Osozaki Blooms -- Chapter 2

Hotohori stared in horror as the little gazebo collapsed, trapping Miaka and Tamahome inside. He jumped down from the porch and ran over to it, falling to his knees beside the destroyed structure. He frantically called their names, pleading with Suzaku to let them live. No! Suzaku no Miko - Miaka, I can't lose you now! Not when I've just found you... Don't you dare leave me! He began digging in the rubble, desperate to reach the two younger people, and at the same time knowing that moving the smaller bits of rock wouldn't do any good.

Advisors and guards surrounded him, yelling at him to stop. He yelled back at some of them, trying to get his point across. Problem was, he didn't know that he had a point. He just knew that without Miaka, his life would be empty - as empty as it had been since before she arrived. No other woman he'd ever known was as brave and daring and kind and courageous... He needed her. He couldn't lose her now...

Emi looked frantically about her, "Kori-sama, we should go back inside. You don't belong out here - you could get into trouble."

The disdainful expression on Lady Kourin's face showed exactly how much she cared about that possibility. She frowned, staring at the ceremony going on beneath her and cursing the name of Suzaku no Miko - Miaka, that was it. Her dream of the night before held her back from wishing true harm on the girl, but she wished her trouble all the same. Carefully watching the interplay between the Emperor and his two guests, Kourin felt the beginnings of a plan...

"Emi, who is that young man with Suzaku no Miko?" she queried.

Emi smiled, "Tamahome - he is one of the Sichiseishi! A very handsome man..." Kourin laughed a delighted little laugh and Emi shivered. Whenever she heard that laugh, some young nobleman ended up suffering. "Kourin?"

Kourin laughed and turned to walk away, "Suzaku no Miko is in love with one of her Seishi, Emi... Don't you recognize the look?" She laughed again, "If Miaka is so determined to steal the Emperor away from me, then I'll steal Tamahome from her." She laughed again, mind full of visions for the future, when she heard a loud crash. She turned just in time to see the little gazebo fall on Miaka and Tamahome.

Instead of feeling the elation that should have accompanied Miaka's imminent demise, Kourin felt her stomach begin to churn.
Something was desperately wrong here... ~Niichan!!~ Kourin jerked her head up and whispered, "Imouto!" She was down the stairs and running across the yard before she realized what she was doing. The uneasy feeling had erased from her mind, but that echoed shout reverberated through her soul. Her imouto wanted her to help Suzaku no Miko, wanted her to try to get along with her. She couldn't do that if the girl was dead. She slowed her headlong rush and got her tangled emotions back under some semblance of control.

The Emperor was digging through the rubble, yelling one of their names every now and again. She walked over and stood next to him, once again the vision of calmness and nobility, "Perhaps I should be the one to handle this, Heika-sama."

The Emperor jerked up to look at her and frowned, recognizing her. She didn't wait for him to reject her offer or her presence. For the second time in seven years, she actively sought to use her seishi powers. She reached down and lifted one piece of the ceiling off the unfortunate pair trapped underneath. The Emperor and his court gaped as they watched Kourin lift piece after piece that were each larger than she. Finally, Kourin lifted one last beam of wood and Suzaku no Miko and Tamahome were
revealed lying under the rubble.

After the initial excitement had died down, the Emperor stood up and walked over to Kourin. For the first time in a year, approval shined in his eyes and Kourin found her heart yearning and hoping for something more... She let out a little scream as the Emperor reached out to pull her dress down - this wasn't what she'd had in mind! She stepped back in horror, "What are you doing?!?"

He blushed and pulled his hand back, then pointed at his own chest, "Gomen nasai, but here, you have..."

Kourin gave him a small, humorless smile and pulled down enough of her dress to reveal the glowing red seishi character. For everyone's benefit, she introduced herself, "My name is Kourin, also known as Suzaku sichiseishi, Nuriko." She let the sentence hang for a moment, viciously meeting the Emperor's startled gaze. His eyes were the first to drop.

Miaka began to gush her thanks and praises at "Nuriko". Kourin gave her a smile that any of Saihitei's young courtiers would have recognized. She walked in Miaka's direction, "I came to help..." and glided right past her to her Seishi, "...this man." She bent and took Tamahome's face in her hands, kissing him soundly. She grinned against his lips when she felt Suzaku no Miko fuming behind her. Oh, little Miaka - you have no idea what you've gotten yourself into. I hope you're ready to play with the big girls. If not, you may as well give up and go home, now. She turned to give Miaka a brilliant grin, but stopped when she saw the heartbroken expression on the girl's face. She firmly told herself to ignore it and turned back to Tamahome, wrapping her arms possessively around his neck. I always win, Miaka-sa-ma. You don't stand a chance.

Several days later, Kourin was busy trying to keep Tamahome in her quarters and failing miserably. For the first time in a year, she was failing to make a man fall in love with her! Of all the times for me to lose my touch! She had finally tied Tamahome up and sat on him, relying on her superior strength to keep him where she wanted him. The important thing was that Suzaku no Miko thought that Tamahome was as smitten with Kourin as she appeared to be with him.

She jerked her head up when the door to her chamber opened. A very irritated Miaka was starting at Tamahome. Kourin smiled and prompted her, "Yes?"

Miaka ground out, "I wish to be your servant."

Kourin turned to examine her nails, hiding her elation, "That will be fine." She couldn't resist one last jab and grabbed Tamahome up in her arms, snuggling him, "Just make sure you don't interrupt me and Tama-chan when we're alone."

Miaka ground out, "Hai, Princess."

For a moment, as Miaka left, Kourin felt a burst of anger and pain directed at her mind. She dropped the younger Seishi in shock and stood up, placing a hand on her forehead. Could she be sensing what Miaka felt? But that wasn't her gift... that had been Kourin's- She cut off that line of thinking with a choked sob and rang the bell for Emi. She would _not_ cry, she would _not_. Not with Tamahome in her room. She sat down and had Emi brush her hair - that always relaxed her. She quietly brooded, thinking up schemes to get rid of that obnoxious brat - Suzaku no Miko.

