Isshin: I paced back and forth across the hardwood floor, staring at the pattern of the wood grains and wringing my hands. My son. My god, how could he hide something like this from me –from us?! Ryūken looked at me and simply shook his head. "For God's sake, Isshin stop that! You're making me even more worried and you're going to wear a hole in the floor." "I can't believe he thought to hide this from me, Ryuu!" He sighed and set down the book he'd been attempting to read. "I know. If it's any comfort, he made this career choice out of necessity –and you know why he did it." I stared at him, feeling my anger rise at his cavalier attitude about the situation. Damn it, this was my only son we were talking about! "Did you know? Did you know what my son was doing?" Blue eyes glinting with fury, he growled at me. "Damn it, Isshin, you are not going to turn this around on me! Of course not! I had no idea what he was up to –he went to Hat-and-Clogs-san." It was rather funny to hear my oldest friend regurgitate the cute title my son had given our friend, yet I had no desire to laugh. I knew he was just as worried as I was –he had been an 'uncle' to my son and our sons had been best friends as they grew up. It was simply easier to refrain from breaking down if I could direct my energy elsewhere. Yet now, I was too tired of it all to even bother. "How could he do this, Ryuu? How could he do this to himself?" I asked, my voice small and tired. Ryūken wrapped his arms loosely about me and tugged me closer and closer until I was pressed snuggly against him. The warm press of his body was more comforting than I could even comprehend. "He's a proud and stubborn man, Isshin –just like you. He needed to protect you and the girls, to provide a future for the girls that wouldn't involve his current lifestyle. Ichigo made the decision to lay down everything he had ever dreamed of, to sacrifice his own future and his own self –for you and Yuzu and Karin. I can't imagine how much he must love all of you." I wanted to cry. It sounded slightly beautiful, the way Ryūken described it, but I knew better than to think that there was any way it could have been beautiful to my Ichigo. "How... how could I do that to him, Ryuu? How could I make him feel responsible for the girls, for me –for all of us?" Wasn't I supposed to be his father? Wasn't I the one who was to protect him and provide for him? He shushed me slightly. "Isshin, he's a good man. When you were unable to care for your family, he stepped up to the plate. Now it is time for you to tell him that he's still your son, you still care for him, and that he doesn't need to do that anymore." "But... but what about us?" I asked, a little lost. Ryūken was frequently the only thing that held me together. What if bringing my son back home meant I had to do without my Ryuu? "What if...?" Ryūken kissed my lips and chuckled. "Isshin, your son is gay. My son is gay. I doubt that any of our children will have any problem with our relationship, if that's what you're worried about." "Wha– How do you know that?!" I demanded, stepping back from my lover a little. He arched a brow. "How did you not notice it? It's not as though he was inclined to skirt-chasing. He was three years below marriageable age when he left, so he should have been showing some interest. The only person I ever noticed Ichi noticing was Zangetsu." My thoughts returned to the letter laying on the coffee table. I didn't know what the circumstances could have been for Ichigo to run into Zangetsu in Kakoku, but I was still having a very mixed reaction to the urgent letter I had been sent earlier today. That the notice had been sent by a hawk –one charmed with speed, no less– told me the encounter had been recent and Zangetsu was very worried over his formal pupil. I didn't know what could be more worrisome than the fact my son had spent six years as a prostitute, but I was sure there was something. Zangetsu Mikaido loved my son in his way, and he would not betray Ichigo's trust unless there was something serious. I wrapped myself tighter around my lover and tried not to dwell on things. Ryūken rained kisses on my face and waited. This was a waiting game that Ryūken and I dealt with often enough. When things happened, I often found myself completely overwhelmed. My thoughts would race and race and race around my head, so fast and so jumbled that nothing really made sense. I think he liked to hold me to remind me that he was here, that I didn't have to deal with everything on my own anymore. Either way, it offered me the support I needed so badly, and eventually, my mind would clear and I would be able to make the right decisions. I was shuddering when I finally came to a decision, clinging to my lover like he was the only thing that could support me. Ryūken said nothing, as though to let me believe that all of this strength came from myself or simply to not bother acknowledging my weakness. "We need to go to Kakoku. We need to retrieve my son." He kissed my lips lightly. "Alright. We'll leave tomorrow morning. For now, Isshin, let's get some rest." Returning his kiss was as much of a reply as I could manage. I let him lead me back toward our bedroom and tried my best to forget the foreboding and the dread the letter had left me with. With a little help from Ryūken, I succeeded –at least for a bit.
