yet_adored (yet_adored) wrote in bleachness,
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VALENTINE'S FIC CONTEST--The Thaw


Title: The Thaw
Rating:
PG-13 for mild violence
Genre: Family Dysfunction (and a touch of Romance, if you squint) 
Length: 4,670 words
Summary: After Aizen's betrayal, Rukia struggles with the weight of Byakuya's promise to Hisana.


DISCLAIMER: Who owns Bleach? Not me.

NOTE: It's not breaking up and making up in the classic sense, but shouldn't a Kuchiki rise to the challenge?

***

THE THAW

***
Rukia Kuchiki woke up dead. It wasn't the first time.

 
There was no way around it. Aizen had her in his grasp, a piece of gutter trash, Rukongai filth destined for the incinerator. The taunting slits which composed Ichimaru's face arched into sharp bows, ready to fire. Shinso burst forth. The look of dread in Ichigo's wide eyes confirmed that it was too late. She was dead.
 
And then, his hands...
 
The blood spilled across Sokyoku Hill on her behalf that day had been voluntary, as much as it pained Rukia to admit it. That so many had risked their lives for her. Renji and Ichigo's motivations were easiest to comprehend--two cannonballs in a pod. Chad fought for Ichigo, lending him his fists and his strength. Ishida fought for his Quincy pride and his fallen sensei. Inoue came to help--in her cheerful, miraculous way--and hadn’t left without a firm answer from Rukia--that they were in fact friends, and would have a bean paste feast soon.
 
They had all bled for her, but only Byakuya's blood had stained. Once again, Rukia awoke, expecting to find her hands and robe covered in his blood, to feel him go limp in her arms.
 
Perhaps she was still in shock.
 
Aizen would never know what he had done to Rukia that day. That he had drawn a clear line across Sogyoku Hill, isolating the three most destructive forces in her life--the intruder, the upstart and the sentinel. How could a single scowl, or a deep-seeded laugh, or an averted glance, affect her so?
 
The loss of her powers and being drained by Urahara’s damnable Gigai, followed by her imprisonment in the Senzaikyu, had reduced her to a pile of ashes. She could only watch, paralyzed by the reiatsu of friend and foe alike, while Aizen took down Renji and Ichigo. Despair came for Rukia, moving even faster than Shinso, but it could not outpace Byakuya. He shuddered when Shinso pierced his chest, refusing to stoop so low as to cry out in pain. As his grip relaxed and his eyes glazed over, Rukia finally broke. It was all too much.
 
Why, she had asked of him, panic-stricken, again and again, even though she already knew the answer. That single reckless act had given him away.
 
Byakuya had not returned to defend her. His earlier battle with Ichigo had damaged him, had shattered Senbonzakura, and in such a state, charging Sokyoku Hill alone meant certain doom. Aizen, Ichimaru and Tousen would see to that. Even so, he had not returned to die for her, either.
 
Aizen had turned towards the fallen captain; hand on his hilt, amusement clinging to his treacherous lips. He took a step forward. Rukia cradled Byakuya in her arms and waited for Aizen to strike. They were going to die--together. That was why Byakuya had returned. To die with Rukia.
 
Only then, blinking at the dawn, in her room at the Kuchiki manor, did Rukia realize that he had intended to carry Hisana's secret with him to an early grave.
 
But, Byakuya still lived. At that very moment, he was making his way to the dining hall for breakfast. No adoring, subservient sister would be there to greet him. For one day, just one day, Rukia would live as a Shinigam of the Thirteenth Division--not a Kuchiki.
 
***
 
"Is there anything else I can do for you, Kuchiki-taichou?" Unohana's ageless smile pulled no punches. She knew where Byakuya Kuchiki's mind was dwelling. The follow-up exam had merely been pretense.
 
"You are certain that my sister will suffer no ill effects?"
 
"Rest assured, Kuchiki-taichou. Her body bares no scars, and Rukia suffered no internal damage during the removal of the Hogyoku. Rukia has a resilient soul, which you know better than I."
 
"Sou ka." Byakuya nodded slightly, as if to dismiss the subject, although it continued to prey upon his mind.
 
No one, not even Kurotsuchi, the painted lab rat, had any idea what a century of hosting a foreign object may have done to Rukia's soul. Why had Urahara chosen her? Could Hisana have possibly known, was that why--
 
His eyes closed, shutting down his thought process. These were questions for another time.
 
"I shall take my leave. Thank you, Unohana-taichou, for your exemplary service."
 
"Think nothing of it," she said, offering him that same carved smile. It could freeze the fever out of a man. Byakuya did not linger.
 
