"Yoruichi," Byakuya says.
She smiles up at him.
"Remove yourself from my bed," he says, "and return yourself to your clothes."
She props herself up on one elbow, and she pouts at him. It is most undignified. "Are you sure?" She draws out the last word, tugs on it as if it's a curtain being pulled aside to reveal an inviting entrance.
"I am always sure," he tells her.
The sun is rising as she leaves through the window, and it casts red light across her sulking face.
"Yoruichi-sama has these moods," Soi Fong tells him that evening. "I saw her return from your estate in one of them this morning." Her expression is as guarded as a stone wrapped in black ribbons. "I hope she did not disturb you."
"She did nothing too grave," Byakuya says.
"Good," Soi Fong says. But she hesitates.
"However," Byakuya says, "in the future, I would advise she not offer herself out like a low harlot, or she may one day reduce herself to that level."
Soi Fong stiffens. The faintest touch of red rises on her cheeks.
"It is something for her to think about," Byakuya says.
"Yoruichi-sama is no common whore," Soi Fong says. Her voice is nearly a hiss. "And she never will be."
"As you say," Byakuya says. There is something about the way Soi Fong's eyes burn, so bright and venomous, that makes him disinclined to argue with her.
Soi Fong turns to go. But before she actually leaves, she pauses.
"What is it?"
Soi Fong bows her head and does not turn to look at him. "Why did you refuse her?"
"You shouldn't need to ask," Byakuya says. "It would have been inappropriate in the extreme. Propriety, boundaries--these things exist for a reason."
"What reason would that be?" Her voice is low, and it leaves her like a hitched breath.
"For the sake of order," he says. "For the sake of decency. These things, they all serve the rules and laws of life."
"I agree. But some people are greater than the rules."
Byakuya looks at her bowed head, and he thinks that there must be something wrong with her. Where her thoughts should be there is only a twisting expanse of black silk and the glitter of her lady's eyes.
"No," he says. "There is no such person. Now go. See to it that Yoruichi does not trouble me this way again."
She does not look back at him as she departs. Her black and white coloring gleams red in the sunset.
Some decades later, less than a week after the Captain of the Twelfth vanishes with Yoruichi, Byakuya chooses to bring the Council's news to Soi Fong: that she is to take over Yoruichi's rank and responsibilities. He tells himself that he chooses to take up the post of messenger out of idle curiosity.
He finds her in the early morning, sparring with shadows in a training room. There is something at once both calculated and desperate about her movements. She is trapped in a labyrinth of light and dark, fighting her way out with rage as her guide.
"Captain Soi Fong," he says.
She stills, then turns to look at him. "Captain Byakuya," she says.
"By the Council's orders," he says, "you are now in command of the Covert Ops and Executive Division, as well as the Second Division of the Thirteen Divisions."
She tips her head back slightly, and her eyes close halfway, as if the phrases and titles are a comfort as they fall upon her. "I will uphold the law and order of Seireitei."
"See to it that you do," he says.
She returns to fighting her invisible foes. The first rays of the rising sun stain the ground around her as red as if she has spilled nonexistent blood.
Byakuya is returning to Seireitei through one of the more reputable areas of Rukongai when he sees something out of place, a shining black pearl in a landscape of neat, plain white sand.
There is a woman kneeling on the ground, her head tucked against her chest. Her clothes are out of place; they belong to the rougher districts of Rukongai, the ones with two digits in their number. But she has a stillness that makes her seem more real and more true than anything else around her.
He stops in front of her, and he looks down.
She speaks first. "My lord should not trouble himself with this poor woman."
"I do not trouble myself with things not worth it," he says. "Why are you here?"
"This woman was wounded," she says, "in a fight in one of the higher districts. She injures too easily and heals too slowly," and it sounds like an apology. "She sought out help from the doctors here, but could find no one who would treat her."
He becomes more and more sure, as she speaks, that her whispery murmur of a voice is a fist closed hesitantly around a hidden song.
