author's note: many thanks to Haritori for her speedy beta.
Substitute Affections — A Bleach Fanfiction
Part One: The Betrothal
Chapter Twelve: Under the Moonlight
Rukia stood still once she reached Kuchiki property. She debated whether to go through the main gate, knowing that doing so would announce her presence to the whole household. Out of obligation, the servants would bow their heads respectfully before her and cater to her needs. However, whenever they did so, she always had that feeling of being…an impostor. She wasn't comfortable with the trappings of being a noble. One would think that after a century of such luxury, she would have gotten used to it by now. Instead, not a day went by that she didn't hesitate to enter by the main gate instead of cutting through the gardens and going directly to her rooms.
It was tempting, so tempting, to bypass all the formalities expected from her and just go straight to her room and hide. Except, Kukaku's voice kept reverberating in her head…
If being engaged to Byakuya Kuchiki makes you this wimpy…
She gritted her teeth.
She was being stupid. How hard could it be to go in there and be served? When she thought of all those kids in Inuzuri who would be more than willing to trade places with her, she almost kicked herself for being such a whiny little brat. She hated, hated, being a poor little princess.
Shaking her head, she pasted a smile on her face and proceeded towards the main gate. She was a Kuchiki, for heaven's sake! And becoming even more so the way things were unfolding. She had every right to be here and—
"Good evening, Rukia-sama," a soft voice called behind her.
She tried not to grimace. She really did. But the sound of "Rukia-sama" from the servants was another thing she couldn't find herself getting used to even after a century of living as a Kuchiki.
"Yui-san!" she turned to greet the young girl who bowed before her. If Rukia remembered correctly, Yui was the daughter of one of the cooks in the main house.
A nervous energy seemed to emanate from girl as she shuffled her feet to look up at her. "We were not expecting you this evening," Yui mumbled, looking at her with dismayed eyes. "I will let them know of your arrival so that we could prepare an evening meal."
"No!" Rukia protested vehemently before she could stop herself, grabbing hold of the girl's elbow. Yui was just about her height, if not a little shorter. "That's not necessary," she said in a lighter tone. "I have already taken my evening meal."
"Oh," she replied quietly, looking at her with solemn eyes. "I should let the household know anyway," she insisted. "We were not expecting either you or Kuchiki-sama tonight and it would not do to be unprepared."
"I'm sure that everything is in order," Rukia returned. And she was. It would have to be in the Kuchiki household. It was probably the most efficiently run household in Soul Society. Nothing but the best for the Kuchiki main house. "Very little catches the main house unprepared."
"No preparations are needed for my arrival," she reiterated, "as I intend to go straight to my rooms."
The girl, however, remained unconvinced and gave her another quick bow before running to the main house. Rukia watched as the girl was greeted warmly by the two sentries assigned at the front gate. She had to stifle a sigh when she saw their change of expression once they caught sight of her just behind Yui.
"Rukia-sama!" they saluted.
She nodded in acknowledgement as she slowly walked towards them. Yui had already run past the gate, having finished delivering her news to the sentries that stood straight and tall before her. "Good evening," she said softly before walking past them.
"Ahh, R-R-Rukia-sama," she heard stuttered behind her.
Rukia looked back questioningly and found herself facing the younger one of the pair. "Ano," he began, "p-p-please accept our felicitations towards your upcoming nuptials!"
Her confusion must have shown on her face because when she looked at the other guard, he was scratching his head apologetically while hitting his partner.
"Forgive the presumption and the familiarity, Rukia-sama!" he said loudly. "This son of mine is quite new to his duties and is still getting used to—"
"Oh, but there's nothing to forgive!" she said quickly, her eyes going back and forth between father and son before settling on the blushing youth. She approached him with a smile and said, "My thanks for your sentiment." And she was thankful. It was rare for anyone in the Kuchiki household to speak directly to her regarding matters that have nothing to do with household protocols and duties. "What is your name?" she asked kindly.
"Eh-heh," he stammered, his face going into a deeper flush.
"Answer the question when asked, idiot!" she heard the father whisper loudly under his breath.
"A—ano…" he began, his head now bowed, "Haru Tanaka, Rukia-sama. My name is Haru Tanaka."
"Well, Haru-san," she smiled as she looked at both guards again, "I'm sure I speak for…Byakuya-sama as well when I say that we very much appreciate you and your family's well wishes." With another brief nod, she bade them farewell before continuing to the main house.
Behind her, she could hear the friendly bicker between father and son as they debated between the new and the old attitudes towards the nobility. A little disappointed at not being able to hear the rest, she trudged on and finally entered the main house.
