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An Emperor's Tears

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Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.
2 Timothy 1:4

 

It was during a trip to North Italy—the fog was thick, the wind harsh on bare skin—there, it had happened so suddenly. In the freezing cold, Roberto's warm hand had clasped his own, for a brief moment.

That gesture was definitely intentional, of course. Not that Roberto didn't constantly touch him in affectionate and friendly ways—indeed, he was an Italian at heart. But the way this time it had happened bore something...

"Your hands are really cold, Hiraga."

"...Huh? Oh, I guess they are. I forgot to bring my gloves today."

"Isn't that careless of you?" Roberto mocked him. "And to think you never go anywhere without them. Anyways, here, you can take mine. I wasn't going to use them." He handed him his gloves, which had been neatly folded in his pocket until then.

"Thank you..." Hiraga replied, quite puzzled.

Sure, Hiraga was slow at noticing things, but he hadn't gone completely blind yet. Ever since that Miracle had graced the both of them, Roberto had been acting different.

His smiles were more frequent; his prayers, too, but there wasn't anything weird about it, as Hiraga was experiencing the same kind of renewed thankfulness and devotion to God as well. What he couldn't explain, though, was that restless light that shone in his eyes, something that looked like burning bliss and loneliness at the same time; something strange, something frightening almost, that seemed to quieten slightly only during prayer. Those kind gestures, too, increased in number, and were way more… tender and eager for attention than usual.

Plus, ever since that day, Roberto always carried around a book with a golden bookmark in it, wherever they went.

He'd asked him about it. The first time, Roberto had just replied with "a miracle." The second, some time later, he’d stayed quiet for a while and seemed troubled by the question.

"It's... a book I really love. A friend I thought I'd lost... returns to life everytime I read it, you know."

Hiraga scoffed, trying to tease him: "You seem to be very keen on books about black magic!"

"This book was given to me by your brother, through the intercession of God. There is nothing diabolic about it, I reassure you." Roberto returned the teasing smile.

"But I see the books you carry around actually change every so often, while the bookmark doesn't. It's hard not to notice. Is the bookmark perhaps something special?"

"Well... yes, it is. One day I'll tell you all about it, Hiraga. But now it’s time for our prayers, isn't it?"

Roberto's reticence deeply disappointed Hiraga, who now felt rather ashamed for having been so pushy. After all, they'd both agreed on not investigating this particular case at all. He wasn’t bothered by not knowing what Roberto’s miracle had actually been—striving for forbidden knowledge was more the other’s shtick—but rather, how Roberto seemed to have changed after it had occurred.

Because of that worry not settling down, that evening, when they prayed, kneeling beside one another, Hiraga couldn't help but peek.

Yes, Roberto's gaze was as bright as always, fixated with fierce melancholy onto Christ's body. He was being completely ignored. Hiraga closed his eyes and prayed like this.

Lord Jesus, whatever these feelings might be, please make it so they won't disturb Roberto's peace in anyway. But if his heart is indeed troubled as I suspect, please let me be of help. Amen.

He got up before the other, leaving Roberto to murmur on his own.

 

***

Roberto had finished avidly reading yet another one of Josef's signaled books. The coding for the comments was always different and unique, but never too hard to guess. It always played around an easy keyword... love. Or similarly reoccurring words inside the text. Always, always something that would remind Roberto of how near Josef was to his heart.

And now, it was getting too much to bear.

He sighed and put away the book on the bedside table. The nightingale by Christian Andersen—a short story he'd never read before. Apparently this was a special one, as there was no coding nor any explicit comment to it. The bookmark just quoted the story directly:

"I've seen the tears in the Emperor's eyes; this is the most precious treasure to me. The tears of an Emperor have an extraordinary power. God knows I've been rewarded!"

And again: "Little heavenly bird, I recognize you! I had banished you from my kingdom and nevertheless you, with your singing, banished the evil visions from my bed, and you dispelled Death from my heart! How shall I repay you?” — “You have already rewarded me! I had your tears the first time I've sung for you, I'll never forget them! These are the jewels that rejoice a singer's heart. But now sleep and be strong again and healthy: I shall sing for you."

