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A Fushigi Yuugi story
By Aaron Bergman

Disclaimer: Fushigi Yuugi belongs to Yuu Watase, Flower Comics, Shogakukan, Bandai, Studio Pierrot, TV Tokyo, Movic, Viz, Pioneer, and others, I'm sure. No infringement is intended.

Foreword: This chapter was nspired by a weekend-long binge of Fushigi Yuugi with my mom.

If you'll recall, we left off at the hot springs in the middle of the woods, where Akira discovered that one of his Star Warriors is, in fact, a man. Since Nuriko had previously given the impression that she was a member of the Emperor's seraglio, this naturally threw Akira into a loop.

Unsure of whether or not anyone else he is with knew, nevertheless he troops on to Tai-Yi Jun's, unaware of the dangers that await him and his party…


PART EIGHT


In a smooth motion, Tamahome unfastened the tie at her neck and shrugged her soaking-wet robes off, the water from the hot-springs already cold in the night air. For a moment she stood there, holding them in her hands, letting them drip water onto the ground, then she wadded them up and pressed them against her face to cool her still-burning cheeks. "I… what was Akira… dammit, you're acting like a little girl again, Tamahome. Grow up."

"Went for a swim with the Summ— Akira, did you?"

The martial artist whirled around to face Hotohori, pressing her robes up against her chest and letting them fall down loosely to cover her body. He saw me naked from behind! Tamahome thought to herself fleetingly, then flushed even brighter. How do you call the Emperor of your homeland a filthy pervert without getting executed? He could have at LEAST warned me that he was awake…

He was holding himself up on one elbow, watching her with an angry gleam in his eyes. For some reason, it was that angry expression — as if he already owned Akira! — that made Tamahome glare back at him. "And what if I did, Emperor? What would you do about it, liege?" Tamahome tried not to spit that last word out at Hotohori, but it held all the anger that she was feeling despite her best efforts.

Hotohori's face went from shock at her tone to thoughtfulness about the words she'd spoken. With a smile on his face, he said, "Ah, what our courtiers would give to hear a tale such as this…"

Tamahome thought for a moment, then almost smiled herself. The Emperor and the ragamuffin thief competing for the attention of the mysterious foreigner… She sobered as she glanced at the Emperor, whose smile had disappeared abruptly, and the martial artist felt the corners of her mouth drifting downwards into a thoughtful frown. The broad strokes of the story are a good tale… the only problem is in the little details…

Tamahome pointedly turned around and dropped her robe on the ground. She put on a new one from her saddlebag, trying to ignore the eyes of the Emperor that she could almost feel on her back as a physical touch. Her cheeks, which had cooled down temporarily, heated again. There are times when these stupid martial-arts senses are more trouble then they're worth! She was quite proud of how steady her voice was as she spoke. "As long as one of us doesn't murder Akira to make sure the other can never have him, then kill themselves with the same dagger, I think we might avoid this one going down in the legends."

She turned around, not knowing what to expect from the Emperor in response to that dryly sarcastic statement, but of all the things he could have done…

He… fell… ASLEEP? Tamahome stared at the Emperor as he snored peacefully and fought back a sudden envious urge to kick him very hard. How DARE he be so relaxed!! I mean… I'm not THAT ugly… he should at least want a free peek at me… She sighed and shook her head, trying to drive out the sudden storm of mixed emotions that had started an angry, confused blaze in her stomach. She settled down in the still-warm bedroll that Nuriko had dragged her out of… had it only been a half-hour ago?


Matsura jerked awake, dumping the musty-smelling magical book off of his face and into his lap as he sat up. "What…" A glance at the clock told him what he'd feared most to see. "AAAHH! I'M LATE FOR SCHOOL!"

After a quick look at himself to make sure he still had his uniform on, he threw himself at the door, barely pausing to slip on his shoes. "My perfect attendance record shattered… my perfect attendance record shattered just like last year's… and AGAIN it's your fault, AKIIIRAA!"

Sprinting down the stairs, he wondered for just a moment how Akira was doing, but he quickly buried that thought and urged his body on faster, glad that the school was only a few blocks away, hoping that he could somehow talk his way out of any punishment. Dammit. If Akira were here, I know that he could bullshit our way out of anything. He NEVER gets into any trouble…

Matsura dodged a little kid on a tricycle as he turned down a narrow alley, holding his glasses on his nose with one hand. No matter what happens, he NEVER gets into any trouble. I wish I could be so lucky…


The two halves of Akira's dagger clattered against each other in their sheath as he set his belt on a gnarled tree-root, crimson rays of sunset glittering on the silver-worked sheath. Tamahome grimaced. "Boss, why do you carry that around with you? I threw mine away as soon as I got out of my old master's sight."

Akira gave the hilt an affectionate pat before standing back up. "I dunno, I just like it. Even after all this is done, and I go back to where I came from, I'm keeping it, no matter what happens."

