Wistfully, Hisana stares through the rectangular opening in the door. The garden is abloom. Vibrantly colored blossoms adorn the branches and shrubs. Even the diverted stream looks festive. Inhaling deeply, the fragrance of a thousand flowers swells in her chest and eases her mind. She holds her breath tightly in her lungs until she feels like she is strangling. Her heart barely beats. Her eyes barely focus. The feeling swirling inside her is surreal.
Years, long and hard, she has waited for this exact moment. She has dreamed of it. Wished for it. Pled for it. She has fallen on bended knee, and, with head hung low and cheeks wet with the remnants of a thousand tears, she has prayed for this day, this event, to come to fruition.
She closes her eyes, and her hands catch in the silks of her kimono. Fingers curl against the soft fabric, creating folds and wrinkles in the robes that fall down her legs. With as much poise and restraint as her heart will allow, she lifts her head and exhales slowly.
She can wait a moment longer, she tells herself despite feeling as if she will burst into a thousand tiny pieces.
Just another moment.
"I have informed the Lady," a creaky voice breaks over the room.
Byakuya Kuchiki turns to the sound of the voice.
Lingering in the doorway stands his trusted steward. Byakuya nods his approval, and the steward responds with a low bow before scurrying back into the darkness that lingers near the door. The clack of wood kissing wood tells Byakuya that he is now alone.
Alone, he has only his thoughts and a letter crumpled in his hand to keep him company. Again, he glances down at the thick paper. Hastily made brush strokes form the words, words he knows now by heart. He has read the missive at least a thousand times over, still trying to convince himself that this is real.
It does not feel real. Not in the least.
Only a year ago, he was set to mourn his wife. She was terminal, or so he had been told. He had been told a great many things that year, most of which had been well-crafted artifice.
Lies, his inner pragmatist corrects.
Indeed, the words that fell from the lips of several trusted advisors and relatives were nothing more than self-serving mendacities and worse. Dark and wretched were the machinations that plagued his house only a year ago. His relatives had written their debts in blood, and, once learned, he repaid those debts in blood. Debts that his family would not soon forget.
"Rukia," he murmurs, studying the ink and the penmanship, both of which are poor quality.
He stuffs the letter in a pocket, and he crosses the floor. Quiet and deliberate are his footsteps and his intentions as he moves through dimly lit corridors. He traces the path to where he knows his wife will be waiting.
Part of him regrets not breaking the news himself. He imagines that she was stunned but happy upon learning the whereabouts of her sister. He imagines that she smiled then.
How long has it been since he last saw a genuine smile bend her lips?
A very long while.
Noiselessly, his fingertips brush against the cool wood of her door, and he slides it back. Just as he suspects, she stands staring out into the garden, with her back facing him. Her lines are soft and illuminated in the warm rays of afternoon sun. A golden halo lights the contours of her form. She is diminutive and shrunken from a year of devastating illness, but she improves. It is slow, but she is transforming every day into the woman that he married six years ago.
She stirs, but she does not turn to face him. No, she waits for him to announce his presence as is proper. But, he can tell that she is restraining herself. She trembles slightly. A sure sign that she is locking every muscle in place until he breaks the silence.
"It is time," he says at length.
In a graceful movement, she turns, just enough to glimpse him, and she smiles joyously, triumphantly. Words cannot describe her happiness at the news or his at seeing the burden dissipate from her eyes.
"Yes, Lord Byakuya," she murmurs, lowering her head suppliantly.
The words that she does not utter, but ones that he feels all the same, linger between them, thick and potent.
Thank you for everything.
Rukia bites her lip, and she rolls her head back. Her brain goes numb from the words, ever-increasing, that scrawl across the chalkboard in that tiny classroom. Her gaze floats between the instructor-an old wizened man who wheezes when he moves and who drones on and on about…something-and the window, which is cracked open enough to allow in the spring's fragrant breeze.
She would give anything to be somewhere else, and, as she gazes wistfully out the window, she imagines strolling through the marketplace. The weather is so mild and inviting, and the trees are all flowering. Such a vibrant display of pinks, purples, and whites beckon her, and her soul beckons back in reply.
How unfair, she groans inwardly. It's especially unfair since her errant friend is likely frolicking outside and doing things. Important things, no doubt. Interesting things, too!
Reflexively, she narrows her eyes. Idiot, she fumes, albeit fondly. Despite all the grief that she metes out to him, she is pleased that he is doing so well and is accomplishing so much. Maybe, just maybe, if he has a spare moment later in the day, he will regale her with stories of his classes, assignments, and conquests. And, maybe, just maybe, if she's lucky, she can convince him to do this rejoicing under the weeping cherry blossom tree that tempts her from outside the window.
