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The Consort's Exam

His brush swept across the paper, the wooden fibers smooth against his skin. The black ink, carrying the color of stag beetles, dried quicker than any he'd seen before, probably due to the sheer money that went into making it. Glossy, elegant characters, slightly rounded, a small embellishment of Kurapika's own hands. Nothing but the best of Ryusei for the Emperor's potential consorts. How sweet. It sent his heart fluttering. His final answer was left glistening on the page for a second more, before drying down to a matte finish. 

"What led you to pursue the esteemed position of the Emperor's Royal Noble Consort,"  the question read.

"I feel the utmost respect for his Majesty, a sentiment that had been cemented within me through my parent's influence. I wish to serve him to the best of my abilities."  Mother had truly taught him well. The lie had rolled onto the paper without even a second thought. The malice he so proudly boasted was a mere whisper now, brewing in the depths of his heart, a sleeping serpent awaiting its time of retribution.

He stood from his spot near the exit, leaving the bottle of ink on the small square table they'd had him take the exam on. The room was rectangular, with octagonal windows and floors made of white tiles veined in grey. The examiners sat towards the back of the room, furthest from him, wearing long robes of light green and blue. He handed the thick scroll to the younger woman, who bound it with a red stamp. The two women directed him to a sunlit corner with red cushions and a tea table carved out of pine. They continued to toss him suspicious glances as he sat down, the sole applicant of that morning. He readjusted the jeogori of his light blue hanbok and let his spotless black sandals take him to the red cushions. He leaned against the cool cream wall. A young maid wearing a bright pink floral hanbok approached him, pouring green tea from a grey kettle. She handed him a jade teacup.

"Such a beautiful young man," one of the women at the desk murmured, "but I was not aware men could attempt to become the Emperor's Consort. It sounds like a recipe for dissension."

The other replied, brown eyes focused on a large blue book in her hands, "I believe the Emperor feels most contrary to the idea of limiting himself to just the fairer sex."

"So, it is allowed?"

"He got in, didn't he?"

The other woman answered, confused, "yes, but is it not unseemly?"

"Oh, hush, Rina," she scolded. "If the Emperor wishes to be in the company of men, then he can be. He's the most powerful man in the country. Who's going to stop him?"

Kurapika brought the scalding brim of the teacup to his lips, masking a growing smile. How noisy. Not quite as noisy as Leorio, but they were certain contenders. The tea burned as it slid down. Leorio was probably still seething from their encounter yesterday. Kurapika had never seen him so upset. The doctor had a temper, certainly, but he'd never screamed at him with such raw fury. That was more up Kurapika's alley. He was the angry one. Leorio was always the one to calm him down with a warm hand on his shoulder.

"So, you're just going to sell yourself out? You have no idea what kind of guy the Emperor is! You can't just . . ."

Kurapika stiffened in his position at the old birch study table, his hands tightened around the book in his hands, as Leorio's own tightened around Kurapika's application to the Consort Examinations. Their hanok was warm tonight, trapped in summer heat. Kurapika's candle burned low. Leorio stood in the doorway, fists furled. Kurapika grit his teeth,  "It's not up to you -"

"What if he figures out what you really want? What if he finds out you want to kill him?"

Kurapika shot out of his position on the floor and covered the physician's mouth with his hand, eyeing their surroundings warily: The sliding doors, the pine trees outside their two windows. "Keep your voice down, idiot! These walls are thinner than they appear." 

Slowly, he took the crumpled paper from Leorio's hands and set it down on the table. Leorio gave the paper a glare as if it had been a letter from the Devil himself, asking for Kurapika's soul

"Why can't you just . . ." Leorio trailed off, thinking his statement far too cruel for Kurapika to handle. This sent him over the edge, face burning.

"What?" Kurapika prodded. He pulled Leorio's chin down and forced the poor medic's eyes to lock with his dark brown, fury-filled. Leorio's face contorted as if Kurapika had just stomped on his heart, squeezing until it popped. He should've stopped there. He shouldn't have pushed him. But he was too far gone. He was always too far gone.

Leorio backed away, but Kurapika followed him until he hit the wall with a soft thud. Quietly, the man replied, "nothing. It's nothing, don't bother about it."

"Tell me," he pushed on, so close that his lips nearly grazed his neck. Kurapika's chin tilted up, hating that he only barely reached the other man's shoulder. Some small part urged him to stand on his toes to gain those few centimeters of height but he refused to stoop to such childish tricks.

Leorio broke off the stare, pink flooding his cheeks as Kurapika's sweet breath warmed his neck. Was it cruel of him to use Leorio's attraction as an interrogation method? Probably, but it was the tactic he'd grown most used to over the last few years.

"Let it go," Leorio muttered, gaze lowered to the ground. "They're dead. Going after him won't solve anything."

Kurapika stepped away, leaving him to the cold clutches of whatever monsters clawed at him. He turned his back away from his best friend, even as Leorio tried to reach for him.

"Oh, it will help plenty," he whispered.

Kurapika returned to his study table and sat back down as if nothing ever happened. The lantern's candle flickered and illuminated his countenance. Pale, milky skin, set aglow in the warm light. His hair had captured the sun's rays, weaving it into strands of striking gold. No one else in town had that sort of hair, everyone stared as he walked by. It was a gift from his dearly departed mother. He couldn't be more grateful for it. The blond hair, the rich brown eyes, his pretty face, they were all going to bring him one step closer to the Emperor. After all, his Majesty had a love for rare treasures.

Leorio said nothing for the remainder of the night, and eventually curled up in his bed for an early sleep. The next day, he hadn't gone to see him off. He'd stayed in his bed until he left, brooding like a child. Kurapika didn't bother trying to make up with him.

One of the examiners called his name, and he withdrew from his thoughts. The skills portion of the exam consisted of a short conversation with a palace official, probably that old lady that had been eyeing him earlier. Of all the exams and all the questions that he'd put himself through, this was the most anxiety-inducing. He wasn't exactly the submissive, even-tempered character they were looking for. It'd be quite the miracle if he managed to get out of it without breaking character. Mother might've taught him how to intrigue a man's lust, but even she couldn't reign in his rage once unleashed.

He entered a small, cool room with wooden beams and unblemished walls. A woman sat at a lacquered low table; a scene of a wedding ceremony had been engraved in the wood. The woman announced herself as the proctor for the exam. Her head was large and her body stout, and she wore those same robes of green and blue. A pattern of pink flowers sprang up from the hem of her skirt to her collar. A gold phoenix hairpin held a thick coil of gray hair secure to the side of her scalp. Clearly an aristocratic woman, probably from the Gamgi clan if the glass brooch over her heart was of any indication.

"In this exam portion," the proctor started, "you will be asked to complete a series of tasks that you will be required to do on a regular basis as consort to the Emperor."

The old, scowling woman gave him another look, probably wondering what her country had come to. A man trying to be a consort? How shameful.

A green maid served tea for the two of them, as the proctor glanced through her scroll for the most difficult question to offer him. Kurapika enacted his most graceful tea-sipping as he awaited her first assignment.

"First, explain to me, in great detail, what the duties of a consort are," she prompted, bringing the teacup to her lips, the scroll still gripped in her veined, skeletal fingers.

Kurapika placed his own teacup down without the slightest click.

"It is to comfort his Majesty." Usually, Kurapika would've spat out the title. But not now. They wouldn't allow someone with such malice to be near their precious Emperor. "No matter how inconvenient it may be to us. It is to put his Majesty before ourselves. To love and cherish and support him, and to act as an exemplar for the citizens of Ryusei Empire. It is to practice the fine arts, to be able to engage in music, to recite poetry and write it, and to entertain the Emperor's guests whoever they might be."

But in his case, things were a bit different.

"That is correct," she replied, sounding almost impressed. "Of course, another duty would be to bear him an heir, but seeing as you would never be able to do that -"

"Do not worry yourself," he reassured. "I will be sure to make up for my lack of proper reproductive organs."

The woman's eyes widened to a laughable degree, lips parted and face colored an embarrassed shade of red. "Kwon-ssi, that is highly inappropriate. The palace has no room for someone with such a vulgar tongue. Furthermore, as a consort, you are not allowed to speak out of turn."

How rude. Assuming that she was of a higher social status than him. Most of the ladies here were noblewomen. For all she knew, he could be a highly esteemed young nobleman. But then, what nobleman dreamed of becoming a consort; A companion to the Emperor? Not one. They were too busy making their fortunes. Kurapika's only legacy would be as the Emperor's male consort, the first of his kind in the great history of the Ryusei Empire. What an honor. He wondered if someday a historian would come across the truth, and trace the gilded dagger in the Emperor's heart back to him.

"What do you expect to give in your time as a consort?"

"Whatever is expected of me," he replied. "If he wishes for me to jump off a bridge, I will gladly do it."

But only if he so kindly joins me.

"An interesting response," said the woman, still disgruntled over his earlier comment. "Tell me, child. You did not put your birth family's name and status on your application. Why?"

"They're dead," he replied, and the examiner nearly dropped her brush. "All of them. They got caught up in some of the riots. Bystanders, of course! They loved his Majesty. They wanted me to dedicate my every waking moment to him. It was their dying wish." Kurapika turned solemn at that moment. The proctor's face dissolved into a putty of sympathy, and he knew he'd won, despite his earlier backtalk. A few more minutes of vomit-inducing sweet talk and he'd be walking into the arms of his sworn enemy in no time.

"Oh, you poor child. No wonder you wish to be by his side," the woman said, bowing her head in respect. "I'm sure you'll be picked. It's your destiny."

You better believe it.

"Thank you," he sighed, despondent, before forcing a smile on his face. "I-" he cleared his throat of the pain. "I'm so glad they allowed me to do this. I was worried at first. I thought they wouldn't let me in. But now I see, his Majesty is truly virtuous."

"Oh, my child. You have such devotion to his Majesty. You'd make a wonderful partner for him. You've got one admirer in your corner already." The woman dabbed at her eyes with a silk handkerchief, before blowing her nose in it loud enough to gain the attention of the guards on the other side of the room.

Ah, the power of a tragic background. It took you places.

"Hey, Quizzy!" The cheerful shout echoed through the room. Kurapika turned around to see the off-white screen door he'd previously waved off as a closet. He hadn't suspected someone might be on the other side, listening in. An oversight on his part.

"My name is Kaname, you bastard!" she screamed back, slamming her fist on the lacquer table. The taupe porcelain tea set shook in surprise at the motion.

The person on the other side was silenced for a few seconds, before replying, "can you send in the next contestant, Quizzy? Machi and I are dying of boredom! Throw us another bone already!"

Bone?

The woman's scowl deepened. She regarded Kurapika with yet another sympathetic look, clasping his hands in her clammy, spotted ones. "They're in the room over yonder. Don't let them intimidate you. They're no match for your devotion to the Emperor!"

"You really think so?" Kurapika asked, excited, squeezing back. He truly believed that if he hadn't decided to become a play-toy for the Emperor, then he would've taken to a career in acting. He had the looks, the brains, the charm. Perhaps, when this was all over, he could hop on a boat to the West and start a new life there. But for now, he stood and walked across the bamboo flooring, wishing he'd accounted for a surprise exam. He'd been too focused on the tasks given to him.

"Hiya, Kurapika!"

He found himself in a dark, candlelit room with no windows and two individuals who could only be described as polar opposites. A young baby-faced man with a permanent grin and strangely cut blond hair lounged on one side of the table, lying on his stomach and waving his feet in the air, his elbows resting on a black cushion. Beside him, a young woman in a purple kimono sat, quiet and stiff. She glared at Kurapika as if she wouldn't hesitate to cut him down at the slightest misstep.

"Hello," he said, politely, mind still reeling as it tried to limit the possibilities of what this new test may bring. Heck, they might've even brought the Emperor himself. "I'm Kurapika Kwon. I'm an aspiring con-"

"We know who you are," the woman cut in, smoothly. She gestured to herself. "Machi. Third advisor to the Emperor." She pointed to her companion. "Shalnark. Useless advisor to the Emperor."

Shalnark seemed on the verge of tears. "Machi! That's so mean!" He turned to Kurapika. "Isn't she mean? You don't have to hold back! Just let the contents of your heart spill free!"

Were they trying to intimidate him by being overly friendly? Well, it wouldn't work. He knew plenty of overly-friendly people already. This was nothing new to him.

"So, how good of a kisser are you?" Shalnark suddenly asked.

"Kisser?"

Shalnark clasped his hands together and started to speak in a strange voice, as if he was living his wildest dreams. "The Emperor needs comfort in more ways than one." A slight blush tinged Shalnark's cheeks. "He's a lonely young man with needs that have to be fulfilled. As a consort, you are ow!"

"Stop spouting nonsense," Machi scolded, her fist still hanging over the poor man's head. "The Emperor isn't interested in things like that. He's an intellectual. He wants someone who can take the burden of ruling the Empire off him."

Shalnark's face turned devilish. He snickered out, "yeah, that's why he's picking out five of them."

Machi hit him again. "That's due to the tradition. Five consorts for each of the five clans ruling the five regions of the United Ryusei Empire. You know as well as I do that he wouldn't even be doing this if it wasn't for that ridiculous law."

Thank the gods for tradition.

"My question still stands. If he marries this guy, they're going to have to consummate their marriage. Which reminds me, how good are you in bed?"

This time he let out just a light whimper when Machi hit him.

"Don't feel like you have to answer that," Machi sighed, massaging her forehead. "He's just a rambling idiot."

"Hey!"

Kurapika didn't see why he shouldn't answer their questions. "I'll be as good as his Majesty wishes me to be. Whatever he wants, I will offer."

"Seriously?" Shalnark asked, moved by his faux dedication. He shook Machi's arm. "Let's hire him! Please! I like him!"

"Then, by all means, take him for yourself."

Shalnark crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall. Kurapika was starting to think this really was a closet. "Not my type. Too willful."

"That's what worries me," Machi sighed, playing with a pincushion on the back of her hand. "I don't know if the Emperor would want someone so willing to follow his every command. He's not one of us. He will be his potential life-long companion. The Emperor would prefer someone who can challenge him."

Goodness, these requirements kept changing. Did they want docility or fierceness? He could play both roles perfectly, but which one would the Emperor be most enamored with?

"Are you on the side of the Lotus or the Kuyan?"

Political clans? Oh, they wanted to see how well-versed he was in the ins and outs of the government. He could do that.

"The Kuyan. I find their advocacy of women's rights and foreign trade policies admirable. The Lotus are terribly old-fashioned. Some traditions are worth keeping, but so many have become outdated. There's no more room for them. Having them stick around will only lead the country to an eventual standstill."

"And you don't think The Kuyan a little too optimistic?" Machi questioned, blue eyes taking on an icy glaze in the flame of the candles.

"Of course," Kurapika replied, "but I prefer their optimism to the Lotus' fear of the unknown. Progress didn't come to the nations in the West because they hid under their blankets and avoided everyone."

For a split second, he thought he saw Machi smile. Shalnark just gave him a proud little curve of the lips, quiet for once. Mother was right. Politics has the ability to either unite or divide everyone.

"Thank you, Kurapika," Machi said, an inkling of familiarity surrounding his name. "You'll be notified of his Majesty's consensus in three days time. I believe you'll have good news to look forward to."

"You might as well start telling everyone you're married ow! Machi! Stop hitting me! You're the reason I'm gonna die young from brain damage, you know that?"

What a lively bunch. Did they really work for the Emperor? They seemed far too normal, what with their vulgar jokes and tics. It must be an act. Every monster needed a human disguise, after all. He wondered what disguise the Emperor wore, and how long it would take for that mask to fall. Oh. How would he break the news to Leorio?

. . .

"And you say the sole male applicant seems the most promising?"

Shalnark nodded. Not a care in the world plagued him as his Emperor appraised the drawing. Machi's handiwork wasn't hard to spot. She'd captured his likeness perfectly, right down to the cold, calculating look in his eyes. Something felt familiar in that face, something that pulled at his mind, as if the drawing was trying to surgically extract a memory. A strange, prodding sensation that wouldn't leave him.

"The fact he's applied as a man is an anomaly in and of itself. I better see for myself what the fuss is about. Put him on the list. Give him the best carriage to the palace. Make him feel welcome. I want his guard down when I meet him."

Shalnark grinned, despite the ominous words. The darkness didn't scare him. His Emperor's darkness was different. It was quiet and peaceful and reminded him of rainy nights spent in rickety, old cabins.

Still, for someone with too much good, too much faith in justice, the darkness could become suffocating. He just hoped that kid wasn't one of them. No, he felt confident that man wasn't one of them. There was something in him that seemed just as twisted.

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites:

Chapter Two: The Consort's Meeting

Three days later, a carriage pulled up to Kurapika's forested address. Painted all black with gold patterns of fire and roses, pulled by two blindingly white stallions. He could see it through the window glass in the kitchen, by the entrance, by the sliding door he'd stepped through so many times, soon for the last. The carriage proved ostentatious amidst the country road, where nothing but wooden carts and people in old, handstitched clothing passed by.

Kurapika's stomach inexplicably lurched at the sight, the remnants of his stomach rising in his throat. But he clenched his teeth and pushed the nausea down.

A gruff voice called out his name. Kurapika swallowed thickly. If he talked now, his voice would crack, and if his voice cracked, Leorio would worry even more. So, Kurapika didn't talk. He peered over his shoulder toward the man, who shifted nervously under Kurapika's scrutinizing gaze, turned amber in ribbons of sunlight.

"Kura . . ." he trailed off. Kurapika stepped forward, tongue still twisted with too many things to say. A pale, slender hand came up to rest on Leorio's shoulder, and Kurapika smiled a bit in reassurance. Leorio tensed, jaw tightening, but eventually, his hand settled over Kurapika's and gave it a small squeeze. It would be the last time they touched, and Kurapika wanted to savor it in some secret place of desire he hid under lock and key. The last time he'd go to sleep on his lumpy futon, the last time he'd accidentally burn himself on the kettle, the last time he'd listen to Leorio's snores as he drifted off into a much more pleasant sleep than Kurapika. The last time he'd hear him whisper in his ear.

Don't go.

Shut up. Please.

There came a looming shadow, outlined on the screen door. A knock on the door forced Kurapika to pull away, but the heat of Leorio's hand lingered, and before he could begin to forget it, he was enveloped in that same heat.

Don't go.

Kurapika wrapped his arms around Leorio's tall, gangly form.

Let go.

"Kwon-nari," the official's voice rung out, respectful to an absurd degree. Kurapika understood. His status had risen. He had to pull himself together and stop hanging onto a man who was so far below him.

It was Leorio who let him go first. The young medic shoved him away, as gently as he could, and Kurapika stumbled a little. He steadied himself against the door, before turning to toss the other man an icy glare.

Leorio grinned. "Send me some souvenirs, okay?"

Tears blurred his vision again, but Kurapika blinked them away, put on another smile, and nodded once.

"And some money too," Leorio added. He scratched the back of his spiky head nervously. "I'm kind of running low."

Kurapika snorted, "you're always running low." He slid the door open and outside a woman waited. Her short, dark hair was spiky at the ends, curling and framing her face. She wore the Ryusei Empire's military uniform - a sleek, black tunic with a matching cloak and trousers. On her shoulders were golden epaulets - and nearly half her face hid behind large, round spectacles.

"Are you Kwon-nari?" she asked, raising a scroll to her face and shifting her gaze from the paper to him and back to the paper once more.

"Yes."

"You look better in the picture."

Kurapika blinked, and said, "I'm sorry to disappoint."

"Shizuku," someone called from the carriage. A big, hulking man with earlobes that reached his shoulders stuck his head out the window. He, too, wore a military uniform, but it seemed a bit small on him. Kurapika found him much more suitable for the role of a monster than the woman. "We're leaving. Danchou's got a conference at noon, remember?"

"He does?" the woman asked, in that mellow, quiet voice of hers.

"We talked about it on the way here."

"We did?"

"Shizu, just get in the carriage," the man sighed, despondently, leaning back against the headrest.

"Okay," she replied. The woman turned back to Kurapika and grabbed his hand. "Let's go." And then he was being dragged to the carriage. Shizuku proved to be strong for such a small individual. Her grip left red marks and nail incisions in the back of his hand, and his fingers remained sore even minutes after she'd let go.

Shizuku opened the glossy door and gestured for him to get in. Kurapika glared into the dimly lit carriage. It was like they were taking him to a funeral. Which they would be soon, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

"Kurapika-nari," Shizuku repeats, as they settled into the carriage's grey upholstery. "You'll be going in to meet Emperor Kuroro after Lady Neon."

Neon? Of the Nostrade clan? She was two years younger than Kurapika and had the mind of a child according to the rumors. She wasn't cut out for this. "I see."

"He wants you to make yourself at home while you wait," she droned on. "You'll be escorted to your quarters. We'll notify you when it's your turn to meet the Emperor. Any questions?"

"I have many," Kurapika replied. "But first, where does the Emperor wish to meet us?"

Shizuku tilted her head to the side. "I don't know. Is it that important?"

"The location of this meeting will most likely dictate the content of the conversation," Kurapika explained, a little irked that he was the one who had to explain this. Perhaps, the Emperor should hire some better help. "For example, if he is meeting us in his quarters, then the content will most likely be more intimate and personal. If it is in his office, then it will be more formal."

"Huh," the bespectacled woman said, "I never thought of it that way. Did you study a lot for this?"

"Pardon?"

"Did you study a lot for the consortship?" she repeated.

Kurapika grit his teeth and averted his eyes, not sure how to respond. If he answered honestly, then all his following actions might seem programmed. If he lied, then he's come off as uninvested in the whole ordeal. "A little."

"A lot, then," she concluded in that same breezy tone. "Your application said your parents died."

"Yes."

"That's sad. Emperor Kuroro is an orphan as well, so you'll get along."

Indeed, nothing said romance like dead parents.

The woman pursed her lips, roaming the scroll for answers. "Do you prefer silk or satin?"

"Pardon me?"

"The Emperor's buying you a new wardrobe. He wants to know what sorts of fabric you prefer," Shizuku explained, eyes flitting across the scroll.

Kurapika blinked. "Why would I need a new wardrobe?"

"Because, you're royalty now."

His body constricted as if his muscles had been shocked. "When you said the Emperor would be meeting us separately, I'd assumed this was another interview -"

"It is."

"Then, why?" Would he waste money on someone who might be sent home the same day?

"You've already been chosen," Shizuku explained, adjusting her glasses. "This is just a formality."

"Oh," he breathed, and the small, selfish hope that his status as a consort hadn't been confirmed yet vanished, replaced by that same resignedness he approached the rest of his life with. The carriage lurched forward, striking a large stone on the road.

"You sound disappointed."

His head shot up again, eyes wide. "No! Not at all! I'm just surprised, that's all."

"You're surprised?" she asked. "I thought you were the smart one?"

"The smart one?"

Shizuku had already turned to the man, who had taken the reigns before they departed. "Franklin, how much further?"

"We're here."

Kurapika peered through the windows of the carriage. The Imperial Palace was as magnificent as you'd imagine, painted red and green and a silvery blue, its curved, tiled rooftop glinting in the morning sun. If Kurapika had been a lesser being, he would've gaped at it. The stone gates stretched on for what looked like miles, then circled around, caging everything inside them. Black-clad guards stood atop the walls and in the arched entrances. In the center, Kurapika could see the green roof of the throne hall rising above the gate and imagined nights gazing at the glow it gave off. Years ago, a younger Kurapika would've eaten it up. Now, it was just a stark reminder that his enemy lived in luxury, his greedy hands stained with the blood of Kurapika's parents and countless others.

"Your room is behind the Emperor's quarters," Franklin said, helping Shizuku out of the carriage. "Phinks will take you -"

The monstrous man peered over Kurapika's shoulder, that same neutral expression on his face. He followed his gaze. There, Shalnark trekked to them down the cement path with a bright smile on his boyish face and a bounce to his being.

"Shal, what are you doing here?"

"Oh, just popping in for a visit," the familiar, cheerful man chirped, tossing an arm around Kurapika's shoulders. Kurapika tried not to squirm in response. "Phinks is feeling a bit under the weather. Don't worry, Franky, I'll take it from here!"

And Kurapika was dragged past the gates by an over-excited Shalnark.

"You're going to love your new home, Kwon-daegam!" he chatted. They walked down white stone tiles, passing by the famed throne hall with its white porch and blue walls. "It's got a ton of books, and the bed is the most comfortable thing ever. You're gonna have the best sleep ever in there. And the view is right over the Lin Garden, which is also the Emperor's favorite place to stay, so you're obviously already at the top of the consorts!"

"That's nice," Kurapika replied, though inside strange, nervous energy constricted his chest. Already? Sure, Kurapika had planned on making it to the top from the start, but not so quickly. Too much attention would make it hard to move around, he'd be too busy evading everyone's suspicious gazes to move along with the plan. He breathed in deeply, closing his eyes. He focused on the landscapes they passed. He glimpsed the Ilsalyang Pavilion on the glimmering Gyeoljeong Lake. He counted ten of its forty-eight stone pillars and failed to admire the care that had went into every detail of the wooden balustrades. They passed Wieom Hall, the Emperor's quarters: a low, long building with a tiled roof and open windows framed with currant wood. Kurapika wondered how often he left the windows open.

"Nervous?" Shalnark asked, crossing his arms and giving him a warm smile.

"Unfortunately."

Shalnark shrugged. "Nothing we can do. C'mon, the consorts' quarters is just around the corner. We'll head to your room and get you some tea. Maybe, that'll calm you down."

"Oh, no," Kurapika insisted, a part of him annoyed at how easily he forgot this man was his enemy as well. "I couldn't impose. Besides, I work better under pressure."

Shalnark narrowed his eyes, and then a grin split his face. "Okay, I'll leave some tea for you to try later. Some raspberry white tea. It's our specialty, no one can be a true member of the palace without trying it out at least once."

"Well, I suppose if it's not too much trouble -"

Shalnark waved his hand. "It's not, it's not. The maids will be glad to see someone with such great taste!"

Kurapika relented. "Alright, then."

. . .

His room was actually a collection of rooms, three to be exact, with a large closet that held more clothes than he could ever wear. Each wall had been swathed the color of coconut macaroons and covered in murals. In the living room, the murals depicted historical events, as if the consort who lived in it needed to be briefed on the history of the country. Kurapika caught the tale of Ryusei's founding - the first King and the Phoenix that led to his triumph over the Kakin Kingdom's encroaching forces - as well as Ryusei's subsequent victories and defeats under the same Kakin Kingdom, as if they couldn't end the vicious cycle of war. Today, the two countries stood united, but the scars from the last war (a mere fifty years ago) still remained. His bedroom told a less tragic story of camellia trees and white roses.

Kurapika brushed his fingers against a lacquered table depicting the bloom of a jasmine flower in what he called the living room. The table stood opposite the wooden screen door and was partially enclosed by red cushions and a single scarlet chaise lounge. He scanned the titles on a large dragon sculpted shelf brimming with books. His bedroom was another problem altogether.

"Nice, isn't it?" Shalnark commented, hands on his hips. "He really went all out with this one. I mean, look at all these flowers!"

Ah, yes, the flowers. Stargazer lilies, regular lilies, spider lilies. This man seemed to be rather fond of lilies. And yes, they smelled just wonderful. Goddammit, what kind of monster was this guy?

"Lady Aiko just went in for her interview," Shalnark explained, "Neon goes in after her, so you'll probably be called in about fifteen minutes. These things usually don't take too long."

That was reassuring.

"I'll come get you when it's your turn," Shalnark added, waving goodbye as he walked out of the room. "Make yourself at home."

They kept saying that. Kurapika wondered why. Was it just to lure him into a false sense of security? He'd have to remain vigilant.

Now, what books had this man gotten for him? He might consider giving him a quick and painless death if they were interesting enough.

. . .

Shalnark returned after precisely fifteen minutes, a grin fastened to his face as usual.

"C'mon, Kurapika, it's time for your first date with the Emperor!" Shalnark called, cheerfully.

The young consort-to-be sighed, shutting the book closed. It was alright, he supposed. He'd let the Emperor off with a quick and simple poisoning.

"Please don't call it a date," Kurapika said, standing up and flattening out any creases that might've made their way into his green hanbok.

"Why not? You're two reasonably attractive who will be spending the next few minutes alone together, learning about the other and talking about your future."

"It's more of a business proposal."

Shalnark tsked, "so pessimistic. Don't worry. The Emperor is a nice guy. Easy-going, easy to get along with, easy to be in love with. You'll fall for him in no time."

Kurapika almost laughed at that. Love? Oh, the deities would sooner raise his parents from the dead. No, really, the deities would have to raise his parents from the dead to create even the slightest chance of that happening.

Shalnark didn't say anything more, choosing to simply lead him back towards the Emperor's Quarters. Past chattering maids and two women Kurapika could only guess were the other consorts based on their expensive silken clothing. Shalnark dragged him by the Lin Garden, a gorgeous view indeed. Three small ponds laid in a triangle, with three red gazebos assigned to each of them. Leaves of green, red, orange and purple claimed his view, below them, patches of roses and lilies flourished. Off to the side, was a marble fountain. Shalnark took him back around the building.

"This is just the scenic route, by the way," Shalnark announced. "The shortcut is just a minute, so don't worry, you won't have to get through all this every time you want to see your lover at work." He winked, and Kurapika's soul died a little. But that was normal, so he didn't worry too much.

The Emperor's Quarters came back into view. They passed two blue maids on their way up the pale stone steps. The doors had already been slid aside, but four guards were perched there, eyes vigilant. Kurapika eyes the bushes surrounding the building and was made certain that more watchdogs hid in them. One look at Shalnark, though, and they were able to pass without a fuss into the soft light. Copper squares formed a vivid ceiling, below which flew phoenixes carved into wooden beams. More guards stood in front of three doors, and though Kurapika couldn't see anything through the screen, he could hear the interior humming with energy.

Kurapika was dragged to the door on the left, and then past creme walls with jeweled mosaics and metal sconces and workers who looked ready to run them over if they didn't step aside. Shalnark laughed, saying they all took their jobs seriously. The Emperor's Quarters contained fourteen rooms if Kurapika remembered correctly. Each one of them was closed.

They came to a stop, suddenly, by a room in the right wing of the building. Kurapika scowled inwardly at the fact that Shalnark had once again taken him the long way around.

Shalnark pushed him once towards the door, the way Leorio had, and promptly vanished. The consort-to-be bit his lip, his heart beating hard in his chest. This was the man who'd killed his parents, who would be his first victim, his first real lover, not one of the clients Mother gave him. Such a mess of titles and they hadn't even met once.

Kurapika went through his routine again. Eyes shut, breathe in, breathe out, eyes open. His fingers clenched the carved handles in the door, and then all at once, the door slid open, and he was met with a young man, sitting and looking far too normal to be the monster Kurapika had conjured up in his mind. He had no wickedness in his face, no evident greed in the way he held himself, and his eyes were large and silver.

"I was wondering when you'd come in," he said, without glancing up from the scroll spread across his desk.

Kurapika narrowed his eyes at the young man in front of him, certain he'd uncover some dastardly evil within the curve of his lips, within those big, slightly downturned eyes. He was clothed in a simple, black gwanbok, the attire most government officials wore these days, though Kurapika could tell it wasn't as intricate or layered. The cloth contrasted his skin beautifully. Not that Kurapika really cared.

The Emperor glanced up at him. "Like what you see? Good, mutual attraction will benefit both of us in this relationship. Sit down, Kurapika."

He raised an eyebrow. No honorifics? How crude.

Kurapika accepted his offer, sitting down across from the man.

"Is everything to your liking?" the Emperor asked, leaning his cheek against the palm of his hand, a fake sheen of fondness on his face. Kurapika could see straight through it, into the distant look in his eyes. His image was reaffirmed. This man was a monster. And Kurapika was going to have to pretend to love him for the coming months, years even.

Kurapika nodded, politely. "You've done a lot to make us all feel welcome. Thank you."

The Emperor smiled, reaching out to move some of his blond hair behind one pale ear. "I'm glad. How about the books?"

"You exceeded my expectations," Kurapika replied, not even flinching at the movement. He'd faced much more forward advances before. "Though, I must say 'Wangjaui Nolae' was an interesting choice. Should I perceive it as a threat?"

The Emperor chuckled, hand caressing his cheek gently, but his eyes remained as calculating and detached as ever. "I suppose that depends. Is there something our little Prince has been hiding?"

"I'm not actually a prince," Kurapika whispered, teasingly, his hand enveloping the Emperor's. "Though, I suppose we could change that if your majesty was as bold with your consorts as you are with your laws."

The hand withdrew, and the Emperor laughed, the sound genuine this time. "My, aren't you the charmer."

"I could say the same thing about you," Kurapika chuckled. "I dare say my heart skipped a beat."

The two of them sat in silence for a few seconds, the Emperor taking in his face, Kurapika trying his best to keep his innermost thoughts at bay. 'Kill him. Kill him. Kill him,' they chanted, and it took all of Kurapika's self-restraint not to lash out. His hands clenched on his lap, itching to circle around his neck and squeeze until the Emperor's last breath leaves him.

None of the murderous thoughts came to the surface, as Kurapika artfully maintained that coquettish look on his face. His eyes looking up through thick lashes, his petal-pink lips pulled into a teasing little smile, his face flushed from the bit of laughter he'd let slip.

Kurapika glanced away, and in that moment, he knew he'd made a mistake. For a second, his mask shattered, and his feelings flashed across his face in one fell swoop. He struggled to pick up the pieces, and a few seconds later, the mask was back on, and if the Emperor noticed, he didn't let it show.

"Well," the Emperor sighed, eyes still fixated on Kurapika, "I'll see you around, my little Prince."

Kurapika took his hand and kissed it in parting, glancing up at the man, who simply wore a small smile on his face. "I certainly hope so."

"You are far too casual about this," the man chuckled. "I thought I was the one who had to be bold?"

Kurapika grinned. "I am said to be a very attentive partner."

"And a very intelligent one, I imagine," he replied. "Your views on the Lotus and Kuyan clans were quite insightful. I believe we'll do great things together."

"I think so, too." Let's start with your complete and utter destruction.

The man nodded once, and Kurapika gave him one last charming smile.

As soon as the door fell closed, Kurapika leaned against the cold panel of the wall and shivered in disgust. He needed to cleanse himself of that encounter.

"Kurapika-daegam!" a cheerful voice called. Shalnark strolled in from around the corner in his bright lime hanbok, and Kurapika quickly composed himself.

"I didn't know you'd be back to pick me up as well," Kurapika said, voice coming out a little harsher than he'd planned.

Shalnark didn't notice. "Of course, silly! What? Did you think I'd leave you here to fend for yourself? No way! You're one of the Emperor's consorts now, which means, you're also on the top of everyone's hit list."

"I doubt anyone knows about this yet."

"Oh, you'd be surprised." Shalnark's smile became subdued, making way for a much more natural expression. "Back before people even knew that he was the long-lost Crown Prince, the Emperor was targeted by assassins."

They could find him in some obscure location, but they couldn't finish the job? Amateurs.

"Well, c'mon," Shalnark said, cheerful once more, "your tea awaits. And your bath, too. Did I mention that the bathing area in your room is amazing! Seriously, best bath you'll ever have!"

"Yes, it seems everything here is amazing."

. . .

Kurapika sighed, as he fell back on the scarlet chaise. Shalnark wasn't lying. The lavatory here was incredible. He didn't remember the last time he'd felt so refreshed. Now, if only the bath water hadn't smelled so much like lilies. He's got enough of those here.

The lacquered table now had a jade tea set atop it: two small teacups and a tea kettle. His reflection bounced back at him across the surface of a rosy liquid. It smelled lovely. Or, at least, not like lilies. So, Kurapika decided it couldn't hurt. Clutching a new volume to his chest, this one red-bound, he sipped the tangy concoction. It stung a bit down his throat but calmed his nerves without a fuss. He broke open the novel, eyes drifting over the first lines.

He got halfway through a page before he started to drift off, his eyes drooping. The book fell from his open palm, settling in the small space on the chaise between Kurapika's abdomen and the back cushion. It was quite peaceful here, with the afternoon sun drifting through the two large windows behind him.

The people might be horrible, but their hospitality wasn't so bad, really.

. . .

Kuroro sighed, as he finished the last of the paperwork. His body had become stiff now, his joints screeching after being kept in this strict seiza position all day. His mind remained functioning, though even it was beginning to check out. That meeting at noon certainly took a lot out of him. Then again, this whole ruling business took a lot out of him in general.

He peered out the green-rimmed window in his office. The full moon hung low tonight, the stars dotted the sky. They weren't as clear as the ones back home, but they did well enough. Below them, the gardens and buildings of the palace glimmered, and Kuroro wished for a rickety cabin.

There came a knock on the door and Kuroro schooled his features, ready to tell whoever it might concern that he was not to be disturbed.

"Danchou!" Shalnark called. Kuroro's shoulders relaxed. His advisors needn't be subjected to his masks as often as the other palace personnel. "Kurapika didn't show up to dinner tonight! Can you bring him his food?"

Kurapika? Ah, right. His charming little Prince. A charming little Prince with a charming little secret. He wondered what he was hiding.

"And why can't one of the servants do it?"

"Because none of the servants skipped dinner as well?"

"I said I wasn't hungry," Kuroro rang back, cleaning the ink off his silver brush. Ah, even his eyes were sore.

"Oh, come on. Don't you want to have a romantic dinner with your husband?"

Kuroro considered. He could use this as an opportunity to gather information about the other man, to learn what made his dark eyes reflect such a twisted soul. There weren't many things that could pique Kuroro's interest enough to force a reaction. Human psychology was one of those things. Ever since he witnessed his mother's depression, and the way his own darkness seemed to writhe within him, and how his father acted as if he knew Kuroro's mind better than he did. Most psyches weren't worth examining, but every now and then.

The man stood and walked over to the door. Shalnark was planted on the other side with a silver tray of food in his hands. Kuroro seized it and gave him a suspicious look. Even more concerning than his little Prince was Shalnark's behavior.

"You seem strangely invested in this man."

Shalnark clasped his hands behind his back. "The only thing I'm invested in is your happiness, Danchou!"

Kuroro's brow furrowed, but he let it go, walking down the corridor and taking a left to the exit. Shalnark followed him until they reached the entrance to the consorts' quarters just a few steps north.

"I'll wait for you outside," Shal said, sitting down on the stone steps. Then, as if he were a magician, he pulled an orange out of his lime green sleeve and started to peel off its skin. Kuroro often worried that carelessness would get his advisor hurt someday, but he always put the troubling thought to rest. As long as they remained by his side, Kuroro would exhaust any resource to keep them alive.

Now, where was his little Prince's room? Toward the back, by the Lin Garden, his mother's old sleeping quarters before his father had made her Queen Consort and built her the now abandoned Yeon-in Palace. Kuroro hadn't touched this place since he was five, but now the memories returned like a long-forgotten tide. On one of the wall panels remained the slightest shadow of ink where he had once painted a picture of a Bulgae - a mythological dog beast forever caught in an endless pursuit of the sun and moon. Myths had been one of his favorite subjects back then.

He knocked twice on the door out of habit. No one answered, but that was nothing new.

"Kurapika," he called, as he made his way into the sweet-smelling room. He caught sight of him spread out across the chaise, and even Kuroro had to begrudgingly admit his serenity was rather adorable. Across his stomach pale fingers, like moonlight, splayed out, reaching for the book that had fallen to his side. His face tilted away, half of it hidden from view. Strands of golden hair spread over a red satin pillow and over his cheek. Golden hair that seemed so familiar now, though Kuroro could not place it.

Kuroro set the tray down on a table with an old tea set and ambled over to his consort's side. Absentmindedly, he pondered how Kurapika, this so-called perfect consort, would react to waking up to him?

"Kurapika," he called, quietly, sitting down on the chaise and weaving his hand through vaguely messy locks. How easily the motion came to him. It was almost frightening. "Wake up."

He stirred, his hand moving to take Kuroro's. Slowly, tired lids gave way to chestnut orbs, squinting at him. They widened in recognition, and Kurapika shot upright as if someone had brought a knife to his spine.

"Your Majesty," Kurapika said, voice just a bit nervous, just a bit too fearful. "Is everything alright?"

"You missed dinner," he said, gesturing to the tray, "so I thought we could share."

"Oh, of course," Kurapika replied, relieved now, and Kuroro felt triumphant. The man was already slipping up. "I guess I slept for longer than planned." The consort stood.

"Hmm," Kuroro said, bringing one of the teacups to his lips. Valerian root? Well-masked, certainly, but Kuroro was well-versed in poisons and sleeping agents. It was hard to get anything out of him. "It wasn't entirely your fault. The tea was drugged."

"What?" Kurapika asked, whirling around on his heel.

"You should be more careful. Shalnark might seem friendly, but he's a trickster first and foremost."

Kurapika's face contorted in anger for a second, before settling back into that calm facade. The darkness that writhed in Kuroro wanted to see more of that fury.

. End of Chapter .

 

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites:

Chapter Three: The Consort's Dinner

Kurapika thought the food delicious, and the company rather ridiculous. Not because his Majesty was ridiculous, but because his heart beat so wildly thanks to him. That was ridiculous.

He stuffed his face further as if to put a cork on his emotions, to block out his heartbeat. The other man's eyes bored into him, but he said not a word. Kurapika had moved off the chaise to one of the cushions, so they could properly stare at each other, as was protocol. A mere consort was not allowed to look down at the Emperor. The Emperor's hair had begun to fall into his eyes now. A pair of steel chopsticks were set between his fingers, catching onto a piece of napa cabbage. He popped it in his mouth and began to chew, almost elegantly. What kind of sorcery was this? Eating shouldn't be elegant, not unless you've trained endlessly to do so.

Well, he had to get to the throne somehow. Unlike his predecessors, this Emperor hadn't grown up in the palace. He hadn't been schooled and groomed to one day lay claim to the crown. Many had once speculated that his ascension to the throne was carved in the blood of the late King Ji-Yeong, and that this new Emperor was nothing more than a fraud despite his uncanny resemblance. The time of rumors had passed now. At 24, eight years into his reign, there was barely a whisper of the rumors on the streets of Ryusei Empire. Many of the messengers had died in the riots. The rest, he charmed into loyalty, turning the fiercest loathing into love.

Damn, what if Kurapika got caught in his web as well? He hadn't even considered that in all his years of training.

Kurapika shook his head, inwardly. He hadn't considered it because it was utterly ridiculous. He couldn't be charmed. He was blind to charms.

"You've become rather quiet, Kurapika," the Emperor spoke in the deafening silence, and once again, he could hear that air of informality in his voice. Inside, Mother's measured voice alerted him. Spiders drew their prey into their traps without ever moving a muscle, feigning innocence. Traps because there was undoubtedly more than one in this case.

Kurapika flashed him a small smile. "I suppose that must be the sleep wearing off. I'm just a little tired."

"I should get out of your hair soon, then," the Emperor replied.

"You could stay if you'd like," Kurapika offered, slipping into his consort persona seamlessly.

The Emperor let a fond smile grace his face. "As tempting as that sounds, I think you'd be better off adjusting to palace life on your own. Besides, we wouldn't want the other consorts to get jealous."

"If they're jealous, then they're not very good consorts," Kurapika replied, bringing the non-poisoned tea to his lips. It was less fragrant than the raspberry white mixture Shalnark had prepared for him, but as long as it didn't put him to sleep, he ranked it above that monstrosity.

An eyebrow rose, and the man gave him a strange, ponderous look. "And should I spend the night with one of the others, would you remain untouched by envy?"

The words spilled out of his mouth, a coquettish grin on his face, "you'll soon find, your Majesty, that I am not a very good consort."

The Emperor processed those words far longer than Kurapika had hoped he would. "Tell me about your family."

"They're all gone." Kurapika placed the tea porcelain teacup back on the table, trying to move away from the topic before he could get worked up.

"I know that," the Emperor said, no longer looking at him, chopsticks diving back into his bowl of rice. It was such a casual, dismissive gesture that it made Kurapika's jaw clench in fury, the motion keeping the hatred in his chest from spilling out of his mouth. "Tell me about them before their deaths."

The possibility of him knowing crossed Kurapika's mind again. But if that was the case, Kurapika couldn't quite understand what he was doing still alive. The Emperor wasn't exactly merciful to his enemies. The fact that he had none to speak of was proof enough. "They were bakers. We lived in the mountains and sold our pastries to the villagers there. A few years before they passed on, we moved to the inner city, and we did well. And then they died in a riot."

"I see," the Emperor said. "What were they like?"

Kurapika balanced his chin on the palm of his hand in an attempt to loosen his rigid spine, hoping the movement would release the tension inside him. It didn't. "I'd prefer not to go into detail."

"As a consort, you'll need to answer whatever questions you're asked. Might as well start with something difficult," the Emperor said, and it sounded so rational that Kurapika almost believed him.

"I'm not dense, I can evade a question without much effort on my part."

"We politicians don't rely on lying as much as you may think," the Emperor replied, his voice icy. The silver of his eyes granted passage to a calculating mind. Kurapika squirmed inwardly at the scrutiny. "This is purely a test of how well you can keep your emotions under control. That shouldn't be too difficult for you."

He was playing with him.

That was alright. Mother had taught him how to play this game.

Kurapika gave him a gentle smile. "I take after my mother appearance-wise. She was loved by everyone, though she also drove most people crazy at the same time. She always interrupted me while I was studying. My father was a lot more serious. He was a baker and a scholar, and every Sunday we'd go outside with a handful of pastries and a pile of books and read on the terrace. Then, my mother would come out and say that it wasn't healthy to sit around all day, and she'd herd us back inside, gather some supplies and we'd go hiking."

"When did they die?"

Kurapika's eyes narrowed. Damn, keep yourself under control, boy. "Five years ago, April fifteenth. I was sixteen."

"A Sunday."

"Indeed."

"How poetic," the Emperor said, standing up, tray abandoned. He gave Kurapika that same patronizingly loving smile and offered him a bright red rose. "For you."

The young consort did what any sane consort would do. He took it, gratefully, and then held out a scarlet spider lily. A trick he'd learned from Mother.

Flowers win over everyone.

" Lycoris radiata," the Emperor said, approaching his appointed lover with slow, small steps until they stood a few centimeters apart, their lips so close that had one of them been given a shove they would meet. Kurapika held back a shiver of disgust. The way the moonlight haloed him, in contrast to the glow of the candles in the room. His pale, pale skin. The skin of a dead man. The breath on his lips was warm though, the taste of yuja melting on his tongue. "I hope you don't mean our relationship to end in tragedy."

"Sometimes, we can't quite control where fate takes us," Kurapika replied. He didn't believe it, of course. Fate. Destiny. He found the very concept laughable, but he figured someone as fate-bound as the Emperor would appreciate that tidbit.

"And is what you see a terrible end?"

"Perhaps."

The Emperor's eyes gleamed now. Was it from the candlelight, or from his own darkness? Could darkness gleam? What would that even be like? A gemstone? Kurapika frowned inwardly. He didn't like comparing eyes to gemstones. Eyes were full of life, windows to the soul. Gemstones, while pretty and sparkly, were dead.

Maybe, the comparison did fit his dear lover.

"Just for one of us, then," the Emperor said, tipping his head to the side.

"Jumping to conclusions now, are we, your Majesty?" Kurapika quipped. The Emperor moved away now, and a small sliver of a smile on his face, not the charming grins he'd given him earlier.

"I have one more question."

"I am at your service."

The Emperor met his eyes, and both their masks seemed to drop, shattered by the knives in that gaze. Kurapika was nearly taken aback by his need to stab something, a feral hatred tying his desires into a bundle ready to pop. "Why did you decide to become the consort of someone you hate so dearly?"

Kurapika's jaw locked in place, stunned into silence, and the Emperor waited patiently for him to speak, all the while probably scrutinizing every single muscle in his body for signs of weakness.

"Hatred is quite a strong word."

"Were we behind the murder of your parents?"

Kurapika's lies were caught on his tongue, ready to make themselves known, but then they were dragged back in. This man gathered all this from just two encounters. Lying would not curb his suspicion, but perhaps telling him the truth would intrigue the Emperor enough not to send him right to the executioner's block?

"Yes."

"Are you here to kill me as retribution?"

Mother would most assuredly punish him for this later. "Yes."

The Emperor's eyes narrowed, his face falling for once. He reached out to touch his cheek, his frigid fingers sending icicles down Kurapika's spine. "Do not tell anyone else of your allegiance."

"Excuse me?" Did he think he was an idiot? He had been training for this position for the last five years! He knew not to tell anyone.

"Let's see how long you last," the Emperor said. Their foreheads touched, and Kurapika fought down the urge to back away. "So, what do you say? Play with me?"

It was all a game to him, Kurapika realized. Was he so bored trying to run an entire nation?

"Why would you want to play a game with your murderer?"

"Because there's nothing quite as thrilling as having your life on the line."

Kurapika tried to scrutinize his face, a blank, honest face. He liked it. He liked the feeling of his life being threatened. It was a puzzle to him. A challenge.

The consort reached out and tugged at the Emperor's collar and pulled him down. "Then, I will do my best to keep your interest, your Majesty." Kurapika pressed his lips to the Emperor's, and he felt the other man go stiff for a second, before arms caged his waist, pushing him up against his hated lover.

It wasn't as atrocious as Kurapika had expected. The Emperor's touch fell on his skin in gentle strokes, not the demanding, greedy reaction he'd expected. His grip was tight around his waist, still, his fingers clutching the fabric of his magoja.

Kurapika broke away, hoping he looked properly flushed, his breathing labored. 

The Emperor released him immediately, and Kurapika praised himself on the shocked look on the other man's face. Mother taught him well. The Emperor composed himself in a split second, back to his slight amusement. "Sweet dreams, my charming prince."

"Likewise."

The taller man pressed a kiss to his forehead, his hand brushing Kurapika's, and then left his consort's lavish room without even sparing him another look. Kurapika sunk to the floor as soon as he could be sure that the Emperor was really gone. The bile rose in his throat. Who knew they'd get so intimate so early in the game? It was alright. He was used to these sorts of escapades. If he wanted to go fast, that was fine.

Dammit. Lies used to work.

The bathroom's paper door slid aside, and Kurapika scrambled for the nearest cleaning product. A bar of gray soap lay near the basin. It tasted bitter, but he bore with it, rinsing his mouth out just as quickly. Sanitization complete. The man buried his face in his hands. Damn. Damn. Damn.

This wasn't what he'd expected to feel. Disgust, of course. Maybe neutrality, considering his training. Not this.

His lip curled in revulsion. Not at the Emperor, or at the kiss, but at his own body.

He'd enjoyed that kiss. He was not fine. He was physically attracted to that bastard.

Oh Gods, he might vomit.

He heard a knock on the door suddenly, and then a voice.

"Kurapika-nari?" they said. It was the voice of a woman, graceful and concerned. "Are you alright?"

Kurapika's eyes widened in horror. Had they heard everything?

He quickly splashed some water on his face, composed himself as the icy water cooled him down. Then, toweling himself dry, he walked over to the door.

"I'm sorry, did I wake you?" he asked. There were two women behind the door. One, he recognized as Neon, with her bright blue hair and matching eyes, dressed in pinks and purples, her youthful face aglow in the light of the torches outside. In front of her, stood the woman who had spoken. She had blue eyes as well, though hers were far lighter, a lake frozen over, paler lines striking through them like cracks in the ice. Her black hair was let down in long, straight locks. She wore a nightgown similar to Neon's, though hers was much duller in terms of a color scheme. This was Aiko, he believed. She'd been groomed ever since she was born for this position, though her parents probably didn't put her through as drastic measures as Mother did.

The woman shook her head. "No, we both woke up a while ago. We both found it rather lonely and decided to play a game of daifugo, but we need another player and when we saw that your light was still on, we decided to ask you to join us." She could certainly talk quickly. "What say you to a round?"

Oh, thank the Gods for an escape from this damned thought spiral. Usually, he wouldn't agree to something like this. He had things to do, missions to fulfill, but right now, he couldn't be left to his own thoughts. Besides, it might be good to build a good rapport with the other consorts.

"I'd love to," he replied. 

And so, the three consorts walked to the consort lounge - a room painted in accents of jade and gold - and played a game of cards. Kurapika won. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

. . .

Kuroro felt a bit bad about that kiss. He hoped the poor boy didn't think he wanted to take him so soon, or ever, for that matter. He might be cruel, but he wasn't the type to force himself, mentally or physically, on someone else. The boy just needed to get his emotions under control, that was all. After that, everything would be easier. 

"Did somebody have a good time?" Shalnark squealed when Kuroro finally reached him. The Emperor's palace was mostly abandoned now, save for the two purple handmaidens who had gone to fetch him. Pakunoda's staff never slept, the slips of their purple uniforms forever in motion. He'd have to give them a raise one of these days.

Shalnark trailed behind him on the way to Pakunoda's room. The candle-light soaked the corridors in golden flame, as they passed walls of paper windows and gold-winged animals. It was a quiet corner of the palace, far from the often chaotic mess of his office. The doors were bolted shut more often than not, as disturbances were hard on Paku's heart, but tonight they remained open to the public.   

"He's an interesting fellow." No, whoever got him into this was the interesting one. His little prince was just a pawn.

"Told ya."

Kuroro chuckled, his hand on the iron door handle. "How is she doing?"

"Better now." Shalnark's smile waned a bit. "She woke up a few minutes ago to pain in her heart. It was going a hundred twenty beats per minute. It's gone down now, but she still feels a bit dizzy."

Nothing out of the ordinary then.  Better check just in case.

Kuroro walked in, letting the wall close behind him. There were some things he preferred to do alone. "Hey, Paku."

"Hey, kid."

Kuroro bows his head, a rough chortle escaping his throat. "Will I ever not be a kid to you?"

After all he's done.

"What can I say? I'm an old woman. You're all kids to me."

After all he's taken away.

"You're only two years older than me, Paku."

And all the grief he's caused.

"Really, I feel so much older. It's probably just my stunning maturity."

She's still here.

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites

Chapter 4: The Consort’s Kiss

He wanted to do it again, damn hormones.

Kurapika lay on the lavishly furnished bed, half wrapped in the light blue sheets, his skin too warm for all the layers presented to him. Below the fabric, his heart beat erratically.

He’d played the card game, even drank some wine to wash away his unwanted memories, but in this case, alcohol probably wasn’t the best solution. It just made your judgment fuzzy, your actions rash, your heart stupid. It was alright during intimate moments, Kurapika knew, but in a high-stakes situation like this, alcohol was the last thing he needed in his body.

Damn alcohol and the tiny portion sizes Aiko had given out to lure him into a false sense of security.  

Kurapika rolled onto his side. He’d kissed a lot of people before. Men, women. This wasn’t fair! He had experience, dammit! He should be basking in the glorious light of surviving day one of his consortship, not blushing over kisses that lasted a whole of five seconds.

Maybe, this was good. Mother never told him to avoid attraction, just attachment. As long as he didn’t become attached, he could want as much of the Emperor as he wished. It could even make their relationship more believable to prying eyes.

Kurapika could practically hear his parents screeching at him from the heavens. The Emperor was meant to be his enemy, and his attraction would only put a damper on his anger.

Kurapika sat up now, spurred on by some sort of irrational fear, some sort of anxiety, at the thought of his anger fading even a little bit. He didn’t go through all those sleepless nights for nothing.

The wind blew in through the window in soft, beckoning gusts, and Kurapika felt his mind clear a bit. A walk outside couldn’t hurt. It’s not like there would be an assassination attempt after a day. Kurapika knew how much work went into assassinations. There was no way someone would be able to take care of him so soon.

The young consort traversed the corridors for a few minutes, conjuring up his mental map of what he knew of the palace so far. He passed blue satin curtains and silk tapestries, polished golden sconces and furniture, and it made the lump in his throat grow. One could drown in all the extravagance and luxury that permeated the walls of this place, made even worse by the ethereal light of the moon. One would think they were in a Palace made for Gods rather than murderers.

Kurapika closed his eyes to the gentle summer-scented breeze, his bare feet cold against the wooden bridge he stood on now, where he could feel every splinter and every grain. His eyes opened again, slowly, drinking in the dark water of the stream as it clashed against solid ground. Moonrays streaked through the inky blue, and Kurapika remembered the streams in the village, and how the adults used to go fishing in darkness. He couldn’t see anything in these waters.

Even in his drunken state, he was horribly depressed. Wonderful.

“Oi, kid! Behind you!” a gruff, loud voice shouted, and Kurapika turned on his heel, glimpsing just a glimmer of metal before registering that it was time to duck. He wasn’t sure where the lone arrow lodged itself, but he knew where it had meant to. Straight through his heart, and after being destabilized, another would’ve followed with a target at the back of his head.

Someone approached him, and Kurapika jerked away. In front of him was quite the goliath of a man, being several feet taller than Kurapika and so muscular the avenger thought he was better suited to a fighting ring rather than an elegant palace. The clothes he wore looked expensive yet casual, made for fighting, but perfectly suitable for meeting other officials.

“Phew, that was close!” the man exclaimed, far louder than necessary. He looked down at Kurapika, who was still crouched on the ground, though he had relaxed considerably. No doubt, it was just one of the Emperor’s idiots.  “Well, where’s my thank you?”

“Pardon?” Kurapika responded, flatly.

“Don’t mind him,” another, smaller man said, his voice a mix between a hiss and a whisper. His eyes narrowed and the lower half of his face concealed behind a mask. “He’s an idiot.”

“S’that so?” Kurapika slurred, the adrenaline wearing off now, replaced by the same intoxication. He swayed a bit upon standing, falling back against the railing. The giant raised an eyebrow.

“Eh, are you drunk, kid?” he asked, sounding almost concerned now. Which was ridiculous. Why would one of the Emperor’s idiots care about him? Oh, maybe it was his newfound status. That could be it.

The small man snickered. “As a sailor on shore leave.”

“I am not,” Kurapika protested, drunkenly, pushing himself off the railing and promptly losing his balance.

. . .

Not long after Kurapika found himself passed out, did Kuroro's faithful servants barge into his room unannounced with the young man hanging limp in Uvogin’s arms. His vengeful consort looked as beautiful as ever, his porcelain skin appearing more fragile than Kuroro remembered it being, his cheeks tinged pink from the alcohol.

Kuroro rolled over to his other side, away from the door and Uvogin. He was far too tired for this. “Just drop him on the divan.”

“Are you sure? He’s pretty drunk.”

“Yes. Close the door on your way out,” Kuroro ordered, before allowing himself to sink into sleep again, trusting Uvo to do as he said. It wasn’t until much later that he awoke to the sound of muttered swearing. Kurapika sat on the divan, his feet tucked under him as his hands clutched his hair.

“Tsk,” he murmured, still believing he was alone in the room, “damn alcohol.”

Emperor smirked, though his eyes fell closed again. “You reap what you sow.”  

His consort laughed, bitterly, and it was clear he wasn’t in the healthiest state of mind at the moment. “I certainly hope so.”

“Are we losing it already, my dear Prince? We’re only on day two,” Emperor spoke, knowing the man wouldn’t respond well to such provocation and somehow looking forward to it.

He felt the bed tip a bit as extra weight was put on it. Turning to him, the Emperor’s eyes met Kurapika’s much livelier, much angrier ones.

“Have I hit a nerve?”

. . .

“Don’t mock me,” he seethed, imaginary knives stabbing through his skull, splitting it into two. He ignored the pain, ignored the fact that he was letting go. The young consort straddled his waist, and the Emperor only smiled at him, smug despite the fact he was pinned down to his own bed.

The Emperor took hold of his hands, and Kurapika blocked out the caress of his fingers as he placed his own on his neck. “How does it feel, knowing my life is in your hands?”

“I’m not going to kill you now,” Kurapika said, indignantly. He wasn’t an amateur, for God’s sake.

“But you could.”

There was silence, as Kurapika processed the reasoning behind his words. Their world was filled with birdsong and rustling leaves.

Ah, this was part of the game. He was trying to force his hand.

Kurapika’s hands slid away from his neck and down to his clothed chest. He braced himself for whatever wave of emotion would come after this, and then leaned down to place a few kisses along the Emperor’s clavicle.

“You -” The Emperor said just as Kurapika met his lips.

“Good morning, Dan-Dan - oh, dear god!” Shalnark covered a wide grin with his hand. “Have some tact, at least wait until you’re married!”

The Emperor chuckled, sitting up, and Kurapika backed away without another word. “I believe there’s no law against consummating our relationship before marriage.”

Kurapika glared at him. In response, the Emperor offered him a simple, innocent smile.  Shalnark’s eyes flit between the two, and, realizing he was intruding on a rather intimate moment and hadn’t yet evacuated the area, he quickly retreated back behind the screen door.

The young consort turned back to his lover. “What did you mean by that?”

“You certainly don’t shy away from this sort of thing,” the Emperor yawned, getting up from the bed and stretching. “Don’t worry about it.” He leaned down and cupped his chin. “Just because you’re my consort, does not mean we’re lovers.”

“Yes, it does.”

The Emperor’s smile dropped. “You’re quite an argumentative little Prince, aren’t you? I’m the Emperor, I decide what you are.”

Kurapika rolled his eyes. “Pardon my rudeness.”

“So, no more of your displays of affection, my Prince,” the Emperor said, straightening now. “Relax. You’re not going to win our game by forcing yourself to damage your psyche.”

He raised his eyebrow, clearly waiting for Kurapika’s agreement. All he got was a small indignant scoff and a sudden aversion to eye contact, but that seemed to be enough for him. Without another word, the Emperor walked away from his slightly perplexed consort, towards what was probably his bathing area.

Hearing the sound of gushing water, Kurapika fell back on the bed and ran the last few minutes back through his head.  

Was it just him, or had he just been rejected?

How strange. Mother had expected the Emperor to have a much healthier sexual appetite. When all else failed, she always told him seduction was the way to go. But it seemed, he couldn’t quite be seduced.

Kurapika’s eyes fell on the door to the bathing area. Could it be? The man actually had some virtuous qualities.

Impossible. This must be a part of one of his schemes, somehow. A part of this game they were playing. Kurapika still wasn’t quite sure what the terms were, but they were certainly tipped in the Emperor’s favor at the moment. If only he knew how to win, or even more importantly, how not to lose.

. . .

“A party?” Kurapika had long since found that the two major emotions he regards everything that isn’t the Emperor with were incredulity and exasperation.

“Technically, it’s a Festival,” Shalnark corrected. “And it’s in honor of the consorts. That’s why it’s called the Consort’s Festival.”

“I never would’ve guessed,” Kurapika replied, humorlessly.

Shalnark pouted. “Are you still mad about the tea incident, Kurapika-daegam? I was just trying to speed things along.”

Kurapika blinked rapidly, then tilted his head to the side. “I’m not mad.” If anything, he was just a bit tired. It was odd, but he couldn’t seem to get truly mad at Shalnark. Annoyed, maybe. Ready to seal his mouth together with some sort of adhesive at times, certainly. But nothing quite like the anger he thought he’d feel. Perhaps, it was the rational part of him that refused to hate someone blindly. On the other hand, it might just be that whenever he thought about the murderer of his parents, it was the Emperor’s face that was ingrained in his mind, not Shalnark's.

“You seem mad,” Shalnark murmured, but then he shrugged. “Well, the festival spans three days and starts next week. So, you know, prepare yourself?”

“I will,” he replied, sinking further into the sudsy, soapy water. An expectant expression crossed his face.

“Right, I’ll leave now. Pardon my barging in,” Shalnark said, bowing and leaving the room. Kurapika sighed. How did these people always catch him in some state of undress?

The door slid open again, and Kurapika instinctively went rigid. Shalnark’s head popped back in the gap left by the screen.

“Oh, by the way, would you prefer a sweet or savory breakfast?”

“I don’t mind either way.”

“Okay, I’ll get you the same thing as Danchou, then!” he chirped, shutting the door behind him.

Kurapika heaved a sigh again, relaxing considerably. He’s been sighing a lot lately.

. End of Chapter .

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Five:

The Consort's Best Friend

If there was one thing Kurapika missed about his old place, and there were many but only one fit that particular moment, it was being able to sleep in. The few years after he met Leorio, he always worked night shifts at odd jobs. He never stayed long in an effort to not make any connections with his prospective bosses. Leorio was enough of a hassle. Besides, it didn't take too long for his previous life as a courtesan to begin to resurface. The constant shifting helped keep his past life perfectly anonymous.

There were no night shifts for the Consorts of the Emperor. There was no such thing as sleeping in if you wanted to be fed without having the Emperor barge into your personal suite to eat with you, all-the-while feeling like you were the one who was about to be eaten.

"Kurapika-daegam!" one of the maids called as they entered his suite in their rose pink uniforms. Kurapika tried his best not to let his annoyance show. These women had done nothing to deserve his ire. "How are you doing today?" They swung the drapes aside to let in some sunlight, which Kurapika's eyes heartily protested against. "Did you sleep well?" One of the maids dragged him out of bed after a confusing half-bow. "You're so skinny, Kurapika-daegam. Make sure to eat a lot at breakfast today!" They said as they took turns putting various robes to his chest. "Your complexion goes very well with cool colors, Kurapika-daegam!"

"Thank you, Kiya," he said, his head still reeling from the sudden onslaught of motion. They stood in his bedroom, surrounded by murals imitating a garden of cream-colored flowers. His unclothed feet were cool against the bamboo flooring.

The young maid placed her hands over her mouth. "Kurapika-daegam," she whispered. Then, she bowed and gave him a wide, red-cheeked grin. "I am so honored you remembered my name."

One of the other maids slapped her arm lightly. "Kiya, you can't just flirt with the Emperor's only male Consort."

"I wasn't flirting," Kiya defended, though her tone was apologetic.

"It's alright," Kurapika said, raising his arms placatingly. "Would you ladies mind waiting outside as I get ready?"

"Kurapika-daegam!" all four maids cried.

The leader, a middle-aged woman with salt-and-pepper hair and a loud, gravelly voice added, "You're too thoughtful! We'll leave immediately. C'mon girls, let's go!" They retreated to the living room, letting the doors slide back into place, but he could still hear their voices chattering away.

These people . . . were far too energetic to be working in this place.

Kurapika sighed. It had been a week since his arrival at the palace and the Festival was just a day away. The celebration revolved around them, but thankfully, it didn't require them to do any concrete work. It was mostly just for the people to remember that they're all above them. Traditionally, Consorts had little official functions in any aspect of the government, sans providing an heir and consoling the Emperor. If they wanted to, they could all just laze around all day writing poetry and reading enlightening novels. Kurapika had great potential with the latter, though the former, well, let's just say Kurapika wasn't blessed with a poet's heart. He'd tried, once, when Mother thought he might be forced to write some poetry for the Emperor at some point. He failed miserably. Words came to him fine, but all his poetry ended up too literal and too angry.

Ah, poetry. The only thing he could never excel at even when fueled by his fury.

So, when he walked into the Consort's Lounge – something he'd heard about in stories and was just as extravagant as you might imagine. Painted cream and accented with colorful landscapes, several cushioned mats laid on the floor by beautifully crafted tables filled with cakes and teas. There were lounges lined with colorful pillows – he was quite taken aback at the news that the Consorts did, in fact, have to help with Festival Preparations. It couldn't be just any sort of contribution. It had to be a way befitting their elegance and intelligence: poetry.

"I see," he said, as Machi delivered the news. The rest of the Consorts seemed quite confident in their abilities, and Kurapika tried to mirror them, but deep inside, his heart shriveled up in dread. Or, whatever was left of his heart, anyway. His stomach didn't seem all that enthusiastic either, and for a second, Kurapika thought about getting up and vomiting the contents of his breakfast in the bathroom toilet.

But then, everyone would know he was ridiculously nervous. He could not allow that to happen. The other Consorts might seem docile and friendly, but deep down, they were all here for the same reason: To be the Emperor's favorite. And just like Kurapika, they would undoubtedly fight tooth and nails for that position.

"Kurapika-nim," Aiko spoke from the cushion right beside his own, looking immaculate in her blue silks, "do you have anything planned out yet?"

Goodness, they were already planning things out? He'd barely gotten through the anxiety phase.

"Ah, no, I don't like planning out my writing. I feel the premeditation takes away the heart of the poem." It was going to turn out horrible whether he planned it out or not, so why bother?

The other Consorts praised his dedication, but something told him they weren't quite as impressed as they'd have him believe.

"Well, I'm going to take a stroll around the Palace grounds," he announced, standing up. He moved the screen door aside, gave a small smile to the guard at the door, and then walked away. It was such a strange emotion, loneliness. It hit you when you least expected it. After a week at the Palace, he was finally feeling it a bit. He missed home. Not home, precisely. He missed Leorio. The way he seemed to douse his anger so naturally, just by placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. Or comment on his self-destructive tendencies in a manner that was both humorous and absolutely heartbreaking. And it had only been a week. How pathetic. The faster he got rid of this feeling, the better. Whatever emotions, whatever love he'd had for him, had to be crushed. At this point, Leorio was nothing but an unattainable future.

Kurapika sat down on the edge of the fountain, a long, sprawling contraption spanning an eighth of the Lin Garden. There were a few leaves floating around, but other than that, the water was a clear blue against the white marble of the fountain. Leorio would've fainted at all the money that must've gone into building the garden alone. He'd always been rather stingy.

"I know that look."

Kurapika jolted, meeting gray eyes. The Emperor stood just a few steps away, looking down at him with an indiscernible expression. His hair was swept back today, his tattoo in plain sight - a spade-tipped cross.

"Your Majesty," Kurapika greeted. He started to stand up, but the Emperor put a hand on his shoulder. He stayed down, and the Emperor joined him, gazing into the pristine water wistfully. With the sun weaving its way into his hair, his eyes, his face, his black and gold hanbok, the Emperor looked something close to kind. Their hands were close, their little fingers a centimeter away from touching, and neither of them made a move. There was a comfortable stillness waiting to be broken.

"I call this Oeleun Bonsu," the Emperor said. He fixed those dark eyes on Kurapika, and the young man felt his heart race a bit. "Do you know why?"

Kurapika averted his eyes, straining his mind to remember a Lonely Fountain in his Mother's teachings and textbooks. Rarely was he caught not knowing the answer to a question, and when it happened he couldn't help but feel unnerved.

"You shouldn't," the Emperor said, smiling now and looking away. "My mother gave it that name. It's where she went to drown her sorrows. Mostly loneliness. But also anger and frustration. Feelings I'm sure you experienced even before coming here."

Kurapika turned away from the fountain and clenched his hands in his lap. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Who knows?" the Emperor sighed, leaning back on his palms now, the warmth their proximity lent disappearing. "I suppose you reminded me of her, sitting there. She became a Consort to get away from her family back in the West. She had no idea what awaited her here."

Did he expect Kurapika to feel bad for his plight? Alright, he felt a bit bad for his mother, but that made no difference in how he felt about the Emperor himself.

"So, now it's your turn."

Kurapika raised an eyebrow. "Pardon?"

"What brought you here. I was missing my mother, and you . . ."

Kurapika scoffed, "I'm not telling you that."

"How cruel." The Emperor stood up, fabric shifting. His lips curved up as he turned to Kurapika. "Well, I consider this a success on my part." And he started to walk away, back to the bustling courtyard.

Kurapika's eyes darted around in confusion. "Pardon?"

The Emperor turned to him ever-so-slightly. "In a whole of ten minutes, you haven't tried to kiss or kill me. That is my win."

I'll show you killing –

No, no, he was fine. He was great. He didn't want to kill anyone. Well, he did, but that wasn't the point. Should he kiss him again? That seemed to work in distracting Kurapika from his more murderous thoughts.

But he asked him not to.

As if he cared.

Ah, but it wasn't like he wanted to kiss him. Well, he did. That was, his body didn't seem against the notion, simply because Kurapika had eyes. To be completely honest, the part of Kurapika that acted on pure carnal desires, probably wouldn't mind spending the night with the Emperor. It was just sex, after all.

However, there was more to Kurapika than just his carnal desires. And the much larger, much more logical and moral side of him, recoiled at the very idea.

What was it he'd said before? That his mother used to come to the fountain to drown her sorrows. That sounded great right about now.

. . .

After successfully drowning the bulk of his sorrows in the fountain, Kurapika returned to his lily-scented room and wrote poems until his fingers were stained black from the ink. The poems themselves were awful. They were all about moon rays and sunrays and deathrays and he found it rather disconcerting that his favorite was the deathray one. He wasn't sure what a deathray was, but it sounded destructive, and he was feeling pretty destructive right about now. Pairo would come in handy right about now, but his best friend was stuck back in the brothel counting money and running background checks. He hadn't seen him in two years now.

"Kurapika-daegam," Shalnark barged in. The man had exceedingly poor manners. "How ya doing?"

"Hello, Shal," he murmured, not bothering to look up from his spot by one of the lacquered tables in the living room.

The man's grin fell into a fond smile. Kurapika raised an eyebrow and asked what was the matter with him. Shalnark just shrugged. "You've given me a nickname. That means you're getting used to me."

Kurapika narrowed his eyes. Was he getting used to him? That would not do. He dipped his pen in the bottle of ink on the table, and then put it to the yellow paper. "That's hardly the case. Shalnark is simply too difficult to pronounce."

"Løgner," Shalnark muttered to himself, and it was a language Kurapika just vaguely recognized. A language his mother used to speak when she was tired or angry, or when she sang him lullabies as a child.

"I didn't know you could speak Lüksan," Kurapika said, turning to him this time, his pen still on the paper. Lükso was a large nation on the continent of Ochima, mostly composed of forests and mountains and snow.

Shalnark gave him a small, wry smile. "Born and raised there. In the slums. I had nothing until Danchou found me."

"I see," Kurapika replied. Just as he had taken everything from him, the Emperor had given Shalnark everything. He only served those who served him.

"Do you know someone from there?" Shalnark asked, sitting down next to him now, forgetting the reason he sought Kurapika out for the moment. He strained his eyes to read what Kurapika had written down on the parchment. "' To know a rock?' That sounds . . . interesting."

Kurapika ignored his comment. "My mother lived there before she moved here for her studies and met my father."

"She must've really loved your father to leave everything behind," Shalnark said. Kurapika could tell he was trying to push the issue, and that was something he would not allow.

"You wanted something from me?" Kurapika prompted.

Shalnark pouted but conceded. "Danchou wants to talk to you."

"Surely, he can wait until morning." Kurapika yawned and placed the pen aside. "It's past midnight now. We both need our rest."

Shalnark laughed, and it somehow unsettled Kurapika. He seemed so sincere, and yet, the object of his cheeriness was hard to discern. "He thought you'd say that, so he told me to threaten you with jail time."

Kurapika's eyes widened comically, and Shalnark chuckled again, sliding closer and patting him on the back a bit too hard.

"Don't worry, though. I'm not going to throw you in jail," Shalnark said.

You might want to, though.

"I appreciate it," Kurapika replied, standing up and stretching. "Alright. Who am I to deny his Majesty my presence?"

Shalnark slid the doors open and gestured for him to exit the room first. He heard it shut close behind him, and the young advisor led his boss's lovely consort to his office. Kurapika briefly wondered why they had to be put in different buildings. Surely, since the Emperor visited them at odd hours of the night – assassin hours, let's call them – it would make more sense to have his quarters closer to theirs. But no, he had to cross an entire courtyard in plain view to get to him.

The young man once more allowed him to enter before him, but this time Shalnark stayed outside. The Emperor peered up at him from his desk, those strange, silver eyes calculating his every step.

"How's the poetry coming along?" The Emperor asked.

"Quite well, your Majesty," Kurapika replied. He'd better keep his mask on. There were guards outside of the door, as well as Shalnark. "Your advisor informs me that you've requested my presence?"

The Emperor put aside the paperwork he'd been mulling over and started working on the next pile. "There's been a bit of a breach of security."

Why would he tell him this? If it was so important, then he would've told all the consorts. If it wasn't, he'd tell them at breakfast. Could it be? Impossible, Mother would never send him.

"A young man by the name of Pairo. He says you know him," the man said, the tip of his pen gliding along the parchment elegantly. Kurapika's fists clenched, and he bit down the urge to shriek and demand he take him to Pairo, and that if he'd harmed even a hair on that boy's head he'd slaughter him right then and there.

"I do. What happened? Where is he?" Kurapika asked, keeping his voice intentionally low. He would scream if he didn't whisper.

The Emperor glanced up at him for a split second, a curious look in his gaze. "You seem to care greatly for this boy."

"He's an old friend," Kurapika spoke, more urgently now, as his thoughts continued to race. What were they doing to him right now? What if they were torturing him, prodding him for the answers Kurapika wouldn't give? What if this was part of the Emperor's game, and Pairo wasn't here? He couldn't lose control now, but he couldn't let it go either.

"We put him in the dungeon," the Emperor finally replied, eyeing him for signs of weakness. "He's not harmed, just unconscious. He might've woken up by now."

"Did he carry a bag with him?" Kurapika asked, leaning down to his eye level, his hands clutching the edge of the desk.

"Yes?" He gave him a perplexed look, and the consort's blood boiled, with fear, with anger, with frustration. It was past midnight. Pairo's heart would start acting up again soon.

"Where is it?" Kurapika hissed, the paperwork was thoroughly disheveled now, much of it scattered on the floor. The Emperor even dared to look disheartened at his disordered workplace. His temper thoroughly riled, the man grabbed him by the collar of that beautifully crafted golden overcoat. "Tell me where it is!"

A laugh spread across the Emperor's face, as a finger made its way to Kurapika's lips. "Hush, my prince. You wouldn't want anyone to hear you."

"I've had enough of your games," Kurapika raged on, his eyes filling with liquid. The Emperor remained silent, and Kurapika realized he wouldn't get anything out of him with fury and fists except a prison sentence. The fingers around his silken collar loosened. Pairo's life was at stake. He didn't have time to rough him up. "Pairo has a heart condition. He always keeps his medicine in that bag. Please, without it he'll die within minutes."

Something changed in the Emperor's face. It wasn't pity or sympathy. It rippled through his face before settling back into the casual calm tide he always wore.

"The bag's currently being inspected for weaponry and signs of poison." The Emperor stood up and headed for the door with the careful confidence of a King. "I'll take you to the lab."

Kurapika would've cried out of relief if he hadn't been in plain view of some of his worst enemies. His legs felt heavy suddenly, and he had an odd wobble to his walk, but he followed the Emperor briskly. Brain feeling rather overwhelmed, he didn't manage to say anything, his speech lessons abandoning him because he had nothing but a 'thank you' resting on the tip of his tongue.

He heard the Emperor talk with the inspectors, who threw him pitiful looks. The Emperor gave him the medicine - a syringe and a small vial of clear liquid - which he accepted with shaking hands.

"It'll be alright," the Emperor whispered in his ear somewhere along the path to the dungeon, but Kurapika was too wrapped up in his panic. Everything was loud, and yet he couldn't make anything of it. Just that Pairo was somewhere within the stone walls of the dungeons, sleeping on a cold floor, with his heart slowly giving up. Criminals gave them strange looks, though the sight of the Emperor seemed to tighten their throats. They all wanted to keep their heads. Kurapika sped past them until a head of messy brown hair won his attention. His heart clenched. His throat grew thick.

"There 'e is," the prison warden said, giving the shivering boy an empty stare as he unlocked the door. "Safe n' sound."

"Safe and sound?" Kurapika choked out, furiously, sitting down next to his friend and placing his head in his lap. He brushed some hair out of his face, and deep brown, pupil-less eyes looked up at him though he knew they couldn't see him. Pairo's blindness made him too 'weak' for Mother to ever use him for anything she deemed important. Most of the time, he just served as motivation for Kurapika. He had a poet's heart, though, and an encyclopedic knowledge of chemistry that Kurapika could only dream of obtaining.

"Kurapika," he rasped, one hand reaching up to touch his cheek. "Kurapika, is that you?"

"Yes, yes it's me," Kurapika whispered, relief filling his chest. "I've got your medicine."

Pairo rubbed his eyes, his breath still coming out in short gasps of air. "Eh, did you sanitize it?"

Kurapika chuckled, placing an arm around his shoulders. "Of course. Several times. Here, give me your hand."

Pairo held his arm out in his general direction, and Kurapika inserted the needle into a faint blue vein. He pulled it out, wiped the wound with some antiseptic, and wrapped a bandage around it. He helped him back up onto his feet.

"You can stay in my room," Kurapika reassured, giving the Emperor a glare before the man could let out even the slightest protest. "It's got a great view."

The boy did a little half bow to the Prison Warden and Emperor, and said, still in that breathy voice, "Thank you for having me!"

Kurapika snickered at the surprised looks on their faces. Pairo might be just as hellbent on revenge as he was, but he didn't think that allowed them to be rude to their hosts. He was better than Kurapika, and that was probably why he was never a candidate for this job even without his blindness. Pairo loved people too much. He was too kind, too forgiving. He might hate them now, and his resolve might be as strong as Kurapika's, but killing was against his nature. Deceiving people was against his nature. As good of an actor as he may be, he could never pretend to be in love and make love to someone he hated. This job had been shouldered by Kurapika.

"Has he forced you?" Pairo asked, when they made it to Kurapika's bedroom. Kurapika had led him to the scarlet chaise lounge, but the boy remained tense.

Kurapika looked at Pairo, with his concerned stance and creased face. He tapped his forehead. "Don't worry too much, it's bad for your heart."

He grimaced and Kurapika sighed, disappearing into his bedroom. The wardrobe nearly blended right in with the rest of the wall, but inside it was cavernous. He sifted through them in search of something fit for Pairo. Size wasn't a problem, Pairo and Kurapika could've passed for twins if they wanted to, but the former had rather sensitive skin and would need something of the utmost comfort. Kurapika settled for a red set of cotton sleepwear.  