Within a few days, Kourin had to admit that her plan was failing abysmally. Not only was Tamahome not in love with her, but Miaka had obeyed her every order (no matter how outrageous) and not complained once. Not too loudly anyway... It was time for more drastic measures. She looked outside at the full moon, then was distracted by a flash of light on her dresser. The earrings had been a courting gift from one of the young lords - what was his name? She couldn't remember. She shrugged and gently picked up the earrings and smiled - yes, these would do nicely...

She took one of the earrings and walked outside to her small balcony, overlooking the forest. A tender smile touched her lips and she ran her fingers over them, eyes closed dreamily. She remembered another night on this balcony... She was startled out of her reverie when Miaka ran up to greet her. It's showtime... She folded her hands in her sleeves and waited for Miaka to reach her. When Miaka asked her what was wrong, she pulled one hand out of its sleeve and showed her the earring. She explained that it had been a gift from her mother from when she had left for court.

She smiled as she saw Miaka completely taken in by the lines that she was feeding her. "The moonlight reflects off them, making them shine, so they're easier to find at night. But my maid is scared of the dark and won't go out to the lake to find it." She let a tear fall from one eye, "I don't know what to do."

Miaka smiled tenderly at her and immediately volunteered to go find the earring for her. She made a show of protesting, but Miaka insisted. She looked down and met the gaze of Suzaku no Miko - it was full of love and compassion. It forced her to make a concession, something she had told herself she wouldn't offer, no matter what. Maybe it was Sensei's voice coming back to haunt her... She said the words anyway, "Miaka, if you can find my earring then I must show my gratitude - in my own small way. If you find it, then I will agree to protect you as a Suzaku Seishi."

Miaka's eyes lit up with happiness and Kourin was dazzled, Imouto used to smile that way... Miaka swore that she would find her earring and ran off, yelling "Domo arigato!" the whole way. Kourin let herself sink against the rail in exhaustion. What was she doing? What had made her say that? She growled in frustration and clenched her fists - it didn't help any that Miaka couldn't possibly find her earring, thus letting her off the hook. The earring was still sitting on her dresser, after all. But still, the fact that she had even made the offer - and meant it - bothered her immensely. She walked back inside and had Emi pour her a glass of wine to calm her nerves.

Hotohori stood looking out at the lake. He was surrounded by advisors - they'd been pestering him for days now. It had been a year, and he still had not chosen an empress. It bothered them, so they in turn, bothered him. He sighed heavily as they once again asked him why he had not chosen a bride. He smiled and said, in deadly seriousness, "Because none of them are as attractive as I am." At their nervous laughter he smiled. He could almost predict what would come after that last sentence - and he wasn't disappointed.

"What about the Lady Kourin? She's very attractive - most of the young men at court fall in love with her at first sight."

He sighed heavily as he mentally completed the sentence, And their hearts are crushed just as quickly. He hung his head. Kourin had been so nice those first few days and he had almost found himself feeling sympathy for her. Any woman who could tame that little bay mare of hers... He smiled slightly. Any woman who could do that was one to be reckoned with - one who could be his equal. He shook his head, it would never be. He felt no attraction to the cold, bitter, vindictive creature that the Lady Kourin had become. The only one who wasn't stung by her sharp tongue and sharper wit, was her faithful maid - little Emi. And that game she was playing with his Suzaku no Miko! It made him furious just thinking about it. He shook his head again, keeping his voice neutral as he answered, "Don't be silly. The Lady Kourin has been let off the hook from her responsibilities at Court to take up her duties as a Seishi. You know that."

He looked skyward and let a soft smile touch his lips, "Seriously, though, all my life I've had the image of the perfect woman..." He gasped in surprise as his perfect woman popped her head up from the ground and giggled, "Oyasumi, Hotohori-san!" He smiled as he knelt down next to her, "Miaka - what are you doing out here?"

Her face fell slightly, "I'm on a mission for the Lady Kourin." He felt his anger rising again, but kept his voice gentle, "I've heard about her terrible behavior towards you. I will speak with her and order her to behave."

She surprised him by lifting up a finger and shaking it back and forth under his nose, "Orders don't change people's minds, Hotohori-san. Besides, I want to get along with her on my own!" When he nodded his acquiescence, she slipped off towards the lake, "Ja ne!" He stood and pensively let his advisors lead him back inside.

Kourin swirled the wine glass in her hands, then slowly took a sip. It was taking Miaka an _awfully_ long time to come back - she should have admitted defeat by now. Suddenly, her heart skipped a beat. She felt as if her lungs were encased in ice - she couldn't breath! With a sinking feeling in her gut, Kourin remembered hearing about vines that grew at the bottom of the lake and how easy it was to get tangled in them if you fell in. She put a hand to her heart as it resumed its steady thudding. She was shaking terribly. Taking another sip of wine, she let her mind run in circles, I didn't think that she'd - I hope she's OK, I didn't mean to send her out to kill her! She didn't want to admit it, but their young Miko was slowly growing on her, day by day.

She covered her nervousness by relating the story of the evening to Emi - laughing lightly about Miaka's stupidity. Suddenly the door to her room was thrown open and a low voice growled, "Is that true?"

She gasped as she saw Tamahome standing in her doorway. She stood swiftly, "So what if it is?"

Tamahome cursed at her, "All she ever wanted was to be friends with you!" He then turned to run out the door. To go to Miaka. Kourin grabbed his arm, her loneliness and jealousy getting the better of her at last, "Why are you going to her? What is so important about that small brat of a girl? I'm far more beautiful - the Emperor deserves better!"

Through her screaming a small voice broke through and made itself known, "You love the Emperor?"

Kourin gasped as Miaka walked past Tamahome, dripping water all over her floor. Kourin bit her lip and did the only thing she could think of - she yelled at her, "You stole him from me! He deserves better than you!" She raised a hand and slapped her lightly - so used to holding back her strength that she did it without thinking. To her utter shock, Miaka slapped her back.

Miaka then held up her hand to reveal a small, but perfect, gleaming white rock. It held its own inner shine - a true natural wonder. It was polished by the soft waters of the lake - and was easily outdone by the shine in Miaka's eyes, "I couldn't find your earring, but I found this. Isn't it pretty?" She met Kourin's eyes and smiled, "There's no reason why we can't be friends. I'll even put in a good word with the Emperor for you."

