and Tama-neko mrewed encouragingly. Amiboshi offered a tentative smile of his own.

"If only. . ." He stopped, suddenly wishing that Suboshi could be with him, to share in the revelation of people who did not believe in harming others, who hated war, who despised violence as he always had.

"Eh?" Mitsukake prompted.

Amiboshi fingered the spill of starlight that reached to glaze over the bedspread, tumbling into his lap, defying the small lamp in the corner. His fingers twitched again involuntarily for a melody that hung only in his mind, something gentle and soothing, encouraging only sweet dreams.

"If only. . .Iíd been born a Suzaku seishi," he whispered.

Again in his mindís eye he saw the great gleaming bulk of the coiled, wreathing brass statue of Seiryuu in the mausoleum. The god of war. . .he was expected to serve such an avatar, when violence had torn his life apart, and he had abhorred it ever since pulling his brother, then Shunkaku, now Suboshi, away from the ruins of their home. Yet the god of war had sunk its hooks deeply into him, and his brother.

He looked up again, to meet Mitsukakeís understanding gaze. "You may have been born a Seiryuu seishi, Amiboshi. . .but where your heart lies is the true test of goodness or evil."

"I. . ." His fists clenched around empty air, where always before the flute had fit so easily in his hands. The flute heíd been forced to use to kill. He closed his eyes, sickened.

"Iíll see you tomorrow, ne, Amiboshi?" Mitsukake said, as if reading in his mind a desire to be left alone. "Hotohori-sama may have come to a decision by then."

"Hai," Amiboshi whispered. "I deserve whatever sentence he gives me."

A hand closed over his shoulder, and he jerked, looking up startled into Mitsukakeís compassionate eyes. "There is good in you yet, Amiboshi," he assured the agonizing young Seiryuu seishi. "If there werenít, would you feel guilt so sharply?"

"A. . .aah," he responded. Mitsukake squeezed his shoulder reassuringly, and left the small room.

Amiboshi threw himself backwards on the bed, flinging an arm over his eyes. The one thing he kept seeing, as he tried to force himself into sleep, was Miaka-sama tilted precariously over the edge of the canal, putting her own life on the line to try and save him. And her trembling smile when he offered up his own quiet smile of acceptance, prepared to plunge into the roaring waters below.

* * *

Suboshi had been traveling non-stop ever since receiving Nakagoís orders, but now finally he was rewarded with the sight of the capital as he topped the rise that led down to the city. It was bustling with life. He scowled, shaking out a concealing cloak and throwing it over his head and shoulders. He didnít want anyone recognizing him, thinking he was Amiboshi, in case word had spread of the impostor Suzaku seishi.

Anxiously, he wrote out a few characters on his arm, gritting his teeth as he pressed down hard enough for the indentations to register through their strange link. *Iím coming.*

Within the capital, it looked as if everyone was bustling about, getting the streets ready for some kind of party. That just made things easier for him, as he circulated aimlessly through the crowds, wondering if his brother would respond.

The streets were abuzz with word of the failed Suzaku summoning ceremony, and he grinned tightly. Amiboshi had succeeded in that, at least.

Seiryuu willing, he would succeed in the other part of their mission Ė rescue Amiboshi first, and then, to kill Suzaku no Miko.

* * *

Amiboshiís fingers trailed over the bedspread, idly pressing across the alternating stripes of fading sunlight and shadow formed by the bars across the high slit of a window. His fingers formed his favorite tune of their own accord.

He sat up abruptly, a twinge running through his forearm, and jerked off the binding that covered it. A few red welts rose to the surface of his skin, forming into characters. Amiboshi read them with surprise. So *that* was why. . .

*Iím coming.*

Amiboshi bit his lip, settling the binding back into place. Suboshi had come, to rescue him. But. . .what if he didnít want to go back? The only thing Kutou, and Nakago, had ever offered him was violence and destruction, threats and fear.

