April 6, 2010: Good grief, this was the worst one yet, I think. This was almost painful to rewrite. It didn't help that I decided that I actually needed to write out that scene that I skipped last time -- with Miaka and Nuriko meeting Tamahome's family. It just did not want to be written. Thank goodness this is done. O_O I don't think any of the other parts are nearly this bad -- they should be at least half-salvageable, if not more. Thanks for sticking with me this long and do remember... comments are love! ^_^

Still obsessing over Hair, but at least I got another part of OB done before churning out yet more ficcage for it, right? ^_^

Huge thanks, again, to Yanagi-sen for beta-reading! ^_^

Fandom: Fushigi Yuugi
Pairing: Tasuki x Nuriko, hints of Nuriko + Hotohori
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: This part -- 15,291. Initial count, 8,359. O_O Good grief. Again.
Warnings: Slash. Not mine. Don't sue.

Summary: "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. Now that this chance has come, accepting it is the only way you can repay them." So begins Nuriko's journey to the capital of Konan. What awaits her on her travels, the people she will meet and the things she will learn about herself, they will change her life forever.

Osozaki Blooms -- Chapter 4
by Renee-chan

Nuriko suppressed yet another sigh. It had been bad enough that it had taken him all night to fall into a fitful slumber, but to be awoken mere minutes after finally tumbling into that much needed rest? That was adding insult to injury. And for what? Apparently Tamahome had snuck out of the village early this morning and Miaka, bless her curious heart, just had to know where he'd gone. It was ridiculous. What they should have all done was gotten a good night's rest and started back to the Palace as soon as they were able. Now that there were confirmed assassins out for the Suzaku no miko's blood, it wasn't safe to go traipsing around the country with only two of her seishi as protectors. It was the very height of insanity. Damn Tamahome for putting them in this position!

After riding for nearly an hour, they finally caught up with the wandering seishi. He'd stopped in a small village not so very different than the one they'd left. Could it be he was hoping to pull the same scam here as he had done there? No... no, something was different. Nuriko watched as several of the people in the streets stopped the younger seishi with a pat on the leg or a broad smile and were each answered by a grin just as broad. Tamahome knew these people and they knew him. That clinched it. He breathed it out quietly, "This must be Tamahome's home village..."

Miaka jerked behind him with an excited little squeal, "His... his home village? Where Tamahome was born and raised?" There was a pause, then another breathy squeal, "For some reason, I'm so happy, Nuriko!"

In spite of the gravity of their situation and the fact that Nuriko wished they were anywhere but where they were, he couldn't help but feel a small answering glow of happiness at the joy in his miko's voice. She really had it bad. Dismounting, Nuriko helped her down so they could more easily follow Tamahome. And it was with more than a little trepidation that he did so. He knew what they would find at Tamahome's home, even if Miaka did not. ~My family wears clothing that is the next step up from rags and can barely afford the home they live in and the food they eat,~ was what Tamahome had said. It was too late by far to prevent Miaka from seeing it. With any luck, it wouldn't matter.

By the time they reached the -- dear gods, the best word he could come up with to describe that shack was 'hovel' and that was being kind -- Tamahome had already gone inside. Miaka pulled him down to sit under the window to eavesdrop. Stupid on top of stupid -- why not just knock on the door and let Tamahome know they were here? She couldn't possibly hope to slip away unnoticed after this, could she? And so they sat and they listened to the gentle argument between Tamahome and his apparently ill father and then the even gentler argument between Tamahome and his baby sister. Nuriko caught in a breath in shared pain when the younger boy's answer to the little girl made his voice crack. In need of reassurance himself, Nuriko slid an arm around Miaka and pulled her close to his side. She nestled against him, such a warm, comforting presence that he didn't have the words to express how grateful he was to have her back again.

Suddenly, a terrified shout from Tamahome jerked them both upright. Miaka was over the windowsill and into the house with Nuriko not a split second behind her. At once they both demanded, "What's wrong with her??"

If the situation weren't so frightening, Nuriko would have laughed at the expression on Tamahome's face. He stuttered out, "She just collapsed!"

Miaka pulled the little girl out of Tamahome's arms and put a hand to her forehead, then turned to look at Nuriko, "She's running a fever!"

Nuriko nodded, "I'm not surprised. It was probably from the stress of the idea of Tamahome leaving, again. She's clearly very attached to him." And if that was a little harsh... well, so be it. It wasn't all that long ago that their miko had suffered a similar ailment due to Tamahome's carelessness with her emotions. Nuriko still hadn't quite forgiven him.

Miaka started ordering around Tamahome's other young siblings to get extra blankets and some water. Of course -- they could sweat the fever out. But there was something better. He turned to Tamahome, "Tamahome, are there any white willow trees nearby?"

Tamahome shook his head, "Not that I know of, no. Why?"

"Damn," Nuriko swore. "We could have brewed a tea from the bark to help bring her fever down."

Miaka piped up from where she was crouched over Yuiren, "Ah! I have a better idea! Nuriko, could you get my bag from the horse?"

Once Nuriko had done so, Miaka pulled out a small vial of round objects that looked like stone pellets. He couldn't figure out what they might be for. Seeing his confusion, Miaka explained, "It's called aspirin. You take it for pain, but it also reduces fever! I just... I don't know how much to give her and too much might hurt her." Her face took on a fretful cast.

Putting a gentle hand on her shoulder, Nuriko asked, "How much would you take, if it were you?"

Miaka shook two of the little pills into her hand, "This much."

Looking back and forth between Miaka and the little girl, Nuriko finally took one of the pills and broke it in half, "We'll try this much then. If it doesn't work, we can give her the other half."

It didn't come to that. Within 10 minutes of taking the half pill, Yuiren's breathing evened out and deepened into that of a true sleep, rather than the fitful fever that she'd been in moments before. Everyone in the house breathed out a sigh of relief at that. Nuriko resolved to pull Tamahome aside at some future moment and have a long talk with him about how to treat a woman, even one so young as Yuiren. When Miaka volunteered to go get some more water for the girl would have been a perfect time to do so... but something felt wrong.

Mere seconds after Miaka was out the door, Nuriko put a hand on Tamahome's arm, "Tamahome... go after her." The young man looked like he was about to protest and Nuriko growled out, "Do I have to remind you that just last night we were attacked by assassins bent on her death? You're her seishi and her bodyguard. Act like it." Fortunately, he didn't need any further reminding. Nuriko would have like to follow their miko himself, but one of them had to stay behind and watch over Tamahome's family and if something else went wrong with Yuiren, Tamahome would be useless... and worse, would be distracted. It was better this way. It was better... Damn it. That didn't mean he had to like it.

With Tamahome and Miaka gone and the immediate crisis past, Nuriko finally became aware of the awkward atmosphere. No doubt, Tamahome's father was embarrassed for people to see himself and his family in such a state. As he delicately resettled the blankets around little Yuiren, Nuriko struggled to think of something to say that wouldn't make the situation any more awkward than it already was. Ironically enough, it was little Shunkei who eventually broke the silence with this timid question, "Lady... are you a seishi, like 'niichan?"

If it weren't so sad, Nuriko might well have laughed at that question. Apparently, he wasn't the only one to think he still looked like a girl even dressed as a man. Putting a gentle hand on the boy's head, Nuriko smiled, "I am, little one. My name is Nuriko."

The boy stepped closer, fisting his hand in Nuriko's sleeve, "Then... if Suzaku no miko has you, could 'niichan come home?" The boy then blushed and ducked his head, "'Cuz Yuiren-chan and Gyokuran-neesan miss him. They miss him real bad."

Nuriko pulled the boy into a gentle embrace, "I'm sure you all do, Shunkei-chan. Keeping Suzaku no miko safe is a very important job, but it doesn't mean that Tamahome loves you any less. In fact, he shows how much he loves you by doing his job." At the children's confused looks, Nuriko smiled softly at them, "You see, Kutou is a threat to all of us. They want to start a war with Konan that would put us all in danger. Suzaku no miko is going to keep us all safe should that occur and grant us prosperity if it doesn't."

Chuuei stepped in next, face screwed up in a little moue of concentration, "So... what you're saying is that by keeping Suzaku no miko safe, he's keeping us safe? And that's why he has to stay away?"

Nuriko lifted a hand and patted the boy on the shoulder, "That's exactly right, Chuuei-san. I wish I could tell you differently, but I can't. Suzaku no miko is very important and right now she's in danger..." Nuriko's voice trailed off as his eyes unfocused. There was something... Oh great Suzaku! Miaka was in danger right now. Leaping to his feet, heart thundering in his chest, he desperately reached out his senses. There were two... two! Tamahome might not be able to handle them both alone!

Just before he could run out the door, Gyokuran let out a cry, "Where are you going, Nuriko-san?"

Biting off a curse, Nuriko turned to look back at the children. He couldn't leave them... Damn it. He couldn't leave Tamahome's family alone, not when there were assassins around. Holding up a hand for silence, Nuriko stretched out his senses again. There! That presence... His eyes widened as he sensed a powerful chi radiating from Miaka's location. It wasn't Miaka. It wasn't Tamahome... but it was coming form a Suzaku seishi. That was all he needed to know.