She smiles briefly at the thought.
She springs back in her seat. Her eyes widen to the size of saucers. Her breath stops short in her throat.
Does the instructor even know her name?
She's certain that she has never offered a single answer to a single question or attempted to raise a single inquiry all year. She's never volunteered for extracurricular activities. She's never spoken to the instructor outside of class or during his office hours.
Is she in some sort of trouble?
Rukia seemingly wanders in and out of the good graces of others for no rational reason. The intricate and random web of laws, protocols, and etiquette that binds nobles constantly beguiles her. It's as if all her years spent in Inuzuri have irrevocably corrupted her ability to function socially. She lacks the shared community and history of her contemporaries. Her experiences are alien and repulsive to them. Yet, it's all she has from which to draw, and, each time she leans against her past foundation, it proves unstable, and she garners nothing but harsh words, angry stares, and painful rebukes.
Perhaps this is just another one of those instances?
"Rukia, go now to the welcoming vestibule! You have a guest," commands the instructor as he waves a notice in the air.
She stares at him, nonplussed.
She only knows one other living soul in this world. That soul is Renji. Renji would never dare to call her out of class, and he certainly wouldn't be considered a "guest."
"Go, now!" growls the instructor.
His gaze sharpens as she stares back at him, dumbfounded. "Yes, sir!" she stammers breathlessly before jumping to her feet. She remembers to bow low before rushing to the door.
Once Rukia crosses the classroom's threshold, she does not miss the sound of giggles and snickering that immediately erupts from behind her. All it takes, though, is two paces into the hallway for the sharp shards of her peers' censure to give way. Worriment, then, swallows her whole.
Guest? The word burns itself into her brain. Who gets a guest at the Academy?
Nobles, that's who.
A wrinkle forms between her brows at the realization. But, she's not a noble. She doesn't know any nobles that aren't students, either. Her lips slope into a frown as she considers other options.
Maybe they're finally expelling me? Maybe they've figured out that I'm an imposter. Found out that my test results were false positives. Now, they're sending me back to Inuzuri, or worse! The flurry of thoughts assails her mind, needling her with each step.
With her heart beating feverishly in her throat, she enters the capacious vestibule. The light is low cast and cool. Blues and blacks fill the space, lengthen the shadows, and veil the senses, giving her a false sense of calm. It takes her a moment to realize that the small assembly of people gathered in the middle of the room waits for her.
"Rukia?" A tremulous feminine voice grabs her attention.
Immediately, Rukia's eyes track the sound to find a woman. It's like looking into a mirror.
Rukia's blood pressure plummets. Everything goes blurry. She can barely keep up straight. For a moment, she wobbles. Her heart becomes all hard stops and hesitant starts inside her chest.
It is impossible, Rukia tells herself.
Yet, when her vision clears, it's the truth, bright and unwavering. The resemblance is uncanny. The woman, who stands before her, could be her doppelganger. They look so alike that it haunts her.
Stunned, Rukia takes a step back. Her nerves shoot electric currents under her skin, and her heart drops to the pit of her stomach. Nothing makes sense. It's so sudden, so unexpected, that she can barely process anything. Instead, she stands dumbstruck. Not a trace of her newly acquired etiquette softens her countenance. No, she dons the patented slack-jaw expression of horror inherited from Inuzuri.
Her lips tremble as her mind sorts through her panic. Words, hot and sharp, flicker across her tongue, but they are fleeting, beating in her mouth like the wings of a butterfly. "Y-ye-yes?" quavers Rukia.
The woman's large probing eyes meet hers, and their gazes lock. The woman takes a small step forward. She offers Rukia an assuaging smile, tears welling in her eyes. "Rukia, I'm your sister."
I passed! Renji sits staring at the mark on the thin piece of paper. His eyes go large, and he fights back the urge to smile. Maybe he just isn't interpreting the results properly? He was lucky the first time. But twice?
He blinks back the implications.
I really passed? He fixes the evidence with an unwavering look. His eyes scrutinize each mistake, but there are few. So few that it strikes him as strange.
He draws in a shaky breath. Not only did he pass, he did well. A warm contented bubble rises in his chest, and, before he has the chance to suppress his excitement, he bolts out of the room.
Long strong strides make quick use of the burnished hardwood floors. "Rukia!" he calls down the corridor, feeling her presence lingering in the welcoming vestibule. "Check it out! I passed the second exam!" he calls out. His jubilation comes out so thick that half of his words slur together, rendering his sentiments largely incomprehensible to anyone but Rukia, who's an expert at parsing his meaning from his thick Rukongai drawl. "If I pass the next one," he begins as he hurriedly draws back the door. His lips are ready to complete his thoughts, but his heart slams into his ribs, and he is breathless.
