May 6, 2002: Wow. I took the Part 7 teaser off the teaser page in February in preparation for posting this part. That was three months ago. I posted Part 6 on November 9, 1999. That was 2 and a half years ago. *falls over* I'm starting to really drag with this fic, aren't I? O_O;;; Well, to all of you who actually waited the 2 and a half years to see the next part, I thank you. ^_^ I don't know that I'd have that kind of patience.
OK. Enough of me talking. You've waited long enough. Enjoy the fic, and don't forget to e-mail me at my new e-mail addy, firstname.lastname@example.org to tell me what you thought! People have been harassing me for this part for almost 3 years now--some of you'd better cough up some C&C for me... ^_^ *sweet smile* Ja mata ne! ((OK, I admit it--I'm desperate. I need C&C guys. Even better, I need someone willing to beta-read for me. All the people who used to do it are way too busy to do it anymore. Help me out, onegai shimasu!))
Warning: This fic is shash/yaoi/shounen ai. That means that there are boys kissing other boys. If that bothers you, don't read. *blinks* Then again, if you've gotten this far, I suppose you don't need the warning... *sheepish grin* Anyway, consider yourself warned.
Nuriko stared around at the chaos, an expression of horror on his face. If he could have imagined a worst-case scenario for the events that were to take place this night... what he was staring at would have been it. After Tama-neko-chan had appeared floating in mid-air, everyone had known that something must have gone horribly wrong, but not one of them had imagined exactly how wrong it had gone...
When everyone had focused their chi to bring the travelers home... they had been expecting four. That had been the first shock--no Tamahome. Once Nuriko's mind had registered that, his first thoughts had been for Miaka. Upon seeing her face, he had immediately rushed to her side. She looked like a woman who had just returned from Hell. Her face clearly reflected the heart-wound that had been delivered. Her broken arm was nothing in comparison.
But despite her own pain, Miaka thought of her seishi first. She had shaken off his protecting arms, gesturing frantically at Tasuki and yelling for Mitsukake. That was when Nuriko's control nearly broke. He'd been terrified of what he'd done--sending two of the people he loved the most in this world into danger. In his heart of hearts, he'd been terrified that they might not come back. Well, they'd come back all right. In pieces.
Mitsukake and Chichiri both maintained their calm. Chichiri started feeding what remained of his own precious energy into the weakening Tasuki while Mitsukake organized some guards to find a stretcher and carry the injured seishi to a bed. Nuriko dropped to his knees beside Tasuki's stretcher, torn. To whom should he devote his attention? Tasuki solved the problem for him. When he saw the purple-haired seishi bent over him with worried eyes, he smiled--as if that was the best thing in the world that could have happened. Nuriko was extremely humbled by the depth of feeling he saw in the ex-bandit's eyes. He just didn't know what to do about it.
Tasuki began whispering something. Nuriko leaned closer to listen. He said, "Daijoubu, Nuriko, daijoubu... Go to Miaka. She needs you more than I do right now... Go to her."
Nuriko didn't need any more prompting than that. He gave the fire seishi a tremulous smile, picked himself up and all but ran to where Hotohori was cradling Miaka in his arms. The jealousy hit him in a sudden surge. Only he couldn't quite make up his mind who to be jealous of. Miaka for being held by Hotohori-sama... or Hotohori-sama for comforting Miaka... his Miaka. He settled for sitting down on the stairs next to them and leaning in as close as personal space would allow.
He listened as Miaka brokenly tried to tell them what had happened. She'd said "Sayonara" to Tamahome... She'd said "Sayonara... Oh great Suzaku, what could that mean? Miaka would never give up on any of them--much less her own beloved! So, why...? One glance at Miaka's broken arm, and another at her doubly broken eyes gave Nuriko the answer he needed. Tamahome had done this to her. Somehow he was responsible--might even have delivered the blow with his own hands.
For a moment, Nuriko shook with a rage so great that he saw red. Tamahome had sworn to look after her, had sworn that no harm would ever come to Miaka as long as he drew breath. Was this his way of honoring that oath?? All of the protective-older-brother feelings that Ryuuen had long ago buried under the mask of Lady Kourin came boiling to the surface. How dare anyone treat his imouto like this! Tamahome would answer for this... he'd answer to Nuriko's fists!
Miaka finally fell asleep in the Emperor's arms, emotionally and physically exhausted. Hotohori cradled her gently as if she might break at any moment... as if she hadn't already broken. Hotohori looked up at him, eyes uncertain, "Nuriko... What can I do?" He looked so frightened... so vulnerable. "She's so badly hurt... not just physically, but emotionally. I... I never wanted anything like this to happen, Nuriko, I really didn't..."
