title: All That You Can't Leave Behind
fandom: Fushigi Yuugi
characters/pairings: reincarnation: Nuriko/Hotohori, Nuriko/Nakago, Miaka/Tamahome, one-sided Tasuki/Kouji, Tasuki/Chichiri, Chiriko/Kourin, Mitsukake, one-sided Tomo/Nakago, Yui, Amiboshi/Suboshi, Nakago/Soi, Yui/Tetsuya, Keisuke
rating: Teen/Mature
warnings: mentioned underaged sex, mentioned rape of an underaged boy, drinking, swearing, sex, angst, incestual implication, some bloodshed, crossdressing, and a happy ending
summary: The seishi have been reincarnated, and are coming together... and living in the same house.
notes: see notes

Part 2 - The Part after the beginning

The air was frigid and sparse. Everything seemed harsh and over focused. His eyes were wide and disbelieving, almost absent.

Was he really going to die here, on this mountain, having failed?

The wolf-man's claws were sticking out of his chest, the blood oozing out felt like lava on his skin.

Nuriko was afraid.

But... but... he couldn't die here, he couldn't let his priestess down...


He felt his strength gathering. There was the presence... He had never thought about it before, but that presence that enveloped him when he used his strength... Was that Suzaku?

He almost laughed. Until Miaka had shown up, he hadn't even really believed in Suzaku. A Beast God?? In Nuriko's more practical world, there was always something more important to think about other than matters of theology.

But his powers were a gift, and a responsibility. How many times had he used those powers to defend himself, to prevent the small-minded masses from having their way with him? Now, he needed that strength to pay Suzaku back for his gift, to protect his priestess...

To protect his kingdom.

Nuriko flipped himself over the fierce wild thing beneath him, wrapping his arm around his thick neck. To protect his priestess, he had to...

And when that task was done, there was another task for him, because Suzaku's strength would be needed to move that boulder. To protect his priestess...

He thought that he had already died when Tamahome picked up his head. He thanked Suzaku for allowing him to say his goodbyes before he died. Tamahome and Miaka were there together, and seeing their faces, Nuriko felt a sense of peace settle over him that he could never have imagined before. In that moment, he knew, he knew, they would be together forever. Just as they should be.

It had been worth his life, for his priestess and his kingdom.

He hadn't intended to think of anyone. He had wanted to die here, in Tamahome's lap, basking in their love. But in the next thought, he was somewhere else. He was kneeling over a short table, clutching his heart in what felt like pain. There were advisors all around him, asking him if the Emperor was all right?

Whispering, he let go. Goodbye... I really did love you...

Ryuen woke from his dream with a blood-curdling scream that brought Houjun and Saihitei tearing into his room. Before he could register that he had thrown off his sheets, and that the lights were on, he realized that Houjun had taken him into his arms and was comforting him, saying that it was only a dream.

Only a dream...

Saihitei was standing over them, worry crisscrossing his brow.

Ryuen took in a shuddering breath, and let the dream slip away from him once again.

Houjun's worried eye was watching him. "Are you all right, Ry-kun?" At Ryuen's nod, he continued, "It was just a nightmare." More cautiously, he added, "Do you remember what you were dreaming about?"

Ryuen looked up at Houjun, meeting his gaze. Brushing the longer hair away from Houjun's bad eye, he ran a finger over the scar that closed the eye shut. "Bad things." His voice was just above a stutter.

Saihitei scowled. At first, his heart had nearly leapt out of him, thinking that Ryuen was sleeping in the nude. He quickly realized, though, that the other man was wearing silk boxers that were all bunched up at his groin. That wasn't a huge improvement in Saihitei's eyes. Of course, he wasn't supposed to be thinking about a nude Ryuen at the moment anyway, but it was inevitable. Now, naturally, he was wondering at the way Ryuen spoke to and acted around Houjun. Did he like the older man? Had Nuriko harbored a crush on Chichiri? Was Houjun receptive to Ryuen's charms?

This was definitely not the way he was supposed to be thinking when a friend was in distress.

Kneeling down gently next to the bed, he tucked a loose braid behind Ryuen's ear. Ryuen usually slept with his hair in several braids, all tied together loosely at his back with a ribbon. This was something that Saihitei had learned about his former friend in the 5 days they had been living in the same house. Mentally, Saihitei was keeping a register of all the things that he was learning about Ryuen, just in case. "Would you like a cup of tea, or warm milk?"

Ryuen looked down at him gratefully, a soft smiling gracing his face. "Hot chocolate. The cure for bad dreams is hot chocolate."

Saihitei smiled back, automatically. "I think we can accommodate you there..."

"Oh, Saihitei, you don't have to, I can..." Ryuen made as if he was going to get out of bed.

"No, no, I'll get it, you stay here." And Saihitei got up, and walked out, forcing himself not to wonder what Ryuen and Houjun would do when he was gone.

In the kitchen, he gathered up a mug, and the kettle. His nanny had always made him hot chocolate on the stove, using really cocoa, but Saihitei had never mastered the art of making it himself. He thought maybe he wasn't using enough sugar, or perhaps he didn't stir it properly... Whatever, he had to use the pre-made packets. He hoped that would be all right for Ryuen.

He watched the pot as the water was heating. The house was developing a rhythm, a routine of people moving in and out and eating and socializing...

Of course, it was still the first week of school, so things were hardly normal yet. Ryuen was spending most of his free time at the lab at school, setting up his darkroom. Since he hadn't had access over the summer, he had about thirty-eight rolls of film waiting to be developed, and since he seemed to always have a camera on him, he was quickly going through more every day. But Saihitei had been delighted to discover that he and Ryuen were the only night owls in the house.

Well, Genrou was always up late, but he was usually out with Kouji, and didn't stumble home until he was ready to fall into bed. Ryuen would make jokes about Genrou and Kouji as he and Saihitei would watch Genrou fall into his room.

Ryuen had had about three 'guests' over already, much to Saihitei's consternation and pain, two girls and one guy. One of the girls had spent the night, and the next morning, she and Ryuen had kissed passionately at the door before she left. Then, Ryuen told her not to worry, he was sure that she and her boyfriend would be back together soon.

Honestly! What kind of girl was that, to sleep with someone else, when she was in love!

Saihitei noted that his judgments on the moral lassitude of Ryuen's guests seemingly didn't include Ryuen himself, but he had decided to continue to ignore that for a while...

It was torture, though, seeing Ryuen with other people, seeing him post-orgasmic, seeing him pre-orgasmic...

Myojuan had commented that Ryuen was a 'sexually charged pistol,' in jest, but it was certainly the truth.

Nuriko had always been modest, almost afraid of anyone seeing too much flesh or getting too close. But, that had probably been an artifact of his secret. Ryuen certainly didn't have any secrets from anyone.

Why did that have to be so damned sexy? Ryuen's confidence and freedom sang to Saihitei with more vengeance than his slim hips or heavenly hair ever could.

Taking up the hot mug, Saihitei sent up a silent prayer that Houjun would have already returned to his own room.

