11-9-99 - *sweatrains* Ano... I'm really, really sorry that it took me so long to get this part out. It's not like me to take that much time to finish a part. The truth is - I finished this thing almost a month ago, I just haven't had time to edit it. >.< It hasn't been beta-read, just spell-checked, so I apologize for any mistakes that exist. If you see a really glaring one, don't hesitate to e-mail me and tell me.

As usual, these characters don't belong to me, I'm just playing with them for a little while. I promise I'll put them back when I'm finished. *Nuriko grumbles off to the side about angsty fic-writers, "Why can't she go back to torturing Duo? I was enjoying the vacation..."* *Duo smirks and blows raspberries at the purple-haired seishi. Nuriko sighs in exasperation.*

12-20-05 - OK... I just had to add this little note. The last time I touched this was so long ago that the e-mail link below was still my "flare @ udel . edu" address. *sweatrain* That's sad. I haven't used that e-mail in almost 6 years. O_o;;;

Osozaki Blooms -- Chapter 6
by Renee-chan

Nuriko pushed open the door to his suite with trepidation. He and the rest of the seishi had been gone from the Palace for weeks. He had dreaded coming back home. As long as they were on the road, he could relax and just be who he was. He knew the other seishi would like and respect him no matter how he acted, but the people of the court were another matter entirely. Even tonight at dinner, he'd been protected in the company of the seishi. But now... He shivered.

Finally, gathering up his courage, he walked inside. He fully expected to find his room dark as the night outside and covered with dust. It wasn't. Candles and lanterns shone from every corner of the gleaming room and Emi stood serenely smiling in the midst of the warm glow. A lump rose in Nuriko's throat, choking off his voice.

Emi's smile widened, "Welcome home, Nuriko-sama."

He nodded, too choked by gratitude to say anything in response. Understanding his dilemma, Emi stepped forward and opened her arms. Nuriko all but fell into them. He held her tightly to him, grateful for her solid, comforting presence. She patted his back and smoothed back his hair, murmuring soothing words until he calmed. When he finally pulled away, Emi patted his cheek and raised an eyebrow at him, "You'll be wanting a bath before you go to sleep, Nuriko-sama?"

Nuriko smiled. How well Emi knew him... "Hai. Arigato."

Twenty minutes later, Nuriko was happily ensconced in a bath of hot, scented water. How wonderful it felt to finally get the dirt and grime of weeks of traveling off his skin! It was bliss. He sank deeper into the hot waters, slowly letting his body relax from the tight coil it had been in. So much had happened in these past weeks. It seemed like forever since he'd set out from the palace with Miaka and Chichiri. Like another lifetime...

He couldn't believe how much had happened in so short a time. They'd gathered the seishi. Minus Tamahome, they were all under one roof. Himself, Hotohori, Chichiri, Mitsukake, Chiriko... Tasuki. Nuriko paused in his thoughts, sighing heavily. He still didn't know what to think about the fiery-haired bandit from Mt. Leikaku. On the one hand, he was rude, inconsiderate, unpolished, and he'd lied. About being a seishi. Yet on the other hand...

Genrou was kind, caring, sensitive, and brave. Not to mention handsome... Nuriko cursed quietly as he pushed the heels of his hands against his eyes. Thus far, he'd managed to convince himself that his love for the Emperor had been the exception, not the rule. He'd thought his affection for Genrou had been a fluke, nothing more. And if Genrou hadn't responded the way he had, maybe Nuriko could have pushed him out of his thoughts. But the possibility that the bandit might return his feelings - however out of place they might be... It was something he wasn't ready to face. He wasn't ready to give up on Hotohori and he wasn't ready to admit that he really was what everyone thought he was. Just some sick, twisted... pervert.

Suddenly feeling anything but relaxed, Nuriko pulled himself out of the bath, shivering slightly in the cool air. He grabbed a robe, careful not to look too closely at himself as he put it on. He padded back out into his bedchamber, feeling slightly nauseous.

Emi looked up from her spot at his vanity, taking in his haunted eyes and pale face in one glance. She walked over to the closet and wordlessly pulled out one of his nicer dresses. Part of him wanted to pull away kicking and screaming. But the rest of him longed for the comfort of what he was used to. He took another look at the dress - old, comfortable, comforting. His mind made one final protest as he reached for the dress. He silenced it quickly. Tonight would be his night. He would do what he wanted and to hell with anyone who protested.

He pulled on the dress, reveling in the feel of the soft silks against his clean skin. Yes... tonight he would be the pampered court princess. He'd earned it.

