Osozaki Blooms -- Chapter 3

Nuriko stared at the empty spot where Miaka had stood a moment ago and felt his heart lurch.  He had lost her.  _Again_.  He stood slowly, still watching that spot as if she would somehow reappear.  She did no such thing.  He vaguely heard Hotohori-sama speaking with Taiitsu-kun, telling her how grateful that they all were.  He felt a soft tug on his skirt and looked down - a Nyan-Nyan was staring up at him with wide, smiling eyes.  He forced a smile onto his face and knelt down next to her, "What is it, little one?"
 
She smiled, "Me cure?"
 
Nuriko frowned and asked, "What do you mean?  I have no injuries."  He cringed inwardly, remembering the last conversation that had started like this - ~I'll heal your perversion.~ she'd said.
 
The Nyan-Nyan lifted a hand to rest it on his chest, over his heart.  She smiled up at him, "Me cure."
 
Nuriko swallowed hard as a lump of tears formed in his throat.  He shook his head mutely and slowly stood up, "No.  You can't fix that, little one.  Gomen ne."  The Nyan-Nyan frowned at him, but scampered away as she was dismissed.  Nuriko wrapped his arms around himself and continued to stare at the spot that his beloved imouto had just vacated.  He heard a voice to his left.
 
"Oi, Nuriko - we should head back to the capital.  Taiitsu-kun said that she'll transport us back to where the horses are," Tamahome said.
 
Nuriko nodded and dragged an arm across his eyes before joining his fellow seishi.  "Hai, Tamahome-kun."
 
When Taiitsu-kun stepped up to them, she gave Nuriko a sympathetic look.  Nuriko returned it with a startled one of his own.  Before he could say anything, though, they were back in the woods, their horses grazing quietly on the grass.
 
Hotohori grabbed the reins of his gelding and swung himself into the saddle, not watching as the other two seishi mounted up.  Tamahome moved his horse up next to the Emperor's, leaving Nuriko to ride behind them.  Nuriko hung his head and tried to ignore the lump that was once again rising in his throat - Hotohori-sama wanted nothing to do with him.  That much was clear.  He must have disgusted the other man beyond his meager ability to patch things up.  At least Tamahome had spoken to him before...
 
The ride back to the capital was made in silence.  Nuriko had tried to lighten the mood once or twice, but the baleful glares he received in response stilled his vocal chords.  He rode, shrunk into the saddle, eyes stinging.  As they approached the palace gates, the Emperor spoke.
 
"Tamahome, Nuriko - as Suzaku Seishi you have the right to rooms in the palace, should you wish to use them.  The servants will see to your comforts for as long as you decide to stay."  He dismounted, handing his horse over to one of the guards and marching swiftly back towards the palace.  Tamahome did the same, leaving Nuriko sitting on his horse, alone, outside the gates.  One of the guards spoke up, "Lady Kourin-sama?  Shall we have someone escort you inside?"
 
Nuriko gave voice to a bitter bark of laughter as he dismounted.  He shook his head as he handed over the reins, "No.  I can find my own way."  Not waiting for the guards to protest, Nuriko gathered up the tattered skirts of his traveling dress and ran for the relative safety of his rooms.  He thought he heard a few snickers on the way back, but he shut his ears and merely upped his speed.
 
When he reached his rooms, he slammed the door behind him and leaned heavily against it.  A soft patter of footfalls made him look up, "Emi?  What are you doing here?"  The cruel laughing that he'd heard convinced him that the servants all knew of his deception - he'd figured that Emi would be gone by the time he returned.
 
Emi gave him a sad, little smile and said, "You really look terrible, Nuriko-sama.  I've drawn you a bath - you'll feel better after you wash up."
 
Nuriko didn't know whether to laugh or cry.  Nuriko-sama.  Oh, Emi knew all right.  The question remained - why was she still here?  The crawling of his skin made the decision for him - the bath first, questions later.  He walked to the bathing room and stripped off his clothing.  Before he took off the slacks, he straightened to take in his form in the mirror.  The first time that he had really done so during his mature lifetime.  The decidedly flat planes of his chest evoked a red flush across his features.  Why do I have to be so different?  Even when I admitted to myself and everyone else that I was a man...  Why do I still feel this way towards the Emperor?  He angrily tore off the rest of his clothes and immersed himself in the bath.  I'm a pervert.  Just some sick, unnatural... pervert.  That's what they all think.  How do I know it's not true?
 
He washed himself quickly and drew himself out of the bath, reaching for his robe and wrapping it quickly around himself.  He walked back into the main room to find Emi sitting in her small chair by his vanity - Kourin's brush in her hands.  He sat down in his own chair, cheeks still flushed.  Emi lifted the brush and began to run it through his wet hair.  After several minutes of utter silence, Nuriko could take it no longer.  He spun around and grabbed Emi's wrist, "Well??"
 
Emi frowned at him, "Well what, Nuriko-sama?"
 
Nuriko's mouth dropped open and he let go of her wrist.  He opened the front of his robe and stared down at his chest, "This!  Aren't you going to say something?  Don't tell me you didn't know!"
 
