Chapter 21:  The easy way

The young blue-haired man Heero had pegged as the leader of the bandits didn't make a very strong impression on Duo.  It was the way he ogled him, looking
up and down three times as if the idea that Duo might be an attractive rape target was hard to believe.  Duo had a strong urge to punch him in the face.  So
he wasn't a girl.  So he didn't hold a candle to Nuriko's purple-blue hair.  So what?  He was young and nubile and vulnerable-looking, damn it.  Who wouldn't
want to rape him?  The answer was Kouji, a young dark-blue haired bandit who sputtered and gaped the second his boss told him who he'd chosen for the
night.

Duo didn't say a word.  The flabby arm wrapped around his shoulders and pressing sweaty against his neck helped him keep quiet.  He'd have to breathe to
speak and he didn't really want to smell the guy.  

Kouji shook his head for the fifth time and waved a hand down the hall.  "Are you sure you don't-"

"Yeah," the mottled buddha glowered, "ask me again, why doncha."

Kouji shut his mouth with a quiet click.  

His boss snorted at him and slobbered close to Duo's ear.  "Caught him in my stuff and I'm gonna make him pay for it, aren't I?"

Duo grimaced and fought the urge to neuter the man with the back of one of his heavy boots.  Heero wasn't the only one who could kill with his feet.  

The blue-haired teenager finally seemed to register the fact that his heterosexual boss really wasn't interested in either of the women in the other room.  He
made a quick apology, sent one more doubtful, dumbfounded look at Duo, and finally turned back the way he'd come.  His boss snickered damply the second
he was out of sight.

"He won't be back tonight," the man said smugly.  "Just you and me now."

Duo shuddered and squirmed suddenly.  One of those overlarge lips had brushed his ear and snapped the last bit of his control.  

"Okay, okay," Duo whimpered, "he's gone.  Worked great - now let me go before I puke all over myself."

The hand released him immediately.  Duo promptly gagged and flailed a little, scrubbing at every inch that nasty skin had touched him.  When he looked up
there was a cat-like smile on that flabby, overweight head.  It was just as disturbing now as it had been the first time he'd seen it.

"I don't care if it's not real," Duo growled, "it's still gross.  Did you have to slobber on me?  I need a bath..."

"Ah, I was just playing the part," Chichiri said playfully.  

The monk's voice still sounded so wrong coming out of that puffy mouth.  Duo grimaced again.  "Yeah, I know.  I'm still gonna have nightmares.  Egh."

He scrubbed the end of his coat against his neck until the skin turned red and sensitive.  Then he took a deep breath and forced himself the stop squirming.  It
had been a good plan.  It worked.  And Chichiri wasn't going to be touching him again with those meaty palms.  No way in hell.

"Okay, all better," Duo sighed.  "Any sign of him?"

Chichiri's idea had been a very simple one.  Duo had gaped when he first heard it.  Then he'd been tempted to hurt him for not mentioning the fact that he
could sense the seishi sooner.  

According to the monk, all seishi gave off a sign - a stronger lifeforce than normal people, Chichiri said, almost a different color - and he could feel it from a
mile away.  Anyone could feel it if he were taught to and Chichiri had been taught a lot during his time with Taiitsu-kun.  Chichiri hadn't mentioned it because,
A, no one had asked, and B, the note had said they needed to be taken captive.  Chichiri didn't know why the captive part was necessary, but he did believe
that note was legitimate enough to go along with.  His plan was to get inside, pretend they were all captive since that seemed so important to whoever had
written the note, and then wait for the wing seishi to show himself.  

According to Chichiri, the seishi had been lurking around the stronghold since they first arrived, about the time he'd decided it might be better if they didn't all
get captured.  Now that the captured part was fulfilled, all they had to do was wait and see what the wing guy was after.  Then they'd take the bait away from
him and use it as a bargaining tool.  

If that didn't work, Duo could go with his own plan - brain the guy and force him to come along until they did the bird-summoning.  He wasn't Miaka, after all.  If
he didn't attract the guy enough for him to follow willingly, with that supposed 'allure' the miko had to draw seishi in, then he had no problem forcing him into it.

