It was summer again; the sun was sweltering and the sky was clear. Byakuya looked up into it and watched a bird fly pass him. It was carrying a piece of hay in its little beak, no doubt for its own little abode up a tree. He only averted his gaze to a lower level when someone was calling out for him.
"Byakuya-sama! Ill news indeed!"
One of his tenth-seated officers was jogging towards him. There was an unfurled scroll flagging from his grasp. When he came to stop in front of his superior, he doubled over and was wheezing, his words coming through in chops.
"Hah… orders from… Chamber 46… hah…"
Deeming that his subordinate needed air more direly than conveying a message, Byakuya took liberty at retrieving the paper himself and glanced over it. The moment his eye caught the name "Kuchiki Rukia", he read everything once more, this time making sure to absorb each word. By the time he lower the scroll, the officer survey Byakuya with concern – his eyes darting back and forth from the man before him to the paper in his lax grip.
"Back to your position," Byakuya ordered hoarsely.
He was not entirely aware of the man whisking away from the vicinity. All he knew was how fast his heart was thumping against his ribcage and how hot the blood pounding in his ear felt.
Kuchiki Rukia was to be sentenced to death by the Soukyoku in a month's time. Her crime: For sharing powers with a mere mortal by the name of Kurosaki Ichigo.
"Something's not right with Taichou… he looks lost…"
"Well, it's expected isn't it?"
"What d'you mean?"
"Haven't you heard? That Kuchiki Rukia is convicted for giving her shinigami powers to some guy in the Real World."
"Eh? I thought it's only some bunch of rumors…"
"It's real all right, oh – good morning, Taichou."
The chattering stopped at Byakuya's glare. He need not put in much effort to render an area of ten meter radius silent – and this time, given his foul mood after receiving intelligence of Rukia's sentence only enhanced his intimidation. Renji did not dare to approach his Captain save for really important business, so he spent most of the time watching his superior from a far corner. Byakuya was a man of few words on normal occasions. But this time, Renji reckoned he had not even spoken more than five words in a sentence.
By lunch, those of Sixth Division who had dealt with their Captain were more than happy to get away from the headquarters for a while.
Renji gagged on his tea when he was greeted out of the blue in a jam-packed restaurant where he and five others were seated at a table. He turned back to look at the caller and almost knocked his bowl of rice over at the sight of one tall Zaraki Kenpachi. The latter had his hand raised in the air; a tuft of pink was poking out from his back.
Yachiru waved at Renji too but had climbed off Kenpachi a second later to run after a waitress selling sweet buns on a trolley. Renji stood up to meet his ex-Captain and bowed slightly.
"Nice seeing you here, Abarai. Lunching with your mates I see…"
There was something in his tone that suggested mild amusement and Renji failed to see why it should be present. He raised an eyebrow which Kenpachi noticed.
"I thought you'll be out there banging on Sou-taichou's office door demanding explanation or something. "
"And why would I be doing that?" asked Renji who now sounded just as amused.
"You haven't heard?"
The table where members of the Sixth Division sat at suddenly became very quiet. Everyone was regarding Kenpachi charily. Deeply disturbed by the foreboding question, Renji asked, "Heard of what exactly?"
"Kuchiki Rukia's sentence. She's going straight to Soukyoku in a month."
Renji then found himself striding angrily not towards the First Division's headquarters but back to his own. Byakuya's personal office was gleaming brightly like a beacon in the dark – in his mind at least – and he lost count of how many strangers he had bumped into in his urgency to get to Byakuya.
The doors flung open and Renji entered the space without so much as an invitation from his superior. Byakuya was clearly not pleased.
"You should be showing some respect –"
"Taichou!" Renji pressed on, ignoring Byakuya's stern gaze. "You should've told me – Rukia – she –"
"In that case you need not worry." Then Byakuya stood up. Without the slightest change in his manner of speech, he continued, "The authorities are gathering evidences to her advantage. With time, the sentence will be dropped if not lightened –"
The table shook under Renji's slamming fist.
"Taichou! Do you honestly think the authority will work to our favor? I know it – Rukia's innocent! All those talk about how big her crime is… no, Taichou. You have the power to change her fate, haven't you? Try to get her out of this mess… she doesn't deserve death!"
Renji was positively shaking. He was gripping the sides of the table so strongly his knuckles were almost white. But Byakuya was still keeping his icy demeanor and replied, "Am I correct to assume that you are suggesting me to bend our laws to keep her alive?"