Nuriko's eyes widened at the Emperor's words. He couldn't possibly think...? Well, clearly he did. Somehow, Hotohori-sama seemed to feel he was in part responsible for Miaka's current state. Nuriko mentally braced himself for a potential rejection and laid a hand on the Emperor's arm. When the rejection didn't come, he relaxed and quietly spoke, "Hotohori-sama... This isn't your fault. No one could have foreseen this. And even if we could have, there's no guarantee that we could have prevented it."
The Emperor sighed and pulled Miaka closer to him, "It isn't just that. I... In spite of how they felt, I never really gave them my blessing. I think... I think I didn't want to give up on the hope that Miaka might be mine someday. I still don't want to give up on that hope. But I didn't want this!" He stared down at Miaka's face, pained even in sleep, with an anguished look of his own.
Nuriko pushed down his own hurt at the Emperor's declaration of love and shook his head sadly, "No one ever wants these things to happen, Hotohori-sama. We wish for our rivals to be removed from our lives as a matter of course--it's part of what makes us human. And if, by coincidence, one of your opponents is removed from the game, it's only natural to think it's your fault. That somehow your thoughts were heard by some god in some heaven and granted as a prayer."
He watched as the Emperor's expression fell further with each word that he uttered. But he wasn't finished. He removed his hand from the Emperor's forearm and wrapped his arm around the Emperor's shoulders, "But that isn't what happened, Hotohori-sama. It never is. It's just one terrible, horrible coincidence. That's all. I know you didn't want anything to happen to Tamahome, and you didn't want him to hurt Miaka, because deep down inside what you want most of all is for Miaka to be happy, ne?"
He waved a hand over Miaka's battered body as he gave the Emperor's shoulders one last squeeze and let go, "This is not your fault. And no amount of blame-placing and self-agonizing will make it so. I believe that and so does Miaka. So, please Hotohori-sama... try to do the same. Wallowing in self-pity will not help anyone, especially not Miaka. Ne?"
Hotohori stared at him, golden eyes wide in surprise, "Nuriko... I..." He dropped his gaze and a weary smile fluttered over his features, "You're right of course. Maybe if you keep telling me that, I'll believe it."
Nuriko smiled a warm smile at the Emperor and nodded, "Un. I intend to tell you so often that you'll grow sick of my voice before the day is out."
Hotohori let out a tired laugh, "I look forward to it." He stood slowly, Miaka still cradled in his arms, "I should put her to bed. Arigato gozaimasu, Nuriko. You are a true friend." With that last comment, he turned and left the throne room.
Nuriko stared forlornly at his retreating back. It was always the same. He cheered up everyone else, but when he needed cheering, who was there for him? He turned his head to take in the now-empty throne room. No one. There was no one. His hands balled into fists as he sighed quietly to himself. Why was it always his job to keep everyone from flying apart? It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair...
A small voice in his head pointed out that he wasn't being entirely fair himself. When he'd been so upset over Hotohori's implied rejection yesterday, someone had been there to cheer him up. Genrou... Genrou! Oh great Suzaku! How could I have forgotten? Before even one more thought could form in his head, Nuriko was halfway down the corridor to the former bandit's room. Please let him be all right! Onegai!
Nuriko reached Tasuki's room just in time to hear him yelling at Mitsukake to be more gentle. A little smile worked its way onto his face at Genrou's blustering. It faded around the edges as the healer ran off a list of the bandit's injuries. Great Suzaku... he could have died! But when Mitsukake finished it off with, "...and anyone tough enough to survive that isn't going to die from a little rough handling," Nuriko started to chuckle. That sounded so much like Genrou...
He waited patiently outside until the healer was finished. They all owed so much to him, even though they'd only known him for such a short time. Nuriko listened as Genrou inquired after Miaka's health, then listened even more intently as Mitsukake answered. He had healed her broken arm, but it would take far more skill than his to heal her broken heart. Nuriko's breath caught. It wasn't fair. Life was too cruel. Miaka had done nothing to deserve this! She deserved only happiness... not this bitter pain.
Mitsukake walked out of Genrou's room, Tama-chan riding solemnly on his shoulder. They both seemed somewhat startled to see Nuriko standing anxiously outside. "Nuriko-san... may I help you?"
Nuriko shook his head, "I just came to check on Gen-chan... He looked pretty beat up..."
Mitsukake looked down at the purple-haired seishi feeling a vague sense of surprise. Nuriko's eyes... they looked so weary, so absolutely bone-tired. The same way he felt more often than not. There was often so little he could do to help those he cared about. Shoka... Suzaku no Miko... All he could do was watch them suffer. And now Tamahome, as well. He knew without being told that Tamahome was to blame for their Miko's injuries, both inside and out. And for Tamahome to have done such a thing... kodoku must have been involved somehow. If that were the case, then there was nothing he could do.