Toshiro: I scowled at my father, still more than just a little uneasy about the trip we were preparing to embark upon in the morning. "Father, are you sure that he will be alright with our sudden visit? I mean, after all, he did just come of age. I'm sure Akane threw one of her famous balls in honor of him." Which would mean Byakuya was utterly exhausted and in a rather foul mood, since he hated those monstrosities his mother insisted on throwing. Father arched a brow at me. "Why wouldn't he welcome our visit, Shiro? It's been at least two years since I last saw his face. He is your dear friend, and I love him like a second son. Besides, it's not as though he will be given more responsibilities before Akane and Hajime start to fear a peasant uprising in the favor of 'the Hope of Nigotta'." I pointedly ignored my father's use of the title the peasants gave to Byakuya and grudgingly admitted he had a point. That didn't mean I would give him the satisfaction of admitting he was right aloud. "Begging your pardons, sires, but what about Sōjun-sama's predictions?" interjected our young traveling companion. Like his bow, his tone was smooth and even and quiet. I couldn't help but wonder if that tone was practiced as frequently as his archery. "The Deviner is never wrong and some of his words about Kuchiki-denka-sama" –he seemed to choke on the title, but his recovery almost pushed it from my mind– "definitely seemed quite dire. In fact, Sōjun-sama seemed a bit distressed when merely sharing them." My father patted the boy's hand calmly. I wondered if it gave the boy the same feeling of emasculation that hand-pat had always given me. "Ah, but Sōjun's predictions are ever ambiguous. If you look for trouble in them, it may be there, but if you search for joy, you will find it also." The boy's brow wrinkled, as though trying to look for the joy in the seemingly dire prediction. " 'You will be ruled by a noble forgotten and others will come to claim your life. Practice with a blade and it will cleave flesh; ignore your talents and your blood will be spilled.' Your pardon, heika, but I fail to find any joy in such a dire prediction." My father smiled. "It never says that Bya-chan will die, nor that he will not willingly surrender to the one who rules him. You must keep in mind that these predictions are liable to make much more sense to Byakuya than they do to us." "Not to mention," I interjected, "that Byakuya is long used to attempts on his life. I have no doubt that these predictions will do naught but aid him. After all, Sōjun-sama is his uncle and he has studied the interpretations of predictions from a young age." Our companion looked confused. "Sōjun-sama is Nigottian royalty? Isn't he older than Hajime-heika? Shouldn't he have taken the throne?" My father shook his head. "It's true that he is the elder brother, but his talents developed before he would have received the crown. Since he has the strongest Sight on the Continent, he was expected to fill the role as the Deviner. Leaving the throne to his younger brother hurt him greatly, especially since Hajime was not prepared to rule the way that Sōjun was." "Why couldn't he have done both, then?" the boy asked, a little astonished. "I mean, it would have been better than handing the throne to someone who wasn't prepared for it." "He couldn't," I told him. "The Deviner has to be neutral, not favoring any country over another. As a sovereign, he would have been biased toward Nigotta, and that wouldbe worse than leaving his throne to his younger brother. The Deviner does more than just See the future: he Sees the past and the present, and he is essential to maintaining the balance of our world." I didn't fault the young archer for asking –I had asked Sōjun the same question when I found out he was Byakuya's uncle. Then, of course, I decided to poke at something that had been intriguing me since my father had chosen the young archer to attend him last fall. "What is your bias against Nigotta, anyway, Ishida-kun?" He looked away. "I grew up on the Kōsei side of the