A blank sheet of paper. Pristine, serene, ready to be infused with life.

The pen raised, its bristles brimming with ink but not saturated. The fine line between excessive and insufficient. In common parlay, perfect.

He knew what he wanted to create here.

And yet, the artist had been disturbed.

"Captain Aizen, you say?"

"Yes, my lord." The majordomo knelt at the door to his room. "And, the lady your sister is with him. I thought it best that you should know."

Pen to the tray. Paper to the wastebasket. His creative mood had soured. He rose and swept effortlessly from his study.

"Have her servants roused. Do not disturb any more than are necessary."

"As you will, my lord."


"Thank you for taking the time to see her home, Aizen-san. I hope you have not been too inconvenienced."

"Not at all." The elder captain waved dismissively. Moonlight flashed off his spectacles. He then tucked his hands into the sleeves of his haori. "If you'll excuse me now, I really must be getting back to division headquarters. Good evening, Kuchiki-taichou."

It was. Before you arrived.

"Good evening."

Aizen Sōsuke bowed and turned away.

Byakuya Kuchiki wasted no more time. He whipped around and strode determinedly back into the manor proper. The diminutive girl cradled in his arms shifted slightly, but gave no indication of waking anytime soon. Her brother frowned thoughtfully to himself. Perhaps it was for the best. Better Rukia not have the added shame of knowing this incident would be remembered by her brother in addition to the servants who would see to her slumbering form being readied for bed.

Truth be told, worry looked to be the thing farthest removed from her being right now. That was a surprise, for Rukia. Usually even when fast asleep, Byakuya could detect an undertone of unrest to her manner, the slight tension of brow and cheek muscles that told of troubled slumber. It meant that even when dead to the world, his adopted sister was wrestling with the demands placed upon her by her new noble family. It also occurred to Byakuya, briefly, that a cup of saké before bed might serve to alleviate some of this distress on her part. If all it took to make her sleep this soundly was some spiked tea, the real thing could prove even more refreshing. Heaven knows, Rukia could use the rest.

The head of the Kuchiki family paced down the darkened halls of his home, passing like a shadow between squares of moonlight let in from the open screen doors. Actually, the whole issue might prove problematic in its approach. Were he to broach the matter of her nighttime struggle with torpor, she was almost certain to ask how he came to know of this issue. Byakuya was not the sort of man to resort to lying. He would then have to admit that he checked in on her while sleeping almost nightly. There was no use in wondering what that would lead to. Disturbing rumors, at least. Perhaps a heart attack on Rukia's part. Worst case scenario, he mused to himself. She was much stronger than first appearances might lead one to believe. Still, the fact that his deceased wife's sister viewed him with a horror usually reserved only for Hollows was not lost upon her brother. Perhaps it was less a matter of the difference in their reiatsu, as he had first concluded, as it was an issue of familial conduct. Just how was one to behave with a younger sibling anyway? The Shiba patriarch, Kaien, was in the same situation, but Byakuya had never heard of him getting along with his little sister anyway other than harmoniously. Despite their fall from social grace, perhaps it might be worth discussing the matter with him. He would have to remember that.

By this time, the young lord had arrived at his destination. A servant girl drew aside the door at his approach. Upon entering, Byakuya found only one other maid in attendance. He gave them a perfunctory nod of approval, and proceeded to lay his sister on her sleeping mat.

When he raised his arms away, for the first time, Byakuya noticed something in her hair. Reaching down, he withdrew what appeared to be a sakura petal. As he did so Rukia stirred a fraction, before settling back into sleep. Her attentive elder rose and turned fluidly, paying no heed to the pair of abasing attendants. They knew what was expected of them without being told. It was one of the prides of his household that this be so. Be calm, be careful, be circumspect. And do not disturb their mistress' respite. In this house, everyone knew their duties.

The shinigami nobleman marched from the room. The door slid shut softly at his back. He made his way back to his own apartments, passing from one patch of moonlight to the next. If he were to go a little faster, he thought, it might be like running beneath the boughs of a forest on a summer's day. Going from darkness to bright light. Swift movement from one perch to the next. Dancing on air. Chasing. Fleeing. The endless pursuit.

Byakuya cupped the small pink blossom in his palm.

Remembering.


"I'm waiting, Your Highness."

The challenge floated through the leaves. Picking himself up from the earth, Byakuya let his tired muscles relax, and sprang.

His leap propelled him a hundred feet into the air. Leaves fluttered upwards from the back draft, but not a one could touch him. His shoes settled firmly onto the bark of a suitable branch. For a moment the young nobleman crouched on his perch, observing his surroundings. That was one of the lessons. Don't just go charging in. Judge the terrain. Get an idea of what might be perilous to you, and your opponent. Keep that in mind.

What he saw was a forest canopy. The boughs of trees spread out all around him, white birch and sycamore giving it an almost funereal aspect. Factor in the time of year, and you get a profusion of blood-red leaves adding their macabre touch to the mix. The sounds of this sylvan battleground reached his ears. Movement, conscious and unconscious life letting their presence be known for anyone who would hear them. Byakuya was awash in color, the bright light of the afternoon sun lancing through the brambles to pierce the shadows in dappled, ever-altering patterns. The heat from that solar giant was unmistakable on his skin, compared to the chill sweat that otherwise covered his slender frame. The band around his forehead prevented any perspiration from obscuring his vision. Another kept his hair done up in a topknot behind his head. Keen gray eyes that changed to black in the shadows now hunted the grove-top environs, while his more esoteric soul senses were hard at work attempting to pinpoint a place from which to start.

He got nothing.

But then Byakuya knew whom he was dealing with. It wouldn't take long.

The crimson tapestry about him rustled to the rhythm of wind and forest.

And from around the trunk of a tree there stepped a figure robed in black.

The Kuchiki prince felt his pulse heighten considerably.

Twenty feet away, Yoruichi Shihoin stood. One hand rested on the bark of her soaring seat; not for balance, he knew, more to feel the wood communicating what was happening all around her. The captain of the Second division had discarded her official white haori some miles back. Doing so confirmed that the usual baggy black training outfit had been stripped down topside, a sleeveless vest revealing her sleekly muscled arms and shoulders, in addition to highlighting the ample contents which gave shape to that garment. Byakuya saw medium-length violet hair that refused to be tamed, caramel-brown skin speaking of warmth not unlike that belonging to the sun; all this and more. Turned to one side, his teacher's profile was calm and thoughtful, almost serious. But that could never be the case. He believed that whole-heartedly.

Then Yoruichi's lion-gold gaze slid over to him, and her face split in a wicked grin.

He believed correctly.

"Did you have enough time to catch your breath?" The saucy minx bounced up and down on her deceptively slender footrest playfully. "I was starting to lose faith in your ability to trail behind me."

Wrath! Rage! Affront!

"I was not resting!" Byakuya swore, the breath feeling cold and sharp in his throat. "Your route had grown quite tedious, and I merely chose this time to submit to boredom's dictates, in the misguided hopes that someone of your advanced years would be able to come up with a more strenuous chase given the chance to catch your wits!"

"So it's my wits you're trying to catch! That explains everything. It certainly isn't this supple body, which has never once in all of our lessons felt your hands upon it." The regal lioness gave a shake of her hips, that smiling face dripping with sweet honeyed venom. There was not so much as a glimmer of sweat on Yoruichi's brow. "I think I'd remember that."

"Demon-cat!" her pursuer growled in imitation of the beast in question. "Today I'll make you eat those words, I swear!"

"Are words all you're going to put in my mouth? How disappointing." The lady of the house of Shihoin sighed heavily, eyes closed, features and shoulders slumping in dejection. "Young men these days just have no imagination. They assume everything comes at face value. It's terribly disappointing."

Her weakness was feigned. The whole posture, negligent to untrained eyes, was no sign of submission, but a gauntlet flung in his face. And the future lord of the house of Kuchiki did not decline the challenge. His reiatsu surged in a concentrated effort at his back and beneath his feet. The art of shunpō, instantaneous movement, propelled him at his lounging quarry faster than immortal eyes could follow.

"For instance…"

Yoruichi vanished.

"Assuming I hadn't cut through that branch I was just standing on."

Byakuya could only register the words as his foot came down. The wood cracked beneath his sandaled heel. He lost his balance, and in the blink of an eye, his intense flight devolved into a head-over-heels tumble towards the ground far below.

Where had all the branches gone, he wondered? It looked like this place was full of them, but now I find none are coming to hand. Did she cut all of them away before I even got up here?! I swear, he thought murderously as his acceleration only increased, when I survive this I am going to put a contract on that woman's life, on my mother's grave, I swe…!

A hand wrapped around his ankle, and the death-defying plunge came to an abrupt halt.

Hanging upside-down, Byakuya blinked in astonishment, then turned his head. Standing on the stump of a tree limb was Yoruichi, one arm extended to hold him dangling out over space. The look of boredom on her face was designed to let him know that not only could she keep this position up all day, but she was more than willing to do so if that was what it took to get the lesson across. For his part he just swung panting for a few breaths.

"So then." Suddenly her wrist twisted, the world spun around him. At the apex of his swing a hand snaked out to grasp a fistful of shirt front, and the student found himself slammed roughly face-first against the trunk of the colossal forest king. A warm body then pressed firmly against his back, and Byakuya was distracted from his brush with death by a reminder of the differences in their gender and physical makeup. His toes stretched to the limit to find purchase on Yoruichi's. Their current position left him with no room or inclination to maneuver when her mouth came down to his ear.

"You can be tired. That's only natural. Out of the goodness of my heart, I will even allow you to be angry. Hate me if you must, Byakuya-kun. But…" The boy's right wrist was swiftly wrenched around his back, causing his shoulder to protest this treatment volubly. Byakuya cried out in pain and helpless vexation.

"On no accounts," the Goddess of Flash hissed, "will I permit you to be stupid! For whatever reason. So there were no branches to grab onto? There were leaves. And twigs. Anything to slow your descent, to break your fall to some degree. You didn't even bother to think of that, did you?" There was honest rage in her voice now, priming her words and her muscles with savage intensity that burned through their clothes into his skin. Then she drew away from him slightly, the blaze of reiatsu still announcing her presence to his senses. "Were I not here you might be hurt or worse. I am not training you to wind up dead. That is reserved for your opponent. Is everything I am saying getting through to you, Byakuya Kuchiki?"