Turning back to the children, Nuriko herded them into a group clustered around Tamahome's father and little sister. He would have to trust the other two seishi to look after Miaka, because he couldn't afford to be distracted right now. One of the two assassins he'd sensed was approaching this home... and rapidly.

After several desperate heartbeats and spending some of his precious concentration to reassure the now crying children, Nuriko's diligence was rewarded. There. It was only a flicker, but it was all he needed to feel. Making a hard decision, Nuriko grabbed Yuiren and Shunkei and bolted out of the way of the incoming ropes.

Realizing that he had only caught three in his web and none of them were the seishi he'd been aiming for, the assassin finally showed himself. They engaged in a few more pointless exchanges -- the assassin sending out more entrapping strands and Nuriko barely evading them -- before Nuriko had to make another hard decision. As he darted around the room, he pulled Shunkei close to him and said, "Little one, I need you to be brave for me. I can't stay away from this man indefinitely and I need my hands free to attack in return. I'm going to put you and your sister down. He's probably going to catch you once I do, but I promise I'll have you free again soon, OK?" Though clearly terrified, the boy nodded. Racing back to the bed, Nuriko deposited the two children as carefully as he could. As predicted, mere moments later, the assassin let out an arrogant laugh and strung them up, as well. To his credit, though, the boy didn't cry.

Nuriko growled low in his throat as he started gathering his chi and turned back to the assassin, "That's the last laugh you'll have at my expense. Enjoy it while it lasts."

The assassin flung another rope in Nuriko's direction and the purple-haired seishi caught it with a smile of triumph. Giving it a savage yank, he pulled the larger man off balance and straight into his waiting hands. Using the rope, he quickly bound the assassin's hands and feet, then debated whether he should question the man now or take down Tamahome's family first. Shunkei's soft whimper decided him. Breaking his and Yuiren's bonds first, he gave them a brief hug and kissed Shunkei on the forehead, "I'm so proud of you, Shunkei-san. You were very brave. Now I need you to be brave for just a little longer as I get your father and Chuuei and Gyokuran down." The little boy nodded and pulled his sister to him in a fierce embrace. Seeing the boy protectively clutching his sister and glaring at the assassin brought a small smile to his face.

Just as he was breaking down the last of the ropes, Tamahome, Miaka and the owner of the strong chi he'd felt earlier came running up to the house. Nuriko turned a wry smile on the trio, "That sure took you long enough. I'd have waited for you, but you know how rude it is to leave a guest unattended."

The smiling man stepped forward, "I'm impressed, Nuriko-san. Tamahome-kun needed my help to protect Suzaku no miko, no da. You're very strong, no da!"

As Tamahome spluttered in response to the man's teasing, Nuriko's smile took on an edge, "As are you, sou-san. Ne?" Tossing a glance in Miaka's direction, he asked coyly, "Have you checked the Shi Jin Ten Chi Sho lately, Miaka-chan? I'll bet you'll find something interesting if you do..."

Miaka's eyes widened, "Sou-san? He's a monk?" Turning her gaze on the smiling man in front of her, she said, "The Shi Jin Ten Chi Sho said the clues to find the next seishi are 'monk' and 'mask'. You... Kitsune-san are you a Suzaku shichi-seishi?"

Nuriko had the sudden impression that the man's thoughts had turned serious, but couldn't tell from the lack of expression on his face. He said, "Yes, Suzaku no miko. I am a Suzaku seishi. My name is Chichiri, no da."

Smiling in satisfaction, Nuriko patted Miaka's shoulder, "Isn't that wonderful, Miaka? We found another one!"

However, rather than looking pleased, Miaka looked distracted, almost upset. Without a word for Nuriko, she stood and walked over to where Nuriko had left the unsuccessful assassin. Nuriko immediately flew to her side, not wanting to take any unnecessary risks, even with the man bound as he was. The girl stopped right in front of the hired killer and asked in a plaintive voice, "Why would you attack innocent people? If you wanted to kill me, why not come after me?"

The man sneered, "Kill you or cripple you now so that I can kill you later... what's the difference? We'll get you in the end either way."

Ears catching on one very important word, Nuriko pushed Miaka behind him and grabbed the assassin by the collar, "We? How many of you bastards are there? How many assassins has Kutou sent into Konan?" Shaking the man forcibly, he demanded, "Tell me!"

Before the man could answer, however, Nuriko again caught that flash of an evil presence. Though he cursed himself for it later, he reacted without thinking and swung the man around to use him as a shield between them and whatever he'd felt. Seconds later, the man was a veritable pincushion of arrows. The man smiled a bitter smile and a breathy laugh bubbled forth from his lips, "Looks... like... I'll have... one... last laugh... at your expense... Suzaku seishi. When we find... Seiryuu no miko... you'll all die." And with those last words... he was gone.

Nuriko flung the corpse to the ground and exploded with, "Damn it! What the hell was he babbling about at the end? Seiryuu no miko?" Turning his eyes towards the newest member of their group, he asked, "What did he mean by that?"

Again, Nuriko got the impression that the monk had assumed a serious expression, though his face didn't change, "I've heard stories as I traveled... There are legends similar to that of Suzaku no miko in all of the four lands. That must be what he was speaking of." Shaking his head, he continued, "This could be very bad. If Kutou finds Seiryuu no miko and summons Seiryuu, then it may be that not even Suzaku no miko could protect us."

Nuriko frowned, "But, if one assumes that Seiryuu no miko would have to be from Miaka's world, as well..." He shrugged, "It isn't as though girls like that just drop out of the sky every fourth day, you know."

During his little speech, Nuriko got a sudden flash of emotion from Miaka. Something that he'd said had caused her to become extremely alarmed. But what? Abruptly the girl turned away and clutched her bag to her chest, "I... I just remembered, I have to go somewhere!"

Nuriko and Tamahome immediately clustered around her. Nuriko asked the question, "Where do you have to go, Miaka? We'll go anywhere you need to."

Miaka froze, then shook herself and forcefully answered, "To the bathroom!"

Tamahome flushed hotly and clapped a hand over his nose. Nuriko put a hand to his head and sighed, "Well... except there." Waving her to the door, he added, "But be quick about it, Miaka. Chichiri-san may not have sensed any other assassins around, but that doesn't mean its safe." Figuring that the girl just wanted a few minutes alone to pull herself together after their recent scare, Nuriko tried not to call any attention to the agitated state he was picking up from his beloved imouto. She'd be fine... he hoped.

Ten minutes later, Nuriko was ready to kick himself for those irresponsible thoughts. What had he been thinking? Letting Miaka wander around here alone when there were assassins about -- it was the height of stupidity! Standing up from the table they'd been clustered around, he started to pace, growing more agitated with each passing second, "Something isn't right. Something's wrong. I can feel it." Meeting Tamahome and Chichiri's eyes in turn, he demanded, "Something upset her. We were talking and something got her upset. Do either of you know what it might have been?"

Chichiri frowned in thought, and then slowly said, "There might be something, na no da." Looking up at Nuriko, he continued, "When you made that comment about girls dropping from the sky -- I think that was when she became upset, no da."

Abruptly, Tamahome jerked out of his seat, "That's it! When Miaka first came here, there was another girl with her, dressed exactly the same!"

Nuriko and Chichiri looked at each other, the same horrified realization in both gazes. Nuriko was the one who said it, "If that other girl somehow came back..."

Chichiri continued the thought, "...and Miaka just learned that Kutou is looking from another girl from her world, no da..."

Tamahome almost fell back into his seat as he completed the thought in a harsh whisper, "...Miaka's gone to Kutou to try to find her." He abruptly stood back up, "No! I won't let her! I lost her once; I couldn't bear to lose her again!" Defiance and determination suffusing his features, Tamahome only paused long enough to ask the others to look out for his family and then he was out the door and down the road.

Nuriko made as though to go after him, but Chichiri pulled out his hat and said brightly, "Well, I'll just go check on her, then, na no da!" He then had the nerve to disappear into the damned hat.

Nuriko nearly screamed in frustration. He couldn't leave Tamahome's family unprotected, but he needed to protect his imouto! Damn Tamahome and Chichiri for putting him in this position! When they got back he was going to pound them into the dirt! Fuming, Nuriko sat back down on the bench and stared off into the setting sun, silently urging Miaka not to do anything stupid, Please, Miaka... I need you safe. I need you to come back to me. Please... please come back to me.

When Tamahome finally returned that evening, Nuriko was ready to shake him until his neck snapped. Practically hissing in his fury, he grabbed the younger boy by the collar and pulled him in close, "What the hell are you doing back so late and without Miaka?"

Tamahome paled, "She... I found her in the forest. She said that she was too hungry to move and asked me to get the bag of candy she left on your horse. Nuriko, she promised."

Nuriko's mouth dropped open in shock. He slumped, though his hands tightened in Tamahome's clothing. His next words were a growl, "And so you left her... alone... in the forest?? Are you a fool, Tamahome? Even if she wasn't lying to you, even if she hasn't used this as a tool to distract you, what makes you think that she's safe where you left her?"

