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After Ever After - The Fear of Forever

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The princes of Veekay figured something was up from the way their father was fidgeting during their meeting in his private office.

Granted, it wasn't a usual practice for the king to meet with both his sons at once, but there was the matter of Toya's upcoming birthday celebration to discuss – and a few other matters. Plans to hire more official government photographers were moving forward – which meant, of course, that MiA would be hired and brought to live in the capital (along with his boyfriend, Koichi). Parliament was currently discussing a bill to provide more finding for libraries in lower-class districts.

“And furthermore, the nation of Jiluka is reopening its embassy for the first time in nearly a hundred years,” the king said. “Which means we need to evict whatever relatives are using it as a guest house at the moment.”

“Nobody right now,” Yo-ka said. “Great-Aunt Tomoko went back to Versailles last week. When is this ambassador arriving?”

“Two weeks from now,” the king said. “He's just been appointed. He'll be bringing his fiance and a compliment of guards – which means we'll have to loan him some of our household staff until he hires his own.”

“We have plenty,” Yo-ka said. “And Father, what is this meeting REALLY about?”

The king looked at his son sharply. “What does that mean?”

“I mean, your eyes are looking all around the room the way they do when you are nervous, which means that there is something you clearly are afraid to tell us,” Yo-ka said. “Which further means this meeting really wasn't about photographers, or the Jilukan ambassador, or library funding.”

“Those things are important!” the king said.

“But not as important as what you're REALLY going to tell us?” Toya said.

The king sighed and raked his fingers through his graying hair. “Fine,” he huffed. “There is one more thing.” He paused. His sons looked at each other, knowing what their father was about to say was either very good or very bad.

“Your cousin will be coming to the capital next week to begin his training as Royal Chief of Staff.”

Instantly, both princes' faces burst out in an expression of joy. They were like kids discovering exactly what they wanted under the tree on Christmas. “Really?” Yo-ka said. “REALLY?”

“Yes,” the king said, stoically. “And I will thank all THREE of you to remember that you are adults now!”

“Oh, my God!” Toya said. “We haven't seen him in ages! A year! More than year!”

“Not since before the Culling,” Yo-ka said. “I have to have him meet Yuuki!”

“He's meeting Subaru, too!” Toya said. “And if he's going to live in the palace, that means we get to hang out all the time! We can take him to all . . .”

“I SAID remember that you're adults,” the king said. “And yes, he will be living here at first. He might find an apartment off palace property later.”

Toya looked like he was about to flat-out squee. “This made my day,” he said. “Hell, this made my YEAR!”

“All right,” the king said. “You are dismissed. First order of business is to get that embassy ready.” The princes got up and headed for the door. “And remember your manners!”

The brothers turned around, in unison, and bowed low to their father, then rushed out the door and into the hall. “Oh, wow,” Toya said. “Just in time for my birthday!”

“You're lucky,” Yo-ka said.

“Well, he'll be here for YOUR birthday, too!” Toya said. “We can have a Halloween party like we used to when we were kids.”

“Isn't Jun coming for your birthday, too?” Yo-ka said.

Toya suddenly stopped in his tracks at the mention of his best friend's name. “Yes. Yes, he is.” He frowned as realization suddenly dawned. “Oh, shit . . .”

“Oh, shit, indeed,” Yo-ka said.

They gave each other a meaningful look. They both knew that something in the past could very well come to haunt the present – and suddenly, the prospect of their cousin coming seemed a lot more problematic.

* * *

“So why is your cousin moving here?” Subaru said, looking up from the stack of possible surfboard designs he was currently perusing on his desk – which was right across from Toya's in their office. Which was just off their sitting room. Their bedroom was behind that, with their dressing room off to the side.

You could have fit Subaru's entire home back in Royz into their suite of apartments and probably had a bowling alley left over.

“Well,” Toya said, getting up from his own desk and walking over toward his Pledged, “Hitomi is the son of my father's brother, the Supreme Archduke of Moran. That's the title given to an ex-Prince of Charlotte when he's forced out of the position. A Prince of Charlotte keeps his title until his brother, the king, has a second child. At that point, the child becomes the new prince, and the old prince gets the Supreme Archduke title.”

“He has to leave Charlotte?” Subaru said.

“Not right away,” Toya said. “The Prince of Charlotte doesn't officially claim his principality until he comes of age. When he turns 20? THEN the Supreme Archduke has to leave. He moves to Moran and becomes its governor at that point. The old governor gets forced into retirement.”

“Then . . . why is your cousin coming here, instead of staying there?” Subaru said.

“The eldest child of the Supreme Archduke of Moran is always given the title Duke or Duchess of Fatima – that's a district of Moran. And, by tradition, he or she serves as the Royal Chief of Staff to the next king or queen. Meaning, Hitomi is going to be Yo-ka's Chief of Staff. He'll be in charge of running day-to-day palace business, getting reports of what's going on in the various districts, and keeping nobles from killing each other. Yo-ka is thinking of making Hitomi the head of the Parliament, too.”

“He's going to have a big job,” Subaru said. “Especially the keeping nobles from killing each other part.”

“He can handle it.” Toya hugged his Pledged. “Hitomi is an incredible guy. I told you about him during the Culling, remember? The cousin that Yo-ka and I got into all kinds of trouble with when we were kids?”

“Oh, yes, I remember,” Subaru said. Toya had, indeed, talked quite a bit about his favorite cousin, and the mischief they got into when visiting each other's palaces, and how, when they were a bit older, they'd sneak out to nightclubs together. They weren't out to drink, mind you – just to hear the music, and to gawk at the beautiful, well-dressed people of both genders whose lives weren't restricted by the parental credo, “You have to act like a high-born young man.”

“So,” Subaru said, “did he grow up to be a wild guy?”

“He's actually pretty classy,” Toya said. “Yo-ka always says that Hitomi looks and acts more like a prince than either one of us.” He paused. “Though he DOES have a wild side, I guess. He was dating a male burlesque performer for awhile, and he got . . .” He looked to the left, then to the right, as if expecting someone to be listening. He leaned over and whispered to Subaru, “A tattoo.”

“Really?” Subaru said, eyes wide. “I thought nobles didn't do that!”

“He did,” Toya said. “He keeps it hidden under his shirt most of the time, but you'll see it if we go swimming or to a hot spring. It's a butterfly on his chest and it's gorgeous.”

“And he got it because of this burlesque performer?”

“Not really, he just thought it was a cool idea. That relationship didn't work out in the long run, anyway,” Toya said. “There was another one that was a lot more serious with a guy named Kamijo – the son of the Archduke of Versailles. That went on for a long time. They split up at one point, were separated for a few months and got back together. And during that separation . . .” He sat on the chair next to Subaru's desk. “Hitomi went out with Jun.”

“You mean, your best friend?” Subaru said. “The guy I met over Christmas?”

“That's him,” Toya said. “They seemed to like each other, but Jun wasn't really ready for a serious relationship, and Hitomi wasn't ready to quit Kamijo for good, and they fell apart. And now, well . . . Hitomi's going to be here for my birthday, and so is Jun. It's going to be the first time they've seen each other since then.”