Rounding the corner to Ryuen's bedroom, Saihitei was at once relieved and suddenly tense. Houjun was, indeed, gone, but Ryuen had moved over to his drafting table/desk and hadn't, apparently, felt the need to put on any additional clothing or a robe. He had one knee up, hugged to his chest, and his loose boxers were open at the crotch. Quickly shifting his eyes up, he almost dropped the hot chocolate when he caught the gleam of metal from Ryuen's chest.

"Saihitei, you should have brought some up for yourself," Ryuen chided. "It's always more fun to drink with someone else."

Saihitei had gotten used to Ryuen's constant teasing-slash-flirting. He hadn't gotten used to the notion of Ryuen without clothes...

Swallowing hard as he handed over the mug, he met Ryuen's wicked eyes. "You have a nipple ring! How long have you had that?? Did that hurt?"

Well. That wasn't what he had meant to say, was it?

Ryuen quirked a smile. "Yup," flicking the dark metal back and forth once, "I knew the guy that did it. I was fourteen, but he let me drink about a bottle of sake before he did it. And I started to really... appreciate it as soon as it had healed even a little." Ryuen looked up at Saihitei with what might have been confused with innocent eyes. "Do you like it?"

Saihitei swallowed hard, and pulled over a chair, sitting. Casting his eye about the drafting board, he was immediately relieved to find something else to focus on. "Oh! These pictures are great, Ryuen!" He picked up one shot, examining it carefully. It appeared to be from Ueno Park, although as it was a close-up shot of sakura blossoms falling, it might not have been. There was only the slightest hint of color in the shot, giving it an almost ethereal appearance.

Ryuen wrinkled his nose. "My advisor said I read too much manga when he saw that series. I have to say, they didn't come out quite like I'd hoped. I'm going to redo them, as soon as I can get the time. I want to use the image of the falling sakura for when I do my final project, layering the negatives of sakura and of other things, people, but... I never take the time to measure the light. These shots are all right, but they won't be any good for what I want them for." Ryuen spoke seriously, as he sipped the hot chocolate gingerly. Saihitei watched him, fascinated. Ryuen was completely oblivious to the fact that he was nearly naked, and just so at ease that he could calmly discuss his art as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

Saihitei had to admire that.

"Could I see more of your photos?"

"Sure." With one long stretch, Ryuen leaned back and grabbed an album out of the box nearest to him. Saihitei examined the poster over Ryuen's table, ignoring the periphery awareness that the boxers had completely opened when Ryuen stretched like that. "This one is kinda old, but..."

Ryuen flipped slowly from page to page. Most of the pictures were of people, his family helping Saihitei to place how long ago it had been. Kourin was jumping in almost every one if her, and there were a lot of her. Rokou looked both afraid and annoyed in his pictures. There were a lot of other people too, some of whom Saihitei recognized vaguely as being people that they knew in school, but most were totally unfamiliar. The pictures were mainly snapshots, but every once and a while, a hint of future style peeked out as Ryuen had apparently caught someone unawares. It was remarkable how much feeling and a sense of mood Ryuen was able to capture onto film.

"Is that Ayuru-san?" Saihitei's nose turned in disgust when he caught sight of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed demon. He had never really liked Ayuru, and now he was aware, with crystalline clarity, why.

Ryuen nodded. "Yup. But, he's not a good subject for photography. He's too... cold."

Saihitei didn't want to wonder about Ryuen's use of tense when discussing Ayuru. Fingering one picture of a girl laying down, looking up at Ryuen playfully, Saihitei asked, "What's up with this? Some of these have numbers underneath them..."

"Oh." Ryuen almost blushed. "For a while, I was keeping count of my lovers. I would take at least one picture of the person, and then I would label the photo with the number. I stopped mid-way through high school, though, because I lost count. I missed getting a couple of people's pictures, and then when I had my first threesome I wasn't sure how to number it..."

Saihitei tried not to gape. The number under the girl was seven. Mid-way through high school he had stopped...? How many people had Ryuen been with, anyway??

Clearing his throat anxiously, Saihitei tried desperately to stop himself from asking the next question. "Uh, so, do you have any idea how many people you've been with total?"

Ryuen arched an eyebrow at him. "Why?" Sighing, he continued without letting Saihitei stumble through an answer. "I don't know exactly, but I would guess that I've been with something like... fifty people. Maybe. Probably less."

Saihitei had to consciously remind his heart to pump. "Um... doesn't that seem... like a lot? Does that... does that worry you?"

Ryuen shrugged. "It probably is a lot, I don't know. I'm young, and beautiful, and I never have to sleep alone if I don't want to. I think that's a good thing. And, I get tested regularly, for everything, and I'm always careful." He shrugged again, looking at Saihitei. "I don't know. How many people have you been with?"

Saihitei blushed madly, making Ryuen giggle. Giggle!

"Oh, c'mon, I've told you a lot about my sex life." Saihitei sighed, it was true. In their late night conversations, Ryuen had said a lot about his sex life. Enough to make sleeping for Saihitei... messy. "You can tell me this one thing!"

Saihitei fidgeted, which made Ryuen giggle more. "I... I've never, I mean... I... I kissed this guy, in high school. And, um, there was another guy my freshman year in college, I, er, we, but... but not... I mean, we didn't..."

Ryuen's eyes had gone wide. "You're a virgin??"

Saihitei turned the bright red, and looked down, almost ashamed.

Ryuen's hand immediately went to his shoulders, comforting. "Hey, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply there was anything wrong with that. I'm just... surprised. You do know that you could have had sex at any time if you had wanted to, right? You are... so beautiful." Ryuen's tone of voice surprised even him.

Saihitei smiled. "Th-thank you. I just..."

"It's ok." Ryuen dazzled him with a smile. "You don't have to explain. It's your choice, and there's no reason for you to feel like you have to justify it."

"Thank you." Saihitei was trapped in Ryuen's gaze, the brown-rose eyes filled with so much care and acceptance...

Saihitei wanted to stay here forever.

"Oh, man, look at the time. You have class in three hours, don't you?" Saihitei took a moment to be pleased that Ryuen knew his schedule. "We should get back to bed." Ryuen smiled at the nearly befuddled Saihitei. Looking indecisive for a second, Ryuen leaned over and kissed the Saihitei's cheek. "Thank you, for taking care of me tonight." The phrase seemed loaded with some hidden meaning that Saihitei could only guess at. He blinked, and smiled back at Ryuen.

"Uh..." getting up seemed to require more thought than Saihitei was used to giving to standing. "I guess... good night then. And, sleep well. No more nightmares."

Ryuen saluted him, giving a saucy grin. "No more nightmares, got it."

When Saihitei fell into his bed, he closed his eyes and tried to image anything else besides the feel of Ryuen's lips on his flesh. He wouldn't get any rest if he did.

Rest is highly overrated, though, he decided.

The first week of school was finished. Finally. Taka had just gotten out of the shower when the doorbell rang. Since he was expecting Chuei, he ran down in his jeans, with his shirt open.

