title: Under the Moon
fandom: Fushigi Yuugi
characters/pairings: Nuriko/Hotohori, Tasuki, Chichiri, Houki, Boushin
rating: Teen
warnings: animals, some sex
summary: Nuriko's run in with Ashitare has left him feeling a little different.
notes: takes place right after the dreaded ep. 33, then goes AU.
this was supposed to be funny and sexy, and it turned out angsty and weird. stupid fic...
i'm going to interpret chichiri's speech patterns the way the translators for Rourin Kenshin interpreted Kenshin's speech patterns for three reasons: i think that's probably as good a way to translate the 'no da's' as any, they're both wanderers so it makes some kind of sense, and i think Kenshin's speech patterns are cool.
hrm. i can't believe i have to say this, but... mild non-sex bestiality. (sigh. it's a slippery slope, my friends. one day you think, hm, those boys sure look good together, and then it's, hey! they look even better nekkid. and then it's, hm, well, i guess if they like to play games with friends... and hey, i guess the whips and chains could be all in good fun... bah.) no, there will be NO interspecies sex. but...

It was cold, and dark. That was to be expected. But he needed to get out.

Fortunately, the powder was soft, and he could dig out, but he was running out of air, and it was just so cold...

Frantically, he clawed at the snow above his nose, and pushed and pulled his way up. He couldn't stand it much longer, he had to, had to get out, and it was close, he knew it had to be close, the air was up there, and if he could just pull himself up a little more, and a little more...

It seemed like he would be here forever. His heart thudded in his chest, pounding against his ribs painfully, and his lungs felt like they were filled with molten metal. He needed to get out, or else... or else...

Or else this frozen water would be his grave.

He couldn't bear that thought, so even when the strength left his limbs, even when he felt like he couldn't go on anymore, even when he felt his consciousness slipping away and completing the blackness that enveloped him...

After an eternity, the snow seemed lighter, or maybe that was wishful thinking. But one swipe at the snow above him, and he could breathe. It was just his nose that was free, but it was enough. Enough. God, Suzaku, it smelled so good, so fresh and so alive. Weakly, he wiggled and pushed his way up until his head was completely free. Pausing, he tried to take stock of his surroundings.

White. Everywhere he looked, it was completely white. The sky looked white, and all the light on the snow nearly blinded him. Sighing, he dug his way out entirely. It seemed to take forever, but he could breathe and he could see, and it would be all right. A loose rope of purple hair fell unseen back into the hole he vacated as he lumbered away from what would have been his final resting place

He felt utterly bedraggled now that he was finally out of the snow entirely. Shaking himself dry, he blearily looked down the side of the mountain. Obviously, he would need to get moving. He was so cold, and he was still weak. But he had to get moving. One foot in front of the other in front of the other in front of the other, and slowly he made his way down the side of the mountain. His feet were not designed to walk on snow, and so he had to be careful lest he slip and fall, and his feet only seemed to get colder and colder, but he kept moving. He was determined.

He knew the way back to the village. It was pitch-black night when he got there, but that didn't matter. He huddled in the archway of a door, curling himself into a tight ball to conserve heat. Before the sun rose, he slipped away, heading out.

He knew where he had to go. Home was south. He had to follow the trail backwards, and get home. His mate was there, and he knew that he was needed.

Getting south, though... Following the trail wasn't too hard. There were sights and smells that were familiar. But it wasn't a landscape he was comfortable with, and he wasn't properly equipped. He walked, cold, hungry, and watchful for what felt like eons, sleeping only an hour at a time, in whatever shade he could find.

He finally came across a river, and even though it was probably even more dangerous than the plains. At least he could easily catch fish, and sleep in the shade of the trees. Plus, the river was flowing south, and he knew that there was water between him and his home, and his mate.

Following the river was the best way he knew to get back. Days passed quickly as he slunk up the river, and now that he had a semi-regular source of food, he was moving a lot faster too. It wasn't long at all before he was at the sea.

Now, the sea was a big problem. He had to cross it; that was the shortest way. But he had no means to do that. Otherwise, he felt that he could follow the coastline, and maybe there would be another way south, to home. But, he didn't like that idea much. He wasn't able to move very fast, and on the coast, it would be hard to stay concealed. Even sticking to the shadows as he did, there was almost no hope that he could remain unseen long enough to find another way.

Plus, his mate was across this sea. He knew that. Any distance down the coastline would have to be made up again once he got across. That was time he didn't think he had to waste.

It was a matter of patience, and guile. He made his way down until he found a port, and then he situated himself in a dark crevice, from which he could observe. The bay was too small for the large ships to enter, but he could see the smaller ships carrying the cargo and people from the large ships inside. The one ship out in the sea was painted red and blue and green, and had a large bird on its sails. The bird's feathers dissolved into flames, and the wisps of flame-sails fluttered madly in the high winds.

That ship was going to his mate, he was sure of it.

The little boats going to and from were loaded down with cargo that was stored in heavy barrels on flat boards, and then a complicated series of pulleys and planes was used to get the flats onto the small boats, and then from the small boats to the ship. The small boats were manned with only a pilot and a navigator, and the flats went directly into the belly of the large ship.

He smiled to himself and slunk out, crawling along the shadows in the rocks as he neared his target.

One flat was being loaded up in front of him. It was the last one, and it had slightly fewer barrels. When the last barrel was loaded on, it was secured with ropes and hooked up to the pulley. It was rolled up the plane, the pulley guiding it, until it almost reached the small boat. The ropes went taut, and the pulley wheels squeaked as the flat lifted off the ground, ready to swing out to the small boat.

Just as it got to the halfway point between the docks and the boat, he made his leap. Gracefully, he landed on the edge of the flat, and then he quickly scurried to slide between the barrels, hiding by crouching as low as he could get. The barrels were secured by a loose netting, but it was easy to fit himself inside the netting, and make himself as small as he could, so that no one would see him.

On the docks, the men controlling the pulley scurried to steady the flat, which the wind had taken away.

It felt like forever before the flat settled onto the small boat, and then he was sure that there was nowhere in the universe a slower boat than the one he was hiding on. Getting the flat from the small boat to the large ship took several lifetimes, and by the time the flat was raised into the air, he was sure that his spine would have been permanently reshaped by the uncomfortable crouch he held himself in.

Before the flat touched the bottom of the boat, his quick eyes surveyed the scene. There were men guiding the flat into the ship, but inside, there were only two men securing the cargo. If he inched his way to the back edge of the flat, he knew he would have no problem slipping off the flat without being noticed.

The cargo hold of the ship seemed massive, and appeared to be almost full. Getting off the flat he was on was as easy as he had assumed, and then, moving silently through the labyrinth of crates and barrels and sacks, he found his way to a dark corner where he could stretch out and keep an eye out.

No one noticed him at all, and in less time than it took his sore muscles to unwind, they were in motion. The rocking of the boat was slightly nauseating, but he kept himself together by focusing on grooming and getting some rest.

He dreamed of when he would be reunited with his mate.

The men above rarely came down to this hold, as it was only for their cargo, and now that it was secured and locked away, there was no reason to come down here. But their voices drifted down through the slats of board above, and he heard the crew as they went about their jobs.

They all thought that this voyage was to be especially blest by Suzaku, as no one had seen so much as a single hair of a rat.

Indeed, Suzaku did seem to smile on the ship with his image so wildly emblazoned upon its sails, as they managed to navigate the sea in such a way that they returned home a week before the deadline.

Even still, it seemed like a million years to him as he prowled around in the cargo hold. He was hungry, and he longed for sunlight and a nice bed. He could tell, from the crew's calls and from the sound of the water, that the harbor they were entering into now was much larger than the one they had left. The warehouse was actually built over the dock, and so the ship, though large, could pull up straight into the warehouse itself. That would make unloading the cargo much easier, as they would be able to open the doors on the side of the ship to get out the flats.

He decided to be bold. He had been trapped in this dark cavern long enough. He skulked in the shadows as the crew came down into the hold to prepare for docking, but as soon as the doors on the side of the ship slid open, he bolted.

He had to keep himself focused, because he was still tired and achy and hungry, but he knew what had to be done. Like a streak of dark lighting, he ran from the ship, through the warehouse, out to the docks, to the shore and the crowded streets, and then out to freedom.

He was almost laughing as he broke free and entered the thick foliage of his home forests. Here, he could jump up into the short trees, and bound from limb to limb. Here, the hunting was good and the forest had plenty of shadows to hide in.

Here, he was home.

There was still the small matter of getting to his mate, but he could fill his belly first, and rest.

It was a little selfish, he knew, but it was too tempting. To just sit in the shade, basking in the heat of the land that was his home, belly fully, muscles stretched out, clean and rested and finally home.

He did work his way to his mate's side, but he didn't bother to push himself. His slow and lazy gait was plenty fast enough, as far as he could tell.

There was also one small problem... He wasn't sure where to find his mate. He knew, but it was hard to think clearly enough. His felt like he was looking through a broken, misted glass to see his past. He knew he was home, he knew he had a mate, he knew that his mate was near...

But there wasn't any urgency, anyway. He knew he would be with his mate soon enough.

It was the smell of blood that brought him to the edge of the battlefield. It wasn't right, and he knew that his mate would be there. A tingle of panic tickled along his spine, and he crouched down low to eye the field warily.

There were many, many men on horses. They wore armor and carried swords, and they charged into each other. The soil was soaked in blood, the green of the grass shining red in the sunshine. There were also men on their feet, fighting other men. But the sides were uneven; his home was being overrun by invaders.

There were runners going to and from the battlefield, carrying away the injured and trying to rearm the soldiers, and there were invaders spilling through the lines to get past the defenders. It was a disaster.

His mate was out here, instinct and scent informed him. He had to find his mate, before something happened.

The field was rocky, surrounded by foothills and crevasses. Stalking in the shadows, he made his way around the perimeter of the field, his nostrils flared and his sharp eyes narrowed, searching.

It was a hint of breeze that turned his head. Over on the far edge, in the narrow pass that was nearly totally obscured from the rest of the field, was his mate.

He was breathless for a moment. His mate was wonderfully majestic, sitting tall in his horse, his armor blazing brightly in the sun. His mate rarely showed his warrior side, but he was fierce with his broadsword in his fist. He was so enraptured to finally be able to see his mate again, he nearly didn't see the warrior his mate was faced off against.

The opponent was frightening. It wasn't his posture or stature exactly. Certainly, the warrior with the blond mane whipping behind him was mighty, but it was his aura. He was a predator who was prey for no one.

He shivered, looking at the opponent. His mate was not equipped to fight him. There was something missing... At first, he couldn't tell what it was, but after a moment of puzzled consideration, he decided that his mate was missing some inner armor. He couldn't elucidate it any clearer; his mate was supposed to be cloaked in something more powerful than his flimsy armor.

He stalked closer slowly, not wanting to intrude. He figured he would intercept his mate as his mate retreated.

Unfortunately, his mate had another idea. He cursed under his breath and took off in a full run. His mate was charging the opponent.

What did he hope to gain? The opponent didn't even defend, just smirked as his mate barreled to his death. A blue light surrounded the opponent, but he didn't care. He had to get to his mate.

It seemed like everything was moving fast and slow at the same time. It seemed like he would never reach him in time. It seemed like his heart would leap out his throat in a bloody splotch in front of him.

He bounded off the ground, his whole body extended, and hit his mate microseconds before his mate hit the blue shield the opponent had erected. They both tumbled to the ground in a heap. He used his own body to blunt most of the blow, but they rolled together. When they finally stopped, he caught his mate's startled eyes, and growled.

Hotohori stared into the strangely familiar brown-rose eyes of the panther. It was a beautiful cat, long, sleek, elegant... and it had just saved his life. The giant cat extricated himself from the emperor regally, sitting down to groom his front paws, as if he were annoyed with the emperor and didn't want the emperor to know how worried he had been.

Nakago arched an eyebrow and quirked the corner of his lips. "Damn Ashitare. I should have known better than to trust him with anything... This is a most unhappy accident. Well. I have an empire to take over and a world to crush. Another day, then." With an impatient tug to the reigns, he directed his horse to trot away.

Hotohori blinked, watching Nakago leave dazedly. He absently noted that his horse had been blown ninety yards into the rocks. That was unfortunate. He had had his horse since he was twelve, and he would miss their rides together.

The panther butted him in the chest, rubbing his face against the emperor. The great cat's fur gleamed deep violet in the sunshine, and his brown-rose eyes pleaded with the emperor. Sitting up, he put his hand on the cat's head, not even thinking about the possible danger of getting so close to a wild animal. The cat rubbed against his hand happily, purring. Fascinated, Hotohori started to really stroke the cat, scratching behind his ears and rubbing underneath his jaw. The cat flopped down on his side, blissful, rolling around so his belly rolled up. Delighted, Hotohori slipped one hand down to stroke the downy fur on the cat's belly. The purring was so loud, it reverberated off the rocks, filling the whole pass with the sounds of the cat's pleasure.

Hotohori smiled.

Tasuki was frantic. The Koutu troops were in retreat, although only Suzaku, and maybe Seiyruu, could guess why. Yet, no one had seen the emperor in hours. Kouji could barely keep up with him as he barreled through the ranks, demanding of every man he could get his hands on whether they had seen the emperor.

Kouji had to grab Tasuki by the scruff of the neck when he finally caught sight of Hotohori, emerging from the pass.

"Your Highness!" Tasuki bounded over to his leader, gasping. "Are you all right? Did you engage the enemy? The enemy appears to be in retreat. I don't know the status of the army. We've been throwing everything we got at 'em, and pulling out all the injured we could out."

Hotohori grimly bent his head down. "We were a diversion, apparently. Nakago plans to take over his country, and was using the offensive here to divert attention away from his own special forces at work in Koutu."

"Bastard!" Tasuki snarled, baring his fangs. "All the people we've lost, just so he can be the guy in charge?!"

"It's worse than that, I'm afraid." Hotohori's eyes bored into Tasuki. "He plans to invade Miaka's world, using Yui as a portal. He plans to control Miaka's world as well."

What came out of Tasuki's mouth was something the sheltered emperor was little familiar with.

Then Tasuki saw the black panther curling up against the emperor's side.

"Ah..." Taking a step back, Tasuki tried to control his heart rate. "Your highness... I don't wanna startle you or anything, but... there's a big panther next to you..."

"Hm?" Hotohori looked down to see the panther looking up at him adoringly while rubbing against his leg. "Oh! I know! Well, this is the good news... He saved my life!"

"Ah." Tasuki was still nervous, watching the giant cat purring against his emperor. "Er, he seems kinda friendly..."

"Of course he is. He's Nuriko." Hotohori beamed, rubbing the cat's ears affectionately.

Tasuki turned to face Kouji, who was waiting a respectful distance back, but could still hear. After they shared a meaningful glance, Tasuki cleared his throat. "Er, your highness, sir, I know that it musta been traumatic and shit to hear that Nuriko died after the fact and all, but the thing is, I was there and WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING??!!?!" Tasuki gaped, horrified, as he watched the emperor bury his hands in the thick fur of the cat's head, which was nuzzling the plate covering the emperor's... crotch.

"He likes it!" Hotohori smiled down at the panther, rolling the cat's ears in his hands. "Don't you? You like it when I rub you there, don't you? Who's a good little Nuri-panther? Hm? Who's a good Nuri-panther? That's right, you are! You are!"