Emi calmly grabbed the flaps of his robe and pulled them closed, retying the sash.  She picked up the brush and started running it through his hair again.  She hummed a little until Nuriko started to relax under her ministrations.  When he had calmed down, she smiled a little.  Her voice was quiet when it emerged, "I have served you faithfully for over a year now, Nuriko-sama."
 
Nuriko's cheeks turned red again, "And because of that, no one will accept you anywhere else, now, is that it?"  He turned his face away.
 
Emi's hand lifted to Nuriko's chin and turned his head to face her.  Her own was stern and her lips were turned down at the corners, "That's enough, Nuriko-sama.  It should be enough that I am willing to stay with you.  You need not know why."  She let go of his chin and laid the brush down on the vanity, "If you wish to dismiss me, then I will go."
 
Nuriko quickly shook his head, fear alighting on his features.  Emi smiled a little, "You will be wanting clothing...?"  She let the sentence hang, leaving it to Nuriko to fill in what kind of clothing he would wish.
 
Quietly, he asked Emi to find him a long tunic and a pair of pants.  She nodded and left to find them.  Nuriko turned to the mirror and picked up a pair of scissors, hefting his thick hair in the other hand. Just as he was about to hack it off, he dropped the scissors.  I can't do it...  Not yet.  He picked up a tie and pulled his hair back into a functional braid that reached to below his hips.  He dressed quickly in the clothing that Emi brought, slipping into a simple pair of slippers as he tied the gold sash around his waist.
 
He walked to the mirror and stared at his reflection - even in men's clothing he looked like a girl!  He'd never thought that a disadvantage before...  He shook his head ruefully and pulled open the door to his rooms.  Emi had gone off somewhere - maybe to find more clothing that would suit Nuriko's newly emerging tastes.  He didn't really care - what he wanted now, was a moment alone.  He made his way out to the lake and dropped down to a convenient boulder, knees to his chest.  He felt altogether too exposed in the clothing he now wore - and not very comfortable, either.  He shut off that train of thought.  He was going to try to wear men's clothing - at least for a little while each day.  Even if he still felt like a women inside, he could at least try to look like a man on the outside.  He turned his gaze to the water and merely sat, enjoying the stillness for a while.
 

*    *    *    *    *

 
Hotohori frowned at the piles of documents that awaited him at his return, as if they were the cause of his problem.  Just as he had admitted that he might feel something for Lady Kourin, she had turned out to be a man.  He lied to me!  The Emperor!  Gods, I can't believe I was so stupid!  No wonder he wasn't like all the other Court Ladies!  He steamed to himself for a while, finally tossing the documents back onto his desk and declaring to the air that he was going for a walk.  He stormed out of his office and walked towards the lake.
 
He was very disappointed to find his favorite spot already occupied.  The long braid of indigo hair brought visions of Nuriko to his mind - visions that he'd come out here to escape.  But there was no way that this long-haired boy was Nuriko - he was dressed like a boy after all.  But something about his dejected posture, the way he hugged his knees to his chest...  Hotohori found himself drawn closer to the forlorn figure at the edge of the lake.  He knelt next to the boy, "Daijabou ka?"
 
The figure's head whipped around so quickly that his braid nearly smacked the Emperor in the face, "Heika-sama!  Gomen nasai!"  Delicate hands fluttered to cover the boy's open mouth as he stammered apologies.  Hotohori frowned and leaned closer, "Nuriko.  So it is you."
 
Nuriko bowed his head and nodded miserably, his posture even more dejected than before - if that was possible.  Hotohori sat down next to him and stared out at the lake, "Why are you dressed like that?"
 
Nuriko's voice was uncharacteristically bitter when he responded, "Why do you care?"
 
Hotohori frowned at the other seishi, "Are you sure you're all right?"
 
Nuriko stared at him in open-mouthed shock, then shook his head.  He drew his knees back to his chest, resting his arms on top of them, "No, heika-sama, I'm not all right.  But I don't want to burden you with my problems."
 
Hotohori watched as the indigo-haired seishi rested his head on top of his arms, feeling a twinge of uncertainty.  Maybe there was more to Nuriko's lies than he'd said.  Hell, if the Emperor were being honest with himself, he'd admit that he'd never let Nuriko tell his side of the story.  He leaned back on his hands and closed his eyes, "If they can keep me away from the Leaning Tower of State Documents on my desk, I'll gladly listen to your problems, Nuriko.  And you don't have to call me heika-sama."
 
Nuriko lifted his head to watch the Emperor - the soft wave of his hair as it fell over his shoulders, the rise and fall of his chest as he spoke, the gloriously beautiful face, the closed eyes and slightly parted lips...  He shook his head forcefully, "Hotohori-sama..."  His voice dropped to a whisper, "Do you hate me?"
 
Hotohori frowned, taken aback by the question.  He leaned forwards and opened his eyes, "I...  Not really.  I was just - well, upset, I suppose.  You lied to me.  I'm not used to people lying to me."
 
