Sakura no Eda ("A Branch of Sakura")

Chapter 1

If asked directly, Kuchiki Byakuya would say that he had no comment to make about his life, either good or bad. Being born a noble, he had always been taught that less was more in terms of idle chatter, or sentimental naval-gazing. As for how he felt, deep down where he rarely even admitted it to himself, he had understandably had a lot of ups and downs.

By the time he was in his fifties, he considered himself to be the ideal head of Kuchiki family, a fact which was a source of great pride for him. At that time, all his childish impatience and anger was (mostly) behind him, he was a lieutenant in the Gotei 13, he was one of the most elite men in Soul Society, noble, wealthy, educated and talented, and all in all he had no complaints about how he lived his life. Then, in one instant, that peaceful self-assuredness was shattered forever.

As he walked through a street in Rukongai during his rounds, he happened to glance on the other side of the street. A girl was walking there, holding her hands to her chest as if in pain, and though she continued walking steadily, it was clear she was fighting to stay standing. Byakuya was about to turn away to save himself the tiniest flicker of unease when he saw such conditions in this area, but something made him look just a fraction of a second longer than normal. And thus, his fate was sealed.

The girl looked up. Her large, dark eyes immediately met Byakuya's. Suddenly his chest felt both pained and thrilled at the same time. Her expression when she looked at him, while tinged with pain, was so soft, and somehow compassionate, even though she did not know him. Her small lips parted, and it seemed she was about to speak. At that moment, a rickshaw passed between them and he lost sight of her for a moment. By the time it passed, Byakuya's heart leapt into his throat in panic. She had collapsed on the road.

That was how he met the woman who changed his heart forever. He took her home and, despite the vehement objections of his family (which, in the past, he would have likely raised himself), had his personal physician examine her. However, the news he brought was grave. Healing kidou was not a panacea, it still had most of the problems of lower world science, and only aided with speed of healing and reiatsu. This girl, who called herself Hisana, was months from death if she did not receive treatment, he said. Byakuya at first felt relieved that they had found her in time, not knowing much about medicine, and so he did not understand the implication of the word, "cancer". Without treatment, the physician stressed, she would not live out the year. But even with treatment, he allowed perhaps only half a dozen years.

Byakuya could not accept this news at first. His whole body felt pained, it was difficult to breathe, and to his own disbelief, despite having only met her that afternoon, he was almost moved to tears. He took it in quietly for a moment. Eventually, he nodded and said, "Do what you can."

The next day, he went to visit her before he began his duties. He knocked twice, and entered without waiting for her permission. Surprisingly, though she was still in bed, she was sitting up and her color was much improved from when he first saw her. Her cheeks were a rosy pink, and the color there made her eyes seem larger and even more charming. Her lips were more subtly pink, and her mouth, like most of the rest of her, was tiny. Her dark hair fell partly in her face, and somehow only enhanced this compassionate quality the Byakuya felt in her presence.

She looked confused and embarrassed when he came in. "Are you…Kuchiki-dono?" she asked in a sweet, soft voice.

Byakuya's chest tightened at hearing her voice. "You may call me by my first name, there are many Kuchiki in this household." He said this while knowing it was completely incorrect, the head of the family should always be referred to by surname by outsiders. But she merely blinked. He realized she might not know it. "It is Byakuya," he said, hiding his embarrassment.

She shook her head. "Forgive me, it is not that. I…I am sorry, I don't…know how I came to this house." She glanced aside, calmly folding her hands in her lap. "I certainly remember meeting you in the street," she said.

Byakuya swallowed, feeling a thrill of excitement that she had remembered.

"I knew your name even then." Now she blushed. "Forgive me, but I am sure there is hardly a woman in Western Rukongai who does not know your face, Kuchiki-dono. To even see one so beautiful as you there, when I was in such pain, I was truly grateful. And yet…" she looked around hesitantly and wrung her hands. "…Kuchiki-dono, could you tell me why I am here? And why my pain feels so much better?"

Now that the conversation was directed his way again, he briefly panicked because he wasn't sure what to say. Besides which, what was the actual answer to that question? He hadn't even considered it.

"I had a concern that encountering my reiatsu so suddenly may have contributed to your collapse. The Kuchiki house does not shirk responsibility," he said, relieved that he had thought of a credible lie.