"There will be someone who will treat you where I will take you," he says. "Tell me your name."
Slowly, carefully, she lifts her head. It is very nearly not enough warning for him. When he sees the darkness of her eyes, Byakuya almost falls into them and drowns there. "Hisana, my lord," she says.
"Can you walk?" he asks when his treacherous voice returns to him.
"Hisana will walk if she must," she says, and she starts to stagger to her feet.
"Can you walk without pain?"
"Answer me truthfully," he says. He pauses, and then adds, "Please."
"No, my lord," she whispers, and she sinks back to her knees.
He kneels down beside her and he gathers her into his arms before rising again. He does not tell her that he has never touched anyone like that before, never held someone in his arms with their head resting against his heartbeat. He worries, for a moment, that his heart will burst and the explosion will hurt her.
But his heart stays whole, and as the colors of evening fall upon them, he brings her into Seireitei.
To Byakuya, love at first sight is red like the setting sun.
The five years he has with her are merely a breath, a long exhale. They are a dream painted in shades of scarlet, but they feel more real than anything he has had before.
He sees Soi Fong sometimes, and every now and then he is seized with an impulse to tell her that his old image of her was wrong. What was wrong with her then, what's wrong with him now, isn't about what's inside their heads where the thoughts should be. It's about what's locked up in their hearts where the blood should be.
In his, there is only a river aglow with red light and the glimmer of his lady's eyes. He's sure he'll drown in it someday.
But she doesn't give him the chance. She never truly gets well, and sickness and injury assault her fragile frame. For almost five years, he persists in believing that she is stronger than the forces that contrive to knock her down.
He refuses to admit that it will end until she looks at him on her deathbed, her eyes so dark and so sad, and says, "It was only a dream, my lord. Dreams never last."
He does not blame her for not loving him as he loved her. If she had let love ravage her heart that way, the pain would have only killed her faster.
Byakuya holds onto her limp hand until it is as cool as her eyes once were. There is no blood to mar it, but the rising sun stains it red all the same.
It is by coincidence alone that Soi Fong is the first person outside of his family to learn that he has found Hisana's sister.
She stares over her tea at him. "You're going to bring her into the Kuchiki house?"
"I have no choice," he says. "It is what I promised Hisana."
"Of course you have a choice," she says. "You could choose to follow the rules. That's what they're there for."
"The rules are important," Byakuya agrees. "But some people are greater than the rules."
Soi Fong downs the rest of her tea without decorum, as if it could quench a bitter fire in her stomach. "No. There is no such person."
"As you say," he says quietly. "But I will do it anyway."
"You have become a fool," she mutters.
She leaves the door open as she leaves, letting in the red light of the sunset.
"I found her sister," is what Byakuya tells his parents' grave.
What he does not tell them is this:
There was a red river in my heart, and I let it flow out when Hisana died, and it led me to her sister.
Hisana's sister looks like her, but fiercer.
I could have fallen into Hisana's eyes and drowned, for there was only an endless dark ocean behind them. I could fall into her sister's eyes and burn, for there are stars behind them.
He thinks that it is no wonder Hisana could not love him truly and deeply. She must have been incomplete without her sister at her side, and those who are incomplete cannot truly love.
He is incomplete now.
But he looks at her sister and he feels that maybe someday he can be complete again.
And yet there are rules. He is meant to be her older brother--he promised Hisana that. There are ways he may not love her.
So he kneels before his parents' grave, and he promises them: bringing Hisana's sister into the Kuchiki house will be the last time he ever breaks the rules. He will follow them now, and not his heart. His heart will be under his control and his control alone, and he will keep it and everything inside it locked up in chains.
But as he kneels there, he sees the sun rise before him, and all he can think is that somewhere inside Rukia there is a light brighter and redder even than that.
Rukia has been missing for two months, and Byakuya has a strange feeling flitting about inside him.
He is worried.
There are many things that could happen to an unwary shinigami in the real world. True, Rukia is hardly unwary, but sometimes she looks so fragile, so much weaker than she really is.
