FY/GW, AU, OOC, yaoi, angst, weird shit that I promise will someday make sense, spoilerish for FY, even though I'm only vaguely sticking to the original plot of the series.

Previous thirty (geez....) parts to be found under Lys ap Adin at http://www.geocities.com/fenris_wolf0

~~~

Okane and Omae o Korosu
part thirty-one

Duo pressed Tamahome for a little more information, then shook his head. "Thanks. I'll let you get back to your soaps now, I guess."

Quatre, feeling he'd been more than patient, broke into the conversation. "Are either of you going to explain what just happened?"

"The long or the short version?" Duo asked, standing and turning to look at him.

"Better make it the short version," Quatre decided.

"The way I figure it, whatever caused Heero and Tamahome to switch bodies keeps them kinda connected. Whenever Heero does something exceptionally stupid or dangerous, the tie strengthens and Tamahome gets to go along for the ride. That sound right to you, Tamahome?"

"Aa. Exceptionally stupid is right." Tamahome grimaced.

Duo forced a smile. "That's Heero for you. Always pulling off some crazy stunt or another."

The television had snared Trowa's attention as two news anchors debated the significance of the civilian casualties. "...what's plain to me, Jim, is that these gundams and their pilots are a menace to society. Furthermore, the colony governments backing these terrorists ought to be held responsible for the damages. I say that they've declared war on us, so why aren't we retaliating?"

"You're forgetting, Roger, that the colonies have disavowed any connection to the gundam pilots. This is the work of splinter factions within the colonies -"

"And it's impossible for me to believe that. No faction could possibly finance the construction of *one* gundam, much less five -"

Trowa switched the television off. "I think they would be amazed at what a single faction could do," he murmured.

Duo snorted. "No kidding. OZ fucked us over pretty hard this time."

"We don't know that for sure yet," Quatre said crisply.

"That was a not-so-subtle hint to get back to work, ne, Quatre?"

"Of course. Any orders we get are suspect until we trace back and find out if the orders to eliminate that base were genuine, or if it was an OZ setup." Quatre turned and was nearly to the door before the implications of what he had said fully sank in. "...including the orders to change safehouses."

"Oh, *hell*," Duo said, with great feeling.

"I'll start packing our stuff," Trowa said quietly, immediately leaving the room.

"Where to this time, Quatre?" Duo asked.

"The safehouses may be compromised," Quatre thought out loud. "Let me check something before we decide." He headed out of the room as well.

Duo looked at Tamahome, who'd only barely followed the conversation. "Hope you haven't unpacked too much," he said wryly. "It's time to move out again."

~*~

Amiboshi looked at his brother reproachfully. "You didn't have to do that, you know."

"Can you be more specific, aniki?" Suboshi was giddy with relief. "I've done a lot of things lately that I shouldn't have."

Amiboshi couldn't argue with *that*. "Let's just put it all under taking my side. You didn't have to do that."

"Yes I did," Suboshi argued. "You'd have done the same thing."

"That doesn't -"

Nuriko broke in gently. "Does it really matter now?"

Suboshi groaned. "No, because Nakago is going to kill us both now."

"No he won't, not if we can help it," Miaka said comfortingly.

They were sprawled in a circle, sitting in a small hollow in the hilly, rocky landscape, sharing in the exhilaration of escaping a brush with disaster unharmed. Chichiri was perhaps the only one with a clear idea of exactly where they were, but no one really cared.

Tasuki punched Heero in the shoulder. "Oi, you're some kind of brave, taking on Nakago like that. Didn't know you had it in you."

Amiboshi smiled gratefully at him. "Thank you, Heero-san. If it weren't' for you, I don't think we would have survived."

"It was very brave, but stupid," Mitsukake said practically, finishing healing the last of Heero's wounds.

"Nakago probably likes you even less right now that he likes us," Suboshi grinned.

"You're very quiet, Heero. Is something wrong?" Nuriko asked.

~Finally~, Heero thought, exasperated. He nodded.

"Oh, yeah..." Amiboshi looked embarrassed. "He was telling Yui-sama off, and Nakago had Miboshi put a spell on him so that he couldn't speak."

"Da..." Chichiri scrutinized Heero, then muttered softly to himself. "Try to speak now no da."

Heero opened his mouth experimentally, and managed a hoarse croak. "It's about damn time. Thanks."

Miaka looked curiously at him. "What were you saying to Yui-chan that Nakago didn't like?"

Heero shrugged. "I was just wondering how she could be a miko if a miko needed to be a virgin and she had been raped. That *is* what you told me, right?"

The Suzaku seishi looked at each other a little foolishly. "Why didn't we think of that no da?"

"You were too close to it to see. Now... were are we?"

Chichiri shrugged. "Close to where Soi attacked us no da. I was a little too rushed to be precise no da."

"Aa." Heero nodded at the twins. "What are we going to do with them?"

They looked at one another and the twins for a long, silent moment. "Well, shit. They can't go back to Nakago," Tasuki said.

"We shouldn't stay," Amiboshi said quickly. "Nakago will be able to find us and then you."

"We can't make them go off on their own," Nuriko protested. "Just the two of them to face Nakago - it'd be murder."

"But do you think they should stay with us, if they're going to be a liability to the miko and the mission?" Heero asked.

Nuriko glared at him in the late afternoon light. "Yes. I do. We owe them."

The others shifted uneasily in the growing tension, until Heero nodded. "Good. I think they should stay too."

"Well, if we have *that* settled no da, I suggest we rest for a few hours and then figure out where we are no da," Chichiri interjected, when it seemed like Nuriko was about to start yelling at Heero.

"That's a damn good idea. I'm tired." Tasuki nodded approvingly, and promptly set about settling down for a few hours' nap.

Suboshi looked at them incredulously. "Is that it?" he asked.

Amiboshi smiled a little. "It's their way, Shun'u. You'll get used to it."

There was one last thing to be done, Heero decided, before he would let himself rest. "Miaka. A word?"

Confused, Miaka followed Heero away from the impromptu camp. "What is it, Heero?"

Heero looked out at the sunset. "Tamahome would like you to know that he misses you," he said softly, "and that he wishes very much that he was here right now instead of me, and that he loves you."

He heard Miaka gasp quietly. "But - how?"

"There's some sort of connection that gets stronger when I fight, I think. I pick up on what he feels and thinks, and he does the same for me." Heero was quiet. "I got to talk to Duo. It's only fair that I give you a message from Tamahome."

Miaka hugged him suddenly, without warning. "Thank you," she said softly. Heero wasn't sure, but he thought she might have been crying. "You don't' know how much it means -"

Heero hugged her back awkwardly. "Yes I do," he told her. He released her. "Go get some rest. It's been a hard day."

Miaka smiled at him. "Thank you, Heero." She walked back to camp.

Heero waited until the sky darkened to a particular shade of indigo before retracing his steps and rejoining his companions.

~*~

"Okay... this is where you're going." Quatre handed Trowa a slip of paper with some directions written on it.

"Where *are* we going?" Duo asked bluntly.

Quatre pushed his bangs off his forehead in a self-conscious gesture. "Not much of a place, really. Just some land my family owns. It has a few empty warehouses. We'll be camping, but it's a place to hide for a while."

"And the bounty of the Winner clan provides again," Duo muttered. "Sounds good. Tamahome, are you going to ride with Trowa ore me and Quatre?"

"You mean I get a choice?"

"Come off it, Tamahome." Duo rolled his eyes.

"I'll go with Trowa."

"Okay. See you two at the safehouse." Duo grabbed his duffel bad and headed out the door.

Quatre looked briefly at Tamahome, then smiled at Trowa. "Be careful."

"Aa. You too." Trowa walked out the door, and Tamahome followed, a faintly puzzled frown on his face.

"Aren't the two of you a couple?" he asked as Trowa started the truck and pulled away from the safehouse.

"Aa. Why?"

Tamahome shrugged. "I never would have guessed it from the way you act."

"What Quatre and I have is not something we wish to share with the entire world," Trowa said quietly. "It's enough for us to know that it's there."

"Oh." Feeling somewhat chastised, Tamahome lapsed into silence.

~*~

Quatre was more than happy to let Duo do the piloting, and Duo was pleased to have something to think about other than Heero. Not that the reprieve really lasted very long.

"You're awfully quiet, Duo."

"I've got a lot on my mind, Quatre. I can't keep my mouth running all the time, you know."

"Why are things so tense between you and Tamahome?"

"How long have I got to tell you about it?"

"Is it really that bad?"

"It's really that bad, trust me. We were almost okay with each other there for a little while, the first time he and Heero had that little bonding experience. Then he got the wrong idea about me and Relena -"

"You and *Relena*?"

"It's a long story, and I would not be a gentleman if I told it to you," Duo said primly. "It was just a misunderstanding, but he took it pretty seriously, and then he found out the deep dark truth about gundams, and it's been shitty ever since. That answer your question?"

Quatre was still trying to wrap his mind around the Relena problem. "Uh... not to be rude, Duo, but you haven't gone out of your way to be, uh, annoying, have you?"

"No, Quatre, I've been a good boy. *He's* the one with a stick up his ass."

Nope, no bitterness here, Quatre thought, hiding a smile. "I see... uh oh. This warehouse won't have a television."

"He'll survive. We might not, but he will."

~*~

"We're lost, aren't we?"

"We're not lost no da!" Chichiri sounded indignant at the very thought. "We're just... temporarily misplaced no da."

Nuriko rolled his eyes. "We're lost."

"We are *not* lost no da!"

Nuriko snickered quietly.

"It's okay, Chichiri," Miaka said. "I get lost pretty easily too."

"Daaaaaa!" Muttering quietly under his breath, Chichiri stomped away, presumably to get his bearings.

They'd been wandering around for a while now; Heero privately judged it to have been about two hours. Whatever the monk said about the matter, the consensus was that they were lost.

Presently, Chichiri returned, looking a little more relaxed. "It looks like there's a village not too far from here no da," he reported. "We can stop there and confirm we're approach Sailo no da."

"You mean we're going to ask for directions," Tasuki grinned.

"We're not lost no da."

"If you say so, Chichiri."

They headed for the village, Chichiri arguing every step of the way that they were *not* lost. Heero tuned the bickering out, preoccupied with his own problems, one of which was the young man a few paces ahead of him who refused to have anything to do with him.

As they entered the outskirts of the settlement, they got several odd looks from the inhabitants, who were probably not used to seeing such an odd assortment of people wandering out of the desert. Chichiri approached one of the men who had stopped what he was doing to watch them. "Excuse me no da, but we were wondering if we're on the right road to Sailo no da."

The man scratched his head. "Well, you're not too lost if you're heading for Sailo, I guess."

Chichiri sweatdropped as his fellow seishi muffled their laughter.

The man shrugged, sending the large golden hoops in his ears swaying. "Well, anyway, if you're going to Sailo, you want to - Tamahome? Is that you, boy?"

"Huh?" Before Heero precisely knew what was happening, the stranger was hugging him.

