Characters/Pairing: Byakuya-centric, hints of Byakuya/Hisana, Byakuya/Rukia.
Genre: Angst, AU, "what if?" fic (in this case, "what if Rukia had been executed?")
Summary: Ichigo doesn't make it in time to save Rukia from execution, and after Byakuya watches his sister die, he slowly breaks under the weight of the promise he has broken and the memories that remain.
Length: 4,400 words, in a series of 16 drabbles.
Spoilers: spoilers for ch. 179/ep. 62, but this story will make little sense, most likely, if you are unfamiliar with ch.179/ep. 62 of the anime/manga.
Warnings: Mild Violence, along with copious amounts of angst, emo, woe, general weirdness and emotional constipation. Also, this is my first Bleach fic, so hopefully I didn't bungle everything up too badly. Oh, yeah, and I don't own Bleach or its characters. Obviously.
The morning after the execution, Byakuya opened the cupboard where his small, understated little shrine to Hisana was situated and stood as he did every other morning, staring at her portrait with eerily focused intensity. He lingered in utter and absolute silence, almost expectant – as if something was going to shatter the quiet peace of the moment. Minutes later – when nothing happened – he blinked slightly as it occurred to him that he'd been waiting to wake up.
Byakuya closed the twin doors abruptly and lingered, frowning. The numb, half-present drifting sensation surrounding him felt like a dream, but it wasn't – instead, he had entered some kind of haze the moment he had seen the portrait and her always kind smile and gentle eyes gazing at him from the midst of the shrine.
Only when he left the room to go about his daily business did he recognize the sensation for what it was -- the dream-like haziness was really a kind of numb disbelief over how much and how little everything around him had changed. It was almost as if nothing had happened.
The feeling did not last. After a day of forced regularity – paperwork, a short meeting with the seated officers, and a late-evening walk through the grounds of his manor – he realized that everything about the world around him had changed, and he was only trying to convince himself that it hadn't.
Neither the human boy who had tried to save her nor Renji blamed him. He had expected one of the two to start a confrontation eventually – but after the haze that was the first day post-execution ended, he learned that the boy had been stripped of his shinigami powers permanently and banished from Soul Society with the other ryoka, and Renji was in jail for his sword-breaking rampage through the sixth division.
Three nights after the execution, the seated officers of Byakuya's division made an appeal, and Renji was released; Byakuya didn't bother wondering at the insubordinate under-handedness of his officers, and wasn't concerned by Renji's state, either. In the morning that followed, he wasn't even surprised to find a notice on his desk of his Vice Captain's resignation and reassignment to another division.
At first, Byakuya thought Renji had transferred out to avoid the inevitable confrontation, but he gradually came to the realization that his now-former Vice Captain seemed to think it best that they never looked at or faced one another again. Byakuya agreed, hastily promoted one of his seated officers to take Renji's place, and only felt confused afterwards, when he came to his second realization.
He wanted – no, needed – someone to confront him over what had happened, to challenge him, and to blame him for his adopted sister's death. When no one did, he found it was disturbingly easy to pretend that he could continue on with his life guiltlessly, as if nothing had ever happened.
No matter how just the execution had been, three shinigami captains – Aizen, who should have been dead, Gin, and Tousen had benefited from it, and after stealing the artifact that had emerged from Rukia's body and retreating to Hueco Mundo, they had left behind a promise of destruction.
Around him, Soul Society prepared for Aizen's inevitable assault, while Byakuya remained oddly unconcerned with the prospect of the oncoming war. The rest of the thirteen divisions were in a panic; he drifted from one day to the next, moving one step at a time and leaving his more easily excited coworkers to mire themselves in unreasonable anxiety.
Everyone else was in a hurry.
Byakuya felt distinctly as if time had stopped.
His single portrait of Hisana, which lingered hidden from all other eyes except his own, remained unchanged – her gentle eyes, her tired, forgiving smile, and her pale delicate features were exactly as he remembered. It reassured him, in some ways – but as the mornings started to run into one another, he found that gazing upon her portrait no longer had the calming effect of before – and he always left the room with an odd tightness in his throat and a twisted feeling in his insides.
Some mornings, he even hesitated – and upon the dawning of the first morning of the autumn season, two weeks after the execution, Byakuya refused to go altogether. Before he really knew it, it had been a full month and a half since he'd paid the little shrine a visit.
The place in his mind where mortification at his own negligence should have been was only filled with a strange and somewhat empty feeling of relief.