Now her blush only seemed to increase, and she cast her sweet eyes down. He wanted her to look at him again. "I am so sorry. I can never thank you enough, nor do I deserve such kindness. Truly," she added, and her voice trailed off. Even at a distance, Byakuya could see the pain that flickered there. And then, as he watched, a single, large tear fell down her cheek.

Without thinking, he knelt beside her. "Why do you cry?"

She blinked in surprise to see him so close, as he was sure she was blushing harder than ever now. "Oh, it's nothing," she said, smiling unconvincingly. She pressed her sleeve briefly against her eye to stem the tears, and later he thought she may also have been hiding her face out of embarrassment. "But truly, Kuchiki-dono. You may have saved my life, it is a debt I can never repay. Please, tell me if there is anything I can do for you."

Byakuya swallowed. He knew it was insanity, what he was considering saying at this moment. He knew it was unforgivable in the eyes of his family, and even himself. And at the back of his mind, he knew that she likely had no similar feelings for him. But even knowing all these things did not stop the words that bubbled up out of him.

"Become my wife," he said.

She did not seem to comprehend his words at first. Then confusion, and disbelief, and finally pain returned to her features. Without looking away from him, she began to cry in earnest. With a soft sob, she covered her face in his hands and her shoulders shook. Tears dripped between her fingers onto the blankets.

Byakuya felt guilt hit him like a rock in the stomach. Though he was not a humble man, even he was aware that not every woman must necessarily fall in love with him at first sight. Clearly she, at any rate, was not of that category. He'd done something cruel. She looked so hurt. He started to lower his head, but then she spoke.

"This…" she whispered. Then she met his eyes again. "This would please you?"

He didn't know what to say, so he said nothing.

She cast her gaze down again, still crying. She shook her head. "Such a thing…the gift of myself as a wife is not worthy of your gift of my life. Even if it were, to a person like you, Kuchiki-dono, a marriage to such a low commoner would be much more a curse than a gift." She looked up at him with such sweet, terrible compassion that it almost broke his heart. "I don't understand…you've been so kind to me…how could such a thing repay your kindness?"

Slowly, and with a trepidation that he had never known before that moment, he covered her hand in his, as it lay in her lap. Her cheeks went bright red, and she froze. She even stopped crying.

"It would please me," he said softly. "But you may refuse. You may, but…" He glanced down and observed her tiny hand in his. "…I hope you will not."

After that, she held his gaze for a long time. Slowly, she had begun to cry again, but now she was also smiling. In a gesture that a noble woman would never contemplate, she picked up his hand in both of hers and placed it over her heart. He watched her with wide eyes as she met his with ones sparkling with tears and said, "If it is your wish, then I will never leave your side." Then her smile widened a little and she gave the smallest of happy laughs. "Byakuya-sama."

Byakuya's heart ached with such a stream of dissonant emotions, and he gritted his teeth. All he could do was gently kiss her hair, and pull her head against his chest. He wanted to be everything for her. It was unfathomable. They had only just met, and yet she was so dear to him. And then her words struck his heart badly. "Never"…if only his doctor had been wrong…

He had never met anyone like Hisana. There was no veil behind her actions, no ulterior motive, and no false kindness. She was pure and compassionate all the time, with everyone, even those who were cruel to her, though Byakuya did his best to nip that problem in the bud. Nameless commoner though she may have been, his family could hardly have hoped for a more lovely and gentle creature to be his wife. That nagging guilt that Byakuya felt towards his family, towards the rules and honor he loved so much, he managed to keep at bay each day. It was eased by seeing Hisana's smile. He had never felt so happy.

About a year into their marriage, Hisana's condition started to worsen. But when his physician examined her, he said something strange. While talking to Byakuya privately, he said that the treatment was not as effective as it should be, and he suspected that the reasons might be psychological. Once he said this, Byakuya immediately thought about those times, so often now, when he would find Hisana farther and farther from the main house, until eventually she left the grounds completely, walking toward Rukongai. She had left the grounds twice now, while he was away, and he was considering placing someone on guard to watch her. However, when he heard this news, the pain in his heart deepened, and he knew he could not deny her.