Naturally, the last thing he was expecting to see when he opened the door was a smirking Nakago.

Which is why he jumped back, tripped, and fell on his ass, leaving his legs akimbo and his shirt wide open.

Which is why Ayuru began to smirk even more wickedly than normally.

Before either of them could say anything, Miaka wandered in to see if it was Chuei. "Hey, Taka, is your brother here ye-aheiohah!!!!" And then Miaka fell on her ass, although she didn't trip first.

Ayuru made an admirable effort at not laughing.

Miaka was making unintelligible noises when Saihitei wandered in from the kitchen, wondering what was going on. He griped the can he was holding, forgetting that he had already opened it and so it wasn't as durable as it might could have been. Fortunately, he barely noticed the pop pouring over him as he tried to suppress his rage at seeing Ayuru.

"Hello, Saihitei-san. Nice house." Ayuru was so glad that he had come over.

Before Saihitei could grumble out a response, Ayuru doubled over as Ryuen jumped on his back.

"Ayuru-chan!!!!!!!! Why are you hanging out on my porch??" Ryuen had six coffees that day, since he had been up much of the night due to his nightmare. Not that anyone could tell.

"No one's invited me in yet," Ayuru replied dryly, trying to wrestle Ryuen to his front.

Dropping off of his back, giggling, Ryuen opened the screen door. "What's wrong with you guys? Miaka, Taka, why are you on the floor, don't you have a perfectly good room for that???"

Miaka and Taka tried to respond in the middle of their furious blushing and stammering and trying to get up without touching each other.

Ryuen frowned at the spill at Saihitei's feet, but decided against saying anything. "Er, Saihitei, Taka, you guys must remember Ayuru-kun. And Miaka, this is my best friend and former next-door neighbor, Gi Ayuru. Ayuru, this is Yuuki Miaka, Taka's girlfriend."

"Pleasure to meet you, Yuuki-san." Ayuru made a big show of bowing and being polite, just because it made Taka's face even redder and madder.

"So, I'm surprised to see you, Ayuru-chan. I thought Kaen told you that you weren't allowed to see me anymore." Ryuen winked at Ayuru conspiratorially.

Ayuru sighed. "Like I would let some woman tell me who I could or could not see."

Ryuen giggled. "I guess she dumped you this time!!"

Ayuru scowled.

Ryuen turned to the others to explain. "Kaen is Ayuru's sometimes girlfriend. They trade off who gets to dump who. Last time they got together again, Kaen told Ayuru that he couldn't see me since I was such a bad influence on him. Which is funny because most people say it the other way around." Ryuen winked at Ayuru, who took that as a signal to pick Ryuen up at the waist and throw him down on the couch. Jumping on top of him, Ayuru proceeded to start tickling Ryuen madly, causing him to wriggle... A wriggly Ryuen was a very good thing.

"I'm the bad influence? When have I ever lead you astray?"

"Well..." Ryuen gasped, "there was the time when we were ten when you got me to jump into that water reclamation ditch to get the frisbee, and I got stuck... and when we were fifteen, you got me so drunk I threw up all over the principle's shoes at the dance... and when we were seventeen..."

"Shut up, Ry-chan." Ayuru started to nibble at the neck just below the back of his ear, making Ryuen scream and bang his legs on the couch.

Saihitei put the can down and wiped off his hands. In his most regal tone, "Perhaps the two of you should reconnect somewhere more... private." Tossing his hair back disgustedly, he went back to the kitchen to get a towel to mop up the mess.

Giggling, Ryuen squirmed out from under Ayuru. Affecting Saihitei's tone, he turned to Ayuru. "Perhaps you'd like to see my room."

Playing along, Ayuru replied, "Perhaps that would be a more suitable arrangement."

They were laughing the whole way up the stairs.

Miaka turned to Taka, looking hopelessly confused. "Nuriko is friends with Nakago in this life?!?!"

Ayuru was in one of his most favorite places in all the world; Ryuen's bed. The two boys were spread out next to each other, still giddy and slap happy.

"You enjoyed that way too much, Ayuru." Ryuen should have sounded accusatory, but only managed to sound vaguely disapproving.

"What can I say? I've always enjoyed torturing them!" Ayuru snagged a hold of Ryuen's waist, pulling him closer.

Ryuen groaned, and pushed away. "You probably shouldn't be reminding me what an asshole you were when you are trying to get in my pants."

Ayuru responded by sucking lightly on Ryuen's earlobe.

Ryuen sighed, and relaxed a little. In truth, he had missed his friend. He knew perfectly well that Ayuru was a manipulative jackass, but that didn't mean he didn't like spending time with him.

"So... if you and Kaen are separated, again, where are you..."

"I kicked the guy subletting my old place out. The rent's a bit much there without a roommate, but I'll just work a couple of extra shifts a week. No big deal. So, how's life in the big house? Regretting it yet?"

Ryuen chuckled lightly as he opened the button at Ayuru's neck with his teeth. "It's great here. Isn't the room nice? Plus, I get to live with everyone again... Like Miaka, and Tamahome..."

Ayuru scrunched up his nose. "Did you actually love that little piggy? I can't imagine it..."

Ryuen leaned back, shaking his head. "I did love her. I do love her. But... she's like sister to me."

"You have a perfectly good sister at home, you know..."

"They're good people, Ayuru-chan. They're my people."

Ayuru just rolled his eyes, and pulled Ryuen's shirt out of his pants.

"Honestly. You could at least act a little repentant, after all. You did try to kill everyone, succeeded in killing several of them, and tried take over the world. And what were you going to wish for? To be a god?" Ryuen rolled his eyes.

"I would make an excellent god. You should weep that my wish wasn't granted."


"And why should I repent, anyway? That was another life, like a dream, really. I'm not going to let it control me, now. Isn't that what you used to tell me? That our past life was like a trial, and this was our second chance, that every day was a gift so we were obligated to try to be happy?"

Ryuen sighed, and rolled to his side. He touched Ayuru slowly, running his hand up and down his friend's side. "I know. It's just... it feels different now, living here."

"You aren't feeling... pulled to the past, or anything?" Ayuru sounded worried.

"No. I'm still a believer in second chances. More so now, than ever, really, since I can see how much better everything is for everyone. But..."

Ayuru put his hand on the smaller man's face, rubbing his thumb gently over the delicate cheekbone. "What is it?"

Ryuen tucked himself into the protection of Ayuru's arms. "I dreamed about my death again last night. I was thinking about it and... I wonder why we came back here, in this time, in this place, and that we could all be together again. It seems... odd."

Ayuru kissed Ryuen's brow reverently. "Maybe we came together for a reason, Ry-chan. An important reason that will guide and shape our destiny forever."

"I know, I know, great sex... you've told me that before, remember?"

Chuckling, "Yes, but you seem to need encouragement from time to time..."

Ryuen shook his head, a smile lightening his expression.

"What is it like, seeing Saihitei again? Living with him?" Ayuru rubbed his hand into Ryuen's shoulder, loosening muscles gently.

