A/N: Wow, this story has taken off all of the sudden! I had decided, a couple of weeks ago, that I would do a request-fic for whomever got the 100th review for this story. I didn't mention it in the last chapter, because the story had 79 reviews at the time.
At the time of posting for this chapter, it has 98. Therefore, I will be gifting a free one shot to my 150th reviewer. Just so that everyone has a chance to get the news...
I will also, due to reviewer demand, be writing an extension of the 'Giving the Finger/Noodle Incident' in Chapter 9. This is as a thank-you for having reached over *five thousand hits* on RDBH. Guys, THANK YOU! You are the best audience I could ask for, and I hope I never disappoint.
RED DUTY, BLACK HONOR
Chapter Eleven: Revelations and Rebellion
The door to the office slid on smooth tracks, clicking quietly shut behind Renji. Still seated at his desk, Byakuya stared after his former subordinate long after the other man had disappeared; gone off to his own division, out of Byakuya's sight and space, where Byakuya's own words had sent him. He took with him the warmth and cinnamon-scented storm of his reiatsu, the wild, passionate drive drive and determination that had always marked him.
The office felt much colder in his absence.
Dropping his head into his hands, Byakuya permitted himself a rough, shaking exhale that, in a weaker man, might almost have been a sob.
"I am a fool..."
Feeling numb, Renji walked the familiar corridors of the Sixth Division on autopilot, absently returning the greetings of his former fellows. Had he been more aware, it might have amused him to hear how many of them began "Good evening, fuku -" before breaking off in varying degrees of shock as they took in the pristinely white haori billowing around him.
"Good - oh! Congratulations, Renji-san!"
The familiar voice snapped Renji out of his daze, and he smiled down at the dark-haired boy who stood before him, broom held loosely in one hand. "Rikichi! Good, I was looking for you. Kuchiki-taichou handed these down a few minutes ago," he grinned, slapping the papers into the young man's chest.
"I... what is this, sir?"
"Find out when ya read 'em, won't you?" Renji answered, grinning wider. He couldn't help but like the kid - he was a decent soldier, if not a strong one, dutiful and surprisingly brave. Much like Renji, he stood up for what he believed in and felt was right.
"These are... transferral papers? For me?"
"You got it, kid. Welcome to the Fifth."
From Rikichi's startled expression, an effortless transfer was the last thing he'd been expecting to come out of Kuchiki-taichou's office.
"Kuchiki-taichou... transfered me? Just like that?" He didn't seem disappointed; rather, quite relieved. Not surprising, if he had witnessed Byakuya going postal on Renji's letter.
"Just like that. He's not a bad guy, yanno."
"If you say so, Renji-san... I mean, Abarai-taichou!"
"I do," Renji answered firmly. "Pack up your gear; I'll make sure there's a spot ready for you at the Fifth by tomorrow."
"Aye. aye, sir!" Rikichi answered, snapping to attention and saluting. It would have been slightly less absurd if his hair beads hadn't swung up and nearly smacked him in the eye in the process, but it was the thought that counted.
"Oh, would you... ah, like me to carry your box, sir?"
"No, I've got it." The polished wooden chest was held securely under Renji's arm, and he doubted he'd be letting go of it anytime soon. It was the only thing he'd carried out of the office; he would send someone back for his possessions and supplies. This was what mattered to him, now.
"Oh, that's quite pretty... I like the moon."
Huh? Moon? "What are you talking about?"
"On the lid... isn't that a moon?"
"Eh?" Turning the box slightly, Renji looked down at the pearlescent disk gleaming in the black surface. After a second, his eyes flew wide.
"The moon's... in my hands..." Feeling his heart nearly stop in his chest, Renji stared at the circle of mother-of-pearl. The monkey chases the moon reflected in the water... but no matter how close he seems to seizing it, it is only a reflection.
Not anymore, Renji realized, drawing in a deeper breath and holding the box tighter with shaking hands. This was solid, tangible... real.
"Sir?" Rikichi was still peering at him, now looking slightly concerned. "Are you all right?"
"It's... never mind, kid. I'll see ya tomorrow, 'kay?"
"Sure, Abarai-taichou. Goodnight!"
"Yeah, 'night," Renji mumbled, and drifted out of the Sixth Division in a fog. The numb shock he'd felt when Byakuya told him, in so many words, that Renji had surpassed him years ago was nothing compared to this.
