Ichigo: "Absolutely not! I will not teach this boy!" The denial would not have seemed near as strenuous from anyone else, but for this stoic man who usually luxuriated in the glories of monotone to raise his voice, it indicated some level of distress. "But sir, he needs to be taught the behaviors," Nemu protested softly, obviously having never seen this man have such an outburst before. I eyed the man. He'd aged since I'd last seen him, but it was definitely the same man I'd known when I was younger. He was tall, taller than most any man I'd ever met before, with a lean build. Somehow, he was still just as pale as he'd always been, or maybe that was just how he seemed. His dark hair was longer now and the stubble was a new addition, but he still wore the same familiar white dress-shirt with the collar turned up and black overcoat, the same black slacks and low-heeled boots that clicked across the wooden floor. Of course, that coat certainly looked worse for wear: the tattered ends fluttered behind him to echo his every move. The wraparound sunglasses were certainly a new addition, though; however, they only partially shielded one from the piercing power of his pale blue eyes. "No, he doesn't need to learn a damn thing. This child was not common-bred, though I cannot believe he chose to mingle with Mayuri Kurotsuchi, of all people. Your father would kill you if he knew, Ichi." Hearing my true name –well, at least part of it– on his tongue warmed me inside. "Now, now. My father would simply have a heart-attack if he ever became aware of how I make my living, Zangetsu-shissou," I returned, trying to suppress the smile twitching at my lips. "See now, Nemu?" he inquired, gesturing to me broadly. "This boy merely needs to invoke his court manners, manners which are already ingrained in him, considering the nature of both of his parents." Her eyes darted from Zangetsu to me, then back again. "You… you two know each other?" she squeaked out. The joy I had felt upon reuniting with my former master fell flat and dissipated quickly. I knew Nemu: she was an exceedingly bright woman. Given the evidence, I knew without a doubt that she would realize what these things meant: that I was indeed high-born, not common as I had led her and her father to believe. I didn't want to explain the whole mess to anyone, really. It was depressing to dwell on the past when I knew the future ahead of me as well as I knew my profession –since they were one and the same. Yet, ironically, it was my former master –the same man who had inadvertently revealed my secret– that went out of his way to save me from it. "It's not my place to say. If he wants to pretend to be a fruit of all things, who am I to stop him?" He looked to me and raised his eyebrow quizzically. "But seriously, Ichi? Strawberry?" I shrugged. "If you want originality, I'm fresh out. Honestly, Shissou: I have the manners, but I have no idea how to use them in a situation like this one. We don't even really know who the guest I'm to receive is! I really don't want to go into that situation unprepared." He sighed that same heavy sigh that he always sighed right before he gave in to me. "Alright, fine. I'll teach you. But you owe me an honest explanation, Ichi." He looked at me I could feel his curiosity dancing just beneath the surface. I winced. It wasn't the first time that wheedling something I wanted out of my shissou led to an inescapable something else that I was certain to be extremely disgruntled about, and I had a feeling it wouldn't be the last time, either. At least he'd taken mercy on me and consented to instruct me. "Alright," I agreed. Absently, my gaze sought out Nemu. She was looking at us with a combination of awe and confusion. When I stepped toward her, she blinked and looked up at me. Placing my hands on her shoulders, I gave her a gentle smile. "Go home, Nemu. If Mayuri asks… tell him that you were ordered to leave. I promise you, I'll explain it all to you later. For now, just trust me and go." Wide, glassy eyes looked up at me. "How will you find your way back?" "I remember the way to Yumi's and the way here from there. I'll back-track. Besides, Shissou and I have a lot of catching up to do." I lifted one hand and cupped her cheek. "Please keep my secret, Nemu. You'll understand why later, but please, keep my secret." She swallowed hard, then nodded. "Alright. I'll go, and I won't say anything to Father. But in return… trust me a little more, Berry-chan. Okay?" I kissed her cheek and hugged her tight for a moment. "Okay," I