Nuriko nodded his head, "Everyone else hates me.  They all think I'm some kind of awful pervert."  The raw pain in the other boy's voice made Hotohori take a closer look at him - there were tears tracking their way down Nuriko's cheeks as he spoke.  "Emi stayed with me - the gods only know why.  But how can I- ?"  His voice cut off and he buried his face in his
hands.
 
Hotohori felt a strange impulse to comfort the distraught seishi.  He lifted a hand and lightly stroked Nuriko's hair.  Nuriko jerked his head up, his reddened eyes staring at the Emperor.  He hastily dried his eyes and stood up, trying to fold his hands into sleeves that were too narrow to allow it.  His face flushed and he stammered, "Gomen ne, heika-sama.  I should leave..."  He moved as if to gather his skirts and blushed even more when he remembered that there were none there.  He turned and ran back to his rooms, all but tearing the tunic off of him when he got there.  The tears were still running down his cheeks as he
grabbed a dress out of the closet and put it on.
 
Emi walked in to see what the disturbance was about, slowly taking in Nuriko's tear-stained cheeks, red eyes, and miserable face.  She guided him to sit down on his bed as she snagged the brush from his dresser.  Without a word, she brushed his hair and pulled it up into a style that "Lady Kourin" had favored.  She applied make-up to his face, trying to hide the tear tracks.  She straightened his clothing, then nodded in satisfaction - Nuriko looked just as he had when he was masquerading as a woman.  By now, his tears had calmed and he just watched her.  She nodded once and left the room.
 
Nuriko stared at himself in the mirror, once again the spitting image of feminine beauty.  He felt oddly reassured now that he was back in his dress - not nearly as vulnerable.  A gong rang in the courtyard, signifying a start to evening court.  Nuriko stood slowly and headed towards the dining area.
 
As soon as he reached it, Nuriko knew that he'd made a horrible mistake.  The lords and servants sneered as they saw him, laughed in his face as he walked by.  His hair and clothes were forcefully tugged, feet held out to trip him more than once.  Rude comments reached his ears, staining his cheeks a delicate pink.  By the time he reached his spot at the main table, Nuriko was ready to cry.  A lady - one of his chief rivals at court - slipped delicately into his seat.  She smiled cruelly at him and laughed, "You aren't wanted here, sir.  Perhaps you should leave."
 
Nuriko stepped back, feeling as if he'd been slapped.  All conversation stopped and all eyes turned to him.  One of the younger lords that he'd been particularly nasty to of late stood up and added his own two cents, "Your kind isn't wanted here.  Go crawl back into your father's bed where you belong."  Nuriko took another step back, all color draining from his face.  More and more people stood up, eager to add their own insults.  Nuriko hid his face in his hands and ran.
 
Not long after he started his frantic flight, it was abruptly halted by a firm grip on his left arm.  He struggled, but the struggle was half-hearted at best.  He felt someone grab his other arm and he struggled even more fiercely.  He turned to stare at the two men - both were lords that he had slighted in the past.  A third lord of his former entourage was standing before him, cracking his knuckles.  He gave Nuriko an evil smile, "Well now, pretty boy.  We were thinking, now that you're a man, we can
treat you like one.  We're here to get some of our own back..."  Before Nuriko's stunned mind could register the danger, the man in front of him let loose a punch that landed right in the center of his stomach, knocking the wind out of him.  His beautiful dress was torn as his knees buckled.  Another punch landed in the center of his back, knocking him to the ground.  He moaned in pain, curling up into a ball, his tumultuous state of mind eagerly accepting that he deserved this.
 
A flare of red light caused him to look up.  Tamahome had arrived.  He took care of the three lords in short order, then knelt to help Nuriko sit up.  Nuriko pulled away from him, vainly trying to pull together the torn remains of his dress.  Tamahome brushed a lock of hair from his face, "Daijabou ka?"
 
Nuriko shook his head violently, still holding his stomach with one hand.  To his shame, he felt more tears tracking their way down his face.  Tamahome did the last thing that Nuriko expected him to do - he pulled the older seishi against his warm chest and lightly stroked his back.  Nuriko burst into hysterical sobs, barely hearing the soothing nonsenses that the younger man was murmuring into his ears.

*    *    *    *    *

 
Hotohori had not returned to his desk that day.  Instead he had taken a long walk through the woods, trying to sort out his feelings - his feelings over Miaka's leaving, Nuriko's true identity, Tamahome's obvious love for Miaka.  There was so much to think about - his head had begun to hurt.  When he saw the sky begin to darken, he had reluctantly headed back to the palace.  When he reached the lake, two guards stopped him.  He frowned at them and they hastily backed out of the way, stumbling over apologies.  He continued on his way.
 
A flare of red light made him turn his gaze to the left.  He began to walk towards it.  He found Tamahome lifting a battered and unconscious Nuriko into his arms.  Hotohori felt a fear seize his heart as he ran over, "What happened?" he blurted out.
 