A few months after the execution – as Soul Society reeled from the increase of hollows populating the real world and desperately tried to prepare for Aizen's still-looming assault – Byakuya passed Renji in the streets of the Seireitei. It was not an unusual occurrence – somehow, even with the other man in a different division, Byakuya and his former Vice-Captain frequently crossed paths. What made it odd was that Renji, for the first time since his reassignment, actually looked at Byakuya.
Their eyes met momentarily, and Byakuya didn't recognize the look on Renji's face. It wasn't hatred or blame, anyway, but he gave it only a little consideration before looking away and continuing past wordlessly.
Renji actually tried to make eye contact and catch Byakuya's attention the next time they passed, a few days later. Byakuya ignored him – Renji's eyes were forgiving even if the man himself looked about ready to break, and Byakuya had no need for Renji's forgiveness. It felt like charity, which to him, was disgusting and reprehensible – he had nothing to gain from allowing his former Vice-Captain to offer him any kind of condolence.
Deep down, though, it wasn't arrogance that compelled him to ignore Renji -- it was the same cowardice that now kept him from visiting Hisana's shrine in the mornings, and, looking back, it was also the same cowardice that had kept him from admitting that even he hadn't believed his sister's execution was justified.
The autumn winds sweeping through the Seireitei began to increase in strength and grow colder, and it was only a matter of time before winter descended upon all of Soul Society. The Kuchiki Manor grew cold, dark and dead along with the world outside. Byakuya could remember winters where the manor seemed warm, pleasant, and full of life – but those days were gone.
On the third night of a chilly late autumn wind-storm, his own sleeping quarters were so frigid that not even lighting the fireplace seemed to help. As the night deepened, the cold worsened, growing more and more unbearable – until finally Byakuya redressed and left his sleeping quarters on a somewhat futile quest to find a warmer room somewhere in the manor. When his search came up empty, he didn't stop. Instead, he continued to traverse the halls quietly, now searching for something he couldn't even define – and when he finally did return to his bed, he lied on his back, stared at the ceiling, and let thoughts of Hisana keep him awake for the rest of the night.
By morning, thoughts of his dead wife blurred into thoughts of his dead sister, and the cold felt so intense that it was almost mind numbing.
Aizen's first assault came on the third day of winter, and by the fifth day – when a blanket of snow coated the Seireitei and several districts of the Rukongai had been blasted into rubble – they managed to repel his forces and secure the outer limits of Soul Society.
On the morning of the sixth day, Byakuya walked through the garden of his manor, trying to clear his head and focus on the task at hand – defeating Aizen -- yet failing to dredge up anything but a distant concern for the war effort. After a few minutes of silent reflection, he paused and turned around suddenly, surprising even himself.
There was nothing behind him on the path, and more importantly, no traces of another soul's reiatsu for miles around him. Still, he stood and continued to stare fixedly at the path, oddly hesitant to turn around and continue on his way. Calling it an overactive imagination would have been giving himself credit for something he didn't have – Byakuya's mind was not imaginative enough to fabricate something as ridiculous as quiet, padding footsteps trailing along behind him.
Rukia had once joined him on these little garden walks, a long time ago – always following behind with her head down, remaining willfully silent and respectful as he led. They never spoke – never looked at one another, even -- but it was still one of the few things that they had done together.
The memory made him feel cold again, but Byakuya let out an understated and scornfully amused scoff at the very idea that he had actually imagined her footsteps behind him, before he continued, walking twice as fast as before.
By the time Byakuya took another morning walk through the Kuchiki Manor's garden some five days later, he had dismissed it as some shameful after-effect of a night spent entrenched in an emergency Captain's Meeting. It was easy to think nothing of it – and then he heard the footsteps again.
When he turned around and saw nothing this time, he mentally berated himself for being idiotic enough to feel disappointed.
Again, Byakuya jerked awake as the sensation of cold, skeletally thin fingers brushing against his forehead drew him out of a dreamless sleep. He was alone in his quarters like always, and it was too late at night for anyone else to be in the manor. The elders slept in an entirely separate wing; the servants had their own quarters, out behind the main house, and the branch families lived in separate compounds. To think that anyone could have entered his room and touched him – or that anyone would dare – was ridiculous.
For a while, he lingered atop the blankets, trying to will his overly tense muscles to relax -- and trying not to think of how Hisana had sometimes reached for him at night, when she was cold and weak from her illness. Her touch, through the five years they'd spent together, had gone from warm and comforting to helpless, frail, and searching – and even though he would have never admitted it, her skeletal fingers brushing against his skin late at night, when she sought for his warmth during times of sickness, deeply unnerved him.
