Nuriko shivered while walking towards his chambers through the palace gardens. It was getting dark and the wind was cold and humid. It would probably rain tonight. He thought about getting a nice, hot cup of tea before bed when he noticed someone sitting under an old plum tree. He wondered why would anyone want to sit outside in a weather this cold, not to mention the hour was quite odd to be enjoying the gardens. When Nuriko got closer he noticed to his shock that the person under the plum tree was none other than emperor Hotohori himself. He was hugging his knees, a half empty bottle in hand, looking absolutely miserable. The bottle got Nuriko worried. Hotohori didn’t usually drink much and Nuriko had never seen him drunk.
- Your majesty! What on earth are you doing out here?
Hotohori turned to look at Nuriko with glassy eyes and annoyed expression.
- Drinking wine. What does it look like?
- It looks like a stupid thing to be doing. Get up, will you, you’ll catch your death sitting there. Nuriko answered, holding out his hand.
Hotohori just stared at it for a moment, before finally taking it and slowly standing up. It took a while from him to get steady on his feet.
- Gods! Your hands are icy and you are shaking. How long have you been sitting here?
Hotohori looked away and didn’t answer.
- Come on! Let’s get you inside. I’ll make you some tea to warm you up.
The emperor still didn’t say anything, but let Nuriko led him by the hand towards the palace.
Moments later Nuriko had Hotohori sitting in emperor’s bedroom, a blanket draped over his shoulders and a steaming teacup in his hands.
- Now, your majesty, would you like to tell me, why were you trying to freeze to death in the gardens while drinking yourself stupid?
Hotohori stared at his teacup. Now that they were in a better light Nuriko noticed his eyes were reddish. Was it just alcohol or had he been crying? Silence stretched long before Hotohori finally spoke.
- I’m a bad emperor and an awful person.
- Well, that’s certainly not true! Where did you get that in your head?
- Now that Tamahome is free from that awful poison and back here with us, we can finally summon Suzaku and save Konan. And Miaka is just overwhelmed to have her beloved Tamahome back. As an emperor I should be glad that my country is finally gonna be safe and as their friend I should be happy for Miaka and Tamahome, but… Hotohori paused and then continued with desperation in his voice.
- A part of me just can’t stop hoping that Tamahome hadn’t returned to normal and I could have had Miaka to myself!
Sighing Nuriko sat beside Hotohori on his bed and put a hand on his shoulder.
- That’s perfectly normal and doesn’t make you a bad person. Don’t blame yourself for it. We can’t help what we think or feel, it’s how we act that counts.
Hotohori just hung his head. When he spoke again, his voice was barely audible.
- I would have made her an empress. I would have given her everything she ever wanted.
Nuriko felt his heart sunk. He knew all too well the pain of unrequited love. How long had he been head over heels with this particular beautiful emperor, his feelings seemingly obvious to everyone but the man in question.
- I’ve been so lonely my whole life. Why can’t anybody love me? Am I that repulsive?
- I love you.
Nuriko surprised himself with his sudden confession. He hadn’t really meant to say it out loud. He had just wanted to make Hotohori feel better and it had just slipped somehow. Hotohori lifted his head, looking equally surprised.
Since the cat was already out of the bag, Nuriko decided to just go with it.
- Yes, very much. So don’t say anybody doesn’t.
Hotohori’s face went unreadable and Nuriko waited for his reaction nervously. He hoped that it had offered just a little bit of comfort to Hotohori to know that at least somebody loved him, but he could as well be disgusted. Despite his appearance Nuriko was a man after all. What Nuriko really hadn’t expected was Hotohori kissing him.
Nuriko’s brains just flatlined. He was already kissing Hotohori back when his rational mind finally kicked in and told him to stop right away because this was a really bad idea. He broke the kiss and shoved his hand between them to keep Hotohori at safe distance. His face felt so hot, he was sure it was beet red.
- Y-your majesty! We really shouldn’t!
Hotohori looked at Nuriko with impossibly sad eyes.