They'd confronted the flabby boss by having Duo enter the window and surprise him.  Then Chichiri had done something to that big hat of his and tossed it on
the man's head.  He'd disappeared into it.  Duo hadn't been expecting that, but Chichiri swore the guy was okay, just...absent for the moment.  He'd bring him
back out later.  Duo had just stared at the smiling cat-eyed monk, thinking it was a very good thing Chichiri was on their side.

Kouji was something they hadn't planned on.  The bandit had shown up right after Chichiri did his 'disappearing crime boss' trick.  Chichiri had come up with
the disguise plan all on his lonesome.  He'd made a quick gesture like he was doing a one-handed prayer, puffed a cloud of smoke around him, and turned
into the fat boss.  Duo was so shocked he didn't even have to pretend to be alarmed when the disgusting fake grabbed him and drug him into the hall to greet
whoever was knocking.  Chichiri hadn't just copied the man's looks, he'd copied his voice and smell and that icky feel of being touched by slugs.

And that stubborn, insulting Kouji had stood there gaping so long Duo knew he'd never scrub clean enough to get that slimy feeling off his neck.

Duo grimaced again and would have started rubbing his neck again if Chichiri, still in disgusting bandit-boss form, hadn't tapped him on the shoulder.  He
looked around with a scowl.  The cat-eyed expression was still there, like a Chichiri mask on the boss' face, as the man jerked his head toward the boss' door.

A high yowling cry sounded in the room, followed by a thump and several loud grumbled curses.  Duo shoved the door open in time to be met by a little white
cat scurrying backwards and dragging a long silver fan in its mouth.  He gave one look - the cat went straight to Chichiri, recognizing him despite the accuracy
of his disguise - and then turned to smirk at the startled man in the room.  The guy must have come in the same window they had.  Just like Chichiri had
predicted he would.

"Good call," Duo said over his shoulder.  "Now for the bargaining-slash-kidnaping part."

"-the hell?" the seishi blurted, from where he'd fallen on that pillowy throne in his chase of the cat and fan.  He straightened up when he saw the large man
enter the room behind Duo.  All thoughts of intelligent little thieving cats went right out of his head, replaced by disgust and fury.

The note had called him fiery, Duo recalled.  He could see it now.  The guy looked a little older than him, maybe eighteen at most.  He had fluffy orangish red
hair and smoldering orange eyes.  He was dressed in a long dark blue coat that closed like a robe, leaving glimpses of pale pants tucked into high boots.  He
was quick, too.  Duo barely took one step and the guy had already drawn a sheaf of little papers from his coat and was backing toward the window.  Duo
waved a hand at him.

"Don't even think about it," Duo called.  "I'm Suzaku no Miko, you're one of my seishi, so you're coming with me.  Running away is not an option."

"...the hell?" the seishi blurted again, his face twisted in surprise and disbelief.

Duo nodded firmly and held a hand behind him.  "Give me that thing he's after."  The fan was placed in his hand, heavy and thick and useless, as far as Duo
could tell. He waved it in front of him and smirked when the orange-haired teenager's eyes latched onto it.  "You want this, right?  I'll give it to you if you're
good."

The guy stared at him, flicking a dumbstruck look from Duo to Chichiri, and another quiet mutter of 'the hell?' filled the room.  Then a heavy thud sounded from
somewhere down the hall and Duo tossed a quick look over his shoulder.  It hadn't sounded like a beam cannon, but he was sure it was Heero-related.

"Why don't you go fetch the guys," Duo said to Chichiri.  "I have this."

"You sure?" Chichiri asked.  The sound of his voice coming from that body drew yet another 'the hell' from the fiery seishi, a little higher pitched this time.

"Sure," said Duo.  "If he gets away you can track him down pretty quick, right?  No problems.  The note only said we had to get captured once.  If he runs, we'll
just do things the easy way."

"I'll be right back, then," Chichiri said brightly.

Duo let him go and waved that heavy fan again.  Orange eyes followed it.  Duo grinned.  It was like holding meat over a confused puppy.  Cute!

.-.

In the end it wasn't Heero who lost his patience first, but Nuriko.  One of the bandits was a little more inebriated than his friends.  He'd been coming on to
Hotohori from the moment they arrived.  Finally he got too close and pressed a sloppy, love-sick kiss on the emperor's face.  Hotohori stiffened and snapped
his head to the side quickly enough for it to land on his cheek.  That was still Nuriko's breaking point.  

