Written for Hakuren in last May's Bleach flashfic exchange. Thanks to Sophia Prestar for beta assistance.
Spoilers for Kaien's mentorship with Rukia.
What might have been.
(This version of the story is edited to remove certain elements of -cough- adult content to comply with ffnet's guidelines. The full version can be found at my fic livejournal under the username herdedcats.)
The first time Shiba Kaien sees Kuchiki Hisana, he thinks: she looks a little lost. It's understandable; nobility often doesn't suit even those born to it (Kaien should know) and it's got to be harder on those brought in from the outside. Especially when most of the people on the inside think you should stay on the ouside.
She looks a little less lost when she's with Byakuya, though. Like maybe all the subtle digs of the ones who won't accept her are worth it when they're together. The lost look never goes away completely, though. Kaien often wishes she didn't have that look anymore, even though he's not in any position to do anything about it. But it's still there until she dies.
The first time Shiba Kaien sees Kuchiki Rukia, he thinks: holy shit, there's two of them! Just for a second. Because while the resemblance is amazingly strong—hell, they even have the same hairstyle, and he wonders if that was the same before she was adopted or if Byakuya's getting a little creepy in his grief—it's not perfect. Rukia holds her head a little higher, her back a little straighter. She doesn't look happy, exactly, but she's not bowed by whatever inner sorrow her older sister had carried.
She does look nervous, though. Kaien's gotten pretty good at assessing new officers in a glance since he scored this job. They tend to need a lot of different things. Some need to be ordered around to feel useful. Some need to be pushed to achieve their full potential. Some need to be yelled at to stop picking on their peers.
Kuchiki looks like she needs him to be her friend. So that's what Kaien will do. He charges into the room to chase off the jerks who are sniggering about the new officer, introduces himself to her—
—and makes a friend.
"The problem is that she's got no confidence," Kaien rants to Ukitake one evening after bringing him some restorative liquor from the Shiba family's private stocks, brought back from Kaien's last visit home. "I don't know what Byakuya did to her, but he did something, because there's no way she could survive in Rukongai acting this timid. Not as far out as she was! Did you know she's from 78th? 78!" He shakes his head admiringly. "That takes balls."
Ukitake grins weakly from underneath the pile of blankets that cover his lap, cheeks a little flushed from the sake. After two thousand years, he's a man who can hold his alcohol, but Kaien makes a point of challenging his tolerance if he can. "She's in an entirely different world now," he says. "You of all people know what the Kuchiki require."
"Heh. Yes. And look what it made Byakuya:revered captain with a stick up his ass the size of his sword." He takes another swig. "I can tell she's trying to live up to that, but no one can be that perfect. It's unnatural."
"I've tried to reach out to her when I can," Ukitake says. "It's difficult to get her to open up. You spend more time with her than I do, Kaien. Perhaps you'll have better luck."
"I hope so," he says. "I want to start training with her one-on-one. Maybe she'll loosen up with fewer people around."
"That's fine with me," Ukitake says. "If you think you can make progress, do what you feel is necessary. I trust you, Kaien."
Hokutan, the third district of West Rukongai, is far enough away to have productive training sessions without the rest of the division gawking at the new recruit from the noble house, but it's not nearly far enough for Rukia to leave her insecurities behind. Her kidou is coming along quite nicely; she already has the skill, she just needs to learn to use it properly in battle. Her swordplay, too, is coming along, catching up to where she'd be if not for her abrupt graduation and then some. But Kaien can tell that she's holding herself back, concentrating too hard on every movement of the blade, so that instinct never has a chance to take over.
So it's time to try something else. "Kuchiki," he says after their meal break, "I want to see your shikai."
"Eh?" She looks far too flustered for what should be a simple request. "Er, that is, well, I..." Her cheeks grow pink with embarrassment. Kaien would chuckle and tell her how adorable this looks if he didn't know it would mortify her. "I don't really have good control over it yet, Kaien-dono."
"So? Who does at first?" He tosses Nejibana from one hand to the other. "Definitely not me. Did you know our division offices used to be surrounded by dry ground? But then I came along, and let me tell you a secret, Kuchiki--I used to be a bit of a show-off back then, before I grew out of it."
"Right," she says, and if there's a note of skepticism in her voice, he chooses to ignore it.
"Let loose with my shikai one day, and then...well, you've seen the lake," he says. "But Captain Ukitake liked it. You see? It all worked out in the end. It'll be fine for you, too."
"I'm not sure I believe that, Kaien-dono."
"That it won't work out? Of course it will! On my word as a Shiba."
"That's not what..." She hesitates, looking torn but also a little bit hopeful. "...all right." She holds her sword in front of her and focuses on the blade. "Please stand back, Kaien-dono."
He does, but he doesn't go too far. He's heard about her released zanpakutou from Ukitake--it's an ice element, and according to the captain, really pretty--but he hasn't had a chance to witness it in person before.
"Dance," Rukia whispers. "Sode no Shirayuki." She crouches and swings her sword in an arc around her, and he can barely make out the words "First dance--tsukishiro!"
There's a roar as the ice column surges upwards, far above the tops of the trees that surround the meadow. It vibrates in the air for several seconds, like something alive and fierce, then shatters. The icy rain that follows looks like diamonds falling from the sky. It's one of the most beautiful things Kaien's ever seen.
"Yes!" he whoops when it's done, charging towards Rukia and scooping her up in his arms for a quick, proud hug. "That was awesome!"
When he sets her down, her cheeks are flushed with happiness this time. She looks even cuter this way. "It needs a lot of work," she says. "It's not a very quick attack..."
"Something like that doesn't need to be." He picks up a shard of ice. The cold pricks his fingers--even under the midday sun, it's absolutely freezing. "You'll get it to work how you want when you want, it just takes practice. Hey--you called said 'first dance.' Does that mean there are more?"
"I think so." She ducks her head and drops her smile. "She hasn't taught me any others yet, though. I'm afraid I'm a disappointment to her."
"Hey. Stop." He slips a hand under her chin and tilts her face up so she must look at him. "Don't ever say things like that," he says firmly. "You're not a disappointment. You're not weak. You're just new at this, Kuchiki, and inexperience doesn't last forever. Don't ever be ashamed of who you are. Okay?" He doesn't even blink as looks her straight in the eye. This is something she must believe.
"Okay," she says at last.
"Good," he says, and grins. "Now let's try that again."
Miyako makes fun of him when Kaien comes home late from extra training sessions with Rukia. He doesn't mind; being made fun of by Miyako is one of his favorite things. He thinks he'll always be happy as long as he has her to tease him. "You work too hard," she tells him with a grin when he shows up for dinner with a sheepish look. "Where is the lazy layabout I married? I rather enjoyed having a handsome man lounging at my disposal."
"Oh hush. Who's the one who used to scold me for shirking on my duties?"
"That's what squad leaders are for," she says. "How was I to know you'd leap to a higher rank than me just so I could no longer do so?"
"Right, that was my plan all along," he scoffs, and stuffs some rice in his mouth to quiet the gurgling of his neglected stomach. "Seriously, Miyako. What do you think of Kuchiki?"
"Rukia-san?" Her beautiful brow wrinkles as she frowns in concentration. "She's a capable enough shinigami. Very dutiful, never shirks her assignments. She's extremely polite, but I wouldn't expect anything less from the Kuchiki."
"That's the thing. I expect more," he says. "She does everything she's supposed to but it's like she's scared to show who she really is or ask for anything more. She tries to be perfect and it wears her out."
"That's her brother's influence," she says. "Perhaps you should speak with him."
"No, Byakuya never listens to me. The wisdom of childhood friends means nothing to him." He shakes his head. "If it did, there would be none of this nonsense about not telling her he was married to her sister. Like everyone who's met them both can't tell they were blood related. But I can help her. She's--she's really wonderful when you get to know her, Miyako. Once she forgets to be so stiff."
Her eyes shine with affection as she leans over to kiss his cheek. "And you're wonderful for watching over her the way you do. Keep at it. Just don't influence her to shove her paperwork on others like certain vice-captains I know." She cuffs him gently on the head. "And don't shovel your food like that. It's a sad thing when your little brother has better table manners than you do."
