Hisana sat on the stone in the meadow, singing her baby sister softly to sleep. She rocked her lightly as she glanced at the shack a hundred meters away. The light was out now, but Hisana knew an elderly lady lived there. That lady had recently lost her adopted grandchild to a Hollow that the Shinigami had conveniently overlooked. That is, they noticed only once the little girl was murdered. Hisana shook her head, 'But really...they ought to care more about these day-to-day survival districts. Damned Inuzuri is lost to them...and the other latter 40 districts,' she thought, sighing. But this elderly woman...perhaps Hisana was foolish to think the lady would rise up to caring for Rukia, but...
Rukia was snoozing peacefully now, asleep and content, as was to be expected - Hisana had fed her the remainder of their bread and water, which she had intended to spread over a long few weeks. But... 'I can find food on my own. Rukia needs someone to do it for her,' Hisana pondered blankly, stroking the baby's feathery soft black hair, 'She eats so much...she must have at least some reiatsu.' That was one of the few comforts Hisana found in this idea to leave the infant. A comfort...and a woe. More reiatsu meant more food, and food wasn't always easy to get. But this old woman...she had a small job to get her by. She had scraps to eat, and her aged heart welcomed children, though scorned adults. And when Rukia was older, maybe she could be a shinigami herself...and change things.
'What in Seireitei's name am I thinking?' Hisana scolded herself, shaking her head. Rukia sighed in her sleep, clinging lightly with her tiny fingers to Hisana's forefinger. Hisana smiled as a stream of salt water sprung from her eyes, and she leaned down to kiss the baby's forehead, clutching her close before gently placing her in front of the stone, "I love you, Rukia...I'm so sorry," she choked, before taking off, running as fast as her wasted legs could take her.
When the old woman woke up to a baby's desperate wails, and ran outside to see the charming baby girl, and picked her up as if she were her own, caressing her with love, she would find a letter inside the baby's blanket:
My name is Rukia. My sister has lost the ability to care for me. Please, Obaa-san, take care of me. Please.
30 years later
Sleep, walk, eat, sleep.
Sleep, walk, eat, sleep.
Such was the life of a young woman in Rukongai, alone, and with no intended destination.
Hisana stood outside a building in the run-down 76th district. There was no plaque bearing a name for the two-story, wooden-beamed, shingled excuse of a house. It did have an old piece of wood painted to look like a plum blossom above the doorway, so that's what people called it: the Ume. This was, for all fake intents and false purposes, a teahouse. Needy, pretty, young women were taught how to pass as a crude excuse of a geisha. Every one was a shameful imitation of the dignified, beautiful artists.
'No one here is a geisha,' Hisana reminded herself, feeling her morale dip even lower, 'If I'm being honest with myself, this is nothing more than a mild-mannered brothel.'
Even though she stood here, wanted to work here, she not want to be the expected brand of employee - she wasn't desperate enough to sell herself that way. Yet. She just wanted a back job: a cook, a maid, an errand girl. Just something harmless and safely in the background. Because that's where she always was: the background.
And she liked it there.
'Standing here will do me no good,' Hisana sighed, edging towards the door, 'The sooner I ask, the sooner I get my answer. Even if I get turned away again.'
But as she was about the cross the threshold, she noticed the instrument outside the door, collecting dust and age. It was a koto. An old one, but the 13 ivory bridges, the ji, and the 13 yellow, silky strings were intact. The finger picks were placed under the middle strings, surprisingly intact and, more surprisingly, not stolen. And the wood it was carved of...this was clearly well-taken care of, and an expensive instrument at that. It was so beautiful.
Hisana froze. How did she know so much about the instrument? Being so valuable, she had obviously never, ever seen one in the Soul Society. So...
'I must have played this when I was human...' Hisana mused, sitting down on the thread-bare cushion behind the koto, placing her fingers on the taut strings. She inhaled contentedly, absorbing an odd amount of satisfaction and peace from the smooth fibers. Of their own accord, her fingers bent strongly, on particular notes. Hisana frowned, 'Maybe...I haven't forgotten?'