There is so much. So suddenly. So unexpectedly.
He doesn't know where to begin, where to look, what to say, or what to do.
Four men form a semicircle around Rukia, who is being held tightly in the arms of a woman, a woman, who Renji initially mistakes as Rukia.
The breath escapes his chest and flees from his lips in a small sharp gasp. What is happening? Has he stepped into some strange illusion? Who is this woman, and why does she look like Rukia? Who are these strange men?
Renji blinks again, hopeful that maybe he's just seeing double.
He is not seeing double.
His throat parches. His eyes widen. The burning flicker of muscle strain tells him that he is clenching everything to prevent him from saying or doing something gauche.
One of the male members of the group lifts his head. The movement pulls Renji's gaze, and Renji gives him a wide-eyed onceover. Kenseikan, Renji thinks to himself as he observes the hair ornament first. He vaguely recognizes hearing about it from somewhere. Was it Kira or Momo who told him that Kenseikan signals high nobility?
In fact, as Renji considers the configuration more closely, he realizes the men are not surrounding Rukia so much as they are protecting the noble. The two men who are built like brick shithouses are likely bodyguards, and the elderly male, who stands hunched over behind the noble, is likely an attendant of some stripe.
So, by process of elimination, the woman holding Rukia, must be of some relation to the nobleman. A wife? A sister? A far-flung cousin?
Tearfully, Rukia lifts her head and turns to give Renji a sidelong glance. The dim overhead light shimmers against her tear-tracked cheeks. She has been crying for a while, but she does not seem distraught like she would if the news was devastatingly bad.
Rukia's shifting draws the woman's gaze up and across the room to Renji. The woman's eyes focus on Renji, and she studies him intently.
He tenses. It's surreal how closely she resembles Rukia. They look like siblings.
"Oh," says the attendant in a low gravel, "it seems that this is not the place to talk."
The woman straightens her posture. Her shoulders level, and her chest rises. Tenderly, she clasps Rukia's small shoulders in her hands, and she smiles somberly. There is a gravity in the woman's stare, a gravity that resonates with Renji even if he does not understand its meaning.
The woman then turns her attention to Renji. She regards him with a soft gaze. "A friend?" her voice is thin as if she is forcing it through an inflamed throat. Her eyes then drift to Rukia.
Rukia nods and manages a broken smile.
"From Inuzuri?" asks the woman.
Clearly, the woman heard Renji's excited utterances before he burst into the room and trampled over whatever moment they were having. Was his dialect that strong? Did his Inuzuri-ness just cling to him like a bad odor?
"Since childhood," responds Rukia, staring weepy-eyed into the woman's face.
The woman takes a few small steps in his direction, and she bows. "My gratitude, sir," she says, holding the bow a moment longer than necessary for a woman of her rank. "Thank you. I hope you remain friends."
"We will take our leave," the attendant informs Rukia.
Renji didn't catch the initial look or movement, but he assumes the nobleman must've indicated to the attendant that they were finished.
With a small nod, the nobleman fixes the woman with a look.
She replies in kind before murmuring a quiet, "Yes," and turning to Rukia.
The nobleman crosses the floor, pausing only when he reaches the woman. He gives her a gentle look, and, for a fleeting moment, the chilliness in his demeanor melts.
The woman arches her head to glimpse Rukia sidelong. "If you need anything, Rukia, do not hesitate to ask me." Her demeanor is warm and kind.
Rukia nods her head. "Yes, Sister."
A clicking noise rings in Renji's ears right before his brain goes into cognitive overload.
Maybe Rukia is being polite? Renji thinks. Some of the students refer to their elders and mentors as "sisters" or "brothers." Maybe this woman was just an older student?
That wouldn't explain the nobleman and the retinue of servants, however.
Nonplussed, Renji locks eyes with Rukia. A tense look sends wrinkles running across her forehead. She presses her lips together, likely suppressing the urge to say something. Whom she wishes to address, however, he has no idea.
The woman gives a shallow bow of her head as she passes Renji. The nobleman, however, does not spare him even the most cursory of glances.
Renji considers this for a moment, but his thoughts are soon interrupted; the nobleman's reiatsu crashes over him like a tidal wave, swallowing him whole. Renji suddenly breaks out in a cold sweat. His heart hammers an erratic beat in his chest. Every alarm sounds in his head.
Such a powerful presence. He didn't even glance at me.
The attendant falls into step behind the woman and the nobleman. Before the party reaches the door, the attendant pauses to consider Rukia one final time. "We anxiously await your response," he says, voice as smooth as glass. With that, they leave Rukia and Renji behind.