Tamahome pulled the smaller seishi closer to his chest as he shook his head, "I'm not really sure.  Three of the court lords were busy trying to beat him up when I arrived - one of them said something about 'getting some of their own back'.  I'm not sure what he meant..."  He looked down at Nuriko's face, frowning gently.
 
Hotohori took a step closer, thinking that he understood what the lord was talking about - "Lady Kourin" had not been known for her kind and gentle nature... especially to the lords of the court.  "But is he all right?"
 
Tamahome started to walk, the Emperor falling into step with him, "Hai, Hotohori-sama.  He should be all right once he gets a good night's sleep.  He's a seishi, and they only managed to hit him twice."  Inwardly, Tamahome was glad for this distraction.  His mind had been far too much on Miaka since her departure.  It was starting to depress him.
 
Tamahome turned to the Emperor, "I'll see him safely back to his room, heika-sama.  You should go eat."
 
Hotohori realized, dimly, that he was being dismissed.  He, the Emperor was being dismissed!  He opened his mouth to protest, then reconsidered.  He could better serve his fellow seishi by finding and punishing the men who had done this.  He would make sure that the entire court knew that the seishi were not to be treated with such disrespect - no matter what their station in life.  He nodded curtly and stalked off towards the dining room.  The lords had an awful lot of explaining to do...

*    *    *    *    *

 
Nuriko woke slowly to a dull throbbing in his back and stomach.  He was sore all over.  He felt something cold and wet settle on his brow.  This is getting to become a habit...  He opened his eyes, half expecting to see his brother and sensei bending over him.  Tamahome gave him a little smile, "Feeling any better?"
 
Nuriko put a hand to his head and removed the cold compress.  He sat up as Tamahome moved to put a pillow behind his back.  The younger seishi's eyes were concerned.  Nuriko nodded, still feeling the utter shame of what had happened, "Aa.  I'm OK..."
 
Tamahome frowned, "What happened?  Do you want to tell me?"
 
Nuriko swallowed hard and made a helpless gesture with one of his hands, "They hate me.  All of them.  They think I'm disgusting and sick and...  I don't think I can bear to see them look at me like that again."
 
Tamahome smiled, "Why should you care?"
 
Nuriko stared at him in shock, unsure that he had heard correctly.  Tamahome continued, "They look at me funny, too, Nuriko - I'm a peasant boy.  My father is a poor farmer."  His eyes darkened as he spoke, "My family wears clothing that is the next step up from rags and can barely afford the house they live in and the food they eat.  The lords look down on me, as well - does it look to you like it bothers me?"
 
Nuriko shook his head mutely, not having a ready answer for Tamahome's questions.  Tamahome smiled, "Stick near me, Hotohori, or Emi - you know that we wouldn't hurt you.  No one else matters.  OK?"
 
Nuriko gave Tamahome a brilliant smile, his heavy heart already feeling two tons lighter.  He grabbed the younger boy into a back-breaking hug, "Arigato, Tama-chan!"
 
He let go when Tamahome started turning blue.  He pounded on Tamahome's back, "Oi, Tama-chan?  What's the matter?"
 
Tamahome gasped for air, "Couldn't - breathe..."
 
"Gomen ne, Tama-chan!" Nuriko said with a smile.
 
Tamahome stood up, looking for all the world like a cat who's fur had been ruffled the wrong way, "And will you stop calling me that???"
 
Nuriko giggled and waved at Tamahome, "Go on, Tama-chan.  I have to wash up and get dressed - unless you want to stay and help..."
 
Tamahome stammered something unintelligible and made a beeline for the door, nearly running over poor Emi as he made his hasty escape.  Emi smiled at Nuriko as he climbed out of bed, "Feeling better, Nuriko-sama?"
 
Nuriko nodded and gave Emi a hug and a light kiss on the forehead as he ran off to take a bath.  He certainly did feel better - and he was going to take Tamahome's advice and stick to the Emperor as closely as possible.  After all, Hotohori-sama didn't hate him - he'd said as much.  So maybe Nuriko still had a chance!  His mind was whirling with plans to win the Emperor and he set to washing himself with a cheery heart.

*    *    *    *    *

 
Three months later, Nuriko was looking back on that day with longing.  Looking out for Tamahome had become a full time job, leaving him with no time to chase Hotohori-sama.  With no one to protect, and no Miaka around to love, Tamahome had withdrawn into himself, often hurting himself in the process.  Nuriko had taken to following him around the palace as he wandered aimlessly, banging into walls and doors indiscriminately.  A time or two, only Nuriko's inhuman strength had saved them both from falling down the stairs or off high ledges near the lake.  Tamahome didn't even notice when he finished his own food, yet continued to plow through the numerous dishes on the table - often quite literally.  Nuriko was surprised that he hadn't
cracked any teeth, with his new diet of fine china.
 