"Oh? What's your hometown like, anyway?" Tamahome forced her tone to be light, just a bit playful, but the casual way he talked about leaving made something deep inside of her feel a bit sick. I… one second, you're talking about loving me, the next…

Akira didn't seem to notice Tamahome's unease, for which she was thankful. He chuckled as if reminded of something funny. "My best friend back home'd say that you guys would see everything in my world as magical. He'd be quoting what a wise man once said, but… after spending a few months here, I'm starting to think of some of the stuff we have back home as magic! Oh, how I miss the arcades of Shinjuku… my computer and all the stuff Matsura put on there for me… vending machines! What I wouldn't give for a can of coffee right now…"

Tamahome couldn't help but smile at the wistful note of Akira's voice. She dug around in her pouch for a moment. "Is one of these magic things… this gum, Boss?"

Akira looked up, his eyes round with surprise. "You've… still got that? Why haven't you eaten it yet?"

"What are you TALKING about, Boss? Eat this precious artifact of another world? When I could SELL it to the right person for who knows how many silver pieces?" The martial artist gave a mock-glare that Akira staggered away from, holding up his hands as if to shield himself from her eyes. "Yeah, right!"

Akira laughed again. "Well, when you put it that way… Hey, Tamahome, want to come back to my world with me?"

Tamahome had the sudden feeling that this was the question he'd wanted to ask since he'd begun this conversation. Something about the all-too-casual way he'd tossed it off clashed directly with the anxious look in his eyes.

…The only surprise was how tempted she was to take Akira up on his offer. She wanted to see what a 'vending machine' was. She wanted to meet this friend that he spoke so fondly of. She wondered what kind of world would it be where everything would seem like magic to her… it sounded…

Wondrous. Like everything she'd ever dreamed of.

She knew there was only one answer she could give.

"No way." Tamahome shook her head very firmly. "I've got my family here, and… I can't leave them behind."

For just a moment, Akira looked crushed, defeated. Then, his jaw clenched defiantly for a moment and he asked, "Why not?"

Tamahome looked away into the trees and sighed as she tried to figure out how to put it best. Memories rushed over her — not wanting to have the burden of supporting her family and feeling guilty for that selfish desire, sometimes loving her family and sometimes hating them all so much for being the weight around her neck, resentfully wondering why the gods had done this to her — then, she spoke softly. "My mother died about six years ago, while bringing my only little sister into the world. My father is bedridden. He can't walk around the house without falling down at least once. This started happening about three years ago, and I left my master to come back when I heard.

"I'm the oldest one out of the bunch — my oldest brother is barely twelve — so I have to support them however I can. That's what I was doing when you met me, Boss; hiring out to whoever needed some muscle. It's dirty work, but not the dirtiest I was ever offered…" She looked down and shuddered at another memory, only fifteen and just in the city for the first time, of how hungry she'd been, how desperate she'd been, and how close she'd come to taking that man's money and…

Tamahome looked up and met Akira's eyes, and she was just a bit surprised at how close he had come to her. "And I love my family enough to do anything for them. I can't leave them behind and go with you to your world, Boss." She smiled slightly, trying to drive away the ghosts of the past two years as quickly as possible. "I wouldn't mind doing it, Boss, it sounds like a lot of fun, but… I can't."

Akira put his arm around her and hugged her lightly. "Yeah, I getcha. My dad died so long ago that the only thing I remember about him is these big arms picking me up and holding me on his shoulders to see an airplane fly overhead…" He shook himself, and his arm tightened for just a bit on her shoulder. "Family's important, I can dig that." He let go and got into the funky ready stance he'd favored since Tamahome had first started training him; she assumed it was something he'd picked up from his last master.

"Ready when you are!"

Tamahome grinned slyly. "Now THAT'S a good idea. First thing on the agenda today is…"

Forty-five minutes later, the sun was coming down, and something that smelled very good was wafting from the direction of the camp. Hotohori had proven to be a remarkably good camp cook, with the offered explanation that cooking had been "A hobby of ours for some time."

Tamahome stopped suddenly with one of Akira's feet still in her left hand. She dropped it and dumped him on the ground unceremoniously. "That's enough for today. You're coming along nicely, actually. A few more years and you might be worth something. Now, it's time for food!"

Akira grinned, and Tamahome only had to hold herself back a bit in order to let him scythe one of his legs through both of hers, sweeping her to the ground as well. He stood up and shouted, "Race you to camp!"

Tamahome was a bit slow in getting up; there'd been a rock that she hadn't noticed and it had gouged her in just the wrong spot. She grimaced. Serves me right for trying to give him some damn confidence…

"Psst!"

At the sudden hiss from the bushes, Tamahome almost leapt into them feet-first, but when Nuriko poked her head out the martial artist checked herself reluctantly and sighed. Oh, great. This is all I need…

It seemed impossible for Nuriko to untangle herself from the bushes without tearing huge holes in her elaborate outfit, let alone leave her entire outfit pristine, yet she managed to do it with ease. With a slight smile, she stepped free and seemed about to touch Tamahome's shoulder, but the concubine stopped just short and drew her hand back slowly.