Feeling the younger boy's breath catch, Nuriko looked up just in time to see his face pale further. Abruptly, Tamahome tore out of his hands and leapt up onto his horse, "Nuriko, I have to go get her. There was no bag of candy. She lied to me. She has too much of a head start already. Please. I have to go after her."

No! That was the last thing Nuriko wanted. He was smaller, he was a better horseman and Miaka was his sister... his. Raising his eyes and opening his mouth to protest, Nuriko abruptly froze. That look on Tamahome's face... it was what he'd hoped to see for all these months. He was in love with Miaka and, more importantly, now he knew it. So rather than demanding, Nuriko only asked one soft question, "What about your family, Tamahome?"

For just a moment, he looked torn, and then the determination in his eyes firmed, "Nuriko... for the first time, I think that I've found someone more important to me than my family. I need to go to her." Head dropping, his voice suddenly get very small, "Does... does that make me a bad person, Nuriko?"

Finally admitting defeat, Nuriko shook his head, "No, it doesn't." Swallowing any other objections, Nuriko waved him on, "Go, then Tamahome. I'll tell the Emperor what's happened. Go." Silently, he added, Please, go... before I change my mind, throw you from that horse and go myself. Giving Nuriko a nod of gratitude, Tamahome didn't waste one more moment in fleeing the scene. As the older seishi watched him go, he felt a momentary pang -- would he ever find someone he loved more than family... more than Miaka? And would he want to? Shaking his head at his own foolishness, he took his leave of Tamahome's family so he could begin the long trek back to Eiyo.

"She did what??" the Emperor exploded, eyes wild and chest heaving, face suffused with horror.

Nuriko cringed, wilting under that horrible anger. It was understandable, it was more than understandable. After all, Nuriko felt the same way. He'd hoped, maybe irrationally so, that Tamahome would have caught up to Miaka and beaten him back here, thus sparing him the need for this public and humiliating confrontation. Since that obviously hadn't happened, the only hope Nuriko had left was that Chichiri-san had kept his promise and had, in fact, gone after the pair. As long as she had the powerful monk looking out for her, Miaka was probably safe. Probably... Taking a deep breath, he tried to explain, "She believes that her friend Yui may have been taken by Kutou to become Seiryuu no Miko. We think that she believed that she could persuade her not to do it if she could talk to her. Tamahome went after her, as did the new seishi I told you about."

Hotohori jumped to his feet, demanding that his horse be saddled. He wanted to go after Miaka himself. Nuriko should have expected that. In his own way, the Emperor loved Miaka as much as Tamahome did. If but for a turn of fate... Even knowing what the outcome of Hotohori-sama's demand would be, Nuriko still silently vowed that if he did find some way to go after Miaka, that Nuriko would find a way to protect him -- even if he had to protect the foolish man from himself. But of course that wasn't to be. Nuriko's heart went out to the Emperor as he was brutally rebuffed by his counselors and advisors. One of them all but called him a fool in front of the entire court, "Heika-sama. Think about this. The head of another country going into Kutou uninvited? Do you want to be the one to start this war?"

Nuriko's heart bled as he watched all the fire drain out of the Emperor's eyes. Hotohori's entire posture drooped as his voice took on a depressed tone, "I see... of course you are right. I don't know what came over me." He shuffled back to his throne and dropped down into its unfeeling embrace. Nuriko watched, unbelievably saddened. Hotohori-sama... I know exactly what you were thinking. You were thinking as seishi ought... as a seishi must. Watching the Emperor, Nuriko felt a surge of kinship for the other man. In his own way, Hotohori-sama was even more trapped by his rank and position than Nuriko had been by his.

The Emperor sat in his throne, unmoving and unseeing, as his advisors milled around him, snapping orders for soldiers to saddle their horses and go hunt down Suzaku no miko before she could come to harm. Once that was accomplished, Hotohori roused himself and dismissed the Court, only holding up a hand to stay Nuriko's leaving. The purple haired seishi stepped forward, ready, for once, to do whatever the Emperor might ask of him -- anything that might make the other man feel better, "Yes, heika-sama?"

Hotohori raised a weary head to meet Nuriko's earnest gaze, his own still ringed with defeat, "I thought we had this discussion, already, Nuriko. Between us, it's Hotohori, not heika-sama."

Unsure of the Emperor's mood, but not wanting to darken it further with his own usual contrariness, Nuriko simply offered him a gentle smile. It was such a small thing to give the other man, and it might mean so very much, "Of course, Hotohori-sama. My apologies. I won't forget again."

The Emperor smiled and Nuriko hurt to see it. He was trying to hard to be strong... how had Nuriko never noticed before how young he truly was? Not just in body, but in mind. The other man swallowed and looked away, speaking almost to himself, "It wasn't your fault, Nuriko. I'm sure of it. Miaka is a strong-willed girl with a mind of her own. I don't think anything you said would have deterred her, even if you'd had the chance to try."

Nuriko knew that, how well he knew that... His imouto had always been strong-willed. He nodded, "I thank you for that, Hotohori-sama, but I will carry the guilt of this just the same. Only seeing Miaka safely home will put me at ease."

Hotohori abruptly rose from the dais and descended to stand with Nuriko, "Walk with me?" Nuriko nodded mutely, following the Emperor out of the throne room. Hotohori sighed, "Tamahome will see her safely home, I'm sure. Maybe they'll even bring her friend back with them. And that new seishi that you mentioned -- Chichiri? He sounds like a formidable ally."

Nuriko heard the forced hope in Hotohori's voice and hurriedly jumped in, "I'm sure you're right, Hotohori-sama. She'll be back before you know it -- all smiles and cheeriness. It'll be fine." He forced a smile of his own onto his face. Hotohori grinned hesitantly in response. They both knew the words were a fool's dream. They both knew that Miaka was in terrible danger. However, as there was nothing either of them could do about it, they would just have to trust that it would work out well in the end. It seemed like sometimes, that was all you could do. Nuriko continued, "If I may be so bold, Hotohori-sama, perhaps doing something to take your mind off of this for a little while...?"

Hotohori nodded, that false cheer fleeing from his face to be replaced by a heavy sadness. He knew, as well, what a fool's hope they were sharing, "A very practical suggestion, Nuriko." He sighed, making a face, "The Leaning Tower of State Documents on my desk could probably use some of my time..."

Making a face of his own, Nuriko laughed, "Well, if that's how you choose to spend your time, that's your business, though if you ask me, it sounds more like a punishment than a diversion!"

Slowing to a stop, Hotohori looked away, "Perhaps a punishment is appropriate. I certainly don't deserve a reward for the way I acted today... or the way I haven't acted all week."

Frowning, Nuriko raised a hand to rest on the Emperor's shoulder, "Hotohori-sama... please look at me." When the other man did not even turn his head, Nuriko lifted his other hand and gently but inexorably turned it for him, "Hotohori-sama, I will say this, because you said once that you would like us to be friends and friends tell each other the truth. And I'm only going to say it to you once, so pay attention." Once the Emperor had focused on him, Nuriko said firmly, "You are not to apologize for today or for not being with us this past week. Neither was your fault. Firstly, there are now four seishi and there is only one Emperor of Konan and that is you. That means that your duties as Emperor, unfortunately, often have to supersede your responsibilities as a seishi. There is no help for that." When Hotohori looked like he might protest, Nuriko glared him into silence and continued, "Secondly, though your advisors obviously didn't agree, you reacted appropriately to hearing about Miaka's disappearance. You are a Suzaku shichi-seishi, Hotohori-sama. Emperor or not, that is who you are. And as a Suzaku seishi, your first duty, always and above anything, is to protect your miko. So, though your responsibilities as Emperor sometimes preclude you being able to act on that duty, I will not hear you apologize for wanting to. Have I made myself clear?"

If the situation weren't so serious, Nuriko might have laughed at the completely stunned expression on the Emperor's face. He clearly wasn't used to being spoken to like that. Eventually the other man managed to find his voice, "I believe you have, Nuriko." A small smile crept across his face, "Thank you. I'll try not to forget a second time."

Nodding in satisfaction, Nuriko released him, "Good. See that you don't." Taking a step back and folding his hands into his sleeves, he said, "Now, are you going to tackle those affairs of state or would you like me to browbeat you some more?"

Holding up his hands in a warding gesture, the Emperor laughed, "I don't think I can take any more of that brand of honesty for the time being. Dealing with my work will be easier and, doubtless, less painful."

Nuriko smiled, "Well, then I will leave you to it." Bowing politely, he then left the Emperor to his tasks and started pondering what to do with himself for the rest of the day. Staying around the Palace would have him climbing the walls inside of an hour, so that really was no good. He could go riding, but honestly, with his latest trip only recently ended, he wasn't up for any hard physical activity. Eventually, and with some reluctance, he decided to venture down to Eiyo. Having given Miaka his brush -- Kourin's brush -- he had forgotten to take into account that he had no other. He'd gotten by while traveling by keeping his hair braided, but that would only suffice for so long. With a weary sigh, and futilely wishing he had companionship for this ride, Nuriko borrowed a horse from the stables and set out.

