Sakura no Eda
Byakuya did not blame Rukia for avoiding him after that. He tried to imagine if she had said Ryouma's name while hugging him. He might never have forgiven her. So how was he ever to apologize? To start with, apologies were not his forte. Expensive gifts sometimes worked. Otherwise, he normally left things unsaid, since no one could really ostracize someone in his position, and he cared very little what most people thought of him. But with Rukia that would not work. The reason? Because he could not bear to be hated by her.
He very – very – reluctantly decided he needed some help. So he went to the person who was closest to Rukia.
"Rukia is…mad at you?" Renji asked, with a high degree of incredulity.
Byakuya closed his eyes to stave off annoyance. "Don't make me repeat myself."
"Hmm…no offense, Taichou, but I don't think that likely. Rukia isn't the type to hold a grudge. Even if she was, I really can't imagine her being mad at you for any reason. What exactly did you do?"
Byakuya remained in absolute silence for almost a minute. But his atmosphere was such that, even though he was retreating a little in fear, Renji could not interrupt him. "Don't ask that question again," he said darkly. Renji nodded enthusiastically. "She was crying. Now she won't speak to me. That's all you need to know."
Suddenly Renji looked quite serious. He glanced at the ground in thought. "Rukia did that?" he murmured softly. "Taichou…I don't know what to tell you. I've never known her to act like that." Byakuya's hope sank. "But let me just say this: I won't ask what happened, but from what you've said, it sounds like she's hurt, not mad. There is a difference, and it's very important to women, trust me. There are only two things I know that help with this. Time, although in this case that may just make her resent you, and clearing the air. That's what I recommend."
Byakuya narrowed his eyes, slightly perturbed that this sounded like good advice. However, "And what if she won't speak to me?"
Renji gave a wry smile. "Good question. Just do your best, I guess."
Byakuya sighed in restrained frustration and went about his day. Clearing the air…unfortunately, clearing the air in this case just meant reestablishing the fact that he had done something horrible, albeit unintentionally. He couldn't imagine how that could help anything. Eventually, he decided to simply rely on his instincts.
That evening, Rukia was returning to her room after dinner, and he followed her. She was walking quickly, no doubt so as to avoid him, so he used shunpo, and softly wrapped her in an embrace from behind. He heard her breath catch.
"Rukia," he said, gently.
She gasped again. He felt her breath coming quickly, but she did not fight.
"Rukia," he said again, more quietly.
Rukia's breathing became harsher, and he saw her close her eyes. He could just see a tear slip down her cheek.
"Rukia…Rukia…Rukia," he said, now whispering.
Slowly, with trembling hands, Rukia grasped his hands that wrapped around her shoulders. She leaned her head against his chest. His heart fluttered, and he felt heat surging through his body, but he could not stop now.
"Nii-sama," Rukia said at length, so softly he almost couldn't hear.
"I'm sorry…I'm sorry that I'm not Hisana-sama."
Byakuya's heart cracked right in two. He held her trembling form in total stillness for several long moments. It couldn't be…that wasn't why she had been crying in the first place, was it? He was about to hold her even tighter to reassure her when she spoke again.
"I've been thinking for a long time, especially after you told me about your promise to my sister…that I should leave this house."
Byakuya's skin felt cold. What did she just say? Leave?
She sniffed and crudely wiped her face with her sleeve. "I can't imagine how hard it must be for you. Just seeing me each day. It would have been better if it was me who…" she stopped as her voice hitched, then minimally shook her head. "But I thought, if I only left the house, not the family, that you would still be keeping your promise. And that way would be much easier for you, I thought…"
What should he say? How should he stop her? In a sense, she was probably right, he would be less confused if she left. But it was so hard for him to say…that he already needed her.
He pulled her close against him. He thought he felt her temperature rise. "Rukia…stay here," he said simply.