~~~

Okane and Omae o Korosu
part thirty-two

"It's not the best hospitality I can offer," Quatre apologized as Duo looked around at the warehouse.

"I wasn't expecting a four-star hotel," Duo shrugged. "It's not the worst I've ever seen." He dropped his duffel bag on the concrete and stretched the kinks out of his back. "Wanna set up camp first or start tracking down the problem?"

"Mission first. The sooner we can get back to operational, the better," Quatre decided.

~*~

Heero, confused, looked over the stranger's shoulder and shook his head slightly at the confused statement on his companions' faces. Then he was being released, only to be held at arm's length and inspected.

"Um... so... you know Tamahome no da?" Chichiri ventured.

"Know him? I trained him!" The man beamed. "I was his master. Taught him everything he knows, ne Tamahome?"

"There's been a slight er--" Heero started to say, but the old man was hustling him and the rest of the group away from the center of town. Heero sighed internally and decided it could wait.

~*~

"I can't believe this." Yui huffed out an impatient breath and folded her arms across her chest. "Not only did we lose the shinzaho because you wouldn't give them the imposter, but both twins defected?"

Nakago listened to her scolding patiently. "The imposter--this Heero--was not what I expected," he said smoothly. "It will not happen again. As for the twins, they will not roam free for long."

From her corner of the tent, Soi muttered something dark and unfriendly under her breath. The verbal lashing she had received from Nakago for allowing Amiboshi to distract Miboshi had been bad enough, but when it was added to the vicious headache and the indignity of knowing the two weakest members of their party had beaten her, it was more than enough to put her in a lingering bad mood. Miboshi had said very little about his feelings in the matter, but the way his eyes sparkled with anticipatory glee any time the twins were mentioned was enough to make Yui shiver.

"Well, now what are we going to do?" the miko asked, resigned.

"I have a plan."

She smiled faintly. "You always do. Soi. Miboshi. I want to speak to Nakago alone, please." They left silently, and Nakago looked at Yui, waiting. She took a deep breath. "Nakago... about what he said. Was it true?"

"Of course not," Nakago assured her. "He was just trying to throw you off, to make you doubt."

"I see." She looked unconvinced.

Nakago touched her shoulder gently. "Do you trust me?"

"Yes, of course I do." She smiled wanly. "You may be my only friend in this world."

"Then forget what he said," Nakago advised her, eyes earnest.

"I will." Yui nodded decisively, with only a trace of uncertainty in her eyes.

~*~

"You're awfully quiet, Tamahome," the old man observed as his wife and their adopted daughter bustled about, making the visitors comfortable.

"I'm not Tamahome," Heero told him, relieved to finally be able to comment, and unable to think of any more diplomatic way to break the news. "It's a long story, but my name is Heero Yuy, I'm not from this world, and Tamahome and I have somehow switched bodies." As an afterthought, he added, "Sorry, but I didn't get a chance to tell you earlier."

The old man stared at him. "You're not Tamahome?"

"No. I'm just borrowing his body."

The old man laughed uproariously. "Well, no wonder you looked so damn confused."

"Perhaps a round of introductions is in order," his wife commented. She smiled. "I am Byakko no shichiseishi Subaru."

"Byakko no shichiseishi Tokaki, at your service."

"You're Byakko seishi?" Miaka broke in eagerly. "That's exactly what we wanted to hear."

Tokaki looked curious. "Why's that?"

"Um... It's kind of a long story."

~*~

Trowa surveyed the warehouse. "It's very... spacious."

"We're going for the minimalist look, you know?" Duo grinned. "Furniture would spoil the aesthetic effect."

"Don't knock it," Quatre muttered. "It's better than an OZ holding cell, right?"

"Ugh. Don't remind me."

"How's the search going?" Trowa nodded at the laptops, which they'd hooked up to a spare power cell.

"About as fast as can be expected. The original orders seem genuine. It may be that there's an OZ agent within our network," Quatre reported.

"You guys were definitely set up. Now we're trying to flush out the leak," Duo added.

"Have we got a secure line to the doctors yet?"

Duo grinned again. "Funny you should ask that, Tro..."

"Aa." Trowa retrieved his own laptop and started setting up.

"Oi, what am I supposed to do?" Tamahome asked, after an uncomfortable time spent watching the three boys hard at work.

Quatre looked up. "Oh, um... probably the best thing you can do is catch up on your sleep," he suggested. "We don't really have anything else for you to do."

"No television?" Tamahome felt vaguely disappointed.

"Do you see a television?" Duo retorted. "Seriously. Our stuff is over there. Pick out a spot you like and catch some sleep. It'll help you heal up faster."

Left with no alternatives, Tamahome grudgingly complied, falling asleep to the sounds of typing.

~*~

"You travel with two of your enemies?" Tokaki studied the twins, who contrived to look as innocent and harmless as possible. "Is that... wise?"

"There weren't any other viable options." Heero shrugged.

"Will you help us retrieve the Byakko no shinzaho?" Miaka asked, looking at Tokaki and Subaru with wide, hopeful eyes. Heero was reminded of the statement Duo tended to use when he was asking a favor.

The elderly couple smiled. "Of course we will."

The Suzaku seishi relaxed, and the conversation drifted to other topics. Heero's mind wandered as he considered the possibility that this mission might actually be drawing to a close. There was still Nakago and his plots to worry about, but it was really almost done this time. ~Duo...~ He shook himself mentally. ~I'm starting to sound like the lovesick heroine of a shoujo anime,~ he thought wryly.

"Ne, Miaka, have you decided what your wishes will be?" Nuriko asked.

Heero brought his attention to heel, making a mental note to talk to Nuriko later. The tension between them was still a potential threat to the mission, and he really didn't like the way Nuriko was torturing himself either.

Miaka nodded. "The first wish will be for Konan to have eternal peace. That's the most important wish--Sorry, Heero."

He shrugged.

"The second will be that Heero and Tamahome are returned to their proper bodies." Miaka hesitated a little. "The third wish I want to make... I'm not sure. It's really selfish..."

"What is it no da?"

Miaka flushed. "Well... I want to ask Suzaku to let me stay here so I can be with Tamahome."

"They can't grant that wish," Tokaki said gruffly.

"They can't?" Miaka repeated, taken aback. "Why not?"

"After the third wish is made, the miko must leave this world and return to her own," Subaru explained sympathetically. "The gods can't allow the miko to stay here."

"Suzuno--Byakko no Miko--tried. She and Tatara... well, it didn't work," Tokaki explained. He looked sad. "It would be best for you to forget whatever you feel for Tamahome now, and save yourself the pain of parting later."

"It's not possible?" Miaka repeated numbly.

"I'm sorry." Subaru laid a gentle hand on Miaka's shoulder.

"Excuse me." Miaka left the room quickly.

"Well... shit. That's not fair," Tasuki grumbled. "The two of them deserve to be happy together."