"No, he hasn't. The Emperor is a strangely civilized piece of work." He tossed the bedclothes to Pairo, whose eyes nearly popped out at the feeling of the soft fabric. "And I don't think he will any time soon, so relax."

"Do you think he suspects anything?" Pairo asked. Kurapika led him to the bathroom and turned the steel faucet on. He splashed in some flower-scented soap as he gathered his words. All the while, his friend continued to stare at him suspiciously, though that telltale void remained. Pairo couldn't see him. A part of him will forever feel lost, and it was all due to Kurapika's own foolishness.

"Well, you see . . ." Kurapika started. He turned away, chewing on his bottom lip. "It's a bit complicated. He . . . already knows that I'm trying to kill him."

"Huh? And he's letting you live? No imprisonment or anything?" Pairo asked. "That's so weird."

"I think . . . he's enjoying it," Kurapika admitted, turning to look at Pairo over his shoulder. The boy made a face.

"What a creep."

Kurapika laughed, and he surprised even himself at that. Slowly, the loneliness from that morning started to ebb away. Pairo, to him, was home. The only home he'd allowed himself to keep after their parents were murdered. "The bath's ready for you."

"It's one of those fancy ones, isn't it?" Pairo said, untying the red sash around his waist. "I didn't even know these existed until you wrote to me about the one in a client's house. Whose was it again?"

He left the bathing area and closed the door, obscuring his view of Pairo as he leaned against the wall of his bedroom. "I don't know. I had a lot of clients."

"The most popular man in Mother's entire House," Pairo agreed. There was the sound of splashing water and then, "Woah! Even the water here is high class!"

Kurapika smothered a giggle, as he pulled out his own nightwear: A light blue shift made for warm nights like these. It was a good thing Pairo hadn't been caught in the middle of winter. He would've frozen to death in that prison. Kurapika would have to talk to the Emperor about that. Some prison reforms were in order.

"By the way," Pairo called. "Mother said to warn you about the Consort's Festival."

"Oh?"

"Some old clients might be coming to it. She wants you to remain vigilant. 'They could slander your reputation in a heartbeat' was what she said. Also, watch out for assassins. You know how much they like big events."

Kurapika grimaced. The thought of running into an old client hadn't crossed his mind, but now that the idea had been brought up, he wouldn't be surprised if one or two made an appearance. They'd be a problem in that case.

"Kurapika?"

"I'll keep it in mind!" he responded, hoping he had nothing to worry about. A few minutes of silence followed, with Kurapika strategizing possible backup plans in case a client did recognize him.

"So, I hear you're writing poems," Pairo started, an obvious teasing edge to his voice.

Kurapika rolled his eyes but grinned nonetheless. "Oh, shut up, you know my talents lie elsewhere."

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites

Chapter Six: The Consort's Festival (Part Two)

Kurapika's eyes scanned the page and let it fall on the lacquered desk. He looked up at Pairo, who stood in front of him with a bashful grin on his pretty face. Kurapika had lent him some clothes – a bright red hanbok and black slippers – and they suited his lithe, delicate figure well. They both took after their respective mothers, although as a child Pairo resembled his father. Even so, Pairo's dark hair remained in the same hairstyle after all these year, straight locks framing his face.

"Show off," he sniped, though the notes of affection in his voice were plain to the ear.

"You're presenting this to the Imperial court itself," Pairo shrugged, though he was blushing now. He'd always been sensitive when it came to his writing. "It has to be perfect."

Kurapika rolled up the paper and placed it within the protective cylindrical container each of the consorts had received - a gold phoenix curled around ebony. He sat up from the green cushion he'd been sitting on, the anxiety he once felt fading into a mere hum now, as opposed to the cacophony it had been before.

"I better get this to his Majesty," Kurapika said, making sure to say the man's title with the most derision possible. He put on one of his shorter jade coats, which were meant for casual outings but didn't let anyone doubt his status for a second. Most of the garments Machi had brought him were black, though there were a few colorful splashes here and there. He turned back to Pairo. "Did you take your medicine?"

Pairo's face fell a bit. "Ah, yeah."

Heart throbbing, Kurapika crossed the room to him and put his arms around Pairo's small frame. "We'll find a cure when this is finished."

Warm skin pressed against his shoulder, brown strands of hair tickling his cheek. His friend remained silent, returning his embrace. Kurapika knew Pairo had already resigned himself to his illness and an early death, but he wouldn't give up, especially with doctors like Leorio out there.

"But tonight, I'll take you to the Festival, and we'll see how well they deal with two Kurta men," he said, holding him tighter, already forming an itinerary for the two of them. Just the two of them. He'll probably have duties to attend to as one of the Emperor's consorts, but he was sure they wouldn't miss him too much if he disappeared for an hour or two to scavenge the Festival for food.

The boy moved away and gave him a weak smile. "Go charm your Emperor."

Kurapika let out an audible groan, and whined, "I don't want to."

Pairo pushed him toward the door. "Don't you dare start slacking off now, Mother will be furious. Besides, say what you will about the Emperor, but he's quite handsome."

The young man pouted. "Why don't you try to seduce him then? Besides, you can't see him. How do you know that he's attractive?"

"Your voice is how I know," Pairo teased. Kurapika made a face. "He's probably the evilest man in the entire Empire, though, so watch your step. If he hurts you, I'll make sure to make him pay."

"And here I was thinking you were the cute, innocent one," Kurapika drawled, kissing his cheek, one hand in the slot of the screen door, ready to push it aside, and the other giving Pairo's hand a squeeze.

"Bye."

"Bye."

. . .

The Emperor was speaking with a few officials near his office. Well, he was listening and they were speaking. The voices were adamant and rushed, Kurapika only caught snatches of the conversation. "Eastern haedod-i," "Revolution," "drought," among other things. The pieces immediately fell into place. They were talking about the farmer's revolution on the border of the Kakin Kingdom, the border with the Ryusei Empire. The one that was spilling into the Ryusei Empire. It was odd to see him discussing such a matter outside of the Throne Hall but he supposed the men must've ambushed him on his way there.

Kurapika glanced at the golden dragon clasped in his fingers, the poem nestled within it. Perhaps it was time to make his retreat. Poetry didn't seem to have much of a place here.

"Are you in such a hurry that you can't manage a good morning, my Prince?" the Emperor chided, teasingly, his head marginally tipped to his side, a smile tugging at his lips. Suddenly, Kurapika found himself at the center of some of the most intense staring contests he'd ever partaken in. The most scrutinizing was that of a man wrapped in an ornate pine green hanbok. The amount of money put into his outfit alone signified his status as a high-ranking nobleman. His eyes - large, black owlish - tore into him unblinking. There were three other men, one of which he identified as Benjamin Hui Guo Rou from the Kakin Kingdom - a hulking man with hair gelled into ugly spikes, and a face full of sharp edges. Another stood beside the Prince diligently, donning a carmine military uniform, as opposed to the formal hanbok Prince Benjamin was wearing. His face had some of the same sharp edges that the Prince sported, but it was noticeably softer, and he hadn't bothered to imitate his employer in terms of appearance. A kindness presented itself in him that was nowhere to be found in the rest of the men. Maybe it was just the downturn of his eyes, or the buoyant curls styled into systematic chaos atop his head, but it was a warmth even the Emperor couldn't conjure.

The last man was one of the Emperor's advisors: Uvogin. He stood beside them, grinning as he recognized Kurapika, and framed by a phoenix tapestry.

Bating his breath and cursing his luck, Kurapika bowed to the men. "I apologize for my intrusion."

"Nonsense," the Emperor said, gesturing for him to come closer, one hand extended to him. "Perhaps you can help us make sense of this issue."

Brown eyes widened and glared, as his hand became entrapped by those pale fingers. The Emperor's smile widened. "Me?" he asked, incredulously.

"You are my consort, are you not?" the Emperor proposed. There was a silver band on his ring finger that Kurapika hadn't notice until it bit into his own skin. "I require a partner that is politically conscious."

Everything he said made so much sense and Kurapika hated it. Burying his annoyance, he let a bashful smile grow on his face.

"I'd have to know more about the situation to come up with a proper response, your Majesty. I am many things but a mind-reader I am not," he quipped, hoping the bitterness was heard only by him.

The Emperor chuckled. "Quite true, my Prince. I'm certain you've heard of the riots in East Haedod-i."

"I have," he confirmed. "I've also heard rumors of the revolutionaries spilling out into Ryusei lands."

Beside him, the Emperor gestured toward his office, as a few chatting servants passed through the halls. "I suggest we move our conversation to a more private location."

The other three men complied, and Kurapika was dragged along by the hand. The office was less cluttered than it had been during Kurapika's first visit, the scrolls now tucked away in shelves washed in red. Afternoon sunlight seeped in through the cracks in the window lattice, illuminating dust motes as they settled around them. Kurapika sat down at the polished table with his shoulder touching the Emperor's, feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable, and Benjamin and the dark-haired man sat down across from them. Benjamin's companion remained standing. Kurapika's eyes traced the pearl sheen of the phoenix encrusted on the surface of the table.

The Emperor began to speak once more. "What do you know of the damages?"

"There have been a few kidnappings, shops burned down. Many government buildings have taken a beating," Kurapika listed off. It was all bits and pieces of rumors and newspapers. He had no idea how accurate his sources might be, but it was reminiscent of the riots that had taken place in Ryusei when the Emperor first came to power.

"The property damage seems to have been a distraction," The Emperor sighed, his eyes shut. Benjamin decided to take over at that moment, not giving Kurapika so much as a glance.

"Their real goal is to kidnap as many people as quickly as possible," Benjamin said, his accent running thick through his words.

"How many people?" the consort found himself asking. Benjamin didn't answer.

For a second, Kurapika thought he saw the Emperor's eyes narrow at the other royal, but when he turned to face him fully, the irritated expression was gone. "Enough for a small army. Mostly children."

Kurapika's blood ran cold. Revolutionaries staging regular kidnappings, there was hardly a doubt they were looking for more people to fight. It was brilliant in a harrowing manner. No one wanted to harm children, and even if they decided to follow through on their capture, any violence would be frowned upon by the public. Why was he so surprised? Mother had done the same thing with him, though he was no longer a child. At the time, Kurapika found it perfectly reasonable. Become a courtesan, learn to desensitize yourself, gather as much knowledge regarding poisons as possible, and make the Emperor fall, whether it was into lust or love. These revolutionaries were undoubtedly seeking the same result: Taking down a corrupt government. Yet, from this angle, it felt eerie and torturous.

"Do you know who's kidnapping them?" he asked.

Prince Benjamin huffed, haughtily, "if we did, we would have caught them by now, but they are slippery. We have not been able to find even a trace of the missing people."

Mother had been in contact with many trafficking circles. Perhaps she knew who was behind the Revolution. He'd have to ask Pairo to deliver a message to her.

"I'd put a curfew in place," Kurapika said, eyes focused on the wall just past the three men. "And let the people know what they need to in order to get them to follow the rules. If possible, I'd place a bait as well. Someone who could easily escape them and return with information on where the enemy's hiding. That's about all I can say on the matter. Crafting anything more detailed isn't possible. We don't have enough information."

The Emperor put a firm hand on his shoulder, but those gray eyes remained on the other three men in the room. Kurapika fought the urge to shove his hand away, but settled on just sulking for a few seconds. The Emperor began to speak, and he almost sounded proud. "Well, that's that then. I can place one of my guards as the bait."

"No," the man in pine silk spoke for the first time, voice soft and monotone. He pushed a strand of his river of black hair behind his ear. "My brothers will serve as bait. It's more likely they'll be captured, as they are children."

"Children?" Kurapika repeated, incredulously. The hand on his shoulder tightened, a warning, and he held his tongue. As a consort, it was unsightly for him to lash out at someone of a higher class. For all intents and purposes, he was nothing more than the Emperor's whore, a well-educated and rich one but still. There would always be people looking down on him.

"They will do," the Emperor replied, quieter now. "We'll send them out once the Festival is over, and we have the advantage of forethought with us. For now," he stood and crossed the room. The door slid open and he gestured to the outside, "I urge you to enjoy the festivities. Both our peoples need a reason to celebrate."

One by one, they filed out, Benjamin mumbling something to his subordinate. The Emperor pushed the door shut just as Kurapika was about to leave, and the young consort stumbled back in surprise. He turned to scowl at the Emperor, who didn't spare him so much as a glance.

"Honestly," he muttered. "These people have no sense of timing."

"Pardon?" Kurapika prompted, his scowl turning into an expression of confusion.

The Emperor took hold of the container in Kurapika's hand, popping off the seal at the front and letting the scroll fall into his palm. He unraveled it and started to scan the page. Then, he looked up with those strange grey eyes, eyebrows arching and a smirk playing a heart-twisting tune on his lips.

"You think my hair's luscious?"

Kurapika stiffened, eyes averted. "It has to be believable."

"You certainly laid it on a bit thick," the Emperor said, placing the scroll in a pile of other poems at his desk. "I'm flattered, of course, but I feel like I'm going to have to live up to some unattainable expectations."

"Would you prefer I called you a murderer and a thief? A tyrant who feels nothing, who killed my parents in cold blood?" Kurapika snapped, riled by his teasing.

"There we go," the Emperor murmured goodnaturedly, ruffling up his hair a bit. "Doesn't that feel better."

Kurapika rolled his eyes, flattening his hair down. "May I leave now?"

The Emperor hummed, "no."

"No?" Kurapika repeated.

He met his eyes. "I want you to accompany me to the Festival."

Kurapika frowned. If he accompanied the Emperor to the Festival, he would be required to spend the rest of the Festival by his side. He wouldn't be able to spare even a second for Pairo. After two years of not seeing him, Kurapika couldn't watch him be abandoned again.

"Wouldn't you rather take someone more suitable?" Kurapika asked.

He seemed to consider for a second, then shook his head, "no, that would send the priests on a rampage. Traditionally, the Emperor has always been accompanied by his favorite consort. It's a representation of what's to come for all of Ryusei."

"You realize that I want to kill you –" A finger to his lips cut him off.

"Not so loud," the Emperor whispered. "And yes. You also happen to be the most interesting. I want to see how you react to a whole three days by my side."

Kurapika's jaw clenched. He hadn't thought about it that way. He'd have to deal with not killing this bastard for a whole three days, all while being in close proximity to him the entire time. It was hard enough in the few hours they've already spent together.

"I'll have them bring you your outfit. Be ready for tonight," the Emperor said, waving him away. "I trust you'll make these next few days interesting."

Interesting, interesting, interesting. He was nothing more than entertainment. Not even a threat, just a pretty face with a decent brain attached. Kurapika hated it. Hated being downgraded to 'interesting', but his mission came first, and if being interesting got him close enough to drive a knife through the Emperor's heart, then he had to keep it up.

He bowed, and then slipped out of the room, aware that the Emperor's eyes were still on him.

. . .

"Kurapika-daegam!" His maids shuffled in later in the evening with arms filled with a variety of cloths and hair ornaments. "Congratulations on being his Majesty's chosen consort for tonight's celebration!"

They pulled him off the divan, where he had been reading one of the many novels the Emperor had left, and started to undress him. One of the maids vanished into the bathing area to fill the bathtub. Once he was stripped down to just his shift, they pulled him into the bathroom and behind the colorful screen. They left to get what sounded like hair products and told him to get in the water.

The water smelled of honey, and Kurapika frowned. He always used to bathe in the honey-scented water back when he was still working for Mother in the brothel. It brought back less than pleasant memories. The leader of the maid squad came back in, followed by Kiya. In her hands was a jar of fermented rice water, and when she started to massage the liquid into his hair, Kurapika realized it smelled of lilac petals.

"Close your eyes now, Kurapika-daegam."

She rinsed the concoction out of his hair with a bucket of hot water. His hand went up to push his bangs back, eyes still shut.

"Alright, out, out," the woman said, handing him a towel and leaving once more. He started to pat his hair down with it. The Festival was starting in less than half an hour, and he wasn't about to go outdoors with damp hair. He toweled himself dry and slipped into the pure white, strangely-embellished-for-something-no-one-else-would-see shift, which settled around him like gauze. He stepped back into his quarters, where the women were done setting out his clothing. A black jeogori made of ramie fabric, a gold Phoenix emblem on the front and back of the jacket. The baji (trousers) were a solid black with gold embroidery at the waist. He was certain he resembled one of the demons, the ones that prey on innocent men and women by seducing them, as if seduction doesn't require two halves to work.

Once they had secured the jacket and trousers around him, they threw on an overcoat, tied it all together with a gold sash, and steered him to a mirror. The leader picked up a jade comb and began to work at the knots in his hair. There weren't any, so after a quick run-through, she pulled it into a pile atop his head and tied it into place with a ribbon. Kiya appeared in front of him, brown eyes shone brightly with a box of what looked like cosmetics.

"This will give your skin a nice shine," she said, opening a jar of shimmering paste and lathering it onto his pale face generously. Placing it off to the side, she wiped away the excess paste with a warm, wet towel. Then, she nodded, and went onto his eyes, bringing out a pencil and applying it to his upper and lower eyelids. "To enhance your beautiful eyes."

"My goodness, Kiya, you can't just tell the Emperor's favorite consort that he has pretty eyes. What if someone hears you?" one of the other maids – a young woman with dark hair and a rather plain face – chastised, as she styled Kurapika's hair.

Kiya chuckled, nervously. "Sorry, Yuka." She turned back to her box of magic tricks and pulled out a small container. Kurapika recognized it as a common lip paint among nobles, usually reserved for women, but men, especially consorts, wore it frequently as well. When Kiya unscrewed the little bottle, a small paintbrush revealed the color inside to be a shade resembling cherry blossoms. Kurapika kept his mouth closed as she carefully slid the brush from one side to the other, evenly coating his lips in vibrant pink. "There!"

Kurapika gazed into the mirror. He looked much like himself, and he supposed it made sense. Consorts were meant to be beautiful, but not so beautiful that they sent everyone within a mile radius into a frenzy. It wasn't like when he worked for Mother and had to stand out with gold dust and bright flashes of winged eyeliner.

"One of the Emperor's guards will come by later to take you to his Majesty," the leader said, as all the maids gathered at the door. They bowed in sync and left the room one right after the other. Pairo laughed somewhere off to the side.

"You barely uttered a word," he said, getting up from the chaise lounge. "That's rare. Usually, you've got charming remarks at the ready."

Kurapika loosened the gold sash around his waist until it was no longer stabbing into his ribs. "I didn't really see an opening," he coughed out.

"Too tight?"

"Yeah," he replied, taking Pairo's hands when the boy reached him. "Sorry I can't take you with me."

Pairo shrugged, but the corners of his eyes crinkled in sorrow. "It's fine. You're a married man now. You don't have an endless supply of time."

"I always have time for you," Kurapika said, pulling him into another embrace. "I asked one of the guards to take you instead. We'll probably bump into each other somewhere along the way."

"You'll make sure of it," Pairo chuckled, burying his face in Kurapika's shoulder, who in turn ran a hand through his soft, dark brown locks.

The sound of the door opening forced them to break apart, and Kurapika recognized one of the forms standing in the doorframe as a guard, Basho – a young man who donned the Ryusei military uniform at all times – and a woman with down-turned brown eyes and frail blonde hair cut at the shoulder.

He squeezed Pairo's hand and then threatened Basho a bit before letting the boy go with him. His eyes followed them until they vanished behind the corner, Pairo gripping Basho's arm for support. A hand went up to push his bangs back, though they fell back into place with little effort. What a mess. That should be him guiding Pairo around, not some guard with questionable taste and even more questionable loyalties. Basho appeared genial, but what lied beneath the surface, Kurapika had yet to find out. Casting the invasive thoughts aside, he pivoted to face the woman. She gave him an easy, secretive smile. How thin, she was. Sickly looking, even though she remained beautiful. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes dilated and bright, but her entire body looked ready to crack and self-destruct at the slightest pressure.

"And you are . . ." he trailed off, trying his best to remain polite.

"Pakunoda," the woman replied, bowing to him with inhuman grace. There was a richness in her voice, like dark chocolate and moonlit wine, strong and delicate at the same time. "I'm here to accompany you to the Consort's Festival before you're handed off to our dearly beloved Emperor."

Kurapika could feel the surprise on his face, but he couldn't quite force it down. "Oh."

A sort of teasing warmth enveloped her face. "Expecting someone else?"

"I apologize." He slid the door closed behind him. "I've never seen you around the palace before."

"Well, you've only been here for a week," Pakunoda remarked, walking away from him with ease. "Come along, punctuality is a valuable trait in the Emperor's husband."

He caught up with her, familiar with the more constricting nature of his current outfit. "Consort."

Pakunoda glanced at him, knowingly. "Shalnark has told me about you. He said you were a perfect match for his Majesty. He was quite adamant about it as well, practically talked my ear off. 'So smart,' he'd claimed, 'and he knows a lot about the state of Ryusei. I think Danchou likes him.'"

"What do you think?" Kurapika couldn't help but ask, and his brain seemed to panic for some reason. A feeling in his throat gave him the impression that this woman's judgment would define his fate in the palace.

Pakunoda laughed. "No need to be so afraid. I'm not a viper. Just curious." Her face turned thoughtful. "But, I suppose I don't quite see the appeal yet. You're very pretty, but the other consorts are lovely as well. Educated, intelligent, and their pasts aren't quite as murky as yours. Who knows how the public would react to some unknown character in the Imperial Palace."

There was nothing to refute. All her claims were issues Kurapika had realized as well, but his past wasn't something he could change, as much as he'd like to.

"But," she began, "I think that might be why the Emperor's latched onto you like this. Neither of you grew up in wealthy families, and you're both outcasts in the Palace, despite your high positions in the court."

Outcasts?

Characters on white paper flashed through his memory: 왕은 죽었다

The King is dead. Murdered by a man claiming to be his son.

Kuroro Lucilfer: A liar or a son. The new King breeds controversy all over the Nation. Is this the end of Ryusei?

Kurapika had first read those clippings as a child when the Emperor had first come to power. He hadn't really cared back then, though his parents debated the topic endlessly when they thought he wasn't around. They didn't hate the Emperor then. They pitied him.

"Poor boy, forced to serve the court's agenda," they'd say. It wasn't until later that they began to stage revolts and curse the Emperor's name: Kuroro Lucilfer, devil spawn. They refused to believe he was the son of the deceased King, who, for all his flaws, was always compassionate. The Emperor, with his public executions and brutal methods, was anything but. He was unnecessarily cruel, a sadist.

An outcast.

A child.

Kurapika nearly toppled at the insinuation his brain had conjured. The Emperor had taken the throne at sixteen. At that point, his cruelty couldn't be washed away with the excuse of childhood ignorance.

"Ah, I don't know which one of you would suit him the best," Pakunoda sighed, as if she'd given up on a question she'd been pondering for over a year.

"You all seem very . . . invested in his relationships." More so than the Emperor himself. In the little time, he'd spent in the Palace, only a small portion was spent devoted to his actual position as a consort. Not to mention that the Emperor had a baffling amount of self-control. No one had ever stood him up as he did. As a result, he mostly lounged around reading or chatting the servants up for information.

"Well, Kuro's always kept to himself. He's quite shy," Pakunoda lamented, and Kurapika couldn't help but give her his default look of skepticism, the look he often reserved for Leorio. "This consortship might be his only chance to find love."

"Love?" Kurapika repeated. His parents had been in love, but they had been peasants and bakers. Royalty couldn't afford love, and he was quite certain the Emperor was incapable of it.

"Paku!" A voice much like the Emperor's called out, but that wasn't quite right, because the Emperor never shouted like that. Nevertheless, it was his Majesty who marched toward them, a mixture of concern and annoyance on his face. "What are you doing here?"

. End of Chapter .

 

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites:

Chapter 7: The Consort's Festival (Part Two)

They stood a few steps from a gold carpet covered in red chrysanthemums, in the arch of the Throne Hall. The fabric was strewn, sleek, across the dulling red and grey stone that accumulated into a path beaten by millions of footsteps accumulated over two thousand years. It was a streak of sunlight against a darkened forest floor, fit for children of the Phoenix. Trailing to the Ilsalyang Pavilion, the carpet was snuggled between two large masses of colorful fabric and painted faces. Kurapika could make out figures, dressed in petal pinks and dandelion yellows, sitting in a circle on red cushions with gilded backs. The rest of the consorts, no doubt, waiting patiently for the Emperor and his chosen consort. A large throne sat at the front, scrubbed in blood. Despite it all, despite his status as an outcast, the Emperor lodged into the picture like a long lost puzzle piece, even when he looked so cross.

Pakunoda crossed her arms, but a playful smile grew on her lips. "You seem well. How's married life treating you?"

The Emperor grimaced, and Kurapika wondered if he might be going insane. So much emotion couldn't be healthy for his nonexistent heart. He was even slouching a bit now, and Kurapika was quite certain the man's posture had always been stiff as a rod. "Who told you?"

"I have my sources," Pakunoda replied. Siblings? But Kurapika was sure the Emperor was an only child. Then again, his origins were a mystery to all but the man himself. But the woman looked nothing like him. She was beautiful, yes, but not the sort of beauty one could find in the Emperor's perfectly sculpted features.

Kurapika watched the scene divulge, as the Emperor's eyes narrowed and his mood dipped from concern to irritation.

"You're going back to your room," the Emperor said, gesturing to his own guards. Only one of which actually stepped forward. He was a scruffy man, older than the Emperor, and he looked thoroughly ready to take a nap as soon as the moment became available to him.

"I feel fine," Paku insisted, placing a hand on his shoulder, reassuringly. She was so casual about it, too! Who was she?

The scruffy guard looked between the two, looking dazed, while Kurapika watched with intensity. This could be vital to his mission.

For a few seconds, the two of them stared at each other, then the gong rang to signal the beginning of the festival and the Emperor tore his gaze away.

"Very well, but if your heart starts acting up, I'm sending you back to your quarters," snapped the Emperor, taking Kurapika by the arm and stalking away. Kurapika was still shell-shocked. Emotions? The Emperor? Especially those sorts of emotions?

"Are you feeling alright?" Kurapika asked. If the Emperor was going insane, that might put a damper on their plans, or expedite them. "Who is that woman?"

"Currently, the bane of my existence," the Emperor said, returning to that mellow, even tone.

Kurapika ignored the insult. "Is she another one of your advisors? They keep ambushing me."

"Not exactly," the Emperor replied, letting go of Kurapika's arm once they achieved sufficient distance from Pakunoda. "She's . . . an old friend. We have a complicated relationship."

"Does she want to end you, too?" Lanterns were strung from the rooftops, the phoenix insignia a fiery orange against pale yellow. As a nation built from nothing, that had been torn apart and had vanished from the map several times, the phoenix was a fitting national symbol, and it was everywhere.

"For an assassin, you're quite vocal about your plans," the Emperor said, nodding to the guards posted at the doors. The two of them walked down a path of gold silk and red chrysanthemum petals. Gold for eternity, and red for true love. People were already gathered in the courtyard, carrying mooncakes and tteok. Most of them bowed, though it was not required. The Emperor might have been a tyrant, but he demanded respect, and his subjects gave it to him without question.

Well, most of them did.

The throne, made for two, sat at the end of the carpet of gold silk. The pavilion built around it had been dressed in lights and flowers and had a seat for each of the other consorts, as well as the Emperor's trusted advisors. Behind them, Gyeoljeong Lake cracked open in the cascading light. The slow breeze brushing through the folds of his clothes and casting a slight chill over him.

The Emperor allowed him to sit down on the cushioned throne first, kissing his hand at some point in that process. The rest of their party took seats around them. Several servants arrived with food and drink, and the Emperor offered him a cold beverage colored a pink hue. Kurapika sipped it reluctantly, instinctively wary of anything his arch enemy gifted him. It was delicious but definitely alcoholic.

"I'd rather not become intoxicated in front of all these people," Kurapika said, handing the drink back.

"I've yet to see anyone get drunk off one of these," the Emperor replied. "Besides, I'm not one to allow my consorts to humiliate themselves."

Kurapika tipped a dubious eyebrow. "Somehow, I can't bring myself to believe you."

"It's also tradition for the consort to accept a drink from the Emperor as a token of their trust and appreciation for one another," he added. Kurapika ran through a mental checklist of all the responsibilities of a consort. Sure enough, the acceptance of some sort of beverage was among them. How vexing.

Kurapika took another sip. Despite the fact that he was still recovering from his unfortunate intoxication a few nights prior, Kurapika found himself taking a liking to the sweet tang of the drink.

"Pomegranate champagne," the Emperor supplied. "Thought it was fitting."

"Must've been expensive." Far too expensive for an obscure reference to a Greek myth.

"It was a gift," said the Emperor.

"From whom?"

A pause in the Emperor's usually fluid responses made him turn. His lips parted, but nothing came out. Kurapika felt the urge to touch his shoulder and shake him back to reality, but that would require more contact than desired.

"Just some old acquaintances," the Emperor replied. "From Peridot."

Peridot. That was quite a trip. At least three weeks by sea. Then another few days by land. Most of Peridot was populated by the rich and influential, but even they would be cutting it close with that sort of journey.

"They must be fond of you," Kurapika said.

"Indeed." The Emperor took a long swig of his own champagne, and Kurapika wondered how much further he could push him without stirring his seemingly nonexistent temper. Then again, was it worth seeing more of the Emperor's apparent humanity just to satisfy his curiosity.

He kept his mouth shut. The Emperor stood to greet his guests, who gave him their undivided attention.

"My friends," he outstretched his arms to his people. "These past few years have been filled with strife and suffering, as we dealt with the remnants of the last Emperor's corrupted court and helped appease the rioters." Appease. Kurapika nearly rolled his eyes. His parents had been among those rioters. They'd been anything but appeased.

Kurapika took a breath, trying not to have his eyes linger on the Emperor for too long. He could skewer him with a dagger through the back right now, but just a glance toward the guards on either side of the throne quelled those ambitions.

"Tonight marks the beginning of a new era in which we will strive for peace and prosperity." He turned to Kurapika, gesturing to him grandly. "And what better way to usher in a new time than with a new love."

Love?

Why was he surprised? From the moment he met him, he'd known the Emperor was skilled at deceiving individuals and crowds alike. But right now, even Kurapika found himself drawn in, believing him, despite knowing that what they had could only be hatred. His words alone were simple and saccharine, but when they came out of his mouth . . .

Tch, manipulative bastard. Yet another reason to despise him.

"Therefore, I implore you to enjoy tonight's festivities, as well as join us for the next two nights in our celebration of a new era," the Emperor continued, his eyes still on Kurapika. Oh dear. "But first, let us enjoy the performances of our lovely consorts." Our? "As they greet the arrival of our partnership with a number of carefully crafted lines of verse." The Emperor offered a hand to Kurapika, and the two of them stood before the crowd with joined hands.

Kurapika glanced at the Emperor, who offered no instructions. Surely, he didn't expect him to have memorized every line of that poem? The mass of people gazed at him, waiting for the poem of the century.

In his mind, the consort threw up his hands in exasperation. He'd been through worse. A little thing like total public humiliation wouldn't stop him. Besides, this was Pairo's poem, and Kurapika had never forgotten a single word of Pairo's poems.

He wet his lips, and spoke, trying his best to imitate the Emperor's soft baritone. Or maybe he was a tenor. Kurapika couldn't be sure.

"I crave

for a distant future.

Of loving whispers

and tender nights.

I gaze into silver

and run my hand through

luscious ebony waves,

and what I crave

is the present."

Kurapika was certain he'd missed a few lines, but the Emperor seemed satisfied as he led Kurapika back to their throne. The other four consorts were led up to the front of their little stage one by one, but Kurapika didn't bother listening to their poems. His attention remained on the Emperor's expression, one that remained polite yet indifferent throughout. How rude. These girls had to work hard to get to this point. Ah well, Kurapika supposed that was a good thing. If the Emperor genuinely fell in love with one of the other Consorts, then he might reconsider playing this game with Kurapika. On the other hand, Kurapika had no way of knowing if this indifference was real, or if he was simply putting up another front. Even with all his training, the Emperor's psyche remained a mystery. Well, almost.

Kurapika glanced toward where the Emperor's advisors sat, talking amongst each other with mountains of food before them. Pakunoda sat beside the strikingly frigid Machi, engaging the woman in what looked like polite small talk.

Who was she, really? And what had she done to earn a piece of the Emperor's heart? And did it matter? How much of an impact would she have on his plans?

"Plotting, my Prince?" the Emperor asked, sitting down next to him once more. Kurapika nearly jumped off the throne. His hand was wrapped in the Emperor's firm grip, and Kurapika turned to him, aware that there was currently a crowd of people stealing glances at the two of them.

"Of course not, your Majesty," Kurapika said. "Just thinking."

"Scheming, you mean," the Emperor sighed. Kurapika fought back the urge to scowl. "You must forgive me."

Kurapika's brow furrowed. If he thought a simple apology would make their situation any less murderous, then he was gravely mistaken.

"I know you were looking forward to spending the Festival with your friend," he finished. Kurapika stared at him, his expression blank. What was happening? Was he facing up to the consequences of his own actions? Impossible. "I do it only because sacrifices are necessary when you rule a country. That being said," he leaned his elbow against the throne's armrest, "I suppose there's nothing left for you to do."

"Pardon?"

"I'll give you an hour," the Emperor said. "Use your time wisely. There'll be guards monitoring your movements, but they shouldn't bother you unless something happens."

Was he kicking him out?

"I thought that was against tradition?" Kurapika asked.

"Oh, it is, but I've already broken so many rules, I doubt anyone will mind," the Emperor sighed, massaging his forehead. "Or at least, I'll be the one to take the fall, so don't concern yourself with it. Go to him."

Kurapika stood, still hardly believing what had transpired. He'd been under the impression that the Emperor was trying to force his hand, but in that case, what was the purpose of helping him? Nevermind that, why had he saved Pairo in the first place? The man's actions had been nothing short of contradictory. Could it be he was just doing whatever he pleased?

The consort kneeled on the stone floor before his Emperor and kissed his hand, before stepping out of the back of the gazebo, away from prying eyes.

"May I borrow your cloak?" he asked one of the guards, who obliged without a sound. It was a drab, brown color, and covered him from head to toe with ease, obscuring the black cloth underneath. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Pakunoda approach the Emperor. Perhaps they were lovers? But why would the Emperor need consorts, then? Why not just marry the mystery woman? She seemed intelligent enough, and they got along well.

Kurapika shrugged. He had an hour. Best not to let it go to waste.

If he knew Pairo, he'd be next to the artists' tents. The Emperor had run down the layout of the Festival a few hours prior, and if Kurapika remembered correctly, the artists were just behind the fabric stalls. He dove into the crowd, free from those everpresent stares. The extra cloak turned the warm night sweltering. Even so, it gave him an extra layer of security, and so, Kurapika felt it was worth it. There were six sections to the festival: food (the largest section), clothing and fabrics, artists, performers, and souvenirs for all intents and purposes. Each of them took a spot on a different side of Gyeoljeong lake, painted yellow by the lanterns around and inside. Had someone drawn a line between each of them, they would have created a sub-perfect hexagon.

The scent of mooncakes and tteok drifted about the food tent, a large sprawling thing, and Kurapika was driven to buy two cakes: one for himself, and one for Pairo, once he found him. Pairo couldn't have sweets too often, but this could be considered something of a special occasion. The vendor had given him a suspicious look but decided not to comment on his appearance. After all, a paying customer was a paying customer. The saying permeated every industry, it seemed. Many of his clients would wear masks when they came to Mother's House, and they would not speak of it if the pay was good. And most pay was good depending on which courtesan they planned on wooing.

Several of the people in the clothing section gave him suspicious glances, no doubt judging the drab cloak obscuring his figure. It was nigh sacrilegious not to wear your most expensive hanboks and clothes to Festivals, particularly those hosted by the Emperor himself. They peered at him from inside the tent, peeking through the yellow folds. Outside, the picture of elegance stared him down, each individual intricately woven to doll-like perfection. They were all nobles. None of the common folk could afford the silk and satin in that tent. Perhaps, a few might be window-shopping, but it wouldn't take long for them to be suspected of theft and inevitably scared away.

Kurapika looked up ahead to the artists' tent, forming the top of the hexagon. It was smaller than the clothing or food section. Art, unlike clothes and sustenance, wasn't a necessary condiment of life. Pairo undoubtedly mouthed off when he saw it. Kurapika allowed himself a small smile as he ducked inside the tent. Wooden shelves paneled the walls, resembling the beams of Leorio's tiny house in the countryside. Scrolls, books, and paintings immortalized in glass thronged the tent. One man lay on his side, smoking a sweet-smelling substance, pipe dangling off the corner of his mouth. Another sat cross-legged, reading a green-bound book with a tired expression. Kurapika approached the one with the pipe, knowing not to interrupt someone when entrapped in a book. With all his descriptive prowess, he illustrated Pairo's general appearance.

"A pretty boy in red?" the one with the pipe repeated. "Can't say I've seen him. What? Did something happen?"

"No. Well, at least I hope not," Kurapika said, genially. "Keep an eye out for me, will you, gentleman?"

The men shrugged, "Yeah, whatever."

Kurapika gave them a dashing smile, knowing the bottom half of his face was now exposed, and turned to leave.

"Alright, lads, what've you got in this shack?"

Kurapika's brain felt numb. Some part of him was aware he had frozen at the voice almost immediately, and that the men had noticed, and that the best course of action right now would be to keep moving. But the rest of him was overcome with fright.

"Sing for me."

It was the same. The same voice. He daren't look.

"Prince Tserriednich," one of the men spoke again, though their heart wasn't in it. "We're honored to be in your presence."

"No need to be so formal, my friend," Tserriednich said, and the relaxed tone of his voice seemed to free the consort. Kurapika pulled his cloak closer around him and approached the entryway, but Tserriednich placed a hand on his shoulder. "And you are?"

"Pardon?"

"Sorry," Tserriednich chuckled. Everything about him was welcoming until he pinned you to a bed and tried to crush your windpipe. "I heard you talking outside, and thought you sounded familiar. Have we met before?"

Kurapika shook his head vigorously.

"No? That's strange," he scratched the back of his head, "I was so sure." He looked down at him through hooded eyes. The consort's fingertips grazed the curtain to the outside. If he took a step back, Kurapika would be out of the tent. But that would mean officially piquing the Prince's interest.

The Prince put a hand against the wooden beam beside his left ear and leaned forward.

"Mind taking off the hood?" he whispered, so close Kurapika could feel his breath on his cheek. It smelled of tea and cake.

The consort pulled at the tip of his hood with two fingers, further concealing his eyes. "I'm afraid not. I had an accident a few years back that left my face scarred. It's left me unfortunately insecure about my appearance, you see."

The Prince's eyebrows rose in skepticism, but they were cut off by the other men.

"Would you like to see our latest shipment, your Highness?"

Saved. They were good men after all.

The Prince was now distracted, and Kurapika slipped out of the tent without a sound and ran. He didn't get too far, colliding with some idiot standing just a few feet away. His mooncakes nearly fell on the dirt path. Some part of his mind registered the proximity of the lake. The clothing section loomed a few meters away.

"Kurapika?"

Pairo. Kurapika gazed up, though it wasn't Pairo he saw. It was a gangly, tall young man with spiky hair and the smallest glasses you've ever seen, dressed in clothes that were too formal for him, drenched in yellow light. His heart nearly leaped out of his throat. God, how could one person age so ungracefully and yet look so gorgeous? He was being sentimental, he knew, but just the sight of him seemed to chase away the thought of Tserriednich. It was only temporary.

"Leorio?"

His childhood friend popped his head over Leorio's shoulder. "So, you do know each other!"

"Are you okay?" Leorio asked, hands clasped on Kurapika's shoulders. His hood fell now, revealing his painted face, and Leorio's jaws unhinged. Slowly, a red blush crept up his face.

"Is something wrong, Kurapika," Pairo asked. Kurapika felt his pulse begin to race again, that familiar panic clenching his heart, his breathing coming out in shallow bursts. No. Nonononono. He wasn't doing this here. Get a grip.

Leorio seemed to move in for a hug, and Kurapika pushed him away with a little too much force than was necessary. One deep breath was all it took to regain some semblance of his composure. He handed Leorio his bag of mooncakes.

"You can share these. I need to be heading back already." He pulled his hood up. Somehow, he longed for the well-secured confines of the Emperor and the pavilion. Where he was now, he was vulnerable, even with that guard in the shadows (who was clearly useless).

"But we just met up again," Pairo said, and Kurapika wished he could be braver for him. But not now. Not with Tserriednich roaming about.

"I'll meet you back in my room," Kurapika said, squeezing his hand. "I'm on a time limit. You two just . . . stay safe."

Pairo pouted but shrugged, anyway. "Alright."

"Hey, what about me?" Leorio asked. "I won't be able to see you again after this!"

"We weren't supposed to see each other again in the first place," Kurapika snapped back, moving past him with finality, and his heart bled and reconsidered. "Besides, all three days of the Festival are open to the public. We can meet tomorrow."

Leorio gazed at him as if he'd handed him a chest of jewels.

Well, he supposed a few more brief meetings wouldn't hurt either of them.

. . .

"That was quite the charming thing you did, Kuroro," Paku said. The woman had seated herself beside him now, her lips darkened by wine. He knew she wasn't drunk. "Though, I'm afraid it just served to make the poor boy more confused regarding your intentions."

"Oh?"

Paku shrugged, matter-of-factly. "I thought your whole plan was to break him? He did, too, apparently."

"I never said that."

"It was implied," Paku said. Kuroro rolled his eyes. She'd always enjoyed reading in between the lines.

He looked down into his half-finished glass of champagne. "I thought so, too, at the beginning."

"What changed?" She took a small bite of a dessert she'd taken off the silver platters being carried around.

"I suppose," he took a sip. "I realized he was already broken. Nothing I did would break him further, short of torture. And I'm afraid I'm not too keen on torturing my consorts."

Her expression grew thoughtful for a moment, but then she simply rolled her eyes. "Just admit that you've taken a liking to the boy."

"It's a complicated relationship," Kuroro replied, looking over the crowd of subjects. "I'll let you know when it sorts itself out."

They sat in comfortable silence for a few seconds, admiring the view. Kuroro would've preferred to have a view of the lake, but he wouldn't be able to greet his subjects face-to-face otherwise. This vantage point gave him a broader view of the crowd, so he was stuck staring at limestone paths and the wide eaves of moon-streaked pagoda rooftops.

"And what of Peridot?"

"There's nothing to say."

Paku fixed him with a stern gaze. "Kuroro, you know lying is bad for my heart."

"I'd wish you didn't speak of your illness so casually," Kuroro sighed. "But I suppose that's impossible." He spotted a hooded figure winding its way through the crowd. Back so soon? Kuroro had expected him to be late if anything. How strange.

"Looks like your husband is back," Paku stood, flattening out the folds of her clothing. "Enjoy yourselves. I expect an answer tomorrow." She placed her empty dish on a passing platter and returned to her seat beside Machi.

Kurapika had vanished from his sight by that time, presumably taking another path to the pavilion. A few minutes later, he heard soft footfalls on stone. Kurapika appeared behind the throne, cloakless.

"I see absence does make the heart grow fonder," Kuroro said. His consort sat down beside him without a word, and Kuroro glanced at him. There was pink flush to his cheeks, his breathing coming out ragged.

He'd run here.

"Something happened. What was it?"

Kurapika swallowed, thickly. "It does not concern you."

Five seconds in and the freeze had already started. "Kurapika, if there's anything that poses a threat to you, then I'm afraid it does concern me. What happened?" He couldn't have potential assassins running around. Well, other than the one beside him right now.

The consort refused to answer him, his face obscured by golden locks and a hand that seemed ready to pull them out. That was telling. And yet, Kuroro couldn't even begin to guess what could be so horrible that his consort would be rendered speechless. Kuroro already knew his little Prince was out to kill him. What could possibly be worse than that? Nevertheless, he leaned back in his throne, letting the topic go.

Just a few more hours, and then he'd force it out of him.

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

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Chapter 8:

The Consort’s Festival (Part Three)

His bare feet tapped against the cool bamboo flooring, pale gossamer socks and black slippers abandoned at the entrance to the Consort’s Palace. He was far from the dimming festival lights now, safe within these stone walls. Silence thrived here, save for the creaking floorboards. Kurapika had been the first to return, feigning illness. The Emperor let him off with a curious look and a teasing comment.  

The sconces had stayed alit, though a few candles had been reduced to stubs, their cream-like wax leaking down bronze metal. The windows were shut closed. There had been two guards posted outside. His room was unguarded.

Was the Emperor really so careless? Any number of people could’ve broken into the inner palace at this rate, no matter how well-guarded the outer walls were. Assassins, thieves, Tserriednich. Though, Kurapika was certain being caught with the Emperor’s Consort wouldn’t end well even for him. It was surprising how much security Kurapika found under the Emperor’s power.

Kurapika slid the wooden screen door aside. Inside, his room smelled off the orange blossoms that rustled underneath his windows. The lilies the Emperor had given him had been cleared out long ago, though Kurapika could feel the overpowering scent still linger. He wondered once again why the Emperor loved the flower so.

The candles in his room had yet to be extinguished, and Kurapika was certain staying up a few hours more would be possible. His mind was tired and trembling, and as he took in the books on the jade green shelf and the essays the Emperor had sent for him to review, it beckoned him to sleep. But he was sweaty from the summer air, and going to sleep without a bath for his aching muscles seemed almost criminal. The waxed marble floor of the bathroom glowed, moonlight slipping through the sheer curtains. Kurapika shut them.

He vanished behind the beige screen (installed after the last time Shalnark accidentally walked in on him bathing) that hid the porcelain bathtub. Kurapika twisted the knob for hot water and waited for the clear water to fill up. A few moments later, he’d taken off his black jeogori and baji, leaving them discarded on the floor.

Had Tserriednich recognized him as the boy he’d tried to murder all those years before? Kurapika would suppose so, but then, the man must’ve murdered so many that they all blurred together in the end. Though, he doubted all of them had a magician interfere.

His head tapped the back of the porcelain tub. He’d think about it in the morning. Maybe even tell the Emperor what was happening, but there was a possibility that his previous position as a courtesan would come to light if he did let it slip. Tserriednich didn’t just target anyone. It wasn’t worth jeopardizing his mission further.

Once he was soaked through to his soul in rose-scented water, he stood, dripping wet. He reached for the towel hanging on the beige screen, eager to reach his soft, welcoming mattress. His sleepwear was gray cotton tonight, and much warmer than the luxurious silk he’d worn before.

His bed had already been made for him, with a fresh downy comforter laid out to keep out the occasional summer chill. Kurapika didn’t notice.

. . .

Sometime later, when the sun was still a few hours away from making an appearance, Pairo slipped under his covers. His skin was cold. Kurapika wondered if Leorio was the one who’d kept him up all this time.

“I saw Tserriednich,” Pairo whispered, wrapping his arms around Kurapika. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You were already worried enough,” he lied. He didn’t want to talk about it. There wasn’t much to say. He had run away.

“I’ve always time to worry about you,” Pairo said, his own cotton sleeve brushing against Kurapika’s shoulder, as he pushed some blonde strands out of his face. His eyes began to close. Someone cleared their throat. Kurapika sprang up, picking out the shadowed figure.

“Your majesty?” he said. His heartbeat slowed, but his unease didn’t leave him. The Emperor’s outline was becoming clearer now, and Kurapika could make out some of his sharper features as he stepped into a small slit of moonlight. The line of his jaw, his nose, his slightly downturned eyes.

“When I said that your friend may stay within the premises of the Palace, I did not mean for it to be taken as permission for bed-sharing,” the Emperor said, humor clear in his voice. “Careful, if I were a lesser man, you’d both be drowning in the river.”

“Then, it’s fortunate that you’re not a lesser man,” said Kurapika. Pairo was still sitting beside him, brown eyes creased in curiosity. “Is something amiss, your Majesty?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I somehow find it odd that you would bother visiting me when breakfast is mere hours away,” Kurapika replied.

The Emperor had a smile in his voice now. “Forgive my intrusion. I suppose even my patience has its limits.”

“And what has caused it to wear so thin?” His grey cotton pajamas felt cold. How would he avoid telling him of Tserriednich? Every last secret he’d intended to keep would be revealed. After all, Tserriednich only targeted courtesans. It wouldn’t take the Emperor long to put together the pieces. And then what?  

“Concern,” the Emperor said. Kurapika could hear the folds of his attire shift as he approached him. “You were acting strangely at the Festival. Well, even more so than usual.”

Pairo snorted. Kurapika’s lips thinning. Was it just him, or was Pairo showing far too much tolerance toward the man?

“It’s a personal matter –”

“Tserriednich is here,” Pairo said. Kurapika gave him a frantic look. “We have history.”

The Emperor frowned, though he did not appear surprised. “What did he do?”

“You sound like you know.” So, not only did he abuse his subjects, but he also turned a blind eye to serial killers. A model Emperor, really.

There was a shift in his expression, and the moonlight vanished to keep it hidden. “I’ve been trying to incarcerate him for the last year, but he’s never been caught on Ryusei territory. Most of the time he clings to Kakin, and I have no substantial authority there.”

It would mean another war. Kurapika’s temper retreated. He laid against the oak headboard. They couldn’t afford yet another war, not after they just solidified their peace in writing.

The Emperor scrutinized him, realization crossing his face. “How could you have been mixed in with his victims? I’m fairly certain he only targets courte –”

That was quick.

Ah, was he broken?

Kurapika could probably stick a knife through his heart and no one would stop him.

“Does he know you’re here?” he asked.

“We ran into each other,” Kurapika replied. “I doubt he was able to put two and two together, though. I was in disguise.”

“You were wearing a soldier’s cloak,” the Emperor replied, crossing his arms. “I wouldn’t call that a disguise.”

“I doubt he’d recognize him,” Pairo cut in. “Without all the makeup and flashy clothes, you hardly look like your old self. Too plain to be in a brothel.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean that in the best possible way.”

The Emperor had gone silent in their banter, his body still as his mind evaluated the situation. “Were you attacked on Ryusei territory?”

Memories pushed into his consciousness, and Kurapika attempted to extract only the necessary details. A dimly lit room, cotton sheets, the smell of smoke and the metal hue of blood, not a window in sight, the rest he kept locked away.

“I was given sedatives beforehand. I only remember the room,” Kurapika replied. The Emperor sunk back into his schemes, his eyes unfocused.

“But there’s someone who might know,” Pairo chimed in, on the edge of victory, but there was caution in his wording.

Kurapika gave him a curious look. “Who?”

“Our magician. Hisoka, he was the one who got you out –”

Kurapika’s face turned sour.

“–We can ask him for help.”

Kurapika fell back on the bed. It was almost definite that Hisoka would know, but he was an information broker first and foremost and Kurapika wasn’t sure if he felt up to paying his price.

“He’s fond of you, Kurapika. He’ll agree if you ask,” Pairo said. “It’s worth it if it gets rid of Tserriednich.”

“I can pay for any fines required.” Such generosity. The Emperor was proving far too reliable in this situation.

“This could mean war.”

The Emperor shifted. “Not necessarily. I just want him off my lands. Kakin can do with him as they like, and if they’re still the people they pretend to be, they’ll knock him off his pedestal themselves.” At what cost? Kakin was heavily militarized as it was. Kurapika wouldn’t be surprised if this incident sparked a civil war.

“That’s quite a risk you’re taking.”

He didn’t speak, but his silence spoke for him. It wasn’t his country in danger. Ryusei had its own set of problems to deal with, including the riots in the east and the missing children. And if Kakin did end up falling to pieces, then he could just sweep them up into the rest of his growing Empire. Ryusei might have a shaky reputation, but it was better than Kakin. Some might even jump ship and join them willingly.

What outcome was the Emperor looking forward to? The ruin of another nation, or the death of a serial murderer?

A part of Kurapika – the vicious part that wanted – just wanted to see Tserriednich crushed, and damn the consequences. In the end, that part won.

“I’ll draft a letter,” Kurapika said, pushing the comforter off himself. “Hisoka might take a while to respond.”

The Emperor watched as he walked to the small table snuggled into a corner of the room. Kurapika took the candle off his nightstand and placed it on the floor beside him. With the strike of a match, the wick sputtered to life. His hands were shaking.

Swallowing a breath, Kurapika opened the single drawer attached to the table and withdrew a brush and scroll.

Was he really going to do this?

. . .

“I wonder what he’ll ask of the Emperor?” Pairo said. Kurapika glanced at him, torn from his contemplations regarding the distance between his room and the royal library. He found it unfortunate that they had to walk to the other side of the palace grounds just to reach them. They’d left the main spread of buildings now, and were met with the last stretch of the Lin Garden, a field of dandelions, and several scattered establishments. Chinseon Pavilion was the most impressive of these, resting on its island, close to the dull blue gate that kept them all captives of the Crown. A tower of green and red, tipped with a gleaming slate roof, surrounded by a lake covered in algae, lily pads, and fallen leaves. It hadn’t been used in nearly twenty-four years, as it was primarily made for wedding receptions and 100-day celebrations (to celebrate the first hundred days of newborn royals), and anything less was considered a dishonor.

“Kurapika?” Pairo asked, turning to him. “What is it?”

“Chinseon Pavilion.”

His face softened further in understanding. “Oh.”

“Do you think our dear Emperor’s birth was celebrated there as well?” As would their marriage?

“I wonder what he looked like. Do you suppose they have baby pictures in the library?” Pairo quipped, taking his arm and leading him away down a path of red and grey stone. He did that a lot. Lead him, though they both knew he couldn’t see. They left the Pavilion behind, heading toward the northern gates of the Palace. At some point, they narrowly avoided running into a hornet.

Kurapika snorted. “I’m certain he was adorable.”

The library’s outline came into view from behind a fir grove. First, the roof, then the second floor, followed by the first, and the greying stone steps. It was separated into three segments, the smallest being a hexagonal tower that formed the west wing. The entrance was the largest, guarded by five columns, brick red and white. Kurapika hurried toward it, his slippers clicking against the paved steps, Pairo’s hand clasped in his. They passed the muraled green entryway with its large windows and ceilings dipped in the colors of a phoenix. It only took a right turn for Kurapika to be rendered speechless.

He’d never seen so much knowledge in a concentrated space before. Other libraries existed, of course, but collections there were often sparse. This was the Emperor’s private library, and according to the rumors, he was quite fond of rare catches.

“I’m going to go out on a whim here and guess there’s a lot,” Pairo said. Kurapika squeezed his hand in silent thanks. He knew Pairo wasn’t fond of libraries, considering his blindness kept him from partaking in any reading. Pairo only accompanied him due to Kurapika’s insistence. Braille was rising in popularity, but it was a slow climb, and Kurapika doubted they’d find any braille editions in the library of an able-bodied Emperor who had a preference for antiques.

“I can have someone escort you back at any time,” Kurapika let him know. Pairo shook his head. They entered the small segment between the hexagon and the entryway. There were four long shelves filled with the written word, forming walls between several large study tables.

“May I help you?” A slender woman, the librarian most likely, approached them, her orange curls bouncing along to the skip in her step. Her bright green robes looked tight on her, but she didn’t seem to mind. Kurapika could relate. Mother had him wear all sorts of things, from loose shifts that hung off his shoulders to tight-fitting robes. After a while, he couldn’t even bring himself to care.

Kurapika smiled, slipping into his consort facade. “Could you point us in the direction of the foreign policy section. We’re looking for information on Kakin’s current constitution.”

“Of course, my dear,” she said, gesticulating far too much. The woman proved to be more suited to the role of a tour guide than a librarian, as she guided them past the shelves and into the hexagon. The first floor contained more private studies and separate rooms than the first section. Its walls were painted cream, with gilded ceilings depicting dragons and phoenixes. From the center protruded a staircase, and descending from the floor above was Machi, her hands full. Dogging her steps was Shalnark, bright-eyed as always, holding a satchel to his hip. Kurapika sometimes wondered if he took belladonna drops for those eyes.

“Kurapika-daegam.” Shalnark paused as he stepped off the last stair. Machi didn’t stop, though Kurapika managed to get a glimpse of the books and scrolls in her arms. Criminal records?

“Hello, Shal,” Kurapika replied. “Doing a bit of light reading?”

“You could say that,” said Shalnark, hiking the satchel’s band further up his shoulder.

“Shal!” Machi called.

Kurapika gave him a smile, fully aware that the librarian was still with them. They might’ve gotten more casual behind closed doors, but Kurapika intended to be the perfect consort in the eyes of any outsiders. “Find anything of interest?”

“No, just some boring personal stuff for the Emperor." So. He was hiding something, and from Kurapika specifically.

“Shal!”

“I’m coming.” He started in Machi’s direction, waving to Kurapika. “See you around, Kurapika-daegam. Don’t slack off and forget about the festival tonight!”

Kurapika chuckled lightly, pulling Pairo along. He let him clasp onto the white banisters, and took a moment for him to become familiarized with the sensation of carved, painted wood. They followed the librarian upstairs, quiet. She led them to a separate room in the corner.

“All our documents on our border nations are in here. Just look for the right characters,” she said, cheerfully. They entered, and Kurapika watched the woman vanish back down the stairs. Spacious and orderly, the study room held about the amount of books Kurapika suspected would be found in the one library back home. As with most of the study rooms, a single desk sat in the middle, surrounded by cushions of green and gold, like grass in the summer sunlight.

Pairo found a spot around the table, as Kurapika slid books and scrolls out of their nooks. Taking down the Prince of a foreign nation would be difficult, even if Hisoka manages to find his little slaughterhouse. Understanding the ins and outs of their criminal justice system could prove useful. The Emperor had probably scoured all the available writing on Kakin in the years he’d spent strengthening their relationship, but Kurapika felt restless sitting around in his room all day. Tserriednich was finally going to get his comeuppance, and Kurapika would make sure that nothing of his crimes slips through the cracks.

“Well, this is relaxing,” Pairo said. Kurapika laughed despite himself.

. . .

It was a conflicting experience. Kurapika had read all the scrolls, the journals, the books on Kakin, and felt like he’d learned a great deal, but not quite as much as he’d like. Documents concerning the conviction of royal family members were few and far between. Now they passed the Lin Garden, feeling both defeated and enlightened. The Consort’s Palace greeted them, stoic, and Kurapika knew he’d be bombarded by anxious maids as soon as he entered his room. He shrank back as they walked up the steps, passing the balustrades. He managed a quick glance to the Emperor’s quarters, where his assigned staff were buzzing around as usual. His eyes settled on two figures, both clad in black. One was the Emperor, the other a young woman Kurapika couldn’t place, her back turned to him. Black curls were strung upon her head, and then slid down to her neck and off her shoulder.

The Emperor noticed his glance had turned into a stare, and returned it with a fond smile. His change in expression sparked the woman’s curiosity, and she turned to follow his gaze. Kurapika’s mind stuttered to a stop. It wasn’t until Pairo tugged on his hand that he managed to compose himself and keep walking.

They look frighteningly similar.

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites:

Chapter Nine:

The Consort’s Festival (Part Four)

His face stung a bit from the lemon juice, and he felt an itching sensation in his fingers to rub it off, but the middle-aged leader of the maids slapped his hands away before they could so much as brush against the skin of his cheeks.

“Be patient, Kurapika-nim,” she said. “It’s important not to dilute the mixture with the oil in your hands. Otherwise, it won’t work as well.”

“My apologies,” said Kurapika, placing his hands back on his stomach, letting Kiya tug back his hair.

“Honestly,” the leader tilted his chin back, his neck bending at an unnatural angle. “If you hadn’t been late, we’d have more time to do this, but drastic times call for drastic measures. Part your lips a bit?” He did so. They smeared some velvet product across lips, leaving them stained pink. She began to pat his face with rose water, simultaneously removing the stinging lemon mixture.

All of them were on edge due to his tardiness, though most hid it well. The leader didn’t bother to hide her disapproval. It was nothing compared to Mother’s anger, cold and scarring. Crimson nails would bite into his chin, leaving marks or trails of blood. She never did any lasting damage, mostly due to the nature of his work as a courtesan, but she knew how to make things hurt.

Kiya began weaving silver thread in his hair, gentle despite her own nerves. “Where’d Pairo-nim run off to?”

“Basho came for him,” Kurapika replied. With Leorio. That must be quite a party. That familiar sense of loneliness swelled in his throat as Kurapika gazed down at the skin of his wrist.

“Meet us at the food tent. By the desserts, okay? We’ll show you what a real festival looks like. And we’ll make sure to keep the freaks off you,” Leorio had said, meaning one freak in particular. His hand hung loosely around his wrist, a grin on his face, in his green eyes.

He let the gold cuff of his sleeve fall over it.

Why did it feel like he was falling harder?

. . .

“Did you enjoy your trip to the library?” Paku asked. She had surprised him at the door, wearing a glossy purple hanbok with green-eyed forget-me-nots climbing up her skirt. The candles had been newly lit around them, flames casting gold shadows. Outside, the sun was minutes away from setting.

Kurapika pushed a stray lock of hair behind his ear. “It was enlightening. Kakin’s politics are intriguing.”

“Are you planning on marrying one of them next?”

She was joking, he knew, but that didn’t stop the suspicion from showing in the set of his shoulders. “Old enemies are our best teachers, as they say.”

“Do they?”

“No, I suppose not.”

Paku laughed. If it was genuine, Kurapika refused to acknowledge so. They walked out of the Consort’s Palace, the humidity nearly suffocating. From where they stood, the paper lanterns took the shape of stars, lifted up on strings. The Emperor awaited them on the immaculate steps of the Throne Hall. Across the lake, people were already swarming the tents, the scent of honey and lotus paste spreading across the grounds.

“You’re not wrong,” Paku said. Though she was speaking to him, her eyes were fixed on something in the distance. “There are few people in the world who know us as well as our enemies. Our weaknesses, especially. They do all they can to exploit them. It’s cruel, wouldn’t you say?”

If she suspected something, she certainly wasn’t being subtle about it. Why would she be asking such questions? To throw him off? To convince him he was in the wrong? Doubts had always been his worst enemy.

“The Emperor,” she began, “does not have enemies. At least, that’s what he likes to say. I always wondered why he thought that way. By my count, his enemies are tenfold. But he’s never acknowledged any of them as his foes. Do you know why that is?”

Kurapika was tempted to believe it was pure arrogance. The Emperor could envision anyone as being of the same caliber, and therefore never accepted the idea of an enemy. It wasn’t enough. It was too simple for someone like the Emperor. The twisting labyrinth of his psyche couldn’t be pinned down by a superiority complex.

“I'm starting to,” Pakunoda continued, for she knew it was too early for him to know. “None of them understand his weaknesses. How can they even hope to be more than obstacles, if they do not understand how to make him fall to his knees.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Kurapika asked. He could see the Emperor now, his face turned away as he discussed something with Shalnark.

“I don’t know.” Pakunoda’s expression softened. “I have hope, I suppose. Kuroro has been through a lot. Is it too much to ask for at least one thing to go well for him?”

Kuroro.

No one had ever spoken his full name before. Kurapika had almost forgotten he had one. It was probably for the better. Names created attachment and attachment bred brittle resolves.

“Again?” the Emperor sighed, staring down at them from the top of the steps. He leaned against the banister now, arms crossed.

“I was fine yesterday,” Pakunoda said, placing a hand on Kurapika’s shoulder. “Besides, if I wasn’t there, who would keep your darling consort company?”

The Emperor descended the steps and offered a hand to Kurapika. “You’re being reckless.” Kurapika slipped his hand into his, and then he was being led down the red carpet to the Pavilion.

“Aren’t we all?”

. . .

They were seated back in the same crimson throne, with platters of cream-filled pastries circulating around the Pavilion. Kurapika was content with sitting back this time, though Leorio’s words still lingered, managing to block out much of the surrounding voices as Kurapika fought back the urge to search the crowd for him.

“I would offer you a little more freedom to enjoy the festivities,” Kuroro said, “but under the circumstances, I have to take precautions.”

“Don’t worry, I have no desire to have our paths collide once more.” Kurapika took an amber honey cake off one of the platters. A chrysanthemum had been carved into it. He thanked the servant, though he wasn’t particularly fond of sweets. His fingers gripped the edges, and the cake broke in two, a few crumbs falling to his lap. He offered one of the halves to the Emperor, who gave him a look of skepticism. “What?”

“You can’t expect me to not be slightly suspicious when my self-proclaimed assassin has given me something purely out of the goodness of his heart.”

Kurapika rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t do it in front of all these people. Sweets have never sat well with me.”

“Why did you take one of the sweetest dishes we have to offer then?”

Kurapika stiffened and averted his gaze, something akin to embarrassment coiling in his stomach. The servant passing out the treats continued to do so, now lingering near Shalnark and Machi. Shalnark took three at once and got a smile from the servant girl. “I just felt it was a nice thing to do.”

“She reminded you of someone you’re fond of,” the Emperor said. “Your mother?”

How did he see through him so easily? Kurapika knew he was a better actor than that, and yet, the Emperor managed to grasp everything. “Honey cakes were her favorite to make.” The dough began to stick to his fingers. “I always hated them.” But she’d laugh anyway, even though she’d spend days perfecting her creations. He never minced words with them. What would they say if they knew all he’d sacrificed now. His dreams, his chastity, his friends. Would they blame themselves, or would they enjoy seeing him like this if it meant the Emperor’s demise. He had to believe the latter.

The second half of the cake vanished, leaving his hand warm and gummy. “You’re terrible at masking your emotions.”  

“I sometimes doubt you have any,” he snapped back.

The Emperor sighed, though it bordered on a chuckle. “I suppose that’s my own doing. Who knows? Perhaps I don’t feel emotions the way most do.”

Kurapika scoffed at his fickle reasoning, turning away from the Emperor and his ruthlessly elegant way of eating. He only realized someone had approached them when the whispers started. A bald man in a soldier’s uniform had leaned down to murmur something in the Emperor’s ear.

“Right now?”

The man nodded.

“Very well,” the Emperor said, his voice turning tired, “let them in.” His gaze fixed on Kurapika, cheeky again. He leaned down to whisper, “A stroke of luck, my Prince. Go find your friend. I’ll keep them here as long as I can.”

“I wish you’d stop that,” Kurapika muttered. He stood, though, and took the soldier’s cloak.

“You can’t think of me as a monster for all eternity, my Prince. That’s where they all get caught up,” the Emperor replied, following him to the dimmest edge of the platform. Kurapika tied the cloak around himself. “Be careful.” They were close now, as the Emperor slid the hood of the cloak up over his head. He leaned in as if to kiss his forehead. “Go back to your room and change clothes. We can’t have any half-baked disguises this time. If one of his men spot you-they wear eagles-have your friends speak for you and feign illness.”

“You seem quite intent on this,” Kurapika whispered, eyes shutting close as the Emperor’s lips pressed to his temple. A familiar wave of disgust and lust welled inside of him, but he pushed it down. It was becoming easier now, but there was always that initial onslaught.

“Of course, your affiliation with a brothel won’t do me any favors,” the Emperor said. His stance turned thoughtful. “Though perhaps a part of me desires your safety as well.”

Kurapika would have to add his lack of self-awareness to the list of possible weaknesses.

. . .

He watched him leave, disappearing between the Emperor’s Quarters and the Consort’s Palace, the drab brown cloak concealing him from prying eyes in the encroaching darkness. His Prince was proving to be more troublesome than previously thought, and yet, Kuroro could hardly believe his own luck. Not only was the boy intriguing, but he also held the key to getting rid of Tserriednich once and for all.

“You’re looking cheerful.” Paku stood behind him, leaning against one of the stone columns.

“What can I say? I’m a man in love,” Kuroro said, shrugging as he moved past her.

“Liar,” Paku drawled, sipping on a glass of champagne.

Kuroro eyed her, cynical. “Don’t drink too much. I’m not about to carry you to Cheadle’s office.” She downed the glass just to spite him. Why must he be surrounded by such petty blondes?

Hanzo still stood next to his throne, awaiting his orders, though it was clear he hated sitting still. He'd make better use of him on the battlefield. 

“Bring them here,” Kuroro said. “We’ll talk on our way to the Throne Hall.”

There were five Hui Guo Ruos who'd come to greet him, undoubtedly the rest didn’t bother with formalities. Nasubi, and his four eldest children, all dressed in traditional Kakin attire. Camilla was the most heavily ornamented, her clothing layered in expensive fabrics of only the most difficult dyes to produce. Her dull blonde hair heavy with pins and hair clips, the woman had dressed as if she were one of his consorts, being put on display for the whole country to devour. If Camilla had taken it upon herself to outshine all others, Benjamin had taken it upon himself to not put in any effort at all. He wore a formal navy hanbok, but it was no more extravagant than what he’d worn when Kuroro had been ambushed by him and his men. The message was clear. Kuroro might be royalty, but he remained on a lower pedestal than Benjamin. Zhang Lei gazed up at him with rectangular eyes, resembling a Kakin monk down to his taste in shoes.

Tserriednich was smiling, but Kuroro could sense the bloodlust clinging to him.

He’d humor him for now. The Hui Guo Ruos would be staying on Palace Grounds for another week. In that time, Tserriednich would undoubtedly be prowling for new victims, and hopefully, he would be taking them to the same place he took Kurapika. He was arrogant, after all. Missteps such as failing to change locations were common among his type.

“Emperor Kuroro,” Nasubi bowed to him, his actions replicated by his children. “What a lovely ceremony you have,” he glanced towards the other consorts, and Kuroro didn’t even bother imagining what he must be thinking, “and even lovelier consorts.”

Oito certainly had a lot to deal with. It was unfortunate she was so infatuated with the wealth her status gave her. Kuroro could easily offer her a place here, but that would bring up the question of their relationship. He couldn't let there be another heir, even if she was illegitimate. That meant keeping Oito's ancestry a secret, even from herself. It was for the best.

“Only the wisest,” Kuroro replied. “They’re all a great help.”

“Where’s your favorite?” Tserriednich asked, scanning the faces on the pavilion. “The blonde. I was looking forward to meeting him. Benjamin said he was an insolent lout, which is always a plus in my book.”

Kuroro chuckled, leading them off the platform. “I’m afraid he’s caught a summer chill. Our doctor assures us it’s nothing too serious, but he starts to feel ill after spending too much time in this heat.”

“Well, hope he heals up soon,” Tserriednich said.

He wasn’t certain before, but now . . . “Why the sudden interest? You’re not planning to steal him away from me, are you?”

“Nah, I’m not really into that type.”

“Well, I’ll consider myself fortunate then.” As if he’d ever hand over any of his consorts to someone like him. Hell, any of his people.

Benjamin cleared his throat, his temper already riled.

“My apologies,” said Kuroro. He passed through the middle aisle of the Throne Hall’s staircase. The rest stuck to the far right, as only the Emperor was allowed to walk through the center. “The preparations for our infiltration of the enemy’s headquarters is underway. The rest of the Zoldyck family is to arrive tomorrow.”

They were in front of the Phoenix Throne now, cold black tiles being tread underfoot. The throne was elevated upon a platform and protected by four columns at every corner, topped with a vividly decorated ceiling that spilled over the sides in the form of handcrafted spirals. Behind the throne sat a tri-fold screen. The only wall was painted blues and greens and created a view of snow-capped mountains, though there were no mountains near the capital city. Crimson and gold took most of his view, and he knew it was meant to allude to the Phoenix. To him, it looked to have been bathed in blood.

He didn’t bother taking a seat. Kuroro didn’t need to look down on someone to make them feel small, that much he knew.

. . .

“Kurapika!” Leorio yelled, waving vigorously. He’d gathered a crowd around himself now. Pairo stood beside him, Basho close behind. That was to be expected. What had not been expected were the three children standing beside them with abnormal amounts of pastries in their arms.

“Huh,” one of the children spoke through a mouth of skewered rice cakes. He was pale, a wild bush of silver hair on his head, and his eyes were feline-like and cerulean. A playful spark took them now, and he shifted in his light blue robes. “Wow, you’re right. He’s totally out of your league.”

Leorio went slack-jawed, waving ceased. 3, 2, 1.

“Excuse me?” he said. Yelling would be a better word, but Kurapika knew he was hardly aware of how loud he was being. “I never said that! Besides, he’s not all that amazing. He’s an 8 at most, and I’m like a 7 and a half, so that’s only a half-point difference!”

“As if. He’s a ten, you’re like a six at most,” replied the boy. The girl beside him seemed captivated by the conversation. She wore a pink kimono, and with her blue eyes and pale skin, Kurapika could venture to infer that she was related to the other boy. 

She pulled on the other boy’s sleeve. “Hey, brother? What am I?”

“Pfft, you would break the scale, Alluka. You can’t be judged by the same criteria. You’d put the others to shame,” the boy said, jabbing a thumb toward Leoro. “He’d look more like a 1 in comparison to you.”

The girl, Alluka, giggled. “I guess Gon would break the scale, too, huh?”

The other boy, dark-skinned and amber-eyed with an evident preference for lime green, looked at them curiously. “Eh, if that’s the case, Killua would break the scale, too.”

The silver one turned red. “Yeah, whatever.”

Leorio whispered something under his breath, probably thinking no one would hear. But Kurapika heard.

“Brat, sure, Kurapika might be a ten, but I’m a seven at least.” Their eyes met, and now realizing he’d been discovered, Leorio’s face reddened to the point where it rivaled Killua’s. Kurapika took his hand, definitely not pausing to ponder how much larger it was. He could feel Leorio's breath hitch, as he intertwined their fingers.

“Don’t get too cocky. This is purely a platonic gesture,” said Kurapika, his eyes fixed on a pair of workers manning a table of hotteoks. They seemed to notice, for they waved them over soon after.

“Right,” Leorio said, though it seemed to be for his ears alone. Kurapika said nothing in return, not even when Pairo gave him a pointed gaze.

Shut up. I’m not doing anything a friend wouldn’t.

Pairo rolled his eyes in response and took hold of Basho’s hand. Kurapika’s face must’ve been quite laughable for Pairo could hardly keep his laughter from bubbling out of his mouth like a boiling kettle.

That’s not funny.

As if Kurapika would ever allow his best friend to be enamored by such an uncouth individual.

. End of Chapter .

 

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites:

Chapter Ten:

The Consort’s Festival (Part Five)

Dearest Kurapika,

I’ll certainly help you in your mission. It will cost you, though. I’ll be present at the Palace on the 12th with Illumi. I expect the price to be paid in full ♥.

Sincerely,

Hisoka Morow

Three days. His price with Kurapika usually entailed a brutally drawn-out – and flirtatious – talk and occasionally a handsy kiss, though those had gotten rarer due to his relationship with Illumi. Still, what would Hisoka ask of an Emperor, and an attractive one at that?

He shuddered at the mere thought. 

At least, he wouldn’t have to worry about it until the twelfth. The third day of the Festival loomed over him, but after tonight, he would be able to spend his time however he pleased. Probably trying to wiggle his way into everyone's hearts, including the other four consorts. Mother had told him building a good rapport with the Palace would be his first step in killing the Emperor. His mission really only entailed three things: (1) Convincing all of them that he was in love with the Emperor, (2) becoming the epitome of friendliness in order to gain their favor, (3) the method of killing would have to be discreet, preferably poison, so he could blame it on someone else, perhaps even pass it off as the Emperor’s own doing. But first, he’d let them deal with Tserriednich. After all, Mother told him he could take his time. A few more months, then he’d slip something into his wine and this whole thing would be over with. 

“Kurapika-nim,” the middle-aged leader of the maids called. She’d gotten over his disappearing act the other day, but had made a point of keeping him under strict surveillance as a preventative. “Lady Pakunoda is here for you.”

“Thank you,” Kurapika replied, leaving the gold-lined letter abandoned on the bed. In the corridor, Pakunoda stood, lacking her usual confidence. In the stead of her impeccable posture was a slight slouch, her eyes creased in conflict. “Is something wrong?”

She looked up at him, lips parted slightly in surprise. A few seconds later, she regained the ability to speak. “No, not at all.” She straightened. “You look like you’ve seen better days yourself.”

“I,” Kurapika looked down at himself, at his slippered feet, “haven’t been sleeping well.” 

“Festival’s got you giving up so soon?” 

How much simpler life would be if that was the bulk of Kurapika’s problems. “Something along those lines.” His fingers moved a wave of blond hair behind his ear. 

The corners of Pakunoda’s lips quirked up, but it died out as she turned her back to him. “I see. Well, we mustn’t keep his Highness waiting.”

“I’d never dream of it.” 

. . .

The Emperor didn’t even bother casting Pakunoda a disappointed glare this time around. He pulled Kurapika to him, his lips barely grazing his temple. Red fabric marked a path for them, and Kurapika took the familiar road up to the Pavilion's crimson throne. They sat with their shoulders touching, close enough for their whispers to be taken for the rhymes of lovers.

“Your magician?” 

“On the twelfth.” 

The Emperor’s eyes shut close. Kurapika saw the vague outlines of sleepless nights around them. “That’s good.” He must be busy. Between meeting with various nobles and the leaders of neighboring countries, carrying out his usual tasks of hearing out complaints, and the current investigation regarding the missing children, the Emperor was scarcely seen outside of his office or the Throne Hall. On the off chance he wasn’t, there still remained the issue of the guards and advisors that follow him everywhere. Outside of the festival, Kurapika hadn’t gotten a second alone with him. That might prove detrimental to his mission. It would be difficult to slip something into the Emperor’s tea with half a dozen people following his every action. 

“Tserriednich is suspicious,” the Emperor murmured, “or at least interested. He might try to catch you alone. Try to stay in a group until he’s out of Ryusei. Even your Pairo can make the difference between being cornered and being ignored.” 

“I’ll be cautious,” he replied. Leorio was strangely effective at scaring people away. Maybe it was the fact he looked like a thug in his early thirties, or the way he barked everything he said. Maybe it was the muscles, or the fact he towered over everyone, or -

The Emperor was eyeing him now. 

“What?” Kurapika asked. 

“Nothing,” he replied, forcing his gaze upon the crowd instead. “I just didn’t expect a hardened avenger such as yourself could produce an expression like that.” 

Kurapika’s hands clenched together. “Oh.” 

“I knew you’d sacrificed many things, but not the love of another,” the Emperor whispered, pale fingers forcing his palms apart. He pulled his knuckles to his lips. To outsiders, the gesture was that of lovers, but Kurapika knew he was just saving face. “Are they here?” 

“I don’t know.” He was. Yesterday. But they could never get through the day without arguing, and last night was no different. “I don’t think he likes me very much right now.” 

“I see. Left off on a bad note?” 

“Something like that.”

They settled into a comfortable silence, and at some point, Kurapika even began to drift off, a glass of iced yuja tea in his palms. The Emperor took it away, probably fearing for the upholstery. He slouched forward, his eyelids heavy, and when he closed them all he could see was Leorio’s stricken face, as if it had been carved into his sight. 

“Sorry we can’t all turn off our emotions the way you can.”

“That’s not what I meant – ” 

“Yeah, well, not everyone can bend to your will, Kurapika.” He shook his hand through thick black hair, and Kurapika wished he'd look him in the eye. “Whatever, this was a mistake. Don’t know why I even bother.” 

“Paku!” It was Machi’s voice that reached through his memories, crisp and panicked. The Emperor stepped away from the throne in seconds, walking toward Pakunoda with quick, long strikes. Kurapika remained seated, his hands gripping the wooden ridge of the throne like they were attempting to permanently disfigure it. 

Pakunoda’s hands clutched the fabric above her heart, her shirt wrinkling in protest. He couldn’t hear anything above the shouting, but her labored breathing was evident in the rise and fall of her shoulders. The other advisors looked on with a mixture of frustration and concern, Machi most of all. She held onto Pakunoda's hand as they helped her out of the chair. They were speaking to her, and she replied to the best of her ability, and a horrible thought echoed in his mind.

Pakunoda is going to die.

“Where’s Cheadle?” the Emperor asked. It was more of a command than a request, and the fury in it sent goosebumps rising all over Kurapika’s skin. 

“At the clinic.” 

“Send someone for her. Fastest person on the Pavilion,” the Emperor said. Feitan promptly stands. “The rest of you try searching the crowd for a doctor. They won’t be able to do much without Cheadle, but they might be able to help. Word of mouth spreads fast, so just plant a few seeds.”

Kurapika watches as the entire Pavilion shifts under the Emperor’s command. There was never any doubt in his mind about the Emperor’s effectiveness as a leader, but it was still a sight to behold how quickly he took control of the people around him. As if he were the conductor, and they were the musicians he'd trained from birth to heed his every whim.

The messengers had spread out now, melding into the crowd like droplets of water in a hot pan. Kurapika sat motionless, his eyes glued to the Emperor’s figure beside the struggling Pakunoda.

He could go find Leorio now. It was possible he was still around. After all, Kurapika wasn’t the only one he came to the Festival for. He was still a student, but Kurapika had never met a better doctor. 

Still. 

Still, still, still. 

The Emperor would be devastated if Pakunoda died. She was his weakness, Kurapika was certain. He’d be in shambles, his mind faulty, his sanity put in question. This might be a path to his victory, to the Emperor’s death. Kurapika could sit back down, fake some tears, maybe toss in some scathing remarks to fuel the Emperor’s guilt. Kurapika could let her die. 

“I’m a doctor!”

A flutter of curses nearly escaped Kurapika’s mouth, though in his mind they were nearly deafening. There, right by the stone steps, Leorio stood arguing with a few guards. Leave. Kurapika begged whatever deity was listening. Please just leave.  

But the Emperor had heard him from his spot near Pakunoda and was now approaching the edge of the Pavilion. Kurapika watched, wishing he could stop him.

“Name?” 

“Leorio Paladiknight. I’m a student at Ryusei University, and a doctor’s assistant at Swaldani clinic. Please, there’s not much time.” 

Something about him must’ve convinced the Emperor because he asked no further questions. The guards stepped aside, and Leorio soon appeared before Kurapika, his bag of medical supplies bumping against his knee. He held his breath as the Emperor led him to Pakunoda.