Only to find a row of servants before her with their heads bowed.
"Welcome home, Rukia-sama."
Hoping her smile wasn't as sickly as she felt at the moment, she nodded in greeting and continued to walk past them. She had never been and, she was sure, never would be comfortable with the way the servants treated her. Half the time, she felt like she should be the one doing the respectful bowing. The other half of the time, she would automatically look behind her and expect her brother to be standing there because all the bowing and scraping certainly couldn't be for her.
"Will you be needing anything this evening, Rukia-sama?"
She paused and glanced back. "No," she replied. "Thank you for the offer, but I believe I shall just head to my rooms tonight."
"Very well then," one of them answered. "We will warm up a bath for you to make use of whenever you are ready."
She wanted to tell them that there was no need. That she could draw her own bath and that she felt uncomfortable being waited upon. But what was the use? They would insist on doing these things for her their own way.
Besides, she did want a bath before going to bed.
Giving them what she hoped was a grateful smile, she proceeded towards her rooms. Despite the lack of any strenuous physical activities that day, she felt drained. She yawned.
Okay, so maybe there were times when having people wait on her was a very good thing.
Captain Unohana might have been right. Perhaps she should have just returned back to the main house as soon as possible and taken the time to rest. Thinking back to her time with Kukaku-dono, however, she rejected the idea. It had been a good idea to visit her and reminisce a little.
She let out a deep breath once she entered her room and slid the door close. While she didn't feel as comfortable here as she did at her office at the thirteenth division headquarters, this room was her sanctuary in the Kuchiki main house. It was the place no one entered without her permission, the place where she could be alone whenever she wished it.
But more importantly, the terrace opened up to the Kuchiki gardens.
She grinned, dropping her sword carefully on her bed before she headed towards the sliding doors that led outside.
"Going out without me?" came her zanpakutou's voice.
She looked back in surprise. It was unusual for her zanpakutou to initiate conversation. "Only outside," she assured her. "To the gardens."
"Don't you want company?"
Rukia hid a smile. If her zanpakutou had manifested herself right then, Rukia was sure that she would see her very much affronted companion looking at her. "Not tonight," she replied gently.
"Don't you want to do some training to achieve bankai? You haven't done that in awhile."
"Tempting," she conceded, "but not tonight, and certainly not on Kuchiki grounds."
"I won't be far and I'll be perfectly safe," she stated gently. "I'll be back in no time."
A sniff. "You've said that before."
She rolled her eyes. After over fifty years, Sode no Shirayuki still continued to bring up what she considered to be her "abandonment" during the months when her shinigami powers had been virtually drained. "I promise," she said solemnly.
"Alright, then," she replied forlornly.
Rukia bit her lip to keep it from curving. There were times when her zanpakutou could be such a drama queen. She wondered where she got it from.
"One thing, though," she called out just as Rukia was about to step out to the terrace.
She paused and tilted her head.
"Do you really think Byakuya could freeze you faster than I could?" she asked, referring to Kiyone's comment that morning.
"Very funny," Rukia muttered before throwing her a dirty look and sliding the door close. Behind her, she could still hear the laughter stemming from her zanpakutou's warped sense of humor. She had to wonder where her zanpakutou got that one.
A walk in the garden might do her good before the bath after all.
Of course, to refer to the Kuchiki gardens as just a garden seemed to be a vast understatement to her. The rows of trees and flowers and shrubs carefully picked by the past Kuchikis stretched out as far as the eye could see. At some point, the gardens merged with the woods in the Kuchiki grounds.
She breathed in deeply, taking in the night air. There was a little-known path that led from the woods to the garden and into the Kuchiki property. It was that path she had wanted to take to get into her rooms as unobtrusively as possible. Stretching her arms and yawning, she hopped down from the terrace of her room and into the ground.
She hadn't been to her favorite spot in a long time and there was a tall cherry blossom tree with a sturdy branch calling her name.
It was late by the time Byakuya arrived at the main house. He could have arrived earlier, but he had decided to take his time after encountering Yoruichi. Besides, there had been no need to hurry. The main house was not expecting him as he had informed them that he would be staying at the sixth division headquarters that night. Once his plans had changed, he had not bothered to send word. The way he felt, tolerating the company of the Kuchiki servants that night as they waited on him, would have grated on his nerves. In fact, there were times when being with other Kuchikis was more of a…burden than anything else. Being alone suited him well tonight. Most of the time, he quite preferred it that way. And tonight was like most nights.
Except, he was not alone.