"Family's important, Tamahome, but… isn't love more important?"

Tamahome huffed and looked away, not sure how to react to this sudden intrusion into her personal life from a person that she wasn't too sure she liked in any way, shape, or form. "I'm not sure what you're talking about."

Nuriko's smile shifted to an almost catlike grin, and she took one step closer to nudge an elbow slyly into Tamahome's side. "Ooooh really? Sure about that? Maybe you should realize that you can't keep blaming your family forever."

Tamahome knocked the offending elbow away and put both hands on her hips. "Blame them for what?"

"Your own lack of courage." Before Tamahome could interrupt angrily, Nuriko put one finger against her lips, pressing just hard enough that the martial artist could feel the barest edge of the strength in Nuriko's slender frame. With a frown, she continued, "If you were to go with Akira, who's to say you couldn't come back and help your family any time you wanted, maybe even take them along with you? And would they want you to deny yourself any chance at happiness just to take care of them?"

Nuriko took her finger away and waggled it. "Don't pretend that you have to shackle yourself to your family in order to avoid making a real choice about Akira and what he sai…" Nuriko interrupted herself and grinned even wider. "Besides, he's already not bad looking for his age. He's going to be downright handsome in a few years, so you might as well lay dibs on him right now!" After a lewd wink that managed to convey a dozen levels of sexual innuendo, Nuriko turned on one heel and started back for camp.

Tamahome stood there for a moment, getting angrier and angrier, then…

"YOU JUST WANT AKIRA OUT OF YOUR WAY SO YOU CAN HAVE HOTOHORI!"

At Tamahome's near-shout, Nuriko stopped and looked over one shoulder. "Doesn't mean I'm lying!" With a laugh, she turned back and hurried away, leaving Tamahome to stand there, staring blankly as she tried to sort out her deeply-conflicting emotions.

Is she… right?


The school was ominously silent when Matsura almost slammed face-first into the gate, looming like a grim monolith of education in the shadowless noon sunlight. Gasping, the breathless student reached one hand out to support himself against one of the gate's cast-iron poles. He stared up at the school and groaned out loud, "I'm… I'm in a LOT of trouble for this…"

"Excuse me, Kurima-san, what are you doing?"

Matsura whirled around and almost fell over from the sudden motion so soon after his desperate run, dread filling his soul at the sound of his English teacher's voice. "Uh…" Oh crap, she's a real hardass about tardies; I'm in EVEN WORSE trouble than I thought if she's the one who catches me…

As he racked his brain for an excuse, some last pitiful plea that might get him by her and into the school, she sighed. "Honestly, today IS your day off, unlike some of us who have to come in for stupid new-curricula meetings on days that we were planning to spend the day watching old kung-fu movies with our boyfriends…" His teacher shook her head sharply and smiled wryly. "Go away! Have some fun! Meet a cute girl! Youth is only once, and then this sort of crap can happen to you at any time!"

She made shooing gestures that Matsura obeyed without thinking. Wow. Did I ever luck out or what? Of course, I wouldn't've had this problem in the first place if I hadn't been up so late reading what happened at the hot springs. I think I fell asleep, reading the book. The book… I wonder if there's any way for ME to go in there? I wouldn't mind having an adventure. Besides, there was that weird dream…

When someone tapped his right shoulder, Matsura automatically turned in that direction. He was quick enough to see a hand retreating away from him, so Matsura scowled and turned the other way, where Mika met his scowl with a grin. "What's up?"

Ignoring her question, Matsura said in a surly tone, "I REALLY hate it when Akira does that."

She patted his cheek. "What about when I do it?"

"I still hate it." After a moment, Matsura lightened his tone and added, "…But not as much. So, what are you up to?"

Mika patted the small purse that hung at her side, and for the first time Matsura noticed that she was wearing a nice yellow sundress that left her shoulders bare and some delicate hints of makeup… "I was thinking that I might treat you to a late lunch at my favorite noodle shop and we could read some more of that book." She made a show of sniffing the air disdainfully, then gave Matsura's shoulder a pat. "But first, you'd better shower and clean up. After that, we can start on the date."

Matsura had only been half-listening to her talk, but that word dragged his attention with full force. He stared at her. "D-d-d-d-d-d-date?!"

As Mika walked past Matsura and started for his apartment, she waved a hand airily and looked over her shoulder at him. "'Date' is just a word, Matsura, you can't tell me you're afraid of a WORD…"

Matsura said indignantly, outrage momentarily burying his embarrassment, "Of course not!"

"Well, then, hurry up and get to your apartment so you can get ready, stupid!"


