Spoilers for the entire series of Fushigi Yuugi, up to and including episode 52.

Become What You Must
by !Super Cat

There were snatches of memory that he shrugged off and dismissed: darkness and the sweat of a drug fever; Yui bathing his forehead; trying to resist her though he could scarcely drag his eyelids open; Nakago coolly giving orders; a sharp pain as his ear was pierced; whip-sting and Nakago's slow smile.

"Do you like it here, Tamahome?" Yui asked. She knelt girlishly behind Tamahome on the bed, her hands a comfortable weight on his body, soft and possessive. They gentled further as they smoothed out the strands of his hair.

"You know I do, Yui."

"There isn't anywhere you'd rather be?"

You'll stay with me? Yes. You love me? Yes. And you hate Miaka? Yes.

"There's nowhere, Yui."

"You'll be with me forever, won't you, Tamahome?"

A memory stirred in Tamahome, but he only glimpsed it briefly before it settled back, reluctant to reveal itself further.

"Forever, Yui."

The way that they touched each other was chaste enough.

Tamahome tightened the girth of his horse's saddle in the courtyard and mounted smoothly. Soldiers readied themselves around him. At the head of the column rode Nakago. He wore full armour, a massive weight of metal that he bore as easily as his long, wine-coloured cape. The sun, which lit up the impassive planes of his face and dazzled in his golden hair, could be forgiven if it didn't warm his eyes. No warmth ever touched their ice-blue depths. The soldiers followed him out of a mixture fear and hero worship. Nakago was merciless. He was their deadliest weapon. He had never lost a battle.

Yui had objected to Tamahome joining the excursion. "No," she'd said. "Anything could happen. Konan soldiers might attack. Miaka might return. He might get hurt."

"Unlikely," said Nakago, glancing briefly over at Tamahome. "Even without his full powers, Tamahome is a formidable opponent. Another seishi might beat him, but not an ordinary man."

Yui folded her arms. A calculating look passed over her face. "The Emperor has asked you to help put down a disturbance in the western district," she said to Tamahome. "Do you want to go--and leave me here alone?"

"Yui," Tamahome found himself saying, his eyes fixed on Nakago, "how can I refuse such a simple request? When the Emperor has already been so generous." Distantly, he felt Nakago's approval.

Yui ignored him. "I didn't have you bring him here only to get him killed," she said to Nakago.

"Yui-sama." Nakago's voice was soft. "Tamahome wants to protect you. He wants to serve you the way he served Miaka . . . as a soldier, and a seishi." Tamahome's face remained impassive, though the implication was clear.

The view from the long window drew Yui over to it, and for a long while she gazed out at the courtyard. The inner city housed the Emperor and his household, servants, courtiers, guards, yet it was always peaceful, never a reflection of the country outside its walls. "Promise," she said, turning back to Nakago. "Promise me you'll take care of him."

Yui-sama was fifteen; Nakago was ten years older. The bond between them wavered with disturbing intensity between that of a champion and his chosen lady, and that of a father and his child.

Nakago said, "When he threatened you, I fought him. When you wanted him, I had him brought for you. If you fear for his safety--" Nakago's blond head bowed in submission, effectively hiding his face. "--then today I'll put his life before my own."

On the steps outside the palace, Nakago grasped Tamahome by the arm, his impersonal grip bruising flesh, and grinding down on bone. "This is a battle," he said. "There's no room for emotion. No room for compassion. No room for anything but obedience. Do you understand me?"

"Perfectly," said Tamahome.

During last of the fighting, a hail of arrows flew towards Nakago; he gestured minutely, and the arrows reversed their direction, slamming back full force into the throats of the men who had fired them.

"This is almost boring," said Nakago.

Boring. Tamahome agreed. He had nothing to do but settle his horse as it balked and started at the magic. The Emperor seemed to have overestimated the size of this uprising. Soi and Nakago could work from afar, and thanks to their brutal efficiency, there was no need for anything more than a skeleton force to move down into the streets. The majority of Emperor's soldiers had stayed in formation, lined behind the shogun on the grassy hill, the village rolling out submissively beneath them.