Since Rukia knew him, she knew how significant hearing just those few words from his lips was. She started to sob again. And then Byakuya felt that familiar dangerous feeling rising. Slowly, he lifted one hand to softly stroke her hair. He leaned down to breathe in her scent. No, he realized, it was not the same as Hisana's. And though she was less graceful, less feminine than Hisana, she was in a way even more fragile, and brought out his protective side. This was bad. It felt so good to hold her.
"Nii-sama…you can let me go now…" she said quietly.
He snapped from his reverie. "Yes," he said, and pushed her away. He turned and began to walk away to hide his uncertainty. "In any case, there is no reason for you to leave. Well then, excuse me."
He thought he heard her start to say something, but he walked swiftly to his room. Once there, he stood in silence for a moment. He slowly raised a hand to grip the fabric over his chest. Perhaps he was making a mistake. It might have been better to simply let her go. And yet, he knew he could not. He would be enduring this pain a while longer.
It was not long after that that the arrancar attacks began, and Rukia asked for his permission to join Ichigo and Renji, and several others, in the lower world. He granted it without too much thought. She was a shinigami, and despite the fact that he always worried about her, he had expectations for her to grow stronger and more capable. She could only do that in battle. She had her powers back, and Sode no Shirayuki. She would be with Renji and Kurosaki Ichigo. He told himself not to worry.
He tried to keep informed about the situation there even while performing his own duties. He knew that Rukia had been gravely injured by one of their higher ranking arrancar, but that Inoue Orihime had been present at the time, and healed immediately. And then the news came of Inoue Orihime's abduction. He correctly surmised, as did Yamamoto Soutaichou, what was about to happen. Six relatively powerful shinigami (as well as two humans, who Byakuya didn't really count), all of whom were friends of Ichigo, were already nearby to one of the only men outside of Soul Society who could possibly create a garganta into Hueco Mundo. It was not hard to imagine what might happen next.
When the order came, Byakuya was all too happy to retrieve Rukia. However, when he saw her, it struck his heart badly to see her expression as he did so. Additionally, the fact was that he did not dislike Kurosaki Ichigo. He did not want to see him in pain. If it were in his power, he may have helped. But Yamamoto Soutaichou's decision was correct. They needed every available shinigami for the conflict against Aizen.
Byakuya only had a few hours to decide what he would do now. If he let them be, he was fully aware that Rukia and Renji would find a way to escape Soul Society on their own. In that case, it was arguable that his duty now was to keep an eye on them. Additionally, much though he wanted Rukia to improve, Hueco Mundo was no place he ever wanted anyone he cared about to go. And every one of these Espada had strength that exceeded captains. He did not want her to go.
However, he had seen the pain in her face when she was told she couldn't help. It tore him apart to think she was making that face for another man. But Byakuya was extremely weak to any of Rukia's wishes. In the end, he found a convenient loophole in his duty, and humbly lent them his assistance. Without Rukia's knowledge, he took Renji aside briefly before they left, and made it very clear how many pieces he would be left in if anything should happen to Rukia. Renji first laughed to cover his fear, knowing Byakuya was quite serious, and then he nodded.
"I'll do everything in my power to keep her safe, Taichou. Don't worry."
What a foolish thing to say. Asking him not to worry was bad enough, but the idea that Renji was strong enough to protect her was just as ridiculous. Byakuya let them go, still feeling horribly conflicted. Then, the orders came which stopped his worrying. He, Zaraki, Kurotsuchi and Unohana were given the opportunity to go into Hueco Mundo. He tried to look as expressionless as possible, both when he got this information, and when he met them at the 12th division to open the garganta.
As soon as they arrived, he felt his chest tighten horribly. Rukia was hurt badly. Far too badly. She did not have long. He rushed to where he felt her reiatsu, and just managed to save her life from the one trying to finish her off. Battling this man, though he was not the one who hurt her, helped work off some of Byakuya's rage. Thankfully, at the end, the 4th division found them, and Rukia and Hanatarou's lives were both saved.