Rukia had touched him once, too, on the night she had returned blood and rain-soaked after the death of Kaien. Her hands were no bigger than Hisana's, but instead of being frail there had been a kind of understated strength in them even as she had clung to him, clearly horrified by what she had just experienced. Byakuya had allowed her to touch him that once, but never again – their fingers were too similar, and it was dangerous.
It was strange, though… he wasn't quite sure whether the phantom fingers that touched him in his sleep belonged to either his dead wife, or his dead sister. It was entirely possible that, in dark moments of the night, the two had long since stopped blurring together and were now indistinguishable to him.
Byakuya, as much as he would have liked to prove otherwise, liked rules, codes, routines, and rituals. Following a prescribed set of motions or activities always had a calming effect on him – perhaps because he felt oddly averse to change, and perhaps because once an action became a ritual, it was easy to simply not think while doing it. He didn't do much thinking these days, outside of battle – and even in battles, which were growing increasingly intense and bloody as Aizen's forces strengthened their assault – Byakuya let his mind go numb and his hands and sword do most of the fighting for him. His rituals were his own God, and cutting off one ritual – his morning visits to Hisana's portrait – gave rise to another.
With sleep no longer finding much of a place in his routines, he spent his nights silently walking through the empty corridors of the Kuchiki Manor – no longer searching for warmth, but looking in each room, nonetheless, and spending an exceedingly long time outside Rukia's old quarters. It wasn't as if there were reminders of her in her former bedroom – Byakuya had ordered her belongings cleared out as soon as she'd been sentenced to execution – but all the same, he kept on returning, and lingering…
…almost as if waiting.
Meal time in the Kuchiki manor had not always been the utterly silent, joyless affair that it was now. For the first few years, Hisana had always broken the silence by cheerfully inquiring as to how his day had gone, and attempting to draw him into discussion over various trivialities – and yet, despite the fact that Hisana liked to discuss simple matters such as gardening, dime novels, board games, and other meaningless pursuits, he recalled paying attention to every word with the utmost focus and concentration. Her words, her voice, and her soft smiles eased his mind like nothing else he had experienced. Even when she'd grown ill, she had never spoken of her fears, her growing weakness, or the fruitless quest to find her abandoned sister. She had simply fallen silent – offering Byakuya a kind-yet-distant smile at the start of the meal, before withdrawing into a quiet reverie.
Rukia was an entirely different matter at meal times – she lacked the poise and grace of her sister, and had often fumbled with her eating utensils, but the extreme focus and concentration she exhibited in her attempts to emulate his own pose and table mannerisms had never failed to amuse him. The two of them rarely spoke, though – and when they did, it was about neutral, inoffensive topics, such as the latest developments in the Gotei 13 or the political maneuverings of Center 46. The conversations were always one-sided – he offered an opinion on some matter, and she agreed. But while conversation felt awkward, they often found peace in shared moments of silence. Although he avoided thinking about it too much, Rukia's mere presence had sometimes set his mind at ease in the same way that Hisana's words once had.
Now he dined alone, and tensed at the movements of shadows through the mostly empty room. There was nothing to set him at ease– he only sat, and stared fixedly at the place where Hisana and Rukia had both sat with a growing and sickening ache in his insides. Sometimes he managed to distastefully swallow a few bites of his meal, but more often than not, he sent his plate back untouched.
In the battle that immediately followed the New Year, Byakuya's newly appointed vice captain died at the hands of one of the arrancar. Within hours, Renji was back, though unofficially – at some point during the last month of the war, Renji had become a Captain, and even despite the fact that Byakuya was somewhat convinced that the other man was still utterly crushed, it seemed the new rank was setting well with him. Renji seemed a little more confident than before, and his subordinates respected him, but he was also more persistent.
Byakuya tried to ignore him. He tried to dismiss him. He tried to reprimand him, especially when Renji still insisted on referring to him as "Captain." More than anything, though, he completely blocked Renji out whenever he brought Rukia up – Byakuya's former Vice Captain felt some need to talk about her with someone, and because the former Ryoka were all banished from Soul Society and Ukitake was bed-ridden more often than not, the task fell to Byakuya.
He had paperwork to do. He had a report to file. He had files to read. He had to appoint a new vice captain. He didn't need Renji, who sat approximately two feet away, in a chair he'd pulled up to Byakuya's desk.
"Captain. Rukia, she always--"
"Do you need something, Renji?"
"No, Captain. I just wanted to--"
"I'm sure you have something more important to be doing."
