Exalted: Duty and Honor
Favored by Fire
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
- Robert Frost
“Your aspect would have been Wood, I think,” Kurenai says, and festival light glints across his teeth when he flashes a wide grin in his companion’s direction.
Kirigasa Yuhi is Kurenai’s opposite in every way. While his best friend wears flashy silk robes the same flame red as his long, wild hair, Yuhi chose the more traditional, subdued colors of their Earth Gens, his brown hair carefully done up in a neatly groomed tie. Kurenai is bright and restless and everything else that would be attributed to the element of Fire – and Yuhi knows that his friend is teasing him now, that Kurenai thinks that those favored by Wood are soft creatures, best used as kindling.
“Would you burn me, then?” Yuhi asks, smiling, in a tone that could be taken as either a jest or an invitation.
Kurenai’s crimson eyes widen in the silence that follows. It’s an offer Yuhi has never presented to him before but has always been there, simmering underneath their every interaction. He realizes it’s his choice to either accept it or laugh it off. Yuhi is mortal and plain when set in contrast against him, but sometimes his words bring an unexpected reversal that is always a thrill to the Dragonblood.
“We’ll find out later,” Kurenai says, and his voice lowers to a seductive drawl. Yuhi quirks an eyebrow and from his unimpressed stare, Kurenai concludes that it does not seem to have the same effect on his best friend that it has on girls.
“Idiot,” Yuhi says, but the Dragonblood can detect the amused affection in his tone.
The crowd parts as they walk by, two young soldiers whose names are spoken by more than one blushing admirer. Laughing, together, they go from stall to stall, playing the games and winning prizes for the packs of awed children that follow them and competing in the challenges of strength with other enlisted comrades and drinking with them afterwards. Kurenai celebrates the same way he does anything: full of passion and boundless energy. Yuhi is like a smoke trail that follows a conflagration. He breaks up the fights his friend starts, soothes flaring tempers and apologizes to the sobbing young women Kurenai so gallantly dances with but whose names he then promptly forgets.
When midnight comes and everyone else is too drunk to notice, Kurenai leads Yuhi away from the festival grounds as fireworks burst overhead, their hands clasped in the dark. Neither speak a word but Kurenai thoroughly determines that Yuhi could not have been Wood or he would have been incinerated by the taste of fire.
“Why have you petitioned to undergo trials for the Gunzosha procedure?!”
The dojo had been silent and tranquil until Kurenai burst in, still wearing a full suit of crimson yoroi armor. Flame trails followed his footsteps and the medics who had been tending to Yuhi’s recent battle injuries scatter in terror as if it were Malfeas himself unleashed upon them.
Yuhi calmly waits until they were alone before he responds, and even then, he ignores the question, and instead smiles and raises the abandoned bandages in his friend’s direction.
“Look what you’ve done,” Yuhi scolds, indicating his half-completed wrappings. “Take responsibility for your actions.”
Sometimes Kurenai thinks Yuhi would have been Water for the way a single word from his friend could extinguish his fury and calm everything that seethes beneath his skin, but then come the days like this when it’s the mortal himself who causes the Dragonblood’s temper to reach a violent boil.
Too enraged to speak, he stomps to Yuhi’s side, the smell of sulphur in the air. Yuhi smiles the entire time, even when Kurenai kneels at the mortal’s side and yanks the bandages from his hands. He does not even attempt to be gentle as he angrily wraps his friend’s bruised ribs – he was never meant to be a healer, and the only way he knows how to treat a wound is to cauterize it.
If the rough handling pains the mortal he doesn’t show it. Instead he brushes his fingers briefly across the chozei insignia on Kurenai’s breastplate and murmurs, “The distance between us is increasing.”
“Your remedy for that is to decrease your already limited time?!” Kurenai snaps. His hands pull the wrappings even more uncomfortably against Yuhi’s side as his agitation increases.
Yuhi looks away. Kurenai had finally voiced the reality that had remained unspoken between them since Yuhi’s 20th birthday had come and gone.
“They call me your mortal pet,” Yuhi says. “Dragged along only by the strings you keep pulling for me.”
“I don’t care what they say!” Kurenai’s eyes are shining bright red now, as if they might ignite from the force of his absolute fury.
“I do,” Yuhi replies, and they both stare at each stubbornly, at an impasse.
“It would bring honor to Gens Kirigasa and allow me the chance to restore my own, to show my worth,” Yuhi says finally, breaking the strained silence. “If you don’t want to support my decision, I know the Patriarch would approve. But I thought you, of all people, would understand.”
