It was quiet in the hospital room. Byakuya Kuchiki gazed out the window at the evening twilight, the darkening sky tinged a deep red. It had only been a day since the Winter War had finally come to its long, difficult, laborious conclusion, with neither side laying much claim to victory. Perhaps they could say that they had won, but their triumph was not much to be celebrated, as they had ended up with more shinigami wounded and on the verge of death, than alive.
Victory. The word itself should have evoked a strong sense of pride at having finally triumphed over their enemy. But all that was left in the aftermath was a pile of ashes from a dying flame. Victory was not so triumphant after all, and it left only a bitter and rancid taste in his mouth.
There was a gentle knock on the door, before it slid open, revealing none other than the 4th matron herself, Unohana Retsu. She nodded her head in Byakuya's direction, as she looked over the preliminary notes Isane had jotted down for her, after doing her own quick cross-examination of the injured man when he was first admitted to the fourth wing.
"A disabled arm and leg, and numerous deep cuts over the body," Unohana read, as she glanced up at her patient. "And how are you feeling as of now, Kuchiki-taicho?"
He was silent for a moment, as he contemplated the hollow feeling that had plagued him ever since Isane had given him a once-over and her hesitant prognosis.
"I've been better," he said at last, as though the tingling sensation of—was it fear? Trepidation?—did not threaten to consume him at any given moment.
"I see," Unohana paused, as she studied her underling's handwriting on the clipboard. After a few moments, she put it aside, coming over to do her own thorough inspection of the wounds inflicted upon the 6th division captain.
"How did your left arm and leg get injured like this?" She asked, though Byakuya knew she had already guessed the answer, even if Isane hadn't spelled it out for her.
"I cut the tendons. The enemy had taken control of the left side of my body, and so I disabled myself to keep from becoming his puppet."
Unohana nodded inspecting the slices made by Senbonzakura. They showed no hesitation, as the cuts were too clean to allow any room for uncertainty, never mind the excruciating pain he must have felt after severing their connection.
But then, perhaps they had been too quick, and not nearly as precise as originally thought. Or perhaps the enemy had jerked his hand away at the last minute, when he realized what his victim was about to do.
In any event, there was no doubt that more than just the tendons had gotten cut off. Some of the muscle and bone were severed as well, and were beginning to heal crookedly.
Unohana stepped back, having finished her inspection, and referred to the clipboard, rapidly jotting down her own findings.
Byakuya masked his impatience, as the healer finally finished and looked up at him with a grim expression.
"It appears that you will need a surgery to correct the healing of the muscle and tendons in your arm and leg. Following that, you will require two weeks of bed rest in which you must stay off those limbs as much as possible. If you do have to walk, you will need a cane or some other walking aid to take most of the pressure off your left arm and leg. After those two weeks, you will be able to resume your daily tasks, however," here she hesitated a moment, as she looked the 6th Captain straight in the eye. "You will most likely have a limp for the next few weeks after."
"A…limp?" Byakuya repeated.
"It shouldn't be permanent," Unohana said gently. "It will most likely go away on its own, however, you did strain your leg even after you had cut through the nerves, so it will take a while for it to heal completely. I would go as far as to recommend you continue to use a walking aid until you are fully healed. However, since we can't know for certain the severity of the limp you will have, we will wait until two weeks after the surgery to determine this."
Byakuya was silent as though he'd been struck dumb. Unohana continued to inform him that she had an opening for the operation later that night, so they could get it over with quickly. He only nodded, barely saying anything as she turned to go, letting him know that she would send Hanatarou to prep him in a few hours.
After that, she was gone, leaving him to his own thoughts as the door slid quietly behind her.
A cripple. That is what he would be. He could think of nothing more shameful than being forced to walk around with a cane, as though he hadn't the ability to command his own limbs.
He closed his eyes as he leaned back against the pillows. What a disgrace to the Kuchiki family name. And for him to be the one to bring it about, too. What would the elders have to say to their head of house; once they find out he has become an invalid? He silently thought that he'd rather take on the 7th Espada once more, than be told this unfortunate news.
It was a while before exhaustion finally overtook Byakuya and he drifted off into a rather fitful sleep, until Hanatarou came in to get him ready for the operation.
A week and a half had passed since the surgery, and Byakuya sat in bed, contemplating his anticipated release from the 4th ward later that week.
The operation had been a success, Unohana had told him, smiling, once he regained consciousness. The next couple of days after were difficult ones, as Byakuya had to adjust to getting help from the other 4th division members who seemed to be at his beck and call. It was hard for someone like him, whose pride and strength defined who he was, to demean himself to such a low level as needing assistance in going to the bathroom or eating his carefully prepared meals.
Still, he was recovering nicely, as Unohana had told him on his latest checkup. Following his release, he would still need a cane for walking, but only for a couple of weeks, until his body got used to carrying all of its own weight, especially the left side, which would still be healing. At least he would no longer have to be confined to his bed anymore.
The Kuchiki Elders had, of course, been notified. Ashamed as they were that their head of house would be crippled for the next few weeks, they nevertheless made do with the situation, comforting themselves with the thought that it was only temporary, and that it would soon pass. Their main concern though, was that it would be seen as a weakness, which would give an opening to any enemy that may want to attack. For this reason, they doubled the security around the mansion, and insisted that Byakuya be escorted by two guards wherever he went. Byakuya had, of course, rejected the idea. He was not so disabled that he could no longer defend himself. There was no reason why he wouldn't be able to take down an enemy, should they be foolish enough to believe him an easy target.