Kourin felt her eyes start to fill with tears and she clenched her fists, turning quickly away from Suzaku no Miko. Damn that stupid girl! She squeezed her eyes shut - this was a losing battle and she knew it. She bit her lip against the sobs that were threatening to burst from her - but that was a losing battle, too. Her cheeks flushed in shame as the first sobs finally slipped past the floodgate, but she couldn't stop them. Miaka eventually left with Tamahome, but Kourin didn't notice. Her hard-won detachment had just crumbled, leaving her open and vulnerable.

She was utterly horrified by what had almost just happened - she had never been responsible for anyone's death before - much less an innocent who's only crime was being the object of someone's love and devotion. From Miaka's attitude she certainly didn't love Hotohori. When Kourin's tears had finally slowed, she stood and undressed for bed - she was going to have to learn how to get along with the other two Seishi, and fast. Life around here would become far more uncomfortable for her if she didn't.

As she stood, holding her nightgown to her chest, Kourin suddenly realized something. I'm a Suzaku Seishi - Hotohori-sama said that I was let off of my duties at Court to do that! I almost forgot what he said, the other day! Her excitement began to build, If I'm no longer a Court Princess, then I'm no longer bound to the Court! She began to laugh out loud, when she realized what a precious gift that Miaka had truly given her - her freedom!

Kourin had thrown herself into her newfound freedom with a heady rush. Her first action the next morning had been to run out to the stables and introduce herself to the stablemaster. She had dressed in clothing appropriate to riding and run out there, a lightness in her step that had been absent for a year. She nearly ran into him once she got there. As he held out a hand to steady her, she tried to catch her breath, her heart pounding in her ears, "Gomen nasai! I didn't mean to run into you... I'm looking for the stablemaster - do you know who he is?"

He smiled and patted her shoulder, "There now, lass - I do indeed. He is me! Now, why don't you tell me what it is I can do for you? I'd offer you a seat inside, but the smell isn't all that pleasant."

Kourin smiled, "The smell of a good horse is never unpleasant, Master Kechiko."

He narrowed his eyes at her, then began to laugh, "You would be Lady Kourin, then." He held out his hand to take hers and kiss it, "It's a true honor to meet the one who brought in a horse that His Majesty almost couldn't ride."

Kourin blushed as he kissed her hand and tried to wave away the praise, "Osozaki just doesn't like anyone but me riding her. I trained her myself, you see - and she doesn't really trust other people much."

His face assumed a sad expression, "I was sorry to see that she had been stolen - she was a good mare." When he looked up, he was surprised to see a mischievous smile on Kourin's face, "Then again, maybe she's happier where she is..." At Kourin's giggle, he tucked her hand under his arm and led her inside the stable, watching for her reaction. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, smiling in satisfaction. He was stunned to say the least. He had heard terrible things about this young lady over the past year, but now he wondered (more than ever) if her awful behavior was merely the reaction of a free soul being fettered within solid walls. Guessing what had brought her out here, he swept his hand over the rows of horses, indicating that she should choose her mount. She smiled at him and began to walk up and down the main aisle.

Kourin walked up the main aisle of the stable, peering into each stall for a mount that was equal to her own. She found none. Oh, they were all gorgeous horses to be sure, but none of them had any spirit! Parade ponies, as she called them. She sighed, suddenly doubting the wisdom of having Gen-chan steal her horse - she'd have given anything to be able to ride Osozaki now. Suddenly, she heard a soft whinny from off to the left, and followed the small hallway down to a darker part of the barn - the main aisle held the nobles horses, obviously. Maybe some of the servants' horses were better suited to her purpose...

The short walkway brought her out into another aisle much like the first, but the horses here looked a bit scruffier. Her eyes were drawn to the stall in front of her and she gasped slightly. Now here was a horse! At first glance, she figured him for a stallion and bent to check - she was right, this dark beauty was still whole. She walked up and softly blew across his nostrils. He snorted back at her, then uneasily accepted her soft caresses on his muzzle and cheeks. He was a dark chocolate brown color, but had a white blanket spread across his hindquarters, delicately dotted with lighter brown spots. She saw the stripes on his hooves and the spots on his muzzle and smiled, and Appaloosa Stallion - you couldn't ask for more if you were looking for spirit. They were known for their vanity, strength, and free, fun-loving nature. Even more so because of their rarity in this part of the world.

As she had been acquainting herself with the stallion, she didn't notice the footsteps behind her. Kechiko spoke softly so as not to startle either the girl or the horse, "I see you've met Galaxy..."

Kourin kept caressing the stallion's muzzle, but she smiled, "He's beautiful. I've never met such a well-behaved Appaloosa before." Galaxy snorted and tossed his head as if to deny the accusation of being well-behaved. Kechiko patted her shoulder as if she'd passed some test, "Hai. They're very rare in these parts - I'm surprised that you recognize one when you see one." When she turned to face him, he laughed, "Galaxy's my horse - I brought him with me from home when I became stablemaster. So far, only myself and Saihitei have been able to ride him - though I get the feeling that we only stay on because he decides to tolerate us."

That drew a laugh out of Kourin, "With a good horse, when is that not the case?" A sudden shyness seemed to overtake her as she asked the next question, "Do you mind if I..." Her voice trailed off.

"Ride him?" he finished for her. Her heart sank as he walked away, then picked up when he came back holding a saddle and hackamore. He winked at her, "I prefer not to use a bit on him if I don't have to - he has a very sensitive mouth. But if that doesn't faze you, then I don't see what the problem would be." He stood and held out the tack for her, a curious smile on his face. Kourin frowned then grinned - another test. She cleared her throat, "Ah - don't you groom your horses before you ride them? I should at least pick out his hooves..."

He smiled at her and put down the tack, leaving Kourin to slip a halter over Galaxy's head. When he came back, he found Kourin lightly running her hands over the stallion's body, examining every inch of him. He leaned over the stall door and handed her the brushes. She took them and made quick work of grooming the stallion, who leaned into each brushstroke. She giggled and lightly pushed at his flank, spluttering, "Spoiled brat!" The stallion reached around and snorted in Kourin's hair to tell her what he thought of that. She smiled and patted his muzzle in reassurance.