"I'll go talk to her," Nuriko said, standing and following Miaka.

The conversation, much more subdued, resumed.

~*~

"Got it."

Duo and Quatre looked up from their own work at Trowa's pronouncement. "You've got a line to the doctors?" Trowa nodded. "Visual or text?"

"Text. They want to know what progress you've made in tracing the leak." Trowa paused, processing a new inquiry. "And they want to know about Heero."

"Tell them that Heero's out cold right now," Duo supplied, taking a quick look at Tamahome's sprawled form. "And I'm narrowing my leads down."

"I'm in the process of elimination," Quatre added.

Trowa relayed this information to the doctors. "The new orders are to remain hidden for now. When the leak is found, it is to be eliminated as swiftly as possible." He read the next dispatch. "That will be your mission, Duo."

"Who better for the job than Shinigami?" Duo shrugged, pretending there wasn't a pained statement in his eyes. "Ryoukai."

Trowa relayed this and terminated the connection. "They said our last safehouse was raided about an hour after we left."

Duo whistled. "Shit. Good thinking, Quatre."

"Does this mean you're gong to stop whining about this safehouse?" Quatre asked.

"I do *not* whine. But if I did, I'd stop out of gratitude for my life." Duo stretched quickly, yawning. "Okay, back to work."

~*~

Nuriko found Miaka sitting under a tree, resolutely staring at the ground and fighting a losing battle against tears. "Miaka? Are you okay?" It was a ridiculous question to ask, but there wasn't anything else he knew to say.

"I'm fine." She sniffled, and Nuriko sat down next to her, offering her a hug and a shoulder to cry on.

"It'll be okay, Miaka, I'm sure it will be. What you and Tamahome have is special, and I know Suzaku wouldn't let it be ruined," he said awkwardly. "Besides, I just *know* Tamahome will do whatever it takes to stay by your side. He's stubborn that way."

"Do you really believe that?" Miaka asked in a tiny voice.

"Of course I do. Cheer up, Miaka, it'll all work out. I promise." Nuriko put as much confidence into his voice as he could muster. ~Please, Suzaku, let me be right.~

~~~

Okane and Omae o Korosu
part thirty-three

After many hours, Quatre looked up. "I think I've got a name," he reported softly.

"Good, because all of my leads are coming up dead-ends. Confirmation?" Duo asked.

"Working on it. I want you two to double-check my work." Quatre passed the data along to Trowa and Duo.

They worked for a while, until Quatre sighed. "Everything checks out on my end." He shook his head regretfully, waiting.

"Confirmed," Trowa muttered sometime later. He and Quatre both watched Duo, who was absorbed completely in his meticulous review of Quatre's work.

At last he looked up from his work. "Target confirmed. Looks like I get to make a trip to L1, ne?"

"Want some help planning the mission?" Quatre offered.

Duo waved him off. Naw, don't worry about it. This is pretty basic stuff, you know? Besides, you've already done a lot. I'll just get this pulled together and get going. You two might as well get some sleep."

Quatre bit his lower lip, wanting there to be something he could do to help Duo but not knowing what it might be. This was the kind of mission most difficult to execute--not because an assassination posed many dangers, but because it required a lot from the person who ultimately had to pull the trigger in cold blood. He looked around aimlessly, and his gaze fell on Deathscythe. "We'll keep an eye on Deathscythe for you till you get back, okay?" he said cheerfully.

"Oh... right." Duo flashed him a quick smile. "Thanks."

It wasn't much, but they had to take what they could get.

~*~

"You look like a mess," Nuriko informed Miaka when the worst of her reaction to Tokaki's news had passed.

"Gee, thanks," she said wryly, wiping at her face with her sleeve.

"Any time, Miaka. C'mon, I bet everybody is worrying about you." He smiled at her. "And you didn't even finish your meal."

Miaka's face brightened. "Oh yeah! I hope there's still some left."

"I'm sure there is." Miaka hugged him suddenly. "What was that for?"

She smiled at him. "For always being there, Nuriko." She stood and headed back for the house. Nuriko just shook his head, chuckling as he leaned back against the tree.

"She looks like she's feeling better."

Nuriko made a face at Heero. "How long have you been skulking there?" he demanded as Heero walked over and sat down.

"I was not skulking," Heero retorted. "The rest of us were just getting worried, so I came to investigate."

"You were *too* skulking."

"I was not." Heero mock-glared at Nuriko. "You're probably going to tell me I snore, too."

Nuriko looked away. "You don't believe very much in the tactful approach, do you?" he said after a moment.

Heero considered this. "I thought I *was* being tactful," he shrugged.

Nuriko laughed in spite of himself. "Funny, Heero, very funny."

"So what happened?" Heero asked, after Nuriko had lapsed into what seemed to be a permanent silence.

He was beginning to think Nuriko was going to stay silent forever when the seishi shrugged a little. "Something that shouldn't have," he said slowly, as if the confession was as much to himself as it was to Heero. "I'd rather not talk about it, please."

"So you're going to just let our friendship die because of something that happened inside that illusion. Baka." Heero glared at Nuriko again, this time in earnest.

"It may have been an illusion, but it sure felt real to me at the time," Nuriko snapped.

"That's the point!" Heero poked Nuriko's shoulder for emphasis. "It felt real, but it wasn't. If you go on letting it bother you, Tomo wins." He poked Nuriko again. "You don't want *that*, do you?"

Nuriko swatted at Heero's hand. "Stop that," he grumbled.

"Are you going to stop brooding?"

"I'm not brooding." Nuriko swatted at Heero again. "Stop that."

"You are too. And it's not doing anybody any good, least of all yourself."

Nuriko went rigid. "Is *that* what this is all about?" he demanded.

"What?" Heero shook his head, confused.

"It always comes down to the mission, ne Heero?" Nuriko inquired, his voice savage. "Don't worry, we'll make sure you get home to Duo. The mission isn't going to fail."

Heero frowned. "That's not what I meant."

"Go away, Heero." Nuriko pulled his knees up to his chest and stared fixedly at the ground.

"No. I am not going to go away, Nuriko. Would you at least *look* at me?"

Nuriko ignored him.

"Nuriko, I didn't come out here because the mission required me to. Yes, things would be smoother if you and I were friends, but we'd all manage if we weren't. I came out here because you're my friend and I want it to stay that way. Are you even listening to me?"

"No."

~This calls for drastic measures,~ Heero decided. He leaned over, dropping a quick kiss on Nuriko's cheek.

"What was that for?" Nuriko demanded, startled.

"I like you, Nuriko, al lot. If things were different--a lot different--I'd probably do more than just like you. But I can't change the way things are, and I'm sorry." Heero frowned slightly. "That's what I came out here to say, I guess."

Nuriko glanced at him. "You're not just saying that because of the mission, are you?"

"Baka--" Heero growled, before he saw the sly twinkle in Nuriko's eyes and realized he was being teased. "Friends again?"

"Friends again," Nuriko hopped to his feet and offered a hand to Heero, hauling him up easily. "Let's go see if Miaka's gobbled up all the leftovers or not, ne?"

"She probably has."

"You're so pessimistic, Hee-chan." Nuriko shook his head sadly. "It's a tragedy in someone as young as you are."

"I am not pessimistic. I'm a realist," Heero argued.

"You *are* pessimistic. And you snore, too." Nuriko winked at him and took off running toward the house.

Heero sighed, exasperated. "I do *not* snore!"

~*~

When Tamahome's growling stomach finally woke him, Duo was the only one still at the computers, his face a mask of concentration. Tamahome looked around quickly for the other two; Trowa and Quatre were nestled in the same mass of blankets not too far away from where he was stretching the stiffness out of his muscles. Tamahome found the sight oddly endearing.

"Sleep well?" Duo asked, not bothering to look up from his work.

"Yeah, I guess. Is there anything to eat around here?" Tamahome kept his voice hushed, to avoid waking the sleepers.

"Only cold rations, sorry." Duo waved a hand at one of the boxes sitting on the makeshift desk. "Help yourself."

None of the protein bars or energy shakes looked very appealing to Tamahome, but his stomach was quite insistent on being fed. "How much longer do we have to stay here?" he asked, selecting one of the bars and munching on it.

"Until I achieve my mission goals, probably," Duo replied, taking a moment to jot down a bit of pertinent information. "A week, on the outside."

"A whole week?" Dismayed, Tamahome surveyed the mostly-empty warehouse.

"Yeah, well, you can't rush Shinigami." Duo made another note.

"You're leaving?"

"Yup. The mission calls, and all that. I'm sure you'll be devastated without my company." Duo snorted to himself. "Or maybe not." He made a final note, and shut the laptop off. Rubbing his face, he stretched and then checked his watch. "Damn."

"What?"

"There's no time for me to catch a nap before I head out. No big deal, really, just means I'll have to sleep on the shuttle instead." Duo shrugged philosophically. "It'll pass the time. Oi, hand me one of those protein bars, will you?"

Tamahome handed him the bar and pondered the situation. "Your mission isn't going to be like the one they just finished, is it?" he asked, nodding at Quatre and Trowa.

"Not a thing like it. My mission is to make sure that those kinds of situations don't crop up again." Duo tore a bite out of his bar. "Their mission was a disaster. Mine will be ... much different."

"So... what is your mission?" Tamahome couldn't help asking the question, even though he was fairly sure he didn't want to know the answer.

"..." Duo stared at his hands. "There's a spy in our network, feeding information to our enemies. He's responsible for telling OZ that the three of them were going to hit that base, and OZ set us up so we'd look bad for killing a bunch of civilians. After I get rid of the spy, OZ won't be able to screw us over like that anymore."

"You're going to go *murder* somebody?!"

"If that's what you want to call it. And keep your voice down, they need their sleep." Duo looked at Tamahome wearily. "Look, it's like this. OZ murdered those people at the base to make us look bad. With this mission, I kill one person, and OZ doesn't get chances to commit that kind of mass murder any more. It's one of those nasty little war time equations that nobody likes but we can't escape. I don't need to hear a sermon about it." He checked his watch. "I have to leave in a minute. Quatre and Trowa should sleep for a few more hours. I'll see you guys at the next safehouse." He stood, packing his laptop away in a few economical movements and then slinging his duffel bag across his shoulder. "Ja, Tamahome."

Tamahome looked away from him, hearing the soft sigh and the footsteps that rapidly retreated. He dropped the half-eaten protein bar on the makeshift desk, no longer hungry.

~*~

Yui, lost deep in thought, stared vacantly at her hands. ~Why can't I stop thinking?!~ She sighed quietly. ~I have to trust Nakago. I have to. If he's lied to me, then I've--I've--I have to believe Nakago. I can't look back now, not when we're this close to getting the Byakko and Genbu shinzaho.~

She turned her hand over, tracing the faint lines crossing her wrist. ~No one would lie about such a thing, would they?~

~But Nakago is a king of manipulation.~

~Damn Heero Yuy, anyway.~

"Yui-sama?" Soi's voice disturbed her contemplations.

"Yes, Soi?" The seishi didn't like her very much, Yui mused. She wasn't certain, but felt that perhaps Soi was jealous of her relationship with Nakago.

"It's time for you to speak with the prisoner," Soi announced.

"Thank you, Soi." Yui dismissed the troublesome thoughts. It was time to perform her duty as miko.