Tasuki and Kouji looked at each other, gulping simultaneously.

Chichiri was in meditation when the emperor and his army returned. He was still shaken by the death of Mitsukake. He made his way to the emperor's counsel chambers, dragging his feet. He hated the idea of telling the emperor another seishi was dead.

Tasuki and Kouji were the only people in the chambers besides the emperor when Chichiri entered. Both bandits were standing against the wall, looking uncomfortable and eyeing each other from time to time, but the emperor was behind his great mahogany desk, so Chichiri ignored his weird friends, and knelt before his ruler.

"Your highness, I regret to inform you that Mitsukake is dead. He gave his life to heal the injured in the clinic. His efforts were not in vain, thank Suzaku. I am pleased to report that there were much fewer casualties today than yesterday." Chichiri was so drained, he didn't really want to get up again ever.

Tasuki swore lightly under his breath, and Hotohori sighed. "Well, it seems to be a day of good and bad news, my friends. Chichiri, Koutu's army's have retreated. The offensive here was a diversion for Nakago's coup in Koutu. Unfortunately, Nakago now plans to take over Miaka's world."

"No!" Chichiri's head shot up abruptly. He had not yet put on his mask, so his single eye was visibly wide with shock. "That's can't be, it can't!"

"I'm afraid so." The young emperor looked his age for the first time since Chichiri had met him, his forehead dipping closer to his folded hands as he spoke. "And, unless you know something we don't, we have no way of warning or reaching Miaka to warn her."

Chichiri slumped. Speaking low while facing the floor, he begged, "What's the good news?"

Hotohori immediately brightened. "Oh! Nuriko's back!"

"What?!" Chichiri jumped to his feet, eyes flashing between the happy emperor and the edgy bandits. "What do you mean?"

Hotohori motioned him over to the other side of the massive desk, where Chichiri was stunned to discover a large panther relaxed, washing his face.

"See?" Hotohori declared cheerfully. "It's Nuriko! He saved my life. Isn't that right, my pretty little Nuri-kitty? Yes, you saved my life! Yes you did, you are so pretty, my little Nuri-kitty, yes you are..."

It would have been comical, watching the emperor scratch the ears of the giant cat, if the situation wasn't so desperate. Clearing his throat delicately, Chichiri offered, "Um, your highness, I don't think you should be petting a wild cat like that, I don't."

"It's ok." Hotohori smiled. "It's Nuriko."

Tasuki shuffled up behind Chichiri, shaking his head. "Kouji and me figure the battle musta driven him nuts, or somethin'. He faced off with Nakago alone... Who knows what the blonde bastard did ta him?"

Chichiri narrowed his eye. There was something about that panther... the way he licked his paws to wash his face, the way he threw back his head and purred when the emperor touched him, the way he seemed to be grinning with his brown-rose eyes...

There was something about his aura...

"Suzaku!" Chichiri cursed, stepping forward with one foot. "It is Nuriko!"

Hotohori sniffed royally. "We know that."

"What the fuck!?!" Tasuki was ready to set the pair of them on fire to get them to make some sense.

"I... I don't understand it, but... His aura, his chi, it's Nuriko!" Chichiri knelt before the giant cat, tentatively reaching out a hand to the closest paw.

Nuriko sniffed, bored, and rolled a little more in Hotohori's hand.

"He died! I fuckin' saw him dead! We both did!" Tasuki held his fists to his side to keep from beating the two of them bloody. Kouji put a hand on his shoulder, either holding him back or lending his support. "We buried him! He's dead!"

"And now he's a kitty." Hotohori sighed happily.

"I don't understand it either, that I don't." Chichiri met Tasuki's wild gaze calmly. "But I can feel him, as I feel you, that I do. Perhaps... because Ashitare was a man-wolf, maybe... I will research this, that I will."

Nuriko growled slightly, brushing his paw up across Hotohori's cascade of brown hair.

"No. Nuri-kitty is right. You need to research Miaka's world. We need to warn Tamahome and her, possibly get there, if we can." Hotohori absently batted at Nuriko's paws, his forehead pinched in his commanding fashion. "That has to be our priority. Miaka could be in danger..."

Tasuki and Chichiri straightened up, and Nuriko licked his chops contentedly.

"I'll see what I can find out, that I will." Chichiri nodded, glad to have some purpose to keep his mind off of Mitsukake...

...and off of the fact the emperor was now swishing his hair over the panther's nose and cooing like a baby.

Tasuki grumbled as they left the chambers, "I still fuckin' say he went nuts..."

Houki sighed as she brushed out her hair. "I know that the battle is far from over, but I thank Suzaku that your highness came home safely today, and that the country is safe again. I had the worst feeling when your highness left this morning that I would be raising our child alone."

Hotohori smiled gently as he leaned over her, kissing the top of her head. "It is by fortune alone that I did survive."

Houki looked up at her husband's eyes in the mirror. Biting her bottom lip, "Are you sure that the panther really is Nuriko?"

"Chichiri agreed that he had Nuriko's chi. He is Nuriko!" Hotohori's eyes blazed, his cheeks warming slightly as he spoke. "I hardly believed it myself, but his eyes...!"

Turning, Houki took Hotohori's hands. "It's a miracle, then."

Hotohori kissed her cheek, his hands holding hers tightly. She blushed as she stood up, closing the distance between them as she rose. Her soft hair fell around her face, accentuating the color in the apples of her cheeks. Leaning forward slightly, she longed to put her hands on his waist, to be bold and take the first step...

Instead, he smiled as he turned to the bed, discarding his robe on the low chair next to the bed.

Houki grinned, and went to her side of the bed, where she would have entered, were there not a giant black cat snuggled up, his wide nose tucked under the pillows.

"Er... your highness? The, um, the cat is in the bed..." She took a horrified step back as the slumbering feline stretched out unconsciously in his sleep, extending the long, dagger-like claws of his front paws.

"Of course," Hotohori said disinterestedly. "He's comfortable there."

"But, surely, my Emperor, you don't expect to share your bed with a panther?" Houki trembled with the effort of containing her voice.

Hotohori frowned. "Houki, he's traveled a very long way. They buried him in the snow, you know! I think the very least we could do is make him comfortable now! After all, he is Nuriko." It was as if he couldn't keep his fingers from raking through the dense, fine hairs of the beautiful coat next to him, the black waves of fur parting easily for his fingers. "He willingly gave his life to defend his country and priestess. And I wasn't even there to help him. He will sleep wherever he pleases."

Her throat constricting painfully, Houki tried merely to keep her balance. "I can't sleep with a panther, your majesty! I would not be able to get a moment's rest."

He observed her compassionately for a moment before smiling. "That's all right, Houki. There's no problem here at all."

She smiled at his words, her heart settling as a pulse of calm throbbed through her whole body.

"The Empress' quarters have been ready, after all, since the wedding night, and now that you are with child, there is no real reason for us to have to share a bed." Hotohori smiled as he led her to the sliding door to the side that parted to reveal the tastefully appointed chambers for the empress. "So you won't have to worry about sharing a bed with a panther."

He kissed her good night on the cheek, and slid the door shut again.

Houki just stared at the door for a full seven minutes before she was able to shuffle to the bed, alone.

Chichiri was unable to find any way of getting them to Miaka's world, or to contact her or Tamahome. The best he could come up with was for them to focus on their friends. Perhaps, maybe, by some chance, there might be a connection between the seishi and their priestess that would allow them to communicate with her.

But with the days slipping away and no indication whether they were getting through to her or not, the remaining seishi of Suzaku had little to occupy their time except the antics of the emperor's new 'pet' panther, and concerns over the emperor's apparent declining mental health.

Hotohori spent his days playing with the panther, who was always by his side, and working with his council to repair the damage the war had caused his country and people. The presence of the panther at the daily meetings was disconcerting, to say the least, but as Nuriko seemed to be completely content to lay at Hotohori's feet and sleep, or bathe himself, there was no cause for the councilors to object.

Chichiri and Tasuki puzzled over the emperor's odd behavior, occasionally trying to comfort his dispirited wife. Chichiri was almost always in the library, researching the possibilities for Nuriko's transformation.

Tasuki and Kouji decided to stay at the palace until things settled down a bit more. Tasuki didn't like imposing on his friend like that, but he knew that Miaka's battles weren't over yet, which meant that his main loyalty was to her, still.

When the voice from the sky declared itself to be Miaka's brother, and that she needed their help, they were all both shocked and relieved. Clutching the ribbon in their joined hands, they all met each other's gaze, silently prepared for the coming battle.

It was hopeless. After all that they had gone through, after all the close friends who had given their lives for her, after all the sacrifice, it was going to end.

Miaka thought that her life was supposed to flash before her eyes right before she died, but as the chunk of building came hurtling towards her, all she could think was how sorry she was that she hadn't been good enough to summon Suzaku and save everyone.

The building crashed into the ground, breaking the cement below and crumbling into pieces on impact. Ten feet from the wreckage, a very confused girl and a snarling panther looked up at Nakago.

Swearing under his breath, the shogun rolled his eyes. Never again would he trust some damn stupid wolf-man with anything important.

While the dust was still settling, Miaka just stood trembling, more than a little unnerved by everything. They had won, yes, but at what cost? So many friends dead, so many people hurt, so much destruction...

Her self-loathing thoughts were interrupted by the deep purring of a large panther rubbing its face against her belly.

Still a little shell-shocked, she rubbed absently at the cat's head, not bothering to worry about where a panther might have come from.

Tamahome was a bit more himself. "How did Chiriko and Mitsukake get here? How did Tasuki, Chichiri, and Hotohori get here? Why is there a panther here?" His whole body ached from the fight, and he could feel his spirit weakening. He wasn't even really sure how he was there, for that matter.

"Yeah!" Miaka's head jerked up. "You guys were..."

"Dead." Chiriko nodded, smiling. "Taiitsukun allowed us to use the bodies of some of the Nyan Nyans, so that we could be here with you in your hour of need."

"Oh." Miaka looked down into the strangely familiar eyes of the panther whose silky fur she was stroking. "And the panther?"

"That's Nuriko." Hotohori smiled broadly as he declared that cat to be their friend. He inched closer to Miaka and the kitty. He could understand that the Nuri-kitty would want to greet their priestess, but he wasn't entirely pleased with the way his kitty was purring for the girl, or the possessive way she was handling his fur.

"Nur... Nuriko?!!?" Miaka's hands stilled as she stared down at the cat, who was now pouting and trying to push his head against her hands, forcing a rub.

"What the hell...?" Tamahome came to sit next to Miaka, looking down at the panther.

Hotohori frowned as Tamahome reached out to touch Nuriko's soft fur. Putting his hand out to brush Tamahome's hand away as he buried his fingers in the black fur, "Nuriko. We haven't figured it out yet, but it seems his encounter with Ashitare has turned him into... well, a panther. He saved my life. Didn't you? Yes you did, you saved my life, you good kitty you..."

Miaka frowned as Hotohori went down to his knees to play with the kitty. "Well... I guess... that's good, right? He's not dead, exactly, and he saved you..."

"Rrowr." Nuriko sat partially up, brushing his head against Miaka's chin, pointing her face towards Tamahome. "Rrowr!"

Chuckling gently, Hotohori translated. "I think he feels that it is time for your final wish, Miaka-chan. And I think he is suggesting, and I must say that I agree, that you should wish to be with Tamahome."

Nuriko expressed his pleasure with Hotohori by snuggling up against the man's lower abdomen.

Miaka and the rest of the seishi immediately chose to believe that they didn't just see that, nor did they see Hotohori's pleased smile as he ruffled Nuriko's ears.

Miaka decided that the best way to ignore the emperor's bizarre behavior was to do what the panther suggested. She went over to Tamahome, looking up into his eyes, smiling at the wisps of hair that just refused to stay out of his face. For a moment, she thought about it, spending the rest of her life with him, having his children, growing old together...

Behind them, Tokyo was steaming. She wondered how many people had died today, how many people had lost their homes or places of business, how many people had been injured...

Tamahome watched the girl he loved more than anything as her eyes drifted from wondering admiration to sorrow to determination.

Smiling, he leaned down, resting his forehead on hers. Whispering, "Just... one moment, please... one last moment for it to be just about you and me..."

Sighing, Miaka griped his hands in hers, and let the moment live.

In the aftermath of Miaka's wish, Hotohori and his fellow surviving seishi returned to their almost boringly tranquil home. The emperor of Koutu's death had left a gap that was surprisingly peacefully filled; the emperor had a son whose mother had reared him to be a fair and just man.

With no more enemies, and peace in all four lands, all that was left was the reconstruction of their kingdom. Chichiri used the lull to dedicate himself to the search for the answer to Nuriko's sudden kitty-ness. Tasuki asked Kouji to take their men back to the mountains, as he wanted to stay close for a little longer. He was still convinced that the emperor was crazy, and he wanted to be close in case there was any trouble.

Hotohori had not forgotten the terrible poverty that Tamahome's family had lived in, and he used the reconstruction of his land as an opportunity to reach out to the people, and make the distribution of wealth fairer for all his people. The rich in his land would have complained, but after the great sacrifices Hotohori, his priestess, and his fellow seishi had made in the name of Suzaku and Konan, no one felt they were in a position to argue with him.

In fact, as beloved as Hotohori was before, now he was revered by his people, who all thought that their young and beautiful emperor was somehow personally responsible for the success in calling forth Suzaku. It was the considered opinion of the people that it was Hotohori's leadership that allowed the priestess to succeed in the face of Koutu's interference.

Tasuki grumbled about the emperor's single-handed victory, but in the time after their victory, everyone was so subdued, that he eventually lost interest in his complaints.

Hotohori found himself at the precipice of his life. Ever since he could remember, he was told that his life was directed by Suzaku, for the purpose of bringing peace to his land. He had studied and waited and prepared, all for the purpose of bringing peace and prosperity to Konan. He had dreamed of winning the heart of the priestess, but discovered that the reward of friendship, to Miaka and all the seishi, was just as satisfying.

He had never imagined living past the arrival of his god.

Houki was pregnant, something that gave him not only a measure of satisfaction and pride. Yet, it wasn't his own manliness that made his eyes brighten at the sight of his wife, but the ancestral memory of all the rulers before him, and the knowledge that he and his wife were the conduits of the future.

So, his melancholy took him by surprise. He had survived the trials and tests of Suzaku, he had a child coming, and his kingdom was peaceful. He should know better than to ask for anything more. However, he couldn't help but feel as if he had something missing inside of him.

Nuri-kitty's constant presence by his side kept him smiling and working. He could bear the endless meetings with advisors and councilors, the audiences with local merchants and people in need, and the diplomatic functions he was required to attend, as long as his loyal panther was at his side or feet.

Of course, having a panther at his feet, yawning and displaying his yellow, elegant fangs, made all the negotiations with the new representatives of Koutu go much more smoothly than anyone could have expected.

Sitting under a willow tree by the calm waters of one of the ponds in his palace, Hotohori tried to find an answer to his ennui as he stroked Nuriko's soft fur.

"Why am I so morose? Miaka is safe, the kingdoms are at peace... Why can I not enjoy this?" Hotohori let his hands slip down the soft slope of Nuriko's spine. "I have a wife, and a child coming... Why can I not be satisfied?"

Nuriko's lazy brown-rose eyes blinked up at him sympathetically, reaching up to brush Hotohori's cheek playfully.