They didn’t speak, hardly made any eye contact, but as he passed Kurapika caught sight of his hands, wrung so taut that he could see the blue of his veins popping through. 

“It’s pretty bad,” Leorio said, out of sight now. “She’s on the verge of a heart attack. But she's still breathing, and she's calm all things considered. The best we can do is slow it down until the others get here. Is she on any meds? Is this a recurring thing?” 

The Emperor responded with something along the lines of coronary artery disease and atorvastatin, but Kurapika was no longer listening. Most of the other consorts had already gathered around the scene, needlessly concerned. Leorio would save her. Leorio would save her, and then he’d go home, and they’d say goodbye for good. still. still still still.

“That should stabilize her for now.” 

A part of him needed Leorio to stay. But if he stayed that meant he'd stay within the Emperor's reach, and Kurapika couldn't afford to have anyone else in his life be taken hostage.

. . .

Kurapika had been right. Pakunoda survived and Cheadle praised Leorio’s handiwork, certain she wouldn’t have gotten through this without his expertise. He brushed a hand through his spiky hair, sheepish, and Kurapika felt a swell of pride. The Emperor had thanked him as well, though that only made Kurapika’s swell of pride turn into dread. Then there was the fact that Leorio kept sneaking glances at him. Honestly, he could afford to be a bit more subtle. They’d be lucky if the Emperor didn’t try to interrogate him by the end of the night.

They didn’t have to wait the whole night. Soon, the Emperor was escorting him to his sleeping chambers with his hand clasped in Kurapika's, a shackle specially tailored for him alone.

“Do you know each other?” The Emperor asked. 

“Pardon?” 

“You and the doctor. Do you know each other?” 

Eye contact evaded them, as Kurapika opened the door to his room. “We’re acquaintances. From the village. Nothing more.” 

He walked inside, and the Emperor followed, not bothering to wait for an invitation. The room was dark, save for moonlight and a single dying candle on the tabletop. Kurapika wished he’d leave him and his pining heart in peace, but the Emperor was proving to be a meddlesome lover. With a quick survey of his bedroom, Kurapika picked out Pairo’s sleeping outline, wrapped in a light blue comforter. The corners of his lips perked up, as he slid the doors shut again.

“So, more than acquaintances then,” the Emperor said, leaning against the nearby wall. Goodness, with that sort of gaze you’d think he was solving a puzzle. “Close friends, most likely. Or perhaps, lovers.” 

Kurapika made a strange noise in the back of his throat, too mellow to be a grunt. “It’s inappropriate to accuse your consorts of such things without any evidence.” 

“Your voice is evidence enough, my Prince,” the Emperor said, moving closer to him, leaning down ever so slightly to meet his eyes. “You can hide your true self from everyone else, but not from me. You and I are alike, after all.” 

A few months ago, Kurapika would’ve shook with rage at that. Now he just stared back, still. “I fail to see the resemblance, unfortunately.”

“And how unfortunate it is,” the Emperor sighed, brushing past him. “I wanted to let you know, out of courtesy.” 

“What?” He was back to snapping now.

The Emperor slid the doors aside again. When he looked back, his gaze was frigid, even for him. 

“I invited Dr. Paladiknight to join us here on the Palace grounds, as Cheadle’s personal assistant. That won’t be a problem,” his voice dropped above a whisper, “will it?” 

His mouth felt dry, and he tried swallowing down the urge to scream. It tasted of defeat and vaguely cinnamon but that was not the point. “Not at all.”

The Emperor smiled, fond again. “Good.” And shut the door.

. . .

Leorio fiddled with the piece of parchment between his fingers. He leaned back in his chair, eyeing the one across from him, and if he tried hard enough, he could imagine Kurapika still sitting there. He’d never thought about this part before. In the face of Kurapika’s lack of self-preservation, Leorio had only occupied himself on how to get him to stay. Now that he’d left, there was nothing but an empty seat, an empty bed, an empty desk, and one less insufferable, beautiful bastard telling him what to do. He'd known about his own feelings for a long time. Leorio wasn't that stupid, no matter what Kurapika might want to believe, and he knew love when he felt it. He just didn't expect to fall so hard for someone so unattainable.

What would he say if he saw him now, actually considering to become another one of the Emperor’s loyal employees just for the off chance that Kurapika would even give him the time of day. 

“That’s about the stupidest question you’ve asked me yet, Leorio.”

Leorio scoffed. Even in his imagination, he sounded like a total asshole. God, what was he even thinking, falling for someone like that.

But last night wasn’t a coincidence, that much he knew. Kurapika didn’t just randomly decide to look at him that way. He wasn’t cruel, even if he was petty. Besides, Leorio didn’t need his love, he just needed him to come to his senses. He’d pull out the old Paladiknight charms on him.

“Alright,” he muttered to himself, taking hold of a brush. “Time to fill this thing out.” 

. End of Chapter .

 

Chapter Text

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Chapter 11:

The Consort’s Past

Well, this was unexpected. 

Kurapika had been planning to retreat to the Consort’s lounge, simply for the excellent tea they served, maybe catch up on some reading in a valiant effort to forget about Tserriednich living on the other side of the grounds in the guest chambers. Unfortunately, a chill seemed to have set upon the room with his arrival. Even now, after an hour of silence, the other consorts couldn’t seem to leave him be. Only Aiko and Neon looked relatively composed. The rest looked like they’d like to shove a knife down his throat, a feeling he was quite familiar with. 

This could be a problem. 

“Kurapika!” Neon said, taking his arm without so much as a warning. It seemed their round of daifugo had cemented their status as best friends in Neon’s assertive mind. She leaned her chin on his shoulder now, half lying on the cushions gathered by the window where he sat. “What are you reading?” 

“West-Wandering Chronicles,” Kurapika replied, briefly flipping to the cover. “It’s one of my favorites.”

Neon’s lips pulled into a pout. “Heh? My tutors always tried to force me to read it, but it’s just so boring!” 

Kurapika nearly flinched at that. Leave it to Neon to spit on the legacy of a world-renowned classic. He swallowed down his chiding and settled for a half-smile. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Aiko nearly drop her teacup. 

“Pardon me, Miss Neon, but did you really just bash one of the most masterfully crafted works of literature without even blinking?” Aiko asked, a look of disbelief on her delicate features.

“I just don’t get the big deal,” she replied, unconcerned. “It’s just a bunch of people wandering around for three thousand pages.” 

“That’s the point!” Aiko chastised, one long, slender index finger waving at the youngest of the consorts. “It’s about the journey and the psychological baggage that comes with it! That’s why the word 'wandering' is in the title!” 

Neon whined, “but it takes so long.” 

Kurapika leaned against the wall to allow the two women to talk things through on their differing tastes in literature without being spat at. At some point, Aiko dropped her arm, a somber look on her face. 

“Are you alright with this, Kurapika?” she finally whispered.

“Pardon?” 

Aiko straightened. “I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention that the other consorts are being a bit cold with you.”

What a twist. Kurapika wondered how well he could dress this up to garner some semblance of tolerance from the eaves-dropping women. “It’s nothing unreasonable,” he said, slowly. “I was absent for much of the Festival. I left the Emperor’s side. This treatment is simply my cross to bear.” 

“You’re wrong,” Aiko cut him off, swift as a blade through weeds. 

“Right,” he drawled. 

“The Emperor chose you. To dishonor you is to question his judgment.” She sipped her tea, daintily, her pale blue eyes glazed over. “We simply didn’t capture his attention. To complain at this point is futile and childish.”

She wasn’t wrong, really, but that type of thinking wasn’t going to win anyone over. If Kurapika succeeded in offing the Emperor, it wouldn’t do for the other consorts to go pointing fingers at him. He might not fear death, but living was certainly preferable for Pairo's sake. Out of the other four consorts, Iza, daughter of the Bisbal clan head, seemed most likely to sabotage him. He’d start with her. 

That would come later, though.

“To be honest,” Neon started, resting her chin on her knees and wrapping her arms around them, “I’m glad the Emperor is so taken with you.” 

Kurapika glanced at her, a silent cue for her to continue. She averted her eyes, her face half hidden by a river of blue hair. 

“It’s just that I’ve heard so many things about the consorts of Emperors, about the Emperor himself,” Neon said, her gaze fastened to the wall across from them, her eyes blank. “I was worried he’d be cruel, or insane, maybe both. My maids cried the day I left, because none of us really knew what to expect, except that I would be married at sixteen with no chance of getting out.” She leaned her head against the wall, her arms still clasped around her knees. “So, I’m glad that he’s only really interested in you. The worst he can seem to do is ignore me, and I’m used to that.” Then she turned to him, smiling. “Sorry, Kurapika.” 

Aiko looked close to tears. “Neon, you really are more than a pretty face.” That was another thing Kurapika had learned. Aiko, as cold as she may appear, was easily driven to tears over another’s plight. Her tears seemed reserved for others, however, and Kurapika had yet to see her shed a single one for herself. 

“Heh? What’s that supposed to mean?” Neon asked, tone accusatory. 

“It’s a compliment.”

The two of them continued to banter like Leorio and Kurapika on a night when they both had nothing better to do. They often had nothing better to do. He turned back to his copy of West-Wandering Chronicles , waiting patiently for the main character to get off his useless ass and save his friends. 

. . .

 “Mint tea,” he said. It had been a guess on his part, based on Aiko’s suggestion, but it paid off in the end. Iza sat in the library with a tome of poetry on the table in front of her, intensely focused. She gave him one sharp look before returning to the book. Ah, this might be difficult. He placed the silver tray down. “I heard it was your favorite.” 

She didn’t answer. Huh, so this is what it’s like to be completely ignored for no reason. Kurapika had an intimate understanding of the gesture, but he’d rarely been subject to it. 

“Are you fond of Tezuka’s work?” he asked, eyeing the book. “I’ve read a few of his poems, but they usually just go over my head.” 

“I don’t like you,” she finally snapped. 

Well . . . that was abrupt?  Still, he'd win her over.  Kurapika wouldn’t have gotten this far without his charms. “Sorry, I should’ve thought about how this would affect all of you as well. It’s just . . .” he trailed off, letting a blush skim his cheeks. “I’m not sure how to say this. The Emperor . . . I didn’t expect to actually have feelings for him.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You’re his consort.”

“Yes, but most of my feelings were duty-bound,” he replied, clutching his chest as if the love he felt was suffocating him. “But now . . . I’m not sure how I feel. I suppose that’s why I just . . . couldn’t bear to be so close to him anymore.”

She remained motionless, skeptical, but Kurapika could tell something was softening in her expression. 

“It’s pathetic, really,” he continued, before shaking his head. “But that’s all done now. I’ll do my best from now on, to serve the Emperor, even if – even if he cannot love me back.” 

Ugh, I might vomit after this. At least, it’s working.

“See that you do,” she replied, the hostility gone from her voice. “You’re just as much a representative of the Palace as you are his consort. Though, I shouldn’t be surprised, considering you clearly lack training.”

Kurapika let the jab slide off him. “Is it that obvious?”

Iza didn’t reply as immediately as he'd hoped, but her shoulders relaxed. “Indeed.”

“Well,” he sighed, standing up. “I suppose I should try to catch up then. I’ll be in the other room. Enjoy your tea.” 

Apparently, the tea had done her some great misdeed, for she simply glared at it. Well, I suppose I can’t be loved by everyone I meet. With that thought in mind, he passed through the sun-drenched hexagon and disappeared into another section of the library. Shelves of books cornered him here, and they were stacked a little more haphazardly than most of the other study rooms. 

“I didn’t know you felt that way.” The voice came from behind, conversational, teasing. On one of the gold cushions sat the Emperor, a book in his hands. “I would’ve been gentler.” 

“Much appreciated,” Kurapika said, his tone immediately dipping in temperature, smile dropping. His cheeks were a bit sore now. “What are you doing here? I thought you were meeting with members of the Lotus clan.” 

“The eldest daughter, to be exact,” the Emperor said. “They seem a little frosty after our initial rejection, but they stand no chance in a battle of military might. Probably planning for her to seduce me in some way.” 

He uttered such things so casually. As if the only motto he lived by was ‘fuck people’s feelings’. 

“So, you decided to lock yourself in the library?” Kurapika asked, skimming the shelves for something new. 

“Her favorite book is Ode to Death so I figured I’d reach for it,” the Emperor replied, his fingers covering his mouth, pensive. 

Ode to Death. The romance novel? Kurapika heard woman cooing over the main character all the way in his little village of Swaldani a little over two years ago. Leorio had picked it up for ‘pointers’ but only seemed to enjoy the more intimate scenes. How had he fallen for such a pervert again? “How are you liking it?” 

“The melodrama is a bit grating, to be honest.”

Ah, he might be evil, but at least he had decent taste in literature. 

Kurapika finally settled on a large red-bound volume. When he turned back, the Emperor eyed him curiously. 

“Fan of Jain Sej?” 

“Casual, at best. I think his world is well thought-out, and his plots intriguing. His characters, on the other hand, could use a little work.” 

The Emperor had abandoned his book now, as Kurapika sat down across from him. “I found the main character in Vicious Rivers intriguing.” 

“Perhaps, but his treatment of others was appalling,” Kurapika replied. His hair fell over his shoulders as he began to read, tickling his cheekbones. “He was written to be a hero, but he came off as the most villainous one of them all.” 

“Are you of the opinion that all heroes must be righteous and just?” The Emperor asked, curious now. All of a sudden, they’d become a little book club, piecing together fiction and reality. 

“I suppose I am.” 

He tilted his head to the side. “Isn’t that a bit unrealistic? Humans are too complex to be truly good.” 

“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for justice.” Kurapika flipped a page. “We might never be able to attain perfection, but why should that automatically mean we must sway to the whims of our vices?” 

The Emperor grinned now, cheeky. “I didn’t say that, my Prince. It was a mere suggestion. So,” he leaned back on his palms. “Do you have any characters you do fancy?” 

A window was open, Kurapika realized, the slight chill running past his neck. He peered at him from underneath his lashes, not bothering to lift his chin to look him in the eye properly. “A character I fancy? I was always an admirer of Taka from the Seven Stones. His resolve to help others is honorable –”

To his surprise, the Emperor groaned. “Of course you would. He’s so dull. Just your type.” 

Kurapika let loose a shallow, breathless laugh. “Pardon me? Taka is a saint. He is the epitome of justice. A perfect –”  

“Looks like someone has a crush,” the Emperor teased. Kurapika straightened in indignation. “I suppose Harito from the Listening Chronicles is another member of your reading harem?” 

A strangled gargle nearly escaped him, but he only averted his eyes. “I was twelve.” 

His grin widened, and Kurapika rolled his eyes.

“Oh please, everyone had at least one character that claimed their heart. Who was yours? Let me guess, Sonka the thief?” 

“Wrong again, though I did admire Sonka.” Again? And he had even waved his guess away like a damn fly. “I found Julian from Kingdom  quite intriguing as an adolescent.” 

Kurapika strained to remember the exact details of this Julian. He hadn’t read that book in five years, and the memories were blurred by subsequent years of training. Julian. He was intelligent. And had a temper. And if he remembered correctly was often mistaken for a woman within the context of the story. In fact, Julian was eerily similar to . . . himself. 

“I see you have a type as well,” he finally muttered.

“I outgrew it eventually,” the Emperor said, fingers to his chin. 

There was a knock at the door, and Shalnark poked his head through. “Danchou, it’s time.” 

Kurapika stood in sync with the Emperor, who gave him a quick kiss on the corner of his mouth and whispered, “thank you,” close to his ear. Then, he followed Shalnark outside, and Kurapika was left alone to ponder his words. 

. . .

Pairo was blind. It had been a slow process, one that Kurapika had desperately tried to remedy, to no avail. Now he couldn’t imagine the world Kurapika saw. The colors, the faces, the look of surprise that took Kurapika when he first saw him, quickly replaced by unadulterated joy. He didn’t remember those things. But he remembered his mother’s voice when she sang, or his father’s when he laughed. And for him, it was enough. The voices, the scents, the tastes, they could paint a picture for him. Pairo’s blindness was the least of his problems, on par with his illness in fact. The thing that topped that list more often than not was Kurapika himself, and right now was no different. The reckless beauty had taken off on his own, probably without even noticing, and Pairo now sat at the fountain with too much stress and not enough food in his stomach.

“Alright, I brought some porridge from the kitchens,” Basho said, from his left. “They say it’s super heart healthy and shit.”

“Thank you, Basho.” Pairo held out his hands to take the bowl. It warmed his palms, smelling of cooked oats and honey. He heard the shift of fabric. 

“Your majesty,” Basho greeted, clearly talking to someone who was not Pairo. “It’s an honor.” 

It was the Emperor’s soft, disarmingly polite voice that responded. “Good afternoon, Basho. I see you’re taking your role as Pairo’s guard seriously. That’s good to hear.” 

“Thank you, your majesty!” He was nervous. Pairo could tell from the tremor in his throat. He spooned a bit of porridge into his mouth, biting down on the utensil a bit too hard as he waited for the Emperor to pass by. He didn’t. 

“Do you mind giving us a moment, Basho?”

They were alone soon after, and the Emperor sat down next to him on the fountain’s edge. They sat in silence, getting accustomed to the other’s presence. Kurapika would’ve known what to say, but Pairo could only think about how confusing their entire situation was.

“You don’t seem to hold as much of a grudge toward me,” the Emperor said, “even though the crimes committed against you are nearly identical to Kurapika’s. Is there a reason for your behavior?” 

“I hate you,” Pairo replied, grip growing tighter on a spoonful of porridge. Behind them, the fountain swept up their voices before they could reach a single soul. “I hate you more than I’ve ever hated anyone. It’s almost scary.” He swallowed. “I hate how you treat people, how you talk to Kurapika. You treat him like he’s a toy, and you don’t even seem to notice.”  

“But . . .” the Emperor trailed off.

“There’s only one person I fear, and it is not you.” 

The Emperor fell silent, and Pairo worried he might’ve said too much. After several seconds of only rushing water and birdsong, he heard him reply, “the person you fear? Is it the same person who forced Kurapika to work in a brothel?” 

At that statement, Pairo found he’d lost his appetite. He set the bowl of porridge aside, and in a fit of bravery, he told him. Because goddamn, he needed to tell someone. And if that person was the Emperor, the only person who might be able to keep Kurapika from Mother, then all the better. “We call her Mother. She came to us a few months after our parents were captured. Back then, we still believed that we could save them. There was no word they’d died, so we just figured that . . . We spent those few months in the bakery before it was taken away. Mother approached us as a friend of our parents. She told us they were dead. Neither of us believed her. So, we were given the blueprints of the Palace and ordered to break into the dungeons if we truly wished to see for ourselves.”

The Emperor said nothing, but he clearly remembered the incident in the way the quiet shifted. 

“We broke in as servants, and the other prisoners let us know that a man named Feitan had taken them. They told us what it meant for them.” Pairo’s fists clenched around the fabric of his jacket, arms wound around himself as he turned cold. “Kurapika nearly decided to kill you right then and there, but I got him to come back home with me. The next day, he went to Mother without me." He drew in a shaky breath. "Somewhere in that time frame, he decided to become your consort.”

He paused, uncertain if he should continue, certain he would go hysterical if he did. The lump in his throat had become painful.

“He did it for me,” he finally gasped out, shoulders trembling. “Mother had told him to become a courtesan so he could be ready for you, but he’d refused. And then . . . and then I became sick, and the medicine was too expensive, and he couldn’t let me die.”

Fuck. 

Pairo wiped at his eyes, smearing the tears over his face.

"He'd never cry, or complain, but I could tell he hated it. And I could hear the way people started to talk to him, about him. Like he was a piece of meat, or something. Like he never really earned the right to be human. And it was my fault." 

Then an arm wound around his shoulders, and the scent of Kurapika’s favorite rose shampoo drew out a sob. He pulled him closer, and Pairo heard the sound of his heart beating close to his ear. 

“Leave,” Kurapika hissed, to the Emperor no doubt. “Now.”

The Emperor stood, but did not turn to leave. “It’s not my place to say this, but I do believe you’re focusing on the wrong villain in your story, my Prince.”

The arm around him tightened. “She wasn’t the one who murdered my parents, my Lord.”

"Who is she?"

"If you think I'd actually tell you, you're more insane than I thought."

"Quite."

. . .

Five hours later, Kurapika was still furious. Not at Pairo, of course. Pairo was wrapped up in warm hugs and a cup of heart-healthy tea, held close to his heart as years of guilt came in tears.

. . .

Exactly twenty–four hours and twenty minutes later, Kurapika was still furious, sitting at his desk in the living area of his quarters. Pairo was asleep in his room, hopefully surrounded by pleasant dreams in the darkness. By dim candlelight, he read his copy of West-Wandering Chronicles, his own thoughts often wandering to how easy it would’ve been to shove a knife down the Emperor’s throat for bringing his best friend to tears. 

It was then, in the depths of his murderous rage, that Kurapika felt a familiar chill run down his spine. Behind him, the window had been cracked open. Kurapika’s gaze dipped down to rest on the reclining figure of an oddly dressed, card-shuffling clown. Atop his head was a gel-induced dollop of candy-red hair, reminiscent of cream whipped to stiff peaks and diluted with too much food coloring. The light died, and all Kurapika could pick out was the playful glint of gold.   

“Tsk, tsk, Kurapika,” the man spoke, the seductive edge never failing him, “you know you shouldn’t read in the dark. It’s bad for your eyes.”

"You're early."

"It's midnight, my love. You're merely late."

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites:

Chapter Twelve:

The Consort’s Informant

“You couldn’t wait until morning?” Kurapika asked, lighting the candle once more. It flickered to life. “Won’t Illumi be suspicious?” 

“Here’s the thing, love,” Hisoka replied, running a hand through his candy-red hair. “I need a place to stay the night. Illumi got a little fussy tonight and told me to do some late-night thinking.” 

He cracked open his book again, trying to find his place. “Illumi kicked you out of his room because you were being lewd and you decided to bother me instead.” 

“You’ve always understood me so well. Pity we’re getting married to other men. I think it could’ve worked out between us eventually.” He ran a single sharp nail along his neck. Kurapika made no move to stop him. A sigh was released, and the seductive touch turned to a persistent poking. “You were never any fun, my love. Always so cold.” 

“I didn’t go down the path I went down for fun, Hisoka,” he finally replied, catching his hand. “Have you found Tserriednich?” 

The hand disappeared. There was silence, and then, “I have.” 

“Well?” 

“I’d personally suggest you move as quickly as you can. There are few guards outside the mansion but inside it's a small army. Plus, the Prince clears everything out at the end of each round,” Hisoka said, his voice eerily serious. 

“Clears out?” 

“He burns them,” Hisoka said. “The bodies, the remains, so the house remains spotless. You’ll need to catch him in the act, and that won’t be easy. Or for the faint of heart.” 

So, it would all come down to timing. 

“Tell the Emperor. He’s the one who will see you’re paid well for this,” Kurapika said, unable to conceal the bitterness in his voice. He still couldn’t move on from the fact that the man had used Pairo to get at him. The nerve. “He’s sure to yield to most reasonable demands. He wants him gone as much as the rest of us.” 

“That won’t be necessary,” Hisoka said, shifting to lay on his side and face Kurapika fully. “I’ll take this as your payment.” 

“It’s a risky job.” 

“I can be unnaturally kind sometimes. It’s one of my greatest weaknesses,” he purred, the flame bouncing in his golden eyes. “Besides, meeting this Emperor is sure to be interesting. I’ve heard he’s quite the pretty monster.” Something in Kurapika’s expression must’ve changed, for the clown quickly added, “oh, don’t worry, my love. I have no interest in stealing your husband from you. I have Illu, after all.” 

Kurapika turned back to the pages, mumbling, “we’re not married yet. And hopefully, it won’t get to that point.” 

“Really? I think you’d make a wonderful co-Emperor,” Hisoka replied. “A crown would suit you.”

“Don’t forget my position in this play, Hisoka.” 

The man muttered something along the lines of, “such a waste”, and shifted onto his side. “I’m going to sleep.”

“Fine.”

“So cold.”

A few minutes later, the sound of steady breathing replaced Hisoka’s rambling, and Kurapika felt his shoulders slacken. He gripped the handle of the candle holder and stood, moving the screen door aside. There was a shift in the comforter of the bed, but Pairo remained safe in the clutches of a deep slumber. Kurapika took his place beside the sleeping boy and wound his arms around him. Near his chest, he heard a contented sigh. Tomorrow, they'd be meeting with the Emperor, and whatever came next would be up to him.

What a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, Pairo.

. . .

The eldest Zoldyck brother was already there once Kurapika and Hisoka arrived, regarding the former with indifference and the latter with ice-crackling annoyance. On the Phoenix throne, the Emperor sat with all the leisure and grace of a minor deity. His elbow had been propped up on one of the armrests, his chin resting on the palm of his hand, the other splayed across his lap. There were two others in the room, and Kurapika found himself at their mercy. The two boys from the festival, both of which had witnessed Leorio’s outburst outside of the food tent. The taller of the two, Killua, stood beside Illumi, face masterfully blank. Gon stood in his green servant’s uniform by the door, watching the scene unfold, but a look of recognition slowly blossomed on his face. 

“It’s you!” he suddenly blurted out, finger-pointing. Killua gave him a quick, smothering glare, and his excitement was quickly clamped shut. “I mean, you look familiar! Have we met before?” 

Killua didn’t seem satisfied with that answer, but the Emperor quickly came to the poor boy’s rescue. “You must’ve recognized him from the Festival. Kurapika is one of my favored consorts. He handled being in the spotlight wonderfully, don’t you think?”

“Consort?” the boys both repeated, tones varying from a confused whisper to a surprised shout. 

“Killua, don’t be rude,” Illumi chided, monotonously. 

The Emperor gave an easy (fake) laugh. “Ah, I think we can give them some leeway. They’re only children, Illu.” 

Illu? Seems like all three devils were quite friendly with each other. 

“Illumi!” Hisoka called from his spot near Kurapika. He looked nearly unrecognizable in his formal, pink hanbok, with his red hair loose and his face lacking his characteristic makeup. That is, he was unrecognizable until he opened his mouth. The man, who was pushing thirty at this point, wrapped Illumi in a tight embrace, nearly lifting him off the floor. Though, Kurapika had an inkling it was more to annoy the eldest Zoldyck and incur his wrath than to display his undying affection for him. 

Illumi was released after a sharp jab to Hisoka’s rib, and six icy words slipped off his tongue, “I am not talking to you.”

“Bold of you to assume that’s enough to sway me,” Hisoka said, though now he fixed his golden gaze on the Emperor. He bowed, deeper than necessary. “Your Majesty.”

The Emperor nodded once, no doubt wondering how he could use this relationship to his advantage. “You’re the informant my consort spoke of?”

“All good things, I hope,” Hisoka said.

“He tells me you have the information we need to track down a particularly difficult criminal.” The Emperor hadn’t bothered to dismiss the Zoldycks and their servant, so Kurapika could only gather that they had been deemed trustworthy. Still, he wondered if Illumi was the best person to put his faith in. 

“I do.” 

“We’ll discuss this with the rest of my advisors. Kurapika,” the Emperor waited for him to meet his eyes, “you will join us.” 

“Yes, your Majesty,” he said. 

“As for you,” the Emperor looked to the Zoldyck brothers, “I have to say that it’s a tempting offer, but the risk is too high. I can’t allow untrained children to walk into the enemy’s den, for both logical and moral reasons.” 

Morality. As if he knew anything of moral righteousness. Certainly not enough to speak of it in such a manner. The logic was sound though. Untrained children were far more likely to say too much in high-risk situations. Beyond that, it was probable that the person doing the kidnapping wasn’t above torturing them as well.

Kurapika supposed he should be grateful. An innocent child had just been spared. 

“You have to let us go!” 

The room went silent, the eyes of four men in their twenties and one fourteen-year-old falling on a headstrong boy dressed in green with the gaze of a ferocious foxbear. 

That was all it took for Killua to snap. He took long, sharp strides toward Gon until they were standing a mere few inches apart. “Excuse me! Who said you’re going?”

“Of course, I am!” Gon spat back, in the most literal sense of the word. The youngest Zoldyck closed his eyes as if to compose himself, but Gon kept going. “I’m Zushi’s friend, too. If he’s been captured, I want to help find him!”

  “Are you insane?” Killua asked. “You have no formal training, no discipline, and no real experience. I know you’re talented and all, but that’s not enough to get you through this.”

Illumi turned to them fully now, no doubt calculating the outcomes of Gon’s addition. Something in his head must've clicked because he stood a little straighter as he said, “I don’t see why Gon wouldn’t be allowed to join in.”

“Really?” both boys asked, different types of incredulity on their faces but incredulity nonetheless. Kurapika could gather the three of them didn’t always get along. It wasn’t surprising, considering the rumors involving the Zoldyck family. Their history as ruthless, unaffiliated mercenaries, how they’d reformed in order to serve the Emperor. It was speculated that they still used the same mercenary techniques when raising their children, even though they insisted their assassin days were over.

Illumi clapped his hands together, too cheery to be talking about such a dangerous operation. It was as if he were giving them permission to perform at a dance recital. “Gon is a resourceful young man. I’m sure he’ll be of great help out on the battlefield. Besides, two boys getting up to some mischief is a lot less suspicious than just one.” 

The boys regarded him for a few seconds, but then Killua turned to Gon with one pale hand cupped to the side of his mouth.

“See, if Illumi thinks it’s a good idea, then it’s obviously a bad one. He’s probably just going to try and get you killed again.”

This has happened before?

The Zoldycks might give the Emperor and his advisors a run for their money in the insanity department. 

To everyone’s surprise, Gon seemed convinced. “I guess so, but I really wanted to be there to watch your back.” 

“Idiot. If you did that, who’s gonna watch yours?”

Gon blinked rapidly, then tilted his head to the side. “I was hoping . . . you would.” 

The blush that grew on Killua’s face rivaled that of dawn’s. “Wha – whatever,” he sputtered, turning to the Emperor. “Anyway, I still want to help save the other kids, so I’m going to do this whether you want me to or not.” 

Kurapika had never seen the Emperor so lost before. Perhaps he wasn’t good with children?

“So what do you say?”

. . .

Killua’s stubbornness miraculously won out in the end, but on the condition that Killua passed a test of the Emperor’s choice. The examination was to be held in a few weeks, but other than that no other information would be divulged. Now, Kurapika found himself following close behind Hisoka, who had taken quite a ‘liking’ to the Emperor.

“Is it true you beat an entire army of samurai, single-handedly?” Hisoka asked. 

“Not single-handedly, no. My advisors fought alongside me in that skirmish.” The Emperor led them to the small building near the Ilsalyang Pavilion, surrounded by a meticulously maintained lawn. It formed a square in the middle of its plot of land, with a tiled, curved roof and a wooden skeleton the color of garnet beads. 

Hisoka seemed fixated on the Emperor’s military prowess, more so than the actual building. “You’re all quite fearsome in battle, I hear.”

“That’s quite a reputation to live up to.” 

They came to a stop in front of a door, one which had clearly been repaired several times. The wooden frame still had some cracks in it, and through those cracks, voices leaked.

“I’m telling you! It was green!” one of them yelled. That booming tone could only belong to Uvogin. 

“It was purple!” Nobunaga snapped back. 

“Green!”

“Purple!” 

“Green!”

The Emperor heaved a weary sigh, let his mask slip back into place, and entered the room, Hisoka and Kurapika in tow. 

With their leader’s arrival, the chaos died down considerably. All ten advisors were seated around a circular table, painted black and gold, with treats, teas, and wine scattered around it. They all waited for the Emperor’s first words, their attentiveness punctuating the silence. It was Hisoka who didn’t seem to catch onto the atmosphere, for as soon as he laid eyes on the chilly Machi his face turned to a greasy smile. 

“Ah, Machi,” he said, stepping further into the room and slipping into the open cushion beside the woman. “I didn’t know you were one of the Emperor’s advisors. It must be fate.”

“You owe me two million jenny,” Machi replied, eyes firmly focused on the Emperor. 

Hisoka visibly blanched. “Ah, was it two million?”

“Two million three hundred and fifty-nine, to be exact.” 

“We don’t have to be that exact, now, do we?” 

The Emperor offered Kurapika his hand and had him sit between Shizuku and Bonolenov. The former poured him a cup of clear rice wine, one which Kurapika quickly rejected, then proceeded to watch in horror as the young woman downed the whole cup herself in one go. Franklin took the gourd of wine away as she reached for seconds.

“Shizu, your memory’s bad enough.” 

Shizuku grimaced, crossing her arms. “When have I ever forgotten something?” 

The hulking man looked spent at that, but he handed the gourd to Phinks nonetheless, sending it far from Shizuku's reach. “Nevermind.”

On the other side of the table, the Emperor was taking a sip of his own beverage, a comfortable smile on his face. He looked just shy of motherly surrounded by such a rowdy crowd. Seconds later, the room settled down once more, and the Emperor set his cup down.

“I believe you’re all familiar with Prince Tserriednich Hui Guo Ruo.” 

A harmonious melody of groans echoed through the room, followed by a few death threats and heavy-handed insults. 

“Good. We’re taking him down. Well, to the best of our abilities.” He gestured to Hisoka. “Which is why he’s joining us today. My consort tells me he has some information regarding the whereabouts of Tserriednich’s slaughterhouse.” 

“To the last coordinate,” Hisoka chimed. “Though, it’s going to be difficult. There’s a small army patrolling the place, and the forest is so thick you can hardly see in front of you.” 

One could touch the confidence in the Emperor’s eyes. “That’s a small price to pay. We’ll depart whenever you find the timing suitable.”

“Danchou!” Machi protested. “You can’t just trust him with something so important!” 

The Emperor met her eyes. “Is there a reason for your animosity, Machi?” 

Her hand went up to rub her elbow. “More of a hunch, really. He’s not the type I would trust. He’s easily swayed, does whatever he wants.” 

“I thought you liked that about me,” Hisoka said, running a hand through his bangs, as if to gel them back into that hideous hairdo. “Don’t worry. Just this once, I have no interest in betraying my clients. Besides, Kurapika asked me to help you, and when someone that cute asks a favor of me who am I to say no?” 

They all gave him pitying looks, but Kurapika had grown used to being called a variety of adjectives, and cute wasn’t the worst of them.

“And if he lies, you have the right to detain him by whatever means necessary.” That was all they needed to hear. “Hisoka, you may begin.”

Silence prevailed as Hisoka leaned back on his palms. “It’s difficult to find without someone guiding you there. As you all probably know, Jirisan is a heavily forested mountainous region, and getting lost is a common occurrence. Tserriednich’s headquarters are slightly off-center, right at the base of Mt. Hallasan. Easy to miss. Beyond that, Tserriednich also has guards on duty at all hours of the day. The actual location of his victims is still unclear, but I’m guessing it’s somewhere either on the top floors or in the basement of the house. New courtesans are taken in on Saturday nights, but the exact hour varies.”   

“How many of us are taking this job, Danchou?” Shalnark asked. They were all itching for a good fight, Kurapika could tell by the way their fingers twitched and their eyes lit up.

The Emperor’s expression shifted into something cruelly phlegmatic. “All of us.”

. . .

“You’ve been quiet,” the Emperor materialized beside him by the Oeleun Bonsu. “I was expecting you to be a little more vocal about your thoughts.” 

Kurapika inspected the sandals on his feet, kicking at the red tiles with his heel, trying in vain to squash the growing uncertainty within him. His hatred had hardly wavered during the meeting, but his mind struggled to be logical throughout and even it couldn’t deny the Emperor’s skill in ruling Ryusei. They’d gone on to speak of the Anita Spice epidemic in Kukan’yu Kingdom, the possible tension that would arise thanks to Tserriednich’s possible incarceration/definite exile from Ryusei, the steady spread of the crime syndicate in NGL and Gorteau. Each move was calculated, logical. Most of all, Kurapika could tell he was trying.

Was he really going to kill someone like that? More importantly, could Ryusei survive the loss of another leader in such a short span of time? They had no heir, no one to turn to, and Kakin and Kukan’yu were ready and waiting.

His hatred wouldn’t let those thoughts surface just yet, and by the time the Emperor joined him, Kurapika had already steeled himself.

“Who is she?” 

“I’m not telling you.”

“Worth a try.”   

Were they to make a habit of dancing around one another, as if Kurapika wouldn't one day stab him in the back?

The Emperor's hand reached for his as a few passing servants strolled across the gardens. He didn't bother fighting the gentle clasp.

. . .

They called her Mother. She was a friend of the family and owned at least one brothel within Ryusei. Which one? Who was she? Perhaps most importantly, what did she truly want? 

Kuroro sighed, standing up from the bath, ignoring the chill it cast down his dripping torso. That wasn’t enough information, but Kurapika had already proven his stance on the issue. He wouldn’t get anything out of his little Prince. Pairo might be more cooperative if his earlier outburst was anything to go by, but Kurapika might discourage him. Indeed, the sooner Kuroro cornered him, the better. He needed to wring every last piece of information from him if he were to understand this elusive foe of his. And the files could be the key to breaking him. 

He toweled himself dry and slipped into his nightwear, black silk. With a towel still rubbing at his thoroughly soaked hair, he returned to his bedroom, where hundreds of files awaited him scattered on the bed. It seemed that his orderliness had failed him once more. Even so, he was close. He could feel it. He was in the right year, the right month, the right day, now all he needed to do was figure out who their parents were. With only Kurapika's claim to have taken after his mother in terms of appearance, the task had proven more difficult than it should've. But it would be worth it.

1855 had been hell in Ryusei. Not only were riots sparking all across the country, but both Kakin and the Kukan’yu Kingdom had also been on the brink of declaring war on them. Spies roamed rampant. And the corruption: Half the court was being bribed by money, status, even women. Kuroro and his advisors took care of them in the only way they knew how. With that, came hundreds upon hundreds of prisoners, each with their own file. If he wasn’t mistaken, Kurapika and Pairo’s dear parents should be among them. And once he learned of their parents, he would be that much closer to understanding the two traitorous men. 

Still, they probably should’ve had a better filing system. The entire year had been mixed in with the rest of the decade, and it had taken Machi and Shalnark three days just to sift them through a fine sieve. Three hundred files had remained, most of them inconsequential. Kuroro had spent the better part of the last few nights poring over them, denying sleep’s embrace until he was no longer able to function. He couldn’t quite remember the last time he’d poured so much of himself into an investigation, but he’d be lying if he said it wasn’t thrilling. The prospect of capturing this Mother character, a criminal that may well have been behind the riots all those years ago, kept him up at night.

He picked up another file at random, glancing through its contents. A name, a date, and the meticulously drawn portrait of the prisoner, all inked onto a single piece of parchment. Hinrigh Biganduffno. Imprisoned for having ties to Kakin’s Xi-Yu mafia family, highly suspected of being an underboss. Status: Deceased, cause unknown. 

Unknown. Another word for ‘tortured and killed by Feitan’. They couldn’t have people finding out about the catacombs, after all, even if they were hardly used anymore. His subjects wouldn’t react kindly to the idea of thousands upon thousands of criminals being treated in such a manner.

Kuroro wondered if the cause of their death was unknown as well. It was likely, given the circumstances, and if it turned out to be true then Kurapika might be beyond help. Still, his Prince might bring him that much closer to a criminal they’d been tracking for the better part of the decade, and that was an opportunity Kuroro couldn’t pass up.

His hands reached for another file, but this time it slipped through his fingers. 

Yuka Kurta.

Deceased, cause unknown. 

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

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Chapter 13:

The Consort’s Mother

Meeting

Yuka had been born into a small village in the mountains of Lukso, with one school, exactly two hundred and sixty-four residents, and no way out. The first Elder of the village had put in place a strict ban on all interactions with the outside world. They lived off the land, died on the land, and any suspicious activity would put you in the underground prison for life. Subsequent Elders were a little more lenient with their laws, and now most villagers could choose to visit the outside world for a variety of reasons, among them supply runs and continuing education. Given that they pass a series of examinations, most could leave with ease. The only exception: women and children. Which was complete bullshit if you asked her. 

Even if it was bullshit, that certainly didn’t change the fact that the rule still stood. Yuka had been born a woman, and her eighteenth birthday remained nine months too far. Safe to say, no one even entertained the thought of her departure. She was meant to marry one of the men in the village (most of which were probably related to her in some aspect), and have children who would eventually be miserably entrapped in the same cycle. Well, she was no broodmare, and she certainly wasn’t going to marry her cousin. 

Three months into her seventeenth year, Yuka disappeared.

She took the long way out of the mountains, in case the other villagers went looking for her, and avoided bandits by staying off the trails and dressing like a beggar for the most part. Yuka could fight well enough thanks to her brother, but against a group of thugs, she wouldn’t stand a chance. The other villagers had never let her carry a weapon, and all she knew how to use were her fists.

Animals were better than people anyway. 

Three days of hiking in the mountains saw her arriving in the much larger Persimmon City. As the name implied, the place was full of the ripening fruit. No one knew how they came to be there, or how they managed to grow in such a cold climate, but the view brought in tourists and tourists brought in money. During harvest season, the streets would often be filled with the scent of spices and persimmons, all baking together and sold at the right price. 

Her stomach growled insistently. Maybe she should’ve taken more than just her own savings. Nobody would notice if she took a little bit from everyone.

With the precision of someone not on the brink of starvation, the woman caught onto the silver lining of a uniform. There, too close for comfort, sat two large men from the family Yuka had been promised to. They were looking for her. 

Yuka sucked in a breath, disappearing further into the crowd until she reached the opposite side of the road. The current dragged her along the main streets until the briny scent of the ocean began to overpower the spices. She was unceremoniously pushed out of the throng and landed hard on her back, the fall strangling the breath out of her. 

“Are you alright?” It was a man’s voice. Her eyelids parted, and her vision swam with floaters and a rounded face. He sounded like a man, but he was still clearly a boy. Kneeling beside her with a satchel hanging off his shoulder, nearly touching the dew-soaked ground, the boy didn’t seem all that concerned with helping her up. His hair was combed back in neat black curls, and his earthy clothes were free of dirt and dust. To be frank, the boy looked like one of those ablutomaniacs her brother had always warned her about.

He was pretty, though. Yuka had little experience with things concerning romance and attraction and what have you, but she was quite positive the boy could be described as pretty. 

From the depths of its despair, her stomach growled, and their little staring contest was put to an end with a pointed look at the culprit. 

“You are. . . hungry?” he asked, in broken Luksan. He was a foreigner, then.

“Uh, yes?” Why were her answers coming out as questions? 

The boy reached into his satchel and pulled out a ball of tinfoil. His fingers peeled at the foil until the top half of a miniature cake appeared. 

“I hope you like sweets –” 

“I love sweets.”

They stared at one another for a second more, and then a grin crossed his face. He handed her the cake, still half-wrapped in tin foil. “Good, because that’s about all I can make.” 

She spent the rest of the day following the boy around, talking constantly, occasionally stealing a few treats here and there. The boy took her back to his host family, who gave her more than just sweets. Their dinner table was quite impressive considering the rest of their home, a shaky, downtrodden thing. When evening came, the boy, whose name turned out to be Pavi, agreed to share his room with her. Yuka, who’d spent half her life sharing a room with her older brother, didn’t mind. 

It rained that night, and Yuka felt safe with her stomach full and a roof over her head. Three days in the mountains had apparently taken more of a toll on her body and mind than she’d previously thought. 

“So, are you runaway or something?” Pavi asked. “Who from?” 

Yuka rolled to face him on the bumpy mattress they’d given her. “No one in particular. Just felt like running.” Except for those two men, but she’d rather ignore them for now. 

Pavi looked pretty in moonlight.

“How far?”

“As far away as I can, I guess.” 

He turned onto his back, staring at the ceiling. “You’re strange, Yuka.”

“In what way?”

One more thing Yuka had learned about herself a long time ago.

“Never met someone with so little future.”

She had quite the temper.

“Excuse me?”

The boy blanched at her tone, sitting up. “Sorry! Th – that’s not what I meant. I mean . . .” He swallowed thickly as they stared at one another. His cheeks began to turn pink, but he turned away before the color could spread any further. “Nevermind.” 

It took him three weeks to tell her what he meant. Three weeks of late-night conversations and thinly veiled flirting. They weren’t in love. Yuka wasn’t sure if they were even friends, but there was something about Pavi that made her want to join in on whatever crazy journey he was making. The boy was making a trip around the world, after all, and Yuka was nothing short of intrigued by the idea of leaving her little country of Lukso. 

So when he asked, “would you like to come?” right as they were saying goodbye at the port, Yuka wasn’t surprised. She said yes, like any sane person with a desire to bury the past would. And when she caught sight of capes lined with silver and shocked faces as their boat left Lukso for good, Yuka couldn’t help the satisfaction tightening in her chest. 

Honestly, they should’ve seen this coming. 

Falling  

They traveled for a few years, as Pavi learned how to bake everything from croquembouche to baklava, and Yuka found her true calling: Combat. Soon, she was able to wield all sorts of weaponry, from rifles to daggers, though she usually only used them on mannequins and creeps. Yuka was proud of her zero casualty policy (except for that one guy but he didn’t count). They had a few run-ins with the mafia after she accidentally helped the police arrest a quarter of their men, but outside of that, their lives were filled with beautiful scenery and lots of desserts. 

As time went on, though, Yuka found it hard to imagine parting ways one day. They couldn’t stay together until the end of time, after all. Pavi would have to go home eventually, and Yuka continuing to follow him there would be complete madness. They weren’t in love, after all, and Yuka was half certain Pavi had someone waiting for him back home. 

One night, Yuka felt the tension bubble over. 

“When are you leaving for Ryusei?” Yuka asked, making sure the ‘ you’ didn’t get lost in translation. 

Pavi stopped mixing the egg whites in his bowl, glancing at her from his spot at the wooden counter. Their eyes met and Yuka struggled to keep the contact. He turned away, mixing faster. Four years had done their part. He’d gained a couple of inches in height, and had lost most of the gentle roundness in his face. His eyes never changed. 

“Why do you ask?” His voice had gotten deeper, too, almost a baritone. 

Yuka wasn’t sure how to answer, so she just tugged on a lock of hair until the words came out. “I want to know how soon I should start making plans to move on.”

“Do you plan on joining the military?” 

Her nose scrunched up in distaste. “No, the military here is gross. I’ve seen their barracks. Absolutely disgusting. Besides, they don’t allow women to join.”

“Then, what are you planning on doing?” 

“I’ll figure something out.” 

The whisking stopped, the sound of metal on glass halting. His back turned rigid. Yuka began to stand, wondering if she could smooth out the edges, but before she could Pavi spun around to face her, red-faced.

“Stay with me!” 

Yuka fell back in her chair. “Huh?”

“I mean,” he ran a hand through his curls, effectively messing up his immaculate hairdo. “I’m only a baker. And I’ll probably never be able to make a lot of money. Which you probably don’t care about money, and I know that, but . . . I’d really like it if you went with me.” 

She had to be certain, though her heart was ready to pounce and call it a confession. “For a vacation?”

“For as long as you like,” he said, gripping the counter. “Forever, even.” 

“But what about your partner?” 

Pavi blinked, expression blank as he processed that words. “Partner?”

“You don’t have one?” she squeaked.

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Always too busy.”

“With what?”

“Recipes.”

Her shoulders dropped. “Recipes.” Pavi had just asked her to go with him. “Of course.” Pavi had just asked her to go with him. “Should’ve known.” She laughs nervously. Pavi had just asked her to go with him to Ryusei. That’s basically a marriage proposal.

“So?”

She dragged her finger around the rim of her teacup, hardly able to get a word off her tongue. Her throat felt sore, ready to scream, but she swallowed the urge back down. “Pavi, I . . .” She took a breath. “Can I bring my rifle?” 

A smile tugs at the corner of his lips, and he bites down on it as his eyes dart around the room. “Sure.” 

Half the city of Yorknew was then startled by the delighted squeal of a rather terrifying woman. 

Name

At age 23, on April 4th, one year after Pavi and Yuka became the most formidable couple in their region, Yuka gave birth to a son. Most parents didn’t name their child until the 100th day of their life. Pavi and Yuka were having none of that. 

“His name will be Kurapika and he’s going to live forever!” Yuka had once exclaimed triumphantly, shortly after giving birth, her newborn baby giggling in her arms, swaddled in navy blue blankets. She danced around the room, too energetic for someone who'd just gone through nine hours of active labor. Her own cackling soon joined in, as her words turned into cooing. “Yes, you will! You’re going to rule the world! Emperor Kurapika, that will be your name!” 

“Yuka, please. You’re supposed to be resting,” Pavi pleaded from the corner of the room, though he seemed just as proud. 

“Look at him!” she said, almost shoving the infant in his face. “Look!”

“I’ve already seen him, Yuka. I haven’t forgotten.”

Behind them, a heavily pregnant woman sat on a thick purple cushion, sipping tea. “Weren’t you just cursing his name a few hours ago? How are you even able to stand?” 

“It was all worth it,” Yuka said, rubbing her cheek against the baby’s, who giggled more. “You’ll see.” 

“Just watching you made me regret this.” 

“Are you kidding? Kurapika needs a little Pairo to keep him company. They’re womb buddies!” 

“Maybe I’ll teach him to become your kid’s mortal enemy instead.” 

“Lia!” 

Sleep Deprivation

Kurapika was mostly a quiet infant, like his father, which everyone was thankful for. However, when he cried, he cried loudly, and usually in the dead of night. Like this night, November 16th, 1839. They hadn’t slept well in eight months. 

Yuka was the first to wake up to his cries, her mom instincts tingling. She let out a little groan, which was quickly followed by a light sigh from Pavi. 

“Are you sure I haven’t accidentally given birth to the devil incarnate?” she mumbled. 

“If he was, he’d be doing a lot worse than crying.” 

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s trying to drive us insane.”

He laughed, but the tired edge to his voice bled through. She felt him move to get up, and placed a hand on his shoulder. It gave him a pause. She sat up. “Don’t. You always take too long.”

Yuka stood up, the cold flooring reminding her of the storm outside. Maybe that was what had awoken him. Stupid storms. With tired, slightly wobbly legs, she made it to the crib.

“Alright, you brat,” she said, picking him up with careful hands, maneuvering the infant until he was securely cradled in her arms. “Now, shut up.” 

That didn’t work, and she almost laughed when his cries seemed to get louder. What a rebel. He took after her in that regard. This called for a Luksan lullaby. 

She took a breath and began to sing. Her voice was untrained and a little high-pitched, but it was devoted and warm and that was all Kurapika needed to fall back into sleep.

Byssan lull, koka kittelen full,

där kommer tre vandringsmän på vägen.

Den ene, ack så halt,

den andre, o så blind,

den tredje säger alls ingenting.   

His breathing was even against her shoulder, but she remained there, swaying side to side. 

“Vahan demonia,” she whispered little demon.  

Grow

Kurapika grew up quickly, with an intellect that put most polymaths to shame and a tongue that cut more sharply than all of Yuka’s treasured daggers. He preferred books to people and tended to butt heads with the other village children. All but one, none other than his womb buddy, Pairo, who saw most things in the world as either ‘things people say Kurapika should not do’ and ‘things Kurapika should definitely not do and should be kept away from at all costs’. He had a weak body due to a heart condition, but his will to live rivaled Kurapika’s. 

On his twelfth birthday, Kurapika came home with a black eye and a bruised cheek. Pairo had walked in close behind, eyes red. 

“Kurapika, what?” she began, but before she could get another word out the boy bounded up to his room. Yuka wasn’t sure what to say anyway. She’d always known her son had a bit of a temper, but a brawler he was not. 

“It was the other kids,” Pairo said, blocking off the stairs as she walked toward him. “They picked a fight with him. It wasn’t Kurapika’s fault.” 

“Pairo.” What a good friend her son had. She was nearly brought to tears. But no, she was still the mother here. She kneels down to look him in the eye. “You two should know fighting isn’t the answer. It’s dangerous.” 

“What were we supposed to do, then?” came a shout, and the sharp click of a sliding door slamming together. Kurapika stood at the top of the stairs, heaving, his lip was bleeding now too. “Let them go? I can’t let them do whatever the hell they want!” 

Then again, perhaps she shouldn’t be so surprised. Kurapika had always been volatile, even as a baby. Best to calm him down first.

“Kurapika, you’re injured.” 

The boy stiffened, running the back of his hand across his broken lip, only succeeding in smearing it across his chin as well. That couldn’t be sanitary. 

She gave him her best ‘insistent mom look’, and he shifted uncomfortably. A grumbled, “fine,” and the disgruntled boy was heading back down the steps to his mother. Yuka took his face in her hands, checking for any other injuries. 

“Are there more?” 

“A few. I scraped my knees.”

“How about you, Pairo?”

“I’m alright,” he replied, and she took his word for it. His clothes weren’t covered in mud like Kurapika’s, and Pairo wasn’t the type to engage in a fight. “Your mother’s probably worried. Can you make it back on your own? I could take –”

“Our houses are right next to each other, mom,” Kurapika said, cringing as she checked at the skin under his sleeves. Two more there. 

Her lips formed a grimace. Had this happened before? Had she failed as a mother? Was this the end of the trust she’d formed between her and her child? Pavi would probably say she was overreacting. Right. Mom stuff first.

“C’mon, let’s get them cleaned,” she sighed. They went to the kitchen, and Yuka opened the nearby medicine cabinet. Kurapika sat down on the floor near the rickety wooden table. His fists clenched against the floor. They were bloody. She knew he didn’t regret it. He wasn’t the type. 

Yuka reached up to get a small glass of antiseptic and a roll of fresh cloth. Kurapika didn’t look at her when she sat down beside him, her legs tucked underneath her. She tugged his sleeves up and dabbed the doused cloth over it.

“Tell me what happened.”

That didn’t work. He was her son. The most she got was a darting gaze and a small pout.

“It was my fault. They went after me.” Pairo stood still in the doorway, eyes half-lidded and sorrowful. 

“I punched him on my own, Pairo.” 

“And now you’re hurt.”

“It was my choice. Besides, I won.” There was a twinge of satisfaction in his voice, and Yuka narrowed her eyes suspiciously. He seemed to notice, if that terrified expression was anything to go by.

She poured some more of the antiseptic onto a fresh piece of cloth. “Kurapika Kurta, what have you done to them?” 

“Nothing much. Just a few scrapes and bruises, it really wasn’t that bad.” That nervous laughter was never a good sign.

The sound of the front door sliding open had them both swiveling around to see who it was, though an entire wall blocked their view. 

“I’m home. Good to see you, Pairo. Did something happen?” Pavi called. He froze in the doorway. “Kurapika?”

“Hi, dad.”

He was next to his son within minutes. “Kurapika,” he takes hold of his now-bandaged arm. “What happened?”

“He got into a fight with another kid,” Yuka replied.

“He deserved it,” Kurapika murmured, bitterly. He was too proud to say anything more. That pride might as well be his greatest shortcoming. Yuka had watched it grow within him, scarlet and festering, like an infection. It would eat him alive one day, a day that grew ever closer in Ryusei, where humility came first. He’d pick a fight with the wrong person, and that would be that. Still, they’d keep that moment at bay for as long as they could. 

“Does this happen often, Kurapika?” Pavi asked. 

Kurapika’s face contorted, his jaw clenched tight, but Yuka caught sight of the teary corners of his eyes. “It’s the first time I punched someone, but it wasn’t the first time they ran their mouth. I should’ve taken him out for good. That would’ve taught him.” 

“Kurapika –” 

Another knock at the door cut him off, and their eyes met, brows furrowing. Pavi stood again, dreading what was on the other side of the door. 

It was the mayor’s daughter, Zazan, who slipped past the man. 

“Where’s your brat?”

At that, Yuka stood as well. Kurapika kept still, but his eyes narrowed in a testament to his fury. Zazan tried to stare them down, but despite her haughty attitude, Yuka’s prowess was no match for her. Only one of them faced down against the mafia before and it wasn’t Zazan.

She tried to meet Kurapika’s eyes, but Yuka blocked him from view, so she settled on threats. “Boki said you beat him to a pulp. Do you know what most people do when they hear someone in their family was beaten to a pulp, kid?”  

“Isn’t it a bit immature to pick a fight with someone half your age,” Kurapika snapped back, and Yuka loved him dearly in that moment, but also wished he’d learn to stop adding fuel to a fire that was already burning too close.

Zazan tossed her braid of wavy hair behind her shoulder. “I’m not here to hurt you. I just wanted to warn you. Pull a stunt like that again and you’ll find yourselves on the road.” 

“Isn’t that against the law?” Kurapika asked.

“Ryusei isn’t a place for the lawful,” Zazan replied. “Though I wouldn’t expect you to understand. Being foreigners and all. You know nothing of respect. Hey, kid, want me to teach you some manners?”

Yuka suddenly understood Kurapika’s desire for violence. “Get out of my house.”

“What?”

“I have half a mind to stab you right now,” Yuka said, channeling all those days of training. “You can do what you will with the rest of the village, but you leave my family out of it. I hear you get within a meter of my son I will cut you down where you stand.”

She seemed convinced. Not surprising, considering Yuka had on more than one occasion chased bandits out of the village with nothing more than a hairpin. Zazan managed to leave one last scathing remark before making her exit, and Kurapika finally stood up from his spot, having bandaged the rest of his wounds (albeit haphazardly). 

“I’m going upstairs,” he announced, his voice hosting a strained tranquility. There was a moment where he stopped near Pairo, muttering something in his ear, before walking up the stairs. He missed dinner then, and when Yuka peered in all she could see was his figure curled up on the floor with a book. There was none of his characteristic enthrallment as he read. Yuka knew that look. Kurapika was trying to forget something. 

Later that night, Yuka found him in a similar position on his sleeping mat. He looked disgruntled, eyes red and heavy from a lack of sleep.

“Kurapika,” she sang his name, though her heart wasn’t in it. The boy stiffened. He hadn’t noticed her. “I know you’re twelve and you think you can disregard all are sleeping routines, but your body will thank you in the long run if you get some rest.” 

“Do you think there’s something wrong with me?” 

Yuka found her voice had abandoned her. When she became a mother, she expected a lot of questions. Questions like ‘mom, where do babies come from’. That one he’d figured out on his own because of a minor obsession with human biology when he was ten. Questions like ‘mom, how do I ask my crush out?”   Yuka was half certain the boy was incapable of crushing on someone. 

Never had she expected this. But Kurapika did a lot of things she hadn’t expected, and she could only swallow the lump in her throat and answer.

“What do you mean?” she asked, sitting next to him on the edge of the mat, legs crossed. 

Kurapika brought his knees to his chin. In the dim, golden light of their oil lamps, her son looked like he’d been dipped in sunrays. No amount of sun would make that frown disappear. “I lash out at everyone.” 

“I wouldn’t say everyone.” 

“Mom.”

“Sorry, please go on.”

He huffed. “Neither of you know when to stop making jokes.” His forehead pressed to his knee. “See? It’s like I can’t help it. And all it does is get people in trouble.” 

“I don’t think you’re wrong to feel, Kurapika,” she finally managed. “Besides, you’re twelve. You basically make up the second cruelest chunk of the population.” 

“Gee, thanks.” 

She gave him a cheeky grin. With one swift movement befitting her status as a martial artist, Yuka brought him close in a tight embrace. He protested, as expected.

“Mom! I’m not five!” 

“My boy is all grown up and asking the big questions,” she cried.

Kurapika groaned, “Gods, you guys are so weird!” 

But he was laughing, and that was all she needed to hear.

Changing

They moved to the inner city three months later, when Kurapika had gotten into yet another fight and the bullying reached its peak. Their belongings were all placed onto an ox-drawn wagon, their goodbyes were reserved for the few people they would miss, and their village could finally breathe, knowing that the crazy couples from the houses near the mountain’s base would be leaving them alone for good. Kurapika and Pairo spent the journey reading, talking, sleeping in the back of the carriage, amidst warm blankets and lots of snacks. The inner city was only a 2-day trip, and when they stopped for the first night in a small town by a river, Yuka was glad to finally get some rest. The sun was just setting when they entered the inn, but the kids, ever the energetic duo, wasted no time exploring the area. Yuka could only watch as they disappeared into the streets. Kurapika was her son. He’d be fine. 

Now, to get some actual rest. 

She entered the walnut-paned room quietly, noting Pavi’s sleeping form on one of the mats.

“The kids?” Alright, maybe not a sleeping form.

“Insane.” 

“As per usual.” 

She laughed, tiredly, collapsing next to him. He placed a quick kiss on her forehead. “I forgot how draining travel can be. My whole body just wants me to go to sleep.”

“But you won’t. Not until you see the boys safe and sound.” 

“Obviously. It’s hard enough letting them off on their own.” She stretched, yawning. “Still, I’m glad they’re so adventurous. If living in Lukso taught me anything it’s that the world isn’t worth ignoring just because it’s shit.” 

“Eloquent.”

“Thanks.”

They stayed there until an hour after the sun had set and Yuka could no longer quench her anxiety. Outside, the river glistened menacingly in moonlight, its waves heard even from her spot next to Pavi. The people had started stringing up their lights, setting fire to candle wicks. Kurapika and Pairo were reckless as a pair, but one of them would’ve gotten the other out of there by now.

“I’m going to go check up on them,” she says, standing.  

“I’ll go with you.”

So, it wasn’t just her imagination. They should probably tell Lia as well. 

. . .

Night life had settled upon the town, bringing with it plenty of drunkards and seedy individuals. Yuka’s fingers itched for her bokken, but she knew that would only cause more harm than good. People in Ryusei were quick to jump to extremes. Pulling a weapon out on one of them would almost certainly land her in prison. Right now she had to find her son (and her son’s best friend).

“Mom!” It was Pairo, bounding toward the dark-haired Lia. Yuka scanned the crowd for her son’s characteristic sprint, a flash of blonde hair, or his blue hanbok. Nothing. 

“Pairo,” Lia said, as the boy ran into her arms. 

Yuka could hardly hear anything above the sound of her own heart, but she asked anyway. “Where’s Kurapika?” 

Pairo’s breath came out in shallow pants as he scraped his fingers over his face and hair. “He’s gone. There were these two thugs, and we accidentally bumped into them, so they tried to pick a fight with us, and then Kurapika knocked them out. But there was a whole group of them and they . . . they took him to the river . . . and I – I couldn’t do anything.” 

Lia held him, jutting her head toward the sprawling, partially forested snake of water. “Go on without me.” 

It was quite a lot of ground to cover. If they’d crossed the river, then Kurapika might already be lost to them. But she’d hope the thugs weren’t clever enough for that. They picked fights with children, so they couldn’t be all that bright.

“I’ll go left, you go right?” she offered. Pavi nodded, his eyes dark. Quite a scary expression, hers must be twice as hideous. 

They separated, Yuka heading into the denser part of the forest. There were twigs and needles tearing at her skin, stinging as she ran. Why had she allowed them to go off on their own, knowing Kurapika had a tendency to solve things with violence and backtalk more often than not. 

He was safe, though. He had to be. 

“Oi!” It was a loud voice, though lacking any threatening spikes. Nevertheless, Yuka unsheathed her bokken on a man who looked quite like a thug in her eyes. He was hairy, large, and tan, his mane as wild as his clothing. Even so, the man moved a step back, trying to raise his hands in a placating gesture, but they were already full. 

“Kurapika,” she breathed, arms going limp, lungs burning. The boy didn’t stir, bruised and soaked.

“We found him in the river,” the man said, walking closer now. Carefully, he placed the boy in her waiting arms. She sank to her knees, a sob scraping through her throat. 

“Thank you.” 

“No need,” a younger voice spoke from behind her. Her head whipped around. He was young. About fifteen, maybe even less, dressed in the typical clothing of a wandering swordsman. He had no swords at his side. His hair combed into neat waves, though his fringe would be needing a trim soon. Silver eyes peered at her, unreadable, unbefitting a child. “We’re glad we could help. Even more grateful that we managed to find you. Thought you might’ve been killed by those thugs as well. No place for orphans in this country, I'm afraid.”

She held Kurapika closer, her blouse dampening.

The boy smiled, too cheerful. “Don’t worry, though. I’m sure someone would’ve taken him in eventually.” With that, both turned to leave in different directions, and Yuka swallowed thickly.

“Wait,” her voice was hoarse, “what are your names?” 

The man’s eyebrows rose, but he let an easy grin pass his face. “Uvo.” 

She looked at the boy, lost in thought. “And you?” 

“Kuroro,” he replied, definitively. “It’s Kuroro.” 

“Yuka.”

“Looking forward to meeting you again, Yuka.”

She wasn’t so sure about that.

Kindness

She came to them as a starving passerby, her eyes so kind they couldn’t turn her down. Kurapika hadn’t been there, out scavenging the local library with Pairo, whose vision was slowly failing him, though his love of books never seemed to fade. They pointed her in the direction of an inn, and she thanked them. A few days later, Yuka found her sitting on a bench in the park, wind combing through her long fair hair. She was beautiful, even with the two scars slashing through her eye, her gaze wistful.

“Morena,” Yuka greeted, placing her groceries at the edge of the bench and taking a seat next to the young woman. “How are you?”      

 Her hands twitched in her lap, but she didn’t bother looking at Yuka. “Good. The Innkeeper is a kind woman. She allowed me a two-week stay free of charge. You seem to be good friends with her.”

“We get along, I suppose,” Yuka replied. “She’s a fan of Pavi’s pies.” 

There was no tearing the woman’s gaze away from whatever she was looking at, so Yuka decided to follow it instead. All she found was a group of children playing near a small pond. She looked a little further to the right, and caught sight of a familiar set of boys, nearly thirteen now. In Kurapika’s hands was a large tome, one which he excitedly read off to Pairo.

“Is she yours? The blond.” 

“Yes,” Yuka replied, a grin splitting her face, “though he hates being called a girl. Quite adamant about it. Once punched a boy in the face for it.” 

“I see. A boy.” There was something off-putting in her tone, but Yuka dismissed it. Perhaps her years of combat training and run-ins with the mafia were making her paranoid. 

Yes. That must be it.

Revolution

Their indictment into Morena’s pseudo-family happened on October 5th. Yuka witnessed the first death at the hands of a new Emperor on September 13th. It was the innkeeper, who’d so eagerly awaited one of their persimmon pies, that they found, limp, carried away by two men. They worked underneath the moonlight, on the paved street, one large figure holding her feet, the other looping his arms under her shoulders. They’d initially moved to stop the two men, Yuka’s hands slipping to her bokken, but before they could, cold hands pressed to their shoulders.

“Don’t,” Morena whispered, herding them into an alley. 

“What’s going on?” Yuka hissed.

“Don’t bother. She’s already dead.” Morena sank down to the ground. “The Emperor’s taking out the rubbish.”

“The Emperor? He’s just a child,” Pavi replied. Yuka had to agree, as a parent of a boy not much younger than him, as a person who’d once been sixteen. “Why would he do this?”

“Getting rid of the opposition apparently.” It was frightening how calm she was. Even now, her voice had a note of kindness to it that stopped Yuka’s doubts halfway. “Even the slightest hint of rebellion will be taken as treason. And once they have you, not much can be done. That child is a psychopath.”

Yuka looked back at the two men as they hauled themselves onto the front of the wagon. They weren’t wearing a uniform. That could mean a number of things, including that Morena’s information was flawed.

She believed that for a while. That Morena was just spreading cruel gossip about a struggling boy Emperor. But after a month of disappearing villagers and minimal government intervention, Yuka found her skepticism ebb away. Pavi was worse off than her. He’d never come off as a patriotic sort, but he still cared about his country, and cared about people even more. 

Morena came to them with an offer just weeks after the toll reached eighty-five. She made sure to keep the offer as just that, but part of Yuka worried what would happen if they refused. Even so, neither of them really partook in the group, sans a few peaceful protests that never amounted to much. Morena considered recruiting Kurapika as well, but Yuka quickly shut that down. He was too young for something like this. Even if they hadn’t been harmed thus far, there was always the possibility things could escalate.

They kept him in the dark. Or at least, they thought they had. 

Riot

April 15th, nine o’clock sharp. It was another rally, though at this point, Yuka wondered how effective these protests even were. It had been nearly two years now, and nothing had changed. Yuka had never been a patient woman, but certainly something should’ve happened by now.

“Are you guys heading out for another protest rally?” 

Kurapika stood in the doorway to their kitchen. Pavi was standing by the stove, Yuka sat at the table with a too-full cup of tea, and neither spoke. The lanterns crackled. 

“How long have you known?”

Kurapika, sixteen now, leaned against the doorframe, intelligent, brown eyes glinting mischievously. “You two aren’t exactly the best at keeping secrets. I can hear you from my room. Who’s Morena?”

“A friend.” Such harmony. Kurapika’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, but he shrugged their behavior off and turned away. 

“Fine, keep your secrets. See if I care. Just try to keep it down. I’m trying to study.” 

Yuka placed a hand over her heart. “My boy’s so hardworking.” 

“Yuka, you have that weird face again,” Pavi said. 

“It’s a face of love!”

“It’s weird.” 

“Could you both shut up?” yelled a disgruntled Kurapika from his bedroom across the hall. Yuka couldn’t help but smother her giggles.

. . .

There were twenty-six of them altogether. Morena had sat this one out just like the rest, but all they needed was a few signs and pitchforks. Lia and her husband had joined them this time, both spurred on by the same sense of duty within Pavi. It began like any other protest. They got as close to the palace gates as possible (not close enough) and yelled as loud as they could, hoping their voices would reach the boy Emperor. They stood between two buildings with polished, tiled roofs and wooden walls. She wasn’t sure when those walls turned into kindling. The flames were what caught her eye first, followed by the heat, as the fire climbed further. 

“Who did that?” she heard Lia yell into the crowd. “You idiots! There might be people in there! What if it spreads?” 

“We have to put it out,” Yuka whispered. 

“No need.” It was a chilling voice that replied, so quiet she nearly fooled herself into believing it was a mere hallucination. She whipped her head around, swinging her bokken into a defensive position, but all it took was a chop to her neck. Her knees gave out, and she narrowly avoided getting a mouthful of dirt as she fell to the ground. It was hot. So hot. 

“Yuka!” 

That was Pavi, wasn’t it? She tried searching for him, but a man obscured her vision. Black boots, the long coat of a swordsman were all she could pick out. 

Torture

Her prison guard was named Feitan, and he was the only one who came by her cell. It was always too bright, too bright to sleep, too bright to think, too bright to really see. The room was an ugly grey and smelled of cement and the iron of her own blood. All her senses were wracked with blood. She could make it out on the floor, felt it seeping down her chest, heard as it dripped down onto the floor with the steady trickle of water above her. She hardly remembered her life from before, though it couldn’t have been longer than a couple of weeks. Or was it years?

Shaky fingers went to tug on her earring, silver chain and ruby, but she could scarcely feel the cool metal under her tips. It reminded her of them, though, and that was all she needed to keep her mouth shut. Pavi must be doing the same. Kurapika must’ve learned of their disappearance by now. How was he handling it, she wondered? He was intelligent, but that temper of his –

“Smile. Weird,” a familiar voice slithered its way into her wounds like salt. She nearly recoiled at the sound. “Get up. The boss wants to meet you.”

“Boss?” she repeated, quietly. 

“Machi, Shizuku, you take it from here,” Feitan said. There was a new set of footsteps now, and a lighter, higher voice spoke up. 

“Did you really have to mess her up this much, Fei?” 

“Honestly, sometimes I worry you get too carried away with this sort of thing.” This voice was colder, but clearly feminine. She couldn’t see. 

“Was having too much fun,” Feitan replied, and Yuka managed to grit her teeth at the remark. “Never gave anything up. A little more –”

Cool hands gripped her arms. “You’ve had your fun. We gotta get her to the boss now.” 

“What does he want again? Any information, I can get out,” Feitan replied. “She has a son, no? We should’ve brought him instead.”

“The boss hates bringing kids into these things, you know that.” 

“Sometimes, think he’s gone soft.”

"Some people have standards, Fei."

Then, the warmth of the sun on her skin. It was summer, already? Kurapika must be working at the library now, like he said he would.  

She was hauled into a carriage, and the sun disappeared, but at least the warmth was still there. How she’d missed feeling warm. 

“My god, you’re a mess,” the cold voice muttered, handing her what felt like a robe. She felt something close to her face. “And blind as well.”

“He only said to bring her back in one piece, so this should be fine,” the lighter voice chimed in. 

There was a click of a box opening. “I’m taking your shirt off to tend to your wounds. That okay?”

Yuka managed a nod, holding the robe close. The woman’s hands were gentle, as they spread a stinging antiseptic over her wounds. She could hardly feel it. A bandage was carefully wound around her torso. 

“That should do it,” said the woman. “You can put on your clothes now. Or do you need help?”

She shook her head, wrapping herself in the robe. How pathetic, she must appear. It certainly wasn’t the sort of death anyone created for themselves. 

Plea

They lead her to a room smelling of beef stew and kimchi. Food. 

“Sit down.” It was a man’s voice, quiet but oddly comforting.

Yuka stood her ground, mostly because she had no idea where to sit. 

“You can’t see?” 

She nodded, more so out of stubbornness than a lack of ability to speak. Many things had been lost in that cell, but her voice remained.

There was the sound of approaching footsteps, and then a gentle tug on her arm, which led her down to a heavenly cushion. 

“You must be wondering why I brought you here,” he said, returning to the other side of the table. Her hands searched for a pair of chopsticks, and slowly curled once they found them. Eating was second nature to her at this point, sight or no sight. One by one, she started finishing the plates laid out before her.

They might be evil, but their food was delicious. Nothing close to Pavi’s, but that was to be expected.

“I wanted to offer you an ultimatum,” the man continued. She was certain he was the Emperor now, just by the sound of his voice. “Your son for your cooperation.” 

She set her bowl down, letting her chopsticks fall on the table. “What?” 

“You have a son, no? We haven’t looked into his whereabouts, but he shouldn’t be too hard to find. I intend to bring him here, and if you give us your information, then we’ll let you, your husband, and your son go and live out your lives on a healthy compensation fee,” he said. “If you refuse, I’ll have no choice but to kill him.” 

There. Just the slightest inflection in his voice, but present nonetheless. He was lying. About which part, she did not know. 

“Where is my husband?” 

“Alive.” 

“That’s not what I asked.” 

“I thought we were making a game of avoiding the other person’s questions,” he quipped. “You withstood Feitan’s questioning for weeks. That’s an impressive feat.” 

She did not speak, until, “what do you do with the missing people?” 

The Emperor was silent in turn. Then, with the slightest bit of hesitance, he said, “You realize if I tell you, then I’d have to kill you.” 

“Death is preferable to another day spent on the same Earth as that imp.” 

Another pause, deafening, she almost thought he might be getting ready to kill her then and there. 

“They met a fate similar to yours.” 

“All of them?” That was . . . quite a number. “Why? You’re just a boy. Why would you do this?”   

“Because it’s the only way to save my country.” His desire was genuine. So much so that Yuka was nearly convinced, despite having been tortured under this man’s command for weeks. But she couldn’t let him off the hook. 

“It’s not just yours,” she replied. “No amount of good can justify the crimes you’ve committed.” 

“I’m not looking for redemption.” 

Truly?

“What information do you seek?” Yuka asked. 

There was the clink of ice against glass. “I want the identity of your leader.” 

She snorted. “I won’t do you much good. I hardly know her. She wasn’t as invested in us as you might think.” 

“Her?” he repeated. “It’s a woman, then? And what did she want of you? If you were not even allowed into her circle?” 

Yuka had asked herself the same question when she thought no one was looking. What had Morena wanted with them? They weren’t all that radical in the beginning, even going so far as to sympathize with the young Emperor. Nor were they ever willing to go beyond a peaceful approach. Even now, Yuka didn’t wish for the Emperor’s death. 

“Kurapika,” she choked out, covering her face with her hands. Why was she only realizing this now? The lingering gaze, the constant questions, Morena had always had a strange fixation with her son. 

“Kurapika?” the Emperor said, and the name lilted. “Your son?”

“Damn,” she whispered. What did she want with Kurapika? He was no warrior, no assassin. What else could there be? “I don’t know.” 

“You don’t know?”  

It didn’t matter. Morena wanted to manipulate her son in some way, and no decent mother would allow that to happen. She might not be a good mother, but she was at least decent. 

“I suppose there’s no point in trying to convince you to let me live?” Yuka asked.

“I’m afraid not.” 

She supposed it was fitting that she had no one to leave this to but him. Her fingers reached to tug on her earring, searching for the clasp. Once it was freed from her skin, she held it in her palm, letting it grow warm with whatever heat she had left.

“Kuroro is your name, is it not?” 

Silence. He must be confused. It’s unfortunate her eyesight had failed her. She could’ve used something more reassuring than the Emperor’s words. He replied, uncertain, “It is.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a friend named Uvo.” 

Another pause. How she wished to know what was happening around her. “It seems you know more about us than we had assumed. How do you know that name?”

“I doubt you’d remember,” she replied, smiling now. After all, the Emperor (no, Kuroro) had ascended to the Phoenix throne just a few months after they met in the forest, and since then he’d taken so many lives that only vestiges of that boy in a swordsman’s uniform remained. Still, if he’d managed to stumble upon Kurapika once before and saved his life on a whim, who’s to say it wouldn’t happen again. Morena wanted him gone for a reason. No better person to trust her son to than the enemy. 

Or perhaps, she was just being sentimental. The naivete coming back to cloud her judgment in the wake of the Emperor’s power. That would be a sound strategy. Strip the enemy of their sanity and replace it with illogical trust. Even so.

“Give me your hand,” Yuka said. She probably wasn’t in any position to make demands, but rules not written down weren’t worth abiding. 

To her surprise, he consented, gently taking her wrist, his other hand hovering below it. She dropped the silver chain in what she assumed was his palm.

“If your path ever crosses with my son’s again, I want you to give this to him. And if you do, I want you to make sure that woman is nowhere near him.”

His hands disappeared. “Alright.”

“Thank you.”

“No need. We’re hardly in a position to demand your gratitude.”

“One request.”

“Of course.”

“I want to be with Pavi.”

She waited for his response, wondering if this was where he stopped humoring her requests. Two words slipped through his lips, “Very well.”

Rest

Pavi was out cold when she arrived in his cell. They’d both taken their dose of poison then, as it sounded less painful than the shooting squad. Machi had been the one to bring her to him, thankfully, not a glimpse of the dreaded imp in sight. As if out of respect, the woman had left them alone in the room. As soon as Yuka’s hand brushed his cheek, Pavi stirred.

“I’m guessing this wasn’t on the itinerary,” she whispered.

A breathy laugh, and then a pained groan. “Always wanted to be a revolutionary.”

“Not as glamorous as it is in the books, huh?”

“No. No, it is not,” Pavi replied. He couldn’t move anymore, but Yuka felt a phantom squeeze her hand a little tighter. “Must regret it now?”

“Regret what?”

“Saying yes.”

“Shut up. I’ve been sad enough these past few weeks. Let me die happy.” She moved closer, arms lost to her, hands clenching Pavi’s. “And no. I wouldn’t be cruel enough to regret Kurapika’s existence, or our love. The world’s just awful, that’s all.”

“What would you be doing now? Had we lived?” 

“Punching Morena in the face, I suppose.” 

“I’m being serious,” he chided.

“Raiding your kitchen.” 

“That was you?” 

She laughed, enjoying the way it seemed to clear up the tears clogging her throat. “I would’ve liked to have seen Kurapika at work. He seemed so excited. Oh, and I was getting a new set of daggers in the mail. Guess Kurapika’s just going to use them as bookmarks or something.”

“Do you think he’ll be fine?” Without us?

Yuka let her head rest on his shoulder. “He doesn’t need us to keep going. I just hope he knows that.” 

“I wonder if I forgot to turn off the stove,” he whispered, voice growing hoarser by the second. 

She yawned. “That’s their problem now.” It was getting harder to stay awake. 

“Stay with me?”

“Yeah.”

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

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Chapter 14:

The Consort’s Reign

The names were different, and the scroll had yellowed and wrinkled with age, all faded ink now. He didn’t need anything more. The memory of Yuka, if he could even call her that, lingered in the back of his mind, and now that he’d tried scooping the pieces up, their conversation – the important bits – rang clear. The lines she’d attempted to smudge in their interactions had become crisp in light of Kurapika’s arrival. It was unfortunate he hadn’t insisted on pushing the investigation forward, but the conflicts with Ku’kanyu Kingdom and Kakin proved too demanding at the time. Furthermore, the woman who had orchestrated the riots, Kurapika’s Mother , had seemed to cease operations. Kuroro hadn’t the time nor the resources to track down a dormant criminal. 

‘Ceased operations’. Kuroro nearly laughed at his own stupidity. He should’ve tracked her down when he had the chance. All this time, she’d only been rallying her troops, grooming a pathetic orphaned boy into a willful consort. Kurapika was fitted with a unique brand of poison brewed just for him. She was clever. If her intentions hadn’t been so clear, he might’ve considered her a potential ally. Alas, he had a promise to keep. He’d keep pushing Kurapika until he told him every last bit of information regarding the woman. And with his real mother’s last wish in Kuroro’s hands, he wouldn’t hold out for long.      

Not yet, though. He’d let him simmer first. The issue with Tserriednich would have to be prioritized in any case, and that might chip away at Kurapika’s armor. There was no rush as long as Kurapika’s ‘Mother’ trusted him. Kuroro would wait.

He ran through a mental checklist. Three more days remained until their planned infiltration of Tserriednich’s headquarters. By now, Knov had already carried out his part of the plan. Paladiknight would arrive the day after, undoubtedly bent on swaying his beloved. He could use the doctor’s hold on Kurapika to his advantage as well. Nothing stronger than love, and all that frivolous nonsense.

