A/N – Chapter 2. My apologies for letting this sit for so long without an update. Please review and let me know what you think.
Disclaimer – I don't own Bleach, any of the canon characters, situations or settings. Don't sue.

Chapter 2

It took Renji far too long to take in the fact that he was now acting captain of the 6th division. He spent the next few hours briefing his officers, addressing their concerns and taking control before Kuchiki-taichou's absence could become a problem. He was aided in this by his previous experience as acting captain; by now the 6th division was used to his abrasive leadership, and there were relatively few issues with the men.

After dismissing the meeting, he shut himself up in the vice-captain's office – he could not bear the thought of moving into the captain's – and forced himself to do some serious thinking. That was why, in the afternoon after Kuchiki-taichou's bombshell, he found himself hammering on the doors of 13th division's headquarters.

"Rukia!" he shouted, ignoring the two Shinigami on guard, who were watching him with amused incredulity. "Rukia!"

"Kuchiki's not here, Abarai-fukutaichou," Kiyone called, popping out suddenly from a second-story window. "She specifically asked us to tell you that, if you should come running up here like a madman."

Renji grunted. "Did she say where she was going?"

"I don't think she wants you to find her, Renji."

"Thanks a lot," he retorted sourly.

The 13th's fourth seat only grinned. "Good luck!" she called out cheerily to his departing back.

It took him the better part of three hours, but he finally tracked her down to one of the better noodle stalls in Rukongai's second district. Rukia had always had a weakness for their udon, ever since the days they'd both been at the Academy.

"Well, well," he drawled, sinking down opposite her, stealing her chopsticks.

Resigned, Rukia passed over her bowl. He attacked the noodles with all the gusto of the Rukongai street-brat he was – no Kuchiki manners for him.

"What are you doing here, Renji?" Rukia asked.

He gulped down a last mouthful of noodles. "I need to talk to you," he said baldly. "About your brother."

"Nii-sama?" She widened her eyes. "What about him?"

Even when they'd been kids in Rukongai, she'd been a terrible liar. He gave her a long look. "Spill."

"Byakuya nii-sama does not want it known," she hedged.

"Your Byakuya nii-sama left me holding the bag," he said. "Rukia, please. I want to know what's going on."

Giving in, she sighed. "We can't talk here," she said under her breath. "Come on. Let's go back."

The sky was darkening towards evening as they headed back through the second district towards Seireitei. Rukia seemed distracted, lost in thought; Renji was willing to follow her, knowing that she would speak when she was ready and not before. As they passed through the lively entertainment district, elegant tea-houses side by side with brightly-lit restaurants and rowdy drinking establishments, they heard someone call out.

"Oi, Rukia!"

Rukia started, turned to face the source of the voice.

Sprawled with magnificent, drunken arrogance against the wall of a tea-house were two dark-haired nobles holding sake bottles, waving and grinning, beckoning Rukia over.

"Who are those two peacocks? Renji growled, his hackles rising as they always did at the sight of anyone with a noble background.

"I'm not sure," Rukia mused, "they seem familiar but…" Recognition set in as she headed over towards them. "Takezo!" Jun!" she called, smiling. "Renji," she beckoned, "these are my cousins. Kuchiki Takezo –" the elder of the two bowed, his richly coloured silk haori slipping drunkenly from his shoulders, "– and his brother Jun." The other grinned and waved, his eyes unfocused and a little glazed. "Yo," the brothers chorused good-naturedly.

"K...Kuchiki?" Renji breathed, dumbfounded. However now that he looked closer he could see a slight resemblance to his hawk-faced captain; a similarity of feature, if not nature.

"And this is Abarai Renji," Rukia continued, "nii-sama's vice-captain." When she dug him in the ribs with her sharp elbow, Renji collected himself enough to bow and mutter "yoroshiku" under his breath.

"I thought all you Kuchiki were –" he pulled a severe face and intoned, "'the Kuchiki are the keepers of law and tradition in society.'"

"Ara!" Jun laughed. "You do that so well, Abarai-fukutaichou. For a moment there, I was actually convinced that Byakuya-sama was standing over us, so disapproving – his grandfather and the Elders got to him when he was young, you know. He actually believes all that duty and tradition stuff."

Takezo nodded, swaying a little on his feet. "Jun and I, we're only younger sons of a minor branch – our father tried to brainwash us into the Kuchiki mindset, but we can't all measure up to Byakuya's standards." He smiled at Rukia, sweet and lop-sided. "Rukia, here, she wasn't so lucky – Byakuya-sama took her into his own house, under his direct protection and supervision – she couldn't escape. Sometimes, you know, she even talks like him –"

Rukia looked torn between outrage, careless fondness, and disapproval.

"Still, I'd rather have Byakuya-sama as clan head than Kyousuke," Jun muttered, glowering at his sake. "At least he's his own man."

