I'll be doing one more chapter, as a separate story (since it will be very M-rated). Otherwise, please enjoy the conclusion. Thanks so much for all the reviews! They make my day!...

Shirayuki Hime

Chapter 16

Byakuya sat on the window seat in the lounge of Rukia's tower, waiting for her, eyes closed, trying to be as quiet as possible out of politeness. Across from him, Renji sat on the divan, arms folded, staring at Byakuya. The children had found various perches, and various methods for staring holes into Byakuya. Eventually, even the emotionless prince had to take notice.

He unconsciously tapped his finger on his knee several times, then he directed his gaze at Renji. "Is something troubling you?" he said, in a slow, purposeful tone.

"Me?" said Renji, innocently. "Noooo. What about you guys?"

"Us?"

"No."

"Couldn't be better."

"Peachy keen, dumbass."

"No."

Nova shrugged.

"Poo head."

Even if Byakuya ignored Yachiru's comment, there was still a general vibe of anger in the room, that even he couldn't miss. "Because it seems like there is something…"

"Yeah, or more like a whole lot of nothing," Hiyori snorted. "Two weeks!" she cried, holding up her fingers to show him.

"Now, now. These things take time, he is a prince after all. There's a lot to consider," Ishida said, which got a general mood of assent.

Then Rose contributed, "Plus he's about as useful on that subject as tits on a boar."

Huge assent this time, and Renji actually laughed.

Byakuya's eyebrow twitched, and then he turned to him, hoping for a translator. "Why are these children insulting me?"

Renji sighed. He sat back again, tapping his leg thoughtfully as he propped it up. "Well, I'd like to tell you but, one: I was taught not to interfere with such things, and two: it's sort of against my interests to do so, since I'd be just fine if things stay the way they are." He was hit in the back of the head by a fluffy pillow, which came from the decorative canopy over the sofa. It was where Yachiru had elected to build her pillow fort.

Renji counted himself lucky it hadn't been the mantle clock, which was nearby, then he sighed again. "But…it may have something to do with the fact that…we haven't seen Rukia getting fitted for any white gowns for any reason, for example."

"Oh," Byakuya said, thinking for a moment. Then with a perfectly straight face he asked, "So she wants a gown?"

Objects flew at him from all corners of the room and he had to raised his arms to block projectiles.

Renji was laughing. "You weren't wrong!" he said to Rose, who nodded, then pelted Byakuya with a seat cushion he'd been sitting on.

"You know he's been married before," Rose said.

Renji's jaw dropped. "What?! Oh, I'm getting in on this." He tossed a throw pillow.

"I'm ready!" said Rukia, opening the door. She found the room quite bare except about a meter around where Byakuya was sitting, which was littered with random objects. To his credit, he was doing his best to look stately about it. "What's…going on?" Rukia asked in confusion.

"Nothing," said the whole room innocently. Only Byakuya and Nova were silent.

Yachiru landed one last shot with a pillow, then she grinned happily at Rukia.

While removing the pillow from between his head and shoulder, Byakuya addressed Renji quietly, "That girl is eighteen years old. Who brought her up exactly?"

As they stood, Renji elbowed him hard in the ribs, though tried to make it look subtle. "They're all orphans, you ass."

Byakuya accepted this latter form of abuse as understandable, but he still didn't know why the others were mad at him.

Byakuya had invited everyone for a day out riding with himself and his father. He had to admit Rukia looked charming in her own nation's attire, which, as the children suggested, she had been wearing for the last two weeks. Though he would never say so, he was a little depressed that she hadn't worn the damask dress since that day.

After the battle, Rukia's first order of business was to thank the Sakhan army for their help, and offer them food and lodging to make up for the effort. Byakuya was horrified that his father took an immediate liking to Rukia, and sought out any opportunity to talk with her.

But no sooner had the news spread of Rukia's victory than the hall filled with servants who came, some with tears in their eyes, to apologize and welcome Rukia home. Many came just to touch her and tell her that they never missed her father when she was around. Then Rukia was crying too, saying she'd never been so happy to hear anything in her life. Byakuya did catch her looking once or twice toward the garden, where Komamura and Yumichika had gone. But that was an issue for another day.

The first week after their battle, Byakuya and (unfortunately) his father had stayed on at the castle, under Rukia's invitation. But then Byakuya insisted they were intruding too much, and forced his father to leave with him. Kyouraku was depressed for days afterward that he couldn't see "Rukia-chan" anymore. After that, Byakuya and Rukia had corresponded via letters, and this was his first time back in Magadan.

