Byakuya: My fingertips rubbed at my temples. Honestly, was Mother really asking me what color I wanted? She'd only do what she wanted anyway, after chastising me for my choice. "Byakuya!" she exclaimed. "Pay attention!" "Hm? Oh. I was just wondering about what I should wear tonight," I returned, as though I were as vapid as she wished I were. She shrugged. "You have a closet full of beautiful things. I trust you to make an appropriate selection." I nodded slowly. "What was your question, Mother?" "Never mind," she said, waving me away. "I'll make the decision myself. You should go decided what to wear tonight." It was a clear dismissal –one I was incredibly thankful for, in all truth. She always got this way when planning an event. Of course, it wouldn't be this way if she didn't wait until the day of the event to plan anything, but trying to tell her that would only bring a screaming match I didn't want to get into. So instead, I disappeared into my rooms and closed the door behind me. The closet was a short distance away. When I opened the doors, the scent of cherry blossoms wafted from the clothes. Choosing clothes for an evening sounds simple, until you take into account the fact that I have several hundred garments simply hanging in the closet. Thusly, it could become a massive pain in the ass. With a sigh, I started at the left side. Every garment was exquisite in its own way, but they all seemed to come from a monochrome color scheme –well, aside from the odd piece in purple here and there. The bright color was left over from the brighter time in my life, and I ignored them as I sought out the 'perfect' outfit: something my mother wouldn't feel disgraced that I came to the celebration in, something I could move in, and, most of all, something I could sneak out of the place in. This is probably the first time I've ever tried to select an outfit based on covert escapes, I thought wryly. Finally, I selected a loose black silk kimono. I slid my hand across its delicate surface and tried to remember where the garment had come from. As I moved to extract it from the closet, my arm slid across the silk. Considering the material and the strange cut –it would hang three inches below my knees and no further– I figured that man might have had a hand in designing it. He was the only designer I went to see, the only designer who laid his hands on my flesh, the only designer who ever designed clothes in silk to lay against the naked flesh of the wearer. If I'd really had a choice, Ayasegawa Yumichika would design all of my clothes, but the Queen detested him because he would only design for men. Luckily, I'd managed to have Yumichika come to the palace to measure me, so I still had some of his gorgeous creations. I caressed the silken garment once more before pulling out the rest of the ensemble: the dove-gray silk obi and the dusky lavender haori that added a touch of covert color. Mother would fume because I 'outshone' her tonight, but it made little difference to me. I wore clothes I liked because I liked them, and Yumichika's work had long been my favorite. I wondered if I'd be forced to put in those porcelain hair monstrosities. If I had a choice, I'd stick to the purple-tipped hair sticks Hisana had left behind. Yet, I doubted I'd get a choice: apparently they were a sign of my rank. I would probably like them better if the damn things weren't so fragile and didn't cost more that it would take to repair all of the roads in Kakoku. I sighed heavily. I was not looking forward to the celebration tonight, but I was looking forward to being in the city again. I hoped Renji had a good escape plan lined up for the pair of us, because we were going to need it.
Ichigo: "Can't you do anything right, you stupid boy?" Mayuri bellowed when I spilled the tea. I gritted my teeth. If he wasn't yelling all the time, I could do a hell of a lot better! You can do this, I told myself. You were a pro at this before you were ten. I took a deep, cleansing breath and started again. "Much better," he muttered. That was the closest thing I would get to praise from him. "Don't disappoint your client tonight. I don't care what your client asks: you give it." His golden eyes lingered on me with harshness and anger. "No more of your working around what you're comfortable offering. If this client wants you to have a sex-change operation, you're going to do it." And like smoke, he disappeared. "I wish he'd disappear forever," I muttered. The door opened and shut quietly. "Hey, what time is that appointment, anyway?" I asked, figuring it was Nemu, sent in to deal with the errant, disobedient one. It was Mayuri's modus operandi, mostly because I tended to listen to Nemu better in the first place. "It's eight o'clock…ish. Depends on when we get here, Strawberry," drawled a familiar voice. I spun. "Renji! I thought you told Nemu you couldn't get back here before it." "I had an unexpected lull in my time," he told me. Drat if the man didn't look wonderful in his disheveled clothing! His crimson hair was down and framing his face, and his tattoos stood out starkly against his skin. He looked as good as he always did. I smiled at him and hurried to him to hug him briefly. "So," I said, drawing away. "What did you want to tell me that you couldn't put in the note?" He swallowed hard. "Well, he's a virgin –completely chaste– so be gentle with him. And he is of a really high rank. Unfortunately, that goes hand in hand with him being highly recognizable. Is there a back way I can sneak him in?" "There's a back door. I'll have Nemu wait there, starting at eight. She'll bring you to me." I smiled at him tentatively, still quite a bit nervous about things. "Is this the room for tonight?" "No, this is just my room to practice in. They don't want me to embarrass this genteel establishment with my client tonight. In fact, I've been told I cannot say no to him." I eyed Renji wryly. "I think you should warn him about that." He looked as though he wanted to laugh at that. "Oh, I don't think he'll push you into things you don't want to do… but he is very persuasive, so be on your guard." "Duly noted. So, can I ask who this guy is?" Laughter danced in his russet eyes. "Nope. That would ruin the surprise, Berry. " "Will you be here, or will it just be the new client?" I asked, figuring I could try to wheedle it out of him later. "Just him. I'll drop him off and leave you to your own… pleasures." He looked at his watch. "Fuck. I've gotta run." He pressed a kiss to my forehead as though I were a small child, then vanished as quickly as he had arrived. I've got to find out how he does that! I check my own watch as well and was stunned to see the time. Five o'clock already? I need to start preparing! Slipping out of the room, I quickly found Nemu and told her that I needed her at the back door by eight. Then I hurried to bathe and make myself presentable for a night and a mood I wanted to create for Renji's friend. I've got to be unforgettable, I mused.