"The Emperor was right," said Nakago. "This isn't the work of villagers. I'd guess Konan Empire was inspiring our peasants to rebellion . . . but it isn't in Hotohori's character to waste the lives of innocents so casually."

"Maybe the governor of Hou province," said Soi. "He has his own ambitions."

Nakago spurred his horse a few steps to the right, coming to rest almost shoulder to shoulder with Tamahome. In plain view was the last of the day's resistance, led a mounted villager who appeared to be rallying the faltering men around him. Nakago pointed. "The leader. See him?"

"I see him," Soi agreed, readying a blast.

"No. Wait," said Nakago.

Tamahome grinned and tightened his grip on the reins. He could tell from Nakago's expression. The fight was about to scale down in size, and at the same time, to liven up.

Nakago's eyes narrowed in anticipation; the kanji on his forehead fired with blue light.

Out on the far edge of the village, the chest of the leader's horse burst open.

The man was thrown to the ground, unable to keep his balance as his horse screamed and collapsed under him, flailing like a drowning man in water. His men scattered. He was dragged up and forward through the confusion; he struggled violently, but he could do nothing to dispel Nakago's staggering ki. Pride kept him fighting. His long, dirty green hair, which hung in lank strands about his face, whipped backwards as if lashed by the wind when Nakago's power intensified.

He stumbled past the twitching ruin of his mount and every step of the long painful distance to the top of the incline from which Nakago and his forces, arrogantly intact, surveyed the village. As a final indignity, when he reached the summit, he was thrown down onto the dirt.

"Kutou cowards fight with magic," he said, hoarsely, defiantly.

"And win," said Nakago dispassionately. "Who's supporting this rebellion?" It was his customary inflectionless murmur, deep and very soft. A man who didn't know the shogun might have thought the question casual.

"We don't fight for nobles, we fight for freedom--something you wouldn't under--"

Soi said, "Freedom can't buy weapons, or hire mercenaries to defend a poor village."

Blunt silence answered her, though the green-haired man's bitter, hate-filled gaze was eloquent, in its own way.

Unperturbed, Nakago steered his mount--a bay stallion massive enough to support the full weight of his armour--closer to the unfortunate man. Large hooves dug hard into the earth. The man was sprawled out almost on hands and knees, and when those deadly hooves came near to his head he flinched, visibly.

"Don't hurt him too much," said Soi.

Nakago's brows arched in enquiry.

"Look at his face," said Soi. "He's handsome, under all that dirt. Young, too."

Nakago paused more significantly.

"What do you think, Tamahome?" he asked finally, turning and reining in the bay.

Tamahome heard himself say, "I think there's too much dirt to tell."

Nakago smiled. Terrifying.

Then, softly, almost tenderly, he leaned forward in the saddle and said to the green haired man, "Lucky boy. If he'd called you handsome, I might have grown jealous, and killed you."

What? Tamahome almost said, startled, Nakago's words a sharp tug to the slipknot of his concentration.

"As it is," Nakago continued, "I'm going to give you a last chance to help me."

Tamahome glanced sideways at Soi, who was sitting straight-backed, her face carefully unreadable.

The man was swearing. "Help you? I'll die first. Any one of us--"

Nakago turned deliberately when the man had finished, pitching his voice to one of the soldiers returned from the village. "We have this place secured. Is that correct?"

"Yes, shogun."

"Any survivors?"

"Yes, shogun."

"Kill them," said Nakago. "Kill all of them. And if you find any children with green hair--" His eyes found those of the leader; eyes that stared back at him, agonized, defeated. "--use them first, as a special honour to our silent friend."

"Yes, shogun."

It was inevitable.

"Wait--" said the man, in a thick voice.

Nakago paused.

