Night had fallen over Soul Society, darkness enveloping the abandoned streets of Seireitei and Rukongai, as two people silently entered the tea garden of the Kuchiki residence after an equally silent night time walk and sat down on the veranda where someone had already placed two cups of tea on the low table.
A gust of wind blew a silver cloud of petals from the sakura trees scattered through the garden, the stone garden lanterns illuminating them like little stars in the nightly sky. Rukia shivered a little as she watched the petals falling down, momentarily distracted from the oppressive silence between her and nii-sama, who was sitting motionless on the other side of the table. He ignored her as usual, even after his very uncommon suggestion that she accompany him on his short walk through the dark streets of Seireitei.
These were the last days which Rukia and nii-sama would spend together before she was to leave Seireitei. Soon she would return to the Living World - return to Ichigo - and nii-sama would be left all alone in the Kuchiki residence. In her heart, feelings of relief and concern struggled to get the upper hand. Rukia admitted to her herself that she wouldn't miss the strained atmosphere of the Kuchiki household, but couldn't help wondering if nii-sama would be alright. Which was odd in itself, since those thoughts had never crossed her mind on the previous occasions she had gone to the Material World. Perhaps it had something to do with her leaving for Ichigo this time as well.
Lowering her head, she let her black hair fall in her face, looking from the corner of her eyes at the cold figure next to her, his formal haori adding to his distant demeanor. His long black hair was held into place by the kenseikan, while the gentle breeze made his scarf billow softly around his shoulders. Indifferently, his anthracite eyes scanned the scenery in front of him, face impassive, an air of arrogance about him. This nii-sama was the one she had known for years, the one she'd spoken bitter words about to Renji during her imprisonment.
Still, she had come to know a warmer side of nii-sama as well, after he'd opened up to her about Hisana, his late wife and the love of his life. The older sister she had never known.
On Guillotine Hill, she had watched in blank amazement how he had taken the blow of Third Division Captain Gin's sword for her. He had saved her once more in Hueco Mundo, after allowing her to go in the first place, despite the dangers he knew she would be exposed to. In her room, she still kept the now completely tattered cloak nii-sama had given to her, treasuring the small sign of nii-sama's care for her.
This evening, however, they had shared their dinner and a walk around Seireitei in silence, and now she found herself having her evening tea in silence as well. Back to the old days, Rukia thought dejectedly, and a familiar feeling of loneliness seeped into her heart. For a moment she closed her eyes and imagined Ichigo sitting next to her, the wind playing gently through his brightly colored hair, his soft caramel eyes shining as he cast her a loving smile once in a while. His warm strength completed her world of dancing ice crystals. But still, there was something that kept pulling her towards nii-sama, even with Ichigo waiting for her.
Rukia's violet eyes narrowed as she stifled a yawn. It was time to go to bed, she felt. With a grace borne of long years of practice, she rose from her seated position, straightened her black kimono, and bowed respectfully to Byakuya.
"Nii-sama, permission to…" she began, intending to bid her nii-sama goodnight, but Byakuya bowed his head. The first movement he had made in a long while.
"Stay," he said, his deep, distant voice quiet, softening the sharp edges of his usually demanding tone.
Rukia froze mid-bow. "Nii-sama…?" she asked hesitantly, and he looked at her from the corner of his anthracite eyes.
"Sit…please," he repeated patiently.
These words snapped Rukia out of her stupor and she slowly sat back down. Confused about what to expect next, she stayed quiet, wondering what it was her nii-sama wanted to speak to her about after not saying a word to her all evening.
But Byakuya didn't speak again, returning to his stony appearance. Rukia stared at the wooden floor before her, not daring to try and go to bed again, though drowsiness was slowly taking over. Her perception began to narrow to the sound of the wind rustling in the sakura tree, lulling her into a state where she was only half awake.
When Byakuya's sonorous voice unexpectedly broke the strained silence, Rukia's eyes flew open and she suppressed a gasp. Her nii-sama didn't seem to notice though, as his eyes were still resting on the sakura tree in the dusky garden.
He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully. "Since the day I adopted you in the Kuchiki family, you have struggled many times with the fate I imposed on you."
Rukia immediately opened her mouth to protest but was silenced by a sideways glance of Byakuya.