~~~

Okane and Omae o Korosu
part thirty-four

Tamahome paced restlessly, bored out of his mind. He felt like he ought to be doing *some*thing--for almost as long as he could remember, there had always been something that had needed to be done. Whether it was working the small amount of land his family owned, or trying to scrape together the meager earnings that had held things together after his father had fallen ill, or training his seishi powers, and then protecting Miaka as they journeyed in search of the other seishi, there was always something to keep him occupied. Tamahome sighed wearily, scrubbing at his face. He missed Miaka so much that it hurt, and hated this strange magic that was keeping them separated when what time they already had with each other was precious. On top of that private heartache, with nothing else to think about, his mind kept returning to the dilemma of what to think of Duo and the other boys who were his companion-captors in this strange world of Miaka's.

It was hard to believe that the same two boys--little more than children, really--who were curled up around each other only a few feet away could be capable of some of the destruction Duo had described... especially not Quatre, who looked barely any older than Chiriko as he slept. Duo... it was easier to believe in the darkness there, if only because Duo had let his masks slip enough to show some of it. As for Wufei... he'd seen so very little of that one, beyond a particularly close encounter with Wufei's fist.

Tamahome tried to think of other things, wondering what Miaka was doing--if she had found the other shinzaho yet, and how long it might be before he'd be allowed to go home. It rankled that he had to stay here, useless, while his friends faced danger after danger. He idly wondered if Duo had felt the same way while the other three had been on that disastrous mission.

Tamahome caught himself thinking about Duo again and muttered a soft curse. The most logical part of his mind warned him that he wasn't going to be able to stop brooding over what to think of his current companions, no matter how hard he tried. Tamahome shook his head unhappily, wondering what Suzaku had been thinking to bring him to this insane place.

~*~

Nakago frowned, listening to Yui trying to cajole the Byakko no shichiseishi into surrendering the shinzaho to her. Despite his frail appearance, Tatara was proving to be very strong-willed, refusing to be persuaded, either by her earnest pleas or her threats. He shook his head at each new onslaught, but to be perfectly honest, Yui hardly seemed to be doing as thorough a job as she ought. She seemed... distracted. Finally, apparently at the end of her creative rope, she sighed, exasperated. "*Why* won't you give it to me?" she demanded. Nakago half-expected her to stamp her foot for emphasis.

"I must be sure that I give the miko's shinzaho to someone worthy," Tatara said quietly.

"And I'm not worthy?!" Yui protested. "Why not?"

Tatara's eyes, ancient in a young face, looked at her wisely. "Because, Seiryuu no miko, you doubt yourself and those who serve you... you have so many doubts that you use force to obtain what you should merely ask for."

"It wasn't *my* idea to bring you here," Yui argued. Tatara smiled at this. "WHAT?!"

He shook his head, still smiling. "You would not understand, even if I explained it to you, foolish child."

Yui's temper flared. "How *dare* you?" she yelled, turning away. "Nakago, I can't make him see reason! You talk to him!" She stormed out of the room.

Tatara turned his attention to Nakago. "So you're the one in charge," he said quietly.

"You misunderstand, old man. Your time in Byakko's hall must have addled your wits. I merely serve Seiryuu no miko's best interests."

Tatara winced in sudden sympathy. "The poor child," he murmured.

"You have one last chance to give us the shinzaho," Nakago said, his voice very close to being an ominous purr. "If you don't, we shall have to resort to other means of obtaining it."

Tatara smiled at him. "I will never give her shinzaho to you," he told Nakago.

"Old man, do you know how easily I could kill you?" Nakago asked, icily calm.

"You won't," Tatara replied, just as calm, "because if you do, you will never find the shinzaho."

Nakago pounced on this possible scrap of information. "So, where have you hidden the shinzaho?"

Tatara smiled, the patience of a hundred years' service lending an awful serenity to his obstinacy. "You aren't worthy of that knowledge."

And the battle of wills raged on.

~*~

Duo's internal sense of the time woke him a few minutes before the shuttle was due to arrive at the L1 colony where his mission awaited him. He rubbed some of the sleep out of his eyes, putting away the dreams he'd had (the same dreams that always haunted him before a mission, of a priest and a nun whose sorrowing eyes never seemed to understand where they'd gone wrong with him) and stretched.

"Sleep well, young lady?" inquired his seatmate, a kindly old man with tufty white hair and a beaky red nose.

Duo lowered his eyes shyly, nodding. Cross-dressing, never his favorite way to sneak around in the open, was one of the more obvious choices for his repertoire of disguises. He just wished that panty hose didn't itch so much, and hoped that he hadn't smeared his mascara by rubbing his eyes.

~Heh. Wonder what Tamahome's face would've looked like if I'd put this get-up on before I left.~ Duo permitted himself a tiny grin as the shuttle docked. ~Bet it would have been priceless.~ Smiling demurely, he picked up his carryon and moved off the shuttle, quickly getting through the necessary paperwork and out into the streets of L1 proper.

Duo took a deep breath of the recycled air and set off down the street at a determined pace. The way he looked at it, now that he was actually in the preliminary stage of his mission, there would be plenty of time later to be guilty for the blood he was about to spill, especially if all went according to plan. Right now, he had a leak to stop up before any more damage could be caused to the greater cause.

~*~

"You're going to wear a hole in the floor if you keep that up."

The sound of Trowa's voice startled Tamahome out of his reverie. He shrugged a little as Trowa carefully disentangled himself from Quatre, walking over to the makeshift work area and pillaging a box of energy bars. "There's nothing better to do," Tamahome explained. Trowa made a noise that might have been agreement. Tamahome waited for a while before he realized that that was probably going to be the end of any conversation unless he initiated a new topic.

"Duo said he'd meet you guys at the next safehouse," Tamahome offered.

"Aa... when did he leave?"

"Uh..." Tamahome tried to reckon the time, but gave up. "I don't know. I can't tell how much time it's been. I don't even know if it's day or night."

Trowa flicked a glance at a watch. "It's 03:00." Tamahome stared at him, blank. "It's the middle of the night."

"Oh."

Trowa rifled through a couple of the printouts Duo had left lying on the table. "He left at 17:45. He should be to L1 by now."

"Oh... this L1 kingdom isn't very far, then?" Tamahome asked, mostly for the sake of not having to listen to the silence anymore.

Trowa snorted softly. "It depends on how you look at these things."

"Oh..." Tamahome watched as Trowa turned on his laptop, booting it up. "Now what are you doing?"

"Checking for new transmissions from the doctors."

"Who are they?"

Trowa sighed, sounding faintly exasperated. "The ones who give us missions."

