Abarai Ichika was born in late spring, just after the last sakura blossom had fallen and just before the start of the rainy season. Despite not holding the Kuchiki name, the baby was still a part of the family so in line with tradition, the first person allowed to visit was the head of the clan. Byakuya swept into the room, having shed his captain's uniform in favour of a dark blue kimono paired with a haori imprinted with the family crest.
Rukia lay back in bed, exhaustion etched on her face. She'd had her head turned to face Renji, who had their daughter in his arms, but as soon as the door opened her attention focused on her brother.
"Nii-sama" said Rukia softly, making an effort to sit up enough to bow in respect, but Byakuya raised a hand to signal that it wasn't necessary. Renji carefully rose from his chair, trying not to disturb the child he was holding.
"Taichou" he said "It's good to see you."
The captain had mellowed in the last few years, and even if the time of peace hadn't softened him completely, his attitude to his subordinate had improved greatly, especially now they were brothers.
"The same to you." Byakuya looked over to Rukia, and something akin to a smile appeared on his face. "I trust both mother and baby are doing well?"
"Yes" she replied "would you like to see her?"
His eyes widened for a split second. "The child is a girl?"
Rukia nodded, and Renji walked to the end of the bed to meet Byakuya. A tuft of scarlet hair poked out from between the blankets he was carrying, with a pair of pink fists to match.
"Congratulations" Byakuya said, serious as ever, but both Rukia and Renji knew him well enough to know just how happy he actually was.
"Do you want to hold her, taichou?"
Byakuya wordlessly held his arms out in invitation. Renji passed him the child, and he took her gently, with every ounce of grace expected of him. He rested her in the crook of his arm, carefully supporting her head. Her small size made Byakuya seem more imposing, the frame of his shoulders seeming protective of the baby he was carrying.
He'd taken her as calmly as possible, but handing her over had disturbed her and with a wrinkle of the nose, the child's eyes started to open. In that instant, Byakuya's demeanour changed. His shoulders softened, and a warmth slowly spread across his face. His niece gazed up at him, through half-open eyelids. She'd inherited her mother's violet eyes, and as he looked down at her, he felt a rush of pride.
The baby was no more than two hours old, and her face was almost as red as her hair, but she was peaceful as she lay in her uncle's arms. There was no screaming, no crying, just soft breathing noises.
"She likes you, Nii-sama" said Rukia warmly.
"Have you a name for her?" Byakuya replied.
It was customary for the parents to seek approval from the head of the clan before the naming ceremony a week later. Because Renji had no other family, they turned to the Kuchiki patriarch for his opinion. Rukia looked at her brother, a little uncertain.
"We were thinking of Ichika, written with the kanji for strawberry and flower."
Renji cleared his throat, sensing that his wife was nervous. "We wanted to honour those who meant the most to us. And that means Ichigo... and you."
Byakuya closed his eyes contently. Just as he found strength in the blossoms of his Senbonzakura, he would now find strength in this child.
"That name is a fine choice" he said, and with those words he turned to look upon his sister. She seemed smaller, shrinking back into the bed. But behind the exhaustion, there was a new kind of resilience written on her face. He spoke again.
"I am honoured, both as a Kuchiki and as your brother."
It was a much warmer statement than he was intending to give, but Rukia had given him something much greater, and that fact had to be acknowledged.
Byakuya's attention fixated back on his niece. She was beautiful - the perfect combination of both her parents. As he passed Ichika back to her father, Rukia gave a watery smile, overwhelmed with emotion.
Renji moved towards his wife to give her their daughter. Byakuya watched him gently talk to Ichika as Rukia took her in her arms. The corner of his mouth curled upwards. He'd known Renji long enough to know that he would take care of them both. He was furiously loyal, almost to a fault, and he'd served as his lieutenant long enough for the captain to trust him absolutely.
Besides, Rukia had grown into a strong woman, more than capable of taking care of herself. She'd always been tenacious, perhaps unbefitting a Kuchiki, but the last few years had given her an edge of maturity. That wasn't to say she'd completely discarded her more juvenile side, but as the future captain of Squad 13, her responsibility had increased tenfold.
Ever the master of stoicism, Byakuya felt his face about to betray him. His pride seeped into every pore of his skin, threatening to form his mouth into a smile. He swallowed it down, and with another 'congratulations' he excused himself from the room.
Byakuya made his way down the corridor, his haori billowing behind him.
"Hisana..." he whispered "you'd be proud of her."