"Of course –"
"She will be if she has not done wrong. Our laws are absolute, Renji. Rukia should understand it better; a Kuchiki upholds the rules set by our forefathers –"
"She's your sister!"
Byakuya's unfathomable expression wavered. He cast his eyes downwards where he could see his own shadow dark against the light brownish floorboard.
"She's your sister… doesn't that mean anything to you?"
And Byakuya quietly turned his back against his Lieutenant. From his mouth, he heard the detached voice coming through as if he had not spoken it himself.
Kenpachi stopped scribbling on a document and send it flying across the table where it joined a heap of similar looking pieces of paper. Ignoring Yumichika's disgruntled "Taichou, you can't put this in the 'completed' pile if you haven't completed it yet" Kenpachi jabbed at Ikkaku's direction with his quill.
"Just wanna make it clear; repeat what you just told me."
"Kuchiki Rukia's sentence is to be carried out as planned – whoa, Taichou! Where're you going?"
Kenpachi was not particularly bothered with the sentence. Sure it was not every day the Soukyoku would be awakened to tear some shinigami's soul apart and Rukia was not really dear to him, but he thought she was to a certain someone… and right now, he was going to force entry into that certain someone's office.
As expected, his appearance in the pristine courtyard caused a slight uproar in the Sixth Division.
"He's not here to challenge Taichou again, is he?"
"Or us. Though it's been years…"
"Oi, you there!" Kenpachi pointed brusquely at a couple of whispering ladies. They squeaked and stuttered, "Za – Zaraki-taichou!"
"Where's your Captain?"
"I – I believe he's in the study room… if he's not in his office… that's where he always –"
"Right, thanks," and without another glance at the humble mass of people accumulating in the square, he strode off along the inner hallways. He found the office occupied on his first look so tentatively, he knocked on the door.
And so he did. Byakuya's reaction the moment he set eye on Kenpachi was quite discouraging; he was as appalled as if a ghost had just walked into his room. Kenpachi looked over his shoulder and spotted a small group of officers huddled along the wall. He sighed – so his stunt some fifteen years back had not set well with these people even after all these times, huh?
"Leave. Grant us some privacy," Byakuya spoke clearly. Then he motioned for Kenpachi to close the door. The office was again drowsed in silence. After the footsteps outside faded into non-existence, Byakuya exhaled slowly, sliding back to the bookcase he was previously consulting.
"To what do I owe the pleasure of having you in this office, Zaraki-taichou?"
"It's about Kuchiki Rukia," he cut straight into business.
"And I didn't know she's familiar with the Captain of the Eleventh Division."
The table shook; this time it was Kenpachi's fist banging hard onto the surface. Byakuya looked vaguely at the furniture before returning to the book that was held open in his palms.
"Many people have made it a habit to manhandle my desk lately. If only they have some good reasons for it instead of sudden inability to keep their temper under control… and I presume you belong to that category as well?"
"What… in the world had happened to you, Kuchiki?"
For the second time, Byakuya lifted his head from his book. When he returned to the pages, they somehow appeared to be blank. None registered, their importance suddenly dispersing, shaded by Kenpachi's rare display of emotional vulnerability. Further attempt to read the paragraphs would be meaningless, so Byakuya replaced it in the shelf and said nothing.
"That girl may be nobody to me, but she is everything to you, isn't she?"
Kenpachi waited for a reply, anything, but nothing came. Byakuya remained mute as ever.
"The Kuchiki Byakuya I know places his family above everything else. Or did I read you wrongly back then? I don't like the way you're skulking in your office like a coward when your sister's going to be dead in a couple of weeks."
"You think I have not tried?"
Kenpachi could see rage burning in the cold features. The beast within him had been roused.
"You think, given my position as the Head of my clan and the Captain of this division, I have not exhausted all possible options to get Rukia off the death list? You think I sit idle here, evading responsibilities as her adopted brother?"
"Well, seeing how things are going at this pace, I'm inclined to think that way."
"… So be it."
"That is not good enough!"
Kenpachi left the table and made for the other Captain. He was almost going to reach for the shoulders – wanting to shake some sense into the idiot – but his steps faltered when he thought he saw Byakuya tremble a little at his advances.
"Are you all right?" he asked before he could stop himself. Byakuya merely turned his back against him, but apart from that he acted as if he had not heard the question at all.