A short while later, as Nuriko rode into the capital, he had cause to be grateful that Kechiko had not agreed to let him take Galaxy. Between the packed crowds around him and his own nervous state, controlling the Appaloosa stallion would have been a task beyond even his abilities. The placid chestnut that Kechiko had lent him was far more the correct speed for his roiled emotions today.

After what seemed like forever winding the horse through Eiyo's narrow streets, Nuriko finally found the booth where he had bought Kourin's brush. He was mildly surprised, yet pleased, to note that it was still there. He smiled at the young man behind the counter as he dismounted, and then spent a few minutes perusing the selection. As before, each brush was beautiful and well-crafted, no two exactly alike. He finally selected one that was similar to the one he'd chosen for Kourin all those years ago, but not so much like it that it was obvious.

The young man at the counter smiled and packaged up the brush for him as Nuriko handed him his money. His purchase completed, he thanked the man and stepped away from the counter. As he eyed the milling crowds, he began to feel somewhat overwhelmed. It had been some time since he had visited a city of this magnitude alone and he had never done so dressed as a man. In spite of his feminine appearance, he found that he was being treated far differently. Used to being treated like an uncommon and fragile flower, he was often dismayed to find himself shoved and jostled about by an uncaring crowd. Was this to be what his life was like from now on? Was he to now be destined to be ordinary and unnoticed? The thoughts made him uncomfortable and his eyes wandered, almost involuntarily, to the bulk of his Sensei's temple at the edge of the capital.

Nuriko had promised that he would visit and he knew that he should... but his thoughts were in too much turmoil right now and he had no desire to sully the peace of the temple. Feeling adrift and uneasy, Nuriko found his feet moving in a different direction, almost of their own accord. He didn't realize where he was going until it was far too late. Looking up, Nuriko found himself outside his father's shop, watching Rokou go about the daily business of a young merchant tailor. His heart began to hammer in his ears and he moved to leave, hopefully before his brother could spot him. He wasn't fast enough.

Rokou dropped the cloth he was working with and left the booth, hurrying to his brother's side, "Ryuuen? It's so wonderful to see you! We'd heard that you were back, but when you didn't come... I was starting to worry." When he finally reached the indigo-haired seishi, Rokou wrapped his arms around the smaller man and pulled him into a tight embrace, "I've missed you, little brother. I'm glad to see that you're safe." When he finally released the younger man and leaned back to take in his appearance, a wide grin spread across his face, "Well, this is new..."

To his embarrassment, Nuriko couldn't stop the blush that splashed across his cheeks. Looking down at the reins in his hands, he muttered, "I've learned that it is very difficult to do my duty as a seishi when dressed as a woman. And when we were traveling, the other seishi found out my secret... and so no reason to hide it from everyone else at the palace. There seemed no further point in continuing the charade once that happened." The self-loathing was so clear in his voice that even Rokou picked up on it.

Pulling Nuriko into another tight hug, Rokou wisely moved the conversation into safer waters, "What are they like? The other seishi?"

Glad to be onto a topic that he could discuss safely, Nuriko expounded on it at great length. He was so into the conversation that he hardly noticed as Rokou began to lead him down the street and away from the booth. In fact, it wasn't until the bulk of the family home was right in front of him that he realized where his brother had led him. He froze in his tracks and flung out a hand to grab onto his brother and cease his forward momentum, "Rokou, are you insane? If I even try to set foot on the grounds, Father will kill me!"

Rokou sadly shook his head, "I don't think he would, but in any case, it isn't why I brought you here. I brought you here for Mother. When she heard that I'd seen you, she was overwrought that she hadn't had the chance to do the same. I promised her, little brother. I promised that if I saw you in this city again, I would find some way to get you to her. Please... don't make me renege on that promise. Don't make a liar of me."

That one word undid him. Nuriko mutely nodded his head and let Rokou lead him the rest of the way to the house. When they reached it, Nuriko left the horse with the stable lad and went back around to the front of the house. He was never more grateful for the wider sleeves on his altered tunic as he was at that moment, as they allowed him to hide his shaking hands. Emi had found a tailor who was willing to alter his men's clothes to have some of the features of a dress -- a longer skirt, longer and wider sleeves. He had been extremely grateful and wondered after the identity of this tailor, but Emi had refused to give him the name. He shook his head, realizing his own stalling tactics and finally convinced himself to approach the door. Before he had a chance to even raise his hand to knock, the door opened.

An old woman stood on the other side. Her dark indigo hair had faded into a storm-tossed gray. Her smooth, beautiful face had sagged into tight, permanent-looking worry lines. Regardless... he knew her anyway. Her hand shook where it rested on the door. The other rose to her mouth and her eyes filled with tears. Nuriko swallowed as a lump rose in his own throat. He could barely get his voice to work and so the word came out as a choked whisper, "'Kaasan?"

The woman let out a small gasp and threw the door open the rest of the way to enfold Nuriko in her arms. She began to sob, gasping out his name every other breath. She kissed his face, his head, his hands, then pulled back to look over every inch of his features, stroking his hair and petting his clothes. Her eyes took on a distant look and a shy smile crossed her face. She leaned in close to whisper into his ear, "I thought the gold would look good on you, Ryuuen." Then she grabbed him up into another tight hug, which he hesitantly returned. She buried her face into his shoulder, "Your brother didn't think so, but I knew I was right." At his stunned look, she hastily explained, "Ryuuen, it was the least I could do for you! But why did you wait so long to visit? You have to come in and talk with me! You'll stay a while, won't you?" She lifted her tear-streaked face to look into his eyes, "Please?"

Ryuuen had just opened his mouth to answer when he heard a door slam from further back in the house. His body gave a convulsive shudder when he recognized his father's massive frame overshadowing his mother's slight form. The look on his face was many things, but forgiving and understanding were not two of them. He held out a hand in entreaty, "Otou-sama..."

His father scowled, "No son of mine would have done what you have done. You abandoned this family in its hour of greatest need. You are not my son. You have not been my son for 10 years. I will not have you in this house."

Nuriko stared into the cold eyes of his father and almost couldn't think of a single thing to say. It was his worst nightmare come to life in stark, vibrant color. Eventually, he managed to get his voice to work, "Then you will not. I never meant to cause you shame. I have tried to make up for that which I have caused you, but I understand how very much there is to make up for. It will take time."

Crossing his arms over his chest, the older man's eyes narrowed, "If you had any honor at all, it would take very little time to make up for the shame you have brought this family."

Bowing his head and ignoring his mother's horrified gasp, Nuriko flinched, "That is not an option for me. I am needed for now and it would bring more dishonor on this family for me to abandon my duties now than I have brought on it in the entirety of these last 10 years." Drawing himself back up and meeting his father's eyes with a burning fire in his own, Nuriko added, "And I will allow no one, not even you, Father, to take me from those duties. They mean more to me than anything, including my life and my honor. But rest assured, I will not make the mistake of darkening your doorstep again."

Not even a flicker of doubt showed in his father's eyes as he turned away from the door and walked back into the house. There was not even a slight hesitation in his step as he left his youngest son and his wife standing miserable in the doorway. Nuriko's mother was crying in earnest, now. Nuriko wrapped his arms around her and tried to comfort her, "'Kaasan... Please, don't cry on my account." Getting a finger under his mother's chin, he forced her eyes up to meet his own, "I would not tell this to Father, especially not as angry as he is, but if will ease your burden, I will tell you. All else aside... I am happy. I have friends who care for me and I have a purpose in my life. Everything else I suffered to reach this point... it was all worth it. Though I have done things I regret, I don't regret where I am and what I do now. Is that enough to offset the rest?"

Rokou stepped up from where he'd been hiding behind their father, his own eyes red, "I am so sorry... I didn't really think that he would... I thought he'd be happy, like we were."

Nuriko found a smile somewhere for his brother, "I know you meant well, aniki. And I'm glad to have gotten the chance to see you and 'Kaasan again, at least. Since I owe you much for that chance, why don't we call it even?" He pulled his mother closer, placing a kiss on top of her head, and then gently pushing her towards Rokou.

Ignoring whatever response his brother did or did not make, Nuriko went back to the stable to fetch his horse. It wasn't until he was mounted and riding back to the Palace that the reaction set it. Filled with a blank numbness, he didn't even remember most of the ride back to the palace, returning the horse to the stables or walking to his rooms. All he knew was that somehow he had gotten back and gotten stuck at the entrance to his rooms, staring dumbly at his door as if he'd never seen it before.

Kechiko had at least had the presence of mind to call for Emi when he saw Nuriko return to the palace. When the woman reached Nuriko's rooms, she found him exactly as he'd been when he'd gotten there -- standing outside his rooms, staring at the door. She put a hand on his shoulder and softly asked him if he was all right. When no response was forthcoming, Emi took his hand into hers and rubbed it a bit, "Nuriko-san? It's Emi... Won't you please tell me what's wrong?" Still no response. Flustered, upset and running out of options, Emi released Nuriko's hand. There was only one other person at the palace that might be able to reach her friend in this state and as terrified as she was to approach him, she would do whatever it took to help Nuriko.

