Disclaimer: I don't own Bleach. Please refer to the end of this chapter for my Author's Note as well as a sneak peek at what's to come.
Important Note: When I first wrote this chapter, the file was corrupted and I lost all 4500+ words. I very nearly gave up on this story, but I couldn't let you guys down. Not after the fourteen reviews I received for the second chapter. Thank you for giving me the patience to rewrite everything.
Eros and Psyche
-All the king's men-
His steps are quick as he heads in the direction of his house. Had anyone been there to see him, they would've thought they were hallucinating. After all, Kuchiki Byakuya was well known for always being on top of everything and never rushing. Had anyone been there to see him, they would've gawked at the very sight of him hurriedly walking through the street with a girl in his arms. But there is no one at this late of an hour to see him or the casual stain of blood dripping between his fingers with every step he takes. There is no one to see the girl's pale and clammy features or the businessman's pinched and harried look.
She is bleeding far too much, he thinks to himself quietly. He knows from textbook readings in college and high school that a human body has more than enough blood to overwhelm a small pond. He knows this, but knowing is very different from seeing. And as he registers his soaked suit and the bloodless features of her face, he feels disturbed, as nothing has made him for a very long time. He unconsciously tightens his hold on her and tries to ignore the way she opens her mouth in something vaguely resembling a soundless scream or a whimper of protest. And yet still, she bleeds and bleeds and bleeds.
He exhales in relief as the lights of his manor draw nearer and nearer, unwilling to hold her cold, nearly lifeless body in his hands. He doesn't bother with niceties or an explanation as the astonished face of Ishida greets him. "Don't ask questions," he warns and shifts her in his hold—carefully and almost tenderly.
"Of course not. Wel—" The words stop suddenly as Ishida's face twists upon realizing immediately the inappropriateness of such a greeting when a girl is obviously in pain. His mouth closes, the normally austere and sharp butler silent for a moment. The moment stretches from seconds into minutes and he's aware of how ridiculous they must look right now. His jaw works soundlessly and his next words come out stuttered and shell-shocked. "Shall I take her?" He steps forward, his arms ready to relieve his master's burden, but a single look into those piercing and lucid gray eyes stops him cold. Useless, his arms swing by his side, and there's a moment of something between the two of them, as if this is a play where he has forgotten his next lines. It certainly feels awkward enough to warrant that type of situation.
"Call Unohana, and if she can't afford to come here right now, tell her to send over Hanataro. Within the next hour, I want to see one of them at this door. No excuses." Byakuya's voice is stern and powerful—commanding without being overbearing. It reminds Ishida of exactly what the man is, a noble who actually fits his title. He turns, ready to do as instructed, but stops at the tired look on the youthful face in front of him.
"Sir, are you sure? I can carry her while you get a change of clothes and rest." The offer is a logical one, and the CEO knows it, but something inside him refuses to let the street tramp go. He's too tired to fight with his emotions and shakes his head in a negative response. This of course, along with the fact that he has called for two of the best doctors in the city to attend to the girl, does not escape the astute butler's attention. As he prepares to leave and dutifully make the call, he catches a glimpse of uncharacteristic kindness glimmering in a pair of normally shuttered eyes.
Ishida tells himself it's just a trick of the light, because really, it's too late to see right. After all, it isn't as if Kuchiki Byakuya, of all people, could possibly develop feelings for someone from the streets. He scoffs at his thoughts and waves the notion away, for it is simply too ludicrous to consider any longer. Such a thing as love is simply unheard of for his master.
The maid hands her over to him, eyes carefully averted. He nods his thanks and proceeds to lay her gently on his bed. Perhaps later, when he is not so exhausted or distracted, he will wonder how he could've possibly missed the maid's pale face. Perhaps later, he will wonder how he could have dismissed her one word of warning. But later is not now, and he waves her away so that there is no one in his bedroom aside from the still unconscious girl and him. He pulls up a chair to sit by her side, eyes noticing her unnatural thinness and the way her skin glows with fever. The maid's careful washing has only further illuminated her paleness and the blue tint to her skin from blood loss.
He really shouldn't be here right now. He should still be working on some business proposals and finishing up the patent forms for his company's latest invention. He should be sleeping. He should be doing something useful besides watching a street rat as if he actually cares. Because he doesn't. Kuchiki Byakuya has never, and will never, hold affection for any person. He tells himself that he's only worried because if she dares to die on him in his house, than it will bode ill for his reputation. Before he can dwell any longer of the cold-bloodedness of that singular statement though, the door creaks open to reveal Hanataro.
