It just wouldn't go away. This stupid, desperate, choking need to scream, to cry, to wail and be allowed to do so without having to worry that anybody would be disturbed, or think less of her for relieving and revealing her emotions.

As she was the empress, however, such overt displays were not permitted. She was required to be the extra strength for her people, the one who made sure nothing ever fell apart. Oh, but she wanted to. She wanted to scream, cry, and throw things against the walls and have the satisfaction of seeing them shatter, preferably without being told that she had just destroyed something very old, highly valuable and utterly irreplaceable. Once she got the chance to do all that, she then wanted someone to just wrap their arms around her and rock her gently, as if she were still a child who believed that whispered words of comfort could really make everything better again.

She couldn't though, if she did, it would be a first sign that the kingdom was failing. Next Keiki would get sick, and then everything would go to ruin, and she really didn't want that. She'd worked too damn hard on this kingdom, cared too much for the people who lived in it. She couldn't let it all fall apart now just because she felt the utterly female, completely hormonal desire to find a nice tranquil, quiet place and scream herself hoarse while throwing perfectly breakable things at very hard walls and watching them shatter, just so that she could feel calm and empty again.

She couldn't let down Suzu or Shoukei, or any of her other friends from back when she'd really had no idea what she was going to do since she'd just been part of a minor rebellion... She was building the kingdom for them after all, not for her. Everybody had who had to live in Kei deserved that she give the kingdom her undivided attention. She couldn't disappoint them.

The trouble was that exactly though. She cared for them, and wanted to give them the best. None of them should have to see their empress at her very worst, particularly when there wasn't even any reason for her to be personally falling apart the way that she was.

"Empress Sekishi," a handmaiden called through the paper screen door. "There is a hanjyuu in the entrance hall claiming you sent for him?"

"I don't doubt it," Youko answered, "and I will see them. I would appreciate you taking the time to catch the name of any visiting guest, however. I do not discriminate against hanjyuu or kaikyaku, and I have made this clearly known to everybody in my kingdom and beyond. I would also appreciate it if those around me would not be prejudiced either," she said, standing from her desk where she was looking over a report regarding the implementation of the beginning stages of a plan to improve the availability of different resources to her people.

"Please guide them to the lake pavilion. I will receive them there," Youko instructed.

"Will you require a change of clothes, imperial highness?" the maid asked tentatively, still from the other side of the paper door. The reprimand had been polite, but slightly stern, and she was new to serving her empress, so there was a quiver in her voice from fear of having displeased her mistress.

"I might pull on a robe over the top of what I'm wearing, but I'm sure I can handle that myself. Thank you though," she said, making the effort to convey the smile on her face by the tone of her voice. She knew the girl had only just arrived, and couldn't be expected to know her every whim. Which was why she set that out as quickly and as politely as possible.

"Yes, Empress Sekishi."

Youko stretched her arms above her head as she headed for the robe hanging in a corner that she kept for those instances where she suddenly had to meet with people, and wearing only worn commoners clothing simply would not do. The robe conveniently hid the clothes that she was wearing underneath so that not a fold showed through.

Though she doubted that her guest would mind, if it was who she thought it was anyway.

Youko ran as quickly as was polite for a person of her standing to reach the lake pavilion, hindered slightly by her robes, but she had been getting better about swift movement in huge clothes.

To her delight, Youko spotted the maid leaving the pavilion and a very large, grey mouse standing there wearing a yellow scarf around his neck.

"Rakushun!" she cried, ignoring propriety completely and doing as she had done before she knew he could transform into a human – sunk down on her knees, embracing him as he was, holding him close and rubbing her face into the fur of his chest.

"Please Youko, some modesty," he protested, heatedly yet quietly, not wanting to draw the attention of the maid who had just left.

Youko just giggled softly to herself, shaking her head, still burying her face in his chest fur.

"Oh no. I haven't had your company for far too long Rakushun, and I finally have some private time with you. If you're uncomfortable, I can call back the maid and have her fetch you some robes, but I fully intend to enjoy your presence as much as possible, for as long as possible," Youko answered, looking up at him with a playful smirk on her face.

"That's not fair Youko, you know I don't like clothes," Rakushun objected.

"Then I won't call for them," she answered simply, burying her face in his chest fur again. "Besides, I'm not touching you anywhere particularly indecent, and I like the way your fur smells," she murmured, closing her eyes and breathing in deeply.

