Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
In the March sky,
As far as one can see -
A mist? A cloud?
Their fragrance fills the air.
Let's go and see them.
-Sakura, an ancient traditional Japanese folk song. Translation by Tsuge Gen'ichi
For Kuchiki Rukia, who knew quite a few things, one subject that eternally eluded her grasp was love.
It wasn't that she had suffered for lack of it; far from. It was more a matter of having encountered it in so many different forms, each as unique and elusive and precious as its bearer, that she never seemed to quite get a handle on it. While she had heard plenty of her female counterparts waxing romantic about the endlessly varied fruits of love, Rukia merely found such things irritating. If love insisted on being such a potent universal force, she surmised, then it stood to reason that it should adhere to a certain amount of internal consistency.
She would find herself, on certain dolorous days, running her loves through her mind in a sort of contemplative way, not as one unravels a mystery (for even Rukia was not foolish enough to believe she would ever fully understand the vagaries of the heart) but in the way one tongues at a loose tooth, trying to see if one can ignore the pain long enough to work it loose and get a real look at it.
What surprised her, in those fits of ruminescence, was realizing that it was not love itself that so often changed her life, but rather those times when love she'd come to depend on was forced to change before her eyes...
Abarai Renji. The name alone conjured up endless images, sounds, smells; a tapestry of experiences that encapsulated a complex and difficult childhood that she nonetheless treasured. While she could, in the crystal-clear manner available to soul beings, recall a time before she knew the wild-haired scamp, she saw those preceeding days in flat shades of lonely, empty grey and preferred to dwell there as little as possible. She had decided a long time ago that color had first entered her world the day she saw that wild, red hair scurrying through the dirty alleyways, running like the wind to the shouts of an incensed shopkeeper. She still could not nail down any particular reason, aside from pure fascination with that splash of color, that caused her to turn, slipping silently after them, watching until the moment presented itself to throw a perfectly-aimed kick at the shopkeeper's head. She never pretended that that moment hadn't changed her life.
Nor did she pretend, to herself at least, that what existed between her and Renji was anything other than a form of love. Of course, it was the kind of love that prevented either of them from ever discussing it, and therefore openly acknowledging it, but deep within her heart she called it for what it was. Her love for Renji was like the rock under her feet; solid, undeniable, expansive. Without it, she had nothing. It allowed her to stand strong, to take the world as it was and know that one thing, at the least, did not have to be questioned.
Of Renji's love in return she was certain, but its form still troubled her. She had often caught him looking at her in a way that resonated deep within her heart, first as dirty children fishing in the muddy rivers, and then with more complexity and earnestness as they grew older, in mind, spirit and body. It was always the same look but with infinite variations, and true to their buddyship was never articulated.
The first time Renji's way of looking at her truly changed was the day that found the two of them standing on a hill overlooking Rukongai and three lonely little graves, the day they decided to become shinigami together. That change deepened their bond, as together they undertook the task of conquering an impossible dream, urging each other to ever greater achievements while treasuring between them a sense of shared accomplishment. They were two street rats scaling a mountain together, and the shared secrets of those days warmed her still.
The next change, a sadder one, took place the day Renji burst into her room to find her flanked by the indominable figures of the Kuchiki clan, the day her last name changed.
The third, and by far most confusing and bittersweet change, took place they day a human with strawberry-colored hair turned both their worlds upside down...
Kurosaki Ichigo. Of that love there was even less understanding, if more harmony. Though neither of them articulated their bond, despite the mutual silence she found it was even more integral to her being. It went beyond certainty, moving indelibly towards the realm of need. If Renji was the ground beneath her, then Ichigo was the sky above, the very air she breathed. He was the heat in her veins, the fire in her heart, the music to which her soul danced. Had she been a romantic, Rukia would have said that the lanky human was her very reason for being. Having been made of more rational stuff, however, she simply accepted Ichigo as a soul mate, a permanent feature in her life, and knew by wordless understanding the he did the same.