consented. "Now go: it will get dark soon, and I won't feel safe having you walk home all alone." Her smile was bright but a little forced. "Have fun, you two." Then she quietly slipped back out the door we'd come in." "Now: where were we?" he asked, drawing my attention back to the matters at hand. "Etiquette lessons, my dear Shissou," I responded. "Teach me how to receive a high-ranked man." He winced at my blunt wording. "Receiving a higher-ranked guest." He murmured the correction, his mind obviously elsewhere. With vacant eyes, he led me down a darkened hallway and pointed to a door. "Enter this room. You'll be waiting on your guest, not vice versa. We shall attempt a bit of role-playing –one that obviously won't go near as far as your evening is expected to." I nodded, then entered the room. It was well lit and richly brocaded in burgundy and gold. Large plush pillows sat on opposite ends of a sleek, low table. A complete tea-service set of delicate pale-green porcelain awaited on the table, steam rising from the spout of the pot. I moved to stand just behind the pillow farthest from the door and waited. "When you're awaiting a guest," I remembered my mother instructing, "you remain standing. When they arrive, you invite them to take a seat, but you do not take a seat until after your guest has taken theirs. Then, offer then a hot cup of tea. Be thoughtful and charming, but not overwhelming." A knock sounded at the door. "Enter," I acquiesced softly. The door opened and I heard the click, click of his boot heels across the floor. I met his gaze as he approached and smiled demurely, as my mother had once taught me. "Please, take a seat." With a wry half-smile, Shissou sat down on the burgundy pillow. I allowed five seconds to pass before even considering taking my seat on the matching pillow. "Can I offer you some tea?" I inquire softly, politely. "Tea would be wonderful," he responded, a larger smile tugging at his lips. It seemed that Shissou was right, after all: I did already possess the proper manners to receive such a guest. I hate it when I have to give him something for nothing, I groaned in my head, but I maintained the proper façade as our lesson continued.
Byakuya: "Byakuya!" my mother exclaimed, her tone sharpening in her displeasure. "Yes, Mother?" I inquired emotionlessly. "Why aren't you happier, Byakuya? You'll be of age tomorrow. There will be a grand celebration to mark the occasion. Surely even you can work up some enthusiasm!" she demanded. I looked at her. "It doesn't move me," I stated simply, content to ignore her raging until it went away. "Hajime," she whined to Father. "Why do we have such an ungrateful son, my love?" Father looked at me, looked at my mother, then returned to his wine. I couldn't tell if he was more disappointed in me for upsetting Mother or upset with Mother for interrupting his consumption of the wine for such a silly matter. Unfortunately, Mother's whining grated on my nerves –and that would mean not even thinking about what she had said! I didn't want them to waste excessive amounts of money that should go back into the betterment of Nigotta and that made me an ungrateful child? Then what about them? My frivolous parents spent every single dime of the money our citizens paid in taxes –and they squandered it all on parties and drinks and clothes. Things that would not last and would not profit anyone but themselves, the whole lot of them! Perhaps they had grown too comfortable on their thrones and with their power, because they had clearly forgotten why the Kuchikis had been given that power in the first place! "Mother, you know that Byakuya only attends parties to humor you. It's no great shock that he finds no pleasure in them," my sister interjected before the rage in my mind built beyond the levels of my control. "Obviously, he will attend the celebration you throw for him tomorrow night" – I heard what she wished to interject there: and none of the guests would ever guess that he'd rather stab himself in the stomach with the nearest sharp object than attend –" so please, just relax." I smiled at my surprisingly level-headed younger sister. Rukia was a bit of a miracle. I had no idea how she had turned out as well as she had, but I wouldn't be able to survive life in my own home if she wasn't around. She knew just the way to talk to Mother and have her calm instantly. Father was definitely wrapped around her finger, as well. Of course, that all hinged on them actually acknowledging her existence, which only happened on the odd