Ryuen paused to think. There were times when he hated how perceptive Ayuru was. "I know what you are thinking, that I'm getting contemplative and thinking about the past because of Saihitei, that I'm hoping that this second life is a chance for me to be with him... But you're wrong. I don't love Saihitei. I'm not going to. That would be... repeating a past-life mistake."

Ayuru frowned slightly. It certainly was in his best interest to have Ryuen not be interested in Saihitei, but he knew his friend better than this. "So, you aren't going to renounce your life of debauchery, and settle down with the wussy emperor to raise a bunch of adopted kids and contemplate your beauty together all day?"

Ryuen snickered, and began to undo the buttons on Ayuru's shirt. "Silly! Of course not! In this life, it was made abundantly clear that Saihitei and I are just... from two different worlds. And never the twain shall meet..."

Ayuru was making his way down Ryuen's chest with his tongue when Ryuen sighed. "Of course..."


"He is really gorgeous!"

Ayuru groaned and buried his face in Ryuen's tummy.

"I can't help it! He's so beautiful, with that rich, chestnut hair, and those sparkling eyes! When he has his hair pulled back, his face is so young, and fresh! And when it's down, he's so... sultry. Mm. And his body..." Ryuen shivered. "Oh, his shoulders and chest... Plus... he's as kind and gentle as ever. Not as sad, though, which is good..."

Ayuru glared. "I thought you said that you weren't in love with him."

"I'm not! I'm just... observant. I can't help noticing how attractive he is. Oh, and he's totally infatuated with me..."

"So. Have him, and be done with it." Ayuru slid his hand into Ryuen's pants, rubbing the skin on his cheek.

"I couldn't! He's a virgin! I couldn't plunder his innocence like that! I would never do something like that!" Ryuen was uncommonly vehement.

Ayuru kissed him softly, quieting him. "I'm sorry, I know that, I didn't realize..."

Ryuen turned his head to Ayuru's shoulder. "He's so... pure, pristine. That's probably why I'm so attracted to him, I'm just the opposite. He's the undefiled, pristine beauty, and I'm the wanton, wasted harlot..."

"Hey!" Ayuru sat up and held Ryuen's face rigid in between his hands, forcing his gaze. "Don't talk about yourself like that! He's not better than you, and he never was! Damn it, you are worth ten of him, and I'm glad you don't love him, because that self-centered twit doesn't deserve you!"

Ryuen tried to look away, but Ayuru wouldn't let him. So Ryuen pulled Ayuru down for a hot kiss. "But he's the emperor. And I'm in bed with his murderer." Just a whisper, barely audible.

Ayuru gathered Ryuen close to him. "You are the strongest person I have ever known. The things you've endured would have killed most men, and you thrive. Don't ever believe for a second that you are anything less than amazing."

Ryuen pulled back, suddenly suspicious. "Why are you being so nice? You're usually more... evil."

Ayuru shrugged. "We all have days when we are a bit off our game."

Ryuen laughed, letting Ayuru pull him back down to the bed, letting Ayuru pull his shirt off, his laughter slowly fading as they gradually reached nudity, a comfortable rhythm re-establishing itself between them and within them.

Sometimes, old friends are the best friends.

Miaka, Saihitei, Taka, and Do-kun were in the living room, watching Taka and Do-kun play video games. Do-kun had never played before moving into the house, and he was already winning. Taka had determined that it was because Do-kun was a genius. Saihitei had determined that it was because Taka sucked.

Miaka turned when she heard footsteps on the stairs.

The thought of Nakago and Nuriko together made her physically ill, but Taka had convinced her that it was only because they were neighbors in this world, and, after all, they had no way to know if Nakago was different in this world. Still, she thought Ryuen could have better taste in friends.

Even she had to admit, though, that Ayuru was hot. He must have brought clothes with him this afternoon, which she thought was presumptuous, because now he was wearing tight, torn black jeans and a shiny grey-silver shirt. Ryuen was skipping right behind him, wearing leather pants so tight they looked painted on, and a see-through dark red shirt. "Hey guys! What is everyone up to tonight?"

"Myojuan went to spend the night with his girlfriend, Shouka, Houjun went to this art film festival with some grad student friends of his, and Genrou is out with Kouji. Of course. Cool nipple ring, Ry-kun." Miaka almost sounded like her usually perky self as she tried to not look at Ayuru.

Ryuen winked at her. "Thanks. Well, Ayuru-kun and I are going out. Um, you guys can come if you want, but we're going to this gay bar for drinks before heading to a club."

"That's all right, Ry-kun. Taka and I were going to watch movies tonight anyway. Apparently, we're on a budget and we can't afford to do fun things." She made a face at Taka, who was glaring at the tv screen.

"Miaka, we are on a budget because I only have so much money and you keep ordering take out!" Taka was sure that there must be some rule against child prodigies who play video games...

Miaka stuck her tongue out at Taka, who couldn't see it anyway. "Is that a purse, Ry-kun?" Miaka pointed at the leather satchet Ryuen was hooking around his belt loops. It was small and very thin, hanging just below his hip now that he had it settled.

"Well, these pants are too tight to put anything in the pockets, so I have to have something to carry my id and money in." Ryuen demonstrated the tightness by smoothing his hands over his hips and bottom. "Saihitei, would you like to come with us tonight?"

Saihitei nearly jumped at the sound of his name. Besides watching Ryuen come into the room, he had tried to ignore the two boys. Then he had tried not to stare and drool when Ryuen had begun touching himself. His mind felt like it was on fire with imagined visions of Ryuen and Ayuru together. He felt a depression settling over him for the evening. It was bad enough not being able to be with Ryuen himself, bad enough that he had to watch other people be with Ryuen, but this! This was worse than anything he could think of.

Looking up, and feeling guilty, Saihitei tried to form coherent thought. "Er... thanks, but I have plans already."

Ryuen perked up. "Oh yeah? Cool, what are you doing tonight?"

"Um..." Saihitei turned red. "Well, we rented a bunch of movies..."

"Oh, c'mon." Ryuen went to kneel next to Saihitei. "You should come with us. We'll have fun, I promise."

Saihitei's body flushed, his throat went parched, and he felt his blood pouring away from everywhere except his groin. He looked up at Ayuru, and almost laughed out loud at the scowl that was distorting the tall man's face. "That's... really nice, but I'm not really a club type. Besides, the first week of school always leaves me tired."

Ryuen watched Saihitei from narrowed eyes for a moment longer before sighing. "All right, Saihitei, but you have to come out with us some other time. I think you've spent too much time cloistered." On impulse, and because he knew it would fluster Saihitei and annoy Ayuru, Ryuen leaned down and kissed Saihitei's cheek.

They could hear Ayuru on the porch asking Ryuen in a very annoyed tone why he had asked Saihitei to go out with them.

Ryuen didn't get home until late in the morning, and he slept most of the afternoon. Saihitei hadn't waited up for him, naturally, because that would have been stupid, but since he had been up all night anyway he slept most of the afternoon as well.

It was late in the evening when Ryuen came downstairs for the first time.

