Disclaimer: I do not own any part of Bleach, which is a shame.
Note: Just wanted to take a moment to thank everyone that reviewed for the previous chapter. I especially love it when I get long reviews that show how readers are actually analyzing the plot and taking guesses at what will happen next. They really are encouraging and help me stay confident with the work that I'm doing on the plot.
I know it's been a while since I last updated, but I hope that there are readers loyal enough to Summer Snowflake to read the new updates when they're put up. Just trust that there is a reason that my writing has been put to a halt, but I do think of this story and Miyako often. I'm a little rusty so if the chapter isn't up to par, apologies in advanced!
Recommending "U Can Do It" by Domino and "Wo Ai Yu Yue Hua" by SHE for this chapter.
Sore Wa Anata No Seide Wa Arimasen
A full smile appeared on Miyako's face as she watched the sixth division lieutenant conduct the division wide chorus. She nodded in appreciation to Renji who nodded to the rest of the division in turn, signaling them to commence their evening meal.
"It's a good thing you decided to drop by, Miyako-neesan," Renji laughed as he stood beside the housekeeper. "Otherwise we'd be eating our dinner a hell of a lot later than now."
"It seemed to be the only feasible way to thank you and your subordinates for being so kind to me every time I'm here," Miyako said, surveying the eating officers with a content expression.
Feeding others was a task that Miyako thoroughly enjoyed despite the tedious work that it sometimes entailed. There was something about the look on someone's face when they savored the flavor of a particularly fresh piece of fish that brought joy to her, and it helped her practice some of the skills that her Inuhoozuki had recently taught her.
"Mihane-chan and Rikichi-kun were both very helpful as well, so I'll have to insist that you ask the division to give thanks to those two as well."
"Yeah?" said Renji. "Don't worry, I'll go thank them myself when I see them."
The division exams had gone well throughout the afternoon, ending only when the sun had made its full descent. Though she had been immersed in spectating for the first few hours, it occurred to Miyako that with the whole division's attendance required for the whole examination, the Shinigami assigned to kitchen duty would not have started cooking until late. With the help of two officers, that Miyako had somehow convinced Byakuya to spare a little earlier than the others, Miyako had been able to prepare a modest meal of fish, rice and vegetables for the upright and disciplined Shinigami under her employer's command.
"You should eat too, Renji-kun," Miyako said, patting Renji's arm.
Renji grinned before running off to grab a plate of his own, "I'll eat enough for myself and the thirteenth division."
"There's a bit of a competition between our squad and Ukitake-taichou's," Rikichi laughed as he passed Miyako, carrying another large pot of rice.
Miyako's eyebrows rose as she watched Renji build a tower of rice in a bowl, "Based on what?"
"Which squad you'll join when you become a Shinigami," explained Rikichi with a shrug, "Abarai-fukutaichou was a little put out when he heard that you'd given the entire thirteenth division rice cakes, but this meal probably has him convinced that you'll join our division."
Renji walked past them once more to find a seat amongst the division officers while balancing rather large servings of rice, fish, vegetables and tea in his arms, "The thirteenth division can keep their rice cakes if we keep eating like this."
"Save some for your brothers, Renji-kun!" Miyako scolded lightheartedly.
Rikichi laughed, "See what I mean, Miyako-san? Don't worry though, it's mostly just between the fukutaichou and the two third seats of the thirteenth division. Everyone knows that you'll likely be placed in the fourth."
"A lieutenant should know better than to make assumptions about matters that have nothing to do with him," a voice announced, "And a Shinigami of the sixth division should know better than to gossip about pointless things."
Rikichi visibly paled, "T-t-taichou!"
Byakuya peered at the new recruit with a stern frown on his face, wordlessly sending the officer scuttling off. Thoroughly amused, Miyako pressed a hand to her lips and tried to keep her shoulders from shaking. The sixth division captain certainly had impeccable timing.
"Is something entertaining?" Byakuya asked with his usual passive expression.
"Iie, Kuchiki-sama," Miyako answered, unable to take the smile off of her face. "It's just that I've enjoyed my time here today. Thank you for permitting me to watch the examinations."