And should Kurapika stray too far out of the lines, he might as well put him out of his misery. Entertainment was one thing, carelessness was another entirely. Kurapika might pose a genuine risk to his people, and that risk would have to be squelched, by death or warmth. 

Kuroro sighed, the back of his head tapping against the chill of his headboard. An Emperor vying for a Consort’s affections, how novel. Though, his father would beg to differ. He’d tread carefully from here on out. As distant as their relationship might have been, he and the previous King shared the same blood. He’d hate to end up like him. 

. . .

It was strange, rooting for his arch-enemy. 

The morning of his twenty-first day in the Palace, Kurapika was made to bid the Emperor goodbye. Under the guise of a business meeting, all ten of his advisors joined him. Kurapika watched from the pillars of the throne hall as they mounted their horses. He intended to stay there until they passed the palace gates, shielded from the Emperor’s careful words and glassy stare, but Hisoka’s incessant ramblings nearby eventually had him descending the steps to the cloaked royal.

The Emperor gazed down, quizzically, haloed by sun rays. He was almost glowing, his stormy eyes taking on the shade of platinum. It was too warm for this sort of thing. 

A gentle expression slowly softened the Emperor’s (as he’d established many times) unfairly attractive features, and he swung one leg over the side of his horse’s saddle and jumped down. Teasing fingers slid down his arm and clasped his hand.

“This is a surprise. I was beginning to think you’d hide in the shadows until we left,” the Emperor said, kissing his knuckles. 

“Hisoka is strangely convincing,” he said, his mouth gone dry, while the Emperor seemed to forget the boundaries they’d been so adamant about. Their foreheads touched again, lingering there, and Kurapika had a feeling this was no longer for show. He was familiar with seduction. One could even say he was an expert. That didn’t mean he was completely immune to it.

“Here I thought you were worried about me,” said the Emperor, whispering due to their proximity. Warm breath grazed his lips, and a traitorous part of Kurapika nearly leaned forward. Lust was such a tricky sin.

“It’ll take more than cheap tricks to make me worry for your safety,” he hissed back. The Emperor smiled, forever harboring an ease Kurapika could never reach. With all the practiced grace of an experienced lover, he pressed a gentle kiss to his cheek. Then, the warmth was gone, leaving Kurapika only his hatred and the smothered coals of a rejected desire. He watched as the Emperor mounted his horse – a young, weathered slate-colored stallion - once more. The horse regarded him with something akin to suspicion, but when the Emperor gently pulled on its reigns, it turned away and began to slowly ride away. There were ten other horses, each lovingly groomed with a loyalty one might expect from a devoted soldier. It was likely these were the steeds they used in combat, as uncommon as that was. 

The Emperor looked to the plethora of servants and government officials in the courtyard, each regarding him with a mixture of envy and undying respect. “I leave things in my consort’s capable hands. From now on until my return, you will heed his orders. Anyone who does otherwise will be suspected of treason and put on trial.”

“What?” Kurapika murmured to himself. Lead a country for three days on his own? He could probably do it without instigating a regime change, but that wasn’t exactly guaranteed. Not to mention that no one had notified him of this decision beforehand. Where was he meant to start? 

People were starting to stare. His brain fished for the proper reaction, but it couldn’t get past the initial wave of confusion. 

“Well, your majesty,” Hisoka said from beside him, his tone dipping to a purr at the title, “it seems it’s your move.”

He drew in a breath, then turned to the crowd. “I think it’s about time we all got back to work. Wouldn’t you agree?” 

They did. Hundreds of people moved to his will, like a sea moving to the pull of the moon. Kurapika begrudgingly noted it was more so due to the Emperor’s thinly veiled threat than his own authority. That was just as well. Kurapika had never been keen on ruling. The burden of millions of people weighed too heavy on his already fraying nerves. He’d snapped enough times to know the damage that can follow a mental breakdown. At least, he could trust the Emperor to undo any missteps he made along the way.  

His tongue, though. His tongue might be a problem. Bureaucrats were a sensitive bunch, and Kurapika’s words were twisting, salted knives.

He’d head for the Emperor’s office first, and see if there was anything he wanted Kurapika to handle. It was unlike him to loosen his reigns completely. From there, he’d consult with Pakunoda and Hanzo. 

. . . 

The Emperor’s office wasn’t a mess, per se. It veered more on the side of cluttered but intentionally so, far from the pristine space of Kurapika’s first day in the Palace. Stacks of documents hung precariously around the room, mostly concentrated around the lacquered table in the center. The scent of cloves and the Emperor’s favorite desserts remained fragrant in the air. Kurapika stepped around the table and settled on a worn cushion. He sometimes wondered how the Emperor managed to get anything done with such atrocious handwriting. Honestly, his chicken scratch could rival Leorio’s. 

He picked up a piece of parchment that had the rough characters of ‘schedule’ written across it, but he couldn’t make out anything further. The first one could be the minister of defense, but it could just as well be a meeting with Prince Camilla. Maybe he should forgo the schedule and ask Pakunoda? Then again, she was still recovering from the Festival. The Emperor would hate to see her galivanting with Kurapika again.

The door slid open with the slightest screech. Pakunoda entered, with a tray of tea in her hands, wearing a simple green hanbok.

“Paku,” he greeted. “Is something wrong?”  

“You can’t read it, can you?” She chuckled at his expression, caught between bashfulness and annoyance. 

“He’s an Emperor, he should’ve learned to write properly by now,” he murmured. 

Paku came to sit beside him, setting down the tray in a rare empty space on the table. “He inherited it from his mother. Her characters always came out scraggly.” 

“You knew her?” he asked, netted between his desire to learn more about the Emperor and clearing the fog that hid his humanity. 

“I did. Very well, in fact,” Paku replied. “She loved him very much.” 

Loved. Past tense. She must have passed away if Paku’s wistful tone was anything to go by. Any sympathy Kurapika might’ve felt was whisked away at his incredulity. The Emperor knew the love of a mother, at least, and he murdered so many despite it. He loved his people, yet crushed anyone who opposed him. What dangerous hypocrisy. A hypocrisy that had gotten his parents murdered. He wouldn’t ask what happened. That was a line he couldn’t cross.

“Looks like you’re meeting with the Minister of taxation soon, followed by the Minister of rites,” Paku began to rewrite the characters in her much more legible handwriting. “Have you met the priests yet?” 

He shook his head. 

“You’ll hate them. He does.” Pakunoda handed him the parchment, and he quickly skimmed over it.

“How much of this had he planned?”

“Concerning your temporary reign? It’s hard to tell with Kuroro. He could’ve been planning it since you arrived, perhaps even earlier. When he was finally coerced into seeking a consort, his one condition was that they be fit to rule his people.” 

An uneasy emotion bubbled in his chest. Something akin to determination. He’d always gone a bit overboard with class projects, and his brain must’ve gone through a similar process here, because Kurapika was feeling the strangest coiling desire to please. 

Maybe he could even seduce a few officials in the process.

. . .

As a child, Kuroro’s greatest flaw was impulsivity. Like the snap of a string, his wildest compulsions would always find a way to be triggered. Over time, as he grew to accept his destiny as Emperor, those compulsions were dulled, though nonetheless they were wrung taut, and sometimes they snapped.

Thus was his reasoning for allowing Kurapika to take charge of his budding Empire, always so close to bursting. And after he’d decided to be cautious around the stunning consort as well. He hadn’t changed.

“You think he planned for that?” Shizuku asked.

“Not one bit,” Feitan replied, teasingly. Kuroro bit back a glare. His advisors weren’t meant to see that side of him. Only Pakunoda knew of his past. The rest had gradually gathered around him afterward, each one carrying a different set of baggage.

He focused on the scenery instead. His Empire. They’d made it to the countryside in just a few hours. Here, his childhood had bloomed. Among thatched roofs and rice paddies, and people who would eventually come to loathe him in some form or another. It was a seamless tradition; becoming another wandering swordsman. He preferred the roughspun tunic of his uniform to the silk and satin of his usual hanbok. It was easier to move around in, easier to deal a killing blow in. 

His hands pulled at the reigns before his mind did, and his horse – Taeyang-dal – came to an abrupt stop. A child had run out in front of them, eyes fixated on the steed, which stood at at least twice his height. It didn’t take long for a smile to spread across the child’s face.

“Your horse is pretty!” they chirped, head tilted to the side, matter-of-factly. They peered at him with dark brown eyes, in their shabby earth-toned clothing. Black hair was strung up into a bun on their head. Kuroro felt the weight of his life on his shoulders.

“Cheol!” a woman had run up to them, pushing the child behind her. “Please, sir, spare him! He’s just a child.” 

Did he look like the type that murdered straggling children? “I don’t mean you any harm. Though it’s lucky that we stopped in time. Make sure the next time you want to tell someone their horse is pretty, you make sure they can see you before running out into the street.” 

“I will,” the boy said, hands clasped behind him, rocking on his feet, tipping forward, then back, then forward again. Kuroro gave him a smile and let Taeyang-dal step around him in a wide half-circle. His advisors followed without a word. No sooner had he lost sight of the boy did he hear the sound of footsteps on the dirt path beside him. He glanced down at the boy, whose grin – filled with toothless gaps – widened once more at the attention. “What’s your name?” 

“Kuroro,” he replied. 

“My name’s Cheol,” the boy said. 

“I know.” 

There were few things Kuroro couldn’t deal with, among them crying humans and children. With one jittery look between Kuroro and his black steed, the boy managed to break him. Kurapika’s ‘mother’ should’ve sent a gaggle of children instead. He would’ve gone insane by the end of the week. 

“Would you like to take him for a ride?” he asked. The boy’s eyes widened to a frightening degree.

“Yes, please!” 

Kuroro slid off the saddle, landing deftly. Cheol seemed quite taken with that as well. With the hem of his jacket skimming the floor, Kuroro lifted the boy of his feet and onto the horse. Taeyang-dal would have no problem carrying both of them. He’d managed three adults once before, and for a longer distance as well. 

He placed one foot in the stirrup, propping himself up behind Cheol, who was basically bouncing in the saddle, smelling of sweat and days spent in the paddies. “Are you ready? Do you feel like you might fall off at all?” 

“Nope!” he sang. 

They should just get an army of children. They’d never tire. 

Gently, he tapped Taeyang-dal on the sides, clicking his tongue. The steed continued at a steady pace, slower now that there was a clearly inexperienced driver on his back. Kuroro pulled the reins to the left, towards a path around the rice paddies. The grass was around two feet tall, normal for this time of the year. They’d have enough to feed their village, barring raids from outsiders, but Kuroro couldn’t be everywhere at once. Even dispersing his troops would be risky. They might follow their orders, but without supervision, there was a risk of corruption. 

The ideal would be to eliminate crime entirely, but the ideal remains the ideal for a reason. They would need to put the ministry of defense through some serious reform, particularly in terms of how it trains and selects possible candidates for public security.

“Hey mom!” Cheol called, swinging his arm left to right vigorously. “Can you see me?” 

The woman, still reeling from the experience, waved back. Green stalks of grass reached for a dripping sunset, among small cottages and villagers in worn, sun-dried clothing.  

They should do this more often, Kuroro decided. Perhaps go on another tour of the Empire, make a celebration of it, or even go incognito to get a better grasp on the situation. He could even bring Kurapika, provided that his lovely consort didn’t get himself killed beforehand. 

. . .

He crossed off the first two items on the list, mentally. The list also talked of a cabinet meeting, but the Emperor’s entire cabinet had disappeared alongside him, so Kurapika could safely cross that off the list. Two other parties had also canceled upon hearing of Kurapika’s new position, which most didn’t take too seriously, considering the Emperor hadn’t even bothered to write a formal declaration. That didn’t mean Kurapika could slack off. There was still a mountain of work to attend to, and, reluctant as they may be, no one in the palace was willing to go against the Emperor’s orders. 

Only one appointment remained, with the Head Priest, a young man named Omokage. Startlingly young, a mere thirty years of age. Most Priests and Priestesses were climbing their way through their fifties by the time they got their official title. He must be some sort of prodigy, or a religious zealot.

It turned out to be the latter. 

When they met, Omokage didn’t seem all that threatening. He towered over Kurapika, though so did Leorio, and Leorio was far from formidable (unless you caught him in a sword fight, which Kurapika had only done once. That was more arousing than intimidating). In their first greeting, the man had bowed so deeply his silver hair nearly touched the wooden floor of the temple. He straightened, turquoise eyes gleaming with childish glee. Warm, gloved hands seized Kurapika’s. 

“I am so happy to finally meet you, my Lord,” the man said, closing in on him a bit too quickly. Kurapika took a step back, as a lock of silver tickled his neck. 

“Pleasure is all mine,” Kurapika replied, twisting his hands out of his grip. “I must apologize. The Emperor left without preparing me a detailed outline of what business must be handled. Is there anything, in particular, you wish to discuss? I understand speaking with a consort isn’t comparable to speaking with his Majesty.” 

He shook his head. “Nonsense. This suits me even better. I always get so nervous at my meetings with his Majesty. I can tell . . . you’re far more inviting, my Lord.”

“I see. I’m glad.” 

His arm swept across the room. “Come, I’ll treat you to some tea.” 

Frankly, Kurapika had enough of tea for the time being, but he followed Omokage to a fall-hued square table. He sat down on one of the plush cushions, watching as a servant poured them both a cup of pungent amber-colored tea. A nearby open window gave way to June foliage and a stunning sunset. 

Omokage took a sip first. “Your relationship with the Emperor seems to have accelerated at quite the pace in these few weeks.” 

He tilted a brow. “I suppose you could say that.” 

“I must remind you that chastity is a trait all Emperors of the past have searched for in a consort,” Omokage continued. “Chastity, high status, born into a yangban family, highly educated.” 

Oh. 

So, this was why he’d been so eager at his arrival.

“If you doubt my ability to carry out my responsibilities as the Emperor’s consort, then you should air your grievances to the Emperor himself. I cannot deny his orders,” Kurapika said. He couldn’t help the ire in his voice. After all the work he’d put into his position, people acted as if they could just take it away.  

“The scriptures state that the ruler’s most treasured consort, the one bestowed with the most power, must be a virtuous being. I don’t know much about you, my Lord, but I can tell your soul is tainted,” Omokage said, his voice falling in pitch. His stomach churned at the glaze in those turquoise eyes. 

My soul? What of the soul of your Emperor?

He was insane. 

Kurapika glanced down at the tea in his hands, his reflection in the glassy green surface. No. The man might be a lunatic, but he was not an idiot, certainly not enough of an idiot to off the Emperor’s favorite. 

He set the tea down anyway. 

“What is the meaning of this, High Priest Omokage?”

“You could call it a declaration of war,” he replied, placing his porcelain cup down. “You may steal as much of the Emperor’s mind and soul as you wish, but without me, you will never step foot into the Phoenix Throne.”

Grand, they all thought he was a power-hungry whore. How was he supposed to get out of an assassination with his neck intact if everyone believed he wanted to be Emperor? He’d have to tread more cautiously. From now on, he might as well be walking on thin ice, the water pooling below him, waiting to drag him under. So much for the hit and run tactic. It was turning into a much longer affair than he’d planned. Six months, maybe even a year. Could he really stall for so long? The answer was unequivocal. He had to.    

. End of Chapter .

 

Chapter Text

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Chapter 15: 

The Consort’s Petitioners

Kurapika drove his foot into the ground, twisting it. The spider count today was absolutely absurd. He counted thirty (all of which he had quickly murdered for trespassing on his territory). One would think that royalty would be able to afford better pest control. 

“Petitions?” Kurapika repeated, from his seat at the office table. Pakunoda leaned against the wall, her arms crossed. She’d tried her best to keep him out of harm’s way these past few days, though Kurapika kept insisting that she get some rest. “Are you certain you want me to take care of that? I’m not the Emperor, there’s a chance my verdict may differ from his completely.”

“I’m certain it will,” Paku said, “but that might be why he chose you to take part in it.” 

It wasn’t that Kurapika doubted his ability to meet petitioners face-to-face, his issue lay with the already perturbed officials. Omokage hadn’t been the only one who made his position known these past few days, though he was undoubtedly the most straightforward of his self-proclaimed enemies. They were all conservatives, and therefore, against the idea of the Emperor having a male consort in the first place. Now that male consort was given an opportunity to temporarily usurp the throne. It was unheard of. 

Kurapika wasn’t a fool. He knew that competence would only be mistaken for ambition, but then, the Emperor had put trust in him and the ridiculous desire to live up to his expectations remained. Somehow, the Emperor’s faith had given him a purpose through all of this.

“I’ll do it,” Kurapika said, standing up from the desk, “but only Hanzo and the staff are to be present.” 

Pakunoda frowned. “The council members may take it a sign of hostility.” 

“It doesn’t matter what I do,” he moved away, “they’ll oppose me either way, so I might as well keep them out of my way in the meantime.” 

Paku bowed her head, a brief, silent laugh leaving her. “You sound like Kuroro.” 

“I’m flattered.” Hopefully he didn’t sound too repulsed. Pakunoda was suspicious enough already.

Her head tilted to the left, and Kurapika could tell she was trying to figure him out, like a cryptographer placed in front of a particularly difficult code. She let it go, probably out of respect for the Emperor, and allowed the tension to melt away. “There are about three hundred oral petitions you must see to today. The other fifty or so are written petitions.”

“That’s quite a lot of people to meet in one day.” And on top of everything else, too. Ideally, he’d spend around twenty minutes with each petitioner, but that was simply unrealistic. Even ten minutes was pushing it. That was fifty hours spent just on talking things through. 

“Kuroro can often do twice that amount in a day, though the morning after he’s a dead man walking,” Paku said. “Don’t worry, we’ll just tell them to come back tomorrow if we don’t have time. And by then, Kuro will be back.” 

He’d better be. Kurapika wasn’t certain he could take another day of passive-aggressive officials without snapping at one of them and instigating a rebellion/assassination attempt. Then again, they already dealt with assassination attempts on the regular. 

“The Throne Hall, then,” Kurapika said, shrugging his navy blue jacket back on. Summer was getting to him, but he wasn’t about to show up half-dressed in public. He stopped by the door. “You should rest, Paku. He’d kill me if anything happened to you.” 

Paku swept her hair over her shoulder. “I think you underestimate yourself, little Prince.”

His lips pursed. Kurapika had hoped the nickname wouldn’t infect anyone else, but it seemed his prayers had been swiftly declined. 

Violet eyes turned to him. “It’s cute.” 

“Patronizing,” Kurapika muttered, sliding the door open.

“Ah, is someone finally showing their true colors?” She didn’t press the issue, nor did she expound on it, but it left Kurapika wondering just how much she knew. 

. . .

They reached the outskirts of the forest around noon, Saturday, June 19th. They would be taking a winding, uncertain path to Tserriednich’s slaughterhouse, in an effort to persuade any onlookers that they were lost travelers rather than an active search party. With Hisoka by their side, there should be no problem.

His eyes slid to find the strange man (who he had quickly learned was far too handsy with most people). Kuroro had expected Hisoka to have lead them astray by now, perhaps sold them out to Tserriednich beforehand, but there was not a single sign of betrayal in his posture. Did the man truly care for Kurapika? If so, it would make more sense to kill Kuroro off for him instead. 

“I must say,” Hisoka said, allowing his own horse to sidle up next to Taeyang-dal, who gave it a remarkably realistic reenactment of Kurapika’s glare, “you’re far more charming than I expected you to be.” 

“So I’ve heard.”

They’d split their parties now, each heading into the forest at different intervals, with a different destination. Only Hisoka, Kuroro, Machi, and Feitan would be infiltrating the actual mansion, while the rest would serve as back-up. The more conspicuous members had already begun their trip home, and would serve to keep the peace if Kuroro’s party did not return. 

It was unlikely they’d all be killed here, but Kuroro preferred having a safety net. Death knew them by name, and it would not hesitate to take any one of them if they were careless enough. Kuroro had forgotten to fear it a long time ago. As long as he had someone capable taking care of his home, it would be alright. 

“Feitan, you will approach the house with Machi and Hisoka,” Kuroro said. “I’ll take care of the rest.”

“Sounds dangerous,” Hisoka hummed.

Kuroro smiled, slowly. “You’re not mistaken. But my advisors are more than equipped to deal with these types of situations. Besides, Feitan and Machi don’t have the best bedside manners.” None of them did. Shalnark was too cheerful, Shizuku would forget she had to break Palm out in the first place, Coltopi was too young, and so on and so forth. 

Perhaps he should’ve brought Kurapika. His little Prince might have it out for him but he seemed capable of charming his way into anyone’s heart. He was probably in the midst of cajoling all of Kuroro’s men right about now, assuming he hadn’t made the mistake of running his mouth.

“What if someone spots us?” Hisoka asked, typical of an information broker to ask all the questions. “We’re well-dressed, and horses are a privilege not many commoners can afford. They might guess we’re from the palace.”

“Tserriednich is too prideful to back down just because we’re in the area.” He wouldn’t be surprised if the man took it as a challenge. Kuroro gave his companions a once-over. They didn’t show much sign of being worn out, but it wouldn’t hurt to give them a chance to relax before the mission. Their path to Tserriednich’s mansion was getting shorter than anticipated. “Let’s rest for a while. We’ll move on just before sunset.” 

. . .

Darkness had crept through the horizon by the time they reached the slaughterhouse. Their horses waited a few miles east, too conspicuous for their own good. 

“Machi, Feitan, commence the plan in ten,” Kuroro said. He wasn’t about to start giving Hisoka orders as well. 

“Good luck,” Hisoka sang, as Kuroro melded in with the underbrush. The house was longer than it was tall, broken into two parts, like an incomplete triangle. Kuroro wouldn’t be surprised if Tserriednich held Palm in one of the inner rooms. He’d check the windows first.

He worked quickly, racing through the forest in a manner that was decidedly animalistic. No one checked for animals.  All it took was an open, unguarded window. He jumped into an unlit corridor, the scent of wood and old paint ubiquitous. Now, he only needed to pinpoint Palm’s exact location. He had already eliminated ten rooms, but who knew how many were on the inside. He couldn’t check all of them.  

“Not a fan?” he’d asked as Kurapika nearly doubled over, clearly gagging as they passed one of his servant’s rooms. The scent might be overpowering, but it certainly wasn’t anything to vomit over. 

“Lavender,” Kurapika replied, fingers webbing his face, “brings unpleasant memories.”

“I see,” said Kuroro. He did not press further, for Kurapika’s past was his own to divulge. Well, the unimportant bits anyway.

His hands wound around Kurapika’s shoulders to steady him when he stumbled. Kurapika squirmed out of his grip.

Who would’ve thought he’d been talking about Tserriednich, or that Kakin’s Prince wasn’t wise enough to change his incense every once in a while? 

Kuroro dove deeper, the whispers of lavender leading him to a room in the center of the house. Two hulking guards stood at the door, though thankfully they didn’t seem too bright. He walked out of the shadowed corridor, and the men stiffened.

“Who are you?” the bearded one asked, but the other (beady-eyed, muscular, and unpleasant to look at) was already swinging daggers around. Kuroro evaded them with ease, each steel-tipped, ruby-studded weapon shooting past him, with the familiar sound of metal rushing past his ears. They embedded themselves in the walls around them, but the two men seemed no more intimidated. Kuroro slammed one of them back against the door.

“You don’t recognize me?” he asked, wielding his sword and placing the cold edge scratch along the surface of the bearded one’s neck. “You are speaking to the Emperor of this land. Let me through and I will let you go unharmed.” 

“As if we’d believe that!” the other screamed, swinging his own weapon at him. Kuroro caught it in his gloved hand, blood dripping down the leather skin. Machi was going to kill him later. 

“That’s good to hear.” His sword slid into place in the man’s trachea, through his windpipe. The other man followed with three stab wounds to the chest. As soon as his victims slumped to the ground, Kuroro wondered if perhaps he shouldn’t have used a sword to take them out. Swords required far more maintenance than fists. Either way, he should give them a proper send-off. He folded his hands together, as his mother had once taught him, and bowed his head. “May you rest in peace.” 

He turned to the door, noticing a thin trail of smoke from within the room.

“Damn!” he hissed. Palm was one of their best spies. They couldn’t allow her to die like this. 

When he pushed the doors aside, she was passed out on a long mattress, bleeding from a large gash in her abdomen. The fire licked up the sides of the room. Kuroro had suspected they might try to rid themselves of the evidence but not so promptly. It was no matter, he hadn’t the time to ponder on his miscalculations. Palm was bleeding out, and their medical supplies remained with their horses. He caught a pulse, but it was faint. He needed to get her to Machi first and foremost.

A makeshift bandage then. He’d worry about the rest later. 

His left side felt hot from the fire, but he managed to rip off a fragment of the linen bed sheets with his good hand. He spread it across the front of her abdomen, then lifted her back as gently as possible and continued to wrap it around her. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he noted that his black glove had turned a drenched crimson. 

He lifted her up in his arms, her head falling to the side. No reaction. This was worse than he thought. Hopefully, moving her wouldn’t make her condition any worse. Feitan and Machi must’ve made their presence known by now. Shalnark's part would be arriving soon as well. All that was left to do was patch them both up and head to the palace.

. . .

“Danchou!” Shalnark called. Kuroro walked to them, eyeing a now restrained Tserriednich. He transferred the unconscious Palm to Phinks. Only Bono, Franklin, and Uvo were missing now, halfway home. “Are you alright?”

“A little rough around the edges but I’ll carry on,” Kuroro said, turning to the captured Prince. “Your majesty.”

The ends of Tserriednich’s mouth quirked up. “I never thought I’d be arrested by an Emperor. Quite a privilege.” 

“The honor is all mine,” Kuroro replied, turning away. His eyes fell on Shalnark, his mind traveling ahead by at least three days. “Gag him for now, and keep him away from Palm. Shizuku, do you think you can put out the fire?”

Shizuku’s forehead wrinkled. “Give me five minutes.”

“Ten, don’t be rash.” 

 “I’m never rash.”

Kuroro glanced at Cortopi, who instantly sprang to his command. “Help her.” 

The boy ran forward, just a few steps behind Shizuku. He might be young and frail, but Cortopi had still undergone the same treatment as the rest of his advisors. The slums were a cruel governess. 

“Phinks, Machi, you’re with Cortopi and I,” Kuroro said. “We’ll be taking Palm. The rest will be escorting his Majesty and his guard back to the palace in peace. I’ll take it you understand what that means, your Majesty.” 

They seemed disappointed, but if Tserriednich showed up at the palace with even a scratch it could be considered a hostile gesture toward the whole of Kakin. Kuroro couldn’t have that.

There was still much to be done, evidently. They’d be able to keep Tserriednich under confinement until his trial at least. “You can depart before us. Machi, take care of Palm’s wounds.” 

“Danchou, what happened to your hand?” Machi asked, looking up from where she’d laid Palm on her back. Kuroro glanced down at the steady drip of blood, glistening in the moonlight. 

“I had a bit of a run-in with Tserriednich’s guards. It’s taken care of.” 

Machi’s gaze faltered on his hand for a few seconds more until she realized that Palm is still bleeding out and, without the proper attention, would die in seconds. They’d have to stay put until she finished stitching her up. They would be late.

. . .

The Phoenix Throne was unbearably comfortable, so comfortable that Kurapika’s three sleepless nights had started catching up to him by the two hundredth petitioner. Hanzo had cleared his throat at least fifty times now. No one noticed, of course. Kurapika’s long nights at the brothel had taught him to sleep with both eyes open. Hanzo’s perceptiveness was just inhuman. 

“We’ll send aid to help you fight and contain the outbreak,” Kurapika said, and a part of him warmed at the look of relief on the couple’s face. “For now, you should quarantine the ill in order to keep the disease from spreading further. Wear protective clothing, follow the doctor’s instructions. The Emperor will decide the amount of resources allotted to you.” 

Three days didn’t equate to omniscience, after all. Kurapika had much to learn, and the situation with the medical unit was far too precarious for him to intrude upon.  

“Thank you, your highness,” the couple whispered hurriedly, as they were ushered out of the hall by two black-clad guards. Kurapika sank back into the cushions, exhaling softly. Everything weighed heavy on him now, his eyes drooping, his limbs worn out, but his mind continued to do circles, a pinwheel in a hurricane, right before it was ripped out of the ground and torn to shreds. 

“We could take a break,” Hanzo offered. “It’s getting late.”

“No,” Kurapika said. “There are only a few left. Bring the next in.”

Hanzo grimaced, but the guards were already on their way. Kurapika did his best to emulate the Emperor’s posture, from the way his hands moved when he spoke to his impeccable posture. An evil man, certainly, but a great leader, and that was the only thing Kurapika need worry about. 

“I appreciate your concern, Hanzo, but I do plan to see this through to the end.” 

“As you wish,” Hanzo replied. His personality changed drastically depending on the situation. Just the other day he was jabbering on about his life as a ninja. Now, he looked concerned. “But the Emperor won’t take kindly to your state when he returns.”

It never ceased to amaze him how well he’d managed to trick some people, particularly Hanzo, who had been his shadow since the day he arrived. His situation could pass for love, he supposed, if the people in question had the emotional literacy of a tin can. He might’ve been trained to love on command, but even Kurapika could catch himself slipping where he shouldn’t. It was the Emperor’s fault for intercepting him at every twist he tried to throw at him. His motives, his past, even Leorio, it had all been undone in a matter of weeks, and Kurapika had to wonder why Mother had even bothered. This man, this Emperor, was clearly too apt to be fooled by anyone, much less someone as perpetually furious as Kurapika. 

“The next petitioners are from Boseong,” Hanzo recited from his place left of the throne. “They’re well-respected in the village, and are seeking protection from bandits.” 

“I see.” Bandits have been a diminishing problem ever since the Emperor solidified the unification of the five clans, effectively forbidding infighting and raiding. Damn him. Kurapika wanted to believe the man incapable of benevolence, but that had been nothing but a naive ideal. Things were never so simple. Evil people were capable of helping many others. Tyrants could mend their broken country. The Emperor could be irreplaceable. 

Each person he met came with a budding trust in the Emperor. After all the wars and floods and droughts and famines and plagues, they chose to believe in him because they’d seen his handiwork. 

But was that handiwork worth the death of his parents, his mother’s laugh, his father’s smile, Pairo’s failing heart. Was it worth giving up on years of being degraded to nothing more than a doll for the small chance of one day hearing the Emperor draw his last breath? 

“I will send some of my men to deal with these bandits personally.” 

Kurapika ducked his head as the trio was escorted out. His fatigue must be getting to him, if he even considered that a viable solution. Peace bloomed on the shoulders of bloodied corpses never survived for long. In a way, he was saving his people a lot of trouble by killing the Emperor off now. 

A dry chortle escaped him, his head falling in his hands. It was all he could do not to claw the porcelain bloody.

“Kurapika.”

He took a breath, “I’m fine.” 

“You look sick.”

“I’m fine. Bring in the next person.”

Hanzo hesitated. The Emperor never had these problems with his subordinates. 

“Next person.” 

There was the shuffling feet of the guards, and Kurapika straightened once more.

. . .

Palm awoke near dawn, while the rest of them were preparing the horses. Minute movements had called Machi’s attention, and the young surgeon sunk to her knees on Palm’s left.

“Don’t move too much,” Machi said. “Your wound will open again.” 

Underneath the blanket, Kuroro saw Palm’s hands hover over her abdomen. 

“That man,” Palm whispered, with the eyes of someone at gunpoint. 

Kuroro approached them, kneeling beside Machi. “You’re safe now, Palm. Tserriednich has been taken into custody for now. You’ve done well. Leave the rest to us.”

In the distance, bird song began to fill the silence, along with rustling leaves and pockets of sunlight. Kuroro thanked the warmth, for Palm relaxed at the wind’s gentle fingers. She sat up slowly, bringing the blanket close around her. 

“Whose clothes are these?” she asked, looking down at the cotton sleeves.

“They’re mine,” Machi said. “You shouldn’t sleep in bloody clothing.” 

Palm’s cheeks pinked at the implication, and half her face was suddenly obscured by straight, brown hair. “Thank you.” 

“You can rest a bit more if you’d like.” He stood, and Palm gave him a quizzical look. “I must help Phinks with the preparations. Machi can keep you company.” 

An indignant look distorted Machi’s countenance for a second, but then she honed her features and stayed put. Kuroro gave her a small, apologetic smile in return, turning to Phinks and the horses. Palm needed time, but they needed to return to the Palace before Kuroro’s court started pointing fingers. He’d give her an hour. 

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

 

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Chapter 16:

The Consort’s Reunion

Sunday came and Kurapika was eager to bid the Phoenix Throne and all it entailed goodbye at long last, but as the day drew on the more apparent it became that the Emperor would not be returning. Everyone had their own theory, each one just as wrong as the next. Some said the Emperor had been captured by bandits, others implied that Kurapika himself had sent an assassin to deal him a swift death. As if Kurapika would allow that to happen. The Emperor was his to kill and his alone. He didn’t go through all that trouble just to have his target be offed by a random assassin. 

“The Emperor’s going to kill me,” Hanzo chatted away with Basho, just outside the door of the Emperor’s office, pretending like Kurapika couldn’t hear them perfectly well. “Have you seen him? He can barely walk in a straight line. If he gets sick because of this, my head’s coming off.” 

Kurapika stood up from his polished desk and (quite gracefully, mind you) approached the door. He slid it open, giving Hanzo a bare-toothed smile. “Hanzo, do you mind taking your gossip session somewhere else. I would appreciate the silence. Helps me work.” 

Both men raked their eyes over him. Basho leaned over to whisper in Hanzo’s ear, “he looks like hell.” 

“Told ya,” Hanzo whispered back, raising his arms in a peaceful gesture as Kurapika’s grimace deepened. “Alright, we’re leaving. Knock yourself out for all I care.” 

Blissful silence followed, and Kurapika returned to his workload. Unfortunately, the silence proved too soothing, making his previous irritation morph into an aching need for rest. He could ask the maids to brew some tea, but waking them seemed too cruel. 

He dragged his eyes down the scroll instead, but he found his head tilting forward too often. At this rate, the Emperor would end up finding him asleep at his desk instead. There was still so much to be done. 

“You know, the quality of your work decreases tremendously with lack of sleep.” 

Kurapika glanced up and found that he couldn’t even fester enough energy to hate the man with the same degree of ferocity he usually boasted. The Emperor stood in his swordsman clothing, dark hair knotted and messy from days on the road. He still looked painfully beautiful, even if he probably smelled like a forest animal (Kurapika certainly wasn’t about to go up and test that theory).

“You’re one to talk,” Kurapika snapped back, continuing onward with his paperwork despite the fact that he no longer had to. “I’ve seen the all-nighters you’ve taken. You look awful.” 

“I noticed,” The Emperor said, running a hand through his tousled locks. “It’s refreshing, if I’m to be completely honest.” 

“To not bathe for three days?”

The Emperor pouted and pounced to his own defense. “I bathed.”

Something about the situation riled Kurapika in all his exhaustion, and the feeling of being so close to collapsing ran through him. A small, nearly inaudible laugh passed through his lips. More of a snort really, unrefined and incredulous of its own existence, but it was enough to have a brief flash of victory pass the Emperor’s features. Kurapika nearly moved away when the Emperor began to walk toward him, but when he only held out his hand to him, Kurapika could only clasp it.

He was lead back to the Emperor’s quarters, shrouded in a pleasant chill. A book remained open on the lone table in the center of the living room, surrounded by red and gold cushions. The Emperor tugged on his arm, and he followed to the bedroom, already half asleep. 

“Lie down,” The Emperor said, though his tone nearly made it sound like an order. Kurapika eyed him suspiciously, but he only raised an eyebrow in turn. “We’ve already established the extent of our relationship. I’m merely offering a safer alternative to returning to your own room. Besides, you’d probably collapse halfway.”

He’d normally argue, but the bed, furnished with freshly laundered gold linen sheets and downy pillows, coaxed him forward. Without bothering to take off a single garment, Kurapika slipped under the covers and gave a quiet, contented sigh. He’d fallen asleep within seconds. 

. . .

Kuroro supposed he couldn’t be too surprised by the state of his consort. It was just short of touching to see the man pour his soul into something other than his vendetta. Not to mention Kurapika had also taken care of half his workload for the next two days (barring the officials who turned down their appointed visits. He’d have to see to their punishment). All things considered, he might owe his little Prince a thank you. 

He could start with a bath. Goodness, streams were nice and all, but nothing compared to home. Kuroro glanced over his shoulder at the sleeping consort, who was now curled up on his side fully-clothed. How peaceful he looked when his mind finally shut off. Sure, his mouth was set in a permanent grimace, but the usual crease between his eyes had flattened back into its original form. It was easy to forget how young he was when he acted like an angry old man half the time. 

He walked to the bath area, leaving the image behind him. Tomorrow, Paladiknight would be arriving at the gates of the Palace. Kurapika would undoubtedly try to avoid the clinic as much as possible. What he didn’t know was that Paladiknight still needed to pass a medical exam prior to his acceptance into the Palace’s clinic. With how often Kurapika visited the library, they were bound to cross paths during one of Paladiknight’s study sessions. Well, provided that Paladiknight had any work ethic to speak of.

Would Kurapika give up his vendetta just for the love of a man? No, a life with that man? A small part of Kuroro hoped not, for that would make Kurapika far less compelling. However, if he did choose Paladiknight in the end, what was Kuroro to do with them? Kurapika already knew too much, and unless he swore loyalty to the crown, it was too dangerous to leave him alive. Should he let the man lead him back to his ‘Mother’, and kill him afterward?

His head fell against the porcelain lip of the bath. It was truly perplexing. Should he have Kurapika fall in love with him instead? He was his consort, after all, and with everyone believing Kuroro had grown attached to him, it would be easier to go through with the marriage regardless of the situation. People would start to lose trust in his judgment if he were pushed to killing his lover. His father had seen the same descent, and its imprint remained fresh in everyone’s minds. Kurapika had proven himself a capable ruler. With time, he might go toe to toe with Kuroro in that department, and wasn’t that the only quality Kuroro had wished for in a consort?

A stinging pain in his hand brought his attention to his injury, which had formed a steady trickle of blood down his palm and fingers once more. There was a time Kuroro would flinch at the sight of his own blood. Now he only stared at it blankly, reminded of his own mortality. As if he could ever forget. 

He should probably clean up the wound before it births an infection. 

Kuroro stood, dripping wet, and gingerly dried himself off. He stepped into his waiting nightwear, expertly avoiding any blood staining movements. A few steps and he was near the sink. With just the index finger of his good hand, he slid the doors to the medicine cabinet open. Sure enough, the basic medical supplies Cheadle had placed in every room of every building on the Palace grounds were still there. He took hold of the antiseptic first, hardly feeling the sting of the liquid as it met unprotected, gaping flesh. Two fingers unrolled the pristine bandage at the bottom of the box. The salve Machi had given him remained in the bedroom, and Kuroro was most inclined to casually forget about it. She would be mad, though, and an angry Machi was as intimidating as an angry Kurapika and not nearly as amusing. 

So, our courageous Emperor, cowed by the thought of his advisor’s displeasure, retreated to his bedroom to retrieve a slim wooden box, filled with a thick pudding-like substance that smelled faintly of moss. Carefully he began to apply the salve to his wound, taking care not to rouse his sleeping companion. Kurapika remained on the bed, too close to the edge, as if he might have to spring out of it at any moment. His eyes, thick-lashed and rimmed with sleepless nights, like rings on a tree, showed no sign of shuttering open. A lithe, slender form stood against the darkness.

Kuroro continued to bandage his wound, full of gaps and crevices. When he moved to tie it up, a voice steadied his hand. 

“That’s quite possibly the shoddiest dressing of a wound I’ve ever seen, and I’ve worked in a brothel, where the doctors have no medical licenses and label everything as the common cold,” Kurapika said, in a strained voice. His voice was always strained, Kuroro noted, but the lack of sleep must’ve made it worse. 

Kuroro turned. He still lay in bed, in the same position he’d last seen him, but know he saw two dark orbs gleaming in the moonlight, tired and cat-like. 

“I thought you were asleep.” 

Two thin, almost bony feet peeked out from the covers, and a moment later Kurapika was walking toward him. “With the noise you were making? Here, let me.” Now, that slight rasp in his voice had turned into an exasperated, scolding thing. Kuroro felt his fingers wrapping around his hand before he saw them, ten cold fingerprints grazing his skin as Kurapika slowly undid the bandage. He reached for the roll, near the salve, and had a much easier time cutting through it than Kuroro had. Slowly, he began to wrap the fresh cloth around his hand.

“Such tenderness,” he teased, despite his better judgment. As expected, Kurapika wasted no time in responding. With a far more intricate knot than necessary, he pulled at the ends of the bandage until Kuroro could swear his hand started turning blue. 

“There, that should stop the bleeding,” Kurapika said, almost cheerful now that he’d obtained some sort of retribution against his sworn enemy. 

“A great debt now seems to lie on my shoulders,” he continued on despite Kurapika’s obvious irritability. 

Kurapika started slipping out of his outer robes, and Kuroro averted his gaze. He could feel Kurapika’s eyes rolling from where he stood. “How modest of you.”

“Thought you might appreciate it for once,” Kuroro replied. He had stripped down to his shift, and that seemed good enough for him, for Kurapika slipped back into bed without another word. Kuroro kept his distance as he slid in beside him. If there was one thing to be certain of it was that Kurapika’s heart would not be won over by gentle caresses. He wouldn’t use his past as another chess piece either. 

How did one seduce a young man so bent on hating them? Someone who had spent at least five years preparing to kill them in their sleep? 

Should he emulate the doctor? He hardly knew him. Certainly not enough to see why Kurapika had fallen in love with him. Besides, suspicion would arise if Kuroro suddenly stopped acting like himself. 

“Shut up,” came that hoarse voice once more. 

“I haven’t spoken, my Prince.” 

“I can hear you plotting from here. It’s like an engine, or a clock. Your brain never shuts up.”

His lips curled into a smile. “It seems that’s something we share.” A discontent silence followed, and Kuroro chuckled. “What line have I crossed this time?”

“One more person compares me to you I swear I’m going to beat them to death,” he said, yawning. 

“How violent,” Kuroro replied, sinking further into the mattress, facing Kurapika’s back. The honey threads of his hair across the pillow, the pale curve of his neck, the beginnings of his gray shift on the slope of his shoulders. Kuroro could probably reach out and run his fingers down his spine. His fingers curled back at the thought, but his muscles tensed in desire. Strange. 

It wasn’t until he heard the soft, even breaths of slumber that Kuroro relaxed. He allowed a single strand of hair to wrap around his finger, only to let it unravel and fall back on the pillow just as quickly. 

“What am I going to do with you, little Prince?”

. . .

Leorio was running on two hours of sleep when that accursed carriage, the one that had taken Kurapika away, pulled up to his house. The woman in glasses stepped out, wearing the same impassive expression on her face. She walked up to the front door and knocked three times, the sound sharp and more forceful than necessary. Something told him she didn’t know her own strength. 

When Leorio slid open the door, she stared up at him, blinking every now and then. If it wasn’t for the slight up and down movement of her chest, he might’ve sworn she wasn’t even breathing. 

“Leorio Paladiknight?” she recited, glaring at her wrist.

“Yeah.” 

“We’re here to take you to the palace,” she said, then gave his duffel bag a blank look. “Is that all you’re taking?” 

Leorio scratched the back of his neck, bashful despite the fact this woman was one of Kurapika’s sworn enemies. “Not much to take.” 

“Good, the horses won’t have to handle the extra weight.” She turned away, expecting him to follow without another word. He couldn’t blame her, considering he shadowed her steps just as quickly as she took them. 

Inside, a large, scarred man sat, his eyes closed. Leorio might’ve guessed he was asleep, but as soon as the two of them sat down he took his fist and slammed it against the ceiling. The carriage set into motion, and Leorio was made all the more aware of his situation. 

He was heading to the Imperial Palace on a generous scholarship from Cheadle Yorkshire and the Emperor himself. An Emperor who had a tight leash on his consort. A consort who Leorio was desperately trying to keep from crumbling between his fingertips. A consort Leorio had fallen in love with a long time ago. What was he supposed to do when he got there? Ignore Kurapika altogether? He’d probably appreciate it. And the Palace grounds were large enough to never cross paths. Unless Kurapika got sick or poisoned or stabbed or injured, and Leorio had to tend to his wounds in the clinic. Given his position and his recklessness, the idea seemed unsettlingly plausible. 

“You’re a doctor, aren’t you?” the woman spoke up. 

He felt the need to clarify. “I’m studying to be.” 

“Oh. So you’ll be taking the exams, then?” 

A strange chill spread through him. “Exams?” Plural, too. He’d never been good at exams. Hell, the fact he passed his entrance examinations was a miracle in and of itself. That miracle being a pair of watchful brown eyes peering over his shoulder and a hand ready to smack him over the head if he so much as thought of cheating. 

“Yes, there are three in total. They’re all very difficult. Only .2 percent of applicants get through them. Even though most of them study for years just to pass. I guess they’re just not very smart.” 

He wasn’t very smart!

Leorio felt the sudden urge to gnaw on his fingernails. Kurapika would say something vaguely inspirational right now, but he wasn’t here right now and Leorio’s mind was all anxiety and ill-advised behavior. 

“Oh look, we’re here,” the woman said, gazing through her window. Leorio almost gaped at the view. It had taken him nearly three hours to get to the palace on foot, and here they were after a mere half-hour, approaching its silver gate. 

Two guards stood there, holding staffs. They walked up to the carriage, and after a brief search, it was allowed to pass. Nothing like the lengthy probing Leorio had gone through during the Consort’s festival, full of interrogative questions and pat-downs. The next gate managed to be even less thorough than the first.

A fidgety servant boy came to meet them at the front of the throne hall, dressed in the usual white and red uniform of the Palace clinic. Upon seeing them, the boy bowed deeply, something Leorio had once decided he could get used to until he found out that the entire act made him nervous. He wasn’t into undying respect. If he wanted that he would’ve used his good looks to marry some government official’s daughter. Owning a small town would go a long way. But no, he became a doctor instead and got to watch his patients ascribe his life-saving skills to invisible gods. 

“Please follow me!” the boy declared, turning rigidly and walking briskly down the stone pathway. Shizuku stood her ground, watching them with that same blank look. Leorio followed the boy on wobbly legs. Was he taking him to Cheadle? The Emperor?

Leorio breathed a sigh of relief as they passed both the Emperor’s Quarters and the Consort’s Palace (a glorified harem if you asked him). The boy continued to lead him past fields of wildflowers and marble fountains, a few glinting rooftops peering down at them. Cheadle’s clinic was larger than most Leorio had seen, but not quite as large as a regular hospital (considering the clinic only served around fifty people, including the Emperor and his five consorts). The boy opened the door for him, and all at once Leorio was hit by chaos. His companion didn’t seem fazed by the fact and only plunged deeper into the life-threatening discord. Leorio had no choice but to follow, bumping into nearly the entire hospital staff along the way thanks to his tall, gangly gait.

“Cheadle-seonbae is waiting for you in this room,” the boy said, as they came to a stop near a wooden door. He couldn’t see a thing through the screen, but his ears perked up at the sound of Cheadle’s familiar voice, a tone so evenly calm and kind he wondered if the woman ever strayed from the two emotions.

“Get me some peroxide! Yes, you! Get moving!” 

What happened? She sounded almost as angry as Kurapika. Maybe this was a bad idea. 

The boy had already opened the door, though, and Cheadle had taken notice. There was nothing left to do but enter. 

It was warmer in this room than the others, but still cold enough to prevent the quick spread of disease summer temperatures were known for. Cheadle kneeled before a patient. A patient with peculiarly spiky hair.

“Leorio!” Gon cried, and he would’ve stood too, if Cheadle hadn’t pushed him back onto the cushion. A frantic nurse placed a vial of hydrogen peroxide in her hand. Leorio took a few steps toward them.

“Hey, Gon. What did you do this time? Get into a fight with someone?” Leorio asked, inspecting the cuts and bruises on his arms. the blooming black eye.

“Not exactly,” the boy replied, scratching his cheek nervously. “I was training and went a bit crazy.” 

“You challenged Illumi, that’s what,” Killua’s cynical voice snapped from behind Leorio. He hadn’t even noticed him enter the room. The kid was unnaturally quiet sometimes. “And after I told you to stay away from him as well.”

“Illumi? You mean your freak of a brother?” asked Leorio. 

Killua smirked, hands folding into the pockets hidden somewhere within his robes. He certainly had an interesting taste in fashion. “The one and only. So, Leorio, whatcha doing here? I thought for sure you’d be chasing after your boyfriend.” 

He slammed his hand down on Killua’s mouth, casting a furtive glance toward Cheadle, who raised a suspicious eyebrow but nothing more. 

“You know,” Killua’s voice was muffled through his hand, “this only makes you look more suspicious.” 

A point was made, but Leorio was still reluctant in removing his makeshift gag. “Nevermind. I’m not here for him anyway. Starting today, I’m a new employee at the Palace.” 

“You?” Killua said, skeptically. “Why would they want you?” 

He'd grown used to Killua's taunts but Leorio clenched his teeth nonetheless, “Why you little brat.” 

“Leorio saved the life of a very important figure at the festival,” Cheadle cut in, as she washed away the bits of Gon’s blood from her hands. “He has proven to keep a cool head under high-stress situations.”

With remarkable synchronicity, Killua and Gon cast him disbelieving looks, one curious, the other dubious. 

“What? I can be cool.” 

“Do you think we should tell blondie that his boyfriend has been cloned?” Killua whispered. 

Gon chuckled, albeit a bit nervously. “Killua, be nice.”

. . .

The tension had risen until it was almost ringing in his ear, like a kettle about to boil. No one dared speak, though, not when the Emperor had called them here personally. Like pigs being lead into the slaughterhouse, they were let into the cage individually, each one coming out more dejected than the last. It seemed that the Emperor’s mood dipped with every new person he had to meet. 

Basho almost felt sorry for the lot, but with how fond the Emperor was of that crazed consort, he couldn’t find any sympathy for the fools that had so obviously tried to smite him. Beyond that, the Emperor valued loyalty above all else. Not to him, necessarily, but to the orders he gave. 

The door slid open, and a slouching government official walked out, eyes shaking. Basho whistled. Here was hoping he’d never have to feel the Emperor’s wrath. 

He glanced inside as he ushered the next official inside. The Emperor remained seated on the Phoenix Throne, hands folded in his lap. Perfectly still, as if he’d been carved out of stone rather than flesh and blood and bone. 

“Minister Hae-il, how is your wife?” he heard the Emperor ask, his voice too stoic to be friendly. The door shut, and Basho felt relief fill his throat. He had no interest in hearing the Emperor torture anyone for half an hour, even if it was some stuck up Minister.

. End of chapter .

 

 

 

Chapter Text

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Chapter 17:

The Consort’s Advocate

Noon had just peeked when Kurapika awoke to the sound of quiet footsteps near his bedside. First came the sound, then the feeling of his body twisting around in the linen, and his eyes opening to sleek black silk. 

“Wide awake, I see.”

There was something uneven in his voice, and Kurapika let his eyes shift upward. The Emperor stood in front of the nightstand, changing his bandage with a decidedly more precise hand this time. Only the left half of his face was visible from Kurapika’s vantage point, but it was enough for him to notice the grimace on his lips. 

“Where have you been?” he found himself asking. 

The Emperor glanced at him, then turned away. “Working, if you must know.”

“You sound like you’ve killed someone,” Kurapika said. His eyebrows rose in the blink of an eye, but soon, his expression turned smooth, carved into an impeccable look of tepid amusement. He looked tired, however. So very tired. “And look like you could use a nap.”

“Don’t tempt me, please,” the man replied in a hollow, misused voice. 

“Temptation is all I’m good for.” Mother liked to tell him that.

The Emperor laughed in response, eyes locking on his now. “You and I both know that’s not true, though I do not doubt your skillset in that field. I’m sure you’re capable of charming any man or woman.” 

“Sans the one in front of me.” 

His lips curved up, and soon he was leaning down to look him in the eyes. Kurapika would’ve backed away had he not been reclining against the headboard already. A scowl played on his face, but the Emperor continued forward until their noses brushed. “I wouldn’t be so sure.”

Kurapika was certain, in that moment, that the Emperor would kiss him, and his eyelids began to close as he neared. Closer. Warm lips pressed against his temple, a mere feather on Kurapika’s skin. It was nearly disappointing. 

“Well,” the Emperor moved away. “You can’t laze about all day while the rest of us toil away. There’s a series of documents I would like you to look over when you return to your room.”

Was he throwing him out?

His toes grazed the floor, just the tips, before he let himself stand. In the Emperor’s hands were several pieces of parchment, and Kurapika walked across the room to stop beside him. The fabric hanging from their shoulders brushed together, as Kurapika leaned in closer.

“What are they?”

He felt the fabric of his clothing shift slightly as the Emperor flipped through the pages. “Just a few files regarding the distribution of military funding, nothing you can’t handle.” 

“Something tells me you’re simply too lazy to do it yourself,” Kurapika said, though he took the documents from his hands. 

“Finances were never my strong suit,” the Emperor shrugged. “I have so many other great qualities, however, that no one really minds.” 

He let out an eye-roll. “Which ones? All I see is a manipulative –”

“Charismatic.”

“Cowardly –”

“Cautious.”

“Flirtatious –”

“Well, you have me there.” 

Another eye roll and Kurapika turned on his heel, documents in hand. “And yet horrendously awful at it as well.” 

“You wound me, my Prince.” He reached the door before Kurapika, sliding it open for him. “And now, I must bid you ado. I have some business to attend to myself.” 

“When do you not?” Kurapika yawned. “Well, good luck, I –” The door shut close before he could utter his final words. It seemed someone was in a hurry. But that was none of his business, and Kurapika didn’t fancy the idea of traversing the labyrinth of the Emperor’s mind any more than he had to.

The noon sun had just reached its peak, casting the Emperor’s living room in warmth. Kurapika wondered when he’d begun to consider this place comforting. It was alarmingly easy to simply put his plans on hold. In fact, he hadn’t entertained the thought of murdering the Emperor in at least twenty four hours. He blamed his fatigue. 

His eyes scanned the documents as he began to walk out of the pristine quarters, letting the issue of the Emperor pass him by. It wasn't until he was nearly out the door that he noticed that his feet were bare.

. . .

“My wife?” the Minister mumbled at first, before jumping to answer. “Ah, Jun is doing well. Very well. Thanks to Cheadle-seonbae, she’s been feeling much better, your Highness!” 

Kuroro’s face warmed, his eyes didn’t. “I’m glad. She had us all worried.” 

A thin sheen of sweat had begun to glisten on the Minister’s skin. “Ah, I’m sorry.” 

“You must be wondering why I called on you,” Kuroro said, leaning his chin on his hand. He fit soundly into the opulence of the throne room, though he hated it. “I’m afraid we’re rather short-staffed in the surgery department. I wanted to let you know that Miss Soo will have to be transferred back to the palace clinic.” 

“What?” 

His eyebrow arched. “Is something the matter?”

“Jun can’t survive without Soo-seonbae’s treatment, your Highness. Please, I –”

“I do not appreciate insubordination, Minister Hae-il.” He leaned back in the throne, appearing larger than he normally would. The Minister shrunk back. “Your wife will receive another doctor. With so many of our medical personnel sent out of the palace, I’m afraid we need to make do with some readjustments.” 

The Minister was silent, and Kuroro could see the moment his will left him. A Minister didn’t stand a chance against an Emperor.

“Do you think me cruel for this, Minister Hae-il?”

‘Yes,’ clenched his jaw, but he only let a quiet, “no, never,” pass through his lips. 

Kuroro smiled again. “Good. Kurapika, ah, my favored Consort, you know him. Or at least you would if circumstances had obliged. He thought it wrong for me to take her away, but knowing that none of my Ministers trusted his judgment enough to even lay eyes on him, I had to trust my own instincts. You understand, no?” 

“Yes.” 

“Good,” he said. “You’re dismissed. Do send your wife my regards.”

The man walked out slowly, and Kuroro was pleased in seeing that pride in his step seep out. 

“You’re being cruel,” Paku spoke from behind him. He kept his eyes forward as the door slid closed. 

“Elaborate.” His attention remained on his next victim: A young minister with no wife or children, whose parents had both passed away just a few months ago. The ones with nothing to lose were always the hardest to torment. 

Paku stepped closer to him. “Your threats are unnecessarily personal. They would bend to your every command regardless, this is little more than a waste of time. You know that, don’t you?”

“Are you claiming I enjoy this?” 

“I know you don’t.” Paku stood next to the throne, a figure in purple. “But I have to wonder how much of it is lawful punishment, and how much of it is retribution. That man is going to lose his wife. All for one transgression.” 

Kurapika. Kuroro bristled at the implication, memories of his father’s own disciplinary actions against anyone who so much as glanced at the Queen, Kuroro’s mother. It had driven her away eventually. One of their servants had once had the gall of running a hand over the Queen’s, and the King had slaughtered him then and there. Kuroro’s hand had been gripping his mother’s then, and she’d covered his eyes when it happened. He’d heard every cry. The nightmares never went away, not even when the actions became part of their daily routine.

“Do you really think I would even dare to go down the path that ruined us?” 

She stayed silent for a time as if fearing the words. “I don’t think it’s something you dare to do. Not you, Chrollo.”

His name hadn’t been uttered since his mother’s death, and its sudden return clogged his throat. “I’m treading as carefully as I can, Paku. But I need him to trust me.” 

“Keep treading, then. We’ll be there to pull you out if you delve too deep.” 

“You mean, put a bullet through my skull.” 

Paku sighed. “Naturally, but I still don’t see why you’re so obsessed with him.”

Kuroro jumped to his defense. “Not him, Paku. It’s his puppetmaster. She’s been pulling all our strings for too long now. I need her gone.” 

“Oh? So she’s the reason why you take every opportunity to seek your little Prince out?” 

He spoke his reply without hesitation, “yes.” 

“If I may be so bold as to speak my mind without fearing your threats of violence against my loved ones, I have one comment that’s been plaguing my mind.”

“What now?”

“You’re being awfully foolish for such a smart man.”

Probably. But if worse came to worst then his advisors would just need to rebuild the Empire atop his ashes. 

. . .

This could be a problem. Indeed, Kuroro was certain that the feelings of contentment warming within his chest were the distinct symptoms of a forging friendship. All great romances found their beginnings in friendship, and his fixation (which Paku had so kindly pointed out) certainly didn’t help in that. Then there were his own desires. They were slight, barely notable and easily refused, but they remained nonetheless. Just more kindle for the fire. A fire that had grown during their separation, apparently.

He collapsed onto the bed and was disappointed to find that the scent of Kurapika’s pungent rose shampoo had permeated every single item there. A less potent shampoo would have to be delivered to him. Kuroro couldn’t have his entire room smell like a garden. Couldn't be reminded of Kurapika every time he laid down to rest.

When he sat up, mostly in an attempt to clear his head, Kuroro’s foot promptly brushed against a set of cloth. He glanced down. It wasn’t like Kuroro to leave articles of clothing lying around . . . 

Kurapika began to slip out of his outer robes, letting them drop to the ground haphazardly. He stood in his shift now, showing off enough flesh to put most men in a frenzy. Kuroro averted his eyes.  

Damn. He’d sent his favored consort out in nothing but his undergarments, too eager to be rid of him to realize. Kuroro marched over to the door, certain his little Prince was already gone. When he slid it open, however, Kurapika was standing on the other side, gazing up at him with dark brown eyes. He was, as Kuroro suspected, still in his pale shift. It hung loose around him, but the sun cast a glow upon it that turned the thin fabric sheer. Crisis averted. 

“Unless you want me to go out and seduce every man and woman in your court, or be reduced to nothing but a harlot in their eyes, I suggest you give me my robes.” 

Kuroro let any semblance of worry wash away, letting his fingers brush gold strands back behind the curve of Kurapika’s ear. They felt like fine thread between his fingers. “I think you look quite fetching this way.”

Brown eyes widened for a fraction of a second, his body stiffening, before narrowing into a glare. Bad memories, he supposed. “My clothes.”

He heads back inside with a shrug, collecting Kurapika’s summer-themed garments with leisure. Kurapika snatched them away and proceeded to clothe himself at a rapid pace. His jacket remained in Kuroro’s hands, and when he gave the Emperor an expectant look, Kuroro gestured for him to turn around. Kurapika rolled his eyes but consented, letting Kuroro slide one sleeve onto his right arm, and the other onto his left. 

“Be safe,” he said. 

Kurapika didn’t turn back, as Kuroro thought he would, but proceeded to the door, arms wrapping the jacket close around him. Had he overstepped his boundaries already? 

. . .

“You look quite fetching.”

Kurapika’s lip curled into a scowl. He hadn’t expected such a simple phrase to stir up his past encounters with the men and women at Mother’s brothel. Fetching, ravishing, alluring, all words he had heard before, that made his stomach churn so much that he feared he would vomit. Whispered in his ear, in hallways, in his old bedroom in the brothel. He didn’t hate the word so much when it came from the Emperor, but it made him uneasy nonetheless. Kurapika did not fear him when he said those words. Did not brace himself for a price tag. 20000 Jenny, 500000, 600000 for the pretty blond. For the golden chrysanthemum. Flowers in place of desperate souls.  

Dammit. Dammit, dammit, dammit.

He wasn’t supposed to feel safe in his presence. He was meant to be on guard, watching his every movement. But how could he be when each movement was tailored to put him at ease. Like a sheep before it was slaughtered. 

Kurapika couldn’t bring himself to stay in the loneliness of his own room, nor return to the Consort’s Lounge, where Neon and Aiko would undoubtedly question him relentlessly. So, he made his way to the Library instead. The scent of books would bring him back to his senses, certainly.

He climbs the steps to his usual study room, but the memory of his encounter with the Emperor steered him away. Instead, he crossed the hallway, filled with mosaics and tapestries, and entered the study room opposite of where the Emperor had debated literature with him. He was certain nobody would be there since few people were allowed access to the upper level of study rooms. In any case, no one who mattered to Kurapika would be in there, of that he was certain. 

Spiky hair and excessively formal clothing soon proved him wrong. A familiar doctor sat at the table, staring at him like he’d just broken and mended his heart all in one procedure. His glasses were low on his nose, his mouth hanging open and trembling slightly with words untold. 

Kurapika bowed deeply, keeping his face unmarred by all the emotions stirring within his chest. “My apologies, I’ll go look for a different room.” 

Of course, he never expected to be let off that easy, and Leorio refused to disappoint him. 

A hand, much larger than his own, takes his arm. That, too, brought back memories. “Wait.” 

“You know, you shouldn’t go around touching the Emperor’s consort so casually,” Kurapika said, moving his arm away. Leorio let go without a fight because he’d already gotten what he wanted. 

“Can we talk?” he asked. 

Kurapika’s voice was low and hoarse, barely facing Leorio. “About what?” 

“I don’t know, just talk.” Leorio scratched the back of his head. In an instant, as if out of habit, Kurapika zoned in on the ink marks scattered across his bare forearm. 

“What is this?” It was Kurapika’s turn to take Leorio’s wrist. He brought him closer, pulling the hem of the sleeve up to the middle of his arm. His fingers hover over the drying words. “Are you really trying to cheat on a government test?”

“Yes?” 

His head snapped up to meet his eyes, before his hand pushed against his chest and they both stepped into the brightly lit study room. Inside, hundreds of scrolls and books had been left open on the low table, a half-empty bowl of ink sitting on top of a volume titled One Million Diseases and How To Identify Them . Blots of the dark pigment stained the wooden surface. 

“God, this place is a mess,” Kurapika murmured, before gazing back up at his wonderful idiot of a doctor. “Now. Why on Earth would you try to ruin all the work you’ve put into becoming a doctor just for the chance of cheating your way through one exam?”

Leorio raised his arms in defeat. “I don’t know, maybe because there’s like a 1% chance of a smart person passing it, which means it’s like .5% of a chance for someone like me. And if I don’t pass then I won’t be able to become a doctor, and if I can’t become a doctor then I won’t be able to stay here. And if I don’t stay here, I . . .” he trailed off, staring at him, heaving. Kurapika’s cheeks became uncharacteristically hot. Don’t say it. “I won’t be able to stay with you.” 

“Leorio.” The name was threaded with exhaustion. 

“I need to stay with you,” he said, quieter now, as if they were words Kurapika wasn’t meant to hear. Kurapika didn’t know what to make of his confession, so he did what he did best: He ignored it. His hands come up to rest on Leorio’s shoulders.

“Leorio, you’re an amazing doctor. And you’re so incredibly smart –”

“Not like you.” 

Kurapika froze for a second, before bowing his head, letting a silent laugh escape him. Little more than an exhale through the nose. “No, not like me. You’re too good for that.”

“Huh?” 

His fingers cupped his face and squeezed. Leorio’s hands covered his, his blood thrumming in them. “You think anyone else could’ve saved Pakunoda that night. Or me, all those times at home.” 

“It’s not the same.” 

“Like hell it’s not the same,” Kurapika whispered, pulling him down so their foreheads touched. “You are too good for this place, if anything. Trust me, I know.” 

Leorio’s eyes shut closed now, and Kurapika allowed himself to smile, one of his hands still warm against Leorio’s neck. “I wish you’d stop being so nice.” 

“Why’s that?”

His eyes opened, catching Kurapika before he could even begin to wipe the grin off his face. Leorio's eyes filled with so much longing that it was almost painful to look at. “Makes me want to kiss you.” 

“That wouldn’t be good for either of us,” Kurapika breathed. 

“No, it would be bad.” 

“Which is the opposite of good.” 

“You’re engaged.” With his worst enemy, but that worst enemy could easily throw Leorio into a river to drown if he so chose. Still, Kurapika wanted to keep going until they closed that maddening gap.

“You should be studying.” 

“So, after studying?”

Kurapika tried to be stern with him. Really, he tried. But the mirth in his voice could not be removed. “Leorio.” 

“Kurapika.” 

“No.” He stepped away. “I’ll help you study. Is that good enough for you?” 

Leorio’s face lit up, and Kurapika couldn’t help another small smile from growing on his face. 

. . .

The two of them went through Cheadle’s three-hundred-page study guide one question at a time, Kurapika providing both support and helpful study tips here and there. Leorio got much of it wrong, but Kurapika’s pep talk seemed to have worked, for his motivation had skyrocketed. He was only human though, and eventually began to doze off while writing down the medicinal properties of clopidogrel. Kurapika, who’d been dragging himself through the financial jargon of the Emperor’s documents, noticed. Normally, he would’ve woken him up again, but the exam was still a month away and Leorio needed to relax. So, he returned to his assignment, glancing every so often at his sleeping companion. 

A shiver passed through Leorio late into the night, and Kurapika let his jacket slip over his shoulders. He stood and wrapped the garment around Leorio. His shivering didn’t cease, but it lessened and that was enough to satisfy Kurapika. 

He returned to his seat, laying on the ground this time, with the red cushion acting as more of a pillow. This was a mistake, for as soon as he laid his head down, his brain decided it couldn’t read past the first few lines of the fifth and last document the Emperor had given him. His eyelids began to close every so often, only for him to jolt awake, convinced he could finish his work and return it before the next morning. 

He didn’t. The scrolls were left lying on his chest, unread, and he was certain, in his last moments of consciousness, that he would be left here until morning. Morning, when the library directors would walk in to find the Emperor’s consort sleeping in close proximity to a mere doctor-in-training. What a terrible thought. Terrible, but he almost wished their assumptions were true. That he could’ve fallen far enough in love with Leorio to forget. 

Later on, before the sun had even risen, Kurapika was roused by a gentle hand on his shoulder. 

“Kurapika.” It was Leorio, too honest for his own good, even when he whispered. Nothing like the Emperor. “Kurapika.” 

“Leorio,” he finally managed, through the haze of slumber. Slowly, his eyelids peeled back. Leorio loomed above him, and such a scene would usually make Kurapika recoil. Not now, now he only stared up. Leorio made him feel safe as well, did he not? He never felt like Leorio might force himself onto him, despite his feelings being so obvious. Yes, Kurapika loved Leorio. As he should. That was right. 

He continued to gaze up at him, carving every feature into his mind. The line of his jaw, the curve of his lips, his dimples, the curls of hair that had been swept in every which way, the way his green eyes crinkled at the corners in confusion. Kurapika was suddenly aware of how close Leorio’s hand was to his ear. 

Kiss me. No, let me kiss you. Remind me of what I could be, should be.

Kurapika takes the hand near his ear, and moves it to stroke his cheek. 

The name came out as almost a hiss. “Kurapika.” He still wasn’t sure if this was right. Kurapika knew it was. As long as they weren’t caught, Leorio could be his anchor. 

Pale fingers reached up to clasp Leorio’s jacket. Almost roughly, Kurapika pulled him down, and pressed his lips to Leorio’s. Leorio deepened the kiss almost instantly, pressing against him, and Kurapika let out a small gasp. Better. This was better. Better than anything the Emperor could offer him, certainly

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

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Chapter 18:

The Consort’s Lover

Kurapika wasn’t sure how far he wanted this to go on, because it was a stupid move to make but Leorio’s touch made his skin cry out for more. So for now, he let his body choose. Keep going.

They broke away from each other, breathing heavy. Only layers of clothing separated them as they laid together. Leorio buried his face in Kurapika’s neck, and his breath hitched as hints of stubble brushed against his cheek. He wore perfume, Kurapika noted, quite a strong type as well. An arm went up to thread through Leorio’s hair, and he licked his lips in hesitation. They tasted sweet. 

“Don’t stop,” he whispered, eyes kept firm on the ceiling. Both of them had become disheveled, either by sleep or by the kiss, but Kurapika didn’t bother to remedy it. His sokgui, once pristine and properly modest, had now begun to unravel. Leorio stiffened in his embrace, and then, slowly, as if worried Kurapika would suddenly run away, pressed his lips to the soft edge of his shoulder, savoring the moment for a bit too long. “If you leave a mark, I’m going to kill you.” 

“I think they’d do it for you,” Leorio replied, and Kurapika didn’t miss the bitterness in his tone. He moved up to kiss a spot just below his jaw, then began working his way down the length of his throat, leaving a trail of light red hickeys to spite the powers above them. Kurapika’s hand fisted in his hair.   

“Leorio.” 

“Bug bites?” 

“Kiss me.” 

“You’re a lot bossier than I expected,” Leorio grumbled, but leaned down nevertheless. Kurapika let out a small grunt when he felt him tug on his lower lip, and it seemed to encourage him, because a hand had settled just under the hem of his shirt. Soon, he could feel warm fingertips slowly edging their way under the cloth, and the contact sent a shiver up his spine. His shirt hiked up to reveal his torso, and he let Leorio lift it up over his head. Kurapika took a moment to compose himself, hoping the cool floor against his back would help clear the fog in his mind. Leorio trailed his hands down his front as if in awe, tracing his muscles. “God, Kurapika.”

“Hmm?” 

“You’re so perfect, it’s disgusting.”

He chuckled, and Leorio reddened profoundly as Kurapika reached out toward him.

They were sitting up now, Kurapika straddling his lap, his arms around his neck. They were close, clinging to one another, and it felt warm and right and all the things Kurapika knew would be missing anywhere else. Leorio’s hands laid on his hips, drawing circles. Their lips met once more, and Kurapika banished every thought of his nightly encounters at the brothel. It made part of his brain panic, but he refused anything other than a hazy pleasure into his heart. With what was meant to be fondness, Kurapika placed a kiss to his forehead.

“Stealing my move, little Prince?”  

He nearly jolts back at the voice, and Leorio’s hands, which had been progressively moving to the line of his baji, stopped. The documents, scattered on the floor nearby, drew his eyes back to them. There was no sign of the Emperor. Just a flushed, unsatisfied young man who looked so handsome that Kurapika nearly dove back in. 

“Kurapika,” Leorio said, his voice rough with arousal, “you okay?”

His forehead tapped against Leorio’s, and for a moment Kurapika saw his eyes light up. Ah, maybe he was being cruel. “I’m sorry.” 

Leorio smiled, plaintively, and backed away from him. They spent some time just sitting across from one another, Leorio avoiding his eyes, fixated on looking down at his lap instead. Kurapika tried to meet his gaze by sheer willpower.

When he’d had his fill of waiting, Kurapika finally spoke. “Leorio, I –”

“Put your shirt on.”

“What?” 

Leorio cleared his throat. “Your shirt, could you just . . . put it on?” 

“Oh,” Kurapika replied, close to blushing at the implication. “Sorry.” 

Kurapika sat down next to him once he was fully-clothed. His fingers twined with Leorio’s. 

“Your hands are shaking,” Kurapika whispered, close to his ear. 

“I’m not . . . I’m just . . . really happy, I guess.” 

“Happy?” Just because of a few kisses. Well, he had seen him shirtless as well, and they certainly got close to going further than a few kisses, but regardless, Kurapika hoped such physical matters weren’t enough to make his lover so jittery.

Leorio rubbed his neck, sheepish again. “It’s just, you usually would’ve run away the moment you laid eyes on me.” 

“I’m still running,” Kurapika said. Guilt had started its merry way into him.

Outside, the sun had made an appearance, illuminating their sin, no, Kurapika’s salvation. Leorio bowed his head, and the rays made his skin glow. He laughed, low and melancholy. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to get you to talk? I mean, sure, the making out is a plus. A really, really huge plus. But talking like this with you is . . .” He clutched his chest, “it almost hurts, in a good way.” 

The guilt expanded to his throat. “Leorio, you know I’ll belong to him until this is done.” 

“I know.” 

“And that this will possibly take years to accomplish.” 

“I know, I know,” Leorio continued, their faces inches apart. “I guess I’ll just have to make sure I keep this job until it happens.”

Kurapika blew out an exasperated breath. “You are ridiculous.”

“You are not his.”

“I’m not yours either.”

“Yeah, I know.” He reached out to take his hand. “You don’t have to, though. Just, let me . . . let me be yours.”

Gods, could he be any more grossly romantic? Kurapika hoped so, because he could certainly get used to this. 

“Same time, tomorrow.” It’s a statement, for Kurapika had every intention of getting a daily dose of perfect distraction in the form of a handsome doctor.

“Seriously?”

Kurapika pressed his mouth against his once more, a little more aggressive than their prior kisses. He pulled back for a breath, before closing in again, a hand stroking Leorio’s cheek. A muffled moan escaped one of them, maybe both, as Kurapika pressed against him again. They separated before either of them could let a hand stray, panting for breath.

“I’ll wait for you,” Leorio whispered, massaging his hips through the thin fabric. 

“Good.” 

. . .

The night was warm, or maybe that was just Kurapika’s body still reeling from Leorio’s scent, his touch, the sensation of lips caressing his throat. Kurapika’s fingers skidded across his mouth. They stung a bit, swollen from too many kisses. As the Emperor’s quarters came into view from his spot in the garden, Kurapika halted his steps. If he returned like this, the Emperor would undoubtedly know what had happened. It would be easy to pass off his appearance as the Emperor’s work to others, but there was no way of fooling the man himself. 

He swallowed thickly, wondering how the Emperor would react to the idea of another man touching him. A normal man would be upset, but probably move on, figuring their relationship must’ve been flawed from the beginning. But the Emperor wasn’t normal, and his reactions could span from nonchalance to support to murderous rage, and Kurapika couldn’t let that last one come to pass.

Water, he needed water. 

Kurapika was used to concealing marks from past nights in the brothel. Most clients liked to pretend like the courtesans were theirs to take, despite the fact that they knew anyone with enough money could spend a few hours with them. It happened once a month that one of the courtesans would get unlucky with their customers and wind up dead, poisoned or otherwise. Kurapika took to never letting a single mark show. 

But, back in the brothel, Mother had always been ready to provide him with anything he needed to make himself appear nearly angelic. Here, he’d have to rely on his clothing and the scant traces of makeup that the maids left him. 

He’d make it work. They wouldn’t be caught, and Kurapika wouldn’t fail in his mission. 

His hands reach down to scoop at the water in the fountain. His breaths evened out, the flush in his cheeks returning to just a faint pink, his reflection peered back at him with tired eyes. Slowly, he flattens out his hair, resting his fingers on the back of his neck. The world faded to black for just a second and all Kurapika could see was the look on Leorio’s face when he’d dragged him down for that kiss. Eyes wide, lips parted slightly, just the hint of excited expectancy in his face. 

They were doomed to fail, but he’d stall for as long as he could. 

“Hey.” 

Kurapika would’ve screamed if he hadn’t thought that the man would most certainly get off on it. He only dared to look at Tserriednich’s undaunted reflection. 

“Yes?” he replied, scooping more water into his hand, too nervous to think straight. He lifted his hands to cover his face, under the guise of washing himself. 

“Do you know where the guest quarters are?” he asked. Good, he hadn’t recognized him. 

He shook his head without looking up. “Afraid not.”

“Oh, well, thanks anyway,” he said, distractedly, and Kurapika heard the sound of Tserriednich’s footsteps walking away. Then, they stop. “You sound familiar. Do I know you?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Kurapika whispered, willing his legs to move, stand, something, but they stayed frozen. All the while, Tserriednich drew nearer, until he was right behind him. His muscles were tense, his hands fisted on the marble lid of the fountain. Tserriednich began to reach out one large hand to him, and it felt like a block of iron was about to press down on him. His jaw clenched, and his eyes shut. Deep inside, underneath all the fear, Kurapika’s anger rustled its wings. “Don’t touch me.” 

“What?” Tserriednich asked, as if surprised that anyone would be so opposed to his presence. 

Kurapika searched frantically for an excuse. He clenched his jaw, and then spoke, “I know you. You’re the Prince who tried to kill that girl. I do not wish to breathe the same air as someone like you, nevermind be touched by them.” He stood, slowly, trying to hide the shake in his legs. “You know me because I’m the Emperor’s favored consort, and believe me when I say that he is always watching. And he does not take well to anyone coming close to me.”

Tserriednich scoffed. “You might be pretty but you have a long way to go if you think this world will ever bend to his will over Kakin’s.”

He was about to fire back a retort, something to show his undying loyalty to the country and its Emperor and all that nonsense, but he never got the chance.

“Kurapika ~” 

Relief clutched his throat, and Kurapika swore he’d never call Hisoka names again. Well, he’d reduce it to half as many. The magician stepped between them like a particularly sharp, colorful knife, placing one of his arms around his shoulders. 

“I thought I heard a familiar voice,” he purred, getting too close for comfort, though that was nothing new. Of course, the first thing he noticed was the hickey under his jaw. His eyes trailed down the length of his neck, and an eyebrow raised. “Looks like his majesty’s been busy, no? Is he any good?” 

“Looks like your Emperor isn’t as possessive as you believed,” Tserriednich continued, though there was something colder in his voice this time. Kurapika almost shrunk back into Hisoka’s side. He’d been the one that saved him, all those years ago, hadn’t he? The information broker always managed to swoop in at the right time. 

Hisoka looked over his shoulder at the Prince. “Who? Me? I’m just the Emperor’s mistress.” 

Oh, gods.  

“We pair up sometimes.” He almost begged him to stop talking.

“You don’t look like his type,” Tserriednich said, skeptically. 

“Oh, sweetheart, the Emperor doesn’t have a type,” Hisoka said, ghosting his hand over Kurapika’s waist, then up his back, until coming to rest on his shoulder. “His criteria is a little different from ours.” He leaned over to whisper in his ear. “Let’s get you back to his Majesty, no?”

Kurapika gave a stiff nod, and then he was being led away from the man who had once tried to torture and kill him over the course of three days. Hisoka’s arm wound tight around him, and together they swept past Tserriednich, who watched them go. He looked like he had half a mind to take hold of Kurapika regardless of the much taller, equally psychopathic magician, but seemed to decide against it. It seemed Hisoka’s bout of overprotectiveness had fended him off for the time being. 

The arm fell as they approached the Emperor’s quarters. “It’s unlike you to be so unaware of your surroundings.” 

“I had other things on my mind,” Kurapika said. 

“Hmm, I can see why. You’re as popular here as you were in the brothel, love.” He slid his index finger up Kurapika’s arm. Kurapika snatched it away. “Not in a good mood either.” 

“What do you mean, ‘popular’?” He had to know. Hisoka was good at keeping secrets, but he liked wreaking havoc even more. 

His worries were met with a cheerful, strangely high-pitched laugh. “I simply meant that you continue to attract the wrong type of attention.” They entered the building, the guards stationed there barely glancing at them. They knew Kurapika on sight, and also knew how often he found himself in the Emperor’s suite, though not for the reasons most consorts would find themselves there. 

“By the way,” Kurapika started, rubbing a hand over his throat as if that would force the marks off of it. “You wouldn’t happen to have anything on you, to . . . well, you know.”

Hisoka raised a thin, angular brow at him. “Why would you need to hide them? You’re only going to see his Majesty, are you not?”

Kurapika glared at him. “Not all of us enjoy letting the whole world in on their sex lives.”

Hisoka shrugged and undid the belt around his jacket. It parted to reveal lines of various products, some regular cosmetics, others a little less innocent, all of them sporting the same pink label bungee gum

“Seriously?” Kurapika sputtered, staring at the little bottles of gels and powders. “Did you . . .”

“Make them? Each and everyone. I’ve made quite a name for myself overseas as well.” He ran a hand through his gelled hair, the flame-shaped locks flattening out slightly. With a long flourish, he offered a blue-green jar of pale cream. “This particular concoction - I call it a concealer - was made as a gift to Illu back when he thought we could hide our relationship from his parents. You’re a bit more tan than he is but it should still serve you well.”

He swiped it out of the magician’s hand and quickly unscrewed the lid. Carefully, he dipped two fingers into the cream and walked to the nearest window, finding the marks in the darkness and evenly smearing the substance on top of them. He snapped the lid back on, and threw the jar back into the clown’s hands. 

