Initial Notes from 5/21/98:
Hey everyone! ^_^ Due to the wonderful response I got to my first FY fic, I finally decided to write a sequel. I had intended it to be much shorter, but it didn't turn out that way. This sequel is going to be a several part work, the way it turned out. Please don't shoot me. (I know that the fans of my SM fanfics will gladly do it for you...) It will contain spoilers for a whole load of stuff - so if you don't like spoilers, then this isn't a fic you should read.

You can read this fic without reading "Sacred Trust" first, but it will make more sense to you if you've read my other fic.

Part of the idea for this fic came out of a random comment that Nuriko made in Episode 32 and the idea kind of grew out of all proportion to reality. I hope I don't freak you out too much. ^_^ Uh... I think that's it... {shrug} Hope I didn't forget anything...

Disclaimer: None of these characters belong to me (except for Emi, Kechiko, "Kourin's" adoptive parents, and Osozaki) - they are all property of Watase Yuu.

March 24, 2009: Wow... It's been quite some time since those early days, hasn't it? In 2 months, it will be 11 years since I first posted Osozaki Blooms to the web and 12 years since I posted my first fanfic (the prologue to Generals' Hour). So very much has changed since then, both in my life and in the world. I was a young, fresh-faced, eager and innocent college student then, taking my first steps out into the world but still very much attached to the apron strings. Now, I am a veterinarian with several years experience under my belt. I've saved lives and I've ended them. I've fought that battle more times than I can count. It's amazing how much that changes you... and how little it changes you at all. One thing I can say is that I look at life differently now, and subsequently, I look at my writing differently. I still love angst (Lordy, do I still love angst ^_^), but I no longer feel it necessary for my characters to "burst into inconsolable sobs" every other paragraph. *gags* Life is tragic enough, I don't need that kind of thing in my writing, too.

So, what's the point you ask? Well, I've decided that with this more mature outlook and the more refined style that my writing now has, I'd like to salvage this fanfic. I loved it once, to a great extent I love it still... and I'd like to finish something in my life. For whatever reason, my mind has hooked on needing closure on this fanfic. Goodness only knows why. Posts will, by necessity, happen slower as I intend to take a great deal of time and care with this rewrite. After all... I don't want to do it a second time. ^_~ So, I hope you like it!

Osozaki Blooms -- Chapter 1
by Renée-chan

The young woman shifted in her saddle and contemplated the road ahead of her. It forked in three directions: left, right, and straight. She looked down at the map in her hands and frowned, not having remembered seeing this road configuration anywhere on said document. The fiery bay mare beneath her stamped her right forehoof and snorted. The woman immediately laid a hand on her neck and patted her, "Easy there, girl. It's OK." She hopped down from the lady-saddle and looped the horse's reins over her neck, holding them loosely in her hand. She walked closer to the crossroads, staring at the choices and frowning.

The last time she had come this way she had been 10 years old and just leaving her family. She'd been... well, more than a little distraught at the time. Even now, seven years later, the memory of what had forced her to leave her otherwise happy home still had the power to bring tears to her eyes, ready and willing to fall. It might have been almost a decade since that tragedy, but her grief was undiminished. She had tried to forget, tried to bury herself in her new life, but deep inside herself, she knew that she never could. Deep in her heart, she knew that she wouldn't want to.

Refusing to let the wetness gathered in the corners of her eyes turn into anything more, the woman mounted and resettled her legs into their proper positions on the side-saddle. She looked once more at the map and then at the waning sunlight. Well, I need to find somewhere to sleep, and the right fork at least goes in the general direction that I wish to travel. I'll have to try that way and hope that I find a village soon... Not entirely thrilled with her decision but seeing no other choice, she urged her tired horse into a canter. The trip had been a long one for both mare and girl and she was more than ready to reach her destination and be done with it. Not for the first time on this journey, she cursed the sense of pride that had forced her to reject her parents' offer of a palanquin and guards. But really, with this to be her last taste of freedom before submitting herself to life at Court, she knew she couldn't have done it any other way.

However, even the girl wouldn't fool herself into believing that it wasn't relief that she felt when she saw lights ahead of her on the road. She urged her horse onward, and the mare, catching her eagerness, put on a burst of speed. Her urgency quickly faded into fear, however, when she saw what those lights revealed. She jerked her horse to a stop and slid off the saddle, one word escaping her lips in a shocked whisper, "Bandits!" She pulled her horse behind some bushes and knelt down, watching them closely, her heartbeat thundering in her ears.

It was no secret that with times as difficult as they had been, the number of bandits preying on travelers had increased. Even sheltered as she had been in her parents' country home, she had known. Every season the merchants brought more and more horror stories of caravans ambushed, goods stolen, guards murdered... and young women carried off to satisfy the craven appetites of those who lived in the shadows. Being young and being stronger than most, she had deceived herself into believing she was above such worries. More fool she.

Pushing the leaves of the bush aside, she vowed to make the best she could of a bad situation. If she were lucky, maybe she could slip by unnoticed. She and her mare were not so exhausted that they could not push on a little further this night. All she had to do was wait until the moment was opportune and make her way past the camp. A quick visual survey of the bandit camp showed most of its inhabitants sprawled around a campfire in varying states of drunkenness. Though such a display disgusted her, at least in this instance, it would work to her advantage. All she had to do was sit and wait. Soon they would all be inebriated enough that they wouldn't even notice her passing. She settled in to wait.

As she watched the bandits drink themselves further and further from their good senses, she couldn't help but shudder. Why anyone would want to do such a thing to their body, she could not understand. Even ignoring the vulnerable state into which it put one... the things one could clearly be convinced to do when inebriated were embarrassing. Her seven years of living at a noble's court had definitely refined her sensibilities. Being childless, the lord and lady she had taken refuge with had treated her as their own. Her adoptive mother taught her everything she needed to know about how the nobility expected their daughters to act... even if her father nearly ruined that training by indulging her love of horses -- one that was matched only by his own. But that was something they didn't exactly discuss at the dinner table. By the time her tenure there had ended, she had almost forgotten her own lowborn heritage. Safe in the arms of her new family, she was able, perhaps not to forget, but at least to breathe, to live... to reclaim some small shred of happiness.

Then this year, that all changed. A royal messenger was visiting all the highborn families to tell them that the young Emperor's advisors were gathering the most beautiful young women of the country to live at Court. They were to be potential brides for the young Emperor, Saihitei. For any noble family, much less one that had fallen on hard times as theirs had, this was a dream come true. It was a possible door into the luxuries of life at Court. So, naturally, when Kourin's adoptive parents had heard the news, they had been overjoyed and had sent for her at once, certain their fortunes were about to change. When the messenger set eyes upon her, they lit up with a calculating joy. He had fawned over her the entire evening, certain that once the Emperor saw her beauty, the question of the next Empress would be answered. There would be a royal procession in the capital -- everyone would want to see the Emperor's new bride.