Roberto, at first, didn't know what to make of all of this. He rested on top of his bed, head swimming in the ceiling.

He automatically started talking to Josef, crossing his fingers in prayer.

"Josef... I know you're here."

He’d been struck by the strongest feeling of love ever since being touched by that Miracle. And it had instantly mingled with painful… nostalgia, gratitude and an out-of-place serenity he didn’t know he even deserved. All things he struggled to understand at this moment while he asked himself an endless, aimless stream of why’s that had no real place or purpose.

“Josef… Josef…” With every time he whispered Josef’s name to the cross hanging to his neck, concentrating his whole soul onto that name, his voice grew louder and more desperate.

At that moment, the door creaked open.

Hearing someone entering, Roberto got on his feet, startled.

It was Hiraga. They’d been given separate rooms at the hotel they were staying in for the current case. To investigate more freely, Hiraga had been given an additional key to access his room, and vice versa.

“Did you… call for me, Roberto? I could faintly hear you from the corridor. Sorry if I entered like that.”

It wasn’t that late in the night, so a visit wasn’t all that unexpected. Roberto tried to regain some composure and utterly dismissed Hiraga’s question.

“You found anything related to the case?”

“Of course, I’ve been working on it. But... in reality, I guess I wanted to discuss something with you first.”

Roberto didn't know what to expect, but he tensed up nevertheless.

“Who’s... Josef?” Hiraga asked, with no further preamble. “You’ve never called me that, even though it’s my given name, so I assumed he’s not me. And… have you been crying? Is it because you…” His words died in his throat: all that fake courage ran out right at the most important part, and he looked away. Roberto completed the phrase for him: he was at ease, almost surreally so, despite the tears still visible in his faintly red eyes.

“Yes, Josef was... a person I truly loved. But he died more than 10 years ago. The Miracle that we witnessed… was him, deciding to save me once again.”

“So it’s like that…” Hiraga smiled sweetly, marveling at the beauty of Roberto’s tears. “I’d… imagined it. A miracle is something that makes the seeds of hope blossom inside someone’s heart. So I can understand, because I’ve experienced the same. We’ve both been blessed by it, and yet... I still doubted.”

“What were you doubting?”

“I was worried about your condition. But maybe… that was…”

Fear of feeling this jealousy?

“You seem to be very troubled, Father Hiraga.” Roberto calmly rested a hand onto Hiraga’s shoulder. Hiraga shuddered, and instinctively took Roberto’s gloves out from his pocket and rested them on his hand.

“I’m giving these back,” he said, nervously diverting the topic and taking one step back.

“Why? You can keep them.”

“No, it wouldn’t make any sense. They’re yours.” Just like those books, and those feelings, and his love. Nothing that had anything to do with him. It was a shock to realize all those things all at once. His feelings for Roberto weren’t a speculation anymore: they pressed against his heart violently, and the more distance he perceived from Roberto, the more painfully they wanted to gush out.

“Like I said, you seem to be very troubled... but not surprised. You were asking yourself questions, weren’t you?”

Of course I have. What about all those nudges, touches, knowing looks and then—

Just that day—it was just a few hours before—Roberto had kissed him. None of them could forget that, of course. As they strolled the city in search for clues, at some point they’d instinctively took a turn for a deserted street, and as quick as the chilling wind crossed them, those hands, those warm hands that had held his before clasped Hiraga’s cheeks; Roberto’s trembling lips had tasted his in such a furious hurry that, afterwards, it felt like it had barely even happened.

And just like that, they’d gone through the rest of the day without saying anything; but the memory of what had happened stayed with them and silently obsessed them.

It consumed Hiraga now, as he considered the nightmare of being just a substitute. And since Roberto considered him such a ‘pure soul’, he probably never would have attempted something like that again. On the other hand, Hiraga was too anxious and timid, too inexperienced, as a matter of fact, to make any of that happen again, never anything so concrete, especially with someone who… probably had their mind on someone else.

As he was on the verge of giving up, of stepping away from that room, willing to completely forget about everything this time, Roberto did something unexpected.