The elders still insisted that he have the extra protection, and it was an ongoing debate. With a few days left until his release from the Fourth, it would be interesting to see which side won out in the end of this tug of war.
Byakuya sighed. At least he'd still been able to keep command of his division, even if his role was limited to just doing the paperwork and relaying orders through a messenger. Renji had come by dutifully every morning to collect the reports he'd done, and every evening after the day's end, to fill him in on the various happenings of the 6th squadron and to drop off the forms that needed his immediate attention or signature. He had to admit; his vice-captain was managing far more than his fair share of the job and its responsibilities, and doing so admirably. He would have to give him a raise in salary once he was back at his post, since his lieutenant most definitely deserved it.
Rukia came by to visit every day as well; though he sensed a certain…melancholy about her, as Kurosaki Ichigo was still in a coma. If Byakuya had known how, he would have told her he understood, to a certain extent, how she felt, and would have perhaps been able to offer her a few words of comfort. But then again, emotions were not something he was able to easily express or discuss with other people, even if those other people were his family, and so he tried to comfort her in the only way he knew how: by not mentioning Ichigo in any of their conversations, unless she brought it up, which she hardly ever did.
Byakuya heard loud voices coming from outside his door, as he turned his attention from his thoughts to the ruckus that was growing steadily louder.
"Is he in here? I promised him I'd give him a sound beating once the war was over!"
"Please, Captain Soi Fon! Don't go in there! That's—"
Too late, the door slid open as in walked the 2nd Division Captain, looking self-assured and prominent, ready to deliver a thorough trouncing. She stopped short though, as she saw the occupant of the bed was not her vice-captain, as she had originally thought, but rather the 6th Division Captain, whom rumor had it, became crippled from the war.
"Kuchiki-taicho," Soi Fon blinked her grey orbs in surprise, not expecting to see him.
"Soi Fon-taicho," Byakuya inclined his head, as he looked her over, the empty space where her left arm ought to have been not escaping his attention. "I see you are doing well."
Behind her he could see the 4th division orderlies standing about; looking nervous. Byakuya dismissed them with a wave of his hand, as he invited Soi Fon to come sit down and poured her a glass of tea.
"I can't stay for long; I need to find my lieutenant. He must have sensed my reiatsu though, because he's doing an excellent job at hiding his. The coward," Soi Fon scoffed, as she accepted the proffered cup. "He's always been best at saving his own skin."
Byakuya nodded politely, as he noted that she did not seem to have lost an ounce of her self-confidence. She was still the same Soi Fon, in control, in command, despite the lack of a left arm.
He had, of course, heard what had happened to her during the war, but he only knew the basics of it. That the enemy had done something to her left arm, and that she had ordered her vice-captain to cut it off. He didn't know the full story, but it made him wonder how she can still assume command of the second division, with such an obvious defect. He would never ask her though, propriety dictating such a thing to be inappropriate.
But it was Soi Fon herself who opened up the conversation to that topic.
"I see you still have your arm and leg. Rumor had it they were both amputated."
Byakuya nearly choked on his tea, as Soi Fon grinned at his reaction.
"Amputated, no. But it seems I will not be able to walk on my own for some time. At least, not without the aid of a cane."
"Ahh. That must have been difficult news for you to hear. How did your clan react? I'm sure they must have been very displeased."
"I'm sure they would have preferred that I sustained more severe injuries, so long as it would not have left me a cripple. As it is, there is not much that can be done. I have my duties to resume, with or without a limp."
"I see." Soi Fon sipped her tea thoughtfully.
There was a few seconds of silence, before Byakuya spoke.
"It does make me feel rather unappreciative, saying this in front of you, when it is apparent that your situation is far worse than mine ever was."
"Oh, you mean this," Soi Fon waved around the stump of her left shoulder in a rather crude fashion. "I suppose it is quite the eyesore, isn't it? But I think it adds to the overall intimidating image that I like to portray."
Byakuya was silent, unsure of what to say. Soi Fon seemed to be taking it in stride, but he knew better than to assume that everything was okay.
"I'm sorry," he said at last.
Soi Fon looked at him in surprise. "What for?"
"It must be very difficult to do many of the things you're used to doing on your own."
Soi Fon looked down at her cup of tea, gripping it more tightly with her only hand.
"It wouldn't be quite so bad, if people didn't question my ability to maintain captaincy as a result." She said quietly. "This isn't the first time in my life that my left arm had become disabled. It became broken on many different occasions too, and it never affected my performance in a battle. But what can you do? People think strength is only as good as what they can see. I've already had to make a demonstration out of some of my subordinates to show them that I am very much capable and in charge. It will be a long road though, until they all come to realize that a missing arm is not much of a deciding factor in a battle, but rather the skills with which you are able to use when that arm is gone."
Her words resonated deeply within him, as the 2nd Captain finished off the last of her tea, and stood up to go.
"Well, it's been a pleasure," she said, placing the teacup on the nightstand and heading towards the door. "But I'd better get going. I promised my vice-captain a lesson or two about running away and interfering in a battle. Thanks for the tea, Byakuya."
She slid the door open, the picture of poise and confidence, as though nothing had truly changed since the battle a few weeks earlier and the recovery period until now. Byakuya called her back.
She turned around to look at him questioningly.
The 6th Captain closed his eyes for a moment, as a smile lifted his lips, his slate grey eyes saying it all.
Soi Fon smirked, as she inclined her head. "You're welcome," she answered, before bidding him farewell, and sliding the door shut behind her.