Author's Note: Huge thanks to everyone for the reviews and all the silent reads and just generally making me feel like this has been worth it. Especially to Splitheart and Kaze05 for all those reviews. Kaze – thanks for reading all my chapters and commenting so closely. Also to Chellythemadhatter – I'm so happy you are still reading after all this time. That made my day!
The story so far….. Rescued from a life of fear and poverty on the streets of Rukongai, Hisana has been staying with Byakuya, but she is unsure of what to make of this new life. A few hours ago, in the garden, he tried to kiss her and it might have been more successful had they not been interrupted by a messenger requesting his presence. Afraid that his reputation will suffer for being found with a woman, Byakuya has decided to take Hisana along with him.
The story continues…..
The streets of the sereitei were wide. The people were clean and well-dressed and everyone seemed to have somewhere to go. Hisana was used to seeing people drift through Rukongai or loiter in alleys, but no-one paused here. No-one stared forward with empty eyes. If they hesitated, it was because they were bowing to the man who was walking with one hand resting against the small of her back.
"Must you hold my hand that way?" she had asked as they'd stepped out of the gated mansion.
"What way?" he'd asked.
He'd let go of her hand and gently placed his at her back, guiding her through the streets.
She felt lost in his world. Having spent her whole life trying to be invisible, now nearly every eye turned to her as she passed. They bowed to Byakuya and stared with open curiosity at the young woman at his side.
She had only just started to get used to seeing him in a shihakusho. He wore the uniform now, along with the sword on his hip and a scarf of fabric so fine that it was almost colourless. When he turned off the road and led her into a barracks, she hesitated. The shinigami looked no different to the man at her side, but they were not him. They were everything that she had been taught to distrust about this world.
The barracks, like everything else in the Court of Pure Souls, corresponded to rules of order, form and symmetry. Covered wooden walkways joined narrow buildings with windows set equidistant from one another. Between them were lawns and pools and willow trees. The building to which they proceeded stood in the middle of a lake, with bridges extending out from it to the four cardinal points.
They were greeted by a man whose attire, a haori with the number thirteen emblazoned on the back, distinguished him as a captain amongst the shinigami. To Hisana, though, he did not look like much of a soldier. He was thin, his shoulders a little hunched, his hair a premature white though he wore it long down his back. He bowed to them, but Byakuya bowed lower and, in such a way, she knew at once that he was important. Indeed, she had not, since arriving in the sereitei, yet met anyone who outranked the man at her side.
"Kuchiki-sama." He addressed Byakuya as he led them inside: "It is a fine evening."
His presence disquieted Hisana. When she was close to him, it was as if the air were full of static. It was the same when she was close to Byakuya, but she had grown used to the latter's reiatsu. Here was another though whose spiritual pressure she could sense, and that constant awareness of his presence was an uncomfortable reminder of what he was. "A pleasure to meet you," he said as she fell into step between the two men.
"Hisana," said Byakuya: "This is Ukitake-taichou of Thirteenth Division. Juushiro, this is Hisana." His voice seemed calm, his face serene, yet Hisana sensed a tension in Byakuya that had been absent before.
Ukitake led them through a magnificently furnished anteroom to a chamber where a woman was kneeling beside a traditional fire pit. Hisana hesitated on the threshold. She had seen female shinigami before, but it had never occurred to her that a woman could achieve the position of captain amongst the death-gods. As Hisana entered, the woman glanced up and smiled sweetly at her. Unlike Ukitake, she seemed incurious about Byakuya's guest.
"Unohana-taichou." Byakuya bowed deeply, then introduced Hisana to her. The woman nodded:
"It is my pleasure."
"Hisana-san." Ukitake pressed a cup of warm tea into her hands and invited her to take a seat beside the female captain, while the two men took up positions on the other side of the fire pit. "Kuchiki-sama, you understand why I invited you here, don't you?"
"I believe it has a great deal to do with the current situation in Sixth Division."
"At times like these, custom would have us wait. We should not rush into decisions that have far reaching consequences. However, given the great losses sustained by Sixth Division during their recent mission, it has become necessary to rethink." He cleared his throat: "You understand, don't you, that you will be required to lead a group back into the world of the living to dispatch those hollows."
"Ukitake-taichou," said the woman at Hisana's side: "You should make your proposal before you talk of fights and revenge."
"Kuchiki-sama deserves to know what he is undertaking."