Kourin had blushed and humbly denied his gushing compliments until that point. At the mention of the words "royal procession" she had felt her face drain of color. Unable and unwilling to explain why she was suddenly so discomfited, she asked to be excused. She could feel her parents' concerned eyes following her as she all but ran from the room. When she reached the haven of her own suite, she collapsed onto the bed, shaking. "Kourin..." She had lost her only sister because of a "royal procession" -- ironically enough, one planned to show off the young prince Saihitei. The thought of being asked to parade before him as a possible bride made her more than a little ill. After all, he had been responsible for her sister's death!

And even were that not the case, she did not wish to go to Court for her own sake. She could not fool herself into thinking that she would enjoy the kind of freedom at Court that she did here. There would be no more mid-afternoon rides through the fields, no more helping her father with his work training the horses and certainly no more displays of her very unfeminine strength. There would be no more mention of her own special heritage. Knowing the unusual circumstances of their adoptive daughter's existence, how could they even ask such a thing of her? How? Miserably she answered her own question, Because they took you in when you had nothing. They gave you a life you could be proud of. They gave you the opportunity to make something of yourself -- something exactly like this. And now that this chance has come, accepting it is the only way you can repay them. Caught in the strands of her own web, she curled into a miserable ball and eventually fell into a very troubled sleep.

The next morning, she had awoken feeling numb. Not wanting the presence of even her maid around her, she had dressed quietly and had done her own hair. She walked into the dining room, head bowed with the weight of the future she felt pressing down upon her. She knelt before her parents, "Honored father, Honored mother, I am sorry. I did not mean to cause you shame." She choked off her voice before she could add the words -- "Don't ask me to go to the capital, please!" -- that were desperately trying to escape her throat. Having come to this decision last night, she knew she didn't dare say that aloud, no matter how desperately she might still wish to. Firming her resolve, she instead bowed her head and fell silent.

Her mother was the one who responded and, to her misery, she did of course ask, "Kourin-chan, we only want the best for you. You know that. That has been true since you first came to us, wandering and alone. We have been overjoyed to have you with us these seven years -- your presence has made a family where before there was only emptiness." Tipping Kourin's face up to meet her gaze, her mother's eyes softened, "But though that is no less true today than it was yesterday, it is also true that there is no future for you here, no chance to better yourself or this family. But child, if you were to be Empress..." Her voice trailed off.

Kourin nodded, feeling that strange numbness spread over her. She forced a whisper out of her throat as it was rapidly closing, "If that is my parents' wish, then I can do naught else. I owe you both so much, more than I can ever repay. If this is what you truly desire then, of course, I will obey."

Her father smiled, "I will prepare an escort immediately."

Kourin smiled sadly and shook her head, slowly turning her eyes to meet her father's, "I am not that helpless, Otou-san, not like other girls. At ten I arrived here alone, at seventeen I can certainly leave the same way."

Her father frowned, "But what will the Emperor think -- a woman traveling all the way to the capital, alone? Surely, we have managed to teach you better than that."

Kourin looked up again, slowly pulling down the neckline of her dress to reveal her glowing seishi symbol, "And surely you have not forgotten this? How I saved your life when you were trapped under that rockslide?" She let her dress fall back into place, "I appreciate your concern, but I can handle myself. I am a Suzaku Seishi -- surely once the Emperor knows that, he will forgive this one slip of unladylike behavior. After all, the young Emperor is a seishi as well. He will understand." With that she stood, "If that is all, I will go pack my things. I will take my leave of you this afternoon."

Feeling exhausted from both the long ride and her forced inaction, Kourin came only slowly out of her reverie as the bandits began settling in for the night. She had begun to get stiff and tired sitting here in the bushes. She clutched the reins of her horse tighter, determined not to let go of the mare. Osozaki had been a gift from her adoptive father and was the only true friend she had. She patted Osozaki's nose, trying to keep her quiet and herself awake. The name had been a pun, she remembered. Her father had always called her his 'hana', his flower. And her mother would jokingly answer that no, she was no hana -- she was an osozaki, a late blooming flower, for she had come to them so late in life. She smiled at the memory of her parents' teasing laughter.

Unfortunately, with her continuing inattentiveness, she didn't hear the bandit coming up behind her, not until it was far too late. She never even saw the blow that knocked her into unconsciousness.

When Kourin awoke, it was to the unpleasant feeling of having her hands and feet bound behind her. And when the hard surface beneath her left cheek proved to be the ground, she sat up quickly, disgusted. With a sigh, she remembered her words to her father, ~I am not that helpless, Otou-san, not like other girls. At ten I arrived here alone, at seventeen I can certainly leave the same way.~ But apparently, that was not so. In all the ways that mattered, she had proved herself to be exactly like other girls. Turning her disgust on herself, she again almost wished that she had accepted his offer of an escort. Well, there was no help for it, now. She had chosen to make this journey unaccompanied because she wanted one last taste of freedom before subduing her every uniqueness into the perfect mask of a lady. It looked like fate had conspired to give her that chance.

Unfortunately, before she could gather her seishi power to break the bonds on her wrists, one of the bandits took notice of her increased activity. He strolled over, laughing quietly, "Well, what have we here? Our lovely young lady is awake and unattended. That just will not do. Mind if I come in? Not at all - I'd love to have the company of such a handsome gentleman as yourself. Why thank you!" As he knelt down beside her, his lips spread wide to reveal two rows of gleaming white teeth. Then, as though he could not help himself, he reached out a hand to finger a lock of her hair that had come loose from the braid it had been confined in for traveling, "You have most unusual hair, young lady. A beautiful shade -- I've always been partial to purple..." He lifted the hair to his lips and kissed it, suave as any courtier.

This was not a situation for which Kourin had been prepared. Seven years ago times had not been this tough, the bandits not as numerous, the roads not as dangerous. Seven years ago, she had been ten years old -- a prize, perhaps, but only as a ransoming chip. Now seven years later and, were she to believe what the young travelers said of her, possessed of an unearthly beauty, even she knew that she had a different sort of value. Plagued by memories of stories told by those same travelers, she began to shake, "W-what do you want from me?"

Before he could answer, another voice called out from off to the left. The blue-haired bandit in front of her lifted his head and smiled at the owner of the voice, "Come over here, Genrou! You've gotta see what the other boys brought in last night! For a change, it seems they did something right!"