Byakuya: Where in the devil was Renji? The celebration was about to begin, and I knew that we would have little time to speak during it. There were still several details of our plan that we needed to iron out. As if on cue, my aid carefully slipped into the room, closing the door behind him quietly. "Your Highness," he greeted, bowing deeply. He'd changed into a nicer garment to be ready to accompany me –not that he would be doing much of that until later. Now he wore a soft-looking robe of midnight-blue, which contrasted with his hair but looked nice on him. "Renji," I greeted curtly, wanting to make the most of the time I had before I enter that torture chamber my mother liked to call the ballroom. He rose quickly. "We need to leave the celebration by 7:30," he informed me, careful to keep his words soft so as to not allow our conversation to be overheard. "It will take some time to get there, but I think it will be worth it. I've already taken care of our… absence from the party. Kaien Shiba will 'overlook' our passage and help sneak you back in when needed: he's posted at the gate until mid-morning." I raised a brow. "You have set no duration for that?" "That will depend on how much time you wish to spend with your present," he told me, russet eyes taking on a darker cast. Why do I get the feeling he procured companionship for me? I wondered. I wanted to scoff at my own thought. Renji would do such a thing, and happily so if he thought it would be received well –which meant that if he had procured such a thing, he'd carefully selected my present to make sure I would be pleased enough that I wouldn't take up my own sword and run him through. He always had been a bit worried about my lack of genuine, close friends. "Don't scowl, Byakuya," he scolded, sounding more like a mother than my own ever had. "Princess Rukia awaits her annual dance in the rose garden, and you know how much it means to her." I nodded slowly. "Yes, Oka-san," I teased dryly. "I'll be on my best behavior." He gave me a dark look, then gently pushed me toward the door. "Go. At most, you must endure an hour and a half of this and you know it will take that long to announce all the foreign dignitaries present." I couldn't help but smile. "Where should we meet upon my escape?" "The garden. Now go." He pushed me a little. "Make your little sister happy, okay?" That was the last push he gave before disappearing of his own accord –probably to do something else to prepare for our grand exit. Yet I chose to remain in the room, thinking. Who was this person Renji was so determined I meet? Perhaps someone a bit older and a lot wiser? Someone who might empathize with me? Someone who might understand my perspectives better, perhaps? It just seemed odd to me that Renji, who was so set on me meeting this person, hadn't brought me to see them –or them to see me– earlier. It was a bit suspicious of him. Yet, I couldn't dwell on that fact for some reason. The only thing that stuck in my mind was that he was so certain I would enjoy this person's company. "I see Renji was right again." I turned to see Rukia standing in the doorway. My sister did look so lovely in her purple dress, but what really caught my eye was the rose pinned to the silky material. A smile pulled at my lips. "Hisana's rose," I murmured, before taking a breath and speaking to my sister. "Rukia. You look lovely this evening." She smiled, gathering the material of the flowing dress in her hands before giving a curtsy. "Thank you, Byakuya. You look wonderful, as well." I was suddenly glad I'd decided to forgo the haori tonight. Mother would be displeased if it appeared that I'd dressed to match my sister –God only knew why she would, but it was a confrontation I was glad to avoid. Rukia approached me and pinned a matching bloom over my chest, as well. With a soft smile, she took my arm. "Are you ready to make our entrance, Onii-sama?" she inquired softly. I was floored at the matching rose pinned to my own garment. Somehow, my younger sister could bring Hisana back into this tradition in the most subtle ways. "Of course," I told her. "It will be my favorite part of the celebration." With Rukia on my arm, I was more confident walking through the doors and into the ballroom. The voices that had been loud and boisterous died down to a soft murmur as we entered. The stares were normal: some reverent, some awed. When we reached the center of the room, Mother approached us with Father. She kissed our cheeks, but only to show what a "loving" parent she was. "To start our evening, my two beautiful children will dance in my son's garden," she practically cooed, even though I knew for a fact that she hated that Rukia had an invitation to my garden when she did not. The matching roses were a good way to stir her ire, as well, but she still wore her fake public smile. Still, I smiled at my younger sister and drew her toward the French doors. Kaien Shiba, my sister's guard, opened the doors for us and I gave him a small nod. When Rukia tripped over the cobblestone path, I caught her easily. "Are you alright, Rukia?" I asked her softly. She nodded, a blush rising to her cheeks for her fumble. "Relax," I told her softly. "It just makes you seem more human to them." "You say that, Onii-sama, but you would never have tripped." I laughed lightly. "Yes, but I'm not wearing those shoes, now am I?" All eyes were on us as we continued down the path, Rukia now taking more careful steps to avoid a