"Don't deny it, I know it to be true." His words were not unfriendly, even a little amused, and Rukia looked away, feeling a little guilty for some reason.
"Most of the time, this was because of the way I treated you," he continued, a hint of regret lacing his flat tone. "After having had a group of friends, a family, in Rukongai, you were now faced with an adoptive brother who seemed to do little more than ignore you and despise you."
Rukia bowed her head. She felt strangely moved by his words. It was almost as if he were apologizing to her. She cast a glance at the commanding figure of her nii-sama, lit from one side by the garden lantern. He cast a shadow over her own petite form.
"I know you only accepted the Kuchiki family's offer back then because Abarai urged you into doing so, rather than standing up and fighting for your friendship back then. He never forgave me, nor did he forgive himself," Byakuya noted tonelessly. As he spoke, his face remained impassive and he didn't seem to expect answer.
Rukia nodded sadly. Deep down, she had always known that that was the reason for Renji's competitive attitude towards his captain. Perceptive as Byakuya was, he had seen through his lieutenant's motives as well.
'And chose to ignore it,' she thought bitterly, not noticing the sideways look he gave her. For a moment, a pained look flashed in his dark eyes, only to disappear behind the veil of indifference as he continued what seemed to become some sort of an explanation about what had happened all these many years ago.
"In honor of Hisana's wishes, I started to arrange for the adoption as soon as I found her sister, never suspecting that, when you were first introduced to the family, I couldn't tell the difference between you and Hisana…" He bowed his head, trying to hide his inner conflict from her. "I couldn't bear having you around and decided to keep my distance."
Rukia remembered that when nii-sama would speak with her, he always had his eyes averted or his back turned towards her. It had made her become bitter about her nii-sama, who shut her out for no apparent reason.
"Therefore…" he continued, pulling Rukia from her thoughts, "I didn't allow you to become close to me, despite my being your adoptive brother. Upon your graduation, I arranged for you to be assigned to Captain Ukitake's division instead of mine, my only concern being your safety, rather than your well-being."
His mouth became a thin line as he clenched his jaw and his eyes darkened. "But as I kept my distance, I had to stand by and see how comfortable you eventually became instead with Shiba and that brat of a Kurosaki."
Rukia suddenly remembered the night in which her nii-sama and Renji came round for her in Karakura Town. Buyakuya had been towering over Ichigo, sneering, 'I see now, Rukia, this boy resembles him a lot.'
How she had hated him for it.
But now she recognized the bitterness and loneliness behind his cold words. With painful clarity, she understood how he'd struggled with seeing her, the spitting image of his deceased wife, developing feelings for other men in her life.
Afterwards, she couldn't explain where she'd found the courage to do so, but she lifted her hand and hesitantly covered his, resting motionlessly even while she felt his pulse started to quicken as her fingers lightly touched the smooth skin. No one ever touched Kuchiki Byakuya and went unpunished. But thankfully he didn't object.
"Byakuya-nii-sama… I didn't know. I'm sorry," Rukia said in a trembling voice, her violet eyes filled with regret. He slowly shook his head, and her breath caught when he laced his fingers through hers. Rukia shivered upon the unusual touch.
"You don't have to be. I am. It's the consequence of my seeing you as merely a painful memory of Hisana rather than as Rukia, my adoptive sister. I regret distancing myself from you, but it's too late for that now, since you'll be leaving in a few days."
A smile of sadness ghosted over his lips and Rukia bowed her head in sorrow, looking at his hand now holding hers in a protective manner, as if he didn't want to let go.
Raising her eyes took in his sharp profile as he stared at the silver sakura tree before them, strangely drawn in by the picture he made, and she lifted her other hand to hesitantly touch the strands of his long, black hair. Her hand froze when he slightly turned his head at the unexpected feeling, but to her astonishment he didn't pull back. Instead, he looked at her with such an intense gaze in his anthracite eyes that her pulse quickened. On their own accord, her fingers slid through his long black hair, caressing the silky strands, unable to stop. She then leaned forward and rested her forehead against his.
They never had been so close to each other. Rukia could feel his breath on her face and see an unfamiliar passion burning in his dark eyes that left her lightheaded.
Finally, she mustered enough courage to speak.