Hotohori smiled down at him. "I... I miss your voice, my friend... You know, I think you were the first person to really be my friend. I suppose Miaka... But she loved Tamahome all along, didn't she? Yes, I suppose that she did..."

Rolling a little, Nuriko rubbed his face against Hotohori's leg, purring slightly for comfort.

"Perhaps I miss her? Miaka was all that we cared about for so long..." Hotohori chewed on the words, wondering about what they might mean. "But... that isn't quite right. I'm happy for her, that she is home, with her brother and her friend... And who knows? She and Tamahome gave up everything for Suzaku's sake. Our god would not abandon them, would he? Perhaps the god of passion and love has arranged things to assure their happiness.

"So. It isn't Miaka." Hotohori rubbed along Nuriko's jaw, his thoughts weaving webs around him. "Perhaps I miss the adventure, the sense of purpose the journey gave me...?"

Nuriko tried to murmur, but it came out as a nasal little growl.

Grinning down at his panther, "I do miss your voice, Nuriko. Isn't that strange? I can't even remember anything you've ever said to me... I remember the way you used to sing when you bathed while we were on the road, searching for the rest of the seishi. You remember when we had found Tasuki and Mitsukake? And you and Tasuki traded bawdy songs as we walked, to help cheer us up?"

Nuriko sniffed, licking his paws clean haughtily.

Hotohori chuckled. "You laughed so much, even Mitsukake smiled!" Hotohori could see the scene perfectly. The road was dusty and long, and they had been walking for over a day without even knowing if they were walking in the right direction. To top it all off, dark clouds were gathering overhead, and they had yet to come across anything that might resemble a shelter. Yet, despite all of that, it was a memory that made Hotohori grin. Nuriko's musical laughs, occasionally speckled with a deep belly laugh from the fey seishi, had made the day seem like it was passing quickly.

The more Hotohori thought about it, he could remember one particular exchange quite clearly. They were resting, drinking some water, when Tasuki had made a rather... inappropriate allusion. Miaka had blinked, tugging on Nuriko's sleeve asking him to explain, as Tasuki elbowed Hotohori familiarly, insinuating that men like them 'knew.' Even after his wedding night, Hotohori was pretty sure that he didn't 'know' what it was that Tasuki was talking about.

Nuriko had stammered and blushed, his porcelain cheeks stained as if they were parchment with ink spilled across it. Mitsukake just grinned to himself, staying out of the way of all the ruckus. In the middle of it all, Nuriko's eyes met his, and for a moment, it was as if they could speak to each other without words, without expression. In each other's eyes, everything was understood.

Sighing, Hotohori buried his fingers in the fur of Nuriko's belly. It was something that had warmed his heart at the time, bringing a smile to his face. He had felt like he was part of group in those moments, as if everything that had kept him isolated all his life had just... evaporated.

He had forgotten about that, almost right after the moment had passed. He attributed his sense of belonging to Miaka, to her casual caring for all the people around her.

Nuriko purred, his wide pink tongue lolling out of his mouth in bliss.

He thought about when he first looked into the panther's eyes, and realized that it was Nuriko. He remembered feeling as if someone had released a vice that had been constraining his whole being, body and soul. Seeing Miaka again hadn't had the same effect on him as knowing that his friend was still alive.

Hotohori's smiled widened as he really got into the belly rub, pushing his fingers through the fur until Nuriko purred loudly enough to make little ripples in the water. He still didn't understand his melancholy, but it didn't seem to matter as much right now.

"Hotohori-sama!" Chichiri's voice shattered the quiet of the afternoon. He was so obviously grinning underneath his mask, it made him look a little like a clown. "Hotohori-sama, I found it!"

Hotohori didn't stop rubbing Nuri-kitty's belly as he smiled at Chichiri. "Yes, my friend? What have you found?"

To his surprise, Chichiri stopped abruptly, and took a step back, his face falling behind his mask. "Er... Hotohori-sama? You know that his belly is a little higher up, that it is?"

Hotohori frowned, watching his hands running over the black silk of Nuriko's fur. "He likes it when I rub him here the best."

Tasuki caught up to Chichiri, grumbling under his breath. Seeing the emperor and his hand, he just rolled his eyes. "So what's the fuckin' deal, Chichiri? I was in the middle of my afternoon nap!"

"I found it, that I did!" Chichiri held up a scroll, ignoring Hotohori's hands. "Ashitare must have been possessed by a dog demon. It would have been a willing possession, to have been as permanent as it was, that it would. I found it in this scroll outlining how were-beasts were created."

Tasuki frowned, scratching the top of his head and his back. "Were-beasts? Ya mean, like werewolves? I thought they came from a scratch from another werewolf."

"That's right," Chichiri replied happily. "But there's more to it, that there is. You see, first generation were-beasts are made from a fatal wound from a person possessed by an animal demon. Second generation were-beasts are made from wounds from first generation were-beasts, that they are. And the animal form that they take is actually from the animal spirit that guides them. So, Nuriko's animal spirit must have been a panther, that it did!"

Hotohori looked from his panther to Chichiri. "But I thought that were-beasts were only animals during the full moon."

Chichiri's grin faded. "It's true, that it is, that were-beasts are controlled by the moon, and that the full moon has power over it, but I couldn't find anything that would describe exactly how it works, that I didn't."

"Too bad Chiriko is dead." Tasuki sighed, shuffling his feet. "That kid coulda figured it out for us."

Hotohori frowned, playing with Nuri-kitty's ears. "Well, at least we know what happened now."

All eye were fixed on Nuriko, whose brown rose eyes blinked in understanding.

Knowing was always half the battle.

Tasuki stumbled back into the palace grounds, grumbling about the damn sun and what the hell kind of day started so early, and stupid taverns that closed at sunrise, and why did his room in the palace have to be so damn far away from the tavern anyway?

His grumbling only stopped when he tripped over something on the lawn.

Groaning, he tried to turn over, finding himself tangled up in something warm, soft, and playfully growling.

"Tasuki." Hotohori's grim voice above him caused his bleary eyes to look up to the too bright sky. "Get off my Nuriko."

Turning, Tasuki found himself looking into the amused brown-rose eyes of a panther.

Then Hotohori's words hit him. Still drunk, tired, a little hung over, and more than a little sick of the wacky adventures of the Crazy Emperor Panther Lover.

"Now look here, Hotohorohotohohohiti-sama." Tasuki flung his leg around, only to find himself even more entangled. At the amused kitty with befuddled eyes, Tasuki continued to talk as he unsuccessfully tried to pull his limbs in order. "I dunno where you get off, man, and I don't wanna know, with the way you've been talkin', but man! Get a grip! It's a cat! He's not your Nuriko! Man, you know, me 'n' Nuri-chan were better friends than you guys were... I mean, hell man, he was always tryin' to get your attention and shit, and you just took 'im fer granted. Shit, I was the one who was always there fer him and stuff. But now all of a sudden, you get to be the one who sleeps with the cat and shit, man, yer married and stuff. Shit." Tasuki slumped, suddenly tired of fighting with his body.

Nuriko apparently was done with the game he was playing with Tasuki, because with one regal slither, he extricated himself from Tasuki. Pulling himself up to a sitting position, he butted his head under Tasuki's chin until the other seishi was sitting up straight as well. Nuzzling Tasuki gently, he let his pink tongue slip out to lap at Tasuki's face.

Tasuki couldn't help grinning and playing with the cat in response, batting his face away as he pet his shoulder. Nuriko rubbed his head against Tasuki's chin, purring lightly. He pulled back, meeting Tasuki's wet eyes for a moment before he rather deliberately turned around and walked towards Hotohori, falling to the his side when he got halfway between the men. Satisfied that he had made his point, Nuriko promptly began to groom himself, starting with the space between his toes, his white claws sticking out from his black toes.

Grunting, Tasuki stood up. "All right, all right, I fuckin' get it. Fuckin' 'ey, even as a damn cat he's lecturin' me. At least he's not whacking me around anymore, that got pretty fuckin' old pretty fuckin' fast..." Tasuki continued to grumble as he got to his feet and resumed his amble to his room.

Hotohori watched him go with a heavy heart. With a sigh, he knelt down next to Nuriko, putting his hands out to rub the cat's belly. "You are my Nuriko, aren't you?" The kitty purred in response, and Hotohori rubbed his nose into the soft pelt at Nuriko's neck. "Yes, you are my Nuriko... Tasuki was just drunk. He's not a better friend for you than I am. Is he?"

Nuriko licked Hotohori's cheek, his eyes sparkling.

"Thank you, my friend." Hotohori smiled at the panther. "I needed that."

Hotohori sighed softly as he shifted yet again. The moon was so bright, it was like his room was brightly lit; the silver light pouring in the windows made sleep nearly impossible. If he could manage to ignore the light long enough to get some rest, the heat was going to undo him. He had shed everything but his pants, but even that felt sticky and hot to him.

Sighing yet again, he did the only thing he could think of to do. He rolled over to wrap himself against the body of his friend.

If he couldn't sleep, perhaps the rhythmic movements of his friend's soft body might lull him to sleep.

Slipping his arm over Nuriko's body, he shifted his body until he was right up against Nuriko's back. Their bodies fit together like a key in a lock, Nuriko's smooth back against Hotohori's chest, and Nuriko's trim waist and legs against his lap. He buried his face in Nuriko's hair, smiling against the locks as he breathed in the musky floral fragrance that was only associated with Nuriko. He ran his hand up and down Nuriko's chest, amazed at how smooth and sleek his body was. Nuriko giggled in his sleep, shifting against Hotohori as the emperor's hand brushed against his nipples. Hotohori found himself heating up in a much more pleasant way as Nuriko's small, round ass rubbed against his groin.

Hotohori's eyes blinked open as he slammed into consciousness. Smooth?

Bathed in the light of the near-full moon, Nuriko slept, his smooth round cheeks brightened by the sweet smile of his lips, his hands tucked under his cheek, and his purple hair falling over his eyes.

"Nuriko!" Hotohori's heart pounded in his chest, a staccato rhythm that pumped the blood through his body vigorously. "Nuriko! You're a boy!"

Nuriko's eyes cracked open to slits, as he obviously wasn't pleased about being woken up for such old news. "Mrrow?" His human throat made the kittenish noises with much less ease than his panther throat was used to, and the resulting lack of vibrations in his chest made him blink a few time. Leaning up in the bed just a little, he smiled up at Hotohori. "Your highness?"

"You're a boy!" Hotohori grabbed Nuriko's shoulders, hefting him up for a bear hug.

Nuriko blushed, but he didn't hesitate to bury his face in his emperor's neck, or to wrap his arms around Hotohori, clinging to him. "Well, technically, Hotohori-sama, I was a boy panther, too."

"And you're naked!" Hotohori's hand slipped down to Nuriko's bare hip, his eyes covering the rest of the distance to Nuriko's feet slowly.

"Ah. Yes I am. Do you mind?" Nuriko's thoughts were still blearily panther-ish. Some part of his head was screaming that he needed to jump out of the bed, cover himself, and run off. The rest of his head was too comfortable to care about moving.

"No." Hotohori's hand moved a little on Nuriko's hip, squeezing slightly to remind himself that it was really Nuriko, and not a Nuri-kitty anymore. "I don't mind at all."

Nuriko would have made some sort of comment to probe how much Hotohori really didn't mind his nudity, when he saw the tiny glint of a silvery tear forming in Hotohori's eye. Amazed, he raised a finger to brush the tear away.

Seeing his friend's hand coming to his face, Hotohori laughed as he realized why Nuriko was going to touch him. "I just... didn't think that I would ever see you again!"

Nuriko pulled away enough so that he could meet Hotohori's eyes. Their faces were so close that their noses were brushing against each other. Hotohori couldn't remember the last time he had ever been so intimate with anyone. The sight of Nuriko's brown rose eyes framed in lilac lashes, accented by that tiny beauty mark, above his adorable button nose, and his small, round mouth, washed the emperor over in a cooling sense of peace.

"I've missed you, Nuriko." It was only a whisper, but they were close enough to kiss, so any louder would have seemed inappropriate.

Nuriko brought his hand up to brush aside the brown strands of hair that insisted in falling over Hotohori's cheek. He had to remember to breathe. It had never once occurred to him that he would actually be able to touch Hotohori. "It's so good to be home."

Hotohori smiled, pulling his arms a little tighter around Nuriko's waist. It was suddenly impossible to be too close to Nuriko, it wasn't possible for their skin to touch too much or for there to be too little separation between them. In fact, Hotohori was hazily of the opinion that there should be no separation between their bodies at all. "Yes, it is."

Hotohori placed his lips on Nuriko's forehead, running his hands up and down Nuriko's flanks. Nuriko sighed, the waft of hot air from Nuriko's lungs hitting Hotohori's neck like a revelation. Hotohori rubbed his nose through Nuriko's bangs, dizzy with the absolute wonder of being able to rub his nose in Nuriko's bangs.

Nuriko gripped Hotohori as tightly as he could, feeling like this might be a dream, and at any moment, he might wake up, and he might not be in Hotohori's arms again.

"Your hair is short." Hotohori's voice was dreamy and only a little surprised.

"I cut it in Hokkan." Nuriko smiled. "I wanted to be more... manly."

Grinning, Hotohori pulled Nuriko rather abruptly closer, one hand shifting down to his rear to grind his groin against Nuriko's. "You feel pretty manly to me." Shrugging, Hotohori released Nuriko, grinning wickedly.

Nuriko's eyes nearly popped out of his head. He had never seen Hotohori grin wickedly before. "So do you, your highness!"

Hotohori laughed, a deep chuckle that seemed to make his chest lighten. Putting his hands on either side of Nuriko's face, he sighed. "I have missed you, Nuriko."

Nuriko put his hands on Hotohori's wrists, concentrating on taking in air and letting it out. If this was a dream, he was going to enjoy every second of it. "I missed you too, Hotohori-sama." Their foreheads dipped together, touching lightly. "Oh!" Nuriko's head jerked up, bumping Hotohori violently. "I almost forgot!" He slapped Hotohori's shoulder as hard as he could.

"Hey!" The emperor only managed to remain on the bed through sheer force of will. "What was that for?"

Nuriko glared at him, puffing himself up. "What were you thinking, charging into Nakago like that? You could have gotten killed!"

Hotohori wanted to smile, because really, Nuriko was so damn cute when he was mad like that. Wanting to stay in one piece, he refrained from saying anything. "I..." For the first time, he really thought about what he had done. Why had he charged into Nakago like that? It was suicide. But... he knew that, at the time, and he hadn't cared at all. "I'm sorry." It sounded sheepish to his own vain ears, but there was nothing else he could say.

"Hmph!" Nuriko crossed his arms over his chest, looking as if he were pouting and glaring at the same time. "You certainly are! Don't ever do anything like that again!"

The very idea of dying when Nuriko was here to grieve for him made his heart turn to ice. With honest determination, Hotohori nodded, "I promise you, Nuriko. No more suicide runs."

The word suicide caused Nuriko to shiver, unable to bear the thought of his beloved emperor and death.

"Are you sleepy?" Hotohori found that, excited as he was, the night of tossing and turning had left him tired. Plus, the knowledge that he would have Nuriko to cling to as he slept assured him that he would have a good night's sleep.

Nuriko looked startled, biting his lip as he considered the thought. "Er... I suppose so. Perhaps I should...?"

