Byakuya: Sleep abandoned me a few minutes after dawn. For some reason, my body insisted on keeping a peasant's hours. Or, perhaps they were the hours a true king should keep, since he should give his nation the lion's share of his attention in the same way a hard-working farmer would tend to his field. Quickly, I slipped from under the covers and out of my bed before shrugging into the cotton yukata I used like a dressing gown. My feet slapped softly against the cool floor as I snuck out of my room in the palace. My destination wasn't far –only a mere matter of yards lie between my bedroom and my garden. All of the roses in my garden were in full bloom today, as though the plants sought to mark the day of my birth in their full beauties. My mother would have trimmed back the vibrant purple blooms and the crimson velvet blossoms, stating that they did not coordinate with the other colors. Then again, the Lady Queen had always cared a great deal more about aesthetics and appearances than love and hard work. Luckily, this garden was entirely mine and no one could even venture into it without my invitation. So the beautiful purple roses Hisana had planted for me remained, as did the lush crimson roses I had planted to memorialize her. I walked to the table that sat in the middle of the cobblestone garden path and sat in the chair that faced east. For as long as I could remember, I had greeted the sunrise this way. Once upon a time, I had viewed every new sunrise as a sign of hope, but life had taught me better. Now, I simply viewed the sunrise as the prelude to my day. Yes, there was beauty in the instant, but it would fade, just as everything else had, into the pointless monotony of my days and my growing feelings of helplessness. Hisana had breathed life into me by simply not allowing me to dwell on such feelings. Unfortunately, with her now far beyond my reach, I seemed steeped in them. Light footsteps intruded, interrupting my thoughts. Warm, slender hands came to rest on my shoulders. "Byakuya. I figured that I'd find you here." Her voice was warm and full of affection. It made me appreciate the way my dear friend had fallen hard and fast at the mere sight of here. "Rangiku.," I greeted, unable to keep a small smile from my lips. "What are you doing up so early?" She plunked down in the seat beside mine. "As much as I love working here –and I really do– my body just can't seem to adjust to the difference in the hours." She smiled sheepishly, but pressed a kiss to my cheek. Rangiku often reminded me of Hisana, but even a man blinded by his own grief could recognize that she was a completely different woman. Still, we grieved Hisana together, and that was a kind of bond in and of itself. "How are you, Ran?" I asked softly, knowing exactly what had driven her away from her previous employer. "I'm… well, I'm okay. I miss him like hell, but it's better this way. I just have to take things as they come, y'know?" She could say that all she wanted, but she still got that far-off look whenever he was mentioned. I wondered how she would react to the knowledge that her former lover was not only a crown prince in his own right, but also one of my dearest companions. I decided that she'd probably come to hate him if I were the one to reveal everything, but it was making me crazy that Toshiro was taking his own sweet time on the matter! "How about you, Bya? How are you doing?" Her tone was as gentle as her hand resting over mine. "Well, I'm another year older, if that counts for anything. Not much wiser for it." I paused, thinking. "Life has gone on and I've found a routine again, but I still sit in my garden and miss my wife." A moment of sober silence fell between us. The mood had darkened some, and neither of us seemed to wish to speak until we could lighten the mood. "Any special guests coming to your celebration tonight?" she asked lightly. "Well… not unless my mother saw fit to invite the royal family from Kōsei," I replied. I had always had a rather close relationship with Toshiro and his father. I believed that it might be possible to have Toshiro and Rangiku run into each other by coincidence. It would end my frustration with the situation, anyway. "Other than that, I really have no interest in the guests. You know me: I'll sneak away as soon as I can without being noticed." She smiled softly. "Yes, that does sound like you. Will you dance in the garden tonight?" "Of course I will," I told her, smiling fondly at the fact she recalled that tradition as well. "It's my favorite birthday tradition." "Will you save a dance for little ole me?" she asked me delicately. "Save one?" I laughed a little. "Why not dance with me now, Ran?" I asked her, rising to my feet and holding out my hand to her. She laughed as well. "I forgot that you could be so impulsive." Standing up, she took the offered hand. I led her away from the table. Placing my hand on her side and holding her other hand in mine, I smiled as she placed her hand on my shoulder and then led her into an up-tempo waltz. She laughed all the way and I just couldn't suppress my smile. When she was about breathless, I drew her closer and kissed her forehead. Her eyes closed, as though to saver the moment. "Happy birthday, my friend," she told me, her eyes still closed. "May you find joy this year." Hoping her blessing was true, I pressed a kiss to her cheek. Her eyes opened slowly and she smiled at me. "I suppose I should get to work." I shook my head, not wanting our moment to be so brief. "Take as long as you want, Ran. You can tell them that I said it was fine and you won't get in any trouble." Her hand came up to rest on my cheek. "You're so sweet, Bya. Too good to me, really." Still, she drew back, out of my arms. "But I'll be off rhythm all day if I linger." She smiled and kissed my cheek. "Have a good birthday, Byakuya." She was gone soon after that. It left a sort of emptiness in the garden. She was a whirl-wind, that one. She was just what Toshiro needed in his too-predictable life. I checked the time and headed in to dress for the day. After all, I had a question for Mother. She would be glad to see me take an interest in the ball she was throwing in my honor, and I did attempt to please her once a year.
