Pursued: A Story of Love and Courtship
(Not part of any series…just something that appeared suddenly in my mind whilst camping…must have been all of the fresh air taunting my muse! She's been even more busy than usual! Enjoy, and please review. It keeps my muse motivated!)
Chapter 1: Breaking the Golden Cage
Princess Hanakaji was well versed in the ways of royalty. From the moment she was born, her mother impressed upon her the importance of maintaining the proper state of mind. They were the revered of the noble class and the peasants lived in awe of them. The denizens of the living world worshipped or hated, believed or disbelieved…and the residents of Hueco Mundo only wished to destroy them.
Her father, one who appeared only in spirit form, with his face always obscured, was somewhat of a loving mystery to her. He lavished attention on her and called her his little angel, but it was all just play to him. She never felt able to ask him the storm of questions that always tormented her young mind…the same questions, she wagered, that the people of the other worlds pondered, although for them, the answers didn't seem so tantalizingly near. It wasn't as though she had never asked any of them. But we she came of age to wonder so, he merely told her that her life…her experiences…would give her the answers she so desired.
If she hadn't been so young at the time, she would have been infuriated. But being that she was just a girl at the time, she just accepted his words, only half understanding, and had gone on with her life. Now that she was older, the frustration of the lack of those answers was unbearable and she could no longer simply accept that the living out of her days would tell her what she needed to know. And if she had to learn from experience, the royal palace in the spirit dimension was no place to do so.
Everything in her life seemed thought out ahead of time and scripted. She awoke to soft music, sent into her room by her personal servant, Noa. The girl was about her same age and actually substituted for what would be called a friend in any other place. But royals did not have friends. They were taught to be wary of others, who might attempt to win their hearts in a bid for power…and she knew there were plenty of that kind. As of her seventeenth birthday, they had been lined up and waiting for her to turn eighteen, so they could seek her hand in marriage…and a place close to her royal father. Even the young noble females were power hungry and jealous…and though she stood in their company as her schedule dictated, she did not enjoy the time spent ogling the noble males, speaking in hushed tones about the latest scandals, and handing out sugary words that hid truly bitter hearts.
Noa, on the other hand, was a witty and wise girl. She had grown up among a family of nobles as a servant, and had so pleased them that when the king and queen held a ball in honor of her brother's naming as heir, Princess Hanakaji had been placed in her care. The two had struck up a conversation…and in addition to marking the start of a fiercely devoted mutual association, also marked the beginning of her descent into temptation. Hanakaji's parents were swift to notice the instant liking their daughter took to the servant girl and the noble family, of course, offered her services to the royal family on the spot. They had no idea what they had done. Because Noa was filled with life experience of just the kind Hanakaji desired. She had been born in the Rukongai and although her family had left to serve the noble family who engaged their services, she still occasionally traveled back to that place…the one she spoke of in her stories, but that Hanakaji had never actually visited…the one that was both a blessing and a curse, that was beautiful and dangerous. Hanakaji wanted more than anything to travel to that place and to see it with her own eyes.
And even if not there, there were other wonderful places Noa had been. The noble family she had served, had been housed in the Seireitei, another interesting place she had always wanted badly to see. She was entranced by Noa's stories of the legendary Gotei 13, their powerful Soutaichou and the taichous who led the other squad. Chief among her stories were enthralling accounts of the bravery and intelligent strategy of the taichou and fukutaichou of the sixth division.
"Kuchiki Byakuya and Abarai Renji…" she whispered.
How she longed to see them in action! But action wasn't a part of her regimented life. She was relegated to always look regal and beautiful…to be protected rather than to protect. She would never feel the awakening of a zanpakutou spirit. Locked away in the spirit dimension, her zanpakutou, if she even had one, would not awaken. And worried that one actually existed within her, her parents would keep her forever within the confines of the spirit dimension, only venturing out once a year when her father surrounded the family in his power (a way of wrapping a protective bit of the spirit dimension around them…so that they were not touched by that place…and so that if anyone or anything attempted to harm them, they could be recalled immediately).
She had to wonder why it would be problematic for her to have a zanpakutou. Her brother's was allowed to awaken, but then Prince Fumio was going to be spirit king someday. She suspected that her parents did not want her zanpakutou awakened because they felt that the zanpakutou was meant for a place she would never be allowed to go…to the battlefield. It made no sense to her…why she should live a life apart from a spirit that, if it existed, was a part of her own. So in her opinion, if she had a zanpakutou, it would be a sign that she had the fighting spirit to use it…to protect, to defend…to serve. And having a zanpakutou would qualify her to serve in the armed forces…to go out and fight hollows and to see that the balance of souls between worlds was kept. That, she thought, was a much better use than living in the palace and merely acting as window dressing.