Before he could finish the thought, Hotohori put his arm around his shoulder, and drew him down to the bed. "Sleep, then."

They curled up together, both grinning like children at a sleepover with their best friend in the universe.

Chichiri sighed into his bowl of rice. Tasuki was, once again, hung over, and was, once again, drooling all over his shoulder as he tried to stay conscious. The young monk had no idea why Hotohori had insisted that they attend breakfast this morning, but he wished that he had had the foresight to sit on the opposite side of the table as Tasuki.

"Ah, Tasuki, why don't you try to eat something? It would do you some good, that it would." Chichiri pushed the bowl of rice closer to his friend, hoping that it might tempt him.

"Grphmphffingtkn." Tasuki's mouth smacked open and closed. "Chiri, man, yer moving too much, hold still willya?"

A soft, musical giggle wafted into the room. "Come now, Chichiri-san, can't you be more considerate of your friends? Honestly, some people are so selfish..."

Both men instantly jumped to their feet. There was a moment when no one could move, and then suddenly, Tasuki whooped, and jumped over the table, gathering Nuriko in his arms in a fierce bear hug.

"Nuriko! Nuriko, man..." Tasuki buried his head in Nuriko's shoulder, trying to hide his tears. "I'm sorry! Man, I'm so sorry! Man, I thought we'd never see you again... Man!"

Chichiri pulled his mask off, his own real smile hindered by the mask's boundary. "Nuriko... It's good to see you again."

Nuriko smiled, his arms tight around Tasuki. "It's good to see you too, Chichiri. Too bad... there's no one else to greet... But I'm glad that we can all be together, at least." Nuriko's warm brown-rose eyes shone with warmth. His shaggy purple hair framed his face, his smile and beauty mark setting off his features perfectly.

Chichiri was sure that he had never seen such a lovely sight before.

"Sorry that we took so long, but Hotohori-sama and I had trouble finding something I could wear. I certainly can't borrow and of his clothes!" Nuriko grinned, his eyes closing as he tilted his head to the side.

A distinct clearing of the throat alerted Chichiri to the presence of the emperor in the door behind Nuriko. The regal young man was eyeing Tasuki with a deadly intensity. "We had to call the royal tailor to stitch something together quickly. Fortunately, he still had Nuriko's measurements. Tasuki, perhaps we should all sit down now...?"

"Eh, what do you think, fang-boy? Hungry? A long night of drinking isn't complete until you can have a nice big meal..." Nuriko kindly lifted Tasuki's head off of his shoulder.

Tasuki's bleary eyes fell into Nuriko's. "Nuriko! I'm sorry! Please... forgive us!" His large hands came up to cup Nuriko's cheek, his rough thumb rubbing against the smooth contour of Nuriko's cheekbone.

Nuriko smiled, leaning into the embrace. "What should I forgive you for, Gen-chan?" His voice was light and sweet.

"We... we left you alone! We... let you die! And, and then... we buried you in the fucking snow, and you... you... weren't dead! I'm sorry!" Tasuki flung his arms around Nuriko's thin body, and held him close.

"Gen-chan..." Nuriko had to push aside the memory of waking up in the frozen darkness, of clawing his way out of the snow... "It isn't important, now, is it? We're here together... we're here together, Gen-chan." Nuriko kissed Tasuki's cheek softly. "We're here together. I'm sorry that you had to grieve for me... I never wanted to cause anyone any pain."

"Nuriko." Tasuki's voice was deep and rumbled in his chest, tickling Nuriko as he spoke. "Man... It is good to see you, man."

The emperor's arm around Nuriko's waist drew the young man away from Tasuki. "Yes, we are all happy that Nuriko is back. And now we know more about what had happened to him. Last night was the night before the full moon. And last night, Nuriko changed back into a boy." Hotohori had escorted Nuriko to a seat at the right of the head of the table, at his own right hand.

Chichiri and Tasuki exchanged a glance.

"So, that means the legends have it backwards, that they do. A werepanther, in this case, is a panther for the whole month, except during the full moon, that he is." Chichiri smiled as he dished out some of Nuriko's favorites.

Nuriko accepted the plate with a smile. "Apparently. Pretty wild, huh? It's strange, but... I still sort of think like a kitty." He laughed, his eyes sparkling. "I've gotten quite addicted to belly rubs!"

Tasuki and Chichiri blushed for Hotohori, but the young emperor just smiled benignly. "We will take that as a compliment for our imperial talents."

Nuriko wandered around the gardens, finding himself sauntering as if he were still in panther form. It had taken a plea for a need to use the facilities.

Not that he really wanted to get away. He hadn't really seen Chichiri, Tasuki, or Hotohori since he had... well, since he had died.

Yet, he found that he thought differently when he was a cat than when he was a human. When he was a panther, he never thought about his own death, or the deaths of his friends. It wasn't like he wasn't aware of it, he simply accepted death as part of life in a way that he found he couldn't when he was human. He had stolen away to a quiet corner of the garden to reflect and pray for Chiriko, Mitsukake, and Tamahome. He wasn't used to prayer, but he felt like he was being disrespectful to not at least offer a few simple prayers for his fellow seishi.

He also found himself missing Miaka. He hadn't gotten to say goodbye to the little bubblehead.

Never having been one to wallow in grief or sorrow, Nuriko pulled himself out of his mood by whistling a soft tune. It was something his mother used to whistle as she worked in their family shop, measuring and cutting the cloth with the song to keep the time. A simple tune, it never failed to lift his spirits just a little. He could remember sitting on the floor, watching his father with the customers, playing with Kourin as his mother worked with the cloth. His father's employees would be in the back, yelling and laughing as they sewed and talked to the merchants.

He had almost completed his conversion to a cheerful mood, when he heard another whistle harmonizing with his own song. Turning to the sound, he smiled immediately.

"My empress!" Bowing low, the young werepanther showed his respect for his ruler. "It is with indescribable pleasure that I greet you, your highness!"

Houki had spied Nuriko returning from the gardens, and she had planned to confront him. It had taken her a moment to harden her heart against her former fellow harem girl. The Lady Kourin had always been cold and distant from the rest of the seraglio, but Houki had been the sole member of the harem to whom Kourin had shown any respect or kindness. To be favored by the loveliest of all the girls in the harem gave Houki a measure of status, and when that person was revealed to be a seishi, chosen by Suzaku himself, Nuriko's fame and Houki's reflected glory only became greater.

So, it took some effort for the young empress to remind herself that this boy, who had given his life for her country, was the same person who had come between her and her husband.

All of that got shredded as soon as she heard Nuriko's greeting.

Blushing like a schoolgirl, Houki stammered and stuttered, until she was finally able to bid Nuriko to rise and meet her eye to eye. She found herself overcome by emotions she didn't know she had. Nuriko was just as beautiful and fine as he ever was, but there was an added dimension of masculinity to his appearance, although Houki would be hard pressed to pinpoint why. Perhaps it was his short-cropped hair, or the clothes he wore, or the way his face was scrubbed clean. More likely, it was the confidence with which he carried himself, as if he were beholden to no one.

Houki was suddenly reminded of when she, and the rest of the harem, had been informed of his death. She remembered the gloom that had captured the palace when they had all learned that Nuriko was not returning from Hokkan with the priestess.

One moment, she was remembering sitting under the willow tree in the seraglio's courtyard to grieve, and then next she had Nuriko's slim frame in her arms, clutching him tight as she tangibly reminded herself that he was alive, that his heart was beating in his chest, and that air was coming in and out of his mouth.

"Your... your majesty?" Nuriko returned the hug a bit reluctantly, still harboring some old body shyness. He didn't mind being close to his friends, and often sought and reveled in physical contact, but he couldn't shake that remnant of fear of rejection that he had been shrouded in for most of his life.

Houki shook herself, his soft voice tearing down the last of her resolve. For good or for ill, she would have to accept his presence in her life, and in her husband's life, as it was. "Please, Nuriko-kun, don't call me that. I'm still Houki, aren't I?"

Blushing, "I would not presume, your... Houki-sama." He placed his hand on her cheek, beaming at her with pure joy. "I'm so glad that Hotohori-sama had the good sense to marry you. I can't tell you how happy I am for you!"

"Really?" Houki couldn't keep from expressing her shock. "I would have thought you would be jealous."

Nuriko's bright laughter shocked the little birds twittering in the trees. "Dead men can't be jealous of the living, Houki-sama. I am glad, that the emperor found a woman to love him, and to share his life and his crown with. He was... well, I think that he was very lonely before he wed you, Houki-sama."

And even though she wanted to scream and tear her hair and cry out that it was only when Nuriko returned, as a panther no less, that the emperor had shown any signs of being content. She wanted to rail that all the women in the seraglio clucked away like hens in a coop that Houki was only selected because of the resemblance she bore to the emperor's elicit choice. She wanted to moan that everyone in the court made snide comments behind closed doors suggesting that the emperor's choice of bride was more of an indictment of his 'character' than his lack of interest in the seraglio had been.

Instead, she blushed, and thanked Nuriko.

She imposed upon him for the favor of his company at lunch, during which she was dazzled by the alteration in Nuriko since the last time she had seen him.

Whereas the Lady Kourin had been cold, with a biting wit, Nuriko was warm, with a rich, kind sense of humor. Whereas the Lady Kourin had been the very picture of propriety and refinement, Nuriko was approachable and casual in his demeanor. Whereas the Lady Kourin had been etched with sadness, Nuriko's smiles were as genuine as sunshine.

Nuriko was finishing a rather hilarious story about the priestess of Suzaku, and her rather unbelievable appetite, when Houki reached across the table and took his hand.

Blushing, Nuriko stammered until he was no longer able to continue with what he was saying. "Houki-sama? Are you all right?"

Surprised, "Of course I am, Nuriko-kun. Why do you ask?"

Nuriko looked down at their hands, still joined. "I don't know. I suppose... Well, you seem to be more... affectionate than I remember."

"And you, my friend, are more lovable than I remember. No wonder my emperor likes to share his bed with you." Houki didn't even think about the words before she said them; they were simply what she was thinking, about how nice it was to be near such a person, and how it would be nice to cuddle up to such a spirit when it was in a furry body and sleep.

But Nuriko immediately pulled his hand away and fell on his knees, frightened. "My empress, please, forgive my interference! But please, don't blame me for your slight! I wasn't myself when it happened!"

She arched her eyebrow delicately. "Are you suggesting that the emperor is to blame for the slight?"

Nuriko suddenly wished he had his panther's body's skill at slipping into the shadows and disappearing. "Oh, Houki-sama, forgive me, please, I'm sorry..."

She gently placed her hands under his elbows, and lifted him up. Placing a kiss on his forehead, she smiled at him. "Please, Nuriko, it is I who must ask for forgiveness. I didn't mean anything by what I said... And as for the slight... Well, I do happen to think that the emperor is to blame, though Suzaku take me if I ever say so aloud!" She winked at him, still smiling. "I... I am not bothered by it, anymore." Shrugging, "At first, it was a bit of a shock."

"I'll bet!" Nuriko shook his head. "I do remember that first night, although I... think differently as a kitty, so it... is hard to think of it now, as a human. But I remember thinking, Hotohori-sama needs to learn a few things about women..."

Laughing, Houki rested her forehead on Nuriko's shoulder. "Ah, well. What is done is done. When the emperor proposed to me... It was less a romantic gesture than it was a practical gesture. Does that sound bad? He was so kind to me, and he confided in me. It was... an act of friendship. It is a friendship I value most highly, higher than I value any other.

"And we are going to have a baby together." Houki's cheeks flushed with pleasure. "Sometimes at night... I just... put my hand on my stomach, and think about it. I really am the most blessed person in all of Konan!"

"You deserve to be." Nuriko's eyes were lit from behind. "I know... he cares a great deal for you Houki-sama. He loves you, and you have given him everything he has ever wanted. Friendship, understanding, trust, and family."

She smiled into his eyes, and nodded. "I can't really believe it... All the time that we were in the seraglio together, and I always thought that it would be you, Nuriko-kun. You were always the most elegant of all of us."

Nuriko burst into laughter. "Oh, but Houki-sama, there are some very important ways in which I would fail my emperor would I to be his bride." He tentatively reached out until his palm was flat on his belly. "I am not equipped to give him what he needs, I'm afraid."

She watched him for a moment, considering. "Perhaps, Nuriko-kun, but perhaps... perhaps you are the only person 'equipped' to give him what he really needs."

Nuriko only blushed in response. Stumbling over the words, he merely reached out and pulled Houki into his arms. Whispering into her ear, he fervently promised her, "I am no obstacle between you, Houki. I loved him selfishly for years, wanting him for myself when I was inadequate to the task of being his empress. I... have learned to love him selflessly, now, and I would rather die again and again than be the instrument of my emperor's downfall."

Houki gripped the cloth covering his body between her fingers, swallowing the lump in her throat to keep from crying.

She probably would have lost the battle with her tears if Tasuki hadn't finally tracked Nuriko down at just that moment.

"Oi! Nuriko-man! Yer a guy for a day, and you're already making time with the girls?!!? Be careful, man, cuz Hotohori already has a claim on that one!" Tasuki leaned against the doorframe, grinning like a wolf watching a limping deer fall behind his herd.

Nuriko calmly responded by throwing a teapot at Tasuki. At full strength.

It wasn't long before the two boys were rolling around on the floor, wrestling playfully for the honor of the teapot.

Houki just sighed and shook her head. She had never seen Nuriko act like one of the boys before, but Tasuki did seem to have a talent to bring out the worst in people.

It was well past midnight, and yet the four seishi were still crowded in Hotohori's rooms. There was a frantic energy in their companionship, as all were aware that Nuriko would only be a boy for another day. When the moon rose the next night, he would turn back into the werepanther.

They had told Nuriko all about their various activities since he had died, and Nuriko told them about being a panther, and finding his way home. They played games, and Hotohori read some poetry from the court poet, and Chichiri told them fables that he had learned in his travels, and Tasuki taught Nuriko how to juggle (Hotohori assured Nuriko that his servants could repair the hole in the ceiling Nuriko's enthusiastic attempts to keep the jars in the air).

Unfortunately, it didn't matter how much they wanted to stay awake and enjoy each other's company, their bodies would not let them stay up all night. Nuriko's small head bowed first, causing him to cuddle up against a surprisingly willing Hotohori. Chichiri found himself yawning embarrassingly loudly. Even Tasuki, who had been the most adamant that they all stay together for as long as they could, was finding it harder and harder to think up songs to sing, or things to tell Nuriko.

Hotohori cleared his throat in his particular regal manner, opening all eyes and bringing them up to meet his own. "I think this evening has ended on us."

Chichiri smiled ruefully. "I think you are right, that you are. Well, we have all day tomorrow, that we do, and next month too."

Tasuki grumbled as he got to his feet. "You guys are fuckin' lightweights... If we coulda had a coupla bottles of sake, we coulda stayed up longer... C'mon, Nuri-chan. Yer old room has been taken over by some maids of the empress, but you can sack out on my couch. It's roomy."

Hotohori frowned, pulling Nuriko closer to himself before Nuriko could even think to take Tasuki's outstretched hand. Still bristling from Tasuki's familiar nickname for his Nuriko, Hotohori responded coldly, "That won't be necessary, Tasuki. Nuriko has a place in my room."

Chichiri and Tasuki stared at Hotohori as if he had just sprouted another head. Nuriko blushed, suddenly feeling very self-conscious.