The walk to the Sixth Division was brief, but Byakuya did not enter, deterred by Abarai’s excited reiatsu. Clearly, his lieutenant was ignoring his paperwork, but Byakuya was in no mood to play task-master. The lingering sting of their skirmish troubled him.
 
"No," Byakuya corrected himself aloud. "Battle."
 
It had indeed been a battle, although Abarai would never have been the victor, Bankai or no Bankai. While his Lieutenant would always lack sufficient discipline, he was determined. A driving trait Byakuya could no longer afford to neglect. Perhaps, after several decades of Byakuya reducing Zabimaru to smithereens--perhaps--Abarai might amount to something after all.
 
***
 
"Mae, Sode no Shirayuki." A frost fell over the Thirteenth Division's training ground. The white blade swung wide, reveling in its destructive beauty.
 
"Shikai so soon?" Ukitake shook his silvery head. "I hope you've informed Byakuya-sama of your intentions."
 
Rukia paused mid-thrust and glanced over her shoulder. "My intentions, taichou?"
 
"To recover beautifully and never give him a moment's peace," Ukitake said with a quiet smile.
 
"I..." Her stance weakened.
 
"Finish your question, Kuchiki." The command was sly, and gentle--but a command nonetheless.
 
"Did you know Hisana-sama...my sister?"
 
"We were social acquaintances, of course," said Ukitake. "But not intimate friends, by any means...although I did have my suspicions about your kinship with one another."
 
"Are we similar?"
 
"Like a grove of trees, as is the way with siblings. The first glance always deceives." He stepped closer to Rukia, but seemed to be looking through her. "Hisana-sama was a tad taller, if I recall correctly. She shared your natural elegance, but not your physical strength, I'm afraid. My eyes see all too clearly those who harbor a wasting illness."
 
"She...she was trying to find me, and her sickness--"
 
Ukitake exhaled heavily, as if winded. "Curse your heart, Rukia Kuchiki."
 
"Taichou--"
 
"Guilt, whether deserved or perceived, will only--" He raised a brow at her expectantly.
 
"Will only clip your wings."
 
"And it will dull your blade," said Ukitake. "Now, back to work."
 
"Hai, Ukitake-taichou."
 
Ukitake retreated to the porch, where his tea was waiting for him. Eyes closed, he savored the aroma, and zeroed in on the faint pulse of a nearby reiatsu. To anyone else, it would have seemed like a fleeting shadow, a trick of the eye. A bump in the dark. But Ukitake knew better.
 
This wasn’t the first time he had sensed the Sixth Division captain watching Rukia in secret. Ukitake didn’t mind. He was glad that Byakuya was mindful of his sister’s progress, and her undeniable talent. Furthermore, Ukitake was of the opinion that eavesdroppers earned their just rewards--Byakuya’s spying would only serve as leverage in their bartering for Rukia’s inevitable promotion.
 
"Some no mai, Tsukishiro!" A pillar of ice shot into the sky. Byakuya's reiatsu flared.
 
"Never allow that man a moment's peace, Kuchiki." Ukitake smiled into his teacup. "In fact, that's an order."
 
***
 
Ukitake dismissed Rukia early, not wanting to jeopardize her recovery. She let her feet wander as they pleased for some time, kicking up fifty years of half-truths and whispers. A phantom woman stepped in stride with Rukia. They shared a face, they shared a home--but this phantom did not equal a sister. A blood relative. Her only real family. Rukia's curiosity got the better of her.
 
She walked through the Kuchiki manor with purpose, chin jutted forward in defiance, and entered the shrine room without hesitation. The shrine doors parted, revealing Hisana-sama's faded smile.
 
"I do not understand you," Rukia said quietly. "Did you think I was truly lost? That he would not find me? Could you not see that his honor would bind him in ways that love could not?"
 
Hisana’s hollow eyes could not quite meet Rukia's searching gaze. This was her sister. Her nee-sama. Byakuya's wife.
 
"Hisana-sama, I thank you for searching for me, to the very end...it is because of your love that I have family at all...but you asked too much of him."
 
"Speaking ill of the dead is not befitting of a Kuchiki." His voice was slate, slick and cold.
 
"Nii...nii-sama--" How long had he been standing there, just inside the doorway, as if the shadows could mask his reiatsu any better. "Forgive my intrusion."
Byakuya approached. Gazes met. Unfamiliar eyes held firm. "I will not barr you from paying your respects to my wife. The shrine will be at your disposal on your mornings off."
 