He heard the low murmur of voices outside his door, and remembered Mitsukakeís promise yesterday to return. He hoped fleetingly, then chided himself for expecting leniency, that Hotohori-sama had decided not to be too harsh on him.

The door eased open.

Miaka-sama!

The sweet-faced girl peered in, her brown hair done up in little twists on the sides of her head. "Konnichiwa!" she said cheerfully, carrying a tray in her hands. "I thought I would bring you something nice to eat, before I went to the Star-Watching festival!"

"Eh? Arigato, Miaka-sama! You didnít have to do that for me!"

He facevaulted, as he actually *saw* the tray. "Ano. . .itís. . .empty?"

Miaka giggled, shame-faced. "Gomen. I was so hungry, on the way over. . ."

Amiboshi sweatdropped. "I understand. Iíve seen the way you eat. . ."

She set the tray aside, then withdrew something from her sleeve. "Amiboshi. . .here."

He blinked, as she pressed something long and thin into his hands. "Ano. . .Miaka-sama, itís my flute!"

She smiled at him. "Of course it is, silly? What did you think it was, licorice?" She looked thoughtful. "On second thought. . .give that back. . ."

He sweatdropped again. "Not if youíre going to eat it!"

She giggled. "Just kidding!"

He eyed the flute in his hands thoughtfully, then looked up into her earnest face. "Ne, Miaka-sama. . .why give it to me, when I caused so much trouble for you? When you *know* what I can do with it, now? After what I *have* done with it?"

"Because I trust you," she smiled simply.

Amiboshi just stared at her, unable to believe that such simple faith for another person could even exist in another. Yet. . .there was Suboshi. But these people hardly even *knew* him. Suddenly he fisted the flute in his hand, determined not to betray Miakaís trust.

"Iím sorry about before. I didnít. . .I never wanted to play the flute in cruelty. I thought it was my duty as a Seiryuu seishi. I thought I had no choice."

"Itís okay," Miaka replied, smiling. "I understand! Just make up for it with your future actions, ne?"

". . .Aa," he replied faintly, as Miaka left the room.

"Oi, if it were up to me he woulda. . ." he heard Tasukiís voice loudly proclaiming from outside the door.

"Aie, not that again!" Nurikoís voice interrupted impatiently.

The door shut behind Miaka, and Amiboshi was left to ponder the flute in his hands. Slowly, his fingers smoothed over the notches he had cut into the wood, to let the sound pour through to create his melodies.

The melodies he had always meant for beauty. A beauty his life as a Seiryuu seishi would deny.

* * *

Suboshi strolled through the crowded streets, tugging up the folds of the cloak that covered his head and most of his face. Konanís capital was so packed with merry, obliviously contented citizens that walking right up to the palace gates would be no problem at all. He almost laughed.

The sense of his brotherís ki was stronger now, much closer. He smiled as he thought of how close he was to rescuing aniki from the Suzaku seishi.

Something troubled him, though. Aniki didnít seem to be in nearly as much distress as he would have thought. He had been *captured,* after all. The most he could sense of his brotherís emotional state was a puzzling sort of acceptance, a deep thoughtfulness.

Was something wrong. . .? Aniki hadnít responded to his message earlier. But he could still sense his brotherís ki. Perhaps. . .perhaps. . . He shook with outrage. Perhaps the Suzaku seishi had him chained in a dungeon somewhere. He quickened his pace, retracing his earlier steps when he had reconnoitered the palace wall. The guards seemed not too terribly alert tonight, complacent in their assurances that no one would try to make an attempt on the palace in the middle of the Star-Watching festival.

Suboshi grinned at their stupidity. It just made things that much simpler.

He leapt lightly to one of the rooftops, running along its edge until he reached the place where it was closest to the wide, high wall that surrounded the palace compound. From there, he reached the wall in one bound, gathered himself, and leapt into the tree next to the wall.

*Aniki?* Suboshi cast his thoughts around for his elder twin.