He sat quietly as Emi lovingly ran a brush through his unbound indigo hair. Emi laughed when she heard the purr escape his lips. He blushed lightly but continued leaning into the brush-strokes. He slowly began to lose track of time as Emi's ministrations lulled him into a half-sleep.

A few gentle tugs roused him from his doze. Ah... Emi was pulling his hair up into one of its intricate styles. Several minutes later, light touches on his face told him that Emi was applying his make-up. For a moment, Nuriko considered protesting, but the urge passed. If he was going to do this, he'd do it right. When he felt the touches stop, he opened his eyes - and stared, amazed. He'd gotten so used to seeing himself in a ragged, tomboy-ish state that he'd almost forgotten... His hand raised of its own volition to touch his cheek, then his hair in its delicately woven style. He clinically noted that Emi had painted his fingernails as well. A slow smile spread across his lips and a mischievous glint rose in his eyes. Look out, Konan. Lady Kourin has returned.

Nuriko stepped out of his suite, his heart fluttering in his chest. He was nervous - horribly so. He folded his hands into his sleeves, the graceful posture and step of a princess coming back so naturally that it frightened him. It would be so easy to slide back into this role... He began to walk, not really taking much notice of where he was going.

A very loud and very rude snicker brought him abruptly back to himself. Three of the young lords of his former entourage had formed a half-circle around him, blocking his way. The first one stepped forward, sneering, "Well if it isn't Lady Kourin. How are you this eve, Princess?"

For a moment, Nuriko felt fear. He noticed two other men approaching, only vaguely recognizing them as Mitsukake and Chiriko. Mitsukake's deep voice rolled out, "Are these men bothering you, my lady?"

Mitsukake's deferential attitude brought Nuriko abruptly out of his daze. What was going on here? He was a court princess. He had seen these men practically grovel at his feet. He'd brought each one of them low with his cold, calculating games. And now they dared insult him? No! He wouldn't stand for it! His courtly pride rose to the fore as Lady Kourin's cruelest mask settled over his features.

The three men saw the change in his posture, the predatory gleam in his eyes. They backed up a pace. Mitsukake and Chiriko stepped forward, uncertainty stamped on their features. Nuriko held up one hand, an imperious command in his posture. They stopped. Satisfied, he turned back to the three lords, his eyes going even colder. His voice froze to match, "My lords, I grow weary of this game. It is enough. If you do not drop the issue, I will gladly see to making you regret it." A cruel smile curled his lips, "I would indeed enjoy that, my lords."

They nodded, understanding the truth behind the threat. They knew, from past encounters, how well Lady Kourin took care of her enemies. They wisely decided to back down. Nuriko smiled triumphantly as they snuck away. He'd forgotten how wonderful it had felt to hold such power over those fools...

A quiet, young voice penetrated his thoughts, "My lady...?"

Nuriko turned, almost laughing at the confused expression on Chiriko's face that was so closely mirrored on Mitsukake's. He couldn't resist continuing the charade for a few minutes more. He bowed at the waist, "This is an honor, my lords."

Chiriko blinked, even more confused, "It is?"

Nuriko smiled, his eyes gentling as they regarded the young musician, "Hai, my lord, it is an honor to meet two of the legendary sichi-seishi." He bowed again, "My lord Chiriko, my lord Mitsukake. We of Konan are very grateful for your protection."

Mitsukake found his voice at last, "No, my lady. The honor is ours. Will you walk with us?"

Nuriko bowed his head, "As my lord wishes."

They walked through the gardens, each seishi taking turns asking "Lady Kourin" questions. Nuriko smiled, not remembering any other time in recent memory when he'd had such fun. A streak of brown hair zoomed towards them, stopped a few feet past them, then rushed back. Miaka grabbed Nuriko's hand, oblivious to his change of attire, "Nuriko! Chichiri said I can talk to Tamahome! Isn't that wonderful??" She threw her arms around him, pulling him close.

Nuriko dropped his arms to rest around Miaka and cradled her to him, his mood buoyed even further by Miaka's innocent joy. He barely noticed as his voice deepened to answer her, "Hai, Miaka-chan. That it is."

With one last kiss on the cheek for the violet haired seishi, Miaka was off and running again - doubtless to get all dolled up for Tamahome. Nuriko sighed wistfully. If only...

This time it was Mitsukake's deep rumble that interrupted his thoughts. The deep bass voice sounded terribly confused, as if he'd just had a carpet yanked out from under his feet, "Nuriko-san?"

Nuriko turned to face his fellow seishi and let out a low, throaty chuckle. He bowed at the waist as his chocolate brown eyes danced with mischief and laughter, "Hai, Mitsukake-san?"