Heero had been watching them closely.  He'd seen the pawing turn into groping, and then into a clumsy hug.  Then Nuriko had stiffened.  Then the kiss.  A
moment later the drunken man was lying with his head and shoulders buried in crater in the wall.  Nuriko stood with his fist raised after that single furious blow,
Hotohori rubbing his damp face, and the drunken happiness came to a standstill around them.  Heero immediately twisted his hands free and ripped the ropes
off his ankles.  The men were in shock for the moment, but that wouldn't last.  Heero was shocked as well that such ridiculous strength could come from such a
feminine little arm, but he pushed it off as quickly as it came.  Nuriko had said strength was his seishi specialty.

Hotohori dropped the damp handkerchief he'd wiped his cheek with, and sent a faintly disapproving look at Nuriko for that overreaction.  He needn't have sent
the man's head all the way through the wall.  A simple reprimand for being too exuberant toward his natural object of affection would have sufficed.  He sighed,
held his tongue, and turned to accept his sword from Heero.  If he was surprised to see Heero free and armed, he gave no sign of it.

"All of you stay where you are," Heero said to the drunken men, waving his cannon over the lot of them.   

He might as well have saved his breath.  The ones sober enough to understand what was happening were still staring in shock, either at the back-half of the
man in the wall, or at Nuriko's prettily angry face.  One man gave a drunken cry of wonder at how sexy a strong woman was.  This earned him a dark look from
Hotohori, though Nuriko didn't seem to mind the comment.  Heero frowned and wondered if the men would notice if they just turned and walked out the door.

That was when a disgustingly large man entered the room.  Heero rounded on him, and the shocked men at the table woke up enough to look chagrined over
the fact that all three prisoners were untied, two of them armed, one of them strong enough not to need arms.  Heero took that to mean the fat man was
another of their leaders.  He took two steps toward him.

"Oh," the fat man blinked, with piggy little eyes.  "You're already loose."  He caught sight of the man in the wall and winced, "That must have hurt.  Well, Duo's
with the seishi now.  Follow me."

Heero blinked and stared in surprise.  He knew that voice.

"Was that Chichiri's cat on his shoulder?" asked Nuriko.

"Yes," said Hotohori.

Heero shot a glance back at the drunken men, all of whom looked as confused as them.  Then he shook it off and followed the stranger with the familiar voice.  
Weirder things had happened in the game, Heero decided.  It was easier if he just went with the flow.  Hotohori and Nuriko were a few steps behind him.

.-.

Their escape was as anticlimactic as their capture had been.  Duo didn't actually get to see most of it since he stuck close to their captive.  

Chichiri and Hotohori had rescued their gear and horses somehow, catching two extras while they were at it.  Duo wondered who had decided on that and
figured it must have been Chichiri; Hotohori just didn't seem the sort who could stoop low enough to steal without breaking his rigid back.  Nuriko had hogtied
the feisty wing bandit-seishi, gagging him when it became clear he had more than a two-word vocabulary, all of them curses.  Duo thought it was chemistry at
first sight and hoped Nuriko noticed how annoyed Hotohori was at the attention being paid to the squirming bandit.  Heero had taken point to watch for
resistance that never came, and they left the mountain as quickly as they could.  

When later asked why no one tried to stop them, the gagged seishi garbled something unintelligible until he was ungagged and then told them to fuck
themselves.  They didn't talk to him again until after he'd had a good day's travel like a roll of rugs over the back of a horse to think things over.

Some thirty hours and a little alcohol later found him a rather likable fellow, once they got past the whole 'give me that fan so I can light you on fire with it'
stage.  His name was Tasuki.  He didn't want to be a seishi.  He understood that what he wanted didn't matter, but he wasn't happy about it.  He wasn't stupid,
despite his potty mouth, and he showed surprisingly healthy fear when he learned that Hotohori was The Emperor, as Duo liked to call him.  He seemed to get
along quite well with Nuriko, who asked for a demonstration of the 'fire-starting fan', nearly got his pretty hair burned off, and promptly retaliated with an
uppercut that left them both griping at each other for an hour of friendly threats and taunts.  He was wary of Chichiri, who could make even really big people
disappear, and could 'become' anyone he wanted, and whose only explanation for being able to do those things was a catty smile and a chirp of 'it's magic, no
da!'