Miyako had watched earlier as Renji went up against another seated officer while Byakuya eyed them carefully from the sidelines. Though rare, there were times that Byakuya would nod in approval over a particularly noteworthy move or strategy put in place. Every time Byakuya had approved a technique Miyako took note as she herself had watched the spars intently, paying attention to the defensive strategies that the Shinigami used in the hopes of finding one that she could adapt to her own needs.
Things had been coming along quite nicely, in her opinion. Every time she visited her inner world and had conversations with Inuhoozuki, she walked away with new insight and knowledge. Earlier today, before the division testing officially took place, the housekeeper even had the confidence to join the officers for their warm up exercises. Renji happily pointed out that she didn't look very tired at all at the end of it whereas in the past she would have struggled to make it through halfway.
Even if Renji enjoyed taking most of the credit, Miyako knew she owed her newfound resistance to Byakuya. He pushed her far beyond her limits every time they sparred, resulting in quicker footwork and a stronger blast impact for her zanpakutou's second offensive release.
"Will you eat alongside them, Kuchiki-sama? Should I bring you a setting?"
"I have some things I need to take care of at the first division," Byakuya answered, "Have my meal ready at the manor when I return."
"Hai, Kuchiki-sama," Miyako returned, "Do you have anything in particular that you would like to eat?"
"Whatever you intended to make for yourself will be acceptable," Byakuya eyed his lieutenant as he shoved food into his mouth and suppressed an urge to sigh in disdain. "Abarai."
Renji paused, chopsticks midway to his mouth, before dropping the utensils and shooting upright onto his feet.
"Hai, Kuchiki-taichou," Renji said, swallowing the lump of food in his mouth.
"As soon as you conclude your meal, escort Miyako-san back to the estate."
After Byakuya nodded to his housekeeper and strode away, Miyako approached Renji who was pounding at his chest. She shook her head and giggled to herself, reaching down for his teacup and holding it before him.
"I think this may help, Renji-kun," Miyako grinned.
Renji took the cup with little to no grace and heaved a heavy breath; "He has got to stop doing that to me."
"I don't doubt your and Byakuya's capabilities to teach, Unohana-taichou, but I still feel that she won't reach her full potential until she is placed in the Shino Academy. At this time, this is where she belongs."
"Ukitake-taichou, you know just as well as I do that it is not our place to dictate the path she should take," Retsu said as her slender fingers deftly replenished Juushiro's quickly emptying teacup.
"And you know just as well as I do that the only reason she hasn't chosen to fully commit to her studies is because Byakuya continues to prevent her from realizing what she really wants."
Retsu, as dignified as she was, let out a sigh. Silence impregnated the inner room of Ugendo as the crickets chirped outside. She was beginning to regret her decision to accept Juushiro's invitation for evening tea. The man was becoming increasingly concerned with decisions that were not his to make, which in turn was a sure cause of concern for the fourth division taichou.
"The way I see it, Ukitake-taichou, if you are so adamant that Miyako-san learns to control her zanpakutou, you should be thankful that she is even taking lessons to begin with. Not to mention the great progress that she is making. Healing hardly even phases her now."
"All the more reason she should further her studies in the proper setting. It's a waste of her potential for her to continue like this. To live the way she's living now."
Unohana Retsu peered at Juushiro curiously. Abandoning the warmth of her own teacup on the table, she sat even straighter and waited until Juushiro met her eyes to talk.
"What is this really about, Ukitake-taichou?"
Juushiro's shoulders sagged a bit before he spoke, his voice much lower than it was before, "There's just something. Something tells me that she would make an incredible healer. She could do so much good. What kind of life is someone living if they spend their days locked up in a manor, preparing meals and cleaning things that were probably clean to begin with."
"Is that all, Ukitake-taichou?"
"I want her to start living the life she wants to be living."
"And how do you know that her life now isn't the one she wants? I've seen her in her that environment, Ukita-taichou. She seems happy. Dare I say, she even seems content."
"But is it fulfilling? You've seen in her environment, but I've seen her in her element. When she's in the fourth division, with your subordinates, learning from them, assisting them, her eyes shine. She looks alive. Have you witnessed that?"