"You told me fifteen years ago of your late wife," Kenpachi started, his voice gruff. He was invoking an unpleasant memory, something Byakuya might have long buried under his busyness at work. "We gave up on everything that night when you made it clear how much she meant to you. I understood; that is why I can let go. And you gave me the impression that anyone family is above everything. I don't think it's changed."
He took a step forward.
"Your sister is family. You claimed to not have forsaken her. Seem to me you aren't trying hard enough."
"You do not understand…"
"What do I not understand? She's family, someone important, someone you love. That's all that matters."
He took another step forward. Byakuya was within reach.
"No it isn't."
"Get off it, would you – you always complicate things."
"This is exactly why I see it pointless to confide to you, Zaraki!" And Byakuya spun around. He looked just as pale as Kenpachi remembered when he found the younger man in his ancestor's room that night.
"I am not in the position to do as freely as I would like to! I am bound to our rules! By my oaths… by my promises… and I will keep them!"
"Bullshit. Are you telling me you can't try harder for your sister for fear of breaking these rules? And are you telling me you regret our nights together because you simply swore your loyalty to your late wife? Because of the rules? The oaths? The promises?"
"Enough of this conversation. Get out of my office."
"Not again, Kuchiki!"
This time, Kenpachi really made for a grab at the other man. Logic told him that Byakuya might just hurl him across the room but instincts dictated him to keep a good hold on the thin arms.
"Stop running away, damn it! You're insulting me if you say all you care is the rules! So your wife means nothing to you but someone you've professed undying love for? And your sister… so she's done something wrong, and you're willing to deliver her personally to the chopping block because the law says so? Are you telling me that, huh?"
"Hands off, Zaraki!"
"You're royally pissing me off – you mean to tell me all those things you told me fifteen years back were lies? Damn – look me in the eye and tell me in my face!"
"You know nothing of my circumstances!"
His shoving against Kenpachi's chest was more successful this time. The latter knocked into the paper-laden table sending heaps of scrolls rolling over the surface. Both paid no notice to them as they littered the floor.
"I'm not as righteous as you make out to be."
Kenpachi blinked at the other man. Then he deadpanned, "You're not making any sense –"
His voice trailed away as his brain froze at what he thought Byakuya was doing. Byakuya was undoing the knot of his sash that was holding his shihakushou together. They slide off his shoulders like water to reveal unmarred, pale skin. He had grown slightly thinner over the years but the torso was still as well-sculptured as ever. Then his fingers dipped into his hakama, undoing the fasteners before it too come off to join the pool of clothing on the floor. Byakuya then remained stationary, naked, his fists balling by his sides.
"Look at me, Zaraki," he said softly. "This body… no longer obeys me. I remind myself of my wife, of the vow I took before our ancestors with her, yet this is what happens…"
His eyelids slid down as his fingers caressed the underside of his semi-flaccid shaft.
"When I'm with you… even if I fill my thoughts with her, there is no stopping…"
The shaft had gained its rigidness under Byakuya's half-hearted ministrations. All along he had his gaze fixated on Kenpachi and the excitement had all went southward. Kenpachi could not look away.
"It kills me. No matter how hard I try, I always react."
He bit his lower lips. The moan that had threatened to escape now disguised as a fading sigh.
"And Rukia… if I heed not the properness of my conduct as Head of the Kuchiki house, I would have broken into her cell and take her away the second I was told of her sentence… send her somewhere safe… twice, Zaraki… twice I would have failed myself if I forsake my oaths, my promises."
Then Byakuya leaned back into bookcase. He tore his eyes from Kenpachi's resolute ones. Why do they burn?
"I'm not stanch enough to keep what I had sworn to. Before I go deeper, is it not better to just… stop? See what I am now, Zaraki. A disgrace… let me have this one chance to salvage what pride I have left."
"At the expanse of your sister's life?" murmured Kenpachi.
"I have faith in our judicial system. And there is still time…"
Then Kenpachi stooped before Byakuya. The latter held his breath in and it took Kenpachi a while to realise that Byakuya's erection stood proudly directly in front of his face. But he had also detected a sliver of unwillingness on Byakuya's part – as steadfast as he projected himself to be. So Kenpachi collected the black robes from the floor and draped them over the younger man.