It was times like these that made him truly feel his age. He was no longer a child or a youth--he did not have the younger seishi's resilience. This war was beginning to wear on him. And looking down into Nuriko's eyes he felt the stirring of a kindred spirit. Though the feminine seishi was far younger than he, Nuriko's soul was just as old, just as weary, and had perhaps lost just as much. He didn't know how this could be so... but it was. And currently, those eyes were filled with pain, worry, and some inner conflict. He forced a serene smile onto his face to begin his speech of reassurance. Nuriko beat him to it.
The sad smile on Nuriko's face was almost more than he could handle. His words, though... "Daijoubu, Mitsukake-san... You don't need to smile for me if you don't want to. I know how it feels to be tired. Please don't strain yourself on my account."
The healer stiffened slightly, "Nuriko-san..."
The purple-haired seishi offered him another tired smile, "We owe you so much already, Mitsukake-san. You've done so much for us and we just keep asking for more. It isn't fair to you, but we'll probably keep asking. And your own sense of responsibility will keep you from turning us down. It isn't fair, but that's how life is sometimes. So--in case we forget from time to time--I wanted you to know how much we appreciate what you do. All of us. Ne?"
Mitsukake smiled down at the younger man, a true smile this time, "Hai... I do know that. It is an honor to put my skills to whatever small use that they may be." He lifted one large hand to pat Nuriko's shoulder, "Tasuki will be fine, Nuriko-san. As I told him earlier, anyone tough enough to take a beating like that will survive the day that it will take for my powers to recharge. I think all he needs is a little pleasant company. Ne?"
Unaccountably, Nuriko blushed and stammered slightly before he bowed and entered the room, "H-hai, Mitsukake-san... My thoughts exactly..."
Mitsukake watched as the tip of Nuriko's braid disappeared through the door, a speculative smile on his face and his good mood entirely restored. Tama-chan meowed inquisitively at him and he nodded in response, "Fascinating, indeed, Tama... Fascinating indeed..."
Nuriko edged quietly into the room, not wanting to disturb the injured bandit if he'd managed to fall asleep. He needn't have worried. Genrou's eyes were open, bright, alert, and staring straight at him. Nuriko's cheeks started to do a slow burn under the bandit's watchful gaze. They stared at each other for several seconds as Nuriko's cheeks got slowly pinker and Genrou's grin grew slowly wider.
When Nuriko could see one of Genrou's fangs beginning to peek out from under his top lip he decided that he'd had enough. He broke the silence with a slightly nervous chuckle, "So I suppose you couldn't be as hurt as we thought if you're up to playing around with Mitsukake-san, ne, Gen-chan?"
Genrou started to splutter, growling under his breath, "What the hell are you talking about?"
Nuriko smirked and settled himself daintily on the edge of the bed, absent-mindedly patting Genrou's uninjured hand, "Well, you certainly seemed to be acting a bit rowdy just a little while ago. Did I misinterpret something?"
Genrou stared at him for another minute before dropping his gaze to the blankets, "Ch'. You know I wouldn't do that and you know Mitsukake wouldn't do that. I don't go fooling around with other guys just because there's a bed convenient. Baka."
Genrou's light-hearted comment acted like a bucket of cold water to Nuriko's teasing good mood. It suddenly brought home to his subconscious a few very important facts that had gone hitherto unnoticed. He was in Genrou's bed. He was holding Genrou's hand. Genrou had indicated, on several occasions, that he didn't object to Nuriko's... peculiarities... and might even share a few of them. He flushed a brilliant scarlet and quickly stood up, "I... Gomen.... I didn't..."
The former bandit sat up and placed a finger over Nuriko's lips to still what looked to turn into an impressive spate of babbling. He smiled, tugging the hand that he still held captive in his own, urging the older boy to sit back down, "Sh... It's OK. I don't mind. In fact, I kinda like havin' ya here. That is... if you still wanna be here...?"
Nuriko stared down into Genrou's earnest, gentle eyes and couldn't find it in his heart to refuse his friend anything. He slowly sat back down on the bed, only slightly startled when the bandit pulled him even closer than before so that their hips were touching through the blanket. He continued to rub Nuriko's hand in a soothing motion as though he were a panicky young colt that might bolt at any moment. It wasn't that bad a comparison, either--Nuriko felt like his heart must be beating as fast as that of a hummingbird. He swallowed hard, mouth suddenly dry, "Do... do you need anything?"
Genrou looked up at him and smiled, a serious, content expression that looked extremely out of place, "Nah. I've already got everything I need."