Pinned to a tree and unable to fight back, his first response was to spit an insult. The only reason I fell was because you were here, witch! What gives you the right to treat me this way?! As stated, that was the initial idea, the retort of a proud and pampered prince brought low in the eyes of his tutor. Two years ago, that was exactly what would have come out of his mouth. But another aspect of his personality had started to emerge while engaging in the development of supernatural speed that this fleet-footed valkyrie insisted upon. Submission. Not in the way he was familiar with, to rules and social hierarchy, but to purposefully and honestly demonstrated admission of inequality in some aspects. Contrition. Not for the sake of sparing himself further abuse, but to reveal that he was aware of what she was trying to do with him and appreciated it. This was the side of Byakuya Kuchiki that spoke next, teeth gritted and eyes squeezed shut.

"I regret my haste in admitting defeat, Yoruichi-sensei. If you give me the chance, I will reveal just how dearly I would like to triumph over you today."

The humbled apprentice felt the furnace at his rear begin to die down. His arm was released, and he brought it up to join its mate in anchoring himself more securely to his perch.

Of a sudden Yoruichi's mouth came aside of his own. Her rich, smooth voice was like a silken noose whispering across his throat.

"I'll make you eat your words, little Byakuya."

And she bit his ear, teeth digging in enough for the barest thrill of pain.

Byakuya's eyes widened, lips pressing together in a stiff line. Then the pressure was gone, and Yoruichi sprang away.

His feet scrabbled desperately for purchase on the miniscule stump, finding it at last. Steaming in the cool air, the royal scion turned to find his mentor swinging from a branch fifty feet away, legs pumping in rhythm, her grin daring him to proceed.

The answering smile that came to his face was positively chilling.

"I am ready to commence when you are, sadistic vixen."

She laughed.

"GO!"

And vanished.

He took off in hot pursuit.

A race between Byakuya and Yoruichi was akin to courtship. She would outdistance him, and then it was his job to catch up. Once he had made the effort, revealing himself as worthy, he was rewarded by a brief glimpse of the object of his desire. Only this, and nothing more. The courtship had never been consummated. Time and again, this dynamic lady proved to her pursuer her worth in bearing the title 'Goddess of Flash.' There was simply no catching Yoruichi. Not if she was six inches in front of you, as she sometimes remained while he yearned for his outstretched fingers to grow half a foot in two seconds, or half a mile, which could occur immediately after the aforementioned closeness. She was a ghost, seemingly beyond his ability to reach.

Still, Byakuya was no fool. Fraternization among the four noblest families in Seireitei was not uncommon. But for a ranking captain, multiple division head and heavenly noblewoman to devote her time and interest to his training, there had to be something more. And the trainee felt he had come to know a bit about his distinguished sensei. If she was putting in the effort here, then it meant she saw a potential in him that few could lay claim to. She knew that he could be faster, smarter, more daring. He would have to be, if he hoped to inherit the hereditary title of Sixth division head now held by his grandfather. Byakuya's own father had not been able to meet the grade. Instead he had been passed over, forced to content himself with a position among the Central 46 Chambers, the body that oversaw the legal and judicial aspect of Soul Society. Their word was paramount, overriding even the Commander-General of the 13 Division Imperial Guards, if you could actually believe it. But always, Byakuya had detected a twinge of self-disappointment in his esteemed sire's manner. The only child of his parents' union was determined to not find himself in the same position.

And so they danced, coursing beneath the treetops like hounds let off the leash. At times it seemed to the pursuing noble that his quarry was skipping from one falling leaf to another, her weight indiscernible on their fluttering path to the ground. He was not stupid enough to let his fantasies bring him to attempt the same feat. Yoruichi wanted him to think as well as grow. Her laughter, taunting word-play, and exercise of vastly superior footwork were merely the goads she had deemed necessary to break the young prince past whatever barriers his upbringing or self-perception had imposed upon himself. And true to form, it worked. When she cast her leopard-yellow gaze back these days, it was to note with smiling satisfaction how Byakuya had improved throughout the years. Not simply in speed and power, but in determination and creativity, tackling the problems she threw at him with superb intellect. Once you broke the ice on the surface, Byakuya Kuchiki could certainly surprise you.

Fleeing from his grasp, Yoruichi smirked. She herself was well-known for giving people surprises. Time to make that evident once more.

Focusing on the nimble female flickering in and out of his perceptions, her ivory-skinned pursuer was shocked by a sense of sudden and immediate danger. This came just as his feet touched the trunk of a beech tree which Yoruichi had previously vacated, wisely choosing to avoid the precise spot she had touched down on. But even as one potential trap was avoided, another was revealed.

Beneath the soles of his shoes, the wood grew red-hot. A flash of soul-power was all the warning Byakuya got as the sleeping kido spell inscribed into the wood erupted with a destructive bang.

The force in such a spell was intentionally minimal, being directed mostly inward than outward. In battle, such a tactic was done mainly to trip up the enemy; get them to concentrate on their footing instead of you, so they won't see the sword-point bearing straight between their eyes. In this case, that was only partially the effect it imbued. Byakuya did indeed lose his balance. But having been crouched in an unusual horizontal angle to begin with, he dismissed regaining his footing immediately. Instead his left palm slapped down to grip the previously suspicious branch, giving him a brief moment of control. As he suspected, the impact caused the branch to break clean off in his hand. However, he already had everything he needed.

Still clutching the now-disembodied limb, the shinigami prince twisted in midair. His heels connected with the wood, and using only that momentary purchase, the aspiring master acrobat was able to launch himself forward in a blaze of shunpō. The distance he could travel was nowhere near his usual effort. But he was not striving to impress anyone here, only breach the distance between himself and a more sure seat from which to continue his pursuit. And in this, he was rewarded with success.

Or rather, almost rewarded.

As Byakuya stretched out his hand to grasp a hanging bunch of leaves, something on the edge of his vision streaked in and catapulted into him.

The force of the attack tore them both through the slender boughs of the forest like a flaming meteor. The young noble's breath was knocked out of him, as leaves whipped his face and branches tore his clothes. Then, just as he managed to draw a bit of air into his lungs, they slammed into something, drawing to an abrupt halt.

Byakuya stared upwards, dazed. He registered sunlight piercing a leafy red bower directly above him. His body was aching with thwarted exhilaration and inertia. And beneath him, there was a surprisingly solid and broad expanse of flat surface, more than enough for him to stretch out comfortably, if he was in any state of mind to do so. Which he was not. Gasping for breath took priority here.

Before his watering eyes, the twinkling lights from above were blocked off by a familiar smirking visage.

Yoruichi grinned cheekily down at him.

"Very well done, Byakuya-kun. You really impressed me back there. So much, in fact, I had to let you know it right away." She winked in catlike splendor.

His chest continued to rise and fall, rise and fall.

In between one gasp and the next, his gray eyes blazed, and the words erupted from his raw throat.

"BAKUDO 69!! SILVER TONGUE STRIKING GLLLLRRMPHH!!!!!"

The last part of the kido spell was cut off, as Yoruichi bent down and covered his mouth with her own.

Byakuya froze.

There were several things slowly becoming apparent to his beleaguered brain. First off, he couldn't breathe. Next, that was no longer very important. The lithe seductress was now pressing the full length of her body against his, but that was really nothing new. What was certainly unprecedented here was that he was touching Yoruichi. Not just through their clothes, but skin to skin. And other parts of the body that had not occurred to him before. Her soft brown lips were surging against his own. The tongue formerly used only for reprimand and teasing had graduated to enticement, slipping into his open mouth to caress its mate trapped within. The response he gave back was equal parts shock and never-before-realized rapture. He was kissing Yoruichi. It was real. Not a dream. His dreams never even got this far. Byakuya's hands came up, and she seized them within her own, fingers lacing together, bringing them both slowly down to rest against the surface beneath them. The deep, carnal display of emotion continued for several heart-poundingly long seconds.

Then Yoruichi pulled back slightly, and she could feel through his chest the air rushing back into her student's lungs. Byakuya lay heaving beneath her, staring at his smiling mentor with complete astonishment. The surprise in his face was total.

The cat goddess rubbed herself against the pale prince, tracing a finger along his jaw.

"See?" she whispered, and laid a brief kiss on the tip of his nose. "I told you I'd make you eat your words."

At last the supine aristocrat seemed to regain his breath, if not his composure. He still continued to gaze wide-eyed at the woman who, only moments ago, he had thought he was beginning to understand.

"Yo… Yoruichi…sensei, I…"

"Shhh." She raised her finger to cover his lips. When he stilled, she gazed intently down at him, golden eyes smoldering. "Byakuya-san, I believe I have made my feelings regarding this situation quite clear. And no, before you can think to ask, you do not have a concussion, and I have not lost my mind. Now, unless the next words out of your mouth are to tell me that you are not in the slightest way interested in anything beyond a student-teacher relationship in regards to us…"

She removed her slender digit from the lordling's trembling mouth.

"I do not want to hear any further discussion on the matter."

Shihoin peered down at her catch inquisitively. The fingers on Byakuya's free hand twitched. A shudder went through his whole frame. He seemed to be waiting for something, for a sign that this was a joke, or for the entire scene to dissolve before his eyes.

When none of this happened, he raised his arm tentatively, and gently touched his fingertips to Yoruichi's cheek.

She did not disappear. Nor did she laugh at him and turn into a cat.

Instead she closed her eyes, and placed her own warm hand over his, deepening the caress.

At this Byakuya came suddenly up. There was hesitation when he felt her faint breath warm against his skin. But in the next instant he was beyond that, and placed his lips firmly, defiantly, against the nape of her smooth flowing throat.

His queen of speed sucked in air hungrily, and dove forward.

The next few hours were the most intense sessions of lovemaking Byakuya would ever know. In no time they had abandoned their training clothes. The bower in which they lay was formed by an interweaving of branches that seemed too useful to be natural. During one of the infrequent stops for air, Yoruichi admitted to having coaxed them along in the past, at the same time acknowledging that they were primarily designed for concealment from prying eyes and not for seducing young princes. In spite of this, the structure held up quite well, even considering the forceful physicality that ensued. She was allowed to slowly run her fingers through his sable locks, the wet silken texture sending a thrill down her spine. He was permitted to stroke her legs gently, those long, supple, muscular limbs that always before had served to keep her out of his reach. No longer. They each came to know the taste of the other's skin. When Yoruichi drew her mouth up his sternum, Byakuya gave a startled gasp of laughter.

She looked up at him slyly. "What?"

In response he grinned, crossing his hands behind his head.

"I always thought cats had rough tongues."

An excited gleam entered the eyes of the shape-shifter.