Maybe it was because his mind had been preoccupied by the events of the day that he failed to notice her presence until he was almost upon her. It wasn't often that he was caught unawares so many times in a row. From Retsu Unohana to the Commander-General and from Ichigo Kurosaki to Yoruichi Shihouin, he should have expected that the topic of all his discussions would in some way come to surprise him as well before the end of the day. And so while he walked through the gardens of the Kuchiki main grounds, his eyes widened in surprise when he felt her unexpected presence. With a quick glance above, he caught sight of the small figure currently gazing up to the moon and the stars as she sat casually atop one of the branches of a cherry blossom tree.
"Rukia," he mouthed unconsciously, the word escaping his lips before he thought better of it. He said her name softly, in a low enough voice that he had not expected her to hear it.
Except somehow she did, and it reminded him of that long ago morning when he first laid eyes upon the girl who was Hisana's sister. He had called out Hisana's name that time, too, only to have the girl look up as if she heard him—which, of course, had been more than impossible given his position from one of the towers of the Academy.
He could see the look of shock that was etched in her features as she scrambled to regain the balance that she had almost lost upon hearing her name called out. She jumped down awkwardly from the branch she was perched upon and looked up at him with embarrassment in her eyes. "Byakuya-sama!" she said, her words sounding carefully deliberate even to his ears. She looked around her and beyond him before meeting his eyes once more. "The servants told me that…I had thought that you would not be coming home tonight," she said almost accusingly. As if she noted the tone of her voice, she winced apologetically and said in a hesitating voice, "Welcome home, Byakuya-sama."
Strange how a few words spoken under the moonlight had a way of lingering in the air like an echo in one's mind.
It will be Hisana's as well.
Whether he wanted them to or not.
"Rukia," he said once again, noting the bowed head of his now betrothed. She always seemed to find something fascinating to stare at on the ground whenever he was around.
"Yes, Nii—Byakuya-sama?" she asked, finally giving him a sideways glance.
He could see her biting her lip in consternation for some reason or another. He could have inquired about that look she had at the moment. But he had a feeling that it was inconsequential. He could have asked her then how her day was. That was what typical families normally did, after all. But something else came to his mind when the wind blew a familiar metallic scent under his nose and Rukia stepped forward more into the moonlight.
"You are injured," he stated abruptly, his eyes zeroing on the splatter against the white fabric underneath her black shinigami robes.
"Huh?" was her seemingly dumbfounded reply before giving him a perplexed look.
With only the moonlight to help his eyes, he could hardly make out the color of the stain. But the scent of blood was unmistakable.
And quite unexplainable given that he knew perfectly well that Rukia was supposed to have been finishing up paperwork at the thirteenth division headquarters instead of traipsing around and getting herself injured. At least, that was what Ukitake had laughingly told him was in store for his vice-captain last night.
"Injured?" she repeated, looking up at him curiously.
Instead of replying, his eyes stared at the spot of dried blood on her clothes again. It was splattered just at the vee of robes.
Following the path of his gaze, Rukia's eyes glanced down to finally see the object of his statement.
"Oh this?" she laughed nervously, her face flushing while she uselessly rubbed the spot as if it would somehow disappear. "It's nothing. Not from anything that could remotely be considered an injury at all!"
He lifted a brow at her response and remained silent. He could almost feel the heat of embarrassment emanating from her as she flinched and garbled some sort of explanation and apology at the same time.
He looked at her closely.
"Quite sorry," she continued, "at not being very presentable. I haven't really had a chance to—"
"Rukia," he said patiently, "why do you apologize?"
She gave him a confused look. Her mouth opened and closed, only to open again, and then close. Perhaps it wasn't quite surprising that for the second time that day, Rukia reminded him of a fish out of water.
I'm sorry, she had meant to say again. She grimaced. Of course, that made no sense at all. She was sorry for being sorry? She mentally slapped herself. Why did she always felt like apologizing around his presence? She hadn't done anything wrong.
At least, not this time.
Well, okay, so maybe she shouldn't have been so distracted by her thoughts that she didn't even notice him until he called her name. That seemed to be the theme tonight. First Karin and now Nii—Byakuya-sama.
Byakuya-sama, Byakuya-sama, Byakuya-sama.
She will get this.
Looking up at the inquiring gaze of her now betrothed, she wondered how long it has been since he'd asked his question.
Get it together, Rukia!
"I…I…" she stuttered, silently cursing her inability to form some sort of coherent response. Because what could she say that wouldn't give offense? I'm sorry, Nii-sama, but I feel like apologizing whenever you're around? She frowned. She could just imaging what Kukaku-dono would say if she—
What's with that wimpy look on your face?
