[Author's Note: I wasn't really expecting to write this one...it came right at me out of hammerspace. I'd originally planned to do a different Fushigi Yuugi story first, but it seems that Nuriko wouldn't let me. (And if I ever do the story that I'd intended to, you'll see why.)
The story is set during episode 8, just after Miaka goes back into the book and before she and Nuriko go off to look for Tamahome. It contains spoilers for Nuriko's Secret<tm> and possibly mild spoilers for episode 33 and Nuriko's back story--I may have been subtle enough that nothing important was given away, but best not to take any chances.
Please see my disclaimers and copyrights page for the appropriate legal information.
And now, please enjoy the story!]
By Natalie Baan
Wind blows, and the willow moves whichever way.
--Haiku by Shinigawa Tetsuzan
In the garden of the Imperial Palace of Eiyou, in Konan country, a woman was sitting on an outcropping of stone. Cool beneath her hands, the rock slanted down from her robe's hem and the tips of her embroidered slippers to the wind-riffled surface of the koi pond; sword-leaved irises lined its flanks, bowing and swaying, their recurved petals the same luminous violet as her hair. The breeze that dipped the flowers and made the water ripple into a stitchery of light caught at the loose hair escaping her coiffure and lifted it away from her face--she closed her eyes. Raising one hand, she loosened the neck of her robe, and the wind took hold of that as well, billowing the gossamer fabric against her skin.
Carefully cloaked, her shawl drawn about her head and framing her face with its folds, the woman gazed down into the courtyard. "Kourin-sama, let's go back," her maid was pleading. "If somebody finds you here, you'll be scolded...."
"That's the Suzaku no Miko that everyone's been talking about," the woman commented.
"Although she's not a princess, she's close to the emperor." Ignoring her servant's fear, the woman lingered by the railing, trying to calculate the effect of these newcomers on the court and on her own plans...a cold, clinging sensation wrapped the inside of her chest, an old constriction, and she moved her thumb restlessly against the gilt edge of her cloak. "How about the man beside her?"
"He's the man who protects Miko-sama," the maid murmured, "one of the seven Seishi, Tamahome-sama."
The woman stared hard at the energetic girl and the two men attending to her closely, and as she did she could feel the measure of her days begin to shift. It was as though an immense wagon wheel had started to roll downhill--slowly at first, but with the promise of unstoppable force as it gathered speed. She pressed uneasy fingers to that place above her heart, hidden by her clothing, where one of her secrets burned against her like fire. For an instant she was back /there/ again, remembering that moment of helplessness when her whole world had changed.
The woman opened her eyes, feeling the sun's warmth leave her face. Clouds chased each other across the sky, light fading and returning with their passing. The wind stirred the trees at the far side of the pond, the susurration of branches and leaves carrying clearly across the water.
A minute passed, and then the woman smiled slowly, almost sadly. Drawing the carved sticks out of her hair, she shook its weight free, the intricate knot unwinding down the length of her back in a fall of loose strands and one slim braid.
Safe and alone in her room after the others had left, she opened her fingers, gazing at the single earring cupped in her palm. The lamplight winked icily inside its small crystal heart. Although the room was spacious and well-lit, it suddenly seemed close and shadowy, its walls confining.
<Up until now I've never been allowed to leave the court, so I've never been to the pond....>
Her eyes narrowed and she caught at her lip with her teeth, torn between what she'd chosen and her first realization of its price.
After a moment she lowered her head, swallowing the soft sound of bitter amusement.
She lifted her gaze once more and stared challengingly into her mirror. The lamplight caught in her eyes, a bright, fierce gleam.
Removing her earrings, the woman set them down into a hollow of the stone. They rolled together, stopping against each other with a gentle click. Loosening her sash, she drew up one knee and leaned back on her arm. The robe fell further open at her slender throat, revealing a red tracery just below her collarbone, as vivid as a lick of flame against her skin. Thoughtfully she watched the pond shift between gray and gold as the clouds passed overhead, then tilted her head back as well and arched her whole body, letting the wind have its way with the folds and edges of her clothes.