Nuriko sighed as he fidgeted on the hard wooden seat, listening to the sound of the current lap against the side of the ferry as the ferryman angled it across the broad river. He played with one long curl of hair that dangled in front of one ear and sighed. Aw, this trip has been sooo boring, even with the help I'm giving Akira and Tamahome… How long will it take her to realize what a great catch my 'little brother' is?

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Akira jump as Tamahome poked a finger into his side. She frowned as Akira sat back down, one hand against his chest, and asked suspiciously, "Yo, Boss, what are you so jumpy about?"

Nuriko laughed inwardly at Akira's expression as he took his hand away from his chest and tried to act nonchalant. "Uh, nothin'. I was just thinking… kind of a shame that we had to leave the horses behind, I was just gettin' used to riding them."

Nuriko quirked one eyebrow up and put a wry smile on his lips. "Oh? That's not the song you were singing a few days ago…"

Akira looked into his eyes and Nuriko saw the conflict, the confusion, that he was suffering from. I don't know if it was a good thing or a bad thing that he… well… he found out my little secret. I rather suspect that I couldn't've kept it up forever; my friends in the seraglio did find out after a year….

Tamahome held one hand up to forestall Akira's response, though she did glare a bit at Nuriko, who shrugged philosophically. "I've been through those mountains before; the trails are plenty dangerous enough for humans alone, let alone horses. Besides, Boss, it's only a few daysí walk from the ferry landing to the mountains, and from there…"

Akira sighed impatiently. "Yeah, and from there what? All the anime I've ever… er… all the books I've read with old reclusive wizards and witches always have some sort test or spell or something that stops every jackass from bothering 'em."

Nuriko had to grin at that. "What makes you think she's any different, dear?"

Hotohori cleared his throat, drawing everyone's attention to the front of the boat where he was seated with that single sound. Nuriko could feel his grin turn downright goofy as he listened to Hotohori speak. He is just too… well… elegant! His noble poise… his smile… his tragic past… yep yep yep, I definitely want him.

"Tai-Yi Jun tests all that would come before her in various ways. Some say they had to battle their most evil impulses made manifest, while others report sentinels that patrolled the forest against all who would disturb her. Her tests have been known to kill the unrighteous, but surely our cause has righteousness behind it."

Tamahome added, somewhat sourly, "I'm sure that the bones of those who have gone before us would say the same thing, if you asked them."

All four people on the boat glared at her for the sudden negative comment, and Tamahome flushed to her collarbone. "Well, it's true!"

Nuriko nodded, albeit a bit reluctantly. "As much as I hate to admit it, she DOES have a point. We should be ready for this test, whatever it might be, instead of bragging about how easily we're going to pass it."

Nuriko sighed as Akira flashed a friendly smile at him, then watched it disappear into confusion again. I guess finding out my secret really DID upset him. He hasn't quite accepted it yet… I wonder how long it'll take him? He sighed to himself again and turned back to regard the water flowing endlessly down from the mountains.

And what happens when my other companions find out..?


After flying through a shower, Matsura dashed into his room to search frantically for something he could wear, his heart in his throat. Even though he knew intellectually that there was no way she could be thinking SERIOUSLY about dating HIM, he…. She's four years older than me, she's so… well… beautiful, she's smart, she's witty… He closed his eyes and exhaled forcefully, trying to clear his mind of all negative thoughts and cleanse his chakras, just like in that stupid self-help book he'd gotten as a gag gift last year. Ah, dammit. I can at least HOPE, right?

With that attitude, he pulled open his closet and looked through his neatly hanging clothes with fresh eyes. "Hmm… I don't know… should I wear…" Matsura pulled out a pair of grey slacks with a black button-up shirt hung around it on the same hanger, "or would it be too dressy? Ah, shit!" He looked around frantically. "I don't have a thing to wear!"

He closed his eyes again and breathed deep. "Okay, Matsura, think." He opened up his eyes and tossed the black button-up aside, then reached inside and pulled out another shirt that was almost its twin, aside from being maroon-colored. Matsura smiled grimly. "I hope I don't stain this at where she's planning to take me…"

He dressed quickly, pulling on the grey slacks, and rushed out to the living room. Mika looked out from over the edge of a novel she was reading and smiled. "Nice shirt. So, ready to go?"

Matsura's smile dissolved, but he still managed to say weakly, "Y-yeah… let's get going!"


Mist was curling in from the dark woods that surrounded the old path, and Tamahome fancied for a moment that she could feel the dank tendrils of mist physically caressing her cheeks, leaving slimy wet trails behind…

She shuddered and shook her head, trying to drive that rather disturbing thought away. This place is so creepy. But… Tamahome looked ahead of her and saw Akira almost disappearing into the mist. Huh? He was just standing beside me! How did he move so fast?

"Yo, Boss. You want to wait up for the rest of us?"

Akira turned around slowly. "Huh?" He blinked slowly, then looked behind Tamahome. A look of confusion spread across his face and he spoke with a slightly distracted note in his voice. "You're right, that IS strange… where are they?"