Rakushun's whiskers snapped to attention and his eyes bugged a little at her last statement, and if the fur hadn't been in the way, he was certain that a blush would have been visible on his face. He tried not to think of what this would look like if his fur weren't there, because that would mean she would be holding him as a naked man and rubbing her face into his chest. He tried to swallow the lump that suddenly formed in his throat and was glad that in his beast form it was harder to tell when his body was getting excited. He tried not to think about that either... because she was right. She wasn't actually touching him anywhere particularly inappropriate.

"Still, isn't this a rather open place for such action?" Rakushun tried to plead.

"This is one of my private gardens. People only come here when I specifically request that they do. Only the gardeners and Keiki can come and go here without having to ask me first, and before you object, Keiki prefers my lavender garden to this one, and the gardeners did their weekly tending to this particular private garden yesterday," Youko answered, relaxing against her friend and pulling him down slightly, subtly indicating that she wished him to sit with her on the floor of the pavilion.

"Did you just request my presence today because you missed me?" Rakushun asked, slightly incredulous, resisting her tugging, aware that because he resisted she held him lower than she had before. Almost too low, but not quite.

"Out of all my friends Rakushun, you are dearest to me, and also the one I get to see the least. I know you're busy with your studies, I get a new copy of your timetable every semester -"

"Youko!" Rakushun cried, surprised that she had gone so far.

"What? Nobody knows that's what I do with the lists of enrolments after the statistics are taken of how many students to which classes, so nobody knows you've got friends in high places. Your marks are not affected by our friendship, I promise. I even made sure that the day I asked for you to come was a couple of days into the break, so your classmates wouldn't know," Youko explained, running her fingers through grey fur unconsciously as she spoke.

"You certainly went to a lot of trouble," Rakushun said quietly, finally submitting to sit with her, even slipping one arm around her back as he looked down at her shock of red hair.

"I know how important it is to you to do well on your own merits, I didn't want to be a reason for people to cast doubt on your accomplishments," Youko said, raising her head from his chest fur again to lock her green eyes to his golden ones.

The smile on his furry face was one of humbled pride. He knew Youko almost better than anybody in Kei, but she had managed to surprise him, and in a very good way.

"You still haven't told me exactly why you did ask me to come, to the palace of all places. You know how I feel about being in places above my station," Rakushun pointed out gently, still smiling.

"Is it presumptuous for the best friend of the empress to visit the imperial palace?" Youko asked, a crooked and sneaky smile on her face.

"Eh? You really think of me so much?" Rakushun asked, surprise visible on his features even through the fur. Perhaps reasonable when he had been so busy with studies lately.

"Of course I do, and that's why I asked you to visit. Just because I miss your company. I don't like intruding on your studies, so I have to wait until a time when you aren't studying. The only problem with that is your nature," Youko replied, answering both of her friends questions at once. "Every day you find something new to learn about, even when you're not in class."

Rakushun bashfully ruffled the fur around his whiskers with one of his claws. There wasn't really anything he could say to that, since it was true.

"Though I hear you're not doing quite so well in your more active classes," Youko teased gently, reaching up to tap one of her fingers on Rakushun's nose. "Is it because you have to have human shape for those, and you're still not comfortable that way?"

"I'm getting better at it," Rakushun defended, a little bit of heat in his tone. Seeing the encouraging smile on Youko's face though, he sighed deeply. "I suppose it is," he admitted.

"So why not try in this shape? I want Kei to be a kingdom without discrimination, though I admit that the shape of a pen isn't the best to fit into the claw of a bear, I don't see why things like a bow or a sword can't be crafted to better fit you, or anybody else in the same situation," Youko said, rearranging herself so that she lay with her head resting almost in Rakushun's lap, one hand reaching up to gently stroke the fur on his cheek.

"Come to think of it, why are you taking those classes Rakushun?" Youko asked.

"Sword fighting, archery, and riding are all things required of ministerial roles, even for prefecture officers in the provinces."

"Rakushun!" Youko exclaimed, giggling. "These skills are important for defending the citizens under you from youma attacks. Now tell me, are you more likely to oversee your prefecture in clothes you dislike, or as you are now? Because whatever your answer is, that is how you would be fighting or defending against the youma."

Rakushun nodded. "I should learn how best to fight as I am. In En, these classes were required because the emperor liked to go game hunting with his ministers from time to time."

"Have you ever known me to go hunting game?" Youko asked, the expression on her face clearly one of barely restrained laughter.

Rakushun chuckled. "No. You fight the battles that need fighting, and leave the peaceful to their peace."