"Hn," Takezo grunted lazily. But his eyes were more direct than they had at first seemed. And then he grinned, and the brief moment of clarity vanished. "Oh well, so long as our credit doesn't run out, who cares, eh? Byakuya or Kyousuke, it doesn't really make a difference to us, though Kyousuke doesn't moralise, I'll give him that, and he doesn't look at you so." He looked down his nose, for a brief, disconcerting moment looking very like Kuchiki-taichou. "Ja ne, Rukia," he said casually, waving drunkenly as he pushed off the wall and stumbled back into the tea-house.

"Cuz," Jun said, "Abarai." He, too, straightened, though with more grace than Takezo. "Look after yourself, will you?" And then he made his slightly weaving way back inside.

"What the hell was that?" Renji muttered under his breath, as they stood staring at where the two cousins had been. "It sounded like they were warning you."

"I don't know." Rukia frowned. "Takezo and Jun were some of the few Kuchiki cousins who ever accepted me after my adoption into the clan. They've made a career out of drunken exploits and wastefulness, but…" Her eyes narrowed, remembering the odd undercurrents in the brothers' conversation, the brief moments of unusual clarity. "They graduated from the Academy with honours, you know. Decades ago, before I was adopted, before nii-sama was made captain, back when the Elders had a greater grip on the clan. The Eldest did not want the younger members following nii-sama's example and joining the Gotei 13, and so forbade them from enlisting." Her voice softened. "They weren't as strong as nii-sama. They allowed the Elders to overrule them."

A tentative knock disturbed the peace of his inner sanctum. Byakuya knelt motionless by the open shoji screen, looking out into the perfectly manicured gardens; with a low, curt word he ordered the servant to enter. A Kuchiki steward entered, soft footsteps padding silently into the room and kneeling in the exact centre, waiting to deliver his message.

Byakuya did not look away from the gardens, but tilted his head in one of the subtle cues that the discreet, superbly trained Kuchiki servants swiftly learned to identify.

"Kuchiki-sama," the servant began, kneeling with head bowed as though waiting for Byakuya's displeasure to literally fall on his neck. "The Elders have called a meeting on an important matter of family business," he trailed off, swallowing before continuing, "and respectfully request that Kuchiki-sama grace it with his presence, if he should so please."

Byakuya caressed Senbonzakura's hilt, taking pleasure in the soft murmuring and rustling of her thousand shifting petals.

"Tell me what they truly said, Jinzo," he said mildly.

Behind him, he could feel Jinzo shaking. "Kuchiki-sama…"

But Byakuya would not relent.

"'Kuchiki Byakuya,'" Jinzo recited, his voice trembling, "'you are summoned before a meeting of the Elders to account for your actions as the Head of the Kuchiki Clan.'"

It would be so easy to unsheathe Senbonzakura, scatter her swirling blades and eliminate the Elders' opposition. But that way lay chaos and lawlessness and unforeseen consequences; witness how his decision to intimidate the Elders into accepting Rukia still bore bitter fruit even now.

There is no privilege in nobility.

Byakuya's grandfather had instilled this in him, long ago, even before he was old enough to fully understand it; the Kuchiki name bestowed no privileges, only burdens.

Duty. Honour. Obedience. This is what it means, to be a Kuchiki.

He dismissed the cowering Jinzo with a flick of his fingers, felt the steward rise and bow his way out of the room with almost indecent haste. He remained kneeling, motionless, until the unsteady footsteps faded away down the corridor and perfect silence resumed. And then he rose to his feet, slipped out of his white captain's haori, and with deliberate grace drew on a formal silk robe embroidered with the Kuchiki mon.

For a long moment, then, Byakuya hesitated. Finally he withdrew Senbonzakura's sheathed form from his obi and, bowing, laid her with great honour on a lacquered sword stand.

And then, unarmed, stripped of his Shinigami trappings, he drew on the grace and composure that had been bred into him since birth and made his way to the great hall, to obey the dictates of the Kuchiki Elders.

"Kuchiki Byakuya," the Eldest intoned, his voice gruff, his presence imposing. "We have called you here today to account for your actions during your time as Kuchiki clan head."

The Elders were arrayed in ranks, stiff and upright and imposing, staring down to where he stood before them, a petitioner in his own hall. Not all of them were as furiously disapproving as the Eldest; a number of them shifted minutely and refused to meet his gaze.

Byakuya did not reply to the Eldest's challenge.

"You have introduced changes," the Eldest accused. "Not content with flaunting your status as a Shinigami, you forgot your station so far as to introduce that woman from Rukongai into our midst."

Fifty years ago, when Hisana was still alive, no one – not even the Eldest – would have dared speak of her in that manner to Byakuya's face. But in the years since then, Byakuya had grown weary of constantly fighting against the tide; he had fought long and tirelessly for Hisana, but without his wife, he could no longer fight for himself. He had roused his old strength and defiance enough to force through Rukia's adoption, but after that, he had lapsed into apathy. He had loved Hisana with every ounce of passion and fire in his soul, but when she died she took everything with her.