“Oh, wow,” Subaru said. “That's going to be awkward, isn't it?”

“I hope not,” Toya said. “I want this to go well. It's going to be my first birthday since you came into my life!”

“Then we're going to make it the best birthday ever, won't we?” Subaru said.

“Beyond the best birthday,” Toya said. “I can't wait!”

But even as he hugged his beloved, the “Oh, shit” feeling was rising in the back of his head again. What if things went badly between the former couple? This was either going to be the best birthday of his life or the worst.

* * *

The king was always one for formal protocol. And so, when his nephew arrived at the palace, he insisted that the boy be greeted officially by the royal family.

This meant that they assembled in the throne room, the king and princes in formal military uniforms, the queen in a dress kimono, all of them wearing their crowns and coronets. The four of them were sitting on the royal dais, Yo-ka at his father's right hand, Toya at his mother's left.

Subaru and Yuuki were sitting off to the side of the dais, both wearing dress kimonos and their Pledge collars. This conveyed their status as almost-but-not-quite members of the Royal Family – which Yuuki found rather annoying. “In any other situation, a guy would be allowed to sit next to his boyfriend,” he whispered to Subaru.

The doors to the throne room opened, and a guard appeared, announcing, “His Grace, the Duke of Fatima.” He stepped to one side and bowed to a person outside the doors, then took his hand and led him into the room.

The person in question was a man a few years older than the two princes, dressed in a red military uniform with black trim similar to theirs – the traditional formal wear of the Ducal Family of Moran. He also had light-brown hair to his shoulders and a stunningly beautiful face, with wide eyes and shapely lips.

“Damn,” Yuuki whispered. “Are ALL royals smoking hot? Well, other than him?” He nodded in the direction of the king.

The newcomer was led front and center in front of the dais, where he bowed low. “Greetings, Your Majesties and Your Highnesses,” he said. “I bring you the best wishes of my parents, the Supereme Duke and Duchess of Moran.”

“Greetings to you as well, Your Grace,” the king said. “How was your trip here?”

“Good, as always, Your Highness,” the young duke said. Subaru studied his face. He was playing the role of the formal nobleman flawlessly, to be sure – but Subaru sensed a slight discomfort there, like someone wearing a too-tight outfit who couldn't wait to get it off.

“I trust you will serve us well in your duties as Royal Chief of Staff in training,” the king said. “And I trust you will conduct yourself in a manner befitting your office.”

“Of course, sir,” Hitomi said.

“Since you have not seen your cousins since they were pledged to these . . .” The king gave Subaru and Yuuki a wary glance that conveyed he was restraining himself from saying “cabaret singer and guttersnipe.” “These gentlemen, I will let them present them. And REMEMBER, both of you – with formality.”

Yo-ka got up from his throne, climbed off the dais and walked over to Yuuki, holding out his hand. Yuuki took it, and Yo-ka led him over to Hitomi. “May I present my Pledged, the Grand Archduke of Lycaon,” he said. Yuuki rolled his eyes, as he always did when he heard his hated formal title.

Hitomi bowed. “It is a pleasure,” he said.

Yuuki, who knew the game of being a formal noble well, bowed low. “Likewise, Your Grace,” he said.

Subaru watched, feeling a bit nervous. What do I do? He thought. I never know what to do in these formal situations – even though I had all that “duke training.” When Toya walked over to him, he sprang out of his seat as if he had been shot from a cannon.

He was led over to the newcomer, waited for the formal greeting, and then bowed, saying, “H-hello!” He could just imagine the king shaking his head behind him.

“We will have the formal reception for you in conjunction with the birthday celebration for the Prince of Charlotte,” the king said. “I look forward to it.”

“As do I,” Hitomi said.

“You are all dismissed,” the king said. “I expect to see you all in the main dining room tonight.” Which was his way of telling the princes, no grabbing your cousin and your pledged ones and going out to town to eat crap in some godforsaken izakaya where ANYONE could go eat and drink.

The princes and duke bowed, the two pledged ones followed suit, and they all walked out of the throne room in a calm procession . . .

And as soon as they got out in the hall, Hitomi suddenly grabbed his two cousins in a double headlock, pulling them close. “Hey!” he said. “I thought I was never going to see you two idiots again!”

“It hasn't been THAT long!” Yo-ka said as he struggled to get out of his cousin's grip.

“Are you kidding me?” Hitomi said. “It's been forever! Look, Toya's grown about two inches since I saw you last!”

“I don't grow anymore!” Toya said. “You're just wearing lower shoes on those massive-ass feet!”

“You know what they say about guys with big feet, right?” Hitomi finally let his cousins go.

“That they have big mouths?” Yo-ka retorted.

Hitomi turned to Yuuki and Subaru. “So you're the two who are stuck with these guys, huh?”

“Happily stuck,” Yuuki said. “I'm Yuuki.”

“That one's mine!” Yo-ka said. “Don't get any ideas!”

“So, then, by default, the little cutie pie is with Toya,” Hitomi said. “Hey, that's fitting. Cute goes with cute.”

Subaru blushed. “I'm Subaru,” he said.

“He's a brilliant surfer,” Toya said, moving next to his pledged one. “He even designs boards! He and I are starting a surfboard and sidewalk surfer company together.”

“What does your father think of that?” Hitomi said.

“Does it matter?” Toya retorted.

Hitomi smacked Toya on the back. “I raised you well, you know that?” He turned to Yo-ka. “You know, for someone who said he absolutely, positively wasn't going through a Culling, you seem to have had success with it. Both of you.”

“You're entitled to have one too, you know,” Yo-ka said. “The Duke of Fatima is the only non-prince in the country who can have a Culling.”

“Don't remind my father, please,” Hitomi said. “I'd rather pretend that wasn't true.” He looked over at Yuuki and Subaru. “I'm looking forward to getting to know you two,” he said. “It's not easy to get a lock on these guys.”

“Believe me, I know,” Yuuki said. “I had competition. One piece of competition from every district in the country.”

“And you were in the lead from day one,” Yo-ka said. “Look, I know Father is insisting on the formal welcoming dinner tonight, but afterward – drinks on the terrace? We'll invite some other friends over. Like Tatusya – he's with one of my other Culling candidates now.”

“Damn,” Hitomi said. “That Culling is the gift that just keeps on giving, isn't it?”

“You can still have one, you know,” Yo-ka said.

“No thanks,” Hitomi replied. “I'm leaving that to you.”

It's amazing, Subaru thought, how quickly they went from formal royals to just regular guys. He really was looking forward to getting to know Toya's cousin a bit better.

This is one relative of Toya's, Subaru thought, who will NOT think of me as a guttersnipe.

* * *

Drinks on the terrace, for the royal family, amounted to having their very own outdoor bar. The terrace in question was a patio covered with elegant white tables, surrounded by finely sculpted matching chairs. Equally sculpted hedges and tasteful flower gardens were around the perimeter of the tables. At one end of the complex was a bar, where one of the royal family's butlers dispensed beer, wine, and top-shelf spirits. At the other end was a bandstand, which Yuuki remarked he needed to utilize someday.