"You're walking pretty fast. Hold up a second, they'll catch up. Boss…" Tamahome shook her head rapidly. Dammit, this is driving me insane. It's all well and good for Nuriko to babble about 'hiding behind my family' and using them to avoid making a decision about… well… about Akira, but…† She glanced at him, noticing that he was looking into the woods with a vague expression, as if he were hearing something else he couldn't. Dammit, I can't just be ruled my emotions. I've got responsibilities, a life, and I can't drop it just to do what I want...

She stared at Akira as though seeing him for the first time. I DO want to go with him, and not just because it's someplace new. I want to go… because I want to be with him.

Does that mean I really DO love him?

Akira turned away from Tamahome. "I gotta go stand against a tree," he said offhandedly. "I'll be back in a second." He strode off the path before she could do anything other than gape in shock.

"Tamahome! Tamahome? Akira!"

She turned around and saw both Hotohori and Nuriko running to her, urgent expressions on their faces. "Hey, thanks for finally catching up. When did you fall so far behind, anyway?"

Hotohori skidded to a halt and rested his hand upon the hilt of his sword, half-drawing it as he tried to watch in every direction. Tamahome could feel the waves of alertness beating off of him, and it felt as if he was almost… afraid? "Can't you feel it, Tamahome? There is a spell on this place… one meant to separate us…"

Nuriko touched Tamahome's arm. "Where's Akira?"

Tamahome gasped. "Shit!" She started for the woods, but Nuriko grasped her shoulder in a grip of stone. "Wait a second, girl. If you go in there, the spell does its job, and we might never find you again. Hotohori," and Tamahome noticed that her voice lacked the usual slight simper that it had in it when Nuriko spoke of the Emperor, "has a plan that might bring Akira back to us…"


The old woman smiled as she stared into her mirror of the world. "Yes, they figured the first portion of the trap out quickly, but not quickly enough to stop the jaws from closing. Will they be able to find their way out?"


Akira zipped up his pants and turned around, sighing in relief. "What a boring afternoon. I wonder when the heck those stupid tests are supposed to kick in…" He cupped his hands around his mouth. "YO! STUPID TESTS!! YOU CAN START ANY TIME NOW!!!"

For just a moment, he couldn't tell what the faint music drifting across his ears was, or why it sounded so familiar, then the month he'd spent in this book fell away and he grinned at the rush of memory. A video game arcade! HELL YEAH! Then Akira frowned and spoke aloud, his voice sounding almost dead, muffled by the mist. "I wonder what an arcade is doing in THIS world… well, I guess it's my duty to go find out!"

At first he only walked in the direction of the music, then he started jogging, and finally he was sprinting, the trees seeming to fly past him. The music rose louder and louder, and finally…

He saw the open glass doors and the sign above them that flashed in neon colors to the world: "SMOKE AND MIRRORS ARCADE." Akira didn't stop running until he was in the door, skidding to a halt amidst the cacophony of conflicting games that stridently clamored against each other for just a glittering moment of time.

He never noticed the glass doors sliding silently shut behind him…

Akira grinned. "Ah… This is home." He reached into his pocket and pulled out… his only two-thousand yen bill. He folded it between two fingers and sighed. "Ah well, I guess that we all have to make sacrifices in the name of gaming…"

After turning it into change, Akira wandered through the aisles of video games, searching for the perfect one. "Hmmm… naw. Too easy. Too stupid. Beaten this game too many times. Only losers like this one. Jeez, this one has a broken joystick…"

"RRRRRR j00 L33t 3n0|_|gh?"

The shouted challenge drew his attention down a little side aisle, where a familiar sight drew him up short. A broad grin spread across his face as he stepped up on the dance pad and patted the screen. The speakers blared out,

"ULTRA MOSH MOSH REVOLUTION NINTH MEGAMIX!!!"

Akira did a few quick practice steps, then frowned when he almost slipped off the pad. "It's been a long time. Guess I'd better warm up…" He slipped the coin in, and let the sound bytes from each song wash over his ears as he searched for some appropriate tunage.

"Feh. You're pathetic, Akira. I'm glad that I'm finally able to step out of the mirror and replace…"

At the sudden intrusion of words into his video game reverie, Akira whirled around, only to see…

Himself?

Akira pointed one finger at the copy, the… mirror… of himself standing right there. "Who the heck are you?!"

The mirror-Akira grinned. "I am you, Akira. In all the ways that count, except for one…

"Namely, I'm willing to do anything in order to get what I want. And what I want… is POWER."

The force of the word washed over Akira like a hot wind, stinging his skin, and he knew by the sudden heating of the little necklace he'd been wearing since they'd left Hotohori's city that the power that word contained…

Had come from himself. Somehow, he can use MY link, whatever it is that runs through me to this Suzaku, to do funky stuff. If he can do that… what the hell is going on?!