Hotohori was hurting, too - Nuriko knew that.  But, he didn't dare broach the subject to the Emperor.  He was only barely tolerated at court as it was, and only because he was a Suzaku Seishi.  Hotohori had banished the three lords responsible for his beating, and the others pretty much kept away from him these days, but he was far from welcome here and he knew it.  Yet,
between looking after Tama-chan and listening to Emi's incessant gossip, Nuriko managed to fool himself into being happy.
 
He was currently standing in front of his closet, trying to select a dress for the day, as Emi cleaned up the bathing room.  He heard a knock at his door and called for the person to enter - if they had made it to his bedroom then it meant that Emi had already permitted them entrance, so it was probably pretty safe.  He was startled out of his wits when he saw Tamahome, dressed for travel, standing uncertainly in the doorway.  He gestured for the younger boy to enter and picked out a dress for the day - he had only worn men's clothes once or twice after that first time.  He still wasn't totally comfortable in them.  He slipped behind the dressing screen, pulling on his dress and waiting for Tamahome to speak.  He didn't do so until Nuriko was back in front of the screen.
 
He smiled sadly up at Nuriko, "I want to thank you for looking out for me, Nuriko.  You've been a true friend these past few months.  I owe you a great debt."
 
Nuriko shook his head, "Iie, Tamahome-kun, you don't owe me anything.  It's no more than any other friend would have done..."
 
Tamahome let out a bitter chuckle, "It was, Nuriko-chan, and you know it.  I've been pretty out of it..."  He shook his head to clear it, "But that isn't what I came to say.  I-I can't stay here, any longer.  I need to earn money, and I can't do that here at the Palace."
 
Nuriko's heart froze - what would he do with no Tamahome to look after?  He's leaving me alone...  But he remembered what Tamahome had said about his family.  He met Tamahome's eyes and the other boy nodded once.  Nuriko bowed his head, "Arigato, Tamahome - for telling me.  You're right, your family needs you more than I ever could.  Go - take care of them."
 
He heard Tamahome rise and walk towards him.  He closed his eyes, not all that eager to see his friend leave.  Tamahome leaned down and pressed a light kiss to Nuriko's forehead, then he was gone.  Nuriko leaned back against the wall and raised a hand to touch the spot that Tamahome had just kissed.  He drew in a shaky breath and finished getting ready, wondering what he was going to do with himself for the rest of the day.  He stared at himself in the mirror and frowned, slowly pulling off the dress.  He grabbed his pants and tunic and put them on.
 
He watched himself in the mirror for a while, trying to look manly - he failed miserably.  He slumped in front of the mirror and heaved a big sigh.  I'll never look like a man...  He heard soft footsteps behind him and turned to face Emi.  She smiled at him and set to straightening his clothing.  He chuckled, "Chibi-kaasan..."
 
She smiled and hushed him, continuing to straighten his clothing.  When she was finally satisfied, she nodded and stepped back.  She grabbed Kourin's brush and fixed his hair back into the braid that he wore when in these clothes.  She smiled at him and stepped back.
 
"What would I do without you, Emi-chan?" Nuriko sighed.
 
She smiled, "Undoubtedly, you would never have clean clothing or a neat appearance ever again."  The twinkle in her eyes let Nuriko know that she was joking.
 
He gestured for her to sit down on the vanity chair, then took her hand in his, "I'm serious, Emi-chan.  In all the time that you've served me - especially the past three months - I never said thank you.  I owe you more than that.  Aside from the other seishi, you're the only person here who ever accepted me.  I owe you a lot for that...  More than I can ever repay."
 
Emi patted his hand lightly, "I know.  And there is no need for you to repay me for it - I know you appreciate what I do for you and that is enough payment for me.  I've come to care for you, quite a lot over the past year and a half."  She smiled, "You're like the sister I never had.  It's enough."
 
Nuriko pulled her into a hug - not as tight as the one he gave Tamahome, but just as sincere, "Arigato, Emi-chan.  Arigato gozaimus."
 
She rubbed his back lightly, "Daijabou - it's OK."  She pulled away from him, "Go find Kechiko - you're dressed fit to ride, enjoy the day, ne?"
 
He smiled, "An excellent idea!  I think I'll do just that..."

*    *    *    *    *

 
Hotohori looked up from his papers with a flash of alarm, he'd thought he heard a stallion call...  Finally he spotted Galaxy's dark bulk out in the fields - and Nuriko on his back.  Ever since Tamahome had left several days ago, Nuriko had been riding Galaxy into the ground - as if the horse could take the place of his lost friend.  He shook his head lightly, Oh, am I glad I'm not outside...  The hoofbeats were getting closer - Nuriko pulled to a stop just outside his office, breathless with delight.  He kissed Galaxy on the nose, telling him over and over what a wonderful, sweet boy he was.  Galaxy melted under the praise, ears bent forwards to catch each syllable that Nuriko uttered.
 
Finally, Nuriko looped Galaxy's reins over his head and left him to graze.  He knocked lightly on Hotohori's outer door.  He motioned for Nuriko to come in.  Nuriko slipped inside the office and shut the door.  He took a deep breath before turning to face the Emperor.  Hotohori gave him a patient smile, "Yes, Nuriko?  What is it?"
 
