I'd barely finished preparing a light meal for Shūei when I heard a tentative knock on the door. Sighing heavily, I hurried to answer it before whoever it was got frustrated, knocked louder, and managed to rouse Shūei from his sound sleep. Then again, he hadn't been awakened by me moving about in his kitchen, so perhaps it would be alright, but I preferred to error on the side of caution. Opening the door, I realized with astonishment that it was none other than Shi Ryuuki, the Emperor. Breath rushed past his slightly parted lips in shallow pants and a high flush rode on his aristocratic cheekbones, as though he had run the entire way here from the Imperial Court. He might have –the emperor could be a remarkably impulsive creature. I was unsure how Shūei would feel about me inviting the emperor into his home, but I really did not want to be responsible for him passing out in front of the door either. With a smile, I beckoned him inside. He shook his head, declining the offer. I wasn't sure if it was because he intended it to be a short visit or if he was considering Shūei's reaction, as well. Either way, I had to respect his decision. "What brought you all this way so urgently, your highness?" I inquired politely, figuring it was definitely because he wanted to check on Shūei's condition. "In your note, you said he wasn't allowing you to leave his side." His tone wasn't reproving, just concerned. I nodded slowly. "Even the few times I mentioned getting medicine. I'm not sure if he's used to having someone by his side when he's ill or if he's never experienced it." The emperor produced three small white paper packets from inside his robes. He handed me the first. "This one is to help reduce his fever." When he handed me the second envelope, he gave me a tentative sime. "This one is to help to ease his discomfort if he has persistent body-aches." I nodded slowly, noting each use and packet in turn. It made sense to me: he'd obviously visited the royal physicians out of pure concern. The gesture was incredibly thoughtful and highly appreciated. It took a moment, but I looked turned to him with a slightly puzzled expression. "What's the third one for?" He looked away. "A sedative, in case he's being especially difficult." I chuckled softly. "If you'll come in, you can judge for yourself. I was about to wake him so he could eat something." To anyone else, I supposed it would seem strange that the emperor had made his way here with nothing but the intention to deliver medicine. I just happened to be more aware of the inner-workings of the emperor's mind than most –and Shūei was better aware of things than I was when it came to the emperor. Even I knew that the vital thing to understand was that the Emperor of Saiunkoku led a very lonely life. The one thing he disliked more than the loneliness, however, was feeling helpless when someone he cared deeply needed help or protection. And I knew for a fact that he cared very deeply about Shūei. The flush of exertion on his cheeks was replaced by a blush as he nodded his head in acceptance of the offer. I quickly ushered him inside. Slipping back into the kitchen and retrieving the tray, I led the emperor followed me back toward Shūei's bedroom. It was only about then that I thought about the fact my patient was completely naked under the light sheet. I turned back to look at the emperor, and I'm quite sure my expression was the epitome of contrition cross-bred with embarrassment. "Ah, your highness…" I began slowly. "His fever hasn't broken yet, and he was very warm…" Try as I might, I couldn't just seem to say it. I released a sigh of frustration. "You highness, he's completely nude beneath a sheet. It might be a good idea to avoid disturbing it." The emperor seemed amused –probably by my reaction more than anything. "Perhaps you may want to warn him that we are here to see him, then?" I blushed hotly. Fucking hell, was he really teasing me at this moment? It was a hell of a time to become aware that the Emperor of Saiunkoku was aware of my …infatuation with my best friend. It wasn't like I chose to be attracted to that man. He was arrogant and sarcastic and caring and kind… And this was not the time to impersonate a love-sick girl –not when there was someone who was actually sick cooped up in a bed just beyond this door. I eyed that door like it was pure evil. In a way, I supposed it was: this door played the role of the gate to temptations that I had trouble standing against. Gods, could I blame him because he was born beautiful? Arbitrarily, I decided I could –and would. The emperor actually chuckled at my predicament. "You know, he's not getting any better with you just standing out here." I made a personal note to tear his next bill to shreds and to encourage at least two ministers to vote it down. The last thing I needed was the lovesick, childlike emperor laughing at my predicament –and we in the Hong clan held to a long passed-down tradition of vindictive behavior, none of which was anything to scoff at. Taking a deep breath, I reminded myself that as one of the emperor's personal advisers, it was my job to support him. I also tried to remind myself that Reishin's notion of justice rarely endeared him to anyone. Still, giving up on the notion of avenging my discomfort in this situation was hard for me. Perhaps Reishin had rubbed off on me more than I'd thought. Once I had decided that the deficits outweighed the benefits, I made a note to never