Duo didn't know what Tasuki thought of him and Heero.  He was entertaining, brash and blunt and quick to crack jokes.  But he looked at him funny
sometimes, similar to how Hotohori still sometimes looked at him when he didn't think he'd notice.  And he stared openly at Heero, waiting for him to snap and
kill them all without any expression ever crossing his face because, as Tasuki put it, 'you bet your ass anyone with a face that blank is just rarin to crack.'

Heero didn't have much to say to him, but he had quite a bit to say to Chichiri.  The moment they were sure none of the bandits were following, and their
prisoner wouldn't be escaping, he had the others wait while he drug the curious monk off the path for a little heart-to-heart.  Duo went with them, half to make
sure Heero didn't do anything excessive, half because he wanted straight answers, too.

It was a strange meeting.  Chichiri sat down in the grass of the little semi-clearing Heero had chosen and smiled that peaceful little cat-eyed smile of his while
Heero and Duo stood frowning down at him.  Heero's first question did nothing more than make him tilt his head.

"Why didn't you tell us you could sense him?" asked Heero.

Chichiri looked curious, almost as if he hadn't expected anyone to complain if he chose to keep his own counsel.  After a while, he posed a question in return,
"Do you follow a higher order?"

Heero's eyes narrowed, but Duo knew what he was asking and answered for the both of them.

"No," said Duo.  "Neither of us are religious."  He had been once, but that was a long time ago before he lost the last bit of his childhood innocence.

"I am," Chichiri smiled, as if that explained everything.  "Despite your game interfering with things, I'm still a monk, and a seishi, no da.  A servant of Suzaku.  
So are the two of you now.  The miko draws the seishi to her, she doesn't have one seishi track the rest of them down for her.  I wanted to interfere as little as
possible."

"But you did interfere," said Heero.  "The note, stopping Duo from being one of the captives-"

"Spotting Tasuki," Duo put in.

Chichiri looked bashful, scratching a finger on his cheek.  "I didn't plan to, I just couldn't willfully endanger Suzaku no miko.  As for the note, I don't know who
sent it, but I'm sure it was trustworthy, no da."

"Why?" asked Heero.  "What makes you so sure?"

"Just be straight with us," said Duo.  "Taiitsu-kun knew we were playing a game and she supported us.  She was creepy as hell about supporting us, but she
did.  If your Suzaku doesn't want us to succeed, he won't come when we try to summon him, right?  So it doesn't matter if we don't do things the way the miko
usually does.  You're helpful.  You're our little homing device.  Why not be a happy willing little homing device?"

Heero turned to give Duo a look that practically screamed, 'not helpful'.  Duo ignored it.

"Think about it," Duo shrugged.  "We can't tie you up like Tasuki over there, since you've probably got a dozen other magic tricks up that hat of yours."  
Literally, Duo was sure.  "But you know you'll help if it comes to that, and now we know you will - so let's just cut the whole 'secret serving the god's plan thing'
and get the job done.  We have two more seishi.  You know where they are.  Talk and this'll all be over with no harm done to anyone."

"But I don't know where they are," Chichiri said, with that guileless smile of his.  "I only sensed Tasuki because we were so close to him, no da.  I can't find a
specific person over a long distance if we've never met before, no matter how strong his lifeforce is."

That sounded reasonable.  Duo didn't quite buy it, though.  "You'll know when you get within a certain range of him, right?  The next seishi?  You'll sense him
out just like you did this time.  All we're saying is, the second you sense another one of them, let us know.  I doubt the next one will be as fussy as Tasuki
about the whole seishi thing, so you just give us a heads up and maybe, you know, point us in the right direction.  What do you say?"

"That would make your task considerably easier," said Chichiri.  His tone was agreeable, but that blank smile remained on his face.  "Tell me, Heero, do you do
this with all of the tasks you're assigned in this game of yours?"

Heero was surprised to have the question directed at him, especially since Duo had quickly taken over his interrogation.  He frowned back at that unchanging
smile.  "Do what?"