Kechiko watched the two with a thoughtful expression on his face. Galaxy behaved this well in the stall for him, but he had known Kechiko all his short life. He handed the tack over to Kourin and pondered some more. The only thing that remained to be seen was how she handled herself in the saddle. More and more, he was convinced that Kourin couldn't be as bad as they said - not if she loved horses as much as she appeared to. This carefree, happy girl before him was not the stuff of nightmares that the young lords made her out to be. He'd have to share his revelations with the Emperor. Finally finished tacking up, Kourin led Galaxy from his stall and out of the stable.

Kechiko suddenly had cause to wonder if Kourin had ever ridden astride before, and kicked himself for not asking sooner. If might be possible to ride Galaxy in a lady-saddle, but he'd never had reason to find out, before. Kourin answered his unspoken question with a wink, then settled her left foot in the left stirrup and with one little jump, swung her right foot over the saddle. She bent down, quickly adjusting the stirrups to the right length and slipped her feet into them. Once she was settled, she looked down at Kechiko, wondering what she'd see in his eyes. He was smiling.

Galaxy, for his part, had arched his neck proudly, and was standing still as a statue. Kourin's cream-colored riding outfit stood out in sharp contrast against his dark coat. They looked good, and he knew it. Kechiko laughed at his antics and gave them a small salute. Kourin returned it, her heart already pounding with excitement, and gave Galaxy a light kick, urging him forwards. He responded eagerly - too eagerly, and gave a little buck. She smiled and reined him in - none of that was going to happen with _her_ on his back! He snorted and pranced for a few steps, tossing his head angrily. Finally Kourin leaned closer and whispered soothing words into his quivering ears.

There was a pause, then Galaxy settled down, waiting for her command. She gave him another kick and off they went. She laughed and urged him on faster, until they were flying down the trail, Kourin bent low on his neck. Kechiko watched them go with a smile on his lips - he was definitely going to have to share this with Saihitei.

By the time they reached the woods, Kourin's hair had come unbound and was flying out behind her as they ran. She laughed, throwing her head back in sheer delight. They exited the woods like a cork from a bottle, shooting across the field without a care in the world. The courtiers outside were gasping in shock, but Kourin didn't care - she was free! Let them laugh - they didn't know what they were missing. When she spotted the Emperor standing near the lake, an evil gleam came into her eyes - it was too perfect. She gently turned Galaxy in a tight arc to head straight for Hotohori, counting on the fact that he would have the sense to duck. He did. Galaxy and Kourin soared over him, landing with a ringing laugh and whinny on the other side, as they took off into the field again.

The Emperor stood by the lake, quietly throwing pebbles into it. He had heard about the incident with Kourin last night - Miaka's distress had awoken him from a sound sleep. The next pebble hit the water hard, startling a swan, who squawked at him. Kourin - the very name made him angry. This was going too far - Miaka could have been killed last night! And all for what? Some petty need to prove something? He threw another rock, silently seething.

Kourin was a seishi - No, that wasn't true. Nuriko was a seishi. Hotohori got the feeling that Kourin and Nuriko were slightly different creatures. Nuriko was the more honorable of the two. He shook his head wryly, I'm starting to think of her as if she has multiple personality syndrome. He threw another rock, watching as it skipped twice, then plunked into the water.

Part of him felt sorrow for Kourin - anyone with that strong a spirit would _not_ want to be sealed up inside a palace. That might explain some of her poor behavior. He certainly hoped so. Once Miaka was his Empress, it wouldn't do to have an enemy at Court like Lady Kourin. That made him pause - if being shut in had so twisted Kourin's spirit, then what might it do to Miaka's? He shook his head, Suzaku no Miko was different - she wouldn't just be Empress, she would be their country's protector. That would earn her privileges that being a Court Lady would not. There was no need to worry. He sent another stone skipping across the water - three times, then a plunk.

His thoughts drew back to Kourin - why does she haunt me, so? He sighed heavily as he threw the last rock. Maybe her newfound freedom will lighten her up a little bit. With her strength, she'd make a valuable asset to the Suzaku Seishi if she could learn to work with the rest of us.

A thunder of hoofbeats alerted him and he looked up. That was Galaxy - Kechiko's prized stallion! What was he doing out? He looked up at the rider, the cream colored riding habit streaming along in the wind and perfectly matching Galaxy's blanket marking. The unbound indigo hair streamed out behind them like a banner as the rider bent low over Galaxy's neck, an angry gleam in her brown eyes.

For a moment, the Emperor thought that Kourin had lost control over the Stallion - was Kechiko crazy to put her on that beast? Then he remembered Osozaki. He looked up a second time - the stallion and lady were almost upon him. He had no choice but to duck. Kourin had judged the timing perfectly - Galaxy soared over him, his hooves just missed grazing Hotohori's crown. They landed several feet beyond him - he could swear they were laughing at him. He slowly picked himself up off the ground and watched as the two galloped away, reveling in their freedom from the world. His face paled slightly, and he sent a swift prayer to Suzaku that he'd be able to control Kourin without the leash of the Court upon her, because from the looks of it - Kourin was out for blood.

When Kourin brought Galaxy in, a good three hours later, they were both soaked with sweat, exhausted, and very happy. Galaxy nuzzled her possessively as she hooked him up to cross ties and untacked him. She rubbed him down with a warm cloth and warm water, carefully washing the sweat marks from his sleek coat. He whinnied and nuzzled her some more. She caressed his nose, murmuring silly praises and compliments in his ears. He loved every minute of it. She snapped a lead rope to his halter and led him outside to walk him cool, simply enjoying being outside. She'd nearly forgotten how much she loved the outdoors. She smiled, Imouto-chan and I would never be caught inside if we didn't have to be... The thought brought pain with it, but not the overwhelming grief that had always accompanied thoughts of her sister. It frightened her.

As if sensing her change in mood, Galaxy walked right up to her and nuzzled her shoulder, hard. He sent her sprawling into the lush grass, then proceeded to lean over and whuff at her face and hands until she laughed from his ticklish whiskers. She carefully got up and caressed his nose, then ran her hands lightly down his chest and legs - he was nowhere near as hot as he had been. She walked him around a few more times for good measure, then led him back into his stall, making sure everything was put away. She slipped the halter off his head, lightly kissing his nose. He whinnied after her, and she smiled, then headed off to take a bath.