mention this to Reishin. He would either laugh at me himself or meat out vengeance on my behalf, and there were still several bones of contention between him and the emperor, anyway. I took one more deep breath before pushing the door open and walking through it. Immediately, I gravitated toward Shūei's bedside. Sliding the tray onto the bed-side table was easy enough since I'd taken the time to remove the basin of water and empty it. Next, I reached out for him, gently touching his –bare– shoulders and giving him a gentle shake. When he didn't stir immediately, I frowned. Drawing my hand slowly across his brow, I called out to him. "Shūei. Shūei, wake up. I brought you some food, and you may have a visitor." My tone was gentle but urgent. He stirred slowly, his hand reaching out for my wrist again. It was as though by caging my wrist with his large hand, he was trying to keep me by his side. It was a bit ridiculous, considering the fact I hadn't even seriously contemplated leaving his side. "I'm not leaving, Shūei. You don't have to hold onto me." My tone was surprisingly soft and tender. When I watched those dark eyes open slowly, I could see how much he needed to hear those words. "Promise?" he asked, his voice still heavy with sleep. "I promise. Will you sit up for me? Do you need help?" Immediately, I reached for his shoulders again. Only after I made contact with that warm silky flesh did I think about the fact that my assistance might require my hands to creep a bit lower. "I'll try" was his only response. Still, I did my best to assist him to a sitting position. Once we managed that, I propped him up carefully with pillows. I smiled as he leaned back against the pillows and resituated the sheet about his narrow hips. "Are you ready to try some food?" He shook his head. "Hm, well, how about a visitor?" I inquired, pushing his hair out of his face and over one shoulder. He seemed a little lost. "Who?" "The emperor," I returned. "Though if you wish to entertain, you may want a bit more covering you that a sheet, Shūei." He nodded slowly. "Especially since he has a history of asking men to sleep with him?" That seemed to be a hint of his usually self. Surely he was recovering, then, if he could make such jokes. I nodded in agreement and fetched a light blanket from the blankets I'd removed when he was too warm. Draping it over the blanket, I thought it might make him feel a little less naked. He smiled weakly at me and I frowned. Reaching up, I pressed my wrist to his forehead. No particular rise in his temperature, but still no drop. The medicine the emperor had brought for him would probably be necessary, after all. Thinking about the medicine made me wonder something else. "Are you having any aches?" I inquired softly. Nodding just barely, his jaw tense, Shūei gave the simplest of answers. I couldn't believe the emperor had predicted that, but he did tend to surprise me occasionally. "The emperor brought medicine for you. It should help you feel better while you recover." I smiled at him softly and used my fingers to move one more strand of hair off his forehead. That earned me a small smile that made me want to press my lips to his. Somehow, I resisted and instead played in his damp, silky hair for a moment and gave him a smile of my own. We only got that single moment of happy, sweet connection before I moved away from him, from the bed, and crossed the room to open the door. "Your highness," I greeted once more, beckoning him into the room. I suddenly wondered if Shūei illness was contagious. Then I decided that the emperor was a hale and hearty young man. I was more likely to get it than he was, anyway. At least if I ended up with it, there would be someone there for me and taking care of me, even if he was the weirdest man I ever met. The emperor hurried to Shūei's side, but I didn't mind. Shūei was ill and I frankly did not want to participate in any sort of discourse with the emperor until I'd given his gifts to my patient. "If you can promise to play nice, I'll prepare the medicine and leave you alone to converse. Is that alright, Shūei?" I had to ask. I mean, he'd made me promise not to leave him –not that I'd intended to go anywhere before he extracted that promise. He nodded and I smiled. I slipped out of the room carefully, the door still propped open because I wanted to hear if Shūei had need of me. Of course, I would never have guessed the first words to emerge from the emperor's mouth. "Kōyū would make a wonderful housewife. We wonder how he might react to an invitation to the Imperial Harem." "I heard that," I called back from the kitchen. "And I wouldn't suggest it, unless you wish Reishin to become angrier with you." I didn't add that he was already mad because his beloved niece had been in the Harem for a time. "Hm. Perhaps you should take him as a wife instead, Shūei," the emperor implored. "He seems so much kinder to you at the moment. It makes us sad." I choked, though I really wanted to choke him. Did he really have to bring that up when he knew I could hear them? "Possibly because you persist in referring to him as though he's female?" Shūei's voice sounded a bit stronger, though that was the longest sentence he'd uttered this morning. "Perhaps he'd just rather attach himself to you." Shūei laughed. "Perchance I just seem more helpless at the moment." I shook my head ruefully. I would never understand these two men! Some days, I frankly had not wish to try.