“Oh no,” Hisoka purred, taking hold of his hand and placing the jar back onto his palm tenderly. “It’s yours now. No one wants used cosmetics. Besides, I have a feeling you’ll be needing it more frequently now.” 

The light pink lid glinted in the torchlight, and Kurapika chewed on his bottom lip, before pocketing the product in the pockets underneath his jeogori. “Let’s go already.”

The last stretch was spent in silence, as they reached the large green and gold doors to the Emperor’s quarters. Kurapika knocked three times on the wood, and soon, he could hear the Emperor’s nearly imperceptible footsteps drawing nearer. He caught his breath, waiting for the light to pour into the hallway, for the Emperor to appear in the small gap between the door and the wall. It was swept aside with the slightest scrape.

“Back so soon?” the Emperor teased, and Kurapika thanked the lord that he hadn’t said anything different, for if he had it would’ve undoubtedly piqued Hisoka’s interest. The magician only raised an eyebrow.

“My, my, I suppose I should leave you two alone then.” Had he not turned away at that exact moment, he would’ve noticed the puzzled expression on the Emperor’s face. Kurapika stepped around him and into the room. The door shut behind him, and Kurapika nearly reached up to touch his neck, the cream there growing a bit tacky now. The living room looked untouched, but he could smell a hint of sweet steam in the room. He must’ve just taken a shower recently. 

“You need to stop wandering alone at night,” the Emperor chided. Kurapika looked over his shoulder at him. Ah, suspicions confirmed. His hair was still dripping wet. A white cloth, undoubtedly made to dry the soaking locks, remained wrapped around his shoulders. 

Enough admiring. Leorio was probably just as handsome out of the shower. Kurapika shoved the parchment into the Emperor’s chest, taking care not to linger any more than necessary. “I thought we were never alone within the Palace walls. Anyway, I just wanted to give you back the documents. I’ll –”

Before he could muster his goodbye, the Emperor looped his hand around his wrist. His fingers brushed up to the back of his hand, his thumb grazing the skin of his fingertips. The pale cream smeared over them. “What’s this?”

Damn, he should’ve asked for something to wipe the excess off. “Concealer. I’m your consort, I have to look the part.”

The Emperor raised an eyebrow. “It’s quite imperceptible in that case.” 

He crossed his arms, successfully wringing his wrist away. “I’m something of an expert in this department.” 

The Emperor raised his hand to stroke his cheek, leaving a line of cream across the curve of the bone there. “I forget your situation sometimes,” he muttered, though there was clearly more to his tenderness than he let on. “Are you planning on heading back alone? Because I would advise against that.” 

Kurapika glanced out one of the three large windows behind the divan. The memory of Tserriednich remained fresh in his mind. But if he stayed, the concealer would have to come off at some point, and it would’ve all been for naught. Besides, Kurapika was sick of the Emperor's quarters. The whole scenario made him feel uneasy. 

“Take me back?” he finally managed. 

A smile and a hand on his back, and the two of them were moving back toward the door. “How cunning of you, planning to get me sick by throwing me out in the cold.” The hand had snaked around his waist, holding him close, and Kurapika could feel water drops trickle down his spine, his neck. He allowed it for the moment. They stepped out into the corridor, which continued to be dimly lit and silent, and the Emperor led him out of the building. The night remained still, as if even the wind had fallen asleep. The babbling of the fountain and their footsteps against stone, now the color of pomegranate seeds, broke the silence now and then when Kurapika cared to listen. The Emperor’s arm stayed wrapped around him, secure, like fire from a comfortable distance, enough to keep one alive during harsh winters. It wasn’t winter, rather, Kurapika wished for it to be. The cold was easy to deny, warmth was less so. 

It only took a short while for them to pass through the sweet-scented road to the Consort’s Palace, and Kurapika hurried toward the solitude of his room. He’d leave the Emperor at the door, and then try to get at least a small bit of sleep before getting herded away to breakfast in a few hours. 

They entered the Consort’s Palace, its walls of tapestry greeting them, colorful mosaics glowing in the torchlight, fading at the edges. As they neared his suite, his eyes caught onto an image not quite so artfully crafted. Something four-legged, composed mostly of shaky lines of ink. They almost looked like they’d been fingerpainted, like they were the work of a child. 

He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. The children of consorts would usually spend the first years of their lives under the close supervision of their mothers. 

It took him a moment to realize he’d stopped, and another to realize the Emperor had not. He hurried to catch up with him, and a pang of curiosity struck him when the Emperor, who was usually so quick to give him an amused glance, didn’t even bother to look back. 

“Here we are,” the Emperor said. 

“Thank you.” 

This time, he did turn to him, puzzled. 

“What?” 

A grin sparked. “You’ve never thanked me before.” 

“Don’t have much to thank you for,” Kurapika grumbled, sliding the door open. There were guards outside his door, eunuchs, because no men were allowed within the premises, sans the Emperor himself. They were both dark-haired and fair-skinned, dressed in armor, with lithe figures, and ornamental spears in their hands. 

Kurapika was about to turn his betrothed away, but decided against it. There was still one thing they needed to discuss. He grabs onto the hem of his sleeve, whirling around right as the Emperor was about to walk away. Slowly, he tugs on the sleeve.

“Come inside?”

The Emperor’s brow furrowed, but he consented, letting the consort pull him inside, Kurapika’s hand shifting to take his. It was mostly for show, so the guards, should they be less than loyal, didn’t listen in on their conversation. There was nothing particularly strange about nightly visits from the Emperor, and hopefully, Kurapika’s actions would be enough to convince them that they were merely fulfilling his desires. The door closed shut behind them, but just before they disappeared entirely from their view, Kurapika wrapped his arms around the Emperor’s neck, burying his face in the curve of his shoulder. Then, they were alone.

“Bedroom,” Kurapika whispered. The Emperor searched his face for a second, probably looking for something more in his actions. He seemed to find it, for he followed him with something akin to concern in his eyes.

Kurapika laid down on the bed, turned onto his side, and patted the spot beside him. 

“You’re having fun with this, aren’t you?” the Emperor said, and Kurapika couldn’t be sure if it was part of the act or genuine. The man took his place beside him, and put an arm around his waist, pressed a kiss to his forehead.

“Let’s just say I enjoy watching you stumble over yourself,” Kurapika replied, keeping his persona.

“Hmm,” the Emperor hummed, nuzzling into his neck, right next to his ear, too far to smudge the cream concealing his marks. Nearly inaudibly, he whispers, “what is it?”

“I ran into Tserriednich,” he mumbled back. “He’s getting suspicious.”

The Emperor sighed, as if he were about to scold a child. “That’s why I told you not to wander alone at night. You’re lucky Hisoka was there.” He felt each word against his neck, and, before he could stop himself, he shivered. It seemed to surprise the Emperor, who froze for just a few seconds, then sunk even deeper into him. Ah, damn, this wasn’t really necessary, was it? But it felt nice, and Kurapika had his anchor to drag him out if he got any thoughts.

“Well, I didn’t think he’d get out of house arrest so easily.” 

The Emperor sounded a bit drowsy now. “He’s still a Prince, and an intelligent one at that. The people around him are made to respect him by nature.”

“Nature can only do so much.”

“Right again,” he yawned. 

Kurapika licked his lips, deliberating his next words. Was it right to bring it up when the Emperor was half asleep? Would he even remember the next day. “The trial.”

“A month from now.”

“I want to be there.” His nature demanded it.

It seemed he’d fallen asleep for a moment, he’d become so still and so silent. He was too quiet, though, his breathing not the even inhales and exhales of air characteristic of a sleeping person. Kurapika contemplated calling his name out, but he didn’t have to. 

“No.”

. End of Chapter .

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

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Chapter 19:

The Consort’s Defiance

“Why?” he asked, sitting up now. The Emperor had shifted to lay on his back, his eyes focused on the ceiling. Kurapika glared at him until he let out a defeated sigh.

“You’re too involved in this case already,” the Emperor said. “I won’t have you being recognized halfway through the trial and used against us.”

Us. Kurapika could tell he wasn’t referring to the two of them, but it was strange hearing that word pass through his lips. “I could go to the trial disguised as someone else. He clearly has trouble recognizing his victims’ faces. This is the second time he’s failed to do so –”

“Yes, at night, and once when you were concealing your face,” the Emperor reached up to caress his cheek. Kurapika let him. “The trial will be during the day, and if I’m to be completely honest, I don’t think we’ll be able to mask your malice even in a crowd of people.”

“I’ve been doing quite well with you thus far,” Kurapika sniped back. 

His hand moved down, his fingers cupping his chin. Kurapika clenched his jaw. “I’d have to disagree. Do you think no one finds you suspicious? Your words never match your actions. You drop your little consort act as soon as you think you’re alone. You’re no longer part of a brothel, being my consort is a bit more involved –”

“Don’t undermine the training I’ve been put through,” he snapped his chin away. 

The Emperor sighed, sitting up as well. “That’s not my intention. I’m only saying this because I’m concerned for you.” His fingers brushed against Kurapika’s. “You’re a precious asset.” 

Lies . He got up, tensely. “I’m going to bathe.” 

“Kurapika,” he called, like a lover trying to pacify their unreasonable partner. Unreasonable, was he? Possibly, but that didn’t make his words any less irritating. Tserriednich had haunted him for the last five years of his life, every sensation pressed into his mind, each touch, each blade imprinted on his skin. Mother had made sure not a single scar marked his skin, but that couldn’t solve the problem of his mind.   

He stepped into the adjoining bathroom, and turned the faucet handle until the water became too hot. Quickly, he slipped out of his clothes, and slid into the water. It stung a bit, but it was the sting that Kurapika craved now. In this temporary pain, his thoughts quieted. 

His eyes shut closed, and he let himself lean back, completely submerged in water. The world dimmed, quieted, as if he’d been encased in a protective bubble, his own haven. Far from Mother, from Tserriednich, from the Emperor and his schemes. 

wouldn’t it be nice, if it could stay this way.

No. Leorio would never forgive himself. And the Emperor still needed a foe.

Kurapika sat back up, soaked and breathing heavily. He paused for signs of the Emperor’s presence, knowing he must look like a lunatic right now, with his hair plastered all over his face and his skin red from the heat. His hands reached back and herded the locks back into place, locating the shampoo nearby and spilling some of the liquid out of the crystal container and onto his palm. It was rose-scented, and it cast any memories of lavender out of his mind. He massaged it into his hair, welcoming the sensation. 

He hadn’t done this sort of thing since, well, since his brothel days. It started off as a sanitary procedure, which spiraled into a coping mechanism. By his seventeenth birthday, he couldn’t go about his day without a ‘cleansing’. He’d carried on into his time with Leorio, but only for a couple of days, before his wonderful idiot of a roommate unknowingly put an end to it by telling him to stop using up all the hot water. It had been an effortless feat for him, and though Kurapika missed the sting, he settled for the warmth that settled over him whenever Leorio smiled. 

Now he sat in the scalding bath, rinsing off the moment where Tserriednich had gotten close enough to touch, and that warmth was nowhere to be found. How he wished for something beyond this pain. He was suddenly acutely aware of the Emperor resting in the other room.

How long has he been here? Over an hour at least. He would’ve expected the Emperor to have grown suspicious by now. 

He stood, knees shaking a bit, flashes of light swarming his vision. He let the water drain, leaving him to the summer chill. Reaching over, he unfolded the towel on the nearby table and proceeded to pat himself dry. The skin there had been left tinged pink.

Stepping out of the bath, he wrapped himself in the towel and walked back to the room. He gripped the golden handles of his wardrobe, peered over his shoulder to his companion, fast asleep, and slowly pried the doors open. His eyes refused to adjust, so he rummaged around until his hands found something akin to a bathrobe. That would do. He wasn’t all that picky about clothing, but he doubted the Emperor would be thrilled to find him sleeping in the nude beside him.

He shrugged on the silken fabric and threw the abandoned towel into the laundry basket in the corner of the room. Then, taking care not to trip over a stray chair leg or a sly rug hem, he approached the bed and laid down beside his sworn enemy. Keeping his movements minimal, Kurapika turned onto his side, facing towards his companion. They were swathed in the same cloth, in the same linens, so close Kurapika could feel his breath, steady, skim his cheek. 

He’s so tense.

Kurapika had never watched the man fall asleep before, though they’d shared the same bed several times. There was not a single relaxed muscle in his body, so close to Kurapika’s. His eyes were the only evidence of his state, shut closed. Otherwise, Kurapika might’ve thought he was about to stab him in the gut or something along those lines. He was tempted to say he was faking his slumber, but the Emperor was far too good an actor to let his sleep be so unnatural.

He should probably let him be. 

His hands disagreed, ghosting over his jaw, his cheeks, his lips, then his fingers trailed down his arm to take his hand. The tension didn’t dissolve, as one might have expected it to. There wasn’t much reaction at all, it was all a bit underwhelming. Ah, well. Kurapika shouldn’t be provoking him in the first place. 

It was the raindrops outside his window that eventually got him to untangle their fingers. He let himself shift onto his other side, facing away from the Emperor. The sun would be up in a few hours, but he’d try to garner all the sleep he could. Seconds pass by and Kurapika’s mind slowly forgot the warmth of the body beside him. 

. . .

Morning arrived to awaken Kuroro, ribbons of light illuminating his consort’s bedroom. Kurapika remained fast asleep, the lavender linen they had slept in hardly covering him. The pale flesh of his legs mingled with the fabric. His back is covered in a sheer, pink robe, his waist one of the few places obscured by the sheets. 

He looked ready to jump out of the bed at any moment, just like that night after Kuroro returned from his trip. When was the last time his lovely consort had a decent rest? 

Kuroro sat up, his new position granting him a fuller view of Kurapika’s face, though much of it was obscured by either his hair – which had grown wild over the course of the night – or the pillow. He reached out across the two embroidered pillows, and caressed his little Prince’s cheek, pushing the hair out of his face. His eyes narrowed. 

Kurapika’s face was wet.

He moved closer, letting his fingers move to cup his chin instead. Gently, he tilted Kurapika’s head to face him, and a small, nearly inaudible cry left him, one that nearly sent a stabbing pang through his heart. This wasn’t the young man he’d come to know, so strong and restless and bent on revenge. This was vulnerable, a part Kurapika would never have shared with him had he been conscious, and Kuroro nearly looked away. Tears stained his cheeks. Kuroro couldn’t be certain when they’d fallen. 

His thumb brushed away a stray tear in the corner of Kurapika’s eye. 

“What could you be dreaming of, little Prince?” 

A sigh escaped him, and then the young man tilted his face slightly in his direction, as if to lean into his touch. Probably thinking of that doctor of his. The two of them certainly made a wholesome duo, disgustingly so. Kuroro nearly rolled his eyes at the idea. 

He began to pull away, but Kurapika snatched his hand back with a force uncharacteristic of sleeping people. Not wanting to wake the other up, Kuroro attempted to gently pry off the slender fingers from his hand, but he held on. Oh, did he ever hold on. Those perfect nails would’ve drawn blood had Kuroro continued to struggle. Instead, he opted to lie back down. He was in no hurry, and no one would blame him if he said Kurapika had kept him a bit late.

Moments later, Kurapika’s hand relaxed underneath the covers, acting more like a loose rope rather than an iron grip. He was on his back, turned toward Kuroro, his lips parted slightly, a lock of hair hanging onto the corner of his mouth. Kuroro brushed it away with his other hand, wondering how long they’d have to stay like this. He didn’t want to break this moment, somehow.

A low groan escaped Kurapika as he turned onto his side, nearly nuzzling into Kuroro’s neck

He’s going to be so angry when he wakes up.

But for now, he was asleep, and Kuroro allowed this show of blatant affection. Slowly, his arm wraps around that slender waist, and he can feel the heat of his skin through the linen cloth. He felt Kurapika’s bare leg press against his, and his breath hitched. 

He was awake. He could tell from the way he moved, each touch calculated to probe a reaction out of Kuroro. 

“That’s enough, Kurapika.” 

A muffled snort, one that he felt against his neck, and then his companion lifted himself up on his elbows, looking down at him with that same expression he always got when Kuroro rejected his advances. Halfway between irritation, nonchalance, and relief. “You noticed.”

Kuroro tried his best not to pay attention to the small expanse of exposed chest, or the outline of his back clothed in that thin fabric, or the fact that the hem of the robe had hiked up just a bit more on his thighs. “Your movements were too deliberate to be that of a sleeping man. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying to seduce me.” 

“I already told you, didn’t I?” Kurapika sat back with his legs folded beneath him in a seiza position. “I enjoy watching you stumble over yourself.” 

“How romantic,” he replied, sitting up as well. Then, he leaned forward, enough to make Kurapika think he was going in for a kiss, only for his hands to grip the two ends of the unraveled sash that was meant to hold his robe closed and tie it for him. “You’ll catch a cold if you sleep like this, little Prince.”

Kurapika rolled his eyes. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met someone with your self-control, your Highness.” 

“It’s an acquired skill,” he said, placing a quick kiss on his forehead. Running a hand through his dark locks, he stood up with a sigh. “Well, I should return to my own quarters before Shal sends a search party.” 

“Personal experience?”

He gave him a sheepish grin. “Something like that.”

“If he asks, tell him you’ve been caught by a devilishly handsome male temptress.” 

It was Kuroro’s turn to roll his eyes, as he strolled toward the exit. “You are absolutely shameless, you know that?” 

Kurapika followed him, now adequately concealed in his sheer robe. “If you’re wanting for a chaste consort, Lady Iza is right next door.”

“Oh? And you wouldn’t be jealous?” 

Kurapika scoffed, “you could be frolicking with any number of women, I wouldn’t give a damn.” A strange expression overtook his face, one Kuroro would almost classify as frightened, or haunted. His eyes were transfixed on something in the distance, his lips pulled into a grimace. Once, he managed a swift look toward the door, where the guards had apparently left their posts. Then, with little warning, he glanced up. “And you?”

“Pardon?”

“Would you be jealous?” 

Ah. Was this pertaining to his brothel days? What a strange question.

“No. You weren’t bound to me then. Besides, none of those people held your heart, and that is the only part of you I’m after.”

Kurapika snorted, “Yeah, well, good luck.” 

“Ah, your blessing is truly a gift, my little Prince.”  

Another snort, as he shook a hand through his blonde hair. “Well, what if my heart is already captured?”

“By the doctor?” he said. “I don’t mind, as long as you don’t do anything stupid.”

“Like?”

“Get caught.”

Kurapika held his gaze in pristine stoicism, but then one of his lips quirked up. “I’ll take that into account if I ever find someone that completely shatters my self-control.” He glanced away, somber. “It wouldn’t be him, though. I wouldn’t put him at risk for something so trivial.” 

“Hmm.” Somehow, a part of him doubted Kurapika’s words, though he’d given him no reason to. 

There came the soft clicks of sandals on the floor outside of Kurapika’s quarters. The guards had returned. Before Kuroro could utter a single word, Kurapika clasped his arms around his torso, burying his face in the curve of his neck.

“I’ll miss you.”

Kuroro slowly reciprocated the embrace, kissing his ear. “I’m only going back to my office. You can visit me whenever you like.” 

“I’d rather you visit me,” he whispered, nuzzling into his neck, smelling like roses after rain. “I enjoyed last night.” 

Was that necessary? Or did his consort enjoy incorporating sexual innuendos whenever possible. Kuroro played along regardless, running his hand up and down Kurapika’s back. “I’ll entertain you again tonight. Be ready for me, alright?” He broke away from his consort’s embrace and pressed a kiss to his forehead. 

“I’ll be anticipating a real kiss as a greeting next time,” Kurapika teased, running his thumb gently over his lower lip. 

Kuroro took his hand and pressed his mouth to Kurapika’s slender fingers. “Then, that is what you shall receive.”

For a second, Kurapika’s easy, coquettish expression faded, replaced by a mixture of that familiar hatred, that disgust, but also something akin to desire, burning faintly within the soft curve of his lips, the movement of his irises. 

“I’ll see you then, my little Prince,” Kuroro said, letting those pale fingers slip out of his grip. His consort watched on, countenance turned stormy. He moved the door aside and exited, leaving a shaken, conflicted Kurapika behind him. 

. . .

It would’ve been so easy. To move in closer, lean in, and press his lips to the Emperor’s. The knowledge set his skin on metaphorical fire, made his hands itch, his body ache. 

Kurapika nearly struck the nearby vase off its table, with its depiction of the butterfly lovers, embellished in gold and silver. Damn. Damn. Being with Leorio was supposed to temper his attraction, not have it flourish. Apparently, their little rendezvous had only reminded Kurapika that the Emperor would look just as good in his bed.

Well, at least no one would suspect him to be unfaithful to the Emperor now. And surely, if he saw Leorio again, if Leorio held him in his arms, kissed him the way he had the night before, he would certainly forget all about the Emperor.

Yes. Surely, this was nothing but a small misstep. Besides, he knew better than anyone that lust did not equate to love. He’d just have to head over to the library and pray Leorio was there. He nodded to himself, as his thoughts continued to race forward into the worst possible scenarios. Swiftly, he made his way back to his bedroom, where the sheets remained disheveled. He glimpsed his reflection in the windows and made a face, as his body remembered the exhilaration of wrapping itself around the Emperor.

He should probably get dressed first. 

His closet shown an array of silks and ramie fabrics, each one dyed to just the right degree, illuminated with flowers and phoenixes and other flora and fauna. They shimmer faintly in sunlight, and Kurapika pursed his lips. If he dressed too nicely, people might suspect his intentions. If he dressed too casually, they’d say he wasn’t taking his position seriously. He was going to a library to further his understanding of the current state of affairs in Ryusei, and he needed to look the part. 

After much deliberation, he settled on a sky blue jeogori and rose pink sokgui. The sleeves of the sokgui, long and billowing, had been embellished with flowers at the hem, but the outfit remained rather plain. 

He sighed. It would have to do. 

. . .

The library was bustling with medical students. Not a single one of them turned their head to acknowledge the Emperor’s consort gracing them with his presence. They were all too busy cramming for the exam in a month. Come to think of it, both the trial and the exam would be taking place on the same day. Kurapika would have to make it in time to cheer Leorio up a bit beforehand, and do so without raising any suspicion. Ah, he’d figure it out later. 

Kurapika traced his steps back to the room Leorio had chosen last night, tucked away in a corner by the medical collection. He slid open the ornate wooden door, painted a vivid green, and walked inside. As expected, Leorio was there, his nose stuck in a large volume, his hair in need of a brush. What was unexpected were the three children gathered around him. Gon and Killua had smuggled in some desserts and snacks and had proceeded to gobble them up like they hadn’t eaten in a week. They sat cross-legged with their little shrine of sweetness on the rare empty spot on the table. Alluka was munching on her own cookie-like treat, though much less ardently, sitting primly in seiza position. Leorio looked like he might just throw them out at any moment.

“I didn’t realize you’d opened a daycare center,” Kurapika teased. With his voice, Leorio’s face morphed from one of irritation and concentration to one of shock. His head snapped up to Kurapika, who quietly shut the door behind him. 

“Woah, are you two having an affair?” Killua asked, in a tone that was strikingly blasé considering the subject matter.

They weren’t quite so calm, but at least they were in sync. “What!” 

“Killua, I’m a married man,” Kurapika chided. 

“Duh, you wouldn’t be having an affair otherwise.” He chopped off the head of the fish-shaped Bungeoppang with his teeth and swallowed it whole, red bean paste coating his mouth. “Your food is way better than the stuff we eat back home. Illumi’s diet is basically cardboard and we all have to put up with it.” 

“I’m glad you’re enjoying it,” Kurapika said, still not quite recovered from Killua’s accusation. He sat down across from Leorio, not wanting to feed the suspicion. “What are you two doing here? I thought you were training.” 

“We were,” Gon said and held up his arm. “But I got my arm cut up and Leorio told me not to practice until the wound’s completely healed.”

“I see.” 

“Mad we’re stealing your quality time with your boyfriend?” Killua teased. 

Kurapika rolled his eyes. “I just thought you’d be preparing yourselves. The Emperor isn’t going to go easy on you, even if you are children. I don’t even want to know what he has planned.” 

“We don’t expect him to go easy on us,” Gon insisted, determination flickering on his face.

Killua seemed lost in thought for a moment, not listening to his friend’s remarks, but soon, his lips formed into a sly smile. 

“Say, you spend a lot of time with the Emperor, don’t you, Kurapika?” he began, and Kurapika’s heart sank.

“What are you implying?”

Killua’s grin spread, and he shrugged. “Nothing. I’m just saying that if anyone could figure out what he’s planning, it’s his consort.”

“He’s rather tight-lipped about his secrets,” Kurapika replied. In the back of his mind, he noted that Leorio had gone silent as soon as the topic of the Emperor came up. “He wouldn’t tell me what he ate for dinner, much less what he was planning for a test that’s supposed to challenge your thinking skills.”

“Is that what it is?” Gon asked.

“I’m basing it off the assumption that he will attempt to mirror the situation you will find yourselves in on the mission.” 

“Oh.” Gon looked down at the honey cake in his hands, seemingly having lost his appetite. Had he scared him off? “That sounds tough.” He smiled, thin and mildly terrified. “But fun. I think we can do it. Don’t you, Killua?”

“I think it’s stupid to try, but we’ve done crazier,” Killua replied.

“Like what?” There they were again, speaking in unison. 

“None of your business, old man,” Killua said, directing his comment toward Leorio, obviously, because Kurapika wasn’t that old. Nor did he look it. 

Leorio clenched his jaw and looked to the heavens, probably praying for patience. Just when his temper seemed to be reaching its peak, the door to their little compartment slammed open to reveal an enthusiastic servant girl. She was one of the Zoldyck servants, with their navy blue, western uniforms, trousers and suits. Her sleek, black hair reached the middle of her back, unadorned, each strand perfectly arranged.

“Amane?” 

“The Emperor is training with his men,” she heaved, then caught sight of Kurapika and reddened in the face. A rapid succession of bows followed. “Ah, excuse me, your highness.” 

“It’s quite alright, I’ve never been one for formalities.” 

“Training, huh?” Killua interrupted, tilting his head toward Kurapika. “Eh, want to see your husband beat up some randos, your highness .”

He felt his face contort as if he’d swallowed some bitter medicine. Medicine in the form of a possibly shirtless Emperor. “I’ll pass.”

“You’re no fun,” Killua wrinkled his nose and stuck out his tongue. “How about you, Leorio?”

Leorio stared at him with dark circles under sleepless eyes, his mouth set into a tight line. 

“That’s a no,” Killua sighed. “Man, adults are so boring. C’mon Gon, Alluka, let’s go watch some people beat each other up.”

“‘Kay!” And then all four of them disappeared behind a locked screen door, chatting away outside.

Who had raised those kids? And why was Killua able to uncover their relationship so easily?

. . .

Kuroro didn’t always have time to train his own men. Between all his appointments and paperwork and a rather troublesome consort, he often found himself barely getting any training of his own at the end of the day, nevermind overseeing his troops.

However, a little Prince had surreptitiously taken care of a portion of his work a few days before, and now Kuroro found himself with some rare free time on his hands.

He stood on the steps of the training pavilion, slightly elevated above the rest. The Emperor rarely engaged in battle with his own men, a long-standing tradition from the third King of Ryusei. Kuroro was half certain his ancestor simply had lackluster combat skills. 

There were about a hundred men in the courtyard, each sporting the grey training uniform of soldiers. They varied in age, from fifteen to thirty, each one having trained for years before ever stepping onto the Palace grounds. A long sword was clasped in each of their hands, the hilts dull and unassuming. They were only used for training purposes after all. Kuroro’s own sword lay tied to the sash around his waist, befitting a king with its amber hilt and steel blade. It wasn’t his favorite, but it was the one the Emperor was expected to wear on his person. 

He scanned the troops, flanked by his advisors, who would be acting as teachers this day, much to their dismay. Well, they knew what they were getting into when they joined his ranks. 

Kuroro descended the stone steps, the clicking of his boots against the pavement resounding through the courtyard. Each man stood tensely, their arms at their sides, their entire bodies acting like they’d been fastened to a wooden pyre. They stare out ahead, none of them daring to make eye contact with the fearsome Emperor.

“Over the next few months, you will all undergo a strict training regimen to hone your physical and mental capabilities. Many of you may think this course is an unnecessary hindrance to your military career. This is a natural response. Each of you have undergone strenuous schooling in preparation for your future positions.”

He garnered some self-assured smirks. Good, he needed that confidence. Capture it, jar it, control it as his will.

“ However, I believe you’ll realize the necessity of this training by the time this class ends at sundown. If, at the end of this session, you still wish to ascend our ranks without this course, I implore you to duel with one of my advisors or myself. Should you win, we will facilitate your enrollment into our field ranks. If you are left feeling discouraged, then don’t be. You are here because of my judgment. Should you fail, that will be my folly, not yours. That being said, you will find I am very rarely wrong.”

There was a silence, punctuated with awe-struck expression, and then, a faint whisper beside him, “he’s so cool.”

Someone shushed the boy, who looked no older than fifteen, and Kuroro continued until he reached the other side of the courtyard. The troops turned with him like a well-oiled machine.

“You may begin,” he stated. “We will start with 30 minutes of meditation.” 

They sat down cross-legged and began. Kuroro observed them, gauging their reaction to silence. He doubted any of them were new to meditation, but they probably never did it in an unknown place surrounded by strangers.

Kuroro took a seat on the raised platform. His advisors could deal with the rest. It had been several weeks since he last meditated, and his mind was nearly tearing itself apart without it. 

He shut his eyes closed, and let his mind clear, and –

“Kuroro.”

They open abruptly, his vision brightening once more. He glanced around, just to make sure there were no vengeful consorts in the vicinity. No, of course not. Kurapika would’ve never spoken his name, would’ve never spoken to him in such a tone. 

His lips quirked up. Seemed his mind was still reeling from the incident this morning. 

You’ve won this round, little Prince. I can’t seem to stop thinking of you.

No meditation, then. Kuroro didn’t want to see where his daydreams would take him. He stood, a part of him wondering what his little Prince was doing right about now. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a small figure in various shades of purple, sitting on the other side of the platform, just a few feet away. A child? 

“Not that I’m doubting your abilities, but you’re a bit young to be a soldier,” Kuroro said, looking down at the child. They didn’t budge, nor was there any movement in their face to suggest they’d heard him. 

Meditating? It was quite an impressive show for a child. 

“Well then,” he said, pretending to be offended as he turned away and shrugged, “you can talk to me about your reasons for being here once you’re done, your majesty . We can even lend you a sword.”

“Kalluto,” the child spoke, suddenly, though he hardly moved. “My name is Kalluto. Kalluto Zoldyck.”

Kuroro allowed himself a satisfied smile and then tilted his head to look at the boy, even though his back was turned to him. “Welcome to Ryusei, Kalluto Zoldyck.”

. End of Chapter .



 

Chapter Text

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Chapter 20:

The Consort’s Secret

“So,” Leorio started, trying not to look at him. They sat across from each other, still, the room having gone silent. The pile of snacks had been reduced to just a few cakes on a silver tray. Leorio’s hand tapped the hardwood of the desk at a nervous rhythm.  

“So.” Kurapika fiddled with the spine of the book he was reading, wondering why he felt so embarrassed suddenly. His body itched in the places Leorio’s hands had lay just a night before.

Leorio cleared his throat, awkwardly, his face turning redder the longer Kurapika stared. “Heard you had the Emperor stay at your place last night.”

He scoffed, “don’t tell me you’re jealous.”

“No!” he protested, before reigning in that voice. “I mean, I’m just worried, that’s all. He didn’t . . . force you into anything?”

Kurapika didn’t answer, though not because he was afraid to. He shook his head. “No, he didn’t. He fell asleep within ten minutes. A busy man and all that. I doubt he even has time to worry about sex.” 

“Oh . . . good,” he coughed, because they both were starting to realize asking if Kurapika’s husband was trying to get in his pants was a bit awkward when they were having an affair behind his back. “So, I thought you’d be coming later.” 

He smiled, teasingly, the corners of his eyes crinkling in subdued mirth. “Oh, I can leave if you’d prefer that.” 

Leorio’s hand took hold of his, and Kurapika’s gaze turned warm. Slowly, he stood, and let Leorio guide him to sit closer. They were touching now, Kurapika’s head resting on his shoulder, and that feeling of comfort returned. This was right. 

“I can’t focus like this, you know,” Leorio muttered, blushing now. Kurapika hummed contently, and his lover sighed in defeat, wrapping an arm around him. “If I fail, it’s gonna be your fault.” 

“You won’t fail,” Kurapika replied, placing a hand on his chest. “You have me.” 

“Yeah.” He sounded nearly breathless. “Yeah, I do.”

It wasn’t as overwhelming as the lust he felt in the Emperor’s presence, but his desire for Leorio, his love for him, was certainly there. Better to be pleasantly in love with Leorio, his best friend, his anchor, rather than be consumed by this transgression his body seemed to long for. 

He nuzzled into his neck, the material of his navy blue jeogori scratching his cheek. It wasn’t of the same quality as the Emperor’s black silks, or Kurapika’s pastel apparel, but it was comforting in its familiarity. And that scent, just a hint of antiseptics and clove cologne (he thought it made him smell more masculine. Kurapika thought that was ridiculous), so different from the Emperor’s. The Emperor smelled like old parchment and ink, and maybe a bit like citrus fruit, probably from some generic shampoo. Sometimes, a bit of spice or the smell of pastries would also accompany him.

“Are you smelling me?” Leorio asked, incredulously. 

“You smell nice,” Kurapika replied, his hand falling to Leorio’s thigh. “Like home.”

“Okay, you’re acting weird,” Leorio said. His hand fell on Kurapika’s, but it made no effort to remove it. “Did something happen?’

Kurapika shook his head. He couldn’t tell him the Emperor kept slipping into his mind. That would make Leorio ask questions he didn’t want to answer. “I’m just making up for lost time.”

They sat like that, their bodies fitted together, in comfortable silence. Every now and then, they’d freeze at the sound of footsteps outside, but the tread of sandals would soon disappear and Kurapika would sink back into him. 

“We probably shouldn’t be doing this here,” Leorio finally said, after a particularly close call in which the footsteps nearly reached the threshold. 

“Please, if you have a secret passageway of some sort, share it,” Kurapika mumbled, close to Leorio’s ear. The doctor-in-training began trying to regain his concentration upon the volumes before him. Kurapika watched as he did so with a plaintive gaze, eyes wandering from the intelligence in those eyes, to the slight grimace on his lips as he recorded some medical terminology into his memory. This would all be lost to him soon. But what sort of sinner would he be if he didn’t cling to fruit so sweet? And was it sin, when Leorio was the only good part of him?

“You’re staring a lot.” It was almost a whine.

“You stare at me all the time, Leorio. I’m returning the favor.” Kurapika replied in a manner meant to be curt, but it really only came off as affectionate.

“Getting comfortable?”

“Hmm,” he hummed. “You’re warm.” 

Leorio’s breath hitched as Kurapika placed a kiss on the exposed skin of his neck, just below his jaw. Then, as if on cue, three bright-eyed children swept into the room, red-cheeked and nearly jumping in their excitement. Kurapika quickly darted away from his lover, getting into a position befitting a consort, his hands folded in his lap.

“He’s so cool!” Gon squealed, arms raised above his head. Killua and Alluka followed after him, less obvious in their enthusiasm, though they were all clearly star-struck by something, or rather, someone. “Did you see how he dodged those strikes?” 

“We were all there, Gon,” Killua said. His eyes found Kurapika’s cautious gaze. “Looks like he has a crush on your husband, Kurapika.” 

“What? No, I don’t,” Gon protested. 

“Yeah, I thought Gon had a crush on you,” Alluka chimed in. Both boys reddened at the remark. She certainly tried to appear innocent, but Kurapika could tell Alluka had an affinity for scheming. Unfortunately for the boys, they were her favorite targets. Hopefully, Kurapika would manage to escape her clutches unscathed. “Just like Kurapika has a crush on both Leorio and the Emperor.”

He sucked in a breath, his pride riled at the accusation, but he tried to be polite nonetheless. “I’m afraid you’ve misconstrued my relationship with the Emperor, Alluka. I’m merely his consort by occupation, my emotions have little to do with it.” 

Alluka pouted for a bit, then shook her head. “No, I don’t think that’s it.”

Killua laughed as if he hadn’t been subjected to the same treatment just a few moments earlier. “You tell him, Alluka. Stick to your convictions.” 

“I’m hungry,” Gon remarked, his mouth turned down in surprise, as if he had only now noticed. 

“You just ate two hours ago,” Killua pointed out. 

“Yeah, but that was all sweets, and it’s lunchtime.”

“Every other hour is lunchtime for you, Gon.” 

“I’m still growing.” 

Killua snorted, fondness clear in his voice. “Fine. Hey, Kurapika, think you can sneak us something to eat?”

“Why do I have to do it?” Kurapika said, gesturing to the now-empty plate. “Didn’t you steal all of this on your own?”

“Yeah, but they figured us out and now they won’t let us in, stingy bastards,” Killua muttered. “How can you turn down three starving children? Monsters, I tell you.”

“Well, maybe you should stop sneaking around,” Kurapika replied. “They have a lot of mouths to feed, you know. Expensive mouths.” Mouths like the Kakin Royal Family, who were sticking around because the Emperor had just accused their Fourth Prince of being a serial killer. Plus, the Emperor and his consorts, all of whom had polished taste palates. 

“So, that’s a no?” Killua asked, and it wasn’t the innocence in his tone that won Kurapika over, it was Gon’s downtrodden expression.

He looked away, “Not necessarily.” 

All three children brightened, and Kurapika sighed in defeat.

. . .

The cooks had gladly given him a healthy portion of everything on the menu, commenting on his weight and jutting elbows, to which Kurapika could only reassure them that he was eating a perfectly well-balanced diet on behalf of the Emperor’s request. They fawned over the idea of a domestic Emperor, and Kurapika quickly evacuated the area before the scene could get any more saccharine. They sent a few servant boys in black uniforms to his room in under half an hour, and the boys set down the large array of food on a polished tabletop. The servant boys were much less enthusiastic, erring on the side of caution due to Kurapika’s status. Words uttered consisted of a quick greeting and farewell, and Kurapika would’ve been grateful if it were not the fact that he hated when the innocent feared him. 

Killua, Gon, and Alluka had already arrived in his room before the servant boys, let in on account of their age. They now sat in a circle around a table, a colorful trio of blues, purples, and greens, filling their bowls to the brim with savory, thinly sliced meats, rice, and a much smaller portion of vegetables. And once they finished with one, they moved onto another and another, to the point where Kurapika worried the double portions he’d asked for wouldn’t suffice. 

Somewhere in between the second and third bowl, Gon turned to him in inquiry, his face stuffed with broth-soaked noodles. “Aren’t you going to eat, Kurapika?”

“I’m not all that hungry,” Kurapika answered, turning slightly, having left his seat to peer through the myriad of books the Emperor had had a servant arrange on a jade bookshelf. 

Gon pouted again, his brow furrowing as if he was on the verge of shoving some food onto a plate and throwing it at him, all with the best possible intentions. 

“You gotta eat something, Kurapika,” Killua chimed in with that snide little voice of his. “It’s weird when one person just stares. And he,” one pale thumb pointed toward Gon, “isn’t gonna let up until you’re in a food coma.” Gon nodded once in affirmation.

It was Alluka who joined the fray next, staring down at her lap, her voice a somber thing. “That's true. Meals are a lot more fun when everyone’s invited.”

Kurapika didn’t miss the way the room shifted, or how Killua hung his head to obscure his eyes, or how Gon’s shoulders slumped in the most miniscule amount. Had he stepped on a landmine? His heart pulled at him, telling him to go forward, because he hadn’t had a meal like this, with something resembling family, since his parents passed away. Pairo had his meals in bed because he was too sick most days. Leorio and he had different shifts at work and their meals were quiet. The Emperor’s meals were full of tension and words laden with a thousand meanings, once innocent, twice deadly, and neither knew where the next would fall.

He’d missed this feeling, he realized. Gon, Killua, and Alluka were hardly family to him. He didn’t know them, nor had he any intention to learn, because the Emperor required all his attention and he didn’t want to leave anyone behind. Pairo and Leorio were a given, because he couldn’t get rid of them, but if he could just stop caring for people, and if people stopped caring for him, things would be easier for everyone. 

Despite that conviction, despite all logic, Kurapika took a step forward, then another, and another, until he was seated next to Alluka, who grinned up at him. He gave her a small smile in return, wondering what it was that had made the air so frosty just a moment ago. No questions, though, because this was bad enough. Leorio was all he needed to keep himself sane. He certainly didn’t need any troublesome children in his way.

When had he become so cruel? 

He raised a bit of the rice to his mouth and chews, and he was sure it tasted delicious, even if his tongue couldn’t process any of it. 

“You’ll be going, won’t you, Kurapika?” Gon entered his thoughts, and he turned to him, surprised he wasn’t alone. 

“Sorry, what was that?” 

“Our test is in 14 days. Gon asked if you were going,” Killua supplied, before muttering, “you and the old man are made for one another, you both have selective hearing loss.”

Kurapika ignored the comment. “I can if you wish it.”

Killua rolled his eyes. “And you can if you want to. Jeez, do you always have to be so formal? We’re your friends.” Gon nodded once more, slurping his noodles with more noise than necessary. 

He didn’t acknowledge their offered friendship. “I’ll have to ask the Emperor. I’m not sure if I’d even be allowed to attend.”

Killua groaned. “C’mon, he’s not the boss of you.”  

Kurapika raised an eyebrow, tilting his head in a show of skepticism. Killua relented.

“Okay, so he kind of is, but that doesn’t mean you can’t break the rules from time to time.” 

“Yeah, Killua breaks the rules all the time,” Gon chimed in. “His parents aren’t very happy at the end, though, so I don’t know if you wanna do that. The Emperor seems nice enough, though.”

Kurapika snorted. "Nice enough to let me say goodbye before killing me off, maybe." 

Killua looked like he was about to say something when his eyes went wide. He jabbed Gon with his elbow and the boy turned to him with a mouthful of chicken, then his head snapped forward and his expression mirrored Killua’s. They were awe-struck, and as far as Kurapika could tell, there was only one person who could make them act like that. 

“Your Majesty,” he spoke, cooly, glancing over his shoulder to where the Emperor stood by the door. He looked as he usually did, dressed in all black. The child following him around, however, was a bit of a change. Their eyes met, and the child glanced away, cheeks growing red. From his robes, he withdrew a light purple fan and the redness in his face was soon obscured by the thin material. Then his eyes fell on Killua and Gon, and he folded it back into its original form, eyes glaring.

The Emperor seemed to notice as well, if his cautious glance was anything to go by. He walked toward Kurapika, who stood to meet him, and the Emperor surprised him with a kiss to the cheek.

"Nice to know you have such faith in me, my love," the Emperor whispered, wrapping an arm around his waist.

Killua stayed quiet, for once, knowing their situation was a bit precarious. Or perhaps he was too busy staring down the child.

“You’ve got something to say, don’t you?” Killua said, eyeing him with a weary gaze. “Out with it.” 

The child sniffed and glanced away, as if he’d caught sight of something distasteful but was too polite to mention it outright. “Mother will be angry when she finds out you’re still hanging around a servant boy. Illumi, too.” 

“Yeah, well, they’d better get used to feeling angry,” Killua muttered, propping his chin upon his forearm, which was settled atop his knee. “He’s my servant, not theirs. I decide whether or not he can follow me around.”

The boy glared, but dropped the subject, turning to Alluka instead. “What’s he doing out.” 

He?

Alluka’s face crumpled for just a second, but she struggled to pull it back together and put a smile on her face. “Hi, Kallu –”

The boy turned his face away sharply, and Alluka shrunk back again. Gon appeared beside her and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, and she managed a weak smile again, her hands clenching in the fabric of her green skirt. 

“Father said to keep him in the house,” the boy went on. “You’ll get into trouble like this.”

“What? Are you gonna tell on us?” 

They stayed quiet. Killua was standing now, with a posture Kurapika thought unbefitting of an interaction between two siblings. But, no. Killua might be sharp-tongued and unrefined in many ways, but he wasn’t someone who would turn to violence, especially not against his own brother. Kurapika turned to the Emperor, but was only met with that familiar calculating gaze. He’d have a talk with him later. 

It wasn't Killua or Kalluto who reaffirmed the threat in the end.

“I can go back.” Alluka’s hands were shaking as she spoke, but she stood anyway. Killua moved to stop her, but Kurapika was faster. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, and she looked up with glassy eyes. 

“It’s not my place to ask this of you, but what exactly are you going back to?” Kurapika asked, ignoring the look the boy with the fan gave him. 

“It’s not that bad,” Alluka replied, placing her hand on top of his. “I have everything I could want there. It’s just a little lonely sometimes.” Killua scoffed at that, and Alluka glared at him, before taking Kurapika’s hand in her smaller one. “I’ll be fine. Thank you, though.”

He was tempted to ask more questions, but Alluka was already on the verge of tears, and he knew better than to force answers out of a child. Still.

“You can tell me the truth when you’re ready, then,” Kurapika said. He looked back at Killua, who was still standing behind a table of near-empty plates. “Either of you.”

Killua’s pained frown turned into a pained smile. “You sound like a dad.” He glanced away. “A good one, though.” A sigh escaped him, and Gon gazed up at him worriedly. “Come on, Gon. Let’s go. Thanks for the food, Kurapika. It was good.”

“No problem,” Kurapika said, as they passed between him and the Emperor. The doors closed behind them, leaving them with only the youngest sibling. The boy’s hand clenched around the fan at his side, and though his eyes were obscured, a scowl wavered on his face. He turned to them and bowed deeply. 

“Pardon my brothers, your Majesties,” he said, his head still lowered. “They are rambunctious but they mean well.” 

“Nonsense, their liveliness is quite refreshing,” the Emperor said, “and your sister seems like a charming young lady. Take care of her, Kalluto. She seems to be going through a lot.” 

Kalluto’s hands twisted around the fan, as if he was trying to break it. Kurapika caught sight of the gems swinging off its hilt, and the name etched into it in two elegant characters. It must’ve been a family heirloom. “I’ll keep that in mind, your majesty.”  

“You call Alluka your brother.” Kurapika could’ve kept his mouth shut but the challenge in the Emperor’s eyes drove him forward. “Why?” 

“Because that’s what he is,” Kalluto said, his small hands clenched into fists. He was so young, full of pain and the signs of a family that didn't love enough. “Illumi said so. And Mother and Father.”

Alright, so it seemed like their fight would lie with those three.

Kurapika caught himself. Fight? What fight? He had an Emperor to murder, this was no time to be fighting custody battles. 

“Kalluto?” 

“Yes, your Majesty.”

Kurapika kneeled down to be on eye level with him. “When you have the time, talk to your sister again.”

“Talk?”

“Something tells me you don’t do that very often,” Kurapika sighed. “Give it a try. You might learn something from one another.”

The boy seemed reluctant but nodded nonetheless, his glossy hair bobbing up and down with the movement. 

Kurapika smiled, eyes softening. “Thank you.” 

The red returned to Kalluto’s cheeks, and Kurapika had the feeling people didn’t thank him for things very often. What a family this was. The Zoldycks had a lot of explaining to do.

Kurapika shut down the idea before it could spark anything more substantial. 

Kalluto exited the room on quiet feet, his socks making the faintest noise against the hardwood floor. He slid the doors open, bowed one last time, and shut the doors, giving the Emperor and Kurapika some much-needed privacy. The silence hung heavy around them, as Kurapika rolled one of his hands into a fist. And then, deciding it was too late to be smart about this, he aimed for his abdomen. 

The Emperor caught his hand with ease at the last second. When he swung another arm at him, he caught it as well, and Kurapika dismissed the thought of how much larger his hands were. Maybe he just had a thing for big hands. A hand fetish? Impossible. It was just him. He made everything disgustingly attractive. Ah, wait, he was supposed to be furious with him, not admiring the way his fingers caressed the skin of his wrist, his palm. 

“I must admit, I was expecting you to go for the face,” the Emperor commented, pulling him closer. “Will you behave yourself or should I restrain you for the remainder of our interactions.” 

Behave yourself . Kurapika scowled. He was not some sort of wild animal that needed to be tamed. He relented, however, and nodded. The warmth retreated with him and Kurapika took a step back for good measure. “People would get suspicious if you ended up with a black eye. The stomach is a much safer bet, as long as I don’t use too much force.” 

“You had enough time to figure out where to punch, but not to reconsider using violence in the first place?” 

Kurapika scoffed. “Please, you deserve worse than a mere punch to the gut.” 

An eyebrow arched, but the Emperor was clearly amused by his demeanor. “Oh, what did I do this time, little Prince?” His hand ghosted over the fabric of his sleeve, until it reached his hand once more. Their fingers intertwined, and Kurapika gave him a curious look. The Emperor simply shrugged. Just because, huh?   Fine, it wasn’t an unpleasant experience anyway.

“You meant for those kids to run into one another,” Kurapika said, “and also knew their relationship isn’t the best. You lead them into an unnecessary altercation.” 

His expression turned cold for a second, but then a slow, languid smile replaced the frigidity. “I did.”

“I thought you’d draw the line at emotionally manipulating children at least,” Kurapika said, as the Emperor passed him in his black robes. The gold embroidery on his sleeves, his back shimmered in the colors of their phoenix. He followed him in his own pastels, though neither of them were as innocent or as virtuous as their clothing might make them appear. 

“I was only pushing them in the right direction,” the Emperor replied. “Besides, now we know that not all is well with the Zoldycks. The daughter’s situation is particularly worrying. You might not believe me, but I do want to help them. It seems our intentions are aligned in that regard.” He glanced back at him, and Kurapika froze, catching his breath as if he’d been caught sneaking in a jug of soju. “Don’t do anything drastic, though. The Zoldycks are powerful.”

“That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t face consequences for treati ng their children in such a way,” Kurapika muttered. “I’ll try to be discreet, though, if I do decide to take action.”

The Emperor’s hand brushed through gold locks. “I appreciate it. We wouldn’t want you getting in any more trouble.”

There was a moment of silence, “I’m still mad at you.” 

He laughed, “I’ll take your word for it.” 

He wasn’t taking him seriously. Well, that was nothing new. 

“Did you mean what you said?” 

Kurapika met his eyes. “What?”

“Do you think a few conversations will be enough to mend their relationship?” he clarified, sitting down on the divan. Kurapika remained standing, staring down at him. He considered his words, though he didn’t really need to. 

“No, but I think it’s a decent place to start. Talking is the first step to understanding someone, after all, and I think that’s one of Kalluto’s issues with Alluka. Well, that and his apparent desire for Killua’s attention. That much is obvious from the way he addresses him.” 

The Emperor stared at him, blankly.

“You got none of that, did you?” 

A sheepish look, one he’d only seen a handful of time, graced them. “I’ve never been able to read children,” The Emperor admitted. “They’re so straightforward . . . it’s almost off-putting.” 

“Yes, honesty is quite terrifying, especially for someone who has made a living on lies,” Kurapika replied, snidely.

The Emperor gave him an unimpressed glare. “You’re quite talkative today. Not worried about the guards?” 

“I sent them away to give us some privacy,” Kurapika said. “They’re not far from here. Besides, I’m not threatening you, I’m simply being emotional because the man I cherish so is revealing his true colors. Woe is me.” He pressed a hand to his chest as if someone had just ripped his heart out. The Emperor rolled his eyes. Seemed he wasn’t the only moody one today, for a change.

He wouldn’t ask, though. Absolutely not. Not on his life.

“Is something wrong?”

The Emperor fixed him with an indiscernible expression. “Why do you ask?” 

“You’re responding to my remarks with something other than cruel amusement at my suffering. It’s odd,” he replied. 

Another teasing grin. “Oh, are you worried, little Prince?”

“Don’t push it.” 

He chuckled, and the sound filled him with a bubbling warmth, but he ignored it and let his indignance fuel him instead. “I’ve had a long day, that’s all.” 

“Liar.” 

Another laugh. “Well then, it seems you’ll have to have a few more conversations with me to understand then.” 

“I don’t want to understand you.” 

The Emperor bowed his head, and Kurapika couldn’t quite see his expression, but he was certainly smiling. “Has anyone ever told you you’re full of contradictions?” 

“I make perfect sense, thank you very much,” Kurapika scoffed, hardly believing he was having this conversation with the Emperor. “Besides, talking isn’t going to help us any.”

He looked back up, his cheek leaning against his palm. “Oh, what is going to help us then?”

Death, probably. 

He couldn’t say that, though. So, he stayed silent.

“Actually,” the Emperor said, straightening, hands folding in his lap. “I have a request to make of you.” 

“Is it more of your paperwork?”

Our paperwork. But no. It’s our spy. She . . . well, she’s rather tight-lipped at the moment,” the Emperor said, looking askance. Kurapika narrowed his eyes, suspicious. He knew they’d sent a spy for the Tserriednich case, but he hadn’t been told the extent of her assignment. It couldn’t have been pleasant.

“What did you have her do?”

“Well, she agreed to it.” 

“I know. I’m not going to get angry at you for her decision,” he considered. “Unless you pressured her into it, in which case I’ll be sure to make things a little more painful for you. Otherwise, it would be an insult to her agency to blame you instead.” 

“How thoughtful of you.” 

“Out with it.”

The Emperor sighed. “She posed as a courtesan at a brothel Tserriednich was supposed to be targeting, according to Shal. He would send his men, as usual, and she would be taken to him. Our perfect witness.”

“And now she won’t talk.”

The Emperor shook his head.

“That’s only to be expected.” Kurapika sat down on one of the embroidered cushions, solemn now. “Tserriednich enjoys torturing his victims before he murders them. In more ways than one. Can’t imagine why. I guess murdering them isn’t enough.”

“Did he?” the Emperor trailed off, though by the way his eyes passed over him, it wasn’t hard to guess what he meant. 

“Yes, he did,” Kurapika’s arms wrapped around himself. “I wouldn’t tell you a thing either. You’re demanding a lot from this woman, forcing her to relive that night. But . . . I understand why you’re trying so hard. We have no other real witnesses. Other than myself, and you’ve already made your thoughts on that clear.” 

“Can you speak with her?”

Kurapika clamped his mouth shut, biting his lip. He’d never spoke with anyone about Tserriednich. Every time he so much as mentioned it, his voice shook. There was too much anger, frustration, fear, even if no one had ever made him feel as hopeless as the Emperor himself, Tserriednich certainly came close. It was something of a comfort, however. To know that even if he’d been reduced to this rage, at least the person was worthy of it. Tserriednich wasn’t worthy of anything, much less Kurapika’s obsessive fury. 

I’m glad it was you . I wish you’d turned out differently, so maybe I would to. Ah, but it was too late for those feelings. Their pasts were already set in stone. The future could be persuaded, however.

“I’ll try, but I won’t do it to get answers.”

“Your intentions are your own,” the Emperor replied, obviously relieved. It was nice to seem him out of his depth for once, adrift in the confusing pools of human psyches, met with someone who was suddenly unable to respond to his charms. It was even nicer to know that he was relying on Kurapika to fill in the gaps. A bit of a power trip, if you will. He could get used to that.

. end of chapter . 

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites:

Chapter 21:

The Consort’s Group Therapy

Palm had been staying with her old teacher, Knov, with whom she apparently had a decent relationship. At least, that was what the Emperor had told him. Now it seemed she could hardly stay in the same room as the man. 

It had been early on a Wednesday, and Kurapika had arrived dressed in a blue and gold hanbok, complete with a wide length of embroidered cloth around his waist. Knov had answered the door for him, and the mentor was as straight-laced as one would imagine. Not a single strand of long, dark hair was out of place, and not one crease marred his crisp clothing. He stood aside and allowed him to enter. His apartment was just as well-kempt as he was: every surface polished to a gleaming shine, not a single book on the large wooden bookshelf out of place, not a speck of dirt staining the floor. Kurapika sat down at a circular table, the scent of bitter black tea wafting from a spotless navy blue kettle. The walls were a muted white, scattered with painted leaves. None of the buildings of the Outer Palace compared to the grandeur of the Inner Palace, but that didn’t mean there was nothing worth admiring in their more simplistic architecture. And even then, the officials that stayed within those walls never wasted any time in splurging on expensive decor.

“I hope you don’t mind, I don’t keep any sweeteners within my house,” Knov said, as a young maid in pink poured them some tea. “I like to enjoy all my beverages and food items in their purest forms. Also, Palm has such a sweet tooth, I fear for her health sometimes.” He glanced at the maid. “Could you please fetch Palm for us, Min-Seo?”

She bowed. “Of course, sir.” 

As quickly as she’d disappeared, Min-Seo returned with a downtrodden woman who could only be the Palm in question. 

“Your majesty, may I introduce my greatest pupil, Palm Siberia. She was the spy who infiltrated the Jeong-won, a prominent brothel in the red light district of Daejeong, and was subsequently captured by Tserriednich.” Knov brought the rim of his own cup of tea to his lips. It was blue, decorated with green flowers. “That’s all I know about that night.” He turned to Palm. “Miss Siberia, please sit.” 

She remained standing, her arms crossed, fingers digging into the indigo fabric of her hanbok. 

Knov sighed. “I understand. I will take my leave now. Don’t worry. His majesty is a kind man. You can trust him with whatever you’d like.” He passed her, and she barely lifted her eyes off the ground. That was where Knov left them, the sound of his footsteps slowly fading away as the two remaining occupants surveyed one another: one a former Jeong-won courtesan, the other a fake. 

“I won’t order you around,” Kurapika began, placing his clay cup down on the table. His hands felt hot. Who served hot tea on a sweltering day like this anyway? The humidity outside was nearly unbearable. “But, it would be terribly awkward if only one of us was sitting here.”

Palm didn’t move, her hands still clenched on her arms, her mouth sealed shut.

“What’s even more awkward is a one-sided conversation,” Kurapika murmured, just loud enough for her to hear. He leaned his chin on his palm, looking out one of the large brass windows. It was so crowded in the outer palace, it might as well be a small village of its own. Officials and their families populated these streets, strolling by clinics and residences. The capital city lay around the Palace, as did his old home and his parents’ bakery. The Palace had been such a distant place back then, grand and secretive. That grandness had quickly faded away. 

Still, it was unmistakably beautiful, not unlike its Emperor. Gardens lent a floral scent to the summer breeze, the sun blinked at him through jewel-encrusted glass, people of all ages went about their day, undoubtedly aware of the heavy weight of the Emperor’s watchful gaze. It was the only thing keeping the peace between so many warring ideologies and ambitions. Soon, that peace might be stripped away because of him. 

But for now, he would focus on keeping these people safe. It was the least he could do. 

“Palm, when was the last time you went outside?” 

The woman’s purple-rimmed eyes, those that pocketed all those sleepless nights, widened just a fraction. “What?”

Kurapika turned to her, sunlight cascading up and down his form as if it was dancing through the window. He smiled, gentle, sincere. “You look like you could use some fresh air is all.” 

Pink, just the slightest hint, grazed her ashen cheeks. Her hands clutched one another. “I’m not sure if I can.”

“Oh,” he glanced down, hoping his acting skills weren’t too rusty. Carefully, he pushed some blond hair back behind his ear, his lips pulling down into a weak, wobbly smile. “I understand.” 

Palm pouted, nails biting into her skin. Then, she replied in a strained voice, “Well, I suppose . . . I can manage a few minutes.” 

“Wonderful,” he said, cheerful now, as he got to his feet. Palm jumped a bit at the movement. The unmistakable expression of someone chastising themselves crossed her face: a slight scowl, the appearance of wrinkles on her forehead and the bridge of her nose, and a painful squint around purple eyes. He knew it well. 

Slowly, so as to not startle her again, he made his way to the door and pushed it aside. 

“I’ll let Knov know where we’re going,” he said. “Do you know where he might be?” 

“At this time, usually in his office doing paperwork. Mostly reports for his Imperial Majesty,” she replied. “It’s at the end of the hallway.” 

Kurapika thanked her and made his way toward the end of the hallway, pretending to ignore the sound of someone scrambling around the room Palm had pointed to. Either Knov was doing some midday exercising or he was trying to hide something.

The door to Knov’s office was unassuming, smaller than the others, though knowing what he did about the man, Kurapika wasn’t surprised. His knuckles tapped against the dark, near-black wood, and Knov’s even, tranquil voice replied in kind. Gently, he slid the doors aside, eyeing his surroundings as he leaned against the doorframe. There was nothing particular he’d planned to look for, it was simply in his nature to analyze whatever life threw at him. Knov’s workplace was far more organized than the Emperor’s, and the decor was a rather mundane mixture of creams, browns, and greys. It was minimally furnished, just like the rest of the house, consisting of a few cushions, a desk, and one long, grey shelf of books and other documents.

“Is there something wrong, your majesty?” Knov asked, a small grey book in one of his hands, his glasses at the tip of his nose.

“Palm and I are going on a short stroll through the nearby gardens, so I thought I would inform you before our departure,” Kurapika said. 

Knov looked up, and his acting skills were nearly on par with Kurapika’s. Not quite there yet. His eyes clearly showed he wasn’t as surprised as the rest of his face made him appear. “You’re going outside?” 

“Yes, not too far from here,” Kurapika replied. “I’m assuming that’s alright with you.”

“Of course. Take as much time as you need. I’ll be here.” 

“Thank you.” He turned to leave, then reconsidered, swiveling back just enough to face Knov again. “By the way, your book is upside down. I don’t think that’s a very effective way of gleaning information, but to each their own, I suppose.” 

Knov glanced down at the little grey volume, then back up at him. “It’s a mental exercise.”

“But of course.” He bowed, doing his best to mitigate the mocking tone in his voice and movements. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

With that hanging between them, Kurapika shut the door. He’d taunt the Emperor about this later, right now he had a conversation to tend to. 

Palm stood outside now, still holding herself as if she might fall apart at any second. She showed no signs of having listened in on their conversation, but Kurapika had no way of confirming that suspicion. 

“Shall we go, Palm-ssi?” he asked. 

The already jittery woman nearly jumped out of her skin at that, but she quickly regained her composure and nodded. “Yes, your Majesty.” 

The two of them proceeded to the large oak entrance. Kurapika pulled on the iron door handle and allowed his companion to pass through first. They weren’t outside of Knov’s large hanok yet. The house, like many others in the community, was surrounded by a stone fence. A small garden was laid out on the property as well, along with a rather noisy fountain. Ideally, they would’ve been able to leave the premises entirely, but it was clear Palm had lost something more than just her ability to speak on the matter. She was too scared to leave this place. It wasn’t surprising. Kurapika would’ve reacted similarly, if he’d been given a choice.

“Would you like to sit down?” he asked, gesturing toward the stone fountain. It was cooler by the water, he found, and the stone had managed to remain untouched by the summer heat despite its prevalence everywhere else. Palm sat down on the edge, watching the water as it rippled away from the center. The movement revealed a light scar on her neck, and Kurapika was met with yet another conundrum. How exactly was he supposed to bring up Tserriednich? Hell, he didn’t even want to talk about the Prince, Palm was probably just as aversive to the idea. But, perhaps it was what they both needed.

He glanced around the premises once more, and then let out a sigh that was promptly swept up by the water.

“I must apologize to you, Palm-ssi.”

“What?” 

He lowered his gaze to a stone dragon near a bundle of fragrant rose bushes. Flowering plants had begun to reach their peak now, probably lasting long into July, and Knov seemed to have a fondness for them. They outlined the walls and the narrow stone path leading to the gate the encompassed the hanok, creating a loving array of hues. Such a beautiful scenery for such a terrible topic, he almost felt guilty.

“The mission you were a part of was partially my fault,” he replied, lifting his gaze up to a pear tree. “The Emperor began to target Tserriednich for my sake.” 

“What did he do to you?” 

Kurapika smiled, but it was a weak and bitter expression, one of pent-up anger and hatred. “I think you know better than most.” He turned to her again, appearing apologetic. “I’m sorry, I’ve crossed the line again, haven’t I? Bringing up something like this.” 

“No,” Palm said, leaning in, her hand hovering over his, but not quite. “It’s not that. I understand that it’s a topic a lot of people seem to find interest in. Plus, there’s the trial. And I . . . I need to get my act together.” 

“On the contrary, I think it’s perfectly sensible to let it go, just a little bit,” Kurapika replied. “Strength is not synonymous with stoicism, after all. There’s strength in taking the time to heal, Palm. No one deserves an answer from you.” 

“And you?” 

“I’m here to talk,” Kurapika said. “The trial has little to do with it. You can talk about yourself or just listen to me ramble on forever. Whichever you prefer. Call it peer counseling. I’ve been told I have a lovely voice.” 

A genuine smile crossed Palm’s face for the first time since he’d arrived there. “I don’t understand one thing. Why did the Fourth Prince target you? Weren’t you a nobleman?” 

“Nothing of the sort,” Kurapika said, letting a laugh frame his voice. “My parents were bakers. They died when I was sixteen, and, well, I had to find some way to make ends meet. I had an ill best friend to take care of.”

“Impossible. The Palace would’ve never accepted a brothel worker as a member of the Emperor’s harem,” she spluttered, though her interest was piqued.

“Well, I was quite a high-ranking courtesan. Perhaps you’ve heard of me, the Madame always referred to me as the Golden Chrysanthemum.” The very title made his stomach churn uncertainly, but he maintained his easy-going demeanor. 

Palm’s countenance appeared shocked, her eyebrows inching upwards on her forehead. “I heard the other women talk about you. You were one of their prized courtesans, before you –”

“Vanished into thin air? Had to cover my tracks, after all,” Kurapika replied. 

“They allowed you to leave? The Madame seems so strict,” Palm said, her hands threading through her loose black hair nervously. “And her contracts are so lengthy.”

“I had a rather unique contract. She knew I’d be leaving. Was probably glad for it, too. She never liked me very much, even though I was something of a money-spinner for her entire establishment.” Probably because he kept accidentally slipping too many sleeping draughts into his clients’ tea. They never noticed, so Kurapika hadn’t a clue why she made such a fuss about it. 

“How did you ever recover . . . from something like that?” Palm asked, somewhat curious.

“I’m not sure if I have,” Kurapika replied, “but I grew used to the memories keeping me awake, until I found that I wasn’t scared of them anymore.” He’d read that line in a book at some point, when he was trying to feel a bit better just to survive. Frivolous nonsense in his opinion. The only thing that comforted him was the idea of a dead Emperor, and even that didn’t satiate him anymore.“Well, I’m not sure if I was ever scared. It was more the feeling of pain, and –”

“Guilt.”

“I had nothing to be guilty for,” he replied. “I had never seen the work courtesans do as immoral, or at least, I never saw the men and women who worked there as immoral. If there’s anyone to blame, it’s the ones that take advantage of them. That’s the way I saw it, anyway. You seem to feel differently?”

The wind, carrying the smells of fried foods and fragrant blossoms, brushed past them, as if cleaning the air of their conversation. “I’m ashamed of the person I was before.” 

“Most people are.”

“Professor Knov had always been so kind to me, and I’d clung onto him so tightly. Back then, I would’ve killed for him, even if he didn’t want me to. I gave up so much to prove myself worthy to the Emperor. I have so much I would’ve changed.”

“There’s nothing you can do about the past.” He knew that better than most. If he could’ve changed the past, his parents would’ve never left the village. He would’ve never gotten into those fights. They’d have never seen a single stone of the Palace gates. He would’ve said no to Mother, or at least to Tserriednich’s representatives. “But, we still have a lot of time left. It’s a bit overwhelming sometimes. What are we to do for the remainder of our lives? Scary thought, isn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Palm replied, running her hand through a lock of dark hair. “Before this, I would’ve liked to spend it all with Professor Knov.” 

“Oh, you sound like you were quite fond of him.” 

“I was in love,” she said, wistfully, and Kurapika could only guess her feelings were unrequited. Knov was too professional to pursue one of his students. Beyond that, he was too caught up in his own work to search for a partner.

“Was?”

“It’s not enough anymore. I feel . . . lost.”

Maybe that was a good thing, Kurapika thought. Loving someone wasn’t exactly a healthy way of life, not when there was nothing else to hold onto. 

Now, what would those self-help books say at a moment like this. “I’m sure. You’ve had a lot taken from you. Trust in time, things will come together in the end.”

“You talk like you’ve completely recovered,” Palm said, eyeing him, taking in his face and gestures in the calculated movements of a seasoned veteran, “but you seem like you’re chained down by your demons more than you show.”

She was perceptive, he’d give her that, but she was also beginning to trust him, slowly. 

“I am. To be honest, I’m not the best person to be giving you advice on recovery. I’m simply repeating what I’ve been told. I’m only here because I had a goal to follow through on.” Mother had given him his road, his path, his destiny as the Emperor’s bane. What happened when that road stopped? He didn’t want to imagine it. If he did, he tried to envision a life with Leorio and Pairo, somewhere far away, but his eyes saw only a tiny vial of poison with his name on it. 

“You make your own?”

“If only it were that easy.”

Palm was staring at him, he knew that, but for some reason, he couldn’t look her in the eyes. He saw, from the corner of his eye, her fist roll up. “Can I tell you about what happened?”

“I’m all ears.”

“You have some strange idioms, Kurapika.”

“Courtesy of my mother, may she rest in peace.”

Palm smiled, solemn. “She must’ve been an interesting woman.” 

He thought of his mother and her wild antics. All her weapons were still locked up in their bakery, though no one knew where now. If Ryusei’s capital city ever came under attack, their house alone could probably provide enough ammunition for a complete victory. Her obsession had certainly taken root inside of her. Even so, she had been a good mother. Not that she would’ve known. He’d never bothered to tell her. Either of them, really.

Kurapika took a shaky breath, hoping the water would drown it out, but nothing could erase the tremble in his smile. “Yes, you could say that.”

Palm’s hand found his shoulder in a comforting gesture. “I’m sorry. Losing one’s parents is akin to losing part of oneself.” 

“It was a long time ago. I’ve moved on now.” He was lying through his teeth but she didn’t seem to notice. Or perhaps she didn’t care.

There was silence for a moment, as Palm organized her thoughts, attempted to lock away her emotions, though she’d failed. And then, when she seemed ready, she began in a quiet voice. “Truth be told, I don’t remember everything. When I was led into the carriage, I was knocked out almost immediately. Next thing I knew, I was in a room, and it was dark and hot, and I couldn’t move an inch. And there was this smell.”

“Lavender and dried blood,” Kurapika said. He remembered it well. “And the Fourth Prince.”

“Sitting in the corner, reading. There was a fire lit in the fireplace, even though it was already so hot. He only wore his baji, and he seemed harmless in that moment, I was almost certain we’d gotten the wrong person. Then, he asked me questions. About art, politics, biology. ‘Just checking to see what kind of person you are,’ he’d said. ‘To get to know you.’ And then, he asked me if I wanted to become something more valuable than what I was. And I asked him what. It was hard to say anything through the sedative. And then he showed me picture frames with tattooed skin, and told me about the people they belonged to. There were also eyes, hands, preserved in jars.” 

That was new. Or perhaps he had simply blocked the memory out of his mind.

Palm inhaled, shakily. “He branded me first, with an iron poker. I couldn’t move, but I could feel it all the same. And when I screamed, he just grinned wider . . .” She couldn’t go on. He could tell from the way her eyes shook. Slowly, he lifted his arms in invitation, and her smile wobbled and fell away. Her arms wrapped around him tightly, her face hidden in the folds of his jeogori.   

“I think that’s enough for today,” he said, feeling a twinge of guilt for urging Palm to reveal her experiences. There was a slight tremor in her shoulders now. Kurapika chewed on his bottom lip. He didn’t want to leave this interaction on such a bad note, but he wasn’t sure how they could bounce back from this in the time they had left. 

The sound of laughing children on the other side of the wall bubbled up in the air until a semblance of a plan suddenly built itself up in his mind. “Palm, would you like to go out to eat something?” 

“Eat?” 

“I remember it was hard for me to keep anything down afterward as well, but they say food is always a welcome distraction,” he said, moving away from her to stand. He raised his arms up above his head to stretch his muscles. His hands landed on his hips, and then he turned back to her with a grin. “My friend recommends at least a thirty-minute walk a day for a more peaceful mind.” 

Palm stood as well. “Is this friend of yours a doctor?” 

“He is, actually. Maybe we’ll bump into him. I’m sure you two would get along.”

“Oh?” 

His heart pounded a little faster at the memory of Leorio. A smile that belonged to a fool crept into his mouth, his eyes, corrupting him as his feelings had. “He has a way with people, even if he’s mostly an idiot.” 

“I see.” Oh dear, had she noticed? 

“Be-besides, the Emperor said I could have complete access to his own savings, so I intend to spend them all.” Damn, he’d stuttered. 

Palm’s eyebrows arched, eyes lit with anxiety. “I-is that wise? I don’t want you getting in trouble.” 

“Don’t worry about me. Contrary to popular belief, the Emperor’s emotions are buried so far into whatever oblivion he’d sent them off to, that he can’t even be bothered to care about those things.” He shrugged as he walked toward the wooden gate separating the Knov Household from the rest of the world. 

Palm followed him, a cautious curiosity in her steps. Not many people just insulted the Emperor out in the open like this. “He’s not a very attentive lover?” 

“He’s an arse, that’s about all he has going for him. Sure, he’s pretty, but what does it matter if his personality’s rotten. He’s like an apple with a bright red peel that’s disgusting in flavor. Not much good as a lover.” 

Her face had gone red at the last bit, and he realized that might have come off as less innocent than he’d intended.

“Not like that,” he added, briskly. 

“It’s alright, Kurapika-daegam, you are his consort after all. It’s not as if anyone expects you two to have no sexual interest in one another!” She said, far too loudly, but in her fluster, she’d lost track of her surroundings. 

He grinned, victorious. 

“What is it?” she asked, eyes still glued to him. “Something wrong?”

“Look around, Palm.” 

She did so, and for a moment, it looked like she might take a few steps back into the comfort of the walled hanok, and Kurapika would’ve done nothing to stop her. But then, her eyes fell on something in the distance, and she hurried toward it. Kurapika followed until his own gaze found the large Bungee Gum banner in front of a small store. 

No way .

“Kurapika~” a smooth voice whispered into his ear. Fuck. Too close, too close. It chuckled when he pushed himself away from the candy-colored owner. “Are you taking dear Palm out on a little date. Careful, you wouldn’t want his Majesty getting all jealous, who knows how he’d react.”

“How do you know Palm?” he asked, looking over his shoulder at the much taller man.

“She’s a dearly beloved customer at Bungee Gum Cosmetics , love.” Hisoka’s knuckles tapped against his cheek. “I’m just checking in to make sure everything is going smoothly. Of course, I also grabbed Illu out on a little date. Care to join us?”

“I’ll pass.” 

“Pity,” a pout, and then something a little more serious. “Keep track of your surroundings then, love. Not everyone here is a friend of yours.” He claps his hands together. “Oh well, I must be off to find Illu. Have fun on your not-date, love.”

He walked away, and Kurapika had no intention to follow him. His feet take him into the interior of the store. A whir of purple and cream bounced from one side of the store to the next, picking up various cosmetic products from the pine shelves. It was a small store, but its inventory was quite impressive. Palm came to a stop when she caught sight of him, and then another blur, and she was in front of him, her nails biting into the skin of his shoulders.

“Kurapika-daegam.”

“A-ah, what is it, Palm?” 

She looked up at him, her face feverish. “Let me do your makeup.”

“Wha – uh, okay?” He was suddenly being guided to a cushion and told to sit down. In front of him was a table and a large oak-framed mirror that showed much of his upper body. His windswept hair, his brown eyes, an expensive hanbok fitted to his slender form. 

Palm obscured his vision of himself, a wooden brush in her hand. She held it much like a serial killer held a knife before they cut through their victim. Skilled and mildly terrifying. “We’ll start with your face, then your eyes, and finally your lips. I think we’ll go for something a little more daring. Your features are already quite elegant, but they lack a lot of the sharpness we’re looking for.” 

Looking for?

He did not sign up to be treated like a doll.

. . .

“There,” she said, definitively, drawing her brush away from his lips, now coated with the color of raspberries in summer. “You look beautiful. I’m sure even the Emperor won’t be able to resist you like this.” 

The mirror came into view once more to reveal a perfectly manufactured face, one that Kurapika had grown used to in the brothel and had hoped to never see again. He pushed the thought away for Palm’s sake. Instead, he focused on the perfectly inked wing at the corner of his eyes, the copper dust spread across his eyelids, the peach color that had flooded his cheeks. The lip product would definitely stain, but it was pretty nonetheless.

“I didn’t know you were so skilled at this, Palm.” 

Palm blushed furiously at the compliment, twirling a finger around in her hair. “I’m only really an amateur. I have a long way to go. Dabbling isn’t enough.”

“But I take it you enjoy dabbling in it.”

Her face brightened with a grin, her hands clenching together on her lap. They were far too close again, but he allowed it. “Yes, very much! And clothes and hair as well.” 

“Palm.” He took her hand in his, and she blushed further. “I know this is sudden, but would you  like to become my personal stylist?”

She gasped, covering her mouth to hold in a squeal. “A stylist to royalty? Well, I . . . I would love to!” 

“I’ll talk it over with the Emperor, but I’m sure he’ll agree,” he said. “And you wouldn’t have to be a spy anymore either.”

“Oh.” Her eyes shifted to gaze at her lap.

“You never wanted to be a spy, did you?” 

A moment’s silence, and then a small shake of the head.

“Well,” he took her hands again. “Now, you won’t have to be.”

The shopkeeper, a young woman with purple hair who’d been silently minding her business behind a large table thus far, cleared her throat. “I do hope you plan on paying for all that.”

Kurapika felt his vindictiveness rise in him. He turned to Palm and patted her hand. “Feel free to buy whatever you want. The Emperor’s a wealthy man.” Her eyes lit up once more, and Kurapika laughed a triumphant laugh within his mind. This would be fun.

. . .

Once Palm had bought up nearly half the store and the two of them both had their fair share of baskets, they came across a shop selling savory soups, pancakes, and sweet-smelling bread. They were both in need of sustenance, and so came to the mutual agreement to buy as much food as would satiate them. However, as soon as they entered the shop, the shouts of a belligerent customer rang in their ears.

“What do you mean it’s 50,000 mun per pancake? That’s ridiculous! Not all of us are filthy rich here, you know?” 

What an idiot. Didn’t he know the cashier probably had very little say in this sort of thing? If he wanted change, he should’ve just asked for the manager. Leorio might’ve gotten along with him. Then again, even Leorio was smarter than this person. 

“Do you have any idea who I am?”

Wait.

“I’m the doctor who saved the Emperor’s best friend!”

No.

“Or at least I think she was his best friend. Anyway.”

No. No, no, no.

“I am Leorio Paladiknight!” 

Kurapika snaked his way through the crowd until he was right next to his lover.

“Leorio, leave them alone,” he said, his voice stern as his hand reached for Leorio's shoulder. The man brushed it off, almost aggressively, but then recognition rippled across his face.

“Kurapika!” he said, a grin on his face. 

He backed up a few steps. The man never managed to have a good sense of personal space. “What’s going on?”

“Tch,” he started, his fist slamming down on the table, as he glared down the poor cashier, who was putting up a faltering fight. “This swindler over here is charging 50,000 mun per pancake. Can you believe that? There’s no way it costs 50,000 mun to make one pancake.” 

“Our employees work very hard. We only want to compensate them properly. And our ingredients are the best in the country, so of course they’ll be more expensive. Buffoon,” said the cashier, looking tense in his chef’s uniform. They were young as well, with long, dark hair and brown eyes. Neither of them were going down without a fight. How did Kurapika always manage to get caught up in these situations?

“What’d you call me?”

“Leorio, that’s enough.”

“Huh? You’re taking his side?” 

“I’m not taking anyone’s side, Leorio, but you’re holding up the line. I’ll pay, so just order already.”

He shook his hands out in front of him. “No way, I can’t let you do that.” 

Someone in the crowd yelled, “Oh come on, just let him buy it already!”

Kurapika put a hand to his arm, noting the way he’d tensed in annoyance. “Let me pay. Call it the Emperor’s treat.” 

Leorio’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Are you using the Emperor’s money for all this?”

“Of course!” he said, cheerfully. “He gave me access to his own personal savings. Isn’t he so kind?”

“You’re terrible.” 

Kurapika lowered his voice to a whisper and tugged on Leorio’s shoulder to speak into his ear. “You have no idea.”

Then he turned to the cashier, and rattled off the most expensive meals on the menu. It was all very exciting. Would the Emperor be angry? He should be annoyed at the very least. Right?

Kurapika took Leorio to sit together with them, and as expected, he got along with Palm quite well. They waited at a long table in the corner of the crowded restaurant. By the time their food arrived, Leorio had already forgotten about his vitriol for the price tags. He talked their day away, until all the food was gone and Kurapika felt it was time for him to return to the Inner Palace. They escorted Palm to her home, and Leorio said he’d stay until they reached the gate separating them. Their only farewell was the brush of fingertips and a very platonic goodbye.

. . .

His rooms were left as they were before he’d gone to meet Palm in the morning. There was a bit of a chill in the suite now that the night has spread across the sky, but it was a comforting coolness, one that soothed his lungs as he headed for his bedroom. He needed to get out of these clothes, and the makeup was growing sticky from being worn all day. A spell of lightheadedness had hit him along the way, so a cool bath would be a welcome thing.

Darkness had fallen on his bedroom as well, save for the sprigs of moonlight escaping through the window. He stubbed his toe on the table, and cursed that second glass of wine Leorio had poured him. His inhibitions were already muddled. The wine hadn’t seemed that strong from the smell or taste, but apparently he’d misjudged it. Perhaps that was the reason it took him a good minute to notice the figure lounging on his bed. He had almost rid himself of the upper layer of his clothes, stripped down to his thin undershirt and his trousers, and was about to keep going regardless because it was dark and he doubted the man could see anything outside of a dim outline. He stuck to his underclothes, of course, because even in the absence of light, he could see the intensity in him. 