"Almost. I have a hard enough time as it is, I barely have breath to spare for the things that don't need fixing. Honestly, the job is starting to make me go crazy I think. That's probably why Shoyru rules the way he does, to maintain his sanity... Though I think Enki would argue that he was never sane to begin with," Youko sighed, curling around so that her face was in Rakushun's fur again.

"And how's Keiki?" Rakushun asked, desperately trying to keep the conversation going in an attempt to distract himself from the way Youko was making his body react beneath the fur she seemed to be enjoying so much.

Youko sighed, ruffling his fur in a way that felt far too pleasant.

"Stick up his ass to match the horn on his head. He'll figure out how I work eventually, but until he does he's trying to get me to work his way, which is a bit too rigid for someone as naively kind as he is. Currently, we're suffering through each other, but his health is good. It's just a personality thing. He reminds me of my dad back in Hourai, actually," Youko said, a slight frown marring her features and causing a wrinkle to appear between her eyebrows.

Rakushun laughed at that. It was hard for him to imagine Keiki as a parent, apart from the fact that no kirin would get close enough to anybody but their emperor to be able to ask Tentei for a child, he didn't think they were actually allowed. Certainly an emperor wasn't, so unless they had asked Tentei for a child before being chosen, they would live a childless life. That thought brought Rakushun out of his laughter.

"What is it Rakushun? You have your sad face on," asked Youko, sitting up slightly from his lap to have a better view of his face.

"Do you feel sad that you won't ever be given children?" Rakushun asked, not looking at Youko.

"A child is someone to care for and protect, someone to love and hold close as dear and precious. All of Kei are children to me," Youko answered, recalling something Enho had taught her, just before he was kidnapped by Shoukou. "Apart from that, I have a friend back in Hourai who promised to have lots of kids for me, which made me very happy."

Rakushun smiled sadly at the distant expression on Youko's face. "You dodged that answer very skilfully."

Youko blushed. "I didn't mean to dodge it at all," she said. Sighing, she continued, "I suppose I am a little sad, but that is why having my friends around me is so much more important, because I need to have somebody around me who I can love that way."

"Suzu and Shoukei?" Rakushun asked.

"Very much in love with Sekki and Kantai respectively," Youko answered. "And they have my blessing, as well as just a little bit of my jealousy, but that's probably just because the men that they love happen to love them back, and that's something I didn't have in Hourai and haven't got here either."

Rakushun felt his heart twist at those words, and wanted so much to be able to help Youko with whatever she needed. Even if helping her meant he was pushed out of her life. He had made that decision a long time ago.

"Youko," he started, a little unsure of what he wanted to say, but fully aware of what he wanted to do. "Would you sit up for a moment please?" he finally asked.

Youko agreed silently, nodding before pulling herself up to kneel beside her best friend, the one she'd fallen for but couldn't tell.

"Close your eyes a moment."

Youko, ever-trusting when it came to Rakushun, complied easily.

She was beginning to wonder what he was up to when she felt lips against hers. Lips that had to belong to Rakushun because there wasn't anybody else in the lake pavilion. Peeking one green eye open slightly, Youko closed it again with a sigh of contentment when she saw that it was Rakushun. Human, but Rakushun all the same. He had asked her to close her eyes because he was shy, something she found utterly endearing.

Youko slid her hands up his arms, shoulders, neck, to tangle in his hair and pull him just a little bit closer, tilting his head slightly so that she could make the kiss go just that little bit deeper, though it was still close lipped on both sides.

When they parted, Youko kept her eyes closed, burying her face in the corner of Rakushun's neck and shoulder, breathing in the smell of him and nuzzling the skin gently.

"Still that little bit jealous?" Rakushun asked, his voice breathy, as one of his still-human hands slid around Youko's waist to caress her back and hip slowly.

"Of who? My best-friend hanjyuu that I'm in love with just kissed me," Youko said, smiling though her eyes were still shut out of respect for Rakushun's modesty. "So tell me, does life get better than that?"

"Well, that depends on how long you have until people decide they need to come looking for you, and how easy it is to take off what you're wearing," Rakushun answered, voice still a little breathy, but with a deeper, slightly different timbre to it.

Youko's eyes opened without any consent from her brain, only to behold a nude Rakushun, his honey eyes looking at her with a hungry longing that pulled at something deep within her.

"We have the time to adjourn to my chambers so that we're both more comfortable," Youko answered, her own breath now coming short as she rapidly caught on. "I don't think anybody is going to need me for the rest of the day. There will be dinner, but the maids can bring a tray and leave it in my private sitting room for us."

Rakushun returned to his mouse-like form, the gleam still in his eye, and bowed elaborately. "Lead and I will follow, my empress," he whispered huskily.