Rikichi was right; the pale disk on the lid of the box was an image of the moon. And it had been placed in Renji's hands...
It was in this astonishment-numbed state that he drifted his way back to the Fifth Division, mumbled a greeting to Hinamori, and found his bed.
The astonishment only continued the next day, when he entered his office a few minutes past dawn to discover that all of his furniture had been replaced with top-quality heirloom pieces.
The meeting hall of the Kuchiki main house was usually occupied only by drifting dust motes and the servants that pursued them. This morning, however, it was full to bursting with all of the clan elders, including the distinguished presence of Kuchiki Ginrei himself.
The gathering - inadvertently suggested by Yoroichi, deliberately ordered by Byakuya - had the Elders, particularly Byakuya's formidable paternal grandmother, in something of an uproar. Well, a noble uproar, at any rate, which consisted primarily of a great number of furtive looks and irritable whispers.
Outside the doors of the hallway, two figures paused for a moment, gathering themselves before they entered the hornet's nest within the room.
"Are you really sure about this, Nii-sama?" Rukia whispered anxiously, tugging at the Lieutenant's badge she'd fastened to the obi of her formal kimono. She'd put it there on her brother's suggestion, in an attempt to remind the overbearing Elders that she was no longer a doll to be toyed with, but a ranking officer in her own right.
"Quite. My concern is not their reaction in regards to my decision; it is that they will attempt to force you into an arranged marriage because of it. If that happens, I -"
"Don't worry about me, Nii-sama. I can handle that, if they even think of trying it."
Handle it? Byakuya frowned before he could stop himself. If they'd had more time before the meeting was to begin, he would have pursued that thought. How exactly did she propose to 'handle it'? "Someone will, Rukia. Our Elders are nothing if not stubborn; they will not surrender the notion of a clan child."
Rukia snickered before she could help it, stifling the sound behind her hand when Byakuya shot her a stern glance. He looked every inch the noble this morning, wearing a deep blue kimono with delicate sakura petals embroidered in pink and silver along the collar, cuffs, and hem. The wide obi was black with threads of silver tracing through it, and the Kuchiki family crest gleamed in silver on his back, highlighting the silver of his under-robe.
Rukia, by contrast, felt awkward in her elegant clothes; the soft silk of the lavender-hued kimono and the silver-blue under-robe she wore clung to her in ways the coarser cotton and linen of the shihakusho didn't, and the indigo-and-silver obi felt constrictive, making it difficult to draw a full breath.
Of course, that could be nerves, too.
"Open the doors," Byakuya ordered the two servants, and Rukia steeled herself as the barrier rolled away.
Byakuya entered the meeting hall with steady strides, his kimono rippling exquisitely around his body as he moved. He knew this; appearance, presentation, the airs of the noble. The cloak of arrogance had settled around his shoulders, just as real to him as the silken scarf it joined.
Behind him, Rukia moved more cautiously, the slightest bit too focused on keeping her steps small and dainty, her poise straight, her delicate hands in their sleeves held at the perfect angle before her. Most eyes would see nothing more than perfection in her movements, but she moved before the eyes of the Kuchiki clan.
There was nothing for it; he would give her every assistance he could, but he had his own battle to fight. Rukia had not been born into the Clan, but she'd learned the politicking and backstabbing just as easily as if she had. Perhaps it was a result of growing up in Inuzuri; though at times, he wondered if fighting starvation in Inuzuri was not, overall, a kinder fate than fighting the maneuvering of the Clan Elders.
Moving to the head of the table, he settled effortlessly into a seiza, freeing his ever-more-impatient clansmen to seat themselves as well. There was a general muttering, nothing unexpected, as he silently unsealed the bottle of sake sitting before him.
The delicate, ceremonial cups before the other members of the Clan were already full; as Clan Head, he poured his own, in order to ensure no one sought to poison him when his back was turned.
He silently toasted Ginrei, seated at the opposite end of the table, then Rukia, sitting at his left, before toasting the rest of the gathered Clan and drinking. The gentle clinking of cups being set down covered his uneasy cough; frowning, he drew himself higher on his knees before schooling his face to impassiveness and addressing his Clan.
"Honored Elders, fellow members of my Clan, I greet you. I have summoned you here today to address an issue that festers in your minds, causing discord among us.