"Do things the easy way.  Have other people do the work for you."  Chichiri sighed and waved a hand at Duo, who was starting to look pinched around the
face, angry, maybe.  "I'm not judging you, really, I just doubt that's the purpose of your game.  Easier, of course, but not as much fun if you remove the
challenge, and you did say Taiitsu-kun told you games were meant to be fun.  Half the point is the learning experience, no da.  You won't get that if you rush
your way through the quickest route."

"We're in a hurry," Heero said evenly.  "Not so much of a hurry that we can't take time out for chances like this, but too much to waste time chasing shadows
when the answer is right in front of us."

"We don't know much about the game," said Duo, still looking like he could have done without the lecture.  "But right now finding out about the game isn't our
main goal.  We're trying to help a friend.  If we summon Suzaku, we can use those wishes to help us do that.  Sure, I like a challenge as much as the next guy,
and half the reason we've done so well in the game is because we were playing it like a game - but it's still serious.  Too serious to go wasting time getting
captured when we could have just nabbed the guy and been off looking for the next one."

"I see," Chichiri sighed.

"Why were you so sure of that note?" Heero asked, getting back to his original line of questioning.  "You know who sent it."

Duo shot Heero a startled look.  Chichiri just winced.

"No, no," Chichiri sighed sadly.  "I may have kept secrets, but I didn't lie.  I don't know who sent it, no da.  I don't believe it's Taiitsu-kun, and I do believe it's a
friend of the miko, but it's no one I've ever met before.  I would have recognized the feeling left on it if it were someone I knew."

"So why the trust?" asked Duo, remembering how the monk had phrased it.  "Why do you trust if you don't know?"

Chichiri climbed to his feet and waved a hand, directing their attention to the little curious and wary eyes that had been watching their entire conversation.  
"Because of him.  He thinks he knows me and yet I've never laid eyes on him before, no da.  Humans lie, Miko-san, even seishi can lie.  Animals never do."

Duo turned and gaped, "The cat?"

"Yes," Chichiri said brightly.  "It's that simple, no da.  And if I'd told you from the start that I thought we should follow an anonymous note all because I had faith
in a little cat, would you have listened to another word I had to say?"  He flashed a laughing smile at the cat in question.  "Humans are very untrusting
creatures, ne, Neko-chan?"

The cat let out an indolent rowl and smiled back at him.  Chichiri went over to pick him up.  Then he turned back with his usual smile.

"His owner will probably come looking for him soon, no da," said Chichiri.  "If he's a seishi, I'll tell you right away, Miko-san.  Just remember that sometimes it's
best to let things run their natural course.  I'm sure even Tasuki-chan would have been drawn to you if you'd given him a chance.  Even if you're in a hurry,
forcing things unnecessarily is a bad habit to get into, no da."

Duo's eyebrow twitched as he watched him go.  It was the playful lecturing tone, combined with the idea that they'd actually let themselves be captured
because of a cat.  He glowered and wondered if it wouldn't have been better not to ask at all.

"Come on," said Heero.  He prodded Duo's shoulder, moving him to follow Chichiri back to where they'd left the others.

Duo gave him a surprised look.  "That's it?"

"Something's wrong with this realm," said Heero.  "The skips, the way that god-woman changed her mind, the note.  But he's not at the center of it.  He might
have an idea, but he doesn't know any more than we do."

"He's funny, isn't he," Duo sighed.  "I can't figure out if I like him or not."

Heero stared at him for a moment, a slow smile crossing his face.  "You do."

"Yeah," Duo sighed again, his shoulders slumping this time, "probably."  He glowered faintly and let Heero prod him into motion.  "I guess I sort of like him...but
I'm begrudging every second of it.  He's like the playful older brother I never really wanted.  I can't decide if he reminds me of Quatre or Treize and that's just
creepy..."

"Zechs," Heero said immediately.  "Maybe a little of Wufei."

Duo laughed, "Definitely Wufei, with the whole lecturing thing.  Zechs...I'll have to take your word for that one.  I guess as long as there's some Quatre in there,
too, it's fine."

Heero didn't say anything.  He was thinking of Quatre's eager, seemingly honest expression when he'd first greeted them in the satellite and sent them into the
game without a word of warning.  He hadn't seen any of that in Chichiri.  If he had, he'd never have let Duo go off alone with him, seishi or not.

.-.
TBC



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