One time, Byakuya raced home as it started to rain, and found her knelt on the ground in the streets of Rukongai, soaked through, feverish and barely conscious. He brought her back, and made sure she was treated immediately. Later that evening, as he was sitting at her bedside holding her hand, she confessed to him the story about her baby sister. He was stunned, but he accepted this knowledge. He told her he would have men search for the child, so she wouldn't have to go out like that again. At the time, she hesitantly agreed. But her eyes were distant, and her resolve did not last.

Byakuya knew from watching her that the reason she was so desperate was because she knew she did not have much more time. What he did not know was what she was so desperate for. Byakuya had never lived in hardship, had rarely left his own family's house in fact, so he did not understand, nor could he, what had driven Hisana to abandon baby Rukia in the first place. Nor could he understand her guilt at having found a place of warmth and safety, and being unable to share it with her only family. But he was to understand much of this soon enough.

A day came, in their fifth year of marriage, when Hisana became unable to search any longer. She collapsed one final time, and never rose from that bed again. She told Byakuya to keep looking if he could, and that if he found Rukia, she begged him to please look after her as a brother. She wanted to keep her identity from Rukia since she did not feel she deserved the title of older sister. Her last words that she whispered to him, with a weakened voice that was a mere shadow of the sweet song it used to be, were ingrained on his heart forever. At the same time, though he allowed himself sadness, he became more and more twisted up inside with hate for the world that had hastened her death. And he swore he would do whatever he could to make sure her soul was at peace.

Not long after, one of his servants brought to him news of a student in the shinigami academy who was almost the living image of Hisana herself. From his grief, he saw a brief glimpse of light. He wasted no time, and went to the school with his entourage to go through with plans he had been making for some time, for accepting her into the Kuchiki family as an adoptive sister.

He was surprised that when he saw her, he did not feel brotherly affection. Nor did he feel happy to be fulfilling Hisana's last wish. He looked on this child and was reminded of what he had lost. Reminded of the differences between the two, how she would never be anything like his Hisana. And this was how he stayed for a long time.

For one thing, she did not seem happy at all to be accepted into the Kuchiki family, the total opposite of her sister's reaction. She was clearly trying to be grateful, but more than anything seemed uncomfortable with being a noble. She barely looked at Byakuya for the first few months. Several times he saw her trying to make conversation with a commoner with red hair and ostentatious tattoos. The man would smile hesitantly, but end the conversations quickly. To Byakuya's eyes, it was obvious he was being considerate of her. To Rukia's, he could tell, all she was able to perceive was that she was being abandoned.

One evening, at dinner, she spoke to him of her own will for the first time. "Byakuya nii-sama," she murmured softly.

His gaze flicked up in annoyance, and she shrank beneath it.

"I do not mean to be rude, but I have been wondering…is it not…painful for you? Having me here, I mean."

His eyes narrowed, partly annoyed, as always, at her boorish and masculine way of speaking. "What do you mean?"

She blushed, clearly panicking a little from his reaction. "It's no bother if you do not wish to answer. It's just…if it were me, who had lost someone I loved…seeing someone who looked like that person every day would be far more painful than it would be enjoyable. Though…I realize that's only me. No…I apologize, please forget I said anything."

Byakuya gauged her expression for a moment. But he sighed lightly through his nose, then he continued his dinner heedlessly.

One way in which Rukia was different from Hisana was the way in which she handled the bullying that she received after joining his household. Although Hisana was gracious about it, Byakuya almost always found out about it. But it was many months before he realized that Rukia was receiving even worse treatment.

She was late one morning when they were meant to go to the Seireitei together as usual. He waited several minutes, but Byakuya had never been a patient man, and decades of life had not changed that. He sent a servant to ask what she was doing. She returned, merely saying that Rukia-sama was having difficulty getting up this morning, and that Byakuya should go on ahead. He sighed. He was going to leave it at that, but this time his annoyance took over. In truth, this was not the first time she had been late. He would instruct her once and for all that it was unacceptable to be late for work (or to keep him waiting).

Byakuya reached her room and slid open the door without knocking. She gasped as he entered.

"Nii-sama…" she murmured. She was sitting on the floor. Soon, he realized why.

Her white tabi socks were stained with blood. Then he saw her sandals, similarly stained, and just visible were tiny needles, which likely would not have been perceptible until one stood up. She blushed and gritted her teeth in shame as he saw.

"Nii-sama, forgive me, please go ahead without me for now. I will join you presently."