A twinge. . .over there. *Otouto-san. . .?*

He slipped among the shadows, hurrying but at the same time trying to avoid the guards, and the Suzaku seishi he knew would still be hanging around the palace. He had to move swiftly, or he wouldnít succeed in both parts of his mission.

*Iím here.*

* * *

Amiboshi clutched at the flute in his hands, eyes snapping wide open. He was here! Suboshi was inside the palace grounds, and heading for him quickly. He had never expected rescue so quickly.

It had been hours since Miaka-sama had come to him, returning his flute with a smiling wish that he would make up for his former cruelty with his future actions. Since then, he had sensed his brother coming ever closer. And Mitsukake and Tama-neko had paid him another brief visit, mostly to be assured that he had eaten and was comfortable, and that Hotohori and Chichiri were still puzzling over a sentence.

Mitsukake had looked faintly embarrassed, scratching at his head. "This sort of thing has never happened, before, you know Ė how to deal with a Seiryuu seishi. Itís not as if youíve committed any sort of crime by the common laws."

Amiboshi ducked his head. "Iíll accept any sentence Hotohori-sama decides upon," he repeated his resolve to atone for what heíd done. It seemed to him that, in committing violence against people who had shown nothing but kindness Ė for *anyone* -- he was reduced to the same level of the people who had killed his family, so long ago, who had orphaned himself and his otouto-san.

Once again Mitsukake had reassured him. "Iím sure he wonít think up anything too punishing. Unless he sentences you to be Miaka-samaís personal cook for the next few years!"

He blinked in startlement, then chuckled, provoked by the healerís unexpected humor. Laughter was an unexpected relief.

By now the Star-Watching festival would be winding down; it was getting late and the slow passage of the moon rising above the slit of his window indicated the passage of a few good hours. After getting Suboshiís message he had closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He didnít know what to do. His twin, his otouto-san Shunkaku Ė he would understand these feelings that raked at him, willing him to stay in this peaceful, kind country with people he had wanted so desperately to consider as his friends. But he was not sure that Suboshi would understand.

"Aiie!"

The cry pierced through the door, and he could hear the sounds of a scuffle outside his room, and worse, he could almost feel the spinning razor-sharp ryuseisui in action. NO! Amiboshi sprang up from the bed, raising his flute to his lips.

The melody pierced through the air, commanding and harsh, and he could feel his twin stiffen as he forced him to stop his attack. Then, he instantly altered the song into something soft and soothing, wrapping it around the guards and nudging them inescapably into the embrace of sleep.

The door was flung open roughly, and Suboshi stood framed within, panting. The ryuseisui was draped over his shoulders. "Aniki!"

They hugged tightly.

"Aniki, I was so worried that the Suzaku seishi had you chained in a dungeon somewhere!" Suboshi exclaimed, his face taut with the concern that had overshadowed him.

Amiboshi smiled reassuringly. "Iím fine, otouto-chan."

Suboshi grinned, then gripped his arm. "Címon, letís get out of here!" He tugged his brother outside, past the bodies of the sleeping guards. They hadnít gone very far when Amiboshi stopped.

He was still caught up by all that Mitsukake had said, all that Miaka had trusted him with. He hesitated. "I. . .Suboshi, you donít understand. . ."

"Huh?" Suboshi speared him with an incredulous glance. "What I understand is that we have to move fast, now! Otherwise weíll be detected by the Suzaku seishi and then *both* of us will be captured! The mission will be a loss, and Nakago. . ." He shuddered.

"You donít understand, the Suzaku seishi. . .theyíre not what Nakago said they are! I suspected since I first joined up with them, but now I know for sure! They only fight because Nakago presses them to it!"

"Yeah, well Nakago himself sent me on this mission," Suboshi growled, "and we have to keep moving! Letís go. . .where are Suzaku no Mikoís quarters, you should know that. . . Letís dispose of her, and get out now."