Nuriko couldn't stand to look into those eyes anymore. Genrou, for all that he tried to act tough, generally wore his heart on his sleeve. And right now... What did he expect? In spite of what had happened the night they'd defeated Eiken, Nuriko was still terribly confused where Genrou was concerned. The younger seishi seemed to have fallen in love with "Lady Kourin", and--no matter how Nuriko might wish otherwise--Lady Kourin was merely a figment of his imagination. She didn't really exist.
That didn't seem to matter to Genrou. Even after finding out who and what Nuriko really was, he still seemed to be attracted to him. It was as if he had some sort of peculiar sight shield that made him blind to Nuriko's true gender. And he wasn't quite sure what to think about that. If Genrou really was just ignoring the fact that Nuriko was male--something that would be easy enough to do with his feminine looks--then Nuriko was going to be in for one hell of a letdown if he allowed the relationship to proceed to its natural conclusion.
He let himself take another peek up to catch Genrou's eyes. The depth of feeling in them made him shiver. For on the other hand... on the other hand was the slim possibility that Genrou fully understood what he was... and loved him in spite of it. And that was a whole different sort of problem because... because he loved Hotohori-sama.
As usual, thoughts of the young Emperor made his throat ache. He had loved Hotohori-sama for so long that he'd nearly forgotten why. But the Emperor loved Suzaku no Miko. And until he understood that it wasn't Miaka that he loved, only the idea of Suzaku no Miko, he would have room for no one else in his heart. But Nuriko wasn't ready to give up on him just yet. Not yet...
Tasuki looked up as Nuriko finally settled down next to him, a contented smile on his face. Yet, for some reason, the expression that had been meant to reassure only seemed to make the feminine seishi more uncomfortable. Those chocolate brown orbs swerved away from him and fixed on a point somewhere in the blankets.
He nearly growled in frustration. When he had first discovered that "Lady Kourin" was really Nuriko--really a man--he'd been shell-shocked, disgusted, horrified, and confused... for about five minutes. But once he'd started thinking, he realized that everything he'd... loved... about Kourin still existed in Nuriko: his stunning good looks, his unconscious grace, his strength of spirit, his fire... the way he flushed whenever Tasuki's language dropped into the gutter, the way he'd get that coy, knowing look when he did something he knew would drive Tasuki up the wall... the way the smaller seishi seemed to have been made to fit into his arms. None of that had changed. And Tasuki had lived with Kouji too long to have any prejudices against those who preferred lovers of the same gender.
So, once he'd paused and thought about the situation, it had been fairly simple to resolve his feelings. He loved Nuriko, not his gender. And he'd assumed with Nuriko's preference for women's clothes, infatuation with the Emperor, and his propensity for kissing bandits, that he'd accepted his own sexual preferences long ago. However, with how damned skittish the older boy was being around him, he was being forced to reevaluate his opinion. And it was slowly driving him insane. Tasuki was a man who knew what he wanted and usually got it. Until now.
He nearly sighed out loud as Nuriko's eyes raised to meet his and immediately dropped back down to the blanket. Chikusho... He studied Nuriko's face for another moment, and then he did sigh, Oh no... Not that look again...
Nuriko's eyes held such sadness, his posture so dejected, there was only one conclusion to draw. He was thinking about Hotohori. Damn it. That bastard doesn't deserve him. He never did. And what the Hell does Nuriko see in him, anyway? It just isn't fair. The Emperor will never understand him, never see him as anything more than a cross-dressing freak, and Nuriko won't see anyone else until the Emperor well and truly breaks his heart. But... I don't want that to happen! I don't want him to get hurt. Why don't you see me Nuriko? I see you...
He couldn't take the look in Nuriko's eyes any longer. Maybe in the long run it wouldn't make any difference, but he had to do something. Quietly, gently, he released Nuriko's hand and raised his own to brush against the older boy's cheek. Nuriko jerked in startlement, eyes wide, "What--?"
Tasuki moved his hand to cover Nuriko's lips with his fingers again, "Sh... 'Tsokay. I didn't mean ta scare ya. I just wanted your attention."
As Nuriko's body relaxed, Tasuki moved his fingers letting them make one more pass across Nuriko's cheek before taking Nuriko's hand back into his own. He took a deep breath, making sure that Nuriko was maintaining eye contact with him before continuing, "I got something to say to you. I think you need to hear it, I know I need to say it, but I don't think I'll have the guts to say it twice, so pay attention, OK?"
At Nuriko's nod, Tasuki flashed him a fang-filled grin, "Yosh'. Well, it occurred to me that with all that's happened I was makin' a few assumptions that might just not be true. So I think I need to clarify my intentions, na?"