Kechiko watched the whole thing from the other aisle, smiling lightly. He had seen that magnificent jump over the Emperor's head, and it had kept him laughing for a good ten minutes. This girl wasn't one to be trifled with, that was for sure. He went back to feeding the horses, whistling a cheery tune to himself.

Kourin smiled as she got dressed that morning. It was her 18th birthday and she was giddy with delight. The dance between her and Miaka had been very interesting of late. She wasn't quite ready to forgive her for sleeping in the Emperor's rooms last night, but it gave her a new angle to push at. She had seen Tamahome's face when Miaka stayed with Hotohori last night - he loved that girl as much as she loved him. He just didn't realize it, yet. She hummed to herself as she fastened the buttons on the overdress. Yes, this was going to be very interesting - Hotohori had succeeded in doing what Nuriko had failed to do. She paused suddenly - When did I start thinking of myself as Nuriko? She shuddered, deciding to ignore the uneasy feeling for the moment.

Hotohori had driven a wedge between the two starry-eyed children of the group. Tamahome had been none too happy last night. This gave Kourin the opening she needed to grab Tamahome and make Miaka jealous. Then perhaps her original plan would work. When Hotohori saw how much Miaka pined after Tamahome, he might give up on her. She could only hope. She added one final touch to her hair, then swiftly left her room - right now, she had an "appointment" with Suzaku no Miko... She grinned evilly and headed towards the Emperor's quarters.

She watched from the shadows as Tamahome brushed past Miaka with barely a polite greeting, and Miaka's heartbroken reaction. Part of her felt bad, but... She jumped out of the shadows and allowed her angry growl to reach Miaka's ears. Miaka slowly turned around and put her hands up defensively, as if to ward off Kourin, "Nu-ri-kooo..." she mumbled.

Kourin grabbed the front of Miaka's shirt and proceeded to rail at her for all the injustice she had suffered. Inwardly, she smiled when she saw Miaka's face pale in the full light of her fury. Satisfied that she had made her point, she ran past Miaka, "Tama-chan!" and latched onto Tamahome's arm, leaning her head onto his shoulder.

They walked, making polite conversation, towards the city. Kourin's blood was rushing in her ears as she looked about the capital city - her home. They began walking down an all-too-familiar street, and she felt her face drain of color - No. I can't do this, please don't make me go there! Desperately, she tugged on Tamahome's arm, trying to get him to change direction. She almost sobbed in relief when he finally shrugged and answered her tugging.

Tamahome could feel Nuriko quivering against his arm and wondered what it was that had spooked her so. True, Nuriko had never been to the capital, but she had been fine until a few minutes ago. He hesitantly wrapped his arm around her, pulling her close for reassurance. She pressed against his side, glad of the support as her whole body shuddered in reaction. He patted her arm reassuringly.

As Kourin began to slowly calm down, she became aware of a low growl coming from behind her. She turned her head enough to glance behind her and smiled - trust Miaka to give her something else to think about. She glanced once more at the all-too-familiar buildings and roads. The rise of Sensei's temple could even be seen across the city. Maybe she should stop in and see him... She shook herself - no. Sensei was one of the few people in the world who knew her secret. When Tamahome looked questioningly at her, she smiled and glanced behind her again, trying to cover her unease, "She actually thinks she's well disguised."

Tamahome told her to leave Miaka alone, and she pouted. Finally, they reached the main square, and Tamahome bounded up a set of steps and tried to auction of some of Miaka's things. When he failed to do so, Miaka revealed herself as Suzaku no Miko to validate his claims. This resulted in a near riot, and Kourin lost the younger pair in the milling people. She cursed quietly, then caught sight of them heading off towards another part of the city. She figured out where they were going and took the back way to meet up with them - growing up somewhere gave you certain advantages.

When she reached them, they had been surrounding by a group of tough looking young men, and Miaka had been grabbed from behind. She put a hand to her mouth - she recognized some of these people. They had been bad news even when she was younger. She smiled as she remembered bloodying a few of their noses when she had been only seven. Something was happening - she turned her attention back to the group. Was Tamahome auctioning Miaka off to these people? Her fists clenched as the anger rose up in her like a tide - how dare he?? What kind of sorry excuse for a man was he? She was about to leap out and give those young men a good beating when she saw the ogre sign blaze into life on Tamahome's forehead and then watched in relief as he beat the heck out of the group of young toughs.

She silently cheered as he sent them running. She looked up suddenly when a rumble of thunder caught her ear. A big raindrop landed right on her nose and she hunched up miserably. Fancy court dresses weren't made for this weather. She watched the argument between Suzaku no Miko and her Seishi with growing trepidation. A little sneeze escaped her, and she covered it quickly. She needed have bothered - neither of the other two heard a thing. Finally, Miaka screamed out, "Because I love you!"

Kourin held her breath, waiting for Tamahome to answer in kind. He opened his mouth... "I'm sorry. I don't feel the same way." Kourin watched in horror as Miaka's heart shattered. She could clearly see it happen through the girl's expressive eyes. Again, she could feel what Miaka felt - pain, horror, utter shame. It made her want to pull the girl to her and comfort her - no matter who she was, no one deserved such a harsh rejection. No one. A tear slipped down her cheek, and she wondered at it - startled that she could feel so deeply for someone who she had hated naught but a week before.

A small thump and a startled yell brought her quickly back to the scene. Miaka had collapsed on the muddy ground - she was out cold. Tamahome gathered her up and ran back towards the palace - Kourin was hot on his heels.

Several hours later found them clustered at Miaka's bedside. Hotohori had joined them, in his more casual loose robes. His hair fell in soft waves around his face. Kourin nearly swooned at the sight, but held herself together. The doctor advised him to send Miaka home to regain her strength. Part of her cheered at the thought, eager to be rid of Miaka once and for all. But the rest of her couldn't help but remember the urge to comfort the younger girl - she was so like her imouto-chan. It made her feel good to have Miaka around, now that she was letting the girl into her heart.

Hotohori asked them to follow him out of the room. Plans were made to go find Taiitsu-kun, Manager of the World - maybe she knew a way to send Miaka home. The Emperor dismissed them, but called Kourin back inside soon afterwards. She walked inside and blushed as she met his gaze. She'd almost forgotten about that incident with Galaxy. From the look in his eyes, he had not. He tapped his fingers against the desk, then gave her a slight smile, "I hope that you and Galaxy had fun the other day."