Hotohori looked up, startled, at the knock on his door. The pile of State Documents was smaller than it had been this morning, but a casual glance would not have revealed it. He just couldn't keep his mind on the paperwork with Miaka in danger and far more to think about than he liked. Grateful for the diversion, he called for his visitor to enter. One of the palace servants burst into the room, eyes red-rimmed and clearly distraught. Two of his advisors followed her in, apologizing for the interruption. He was about to dismiss her, but something about her face made him pause. He thought he knew this maid. He stood up from his desk and waved his advisors back. Walking over to the woman, he asked gently, "Its Emi, isn't it? Nuriko's maid?" At the woman's grateful look and nod, he smiled, "Well then, Emi, what seems to be the trouble?"

The woman dropped to her knees and pressed her forehead to the ground, trying valiantly to swallow back her tears, "I don't know what's wrong, heika-sama. Nuriko-san went into the city today and when he returned, he was not himself. I found him standing outside his room, staring at the door. He won't speak to me, he won't respond. I don't know what happened and you were the only one I could think of who might be able to help!"

Hotohori placed a gentle hand under the woman's arm and raised her back onto her feet, "I'm glad that you came to me. I don't know that I'll be able to do anything, but I will try." Again that grateful look. It was amazing, really... Miaka, Tamahome, Kechiko, Emi... himself. It seemed that Nuriko was just as good at making friends as Lady Kourin had been at making enemies. It was odd, but he was starting to understand the pull they all felt towards the deceptively fragile-looking seishi. He just hoped that the other man would let him help. This current crisis seemed to have forged a truce between them, but he knew how very far he had to go before he could truly call the other seishi a friend. There was trust to be regained, first. He could only hope that there was enough of a foundation that he would be able to do something for him right now.

Gathering his robes and taking his leave of his advisors, Hotohori walked the short distance to Nuriko's rooms. He found the other man exactly as Emi had described, just standing there, staring at his door, a blank expression on his face. Hotohori walked up to him and put a hand on the other seishi's shoulder, "Nuriko, I don't know what's going on, but you scared your maid into coming to talk to me. Won't you tell me what's wrong?"

Nuriko didn't respond. Hotohori tried another tactic, "Nuriko, its Hotohori. You told me earlier that a friend is someone who tells you the truth. The truth is... Emi isn't the only one you're scaring. Please talk to me." The shoulder under Hotohori's hand started to shake, but there was no other response. Finally, Hotohori opted for the direct approach. He opened Nuriko's door and led him into his rooms. He sat Nuriko down on his bed and closed the outer door then pulled a chair up to the bed and sat down, watching Nuriko's face. There was still no change.

Hotohori took Nuriko's hands into his and tried to rub some warmth back into them. He sighed, heavily, "What can I do to get you to talk to me?" He laughed, humorlessly, "If this is all some ploy to get my undivided attention, I have to admit that it's working."

That last finally got a response from the other seishi. Nuriko blinked, and then slowly turned his head to look at the Emperor, "Heika-sama? What are you doing here?" Looking around the room in confusion, he said, almost to himself, "How... how did I get here? The last thing I remember is getting back on my horse and leaving the capital..." His voice trailed off.

Hotohori sighed and shook his head, "I thought we'd gotten past that, Nuriko. I'm here as a friend, as a fellow seishi... Hotohori. I'd like to help, but I can't if you won't let me. What got you so upset?"

The sincerity in the Emperor's voice filled his eyes, as well. Nuriko found himself caught in them, felt himself falling all over again. This dancing on a knife's edge between friendship, love and enmity was starting to wear on him. And right now, he just didn't have the energy for it. Besides, even if he had no honor, he at least still had his pride. He couldn't share this with the Emperor. He wouldn't understand... and he had witnessed enough of Nuriko's shame already. Shaking his head, he said softly, "I'm sorry, Hotohori-sama, I just can't."

Hotohori frowned as he stood, "You mean you won't." Sighing, he added, "If you won't tell your friend, your fellow seishi, will you answer your Emperor?"

Nuriko's head jerked around to meet the Emperor's gaze. Drawing himself up to his full height and gathering what remained of his dignity like a shroud, he let his disappointment flood his face, "Heika-sama, of course I will answer. If you order me, I must obey." He backed up so he wasn't blocking the Emperor's path to the door and let his posture become as submissive as when he had been part of the Emperor's harem, "However, I would remind you that it has been a very long day for me and I am very tired. If you truly wish to match wits, I will do my best... but I fear you will have a distinct advantage, tonight."

Realizing, too late, that he had gravely erred, Hotohori pulled back as though slapped. He folded his hands into his sleeves and said quietly, "Somehow, I very much doubt that, Nuriko." Letting out a heavy sigh, Hotohori tried one last time, "If you need anything... anything at all, you come find me, all right?"

Nuriko nodded, but made no other response. Once Hotohori had left, he took a deep, calming breath. The last few months had been hard on everyone -- himself and the Emperor included. Perhaps it was unfair of him to have shut the other man out like he had, but he just hadn't been up for a verbal sparring match. And if they'd tried to talk with Hotohori being so insistent as to order his compliance and Nuriko so adamant about not revealing another weakness for the Emperor to exploit, they would have ended up fighting. And more strife was not what they needed. With a sigh, Nuriko gave it up as a lost cause and went to draw his bath. A good long soak and an even longer rest would hopefully set his attitude to rights. Then he could approach the Emperor... and though it would gall him to do so, he would apologize. He would make peace between them if it killed him.

The next day as Hotohori was preparing for court, he was still mulling over the strange occurrences of the night before. That entire confrontation with Nuriko hadn't gone as he'd expected. Why was it so hard for him to understand the other man? He claimed that he was in love with Hotohori, but every time the Emperor extended a hand in friendship he was vigorously rebuffed. It was enough to drive him mad! Not that he would ever say so to the other seishi's face, but Nuriko was more like a woman than he even realized.

As he reached the throne room, the Emperor squared his shoulders and tried to shake the thoughts from his head. He would need all his wits about him for court, especially with how he'd embarrassed himself the other day. He nodded to the door servants who threw open the double doors and announced his presence. Immediately upon his entrance, the soldiers stood at attention and the courtiers began their daily bowing and scraping. Hotohori put a hand to his temple, feeling a headache coming on. There were days, many days, when he almost wished he was not the Emperor. This looked like it would be one of them. He swept his gaze around the Court, not even realizing he was looking for Nuriko until he saw that the purple-haired seishi wasn't there. He hoped he hadn't damaged their relationship irrevocably the other night. It might be selfish, but he'd discovered that court was far more tolerable with the other seishi by his side. At least Nuriko understood. He made his way to the throne and sat, then waved his hand at the court to indicate that they could get on with what they were doing. Life resumed its flow around him. Around him, but not including him. I hope Miaka comes back, soon...

A sudden noise at the outside door made him look up, then freeze in shock, his heart beating wildly in his chest. If he'd known that prayers could be answered with such speed and precision, he'd have started praying years ago! Wasting not one more second, he descended the dais and grabbed Miaka into a tight hug. The girl was shocked. He could feel it in the stillness of her body. She didn't pull away, nor did she respond in kind. Hotohori couldn't find it within himself to care. She was back and he was not going to let her go. Eventually, however, she started squirming uncomfortably in his embrace and he reluctantly let her step away. She wasn't his to claim... not yet.

Miaka started talking, explaining all that had happened, including the discovery of her friend, Yui. Hotohori had to smile watching her. With her return, she'd brought a life back to him, one where he was included, not just ruling from outside. She concluded her rapid-fire report with, "...And you haven't met the fourth seishi! We found him, well he found us, but that doesn't matter. His name is Chichiri!"

Hotohori looked up at the fox-eyed man and had to wonder why the man smiled so much. It was almost eerie, the way his facial expression didn't change. When the man held up a hand and blushed a little, loudly proclaiming, "DAAA!", Hotohori felt his head once again starting to pound. Was everyone here insane except him? He was surprised to find himself actually wishing for Nuriko to get here soon. He might not always understand why, but at least he always knew where he stood with the other seishi.

Almost as if Hotohori's thoughts had brought him, Nuriko finally arrived for morning court. He looked better than he had the night before, but there were still shadows in his eyes. Hotohori couldn't help wondering, yet again, who or what had put them there. Nuriko, however, only had eyes for their miko. He ran to Miaka and grabbed her into a fierce hug -- one that she not only didn't reject, but returned with equal force. Nuriko's face was brilliant in a beaming smile that made even Hotohori's heart beat a little harder. The Emperor felt his face heat as that look turned away. He was honest enough with himself to acknowledge that if Lady Kourin had once smiled at him that way... But she hadn't. And that really was all for the best, because Lady Kourin was Nuriko... and even if he'd wanted it to, it would never have worked. Feeling resigned in more ways than one, he turned away from the reunion taking place in front of him, suddenly not in the mood to witness anyone else's innocent joy.

Nuriko grabbed Miaka into a hug, holding on as tightly as he could, I am never letting you out of my sight again, little sister. Never again. Do you hear me? I can't lose you a second time. So intense was his relief that it felt like his heart would beat itself right out of his chest. Miaka was laughing as she hugged him, nowhere near as stiff as she'd been with the Emperor. Nuriko had been hanging around the door and watching them, but hadn't had the heart to interfere. He hadn't wanted to give the Emperor a chance to mention what had happened yesterday. He needn't have worried. As always where Miaka was concerned, Hotohori had eyes and thoughts for no one else.