The song-selection noise sounded, and Akira whirled again and almost fell over. "AAHH!! Not Schizophrenia 190 RAVE Mix!!! That song kicks my ass! And… I don't have much money left!"

The mirror-Akira watched Akira fumble the first three steps and snorted derisively. "Your skills are nonexistent! Your moves are lame, and you suck so bad at this game I'm ashamed to even admit you as my origin!" He reached into his pocket and pulled out a hundred-yen coin, clenching it in his fist. "I have to replace you out there in the real world… but… I can't let a luser like you play this game without showing you who is the true master…"


The date had been going just fine until a ham-hand landed on Matsura's shoulder with what seemed like oppressive force. "Yo, Mika! Who's the kid!"

Mika greeted the stranger with a hug that knocked his hand off Matsura's shoulder. "Keisuke! Long time no see! You big idiot." She let go of him and hit him in the arm. "How's your sister doing?"

Matsura turned around and got a good look at this Keisuke. He was tall, blonde, muscular, and looked so… so… damned sports-heroic that for a fleeting moment Matsura wondered if he'd stepped out of an anime. Keisuke noticed the junior-high-schooler looking him over and frowned. "Nobody would blame me if I kicked your ass for taking my girlfriend out on a date." He winked jokingly, despite his serious tone and the scowl on his face.

Mika blushed a bit and hit Keisuke in the arm again, this time hard enough to make him wince. "I'm the one taking him out. What are you going to do, kick MY ass? Just because your little sister is getting married…"

"…Doesn't mean that you're married to me already, I know." Keisuke looked down at Mika and they both laughed together.

In that fleeting moment, looking back and forth between the two of them, Matsura felt something inside of him break. He had known there was no way that Mika would have been thinking about dating him seriously, had known that the only reason they were out together was because of Akira being trapped in the book, had known that Mika probably already had a boyfriend that was better than Matsura could ever be.

But, as many a man has discovered before, knowing his dreams were nothing but fairy gold and watching them turn to lead in front of his eyes were two different things altogether.

Matsura swallowed back a moment of hot tears. It took every bit of willpower he had to smile and say dryly, "As much as I'd love to watch you two play kissy-face all day, we might not have a lot of time…" He nodded towards Mika's purse, where a light outline told the position of the book.

Mika patted the purse and nodded a touch reluctantly. "Sorry, Keisuke, but I'm busy this afternoon. Maybe next weekend we can get together for some dinner, but…"

Keisuke shrugged. "I understand. No big deal, right?" He patted Matsura's shoulder in a friendly way, and Matsura had to put both his hands into his pockets to resist the sudden urge to punch Keisuke. "Milk her for all she's worth, kid. Insist on going out for ice cream, then coffee… Make her pay for the works!"

"My name," Matsura said levelly, "is Matsura."

Keisuke's grin flashed white against his light tan. "Glad to know your name. See you around, Matsura, Mika!" He turned his back and walked away, waving.

Matsura unclenched his fists and pulled them out of his pockets slowly, sighing in a mix of anger, regret, and sorrow as he watched Mika staring after her boyfriend with a broad grin across her face.


"j00 LUSE!!! j00 LUSE!!!"

After a moment, the game added,

"Try m3 wh3n j00 g3t s0m3 5|<1LLz!!!"

Akira looked at Akira. "Uh… what was that you were saying about taking my place?"

Akira waved one hand absently. "This is the test, blah blah blah, if you can't stop me from taking your place, blah blah blah, I kill you and all your friends. There's always more time for that crap later. Right now I've got 500 yen left with YOUR name on it. I can't go anywhere until I prove which of us is really better."

Akira shrugged. "Yeah, you got a point. But this game is getting boring; we're too evenly matched. Shall we move on to a…"

Akira smiled. "Different game? Sounds great."


The old woman frowned as she looked into her mirror, a bead of sweat running down the side of her head. "This… is unexpected…"

She reached out to her mirror and grumbled, "Kids these days, don't know their own place in their own stories… back in my heyday, they knew a test of their spirit without being smacked over the head with it…"

The old woman didn't like just reaching out and meddling with the story directly — that smacked too much of godhood, and she knew that she was no god — but sometimes…

"I would have gotten away with it if it hadn't've been for those pesky kids."


Matsura ate his ice cream cone slowly, being careful not to get any on the book. He wasn't sure what mint chocolate chip ice cream with hot fudge topping would do to a magical tome, but he wasn't willing to find out.

"Hmm?" Mika leaned against his arm and flipped a page that they'd already read. "Hey, this has changed!" Distracted by her warmth pressing into him, he didn't notice what she was talking about for a moment. Then Matsura ran one finger down the line of kanji, pursing his lips thoughtfully. "You're… right. This isn't what it read just a moment ago… 'And the Mirror of the Summoner strode forth from the woods…'"


"Just what is this supposed to do again?"

