Ichigo: I found it strange that after so many years of hiding all of myself from others –my name, my past, my name, and my heart– I revealed myself in the strangest of ways to the most unlikely person: I dozed off next to the absolutely gorgeous creature that happened to be the crown prince of Nigotta. To my credit, I did wake up about ten minutes later –before my little prince even dreamed of opening his eyes. Of course, when I did wake up, I set my head in my hands. What, by all things holy, what had possessed me to kiss him like that? Had I taken one look at him, thought He's the one for me, and tossed all caution to the wind? It had to be more of a matter of convenient distraction –there had been a lot of men I'd wanted to distract in my career, and I hadn't kissed anyone else! Had it been his ethereal beauty and startling innocence that had made me forget the rules given to me by the man who trained me? He tapped his cane against the ground. "Listen up, Berry, because I will only say these things once. Though I do permit it, I don't even like the girls in my shop to do this, let alone someone I've known all his life." I nodded quickly. "I understand, Hat-and-Clogs-san," I returned respectfully. "Thank you." He shifted the brim of his hat. "Don't thank me. I'm only doing this because I know your father and I know the future your sisters will have if you don't put this plan into action." I gave him a look. "That is the only reason this plan exists." His answering expression was without humor. "I know that, too." The silence between us was long and pensive. He took a deep breath. "So. Lesson one: Kisses are for lovers. Don't ever forget that. It's the reason clients don't kiss their companions and why you won't kiss your clients. Offering kisses implies an intimacy that will be missing from the situation, and you don't want your client confused on that issue. Nor do you want to be confused about the situation, either. Understood?" "Yes, sir." I shook off the memory as quickly as I could. While his lessons had saved me a lot of trouble, I didn't particularly want to recall them at the moment –especially not when I'd forgotten the first lesson so easily! Then again, I'd taken one look at Byakuya and known that he would never be just an ordinary client. With a sigh, I cast my gaze in his direction and watched him. the rise and fall of his chest was steady, rhythmic, and I found myself relaxing as I concentrated on that rhythm. Watching his sleep felt intimate, more intimate that kissing his lips or touching his body or even sucking him off. I didn't know why. Perhaps it was six years of selling myself to survive and living among others that did the same that made me view waking up next to someone as something more intimate than sex. Sex was a need, a drive. People sated that need and then just got on with their lives. It was the hurried quickie in a back alley or back room, or the night you spent with a prostitute crying out someone else's name. It was a matter of stimulation and urges. But waking up wrapped around a man who had worried about my pleasure felt like… well, pardon me for sounding naïve and corny, but it felt like love. Simple little things like touches and the need to explore and pleasure one's partner… those were different from the selfish way I perceived sex. Watching Byakuya sleep wasn't something I needed for my own pleasure, but it gave me pleasure in its own way. I couldn't fight my desire to play in his loose ink-dark hair. As my fingers laced through the silky strands, I thought about how beautiful he was, about how stunningly innocent he still managed to be despite how jaded he seemed, about the sweet way he tasted. Unfortunately, by thinking about him I managed to prompt my lazy mind to rewind to the last conversation we'd had before sleep had overtaken us both. He'd ask me to live at the palace with him, to play the role of consort while being the head of his security. I hadn't even thought about it all that much before answering him with the 'yes' he'd wanted to hear. Yet now, my brain began to shift through all of the hows and whys and reasons-I-should-have-said-no. Shiba Kaien, the man that my little prince had placed in charge of his younger sister's safety, was still the largest obstacle, and that was only if I completely ignored my birth status, current class status, occupation, and gender. Then again, my relationship with Kaien related back to two of the other four factors. My older cousin never had taken well to the pronouncement of the clan head that cut my family off from them. He, his wife, his sister and his brother had never let the clan's ruling get between them and my family, which had always made me feel all the closer to Kaien, Miyako, Kūkaku, and Ganju. Yet therein also lay the problem. The moment Kaien became aware of my new position as the prince's consort, my father would hear of it. Pretending that it wouldn't bring up any other questions was a delusion I wouldn't –no, couldn't– allow myself to have. There would be questions and answers and truths and half-truths and blatant lies. My father would either die of a heart attack or hunt me down and kill me. My sister Karin would just beat the hell out of me for doing this to myself. Sweet little Yuzu would get stuck in the middle of the whole mess, anyway. The only upside I could see would be that the Shiba clan, ever conscious of its limited political powers and bent on increasing it, would invite my family back into the fold. I hoped my damn goat-faced father would spit in their faces, because I certainly wasn't doing this for the benefit of the clan that had abandoned us when we needed it most. If I had to examine each and every action I'd made since we were cut off from the Shiba clan –my father's family– when I was only ten, I was pretty sure that I would find that none of my actions had ever been for my own pleasure. I had made many decisions: leaving my family, moving to another city, trading on my looks to get a position in a brothel as a thirteen year old, waiting until I had enough experience to move to a better brothel, and so many more little actions. Each decision had definitely had a huge impact on life as I knew it, but I had made those decisions so that Karin and Yuzu wouldn't have to make them. I had thrown away my only chances of a normal life so that my younger sisters could have a chance at a real life, the type of life my mother had wanted for all of us. Yet it wasn't with that goal in mind that I had accepted my little prince's offer. If I were truly honest, it had barely even crossed my mind to say 'no' to Byakuya. There was something about him, about those sad old eyes of his, that tied me in a multitude of knots and made my heart race. While the sensation was a little uncomfortable, it was far from unpleasant. When he'd asked me to come to the palace, to live with him and to protect him, my heart seemed to whisper, Here: this man, this prince –he is a man you could fall in love with. With that particularly sappy sentiment, I opened my mouth to tell him 'no' –there were so many reasons to tell him 'no', the least of which being that my little prince deserved so much better than a nineteen-year old whore that had been born a noble– only to find that the words tumbling off my lips in no way added up to a stark denial. Instead, they were an affirmation. It was the first choice I had made for my own happiness since I was ten years old. May the gods help me if it was the wrong one.