"A month ago, I was counseled by my esteemed grandmother -" Someone, perhaps Ginrei himself, coughed at that, probably knowing full well just what Byakuya thought of his 'esteemed' Grandmother.
" - to seek out a new wife, so that I might provide the Kuchiki clan with a new blood heir in the event of my own death or incapacitation. I have given this... request... great consideration."
Rather say, he'd spent countless hours arguing with Yoroichi and himself over the damned ultimatum they'd thrown in his face, but it wouldn't do to say that aloud, not here...
"After giving due thought and concern to this request, I must expressly and completely refuse."
Well, that certainly put a cat in the dovecote. Ginrei was the only one remaining silent; several of Byakuya's uncles had leapt to their feet, shouting - no doubt hoping that their spoiled, powerless sons would now be considered for position of Heir. His grandmother had gone quite red in the face under her heavy makeup, and he was quite that the din made it impossible to make out what any one of them was saying.
Beside him, Rukia rolled her eyes in disgust. "And they call themselves nobles," she whispered, low enough that only he could hear. "I've seen parties in the Eleventh that were more civilized!"
"Precisely what were you doing at parties in the Eleventh, Rukia?" he murmured back to her, watching with mild amusement as she turned nearly fuchsia with embarrassment. Well, that was a subject to come back to later.
By the time they finally shouted themselves out, his grandmother had recovered herself enough to recall the second half of her threat to him.
"If you will not take a suitable wife, then she," one bony finger jabbed in Rukia's direction - "must take a husband! We will begin searching the available candidates immediately for a male to give your children the proper blood -"
"I'm afraid that will be quite unnecessary, Grandmother," Rukia interrupted smoothly.
Byakuya raised his eyebrows a fraction; nobody noticed, of course, all their attention was on the adopted Rukongai brat who'd just had the temerity to interrupt an Honored Elder of the Kuchiki Clan.
At the far end of the table, Ginrei had covered his mouth with his sleeve; Byakuya felt quite certain the old man was trying not to laugh.
"Oh? And pray tell, child, why will it be unnecessary for us to seek you a proper husband? I suppose you already have someone in mind, do you?"
"As a matter of fact, Honored Grandmother, I do."
This time, Byakuya's eyebrows felt as though they might leap off his forehead in surprise. Certainly she'd never mentioned anything to him about a prospective husband! Was this how she thought to 'handle' the Elder's proposal?
"Oh? And just who might this potential mate of yours be, child? Certainly not some Rukongai trash, I trust?"
The 'like yourself' was unspoken, but the sudden, knife-edged press of Byakuya's reiatsu filling the room made it quite clear that the insult - unspoken or not - was understood, and not at all appreciated. Rukia, beside him, sat still and unbothered by the storm of power, hands still demurely folded in her lap and face properly downcast - no doubt to hide the stubborn set to her mouth.
Byakuya's grandmother, insensitive though she was to reiatsu, was not so blind as to miss the furious intensity of the energy boiling through the room. She bowed a small and no-doubt insincere apology in Rukia's direction, and Byakuya stifled his energy with a thought.
"He is not from Rukongai, honored grandmother; he is, in fact, an extremely powerful and highly respected Shinigami Captain," Rukia replied calmly, her voice expressionless and level.
A Captain? Byakuya had to fight not to turn and stare at his sister out of sheer, overwhelming bewilderment. Unless she was planning to marry Soifon - or, gods forbid, Kurotsuchi! - he couldn't think of a single unattached Captain, let alone one Rukia would wish to marry - that hadn't come from the Rukon districts.
Except... surely she couldn't mean -
"Oh? And just who is this powerful Captain, child?"
"Kurosaki Ichigo, honored Grandmother."
"I didn't think they'd agree to it!" Rukia wailed an hour later, raking her fingers through her hair for the umpteenth time. She'd been pacing the interior of Byakuya's private quarters for the last half an hour, wearing only the under-robe from her earlier outfit, trying to wrap her head around the fact that the Elders had not only agreed to her marrying Ichigo - they'd supported it!
"I figured he was the perfect foil - they'd be so angry about me choosing a human, and an unblooded Shinigami, that they'd all fall into infighting about how wrong he was and how each of their potential suitors was the best, and the whole thing would be put off until we could think of a permanent solution!"