“Understand what?!” Kurenai screams. He yanks hard on the bandaging, as if offended by the very mortality beneath that makes his friend’s flesh so weak and prone to injury in the first place.
“That I would prefer to burn,” Yuhi says. Still smiling. Never wincing, despite the pain.
During conversations such as this Kurenai swears that maybe Yuhi would have been Air, something ephemeral that will slip through his fingers, something he wishes he could consume and keep all to himself. He will never get to find out, because it is certain now that Yuhi will never receive the Second Breath, will never be one of the Dragonblooded.
Yuhi is still a soldier, however, and this time his tactics have left Kurenai defeated.
“I really hate you sometimes,” Kurenai says. He doesn’t argue any further, but his touch becomes almost imperceptibly softer.
“Idiot,” Yuhi says quietly.
“UNBEARABLE TAUNT TECHNIQUE!”
Kurenai’s screams and his mare’s terrified cries rip through the flame-wreathed darkness and Yuhi would have laughed at his friend’s theatrical inclination for calling out his attacks but that was before his senses had become muddled and crossed. He didn’t know a person could taste laughter. The fey lights circling him and feeding off of him through his shattered breastplate abruptly turn and wheel away in the direction of the shout.
Clarity returns to Yuhi and he tastes only blood now, hears only the roaring of the inferno around him. He lifts his bloodied face from the ground and sees Kurenai wreathed in flame, his eyes bright and smoldering as he alone faced down the remaining horde of Wyld spawn that had decimated their unsuspecting Fang.
The Dragonblood launches himself off his mount into the sky and upon his descent, bits of fey things trail after him, blazing. His lance makes fiery arcs in the air. In Yuhi’s delirium-touched mind he is briefly reminded of fireflies and festival lanterns before reality pushes through once again and he realizes that despite Kurenai’s valor and skill, his friend would soon be overwhelmed.
I guess we get to die together after all, Yuhi thinks. Gunzosha armor was difficult to pierce but when it did finally break, it nearly shattered his whole body along with it. He fights the desire to lay his head down in the dirt and close his eyes so that Kurenai and his light are the last thing he sees in life – but then that light reminds him again of another warm summer night, fireworks bursting overhead, hands clasped in the dark. He remembers why he sacrificed years of his life and his body so he could stand at one’s mans side rather than always be stumbling far behind him.
I’d rather burn.
He somehow rises to his feet and raises his spear, and suddenly Yuhi is angrier than he’s ever been. He’s angry that these from creatures beyond the borders of Creation are daring to trespass, daring to harm his Dragonblood and unfurling from with him is something hotter, something fiercer than the fire that’s circling around him, as bright as daylight-
Burn. Burn. Burn.
When all that remains of the enemy are ashes and the blinding light has subsided, the first thing he sees clearly again is Kurenai’s face, staring up at him in awe and terror. It’s another one of those rare moments of reversals between them both, but one that changes everything. Something ancient and sleeping stirs in the very blood of Kurenai’s veins and for a moment he has a vision of thousands of warriors in every color of jade kneeling before bright golden Kings like he is kneeling before Yuhi now.
The vision abruptly shatters as Yuhi steps back and almost stumbles, graceless and uncertain in his fractured armor, not resembling a king of any kind. The word Anathema smolders unsaid between them in air thick with falling embers. Kurenai stares at Yuhi and struggles to decide if the man standing in front of him could really be his childhood friend, or a demon wearing his skin. The sound of a trumpet breaks the stillness, and colors of Amilar banners flash above the nearest hill crest.
“Idiot,” is all Yuhi can bring himself to say.
And then the decision is made, and once again Kurenai is grasping his hand but instead of leading him through the dark he is shoving the reins of his beloved mare against Yuhi’s palm – the only creature that Kurenai has ever directly said he loved. Kurenai is telling him to go, go, turn around and go, don’t look back and never come back, but his hands are shaking and Yuhi knows that the Dragonblood is afraid.
For a moment Yuhi cannot move, still the moth to Kurenai’s flame. He then realizes the light on Kurenai’s face is not from the dying fires around them but from the mark blazing from his forehead like a brand of shame. He doesn’t know what else to say or do, so with a choked cry he releases his friend’s hand and vaults up on the mare, kicking her sides so that he is sent galloping away into the night as Kurenai commanded.
Falling back down to his knees, Kurenai feels the thundering hoofbeats reverberate across the ground. He never had been the one who had to follow after anyone else, so he doesn’t know how to follow after Yuhi now.
I wish you had been Earth, Kurenai thinks, the one constant, non-flammable thing in my life.
Though it’s still night, he now has an afterimage of the sun burned behind his closed eyelids.
But you were favored by Fire, too.