A fiery-haired boy stepped into view, a long black coat obscuring most of his frame. His smile revealed one delicately pointed fang. Kourin suppressed another shiver as he walked over to join them, "Hey, Kouji. What's all the excitement about?"

The other man's youthful appearance and the gentility threading through his voice gave Kourin a sense of renewed hope. She tried to catch his eyes, pleading in her own chocolate brown gaze. Much to her dismay, however, he ignored her desperate look and instead reached out his hand to tilt her head from side to side, examining her face. This time his smile widened enough to reveal both of his fangs, "She's quite a catch, Kouji -- and if I don't miss my guess, she's court-bred. She'll fetch a ransom big enough to keep us all fed for a month!" His grin took on a lewd slant, "And if I'm wrong, she's at least pretty enough to keep the Leader happy enough that he won't mind!"

Kourin felt her fear shifting slowly to anger as the two shared a laugh at her expense. She might be a lady. She might one day be meant to spend the rest of her life as an ornament in some man's harem. But that day was not today. That place was not here. Here, today, she was Kourin. And though these fools didn't know it, she was also Nuriko. Her eyes began to blaze as the laughter of the bandits roared around her. Ignoring the two, she focused her chi the way her sensei had taught her so very long ago...

Genrou stared at the girl as she fumed, torn between feeling amusement at her impotent fury and pity for her sad fate. However, before he could decide which emotion would win he felt a gathering of power the likes of which he hadn't felt in a long time. And it was coming from the girl! Her chi began to rise, rolling off her in great waves. Genrou grabbed Kouji and pulled him away as the girl began to glow with a fierce red light, "Shit, Kouji! What the hell were the guys thinking? Are they all fucking crazy? This woman's a damned Suzaku Seishi!!"

As though his words were a cue that she had been awaiting, the woman tore her bonds asunder and surged to her feet. Fury blazed in her eyes. She screamed in anger and flashed her hand towards Kouji, nails outstretched. He yelped, grabbing at the ragged wound her fingernails had left on his cheek. Her voice was cold and deeper than he expected when she spoke, "How dare you lay your hands on me, you filthy pig! None of you are even fit to groom my horse! You'll pay for this indignity!"

Genrou cursed under his breath. He grabbed Kouji's sleeve and pulled his friend's ear up to his lips. Whispering harshly, he said, "So help me, Kouji, you'd better follow my instructions to the letter or we're all dead meat." At Kouji's look of comprehension, he continued, "Go get her horse. Make sure that all of her belongings are packed just as they were before she was brought in and get her some extra trail supplies. I'll see what I can do to calm her down before she tears the camp apart." Kouji nodded and ran off.

Turning back to the irate woman, he raised his empty hands, "I'm bankin' on the fact that you don't really want to hurt me, lady. I sure hope I'm right." When she made no move to do him harm, Genrou dropped his hands to his sides, "You gave us a bit of a shock just now, I'll give you that. There aren't so many seishi around and we sure don't expect to find 'em as pretty as you." His fanged grin faded as his words brought her hands back up in fists. He started talking again, just any soothing nonsense he could think of, like she was some overwrought mare -- not an unapt comparison at the moment, "I'll be the first to admit that we didn't treat you as we ought just now. Times are tough and we've had to toughen up to match 'em. Kouji doesn't really mean any harm -- he just likes to mess around with people. It's his way of blowin' off steam, of tryin' to forget all the nastier things we've had to do to keep ourselves safe and fed, y'know?" Pausing for a moment to take in the richness of her clothes, he slumped, "But I guess you wouldn't, would ya? And that's the point." He pointed at the jade necklace that hung in its place around her neck, "That bauble alone could have fed us and our families for days, not to mention the money we'd have gotten from your ransom." He stopped talking to gauge her reaction to his words. To his surprise, the angry glow had faded from around her and some pity of her own was starting to show in her eyes. When she made no move to threaten him, he found himself smiling, "My name is Genrou, what's yours?"

The glow faded completely. Her voice returned to what he presumed to be its normal, husky lilt, "Kourin." She allowed her fists to relax and her eyes dropped demurely to the ground, "And Genrou... I am not so callous to your plight as you may think." At his startled look, she continued, "These times are difficult all around. My own family is not so well to do as you imagine. In fact, though my father tried to keep me unaware of it, I am certain that most of our wealth went into outfitting me for this journey."

Genrou's eyes widened, "And he didn't send you with an escort to protect that investment?"

The young woman flushed hotly from her cheeks up to the tips of her ears, "He wished to. And with each passing hour, I see the wisdom in that offer more and more."

Genrou couldn't help but laugh. If he'd thought the girl was beautiful when angry, she was unspeakably adorable when she was flustered. It made her seem softer and now that the threat was past, he couldn't help but be a little attracted. It wasn't just her looks, either -- though she was undeniably a great beauty -- it was her spirit as well. Most women, even if they were one of the Suzaku Shichi-seishi, would not have been willing to make any journey alone, much less be able to deal with a situation such as the one Lady Kourin had found herself in with such aplomb. Which begged the question... "If I may be so bold, where were you headin' when we stopped you?"

Much to his surprise, the girl's eyes took on a sorrowful look and her shoulders drooped, "I go to the Palace, Genrou. It is my parents' wish that I become a Court Princess, a potential bride for the young Emperor."

And with that one explanation it all made sense. Of course she wished to make this journey alone. It would be the last taste of freedom she would ever know. Genrou knew the fate that awaited a woman going to Court for such a purpose -- in many ways she would be worse off there than if she were taken by bandits as a ransom prize. At least the bandits would eventually let her go free. And that such a strong, independent spirit should be locked away like that, never able to show her power, never able to display her wit, never able to be herself... It was criminal. Genrou found himself filling with an irrational anger. But, it wasn't his place to get involved and the girl probably wouldn't thank him if he did. If she wanted to throw her life away like that, so be it!

Kouji's return spared him from trying to put any of that into words. He took the reins of the girl's mare from his friend and checked over her equipment and supplies. All present and accounted for. Turning back to face Lady Kourin, he was unprepared for the understanding and mute joy in her eyes. She placed a hand against his cheek in a soft caress, "Thank you, Genrou. For your caring. For your anger." She leaned close and whispered in his ear, "I won't forget it. I, Nuriko, swear it." With those last words, she swung up into the saddle and nudged her mare into a slow canter, as though she were as sorry to leave as he was to see her go. He couldn't help but feel that a small piece of himself went with her.