"I have, and I will not deny that she has a gift for it, but let me ask you a question, Ukitake-taichou," Retsu said, leaning the slightest bit forward. "If you answer me honestly, I will speak with Miyako-san myself about possibly entering the Shino Academy."
Eyes snapping to meet those of the fourth division taichou, Juushiro nodded for his companion to continue.
"How long has it been since you started caring so deeply for her?"
Juushiro's eyes widened as he stared at Retsu's serene face. His lips sealed as his eyes fell to container that held the blend of dried herbs and leaves that Miyako regularly sent with Rukia to give to him. He missed having her at the thirteenth division.
"You're a lot easier to read than you think you are, Ukitake-taichou," Retsu smiled. "I will speak with her about this matter."
"But I urge you to remember, Ukitake-taichou, that Miyako-san is one of the most dedicated and steadfast people I have met thus far and to her, she is first and foremost Kuchiki-taichou's housekeeper. This is not likely to change anytime soon."
Juushiro simply nodded.
"Now," Retsu said, daintily clearing her throat, "Where is Kyoraku-taichou? He appears to be late. Again."
Kyoraku Shunsui would not be pleased to find that no sake would be served when he arrived at Ugendo later in the evening.
Byakuya's footsteps fell soundlessly on the ground as he made his way back to the Kuchiki estate. The past few days had taken a particularly negative effect on his stamina and though he was unwilling to admit it, he was looking forward to having a warm meal and finally taking his rest. It had been a while since he last specifically requested for a meal to be prepared for him. Regardless of the fact that Miyako normally took it upon herself to make him meals anyways, he had felt the need to assure her that he would be returning tonight. Byakuya was positively annoyed with the fact that the housekeeper had been spending the last few weeks alone in the evening, and was prepared to command his younger sister to be home at least once a week.
Byakuya nearly grunted. He was prepared, indeed, but he was sure his housekeeper would find one way or another to ensure that Rukia was able to stay in her division if she so wished. Just as he was about to reach the gates of the estate, Byakuya paused. There was something eerie about the way the wind danced through the trees. The willow tree at the top of the steps seemed angry, almost and he resumed his travels at a much quicker pace. The guards at the gate greeted him with low bows.
"Tsubaki Miyako," Byakuya spoke, "Has she returned."
"Hai, Kuchiki-sama," one of then, Satoano spoke. "Abarai-fukutaichou escorted her back to the estate earlier this evening."
"Where are Atsuhiko and Chiyuu?"
"They were called to the main pavilion by Jouichi, Kuchiki-sama," Sakutaro, the captain of the guard spoke. "Kuchiki Nagasaki-sama had called for many of the staff there, though Jouichi did not explain much."
Nodding, Byakuya continued on his way, though still unable to let go of the feeling that something was not right. He walked into his home, fully expecting to see his housekeeper sitting from her usual perch at the windowsill, but found no one there. Striding into the kitchen, he saw a pot on the stove, the broth in it boiling away, nearly reduced to syrup. On a nearby countertop, a block of tofu had been sliced, the knife sitting neatly next to it. He closed his eyes momentarily, searching for her reiatsu. He could feel it, but not in the intensity that he was supposed to. As he made his way back to the front door, he heard it.
With force, he slid the shoji open and stepped outside, a hand firmly gripped on Senbonzakura. Something swished in the air from afar and he heard it again. Gritting his teeth, Byakuya used shunpo to arrive quickly at the main pavilion. A crowd of servants had gathered in the courtyard, some standing stock still, others turned away with sadness in their eyes. He saw Atsuhiko and Chiyuu among the many.
"You should be at your posts," Byakuya spoke lowly, immediately gaining the attention of the two guards.
"Kuchiki-sama," Atsuhiko gasped, yet Byakuya deigned to hear the rest of the guard's words as he strode through the crowd. They parted quickly when they saw him approaching. Some murmured apologies, while the rest simply cowered and bowed. When broke through the sea of servants, gardeners and guards, he froze and felt the cold spread through his veins like a poison.