"—I'm off-duty, Captain. I--"
"—You're no longer part of this division. You don't belong here."
"—I know that, Captain Kuchiki, but--"
"—I just wanted to say that I don't blame you for what happened to Rukia, Captain."
Byakuya actually did look up from his paperwork, only to watch Renji visibly tense under his gaze.
"…Why would you?" He asked, as coldly as he could manage.
Renji only stared at him. A moment later, his former vice-captain left without another word and Byakuya returned to his paperwork, trying to ignore how unnerved he really was by Renji's forgiveness.
After a few more weeks, he gave up on sleep entirely. It wasn't so much that it was impossible to achieve, but more that he was tired of searching his dreams for them. There was no reason, after all, why they couldn't appear in his dreams – and why he couldn't speak to them, or at least see them.
Perhaps it was because of his utter lack of imagination, or his own rationality. They were both dead in the waking world, so his dreams – which were almost always boring imitations of his day-to-day life – couldn't bring them back to life, either. His own mind simply was not merciful or ambitious enough to give them life anew, even if his dream-self always searched for them. He would have settled for a nightmare, even – but maybe his dreams of searching and never being able to find them were nightmares.
Byakuya preferred silent walks through his empty manor and solitary visits to Rukia's old quarters, but in his walks through the manor, he still felt as if he was dreaming. On the evening when he started to hear her footsteps behind him again, just like he did sometimes in the garden, he assumed that it was a dream and paused, expecting to come awake within seconds.
He didn't wake up because he wasn't asleep – and still, the quiet footsteps, always trailing behind him, persisted.
It took a while, but the servants eventually noticed his nightly visits to his sister's former quarters, and – obviously following some absolutely asinine train of supposed logic – started to think of Rukia's old room as haunted. The supposed haunting wasn't the only rumor traveling amongst the hired help, and nor was it the most ridiculous. Normally, he ignored the servants as they paid him polite deference, usually bowing when he moved past and sometimes greeting him in the mornings when they arrived – but normality had disappeared suddenly, and now they openly avoided him, too.
He thought the rumors were outlandish and insulting – the insinuation that the current head of the Kuchiki Clan was gradually going insane from grief over the loss of his adopted sister was just as preposterous as his own asinine notion that, somehow, haunting his sister's old quarters was easing his mind instead of slowly breaking it.
When morning finally came – cold, windy, and unbidden – he returned to his division headquarters to find a visitor, and soon found himself staring out the window with his back turned, completely oblivious to his fellow captain. Ukitake stood behind him, talking – lecturing him, perhaps – but his words weren't enough to draw Byakuya out of a thoughtless, numb reverie. After a moment, though, Ukitake put a hand to his shoulder.
"Byakuya. Are you even listening to me?"
"Ukitake…" Byakuya began – oddly torn between recoiling from the other man's touch and, inexplicably, moving closer, towards Ukitake's feverish warmth. "Don't bother me with trivial matters… You shouldn't be concerned about Rukia. She's already dead."
Ukitake remained silent for a few seconds, and Byakuya turned towards him. The look on his face was unreadable, and Byakuya did not bother considering it. Instead, he dismissed the other shinigami, uncaringly.
"If you have nothing important to say, you should get back to your own division headquarters."
Ukitake's eyes widened slightly, before he frowned.
"Byakuya. Lately, you've been--"
"—I'm not to blame for Rukia's death."
Ukitake paused again – still not letting go of Byakuya's shoulder, although now his grip was entirely too tight. His patience seemed to be wearing thin, but the concern in the other man's kind eyes deepened – and why, Byakuya did not know.
"Listen. If this is all because of Rukia--"
The city-wide alert system's sudden activation – and the arrival of a hell-moth with a message of Aizen's renewed invasion – cut into whatever trivial nonsense Ukitake had been about to say. The message was grim – the full forces, twenty vastrodes and the three exiled Shinigami, were somewhere in the Seireitei, and destruction of at least part of the city was imminent – but Byakuya took it in impassively, somehow not even able to summon the slightest bit of concern. Unsurprisingly, the immediate deployment of all the remaining Captains in Soul Society was mandatory.
After the message, Ukitake turned back to Byakuya, still looking overly concerned.
"You shouldn't try to fight in the state you're in – but I can make a request to Genyruusai-sensei, and--"
"What are you talking about?" Byakuya asked, flatly, and Ukitake stopped abruptly and stared at him.