The doctor shuffles forward into the barely lit room, characteristically meek as he latches onto the briefcase with something like a death grip. But Byakuya does not complain, because the doctor is undisputedly good at what he does. "You sent for me?" Hanataro asks, striding forward to inspect the listless form swallowed up by the large bed. Already, his small hands are taking out bandages, gauze, and disinfectants, setting them gently on the nightstand.
"Yes. I ran into her tonight and she promptly passed out. When I went to pick her up, I noticed she was bleeding heavily from the back. I have already had a maid wash her to discourage infection. The bleeding has stopped for now." He stops, unwilling to divulge the fact that just before she'd blacked out, she had been apologizing. He is sure that the apologies must have been a product of her delirious state of mind, for he remembers her apologizing for even existing. But Hanataro does not need to know such frivolous details and Byakuya is not in the mood to offer any more information.
The doctor nods, quietly accepting, before leaning closer to inspect the female's head. When he pulls back, his mouth is set into an unsettled frown. "She appears to have sustained blunt trauma and force to her head. It's a mild concussion, so there needn't be any worries about long-term damage. Still, I find it curious…" He trails off, but stops the dangerous thought before it comes. He's just jumping to conclusions, he tells himself. She could have easily just been knocked heavily into a wall by accident. The frown deepens though, and he places his finger on the zipper of her nightgown, preparing to treat the wounds on her back. He is stopped by a shaking hand lifting to push him weakly back. For a moment, as he stumbles backwards, more from shock rather than her attempt to put some distance between them, he fancies himself to be Victor Frankenstein. As she rises from her position on the bed, limbs trembling with effort but still graceful, he thinks he is witnessing the rise of an immortal. Surely, this scene could've easily been one from Mary Shelley's haunted classic. But logic wins and he shakes his head disconcertingly to rid the idea from his mind.
"You are here to…help me, right?" She asks, her voice hoarse and slightly throaty. Hanataro does not consider it to be an unpleasant sound. In fact, he rather thinks it suits her dark violet gaze and moon-white skin.
"Yes, he is. But he will not be able to do that if you do not allow him access to your back." Byakuya answers from his position on the chair. The businessman is certainly not so crude as to demand for her to take off her shirt. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to consider such a dignified and coolly composed man to ever be rude or brutish. It is an image that he has cultivated and is all too willing to maintain. Perhaps if he had paid closer attention to her hesitance or the uncertainty flickering within her gaze, he would've retracted the offer. At the very least, he would've expected something to shock him. But for all his intelligence and careful planning, the CEO is not omniscient and thus, could not have possibly prepared himself for what came next.
He has seen many a disgusting sight in his life. He has seen twisted and horrific scenes before, but as she slips off her shirt for the doctor in his bedroom, even he can barely contain the impulse to look away in horror. Her back is mottled with scars, some new and some old, and ripped open with rope burns. "Who did this to you?" He asks, unable to stop the question from coming out into the open. He knows she won't want to answer and will probably lie anyways, but he wants to know—needs to know.
She doesn't turn around from her position on the bed and gives a bitter laugh that strikes a chord somewhere in his heart. "Why would you care?" She asks as the doctor runs a trembling hand down her mutilated flesh, eyes unable to do anything but stare.
He wants to say that he should care, that of course he would care. But there really isn't reason for him to care and so he stays quiet. He knows that there are some things you have to earn the right to hear, and he knows that he will most likely never earn the right to demand that answer from her.
Still, he can't help the slow burning of anger inside of him at her defeated appearance.
She knows, without turning to see them, what their expressions must be. She has had those very same expressions on her face, after all. She imagines that the doctor's face must be frozen in astonishment, quickly to turn into medical worry for her bruised and marred skin. She thinks that the kind stranger must, for all his impassiveness, have horror and disgust warping his handsome features. She knows this just as certainly as she knows where their eyes will be drawn to first on the canvas of scars that is her back. There is a sharp and jagged gash, long healed, but leaving behind a reminder on her skin of words she should not have said and the punishment that followed. It stretches from her right shoulder to her left hip in a snaking design that resembles a stitching pattern one may see resting on an elderly lady's lap. Certainly, it looks as if someone had taken a needle and thread and proceeded to mistake her flesh for fabric.
She knows that having stared their fill at that strange design marking her; they will be drawn to the words imprinted on the small of her back. She remembers the memory behind that particular injury as clearly as if the incident had occurred mere seconds ago.