Hesitantly, she put the three picks on her thumb, index, and middle fingers. Bending forward, she pushed the 3rd string down with her left hand. She placed her right thumb on the 3rd string, and her index and middle fingers a few strings above, ready the strum. She sucked in a breath, leaned forward, and plucked the strings her fingers caught, ready for the sweet, high pitch.
Instead, she immediately recoiled, cringing at the dissonance the wrong notes caused. She tried again, but frantically stopped the vibrations when the notes were so bad to knock a dog dead. 'I'm thinking too hard,' she determined, closing her eyes, taking another deep breath, and gently taking the strings beneath her fingertips again.
She hummed a note to herself quietly, and brushed her right hand towards her. This time, the notes were beautiful, and her fingers somehow knew which strings to press down, and which to merely tap. The cadences, the flourishes, the ornamental grace notes, her fingers knew them all and put them in their place. She felt herself sway her head in time with the soothing melody, her elbows even having a rhythm to accent the music, conducting herself, despite their busy work in guiding her fingers. A small smile lit up Hisana's face - she hadn't felt a peace like this in years.
Hisana didn't know how long it took her to finish the song, but when she pulled from the suspension to the final chord, she opened her eyes, glancing up quietly, and choked back a scream.
Around her was a small audience. There were some elderly women and men, a few wide-eyed, slack-jawed children, and even some people her age. In the doorway of the Ume stood an open-mouthed, middle-aged woman, and there were much younger women looking out the windows of the building.
Blushing vividly, Hisana snapped her hands back to her lap, bowing her head. The woman in the doorway broke out of her shock and turned wildly to the spectators, "The hell do you all think this is, a charity show?! Get the hell out before I knock you out!"
The young adults and children quickly scatted, while the elderly walked away, tsk-ing the woman's brazen language.
Hisana jumped, startled, quickly bowing to the woman so low on her knees that her face was almost in the dirt.
"What in Seireitei's damned name d'you think you're doing?!"
"Mooshiwake gozaimasen!" Hisana cried, not lifting her face, "I only saw the koto, and I thought it was familiar, and I wanted to try and play a litt-,"
"A little!" the woman yelled. She gripped Hisana's arm, lifting her up, and guided her roughly through the door, "Come with me!"
The next thing Hisana knew, she was sitting in a quaint little office, with a chipped cup in front of her, warm steam rising from the tea.
"So what you're telling me is...you have no place to go, you aimed to work here, even though you don't wanna be one of the girls. And you, by the way, are the prettiest girl I've seen in these damned districts. Figures," the woman snorted, reclining in her pile of worn cushions.
Hisana shifted uncomfortably, "Hai. That is...I just...I have a sense of...I mean, I have ideals that I just don't want to break...I'm sorry for bothering you. I just thought it would be worth asking once." She bowed her head, not wanting to cry in front of a total stranger. Damn her luck! Tears were once called a woman's weapon by a poet in the World of the Living, but to use them against a woman? That never turned out well.
"Well, you're hired."
Hisana looked up, floored, "P-pardon?"
The woman shrugged, "You want the job or don't you? For the love of Seireitei...well, here's the offer. You play that old piece of wood out there for us, and I'll give you food and board and all that."
Blinking, Hisana bowed low again, this time her nose actually touching the rotting tatami mats, "Hai! It would be an honor!"
"Meh, formalities. So you have a name or what?" the woman asked, sitting up straighter.
"It's Hisana. What may I call you?"
The woman thought a moment, "Huh. No one's asked me that before. I guess you could call me what the rest of the girls do: old hag, bitch, Auntie Hell..." She laughed at Hisana's horrified expression, "I'm not serious! Sort of. Call me Chitose-ba-san. Everyone does."