Byakuya: I awoke to the feeling of fingers sliding gently through my hair. My first thought was of Hisana, but even my barely-awake consciousness knew that my wife was dead and had been for a while. Besides, Hisana had never awakened me that way, despite her apparent fascination with my hair. Still, I wanted to know who had touched me so gently. As my eyes fluttered open, my gaze met as certain softness in whisky-colored eyes as a warm gentle hand stroked my brow. Allowing my eyes to fall shut once more, a slight smile turned up the corners of my lips. It was him, the boy I'd been dreaming about since I was nothing more than a boy myself. I searched my mind for his name, knowing that I'd never heard it in my dreams but that he'd told me, not allowing my eyes to open again until I found it. Then and only then did my eyelids slowly lift. "Ichigo," I greeted softly, surprised at the level of huskiness in my voice. His answering smile was full of wonder, as though I'd said something magnificent or special or important. It was punctuated by a lazy, sweet kiss before he answered me. "Byakuya," he whispered softly against my lips. Suddenly, I had a much better appreciation of the wonder I'd read in his expression earlier –probably because its mirror image was most likely present on my own face. Allowing my fingers to twine and twist in the soft strawberry-blond locks, I brought his lips back to mine for a smoldering kiss. We kissed for a while longer, savoring the taste of each other and the promise of the future. An old poem I read once came to mind. I couldn't remember who had written it or how old it was, only that it had evoked much emotion in me even as a child. But as I drew back from his sweet lips, I couldn't keep the first quatrain of the poem from tumbling past my lips.
"Drink to me only with thine eyes And I will pledge with mine; Or leave a kiss but in the cup And I'll not ask for wine."
He smiled at me and brought his lips back to mine to nip gently at my lower lip. "That's lovely, my little prince. Who wrote it?" I blushed when he called me that, mostly because I loved the sound of it –I loved that he already claimed me as his most of all. "I don't remember, exactly, but it is lovely, isn't it… You brought it to mind, Ichigo." Warm lips pressed firmly against mine for an instant before he withdrew and looked away. Instantly concerned, I cupped his face with my hands and turned it my way, wanting to know why he'd pulled away. To my surprise, he wore a dark blush. It only seemed to darken when my gaze met his for a moment. He worried his lower lip between his teeth and otherwise wore a particularly adorable embarrassed expression. I couldn't help myself: it was just so sweet that he could blush so easily at such a simple compliment, even living as he had. I pressed my lips against his again, my hand sliding back to anchor in his hair as I traced that alluring full lower lip with my tongue. He made a soft noise and opened quickly to me, seeking out my tongue and sucking on it until he drew it into his own mouth. Tantalizing fingertips trailed down the curve of my spine while the other hand seemed to get lost in the long strands of my hair. Breathing became sharp, panting puffs of air between open lips that separated for mere moments before meeting again in the same dance. We kissed again, deep and searching and scorching. I could feel the heat growing between us and swimming in my blood. I had never understood the excitement, the pure lusty joy of sweet heady kisses, of the rush of sheer pleasure, of the undiluted heat that burned between two people. Poets and playwrights and the other great writers of eras long past had written about love and lust in the most romantic and glowing of terms. This was the first time in my life that all of the beautiful love words and all of poetry and music and lyrics made sense to me. When he covered my body with his own and brought our lips back together, I suddenly remembered our nudity. How something like that had slipped my mind, I would never know. Especially since when that beautiful body was touching mine, I couldn't think about anything else! I slid my hands down his back in a slow caress and he arched into like a cat and released a smooth, silky sound. "Byakuya," he whispered against my lips. To punctuate his voice, he raised his hips against mine and startled a harsh sound out of me. I could do nothing but tremble at the sensation and at the way he spoke my name, as though it deserved reverence merely because it belonged to me and not because it belonged to a prince. And for the first time in my life, I felt like something other than an honor-bound crown prince, the heir to the throne, a child, or a chore. With Ichigo, I felt like more because he treated me like I was precious, a treasure, a gift from the gods. Ichigo had never given me any reason to doubt that he saw the person behind the title, the rank, and the gossip. Our connection was personal on several levels, more intimate than I'd ever allowed myself to be with anyone else. I felt like the man wandering through the desert without a canteen or bottle of water. As I stumbled through the sand, I saw mirages of the water I was dying to taste. Now, after meeting Ichigo, after getting to know him, after sharing with him, I knew without a doubt that he was my water. And I wanted to quench my thirst.