AN: An Early holiday present for all my readers! Thank you for your patience, and I am sorry this took so long.
Rated M! Mmmm!
Disclaimer: Characters are not mine! Don't try to take my money!
Despite the fact that her country had been at war for as long as she could remember, Sakura had led a fairly sheltered life. She was fed fairytales and sugar-coated romances that had shaped her ideals about what love should be. She and Tomoyo had spent many an evening sighing together and planning every aspect of the perfect men who were surely coming to sweep them off their feet. This is how she knew without a doubt that her first kiss was going to be something soft and safe, like a warm blanket on a cold morning. So, it is no surprise that every fantasy she had ever imagined for herself was completely obliterated when Xiao Lang's mouth crashed roughly against her own.
It ripped the breath from her throat and roared through her veins, filling her to the brim with a strange and slowly burning ache. She knew she should be outraged, but somewhere in the rush of molten lava pouring through her, she could feel the open wounds in her heart cauterizing; stinging her sweetly and dragging her into oblivion. Lost within that blissful emptiness where neither pain nor truth could reach her, Sakura was finally at peace, and she melted into him gratefully.
Emboldened by her shy reciprocation, the pressure of the supple lips against her own increased and her mouth, slightly opened in a still born gasp, was invaded by his tongue. It slowly slid across the tip of hers in a gentle caress that seemed to beg her for something. Truth, acceptance, or possibly total submission; whatever it was that he wanted from her, the glowing fire in the pit of her belly demanded that she surrender it to him. Sakura was on the verge of softly moaning her consent, when Meiling's voice wrenched her back into reality.
"LI XIAO LANG!" His cousin roared, her face flushed with what was either an intense anger or severe embarrassment. The sound of her voice parted the newlyweds like Moses and the red sea. The boy in question blinked several times, his expression like one who was resurfacing from a deep ocean dive and still adjusting to the idea of air and sunlight.
"…what?" was the eloquent reply he managed to make after a few more moments of Meiling's extreme stare down. It was apparently not the response the girl had wanted to hear, because she was at his side faster than lightning, yanking him from his wife and dragging him away by the ear, muttering a string of profanities so low and fast that Sakura couldn't translate them.
If the Princess' brain had been functioning on a normal level, she would have found it highly amusing to watch the six foot-something man wincing and backpedalling as a girl who was at least a foot shorter ranted and tugged him along, but as it was, she could do little more than stare after them. Before the pair completely vanished into the foliage, her husband turned to look back at her, all traces of pain and surprise gone from his face. His features were set into the same unreadable mask that had always hid his thoughts from her, yet the look in his eyes was anything but stoic.
There was something soft and dark in those amber irises that pierced deep into her own, searching for something that could not be called by name. Sakura could feel her heart thundering against her ribcage as his eyes held her in an embrace far more intimate than the one she had just escaped from.
Then he turned and was gone, taking with him all the strength in her legs. Sakura crumpled softly to the forest floor, eyes still transfixed on the place he had been and feeling drained. It was like he had sapped the poison from her open wounds. Any thoughts she had were lost in a roar of blood through her heated veins, but she knew one thing for sure; those sunlit eyes had evaporated whatever she had been holding against him personally like snow in the summer. And for reasons she couldn't articulate, she just couldn't bring herself to hate him anymore.
Not to say that she suddenly saw his good points, or that she even particularly liked him now; it was going to take more than a rush of desire and a bold brush of tongue to convince her that he wasn't an arrogant chauvinistic bastard. But the way he spoke to her, openly and painfully blunt, had her thinking that Meiling was right about him being incapable of deception. And though she supposed he could have just been putting on some kind of elaborate act to fool her, the truth that lit those amber eyes could not be denied. Here was a man, who was just as confused and thrown off by this sudden marriage to his enemy as she was, and though he might be uncouth and somewhat unbearable, those orbs had begged for some kind of understanding, some sort of peace, and maybe she was going soft, or perhaps she was just tired of being upset all the time, but she had half a mind to indulge his request.
Releasing a breath she didn't realize she had been holding, a heavy sigh escaped her lips, as she finally gained some kind of control of her senses and took in her surroundings. The Prince's huge golden dog was still beside her, steadfast and sturdy, as if patiently awaiting her command.
"What just happened?" She asked him, while absentmindedly reaching out and curling her fingers into his thick yellow ruff. As if responding to her query, Kero turned towards her and firmly licked her from chin to forehead, sending the girl into a fit of sputters as she tried in vain to remove the saliva from her mouth and nose. After wiping her lips on her sleeve and spitting a few times in a very unladylike way, Sakura swiftly rose to her feet and brushed the dust from her clothing.
"Well, at least now I see where your master gets it from." She said huffily, giving the dog a look of mock anger. Cerberus' wide dark eyes stared up at her innocently; she couldn't stay mad at him if she tried. Sakura sighed in fake exasperation and tried to suppress a smile as she turned to leave the clearing, choosing the exact opposite direction that her spouse and his cousin had gone. She was defying him purely out of spite; she would show him that there was no need for her to have a babysitter! On top of that, the Princess was unsure if she could handle coherent speech around Xiao Lang right now, and she wasn't about to wait around for them to remember that she had been left alone just to find out. Her cheeks flushed prettily; she didn't want to find out.