"Although I'm leaving again in a few days, for the World of the Living and for Ichigo, whom I might come to love as much as nii-sama loved Hisana-nee-sama, I sincerely hope nii-sama would want to stay involved in my life as much as possible, being my dear, respected brother," she said solemnly, and her words sounded like a vow.
Byakuya's eyes widened as he looked into her determined, glistening eyes. Then he lowered his gaze, breaking the eye contact.
"You are my pride," he stated in a low voice.
The loyalty displayed to her in these simple words cut Rukia through the heart. Closing her eyes for a moment, she made a decision.
Slowly, Rukia moved her hand from the back of his head to his chin and lifted it gently. Their eyes locked.
"Thank you," she whispered.
He shivered and seemed to hold his breath.
Then Rukia closed the last distance between them, her lips touching his in a gentle caress.
Byakuya closed his eyes as all of his defences crumbled under Rukia's hesitant kiss. For years, he had mourned the loss of this feeling, this sensation of being kissed tenderly by a very similar woman. And his heart wrenched as the pain and longing he'd locked away to numb himself suddenly washed over him with unexpected force. Despite himself, Byakuya wrapped his arms around her who so closely resembled the one whose touch he'd been missing ever since he'd lost her.
What had seemed like a familiar feeling at first then changed at her response. Her kiss displayed a passion which Hisana had never possessed and which demanded an equal amount of intensity from him. A powerful longing flared up inside of him to answer this passion and he subconsciously parted his lips, welcoming Rukia's caress. All gods be damned, if this was to be the final moment of happiness he would be allowed before moving to the next life, he would savor it.
A wave of gratitude washed over him when Rukia's hands moved to the back of his head, pulling him in as she pressed her lips to his with a bit more insistence. Lifting his own hands, he wove his fingers through her short, silky strands and remembered.
Rukia shivered when Byakuya pulled her closer to him and hesitantly trailed the tip of his tongue along her bottom lip, in a silent request to deepen the kiss. His response to her foolhardy action was nothing like she'd expected. Instead of pushing her away after he'd overcome his surprise, he'd pulled her in with a desperation that wrenched her heart. Her kiss had finally laid bare the pain and sorrow he was still feeling after all these years of missing her and she knew that if she pulled back now, he wouldn't survive it.
Not that she wanted to. There was a strange but wonderful feeling in the pit of her stomach that encouraged her to part her lips and grant him the access he silently asked for. And as a small moan escaped Byakuya's lips, she welcomed the infinitely tender touch with which he deepened the kiss.
Darkness settled on the tea garden in Seireitei, as the light in the garden lantern extinguished, leaving only the moon to illuminate the chilly spring night. On the veranda, the petite woman slid her arms around the captain, giving in to her need to hold on to him and from his closed eyes a single, glistening tear rolled down his angular cheek.
The silvery sakura tree silently watched over the moonlit shinigami as they shared the moment of intimacy, losing themselves in the wistful kiss, hearts beating as one.
When Rukia withdrew, it was with reluctance, her lips leaving his bottom lip last, and Byakuya had to fight the urge to pull her back in when she caressed his long hair with gentle hands, whispering tenderly, "For Hisana…"
It was enough for Byakuya's hands to drop to his lap and his back to straighten. With a regretful smile, Rukia stood up and bowed respectfully to the Captain of the Sixth Division.
"Have a good night, Byakuya-nii-sama," she said formally but affectionately, a warm look in her eyes.
Byakuya could only incline his head, feeling unable to do or say anything more, but when she retreated his eyes followed her until she was out of sight.
Then he turned away and closing his eyes he touched his lips where the feeling of Rukia's kiss still lingered.
"For Hisana," he whispered.
A/N: This story walks the thin line between comfort, romance, tribute and betrayal. I wanted Rukia to understand Byakuya's inner conflict leading to her decision to give Byakuya this kiss, in which she momentarily steps into the role of Hisana, comforting him, maybe letting herself get a little carried away, suggesting that their relationship is deeper and more complex than it would seem.
For the record and to avoid any confusion: Rukia is Byakuya's adoptive sister and sister-in-law. They are not blood related.
I would like to thank my beta Crimson Eyed Sakura for proofreading this story.