occasion, anyway. Quickly, I rose from the table. Without a word, I walked away from dinner and out onto the secluded terrace. Dinner always made me feel quite sullen. Here we were, the nation's royalty, with a banquet prepared upon our table, most of which would be left behind and carried away by the kitchen staff. Yet it was common knowledge that there was a large portion of our population starving and committing inconceivable acts to ensure their own survival. It made me feel both angry and helpless all at once. "Byakuya." Rukia's hand was warm on my wrist. "Are you alright?" "I'm fine," I returned, still staring out into the gardens. "You know, I would like to celebrate my birthday in some different way for once in my life." "I know, Onii-sama. In time, you will be able to celebrate however you wish. But for now, do I still get my annual dance in your rose garden?" I couldn't help but smile at that. Before my Hisana had died, I would dance with her in my rose garden on my birthday. It had been Rukia that insisted on carrying on with that tradition in the years since. It was the only thing I demanded on my birthday –my one pleasure on a day meant to celebrate me. It meant the world to me. "Of course, Rukia. We shall dance among the roses, just as we usually do." "You feel like working up to something a little more risqué than a waltz this year?" she asked. "I think it would be worth at least a year's amusement from the rumors." "I feel like running away," I confessed softly. She leaned against my shoulder. "Stay. Please stay, Byakuya. It won't be much longer before they back out of their roles because they're bored and you can step up and make this nation great once more. Please don't leave me alone with them. You know that they only treat me well to humor you." It was sad but true. My precious younger sister was precious only to one member of the royal family: me. She could cajole and manipulate our parents, but they wouldn't even give her the time of day if I wasn't so attached to her. They humored me by taking care of her, yet they also chained me to this stupid palace with its stupid rules and regulations with the same act. I could never leave if I couldn't take her with me, and there weren't many places that I could go. I was born and bred to rule. My education had prepared me for that role in life and little else. I was born and bred to rule. Each passing year meant nothing if I could not assume the throne and right the decades of neglect my own parents had rained down upon their people. I was the only hope of Nigotta: I had known that every bit as long as I had known the responsibilities of a king. What was worse was that even the most common of the citizens knew that fact with great certainty. No. I could never abandon Nigotta –or my younger sister. "You know I never will, Rukia. I can't." I gave her a sad smile. But I could sneak out of the celebration tomorrow night and spend my evening investigating the only present I had any interest in receiving. Rukia certainly wouldn't blame me –she knew just how much I hated these functions and how every single woman would throw herself at me at every opportunity. My mother wouldn't hate me any more than she usually did. Father really wouldn't give a damn, so long as his glass never emptied, and Mother would see to that. "So, are you going to sneak out of that blasted ball?" she asked with a knowing smile. "I'm going to sneak out of this blasted palace," I murmured. At her alarmed look, I quickly added, "Not for good. Just for the night. There's a person who has never given me a birthday present before, and he wishes to this year. I want to humor him, mostly because he intends to take me into Kakoku." Rukia drew a harsh breath. Neither one of us had been beyond the walls of the palace in years –since the fateful day that I had met Hisana in the market, in fact. The palace was a lovely cage, but a cage nonetheless. I had hungered to see the world beyond the walls since I was very young, so I had taken my parents' pronouncement very hard. Of course, they had made the pronouncement because of their great displeasure at my marriage when I was only 13. The legalities of the union would have been rather sketchy, but for the fact I was the crown prince. My word was law, as I found out then, and my parents hadn't wanted me to exercise that power ever again until they were willing to surrender their crowns. "Don't go marrying any more strange women, Byakuya," she cautioned lightly. I smiled at her. "I promise, Rukia: no more wives."
