DISCLAIMER: I do not own Nuriko...although...*snifflesob*...I often wish I did... ^_^ Credit goes where credit is due, and I, the author, received no payment, monetary or otherwise *winkwink*, for the composing of this fic.

When They Change You
by Tiffany Baer
~ ~ ~

He'd been sitting at the edge of the pond for nearly an hour.

It was quiet, comfortable--the scent of the water rose around him, salty and thick with the floatings of algae and water plants, the air ripe with the buzzings of insects and the far-off coos of birds. Far behind him, the royal palace rose like a silent monolith into the sky, towering above the gardens, the still pools of water, the idle villagers who wandered past its gates.

Nuriko drew his legs to his chest, let his chin rest on the tops of his knees.

Let's go out on the town tonight...one last big night out before we leave for Hokkan...

He sighed, brushing absently at one of the thick strands of violet hair hanging in his eyes, and let himself focus, for a moment, on the strange, twisting emotions circling within him. He loved Hotohori...Hotohori...Hotohori! No one else...NEVER anyone else...it had always been Hotohori, since the first moment he'd seen him...how could that ever change? Loving Hotohori so deeply...it was the one constant thing in his life, the one thing he'd always been able to strive for, to hope for, to long for in the dark stretches of the night when Kourin's image rose, again, before his eyes...

But...but, HER? Never! She was silly, stupid, always overeating, always tripping over things, always acting like a child, always giggling, always eating too much, always scaring the hell out of him by being so immensely stupid that she nearly got herself killed... He remembered, briefly, the moment in that hectic day so long ago, when he'd leaped down from the cliff, gone to see Tamahome and Hotohori...and, she'd been lying there, still and quiet and bleeding, her laughter silenced, the light gone from her eyes...he'd loved her, then, or so he thought now. Then again, perhaps not "love," perhaps not that just yet...but it had been something. He'd felt it deep in the dark, shadowed areas of his heart, in the places where Ryuen still lived within him, where Kourin dared not go...he'd felt his hands begin to tremble, felt a thick and rising despair fall over him, squeezing the breath from his lungs...

He'd never realized, until then, just how greatly he'd come to depend on that silly girl, even in the short amount of time they were together. He was a Seishi...that alone bound him to protecting her...but, it'd been easy to dismiss that, to hate her for drawing Hotohori away from him, to despise her and want her gone because of all she'd upset in his peaceful, balanced, happy, boring life... But, gods...it hadn't been that at all, had it?

I didn't hate you because he loved you. I hated you because...because you made ME love you...because you dragged the me I cast aside all those years ago out of the darkness and pushed him up into the light, made him feel again... Feeling things as Kourin...it was safe. It was so much easier to be her, to live for her, to BE her...and, then, damn you, Miaka, you came along and made me remember just what I am.

I'm a man. And, even if the Kourin in me loves Hotohori...the man in me can't help but be in love with you.

"No," he whispered softly, feeling the weight of the revelation pressing down on his chest, making it difficult to breathe. "No." He closed his eyes against the soft denials, forced himself to focus on drawing the salty pond air in and out of his nostrils...in...out...inhale...exhale... Maybe if he ignored it...it would go away.

And, if it doesn't?\\ he asked himself wryly. Then what? You gonna try for Miaka, too? Get in line. I saw you when she was gone for those three months, Tama...you were a mess. But, then so was Hotohori...gods, we all were, weren't we? How could we've come to depend on her so much, this silly, stupid girl from the other world? This girl who is so stubborn and so silly and so...so...stupid!

But, there's...something about her. Isn't there? Maybe it's that childish buoyancy, that way she has of bouncing back from everything... She always has a smile, a joke, a laugh...and, most of them...damn her, most of them are real...not like me. How do I get my hands on one of those masks you have, eh, Chichiri?

All right. So, I love her. What can I do about it? Not a damn thing.

He opened his eyes, felt his lips twist upwards into a slight smile.

Not a thing.

The smile widened, his lips parted, and he laughed, softly at first, then with rising hilarity, until even the birds of the nearby forest were silent, until nothing but his laughter echoed in the comfortable stillness of the glen. "Baka," he whispered, laughing again, softly. He rose to his feet, stared out over the calm, darkened surface of the water. "Baka," he repeated. "Nothing's gonna change."

Maybe it's better this way, anyway. Ryuen's been gone for too long. He doesn't remember how to live, or how to survive. So, I'll be you, Kourin, now and maybe until I die. Why should I change for one stupid girl? No. I live only for you, Kourin. Only for you.

Bending briefly, the violet-haired Seishi lifted a small stone from the sodden earth, tossed it hard out over the surface of the water. He watched it, fascinated, until it lost momentum and sank, vanished into the darkened depths of the water. Then, he turned and began the short walk back to the palace, recalling with a smile the agenda for the evening--he, Tasuki, and Miaka were going to the festival in town tonight...he grinned.

Be patient, Ryuen. Maybe...maybe someday...I'll be ready for you to come back.

But, not now...not yet. But, soon, I think. Soon.