Kourin's blush deepened, "H-hai, heika-sama."

He smiled at her discomfiture, "We are all seishi Nuriko. Please call me Hotohori-sama."

She nodded, wondering what he was getting at. When next he spoke, there was a note of awe in his voice, "I have never seen such a wonderful display of horsemanship. I didn't think anyone could control Galaxy like that - not even I ride him that well. How did you learn to ride that well?" Unspoken, but heard nonetheless, were the words, "Since you're a woman."

She looked back up at him, "My otou-san raised horses. He had no sons, no other children, so when I expressed an interest in his real babies, he decided to show me. With my seishi power, the strength needed to tame and train a horse was not a problem. I actually had quite a knack for it." She smiled, eyes twinkling, "I trained Osozaki, as a matter of fact."

He laughed, "Is that so?" At her nod, he gave her a reassuring smile, "I wish you had told me sooner. I might have been able to arrange for you to leave the court to ride her." He met her gaze and was again startled by what he saw there. That terrible loneliness that he so often saw in the mirror was echoed in her eyes. He was drawn to it and rose to his feet, leaning over the desk to brush a hand against her cheek. She closed her eyes and leaned into the caress. Time stood still as he wondered at her beauty that so nearly matched his own. A voice outside the doorway made itself known, returning time to its proper pace - the doctor. Miaka. He pulled back so quickly from Kourin that she staggered. Her eyes were full of such pain that he immediately regretted his action. Before he could say anything, she fled from the room. He could just barely hear her sobs echoing down the corridor as she ran. He cursed quietly before inviting the doctor in.

Kourin ran down the hallway, feeling as if her heart was tearing into a thousand pieces. Why did the most tragic events of her life always have to happen on her birthday? As she felt her life fall apart, she was crushingly reminded of the last time her life had fallen apart - eight years ago to the day. She crashed into Tamahome, and he tried to talk to her, find out what was wrong, but she wanted no part of it. When he wouldn't let go of her, she threw him from her and continued her mad dash out of the palace. The rain was still coming down in steady sheets, but she didn't care. She had been so sure, the Emperor had looked so sincere! Had he been mocking her the whole time? Her face burned in humiliation and pain.

She wasn't paying much attention to where she was going, and soon found herself running through the streets of the capital. She tried to see through the blur of her tears, but soon gave up. After running herself ragged, she slowed her mad rush, her tears finally quieting. She took in huge gulps of air to calm herself, then turned her head to take in her surroundings. She immediately wished she hadn't. She sank to the muddy ground, quivering, pale, and shaking. The cold seemed to sink all the way through to her bones as she looked around the intersection.

No... was all she could think. She could almost hear the frantic yells of people and the horrid wet crunching sound that had torn her heart asunder the first time. She stared about, sure that she could still see her imouto's blood staining the street. She crawled on her hands and knees to the spot where she had last seen her imouto alive and collapsed, curled up and shaking. I can't do this anymore...

She didn't know how long she lay there, feeling the life drain from her inch by inch. The night had settled into a deep, almost living darkness, the rain still pouring continuously down into the thirsty ground. She felt a hand on her shoulder, but couldn't summon the strength to respond. A cool baritone voice penetrated her thoughts, "Ryuuen-chan? Is that you?" The voice was full of wonder, but the words made her shrink even farther away.

She batted feebly at the hands that seized her shoulders, mumbled, "That isn't my name!" The hands pulled her into a rough embrace and rubbed her back. She couldn't summon the strength to push the man away. Finally, she felt herself lifted into strong, muscular arms. She knew no more for quite some time.

When next she woke, it was to a mix of sensations. She was tucked into a warm bed, wearing a loose sleeping robe. The sun was pouring in through the window, promising a warm day to come. A cool cloth lay against her brow, and there were two weights settled on the bed with her - one on either side. The one on the left spoke to her, "Come on, Ryuuen-chan, it's time to wake up now. You're safe - it's OK."

The weight on the right - the baritone from last night - added his two cents as he drew the cool compress from her forehead, "Wake up, otouto-chan. You can't sleep forever."

That caught her attention. In her half-fevered state, she almost forgot who she was - who she was supposed to be. The word burst from her as she reached out a hand to that gentle baritone voice, "Nii-chan??" She heard a choked sob, and was soon pulled against a strong shoulder. The voice was rough with suppressed emotion when it answered him, "Hai, Ryuuen-chan. It's me. You're safe."

Kourin felt the weight of the past eight years sink down on top of her. Combined with the rejection from last night, and the unexpected harsh reminder of imouto's death, it was too much. She crumpled against Rokou's shoulder and dissolved into tears. The other weight lifted off the bed. When it settled down again, a mug of hot soup was pushed into her hands. She raised her eyes to meet those of her Sensei. Somehow she wasn't surprised. She gave him a tentative smile as she sipped at the soup. Rokou slowly stroked her hair, "Gods, Ryuuen. If I didn't know who you were, I'd think you were a girl!"

Kourin blushed, "That's sort of the idea, niichan." Her voice caught on the last word and she lowered the cup.

Sensei growled at her, "For the gods' sake, Ryuuen, drink it!" Years of learning to obey that voice forced the cup back to her lips. She drank it down, and soon felt quite a bit better. She turned to Rokou, still unsure of him. He could easily blow her cover at the palace, and she didn't know him well enough anymore to predict what he might do. He continued to stroke her hair.

Finally, he spoke, "'Kaasan hasn't been the same since you left, Ryuuen. Losing Kourin was hard on all of us, but to lose you in the same week nearly tore the family apart. 'Tousan and 'Kaasan blamed themselves for driving you away. I was like the invisible child around the house. 'Tousan didn't even have the heart to keep up his business. It's a good thing I have a knack for tailoring - I took over the shop as soon as I was able. I've been running it for about six years now."

Kourin lowered her gaze, "Gomen nasai, niichan. I never meant to hurt you."

Rokou patted Kourin's back, "It's OK, otouto-chan. I'm just glad to know that you're all right." He cleared his throat, "So where have you been hiding all these years?"