"If I--if I tell you--"

It was Hou. Hou's weapons. Hou's rebellion. Hou didn't want a war with Konan. He wanted peace on the border and freedom from the yoke of Kutou's Emperor. The man muddled on, giving names in a chaotic but sincere enough tangle. Tamahome, who didn't know Hou or his allies, got bored and stopped listening.

"Enough," said Nakago, after only a few minutes. He backed his horse away a little. "You were right," he said to Soi. "It was predictable." He glanced at the soldier who had halted on the way to his terrible mission.

"Why are you still here?" said Nakago. "You have your orders."

"I--Yes, shogun."

The thing on the ground before them raised its head. "Wait--wait--you can't! You can't! They're innocent--they've done nothing! Wait--Wait!"

Choked and disjointed, the objections became pleas, and finally sobs and begging. Nakago's lips curled downwards slightly, a barely perceptible change of expression. Possibly it was irritation.

"Kill him," suggested Soi.

"No," said Nakago. "It's more amusing to make him watch while Hou's initiative snuffs out his village."

Tamahome was left to wade through the messy aftermath of the failed rebellion, ensuring that Nakago's order was obeyed to the letter. Under the weight of Nakago's watchful gaze, he was brutal. He killed swiftly and efficiently, and he smiled when he thought he sensed Nakago's approval. Later, as the sky was turning red, he encountered one of the last of the survivors: an old farmer who ran at him from behind a lean-to. In a single, fluid motion, he sidestepped the thrust of the farmer's rudimentary spear, took a hold of the man with one hand and slit his throat with a knife.

Blood hit Tamahome's face and tunic. The old man's thick fingers clutched helplessly in the material of Tamahome's black robes; Tamahome kicked him off, wiped at his face with a sleeve.

He didn't know why his hands started trembling after that, or why his breath started coming in strange gasps. His left hand dropped to a ribbon that was threaded through his belt. A wave of dizziness passed over him. He looked down at the body of the old man, and for a moment, the village faded away and all he could see was a girl, young and friendly, her expression concerned as he touched her hair.

"Over here!" called a voice, and Tamahome head snapped up, the spell broken. He shook off the dizziness and followed the sound. He felt the wavering impression that Nakago was still watching him.

A soldier stepped off the body of a woman and then stuck his sword into her belly. He had a wide grin on his face. "Over here!" he called again. It was not a cry for help. He was calling because the woman's daughter, a girl with a pretty, freckled face, was being dragged out of her hut by two of the other men. Tamahome took in the sweep of the clearing. Visible but out of earshot, Nakago sat astride his mount, addressing several members of the garrison. Around him, the village flickered and died. Much closer to Tamahome the body of the old farmer he had killed was lying glassy-eyed beside his makeshift weapon.

Tamahome saw Nakago glance over at him, and for a moment, their eyes met. Then Nakago looked past him, deliberately. Following the shogun's gaze, Tamahome noticed a young boy of perhaps eight years, unheeded by the others, kneeling in the dirt of the clearing near the dead body of the old man.

Instinctively, Tamahome's his hand dropped to his knife. The boy was too young to threaten even the greenest of the soldiers, but Nakago's order had been clear: Kill all of them. As the boy reached out to touch the old man's cheek with a shaking hand, Tamahome aimed at his slender, unprotected throat.

The boy looked up. He had wide eyes and a sweet, open face.

Tamahome threw the knife.

Nakago's horse reared, and in that instant of wild horse and speeding blade, Nakago vanished from the saddle and reappeared in the path of the knife, snatching it from the air as easily as a child might pluck flowers from the ground.

Tamahome and the boy were both frozen, dumbstruck.

Nakago dropped to one knee before the boy and pulled off his helm. His golden hair tumbled about his shoulders. His blue eyes were earnest with concern.

"Are you hurt?" said Nakago, softly.

"Who--who are y-you?" the boy stuttered, staring at Nakago.