Right now, Subaru was at said bar, ordering a beer. It had taken him awhile to get used to this kind of thing – servants everywhere, luxury always within reach. During the Culling, it had all seemed like some sort of surreal dream world that he felt could be snatched away at any moment. Now, that dream was everyday reality.

As he took his beer and headed back toward the tables where the princes and their friends were sitting, he was approached by Hitomi. “Hey,” he said. “Can we talk for a moment?”

“Um, okay?” Subaru said. He glanced over to where Toya was sitting with his brother, laughing at something Yuuki had said. His significant other definitely looked engaged enough that he wouldn't miss Subaru for a few minutes.

“Let's go over there.” Hitomi nodded toward a bench at the side of the gardens. Subaru went over to it, sitting down gingerly and cradling his drink in his hands. The duke sat next to him.

“I just want you to know,” Hitomi said, “that I'm really glad Toya found you, and I'm hoping with all my heart you have a good life together. I've wanted that boy to fall in love for years. He was always such a sweet kid – and he never found the right person. There were a few times when he thought he had something, and it would fall apart.”

“He told me it had been a long time since he'd had anyone,” Subaru said.

“In a way? I don't think he had enough faith in himself,” Hitomi said. “He's a royal who wants to be a regular guy, you know? And yet, everyone sees him as a prince. He'd get involved with someone and then realize the person wanted him to take them out to fancy nightclubs and expensive resorts. They didn't just want to go to an izakaya or the beach with him. And, of course, the way the king is, Toya didn't get an opportunity to meet very many regular guys.”

“I know,” Subaru said, quietly. “The king wasn't too happy about me. You . . . you know where I'm from, right?”

“Yes,” Hitomi said. “And that's one reason why you're so perfect for him. You're completely unpretentious – and that made an impression. Do you know that the night before the end of the Culling, Toya wrote me a big letter about you?”

Subaru looked started. “He did?”

“Oh, yes. He told me all about you, how he'd met you during his brother's Culling and fell in love, but he was in denial about it for the longest time – because he didn't want to steal you from him. But he also said you were what he'd waited for all his life – someone sweet and unpretentious who he could have fun with. So he talked to Yo-ka about it, and Yo-ka agreed to give you up. He wanted Toya to be in love, too.”

“It was the same thing for me,” Subaru said, softly. “I loved Toya almost from the moment we met, but I was in denial, too. All through the Culling, I kept wondering what my feelings for Yo-ka were, why I liked him – but didn't seem to be falling in love with him. That's because it was Toya I wanted, all along.”

“See, it was luck,” Toya said. “You were meant to meet him.”

“What about you?” Subaru said, gently. “Yo-ka said something about you being entitled to a Culling . . .”

“The hell with that,” Hitomi took a long sip of his beer. “My father wants me to do that. He's been hinting at it ever since I broke up with my last boyfriend. He wants me to find someone high-born – because he, let's say, didn't approve of a couple of my choices in the past.”

The burlesque dancer, Subaru thought. He figured it was best not to say anything about that.

“My last boyfriend . . . he was high-born, all right,” Hitomi said. “Son of the Archduke of Versailles. A distant relative of the royal family – distant enough that my being with him wasn't incest. But – it didn't work. We tried, a few times, but we realized we were better off being friends.”

“So . . . there's nobody else?” Subaru said.

“Well, there was someone at one point,” Hitomi said. “Between rounds of dating my serious boyfriend. But . . . we'll just say I let him get away. Not entirely smart of me.”

Is that Jun he's talking about? Subaru thought. Does he regret their relationship falling apart? If Jun came back . . . could they get back together again?

“But enough about that,” Hitomi said. “I'd better get you back to Toya before he thinks I'm going to steal you. And we don't want that to happen, right?”

“No.” Subaru stood up, drink in hand, and followed the other man back to his table.

I'm glad he's happy for us, he thought. But isn't he entitled to the same happiness?

* * *

The next day, the two royal couples met up for lunch in one of the smaller private dining rooms, as was their usual habit. Hitomi was getting moved into his temporary quarters in the palace and sent word that he probably wouldn't be joining them, although he would be there for dinner.

“Just what is he going to be doing in this new job, anyway?” Subaru asked Yo-ka.

“Shadowing Uncle Yuuto. Well, we call him Uncle Yuuto, even though he's really my father's cousin. Basically, Hitomi's an intern – he's going to be learning the day-to-day business of what a Chief of Staff does.”

“I think it's ridiculous that your family will force someone into a job just because of who their father is,” Yuuki said. “Bad enough that they do it to you and Toya, they have to do it to your cousins, too?”

“It's not all my cousins,” Yo-ka said. “Hitomi's brother and sister are free to live their lives however they want. It's just that the position of Palace Chief of Staff has been given to the eldest son of the king's oldest brother for centuries. It's sort of a make-good to the brother for kicking him out of prince-hood to make room for the king's kids.”

“Hitomi's always been cool with it, too,” Toya said. “He studied international politics in college just like we did. When he was back in Moran, he was his father's lieutenant governor – he couldn't come for Christmas this year because of something he was doing for his father.”

“I still think he should have had the right to make his own choices,” Yuuki said. “When someone doesn't get any say in . . .”

And then, suddenly, a voice from the doorway yelled, “Hey! I'm here! I dropped off my bags with the valets, they told me you were in here.”

The group looked up, and there was a man with bright pink hair, dressed in an equally bright pink jacket covered with patches, worn on top of all black clothing. Toya suddenly sprung from his seat and launched himself at the newcomer like a guided missile. “JUN! Oh, my God, I wasn't expecting you yet!”

“I came early,” the other man said, hugging the prince. “And I have news.”

“What kind of news?”

“Let me sit down and I'll tell you.” Jun separated himself from his friend and made his way to the table for four, pulling a seat from one of the two surrounding tables and putting it at the end. “Hi, Yo-ka! And Yuuki! And my God, Subaru, you've gotten even cuter since Christmas, if that's possible.”

“Hi, Jun,” Subaru said. He had first met Toya's best friend from college over the holidays – and been impressed. Jun was a fun guy to be with, plain and simple. He was from a family of gentry in the Spiv States, a cluster of three islands off the country's coast, and now worked as a designer of guitars – something that wasn't lost at all on Yuuki, given that he was both a musician and an advocate for the wealthy following their passions like everyone else.

“So, then, what's this news?” Toya said. “Did you meet someone?”

“I wish,” Jun said. “I should be so lucky, really. No, I got a contract from ESP to produce guitars for them! They liked my stuff so much that they're giving me my own line!”

“WHOA!” Toya said. “That is fabulous, Jun!”

“But that's not the best part,” Jun said. “They said they wanted me to be in close proximity to their staff if at all possible. And since their staff is based in the capital, that means I'm moving here!”

