"You really should try to eat something, High Lord," Ishaya said.
Kaori closed his eyes. The smell of the food—while undoubtedly well-prepared and mouth-watering—was making him feel ill. But if he hadn't eaten all day, then neither had Hunter. And Hunter would not eat before he did; not out of a misguided overabundance of fealty, but because he was as much of a mother hen as Ishaya was.
Reluctantly, he selected a plate of light crackers and cheeses, adding a pile of thin-sliced veal at Haku's insistence. The food clung to his throat when he tried to swallow, without any taste at all. He nodded gratefully when Haku handed him a cup of spiced wine to wash it down with.
"You, too," he said, frowning in Hunter's direction. "Don't tell me you aren't hungry."
Hunter made no move to accept the offer. "I want to be sure you have enough to eat first," he said. "You need—"
"There's more than enough here to feed all of us if we want it, and half the grounds staff besides. Eat, damn you."
A small smile touched Hunter's face as he slid down to sit at Kaori's other side and reached for a plate, piling it high with sliced veal and fruit. "If you insist." There was an ironic twist to the words.
The familiar byplay made something inside Kaori's chest loosen. Hunter, at least, wasn't treating him any differently because his father had died. Taking comfort from the shoulder brushing so warmly against his, he finally found the courage to look up and meet Ishaya's eyes.
"There are probably things I need to know," he said. The words felt heavy in his mouth. "Affairs of state, or... something." He felt lost.
Ishaya smiled kindly at him. "There's no need for you to worry about that tonight, High Lord." His eyes were soft. "Rest assured that all is running as it should within your kingdom. For tonight, at least, you have no responsibilities other than spending time with your friend."
"I'd like to hear about that university in Gyre," Haku said, selecting a grape from the platter and taking a slow bite from it. "What was it like, living over there? Was it horrible?"
"No, it wasn't horrible at all. Gyre is really a wonderful place. Let me tell you about the campus where I was living...." Kaori was glad for the delay in having to face his new reality for that much longer. He felt more relaxed now as he talked about the country he had spent the past three years visiting, the things he'd learned there, the culture, the language, the people. In return, Haku told him about the trials he'd passed in order to become a member of the Palace Guard, and some of the campaigns he'd been on. Kaori was unsettled to realize that his friend had significant battle experience now, and had even killed on occasion, when it had become necessary. That image jarred discordantly with the image of the childhood companion he carried around in his mind's eye. In many ways, this new Haku seemed a stranger to Kaori; the thought made him feel sad. But time moved on, and people changed. That was the way of the world.
At length, he began to feel quite sleepy. He realized with some surprise that he had eaten more than he thought he'd be able to.
"Your room has been prepared," Ishaya said, drawing his attention, "if you'd like to retire for the night."
Kaori caught himself in the middle of another yawn and ducked his head embarrassedly. He really was very tired. The thought of going to sleep as if nothing untoward had happened disturbed him, but at the same time he wanted it desperately, wanted the dark and the temporary oblivion it offered.
"Yes," he said, sighing. "I think I'd better." He smiled, feeling very much aware of his friends sitting around him like a balustrade, like armor, sitting with him so he wouldn't have to be alone on this night of all nights. "Thank you."
He got up to walk out of the room, but stopped before he reached the doorway. Turning around, he met Haku's eyes and asked, "Did my father suffer at all?"
Haku hesitated before replying. "It wasn't easy for him," he said at last. "But what is, in this life?"
Ishaya leaned forward in agitation. "Haku!" he said sharply, with a disapproving frown. "There was no reason for him to know—"
Haku shrugged, unimpressed by the other man's ire. "We shouldn't get into the habit of lying to him. Life is hard, and it's only going to get harder." He glanced in Kaori's direction, his gaze contemplative. "Especially for him."
The words sent a wave of coldness washing through Kaori, but he nodded agreeably enough. "Thank you, Haku." Feeling numb, he left the room.
He'd taken nearly five full steps before he realized that Hunter had fallen in beside him. Glancing at the man irritably, he said, "You'd better get some sleep, too."
"Of course." Hunter's tone was nonchalant. It occurred to Kaori that he'd never once seen the other man sleep. He just always seemed to be there, watching over him.
"Seriously, Hunter." That thought worried him, for some reason. "I don't think you have to worry about anyone trying to assassinate me here in the palace tonight."
"No," Hunter said agreeably. "You should be safe enough here."