Nuriko blurted out, "You know that Tama-chan left?"
 
Hotohori nodded, "I was aware, yes."
 
Nuriko lowered his gaze, "If it's not too much trouble, Hotohori-sama, I'd like to go home..."
 
Hotohori frowned, "But your home is in the city - you can visit any time you want..."  He trailed off when he saw Nuriko shaking his head, "Ah, I see.  Your adoptive parents, you mean.  Why?"
 
Nuriko looked back up at him and wrung his fingers, "I think that - well, they...  They should know the truth..."
 
Hotohori tapped a finger against his chin, "To tell the truth - I would rather that you didn't both leave at once...  I have a feeling that something is going to happen this week.  Silly, I know, but I just...  I don't know."
 
Nuriko took a step forwards, "But- "
 
Hotohori shook his head, "How about a deal, hmm?  If nothing happens within a week - you can go with my blessing.  And if something does, well you'll be here.  Agreed?"  He held out his hand to shake Nuriko's.
 
Nuriko stared at it as if it were some sort of amazing creature.  He grasped it gently, but firmly and shook it once, seeming to revel in the feeling.  He turned his eyes to meet Hotohori's, "Hai, heika-sama, it is a deal."  He reluctantly released the Emperor's hand and ran back out to Galaxy, wondering exactly what the Emperor had meant when he'd said that 'something was going to happen'...
 
He returned Galaxy to the stable and thanked Kechiko, his mind still working furiously on the puzzle.  He went back to his quarters and bathed, changing back into his dress and doing his hair up.  He took his time, wanting to look extra special for some reason.  He put on his make-up and admired his reflection for a moment, feeling an excitement building within his being.
 
He walked outside, aimlessly wandering the palace hallways, feeling something like Tama-chan must have...  He caught a glimpse of a girl in a brown uniform and his mind stumbled over itself and landed in a heap - Could it be??  He rushed to the outer hallway and called, "Miaka-chan??"  The figure turned back to him and smiled, "Nuriko!"
 
Nuriko felt his heart soar - until this moment, he'd been unaware how deeply it had fallen.  He grabbed his imouto's hands and jumped about with her - glad that he'd listened to the Emperor's advice and stayed.  He was just starting to get into the celebratory mood, when Miaka suddenly stopped and pulled a serious face, "Nuriko?"
 
He facefaulted, "Don't get serious on me all of a sudden!"
 
She gave him a sad little smile, "Nuriko - where's Tamahome?  I can't find him..."
 
Nuriko's heart went out to her and he started walking her towards his rooms, "Tamahome left several days ago - to earn money..."
 
She was righteously indignant when she heard this, and very upset that Tamahome hadn't had the faith to wait for her.  She ranted on and on and finally nearly stormed out of Nuriko's room to go find Tamahome herself.  Nuriko grabbed her arm, "Matte!  Matte!"
 
She scowled at him, but he held up a finger, "Matte, will you?  Give me a moment to change and I'll go with you, ne, Miaka-chan?"
 
She frowned, "Change?"
 
Nuriko shifted uncomfortably, "I've learned that I can't protect you very well in women's clothing..."  Before she could respond, he had grabbed his tunic and pants and gone to change.  He redid his hair while still behind the curtain, then took a deep breath and stepped out from behind the screen.  He found Miaka absorbed in something that she'd found on his vanity - Kourin's brush...
 
She had a delicate frown on her face, as if she were trying to remember something.  She turned her face up to him and said, "Ne, Nuriko - have I seen this before?"  He mutely shook his head and she turned back to studying the brush, "Nuriko - there's writing on the back.  What does it say?"
 
Nuriko took the brush from Miaka's hands and turned it over in his own.  He nearly choked on the words as he read them, "Wo ai ni, imouto.  Happy Birthday. -Your niichan, Ryuuen..."  He took a deep breath and handed the brush back to her.
 
Miaka frowned again, still going over the brush - she turned a questioning look at Nuriko and he smiled, taking the brush from her.  He undid the buns on her head and brushed out her hair, barely believing what he was doing.  Miaka leaned back into the brushstrokes, reminding him vaguely of Galaxy as she did so - though he knew as well as any girl that having one's hair brushed is one of the most relaxing and wonderful feelings in the world.  When he was done, he tied her hair back up and patted her back.  She smiled and put a hand to her hair, "So soft..."
 
Nuriko suddenly smiled and pushed the brush back into her hands, "Miaka-chan - I want you to have it."  She protested, arguing that it was his brush and whoever gave it to him must have loved him a whole lot to write such a nice message.  He nearly burst out laughing at her words - after all, he had been the gift-giver and she the receiver!  He smiled, "Iie, Miaka-chan, I want you to have it.  Really.  Onegai..."
 
Miaka looked up at him at the last word, a puzzled look on her face.  Nuriko blushed, "I-I just want you to have something of mine...  Something for you to have in case you have to leave again."
 