Hotohori looked at Tamahome's face and frowned deeply, lines etching into his forehead. "It should call out to Akira through our bond to him, drawing him back despite the spell that holds him."

The three of them were sitting cross-legged in a triangle, knees just barely touching. Nuriko nodded. "Well, if we're going to do this, then…"

"Yo, everyone. What's up?"

All three jerked their heads in the direction of the forest, where Akira was stepping nonchalantly out of the woods, his hands stuffed in his pockets. He stopped short when he noticed the eyes on him. "What are you guys staring at?"

"AKIIIIRAA!!!!" Nuriko flung herself on Akira, and Tamahome sighed. She acts just like my little sister sometimes… why do I find it so damn annoying? She frowned. Probably because my sister is five and Nuriko is grown-up…

Akira peeled Nuriko's hands off slowly. "Now, now, now, Nuriko… don't you think it's time to start acting more like yourself? We all know that you're a man; start acting like one!"

A look of confusion stole across Nuriko's face, then one of dawning horror. "You mean… you told them?!"

The sadistic grin that spread across Akira's face was the opposite of his tone; warm, friendly, and brotherly. "Nuriko, dear, it isn't that hard to tell."

Nuriko shoved Akira away and ran into the woods, sobbing violently. "YOU GAVE MY SECRET AWAY!!!!!" Trees flew from her path as Nuriko literally threw them aside, but Tamahome barely noticed. All her attention was fixed firmly on Akira and the way he was watching Nuriko run away. He… he's enjoying it. He liked hurting her… him… HUH?

"Nuriko's a guy?!" Tamahome added mentally after glancing at the trail of destruction Nuriko had left, Well, now that I think about it there WERE some clues…

Akira barely spared her a glance. "Your mastery of the obvious is amazing." He strode past Tamahome and extended a hand to Hotohori, who hadn't stood up yet. "Let me help you, Hotohori."

The Emperor ignored the hand and stood up slowly, supporting his weight upon his sheathed sword. "Who are you?"

"I'm Akira. Who else would I be?" He gave an easy smile and touched Hotohori's arm lightly, but the Emperor shrugged him off and stepped backwards, drawing his blade in the same motion.

"Who are you?!"

"Me?" Now, Akira's grin looked twisted, and Tamahome shifted into a stance of her own, ready to spring on whatever the Summoner had become. "I'm everything Akira could be, if he weren't a damned fool. I know your secret, Hotohori, and I…" the smile slipped away from his face slowly, and Akira took a step towards Hotohori with a solemn expression. "I want to help you."

Hotohori shook his head quickly. "Now I know that you're not Akira, and would never be like him, for he is…" he took a deep breath "…far too MORONIC to notice anything like that!!"

The Emperor lunged for Akira, but he stepped aside so smoothly and easily that Tamahome knew Hotohori was right. Akira may be getting better, but he's not THAT good… What the hell is going on?!?! Is this the test?

Akira shook one finger at Hotohori and clucked his tongue reproachfully. "That… wasn't very polite of you, dear. I'm afraid that some punishment is…"

He stopped speaking long enough to duck Tamahome's flying kick, letting her skid to a crouch in front of him before straightening up. "You, though, I could give a rat's ass about."

Suddenly, Tamahome was flying backwards, a numbness spreading out from her lower ribs that she was all too familiar with. Shit! How the hell did he move so fast!! Her back hit a tree hard and she slid down into a heap in between two ancient gnarled roots. Flickering lights danced across her vision, and for just a moment she wanted to give in and let her eyelids slide shut, let sleep take away the pain she couldn't feel yet (and that alone told Tamahome how badly she was probably hurt).

But she saw Hotohori and whatever the hell Akira was now dancing with each other, and Tamahome knew that she couldn't just abandon Hotohori. Her body seemed to weigh a thousand pounds, but she forced it up, ignoring the sharp pains that threatened to drag her back down.

Akira smacked Hotohori's blade on the flat, sending it spinning out of his hands, then leapt backwards gracefully. "This… bores me. You know, my mistress told me to drag it out a bit longer, but you aren't worth the trouble."


"Heh… heh, heh… I've got you now, Yamato…. you won't last much longer now… wonder what ever happened to that copy-me who kept on challenging… AAHH!!!"

Akira fell against the arcade machine's controls heavily and fought the urge to scream as he felt the weird necklace around his neck flare to painful life against his skin, burning into his chest.

The game's defeat music washed over his ears as his character took a pummeling that he sympathized altogether too much with. A sudden weakness swept over him, draining all his energy, and without knowing what he was doing he fought against it, holding himself firm against the pull of energy, damming its flow out of himself.

The power started to pool up inside of him, and without thinking about it Akira released it into the game he was leaning against. The screen flared to life and showed Tamahome and Hotohori struggling to stand firm against a wind that threatened to pull them into…

…A mirror that the other Akira was holding out in both hands?!