The doctor swallowed, as a light blush covered his face from ear to ear. Poor Chiriko was fairing no better - his face was doing a credible imitation of a lobster. Mitsukake swallowed again, clearing his throat and fighting for some sort of control on the situation. He gestured at Nuriko's court garb with one hand as the other held Tama-chan tightly to him for reassurance, "Do you... ah... do you do this often, Nuriko-san?" Chiriko's blush deepened.

Nuriko gestured at them to follow him as he walked towards a walled off garden. The place had always been one of his favorite hideaways when the court got to be too much to bear. No one knew of it but himself and a few old gardeners. And the servants had been so happy to have a reason to keep the place up again... He settled himself onto a low bench, skirts fluttering to rest around him like graceful butterfly wings, hair draped artfully around his face as if he'd carefully placed each strand. He felt the other seishi's eyes on him and smiled, flattered that even with his deception revealed he could still provoke such a response. His heart momentarily skipped a beat as he wondered exactly what that revealed about him...

He pushed the thought out of his mind and nodded once, folding his hands back into his sleeves. He took a deep breath, letting his voice slide back up into that husky alto range that always used to drive the lords wild. He said merely, "Not anymore."

Chiriko looked confused, and said as much, "Huh?"

Nuriko smiled, a small, sad smile, "Mitsukake-san, you asked me if I did this often. The answer is, 'Not anymore'. Not since Miaka came back from her world. I learned that I can not protect her very well in clothing this elaborate..."

Mitsukake nodded, solemn. Tama-nekochan jumped from his shoulder to land in Nuriko's lap. Nuriko absently petted the cat as he waited for the damning remarks to start. Suddenly this didn't seem like such fun... Chiriko was the one to push the situation out into the open. Normally soft-spoken, even the young flute-player couldn't hold back his curiosity, "But... why??"

Nuriko bowed his head, hiding his eyes from their view, "Gomen, Chiriko-kun. I would rather not speak of it. I can not."

A rustle of fabric alerted him that the two seishi were about to get up and walk out of his life. He swallowed hard as a lump formed in his throat, moon-bright tears rising easily to his eyes. But he didn't let them fall. He would not. His head dropped even farther as his shoulders hunched. And so the warm, strong hand that dropped to land on his shoulder nearly startled him off the bench. He raised his tear-bright eyes to meet Mitsukake's compassionate sky blue ones. They held no hint of mockery, hate, mistrust - just sympathy and pain. For him.

Nuriko couldn't help it. A tear slid unbidden down his cheek. Chiriko wordlessly stepped up to his other side and offered him a much abused handkerchief with the initials "K&S" lovingly embroidered on it. He took the square of linen, and dabbed carefully at his leaking eyes. Now wouldn't be the time to go walking around looking as if he had a pair of shiners... That thought alone was almost enough to stop the would-be flood of tears. He took in a shaky breath, fighting for calm until he got a tenuous grasp on it. He handed Chiriko back his handkerchief with a smile of gratitude, "Arigato gozaimasu. It's just... sometimes it's even too much for me to handle..."

Chiriko's face took on such an odd expression that Nuriko had to wonder what it was he'd said. He stood quietly, feeling the reassuring sigh of his silk skirts resettling around him as he moved. He bowed deeply to the two newest seishi, "I thank you both. It truly is an honor to know you - don't ever forget that." With those final words, he glided away as quickly as protocol would permit. He suddenly felt a very strong desire to be by himself... He had some thinking to do.

Having resumed his original walk, Nuriko found his thoughts reverting to their original topics: Hotohori and Tasuki. He sighed heavily, folding his hands back into his sleeves. Why do all my thoughts come back to them? Can't I just leave well enough alone? I should just find a nice girl like Miaka and forget about all of this. That last thought brought a bitter chuckle to his lips. Just imagine... him with a girl. He shook his head, sadly - why did that idea sound so ridiculous? Young men did it all the time - found young girls and married them. A nasty voice in his head pointed out, ~But not all young men spent the last eight years pretending to be women!~

He tried to ignore the voice; he wanted desperately to ignore that voice. It was always pointing out the most outrageous things at the most inopportune times. It was that little voice that always pointed out how lovely Hotohori's hair looked when down. It was responsible when he felt the successive urge to run his hands through it. And it was that little voice that had pointed out how incredibly soft, how incredibly wonderful Genrou's lips had felt pressed to his...