Crouched on the ground with her kimono and inner garments pooled at her waist, Miyako gasped as a whip brandished by Nagasaki struck her bare and raw back one more time. Her hands were fisted and arms wrapped around her as she tried desperately to keep her modesty despite the pain she felt, but Byakuya could not see her face as the hair that had somehow come loose from their bonds curtained her features from the bystanders.
Nagasaki, who had not noticed his arrival, yelled as he raised his arm again, "Ungrateful! We let your mother keep you here at the request of Tokio! I should have followed my instinct and sold you to an okiya in the Rukongai. How dare you show your face at the sotaichou's celebration? Do not think yourself to be anything other than what you are, a servant!"
Nagasaki's swing halted in the air and lowered when he finally took notice of Byakuya. Nagasaki's jaw set and he threw the whip at Miyako, further adding to her shame.
"On whose authority is this taking place?" Byakuya said, a deadly timbre to his voice.
"She lacks discipline," Nagasaki returned. "As an elder of the Kuchiki family, it is my right to punish a servant if I she has done something to disgrace our name."
Byakuya strode towards the elder and did not stop until he stood in between Nagasaki and the still unmoving housekeeper on the ground.
"In what manner has Miyako disgraced our name?"
"You should be fully aware," Nagasaki spat out, "How can you tolerate that woman frolicking around the Seireitei and putting herself in the presence of the Gotei 13?"
"I believe I made it clear when I informed just last night that Miyako's presence and studies were a direct request and command of Yamamoto Genryuusai, sotaichou of the Gotei 13," Byakuya responded, as he struggled to regain his calm. "And even if Miyako had done something wrong, her punishment will not or ever be doled out by you. Remember that she is under my direct employ, not the Kuchiki clans and not yours. Any punishment she deserves is to be given by me, and only me."
Byakuya removed his haori with a grace and unyielding authority that many of the servants had never seen. He moved to cover Miyako with it when Nagasaki interrupted.
"What are you doing?"
A quick flicker of Byakuya's eyes silenced the old man and Byakuya draped his captain's haori over Miyako's back. Glancing to his right, Byakuya saw the head servant of the estate, and called out to the elderly woman.
"Isae, take Miyako back to my residence, and the rest of you would be best advised to resume your work."
Isae gestured for the servant next to her to follow her lead as she knelt down next to Miyako and whispered to her. The voice of the woman didn't register in Miyako's brain until Isae's hand accidentally grazed one of the wounds on her back. Isae quickly repositioned her hand when she heard the gasp fall from Miyako's mouth. Together, the two servants pulled Miyako up as gingerly as they could and began to lead her back to the manor. Though Isae was sure that the pain was searing, she didn't hear Miyako make another sound as they descended the path the lead away from the main pavilion.
"Isae-san," Totome, her assistant spoke, "I don't think I've ever seen Kuchiki-sama that angry."
"Hush, child," Isae scolded as she adjusted her grip on Miyako's arm and intently gazed ahead. Isae had seen that look on the face of the clan head only one time before, and could hardly believe she was seeing it again now.
"The haori," Miyako whispered, and the two by her side stopped.
"Daijoubudesu, Miyako-neesan?" Totome asked.
"Kuchiki-sama's haori, Totome," Miyako continued, "Remove it. The blood will stain it."
Isae pulled lifted the haori from Miyako's shoulders and resumed her hold on Miyako.
"Isae-san!" Totome sputtered, gasping as the site of the housekeeper with only her chest bindings to cover her upper body.
"I said hush, Totome," Isae scolded again. "How can you understand so little? We're near the manor. No one will see."
In the manor, Isae sat Miyako down on a bench in the kitchen and quickly sent Totome to fetch water. Crouching down in front of the housekeeper, Isae pushed Miyako's hair back behind her ears to see her face. There were small punctures on her lips and Isae finally understood why Miyako did not scream or cry throughout the whipping. The elder lady wanted desperately to apologize to Miyako for having been so cowardly to simply stand there and watch while everything happened. Isae had known Miyako's mother and all she did was watch in silence.