"They're the ones who sent Duo to go kill someone?"

"Yes." Seeing no new communication, Trowa looked at Tamahome, wondering secretly if he might be able to teach the transplanted seishi enough about computers to let him rot his brain playing solitaire. It wasn't a bad thought, but he wasn't sure if they could risk one of the two laptops on Tamahome.

"What kind of men send boys out to commit murder?" Tamahome questioned.

Trowa looked at him, not sure if Tamahome was simply trying to start a fight, or if he was genuinely curious. From the way Tamahome was frowning intently, Trowa guessed it was the latter, so he chose his words carefully. "They're men... who believe enough in their cause that they can justify their decisions to themselves. They're not good, and they're not bad. They're just men, and they believe in what they're trying to do."

"Do you believe in what they're trying to do?"

Trowa took a long time to answer. "It's... part of who I am, and it's a job to be done."

Tamahome wasn't satisfied by this answer. "But do you think it's the right thing to do?"

Trowa frowned, just a little. "It's my job."

Something about this seemed to be the answer that Tamahome was looking for, so he asked a new question. "What are you going to do after the war ends, if this is your job."

Trowa looked over to where Quatre was sleeping. "Find a new job," he said very softly. "I'm going to go work on Heavyarms." With that, he stood, declaring with action and words that the conversation was over, and left Tamahome to think about the exchange.

~*~

"So, um, this Tatara guy isn't going to be, uh, unfriendly, is he?" Miaka asked Subaru. "'Cause we sorta had problems with the Genbu no seishi... they thought we were thieves or something, and they tried to kill us."

"And then they made Miaka strip down to her underwear," Tasuki added gleefully. "OW! Chichiri, if you don't fucking quit hitting me, I'll just pretend you're Tamahome and fry you!"

"Don't worry, Tatara is very gentle," Subaru reassured Miaka. "He's very devoted to his duty, of course, and he'll want to be very sure that you're the one he should entrust Suzuno's shinzaho to, but I'm sure you'll do fine."

"Good," Miaka said, obviously relieved that there wouldn't need to be another test of her purity or devotion like what Hikitsu and Tomite had demanded.

Tokaki, meanwhile, still seemed to be contemplating the part about stripping and underwear.

"Is it much further to where we're going no da?"

Subaru elbowed her husband back into the real world. "No, not much further," Tokaki mumbled. "We'll be there in another few minutes."

Heero resisted a soul-deep urge to fidget anxiously. ~So close... this mission is so close to being done...~

Nuriko laughed at him quietly. "You can't wait, can you?"

"I need to be back in my world," Heero said honestly. "This has all been..." He stopped, looking for the right word. "I learned a lot, but I have other duties, too."

"Not to mention someone who's waiting for you, ne, Hee-chan?" Nuriko's smile was a little wistful. "I can't blame you, though. If it were me, I'd be eager to get home too."

"Aa." ~Duo...~

"It's just at the top of this last hill," Tokaki called back to them.

"Good," Suboshi muttered. "If I have to hike up one more hill, I'm going to die."

"Save your breath for climbing," Amiboshi advised, grinning as he looked ahead. "It's a really big hill."

Suboshi groaned in mock despair.

"You know, when we get the real Tamahome back, we're going to have to do an awful lot of explaining," Chiriko observed, with a pointed glance in the twins' direction.

Suboshi gulped.

Heero looked back at him. "If I were you," he said gravely, "I'd talk very, very fast. And be ready to run."

"Eh, I'm sure we'll be able to talk some sense into Tamahome," Nuriko mused. "Especially if I hold him down long enough to make him listen."

"Almost there," Tokaki yelled. "It's just through those trees..." His voice trailed off as they cleared the last of the trees and beheld the hall of Byakko.

The large double doors hung askew in their frames, twisted and blasted, blackened by the force of someone's lightning-based fury.

Without another word, Subaru and Tokaki broke into a run, surprisingly nimble for two people of their advanced age. They disappeared indoors, followed closely by the Suzaku seishi. Heero lingered at the door, examining the scorch marks.

Amiboshi and Suboshi stayed with him.

"Soi?" he asked, running a finger over charred wood and warped, melted metal.

"Probably," Amiboshi muttered. "They're not going to find this Tatara fellow in there, I think."

"*Damn* it," Heero growled, striking the malformed door with his fist, as if that could relieve some of his fury. "We were so close!"

Mitsukake emerged first from the building. "He's not there," he said quietly. "But I think you already knew that."

"Nakago probably had Soi blast the doors, and somehow kidnapped Tatara," Suboshi volunteered.

"And now we have to find out where they went." Mitsukake looked at Heero. "If you keep hitting the door like that, you're going to hurt your hand."

"Aa." Heero stopped, taking several deep breaths. "This is only a temporary setback."

The rest of the seishi trickled out, followed at the last by Tokaki and Subaru, whose faces were white and angry. "Who would *dare*?!" Tokaki growled.

"Nakago no da," Chichiri sighed. "Is there any place in the immediate area you can think of where he might wish to take Tatara no da? To get the shinzaho from him no da?"

Tokaki and Subaru conferred hastily. "There's one place that we can think of," Tokaki said grimly. "It's an old temple, and there have been rumors lately that it's been invaded by demons. I haven't had time to investigate. That may have been a mistake..."

"I told you so, dear," Subaru said mildly. She looked worried, despite the gentle humor. "We have to find Tatara, and quickly. Away from the spells I've placed on this temple, he won't survive for very long."

"Then let's go," Tasuki said, grinning widely. "I'm damned tired of Nakago and his sneaking around."

Nuriko paused, waiting for Heero as Tokaki and Subaru headed off purposefully. "You okay, Hee-chan?"

From between gritted teeth, Heero growled, "Nakago o korosu."

~*~

Drunk... yes, drunk was very good. The man examined his bottle of cheap whiskey, finding it still almost halfway full. The hall was already spinning, and things were very blurred. He smiled in bleak satisfaction. There was going to be plenty left to make sure he forgot every last thing for which he was responsible.

He groaned aloud at the thought. It wasn't supposed to have worked out like it had. He'd passed along the information regarding the Gundam pilots' mission to the base to an OZ official who'd assured him that OZ would see to it that the Gundam rebels got what they deserved. He'd felt bad about betraying his fellow rebels, but he'd weighed the lives of the five pilots against the thousands who were being slaughtered in the senseless war, and deemed the sacrifice acceptable, if only it meant that the war would end quickly.

He took another long drink of whiskey as he stumbled up the stairs to his apartment, barely feeling the burn as it tracked down his throat. Instead of setting a proper ambush like he'd supposed they would, those OZ bastards had turned the mission into a public relations bonanza. The man cursed thickly, remembering (against his will) the long, scrolling list of the casualties. He fumbled with his keys, eventually managing to get his door open and half-falling inside. As he kicked the door shut behind him, he never even noticed the shadow waiting for him just inside, or the glitter of the dim hall light over violet eyes just before the entire world went mercifully black.

~*~

By the time Trowa's laptop beeped, once, signaling an incoming message, Tamahome had tired himself out enough by his pacing to have gone back to a light, restless sleep, and Quatre was just waking up enough to wonder where Trowa had gone. The beep was loud in the near-silence of the warehouse, jolting Quatre into full alertness.

The blond hurried over to the laptop, checking the new message and decoding it. It was from Duo, and read, simply, "Kanryou."

Quatre sighed, relieved. "Well, that's something, anyway." He looked around, and listened, eventually pinpointing Trowa's location with Heavyarms. He padded over to where his lover sat, frowning slightly over a mismatched assortment of gears. "It's done."

"That's good."

Quatre frowned at the tense lines of Trowa's body, moving to kneel behind him. "What's wrong?" he asked, rubbing his lover's shoulders.

Trowa sighed, leaning back into Quatre's skillful hands. "Why do we do this?"

Quatre's hands grew still. "Because we can't stop," he said, finally. "It has to be done, and we have to see it through to the end... and because we don't know how to stop."

"That's what I was afraid of," Trowa sighed again. "What happens to us when it ends, Quatre?"

Quatre leaned forward, wrapping his arms around Trowa's chest and resting his chin on Trowa's shoulder. "To us as a group, or Us?"

"Both."

"I don't know. I'd like to believe that we'll be able to figure out how to live like normal people, you know? And whatever we do, I was hoping we would be able to do it together."

Trowa covered Quatre's hands with his own. "You're going to have to teach me how."

Quatre smiled. "I don't mind."