“If you asked for advice to God whether to speak to me, it was at the right time, because I wanted to talk to you about it, too.” Roberto said, as he fervently hugged Hiraga now.

“Roberto…?”

“It’s because of your presence that I’ve finally realized something. Even if he is always with me… Even if he gave me incalculable hope, and made me who I am now… No matter how much I call for him, because I want him to be actually here, the one who truly replies to my calling is you. You’re the true miracle. His life has ended, and I can finally accept that… but the inheritance he gave me is where I stand and where I’m headed now."

Hiraga didn’t reply with words, but slightly wrapped his arms around him and squeezed, reciprocating the hug.

“I shouldn’t have said any of this, maybe… Sorry, it’s too confusing. But...” He let go of the other, ashamed.

“No, I understand. But… are you sure? Are you sure I’m enough? That all of this… is what you want?” Hiraga gestured at himself, then at the other, meaning something he didn’t want to put to words, as it was too threatening; his hand trembling a bit in the process.

“Yes, God, yes. I am sure, Hiraga… you’re all I could ever wish for. I’ve never been this sure in my life.”

 

***

 

“How did it feel for you when you first became a servant of God, Hiraga?”

“I suppose… it felt like falling in love.” Hiraga paused, then corrected himself. “But, rather, falling in love with the entire universe. Wasn’t it like this for you, too, Roberto? Isn’t it like this for everyone like us?”

They lay in bed—so many things had happened after the day they had confessed to each other.

Hearing that prompt reply, Roberto had no choice but remember the time he felt love for the first time. Gradually, the doors of the universe had opened for him, taking him out of a tunnel of void and perdition. It was the effect of being saved. He smiled at the memory, and replied: “Yes, it was like that to me, too. I was just curious about you.”

In truth, Roberto had only a faint knowledge of what it was that made it so for their love to exist—for this whole situation to exist—even after all the mysteries he’d been through and solved.

Loving, being loved, losing love, and then finding it again.... The gratitude lingered, even after the dark had enveloped him. Like a tiny seed that waited for the winter to pass, the books had stayed, and while reading them, he'd found the path of his life, and consolation in memory. Thanks to those seeds, truth had bloomed. But the miracle that had recently happened… that, had sealed it—his faith, his love, truth.

That’s how it’d happened, right? But why had it been so difficult for him to understand? He felt guilty for making Hiraga wait so long and for troubling him needlessly. But there were limits to understanding miracles even for people like them, right? Despite all that, he needed to confess that sin, too.

Hiraga had stayed strangely quiet, so Roberto decided to comment.

“But even so… I believe your heart must be way bigger than that of a normal human, and definitely bigger than mine, Hiraga. Mine still struggles to discern a lot of things, and it’s been only through the love for one person that I could grasp at anything, really. You, on the other hand—”

“But that’s not true, Roberto. Loving people is what makes us love God in the first place, have you forgotten about that? My heart... may get filled up with the vastness of God’s infinite love, but when I look at one person I love them for who they are. Then upon that love, another, bigger, infinite one, which is God’s, arrives and enlarges the boundaries of that already existing and individual love… That’s when I feel like I’m truly loving. The way God loves, the way it should be! I suppose because of that, my love for you is, in fact, exceeding infinity.”

“Exceeding… infinity?”

He thought about it for a while, and when it hit him, he exploded in joy. Infinity! God’s love… all in one place. Speechless, he hugged Hiraga and sighed, almost on the verge of tears.

“Are you going to cry again, Roberto?” .

Roberto chuckled in response, but was indeed already starting to cry. Right then, he could feel Hiraga’s shoulders cave in.

“Why? Why are you crying, too, Hiraga?”

“I did say those things, and they’re all true, but even so… Regarding you, I have sinned. I doubted you and felt jealous. I’m so sorry… But you have to believe me, I love you.”

“Hiraga, you don’t have to say you’re sorry. I have already been rewarded with your presence, with your pure heart, your love, your tears! I don’t need anything more!”

As he said the exact words that once had been said to him, he felt a pleasing shock of understanding.

“Roberto…” Hiraga messily wiped out his tears, and said: “It’s the same for me.”

“Right… You really are my true miracle.”