Renji: I looked at Mayuri. Gods, this man had always given me the creeps, but I had been so drawn to the boy known only as Strawberry that I pushed past that fact and dealt with Mayuri when necessary. "Is there any chance that I could see Strawberry tonight and talk to him about tomorrow?" I inquired. Mayuri turned his head. "Nemu!" he bellowed. "Where are you, you worthless girl?" "Here, Father," she answered softly, slipping into the office quietly. "Where is the boy?" "I left him at Zan's. Apparently, there was a lot to teach him and little time to do it in, so I was ordered to return so I could be of used to you." She bowed deeply. My heart hurt for the poor girl. This man was her father, and he treated her like he tended to treat his whores. I wished I could get her out of it, but I wondered if she would leave the only life she'd ever known. He huffed angrily. "Damn that high-handed man! If there was anyone else who could teach those skills, I'd just be done with him entirely!" His attention returned to me. "Since he's apparently still with Zan, you shall have to stop by tomorrow during the day. Nemu could take you by his place." I silently cursed my luck. Of course that would be the way it would go. There was little chance that I could get away during the day: Queen Akane would be busy making the lives of all the aids a living hell with her endless demands to prepare for a celebration thrown in the honor of the crown prince who had no interest in attending it. "That won't work, I'm afraid," I informed him. "I won't be able to get away. I apologize for taking up your time." He dismissed me with a wave of his hand. "Nemu, see him out." "Of course," she replied, leading me out of the office. As she led me down a hallway, I stopped her with a hand on her arm. "Is there any way I can get a note to him without Mayuri seeing it?" I asked her softly. She turned to face me. "May I ask why?" "There are a few specifics that I wish to inform Strawberry of that I just don't think Mayuri should be privy to, considering the amount of money I'm paying him. Some things are best shared between less people." I gave her a weak smile. Her eyes seemed to look straight through me as she stared at me for a heavy silent moment. "I will be able to pass a note to Berry-chan if you need it. He will have no problem minding any need for secrecy." There was something about the way she said it that made me certain the boy had secrets of his own. Of course he has secrets of his own! I yelled at myself. Why else would he go by such a ridiculous name? I swallowed hard, then patted my pockets. Finding a pen and a notepad, I quickly scrawled down a note, careful to make the note detailed enough to make since but not give away any of the surprise. Handing the folded sheet of paper to the girl, I tried to smile. "Please get that to him at your earliest convenience." She nodded once. "Thank you." She shrugged. "It's no problem. Everybody has secrets: Berry-chan will keep yours better than most." I studied her for a moment longer, then swallowed hard and asked the question I'd wanted to ask her since the first night I met her. "If I asked you to leave this place, would you?" "He's my father. He considers me an object that he owns –a piece of office furniture, like his desk. If I ever left, he would hunt me down and drag me back." Her smile was empty. That thought brought me all the more sadness. "I'm sorry I don't have enough power to keep something like that from happening," I told her softly, touching her hand lightly. Then I stepped out of the brothel and into the crowded street, wondering if leaving her there was really the only thing I could do.
Ichigo: Dawn broke slowly as I had a final cup of tea with my shissou. Silence reigned after I had recounted my story. He was still processing my words, I knew. I couldn't blame him: my life had ultimately become the perfect plot for an opera. So instead of speaking, we sipped our tea and watched each other. My delight in seeing my shissou once more had overshadowed the fact that he had been my very first crush –no, my first love. There had always been something about him. He'd never been afraid to push me forward or encourage me. And yet, contrarily enough, he had understood the value of silence. He'd taught me how to handle a blade and how to meditate –though I will admit, when we were meditating, I'd frequently found my attention more on him than on centering myself. It was because of him and my family that I was a good man. The problem was that you can't earn a living being a good man –and I was no longer certain that I counted as one. My mother would have hung her head in shame to know that her son was Strawberry, a relatively famous whore whose only known talent involved his mouth. My father, had the same knowledge somehow reached him, would have wasted no time in locating the nearest sharp blade and destroying something –most likely, something attached to him and related to whatever sense had allowed the knowledge in. "I know you don't want to hear this," Zangetsu said, not even looking up from the cup in his hand, "but your parents would cry to hear of this. Yet, strange as it all is, you've still become a good man." He offered me a soft smile. "I'm still proud to have