Nuriko cut off those traitorous thoughts with a curse. Why couldn't he be normal?? What was wrong with him that he couldn't be like everyone else? The little voice promptly spoke up with, ~Why should you want to be like everyone else?~

He buried his head in his sleeve-covered hands. By all the gods, what was wrong with him?? He took several deep breaths, forcing himself to calm down. This was not the time nor the place to have hysterics. These problems had kept for eight years, they could keep for a few days more.

Nuriko raised his head from his hands to take in his surroundings - where had he ended up? He was near Chichiri's room. He took a closer look - and nearly dropped dead of shock. What is it that they say in Miaka's world? Speak of the devil and you see his horns? Nuriko started to laugh. Standing in front of him, on one of the raised walkways were Hotohori and Tasuki. He began to walk towards them, eager to hear what they were saying, though not entirely certain he wanted to talk to them.

Apparently, he had just missed Miaka - Hotohori was saying, "Don't bother her, Tasuki. She is going to see Tamahome." Nuriko's heart bled when he saw the sad expression overtake the Emperor's beautiful features. Nuriko stepped up onto the walkway, wanting to hear the conversation, but not daring to meet the Emperor's eyes and the pain in them. Not when his own pain so clearly mirrored it. He didn't even spare Tasuki a glance as he stepped supportingly up to the Emperor's side. Hotohori acknowledged his approach with a grateful smile and nod.

Tasuki, unfortunately, wasn't finished. He peered at Hotohori from all angles, a confused yet mischievous expression on his face as he taunted the young man, "Wait a second... I don't get it. I thought Miaka and the Emperor were in love!" He leaned closer to Nuriko, a lecherous grin on his face. Nuriko could feel his own heating in response as Tasuki continued, "Could it be a... triangle?"

Nuriko felt his anger rising at Tasuki's insensitive remarks, but at the same time, he felt incredibly sad. Oh, Tasuki... if only you knew. This isn't a triangle - it's a damned rectangle. He spared a quick glance at Hotohori's pained expression and smiled, Now, this is something I can do something about... He balled up his fist and sent Tasuki to meet the wall face-first. He put a hand gently on the Emperor's arm, "Don't mind that insensitive jerk, Hotohori-sama. I'm sure he didn't mean anything by it."

Hotohori nods quietly, "I know that... but that doesn't make it hurt any less." He sighed, "You wouldn't understand." He gathered up his robes and walked away, totally missing the sheen of tears that suddenly gathered in Nuriko's eyes.

Nuriko stared after him, forced to swallow another lump in his throat as he whispered, "I wouldn't understand, Hotohori-sama?" He hung his head, "I understand better than you think... Far better than you could ever imagine. But at least... at least Miaka respects your feelings even if she doesn't return them. I don't even have that much comfort, do I?" He paused a moment before completing his thoughts, "Ai shiteiru..."

Tasuki pushed himself up into a sitting position just in time to see the Emperor walk away. He'd never really had Nuriko's full strength directed at him before... and man could he pack a punch! Whatever it was he'd said must have truly made the feminine seishi angry... Huh. He forced his mind to focus on Nuriko's words - obviously he'd forgotten that Tasuki was still sitting there. And in Nuriko's short, poignant monologue, all of Tasuki's questions were answered.

Nuriko was in love with the Emperor. His Kourin... his Kourin was in love with the Emperor. The thought stung. She would rather love a man that she'd hated from the get go than... Wait a minute. What the hell am I thinking?? First of all, he's not a she - he's a he! Second of all, why the hell should I care who the hell the gay-boy loves? Short on the heels of that thought were flashbacks of the two stolen kisses they'd already shared.

Tasuki buried his face in his hands as he stood up, shaking slightly, Shit... Am I falling in love with him? At the same time, he looked over at where the indigo-haired seishi was staring forlornly after the Emperor. Dressed in court garb the way he was, it was so easy to mistake him for the woman he'd masqueraded as. But, woman or not, Tasuki could easily read in his eyes that Nuriko was miserable. He couldn't stand by and watch it without doing something to lighten the mood.

Approaching Nuriko carefully, so as not to startle him, he spoke, echoing Nuriko's own words, "Don't mind that insensitive jerk, Nuriko. It's not worth crying over it."

Nuriko spun around quickly, one hand clutching his chest, his face flushed with surprise, "Tasuki! I... I didn't hear you get up..." He swallowed hard, "I... I didn't meant to hit you so hard..."

Tasuki flashed him a fang-filled grin, "Sure you didn't. Just like you didn't mean to scratch Kouji's face hard enough to leave a scar, ne?"

Nuriko blushed, "Well... you were being insensitive. Hotohori is truly in love with Miaka and Miaka is truly in love with Tamahome. The problem is, Tamahome is equally in love with Miaka as she is with him. Hotohori tries to be good about it, but..."