Anger surged in his gut, and for the first time, he felt protectiveness sweep through his veins. "How many times has this happened?"

"What?" she asked in surprise.

"Do not make me repeat myself."

She shivered. Hesitantly, she said, "It is nothing. Please do not trouble yourself."

"Rukia," he said harshly. She jumped. "Do not try to deceive me. Answer my question."

She lowered her gaze and closed her eyes for a moment. "Two or three times."

He felt anger rise again. "No. Not this particular trick. I mean how many times have they tried to make you miserable?"

Rukia looked conflicted. "I…don't know. It's hard to count." His jaw tightened with rage. "But I don't resent them. Please don't worry yourself over this, it is nothing."

Byakuya tightened his fists for a moment. "You should be able to use kidou to heal that yourself. I'll send for some new sandals. Then you are to report for duty as always. Is that clear?" he asked her coldly.

She lowered her head. "Yes, Nii-sama," she murmured.

It did not take Byakuya long to discover all who were responsible. Those who were servants, he fired without a moment's hesitation. But unfortunately there were some members of his family who had joined in the bullying as well. When he found all responsible, he came to realize how much Rukia had been enduring all on her own. As for those members of his family, he promptly put the fear of god into them, and hoped that would be enough.

Several days of peace passed after that, and though Byakuya barely noticed at first, Rukia's attitude toward him changed a little. Though she still seemed apprehensive around him, she also began to look him in the eyes more often, and even smiled when she did so. The first time she did this, his eyes widened and it was enough to make him pause. For the first time, he saw Hisana reflected in her features. It was a complicated feeling. Yet once again, those irrational feelings he once felt began to surface again. No, she was not Hisana. But she was part of her, and he would not abandon her.

He was just feeling like things between them had reached a comfortable medium when it happened. Rukia disappeared in the lower world. At first he was caught between feeling protective and being enraged that she had gone against their laws. Still, he promised himself he would simply retrieve her, and deal with the legalities after that. And then he heard the reason she had vanished; she had either given her powers, or they had been taken away…by a human. To Byakuya, either case was inexcusable. Despite accepting her into his household, and even into his heart to some extent, she had betrayed all of Soul Society, made a mockery of what it was to be a shinigami. Even for Hisana's sake, could he forgive her? Would he break his vow to his parents to save someone he still had mixed feelings for?

Unfortunately, he already knew the answer. He knew that if he had the choice, no matter what the consequences to him personally, no matter how betrayed he felt, he would try to save her. And so he did, at first. He appealed on her behalf to the Office of the 46. He was surprised that they refused to hear him out, but there was nothing he could do now. Much though it tore him up inside, this was not his problem alone. The burden he bore was far greater than that of his own feelings. And after all the courage it had taken him to disobey his house and sense of honor twice, he knew he could not do it a third time.

Though he did not realize it himself, the stress of this situation was making his temper even shorter than normal. For that reason, he nearly let Renji die as a result of his injuries from fighting Kurosaki Ichigo. He was grateful after the fact for Ichimaru Gin's intervention, though he would die before admitting it. He spent more time together with Hisana, at her shrine. It pained him deeply to be with her when he knew he was betraying her, but he needed her strength. And he needed to remind himself that he would always love her, even if he could not fulfill her expectations of him. Each day, he asked for her forgiveness.

The one to save him from these feelings was one he never would have expected. When Kurosaki Ichigo shattered his blade, Byakuya simultaneously felt a huge weight lifted from his heart. He had done everything he could to obey the law, and his vow to his parents. But Rukia had still been saved. That meant he did not have to fight anymore. He could admit to himself that she was already dear to him, even if her presence still pained him. Then that bastard Ichimaru tried to destroy that fragile peace.

Byakuya's sword was shattered. There was only one way he could protect Rukia from Shinsou's strike. He did so without hesitation. Even as he felt his organs pierced, knowing Rukia was safe in his arms, and that he had fulfilled his promise, filled up his chest with relief and contentment. Shinsou left his body, and though he tried to hold on, he felt his consciousness slipping away. Rukia held him in her tiny arms, and he was satisfied.

He expected he would die up on that hill. For that reason, he told Rukia what he had promised he wouldn't. She held his hand, with a gentleness he never expected from her, and though he thought he would die then and there, he was at peace.