As they walked down the stairs, he asked, "Are you planning on having the coronation soon?"

Rukia blushed. "Oh, that. Well…we sort of had an informal one already. I don't think we need all the fanfare."

Byakuya stared at her. "What do you mean by 'informal'?"

Renji coughed and replied, "She went out into the town and said hello to some people."

"In what way is that a coronation?" Byakuya asked, with a trace of anger.

"Well…everyone knows I'm queen. Isn't that what a coronation is for?"

"Not in the slightest," Byakuya replied immediately, causing Rukia to blink in surprise. "With Yumichika's disappearance, that would automatically make you the monarch of this country. This should be common knowledge already. Even if it wasn't, a coronation is a representation of power, an expression of your country's pride, a chance to create a sense of community and celebration countrywide. The last thing it is meant to do is inform anyone of the fact that you are queen."

"Oh…" Rukia murmured. "Now that you say that, it seems obvious."

Byakuya nodded. "My father and I can help you prepare."

Behind them, Hiyori muttered, "Where did he learn to talk to girls?"

"He didn't," replied Hitsugaya, not trying as hard to quiet his voice. "He sees everyone as soldiers or subjects. He's a pitiful man."

Byakuya closed his eyes and gripped his sword hilt in annoyance, while Renji snorted and Rukia glanced at the children in disapproval. At the stable, they found Kyouraku talking jovially with the stable master, Hisagi. He waved when he saw them.

"Everyone!" he said. "Hisagi-kun prepared something special for the children! Come see!"

Hisagi blushed heavily when he saw Rukia. Though Rukia herself was the only one who didn't know, their shy stable master had always had a bit of a crush on her. Regardless, he showed them to a large hay wagon, which the children immediately jumped on and started playing around.

"Of course, Your Highnesses may use your own mounts, or choose any you like from the stable," said Hisagi, to Byakuya and Kyouraku. "And Abarai-dono, I have prepared Zabi for you. Your Highness," he said, softly to Rukia, lowering his head to hide his blush. "I have prepared the pearl mare, Shirasode, for you. I hope she will meet with your approval."

"She's my favorite, thank you Hisagi-kun," Rukia said, smiling.

Byakuya frowned. He stepped between them and gestured toward the waiting horses. "I'll help you on," he said.

Shaking his head, Renji muttered, "He is so clueless."

Kyouraku came up to him and added conspiratorially, "You would never believe what he was like as a child."

Renji gained an evil grin. "Really? You'll have to tell me all about that, Your Highness."

They departed once everyone was saddled up and ready. Hisagi hitched up a draught horse, rather morbidly called Kazeshini (who was in fact a war horse, but was the one Hisagi knew best and was also the biggest), and they set off on a road that led through the river valleys of Magadan. While Byakuya and Rukia headed the party, Kyouraku hung back with Renji and the children.

"Has he asked her yet?" he asked quietly.

"What do you think?" Hiyori complained, rudely gesturing at the two of them.

Rose shook his head disapprovingly. "And of course Rukia-chan is too polite to bring it up, although I'm sure she wants him to."

"Stupid boy," Kyouraku muttered, watching him.

Renji hung back and asked interestedly, "Is it true he was married before?"

Kyouraku sighed. "Yes. Hisana-chan. A lovely girl. I'm ashamed to say I disapproved of the match, since she came from no wealth and next to no nobility. But he fell in love, there was nothing his mother or I could do. Then the poor boy lost his mother and his wife within just a few years. If I had to guess why he hasn't said anything, that would be it."

Everyone was silent for a time, all feeling a bit churlish for their behavior. "I guess he doesn't really let that stuff show," murmured Renji.

"Not anymore, no," Kyouraku agreed. "I think after Hisana-chan, he tried to make it up to me by becoming a resplendent prince, the best he could be, in his mind anyway. He was already controlling his anger well when he met Hisana-chan. Her presence brought out the best in him."

"Controlling his anger?" Renji repeated, skeptically.

Kyouraku shook his head, chuckling. "Oh, you wouldn't believe what a snotty child he used to be. I say 'snotty' because I love him, but I can tell you my servants have called him much worse." Kyouraku's shoulders were shaking with laughter. "My servants are very honest, but even so, the things they said…ha ha ha!"

Everyone started laughing, though they still didn't quite believe it. "What did he used to do?" asked Rose.

"Good question…well once, for example, and keep in mind he was very small at the time, a sword master told him he was doing something incorrectly, and that boy just stared him down and insisted that the sword master was the one who was wrong, and then we couldn't get him near the fencing arena until we found a new teacher!"