"Er... Hotohori-sama... Perhaps... perhaps it would be better..." Nuriko could feel the words sticking in his throat, begging not to have to go out, but his heart couldn't rule his head. He had promised Houki that he would love Hotohori selflessly, and so he had to say it. "After all, I'm not a kitty now, and perhaps it might look..."

"You can sleep here. We should all retire. After all, there's only one more day... I think we should go for a ride. How does that sound? We can have a private picnic in the woods." Hotohori smiled happily at the three befuddled seishi, totally oblivious to their shock.

Tasuki shrugged. "Yer business, I suppose. Don't drag me outta bed too fuckin' early, ok?"

Chichiri watched Tasuki go, his expression hidden. He turned to look at Nuriko. Hotohori was standing possessively close to the fey young man, seemingly unconcerned that his eyes were lowered and he appeared to be cowed. Smiling, he went to Nuriko and pulled him away from Hotohori and into a hug. "It is very good to have you among us again, that it is."

Nuriko smiled, returning the hug. "It's good to see you, too, Chichiri. You know... you are much more handsome without the mask."

Chichiri blushed. Since Nuriko had reappeared in human form, he had abandoned his mask so that he could show his true happiness. He had actually forgotten that the mask was no longer there, but now he wished he could hide his face. "Ah... thank you, I suppose. Good night, Nuriko. Your highness."

Nuriko smiled, kissing Chichiri's cheek. "'Night, Chichiri!"

Hotohori eyed the monk coolly, not having missed the small slight. When Chichiri was gone, Hotohori turned back, still a little miffed. "Let's go to bed. It's been a long night."

He was halfway to the bedchamber when he realized that Nuriko hadn't followed.


Hotohori found his friend staring at the floor. "Eh... Hotohori-sama... I can sleep on this couch. I'm small, and it's comfortable. I don't want to besmirch your reputation..."

Raising Nuriko's delicate chin with his finger, Hotohori smiled down into Nuriko's brown-rose eyes. "I've become accustomed to your warmth. Please. Come to bed with me."

Even if Nuriko had wanted to, he couldn't have resisted that.

Boushin was born three days before Nuriko would return to human form. Houki was left weak from the long delivery, and it was nearly a day and a half after her son was born that she held him in her arm for the first time.

Hotohori would stare at the infant, unable to comprehend that this child was his. He was afraid to hold the baby, worried about causing possible harm, and left his son's care to the nursemaids, though he was never very far.

Nuriko had no reservations. The sleek panther stayed close to Boushin, never letting the infant get more than a pace away from him. He would sleep curled up around Boushin's bassinette, and he would wind himself around the feet of the nursemaids as they fed and cared for the young emperor-to-be.

Tasuki and Chichiri also took turns holding the baby. Tasuki's eyes were as wide as platters as he gingerly tucked Boushin in his arms. He whispered in a soft voice, telling the baby all about the stories he would one day tell him about his 'old man.' Chichiri pulled off his mask, and smiled down on Boushin. He said a few prayers, and blessed the babe with an ancient ritual he had learned from Taiitsukun.

Hotohori watched them, his bottom lip between his teeth, his hands clasped underneath his sleeves.

Houki was able to get out of bed on the second morning after her delivery, and she insisted on having breakfast with her family.

Her family. Even though she was still lightheaded from the labor, she couldn't stop grinning. Her family!

She placed herself before the table lightly, resting her arm on her maid's for balance. The nursemaids came in, bustling about boisterously. She was about to issue a harsh word on the topic of allowing a large feline to be so close to her child when Nuriko came bounding to her side, licking her cheek happily. She found herself smiling into his sparkling brown-rose eyes. Tentatively, she raised a hand to his head, and she ran her fingers through his thick, soft fur. Smiling, she ruffled the hair behind his ears. Whispering conspiratorially, she leaned close to him, "Isn't he wonderful, Nuri-chan?"

Nuriko responded by butting his head lightly against her chest and purring loudly enough to shake the table. Then, he leaned up and licked her face again, more gently, before softly rubbing his chin against her cheek.

"I know." She smiled, feeling more energetic than before. "Thank you, Nuriko."

"Your highness?" The nursemaid caught Houki's eyes tentatively. "Would you like to hold him now?"

"Oh, please!" She held out her arms, wishing she had a little more strength. "How has he been? He's perfectly fine, right?"

"Absolutely, your highness." The maid smiled brightly as she carefully placed Boushin in his mother's arms. "He has quickly become the most popular person in the palace."

Houki snickered as she watched her son in her arms. "Don't tell his father that, or he might get jealous. Mightn't he, hm, Boushin? Yes, your father might get jealous of such a beautiful boy..."

Nuriko displayed his pleasure at her little joke by rolling on his back and swishing his tail back and forth, rumpling the carpet.

"Ah, but his father might also have already become the boy's number one fan, and would therefore not mind his loss of popularity." Hotohori smiled from the doorframe, his hair falling forward, framing his face.

Houki grinned up at him, as Nuriko stood up and stalked closer to him. "He must have his father's charms, to win over such powerful hearts so quickly."

Hotohori slowly entered, keeping one hand on Nuriko's back as he seated himself across from his wife. "Perhaps it is his mother's strength that makes him so winning. How are you feeling, Houki?"

She didn't think that she could feel any better, but those warm amber eyes shining with concern for her tipped her over the top. "I'm fine. I have my son, who is perfect and beautiful, my husband, who is the same... and a guardian panther. What more could an empress want?"

Hotohori's face crinkled with humor. "Nothing that some breakfast couldn't make up for, I'm sure."

Plates were filled and emptied in what was a scene of perfect familial bliss, plus a panther. Houki mastered the art of eating with a babe in her arms quickly, although she did often get distracted by how perfect her little boy was. Nuriko purred throughout the meal, slinking between Hotohori and Houki for scraps of meat.

Hotohori and Houki talked quietly as they ate, and for the first time, Houki really felt like she had something that the emperor would want to hear. Ever since Hotohori had first taken notice of her, she had always felt like she was living in the graces of her liege. The young emperor always seemed so wise and so compassionate; she hardly knew what she could hope to offer him, except the memory of a cherished friend.

With their son in her arms, and her husband at her table, she felt as if something had fundamentally changed between them. It wasn't what she could offer him that would make the difference; it was what they could share.

Boushin was unaffected by the new accord between his parents; he was too new to the world to be comfortable for very long. He began to fuss, and sent everyone in the room into a tizzy. Houki rocked the boy in her arms, her eyes darting to the nursemaids for help. The two women immediately stepped forward, checking Boushin's diaper and making sure his blankets weren't too tight. Nuriko slid underneath Houki's arms, doing what he could as a panther to comfort the boy.

Hotohori got up and hid behind the doorframe.

Finally, the combination of Nuriko's soft growls and Houki's low singing voice soothed the baby, who became fascinated by his mother's purple tresses, falling from her bun as she bent her head over her son.

Hotohori smiled, and nervously ventured back in the room.

Annoyed, Houki looked up at her husband. "Amazing. The great emperor will go charging into battle against powerful shoguns, but the cry of his son sends him scurrying from the room..."

Blushing violently, Hotohori brushed the hair out of his face. "I... I... Tonight, you know, is the night before the full moon. Nuriko will be able to hold our son in his human arms."

Houki frowned. She looked down at the panther, who appeared to be embarrassed. It was a testament to the amount of time she had spent in the company of the feline that she could read his eyes and body so well. "It will be good for Boushin that some male will be willing to hold him, I suppose. He will have to have someone to be a father figure willing to take responsibility."

Hotohori's eyes flashed, his anger tempered by his shame. "My empress, watch your tongue. Boushin is my son, and no one will be taking my place."

"Take him." Houki stuck her chin out, narrowing her eyes to keep her courage. "As he is your son, take him and rock him to sleep." She held Boushin out from her body just enough to emphasize what she meant.

Hotohori paled. His voice trembling, "We are not familiar with the care and treatment of infants. It is for our successor's own good that we spare him our inadequacies."

Houki stared at him for a moment before rolling her eyes.

Nuriko just huffed and stalked closer to the emperor. He sat in front of Hotohori, his shoulders hunched forward to that he appeared very predatory. Growling, he stalked around Hotohori, and then butted him in the back. When the emperor failed to do anything more than stumbling forward, Nuriko butted him again, and again, and then he insinuated his head under Hotohori's arm and tried to drag Hotohori forward.

"Nuriko!" Hotohori let his hair fall in his face to hide his blush.

Nuriko growled louder, and bumped Hotohori again.

"If you make too much noise, you'll upset Boushin!" Hotohori ignored his own volume as he tried to resist Nuriko's urgings. Unfortunately, Nuriko was no less persuasive as a panther than he was as a human. Sooner than he wished, Hotohori found himself right next to Houki, looking down on his baby.

Nuriko had the grace to wait for nearly half a minute before he huffed again, and picked up Hotohori's sleeve gently with his teeth, and placed the emperor's hand on Boushin.

The baby turned his head to his father, surprised by the sudden sensation of Hotohori's large hand on his tummy.

Houki found it somewhat endearing that the great and wise emperor was quivering in front of his son, but she took pity on him nonetheless. Guiding his arms carefully, she wrapped her son in his father's embrace, keeping her arms around his for support.

Hotohori didn't realize that he was holding his breath until he nearly passed out from the lack of air. Boushin was warm, and incredibly light. It was a little frightening, realizing how small he was. Hotohori had never even so much as seen a baby this young before, and to hold one in his arms, and more than that, for the baby to be his own son, his flesh and blood, his successor...

The emperor smiled. "He's so..."

Houki smiled, her eyes resting peacefully on her husband's expression. Never had the beautiful young man appeared so radiant. "I know."

Nuriko sighed, rolling onto his side. Watching his mate and his mate's offspring, he lazily cleaned his paws, and purred.

Houki awoke in the middle of the night that night with a cold sweat all over her body. She couldn't remember a thing about her dream, but she needed to see Boushin.

Rather than wake her staff and all the nurses, and her son, she quickly slipped on her robe and shuffled barefoot to her son's nursery. There was a candle flickering inside, and before she was able to slide open the door, she felt her heart squeeze and her stomach drop.

Flinging the door open, she gasped, her eyes widening to take it all in.

Nuriko sat next to Boushin's bassinette, just as he had as a panther, only now he was a man. He had thrown over his mid-section a small rug from the room, obviously having awoken as a boy on the floor. His body was slim and smooth, his arm on the bassinette as he sang softly to the baby sleeping inside. His lilting voice stopped when he saw Houki enter, and a flush swept over his narrow frame. Shyly, he turned a little to cover himself better, though there was only so much a small rug could do.

Houki found herself admiring the length of his leg, as she had when he was in the seraglio.

"Ho-Houki-sama! Is there something wrong?"

"No," she answered quietly, smiling to reassure him. "I just... Well. An entire night can be a long time to go without seeing him."

"I know." Nuriko turned his eyes back to the baby, his face radiant. "He's so..."

"That's what Hotohori-sama said," Houki teased.

Nuriko flushed. "I'm sorry. I'm intruding, aren't I? When I'm a panther, I don't even think about the appropriateness of my actions. I feel... proprietarily towards him. I guess, because he is Hotohori-sama's son, I feel like he's a part of me too, since..." Nuriko cut himself off, feeling a little depressed as he thought it all out.

Houki put her hand on Nuriko's shoulder. "He is your mate's son, it's only natural that you would feel this way."

Nuriko started, nearly upsetting the rug that was covering him. "N-no! I didn't mean...!"

"It's all right." Houki kissed his cheek gently. "I don't mind. I love you, too, Nuriko-chan. Don't you know that?"

Nuriko stared at Houki with wide, disbelieving eyes.

She giggled, reaching out to hug Nuriko loosely. "Almost as much as his highness, I think... You're part of our family. Please, continue singing. I won't stay long; I know your time with Boushin is somewhat limited, as least as a person. I know he must enjoy your singing as much as I do." She leaned back to sit further away from the pool of candlelight.

"Houki..." Nuriko was barely able to breathe the word. He tried to summon up a song, but there was too much emotion in his chest, and he couldn't bring a note out. He ran his finger down the plump cheek of the baby, and smiled crookedly. "I'm not his mate, Houki. I can't give him a son. I told you that I would love him selflessly, and I've tried, but...

"I wish I could carry his child."

Houki had never heard Nuriko talk with such bitterness before. She tried to reach out, to say something, but...

There was silence, painful and sharp, broken long moments later by the soft shuffle of feet against the floorboards.

"Ah, so my popularity has truly been usurped by my son." Hotohori smiled cheerfully as he stepped in the nursery. "I don't know why everyone has always warned me against coups, this one has been entirely pleasant." He sat down next to Nuriko, covering him with a robe that he had carried over his arm. "I thought you would be here, and since I got tired of waiting for you to come to bed, I decided to bring you a robe."

"Thank you." Nuriko blushed as he smiled up at Hotohori, not sure if the emperor might have overheard what he and Houki had been talking about, or what Hotohori meant by what he said.

Hotohori smiled a little nervously at Houki. "Should we be here? Shouldn't we let him sleep through the night?"

Houki grinned. "Infants don't sleep through the night, Hotohori-sama. But we should let him rest." She stood up, straightening her robe as she did. "I think I will retire. Don't be up too late, now, boys." She winked at them as she turned to leave.

Hotohori smiled at her as she left. When her footsteps had drifted too far away to hear their echo, Hotohori turned and took Nuriko in his arms, holding him tightly against his chest.

"I'm so happy to see you again, my little kitten." Hotohori kissed Nuriko's neck lightly.

Gasping, Nuriko tried to reign in his reaction to Hotohori's touch. "Please... someone could see...!"

Chuckling, "Then perhaps we should retire as well. There's no one to see anything in my chambers."

Nuriko whimpered slightly, his finger once again tracing Boushin's cheek.

Hotohori turned Nuriko's chin, cupping the fey man's face in his hand. "I love you, Nuriko. Everything that I am is yours. Please, don't think that you aren't a part of Boushin, too."

Nuriko felt like the room had suddenly shifted into a sauna. His whole body was heat, and those words danced inside of him as he spun them around again and again. "Oh, Hotohori-sama... I... thank you. You know that I love you, too. I... can't tell you what that means. But..."

"We must all accepts the limits and boundaries of our existence, Nuriko. You and I cannot have a child together, but that doesn't mean that you are not mine, and I am not yours. We will both be with Boushin his whole life. Isn't that the most important thing?"

"But Houki..." Nuriko had to avert his eyes, so that he wouldn't get immersed in his love's gaze. "She's his mother..."

"And I'm his father. And you're his kitty." Hotohori nodded once, sounding very sure of himself.

Nuriko snickered. "That's one unusual family this boy has..."

Hotohori held Nuriko a bit closer, inhaling the fresh scent that surrounded Nuriko. "He's very lucky, isn't he?"

Sunlight beat down on the courtyard, the weak, hot breeze barely moving the air enough to notice. Still, dark chestnut locks soaking on his small head, Boushin determinedly made his way across the grass, one toddling step after the other. One pudgy hand was gripping the thick fur of Nuri-panther's shoulder viciously, and if he were any other feline, Boushin would be a kitty snack already. However, the panther was patiently aiding the boy in his great and mythic quest to learn to walk, turning his head back to watch the baby's progress with a worried expression that looked entirely out of place on the panther's face.