She flinched, hearing Kukaku-dono's voice in her head.
If being engaged to Byakuya makes you this wimpy—
She was NOT wimpy.
Why do you always wimp out whenever Byakuya Kuchiki or the rest of those Kuchikis ask something from you?
Et tu, Kiyone?
You're like putty in their hands!
She looked up at her fiancé's face and cleared her throat. "You…"
They say 'jump!' and you say 'how high?'
She shook her head. "You startled me," she said, quietly proud of her steady voice. "And I apologized for…" for what exactly? She wracked her brain for a reason before continuing, "for not being able to greet you in a proper manner." Because it was partially the truth. It had been drilled to her to look presentable and neat at all times. Hadn't the advisors spent weeks training her regarding the proper etiquette among the nobility? She remembered how much they emphasized how she was supposed to carry herself with dignity and grace at all times. Except in battle, there was no excuse for an unkempt appearance.
"A proper manner?" he repeated.
Maybe that sounded too formal? He was her betrothed, after all. But if that was too formal, then how was she supposed to know if there was a new way, a different way, of interacting with her brother?
Fiancé, that is!
How was she supposed to say, Sorry I couldn't greet you without blood on my clothes? Or Sorry I'm a little bit messy tonight as I haven't had a chance to take advantage of that wonderful bath, no doubt prepared for me already, and make myself presentable?
She knew, knew, that she shouldn't have lingered long in the garden. Damn Karin and her ideas about Ichigo anyway. That was what distracted her into sitting on that branch for far too long and daydreaming in the first place!
"I did not realize that there was a proper manner required for our greeting," he stated.
She looked at him, a little flabbergasted.
Of course there was a proper manner in which she was supposed to greet him! Sanada Kuchiki had been very specific years ago about—
"I meant that this is not a meeting between two members of the Gotei 13," he clarified when he saw what must have been a look of askance on her face, "where protocols are observed."
She gritted her teeth. Was he being obtuse? "As the head of the clan," she began, "you deserve the proper respect and—"
"You remind me of Sanada," he told her, "when you recite his words verbatim."
She looked at him closely. Who the hell was this man and where was her bro—betrothed?!
"I'm not sure what you mean to imply," she said the words carefully.
He gave her what she would have called a disgruntled look had it not been for the fact that he was Byakuya Kuchiki. As such, she could only call it a look of…impatience?
"Only that you are to be my wife," he stated softly, "except for some reason, you behave like you're one of the servants."
And she did. Act like a servant, that is.
He wondered why he never noticed it before. The careful way she deferred to him and oftentimes looked away to avoid meeting his eyes was almost an exact copy of the way the servants behaved. Of course, the truth of the matter was, it was also how most of the Kuchikis behaved with the exception of the advisors. So in one sense, she behaved just like any other Kuchiki—and that was unacceptable.
It was unacceptable before, as she was his adopted sister and therefore a part of the head family, and was even more unacceptable now that she was his betrothed.
She looked up at him quickly with what, for a moment, was an indignant expression before it was carefully masked to reveal nothing at all. He watched her mouth form a grim line while her hands busied themselves by playing with the pleats on her hakama with careful deliberation. "I'm sure that I don't know what you mean," she replied with a slight bite to her voice.
He blinked, surprised at the edge in her tone. He wasn't sure whether he should be pleased or perturbed by it. "I am merely stating an observation, Rukia," he returned. "You are a part of the head family and as such—"
"And as such should behave in a manner that is befitting the name I now carry," she finished for him, reciting a phrase he was more than familiar with.
Strangely enough, that wasn't quite what he had intended to say.
"A Kuchiki, especially one who is part of the head family," she continued, "must always set an example to those around her. She must be—"
"I know the rest," he interrupted her, afraid that she would actually take the time to repeat all the rules of etiquette to him. "However, Rukia, that does not change the fact you were adopted by the main family and yet your behavior is that of someone who is of lower rank." And it had to stop. Because, the more he thought about it, the more Yoruichi's words brought back the past.
How long did it take before Hisana succumbed?
He remembered the Hisana who was full of life when he had first met her, and he remembered the Hisana he knew just before she died. The stark contrast between the woman he met and married and the woman who died in his arms was enough of a source of guilt to last him all his shinigami lifetime.
He had remembered being at a loss when he first noticed the change in his wife in their marriage. He had ignored it for the most part as he had found that Hisana felt uncomfortable discussing the matter with him. He had deferred to his wife's wishes then and there wasn't a moment now that he did not regret his actions.
What…what makes you think she'll be any happier as your wife?