Nuriko nodded again, his eyes starting to look a little panicky. Tasuki pressed on, "I gotta admit, Nuriko, you've fascinated me from the start. I knew you were special the first time I set my eyes on you, and nothing has happened to change my mind. You are special: not because you're a seishi, not because you're a noble, not because you were pretending to be a princess. You're special because you're you, Nuriko. You're beautiful, smart, brave, and you've got this inner fire that just won't go out. Who you are doesn't change with the clothes you wear, so should my feelings change?"
Nuriko looked like he might answer, but Tasuki ran right over his words, "They shouldn't, and they haven't. I'm not gonna try and analyze what they are, but they're there and they aren't going away. I care for you, Nuriko, and seeing you hurt, hurts me. So... I guess what I want to say is that I'm here for you, for whatever you need me for. I'm here."
At the purple-haired seishi's utterly dumbfounded look, Tasuki felt his cheeks start to grow hot. He dropped his gaze and mumbled, "And if I haven't just made a total fool of myself, I can always get out of bed and run through the Court with only my bandages on..."
That last comment startled a laugh out of Nuriko which Tasuki nervously joined. When they both sobered Tasuki moved to speak, but Nuriko shook his head, "Iie, Genrou... I think you've said enough. It's my turn, now."
He gently placed his fingers under Tasuki's chin and raised his head up so that Tasuki would meet his eyes. It was moments like these that he was abruptly reminded of how strong the delicate-looking seishi was. Nuriko cleared his throat and watched the younger boy with tear-bright eyes, "I... What you said... It means a lot to me. It really does. I... I never thought that you might feel that way, especially now that you know the truth about me. But... I don't know if I can return your feelings." Before Tasuki could react Nuriko shook his head, "I do feel... something... but I'm not really sure what it is. You're a good friend, Genrou, and I do care about you, but..."
This time, Tasuki did interrupt. He smiled, "That's all I need to know for now. You don't need to say anymore." He lightly squeezed Nuriko's hand, his heart already feeling a world's weight lighter. He had a chance. Nuriko knew how he felt and hadn't pulled away from him. And more importantly, he had admitted that he cared. For now, that was enough.
The purple-haired seishi seemed much more relaxed now. He had a joyful little glow about him that made Tasuki's heart warm in response. The sad shadows were gone from the older boy's eyes as if they had never been. He looked relaxed, happy, and more at peace than Tasuki had seen ever seen him look--excepting those rare moments when he caught Nuriko alone with Osozaki. It made his heart glad that he had caused that soft, happy look to spread through Nuriko's eyes, and for now, he was content to lay back and bask in it.
Nuriko quietly closed the door to Genrou's room, a happy little smile playing across his lips. He had gone to see Genrou to cheer him up, but Genrou had surprised him. Nuriko's hands rose to his lips and his smile widened. He was feeling a ridiculously strong urge to go running around the palace, shouting out his joy at the top of his lungs. Genrou cared from him, not in spite of his gender and not because of his gender, but just because he cared. He really cared.
He felt so full of joy, so full of energy, he just had to do something to let it out. If he didn't, he might burst. He ran down to the end of the hallway and leaned out over the railing, taking a deep breath of the fresh night air. It smelled like rain. Good. He knew Hotohori-sama had been worried about the lengthy dry spell. This would cheer him up.
His mind hitched on that thought and the happy smile fell from his face. Oh... oh, how could I have forgotten? In light of what had happened that day, how could he expect a little rain to cheer anyone up?
He leaned back against the pillar behind him and closed his eyes as a wave of guilt washed through him, Miaka... Gomen nasai... I have no right to be so happy, today of all days. How could I be so selfish?
In sudden remorse, Nuriko stretched out his mind to check on Miaka. Fear quickly replaced his earlier guilt. He couldn't feel Miaka. Where her mind should have been, he sensed only blackness. His heart dropped somewhere into the vicinity of his stomach and started to race. No... I won't lose her again. Not again! He vaulted the railing, landing lightly on his feet. He started to run, only barely noticing when the heavens opened up and let loose a torrent.
The rain quickly soaked through his tunic and saturated his braid which started to thump painfully against his back as he ran. He didn't notice. All that mattered was reaching Miaka. That sense of blankness wasn't much to go on, but it was enough to give him a direction to run. It didn't take long to realize that he was on a straight line course for the Lake. Kami-sama, now I know you have a sense of irony... His mind flashed back on a night several months ago, a night when a selfish, jealous, and bitter woman had nearly sent Miaka to her death in that Lake. That night had marked the first time, the beginning of Nuriko's soul-deep connection to his Miko. He couldn't help but feel that it was somehow appropriate that they should come full circle to this point. He could only pray that this incident would end as happily as the last.
Nuriko vaguely heard a voice somewhere behind him yelling Miaka's name in fear. He didn't have the time or inclination to stop and see who it was. His whole being was filled with a dreadful certainty--his imouto was drowning and he wasn't going to get there in time to save her. And he couldn't let that happen.