Kouji slowly made his way back to the tent he shared with Genrou. Genrou was busily shoving things into packs and rolling up his bedroll. Kouji put a hand on his arm, "What do you think you're doing?"

Genrou jerked his arm out of his friend's grasp, "Packing. What the hell does it look like?"

Kouji sat down on Genrou's bed and raised an eyebrow, "I can see that much, my friend. But why are you packing?"

Genrou sighed and stopped his furious activity, plopping down onto his bed, "I need to get away from here for a while. I'll come back, Kouji, you know I will. I know the Leader wants me to succeed him, and I want to please him... I just can't be here right now, OK?"

Kouji smiled and patted his shoulder, knowing, even if Genrou didn't, that it was a pair of beautiful brown eyes that were chasing his friend away from their home, but he refrained from saying anything. If Genrou had fallen for the young lady -- and it was the first time that his young friend had fallen for any lady -- it was better for him to get it out of his system on his own terms. He laughed, "I think that's the first speech I've heard you make in a long time that didn't include one curse word!"

In the knock-down, drag-out fight that ensued, Genrou proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that his vocabulary was still up to specs.

Two weeks on the road... It's enough to tire anyone out, Kourin thought to herself. She rubbed the back of her neck and yawned. The sun had set 30 minutes ago, but she had been able to see the Palace by then and with no other place to stop between the road and the Palace but the capitol of Eiyo... she pressed onwards. She was not ready to take on all that that stop would imply. She was not ready to take the chance of meeting... certain people. And once she was safely at Court, the odds of that happening would drop from slim to none.

Still... as she approached the gates she suddenly felt a surge of heart-stopping fear. Could she really go through with this? Once she set foot inside those gates, her life as she knew it was over. Never again would she be able to roam as she pleased. Never would she be able to call her life her own. No amount of luxury, no amount of comfort could be worth that! Her heart began to beat a rapid, panicked tattoo just beneath where her seishi symbol would normally burn. She didn't have to do this. She really didn't. That deeply buried part of herself -- the part that knew the true reason why she did not wish to return to Eiyo, that knew why she had departed to begin with -- silently shrieked in defiance as it felt the walls begin to close in. She... she couldn't do this. She couldn't. Burning with shame, she began to turn Osozaki's head back towards the open road, determined to find that enclave of bandits and convince them that she'd changed her mind and would rather stay with them as a disgraced young woman should. However, just before she could send Osozaki back out into the deepening night, a young man stepped up next to her, holding up a lantern, and took the decision right out of her hands. He put a hand on Osozaki's reins and smiled up at her. Kourin nearly burst into tears.

Completely misinterpreting the reason for her distress, the young man patted her hand as he pulled it free from her horse's reins, "M'lady Kourin, I'm glad to see that you made it here safely. The roads are very dangerous this time of night. Bandits and slave traders prowl this area, looking for pretty young woman like yourself. You are lucky you made it this far with no escort. You will never have to travel under these conditions again. It's a promise."

He helped her to dismount, then took Osozaki's reins from her. He nodded over at his fellow guardsman who raised his lantern and smiled. He bowed to her, "I'll take your horse to the stables and see that your things are brought inside. Toshio will see that you get safely to a room for the night. You need no longer be afraid. From here on in, you will be watched over and cared for."

She nodded dumbly as she watched the guard lead her horse away. She couldn't help the sinking feeling that filled her body, the leaden sickness that filled her stomach. Far from being reassuring, the guards' words had only deepened her dread. Knowing that she had just lost her last chance to escape this trap of her own making, she almost passed out. But such action was unbefitting. If she could face down an entire bandit camp and walk away unscathed, she could handle a palace. She squared her shoulders and straightened her back draping the dignity of her position about her like a mantle. Toshio held a hand out to her, and she placed her arm through his, smiling her thanks, and allowed him to lead her inside. And so, Fate has its say in the life I will lead. Somehow, I will make the best of this. I will.

That night, she was put up in a guest room. Being so late, she could not be presented at Court and without that technicality taken care of, she could not be assigned a permanent position. No matter. This night would give her the time she would need to begin to pack away her old dreams... her old desires... her old life. She would have no further need for any of them. Except for one. She unbraided her hair and ran a brush through it -- Kourin's brush. This... this one piece of her life, she could never bear to leave behind. After all, it was the very reason she was here to begin with. Kourin would have enjoyed this, every moment of it from the lushness of the Court to her near escape from the bandits. Her sister had wanted to be a lady and go on adventures. Deep into her melancholy, she turned the brush over in her hands and read the inscription on the back. ~Wo ai ni, imouto. Happy Birthday. -Your niichan, Ryuuen~

Ryuuen. Now there's someone I haven't thought of in a long time, she pondered as she resumed brushing her hair. She thought about the name: Ryuuen, a boy's name. Appropriate for a boy... not a lady... not a beautiful court princess. She felt her hands start to shake and she dropped the brush. This time, she couldn't stop the tears that shook loose from her eyes. Imouto... where are you when I need you? I miss you so much... There isn't a day that goes by that I don't wish you were here beside me. How different might my life have been if we'd never been separated? Who might I be, now?

How long she stayed like that, lost in the grief that her exhaustion and fear had brought on, Kourin had no idea. From the morning light streaming through the window, she could tell that it had been too long. She looked up at the mirror and gasped in horror at the damage her bout of weeping had done to her face. She hurried to her private bath and washed herself thoroughly, trying to erase the evidence of her two weeks of hard travel and consequent sleepless night. She toweled herself off and dressed in her finest gown, the one her mother had had made special with the expensive silks that had come in on the last trade caravan. She took up her brush, careful this time to avoid the inscription, and pulled her hair up into an intricate style more fitting for Court than the braid she'd worn to get there. The make-up was her final touch and erased the last vestiges of the previous night and the weeks before. Examining herself closely in the mirror, Kourin allowed herself a small smile for what she saw. The messenger and the bandits had been right about one thing -- she was exquisite. And if she was going to do this, then she would do it right. If she was going to give up her freedom, she would do it for the ultimate prize alone. She would be Empress.

Kourin patted her hair once more and stood up tall and proud. She headed for the throne room to await her introduction. Covertly, she eyed the woman arrayed around her waiting for their own turn to be brought forward. Some were pretty, some well-bred, a precious few too well-bred... Some were ill-favored, some too tall, still others too broad or too awkward. If this were what she had to compare herself to, then she had nothing to fear. A small smile stretched across her features as she heard a servant announce her name. No challenge at all. She stepped forward to kneel before the Emperor. A soft gasp went around the court when all saw her beauty, but as she raised her eyes to meet those of the Emperor she received a nasty shock. Of all at Court, only he seemed unaffected by it. And with a sickening lurch she could see why.