Kourin settled herself more comfortably and started to tell her tale, "I left the capital, not really paying attention to where I went, just knowing that I wanted to leave. I think I must have walked for a couple of months, trying to get out of here. I had stopped in a small town one day when a servant came running down the mountain, screaming that the local lord had been caught in a rock-slide. Since I knew that I could help him, I went along with the rescue party." She gave her sensei a smile, and he nodded in approval. "Anyway, I saved him, and he and his wife were so grateful that they took me in as their daughter."

Rokou's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline, but he didn't say anything. "Otou-san raised horses, and taught me everything he knew. I've become a pretty good rider, actually. He even gave my a little bay mare of my own - her name is Osozaki." A smile crossed her lips as she remembered all the trouble that little mare had caused. "Eventually, a messenger came from court, announcing that the new Emperor was gathering all the young women so he could choose a bride. My parents insisted that I go, so I went. I'd been living there for a year when Suzaku no Miko showed up, so now I'm actively one of her Seishi."

Her sensei smiled and patted her knee, "As you were meant to be."

Kourin blushed, "H-hai, sensei." Suddenly she jerked her head up, "Oh no! We were supposed to leave to travel to Taiitsu-kun's place today! I have to get back to the palace!" She stood up and looked frantically about for her dress. Sensei frowned, "Your - uh - dress was rather soiled from the rain and mud. I sent it to be cleaned, but it won't be ready for another day." When he saw the tears start to gather in Ryuuen's eyes, he amended, "But my wife has some old clothes that might fit you - they aren't court garb, but they're good for traveling."

Kourin gave him a watery nod, then turned to her brother. Rokou was trying to hold back tears as he pulled Kourin to his chest, "I wish you could stay... I'd like to get to know you again."

Kourin felt a lump rise in her throat. Since their imouto had been born, they had pretty much ignored their older brother. For the first time in seventeen years, Kourin thought about how that must have made Rokou feel. She pulled Rokou more tightly to her and rubbed his back, "I'm sorry, niichan. I have to go, I have no choice. I am a Suzaku Seishi. Nuriko. Remember? You were the first one who told me." Rokou nodded and Kourin continued, "When this mission is over, and Konan is safe from Kutou and Seiryuu, I will come back. I promise."

Rokou frowned, "But those are serious enemies - what if you don't-" His voice choked off abruptly, then he quietly continued, "I couldn't bare to lose you, too."

Kourin pulled back to look into her brother's eyes and said, with all the certainty that she could muster, "I won't die, niichan. I've lived this long - I'm too stubborn to quit, now. I will come back to you." At that moment sensei walked in with the clothing and held it out to Kourin, who smiled, "Arigato, sensei." He nodded then pulled Rokou out of the room, "You don't stand and stare at a lady when she's dressing."

This pulled a surprised chuckle out of Kourin, and she dressed with a light heart. The outfit was a little big on her, but for traveling, that wouldn't matter much. She walked out into the main room to discover her brother already gone. Sensei shrugged, then enveloped her in a hug, "You just make sure you keep that promise, Ryuuen. I expect to see you back here bothering me very soon! Keep in touch, this time." She nodded and quietly left on her way back to the palace.

Hotohori was frantic - he had just stopped by Nuriko's quarters to check on her. From what Emi told him, she had never returned to her room last night. The gods only knew where she could be! He cursed silently, knowing that this was his fault and not daring to tell anyone why he was so worried. You couldn't predict what a woman would do in the state Nuriko had been in when she left. He cursed again as he stormed out to where the horses were. To his surprise, Nuriko was standing by a chestnut gelding, quietly loading up her gear. She was dressed for traveling and watching the interplay between Miaka and Tamahome with an irritated frown on her face.

He walked outside and was immediately besieged by advisors. They tried to tell him that even in his overly casual traveling clothes, he still looked regal. That made him laugh and he leaned closer to his advisors, "No matter how you say it, it's a compliment!" It wasn't his fault that he looked good in practically anything, after all. He mounted his horse, pulling Miaka up in front of him. He turned around to check out the rest of the party. For a brief moment, he caught Nuriko's eyes. They were sad, certainly, but there was a glow behind them - a happiness that he could never remember seeing in Nuriko's eyes before. The loneliness seemed to have been dampened by something. He turned his face back to the road as he became aware of the emotion that was foremost in his thoughts - jealousy.

Didn't he want the other Seishi to be happy? He looked about at the glum group - Nuriko seemed to be the happiest of the bunch! She actually looked pretty cheerful. He sighed, resignedly. This was going to be a long trip.

Several days later, Hotohori's prediction was proven right. They were off their horses and trying to lead them through a deep fogbank. Hotohori and Nuriko had become separated from Miaka and Tamahome some ten minutes back, but trusted the other seishi to look after Miaka until they met up again. Hotohori frowned, "Something's wrong here."

Nuriko had changed somewhat over the last day - as if she had discovered something important and was trying to hide it. As a result, she had regained her sense of humor, and so glibly answered, "Don't worry - we look great together!" She had obviously chosen to forget the incident back at the palace - she was treating him as if it had never happened. He was grateful for that, but shook his head, "That's not what I mean - it feels like we're going in circles."

She frowned, suddenly serious, "You're right..."

The fog swirled ahead of them and Tamahome appeared, leading his horse. Miaka was nowhere to be seen. Hotohori felt his heart skip a beat - Miaka was sick and she didn't know these woods. How could he have trusted her life to this man who plainly didn't care? His frantic mental lecturing was stopped as Suzaku no Miko calmly stepped out of the fog on their other side. She walked over to Tamahome and exchanged some fairly harsh words with him - taking lessons from Nuriko, probably. He was fairly startled when she proceeded to walk up to him and wrap her arms around his neck. He'd wanted this but...

A low growl disturbed them both, but Miaka merely shrugged as she took in Nuriko's angry face, "Angry, Nuriko? Why? I mean, it's ridiculous - your attraction to Hotohori. You're a man." She turned back to snuggling with Hotohori, thus missing the look of utter horror and fear that overtook Nuriko's features. Hotohori and Tamahome were too far gone in shock to react properly. Finally, something broke. Nuriko began to cry, then screamed, "You're so mean! You told them my secret!" before running away into the forest, knocking down trees in her - uh, his wake.

The best that Hotohori could muster was, "I can't believe that there's another man as beautiful as me..."