"My father served as vice-captain of Sixth," Byakuya said softly: "I would be honoured to follow in his footsteps, regardless of the risk."
The two captains hesitated, then the woman smiled and glanced at Ukitake who reached into the fold of his kimono and retrieved a scroll. He spread it out for Byakuya to read:
"You see," he said, after giving the younger man a moment to take it in: "They do not want you to become vice-captain, Kuchiki-sama. You are requested to take the post of Captain of Sixth Division."
If he was surprised, Byakuya's only concession to his emotions was a slight widening of his eyes. He did not speak. Ukitake ran one finger down the scroll, counting off names: "Nine of the twelve extant captains."
"Did you want more?" asked Unohana, her voice, teasing: "Eleventh Division would never willingly concede captaincy to the son of a noble without a show of brute strength. You shouldn't take it personally."
"No – I – no." Byakuya picked up the scroll and skimmed through the list of names.
"The numbers are enough," said Ukitake: "The squad will still be without a vice-captain, but it will have a leader, and you will be able to choose your own man when the time comes."
"I'm grateful," said Byakuya.
"Then you accept?"
"With greatest respects." He bowed his head to the ground. Ukitake chuckled:
"Then we should raise a glass to the captain of Sixth Division!" His servants brought a round of hot sake. Hisana took it numbly in both hands and sipped a moment afer Ukitake raised a toast.
The tension had drained out of Byakuya. This, she realised, was what he had wanted.
As the men fell to talking of the Sixth Division and its repsonsibilties, Unohana leaned in and spoke to Hisana, making the younger woman start. "How long have you known Kuchiki-sama?" she asked. Everything about her demeanour was kindness itself, but, somehow, it seemed to Hisana that the woman could see through her façade. She tried to think of an appropriate answer:
"A few years now, I think."
"You are staying with him at the moment?"
"Yes. It's a beautiful house. And the gardens are beautiful. And the rooms are – beautiful." She trailed off as she realised the two men had stopped talking and were listening. "And I'm very grateful," she said, looking away. Unohana was still smiling:
"Where are you from, Hisana?" she asked gently.
In the silence that followed, Hisana felt her face flush. Byakuya had brought her here to save face, to ensure that his servants would not gossip, to avoid a scandal with his peers and suddenly she knew, she could see by the expression on his face, that the truth was the one thing she should not, could not, say:
"I come from – that is, my family" – She looked desperately towards Byakuya to frame the lie. She could feel tears prickling at her eyes. His face hardened:
"Hisana is from the Seventy-ninth district of Rukongai," he said. She felt, rather than saw, their surprise. Yet his tone had brooked no argument; the words had been thrown out like a challenge, daring the others to mock.
"How did you meet?" asked Unohana after a moment. Hisana didn't answer.
"When we were children. Before my parents died."
"In Rukongai?" Ukitake asked, surprised.
"My grandfather has a summer house in the mountains. We used to pass through Seventy-ninth twice a month on the way there and back. It was a chance encounter. My own foolishness." He took a long draft of the sake and replaced the empty cup. "I was rash as a child; I believed I could take on every criminal in Seventy-ninth."
"And you were wrong?"
"My father was not very pleased."
Ukitake laughed and signalled his servant for more drinks:
"Ah, Kuchiki-sama, I truly wish I had known you back then. I heard such stories from your parents."
"I was not very wise."
"Hm. You are still too young to be wise."
Their conversation continued and Hisana realised that Byakuya had artfully deflected it away from her. He had also, without much ado, defended her.
Beside her, Unohana leaned in and offered her another glass of the sweet wine:
"You are very welcome here," she said.
The wine, the company, the soft, rich furnishings and the dance of the fire reflected in shadows lulled Hisana into quiet contemplation. The two, no, she reminded herself, the three, captains had much that they needed to talk about. To her, it was another world. They spoke of journeys through a place called Dangai, a path that connected the realm of the living with that of the dead; they spoke of magic, of missions, of tragedies and loss. Their world was vast and magnificent and hers was so small that their words painted landscapes in her imagination. For the first time, she saw herself, not as a victim of circumstance, but as a part of the balance of life and death. She was, she realised, still the same girl who had worked the rice paddies outside Tokyo city. She had just forgotten herself for a century.
Had he brought her here to make her realise that? Or to make her understand that she need not be afraid anymore?