“YES!” Toya jumped up and punched a fist in the air, bumping the table in the process. Dishes clanked and a glass nearly spilled, frantically grabbed by Yuuki at the last minute so the iced green tea wouldn't slosh all over his clothes. “Oops, sorry!”

“So that's why I came early,” Jun said. “I'm apartment-hunting. Your mother said I could stay here until I found a place. I knew better than to even try your dad.”

“You called my mom directly?” Toya looked surprised.

“I have her private office number, remember?” Jun said. “She likes me. I think she wanted me to get together with you, really.”

“She did?” Subaru looked dismayed.

“Not that I WOULD,” Jun said. “That would feel like incest! Toya and I have been best friends since . . .”

And then, another voice from the door said, “All settled in! You guys have any more room for . . .”

A dead silence fell over the room. Jun heard the voice. He seemed shocked, and startled, and maybe a bit hurt. He turned around, slowly, his eyes confirming his worst fears about who it was.

Hitomi stood rooted to the spot, eyes wide, as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. WHO he was seeing. Why here, why now . . .

Jun stood up from the table and turned toward him, eyes burning like coals. “Hello, Hitomi. It's been awhile.”

“Jun . . .” He couldn't get out anything more than the name. He just stood there staring in disbelief.

“So how is Kamijo?” Jun said with forced politeness. “You left me to go back to him, as I recall.”

“He . . . he . . .” Hitomi looked down. “He and I aren't together anymore.”

“I'm sorry to hear that.” The false sincerity was fairly dripping from Jun's voice now. “Wasn't he the great love of your life?”

“I thought so at the time,” Hitomi said. “I was young. We make misjudgments when we're young.”

Subaru suddenly looked uncomfortable. He felt like he was listening in on something he really had no right to be listening to.

“Misjudgments?” Jun said. “Is that what they're calling them now? Was I one, too?”

“I . . . I don't . . .”

“Excuse me,” Jun said. “I need to unpack.” He suddenly got up, pushed past Hitomi and fled the room. The duke just stared in the direction he'd fled to, an odd expression on his face.

The two royal couples were left just staring, jaws hanging open. If Jun arriving was unexpected, this was even more so.

“What the hell just happened?” Yuuki whispered.

* * *

Jun was pacing back and forth across the sitting room of Toya's suite. Pacing might not be entirely accurate, though. It was more like powering from one side of the room to the other, his agitation propelling him like a speedboat cutting through the waters.

“I can't believe he showed up,” he shouted in the direction of the prince and his lover, who were side-by-side on the couch. “I can't believe I ran into him. I can't believe I have to deal with those feelings again. Why the hell NOW, just when my life is going great?”

“I would have warned you,” Toya said, “but Mother didn't tell me you were coming this soon.”

“This is why I don't come for holidays!” Jun said. “You always ask me why I'm not here for holidays, it's because HE usually shows up! I only came for Christmas this year because you said he wasn't coming!”

“You should have known he'd be here for my birthday,” Toya said, softly.

“I thought he'd just come for the party and I'd be able to avoid him!” Jun said. “Doesn't he usually stay in that embassy nobody uses?”

“Somebody's using it,” Toya said. “They've got an ambassador coming in two weeks.”

“Jun,” Subaru said, gently, “exactly what happened? Toya told me you'd been going out with him, and he went back to his old boyfriend . . .”

* * *

“I panicked, that's what happened!” Hitomi said as he prowled around the perimeter of Yo-ka's sititng room like a panther. “I panicked and broke it off with him and went back to Kamijo, even though I knew it probably wasn't going to work.”

“You were falling in love with him . . . so you LEFT him?” Yuuki said. He and Yo-ka were seated on the couch just watching the spectacle in front of him, much like the other couple in the other suite.

“I wasn't expecting it!” Hitomi said. “I'd always thought Jun was hot, so when Kamijo broke it off with me the first time, I thought I'd ask him out. I was in Moran at the time, he was living in Undercode” – a city adjacent to Moran – “so I figured, why not? And we hit it off. Problem was, we hit it off TOO well. I thought I was in love when I was with Kamijo, but being with Jun? It felt different. A lot more intense. And it scared the living hell out of me. I wasn't ready for it. When I was with Jun, I started thinking in terms of 'forever' – and you don't want to think about that when you're still young.”

“Basically, you had an attack of commitmentphobia,” Yuuki said.

“And I ended up contacting Kamijo and getting back together with him,” Hitomi said. “I acted like I'd realized he was the great love of my life and I couldn't be without him. I had everyone convinced of that. Including myself. But in reality . . .”

* * *

“. . . I was left wondering what the hell happened. So I told everyone it was my fault,” Jun said. “That I had an attack of commitmentphobia. And everyone believed it. But I was hurting inside. I knew I'd been dumped for some guy who had a hell of a lot more money than me, and prestige, and a better family name. I felt tossed away like garbage. So I moved back to the Spiv States and threw myself into guitar making.”

“You buried yourself in your career because of your broken heart,” Subaru said, softly.

“And I hid it,” Jun said. “Even from Toya. He knew we broke up – but he didn't know the full extent of it, until now.”

“I wish you'd told me,” Toya said. “You KNOW you can tell me anything, Jun.”

“I couldn't talk about this!” Jun said. “So I went back to being same old Jun on the outside and convinced myself this was the life I wanted. But the truth was . . .”

* * *

“I hadn't moved on at all,” Hitomi said. “I let it fall apart the second time with Kamijo and I haven't dated anyone since – not seriously, anyway. And I told myself I couldn't afford to because I had to prepare myself to be your father's chief of staff. Stupid excuse, I know. You know why I always stayed at the Jilukan embassy when I came to visit you? Because I was afraid HE would be staying with Toya in the palace. I couldn't face what I did. I couldn't face HIM.”

Yuuki got up from the couch and placed himself right in Hitomi's path. The duke had to stop short to avoid a head-on collision.

“Look,” Yuuki said. “I know you feel guilty about it. I know you think it was a shitty thing to do. And, yeah, if it was done to me? I'd be thinking it was shitty, too. But you can't run and hide from it. You've been handed a second chance on a silver fucking platter, and you're going to take advantage of it! Yo-ka and I are going to make SURE that you do!”

“We . . .” Yo-ka began.

“We ARE going to make sure!” Yuuki said. “You're going to be a couple again by Toya's birthday.”

“But . . . but he'll just be going back to the Spiv States . . .”

“EXCUSES!” Yuuki said, holding up his hand as if he were wielding a whip. Hitomi quickly backed off. “And he is NOT going back to the Spiv States! He's got a contract to build guitars for ESP, he's staying right here in the capital! You'll BOTH be living here!”

* * *

“He's . . . staying here?” Jun said.

“Living at the palace and training to be the next Chief of Staff,” Toya said. “He's here long-term. You'll both be living in the capital.”

Jun suddenly stopped. “If I had known that, I would have turned ESP down.”