Nuriko stared in anger as Miaka clung to Hotohori-sama. She has no right! She promised me that she didn't love him! She let out an inarticulate growl that turned all three sets of eyes her way. Miaka's eyes were cold as winter and black as the night sky - they weren't Miaka's eyes. This wasn't the Miaka that she knew - her eyes could never look that cruel. As she opened her mouth, Nuriko knew with sickening certainty what she was going to say, and she raised her hands, desperate to forestall it. She was too late - Miaka spoke.

"Angry, Nuriko? Why? I mean, it's ridiculous - your attraction to Hotohori. You're a man."

Nuriko stood there, staring at the other three figures, a look of horror suffusing his face. His voice wouldn't seem to work as both Tamahome and Hotohori made spluttering attempts to ask questions. He was forced to watch as - for the third time - his life fell apart around him. It was too much. He couldn't pick up the pieces - not this time. Not again. His heart was only so strong, and it couldn't take this last, final, awful betrayal. It did the only thing it could - it broke.

The tears started to slip down his cheeks and he raised a hand to cover his eyes and blot out those looks. He yelled, "You're so mean! You told them my secret!" thus confirming Miaka's wild accusation, but he didn't care. Right now, he just wanted to get away from the pain. He ran. He knocked down some trees on the way, but he didn't care about that either - he just wanted to get away from that innocent-looking girl and her two suitors. They were the only people in the world who could hurt him as much as they had.

Finally, he pulled himself up short and stood panting. What am I doing? Why is it that my only reactions seem to consist of running away these days? What's wrong with me?? He spun around and paced - it was time to do some serious thinking. The worst case scenario had happened - the Emperor and Tamahome knew that he was a man. His charade of living as Kourin was over whether he liked it or not. He had two choices - he could run away, leaving them unprotected, or he could go back. He could endure their disgusted looks, their accusing eyes, and their betraying tongues.

He stood up tall. The bottom line was that he was a seishi, and Konan needed him, even if her Emperor and Miko seemed hell-bent on pushing him away. And Kourin wanted him to get along with Suzaku no Miko. It might be too much to ask of him - but damn it, he wasn't a coward and he wasn't a weakling - he was going to try. He gathered up his skirts and walked back towards the clearing.

About halfway back, he felt a sharp pain run through his body, centered in his chest. He fell to his knees, clutching his chest in pain - Miaka. She was hurt... Again he felt a terrified voice call out to him, ~Niichan!!~ and his eyes went wide. That was Miaka's voice and Miaka's pain and she was calling him - just him. But... The answer came to him in a rush.

~You see, because I died so young - the gods gave me another chance at life almost immediately afterwards.~
~I'll be seeing you sooner than you think, Ryuuen...~

He gasped as he figured it out - Miaka was Kourin!! That was what she'd been trying to tell him in the dream! And that was why he kept feeling Miaka's emotions and hearing her thoughts when she was in trouble. The part of her soul that remembered being Kourin had recognized him for who he was and was screaming at him for help! His conscience growled at him in a voice that sounded suspiciously like Rokou's, **So go help her, baka!** He ran.

He reached a cliff that overlooked the clearing and looked down. Tamahome and Hotohori were battling against a horrid-looking monster. It had a wound in its chest and one of its arms were cut off. It was holding a mirror. Nuriko looked around, desperate for a weapon of some sort. He had a feeling that the monster was the Miaka who had betrayed him - he had been right, it wasn't her. Kourin would never do that to me... He spotted a large boulder and smiled, This ought to do nicely. He lifted it and threw it over the cliff where it landed on the monster. He nearly laughed at the startled looks on the other Seishi's faces, but said merely, "I thought you might need my help." He jumped from the cliff and landed lightly before the other two men.

He met Hotohori's gaze for a moment, then quickly looked away. No matter what he told himself, he was still horribly ashamed at the moment. He soon realized that Miaka was nowhere to be found. Fear clutched at his heart - surely he'd know if his imouto died again? But she can't die again - not when I've just found her... Suddenly, Miaka started to appear right before his eyes. The three ran over to her, the other two screaming her name as they took in the broken plate that was buried deep in her chest. He quickly pushed them aside, "Calling her name won't do anything."

They glared at him and asked what he planned to do. He answered them calmly, "Tend her wound." They protested, "But you're a man too!"

Nuriko closed his eyes - he couldn't very well tell them that Miaka was his sister reincarnated, so he gave them the next best reason, "My body may be male, but my mind is female. I will take care of her wound." He met their eyes, begging them to understand that vague statement - for it was as close to explaining his ambiguous nature that he could get. They agreed and turned their backs while he worked. With the wound tended, they turned back. Miaka still hadn't improved. She needed a blood transfusion, but they didn't have the tools. Tamahome and Hotohori, those silly boys, misunderstood what Nuriko meant and each slashed open a wound on their bodies, letting the blood drip onto Miaka's bandage. Now what good is that gonna do?

To Nuriko's shock, he could hear their mental calls to Miaka. The part of her that was Kourin was still linked to his mind. He heard them calling her back - and another voice. It was one he didn't recognize - it was a young girl. He didn't know her, but Miaka did. She listened to her, but it wasn't enough. He quietly appealed to the part of her that was Kourin, "*Imouto-chan. Please don't leave me again! Wo ai ni!*" That got her attention. Between himself, the unknown girl and the other two Seishi, they called her back - with Tamahome and Hotohori's blood opening the door.

When Miaka's eyes blinked open, they held his for a moment as she muttered, "Nuriko..." Something winked behind her eyes, as if she were grasping for something that she ought to know, something about him - but she couldn't hold onto the knowledge. Nuriko gave a sad smile as she turned to greet the other two. It wasn't meant to be. A reincarnated spirit wasn't supposed to remember its past lives. Kourin had been granted her memory for one night to reassure him - the next time he saw her would be when he died. But now he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had to protect this precious girl.

The air shimmered around them, and the next thing they knew, they were surrounded by huge, glorious mountains. Nuriko gasped and Hotohori murmured, "We made it. We actually made it." His eyes, as they met Nuriko's, were shining with joy. To his surprise, Nuriko was able to return the gaze with one that was equally happy. For the first time since Kourin had died, he felt as if he belonged. It was a good feeling - one he intended to hold on to for a long time.

Part 1 | Fushigi Yuugi Fanfiction | Part 3
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