It went on like that for months. Hisana would wake up on an old futon every morning at dawn, eat a small breakfast of rise and occasionally vegetables, and she would do menial chores, errands, and tasks all day until sunset. At that point, customers would start trickling into the Ume, and it would be Hisana's job to sit outside and play the koto to lure the passerby inside, like moths to a flame. The noble appearance and sound of the instrument gave the illusion that the Ume was just as dignified, which wasn't entirely true.
But either way, Chitose-ba-san provided Hisana with meals to eat, a bed to sleep on, and a path upon which to walk - it was more than she'd dared to hope for. Still, she couldn't help but notice how the Ume's appearance was becoming less and less run-down with the new popularity Hisana was bringing. She assumed this meant an increase in money, therefore causing her to guess that the fake teahouse had in fact been poor to begin with. She supposed it must be the decrepit state of Rukongai that had deceived her, which once she considered it, wasn't so much of a surprise.
One year after her arrival
Hisana looked up at Chitose, tilting her head questioningly, "Hai?"
Chitose rubbed her neck, a nervous habit Hisana was used to, "Well, I've got a request for you," she shook her head, "This year's been great with your help. You've really taken us out of hell. But you see, I had this idea last week, that maybe we can do more."
Hisana frowned, messing with the finger picks she was already wearing, "I'm sorry if my work has displeased you, ba-san."
"Nah, that's not it. I mean, let's get you a better audience, is all! People who can actually appreciate the music you play, not these dogs around here."
"Ba-san, I don't know who you me-,"
"The hell you don't!" Chitose flared, throwing her arms up, "I mean the bastards in the Seireitei!"
"The shinigami?" Hisana asked, skeptical.
"Hell no. They're too busy drinking and dying to care about the gold you play. I mean the nobility." She said 'nobility' like it was the worst insult she could conjure.
Hisana gaped at her, jaw dropped, "That's not possible! I can't play well enough to-,"
"Shut your face and listen," Chitose snapped, leaning against the door frame, "Whether you think you're good enough don't matter. I say you are, so you are. Besides, there's a noble on his way, so you go and get that koto inside. I'll grab one of the girls to help you. And change into this." Chitose removed a package from under her arm, handing it to Hisana.
Hisana frowned, confused, but bowed respectfully before going inside and closing herself in the dressing room. She carefully undid the strings tying the paper wrapping closed, and peeled it aside to see an old kimono.
It wasn't anything special - a frosty blue with a faded midnight blue obi. But it was certainly more presentable than her weathered, ripped flower pattern that she'd worn every day of her life in Soul Society. Not to mention it was her first real taste of a luxury, outside of the koto.
As she slipped the purple robe off her shoulders and pulled on the blue, she thought about what Chitose had gotten her into. Hisana didn't want to play for nobles. That meant being in the spotlight, and that's the last place she wanted to be. What's more, she'd heard intimidating rumors about the Shinigami and nobility in Seireitei. They didn't care about the impoverished souls starving every day. They carried on their perfect lives, in their perfect houses, with their perfect families, in their perfect, peaceful city.
At least, she'd been told that.
Hisana folded her clothes and put them in the corner before leaving the room and kneeling on knees outside the office door, "Ba-san?"
"Ah!" Hisana jumped at how uncharacteristically lively Chitose suddenly sounded, "Yes, come in, come in!"
Hesitant, Hisana opened the door to see her guardian with her hair brushed until it shone, her kimono straightened modestly, and an excited blush in her cheeks. Across from her on the other side of the room was a man dressed in formal-looking men's kimono of dark green. He had one of those shinigami swords (What were they? zanpaku-to?), and odd hair pieces on the side of his head. He wasn't old, but he looked like he hadn't slept in days, and there were lines on his face. Nonetheless, he was neat and sat rigidly.
"Hisana-chan," (Hisana had to use every ounce of her will not to snort at the girly tone - Chitose never used 'chan') "Hisana-chan, this is Kuchiki-sama, one of the members of the most noble Kuchiki familiy. He's the son of the head of the family."
Hisana bowed as deeply as possible, "It is an honor to meet you, Kuchiki-sama."