"A friend," said Nakago. "It's all right. You're safe. You're safe now." And the young boy threw himself around Nakago's neck, headless of the spiked armour, Nakago's simple words all that was required to release the floodgates of his grief.

Nakago gathered him up and stood, lifting him effortlessly, speaking quiet words to the boy that Tamahome couldn't hear.

His eyes met Tamahome's, and his gaze was cold, and yet he held the little boy in his arms, and the boy clung to him tightly.

"Compassion?" Tamahome asked him, incredulously.

"We need a survivor, someone to bring back to the Emperor as a proof that Hou's uprising failed."

Tamahome heard himself asking, "Why not use the leader of the villagers, the man that Soi wanted taken alive?"

Nakago said, "Yes, he was handsome. But he's unsuitable. He has his first beard coming. He's too old to interest the Emperor."

They rode through the gates of the palace triumphantly, the hooves of the horses clattering across stone. Soi rode at Nakago's right, Tamahome a little behind them.

Yui had no seishi other than Nakago and Soi to serve her--or if she had, Tamahome had never seen them. Two seishi. A thought nagged at him. Was it strange for a Miko to have only two seishi? Tamahome hand once again dropped to the ribbon on his belt, and he remembered a ghostly impression of others around him, around that girl, that girl, and he--

Tamahome shook his head. The memory skittered away.

He followed Nakago into the palace, dismounting and walking abreast with Soi. His gaze was fixed to the bottom of Nakago's purple cape as it swept across the stone floor. Nakago had removed his helm, and held it under one arm; he wore the massive armour, shoulder and chest plates, as though it weighed nothing.

As they reached a fork in the winding corridor, Nakago turned to Soi, and Tamahome stopped behind him, his mind blank, waiting for a directive. Ignoring Tamahome, Nakago cupped Soi's face for a moment, his thumb smoothing over her cheek. Something seemed to pass between them, but all Nakago said was, "Take Suzaku's little whelp back to Yui-sama, she'll be anxious for him."

Tamahome's eyes followed Nakago as he disappeared down the corridor, even when Soi took a painful hold of his upper arm and began steering him in the opposite direction.

"Let go of my arm," he said to her, calmly.

She slapped him hard across the face, snapping his head to one side. "You're forgetting your place," she said, sharply.

Tamahome licked his lip and looked her up and down, slowly. Then he shrugged. "A woman like you--you're bound to be jealous of my position," he said, intending to walk past and dismiss her.

Soi's reply stopped him in his tracks. "Your position?" she said. "You play dog to his master. Don't let his words today carry you away. If he wanted you, you'd be in his bed. But you're not." Tamahome was staring at her. "All you are is a toy for a little girl to play with. I have no reason to be jealous, Tamahome."

He felt dizzy. He hadn't meant jealous of--of--

He had meant jealous of his privileged relationship with Yui-sama.

"Why would he--" Tamahome began, but the whiteness was threatening again.

"Pretty ribbon," Soi said, watching him.

"Ribbon . . .?"

Tamahome faltered, following her gaze. The little strip of red ribbon, tucked into his belt. His hand closed on it involuntarily.

"It's the one from Miaka's hair," Soi continued, "isn't it. Normally, I'd say it was something that only a woman would notice . . . but Nakago notices everything."

"What do you mean?"

Soi said, "Let me tell you why you accompanied us today. It wasn't the Emperor's request--I doubt the Emperor even knows you're here. Nakago asked for you. He wanted proof that you could kill an innocent. Now that he has it, he's going to send you to Konan--to kill Miaka."

Blank. White.

Tamahome's mind formed the reply; he stared back at Soi calmly. "You say that as though I were the only one to put loyalty to Nakago above loyalty to his Miko."

"How dare you," she said, her eyes flashing, but her face was white.

"You're no different from me," said Tamahome. "You'd kill if he asked you to. You'd kill anyone, even your Miko, and so would I, and if he orders it, I won't hesitate to kill Miaka."

"Tamahome!" cried Yui when he reached her chambers, and she threw her arms around his neck, and smiled.