Much though he knew how foolish and selfish it was that he had come here when he should be fighting Aizen, he had made a promise on the day Kurosaki Ichigo saved Rukia. A promise to himself; that he would never allow his job to be more important than Rukia's life again. Also, strange though it was to say, he was extremely grateful that Rukia would be safe here in Hueco Mundo, where he could protect her. He put his faith in Kurosaki Ichigo, and in the end, the human saved them all again, at the cost of his own powers.
The next few weeks were hard for everyone, but Byakuya was impressed with Rukia's attitude. She merely focused on training, and improved faster than he had ever seen her do so before. It was as if she knew that she would see him again. His heart ached at her determination over another man, and he tried to leave her alone. It seemed that any man would be better for her than him.
Suddenly, as he thought this, his eyes widened. What was he thinking? All this time, what had he been thinking? His own sister. There was no excuse. In shame, he went into the garden. He sat in the grass, watching the koi, in the shade of a sakura tree that was green and out of season. Before he realized it, he was doing something completely out of character, sleeping outside on the ground.
There was a simple explanation for his feelings, he thought. Emotional transference. She looked far too like her sister. And Byakuya had loved Hisana far too deeply to ever forget her. It didn't matter than their personalities and mannerisms were completely different. He admitted with shame that this was probably the cause.
But perhaps it was even worse if he was wrong. If these feelings had sprung up independently, then he was doing something horrible both to Hisana and to Rukia. In his heart, he had always told Hisana that he would never love another. How cruel it would be if he broke his word with her own blood sister. And if they had come independently…how was it he really felt? Could he admit it, even to himself? He slipped out of consciousness into an uneasy sleep with these thoughts.
He thought he was dreaming when he felt softness and warmth under his head, and opened his eyes to see Hisana smiling down at him. His breath caught, and he blinked to restore his vision. Rukia. She had taken his head into her lap, and was smiling down at him, shading him from the sun.
"Pardon me, Nii-sama," she said gently. "I hope I didn't wake you. It's just that your pale skin is so beautiful, you wouldn't want to harm it in the sun."
"Rukia…" he murmured. He felt so peaceful and happy like this, and he briefly closed his eyes again. "I didn't ask for your kindness," he said, trying to regain his cold exterior.
She paused to think for a moment. "Do you mean it's unwelcome?"
How was he to answer that? He couldn't think of an answer for many moments. At last he said, "There is no need to trouble yourself."
"Good. Because I'm not."
Byakuya was a bit frustrated at this, but he was so comfortable, he didn't want to argue. He closed his eyes, felt the cool breeze against his cheek, listened to the water in the tiny creek beside him, and breathed in the scent of grass, as well as Rukia's sweet scent. He realized he had done this for Hisana several times, but she had never done it for him. He didn't want to strain her body. Now, he felt so contented.
"Nii-sama," Rukia asked him quietly.
"Do you think…you'll ever remarry?"
Byakuya's eyes shot open. He stared at her. And though he knew it was wrong, hope began to rise in his chest. "Why do you ask that?"
Rukia was blushing, but she was very still. "Just curious. You don't have to answer."
Byakuya watched her for a moment, then slowly closed his eyes to think. Would he ever remarry? He found it highly unlikely. Rukia was the only woman for whom he would even consider it, and that was impossible. "No," he said, coldly. "I don't think so."
Rukia was quiet. At length he opened his eyes to see what her expression was like. It nearly broke his heart. She was not crying, but her eyes were red and moist. They were cast away in dejection. She did not look surprised, but she was badly concealing sadness and despair. He could hardly believe it. Was it possible, he wasn't the only one?
Then, to his surprise, Rukia's expression calmed somewhat, and she began to gently stroke his hair. "I don't blame you, Nii-sama. Even if it hurts, I hope I can love someone like that someday."