- Couldn’t you just let me feel loved? Just for a little while?
Nuriko swore he could actually hear the crash of his heart shattering. He shouldn’t agree. Hotohori was drunk and depressed and didn’t know what he was doing. But he just couldn’t bring himself to say no and when Hotohori leaned in for another kiss, he let his hand fell from between them and wrapped his arms around Hotohori’s neck instead. Their kisses soon became deeper and hungrier. Nuriko could taste the alcohol when Hotohori pushed his tongue inside his mouth, but didn’t care. Then he felt the still cold fingers tugging open his tunic. He should stop this now at the latest but the only thing he managed to get out from his mouth was a small whimper, when Hotohori pressed an open-mouthed kiss on the junction of his neck and shoulder. It didn’t take long until Nuriko was on his back on the bed, naked, legs around Hotohori’s slim waist, moaning in time with his thrusts. It was unreal. How many times had he dreamt of sharing a bed with his emperor. And now there he was. Eyes closed and mouth half open in pleasure, stunningly beautiful, burying himself deep inside Nuriko. It felt so good. He was so close. Panting, Nuriko reached up and knotted his hands in silky black hair that had escaped from its loose ponytail. He felt Hotohori speed up his pace, then go tense and finally spill himself inside Nuriko with a loud moan. That was all Nuriko needed to tip over the edge himself. He was seeing stars when he came on his stomach with a cry of Hotohori’s name.
- Miaka… Was a breathless answer.
Nuriko’s eyes snapped open. Hotohori was looking at him with a horrified expression.
- Oh gods! Nuriko, I’m so sorry!
He hastily climbed off Nuriko, rolled on his side and started to cry. Nuriko cursed silently. This was exactly what he had feared would happen. He pulled the sobbing man in his arms and stroked his hair soothingly.
- Hush now. It’s alright. I don’t mind.
It wasn’t exactly the truth. It hurt. Even if Nuriko hadn’t had any illusions of being anything more to Hotohori than substitute for his beloved Miaka. But this was entirely his own fault. He had known they shouldn’t do this from the start, but he had been selfish and lacked self control and this was the outcome.
- Will you please leave. Hotohori managed to say between sobs. Nuriko had thought he couldn’t feel any worse, but clearly he’d been wrong.
- Your Majesty, I…
- Just leave, please. Hotohori’s voice was a broken whisper.
Without a word Nuriko get off the bed, dressed himself hurriedly and run the whole way to his own chambers. He pulled the door closed and slumped against it, hot tears running on his cheeks. He thought about Miaka and Tamahome and wondered why the happiness of some people must make others so miserable.
Next day, Nuriko saw Hotohori in a meeting considering the summoning of Suzaku. It was gonna happen in about two months from now, when the stars were aligned optimally. The emperor gave Nuriko a somewhat apologetic smile when he first saw him, but otherwise treated him just like before. Nuriko was relieved. He’d been afraid things would be somewhat awkward between them after what had happened. After a couple of days it seemed clear that he wouldn’t have to go through the “I’m sorry, I was drunk, let’s not talk about it and pretend it never happened.” -conversation either. It was a relief too but also sting a little. It seemed like his confession was something so minor to Hotohori, that he could just ignore it. Or maybe the emperor was just too embarrassed to talk about it. He had slept with another man after all. Nuriko finally decided it was better not to think about it too much. He should just be glad that Hotohori didn’t despise him or anything and that he had gotten to have sex with a gorgeous guy he had adored for ages. True, it could have gone better, but you should take what you got, especially when you happened to be a cross-dressing pervert, in love with the emperor.
Next week, when Nuriko was just thinking about calling it a day and going to bed, a servant came knocking to his door, telling that his majesty wanted to see him. Nuriko wondered what Hotohori might be wanting this late at night. He made his way to the emperor’s chambers and knocked on Hotohori’s bedroom door.
- It’s Nuriko. You sent for me.
- Ah, yes, come in.
