Title: White Chocolate
Pairing: Kijin/Shuurei with touch of Ryuuki/Shuurei
A/N: Thank you so much to everyone who reviewed and to the people who put this story on alert! Well, here's another chapter of White Chocolate for your reading and reviewing pleasure!
BTW, I'll say it right now that the ladder scene here is NOT my idea. It actually comes from a scene that happened in the novel/manga that did not make it into the anime. Actually, there are a LOT of Kijin/Shuurei moments that are not in the anime....
Kou Shuurei, who passed as Tanka. You are to be assigned as a junior official to the Ministry of Finance, Department of Finance.
Shuurei had been surprised, to say the least, that she was assigned to the same department she had been in just months before, but it didn't upset her. After all, Chamberlain Kou, although he was a bit of slave driver, was a good person and very fair. She felt honored to be working for him again.
Although, if she were completely honest, she did feel a little bit envious of Eigetsu and Hakumei. To be assigned co-governors at such a young age was a privilege - no, an honor! Still, she had achieved what she had thought at one point to be impossible - to be an official.
Thinking back, she decided that her first day had been interesting, to say the least. She had been expecting some hostility from the other officials - after all, it would take a while for them to be used to the idea of a woman in government, but she hadn't thought they would go about it in such juvenile means. Blocking the door? Honestly! If they had known what she had gone through, they would have realized how futile their efforts were.
The one thing she definitely had not expected was for Chamberlain Kou to stop the one official - Daiwa Lei, if she remembered correctly - from his 'torment'. She wasn't foolish enough to think that he had done it solely for her sake. More than likely, he had been annoyed that she was being kept from completing her work.
She would have been lying, though, if she said that she didn't feel the least bit flattered - and embarrassed - by his actions.
"Ojou-sama?" Seiran asked, concern seeping into his voice. "Are you alright?"
Shuurei shook her head, laughing sheepishly. Picking up her bowl, she said, "I'm fine! I must have spaced out a little. Sorry!"
"So, how is your job, Shuurei?" Shouka asked, taking a bite of his rice.
This conversation sounded awfully familiar to her. She frowned, trying to figure out the reason for this feeling of déjà vu, when it hit her. Of course! Kouyuu had asked her the same thing when she had been working for the Department of Finance that summer.
"It's more challenging than last time," she started, thinking of all the work that was sitting on her desk, just waiting to be completed, "but, somehow, that only makes it even more satisfying."
She decided to leave out the little detail about how her fellow official had been harassing her until Chamberlain Kou had put him in his place. She didn't want her father or Seiran to worry about her, especially over something so trivial. Besides, she had dealt with much worse over the last two months.
"I see. But I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying yourself."
Seiran nodded. "By the way, Ojou-sama, if you are going to be coming home this late, maybe you should let either Shouka-sama or me cook dinner. It wouldn't be right for you to have to work so hard, especially after coming home so late from work."
"No, no. It's alright, really Seiran!" she said, waving her hands frantically. The thought of Seiran cooking wasn't too distressing, but her father? She tried to repress a shudder. "I'll be alright, so don't worry about me."
"If that's what you want," he said hesitantly, a worried look on his face. "But please try not to burn yourself out. You always try so hard to do everything by yourself, but don't be afraid to ask for help from time to time."
Shuurei smiled softly, closing her eyes. "I understand. I promise." Looking at her father's empty bowl, she asked, "Would you like some more rice, Otou-sama?"
"Huh? Ah, yes. Thank you, Shuurei."
"You're welcome," she said, taking the bowl from him and scooping in more rice.
"By the way, Shuurei, how often do you think you'll be staying late?" Shouka asked.
Shuurei returned the bowl to him and frowned. "I'm not sure. There's so much that needs to be done, so I'd say more frequently than not."
"I see," he said, picking up a bit of rice with his chopsticks. "I'm sure everything will work out for the best."
"I think so too," she agreed, smiling gently.
After cleaning the dishes and making sure the kitchen was straightened for the next morning, Shuurei bid her father and Seiran goodnight, closing her room's door behind her. She considering reading a little before going to sleep, but at the rate things were going, she could barely keep her eyes open. Letting out a loud yawn, she stretched, groaning as she felt her back pop in a few places.
"Ah! That felt so good!"
Taking off her outer robes, she placed them on the chair in front of her desk and, after blowing out the candle, hurried to her bed. The weather was getting progressively warmer as the days passed, although it was still chilly at night.
"At least the hardest part is out of the way," she said quietly to herself, shivering at the coolness of the sheets as she slipped under the covers. "Now I know, more or less, what to expect everyday."
Letting out a heavy sigh, she closed her eyes, willing herself to fall asleep. After a couple of minutes, she turned onto her side and then, a moment later, to the other before finally resting on her back. She continued tossing and turning for an hour before she opened her eyes and stared at the ceiling.