What made him think that indeed? What made him agree to his advisors' suggestions? What made him accept this betrothal?
Promise me, Byakuya-sama. Find her…protect her.
"This has never been an issue before," Rukia's voice reached him.
"No, it has not," he agreed. And he wondered if it would have been an issue at this very moment had it not been for Yoruichi or Kurosaki's needling voice echoing in his head. "I had hoped that in time you would grow more comfortable in your position as a Kuchiki and act accordingly; however, given the circumstances, it would be more prudent if you would…grow comfortable more quickly."
"Please forgive me if my next words seem impertinent, but," she took a deep breath, "what exactly does that mean?" she asked through gritted teeth.
He could see her hands clenching and unclenching as she talked to him, her eyes displaying more life in his presence than he could ever remember. The only times he'd ever seen those eyes were when she was with her friends or her division—and quite unaware of his presence.
"It means, Rukia, that I would need for you to…" to not remind him too much of Hisana those last few months…"be…more…assertive."
"More…assertive," she repeated with her eyes wide as she stared at him blankly.
He searched for the more appropriate words. What exactly did he need her to be? The truth of the matter was, Rukia was assertive. And dictatorial. And confident. That is, she was all those things when she was outside the Kuchiki main house or outside his sphere of influence. He was more than aware of the differences in his adopted sister's behavior than anyone else. He never really gave it much thought before. As he had said, he had expected her to eventually be as comfortable with the Kuchikis as she was with her division. He had thought it a matter of time. Granted, it had already been over a century, but still...he was a patient man.
"As my wife," he began, attempting to organize his thoughts. He had not been expecting to have this conversation with Rukia this very night and he was at a loss as to how to begin. "As my wife," he reiterated, "I would hope that you would feel more at ease with the family." He looked at her closely. "We are your family, Rukia."
"I am quite aware of that," she replied dryly.
The wind rustled and he watched her tuck several stray hairs behind her ear. She wore it a little longer now from whence he had first met her. He wasn't quite sure when she had started doing so, but he remembered the day he first noticed it.
"Are you?" he asked thoughtfully. And he asked because he knew that, in more ways than one, the Rukia who stood before him now was the same girl who stood before him when she was first adopted in the clan. Inside the walls of the Kuchiki grounds, Rukia Kuchiki never changed from the unsure girl that had been adopted into a noble family.
"Yes," she said with a hint of what could be a bittersweet smile curving her lips. "I could hardly not be aware of it after all these years." She gasped and looked up at him abruptly, almost as if she just heard what she had just said. "And I meant that in the most…" she bit her lip as her eyes widened, "the most…grateful…"
"Have we been too much trouble for you, Rukia?" he asked suddenly and, he was sure, catching her unaware. Those were the few times when the carefully pasted look of placidity in her face seemed to crack, revealing a more honest Rukia before him.
"No!" came her immediate denial while her eyes stared at him in askance. "Your family has been more than kind—"
"They're your family, too," he reminded her gently.
"Yes, but," she began to protest.
"Rukia," he interrupted, "there are no exceptions. The Kuchikis are your family."
"Yes, but— "
He gave her a look.
"I was adopted," she stated hurriedly, apologetically. "There's a difference."
"After over a century of living under this family's rules, after over a century of living in the main house and abiding by the family wishes, how could you say that there is a difference?" he asked, all the while hearing Yoruichi's voice in his head.
"You know what I meant, just as you know there's a difference."
She looked away from him before replying. "Byakuya-sama," her voice floated to him, "please do not insult my intelligence. If there had been no difference, then rules would not have been broken when I was adopted into this family. I am perfectly aware of the sacrifices you've made—"
"Sacrifices?" he echoed. "And what sacrifices would those be?" he asked curiously.
She gave him a look of dismay and seemed to struggle before she could say the next words. "I know what a burden I have been to—"
He raised a hand up as a signal for her to stop whatever she was about to say. A burden? "Rukia," he said carefully, "if I have treated you as such, then I will apologize. It was never my intention to have you feel—" he stopped abruptly when he noticed her vigorously shaking head…as well as the placement of her palm against his mouth.
She had overreacted.
She couldn't, just couldn't, let him apologize to her.
All she wanted to do was stop him from further saying anything else that would make her feel worse about this whole situation. A word would have done it, she was sure. Instead, she had overreacted and found herself actually on her tiptoes attempting to physically stop him from speaking like it was the most natural thing in the world to do.
And it was—when she was dealing with Renji or Ichigo or any one of the shinigamis in the thirteenth division. She would have been in their face both physically and verbally when she wanted or demanded something. That her usually physical reaction would kick in while in the presence of her brother was…obviously enough to render both her and Byakuya-sama speechless.