"Ah, I know, I know," he says. "I'm sorry."
"Come on, Kuchiki, this is serious. RUN!"
Without waiting for a reply, Kaien shifts into shunpo, covering great swaths of ground in single steps. He doesn't look behind him to see if she's following him--if she's up to the challenge, she has to trust her own strength. Not that he's worried; he can feel her reiatsu following him, keeping pace as best she can.
Only when he reaches their goal does he stop and turn. "I told you!" he laughs. "I told you I'd get to the ramen stall first! Now all the best noodles are mine."
"Kaien-dono, we really should be getting back to headquarters," she pants beside him. "There are meetings this afternoon..."
"Permission granted to skip them, Kuchiki," he says. "Are you going to question your wise vice-captain? Two bowls, please," he says to the vendor, who's still blinking in surprise at seeing two shinigami seemingly drop out of the sky in front of his stall.
Technically, he knows she's right; they really should get back, though Ukitake won't exactly be mad when they don't. Unlike some of the loonies in the Gotei 13, their captain reserves his tempers for the occasions that truly warrant it. But Kaien rarely gets the chance to venture this far out into Rukongai, so he's going to take advantage of the occasion. They don't get this kind of ramen in Seireitei, homemade and delicious; sure, maybe there's a little dirt in it, but if it adds to the flavor, so much the better. Besides, thanks to their efficient work (his good influence, no doubt) the ryoka they were dispatched to take care of is gone ahead of schedule. They can take the time to relax.
He especially likes this district, West 43rd; it's a bit rough-and-tumble, but the people are good. Kuchiki's never been here before, so once he's finished slurping up his ramen and watching her eat hers neatly, like a noble born, he takes some extra time to show her around. Here's a good place to get lunch between missions; there's a good place to get cheap yukata if some bastard stole yours while you were skinny dipping, not that he knows this from experience eh heh heh. He also stops to talk to some of the people he knows, and it's after one such conversation that he turns around to find Kuchiki gone.
No need to panic; she can take care of herself, but even if she couldn't, all he has to do is close his eyes and reach out with his senses to feel her reiatsu. When he finds her, she's only a few corner turns away, kneeling and passing out candy to some street kids. She doesn't have to kneel very far, and maybe that's why they trust her, because when they see Kaien coming, they scatter, candy firmly in hand.
"That's sweet of you," he says. "Were they hungry?"
"No." She shakes her head. "I doubt any one of them has any spiritual power. But I used to be one of them," she looks at him nervously at this, as if she still expects to be judged for the sin of being born a commoner, "And I know hunger isn't the only thing that matters."
He nods. "True enough. So...did you save any for me?"
Her jaw drops. "Kaien-dono!" He can only keep a straight face for another few seconds before laughing, and in a moment she joins him.
They should go back to Seireitei right away. But it's a beautiful day, and Kuchiki has a beautiful smile, so Kaien takes the long way once they leave the district.
"I grew up in a place like this," she says without preamble as they walk. "It was a lot worse, actually. Since I was a baby. I don't remember ever being in the living world."
Kaien already knows this, but this is the first time she's opened up without his cheerful prodding; he's not going to say anything to stop her now. "Sounds tough."
"It was," she says. "There were...not many good people living in our district. But someone must have cared for me until I grew old enough to steal, and then I cared for myself, until I found my family."
His eyebrows shoot up at that, and he's glad she's not looking directly at him. Hisana never--but in an instant, he knows that can't be the family she's talking about. "What were they like?"
"Fools." Her lips curve into a fond smile. "They were young boys. Of course they were foolish. But we took care of each other. There were four of them. Soshi. Ryo. Masashi. Renji." She recites their names like they're something holy. "And me. Children, pretending we were adults--I had to beat them into washing their teeth regularly."
"You ran a gang, huh?" It's surprisingly easy to picture.
"Something like that," she says. "Only two of us had spiritual power. It made it easier to steal--we didn't need food for all of us, just water. But we took what we could, because eating seemed to ease something inside of us. We grew up together. They were my brothers." She closes her eyes. "They died."
He's braced for this. The mortality rate for children in the outer reaches of Rukongai is higher than decency should allow. "I'm sorry."
She accepts his condolences with a nod. "Not all of them," she says. "The other one with spiritual powers joined the Academy with me. He was in the elite classes, but we still spent time with each other when we could--it is difficult to break old habits. And I was proud of him." There's something far away in her voice now, and Kaien feels like if he reached out to touch her, his hand would go right through her. "I haven't talked to him since I was adopted, though. I think he decided he didn't want to be my friend anymore."
Kaien feels like if he ever meets this guy, he would like to kick his ass for putting this expression on Kuchiki's face, then kick his ass again for being such a dumbshit as to let her go. "His loss."
"Maybe," she says quietly.
He makes a decision. "Hey." He stops and takes her by the arm. "Come on. This way."
"Where are we going now?"
He grins. "You'll see."
The Shiba house is on high ground, so Kuukaku sees them before they see her. Kaien knows she's home, though, because he can also see the fireworks before they see her. Nothing big--they're mostly glorified sparklers. But his little sister can make even those shine.
"Brother!" She shouts, running to meet them when they're close enough that she won't wind herself getting to them. "You're here!"
"Surprise!" He chuckles. "Thanks for the welcome, Kuu."
Her face falls a bit when she realizes who Kuchiki isn't. "Where's Miyako?" she asks, sounding dismayed.
"Hey." He smacks her lightly on the back of the head. "Mind your manners. She's in Seireitei; this was just a spur of the moment stop since we were in the area. Kuukaku, I'd like you to meet Kuchiki Rukia, from my division. Kuchiki, this is my obnoxious little sister, Kuukaku."
"It's lovely to meet you." Kuchiki bows. "I can tell you are Kaien-dono's sister. There is a family resemblance."
Kuukaku seems to consider whether this is a compliment or an insult, and at last thrusts her right arm out. "Hi." Rukia blinks, then smiles and shakes Kuukaku's hand.
"So where's Ganju?" Kaien asks as they walk toward the main house. "Don't I deserve some little brother love as well?"
"Oh, him. He's over at old man Anno's barns again," she says with all the scorn an adolescent girl can muster. "His precious Annie-chan is having piglets again and he said Ganju can have one if she has enough."
"Aww. Well, let him know I came by and I promise to bring a present for his pig next time."
Rukia doesn't say much as they walk, but she's smiling and it looks real, so she's probably not having a bad time. When they reach the house, Kaien insists on showing her around the place and telling stories about his and his siblings' childhoods, ones that Kuukaku insists are exaggerated but are made all the better because Kaien knows they're not. Once or twice he even gets Kuchiki to laugh.
Even though they just had lunch, he can't refuse Kuukaku when she insists they at least have snacks with her. He's completely full when they finish, and when Kuchiki excuses herself to the washroom, he half-wonders if she's going to purge out of necessity. He can't really blame her if she is.
"So, Kuu," he says, "What do you think of my subordinate?"
She raises an eyebrow. "You're kidding me, right? Why'd you bring her here?"
"Huh?" That's not exactly the answer he's expecting. "What, you don't like her? She's a nice girl!"
"I know she is," Kuukaku says. "And she's pretty patient if she puts up with you as her boss. But she's also got a crush on you."
"What?!" That's definitely not the answer he's expecting. "You're nuts, Kuu. Been breathing fireworks smoke too long."
"Of course you don't see it. Idiot."
"Brat," he retorts automatically. "Look, we're friends. She doesn't have a lot of those. You're just imagining things. Don't be jealous, I'm not looking for a replacement sister."
"I know that! Look, I can tell, okay? The way she looks at you and...I can just tell. It's a girl thing." His skeptical look sends her into a huff. "I'm still a girl even if I don't like all the frilly shit!"
"Okay, okay. Peace, Kuu," he says. "I still don't buy it, but...okay. Your point is made."
"I'm sure." She snorts. "Whatever. Just thought you should be aware. Stupid."
