Notes: This is basically me trying to exorcise some of my Kuchiki-sibling demons in the wake of the latest manga chapter. Written in the midst of an emotional tidal wave, which means there's a chance I'll be embarrassed about it later…but regardless, here we go.
(Story cover picture is an icon made by verduister on LiveJournal.)
Consciousness tugged at the edges of his mind, gentle but insistent. Everything was quiet. He could feel the steady beating of his heart in his chest and, beside it, the shadow of an ache where Shinsou had pierced him. The cool air brushing against the skin of his arms rested atop the blanket. A small, warm hand wrapped lightly, tentatively around his own.
He opened his eyes.
The bright white of the hospital room seared his vision, and he blinked rapidly. The pain of his wound was growing sharper now that he was awake, an ache that seemed to spread through his whole body. The warm hand released his, and when his eyes began to adjust he saw a ghost sitting by his bedside, watching him with anxious, trembling eyes. Hisana, down to the thick lock of hair hanging down between her eyes; down to the tiny dimple in the corner of her mouth, down to the slender shape of the hands that now folded modestly in her lap. Truly, a ghost.
Except not a ghost. A living, breathing girl. His sister.
"How do you feel, Nii-sama?" she asked politely, her voice edged with concern.
"Fine," he said, surprised by the hoarseness of his own voice. How long had he been unconscious?
"Thank goodness." A shy, but achingly sincere smile mapped its way across her lips, and when she smiled she was nothing like Hisana - warmth and energy seemed to pour from her very skin, and the ache in his chest eased. There were so many unspoken words that echoed in that smile - 'thank you' and 'I'm here' and 'I forgive you'. He longed to answer, but the words caught in his throat. And so he smiled back, faint and tentative but just as sincere, and allowed his eyes to slip closed again.
"Would you tell me about her, Nii-sama?"
Their walk through the grounds had led them to the shady little lawn beside the stream, where Hisana used to love to sit and practice her reading. A strange shiver ran down his spine, and he wondered if Rukia had somehow guessed, and had chosen this as an appropriate place to voice her question. He dismissed the thought as quickly as it had struck him - Rukia had been chewing on the question since the moment he had found her by the koi pond and invited her to join him. This spot marked only the length of time it had taken her to gather the courage to ask.
He wasn't entirely sure he had the courage to answer.
"Hisana...I think you would have gotten on well with her," he said at length. "She was well-mannered and kind, and she enjoyed ikebana and...she was not very good at reading, but she loved seasonal poetry." He hesitated, despising his description already. How was he supposed to capture, in mere words, the radiant beauty and spirit of the woman whom blessed fortune had given to him as a wife? How could he explain the long evening hours they had spent together on this very lawn? How she had so desperately wanted to improve her literacy, and would select books at random from the library and sit out on this lawn for hours, leaning comfortably against his shoulder and struggling good-naturedly to commit to memory every new kanji she asked him to identify for her. And when she took to writing her own poetry - well, it was absolutely ghastly stuff, but he dutifully admired each piece anyway, and her quiet joy at his approval made every dreadful line worth reading. He still kept a number of them, tucked away in the back of an office cupboard to be retrieved on nights when the scent of spring floated through the open windows and awoke his old melancholy.
Rukia seemed pleased, however, with his answer. "Would you show me some of her favourite poems, Nii-sama?" she asked, eyes wide and hopeful. "I love seasonal poetry as well."
He acquiesced and they spoke no more, but before he had the promised books delivered to her room he spent a quiet hour copying out, with neat accompanying furigana, every character he thought she mightn't recognise.
It had been a long time since he had felt this kind of anger.
Kotetsu and Yamada kept a wide berth from him as they finished healing his sister's wounds. He could feel Rukia's eyes drilling into the back of his head, and he had never wanted so badly to shout at her. She had lost her cloak; she was an unsightly mess; she could have died, and certainly would have if he'd arrived a moment later than he had.
Thank goodness I got here in time.
He refused to look at her. Fixed his gaze on the dreary desert horizon, took deep breaths of air that was cold and dry and still smelled of the blood and sweat of battle, and focused on compressing his anger into the tranquil determination that would carry him most efficiently through the fights yet to come.
"We've finished healing her, Kuchiki-taichou," said Kotetsu, approaching him tentatively from the side, as though afraid he might lash out if she moved carelessly. "Please allow us to tend to your wounds now."
Rukia continued to stare at him as the two healers treated him; her eyes were apologetic and ashamed.
He chose to say nothing, to let her sit with that shame for a time. Let it sink in, so that she might think twice next time before recklessly snatching herself away beyond the reach of his protection.
She had cut her hair, and she was trembling all over.
Tendrils of steam coiled up from the pot on the table between them, and Rukia's hands shook slightly as she raised her teacup to her lips. The hairdresser's shears had cut away the final trace of Hisana's ghost, and the small anxious face before him, framed by jaunty chin-length locks, said sister and nothing else. He wondered if he should comment, but could think of nothing to say that was not embarrassingly personal - I never looked to replace her in you. I don't mind if you look like her or not. Please, stop trembling. He let these thoughts pass by in silence.
"Are you ready for the ceremony tomorrow?" he asked instead, lifting his own cup and taking a sip.
"I am, Nii-sama. Will I...I mean, will you have time to attend? I know it is trivial-"
Trivial. He fought back an undignified snort of laughter. Trivial, his little sister's promotion to lieutenant? Why, he had agonised over the decision for months. The role was dangerous, and he would not be able to intervene any longer to keep her out of battle - but then, how many times had battle found Rukia in spite of all his efforts? And had she not acquitted herself admirably, stood her ground against far more formidable opponents than he himself had faced at her age? She deserved the recognition. Deserved the knowledge that she had brought honour to the family.
"I would not miss it," he said simply.
She smiled, and when she raised the cup to her lips again her shaking hands had grown steady.
He would have given anything to be able to see her face one last time.
It was selfish, he thought. He knew all too well the agony of sitting helpless at the side of a dying loved one - he ought to be glad that his sister would be spared the memory of his final breath. But still, he would have given anything to see her.
Pain was giving way to numbness, and darkness pooled before his eyes. It was alright, he knew. Rukia was alive - and the boy would make sure she stayed that way. If she were with him now, perhaps he would be able to tell her how achingly proud of her he was. But then again, perhaps he wouldn't. Hopefully it wouldn't matter. Hopefully, she already knew.
The darkness was thickening.
Farewell, my sister.