The whole house was flopped out on the couches in the living room. Do-kun and Houjun were playing video games, but no one seemed to be paying attention to them.

"Hey, all. What's going on? Is anyone hungry?" Ryuen seated himself on the floor next to Saihitei, but not because he wanted to make him squirm, because that would have been mean.

Miaka perked up from where she was napping on Taka's tummy. "Food? Are we getting food?"

Taka patted her on the head lightly. "Yes, dear, we're getting food..."

Genrou tossed the phone to Ryuen. "Your deal, man."

"'Kay." Ryuen smiled to himself. "So, what's going on tonight, anyone got big plans?"

Myojuan put down his medical textbook to answer. "Well, Shouka is working tonight. She's an EMT, as well as a student. So, I'm spending the night in with Do-kun."

Genrou interrupted him. "It's been a fucking week, man, and Kouji and I have already been banned from three bars! Fucking pricks, if they didn't wanna deal with drunks, why'd they go work in a bar?? Anyway, Kouji has a date tonight."

"Oh, don't worry, honey, he'll come back to you." Ryuen ducked.

"HE'S NOT MY BOYFRIEND!!!!" Genrou turned bright red.

Miaka spoke up. "Taka and I are still, apparently, on a budget."

Taka just sighed.

Ryuen ordered some take out, and hung up the phone to find Miaka in his face, scowling.

"You didn't order enough food for everyone."

If he was a character in an anime, he just knew he would fall flat on his back.

Houjun smiled, and turned to look at Ryuen. "Well, it doesn't look like any of us have much of anything to do tonight, you know?"

Ryuen smiled back, and then turned to find Saihitei glaring at Houjun. Giggling madly inside his head, Ryuen asked, "Saihitei-kun, you aren't doing anything tonight?"

Blushing, Saihitei turned to find Ryuen's brown-rose eyes fixed innocently on him. "Er, well, not really, no..."

Narrowing his eyes, Ryuen studied the other boy. "You didn't do anything last night either, but you were up all night. What do you do for fun, anyway?"

Wishing that he could hide under the couch, Saihitei responded, "I, er, mostly, well, I just spend time with friends..."

Miaka glomped onto Saihitei hard. "Our Sai-kun is just a homebody. But hey! What a body!"

While Saihitei died a few thousand small deaths, and everyone else giggled, Ryuen shook his head tenderly, surreptitiously eyeing Saihitei's body. "So, then, since we are all home, what are we going to do tonight?"

"You're staying in tonight, Ry-kun?" Miaka leapt from Saihitei's lap to Ryuen's lap. Ryuen reacted by quickly wrapping his arms around her and wriggling her around, much to Taka's discomfort.

"Yech. I was up all night, Miaka-chan. I can't imagine going out again tonight."

"What were you doing all night, Ryuen-kun?" Do-kun turned to look at the older boy.

Genrou muttered something about it being who Ryuen was doing last night while Ryuen blushed and demurred. Do-kun turned back to his game with a scowl. When would people stop treating him like he was ten? Just because he was younger doesn't mean he was completely sheltered...

"We should do something fun! Together! Yay, group activity!!" Miaka now bounced into Taka's lap, which at least spared everyone else the embarrassment of being subjected to her cuteness.

"What did you have in mind, you know?" Houjun sounded dubiously afraid.

After thinking for a moment, she brightened. "Truth or Dare! That would be a great way to get to know everyone!"

"No. Way." Ryuen shook his head. "We are way too old for truth or dare." Everyone sighed a collective sigh of relief. "Well... unless we had some alcohol, then we could play the drinking truth or dare..."

Houjun, Myojuan, Do-kun, Taka, and Saihitei started to look around at one another, assessing the strength of their opposition.

Genrou jumped up, crying, "I've got some fucking great shit in my room! Lemme go get it!"

The remaining housemates resigned themselves, knowing that they were powerless against a perky Miaka, a resolute Ryuen, and a Genrou preparing to get soused.

Still, Taka made one last ditch effort. "But Miaka and Do-kun are too young to drink..."

Ryuen shrugged. "They can do shots of Coke. The caffeine will have relatively the same effect. Ok! So here's the rules! Whoever starts will pick a name and then they will ask that person a question. If they don't mind answering, they answer the question, and then do a shot. If they don't want to answer, they have to do a dare, whatever the person want them to do. And then they do two shots. Then, it's their turn to pull out a name and ask a question."

"I go first, since it was my idea!" Miaka was jumping like crazy. Ryuen considered pointing out that technically, it was his idea, but thought better of it.

Do-kun was surprisingly interested in the idea, making up the cards with names and borrowing one of Houjun's funky hats to pull the names from, and getting the shot glasses, courtesy of Genrou, and the Coke set up.

Pretty soon, the food was there, the game was all set up, and everyone was roughly in a circle, ready to play.

Giggling, Miaka pulled the first name out. "Ryuen! Ok, so, truth or dare, Ry-kun! How did you get interested in photography?"

Ryuen smiled as he shoved some food into his mouth. "That's easy. I started it as an assignment from my therapist when I was thirteen. He was a jackass, and he wasn't comfortable discussing my 'problem.' So, instead, he gave me 'assignments' to do. He told me to take some pictures that would show how I view the world. It was a stupid assignment, but I liked carrying a camera around with me and taking pictures all the time, so I kept it up."

Miaka scrunched up her nose, thinking. "Why were you in therapy when you were thirteen, Ry-kun?"

Ryuen winked at her as he raised his shot glass. "That's a completely different question, Miaka. You'll have to wait until the next time you get me. Ok! My turn!" Grabbing the hat, he pulled out another name. "Taka! Hee, all right, let's see..." Taka began to sweat as he could almost see the wheels spinning in Ryuen's wicked brain. "Truth or Dare! How many more times a week have you been masturbating since you've been living with Miaka?"

Everyone hid their giggles except Do-kun, who gave a shocked little 'oh!,' and Miaka, who just started to examine her nails carefully. Taka tried unsuccessfully to speak for several moments before sputtering out, "That's none of your business!"

"You want to do my dare, then?" Ryuen batted his eyelashes at Taka cutely.

Taka weighed his options for a moment. He could either embarrass himself in front of Miaka by giving up some information that he didn't expect to, or he could do whatever Ryuen dared him to do.

"Six times, sometimes more." Picking up his shot glass, he slammed back the burning liquid quickly. "My turn now? Ok, I picked... Myojuan."

All eyes shifted to the large man, who fidgeted slightly under their gaze.

"Ok, uh, truth or dare... have you ever used any kind of illegal drugs?"

Myojuan opened his mouth, ready to speak, when he caught the image of Do-kun in his peripheral vision. If his young cousin fell under any bad influences when he was here, Myojuan knew who his overprotective mother and aunt would blame... Clearing his throat, he shrugged with a smile, "I'll take the dare." With any luck, he could pass it off as being just a whim, as if the question was so stupid, it wasn't any fun to answer.