"Sa, Rukia-chan," Gin's words were lazy as he leaned back in the rickety chair. She hadn't moved from her spot, happily playing with scraps of discarded cloth. But who can blame her? She had been, at the time of the incident, only six. Too young to realize the bastard that Gin was inside, too young to distinguish between good and evil. Ironically, it was that incident which taught her everything she'd need to know about the serpentine man. "Who owns ya?" She should've known better than to answer what she did, but she was six. She didn't know. She couldn't have known.
"Mama. I belong to mama." She'd replied, giggling as a scrap of cloth rolled away from her pudgy hands.
Gin's expression had immediately turned dark and foreboding as he snatched the burning candle from his desk. She hadn't backed away. He'd torn the back of her shirt in pure anger and let the wax drop onto her exposed back in lines. She'd screamed, but of course, no one could have heard her. It wasn't until he'd finally finished with his creation that he bothered to speak. "You belong to me. And I will make the memory burn."
And burn, it had. She remembers the flames outlining her new scar, setting a writhing pain through her body. She remembers everything, and wishes she'd remember nothing at all.
"Slave," her words are soft and musical, belying the darkness of her thoughts. The sound startles both of the men from their thoughts, one horrified, and the other brimming with anger. "It was a punishment," she explains, more of a question than a real explanation, and it leaves the occupants of the room silent once again.
Hanataro takes a shaky breath and finishes patching up her wounds, like a too-loved doll torn on the side. "You have a mild concussion and a light fever. The bandages will need to be changed every six to eight hours and I don't want to see you out of bed for at least a week." He pauses, perhaps wishing to offer some semblance of comfort, but leaves the room without saying anything else. The door closes behind him with a note of finality, drowning the remaining two occupants in a flickering darkness.
"I won't be bothering you for much longer," she says confidently, the nightgown settling itself over her form once again. She turns to face him, twin violet eyes fixing themselves firmly on his visage. "I know I have already burdened you beyond belief and I have no wish to take advantage of your kindness." He starts from his resting position on the chair, surprised at her willingness to even call him 'kind.' But his sharp mind processes her words with displeasure and a slight frown mars his normally impassive face.
"You will do no such thing. Returning to whatever place you came from isn't a viable option. It obviously isn't very safe if you came stumbling to me in such a late hour, only to collapse within minutes." He pauses, carefully weighing his options and the consequences of each possible statement. "You aren't imposing on me." He offers, not unkindly, and watches as she shakes her head passionately.
"From where I come from, it isn't a question of when you die or if you get shoved into the dirt." A wry smile fleets across her pale face, as if remembering an incident that was both fond and frustrating. "It's a matter of how you die and how you take your blows going into the ground. I have friends, companions who suffer with me. To rest here in such luxury for a week would be to abandon them. I can't do that. I could never do that." She lapses into a thoughtful quiet, and he feels his respect for her rise.
"Rukia." She finally says, holding a thin and malnourished hand in front of him, a glimmer of a smile curving her lips. "I completely forgot that I never introduced myself, a courtesy I should've extended to my rescuer." Her words are mildly teasing and the smile widens marginally. He does not think that the smile looks at all out of place on her lips. He rather thinks she looks…entrancing, but snaps himself out of such thoughts soon enough to give her the same courtesy.
He nods in understanding and extends his own hand to grip hers in a semblance of a handshake. "Kuchiki Byakuya." He doesn't reflect on the fact that he's holding a street girl's hand so carelessly, doesn't stop to analyze the reasons and the how and the why. He just does, letting his emotions dictate his motions rather than his mind. It's a refreshing change, like glimpsing the sky rather than staring at the ground. "I don't agree with your choice, but I have no sway over your opinions. If something happens, just show up at the same place as today and I'll make sure you will be well-cared for."
But he has not intention of doing what he has just said. As soon as he can hear her soft, even breathing indicating a light (if not dreamless) sleep, he leaves the room to summon a certain Kurosaki Ichigo. The orange-haired young adult comes running at his call, stopping directly in front of his calculating face. "There is a girl in that room, by the name of Rukia. Sometime around five or six in the morning, she will no doubt wake up and intend to leave the house without disturbing a single person. Tell everyone that they are to ignore her presence, but you are to follow her. Take care to not be noticed by her, but report back as soon as you can about her final destination. Unfortunately, this also means that you cannot intervene in any situation involving her. If she is harmed, wait for the perpetrator to leave before taking her back here. If the situation calls for it, use my name. If someone dares to contradict your word, show them this." He carefully pulls off his ring, the one emblazoned with the Kuchiki crest, and drops it in the stunned youth's hands. "Do not lose this. I will be going to rest."