"No wonder they don't want it to awaken!" she mused, "Then my life might actually become somewhat interesting."
"What was that, my lady?" asked Noa, quirking an eyebrow at her, "You're talking to yourself again. You're going to worry your parents!"
She slipped the Princess's dress into place and fastened the buttons carefully.
"If you don't mind yourself, you'll have all of those handsome men running away instead of asking for your hand."
"As if I desired being with any of those power hungry, empty headed buffoons. They make me want to throw up, Noa."
"Hmmm…" laughed the girl, "a lovely image. You would truly shock the whole dimension if you ever spoke your true mind."
"As if I would dare," the princess sighed, "No…I know what is expected. I will try to behave myself. Otherwise my parents might not let me go to the next annual cherry blossom viewing in the Seireitei."
"Ah," said Noa, her eyes lighting up, "I forgot to tell you what I overheard."
"About this year's festival?" the princess queried.
"Yes," her servant answered, nodding, "You know how you always tell me that if there was one among the taichous you would like to meet, it would be Kuchiki Byakuya?"
Princess Hanakaji's head lifted and her eyes met Noa's with the first sign of genuine interest her servant had seen in weeks.
"Well," said Noa, grinning, "I heard that this year's festival is being hosted by the Kuchiki family…and that the royal family will be housed for the duration of the festival in Kuchiki Manor, itself."
Hanakaji's eyes opened wide and her hand flew to her mouth in surprise.
"Oh my! Someone looks a little too overexcited," Noa chuckled, "You'd best be cautious of that or your parents will think that it might be too much of an excursion for you."
"No…no way will that happen. From now until our arrival in the Seireitei, I will be on my very best behavior!" the princess announced.
"Hmmm…" said Noa, her eyes twinkling, "this, I have to see!"
Renji looked up and chuckled softly as Rikichi burst into the room, panting and sweaty, and madly chasing a hell butterfly that managed to remain just out of his reach.
"Hell butterfly for you, Taichou," Renji said, not looking directly at Byakuya for fear of laughing too loud and disturbing the noble.
Byakuya looked up through sleepy eyes and sighed resignedly at the sight of the young shinigami chasing the butterfly until it came to the taichou's desk and landed softly on his extended finger. He wondered for the hundredth time if listening to his instincts about the boy had been a good thing or just the one thing that would act to undo him at the worst possible time. But no…Rikichi might have no ability to control hell butterflies, but his zanpakutou was a definite positive factor in any battle. And his kido ability seemed to grow by leaps and bounds. Yes, he had chosen correctly in giving the youth third seat. And he had no choice but to stand by his decision now.
It rankled him that others questioned (though not openly) his decision. They would never say it to his face, of course, but the other seated officers and half the unseated ones as well, talked about the boy behind Rikichi's back…and behind his, as well. It was, Byakuya decided, an untenable situation and needed to be stopped.
In most cases, such a thing would be handled by his dedicated and as of Rukia's rescue, very loyal fukutaichou, Abarai Renji. But given that Renji was one of the worst offenders, Byakuya realized that in this situation, he was going to have to handle things himself. It would be a challenge, he thought, but changing others' minds about Rikichi was something his strategic mind was more than capable of handling. He already had several ideas about what to do…but, he thought, the most important thing was to give Rikichi a way to shine in the eyes of his colleagues…and his taichou.
He realized suddenly that Renji was watching him…watching him and trying not to be obvious about it. That had been happening a lot lately as well. A more paranoid taichou would suspect he was looking for chinks in his taichou's armor…and in fact, Renji had cast eyes on him with that intent before. But much had changed after Rukia's near execution. Renji had appeared at his side in the healing center after he had been injured by Gin's zanpakutou and had remained close to him ever since. They had never come out and said anything about their behavior prior to Rukia's rescue. They had quietly picked up the pieces and moved on. And now they worked together seamlessly. The paperwork for the division was always completed on time and submitted correctly (although his fukutaichou's writing still left much to be desired). The training given to their unit was judged the best and most effective and efficient…and had, in fact, won commendations several times from Soutaichou. They were unequaled on the battlefield, with the highest number of hollows slain and the lowest casualty rate. And as much as Byakuya had a right to be proud of his own efforts, he realized they would never have achieved so much without Renji at his side. Renji was inexpendible and, although he never felt comfortable enough to say so in his fukutaichou's presence, Byakuya couldn't imagine the sixth division without him.