Kuchiki returns then and the ridiculous conversation is dropped. Soon after, they take their leave--vice-captain or not, Kaien can only flout the rules so much, and they really should be getting back. Besides, he's more than a little unsettled by Kuukaku's claim, even if it is baseless. Kids her age have such great imaginations.
Kuchiki doesn't say much on the trip back to Seireitei, and for a few panicked moments Kaien wonders if she overheard them, but when he glances at her, she doesn't look embarrassed. She looks relaxed. That's enough to relax him as well, because it doesn't happen to her much and it's a good thing.
"Kaien-dono?" she asks as they approach the boundary between the first district and Seireitei.
"Yeah, Kuchiki?" he tenses more than is necessary and mentally scolds himself for it. Idiot. Don't act like you're about to hear a love confession.
"Thank you for taking me to see your home," she says. "I had a nice time."
"Anytime, Kuchiki. Any friend of mine is always welcome at the Shiba house." He grins. "Now let's get back before Captain scolds me."
Squad training in groups takes up much of the next week. Shinigami may frequently fight alone, but they have to be able to fight together when necessary, especially the weaker ones. Not that Kuchiki is weak--Kaien would like to see her seated when she's had a bit more experience, though Ukitake seems oddly non-committal about this idea whenever Kaien mentions it--but it's good for her, too. Maybe it'll help her make other friends. Kaien can't be everything to her.
Really, it's not the idea of being everything to her that bothers him as much as it is the idea of being one specific thing. He adores Kuchiki, and if they'd met in his Academy days, he probably would've asked her out if he'd gotten the chance to know her like he knows her now. But in some ways that was a lifetime ago, and he's got Miyako and would never, ever give her up.
Miyako is currently down in the training yard, working with Kuchiki's squad. Kaien likes watching her work. She's damn good at what she does. It's nice to know that if anything ever happens to him so he can't do his job anymore, Miyako will have it covered. She seems to be getting along well with the shinigami she's working with, at least as far as he can tell from up here on the hill. He finds himself watching Kuchiki, evaluating how she reacts to Miyako. She looks like she's in a good mood. Does she look at Miyako the same way she looks at him? Is that half-smile just how she looks at a teacher she respects, a friend she looks up to?
He sighs and snatches a hunk of grass from the ground, tossing it aside in frustration. It's stupid to still even be thinking about this. Kuukaku's always had a way of getting under his skin, but still. Kuchiki hasn't done anything wrong or made any advances toward him, so she shouldn't have to pay if he gets all weird and uncomfortable. He shouldn't give it another thought. He shouldn't think there's anything wrong with being a good friend to her when she clearly needs one. And he really, really shouldn't feel a little warmer inside at the idea of Kuchiki caring for him...like that.
Nuts to this. He stands and leaves to see if the captain is up to some sparring. He needs to beat the idiot out of his system.
"I am not that drunk! Tell the big monkey I'm not, Kaien-sama!"
"Oh no," he manages between laughs, "I'm not getting in the middle of this."
"See! Booger girl! You can't take your alcohol!" Sentaro sounds so sure of himself, but the effect of his statement is lessened by the fact that his eyes look dilated and a little bit cross-eyed.
"Oooh! I'll show you how I can take it!" The fourth seat officer promptly grabs the nearest cup--Kaien's, as it turns out, not that he's going to try and stop her--and chugs its contents down, then slams it back on the table and glares.
It's always the same with these two. Tomorrow they'll be feeling the pain of their impromptu drinking contest (which occurs with alarming regularity), but they're too revved up to pass out for a long while. "That's my cue to get a new drink," Kaien says, removing himself from between the other two. "You two have fun, okay?"
It's a good time in the 13th division. One of the unseated rookies from the latest graduating class, Kana Mizawa, achieved shikai this week, and everyone's celebrating. Kaien's proud to be in a division where they can support each other like this. In some divisions, no one would take much notice; in some divisions, Mizawa wouldn't even be considered without one. But the girl had showed promise in other areas. It looks like that promise is paying off now, so why not cheer her?
Okay, so a lot of people are just there because a party is a party, but it still counts. Mizawa looks just as happy in her crowded corner, surrounded by her friends. The overall mood is just as cheerful. People are just as drunk. Kaien's not there yet--for some reason, this time he felt more like sitting back and watching everyone enjoy the evening instead of getting wasted himself. He's just buzzed and mellow for now.
As he's heading over to get himself a new drink, someone grabs him by the back of his uniform sash and shoves him up against one of the buildings lining the division's courtyard. "You've been bad," his wife practically purrs.
"Oh really?" He grins, but he can almost feel the cold sweat breaking out. He can tell she's drunker than he is, though not so drunk it's unseemly (she never is) and when Miyako gets drunk, she gets slightly evil. "How's that?"
"You have been ignoring our captain!" she accuses. "Look at him sitting all alone over there!"
He looks. "Miyako. He's with Captain Kyouraku."
"Yes, and I am about to ask Captain Kyouraku for the bottle of sake from his private stock that I rightfully won the last time we played cards," she says. "As he will no doubt flee the scene when he sees me coming, it is your duty to make sure that he is not without company."
"And what will you be doing?"
"Retrieving my sake." She smirks. "He can run. But he has very good sake, and I plan on getting it."
He leans in and steals a quick kiss before she can complain about getting too affectionate in front of their subordinates. "No problem. Kyouraku won't know what hit him when you catch up."
"Indeed. And if you are good, beloved husband, perhaps I will share it with you." She winks. "Or perhaps if you are properly bad."
True to her word, in a few minutes' time Kyouraku has vanished to parts unknown and Miyako is gone as well, no doubt in hot pursuit. True to his word, Kaien takes a seat next to Ukitake on his bench, where he sits overseeing the party like an indulgent father. "Enjoying yourself, sir?"
Ukitake nods to him. "It's nice to see everyone getting a chance to relax. Our jobs may be serious, but it doesn't mean we have to be all the time."
"See, now you're thinking the way I think."
"Your wife seems to have chased Shunsui off, however."
"Eh, he'll be back," he says. "Once she gets what she wants."
"That's reassuring." Ukitake chuckles. "How are you, Kaien? I wish my recent episode hadn't put so much work on you. You're busy enough with your normal duties and training with Rukia."
"That just means I get to play number one for a while!" Kaien waves the concern off.
"On the subject, how is Rukia doing? Miyako has reported on her favorably."
"Kuchiki's great," he says, and means it. Whatever momentary weirdness had been there before has passed; she hasn't acted any different than usual, so he's done the same. He really was right about Kuukaku's big imagination. "She learned a second attack with her shikai."
"Really!" Ukitake's beam at this piece of news practically blinds him. "That's wonderful to hear! A multi-skilled zanpakutou is quite impressive. I knew she had talent. Why didn't she tell me?"
"You know how she is. Never wants to take credit, always takes the blame," he says. "But if you hear about any unexpected glaciers popping up, I wouldn't mention it to her. She's still figuring out the fine control."
Ukitake just smiles. "I'm proud of you both. You've really helped her blossom, Kaien."
"She's the one who's done all the hard work. She's really something."
"I can't argue with that." He sips his drink.
Eventually Ukitake goes to congratulate Mizawa again on her accomplishment and Kaien begins walking the edges of the party, wondering if Miyako has managed to cow Kyouraku into submission yet. He doesn't see either of them, but he knows it's just a matter of time. None can stand up against his wife when she wants something. He should know.
He does see a lone figure stumbling down the path away from the courtyard, almost tripping and falling on its face once, and he trots over to make sure whoever it is is okay, only to blink in recognition as he draws nearer. "Kuchiki?"
She squints up at him with unusually bright eyes. "Kaien-dono?"
Her voice is slurred just enough for him to realize she's drunk. He grins. "Wow. Been having fun? I told you you should relax more."
"Mmm. No." She shakes her head as if to clear it. "I wasn't, but...Sentaro and Kiyone both made me drinks they wanted to try, and...I don't feel very well..." She takes another off-balance step.
"Woah, woah." He steps in front of her. "You took drinks from those two? Kuchiki, you should know better than that! They were probably spiked with half the alcohol in Seireitei!" She just smiles limply as if to say she know that now. "And you shouldn't be walking home alone. Come on, let's get back to the barracks and get you some water."