“You don't want to turn them down!” Subaru suddenly sprang off the couch and rushed over to the other man. “Don't you see, Jun? You've been handed the opportunity of a lifetime on all fronts! You can put things right with Hitomi and have a second chance with him – AND build guitars for the biggest company in the country. This is the biggest stroke of luck you've ever had! Look – I believe fate led that old guy to come into my tugboat office that day and talk about the Culling. I was meant to meet Toya. Maybe fate led ESP to make you that offer, too.”

Jun took a deep breath. “But if it doesn't work out with him and me . . .”

“If it doesn't work out, at least you'll have closure, right?” Subaru said. “You can fully move on from it. But if it does . . . you'll be happy. As happy as Toya and I are. So please . . . at least give it a chance? Talk to him?”

* * *

Hitomi plopped down on the easy chair across from the couch. “All right, all right,” he said. “I'll talk to him. I'll . . . I'll ask him to have drinks or something.”

“You can have a date right here, you know,” Yo-ka said. “A date without it SEEMING like a date.”

“What do you mean?”

“The private dining rooms,” Yo-ka said. “We can set up something where you have a dinner for two in one of them tonight. That way, you don't have to have the conversation in a public place with God knows how many people around you, and we can tell the wait staff not to bug you unless you specifically ring for them. You don't want to be interrupted – this is too important.”

“So do I just make sure I accidentally on purpose bump into him so I can ask him this?”

“We'll have one of the butlers invite him to the dinner,” Yo-ka said. “And then you just both go to the dining room at that time. We'll take the awkwardness out of it.” He picked up the phone. “Hold on, I'm going to buzz Toya's room and tell him about this.”

* * *

Toya hung up the phone. “He's arranging for a private dinner for the two of you tonight.”

Jun looked like a deer in the headlights. “He is?”

“A butler will come with an invitation for you,” Toya said. “Then you just go to the dining room, and you and Hitomi will be able to have a private talk.”

“Please say you'll do it, Jun,” Subaru said. “Accept the invitation.”

“All right,” Jun said. “I'll do it. Just the dinner. Just to see what he has to say about all this.”

“Yes!” Subaru said.

“I hope it works out,” Toya said. “I don't want to see you unhappy, Jun.”

“I hope so, too,” Jun said. “Dear God, I hope it works out. I . . . I can't go through that again. I just can't.”

Toya sprang up and hugged him. “It'll work out,” he said. “I have faith.”

* * *

“It'll work out,” Yo-ka told Hitomi. “Once he hears you out? He'll give you the fresh start. And I DO want you to be happy, Hitomi. I want you to find someone . . . without having to go through the process that I did.”

“You didn't make out so badly in that process, you know,” Hitomi said.

“And I think Yo-ka and I would have BOTH preferred to have met under different circumstances,” Yuuki said. “Just give it a chance. You owe it to yourself – and him.”

In two royal suites, two men gave a big sigh. They knew a lot was going to be riding on that one dinner. Could they correct a long-ago mistake and be truly happy?

* * *

Jun stood by the door of the private dining room, taking deep breaths. He was dressed nicely in a white lace shirt, black jacket and matching pants – he'd changed his outfit about three times before he settled on this one.

Just dinner, he thought. It's just dinner. Stop thinking like a teenager. You're just here to talk to him, right?

Except when Hitomi came around the corner, he nearly fell on the floor. The man seemed to go out of his way to look ridiculously gorgeous, with the deep red waistcoat over a black shirt. And he was even wearing gloves. GLOVES. To go to dinner.

He walked up to Jun and bowed. “Good evening,” he said.

“You don't need to be so formal,” Jun replied.

“I want to,” Hitomi said. “This is a date, isn't it?” He opened the dining room door.

“It's dinner,” Jun said, walking into the room – which was most definitely private. It had a table for two, set with elegant china – well, the royal dining rooms were always set with elegant china, but these were extra-fancy, edged with gold and with the family's crest imprinted at the top. In the center of the table was a floral centerpiece – which also featured candles.

“Wow,” Jun said.

“Wow is right,” Hitomi said. “They're impressing ME, and I grew up with this family!” He sat down at the table. “Yo-ka said that when we want the wait staff, we're supposed to press a button to ring a bell in the kitchen, otherwise, we have our privacy.”

“They do want us to talk, don't they?” Jun said. “Yo-ka and Toya, I mean.”

“You don't want to?” Hitomi said.

Jun sat quietly for a moment. “Let's just say it's been a long time since we talked,” he said.

“I know,” Hitomi said, quietly. “Should I order wine?”

“You're avoiding talking.”

“I'm going to talk,” Hitomi said. “I just want to order wine first. Because that might make the talking easier.”

“Fine,” Jun sighed. He stared at the flickering candles, remembering another candlelight dinner like this years ago, when it looked like the two of them were coming together as a couple and everything was going to be great and they might have a shot at a life together . . .

And then, Hitomi had suddenly gone back to his old boyfriend, leaving Jun stunned, shocked and picking up the pieces of a broken heart.

He heard the waiter come in. He heard Hitomi asking him about a couple of possible choices, and he gave his opinion. Wine was the last thing in the world Jun was thinking about at the moment.

The conversation didn't resume until after the waiter had returned with the bottle and poured their drinks out. “Ring when you're ready for appetizers,” the server said.

“Thank you, sir,” Hitomi said. Once the waiter had gone, he turned back to Jun. “I suppose you have questions.”

“You suppose right,” Jun said. “And question number one is, why did you go back to him?”

“Nice to see that you're still straightforward,” Hitomi replied, taking a glass and swirling the wine around. “I always liked that about you.”

“Don't dodge the question,” Jun said. “Answer it.”

Hitomi let out a big sigh. “It's not an easy question to answer,” he said. “My relationship with Kamijo was complex. Very much so. One moment it felt like he was my soul mate, the next, just a friend. But I never questioned why I was with him, even when we fought. I knew we had a connection. But then . . . we had a really big fight and split up.”

“And you missed him,” Jun said.

“Well, I did,” Hitomi said. “But then I decided I was going to start dating again, and I heard you'd moved to Undercode. I remembered meeting you at the royal parties. I figured I'd accidentally on purpose run into you and then see where things went from there.”

“Clearly, not the same place they went with Kamijo,” Jun replied.

“You're right. They didn't.” Hitomi paused. “They went to somewhere better.”

Jun suddenly froze, wineglass halfway to his mouth. He wasn't exactly expecting to hear that. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” Hitomi said. “When I got to know you, I realized that the relationship was totally different than what I had with Kamujo. There was no wild rollercoaster, no up-and-down. There was just, well . . . harmony. Whenever I was with you, it just felt right. Like I was where I was meant to be – maybe even where I was always meant to be.”

Jun put the glass down on the table. Oh, he could relate. He could relate so, so badly. He could remember sitting there with Hitomi, on a park bench or in a bar or restaurant, and how comfortable it all felt. How nice and easy. Heck, he was almost inclined to use the word cozy.

But that didn't mean it wasn't hot. Oh, no. The passion between them had been amazing, as if they were fully tuned into each other and knew instinctively what the other person needed.