No matter how tired her body felt, her mind felt like it was going a million kilometers a minute. She frowned. It confused her, but there was something gnawing at the back of her mind, as though something were amiss.
Had she forgotten to finish something before leaving for the night? No, that couldn't have been it. Somehow, she had finished the paperwork for the agricultural research program. Maybe she had forgotten to blow out the candle at the department before she had left? Well, she had left the candle burning, but that was only because Chamberlain Kou was still working, so it only made sense.
Now that she thought about it, she had been rather informal with him, much more than usual. She wasn't sure what had come over her when she had offered him one of her manjuu and some tea, like she would do for Shuuei or Kouyuu. She had looked back at his hunched form and remembered that he hadn't had anything the whole day, like herself, and it was like her body was on auto-pilot.
Shuurei thought about it and winced. She knew he had eaten some of her manjuu, since there were a couple missing, but he hadn't really said anything once she had come back. Could it be that she had somehow offended him? It was possible, although she would have thought he would have said something - anything - about it.
"But, knowing Kou-shousho, I wouldn't be surprised if he wouldn't," she said, biting her lower lip nervously. "I guess I have no choice. I'm just going to have to apologize for my rudeness."
Satisfied, she closed her eyes again and, this time, she slipped into dreamless sleep.
As she entered the department, Shuurei was relieved to see that no one else was there, with the exception of Chamberlain Kou. Looking to her left, she was a little surprised to see Vice-Chamberlain Kei's seat empty. She hadn't expected to be in earlier than him, but she certainly wasn't complaining.
Now was her chance.
"Good morning, Kou-shousho," she said, crossing the room until she was in front of his desk.
Not bothering to take glance up from his work, Chamberlain Kou nodded. "Hm."
"What would you like me to do today?"
"There's already a stack of papers on your desk that need to be filled out, given to the appropriate department, or filed."
"Y-you're right," Shuurei said, looking back at her desk. She flinched at the size of the pile, nearly double what she had gotten through yesterday. It seemed like she would be spending another late night in the department. "Um, Kou-shousho?"
This time, he glanced up from his work to look at her - or, at least, she could only guess he was looking at her. Not for the first time, she wished she could see the expression behind that mask he always insisted on wearing.
"What is it?"
"I just-I wanted to-" Clearing her throat, Shuurei started again, "I just wanted to apologize for the other day."
Kijin said nothing. After a moment, he returned to his work. "What for? There's nothing to apologize for."
"But, I was acting so familiar with-"
"As I said, there's nothing for you to apologize for," he repeated firmly, effectively ending the conversation. "Now, don't you have work that needs to be done?"
Inwardly, she breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness! She was glad she hadn't offended him, acting so familiar. Bowing, she said, "Of course."
An hour and a half later, the place was bustling with the other officials, all rushing about, trying to get their work completely. Somehow, the sight amused her more than it should have; she was certain that, to an outsider, they all looked like chickens with their heads cut off, some more than others.
"I don't know how you can handle it, Kou-san," an official by the name of Juro Nao commented. Of all the officials in the department - with the exception of Chamberlain Kou and Vice-Chamberlain Kei, obviously - he was the only one making an effort at being amiable. "You have more to do than the rest of us, and, even though you're the newest official here, you're able to get through your work much faster."
"Well, to be fair, it's only my second day. Everyone else have been doing this for a while," Shuurei pointed out. She started climbing the ladder near the bookshelves, a couple of feet from Nao's desk, trying to reach a book on one of the top shelves. "Just give me time, and I'm sure I'll be as worn out as the rest of you.
Nao chuckled in response. "I don't know. Somehow, I doubt it." Noticing her shaky stance, he frowned. "Are you sure you don't want help? You look like you're about to fall from there."
"No, no, I'm okay," she said, shaking her head. Smiling, she showed him the book she had in her hand. "See? I already got it, so there's nothing for you to worry abou-"
Before she was able to finish her sentence, she felt the step beneath her feet give way, the wood snapping right down the middle. Shuurei dropped the book and tried to grab onto the rails, but it was useless. She could feel herself fall from the ladder and squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for her body to make impact with ground.
She wasn't too high off the ground so, if she was lucky, maybe she'd only sprain her ankle instead of breaking it.
Her body never made contact with the ground, though. Instead, she felt an arm wrap around her shoulder, her back hitting against something warm and firm. From behind, a hand reached out and held the ladder against the bookshelf. She stared at the yellow sleeve of the person behind her and tried to keep from blushing, although she knew it was pointless.
"K-kou-shousho?" she asked in disbelief, turning around to face him. He had left the office half an hour ago to go to court. When had he returned?