“Your Majesty,” he greeted, straightening. The Emperor stood up from the bed, and Kurapika still could hardly make out his features, but in a glimpse of moonlight, he caught a flash of steel in his gaze. Well, fuck.

“You certainly took your time.” 

“I didn’t realize I had a curfew,” he said, as the Emperor closed in on him.

“You don’t, but certain things shouldn’t need to be stated, wouldn’t you agree?”

This was either about the money, or the Emperor had stumbled across something Kurapika really didn’t need him knowing.

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites:

The Consort’s Memories

Pairo’s condition had worsened since their parents had disappeared. It came mostly in waves of fatigue and gradually worsening eyesight, often accompanied by heart palpitations. The first few weeks passed them by too quickly, Pairo resting in the other room, while Kurapika went about his business. He spent the day working in the library, and his nights tending to the bakery. Unfortunately, his baking skills were subpar compared to his father’s. Nothing too horrid in taste or indigestion, but certainly not at the level of mastery his father had carried with him. Aside from that, his mother’s bubbly personality had also vanished from the store, and even though Kurapika tried his best to replicate it, he’d always had difficulty connecting with people on the same level. Business, numbers, he could do those well enough, but there was evidently more to running a bakery than logic. Soon, customers dwindled, and they were left with an empty house and a lost legacy. 

“It’s alright, Kurapika,” Pairo whispered from his spot on the mat. Kurapika rummaged around the room as he got ready for his day job at the library. He disappeared behind a screen door. “You did your best.”

He didn’t answer, if only because he thought his voice would crack if he tried, and then there would be no trying to pretend everything’s alright. 

“Kurapika, we’ll be fine with the money your library job gets us,” Pairo said, “and the house was bought out by our parents already, so we don’t have to worry about that.”

That wasn’t the problem. Not only had Kurapika lost what his parents had worked so hard for – hours upon hours of setting up furniture, perfecting recipes, buying ingredients in bulk – but what if Pairo’s condition worsened further? They had enough money for food and other basic necessities, but not nearly enough to treat what was looking more and more like cardiovascular disease. 

“Kurapika, say something, please.” 

“I’m okay, Pairo,” he whispered, gently, his library uniform – a dull blue color – just as dreary as he felt on the inside. His smile, he tried to inject with warmth. Pairo could still see that much, as Kurapika pulled him into a hug. “We’ll be okay.’  

Arms tightened around him, but it was a weakened embrace, not the hugs they shared as children. He put his lips to Pairo’s temple, and then they parted ways, both eager to return to the other’s side as quickly as possible, if only because the loss of their parents had given them a newfound fear of being left alone.

. . .

Kurapika arrived at the library fifteen minutes before his shift. The building was quite large, fitting for the Capital city of Ryusei, with curved roofs and large, red wooden beams. It spread into a line of three clearly defined divisions and was elevated on a stone platform, as many buildings were. Inside, the halls were split into rooms, and the rooms divided by shelves of books and scrolls. Study spaces were provided in the form of tables carved from pine. Only rich scholars paid the library any mind. It was a public facility, but the common people often found themselves too busy to take advantage of the knowledge it provided. Kurapika had been an exception, as his parents had always emphasized education above all else and had filled his childhood with a love of books. They’d been so proud when he’d told them about his employment at such an establishment.

The job itself, however, was rather mundane. Not only that, but he was paid a mere 500,000 mun annually, hardly enough to support them both. Food, shelter, basic necessities, those were all accounted for, but what if one of them got sick? What if they lost their home somehow? What if the prices of crops rose again like they had a few years before the new Emperor came to power? So many uncertainties. He just wanted to be certain again. 

At least he had a job, and it was a stable one at that. Some weren’t as fortunate.

He tucked a piece of straw-colored hair behind his ear, as he traversed the well-organized labyrinth of books, a few volumes carried in the crook of his arm. The study areas got most of the light from the large windows, so the small spaces between shelves were quite dimly lit. Kurapika disliked the feeling of being confined, call it a case of mild claustrophobia, so he placed the books back into their slots and retreated back to the study space. His neck tingled, his brain taking note of the obvious staring before his eyes did. So he turned his head to look over his shoulder.

A woman, one that left him with the inkling of familiarity, sat at one of the three tables in the historical section he tended to. She wore her hair down, with only a flower pin of black roses attached to the right side of her head. Two parallel scars slashed across her left eye, leaving it permanently shut. Aside from that, her features were soft, her eyes downturned and kind, her lips pulled into a small smile. She wore light colors, dusty pinks and blues. Still, wariness settled in Kurapika’s stomach as he walked toward her. Part of him offered to ignore the strange woman, but he was an employee, first and foremost, and he needed to look after his clients’ well-being.

“Is there something you need?” he asked, knowing his tone was a bit rude. He couldn’t help it, so he didn’t try anymore. 

“No, I was just surprised at the resemblance between you and your mother,” she said. “It’s uncanny. How you’ve grown in the past few years. There must be quite a few young people looking to have you in their bed.” 

At first, he’d been willing to hear her out. Any friend of his mother’s had to be a decent person at least. Now, friendship be damned. He was sick of his looks getting the wrong type of attention.

“That’s highly inappropriate, Miss. Now, if that’s all, I’d like to take my leave.” He bowed and stepped away. He had more books to sort. 

“Would you like to know where your parents are?”

He paused, not bothering to look back at her. “What?”

“Surely, you haven’t given up on them yet?” Her voice was polite, unassuming, despite the content of her words.

His temper flared, and he was facing her once more. “I haven’t. Are you done antagonizing me now? Tell me what you know.” 

She seemed to consider his words for a second, as if there was anything to consider. “Very well, take a seat.”

His lips thinned in thought. He really shouldn’t be slacking off, nevermind doing so for the sake of a stranger. However, he wanted confirmation, he craved certainty, and so, he took a seat across from the woman. His hand was seized by the woman’s, who started drawing lines in his palm with her fingers.

“My name is Morena,” she said. “I was a friend of your parents.”

“I don’t care, tell me what you know of their disappearance,” Kurapika snapped, though his voice was hardly above a whisper. He snapped a lot these days. 

Morena, if that was even her name, didn’t seem to care that he’d used such a tone with her. She even smiled a bit. “Your parents were involved with the riot a few weeks ago. The Emperor had been prepared to greet them, with fire and a dozen armed men. It was a slaughterhouse.”

“No dead were found in that incident.”

“Oh, but no one has come back either, have they?”

Kurapika took a nearly imperceptible breath through his nose to calm himself, his jaw tightening. “They’re not dead.” His mother knew her way around a variety of weapons, and her hand-to-hand combat was the best he’d encountered. And certainly, his father wasn’t much of a fighter, but he was smart, he could get himself out of any situation. They could. They had to. Kurapika might be nearing adulthood in many books, but he’d only just turned sixteen and he was feeling more and more like a child in a world of giants just waiting for him to crumble between their fingers. He still needed them. Pairo needed them.

“Oh? Why have they not returned then?”

Kurapika had gone through this conversation in his head multiple times, and his answers had become ingrained in his brain. Anything. Anything but his parents’ corpses rotting away in some dungeon. Deep in his heart, he hoped the rumors of the Emperor’s cruelty were false. “They’re probably in confinement. They’ll be released upon proving their innocence involving the fires that night.”

“You can certainly delude yourself, can’t you?” 

Kurapika stood up and prepared to stomp away. “This is a waste of time. You’ve yet to tell me anything of importance. I’m leaving.”

“I can prove it to you,” her voice rang, so incredibly persuasive to the ear. “But you have to calm down and sit.” 

“You’ve given me no reason to trust what you say. You were friends with my mother? Half the city claims to be, and I’ve no doubt strangers would say the same thing if it meant getting under my skin.” Kurapika’s confident tone wasn’t replicated in his inner voice. A part of him just wanted to grab onto anything, anyone to blame. He was angry, scared, positively shaking from it, and he needed something concrete to hate. If she was lying, then his parents were still alive and everything could return to how it was before. If she was telling the truth, then at least he had someone to wipe off the face of this filthy planet.  

“I can get you into the Inner Palace. If you can’t believe anything else, then at least believe that. I only want to avenge your mother’s spirit.” 

“How do you plan on accomplishing that? The Palace is heavily guarded. No one could possibly get in.” 

Morena let out an exhale, mimicking an exasperated laugh. She stood and approached him a step at the time until he was backed up against the cool wall, his head next to a mural of a large dog. Her lips settle a few inches away from his ear, so he could hear her breathing to an uncomfortable degree. His muscles tightened as he tried not to push her away. The last thing he wanted was to appear weak. 

“The only people who don’t need a pass are prisoners, after all. I can get you your blueprints, and you can get yourself into the prisoners’ cart. They’ll transfer you right to the dungeons where they’d be keeping your lovely parents. Well, if what you say is true. Otherwise, their chances are slim.” She moved out of his space a bit, just to cup his cheek with a hand. “You’ll have to get yourselves out on your own of course, but that shouldn’t be too hard for a bright young man like you.” Her breath smelled sweet, a bit like mulled wine, and he wondered how sober she was.

“You speak as if I’ve already accepted your offer,” he said, calmly, as he pushed her hand away. “I have not, and I don’t plan on it.” 

She laughed, covering her mouth with her hand. Then she gestured with an open palm toward him. “You can turn it down, and I won’t stop you. Go back home and wait for your friend to die, tend to your shop and your absurd hope. That seems like a lovely time. But tell me, will you be satisfied with that sort of answer?”

They stared at one another for a few seconds, and Kurapika wanted to reject her, go home and tell Pairo about the crazy alcoholic he’d met at the library today and laugh about it, not that they did much of that anymore.

“Send me those blueprints.”

Morena’s kind face split into a terrifying smile, and his heart sank further. “I knew you’d see reason, my dear Kurapika.” 

. . .

Morena was good on her word, and a few days later a set of blueprints arrived in the hands of a messenger. He’d tried his best to keep it all a secret from Pairo, but his friend was too clever to be fooled, and being alone for half a day gave him plenty of time to sniff out Kurapika’s secrets. It all came down to one of their worst confrontations since the beginning of their friendship and quite possibly the first time Pairo had screamed at him. It had frightened Kurapika a bit to see his friend enter such a fury. That was his forte, after all. They’d both apologized later that night, and then spent their slumber cuddling close on Pairo’s mat, cups of cooling green tea on either side of them.

And now they were here, waiting for the wagon of prisoners to pass by their bakery, parading the Emperor’s power without a single word. Everyone heard it though, “Behold, I can take you at any time, uproot you from your lives, strip you of your belongings and your loved ones, until your deaths, until you swear your lives are mine.” 

“Officer!” a young woman with sa short bob of black hair, wearing a green hanbok, ran toward one of the riders. “Officers, please, we need your help! Someone just ran off with my younger sister. Please, please, you must rescue her.”

That was her then. One of Morena’s ‘friends’. If the rest went according to plan, then only one guard would be left for them to deal with.

Indeed, three of the four soldiers followed the woman’s directions in pursuit of someone who probably didn’t exist, partially because it was their job, and partially because she was a beautiful woman in distress. Some people were so predictable. 

The remaining soldier stood in front of the door of the enclosed wagon, chatting up the young woman, who seemed bored now that her part had ended. Kurapika and Pairo took this opportunity to sneak up behind the soldier and cover his mouth with a ragged cloth that had been drenched in chloroform, something Morena had supplied them with while in a brief meeting before their prison break.

“My knights in shining armor,” the woman teased, playful now. Pairo blushed because his illness hadn't gotten rid of his shyness or his tendency to develop crushes too quickly. “You know what to do. We’ll take care of the prisoners you replace. Just focus on getting out of there when the time comes.” 

She turned to the doors, taking a pin out of her hair and bringing herself to eye level with the lock. In seconds, there was a soft click, and she pulled the lock down and off the cage. 

“There you go, boys,” she said, peering into a compartment of confused prisoners, tied up with rope on their hands and feet. Over their heads, someone had put on cloth sacks, the type one used to hold rice or flour. Kurapika disliked the idea of losing his sight, even for a second, but if they were going to be prisoners, they’d have to commit to their roles.

“We’re conducting a standard checkup to make sure you’re all here,” Kurapika said, as authoritatively as he could, stepping into the darkness. There were three small windows on either side of the wagon, but it was more so for the soldiers to periodically reassure themselves that everything was running smoothly, without the risk of opening the door and having someone escape. “If you try anything, we’ll . . . chop your heads off.” That seemed threatening enough.

They worked quickly, picking out the two prisoners who most closely resembled them in terms of height and weight. None of the other prisoners bothered to try anything. The woman took care of the ones they’d replaced, knocking them out with ease. Good thing the people in Ryusei’s capital city never bothered to leave their homes after midnight. Not the most exciting nightlife, certainly, but that was what the Red Light Districts were for.

“Good luck,” she said, approaching the wagon to close the doors on them, with a smile far too wide for such an operation. “And power to the people.”

Then there was only darkness and the smell of sweat and cigars. Kurapika placed the bag over his head, and the pungent odor of sweat was nearly replaced by the scent of flour. From where he stood, he felt a hand reach for his, and he recognized it as Pairo’s by the way his fingers curled gently around his. The prisoners were all packed into the tiny space, so the only option was to have them stand. This provided some difficulties once the soldiers returned and the wagon crept forward on the paved street. The prisoners from behind kept falling forward onto him, and he used as much force as he could muster to push back at them. This earned him an annoyed grunt from the giant man. Pairo didn’t have much trouble with this since Kurapika made sure the boy had been put in the corner where things were a bit safer. They faced each other, incredibly close, so anyone who might’ve fallen on Pairo fell on him instead. 

The rest of the drive was quiet and uneventful, even though Kurapika’s mind had never raced ahead of him like this. There were so many possible outcomes from pursuing this sort of thing. What if they were separated from one another? Their search for their parents turning into yet another loss. Kurapika wasn’t sure what he’d do if Pairo was taken from him as well. 

“Alright, everybody out,” the gruff voice of one of the soldiers called, and the smell of night air accompanied him. One of the other men stepped inside, his footsteps echoing in the floorboards. He started with Pairo, cutting the rope at his feet and pulling on him to get out of the wagon. Warmth left him as the hand that had held his was pried away. The sound of his friend’s pained groan as he was taken away was nearly enough for Kurapika to lose his composure. There was no telling what they might do to Pairo if he did try something, and the fear was enough to keep him from turning the twitch in his fingers into a punch.

He felt the soldier get down on his knees in front of him. It’d be easy to knee him in the face as soon as his feet were free, but he kept the urge inside. Pairo. Think of Pairo. 

A hand tightened around his arm, and he was jerked to the right so hard he nearly fell against the man. It sent stars into his already compromised vision, and dull pangs of pain pulsed in his shoulder. He stepped down from the compartment and onto a hard material. Cement, perhaps? Once more, he nearly tripped over his own sandals. The hand on his arm forced him upright and then took hold of the bag over his head. Everything was blissfully clear once more. They were in the palace, surrounded by ornate buildings and flourishing gardens, and in front of them was a prison made of stone and wood. It was small, paling in comparison to its palatial counterparts, but that was to be expected of a dungeon made specifically for those who opposed the Emperor on his grounds. These men must’ve been transferred here for high treason. Or at least, whatever high treason was to their current Emperor. 

  “Heh, what’s a pretty face like you wasting her time with criminals?” The man with his hand still around Kurapika’s arm leaned over to get a better look at him. He was plain-looking and young, but probably still about ten years older than Kurapika. His black hair was tied into a bun high on his head, a wolfish smile on his face as if he’d consume him if he could.  

Kurapika turned his face away from him haughtily, a scoff growing in his throat. The man just chuckled next to his ear, and he had half of a mind to ram into him and then gouge his eyes out with a fork. Preferably one that had been consumed by rust. He didn’t have a fork, though, so he didn’t bother. 

“You know, I could get you out of here for a price,” the man whispered, in a way that was meant to be seductive. His thumb rubbed circles into his bicep. Kurapika caught Pairo looking at him in the light of the lanterns, his fingers curling into fists. He couldn’t see in dimly lit places like this anymore, but he could hear as well as the next person. 

Kurapika turned his face toward the man, who seemed hopeful, and then, without missing a beat, he spit at him. Missed the eye, unfortunately, but he didn’t have much time to spend on regrets, because just then the soldier’s hand connected with his face in a slap that sent his skull rattling. 

“Hey,” the soldier with the gruff voice interjected. He was old, with pockets of wrinkles all over his face, and a well-maintained white beard that stopped just below his clavicle. These soldiers all wore the same dark green uniforms, and the old man seemed to be the leader, with several medals adorning his breast pocket. He towered over the rest of them, in both height and muscularity. Still, there was something grandfatherly about him. “Leave it alone, kid. You shouldn’t be flirting with prisoners in the first place.” 

The man snorted and pushed Kurapika toward the leader and the other inmates. This time he did fall to his knees. There was a collective sigh of disappointment from the other soldiers, and the old man walked forward to help him up. 

“I apologize for my subordinate’s behavior. He’s still getting used to the new rules the Emperor has put in place.” 

“New rules?” Kurapika asked, curious despite himself, for this could give him a hint regarding his parents’ treatment. 

“Just a few clauses about maltreatment of prisoners. He’s quite harsh on those who break his rules. Why, just a few weeks ago he had a man executed for trying to sleep with a prisoner,” the old man chuckled, goodnaturedly. “Serves him right if you ask me. I have a daughter you know. Not much older than you. If I saw someone treating her the way young Ho-jin treated you, I would’ve stabbed them to death. I may be an old man but I have a pretty good aim with a dagger.” He laughed loudly at that, and Kurapika wondered if he should be scared or impressed. 

The soldiers led them into the prison, which was really just a long corridor of cells. They put each of them into a separate cell and then asked them to kindly enjoy their indefinite stay in their state-of-the-art jailhouse. 

Of course, the only thing on Kurapika’s mind was Pairo and the fact that they were no longer together. He needed him there, in his arms, just to have someone to hold. 

“Pairo?” he called out, uncertainly. 

A pause, a silence that sent his heart into an erratic beat, sweat beading down his back. And then, a quiet voice replied:

“I’m here.”  

His heart sunk back into a regular pace, and he let loose a long exhale. He turned back to his new cell. There were two other occupants, both men of average stature. Their clothing was old and stained, the hems of their baji starting to fray. When he’d walked in they’d been sleeping on the cots laid out for them, but now they only stared.

 “What?” he asked, hoping his voice was as harsh as he wanted it to be. 

“You look familiar, kid? Have we seen you before?” 

“I doubt it.” His parents were very selective about the people they allowed him to interact with, and something told him these two seedy individuals weren’t on that list.

“He looks like Yuka, idiot. How can you not see that?” the other man said, lying back down to rest. 

Kurapika’s eyes snapped to him. “You know my mother?” 

“Your mom? Oh yeah, she was always going on about her son. Thought he’d be a lot younger than you are. You’re almost a grown man.” 

He certainly didn’t feel like it. “What happened to her? Was my father with her?” 

The stupid one replied. “Yeah, Pavi. I didn’t know what they saw in one another, they were always bantering about something or another. Yuka was too pretty for a guy like that. You’re lucky you got her looks instead,” the man chuckled, the sound fading out the longer he saw that neither of his companions were particularly amused. The last thing Kurapika wanted to hear about is some creepy old men commenting on his mother’s appearance. 

From his cot, the other man decided to fill him in on a more concrete answer. “They were both taken away by a small man. One of the Emperor’s guys. Going by the rumors, I’d say they were taken into solitary confinement, else they’d be back home already.”

“What do you mean by solitary confinement?” he asked.

“He means they’re dead, kid,” the stupid one said. “Hate to say it, but if your parents were dissenters, they’re probably goners. They would’ve been tortured to death for intel.”

“And how sure are you of this information?” It couldn’t be true. His parents would’ve escaped. Maybe they were already leaving the country. They were alive. They had to be. But a single sentence rang in his mind, loud enough to shake his relentless arguments.

“They would’ve gone back for you if they were let out, wouldn’t they?”

They’d never have left them behind, and that was his one certainty in all this, as well as the one truth that kept leveling all his pleas. Like a breeze through a house of cards.

He kept quiet for the remainder of the evening, huddled in a corner like a boneless heap. No tears, he wasn’t sure if he felt any sorrow. Some part of him would’ve been content to stay there forever, nevermind escaping. Some part of him even forgot that Pairo still needed him, that he couldn’t let Pairo rot away in here. That part would’ve won had it not been for the squeaking of the cell door being pushed open. 

“Nice try, kid. C’mon, we’re taking you back home.” It was another soldier, a woman this time, tall and ashen. “Emperor’s orders.” 

The Emperor

Through his numbness, he felt something clench within him. Something like fury, which he felt all too often. This was different. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. 

He walked out of the cell and a figure in red fell into him. Kurapika let his arms fold around the other boy, but he wasn’t thinking straight, his mind fractured. 

What do we do now? What should I do?

He should’ve stayed home. Should’ve waited for his parents to come back, waited to let the pain heal on its own. In his desperation, he’d broken the fragile peace they’d tried to build. Ignorance was preferable, even if it left him with gnawing questions and sleepless nights. 

Pairo pulled on his hand, gentle, and the two of them followed the soldier out of the hall of cells, envious eyes trailing along with them, until they were out in the sunlight again. 

“How you got past the guards, I have no idea,” she said, as they walked through gardens, more beautiful than any he’d seen. Spring was blossoming, morning dew stuck to blades of grass, sinking into their socks as they passed through. Normally, it would’ve taken his breath away to see the sunrise cover the earth in gold and blush pink. To see flashes of orange scales in moving water. To be here with Pairo, and to describe everything to him in detail, down to the gold designs on the marble fountains. Instead, all he could feel was the Emperor’s vast power. Not only could he afford to live in such a place, he could also maintain it all, like a Kingdom on a smaller scale. 

“Kurapika?”

He didn’t answer Pairo’s call, opting to march ahead, pulling his friend along. He paused only once on their way to the Outer Palace, at the sight of a man wearing the gold colors of the Emperor. It was only a glimpse through the window of one of the grander buildings, but it was enough to send his heart racing in anticipation. 

I’ll kill – I’ll kill you someday.

Hook, line, and sinker.   

. . .

They returned home more dejected than before. Pairo continued to try to raise his spirits. He’d always been stronger than Kurapika. He’d experienced loss before, when his father had died from the same illness Pairo had inherited. This was foreign to him, but he refused to break in front of his friend. 

Perhaps that was why Pairo decided to go shopping alone one day. Something Kurapika had protested heavily against. Pairo had laughed it off as him being dramatic, and then he was left with nothing but a closed door. And he was fine for the first few minutes, retreating back into their shared bedroom where he’d left a tome of his favorite book series. His palm rested atop the glossy cover and then it stayed there. Slowly his nails dug into the paper. A drop of something wet stains his pale hands. Followed by another, and another, and another. They stream down his cheek, his neck, into his mouth, like saltwater, the type you drowned in. He sinks to his knees, and what leaves his throat is guttural and leaves his throat feeling bloody. He screams again and again until his voice was lost.

Then, there was only a quiet chant, uttered in a raspy, panting tone. “I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him I’ll kill him I’ll kill him, ” until one word couldn’t be distinguished from the other. He didn’t want anything, nothing but the Emperor’s blood on his hands, his entrails spilled across the floor, to raze everything he’d ever loved to the ground. His breaths were ragged, pained, full of mucus and tears.

He’d see him to Hell, the cost be damned. He’d sell his soul, his body, his mind, anything as long as he could see justice prevail. 

An eye for an eye.

A tooth for a tooth.

A life for a life.

He’d make him get down on his knees and beg.

. . .

Morena looked quite pleased when he showed up on her doorstep. She sat in a high chair, gazing at him with that same unsettling kindness. Then, she reached her hand out to him. He approached as cautiously as ever. Her hand tightened around his. 

“Good.”

He snatched his hand back, hating the fact he needed to enlist such a dishonest person’s help in his quest for revenge. “We’re in agreement, then. What is it you want me to do? I can’t very well approach the Emperor like this.”

“No, you certainly cannot,” the woman agreed, putting the hilt of her brush to her chin. “You need a very special position to get close enough to his lovely Majesty.” 

“Special position?” he asked, warily. The way the women regarded him then sent a chill down his spine.

“Tell me, Kurapika, have you any experience in seduction?” The implication was clear. Kurapika had nothing against those who sold their bodies for money, for status, for information. However, the idea of being held by the Emperor, caressed by him, kissed by him, being taken by him was something he refused to consider. Still, perhaps it wasn’t that which she had in mind. Perhaps he was meant to seduce someone else. His fury propelled him forward. Hear her out .

“No, I’ve never had any use for it.” 

Morena’s smile grew. “Don’t worry, we can fix that.” 

His brain wailed in indignation. “Excuse me?” 

Her brows inched up on her forehead. “What’s wrong? I thought you were committed, dear? What is your purity in the face of your revenge?” 

“It’s not about purity,” he snarled. “I will not be treated like a piece of meat just to know a few tricks of seduction.”

“Tricks?” She stood, her eyes boring into him. Slowly, she began to walk in circles around him. He did his best to look forward. “You think you can fool the Emperor another way? You think you’ll get close enough to kill him if you just climb the ladder, sneak in? Do you forget that the only reason you got into the Palace in the first place is because of me?” 

“Of course not.” It was the reason for this fury inside him.

“I’ve spent a long time making men fall to their knees. Do you know what I’ve found out in that time?” She leaned close to his ear. He keeps his eyes forward.

“Do tell.”

 “Lust is the ruin of all men.” She backs away, still smiling. “The Emperor is no different. He won’t be easy to crack, but he will be overcome eventually. The moment he lets down his guard is the moment you will strike –”

He walked out of the room before she could even finish.

. . .

The second time he showed up on Morena’s doorstep, it had been raining. It was a warm summer sort of rain, but he still shivered as it sunk through his cloak and into his skin. One of Morena’s servants opened the ornate green doors to her large estate, and he was let in, his sandals clicking against the hardwood floor, leaving puddles wherever they stepped. The servant went to fetch him a towel and a change of clothes, and though Kurapika was very much opposed to wearing anything of Morena’s, his shivering was hard to deny. 

Morena was lounging in her throne as usual, sipping on wine from a crystal glass. When he entered, her eyes softened considerably. “Well, if it isn’t the little flower. Have you made up your mind?” 

“How much money do your courtesans get?” he asked quietly, staring down at the hardwood floor. 

“Pardon?”

“How much money will I get,” he asked, louder now. “From being a courtesan.”

Morena smiled and he felt too tired to get angry at the sight. “It depends on the customer. The higher the status, the higher the price. If you’re ranked high enough you can even escape without ever having a buyer lay their hands on you, though I don’t think that’s an option for you, love. You have little formal education, and your parents were mere bakers. And you’re clearly no veteran either.”

“I didn’t ask for impossibilities.”

She chuckled, placing her glass down. “Oh, little flower, you’re so impatient. I’d say, for the whole night, someone might pay five million for you. You’d have to ask the Madam, however, she’s much better than estimates than I.” 

“Five million,” he choked out. Just for sex? 

“Lust is the ruin of all men,” she parroted. “That should be enough to cover the costs of darling Pairo’s medication.”

He knew better than to be surprised but he still felt the need to call her out on her stalking tendencies. “How do you know that?”

“I have ears everywhere, my flower. Never forget that.” Her fingers wound together on her lap. A thinly veiled threat. “I’ll have you delivered to the brothel in a week’s time. Unless you have more objections, of course.” 

It didn’t matter anymore. Pairo needed him.

“Splendid.”

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites:

Chapter 23: 

The Consort’s Admirer

Heat began to pool in the pit of his stomach. Restlessness made his muscles twitch. He registered it as a rather familiar sensation somewhere in the back of his mind. Unfortunately, his brain seemed too occupied with his carnal instincts to put the pieces together.

“You seem pretty peeved,” Kurapika said, trying to pass by him to reach the bathroom. An arm slipped around his front, and the feel of fingers pressing against the spot right above his hip was a welcome one, a pleasant pressure on touch-starved skin. He was pulled back a few steps to stand before the Emperor again. The fingers disappeared and Kurapika found himself staring at The Emperor’s slender hand for a few seconds too long. He blinked away the trance and looked up to meet his eyes. “Oh? Am I in trouble?”

The Emperor’s eyes narrowed until they were nearly slits. “Do not try to seduce yourself out of this one, my little Prince.”

“Yes, I forget you’re immune. Perhaps I should try harder?” The heat had grown stronger, his fingers itching for something to hold onto, his skin burning. A hand reached out to cup the Emperor’s cheek, and Kurapika belatedly realized it was his own. His thumb brushed against his cheekbone. The Emperor reached up to remove his hand but refused to let it go once it was at a safe distance. Any level of anger had been drained away at the touch.

“Your skin,” the Emperor said, something akin to concern in his voice now. His head snapped up to look him in the eye, and then a cool palm pressed against Kurapika’s neck, and then his forehead. “Kurapika, you’re burning up.” Realization flashed over his face. “The restaurant. You didn’t bring a poison tester, did you?”

“Poison?” he repeated, the word feeling foreign on his tongue. “No. The food was good. I . . .” 

“You’re drunk,” the Emperor supplied. 

“Am not,” Kurapika replied. “I only drank two glasses.” 

The Emperor sighed, taking his arm and guiding him to the bathing area. “That’s what worries me. Aside from that, I’m familiar with your behavior when simply drunk, this is something different. Perhaps I should call for Cheadle. I’d have to make sure that this doesn’t spark any rumors.”

He reached down to turn the faucet, and Kurapika began to peel off the remainder of his clothing. Surprisingly, the Emperor didn’t bother to stop him, even as he lowered his underwear. When he looked at him, there was no lust in his eyes, nor embarrassment. His concern remained tangible, possibly because he could see how fast his heart beat against his chest, his breathing shallow and quick. Ah . He knew this sensation. One of the restaurant workers must’ve spiked his drink with an aphrodisiac. Quite a high dose as well. It took a lot for him to respond to any sort of stimulant nowadays. A person without his tolerance would’ve been reduced to a pleading heap by now.  

His attention returned to the Emperor, who remained in a squat near the bathtub, silver eyes scanning his reddened face. Kurapika let some level of satisfaction embed itself into his clouded mind. The knowledge of the aphrodisiac strumming through his being had given back some sense of control. “You seem worried.” 

The Emperor turned off the water tap and stood. “Only because you keep acting on harmful impulses. I’ve never met someone with so little concern for their reputation, but I can’t allow you to do whatever you please.” 

Kurapika hacked out a sharp, cruel laugh, “here I thought you actually cared about my wellbeing.” 

“I do,” he reasoned. 

“Only to the extent in which it affects you.” He lowers himself into the bathtub, the cool water dimming the heat of his skin. “Don’t worry about Cheadle. This is a simple aphrodisiac. It’ll fade with some time. Hand me that bar of soap?” 

The Emperor’s eyes followed the angle of his finger to find a shrinking white bar, tinted slightly pink with the petals of red roses. It rested on a small table by the edge of the screen, sitting on a clay shell. He took hold of it and placed it down on the ledge of the tub. 

“Thank you.”

The Emperor looked down at him. “How do you know it’s not something more?”

The soap slipped out of his hands and into the cool water below. He let out a small, frustrated sound and rummaged around for it. “Given my symptoms, I’m almost certain that it is one. If anything else begins to affect me, I give you full permission to tell Dr. Cheadle. I doubt you’d want the fact that your Consort is consuming strange substances to get out.” 

A moment of deliberation and then the Emperor relented. “Very well, we’ll wait until morning.” 

He hummed in acknowledgment, finally getting a grip on the bar.

“Why roses?” he asked, squatting down next to him. Changing the subject? Kurapika would allow it. “It’s the only scent you ever wear.” 

Kurapika’s hands paused on the bar as a memory drifted to the surface. It left him feeling somber but he’d made his peace with that part of his life. “A secret.”

“Tease.”

“Indeed.”

He soon realized his drunken hands had trouble holding onto the soap. After the fifth failed attempt to keep it steady, he gives the Emperor an expectant look, and the man sighed as if helping him was quite the chore. Rude.

But then he was behind him, hands palming the soap until a lather formed. His fingers began to massage his skull, and Kurapika let his head lean back into the touch. Usually, he wouldn’t allow himself so much room to enjoy the Emperor’s presence, but anything that happened tonight could easily be blamed on the drink. His own mental defenses would be left intact. 

“You seem to be enjoying this.”

“Must be your imagination. This is quite revolting, really.” 

A sharp exhale, the sign of a laugh that hadn’t been fully realized, left the Emperor then. “Is that so? Shall we see how revolting I truly am to you?”

“Later, perhaps.” He rinsed his hair off by submerging it into the water, and when he surfaced it was plastered to his face and neck in streaks. His hand raked through his bangs, dragging them back into the rest of his hair to keep the water rivulets far from his eyes. Then, the Emperor’s hands began to work the lather into the skin of his shoulders, brushing against the tip of his spine, running along his neck, and he sprang away on instinct. 

Too much.

The Emperor seemed to understand. “I’ll fetch you some fresh clothes then.”

He only nodded in response. 

. . .

 He returned to the bedroom soon after, and the Emperor remained on the bed, reading a book.

“I’m not sure if you’d like to stay tonight.”

His book snapped closed. “On the contrary, given your condition, I feel that I must stay tonight. Whoever drugged you had a reason for doing so. It’s possible they had planned to pay you a visit. It’s difficult to pass through the guards, but it’s feasible.” 

He hated to admit it, but the Emperor was in the right once again. He sat down next to him on the bed, the Emperor leaning against the headboard, Kurapika’s feet still firmly placed on the ground. The warmth from the aphrodisiac had started to die out now, but he still felt the lingering vestiges of desire in his muscles. “You think they planned on having me get caught in an act of adultery?”

“I think it’s likely that was their intention. Of course, we can’t rule out the idea of you having a crazed admirer stalking the halls of the Inner Palace as well. You left quite an impression on everyone during the Festival.”

Another one? It seemed he couldn’t escape the unstable devotion of men, though he gathered it was more so due to his position than his own personality. The Emperor’s Consort. What a thrilling chase that would be. 

“I’ll find them,” the Emperor said, and Kurapika found an unsettling confidence in his face. “So you can rest easy.”

Kurapika wet his lips, eyes falling on the spot beside the Emperor, and he maneuvered himself until he was lying there on his side. The Emperor showed no sign of joining him, clearly engrossed in whatever volume he had in his hands. 

“What are you reading?” Kurapika asked. 

“The recent history of Shin,” he replied, his eyes still looking forward. 

Kurapika snorted, “oh, are they causing you trouble? All Empires fall someday. I, for one, am interested to see what takes you down in the end.”

“I’m getting acquainted with them, as any good ruler should. Their loyalty remains with their own King, even if he was incompetent. I need something to give me an edge over his status as a native Shinite.” He glanced at him. “And are you really so eager to watch your own home be set alit with enemy fire?”

Silence crept in, save for the rushing water of some distant fountain. They held each other’s gaze for a few seconds more, and then Kurapika turned his back to him. He focused on the dark outline of a desk full of books, searching for the light of the moon between the volumes. After a brief delay of deliberation, he replied, “I’m eager to see your world burn along with you.”

“Will you burn with me as well then?”

His eyes settled on the messy pile of scrolls to the right of the desk. The Emperor’s stare felt just as invasive as his words. “I can see no other option.”

A pause, and then, “I can think of a few.”

Kurapika scoffed, “You must be more creative than I, then.”

An arm wrapped around his middle, “you’ll never be able to succeed, but you’ve already taken that into account, haven’t you?”

“What are you doing?”

“Taking precautions against eavesdroppers, apparently,” he replied. Kurapika squirmed a bit when a cool face pressed into his shoulder.

“Revenge doesn’t suit you.” 

He chuckled, making Kurapika’s muscles tense. “You’d be surprised.”

His mind might’ve cleared but his body remained restless, yearning. It reminded him of his first time using them, how the lack of control unsettled him. He hadn’t used them for several years now, so it was possible the fear had returned.

“I thought you were angry with me.” 

“I’ll yell at you tomorrow,” the Emperor murmured. “For now, I’m just glad that you’re safe.” 

“How anticlimactic.” 

“Would you like me to be cross?”

“I’d like you to be struck dead.” Kurapika leaned into him a bit. 

A breath of laughter brushed against his neck. “Is there some sort of calculation within your mood swings, or are they just as arbitrary as they seem?”

“I really only have one mood, your Majesty,” Kurapika replied, pressing his fingertips against the raised skin of a scar. “I see your wound has healed.”

“I tend to recover from my injuries quickly.” 

Kurapika let his thumb draw circles into the Emperor’s palm, before moving it up to press against his pulse. No sooner had his skin press against the lines of his veiny wrist, that the arms around him left him feeling cold. The Emperor had sat back up, returning to his books. Perplexed, Kurapika glanced over his shoulder at him, hoping to find a clue to his strange behavior. There was nothing to find. His face wasn’t emotionless, per se. It was perfectly unbothered: half-lidded eyes, lips slightly downturned, though not in response to any form of distress.

Kurapika had often found the Emperor’s eyes to be unfeeling, cruel, cold, and a variety of other unflattering adjectives. That was no mask. From the beginning, it had been evident that the Emperor was an inherently stoic individual. 

So, why do you choose to wear that expression?

His eyes latched onto the Emperor’s wrist, bent slightly from holding the book steady. You think I noticed something.

“A heartbeat never lies, Kurapika.”

Do my actions affect you, after all?

He couldn’t be sure, nor did he want to push his luck in this situation. He’d just managed to soothe that temper. Striking another match would be unwise. This should be enough confirmation. The Emperor had been caught off guard by him. A chill ran up his spine. He loved this. Loved knowing that he had power over him, influence. He wanted more, he wanted so much more. Gods, I want him, I want to infest his every thought, I want him to bow down before me, I want his love, without having to give anything in return. I want him dead. I want . . . I want. He'd already given up so much. 

Kurapika didn’t get a second of sleep that night, even when the candles blew out, and his bedmate fell into slumber. The heat inside of him refused to leave, the desire to reach out and test the limits of the Emperor’s mask nearly unbearable. He prayed for morning to arrive soon.

. Six Days Later, July 6th .

They would not meet again until the day of Killua and Gon’s test. Kurapika spent the days reading, for pleasure and for work, acquainting himself with Palm, and sneaking kisses from Leorio as he studied. The doctor would be there, too, both as a medical professional and as a friend. It would be the first time both his lover and his husband were in the same place since the Festival, and Kurapika was reasonably worried. Leorio was smart, yes? But the Emperor was smarter. He knew how to get under a person's skin better than most men. If he wanted to, he could probably get Leorio to reveal all his secrets in under a minute, including his affair with Kurapika.

But he wouldn't do that. Reputation came before pettiness, surely. Jealousy might plant its seeds, but he doubted the passionless mind of the Emperor was a particularly hospitable terrain. 

"Your Majesty," Hanzo said, appearing in the doorway to his quarters. Palm had just finished applying a light dusting of pink to his cheeks, and the image of him in white and gold seemed to surprise his guard. "Woah, you realize you're only going to a test, right? Isn't that a bit flashy?"

His new stylist glared at the man, her gaze gaining a fierceness Kurapika had grown familiar with over the last few days. He no longer tried to deny her visions. The canvas of his face and body ceased to belong to him the moment Palm was hired. Those brushes she carried were lethal. There was no other reason for the ends to be so sharp. "His Majesty needs to look his best at all times, guard. Or do you protest my artistry?"

Hanzo raised his hands in a pacifying gesture as the woman drew closer. "No way, I was just . . . uh, his Majesty will be very late if we don't leave right this moment anyway, so, yeah, this . . . this is great."   

Without another word, Kurapika was herded out of the room. A carriage had been brought for him, but he announced he'd prefer to walk and told the men to be on their way. Hanzo led him to the training grounds, the ones that were used by soldiers. The arena was a large square made of stone and dirt, surrounded by a raised platform of pillars, with a roof over their heads to keep out the sun and the rain. The main floor had no roof, as the soldiers training here would be forced to fight through any weather. Dark clouds had turned the day into dusk, the heat and humidity sticking to the air and all it consumed. On a gilded throne sat the Emperor. Beside him, was a second throne, smaller, made for the Queen Consort, though in this case, they'd settle for him. Hanzo stopped at the steps of the platform and kneeled in front of him. Kurapika ascended the stairs and did the same. 

“Stand now, my dear Prince,” the Emperor asked, offering him his hand, then quietly he asks, “Are you sure you wish to lay witness to this?”

“I think a better question would be if you’d like me to lay witness to it,” Kurapika replied, kissing his hand and standing. 

The Emperor seemed amused, as he took his hand and had him sit in the (smaller) throne beside him. Oh? He had his own throne now? He was moving up in the world.

“Perceptive as usual, my love,” the Emperor replied, kissing his hand. Kurapika withdrew it abruptly, if only because he knew they were being stared yet, and who was doing the staring. “Are you embarrassed? I never thought I’d see the day.”

“Not particularly. I just don’t think this is the appropriate time for such behavior.” 

He wasn’t buying it, but he allowed it to pass without comment. Kurapika glanced around the old stone pavilion, catching sight of the medical team, and a small group of spectators. Leorio was among them, standing beside Cheadle, eyes shifting between Kurapika, the Emperor, and the arena. He was worried about the kids, and Kurapika knew that would be enough to distract him from the Emperor’s possible taunts if that’s what they were. 

There was also Killua’s brother and sister, standing together, holding hands because despite their differences they loved and worried for the same person. Odd that the oldest Zoldyck sibling hadn’t joined them. One would’ve thought that Hisoka would’ve dragged him here if he had to. The clown was nowhere to be seen as well. Perhaps that’s for the better.

“Well, well, isn’t this exciting?” 

Spoke too soon.

“Hisoka.”

“How are your Majesties doing? I heard you hired a new stylist, love. Her handiwork is marvelous. You look positively radiant,” Hisoka turned to Illumi, who stood beside him with that same blank look he always seemed to wear. “Not as radiant as you, Illumi. Nothing to worry about.” 

“I wasn’t worried.”

“Your confidence astounds me,” Hisoka drawled. “So, where are the boys?”

“The first stage began a few hours ago,” the Emperor replied, not nearly as irritated with Hisoka’s presence as Kurapika wished he’d be. “They’ll be along shortly if they manage to pass it.” 

First Stage.

Kurapika met Leorio’s eyes for just a second.

There are multiple stages?  

. End of Chapter .

 

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites:

Chapter 24:

The Consort’s Silence

A few hours ago, he’d said. The first stage had been difficult enough to warrant such a length of time. Were there more stages after this? Stages that were more difficult, more deadly? Who knew what a mind like the Emperor’s could devise? A mind that had orchestrated and ordered his parents’ deaths, that kept Kurapika around to feel the thrill of a challenge, that was now keeping Leorio as a hostage in case Kurapika got too bold. 

“I see them!” Leorio was the first to shout. Must he be so loud all the time? 

Kurapika followed Leorio’s outstretched arm to the two figures racing toward them, growing larger. His throat felt dry, suddenly. Something was wrong. Gon always had a spring to his step, like he had plans to jump through the ceiling at some point. His enthusiasm was enough to infect even Killua. So, why are you dragging your feet?

“What did you have them do?” he hissed, keeping his eyes forward.

The Emperor sat beside him in his large crimson throne, a ruler even without his crown. Apathy iced his gaze, but with Kurapika’s question, a small smile formed on his lips. “Patience, my dear Prince.”

Kurapika’s fingers twitched with that small ache of murderous intent, but he composed himself, letting his anger morph into concern as the children drew closer. Alluka was already racing toward them. Her hair, bundled atop her head, began to loosen. It took only a few more minutes for Killua to take her into his arms. Gon latched onto his friend from the back, huddling close to the siblings. 

The Emperor raised his arm, gesturing to the medical staff. “Cheadle, take Leorio and see to any injuries they might have acquired. We’ll give them an hour of rest before moving on.”

The medical staff moved toward them, a small group of plain blue hanbok. Three physician officers and one student. Leorio was out of place among them, not carrying the same amount of experience and confidence, instead showing an urgent need to help his friends even in the face of his own perceived inadequacy, one which helped him stand his ground in situations like these. 

“You may go to them as well, if you’d like,” the Emperor said to him, silver eyes peering down at him. 

Kurapika glared for a moment, before returning to settle his gaze on the fuss of the officers. “I’d rather their injuries be treated first.”

“You’re angry,” the Emperor noted. 

“I didn’t know the test would be putting them in harm’s way.”

The children noticed him staring, and Gon waved, arm moving so quickly it might just bend and break off. The warmth rising in his chest was quickly stamped out. 

“What did you expect?” the Emperor asked. “I’m sending them into the hands of the enemy, on their own request. I can’t have them be ill-prepared.” 

He shouldn’t have bent to their will so easily in the first place. Honestly, who would’ve thought the Emperor’s one weakness would turn out to be headstrong children. “What was the first phase?” He’d decide just how well the Emperor was preparing them. “Do you have all your spies go through this training?”

“Yes, I do,” the Emperor said. “Though most of them aren’t children, and they would’ve had years of experience before ever being allowed into the field under my guidance. As for the phase itself, it was an attempt to mimic the situations they might be put in. I had some of my men guard their target, and they had to gather the information necessary to successfully complete their mission.” 

“What a perfectly vague description.”

The Emperor shrugged a bit. “I wasn’t present at the time. My advisors are in the middle of drafting the report now. And before you ask, no, I will not give you the report. I do not wish to antagonize you further.” 

Antagonize. He already hated him, had devoted years to this hatred, fed it, cultivated it, turned it into a weapon. Antagonize. Nothing you do could make me hate you more. “Your withdrawal of information only makes you seem more suspicious, you know that, right?” 

“You’re always suspicious of me,” the Emperor said, turning to one of his servants. “Have them bring the refreshments now. I’m sure the boys are starving.” 

Gon heard him, standing up in the midst of the medical officers and yelling, “I want naengmyeon ! Kurapika, can you tell them I want naengmyeon !” 

He never failed to cut through the tension. “I think they can hear you, Gon.”

“Oh. Okay! Can you tell the Emperor we found the thing?” Their target, Kurapika surmised. 

Kurapika closed his eyes. He would have passed for exasperated if not for the fond smile he donned. “I think he knows."

Maybe the kids were okay after all. Not that he was allowing the Emperor's brutal training of mere children to be forgotten. Yes, in these times, when exposure tried to loosen the links in his armor, he must hold onto these wrongdoings. It didn't matter how well the Emperor led or how artfully he spun the crowd in his favor, Kurapika would pierce the strings of his manipulation before a single one could thread it's way into his mind.

"Your face," The Emperor spoke.

Kurapika glanced at him, "What about it?"

Sunlight oozed out of a few cracks in the clouds. The Emperor's eyes reflected a smile. "You look like you're about to murder someone."

"Is that what warms that heart of yours?" 

The Emperor's hand reached out to caress his cheek, fingers rough from years of training, gentle as the summer wind rustling around them, and Kurapika was glad Leorio seemed busy with the children. Intimacy came in too many forms. 

"You're turning red, my dear Prince."

"The heat is quite harsh today. Most humans would feel a bit flushed in such weather."

"I'm sure we can find something to cool you off, if you so please," he whispered, drawing closer. Kurapika's arm tightened on the arm of his throne, fingers scraping against the dark, polished wood. 

Something was certainly wrong now. The Emperor didn't initiate such close contact on a whim. That was Kurapika's job, as a consort, as a seducer, as an ex-courtesan. But the Emperor liked to put on a show. 

Let him in. Public affection only further solidified his position as a loving consort. Even a peck would do well. 

But.

But, but, but. 

Leorio was right there.

"A walk will probably do me good," he replied, stepping out of his chair. The smile the Emperor gave him was nothing short of predatory. A trap had been lowered around him.

"Do enjoy yourself, my dear Prince." The Emperor's fingers wrapped around his hand, pulling it to his lips, then letting it slip out of his grip. "It seems the refreshments have arrived."

Sure enough, a group of kitchen boys had entered the pavilion, carrying trays of food in their arms, some covered with wooden or clay lids, others left to be stared at. The scent – seared meat, sour pungent kimchi, sweet smelling pastries, boiled and stir fry noodles, savory soups – alerted the boys immediately.

"Food!" they both hollered. The medical officers scolded them as Leorio affixed the final bandage to Gon's arm, reprimands floating flawlessly off his tongue. 

Kurapika stepped off the platform, then paused. "Are you not going to wish your brother luck, Kalluto?"

He hesitated, even more so when Kurapika's eyes landed on him, shrinking into the backdrop of pillars and wildflowers far beyond. But then, his grip tightened on his violet fan. "I'd rather stay with my older brother."

Said older brother had apparently been talked into playing cards with Hisoka. The two sat on the floor behind the Emperor, close to the edge of the platform. Kurapika shrugged and continued on his way to the gaggle of people in front of him.

The kitchen boys lowered a table in front of them, and then placed the platters down with great care. They bowed, and seemed a bit taken aback when Gon thanked them profusely, their bodies stiffening, inching away from the mass of green. What shocked them even more was seeing Kurapika approach them. They bowed again, more fearful than they had been with the medics and the children.

"Your Majesty!" the leader said, a small boy with messy dark hair and an old uniform, one that must've been a bright green once, now the shade of the underside of dried oak leaves. The hem of his sleeve had begun to fray apart. 

Kurapika smiled. "Thank you for your help. I'm sure your jobs can be quite taxing with so many to serve."

There was a scoff and a whispered reply from one of the younger boys. "Yeah, no kidding." At least three of his companions jabbed him in the stomach with their elbows. Another slapped him over the head lightly. He doubled over with a small grunt.  

"Are you hungry?" Gon asked, sliding closer to the leader. His vibrant robes stood in stark contrast to the other boys. Zoldycks certainly liked to make a statement, even with their servants.

"Oh, we can't," the boy said, looking past Kurapika's shoulder.

Kurapika's eyes slipped from the boys' faces to that of the Emperor. "Oh. I'm sure he won't mind. You all seem hungry, so why not take a bit of what you've carried for so long."

The leader's face scrunched up, forehead wrinkling, "I, well …"

One of the boys closest to him put an arm around his shoulders. "Geez, we can't really say no to the Emperor's consort! Right, Ki-tae?"

The leader took a moment to consider his words, arms crossed. "I suppose you are correct."

"Sure I am!"

He nodded once to himself. "Very well, take only one item from the feast. We do not wish to impede on their meal." 

"Take the cold noodles, they're really good," Gon said, words muffled by the tofu he'd stuffed in his mouth.

One by one the seven boys took something from the meal: a bowl of noodles, a couple flower-shaped yakgwa, some braised meat. The Emperor made no move to stop them, sitting in his throne, the black hilt of his sword hidden from view but undoubtedly present. Would he punish them? A part of Kurapika assured him he certainly would have if they had been alone, because cruelty had no bounds within the Emperor. That part of him lost out in the end. The Emperor didn't have the energy to be so tyrannical, and thinking he was some one-note villain would only set Kurapika up for failure. 

The boys bowed down to the Emperor, though he hadn't done anything for them. He nodded, graceful, a true ruler, and as they were leaving, he gave Kurapika a small amused smirk.

"How generous," he'd probably say, or more likely, whisper in his ear, mocking him for such sentiments. Sentiments that affected nobody, not on the scale the Emperor could. His power was minuscule compared to him.

Kurapika sat down across from Killua and Gon, taking in their haggard appearance. The scratches on their arms and faces, countless bruises, a broken lip.

"What happened?" he asked, unwrapping a melon bun.

They paused in their rapid devouring of the food, exchanged a look, and then peered over his shoulder. There appeared to be a common trend here. The Emperor was watching their every move. Was it Kurapika’s moves, or the children’s that he found so interesting. Both, probably. Kurapika withheld the urge to yell at him.

Gon swirled his bowl around a bit, watching the cloudy broth edge closer to the lip. "Can't say."

"I see." How could anyone expect him not to suspect the worst?

A servant approached them, after the boys had eaten their fill and Gon had talked his way through a good half hour. They waited for the servant to speak, the skirt of her lilac hanbok rippling in the wind. 

"The Emperor requests that everyone return to their places," she said, voice soft, yet far from shy. 

Can't be bothered to ask us yourself, can you, your Majesty? Kurapika tried to keep his tone even, polite. "Tell him that his humble subjects shall be along shortly."

She gave a bow and then retreated back to the Emperor's side. Leorio patted the kids on the back, effectively knocking the air out of their lungs if their flinching was anything to go by. 

"Alright! You show them how it's done, kids!" 

"That's gonna be tough if you break our backs, old man," Killua said, rubbing his shoulder.

Kurapika hadn't much to say. He wasn't much for unwarranted bouts of praise or encouraging phrases. Not anymore, not when their opponent was the Emperor. The only thing he could do was offer his title. "I'll put a stop to it if I feel that I must."

"Don't," Gon replied coolly. He was staring up at him, eyebrows straining to be closer together. He won't budge. "If you interfere, we lose."

"Then, you'd better pray your Emperor is a kind one," which he isn't. 

Leorio put his hands on his shoulders. "Okay, okay, your majesty. The phase hasn't even started yet. We have no reason to believe he's gonna, like, try to kill them or anything. Maybe it's just a test?" 

"Yes, that's why we need a full medical squad," Kurapika mumbled. "This is the Emperor we're talking about."

"I have a bad feeling about it," Alluka appeared beside him, arms wrapped around herself. 

"And that's completely reasonable," he assured her, fixing the gold pin threatening to fall from her dark hair. She pouted, worry creasing her face.

"Or maybe you should stop scaring the kids," Leorio grumbled. 

Kurapika scoffed, wrenching away from his touch and walking back toward the Emperor. "I'm prepared for the worst, that's all." 

"Killua," the Emperor said, suddenly, "you too." 

They have to take it separately? 

Admittedly, this wasn’t so strange considering the exam had already tested their ability to work together. Killua stood his ground for a second, still sitting cross-legged next to Gon, with his back to them. He stared at the Emperor, irises wobbling. The boys exchanged a look and Gon shrugged. Killua jumped to his feet, uncertain, hands shoved into the pockets of his magoja, shoulders slouching. Alluka embraced him as soon as he stepped onto the pavilion, and the two exchanged a few quiet words. They sat down, separate from where Kalluto was sitting with the eldest Zoldyck sibling. 

“Hanzo,” the Emperor said. The man stepped out of the shadows, face turned solemn in the time they’d spent there. Just an hour ago, he’d been arguing with Palm. Now he looked like he’d been tasked to kill his own family. “Step onto the field, please.”

The sound of his footsteps on the stones would’ve been inaudible had the arena not been so silent. Who knew what type of education he’d been through? He was always bragging about being a ninja, though Kurapika had never believed him. Too noisy to be a ninja. Now he wasn’t so sure.

“Gon.” The Emperor’s eyes shifted away from Kurapika. “Your next task will be to deliver the target to Shalnark, my advisor, at the library not far from here. Standing in your way will be Hanzo.” He gestured to him, faintly. “All you need to do is get past him. After that, you’re home free.” 

Gon tilted his head to the side, squinting up at the man. “Alright.” 

With his chin resting on his palm, his elbow on the armrest, the Emperor spoke, words injecting a chill into their blood. “You may begin.”

Gon made the first move, one which involved simply zigzagging in a different direction. A fine tactic if his goal was to run away, Kurapika supposed. Except it wasn’t long before Hanzo closed in on him, a bird of prey swooping in from the side. Green sandals skidded to a halt, and Gon jumped back, propelling himself in the other direction, but he’d used too much strength that time. With the added force, stopping became more difficult, and before he could even react, Hanzo had pushed his hand – a solid chop, meant for knocking someone out cold – into the back of the neck, hard enough for the boy to double over. The boy grunted a bit, and then lifted himself up off the ground. 

“Impressive,” Hanzo said, “but I bet running will be a bit difficu –” 

Gon cut him off by sprinting toward the right, the side closest to him now, but his moves were a bit more sluggish now. If this test left Gon with any sort of lasting damage, Kurapika wouldn’t even need to wait until his position in the court left him invulnerable to prying eyes. He’d just kill the Emperor right then and there. Maybe even slay him with his own sword for the poetry of it.

What are you thinking?

Gon was a sweet kid, but not worth jeopardizing his mission. Nothing was. He needed to wait it out for now. Otherwise, he’d be cut down before even laying a hand on the Emperor.

The next few hits had Gon in a bloodied heap on the floor, breathing labored from the pain, nails scraping against the stone, fingers coiling into a fist. He lifted himself onto his knees. Hanzo kicked him in the stomach, and he tumbled back down, body slamming against the pavement. 

Well, a promise is a promise.

Kurapika could put an end to this, like he’d warned them he would. As an adult, as a decent human being, as the Emperor’s consort, it was his obligation to do so. He made no move to stand, or even to speak a word, whisper it into the Emperor’s ears, beg him to stop this, like a morally sound person would. He was frozen, jaw clenched in anger, frustrated with himself, his weakness. Hypocrite.

Leorio was shouting something at someone, probably the Emperor, or perhaps Hanzo himself. His voice meant nothing here, compared to the Emperor’s orders but mine can, mine can. Leorio, they would tackle and arrest, put him in prison for a few days to cool his head after such a foolish display of impudence. What could they do to the Emperor’s consort? 

It was no use arguing with himself. Some part of his mind had already decided for him, paralyzed him. 

Kurapika glanced toward where Killua and Alluka were sitting, their hands intertwined. One looked terrified, the other mildly angry. Not the reactions he’d expected. 

And the Emperor? The Emperor looked almost lost in thought, eyes staring off into the distance.

“Oh, for the love of – will you just give up already! All you have to do is tell me what you know,” Hanzo suddenly shouted, as Gon lifted himself up on his elbows for the umpteenth time.

“No way!” he screamed back, jumping to his feet as if they were springs rather than flesh and bone. Without another word, other than a small sound that was quite indecipherable, he made a dash toward the doctors. Hanzo pulled him back down with enough force to dislocate his shoulder, going by the popping sound it made. He was pinned down now, a knee at his back. 

“I’ll break your arm this time,” Hanzo said. “I’ll break it, ya hear? And then what? You’ll have to wait another month to go save your friend. So just give up.” 

Gon’s hands formed fists against the ground. “No! Even if it’s a month, I’ll still be able to go, so I won’t give up.”

Hanzo clenched his jaw, began to bend Gon’s arm back, and then he stopped. “Damn it!” he finally shouted, standing up again, kicking his foot against the stone. “Alright, I’m out. Fire me if you want. I’m not dealing with this brat anymore.”

“Wait a minute!” Gon said, holding his shoulder, struggling to stand. “I haven’t beaten you yet!” 

Hanzo kept his eyes forward, toward the Emperor, the annoyance clear on his face. “Didn’t you hear what I said? We’re done here.”

“But the Emperor said –” 

“He said that you needed to get your stupid target to the library!” Hanzo shouted, pointing toward the road sprawling past the pavilion. “So get going! I’m not gonna fight you anymore!” 

“But –”

“Just go, you idiot!” Killua had stood up, shoulders shaking. “Go.”

Gon searched the crowd for the answer he was looking for, but most people were still recovering from Killua’s sudden outburst. His lower lip jutted out in a pout. ‘Idiot’ was a harsh word but the boy’s sense of self-preservation was dangerously low. 

“Fine,” he finally mumbled, walking toward them. Leorio hovered over him, asking to see to his injuries first, because no one wanted the boy to collapse halfway to the library. Ignoring Leorio seemed to come easily no matter how nice of a person one was, because Gon walked past him and toward Killua and Alluka. “Sorry I won’t be able to see your test.” 

“Oh, whatever. Just get out of here, stupid,” Killua said, but his hands clenched at the sight of a bruised and bloodied Gon. “Don’t die along the way.” 

“Sorry you had to see all that,” he said, scratching the back of his head, directing it more toward Alluka this time.

“Tch, you’re doing a lot of talking and not enough delivering. Go, this is still a test. Who knows when he’ll”–he pointed his thumb out toward the Emperor–“decide to change the rules on us?” 

“I don’t change rules unnecessarily, Zoldyck-ssi.”

“Whatever,” he said, trailing off into a mumble of words that were undoubtedly too insulting to be uttered to the Emperor’s face. 

They heard the soft clacking of Gon’s footsteps as he walked off the pavilion and onto the sand-colored road. Silence followed, their eyes turning to Hanzo. 

“What? Don’t look at me, it was his idea,” Hanzo pointed at the Emperor. “I didn’t expect the kid to keep getting up.” 

“You’re quite right,” the Emperor said, still leaning his cheek onto his hand.

“But you did,” Kurapika replied. “This test was pointless, unless seeing that poor boy be beaten gave you some sort of satisfaction.” 

“Of course not. He wasn’t the one being tested,” the Emperor stood, his robes rustling. “Our young Zoldyck was, and he passed with flying colors.” He came to a stop, peering down at the boy. “Congratulations. It’s one thing to have to withstand physical torture, it’s another entirely to watch a friend be hurt in front of you, knowing you have the information to stop it. Though, this is, of course, just a test. His life was never in any real danger.” 

And just like that, Leorio’s last nerve was struck. 

“What. The. Fuck.”

No. No, no, no, no, no. 

The Emperor turned to him, face probably as blank as ever, which only served as tinder for Leorio’s fury. What followed was a never-ending string of cuss words, brimming with wild accusations and a few warranted ones. Guards held Leorio back as he lunged forward. Quite a lot of pointing was involved on Leorio’s part. 

“You’re a fucking coward!” he shouted. 

“Excuse me?” the Emperor asked coolly, crossing his arms. Killua and Alluka had moved away from the action, hiding behind a pillar. 

“Hiding behind your fancy soldiers. You can dish it out but you can’t take it.” A smirk curled on his lips. He’s going to say something stupid, isn’t he? “What? You seem a bit annoyed. Why don’t you prove it to us all?”

“You’re being unreasonable –”

“Fight me.” 

“Oh my ~” Hisoka whispered from beside him. He was leaning over Kurapika’s throne, arms splayed out across the wooden edge. “Looks like the good doctor’s about to give us all some action, hmm.” A finger ran up Kurapika’s arm and up his neck, the sharp nail biting into his skin, leaving a trail of pink from his collarbone to his jaw, right below the ear. “I, for one, can’t wait to see that sword be put to good use.”

 Kurapika stood abruptly, marching over to the two men. “That’s enough, both of you. It’s over now, just move on.”

There was a moment where Leorio seemed to calm down at the sight of him, but it was over before Kurapika could continue to de-escalate the situation. “Stay out of this, Kurapika.” 

A gasp sounded somewhere off to his right. Ah yes, how dare the lowly physician’s assistant refer to him by name? Goodness, this was exactly the reason Leorio wasn’t suited for palace drama. No manners whatsoever. 

“Watch your mouth, Paladiknight,” Kurapika hissed back, moving closer, though it was hard to appear threatening when the other man towered over him. 

“Please stay out of this, your majesty.” A mocking tone leaked into his lover’s words, dripping into their relationship, shedding light on it. Kurapika had known from the beginning that Leorio would have some bitterness toward his status as a consort, but he hadn’t expected him to slip up so soon, and in public nonetheless. It’d be best if people just wrote it off as another destitute student railing at the rich and negligent. No, it’d be even better if he had just kept it to himself. 

Well, if Leorio wouldn’t see reason, Kurapika would try his luck with the Emperor. 

“Your Majesty, please,” he said, taking his hand in his. “Let this go.” 

The Emperor stared down at him, that same apathetic expression on his face. It melted away, replaced by a gentle smile. His eyes remained the same. A hand reached out to brush his hair back behind his ear, caressing his cheek. 

“Well, sweetheart.” Oh my god, he’s basically goading Leorio to fight him . “If he wants a fight so badly”–his eyes flicked up–“then why not give him what he wants? Don’t tell me you’re more worried about the good doctor getting a few scratches than you were about poor Gon being brutalized by your own guard.”

“You bastard!” 

“Calm down, Leorio,” Kurapika said, snapping back to fix him with a glare. He released the Emperor’s hand. “What are the terms?”

“A duel. It’ll be just like a practice round.” His eyes settled on Leorio again. “I have no desire to hurt you, Dr. Paladiknight.”

Leorio glowered. “Tch, the feeling isn’t mutual.”

“Yi Se-jin,” the Emperor said, ignoring the comment. Kurapika was almost grateful for it. Spewing threats of bodily violence toward their ruler was grounds for treason. One word would’ve been enough to get Leorio sentenced to several years in prison. “Fetch us two of the practice swords from the armory.” 

One of the servant boys bowed and then jumped off the platform, jogging to a small wooden shed off to the side of the arena. Right, they used this place to train soldiers. No wonder it was so large.

“Tell me, Leorio,” the Emperor began, “you do know how to use a sword, don’t you?”

“I mean, how hard can it be?” Leorio said. If Kurapika’s mother were still alive she would’ve killed him right then and there.

“That’s a no,” the Emperor said, a bit of humor entering his voice. The servant boy had returned with the two wooden swords. They were old, Kurapika could tell from the scratch marks, the way the brick-like color had faded, but lovingly maintained nonetheless. Nothing but the best for the Emperor’s loyal dogs. “Well, consider this your first lesson then.”

Leorio muttered something like, “cocky son of a bitch,” under his breath, as the Emperor walked away. He grabbed the other sword and stomped his way into the arena. The poor servant boy shrunk back behind a pillar. 

“I’ll have you know that I think this is ridiculous,” Kurapika called after them. 

“We know.”  

I’m going to bite both your heads off after this.  

“Oh~”–Hisoka came up behind him, dropping those clammy hands on his shoulders–“I’m getting excited just looking at them. Not that it’ll be much of a fight. They say Emperor Kuroro is an absolute monster on the battlefield, though I’d liken him more to a god. One of the Gunungsin come to Earth to free our fair land from enemies. Ah, he’s brilliant.” 

“You sound like a lunatic.”

“Perhaps, but people don’t give their gods away to just anyone. Who knows? Maybe his instincts will drive them to a more interesting outcome.” Hisoka’s hands tightened around his shoulders. “Don’t slouch, my love. It’s unbecoming.” 

“Hisoka, has anyone ever told you that you talk too much?”

“Yes, at least twice a day. Either that or I’m staring too much. Palace people can’t seem to make up their minds.” 

“I think they’re quite reasonable,” Illumi said, sliding up to be closer to Hisoka. There was not a chance that Kurapika was staying with these two psychopaths. His eyes scanned the pavilion for the younger Zoldycks. Ah, still hiding behind the pillar.

“You look confused,” he said, taking a place between them, legs folded beneath him. 

“Why are they fighting?” Alluka asked.

“Leorio’s angry about the test,” Kurapika sighed, eyes studying the two men. “Not that I can blame him. And he had the gall to have an audience as well.” Though, I suppose his warning makes sense now. “How do you two feel? I’m sure that was quite an ordeal for you.”

“We’ve seen worse,” Killua said, rolling up a part of the hem of his blue magoja to distract himself. “Besides, Gon’s gonna be okay. He would’ve gotten angry if we said anything. He really cares about Zushi. Oh, looks like they’re starting.”

Kurapika let his eyes settle back on the fight. His heart sank. That stance was awful. Sword fighting had never been his strong suit, but his mother had still taught him most of the basics. Well, at least he was holding it right, with two hands, otherwise it would have been too easy for it to slip out. 

Leorio swung first, with too much force to his strike. Too obvious, too slow, the Emperor didn’t even have to block it. Taking a few steps back was enough to evade such a clumsy blow. A few more swings left Leorio heaving. They exchanged a few words that left Leorio even more irked, but his next moves were a little less disoriented. 

Eventually, the Emperor began to respond, blocking his lunges. He played with him for a few minutes more, languid in his approach, yet graceful, a cat playing with his food. Then, he aimed for his hand, somewhere near his wrist, and the sword fell from Leorio’s hand. The edge of the Emperor’s sword pressed into the side of his neck. Slowly, it withdrew, and the Emperor started to walk back toward the platform. 

Good. It was over, and nobody got hurt (except maybe Leorio’s wrist). Kurapika took a few steps toward them, then halted, his feet near the edge of the first stair. 

“Hey!” Leorio was stomping toward the Emperor, fists clenched. It succeeded in getting the Emperor to stop, an exasperated expression on his face. Seconds later, Leorio’s arm arced and his knuckles, taut with tension, pushed into the side of the Emperor’s unblemished face. The sight sent Kurapika’s heart racing. They waited for a reaction, planted to their spots. The Emperor had stumbled back a bit, his face still tilted to the side as if Leorio’s fist had never left. An amused snort left him and he straightened. 

“Well, I suppose I deserve that,” he smiled, resting his sword over his shoulder, hand still gripping the hilt, while the other held onto his hip. Leorio glared back at him, arms crossed. “Even so, I can’t allow this sort of thing to go unpunished.”

There were guards on either side of Leorio now, though they were a tad overshadowed by his height. Kurapika could hear his heart pounding in his ears, mind crafting horrifying scenarios involving beheadings and bloodied stone, entrails sprawled across the floor. 

“Your Majesty,” Kurapika began, descending the rest of the staircase. “Please, he’s not thinking straight. I’m sure he doesn’t mean any harm.” 

“Then he’ll do well to cool off in a holding cell for a day or two.” 

Kurapika lowered his voice to a whisper, leaning closer, “Oh please, you let him punch you.”

“So? I gave him plenty of time to think better of it as well,” he matched his tone. His head lifted to meet Leorio’s glower. “You did well, considering your lack of experience. More used to using fists rather than a sword or gun, though, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” Leorio replied, squinting at him. It was his way of displaying suspicion. Kind of cute. “What of it?”

“Nothing, just observing. Next time you want to fight someone, be sure to negotiate beforehand.” Wow, a lecture. Why was he not surprised? 

“Uh . . . thanks?” 

Kurapika snapped his head to Leorio, eyes wide. Don’t thank him, he just put you in a holding cell. But the man just shrugged back at him. 

“Kurapika,” called the Emperor, holding his hand out to him. Kurapika raised a brow. “Please.” 

He cast one last furtive glance at Leorio and then followed Kuroro, taking his hand. Their fingers twined together, and Kurapika felt his stomach sink, tried to keep that burn in his chest out of his mind. He shouldn’t feel guilty. They’d both agreed that his first priority would be with his mission, and that included pretending to be the perfect, loving little consort. He certainly hadn’t felt guilty last week, when he’d allowed the Emperor to bathe him (partially, but still) and then spend the night in his bed. Or just a few days before when he’d cuddled so close to him it was nearly maddening. And they never kissed or touched in any way that really mattered. Intimacy was more likely to be found with Leorio than with the Emperor. Even though your mind is always occupied with other things when you’re with him . Even though Leorio was just a tool.

As soon as they cleared the arena, Kurapika ripped his hand away and continued up the path on his own. The Emperor caught up with him easily. 

 “I see you’re still in a foul mood,” he said, pale skin cut by the dark fabric of his outfit. Golden dragons trailed up the magoja, glinting in the light. It was strange to see an Emperor without his robes. If he recalled correctly, the previous King had always worn them, bright red robes, like those of Kakin’s rulers. Though, clearly, the Emperor preferred gold. 

“I’m always in a foul mood.” His eyes latched onto the landscape instead, a field of poppies as far as the eye could see, green brushed over with scarlet. They would’ve easily reached his knees had he not been safely on the dirt path. “Though you actively participating in the humiliation and torture of my friends certainly didn’t help your case.”

“Ah, so Gon is a friend now?” the Emperor said. “How quickly you form friendships, especially for someone who is so bent on pushing everyone away.” 

“I,” he paused, gathering his words, gnawing on his lower lip, “that’s not really relevant to the topic, now, is it?”

“Truly? I, for one, found it quite interesting. After all, you had very little objections to either of them being hurt. I was surprised, you’re always so righteous.” 

Kurapika’s hands glided over the tips of poppy petals, letting his mind focus on the sun at his back rather than the heat of the man beside him. “It wasn’t my place to interfere.” A wind took the field, sprinkling red petals onto the dirt under their feet. 

“Especially considering the fact you’ve been put through far worse for the sake of your mission. What you called training, and for justice, too. Gon wanted to fight so he could free his friend, even though he has no experience and we have no idea who we’re up against. Leorio thought I was unnecessarily cruel, and so he challenged me to a duel, knowing he’d lose. You’d have been a hypocrite if you had tried to stop them.”

He frowned. “Why am I not surprised you’ve brought that up again?” 

“And with how young you must’ve been. Seventeen? Eighteen?” 

“Sixteen.” He wrapped his arms around himself. “And a half.”

There was a shift in his eyes then, something dark amidst the ever present apathy. “Your Mother is a cruel woman.”

“She’s dealing with cruel people.” 

“Such as me.”

“Such as you.”

The Emperor kept his eyes forward, considering his next words, lips pursed, jaw clenched, sunlight catching in his dark hair, bringing out the brown in it. “I’m sorry.” 

Indignance caught flame in him. Anger was one thing, he always felt angry, but rarely did he feel like this, like someone had just ripped all his dignity away. Hell, he’d thought his dignity was long gone by now, dead the moment he entered the brothel instead of running away to the countryside, far out of Morena’s reach. What are you saying? His courtesan job was the reason Pairo was still alive. It was all worth it, every last bit. Mother was the one who had given him a purpose.

His hands reached for the Emperor’s neck, thoughtless, righteous. They stumbled back a bit. Kurapika felt the bones beneath his fingers, the press of his thumbs against his windpipe. If he squeezed, the Emperor would be no more. A dying pulse beneath his fingertips, each struggling breath against his cheek, the Emperor’s limp body, the imagery made him suck in a breath. 

The Emperor took his arms suddenly, and pulled on him. 

“Wait! Hey!” 

Poppies surrounded them, their red buds peeking down, petals drifting down on them. The Emperor had shielded him from the fall for the most part, arms holding him impossibly close, one across his shoulders, the other around his waist. They had landed there as gracefully as possible, Kurapika’s head right beneath his chin, their torsos pressing against each other. He let Kurapika sit up, straddling his waist, hands finding their way to his chest. 

He massaged his elbow a bit. “Honestly, I know I was being a bit forceful, but –” 

The Emperor had pressed a finger to his lips, then glanced to the side. 

“Wow guys, get a room,” Killua’s voice teased, as he and Alluka walked down the road, arm-in-arm. Alluka seemed almost heartbroken. 

“The poor flowers,” she said to Killua.

“I know, they should be very ashamed of themselves.”Killua patted her hand, as they continued to walk past the scene. “I am, frankly, disgusted.” 

Warm hands had somehow found their way to his hips, and when he looked down, the Emperor was clearly biting back a smile, or perhaps even one of those infuriating chuckles. 

 “I hate you,” Kurapika said. 

The Emperor hummed, bringing his hand to his lips and looking up at him through half-lidded eyes. “I think I’m getting better at this, don’t you?”

Kurapika pulled away, getting back on his feet. “Must be in your head.” He ignored the roguish grin that spread across the Emperor’s face, opting to brush himself off instead. His hand brushed through golden hair, shaking out scarlet petals and broken stems. Without even gracing him with another glance, Kurapika left the Emperor there, lying in the poppies. For a moment, Kurapika entertained the thought that maybe he wouldn’t get up. These hopes were dashed at the sound of the poppies shifting behind him. Then, soft footsteps gained balance on the dirt pathway, and the Emperor was beside him once more.

“Can’t get away from you, can I?” Kurapika muttered.

“Not on Ryusei soil, you can’t,” he teased, tapping his shoulder with a wooden fan. It was embellished with pastel gold paper, and wooden beads clung to a string hanging from the fan’s hilt. Wait a minute.

Kurapika snatched it away. “Thief.” 

“Yes, but a handsome one,” the Emperor replied casually, the words slipping off his tongue with ease. Kurapika caught a hint of red in his hair, and his hand itched to remove it. He urged his fingers to instead flick the fan open. 

“You’re a nuisance,” he said, words slightly muffled by the fan. 

“That’s hardly a counterpoint.” 

He resisted the urge to groan in annoyance, but only barely. Instead, it escaped his lips in an exasperated huff. 

“Don’t get too comfortable.” A voice rang in his ear. Who that message was for, he couldn’t be sure.   

. End of Chapter .

 

 

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Chapter 25:

The Consort’s Promise

Killua and Gon took three days to say their goodbyes to everyone. They went to Leorio, who was reasonably worried but still supportive of their cause. Since Leorio lived in the same housing unit as the other med students, they ended up having to say goodbye to a lot more people than they cared to. This was supposed to be a top-secret mission, and blabbing about it to everyone could end badly for all involved. Therefore, they skipped out on telling everyone who might want to know they’d be gone for a few weeks and decided to go straight to Kurapika. 

They entered his room without announcing themselves (quite a risky move, entering a consort’s room unannounced). He’d been sitting cross-legged on the floor close to the rectangular table in the center of the room, a pot of fragrant green tea having been prepared for him. Alluka was with them, holding onto Killua’s hand with a vice-like grip. 

He set his book down next to the tea. 

“You seem to be healing up, Gon,” he said, noting the dull cuts on his arms, already covered with new skin. His black eye was also fading now, though the swelling still impaired his vision. 

“Yeah,” the boy replied. “I’m glad Hanzo didn’t break my arm, otherwise I’d have to wait even longer to go.” 

Maybe that would’ve been for the best. “Have you spoken to the Emperor yet?” 

Gon nodded. 

“You could’ve asked me to go with you,” Kurapika said. “I know it might be a little scary to face him after what happened.”

Gon shook his head. Stubborn child. “I think I’m less scared of him now than I was before.”

“That’s … unexpected,” Kurapika managed. He wouldn’t bother asking. He doubted Gon knew the answer. 

“Is it?” Gon asked. “Isn’t that the reason you’re not afraid of him either?”

Or perhaps he knows more than people give him credit for. 

Kurapika scoffed, taking the book back in his hands. “That just means that he didn’t reach our expectations.” 

Gon let out a light laugh. “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” 

“Kurapika always talks about the Emperor like he’s a bad thing,” Killua chimed in, leaning back on his palms.

“I think it’s sweet. They love each other even though there’s things they don’t like about the other,” Alluka said. 

“There’s hardly anything to like about him,” Kurapika grumbled. His curiosity began to get the best of him. “What are these things he doesn’t like about me?” 

“He thinks you’re rash and have a loose tongue,” Alluka surmised, as if the Emperor had told her these things directly.

“Anything else?”

Alluka frowned, creating wrinkles in her chin as she pondered his question. “No, I think that’s it.” 

“His infidelity,” Killua added. His eyes had found the plate of honey cakes on the table, and now he was treating himself to a few at a time. Pale fingers pause on the fifth or so, noting Kurapika’s disapproving gaze. “What? It’s not like you’re gonna eat them. You hate sweets.”

“The amount of sweets you consume on a regular basis is frankly concerning,” Kurapika said. “Besides, dinner will be served in an hour.”

“Yeah, but dinner with my parents is always so boring,” Killua sighed. “I usually just skip it. The food isn’t that good either, because mom is obsessed with ‘healthy eating’.”

Kurapika’s instincts kicked in, the ones that had been honed to perfection after years of caring for Pairo and keeping the other courtesans out of trouble. Gon and Killua would be out of his hair shortly, so it couldn’t be too risky to let those instincts rule him for a short while. “Killua Zoldyck, are you telling me you’ve been skipping meals?”

“I wouldn’t call it skipping meals,” Killua said. “I always swipe some stuff from the kitchen for Alluka and I.” 

Kurapika’s eyes swept over the two siblings. Something was off. Even so, he didn’t want to push them into divulging information before they were ready to talk about it. He settled on a compromise. “If you find the food your parents give you so repulsive, then how about you spend dinner time with me.” 

“Like last time?” Gon asked. 

“Well, that was lunch, so not exactly. Beyond that, we won’t be alone this time,” Kurapika replied. “The Emperor is scheduled to have dinner with all his consorts this evening. He doesn’t do so often, therefore not obliging him would be seen as disrespectful.” Or at least that was what the Emperor’s letter had said last week, after Kurapika had decided to feign illness and avoid the dinner entirely. He hadn’t been feeling his best after their confrontation the night before, but apparently a piece of solitude was too much to ask for.

“Eh, all five of you?” Killua said, “what’s harem life like for you guys? All having to compete for one man’s affections. Must be drenched in drama.”

“It’s mostly uneventful,” Kurapika replied, noting Killua’s penchant for petty fights. He wasn’t exactly sure how life was for regular consorts, considering his mission took precedence over all else. There was undoubtedly still some tension between him and the others, but he didn’t exactly have a cure for envy. Nor could he simply ask the Emperor to choose a different consort to be his favorite. What a conversation that would be. ‘I’m sorry, your Majesty, I’m going to have to ask you to stop favoring me so obviously.’

“Let’s do it,” Alluka said, taking Killua’s arm in an embrace. “It could be fun … and we’d be able to spend some more time with Kurapika. And eat good food!”

Killua’s eyes searched Alluka’s face, his lips parted slightly, then he drew his mouth into a tight line. “Alright, let’s do it.”

Alluka clapped her hands a few times, cheerful once more, a large grin drawn across her face. Gon mimicked her smile, and Killua might as well have turned into a puddle of goo at the sight. It felt like watching the last scene in a play, the last chapter in their stories, and the ominous tone didn’t sit well with Kurapika. Hope always preceded tragedy after all. A blossom that had survived the winter, only to die due to a drought. 

Ah, perhaps he was just being a pessimist. Haneul had always thought he was too negative for his own good. In his defense, few things had ever gone his way when he’d put on a face of optimism. 

