Author's note: a Byakuya x Rukia multi-chapter fanfiction. At least, that's how it's going to end. As for in between, well, that's different.
Substitute Affections — A Bleach Fanfiction
Part One - The Betrothal
Chapter One: For the Family
"You seem to believe that she will be amenable to this plan," he said stoically at his family advisors, his eyes narrowing.
"And why shouldn't she?" the old man Sanada spoke up. "There are worse things than this honor we bestow upon her. The Kuchiki clan is one of the noble houses of Seireitei. She could hardly receive a better offer."
Byakuya leaned back against his chair and looked at the view of the garden outside and thought of the woman in question.
When they had found her, there was no one more surprised than him.
They had searched for years, him and his wife.
He remembered those endless nights when he laid awake listening to her tears. At first he had tried to comfort her, his heart torn at the sound of her sobs. But she had turned him away and he had seen her shame at being caught in what she considered such weak behavior. No matter how many times he had assured her, he knew that she had always carried a sense of inadequacy at being part of the Kuchiki clan. And every time he had tried to comfort her, he seemed to make things worse. Make her worse. And so some nights, he had pretended not to notice when she left their room. He had turned a blind eye towards the nights she spent in their private gardens, returning to bed only when her tears have been exhausted and her body was too weak to do anything more but sleep.
He remembered how her guilt had consumed her in the end. How the laughing woman he fell in love with and broke the rules for had withered away into nothingness. Already weakened by sickness, her will to live seemed to have vanished as years passed with no leads and no hope of finding her sister. In the end, despite the fact that she had asked him to continue looking for her, he knew that she herself didn't really believe he would find her sister. Truth be told, at that point, neither did he. But he had made the promise to continue looking and he had done so half-heartedly, not believing for one moment that success would be within his reach.
He remembered that it was early in the morning, almost a year since the death of his wife, when they had found her. The Academy had let him know about a female student from Rukongai whose background matched his queries and had scored exceptionally well in the first round of examinations. It hadn't taken long for him to ascertain that the child, Rukia, was Hisana's kin.
The first time he saw her, she and her friend had been running towards the Academy. They were barely making it in time to take the second round of tests given to prospective students. He recalled the instinctive step he took forward as he called out, "Hisana," softly in the wind. For a moment, he had thought she heard him when she looked up to the high windows of the Academy. He had hidden himself in the shadows, cursing himself for all kinds of fool.
That woman, of course, had not been Hisana.
But the resemblance had been startling. The reports he'd received made mention of it, but he hadn't expected it to be quite so close. Even from high up, he had been able to make out the features of Hisana etched on the very much alive Rukia.
And she had scored well in the first round of examinations. And all the rounds after.
Knowing what that meant, he had used his influence and pleaded his case to the board. He'd made a promise to Hisana that he would protect her little sister. So, he'd asked the Board to take Rukia out of the advanced Class 1. That class had more training exercises in the human world than any of the other classes.
He would have requested they deny her admission altogether, but he had been afraid that it would send her straight back to Rukongai. And he couldn't lose her then. Not when she was that close.
During her first year in the Academy, he had worked hard to obtain all the appropriate approvals for her adoption to the Kuchiki clan. He had overridden all objections with his influence as head of the Kuchiki family. Everything had been in order by the time he and his family approached her.
Pausing from his trip down memory lane, he looked up at the trio that served as his advisors over the years.
"We believe that under the circumstances, this is the best course of action for the family," Sanada claimed. "Unless you have any objections?"
He gritted his teeth.
What could he possibly say to that?
"Please set up a meeting with Rukia this afternoon, then," he replied, his voice betraying none of the conflicting thoughts in his head.
It's been years.
Well then, we shall be awaiting a favorable response.
She remembered when she first heard those words. Back in the Shinigami Academy. She remembered the way her body had felt numb while her heart raced at all the implications and the possibilities. To be part of a family, to belong to a family…wasn't that what she had always wanted? They had been granting her deepest most heartfelt wish. Wasn't she supposed to be happier, more joyful? And yet, as they walked passed her to leave the room, she remembered not only the heavy weight that settled in her chest but also the immense, immense relief at being interrupted.
Good ol' Renji. That guy did have a knack at being present during her life-changing moments.
She wondered what he'd say now?
Would she find herself congratulated heartily like he did before? Would he pat her head and tell her how lucky she was that such a chance had landed in her lap?
She smiled sadly, remembering that time at the Shinigami Academy.
Renji always did do what he thought was best for her.
And despite all the years that had passed, nothing had changed in that regards.
