It was summer, the first rains had already fallen and the humidity was high. Shuurei was stood in the kitchen, chop sticks in hand, bearing down on the stove and glowering at the pan that sizzled away on it. Lunch was a thin pastry roll normally called a Roti, but today there was some pork going spare from last night's dinner and lunch was its destination.
Seiran watched her through the window as he worked, sweeping the yard of the dirt that wasn't really there anymore – he had been sweeping that spot for rather a long time now. Sweat was virtually pouring off the young woman, dampening her hair to her cheeks and making her neck glisten. She needed a bath really, but he thought it best not to mention that right now. Instead, a bigger problem was looming.
"Are you alright?" She jumped at his question. That was the problem, she hadn't even noticed he was there, stood virtually right beside her, staring in at her through the open window and close enough to touch. There was clearly something wrong.
"I'm fine." She said hurriedly, flipping the pork filled roti over to do the other side. She didn't even look at him.
"Ok," He looked down at the ground, finding with some surprise that he had already finished sweeping. He carried on anyway, if only for something to do. "Now convince me."
A huff and a pair of chop-sticks grabbed a hold of his ear, turning his head to staring into the glowering face of the young lady of the mansion. "Are you calling me a liar, Shi Seiran?"
"Completely." He nodded. "And a terrible one at that."
She heaved a sigh, letting go of his ear and returning to her roti, shifting it off the heat and reaching for the next one. It began to sizzle immediately and she piled some pork onto its top. "It's not that bad, really…" She muttered as she worked. "Just a worry, that's all."
"Tell me." He coaxed.
"About Father's work load." She heaved another sigh, "And whether I should take on more."
He raised an eyebrow, not really following her train of thought. "Why should you take on more work?"
"Because he's getting old!" She snapped, picking the roti up and practically throwing it back down. "He can't be expected to do some much! And we need to look after the estate – I need to look after the pair of you and I can't do that if I don't take on more work! That's why!"
She chucked the cooked roti onto the pile of others previously cooked and turned to glare at Seiran – who by now had abandoned his sweeping and was leaning both arms on the windowsill – with her hands on her hips, chop sticks sticking out of her hand at odd angles.
He gave her a close-lipped smile and shook his head. "You don't have to look after me."
"Of course I do!" She threw the next roti down on the pan and loaded it up with pork. "What sort of a woman would I be if I didn't take care of my men?"
He raised an eyebrow at the notion of being considered 'her man' and said, "A busy one."
"Seiraaaaaan…" She whined, flipping the roti.
"Alright, alright," He grinned, enjoying her apparent irritation. "I can take on more work if you want, if you really think that Dana-sama can't do his job anymore."
That gave her cause for pause. The roti joined the pile and she grabbed a cloth to move the pan off the heat. She didn't want to trouble Seiran – it was the reason why she hadn't said anything to him – but she did want some more time for her Father to relax. That didn't go to say that he couldn't go and work of course, or even that he couldn't do his job… She didn't want him to think that.
"That wasn't what I said…" She mumbled. Turning away from Seiran and the window to grab the dish of rotis and a knife to cut them with. As she turned though, Seiran leant through the window and – at a stretch – took hold of her hand.
"Ojou-sama," He adopted a solemn expression and pulled her a little towards the window. "I think you should talk to Dana-sama on this matter. He will want to complain about it, I'm sure."
Shuurei had the good manner to blush and bit her lip, refusing to meet the gaze of the silver-haired man. His gaze swept her face and settled on the bitten lip. "But…" He mused, "If you would prefer to keep your fears from him, I would happily take on more work to help support you."
"No," Shuurei shook her head, holding his hand in both of hers, looking down at the scuffed knuckles, the roughness of his skin… The wear they showed and he was only 21. "You do enough already, Seiran. I can't ask you to do more."
"I don't want you to."
"I want to."
"I want you not to." She said firmly, mouth setting into a grim line as she rubbed a thumb across his knuckles. "I don't want you to do any more for us."
"That's not for you to decide." He said, equally firm. It was one of the things he seemed most adamant about; helping them beyond what was needed. She hated it.
"You're so unfortunate…"
"You've said that before."
"I meant it. You're unfortunate."
A slight breeze blew a fresh load of leaves from the neighbouring estate and they scattered around his feet, blowing up against his boots, banking around his toes. They crackled as they skittered across the paving, the noise the only thing to really fill the silence that had bloomed between the two young people. In the distance the Sakura trees rattled their skeletal branches impatiently, as though the distance that was growing between Shuurei and Seiran was something unbearable.
"Do you… Pity me?" He spoke at last. "For wanting to help the people I love?"
"No," She confessed. "I'm exactly the same. Why should I pity you?"
"You're not the same as me." His voice sounded almost offended at the idea that she would apply any kind of pitiful attributes – such as being an unfortunate human being – to her person, as though the idea was simply incomprehensible to him.
She laughed, finally looking into his eyes and seeing the mixture of irritation, shock and insult they displayed. "I am. I can't love anyone more than I love you, or 'Tou-san and I will never search for anything else. I will work hard for you until I've worn my fingers to the bone and my heart until it dies." He opened his mouth to complain, but she reached across the windowsill to seal his lips with a finger, rough and scratched. "I know this is what will happen to me, because this is all that has ever happened. I work hard because I love you. But it is not the sort of love that either of us can thrive on and that is what I mean."