Taka blinked. He hadn't expected that. "Er, ok, you have to kiss someone in the room for thirty seconds." Looking around and quickly realizing whom Myojuan would pick, he added, "Er, and you can't pick anyone who is in a relationship."

Myojuan paled. Was this better or worse than 'fessing up to smoking pot twice? With a sigh, he looked over his options. Scooting over to Ryuen, he smiled. "Do you mind?" At least Ryuen had kissed men before, and wouldn't get embarrassed or make it into a big deal.

Ryuen just shrugged. "Nope."

Saihitei thought he must have gone mad. Genrou got all excited, and made a big show of timing them. Myojuan leaned in a little, and Saihitei watched from less than two feet away as the med student pressed his lips against Ryuen's, and they kissed for the full thirty seconds.

"3... 2... 1! Ok, you guys can stop now! Ha, Myojuan, we'll have to tell Shouka that she has competition now!" Genrou was laughing like a maniac.

Myojuan just smirked. "No offense, Ryuen-kun, but I would still much rather kiss my Shouka."

"No offense taken, Myojuan-kun." Ryuen matched Myojuan's smirk.

Myojuan threw back his two shots, and then pulled out a name.

Miaka had to confess that she had never been on a roller coaster.

Houjun admitted that he had been in love twice, and that unfortunately, he had fallen in love with his two best friends from when he was a kid, but they had fallen in love with each other. No one seemed particularly shocked that he had loved another man, but then even one week with Ryuen was enough to desensitize most people. At least, that's what Taka said.

Genrou was asked if he'd ever been naked with anyone, but since he wanted to do two shots instead of one he took the dare instead, and he had to sing the national anthem while standing on his head.

Saihitei had been asked if he was in love with anyone currently. Genrou asked him that while wagging his eyebrows suggestively and winking at Ryuen. Miaka told Taka to make sure to beat Genrou up later for being so insensitive. While stammering and stuttering his way through a response, Saihitei decided that there was no way he could answer. If he said no, not only would he be lying, but he would also be rejecting Ryuen like he'd done so often in his past life. If he said yes, everyone would know he was talking about Ryuen, and that would probably just scare the other man away...

Genrou made a big show of thinking up a dare. Finally, with a burst of a wicked smile, "O-kay. Since ya don't wanna tell us who you love... You have ta moon everyone!" Then he fell over laughing.

Saihitei paled. He had to... but, but... that was impossible! He couldn't... especially not with Ryuen right there!

Genrou was crowing that Saihitei had to do whatever he told him to, which only made Saihitei want to run the impudent twit through with his sword even more. Ryuen gently squeezed Saihitei's hand, offering him a sweet, private smile. Screwing up his courage, Saihitei turned his back to the group, closed his eyes tight, and quickly pulled his pants down and then pulled them up again. He felt like his whole body was on fire, and he slammed back the shots as quickly as he could. At least no one was laughing, he thought.

Of course, after the glare Ryuen had given everyone as soon as Saihitei's back was turned, no one would have dared.

Settling back down, Saihitei turned to find Ryuen smiling at him. "See? That wasn't so bad. Nice ass, by the way."

Saihitei decided that since he couldn't bear any more embarrassment, he would just take that as a compliment.

"Ok, well, it's my turn now. Do-kun. Um, all right, well, Do-kun, tell us who you've kissed or who's kissed you."

The boy looked so pleased to be participating at last. "Well! Chika-san kissed me when we were ten on a dare. And Akemi-kun kissed me twice when I was in high school. They were friends, who lived in my neighborhood. And then..." Do-kun stopped short, suddenly nervous. "Um, actually, I would rather have a dare, if you don't mind..." Guilty eyes darted at Ryuen, who immediately became suspicious.

Sitting up, Ryuen's eyes narrowed. "No, you can't switch. You chose to answer the question, now finish."

Saihitei put a hand on Ryuen's shoulder, trying to calm him. "If Do-kun wants a dare..."

"No. Did you kiss Kourin? When could you have done that? Have you seen her this past week?" Ryuen's big brother instincts were in full gear.

Shaking, and backing up, Do-kun unconsciously reached out for his older cousin. "Ah, well, you see, Thursday I was at the National Library, looking up some public records for a paper I was working on, and I ran into Kourin-san and some of her friends who had gone there to work on calculus. They were having trouble, so I helped them out, and then when they were leaving, Kourin-san kissed me on the cheek to say thanks." Do-kun's hand absently went to his cheek when he got to that part of the story, obviously still mesmerized by the memory, even though he was afraid of her brother's wrath.

Ryuen blinked a few times. "Oh. Well, that's so sweet!" Everyone relaxed. "Don't drink the Coke too fast, you don't want to give yourself heartburn."

Do-kun smiled, gratefully. Eagerly, he took his turn, and was quite pleased when he pulled out Ryuen's name. "Ry-kun! Ok, Truth! Or Dare! Why were you in therapy when you were thirteen?"

All eyes shifted to Ryuen who stretched his hands out in front of him. "Ha, I guess I invited this question, huh? Mm."

Saihitei touched Ryuen's arm. "If you don't want to talk about it, you don't have to. I'm sure Do-kun will think of an easy dare."

Clearing his throat and looking directly at the tabletop, Ryuen smiled. "No, it's all right. I don't mind talking about it. I was raped when I was thirteen." The whole house went dead silent. Wrapping his arms around himself, Ryuen elaborated. "I was infatuated with this guidance counselor at school. He ran this gay, lesbian, and bisexual teen group in the area. I joined the group, and was really active in it, just so that I could be around him. I managed to finagle it one day so that I helped him take some stuff back to his place, and then I attempted to 'seduce' him in my awkward just-teen fashion. Just before I really embarrassed myself, his boyfriend came in, and they got into this fight cuz his boyfriend had been upset that he had a student over. 'You'll get into trouble, you'll get everyone into trouble, blah blah blah.' Anyway, I was trying to sneak out, when his roommate showed up." The venom in the word 'roommate' was lethal. "The roommate told me not to worry, that they fought all the time, and they would be done soon, and hey! Why don't you try some sake! And there's this really cool anime in my room." Ryuen's voice was becoming bitter and hateful, his eyes were shaking with repressed tears.

Miaka shifted down so that she could take Ryuen's arm and hug it. Saihitei wanted nothing more than to stop the words, take them away and make them disappear, so that they would never weigh on Ryuen's light heart again.

"I was stupid, young. I thought he was cool to be so nice to me. So I drank and I went with him. And then he tied me to the bed and fucked me raw." Ryuen's voice was shaking and miserable. "My guidance counselor and his boyfriend came in, and then there were police, and I went to the hospital... People shushed things up so that no one knew, and the fucker went to jail. I-I think that I heard that he killed himself after being there for about a year. I guess the other prisoners weren't too happy to live with a gay child-rapist, so he decided that he would rather die than serve out his sentence. I... I didn't speak for months afterwards. For about four months, literally, I never spoke a word. I didn't do much of anything, truthfully. That's when my parents got desperate. They hadn't been thrilled when I told them that I was bisexual, but I think they thought it was just a phase. But after... they didn't care what I did or who, as long as I was all right. So, they sent me to therapist after therapist, hoping that one of them could make a difference for me."