"You should be crueler…" Byakuya had said into Kenpachi's chest when he was pulled into a comforting embrace. He thought the taller man had not heard. He was wrong.
That was their final meeting towards the end of Kuchiki Rukia's numbered days. Kenpachi reluctantly found himself counting down to "the day" – by right it should mean nothing to him shouldn't it? – and he told Yumichika that the day circled on the calendar represented his annual dental appointment, the side of his mouth twitching as he said so. He waited and waited but the date of the execution remained put. When the hell butterflies announced that the date had indeed been pushed forward, Kenpachi was just as shocked as some other Captains who had known Rukia more than an acquaintance. What had Byakuya been doing all these while? The procedures might take a little longer than usual… but pushed forward? If Byakuya had been doing anything at all, it had been counterproductive.
And then the day came. Kenpachi steered clear of the matter – and Rukia's sentence was not the only sensational news out there. Aizen-taichou's death had raised quite the pandemonium within the barriers of Seireitei. And what with the uncalled arrival of several ryoka, Kenpachi had his hands full. He finally met that interesting ryoka boy, Kurosaki Ichigo; the boy whom Rukia was sentenced to death for. Then early in the evening, Kenpachi heard news of the final siege at the execution location. High on top of the hill, he learned about the congregation of many Captains on an unplanned mission to capture the traitor Aizen Sousuke who was not dead after all. It appeared to be a unanimous decision – though Kenpachi had not taken part in it – yet the joined forces of several Divisions failed to the stop Aizen from escaping to Hueco Mundou. Too bad… but Kenpachi had suddenly become more curious when he was informed of the casualty count. His heart was palpitating though he know not why, and it was confirmed when he heard the names of those critically injured on the battleground.
"Komamura-taichou… Abarai-fuku taichou… and ah, Kuchiki-taichou. All three have survived their surgeries but Kuchiki-taichou had yet to regain consciousness – Zaraki-taichou! Where're you going?"
"Get out of my way! Move it you slowpokes!"
"Zaraki-taichou! This is the hospital! Stop screaming –"
"You! You know don't you?"
Kenpachi was flinging himself down the walkways and narrow passages at a speed like there is no tomorrow. The many healers and patients blocking his way immediately leaned into the wall, trying to merge into the bricks as Kenpachi zoomed past them. He had viciously turned around a corner and clasped a nurse's shoulders hard. She looked as if she was just about to faint.
"Y – yes, Za – Zaraki-taichou?"
"Where's Kuchiki's room?"
"Kuchiki Byakuya's room! Where is it?"
"Oh – Kuchiki-taichou is resting in room 427 – Zaraki-taichou, you're not permitted to –"
But Kenpachi had already disappeared up the stairs. He actually flash-stepped to the fourth floor, almost knocking down someone who vaguely looked like Hisagi Shuuhei but did not stop to make sure – the person was already picking himself up from the floor with a scowl – and Kenpachi hurried along to search frantically for room 427.
Most of the rooms along the corridor were brightly illuminated despite the late hours. People keep dropping by to express their gratefulness to the recuperating warriors for not dying and some nurses keep turning up with fresh bandages. Room 427 held no such bustle. It was as peaceful as the occupant's ancestor room had been, dark like the sky outside and hushed like it was not occupied at all. Kenpachi did not bother to knock. He admitted himself in with a curt click of the door behind him.
There was a lone, single bed at the far end of the room by a high window. Its sheer curtain was billowing gently when it caught the cool evening breeze. The side table had a variety of pills and gauzes on it and on the chair beside the bed lay the kenseikan and a slightly bloody shawl. When Kenpachi was near enough to the bed, he looked into the unfazed visage.
Byakuya was very pale, even more than usual and his lips were chapped and whitish. His chest was heavily bandaged and it barely rose whenever he drew breath. Kenpachi thought he was looking at a dead person, but the hitching breaths that broke the rhythmic inhale and exhale proved otherwise. Once in a while, as Kenpachi stood by Byakuya's side, he saw the pallid features contorted briefly in pain before they passed just as swiftly, his deep sleep apparently undisturbed still.
So Kenpachi drew the chair closer and removed the effects lying on the cushion. He sat in it, taking Byakuya's bandaged hand in his and waited… and waited…
Byakuya opened his heavy eyes at the first hint of dawn. He then realised it was not just his eyes that were heavy; every single bone in his battered body was. He had difficulty moving his hand – his nose was itching – and he turned to his left.