After so long, its touch against her skin was almost foreign to her. She shivered slightly and closed her eyes, weighing the sensation.
The feeling of unease....
"I'll take care of her wound," the woman declared, bending low over the Miko. Swiftly she folded that strange, tightly woven fabric away from the girl's breast, and seeing the extent of the injury only confirmed her fears. "This looks bad...how could she get it so deep?" The other two Seishi hovered behind her helplessly, uneasy with leaving the Miko to her care, but she paid them no mind. She set it all aside, in fact--all the shame of being unmasked, the ache of loss--with only a dim surprise that she was able to. There was no time to mourn the passing of what had been, after all, nothing more than a carefully constructed dream. She tore at her sleeve with her teeth, then moved to staunch the blood, her attention caught up fully in the effort to save her Miko's life. Wishes and might-have-beens disappeared from her mind.
There was only necessity.
And had that been the moment, she wondered, opening her eyes again...yes, it must have been. Or maybe it had been earlier, when the false Miko had so carelessly destroyed all that she'd been living for with just a few short words. With the lie irrevocably ended, though, all the arguments that she'd been wrestling with had turned as transparent as glass. She had been forced to face the reality of who she was, of what she was, of all the things that she'd wanted to hold onto and control by the force of her own fierce will.
What a freedom it had been in the end, to be stripped of all that!
The realization made her laugh, although it gave her a twinge of dread as well. What a frightening and intoxicating freedom, for one who had almost forgotten what freedom could be like...who had traded it away to keep her memories inviolate, safe from the cruelties of the world. She had sealed herself inside silk robes, she was discovering day by day--she had hidden behind the court's rules and the walls of the women's chambers until she'd nearly strangled the person that she was. Now that the Miko had returned, though, she had to ask herself some hard questions. Could she go back into that small, closely circumscribed life, to the constraint and the fruitless longing after that one person who was so perfectly and desirably out of reach? And did she want to?
What did it mean, in the end, to be alive?
The breeze flared her robes taut against her limbs, running its ethereal fire across her skin. She smiled again, her expression wistful and tentative, still a bit fearful, but yearning.
Perhaps nothing more than this....
To travel where the wind carried, to follow where this life might lead, continuing on from moment to moment...to give up the struggle to hold time still and allow herself finally to change.
Because she was the pulse of this heart, one beat following another--she was the strength of these two hands and what that strength could accomplish--she was a human person gradually, ceaselessly being transformed by every experience that she passed through, or else she was nothing at all.
Nothing but an empty, hollow lie.
Sitting up once more, she stared at those trees across the water, the long, lithe sway of their branches...she stood, arms crossed over the flat, muscular chest that no amount of determination would make into a real woman's curves. That was the truth inside the facade, one that couldn't be denied, and yet....
Was she ready to admit to it, and then to go on?
He turned his head slowly, just the smallest of movements, as if fine threads held him in place, preventing anything more...he turned to see the shadow of disaster looming close, unexpectedly swift and inexorable.
The suddenness, the animal charging, heedless and lethal in its terrible strength....
He moved then, but not fast enough, not anywhere close to fast enough, reaching out for the one bright hope that he might just be able to--
The horrible pain in his heart and then--
"Kourin...sister...I don't know if I'm ready yet." The figure on the rock shifted, then drew itself further upright.
"But I think that I might be. Someday."
Beautiful eyes smiled up into the sun.
And the Court Warrior of Suzaku's Seishi spread both arms wide in a torrent of liquid robes, in a swirl of loose hair...surrendered into the approaching future, into whatever was going to be.
The breath and the reeds that shaped it....
The chi and the seishi that embodied it....
The wind and the willow that danced to its motion were the same thing.
In the garden of the Imperial Palace of Eiyou, in Konan country, a stone stood alone among the irises.
In a hollow of the rock, two earrings gleamed as clouds came and went across the sky.
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