~*~

~A job...~ Tamahome kept his breathing as even as possible, so that Quatre and Trowa wouldn't have to know that he had inadvertently eavesdropped on their conversation. ~They treat it... like a job. A really nasty job that just has to be done. Maybe--that's they only way they can see to it that it does get done.~

Tamahome frowned as he drifted off too sleep. ~They're too young to have to be so responsible.~

~~~

Okane and Omae o Korosu
Part thirty-five

"Did you enjoy your trip to L1, dear?"

Duo forced his voice into a squeaky whisper that he hoped his "shyness" would excuse. "There aren't words for how I felt about this trip," he assured his seatmate for the shuttle ride back to Earth. This time it was a middle-aged lady who Duo could just tell was the chatty type.

Duo winced internally as his companion launched into an extended explanation regarding her family on L1 that she had just visited. ~It could be worse,~ he reminded himself. ~I could be sitting next to a lady with two screaming kids.~ He fixed a polite smile on his face, switched his mental script to "Uh-huh, oh really?" and settled in for the trip to Earth. He could tell that it was going to be a long one.

~*~

Yui staring at her wrist, traced one finger over the scar there, still pink and shiny with newness. She could hear the rumble of Nakago's voice in the next room, punctuated occasionally by some reply of Tatara's. ~What happens when we get the Byakko no shinzaho? ~ she wondered. ~It's no good without the other one. Do we fight for the other?~

"Yui-sama." Miboshi floated into the room, intruding on her thoughts. "Nakago would like for you to try speaking with the prisoner again."

Yui frowned, standing and straightening her clothes. She still wasn't entirely pleased with the way Nakago was handling the situation with Tatara. The Byakko seishi had pointed out himself that she could have simply *asked* for the shinzaho, and it would have been much simpler than kidnapping him. While she didn't like Tatara or his tranquil assessments of her character, Yui saw no need to be so disrespectful to him. ~Well, it's too late now.~

Entering the room, she found why Nakago had wanted her to try again. Tatara, looking pale and worn, was refusing to speak to the blond. Obviously annoyed by this turn of events, he growled a few barely polite instructions to his miko before leaving the room, with Soi following close behind. Yui glared at Miboshi until he too left.

"You know, it would spare us all a lot of trouble if you'd just agree to give me the shinzaho," she remarked, settling herself on the floor and resting her chin on one hand.

"That's impossible," Tatara murmured, shifting position slightly.

"I don't know why you have to be so stubborn." Yui pouted, then heaved a sigh as another thought occurred to her. "You'll probably hand it right over to Miaka when she gets here, won't you?"

"I don't know who this Miaka is."

Yui rolled her eyes. "Suzaku no miko. She's a baka who eats too much, and spends all of her time goofing off, and *still* she manages to have all the luck."

"Someone you know well?" Tatara inquired.

"You might say that. We used to be best friends."

Tatara waited patiently for her to continue.

"It's because of her that I'm in this mess, you know? If she hadn't followed that damn bird, we never would have been sucked into this world." Yui stared moodily off into space. "It's her fault, really. I was there for her, when she needed me, but she let me down when I needed her most. Her and that dratted Tamahome. Makes me sick."

"Is that why you're so jealous of her?"

"Jealous? Me, jealous of that tactless, scatterbrained twit and her new boyfriend?" Yui laughed bitterly. "Is it *that* obvious?"

"Only a little." Tatara smiled gently.

Yui shook her head. "I just wish I knew what he sees in her," she murmured. "Why her and not me..."

"In the end, you may be glad that it wasn't you," Tatara told her quietly. Yui looked up, about to make a sharp, angry retort, but she kept quiet, seeing the look on his face. "Even the gods can't make it possible for a miko to be with her seishi, Yui-sama."

"It's no possible?" Yui asked, disbelief coloring her tone.

He shook his head. "It's not."

Yui had a flash of insight. "Byakko no miko?"

Tatara nodded slowly. "Her name was Suzuno."

"I'm... sorry." Yui had to look away from Tatara's face for a moment. "So Miaka and Tamahome can't be together. Heh." It was funny, but the news didn't feel like much of a triumph. "Poor Miaka."

"Aa." Tatara cleared his throat and switched tacks. "Nakago is not your friend, you know."

"Is that supposed to make me want to suddenly switch sides or something?" Yui retorted.

"No. It's just a word of advice," Tatara smiled. "Call it confirmation of what you already know."

"And what am I supposed to do now, throw up my hands and say, `Oh, no, I've changed my mind, I don't want to summon Seiryuu any more I just want to go home, please'?" Yui asked tiredly. "I don't think that would work too well. Besides, do you really believe that Miaka would ever forgive me for what I've done?"

Tatara shrugged as well as he could. "I'll tell you after I've met her."

Yui snorted. "Whatever."

~*~

"Well, there it is," Tokaki said, pointing at the cluster of buildings.

Subaru closed her eyes. "Yes, Tatara is definitely in there."

"So is Nakago no da," Chichiri added.

"What an amazing coincidence," Nuriko murmured.

"Is this the part where we go kick their asses?" Tasuki asked, tapping his tessen against his leg idly.

"It sounds like a plan to me," Tokaki said cheerfully.

Mitsukake coughed. "Do you think that it's, er, wise for the two of you to come along?"

"Do *you* know what Tatara looks like?" Subaru asked sweetly. Mitsukake shook his head, *no*. "I didn't think so. Don't you worry about us. We can take care of ourselves."

Heero crossed his arms impatiently. "Are we going to stand here talking all day?"

"Don't worry, Hee-chan, we've got plenty of time to get you home," Nuriko laughed.

"Hn." Heero glared down at the buildings in the valley below. "I thought you said Tatara doesn't have much time."

"Good point no da." Chichiri sighed. "Nakago probably already knows we're here no da, so we might as well get started na no da."

Tokaki grinned. "It's time we taught this Nakago fellow a lesson about messing with Byakko seishi."

Nuriko rolled his eyes as they began to pick their way down the side of the hill. "He's as bad as Tasuki is."

"I *heard* that, Nuriko."

~*~

"Right on time, aren't they?" Soi noted, watching the group of seishi approaching the monastery. "The twins are still with them." Her voice was regretful.

"They will learn to regret that mistake," Miboshi murmured. "What will you have us do, Nakago-sama?"

Nakago was quiet for a long moment. "Slow them down, if you will. Kill those that you can, but see to it that Suzaku no miko is not harmed too much. She may be able to do what our miko is incapable of."

Miboshi smiled. "As you wish, Nakago-sama." He departed to do Nakago's bidding.

"And what shall *I* do?" Soi asked.

"Wait. You will need to be on hand to ... clean up."

~*~

"What is it?" Yui asked, as Tatara lifted his head, as if he were listening to something.

"Subaru and Tokaki are here," he explained, his voiced affectionate.

"Oh, I guess that means Miaka's here, too." Yui ran a hand through her short hair, thinking. "Are you *sure* I'm not the right miko to receive the shinzaho?"

"I'm sorry, Yui-sama."

"Don't be." Her smile was humorless. "I don't think I'm the heroine of this story, after all. I rather suspect I might even be the villain... but even villains can have a change of heart, ne?" She leaned forward, examining Tatara's bindings. "These will have to come off. We wouldn't want you to be late for your meeting with Suzaku no miko."

"Yui-sama, true villains don't have changes of heart," Tatara murmured, as Yui worked at the knots.

She shrugged. "So chalk *that* up on my list of things I've done wrong since I got sucked into this world, too. Come on. Let's go find your friends."

He stood, grimacing as he did so. At her concerned glance, he shook his head. "It's nothing... nothing but old age finally catching up with me."

"I see. We'd better hurry, then." Yui put one of Tatara's arms over her shoulder and helped him out of the room.

~*~

After a very brief and unsatisfying nap, Tamahome was up and roaming the warehouse again, restless. He restrained his prowling enough to give Quatre and Trowa what privacy he could manage, and paced the length and breadth of the remaining space. There was no reason to feel this keyed up and nervous, he reminded himself. ~I only ever get this way when I'm about to fight--~

Tamahome's eyes widened in realization. "Oh, *no*, not *again*," he groaned, slapping his forehead. ~Suzaku preserve me... please?~

Quatre's head popped out from behind Heavyarms. "Did you say something, Tamahome?"

"Uh, it's nothing," Tamahome said quickly, noting how flushed and out of breath Quatre seemed.

"Oh, okay." Quatre went back to whatever it was he was doing (Tamahome was pretty sure that he *really* didn't want to know).

The transplanted seishi shook his head, hoping that Heero was going to be careful this time. Then he sighed. ~Duo really ought to be here for this. He's going to be pissed that he missed Heero.~

~*~

"You do know this is going to be a trap, right?" Subaru asked.

"Oh, my, what a big damn surprise." Tasuki snorted. "That's what makes it so much fun!"

"Just checking."

"Ready no da?" Chichiri looked over the group. "All right, let's go na no da." He pushed the door open, and they filed into the darkness within.