border we share with Nigotta, so close that I could walk across the boarder easily. There was a boy I grew up with. Our parents were good friends, even though his father was the head of a Nigottian noble family. The boy would inherit clan leadership upon his father's death. The boy's mother died when he was nine, and his father took it quite hard. A few years passed, worked hard and eked out barely as his father dealt with losing his wife and tried to support his three children. "Another member of the family attempted to murder the boy's father, but the boy stepped between the two. The attacker nearly severed the boy's spinal cord with a knife. Ultimately, the incident resulted in the family disowning the boy and his family because his father killed the attacker. The family nearly starved to death, and the boy ultimately left home to try to support his family –successfully selling himself as a prostitute, even though he was underage. "You asked me what my bias against Nigotta was. When I think of Nigotta, I remember what happened to that boy I grew up with. That noble family threw out a family at it's most vulnerable, and the royal family let it happen. A 13-year old boy became a prostitute for what? Because some man didn't like the woman the boy's father had married?" I stared at the young archer, absolutely astonished. It was unbelievable to me, that a noble family would cast out family like that –the head of the clan no less! "The boy's mother... was she engaged to your father once upon a time, Ishida-kun?" my father asked softly. I stiffened. There was more to this terrible story? "Misaki Kurosaki?" the boy questioned slowly, as if tasting the name. My father nodded. "Of course not. Why would my father be on good terms with the man who stole his fiancée?" Somehow, I didn't quite believe the boy.
Sōjun: Gazing out the tower window, I watched my old friend stumble drunkenly through the royal garden. He was looking for someone not there –for someone he knew wasn't there, just as I was. As I gazed into the royal gardens, I could almost see young Byakuya running through the rows of flowers with a brilliant smile and a tinkling laugh. It was the only place I'd ever seen him truly happy, and I knew it had been because he was here. He had been strategically trapped inside the palace in Kakoku because my younger brother hated seeing similarities between his son and me. Here, with his dear Hisana and his closest friend, he got to be happy. Here, under the watchful eyes of two of my oldest friends, he had blossomed like the violet roses Hisana gave him. I remembered the way he would smile as he climbed the steps to reach my tower room. He would call out happily, " Sōjun-jisan! Sōjun-jisan!" and I would just gather him up in my arms and hold onto him for a few moments. My precious Byakuya, how are you spending your birthday?I wondered to myself, even as I entertained the ghosts of the past. Are you trapped at one of those horrid balls Akane loves to throw? Are you safe? Are you happy? Are you loved? Was it strange that he bore so much similarity to me? Byakuya would shake his head 'no'. "You spend time with me, Sōjun-jisan. That's more than Father does," he told me once, when he was quite young. Of course he would resemble those who nurtured him. That's why his temperament was a mix of Toshiro's and mine. " Sōjun, old friend," a voice called out. I smiled. Shunsuí was on time, as always. Dusk had barely broken and the king was preparing to leave the country in the morning. "Can you make it up the stairs, Shun?" I inquired. His laugh wasn't very steady and I already knew the answer. "Don't think so, Sōjun. Why don't you come down from your ivory tower?" If anyone else had called it my 'ivory tower', I would have taken offense, but Shunsuí was one of my childhood friends and he only called it that because I rarely left it. With a half smile, I slipped a dressing gown on over my clothes. Since night was coming, the temperature was dropping a little and I dare not catch a cold on one of my few trips outside of the tower. I made my way down the stairs quickly, knowing that a drunk Shunsuí was not something you left alone for long. He was just too damn good at getting into trouble when he was intoxicated. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I found him seated on the lowest stairs. He scooted over and I settled down beside him. He was quiet for a few moments, but I was patient. I knew he needed to talk, because I knew he hadn't talked to me in over three months. "I looked for Mi-Mi in the garden again." I touched his hand. "I know, Shun. Do you know why?" He sighed. "Juu-chan is going to see your Bya-chan. I promised her... promised her..." "What did you promise Mizuki, Shun?" I asked, trying to get him to focus again. He hadn't been this drunk in sometime now, and it was worrisome. The last time I'd seen him this drunk, he wound up in the hospital for alcohol poisoning. "Promised her I'd watch over her Shiro-chans... I promised her, but I can't go with him... Sōjun..." I stroked his brow gently. "Come now, Shun. Let's go upstairs and keep talking. You don't want them to see you this way..." "No. No, no, no. They musn't see..." he muttered. Easing him to his feet was a challenge. Dragging him up the stairs and into my tower was work. But I loved Shunsuí –probably more than I loved my own brother– and I knew that if the prince or the king saw him this way, it would destroy him. He'd been drinking for a very long time and he had never stopped drinking entirely. This was how he tried to cope, but it wasn't working. He needed another coping mechanism now, whether he knew it or not. When we reached the top of the stairs, he was less drunk –but that didn't exactly mean he was sober. "Juu-chan..." he murmured. "I know, Shun," I told him, bringing him into my rooms. "Why don't you sit? I'll get some water." He collapsed gracelessly on the sofa and I couldn't help but smile as I returned with two glasses full of water. I handed him one of the glasses. "Have you told him what you promised Mizuki, Shun?" "No. No. I can't." "Is it because you feel responsible, Shun?" I asked softly. Watching him nod hurt in the deepest portions of my heart. "Shun, listen to me. Are you listening? You are not responsible for Mizuki's death or for Tsuki's death. You can't help how you feel about him, but your guilt is going to destroy you." "But I resented her and I didn't want her near him..." I kissed his brow like he was a child. "Do you think that I resent Hajime for having Byakuya, for having the throne that was my birthright? Do you think I want him anywhere near Byakuya?" "No..." "Well, what do you think my resentment and my feelings toward Hajime have caused him harm?" He shook his head. "Then how can you blame yourself for what happened to Mizuki and Tsuki?" "I just do." "Well, he doesn't." "He doesn't know how I feel!" he replied before downing half the glass of water. "Then tell him! This is destroying you!" He shook his head. "You don't understand!" I recoiled at though I had been slapped. "How don't I understand?" I demanded. Shunsuí reached out for me, tears slipping down his face. "I'm sorry," he whimpered. "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." "I know, Shun. I know."
Ichigo: Spent and sated once more, I was happily curled around Byakuya and sliding my fingers through that silky, beautiful hair. "Ichigo?" he asked softly, "Hmm?" "Will you come back with me tonight, or will you need some time to prepare?" We'd ignored the situation in favor each others' bodies and a short nap, but ultimately, these things needed to be settled. After all, I had agreed to this –and I certainly didn't fancy the notion of leaving my beautiful little prince at all, let alone all alone in a place where people wanted to kill him! "Tonight should be fine." I lifted his hand to my lips and pressed a kiss to the smooth skin. "I shall have to send out some letters, to explain things, but not many things actually require my personal attention." I still wanted to let reality, the real world, and all of the rest of it just wait on me. Really, how frequently would I have to time to simply lay abed with my lover? I just wanted the world and the responsibilities and the consequences to all disappear so I could stay here in this moment with Byakuya until the sun burned out. "You're ignoring it, aren't you." It wasn't a question; it was a statement, and he sounded so amused by the notion. "Am I so obvious, my little prince?" I inquired softly, smiling and tracing his strong arms with both hands. He chuckled. "I want to ignore it all, too." I smiled. "I just want the world to leave us alone for a bit longer," I confessed. "Just a little longer. I want this moment with you." Leaning in, he kissed my lips sweetly and withdrew with the softest of smiles. "You know it can't, Ichigo." "Yeah, well, I can dream, Byakuya," I shot back, wondering just when he'd become so comfortable kissing me. I'd had to teach him how, and now, it seemed he as getting to be a regular kissing fiend. Not that I minded –those lips were warm and soft and intoxicating, and I loved it. He swept my hair back off my neck and pinned it up with a hair stick. I just enjoyed the feeling of his hands in my hair, not caring whether the hair stick had been his or mine originally. "Koi, perhaps you should get a head-start on those letters?" I looked at him, a