The Emperor was indeed young. No older than she. And he was beautiful -- handsome was too weak a word to describe the Emperor's looks. She had heard stories, of course -- who hadn't? -- but had never believed them. No man could be so unearthly beautiful. But to her dismay, the rumors hardly did him justice. She could feel the heat rise to her face and her heart began to pound in her chest for an entirely different reason. Though she had been set and determined to win him for herself, in her heart she had wanted to hate him -- hate him for causing her sister's death. But now... Looking up into golden eyes that were as lonely as her own, and a face that would make a god weep at its beauty, she could not hold on to that hate. It melted away like ice in the sun.

He met her eyes for a brief second and frowned, then with a wave of his hand, he dismissed her. She stood up in a daze which continued as she was led to her permanent rooms. It was only upon her arrival in them that the numbness faded -- there... there was the hatred, the righteous anger. It filled her to the brim with its red-hazed fire as her hands clenched into fists, That's it? That's all? He didn't even acknowledge me! How dare he! I am not one to be ignored! She leapt to her feet, intending to take her anger out to her horse in the form of a long ride. And it was only then that she remembered. She froze, one hand on the doorknob the other clapped across her mouth as the awful realization sank in, Now that I'm a Princess, I can't leave the Court! She sank to her knees, her arms wrapped around her stomach as she fought not to lose the breakfast she had eaten a scant few hours ago. It was her worst fear realized. She had bartered away all that she held dear for a chance to be Empress... a chance that was not to be fulfilled. And now... now she was well and truly trapped. She curled over her knees and, for the second time in twenty four hours, she wept.

Saihitei frowned as his advisors called forth another woman from the seething crowd. She stepped forwards and knelt at the bottom of the dais. Only a few seconds and he'd already forgotten her name. What had the herald said? Oh yes, Kourin, that was it. He looked her over, wondering if this one would be different from any of the others, though knowing that he was bound to be disappointed. A cold, mocking voice whispered in his mind, She isn't Suzaku no Miko, Hotohori. She'll be just like the others, only interested in your crown and the titles and luxuries your favor will confer. He looked down, determined to catch her eyes quickly and get this over with. But, what he saw when he did was not at all what he expected. Was that anger he saw burning in their depths? It was deeply hidden, veiled by the doll-like mask she wore for the Court, but he thought he saw... just a spark of spirit. Banked, hidden, but there. Intrigued, he leaned closer, trying to get a better look, then frowned in disappointment as the look of anger was slowly replaced by a slightly vapid, admiring stare, exactly the same as all the other women. Disgusted with himself for thinking he'd seen something different, he waved his hand, dismissing her.

He sighed, resting his head on his hand. He could have sworn he saw something else in her gaze, something different, unique. It had only been there for an instant, but he was sure he had seen it. He rubbed his forehead, feeling an ache forming. There was something about this Kourin, something very unusual. For an instant, as their gazes met, he had felt a kinship between them -- and he had felt a loneliness inside her that had rivaled his own. Throughout the rest of morning court, his mind continued to dwell on the indigo-haired girl with the deep brown eyes. He couldn't get her out of his mind. No matter how hard he tried, his thoughts kept returning to her, the way a tongue returns to a sore tooth. He cursed silently and stood up. He was clearly not in the right frame of mind for court this morning. And if he couldn't dismiss his advisors prematurely when he'd had enough of their simpering and fawning... well, what was the use of being Emperor?

He stormed off the dais, ignoring the loud protests of his advisors and guards. He'd had enough of being the Emperor for today. Now... now he just wanted to be Saihitei. And there was only one place on the entire palace grounds where he could do that. He stopped at his rooms only long enough to throw on an outfit appropriate for riding. He then slipped out the back door of his suite and snuck out to the stables. Only upon reaching the promised haven did he begin to calm down. Kechiko, the stable-master, was the only person in on his little charade. He didn't want to cause the man any additional stress than this masquerade of his already did. He dredged up a smile for his old mentor and asked, as calmly as he was able, if he had any horses that needed to be exercised.

Kechiko's smile was somewhat melancholy this morning, "Well, that new princess, Kourin. She came here by horseback and her horse will need to be ridden. After all, she can't ride it herself."

Saihitei frowned, perplexed even further by this new riddle and the fact that he couldn't seem to escape the woman no matter how hard he tried, "But if she rode it here..."

Kechiko laughed, "Oh, I don't mean that she isn't capable of riding it, boy. It's a two week journey from her home to the Palace -- and to hear Toshio and Takeo tell it, she made the whole journey without a single guard. There's even a rumor floating around that she was captured by bandits on the way -- and managed to win her way free with no ransom paid. Though, the real mystery to me is why someone like that would have chosen to come here in the first place."

Saihitei felt his heart sink even lower. Kechiko was right -- anyone who had the spirit and strength to make a two week journey to the capital, on horseback, by herself, didn't deserve to be shut away in a court harem like some fragile glass ornament. She'd be as miserable in that life as I am in mine. And she won't even have the comfort of this escape that I do... He nodded to show he understood, and it was with a heavy heart that he went to find Lady Kourin's horse.

She was a pretty little bay mare, only 15 hands high, but well muscled. She whinnied quietly and sniffed him, then backed away in distrust. Being as soothing as he knew how, Saihitei spent some time grooming her before saddling her and mounting. He could feel her uncertainty in every step that she took. She kept turning her head back towards the palace and whinnying softly in that direction. He turned her towards the surrounding woods and his favorite trail, hoping to win her trust with an easy first ride. Unfortunately, she had no interest in being placated. He wasn't her mistress and she knew it -- and she wouldn't let him forget it. Resigning himself to a harder ride than he'd anticipated, Saihitei began the long struggle in trying to prove to the mare that he had a right to be on her back, fearing it was a battle he was bound to lose.

Finally recovered from the shocks of the morning, Kourin had spent the rest of the day staring out the window of her suite. The open ground below her was a cruel taunt, teasing her with the freedom that was no longer hers. She could almost hear the voice of her little mare, wafting on the breez-- Wait! Standing up, she threw the shutters wide open -- that had been Osozaki that she'd heard! She felt a scream of pure fury well up in her chest as the mare came into view, a young man sitting unsteadily on her back. Then... she got a better look at the young man's face. The clothing was certainly cut right for the man to be a stable-boy, but the quality of the fabric was richer than any peasant boy would ever see, much less wear. And then his face and hair, even unbound as it was -- it was unmistakable. The young man so boldly riding her horse out into the woods was none other than the Emperor, himself. She clenched her fists tightly as she seethed with fury. It was bad enough that the very grounds taunted her with her lack of freedom, but to have the Emperor shove it in her face, as well? The nerve... But even as she seethed, a nasty chuckle escaped her lips. As though sensing her mistress' displeasure, Osozaki tried to throw the young Emperor... and nearly succeeded. She laughed again, Give him Hell, Hana! She watched them until they were out of sight, quietly chuckling her amusement every time Osozaki tried to buck him off.