She gave herself a mental shake before quickening her footsteps. Ichigo and Renji might be wondering where she was at this time. She was supposed to meet them at Renji's place an hour ago and she's late! Knowing those two, however, she wasn't even sure if they would have even noticed. Even to this date, the bickering between them had not alleviated. One would think that after so many years, they would have either matured or gotten the constant rivalry to be the best Shinigami out of their system.
She had a feeling that Renji and Ichigo would always be fighting.
It was beautiful, really, because she knew that beneath all the loud boasts, those two had a mutual respect for each other. It was partly their rivalry that spurs them to try that much harder and train that much more. In essence, they partially owed each other their accomplishments.
Had it really been that long ago?
She remembered when her foremost concern had been her death sentence and the safety of the ryoka who had been trying to save her. She remembered a time when Ichigo, Inoue, Chad, and Ishida were human instead of Shinigami.
She looked up in the sky.
Had it been that long ago when they had saved her from execution? Had it been that long ago when they had battled Aizen and the Arrancars?
So many things were changing then. Even Soul Society was changing. It was only these past few years that everything had settled down again.
And now, as she ran down the streets of Seireitei, she wondered what her friends would say when she told them the news.
Well then, we shall be awaiting a favorable response.
Who would have thought that she would hear those words again from the same people who've uttered them the first time 'round?
Byakuya watched the retreating form of Rukia from the window of his office before turning back to the stack of paperwork on his desk. He was behind on his work today. Despite this, however, he knew that attempting to catch up tonight would be futile.
His mind was elsewhere and no amount of discipline was going to help drag it back to something as mundane as paperwork. He stood up and walked towards the door that led to the gardens. He wondered what Hisana would have thought of this latest development. He had a feeling that when his wife had asked him to look out for her sister, this situation had not quite entered her mind.
At least, he didn't think it had.
He wondered…he wondered if she objected. Not of the actual situation itself, but rather the way it was carried out. The way he had allowed it to be carried out. For he knew that one word from him, one objection from him, would have silenced the matter altogether before it even had a chance to reach Rukia's ears.
And during the meeting, he knew that one look from him would have moderated Sanada's heavy-handed tactics and spared Rukia any feelings of guilt or obligation.
But he had done what they said was best for the family. And in truth, he had been apathetic towards the whole incident. Not towards Rukia, of course. Rukia was someone he would always have the need to protect. But he was apathetic towards his advisors' suggestions.
He'd already married once for love.
He did not expect to do so again.
Rukia stopped abruptly in front of Renji's door. From outside, she could hear Ichigo and Renji's voices loud and clear. She smiled. In the ever changing world, it was sometimes nice to know that there were things that would always remain the same.
And her friends, her two best friends, were one of the few constants in her life.
She was about to raise her knuckles and knock at the door when it abruptly opened to reveal Ichigo.
"Rukia," he scowled at her. "You're late. You better have a damn good reason because I've had to listen to this jackass all night."
"I heard that!" came Renji's voice above his head.
"You were meant to, you idiot!" Ichigo yelled back, as he opened the door wider to let her in.
She looked at the jugs of sake that littered the table of the living room. "Did you save some for me?" she asked ruefully. "I think I might need it tonight."
It had become a habit more than anything else when the three of them found themselves free. As three vice-captains in the Gotei 13, their duties had always kept them busy most days and nights. And so, it was a rare occasion when the three of them were off duty at the same time. In those nights, they found themselves in each other's company more often than not.
"Oh?" Renji commented, raising one tattooed brow. "Does it have anything to do with why you're late?" he asked speculatively as he handed her a cup.
"Yeah," Ichigo returned. "What kept you? Idiot over here almost went out and assembled a search party."
"You're one to talk," exclaimed Renji. "It's not like Rukia to be late," he mimicked in a false falsetto. "What if something's happened?" he continued.
"It's nice to know you guys care," she told them before grinning and drinking the sake without preliminaries, her mind still racing from her last meeting. She stared at her two companions, inwardly grimacing at how twisted the fates could be. There was a time long ago when she had thought herself in love with these two at one point or another.
Not too long ago, when Ichigo had still been human, she had fancied herself in love with him. But she had let that go, knowing the futility of a relationship between a human and a Shinigami. She had never told him of her feelings, which was just as well since he never once hinted that he might have felt the same. In the years she'd known him, he was most passionate about her only when it came to protecting her.
That his protective feelings might have stemmed from a deeper or more personal reason was something that never occurred to her.