"Oh," she murmured heavily, "You want for me to get rough with you. Is that what you're telling me?"

After this, foreplay was over.

When they finally drew to a halt, Yoruichi Shihoin lay breathing deeply with Byakuya Kuchiki wrapped tightly in her embrace. The nobleman was out of breath now for a different reason. His back was covered in pale red scratches. He buried his face in the crook of her shoulder, letting the combined trip-hammer of their hearts be the only movement allowed between them. Their bodies shone with heat and perspiration in the bright light.

When several minutes had passed, and the blood was no longer pounding in his ears, Byakuya mumbled something.

"What was that, Byakuya?" his lover sighed.

His head came up, and Yoruichi swore she had never seen a bigger grin on this boy's face in her life.

"I finally got you to break a sweat."

She smirked, debating whether or not to point out the caveat to his victory. But instead the young woman gave him a light kiss on the mouth, and drew him back down to pillow against her chest.

As she stroked his hair idly, Byakuya heard and felt an unusual sound. There was no denying it. Yoruichi was purring. It was knowing this, and the feeling it generated within him as well, that let him finally know it was all right to succumb to exhaustion, and he drifted off to sleep.


It did not end for them there.

For all outward appearances, the relationship between the favored son of the Kuchiki and his audacious instructor remained only barely civil. Emotions remained quite high. He was still wont to refer to her as a 'cat-witch' in front of the servants, and she took unbridled delight in teasing him any way she could possibly conceive. Byakuya never stopped trying to surpass Yoruichi, nor did the royal maiden of the Shihoin attempt to draw a halt to his education. All that happened was a marked change in the course of his studies once shunpō training was deemed closed. It was then that the passion they chose to hide from their respective families and the world was allowed to come to the fore. Before this could happen, however, Kuchiki was determined to keep his mind from wandering to the end of their lessons. Almost as much as Yoruichi seemed intent on using her new weapon to distract him. The first time Byakuya noticed articles of her clothing lying on the ground during a pursuit, he almost ran straight into a cliff face. Their love was something that answered a question for both of them. This was how it truly felt. He was the person she wanted to please more than anyone, and the same was true for him. When both felt this way, and accepted it, it made for remarkably more happiness in their lives.

To be sure, there were obstacles. At times, lying in each others' arms, they would talk about what lay ahead for them. The future. They did not need to argue like newlyweds. Such displays were reserved for less thoughtful, patient individuals. He still intended to take up his grandfather's position, and finally allow the old man some time to rest. They would then be equals in the eyes of Seireitei. She had many people for whom she felt responsible, and wished to see them all safe. When the time came, it would be possible to reveal the feelings they held for each other to the world. After that it was a matter of out-running or out-fighting those who chose to have a dispute with it. Neither of the lovers was lacking in confidence that this could all be resolved.

When Byakuya's father died, it came as a shock to everyone concerned. The future patriarch of their house had not exhibited anything other than sound health. He passed away at work without any warning. His own father supposed that he had pushed himself too hard, trying to deal with all the problems of Soul Society as though they were his own. Certain capital decisions handed down by that body had also weighed heavily on his shoulders, Byakuya knew. More than once he had heard the two previous generations of his house conversing quietly in a study, and his father agonizing over the loss of several gifted shinigami. He had been forced to meet those men and women in their final hours, to hear their desperate pleas, and subsume his own sympathies as the laws of Soul Society mercilessly pronounced their death sentences. There were also the cases of imprisonment, which might have done even more harm than the executions. Knowing that those people were still living out there, in the detention facilities of the Second division, forever denied from achieving any kind of productive existence; Byakuya himself did not care to think of it, and his father was a gentle man at heart. One who had died before his time. His son remained dry-eyed throughout the entire funeral. He watched his grandfather stand far too close to the funeral pyre, and let all those around say that it was the heat that brought tears to the old man's eyes. Watching his only remaining child pass beyond the reach of even his powerful arms, to be reborn one day in the living world without any memory of what he had been.

After the ceremony, Byakuya and Yoruichi met. Their affair that night was almost violent from his grief and anger. She gave him all the comfort she could, and the parentless child fell asleep weeping in her arms. Yoruichi did not sleep at all.

Less than a decade later came the incident that shook Soul Society to its foundations. Four shinigami captains and their lieutenants were effectively destroyed in one fell swoop. Two more of captain-rank were accused of having conspired to achieve their destruction. One of them was Yoruichi's hand-picked replacement to lead the Twelfth division. He was sure to be sentenced to death. She was certain of his innocence in this affair, but the Central 46 would hear none of it. They knew the truth here. They knew everything. An example needed to be made before anyone, real or imagined, could think of taking advantage of this reduction by half of their martial power to try and move against them. And Byakuya knew, somehow, that his lover would not stand to see this man summarily executed for a crime he did not commit.

However, this did not prepare him for what came next.

The accused was freed by an unknown assailant. When he first heard the news, Byakuya Kuchiki felt himself go numb. No, he pleaded. Please don't let it be her. Please, Yoruichi, my love, don't let them take you away from me. They'll kill you now. It's all they know how to do, damn them.

Confirmation was brought to him later that day, the messenger having no idea just how much hurt he inflicted with this duty. Later on, Byakuya went out and tore through the hills around the Rukongai where they had trained, seeking some sign, some clue to his master and lover's whereabouts. Perhaps she had left him a message, in a place that only he would think to look. The spot where they first made love. The waterfall where he admitted out loud his feelings for her. In all of them, he found nothing. Yoruichi Shihoin had vanished completely from the land of the dead.

When Byakuya returned that night, he was called to his grandfather's study, to be questioned by a gimlet-eyed girl from the Mobile Corps. A mutual distaste seemed to develop between them on sight, neither being aware of why. When he had assured all gathered that he had no idea where the captain of the Second division might be, the weary prince returned to his quarters. He did not find a note stuck in the pockets of his yukata, or slipped between the folds of his sheets.

Instead, when Byakuya Kuchiki opened the door of the cabinet that held his parents' images, he saw something out of place.

Two ceremonial blades rested on the level beneath those drawings, as they had for many years. One was a long sword handed down through the clan for generations, a work of art that could serve no martial purpose. The second was a wakizashi about half the other blade's length. It too held the rank of family heirloom. Or rather, it should have. As Byakuya stared in consternation, he realized that this slight weapon was not the one he had observed during his prayers so often before. That one had been replaced in its sheathe by a different tool. When he reached out to touch it, the handle warmed beneath his fingertips. And so he knew.

The prince closed the door of his ceremonial altar and went to bed. He did not withdraw that steel implement in search of a message written somewhere on its guard or hidden in its hilt. Its presence served as all the information he needed.

Byakuya. Hold onto this for me. I won't need it now, but I trust you to keep it for when I do.

It was her way of telling him goodbye.

That night, the future ruler of the house of Kuchiki went to sleep with no one in the world able to give him comfort.


He opened the door to his own quarters, and passed inside. The blossom fell from his hand as he did so, to be carried away on the evening breeze. For a time Byakuya stood in the shaft of moonlight, debating what he wanted to do. Go to bed now and get a full night's sleep, or try and salvage something productive from this evening. One was sensible. The other was what he wanted to do.

Perhaps it was the line of thought that he had been pondering before which led him to retake his seat at the low desk. Withdrawing a fresh sheet of paper, the artist tacked it down securely. He scraped his ink stone across the black block, working up his medium. Byakuya then selected a brush of finely honed outline. Not a single bristle stuck out of place.

He stared down at the blank canvas.

What would be his inspiration? What was he thinking right now, and feeling?

Irritation. His evening and reputation had been exposed to the vagaries of another shinigami captain. Relaxation. He was back in his sanctum now, and nothing would be further disturbing him (he hoped). Intensity. There were several thoughts and ideas rumbling in the back of his head, some of which he had been pondering for quite a while. Whatever he drew on this surface would have to reflect that charged arsenal of formative zest.

Concern.

Rukia had almost come to some harm tonight.

There.

Byakuya dipped his pen into the ink blotch, and proceeded to draw a line down the page.


"Who wrote that?"

The bureaucrat stopped, startled to find that there was no longer anyone at his side. Looking back, he found the son of his division head gazing intently at a sign posted on the wall. He hastily made his way back to join him.

"I beg your pardon, my lord?"

Byakuya Kuchiki did not look at his assistant. Instead he only continued to gaze intently at the plain-seeming calligraphy.

"Where did we get this from?" His voice was low and flat. The bureaucrat suppressed a shiver. Was someone about to lose their lives over a poorly-held brush? It was no secret that the heir apparent of the Kuchiki name was an ardent lover of calligraphy. Byakuya's own works were considered on par with the disciples of masters, if not the masters themselves. Glancing once more at the piece in question, he studied its composition. The art of the brush was something of a hobby that he shared with his lordship. Perhaps the only thing they had in common. Given the way the young noble tended to look at him, when he could be bothered to do so, sometimes made the paper-pusher feel as though he was about to be summarily executed for some perceived infraction. Now it could be another person's neck in the noose.

Except he could detect no cause for it. In his own admittedly amateur opinion, the work was very well done. Clean and sure; he could imagine the effort he himself would have had to make in crafting those lines, keeping his arm from trembling, worrying about when to lift the brush from the page. There was no evidence of such consternation here. Truthfully, he would have been bursting with pride to create something so fine.

Meeting in progress. Please do not disturb.

That was what it said.

"Kuchiki-sama, if you like, I can make inquiries as to the provenance of this piece once the meeting is concluded. Let me find out when that might be, and I…"

Byakuya swept by him, into the supposedly private conference.

His underling winced in anticipation of impending screaming. Should have known waiting would not strike the prince as very noble. Now they would have something of a situation on their hands.

He steeled himself for the worst. Even on the best of days, the Shinigami Women's Association did not take kindly to disruption of their meetings.

One way or another, there would be hell to pay.


She had just completed another piece in the back, when the vendor stuck his head past the curtain.

"Doing all right here?"

The artist laid down her brush, mustering a smile for his benefit.

"Very good, sir. Thank you for asking. This one is pleased to be of service to you."

He nodded quickly. The man was uncharacteristically solemn this afternoon. Earlier he had been much more cheerful. Perhaps the sales had not gone so well. She had been shut up back here working since morning, she realized. It would soon be time for tea.

"Hey, listen," the vendor spoke, tugging on his short chin whiskers anxiously as he did. "There's a shinigami outside looking at your stuff."

"Ah." Well, that was no cause for alarm, surely. A death god passing by their shop in the artists' district of the Thirteenth ring was not so unusual. Just a few days before, two female shinigami had purchased one of her signs. Perhaps they had recommended her work to a colleague.