Cicadas hummed in the warm night outside Yui's room. Tamahome began telling Yui about the battle, but she quickly grew bored. He stopped speaking after a while, and they just held one another, and then Yui said, "Where is he?"

Tamahome did not have to ask who she meant. "Yui . . . a traitor named Hou was behind the disturbance in the western district. Nakago is probably dealing with him now."

"He's taking too long."

Yui was picking at the sheet, nervously. Tamahome noticed that her nails were ragged, bitten.

"Will you--will you bring him for me, Tamahome?"

Tamahome nodded, and rose from where he'd been sitting on the bed. Yui had drawn her bare knees to her chest, and was hugging them with one arm.

When Tamahome reached Nakago's rooms, the guard came sharply to attention.

"Where's the shogun?"

But the guard's eyes fixed on an unlaced tie on Tamahome's tunic, and his face took on an insultingly knowing look. "What's your business?"

Tamahome became angry, a calm, dead emotion. He thought about killing the guard. No: Nakago would not approve of him exercising that much unsupervised authority. "I have a message from the Miko."

"Governor Hou's quarters," said the guard, a smile nevertheless twisting his lips.

"I thought by now Hou would have been arrested," said Tamahome, frowning.

"House arrest." The guard shrugged.

Tamahome entered Hou's rooms some minutes later, to see Nakago standing in front of a man in whose dark hair a few strands of white could be seen. It was Hou, restrained by a chain that was looped to the wall. It was obvious from his bearing that Hou had once been a commander of men. There was ageing nobility in his brow, authority in his black eyes.

Nakago's hand rested on Hou's shoulder, almost tenderly.

"Yui-sama is anxious, is she?" murmured Nakago without even a glance, his attention on Hou. Tamahome flushed a little when he saw that Nakago's thumb was stroking the material of Hou's torn shirt.

"She's waiting for you in her rooms." Tamahome nodded. "This is Governor Hou?"

"No," Nakago said calmly. "He has been stripped of that title. This is a traitor of no importance who is going to be killed for his treason at dawn tomorrow."

"Because he planned the uprising in the village," said Tamahome.

"No," said Nakago softly, watching Hou. "I planned the uprising in the village."

Tamahome blinked.

Hou spat on the floor near Nakago's feet. "You filthy upstart, you're going to die on the swords of those loyal to the Emperor!"

"Governor," said Nakago leaning in, his low voice like a soft caress, "you're one of the last men left who was loyal to the Emperor."

Nakago's hand slid from Hou's shoulder. He turned away from the governor, his cape flaring out across the floor. His blue eyes were cold as he smiled.

"That's why I'm having you killed tomorrow."

Two nights later Tamahome pushed himself up on his elbow in Yui's bed and looked down at her sleeping face, covered in shifting shadows. He was careful not to disturb her. He rose quietly, still dressed in dark breeches, and padded out into the hall where Nakago was waiting for him.

"Good," said Nakago. "Come with me."

At night, the stone corridors of the palace were lit with torch flames, shadows flickering and lengthening at the edges of the light. Nakago was dressed in armour, even at this hour, but the warm light dazzled in his lashes, and turned his hair to soft gold.

"You have brought one of Suzaku's Seishi into the palace?" said the Emperor, and Tamahome felt the man's unforgiving gaze pass over him. Nakago had led him to one of the smaller audience chambers. The Emperor sat on a carved throne of dark wood, surrounded by a retinue whose size was startling, considering the hour. At the bottom of the stairs leading to the throne, Nakago knelt submissively, on one knee. Tamahome knelt to his left, a pace or two further back from the Emperor.

"He's quite tame," murmured Nakago. "The earring replaces his will with my own."

"And he will do anything that you order him to?"

"Yes, Emperor."

"Have him demonstrate for me."

"Tamahome," said Nakago calmly, "take up your knife and stab yourself in the throat."