He closed his eyes again, entranced by her sweetness. He honestly didn't know what to think now. Was she sad because she felt sorry for him? Because she wanted her dear aniki to be happy? Or else…
At that point, the idiot Ryouma started coming over again. Evidently Rukia had forgiven him for his tactlessness, though Byakuya never would. Again, Rukia's attention was drawn away from him for a time.
Then one fateful night, when the idiot had been staying later than usual, Byakuya heard Rukia cry out. He could tell from the sound of her voice that this was no playful yell. He used shunpo to cross the length of the house in an instant, and slammed open the door. What he saw nearly made him lose his mind with rage.
Rukia had been pushed down onto the floor, and was desperately holding her kimono against her body. It had been torn at the collar, revealing her shoulders and back, and everything that she wasn't currently covering with her hand. Ryouma stood over her, his hand in an unbelievable place, though Rukia was trying in vain to push it away. Rukia's face, when he entered, was streaked with tears.
Byakuya's mind went completely white for a few seconds. Ryouma looked on him with terrible fear. Then Byakuya completely forgot the existence of the zanpakutou on his hip. He grabbed Ryouma by the neck and slammed him against the floor. Byakuya smashed his fist against Ryouma's cheek. Again. Again. He rained down an endless stream of punches, until blood was flying everywhere from his fist. The would-be rapist was still alive, he could tell from the twitching and strangled breathing, but his face no longer looked human. Byakuya continued hitting him. His rational mind was gone. He only knew that this man needed to feel pain.
Finally he heard a voice. "…nii-sama!" It was Rukia. "Please, Byakuya nii-sama! If you kill him you'll go to prison! I couldn't bear it if you left, please!"
That last phrase returned him some of his sanity. He surveyed the bloody mess that had once been Ryouma's face. He was choking on blood while trying to breathe, but clearly still alive. He glared down at him and said in a terrifying whisper, "Your life has been saved by the woman you tried to rape. Think of that as you try to sleep each night."
Ryouma seemed to want to say something, but it would have been impossible to speak in his condition. Slowly, Byakuya came to his feet. It was then that the terrible guilt began to sink in; he could have prevented this. Perhaps Rukia would have been angry with him if he'd forbidden her to associate with this human garbage. But angry was better than nearly raped. Whether or not it was true, he could not help thinking this was his fault.
He knew Rukia was standing, trembling behind him, still trying to hold up her torn kimono. He removed his captain's robe. Barely looking at her, he wrapped it around her shoulders and said simply, "Come."
Though still trembling, she willingly followed him as he led her to his room. "Sleep here tonight," he said. "I'll place a barrier around the room. You will be completely safe."
He started to close the door, when a tiny voice stopped him.
He looked back at her.
She was still shaking and clearly terrified. Perhaps terrified to be alone, he was realizing. "Will you…stay with me until I fall asleep?"
His heart ached for her. Slowly, he stepped inside the room and approached her. He took her head in his hands and kissed her hair. Then he said softly, "Wait a little while. I have to get that scum dealt with." He heard her gasp lightly and he said, "I won't kill him. I'll send word to the 9th division. They can deal with him in the court. Don't-"
He had to stop, as Rukia clung tightly to him. He closed his eyes. He set one hand on her shoulder and the other on her head; he did not want to frighten her any further. Then he pulled away and went quickly on his business so he didn't look back and feel tempted to stay. He closed the door behind him and did as he promised, erecting a four-fold barrier. With his level of kidou, few people could break that.
He sent a hell butterfly to Muguruma Kensei, explaining the situation. He kept an eye on Ryouma in the meantime. But it was not long before the 9th division was at his door, two seated officers and Hisagi Fukutaichou. Hisagi was business-like as always, though he seemed very concerned and sympathetic about what had happened. He asked if Rukia was all right. Byakuya replied that she would be soon, he would make sure of it. And then the incident was over. Ryouma left in handcuffs, barely able to walk. And Byakuya said good riddance, and he hoped never to see his deformed face again.