Her business partner cast a glance back over his shoulder. As he did, she caught sight of a sheen of perspiration on his face.

"Well, he… he says he'd like to speak with you."

The painter grew still.

Then she came to her feet.

"Just a moment, please. This one will be right out."

The man withdrew, and his partner bent to her instruments. Placing the brushes into plates of water so as not to let the bristles harden, next she stacked the pages she had intended to work on carefully back in their sheaf. As she did, she noticed that her hands were trembling slightly. That was all it took. The possibility of a threat. Even if it turned out to be nothing, she could tell that there would be no more work done today. Her nerves simply wouldn't permit it.

When all had been arranged neatly and orderly as was her wont, the artist went out to face her public.

As it turned out, her public consisted of just one person. To be sure, a crowd had gathered around the stall. But they were keeping their distance from the potential bloodbath. Couldn't look away, or leave, for fear of what might happen. Everyone had cleared a respectful ten paces away from the individual standing in sunshine at the front of their booth. He was gazing intently at one of the color paintings, a woman in mourning robes sitting alone on the floor of her house, emptiness all around. One of her favorites. A very traditional ideal, but the painter had been proud to capture the feeling of grief so adeptly in her choice of colors and lines.

It was while she was remembering this rare sense of worth that the shinigami looked up and fixed her with his deep gray eyes.

What she saw in those depths made her suddenly remember her place. The young woman sank to her knees in obeisance, placing her forehead on the dry boards. She awaited his permission to speak. In that time, the calligrapher also became aware that a specific picture of this man's face had been etched exactingly into her creative brain. The eyes for certain, to start with. They were spellbinding, betokening intelligence and studious observation of the world around him. She got the feeling that he would make a great artist. His skin was very pale, like parchment, or perhaps ivory. The bones of his face were strong, perfectly proportioned and delicately crafted. If the word regal should ever apply, it was here. Hair as black and glistening as the eyes of a raven streamed about his shoulders and in two locks across his brow. She found herself wishing that she could have created something this wondrous before on canvas. Taken all together, the abeyant painter had to conclude that there could not be a man more majestic in this world or the previous one.

"You are the artist in question."

A statement. No need for confirmation. Should she speak out just the same? Would doing so be considered rude, or might remaining quiet be deemed an affront? In the stillness of the street, the woman knew herself to be completely isolated, with no help forthcoming either way. She shivered, dread working its way through her veins like poison. A brief murmur went through the crowd. Would they get to see a decapitation? News to tell the family tonight.

"I am impressed with your quality of work."

I'm sorry?

More time passed.

Eventually, the slender maiden found some wavering bits of courage. While remaining face-down, she spoke.

"This one is pleased to be so acknowledged by a personage such as yourself, your lordship."

Silence.

She closed her eyes shut. Had that been a mistake? If so, it would be her last.

There was the sound of someone shifting their feet faintly.

"I would like to purchase this painting. And the symbol for 'home' that you made."

Customer. Not executioner. Very, very grateful.

"This one thanks you for your patronage, sire."

Heart-rate subsiding. A noise betokening payment being exchanged. The following movement might be a sign that the merchant was wrapping up the items in question for delivery. Soon now this whole incident would be in the past. When it was over, she was going to have a cup of saké. In thanks for still being alive.

"If you would rise, that would not be remiss."

No, not done yet. Seemingly there was more to his presence here. Just what else would she have to part with in order to make it through this day?

The young woman lifted her head off the floor. In spite of this, her eyes continued to evade the form in front of her. She did not really want to give any impression one way or another. That wouldn't be right. All the artist desired right now was to be allowed to return to her meager living, to paint yet another day in well-deserved isolation.

Absently the thought came: if I am permitted to live, what would I like to paint with the life I am given?

When the answer came to her, she felt that she had no choice. As an artist, it was necessary to give herself a better notion of what she was trying to create.

And so with that decision reached, she looked back into the shinigami's face and met his eyes.

He did not look angry, the calligrapher decided. If anything, he seemed to be studying her just as she was doing with him. It made her very self-conscious of a sudden. Her own inky hair was kept tidy, if not exactly fashionable, slipping down to brush the shoulders of her plain blue kimono. Black eyes usually hooded in submission, or perhaps dejection, gazed determinedly now at a man whose like she had never seen before, and probably never would again.

One thing she knew for certain. If given the opportunity to paint this face, she would be certain to put her whole heart into it.

He spoke.

"It is my understanding that the artists take afternoon tea around this time. If you would not be inconvenienced, might I ask you to join me?"

She would use her best ink to highlight his hair. A soft smudge of charcoal might be enough to get started on the eyes. Now about his mouth…

Hold on.

Go back a pace.

She gave a start.

"Milord…?"

He continued to watch her patiently.

Striving to retain some semblance of composure, the artist blinked uncomprehendingly at a world that suddenly made no sense.

"Sir, you… wish to share tea with me?"

"Yes." Simple. Direct. Unprecedented.

Oh.

Well…ah…you see…I…

She glanced away, then cautiously let him creep back into her field of vision.

Refusal?

What for?

I want to know.

"This one would be most pleased to be in his lordship's company this afternoon."

So there.

He gave a brief nod, and then extended a hand to help her up.

Climbing back to her feet, with the excited whisperings of the crowd all about them, the artist finally realized something she had neglected.

"Might this one have the honor of knowing whom she is addressing?"

The shinigami released her hand, and took a step back.

"I am Byakuya Kuchiki."

And he bowed.

Kuchiki.

Royalty, noble house, shinigami, masters, ancient, honor, divine.

It occurred to her that it might be wise to make a donation of the paintings to him. However, he had already paid. To return his money would definitely show discourtesy.

"You do my work much respect, Lord Byakuya." Her voice sounded very faint.

Apparently he had no trouble hearing, for she could detect the faintest whisper of a smile at the corner of his lips.

"It deserves that on its own merits, my lady."

A servant bearing the two paintings drew up behind him. Byakuya nodded to signal his permission to withdraw, and then turned to regard the young woman once again.

"And how am I to address you, great artist?"

She was blushing. It was certain. The heat in her cheeks and the snickers from the crowd told her that much.

But she was also smiling.

"This one is called Hisana, Your Grace."


What drew Byakuya to Hisana was not the same driving passion that had brought him together with his first love.

It was better described as an absence of feeling.

When he looked at the lettering on the wall that day, Byakuya had been struck by an impression of isolation. He was a master calligrapher, able to detect telling signs of the hand behind any work. The person who made that piece had done so with the impression that they were totally alone in the world. There was no one else who could offer them comfort, or relief. They held the pen as though it could grant them peace; like by the intrusion of black ink on white paper, they were drawing something meaningful out of the void that was their life.

When he looked into that printed message, it was like staring into a mirror.

He could see eyes gazing back at him, observing his desolation and sense of loss. The soul of the artist reached out through this image. The solitary prince could not explain it any other way. A connection was made with someone he had never even met.

In witnessing the very same loneliness he himself had endured for so long, Byakuya could find no worth in allowing something like this to continue. He had to bring it to an end, for both of their sakes. He had not known at the time whether the person behind that writing was male or female, young or old, weak or strong. But he wished to meet them, and in so doing, perhaps end the fruitless trek that had prevented him from accomplishing any of his former goals for the last four decades.

Upon first meeting his future wife, the brooding nobleman was certain that there could be no figure as tragic as the one before him. Bowing meekly in the face of possible death, Hisana had made no effort to find aid or mercy. She had been prepared to accept whatever abuse or violence anyone was willing to inflict on her. It was in witnessing this behavior from someone he had felt a connection with that the Kuchiki noble realized something. The two of them were not the same. She was behaving as though she were willing to die, whereas he acted as though he already had. It was this outlook that led so many of his acquaintances to whisper behind his back that Byakuya Kuchiki was a heartless man, completely divorced from anything resembling enjoyment or good humor.

It is never an easy thing to come to grips with the fact that you have become a monster, offering discomfort and recrimination to everyone in your life, no matter how much they might care for you. Existing only for your own anger and sense of thwarted loss. At this moment he realized that he could not remember one time in the last four decades when he had done something decent for another living soul. No random acts of kindness, or unexpected gifts outside of special occasions. He had never thought upon viewing a painting that someone besides himself might appreciate receiving it, and proceeded to purchase it for them. The boy who had once taken pride in fulfilling the pact of love others placed within him had let that sense die over the years.

Upon reaching this conclusion, it became readily apparent that there was someone right in front of him who needed help now. A person with worth and talent, who denied herself the most basic identity in the face of hardship. She deserved to be treated with respect. And the plethora of social taboos he was courting were consciously discarded in favor of providing support where it was so obviously a necessity.

Byakuya Kuchiki would forever remember this moment, not as the day he fell in love, but as the first time in ages his actions had brought a smile to someone else's face.

And later on in their relationship, Hisana was thrilled to return the favor.


"Are you ready?"

The blindfold covered his eyes.

"I am, my lord."

But the brush was still between his fingers.

"On the count of three, then."

The small horsehair plume slid over the wet ink stone, soaking up its load.

"One…two…"

He heard her giggle.

"Three!!"

Byakuya's brush swept down. He felt it touch the paper, and he was off. Something simple, and swift. The ink couldn't last long! But he was almost there, almost…

"Done!"

Instantly he reached up and ripped off the blindfold. Seated before him, Hisana had already done the same with her own. In the other hand she held a sheet of drawing parchment. Her smile was radiant. And true to her word, the symbol was complete.

In a manner of speaking.

Her admirer studied the work with a very critical air.

"Is that… 'tour guide?'"

"Tou…!" She gaped. The sight always made him smile. "No, it's supposed to be 'butterfly.' Can't you see that?"

Hisana held the kanji symbol closer, as if he were farsighted.

"Do you see it now?"

Byakuya only shut his eyes, shaking his head and quaking to restrain his mirth. His gentle-eyed houseguest gave the paper a shake, to emphasize her intent. Then she let it drop.

"As you say, my lord. Might I be so bold as to ask what you chose to write?"

His eyelids slid up. The future lord of the manor then knelt with exquisite grace and care to bring his own work up for her to see clearly.

Hisana stared quizzically for a few moments, mouth working to try and pronounce her judgment into words. She cocked her head to one side a bit, and fixed her host with an astonished look.

"You… drew a rabbit."