“If it was so good,” he said, “then why did you leave?”

“The truth?” Hitomi said.

Jun nodded.

“It scared the living hell out of me. Because I knew that's how forever felt, and I wasn't ready for forever. With Kamijo, when we were together, he felt like a friend and a lover, but when I was with you? You felt like a partner. Someone I could really build a long-term relationship with. Even a lifetime.”

“And you took the commitmentphobe way out,” Jun said.

“When Kamijo contacted me and said he wanted to try again, I convinced myself that I was in love with him – because it was easier than facing the fact that I might have found my one and only in you. And I ran. Of course, my relationship with him ended up falling apart – we were never meant to be anything but close friends, and eventually, we realized it. And since then? I've kicked myself all the time. Because I could have had you, and I blew it.”

Jun was quiet for a long time, processing everything he'd heard. He had feelings for me all along, he thought. I thought he dumped me because he couldn't have feelings for anyone but the old boyfriend . . .

“You know,” Jun said, “I haven't dated anyone since you. Not seriously, anyway. You're a tough act to follow.”

“I guess I should consider that a compliment,” Hitomi said, “but it makes me feel even worse about what I did.”

“So how do I know you're not going to pull the commitmentphobe thing again?” Jun said.

“Because this time, I'm ready,” Hitomi said. “I've thought about it, Jun. I've grown a lot. I'm not thinking like an eternal teenager anymore. I mean, I'm in the capital right now to learn how to be a king's chief of staff. That's a massive job. But I'm ready for it. I'm ready to be an adult. And that also means an adult relationship. So . . . will you give me another chance?”

Jun felt like his heart was about to leap out of his chest – and then, once it did, it was going to follow Hitomi everywhere. Lord knows he wanted this, he had since the moment Hitomi had walked out on him and gone back to Kamijo.

But at the same time, he didn't want the same thing to happen again . . .

“If it falls apart this time,” Jun said, “I'm not giving you a third chance.”

“I know,” Hitomi said. “And it won't. I promise. Please, Jun . . . please say you'll at least be my date for Toya's birthday? And we'll see where it goes from there?”

“All right,” Jun said. “I accept.”

“Terrific!” Hitomi said. “Okay, I'm going to ring for the waiter, and then, we're going to catch up. I want to hear about this deal you have for your guitar business.”

Outside the room, four figures stood, each with their ears pressed to the door. “We'd better get going if they're calling the waiter,” Subaru whispered. “We don't want to get caught!”

“We damn near did when the guy came with the wine,” Yuuki whispered. “Look, we know they're getting back together, do we have to keep standing here?”

“We're going back to our own dining room,” Yo-ka whispered. “We've definitely heard enough.”

“Plus, I'm starving,” Toya whispered. “I'm ready for my own food!”

They left the room and moved down the hall, quietly.

* * *

Toya's birthday celebration wasn't officially called a “royal ball,” it was called a “dinner party” – which meant that everyone involved was going to be spared endless formal introductions of each and every noble in attendance at the start of the event. It was also held in a banquet hall, not a ballroom – but there was still a bandstand and a dance floor.

That didn't mean, however, that the royal family would be spared formal introductions. “They have to announce me by that title again?” Yuuki groaned.

“Unfortunately, love, yes,” Yo-ka said. “You'll be introduced that way until we're married. After then, you'll be Prince-Consort.”

“Prince-Consort is a hell of a lot less of a mouthful than Grand Archduke of Lycaon,” Yuuki said. He was dressed to the nines as usual, in a black corset top with a matching bolero jacket and a long black skirt, plus a wide black hat on his head. Around his neck was, as usual, the bejeweled collar of the Crown Prince's Pledged.

Toya and Subaru were going to be the last introduced, since Toya was the guest of honor for the evening. Well, one guest of honor, since his birthday was being combined with Hitomi's reception. This meant the duke would be introduced before Toya – the only time someone not a member of the immediate royal family would be entitled to that honor.

And so, Jun and Hitomi stood among the lineup waiting to enter the banquet hall, Jun fidgeting. “I guess I'll have to go in before all of you, with the regular crowds,” he said.

“Why?” Hitomi said.

“I'm not qualified to be introduced alongside the royal family. I'm not nobility, just gentry. And I'm not your Pledged, just your date.”

“Oh.” Hitomi paused. “Well, we're going to take care of the not nobility part.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know that my aunt has always liked you, right? Well . . .”

The queen walked over to the two young men. “I have a surprise for you, Jun,” she said. “I was going to give it to you earlier, but Hitomi convinced me to save it for tonight.” She handed him a flat black box, about the size of a fairly large deck of cards. “Here.”

Jun took the box and opened it – and found a medallion hanging at the bottom of a ribbon, a gold bar with a pin at the ribbon's top. A nobleman's badge of office. “What is this?”

“I signed and filed the papers this afternoon,” the queen said. “You're now the Viceroy of the Spiv States. I was intending to do it before Toya got married anyway, so that you could be in his wedding procession” – it was an old law in the country that only a noble could be in the wedding procession of a prince or princess.

“Can you do that?” Jun said. “Can you grant titles of nobility without the king getting involved?”

“A queen-consort is allowed to grant any office lower than marquis,” the queen said. “So, yes, you are officially nobility now, Jun, and will be introduced as such.”

Jun suddenly hugged her, impulsively. “Thank you, Your Majesty,” he said. “This means a lot.”

“May I?” Hitomi said. He held out his hand for the badge, and Jun gave it to him.

The queen watched as her nephew pinned it on the other man, smiling to herself. She knew her brother-in-law would be a lot more accepting of the relationship if his son was with a noble – any noble. And she wanted to see this succeed as much as her sons did.

There was a time when she'd once hoped Jun would become her son-in-law – but nephew-in-law was something she'd definitely settle for.

* * *

It was all more than a bit surreal to Jun. He walked into the banquet hall on Hitomi's arm, being introduced as “His Grace the Duke of Fatima, accompanied by His Lordship the Viceroy of the Spiv States.” He noticed some of the nobility in the crowd blinking at each other in confusion – the WHAT of the Spiv States? Did the Spiv States even HAVE nobility?

He didn't care. He was here, and he was with Hitomi. It was a situation that, a year ago, would seem like a mere dream.

The king was making a speech to those assembled – “It is with great pride that I welcome my nephew to our palace as he begins his training to eventually become my son's chief of staff. We hope that he will serve this nation well.” Jun barely heard any of it. He just kept looking from Hitomi to the badge of office on his jacket.

And to think that, a week ago, the commission to design for ESP seemed like the best thing that ever happened to me, he thought. Little did I know that things could get better . . .

When Toya and Subaru entered the room, there was thunderous applause and cries of “Happy Birthday, Your Highness!” Subaru was beaming at the crowd – he clearly was settling into his role as a prince's Pledged.

The royal family settled into their seats, and the meal began. At the end of the multiple courses, Prince Yo-ka announced, “We're doing things a little differently tonight. We're going to be serving the birthday cake out on the terrace – and that will be followed by dancing and fireworks.”