"Byakuya, have you even been sleeping at all lately?" He asked, finally – and Byakuya gave him an exceedingly cold look, about to inform Ukitake that his own personal manners were none of the older Shinigami's business –
--when it occurred to him that he hadn't slept through an entire night since the execution, well over six months ago, and for the past couple weeks, he hadn't even tried.
It was another two days before he managed to return to the hidden and sorely neglected shrine to his dead wife. In that time, Aizen's forces had been rebuffed once more, and Soul Society – now partially in ruin – had shown the first signs of coming out of a long, cold, and bloody winter season.
When Byakuya opened the doors and looked at his wife's portrait – which was now fading as the dust that had accumulated over the months gradually ate into the material -- his skin crawled and his insides lurched. The next instant, he was half-doubled over and dry-heaving, his body reacting with the vehemence his mind could not muster – and when he recovered, he held himself up with one hand against the door and looked up at the portrait again, trembling slightly.
"…Rukia… Do you think I'm a coward?" He asked, after a moment. The portrait did not respond – but he frowned a little, realizing that in the five and a half long months it had been since he'd last been able to visit this little shrine, the face of his wife had became indistinguishable – in his mind, and before his eyes – from the face that belonged to his adopted sister.
His next act was to burn away the evidence – he took the portrait, pitched it in one of the fireplaces on the manor, and huddled before the flame. All that remained of Hisana's was his promise to her – and he had broken it, so there was nothing. The last remnants of his sister were gone too – all he had now were meaningless codes and empty halls surrounding him, both reminders that he was the world's most despicable kind of coward.
With morning, came another attack, but this time, the tides abruptly turned.
Aizen's forces were crumbling, their leaders mostly destroyed and the arrancar fallen – and even with most of Soul Society destroyed, victory in the Winter Wars now belonged to the Gotei 13.
Byakuya had ended his battle against several powerful arrancar with complete victory, but some kind of sluggishness – or maybe just empty despair at how hollow the victory felt – had kept him from reacting to the sudden, last moment appearance of Ichimaru Gin. Gin's shikai wasn't particularly fearsome, and by Byakuya's approximation, he was a pathetic excuse for a Shinigami – but then, in his own deep-seated, hypocritical way, Byakuya just hadn't wanted to admit that the other man, with his sly, empty grin and irreverent attitude, was his equal.
None of that really mattered now, though – Gin had taken advantage of the element of surprise, and now the cold steel of his blade, shinshou, had slipped neatly and directly through Byakuya's chest, managing to graze his heart and shatter his spine on the way out of his back. When Gin withdrew the blade, Byakuya's right lung collapsed, and he pitched forwards into the muddy, rain-soaked ground.
The cold feeling in his insides was real, now – and the rain falling down upon him felt somehow right, a fitting punishment for what he had done. His allies were rushing towards him, streaking across the battlefield and screaming his name – but he paid them no heed. Gin, on the other hand, deserved credit for his effective surprise attack, even for all its futility – Aizen was dead or dying, most likely, and the attempt to take down Soul Society had failed. The other captains were seconds away, and Gin would soon be joining him in the mud – but Ichimaru, who had once feared death like few Shinigami did, seemed blissfully unconcerned. Instead, his empty grin only widened as he knelt down slightly, to study Byakuya – and even though Byakuya's vision was blurring, the other's eerie, seemingly all-knowing smile was still oddly clear and visible amongst the growing haze.
"Captain Kuchiki! Say 'hi' to your sister for me."
Byakuya considered Gin's request as he closed his eyes and waited, now eerily aware that his heart had stopped and it was only a matter of seconds before everything else stopped, too – his reitai was slowly crumbling. He didn't know what death meant, or where he was going -- if he was indeed going anywhere. It didn't really matter – and he stopped thinking of it entirely, instead beginning to repeat the same plea in his head, over and over again.
Forgive me, Rukia.
Unsurprisingly, his final realization was that his unspoken plea was meaningless –- Rukia had already forgiven him even before her death, and so had everyone else who mattered – but Byakuya took a last, exhausted breath, and died content in knowing that he had never forgiven himself.
Coda - reality
In the end, it is not only for showing him the right path that Byakuya thanks Ichigo – it is also for saving his sister when he would have just stood by and watched, and furthermore, helping him keep a promise. Perhaps Ichigo even saved him, in some way – because as he lies in the twilight, barely conscious and aware of little else except Rukia's fingers entwined in his own, Byakuya is somehow aware that the death of his adopted sister would have broken him.
gratuitous author's note:
1. ...Well, if you made it through all of that silly wangst and are now reading this author's note, please leave comments. I welcome any kind of criticism or remarks that you might have.