Ichigo bows, amber eyes flickering to the door behind the CEO and then to a pair of gray eyes in confusion. "But sir, isn't that your room?" He receives a blank stare, as if to say that the fact is an obvious one and the question hardly one worth answering. "I'll have a maid prepare one of the spare bedrooms for you, sir." He finally settles on saying, shifting uncomfortably in such a commanding and powerful presence. It worries at his nerves and bothers him, the whole situation, but he keeps his mouth wisely shut and leaves.
It is four in the morning when Byakuya finally lets his eyes close. When he rises at seven, she is gone—and with her, Ichigo.
She knows she must absolutely ridiculous like this, running down the streets with a flimsy silk nightgown barely hanging on her shoulders. She winces as a sharp piece of rock digs into the sole of her foot, but keeps on running, keeps on hoping that Gin will not have noticed. Somewhere inside, she knows that Gin will know and that he will be there to 'welcome' her as she finally returns. But a part of her doesn't care, too focused on breathing in tandem with the pounding of her feet on pavement. It's too early for anyone to be out and about, too early for someone to notice and question her actions. She doesn't know that just one block behind her; a shadow follows, moving silently and stealthily, orange hair catching the first of the sun's rays.
When she finally pauses for breath outside of her dreaded 'home,' there is only one voice to greet her—serpentine and hollow all at once. She represses a moan and tries to stop the desperate pounding of her heart against her ribcage. It's only Gin, only Gin, she tells herself, and wonders why she allows herself to be controlled by such nightmares. When she locks gazes with his half-closed eyes, she imagines her face must be smooth and unreadable. But the mirage is quickly shattered as his first words greet her exposed ear.
"Heya, Rukia-chan." He drags out her name, as if savoring the syllables as they drip like potent poison from his tongue. "Or should I call ya Cinderella? Ya didn't come back last night an' now the magic's all gone." He pauses, leaning forward to inspect her fear-paralyzed form. She has a creeping feeling that he isn't pleased and is just drawing out her terror and torment. "Ya weren't wearin' somethin' that pretty last time. Didn't ya go out last night with some rag-tag shirt on ya? Cinderella must have found some rich boy to bed with, eh? Explains that silk thing ya got on ya, doll. At least ya ain't wearing those glass shoes." He beckons for her to follow him into his office and she does as he commands, helpless against his whims.
She's ashamed to admit her relief as he asks her to take off the silk nightgown and don the ripped T-shirt he's given her instead. It's a strangely merciful thing, for he most certainly could've forced her into anything. She supposes he is happy about how much he can buy with that one article of sleepwear. Silk, after all, is never cheap. As the T-shirt settles against her skin, she turns to leave his foreboding office, and smiles at her luck. She should've known better. She really should've. But she is concussed and sleepy, so it does not occur to her that Gin isn't down yet until she goes soaring through the air. For an insanely delusional moment, she thinks it's a beautiful feeling to be able to fly.
But it isn't a peaceful flight. How can it be? She knows gravity will drag her down inevitably, and that inertia will halt her arc through the office with a hard object soon enough. She isn't disappointed as her head slams harshly against the adjacent wall with a sickening crack. Dazedly, she thinks that her mild concussion is most certainly severe now. But she can't dwell upon that thought for any longer as Gin rounds his desk to sit placidly on his swiveling chair. His fingers steeple together in a scornful mockery of dignity and nobility, eyes calmly assessing her. The moment lasts mere seconds and then he's withdrawing a switchblade from his desk drawer, the ominous snick snick echoing in the all too quiet room. "Ya coulda been a good girl, stayed at home. Only bad girls go out at night, but you're a bad girl now, ain't ya? Ya snuck out and ya stayed out. Ya didn't think you'd be able ta break the rules without payin' a price, didja?"
She doesn't know what possesses her to speak. She should know better than that, after all, talking back to Gin only makes the situation worse. But her mouth is open before she can close it and the words are being said before she can take them all back. "You've never followed the rules," she murmurs tiredly, her head sliding down the wall. The room is spinning and she's aware of the wet liquid tracing her head's descent on the otherwise white wall. It's an abstract art, she smiles morbidly at the thought. Abstract like her entire life has been.
She's startled out of her reverie as Gin stops to crouch in front of her, eyes opening and narrowing in anger. "You know who loves you the most in this world, Rukia?" She doesn't notice that he's drop the chan from her name, can't notice as the ceiling spins and spins and spins around her, like some macabre waltz. Snick, the blade opens in his hand and she can't bring herself to crawl away from him. "Me," he whispers, leaning into her. "I love you more than anyone else in this world." She has a feeling that these are words someone once said to him, words that ripped him apart as they rip her apart now. She has a feeling that this is just his way of getting back at the reality they both live in. "Now hold out your arms."