similar mishap. When we reached the center of the garden, the musicians began to play something soft and light. I reached for her hand and placed it on my shoulder before placing my own hand on her side. She reached for my other hand herself. In the back of my mind, I noted that I did hold her much closer than I had held Rangiku this morning, but I pushed those thoughts away. Our pace began much slower and remained so, since I was very aware of Rukia's discomfort in her shoes. This waltz was not just for fun: it was a tradition kept in memory of someone we had both lost. The reverence seemed to remain in the pace as I looked at my younger sister with a soft smile on my face. Though I knew the song had gone on for around ten minutes, it still ended too soon for me. Rukia moved her arms to wrap them around me and I reciprocated the embrace. "Happy Birthday, Byakuya. May you find peace and hope this year," she whispered, her voice so soft that no one else could hear. I pressed a kiss to her cheek. "Thank you, Rukia," I returned quietly. I knew Mother would be angry about the little peck on the cheek, but for once, I didn't care. This was my birthday –my night! I had a right to do as I pleased just this once! We released each other as the attendees began to applaud. I held Rukia's hand as we bowed to them before returning to the ballroom. One hour. One hour in this hell before I get to escape, I promised myself. Surely, I could make it one hour.
Rukia: Mother would be seething if she noticed Byakuya's hair. He did have the kenseikan in his hair, as she had ordered. It wasn't that he'd disobeyed her: it was that he'd added his own touch. He'd wound the top portion of his straight, long black hair into a bun and secured it with a single hair stick –one of the hair sticks he had bought for Hisana while she was still alive. Hisana had adored them, though it had seemed that she preferred to place them in Byakuya's hair instead of her own at times. I remembered watching the two of them play when Hisana had worn them. She would remove them from her own hair and stick them in his, and he would chase her down and do the same. It would continue, back and forth, until each of them ended up with a single hair stick in their hair. I had always thought it was the cutest display of affection imaginable. "Princess, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it usually customary to wear both hair sticks?" my guard asked softly from behind me. I turned to look at him, a little startled. "It's because Hisana is wearing the other one," I blurted. He raised a brow. "They used to play a game with the hair sticks," I tried to explain. "Byakuya would always end up with one of them in his hair while she wore the other." His expression turned softer. "Oh, I see. Hisana is wearing the other one," he repeated. "Did you ever do something like that with your wife?" I asked him, curious. He smiled at me, but it seemed distant. "Miyako and I would leave each other poems. Sonnets, love poems, that kind of thing. I'd copy one of the old ones –like Shakespeare– and write them out long-hand, and she would respond with a new love poem she composed. In the end, she had me writing my own for her to respond to. We'd leave them in the weirdest places: the bathroom, one of the pans on the stove, a favorite tea cup… It was always a surprise to find the next one." It seemed so sweet, so pure. I could hear how much he missed her in his voice. "Do you miss those silly little games?" "Every time I find one of the notes she left behind. Miyako knew when her time was getting short, so she took it upon herself to hide close to a hundred of them around the house. I keep finding a new one every other week –sometimes every week." He shook his head with an almost rueful smile on his lips. "What do you do when you find them?" "I cry like a child, usually." His voice was raw with his honesty. "Then I write her a reply and place it in the box where I kept all of her silly little poems." I abruptly stepped into one of the empty side rooms, and Shiba –Kaien, I corrected myself– quickly followed me. He looked at me, the question in his eyes. "I'm sorry for just… asking that," I told him softly. "I know that losing someone like that is very painful, and I don't mean to make light of your pain with my idle curiosity." He shook his head. "I wouldn't have told you if I didn't want to." "I still feel cruel for doing that to you. I apologize." "Will you continue to apologize, even when I tell you there is no need, Princess?" he asked me, his tone wry. "Until you accept my apology, yes. Even if you say there is no need, I feel there is, so please accept my apology, Kaien." I gave him a small smile. "My elder brother is not the only stubborn Kuchiki." "You are absolved and forgiven, Princess." He smiled at me slightly, a different sort of smile than I'd seen from him before. I couldn't quite place it: it seemed somewhere between 'sad' and 'pained'. "Besides, I need to talk to someone about her or I will soon be the only one who recalls her." "I would be honored to share the memory of your wife," I told him. And I meant it: such a pure, sweet love and all of it torn away far too soon. My heart ached for his pain. Yet, I knew in my heart that I would gladly suffer through the same pain as Kaien and Byakuya if it meant I got to have the same good years, the same sweet games, the same rock-solid soul-devouring love that they got to taste for such a short time.