Consumed by confusion, Renji's head drops down. His gaze sticks to the floorboards like glue. What the hell just happened?
"Renji?" Rukia's voice slices through his mental haze.
It takes him a moment to respond, and, when his gaze fastens to hers, he can't escape the feeling that he's missed something. Something important. He's good at pretending, though. "The atmosphere was a bit tense there, huh? What happened?"
Maybe it's pain or regret or sorrow that twists her face when she takes a tentative step toward him. Either way, he can tell that she is fighting with herself. Fighting whatever the hell it is that those nobles did to her before he came crashing into the room.
"That was my sister," says Rukia, voice thready. When she raises her head, he can see the disbelief clouding her eyes. "I have a sister," a current of disbelief turns her observation into a question.
He nods his head approvingly. "She looks like your sister."
"She wants to bring me into the Kuchiki family," murmurs Rukia on a low breath. Her gaze trails to the floor, and a pink color creeps across her cheeks.
She is flustered. Not that he blames her. The news is overwhelming.
"Is she a Kuchiki?" he has to ask.
"She is Lady Kuchiki," says Rukia. "That was her husband, Lord Kuchiki," she adds, as if her emphasis on the word "that" requires no further explanation.
Although, Renji guesses that it doesn't really. The Kenseikan, the expensive silks, and the elaborate obi all signified which member of the party was the head of the Kuchiki clan.
"They say they will have me graduate immediately," she continues, her eyes staring into the middle distance. "Renji…I…This," she stammers, desolately trapped in her own thoughts. "Could it be true?"
Her apprehension is so palpable that he feels anxious on her behalf. He understands her hesitance as if it is his own: The deal seems too good to be true.
A real family. Food. Money. Comfort. These were all the things that they dreamed about. All day. Every day. Usually while nursing hunger pangs and scavenging for water and shelter. To have all those things neatly wrapped up in a bow after only a few minutes? Unthinkable. Unimaginable. Impossible.
He would have questioned himself, too.
She would look a fool if she extended her hand to reach and failed.
She would look a fool if she refused.
She's going to beat herself up about it no matter what. That much he knows. She is going to torture her poor mind on thoughts and ideas, as sharp and as cutting as any blade or bolt. He can see the grief already weaving sad lines on her face. Even if she wanted to be a Kuchiki princess, he knows she is going to wage a war with herself. He knows she's going to feel undeserving of the status, like she's asking too much, like she isn't worth it.
She isn't asking too much, and she is worth it. No emotional wringer necessary. He won't allow it.
And so, with heavy heart and great pain, Renji feigns excitement. He bends down, and he clasps her arms tightly. She's warm to the touch, and, against his palm, her muscles lock, rigid and tight.
For a brief moment, she stares up at him in wild panic.
He ignores her. He has a part to play, and her pitiful glances will not deter him. "Isn't that great?" he asks, staring into her eyes.
"Ah?" she cries.
"You have a sister! You have a family! And, once you are a Kuchiki, you'll become a noble! That's awesome! You'll be surrounded by endless riches! You can eat whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want!" he says riotously, chortling at the ideas lighting up his imagination. "Ah," he begins again, but this time he is wistful, "I envy you! And you get to graduate immediately!"
How nice, he thinks. What he would give to graduate in less than a year! That surely has to be some sort of record? Right?
"Now, I am just dead jealous!" he adds with a toothy grin.
Rukia grabs his arm, and he flinches.
His fingers, once tightly gripping her shoulder, jerk away from her as if she has caught flame. Had he been grasping her this entire time? His heart bucks against the walls of his chest at the realization.
"Really?" she asks. A pensive look darkens her eyes as she scrutinizes him. She reads the lines of his brow the way scholars read philosophical tomes. Nothing escapes her gaze, and he realizes that she has read his intentions well. Too well.
"Thank you," she says softly and turns her cheek.
Before he can say something or stop her, she pulls away.
The distance between them grows with each of Rukia's footfalls. Until he can no longer hear the slapping sound her feet make against the wood. Until he can no longer feel the gentle flicker of her reiatsu.
The distance—physical and emotional—stifles him. It steals his breath and smothers the flame burning in his heart. And, he wonders if he will ever see her again, or if she will ever regard him with the same fondness as he has grown to expect from her.
The possibility of her deprivation proves devastating, but he knows that it's the only way. He has to let go. He has to let go completely. Even if it hurts. And, boy, does it really fucking hurt. But, he has to do it. He won't be the thing standing between her and her chance at the good life.
He loves her like family.
And he knows those familial bonds hold strong even in absence. Even in deprivation. Even when it really fucking hurts.