Her expression, which had previously been one of hard compulsion, willing him to listen and be told, softened and now she simply looked sad. "I don't want that for you. I want you to work for someone who can help you live, as a man and not a retainer. You should have a house without drafts, without sprawling gardens of dead trees and dirt circles. You should have enough money to live peacefully with your little wife and your beautiful children. I don't want to see you waste away here just because we've loved you."
He pushed her hand from his mouth, "That is entirely untrue. You're not going to waste away and die because of me. I won't let you. Besides, you're going to marry the emperor and you won't have to live like this anymore!" Then added under his breath "And I won't have some 'little wife'."
She shook her head. "Don't be silly, Seiran. I'm not going to marry Ryuuki-"
"I'm not! I don't love him like that! I think he is a wonderful emperor and he will make someone very happy one day. But I won't marry someone I don't love!"
"Then marry someone else! But your problems will be solved, you won't have a house that's falling down, with dead gardens and dirt on the floors. You won't have to be poor anymore!"
She grit her teeth, her grip on his fingers tightening to an almost painful intensity. The prickle of tears began behind her eyes and she fought with them as best as she could, but she could tell they were still welling in her eyes from the look on Seiran's face.
"That's not the point." She ground out. "I don't care about being poor as much as I care about you."
He wanted to wipe the tears from her face, but her grip on his hands was too tight, all he could do was stand there and watch her cry. "I'm not going to marry someone else because that would mean leaving you behind. I can't take care of you if I leave you behind and I know you'll not leave my father so why do you even suggest it?"
"For the same reasons that you just gave," He said softly, giving her a small smile. "I want so much more for you than this."
Shouka returned home that evening to find the place dark and uninviting. The latter part wasn't so uncommon, but the former certainly was. Shuurei was at home today, taking a break from her imperial duties as the Royal Consort, so the house ought to already have a warm, light and welcoming feel. It didn't. He slipped straight into Black Wolf mode, but kept his movements refined, taking off his hat as he usually did and slinging it untidily into the cupboard by the door, like he usually did. Everything he did now was exactly the way he usually did it, only this time his thoughts were on the surroundings, the smell of the air, the sounds echoing down the corridor, not on dinner or the accounts as they usually were.
He was moving silently down the corridor that would lead him to the kitchen, a little warmer than the last corridor, when he heard voices. As he got closer he was able to discern that they were the voices of his children. Thank the divines that they were both alright. He was just about to make his entrance when their conversation stopped him in his tracks and he could do nothing but listen.
"Of course I can't marry you, Seiran."
"Well, no I know that, but you don't have to sound like that; as if the very idea is preposterous."
"Then why did you ask?"
"Because I've thought of it a few times…"
"That it would be easier, if nothing had to change; if we could stay the way we've always been… Forever…"
Shuurei heaved a sigh, deep and weary. "We won't be able to stay the same forever, Seiran… That's what I've been trying to say…"
Shouka peered through the crack between the doors and saw both Seiran and Shuurei sat on the windowsill, Shuurei facing in, Seiran facing out. Shuurei had her hands in her lap and was staring at them with a sad expression. Seiran was leaning back on his hands, looking at her face, gauging her reactions. There was a bowlful of half-prepared pork roti on the kitchen table. It had long since gone cold.
"I don't agree with your method of change." Seiran said slowly, "I don't think anything needs to change right now. This works for now."
"But it doesn't work, Seiran." Shuurei sniffed and Shouka noticed an embroidered handkerchief in her hands. It was purple and had a series of mikan flowers in one corner. She'd made it for Seiran some time ago and he had never seemed to use it. Apparently, however, Shuurei's tears were a worthy enough reason to break it out.
Seiran, apparently afraid that the tears may start again, took Shuurei's jaw in his fingers and held her head quite still. He planted a delicate kiss on her cheek and Shuurei blushed.
"If this works or not, we will never know until it happens. But no matter what, I will never change my intentions towards you. I will love you, and care for you, and protect you, until this heart of mine gives out, or a better man may take my place."
The tears began flowing again and with a sob, Shuurei turned and flung her arms around Seiran's shoulders, clinging on in a similar fashion to the way she used to when she was a child. He looped an arm around her waist and another around her shoulders, holding her with a soft smile while she sobbed into his jerkin. The hand that fell on her back took up a gentle rubbing motion, soothing circles between her shoulder blades that quieted her almost immediately.
After a little while of silence, Shouka was about to make his entrance when a few soft words stopped him yet again. This time it was fear of the future which gripped his heart instead of the present…
"No man will ever take your place."
A/N: My first attempt at a Saiunkoku Monogatari story... I read it when it first came out and I've seen the show years and years ago too. In fact it was while watching it for the second time that I decided I would try my hand at writing a bit of it.
This is my first attempt, so if anyone is OOC, I apologise, but they'll get better and better the more I write.
Please say if you think I should continue, if not I won't write anything else for this fandom and leave my contribution as it is, lest I do something to spoil it.
Thanks for reading,