Cerberus rose soundlessly to his feet and softly padded after her, unwittingly providing the escort his master had demanded. The sun was now far past its peak, and the long trailing shadows of evening began to follow the pair deeper into the palace grounds. One was wonderfully content, confident in the knowledge that he was doing his duty by protecting something precious. The other poor soul felt as if everything she thought was built of stone had suddenly shifted into glass. And while glass could be lovely; it could also be fragile or brittle, and worst of all transparent.
As the rosy colors of twilight painted themselves across the sky, Sakura found herself at the edge of a lake. The view was breathtaking; the misty pinks and lavenders rippling and reflecting hazily in the waters along with distant snow-capped mountains and the thick blue-green trees lining the banks. As she was staring, a soft sound reached her ears. At first, she thought she had imagined it, for the gentle strumming perfectly echoed the tune of the water lapping quietly along the shore, but as she began walking again, the music became stronger and a small island with a red pavilion came into view. A long wooden bridge connected the gazebo to land, and as she rounded a bend, Sakura could see where it joined the coast.
The haunting notes pulled at her like the hands of ghosts, leading her out across the lake. Kero eyed the bridge warily and opted to stay on dry land, it was a little disconcerting to lose the calm presence at her side, but Sakura's courage was reinforced by the sounds of him snuffling through the bracken; she knew he would never leave her if there was any danger. The instrument's strings called to her in whispered voices, the words were indiscernible, but they were laced with a familiar tenderness. The farther across she went, the more hesitant her steps became. By the time she was three fourths of the way to the island, Sakura was moving as silently as a wraith herself.
The figure of a woman weaved itself into existence from the purple shadows inside the pavilion. She was sitting on one of the benches that lined the building with her back to the Princess. Her ebony hair was styled into an intricate conglomeration of braids and curls high on her head, with ornamental flowers made from shells and accented with silver and pearls glowing in the fires of the setting sun, and the excess locks tumbling over her shoulders and down her back in a midnight colored cloak. Long slender fingers delicately plucked the string instrument lying across her lap, hypnotizing Sakura with a practiced grace.
It was like stepping into a dream; everything seemed to slow and stretch. All she could see of the woman's face was a pale crescent moon of chin to forehead, but for reasons she couldn't fathom, Sakura had the strange sensation that if she could see that face, it would be that same comforting smile and those green eyes that looked so much like her own. Was this a song her mother used to play? Would the Queen's restless spirit follow the Princess here, to the land of their enemies, to ensure her daughter's safety? She didn't know, but there was definitely a part of her wishing for it to be true. In fact, she had become so focused on trying to force those thoughts into being, that she didn't even notice when the music had stopped.
"Do you play, Little Princess?" asked a deep smooth voice. Sakura nearly jumped out of her skin. The figure before her had yet to turn around but, there could be no doubt that this was the person who had addressed her. Flushed with embarrassment, the girl curiously approached the seated musician.
The woman seemed to have a strange sort of agelessness about her. Her alabaster skin was creamy perfection, her neck as slender and graceful as a crane's, and her face was a perfect oval shape with high elegant cheekbones and a delicate chin. But her eyes could swallow the whole of the universe and not be full. Beautifully dark and dangerous, those fathomless orbs pierced Sakura with a gaze that not only saw her, but knew her with a single glance.
The Princess knew that she must be a member of the court, not only by the rich fabrics and gems that adorned her person, but by the way this woman held herself; she demanded respect. Nothing less would be tolerated. Regality practically oozed from her being, and Sakura felt gangly and awkward in comparison. And yet, there was no hint of malice, no sign of disapproval lurking in those earth colored irises; this alone gave the younger girl courage to speak.
"Yes," She said shyly. "I play an instrument very similar to this one, what is it called?"
"It is a guqin." The lady replied, running her fingers along the strings with a flawless ease which resulted in a happy reverberation of notes, as if the instrument was introducing itself. "I would be delighted to perform with you sometime."
"Oh no!" Sakura exclaimed, raising her hands and shaking her head in the negative. "I mean- That is- I was never any good! I would hate to ruin your beautiful music with the sounds of all my sour notes."
The lady's ruby tinted lips curved slightly as she said, "I have found, that when one is dissatisfied with their skills, practice does tend to make perfect." Sakura felt her face burn with humiliation.
"Well," She began hesitantly. "Everyone does tell me that I never spent enough time learning some of the nobler and more lady-like pursuits that I should have, but I did try to excel at the yamatogoto. Mother was adamant that she would be the only one to teach me music, and she was always so busy…" She stopped as sadness crept into her voice and her gazed dropped to the floor.
"Ah yes," replied a voice that sounded just as sad as her own, "Dear, sweet, Nadeshiko. She did so love to sing…You must be missing her terribly." The only thing that stopped the tears burning behind the Princess' eyes was complete and total shock. "And my, don't you look just like her. Those eyes…you couldn't deny your linage if you wanted to." The lady continued in a whisper, her dark eyes not quite looking at Sakura, but past her, through her, back to the memory of one who was lost to them both.