He pushed his legs to move faster, even as his lungs started to scream for air. He needed faster legs... He needed Osozaki. Nuriko sent his mind casting around for the mare and desperately hoped that she was within reach. She was. Not only was she close, but she was getting closer with every beat of his heart. Not for the first time, Nuriko thanked the gods for the bright little mare and how she always seemed to be exactly where he needed her to be. The thunder of her hoofbeats soon covered the frantic beat of his own footfalls. Nuriko nearly fainted with relief. Bless you, Hana...
His right hand reached up to grab at Osozaki's mane and Nuriko vaulted himself onto her back, immediately molding his upper body to her neck and withers and urging her to run faster. They'd practiced maneuvers like this often enough in their youth that it was practically second nature to both of them. He felt a momentary surge of joy at the sense of wholeness and completeness that he always felt when working with Osozaki like this, but it was quickly squashed under the weight of his fear for Miaka.
Now he at least had a chance. He took the momentary respite for what it was and forced his breathing back under control. He would need as much air as he could take into his lungs very shortly. He started not a moment too soon. They were coming up on the Lake and fast.
Nuriko eased Osozaki out of her mad gallop into a smoother, slower canter. It would take every bit of both their abilities and every ounce of their partnership to make this maneuver work. If something went wrong one, or both, of them would be severely hurt... but Miaka didn't have time for him to try anything safer.
As Osozaki began to swing into a smooth arc that would carry her to the very edge of the lake, Nuriko pulled his legs up underneath him and took in the deepest breath that he could. Then, when Osozaki reached the zenith of her arc, Nuriko gathered his strength, boosted his ki, and dove straight into the lake from Osozaki's back.
The transition from the thunder-filled, wind-whipped air to the silent, icy-cold darkness of the water nearly drove all the air from Nuriko's body, but he buckled down and pressed forward. He could barely make out the form of Miaka's limp body several feet below him. Fear gave him the strength he needed to kick forwards and reach her. He pulled her to him, then desperately drove for the surface, terrified by Miaka's lack of response.
When their heads broke the surface he wrapped one arm around Miaka's shoulder, shook his hair from his eyes, and swam for the shore as quickly as he could. By the time he reached the bank most of the seishi had arrived. Someone tried to pull Miaka from his arms, but he couldn't make himself let go, not until he knew she was all right. He turned Miaka onto her side and firmly started pushing on her back. After a few tense moments, she took in a deep gulp of air and immediately started heaving up a lungful of water.
Nuriko pulled her back against him, his heart nearly pounding out of his chest with the strength of the relief that he felt. Miaka stirred weakly in his arms, opened her grief-darkened eyes long enough to focus on him, then passed out again. That one look told him all he needed to know. His heart spasmed in shared pain. Miaka had done this to herself... With that one realization all his strength left him and the cold air hit him like a fist to the gut.
He didn't protest as Hotohori-sama pulled Miaka out of his arms and wrapped her in one of the blankets that Mitsukake had brought. He didn't make a sound as Mitsukake took the second blanket and wrapped it around his own shuddering frame, nor when Chiriko gently started rubbing some warmth back into his arms and legs. He hardly took note of anything until Osozaki lightly nuzzled his neck with her velvety soft muzzle. That one touch brought him abruptly out of his shock and filled him with concern for the mare. He stood up quickly--a little too quickly, apparently--and nearly tottered right off his slightly numb feet. He caught himself on Osozaki's strong, steady form, then immediately started checking her over for any signs of injury. To his immense relief, he found none. She wasn't even breathing hard. He lightly caressed the mare's ears, neck, and face, telling her over and over what a beautiful, strong, brave, and wonderful mare she was. She melted under the praise, ears and body canted forward to absorb every word and caress.
Eventually Nuriko felt the blanket wrapped back around his shoulders and a pair of arms pulling him away from Osozaki. Before he could resist, Mitsukake's reassuring bass rumble filled his ear, "Daijoubu, Nuriko-san, daijoubu. Chichiri-san went to fetch the stablemaster. They will take good care of your horse. After tonight, she'll be treated like royalty. So now you need to let me take care of you. If we don't get you into some dry clothes and in front of a roaring fire soon, you'll catch your death of pneumonia."
Nuriko looked up into the Healer's stern face, trying to process the flow of words. They finally penetrated when he saw Kechiko draping a full blanket over Osozaki's back and slowly leading her back to the stables. She turned her head back only once to nicker softly at him--a gentle reprimand for continuing to stand outside in the rain. He smiled, pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders and turned back to look up at Mitsukake, "Hai, Mitsukake-san. I'm sorry for causing so much trouble..."