Miaka smiled and cradled the brush to her chest, finally accepting the gift.  She reached up and gave him a light kiss on the lips - like a sister might give, "Arigato, Nuriko..."  She pulled back, then finally took a close look at him.  Her eyes went all starry and she let out a shriek of delight, "Wai! Wai!  Nuriko-kun no kawaii!  You're good looking as a guy!"  Nuriko flushed a brilliant shade of scarlet as Miaka dragged him down the hall to the Emperor's throne room.

*    *    *    *    *

 
Hotohori looked on in amusement as Miaka hung all over a very embarrassed Nuriko.  He obviously wasn't used to being fawned over by a woman and Hotohori found it very funny to see the table turned on him like it was.  When Miaka made her request, he watched Nuriko's face.  There was such a fierce look in his eyes...  As if he would kill anything that dared to threaten Miaka - even Tamahome's eyes hadn't looked so fiercely determined when protecting his love.  Hotohori had to wonder at Nuriko's motives...  But one thing was certain - Nuriko would keep Miaka safe or die trying - whatever the reason.  Quite a turn-a-round from his earlier attitude...  He gave them permission to go, and gave them the Suzaku no Shi Jin Ten Chi Sho as added insurance.  Silently he begged Nuriko to keep Miaka safe, since he could not.
 
Once they had permission, Nuriko and Miaka left the palace as quietly as they could manage.  Nuriko mounted the gelding they had been given, then reached down to lift Miaka into place behind him.  She wrapped her arms securely about his waist, pressing her small body into his back.  Nuriko's heart started beating a little too rapidly.  Imouto-chan - I can't believe that I really have you back...  He kicked the horse into a canter, eager to be on their way.
 
After several minutes passed with no words from Miaka, Nuriko grew worried.  He thought he heard something, though.  Maybe if he listened really hard - ~What if he really doesn't love me?  Maybe that's why he left...~  Nuriko knew that it was Miaka's thoughts he was hearing and again wondered at his sudden fortune.  He spoke up quietly, his voice sounding deeper than it had in years, "Miaka-chan, you should have seen Tama-chan when you were gone!  He was so distracted and depressed - he walked into walls and even ate plates!  He was completely gone.  Because he missed you, Miaka-chan.  He loves you - he just doesn't know it yet."
 
Miaka didn't respond, but the tightening of her arms around his waist convinced Nuriko that his words had eased her worries.  He was momentarily startled when the sky began to darken around them, but merely upped his vigilance.  Suddenly his horse reared up and Miaka fell to the ground.  He fought with the rearing horse, trying desperately to calm him so he wouldn't trample Miaka - all the while, scenes of Kourin's first death fluttered through his thoughts.  When the horse was finally under control, he leaned over, "Miaka!  Are you all right??"  Before she could respond, they were surrounded.  The horse's
reins were grabbed and Nuriko was pulled roughly from the saddle.
 
A figure wielding a scythe walked slowly towards Miaka, his figure cloaked in shadows.  Nuriko remembered hearing rumors of assassins hired to kill Suzaku no Miko and hurriedly shrugged off his captors to rush to Miaka's side.  Before he got there, the figure dropped his weapon and Miaka flew into his arms.  Nuriko felt a pang of jealousy when he recognized Tamahome, but quickly shook it off - he had no right to be jealous.  When Tamahome smiled at him, he felt his face flush - and began to wonder exactly who it was that he was jealous of, Tamahome or Miaka?
 
Tamahome introduced them to the group of people he was defending - Nuriko had cause to wonder how he would be introduced.  Probably as a Suzaku Seishi...
 
"And this guy's gay!"
 
Nuriko's face went white, then red and he advanced on Tamahome to give him a good, hard whack on the head, "Tama-chan!"  He felt a tear prick the corner of his eye, but he ignored it - even Tamahome thought of him as some kind of sicko.
 
"No really, he's a Suzaku Seishi - Nuriko."
 
Nuriko nodded in satisfaction - that was more like it!  But, before he could really have time to celebrate his "victory" he heard Miaka cry out, too late for him to do anything.  A pair of arms pulled her from the clearing and Tamahome gave chase.  Nuriko was about to do the same when he saw a flash of light out of the corner of his eye.  He turned and...
 
Sweet Suzaku!!  He was thrown back against a tree by the wind of several heavy arrows and barely managed to pull all his limbs out of the way of the rest.  He squeezed his eyes shut, not wanting to know if he'd lost something important to the arrows - like his hair.  He peeled an eye open and looked down at himself - no damage, but it had been awfully close!
 
He heard a gasp behind him and lowered his leg from the awkward position it was in.  His eyes took in the carnage around him with a heavy heart - he felt like he was going to throw up.  Everyone was dead.  Everyone.  He heard Tamahome and Miaka's frantic questions and answered as best he could.  He pulled an arrow from the trunk near his head and snapped it in two.  Assassins.  It had to be.  After Miaka.  He was grateful that whoever it was had pulled her out of the clearing before they had gotten to her.  He didn't know what he would have done if she had been killed... again.
 