"No, I need to!" She pushes past him with more strength than he expects. He grabs her by the shoulder and she glares at him. "I need to," she repeats. "Niisama'll be worried."
"Kuchiki..." He sighs. He can't be the one to say that her brother will probably not even notice whether she comes home tonight. The disclaimer that Byakuya is a cold son of a bitch and she shouldn't take it personally will not protect her feelings. Besides, maybe he's wrong. Maybe Byakuya's anxiously waiting by the door to make sure his precious little sister arrives home unharmed. Maybe Hollows are really fluffy bunnies behind their masks. "All right." He falls into step beside her. "But I'm coming with you."
She scowls from beside him and he tries not to smile. She really is cute when she's annoyed, as well as when she's flustered, or blushing...she's pretty cute all of the time, really. "Don't need a babysitter."
"No, you don't," he agrees. "But you do need someone to make sure you don't stagger into the bushes." He reaches an arm out over her shoulders to straighten her path. "That'd just worry Byakuya, after all."
Kuchiki could have chosen a more distant destination than the Kuchiki estate, but it's still far enough that as they go, Kaien is glad he spotted her. She doesn't say much as they walk--she's concentrating too hard on putting one foot in front of the other and keeping the world from spinning, he can tell. He makes a mental note to have a talk with the idiot twins later. Kaien can't blame them for their mission of making sure even the most straight-laced division members loosen up at a party--he's done it himself--but at some point the issue of body mass becomes important and Kuchiki, well, she's tiny.
He's reminded of just how tiny when she stumbles again and pitches to the side, away from him. He's just barely quick enough to get around her and catch her in his arms. "Hey there!" She tries to push away from him and stand again, but Kaien's not having that. "Okay, you had your turn. Leave this up to me now." He rises to his full height and brings her with him, carrying her little body in his arms against his chest. She struggles for a moment, but once her feet are off the ground, she seems to accept it, wrapping her arms around his neck and leaning her face against his shoulder. "There, that's better," he says. Her hair tickles his chin. "Don't worry. I've got you now."
"'m sorry, Kaien-dono," she whispers. She sounds like she's on the verge of crying.
"Now, Kuchiki. Remember what I told you?" He gives her a little squeeze as he walks. "Never be ashamed of who you are. It's just a little drunkenness, nothing to be embarrassed about. You're certainly not the first. Just hold on to me. I'll see you safely home." She gives a shaky little nod and tightens her grip, clinging to him.
It's no trouble at all to bear her weight out of division grounds all the way to the Kuchiki estate. She doesn't weigh much, and he's got plenty of upper-body strength. She probably doesn't even need to hold his neck the way she is, but he doesn't mind. It's sort of comforting. She's safe here with him, warm against his chest. This close, he can even smell her, and she smells good, not perfumed but feminine in a way that's uniquely her...
I'm in trouble.
Kaien's heard from more than one person in his life that he's a nice person. A good guy. At this moment, he knows they're all wrong. Good guys don't start sniffing after their subordinates who just need someone to be a friend. Good married guys don't hold said subordinate a little tighter, a little closer, not to secure her position but because they want to. They don't feel that peculiar warmth that spreads out from their chests and lower, and they don't think about taking the long way around because they don't want to let go.
Kuchiki doesn't really say anything for the rest of the walk. He'd think she's fallen asleep but for the tight hold around his neck that doesn't slacken any as they go. He's glad; it means he doesn't have to say anything back, so he doesn't have to worry about revealing how dry his mouth has gone.
It's no trouble to navigate the Kuchiki grounds in the dark, but he stops a short ways away from the house. Explaining to Byakuya why he's carrying his sister home isn't something he wants to do, not even the innocent version of the story. "Kuchiki," he whispers. "Kuchiki, we're home. It's time for bed."
For a moment she doesn't stir, and he wonders if perhaps she's asleep after all. But then she unwinds her arms and lifts her head from his shoulder. It feels cold without her.
She's recovered enough steadiness not to wobble when he sets her down, but she doesn't turn away immediately, and he doesn't let go completely. He leaves his hands on her shoulders, maybe to make sure she stays balanced and maybe because he doesn't want to stop touching her. "Thank you," she says quietly, not looking up at him.
"You're welcome," he says. "Kuchiki." He tilts her chin up with his thumb and he has just a second to see her looking at him with wide eyes before he leans in and kisses her on the forehead. Her skin is smooth and dry beneath his lips and he leaves them there a moment longer before pulling back and letting her go. "Good night."
He stays there long enough to watch her stumble inside, where she'll be safe. He doesn't sense Byakuya's reiatsu in the immediate vicinity, so that's one less thing to worry about. After a while, he turns to go. Despite the lateness of the hour, the party will still be going on.
He does return to the party. But he takes the long way back.
"You should have seen his face," Miyako giggles against his bare shoulder later, when they've finally made it home and into bed for what's left of the night. "I don't think he knew you could use shunpo like that."
"I'll bet." Kaien can't help but crack a smile. Even in his current mood, no one tells a story like she does. "What did you do with the sake?"
"I drank it, silly." She punches him gently. "No, I'm saving it for a special occasion." She curls an arm around him. "How's Rukia-chan?"
"Eh?" It's only his exhaustion that keeps him from jumping in startlement. "Why do you ask?"
"Kiyone told me you took her home," she says. "Is she all right?"
"Ah...yeah, she's fine," he says. He closes his eyes. "Indulged a little too much. I made sure she got home."
"That's nice. Mmm...I think I'm falling asleep now. Rukia-chan's not the only one who had a little too much fun."
"Me too," he says, and it might be the first time he's ever lied to his wife. He's incredibly tired, but he can't imagine sleeping just now. He draws her close against him and breaths in her scent. "I love you, Miyako."
"I know." She kisses his chest. "I love you too."
The words are the only true ones he can trust himself to speak, so he holds her as she falls asleep and the eastern sky grows light.
It's all well and good to avoid uncomfortable subjects instead of dealing with them, but such things have a way of coming to call, and distraction can be fatal when it comes to what they do. Kaien's seen it happen, so he's focusing very hard on the here and now. "Kuchiki!" He calls out to her. "You're doing fine. Just take it slow and you've got it!"
She nods, but doesn't take her eyes off the Hollow she's fighting. That's good; her concentration has improved since the days that a bird in flight could take her eyes off her opponent. She's going to need that focus here. They've been dispatched to take care of this guy, overlarge but not a Huge Hollow. Kaien could probably take the thing down pretty quickly by himself, but Kuchiki needs the experience--and the boost in confidence. She can do this; she just has to believe in herself.
She's got it on the rocks right now. The Hollow started out with maybe fifteen tentacles; fragments of at least ten of them scatter the ground around them. It's fast, enough to challenge Kuchiki and keep her from using her shikai effectively, but she's keeping up well. It roars in frustration as she dodges another attack and Kaien can see her expression harden as she goes in for the kill. Good. This should do it.
Except it doesn't. From the middle of the Hollow's distorted body shoots a thick new tentacle, and this one has blades on it. Kuchiki's already moving out of the way, but it's fast, far too fast, and he's going to see her carved up or worse if he he doesn't act.
So he does. In a blur of shunpo, Nejibana's in his hand, slicing off another chunk of tentacle. The Hollow roars and wheels around to face him, and shit, it's fast--no wonder it nearly caught her. It doesn't even pause before reacting to Kaien's attack by lashing out with the bladed tentacle, and he doesn't have the chance to react before white-hot pain slices down his chest. He doesn't mean to squeeze his eyes shut, that's not going to save him, but it hurts bad enough he can't help it--
A shout and an inhuman screech of pain force his eyes open again. Kuchiki's there, her arms on the end of a downstroke as the Hollow's mask cracks in half from her strike. It lunges at her, but it's already dissolving, and by the time she lands on ground, it's gone.
She barely takes the time to sheathe Shirayuki before rushing to his side. "Kaien-dono!" Her face is pale.