The others burst out laughing. "I can picture that!" Hiyori cried. "When you think about it, he hasn't changed that much, ha ha ha!"

Without anyone noticing, Byakuya had come back a few feet in front of his father, and had heard most of what they were saying. The air started to grow eerily still as they noticed him. He had left Rukia riding ahead, so for a moment he revealed his more petulant self with a very subtle yet terrifying glare that slowly passed over them. Most shivered.

"You will say nothing to Rukia," he said simply. There were some hesitant nods, and then Byakuya looked them over once, and calmly returned to keep pace with Rukia.

After a general sigh of relief, Ishida addressed Kyouraku, "You've got it rough, Your Highness."

Kyouraku was tearful. "Right?"

They had a nice ride, went back to the castle and got ready for dinner. Finally, Renji pulled Rukia aside at one point to find out what was really going on.

"So," he said, folding his arms and leaning back on a wall.

"Um…so?" Rukia asked.

Renji sighed. "It's none of my business, but I just wanted to ask once. Do you want to marry that boy?"

Rukia went bright red. "Do I…oh…" Renji merely waited silently for her to get over her embarrassment and figure out a satisfactory answer. Eventually, Rukia's blush increased. She lowered her head.

"I'll take that as a ''yes'," Renji grumbled, which was met with a very small nod. "I see. In that case, might I ask what could be the delay? Of course, you're allowed to take your time. In fact I have no problem with that," he added under his breath. "But from an outsider's perspective, it doesn't really seem to me that you want to wait."

Rukia shifted her hands hesitantly, watching them, and grew somewhat somber. "I don't…really want to wait."

Renji nodded. "Good girl. Well then?"

Rukia wrung her hands some more. "He was very kind to say he loves me." That already had Renji's hackles up, because the implication was that he didn't actually feel it, he'd just said it. "But that doesn't mean he wants to marry me."

Renji's anger reached a boiling point. "Rukia…do you mean you'd…?!"

She waved her hands. "No, no, no! That's not what I meant! I meant that I'm happy to stay his friend." Now suddenly a single tear fell down her cheek, though she didn't notice. "The fact is…if he wanted to marry me, I'm sure he would have said something by now." She gave a forced laugh, breaking Renji's heart. "You've probably heard about Hisana-san. He fell in love and asked her to marry him right away, even though there was such a huge class boundary. We're equals and yet he…"

She was unable to continue, merely smiling subtly as a few more tears dripped down her cheeks. Renji couldn't take this. Slowly, he gathered her up in his arms. He could tell she was really upset because she didn't even get embarrassed, she just held onto him gratefully. And he knew that was all he could do for her right then. Aside from kicking Byakuya's teeth in, as soon as he got the chance.

Which came sooner than he expected. He happened to lift his gaze, to find Byakuya standing in the doorway of the small room Renji had taken Rukia to. Evidently he'd come looking for them when Rukia didn't return. He and Renji looked at one another for a long time. Then Byakuya took a step backward, his gaze passing to the side, and turned and left. Renji's jaw tightened.

"Rukia," he said, and gently pushed her away. He cupped her face in his hands and wiped away her tears. "He's going to come around. He loves you very much, and wants to spend his life with you. Don't you worry."

Rukia nodded gratefully, though it was clear she didn't believe him. Then Renji gritted his teeth, and walked out hastily. He caught up to Byakuya after the prince walked out to the terrace for some air.

"You've got a nerve," Renji barked, as soon as they were alone.

Byakuya glanced back at him with an unreadable expression. Then he looked away. "I apologize for intruding."

"Are you stupid? What do you think we were talking about in there?"

"It's none of my business," Byakuya answered immediately, and there was some bite in his tone. He walked down the terrace steps to the gravel pathway. Renji followed him with a growl.

"If you'd listen, it is very much your business. Did you see that she was crying?"

"I can think of many reasons why she might do that. It has been a tempestuous time for her."

"You're ignoring a pretty big one."

Byakuya stopped walking. He lowered his head, and it was clear he was just holding back his anger. "I don't understand what I've done wrong. Even my father is criticizing me, yet no one will explain what the problem is. This should be a happy time," his volume grew lower at the last part.

Renji watched him for a moment, then sighed. "I can tell you why no one wants to tell you," he said, softly. Byakuya turned to look at him. "It's because it's something you're really supposed to figure out for yourself. But in this situation, I think it's better if I ask you directly. Do you want to marry Rukia?"