Tasuki nodded, "I know. I may be dense, but I'm not that dense. The tension around here is so thick you can cut it with a knife half the time. I suppose it'll only get worse once this Tamahome guy gets back - so I'm just doing my best to lighten the mood while I still can't."

The sudden sadness in Nuriko's eyes seemed very out of place with Tasuki's cheery mood. His voice dropped very nearly into its natural tenor range and was so ringed with weariness that the fire seishi was shocked, "Don't bother to try, Tasuki. It isn't worth it... because no matter what you do, no one appreciates it. And you give and give and give until you have nothing left... yet no one gives anything back to you in return. It starts out innocently enough, but you get trapped in it before you even realize what's happened. The fool, the court jester, the one who always has a smile no matter how dower the mood - it's a hard role to keep up, and by the time you realize that you're not as well equipped for it as you thought... it's too late. You're caught."

Tasuki gave him a low laugh, "I take it you speak from experience..."

Nuriko nodded, his eyes solemn, "That I do, Tasuki... that I do."

Finding nothing to say to his friend's quiet comment, Tasuki wrapped an arm around his shoulders and gave them a slight squeeze. Nuriko looked startled, but the beaming smile he bestowed upon the ex-bandit made the whole evening worthwhile. Tasuki couldn't help but smile back as he gave Nuriko one last squeeze and released him. He glanced over at Chichiri's room and noted that sometime during their discussion, Miaka and Chichiri had left. He turned towards Nuriko and smiled, "Let's go find out what they're up to."

Nuriko smiled, equilibrium finally restored, "Hai!"

A half hour later, Nuriko was feeling anything but balanced. "You want to what???" He stared at Miaka in disbelief - she couldn't be serious about this, could she?

Miaka gave him a starry-eyed smile, "Chichiri and I are going to go pick up Tamahome and the Shi Jin Ten Chi Sho!"

Nuriko glanced up at the Emperor - Hotohori looked as worried as he did... He tried again, "But you'll need the rest of us to protect you, won't you?"

Chichiri shook his head, "We hope to be in and out before the Seiryuu seishi even notice we're there, no da. The more people we take, the less likely it is that we can accomplish this, no da."

Nuriko's eyes darkened as he stared around the room, begging for support from someone. Hotohori looked resigned, as he accepted that, once again, he was to be left out of the adventure. Mitsukake and Chiriko looked sympathetic, but also resigned - neither of their seishi powers were adequately suited to fighting anyway. Nuriko shifted his eyes to Tasuki and there found the support he needed. The ex-bandit was never one to back out of a fight - whether or not there was supposed to be one. Tasuki inclined his head slightly when he caught Nuriko's pleading gaze and quietly snuck out of the room. Nuriko could only stare, What is he up to? Not knowing what the fiery-haired man had in mind, he turned back to Miaka to try to get her to take him along.

Miaka must have seen the anguished look in his eyes for she stepped forward and kissed him on the cheek, "Daijoubu, Nuriko, daijoubu. I'll have Chichiri to protect me and we'll be joining up with Tamahome, as well. So I'll be perfectly safe! And I don't want to put any more of you in danger..."

Nuriko pulled Miaka tightly to him and buried his face in her hair. He could feel Hotohori's jealous eyes on him, but for once, didn't care a whit about the Emperor's feelings. Hotohori had certainly not shown him any empathy this eve... He spoke quietly so only Miaka could hear his words, "Onegai, Miaka... Let me come with you! I'll likely worry myself to death if you leave me here!"

Miaka patted his back, "Daijoubu, Nuriko. I know you want to come, but it's really better this way. You can come next time, ne?" She pulled herself out of Nuriko's embrace and the purple-haired seishi reluctantly let her do it. How could he protect his imouto-chan if she wouldn't even let him come along when she went into danger?? He wanted to curse - badly. And where did Tasuki get off to? I thought he was going to help...

The door opened quietly behind him - Nuriko would likely not have even noticed it if it weren't for the draft it had created. He turned just in time to see Tasuki slip him a wink as he approached Miaka. He had something clutched in his hands, but Nuriko couldn't see what. Tasuki leaned over in Miaka's direction and smirked as he held up his hands, finally revealing what lay in them - a nikkuri manju. He couldn't help but snicker - Tasuki could be pretty damned clever when he wanted to be. Tasuki rubbed his face against the treat and assumed an innocent expression, "Mmmm.... what am I gonna do with this? And here I was gonna give it to you..."