"Good job, Kuchiki," he rasps. He doesn't feel too deeply perforated, but damn, this stings. "You should work on your form, though. You landed a little off-balance. You need to be ready to jump again if you need to."
"This is no time to be joking, Kaien-dono." Immediately her hands go to his wound, probing, and they learn together that it's long and bloody but not too deep.
"Don't, Kuchiki." He pushes her hands away. He doesn't like seeing his blood on them. "It's nothing. You think I haven't taken worse?"
"But you're hurt now," she says, looking distraught.
"It'll be all right." He presses his robes tight against his chest and they begin to absorb the blood for the moment. "Let's just get back."
She doesn't look any less upset, but she nods, and together they summon the hell butterflies that will guide them home.
It's dark when they arrive. Unlike their position in the living world, it is a cloudy night in Soul Society. The hour was late enough when they received the notice of the rampaging Hollow. Kuchiki had been at headquarters late practicing kata; he had been catching up on extra paperwork left by Captain Ukitake, bedridden by another of his spells. Tracking the creature down and purifying it has taken long enough that hardly anyone is about.
Kuchiki grasps for his arm when Kaien turns onto the path that will take him the short distance back to the main office. "Kaien-dono, the fourth division is this way! You must let them heal you!"
"It's not that bad, Kuchiki."
She looks like she'd stomp her foot in frustration if she weren't jogging to keep up with his long stride. "You are bleeding, Kaien-dono!"
"I know that. But it's not anything I can't take care of myself--at least at first. You think Unohana wants me bleeding all over her clean floor?"
"You would not be the first," she says, but reluctantly, she follows.
He's not lying to her--it isn't the worst hit he's taken from a Hollow. But the tentacle blades have sliced off enough skin that even the shallower parts of the wound hurt like hell. Luckily he's got some bandages and painkilling ointment stashed in his private office. He'd rather take care of this himself, at least at first, so he can have some semblance of dignity when he does give in and go to the fourth. He's not hardcore loony like the eleventh division, but he doesn't want to look like a total pansy, crying over one slash.
He finds the items he's looking for in his side desk drawer, just where he expects. He doesn't even realize Kuchiki is still hovering until he pauses to strip his top robes and she tries to take the bandages out of his hand. "Kuchiki, go home. I'm fine. You did your job. Relax. Celebrate."
"This is my responsibility," she mutters, not looking at him. "I made the error."
"Hey now. Stop." He tries to take the bandages back from her, but she won't let go. "Kuchiki," he barks. This finally gets her to meet his eyes, but he doesn't like the look he sees in hers. "This is not your fault," he says firmly. "Hollows attack shinigami. It's just what they do. It's not like you set some Hollow bait loose and asked it to please come fight us."
"I lost control," she insists. "If I hadn't, you wouldn't have had to--you wouldn't be--"
"Idiot," he sighs. "Do you know how proud I am of you? You're doing a great job. I'm not telling you this to boost your ego, I'm telling you because it's true. Hollows do unexpected things. This was one of them. Don't blame yourself. That's an order."
"At least let me help," she says, reaching for the wound. A soft glow surrounds her hand as she uses a healing kidou.
"You're not going to listen to me, huh, Kuchiki?"
"Probably not, Kaien-dono," she says, her eyes intent on her work.
He closes his eyes as the soothing balm spreads out from her palm through his chest. He's felt the touch of many kidou healers, and it never feels precisely the same way twice--and it never feels bad. His flesh feels cool where the kidou touches, and he can sense the tissue stitching itself back together, the skin smoothing over, as she works. Kuchiki's hand provides the only warmth, and it goes straight into him in a way the kidou doesn't, causing something deep in his belly to uncoil pleasantly. After a minute, the sharp pain of the initial injury is gone, but he doesn't want her to remove her hand. Her fingers slide across his chest, flat and soft. He wants them to keep going, to touch him everywhere, not just where the Hollow's blades opened him up.
It's all too good, better than a kidou healing has ever been, and he loses track of how much time is passing. When he opens his eyes as the spell ends, he finds that he's wrapped his hands around Kuchiki's wrist in a gentle grip. He doesn't let go. She doesn't pull her hand away.
"You're better," she says quietly, looking up at him.
"Yeah," he says, and there's something similar about their tones. They both sound a little detached, a little out of breath. He doesn't know what it is, exactly, but maybe he can blame it instead of his suddenly non-existant rational mind when he pulls Kuchiki into his arms and kisses her.
It's not a long kiss, or a deep one, but it feels like an electrical current's just run through his entire body. She's so small, almost fragile in his arms, that he doesn't push; he just presses his lips against hers, feeling her warmth where they're connected, breathing her in. It takes a long moment for her eyes to crack open once he pulls away. She doesn't try to escape his embrace, just touches her lips once with her fingers, like she's not sure what just happened.
The moment seems to stretch and crystallize into pure terror in Kaien's mind. If he's read her all wrong--if she doesn't want this, if he just ruined the only relationship she can count on. "Shit," He breathes. "Kuchiki, I--" He doesn't finish. Because he's not sorry, he realizes. He should be, but he's not, not even a little.
And she doesn't look disgusted or angry. She just runs her hands up his chest, following them with her gaze, and rests them around his neck. Her thumb tickles the nape of his neck. "Kaien-dono," she says, and then she's lifting herself on tiptoes and he's bending down and he's not kissing her; they're kissing each other, pressing their bodies and mouths together again and again, tasting one another as they brush their tongues together and there's no residual injury, there's no office, there's just Kuchiki and him.
"Kaien-dono," she murmurs against his mouth, and he pulls her closer, lifting her a little in his arms so he can press kisses to her cheek, her neck. Her hands move from his neck to his shoulders and back, exploring, and he's reminded that he's not wearing anything above the waist. Barely even thinking about what he's doing, his hand is sliding under the crossover at the front of her robes. She leans into his touch.
He keeps his mouth on her neck as he strokes the skin under her clothes, half-afraid to look at her. Her skin is smooth, so far untouched by the scarring that's so common in their line of work. He moves his hand across her flat belly and against her ribs. She's not wearing anything underneath; instead of the standard breast bindings he expects, she's bare--but then, she doesn't really need them, does she? After a moment's hesitation he brushes his fingers against her chest, as gently as he can. A great shiver goes through her body.
"Kuchiki," he says,pulling back but not letting her go. "You're shaking."
"I'm all right, Kaien-dono," she whispers. She slides the fabric off her shoulders.
The tatami mats that line the floor are a welcome feature of the room, for the more clothing the two of them shed, the closer to the ground they drift, until Kuchiki's lying beneath him, watching him with absolute trust as he removes the last of her clothing, baring her body to him fully. She's only shaking a little as he touches her.
Kuchiki doesn't speak again until the moon is low enough in the sky that its light begins to creep through the window and over their entwined bodies. "Kaien-dono..."
"Yeah, Kuchiki?" He strokes her hair lazily.
She pushes herself up on one elbow to look at him. She looks composed but faintly sad. "We should go," she says. "You should return home. Miyako-dono will worry."
And just like that, the spell is broken.
It doesn't take long to dress and finger-brush their hair into a semblance of what it was. In minutes, they look like themselves again. Like nothing's happened.
Kuchiki walks ahead of him to the door. Outside, she turns to the path that will lead her home. She'll go one way; he'll go the other. "Kuchiki..." He wants to touch her, but she's out of his reach in more ways than one.
She just smiles. He can't read anything behind that expression. "Good night, Kaien-dono."
"Goodnight," he says. She nods and turns to go.
He can't watch her leave.
"You're brooding." Miyako jabs her chopsticks in his face. "Are you sick?"
Kaien jumps back, looking up from the bento he's been concentrating so hard on. Sentaro and Kiyone went to a lot of trouble to make them these lunches (or maybe they went down the block to buy them, close enough) and it would be rude to eat them thoughtlessly. "I am not."
"You are," Miyako says flatly. "It's not like you. I don't like you when you do it. Stop it."
"Maybe I'm just having a thoughtful day." He squints through the bright sunlight. They could have eaten lunch together in his office, like they sometimes do, but he doesn't want to be there today.