"What?!" Byakuya blinked, flipping the sheet around to study its contents. He then inverted it once more for her sake. "No, it's 'dream!' See? That says 'dream.' The meaning is very clear."

She covered her mouth with one hand, shoulders shaking, eyes scrunching tight. He glowered in mock indignation. At the sight of this, Hisana hastily withdrew her fingers. Letting them settle back into her lap, she composed herself into a most presentable and proper stance.

"No. I'm sorry to disappoint you, my lord. But what you have there is definitely the picture of a rabbit."

Byakuya looked at it once more. "Ah." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "It would appear to be so." Then the shinigami cast an inquiring glance at the painter. "Would you consider buying this work, if you were in the market?"

Hisana smiled benignly and closed her eyes, giving a negative shake of her head.

"I would have to pass it by, my lord of Seireitei."

"Hmm." He mumbled, still pretending to study his aborted effort. At last he flicked a glance over to her once again. "Since that is the case, there was one other offer I wished to propose today that I hope will be more to your liking."

She reached down and took hold of her teacup, blowing on the contents gently before taking a sip. "I am at your service, my lord. Whatever you require."

"In that case…"

Byakuya took the brush from her tray, still wet with ink. Withdrawing another blank sheet, he very carefully and meticulously began to write. Hisana watched all this with curiosity, enjoying her splendid tea and the even more enthralling sight of her princely compatriot absorbed in his work.

A few seconds later, it was complete, and Byakuya leaned back up, turning the page to let her see what he had done.

Hisana placed her teacup on the floor, much to her host's relief. He had feared the occasion might be marred should she drop it on herself.

She read the word he had written.

And gave a slight gasp.

Her mouth hung open. Amazement and disbelief warred in her face as she turned questioning eyes back to the man seated before her.

Marriage.

That was what it said.

"Hisana-san," he spoke tenderly, cherishing the sound of her name. "I wish to spend the rest of my life with you in it, for I know myself to be in love with all of your graces and even your faults, whatever they may prove to be. I, Byakuya Kuchiki, am asking to be your husband, and for you to be my wife. Will you have me as your partner?"

She sat speechless.

In a year, Hisana had gone from living in a tiny shack at the back of her rented shop in Rukongai, to being a guest at the estate of the most prominent clan in all of Seireitei. Byakuya's aesthetic interest in her talents had given way to an appreciation of her company and spirit. She had assumed he looked on her as a close acquaintance of the family, and perhaps more personally as a friend. Their relationship had been strictly platonic. Until a few seconds ago.

She loved Byakuya. Had since virtually the day he invited her off the street to enjoy a cup of tea with him. She had thought him to be lonely at first, and found herself compelled to work hard dispelling whatever malaise had crept over this extraordinary soul. The more she learned of him, the stronger that impulse grew. Here was a man deserving of more kindness than the world might assume, considering his vast fortune and innate abilities. Without a doubt, Hisana was in love with the noble Lord Byakuya Kuchiki.

So when he asked her to marry him, there was really only one thing to say.

"Yes, Byakuya-sama. I accept your offer, and tender my love in return for your own."

After that, nothing more needed to be said.

The first kiss covered it all.


Dream.

That was what it said.

Byakuya cleaned off his pen, and placed it back in the container. The finished work he laid out to dry. As for himself, the night was not yet complete.

Hisana had died smiling up at him, calling the last five years of their lives together a dream. He stayed with her constantly until that time, so she would never be alone. In the end, that was all he was able to provide her with. His company, and his promise. His common wife, as the other members of the household were careful not to call her, had confessed to him early in their marriage of the shame that had haunted her throughout her whole afterlife. An infant sister, abandoned in the farthest reaches of Rukongai, because she had not been able to provide for them both. One time, she had thought more of herself than another. Just one time was all it had took, to rob her of any trace of self-respect.

He had done the best he could in regards to his lady love. But when her illness forced them to part forever, unlike the last time, Byakuya did not permit himself to wallow in misery and isolation. Hisana, after all, had done more for him than he for her. She had brought him back from the dead, with her caring presence and willingness to love him as a friend and wife. And although the memory of what he had lost caused a pain just as intense as Yoruichi's, this time he was entrusted with more than a zanpakutō. Somewhere out there, in the Rukongai, his wife's only remaining relative might still be alive. And for the sake of all three of them, he was resolved to bring her into his house, adopting this woman as his sister, whomever she may be.

The master of his domain finished taking care of his artistic implements. This done, he moved to a small cabinet, opening it to retrieve a porcelain flask from his private saké stores. A corresponding dish was painted with the symbol of a phoenix in a forest, blue flames mingling with the leaves. Byakuya trod noiselessly from the room and back out into the warm night air, to settle back down on the porch of his house.

He poured himself a cup of rice liquor, examining its heady alcoholic scent. A small spell warmed the drink. Usually there would be a servant to perform these duties for him, whether it be as the head of his division or lord of this demesne. But right now, he was not in the mood for any sort of company. Tongues did wag, after all.

Even if you did have them pulled out afterwards.


When the agent entered, unheralded and unobtrusive, Byakuya lowered the dish of rice wine from his lips untasted. He made a sign for the figure to approach. Sidling over to his presence, it was difficult to say whether this slight apparition might be male or female. The concealing attire kept any presumptions upon that matter limited to guesses. Only the eyes might have given it away, and this loyal servant of the Kuchiki family kept theirs carefully lowered.

In the corners behind the dining table, two maids exchanged anxious glances at this apparent breach of protocol. The formal petition to approach the lord could be waved only in one very specific case. That being for the clan shinobi, regarding the unearthing of information pertaining to the location of their deceased mistress' younger sister. Anything less than success in that matter would call down heavenly retribution on the spy who approached their master otherwise. The pair of servants shivered in anticipation. Unless this individual possessed a death wish, that must be precisely the case here.

The lord's courier and informant was dressed in plain browns and blacks. Beneath one arm there was a sheaf of viewing materials. This they proceeded to place on the table before him with a humble bow, and then quietly left the room before either praise or blame could be dispensed.

With all outward sign of imperturbable tranquility, Byakuya reached down and grasped the bound pamphlet. Almost a year just to get this information. Granted, Hisana had searched for over five with no result. But still, calling in the services of the Second division and the Twelfth should have yielded progress in far more timely a fashion. Perhaps it was the fault of one Mayuri Kurotsuchi, head of the latter squad mentioned. His attempts to introduce new means of surveillance and recording had resulted in the loss of several members of his team. Rumors that the other groups would be prevailed upon to take up their roles in his experiments had seen to some very understandable consternation on the parts of those charged with ferreting out secrets.

But whatever the reason, his quest was at an end. The last living direct heir to the Kuchiki name had made it clear, after the first few months of negative reports, that he would be troubled with nothing less than approved confirmation of the target's whereabouts next time. Punishment would swiftly follow any who dared disregard this edict. Byakuya was certain that no member of his staff would be foolish enough to do so.

Drawing the red velvet band that held the booklet closed, the seeker opened it and gazed upon the contents.

Sitting only a few feet away, the servants could not help but notice their lord's posture stiffen.

"Get out."

Byakuya's voice was firm and even. His command was obeyed without hesitation. A pall of doom had settled over the room, and the two women were more than relieved to be out of sight should the hanging blade descend.

Their master continued to stare at the image laid out before him.

Damn Mayuri Kurotsuchi, he thought. Damn that man.

It was too good. His snickering psychotic fellow captain had informed him of a recently developed technique that would allow him to preserve any viewed image into a tactile paper form. The idea was one developed in the world of the living primarily. Supposedly, you could get a frozen shot of everything visible before one's eyes, rendered in perfect and precise immutability.

He saw now that the mad scientist had not been exaggerating, and he cursed him for doing his job so well.

From a rectangular pane, like a window into the past, Hisana stared back at him.

Or rather, someone who looked enough like her to be a sister.

And that's exactly what they were.

For the first time, Byakuya found himself wanting to disobey his wife's dying request.

No. Please, this isn't fair. It just isn't fair, Hisana. She looks almost exactly like you. Please don't do this to me.

It wasn't a perfect resemblance. But that came as no comfort. For Byakuya knew that he would have no choice but to accept the charge bestowed upon him by this woman's sister. His lady wife. She would become a member of his household, with all the rights and privileges his family had to offer.

And every day he saw her in the halls, he would be reminded of what he had lost. The companionship, the hope, the peace that gave him all the reason he needed to live his life, in pursuit of anything that could bring happiness into their shared existence.

He would get none of that back. Instead there would only be a face staring at him in uncomprehending cruelty and admonishment. This girl, who had never done anything to hurt him, would make his heart bleed and weep anew every day, for as long as he lived.

Byakuya glanced down at the information printed towards the bottom of the page.

Her name, he saw, was Rukia.


The servants had finished dressing her only moments before. No attempt at conversation had been made. Layer upon layer of white formal fabric should have hampered any movement, but the ephemeral splendor of the weave, combined with the skill of the attendants, almost made it feel as though she were not dressed at all. Her maids departed swiftly afterwards, leaving their mistress to examine herself in the full-length mirror of her quarters.

Rukia Kuchiki had to admit, she certainly looked like a noble now. And that definitely counted for something, at least in the eyes of her new family.

And since she was not unmindful of the honor they had bestowed on her, she was determined to see their efforts were not done in vain.

The transition from floundering academy student to privileged noblewoman was not without its disadvantages, to be sure. A girl from the ghettos, having only just started to make some headway in her shinigami studies, could not be expected to suddenly change horses in the middle of the stream without difficulty. She had been languishing below the higher tiers of her class, attempting to master that elusive ability to wield a sword all the other shinigami hopefuls seemed to arrive at naturally. Renji, for sure, had far outpaced her in that respect, though his talent for self-immolation left her still far ahead in the area of kido spells.

Only now, in addition to striving to reach her potential as a shinigami, Rukia was struggling to master the terms of entry into court life. As of this moment, she could not be certain which one seemed more hopeless.

Tonight was to be her first public exhibition as a member of this house. That was the only way she could think of herself. Like a carefully bred and trained horse. She was lectured up, decked out, and put on display for all to see. A single misstep might result in her being put down as inferior stock. At least, that was the impression she got from seeing the face of her new brother. Best not to dwell on those notions, Rukia chided herself. For all she knew, those born noble could sense whenever someone was thinking of them in a less than servile manner.

It was just as this thought was slipping through her brain that the door to her room slid open, and Byakuya Kuchiki stepped inside.


Upon seeing his adoptive sister for the first time today, the recently-initiated death god captain paused.