been your shissou, Ichi." I looked at him, blinking in astonishment. How had he known? How did he know what was going through my head at that exact moment? The answer came to me quickly: of course he knew. This man knew me better than almost any other person still alive. He'd been the first one to teach me about hiding emotions: it was no stretch of the imagination that he could still recognize my defenses. So, to repay him for saying the words I needed to hear at the moment, I decided to astound the hell out of him. I reached out, framing his face with my hands, and pressed a chaste kiss to his lips before he had a moment to even process what I might be up to. "Thank you, Shissou. Perhaps I'll see you around?" I added with a wink before I stood up and started walking. "Where do you think you are going, boy?" he demanded when he managed to get his mouth to work right again. "Home. I have an important evening to prepare for, after all." I shot him a smile. "I'll come see you again soon, Zangetsu. Don't forget me, okay?" "How could I, you brat? You're the first man who ever kissed me!" he exclaimed. I laughed out loud. "Seriously? I've wanted to do that since I was just a kid. I figured someone else had already given into the temptation. Sweet dreams," I bid him, blowing him a kiss with a wink. "Oi! Wait a second!" Honestly, I was pretty sure that he'd expended all the emotion he allowed himself for a year tonight. I did so love to get his goat that way. "Hm?" "Tell the girls… Engetsu and I miss them." I nodded, swallowing hard. He and Engetsu had practically been family. They had taken our fall harder than almost anyone else in our family –excluding three of our cousins. "I'll tell them. Thanks for everything." He nodded. "No. I mean it, Zangetsu. Thank you. For everything." He bowed to me and I about fell all to pieces. "Best of luck, Ichi. Be a man I can be proud to have helped shape." "I shall endeavor to be a man you can be proud of shaping, shissou," I returned, aware that of my formal words, but meaning them. Walking away from my shissou was the hardest thing I had done in a long time. Somehow I managed, holding my head high and pretending that there weren't tears welling up in my eyes as I strode through town and back toward my apartment. As I walked, I tried to process our last exchange. The way he'd said it… it was almost like he was releasing us from the roles that had bond us throughout our entire relationship. It was something a master told his student when he had no more to teach him. I refused to believe Zangetsu had nothing left to teach me: he was a deep, complex man that was both stronger and wiser than I was. I shoved it out of my head as I reached my street and instead turned my attention to matters still at hand. It was likely I'd only be able to catch an hour or two of sleep before I'd have to make a return visit to Yumichika's shop for a long fitting that should end with the final product. Then, I would have to prepare the room I would be receiving in. Somewhere in there, I still needed to bathe and style my hair as Yumi had ordered. All in all, staying up all night reuniting with my shisshou had been a bad life choice. I had no more than closed the door to my apartment behind myself, intent on heading to my bed and catching some sleep, when rapid, impatient knocking sounded on the door. "Berry-chan?" Nemu called. "Please be home," she murmured lowly. Throwing the door open, I looked at my friend. "What is it? What's wrong?" "Nothing's wrong," she assure me. "It's still urgent, though. The man who's sponsoring tonight… he stopped by and wanted to tell you something, but you were still at Zan's. He gave me a note for you and told me it was important that you know it before tonight." She pressed the folded paper into my hand. I just stared. "I better get back before Father misses me." She kissed my cheek and disappeared as quickly and mysteriously as she had appeared. My curiosity unfortunately peaked by the sense of urgency Nemu had conveyed, I opened the note quickly. This was how it read:
Strawberry- I wish I could have given you fair warning during my last visit, but I was unsure if my gift would be accepted. Don't be surprised if he only wants to talk –but please, please try to persuade him otherwise… that boy totally needs to get laid… Anyway, he's gentle: he won't hurt you. I think you both will be intrigued by each other. Enjoy your night with him. Make it a night he won't forget: he really doesn't get out often.
Let me know how it all turns out, Ren
I couldn't help but smile. Of course it was that silly man! He'd really taken an interest in me, and he frequently paid my fee just to spend time with me. That's not to say I'd never serviced him before: I had, but I got the feeling it happened in order to keep up the proper appearance while visiting a brothel with only male employees. I couldn't help but wonder who his mysterious friend was but my yawn drug my train of thought closer to my bed and further from my job. Sleep would be necessary if I wanted to do as Renji requested and make it a night his friend wouldn't forget. Setting my alarm clock was a chore because I was so tired. As I sprawled upon my bed, I absently pondered how to make it unforgettable for him.