Renji love was indelible, if confusing. Ichigo love was undeniable; one could sooner wish away the stars.
But on this night, the night that was supposed to be her last, the night that found her, against all odds, still breathing and more than one man she loved lay broken on the ground, on that night she realized that the most unexpected love at all would be the one that would lead her back to herself...
She never for one moment thought that her brother loved her. It was a silly notion anyway; she was adopted, for reasons she did not even pretend to understand at the time, and between such siblings no regard was implied or even required. Nor did she kid herself for a single moment that she had any right to ask for or even expect affection, much less love, from the marble-faced noble.
Still…..she longed for it.
Her academy years wrought a certain, unexpected solitude out of her, one that was not entirely unfamiliar to her. When Renji's comforting presence had faded away into the long shadows cast by the Kuchiki clan and squad life had became her routine, it was her dark-haired vice-captain who brought her the companionship she so desperately sought and responded to. When tragedy stole even that comfort away from her, Rukia found herself adrift among the cold formality and sterling pride of the noble house to which she found herself bound. Those stiff, removed days, when she was serving in the Thirteenth without role model or recognition, were the hardest on her, even harder than her wretched youth, and there were days when she ardently wondered if this half-life was worth living at all.
Duty remained, but duty made a cold bedfellow, and her fierce heart burned for more.
Rukia had often found herself drifting through the elegant structures and precisely manicured gardens of the Kuchiki shinden-zukuri, seeking something she couldn't define. While the palatial residence never truly felt welcoming, during times when she was relieved of official duty and the walls of the Thirteenth echoed with the cries of her ghosts, she would seek a change of scenery in her adopted home, if not solace. Never once did Byakuya seek her out during these visits, and she was far more likely to run into stone-faced and disapproving relatives than the brother who had gone to such controversial lengths to claim her.
It seemed, on one flat, grey April day, that this hollow existence was to be the sum and total lot in life for Rukia, one-time street grub of Rukongai-turned adopted princess of the elite Kuchiki clan.
But the gods above are kinder than they seem, and on that day she was one of only two spirit beings ever blessed to hear her brother sing.
It was well-known among the Kuchiki clan the days of spring that would see Byakuya, crown prince in estimation if not in title, retreat to the family gardens to lose himself among the cherry trees, alone with his despondency. Rukia, despite her outsider status, was also privvy to his black moods that time of year and generally made great efforts to remain at an even more respectful distance than usual. So she would have been hard-pressed to explain why she, in an equally deep depression, found herself drifting one spring day through falling cherry blossoms during one of her fruitless crusades for inner peace. The gently falling petals did not disturb her reverie or she would have recognized her error and instantly retreated from the eastern gardens. Oblivious, she'd meandered on.
The sound that finally worked its way into her awareness had simultaneously jolted her out of her dark mood and stilled her with its intense beauty. Curious, Rukia had found herself moving silently forward until, barely hidden behind a tree trunk, a splendid scene opened up before her.
Byakuya was sitting on a low, marble bench beneath a flowering cherry tree, stock-still, his back ramrod straight as his ebony hair flowed freely over squared shoulders. His hands were folded neatly in his lap and he was looking at nothing in particular, eyelids drifted half-shut in a languidity that was oddly becoming to him. And against all probability and to Rukia's deep shock, he was singing. Exquisitely, and with absolutely perfect pitch. His lips barely moved, but the low, rich baritone that floated in the air along with the drifting blossoms could only have come from him. It was a simple enough melody, a child's tune, young enough to be sweetly engaging while echoing with the ancient cogency that all folk songs retain after they have been shared for centuries.
Fascinated, Rukia found herself watching him, in a position, for once, to examine his features in a way she never would have dared otherwise: the high cheeckbones, the noble lines of his mouth, the patrician nose arching up to proud eyebrows. His eyes, though half-closed, were darkened to a rich voliet shade she had never noticed before. He was breathtaking….beautiful. That could not be denied, and she found some deep part of her stirring at the figure he cut. Sitting in the diffused, grey light of early evening, he looked every bit the young god cast down from heaven to grace the presence of mere mortals.