Nuriko stepped inside. Hotohori was sitting on his bed, in informal clothes and his hair loose, looking heart-wrenchingly beautiful. Nuriko swallowed hard at the sight.
- Was there something you wanted to talk about, your majesty?
- Not exactly.
Nuriko was more than a little bit puzzled by Hotohori’s answer and even more so, when the emperor silently stood up and walked behind him. Then he felt an electric shock go through him when Hotohori wrapped his arms around him and pressed a feather-light kiss on the back of his neck.
- Please? I’m feeling so unbearably lonely. I just need somebody to touch me.
Nuriko bite his lip. So that’s what he was to Hotohori. Somebody to touch him, no one special, just a willing warm body. He knew he should say no. Tell the emperor that he had a palace full of concubines for these kind of things. He knew he should do just that, but instead he turned around, cupped Hotohori’s face in his hands and kissed him as tenderly as he possibly could.
It happened again next week and a week after that. Hotohori needed to be touched, so Nuriko touched him. And kissed him. And made love with him. Gave him all the love he could find in himself, poured it over him. And cried himself to sleep afterwards, alone in his own bed. He knew very well he was being used. At his more bitter moments he thought he was no better than a prostitute, except that whores actually got paid. Sometimes he tried to convince himself that there was really nothing wrong with his situation. He regularly get to share a bed with a man he loved, not to mention that man was none less than the emperor himself. It was silly to ask for more, he should be happy with what he got. But he couldn’t fool himself. He wanted Hotohori’s heart, the whole of him. His body alone wasn’t enough and if that was all that was offered, he should say no. But he was so hopelessly, desperately in love that he just took everything he could get, no matter how humiliating or painful.
Ten days before the summoning of Suzaku, Nuriko was out in town doing some shopping. He had new clothes made for him for the ceremony and he wanted new hairpins to go with the outfit. He was glad that they could finally perform the ritual and make Konan safe again but the thought also made him more than a little anxious. He was one of Suzaku’s stars and after the summoning ritual was done his purpose would be fulfilled. He wasn’t sure what would come of him afterwards. Sure, he could just keep living in the royal palace, being Hotohori’s...well whatever he was to Hotohori, but he doubted that his heart could take it much longer. Maybe he should return home. His brother would be delighted to have him back there. It would probably be the wisest thing to do, but still… No matter how painful it was to know that to Hotohori Nuriko was just a substitute of his real love, the thought of leaving the emperor made his chest hurt even more. The mere memory of how Hotohori’s beautiful, long hair felt between Nuriko’s fingers made him shiver. He wasn’t at all sure if he had it in him to walk away from that. Nuriko’s thoughts were interrupted when he noticed some exceptionally beautifully made jewelry in a booth of a young goldsmith. He stopped to examine them more closely.
- Is there something special you are looking for, my lady?
- Yes, actually. I have a new dress made from pink silk with embroidered golden plum flowers and I’m looking for hairpins to go with it.
- I might have just the thing for you, my lady.
The goldsmith took a little box from under the counter and opened it. There were two golden hairpins, decorated with little flowers made from pink gemstones.
- I was thinking about cherry blossoms when I made these, but I think they can be plum flowers as well.
- They certainly can. Oh my, these are so beautiful.
Nuriko was just taking the other hairpin out of the box when he heard noise from behind him.
- Hey! Lady! Watch out!
Nuriko turned around and had barely the time to see the carriage before it hit him and everything went black.
When Nuriko woke up, his brains felt three sizes too big for his head and his mouth was as dry as a desert. He slowly opened his eyes and tried to figure out what was going on. He was laying in his own bed but had no memory of how he had gotten there. One of his chamber maids was sitting by his bed, reading a book.
- Hey...Nuriko started with a hoarse voice.
The maid dropped the book in surprise.
- My lady! You are awake!
- Yes, could you get me a glass of water please?
- Of course! Right away!
She was back with the water in no time.