"It's okay, Isae-san," Miyako said as if she had heard Isae's thoughts, attempting to smile, "It's not as painful as it looks."
Byakuya tried with all of his strength and willpower not to let his frustrations and anger get the better of him as he walked back to the manor. He had only ever lost control of his expression with an elder once. His frown only deepened when he recalled it. It was Nagasaki that time too. Only a few weeks after his wedding to Hisana, the old man had called his wife a prostitute when he thought no one was paying attention. Byakuya had almost drawn his zanpakutou on the elder back then. Thankfully he had had enough self-control left to keep Senbonzakura sheathed this evening as well.
Stepping into his household, he recognized the smell of sukiyaki coming from the kitchen and deduced that one of the two servants he had sent earlier had cooked while the other tended to Miyako. When he saw Miyako tending to the freshly set pot of boiling broth, he knew he could no longer hold his emotions in check. Turning Miyako around by the shoulder, he grasped her upper arms tightly and glared at her.
He expected her to gasp, to apologize, say something, anything, yet she did nothing but gaze at him with watery eyes and lips sealed. She was trying so hard not to let the liquid escape from the corner of her eyes. Eyes still connected, Byakuya's hands grasped the edges of Miyako's kimono's neckline and jerked it apart, pulling the garment down her shoulders then arms. He turned again and with her back to him, he slid the nagajuban off of her shoulders slowly, as if he was afraid to see where the pale skin stopped and stinging red wounds started. Byakuya pushed her hair away from her back and Miyako, for the second time that evening, wrapped her arms around her chest.
Letting go of Miyako, Byakuya counted each lash and took note that though the wounds were thankfully shallow, there were plenty. Most of the wounds were lower on her back and one or two extended around the side of her abdomen. With little to no regard for the woman's modesty at the moment, Byakuya held onto her right wrist with one hand and picked up the small basin of water that had likely been left by Totome earlier. Wordlessly, he led her away from the kitchen and into his room where he motioned for her to sit.
Miyako watched as Byakuya moved from one side of the room to another, pulling bandages from one chest and a jar of ointment from another. So consumed was she with watching him and the expression on his face she didn't even realize that for the first time since she started working for him, she was in his room. When he had gathered all of the items he was looking for, he kneeled down behind her, dipped a clean cloth in the water and, with a gentleness Miyako couldn't believe he possessed, began cleaning the wounds on her back.
"Byakuya-sama," Miyako finally spoke.
There was a quiver in her voice that Byakuya absolutely detested and he ignored the fact that she even murmured a sound, continuing with what he had set out to do. When she tried to pull away from him, he held her in place and handed her a small triangular package of paper.
"Take it. It will help with the pain."
By the time Byakuya completed his ministrations, Miyako's head had drooped forward, signaling that sleep inducing medicine he gave her had taken effect. Careful not to let her slump to the floor, Byakuya redressed Miyako. Only when he was certain that she was fully covered did he loosen his grip on her, letting her slowly lean backwards, onto his chest, her head filling the crook of his neck and shoulder. Byakuya glanced at the basin now filled with crimson stained water with gritted teeth.
So many precautions. He had taken so many precautions to ensure that nothing like what happened with Tekura would ever take place again, and yet he was staring at a basin of water and cloths that had her blood on it. If her had just let her stay that night. If he had just let Miyako stay in the room, endure the comments and not sent her back to the manor early that night, Tekura would have never gotten to her, she would never have gained the zanpakutou spirit, and he would never have been sitting here, feeling like the weak little boy he was the first time Miyako's skin had tasted the bitter flavor of a whip.
Byakuya moved Miyako to his futon and laid her on her side, to avoid aggravating her wounds. He covered her with his blanket before swiftly leaving the manor. As he passed the estate gates, he ordered four guards to stand watch at the manor with explicit instructions not to let anyone but him or Rukia into the home.
Air, Byakuya thought to himself, he just needed some air.
A/N: Hope that okay even with the long delay and my rusty "writer's cap". I'll leave with the a quick question:
If you were the sotaichou and Miyako graduated from the Shino Academy, which division would you put Miyako in?
-the holy sea