Renji, of course, had expressed great happiness when Byakuya did not seek his incarceration and removal after their battle, but there had also been surprise. He had expected that despite everything, Byakuya would only look at the fact that Renji had betrayed and turned against him. He didn't entertain the thought that the solemn, reserved and stiff noble would ever consider Renji's dedication to saving the life of his sister…or that Kuchiki Byakuya would ever admit to anyone, including himself that he had been wrong about anything. But Byakuya wasn't the person Renji thought him to be…and when his fukutaichou had witnessed Byakuya's desperate attempt to save Rukia from Gin's attack, he had been shocked into the knowledge that there was more to the quiet, serious and demanding taichou than met the eye.
And those eyes watched Byakuya even more closely now…watched him carefully, in fact. But what Byakuya read beneath the surface of those dark brown eyes no longer looked like barely concealed hatred. It looked like something both surprising and very, very different. To Kuchiki Byakuya, it looked as though Abarai Renji was concerned for him.
There had, at first, been reason for his concern. Byakuya's recovery from Gin's attack had been slow, given the seriousness of the wound and the fact that the zanpakutou had damaged his spirit centers quite badly. He hadn't been cleared for any duty for several weeks and had been on desk duty only for several months. It had been nearly maddening, finishing everything so quickly and not being able to train or go onto the battlefield. As soon as his clearance came, Renji had appeared and very respectfully requested the privilege of assisting Taichou in his training. And nearly every day since then, the two had trained together in the morning. Renji appeared as early as Byakuya now, and the two trained before the others arrived, then showered and dressed, and set down to work with pleasantly aching bodies and much improved moods.
He still wondered why…why Renji had abandoned his hatred and had sought so eagerly to not just mend fences, but to build bridges between them. But whatever his reasons, the result was that Byakuya felt himself growing closer to his fukutaichou than he had ever allowed himself to get to anyone.
It bordered on unnerving.
He looked up and caught Renji's eye. His fukutaichou looked back at him questioningly.
"You need something, Taichou?" he asked.
Byakuya shook his head and looked back at the hell butterfly that waited impatiently for his attention. Sighing, he blinked at the creature and nodded.
Byakuya-sama, the Kuchiki council will be meeting tomorrow at nine o'clock in the morning to discuss the security requirements for the royal visit to Kuchiki Manor. A full list of attending staff and room placements will be necessary to complete our discussion. You may messenger these or simply provide them at the meeting. Also, we would like an update on how preparations of the grounds around the manor are going. Our councilors have completed arrangements for all activities outside of the manor, so this will conclude our planning for the event. We look forward to seeing you.
Byakuya saw Renji looking up at him again and realized that Rikichi still stood waiting near his desk…and that he had been witnessed by both, rolling his eyes at the content of the message.
Renji looked amused.
Rikichi was trying desperately to look as though he hadn't seen anything.
"Abarari fukutaichou, Rikichi, I require your assistance regarding preparations for the royal family's visit. The Queen and princess will be attending the annual cherry blossom viewing and Squad Six has been assigned to guard the royal family while they visit Kuchiki Manor. I will need to brief you on placements of our guards, schedules and personal accompaniments between the manor and the festival site."
"Hai, Taichou," Renji said, "They're sure getting into quite the uproar over this."
Byakuya gave him a look just short of a glare.
"It is, I imagine, the fact that last year's festival posed such a nightmare. The scandalous behavior of the twelfth division's taichou during the event and the severe breaches of security had Soutaichou seething. There is great pressure to improve the running of the event. In addition, my family's honor rests on providing a safe and enjoyable experience for the royal family. Anything that does not go according to our plans, will reflect poorly on our name."
"Well, we'll do whatever you need us to, Kuchiki taichou," Rikichi said, bowing.
"Thank you, Rikichi," Byakuya said, trying to ignore Renji's smirk.
"To see to our planning will take most of the evening. As such, you will join me for dinner and spend the night at the manor."
He expected the awestruck look in Rikichi's eyes, but the surprised and pleased look in Renji's quite surprised him.