- Here you go my lady. Thank goodness you finally woke up. We were all so worried. How are you feeling?
Nuriko drank the water in one go.
- My head hurts, but otherwise I think I’m fine. How long have I been out?
- Five days. Lord Mitsukake healed your injuries, but you still stayed unconscious and nobody knew what to do and… Oh! I have to inform lord Mitsukake and his majesty that you are awake!
The maid hurried out of the room, leaving baffled Nuriko sitting in the bed. Five days? Injuries? What had happened to him? He faintly remembered somebody shouting and a carriage right in front of him and then nothing.
About half an hour later the maid returned with Mitsukake and Hotohori, the latter running straight to Nuriko and embracing him so tight it almost hurt.
Nuriko! Thank gods! I was so afraid you’ll never wake up again!
Nuriko was having trouble breathing. He tried to pat Hotohori on the back reassuringly.
- It’s alright your majesty, I’m fine now.
Hotohori loosened his death grip a little but didn’t let go. Nuriko turned to look at Mitsukake, who was looking rather amused.
- His majesty wouldn’t leave your bedside for three whole days. His ministers had to practically drag him away to attend to his duties. He said smiling.
- Like they didn’t know how to run the country by themselves for a while. Hotohori huffed, finally releasing Nuriko.
- Speaking of which, I kind of ran away from a meeting and I have to go back before they come after me. Come meet me later tonight if you are feeling well enough. I have something important to tell you.
Without waiting for an answer Hotohori gave Nuriko yet another tight hug and then he was out of the door. Nuriko looked after him bewildered and felt a warmness spreading in his chest. Hotohori may not love him the way he wanted to, but at least he seemed to care about him quite a lot.
- How are you feeling? Mitsukake asked
- Fine besides a headache. What exactly happened to me?
- Some farmers horse bolted and he lost control of his carriage. It hit you in the head and then fell over you. Luckily someone in the marketplace knew who you were and you were brought back to the palace immediately. You had both of your legs broken and so nasty bruise in your head I was afraid you’d broken your skull too. I healed you, but for some reason you wouldn’t wake up. You got us all quite worried. Do you think you can stand up? I’d like to do some checks on you.
- Sure. Thanks for taking care of me.
- Oh, don’t mention it. It’s my job after all.
Few hours later Nuriko was on his way towards the emperor’s chambers. Mitsukake hadn’t found anything wrong with him and his headache was also fading away. He had been kept busy the whole day by the visits of his relieved friends. Miaka had given him almost as crushing hug as Hotohori. Soon he was once again standing in emperor’s bedroom, quite nervously waiting what important it was that Hotohori wanted to tell him. Hotohori still had most of his formal clothes on but not his crown. His hair was tied to its usual loose ponytail. He also seemed to be a bit nervous. After a short silence he turned to look Nuriko in the eye with a serious expression.
- Before anything else, I want to apologise. I have been so immersed in my own agony, I didn’t realise how awfully I have been treating you. I’m truly sorry. I have been blind to other things too. Your accident opened my eyes. I can’t even describe how horrified I was when I saw a palace guard carrying you to the infirmary unconscious and bleeding. And when you wouldn’t wake up it felt like my heart was being ripped off my chest. The thought of losing you was just unbearable. I realised then that I had been so wrapped up in feeling sorry for myself over a childhood dream that didn’t come true, I hadn’t noticed that I had all I really wanted and needed right before my eyes.
Hotohori paused. Nuriko could only stare at the emperor eyes wide, not believing what he was hearing.
- What I’m trying to say is that I love you and I want to be with you. I know I have been a complete asshole and i understand if you are angry with me. I’m also painfully aware that it’s selfish from me to ask you to be with me when I can’t make you my empress or give you any other official position by my side. My love is really the only thing I can offer to you.
Nuriko felt tears starting to fall from his eyes. He leaped in Hotohori’s arms, almost tumbling them over and gave him very close to a bone-cracking hug.
- That’s all I’ve ever wanted, so it’s more than enough.