Miaka's face was priceless as she eyed the precious food - her eyes were wide as saucers and her mouth was hanging wide open. Nuriko had to repress another chuckle as she grabbed Chichiri and said, "Poor thing!! We'd better take him along, Chichiri!!" She didn't waste another moment in devouring her chosen morsel - right along with Tasuki's hand and half his arm. Nuriko sweatdropped.

When all was finally sorted out, Chichiri spread out his kesa and said, "Iku zo! Miaka, Tasuki, step aboard, no da!"

It was only then that Nuriko realized what had happened. He'd been so distracted by his friends' antics that he hadn't even noticed before then. They were leaving him behind... he was being left behind... no... No! He reached out a hand to Miaka in entreaty, "Miaka!"

She turned and gave him a broad smile, "I'll be safe, Nuriko! I'll have Chichiri and Tasuki and Tamahome to protect me! You'll see! Ja ne, Nuriko-chan!"

As the three disappeared into the kesa, Nuriko stared in shock - how had he let this happen? Hand still outstretched, he fell painfully to his knees beside the last spot where he'd seen Miaka. His mouth worked, but no sounds came out - at least none that were coherent to him... Imouto-chan... iie... He slowly dropped his hand to rest in his lap as he bowed his head to fight a splurge of tears. He was Suzaku shichiseishi and he would not cry.

A hand dropped lightly to his shoulder and he turned to see who it was - Chiriko. The youngest seishi had settled onto his knees next to him, a worried expression on his face, "Nuriko-san? Daijoubu ka?"

Nuriko shook his head and fussed lightly with his skirts, "Iie... I'm not OK, Chiriko. I worry about Miaka - a lot. I have this feeling, as if something very bad is going to happen tonight - and because I'm not there, there's nothing I can do to stop it from happening!"

Chiriko awkwardly patted his shoulder, "But Tasuki will protect her, ne? And Chichiri - and Tamahome when they meet up with him! I'm sure she'll be just fine!" He gave Nuriko a bright smile and Nuriko dredged one up in return. Seeing that Nuriko appeared happier, Chiriko gave him another smile and ran to catch up to Mitsukake.

Nuriko stood quietly, pondering the young seishi's words. It was then that the significance finally hit home. Miaka was in danger - in Kutou... and Tasuki had gone with her!! One hand flew to cover his mouth as his eyes widened in shocked dismay. He'd just sent Tasuki - one of the only people that truly cared about him directly into danger! With a choked gasp he ran back to his room. Great gods, what have I done??

He reached his room and crashed through the door, not really thinking about what he was doing at this point. He stared down at his court garb and winced. He looked like a pampered court lady on the outside, but at this moment he felt like anything but. No one had said anything, but in his heart, he knew that his appearance was one reason why his offer to come along had been rejected so harshly. Even Miaka had vague prejudices that way. Dressed as he was, he didn't look as if he could protect a fly - much less a Miko.

He stared at himself in the mirror and finally let out the string of curses he'd been holding in. One detached part of his mind noted that he'd been hanging around Genrou too long... The rest of him was caught up in the vision of feminine beauty reflected back from the face of the mirror. Beautiful, delicate, winsome, comfortable... and useless!! He began tearing off the dress, unheeding of the damage he was doing to the clothing or himself as he threw things around the room.

Sometime in the middle of this, Emi walked in. She stared at the scene he was making in shock before quietly reaching out and closing the door. He didn't care. He wanted that dress off! He wanted all of it off. He started scrubbing harshly at his face with a piece of his dress to get the make up off even as he yanked at his hair to free it of its intricate style.

Emi couldn't stand it any longer. She ran over to where Nuriko had dropped to the floor and tried to catch at his flailing arms. Confused as he was, Nuriko let her do it, "Nuriko-sama, yamete!! Onegai... You'll hurt yourself!"

A little bit of sanity crept back into his gaze as he stared at Emi. The tension in his arms slowly released and Emi let them go. Face burning in shame, Nuriko looked away. Emi closed her eyes to hide her own pain from the distraught seishi, then pulled his unresisting form into her arms, rocking him back and forth as she hummed quietly. It was a quiet, gentle lullaby that her daughter used to love... once upon a time.

As Nuriko slowly quieted in her arms, Emi let her mind drift. It wasn't fair - the whole situation. No... maybe it was life, in general, that wasn't fair. It dealt far too harshly with its children - after all, look what it was constantly doing to Nuriko-sama! As if the poor boy hadn't suffered enough... She idly wondered what it was that had caused his sudden breakdown. Ah... well enough. He'll tell me when he's ready.