"That ladder is dangerous," he said firmly, removing his hand from her shoulder. "You should be more careful."
"I understand. I'm so sorry." She bowed deeply, mostly in an attempt to hide her blush from him and the other officials. "Please forgive me."
"It wouldn't do to have an official injured and unable to work," he said, returning back to his desk.
She nodded. "I understand." Looking at the ground, she picked up the book she had dropped and returned to her desk, trying to ignore the stares from the other officials around her. As she returned to her desk, she noticed Lei glaring at her.
"You know, you can't really kill with just looks," she said wryly, taking a seat at her desk.
Lei huffed. As he passed her desk, he whispered, "It must be nice to be in Kou-shousho's favor, and so quickly too!"
"Maybe if you actually did your work instead of keep me from doing mine, you'd be in better favor with him."
She was somewhat confused by what Lei had meant, that she was in Chamberlain Kou's favor. She was fairly certain that he didn't hold her in any higher esteem than any of the other officials. At least, he didn't act like he did.
Giving her one last glare, Lei stomped out of the room. Shuurei resisted the urge to roll her eyes, instead focusing on the pile of papers in front of her. So that's what it was all about: he was jealous. The fact that she was a woman probably didn't help matters either.
She shrugged, taking the paper at the top of the pile, and started working. Apparently, she had lost track of time, because the next thing she knew, Nao was tapping her on the shoulder.
"Huh?" she asked, jumping in her seat and then looking up at him in confusion. "Oh, Juro-dono! Is there something you needed?"
He shook his head, laughing lightly. "No, it's nothing like that. I was just wondering if you were going to leave yet. It's already getting late."
Shuurei looked towards the windows and gasped softly. The sun had almost completely set in the horizon, the faintest of pink lights barely filtering in through the windows. She hadn't even noticed that it was evening. Glancing back at him, she shook her head.
"I only have a few more things to complete, and then I'll leave. I just can't stand the thought that I left something incomplete."
"You almost sound like Kou-shousho," he said, looking back at the masked man. "Well, if that's the case, I'll see you tomorrow."
Nodding, she smiled. "I'll see you tomorrow."
A moments later, he was gone, and there was silence, save for a few cicadas chirping outside. Letting out a heavy sigh, she picked up one of the documents and frowned. Would she really be able to finish this tonight?
"Kou Shuurei," Chamberlain Kou called out.
Her eyes to widen in surprise. Getting up from her seat, which took surprisingly more effort than she thought, she walked over to his desk. "Yes, sir. What can I do for you?"
Much to her surprise, he was not hunched over his desk like he usually was. Instead, he was looking straight at her. How odd.
"Are you staying late again?"
"Yes, Kou-shousho. At least, that's what I was planning on doing. I'm almost done with the work you assigned me."
Shuurei looked at him curiously. "Is-is there anything wrong with that?"
"Not at all," he said, resting his elbows on his desk. "However, since staying late is your intention, perhaps it would be best to take a small break first. You didn't have anything at all the whole day, not even a cup of tea. That can't be good for your body."
In spite of herself, a small smile formed on her face as she blushed. She was surprised to hear him throw her words from last night back at her. It was ironic, hearing those words coming from him, not that she'd ever tell him that to his face.
"I understand. Perhaps you would also like to take a break, Kou-shousho?"
"I suppose so," he said as she went to desk to get the lacquered box that had been resting on the floor, forgotten the whole day.
When she returned she placed the box on his desk, careful to keep it off any documents as best she could, and removed the top. "Would you care for some fried sesame dumplings? I'm afraid they aren't warm now."
"It doesn't matter," he said, taking one of the dumplings and, pushing one of the buttons on the side of his mask, placed it in his mouth.
She took a dumpling for herself and chewed it thoughtfully. It was okay, she supposed, although it tasted much better when it was warm.
"You are aware that you are not obligated to stay this late."
"Huh?" she asked, her hand hovering over the food for a moment before she took another dumpling. "I-I know. But then, you always stay late too, and you're here much earlier than I am."
"That's different. I'm the head of this department. Besides, I'm trying to set an example for the other officials to be more diligent than they currently are."
"I see. That makes sense. Although I'm not sure it's having as much of an impact as you might have liked..."
Chamberlain Kou huffed. "I can see that."
"That doesn't make your actions any less admirable, though," she said quickly. "A-anyway, I should probably finish my work...and all."
He nodded as she removed the box from the table and started making her way back to the desk. "Of course. And Shuurei?"
She turned around, her eyes wide with surprise and confusion. Had he just called her by her first name? "Yes?"
"Thank you for the meal. It was delicious."
She stared at him for a moment before a small, gentle smile spread on her face. "You're welcome, Kou-shousho."