Nuriko shuddered. "I don't like the feel of this place," he whispered.

"It reeks of evil." Subaru shivered fastidiously. "I'll never be able to come back to this place to pray again."

"That, unfortunately, is so very true that it isn't funny." The voice was high-pitched, a child's piping tones, but full of ancient malice. Miboshi materialized slowly, accompanied by the sounds of the turning prayer wheel in his hand. He smiled at the group of wary seishi, and all hell broke loose.

Literally.

~*~

As Tatara stumbled for the third time, Yui helped him to prop himself up against a wall. "What's happening to you?" she demanded.

"I've been away from Subaru's spell for too long," he gasped, face greying with strain. "My body is remembering that it's really over a hundred years old. I can't say that it's very pleasant."

"I'm sorry." Yui looked ashamed that she had been a part of taking Tatara away from the spell he was talking about.

"don't be. Death comes to take us all, eventually. For some of us, it's like waiting for the visit of an old friend." Tatara caught his breath. "Come. I don't have much time left."

~*~

Miaka summed it up for everyone as the monsters started appearing at Miboshi's command. "Ewwwww, gross!"

"Aren't my little pets charming?" Miboshi asked, as the low levels of light gleamed off slime, tentacles, claws, and teeth--lots of teeth. "They're really eager to play with you."

"I'm more of a dog person, sorry," Nuriko snorted.

"Rekka Shinen!" Tasuki flamed away the first monster that got too close, reducing it to a foul-smelling heap of ashes. "Is *that* the best you can do, freak-boy?"

"Tasuki, don't give him ideas no da!" Chichiri then gave up chastising the bandit in favor of fending off a pair of monsters.

Nuriko fell in to one side of Miaka, while Heero took the other. "Don't look so cheerful, Hee-chan!" Nuriko called, laughing at the thoroughly grim statement on Heero's face.

Heero just glared at him briefly, before returning his attention to a monster interesting in making Suzaku no miko its lunch. "I hate interference in my missions."

Nuriko sweatdropped as the monster Heero was handling dropped like a rock. "Remind me never to get in your way, Hee-chan."

~*~

Miboshi laughed, pleased with the way his monsters and demons were wreaking havoc with the Suzaku seishi. So far the enemy was doing well against his pets, but that wouldn't last very long. After all, there were a lot more of his pets than there were of the Suzaku seishi, even if they were receiving help from a decrepit pair of elderly seishi and...

Miboshi's eyes narrowed as he focused on the twins, remembering the humiliation he'd suffered at the last battle. One good turn deserved another, he decided, focusing on Amiboshi and the way the boy was trying to turn away monsters with his flute.

~*~

Tamahome stopped pacing suddenly, as broken images began flitting across his vision, hardly more than brief snatches of action. The flashes were jumbled and chaotic.

~Indoors. They're fighting indoors--a temple? Why would they fight inside a temple?~ Tamahome frowned, but relaxed marginally as he realized that Heero had the good sense to fight next to Miaka, protecting her. ~Monsters? where did the monsters come from? Aa. Seiryuu--What in the--? Tokaki-sensei? And Subaru? What are they doing there?~ Tamahome blinked. ~And how did they get so young?~

~*~

That was precisely what Tasuki was asking, as the two Byakko seishi jumped into the battle. "What the fuck happened to you guys?" he demanded.

Tokaki preened a little, as Subaru laughed. "Byakko no shichiseishi Subaru, at your service," she explained. "I control time!"

Tokaki wolf-whistled at his wife. "Damn, you are one sexy babe."

She blushed, smiling, but chided him gently. "You had better concentrate on fighting, dear," she reminded him.

"Yes, dear." He flickered and disappeared, reappearing right behind the monster that had been about to clobber him. The monster, left confused, never saw the blow that felled it. "Heh. Teleportation--it fools them every time."

~*~

"Are you okay?" Yui stared, wide-eyed, as Tatara sagged against the wall, gasping for breath.

"I've been better," he admitted.

"Can I do anything to help?" she asked.

"Not this, Yui-sama, not about this." He tried to push himself away from the wall, but stumbled and ended up sliding down into an unwilling sitting position as his legs failed him.

"I don't think it's much further," she offered. "I could go find this Tokaki and Subaru..."

"No, they're busy... fighting." He closed his eyes. Yui got the feeling that he was concentrating very hard.

Slowly, a vine curled out from between the cracks in the flagstones next to Tatara's seat. Yui watched, fascinated, as it grew, leaves unfurling before her very eyes. It reached a height of about a foot, then a single bud began swelling at the tip of the small plant's stem. It bloomed, full white petals spilling open. Strangely enough, a small mirror lay at the heart of the blossom. Fascinated, Yui reached out a hand to touch it, but stopped. She looked up to find Tatara watching her, a strange smile on his face. "Is that...?" she asked.

"Yes." He nodded tiredly. "I've kept it for over a century now... Now it's yours. Go ahead, take it."

"I thought--You said--" Yui gaped at him.

His smile grew gentler. "Go ahead, Yui-sama. I know you will use it carefully."

Yui lifted the shinzaho away from the flower, which was already beginning to wilt and turn brown. Reverently, she placed it in a pocket. "Now what do I do?" she asked.

"Let your heart guide you." His eyes were kind. "It's been confused for a while, now, but I think it's starting to figure things out again."

"Oh..." Yui looked down at her fingers for a long moment, before she looked up, her eyes sparkling with tears that wanted to spill over her cheeks. Before Tatara could say anything, she hugged him quickly, planting a kiss on his cheek. "Thank you."

He patted her back. "You're welcome... you'd better hurry, though."

"What about you?" she asked, clearing her throat.

Tatara smiled at her. "Don't worry about me. I'm waiting for an old friend."

"Are you--"

"I'm sure. Go." He waved her off, smiling as she took a few hesitant steps, looking back uncertainly. "I'll be fine... go."

"Goodbye," Yui murmured, with a final look behind. Then she took off, sprinting down the hall.

Tatara sighed, leaning his head back against the wall. Idly, he brushed his fingers over the faded petals of the blossom. They floated away, settling lightly against the floor. He closed his eyes, sighing. "Suzuno..."

~*~

At the same moment, on another world, an old woman breathed her last. The somber group keeping vigil bowed their heads, only to be distracted by the laughter of a young girl just outside. They reached the door just in time to see the filmy figure of the laughing girl running to meet a tall young man who waited, with his arms stretched out wide to greet her. They embraced as the snow swirled around them, slowly fading away, together at last.

~*~

Tokaki howled in dismay. "TATARA!"

Subaru shook her head, tears running down her face. "He was supposed to wait... we were supposed to all go... together..."

"If he had the shinzaho..." Miaka murmured, "and he's gone... where's the shinzaho now?"

"I'm afraid we're going to find out too soon," Nuriko muttered.

~*~

Suboshi, being kept very busy by fending off all the demons and monsters that seemed to feel his flute-player brother made an easy target, had a brief moment of wishing that his brother's seishi powers were a little less defensive. Then a nearby monster collapsed, greenish ichor spilling out of what a charitable observer might label ears, and he whistled in appreciation. "Nice one, aniki."

Amiboshi shrugged slightly, continuing to play.

~*~

Nakago blinked. "Tatara is dead," he murmured.

"He is?" Soi frowned. "How did *that* happen?" Soi had her private opinions about Yui's capabilities, and the capacity to do enough damage to kill a cockroach, let alone a seishi, was not on Soi's list of things Yui could probably do.

"Old age." Nakago shrugged.

"Do you think he gave up the shinzaho before he died?" Soi asked.

"Let's go ask Yui-sama."

~*~

Heero frowned to himself, ducking a tentacle, jumping over a swiping arm, and landing a solid kick on the chest of one of Miboshi's monsters. ~These things are even easier than Leos... what's wrong with this situation?~

~Overwhelming odds of inept fighters... they're probably trying to wear us down, then they'll strike with their real force.~ Heero deemed it an acceptable strategy, especially since the Seiryuu seishi seemed to be down to three fighters, compared to their group of ten, plus Miaka.

He heard Tokaki yell Tatara's name, and looked around, expecting to see this mysterious seishi appear. Then he recognized the edge to Tokaki's voice. ~Oh, hell.~ He added another complication to his mental mission plan, and extracted satisfaction for his frustration on the nearest demon.

During the brief moment of respite, before the next enemy took the place of the fallen, Heero took a quick look at the battlefield. The number of monsters seemed to be about the same as ever. Tokaki and Subaru seemed determined to avenge what Heero assumed was their friend's death, while Tasuki seemed to have engaged Chichiri in some sort of monster-killing competition. Mitsukake and Chiriko were wisely staying back from the fray, keeping a sharp lookout for any opportunity to help without risking themselves too much. Amiboshi and Suboshi were on the other side of the room, apparently experiencing no guilt for fighting the monsters summoned by a fellow Seiryuu seishi.

Heero frowned faintly. ~Where's Miboshi?~