She stroked his partially undone hair as she sought to calm him further from his frantic state. So beautiful... I've always loved his hair - ever since I first laid eyes on it. She smiled wistfully. From the first moment, Nuriko-sama had reminded her of her own lost daughter. Not dead... no, that would almost have been a kindness... but lost, just the same. Maids of the Court were not allowed children. And so hers had been taken away to be raised by her father - a noble lord of the Court. She didn't even know what the child had been named. But she'd had the most beautiful shade of indigo hair... Lighter than Nuriko-sama's, but still... close enough that caring for him let her feel like she'd regained her daughter.

When Nuriko finally pulled out of her embrace, she picked up a washbasin and filled it with water. Sighing in resignation at the minuscule pieces of the dress left over, she picked up one of the larger tatters and began washing Nuriko's face. His wide, chocolate brown eyes were filled with awe and confusion. She smiled gently as she continued her work, still humming that lullaby. When she had finished with his face and nails and started on his hair, he finally relaxed into the routine.

She smiled as she gently brushed out his hair and pulled it back into its more functional braid. With one final pat, she stood and brushed off her clothes. Nuriko flicked an anxious glance her way, but subsided when he saw that she was only going to his closet. She pulled out his yellow pants and red tunic, wordlessly holding them out to him. He nodded quietly and took them behind the dressing screen.

When he finally emerged and looked into the mirror again, he winced. "It's no use... No matter what I do, I'll always look like a girl!" He buried his face in his hands to blot out the image in the mirror.

Emi stepped up to him and rubbed one small hand in circles on his lower back, "Easy, easy... It doesn't matter what you look like, Nuriko-sama... It's what's inside that counts."

Nuriko shook his head, "No... I wish it were that simple, Emi, but it isn't." He sank down onto his vanity chair, tucking his legs up underneath him and wrapping his arms around his stomach, "Everyone else still sees me as a woman. They never say anything, but I can tell that's what they think. They think I'm not capable of protecting Miaka - or of doing anything, really. Tasuki's the only one who really accepts that I can do what I say I can."

Emi's eyebrow rose, "Tasuki? I've never heard you mention him before...?" She was fishing for gossip and knew it - and apparently Nuriko-sama did, too.

He let out a little chuckle, "Am I that transparent? Gods, Emi... I don't know what I ever did to deserve you, but I pray that whatever it was, I'm worthy of it. How can you just sit there and accept all this?"

Emi smiled and patted his knee, "I have my reasons, Nuriko-sama - one of which is that I have come to care for you a great deal. What hurts you hurts me, and what makes you happy gives me joy, as well. Anything else is inconsequential." Seeing that Nuriko's eyes were starting to get misty, she added with a smirk, "And you, Nuriko-sama, are trying to change the subject! Now, about Tasuki..."

Nuriko laughed again at the predatory gleam in her eyes - he'd forgotten how single-minded Emi could be when searching out a choice piece of gossip. He smiled, finally acquiescing, "He's another Suzaku seishi - a former bandit." His grin widened at the startled gasp from Emi's lips, "I know, I know - positively scandalous, ne? We actually met before I came to Court - he's the one who stole Osozaki for me." Emi joined him in a laugh - she'd been in on that plot to undermine the Emperor and had enjoyed every minute of it.

Nuriko continued, "He's... I don't really know how to describe him. He's rude, uncouth, ill-mannered - not exactly Court material, if you know what I mean." Emi nodded encouragement. "Anyway, in spite of all of that - I know he has a good heart. And... I think he really cares about me. But he gives me such mixed signals, I don't know what to think! One minute he's kissing me and the next he's taunting and teasing me like I'm an enemy!" He clenched his fists at his sides, "It makes me want to send him through the damned wall!"

Emi smirked - from what she'd heard, Nuriko-sama had been unable to restrain himself from acting out that wish on several occasions, already. Catching her expression, Nuriko blushed, "Ano... Well - he asked for it!" Emi chuckled at the disgruntled expression on Nuriko's face. He continued, "But tonight... tonight, he put himself directly into danger because he knew that the others wouldn't let me go to Kutou with Miaka. They all still treat me as if I need to be protected as much as her! Well, I don't!"

Nuriko rose to his feet and began pacing the room, "I'm not a weakling - the gods know I'm stronger than any of them! I'm fully well capable of caring for myself, and anyone else! I mean, where do they get off thinking that I'm weak and pathetic just because I look like a woman? I hate it, Emi - I really can't stand it anymore."

She nodded, finally understanding, "And thus the sudden need for a wardrobe change."

