Kuchiki Byakuya often thought that if the city were ever to fall, his family would probably throw a party for it.

His frown deepened as he fled yet another such lavish, pointless party, his brisk, booted footsteps treading almost silently down the carpeted hallway. He considered them pointless because his mother used them primarily to invite eligible (i.e. rich and titled) young ladies in hopes of attracting her only son's infamously unwavering eye. A prince, she often intoned, ought to be eager to sustain his family's lineage. Most young men your age have at least had the foresight to sow a few wild oats.

His eyes burned, his face a mask of such inexpressible malice that a passing servant literally squeaked upon seeing him and attempted to hide herself behind a suit of armor. Byakuya ignored her. What he needed now, more than anything, was the exact opposite of the ridiculous pomp and circumstance he had just wasted three hours of his life attempting to escape. He needed solitude, not the chattering nonsense of worthless, air-headed girls and their scheming relatives.

He passed through a series of silent corridors, the noise from the now-distant ballroom diminishing with each sure step, until he came to a small wooden door, just beneath an old tower staircase. Pausing to fish the key from the pocket of his shirt, he then slipped it into the lock and pushed the door open.

Immediately, he felt at peace. Here was the sweet solitude he found himself seeking more and more these days: a calmness of mind and body which could only be achieved by breathing in the fresh smell of the sakura petals in spring, or by allowing the cool, early autumn breeze to waft its way down from the pale moon against his skin.

Quietly, he closed the door behind him, briefly reinserting the key so as to lock it shut.

Out here, the noise from the party was utterly stifled. But it was not quiet—wild things called to one another from the other side of the thick walls that surrounded the small garden, and the wind answered, rustling the very tops of the trees and shaking the leaves from their branches. Insects, frogs, and other small creatures chirped from amongst the hidden foliage, even the ground seeming to teem with life.

He made his way over to his favorite spot, a small stone bench which seemed made just for him, deceptively comfortable and always cool, even in summer—though now, with the nights growing longer and colder, perhaps a little too cool. Still, the high stone walls surrounding the garden tended to keep the occasional chill gusts at bay, and he was able to sit in relative peace and comfort.

He closed his eyes, resting his hands in his lap and letting the stress of the evening wash away from his thoughts. Logically, his parents' insistence on his remarriage made sense; he was the heir to the Kuchiki name, and if he did not sire children to continue that noble lineage, his adopted sister Rukia could hardly be considered an acceptable substitute. She was barely even tolerated by the family, allowed to remain only at his whim, her monthly stipend and social privileges doled out as grudgingly as possible. In fact, if he did not continue to exert his influence over the staff, he had little doubt that the servants would eventually "forget" that that particular wing of the castle even existed. Without him, his adopted sister would likely be tossed back onto the streets of the Outer Region, "where she belongs," as his mother would sometimes mutter under her breath. His father was too busy with state matters to profess an interest in the sister of his son's dead wife, but Byakuya knew he cared as little for her as anyone else in the family.

He sighed, quietly, a faint line marring his forehead. Tonight, it seemed, peace would evade him.

His only respite was that no one, save Rukia herself, knew about this place and his tendency to spend his evenings here. She accused him playfully of hiding, and he could not deny the accusation, though his dignity did not allow him to admit the truth aloud. But his need to escape was something she alone could relate to. There were times when she had even given him alarm, professing a desire to return to the dreary existence she had left in the Outer Regions ten years ago. Always, he would immediately forbid her to do so, both of them knowing that this was the closest he could come to pleading, begging on hands and knees for her to stay. And she would always laugh it off as a joke, and there would be an end to it. For now.

Nevertheless, he felt the day was approaching when he would once again be alone here. The thought weighed so heavily upon him that he could not even bear considering it, instead forcing his mind to linger on something else.

Somehow, he knew that Rukia could survive, on her own, living by her wits again.

He was not so sure if he could do the same.

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII

Capture the princess, Abarai Renji kept repeating to himself. Sneak in, scale the wall, capture the princess.

He didn't consider himself an uneducated man—he'd attended lessons at Lord Urahara's like all the other village kids, and made pretty decent marks, too! Not exactly top of his class—okay, probably closer to the bottom, but that didn't mean he wasn't smart enough to carry out orders. After all, Lady Kuukaku had selected him personally for the mission. Granted, she'd selected that dimwit dumbfuck Kurosaki, too, but he put that down to brawns over brain. There was no denying Ichigo was one of the best fighters in their group; it made sense for him to be selected. But Renji himself was no lightweight when it came to the sword. Then again, one of them had to be the brains of the operation, and obviously…

Sneaking into the castle proved to be as systemically simple as Lady Kuukaku had smugly predicted. They've got their noses shoved so far up their own asses, it wouldn't even occur to them to organize a proper sentry. He could picture her now—half-cocked smile in place, hand on her hip, breasts jutting out. She wasn't like any other lady, he often thought, which just made them all the more proud of her. Lord Urahara was just as eccentric. There were definitely times when he wondered whether or not they really were the heirs to old, outcast noble families. They sure as hell didn't act like it.