Ichigo: "You have perfect timing, handsome," Yumichika announced when I arrived. "I just finished it. Let's see how it fits, shall we?" Despite his bright manner and his excitement over turning me into a dress-up doll once more, I could see that he'd stayed up all night to prepare it. He looked so tired that I was nearly certain he was about to fall asleep on his feet. Still, I did as he bade and followed him into the work room. His creation still sat upon the work table in a delectable puddle of dark silk. My fingers flexed against my will with the need to touch it, but I restrained myself. It would be all over me soon enough. Yumi smiled at me wearily. "Take off your clothes, you silly Berry, and we'll see how well this fits." I disrobed quickly and efficiently standing before him in nothing but my nagajuban. "Remove that, too. This was designed to cling to your naked body," he interjected breezily. It was a bit of the shock, considering the fact that I knew for certain that he was using silk. Gods, but he had to be charging Mayuri a pretty penny for this one! Aside from that, silk was notoriously difficult to clean –that was pretty much the reason the nagajuban was a necessity– yet here Yumi was telling me that I was to wear nothing beneath it? Yet, I decided it was best not to question genius, so I removed the garment as he told me. Once more, I stood before him entirely naked, and Yumi's eyes wondered to me. He looked me over with a soft smile, as though he was glad to see that it was all as he remembered it. "Ikkaku! A little help, please?" he asked distractedly. His hands balled against his sides, then unfurled. It took me a moment –and a few repetitions of the action– to realize just what it indicated. He wants to touch me again, I realized. I wanted to smile as I watched him struggle with restraint. It amused me, because I knew there was absolutely nothing sexual about his need to touch my body. It was the artist in him that appreciated my form more than I ever had. Yumi took hold of his masterpiece and I realized it was a kimono in several parts. First, he wrapped me in a kimono of charcoal gray silk. It was patterned with subtle, small designs I couldn't quite recognize, but they accented it in a lighter shade of gray. The garment stopped just below my knees, making it much shorter than any formal kimono I'd ever seen. Ikkaku suddenly appeared, carrying the second part: the obsidian-colored obi. It was much wider than the one I was used to wearing –it was around the size of the most formal obis I had seen a woman wear. The pair of them wrapped it just above my hips to hold the kimono closed. Yumi turned his attention back to the charcoal garment, shifting the soft material against my skin until the opening gaped and exposed most of my chest. Ikkaku returned with the third piece and handed it to Yumi. It was a haori of sorts, if one had to give it a name. It was almost translucent, black in color with golden threads woven in to accent it. He slipped it up my arms carefully, and situated it until he was happy. Both men stepped back, and Yumi began to walk around me slowly, his eyes carefully scanning his work. With a small frown, he removed the haori and stepped back once more, as though to admire his work. "It's still missing something," he muttered to himself. Ikkaku took one look at me before returning to the work table. When he returned, he held a gold-colored cord in his hand. The cord was quickly handed to Yumi, who smiled broadly. With careful hands, Yumi untied the wide obi and moved it a bit. Carefully, he wrapped it so that the ends were as hidden as he could manage. Then, he wrapped the golden cord around the center of the obi. Ikkaku knelt before me and tied the cord –which I realized had to be an obijimé– in a neat bow. Once more, both men took a step back and circled me slowly, like two predators about to attack and share the same prey. I'll admit I was a little worried, until they both began to grin wildly. "Perfect. Beautiful." Yumi pronounced. "He looks like he could be attending the crown prince's celebration tonight," Ikkaku told Yumi with a wide grin. Yumi took me by the hand and led me to stand in front of the full-length mirror. "You look absolutely stunning. This is sure to knock your client through a loop." Looking at my refection in the mirror, I had to agree with him. It looked as though the next time I took a deep breath, the kimono would abandon my body. It was very loose and almost seductively draped across my torso. The wide obsidian silk obi only emphasized my narrow hips. Taking a hesitant step forward, I noticed the way the lower half of the garment had moved and gaped to allow for my movement. After staring at it for a moment longer, I realized that the whole garment was a tease. Wearing such a beautiful piece of clothing made me feel as though I belonged in one of the first-class brothels. I looked at the garment a little closer. No, it made me feel as though I once more belonged in the rank I had been born into. "It's so light and beautiful," I told Yumi, my voice filled with awe. "I feel as though I don't deserve to wear something so lovely…" "Don't be a fool!" Yumi snapped at me. My gaze shot to him, a little stunned. His hands roughly spun me about. "I designed this, Berry. I made this masterpiece to showcase you and to seduce." He glared at me. "You are absolutely gorgeous and you are essential to the beauty of this garment. You are not going to put yourself down this way in front of me ever again!" I blinked owlishly, completely blind-sided by his outburst. My mind swam, trying to figure out a way to repair part of the damage between us. "I… I hadn't thought about it like that, Yumi. I'm sorry. I am thrilled to wear the gorgeous garment that you made for me." "That's better," he returned, looking as though he wanted to pout. "Ikkaku, help him remove it and make sure he can put it on by himself," he ordered, heading for the office. "I'm going to