As for Renji, well now that was water under the bridge. Years, decades even, before she met Ichigo, she had thought that Renji was the only one for her. As two strays from Rukongai, they had clung to each other in the beginning. But in the end, the different paths they took drove them apart and it wasn't soon afterwards that he became more of an acquaintance rather than a friend. It wasn't until after she met Ichigo that she and Renji resumed their friendship. And during those times, all she received from him were his protective instincts.
That those instincts might have stemmed from something other than brotherly affection was something that never occurred to her.
In the end, she was just happy that she had these two in friendship.
And now, fate had deemed that the only two people she had ever considered marrying at one point or the other would be the two people she would first bring her news to.
She took a deep breath.
"It appears that I'm to be married," she stated quietly, right before she took the sake flask from Renji's now nerveless fingers, downed the rest of its contents and tried not to think of that meeting with the Kuchiki clan.
To no avail.
The scene that afternoon in her meeting with the Kuchiki clan, her clan, would have been comical had it not been for the fact that it was happening to her.
"Well then, we shall be awaiting a favorable response," Sanada commented, looking at her with those same beady eyes she remembered from before. "Of course, there really isn't much to consider, is there?"
She gaped at him then, still unsure if she heard correctly. She quickly looked at her adoptive brother for confirmation.
"I realize that this may come as a surprise," he said impassively.
To be asked…no, not really asked, but told…to be told to marry the Kuchiki heir was a surprise?
What a veritable understatement!
"I ask that you give this your utmost consideration," Nii-sama continued.
"What is there to consider?" Sanada demanded. "This is a great honor! After all the Kuchiki had done for you, it is the least you can do to help strengthen the family."
She looked at them in askance.
"Is…is this what Nii-sama wants?" she asked quietly, not knowing what else to say.
"It is for Kuchiki," he replied. "As Sanada has stated, it is time that I took a wife." He paused. "In these past years, you have distinguished yourself well, Rukia. It would be an honor to the Kuchiki clan as well for this union to take place." He looked up at Sanada before looking back at her. "But it is your choice."
"Choice?" Sanada's voice rang. "What choice?" He glared at her. "You would refuse this honor? You would deny the Kuchiki family?"
Her mouth opened but no words came out.
"Rukia," her brother's voice drifted to her. "You don't have to make your decision now."
"Is this what Nii-sama wants?" she asked again, not knowing what else to say. Her mind was at a whirl. She couldn't, just couldn't imagine that this is what Byakuya-nii-sama would want.
He looked away. "I have no objection to Sanada's proposition," he stated in an emotionless voice.
"But…but do you not wish someone else to take to wife?" she asked.
"I have no interest in anyone else at this time," he informed her. "As you are not of blood relation and are already a Kuchiki, it was deemed that you might be the best choice given that I have no preference in the matter."
She winced at the coldness of his reasoning.
"Rukia Kuchiki," Sanada's voice rang.
She looked up, making note on the emphasis he placed on the 'Kuchiki' part of her name.
"Do you really need the time to consider this?" he asked.
And she winced again.
Because the truth was, like her brother, she would do her duty to the family. And if her family decreed that she was to be married, then really, what choice did she have?
"Of course not," her voice came quietly. "As you have said, you honor me with this offer." She looked up at her brother. "Nii-sama," she spoke.
"If that is your decision," her brother said softly, "then it would be best if you begin calling me something else entirely."
She nodded, blushing. "Of course," she said quickly. "Byakuya-sama," she finished off.
"Well then," Sanada coughed. "I will begin the preparations." He motioned to the rest of the Kuchiki advisors. "I will leave the two of you to discus this further if that is your wish."
She bowed her head as they left and let the silence permeate the room at their departure. From the corner of her eye, she could see her brother looking out the window as if lost in thought.
"Nii—" she bit her lip. "Byakuya-sama," she finally said, unable to bear the silence. "Is this…is this alright?" she asked.
He turned to look at her, his eyes as unreadable as they once were when she first met him.
"As I have mentioned before, I have no objection to the union," he replied. "And judging by your response, neither did you." He gazed at her impassively. "That is correct, yes?"
What could she say?
"Then there is nothing more to say," he stated before turning back to look outside. "You may take your leave. Your friends would be waiting for you by now."
She glanced up, startled.
"I know your schedule, Rukia," he told her, as if he could read her unasked question. "It is perhaps best," he began, before hesitating slightly, "that you told your friends of this news first before it reaches their ears through gossip."
Again she nodded.
"I shall take my leave then," she said respectfully, before bowing and exiting the room.
To be continued.