The night passed slowly in a sleepless stupor. The majority of the day passed in much the same manner. Never prone to idleness, I took the morning to visit the academy and observe the young cadets in the higher classes. It would soon be time to add to my squad's number. However, my heart was not in the endeavor and I failed to see much acceptable potential in any of the students. Revisiting the academy after such a long absence only served to bring back a wistful feeling of nostalgia. I could not help but to stop and remember the immense relief I felt upon first finding Rukia here.
For years, the young woman had been my sole mission. For years my wife pined and searched for Rukia, and thus, so had I. Never had I expected to locate her, and I had nearly given up the search for her. I knew nothing of her to identify her even if I did locate her. Still, I need not have been concerned. Her image came straight from my past. Her face accosted me on what had been a routine visit to the academy. Suddenly my search was over. I saw her just as my Hisana should have been; strong and in the presence of friends.
Now I wondered if her strength would be sufficient to carry her through this. Once again, I realized it was useless of me to worry.
After my visit to the academy and my performance of other perfunctory squad duties, Rukia joined me for a light meal before the elders' arrival. I was pleasantly surprised at how well she carried herself. Seated at the tatami mat opposite of me, Rukia delicately balanced her tea cup between her hands and took long, steadied breaths. I noticed that she had taken exceptional care in the way she styled and presented herself this night.
A delicate kimono of red and black patterned silk graced her even more delicate frame. Her furisode was secured around her waist with a deep red obi and her hair was pinned elegantly behind her ears leaving only a couple of well-planned pieces loose to frame her face. Tonight Rukia truly looked the part of a Kuchiki heiress.
She sat her cup gently back to the table before addressing me. The faintest hint of rouge highlighted her cheekbones.
"Nii-sama," she politely asked for my attention and I gave it willingly. "Please do not worry yourself for my sake. I do intend to make the greatest advantage of this situation and I assure you that I shall remember the pride of the Kuchiki house in this matter."
I gestured to my man servant and whispered a command in his ear before giving my reply. The servant bowed deeply and set off on my errand.
"You are the pride of the Kuchiki house," I spoke slowly, gauging her reaction as she watched me stand up before her. Her gaze did not travel with me around the table, but instead stayed locked on the intricate pattern of her teacup.
My servant returned with the requested possession and offered it to me in his open palms. I took it before dismissing him with a word of thanks.
Rukia looked up at me then. Rarely did I speak to my servants in her presence. Her curious eyes found mine almost immediately.
"You are the pride of the Kuchiki house," I began again, letting her see the garnet studded hair comb in my hand. "It is time that you be treated as the treasure you are. Perhaps this, my grandmother's heirloom, will remind them."
Gently, I pinned the comb into Rukia's fine, onyx hair. It was surprisingly soft to the touch.
"Do you have any concerns you wish to discuss?" I questioned a final time.
The hand in her lap tightened into a fist, yet the one visible on the table remained calm and unchanged. "No," she whispered. "I am ready for this."
It was not long before the elders arrived to the Kuchiki mansion to begin their assault. Rin and Hisoka came accompanied by the most aged member of my clan, the widow Izumi. Izumi had known much sorrow in her long life. Her husband had been killed by a Menos long ago, leaving her a widow at a young age. All three of their children were born dead, and so, believing herself to be as good as barren, she never remarried. Instead, she served as a matchmaker of sorts for our clan and the other noble families.
I could tell that her presence made the situation all the more real to Rukia, but she sat erect and confident among the elders and requested to see the matches they prepared for her. Izumi knelt across the table from her, spoke the name "Morita, Nobu" and presented a folder complete with a photograph on one cover and information on the other. As I knelt beside her, I instantly knew this match was beneath her. Nobu was hardly considered a legitimate nobleman. He was considerably older than Rukia and had a known penchant for gambling. Still, I hid my unease, more than curious to see Rukia's reaction to such an ill-suited match.
It appeared that she took the time to at least read the information that Izumi submitted. Her eyes scanned back and forth over the writing, learning the man's age, residence, holdings, and other information considered to be important when finding a marriage match. Information about his personal qualities was not deemed necessary enough as to be included.
Finally, her roving eyes stopped. With a steady hand, she closed the folder and gave it the slightest push back toward its creator.
"This is unacceptable and wholly unbefitting to a Kuchiki. Please do not waste my time."
Rukia might have taken the words out my very mouth. Indeed her tone matched the one of equal indifferent scorn I often adopted.
Undaunted, Izumi presented another similar folder, this time with the words "Oshima, Akira".
I knew slightly less of this man. He was a seated officer in Squad Three. As a ranking member of the Punishment Force, I had witnessed his prowess in battle, but knew little of his character. Perhaps he would be able to protect my pride, but he had no landed estates with which to provide for her and any children they might have. I had to suppress a shudder at the thought of my stern and determined Rukia, laid aside to be an ornamental housewife, a bragging right for an unworthy man.
Rukia did not read this brief biography.
"Oshima is not a noble name. Would you lower the house of Kuchiki so much as to give the sister of your clan leader to one with no standing? You astonish me."
Neither Izumi, Hisoka, nor Rin seemed deterred by Rukia's distaste of their work. Rukia understood their scheme and turned down each of the five matches Izumi proposed.
After the review of all the matches, Rin spoke. "You have obviously become accustomed to what is beyond you, dear Rukia. As a… noble of questionable birth, most men view your status as similar to a dowager at best. You can understand then, that finding a noble match for you is a difficult matter and that these men are surely not without their virtues."
My gaze flew to Rukia's, offering silently to speak on her behalf, but I could tell that such was not her wish. My Rukia wished to save herself, and I owed as much to her. In truth, I wanted nothing more than to order the old crone out of my sight. Still, I let her continue, half hoping that she might redeem herself now that Rukia had stood her ground.
"Our most honorable elder Izumi did express the possibility of a union with the Shibas. We... remember well your fondness for their elde-"
"Enough," I spoke, rising so quickly as to nearly startle the three from their formal posture. I turned briefly to Rukia. She looked at no one. Her face was frozen in the fresh reminder of the horror of Kaien's death. No doubt she was visualizing, even then, her part in that ghastly affair. Seeing those beautiful eyes wide with agony, her mouth agape with guilt and dismay, I lost all sense of propriety.
Suddenly, without my awareness, I was within a hair's breadth of Rin. "You treat my pride as if she were an ingrate bastard. You shame yourselves. You will leave at once and I shall hear no more of a match for Rukia. If her name so much as passes your lips I will move to have you disowned from the clan. Rukia shall live as she wishes, married or not. As for me, marry me off to one of the Ukitake girls. I have no mind as to which. We are finished here."
With that, I turned on my heel, making mind to leave and with Rukia in tow. However, a voice stopped me. Hisoka, ever the peacemaker, requested kindly, yet in a sickeningly honeyed voice, that I wait a moment longer.
"In the interest of harmony amongst us, Byakuya-sama, allow me to suggest an arrangement. I will see to it that the two most beautiful and eligible Ukitake women are presented formally to you at a tea ceremony. I will also compile a list of eligible men, from which young Rukia might have her choice. After all, Byakuya-sama, she cannot be alone," his smile was devious. "And it is not as if you can marry her yourself."
With a sinking feeling, I gave the most imperceptible of nods before Hisoka released me from his toxic trance. Swallowing hard and allowing myself to feel fear for the first time in many years, I turned toward my adopted sister, realizing with alarming clarity just what unspeakable paths the elders might cross to get their way. Perhaps they had crossed them before.