little surprised. He'd called me 'koi' –'love'. For a relationship that was only a few hours old, using it so soon should be almost off-putting. Yet he said it with so much genuine affection that I knew he wasn't just calling me that –he meant it. That should have been even scarier, but it was Byakuya and I already felt so close to him, I already cared for him so much. "I don't want to write them." Pouting like a child, I nuzzled into his shoulder more. His chuckle was warm. "Shall I make you a deal, then? If you write the letters now, I'll... I'll..." "Whisk me away into your palace to live happily ever after, little prince?" I quipped. The look he gave me said 'You're adorable; now shut up'. "I'll give you ten minutes to do whatever you want to do to me," he returned. I'm sure my answering smile was positively wicked. My lovely chaste prince, giving me free reign over his body for ten minutes? He had no idea what I could do to a man in ten minutes. "No conditions. Anything I want, for ten minutes?" He swallowed hard. "Anything you want. I think. I want to retract my offer now." I laughed and shifted so I could kiss his nose. "I won't do anything bad, my little prince. Not this time, anyway. We'll have to let it wait until after we get home, anyway." He positively glowed when I referred to the palace as my home, and I blushed, unable to believe I'd said such a thing. I decided to distract myself. Glancing around the room, I frowned. Of course there was no pen and paper in here. Byakuya chuckled and waved his hand in a careful arc. To my surprise, in his once empty hand, there rested the two very instruments I had been searching for. Magick. Gods, it had been so long since I had used my magick that I had forgotten I had it, settled down deep in my chi. With a quavery smile, I crossed the room and kissed his lips briefly before taking the the pad of paper and pen from his hand. "Gods, I forgot that you were magick," I told him with a wink. He blushed prettily and I was very proud of myself. "What about you, Ichigo? Can you use magick?" My laughter was rusty. "It's been so long since I've used it... I'm not sure it hasn't all dried up." If it was still there, he was going to be surprised by how much magick I had –after all, he thought me a peasant, and nobles almost always had more magick that the peasants. He kissed me lightly. "I'm sure I can find someone to help refine your talents if you'd like, hidenka." I shivered when he called me that. That title would take some getting used to, but it was mine now: consort. "If it pleases you to," I returned softly. "I fear I might be a poor student, though." "I believe you can do anything you set your mind to, Ichigo." I'm sure I blushed, but I settled down in the bed beside him anyway. Laying on my stomach, I began to think about who all I needed to tell these things. Mayuri, of course, since he was my boss. Nemu and Shuei, because they were my friends. Yumi, because he would be astounded and happy for me all at once. Zangetsu, because he worried over me so much. I had a wayward thought of a particular nobleman from Kōsei that had taken quite a shine to me, but I brushed the idea off for the time being; I could write to him later. I decided to put off writing to my father, as well –I really didn't want to explain to him what I'd been doing for the last six years. I had to think about how much each person needed to know and how much I wanted them to know. When I made up my mind, I began to write in the precise hand my teachers had ingrained into me. My lover nuzzled against my neck and dozed off again, which was just as well: the letters revealed parts of me he didn't know yet. I would tell him soon enough –when the time was right and I had the time to explain things. I doubted it would change his opinion of me, but he deserved to know.
Byakuya: I woke to soft swearing and rustling paper. A broad smile crossed my lips and I didn't even have to open my eyes to know it was Ichigo. "Hidenka," I inquired, cracking one eye open, "what's troubling you?" "...I can't get the damn spell I always used to use right," he replied sheepishly, turning to look at me. I sat up slowly, trying to wake up enough to be competent enough to help. "Do you use a focus?" "Sometimes. It depended on what I was doing. If I was doing something small, I could use a focus, but it was just easier if I didn't..." "Show me, Ichigo. I can't help if I don't see the problem." He swallowed hard and before lightly touching a blank sheet of paper. The paper lifted from the desk and folded itself into the most elaborate origami flower I'd ever seen. Swallowing hard, I looked around the room and saw close to ten different pieces of origami, each