"So get some rest. Please."
Hunter's eyes were extraordinarily dark when they looked at him. For the first time, Kaori wondered if he was mourning Akashi's passing, too. Had the two of them been close at all? They must have been, for Akashi to have assigned Hunter the task of protecting his only heir.
"I will," Hunter said after a moment's pause. "Promise me you'll get some sleep as well. Don't just lie awake, worrying."
It had been nearly three years since Kaori had last slept in a room alone. Having a roommate had been troublesome for him at first, but he'd swiftly grown accustomed to the sound of another breath in the darkness next to his own. All of a sudden, he missed Ben so poignantly it brought a physical ache to his chest.
"Yes," he said, wondering if he sounded half as insincere as he felt. "I promise."
They walked in silence the rest of the way to Kaori's room. At this hour, there was no one else out and about in the corridors. The emptiness of the palace was unsettling, as if it were inhabited by nothing more than ghosts, or memories. Kaori wasn't sure which of the two would be worse.
He paused outside the door to his bedroom when he reached it, staring hard at the elaborate whorls etched into the polished wood. At his side Hunter waited patiently, as if sensing that he needed to find the courage to speak.
"Everything's changed," he said at last. There was no one else he could have made such an admission to, not even Haku. "And I don't think... I don't think I can be what they need from me."
"Nonsense." Hunter's tone was kind. "You've spent the past three years—nearly four—studying politics and economic stratagems. You're already more educated than your father ever hoped of being."
"My father was a great warrior."
"It takes more than war to rule a country."
"I'm too young. The lords of the council are going to laugh at me if I try to tell them what to do."
"I assure you they won't."
"They'll be right to. I don't know anything. I mean, I do, but it's all book knowledge. I don't know anything about their fears, about the issues they're facing."
"You'll learn. The important thing to remember is that you aren't alone. We're all here for you, and we're rooting for you. We'll help you all that we can."
Hunter. Haku. Ishaya. Kaori smiled slightly at that reminder. "I'm probably going to fall on my ass."
The corner of Hunter's mouth curled upward. "If you do, you'll pick yourself up again. You'll make mistakes, you'll learn from them, and life will go on. Your father made more than his fair share of them."
That made Kaori raise his head, surprise widening his eyes. The thought that his father might have been fallible rocked the foundations of his world.
After a moment, he asked, "Do you miss him?"
For a moment, it didn't look as if Hunter was going to answer. Then he turned away with a small sigh, so soft Kaori almost couldn't hear it.
"I think you have the potential to be a far greater ruler than your father ever had a hope of being," he said, without looking at Kaori's eyes. "I think people are going to assume, at first, that you might be just like him... and that they'll be pleasantly surprised when they find out you're not."
Kaori turned those last statements over in his head and tried to determine if, taken as a whole, they amounted to a compliment for him, or for his father. He decided he was too tired to come to a coherent conclusion and that he'd do best to just let it go for now.
He slid the fingers of one hand over the surface of his door, feeling the familiar warmth of it slide in through his skin. "Promise me," he said, staring down at his hand. "Promise me... you aren't going to change. Promise me you'll never treat me any differently because of... of what I am."
Hunter turned to look at him then, surprise at the words tightening the skin between his brows. A moment later, his expression softened. "Is that an order, High Lord?"
Kaori frowned. "No. It's not. It's only a request."
Hunter nodded seriously. "Then unfortunately, I'm going to have to decline. I can't promise never to change. I don't know anyone who could do that." When Kaori opened his mouth to speak, he said, "But I will promise always to treat you as I have in the past."
"Like an obsessive mother hen, you mean," Kaori said, subsiding with a grin.
"If you'd like to think of it that way." Hunter's eyes sparkled. "But seriously, Kaori. You don't have anything to worry about. No matter what happens, I'll always be by your side."
It was ridiculous, how much comfort that promise gave him. Kaori was struck by the sudden urge to ask the other man to go into his bedroom with him, just so he wouldn't have to sleep alone.
Flustered, he turned back toward his door. "Go get some sleep, then. You promised."
"I did." Hunter lifted a hand and ruffled Kaori's hair, his palm settling in a warm, heavy weight on the top of his scalp. "You go to sleep, too."
Kaori repressed a shiver. "I told you I would." He pushed open the door and stepped into his room, feeling strangely bereft when the other man's hand fell away from his hair.
He didn't look back when he closed the door.