Sitting patiently at his desk, wrapped in a house yukata and sipping tea, Byakuya found himself in a similar, if less expressive, state of turmoil. As much as he had once hated the Kurosaki boy, he could not deny his strength of hand or character. It was no question that the boy was an asset to the Seireitei, now that he was a part of it; that still didn't mean Byakuya wanted him as a brother-in-law.
There was also no question that Kurosaki Ichigo was still an ill-mannered lout without the breeding of a mongrel, but his blood was... powerful. And it seemed to breed true; according to Hitsugaya, one of Ichigo's sisters had impressive spirit powers as well.
And power was, always, what the powerful sought.
And truthfully, if it was a choice between Ichigo and some of the other candidates his family members were likely to propose...
"Are you unwilling to wed Ichigo?"
Rukia blinked at him, stopping short in midpace. "No, of course not. I know better to offer more than I'm willing to give, and... well..." she trailed off nervously, digging one big toe against the tatami mats.
"And?" he prompted calmly, setting his cup down to give her his full attention.
"And I'd kind of... maybe... thought about it? For real, I mean?" She blinked up at him, her expression pleading under dark eyelashes.
The thought surprised him at first; Rukia, considering marriage? Particularly of her own free will? Then again, perhaps not as surprising as he'd initially thought... given the bond between herself and the Visored, and how long they had lived and fought together, perhaps it had been somewhat inevitable.
"I see," he answered simply, picking up his cup again. "And what about Renji?"
"What about Renji?" she parroted back, blinking at him in confusion.
"There is not a romantic attraction between you?"
Rukia snorted. "He's a brother to me, Nii-sama. I love him, but I'd never want to sleep with him!"
A relief on many counts... not the least of which was that Renji had been truthful about her purity.
Then again, Byakuya realized, surrendering his sister to Kurosaki Ichigo would hardly require the constraints and dignity of a noble ceremony.
"Besides, he's so devoted to you, he'd never be interested in me."
Wait, what? "I beg your pardon!" Byakuya sputtered, trying valiantly not to spit tea all over his table.
Rukia giggled at him. Giggled! "Nii-sama, you don't know? Boys are so blind sometimes... Renji's completely devoted to you. I'd call it infatuation, but I think it's really more than that. He's been so entranced by you for so long, I almost think he's in love."
In... love? He'd known for some time now that there was something beyond mere admiration in Renji's pursuit of him, something more than a desire to reclaim the family that the Kuchiki had stolen from him. It was that knowledge, in part, that had led him to bare his skin and show his Zanpakutou mark to the younger man, an action that was both a cruel taunt and a gracious reward But to think that Renji's feelings ran any deeper than simple, carnal lust...
Byakuya shook his head slightly, trying to make the world lie level again. "Rukia, you must be mistaken. Renji has always desired to surpass me, but -"
"It's more than just that, Nii-sama," Rukia interrupted, wincing even as she did so at her breech of manners. However, her nerves were still getting the better of her after the meeting, and she tumbled on with her train of thought. "He always wanted to surpass Kira, in the Academy - Kira's always been so good at kidou, you know, that's why they asked him to train Ichigo, I guess, but Renji never obsessed about him like he does you. I've known him for longer than you have, remember. And I've never seen him get that obsessed about something that he didn't eventually achieve... if he doesn't love you, Nii-sama, he's very close to it, and he's going to keep fighting to win your respect and attention."
The clunk of the water clock outside punctuated her sentence; Rukia glanced through the open door and yelped when she caught sight of the sundial.
"I have to get to work! I told Ukitake-taichou I'd only be an hour late because of the Clan meeting!"
Bemused, he watched her shift from chiding matchmaker to frantic lieutenant; bolting from his room back to her own quarters, only to reappear a moment later, wearing her full shihakusho, lieutenant's badge snug on her arm, sprinting full-out along the slickly polished wood of the outside hall.
"I'll propose to Ichigo at lunch!" she called in to him as she raced by; he raised a hand in acknowledgment, but she was already gone, leaving him alone with his thoughts, once again in turmoil.
Renji lusting after him would not have been a surprise - anyone who'd spent time in the Eleventh tended to confuse battle-lust and bedding-lust, but... loving him?
His teasing embrace of his former lieutenant the previous night came back to him in a rush of remembered sensation; the near-scorching heat of Renji's skin under his fingertips, the sharp, cinnamon-and-sandalwood scent that clung to that impossibly red hair, the stark contrast of golden skin and black ink, viewed so close he could have laid his lips against it as easily as taking a breath...