Byakuya went totally still. He watched Renji for a time, and Renji could just barely see the emotions swirling under the surface. Finally, his eyes flicked aside. "I don't know that I have the right to answer that question."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

Byakuya merely turned away again.

Renji's jaw muscles worked. "Maybe I'll guess then. You're not sure she loves you, or you don't think you're worthy of her. Am I right?"

"If you remove the 'or'," Byakuya muttered.

"Fine. Well let's address the second one then, because the first one is so stupid I'm not even going to discuss it. Is it the fact you were married before?"

Byakuya didn't answer, but his fists did tighten.

"The fact that you more or less rejected her once already?"

Still no answer.

"Or the fact that you're kind of an ass, and she's an angel?"

Byakuya looked away, and Renji had his answer.

"Well. Forgive me for saying so, but wouldn't you say all these other worries can be resolved in the first one?"

"If she loves me, you mean?" In reply, Renji merely folded his arms. Byakuya looked away again. "No. That wouldn't change anything."

Renji threw his hands up with a huge sigh.

Then Byakuya addressed him with rare emotion. "I don't think you understand, although you should. You've struggled with similar feelings, but you were confident that she didn't love you. And you had a very good reason why such a match would be impossible."

"Hey…" Renji muttered, feeling uncomfortable.

"My conscience tells me it is impossible. It is made doubly difficult by the fact that it is possible, and no one would condemn me for it. Yet I cannot erase my past. I can try to change who I am, but I doubt I will succeed. What can you say that will convince me that I am a better match for her than anyone else?"

Renji looked hard at him, and chose his word carefully. "Before I came to find you, Rukia was trying to tell me that she didn't mind staying your friend." Byakuya's anger faded. "She tried, but tears stopped her." Byakuya gritted his teeth and looked away. "That's one reason. But here's a bigger one."

He walked closer and placed a hand on Byakuya's shoulder without looking at him. "I never wanted to tell you this, because I don't like losing in this area. But you're here. You're telling me these things. Do you know what that means?" Byakuya didn't seem to know, so Renji continued. "What it means is that you're putting Rukia's happiness above your own." He paused for a moment, his own chest aching as he said words that would part Rukia from him forever. "And since this is coming from me, you can believe it when I say…that I couldn't wish any more from a husband for Rukia than that."

Byakuya's lips parted. There was a moment of tense silence between them, then Byakuya took a step forward. Then a few more. Then he ran back into the castle. Renji merely rubbed the back of his neck. "What's wrong with me?" he murmured.

Few people knew that for several weeks now, in Byakuya's pocket there had been a small, white box, and inside that box was a ring. When Byakuya entered that room and found Rukia, it was in his pocket. And when they returned to the rest of the group, both their eyes were red and Rukia's cheeks moist, and that ring was on Rukia's finger.

So the coronation was delayed a bit as both kingdoms prepared for a royal wedding. The ceremony was held outdoors, in a glade several hundred yards away from a certain cottage between their two kingdoms. Byakuya dressed in his country's military attire, a high-collared black uniform with a pale pink sash, and his hair down. Rukia's dress was a simple white kirtle, with a low, fabric belt around her hips which was also white. Around her neck and shoulders was a collar of bright white down feathers. The ceremony was beautiful, and just about everyone cried. None louder than Kyouraku, who could not be understood from crying too much.

Towards the end, some people noticed two enormous wolves, and at once got Rukia's attention. She and Byakuya went over to them, Byakuya mostly because he wanted to protect her, and still wasn't sure about those two.

No one said a thing for a time. Then, Yumichika faced Rukia, and lay down in front of her, putting his head on the ground. In the wolf world, Komamura explained, that was the deepest form of apology. Tears flowed freely down Rukia's cheeks. Then, in spite of her dress, she knelt on the ground before the huge wolf, picked his head up, and wrapped her arms around his neck. Yumichika cried.

After a beautiful reception and then a raucous party, finally everyone was sent home. For the first time, Byakuya joined Rukia in her bedroom. The next morning, they slept very late, and even then, woke up looking like they hadn't had enough. Yet their skin looked very healthy and refreshed. They received endless teasing for this, and unfortunately on such pale skin, their blushes were hard to hide.

So ends the tale of Snow White. And may tell you that they lived many years happily together, though not quite ever after. There were some difficulties, though in the end this only brought them closer. After all, they did more or less start out their marriage with seven children and an overbearing brother in law. Not to mention an emotional and clingy father in law. But their love for one another held them together, and as time passed, only grew stronger.