Osozaki Blooms

Chapter 8

Dawn. Normally one of Nuriko's favorite times. Not so today. Unlike the normal warmth and welcome carried by the sun's rays, this morning the sun seemed cold and distant, hiding its light behind dark storm clouds. Nuriko shivered and clutched his tunic a little tighter around his shoulders. Dark omens. His life seemed full of them lately. Losing Tamahome had been the beginning of an ever-widening spiral of bad luck for the seishi that had culminated in last night's near-catastrophe. Even now he wasn't ready to think about what might have happened had he been even one minute slower... Giving himself a good, solid shake, Nuriko tried to turn his mind away from that particular emotional trip-wire. He'd spent eight years in that mental black hole already. He didn't want to feed it any more of his life than he already had.

Nuriko wrapped his arms around himself in a loose hug and willed himself to start walking. He didn't care where, he just needed to move, to somehow kick this immense melancholy that had settled over him. Unwilling to deal with any members of the Court who might be awake, Nuriko turned himself away from the Inner Palace and towards the Outer Grounds. Though not fully aware of having had a destination in mind, the feminine seishi was unsurprised to find himself in front of the stables. For, while there was very little he could do to help Miaka, a visit from him would mean the world to Galaxy and his little Hana. As he stepped into the stable, Nuriko called out, "Kechiko-san? Are you here?"

A lightly graying head of black hair poked up from behind a stall door several down from where he was standing, "Nuriko-sama! Shouldn't you be resting?"

Nuriko walked over to join the older man, "If one more person decides that I need to rest or tries to wrap yet another blanket around me, I think I'm going to scream. I'm a Suzaku shichi-seishi, Kechiko-san. One cold dunking isn't going to kill me." His voice dropped to a subdued whisper, "And besides... I'd rather not be at Court right now." Mentally he added, Not with Miaka so depressed. Not with me unable to do anything for her but hover. Not with Hotohori-sama fawning over her like an adolescent with his first crush. Not with Tasuki so badly injured. Not with Tamahome... gone...

Picking up on the seishi's melancholy mood, if not his exact thoughts, the stablemaster reached out and gripped his shoulder, "Well, I certainly don't mind you being here, so long as you follow the rules."

That last finally prompted a smile out the purple-haired seishi, "I know, Kechiko-san. 'If I'm going to hang around and be underfoot, then I may as well be useful.' I remember." Grinning impishly and warmed by Kechiko's hearty laughter, Nuriko headed down the aisle to see to his two equine friends.

Hana let out a welcoming whinny when she saw him approaching. Galaxy snorted and turned his head away. Nuriko gave the stallion a gentle smile and a soft caress, "There, there, Galaxy. Don't be jealous. You know I love you both."

Galaxy eventually responded to Nuriko's soft hands and voice, lifting his muzzle to butt at the seishi's chest. Nuriko smiled, "Perhaps I should start teaching you some of those fancier moves, hmm?"

Kechiko groaned, "Just what I need! Two of them who can let themselves out of their stalls whenever they please!"

Nuriko laughed, "Well perhaps I don't have to teach him that trick." He didn't add that he hadn't even taught Hana -- she'd figured it out on her own. For all he knew, the little mare had already let Galaxy in on the secret. Something about the gleam in both pairs of dark eyes made him suspect that that just might be the case.

After handing out a few last caresses and a few lumps of sugar, Nuriko left Hana and Galaxy, rolled up his sleeves and started helping Kechiko with the morning chores. At least here he knew exactly where he stood. Hana, Galaxy and Kechiko would never reject him and they always appreciated his presence. They liked him for being exactly who he was and none of them cared about the particulars. He didn't have to pretend for them, he didn't have to worry about what he should be... he could just be what he was, whatever that happened to be. And their liking him didn't shift to dislike or disgust at a moment's notice. That was more than he could say for a lot of people.

Last night, for just one brief moment, Hotohori-sama had caught and held his gaze. It was the first time since his presentation at court that the Emperor had looked so deeply into his eyes and Nuriko had not been able to hold himself aloof. He had laid bare his soul in that moment, hoping beyond hope that he might finally get the Emperor to see him. To see him as he was, not as everyone thought him to be. To see that someone in his world did love him the way he hoped Suzaku no Miko might. To see how desperately lonely he was in his own unrequited love. And for just one moment... their souls had touched. Nuriko was sure of it. And the thought had frightened him more than he thought possible. For just as sure as he was that Hotohori-sama had finally understood that his protestations of love were no sham... he was equally sure that the younger man could -- and more importantly would -- use that knowledge to hurt him somehow. So, when just a few seconds later showed the Emperor's eyes filled with disbelief and some small measure of disgust, Nuriko had tried to be looking elsewhere, filling the painful silence with inane chatter. He couldn't bear it any other way. And then Hotohori-sama had fled the room, unable to bear being in his presence any longer. The happy little gathering hadn't lasted much longer than that, Nuriko being unable to keep up the pretense of being light-hearted and joyful.