She does as she's told, mumbling inane words as she extends her pale arms side by side in front of her. The only warning she has before the blade descends, cutting deep and jagged into skin and tissue and muscle, is his last statement to her. "I'm lying to you, Rukia. No one loves you. Not I, not Renji, certainly not anyone out there. No one loves you because you are damaged. You are mine and you are broken." Her screams swallow up the last of his sentences, ripping her vocal chords as the switchblade turns left and right, carving a message only he can see in the sea of blood.
When he finishes, she's barely clinging to consciousness, and his fingers dig into her new marks as he drags her down the length of the hallway. Just before she gives up into the darkness, she hears her whispered question echoing in the empty corridor. "What…what did you w-write?"
"Hand her over," Ichigo's voice is curt as he gestures for the limp girl cradled in Renji's arms.
"Why should I? I don't even know you." The redhead shoots back, careful not to take out his anger and frustration on the unconscious figure resting in his hold. "For all I know, you could be some creepy stalker. Forget it, carrot-top. You're not wanted here and it's not as if you can help her anyways."
"And you can? You guys barely have enough bandages to go around and you think that's going to be able to fix her?" Amber eyes flash in annoyance as Ichigo proceeds to direct his attention to the rest of the people gathered in the room. Obviously, the idiot isn't willing to negotiate. He can only hope that everyone else will have enough brains to figure out that here is not the best place for the violet-eyed girl. "Everyone here obviously cares about her. And if you guys really cared, you'd let me take her back to my employer. She'll be in good hands. I swear."
The bald man in the shadows shifts and moves into the light, a customary frown on his features. "If you're lying, I'll hunt you down."
"Ikkaku, he's only trying to help." A feminine-looking male pipes up, hands attempting to placate his friend. "But really, who is your employer? And what is your name? We can't trust you if you won't even give us an identity." A logical voice, Ichigo notices, and thanks the Gods above that someone here at least is willing to give him a chance.
"Kurosaki Ichigo. I work for Kuchiki Byakuya." He doesn't offer any more information, and he doesn't need to, as understanding dawns on everyone's faces. "Now hand her over."
Renji does as he's told, shock rendering him numb as he transfers Rukia over to Ichigo's gentle embrace. "Will she ever come back?" It's a selfish question, the pickpocket knows. Rukia isn't safe here and she never will be, but he wants her to stay, wants her to always be by his side. Selfish. It's more important for her to survive than for him to cling to her presence as a desert would cling to rain. He lets her go, and wonders why it hurts so much.
"I don't know," Ichigo replies before turning on his heel and leaving the rest of the room to sit in stunned silence. All of a sudden, it seems strangely empty without the petite girl running around kicking Renji in the face or telling Shuuhei to stop making fun of her height. Even Kira, somber and morose Kira, seems disturbed at the eerie quiet blanketing the atmosphere.
"It's a lot less beautiful here without her." Yumichika murmurs, and for once, everyone agrees.
-Will make her hope once again-
Author's Note: Sorry for the long wait, everyone. But I had a million other things to update and this chapter wasn't supposed to be posted (or done, for that matter) for another week or two. But my muse decided to give me a rather violent kick to the head and I managed to get this done, despite the fact that the chapter was erased the first time around. Thanks to everyone who left a review for me; this chapter is for you guys. I hope it lives up to your expectations and will continue to do so. Once again, please drop a kind comment or two if you have the time to do so. It's always really inspiring when I come back after a long day at school and read what you guys have taken the time to write.
Summary and Preview of Chapter Four
Byakuya isn't the type of man to wear frivolous accessories, which is why so many people are surprised to find a gold-encrusted ring on the ring finger of his right hand. It represents his Kuchiki heritage, a line descended from the old emperors of Japan, and gleams with wealth and power. Few people (if any at all) really know that he despises wearing the accessory. Even fewer know that the dislike stems from the fact that it is a useless object and serves no purpose other than to flaunt his title and his fortune.
But as his right hand catches the despicable man known as Gin in the jaw in a powerful right hook, he can't help but think that the ring may serve a purpose after all: breaking the sadist's nose.
Up Next: Byakuya tracks down the infamous Ichimaru, making sure to leave a couple broken bones and plenty of bruises in his wake. Rukia, blissfully unaware and still healing, dreams of a wish long forgotten and a promise to never stop hoping.