Miaka burst out, tears bright in her eyes. "Ry-chan! Oh, how could you have ever survived that! I thought that I had been raped once, and it nearly killed me! If I hadn't learned that what I thought happened hadn't happened, I don't know what I would have done! How can you be so strong!?" She buried her face in his shoulder, crying and clutching him tightly.

"Miaka... Miaka, no, don't cry. It was a long time ago, really. And, I'm... not over it, per se, but I've learned to live on. I've survived it. And, I got into photography, and archery because of it. Not that that makes it worthwhile or anything, but... you have to take the good and the bad in life, sometimes." Ryuen shrugged, with a wry smile. "Sometimes... I don't know how I survived it. Those four months... were hell. But, Kourin was with me all the time, even more than ever before or since. She even slept in my bed most nights. And Ayuru-kun was there for me."

"Ayuru?!?!?" Taka was floored.

Ryuen smirked. "Yes, Ayuru. He was the only friend that I had at that time. He never kept his distance or made me feel different. He acted like nothing had changed, he just kept coming over to hang out with me, telling me stories about what was going on, trying to make me laugh. He was the only person who didn't treat me as if I were damaged." There was more spite in that one word than anyone there had thought that Ryuen, or Nuriko, knew of. "He was a true friend in my hour of need. Oh, and then we slept together. That helped a lot too."

Saihitei felt weak. "How did that help?!?"

"It was cathartic. Replacing the bad memories and associations with good ones... being held by someone who gave a shit about me. Rewriting my first time so that it was with someone who had some interest in me. It helped a lot, actually. Eventually, going to the therapists helped too, although not for a year or so, really. I started taking pictures all the time, and I started archery, because the concentration and focus helped me to get outside my head. Things got better." He turned to smile at Miaka, placing a kiss on her forehead and wiping away her tears. "And look at me now! I mean, really, look at me... I'm hot, smart, funny, charming, people love me, I have all these great friends, and plenty of fun... There's no reason to shed tears for me, Miaka." Ryuen's smile and soft voice were so... Nuriko. Suzaku's strength and heart...

Miaka wrapped her arms around Ryuen's neck and hugged him tight for a long minute. She wished that all their suffering could have ended when the book was closed, but that wasn't realistic. Instead, she was glad that they all had each other, and she wished that she could have been there for Nuriko when he needed her.

"I'm sorry... So sorry, Ry-kun. I wasn't there for you..." Her teary whisper in his ear.

"Silly girl. We didn't even know each other then. But thank you, Miaka. You have such a strong heart... I'm glad that we are friends now." They held each other's gaze for a moment, before Ryuen kissed her lightly and turned back to the table, picking up his shot glass unsteadily. "Wow! I really brought the house down, didn't I?"

No one knew quite how to react. Myojuan kept his head down, wishing that he knew how to heal the really important wounds. Do-kun's eyes were as wide as saucers as he stared at Ryuen, unable to process what he had heard. Houjun had his hands clasped in front of his mouth, and Genrou just stared, gaping at Ryuen. Taka held Miaka, and tried to keep himself from crying. He felt guilty, for not being a friend to Ryuen when he needed it.

Saihitei put his arm around Ryuen, feeling impotent. Ryuen leaned back and let his head rest slightly on Saihitei's shoulder.

"We need to lighten the mood! Gen-chan, truth or dare, have you and Kouji ever kissed?" Ryuen's teasing voice and wicked smile were in full gear, but his eyes were heavy and tired, and he stayed in the shelter of Saihitei's arm for the rest of the evening.

They played until they ran out of liquor, which didn't take long once Genrou declared that he would do 'sympathy' shots with everyone. It wasn't long before everyone was heading to their respective rooms, the house having apparently made the collective decision to make it an early night.

Saihitei was in the kitchen washing up the dishes when Ryuen startled him.

"You do realize that we are perpetuating homosexual stereotypes, here, don't you?" Ryuen had his usual grin and raised eyebrow.

Saihitei recovered himself and gave Ryuen a blank look.

Ryuen rolled his eyes. "We're in the kitchen cleaning up when all the heterosexuals and mostly heterosexuals are off to bed."

Saihitei smiled back. "Well, it's better than letting any of them do the cleaning. I think Genrou's idea of a clean plate it one that has had all the food licked off of it." Saihitei shivered. His housemate scared him sometimes.

Ryuen chuckled under his breath.

Putting away the last dish, Saihitei turned to Ryuen and began without thinking through what he was going to say, to keep from wimping out. "Ryuen... I've been meaning to tell you... It's because of you that I'm gay." Quickly adding at Ryuen's reaction to that, "No! That's not what I meant! What I meant was, it's because of you that I first realized that I was gay. Because... because, I had a crush on you when we were kids. I-I was afraid to be around you by myself, even when we were very little, because I didn't understand my reactions to you. When I transferred schools, I thought that it would be all right, because, it was just you. That you were special and that's why I felt what I felt for you. But it didn't change anything. I still thought about you all the time, and eventually, I had to face the fact that I was gay." Saihitei bent his head down, ashamed.

Ryuen just smiled. "Well..." Ryuen wasn't sure what to say. He certainly wasn't expecting to hear that. "At the time, I had just thought that you didn't like me, that you thought I wasn't cool enough to hang out with, and that was why you avoided me. It's nice to know there is an actual reason why you abandoned me." Ryuen laughed quietly at Saihitei's expression. "No, no, it's fine! Really, I... I am glad to know that there is a reason though. Heh, maybe that's why your parents hated me so much. Oh, but they probably didn't know that you liked me then."

Saihitei blushed. "Um... Well, they probably did. I was always talking about you. And, what you wore that day, how you combed your hair, your mouth..."

"My mouth?!? How would my mouth be conversation with your parents?" Ryuen's eyes were sparkling again.

"Uh... um, well, they would ask me what happened in school that day, and I would tell them that I watched your mouth as you chewed on your pencil for a half hour." Saihitei had to laugh at himself; it was either that or spontaneously combust.

Ryuen had to hold his sides together, he was laughing so hard. "No wonder your parents had you transferred to get you away from me!"

Saihitei felt warm inside. It almost made up for the terrifying chill that had held him all night. "I'm sorry that I wasn't there for you."

"Don't apologize." Ryuen leaned against the counter and looked away. "It doesn't mean anything. What happened, happened."

"If I had known..."

"Bad things happen to people all the time. I'm glad that everyone didn't know. At the time... I wouldn't have been able to deal with everyone knowing."

"I feel like there's nothing I can do to make up for being such a lousy friend. Like... like, it's too late for us." Saihitei looked away, not wanting to see the confirmation in the other boy's eyes.