Sitting on the steps leading down to the courtyard, Houki, Hotohori, and Chichiri watched with lackadaisical amusement. Servants sitting in the grass to their sides fanned the trio with large paper fans, their slow swoops rhythmically disturbing the muggy quiet of the afternoon.

Chichiri grinned, a small motion of his lips that was visible to all now that he had abandoned his mask. "I think Nuriko is going to have a bald spot on his shoulder, that he is."

Houki nodded in time with the fans. "He has more patience than I would, in this heat. Boushin is so fond of him."

"Just as well," Chichiri sighed. "I don't think Nuriko would let him out of his sight, that he wouldn't."

"Boushin's watch-panther," Hotohori commented, pride coloring his words.

"I just don't see how he manages in this heat. I mean, he has a fur coat on!" Houki's brow knit momentarily in concentration.

"Nuriko has never let the weather dictate fashion. He is always dressed to impress, that he is!" Chichiri's light tease enticed a small smile from the emperor.

"He does have a flair for the dramatic." Hotohori watched as Nuriko curled around his son, preventing him from falling as best as he could. Gravity, however, was determined to win out, and Boushin plopped down on his padded rump with deliberate firmness. A moment later, the boy was gripping Nuriko's ear to pull himself back up.

"His flair for the dramatic is the most exciting thing around here in these peaceful times, that it is." Chichiri's eyes tracked Nuriko's sweeping tail, the only indication of the panther's frustration.

"He does liven things up." Hotohori was quick to agree, but it took him a moment to really hear what Chichiri was saying. Turning back to look at the monk, "I suppose court life is somewhat dull for a wanderer like yourself, Chichiri."

Abashed, Chichiri wished there was a way he could deny the truth. "Er, well... I have enjoyed delaying here for as long as I could, that I have, but I'm afraid that my contemplation and studies are stagnating."

"Are you going to leave us, Chichiri?" Houki's eyes were wide with wonder, as if she couldn't even imagine such a thing.

Hotohori sighed, looking back to Nuriko and his son. "Tasuki left last month to rejoin his bandits. I suppose that I knew that you wouldn't be staying forever, but it's nice to have as many of us here as possible." There was no confusion as to what the young emperor meant by the 'us;' there weren't many that he could comfortably refer to himself in the singular, especially as most of his people seemed to think that he was single-handedly responsible for the summoning of Suzaku.

Chichiri placed a hand on Hotohori's shoulder. "I will wait until after the next full moon, that I will."

"Where will you go?" Houki asked, a small tinge of sadness in her inflection.

"I was thinking of going to Hokkan, and then perhaps on to Sairou from there. After all, when we were there before, I couldn't really explore, since we were on a mission, that I couldn't."

"If there is anything that we can provide for you to make your journey easier, you have but to ask," Hotohori promised. "And you will always have a home here, of course."

"Thank you, your highness," Chichiri blushed, thinking that there were some times when the mask was advantageous.

Nuriko lead Boushin to his mother's knee, flopping on his side next to Hotohori. "Mrrow?" The panther rolled his head back, practically begging for attention from the emperor.

Hotohori smiled, happy to oblige him. Pushing his fingers through Nuriko's hot fur, he let the cat's purring lift his spirits. "You will be missed here, Chichiri, but far be it from any of us to prevent you from achieving your goals."

"Thank you, Hotohori." Chichiri smiled at Nuriko, the confused cat's eyes peering at him warily. The sun highlighted his thick fur the same shade of purple of Nuriko's fur. Struck by a sudden wave of nostalgia, Chichiri dared to step down and rub at Nuriko's belly. Ignoring Hotohori's stunned look, he smiled down on the cat. "I will miss all of you as well, that I will. But since I doubt I can convince any of you to travel with me, I will have to make do."

Boushin cried out without warning, "Kitty!"

Everyone stared at the boy, vigorously waving his arms as he tried to squirm away from his mother to get his hands into the cat's fur again.

Rolling her eyes, Houki sighed. "His first word, and it's about the cat... I swear, sometimes you are just a little bit too much like your father, little man!"

Boushin snuck down the hallway, clutching the small red ball to his chest. He was allowed playtime in the middle of the day, but he was supposed to stay under the supervision of his nanny. However, the intrepid future emperor wanted to play with the ball boy-Nuriko had given him, and he wanted to bounce it against the walls really high, like boy-Nuriko had shown him. He liked it best of all when kitty-Nuriko was around to chase after the ball.

Kitty-Nuriko usually played with him in the middle of the day, but the kitty had never come to see him. Boushin knew that sometimes kitty-Nuriko had to stay late with his father. Boushin knew that his father was a really important, really busy guy, and so if he needed kitty-Nuriko, Boushin couldn't complain. He didn't think it was at all fair, but he was a good boy, so he followed the rules. All of them.


The nanny didn't like it when he bounced his ball really hard. She said he was going to bring down the walls. Boy-Nuriko could bring down a wall with a little ball, but Boushin was pretty sure that he couldn't. He was still a little boy, and even though boy-Nuriko wasn't that big, Boushin knew that he was super strong, and so a little boy like him couldn't do the same things that a super strong boy-Nuriko could do.

So, he snuck away to play with his ball. He walked quietly, like Uncle Tasuki had taught him, so that no one would hear him sneak around. It was fun.

He rounded the corner to the shrine to Suzaku. The only person who was ever in there was his father, and his father was busy with kitty-Nuriko, so it would be a great place to play.

Just as Boushin was about to slide the door to the shrine open, he heard voices. For a moment, he nearly panicked, and dropped his ball, but he caught it just in time. As soon as his heart stopped thudding in his little chest, Boushin crept up to the door.

This was his father's shrine, and if someone was using it, they were going to be in trouble with his father.

The door was open just a little tiny bit, and if Boushin put his eye right up to the crack, he could see pretty ok into the room. He nearly dropped his ball again when he saw who was in there.

His father was kneeling on the ground, but his back was to the shrine to Suzaku. Kitty-Nuriko was prowling in front of him. His father's hair was down, and his chest was bare. His father was only wearing a pair of pants, the kind that were supposed to be under all those robes and things.

Boushin had never seen his father like this before.

He had always heard people talk about his father like he was a god. Boushin was pretty sure that no one would ever talk about him like that. Boushin had also never seen anyone so impressive as his father looked right then.

His father's hands were flat on the ground, and he was looking into kitty-Nuriko's eyes. If Boushin was really really quiet, he could hear his father's voice clearly. But he had to work hard at keeping his breathing still and his heart from thudding.

"Please... Just a scratch! It won't hurt, you won't kill me!"

Boushin wrinkled his brow in confusion. Was his father asking kitty-Nuriko to scratch him? But that didn't make any sense. His mommy had told him that if Nuriko scratched him, bad things would happen, and he would have to live as a kitty, like Nuriko, and only be a boy three days a month. Boushin thought that would be pretty cool, but his mommy had said that would be bad, and so he didn't try it. He was a good boy.

"I don't want to be without you anymore, Nuriko. I lost you once, I don't want to lose you again! You've heard all about it. You'll be a werepanther for the rest of time, unless you are killed. I just want... I just want us to be together!"

The panther huffed, prowling back and forth, his tail swishing back and forth.

"We can be together forever this way, Nuriko!"

Boushin bit his lip. Was his father going to become a kitty? Did that mean that he was going to have to be emperor? Boushin wasn't sure he wanted to be the emperor. The emperor never got to play in the afternoon, and he had to listen to all those boring people all day.

"I've done the research. I've looked through all the scrolls. I even talked to Taiitsukun about it! I won't be killed. Nothing will happen to me until I die... And then, I'll be transformed, just as you were. It doesn't have to be a fatal wound for a second generation were. Please..."

Boushin watched, his hands trembling on the door so that he had to pull them behind his back so he wouldn't make any noise. His father reached out to grab kitty-Nuriko's shoulders, and then they just looked at each other. Kitty-Nuriko whimpered, and then his father picked up kitty-Nuriko's paw, and placed it on his belly.

For a moment, it seemed like all three of them were frozen. Then, kitty-Nuriko growled lightly, and then he pulled his paw away. For a second, Boushin sighed with relief, thinking that his father had been spared the really bad things his mommy had talked about.

Then he saw the thin red line on his father's belly.

His father smiled, his eyes sparkling. Boushin shrank back a little. His father was prettier than anyone else Boushin had ever seen, and when he smiled, Boushin thought maybe he really was a god.

His father then kissed kitty-Nuriko's head, and cuddled the big kitty like he was a plush toy. Kitty-Nuriko was making that really nifty rumbling noise, but Boushin could see the tears that his father couldn't see.

Boushin stepped back, staring at the door. One foot in front of the other, he walked away from the shrine, his thoughts filling up his head so much he could barely think about walking and holding the ball at the same time.

What had just happened to his father?

Nuriko brushed his hair out, wishing for the ten millionth time that he hadn't cut it right before he died. If he had known that he was going to have to live with it like this forever...

"Ah, you're back!" Hotohori's delighted voice entered the chamber before he did. "I'm sorry I wasn't here, but that damnable trade representative from Hokkan kept us at it for what felt like forever. Every time we thought we had the agreement settled, he would throw in another provision. I swear, those clothiers from Hokkan are trying to trick us..."

"That's all right." Nuriko put the brush down, but kept his eyes on the mirror image of Hotohori. "I just turned back anyway. Only had enough time to get dressed."

"Well, that's a shame, because it's bedtime now, anyway." Hotohori sat down on the chair next to Nuriko, wrapping his arms around Nuriko's tiny waist. He put his nose at the base of Nuriko's neck, just breathing the air next to Nuriko's skin.

"I thought we could talk before going to bed. For a minute." Nuriko pulled away slightly, suddenly finding himself on his feet as there wasn't enough room on the chair for them both to sit without distracting one another. "It's about Boushin."

Hotohori immediately straightened, paying strict attention. "What about Boushin?"

"Well..." Nuriko wished he had had more time to rehearse this. When he was a panther, he thought he would pin Hotohori down to the floor and chew on his ears until he saw reason. As a man, that plan seemed much less feasible. "I spend a lot of time with him, of course. And... I've started to notice some... things. I wouldn't say anything about it, except I know that Houki has noticed it as well."

"Yes?" Hotohori found his back stiffening, despite himself. Nothing about this conversation seemed right.

"Ah, well... you know, he's taken to calling me daddy-Nuriko." Nuriko put his hands behind his back to keep from wringing them.

"I know. I think that's wonderful. You know I think of him as being as much yours as he is mine." Hotohori almost sighed with relief. He had been afraid things were going to go much differently.

"I know. And I know that Houki doesn't mind. But see... the thing is... He calls me daddy-Nuriko. And he calls you 'your highness' or 'sir' or 'my emperor.' Rarely, he calls you 'father.'"

Hotohori stood up, wanting to be in motion. "Your point being?"

Nuriko's eyes dropped. "I don't mean to overstep my boundaries, but you've told me a million times that I should be a part of your family. But I think... that you need to be a part of your family, too. When Boushin was younger, I know you had certain... insecurities. But now you've gone to a completely different extreme!"

"Meaning?" Hotohori tried to keep the harsh bite out of his voice, but he couldn't do that and still speak.

"Meaning..." Nuriko was faltering. He knew he had to say this, for both Boushin and Hotohori, but he didn't want to incur Hotohori's wrath. "Nothing he ever does seems to please you. His schoolwork can always be more thorough, he could always be more competitive in athletics, he could always be faster or stronger, he could always be more polite, he could always be more diplomatic... I understand that he is to be the emperor, and so the standards must be higher, but if you don't encourage him, he won't be able to excel."

"I am only holding him to the same standards my father held me to. It is necessary!" Hotohori kept his eyes averted as he spoke, staring through the wall on the east side.

"I know. But maybe... things were different when your father was raising you. I mean, you were a chosen of Suzaku, and you had older brothers who would covet the throne. You had challenges before you, and you needed to be able to meet those challenges, and help to summon Suzaku. Which you did!" Nuriko quickly added, hoping to win some points with his love. "But Boushin won't have any of those difficulties. Boushin has no close rivals for the throne, and Suzaku came, and granted us peace and prosperity. If there were no government in Konan at all, the people would still probably be able to live well! I think... I think you should cut him some slack."

"He is my son. He is my heir, as I was my father's heir, as my father was his father's heir. It doesn't matter what challenges he may or may not face. There are expectations!"

"He always want to hear stories about the priestess, and our adventures as seishi." Nuriko sighed, sitting down on the bed. "I try to tell him about everyone, and I try to tell him about you. But he doesn't know the man that I know; the man that I know is kind and generous and gentle. The man that Boushin knows is stern and harsh and cold. He doesn't want to hear about the man that I know. He resents the fact that everyone in the empire save him knows your compassion.

"He's growing to hate you."

Hotohori shook at those last, shuddering words. He stared at his love, staring at his feet. It couldn't be easy for Nuriko to talk to him like this; Nuriko had always been so deferential to him, for as long as Hotohori knew Nuriko.

"I have to raise him to be the emperor. He is my son. I must do what I must."

Nuriko raised his chin, and watched Hotohori sadly. "I see."

Hotohori strode over to sit next to Nuriko quickly. Putting his arm on Nuriko's shoulder, he tried to smile. "It's getting late. We should retire, and think about this later. It does no good to debate at such a late hour."

Nuriko nodded softly, getting to his feet. "I think you are right." He smiled, seemingly holding something back, before walking to the door.

"Where are you going?" Hotohori was confused into passivity. He felt like his limbs were tied down, and all he could do was watch his love walk away.

"To retire. If you don't mind, I think I'll scout out separate rooms for the night. As you say, it does no good to debate at such a late hour. Perhaps in the morning, when we've both had a night to sleep on it, we can come to a more amicable conclusion." With a turn of his shoulder, he was walking away to spend the night outside of Hotohori's bed for the first time since he had returned to Konan after his death.

And all Hotohori could do was watch.

The sun was streaming through the windows, the soft breeze quietly stirring down the halls and through the palace. It was a perfect day, the kind of day that begged to be enjoyed.

Boushin sat rigidly at his table as he went through his maths for the hundredth time that morning.

Master Roki paced around the table impatiently. He was a round little man who loafed like a drunken panda bear when he walked, and his constant pacing was exceedingly distracting. When Boushin had tried to explain that to him once, he had been rewarded with a lecture on the necessity of mental discipline.

How would Boushin ever grow up to be half the man his exalted father was at this rate?

Boushin viciously tried to tear his eyes away from the sunlight on the floor, and think about his maths.

It was no good.

Just when he knew he had to say something, if only to stave off another lecture from Master Roki, the door to his schoolroom opened.

"Your highness!" Master Roki seemed like he had been caught with his hand in the royal cookie jar. "What an unexpected surprise!"

Boushin got to his feet quickly, throwing his shoulders back and raising his chin, hoping to affect the 'proper' posture. "Your highness, sir."

Hotohori winced slightly at his son's greeting. "Good morning. How are you?"

"We are almost through our exercises, your majesty!" Master Roki shifted from foot to foot, looking like a doll with a round bottom. "Your son is progressing quite well."

"We are relieved to hear that." Hotohori smiled at the teacher, earning a beaming grin in return. "You are excused. We wish to be with our son."