The accusations continued, coming thick and fast, and not just from the Eldest. Byakuya had taken the ancient Kuchiki fortune – respectable even then – and turned it into riches even the most shameless merchant would blush to contemplate. He was more interested in the Gotei 13 than the true business of the nobility – especially the Kuchiki archives. Even his choice of vice-captain – once more, he favoured a gutter brat from Rukongai over a more suitable candidate from Seireitei.

And Rukia. Finally they came to Byakuya's adoption of Rukia, another Rukongai stray who ultimately brought disgrace and scandal to the Kuchiki in her public almost-execution. For the first time, Byakuya felt a slow, stirring ember of rage, a faded echo of the strength that had allowed him to defy the Elders, long ago – but then it faded into apathy, leaving only remnants behind.

"What is the Eldest thinking?" Kyousuke hissed under his breath to Endo, as the catalogue of accusations continued. "Why is he attempting to provoke Byakuya-sama?"

"He knows what he's doing," Endo muttered, though he looked worried. "If Byakuya makes even the slightest gesture of force, he's finished."

Yes, but we'll be finished first.

"The Eldest wishes to have his pound of flesh, Kyousuke," Endo continued. "He has never forgiven Byakuya for what happened 50 years ago."

"Hisana is long dead," Kyousuke scowled. "Why can we not bury the dead and move on?"

Endo only laughed.

The sound drew Byakuya's attention. His eyes widened fractionally as he saw Kyousuke seated beside Endo.

"Kyousuke," Byakuya said, speaking for the first time and effortlessly cutting through the Elders' diatribe. "I did not think to see you at this…travesty."

Once, Kyousuke had been a mentor, of sorts, to the young, fierce Byakuya. He drew in his breath – to explain, to apologise, he would never know afterwards – but the Eldest spoke first.

"Kyousuke is to be the newest voice on our Council of Elders. I am sure you will agree that he will be a moderating voice."

Byakuya's expression, already sternly controlled, went absolutely blank.

"So," was all he said. His eyes shifted to the Eldest, who could barely control his triumph. "A popular choice."

"We like to think so."

"Byakuya…" Kyousuke blurted out, but the words died when Byakuya turned back to him.

"The Head Archivist of the Kuchiki," Byakuya said quietly, though his words carried perfectly. "Universally respected, with a modest wife of impeccable lineage and two sons. Conservative, honourable, and with no taint of Rukongai or the Gotei 13 – the epitome of what all Kuchiki should strive to be."

Byakuya swept his gaze around the hall, confronting the Elders one by one. Tall, straight, fiercely self-contained, he commanded their attention effortlessly. "Well, I will not step aside. The full Council of Elders named me Clan Head; the full Council must replace me."

There was an uproar of protest and denial. Byakuya cut his hand through the air, a gesture that commanded instant silence. "Do as you like," he said flatly, and walked out.

As the doors closed behind him, the shouting broke out once more.

His footsteps echoed on the polished wooden floorboards.

Byakuya strode through the house too quickly, his reiatsu stirring and swirling restlessly. Senbonzakura answered wordlessly, the rustle of her petals tempting him – but no. He threw open the doors to his sanctum, lifted her from her stand, and left the house without a word.

He pushed his shunpo to its limits. He had no destination in mind, just instinct; stepping and stepping and stepping until the world was a blur and he needed all his concentration to control his momentum. Finally the world took on material shape again, and he came to a halt in an overgrown, whispering bamboo grove far from Seireitei.

He had come here to train, once. The bamboo trees still bore the cuts and scars of Senbonzakura's blades, before he had learned to properly control them. And the bowing and swaying of the trunks in the wind drew his mind back even further, to a young boy, hot-headed and volatile, chasing after the laughing Yoruichi. He had never caught her, not once.

Long years had passed since then. Yoruichi had vanished, and the young boy had succumbed to the influence of his grandfather and the Elders, duty and discipline slowly replacing the blood in his veins until he seemed completely frozen. Hisana had thawed the ice, but Hisana was dead, now –

It seemed such a long way back, to that hot-headed boy and his heedless passions.

Succumbing once more to impulse, he shed his heavy haori, unwound the kenseikan from his hair, and slung Senbonzakura over his back. Unencumbered, so far as he ever became, he leapt up into the high leaves, alighting with infinitely more skill and precision than the young boy he had once been. And then he began to run.

Slowly at first, self-conscious, and then faster and more reckless as he gave into his mad impulse, dancing along the branches, pushing himself and his skill (Senbonzakura dancing with him, petals swirling in the wind and in his inner heart) until his blood beat raggedly and his muscles burned. And then, because he was Kuchiki Byakuya and he could never completely escape himself, he pushed himself further, and further, until a brittle stalk cracked beneath his weight –

Pushing off, somersaulting into the air, he let himself fall, savouring the sense of absolute freedom, before he twisted in mid-air and landed perfectly on the leaf-covered earth, balanced on one knee.

Here in the wilderness with no one to see and judge him, he lay on his back, laughing, while his pulse returned to normal and the sweat cooled on his body.