"A thoughtful day?" She sounds amused. "Darling man, if thinking makes you look so dour, I suggest you leave it to myself and Captain Ukitake and concentrate on looking attractive. Every office needs decorations."
He can't help but chuckle and lean into her hand as she ruffles his hair affectionately. Here in the daylight, everything's normal, and there are no secrets lurking in the shadows, ready to weigh him down. It should be easy to pretend that yesterday was a dream.
But Miyako deserves better than that sort of foolishness from him. He watches her work on finishing her own bento and wonders, as he was been doing all morning, whether to tell her what he's done. Miyako is always the one person he can count on to be absolutely honest with him, whether he likes it or not. She is his wife and he should honor her with the same. But that could just be his guilty conscience talking and not his brain. Saying it out loud could hurt her. That's the last thing he's ever wanted to do.
He can't even think about Kuchiki at this moment. She's been on assignment all morning. It's probably for the best.
He sets down his chopsticks. "Miyako--"
She stands up. "Come on. Let's go."
"To get your zanpakutou," she says. "If you're going to think so much, you should think about something worthwhile. We're going to spar."
Most of their divisionmates not out on assignment are out somewhere enjoying lunch, but a few gather around the edges of the thirteenth's practice field as their vice-captain and third seat face off against each other. Kaien has fought with Miyako using swords more than often than he has with words since they've been married, and as always, it's a challenge. Just because they aren't fighting to the death doesn't mean she'll take it easy on him. As she's so fond of reminding him, he has to earn his rank, over and over.
They draw their swords and bow. Miyako grins at him once before rushing him, and from then on, Kaien really can't think about anything except this battle, such as it is. Miyako is fast and ruthless, and even at his quickest, it's only his flesh that escapes her sword as they shunpo around one another; his uniform is not so lucky. He'll have to darn some holes tonight.
"You're too slow, Kaien," Miyako calls out as he dodges another blow from her, then just misses with one of his own.
"Can I help it if I want to admire the view?" he shoots back, and the laughter the bubbles up from inside is genuine. He wonders how he could forget how much he enjoys this, crossing swords with the woman he admires for her fierce competency as much as he loves her for her heart.
Between the sun and the activity, they're both sweaty by the time they're finished. A few of the shinigami still watching offer light applause as they leave. Miyako bows and Kaien offers a grin and a wave.
The grin freezes in place when he catches sight of a small, pale figure turning to leave her vantage point up on the east ridge. It seems Kuchiki's returned from her assignment.
Another late night when Kaien should be at home and he's back at his desk, scanning and signing officer reports without really reading them. If nothing else, Ukitake will probably commend his hard work when the captain returns from bedrest in a day or so.
He sets his pen down when he reaches the bottom of the first stack of paperwork. He could go home, but he can feel that he's not entirely alone.
Kuchiki is alone in one of the private training rooms when he steps inside. She has to know here's here, but she doesn't turn to look at him, just continues to practice forms, her sword slicing through the air. Her technique is flawless, and he wonders if that's due to his efforts to help, her own natural grace or her fierce desire to live up to Byakuya's standards. "Kuchiki."
He waits for her to finish a series of flurried movements and lower her sword, but she doesn't sheathe it. "Kaien-dono," she says, looking at the wall. "I am sorry if I've disturbed you at this hour."
"Don't be stupid," he says, walking over. "I'm the one interrupting your practice. But it is late, Kuchiki. You should go home. Your brother will be worried.
She shakes her head. "No, he won't," she says hoarsely.
The raw note of emotion in her voice is unmistakable. He fumbles for the right thing to say. "Kuchiki..." Of all the times to be at a loss for words. He touches her shoulder. "You're shaking."
"I'm sorry," she whispers.
"I saw you out by the practice field earlier," he says. "You should have come said hello. Miyako wanted to know how your mission went."
She cringes at his wife's name and Kaien knows faking normal conversation was the wrong move. "I didn't want to interfere," she says. "I didn't--I shouldn't--I'm so sorry, Kaien-dono." She bows her head so her hair falls limply in her face. "I admire you and Miyako-dono so much, I would never want to hurt you."
"You haven't," he says immediately, but she goes on like she didn't even hear him.
"I can go on without our training sessions, or request a transfer to another division. Let me fix this."
"Stop it, Kuchiki, you didn't do anything wrong--"
"Yes I did!" She cries, and when she finally looks at him, she's barely holding back the tears. "I did this! You shouldn't have to be around someone like me anymore! You should--"
He never gets to hear what he should do, because she's in his arms and his mouth is on hers. She gasps against him before kissing back, eventually bringing her arms up around him. He can feel the flat of her sword against his back but doesn't really care.
"It's all right," he says when the kiss ends, still holding her. "I promise. It's all right."
"How do you know?" she asks softly.
"Because I'm the wonderful Vice-Captain Kaien, and I say so!" The grin hurts his face a little, but gets easier as he holds it. "And there's no way I'm letting another division get your talent, Kuchiki. Thirteenth is the best, so this is where you belong!"
She smiles, despite herself. "You should be more serious, Kaien-dono."
"I am being serious," he says, and he is. "This is where you belong, Kuchiki. I promise. Don't worry about anything, just keep doing the good job you're doing." After a moment, she nods. "Good." He kisses the top of her head before letting her go. "Now go home. I mean it. I can't have you falling asleep on me in training because you work too hard at night."
She flushes at that, but nods again. "Good night, Kaien-dono."
"Good night," he says softly. When she's gone, he returns to his desk. He's made enough headway for the evening; he should get his things and go home.
He sits back down.
Kaien gets so far ahead on things that when Ukitake returns to reclaim his desk and the suddenly-small piles of paperwork on it, he's left with not much to do for a day or two, when things will build up again. Instead of taking the afternoon to nap or go visit his siblings and Ganju's new pig, he sits above a practice yard, watching his wife run a squad through its paces. Assessment is coming up; they'll all need to be at their best if they want a chance at a seat, and Miyako lets them know this with scolds that spur them to work harder without bruising their egos so much that they won't try.
Miyako is really good with people. It's something Kaien's known nearly as long as he's known her, but somehow he never stops being surprised at how well she can get people to be faster, stronger, better than they were before. It's no wonder everyone loves her. It's no wonder he does. To this day, he's never met anyone so open and loving yet still with such a strength within. When they were married, Kaien promised to love her forever. He has no doubt that he will. But is promising to always love her the same as promising never to love another?
They'd talked about it before. Sort of.
He hadn't taken his eyes off her body when he'd answered--in those days, they'd spent most of their time together naked. "Of course. That's what getting married means. I'll always think you're hot."
"How about two hundred?"
"Yes, even in two hundred years."
"What about...five hundred?"
"Miyako..." He'd rolled his eyes and tackled her. "Yes, even in five hundred years," he'd said when they came up for air. "What about me?"
"Mmm, I suppose," she'd said, "You know, after that much time, I suppose you could have the occasional...sample. As long as I'm the main dish."
"Oh, come on, Miyako," he'd said. "Don't be silly."
He'd laughed at her like she was joking, even though Miyako rarely said anything she didn't mean. It had been a joke. And hell, even if it hadn't been, he'd never imagined it'd happen now. They haven't even been married that long. And even if this were just a matter of wanting to try something new, with or without Miyako's full consent...Kuchiki's not just a good screw. She's not recreation.
And yet... His eyes fall to Kuchiki, training with the squad. The way he feels about her isn't what he thinks of when he thinks of being in love. But it's still something precious to him. And neither one takes away from the other. Is it so strange that he should have room in his heart for more than one person? Is something wrong with him that his guilt is for the deception and not the act?
He watches the squad for the rest of the afternoon but never quite figures it out.
Life goes on. Kuchiki doesn't stop training with him. Kaien doesn't stop doing his best to bring out her potential. She really is coming along well, though she still does her best when there are fewer people around to make her self-conscious.
"Come on, Kuchiki," he calls out, holding Nejibana's released form ready. "Come at me!"