"Ah, that is no problem, no problem at all! Why, we are so far ahead, I was going to suggest a break anyway!" Boushin had to stifle a snort. Master Roki was always telling him how much further behind he was than his father when his father was his age. "I believe the boy's next lesson is in letters, at half past twelve."

Hotohori sighed. He judged from that that Boushin was only given a half an hour for lunch. "Please inform Boushin's instructors that he will not be available for his lessons today. As we said, we wish to be with our son. You are excused."

Master Roki gaped, and then fled before he could say anything else wrong.

Boushin resisted the urge to shift from foot to foot. His father's attention was sweltering. "Your highness, may I ask what may be required of me?"

Hotohori sighed, reaching up to pull his hair out of its ornamental bun. "It is a beautiful day, Boushin, and Nuriko is with us. I thought that we would enjoy a family picnic."

Boushin gaped up at the smiling man with the cascading chestnut hair. "A... picnic, sir?"

"Yes. Your mother and Nuriko are already setting it up. I have ordered the horses to be ready for us. Shall we go?" Hotohori gestured for his son to precede him, still smiling.

Boushin decided that if he had fallen asleep during a lecture, there were worse things to dream about.

He had only been riding for a few months now, and so he relished every opportunity to do so. The temperature was the perfect blend of warm and comfortable, and the sun was brilliant above them. Boushin worried a little about making conversation with his father, but the wind and the horses would have made it hard to talk under the best of circumstances.

About halfway to their destination, Boushin started to get really excited. He was going to be able to see Nuriko, something that was rarer now that he was older, and in school most of the day. Plus, no classes all day, and he would get to have a picnic with his mom and Nuriko!

And his father, but that was all right. His father wasn't acting like the great and all mighty emperor anyway. Who knew? Maybe they would have fun.

After getting to the peaceful spot near the lake Hotohori had selected as the picnic spot, and Boushin and Nuriko had wrestled a little, they ate a meal that would put many imperial dinners to shame. Then, his mother and Nuriko took turns telling tales, and his father laughed and joked with Nuriko as they told the story of the first time the priestess had eaten with them. After they had rested for more than long enough, all the boys had stripped down and dove into the lake.

Boushin couldn't help but feel a little self-conscious. He was always hearing about his father's legendary beauty, but when he was buried under all those robes with his hair done up in a that silly bun, it was easy to ignore the stories. When his father was naked, and his hair was falling all over the place, it was harder not to feel insignificant.

It was both a blessing and a curse to have Nuriko there. Nuriko was slim, and almost feminine in appearance. It was certainly no trial to understand how he had been able to live as a woman for so long. But bare-chested, Nuriko was very definitely masculine, and with his pretty face and short purple hair, Nuriko was easily the most beautiful person that Boushin had ever known.

His mother was delicate and lovely, and much coveted for her grace and poise. Compared to everyone else there, Boushin felt awkward and gangly. Nuriko had tried to tell him that everyone went through an awkward phase when they were young, but it obvious that neither he nor his father had ever been as dangerously over endowed with limbs as Boushin was.

It was hard to believe, sometimes, that Hotohori was really his father.

This feeling was only aggravated when he tripped and fell on his face in the sand getting out of the water.

Just as he was picking himself up, his felt a strong hand assisting him. A thick robe was suddenly placed over his shoulder, and when he looked up, he found his father's smiling face looking down.

Blushing, Boushin imagined what must be going through his father's head. The wonderful and magnificent Hotohori must be so ashamed to have such a son...

"You have to watch that first step. It's a doozy." Hotohori continued to smile as Boushin blinked stupidly up at him. Seemingly without any will of his own, Boushin found himself on his feet again. His father was about to let go and walk away when he stopped, looking down at Boushin with wonder. He placed a finger under Boushin's chin, and tilted his face in the sunlight, to get better views.

"Is... is something wrong? Father?" Boushin felt like he was being torn apart under his father's loving gaze.

"Oh! I'm sorry, son. I just... sometimes I forget... You know, you really have grown up to look just like your grandmother." Hotohori's voice was laced with nostalgic contentment.

"I... I do?" Boushin blushed, not sure whether that was good or bad.

"Yes. Your face and coloring... and your eyes. I wish..." He had to clear his throat twice to bring himself back together again. "I wish that you could have known her. She was... Well, she was a lot of things. But she was the most beautiful woman that ever lived and breathed. And she would have loved to meet you!"

Boushin stared up at his father, his mouth agape. His father... thought he looked just like his mother? And he thought his mother was the most beautiful woman ever? "Really?"

"Oh, yes. She would have spoiled you rotten," Hotohori chuckled, imagining his mother with Boushin at her knee, showering him with presents and treats. "She would have wrung my out for every mistake I made with you, and reminded me what a difficult child I was and what a constant worry I was, and told me that I was lucky that I had such a good boy." Hotohori shook his head, his eyes a million miles away.

"Really?" Boushin squeaked. His brain officially went on overload. In one sentence, his father had said that he made mistakes, that he was difficult, and that Boushin was good. It was shocking. After a moment of looking up at his father's relaxed expression, Boushin blurted out, "And you really think I look like her? And she was beautiful? More beautiful than mom?"

Hotohori grinned. "Well, don't tell her that, but... Yes, you look just like her, son." Hotohori placed his hand on his son's face. "I miss her sometimes."

Boushin's eyes widened impossibly at the confession. "Yeah?"

"She... well, she had her faults. But, she was the only person who treated me... like I was a person, and not an emperor, or as Suzaku's chosen. When she was gone... It wasn't until the priestess came that I found people to help abate my loneliness. Still, there's no one like your mother..." As if something had just occurred to him, Hotohori looked sharply down at Boushin. "Do you feel lonely, Boushin?"

Boushin swallowed hard, and shifted uncomfortably. He wasn't able anymore to hold himself in the proper posture, but then, he hadn't all afternoon, and his father hadn't said a word. "No, not really. Mom and daddy-Nuriko spend a lot of time with me. I wish sometimes that I could spend time with kids my own age, but I'm pretty busy..."

"There must be children your age in the palace." Hotohori smiled cheerfully at his son. "I'll see what I can arrange. Things aren't like they were when I was your age, Boushin. The universe is much more peaceful place. I suppose it is possible..." he sighed, as if he didn't really see how it was possible, but he didn't want to fight it anymore, "that you should get a little more... leeway... than I did at your age. After all, you won't have to go to war with any crazed shoguns. You should be free to have a little fun in your youth."

When Boushin and Hotohori got back to the picnic blanket, Nuriko and Houki were whispering and snickering together like two twins. Hotohori managed to regally ignore them, and Boushin was too overwhelmed to deal with them.

For the rest of the day, he watched his father with new eyes, and found himself admiring his father in all new ways.

Much later that night, Boushin had cajoled Nuriko into reading him a story for bedtime. When Nuriko was done with the tale, Boushin leveled him with a hard glare. "Ok, daddy-Nuriko. What did you say to him to get him to agree to everything today?"

"The picnic was his idea, Boushin." Nuriko placed the scroll down on Boushin's nightstand carefully. "I told you he wasn't the cold monster you thought he was."

"Ok, but then why did he suddenly go from drill sergeant to father of the year? What did you do?" Boushin glared a little more fiercely, hoping that would garner the desired results.

Nuriko simply laughed, ruffling his hair. "Sometimes, Boushin, it's what you don't do that counts! Now, I think it's bedtime. Well past bedtime, really... So! Sleep well, and I'll see you in the morning!" Boushin turned his cheek so that Nuriko could kiss him goodnight, and then he watched as Nuriko swayed away, seemingly in a hurry.

Adults were just plain strange.

Dark fur separated into flowing lines as thin fingers slipped through it. Boushin smiled down on the sleeping cat, endlessly fascinated by Nuriko's face. Either as a panther or as a boy, Nuriko's fine features and elegantly arranged. He let one finger touch the edge of Nuriko's ear, running it just on the tip of the hairs down to his forehead.

It wasn't surprising to him that Nuriko was loved so well. But...

The soft scratch of the pen across parchment accompanied his adoration of the panther. His father sat on the desk, frowning as he looked over some paperwork. Boushin wondered what kind of emperor he would be; he could never hold his concentration long enough to pay attention to any of the boring talks that went on in the imperial court. He wondered how his father managed it. His father had seemed so imposing to Boushin when he was young, but as he had gotten older and more mature, he had seen his father was just a man.

Would Boushin grow up one day and be as attentive and patient in court as his father? He wanted to think he would be a good emperor, but the thought of spending so much time talking to diplomats and tradesmen made Boushin's head ache.

His father's hair was falling in his face, but he seemed not to notice or care. Boushin had heard that for most of Nuriko's life, he had had hair that fell to his waist, but that he wore it in a braid often. Boushin hoped that no one would mind if he grew his hair out so that he could have a braid. He hated it when hair fell in his face.

"Father?" Boushin sat up and inched closer to his father's desk, not wanting to interrupt Nuriko's dream.

"Mm? Yes, Boushin?" Though he sounded as if he was ready to pay full attention to Boushin, Hotohori's eyes never left the parchment.

"I wanted to ask you... about Nuriko."

Predictably, that got Hotohori's attention. "What about Nuriko?"

Boushin smiled softly, lowering his eyes before his father. "Are you in love with him?"

Hotohori sucked in a deep breath through his nose, and after a pause, he carefully laid the pen down. Folding his hands in his lap, he contemplated the wood grain of the desk. "Yes. I am."

"And what about mother? Do you love her?" Boushin spoke quietly, to avoid an accusation.

Hotohori watched his son for a moment, hoping that he would look up. "I... Your mother is my empress, she is my wife. She is the mother of my child. I do love her, Boushin."

"But you are in love with him." Boushin examined his fingernails, admiring how they tapered perfectly at the end of his slim fingers. "He is beautiful, and caring."

Hotohori pondered the situation. His heart was pounding painfully in his chest, and he felt his eyes tearing up. He wasn't sure why he was reacting so strongly to Boushin's questions; he knew what was right. "You have to understand, son, that Nuriko and I were seishi together, and that sort of bond..."

"Do you sleep with him? I mean... when he's not a cat, do you share your bed with him? Is he your lover?" Boushin's words chased each other, desperate to get out of his mouth.

A faint blush stole its way up Hotohori's neck. He briefly considered telling his son that it was none of his business, but he wasn't sure Nuriko would approve of such a response. Didn't his son deserve the truth? Didn't he have some right to know? "He is... my lover, yes."

"Did you ever love mom?" Boushin's shoulders slumped as his father's words killed any last lingering delusions he might hope to maintain. "Or was it always just him?"

Hotohori rested his chin on his joined hands. "When I was a boy, I thought that I was destined to love and be loved by the priestess. Even after I met her, even after I realized that she loved Tamahome, it was hard for me to let go of that belief. When she and the other seishi left to search for the Shinzaho, I felt like... there was this gaping hole in my soul. Like an important part of me was leaving, never to return.

"I knew that Nuriko was dead before anyone told me. I... could feel it, but I dismissed that later, because I couldn't feel Chiriko die. I wed your mother, because she was kind, and... beautiful. I... I honestly didn't see any resemblance between your mother and Nuriko until after Miaka and the seishi returned and mistook Houki for Nuriko. But, when I asked her to be my empress, I felt like... Nuriko was leading me to her. I think that I thought that Nuriko had picked for me the perfect empress, because I would never be able to choose for myself."

"Were you happy?" Boushin shyly lifted his eyes to his father, though he kept his chin down as far as he could.

"I was never happier than on my wedding day," Hotohori spoke matter-of-factly. "It was the culmination of my life's work. To become emperor, and to wed, and to pass on my line... And my bride was the perfect woman. I was certain of it. I still am."

Boushin digested his father's words carefully. "Did you love her?"

"I didn't know what love was, back then. I was selfish, and vain. I thought that her love for me was enough. I assumed that she would love me."

Boushin titled his head in surprise. He had never considered the possibility that his mother did not love his father.

"She became pregnant almost immediately. I was thrilled. I felt... I was sure that my duty to Suzaku might call for me to give my life for my priestess, and I... I... I looked forward to doing so." Hotohori swallowed, and Boushin's eyes widened as he saw his father become discombobulated for the first time in his life. "I wanted to die, and soon, because I assumed that, if seishi were dying, if Nuriko were dead, that meant that all of us would have to offer our lives. And I... I wanted to offer my life for Miaka, because I still loved her, if mainly as my priestess. And..."

Hotohori's voice trailed off, his throat working violently. Boushin got to his knees and moved closer to his father.

"And I didn't want to be alone again." Hotohori's head bent down, and his hair tumbled around his face like a shroud. Boushin was distracted enough to admire, once again, how really handsome his father was. "The seishi were the first and only friends I had in my life. I couldn't... I couldn't think about living without them. So, I went into battle with Nakago. I knew that I couldn't defeat him. I couldn't back down, either, without seeming to accept his actions. But I was at peace. I didn't care that I was about to die. In fact, my only regret was that I wouldn't live to see you." Hotohori paused to smile at his son.

Boushin summoned up a smile courageously.

"But then... Nuriko saved me. And... and when I recognized him, it was like everything had changed. I no longer wished to give my life for my priestess; I wanted to live with him instead. It didn't happen right away. He was a cat for one thing. But... I eventually realized..."

"That you loved him. That you always had." Boushin sounded resigned.

"Yes." Hotohori tried to sound sure of himself, but a note of guilt seeped into his tone. He straightened his back and reminded himself that he had nothing to be guilty about.

"What about mom? Is that fair to her? Did she... agree to this... arrangement?" Boushin could feel it tightening around his chest, the resentment and the anger, but more than anything else, the jealousy. His father was kind, and intelligent, and more beautiful than anyone else in the universe. Boushin loved his mother more than anyone else in the world, but he loved Nuriko better than anyone else. And both of them loved his father more.

Hotohori shifted in his chair uncomfortably. "I... I don't know what to tell you, Boushin. I suppose... I still am a bit selfish. I have done everything I can for my country and my god, and I have fulfilled every obligation I was given upon my birth. As an emperor, I have my empress, my wife, and she is my confidante and friend. I cannot imagine getting by without her. If nothing else, and I can assure you, this isn't the only reason, she has given me my heir, and nothing in the universe is more important. Our line must continue, Boushin. But... I am a man as well. My own mother was the only person I knew as a child who treated me as a boy, and not just a seishi or a future emperor.

"As an emperor, I am obligated to your mother, and it is an obligation I happily fulfill. But as a man, I love Nuriko. Is it... is it so wrong for me to be a man?" It occurred to Hotohori that a sixteen year old was not the best person to go to for moral advice, but then, Hotohori was emperor when he was sixteen.

Boushin started to speak several times before he knew what to say. "Does mother know?"

Hotohori paused, finding it hard to actually say the word. "Yes."

"And she still loves you?"

The guilt slipped up and embraced him again. "...Yes."

Boushin stared into space. "I grew up thinking of Nuriko as my daddy. I knew that he wasn't... not really... but he looked like my mom, like he was her brother, and he was always so much fun, so caring... I love him. I don't want to him to be unhappy. But I don't want my mother to be unhappy either. Isn't there some way for them both to be happy?"

Hotohori smiled wryly. "I think you are old enough to realize the fault in any such plan, aren't you?"

Boushin regarded his father neutrally. "But you are going to be with him forever, aren't you? That's why you had him scratch you. It just seems... unfair to mom."