Chiriko made his presence known with an indignant splutter, "Are you kidding? If you hadn't gotten here as fast as you had, Miaka-sama would be dead now! You were incredible, Nuriko-san! I've never seen anyone do what you did--I didn't even know it was possible to slingshot into a dive from the back of a moving horse. Where did you learn how to ride like that?"
Nuriko was prevented from answering as Mitsukake scooped him up into his strong arms and began walking back towards the Palace. Nuriko blushed, but his body was exhausted and cold enough that he didn't object. Instead, he curled himself against Mitsukake's broad chest and tried to burrow into the Healer's warmth. Mitsukake tightened his arms around the smaller man in reassurance. As if that were an unspoken cue, a wave of sleepiness swept over him. So much had happened today and he was so tired... It didn't take long for him to drift off to sleep, safe in Mitsukake's arms.
Hotohori quietly closed the door to Miaka's room and leaned back against it with a sigh. He hadn't wanted to leave Miaka's side, but Mitsukake had all but ordered him to go join the rest of the seishi in his private audience chamber. Even the Emperor needed to warm up after the night's events. So, reluctantly, he had left the sleeping Miaka in the Healer's capable hands.
He slowly began walking towards the audience chamber, emotions churning for more than one reason. The bitter truth was he hadn't done anything tonight. He hadn't even known there was anything wrong until he brought some food to Miaka's room and found her missing. The rest of the seishi had felt his fear and reacted, immediately assembling to search for their missing Miko. Nuriko had been conspicuous by his absence.
They wasted precious moments searching the palace and surrounding grounds. A sudden flash of insight drove the Emperor towards the lake. It was then that he found Nuriko. He had caught up to the feminine seishi just in time to see him vault up onto his little bay mare and take off at a flat out gallop for the lake. Most of him was grateful that Nuriko would reach Miaka in time... but a very small part was caught up in a wave of jealousy. That same part that had earlier whispered into his ear, saying, ~Well... this is perfect. What better way to make a woman fall in love with you than to save her life?~
But he hadn't gotten a chance. By the time he reached the lake, Nuriko was already crawling up onto the bank with Miaka in his arms. The slender young man looked anything but feminine now. His hair was loose and tangled as it fell about his small frame, his tunic was plastered to the flat planes of his chest, and the look in his eyes was one of fierce protectiveness. He had seen that look only once before in Nuriko's eyes... when he'd punched his fist straight through a solid brick wall to save Miaka from Eiken.
He had tried to pull Miaka from Nuriko's arms, desperately wanting to be the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes. He should have known he was no match for Nuriko's strength. So Nuriko was the one Miaka saw when she opened her eyes. And whatever it was that Nuriko saw in those eyes... the look on his face shifted from that fierce protectiveness to an equally fierce grief. Whatever he saw in Miaka's eyes had frozen him to the core. His arms had become lax, no longer clutching Miaka to him like a lifeline. It was then easy for Hotohori to pull his beloved from the other seishi's arms. Trusting that Mitsukake would follow, he had gathered Miaka into his arms and headed quickly back to her room to dry her off and tuck her into bed.
Not once during Hotohori's hectic flight or his subsequent gentle care had Miaka opened her eyes. He couldn't decide if that was a good thing or a bad thing. After all, if whatever he had seen in them had caused Nuriko to go into shock, then maybe he didn't want to know what the other seishi had seen. It was cowardly. It was unworthy of him. But he couldn't help thinking that way, because there was only one thing that he could think of that could cause Miaka such extreme distress. And if she had thrown herself into the frigid, rain-swelled waters of the lake because of her grief over Tamahome... then Hotohori didn't want to know.
Upon reaching the audience chamber, the Emperor pushed the door open, only now starting to wonder what he was going to say to Nuriko. The other seishi deserved a sincere thanks at the very least, but Hotohori wasn't really feeling up to giving him one. Not with that bitter jealousy still burning in his breast. And nothing less than true sincerity would be appropriate. Nuriko would detect it, it would hurt him... and Hotohori found himself loathe to do anything that would hurt the other man any more than he already had.
Trusting in his instincts to guide him to the right words when it was time to utter them, Hotohori finished opening the door. The sight that met his eyes was warm and comforting. Nuriko was curled up on a pillow by the fire, Tasuki and Chiriko clustered around him and fussing. He wore a long-suffering expression on his face as Chiriko placed another pillow behind him. Chichiri was deep in conversation with Emi as they prepared a pot of tea.
The whole scene gave off the aura of family. Hotohori froze in the doorway, suddenly feeling like an uninvited guest. After all, what business did he have trying to be friends with these people? He was the Emperor. He wasn't supposed to need friends. A quiet voice spoke up from deep within him, a voice he'd thought long buried, ~But I want friends...~ His hands clenched into fists as a brief internal battle took place. Assistance came form an unexpected source.