To her credit, she no longer hesitates before attacking. Shikai to shikai, they're more evenly matched. They're both faster, sharper; they both have their own dances of sorts. The area of Rukongai they've come to for training today is lined by a shallow, slow-moving river, and as their mock battle gets faster and fiercer, Kaien has to move smartly to make sure he doesn't end up in the drink. Though it is a warm day and they've been working all morning. The idea of soaking a little doesn't sound too bad.
Kaien grins and rushes at Kuchiki, Nejibana whirling around his wrist, and she's forced to jump back once, then again--she knows he'll never really hurt her, but she also knows he'll knock her around a bit if it serves her training. He can see her getting ready to counterattack, but a quick dodge to the right that forces her back once more ends that when she ends up in the river, wet almost to her knees. She's so surprised, she falls backwards, soaking her hakama.
He props Nejibana over his shoulder and smirks at her. "You've got to be aware of your surroundings, Kuchiki. Use the landscape!"
She glares up at him, but nods her understanding. Useful knowledge passed from mentor to rookie; it's a pretty normal training session, just like they've always done. "I understand, Kaien-dono." He reaches a hand out to help her up, and it's his turn to be surprised when she yanks him down into the water beside her. Face-first.
"Kuchiki!" He laughs and scolds at the same time when he comes up for air. "That wasn't very nice. Now we're both soaked. You're throwing my training schedule completely off, you know."
"You'll think of something, Kaien-dono," she says, smiling gently. It makes something catch in his throat.
Well. It's a mostly normal training session.
There's a nearby copse of trees growing close to the riverbank that provides enough cover for them to make love while their clothes dry in the sun. Afterwards, with some coaxing, Kaien is able to persuade her to bathe with him in the river to get them mud off their skin.
"You missed a spot." He swipes a wet hand over a dark mark on her lower neck only to find that it won't rub off. "Ah, damn. It's a bruise. Sorry about that, my fault."
"Mmm, it's not a problem." She's far more relaxed here than he'd have expected. Public nakedness doesn't seem like her thing, even if there's not actually anyone around for miles. "I'll heal it before we return to Seireitei."
"I never thought about using kidou for that." He pulls her into a hug from behind, enjoying the slick feel of her skin against his, and kisses her temple. "Where were you when I was in the Academy? I could have used the help."
She doesn't react to the suggestive comment. She's more occupied with another bit of his skin, tracing the Shiba crest tattoo on his arm. "When did you get this?"
"After I was acccepted to the academy, before my first term started," he says. "My little brother didn't want me to go away from home, so I took him with me and got it done to show him even when I was away from home, I wouldn't forget my family."
"How old was he?"
He shrugs. "Dunno. Four?"
"Kaien-dono!" But she's laughing. "It must be nice to feel so strongly about your family."
"Yeah." He wraps her tighter in his arms. "What about you? Ever want to get some ink?"
"Not me, no. I do not believe my brother would approve." It's the understatement of the year. "I had a friend who did, though. He tattooed his forehead. Here." She turns in his arms and traces his forehead to illustrate the exact placement.
"That's an unusual spot. He must have funny eyebrows now."
"Probably," she says. "He just said it was something he felt he should do. He couldn't explain why."
"Interesting guy." She looks a little wistful now, so he leans down to kiss away any traces of sadness. She responds with vigor. "Ready to head back to land?"
"Yes, Kaien-dono," she whispers against his mouth.
"'scuse me, pardon me, coming through!" Kaien dodges a couple of lower-seated officers on his rushed way to Ukitake's office. He's not hurrying because he's late. He just can't wait to get there. It's a week after assessment, the period in which all division members whose skills have progressed are judged individually and against each other to see who's worthy of moving up a seat, and who might be deserving of their first numbered position. Kaien can think of one person in particular for that last part.
He can't even pretend not to be unbiased, and didn't bother to act like he was during the long meetings he and the captain held to discuss officer evaluations. He wants Kuchiki to advance. Luckily, so does Ukitake, if Kaien read his smile right, and he always has before. Moreover, Kuchiki deserves to advance. There's no one in this division who's worked harder since the last assessment. And while he might be biased, Kaien's also the person in the best position to be dead certain of the fact that Kuchiki has earned her seat.
"Yo!" He plops down in a seat across from his captain in Ukitake's office. "Hand it over."
"Good morning to you, too, Kaien." Ukitake smiles wryly and passes over a sheet of paper. "You shouldn't see any surprises. We went over the evaluations together."
"I'm just an attentive vice-captain." He scans the list of names and ranks on the paper. They're all pretty in line with what they'd discussed--not a lot of major changes this assessment, but a few people distinguished themselves. But as he gets to the lower seats, something looks wrong, or rather, the lack of something. "This is it?" He checks both sides of the paper. Ukitake just nods. "You've got to be kidding me. You don't think something's missing?"
"Kaien..." Ukitake looks pained. "I know you've worked very hard with her, but there were many strong shinigami vying for seats. Perhaps next time--"
"No!" He jumps to his feet. "With all due respect, sir, that's bullshit. Kuchiki's come far because she put the work in. She deserves a ranked seat. You know it and I know it. So why aren't you giving her one?"
"There are other factors to consider," Ukitake says, looking like he doesn't quite believe it himself. "Other opinions I must take into account."
"Well, you've got mine!" he snaps. "Who else do you want to ask? The officers she's competing against? People who've never even seen her fight? Who would care--" He stops cold as the realization hits him. "Shit. Her brother. Byakuya did this, didn't he?"
Ukitake sighs. "It's more complicated than that."
"No. It isn't." He starts to leave.
"Kaien, stop!" Ukitake's command rings sharply in the room. "You are not to confront Byakuya with this. That is an order, Vice-Captain."
Kaien almost wants to scrub his ears out to make certain he's heard correctly. It's been a long time since his captain has seen the need to give him an order. Trust normally suffices. "Someone should," he says. "It's not like Byakuya even knows how good she is. He's never asked for a progress report. Why's he doing this? Is he that doubtful about her skills?"
"Then what?" He's not even trying to keep the anger from his voice. Captain to vice-captain, they've never had a fight, but this is bullshit. "Why are you trying to protect her, sir? She doesn't need that from you or her brother."
"I am not trying to protect her," Ukitake says, and there are equal amounts of patience and sadness in his voice. "I am trying to protect him."
"I know you and Captain Kuchiki have known each other a long time, but you didn't see him when Hisana died."
"I tried," Kaien says. "He wouldn't see anyone. When he showed his face in public again, he was just...closed off. It's how he does things."
Ukitake nods. "Yes, it is," he says. "But when you've lived a long time, you learn to read people. And I did see him after the funeral. He wouldn't turn me away." He closes his eyes for a moment. "He is not a truly different person since his wife's death. But he...hardened with the loss. I fear further loss would simply shatter him. What else could I do when he asked me to promise to protect his sister, Kaien? Knowing what it must have cost him to make the request?" He spreads his hands wide. "What would you have done?"
Silence fills the air for a long moment. "Not that," he says finally.
"No, probably not," Ukitake says. "But I am asking you to respect the choice I have made."
"I can accept it," he says. "Don't ask me to respect it. Byakuya is wrong. And this is a mistake."
"Perhaps," Ukitake says. "But for the moment, it is one I am prepared to accept responsibility for."
And there's really nothing left to say.
He sees her, briefly, at the edges of the crowd that gathers when the assessment results are announced, but the rowdiness of congratulatory friends surrounding those whose efforts have been rewarded prevent him from getting close enough to read her. It's not until that evening that he detects her reiatsu in a training facility, alone. He wonders if she's waiting for him. They've never planned any trysts in this...whatever this is...but he doesn't figure he should leave the topic for their next training session. "Hey."
"Kaien-dono." She nods at him from where she kneels, carefully polishing the blade of her sword, which she has taken apart for maintenance.
"Sorry I couldn't find you earlier," he says. "I was hoping to talk to you first."
From anyone else, he'd expect to hear sarcasm in the words, or recrimination at the very least. He told her she could do it--he promised her she could. And she did, not that she's getting what's coming to her. Either way it makes him a liar. "About the assessment results," he says. "A lot of people have improved this year--you're doing wonderfully, Kuchiki, it's not a reflection on your work that you didn't get promoted this time." The half-lie tastes like ashes on his tongue.