Tamahome felt the handle of the knife in his hand before he even registered what he was doing. Somewhere, as if from a great distance, he heard the Emperor's voice say, "Stop, that will do, that's enough," but he didn't stop the motion until Nakago said, "All right. Stop."

The blade tip had pierced his throat. A trickle of blood welled from the shallow nick.

"Incredible," said the Emperor.

Tamahome saw the corner of Nakago's mouth turn up.

"Your adventure in the western district also delivered us quite a prize," said the Emperor, in a satisfied tone. For a moment, Tamahome did not understand him. But the Emperor was waving as if for someone to come forward, and Tamahome saw the young boy from the village approach from behind the throne. He was dressed in fine silks now, and cleaned of dirt, and he was startlingly pretty.

A sudden tension filled the air. Daring a longer look at the Emperor's retinue, Tamahome felt from them a strange sense of expectancy.

"It pleased me to root out the treachery of governor Hou," said Nakago, noncommittally.

In the darkness behind the Emperor's throne, there were a few thin smiles.

"Come," said Nakago briefly, when their audience was finished, and Tamahome fell into place behind him again. He knew that he had only glimpsed a few of the pieces that Nakago had in play. Hou, Soi, the Emperor . . . the Miko.

He didn't know what Nakago wanted from him.

He was becoming aware that they were not returning to Yui's rooms. They were heading towards the shogun's section of the palace.

No guards at this time of night. Nakago could protect himself.

They were alone.

Tamahome's chest had tightened. When he stepped into Nakago's rooms, his gaze swung to the bed. He remembered Soi's words. He watched Nakago pour himself a glass of wine from a bottle on one of the elegant benches. Nakago drank half of it before he put it down. His eyes met Tamahome's. The moment lengthened.

"Tamahome, attend me."

With a pounding heart, Tamahome unfastened the clasps of Nakago's cape and drew it from his shoulders. His fingers found the armour buckles, and one by one he undid them. His mind was dizzy with the thought of what he might have to do next, or maybe it was just proximity to Nakago that was making his breath shallow. He lay his palm against the flat of Nakago's back, and felt the damp warmth of a shirt that had been trapped under armour, and beneath that power and muscle. Nakago turned, and Tamahome looked up at him, startled, and began to move back, but Nakago grasped his wrist and pulled him close with a hard tug before he could get out of range.

"Your servility irritates me," said Nakago. "It's weak. Pathetic."

Up close, Nakago's ki was an exhilarating mix of steel and power. Tamahome's heart grew painful in his chest when Nakago touched his cheek, pushing fingers into his hair and lifting it from his left ear.

In a low, rough voice Nakago murmured, "You should be trying to kill me. If it weren't for this earring, you would be."

Tamahome's eyes closed, his body singing with anticipation. Nakago's caress was overwhelming him. He turned his face into the touch, turned it enough that he felt Nakago's palm against his cheek, and then against his lips.

His eyes opened. Nakago's blue eyes were dark with pupil. Battered by the wild force of the shogun's ki, Tamahome leaned up and in, slid his arms around Nakago's neck and kissed him.

For a single, dizzying instant Tamahome tasted flesh before he was jerked back savagely by the hair. "What you think you're doing?" Nakago said, low, dangerous words, his lips an inch from Tamahome's.

"I--serve your will," said Tamahome, breathlessly.


"I serve--"

Tears welled in Tamahome's eyes. Nakago had taken hold of his throat.

"Get out," said Nakago.

Tamahome couldn't obey until Nakago released him, then he stumbled back a few steps, touching his bruised throat, not understanding.


He went.

Guards were scattered throughout the garden, but Tamahome slipped past them as easily as if they had not been there. Not even a seishi, however, could draw too close to the Emperor without getting caught; he must stop somewhere. Looking around, he saw a tree with heavy branches growing beside a covered pavilion not far from the Emperor's retinue. The pavilion itself was unwalled, supported by standing columns. He made for that vantage. Nakago knelt before the Emperor, who was seated on a raised dais. The leaves of the great tree shifted, now and then obscuring Tamahome's view as he concealed himself behind a large pillar.