The biggest difference, of course, being that they gave a shit about the people. Lady Kuukaku told them the nobles referred to the area outside the castle walls and inner city sanctum as the "Outer Regions." Though there was nothing inherently insulting in the name, it had left him feeling righteously incensed, nonetheless.

He didn't need to look at his map, though he pulled it out anyway. The private garden where the princess sometimes took a bit of air—if that wasn't the dumbest damn thing he ever heard—who the hell "took a bit of air"?!—was his primary target; he was to stake the place out, for it was reputed that she had a habit of fleeing large parties, using her garden as a place of solace.

Somehow, he found that kind of sad. All this wealth and privilege she was living in—fucking lap of luxury, literally—and she still felt like she had to get away from it all. He didn't know whether to pity her or hate her living guts.

Well, either way, she was going to learn what it really meant to escape soon enough. Their information about the garden had come directly from a pair of servants, overheard gossiping in the kitchens by one of their spies. Ichigo was to stake out the princess's private balcony, that being the other most likely place for her to turn up tonight. Supposedly, she liked to sit there and sketch the public royal gardens down below. Word from the servants was she couldn't draw for shit, though. No doubt the other noble little snots had her convinced she was some kinda artistic genius.

He paused to slip his map quietly back inside his shirt once he came upon the outer stone walls of the little private garden. It was cold, removed from the rest of the castle at an odd angle to one of the towers. He couldn't really figure out why anyone would want to "escape" here, let alone a princess. He watched, unmoving, as a barn owl dipped down from a tree not too far away from where he crouched, and swooped low over the wall settling somewhere within.

Well, it was now or never.

Silently, he made his way closer, until he could press his palms against the cold stone of the wall. He stepped back, judging the height to be no more than eight or nine feet. If he could get a good leap… He crouched again, then did just that—springing lightly off the balls of his feet, his hands just hooking the top of the wall, feet contacting soundlessly before he swung himself up to the top.

His heart almost stopped in his chest as he looked down below. Not twenty feet away sat the princess, her dark hair fluttering in the nighttime breeze. She seemed tall, her head bowed slightly, the long hair obscuring her face. Funny… Lady Kuukaku had described her as a fairly small and seemingly delicate young woman…

He checked the area for guards, but there were none.

Why is she just SITTING there?!

He frowned, staring at the princess again. It was true; she just sat there, as motionless as a stone statue, only her hair and the flimsy scarf thing around her neck moving in the breeze. Why did it piss him off so much? She didn't even seem to notice the cold—even up here, he couldn't quite suppress the occasional shiver. It was going to be a cold-ass winter, he could already tell…

He braced himself, going into a semi-crouch. She was going to feel the cold tonight, he thought, riding away from this place as fast as they could go, and later sharing a bedroll with him on the hard ground when they couldn't even light a fire. Carefully, oh so quietly, he slid his sword from its sheath. So far, he'd figured the hardest part would be convincing her he really could kill her if he wanted to…

In the blink of an eye, he sprang off the wall, his feet already on the ground and running, even as the princess was just starting, turning her head. He brought Zabimaru up, swinging him around in a swift arc, already angling towards the princess's throat even as he rushed up behind her, grabbing a hold of that (surprisingly, infinitely soft) black hair and forcing her to tilt her chin back to look up at him.

"Don't even think of moving!" he snarled, his face close to hers now, sword at her throat. "If you do, I'll—holy SHIT!!"

The large, startled gray eyes staring up into his own widened at the expletive, as ifthat were the most alarming thing about the situation they were both in. The fine black hair fell away from a pale face as delicately structured as any woman's, the thin lips parted in faint surprise. The chin was rather long, though not unattractive, the cheeks slightly hollowed, not as full or flushed as a woman's should be. But there was one feature in particular that stood out, flush as it currently was against the flat blade of his sword.

The princess had a fucking Adam's apple!!!

"You're not the princess!!" he cried out, forgetting to keep his voice down.

Her—His mouth moved. "No," he said simply, as if that were the most obvious response ever. Which is was. How the fuck did he ever think this was the…

Then it dawned on him.

"You're the prince," he said, his own eyes widening now. A giddy feeling was slowly starting to come over him.

The gray-eyed man seemed to hesitate before finally answering. "Yes."

Renji took about 2.5 seconds to come to a decision. He looked down at the guy, frowned, tilted his head. Then shrugged.

"You'll do," he said. Then, with that, he upended Zabimaru and brought him down, hilt first, to the left side of the guy's temple—knocking him out cold.

Ha—nobody could say he wasn't a quick thinker in a difficult situation. As he hefted the unconscious prince in his arms, he glanced back from where he'd just come. Hmmm. It was getting him over that damned wall that was definitely going to be the tricky part…