My wife--so there it was. Hisana was not allowed to be her sister. Any lingering goodwill he felt towards her would certainly vanish--and yet--warmth pooled in the corners of his eyes, offering a sidelong wistfulness Rukia did not recognize. It was almost affectionate.
 
"Rukia," he began, voice low and tight, too close to her ear. "I promise--"
 
"No." Only fools interrupted Byakuya Kuchiki, but Rukia could not falter. "Forgive me, but there can be no promises between us. Not now. Not when you almost--"
 
"My actions are my own."
 
"And your honor is iron-clad. If not for that, if not for your promise to Hisana-sama...I would not be here."
 
Byakuya's jaw settled into a grim line. "Do you mean that Ichimaru would have succeeded, or that you would not be a Kuchiki?"
 
"I..." Rukia dug her nails into her palms.
 
"Have we been so inhospitable?"
 
"You should have told me the truth, that I’m nothing more than your sister-in-law, so I could have stopped--"
 
"Sou ka." Had she not spent decades trying to decipher the minute shifts in his tone, Rukia would not have noticed the silent anger laced through his words. "My sister would never be so spiteful."
 
Rukia choked down her honest reply--I am not your sister.
 
"You have business elsewhere, I assume." A bitter flare of reiatsu struck his cheek as she turned to go. Byakuya almost flinched. "Dinner will be at the usual time."
 
Rukia flash-stepped out of the manor. They both knew where she was going. He remained with his Hisana’s portrait--but his wandering thoughts paid her little mind.
 
***
 
"You’re…you’re mad." Renji gaped at her. "Honest to everything--flame-spitting--mad. At the taichou, of all people and I…kinda like it."
Her hand, aimed just so, could leave a terrible welt. Renji made a move to retaliate, but Rukia’s glare stopped him cold. He scratched his head instead, trying to make sense of the tiny ball of fury pacing the office floor.
 
"If I didn’t know better," Renji said after a spell, "I’d say you’re just mad at your own damn self."
 
"Don’t be absurd."
 
"Why? There’s no laws against it. Besides, from the taichou’s perspective--"
 
"Whose side are you on?"
 
"Mine, that’s who. No matter how this plays out, it’s going to end badly for me. Angry taichou means more paperwork. Angry Rukia means more bruises. I’m the Kuchiki punching bag, you know." His eyes clamped shut, waiting for impact. It didn’t come. One eyelid braved a glance. Rukia stood with her arms crossed, burning a hole in the wall. At least her ears looked friendly. "You have to admit, Rukia, that you proved your sister right…the moment he told you about her--"
 
"I do not blame Hisana-sama."
 
"Who?" It was a pointed question.
 
"Hisana…nee-sama."
 
Renji rewarded himself with a smug grunt. "Kuchiki-taichou apologized to you. Out loud, with witnesses. Apologized. To you."
 
"It’s…it’s just not fair."
 
"What’s not fair? That you’ve been a Kuchiki ten times longer than Hisana was?"
 
"Exactly."
 
"Then act like it," he said flatly.
 
"Re--Renji?"
 
"Go home, brush your hair and be a Kuchiki. That’s what this is about, isn’t it?"
 
"I honestly never expected him to--"
 
"For the record, I did the actual saving. Ichigo was just a diversion, and the taichou made a very timely pincushion, but as for actually grabbing you and making a run for it--"
"My hero." She gave his cheek an affection pat, then decked him in the shoulder. "Who asked you to save me?"
 
He punched her shoulder in return. "No one, that’s the point."
 
"Che." Rukia plopped down next to him. They sat in silence for a long while, rubbing their sore shoulders, while Rukia tried to stifle her growing mortification. She had trespassed into Byakuya's private quarters--into his late wife's shrine of all sacred places--and proceeded to berate her own dead sister. And then, as if interrupting him wasn't bad enough, she had seemingly insulted Byakuya and their entire clan in a single breath. Facing Byakuya again would be no easy feat...but maybe Renji wasn't so far off... Renji. She had promised to lean on him, to lean on Ichigo, and stand taller…but what did that leave for Byakuya?
 
Renji shot her a wolfish grin. "I missed this."
 
"Get over yourself."
 
"Likewise--Kuchiki."
 
***
 
Byakuya paused on the dining hall threshold, resting a heartbeat too long on his right heel. An elegant figure in a blue kimono, scattered with red blossoms, was waiting for him, head slightly bowed and cheeks flushed. If not for Rukia's evident embarrassment, it would have been a perfect scene--noblewoman at table, the definition of poise.
 