To his own chagrin in many ways, he did survive. Now that it was all over, it seemed so silly. Even though he knew that 99 times out of 100, he would still have done the same thing, it seemed so clear to him now that Rukia was precious and must be protected. He promised himself that he would do whatever it took to keep her safe hereafter.

When they both returned to the Kuchiki mansion, mostly healed, Byakuya realized that Rukia had stopped looking afraid of him. Even though she had hardly any reiatsu, and it must have been hard to breathe around him, she often smiled at him in a sort of embarrassed way as he passed. It was difficult for him to tell from up close, but any outsider could see that her devotion to him had increased tenfold.

One day, as Byakuya was relaxing in his room, practicing his shodou, he felt Rukia's reiatsu approaching. She rarely approached him on her own. Curiously, he turned toward his door as she knocked on it.

"Nii-sama? May I come in?" she asked through the door.

Byakuya frowned. "If you like," he said gruffly, though nevertheless he was interested.

Smiling, she opened the door. Byakuya's eyes widened. In her small arms, she carried a large branch of a tree. It was covered in sakura blossoms. He had completely forgotten that it was the season.

She smiled wider at his reaction and then said, "It's not very suited to ikebana, though I know Nii-sama is very skilled at that. But when I saw that it had fallen, I couldn't resist the urge to show it to Nii-sama." She finished saying this, and then her joy faded and she blushed, letting her gaze fall. "Well…perhaps it is a little childish. I'm sorry. I'll take it outside."

"Rukia," Byakuya said, stopping her as she turned toward the door. Byakuya could not help the surge of joy he felt at her consideration for him. He said gently, "Please place it on the mantle."

Rukia's eyes widened, and briefly her blush deepened. Then joy spread over her face again. She carefully placed it at an angle so the most blooms were visible. "Is that all right?" she asked.

Byakuya nodded. "That will do. Thank you, Rukia."

Now her whole face went red. She stammered for a moment. "Uh…oh, it's nothing. Well, I won't trouble you." She turned to leave again.

"If you like, you may join me in shodou practice," Byakuya said, drawing her attention again.

She turned to look at him in surprise, and he thought she looked happy to be invited. But then her gaze lowered. "Calligraphy is not my strong suit, Nii-sama."

"All the more reason to practice," he answered. He produced another sheet of paper and placed it on the opposite side of the small table where he was working. "If you're not busy, I would enjoy the company."

Rukia's eyes went wide, and she blushed again. She smiled a little. "Yes, Nii-sama."

Rukia was not lying when she said shodou was not her strong suit. She was not abysmal, not as bad as Renji for example, who Byakuya wished many times would take lessons, but neither was she particularly skilled. Byakuya soon abandoned his own practice to help and critique her. Without either one realizing, the time passed swiftly and comfortably, the afternoon turned into evening, and soon Byakuya's servants were calling them to dinner.

Byakuya sighed. They had made some progress, but more importantly, he was enjoying this time with Rukia. He didn't know when the next time would come when she was brave enough to approach him. And Byakuya knew he would not approach her, for many reasons. In any case, he started to set aside their work, when Rukia's hand touched his wrist. A flash of heat passed through his body, completely unwarranted. He prayed Rukia did not notice.

But in a normal tone, she said, "Please let me do that, Nii-sama. You are still injured."

He would have denied it, but the fact was, it still hurt to reach out very far. That, and he wanted an excuse to leave before her, so he didn't have to deal with the strange feeling he had just felt. He nodded. "Very well. I'll see you at dinner."

She smiled up at him as he stood. "Yes."

Byakuya strode quickly through the halls of his mansion, trying to banish that earlier sensation. She was not Hisana. Even if they were not related by blood, she was still his sister. Fleeting though it was, what he had just felt was unacceptable, disgusting. Of course, as he knew from experience, though they were feelings he felt rarely, these sensations were ones that his logic had little or no effect on. Which was why, when she came to his room again the next day, for help with her shodou, he was unable to refuse.

They rarely spoke, but for Byakuya's critiques, but Byakuya found himself very content when he was in her presence. A very different feeling than the thrilling exhilaration and burning affection he had felt with Hisana. But then again, their appearances were so similar, he couldn't be sure he wasn't getting confused. And then one day, that trace of confusion shattered painfully.