Finally, after what had been about an hour, he returned to his room. He removed the kidou barrier and knocked. Though, as his wont, he did not wait for a response before he entered. Rukia was calmly (at least so it seemed) sitting up against the wall, wrapped up in his captain's robe, which was large enough to wrap around her at least twice. She looked to the ground as he entered.
"I'm so sorry, Nii-sama."
He blinked at that, and then he understood what she meant. It was true that Byakuya had failed to act on his instincts about Ryouma, but Rukia had been with him for much longer and failed to notice anything at all. She was blaming herself for the incident.
"This is all my fault. Even disturbing the 9th division so late at night. I don't know what to say." She wiped her face of yet another tear than had fallen.
Byakuya was bad at comforting people, he was well aware. He eventually moved over and knelt before her. "You are very trusting. Sometimes it can hurt you. But I do not think it is a fault." She seemed unconvinced, merely staring at the ground. "And…" he continued. He briefly tilted her chin up to make sure she looked at him. "Your brother will always protect you. Do not fear, or feel guilty. I will never abandon you, Rukia."
Rukia began to cry even harder and suddenly she threw her arms around Byakuya's neck. He couldn't help the small flush that crept across his cheeks, but he pushed that feeling back. Most important right now was easing Rukia's fears. She would likely be irrational for a time, but he was certain it would fade soon.
"Nii-sama," she said, with a squeaky voice from crying.
"Will you hold me as I fall asleep?"
Byakuya's heart leapt into his throat. It continued to pound heavily, and he was sure she would be able to hear it. His mature side was telling him it was probably not a good idea. Maybe she would be satisfied if he just held her hand. His loving side said that Rukia needed him, and his personal problems didn't matter. It was not surprising which one he listened to.
He returned her embrace with a single hand on her back. Then he said gently, "Just for a little while."
And since she didn't seem likely to let go of him, he picked her tiny body up in the crook of one arm, and with the other he laid out his futon and blanket. Rukia was still trembling, but he was sure her heartbeat had slowed as she held onto him. He lay down, and let her stretch out on top of his body. She buried her face in his chest, and rested her hands there as well. Byakuya briefly closed his eyes to hold back feelings. It felt so good that she felt safe with him.
"Nii-sama…" she whispered, and though he thought she had calmed down, now she seemed emotional again. "The truth is…I didn't really like him. I didn't mind his interest because…I know I'll never find someone as good as Nii-sama. And if I can't, then I don't really care."
Byakuya's eyes widened in disbelief. First, that she said she didn't really care, that made him angry and he would deal with that later. But did she say she'd never find someone as good as him?
"I'm probably going to regret saying this tomorrow," she said, and sniffled. "You're the most perfect person I know. You know, you said you weren't sure if or when my sister fell in love with you? I think you're being silly. She fell in love with you that very first day. I don't know any woman who wouldn't."
Byakuya's heart was pounding, and he prayed she wasn't paying attention to its extraordinary beat. He managed to control himself. "Obviously they exist. You hated me for quite a while after you met me."
Rukia blushed. "No…not hated exactly. I was afraid of you." Much the same thing, he commented sadly to himself. "I was afraid of my life changing, and losing my friends. And…I was terrified of disappointing you."
He blinked at that one. Was that true?
"I still am, sometimes, but now I know how kind you can be. How honorable you are, and how sometimes you can open up and speak about your feelings." Byakuya's face was now bright red, as he remembered what Rukia said about the type of men she liked. He could not stop his wild heartbeat now. "So you see…I'm sorry, Nii-sama. But I…"
She trailed off as Byakuya drew her up under her arms to bring her to his level. They met each other's eyes for a time, then Byakuya couldn't hold back any longer. He pressed the softest of kisses to her lips. She stared down at him in shock. He tried to avoid blushing, and then he set her down on his chest again. This time he held her gently in his arms.
Finally, he said, "Let's go to sleep."
Rukia took quite a while to recover, but when she did, her fingers tightened in the fabric of his shihakushou, and she snuggled her head against his chest.