take something for my headache." Ikkaku began to ease me out of the garment as soon as Yumi was out of sight. "You really made him mad, saying those things," he commented, holding all of the parts in his arms as I stood before him nude. "I noticed," I returned as he handed me the main garment once more. "I didn't mean to upset him with how I see myself," I added, holding the garment closed as he handed me the wide obi. He sighed. "Look, Berry, you didn't hear this from me, okay?" I nodded, and so he continued. "The last person Yumi designed for in the color range you're wearing was the crown prince. Yumi won't design anything in that range unless you are just this side of inhumanly beautiful." Ikkaku handed me the obijimé. "You hurt Yumi, but it was because someone he sees as so beautiful sees themselves that way." "Oh…! I… I see," I said softly, feeling horrible for hurting Yumi, who had been nothing but kind to me. Ikkaku looked me up and down, noting the way I'd dressed in the garment with a critical eye. "You did very well. Let's do it once more, just to make sure." I undressed again, silently sending my mother thanks for forcing me to learn such a skill. As I busied myself, I tried to figure out how to improve my self-esteem so that I wouldn't hurt Yumi again.
Kaien: "I'm going to the rose garden," Princess Rukia informed me coolly. I nodded silently, but noted the pains she'd taken with her appearance today. It had surprised me when I'd first begun to work at the palace –how close the prince and princess were, I mean. Now, it took little though for me to recognize why she took more care with her appearance some days: the first reason was that she deeply loved her brother; the second reason was that she had a large crush on his personal aid. Of course, that last part tended to burn a little. It was stupid that this woman I was to protect stirred in me the kinds of feelings I hadn't allowed myself to feel since my wife died. Yet, the feelings were absolutely undeniable. I'd accepted their existence without a fight and continued on like they didn't exist, just as any professional should. I didn't bother to stay the required distance from her as I followed her to the garden. However, I remained outside of it when she entered it. I respected the crown prince far too much to enter his rose garden without permission. She walked straight to a plant that supported several purple blooms. With a pair of sheers, she snipped two blooms and tucked it into the folds of her dress. I had to wonder if the prince knew that she snatched these flowers from time to time. Personally, I supposed it was her way of remembering the prince's wife who had been a dear friend to Rukia. She turned and looked at me. At first, I guess she was a little startled. She shouldn't have been: Prince Byakuya had put me in charge of her security and I took my job very seriously. Then she gave me a soft smile that all but slammed a fist into my solar plexus. "It's for tonight. Byakuya and I will dance among his roses, like he used to with Hisana. Since we keep the tradition in her memory, I want us to wear the roses she found for him." "That's… that's incredible. I wish I'd done more to remember my wife," I remarked softly, waiting for the princess to emerge from the garden I hadn't the permission to enter. Her eyes met mine and she froze in her tracks. "You were married, Shiba?" "It's Kaien," I corrected her gently, "and yes, I was married to a wonderful woman who was much too good for the likes of me. She died too young, and we had no children." The look in her eyes was surprisingly soft. "How old were you when you married her?" "Sixteen. That's how the noble clans arrange the marriages." "So it wasn't a love match?" she asked me. "It was an arranged marriage, but we grew to care about each other, and I did fall in love with her. I couldn't even look at another woman for at least three years after that." Her interest in my past was surprising, but I supposed she couldn't have ignored the statement I should have kept in my head, where it belonged. Besides, she was probably seeing some unavoidable parallels between my situation and her brother's. Yet her smile still remained tender. "What was her name?" "Miyako." I shook my head. "She was a goddess in human form: I simply did not stand a chance." "And you haven't found anyone since?" she inquired. "Well, there is a young woman I love. She's much younger than I am, however, and there's no way she would be interested in a man like me." I shrugged, like it didn't hurt me at all, like I wasn't talking about her. "But, if you're worried about the prince, it's important to remember that everyone grieves differently. He may find someone who turns his head long before I ever make the decision to remarry." She pursed her lips and I swallowed hard. "I think I'd feel better if I'd actually seen him look at anyone else. But Byakuya has only become more withdrawn since her death." "It's normal that he's not looking, Princess. Trust me: finding someone that you fall in love with isn't anything you can plan. It completely blindsides you." I literally bit my tongue to keep myself from saying any more. A pensive expression crossed her face. I understood: she didn't get it. "Look at it this way, Princess: his wife was a dear friend of yours, right?" I inquired. She nodded. "Well, you don't go out looking for a new friend to fill the hole: you remember the pain and person, but you find someone who can be a close friend. You don't replace her, you remember her. And your friend is certainly aware they cannot be her, as are you, but you're both okay with that." I sighed. "With a little bit of time and some luck, the crown prince will find someone who understands and loves him in spite of or even because of it. But we can't force it." The princess stared at me for a silent moment. "You have good insight, Kaien," she said finally. "Thank you." I pretended my heart didn't race when I heard her say my name.