"You continue to protect my interests, Nakago." The Emperor's rumbling voice; Tamahome was shocked at the casual address. Through the screen of leaves, he saw the Emperor's hand drop to rest in Nakago's hair. "You have helped to shape this Empire."

"I live to serve," murmured Nakago, and Tamahome was reminded of the feel of Yui's hands in his own hair; strands of fine gold were petted approvingly by the Emperor's thick fingers.

"Do you ever long for the past, Nakago? I do. I miss the boy you were," the Emperor continued, in a dreamy, nostalgic voice. "I miss having him serve me."

Nakago's head was bowed and his bright, golden hair obscured his face. He murmured something that Tamahome could not hear.

"Your cheeks are still smooth," said the Emperor in a throaty voice, cupping Nakago's face and tilting it up. A gust of wind lifted the leaves of the tree, and they swayed back and forth.

Tamahome tore his wide eyes away from the scene, flattening his back to the stone pillar. He pressed the back of his hand to his open mouth, his chest heaving as though he'd been sick. His mind whirled, repelled. As though from a great distance, he heard the Emperor say, "I am retiring for the night," and despite the thunder of abhorrence in his thoughts, he forced himself to look back.

The Emperor was retreating alone--no, not alone, the light haired village boy accompanied him--and then his procession followed, and the guards who stood alert, in protective formation around the garden, until the only person in the pavilion was Nakago, kneeling, his expression unreadable, his eyes following the Emperor until long after he was gone.

Night had fallen; the leaves of the great tree were rustling in darkness.

"It suits me to maintain a level of incompetence in the Emperor's personal guard, otherwise I'd have had their throats slit for not killing you the moment you blundered into the garden," said Nakago, in a casual speaking voice, "Tamahome."

Tamahome stepped out from behind the pillar to find that Nakago had stood and was watching him. The laces of Nakago's shirt were untied. There was no other sign.

"How could you--" Revulsion in the words that tore out of his throat.

"How could I?" Nakago was slowly approaching him. He looked different, intimidating in a new way, more like a dangerous young man than an all-powerful shogun. His eyes, usually cold, were now filled with a strange, wild light. "What is it you think you saw?"

"I saw you--submit to--"

The words were smashed from his mouth by Nakago's fist. Tamahome swung his gaze, shocked and angry, back to Nakago's face, only to feel the impact of a second blow, which dropped him to the floor.

Nakago dragged him up from his hands and knees a moment later, so that he was kneeling, not able to move much, Nakago's hand a fist in his hair.

"Tomorrow," said Nakago, "you will cross the border into Konan, and make your way into the Imperial City. When you reach the palace, you will kill Suzaku's Miko. Do you hear me?"

"Yes," gasped Tamahome.

Nakago drew a fingertip through the blood that welled from Tamahome's split lip.

"You're not worthy of me," said Nakago. "I thought you were an opponent. But in the end, you were just . . . "

"I won't fail you," said Tamahome, eyes closed.

When he opened them again, Nakago had released him, and was staring down at him with a curling smile of disgust.

"Good boy."

There was nothing to mark the border of Konan and Kutou, but some time during the evening the land about Tamahome began to change. It grew familiar; he'd lived in Konan for the whole of his life, and though the details of events and people escaped him, the landscape he could remember.

He was on foot, and alone.

I won't fail you.

He could remember exactly how many guards were positioned around the inner most buildings of Konan's Imperial City, and he knew how many he would have to kill to reach the Miko.

You should be trying to . . .

Night fell. He didn't light a fire, he just threw a blanket from his small pack down onto the ground. He had been given a purpose, and he had been given an order but something had changed; he was now not sure that they were one and the same.

You should be trying to kill me.

His eyes opened at dawn, and before long he saw on the horizon the first of the buildings marking the outskirts of Konan city.


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