"Good evening, nii-sama." Even the smooth inflection of her words pleased him. How Rukia seemed to belong--but had he ever encouraged her, reassured her that she was an accepted member of the family?
 
He balked at his own thoughts. What need did a Kuchiki have of reassurance? Rukia was sitting at the table, was she not, as presentable and genteel as any other noblewoman in Seireitei. She understood. There was no need to indulge in such pointless emotions.
 
Byakuya joined her at the table, and the first course appeared. She followed his lead, picking up her chopsticks only when his were firmly in place, waiting for him to take the first bite. The silence between them was not entirely uncomfortable, but was hesitant, nonetheless. A well-timed glance took in her profile. What was burning inside of her--what feeling overwhelmed her so--that it pinched her brow, and darkened her gaze?
 
I promise...
 
What oath had she slayed upon his tongue? Unspoken, now all but forgotten, what had Byakuya been trying to give her? Surely his actions stood testament enough. They were both still breathing, sitting together, sharing a meal. He was willing to overlook her earlier outburst. It had been meant for Hisana, and he would allow Rukia to come to terms with her sister’s existence and legacy in her own time.
 
I promise...
 
The damned Kurosaki brat dared to encroach on Byakuya's thoughts. What was it that Rukia and Kurosaki shared from the first instant--that Rukia and Abarai shared, even after decades of separation--that Byakuya lacked?
 
I do not understand you...

***
All Rukia had to do was wait. Just hang limply from Aizen's hand, like a gutted fish, and wait.
 
Shinso severed the divide. A glimpse of Ichimaru's red eyes only heightened his sword's bloodlust. It was coming for her, to devour the last beat of her heart. To kill her. Helpless, powerless, unable to lift Zangestu even a fraction of an inch, Ichigo looked on in rapt terror. His eyes widened. Not long now, not long at all. One breath--maybe two.
 
Aizen smirked.
 
A vital stain spilled across the cracked dirt. Blood--but whose? Rukia's arms were empty. Who was bleeding? Shinso retreated. Her empty, lifeless hands trailed through the air. And then the blood--
 
"Rukia-san?" A mere question could not raise the dead. Tentative hands, shaking a numb shoulder, would fare no better. "Rukia-san, please--"
 
A trace of reiatsu brushed over her palm. Her reflexes tried to capture it, to grab hold of Byakuya--she would not let him die alone--she would not let him--
 
Reality bolted up her spine, and she was sitting in her bed, in her room, more or less awake. Gilded murals surrounded her, their delicate lines clearly visible, even in the dark. Night had not yet given way to morning.
 
"Rukia-san?" A candle neared her face. Her lady's maid, Akiko, was staring at her intently. "Was it a nightmare?"
 
"I--I don't remember," Rukia said with a childish grin, eyes screwed up tight. A fake laugh was enough to ease the tension. "Sorry if I worried you."
 
"Would you care for something to drink, or--"
 
"No thank you, Akiko. I will be fine."
 
Akiko retreated to the hallway. The candle strayed, disturbing the watchful darkness. Rukia caught a glimpse of Byakuya's stoic features before the door closed--eyes downcast, mouth drawn--the sentinel. A rogue spark of his reiatsu seemed to set the hallway on fire.
 
"So, you came after all," she whispered cynically, "if only to save me from myself...I never took you for a fool."
 
***
 
Byakuya entered Ukitake's office unannounced. The white-haired captain greeted him with a smile and a fresh pot of tea.
 
"You're just in time for tea, Byakuya-sama. I'm so glad the hedges could spare you."
 
The corner of Byakuya's mouth twitched, giving the distinct impression of a sneer. He ignored the proffered teacup. "I already know your thoughts on my recent observations, Ukitake--and they are incorrect."
 
"Is that so, Byakuya-sama?" Ukitake's pale grin was far too innocent to be trusted.
 
"Rukia's combat abilities are of no concern to me. They are under your tutelage, whatever that is worth. She is a Shinigami. She will fight her own battles." Byakuya paused, choosing his words carefully. "I merely seek to observe her spirit."
 
"Ah." Ukitake's countenance sank to the level of Byakuya's gravity. "I too have been keeping watch, and must admit, the lack of information about the Hogyoku troubles me."
 
The dark-haired captain nodded. Ukitake let out a deep sigh, unintentionally rattling his chest--but he refused to cough in the presence of Byakuya Kuchiki. Maintaining the upper hand, or at least the illusion of it, was paramount.
 