Amiboshi pulled away. "No," he refused flatly. There was no way he could go along with that.

"Eh? Nani!?" Suboshi looked stunned. Aniki had never used that tone on him before.

"We have a choice, Shunkaku," Amiboshi said quietly, using his brotherís childhood name. "The Suzaku seishi are not the ones at fault. We have a path to choose that Nakago never let us consider. . .and if we continue along his, only more suffering will result, the same kind that hurt us before, hurt our family. We have to depart his path, we have to, to remain true to ourselves!"

"Aniki, what are you saying?" Suboshi demanded, narrowing his eyes.

"I guess Iím saying. . .why not just stay here, in Konan-koku? Otouto-chan. . .please, I donít want to fight anymore. . ."

Suboshi faltered, and Amiboshi could see the young Shunkaku peering through his eyes. "Aniki. . ."

Amiboshi coughed and gave a sudden start of surprise, stumbling forward against his brother. Suboshiís brow wrinkled in consternation until he saw the bright red blood on his anikiís lips, oh gods and his hand fumbled around his brotherís back until it encountered the hilt of the dagger that had suddenly embedded itself in his back.

"Aniki. . .aniki!" he cried in surprise, holding Amiboshi tightly in his arms as he looked up, wild-eyed.

His frantic gaze caught on a slim, dark silhouette standing atop a nearby building, another gleaming knife hefted in his fingers. "Suzaku seishi Tamahome!" the attacker called down, his tone mocking. "Shall I take care of you, the way I did your brother?"

Suboshi snarled.

He pulled the knife out of his brother, wincing as he felt the same pain and then easing him gently to the ground. Amiboshi coughed weakly.

"Uso. . .heís lying. . ." Amiboshi muttered, as Suboshi hurriedly tore off a piece of his clothing to wedge against the horrid wound. "Thatís not. . ."

Suboshi ignored him and straightened. The black-garbed figure had leapt from the top of the building and was sprinting towards the low-slung buildings of the living quarters.

"Coward!" Suboshi screamed, shaking loose his ryuseisui and running after him.

By the time he had pounded up onto the boards of the walkway running around the living quarters, Tamahome had disappeared.

"Tamahome!" Suboshi yelled furiously, wiping impatiently at the tears that had sprung to his eyes with Amiboshiís pain.

There was a rattling noise as a door slid open. "NANI!?"

A tall, dark-haired man with a long ponytail stepped into the hallway, looking around and pretending to be surprised. Suboshi wondered why heíd discarded his knife.

"Donít play stupid! Iím going to make you pay for what you did!"

Tamahome turned to face him, a frown creasing his brows. "Amiboshi? How did you escape from your room?"

"His prison!" Suboshi flung back in the seishiís face. "First you imprisoned my brother, then you tried to kill him! Donít play innocent with me, Suzaku seishi!"

Tamahomeís face was completely confused. "Your. . .brother?"

"You tried to kill Amiboshi!"

Suboshi hurled the ryuseisui into action.

The tall, athletic seishi broke into smooth motion, hurling himself aside, rolling, and springing to his feet, instantly on the offensive.

"LEKKA SHINEN!"

Tamahome exhaled a puff of charcoaled air, and fell over, superdeformed. Suboshi blinked at the unexpected assist.

He turned to confront another man, a fiery-haired muscular young man holding an iron halisen in his hand. The redhead chuckled wickedly. "Eh. . .sorry, Tama! I was aiming. . ."

"At me," the blue-haired seishi snapped back sourly. "Donít deny it, Tasuki."

"Iím not!" the seishi Tasuki grinned, then aimed the tessen at Suboshi.

Suboshi directed his ryuseisui at this new target, and Tasuki swore and dodged it, bringing his arm back to release another sweep of fire.

"Nani!? Whatís going on!?" a high, frightened voice demanded. Suboshi turned to see a girl wrapped in a pink sleeping robe, her brown hair disheveled around her shoulders. He grinned with satisfaction. Suzaku no Miko, from Yui-samaís description.