Miaka abruptly stepped back and offered him a brilliant smile, "Nuriko, you're still being gay!"

His heart skipped a beat and he felt like he'd been sucker punched. It was too soon, far too soon for that kind of teasing. But he couldn't let her know that. He couldnt let Miaka think that she'd hurt him... not for anything. And so he fell back on his natural defense: joking. "Miaka, you're still being stupid!"

She laughed, reading it for the lame attempt at a joke that it was, and wrapped her arms around him, letting him lead her out of the throne room. Nuriko dragged her back towards his rooms, eager to spend some quality time with her.

With Miaka and Nuriko gone, the other three seishi sized each other up. Hotohori could feel the rise in power from Tamahome's chi -- he'd gotten stronger since they'd last seen each other. And this new seishi, Chichiri, had the strongest and most well-controlled chi of them all. He also looked older than they three. He would be a powerful ally.

Tamahome, for his part, was trying to keep his anger under control. He'd only just barely gotten Miaka back when Nuriko had swooped in and stolen her away. And that seemed to happen with alarming frequency. It made him doubt, in spite of Nuriko's reassurances, that the relationship between he and Miaka was totally innocent. It was pretty clear to Tamahome that the other seishi loved Miaka -- and who could blame him? After all, who wouldn't love Miaka? Well, at least Chichiri didn't seem to have any romantic leanings towards their miko. Tamahome would have his hands full competing with the attentions of Nuriko and the Emperor.

Chichiri watched the Miko leave with Nuriko, confused at all the undercurrents of emotion in the room. Chichiri turned his attention to the other two seishi -- the Emperor and the other one that he'd already met: Hotohori and Tamahome. The two were staring each other down like wolves preparing to fight over a piece of meat. He nearly shuddered at the waves of anger coming off the other two. Finally deciding that he couldn't take it anymore, Chichiri spoke up, "Excuse me... Is everything all right between you two, no da?"

Both of the other seishi jerked their heads in his direction, quickly assuming equally innocent expressions. Tamahome then snorted and turned his head away. Hotohori was somewhat more polite -- he changed the subject, "Everything is fine, Chichiri-san. It isn't something you need to concern yourself with." He then motioned one of the men around the dais forward, "I'll have one of the servants show you to a room. As a Suzaku Seishi, you are entitled to rooms in Konan's Palace, for use whenever you need them."

Chichiri recognized the evasion for what it was but bowed anyway. The seishi should not be indulging in petty rivalries of any sort with their enemy gathering forces against them, but clearly this was not the time or the place to be discussing it. The Emperor was quite right about that. So, instead he thanked the Emperor for his hospitality and allowed the young servant to lead him out of the throne room. But that didn't stop him from throwing a worried glance at the two younger seishi as he went. Once I have a better idea for the cause of this tension, I'll have to talk to them, no da. It's too dangerous for us to be divided like this...

They came to a stop outside a set of double doors and the servant opened them and waved him in. He stepped inside and for just a moment, couldn't help but stare at the opulent surroundings. A wandering monk never had much in the way of possessions and these quarters were truly palatial, especially compared to what he was used to. Even his rooms at Mt. Taikyoku hadn't been so nice.

After a moment, he remembered the poor man waiting at the door, thanked him and told him he could go on about his duties. Then with a wondering smile, Chichiri allowed himself to spend some time exploring his new home. There were apparently advantages to the Emperor being one of the seishi. He started his exploration with the bathing chamber, a true luxury and bigger than most rooms that he'd lived in. The bed was large enough for three or four people to sleep in and there was a whole separate room just for entertaining guests. It was more luxury than he'd ever seen in one place, ever... and it was all for him. Just because he was a Suzaku seishi. The peasant boy buried deep inside the cheerful monk was almost ready to faint from the honor bestowed on him so casually. Fortunately, he had responsibilities -- the first of which was to find out exactly what was going on between the other three seishi and see if he couldn't do anything to ease the tension.

Finally determined on a course of action, Chichiri walked out of his room... and was nearly bowled over by his ever-exuberant miko. He was so startled that he squeaked and hid under his kasa, "Suzaku no Miko! Be a little more careful, no da!"

Miaka's eyes widened and she bowed in profuse apology, "Chichiri, I'm so sorry! I didn't see you there! I was looking for Tamahome..."

Chichiri uncovered his head and reached out to pat Miaka on the shoulder, "It's all right, Miaka-san. There was no harm done. As for Tamahome-kun, the last time I saw him, he was with Hotohori in the throne room."

Miaka smiled and yelled, "Thank you!" She then took off at breakneck speed for the throne room. Chichiri, who had opened his mouth to say something else, just closed it and shook his head.

An amused chuckle sounded from behind Chichiri. When he turned around it was to find Nuriko standing behind him and gently smiling. He voice was full of affection when spoke, "Don't mind her, Chichiri-san. You'll get used to Miaka's ways after a while. She has Tama-chan on the brain."

Chichiri smiled, "I could see that... Nuriko, isn't it?"

Nuriko stepped closer and folded his arms into his sleeves, "Yes, Chichiri-san." He then hesitated. Finally, he asked, "If I may be so bold, Chichiri-san, you have the look of one who has questions he would like answered."

It was amazing -- Nuriko was so different here at the palace than he had been in Tamahome's village. Every movement, every turn of phrase was graceful, almost delicate. It was easy to see how he had been able to masquerade as a woman all these years. Offering the younger man a grateful smile, Chichiri nodded and began to walk as he gathered his thoughts. Nuriko fell into step next to him. After a few moments, Chichiri spoke, "Nuriko, I noticed that there is some heavy tension between our fellow seishi. That... well, it's not good, no da. If an enemy attacks, we can't afford to be divided. Do you know what caused the situation?"

The purple haired seishi let out a heavy sigh. Apparently, this was not an unknown problem. He was silent for a moment before speaking, "Tamahome and Hotohori-sama are both in love with the same woman, Chichiri-san. The girl is in love with Tama-chan... but the Emperor has loved her all his life. He isn't going to give up a chance to have her without a fight. And you are right... it causes unnecessary tension."

Chichiri frowned under his mask, "You are speaking of Suzaku no Miko."

Nuriko nodded, "You are very observant, Chichiri-san. Miaka doesn't want to hurt Hotohori-sama, but she can not love him. It is hard on all three of them."

In spite of the gravity of the situation, the older seishi's curiosity was getting the better of him, "And how do you fit into all of this, no da?" He was surprised and dismayed when Nuriko's face flushed, "You are in love with Miaka-san, as well, no da?"

As they reached the lake, Nuriko turned his head away to stare out across the gently rippling water, then slowly folded his legs to sit on a nearby boulder, "I suppose that you could say that I am, Chichiri-san, though not the way you mean it. I love Miaka as one would love a little sister, and I can not bear to see her being hurt by this. Love is a precious gift. It should not bring pain... though it seems to do that all too often."

Chichiri sat down next to him and rested his staff on the boulder, "The relationship you have with her is strange, no da. I can feel the tie between you and it is stronger than most I have seen, stronger even those between blood relatives. In many ways, it is even stronger than the bond that she shares with any of the rest of us."

Nuriko's face flushed a second time, though the corners of his mouth lifted in a bitter smile, "Bonds between blood aren't all that strong, Chichiri-san. Believe me when I say that."

Chichiri leaned forwards, resting his elbows on his knees, "Tell me about it?"

Nuriko shook his head, sadly, "No. It is too personal and too recent a pain. Maybe someday... but not today."

The two sat in silence for a while longer, just enjoying the sunset over the lake. When Nuriko eventually spoke, his voice was quiet and hesitant, "Chichiri-san?" Chichiri turned towards him and motioned for him to continue, "You've been around longer than we have and you've seen a lot of the world. Tell me -- does it ever get any easier?"

Chichiri sat up, folding his arms across his chest, "I am not certain I understand what you are asking, no da."

Nuriko placed his arms behind him and leaned back on the boulder to look up into the darkening sky. His voice was subdued as he spoke, "Life, Chichiri-san. Does it ever get any easier? Sometimes, too often, the few joyful moments are drowned out by its many sadnesses. Does the balance ever shift the other way?"

Chichiri stood up slowly, removing his mask. He stared out over the lake, his mind's eyes interposing a vision of a soft pair of beautiful eyes, shadowed in anguish. He rubbed a finger over the scar on his face before replacing his mask, "I wish I could tell you differently, Nuriko-san, but in my experience of it... no. It does not." When the younger seishi had no immediate response to that, Chichiri replaced his mask and said quietly, "I thank you for answering my questions and I'm sorry I couldn't give you a better answer to yours, Nuriko-san." Then bowing politely, he took his leave of the other seishi and went back to his rooms to contemplate their problems in solitude.

Nuriko sat by the lake for a while longer, thinking hard about the strange paths that his life had taken over the years. Even though he'd known that he would never fit into the life his parents had originally wanted for him, on some level, he'd thought that they might welcome him back... that they might be glad to at least find out that he was still alive. But his father...