"Nii-sama," Rukia said, as she practiced the "wisdom" character yet again. "I won't mind if you don't want to talk about it, but…I don't believe you ever told me how you met Hisana-sama."

Byakuya didn't realize that his hand tensed as it was laying on the table. He took his time, trying to answer this logically. But the mention of his lost love when he was just starting to feel affection again struck a deep fissure in his heart, and his bitterness returned.

"I met her in Rukongai," he answered simply.

It was obvious from Rukia's expression when she looked up at him that that was far from answering her question. Nevertheless, she lowered her head, looking ashamed. "I'm sorry. Please forget I said anything."

Byakuya frowned at her for a moment. "Why do you ask?"

She considered, her brush halting. "I suppose…I'm just curious about my sister. And the woman Nii-sama loved." Here she blushed briefly though he could see she was trying to hide it. Why would she blush? he wondered. "I just have difficulty imagining someone Nii-sama could love. It's hard to believe it was someone from Rukongai, who looks like me." Byakuya's chest started to ache the more she spoke. "Especially when there are so many beautiful, rich, powerful and impressive women in the Seireitei. So I was thinking…she must have been an extraordinary women to gain Nii-sama's love."

Byakuya could not admit that he, as well as his entire family, had long pondered that very question. But it was not something he had an answer to. So, steeling himself against the pain, he hesitantly opened his heart once again, just a little.

"When I first saw her…" he said, and Rukia immediately perked right up. Byakuya continued with a quiet honesty he rarely used, "It was her eyes that drew my attention. They were difficult to describe." He paused for a moment to sort his feelings. "I do not know when, or if, my feelings were ever returned, but she always behaved as if she loved me. In the end, I had little choice in the matter. But…I was happy."

Rukia was staring at him with wide eyes. As he glanced at them, he noticed they were glistening slightly, as if she might start to cry. But she did not. She looked away in contemplation. "So…that's the kind of woman my sister was?"

"More than that. But yes, that was how we met."

"Hm. Now that I hear this, I can understand," Rukia said softly. After that, she paused for a long time. At last she said, "I wish she were still here."

Byakuya lowered his gaze as his throat closed up briefly. "As do I."

After that day, slowly, Byakuya began to reveal small things about Hisana. The truth was, he'd never told anyone these things before, what each day with her was like, and the depth and scale of his feelings. But strangely, although Rukia was rapt through most of the things he talked about, especially about her sister's personality, when he came to speak of his feelings, somehow she always seemed to look elsewhere. She was not impolite enough to ask him to stop, but Byakuya could tell she did not like to hear it. Then why, he wondered, was she talking to him like this at all?

Several days later, someone called on the Kuchiki house. The servants brought the visitor into the waiting hall, and Byakuya went to meet him. He knew the name; Fujiwara Ryouma. He was the next head of the Fujiwara household, but only in his early thirties, and had just graduated from the shinigami academy. Not even a seated officer yet. And none of this explained why he had come here alone, without his father. It was slightly improper, and therefore already irksome to Byakuya, and he could not imagine what he might want.

Byakuya entered the room and found him examining one of the pieces of art on the walls. Byakuya did not make his presence known, simply staring in irritation at him and waiting for him to turn around.

He did in moments, and jumped. "Oh!" he said, laughing a little. Byakuya's eyebrow twitched. "Kuchiki Taichou. Fancy meeting you here."

Byakuya could not have been more annoyed. This man was to be the next head of a noble family, yet he was waving his emotions around like a parade flag. It was extremely irritating. Fujiwara looked to be in his late teens or early twenties, as all shinigamis looked far younger than they were. He was not particularly tall, nor extraordinarily handsome, in Byakuya's opinion. He had shaggy black hair that partly shaded his eyes, but his expressions were bright and optimistic. He was almost Byakuya's polar opposite. Byakuya didn't like it.

"What is your business?" Byakuya asked bluntly.

Fujiwara flinched and calmed down a little. He cleared his throat. "Excuse my manners. I'm actually here to see Rukia-chan."

Byakuya's eyes narrowed. "Rukia-chan"? he thought with incredulity.

"Is she at home?"

Byakuya glared silently down at the younger man for a time. Fujiwara seemed to shrink under his gaze, looking more and more nervous. Finally Byakuya asked, "What is your business with her?"

Fujiwara swallowed. "Um…no business in particular. I just came to visit."

