Old story with new editing to make it more palatable.
This little fic was written in an evening. A continuation of the episode where Miaka and the Seishi meet Houki for the first time (episode 45, I think).
I've always felt that the characters never showed enough of a reaction to Houki in regards to her being Hotohori's wife, especially Miaka. It had to have thrown her to find that the gorgeous emperor who insisted he was in love with her had suddenly got himself a new wife. So, this is just my inner musings to her (and his) thoughts and feelings during that time.
Not really AU as it does follow canon. More of a (very) slight divergence from the plot.
It was good to be home.
She didn't know when she had come to think of Konan as home, but the statement held true, nonetheless. How long had she been there, now? A month? Two? An entire year? Or maybe an eternity. She honestly wasn't sure. It was really just a matter of hours in her own world, she thought, or maybe it was only the span of time it took for Keisuke to read a single page of the Book.
"I wonder how he feels about all of this," she murmured as she leaned over the railing of the gazebo and gazed into the water below. She watched as exotic fish darted in flashes of red, black and gold to snatch the unsuspecting water bugs that skimmed across the surface. She felt sorry for her older brother, knowing what he must be suffering, having to read every detail of her "adventures". She smiled grimly, imagining his reactions to some of the things that had happened to her and her Seishi so far.
Tamahome, under the curse of the Kodoku, attempting to kill her.
The first failed summoning and Amiboshi's death.
Tamahome's family … slaughtered.
Nuriko and Chiriko's tragic deaths and her near-rape at first Nakago's, then Tomo's, hands.
And now … and now…
Her reflection broke apart as a drop of moisture fell into the water with a soft plip, spread wavering rings outward until they vanished in the dying sunlight that glimmered across the surface. It's starting to rain, she thought, knowing very well it had not been a raindrop to cause those ripples. "Yui-chan," she whispered and raised a shaking hand to wipe more tears from her eyes. Have I lost you forever…?
Startled at the unexpected voice, she abruptly straightened and scrubbed at her eyes with her sleeve, embarrassed to be caught crying. Again. Had it been Tamahome it wouldn't have mattered so much, but the soft, deep voice was not his and the last thing she wanted was for Hotohori to see her bawling like a lost child. "I-I'm sorry. I didn't realize you were there," she stammered, hoping against hope that her eyes weren't as swollen as they felt or her nose wasn't running too badly, like it always did when she cried.
When Hotohori had arrived at the gazebo and noticed his beloved Miko at the railing, he hesitated, unsure whether or not he should leave her alone. He knew she had left the others to be by herself for a while; Tamahome had been grousing for the last fifteen minutes about how she wouldn't even let him go with her. But then he saw her wipe at her eyes and recognized the signs of her grief and his heart refused to listen to his head any longer. "What is the matter, Miaka?" he asked softly, moving closer to her.
She managed a cheery smile and a lighthearted shrug, but she wasn't fooling him in the least and she knew it. Her shoulders slumped again and her hazel gaze dropped from his own as she fought to hold back more tears. "I'm sorry," she whispered, clasping her hands together in front of her. Her expression kept changing with her inner struggle. "I-I've failed you. I've failed all of you and now horrible things are going to happen and it's all my fault. I turned out to be a pretty poor excuse of a Miko, didn't I?" She swallowed and her face crumpled a little. "Yui-chan—I've lost her. We can never be friends again … and it hurts. It hurts here…" She pressed a hand over her heart. "Right now I think I would give up anything in the world—even Tamahome—if it meant I could have Yui-chan back and undo all the damage that's been done…"
Hotohori hummed a sympathetic little sound, his expression a mixture of deep compassion and heartfelt anxiety at her pain. He came to her and took her into his arms in a gentle embrace, the billowing sleeves of his robes shielding her as he stroked her hair softly. "You did what you could," he murmured. "But sometimes even one's best is simply not good enough. None of us blame you. Please do not blame yourself. I am so very proud of you, Miaka. We all are."
Miaka slowly relaxed as Hotohori's soothing presence penetrated the coldness that seemed to have enshrouded her ever since Yui had summoned Seiryu. She realized that she had missed his warmth, his gentle embrace. How long had it been since she'd been in his arms? She sighed softly and slipped her arms around his waist to hold him back, her troubled thoughts drifting away as she savored the feel of being protected. Of being loved. The only other time she felt like this was when she was with—
She abruptly returned to her senses as shame flooded her heart and she pulled swiftly away from the emperor, trying to ignore the blush that burned in her cheeks. What would people say if they were to see her embracing Hotohori like that? What would they think? She was technically betrothed to Tamahome, after all, and after everything they had gone through to be together, how could she be so willing to seek solace in the arms of another man?
And now there was an even better reason to avoid situations like this, she reminded herself bitterly. Houki. Hotohori was a married man now and she had no right to touch another woman's husband.