Tamahome led them back to the town to tell the people of the awful things that they had seen, and the awful fate which had befallen their brothers.  Nuriko pulled Miaka into the safe circle of his arms as Tamahome told the sad tale.  She leaned into his embrace, burying her face in his chest.  He kissed the top of her head and held her closer.
 
He lost track of time as he held his imouto in his arms.  A hand descended on his shoulder, causing him to jump slightly.  It was only Tamahome.  The younger boy glanced at Miaka, who was all but asleep in Nuriko's arms.  A look of tender affection crossed his features and he held out his arms to lift Miaka into them.  He was extremely startled when he met with resistance.  He lifted an eyebrow at the older seishi, "Nuriko?  We should put her to sleep..."
 
Instead of handing over Miaka like Tamahome expected him to do, Nuriko lifted her into his arms, cradling her small body against his chest.  Nuriko nodded, "Show me the way."
 
Tamahome frowned, but did so.  What was with Nuriko?  Of all people, Nuriko knew how deeply he cared for Miaka - and wasn't Nuriko in love with the Emperor?  When had he decided that he was straight?  Tamahome felt a surge of jealousy well up in his being, but quashed it - Nuriko was his friend.  He wouldn't do something like that - would he?  He pointed Nuriko towards the room they would share and made some excuse to go outside so he could watch from the window.
 
He was extremely startled at what he saw.  Nuriko laid Miaka down on the bed and tugged off her clothes, pulling on her pajamas with the ease of long familiarity.  He tucked her into the covers and sat watching her with a tender smile on his face.  He gently brushed Miaka's bangs off of her face and placed a small kiss on her forehead.  Tamahome resisted the urge to throw open the door and demand to know what was going on.  It was painfully obvious what was going on!  Nuriko was after his beloved!  He clenched his fists at his side.  Nuriko and I are going to have a long talk about this...

*    *    *    *    *

 
Nuriko stared down at Miaka, a sweet smile on his face at her quiet snoring.  He brushed her bangs out of her eyes and pressed a light kiss to her brow.  "Imouto-chan...  You have no idea what it means to me to have you here and safe - where I can watch over you.  Wo ai ni..."  He pressed another light kiss to each of Miaka's cheeks and slowly stood, still watching Miaka's sleeping form.  He counted each rise and fall of her chest, each precious breath, as if it were the most marvelous thing in the world.  And perhaps it was...
 
Reluctantly, Nuriko walked away from the bed to go find his pack.  He was startled by a growl from behind him.  He spun to find Tamahome watching him with fire in his eyes.  His own eyes widened in response - He looks like he's ready to kill me!  He backed up a pace from the look in Tamahome's eyes.  Tamahome growled again, "Outside, please?  I want to talk to you..."  With that last comment, he stalked outside.
 
Nuriko swallowed heavily, knees shaking slightly - what was the matter with that stupid boy?  He was acting, for all the world, like some kind of - of... Oh dear.  Like some kind of jealous lover.  He glanced in Miaka's direction as he walked towards the door.  And how the hell do I explain this one?
 
Reaching the low porch, Nuriko spotted the other seishi.  Tamahome was gripping the wooden rail so tightly that it creaked.  He didn't look all too happy...  Warily, Nuriko approached the still and silent figure, "Tama-chan...?  What's the matter?"
 
Tamahome rounded on him, slamming him back into the railing, "What's the matter??  How dare you ask me that!  I see you fawning all over my girlfriend and you ask me what's the matter??  I trusted you, Nuriko!"

*    *    *    *    *

 
Tamahome quickly decided that the shock in the other boy's eyes couldn't be fake.  He let up a little when Nuriko started to shake slightly.  His mouth opened once or twice, finally producing a small squeak.  He hung his head, his voice quiet, "Nothing I say will convince you otherwise, will it?  You've already made up your mind to treat me like a rival."  His eyes when they finally rose from their lowered position, were extremely sad.
 
Tamahome stepped back a couple of feet.  "I'm willing to listen to an explanation, if you have one."  He thought he was being more than generous.
 
Nuriko snorted, shaking his head, slowly, "Not one that you would believe, Tamahome-kun."  He turned, facing the forest, eyes gazing up at the stars.  "Would it satisfy you to know that I look on Miaka as a sister and nothing more?  Is that enough of an explanation?"
 
Tamahome walked over to stand next to him, though not quite willing to meet his eyes, yet.  "Do you mean that?  Really mean it?"
 
Nuriko nodded, "I do.  Miaka means more to me than my own life - but I can't tell you why.  It - it wouldn't be right.  But believe me when I tell you - I would never get between you.  She means too much to me to ruin her happiness that way."
 
Tamahome let out a breath, "All right.  If that's all that there is to this - then I apologize for misunderstanding your intentions."
 
Nuriko turned to go back inside, whispering, "Take care of her Tamahome-kun.  In case some day, I can not."  With those cryptic words, Nuriko went back to their room to go to sleep, leaving Tamahome to ponder the mysteries of love on his own.


Part 2 | Fushigi Yuugi Fanfiction | An Interlude
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