Nuriko leaned back so that he was lying on the boulder, staring up at the emerging stars. He should have expected his father's reaction. He really should have. But he'd walked right into it like a fox just asking to be skinned. The worst part was that some small part of him agreed with his father and felt that the reaction he'd gotten was deserved. He was unclean... was perverted in some way. He knew that about himself, even if the others didn't. And he wanted to change... he just couldn't seem to do it. He was almost sorry that he hadn't taken Chichiri up on his offer to talk. It was easier, talking to the older man. Maybe it was because he didn't know him that well yet. Maybe it was because Nuriko was almost certain that the other seishi would understand... and wouldn't judge.

Regardless, something about Chichiri made Nuriko hesitant to dump his problems on him. It seemed the man had enough scars of his own, for though he wore a smiling face at all times and was ever-cheerful like Miaka, Nuriko got the impression that it was mostly for show. Of all people, he understood how such a thing could occur. If you care so deeply for other people that you don't want them to see your own pain, you start to hide it. Then, before you know it, you're wearing a jester's mask at all times to keep them from seeing how deeply you're hurt. Oh yes, Nuriko understood that all too well. And he was reluctant to pile any more problems on top of that hidden anguish.

Really, though... he needed to talk to someone. He needed to get this soul-poison out of himself before it destroyed everything he touched. And there was only one being in this entire palace that he could think of who would not only listen to what he had to say and not judge, but also wouldn't be over-burdened by the knowledge. Nuriko rolled over onto his side, and then stood up, stretching. Galaxy might not be the most active of conversationalists, but he could surely listen.

Nuriko growled as he sat up, angrily rubbing his eyes. This being awoken so soon after finally falling into a troubled sleep was getting old. Once his thoughts focused, he realized what it was that had awoken him -- there were people yelling and screaming out in the hall. He rolled out of bed and pushed his full mane of hair back from his face. He tightened the sash of his short robe so that it was firmly closed over his chest and desperately tried to rub the sleep from his eyes as he made his way out into the hallway. Where was the noise coming from? Oh, Sweet Suzaku, no! It was coming from Miaka's room. Not wasting another second on thinking, Nuriko broke into a run.

He reached Miaka's room just in time to see an assassin run out of it. He paused just long enough to see that Miaka was all right, and then ran after the assassin. This one wasn't getting away without giving them some damned answers! When he saw that he wasn't going to catch up, he gathered his chi and broke off a piece of the stone railing. He raised it over his head and hurled it towards the assassin, hoping to knock him out before he made it over the wall. Unfortunately for the wall, and Nuriko's temper, the assassin made it over and the stone railing made a rather large dent in it.

Nuriko blushed, embarrassed and full of frustrated fury. Hearing footsteps behind him, he cursed to himself and said, "Oh, how awful! He broke the wall!"

A hand whacked into his head and Tamahome's irritated voice came from above him, "It was you, wasn't it?" Nuriko's blush deepened as he sheepishly nodded. Tamahome smiled at him and patted his shoulder, "I'm sure Hotohori-sama will forgive you."

The two walked back to Miaka's room to find out what had happened. Apparently, the Seiryuu seishi were upping the stakes. They wanted to hold Tamahome hostage in return for their not burning any more villages. Seeing the horrified look on Tamahome's face made Nuriko remember the four children that made up most of the younger seishi's family. They'd be defenseless if their village was attacked. Obviously, Tamahome and Miaka were thinking the same thing. Miaka grabbed onto Tamahome's arm and begged him not to go, "We'll find another way! Tamahome, please!" Clearly reluctant, Tamahome allowed himself to be swayed by Miaka's desperation.

As everyone else was leaving Tamahome and Miaka to their rest, Nuriko tried to catch the younger man's eyes. He might have seemed convinced, but somehow, Nuriko just wasn't sure. He could see it in the younger boy's face. He was going to try something even more stupid than normal and, if Nuriko didn't miss his guess, he would be left with a heartbroken younger sister on his hands. He finally managed to catch Tamahome's gaze and the guilt hidden within its depths convinced Nuriko that he'd been right. He shook his head slightly and Tamahome paled and looked away. Damn it! There are times that I hate being right. Tamahome's expression made it clear what his intentions were. Miaka was important, but ties of blood called him even stronger than her siren song. The worst part of it was... he understood. If there positions had been reversed and it had been Miaka in danger, there would have been no limit to the danger Nuriko would have willingly placed himself in to keep her safe. It was just unfortunate that Tamahome's feelings of responsibility to his family were forcing Nuriko into an equally untenable position.

Cursing the unfairness of it all, he caught the younger boy's eye again and nodded once. He didn't like it... but he wouldn't interfere. Tamahome gave him a small, gratified smile. Fortunately, Miaka had missed the entire exchange. Thank goodness... She'd be hurt enough come tomorrow morning without knowing that Nuriko had been aware of what was going to happen... and had done nothing to stop it. He headed back to his room, already dreading the events that would unfold come daybreak.

Nuriko rubbed at his eyes, as he slowly pulled himself out of the soft blankets of his bed. This was the second time in eight hours that Miaka's screaming had awakened him out of a sound sleep. This time, thought, he was only saddened by the thought... especially as, this time; he knew why she was screaming. He didn't even bother pulling his hair out of his face as he scrambled out of bed this time. He just got out into the hallways as quickly as he could, trusting his instincts to guide him to his distraught imouto. It didn't take much to find her. She was running straight at him, tears streaming down her face. Nuriko could feel his heart break watching her. Feeling a regret just as useless as any other join the pile he was accumulating, he threw open his arms.

Miaka ran straight into them, anguish reverberating down their bond and making him want to join her in her tears as she wailed out his name, "Nuriko!!"

He held her tightly, trying to provide a pillar of strength for her since Tamahome wasn't there to do it. He kissed her hair and rocked her slowly back and forth, lightly rubbing her back as he did so, "Sh... Calm down, Miaka-chan. I'm here... What's the matter?" He cursed quietly to himself for his words. You know damned well what's wrong. Just tell her you know and get it over with. What's the difference if one more person in your life hates you anyway? Pushing aside the angry thoughts, he forced his concentration back on the sobbing girl in his arms.

Miaka continued to press her face into Nuriko's chest, mumbling out something incoherent as she did so. Hearing footsteps, Nuriko looked up to find the Emperor tossing a jealous look his way. He rolled his eyes heavenward in a prayer for patience, and then buried his head in Miaka's hair. This day was shaping up to be just as bad as the ones before it had been. When Hotohori-sama reached out a hand to touch Miaka's shoulder, she transferred her choke-hold to the Emperor. Nuriko couldn't help but feel his own stab of jealousy at that, but pushed it away. He was partly responsible for this... he deserved a little pain of his own as a result.

Hotohori cradled Miaka in his arms, trying to figure out what was the matter. Finally, he pushed her back slightly so that he could peer into her face, "Where's Tamahome, Miaka?" More tears filled her eyes and she held up a piece of paper, "I don't know! When I woke up this morning, he was gone. But I found this notebook -- it was open and it has writing on it, but, I can't read the characters of your world so I don't know what it says!"

Wordlessly, Hotohori took the paper from her and read it aloud, watching her face drop as he did. When he got to the bottom of the page, however, and read the words written in a firm and determined hand, he balked. What did the words say? They said, "Ai shiteru." He couldn't read that. If he was to have any chance whatsoever of winning Miaka's heart, she couldn't know that Tamahome loved her. No one should have to read another man's "I love you" written to the object of their own affections. Maybe it was petty. Maybe it was selfish. In that moment, seeing the effects of Tamahome's own selfishness reflected in Miaka's tears, he couldnt bring himself to give a damn.

The look on Miaka's face was a study in horror. She was opening and closing her mouth, but no words were escaping. Hotohori started to feel a pang of guilt for his silence... perhaps if he told her; it would make it easier to bear? No... he couldnt. He just couldn't. Fortunately, Nuriko stepped in. He gathered Miaka back into his arms, rubbing her arms and back and gently kissing her forehead. In spite of his gratitude a moment before, Hotohori felt a surge of jealousy as he watched her relax in the other seishi's arms. He shouldn't be jealous, not of Nuriko, not when he knew the other seishi's romantic interests lay very firmly elsewhere. He should just be grateful that the other man was able to help Miaka when he could not. Damn it. He turned away from that tender scene and returned to his throne room, trying to quash the very conflicted feelings warring in his heart.

An hour later any fleeting feeling of hope was long gone, replaced by some horror of his own, "You want to what?"

Miaka had the nerve to feed him a huge smile, "Nuriko, Chichiri, and I would like to go look for the rest of the seishi. You remember what Tamahome wrote in his letter -- once I've gathered the other seishi, he'll come back!" The look in her eyes was so hopeful, that he couldn't bear to refuse her this. Especially not when it had been he who requested that she find the other seishi in the first place. Especially not when he needed her to find the other three seishi. But he didn't want to let her go when he'd only just gotten her back!