She sets down the blade to turn her attention to him. "I don't understand," she says. "Did you expect me to be angry?"
"Well...kinda." He rubs at the back of his neck. "Upset. Something."
"Not at all." She folds her hands neatly in her lap. "I have so far to go, Kaien-dono."
"You've come so far."
She smiles briefly. "So have others. And I did not even pass the proper tests before I joined the ranks, so of course I could not expect--"
"But you should." Before he knows what he's doing, he's crouched beside her, one hand on her shoulder. "Expect something. Kuchiki, you deserve something."
"I appreciate you saying so, Kaien-dono." Gently, she shrugs off his hand and returns to her sword. "I really must finish this. My brother is expecting me for dinner."
Kaien stares, a little stunned. He'd felt certain that Kuchiki would be disappointed, that she'd need to hear from him--need him to tell her why, need his reassurance that she hasn't worked for nothing. That he'd need to prop up those wavering pieces of self-confidence he's been encouraging.
He takes a step to leave, and that's when he sees it--the nearly indiscernable tremor in her shoulders that most people would miss. Without a word, it tells him that she is not holding herself up as easily as it seems.
Kuchiki does need him. But she is trying very hard not to.
Miyako puts up with his brooding for nearly a day before cornering him in his office. "Tell me who did it."
"Did what?" He's got paperwork in his hands, but his wife calmly takes it from him and sets it aside.
"I don't know what," she says. "But I know something caused that look on your face, and I know it's not something you did or you'd be off doing something very brave and very silly to fix it."
If only she knew. "It's the captain," he says. "Well. Not exactly him--I don't blame him. But he went along with it, and I really don't know what I can do to get him to change his mind."
She reaches out to touch his face. "Tell me."
He does. Not about every reason he has to look like this, more the coward him. He tells her about his expectation that Rukia would have a seat, about Byakuya's agreement with their captain. About how torn he feels over seriously disagreeing with Ukitake for the first time since he's been vice-captain.
"I can't say I'm surprised," she sighs when he's finished. "I don't know Captain Kuchiki as well as you do, but he's never struck me as being the warmest person."
"Hell no he's not," Kaien retorts. "And these days he's even worse. I just wish I could do something, Miyako. I mean--he shouldn't be interfering with our division."
She just chuckles. "Oh, Kaien. Do you think I don't know what you've been doing?"
He nearly chokes. "You do?"
"Of course," she says, and she's not furious. She's smiling. "It's all well and good to feign objectivity, but everyone knows that girl is your favorite. You wanted her to earn a seat for her own sake. It's not interdivisional meddling that has you upset."
"Oh." He lets out a long breath. "Yeah, that's it. You're right."
"I've got to go now, though," she says, looking regretful. "I'm taking a unit out to deal with a troublesome Hollow."
"A whole unit? They'll get bored watching you do your thing."
"No doubt." She stands. "I'm sorry you have to deal with this. Kuchiki Byakuya is a dutiful man, but I don't think he knows how to be a brother. Not like you do." She shakes her head. "I've watched Rukia-chan. She's doing better since her first days here, but it's plain to see she's not getting any kind of love from her family. I'm glad she's got you."
He goes very still. "Miyako...?"
"Trust your heart, Kaien," she says. "It hasn't steered you wrong yet. And I believe in it. It's one of the things I love about you. And trust me, too. You're not the only one who cares." She leans over to kiss him softly. "We'll talk when I get back. All right?"
"Okay," he says. "Goodbye."
He finds Kuchiki sitting by herself next to the lake. It's the same spot where they've had many lunches together, along with Sentaro, Kiyone and the rest, but there's no one about at the moment.
"Hey." He plops down beside her.
"Hello." She smiles in greeting. The atmosphere isn't private enough for her to lose her mask of propriety, but even with it, she seems more settled today. Kaien guesses she really does accept that there has been no injustice, that it's ineptitude and not injustice that she must cope with. The thought doesn't make him feel any better. Today, he feels like he's the one who needs comforting. Not that he'd put that on her.
"What are you up to?"
"Just thinking, Kaien-dono." She twirls a wildflower in her hand as they look out at the peaceful waters. "And you?"
"The same, I suppose." He leans back on his hands. "Paperwork's done and Miyako's off on a mission. I'm just taking a break."
"Oh." She glances at him sideways. He can see her eyes cloud over a little and wishes they wouldn't. They've never talked about his wife since just after their first time together, but he knows they've both been acutely aware of her, always. It doesn't help that Rukia has never and, he's sure, would never ask for more from him. She's taken what he's been willing to give. Happiness in stolen moments doesn't count for much when it's not something you can keep. "Is there anything I can help you with, then?"
There's so much he wants to say to her. Could say, if he could get his thoughts and mouth in working order. That he thinks his wife might know about them. That he can't even begin to process what her reaction means if she does. That Kuchiki deserves more than she's getting, and she should ask for it. That he loves her--but that she deserves more than what he can offer, too. "No, Kuchiki." He pats her hand. "You're just fine right here."
Kuchiki opens her mouth to say something, but they're interrupted by the sound of someone's approach. It's Ukitake, moving quickly. "Kaien, come quickly," he says, sounding gravely serious. "Something's happened."
Miyako is dead. The world as Kaien knows it ends.
"Her entire squad was obliterated. Even the observational personnel..."
He's only vaguely aware of the events that pass by in a blur. Ukitake's attempts to calm him, Kuchiki's quietly devastated grief, his brief glance at his wife's body--what's left of it. That's not her anymore. Miyako's not that thing, those pieces lying under a sheet. Miyako will never be anything again. And through it all is the anger that burns white-hot within him, leaving a hole inside that makes him want to howl.
"You want me to just sit here like an idiot and wait?!"
The rational part of his mind that's not in control knows that Ukitake is right. It's sensible to wait for backup and return to wreak vengeance that the Hollow will not be able to escape. Kaien doesn't care about sensible. Some things are more important. He's failed Miyako in so many ways. He won't fail her now.
The three of them go together, Kaien and the two remaining people he trusts the most in this world. They're all able to hold down their emotions behind deadly calm, but Kuchiki keeps throwing him anguished glances. He'd like to tell her not to feel guilty, that it's no one's fault but the thing he's about to kill, and just because they were together when he should have been fighting by his wife's side doesn't mean she she should blame herself that he wasn't. He can't. Not now. Maybe when this night is done--when he can allow himself to fall apart.
When they arrive at its lair, the Hollow is waiting for them.
It only hurts a little when the Hollow takes control of his body. Kaien feels the pain, but from a distance--he's as detached from it as he is from control of his actions from then on. There's nothing he can do, though dammit, he tries. But in the end he can't even fight for control because he can't move.
"Am I that special to you, little girl?"
He can only watch as the thing inside him warps his body and attacks his captain. He can only cheer Ukitake on inside his soul, because this thing he's become must be stopped, and he can only scream as he's forced to leap past the captain towards Kuchiki, who looks small and terrified and he knows he's going to kill her; his body flies at her with murderous intent and Kaien prepares to see everything he's ever wanted for her go down in flames.
It doesn't hurt at all when Kuchiki's blade pierces his heart.
As he collapses into his lover's arms, it strikes him that this isn't such a bad way to die. He just wishes he hadn't hurt Kuchiki in the process. He tries to tell her so, but he's pressed against her shoulder and he's not sure if she hears him. He doesn't have the strength to lift his hand, but he can still move his arms, so he lifts them to hold her one more time.
Things get fuzzier and Kaien finds that death isn't cold, it's warm. But there's so much left unsaid, and not enough time to say all of it. She's clever and brave and strong enough to move past this and do better for herself. He wants to let her know he's sorry to leave her this way, with so much unresolved, but he's not sorry he knew her; of all Kaien's regrets, Kuchiki Rukia is not one of them. These are things she needs to know. As he takes his last breaths, Kaien promises himself: if there's another life after this one, if he ever gets the chance to see her again, he will tell her.