When they could no longer be seen, Kourin sank down onto the window-seat and wrapped her arms around herself. Whenever she'd been forced to spend a day inside in the past, she could always count on her father or mother to find some way to help her occupy the time. There weren't even any books here! Deep in her moping, she only barely heard the quiet knock on her door. Calling for her visitor to enter she was startled when a maid pushed the door open and knelt before her, "My lady, my name is Emi. I am to be your servant. Is there anything you require?"

Now this was promising... As she'd thought last night, her old life was over. She'd lost her chance to escape it at the palace gates. So, she could either sit in her room and cry about it or she could make the best of it. She was nothing if not resourceful, and she could make her own fun. And with the addition of Emi to the picture... A servant was practically invisible, and would thus hear all sorts of things that the nobles would rather keep hidden. She smiled slyly at her new servant, "Do you know any Court gossip...?" At Emi's conspiratory grin, Kourin's smile broadened, "Good, in that case, you can entertain me with stories while you brush my hair."

Emi bowed and retrieved her brush from the vanity. Kourin settled back into the brushstrokes, content to simply enjoy being pampered. It wasn't as nice as a ride in the bright sunlight would have been, but it certainly felt pleasant. And Emi hadn't been kidding when she said she knew gossip! The things some of these courtiers did! Finally, when she felt she had enough information to start formulating a game or two, Kourin patted Emi's hand and gave the woman a genuine smile. Court would be much better with someone to talk to. But, if the woman was to be her servant, Kourin was going to have to lay down some very important ground rules. Emi nodded and paid close attention as Kourin spoke. She appreciated any assistance that Emi wanted to give her except for two things -- she bathed herself and she dressed herself. From the look on her face, Emi clearly didn't understand, but that didn't matter as long as she obeyed.

They both turned as a knock reverberated through the wood of the door. A servant stood on the other side with ten handwritten notes and an invitation to take dinner with the Court. Kourin took the messages and thanked him, letting Emi show him out. She then sat down at her desk and opened the letters. A grim smile spread across her face as she contemplated the avarice before her -- ten marriage proposals, none of which, of course, were from the Emperor. She allowed herself another nasty chuckle as a plan began to form. It wouldn't be as much fun as helping her Father train the new crop of spring colts... but at least it would be a way to wile away the time and more importantly, a way to vent a few of her frustrations. She would lead them all on, playing them off one another. With Emi's inside information on the lot of them, it could turn out to be one interesting game... She smiled a nasty smile and told Emi to go fetch her a fresh dress.

Kourin sighed as she sipped at her drink and listened with half an ear as another newcomer to court fawned all over her. No matter how much the older courtiers warned them, the new ones were always overtaken by her beauty and convinced that they could win her affections. The boy stopped talking and she smiled, waving at him to continue. He gave her a starry-eyed grin and resumed his babbling. Inwardly, she sighed -- it had been nearly a year since her arrival at court and the game she played with the young lords was beginning to bore her. She needed more than this petty political scheming in her life and well she knew it. But she had no other options! Being forbidden the stables and much of the outside, save for a few select gardens, being forbidden the vast state libraries and the more intellectual company of the scholars, this game was her only refuge.

And to make matters worse, she knew that the Emperor still rode her horse every chance that he got. The only satisfaction she had was in knowing that his every determined effort had failed to win over the little mare. And every time Osozaki managed to throw him somewhere where she could witness it, it gave her a little thrill. But still, it wasn't as good as having her own freedom. And that the Emperor seemed to be deliberately dangling his own freedom in front of her face... it was hard to remember sometimes why she wanted to marry the man.

She got up from the table, leaving the young noble sitting there, staring after her. She put down her glass on one of the sidebars and walked out into the corridor towards her rooms. The Emperor had not said one word to her since she had arrived here and she was starting to get desperate. For though she resented his freedom and she resented his attitude -- and even more she hated him for being the cause of her sister's death -- she also knew that she found him attractive, and her traitorous heart was quickly letting her fall for his many charms. For above and beyond these petty feelings of resentment and attraction, she couldn't help but feel that in his breast beat a kindred heart. Maybe it was that he was a seishi, maybe because he sometimes seemed as lonely in his position as she was in hers, but somehow she felt that he could be someone who would understand her... and her pain. She shook her head in resignation. The reality was that young Saihitei's heart was already taken by the legend of Suzaku no Miko -- yet another reason for Kourin to hope that the priestess of legend never made an appearance. She paused at the railing at the end of the corridor and leaned on it, contemplating the stars.

So lost was she in her thoughts that she didn't hear the footsteps behind her until a pair of hands descended on her shoulders and turned her to face their owner. She opened her mouth to scream, but a hand quickly covered it and a face pressed close to hers, urging her to shush up. When she did, the hands released her. She stepped back, feeling the railing press into her skin. The figure flashed her a grin and she saw a little fang peek out from the corner of his mouth. She gasped as she recognized the bandit who had so touched her the year before, hardly able to believe that fortune had brought him into her life a second time, "Genrou? Is that you?"

He laughed and spread his arms wide, "In the flesh! I've been wandering the world for about a year now and I figured I'd drop in to check on you. Catch the Emperor's heart, yet?"

She slapped him lightly on the arm -- or so she thought -- then winced as he yelped in pain. She apologized immediately, the blush that had so tantalized him when they'd met spreading across her features once again. Genrou smiled as he finally found the sweet, determined young woman he had known last year in the bitter, angry one he had been watching these last few days at Court. She was unhappy here and he knew it. Doubtless, she knew it as well. Ah. Who was he kidding? They'd both known it last year when he'd let her go to begin with. It made him feel guilty all over again that he hadn't ridden to her rescue when he'd first thought of it after she left. He put a finger under her chin and forced her to look up at him, "Do they treat you that badly, here?"

And then the one thing that Genrou had not guessed might happen... did. Kourin's eyes started to tremble, a sure sign that tears were on the horizon. Genrou inwardly cursed -- no matter how much he hated women as a whole, he couldn't stand to see one cry. He pulled her up against his chest and she buried her face into his dark coat, sobbing softly. He had to strain to hear her words through the tears, but was finally able to understand what she was mumbling as she calmed down, "It's not that they treat me badly. They really don't. I have every luxury a woman could ever want... except the one that matters." She looked up at him, sorrow and anger blazing in equal measure in her eyes, "My freedom. And the Emperor has the audacity to ride my horse right where I can't help but see him! I think he does it just to mock me."