Finally the song finished, the tune drifted away, leaving Rukia feeling emptier than before, and a sudden wash of tears surprised her. She also realized with a lurch that she was invading the privacy of a man she had much reason to fear, but before she could move or even begin to tremble, he began again.
The song was one she knew, a common yet complex tale about a young soldier searching across battlefield and mountain range for an elusive flower that would grant eternal life. Byakuya sang as before, unmoving, unchanging, his expression as austere as ever. Externally, he might have been carved out of the cold marble on which he sat.
The voice told a universally different story. The tone was as clear and pitch-perfect as before, but the warmth had deepened, colored with such rich and complex emotions that Rukia's mouth went dry, her heart thumping painfully in her chest. There were tears in that voice, untold tragedies and, to her intense surprise, an unfathomable ache that resounded loudly in Rukia's lonely heart. It seemed to her, in the failing light, that the man before her had been transformed from untouchable god to something visceral, fallible, and in some indefinable way, human. In that moment, she realized with a wrench that Kuchiki Byakuya was heart-breakingly, gut-wrenchingly lonely. The idea was crazy enough to border on blasphemy...yet she knew, in the depths of her heart, in a way that defied logic, that it was true.
Perhaps she sighed. Maybe it was a slight motion, or the soft fall of her tears. She didn't dare hope that the song simply overcame him and he could not continue. Whatever the reason, the man before her suddenly stopped singing mid-verse, just as the sun set behind him, the glen falling into an aching silence while she held her breath, terrified of his retribution for her incredible breach of his privacy.
But he never turned in her direction. He merely sat there in the descending darkness, poised as if listening to something only he could hear. Finally, as the stars came out bright and cold in the ebony sky, he silently rose and without a sound disappeared in a whisper of shunpo.
That night, by the cold, impersonal gleam of the moon, its silvery, wan ilumination reminding her more than ever of the light in Kuchiki Byakuya's eyes whenever he looked at her, Rukia made an indelible decision.
She would love her brother. Whether he ever chose to see, much less return, that love mattered not at all.
For Rukia had heard him sing, and a voice that could cry so soul-rendingly into the dusk could not have belonged to a man without a heart. A heart that had known sorrow, and therefore, in some way or place or time, must have also known love.
If Kuchiki Byakuya could love, then he deserved it in return. And Rukia of Rukongai, who owed him everything, would offer love to him, freely and without condition. It was a lonely choice, but it gave her strength. And while another, stronger love awaited her yet, she would always remember her love for Byakuya as one she willingly chose to undertake, despite all appearances at the time that it would never be acknowledged, much less returned.
The next day, and every chance possible thereafter, she called him Nii-sama. And every time she did, her heart swelled.
If Byakuya was surprised by her choice he never outwardly displayed it, unless it was in the absence of reproach. And as the years went by, Rukia entertained herself with the idea that he had come to enjoy it; certainly, he seemed to cross her path more often, and if he did not outwardly welcome the chance to hear the term of endearment, then she felt honored and priviledged at every oppertunity to offer it.
And so it was that those days came flooding back to Rukia, as she knelt beside the figure of her dearly beloved brother, holding his hand in the first display of affection he had ever allowed her.
As his confession, freely offered as he lay on the grounds of Sougyouku Hill, burned through her mind, the truth searing her heart and her soul, it seemed that the long-ago night under the stars, replicit with the dulcit tones of heart-rending baritone, washed over her again, as potent as the night it had happened. Dozen of emotions surged through her as past, present and future met in a single, untanglable sensation.
And she realized that that night, standing under the cherry trees as her brother poured out his heart to the silent trees, that he had been singing to Hisana. And, in her stead, Rukia had heard, and understood.
That night, the gods had not only granted her a brother, but a sister as well.
Heart full, she thanked the gods for their generostiy and mercy. And clutching the hand of the man she would never again doubt, she marvelled at how love not only changed its own form, but indelibly changed those who gave it, and those who received.