She must be tired. Exhausted even. And perhaps not in the right frame of mind. In that moment that lasted forever in her mind, she watched with something very close to horror as his eyes widened in surprise. Her gaze traveled down to her offending hand before she quickly snatched it away from its resting place against his lips. Her fingers curled up like balls as she drew both hands behind her as she closed her eyes in mortification and hoped against hope that this was all a dream.
She swallowed convulsively and stepped back in an attempt to place as much distance as she could between them. "I…" she began, searching for the words that might explain her actions. "That is…please don't apologize," she said softly. "Your family has done me great honor in adopting me into your clan." Without hearing a response from him, she dared to finally take a peek. She found him looking at her contemplatively with a frown on his face and a stillness that felt eerie even for him.
His eyes followed her slow retreat before looking away as he shook his head in a somewhat resigned manner. "This is the last time I will repeat myself regarding this matter," he finally said. "You are a member of the household as I am." He gave her a sideways glance. "And like me, your acquiescence to the wishes of the family is a way of fulfilling your familial duty. Don't you think that allowing yourself to be manipulated into this wedding just as I am puts us on equal footing?"
"Manipulated?" she reiterated, more confused than ever. "Sanada-san said…"
He looked up to the moon. "I've made a promise to myself a long time ago," he continued, ignoring her words, "that I would never again lie to you."
She went still, thinking back to the time in Soukyoku Hill, when her brother first told her of her sister, Hisana. She'd held his hand with her head bowed as she listened to his tale, her heart racing at how close…so close she had been at having a real family.
"You should know," he stated, still not looking at her, "you should know what this marriage is about."
She licked her lips. "Sanada-san said that…"
"Ah yes," he sighed slowly. "Sanada Kuchiki had a lot to say yesterday, did he not?" He turned to face her. "What he failed to mention was an arrangement that had currently been in progress between Kukaku Shiba and Captain Yamamoto-Genryusai."
She tilted her head to the side, unsure of where this was going.
"It would seem that an alliance between the Kuchiki and Shiba clan was in the works," he informed her promptly. He looked at her closely, as if awaiting a response.
She looked at him blankly.
"Rukia, they were arranging a marriage between you and Ganju Shiba," he told her gently.
Her eyes, she was sure, must have rounded like huge saucers as she gaped at him. As many people as she had rendered speechless that day with her confirmation of her engagement, she had never thought that she would be at the receiving end of a more shocking news than the one she had delivered.
"That's impossible!" the words were out of her mouth before she thought better of it. She could feel her blood rush to her head and a slight dizzying feel suffused her body. "Kukaku-dono made no mention of such an arrangement!" And she would have. She most certainly would have, wouldn't she? Especially today, when she poured out her doubts and her fears regarding the upcoming union.
"I understand that this might come as a surprise to you," he spoke softly, as if to a child. "But I believed it best that you know at least some of the background behind Sanada Kuchiki's insistence on this marriage."
Marriage to Ganju Shiba? To be a part of the Shiba clan? Kukaku-dono's clan? Kaien-dono's clan? Her breath hitched at the thought of that long-ago impossible dream.
"I'm afraid I don't understand," she said quietly, her emotions so barely held in check that she could feel herself shaking. She had to focus with what was being discussed at hand and ignore the way her heart raced a trip-hammer beat.
She took a deep breath. If a marriage between her and Ganju were in the works, why wouldn't Kukaku-dono have mentioned to it to her? And what did that have to do with Sanada Kuchiki's insistence on a marriage between her and Nii-sama?
"Sanada wanted to avoid a marriage between the Shibas and our clan at any cost," he told her bluntly. "Our betrothal was the quickest and most efficient way of thwarting Captain Yamamoto-Genryusai's plans with the Shibas."
"I don't understand," she repeated plaintively this time. Because she didn't understand. Why did Sanada Kuchiki care if she married a Shiba? Surely that should have been her decision?
"It is ancient history," he replied. "Or at least it is ancient history to everyone except Sanada Kuchiki. The details are unimportant, but needless to say, it would not be unheard of for Sanada to do everything in his power to prevent an alliance with the Shibas." He stopped and looked at her closely.
And try as she might, she couldn't prevent the look of disillusionment that must have shown in her eyes.
"What do you think of being a Kuchiki now, Rukia?" he asked quietly.
What could she think? What could she say? How did she respond to that?