“Fireworks?” Toya said. “No way!”

“We had to go all-out,” Yo-ka said. “It's your first birthday since you got Pledged. We have to impress Subaru!” The crowd laughed. “And we need to impress Hitomi, too!”

“Oh, I'm already impressed,” Hitomi said. The crowd laughed again.

The group filed out onto the terrace, where a band was already playing under the stars. “Shall we?” Hitomi said to Jun.

“I don't usually dance,” Jun said.

“I don't usually, either, but if they went through all the trouble of getting the band?”

The two of them settled into a waltz position – one hand around the partner's waist, the other holding hands – and managed to move around to the rhythm of the music. “I'm glad we had that talk the other night,” Hitomi said.

“The first dinner, you mean?” Jun replied. They'd gone out for drinks together a couple of times since then, and they were settling back into the forgotten rhythm of just being together – remembering one another's speech patterns, likes and dislikes, even his drink of choice. More importantly, the fear that this would turn out like their last disastrous attempt at a relationship was slowly dissipating.

“Yes,” Hitomi said. “Talking about it all, my feelings, what happened. . . I feel like I've gotten closure. What happened before is over. It's dead and buried.”

“So what's happening between us now?” Jun replied.

“A new beginning.”

“You've always been a charmer, haven't you?” Jun said. “You know all the right things to say.”

“Is there anything wrong with that?” Hitomi said.

“No,” Jun said, quietly. “Not at all.”

“You're a charmer, too, you know,” Hitomi said. “You charmed me the moment I first looked at you.” He paused. “And that's not a line – it's the truth.”

“I didn't think it was a line,” Jun said. He paused. “It's funny, isn't it, you and I are both starting new lives in the capital at the same time. You at the palace, me with ESP . . .”

“That's just part of the new beginning.”

“It all feels like it was meant to be, doesn't it?”

“Maybe it was,” Hitomi said, softly.

“So where are you living in the capital?” Jun said. “I don't think we've discussed that yet.”

“You tell me first,” Hitomi said. “Where are YOU living?”

“Second floor guest wing,” Jun said. “Which, according to Subaru, was where the Culling candidates were the first week.”

“Then it's a place that brings good luck, if Subaru stayed there,” Hitomi said.

“It's not permanent,” Jun said. “I'm looking for a place in town.”

“What a coincidence,” Hitomi said. “So am I. Even though I have my own suite of rooms in the palace.”

“You do?” Jun sounded surprised.

“Fifth floor,” Hitomi said. “One floor up from where Yo-ka and Toya live. There's apartments there for all the Ducal Family of Moran. We're the only branch of the family with permanent apartments here. The other relatives usually stay in whatever embassy is unoccupied at the time.” He paused. “So why are you asking?”

“Why do you think?” Jun said.

“Well, it could be because . . .”

At that moment, a firework exploded above their heads. Both of them looked up to see the sky filled with red and green sparkles. Another one shot into the sky, exploding in a burst of shimmery gold.
“Wow,” Hitomi said. “They really do know how to set a mood!”

Jun just leaned against him, looking up at the sky. The fireworks were unbelievably beautiful to him right now – and they sure as hell matched how he felt. Sparkling, shining . . . and bursting.

He leaned over to the other man and whispered, “I want to know where you live because I want to go there, dammit! I've forgotten what your skin feels like, and I want to remember again.”

“Now who's being a charmer?” Hitomi whispered, teasingly. He leaned in toward Jun, until their lips were mere centimeters apart . . .

They kissed as three fireworks burst overhead, red, gold and blue. It seemed very appropriate.

* * *

Things moved quickly once they'd had their cake and champagne, which they teasingly fed to each other.

They slipped away into the shadows once the dancing began again, taking a back door into the palace and an elevator to the fifth floor. Fortunately, there was no staff to see them slip into Hitomi's apartment, since gossip tended to travel through the palace swiftly.

They kissed as soon as the door shut behind them, pulling each other in and reaching for the fastenings of one another's clothing – and then pulled apart in frustration, unfastening the elaborate dress outfits themselves, leaving a trail of garments across the floor to the bedroom – a jacket here, a ruffled shirt there, a pair of pants draped over whatever furniture was available. By the time they reached the bedroom doorway, they were both down to underpants, and those hit the floor rapidly, too.

They fell across the bed in one another's arms, kissing deep and hard and wet. It was a sensation they'd experienced so long ago, but in a way, neither had forgotten it. Hitomi rolled them both over so that he was on top, pressing his hips forward so that his cock brushed against his lover's, plundering his mouth with his tongue.

In one swift motion, he suddenly grabbed both of Jun's wrists and held them over his head, pinning him to the bed. “Fuck, your mouth is hotter than ever,” he panted.

“I haven't really used it yet,” Jun replied.

“Do you want to? Do you want a mouthful of cock?”

“I'm not going to tell you. I'd rather show you.”

Hitomi let go of Jun's wrists and moved to the edge of the bed, sitting there with legs spread slightly. Jun knelt on the floor in front of him, just gazing at him at first, running his eyes from his legs, to his cock, to his chest . . .

And there was the glorious thing that Hitomi had gotten in his rebellious younger days – a large and detailed tattoo of a blue and green butterfly. It was beautiful, intricate, and incredibly sexy – and the fact that it was on the skin of a man fourth in line to the throne made it all the more erotic. High nobility was just NOT supposed to have these.

“God, I missed this thing,” Jun said, gently tracing the outline with his fingers. It really was art – the kind of work only a rebellious noble could pay for. He bent over, running his tongue along one wing, caressing and worshipping it.

His fingers slid along his lover's chest, finding a nipple, starting to stroke it as he kissed along the fine lines, and Hitomi let out a small moan – but to him, the physical sensation wasn't nearly as erotic as the sight of that pink head bent over his body art, so very turned on by it. He was never so glad he'd endured the pain of getting the design.

Jun slowly began to lick down his lover's stomach, almost reluctantly leaving the tattoo, but he needed to find his real goal, didn't he? Oh, yes, he had to get his hands and mouth on that beautiful, hard thing . . .

When he reached it, the first thing he did was softly kiss the tip, running his tongue along it lightly . . . and then, he opened his mouth, sliding down on the hardness, eagerly sucking it. Hitomi felt and tasted even better than ever, if that was possible.

Jun purred in his throat, starting to move faster, the cock sliding through his lips as his head bobbed up and down, the position allowing him to take as much in as he felt comfortable with, plunging deep and fast and hard . . .

He paused and pulled it out, only to run his tongue from the tip to the base, brushing it back and forth over the sensitive area where the organ joined his body, then moving upward, taking the tip back in his mouth and plunging down again.

Hitomi let out a loud moan. “Fuck, oh, fuck, nobody sucks me like you do, I love fucking that beautiful mouth . . .” He looked downward, the position they were in giving him a wonderful view not only of Jun's head moving up and down on him, but also that lovely ass, upturned as if in invitation . . .

When Jun lifted his head again, Hitomi said, “Do you know what I want now?”