Youko shivered. Honestly, she didn't care what shape Rakushun was, the point was that it was Rakushun, whom she loved, and who it seemed had been holding back his own feelings for her. Probably for as long as she had.

Exiting the pavilion garden, two maids were waiting. This forced a cooling-of-heels on Youko.

"Were you waiting to bring any messages to me?" she asked them. She was almost stupidly relieved when both shook their heads.

"We were only waiting to tend to whatever you might wish for, imperial highness," said the older of the two maids.

"Thank you both," Youko said. "But I don't want anything right now. My guest and I will take the evening meal in my private sitting room, but apart from that my only wish for the rest of today is to be undisturbed. I'm on top of my paperwork, so you may tell even Kei Taiho that he can wait until tomorrow," Youko informed the maids, as straight faced as she could while Rakushun, in his furred form, waited with almost impossible patience at her side.

The maids bowed and Youko led the way to her chambers. The instant she stepped through her door, not even closing it, she pulled off the over-robe she had worn to cover the overly normal clothes she had been wearing underneath.

She just had time to hang it up before she heard Rakushun slide the door shut behind him, and felt his human hands on her still very covered hips, his soft mouth nibbling gently at her ear.

"I think I should tell you that I adore you," he whispered to her as his lips moved from her earlobe to behind her ear to her neck. "That I thought you beautiful when I found you in the rain that day, and when I finally had the chance to know you I couldn't help but fall for you, and then worry about you when we were apart. I do my very best in my studies now so that one day I can assist you in whatever capacity you need me the most."

Youko moaned, just quietly, enthralled by the way he cared about her.

"Well, I'd really like you to be my chief advisor when you're ready," Youko admitted. "But I've wanted you for that position for a couple of years, and I don't mind waiting until you feel like you've completed your studies."

Rakushun stopped cold. "Does that mean we can't do this?" he asked, one hand sliding gently from the side of Youko's hip to where her abdomen met her thigh. "The council might think badly of how I got my position, after all."

"They can't. I made it clear when I came back after the rebellion that I wanted you for my chief advisor, but intended to wait until you felt ready to take the position. They've known for years that the position is yours, and they've accepted it. Suzu and Shoukei are both strong supporters for you, as are Enho, Kouken, Kantai, and Keiki. Particularly Keiki, but I think that's because he knows what a calming influence you have on me," Youko answered, tilting her head back to see his face.

"I'm a calming influence?" Rakushun asked, raising an eyebrow in almost skepticism.

"Well, after I've spent time with you, I'm able to make more sensible, rational decisions and I'm no longer feeling like I need to find a corner and just scream until all the tension and stress is gone," Youko explained.

"So I am for you what Shoryu's hijinks are for him, only the difference is that Kei Tiaho approves, and En Taiho doesn't. I'm what keeps you sane in an insane job," Rakushun teased gently, his hand slipping a little lower again, his right cheek moved to touch Youko's left.

"If you want to think of it that way," Youko said, tilting her head back to rest on his shoulder, sighing in delight when she felt his fingers tugging at her waistband. Not leaving her own hands idle, she quickly stripped herself so that she was as naked as her partner.

"Every man likes to think he's needed, even hanjyuu," Rakushun pointed out, gently guiding Youko to her bed, where he turned her around and moved her to lie on the soft mattress.

"You're a necessity to me Rakushun," Youko whispered. "Like I need air to breathe and water to drink and food to eat. That's how I need you. I love you Rakushun."

Rakushun shuddered in pleasure at her words, climbing onto Youko's bed above her, looking down at her beautiful face surrounded by glorious red hair.

"I may have to start believing in Tentei if you keep this up," Rakushun said, leaning down to feel her bare body against his, at last.

Youko moaned deeply in bliss to feel him like this, and to have the scent of him all around her. "I can't help but love you, Rakushun..."

The next day as she held court, Youko was more relaxed and at ease than she had been for weeks. When Shoukei asked about her order to not be disturbed the previous evening as they left the court assembly for Youko's office, she just smiled and said: "Rakushun came to visit yesterday."

Shoukei, slightly more in tune with Youko than just about everybody else in the court assembly, proceeded to display a grin of wicked delight. "Finally the two positions most vital to the empress are filled: chief advisor, and royal consort."

The two friends laughed. Youko because she had been caught out, and Shoukei because she knew she was the first to know, and would enjoy dangling the information over Kantai and Keiki's heads for a little while. There was nothing quite so fun for her as teasing her lover and the uptight Taiho.