The noble wasted no time, bowing his head only slightly, but smiled at her in a tired way, "I am told you are accomplished at the koto."
Hisana sat straighter, but still remained in a respectful half-bow, "Please sir, I'm a girl of little talent." Technically, she was a woman, not a girl, since she was approximately the physical age of 18, but she figured it was best to humble herself as much as possible.
"I suppose we'll see, won't we?" he asked, gesturing to the koto, suggesting she should play.
Hisana scooted into position, shakily putting the picks on her fingers, "Do you have a request, Kuchiki-sama?"
The man thought a moment before glancing at the window behind Chitose, "This season has brought beautiful sakura, so how about a song for them."
Internally, Hisana sighed in relief as she began to play the traditional song dedicated to the cherry blossoms. It was her very favorite melody, since sakura were her favorite flowers. Every ounce of free time she had during their bloom, she spent under a sakura tree, dozing or reading the few books that lay around. If she had her way, she'd have one planted just in front of the Ume, so she would play every night with the flowers watching over her.
When she finished, Chitose was beaming at her, and excitedly flickering her gaze to the nobleman and then back to Hisana, back to the nobleman, back to Hisana. The nobleman had his eyes closed, and his arms crossed in thought. Hisana squirmed a little. Chitose was obviously pleased...but Kuchiki-sama...
"What length of time do you typically play at one sitting?"
Hisana fidgeted with the finger picks at the sudden question, "Ano...Usually about three hours, Kuchiki-sama."
The man opened his eyes, staring blankly at a spot on the floor, "Hm. Very well. I will send someone to pick you up tomorrow. You only need to bring yourself," He smiled encouragingly at her briefly before he rose to his feet, bowed his head to Hisana, and nodded at Chitose. And he left.
Neither of them spoke until long after the front door slid shut with a clack, and Kuchiki-sama's footsteps could not be heard. Then Chitose jumped to her feet, "Damn straight! We will never hear the end of your praises, Hisana!"
Hisana shook her head, grabbing her arms frantically, "But I'm going to have to play in a noble family's house! In front of nobles!"
Chitose waved her hand as though it was no big deal, "Please, you'll love it. I won't be able to convince you to play here after you've played there for five minutes. Besides, that man? Kuchiki Soujun-sama? I've heard his son is quite pleasing to the eyes. Maybe you'll meet him, hm?" She smirked knowingly, ignoring Hisana's pleas of mortified protests.
A/N: Plenty of Byakuya next chapter, I promise. Have to set the stage here. :D Oh, and if any of you would like to spare a moment and send me some constructive criticism, I'd really really appreciate it. I want to write to your satisfaction!
Japanese words index:
Geisha: a dignified, Japanese woman artist. They perform in dance, art, and music. Generally they are entertainers for men. However, they are not prostitutes. They sell their skills, not their bodies.
Koto: a traditional Japanese instrument. It is a long wooden board with strings to make t he pitches. It is played by plucking the strings.
Ji: the bridges on a koto. If you don't know what I'm talking about...Google is our friend. 3
Mooshiwake gozaimasen: Literally, "There is no room for excuse". It's basically a very humble form of apology, acknowledging that the person has made a mistake. You Bleach nuts may recognize it from Fade to Black when Byakuya asked Hisana if she'd been to Rukongai and she said, "Hai, mooshiwake arimasen." (using arimasen is a slightly less formal use. That said, it's still formal.)
Hai: Yes. (Although in other cases, it can be "I beg your pardon?" Context matters!)
Tatami: the rectangular mats used as floorboards in Japanese buildings. They're also used as a form of measurement for rooms.
(O)ba-san: means "aunt", not to be confused with (O)baa-san, which is "grandmother" (or "old woman").
Kimono: an article of clothing. It literally means "a thing to wear". It's worn by men, women, and children (a kimono doesn't have to be the Japanese gowns from Memoirs of a Geisha).
Obi: the sash around a kimono.
Ano: In this context, it means "Um…"