She frowned slightly. Such a strange term in regards to Hotohori. When she'd left, he had been a man who claimed to be in love with her, who had proposed to her within the first few days of meeting her and who had taken every opportunity to embrace her, even knowing how she felt about Tamahome. Determined to win her affection despite her constant rebuffs.
And yet, when she returned he had become a husband. And likely a soon-to-be father. And she was … yesterday's newspaper, tossed out with the trash. He had been so formal with her since her return. She was no longer Miaka, his intended bride-to-be (whether she agreed or not). Now she was just Suzaku no Miko and he was her loyal Seishi. Nothing more, nothing less.
The knowledge … hurt. But she couldn't seem to decide if it was her heart or just her pride that had been trampled. After all, it wasn't very flattering to find out that someone who had once proposed to you had gone off and married another woman instead, as if he'd simply forgotten his prior commitment.
She knew it wasn't really fair to have expected him to hold out and wait for her to change her mind when they both knew it wasn't going to happen. She knew Tamahome was her destined soulmate and she wouldn't have it any other way. She loved him the way she loved no other person, so much more than she loved Hotohori. He was the one she wanted and none other.
She could admit that she felt guilty about her choice sometimes. Hotohori was such a gentle, loving man and he deserved to be happy. And he had done so much for her that—Well, sometimes she felt like she owed him something. She felt rotten that she couldn't return his devotion and simply love him the way he wanted, especially when she saw the melancholy sadness that seemed to constantly haunt his gaze. Somebody so tenderhearted shouldn't be so sad.
But if Houki could take away that sadness…
She just wished she'd had more warning. A chance to prepare, to realize that she was no longer the number-one woman in Hotohori's life. The girl he insisted he'd loved since childhood.
But, she thought somewhat bitterly, clearly childhood dreams could be replaced…
Yeah, she decided, her pride had definitely been wounded. And so had her heart. Just a little.
Hotohori seemed to sense the brooding turn her thoughts had taken, because he fixed her with a concerned look as he sat down on the railing of the gazebo. "Miaka, tell me what's wrong," he commanded softly. "It isn't just because of Yui, is it?"
Miaka perched gingerly on the railing beside him. She glanced up at him and her breath caught the way it always did when she took in his serene beauty. Tamahome was beautiful in his own way, but his was a strong, intense, sort of attractiveness. Whenever she looked at him her heart would speed up and she'd feel like nothing could ever hurt her again as long as he was at her side.
Hotohori's beauty was also strong and masculine, but in a much more refined, regal, well-bred way. The kind inherent in anyone born of royalty (although, in his case, maybe a bit more extreme). In truth, he made her a little nervous because she was anything but royalty and she couldn't for the life of her figure out what such a man saw in her. Was that why she found Hotohori so attractive? His beauty and the fact that he loved her even though she was hardly empress material?
She almost hoped it was true, that her mixed-up feelings towards the emperor were that shallow, because they'd be so much easier to dispose of if they had no root.
But if there was more to them than that…
"Hotohori," she began quietly, "I-I never congratulated you … on your marriage to Houki. I wish … I wish I could have seen the ceremony. I'm sure it was beautiful." The words were somewhat difficult to force out, but at the same time she meant every one.
He glanced at her in surprise, then smiled. "Thank you, Miaka," he replied softly. "I wish you could have been there, as well."
She hesitated for a brief moment. "I have to admit that I was … surprised when I met Houki," she told him carefully.
He gazed down at her, a soft wistfulness filling his gaze. Reminiscing. "Yes, she does look a great deal like Nuriko, doesn't she?"
"Yes, but that wasn't … exactly what I meant…" Miaka could feel the blush spreading over her cheeks. "I just—I had no idea that you—I mean, it was kind of a shock—" She broke off, twisting her hands together in her lap. Why did you give up on me, she couldn't say, when you promised to always love me?
His expression turned to one of confusion at the anguish in her tone that she couldn't quite mask. Then his gaze cleared as understanding took its place. "With the coming war, I deemed it necessary to take an empress and produce an heir. Just in case," he explained carefully.
She glanced up sharply, shaken by the implication that anything could happen to him, and he touched her shoulder gently. She couldn't help the wistfulness that touched her gaze and she heard his breath catch, his expression melting to match her own.
Unspoken what ifs.
"Do you … love her?" she asked softly, still caught in her musings. Then, belatedly realizing the impertinence of such a question, she clapped both hands over her mouth, her blush deepening. "I-I'm sorry. It was inappropriate of me to ask such a thing!"
He smiled to show that he took no offense; given their history, she had every right to know the truth. "Yes," he replied quietly, reflectively. "I do love Houki." A moment of hesitation. "She is all I could have hoped for in an empress and wife."