He got his answer as Miboshi materialized behind the oblivious Amiboshi.

~*~

"Do you think he does this often?" Quatre asked, cocking his head to one side as he examined Tamahome, who was staring off into space.

"You'd have to ask Duo, not me," Trowa shrugged.

Quatre waved a hand in front of Tamahome's eyes experimentally. Tamahome didn't even blink. "It's kind of scary, if you ask me."

Suddenly, Tamahome's eyes widened. "Look out... Amiboshi, look out!"

~*~

Miboshi saw an opportunity, as Suboshi wielded his ryuseisui against two opponents at once, and struck from behind, summoning one of his favorite pets, one that was considerably more powerful than its brethren already engaged in battle.

~*~

Amiboshi was just turning, heeding someone's warning cry, when he felt the impact against his back, squarely between his shoulder blades. His flute fell from suddenly numb fingers, skittering across the floor. "What...?" he croaked, surprised.

"ANIKI!"

He looked over to see Suboshi's face, absolutely white and stricken. He opened his mouth, to ask his brother what was wrong, but the words didn't want to come out, for some reason. He looked down, finding his explanation in the gaping, bloody hole in his chest. "Oh..." Suddenly, it didn't seem so odd anymore that his knees felt so weak.

~*~

Yui stumbled suddenly, clutching at the burning pain searing her chest. "What--Amiboshi?" Tears stung her eyes. Then her back stiffened, as she made a private promise. ~This ends now.~ She began running again.

~*~

Empty.

Nakago looked at the ropes at his feet and shook his head. "What does that little fool think she's doing now?" he asked, disgusted.

"I don't know, Nakago-sama," Soi shrugged. Then she hissed, as a wash of pain struck her. "Amiboshi!"

Nakago snorted softly. "Miboshi was not very happy with him, you'll remember."

"Aa..." Soi bit her lower lip. "They shouldn't have ever been mixed up in this. They were too young."

"It wasn't their choice to make. Remember that. None of us had a choice," Nakago murmured. He straightened his shoulders abruptly. "Let us go find our miko and ask her what, in her infinite wisdom, she has done."

"Yes, Nakago-sama." Soi sighed, following her lord out into the warren of hallways.

~*~

"Amiboshi!" Miaka screamed, as the boy sank to his knees, clutching at his chest.

"Aw, shit," Tasuki groaned, all the laughter gone from his face. "Shit, he's just a goddamned kid!"

"ANIKI!" Suboshi wailed again. He sprang forward, past the hulking monster that Miboshi had summoned especially for Amiboshi's sake, and attacked the floating child-seishi, careless of the glancing blow the neglected enemy landed on his side. Miboshi back-peddled swiftly, mindful of the way Tomo had met his demise, but Suboshi was relentless. His ryuseisui were hardly more than blurs, snaking through the air in a dizzying attack that Miboshi could barely follow, much less defend against. Suboshi howled, savagely triumphant, as he put the ryuseisui through Miboshi's throat.

The roomful of monsters dissipated as Miboshi's dead body hit the floor.

~*~

Mitsukake was already bending over Amiboshi as Suboshi turned around and the other seishi edged forward, looking at each other with eyes that were shocked by this sudden blow of reality. Nuriko absently put an arm around Miaka, comforting her.

"Mitsukake?" Chichiri's voice had dropped back into its proper register, and his speech affectations had disappeared.

"It's too late for that." Suboshi's voice cut across the silence, dead and empty. He looked up at the ceiling, blinking rapidly. "He's gone. This time for real."

Heero growled angrily. "Nakago o korosu," he muttered, as Mitsukake straightened Amiboshi's clothing.

~*~

Quatre took a sudden step back as Tamahome growled unintelligibly. "I don't think that's a good sign," he muttered to Trowa.

Tamahome muttered something, just barely audible. "Nakago... o korosu..."

Trowa shook his head. "I wouldn't want to be this Nakago person right now."

~*~

Yui skidded in the room, just in time to see the monk from the Suzaku seishi place a hand on Suboshi's shoulder consolingly. She hesitated, for a moment, before walking forward. ~I... don't belong here... do I?~

A young man, wearing huge gold hoops in his ears, noticed her approach first. He motioned to the tall blonde next to him. "Who're you?" he challenged.

Miaka looked up sharply. "Yui-chan?" she asked in disbelief.

Yui nodded. "Yeah... it's me... Miaka."

"What do you want?" Tasuki asked, eyeing her warily.

"I have something--" Yui started to say, just as Chiriko began to laugh hollowly.

~*~

Standing a little apart from his companions, Chiriko shivered as a chill passed over him. ~That was odd,~ he thought, looking around. Then he stiffened as a deeper cold seized him, holding him helpless and paralyzed for a long moment.

Then Miboshi narrowed his new eyes, examining his new host body. With a cold little smile, he gestured once, and the prayer wheel near his old body flicked through the air to his waiting hand. He gave it a little spin, and rose slowly into the air, where he surveyed the area and began to laugh.

All eyes in the room turned to him, with varying degrees of shock on their faces. Even Yui looked stunned. "Chiriko?" Miaka asked. "Chiriko, what are you doing?"

Miboshi laughed a little more. "I'm sorry, but he's not in right now..." He gestured at a statue across the room, and it came to life, standing and tearing itself from the wall with the groan of breaking stone. He floated across the room, stationing himself at the head of the statue and directing it forward with ponderous steps. The group scattered, dodging the huge foot as it slammed down.

"Chiriko, what the hell are you doing?!" Tasuki yelled.

"That's not Chiriko anymore," Tokaki said grimly, scooping Suboshi out of the way of an attempt to stomp him flat and running forward.

"It's not? Then who is it?" Tasuki looked back at the prayer wheel in the boy's hand. "It's not *Miboshi*, is it?"

Miboshi applauded. "Oh, very good!" he exclaimed.

"Now what do we do?" Nuriko yelled, pulling both Miaka and Yui forward. "We can't attack him! What if Chiriko's still in there?"

Miboshi laughed. "Isn't it beautiful?" He reached forward, trying to scoop up one of the little ants running around the statue's feet in order to crush it. The hand refused to close, though. He frowned as Mitsukake scrambled to safety, and tried to flex the hand again. This time it worked. ~Odd.~

"What's going on here?" boomed a new voice across the room. Everyone paused as Nakago swept into the room, accompanied by Soi.

In the moment of distraction, Miboshi's right arm lifted the prayer wheel and stabbed it deep into his left arm. Miboshi howled in pain at the treachery of his own body. Then his eyes changed briefly, widening. "I won't betray my friends!" Chiriko screamed, stabbing himself again.

The statue lurched out of control as Miboshi and Chiriko struggled for control of the body they were sharing. Off-balance and lacking the magic that had just mobilized, it crashed to the floor, shattering. Chiriko screamed again, fighting for control of his body and raising the prayer wheel with both hands. The moment stood suspended in time as everyone stared at the boy. Then the prayer wheel came stabbing down, and everyone flinched as Chiriko buried it in his own chest. Miboshi's spirit howled in fear and dismay as Chiriko forced the other seishi out of his body.

All were quiet, and the only sounds were Chiriko's labored, choked breathing as he crumpled. Then Miaka screamed. "CHIRIKO!"

~*~

"Chiriko..." Hotohori stared off into space, stunned by the sudden emptiness where the youngest seishi's ki should have been. "Oh, no..."

~*~

"Chiriko." Tamahome sank to his knees, a tear streaking down his cheek. "Please, Suzaku, not Chiriko..."

~*~

Miaka broke away from Nuriko, darting across the floor to where Chiriko lay. He smiled up at her. "Did I do okay, Miaka?" he asked, weakly. "I always wanted to help out more than I did..."

"You did great, kid," Tasuki said gruffly, having run after Miaka. "You did just great, kid." He rubbed at his stinging eyes. "Just fucking great."

"Oh... that's good. I'm glad..." Chiriko closed his eyes. "It's awfully cold in here."

"Mitsukake, do something," Nuriko pleaded with the bigger seishi.

Mitsukake shook his head. "And ruin his sacrifice?" he murmured.

Nuriko choked back a sob.

"As touching as all this is," Nakago spoke up, "I'm going to interrupt anyway."

Subaru moved aside the Suzaku seishi, kneeling by Chiriko. "Go on," she murmured. "This is your battle now. Tokaki and I will stay with him."

Chiriko smiled, forcing his eyes back open. "Go on... don't worry about me," he murmured. "I'll be fine..." He closed his eyes and went very still.

"Yui-sama, did he give you the shinzaho?" Nakago asked, turning his attention to the girl who was standing back, next to Suboshi.

Yui lifted her chin. "No. Remember? I'm not worthy of it?"

He stared at her. "You lie very badly. Bring it to me, Yui."

"No." She glared at him. "I don't have to listen to you anymore, Nakago. I am the miko here, not you."

He snorted, but whatever reply he was planning on making to that was cut off by a thin, nasal voice that nearly shook with rage.

"Nakago. Omae o korosu." Heero stalked forward, eyes glinting coldly as the sign for `oni' began to glow on his forehead.

~*~

"Um... is this a bad sign, Trowa?" Quatre asked nervously, as a red kanji started gleaming on Tamahome's forehead.

Trowa considered it, as he and Quatre back up a little bit more. "Um. Yes, I think that this is a bad sign."

~tbc~

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