Akira looked closer, and the screen zoomed in where his attention was focusing. The Akira on the other side of the screen looked up at him and winked, just as Akira felt the dam he'd built up inside himself start to give.

"NO!!!" Akira slammed his fist into the screen, and he felt a rush of power as he shattered it, sending shards of glass everywhere, but when he saw the image of the other Akira still floating in the same place, just as if Akira hadn't done a thing, he sank to his knees. "Dammit! There's nothing I can do to help them." He hung his head to one side and noticed that he was still wearing his dagger, though the hilt had clattered out of the sheath, the blade glittering in the coruscating flashes of light from all the games.

He dumped the point of the blade out of the sheath and closed one hand around it carefully, remembering brief flashes of what the other Akira had said. Akira smiled grimly. "If he is me, or wants to become me, he'll get more of me than he can handle…" He took a deep breath and raised the broken blade up above his head, concentrating on his target.

"I hope this works."

Akira closed his eyes and rammed the point home.


Tamahome was dying.

She could feel her life draining out of her body, seeping out of her with the blood flying from her wounds. She had at least a few broken ribs, and breathing was agony, much less fighting against whatever this… thing was that Akira was using to draw them in.

Hotohori was holding her against the wind with one hand and had his sword's hilt clutched in the other with the blade driven deep into the earth, but Tamahome could tell that his grip on her was weakening…

"Let me go, dammit! Don't be a fool. GET OUT OF HERE!"

Hotohori's hand tightened painfully around her arm. "NO! I won't leave you to die!!"

She pushed at him, or tried to. Tamahome gasped as ribs slid around inside of her. "You're more important than a thousand people like…"

"GRRRAAAAAAAAAA!!!!"

They both almost fell over, still pushing against a wind that didn't pull any more. Tamahome looked at Akira, who was screaming, clutching at his left hand. It was spraying out a fountain of black energy from both sides that washed over the trees and the path, leaving blackened wreckage in its wake. It started to wither, looking less and less like Akira. Blackened tendons stood out against its flesh as it writhed in agony.

The dropped mirror glittered at its feet invitingly.

Power spilled through Tamahome's body and she stood up slowly, barely feeling the pain from her ribs. She heard a whisper in her ear, close enough to brush her cheek with warm breath. "Go kill it, Tamahome, I can't get out until it dies…"

Hotohori dashed forward and cut off the monster's right arm in a sweeping blow, his sword shimmering defiantly against the darkness that gushed forth from the fresh wound.

The Emperor was not as resilient as his blade, however.

The energy caught him at about waist-level, knocking him down and driving him backwards along the ground. It washed over Hotohori's still form and Tamahome, afraid of what it might be doing to him, rushed forward, the power that filled her pushing the pain away. She jumped up and gave the monster a flying kick that aimed the monster's wounds away from the Emperor.

When she landed, however, no amount of magic could hold back all the pain.

Tamahome collapsed in a heap, things grinding around inside of her in ways that made her feel sick just thinking about it. She kept her face turned towards the dying monster, expecting it to finish her off soon. With both Hotohori and herself down…

Who would save them?

The boulder that crushed the monster rather convincingly answered that question.

Nuriko waved from her perch atop the boulder and put one hand behind her head nervously. "Heh. I thought something was fishy, so I rushed right back… ahehehee…" The super-strong Warrior chuckled, and Tamahome let her head sink to the ground thankfully. It's… it's over…

The sound of a mirror shattering filled the sudden silence.

Tamahome felt a hand on her shoulder. "Tamahome, Tamahome, are you all right?" She managed to raise her head enough to see Akira touching her with one hand, a look of despairing concern on his face. "Don't die on me, dammit!"

With that strange sense of detachment that being close to dying brings, Tamahome noticed that the jagged, broken end of Akira's dagger was sticking through his right hand, still dripping with his blood.

"YOU HAVE PASSED MY TEST."

Tamahome watched over Akira's shoulder as the forest literally dissolved away, leaving them perched on a cliff top looking down over the mountain where legends began and legends ended…

Daichi-san.


Matsura sighed as he flipped another page, thinking how comfortable this was — sprawled out over his couch, Mika's arm thrown over his shoulders, soft music playing over his parent's sound system, a full stomach making him feel comfortable and relaxed for the first time in he couldn't remember how long — but all of that faded away as he turned the page and looked at the image of Akira and his three companions staring down into a valley, silhouetted against a great mountain that towered into the sky.

"And with Daichi-San before them, their legend truly began…"

 

To be continued.


Author's notes: Well, this was a touchy one for my prereaders, ALL of which expressed doubt about the mirror scene… ^_^ But I knew I could pull it off!

:P to the doubting Thomases.

Ahem. Consideratin' that the next chapter is already pressing on my synapses, I think that I may be able to write it soon…. I hope… ^^; Would be nice to go a shorter time than, what, three months between chapters?

Aaron Bergman
iamfanboy@hotmail.com

Chapter 9
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