He sighed, I really shouldn't let Hotohori-sama bother me like this. There are so many more important things happening. I should focus on them, not on pining after someone that will likely never return my feelings. That thought brought a slight hitch to his breath. He ignored it as best he could. He wasn't even sure when he'd started to realize that his future might not lie with the Emperor, but the idea had grown in his thoughts like a weed. He'd given Hotohori-sama two years of his life already. How many more could he afford to throw away?

These thoughts swam around in his head like a school of agitated koi, disturbing the tranquility that being in the stables normally brought him. When that agitation started to transfer to the horses around him, Nuriko knew it was time to go. Taking his leave of Kechiko with a barely explained apology, Nuriko left.

And nearly the exact moment that he stepped outside, Nuriko knew something was terribly, horribly wrong. The pull came from the Inner Palace. It was the Emperor. His chi had flared to astronomical proportions. It didn't make sense. What could have made him so-- Nuriko's mind froze in fear as the obvious answer came to him. The only possible explanation... Tamahome. He broke into a run, praying with every fiber of his being that Hotohori-sama wasn't about to do something irrevocably stupid.

A month ago -- hell, two days ago -- if anyone had asked Tasuki if he could ever fear Hotohori, he would have laughed in the questioner's face. The Emperor just had an aura of pretty-boy genteelness that made it nearly impossible to fear him. His ever-present, overwhelming vanity made it even worse. His suave, debonair good looks won him only adulation. His youth made people underestimate him. His position and his quick mind made people... Respect him...? Maybe. Admire him... sure. But fear? Not in a million years. And Tasuki would have agreed. Then.

Now? They were blind fools not to see what was right in front of them. And he had been a fool for buying into it. Hotohori was one of the shichi-seishi. Every single one of them, from Chichiri down to little Chiriko, possessed an awesome, terror-worthy strength. He'd just never seen any of his fellow seishi display theirs... until now. It was somehow appropriate that Hotohori should be the first.

Facing off against Tamahome and blazing with the force of the chi he was carrying into the conflict, Hotohori was terrifying. Tasuki's knees were definitely expressing a desire to knock together -- even though he doubted the Emperor even knew there was anyone else in the courtyard. He never wanted that ferocious energy turned on him. Ever.

Movement out of the corner of his eye proved to be Nuriko running up to join the group. He turned to face the older seishi, "Any idea how we can break this up?"

The pain in Nuriko's eyes was immense. The purple-haired seishi shook his head, "We can't, Tasuki. Hotohori-sama has sunk so deeply into his anger, he won't even hear our voices." He stopped, as if that thought had reminded him of something. his eyes searched the courtyard before coming back to rest on the fire seishi, "Where's Miaka?"

Of course... Their miko's voice was the only one Hotohori might hear... and her absence was suspicious, indeed. Chichiri fielded the long-haired seishi's question, "We aren't sure. No one's seen her yet this morning."

R-chan: *wince* I know... I know... bad place to leave off. I beg that it's 3 AM and I'm tired, running out of steam and my back can't take sitting any more. *more wincing* Sorry?

Nuriko: Sorry??? You're sorry???? Why I oughta-- *mmph!!!*

Tasuki: *grabs Nuriko* Eh-heh... Never mind that, Renee-san. Really. He didn't mean it. He's just... well... frustrated.

Duo: *snickers* Mm-hm. I'm sure he is... *leers at Tasuki*

Tasuki: *twitch* You're just thrilled she's leaving you alone for now.

Duo: You're damned right I am! I was really worried for a while there!

Nuriko: *sagging* It's OK... I guess... I should be used to it by now... Really. *whimper* It's just been so long... I was starting to enjoy not needing therapy...

Tasuki: *snuggles the Nuriko* Well, look on the bright side... she's ecchi-er now than she used to be.

Nuriko: *perks up*

Tasuki: *fanged grin* And she did once promise that out of love for you, we'd be her first lemon.

Nuriko: *thoughtful pose* You know... you may have something there...

Tasuki: *wider grin*

R-chan: *squeaks* Don't you think you should be asking me about those sorts of things??? *massive blush*

Nuriko/Tasuki: No.

R-chan: *more blushing* OK... just checking... -.-;;;

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