"In that case-" Byakuya was about to say, in slightly more polite wording, that he was to get his ass off of his property that instant, but then the door to the main house opened. Rukia stepped out.

She smiled. "Oh, Ryouma!" she said.

Byakuya's eyes widened with rage. "Ryouma"?

"How are you?" she asked him.

Fujiwara immediately perked up again. "Rukia-chan! Good to see you again. I didn't see you for a while after that, and I remembered where the Kuchiki estate was from visiting with my father. I hope you don't mind."

I mind, Byakuya growled internally.

Rukia glanced at Byakuya briefly, looking sheepish. "I'm sorry, Nii-sama. Is it all right if my friend comes in for a while?"

Byakuya glared down at her. There was nothing that would annoy him more than having this uneducated lout in his house. The fact that he was referring to Rukia by her first name without an honorific (or rather with an endearment), and even more so that she was returning the gesture, also made Byakuya's blood boil. But Fujiwara was from a good family, and refusing him might make waves. He decided it was Rukia's business.

"As you wish," he said, and swept back inside the house again, unaware himself that he was pouting.

This young lout became a common sight after that. Rukia stopped getting shodou lessons. The more this went on, the deeper the hole in Byakuya's chest grew. The way their friendship, if it was that, was growing, it would seem that this Fujiwara Ryouma had intentions to ask for Rukia's hand in marriage. Even thinking it made Byakuya's stomach twist. He kept telling himself that, much though he disliked him personally, Fujiwara was soon to be the head of a noble family, and if they did marry, Rukia would never worry about her livelihood every again. But is that what you really want, Rukia? he demanded in his head. A marriage to a buffoon?

Even Renji would be preferable to this idiot, he thought. Though in all honesty, he would never allow her to marry a commoner. Rukia was a noble now, and he intended to keep it that way. He did not bother to think that, although most brothers had such concerns at one time or another, there was really nothing wrong with Fujiwara Ryouma. He was a nice boy, not bad-looking, and Rukia liked him. For most brothers, that should be enough. For Byakuya, it was likely no one would ever be good enough for her.

Then, as Byakuya decided to take a stroll in the garden one afternoon, he came upon Rukia and Ryouma on a picnic blanket near the koi pond.

"Nii-sama!" Rukia said, happily. Byakuya only felt bitter rejection in this brief gesture, though. "Would you sit with us?"

"Oh, good idea!" Ryouma said, smiling as well. Though he did tremble a little as Byakuya approached.

Byakuya knew he shouldn't push himself, but found himself sitting down anyway, a few feet away from both of them.

"Would you like some tea, Nii-sama?" Rukia asked, with hopeful eyes.

Byakuya gave the slightest of nods.

As she prepared it, Ryouma faced Byakuya with a big smile and said, "You are so lucky, Kuchiki Taichou. I wish I had a sister like Rukia-chan."

Byakuya held back the urge to punch him in the face.

Rukia sighed and rolled her eyes. "Nii-sama doesn't like effusive compliments, Ryouma."

Exactly.

"Oh…my mistake," said the idiot, smiling again. "What are you doing today, Kuchiki Taichou?"

Byakuya gave a minimal sigh. "I thought I might cut some flowers to practice ikebana."

Ryouma sighed wistfully. "I really admire anyone who can do that. I mean, I had lessons like everyone else, I just never got the hang of it."

Because you have no aesthetic sense and your mouth is loud enough to wilt the flowers.

But then, "I know," Rukia said, smiling softly to herself. "Nii-sama is the most skilled person I know."

Finally, Byakuya relaxed a bit. The private nature of her smile somehow made him feel superior to the lout, even if he wasn't sure exactly why. He accepted the tea as Rukia handed it to him, and sipped it thoughtfully.

Ryouma was looking at Rukia, absent of his usual happy-go-lucky grin. Quite seriously, he asked her, "So you like men who are artistic?"

Byakuya nearly cracked the ceramic cup in his hand. He stared at Rukia to hear her answer.

She frowned at Ryouma. "Do I like them? Sure. I'm not sure I like them better than any other type of man, though."

Byakuya's brief moment of confidence was shattered. It did not even occur to him how wrong it was that he should have so many ups and downs in a simple conversation. Nor did he think about the reason for that.