Nuriko had risen from his seat, amidst a flurry of protests, and walked over to stand in front of him, the very picture of calm and grace. He offered Hotohori a gentle smile and wrapped his left arm around the Emperor's right, pulling him into the room. His voice was soft and soothing, a balm to Hotohori's troubled spirit, "Won't you join us, Hotohori-sama? We were just about to have some tea... once Emi and Chichiri-san manage to decide which is the best for fighting off a cold..." He offered the afore-mentioned an impish grin as he pulled Hotohori past them.
Hotohori watched Nuriko with a bemused expression on his face. Not that this was unusual--Nuriko always confused him. At first, Nuriko had aroused only his anger and distrust, back before he had proven how trustworthy he really was. Eventually, Hotohori had begun to trust him with even more than his seishi responsibilities. Somehow, in spite of all the odds being against him, the indigo-haired, feminine seishi had wormed his way into the Emperor's heart. With a start, Hotohori realized that no matter what his mind might think, his soul already considered Nuriko a friend. For, of all the seishi, Nuriko was the only one who truly understood him, the only one who had lived in his world and understood the restraints it placed upon him.
Nuriko tapped his arm lightly and Hotohori blinked. The smaller seishi smiled at his distracted expression and handed him a cup of tea. He took it, continuing to observe Nuriko's face and trying to catch his eyes. Once he succeeded he spent a moment searching Nuriko's gaze. Back when Nuriko had first come to Court, he had seen a kindred spirit in his eyes--a soul just as lonely, just as lost, and just as trapped as his own. He was caught by a sudden need to know if it was still there.
He had expected to be disappointed. After all, each condition that they had shared no longer applied to Nuriko. He was no longer trapped by the Court, he was no longer lost--he was at least more secure in the knowledge of who he was and what his place was--and he was certainly no longer lonely. He had Tamahome, Tasuki, Mitsukake, Chichiri, and Chiriko... He had special friendships with each and every one of them. He was practically the social center of their little group. And he had Miaka. Their relationship was so deep... and it had developed right under the Emperor's nose, yet he hadn't noticed until it was too late. So surely, with all of those friends around him, Nuriko could no longer be lonely. But... he had to know for sure. He could see the confusion in Nuriko's eyes as he continued to gaze into them. He waited for the confusion to fade. It didn't take long. Under the weight of Hotohori's gaze, Nuriko's eyes softened, revealing their secrets.
What he saw rocked him to the core. It was as if the cheerful, social butterfly that he normally thought of Nuriko as being... didn't exist. He was as much a mask as Chichiri's smiling kitsune face. And beneath the mask... Nuriko was still trapped, only now by the very mask he'd just allowed to fall away. He was still lost and still lonely. But... how could he be lonely with all of the people who cared for him?
Before he could say or do anything in response to the sadness in his friend's gaze Nuriko broke their eye contact and proceeded to direct his expressive eyes to the floor where they couldn't betray him any further. Time sped back up to its normal pace and Nuriko's mask slipped back into place without missing a beat. He immediately sat next to Chiriko and launched into a tale of how he'd trained Osozaki to do some of the things that they'd done that evening.
As he sat down and then bent to take a sip of his tea, Hotohori became aware of a light prickling sensation running up his spine. Someone was watching him, and very intently. He looked up to find Tasuki's gaze doing its best to bore holes into him. Tasuki looked... furious. Not the hot flare of passion that the bandit displayed on a regular basis. This was true anger. He had the sudden disturbing feeling that if the bandit had been feeling a bit stronger, and if he had found Hotohori alone, that the words "extra crispy" would be somewhere in the Emperor's immediate future. He looked almost... jealous-- Masaka! His eyes flickered over to Nuriko and back to Tasuki. The bandit's glare intensified. But... but... Nuriko is a man!
In theory he knew it was possible for a man to love another man, but... he had never understood why one would want to. He'd known that Nuriko had been chasing him as Lady Kourin, but when the purple-haired seishi had been revealed to be a man, Hotohori had thought that that was over. Sure, Nuriko still flirted with him and clung to him, but he did that to all of the seishi to some extent. The only one he didn't tease that way was Miaka. But maybe--if Tasuki's angry glare was anything to go by--Nuriko had really meant it when he'd flirted with the Emperor. Maybe it wasn't a game. Maybe... maybe that was why the loneliness in Nuriko's eyes so closely mirrored his own. It was the loneliness of unrequited love.
With that last thought, Hotohori's mind ground to a halt. It wasn't possible. He had to be reading too much into all this. He just had to be. He surged to his feet and stammered out a quick apology and something about having to check on Miaka. He then fled the room--and Nuriko's hurt gaze--as quickly as his dignity would allow.