Suddenly her eyes widened as though with a great epiphany and Genrou began to sweat -- there were a thousand ways to describe the look in her eyes and they all meant trouble. And Suzaku help him if what she'd come up with was that bad... because he wasn't going to be able to say no. She clutched at his coat meeting his worried gaze with an earnest one of her own, "Genrou! You're a bandit, right? I'll bet you've stolen plenty of things, right? You could steal my horse from the stables! Then I'd know she was safe with you and..." Her voice trailed off as she slumped in his arms, "...And at least she'd have her freedom..."

Just as he'd feared would happen, Genrou found himself agreeing with her as he soothingly rubbed her back, "Of course, I will. Don't worry. She'll be so well cared for she won't ever want to come back." The smile she gave him was pure gratitude and he was dazzled by it. At least that was the excuse he fed himself for his behavior when he had a moment to reflect on it soberly. Lulled by the darkness of the night and Kourin's small hands still wrapped tightly into his coat, he bent his head to hers. With a gentleness born of years taming stolen horses, he kissed her lips, one arm still wrapped around her waist, his hand pressed to the small of her back. She was startled, but she didn't resist... though she didn't press any closer, either. Genrou briefly wondered if this was the first time she'd been kissed, then cursed -- of course it was! She was a well-bred lady brought to Court as a bride for the Emperor. If she was anything less than perfectly pure, that would not have been the case. That thought rammed home to him that she wasn't his -- could never be his. He cursed himself for being so weak and slowly raised his head, letting go of her as he backed away. She blinked a few times then focused on him, eyes wondering. He brushed away her last remaining tears with his thumb and flashed her a crooked grin, then turned to leap back over the rail. But, before he did, he turned back to her, "Do you remember, Kouji?" She blushed, but nodded. He smiled, "Just thought you'd want to know, your handiwork left him an impressive scar. He's proud as hell of it, even though he tells the story of how he got it... a little differently." That last finally did what he'd been aiming for and put the smile back on her face. She laughed lightly as Genrou disappeared over the railing into the night.

Genrou risked one last look at Kourin as he disappeared into the forest. She had a dreamy look in her eyes, and the fingers of one hand rested lightly on her lips. He smiled at the sight, sure now that this had been her first kiss. He grinned, allowing a fang to show. He couldn't resist where she was concerned -- she just had a way about her... and she had a vicious streak in her that rivaled any bandit's. I mean, the way she plays around with those courtiers! He chuckled as he recalled the servants' eager gossip.

When Genrou found himself at the back entrance to the stables, he pulled himself up short. What the hell was he doing? That woman had him jumping at her every whim! He began to laugh quietly to himself. Oh, she was good, all right! Yet, for some reason, he didn't mind. He began to fiddle with the lock, all the while telling himself that he was only doing it because that little bay mare was a very valuable animal -- even though, just like Kouji's explanation of his scar, he knew that this explanation rang a little false.

He got the lock open and slipped into the stable, quickly identifying the mare's stall. He quietly unlatched the stall and pulled a hackamore over the mare's head, not having time to bother with a saddle or a bridle. He threw the reins over the mare's head and with a well-controlled jump was settled on her bare-back. She snorted and pranced, but Genrou quickly calmed her. He guided her out into the field, then let her open up into a gallop, blowing a kiss back in Kourin's direction as he rode, I'll come back for you someday, Princess. I promise...

The next day, of course, the Emperor found out that Osozaki had been stolen. He was furious. He had been planning to ride the bay mare in the day's procession. Now that she was gone, he'd have to ride in a carry-chair. He hated riding in a palanquin. But there were no other horses who were as beautiful as that little mare, and he needed to appear at his best for this procession. Something special was going to happen today. He could feel it... He growled softly to himself, sure that some god was having way too much fun at his expense. He stormed down the hallway to Lady Kourin's rooms, wanting to tell her the bad news himself, for some reason. That small, bitter voice whispered that he just wanted to see someone else hurt as much as he did. So, it was unfortunate -- or not -- that he was met by her servant. She told him that the Lady was in the bath and could not be disturbed. He thanked the woman and told her to pass the message on to her mistress, then stalked off to get ready for the parade.

Kourin, far from being in a bad mood for a change, got out of the bath and dressed, a silly smile gracing her features as she pressed her hand to her lips again. Imagine that -- my innocence stolen by a bandit! Who would have thought? 'Kaasan would just die... This certainly wasn't what she had in mind when she sent me here to make our fortunes! She giggled and slipped two daisies into her hair, feeling giddy, and for the first time in too long, oddly young. When she stepped into the room and saw Emi, she smiled, placing a flower in her hair, as well.

Seeing this Emi was even more loathe to ruin her mistress' good mood, but it was the Emperor's order, "My lady... the Emperor was here. He wanted you to be informed that your horse was stolen last night."

Much to her maid's surprise, instead of spoiling her good mood, the news seemed to increase it. She whirled around the center of the room, finally coming to rest sitting at her vanity. Emi started to brush her hair as she continued to smile, "I know, dear Emi, I already know. And I'm sure that the Emperor was very upset that he couldn't ride her in the parade today, too!" She continued to giggle as she relaxed into the brushstrokes. It was going to be a wonderful day...

Unfortunately for her, later that night, Fortune proved her wrong again. The word had spread quickly -- Suzaku no Miko had appeared. Kourin cursed, vehemently. As though her life wasn't difficult enough, as though she hadn't suffered enough... now the one thing that she had given up her freedom for, the one thing left that she truly wanted... might as well be on the moon for all she had a chance of reaching it. And Suzaku no Miko was the barest slip of a girl, far too young and naive to be the wife of an Emperor! As her ire rose, Kourin could feel the blaze of her seishi symbol as it began to glow from that spot on her chest. She encouraged it and actively gathered her chi, as her sensei had taught her 13 years ago, and released it in one explosive punch to the wall of the palace.

When the wall came crashing down in front of her, she blushed, then paled in fear. Fool! What if someone had seen her? With Suzaku no Miko here, it was only a matter of time before she had to reveal her secret. But not yet... not yet. The time wasn't right. Her heart thudding in fear, she raced back to the sanctuary of her rooms. It had been stupid to take such a risk, and she knew it. She hurled a few choice curse words at herself, then collapsed onto the bed. Fury spent, she began to formulate a plan. She'd get the Emperor to look her way if she had to kill Suzaku no Miko to do it!