It was not due to surprise at seeing her so regally attired. He himself was swathed in an imperial armament of fine white fabric, a scarf capable of funding the budget of the entire Gotei 13 draped around his neck. His triplet hair ornaments kept three locks of sable black always in stark contrast to the pale brow.

The reason Byakuya stopped was because he found himself uncertain he wanted to go through with this.

Indecision soon gave way to cogitation. Why? Because she was family now, and the highest lady of his court. The tradition had been established by himself. Granted, it was done solely for the purpose of pleasing his wife. But it had worked! She had been overjoyed by his gesture. And if he wanted to maintain any shred of dignity in these proceedings, he would have to show everyone else in the family that he did not make such decisions lightly.

After all, the only person being hurt here was himself. Right?


When Byakuya walked into her dressing area, Rukia's first instinct was to run away and hide. She might have her doubts as to whether or not she could fit into this family. But one thing she was certain of was that this man frightened her like no other.

There was very little to know about Byakuya Kuchiki. He was cold. He was strict. He carried himself to a degree like a god descended among mortals. It was her understanding that he had been married only a year before. Rukia could not imagine the kind of woman who would stand being engaged to this frigid iceberg of power.

"O-nii-sama," she bowed her head. "What can I do for you this evening?"

In response, he produced a small box from inside his robes.

"It is customary for the ranking lady of the household to wear this at formal events. You are to continue the tradition."

He lifted the lid, and withdrew something astonishing.

They were pearls. Strings of them, wound around one another to form cords. Each separate length was in turn swathed in a sleeve of transparent white silk. Over half a dozen such rows lay on top of one another, ending on either side in matching carved quartz bands with two sets of black ribbons meant to tie them together.

Her brother was holding this gemstone marvel out to her. She could not have refused even if she were so inclined. Rukia had never seen anything so splendid.

Before she could make a move, Byakuya had crossed the space between them and stepped swiftly around behind her. Realization came swiftly.

He's going to put it on me himself.

Her previous giddiness was no longer in evidence. This was the sort of thing she had dreams about. Or perhaps the proper parlance would be nightmares. The emotionless face looming over her, wrapping a noose of some sort around her neck. Tightening, tightening, while she sat there unresisting, incapable of even speaking out in her defense.

Rukia felt silk and stone slide over her throat, and her fists clenched at her sides.

Without being told, she reached back and moved the fall of her hair up, revealing an expanse of smooth white skin.

There came a time then of slow tension, while the ornament came to envelop her neck. Never once in that space did she feel the fatal jerk, or the band growing taut. Instead it was a gentle experience. The ends of the ties tickled her faintly as skilled hands knotted them together in what must assuredly be perfect bows. She did not feel any dry fingers coming around with lethal intent.

A few seconds later, it was done. The younger sister could feel her towering sibling step away, his work concluded. Rukia did not dare face him, for fear that he might see her misgivings written all over her face. Instead she turned and looked once more on her image reflected in the mirror.

To find her transformation complete.

The necklace came up to just below her chin, and ended at the hollow of her throat. In truth it fit so well, it might have been made specifically for her. And the combination of white dress and collar, with dark lilac eyes and black hair, made for an impression of almost artistic beauty and grace. Rukia hardly recognized herself.

It was while in this contemplative state that she realized Byakuya had already left the room.


That night, everything went smoothly. Byakuya mingled amidst his guests and kinsmen with polished ease, speaking with intelligence and interest on the topics they saw fit to bring to his attention. He was able to smooth out some simmering grudges between erstwhile allies. Several personages of high renown came up to him to pay their courtesies and receive some in turn.

But the true star of that night was Rukia.

There must have been some of Hisana's enduring spirit within that necklace. His sister was transformed from the quiet, meek woman he had come to expect into a social angel. What drew people to approach the new noble lady of Kuchiki might at first have been only outward appearances. No matter their feelings on the issues involved, people could not help but be attracted to truly beautiful beings, if only to see whether they might get their attention for a moment. That had been Byakuya's solitary saving grace before Hisana had appeared to melt his icy personality. But it was in speaking to Rukia that they were then given the opportunity to understand that this was not just a lovely face. She was beautiful in far less obvious ways. Calm, and gracious. Polite. A trifle sad, perhaps, but she was also free with precise compliments that did not seem as half-hearted and worn as others they were used to hearing at these engagements. She looked at those who came to speak with her as equals. Perhaps this was not always well-received, but no one in attendance was going to make a point of calling her on it. Not here, not tonight.

For being her first time attending one of these glittering cavalcades, she maneuvered exquisitely. It was not a matter of melting hearts. Rukia did not appeal to emotions, but to reason. She offered no one offence. There was a marked lack in social faux pas on her part. If some people had come expecting a show, watching the commoner jerking about on her pricey shoes and tripping over servants, they left that night disappointed. This evening, she was the undisputed lady of Kuchiki manor, bar none.

When all in attendance had made their goodbyes, and the festivities officially concluded, Byakuya led his sibling back to her room. The ease and self-assuredness which had marked her display had not dissipated. He found himself impressed by this young lady, and wondered why he had never bothered to be before. She was more than just a face, after all. The guests were not the only ones to realize that tonight. Rukia bore a confidence derived from experience in her own abilities. The physical resemblance to Hisana could not be denied, but in addition her sister carried determination and fortitude. She had chosen to tackle this night's challenges head on, instead of meekly following him about and not voicing her own insights.

He knew that Hisana would have been proud to know her.

If only he could make that clear to her somehow, without betraying his wife's dying trust.

I no longer have the right to call her my sister. Please, Byakuya-sama.

They looked at one another, and Byakuya spoke.

"Rukia."

She lifted her gaze to meet him eye-to-eye.

"You performed very well tonight. I was impressed with your composure."

An innocent statement. Not condemning. To let her know that she had proven herself.

The tiny shinigami clasped her hands and bowed.

"I am pleased to hear it, O-nii-sama."

Byakuya could only give a slight nod as she straightened, and then turned about. Once again, Rukia raised the fall of hair away from her neck, to allow him to remove the precious heirloom from its place around her throat.

He moved to do so, considering. No doubt she thought he would take the treasure with him when he left. How surprised might Rukia be when he pressed the pearl necklace into her hands, entrusting its safe-keeping with her now. Byakuya pondered as he undid the satin ties. This would be another way to let her know that she belonged with them now. Hisana had been so thrilled to be given this work of art. Ever afterwards, the honor of placing it around her neck and removing it once the festivities had ended fell to him. It was their intimate, quiet moment together once the official duties had been discharged. He had been happy to do this small service for her. The chance to let his wife know once again that his love remained undiminished, no matter how much time had passed.

At last the ribbons were loosed, and he drew the pearls away, revealing an expanse of creamy flesh.

And as he had always done before, Byakuya leaned down to place a kiss at the nape of her neck.

He heard a sharp gasp, and froze, lips a hairsbreadth from touching the warm skin.

Byakuya-sama!

Fool, Fool, Fool!!

This was not Hisana! Hisana was dead! Remember?!

He whipped about and strode from the room, seething at his own stupidity. The necklace remained with him, unnoticed.


His breath was cool on her neck, and Rukia drew a startled intake of air.

The presence at her back suddenly drew away, leaving her alone.

For several minutes she could do nothing but stand there, frightened even to turn around and find him still in the room, that staggering aura constrained behind cold dead eyes.

What was this family, she thought to herself? Why did they bring her here? What did they want from her?!

Was this all just a game for them?

Could she ever win it?

Rukia undressed herself. She would not allow the maids to touch her. Let them tell their master whatever they chose.

Tonight she actually needed to be alone, for the first time in months


Coming back to the present, the solitary noble had his first sip of saké, and found it good.

He had once heard that drinking alone was the sign of one enslaved to alcohol. Were he less familiar with a true alcoholic, it might have given him cause for concern. With this in mind, the initial cup he poured for himself he used to toast a flowering sakura tree on the grounds, its high pink blossoms outlined against a full moon. Taking a drink, he almost imagined he could hear an angry woman's voice berating her captain, and half-hearted explanations interwoven with slightly drunken flirtations. Soon after that would come the sound of a fan striking bare flesh, and tearful accusations of abuse from one's subordinate.

The captain of the Sixth division had no second officer at this time. The position had been vacant since the last full-scale military engagement with the Hollows. It was around then that a more organized threat from their ancient enemies was first observed. The incursion into one of the unpopulated spaces around the outer Rukongai had been determined to be an attempt to establish a beachhead. When the identity of the adjuchas leading the assault was confirmed by the Second division, Byakuya had made a formal petition to be allowed to lead the counterattack, and seen it granted. So it was that nearly 70 years after the death of his mother during an ambush in the mortal world, her son crossed swords with the newly-formed arrancar responsible for taking her life. She had been his grandfather's lieutenant. This time the undead monster found itself facing another Kuchiki officer. One who had achieved ban-kai. Although in the end, it was not due primarily to this overpowering accomplishment that the son was able to triumph, but owing more to the careful and creative training of the first woman he ever loved. The manticore of broken glass which the beast had become after performing its resurrección would only shatter its hide even further upon being struck by Senbonzakura Kageyoshi's all-encompassing force, reflecting the soul power in all directions. He had watched it become overconfident when he seemed incapable of penetrating its defense. And observed the arrancar's shock when his subtly hidden kido spells created an eruption of bedrock from beneath their feet. They had both plummeted into the newly formed pit, the rocks and boulders striking the huge composite creature, causing its mirror armor to spin and crack away briefly, unable to absorb any soul energy because there was none directed at it.

Byakuya danced amidst the devastation, calling on all the training Yoruichi had bestowed upon him. It was because of this he survived unscathed and ready to move when a large enough hole appeared in the glass skin, revealing the emaciated lion body hiding underneath. He then released his ban-kai's most destructive attack, Annihilationscape, and felt his heart race to see his mother's killer pinned against the sinkhole's wall by a thousand blades. They had never even exchanged names formally. When he spoke to the dying entity, his only question had been to demand the name of the one who had commanded it to make this attempt.

The human face of the beast twisted in its death-throes, eyes wild with fear and pain. Its mouth, filled with three rows of broken glass teeth, spat out blood, obscuring the strange '4' tattooed on its chin.

"A…Ai…" it choked.

Then the yellow eyes flashed with wrath, seeming to focus on something.

"Aaroniero…Arrurueri…"

A last flicker of hate finally faded, and Byakuya watched dispassionately as thousands upon thousands of conjoined Hollow were purged by the power of his soul cutter, to be reborn elsewhere as pure spirits in Soul Society. The gates of hell swallowed the rest.