"Oh, okay," Ryouma said, smiling again. "What kind of men do you like, then?"

Byakuya and Ryouma were both suddenly fixated on Rukia. She blushed and blinked a few times. "When you say…'like'…"

"Yeah," Ryouma said, giggling. "Don't you want to say? If you don't, I won't tell you what kind of girls I like. Ha ha!"

Rukia blushed and turned demurely away. "Ryouma…in front of Nii-sama, I don't think…"

"Continue," Byakuya said, darkly.

Rukia stared at him in surprise, then blushed again. "All right…" she said. "Well…" she was quiet for a few moments, and her eyes became distant, her cheeks still touched with color. "I like…kind men." Byakuya immediately felt his stomach twist. That could not be him. "I like men who are honorable and keep their promises." Again, not him. "And I like men who can speak openly about their feelings." Byakuya's chest felt tight. He wanted to leave. He shouldn't care what sort of man his sister liked, but it was so far from himself it caused a deep wound.

Ryouma on the other hand appeared quite pleased with this information. "No kidding…" he said, with interest. "So you don't care about power or skill or any of that?"

Rukia considered. "Well, it's not like I don't like it. It's just not the most important thing."

"Want to hear my type?" Ryouma asked, devilishly.

Rukia chuckled. "Sure."

Byakuya really wanted to leave.

"I like petit girls who talk like men." He burst into laughter, though as a man Byakuya knew he was perfectly serious.

Rukia slapped him in playful annoyance. "You don't get tired of that, do you?"

To his surprise, Ryouma then turned to Byakuya. "How about you, Nii-sama?" Byakuya had to restrain himself from killing this man in front of Rukia for calling him "Nii-sama". "You have a-"

"No," Rukia said firmly. Both men looked at her. She looked to Ryouma with a trace of sadness. "Don't ask that."

Byakuya's jaw clenched for a moment. "True," he said, softly. "No one even needs to ask that question." Then he rose, and walked away. He heard Rukia call out softly to him, but he did not turn.

Rukia found him in his room later that same day. He had sent his servants out to gather flowers instead, and was now carefully cutting and arranging them. He did not acknowledge her as she entered. She stood awkwardly for a moment before she spoke.

"I sent Ryouma home."

"I see."

She wrung her hands. Suddenly Byakuya looked at her fully. It was the same; exactly the same gesture as Hisana. "Nii-sama…I'm sorry about what Ryouma said. He didn't know any better." Now that was a lie. There was not a noble family in Soul Society who did not know of their situation. Ryouma had either forgotten, or he had said it on purpose, but there was no way he didn't know. "Nii-sama, I hope you don't mind…if I continue to associate with him…"

Byakuya paused. He snapped the stem off an orchid. "Why?"

"What?"

"Why must you continue to associate with him?"

Rukia looked torn, and she wrung her hands again. "It's not that I 'must'…I just enjoy his company…"

That was the final blow for Byakuya. He rose. He walked over and grabbed Rukia by the shoulders, pressing her softly against the wall. She looked up at him with wide eyes, uncomprehending.

"Why must you have so many friends? Why am I not enough?" his voice was fading as he said this last part, as he realized just how childish he was being.

"Nii-sama…" Rukia murmured. Then she did something that shocked him.

Rukia wrapped her arms around him. Byakuya was frozen. He had never touched Rukia this way. It had been decades since he had touched anyone this way. Against his chest, Rukia murmured, "I like to have a lot of friends. But Nii-sama, you are more important than any of them. I am yours first. So please do not worry."

Warmth washed over him, cancelling out all the bitterness he had felt until then. Somehow, when she put it that way, he didn't mind if she had friends. He still disliked that Ryouma though, and if he thought he was getting Rukia's hand he had another thing coming. Still, Byakuya's seething emotions then cooled. He returned Rukia's embrace.

They remained this way for a long time, probably too long, in retrospect. Those warm feelings were pulling Byakuya back to a time when he had first felt them, without his awareness. He held her tighter, and happened to smell her hair. His chest ached. He held her even closer, and in a barely audible voice, he murmured, "Hisana…"

Rukia froze. She pulled away. Only then did Byakuya realize what he had done. He knew it was not his imagination when he saw the tears in Rukia's eyes as she turned and ran away. And honestly, he could not blame her. He covered his eyes with his hand. What had he done?