Kurapika ran his tongue over his bottom lip and pulled on a small smile, an old tactic to keep him from appearing too solemn. A memory had slipped past. The feeling of a hand between his own, growing colder. 

“I’m sure the Emperor will be happy to have you there,” Kurapika added, reassuringly, his voice a bit strained. That was nothing new. 

. . .

The Emperor had already struck up a conversation with the other consorts by the time Kurapika had herded the boys into the room. Iza sat closest to him, as her clan had the most power after the Emperor himself, trying her best to endear herself to someone who should already be enamored with her. The Emperor engaged her with that same dull look in his eyes. Aiko and Neon were more interested in one another than in the Emperor, though they took the time to be polite and listen in every now and then. Lili, the fifth consort, sat next to Neon, seemingly irritated by Iza’s advances. She was from the Gamgi clan. Economically-speaking, they were stable, but they weren’t as prosperous as the other four. Politically, they were still trying to make their way into the Emperor’s good graces after trying to dethrone him initially, and they’d insulted a few too many foreign officials through the years. They were a black sheep, so to speak. 

Of course, none of this would matter. Lili should still rank above Kurapika, considering he wasn’t a noble in any sense of the word and had no ties to the clan leader of the region he’d grown up in. Unfortunately for her, the Emperor found him entertaining, enough so that he ranked above all of the consorts.

Well, it wasn’t official yet. The only time the Emperor had actually implied Kurapika was ranked above the other was during the Festival. To the public, Kurapika remained at the bottom of the food chain, and that was where he’d very much like to stay.

“Are you planning on staying in the doorway all day, my Prince,” the Emperor asked, peering at him over his shoulder. “I see you brought company.”

Alluka had hidden behind him, obscured by the fabric of his hanbok, but Killua and Gon stood with faces lit up in delight. Their arms lifted above their heads, they wheezed in two deep breaths, and then …

“Food!” they yelled. The other consorts watched on in a mixture of amusement and bafflement. Kurapika tugged them back before they could run in and eat everything. 

“Your Majesty,” he started, ignoring the Emperor’s smirking face. “I was hoping you’d allow these three to partake in this dinner with us. There’s always plenty left over.” 

The Emperor offered him his hand. “I don’t see why not.” Kurapika accepted the offered hand, his fingers gliding over the faint lines in the Emperor’s palm, and then he was being pulled closer to him. He took a seat at the round table, its surface pale as a polished pearl. A servant poured hot tea into a jade cup and set it down in front of him. There were five servants in all, each one a high-ranking member of the staff. Only the best may serve the royal family. 

“Thank you,” Kurapika told her, and the woman nodded, grave as ever. 

The children sat down close to Kurapika, though Gon tried to start up a conversation with Lili, to no avail. 

“Wait, so, we can eat all of this?” Gon asked Kurapika. 

“You can have a little bit of everything, yes, but don’t eat it all,” Kurapika told him. Killua was already shoveling some seared meat onto his plate. Their ravenous appetites certainly made more sense now. It was unfortunate he couldn’t do much more for them, outside of these small gestures. 

Kurapika pushed down a sigh. Consorts didn’t show discontent, especially not in front of the Emperor who so favored them. In Kurapika’s case, that meant not in front of an audience. He could complain to the Emperor all he wanted.

He brought a spoonful of warm seaweed broth to his mouth. The children might be allowed to go out of order, but Kurapika still had to abide by the rules of etiquette. 

“Now that we’re all here,” the Emperor started. “I do have something other than polite small talk to discuss with you all.” 

The atmosphere shifted from tense to tenser, and the other Consorts looked to Kurapika as if he was supposed to know what went on in the Emperor’s twisted mind.  

“High Priest Omokage has been pushing me to choose a Queen Consort.” Ah. That put Kurapika out of the conversation. He could be a Noble Consort, but becoming the Emperor’s spouse was highly unlikely. It was all political in the end. Then there was the problem of producing an heir. “Of course, I told him not to bother himself with such things, but he insisted that I make your statuses as my Consorts more official. As such, the tradition of royal titles has to be upheld.”

A cold sweat seemed to break out over his skin. He’s ranking us. In absolute terms this time.

Kurapika urged himself to calm down, taking a few discreet breaths and closing his eyes. The chances of the Emperor putting him at the top were minuscule. He might be the Emperor’s ‘favorite’ but that didn’t mean he’d give him the first rank of bin.

“You will all receive your rankings later tonight,” he said. “I do not wish to sully the mood, especially when dinners like these are so rare.” 

Kurapika almost wanted to laugh. Sully the mood? The mood had already been thoroughly sullied, trampled and flushed down the Geulimja river. Now all they would think of was their rank. 

“You’ve done no such thing,” Iza said, placing a dainty hand on the Emperor’s shoulder. “We all trust your judgment and shall accept it with full hearts.” 

Safely hidden between Kurapika and Alluka, Killua made a discreet gagging sound. Kids. 

“Maybe we should’ve raided the pantry after all,” Killua murmured to Gon, just loud enough for Kurapika to hear.

“But the food here is warm,” Gon whispered back. 

“We could find something warm in the kitchens.” 

“But Kurapika invited us. Aunt Mito says it’s rude to turn your nose up at other people’s food.” 

“Mito only says that because she doesn’t want other people criticizing her food.” 

“Aunt Mito’s food is great.” 

Kurapika turned to give them a glare over his shoulder. The boys were leaning in close, oblivious to their surroundings. 

“Boys,” Kurapika said. They tilted their heads up to look at him. “Don’t you know it’s rude to talk behind another person’s back?”

Killua rolled his eyes and mumbled some incoherent gibberish, but Gon, being the angel that he was, quickly gave a sheepish apology. A small smile bloomed on the Emperor’s mouth, gentle, loving, and Kurapika gave him a questioning tilt of the head. 

There was a knock on the door then; a servant had come to ask the Emperor to return to the Throne Hall. The matter was urgent, if the Emperor’s reaction was anything to go by. He turned to them, apologetic.

“Seems I’m needed elsewhere,” he said. “Feel free to finish your dinners in my absence. Your official titles will arrive in your rooms soon. If you have any questions, my door is always open.”

With that, the Emperor departed, leaving the rest of them to breathe a little easier. 

“I was wondering when ranks would come into play,” Aiko said, a cup of tea in her hands. “I hope we are all able to rise above such petty divisions.”

“We were never on the same level in any case. The Emperor has always had his preferences,” said Iza, clearly staring at him. Kurapika smiled back, and that seemed to annoy her further. Oops. She folded her hands on her lap and bowed. “I seem to have lost my appetite. Please, take care.” 

With that, Iza stood. The doors behind her opened. Her servants gathered behind her like a gaggle of geese following their leader down south. The room fell into an uneasy silence, though Kurapika’s mind had already refocused on the Emperor’s scheming. Depending on his placement, the Emperor might be planning to increase or decrease the distance between them. If Kurapika did get the highest rank of bin then he would undoubtedly be given a higher number of security guards and maidservants, which meant more people would be watching his every move. Furthermore, it would destroy whatever good will he might’ve built up with the other consorts, save for Neon and Aiko. Iza and Lili both had a strong backing thanks to their noble families. If they turned against him in any definitive way, then it could prove troublesome.

“Kurapika,” Aiko called for him, standing up with Neon. “We’re leaving now if it’s okay with you?”

“Oh,” Kurapika said, his words dazed from racing thoughts. Perhaps he was over-reacting. “Of course. I’ll be following you shortly.” 

He allowed the children to finish their meals. Feeling some responsibility for keeping them after the sun’s already gone down, he offered to walk them to the gates, a sentiment they seemed to appreciate. There was an uncharacteristic chill in the air, and Alluka shivered a bit as they stepped outside. Killua and Gon both moved to give her their jackets, only to stop and stare at one another. Alluka giggled, and the laugh got Kurapika genuinely smiling for once. As they made their way to the gates, Alluka and Gon started walking ahead of them, admiring the scenery of beautifully maintained gardens, carefully pruned trees, and brightly colored flowers. Killua kept pace with Kurapika, his eyes following his sister’s movements. 

“I have a favor to ask,” Killua said. 

Kurapika peered down at him, hands behind his back. “Of me? What is it?”

“Well, it’s a bit weird, I guess … considering we’ve only known one another for a couple of weeks, but …” A rare case of an embarrassed Killua. 

Kurapika tilted his head to the side, questioningly. “Yes?” 

“Could you take care of Alluka?” he finally asked. “Just until I get back.”

“It sounds like you have something to protect her from.” 

Killua frowned. “Just keep an eye on her, okay? You’ve got the Emperor on your side, so if something happens … my family will listen to you is what I mean.”

 Kalluto’s hatred resurfaced in his mind: the clenched fist over a fan, the glare in his eyes, the words, too hateful to be directed at his sister. The Zoldycks were known for being rather eccentric, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they were cruel as well. They had originally been a family of assassins after all. It wasn’t until the Emperor reached an agreement with them that they agreed to only serve the Royal Family. It would probably be best to not get involved in such a fragile alliance, but his mother had always said Kurapika had a tendency to not leave well enough alone. 

“I’ll do my best to keep her safe,” he replied. 

Killua opened his mouth to say something, then closed it and swallowed. He nodded. “Thanks.”

It was all too easy to spot the fear in Killua’s eyes. Kurapika placed a hand on his shoulder. “Make sure to come back in one piece.”

“I know I will. It’s Gon I’m worried about,” Killua admitted. “He hasn’t been trained like I have.”

Ah, so that was it. “Gon is stubborn to a fault and tends to get himself into trouble, but he also knows how to get out of it.” Kurapika mustered up his best reassuring smile. “Have a little faith in him.”

Killua’s eyes had been drawn back to the boy in green, forehead creasing. He worried too much for his age. 

Young love was so strange. Kurapika remembered feeling that way. Absolute nonsense. It felt like your heart would leap out of your chest. It should be classified as a health condition. “Now, now, young Zoldyck, don’t stare too much, you’ll give yourself away.”

A blush flooded the pale boy’s face, trickling down his neck and up to his ears. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Kurapika bit back a smile. “Hmm, I must’ve been mistaken.”

“Must’ve been,” Killua scoffed.

“Don’t worry, I can keep a secret.” His gaze traveled up toward the sky. Clouds were starting to gather. “I hope you packed your rain cloaks. Catching a cold now wouldn’t be good.” 

“What? Are you our father now?” Killua mumbled, walking ahead. “We have everything we need so don’t worry too much.” 

The gates came into view, sprouting from the stone in vibrant red hues, its blue roof shining in the light of lanterns and its own polished tiles. In the distance, the mountain range peaked through. There were guards standing at the doors, half-asleep. Anyone leaving the Palace needed either a license, or written consent from the Emperor or one of his advisors. If a person of the Palace did leave, they’d be caught and probably executed depending on the mood of the Emperor. That, of course, went for consorts too. 

Killua handed two scrolls to one of the guards, who inspected it lazily, and then tossed it back to him. The three of them hugged for the last time, Alluka holding on so tightly that she could’ve broken one of their ribs if she wanted. As the boys walked through the threshold of the gates, it almost felt like Kurapika was seeing them off to another life. Gon turned to Kurapika and Alluka, who stood on the other side of the gates now, separated by an open door and half a dozen men. 

“Take care,” Gon said, grinning again. Killua bit back a smile. 

“We will,” Kurapika replied. Alluka sniffled next to him. They watched until the two boys vanished into the crowd of people outside the Palace. “Do you want me to walk you home?”

Alluka tensed at the suggestion. A smile that was too wide stretched on her face. “I’m alright, Mr. Kurapika. I know my way around the Palace grounds now since my brother and I explored them so often.”

“I see,” he replied. “Let me know if you ever want to talk. I know we haven’t known each other very long, but it’s the least I can do knowing his Majesty is the reason they’re being sent away on this mission. Being without your brother must be hard on you.”

“I’m alright,” Alluka said. She bowed to him, turned on her heel, and walked in the opposite direction. It felt eerie watching her go alone, with no doting, silver-haired older brother holding her hand, and no servant boy in green following them around. Quite a lonely image.

The first few drops of rain startled him out of his thoughts, the darkening sign beckoning him to go back to the Consort’s Residence. As he drew closer to the grand building, however, his eyes were drawn away from the doors and their iron rings. Someone was sitting in the gardens, by the fountain the Emperor had called “oeloun bunsu”. Red flowers crowned the fountain, but they wore black and were hunched over in a way that made him doubt his suspicions were correct. He moved toward them anyway, his brain too uncertain to stop him. 

The Emperor sat at the fountain, his head tipped down. No servants or guards followed him, though Kurapika found that to be the case more often than not. The Emperor enjoyed his privacy, and he trusted few people to be around him so constantly. What arrogance. 

“You’ll catch a cold if you stay out here,” Kurapika said. He was standing above him now, a good couple meters apart since he had no desire to be any closer to his beloved than he had to be. 

The Emperor was silent, and then released a breath of laughter, his eyes still on the ground, hand clutched in his hair. “How do you always manage to find me at the worst possible time, my Prince?” 

His voice startled him, because it wasn’t the soft tone he usually armed himself with. Kurapika stumbled a few steps back, all his thoughts telling him to go. He dove down onto his knees, because it surely wasn’t possible. It shouldn’t be possible. 

The Emperor gazed down at him, surprised, mask lifted, cheeks tear-stained. Kurapika’s fingers brushed against his jaw without warning, mouth feeling dry. He swallowed. 

“The rain’s really coming down,” Kurapika mustered, wondering if his voice sounded as hoarse as it felt. “You’re soaked through.” 

The Emperor’s mouth hung open, and Kurapika raised an eyebrow, waiting for a response. Droplets of rain trailed down his back, and he shivered a bit. The Emperor smiled then, and Kurapika looked for signs of that mask over his eyes. It could be assumed the Emperor had gotten better at having his false emotions appear real. 

“Stay the night with me,” Kurapika sighed, scraping his wet blond bangs out of his eyes. “It’s closer, and no one will be suspicious. I’ll run you a bath.”

“You certainly care a lot for the health of your enemy,” the Emperor murmured, drawing closer to him. Kurapika leaned away, nearly losing his balance, hand on the Emperor’s chest. 

“It would be rather disappointing to have my victory be taken away by the common cold,” he whispered back, taking his hand. “Let’s go.”

The guards barely glanced at them as Kurapika led the Emperor through the corridors to his quarters. They opened the doors for them, and then let them swung shut, though Kurapika was almost certain one of them rolled their eyes. 

“You should go first, your Majesty,” Kurapika told him, wringing water from his blonde hair. He made his way to the bath and turned the faucet on with a twist of the knob. Warm water fell from it, slowly filling up the large tub. Kurapika prepared a towel and some of his baggier clothes for the other man, turned the faucet off, and slipped back into his living room. The Emperor stood there, still dripping wet. It was almost laughable: the imperturbable Emperor, soaked through and standing in the middle of his room. Kurapika tried to keep his eyes from straying to the clinging fabric of the Emperor’s clothing. He was … quite muscular.

The Emperor gave him another smile and then walked past him. Kurapika watched as he disappeared behind the door to the bathroom, and then walked to the dining table near the divan. A letter had been carefully placed in the center. The envelope was, as with many things in the Palace, made of the most expensive material possible. The gold paper felt seamless underneath his fingers as he picked it up and ran his thumb under the seal flap. The parchment inside was thinner and more wrinkled, its color an off-white. There was quite a bit of writing, imprinted on the paper in black ink, but Kurapika only focused on the first line. 

‘His Majesty, the Emperor, hereby bestows upon you the title of Royal Noble Consort Sowon, ranking fifth in the lineup of Royal Noble Consorts.’

He was … last?

Huh. He certainly hadn’t expected that. Maybe a place somewhere in the middle, but not last. Would this compromise his mission? Make him seem like a vengeful consort out for the Emperor’s throat?

A chuckle sounded from behind him, a warm, gentle thing. “You look alarmed.” 

“I just … the results exceeded my expectations,” he replied, placing the letter back down, and tilting his head to get a better view of the Emperor. There was nothing but amusement on his face, but Kurapika knew he was scheming underneath that charming grin. 

“I had to keep the families happy. Each of the other consorts comes from powerful clans. It wouldn’t do to anger them over something as trivial as titles, and they certainly wouldn’t appreciate having a commoner rank above their daughters. Lady Eun-Ji had already been so angered that I chose you over her that she sent a few assassins after you. You remember that night on the bridge when you got drunk?”

“I was slightly tipsy.” 

The Emperor crossed his arms. The robe Kurapika had picked out fit him very well indeed. “You could hardly walk straight.” 

“At least I could walk,” he mumbled, then met his eyes. “Have there been any others?”

“You mean the aphrodisiac in your wine? From what I’ve investigated, her family has nothing to do with it. We’ll just have to keep looking.” 

Then they were still out there. He’d have to take more caution from now on.

“Are you not going to bathe? The water will get cold.”

It took a moment for Kurapika to put the pieces together. “Ah, right … of course.” As he passed the other man, the smell of roses reached him. Tch. Thief. 

. . .

The next day, Kurapika awoke to an empty bed. It was still warm where the Emperor had slept the night prior, so he must not have left too long ago. He sat up, noting the sun rising above the horizon. The Fourth Prince’s trial would begin today, spanning for who knows how many days. The Emperor hadn’t bothered to inform about anything outside of the date. The time and place were still unknown to him, frustratingly so. He’d tried getting it out of Hanzo, but the guard’s fear of the Emperor was far greater than his fear of the Emperor’s consort. 

Maybe he’d go see Leorio. The medical test was just a few days away, and his lover needed all the support and encouragement he could get. Who knew, the man might even know something about the trial. With Kurapika’s lower status, fewer people would be watching his every move. Still, he couldn’t get out of the Inner Palace without the Emperor’s permission, and ‘I want to see the man I’m having an affair with and you know full well I love deeply’ didn’t sound very convincing. He could lie, but what if someone found out? He’d be finished. No, what he needed was a disguise.  

“Your Majesty,” his attendant’s voice called. Linssen was his name. He’d been assigned to Kurapika’s staff just a few days ago and was mostly quiet, stoic, and sleepy, shorter than Kurapika was, with straight, black hair and dark eyes, and a penchant for collecting seashells. “Your servants are here to prepare you for the rest of the day. 

“Let them in,” he replied. 

Palm appeared in the doorway with a gaggle of maids, a box of makeup in her arms. The other maids walked over to the wardrobe and prepared his outfit for the day. As he watched them work, the answer to his prayers appeared: Palm was a master of disguise. 

He waited until after the maids finished dressing him to ask them to leave. It was easy to excuse his request to be alone with Palm, and the maids weren’t in a position to question him anyway. Palm set down her case of makeup, and the two of them took their places on the floor. She started on his hair first, running a brush through it while she calculated which hairstyle would suit him best. 

“Palm, can I trust you with something?” She was a spy, after all. Keeping a few secrets shouldn’t be that difficult. 

Palm paused as she set a gold pin in his hair. “Trust?” Her eyes light up with her grin. “Of course, your Majesty! Though we cannot be together, I promise to serve you in any way I can.”

Be … together?

Oh for Heaven’s sake. Not her, too.

“Do you know where the trial is taking place?” 

She clamped up, folding her hands on her lap. “I’m sorry, your Highness, his Majesty had asked me not to tell anyone.”

Of course, he did. That man would sooner lock Kurapika in this room rather than allow him to happen upon the Fourth Prince’s trial.

“I apologize for putting you in a difficult position. I won’t bring that up again.” Still, there was one more thing he needed. “You still have a penchant for disguises, do you not?”

“I do?” Now she just sounded confused.

“I need one. A disguise, I mean.”

“What do you have in mind?” she asked, more subdued now. 

“Someone that can move between the Inner and Outer Palaces easily,” he replied. “I have a friend there, but I don’t want our relationship to be misconstrued and the Emperor gets jealous easily. You’ve been an employee of His Majesty for far longer than I, what do you think will suit my needs best?” 

Palm chewed on her lower lip, fiddling with a cosmetic brush. “Well …”

. . .

“Please be careful, your Highness,” Palm told him, as she tied the sash around his waist. “As a Consort, you have the protection of his Majesty. As a maid, you have very little value.”

“I know how to be careful, so don’t worry about me.” He stood, scrutinizing his reflection. As long as he avoided people who had spent a decent amount of time staring at his face, then he should be able to get away with this. Dark brown freckles now dotted the bridge of his nose, like stars against his skin. Any other makeup had been removed, leaving his bare face on display with all its un-consortly imperfections. The jewels had been stripped off his body and his hair. He felt like that sixteen-year-old boy again, going to work at the library.

He tossed the end of his braid over his shoulder. He’d dressed up as women before, mostly on request of customers or the Madam. This would be the first time he used it as a facade. Looking plain and ordinary for a change was somehow a relief, though he was still prettier than the average person, even without all the makeup and expensive clothing. Hopefully, he wasn’t too pretty. His blond hair had always been what drew eyes to him first. Maybe the wig would keep people’s eyes away long enough for him to reach Leorio’s room.

“You’ve done well, Palm. Thank you.” 

“Don’t linger outside for too long.” 

“I won’t.” 

. . .

Getting to Leorio only took a few quick questions, ones that no one found strange on account of Leorio being a womanizer. Kurapika would have to talk to him about that later.

The wooden walls of the dormitory where Leorio lived were thin, so it wasn’t difficult to find the loud-mouthed student. He passed a few doors, a couple other maids, students, until he finally came across the entrance to Leorio’s place. There were other people inside, but Kurapika was certain they’d leave if he showed up. 

He knocked on the door, waited a few seconds, then knocked again, louder this time. When it opened, Leorio was facing him, quizzical.

“Uh, wrong room?” he said, uncertainly. “This area is only cleaned on Wednesdays.”

Kurapika exhaled a small laugh, tilting his head forward. “How rude.”

“Huh?”

“Is that how you receive all your friends?” 

Leorio’s mouth hung open. Any second now. 

“Hey, Leorio! What’s keeping you? Just send her away!” one of his buddies yelled from inside the room. 

“Kurapika?” the name left his lips in a hushed whisper, as if he was talking to an apparition. 

“I hope, for your sake, the people in there are just friends.” 

“What are you doing here?” he continued.

“Let me in and I’ll tell you.”

Leorio’s friends appeared behind him, and upon catching sight of Kurapika, their mouths spread out into grins that looked almost painful. Then again, Kurapika didn’t smile much.

The closest man leapt forward and wrapped an arm around Leorio’s shoulders. “Ladies coming to your room already? You naughty rascal, you.” He winked, conspiratorially. “Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone.” 

“It’s not what it looks like,” Leorio replied, though his cheeks were tinged pink. “We’re just friends.” 

“Indeed, we’ve known each other since before Leorio started working here. We’re very close,” he said, holding a hand to his chest. “He’s like an older brother to me.”

All three of Leorio’s friends moaned in pain. “Oof, you’re never getting out of that one, brother. May you rest in peace.” 

“Hey, I said we were just buddies!” Leorio snapped, turning toward them. “And, anyway, you three should leave. I haven’t seen hi-her for a long time now, I’d like to catch up.” 

“Alright, alright,” the leader said, smirking all the while. They all wore the same white robes of medical scholars, Kurapika noticed. They probably lived here because their homes were too far from the school grounds. Just as noisy as Leorio. Maybe it was a student thing. 

“For you,” one of the other men approached him, holding out a slightly wilted flower to him. “I’m a magician on the side. Still unmarried, but we could change that.” 

“I can’t imagine anyone wanting to change that.”

The man laughed, holding out a finger toward him. “Cute. I like you.” 

Your chances are even lower than Palm’s.

“C’mon, don’t be weird,” his friends said, grabbing him by the arms and pulling him away. Alone at last. Kurapika turned back to Leorio, who scrubbed at the back of his neck nervously. His steps against the cold wooden floor echoed in the hallway, now blissfully silent. 

“I heard you’ve gained quite the reputation for yourself.” He walked past him and into the room. It was tidy and minimalistic, though that was probably more thanks to the maids than to Leorio. There were a few small souvenirs on top of a desk: a statue of a dog and a boar, a small knife, and a stack of books. Kurapika leaned down to file through them. Upon closer inspection, they were mostly medical texts, but a few less innocent materials had managed to sneak their way in. 

“Naughty, indeed,” Kurapika murmured, hoisting himself up onto the table. He glanced up at Leorio, whose face morphed into one of terror as he realized what was in his hands. “I thought students weren’t allowed to bring such provocative materials onto school grounds?” 

The book was ripped out of his hands, and a smugness filled Kurapika’s chest. “You’re into some racy things, Mr. Paladiknight. Apparently, you’ve been flirting with every girl who crosses your path.”

“They were flirting with me. Besides, we both know you’re no chaste maiden,” Leorio said, clutching the book close, looking him up and down suspiciously. 

“What do you mean?” he asked, thoughtlessly. He sometimes worried Leorio would figure him out, put together the puzzle pieces of his past. Would the man shun him? Kurapika wasn’t sure, but he didn’t want to find out. As with most things, he’d let his lover stumble upon these things on his own.

“I felt it the first time we kissed,” he replied, pointing at him almost accusingly with the book. “You must’ve been with other people even before we met.”

“So? You’ve been with other people before we met too.”

Leorio waved at him. “Yeah, yeah, but you’ve always been so prim and proper. Not the type to kiss someone before marriage.” 

Kurapika jumped off the desk and approached him. “And what do you think of me now?”

“I’m not sure,” Leorio said. Even so, he accepted Kurapika into his arms, holding him close. The smell of cheap perfume, as usual. Not cloves. Not old parchment and ink. He let himself sink into him, relaxing against his lover. “A bit of a two-timer.”

Kurapika’s eyes shot open at the accusation and then narrowed in annoyance. “I don’t love him.” 

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m not sure he feels the same way. You were pretty flirty at the exam.” 

With both hands on Leorio’s chest, Kurapika shoved him away. Ridiculous. He spent so much time reading those novels, one would think he’d be a little more romantic. “Speaking of which, what exactly were you thinking when you challenged him to that duel. He could’ve cut you in two.” 

“He didn’t,” Leorio shrugged. “Besides, he can’t hurt me.” 

Kurapika scoffed. “Quite a claim.” 

“Because you have my back. He won’t hurt me as long as you’re there,” Leorio said, crossing his arms. 

He felt the beginnings of an ill mood at the edges of his mind. “You’ve got a lot of nerve.” With that, he turned away and lied down on the sleeping mat. “Anyway, I had a reason for coming here. Has your superior told you anything about the trial of Kakin’s Fourth Prince?” 

“Fourth Prince? Oh, yeah, I think Cheadle went there this morning.” 

 Kurapika jolted into a sitting position, so quickly that Leorio gave him a curious look. “Where?” 

“I only overheard the details,” Leorio replied. “I was … well, nevermind.” Kurapika will definitely question him about that later. “It’s supposed to happen in the main lecture hall. Not sure when. It’s probably already started..”

“I have to go.” He stood up, heart pounding in his ears. Never would he have imagined Leorio actually had the information he needed. Barely aware of his own actions, Kurapika pressed his lips to Leorio’s cheek. “I’ll be back soon.” 

“Uh, okay?” 

He had a chance now. A chance to see that man be given a sentence, a punishment for all he’d done. All he had to do was sneak into the lecture hall, which shouldn’t be too difficult considering he was a maid. Those stuffy old men needed something to eat and drink from time to time. Right? Right. Good call, Kurapika. 

And if the Emperor recognized him?

He wouldn’t. Kurapika would stick to the sidelines, or even stay outside. He didn’t need to be in the room to be satisfied, just needed to see it happen, to see him pay. The Emperor wouldn’t recognize him. Not even Leorio recognized him at first. And really, what was the worst that could happen if the Emperor did see him there? Not like he could kill him, or force him out of the Palace. 

. End of Chapter .  

 

Chapter Text

 

Playing Favorites: 

Chapter 26:

The Consort’s Drink

The Royal Academy was quiet, the scholars having either been sent back home or to their dormitories. Sunlight bloomed in the corridors, the wood drenched in a golden brown cast. A pounding had settled in his ears, one that rendered the rest of the landscape inaudible. He opened the door to the lecture hall, a tray of tea in his hands. Not a single pair of eyes turned to him, but Kurapika was certain they had all taken notice. The Emperor sat in the audience, like a good little scholar. Under normal circumstances, his ruling would be the last word, but the Kakin Royal Family had insisted that the Emperor must hold some sort of bias since he’d been the one to arrest him. In response, Ryusei’s Emperor had agreed to have an impartial party be placed on the stand. Impartial. No one was ever impartial here.

The judge sat at the front of the room, a paper screen of wildflowers laid out behind him, as he lounged on a golden cushion, eyes skimming the scrolls on his desk. He was an aging man, his silver hair styled into a mane of spikes reminiscent of a certain magician. He wore a hanbok of purples and golds, and a black, cylindrical hat with beads of gold hanging off of it. His wrinkled face drooped down with such an intense boredom, Kurapika thought he might fall asleep on the stand. From his neck hung a golden pendant: the Zoldyck crest. Must be a relative of Killua’s. He could see the resemblance. 

First, he dealt with the Emperor and his advisors, who seemed far more interested in the trial than the maid serving them tea. Except for the Emperor. In his daydreams, the rim of the cup was laced with a poison. He never knew what kind of poison, or how painful it would be. He just knew that eventually the Emperor died. Now, there was only the tenseness in his muscles as he kneeled down, far from the glory of the Emperor’s untimely demise.

The fact that he was clearly scrutinizing Kurapika’s every action didn’t help matters. It was even more disconcerting than his usual placid gaze. No wonder everyone held their tongue around him.

The judge cleared his throat. “We’ve laid out the accusations and provided witnesses. How will the defendant plead?” 

All at once, the attention returned to the Fourth Prince, who sat on the right side of the room, far from the Emperor. He wore an expensive hanbok, one that made him look a little green in the face. His dirty blond hair had been neatly rearranged to suit the occasion, but it was still flat and dull as ever. It was more than most petty thieves got, and certainly more kindness than had been allotted to Kurapika’s parents. Would he lie and plead innocent? Kurapika knew the evidence must be stacked against Tserriednich, but courts found a way to doubt everything.

“I’m guilty,” Tserriednich said, with a flourish of his hand. Only his guards were unsurprised by the confession, their expressions stoic and postures unchanged. Kurapika’s eyes found their way to the Emperor. His gaze was fixed to the floor, hand positioned around the cup. The tray in Kurapika’s hands felt heavy. Tserriednich was mocking them.

Zeno gave him a skeptical look, eyebrows inching up on his forehead. “You’re pleading guilty to all of these claims?” 

“Yeah, yeah, except for the maid. I don’t kill maids. I deal mostly with prostitutes,” Tserriednich replied. “I find joy in turning them into something worthwhile.”

Five years and the Fourth Prince was still spinning the same dusty old web. Worthwhile. Who are you to give me my worth?  

“Well, I’m parched.” Tserriednich sighed. He gestured to Kurapika. “We haven’t got all day.” 

Kurapika’s legs grew unsteady as if he’d fall if he took even one step forward. His mind raced, because surely, surely, there was some way to get out of this bind. It wouldn’t be all that surprising if a maid were reluctant to come near a convicted murderer, but his voice could not be altered. He’d be caught. If not by Tserriednich, then at least by the Emperor.

Just keep your head down. 

Kurapika took small steps to the other side, pottery clicking against the metal surface of the tray. He set it down next to the circle of guards, because at least this way he wouldn’t have to risk touching those filthy hands. Tserriednich’s eyes followed the flow of his movements, curiosity lying in the spot between his eyebrows and at the downturn of his lips. He poured a cup of tea for the Prince and offered it to the nearest guard–-a young woman with blonde hair cut straight over her shoulders. 

Tserriednich swirled the cup around, holding it by the rim, a drop of tea dripping down to the wooden floor. “Well, this is a bit anticlimactic. I only came here for one reason, and that reason seems to have disappointed me.” He downed the cup as if it were a jug of soju. Kurapika had already scrambled away by now, safely tucked into the corners of the room. He only needed to hear the sentence now. Then, he could leave and forget about all of this. Yes, surely he’d be able to forget once his fate was sealed. “Your consort isn’t nearly as free-spirited as I’ve heard, your Majesty. And after all the trouble I went through to meet him personally.” 

Kurapika glanced over to the Emperor’s party. Most of them had fixed the Prince with an iced glare: two rows of angry advisors sitting behind their rather phlegmatic employer. They all wore the same pale blue uniform, displaying their loyalty to the Emperor on their sleeves, each hem marked with a twelve-legged spider. An abomination, just like the one they served.

Amidst the snarls, Shalnark wore a smile. He leaned over to Machi. “Was that a threat?” 

“Definitely.” 

That cheerful grin felt more like a baring of teeth now. Kurapika felt the pinprick of sweat drying on the back of his neck. 

The Emperor didn’t answer for a long while, pulling his own teacup to his lips. Kurapika’s throat felt dry when that smooth voice rang out, clear as it was stoic. “I can’t say I blame him. Free-spirited, he might be, but even he has his limits. Hearing the crimes you’ve committed, he grew quite disillusioned with the idea of seeing you.”

Disillusioned. Kurapika would’ve laughed had he not been in danger of drawing more attention than he could handle. His heart pulsed on, and he swallowed the dryness in his mouth.  

“If you don’t mind,” the judge interrupted, more irritated than bored now, his voice clipped, “I’d like to carry on with the sentencing.” 

“Please do.”

The judge sighed, flipping through the pages. “With all the evidence against you, Fourth Prince Tserriednich, your sentence would’ve been quite grave.” Would’ve? Of course. “However, since you’re not a citizen of Ryusei, but a Prince of a foreign nation, we’ll have to settle this with an exiling. From there, it’s up to Kakin to decide what to do.” 

Kurapika knew the ending to this story too well. The dead would be sent off on their way, the perpetrator would return his life of luxury, and the ones left behind would be told to settle. He was so tired of having to settle for things. His hand grew numb and cold against the wooden handle to his salvation. His back was to the door, then, his eyes fixed on the sunlight streaming in through the window across from him. He stood outside of the courtroom, his hands trembling because nothing ever felt fine with him anymore.

. . .

Kuroro should’ve just confined him to his bed chambers from the beginning. Kurapika would’ve been angry, certainly, but Kuroro had grown used to the low flame of his fury by now.  

He fiddled with the cup in his hands. His mind had become clogged again. A light headache throbbed between his brows, anxiety spreading from his chest and leaking into his muscles, making them sluggish and unreliable. Kurapika had a way of straining his nerves. How had he found out about the trial’s location in the first place? Kuroro would have to look into it. Really, things would’ve been simpler if his little Prince would just stay put. Maybe he could chain him to the bed this time, make sure he doesn’t budge. No, he’d find a way out, Kuroro was certain.

He’d handle him later. Tserriednich needed to be dealt with first. 

“I found something out about your little husband. I’ll come by later. Let me in.”

The ways in which Tserriednich had continued to be a nuisance were truly awe-inspiring. Kuroro was growing tired of people targeting his ‘loved’ ones. His tolerance might just snap with this one. 

The tea in his cup slid down cold by now. His advisors had left him alone, knowing he had some business to attend to with the judge. As always, their intuition proved faultless. “I agree that it’s the best course of action, even if it isn’t a just one.” 

“You sound like you have more to say,” Zeno grumbled. He had been disinterested from the beginning. Kuroro’s request had thrown a wrench in his plans to play cards with Netero this morning. Now, his fingers drummed against the lacquered table. He wanted to get out of here. Kuroro could relate.

“I wish to make sure they give him a fair trial in Kakin, that’s all,” Kuroro said.

Zeno’s face scrunched up as if he’d been forced to swallow a bitter batch of soju, probably calling him an assortment of names in the safety of his mind. Ah, he was also sore about Kuroro humoring Killua’s request to leave. It was true–-they weren’t on the best of terms right now. Still, surely Zeno wouldn’t let that keep him from fulfilling a well-paying request. “I’ll double the price.”

“Very well.” Zeno sighed, defeated and hunched over. “I know a few people who can be trusted. I’ll send the case their way. You’ll have to take care of the paperwork on your end.”

“Fine.” Even more paperwork. Lovely.

Zeno stood up, all popping joints. “I’m getting too old for this type of thing, boy. Stop interrupting my card games.” 

Kuroro followed suit, bowing as the man approached him. “My apologies, I had to find someone on rather short notice.”

“Tch, young rascal,” Zeno said, walking past him without so much as a glance. “You haven’t changed, you know that? Still a brat.” 

“I’m glad you think so,” he replied, eyes on the screen behind the judge’s seat. He heard the door slide shut and allowed himself a smile. You haven’t changed either.

Always the first to shut the door, that old geezer. His first encounter with Zeno Zoldyck, all those years ago, had been much like every other. Zeno, completely apathetic, Kuroro, trying to mirror him. 

“You want to assassinate someone?”

“Yes.”

“Why not just hire us?”

Kuroro paused and squirmed at the question. “It’s something I have to do myself.”

“Revenge?”

“Something like that.” Though he would never put a name to this rage.

Perhaps that was why he felt so fond of his little Consort. Even though he didn’t feel all that fond of him right now. 

He walked out of the lecture hall, passing a few servants and scholars in the hallway, no trace of a false maid in sight. What a risky move that had been––showing up as a maid, a profession that would require Kurapika to be in close quarters with both Kuroro and Tserriednich. He was beginning to think that catching Kurapika’s Mother wasn’t worth all the pain his Consort put him through.

Kuroro stepped out into the sun. Afternoon already. His days were getting shorter and shorter by the year. As a child, he would’ve laughed at anyone who’d suggest that he’d be locked in a Palace all day in a few years, working his time away. As a child, things had been different.    

He began planning his day, carving out a small slot of time devoted to chastising his Consort. He should handle the paperwork first. Furthermore, if he’d interpreted Tserriednich’s message correctly, a visit from the Fourth Prince should be expected. That should be pleasant. 

More people bowed to him as he passed, and he rewarded them with gentle smiles and small words of acknowledgment. A kitchen maid was praised for her stew, a scholar for his devotion to the sciences, a soldier for his service. Kuroro found there was no better way to collect pawns than to treat them well and praise them often. That way, they might be swayed by guilt if nothing else, and his retribution for crimes wouldn’t seem so cruel surrounded by his kindness. He was building a legacy, after all, one far removed from his crazed predecessor. 

He entered the shade of another building. The Emperor’s Quarters were silent today, though he knew it was never completely empty. At least one maid could always be spotted running around, and several live-in court ladies shared the same space, although far removed from the Emperor himself. 

His office smelled of cloves and parchment, just to cover up the scent of spilled wine and his predecessor’s plum perfume. Why hadn’t he just moved to a different room? No one would bat an eye. They’d say he was trying to distance himself, something perfectly normal for a new ruler to do. 

No, there was too much here. Too much to risk displacing it all by accident. Besides, it would only cause confusion now that everything had settled. His mind was just muddled. It was always muddled at this time of the year. He just needed to stop thinking.

Come to think of it, it was raining that day as well. He almost couldn’t hear the splash of water. He wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen her fall. 

He sat down at his desk, the gold cushion soft underneath him. A pile of scrolls loomed above him, and he started at the top, although it was more likely the ones on the bottom were more urgent. Just another dull day, he supposed. Maybe he could have Kurapika help him with his workload again. 

He began to read the first proposal, hand reaching for his brush. The tip lowered into the small pan of ink on his desk, and then he brought out a blank sheet of paper and wrote a quick rejection; Another statesman asking for more money. They must think Kuroro spent all his time listening only to rich men. Humoring them was too much work. A few years ago, he would’ve just cut their heads off, or made Uvo do it. Uvo always liked cutting people’s heads off.

He continued his deskwork until the sun was beginning to set. The pile had thinned down to three more scrolls by the time one of his attendants appeared in the doorway. 

“Your Imperial Majesty,” the eunuch said, bowing to him. Tall and scrawny, his green uniform never seemed to quite fit him, nor did the large hat on his rather small head. His eyes flitted nervously. a timid smile rounding his thin lips. “His Highness Fourth Prince Tserriednich is asking permission to speak with you.” 

Kuroro put his brush down on the table and screwed the lid of the ink pot back into place. “Let him in. Alone, if you don’t mind.” 

“Alone?” his attendant spoke in a high-pitched, squeaky tone. It was a needless concern. Kuroro glanced up at him, and it was enough to send his attendant back through the door. “Yes. Of course, your Imperial Majesty.” 

“Don’t cry, Attendant Joon,” he told him. 

“Yes, your Imperial Majesty.”

The poor man didn’t suit the palace at all, but his loyalty was commendable. That was all Kuroro really looked for: loyalty.

Kuroro began reading the next scroll, waiting to hear the footsteps of his newfound foe. There they were: careless, confident strides. Tserriednich appeared in the doorway: a man of imposing height and moderately handsome features. Stunningly ordinary, and perhaps a little green, though that might be the fault of an ill-fitting hanbok. His forehead was too wide, his eyes far apart, and his body toned from exercise (and all the times he’d torn people apart with his bare hands). Kuroro had never liked the man, and now he felt certain he hated him. 

“So, this is what an Emperor does all day,” he started, making himself at home across from Kuroro, eyes wandering around the room. He propped his arm up on one knee, eyes settling on Kuroro again. He had a scent, too, one that Kuroro could smell from his seat. Lavender. “Looks dull.”

“It is rather mundane most of the time,” Kuroro said, setting the scroll aside. “Does anyone know you’re here?”

“What? Are you planning on finishing me off?” 

Kuroro let out a small, soundless laugh. It was more of an exhale really. “I’m not an amateur, Your Highness. I don’t finish people off in my own home. It makes the place reek. I’m not fond of it.” 

“That’s something we can agree on,” Tserriednich said. “Only my bodyguard, Theta. She won’t tell.” 

“What do you want?” Kuroro asked. Tserriednich was too prideful to be the first to crack. 

Tserriednich grinned, rows of teeth gleaming in the candlelight, gums bleeding through. He was grotesque. “I found out something interesting a few nights ago. It’s quite the story.”

“Do tell.”

“Curiosity is quite the motivator. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. How you’d figured out about the mansion. I’ve never let a single one of them escape. Escapees cause problems, as you probably know. You could say I’m good at my job, though it’s more of a passion.” He sounded quite proud of it, too. Kuroro had enjoyed killing before. It was like any other skill. If one did well, they felt accomplished. Tserriednich was different. To him, murder was an art form. “Then I remembered I had let one of them escape. A few years ago. He worked at a high-end place in the Red Light District of Uul City. They called him the Golden Chrysanthemum. Some stupid theming they did to attract customers. It’s easier to buy people when they don’t have names, you know. Cost me a fortune just for one night. Don’t get me wrong, he was decent in bed, but not worth all the money. Especially since he got away from me in the end.”

He wasn’t much for subtlety, was he?

“It had been my mistake, really. I’d walked away from the room for a second. He’d been drugged up and bleeding, so I didn’t think anything of it. When I came back, he’d vanished. Only thing left of him were the blood stains on the sheets. I’d looked for him back at the brothel, but he was gone by then. No one ever found the mansion, so I figured he’d been a good kid and kept his mouth shut.” He laughed. “I was wrong. Few years later, he had a direct line to the Emperor of Ryusei, doing what he does best, whoring himself out.”

` Kuroro felt an uncharacteristic need to defend his Consort. He was Kurapika’s Emperor as much as anyone else’s, and he always felt protective of his citizens. That must be it. He stamped the feeling down.

“Your favored consort was that courtesan, wasn’t he?” Tserriednich said. 

“You haven’t answered my question, so I’m less than inclined to answer yours,” Kuroro said. “I do not interrogate my Consorts on their pasts. I’m more interested in their abilities.”

Tserriednich leaned forward, serious. “My father will be stepping down soon. There’s going to be another Succession War by the end of next year. I need Kakin on my side.”

Kuroro’s lips curled into each other. “You want me to tamper with the evidence? You shouldn’t have let yourself be caught.”

Tserriednich’s expression turned impressed, his forehead creasing. “You realized? I knew you were coming the moment you stepped into the forest. But I was curious. Thought it might be interesting. Then, my father announced his abdication, and things got a bit more . . . complicated.”

“You certainly like to talk, don’t you?” 

“Scary,” Tserriednich said, cocking his head to the side. “It’s a simple exchange, really. I keep my mouth shut about your darling little whore, and you twist the evidence just enough to keep things murky for Kakin’s judges.” 

Blackmail. He should’ve known. It was a wonder Tserriednich thought it would work on him. He’d sacrificed many things before. Kurapika would just be another offering. 

So, why was he having such trouble getting the words out? It was obvious Tserriednich would hold this information hostage if Kuroro let him get away with it this once. The chances of the rumor spreading, especially from the lips of Kakin’s Prince, were low. And Kurapika. Kurapika would survive a little gossip.

“It’s a generous offer, but I’ll have to decline.”

Tserriednich stood, heaving a disappointed sigh as he dusted himself off. “Well, it was worth a try. Best of luck to you and your Consort.” He paused, meeting his eyes. “Oh. By the way, I sent him something nice. As a thank you for giving me away.”

Kuroro’s mind had little trouble conjuring up every single scenario his Consort might have found himself in. Sent. Sent what? An assassin, a bloodied body part, some obscure threat only Kurapika would understand?

There was an ache in his chest now, and he realized his heart was thundering. He was too young to have heart complications. 

Slowly, he schooled his features, though there wasn’t much to smooth out. “I’ll let him know you send your regards.”

Left alone, his mind urged him to stay put for the moment. Whatever Kurapika was dealing with right now, Hanzo would be able to handle it. Unless Hanzo lost sight of him, as he often did. 

He wouldn’t do something as stupid as meeting Tserriednich in person, would he? And alone at that. Impossible. He was scared of the man. Why would he go see him? But it was certainly the worst-case scenario. 

Kuroro dropped the scroll back on the desk with more force than the action had warranted. He wouldn’t be able to work with his mind so occupied. It made no difference. He’d planned to go see Kurapika anyhow. 

. . .

The room was dark when he arrived, save for a few embossed candles lit on the dining table. It reeked of alcohol, wrapped in an intoxicated silence, and Kuroro didn’t need to look too far for his headache to settle.  

Kurapika was laid out across the divan, eyes glazed over with intoxication. He hadn’t noticed him yet, evidently, lying on his side, one arm tucked underneath his head, the other wrapped around his waist. A light blush had settled across the bridge of his nose and along his cheeks, his mouth hung slightly ajar. A plain satin robe hung loose around him, dyed a jade green that suited him. Most things suited him. 

“Is it really so difficult for you to follow simple instructions?”

He pressed his lips together, his throat bobbing as he swallowed. With his left arm supporting him, he sat up, legs tucked underneath him, his posture leaning to one side. It was relaxed and improper, worlds away from the way he usually carried himself. 

Drunk again? Kuroro was beginning to think the man had a problem with alcohol. 

“What tipped you off?” Kurapika asked, sounding just mildly curious. His fire seemed to have extinguished now, leaving something more mellow in its wake. 

 “You have a very unique way of walking,” he replied. “Besides, you can change your face as much as you’d like, but your core features will always remain the same.” He tapped the spot under his own silver eyes. “Your eyes.”

“How romantic,” Kurapika drawled, falling back on the divan, a hand ruffling through his bangs, one leg crossing the other. “Do you think I’m pretty?”

“Pardon?” How much had he drunk exactly? He counted two, no, three dark green bottles of wine, but couldn’t tell how full any of them were. 

“Just answer the question.”

He decided to play along with the drunkard. How was it that every time he came to chastise him, Kurapika managed to spin things around? Often by showing up in a state of inebriation, or otherwise, a perfectly awful mood that he wore far too well.

“You’re pretty,” Kuroro replied, taking one of the bottles off the table. He squinted at it. Empty. “What of it?”

“Right,” Kurapika said, bitter now. “Right, I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. How much do you think people pay for a face like this?” 

The second one was empty too. It was good wine as well. Kurapika had certainly treated himself. 

“Pay?” 

Cost me a fortune just for one night.’

Tserriednich. He’d almost forgotten about him.

Kurapika reached down to the floor, his gaze focused on the ceiling. There was a gold envelope in his hands, shimmering like foil. The top had been torn away, probably by a fuming, sober Kurapika, before he’d drunk three full bottles of soju. 

Kuroro reached over the table and the candles, taking the letter from him. In the candlelight, the Fourth Prince’s name scrawled over the page in glimmering black ink. He tipped out the letter. Tucked inside of one of the pleats were several bank notes. 

“Sixty million mun,” Kuroro replied, placing the bills back into the creases of the parchment. “How uncouth.”

“Enough to pay for five months of medication,” Kurapika corrected, licking his lips. “Just five months.” His hand lifted to brush his cheek. “He left a scar on my face, you know. In other places, too, but it’s the face they worried about. I could’ve lost it all like that. Beauty was all I was good for. Still am.”

Kuroro felt uneasy listening to him. As if he should shut him up in some way, because surely Kurapika would regret telling him all this in the morning. 

His next confession was quieter, as if he’d remembered at the last moment that he shouldn’t be speaking to him about this. “Maybe they were right. But I hoped . . .” A small hiccup escaped his throat. “I hoped that they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. I was being foolish.” Half-lidded eyes settled on him and stayed. “You’re being quiet.” 

“I have nothing to say,” Kuroro said, a part of him trying to divert Kurapika’s attention, to keep his Consort from telling him things he didn’t want him to know. “Did you drink all of this by yourself?” 

“I asked Palm to bring them,” he replied. “Is there a problem?” 

“I know this might not be my place to say –”

“Most likely.”

“But have you ever considered that you might have a bit of an issue with holding your liquor? You’ve been here a month and a half and I’ve caught you intoxicated three times,” Kuroro said. “I doubt this is a particularly healthy way to deal with your emotional turmoil.” 

Kurapika let out something close to a snigger. “I spill out my heart for you, and all you have to comment on is my apparent alcohol problem. Gods, I hate you more and more every day, really.” He turned onto his other side, away from Kuroro, curling around himself. “I don’t want to look at you anymore. Go away.”

He was almost endearing sometimes. If only he could stop being such a nuisance. Kuroro wouldn’t think twice about giving him a position among his advisors. 

“Trust me,” Kuroro sighed, kneeling down next to the divan, “if beauty were all you were good for, I would’ve gotten rid of you long ago.” He touched his shoulder. “Now, come along. Let’s get you to bed.”

“I don’t want to,” Kurapika said, shrugging his hand off. “It smells like you.”

“Like me?” He supposed they’d been sleeping together more often than not. “What’s wrong with that?” 

“Are you teasing or are you just that ignorant? I really can’t tell most of the time.” He was even snappier drunk than sober. “It’s hard to stop thinking of you when I’m being accosted by your scent.” 

“Don’t be difficult.”

“I don’t take advice from murderers.”

It was far too late in the evening for this. Kuroro pulled him close, one arm under his knees, the other around his shoulders. 

“You’re being pushy today,” Kurapika said, once the initial shock wore off. His arm hung loose around Kuroro’s shoulders, a light weight, not entirely unwelcome. “I can handle my liquor. At the brothel, this would just be a regular night. No one leaves sober.” Gods, his poor liver must’ve been put through so much maltreatment.  

He set him down on the bed, and Kurapika wouldn’t let go, so he joined him. Kurapika leaned back against the headboard, gaze scrutinizing, fingers holding onto Kuroro’s arm. Brown eyes gleamed as Kuroro gave him an expectant look. Kurapika’s hands slipped down to Kuroro’s collar, pulling him closer. He placed one of his hands on the headboard behind Kurapika, aware that this must look as if he were the dominant one in the situation. Far from it. 

“What are you doing?” Kuroro asked, feet still planted on the floor. Their faces were now just a few moments from touching, breaths mingling, warm and moist as steam off a hot spring, except for the sweet scent of wine on his tongue. 

“Just curious,” he whispered back, eyes lowered to Kuroro’s lips. 

Kuroro was no fool. He knew Kurapika had a strange attraction to him, a lust, one that he tried not to feel. It was nothing like love. Kuroro didn’t think he could ever reciprocate. Love, loyalty, that was all he needed from Kurapika. He needed to know who had trained him, who had put him in that brothel, and why they had approached Kurapika of all people. He was hardly the only son or daughter Kuroro had left as an orphan. What was it about his Consort that had captured their attention? A baker’s son. Beautiful, but there were plenty of beautiful, intelligent people in Ryusei. 

He felt Kurapika slide his lips against Kuroro’s own, the grip on his collar loosening. They parted. It was chaste, innocent, but even this wandered too far out of line. “You’re going to regret this, little Prince.”

“Don’t call me that,” Kurapika said, pulling back. His lips curved down, and he leaned in again, a bit more forceful. 

Kuroro’s hand reached up to cup his cheek. His thumb traced the curve of his cheekbone absentmindedly. “Kurapika.”

His mouth hung open, slightly, as if he was hearing the name for the first time and found it quite fanciful. Then there was a bit of that fire in his eyes again. “Don’t call my name.”

That was the Kurapika he was familiar with. None of this wanton nonsense. “What shall I call you then?”

His Kurapika melted away again. “Nothing. Don’t call me anything at all.” He pressed moistened lips to Kuroro’s again, and they were soft as the satin of the robe he wore. “Don’t worry about me. I won’t remember this anyway. This is just for now. I want to know.”

Know what? They were the ramblings of a drunkard, but truer than anything he’d said before now. Kuroro was glad to be around for it, even if he felt a touch guilty.

“Alright,” Kuroro told him. “What do you want me to do?”

Kurapika’s arms wrapped around his neck. “Just follow my lead.” They were kissing again, Kurapika setting the tempo, Kuroro matching it easily. It was messy and uncoordinated, like any drunken kiss, and Kurapika was on his lap, pushing into him, legs wrapped around his torso. His hands clutched Kuroro’s hair, almost painful. Kuroro wasn’t sure what to do with his hands, so he just held him close. They didn’t stop for some time, but every so often they’d pause for breath, and Kuroro would come close to understanding why people enjoyed this sort of thing. Kurapika’s face was certainly something to take in –– half-lidded eyes, flushed cheeks, breath hot on his lips. The lingering taste of alcohol on Kuroro’s tongue moved down into his throat as he swallowed, and then Kurapika moved a bit closer, their noses brushing each other. Moreover, his Consort’s misery wasn’t worn on his sleeve like it usually was. Forgetting to think was easy for once. Then, Kurapika would dive back in, tongue swiping against Kuroro’s teeth. 

After a longer pause than usual, Kuroro whispered his reply, mouth sticky with saliva. “Has your curiosity been quenched?” 

“Hardly,” Kurapika replied, but he didn’t bother kissing him again. His green robe had slipped off one of his shoulders, exposing pale skin to the moonlight. One hand left Kuroro’s hair, the thumb coming down to rub against his bottom lip. “Your lips are chapped.”

“Whose fault is that?”

Kurapika pushed away from him, lying down in the bed. “If I ask, tell me I was already unconscious by the time you found me.”

“Will do. If you don’t mind me asking, what did you want to know?” he asked, watching him settle into the sheets. It seemed like a good place to start his interrogation. 

“Hmm?” 

“What did you want to prove by kissing me?” 

“Oh,” Kurapika murmured, drowsy now, words slurred. “Proving a point. I still hate you just as much as I did an hour ago.”

Was that all? His lips stung, and Kuroro let his tongue flick over them. The metallic taste of blood mixed in with the alcohol–-a reminder of the scrape of Kurapika’s teeth against his lip.

“You thought you’d change your mind with just one kiss?”

“That’s the way it seems to work sometimes. Besides, it wasn’t just one kiss. For an act like that, I’d be paid 1 million mun.” He lifted a finger, then lifted another. “Maybe 2 million if it was with someone who actually knew what they were doing.”      

“Do you always put a value to your sexual exploits?”

“Force of habit.” Kurapika had turned away from him, that now familiar silhouette wrapped in white linen. Kuroro’s eyes swept over the form, drinking in the slackness of it. There was the urge to touch him again, but Kuroro stamped it down. He had a few more questions left.

“Did your Mother decide on the price point?” he asked. 

There was a pause, and Kuroro thought he might’ve moved a little too quickly, but then his answer came. “No, Mother doesn’t run the brothel. The Madam does. She’s even worse.” 

“You don’t seem to like her very much.” 

“You’re right. I hate them.”

Kuroro moved his hand to play with a coil of blonde hair. He was sitting cross-legged on the bed now, his knee close to Kurapika’s back. “Why work with someone you hate?” 

 Kurapika shifted in his spot. “We had a common enemy.” 

“I’m honored.” Kuroro let the coil slip out of his grasp, and his hand traveled to play with Kurapika’s bangs instead, brushing them away from his face. They felt like threads of silk, and were slightly damp under his fingertips. They faced each other now, Kurapika’s cheeks reddened with the blood rushing under his skin. He felt warm under Kuroro’s palm. A pale, bony hand reached up to touch his face, and slid down to his lips again, swiping at a droplet of blood. 

“Looks like I drew blood, after all,” he whispered, dragging his thumb over his cheekbone. “Just not the one I wanted.” 

“Kurapika–-”

“I told you not to call my name.” 

He was so quick to snap. Kuroro fixed him with a small smile, one that distracted him for a short while, just long enough for Kuroro to finish his statement. “If you do ever change your mind about killing me–-”

His hand fell back on the pillow and he laughed –– a sharp, sour cackle. 

A brush of the cheek silenced him, and Kuroro continued, “I’ll make sure you never have to want for anything again. You and Pairo, the both of you, can make a home here.” 

The place between his eyebrows scrunched up in confusion, but Kuroro could see the heavier rise and fall of his chest as his heartbeat steadily increased. 

“I want for nothing,” he hissed, fire rising, “but your death.”

“And my touch, apparently,” Kuroro said. It irritated him, seeing such an offer be tossed aside. He didn’t offer mercy on a regular basis. “You want for so much more than just a taste of retribution. Take it from someone who has actually succeeded at the task. You failed the moment you dropped your cover.”

“You found out yourself,” Kurapika snapped back. 

“No, I offered you my best guesses and you answered truthfully. It might’ve been the best course of action at the time, but in hindsight, I gave you more of my attention than you would’ve gotten otherwise.” At this, Kurapika tried to lift himself, presumably to do something foolish like attack him. Pinning him down proved simpler than Kuroro had expected. It was odd that in all his years of training, Kurapika’s Mother hadn’t bothered to teach him how to defend himself against basic offensive techniques. He gave him no response, acting like a rabbit playing dead right before some predator or another tore him to pieces, so Kuroro continued his generous advising session. “You’ve gotten to know me a little better now, wouldn’t you say? You’ve even seen me weep. Few people are allowed that privilege, and you . . .” Kuroro brushed the wetness from under Kurapika’s eyes. “People like you can’t help falling for that.”

He expected him to snap again, for that fury to rise on his face, scarlet. The moment never came, and Kuroro noticed for the first time since he’d pinned his Consort to the bed, that his fear wasn’t stemming from his words. Hell, he might as well not be listening to Kuroro at all. 

It isn’t that she didn’t give him defensive training at all, is it? 

Well done, Kuroro. You’ve managed to resurface the trauma he probably spent years recovering from, and now he’s immobile and presumably in shock. Fantastic work. 

He jumped back, as if he were a puppet on a spring, or a dog on a leash who had wandered too close to the fearful passersby. “I’m so––”

Kurapika had gotten up already, rushing toward the exit. It didn’t take Kuroro long to understand all the ways this situation could worsen. 

“Kurapika!” He called, rushing after him. “Wait! You can’t go out in this state.”

Kuroro managed to grab his arm and pull him away from the door to the living room. Kurapika collapsed into him, limp in his embrace, but breathing heavily. He held onto him, since it seemed to be the safest option right now, and gradually Kurapika’s breathing slowed. When Kuroro felt him slide down in his arms, knees giving out, he wound his arm even tighter around his waist. He was asleep.

Kuroro exhaled a breath of relief, lifting Kurapika up into his arms and walking him back to the bed. This time, there was no lustful gaze compromising with him. His eyes were shut, lips bruised, hair and clothes in disarray. He rolled over onto his side, expressionless, face turned toward Kuroro, who covered him in the linen sheets.

“Get some rest, little Prince,” he whispered, straightening. Should he have pushed him further? Under normal circumstances, he would’ve. Kurapika was so inebriated, he probably wouldn’t remember anything Kuroro did to him. 

An image resurfaced––Kurapika underneath him, silent, frightened of him. No, this was the best option. He couldn’t hurt him when there was no need for it. Kuroro was a patient man. He would wait.

“You’ll learn to love me,” Kuroro whispered, brushing Kurapika’s hair away from his mouth. “You’ll get used to it.”

Kuroro opted to return to the living room, where the empty wine bottles were still sitting on the table, and Tserriednich’s letter laid on the edge, illuminated by the candlelight. Sixty million mun sat on top of the gold foil, along with the correspondence. He unfolded the paper, recalling that he hadn’t actually read Tserriednich’s message.

“Memories of our night together still plague me. It would be my greatest pleasure to speak to you in private. 8 pm, at my residence. Don’t be a stranger.”

So, Tserriednich had planned on taking down Kurapika, just to spite Kuroro. Had he thought the money would convince him? He almost laughed. How could he have doubted his little Prince? Kurapika probably hadn’t even read the letter, fixating on the money, drinking his feelings away. 

And now, he wouldn’t have to worry about it at all. Kuroro slid the parchment and the sixty million mun back into the foil, and then slipped it into the folds of his hanbok. He’d burn the letter, and keep the money as payment for Kurapika’s little shopping spree with Palm. Mercy was something he could afford here.

. . .

Kurapika awoke with the worst hangover he's had since his brothel days. Questions floated to the surface of his mind. Why had he drunk, what had he drunk, and what had happened? All questions with vital answers that he couldn’t remember. 

It was around this time that his stomach seemed to twist, and his throat clogged up. He clasped a hand over his mouth and sprung out of bed, his legs wobbly as if he were learning to walk again. The room shook like a mild earthquake was licking through the area, and Kurapika slammed against the nightstand near his bed. Absolutely wonderful. They could add ‘how much had I drunk?’ to the list of questions. At least he hadn’t slept with anyone. That would’ve been a nightmare waiting to unfold. 

He pushed himself off of the nightstand and staggered to the bathroom. It was a miracle he hadn’t ended up in the middle of the road somewhere. Had the guards stopped him? The Emperor must be fuming. 

He kneeled down in front of the toilet bowl, and let loose the contents of his stomach. It was mostly liquid, he noted. Probably soju or some other form of clear wine, going by the acrid taste in his mouth. Who had brought him the alcohol again? 

“Your Majesty.” Kurapika looked up. Palm was standing above him. He must’ve looked pitiful–-his clothes rumpled, hair disheveled from running his fingers through it. He didn’t understand what was happening inside of him. This was the best outcome he could’ve hoped for. Tserriednich would disappear from Ryusei, and as long as Kurapika stayed put, no harm would come to him. But he had wanted more. Tserriednich wasn’t being punished. He was being sent back home, to a place filled with people living only to serve him. He’d be locked in comfort and luxury for a few months, at best. 

“Hello, Palm,” he finally told her. She held herself together better than him. Her lips were newly painted, eyes dusted, face powdered, brown hair curling down her back. 

“I’m sorry,” she said, sitting next to him. There was a bag on one of her arms, and its contents clinked as she moved. Bottles, filled with liquid. He was sure of it. “You put your faith in me, and I let you down.” 

“You’re the last person I’d blame, Palm,” Kurapika replied, touching her shoulder. “Besides, I was also being optimistic. Tserriednich is far, far out of our reach. Even the Emperor couldn’t touch him.” Legally, that was. If they wanted to, they could’ve easily slashed his throat in the middle of the night. Cowards. 

No. No, death was far too kind a destiny for the Fourth Prince. They should let him rot away in the dungeons instead. 

They were silent for some time, but relaxed, Palm’s presence a comfort for once. She knew. He knew she knew. It was nice to have someone understand for once. 

But, of course, there was one more question burning within her. “Do you think the Emperor recognized you?” 

Kurapika rolled his eyes. “It’s not like he can do anything about it. He should’ve just let me come along to begin with.” He leaned his head against the cool wall, hand on the back of his neck. “Gods, I need a drink. You didn’t happen to bring any alcohol with you?”

Ah, he had offered first, hadn’t he? It was too easy to fall back on old habits. A bit of a shame, though. He’d been so good about staying sober, ever since he moved in with Leorio. He allowed himself that first night as a treat (besides, Aiko had tricked him into drinking more than he had planned, and he still hadn’t gotten that drunk). 

He wretched again, stomach heaving. Someone was holding his hair out of his face and rubbing his back in circles. It made it all a little less terrible, and Kurapika was truly grateful for the stranger’s hands. That was, until he recognized the scent of cloves and parchment, and promptly shifted his head to look at the ‘stranger’. 

It was the Emperor, of course. No other man would be allowed in here, barring Hanzo and the guards. He looked as perfect as ever, his skin flawless, black hanbok perfectly draped over his body. When he spoke, his voice was smooth against his ear, warm breath stroking it, leaving him shivering. He had been shaking from the beginning, but for an entirely different reason. For the love of all the Gods you’ve never worshipped, Kurapika, you are in front of a toilet. He is not gorgeous enough to make you feel like this while you’re vomiting into a toilet!  

“Good morning,” the Emperor whispered, having forgotten the importance of personal space, his legs on either side of Kurapika. “You have a lot of explaining to do, don’t you? Kurapika.”

He was about to say something brilliant and witty, he assured himself, but then he felt his stomach protest and he was retching again. 

“What happened?” Kurapika finally croaked out, not bearing to look him in the eye. 

The Emperor stayed silent for a bit, just rubbing circles into his skin, finger pads gliding over the fabric of his green robe (oh, he wasn’t wearing much, was he?). “I’m afraid I can’t say. You were unconscious by the time I found you in your room. For your sake, I hope you stayed put.” 

Kurapika pushed away from him and to the sink, hands gripping the lip of it and dragging him up. He twisted the faucet handle to the coldest setting, and the feeling of the frigid water against his skin was more welcome than any pleasure he’d ever felt. He rinsed his mouth out, washed his face, and gave a sigh as he twisted the handle back into place.

“How was the trial?” he attempted, holding onto some false hope. One which the Emperor wasted no time in dashing.

He had come over to him, offering a clean towel to wipe his face. As Kurapika began to rub off the water, the Emperor placed his arms around him. Kurapika glanced his way, confused, his mouth and nose still covered by the cloth. The Emperor only pressed a kiss to his temple, and uttered three words that sealed his fate: “You should know.”

Kurapika tensed. The Emperor in the mirror smiled at him. Relax , he told himself, ease into him . His muscles unwound, as he focused on his surroundings instead. Pale light flooded the bathroom. Cool tiles stuck to his bare feet. His eyes chased the water droplets dripping down into the drain. He even allowed himself to feel the Emperor behind him. All those years of military training seemed to have paid off for him in impossibly well-toned muscles, and Kurapika could feel them all. He’d never been one for such muscular men, preferring the lanky, tall Leorio types, but he supposed all things had to change at some point. 

“I don’t know what you mean,” he replied, tossing that last thought aside. 

He tilted his chin up. “I saw a familiar face at the trial. Perhaps a relative of yours?”

Another escape attempt, a bit more subtle this time, his fist digging into the Emperor’s chest. “You killed them all.”

 “Can’t you behave yourself for one day?”

“It’s your own fault.”

“Indeed, I’ve been far too generous.”

Generous? “Excuse me?”

The Emperor grinned, and Kurapika wished he could wipe it off, kiss it off, punch it off. Whichever came first. 

“One more question,” he said, and Kurapika rolled his eyes, finally managing to extirpate himself from the Emperor’s grip. He began to walk past him and toward the door. It didn’t matter anymore. All his secrets had been laid bare. As usual. What else could he ask for? “Who told you about the trial?”

Kurapika froze. Who had it been? Memories of dark, spiky hair and a deep baritone in his ear returned. He drew in a quiet, shaky breath. Ah, looks like I’ve put you in danger again.

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

 Playing Favorites

Chapter 27:

The Consort’s Mistake

“Was it Palm?” the Emperor asked. 

Kurapika paused, eyes on the door. If only he could move. Alas, the Emperor’s words had apparently tampered with his basic motor skills. “An educated guess. I knew you wouldn’t be at the Throne Hall.” 

“Of course,” the Emperor replied, stepping closer to him. “If you had gotten it from her, she would be committing treason against me, the Emperor, and her punishment would also be decided by me. Let’s say she didn’t, though. For your sake. Then, who gave you the papers to cross the gates into the Outer Palace.”

“They’re not so difficult to forge.” 

“Ah, so forgery is among your many talents as well?” he said. “You’re growing more and more devious, little Prince.”

Kurapika turned to face him and they were too close together again. His gaze lowered to the Emperor’s lips. “That seems to be one of my many flaws.” A small cut had closed up on his lower lip, a dark, dried red color. Nothing strange about that. Maybe he had a case of chapped lips. Hisoka could help him with that, knowing his array of cosmetics. 

That wasn’t it, though. A strange taste filled his mouth, stranger than the regurgitated wine and sweet buns (apparently). Metallic, slightly salty: the iron flavor of fresh blood. Rather, a memory of blood in his mouth. 

His lips tingled, a pleasant, unwelcome sensation. He brought his hand up to brush them, then met the Emperor’s gaze, cold as ever. No, the chances of the Emperor humoring his advances (because Kurapika most likely had kissed him first) and then lying to him about it were nigh impossible. He must be imagining things. For a moment, his vision blurred and he stumbled back toward the door. Yes, it must be his imagination. 

The Emperor moved closer to him. “Then again, perhaps Palm is an unlikely suspect.”

“Is she?” he asked, not moving to exit the room, though he could easily do so. The Emperor’s steady steps made his stomach turn in anticipation.   

“Indeed.” He probably planned to do something threatening like pinning him against the wall, but Kurapika put a hand on his chest and he backed off. Kurapika had no time for such nonsense. They could threaten each other from a reasonable distance. “Let’s say the doctor did it, then. Your little star-crossed lover.”

“You have no proof of something like that.”

The Emperor smiled, raising one hand to thread through his hair. “Oh, my little Prince. Your naivete astounds me. Why would I need evidence to bring an end to the life of a nameless student? Have you forgotten who I am?” The lock of hair slips through the Emperor’s calloused fingers, falling back into place, the ends settling near his left breast. “I wouldn’t blame you, considering I’ve been so lenient in trying to win your heart.”

Anger deafened his fear of the man before him and all the power he yielded. “Threats will not make any difference in our situation, your majesty.

“No?” The Emperor asked, feigning curiosity in the higher pitch of his voice. “Shall we test that theory?”

Kurapika only glared at him. He wouldn’t do it. Not a chance. The Emperor didn’t lash out for no reason. His mind rebelled against the thought, against this blatant defense of his enemy’s character. There was no end to his evil. There couldn’t be. If he wanted to, he could have them drag Leorio to the gallows right now. 

“You think I’d let him off with a simple execution?” the Emperor asks, his tone light, mocking him for his foolishness. “You have no imagination, my darling. You are like the Zoldyck boy. Your attachments are your weakness. Naturally, I would torture him in front of you.”

“You wouldn’t,” Kurapika said, fearful of his confidence. The Emperor glanced to the side, surprised that he’d broken his little monologue. 

“You have a lot of faith in me–”

“Because I’d end myself before you could.”

The Emperor paused, then drew back to his full height, stepping away from him. “You would die for that man?” He spat the last word out.

“I’d die to spite you,” Kurapika replied. “It’s information you want, isn’t it? You won’t get it, so you might as well just get rid of me. I’m of no use to you, after all.” 

“Do you have a death wish, little Prince?” 

“Saving us both time.” He took a step forward. “Though I suppose you’re having too much fun playing this one-sided game of yours.”

“I want you.” 

Oh. Oh. He felt that in places he didn’t want to. His heart pounded faster than before. Funny, those three words used to inspire nothing but a vague sense of annoyance in him, but from the lips of the Emperor, they were enticing and harrowing all at once. 

“Pardon?” 

“I want you, Kurapika.” 

“You’re going to need to elaborate,” he said, voice quieter and breathier than he’d meant it to be. 

The Emperor took his hand. “I want you to forsake your cause of your own free will. I want you to make a home here–”

“As your plaything? I think not.”

The Emperor smiled, too fond for Kurapika’s liking. “As whatever you’d like to be. You can continue being my consort, or I could get you a place at the Academy. You’d make a fine professor. Or a spot at my table, alongside my advisors.”

“That’s awfully generous.”

“All I would ask for in return is your fidelity. Give yourself to me, Kurapika.”

The nerve of this man. Kurapika drew so near to him that he could feel his breath on his lips. “Never.” He turned on his heel. The embarrassment of the situation settled into his blood, making his skin feel warm, and it took all of his self-control not to march back toward the Emperor and unleash that anger in whatever action it might prefer. 

“What of Pairo?” 

Kurapika glanced over his shoulder, and then back to the door. ‘ For God’s sake, just open the door, Kurapika,’ he told himself, but the Emperor had him trapped with his words the way most men trap people with their bodies. “What of him?” 

He crossed his arms, leaning against the sink. “I know a hostage when I see one, Kurapika.” 

‘You’ve probably taken a few as well.’ “Oh? Enlighten me.” 

“Oh please,” he said, mirth in his voice. He gestured with his hand. “It’s obvious. I’m sure you’ve realized it, too. What other reason is there for the boy to return to the Red Light District? Your Mother keeps an eye on him, and by doing so, she keeps an eye on you as well.” He was enjoying himself immensely, that much Kurapika could tell from the way his eyes glinted as he drank him in. “Question is, why do you need to be watched?”

They’d followed Pairo home. Of course. He should’ve anticipated as much. No matter. He opened the door (finally) and walked back into his bedroom and took long strides to his wardrobe. Where were his maidservants anyhow? 

He pushed off his green robe, planning to change into something more suitable. He tossed it onto the floor and dug out a white jacket and trousers. The Emperor had followed him out, but Kurapika opted to ignore him as he pushed one leg through the trousers and then the other. 

“The poor boy is being used against you. He told me once that you only took up that courtesan position for his sake. To pay for his medicine. I assume the only reason he’s being kept alive now is because your Mother is paying for it on your behalf.” 

“That’s quite the assumption,” he replied, tying the ribbons of the jacket into a neat knot at his side. “It’s true. Mother does pay for Pairo’s medicine, but that doesn’t mean my goals aren’t my own.” 

“Only that if they change, your oldest friend will meet an untimely death.”

“It’s a precaution.” 

“A threat, you mean. And what a lovely follower she’s made of you, too.”

He threw his coat at him. It was a sheer silk overcoat, perfect for the hot, humid weather Ryusei always saw around this time, and right now he wanted nothing more than to strangle him with it.

“Now, now, my little Prince, there is no need to get violent,” the Emperor said, walking to stand behind him. He fixed the collar of his jacket, fingertips brushing against his skin. Then, he raised the overcoat, and had him put it on. He worked quickly from there, tying the ribbon around his waist, his chin nearly resting on Kurapika’s shoulder, his arms around him. Now, this was just unnecessary. 

Kurapika pushed away from him, and the Emperor let him. 

“I’m only telling you this because I think we would benefit more from alliance than hostility. What path you end up choosing is up to you.” The Emperor continued to speak even as Kurapika walked out of the bedroom. “So I suggest you choose wisely.”

. . .

He could smell the sea in the air before seeing it. His mind cleared with its arrival. 

“Because I’d end myself before you could.” It was tempting to call it an empty threat, but Kuroro couldn’t ignore Kurapika’s evident tendency to sacrifice himself in dire situations. The fact that it would be for the doctor irked him more than he would have liked to admit as well. He’d brought the doctor here for the sole purpose of using him as a hostage, a way to soften Kurapika’s shell in the long run. Now, he’s gone and ruined that, too. Perhaps this new method would reap more benefits.

He passed through the town and the market. The people here were well-off thanks to the steady income from the port and the nearby Palace. Kuroro had focused his trading efforts internally, cutting off supply chains from outside sources where he could, and bringing that money to people within Ryusei. It had worked in his favor for the most part, but there were people sleeping by the steps of shops and homes, orphans and the elderly mostly, those in society that people cast out in hard times. There was still much work to do. His bloodline had left quite the scars. 

Shalnark’s face lit up as Kuroro approached their place on the dock. Nobu, Machi, and Shizu were all with him as well, all dressed in commoner clothing, sitting down and betting on how many fish Nobu could kill with his sword. Honestly, they never changed. 

“Boss,” Shalnark greeted him, leaning back on his elbows. “The peasant look looks good on you.”

“You’re late,” Nobu said, sheathing his weapon. “We were getting bored.’

“My apologies. I was planting some seeds. I hope you didn’t kill off all the fish near the docks.”

“I didn’t kill any of ‘em,” Nobu said, crossing his arms. A predatory grin spread across his face.“I gotta keep my sword sharp for the Fourth Prince.”

“It’s the third ship from the cliff, no?” Kuroro asked. The Fourth Prince had been moved to one of Kakin’s smaller ships, where he was to be treated as a prisoner. Their informants would be aboard those ships as well.

“Yeah,” Nobu said. “It was too easy to find him. We got his main guard to agree to it, and the rest will probably follow her orders. So, you sure you don’t just want us to kill him now, Boss?” 

“I’m sure,” Kuroro said, pulling the hood of his black cape back over his head. He walked into the swarm of people waking for the early morning markets. It was easy to blend in with them. Kuroro had more experience living as a commoner than a nobleman, after all. He adopted the way they walked, with a slight tiredness, and the way they dressed, down to the dust and dirt on his clothing. “We need him alive for the second act. Besides, I think we can all agree that our old friend requires quite a specialized punishment. Death is too swift for the likes of him.” 

“Someone’s angry,” Shalnark whispered to Machi, as the three of them kept his pace. 

“Obviously.”

They reached the prison barge shortly after. It was sizable, though the royal ship easily overshadowed it. Its wooden walls turned a golden hue beneath the sun rising behind the cliff. Somewhere below deck, Tserriednich was held in a cell full of luxuries.

A crowd had gathered near the ship. Word had already spread to the common folk about Tserriednich’s crimes, and Kuroro’s people were now screaming at the foreign prince to get his due punishment. Everything had gone according to plan. ‘ Well done, Feitan.’ The small man had gone out the night before, spreading pamphlets narrating the Prince’s crimes in gruesome detail, and positing Kuroro as a hero who had done everything within his power to stop Tserriednich without inciting war. Similar pamphlets would be spread by his people in Kakin, and the royal family’s name would be further tarnished in the eyes of their own countrymen. They would look to Kuroro instead, who governed his people with benevolence, and question why their own ruling party couldn’t follow his example. Hook, line, and sinker.

“You know the plan,” he told them. They vanished into the crowd. Even Kuroro would have trouble keeping an eye on his advisors, save maybe Uvogin and Franklin, who were too large to ignore. 

He should get going as well. 

The dock leading to Tserriednich’s ship was guarded well by the soldiers in red, Tserriednich’s personal entourage, not associated with the head guard they’d hatched their plot with while Tserriednich was trying to threaten Kuroro. Any moment now, ah, there he was. Shalnark, his blonde hair hidden beneath a long, black wig, stood in front of the officers, gesticulating widely. His voice was unmistakable, cheerful and vibrant and attention-grabbing. The officers had their hands on their swords, but were more bemused than anything else.

“Gentleman,” he said, “are you aware of the perilous trip you are making?” He reached into the flap of his cloak. “Sharks, storms, backstabbing henchmen. Wouldn’t it be better to secure your health and safety on this journey? Introducing my newest concoction.” He raised a vial of red liquid, holding it high so the sun would reflect off its glass surface. “Phoenix blood.”

‘Honestly, Shal?’

He had their attention, at least. Kuroro broke away from the crowd, catching sight of a much smaller boat drifting out from behind Tserriednich’s ship. Had the officers been paying attention to the sea as they should have been, this wouldn’t be so easy, but with Shal putting on an act for them, even the guards aboard the ship would be preoccupied. 

Kuroro found the little boat at another dock, even closer to the cliff. Machi and Shizu sat across from Nobu, who was dragging the boat along with wooden paddles. Shizu had a book in her lap, while Machi was working on her embroidery: clothes for orphans in preparation for their winter tours around the country. Out of all his advisors, Machi was the kindest, though she’d probably kill anyone who suggested such a thing, with her embroidery needles (or the knitting needles, which were larger and easier to wield). She might’ve already done so. He knew she’d lost one pair by gouging out a person’s eyes with them.   

He sat on Nobu’s side, and the soldier seemed grateful that he didn’t have to man the oars by himself anymore. 

“Reminds me of the good old days,” Nobu said, as they rowed their way toward Tserriednich’s ship. “Shalnark standing guard while we go in to steal from some snobby rich folk.” 

“Oh, are we feeling nostalgic, Nobu?” Kuroro asked.

“And you’d be a little shit and play a prank on them before we left. Setting people’s beards on fire and dropping pails of ice water on them.”

“And planting venomous snakes and spiders in their bed covers,” Machi added. 

Kuroro pouted. “They all deserved it.”

They reached the bow of the ship, listening for footsteps nearby, but there was only the crashing of the waves against the side, ocean spray settling on their skin and hair and in their mouths. Machi stood up and the boat rocked with the motion. In her hands was a rope with a half-hitch knot. She tossed it up and it grabbed onto part of the railing. Climbing up was easy, and, as expected, much of the soldiers were focused on the spectacle Shalnark put on. With the uniforms Machi had prepared for them, no one would bat an eye. 

They headed below deck. Theta and her friend were the only ones guarding the Prince’s door. 

“Your Majesty.”

“As per our agreement,” he said, pulling his hood down. “Is he in there?”

“He’s redecorating.” 

“I see. Thank you for this.”

Theta glanced up at him, meeting his gaze for the briefest moment, before averting her gaze. “It’s the least I can do.”