Byakuya emerged victorious, to find his lieutenant slain. No other had been able to distinguish themselves to earn her place as of yet. But no one knew what the future might hold.

The Kuchiki leader took another drink, gazing thoughtfully into the night.

Into the future.


Kaien Shiba, lieutenant of the Thirteenth division, winced in anticipation of approaching pain. The junior officer at his side trembled with commiseration.

"Show no mercy," Kaien rasped. "What's the final death toll?"

The fifth seat drew a shaky breath, and delivered her report.

"Sir, I regret to inform you that our entire supply of saké has been completely demolished."

Her superior groaned deep in his throat. He then surveyed the charred ruin that had once served as a dining area in the Thirteenth squad barracks. Smoke stung his eyes, making him cough violently. There were craters in the floor, and the ceiling. Inebriated bodies lay strewn about the floor. And the ceiling, in some cases.

"Hollows leave less destruction in their wake."

The junior officer could only nod unsteadily. She appeared to be having a hard time remaining vertical, but was struggling mightily to put on a brave face. Kaien looked at her sympathetically.

"Where are the attendees from the Eleventh division now, Officer… ah…?"

"Kotetsu, sir. Isane… I mean Kiyone Kotetsu, sir." She breathed in deeply. "Kaien-fukutaichou, my fellow fifth seat took it upon himself to trail the war party. He left me in charge here. At least, I was in charge. Until you came. Then I guess I was demoted. I don't…" Kiyone reached out to steady herself on a burning piece of furniture. "I don't really know what I am here now."

"You're drunk," Kaien supplied.

"Yes I am."

"But you're erect. Which is more than I can say for most." The lieutenant from the noble house of Shiba surveyed the remnants of an impromptu drinking game between his division and the bloodthirsty barbarians of the Eleventh. "We're going to form a clean-up detail. Move as many of the wounded and intoxicated back to their dorms. Send a hell butterfly over to the Fourth division, let them know we need bandages, splints, and hangover remedies. Healing spells will have to wait 'til morning, it looks like this lot decided to engage in consuming kido-mixed drinks towards the end. No telling how it might react with their systems."

Officer Kotetsu's head was at an odd angle. "My sister is big in the Fourth. Very big. Huge. Like bursting out of her kimono. Her head hits the ceiling sometimes. I'm jealous. She's dangerous. I'll tell her what you said."

Kaien resisted the urge to ask her to repeat what he had said. Instead he gave a nod of approval, and proceeded to roll up his sleeves.

"All right. Let's get cracking!"

Kiyone saluted, grabbed a pitcher, and proceeded to puke into it.


Two hours later saw Kaien trudging wearily back to his office. There would be no chance of making it home tonight. Miyako would just get to have the bed all to herself. She knew how these things worked. No doubt they would be coming upon beleaguered and stumbling members of their squad crawling out of strange places come the morning. Until then, he was going to get some sleep.

Sliding shut the door of his office, the young lieutenant simply plopped straight down in the middle of the floor, shielding his eyes with a groan. Even moving to extinguish the lights felt like too much effort. He would just have to let them burn.

Kaien reached out, snagging a nearby pillow with one hand and a blanket with the other. He settled himself in for the night, staring up at the ceiling.

Staring very, very hard.

What… was… that?!

Against the bottom of the frosted glass lamp plate high above him, a large shadow was standing out.

Less than a minute later, Kaien had managed to drag his table under the light fixture. Standing upon a stool placed on top of it, his eyes came over the rim of the glass.

Curled up in the hollow was a tiny shinigami.

Reaching out, he gave one shoulder a small shake.

"Hey. You there."

No response. Kaien debated. Kido healing was a no-no, again. And at this angle, he stood no chance of being able to lift them out. The intruder was wrapped around the bowl containing the candle. There seemed to be little danger of them catching their robes on fire. And if their body weight hadn't caused them to come crashing down yet, it probably meant they weren't going to. Which meant he could leave them there for the evening. Actually, he considered chivalrously, if he stayed beneath them, his body would serve as a cushion just in case the light fixture did give way during the night.

It was while he was coming to this conclusion that his sleeping adventurer shifted their head slightly to get into a more comfortable position.

Kaien gawked.

The woman asleep in his ceiling was none other than Rukia Kuchiki.

He knew her, of course. Kaien had taken special care to see that the young noblewoman find herself accepted as a member of the 13 Division Imperial Guards. Under his watch, nobody got special treatment. Even royalty. Or former royalty. He bedded down in the barracks just like everybody else. And Kuchiki had seemed to respond to this environment. Certainly she was a lot more open than when she had first appeared. Her training was coming along nicely too. He had seen to that personally. She was growing. Though had you asked him, he could not formulate any believable theory as to how little Rukia had gotten caught up in the alcoholic antics of this night's proceedings.

However, none of that changed his previous opinion of the situation. Removing her safely was not an option. Kaien vaguely recalled how Rukia liked climbing to high places. Learning how she managed to get up there in the first place could wait for the light of day. That being decided, he blew out the candle, returned the furniture to its rightful positions and tucked himself back into bed.

Lying in his darkened office, Kaien wondered groggily how he was going to explain himself should Miyako ever learn that he had slept with a young girl in his quarters one night.

He fell quickly into sleep, too tired to realize that his wife might not be the one he should be worrying about.


Come the dawn, when full wakefulness set in, Kaien did realize it.

However, to his credit, he did not panic.

Contrary to what people might say of him, Byakuya Kuchiki was not an evil man. He would not summarily execute an entire division, and its fun-loving lieutenant, just for getting his sister drunk.

And keeping her overnight.

And letting her sleep in a ceiling fixture.

In the room of a healthy and active young man.

For her part, Rukia remained dead to the world. No amount of shakes, pokes, soft whispers, and mighty screams could seemingly change that. So with no other choice available, the Shiba aristocrat simply left her there, praying that she would come around before any trouble could manifest itself.

Two hours later, while overseeing the division of labor for repairs to their grounds, a white-faced Kiyone Kotetsu came running up let him know that their reprieve had been rescinded.

Kaien then made his way to the front plaza of his squad, where a steely-eyed Byakuya Kuchiki had chosen to wait for him.

"Lieutenant Shiba."

"Captain Kuchiki."

"My sister Rukia did not return to our home last night."

The Second seat smiled in a sickly and hopefully guileless manner.

"Might you know where she could be found?"

Kaien wasted no time. "She stayed in the assigned sleeping quarters last night." No need to say they were assigned to yours truly.

The next words came out quite softly.

"Are there any abnormalities in her condition you would like to make me aware of?"

"Kuchiki-taichou." He was prepared to make one thing perfectly clear. "A member of my squad attended a party within the grounds of our perimeter. She had a bit too much to drink, and I determined that it was not in her best interests to try and make it home last night. There were no further improprieties beyond this, and I stand by the lady's reputation, which is unblemished. Your sister is perfectly fine now."

Byakuya's expression did not change one iota in the face of this honest proclamation.

"I would like her brought to me, so that we may take our leave."

Kaien bowed politely. "I'll see to it she knows that you are here."

Once he was out of sight, Kaien raced in a blur of shunpō down the halls, scattering shinigami in his wake.

Upon opening the door to his office, it was to find a very disoriented Rukia staring blearily about in the center of the room.

"Kuchiki," he breathed gratefully. "I'm glad you're awake."

She regarded him uncertainly. "Kaien-dono. Why am I here?"

"You don't remember the party?"

The vertically-challenged death god frowned in thought. "Officer Kotetsu invited me to have one drink. I had planned to go straight home right after that. What…?"

She cast a glance at the light streaming through the office windows, and paled visibly.

"What time is it?!"

"8 o'clock in the morning," Kaien offered.

Her eyes grew very big. "O-nii-sama…"

"Is here. Now. You have to come with me."

Frantically Rukia dashed to a bed-stand mirror, where she tried to comb her hair back into place with her fingers. Surprisingly, that seemed to work quite well. Next she arranged her disheveled attire. That too was done commendably. In just a few minutes, Rukia Kuchiki was presentable once more.

"I'm ready, Kaien-dono."

They walked together back they way he had come. Entering the courtyard, it did not appear as though Byakuya had moved a muscle.

Kaien stayed back a few paces. Rukia stepped swiftly forward, and bowed to her older sibling.

"O-nii-sama. I apologize for troubling you in this manner. Please excuse my behavior. I await upon your pleasure."

The white prince did not even deign to look at her.

"We're leaving." A terse proclamation. He gave a cursory nod in Kaien's general direction, then turned and strode off without waiting for a response, the very picture of aloof arrogance.

The son of Shiba glowered at the man's retreating back. There went someone who thought the sun needed his permission to shine. While he was thinking this to himself, Rukia came about and gave a deep bow.

"Thank you for your aid last night, Shiba-fukutaichou."

You're welcome, Kuchiki.

That was what he was about to say.

But at that precise moment, Rukia came back up. The expression on her face stopped him short.

Kaien had never seen a living soul look so terrified.

When he made no response, she just turned and walked away.

Kaien stood there and watched her go.


She should have let him know.

Byakuya was incensed. He did not betray this outwardly, though. That was not his way. Floundering and stomping, vocalizing your rage; that was for infants, and those who lacked maturity. His pace was deliberate and purposeful. No evidence of distress could be found in his physiognomy or bearing.

But for those who knew him, a presentiment was developed. This allowed them to stay out of his way when times got bad. Now was one of those times.

Rukia should have sent a message informing him of her decision to stay in the barracks last night. Or at the least, Shiba should have had the sense to inform another nobleman of the current state of affairs. But she should have let him know! As it was, he had only gotten two hours of forced sleep, worrying about where she might be, what trouble might be heading her way. It was not that he lacked confidence in her abilities. Rukia was more than just a survivor. In the face of adversity, she prevailed. She triumphed. Exactly the sort of qualities he looked for in an officer.

And that was also precisely why he had used his influence to insure she would never hold such a position. His was not the only division to lack a capable lieutenant at this time. Discreet inquiries had been made concerning his sister's placement among the Gotei 13. Some of those had only been designed to curry favor with Byakuya, but a few expressed precise knowledge of her demonstrated potential. The good officers knew better than to rely solely on academy ranking. Hence his carefully constructed web of favors, insinuations, and borderline blackmail. All to keep one untested shinigami from losing her life too soon.

So when Rukia did not exhibit the same level of concern for her person that her brother did, that tended to make him worry. Perhaps some might deem this excessive. But considering the history of people whom Byakuya loved, he found such behavior entirely justified.