He couldn't stop himself from throwing out one last obstacle, "But the clues for finding the seishi were in the Shi Jin Ten Chi Sho that was left in Kutou..." When her face fell, he immediately regretted it, "I didn't mean to accuse you, Miaka... I'm sorry." He swallowed the lump in his throat and slowly nodded his head, resigning himself to being left alone, "Well, then I wish you all luck. I wish I could go with you."

Finally having gotten the answer she wanted, Miaka just bestowed another brilliant smile on him then turned to the other seishi and said, "Let's go!"

Nuriko carefully watched the road ahead of them. Nothing was going to hurt his imouto this time -- not if he had anything to say about it. And he would make damned sure that he had plenty to say about it. Her overly-cheerful words brought him such a measure of joy. Really, losing the rest of his family was a small price to pay to have her back. He cast a brief glance back at her as she gasped, "Oi, Miaka-chan, what's wrong?"

She held the mirror up, "The sign for Mountain... It's showing on Taiitsu-kun's mirror..."

Nuriko frowned, "Mt. Leikaku is straight ahead... but the whole area is infested with bandits." In spite of his words, however, his heart gave a stupid little lurch. Mt. Leikaku's bandits... Genrou would be there. He hadn't thought about the other man in quite some time and it was a distraction of the worst order that he was thinking about him now. He forcibly yanked his mind back to Miaka's words. His own perverted thoughts aside, he was not taking his miko into bandit territory without a damned good reason!

Miaka grinned and patted his back, "We have Chichiri-san with us! He'll take care of those bandits!" She then turned around to consult the older seishi only to discover that he was no longer there, "Ah! Nuriko, Chichiri's gone! Now how will we get past the bandits?"

Nuriko, still deep in thought about the bandits, almost didn't hear her. When her words finally penetrated, he almost jerked the horse to a stop, "What?? Well where the hell is he, then?"

Miaka shrugged, looking anything but nonchalant as she answered, "I just turned around and he wasn't there. What do we do? We can't go to the mountain alone..."

Frowning in response, Nuriko answered, "Well, Chichiri can take care of himself, I'm sure, but you're right. It's a bad idea to go into those mountains alone, especially not without a plan... but if the mirror says that's where we have to go, then that's where we have to go. Why don't we stop at the Inn over there and get lunch. If Chichiri just fell behind, he'll catch up to us there. If not... we'll just have to put together some sort of plan." Inwardly, he winced. Chichiri would not be catching up. Nuriko couldn't feel his chi anywhere. Damn it! I thought we could rely on you, Chichiri-san. We don't need this, now...

Fortunately, Miaka perked up, as usual, at the mention of food, "All right! Let's go!"

In spite of his worries, Nuriko laughed and kicked the horse into a canter, saying below his breath, "Wo ai ni, Miaka-chan..."

Miaka was so tuned towards the thought of lunch, that she almost missed Nuriko's response to her enthusiastic comments. It took her a moment to puzzle out what he'd said, but puzzle it out, she did. Then she almost fell off the horse in shock. Wo ai ni? That... he told me what that meant. It means 'I love you!' Why would he say that to me? She stared hard at the red-clad boy in front of her and shook her head, I have enough trouble with two boys in love with me, I don't think I can handle a third! She buried her now heated face into Nuriko's partially unbound hair, And isn't he gay? Maybe that's why he called me stupid, before. Oh, I can't deal with this! Maybe if I just pretend I didn't hear, it'll go away...

Nuriko felt Miaka bury her face in his hair and smiled, "Miaka-chan, we're here -- why don't we go inside and get something to eat?"

Miaka immediately lifted her head up and slid off the horse, "Yeah!"

Nuriko laughed as he dismounted and tied the horse up outside the door. His next glimpse of Miaka's face caused his smile to turn into a frown, Why is she blushing? Was it something I said...? Oh no. She couldn't have heard me say... His own face started to heat up and he hurried past Miaka to open the door to the inn, Oh, I hope not. She's confused enough as it is... Stupid, Nuriko... very stupid.

They sat down at a table in the center of the inn and ordered their food. Nuriko couldn't help but grin at the sheer amount that Miaka ordered, but when she began to babble on about Chichiri missing all the food, he knew something was up. He caught one of her hands, "You don't have to pretend with me, you know."

Miaka blushed and pulled her hand out of his grasp. Nuriko wasn't used to this -- Miaka being uncomfortable around him. He scowled, "I know you're upset about Tamahome. It's OK to not be cheerful all the time, you know..."

She just giggled and waved her hand at him, "No, Nuriko, it's fine, really..."

Nuriko growled and stood up, slamming his hands down on the table... and through it. His face turned beet red as he stammered something about the wood being rotten. He hid his face in his hands as they moved to another table, I don't believe that I did that... The waiter walked over and paled at the sight of the other table. He hurriedly put the food down and rushed away. Nuriko turned back to Miaka who was busy going starry-eyed over her food. He smiled as she began to eat and did a quick survey of the room. Those men in the corner look awfully suspicious... and they were laughing as they watched Miaka eat.

Something clicked in Nuriko's mind and he yelled, "Miaka! Don't eat the food!" He then stared in horror at the carnage on the table, "You idiot! You ate mine, too!" When Miaka's face paled and she dropped the chopsticks, Nuriko's heart nearly stopped. She collapsed off the bench onto the floor, clutching her stomach. Nuriko threw himself down next to her, screaming her name in frantic worry, "Miaka!" Unfortunately, the men didn't give him a chance to find out what was wrong as they attacked without mercy.

Anger gave fuel to Nuriko's power as his seishi symbol blazed forth, "You bastards! What have you done?" He broke the sword of the one attacking him and kicked him across the room. Heart in his throat, he turned to take care of the one who was bearing down on Miaka, but there was no way he would make it in time. Still desperately hoping that he would, he threw himself across the room. Not even realizing what he was saying, he screamed, "KOURIN!!!"

He heard a sick crunching sound somewhere above him. The attacker fell to the side, a bloody hole in his chest. Nuriko's eyes almost filled with tears of joy when the man's body dropped and revealed Hotohori's form standing behind him, sword raised. The Emperor lowered his sword and rushed over to Miaka's other side. Nuriko prayed that neither one of them had heard his scream. Hotohori frantically asked, "Is she all right, Nuriko?"

Nuriko's hands hovered protectively around Miaka's still form, "I don't know. I'm all right, because I didn't eat... but Miaka did."

Miaka finally raised dazed eyes to her two seishi. For a moment, she didn't speak, and then she offered Nuriko a harassed smile, "No, I just ate too fast and the food got caught in my throat. Nuriko... could I have some water?"

Completely subsumed by a rush of relief, Nuriko promptly smacked her on the head. "You idiot! Don't scare me like that!"

When they next headed out, despite Nuriko's protests, Miaka was tucked in front of Hotohori on his horse. It felt wrong, somehow, to ride without Miaka's comforting warmth at his back. He picked his eyes up from where they'd been fastened on his horse's ears. He just caught Miaka's eyes before she blushed and turned her face away. Nuriko swallowed hard and turned his attention back to the road. Damn... she must have heard what he'd said before. That was the only thing that could explain her sudden discomfort around him. He'd have to find some way to fix that.

Once they'd traveled a few hours into bandit territory, Hotohori called a halt so they could get some water. Nuriko led the horses to a place where they could graze for a while, then turned back to where he'd left Hotohori and Miaka. Overhearing them having a conversation, Nuriko ducked down and crouched behind a tree wondering what was going on.

Hotohori was holding up the note from Tamahome and finally telling her what the younger seishi had written on the bottom -- Ai shiteru. I love you. His voice sounded like it was broken as he said those words... "He went into Kutou for his family, and his love, Miaka. You." Nuriko couldn't help but feel a surge of pride for the Emperor when he admitted that. It took courage for a man to say something like that, especially when he was so desperately in love with the girl himself.

Miaka's voice was full of tears when she responded, "I know that. I do. I love him, too. I miss him..."

Nuriko's instincts were screaming at him to go to Miaka, but he stayed were he was and let Hotohori comfort her. The Emperor continued speaking, "You love him, and he loves you, but... I love you too, Miaka." Nuriko nearly jumped from his hiding place at the Emperor's next actions. He leaned in to kiss Miaka.

At the last second, Miaka pulled away and yelled, "Don't!"

Hotohori stared at her, not moving, voice full of the pain of broken dreams, "Do you love him that much?"

Miaka made no response. Nuriko put a hand to his heart to stop it from pounding. On the one hand, he truly didn't want either of the two in front of him to be hurt. On the other, though, if Hotohori finally came to understand that Miaka would never love him... that might open the door for Nuriko to have a chance. It was a foolish hope, perhaps even a vain one, but he couldn't stop himself from hoping it, nonetheless.

And then the last thing he was expecting to hear resounded across his ears. Miaka screamed. Nuriko bolted to his feet and ran towards them, "Hotohori-sama! Miaka!" Before he was even halfway there, something hard and heavy slammed into his back, knocking him to the ground. He moaned in pain and just managed to catch sight of five laughing figures standing over him. All he could think before he blacked out was, "Deja vu..."


O_O Too tired for chibi silliness. Maybe next part.