Ichigo: Ikkaku and I had talked for an hour or so, mostly about Yumi or ourselves. Our conversation had died down considerably by the time Yumi emerged from the office. He looked refreshed and almost happy, so I offered him a smile and hoped vainly to see his in return. Since there was no answering smile, I would just have to summon one the old fashioned way. "Thank you for taking such good care of me, Yumihika." I bowed respectfully. His half-smile was still bright. "Thank you for being such a joy to work with." Perhaps he had forgiven me a little? I decided to test the waters a little. "So, I should probably put on the clothes that I came in so I don't get mobbed in the street, ne?" Ikkaku vanished from the room like a shadow when the world was immersed in darkness. Yumi's gaze was drawn to me as I began to shed the sumptuous clothing. I pretended I wasn't aware of it, keeping my eyes downcast but echoing the same motion he'd found particularly sensual the day before to shrug out of the garment. Of course, in contrast, I caught this one before it hit the ground, since I'd always believed that silk should never touch the floor or drag the ground. I looked up at Yumi innocently, as though I hadn't been testing his restraint in some way or another. Upon noticing the same clenching and unclenching motion from before, I couldn't help but smile at him. "Yumi, you can touch me again if you like. I don't mind it," I told him gently. As if some sort of binding spell had been release, he was immediately next to me. His smooth warm hands slid over my skin in and impressive imitation of the silk garment I had just shed. When he fondly stroked the curve of my spine, I involuntarily corrected my posture. His motions gradually slowed, as though he was cherishing his opportunity to touch me and trying to commit my form to memory. When I no longer felt his hands on me but knew he still stood behind me, I turned my head to see what had distracted him so. He reached forward and traced an old scar that was on my right side and usually hidden beneath my arm. "That's from learning to fight with a sword. The man who was teaching me managed to graze me the first day, but he felt horrible about it," I informed him. "What about these?" he asked, his fingers tracing three puckered lines across my back. "Mayuri didn't always hold my leash. One of the brothel owners that previously employed me liked to discipline his employees with a whip." I shrugged. "They will fade in time." His fingers found a gouged scar by my spine. "What happened here?" "My uncle hated my mother, and he was angry at my father about the marriage even after she had died. He came at my father with a knife from behind, and I stepped between them, because there wasn't enough time to warn Father." I shrugged. "It's a great deal of ancient family drama." Well, it had been a lot more than that, but Yumi really didn't need to know all of the specifics. Yumi was very quiet when he helped me dress again, probably thinking about what the scars and their stories had told him about me. He touched the rough cotton of my original outfit. "Ew, Berry! You need better every-day clothes!" I laughed. "I'm broke or I would let you turn me into a brand new man, Yumi. You create the most beautiful things I've seen in my life." He blushed and muttered something under his breath before slipping behind the counter and retrieving a package, which he handed to me. "Here," he said abruptly. "It's a gift. Wear them well." I waited until he came around the counter to throw my arms around him. He seemed a bit stunned, but his arms slowly wrapped around me, as well. "Thank you, Yumichika. I've enjoyed being your dress-up doll. You made me feel precious, like a work of art," I murmured. "It's not every day a god walks among men. You should be attired as one," he replied almost gruffly. "It's still the kindest thing anyone has done for me in a long time," I told him warmly. He released me and drew about an arms distance away, his hands resting on my shoulders. "Then, be kind to me and return. I enjoy making clothes for you." I swallowed hard and nodded. "Oh, and bring Nemu with you. I think Ikkaku has a crush on her," Yumi quipped. I couldn't help but laugh out loud.