Therefore he was angry. With himself, for no specific reason. With Shiba and Rukia, for disregarding him. And, in some strange way, with Hisana. Because she had continued to loathe herself to such an extent that she would prefer to see her past erased from living memory, rather than seek to explain it. For this reason, he alone carried a loving thought of his departed wife. When the one person in all the world who might have shared his affection for her walked not three paces behind him, and she did not have a clue. He was not allowed to relate his life with her sister to Rukia, or explain what a fantastic person she had been. His vow prevented him from so much as mentioning her name, for fear that doing so would open the floodgates, and he would find himself shouting to her and all the world how happy Hisana had made him.

The only recourse was to bite his tongue, while inside he felt like exploding and dying. And being the type of man he was, that was what he did.

He kept walking, but he hardly paid any attention as to where his path might lead.


Rukia tagged along in Byakuya's wake. She concentrated on keeping her spine straight, shoulders spaced well apart. But the cold deadly power emanating from her brother's back was like a frost spreading through her lungs, making her want to hunch down and cower in on herself for warmth.

There was no protection to be had here. The pair of them traversed the blankly anonymous lanes of Seireitei without encountering company. Having made the journey to and from the squad estates numerous times now, Rukia had no trouble discerning that they were not headed back to the Kuchiki grounds. Her noble brother was instead leading them on a topsy-turvy route known only to him. And that was reason enough in and of itself to be worried. If Byakuya was not taking her home, then she was not certain where they were going. That meant most likely no one else did either. It was just the two of them. All alone together. With no witnesses.

The petite death god was finding it hard to lift one foot in front of the other. If I were to stop, she wondered, would he even notice? Maybe my soul power is so slight it would just be swallowed up in his own, and he would go on ahead. Then I could turn around and walk off to heaven-knows-where. I could be safe. How could I have known when I accepted their invitation to join the family that it might mean my life? Who could have seen something like this coming?

Not Renji, to be sure. He had practically thrown her at them. Even though she could see past his façade of exultation on her part. I should have stayed with him, she realized. I was never meant to be here. I traded a slow death for a fast one.

Then Rukia and Byakuya turned a corner, to find themselves faced with a deep pit.


The captain of Squad Six continued walking, before coming to an abrupt stop at the edge of the chasm.

Just where had he led them? Hadn't been thinking straight, clearly. His concern for Rukia and mourning for Hisana had kept him from paying any attention as to what direction his path had taken. Apparently he had gone so far out of his way that they had stumbled upon one of the old outlawed execution pits. The walls of this manufactured gorge were lined with death stone, an unstable type of reishi. It was a substance that sought to correct this imbalance by absorbing any overflowing reiatsu it came in contact with, specifically that of high-power beings like shinigami. In such an environment the offending death god would find his powers leeched away. After this Hollows would be cast in to feast upon those accused of vile and seditious acts. Considered a barbaric practice even before his birth, it was no longer a recognized means of inflicting capital punishment.

Byakuya stood at the lip of oblivion. Rukia remained a few paces behind him.

Into this hungry maw, he knew, or one just like it, shinigami that had been sentenced by his father were put to death.

Their screams of desperate agony haunted his parent to his own dying day. It was this savage custom that had contributed to that princely figure's untimely demise.

Dead before his time. Just like Hisana.

Now he could only carry his father and wife in his heart. Whom could he possibly speak to about them, that could relate to him and care enough about them to share the burden of his grief?

He knew. She was standing right behind him.

And suddenly it all became too much. His sense of loss, his enduring love, combined with privileges he did not cherish half so much as the touch of someone he truly cared for. Knowing that they in return cared right back. That was worthwhile, he realized. Not wealth or title or rank or even power. Just love! Why should he exhibit all the rest of his treasures, and be forced to keep the most precious a secret?!

The agitated nobleman whirled away in anxiety, stepping past Rukia, who remained staring straight ahead. There he stopped.

Byakuya made his choice.

He would tell her about Hisana.

Why?

Because his wife had been wrong. She did have the right to be loved, and remembered. The oath he had sworn served only to bring him pain. No other good purpose came from it.

Hisana would be remembered. Perhaps not fondly, but as long as the knowledge of her remained in Rukia's heart, for whatever reason, then his wife would no longer have to risk being forgotten.

Being so resolved, Byakuya turned back to Rukia. She looked unnaturally rigid. His doing, he chided himself. What must she be thinking? He had looked on her minor infraction with cold condemnation, and proceeded to lead her to a place where criminals were dispatched. What other inference could she draw, except to suppose that her aloof brother had brought her here to dispose of her, and erase this blot upon his family name?

His heart went out to her. The lingering secret that had marred their relationship must end now. He never wanted her to feel like he could possibly do her harm. She was his sister now. That part of his vow would endure for as long as he lived.

His slender fingers came up and rested on her shoulders. No need to flinch, he remonstrated her inwardly. I will never allow you to come to harm.

Byakuya leaned forward, and whispered compassionately in her ear.

"Don't be afraid."


You will die!!!

That alarm was ringing in her brain. She knew why this place existed. It was an execution ground. He really did mean to kill her this time.

Run! The voice in her head screamed. Get away now, who cares if he's a captain?! Or fight back, damn you! Draw and fight for your life, you hopeless girl, are you just going to stand there and let him cut your head off?!!!

Byakuya moved to stand behind her. Rukia's heart hammered away inside her chest. Memories of her childhood flashed before her mind's eye, mixed in with kido spells for destruction and subjugation. And there was the sole voice of reason.

Don't give up on me now! You didn't live this long just to submit to another person's mindless hatred of you!

Cold hands that vibrated with supernal strength clasped her shoulders, preventing her from escaping.

I have never been ashamed of you! Not even once! But if you sit there like a lump and let this happen, I… I will never forgive you! No forgiveness for this! Do you hear me?!! DO NOT DIE TODAY!!!

"Don't be afraid," the majestic executioner's voice whispered.

I am. But that won't stop me.

Rukia prepared to draw her sword and die…

When another voice shouted.

"KUCHIKI-TAICHOU!"


Byakuya spun about. You will die!!!

Standing at the intersection from which they had entered, Lieutenant Kaien Shiba glared right back at him.

For one frozen instant, Byakuya was prepared to cut the man's head off. He made no attempt to hide that.

Then he felt Rukia begin to turn, and frantically suppressed that maniac wrath, unwilling to have her see him like this.

Kaien continued speaking, having apparently no idea how close he had come to death. "I'm sorry to bother you, Byakuya-sama, but Ukitake-taichou has called a meeting of the entire Thirteenth division to address the incident from last night. I'll have to insist that Rukia-san return with me."

DAMN YOU!!

Out loud he only said, "Very well."

He stood aside. Rukia passed before him, gaze rooted to the ground. He wanted to reach out and stop her, confess to everything he had kept secret, all the lies and mistakes, all the people he had loved, Yoruichi, and her sister.

But that man was watching.

And he could not bring himself to do it.

Byakuya watched his sister leave. After a while, he too made his departure.


Kaien saw death in his superior's eyes, but he did not flinch. He kept one hand on the sheathe of Nejibana, surreptitiously easing the blade from its scabbard with his thumb.

Then Byakuya Kuchiki reverted back into a black-garbed ice shelf, distant and impenetrable to human eyes.

"Very well."

He retreated a pace. Rukia obeyed her leader's unspecified command, and came to join him. They both walked off together, with her in the lead. Kaien cast a last look back at the silent menace in fine clothes, before turning his attention to Rukia.

Her superior officer was relieved beyond words. Just what kind of travesty had he only narrowly averted here? The lie about Ukitake might come back to bite him in the future; his own captain remained bed-ridden from his condition. But that was something to regret later. Kaien was just thankful he had arrived in time to keep from having anything to regret right now.

After a few minutes, the small black butterfly before him stopped moving.

Kaien also paused.

"Kuchiki-san?"

She turned and threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around his waist. They barely made the circuit of his body. Her face was pressed into his navel, and Rukia sobbed against him.

The lord of Shiba returned her embrace with one of his own. He stroked her hair, whispering that she was safe, there was nothing that could harm her now.

While her tears did not abate, she did manage to gasp out one sentence.

"What… does he… wantfrom me?!!"

More crying, and Kaien was sorry to admit he could not provide an answer.


The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

Byakuya finished his drink. Yes, he knew the feeling. Getting hammered, for stepping out of line and otherwise. These things never seemed to end well for him.

But in spite of that, he couldn't seem to stop throwing his hat into the ring.

It might seem stupid, but he knew his reasoning.

Pride.

That he felt for himself, and others.


The Seventh Espada, Zommari Leroux, drew away from him fearfully.

"Why do shinigami choose to kill us?!" he shrieked. "You have no right! Can you not see? It is arrogance! You have no right to act as judge and executioner for Hollows! You're just blind to…"

Byakuya cut him in half.

"My killing you has nothing to do with your being a Hollow, or my being a shinigami. The reason you died today…"

He leveled a furious glare at his vacant-eyed sister, the edge of her own sword held back from her throat only by his constraining kido spell.

"…is because you had the temerity to point your blade at my pride."

The arrancar dissolved in a pathetic fashion, and Byakuya called over Lieutenant Isane Kotetsu to tend to Rukia's wounds.


Finding himself weary now, the lord of this domain rose elegantly, retrieving his dishes and returning to his room. No servants were called to help him get dressed for bed.

Settling in under the covers, Byakuya allowed himself a few moments of thought about today's events. He would not press Rukia. She did not deserve any blame for this night. All he would do was offer her support in whatever way he could. In return, he knew she would continue to make him proud to be her brother, whether she knew it or not.


"No, nii-sama, you have to stroke them like this. See?"

Kneeling in the snow, the prince of the Kuchiki observed his sister demonstrate. Learning from her example, he trailed his fingertips softly over the fur of the small white rabbit in his lap. It darted its head about, nose twitching, sides heaving. But Rukia had assured him this was only natural for their kind. And it did not bolt. That was a sign of improvement on his part.

Seeing her student now so adept, Rukia smiled happily, and hugged the large mother rabbit against her chest, its back legs twitching vainly. She buried her features in the top of its head, giving the fuzzy animal a kiss.

His cherished sister looked back up at him.

"Thank you for the gift, nii-sama. I love them very much."

Byakuya bowed his head slightly, an affectionate smile touching his face.

No matter how many times I get beaten down, there is always a reason to risk myself again.

"You're welcome, Rukia."

To be continued...