"Are you saying that all of this talk," she began slowly, "about doing what's best for the Kuchiki clan…" She looked up at him, her mouth forming a grim line. "All this talk is nothing more than that? Just talk?" She searched his eyes for a response. "Our lives are being dictated to and turned upside down for nothing?"
"Oh I am absolutely certain that Sanada believes that the marriage between us is what is best for the Kuchiki clan," he told her, "out of all the other options presented," he qualified.
"So this marriage…" she could feel herself going numb, "is just…the lesser of two evils."
"That is one way of looking at it," he confirmed.
She almost choked.
"I see," she replied tonelessly.
And she did.
All the jumble of emotions she had felt for the past twenty-four hours…all the agonizing moments over her decision to perform her familial duty…all the soul-searching she had been forced to endure…
It was all for the comfort of Sanada Kuchiki—a man who barely tolerated her existence within the Kuchiki clan.
She felt nauseated.
"When did you know about this?" she asked with as much detachment as she could muster given the circumstances. She knew she failed, however, when she noticed his concerned look. She could feel herself flinching from the pity in his eyes.
"I was told about it this morning by the first division captain," he informed her carefully, watching her with those oh-so-observant eyes of his.
She wasn't sure if she believed him. How could he not know something so important, something so life-altering for both of them?
"I can see that you have trouble believing me," he stated matter-of-factly.
She worried her dry lips and tried to look anywhere but towards him. He would see the doubt in her eyes and she was afraid…she was afraid that he might see it as an insult. After all, to doubt the word of a Kuchiki, especially one Byakuya Kuchiki, was quite unheard of.
"I assure you," he continued, "that until late this morning, I was as much in the dark regarding this whole matter as you were. Else I would not have…" his voice trailed off.
And she was curious enough to look back and wonder what he had been about to say. She found his eyes resting intently upon her. Else he wouldn't have what? Agreed to marry her? Consented to this whole arrangement?
"But what's done is done," he said with a hint of finality. "By now, I expect that the news of our betrothal has reached most, if not all, of Soul Society. Noble wedding announcements seem to spread like wildfire in our world."
She almost gave a wry laugh at that understatement, but her mind was focused on his previous words. If he had known of the first division captain's plans, what would he have done? If he had known of Sanada Kuchiki's motives from the beginning, how would this have been resolved? Throwing prudence to the wind, she asked shortly, "You wouldn't have what?" She swallowed and cleared her throat. "If you had known about this from the beginning, what wouldn't you have done?"
I would not have let Sanada place undue pressure upon you.
I would have given you the time to make the decision about the Shiba clan.
I would have given you the choice.
He stared at her inquiring eyes, noting the barely banked fire within them. "Nothing that can be done now," he replied instead, tossing aside the multitude of scenarios that were now more than impossible. "The situation is what it is," he stated, looking away from her and up at the moon. "It would be pointless to discuss what-would-have-beens."
"But of course," she said quickly, too quickly.
He peered at her from his height and saw her bowed head and clenched fists.
"You are absolutely correct," she whispered softly, as if to herself. She gave a small, forced laugh. "Ichigo would say that…" she stopped abruptly, shaking her head.
He raised a brow.
What would Ichigo Kurosaki have said?
She raised her head and met his questioning look. She bit her lip. "He would have said that…that it's no use crying over spilt milk."
"One of his human expressions?" he asked dryly.
"Yes," she answered steadily. "It means that—"
"I can surmise what it means," he interrupted, giving her a sideways glance. He wondered what made her think of Kurosaki at this time.
"Yes, well," she sighed, as if the weight of all Seireitei rested upon her shoulders. She looked past him, the tension in her shoulders looking worse than before.
He wondered what part he played in adding to her burdens. And he wondered if letting her know the truth was the best thing he could have done for her at that point. Perhaps the kinder act would have been to let her live in ignorance and allow her the false sense of accomplishment for having fulfilled her duty to the Kuchikis.
Come to think of it, why didn't he keep Sanada's plans to himself? It would have been quite easy to refrain from saying anything and let sleeping dogs lie. Despite his promise to himself never to lie to her, keeping a few details to himself would have been as simple as just walking away. Except, it would have meant risking the chance that she would find out some other way. While he was fairly certain that Sanada Kuchiki would not broach the subject with Rukia, the same could not be said regarding the Shiba clan. And to be honest, he was quite surprised that Kukaku Shiba had failed to even hint at the arrangement during her time with Rukia. Who would have thought that that woman could keep a secret?
"It's…" Rukia's voice floated towards him, "it's getting late." She let out a small laugh. "Rather it is late." Her hands again made the nervous gesture of smoothing the pleats from her hakama. "Captain Unohana will be cross if she finds out I stayed out too late before our meeting tomorrow."