Hotohori started, his eyes widening almost comically. He sputtered, trying to regain his composure. Boushin grinned up at him, pleased that he had taken his father by surprise. Hotohori shook his head. "How did you know...?"

"I saw it happen." Boushin blushed, lowering his head. "I was young, and I didn't know... not then."

"I love him, Boushin. Can you forgive me for that?" Hotohori found that his palms were sweating a little. He didn't like this feeling at all.

Boushin nodded slowly, after thinking for a moment. "If mother had a lover, would you object?"

Hotohori's brain balked at the very idea. Who would Houki prefer to him? The sheer absurdity of his thoughts shocked him into responding. "I would never stand in the way of your mother's happiness, Boushin."

"Even if it meant embarrassment to you?" Boushin eyed his father critically, measuring the veracity of his reaction.

"I love Houki as well, if not the same. I would never ask her to give up someone she loved."

Satisfied, Boushin stood up. "Thank you for your candor, father."

Raising an eyebrow, Hotohori smiled wickedly. "Anytime."

Boushin flushed, and smiled. "I, er, have some work to do, so..."

"Goodnight, son."

"'Night, father!"

Nuriko waited until Boushin was out of the room, before raising his head and growling discontentedly.

"I agree, love." Hotohori shook his head as he picked the pen up again. "Kids these days..."

"Hoto-oh-hotohori..." Nuriko arched his back, his eyes closed, his teeth painfully clenched, and his hands gripping Hotohori's shoulders. He gasped, his body trembling as he tried to stay in control. He felt his brain melt into the back of his neck, the heat pushing through him like fire consuming a wick.

Above him, sweaty locks of chestnut hair swayed, like the branches of a willow in a storm. He brought his hand up, across Hotohori's flushed cheek, and into Hotohori's hair, seizing a few strands lightly.

Hotohori had one hand clutching the sheets next to Nuriko's shoulder, the thin silk almost tearing from the force of his grip, his other hand on the rail above Nuriko's head. His brow was knit as in concentration, and he was breathing hard through his nose, making a small wheezing noise.

Nuriko felt the fire seep down and up his spine, and it was like he could feel each and every nerve ending as the fire broiled through his body, setting his skin aflame.

Cradling Hotohori's head to his shoulder, Nuriko blearily realized that there was a reason that Suzaku was the god of passion. His faith was never greater than when he was in Hotohori's arms.

"You certainly didn't waste any time this month, love," Nuriko teased as his hands strayed over Hotohori's back. "I think that's a new record - from panther to on my back in less than sixty seconds!"

Kissing a small line from Nuriko's ear to his lips, Hotohori grinned. "I've come to think that Suzaku is tormenting us. Each month, the three days seem shorter and shorter, and the rest of the time just drags by, endlessly..."

Smiling, "Ah, you're becoming impatient, my emperor. What sort of example are you setting for the future emperor?" Nuriko rolled them over so they rested on their sides facing each other.

Hotohori scowled. "That boy... he has a girlfriend now!"

Snickering, Nuriko slithered closer to Hotohori. "I know. She's nice! And a princess... Who would have thought that a future emperor from Konan would fall for a girl from Koutu?"

Sniffing regally, Hotohori brushed Nuriko's hair away from his eyes. "Well, he is far too good for her. She has a tattoo!"

"Yeah," Nuriko giggled. "Two of them!"

"Two?!" Hotohori glared. "Where's the other one?"

"I'm not going to tell you. But Boushin sure had fun finding it..."

The fact that Nuriko was laughing only made Hotohori growl more.

"Oh, don't be such a spoilsport!" Nuriko tried to swallow his laughter, but the little grimace on Hotohori's face was just so cute... "He's nineteen, you know. Just think about when you were nineteen... and in love..."

Hotohori's expression softened, and he leaned over slightly to kiss Nuriko, tasting his lips and the tip of his tongue. "And you are as beautiful today as you were then... Exactly as beautiful, and I grow older and grayer..."

"Poor beautiful Hotohori... One gray hair is not a cause for a calamity." Nuriko rubbed Hotohori's neck gently, soothing away any tension.

"I'm getting gray, my face is starting to show signs of wrinkles, I'm not as strong or as flexible as I used to be... I'm getting old, my love, and my son is growing up and falling in love... And you are just as beautiful, as desirable as you ever were. I wonder..." Hotohori's eyes fell down, his long lashes brushing against his cheekbone.

"You are getting old, my love." Nuriko kissed his brow. "And you are still the most beautiful man in all the world. How lucky I am to have you in my life..."

"Are you afraid of getting saddled with a wrinkled old man?" Hotohori asked with a seriousness that would have been comical had he not been so earnestly worried.

"I will love you when you are crippled and covered in wrinkles and age spots and you can't see or hear anymore and your hair has fallen out and your bald head has those little bumps. And you will still be the kindest, gentlest, loveliest man I will ever have known." Nuriko lifted Hotohori's chin, smiling as he met his lover's eyes. "You know, most people fear growing old because it reminds them of their mortality. Are you afraid of dying?"

"Why would I be?" Hotohori smiled back. "I will be with you. Although... I wonder... when I am dead, and I become a were... what if, during the full moon, I transform back into the man I am when I die, old or disabled? Would you really want to spend the rest of your life with a decrepit, old man?"

"As long as that man is you, then yes. Besides, when you are a were, we'll be able to be together all the time, when we are both in animal forms."

"But what if our animal forms are incompatible? What if my animal form is a... peacock, or a deer?"

"We were meant to be together. I believe that. Our souls are compatible, so our animals will be too." Nuriko's confidence was indisputable. "After all... just think of how well we fit together!" He slipped his leg between Hotohori's, and fit his slim torso against Hotohori's chest.

Hotohori sighed happily. "I should just stop arguing, and assume that you are always right, shouldn't I?"

Grinning happily, Nuriko nodded. "I've been telling you that for years."

"I still say she's not good enough for Boushin, though..."

The full moon looked like it had been placed in the sky to accent the gardens and the courtyard. Sitting down on the bench before the reflecting pool, Hotohori's eyes turned up to the sky.

His feet ached from spending so much of the day on his feet in those damnable tiny shoes. His head ached from his hair, tightly pulled back and put into a bun on top of his head. Everything in between ached from being pulled between one source of pain and the other.

All he wanted was to strip out of his piles of robes and silks, soak in a tub with his hair down, and get a night's sleep.

Staring into the light of the full moon, he smiled. Check that, what he wanted was for Nuriko to undress him, for the both of them to get into the baths together, and for Nuriko to start at his feet, and work his way up to his...

"You're thinking about your kitty." Houki smirked as she delicately stepped closer to her husband. "Naughty emperor... The wedding banquet is not over yet."

"It has been a long night." Hotohori reached out a hand to his wife, smiling as he showed her to the seat next to him.

"Yes," she agreed, resting her forehead on his shoulder. "But we must be there when Boushin and his bride leave."

"She's not good enough for him," he whispered conspiratorially. "Why did you let him marry her?"

"Because," she whispered back, "he didn't give me a choice."

Hotohori shook his head. "Is she who you imagined your son would be with?"

"I imagined that my son would spend his life with someone he loves. And he is. So, yes." Houki pulled herself up enough so that her body didn't touch Hotohori's at all.

The emperor frowned, a small quiver in the corners of his mouth. "Well, I want him to be happy and in love as well, but..."

"Remember, she is a princess." Houki spoke just quietly enough to be reproachful. "It wouldn't do to insult her family."

Hotohori sighed. "I know..."

"It's too beautiful a night for moping." Nuriko's musical voice broke the silence of the evening. "There's a party going on in there, you know..."

"I've been meaning to ask you this all night." Houki shook her head as she smiled up at Nuriko. "Where in the world did you get that outfit?"

Nuriko posed to display his clothing, and by extension, his body. "Isn't it lovely? My brother designed it especially for me. He said it was about time that I wore something that complimented my... coloring." He winked as he teased his friends.

Hotohori smiled. His love was dressed in a sleeveless long jacket of dark violet, with light blue piping. At his waist, he wore a long sash of light blue, and his pants were dark violet with light blue embroidery in an exotic floral pattern.

The emperor agreed with Rokou.

"Boushin asked for you." Nuriko came up and took Hotohori's hand. "He wants to begin the closing ceremony."

"Far be it from me to keep the future emperor waiting." Hotohori stood, taking Houki's hand to help her up as well. For a moment, the three of them walked hand in hand back to the reception hall. But before they alighted the steps up out of the courtyard, Nuriko stopped in his tracks.

"Look..." Nuriko's chin tilted upwards, so that his neck was exposed and his eyes were focused on the sky. "The stars are beautiful tonight. There's your constellation! But... where's mine?"

Chuckling, Hotohori let go of his wife's hand to put his arm around Nuriko's waist. "You can never find your own stars. See, there... just under the moon. That's yours."

Nuriko smiled, leaning against Hotohori a little. "Ah, yes... Why don't you two go in without me? I think I'll stay out stargazing a little bit longer."

"But..." Hotohori stepped in front of Nuriko, puzzled. "You came to get us! If I can't stay out here in the night, than neither can you." He emphasized his point by tapping his finger on Nuriko's nose lightly.

Nuriko smirked, and then turned away. "It's a family moment, anyway. I'll just find all of Suzaku's constellations, and head off to bed."

Hotohori and Houki exchanged a glance, and then Houki stepped over to Nuriko's side. "Why would you think that a family moment wouldn't include you?"

Nuriko smiled brightly, and shrugged. "I'm sure we've confused Kaori's family enough today. The two of you should go in. There's not much of the banquet left anyway."

"You are coming with." Houki set her mouth into a firm line, and grabbed Nuriko's arm. "That's final."

In a contest of strength, there was pretty much no one in the universe, much less any empress, who could best Nuriko. "It's late, anyway, my empress. I think I would rather sit this dance out."

Hotohori walked gracefully to Nuriko's side. "May I?"

"Excuse me?" Nuriko wrinkled his eyebrow in confusion.

"This dance... Please?" Hotohori put his hands out to take Nuriko's, smiling.

How could Nuriko resist that?

Houki sat down on the steps and started to sing one of her favorite songs, her gently lilting alto skipping merrily through the tune in time with the movements of the dancers.

Nuriko stared up at Hotohori, unable to control the smile that covered his face. Not that there was any reason to, with Hotohori smiling down on him like that.

"It should be a crime for men to be so beautiful." Kaori leaned on her new husband's arm, sighing.

"When I am emperor, it will be," Boushin reassured her.

"You forget yourself, Boushin." Hotohori shook his finger at his son in mock chastisement. "If you aren't careful, you won't ever be emperor."

"That's right," Nuriko winked at Boushin and Kaori wickedly. "Your father has perfected the art of being forever young, and since he can't stand not being the center of attention..."

"Hey!" Hotohori slapped Nuriko's bum playfully. "How did this get turned around on me?"

Nuriko shrugged. "Life is funny like that."

"It's time to go in." Boushin beckoned his parents cheerfully. "I should have known better than to send Nuriko. The two of you are always distracting each other." Poking his mother playfully, he added, "I expected more of you, though!"

Kaori snickered. "I don't blame her, Boushin. I would have stayed for the view as well."

Boushin rolled his eyes. "I'm surrounded."

Nuriko snuck up on him and wrapped his arms around the young groom. "You love us! Admit it!"

Turning bright red, Boushin tried to speak, finding it difficult to do so with Nuriko draped all over him.

Laughing, Kaori disentangled her husband from Nuriko's clutches. "C'mon, daddy-Nuriko, we have to get this party finished all ready! Personally, I'm exhausted, and I want to go to bed."

Houki snorted. "I'll bet. Well! Shall we?"

Nuriko was still so stunned, Hotohori had to nudge him with a hand to the small of Nuriko's back. "Shall we?"

Nuriko turned his dazzled eyes up to Hotohori. "Let's."

The pyre was cold. The coffin above it was open, which was heavily talked about all day long in not so hushed whispers. The emperor had insisted that the funeral ceremony be private, with only the closest of family in attendance, but there had been prayer ceremonies being offered all week long. Surrounding the coffin was a colorful assortment of flowers, wreaths, and even several renderings of the deceased emperor.

The most 'colorful' decoration was the prowling panther who stalked all around the funeral pyre, his movements like a coiled spring begging for release.

Boushin had the doors to the shrine to Suzaku sealed. The palace courtyard was filled with people, and all of the streets of Eiyou were filled as well. Everyone was waiting to watch the smoke that would signal the cremation had been completed.

Chichiri and Tasuki stood side by side by the door, each watching with heavy hearts. Houki held her hands over her stomach and stared at the floor. Kaori held her baby in her arms, staying in the back quietly shushing the child every once and a while. Boushin stood before the coffin, his hands behind his back.

Nuriko paced from one end of the room to the other, growling indistinctly.

He wished, in some ways, that the moon could be full. It would make it... easier, somehow. But more than that, he wished he knew how long it had been after he had died when he rose. Boushin had consulted the archives, and spoke to Taiitsukun, but it wasn't an exact science.

Boushin wondered if his father felt the same way when his father died. It was hard for Boushin to imagine his father feeling so weak and helpless, but he knew that his father wasn't the god his people seemed to think he was.

Just when all of them started to want to squirm, the coffin shook.

Nuriko stopped pacing, and stared intently at the coffin, his whole body fixed and ready. Everyone was on the balls of their feet, holding their breath as if to extend the moment.

Slowly, a pair of shoulders rose up, followed by a head, and then a body. Shaking, he looked around for a second before leaping from the coffin in one elegant motion. Nuriko immediately came up to him, purring loud enough to shake the walls.

The white tiger sniffed the panther sliding up against him curiously, before putting his head down to rub against Nuriko's body. The tiger's long tail swished back and forth in contentment.

Boushin grinned, going down on one knee to gingerly reach out and stroke his father's fur. "I should have known you would find a way to be even more glorious as a were. Now, remember, there is a cave at the base of Mt. Taikyoku that has been fitted for your needs. Stay in the forest around the mountain, and you should be able to live peacefully, without any disturbances. We will come visit you on the day of the full moon, so make sure to put on some clothes at some time."

The tiger made a noise that could only be described as dismissive, and actually rolled his eyes. He also leaned up and licked Boushin's cheek.

Swallowing the tear that was threatening, Boushin smiled, swooping down to hug the tiger. Whispering, "I... I'm really going to miss you, Dad. I'm glad that you will still be close by."

The tiger rubbed his cheek against Boushin's face, and purred.

Houki came and gave each of the large cats a kiss on the top of their heads. Kaori stepped close, and let the baby touch each of the cats. Chichiri and Tasuki petted their friends.

"Be careful, and we'll see you on the full moon, that we will." Chichiri laid down his kasa, smiling almost as brightly as if he were wearing his mask.

"Fuckin' weirdoes, you guys... Take care of each other." Tasuki's voice was gruff, hiding his emotion badly.

The tiger looked up at his son one last, lingering time, before he stepped onto the kasa with the panther. A small flash of light, and they both were gone.

"Happy hunting." Boushin looked down at his hands, waiting for a moment before gathering himself together.

They each helped to light the pyre, reducing to ash the now empty coffin and the tributes. Kaori and Houki flanked the new emperor, ready to support him if he showed any signs of faltering. The emperor held his head up, and reminded himself that he needed to make his father proud.

In the shadows of Mt. Taikyoku, a tiger and a panther played like kittens, their growls eventually dissolving to purrs.