just as elaborate as the flower. I cleared my throat. "What are you trying to do, then?" "I... I used to be able to fold them into frogs and have them hop to their recipient." I blinked owlishly at him. How was he releasing so much more energy that he intended? It didn't make any sense, especially since he was doing it again and again! "Ah, close your eyes," I instructed him. He did as I instructed. "Now, imagine the letters folding themselves into frogs and jumping to their intended recipients." The words had no sooner left my mouth when all at once, five different pieces of paper folded themselves into small paper frogs and bounced out the window. I must have gasped, because Ichigo opened his eyes quickly. "What's wrong? What did I mess up?" "They all... all at once..." He eyes widened. "Huh?" I touched his hand. "I will have someone come to help you with your magick tomorrow. For now, let's go home." I had a feeling Kisuke would be very interested to see the boy's abilities, and he would have a better idea what to do with so much raw magick. He nodded slowly. "I have a few things at my apartment I need..." I couldn't help myself. "Try bringing them to you, Ichigo. Just imagine it, like earlier." He shook his head. "With my lack of control, I'd probably rip a wall out or something..." "Then we will send someone after them tomorrow," I told him. "For now, let's just go back to the palace." The answering smile was weak. "Alright." My mind racing with at the recollection of his abilities, I dressed quickly and in silence. When I turned around, Ichigo was also dressed. He wandered around the room a little, pulling items out here or there until he had a small satchel with a small lump in it and shoes on his feet. His smile seemed a bit mortified and I reached out to touch him. I hadn't meant to embarrass him. "You have a lot of raw magick," I remarked softly. "It's impressive." He snorted. "It would be impressive if I had any sort of control." I remembered his fist words after the paper-frogs. 'What did I mess up?' Did he have so little confidence in his ability? Was he so used to always 'messing up' that he couldn't see the beauty of his gift? "I think... I think you should meet my uncle sometime..." I told him lightly, reaching out and taking his hand. "I think Sōjun-jisan might be able to help you some." Sōjun-jisan was the only person I'd ever met that had a similar level of power to Ichigo. It would be interesting to see what he thought of my consort, as well. He smiled, but I was pretty sure it was an attempt to humor me. We left the brothel through the back-door. The streets were almost deserted, so I didn't bother to keep my face down. All of the people in the streets were drunk, anyway, and no one would believe them if they said they saw the crown prince walking hand in hand with another man. I was careful to keep Ichigo's hand in mine all the way back to the palace. I rapped on the gate with the knuckles of my other hand and waited. After a few moments, the gate swung open and we slipped inside. "Kuchiki-denka," Shiba Kaien greeted, "who is it that you have brought with you?" Ichigo stiffened instantly at the sound of his voice, then straightened his posture and turned very slowly to look at the other man. "Hello, Kaien-onii-sama." Stunned, I watched as the man I had assigned to guard my sister embraced my new consort. "Ichigo!" he breathed out, holding him tight. "Isshin-jisan didn't know where you were and I feared the worst...!" Hesitantly, Ichigo returned the embrace. "I'm fine, Kaien-nii. I'm fine." I cleared my throat and both men turned to look at me. "I believe you told me that you were not associated with the Shiba clan, Ichigo-hidenka." He met my gaze strongly but released a heavy breath before answering. "I'm not. I was disowned. But that doesn't mean I wasn't born a Shiba. I apologize for misleading you, my little prince, but I did not lie. Kaien is my cousin, and he never really gave a shit about that particular family edict." It seemed that what I called Ichigo finally got through to Kaien. "Hidenka?!" he exclaimed. Ichigo chuckled. "Indeed. My prince has come at last," he told Kaien with a wink, "and he has asked me to be his consort." "...I totally want to be there when you tell my sister," Kaien finally said. "Kūkaku will never believe it." He squeezed my hand, as though apologizing, before offering me a smile. "Neither will I." "Then I shall have to remind you, hidenka," I replied softly, bringing his hand to my lips and brushing a kiss to it. "Rukia-ojousama will be thrilled," Kaien remarked with a smile. "She has been worried that you would be alone." No. Never alone. I told myself. Not so long as I have Ichigo.