She was brave. Stupidly brave. Who knew what Tserriednich would do to her? Still, she had been the one to come to him in the evening when he’d gone back to his office, there to offer him a chance to take vengeance against Tserriednich. He didn’t want vengeance. He just needed to scare him a bit. Just enough to make him go mad. 

They entered the room, and there was the lavender incense burning in its burner, a bronze contraption with vines curving around it, painted blue and gold. Tserriednich stood behind his desk dressed in red and gold robes, hanging a painting held in a wooden frame. Ah, no, that wasn’t a painting. 

He turned to face him, his arms still raised, hands hovering over the ‘painting’ in case it might fall. A glimmer of victory crossed his face, in the twitch of his lips and the crinkling of his eyes. Kuroro’s patience was wearing thin. He’d dealt with his taunts yesterday, but he didn’t particularly enjoy it when people tested the limits of his tolerance like this.
“Ah, the Emperor himself. I wasn’t expecting to see you again so soon. Peasantry suits you.”

“You flatter me,” Kuroro said, bowing his head. “How kind of you to prepare an entire ship for us alone.”

Tserriednich grinned, teeth gleaming. He sat down at the desk in a low chair and proceeded to scribble things down on a piece of parchment. “Well, I had planned for a different companion, but I suppose you’ll do. I don’t suppose you’ve reconsidered my offer?” 

“You are wise not to suppose such a thing. I’m only here on behalf of a client.” Kuroro glanced down at the desk. “I have a few questions before we get started.”

Tserriednich’s eyebrow tilted up. “Feel free to ask. Who am I to deny a fellow nobleman his answers?”  

“Who have you told about my consort’s past?” he asked. “You don’t strike me as the type who would give this information out for free.” 

“Ah, so you are interested in keeping the little bastard safe? I thought you were going to leave him out for the vipers. It’s what any reasonable person would do, though I suppose with your background this isn’t all that surprising.”

Kuroro sat down across from him, his legs crossed. They were on eye level now, but Tserriednich’s gaze faltered. He looked back at the three advisors positioned behind him. ‘You understand the situation, don’t you, your highness?’

“My customers,” Tserriednich said, shrugging slightly, “were interested in usurping your Consort’s position. They’ll probably cause you trouble soon.” 

“The Lotus clan,” Kuroro said. He should’ve known. In all likelihood, they were the ones who had spiked Kurapika’s drink as well. Just for the sake of the throne. All that power the previous Emperor gifted them had gone to their heads. It was high time they deflated a little. 

Kuroro stood up from the table. His advisors tensed at the motion. “Thank you for your cooperation. As a token of appreciation, I’ll only take your dominant hand today.” 

Tserriednich’s brow furrowed. “Wha–” 

“You know.” Kuroro unsheathed his sword, one of his less favored ones since Tserriednich’s blood certainly wasn’t worthy of staining his others. A bit blunt too. “It never fails to amaze me: The look of surprise on the faces of people like you when they realize that they’re not the only monsters roaming around.” 

Machi rolled her eyes at his theatrics, but Shizuku followed through in restraining Tserriednich. Nobu and Machi had to join in, as the man was quite strong. After all, he ripped people apart with his bare hands. Outside, robust laughter filled the air; Shalnark putting on a show. 

Nobu laid Tserriednich’s arm out on the table. Machi gagged him. It would’ve been nice to hear his scream in pain, but the situation didn’t allow for that. He aimed his sword and swung the steel into his wrist, once. Blood streamed out, bright red amidst darker crimson. He must’ve cut through a few arteries. His sword was stopped by the bone, so he pulled it away and then swung once more. Tserriednich groaned in pain. Yes, a blunter sword was definitely the better choice. 

On the third swing, the sword went through and embedded itself in the table. He pulled it out and took a few steps back. He’d made the mistake of lingering before and it hardly ever ended well, especially in more personal cases. Unfortunately, he needed Tserriednich to stay alive and mostly intact.

The severed hand laid on the table, partially closed into a fist with bloodied fingernails where Tserriednich had dug into the wood. 

“So, you’re human, after all.” Kuroro took one of the napkins off the table and used it to wipe at the blood on his weapon. “Don’t worry, I won’t kill you now, but I can imagine you’ll go into shock from the blood loss sooner or later. We’ll let your servants take things from here.”

“Boss, are you sure we can leave him like that?” Nobu grumbled as they walked to the door. He was a bit disappointed that Kuroro had taken his fun from him this time around. Kuroro could tell from the slight pout the man had worn when he’d unsheathed his sword. 

Kuroro sheathed the sword. “Of course. Theta can decide what to do with him from now.”

“What if she kills him?”

“She won’t. At least, not yet. The blame would fall on her too easily. Tserriednich is fond of her, so he won’t accuse her of helping us, and he’s too prideful to admit he’d been bested by someone like me.” At least, that was what he hoped for. Although, Tserriednich’s death would certainly be something he could work around.

Theta turned to them, stoic, hand positioned on the hilt of her weapon. She made a fine warrior. It was unfortunate she had made her way to Tserriednich’s side rather than Kuroro’s own. Perhaps when the Prince inevitably met his doom, they could convince her to serve Ryusei instead. 

“He’s all yours,” Kuroro said. 

. . .

Shalnark met them on the other side of the docks, counting gold coins on a string. It was mid-morning now, and more people had filled the harbor. Shalnark let his legs hang over the side, looking more cheerful than usual. 

“Good deal?” Kuroro asked, looking down upon the other man like a father would at a misbehaving son. 

“Door-in-the-face technique,” Shalnark said, pocketing the coins. “It never fails.” He raised a plain grey ceramic jar of soju toward him, his sleeve falling down around his elbow. “Want some?”

Kuroro took hold of the top of the jug and sat down beside him, sea spray misting around his legs. The soju went down harsh, leaving the taste of gasoline on his tongue. He preferred it to the sweet, expensive wines of the Palace. Gulls squawked above them in the heat, in a sky free of clouds, as if their wings had made them all dissipate, just like that. 

The others gathered around them as well, and Nobu reached over and grabbed the jug from his hands. He downed a long swig and sighed. “That brings back memories.”

Shizu, who sat on the other side of Shalnark, reached across to take the jug. She drank too much too fast and coughed a bit. When she spoke, her voice came out rather ragged. “It tastes awful.” 

“You need a very particular taste palate for cheap soju,” said Shalnark, patting her on the back. “Want some, Machi?” 

Machi rolled her eyes. “I’ll pass. It’s like downing a bottle of ethanol.”

Shal shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He gulped down some more of the soju, completely unfazed. Kuroro sometimes wondered if the man had somehow burned off his taste buds. 

“Well,” Kuroro said, “we should be heading back. We have a meeting at noon.”

They all gave half-hearted agreements, but none of them moved, preferring to sit in the sun and the sea spray with the gulls. He sometimes suspected most of his advisors resented the roles they’d been given in the Palace. After all, he’d promised them freedom and all they’d gotten was a glorified cage.

It wasn’t forever though, and for now they could all bear with the petty officials and scheming families and murderous consorts. Well, he’d bear with one murderous consort. Perhaps the Palace wasn’t so bad at the end of the day, if he could spend some time poking at the chinks in Kurapika’s armor.

Kuroro blamed the way his chest warmed on the alcohol.

“Your Majesty?” A voice came from behind them. They all froze. Kuroro glanced over his shoulder and up. 

“Queen Oito.” His half-sister stood above them, wearing one of her less opulent dresses. Dark coils of her hair fell from her intricate bun, frizzy from the heat. She’d wrapped her arms around herself, her face crumbling in uncertainty. 

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Kuroro scanned the crowd for the bright green sleeves of Oito’s servants and guards. “You’re alone.”

“Yes,” she said, fidgeting with the rings on her finger. If this had been any other city, she would have certainly been targeted by thieves and thugs. “I wanted to come to you myself.”

Kuroro stood, and as he did, Oito raised her head to look him in the eyes. They were much like his, much like their father’s. “I see. Are you heading to your ship now?” 

“I am, although it seems I’ve gotten separated from my guards. I’m sure if I got into trouble in Ryusei, it would not bode well for you.”

Oh. She wanted to talk. 

“We’ll show you the way,” Kuroro said. “If you can promise no one will see us.” He couldn’t be walking around looking like a fisherman, now could he?

Her shoulders sagged in relief. “Yes. Of course I can.” 

. . .

Oito’s suite was doused in luxury. It boasted cool tones full of violets and blues and gleaming silvers, painted roses blooming on the walls. Chrysanthemums filled white and blue vases, fragrant in the sea breeze. 

“What do you wish to talk about?” Kuroro asked. His advisors were standing outside, warding off any potential interruptions. “It’s a bit odd for you to ask to speak with me right before your departure.”

“I apologize for the short notice,” Oito replied, sitting down in a throne that was far less gaudy then the ones her relatives had. “I was unable to contact you yesterday.”

“Oh.” Right, yesterday he had had a drunken Consort to attend to. “And before then? Something’s changed, hasn’t it?”

“I heard you talked with the Fourth Prince.” 

Their talk from the other day must’ve gotten around. This was Oito, though, and she might have a great many scheming bones in her body, but she wasn’t going to go against her greatest benefactor. “We did talk. Does our conversation interest you?” 

Oito was fidgeting with her rings again, chewing on her lip and lowering her head. “Did he tell you about the war for succession?” Her voice came out small. Why was she so terrified? She wouldn’t be taking part in it. 

“He did.”

“Then, you know that every legitimate child of the King will be forced to participate.” Oh. Oh dear.

“And how does that concern you? Surely they’d leave a childless Queen alone. Unless …”

Oito nodded slightly, hand over her stomach. “I’m with child. By the time the succession war rolls around, they will have been born.” 

Well, he shouldn’t be too surprised. He’d been the one to send her off to Kakin as a token of peace. Still, it was hard to believe his younger sister would be having a child of her own, and a Prince in all likelihood. Yes, this was why Kuroro never could let her know of her heritage. 

He leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. “I don’t see how this has anything to do with me.” 

She stood, hands clenched into fists. “You’re the one who put me there.” 

“You always wanted a life of luxury.” 

“I thought you’d have at least a little sympathy for your own blood.” 

She knew. Her babbling mother must’ve told her before she passed. She’d always had trouble keeping her mouth shut. Kuroro felt a smile cross his face, and he saw in the way she shrunk back that it was a foreboding one. “I’m afraid I’m not particularly inclined to sympathy. I’ve already gotten you this far, and now you know why. The debts are not with me, your Highness.” 

A bitter sound escaped her, like a sigh, and she turned away. So many emotions Kuroro didn’t have time for. “I don’t understand any of you. You line people up like pigs for slaughter.” 

“It’s Kakin’s tradition,” Kuroro continued, though it would only serve to fuel her anger with him. Something told him she and Kurapika would get along. “I can’t intervene.”

 “Because you’re a coward –” Yes, they’d get along splendidly. 

“Because I’m an Emperor. I have people to protect.”

Oito turned around and there were tears welling up in the corners of her eyes, glistening in the sun. “All I want is to protect them. How hard is it for a person like you to protect one baby? Your niece or nephew at that.”

Kuroro pushed himself off the wall. “This conversation is going nowhere.” 

“If we survive!” she said, desperation clawing up her throat. “If we win, they will be the next King.” Her hand hovered over her stomach, and she swallowed thickly. “We’ll go along with whatever plans you have, but you need to promise to keep us both safe. Or at least, keep them safe.” 

Now, that was a proposal he could get behind. He had planned to go after one of the older princes and make them his puppet, but a baby was more easily influenced. Yes, that could work out rather well. 

He turned to face her. Her eyes were cast down, her hair falling free from its bun, save for a single coil around a gold pin. Fury, anguish, disgust, he’d seen all of them before in various forms but seeing them on her face stung a bit. 

“I’ll see what I can do.” 

He pushed the door panel aside and walked out into the hallway, where his advisors pretended they hadn’t just eavesdropped on the whole conversation.

“Let’s go home.”  

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

 

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Chapter 28:

The Consort’s Night Out

Two months passed with little disturbance after the Kakin family’s departure. The Emperor became further engrossed in his work, leaving Kurapika to spend most of his days however he pleased. Every now and then, the Emperor would pay him a visit when he least expected it, and, all while invading his personal space, push a few buttons just to see which way he’d bend. Aside from those moments, which were few and far between, Kurapika continued to endear himself to the other consorts and court officials, taking trips to the library, and rendezvousing with Leorio.

He rarely spent an entire night with his doctor-in-training. Most of their encounters were of the friendly kind, Leorio always willing to lend an ear and some often misplaced advice. Kurapika would return to the Inner Palace, a distraught Hanzo eventually finding him back in his bedroom, sprawled across his bed and reading one book or another.

“Where have you been?” Hanzo screeched.

“At the Library. Did you lose sight of me again ?” 

Hanzo’s face turned red. He went on a long-winded lecture about what the Emperor would do if he ever found out Kurapika continuously went missing. None of these scenarios ended favorably for Hanzo. In a few, he was executed along with his entire family. In others, he let him off with exile. He showed equal amounts of anxiety throughout. 

Kurapika turned a page in his book of choice. “Then, you had better make sure he never finds out.”

For most of those two months, they were able to keep their secrets well-hidden. After all, Kurapika was quite good at keeping secrets from people who weren’t the Emperor, and as long as the people around Kurapika were either scared into submission or left ignorant, that information had no way of reaching him. Especially now that the Emperor had seemed to have lost some of his interest in him. 

Then one night, Kurapika stayed out too late.

It was all Leorio’s fault really. Kurapika had had no plans to stay for more than a few hours when they met up outside one of the abandoned hanok in the Outer Palace. They were abandoned because several statesmen have left their posts over the last few years, and the Emperor hadn’t managed to fill them all. Kurapika wore an unassuming hanbok. It would be difficult to place him as either a maid or a lord’s daughter, nevermind the Emperor’s consort.

 Leorio sat on the porch, hidden behind the stone gates each of the residential buildings had around them. It was one of the smaller buildings, and had been used by the prior owners as a sort of temporary home when the Emperor was in need of them. 

“Hey,” Kurapika said, as he walked up the stairs to the porch. Surrounding Leorio were piles of books, medical texts probably. On one pile, he’d set down two brown paper bags. When he heard Kurapika’s voice, his head snapped up from the study material. His expression warmed, getting rid of the creases in his brow, with just a touch of bashfulness in his smile.

“Hey. Uh …” Leorio looked around, eyes eventually falling on the bags. He took hold of them. “I got some snacks for us. I know it’s nothing compared to Palace food, but –”

Kurapika sat down beside him. “As long as it isn’t packed with a pound of sugar, I’m sure it’ll be delightful.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. You hate sweets,” Leorio said. He took out a small ceramic container from the bag. “It might’ve gotten a bit cold, but it’s still good.”

Kurapika opened the lid of the container. “What’s this?” Cylindrical rice cakes floated in a thin, red sauce. It was still warm under his hands, and smelled wonderfully piquant. 

“Tteok-bokki. Street food. Spicy enough to bring tears to anyone’s eyes. Thought you might like it. You and your unfeeling taste buds.” Leorio handed him a pair of chopsticks. Ah, it’s been a while since Kurapika hadn’t used those silver ones from the Palace. After that incident with the wine, he wanted to be more cautious, but these made him feel a little more at home.

Kurapika caught one of the rice cakes and popped it in his mouth. The flavor melted on his tongue, and he felt the heat begin to work its way from those sensitive taste buds to the roof of his mouth and up into his nose, tingling. Slightly sweet, and delicious. He raised another one into his mouth.  

“Not a single flinch. You’re insane.” 

“On the contrary, I do believe my fellow countrymen are complete cowards. Spineless, with no taste in food at all.” He should bring this into the Palace. It couldn’t be too difficult to recreate.  

“Yeah whatever,” Leorio grumbled, biting on a honey cake. He didn’t have nearly as much of a sweet tooth as the Emperor, but he thought the sugar made his brain work better. Bunch of nonsense in Kurapika’s opinion, but he was the doctor. 

“What are you studying?” 

“Herbal medicines. There’s a lot I didn’t know about.” 

Kurapika glanced down at the text in his lap. Written on the battered pages was a chapter on the medicinal application of licorice root. Kurapika’s knowledge of medicine spanned many areas, knowledge he’d procured amidst public libraries when Pairo’s illness had gotten worse, but even he would have difficulty understanding such technical language. 

He settled his head against the wall of the hanok, the brick cold and full of craggly divots. 

“How’s Alluka?” Kurapika asked. 

“Good. She’s been helping Cheadle out with her work at the clinic.”

Admittedly, Kurapika hadn’t been able to keep in touch with Alluka as often as he should. The Zoldycks had taken up residence in the Outer Palace, and it would be easy for them to get word of the Emperor’s consort being seen outside of his cage if he started checking up on one of their children. They were certainly a secretive bunch. 

Leorio, on the other hand. Leorio was harmless, even by Zoldyck standards. Kurapika had learned the hard way that the doctor weaved his way into people’s hearts through kindness rather than manipulation. 

“She’s been asking how you are,” Leorio said. “God knows how she figured out we were still meeting.”

“You’re not exactly subtle, Leorio.”

The sound of pages made Kurapika glance his way. He looked rather peeved with that scowl on his face. Well, his temper had always been rather short. 

“You’re the one who keeps sneaking off to meet me. What’ll you do if he catches you?” It wasn’t the first he’d been asked that question, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. Leorio had grown even more cautious since his little trip to the dungeons, and it was all Kurapika could do to ignore the guilt Leorio had begun to carry. It annoyed him quite a bit otherwise. Why would Leorio feel guilt over the Emperor? Kurapika didn’t owe the Emperor anything other than a dagger through his heart. 

Kurapika tilted his head to the side, putting away the thoughts. His Mother had taught him how to silence them long ago, and his courtesan persona made it easier. He pouted. “Would you prefer it if I just stayed away?”

“I didn’t say that,” he grumbled, pushing the book aside. “It’s just.” He lowered his voice. “He’s the Emperor. He could hurt you.”

That almost made him chuckle. He looked toward the opposite wall, at the windows like unlit lanterns. “He wouldn’t hurt me.”

Leorio had taken to running his hand over the cover of the book. “He doesn’t look like the type.”

He wound his fingers together until they ached. “He needs me.” And had taken the liberty to make that abundantly clear, all the while making Kurapika feel like he was the one walking on thin ice. 

“I should keep studying,” Leorio said.

They usually changed the subject at this point. The Emperor put more of a hamper on their relationship than Kurapika had expected. Leorio hid it well, but he hated the whole ordeal. Perhaps things would’ve been easier if they’d just pined for each other from afar, but then what of Kurapika’s relationship with the Emperor? The man would stop at nothing to have him by his side. That much he’d made abundantly clear. 

“What are you doing?” a much younger voice asked. They both turned toward the source of the sound. Alluka peeked at them over the wall surrounding the porch, her arms resting on top of the wall. Her hair hung loose around her face today, and she wore her signature pink and green hanbok. 

“Hey kid,” Leorio said. “What are you doing all the way out here?”

“There was a sick boy in one of the houses,” Alluka said. “The clinic was short staffed so I came here myself.” She turned to Kurapika. “You look very pretty today, your Majesty.” 

“Ah, thank you.” Was his disguise failing him? 

“Wait, you recognized him?” Leorio asked. Alluka nodded, cheerful as ever, and jumped down from her perch. A few moments later she was sitting beside them, stealing some of Leorio’s snacks and nibbling on them. 

“Some things you can never change,” Alluka said. “Your face is still the same.” 

Kurapika turned to Leorio, a teasing smile on his lips. “Funny, I recall you having some trouble recognizing me.” 

“Yeah, for like a second. It was dark in that hallway.” 

There was the quiet sound of a stomach growling, and both men turned to look at Alluka, who blushed at the attention, covering her stomach. Right, that was why Killua always dragged Gon and Alluka to raid the palace kitchens. 

“I doubt a few snacks will be enough to keep any of us full,” Kurapika said, setting aside his now empty bowl. “Let’s go get something to eat.”

“Are you sure?” Leorio asked, watching him get up. 

Kurapika placed his hands on his hips. “Of course. It’ll be good to test my disguise. Leorio, you’re paying.”

“Huh? Why me?”

“A maid like me earning enough to feed all three of us? I don’t think so. Besides,” he said, bringing a finger to his chin, teeth gleaming with his sharp grin, “the gentleman should always be willing to pay in desperate times.” 

“You’re a gentleman too,” Leorio muttered. He rose from his spot anyway, brushing off his clothes. “Fine, let’s go. I know a place.”

. . .

‘A place’ was a small restaurant across from a rustic bookstore. They smelled the food before even turning the corner to the backstreet. People sat on the porch, sitting at wooden tables filled with dishes and jars. Several women worked over heavy pots of boiling soups and grills with sizzling meat. One of them looked up from their work, recognizing Leorio. Kurapika felt him tense beside him. Oh dear.

“Oh, you’re back,” she said, unenthusiastic as she looked back down whatever she was grinding in a mortar. “What do you want?” 

Leorio scratched at the back of his head. “Sorry about last time –”

“I don’t have all day,” she said, adding the spices to a red paste. 

“Food and drink. My friend here.” Leorio pointed his thumb at Kurapika. The gall of this man sometimes. “Wants the spiciest food on the menu. I’ll have the gukbap. Make that two, for me and for her.” He pointed at Alluka, who was quite taken by the entire cooking process and now pestered the woman making the soup with questions. 

“Alright, go sit down.” 

They complied, finding a seat close to the front of the store. 

“What did you do this time?” 

Leorio tried to feign insult at the accusation. “Nothing! Honestly, I–” Something in Kurapika’s expression must’ve made him think better of lying, because his shoulders sank in defeat. “I just told them that … their food wasn’t too good. And … I might’ve insulted their appearances. Just a little bit. And I broke one of their pots.”

“You what?” 

“I was tipsy. And they’d said something that pissed me off. That’s all.” 

“Alcohol isn’t an excuse for violence, Le orio.” Emphasizing the first syllable of his name was imperative. 

“Let’s just hope she doesn’t spit in our food.”

Alluka plopped down beside them. “Did you know they put white radish in the soup base?” 

“Really?” Kurapika asked, eyes still on Leorio.

Alluka nodded. “I bet it’s delicious.” She frowned. “Were you two arguing again?” 

“We were just discussing some things,” Kurapika said. There was a teapot on the table, and he poured himself a cup. It was a green tea with too many bitter notes to it. 

“It was about the rumors, wasn’t it?” she said. Kurapika glanced at her. ‘ Rumors?’   

“Two gukbap.” The eldest woman set the two large bowls on the table, along with a variety of platters of side dishes and condiments. “And one bowl of our spiciest jjamppong.” This time, she set down a smaller bowl in front of Kurapika, and the steam from the warm soup rose up and stung his eyes. 

“Thank you,” they said it quite synchronously. Alluka dove in first, probably starved of decent food for who knows how long. How Kurapika wished he could watch over her more properly, but neither he nor Leorio had the power to go up against the Zoldycks, and the one man who did, the Emperor, was undoubtedly unbothered by Alluka’s plight. 

Kurapika picked up his chopsticks, suddenly melancholy, and picked off a piece of shrimp from the top of the seafood stew. 

“Have you heard about the Emperor’s consort.” One of the men in the group behind them were drunk and ready to throw caution to the wind. Kurapika picked at the noodles in the spicy, red broth, though he listened to every word.

“Which one?” 

Raucous laughter, and then the man replied, “the blond. You know everyone was talking about him being favored, but it’s going around that he’s actually fallen out of favor with the Emperor. You know, he can’t give him an heir and he’s got no family backing him. He’s alone in there. Give him one month more and he’s probably gonna be strung up by the neck by somebody.” 

“No, no, no,” the other said, voice hoarse from drinking bad liquor. “I heard the Emperor is only pretending to appease the other families. Those two have been spending the night together more than any of the other consorts. At this rate, he’s gonna end up with no heir.” 

Something accurate. How strange.

“Yeah,” another voice joined in. “I hear he’s got the Emperor wrapped around his little finger. Just like the King before him. Wouldn’t be surprised if things ended the same.” This. This topic came up too often and Kurapika still wasn’t sure what it meant. He’d heard rumors of the love the King had for the Queen, but how much of it was true he couldn’t be sure. He knew only that she’d vanished one day, along with the young Crown Prince, only three years old at the time. 

“You think he’ll go crazy?” 

“Aren’t they all already crazy?” 

More laughter followed. 

“I hear that one’s ambitious though. And rebellious. The Emperor can’t control him.” 

The man with the hoarse voice laughed. “Maybe he likes it that way.’

“Well, you know what they’ve been saying …” the first man said, lowering his voice to a whisper. 

Kurapika turned his attention to Leorio, who was holding his spoon a little too tightly. Alluka was frowning into her soup, seemingly having lost her appetite. ‘ Oh come on now really. You two are far too sensitive.’

He reached out to take Leorio’s other hand and squeezed lightly. Do not draw attention to yourself.  

“Let’s go into town later,” Kurapika said. “Is there anything you’d like to buy, Alluka?” 

Many things, apparently, but her parents wouldn’t let her keep things from strangers. Kurapika resolved to send her something as the Emperor’s consort. They couldn’t ignore a gift from the Emperor’s consort.

They finished eating, comfortably full. Leorio paid the eldest woman, still apologetic. They walked back to the main road, blending in with the rest of the crowd, unassuming in their plain clothing, Alluka holding onto Kurapika’s hand and Kurapika holding onto Leorio. They passed stalls with rolls of vibrant cloths and sets of gold pins. A group of boys with dirt smudged on their clothes and faces raced past them, yelling something about candied sweet potatoes. Leorio grimaced at the noise. What a grumpy old man he was.

Now there should be a news vendor here somewhere. Most of the people here were nobles or their servants, so the literacy rate alone would mean they’re probably getting their information from the written word as well. The question was: Were they bold enough to speak ill of the Emperor?

Kurapika scanned the storefronts and stalls around him. A bookstore would probably have access to a news report, even by proxy. He turned his question to Leorio. 

“Bookstore? Eh, there are a few in the outer Palace. I think the closest one is near the clinic.”

The clinic. Cheadle. That might be too risky. Still, he should be kept up to date on things like this, especially when the public seemed so interested in Kurapika’s own workings. Depending on how accurate it was, he’d have to keep Leorio from finding out as well. Though perhaps he already knew and couldn’t believe it. 

He put the thoughts away, turning to where Alluka was supposed to be beside him. Inside his chest, his heart seems to slow and race at the same time, and he took a sharp inhale.

“Leorio, where’s Alluka?” 

“Huh? Oh, she must’ve seen something she wanted to buy,” Leorio said, swiveling around to see if Alluka had gone to the nearby shops. “I wouldn’t worry too much about her. She can handle herself fine.”

“She’s still alone. What if she can’t find her way back to us?” Kurapika asked, turning to retrace their steps. 

“I’m pretty sure she knows this place better than you, Kurapika,” Leorio said, acting like nothing had happened at all. 

“Don’t do that.” Kurapika pointed at him, briefly. 

“Do what?” 

“Act like nothing's wrong.” It reminded him of the Emperor’s calm exterior, his constant amusement at Kurapika’s every move, the way his eyes caught onto Kurapika’s every movement. Leorio wasn’t like that. Leorio was caring, honest, and prone to anxiety. He should be nervous.

Passing pedestrians, ranging from irate to a little too enthusiastic to help, point Kurapika to the front of a paper and ink store. Alluka sat outside with an elderly man in the plain, grey clothes. A woman with long braided hair approached them carrying a wooden tray with a ceramic teapot and cups. 

“Here’s the tea you asked for,” the woman said.

“Thank you.” Alluka took the tea from the woman, and then sat down next to her patient again. “Here you go, Park-nim. Pear tea can help with headaches and nausea.”

“I’ll bring some rice porridge as well,” the woman added.

Right, he’d heard that Alluka had taken a shine to helping the clinic with small errands. He hadn’t expected this, though. 

“Alluka.” Kurapika approached them. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you.” 

“He’s been looking everywhere for you,” Leorio corrected. “I knew you were fine the entire time.” 

“Shut up, Leorio.” 

The corners of Alluka’s mouth twitched down into a pensive frown. “You shouldn’t tell people to shut up, Kurapika. Especially when it’s people you love.” She returned to the matter at hand, intensely focused. “How are you feeling now, Park-nim?”

“Much better, thank you, Alluka,” the old man replied. His voice was weak and there was a pallor to his skin, but he smiled a toothy grin and seemed to have high spirits. “I thought I would collapse in there.” 

“I think it’s the ink that caused this,” Alluka said. “It must’ve made you nauseous. Opening a window will help. But I would also recommend checking in with the clinic.” 

That … was incredibly well-put. 

Alluka looked to Leorio for feedback. He nodded and grinned, looking every bit the proud teacher. “Nice job, kid.” 

She smiled back, standing up. “Let unnie help you from now on, Park-nim. She’s very good at it. And take breaks when you need to, and … and …”

“Okay, Alluka, you did great. Now leave the poor man alone,” Leorio said, guiding her gently away with his hands on her shoulders. The man chuckled, thanking them again.

Alluka pouted. “But I have more to say to him.” 

“I think what he needs now is some rest. We can make sure he gets to the clinic when he’s well-rested, okay?” Leorio asked, taking Alluka’s hand again. He glanced at Kurapika and gave him a small smile. “Something wrong?”

“No … I was just thinking.” 

“But you’re always thinking, Kurapika,” Alluka pointed out. “What were you thinking about.” 

Leorio nodded, gravely. “You’re asking the right questions, Alluka.”

“I was thinking …” He looked forward, at the people walking in the streets, and the nobles riding in their palanquins. He couldn’t tell them exactly what he thought. He never could. “I was thinking that you’re very gifted, Alluka.” And that the Emperor might find a medical prodigy an interesting addition to the medical staff. “Where did you learn all this?”

“I’m not sure,” Alluka replied. “I feel like I’ve always known it.” 

‘Oh, he’ll love that. Raw talent. The Emperor is nothing if not an opportunist.’        

“That’s our little prodigy.” Leorio laughed. “Oh. There’s the clinic.” He looked forward to a building much larger than the rest. People in blue and white robes walked in and out of the building, some carrying medical supplies, others taking a break from whatever chaos waited for them inside. “The bookstore should be somewhere around here.” Leorio twisted around, reading the signs of the shops nearby. There was a small store selling liquor, an Inn, various cloth and paper stores, and then … 

“Leorio.” Kurapika tugged on his sleeve, pointing to a storefront with books displayed outside on a table and a large wooden sign hanging over the door, with the words “Jun’s Bookstore” written across it in white characters, streaked with age now. 

“Oh.” Leorio said, just a tad embarrassed. 

When they entered the bookstore, it was quiet. A thin layer of dust covered every surface. That couldn’t be healthy. 

Old wooden bookshelves crowded the room, giving it a labyrinthine appearance. They walked across creaky floorboards in the dimly lit shop, dust motes floating in the occasional sun ray. A man sat at the back of the shop, brushing ink on paper. He wore a gaudy pink hanbok, one which clashed terribly with his skin tone but to each their own. He had red hair and bushy eyebrows that curled at the ends, and wore a black headband that had sunk too low. 

“Zepile?” Leorio asked, familiarity in his voice. 

The man looked up, surprised, his lips forming a misshapen ‘o’. “Leorio?”

“I didn’t know you worked here.” Leorio walked closer to him, arms out for a hug. Zepile didn’t hesitate to respond, pulling Leorio into his embrace.

Zepile responded, voice muffled, “Well, you know how it is, trying to make ends meet.”

Kurapika scrutinized them, finger to his chin. Surely not. There couldn’t be anything between these two. Not when Leorio had him. And … and Zepile certainly wasn’t anything to look at. Though most people assumed Leorio wasn’t anything to look at either.

“Who are your friends?” Zepile asked, one arm around Leorio’s shoulders. 

“This is Alluka and … Mun-Hee, her maid.” 

“Ohohoho, lady-killer’s back at it again?” Zepile elbowed him, a teasing grin on his face. “Is this the girl the others have been talking about? She looks as moody as they’d said.” 

Kurapika crossed his arms, unimpressed. “I’m only moody when the company is below my expectations.” Though he must admit Zepile and Leorio appeared to get along swimmingly. “How do you two know each other?”

“Well –”

“We met at a bar. Actually, I think it was a gisaeng house, ah …” He faltered. “Well, nevermind what it was. We got super drunk and hit it off, got really personal. I think he even cried at one point.”

“I didn’t cry.”

“You had tears and snot running all over your face.”

Alluka pulled on Leorio’s sleeve. “It’s okay to cry sometimes, Leorio.”

“Sure it is, kid.” He looked back at Zepile. “I didn’t cry that hard.”

Zepile snapped his fingers. “It was about a guy. You wouldn’t give me the details though. Well, I’m glad you’ve moved on. Bet Mun-Hee here is a thousand times better than that son of a –”

Kurapika cleared his throat. “There are children present, Zepile-ya. How about we continue on with the business at hand. You do work here, don’t you?”

Zepile’s face scrunched up at his use of the honorific, and Kurapika was glad to establish the distance between the two of them. Perhaps he would find Kurapika rude, and he wouldn’t be so far off the mark anyhow.

“Is there anything you have in mind?” Zepile asked. “Most of our books are pretty old but they’re all classics –”

“Periodicals.” Kurapika knew his tone was a bit too curt, but he wasn’t like Leorio. He didn’t feel the need to be friendly with everyone. “News reports. Do you have any?”

“Ah, sure, let me look in the back.” He opened the door behind his desk and left them to their own devices as he pored over the documents in the storage room.

Leorio walked closer to Kurapika, until they were standing shoulder to shoulder, and he could hear him when he whispered, “You’re being rude.”

“He started it.” 

“In what way?” 

Kurapika clicked his tongue, looking away from him. 

“I agree with Leorio.” Alluka asked.  “I think Zepile-ssi is nice.”

“He is nice.” That wasn’t what bothered him. He wasn’t sure what was bothering him. Perhaps jealousy had reared its ugly head. Deep down he undoubtedly felt a certain amount of possessiveness over Leorio. ‘But really, Leorio? A gisaeng house?’

“Alright.” Zepile returned with a box of small booklets. “These are the periodicals from the last few months.” He took one off the top, flipping through the pages. “They’ve got everything: Politics, crop outlooks, plays.” 

“How much for all of these?” Kurapika asked, running his fingers over the front cover of one of the booklets. 

“Ah, free of charge. A friend of Leorio’s is a friend of mine.” 

Clearly a manipulation tactic to rid himself of Kurapika’s previous judgment. Well, it was working. 

“Thank you.” 

Zepile shrugged, pushing the box toward him. “You can make Leorio carry it.”

“Hey!” Leorio said, though his protests were met with nothing but disinterest. “Nevermind, you aren’t nice at all.” 

Zepile’s head tipped to the side, his brow wrinkling in confusion. “What’re you talking about?” 

“Thank you for the suggestion, but I think I’ll carry it myself,” Kurapika said, interrupting before the conversation could get out of control. He picked up the box and immediately regretted his decision, but he’d already gotten this far. He pulled it close to his chest and thanked Zepile again, hoping he didn’t sound out of breath. Right, he hadn’t done any serious exercise since he’d arrived at the palace. He should probably build it into his routine. 

They left the shop and the sun was sinking behind the trees and the buildings, its light melting into clouds as pinks and purples. Kurapika was glad to be out of that place. 

Kalluto stood outside in his dark purple hanbok, petals embroidered up his sleeves. “Alluka, it’s time to go.” 

“Kalluto,” Alluka said, running to her younger brother, ready to embrace him. She used to run to Killua like that. 

“Hello … Alluka,” Kalluto said, his voice muffled. “You ran away again. Mother and father will be angry when they found out. You should be happy I went to find you and not Illumi.” 

“I know, I know,” Alluka said, grinning despite the admonishment. “Did you leave home to look for me?”

“I … yes.” 

“I’m glad! I’m sure Killua would be happy to know you left the house without telling anyone.” 

‘That’s really not something to celebrate.’ They were getting along though, and Kurapika couldn’t help the budding pride in his chest. Now if only his arms weren’t in immense pain from carrying this box. Leorio hadn’t offered to help him yet, so Kurapika either looked like he was handling it well or he looked like he might murder anyone who tried to intervene. It was probably the latter.

They parted there, Alluka and Kalluto reassuring them that they knew the way back home. Kurapika and Leorio headed back to their hideout, through a couple of smaller residential backstreets, between the stone gates of ministers’ houses. The streets were more or less quiet, since most nobles didn’t appreciate rowdiness. Leorio walked beside him, eyeing the box in his hands. 

“Are you sure you want to read those,” he asked, at one point, reaching out to take one of the booklets. Kurapika slapped his hand away with what little control and strength he had left. He didn’t want Leorio to read them before him. Not when he didn’t know what they said. The thought of Leorio finding out about his brothel days from something as idle as a gossip magazine, even if he didn’t believe it, wasn’t something Kurapika could allow. Panic rose when he thought of how Leorio might change if he knew.

“Of course, I should keep up with public opinion. Otherwise I might end up dead. Why? Are you afraid I won’t be able to take it?”

“No, but I think it’ll piss you off,” he said, lowering his voice to add. “It pissed me off.”

“You’ve read it?” Kurapika asked, hoping he sounded nonchalant. 

“Of course not. I don’t have time for that sort of thing. Everyone else keeps up with it though. Overhear people talking about you all the time.” 

‘What have you overheard?’ Kurapika wanted to ask but he didn’t dare, not when the answer could lead them to the worst questions. He could imagine Leorio asking it now, ‘but they’re full of shit, yeah?’ And Kurapika wouldn’t be able to lie well enough and then Leorio would know everything and he’d treat him like he was some broken doll to be fixed and pitied.

They reach the gate to their hideout and walk in, checking to ensure no one was watching them from a well-placed tree branch or window. They entered the hanok, which was pleasantly cool compared to the heat and humidity of August nights. 

“They don’t happen to have a cold bath in this place, do they?” Kurapika asked, setting the box down on the floor. They took off their shoes at the door, and the pine flooring was cold on the soles of their feet. 

“Down the hall. Whoever owned this before us was probably a big shot. They left everything.” 

“Even towels?”

“Cabinet in the bathroom.”

The bath was large for most people’s standards, though only a quarter of the size of Kurapika’s own bathroom. Kurapika settled into a bathtub full of cold water, enjoying the way it made him shiver. He settled his head against the lip of the tub, only his knees and his head above the water. There’s an assortment of oils and soaps around him, but he does not dare touch them for fear of changing his scent too much. There was nothing quite so suspicious as vanishing and reappearing with the scent of somebody else all over you. All the married clients that visited him had at least taught him that much. Oh, the amount of times he’d been accosted by angry spouses. 

Kurapika sighed, sinking further down into the water so it reached his chin. If the public opinion got out of hand, he might as well kiss his mission goodbye. Assassinations will become more frequent, who knows what the crazy priests will think up, and then there was the Emperor himself. It would take only one order to get Kurapika to the executioner’s block. It was a miracle that the Emperor had still kept him around despite his evidently tarnished reputation. Mother must’ve caused the Emperor a lot of trouble, if he was willing to put up with Kurapika’s antics for so long. Sometimes Kurapika wished he’d just rid them both of the trouble. Death didn’t scare him anyhow. 

He stood, water dripping down his body. He dried and dressed himself, though he supposed putting on his old clothes defeated the purpose of bathing. 

Leorio was sitting on the floor in the living room, reading through his medical texts in the candlelight. The walls around him were barren sans the paper screens with their colorful flowers. The periodicals sat near the door, undisturbed. Kurapika walked over to pick up the box and carried it into the living room.  

“What was your deal with Zepile anyway?” Leorio suddenly asked, pretending to read though his eyes had stopped moving across the page. 

Kurapika placed the box on the floor and sat down across from Leorio. He took one booklet out and began to flip through the pages. “There was no deal.”

“There was definitely a deal.” 

At last, he found the politics section. Praise for the Emperor, improved foreign relations, increased funding for education and medicine. Yes, yes, yes, he was amazing. Goodness, Kurapika had had just about enough of hearing how wonderful the Emperor was. “I have no issues with your friend, Leorio. You can be friends with whomever you’d like.” 

“Kurapika …”

“I suppose I might’ve been a little jealous.” 

“No, you weren’t,” Leorio said. Kurapika glanced up at him. “I know when you’re jealous. This isn’t that. It must’ve been something he said.” 

“He was talking about gisaeng houses and your love affairs in front of a child. Of course I got angry.” Kurapika set the booklet down on his lap. “Have you really been going out to gisaeng houses this whole time?”

Leorio pouted. “They have the best alcohol.”

“And the courtesans. So close to the Palace, they must be highly educated and beautiful –”

“I don’t visit them.” 

‘And that might be enough for them to be punished, or worse, thrown out.’ The beatings were sometimes favorable to death by cold or by starvation. 

“Not anymore. That was just at the beginning, before we started this whole thing. Didn’t mean anything,” Leorio grumbled. 

‘Of course, it didn’t.’ It never meant anything to them. 

“I don’t want to talk about this.” 

“But–”

“Leorio, no,” Kurapika said, too curt, too angry. He lowered his voice to something sweeter. “I don’t want to fight right now.” Especially if that fight might reveal more of him than he was ready to show. “Besides, I don’t care who you sleep with.” He was married to someone else, after all. 

“Fine, don’t tell me what’s bothering you then.” 

Strain. He hadn’t expected there to be so much strain on their relationship. These weren’t their arguments from before, flirty and coy, Leorio’s lips twisting into a silly grin. Did this mean things were going badly? Kurapika couldn’t say. He’d never been in a relationship with anyone except … except Haneul, and Haneul had always been too reserved, too polite to fight and tease and squabble the way he does with Leorio.

Though, he supposed the real strain laid in Kurapika’s secrets. Leorio must’ve realized how he’d changed at the mention of the gisaeng houses, the brothels. Kurapika wouldn’t dare tell him. He didn’t want Leorio’s pity for Kurapika’s past. Leorio had never thought of him as broken, hadn’t looked at him like he was fragile or dangerous or defiled, and Kurapika wanted it to stay that way.

But what if he lost him because of that? What if Leorio hated him, forgot about him, moved on until he barely remembered Kurapika’s face or his name?

They utter each other’s names at the same time, and it was enough to break the tension. 

“I suppose I can forgive you for your womanizing,” Kurapika teased, sliding closer to him. “Provided you give them up for the most part now.” 

“You’re doing it again.”

“Doing what again?” Kurapika asked, placing his head on Leorio’s shoulder. ‘I won’t let you go. Leorio.’

“Seducing me so I forget we argued.”

“Is that a complaint?”

Leorio kissed him, one arm around his waist, Leorio’s lips hot against his skin. Kurapika hums appreciatively, parting his lips. The joys of a private home, they could kiss all they wanted here. Do other things, too. 

“Well, your Highness, permission to kiss you senseless?” Leorio whispered.

“I think you’ve already started,” Kurapika said in a breathy voice. Leorio was so warm against him, and Kurapika felt the beginnings of a headache starting. One of them closed the gap again. “We should … fight … more often.” Kurapika said, between soft, quick kisses. 

“We can fight all you want.” Leorio’s hand was on Kurapika’s thigh, the other still tight around his middle, desperate for skin. The clothes made things difficult. Pushing his lover away, Kurapika stripped down to his plain, white undergarments. Leorio gazed at him, uncertain. “Do you want to?”

The question made him pause, because he wasn’t sure. Oh, parts of him were sure, have probably been sure for a long time. He liked those parts well enough. They loved Leorio, wanted him, desired him, needed him. They enjoyed this physical pleasure. The other parted knew Leorio wouldn’t have hesitated to spend a night with him as the Golden Chrysanthemum, had he had the chance to, and that it would’ve meant nothing to him. 

“I don’t not want to,” Kurapika replied, hoping his hesitance wasn’t as evident to Leorio as it was to himself. “I want you. I know I do–”

“Kurapika,” Leorio said, a small jump to his voice, like he’s laughing at him. He took his hand. “It’s alright to not be sure.”

“I know.” Kurapika buried his face in Leorio’s shoulder. Leorio’s hand was warm in his. Or maybe Kurapika was just cold. “Have you ever done it before? Like this, I mean.” 

“Ah, yeah. Once,” Leorio said. “When I was young.” 

“Leorio, you’re 22.” 

“You know what I mean. I fell for my best friend. It’s history now.”

Well, that was one way to ruin the mood. Kurapika pulled away to face him. “I’m sorry. What happened?”

“He died. Got sick. It was treatable too. He was only seventeen.” Right. Pietro. He remembered talking about him before. He hadn’t known they were that close. 

“He’s the reason you became a doctor,” Kurapika said, sitting cross-legged, no longer touching Leorio. Maybe they weren’t so different. Kurapika devoted his life to ridding the world of the Emperor, as Leorio devoted his to ridding the world of disease. No one should have to die when they could live. That was what Leorio seemed to believe. “It’s the only reason we ended up meeting too.” 

“Thanks for reminding me,” Leorio grumbled, looking down at his medical text. “The exam’s in a few days. The results will be posted next Sunday.” 

“That’s soon.”

Leorio nodded, grimly, as if he were awaiting his execution. 

Kurapika took his face in his hands, forcing him to look in his eyes. “Don’t you dare even think of cheating, Leorio Paladiknight.”

“I wasn’t.” He looked back at the texts, downcast. “I was thinking that if I don’t pass, I’ll be sent home.” 

That was … true. How hard would it be to tamper with the evidence? Under no circumstances could Kurapika risk losing Leorio. He could get Palm to switch his test with one that was believably stellar. Although, if anyone ever found out, they’d think Leorio paid someone to do so, and then the Emperor could easily use that as an excuse to exile him, torture him, kill him. He’d promised to do so once already.

“You’ll pass, undoubtedly.” 

“And what if I don’t. What will you do?” 

“You know the answer to that question, Leorio.” 

Leorio shrugged. “What if you changed your mind?” 

“I have too much left to do here. Besides, I doubt the Emperor would let me go.” Not with the Emperor’s obsession with finding Mother alive and well. 

“See, I knew he cared,” Leorio teased. “So, have you ever, you know, done it with another guy?”

He wasn’t sure if he should answer, but Leorio would be suspicious if he tried to get around the question, and then he’d probably think up something completely wrong. “I have. Though it’s not a tale of love as yours was. I was just … experimenting.” 

“Who was the guy, then?”

“You know.” Kurapika almost laughed. “I can’t even remember his name. Or his face, really. I don’t think it was particularly pleasant, though.” 

“Oh, sorry. Bad memories?” 

Kurapika lay his head on his shoulder, for completely innocent reasons this time. “You could say that.” He opened another one of the booklets, opening to a random page. 

“The Lotus Clan has brought out evidence against one of their very own citizens: Kurapika Kwon.” Very interesting indeed. “Due to his evasion of questions about his past, the Lotus Clan took it upon itself to discover where the stunning young Consort is from. During their search, they came across a source which they claim to be extremely trustworthy. This source told them that, in fact, the young man worked under the pseudonym, the Golden Chrysanthemum, at a brothel called Jeong-won in the red light district of Daejeong. He was a high-ranking courtesan, who had mostly entertained older men. Many of the clients of the Jeong-won have confirmed that the man had indeed worked at the brothel, and praised him for his superior intellect and witty charms. One man stated that –”

Kurapika’s hands tightened on the pages, enough to rip it at certain places. How did they know? How did they know? When was this published? Why had the Emperor not killed him yet, if everyone already knew? Of course, it would mean admitting he’d made an error in judgment and that just wouldn’t do. 

Did Leorio know? Did he believe them? Was that why Kurapika had sensed this rift between them?

“What is it?” Leorio asked, noticing how he’d tensed against him.

Ask him. Tell him. Let him know you, for once. “Nothing.” He kissed him lightly on the lips. “Something took me by surprise is all.”

“Right,” Leorio said, dragging the word out for too long, but then his hand was on his again and Kurapika knew he’d decided not to press him.  

. . . 

It was a foolish decision, but Kurapika stayed with Leorio for the night. Well, truly, he fell asleep in Leorio’s arms, which was why Kurapika blamed him entirely. He should’ve woken him up, rather than allowed him to stay in that comfortable embrace, Leorio’s hands stroking the top of his head as they lay on the floor.

And now! Now, he was in a hurry to return to his quarters, hoping, praying that no one had noticed, aware that his lips probably looked like they had been kissed and glad that Leorio had stopped them when he did. 

Palm was awoken first, as he stormed into her room. It was well-decorated, full of painted vases and mahogany furniture, and paper screens depicting lush landscapes. 

“Palm! I need to look presentable, and I need to look presentable now!” 

Palm held her comforter to her chest, quite startled. 

“I’ll wait outside.” He shut the doors to her bedroom, going through all the worst-case scenario of this miscalculation. He’d spent the night with Leorio in an abandoned house, after being seen walking around in broad daylight with him. All the Emperor would have to do was ask a few of the townspeople, ‘who was the local medical student walking around with?” and they’d give him a lush description of the young maid in her plain clothes and then Leorio would be killed. 

No, no, he needed to stay calm. He stopped pacing, taking a few deep breaths, looking up toward the ceiling.  

“Alright, Kurapika-nim. I’m ready,” Palm said, her arms full of clothes and make-up products. “Please take a seat at the table with the mirror.” 

Palm worked quickly, keeping in mind that if Kurapika was caught, she’d be caught as well, and the Emperor’s fury might evade Kurapika but it would hit her full-force. She washed his face clean, gave him his clothes from before he went off to visit Leorio, and then quickly braided his hair into something more fashionable. 

“Thank you, Palm! If anyone asks, tell them I fell asleep at the library!” 

Her face was still marred with concern, her hair matted and frizzy. She’d stayed up for most of the previous night, and it was entirely his fault. “I will.” 

He walked across the stone path to the Consort’s Palace, a strange buzzing in his ear. God, how could he have been so careless! The day was cool and quiet and just beginning but he could barely process anything as the time passed him by. Please. Please, please, please. 

He reached the corridor to his quarters, legs tired from running. Slowly, he evened out his breaths and collected himself, noting that not even Hanzo stood outside of his door and his guards were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps they were searching for him. Well, it didn’t matter who searched for him, as long as the Emperor didn’t hear of it.

He heard voices, and then two figures exited his room: Neon left first, hugging herself, walking around in just her white nightgown. Aiko followed her, stopped, and turned to face him, surprise parting her lips. 

“Kurapika,” she said, quietly.  

Neon spun on her heel. “Kurapika!” She ran towards him, arms out, and nestled into his embrace. 

He forced on his most easygoing smile. Thank goodness it was only them. “Girls. Is something wrong?”

“You didn’t come home last night,” Aiko said, approaching them with her arms crossed, clearly disappointed in him. “We were worried that something had happened to you. I thought we’d have to send a search party.”

“I must apologize then. I had fallen asleep in the library, and they must not have noticed. I’ll have to be more careful from now on.”

Another figure appeared in the doorway to his suite, clad in a tailored black hanbok, as usual, and his face was so stern and disapproving that Kurapika felt his stomach sink. Kurapika cast a quick glance toward the other consorts. ‘You called the Emperor for something like this?” he wanted to ask, but he couldn’t, not with the Emperor standing right there.

“Indeed you will.” He sounded tired, and a bit relieved, glad his puppet hadn’t completely loosened its strings.

Kurapika faced him fully and lowered his head. “Your Majesty.”

He felt a warm hand cup his chin, a gentle grip. For a moment, all he could hear was his own heart pounding in his ears. His throat had gone dry. ‘What will you do now, your Imperial Majesty? Now that I’ve embarrassed you once more.’ The Emperor closed the distance between them, embracing him, arms so tight around him Kurapika worried they’d bruise. 

“I’m glad you’re safe,” the Emperor whispered. His lips brushed his ear, kissed his temple. Then, he addressed the two women. “I’ll take it from here, girls.”

There was some hesitance in the way they lingered there, though Kurapika could not see them. Once the footsteps had gotten far enough away, the Emperor released him and took his wrist instead, guiding him into the suite. He let him go, closing the door behind them. There was nothing but silence, the Emperor’s back turned to him. Kurapika daren’t speak. 

“Sit down, my Prince.” The Emperor’s voice came out genial, as his arms swayed at his side. Kurapika didn’t move. “Sit down, Kurapika.” He wanted him to lower himself. That much Kurapika could tell. He was in no position to argue with him. 

He sat down in front of the table where he usually would eat, hating the way his cheeks heated. 

“If you wish to punish me, I suggest you get on with it.”

“I have no punishment suitable for you. Besides.” He faced Kurapika now. “We both know the best punishment for you is to not be punished at all.” 

Kurapika’s hands shook, and the Emperor covered them with his own, sitting down beside him. 

“What do you propose I do with you, then, my Prince?” He leaned in, lips brushing Kurapika’s. Kurapika backed away until he felt the edge of the table against his back. “I’ve heard so many interesting things from Hanzo about these past few months. Would you like me to share them with you?” His hand caressed his cheek. “Let’s start with your little trips into the Outer Palace, shall we?”

. End of Chapter .

Chapter Text

Playing Favorites: 

Chapter 29: 

The Consort’s Punishment

“What have you done to Hanzo?” 

“Why the sudden concern?” the Emperor asked. “After all, you’ve been putting him at risk for a good few months now. Did you really think you’d be able to get away with this?”

He had gotten away with it. 

“You’ve been going to visit Paladiknight.”

“Our encounters were completely innocent.” 

“I never implied that they weren’t,” the Emperor said. His thumb traced over Kurapika’s bottom lip. “Though you’re making me consider it.” He placed his head in the curve of Kurapika’s neck, forcing him to arch back. “His scent has been all over you since he’d arrived.”

“I spend time with him. That doesn’t mean I’m unfaithful.” Kurapika pushed the Emperor off of him. “He’s one of my closest friends, and he’s going through a stressful time right now. I wanted to be there for him. Besides, I haven’t just been gallivanting around with Leorio. I’ve been gauging the public’s opinion of me. I’m sure you’ve realized that the Palace is little more than an echo chamber.” 

He smiled widely. “Oh, have you now? Then why, in your infinite wisdom, have you decided to give more weight to their accusations by stealing away to the Outer Palace for days on end.” 

“I’ve never stayed out for more than a few hours,” Kurapika replied, moving to stand but the Emperor’s hand was tight on his wrist as he forced him back down. Really? “I’m being careful. I’ve been doing this for months. If they’d noticed they would’ve said something.”

“I should’ve shackled you here from the beginning.” The Emperor sighed, running a hand through his slicked back hair. “It only takes one person to realize you’re going out unattended for an assassination attempt to be carried out successfully. Once they track your movements back to the doctor, you’re in danger. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve already started plotting.”

Kurapika arched a brow. “You sound like you have a few suspects already.” 

“The Lotus Clan. They want you gone, either by death or by disgrace. Preferably both. Especially now.” He wasn’t looking at him anymore, his eyes distracted. Such concern. Kurapika had underestimated how valuable capturing Mother must be for him.

“Especially now?” 

The Emperor’s smile was bitter. “They thought I’d forsake you with their little report. It was rather eye-opening to hear the full story, since you’re so tight-lipped. I can’t say it was pleasant to deal with the fallout.”

“They think you’ve gone mad,” Kurapika said, wondering if this would sting as much as he wanted it to. “Like your father. How he forced the Queen to run away.”

Quiet settled between them, and the Emperor’s body was taut, aggression hiding somewhere in his muscles. A little more, then?

Kurapika smiled, moving closer to him, mocking as he leaned forward. Their eyes met. Kurapika wanted to see him break. He wanted it to hurt. “What did he do, your Majesty? Did he murder innocents the way you do? Come now, don’t be so tongue-tied. Did he hurt her terribly? She must’ve hated you, seeing that you look just like him –”

Oh, it hurt alright. His body ached where it hit the wooden floor. The bruising would be unfortunate, but right now all he could do was let a giddy laughter bubble up in his throat. The Emperor had him pinned down, hands tight on Kurapika’s shoulders as he straddled his hips. It wasn’t wholly unpleasant, but his nails dug into Kurapika’s skin hard enough to form bloody scratches. Kurapika covered his eyes with his arm, his lungs throbbing from the fit of laughter. 

Checkmate. He should’ve done this sooner. Learning more about the Emperor certainly presented a potential psychological barrier in killing him off eventually, but by the Gods, it was worth it to see the pain in his eyes. 

“So, are the rumors true?” Kurapika continued, stroking the hand on his shoulder. The other arm was splayed above his head. Had the situation been different, it would’ve been quite erotic: The Emperor restraining him, on top of him, and Kurapika could feel him. He always wanted too much when it came to the Emperor. “Did you kill your own father? Your little Oedipal complex. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you feel nothing when killing others. You really are just a simple beast in human’s clothing.”

One hand reached up to press against his throat, and Kurapika choked out another laugh. The Emperor clearly had good self-control. Who knew what he wanted to do to him right now? ‘I’ve finally made you lose your cool.’ How much further could he take him?

“You’re walking a fine line, Kurapika,” he told him. It was a warning and a fear. Could it be? His Majesty was worried what he might do to him?

Kurapika touched the hand on his throat. It relaxed. “And what will you do when I cross it. You’ve already proven you can’t hurt me in any way. You can’t hurt Leorio, because I would off myself. You want me on your side, don’t you? You want me, in the same way those men did. I’m yours.” Kurapika smiled at the shift in Kuroro’s expression, suddenly ravenous. That. That Kurapika knew how to deal with. “That’s the only thing that would satisfy you, isn’t it, Kuroro .”  

Let’s go all out then.

“Me, your obedient servant. A professor at the Academy, though I’d bet you’d love to have me stay as your Consort. Yours , in every sense.” If he didn’t know better, he would’ve sworn lust had shown its face in the Emperor’s visage. “But I already belong to somebody. I make love to him, I let him hold me, I’d place my life in his hands, my loyalties lie with him. I’m his, entirely.”

“And yet.” The Emperor raked one hand over Kurapika’s torso. Kurapika kept back a shiver. “It’s not enough for you. I suppose certain things never change.”

He’s calling me a whore. Kurapika knew all the different ameliorations too well.

“Yes,” Kurapika said. “I sold myself as the Golden Chrysanthemum, and now I regularly make love to someone who isn’t you, my darling husband. I’m unfaithful through and through. But at least I’m not a murderer.”

The Emperor’s expression turned fond suddenly, away from the clear-cut envy he’d worn previously. “Not yet.” His hand caressed Kurapika’s cheek, a loving, gentle touch. No, I don’t want this. This warmth, it was unbearable. “My little Prince. You’ve belonged to me since the moment you decided to go on your vendetta. How long has it been now? Five years? Five years, and all the rest of them too. You’ll belong to me for that long, whether I’m alive or dead. You will never forget me. Your dreams have been haunted with visions of my death, even as you’ve slept by his side. And now, they’ll be filled with visions of our love, and I will drive you mad, my dear Prince.” 

There was a hand at the back of his head, fingers tightening around his hair. Kurapika opened his mouth to let out a yelp, and then he felt lips on his and it was all too much again. The scent of sandalwood incense, clingy hands on his hips, angered customers after seeing him with other men, the pain and soreness, the fucking humiliation of it all. Kurapika gasped, as they parted, his mouth dirty with the sweet flavor of the Emperor’s tongue inside of it. He couldn’t breathe suddenly, his body aching with panic as he took short, shallow breaths. The Emperor kissed him again, invasive and forceful as he pulled at his hair, going deeper and deeper, and Kurapika let out a small whimper. Weak. Pathetic. 

“Kurapika.” The Emperor’s voice reached him, free of that jeering tone, his arms around him. “Just listen to my voice. Do you want me to let go?” 

Kurapika shook his head, because the scent of cloves and parchment was too comforting. His hands clutched the front of the Emperor’s clothes, wrinkling the flawless black cloth. He couldn’t fill up his lungs with enough air, feeling dazed and oversensitive all at once. There were birds outside, their voices ringing in his ears. 

“I’m sorry,” the Emperor murmured, still holding him close as he started to return to his senses. “I’ve hurt you again.” 

As his panic settled, his exhaustion returned, and he sank into the Emperor’s body, sitting between his legs, his face buried in the dark fabric over the Emperor’s shoulder. The scratches on his own shoulders were starting to burn a little, his back aching all over, the place where his head hit the floor tender now as the Emperor ran his fingers over it. 

Kurapika pulled away, rather suddenly, and the Emperor did nothing but watch. When Kurapika stood, he stood with him, reaching for him, and Kurapika backed away. 

“Let me see,” the Emperor said, reaching for his shoulders. Kurapika forced himself to stay still, as the Emperor first peeled off his light blue outer garment, and then his white undershirt. Warm hands grazed over the sensitive points of his back. Kurapika glanced down at his shoulders, bruised and an ugly red where they’d been scratched, but he hadn’t broken the skin. “Tell me if there’s anything that hurts.”

“It’s just sore, that’s all,” Kurapika said, shivering now that his skin was exposed to the cold air in his suite. He took a few steps forward, dragging his undershirt up his arms and over his shoulders, tying the knot, and proceeding to do the same thing with his outer garment. He turned back to the Emperor, who watched him too closely, worry creasing his handsome face. ‘Careful,’ Kurapika wanted to say, ‘or you’ll lose your only redeeming quality.’ “Don’t look so concerned. I’m your enemy, after all. We’re supposed to hurt one another.” 

The Emperor tilted his head to the side, lips pouting as if the confusion bothered him immensely. “I am your enemy, my Prince. But you are my husband.”

Kurapika tied the ribbon of his outer garment into a neat knot. “I’m your consort. That’s no loving marriage, nor a partnership. It’s a way for you to get as many heirs as possible. Although, I suppose you can’t get that from me. So, I suppose I’m what I was before: A prostitute. I even get a title. Though I suppose Royal Noble Consort Sowon doesn’t flow off the tongue as well as the Golden Chrysanthemum.”

“A partnership,” the Emperor repeated, seemingly ignoring all his other valuable feedback. “Indeed, I suppose I have kept you out of the spotlight for a long time. It must’ve become dull.” The Emperor walked closer to him, prowling toward him. “Have you gotten bored here, my Prince?” 

A coil of dread unraveled inside of his chest, expanding inside of him. Oh dear. This side of the Emperor, he couldn’t deal with very well. 

“My love.” My, my, my. His persistent use of possessives was getting on Kurapika’s nerves. “If it’s a partnership you want.” The Emperor took Kurapika’s hand in his own, pressing his lips to his knuckles. It was warm, slightly ticklish, and wholly unnecessary, but Kurapika’s cheeks felt hot all of a sudden. “Then a partnership is what you will get.”

“Elaborate.” 

And the Emperor would have responded had the thundering footfalls outdoors not interrupted them. A moment later and the doors were shoved aside to reveal the Emperor’s largest advisor, Uvogin. 

“Uvo,” the Emperor said, cheerfully. “I’m glad you could make it on such a short notice. Kurapika has just been lamenting some of his recent concerns pertaining to our relationship.” He intertwined their hands, drawing Kurapika closer to him. “So, I’ve decided we should spend some time building our partnership as royals. He’ll be joining us for our mission to Chasjib.” 

Uvo narrowed his eyes. “You two get into a fight or something?”

There was nothing to be done at that point. Kurapika couldn’t turn into his consort persona and play along, nor could he unleash the fury inside of him, and so all that managed to leave his mouth was a quiet, “what?” 

“There’s been an unexplained outbreak of illness all over the country. We suspect foul play, so we’re going back to the source. And, of course, you’ll be coming with us.”

“For how long?” Kurapika asked. 

“As long as it takes,” The Emperor replied, smiling wider. He placed a kiss on Kurapika’s temple, squeezing his shoulder as he pulled him into an embrace, making Kurapika wince as he pressed against a particularly tender place. Whether it was intentional or not, Kurapika chose to believe it was. “We leave tomorrow.” 

He released him, and Kurapika moved to put distance between them. The Emperor walked to his advisor, a man much taller than he. Uvogin stared down at him. 

“I’ll leave him to you for now,” the Emperor said. “Oh.” He looked to Kurapika. “I suppose now that you’re being watched by Uvo, you won’t be able to see your doctor anymore. I’ll let him know what the situation is, so he doesn’t get any wrong ideas.”

Kurapika would’ve followed him out the door if not for Uvo, who stopped him with one giant arm latched around his waist. If he had resisted, Kurapika was certain Uvo would’ve lifted him off the ground just as easily. 

“Calm down, kid,” he said. “He’s just messing with you.” 

“Just because he’s messing with me, doesn’t mean he’s not about to hurt my … friend.”

“The boss is too busy to deal with the fallout of something like that,” Uvo said, releasing him. 

“Fallout?” 

“You, being even more pissed at him than you usually are.” 

Kurapika frowned, stepping away from him. He hardly interacted with Uvogin before now. “How do you know that?”

“We’re not just his advisors, y’know,” Uvo said. “We were his friends before we even got to the Palace. He talks about you a lot. Well, a lot for him.”

Kurapika looked him up and down. He certainly didn’t act like he knew who Kurapika was, what he planned to do to his ‘boss’. “I see. What else has he told you?” 

“Eh, curious, aren’t you? Why don’t you ask him yourself? You’ll probably be in close quarters for the next few weeks.” 

He didn’t like asking the Emperor things. Especially not when he was in such a precarious situation. Now he didn’t even have his anchor to hold him down, and the Emperor has sworn to make him fall, probably sometime during their journey outside of the Palace. Kurapika glanced up at Uvo. There was no way of getting past him. Even if he did return to the Palace soon, meeting Leorio would be out of the question. 

“I’m not that curious,” Kurapika said, no longer facing Uvo as he walked to his bedroom, hidden behind a screen. “I do believe it’s proper etiquette for guards to stay out of the quarters of the people they’re guarding.” 

Uvo laughed. “I can take a hint, kid. Scream if you’re attacked.”

“Will do.” Kurapika pushed the screen back into place and walked to lay in his bed, eyes tracing the watercolor patterns on the ceiling. What happened to Hanzo? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know, or maybe he did, just to remind himself who the Emperor is.

“I am your enemy, my Prince. But you are my husband.”

Kurapika turned onto his side. Husband. Please. He must think of him as an enemy. He must since he knew what Kurapika wanted from him. 

Not that the Emperor actually loving him would be terribly inconvenient. He’d planned for the Emperor to fall in love with him from the beginning. Yes, Kurapika had planned for a lot of things. The first night, the Emperor was supposed to come to his chambers, and for completely different reasons than those that he had come with. The control should’ve been with Kurapika the entire time, as he slowly seduced the Emperor. If his personality hadn’t won him over, his passion and sexual prowess would’ve closed the gaps. And then, just a sprig of poison in the Emperor’s drink. It wouldn’t be real love anyways. The Emperor’s love was meant to be twisted and lustful. 

Instead, he’d gotten this son of a bitch, proclaiming that Kurapika would fall in love with him. Kurapika should’ve killed him earlier. He had hidden tiny vials all over his body and his bedroom. He could’ve used one and damned the consequences.

Circles. He was just going around in circles. He’d think more clearly after a bath. 

...

The Outer Palace was lively this morning, the sun hot on the stone paths and the paneled roofs. Kuroro walked amongst his subjects, alone for once. No one spared him a glance. Most of them knew what the Emperor looked like, but no one expected to see him here, solitary, dressed as a statesman. Usually, Kuroro preferred to take one of his advisors along with him. It was safer and he liked the company, but today, he had some private matters to attend to. 

There. Kurapika’s lover sat on the porch of an abandoned hanok, cross-legged and pouring over medical texts. His glasses had slid down the bridge of his nose, and he fixed them, still ignorant to Kuroro’s arrival. A brown paper bag sat next to him, and he mindlessly reached for it, eyes transfixed on the texts. 

“Expecting someone?” Kuroro said, keeping his tone light as he leaned against the wall of the hanok. Leorio gaped at him, and then scrambled to his feet, the text falling from his lap. “No need to be so startled.”

Leorio bowed. “Your Majesty.” 

Kuroro placed a hand on his shoulder. The hand slipped away as he passed him. “Come, Leorio. Let’s talk inside. The weather has grown too hot for my liking.” 

“What, are you gonna melt in the sun or something?” Leorio murmured. He followed Kuroro inside and Kuroro made himself at home, surveying the interior. It was partially furnished, with a small desk in the middle of the room, and expensive-looking screens near the walls. Tsk, the original owners should’ve donated those before leaving. Two cushions were situated around the desk. Nearby, a crate of old periodicals lay abandoned. 

“You had a guest, I see.” 

“Uh, yeah, just a buddy of mine. We were studying.” 

Kuroro met his eyes and smiled. “You’re a terrible liar.” 

“Huh?”

“My Consort went missing early yesterday morning,” Kuroro said, flipping through one of the periodicals. “We questioned his guard. Just some light interrogation. He had some interesting insights. From there, it wasn’t difficult to put the pieces together.” Kuroro found two portraits of Kurapika, close together, the colors dulled now. One depicted him as he was now, Kuroro’s Consort, his favorite. The other had him draped in the silks of the brothel he’d worked at, a chrysanthemum crawling out from the space between his ear and his scalp, his face painted in vibrant colors. Absentmindedly, Kuroro brushed his thumb over the portraits. He should’ve followed Yuka’s advice and taken Kurapika out of that place. How different their situations would be now. Perhaps he would’ve already found Kurapika’s Mother. Kurapika would be his loyal scholar, his anger funneled toward a more suitable target. 

“We’re just friends,” Leorio said. 

Kuroro continued to flip through the pages. The glee in the author’s words as they described Kurapika’s past was just a tad disconcerting. As if they couldn’t wait for Kuroro to force him out of the Palace. They’d have to try harder than that to force Kuroro’s hand, though. His little Prince was far more valuable than they could’ve ever imagined.

“That’s not what he said this morning,” Kuroro said, tossing the periodical back in the crate. 

“What?” 

“Don’t take it too hard.” Kuroro wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword. “You know how he gets when he’s angry. So reckless.” Kuroro shrugged. “Besides, I knew about your … interests in one another from the start. I just didn’t expect you to parade it around so obviously.” He turned away again, opening one of the doors that led to the main bedrooms. “That you’d do it in someone else’s bed. I suppose I can’t assume anything more from such an affair.” 

“We haven’t.”

“Hmm?”

“We haven’t had sex yet.”

So … you lied to me, my dear Prince?’ Just to anger him, too. 

“Even so.” Kuroro shut the door with hardly a sound. “I’m sure you understand the dangers that such an affair would bring to my Consort, especially considering his past. It wouldn’t take much for people to put the pieces together. Even I won’t be able to protect him if you’re discovered.” Kuroro sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and index finger. “I’m not opposed to Kurapika having people he can rely on outside of the Inner Palace. Your friendship is clearly important to him. But that’s all it can venture to be.” 

“His past?” Leorio repeated. 

It took Kuroro a moment to understand the implication. Oh my. He wanted to laugh. He hasn’t told you?

“You don’t know?” Kuroro said, carefully lacing concern into his words. “I apologize. I had expected you two to be closer.” 

Leorio’s fists clenched. This would be easier than Kuroro had ever hoped. 

“Well.” Kuroro knelt down next to the crate and tossed one of the periodicals to Leorio. “You should read more. Some of it is quite accurate.” He stood up with a sigh. “Though, of course, it’s up to you.” 

The newspaper shook in Leorio’s hands, and then he sent it hurling back at Kuroro, who caught it easily. 

“Piss off, bastard.” 

Kuroro pouted. He found he quite enjoyed making Kurapika’s little lover upset. “I know where I’m not wanted. Even after all the advice I gave, tsk, tsk. I could just chop your head off, you know.” Kuroro put his hand on the side of his neck, thumb stroking the place where bones jutted out when you pressed. “Truly, I’m too considerate.” For a brief second, he indulged himself, imagining the satisfying crunch beneath his hands as the bone shattered, some pieces of white, curved bone poking out of their fleshy prison. And then he imagined Kurapika’s face when he found his lover laid out before him with a bloody neck and no pulse. Kurapika would collapse into Kuroro, so shell-shocked he’d forget who he was holding onto. 

‘I’d end myself before you could.’

Kurapika, cold and corpse-like in Kuroro’s arms, finally out of his reach. Leorio choked underneath his tightening grip.

Kuroro let him go, forcing the newspaper back into his hands. He began to walk away. “Don’t put him in this sort of danger again. Contrary to what you might think, I’m actually quite fond of you, Leorio.”

Leorio cleared his throat and when he spoke, his voice came out creaky. “Try telling that to him.”

You think I haven’t tried?

...

Kurapika awoke early the next morning before the sun even dared to come up. His sleep had not been a restful one and he got up sore with fatigue, or maybe those were just the bruises. He’d gone to talk to Hanzo the night before, finding Uvogin strangely accommodating in that regard. Hanzo had been kept in one of those drafty, dank prison cells Pairo had spent an hour or two in. They hadn’t bothered giving him a change of clothes either, letting the blood dry on him. For a second, Kurapika worried he might be dead in there, lying on his side with long gashes down his back, but then he saw the heavy breathing of a man in much pain but under no threat of death. The wind grew colder, as it made its way into the crevices of Kurapika’s robes, so pristine amongst the dirt and the blood of the prison cells. He wondered what they’d done to Hanzo, to render such a gregarious man silent. In the dim light, he could see only the criss-cross lines of a whip hitting his skin. 

Kurapika tightened his grip on the box of medical supplies in his hands. He’d never liked Hanzo all that much, and after the way he’d tortured Gon, he might’ve enjoyed punishing him a bit. Not like this, though. “Sit up. If you still can.” 

The breathing slowed, suddenly, and then Hanzo let out a snort. “Yes. Your Highness.” 

It took a little under half an hour for Kurapika to clean out all the stinging cuts on his body. As he had suspected, the man’s legs had been crushed. It was such an excessive reaction to such a small crime, befitting the Emperor in Kurapika’s mind. His enemy, so impossibly cruel.

He wouldn’t visit Hanzo again. Just hold tight to the memories of how the Emperor brutally tortured a young man (though, of course, he didn’t know if it had been the Emperor doing the torturing). Never mind who that young man was. He let the memories keep him up at night, and let the knowledge of his rage soothe him.

. . .

“Rise and shine, sleeping beauty!” Uvogin’s booming voice shook him from his reverie, as it had shaken from his few hours of sleep a few minutes prior. “We’re not gonna be late on my watch!” 

Maybe Hanzo wasn’t such a bad guy, after all. 

Kurapika clutched his blanket to his chest, watching Uvo with what he hoped was a look of disgust. Someone needed to teach this man the concept of privacy.

“When the Emperor said we’d be leaving in the morning, I don’t think this is what he had in mind.” 

Uvo threw a small scroll at him. Upon unraveling it, Kurapika found his entire schedule for the next week or so already planned out. 

“When did you …”

“I need to kill time somehow while I’m stuck outside your bedroom, Highness.” 

His eyes skimmed the characters scrawled across the page. ‘ 4:30 AM, Get ready to leave. 5:30 AM, get to the Boss. 5:45 AM leave the Palace. 12:00 PM get attacked by bandits, probably. 3:00 PM, eat lunch. 4:00 PM, get back on the horse. 7:00 PM, eat dinner. 9:00 PM, spend quality time with the Boss.’ There were smaller notes, further detailing the ways in which he should spend his time. Even his attendant, Linssen, wasn’t this fussy about time. 

Kurapika put down the scroll with a sigh, eyes falling shut. “Very well.” His bare feet pressed against the cool floor. He stood, slightly off-balance and wobbly on his legs. “I’m going to bathe. Call the servants in.” 

“Heh? You’re just as bossy as the Boss.”

For a brief moment, Kurapika fixed him with a sharp glare. He couldn’t say anything though, in case his vitriol came off too strong. Instead, he walked into the bathroom, certain that it would provide an escape from the boorish man. As he waited for the bath to fill, he slipped his shirt off of his shoulders. They were still sore from his previous encounter with the Emperor, but the redness had made way for patches of bruises instead. At least they wouldn’t leave a mark. Kurapika had put too much care into the wellbeing of his skin to have it be marred by something like this. He couldn’t afford to be anything less than flawless in the eyes of these people. 

...

The air was cool and fresh and filled with birdsong. A blurred streak of pink and gold rose into the fading darkness behind the buildings and treetops. The morning spilled out, beautiful in its pastels, but Kurapika could hardly garner the energy to be awed by it. He’d seen dawns before and he’d see them again. 

Uvo led him to the gates of the Inner Palace, their shadows long underneath them, marrying the stone paths and grassy lawns of the courtyards. At the gate, there were already several people gathered. Among them was the Emperor, sparring with one of his advisors, though the advisor’s name escaped him. He stood taller than the Emperor, and wore his long, black hair in a strange-looking topknot. Nothing adorned his feet, leaving them bare as he lunged from stone to grass. 

For a moment, the metal scraping of the sword rang solitary, and then Uvo shouted, “Who said you could get the party started without me?” 

Both men turned to them, pausing in their sparring. They straightened, their swords hanging at their sides. It didn’t take long for the Emperor to fix his gaze on Kurapika, and when their eyes met, the Emperor grinned more widely than was necessary. 

“Ah, Uvo,” Shalnark said, peering over the saddle of one of the horses they were preparing. There were 6 in total, one for each member, apart from Uvogin and Franklin. Servants scrambled around the horses, packing luggage for the road. Shalnark approached them and Uvo’s expression changed, not by much, just the softening of the eyes and the loosening of that monstrous grin into something fonder. Shalnark’s smile was as bright as ever. “You’re late. For once.”

“You can blame the boss for that,” Uvogin said, putting one massive arm around Shalnark. He really was a giant of a man, towering over everyone at the Palace gates and even over a few trees as well. The power in his bare hands alone must be frightening. Kurapika wouldn’t want to be on the other side of that man’s blows. 

A cool hand presses against his bruised shoulder, bringing him closer to a figure in black. The scent of cloves and old parchment fill his body. The Emperor had somehow sneaked up behind him, and now his lips were near his ear, breath warm and moist. 

“Good morning, my Prince,” the Emperor whispered. ‘He hadn’t even broken a sweat from the sparring.’ Kurapika supposed he shouldn’t even be surprised at this point. 

Kurapika saw the servants glancing at them, and so he let his muscles loosen and his body weave into the Emperor’s, ignoring the soreness in his body as he did so. The Emperor’s heart drummed against him. A peek over his shoulder confirmed that the servants had turned away, embarrassed to have seen such an intimate moment. 

“You overdressed,” the Emperor said, still holding him close, one hand pulling at the back of his jacket. 

“Would you like me to take it off?” Kurapika asked, tone a bit irate. “How far is this village, that you need me to awaken at such an hour?”

“It’s three days away. On horseback,” the Emperor replied. “You do know how to ride a horse, don’t you?”

Everything became still for a moment, as Kurapika realized that he, in fact, did not know how to ride a horse. His whole life he’d gotten by on foot for the most part. Horse-back riding had never made it into his repertoire. He certainly wasn’t going to admit it, however. Instead, he fixed his eyes on the Emperor, not sure if the strange feeling in his chest was from embarrassment or annoyance.

There was a derisive edge to his smile then, Kurapika was certain. He was laughing at him. “I see. Well then …” The Emperor leaned in for good measure, smiling all the way, gleeful in the misery he would inevitably cause Kurapika. “It seems we’ll be in even closer quarters than I’d expected. My little Prince. Front or back?”

“What?” 

“Taeyang-Dal can carry both of us, easily,” the Emperor said. A tall black stallion nudged the Emperor’s shoulder, asking for attention. He responded by rubbing the stallion’s neck, his eyes never straying from Kurapika. “So, would you like to ride in the front or the back?”

‘I’d like to not have to ride with you at all.’

Kurapika refused to respond, crossing his arms. He would not be subjected to such humiliation. The Emperor would be in complete control then. He would decide how long Kurapika would be beside him, what proximity he would be forced to endure, what sorts of things he’d have to listen to. No, he had to figure out some way to remove himself from the situation.

Time was not a luxury he could afford, however. The Emperor closed the gap between them in an instance, tugging him to his chest with one arm around Kurapika’s shoulders. Now he was certain the Emperor’s grip was turning painful purposefully, his hands finding the most sensitive of spots, one of them weaving back into his hair as they had done yesterday. His lips grazed his ear. “You either do what I ask, or I knock you out now and you wake up in whatever position you find yourself in.”

The thought of being unconscious for any amount of time was unpleasant. More so when it was his enemy doing so. He’d rather have his wits about him. 

The Emperor tugged lightly on his hair. Answer. 

“Front.” He was certain if he had to ride in the back he would simply fall off. Having the Emperor behind him, as much as he hated to believe it, would put him at ease. 

The Emperor seemed pleased with his answer, his grip loosening. “Alright. I’ll help you up.”

It didn’t take long for Kurapika to get on the horse, but it was enough time to realize that the Emperor was being annoyingly touchy today. He couldn’t seem to keep his hands off Kurapika. Judging from the way he smiled every time Kurapika cast a glare at him, it was intentional. Now, he stared down at him from on top of the horse, feeling unsteady and inexperienced and just wishing the Emperor would get on with it and settle in his spot behind him already since he’d wanted Kurapika so close in the first place.

Then he hauled himself onto the horse much more gracefully than Kurapika had. The Emperor pulled him closer, so his back was against his torso. He lightly tapped the stallion’s sides, clicking his tongue. The horse began to move, obedient. 

“Let’s move out.” The Emperor’s announcement alerted the rest of his advisors. Machi, Nobu, and Shalnark all mounted their horses. At a steady pace, the Emperor led his party out of the Inner Palace. This would be Kurapika’s first trip outside of the Palace since he’d arrived, and he’d be lying if he said it didn’t come as a bit of a relief. 

He leaned into the Emperor’s chest. He had some questions for him, most of them concerning Leorio. Those could wait until they weren’t confined to such close proximity. 

. End of Chapter .