Jun stood up and crawled onto the bed, looking back over his shoulder seductively once he was on all fours. “How about this?”

“Oh, fuck, yes,” Hitomi murmured. He reached over to his nighttable, opening the drawer and pulling out a bottle of lube, put in there in hopes he was going to need it tonight. He'd never been so glad to have it in easy reach.

He leaned over toward that ass and kissed it, running his lips along the curve, then his tongue, feeling the shape of it, the firmness. When he gave it a sharp nip, his lover jumped in surprise and cried out.

“Too much?” Hitomi said.

“No,” Jun panted. “The opposite.”

“In that case . . .” Hitomi moved his mouth to the other side, nipping again, and Jun gasped. He ran his tongue over the bite marks, gently, as he coated his fingers with lube, slipping one in. His lover was so wonderfully tight and hot, even more than he remembered.

“You feel so damn good . . .” he murmured as he moved the finger in and out, then slipped in a second, while his other hand moved around his lover's body, fingers sliding over his erection, caressing the hardness in rhythm to the gentle thrusting of his other hand.

“Fuck, I need you,” Jun panted as the third finger entered him, and he leaned back, fucking himself on the welcome invasion, the touch on his cock finding and caressing every sensitive spot. He was completely lost in the sensations the other man was invoking in him, and he needed more, he needed that hard thing in his body.

“Tell me how you want to be taken,” Hitomi said, sliding his fingers out and reaching for a tissue.

“I want to be able to see you,” Jun murmured.

“Then you want this.” Hitomi reached for the lube, stroked it on himself, and lay on his back, holding his arms open to his lover.

Jun got the message. He straddled Hitomi, pressing down on the hardness, feeling it fill him bit by bit as he thrust downward slowly and gently. There was a bit of pain, to be sure, but he welcomed even that. It was part of the sensation of being filled, of having Hitomi take and possess him – just as he took and possessed Hitomi.

He paused, looking down at the man under him, moaning softly as the feeling of being in that tight heat stole through his body. “Good,” he murmured. “You're so very good . . .”

“You're so goddamn beautiful,” Jun said, reaching down to run his fingers over the tattoo.

“So are you,” Hitomi said. Jun caressing the butterfly was turning him on so hard, he reached up and covered the fingers with his own, pressing them in place . . .

Jun started to thrust, slowly, eyes and fingers still not breaking contact with the body art, the hardness sliding through his heated channel, the pain completely gone now, nothing but warm pleasure in its place.

He moved faster, moaning softly, murmuring, “You feel so good in me, so goddamn fucking good . . .” It really did feel like that cock was made to be in him, to completely and totally fill him, to be a part of him . . .

Hitomi thrust upward, matching his lover's motions, eyes traveling over the other man's body, knowing he was so goddamn lucky to have gotten Jun back in his life, because any man would kill himself to possess this luscious beauty. He was never going to let him go again. Ever.

They moved faster together, Jun taking him in deeper, both their bodies covered with a light sheen of sweat, Hitomi murmuring that he was so hot and gorgeous, he could fuck him forever, he'd never had a man who looked and felt like him . . .

When Jun thrust down on him hard, Hitomi suddenly cried out, lifting his hips as ecstasy overwhelmed him, the come pouring from his body as he trembled, wanting the orgasm to last forever . . .

He fell back to the bed, gasping, a part of his mind aware that he'd come before Jun did – and he suddenly felt guilty, and a bit selfish.

But Jun was completely undaunted. He moved up over Hitomi's body, so he was straddling his chest . . . right where he could rub himself against the tattoo. And that was exactly what he did, pressing his cock to the inked flesh, starting to thrust against it, rubbing himself on it, moaning loudly at both the physical sensation and the outrageousness of doing such a thing . . .

He moved again and again, fucking the tattoo, feeling the heat rising rapidly in his body, looking down at his own hardness rubbing against the inked flesh . . . and then the pleasure crested, and exploded, and hot whiteness poured over the exquisite blues and greens of the butterfly.

Jun collapsed atop his lover, the come smearing over both of them, neither minding. Panting, they clung to each other, as if never wanting to let one another go again. Jun was kissing Hitomi everywhere he could – his eyes, his cheeks, his nose, his lips.

“You're even more incredible than I remembered,” he murmured.

“You're nothing short of a miracle,” Hitomi replied. “God, I'm so glad we found each other again. So, so glad.” He paused. “And what you just did, with the tattoo? So hot. So FUCKING hot.”

“I just had to,” Jun said. “It's so goddamn sexy, and it's uniquely you.”

Hitomi reached for his nighttable, looking for a cloth he could clean them up with. Yes, he'd put one of them there, along with the lube - though he never dreamed he'd be using it to clean come from his tattoo.

When he was done with them both, he tossed it aside and wrapped an arm around Jun, pulling him close. “Breakfast in bed tomorrow sounds good,” he murmured.

“Don't you have training in the morning?” Jun said.

“Yes,” Hitomi said. “But breakfast together first. I want to spend every minute that I can with you.”

“Don't worry,” Jun said. “There's no rush now. We have all the time in the world.”

They snuggled together. They definitely were in no rush now. They were going to let their relationship grow slowly and carefully, and reach the full blossom it didn't quite reach the last time.

The perfect time for them to be a couple had finally arrived.

* * *

The palace staff did seem to wonder why neither the Duke of Fatima nor the newly-minted Viceroy of the Spiv States seemed to be in any hurry to move out of the palace, given that both of them had stated when they first arrived that they were only there until they found apartments.

And then the workers started to whisper that the two were seen a lot together, and they were rather close – like the time they were spotted making out in a stairway, or when Jun was sitting on Hitomi's lap when they were down at the indoor pool, or when they were both spotted coming out of Hitomi's apartments first thing in the morning.

So when they announced at the same time that they were finally moving out of the palace – two months after they arrived – it came as no real surprise to anyone, including Hitomi's two cousins.

“You're always welcome here, you know,” Yo-ka told Hitomi over breakfast after his cousin made the announcement.

“I know,” Hitomi said. “But we want a place of our own. We want privacy.”

“Besides, our new place is close to both ESP and the palace,” Jun said. “It's good for both of us.”

“But I'm still going to insist we host a birthday party for you here,” Toya said. “Your birthday is only a few weeks away, Jun.”

“I know,” he said. “Well, I'm not going to deny you the right to throw me a birthday party.”

“Neither am I,” Hitomi said. “Because I have something special planned for it.”

“Oh?” Jun said. “Like what?”

“I can't tell you,” Hitomi said. “It'll spoil the surprise.”

But he knew very well what it was. In the royal treasure room was the Pledge collar of Moran, created when his father's dukedom was owned by younger children of the royal family. The oldest child of the Supreme Archduke was still entitled to give it to the person he or she thought was the right one.

He'd be giving Jun that collar on his birthday and officially making him his Pledged. He knew now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he wanted to solidify their relationship. All fear of forever was now gone. In fact, right now, it seemed like a very good place to be.