So he worries.
The evening that Renji flings open the door and declares, "Found her," with that cocky grin on his face, Byakuya finally lets himself stop being worried.
When Renji says, "And it's true, the bitch gave up her powers to a human," Byakuya starts to let himself become angry instead.
Rukia has broken the rules.
The feeling smolders in him like embers, like the red light of the sun as it sets beyond the open door.
When he unseals his zanpakutou on the bridge, Byakuya can only marvel at these people who would stand against the rules. They are so strange and exotic a specimen that he almost regrets having to kill them.
But no one life can ever stand against the rules. Not theirs, not his, not Rukia's. This is simply a fact. The more he reminds himself of this, the less angry he feels--although sometimes he has to remind himself who it was that provoked such anger. It was Rukia, not himself.
Then the lowlife who stole Rukia's powers appears, and the whole thing drops to the level of the absurd. How can someone like him raise the kind of power needed to go up against the rules, the way things should be?
Yoruichi's appearance simply makes it into a farce. She is merely another traitor showing her face where she does not belong.
Byakuya walks away from the bridge feeling as if there is another traitor in their midst, and it is the rules themselves.
They have betrayed him by demanding Rukia's death.
It is ridiculous that he should feel that way. The rules owe him nothing; they simply are.
And yet as the sun rises on the morning of Rukia's execution, he feels the red heat of anger not at Rukia and not at himself, but at the rules that he has served for so long.
It is only his own weakness that makes him doubt the rules, he keeps telling himself. The rules would not demand the sacrifice of Rukia if she were not at fault.
When Ichigo comes at him, he does what he knows he should do. He pours all his unjustified anger at the rules into rage at this miserable brat who should not even exist, and with that rage he fights.
But Ichigo takes all his anger at the rules, and with it he fights them. He takes his blade to the rules themselves.
Of course it is Ichigo who wins that fight. Ichigo is the one who knows what it is he's fighting.
Byakuya should feel shame, but it is only relief he feels. For a moment, he sees something in Ichigo, and he knows that he can go beyond the rules, and that is what he does. He steps past the rules and he runs to save Rukia from the traitor who sought her death.
Behind the hospital window, he cannot open his eyes to see the sunset, but he can feel it burning the red into his eyelids, and for that moment, he is at peace.
When Unohana helps him out of the hospital a few days later, it is Soi Fong he sees waiting for him.
"I thought," she says gravely, "that I would help you back to your estate."
He hesitates. But he is still aching, and so after a moment, he nods. "As you will."
They walk together in the lightening darkness of the early morning. After a while, Soi Fong says, "Yoruichi-sama sends her regards."
"I saw her," Byakuya says.
"I see," Soi Fong says.
Byakuya turns slightly to look at her, and he understands that she does see. There is something clearer about her than there has been in hundreds of years. She is whole.
He thinks of the moment when he parted the rules like a curtain and came through the other side to save Rukia from Aizen, and he wishes he had that clarity once more. Now it is gone, lost in the backstage of his heart.
"I will walk the rest of the way alone," he says.
Soi Fong nods and steps aside without a word.
Byakuya looks to the rising sun, and he walks into its red truth.
There are times when Byakuya spars with Renji, and then there are those evenings when he spars alone.
Rukia sits in the gardens of the Kuchiki estate, and Byakuya fights with the fading light as he pretends that she isn't watching.
It is only when she leaves that he begins to fight for real. Of course, there is never any real enemy to fight, only the air swishing around him. And yet...
Sometimes he feels that if he fights long and hard enough, if he is true enough, red ribbons will form around his blade.
Sometimes he could swear that out of the setting sun steps a woman clad all in red. Some days she looks at him with Hisana's eyes, but the more he fights, the more her gaze burns like Rukia's.
In the red light dying around him, Byakuya fights with the phantom of his heart, and he promises her that he will always love her.
Maybe one day she will tell him the rules hidden on the inside of his heart.