He sighed, "Hai. I... I can't afford to stick with what's comfortable anymore. I can't change who I am, or how I act - but I can change how I look. And..." He took a deep breath, "And if I need to wear men's clothing and start pulling my hair up into one of those tight, ridiculous buns to prove to everyone that I'm as capable a seishi as they are, then I'll do it." His voice firmed in resolution, "I'll do it."

Emi rose and smoothed an errant lock of hair back from Nuriko's face, "And you'll succeed." She rested a hand on Nuriko's chest, "Because in your heart, where it really matters, you already have. Ganbatte, Nuriko-sama."

He nodded grimly and spun on his heel to leave the room. It was time to find the others...

Hotohori looked up hopefully as the door to the inner throne room opened. He half-rose from his seated position, praying that Miaka was the one behind the door. He was disappointed. It was only Nuriko. He could practically feel the hope choking him as it crashed down around him. Not Miaka... Miaka was still in danger... He buried his face in his hands, thus missing the look on Nuriko's face.

Mitsukake didn't miss it. He saw Hotohori's crashed hopes clearly reflected in the feminine seishi's eyes. He left his position at the wall and walked over to Nuriko's side, "Nuriko-san... Daijoubu?"

Nuriko started at the sound of the Healer's bass rumble, but settled himself, "I... I suppose so, Mitsukake-san. I've just been feeling a little... off. I'm worried about Miaka."

Mitsukake frowned at the defeated look in Nuriko's gaze. It wasn't like him to be so... so... down. Even when he was worried. He let a hand drop gently onto Nuriko's shoulder to squeeze it lightly, "I'm sure she's fine. She has Chichiri and Tasuki to take care of her, after all. They both seem like extremely capable men." He noted with concern how Nuriko flinched at the sound of Tasuki's name. His eyes narrowed in confusion, then widened as a hunch made itself known - it was something in Nuriko's eyes... Those wide brown orbs weren't much good at concealing their owner's emotions. He raised an eyebrow, "You are worried about Chichiri and Tasuki, as well?"

Nuriko sighed and hung his head, "I don't know, Mitsukake-san. I just don't know anymore. I'm so confused..." He raised his eyes to where the Emperor sat upon his throne. He looked so sad...

Mitsukake squeezed Nuriko's shoulder once more, then patted it lightly, "With all due respect to the Emperor, I think he can be a bit dense at times..."

Startled by the most serious of the seishi making such a comment, Nuriko laughed, "Hai, Mitsukake-san - he most certainly can." He sighed again, wistful this time. He was watching Hotohori again.

The Healer frowned. He could do nothing about Miaka and the others. He could do nothing about Hotohori's bad mood. But this was something he could do something about. He could help Nuriko. He smiled at the younger man and motioned his head towards the door, "I could used some fresh air. Would you care to take a walk with me?"

Nuriko giggled into his hands as they automatically rose to cover his mouth, "Mitsukake! What will everyone think? Twice in one night..." He winked flirtatiously at the older seishi, startling him into a laugh.

Smacking Nuriko good-naturedly on the back, Mitsukake headed towards the door. Just as Nuriko caught up to him, he noticed Chiriko. The youngest seishi was playing his heart out in an effort to cheer up the Emperor - and looking just as starry-eyed as Nuriko ever got in Hotohori's presence. Sadly for all concerned, Nuriko noticed this as well... Mere moments later he was trying to pound Chiriko into the wall with his flute, all the while protesting that he would be the one to comfort Hotohori-sama.

Mitsukake sweatdropped and edged over to the Emperor. Seeing Hotohori's pathetic facial expression, he smiled. Leaning over so the Emperor could hear, the Healer commented, "You seem to be very popular with the men, heika-sama..."

As predicted, the comment jarred Hotohori out of his immediate mood and the young man gave him a grateful smile, "Hai... Maybe too popular - if such a thing is even possible."

Mitsukake chuckled. All might not be right with the world but at present they at least had a reasonable facsimile. He turned to Nuriko, about to ask if he wanted to resume their plans for a walk when he heard Nuriko scream. He spun to look and... facefaulted. Was that... Tama-chan... floating...?

He raised a hand to his head in disbelief. He'd known that cat was unusual, but still... this was ridiculous. He listened to the flurry of activity around him as Tama-chan - talked. No wait. He listened again - that wasn't Tama. That was Chichiri! He'd know the monk's strange voice anywhere. Well, that explained the floating. He gave Tama-chan a bit of a glare and the cat shrugged, looking sheepish. Hmph - he'd have to talk to him later.

Chiriko was playing his flute again - asking them all to focus their chi to break the Seiryuu seishi's barriers. Yoshi. That was something he could do - so he did.

Chapter 5 | Fushigi Yuugi Fanfiction | Chapter 7
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