"You called for me, Nii-sama?"
She slipped inside, drawing the door behind her, and sat down. He turned to look at her, his face as unreadable as always. Sometimes she believed she could tell the feelings behind it. In moments like this, the very thought seemed like a sheer fantasy. She might as well try and catch the moon.
He sat down opposite her. She bowed her head in respect.
"Renji visited here today."
She looked at him surprised. She didn't expect Renji to act so quickly. But then again... She should have known him better. Once thought, did right away. Inside, she smiled with an affection. She kept silent.
"He asked for your hand."
She swallowed and lowered her eyes. There were different things: to know about it and to hear it spoken aloud, especially by a man whose opinion she valued most.
Her head snapped up.
He looked at her attentively like he was trying to tell her thoughts himself. She lowered her eyes again.
"Why...?" she asked in a softer voice, wondering if she sounded disappointed enough. "Did he fall short of your expectations?"
Someone else would snort to express their displeasure or irritation. Byakuya-nii-sama merely looked more intensely.
"Abarai Renji is a Gotei 13 captain. He serves the same aims and ideals," he replied, stating the obvious. "I have never had anything to reproach him with - not now, not when he did his duties as my vice-captain either."
He fell silent.
"Why then... Nii-sama?"
He didn't speak. She regarded him anxiously. She didn't know what to expect. What was that he didn't accept in Renji? He knew how close they were with Renji. They knew each other since childhood, since Rukongai...
"Nii-sama..." she started carefully. "Do you refer to Renji's origin, perhaps? But I-"
"Rukia," he silenced her with a slightest reproach. "Do not forget who are you talking to."
She looked at him, not understanding - for a moment. Then she wished to vanish into thin air.
"I beg your forgiveness, Nii-sama!" she called, bowing deeply.
"Raise your head, Rukia," he said kindly, but only she could recognize that kindness in his voice.
She straightened up, her eyes ever fixed on the mat, but after a longer silence she dared to look.
He was looking through the window, his gaze on the plum tree bearing its fruits. How could she be so foolish? There was a man who had taken a girl from Rukongai for a wife. How could she accuse him of discrimination against Renji? He had never demonstrated any.
He turned his head to regard her. She forced herself to bear his gaze. Something flickered in his dark eyes - a shadow of an old, but never forgotten pain.
"Rukia", he said.
"Why aren't you honest with yourself?" he asked.
She blinked in astonishment.
"I don't understand, Nii-sama. If you refer to my feelings for Renji..." she started and then fell silent, looking away. "Nii-sama, are you suggesting my feelings for Renji aren't genuine?" she dared to ask. "Renji... He cares for me. Moreover, he has a future before him. It's a good choice. It's a chance of my life," she said, looking into his eyes again. "Do you think I am wrong?" she added, not knowing exactly why.
"I told you not to forget who are you talking to," he repeated in a calm voice, but suddenly she felt cold.
Then she tried to look at him with another eyes. And then with another... and another.
Kuchiki Byakuya. Her older brother. Captain of the Sixth Division. Head of the noble family. Perfection personified. Flawless.
A man who had taken a common girl for his wife.
A man who had broken the rules and tradition with this decision.
Out of love.
She covered her lips with a hand.
"I don't regret even one day I spent with Hisana. Then again, I know I would have regretted for the end of my life, had I not brought her here and married. If I were to choice once again, I would do the same," he said simply and so openly she was shocked.
He looked out the window again.
"Everyone makes mistakes, Rukia. It's good to learn from them. If possible though, it's good to avoid mistakes - especially the ones you would never forgive yourself."
He looked straight in her eyes. She shivered.
"Ichigo?" she let out before she actually realized.
She felt her face flushed, and her heart started to beat faster.
"Your reiatsu blazed," he said as casually as he commented the weather. "Your eyes lit up, your face got alive."
She lowered her head embarrassed.
"Do not lie to yourself, Rukia," he said softly. "I don't want you to suffer any more. Out of regard for Hisana's memory, too," he added in an undertone. "And you wouldn't be only one suffering."
She felt like a scolded child. He was right. With her decision, she would hurt not only herself, but also Renji. Never again would she be honest with him. And Ichigo... Her heart pounded faster.
"But... Nii-sama. How..."
"It's your life, Rukia", he answered. "Do not live to please someone. Live to be happy. The nobility longs for happiness as much as people of Rukongai. We are different only in that we cannot attain it so easily." There was a kind of pride in his soft voice. He continued, "Do not waste your chance, Rukia."
She swallowed, trying to pull herself together in the emotional chaos that filled her. She was surprised by what he talked with her about. She was shocked by the words he used. She was ashamed he had to reprimand her again. And she was grateful for he was able to see the truth when she tried to deceive herself.
"And if you don't care about your happiness, at least do not trample on the noble name and pride of Kuchiki being a coward," he said coolly.
Her cheeks suffused with red.
"Thank you very much, Nii-sama!"
"Good night, Rukia," he answered in a kind voice.
She stood up to leave. She stopped in the doorway and turn around once more. Motionless, he sat there, looking into darkened skies. He seemed to belong to another world.
"Nii-sama..." she risked an indiscretion. "If Ichigo... If I..." She didn't have courage to finish. She bent her head and clenched her fists, crumpling the fabric of her shihakushō. "Forgive me, Nii-sama."
"Only when it is your own choice," he replied, still regarding the firmament.
She bowed deeply to show her gratitude and respect.
"Good night, Nii-sama," she whispered and slid the door behind her.
She pressed her hand against her chest and stood completely still.
She left the wide road... no, she was forced to move on the winding and rough path. By the road, there were houses, so high they reached the sky. Their windows were curtained, though, and their doors were shut - she could knock with no effect only to be left outside. The path was hard to walk, but she knew that once she would reach the top, she would see the expanse of the night sky. She knew she wouldn't be lonely under its quiet starlight.
She carried the night sky in her heart.