"Y-you knew her?" Sakura asked, fighting to control the quiver in her voice. The lady gave the Princess a lean smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.
"I did." She stated flatly, "We spent many hours of our youth in each other's company. In fact, this pavilion was one of her favorite places on the grounds. She spent many evenings here, "singing the moon down from the sky" Jian used to say…" She stopped abruptly, her lips pressed firmly into a thin blood-red line.
"You weren't friends?" Sakura asked, but she could feel the sudden shift into unpleasantness. The elegant woman had not so much a twitched a muscle in her face, but the girl could feel a cold distance rise up from her, as if to push her away. Dark infinite irises lowered their gaze, shyly concealing the truth that lurked there behind pale eyelids.
"I am sure you understand the complexities that come with the life of a woman born to privilege. The deceit, the secrets, the lies and scandals that run your every waking day…the jealousy… And if you don't know now, you will soon enough." Her voice was soft, but there was a definite edge to it, and it grated sharply as she heaved a sigh. "I was fond of Nadeshiko, in my way, and I am sorry she has passed away, but there were...circumstances which kept us from being true friends." She continued somewhat harshly, but Sakura's disheartened face was not lost on her companion.
"Do not look so sad Little Princess," The black-haired woman ordered gently, lifting the girl's chin with two long fingers. "Your mother was almost as fond of this palace as her own home, and there were many here whom she loved and loved her." A softer look warmed the lady's face at Sakura's startled expression. "Yes, though the world you have known has always taught you to think of Bai Hu as your bitter enemy, this was not always so. Nadeshiko's closest friend was born and raised here, and I have never seen two girls who were more in tune with each other's hearts."
"Who was she?" The princess whispered, breathless at the thought that part of her own mother was a stranger to her. The woman looked straight up into her eyes and fierce intensity burned through her for one terrifying instant as she felt the chill return between them.
"We called her Ye Hua. She was…Meiling's mother. As the daughter of a lower ranking nobleman, she never would have been at court nearly as often if it hadn't been for Nadeshiko's fondness of her," she seemed almost sad about it, but Sakura couldn't stifle her smile.
"No wonder Meilin and I were drawn to each other!" The girl beamed happily. "We were destined to be close, just as our mother's were. I thought that my mother would be sad that I came here, but I know that she would like me to be friends with the daughter of someone she cared for." The joyless crimson smile stretched across her companion's face once more.
"Speaking of children," She said, taking the Princess' hands in her own. "How did you enjoy your first night with my son?" Sakura could feel the heat radiating from her face as memories of a moist demanding mouth covering her own flashed through her mind. Just as quickly, the color drained from her cheeks as the meaning behind the woman's question sank in.
"Y-your son?" she gasped, horrified. The woman's smile broadened, gleaming in the waning sunlight.
"Of course." was the calm reply.
"T-that means…Queen Yelan?" the Princess managed to squeak out worriedly.
"Whom did you expect? …You don't remember me from last night?" the Queen asked, a dark brow arching quizzically.
"I met so many people at the wedding…and it was very…trying." Sakura fumbled uselessly, eyes downcast in shame.
"I'll admit; you did seem a little… distracted." Yelan conceded. She cupped the younger girls face in her white palms and ran her thumbs over her cheeks lightly. "I know you must be suffering. I would not hold the fact that you forgot one face of the hundreds you were introduced to last night against you." Sakura smiled, with tears glistening in the corners of her green eyes. She wiped at them with the back of her hand and sniffled a little before replying.
"What Meilin told me was true; you are very kind." She told her. The Queen rose silently to her feet in a single fluid movement, standing a full head taller than the Princess and staring with her deep mysterious eyes at Sakura's face, searching for something. Yelan raised her hand and swept the auburn bangs from the jade irises that whispered of ghosts and then lightly traced her fingers down the girl's right cheek; a show of motherly affection. The young Amaterisan pressed her eyelids shut and leaned into the cool fingertips, recalling the hands that had previously shown the same comfort with only the smallest hint of sadness.
"Have patience with Xiao Lang." Yelan said quietly, "His serious demeanor gives the appearance of strength…but he has always been a shy and awkward boy. He likes you, and he is not quite sure how to comport himself." Sakura flushed a dusky pink from the pit of her neck to the roots of her hair.
"Likes me?" she blurted in disbelief, "What makes you think that?" Yelan chuckled softly.
"A mother knows her child." was all she the answer she gave. Then she turned, as if to leave, but suddenly seemed to think better of it as she faced Sakura once again and grasped her firmly by the wrist. "Never be alone with him." She whispered fiercely.
"Alone?" the Princess repeated tremulously.
The Queen nodded, "It is not safe." Seeing the look of panic and confusion on the young girls face, Yelan bent down and kissed her cheek softly; then turned and walked away without another word, fading noiselessly across the bridge and out into the lavender mists of early evening.