And now, Renji might - if Rukia was to believed - have feelings for him that went beyond simple desire and admiration? Was it possible, that, after all these years, there was finally someone else whom he could entrust with his heart?
If, the naggingly pessimistic side of his mind countered, Rukia is right. If it's not just some twisted way of defeating you on his part. If the Elders don't go mad at the very suggestion of their Clan Head taking a male lover instead of a wife.
Sighing, he finished his tea, set aside his cup and his thoughts, and got up to dress.
"Ichigo, I need to talk to you!"
"Good morning to you too, Rukia. I'm fine, thank you for asking," Ichigo growled, bent over a pile of requisition forms on his desk.
Kira, sitting at the desk opposite him, nodded a greeting to Rukia and went back to his own work, though not without half an ear on their conversation. Although they'd been at different classes in the Academy, he knew Rukia well enough, mostly through Renji, that he considered her an informal friend. Certainly he knew her well enough to judge her temper by her too-expressive body language. And something in the way Rukia was carrying herself suggested this was going to be interesting...
"Why the hell does a division of a hundred and eighty-nine members need three hundred and fifteen shihakusho, anyway?" Ichigo demanded of no-one in particular, scribbling something on a notepad by his elbow.
Stalking forward, Rukia planted her fists on Ichigo's desk, leaning over the polished wood surface to stare at him. "Ichigo, we're getting married."
He blinked once, clearly distracted. "Hang on a second, Rukia," he ordered tersely, waving her away with one hand. "Kira, make a note to have me get Ishida down here and teach these idiots how to sew? There's no excuse for them going through that many uniforms, I don't care how tough the training regimen is."
Kira nodded, one hand automatically reaching for the book he kept, mentally counting down. He'd gotten to know Ichigo pretty well over the course of his training, and the explosion would be coming in eight... seven...
"Now, Rukia, what did you just say?"
"I said, we're getting married. You and I."
"That's what I thought you said."
"Are you out of your mind?! We can't get married!"
Muffling a snicker, Kira mentally patted himself on the back as he made the note about contacting Ishida. Probably the Quincy would wind up doing the wedding kimono, as well. Although part the Kuchiki fortune was said to be a wealth of silks and formal kimono...
"And just why not?"
"I'm too young, for one thing! Both of us just got promoted, we have our responsibilities to our squads, and, hello, I still have a family in the world of the Living that I can only see on weekends as it is! I'm not going to marry someone and give up the rest of my life!"
"I didn't say you're marrying someone, I said you're marrying me! Your family loves me! I'm basically married to you in their eyes anyway!"
"That's beside the point! Why should I marry you, anyway? And why now?!"
"Because the Kuchiki clan ordered me to marry, and you're the only available option I can tolerate!"
"Yes, tolerate! Even though you're a pain to live with..."
"I'm a pain to live with?! What about you, you little brat?!"
Kira had to bite down on his sleeve in order to muffle his snickers. By now, the shouting had drawn half the Division to the office, and Kira imagined it was only a matter of time before someone tried to sneak in disguised as a persimmon tree.
"So what, you'd rather see me married off to one of Nii-sama's idiotic, power-hungry cousins?!"
"Stop putting words in my mouth! Just say you don't want to get married yet!"
"That isn't how it works in the noble houses, you moron! If I was a Kuchiki by blood, I'd have been married decades ago!"
"You're not a Kuchiki by blood, so why does it matter if you marry or not?! Of all the stupid ideas - mmph!"
Well, that was certainly one way to stop the shouting, Kira reflected mildly, as Rukia hauled Ichigo bodily over the desk and kissed him.
*an unblooded Shinigami/without the breeding of a mongrel: (SPOILER/ Manga 186) Isshin's status as a Shinigami will be addressed much later in the story; however, I'm maintaining my original plotline in which nobody from the Seireitei proper is actually aware of his identity, and therefore Ichigo's heritage. (END SPOILER)
Also, I know very little of the ceremonies and processes of noble houses, and as such pulled that entire sequence out of my ear. Please forgive any mistakes.
And yes, it's a het pairing. Stop screaming, XD. They won't get as much attention as ByaRen or my other pairings. And IchiHime shippers, please refrain from murdering me. The humans won't be addressed in RDBH, but apparently... I will be writing a sequel. And Orihime will be happy, so don't fret.