He raised one brow at her attempt to excuse herself from his presence. "Of course," he replied in measuring tones. "I understand that she will be guiding you through this process."
She nodded hesitatingly. "Captain Ukitake has kindly asked for her help in the matter," she explained. "And as I did not want to bother Sanada-san, it seemed more prudent to accept her generous offer."
"That was…thoughtful of your captain," he said almost tersely, all the while wondering why he found it disturbing that Rukia would find the help of others more to her liking than those of the Kuchikis. "Captain Unohana is a very good source of information."
Again, she nodded. With downcast eyes, she bowed slightly before turning to leave.
And again, as in this morning, he wondered whether he should say something. Anything at all to help her in any way he could. He, more than anyone, knew the pressures that came with being a part of the Kuchiki clan. He, more than anyone, knew what it was to make sacrifices for the family. And it was he, more than anyone, who knew what it was like to be in her situation…the situation that he himself was in.
As he watched her walk away from him, her demeanor as solemn as it had always been, the voices found their way to him again, wrapping him in their intensity.
Find her. Protect her.
It won't be only be me, or Ichigo, or anyone of Rukia's friends whose judgment you'll have to face.
It will be Hisana's as well.
And before he knew it, he took a step forward and his arm reached out to grab hold of—
Her hand. It felt warm.
"Rukia," his voice came from behind her, reaching her ears as she felt his hand clasp around her and pull her back slightly.
She jumped, more from the touch of his hand on hers than any real surprise, and turned to look back at him with what she was certain were startled eyes.
The touch of his fingers on hers was hot…surprising given that she had always associated him with the cold countenance of the moon. Or perhaps it was warm because she felt so very cold. She could feel Sode no Shirayuki calling to her, offering her comfort in her wintry embrace ever since she heard the news about Sanada and the Shiba clan. Her zanpakutou knew her too well, knew when she would have welcomed someone to cry to.
But all her focus and the cold feel of her zanpakutou faded at the warmth that emanated from the hand that held hers. It spread across her arm and all over that even her face felt flushed. She looked at their hands and noticed that her fingers had curled to clasp his as well.
"Bya-Byakuya-sama?" she whispered softly in question before finally looking up at him.
She flinched from the intensity of his gaze and instinctively tried to pull away.
"Rukia," he said again, his fingers tightening slightly in response.
"Yes, Byakuya-sama?" she asked, her voice holding steady.
She watched as he seemed to grind his teeth before continuing.
"Rukia…is this situation…is it something to cry about? Like…spilt milk?" he asked, his words feeling like they stumbled forth without his consent.
She blinked. "No," she replied hurriedly, looking up at him earnestly. "Of course not, Byakuya-sama. It's…it's an…honor to be wed to the head of the Kuchiki clan. It is an honor to be even considered..." she felt her voice fade away. Had she just insulted him awhile ago? Did he think that she thought of their situation as something as…as…as inane as spilt milk?
"Rukia," his voice was low, with a hint of urgency. "There's not much time before the yui-no," he told her.
"Yes, I know," she replied nervously, her mind racing as to where this conversation was heading.
"There's…" his voice seemed to fade.
There still time, he had wanted to say.
Time to think.
Time to assess.
Time to…maybe…change your mind.
The consequences would be great, yes. She would be ostracized as an oath breaker.
But…would those consequences be the lesser of two evils? In the long run, would she be happier, as Kurosaki had implied? Would that be what was best for her? If he knew for certain, then he could act. If he knew what the future would bring, then he could tell her what would be best.
Find her. Protect her.
But he didn't know for certain and the future was something he could never predict…at least not with all the variables at hand. And so, words failed him and he struggled to find the right phrase…the appropriate phrase to say. And in the end, he said something that meant nothing.
He wondered if she'd hate him for it later.
"Rest well this evening, then," he said softly.
Because he certainly began to hate himself at that moment.
"Yes, of course," she answered, her eyes…disappointed?
She looked down at their hands and his eyes followed her gaze. Slowly, he let his fingers slide away, felt her hold on him slacken as his hand withdrew from hers.
"Have a…good evening, Nii—Byakuya-sama," she said formally before finally, finally walking away.
If he'd had less discipline, he would have cursed under his breath as he watched her retreating form. He had a feeling that it was a sight he would need to get used to in the coming months.
To be continued.
More author's notes: Happy New Year to everyone! I'd like to thank you all for your very wonderful reviews of this story as well as your patience for this next chapter. Your kind words have warmed my heart this holiday season.