There was Kenpachi snoring into the mattress, Byakuya's hand still clasped within his powerful grip.
He clenched his own weak fist as hard as he could but Kenpachi would not wake. There was no stark difference between him and a dead log really, so Byakuya tried to push himself up with his elbow instead. It hurt – a lot – as his ribs were jarred and his wounds stretched, and the worst had got to be the stabbing agony at the left side of his abdomen. He gasped, his free hand pressing at the bandage. He must have thrashed slightly in his bid to command his numbing body because Kenpachi mumbled incoherently just as his large head was lifted from the mattress. The bleary eyes wondered along Byakuya's form.
"Hmm… you're awake… what's wrong – oh no, I'm gettin' someone –"
Kenpachi stood up so quickly the chair almost stumbled backwards but he moved no further when he sensed a shaking hand gripping his wrist.
"Don't be thick – I'm calling a nurse –"
"They can't do anything –"
"Some painkillers will help I think! Just lie down –"
"This is just part of recuperating. Sit down…"
Byakuya gave Kenpachi's wrist another tug when he saw the latter looking at the door hopefully. Kenpachi finally submitted to Byakuya's request and plopped onto the chair again.
"All right then. Never thought you have a masochistic side in you."
Byakuya smiled as much as his shredded up state would allow and said, "You do that… distract me… for a while just now I thought of getting up to throw you out of my room."
"Yeah… well, glad to see you all better now, Kuchiki," Kenpachi said lightly as his eyes roamed over the bloodstained bandages wrapping Byakuya's shoulders.
They talked into the morning about little things none would normally care enough to mention in a conventional conversation… about rice cakes and tea… and then they started naming the shinigami responsible for all the wounds beneath Byakuya's gauzes. That was easy – the near fatal one was souvenir from Ichimaru Gin and the rest, courtesy of Kurosaki Ichigo.
Kenpachi roared in laughter. "I see you met that ryoka Ichigo too, huh? Strong kid, good heart… would've liked to meet him again."
And Byakuya mumbled something like "speak for yourself…"
Both did not manage to register the noon sun that shines directly above the hospital until the door was knocked once. Byakuya had a nasty suspicion that his visitor would most probably toss his chair towards the door and yell at the person outside to haul his ass away. And he was surprised when Kenpachi merely stood up and leaned into the bed.
Byakuya's breath was stuck in his lungs and his heart thundered in his chest again when Kenpachi closed the distance between them. His dry lips grazed the top of Byakuya's crown and the latter sighed. Now somewhere else inside him hurt – and it somehow felt worse than the blow he had taken from Gin.
Byakuya's chin was raised and the next thing he knew, Kenpachi sealed his lips with his, the warm tongue caressing his. Byakuya let himself be dominated, washed away in the gentleness of Kenpachi's hands in his dark mane and up his back… and then it ended.
Kenpachi thumbed a string of saliva from Byakuya's lips.
"You don't have to love me, Kuchiki…"
The door opened and Renji showed up at the frame. He was having a tray of Byakuya's lunch and was greeting Kenpachi amicably and thanking him for keeping his Captain accompanied. He did not look any better than Byakuya –almost as mummified in fact – but his spirit was definitely a lot higher that his superior and was gamboling wildly within the perimeter of the sick room.
Kenpachi shut the door behind him as he heard Renji asking his Captain of his wellbeing. Then he exited the hospital and returned to his own Division. He wondered how his men were faring…
Many more months had passed since Aizen left Soul Society. And within those months Captains of all divisions had met and cooperated to re-strengthen Soul Society's security as they were looking forward to another series of war. But even if the future was not as promising, the days still passed peacefully, treacherously, and in the green compound of First Division's headquarters, two tall Captains were about to cross path.
Zaraki Kenpachi who had just returned from a meeting with Sou-taichou cast a small smile across the hallway. Kuchiki Byakuya, his long shawl sweeping before him, did not return the gesture but his features had softened considerably. Their eyes met.
Their shoulders brushed past each other. And their footsteps echoed distantly as they walked away, Kenpachi towards the main exit and Byakuya into Yamamoto's office. The hallway was again deserted, its final visitors too busy minding their own business and lives. And the seconds rolled on, its continuum undisturbed by the means and ways of the little people living within it. For the time being, all was well. It was perhaps, an ending most suitable to an unpremeditated affair.