* * * * *

Kourin awoke and peered about at her surroundings. She wasn't in her room at the palace. She stood up, then stared down at herself when she didn't feel a dress swirl around her ankles. She blushed when she saw what she was wearing -- a pair of pants and a tunic that barely covered her hips. She reached a hand up -- her hair was pulled back into a tight bun... a man's hairstyle. She rushed over to the lake that she had seen and peered at her reflection, ready to cry in frustration at the sight. I look like a boy! She fell to the ground, wrapping her arms around herself and shuddering.

A hand rested on her shoulder and she heard a voice -- a sweet, beautiful, wonderful voice. She had tried so hard to emulate that voice... and though she'd once been able to get so close as to be nearly indistinguishable from the original... now the best she could manage was a very husky alto. She felt a few tears begin to leak from the corners of her eyes as the voice spoke again... ~'Niichan, please don't cry.~

She spun around and buried her face into the stomach of the owner of the voice. Her sobs grew louder as the girl's hands descended to rub in soothing circles around her back, ~It's OK, 'niichan. I forgave you long ago, you shouldn't torture yourself like this.~

Her sobs slowed, then stopped, but she didn't lift her head from where it was tucked against the girl's body. She pulled the girl closer to her and only then managed to choke out a few words, "Kourin? Imouto-chan?" She winced when she heard how deep her voice sounded. The girl put her small hands under her chin and lifted it so their eyes met. The girl smiled down at her, ~Hai, Ryuuen-chan!~

She jerked away from the girl as if she'd been hit, "That isn't my name!" She clasped her hands over her mouth when she heard that awful tenor voice escape it yet again. The girl sighed and walked back up to her, placing one gentle hand on her shoulder. She turned to face her again, finally taking note of her imouto's matured appearance -- easily eight years older than when she had... She choked on another sob.

~You can hurt yourself all you like about this, but I refuse to be a part of it any longer.~ She stepped closer, laying her cool hands on Ryuuen's hot cheeks, ~Ryuuen, oniichan, I loved you so much... And my death was not your fault! It was my own damned fault for not looking both ways before I tried to cross the street!~

Ryuuen's mouth dropped open as she heard her delicate little sister curse, "Kourin..." She winced again at the voice that emerged from her lips.

Kourin pulled her to her feet and held her close, ~Oniichan, you are who you are. Nothing will change that no matter how much you will it to be so. It won't change the fact that I'm dead, and it won't change the fact that you are a seishi. Your duty is to protect Suzaku no Miko -- not to harm her. You know that. Sensei taught you that.~

Ryuuen let her arms settle around Kourin's waist and she pulled her close, "I know... Deep down inside myself, I know that. But-"

Kourin smiled into her eyes, ~No buts, niichan. You caught yourself in this neat little trap. Suzaku no Miko didn't do it to you. If you hadn't insisted in this charade to be female... to be me...~

Ryuuen pulled away from her sister and went to stand at the edge of the lake. She sighed softly, "I know, Kourin. Believe me, I know."

The bitterness in her voice made Kourin sigh, then a mischievous smile lit her eyes, ~But you know, niichan, I have to admit that you look better in dresses than I ever did...~

Ryuuen blushed and turned to face her, "Is that so...?" She raced after her as she turned to run. The race ended in a rough and tumble fight at the edge of the woods, Ryuuen carefully holding back her strength. Kourin eventually won, pinning Ryuuen under her body and laughing, ~You let me win!~ Ryuuen laughed as she pulled the younger girl down to lay on her chest, then sobered, "I've missed you, Kourin. So much..."

Kourin pushed herself up slightly so she could peer into her face, ~Ryuuen, there's something I need to tell you. It's the reason that they let me see you, even though it's only a dream.~ She put a finger to her lips when she tried to interrupt, ~Shh... Don't talk, just listen. You have to understand this. The things that you do in the next few weeks will determine how soon you come to join me.~ At the eager look in her eyes, Kourin shook her head, and a tear fell from the corner of her eye, No, Ryuuen. I couldn't bear it if you died so young -- you deserve so much more than what you have! And it's not what you think... You see, because I died so young, with virtually no sin in my life, the gods gave me another chance at life almost immediately afterwards.~ Kourin's expressive eyes bore into hers, ~Please, niichan, promise me that you'll try to live... and you'll try to get along with Suzaku no Miko. She's really a very nice girl... You'd like her if you gave yourself a chance to.~

Ryuuen frowned as she pulled Kourin back down. She was so tired... Finally, she nodded agreement, "All right, Kourin -- you win. I'll give her a chance. At least I'll try..."

Kourin's gasp of relief startled her, but when she turned to ask her what was the matter she was met with a sound kiss on the lips. Her cheeks turned bright red before she understood. The rapport built up between them and buoyed her soul up in a way she hadn't felt since Kourin's death, eight long years ago. She had needed this so badly. Kourin lifted her lips and settled her head on Ryuuen's chest, listening to the beating of her heart. ~You'll see me sooner than you think, Ryuuen... Wo ai ni...~

Ryuuen managed only a brief response before being sucked back to the world below, "Wo ai ni, imouto-chan!"

* * * * *

Kourin bolted upright in bed, shaking and gasping for air. She had seen her imouto! That hadn't just been a dream, she was sure of it! Kourin's last words to her echoed through her head...

~You'll be seeing me sooner than you think, Ryuuen...~

She wondered what her precious imouto had meant by that but was too tired and too distraught to try to figure it out. She fought it as sleep tried to claim her... until she felt a small pair of arms wrap around her waist, and a small body snuggle up to her back. Then that precious voice whispered, once again, into her ear and she lost the battle with sleep... ~Wo ai ni, niichan...~

* * *

A/N: *satisfied smile* That is much better than the original version. ^_^ I hope you enjoyed it! ((BTW, if you did enjoy it and might possibly be willing to beta-read upcoming chapters, I would be profoundly grateful if you'd let me know. ^_^ Thanks!))

Oh, and because I couldn't bring myself to weed out all the uses of a foreign language... a glossary. ^_^

Imouto/Imouto-chan: little sister

Onii-chan/'Nii-chan: big brother

Seishi/Shichi-seishi: Technically "constellations/seven constellations" -- the name for the seven warriors gathered by Suzaku no Miko to call upon the god, Suzaku.

Suzaku no Miko: Really, doyou need this one? ^_~ In a word: Miaka. Technically "Priestess of Suzaku"

Wo ai ni: "I love you."

I think that's everything... If you come across one I missed, please let me know. ^_^