He flung out his hand, redirecting the ryuseisui in mid-flight.

"NO!" Tamahome shouted frantically, throwing himself at Suzaku no Miko.

"Miaka, get out of the way!" Tasuki added, also hurling himself at the girl.

Suboshi grinned widely with the knowledge that his mission would be completed so easily.

"NO!"

The ryuseisui sliced into flesh.

Suboshi cried out as he felt the pain cutting into his own body, and fell to his knees, eyes wide and stunned. "No. . ."

Amiboshi slumped, eyes fluttering as he fell back. Somehow. . .somehow, appearing from nowhere, to protect Suzaku no Miko. . .to prevent more violence. . . Miaka grabbed at him, trying to catch him, crying out as she saw the blood that soaked the front and back of his shirt.

"Otouto-chan. . .no more fighting. Please, no more killing," Amiboshi breathed. Suboshi could only stare at him.

Suboshi began to cry as anikiís eyes quivered shut. The ryuseisui fell to the ground, and vanished.

"Mitsukake. . .Mitsukake!" Suzaku no Miko was crying out frantically, her voice high and shrill.

Suboshi moved over to his brother, taking him from the Miko and cradling him in his arms. He wept almost soundlessly. AmióKotoku had a little smile on his face, satisfied that he had preserved life, that he loved so dearly.

"Aniki. . .aniki, please donít. Donít you die! I promise, I wonít kill. I wonít kill anymore, but you have to promise me too! You canít die on me! Iíll never kill again. . ." He shuddered, rocking his brotherís body in his arms. Kotokuís breathing was so weak, so light and shallow. Bright red blood bubbled at his lips with every shallow breath.

"Please donít die. . ." It was a broken thread of sound.

The Suzaku seishi stood motionless, stunned by Amiboshiís sacrifice.

A tall, solid man rushed up to them, clad only in sleeping pants. He knelt quickly by their side, starting as he saw the same face on both boys. "Eh. . .?"

He extended a palm that glowed with red Suzaku light and Suboshi automatically flinched away, holding tightly to his brother. "Iím trying to heal him," the big man said, his voice low and soothing. "Please. . .if you want to help him, give him your ki!"

Suboshiís eyes jerked up to meet the big manís brown, earnest gaze. He nodded, slowly. Then he focused completely on Amiboshiís wan face, pouring his ki into his brotherís weak vessel, giving all that was safe for him to give as the red glow extended to cover them both.

After a long, endless moment, Suboshi slumped, nearly drained. The taut lines of pain in his face had receded as he sensed Amiboshi was no longer in pain. "Aniki. . ." he breathed, afraid for one heart-stopping moment that the peace on his brotherís face was more permanent.

"Heíll be fine," the dark-haired Suzaku healer assured him, his voice blurry with exhaustion. "After a good nightís sleep, heíll be perfectly all right."

Suboshi was aghast. What the Suzaku had just done. . .he had *healed* him, healed a member of the enemy; he had been trying to kill their Miko. . . Amiboshi had been captured for trying to kill the Miko and disrupting their summoning ceremony. Why? *Why!?*

"Ne. . .Amiboshiís niichan?" Miakaís voice inserted, tentatively. "Why donít we get him back to his room?"

He suddenly realized, cradling his brother in his arms, what aniki had seen in these people, what heíd been trying to tell him. *Aniki. . .I understand now. . .youíre not asking me to leave behind all we know, by staying here in Konan-koku. Youíre asking for departure from what we HAVE been, to return to who we ARE.*

"Yes," he responded suddenly, fiercely. "We. . .weíll stay here."

There would be time enough, in the morning, to worry about the near-disastrous consequences of his actions. He smoothed a hand over Kotokuís sleeping brow. It was enough, for now, merely to begin departure from Nakagoís path of violence and hatred.



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