Besides you, lay unvoiced between them.
Miaka worried her lip and pondered her next question, hesitant. "Hotohori," she began, "are you … happy? I mean … are you really happy?"
Their gazes locked again and in his eyes she could see the regrets he held in regard for the might-have-beens. But with that regret there also resided a quiet peace and contentment for what was. The haunting sadness had vanished. And when he finally replied, "Yes, I am happy," she believed every word.
She smiled then, heartbroken and elated, and nodded. "I am so glad for you, Hotohori," she breathed, dared to reach up and shyly caress his cheek as tears welled in her eyes. To her own surprise, she realized that she meant it. Despite her own heartache, she was glad. "If anybody deserves happiness, it's you. I'm so relieved that you found someone to love you the way you deserve to be loved." The way she couldn't love him was what she meant, but she didn't say it aloud.
"Miaka," he whispered, his golden eyes overly-bright, and reached trembling hands to rest them on her shoulders. "Thank you…" His voice choked with emotion.
This was a goodbye, they realized. A closure for everything that had ever passed between them. Leaning close, Hotohori pressed a soft, chaste kiss to the corner of her mouth and whispered, "I do love Houki and I am humbled and honored that she consented to become my wife. But I still hold a special place for you in my heart, as well. I will always love you, Miaka. Always. And that is the only reason why I was able to let you go. All I ask of you now is that you be happy, as well, for your happiness is my own."
"I will be," she promised as he reached to wipe a stray tear from her cheek. With his words, her pain had faded. She was not forgotten. "It helps to know that so many people care what happens to me," she continued sincerely. "I do love you, Hotohori, and if it wasn't for Tamahome … maybe things could have been different between us. But we shouldn't have any regrets. Everything worked out the way it's supposed to. Houki loves you and you'll raise beautiful children. You will both live a long and happy life together, just like me and Tamahome."
They sat beside each other and simply existed, at peace with their mutual decisions and—for the moment—the trouble with Kutou far from their minds.
A faint call echoed across the water and they turned to find Tamahome walking along the path to the gazebo, clearly searching for someone. Miaka turned to Hotohori a final time and reached to take his hand, squeezing it gently. "Thank you for loving me. I will never forget your kindness," she whispered, before slipping from her perch to skip down the path to meet her beloved.
Hotohori smiled wistfully as he watched Tamahome's worried expression shift to one of relief, then delighted surprise as Miaka threw her arms around his neck and brought his face down for a lingering kiss. When they finally parted, Tamahome smiled lovingly and entwined their fingers as they strolled toward the gardens, talking softly with heads bent close.
"I'm glad for you, Miaka," Hotohori murmured, rising to his feet to walk back to the palace. He sighed deeply as he paced slowly toward his chambers, lost in thought and bittersweet memories. He felt melancholy yet satisfied, glad that he was able to at last bring full closure to his lingering feelings for his Miko.
A sweet voice caught his attention; a soft, lovely tune drew his eyes and feet toward his new wife who sat by a window, attention focused on embroidering an intricate design on a length of silk. The setting sun caught in her wealth of hair so that it glistened with burnished highlights. A contented sparkle lit her soft brown eyes and her skin glowed like white jade, pale against the deep, rich color of her robes. Hotohori's breath caught at her beauty, reminded again of his fallen brother Seishi, a bittersweet memory.
She looked like an angel and he paused to regard her steadily as he pondered. He might always hold Miaka close to his heart, but he recognized the feeling that flooded his soul for what it was and his gaze softened even more as he padded silently toward her.
She looked up, startled, when she felt his presence and a pretty blush stained her cheeks. "Heika," she breathed, rising gracefully to her feet to bow to him, eyes lowered demurely. Her work dropped to the floor and his lips curved into a smile as he bent to retrieve the needlepoint, handing it to her as his eyes swept over her downturned face. They had not been wedded all that long but she had shared his bed nearly every night. Yet she still retained all of the sweet shyness of a virgin bride. It charmed him to no end.
When she reached to take the embroidery, unable to meet his probing gaze, his hand covering hers stilled her. "Have I told you lately," he murmured, "how honored I am that you consented to wed me?"
Her blush deepened, but she finally raised her gaze to his, a spark of the inner spirit that had first drawn him to her shining through. "No more honored than I am to have been chosen as yours, Heika," she replied with quiet dignity before shyly lowering her gaze again. Strong fingers tilted her chin until she once again met his deep, golden eyes.
"And have I shown you lately," he whispered, lips hovering close to hers, "how much I truly love you?" And whatever reply she might have made was cut short as he proceeded to do exactly that.
Yesterday was the past and the past cannot be altered.
Tomorrow is the future and the future cannot be determined.
There is only the moment to be had … and for now, the moment is all that matters.