Ryuen didn't say anything right away. He just watched Saihitei for the longest time. Finally he moved away from the counter and moved into Saihitei's personal space. Speaking low and sultry, "You used to have a crush on me, Saihitei-san? So, do you still have a crush on me?" Ryuen leaned up, moving his mouth closer and closer to Saihitei's mouth, licking his lips slowly so that Saihitei froze, captivated and enthralled and terrified. Pressing his lips against the corner of Saihitei's mouth, Ryuen paused long enough for time to stand still and Saihitei's heart to stop and leap up.

Leaning back, Ryuen smiled smugly as Saihitei tried to pull himself together again. Sighing and stretching luxuriously right in front of Saihitei, Ryuen yawned. "Mm. I'm tired, think I'll go to bed. You?" Keeping Saihitei's gaze, Ryuen sashayed out of the room slowly.

Saihitei crumbled to the floor, torn apart.

Ryuen grabbed his cell phone as he crawled into bed. After waiting for four rings and the message to play out, "Ayuru. It's me. I guess you are probably out fucking someone. Good for you, I guess. I ended up talking about being raped with all my housemates tonight. Call me, or whatever."

He tossed the phone far away from him, and pulled the blankets above his head.

Saihitei sat in the kitchen, staring off into space.

He didn't see the cabinets right in front of him. His vision was in a land far away, in a time long since dead.

It was night. The air was muggy and sweet, as the air in the palace often was. The Emperor wandered the halls, adrift. The pain he had felt that afternoon, that whisper in the back of his head... he knew. He didn't know why Chichiri hadn't contacted him yet, but perhaps the mage felt that this wasn't the sort of news that should be related from far away.

It was worse, though, because no one knew why his heart had broken.

He found himself in Nuriko's room, the thick scent of soft, floral perfume battled with the clean, fresh aura of the rooms. He picked up random objects, feeling them. He sat down on the bed, and put his hand on the pillow. The satin was cool to the touch, comforting. Nuriko would never sleep here again. He picked up a scarf that was hanging from the bedpost. Nuriko had used this cloth to tie back his hair when it was wet and he was going to bed. Hotohori had seen him use it on a few occasions.

He brought it up to his face and breathed in deeply. He remembered one time that he had nearly bumped into Nuriko coming out of the baths late at night. It was likely that Nuriko used the baths at such off hours because he was almost painfully shy about his body. Hotohori knew that he should have said something, done something, but instead he pushed himself back into the shadows so the smaller seishi wouldn't notice him. Nuriko slipped out of the steaming waters, naked and graceful. He dried himself quickly, and slipped into a thin robe that barely reached mid-thigh. The robe was nearly transparent, and his body was still wet. His hair fell over his shoulders, sopping wet, soaking the robe. He quickly wrung out the hair, and then wrapped it up in a long scarf, drying the hair at the tip after tying off the scarf at the end.

Then, the young man stretched out, sighing softly. He leaned back until he was horizontal, letting his arms rest above his head. He hummed tunelessly, his soft voice echoing slightly against the walls in the baths. Hotohori stood, transfixed.

Finally, Nuriko sat up, picked up his things, and left, throwing on a heavier robe over his inner robe, his hips swaying in time with the melody in his head.

Hotohori watched him go, without wondering why he had come to the baths so late when he knew that the only person in the palace who was in the habit of making use of the baths so late was Nuriko.

Clutching the scarf to his face tightly, the Emperor's tears were silent. He cursed himself with every hitching breath, for his stupidity at clinging to a fantasy of the priestess when each passing year taught him that his interests would lie elsewhere, for his blindness at not recognizing how fragile life was and how easily happiness and truth could slip away, and for his cruelty for watching the fey creature that captivated him get hurt again and again and again when only a word from him would have erased that pain and brought love in return.

I really did love you...

That whisper that he knew was Nuriko would haunt him.

Suddenly, a light came into the room, and Hotohori immediately jumped up. "Who's there!"

A soft gasp, and he turned to see... Nuriko???

"Forgive me, your highness! I... I didn't know that anyone... I didn't mean to interrupt!" Hotohori felt his heart fall. The voice... the voice was all wrong.

He lifted up the face of the trembling form below him. The girl, and from this angle it was perfectly clear that it was a girl, had Nuriko's heart-shaped face, Nuriko's soft purple tresses, and Nuriko's small, pert mouth.

She didn't have Nuriko's charming beauty mark, or his sparkling eyes.

The Emperor smiled at her. "There is no reason for you to apologize. We were... visiting our friend's suite. Are you... a member of the harem?"

The girl looked down. "Y-yes, your highness. My name is Houki. I... I'm a friend of the Lady Kourin's. I come in here to... well, she is my only real friend in the harem. She was kind to me when most of the women in the harem... were not. She said... I think that I reminded her of someone close to her, a relative perhaps. Since she had been traveling with the priestess, I have come here to say my prayers in the room of one of the seishi and of my friend." She blushed. "Is... is there word from the Suzaku Seven, your highness? You seem... upset." Her voice was trembling, uncertain.

He took his hand away and looked away. Unbidden, he spoke, wanting more than anything to be able to share with someone. "Nuriko is dead, Houki. We felt it."

Her eyes went wide and wet. "N-no. Please... your highness... you, you felt it because you are a seishi?"

Goodbye... I really did love you...

"Yes." He hung his head.

Her muffled sobs brought the tears from his eyes. He sat down on the bed again, feeling weak. He wanted to speak about Nuriko, but he didn't know what he should say and shouldn't. But he felt so empty and weak. "You... did you know that the Lady Kourin was not, actually, a lady?"

Houki managed to laugh and cry at the same time. "Yes, your highness. I was quite relieved to discover that, as a matter of fact. I had been very confused when I thought I was in love with another woman."

Hotohori laughed out loud. "I can understand that, Houki." He paused, but in the dimly lit room, surrounded by the feel of Nuriko, he found he needed the release. "I loved him, Houki. But I never told him."

She watched the emperor for a moment, eventually reaching out tentatively to take his hand. "I never told him either, your highness. I think... the Lady Kourin was very isolated, very lonely. I... always wanted to tell him, but... I was afraid of what would happen."

Their eyes met, understanding flowing between them.

"Is... Is he really dead, your highness?" Her eyes were so bright and clear. Hotohori wondered who Houki reminded Nuriko of? There was so little that the emperor knew of his devoted fellow seishi.

Hotohori nodded slowly.

They spent the night grieving in Nuriko's room together. When dawn's red beams stained the walls, Hotohori asked Houki to become the Empress.

They had both understood that it was friendship and trust that initiated their relationship. Hotohori respected his Empress, and loved her as the mother of his unborn child.

But it was her uncommon understanding the night that Nuriko had died that sealed her to him.

Saihitei was cold, the floor of the kitchen making a poor resting spot for the night. He envied Taka, not because he had Miaka, but because he had love.

Saihitei had to go upstairs and sleep across the hall from the one he needed so desperately.

It was going to be a cold night.

notesPart One • Part Two • Part ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart SevenPart EightPart NinePart TenPart ElevenPart TwelvePart ThirteenPart FourteenPart FifteenPart SixteenPart SeventeenPart EighteenPart NineteenPart TwentyPart Twenty-OneEpilogue