"In my opinion," said Ukitake, "Rukia's spirit was not affected by the Hogyoku, or Aizen. And her prospects--"
 
Byakuya's gray eyes flashed a warning. There was no real need for him to speak, the message was clear. "Until the Aizen matter is settled, Rukia's association with the ryoka boy makes her target enough."
 
Despite their differences, the two captains were in agreement about Ichigo Kurosaki--like it or not, he was the heir to Kaien Shiba's legacy. To grate on the noble's sense of decorum and good breeding, to lend strength to Ukitate, and to give Rukia what she craved most--a challenge.
"Kurosaki-san is no longer an intruder, Byakuya-sama."
 
"Sou ka," Byakuya said, almost languidly. "He must have died when I wasn't paying attention."
 
Ukitake merely blinked once in response. Cool breath hovered above his tea, mingling with the rising steam. A muscle twitched in Byakuya's jaw.
 
"And in my opinion, Ukitake, you should avenge your last fukutaichou before you appoint any more collateral damage."
 
 
***
Abarai’s rollicking gait distinctly reminded Byakuya of a wolf hound, all guts and enthusiam, and entirely too pleased with itself for knowing how to fetch and play dead. And it yapped incessantly--taichou, taichou, taichou.
 
Signatures were needed. Patrols had to be assigned. There were reports to file and meetings to attend. Abarai ran headfirst into each task, overeager as always, forgetting dates and times, never minding protocol. And he would turn to Byakuya, chest puffed out, anxious for undeserving praise.
 
Kenpachi would have put him down by now. Kurotschi wouldn’t have bothered with him all, ordering the unnatural Kurotschi-fukutaichou to rewire his brain. Ukitake would have indulged the quirks, letting Abarai run wild and calling it progress, just like he had with Shiba. Only Byakuya had the temperament to properly command Abarai.
 
Rukia didn't mind his oafishness, in fact she seemed to thrive on it. She laughed at him, chided him, knocked him around, knowing that he would always come back, as eager and determined as ever. There was no besting Abarai’s obstinacy.
 
The orange haired brat ranked a close second, if Byakuya made an allowance for his extreme youth. A fifteen year old boy was no more than an infant in Byakuya’s estimation. A mewling, spit-gurgling infant. No wonder Rukia understood him so well. The cries of a baby were hardly compex.
 
And it vexed him. How could Rukia, with her keen intellect and polished demeanor, so enjoy the company of dogs and infants?
 
"Taichou." Another yap. Abarai placed the day’s reports before Byakuya. Sharp eyes zeroed in on the Sixth Division captain, but they did not seek approval. The work would be satisfactory.
Byakuya continued to covertly watch his Lieutenant over the course of the afternoon. Whenever he began to slouch over his desk, or if his mind wandered, Byakuya’s mere presence was enough to set him to task again. A fire still burned within Abarai, the intense desire to surpass Byakuya. It would never die. It was a constant between them, and in some respects, it was the only part of their relationship that had survived Aizen’s betrayal.
 
Constant. Like a steadfast dog. Like an honest child.
 
***
 
Byakuya was good to his word, allowing Rukia to spend several quiet hours in the shrine on her morning off. She left without a sense of peace, only questions, and more questions. The possibility of a sister had never occurred to Rukia. Not even during her most desperate days in Rukongai, run ragged and starving, would Rukia have dared to hope for a sister, for a shared history and a family name, long forgotten.
 
The gardens opened before her, letting Rukia wander as she pleased.
 
She had instantly forgiven Hisana for abandoning her. The Seventy-Eight District made quick work of weaklings and sentimental fools. It had been a matter of survival. And how had Hisana survived? What had her life been like before Byakuya? How many nights had she gone hungry--was Hisana even capable of hunger? Had she been blessed with a friend as true as Renji, a partner in crime?
 
Too many answers lay buried beneath his promise.
 
A crunch of gravel alerted her to his presence--which was no doubt his intention. Rukia collected her scattered thoughts and turned to face Byakuya. A critical eye scanned her face. "Well?"
 
"I have paid proper respects to Hisana-sama."
 
He nodded, looking out over the green beds and sakura trees. "Ukitake tells me that your spiritual pressure is returning."
 
"Hai, nii-sama, although my attacks are not as strong as I'd like."
 
"And your kido?"
 
"Ukitake-taichou stated that my kido skills are...impressive...as ever," she said, forcing herself to repeat her captain's compliment.
 
"I will be the judge of that." Byakuya raised his hand. "Sho."
 
The Hado thrust was light--just a playful shove. Surprise registered on Rukia's face, followed quickly by a mischievous grin.
 
"Hado number one, sho." She used more force than Byakuya, but he easily sidestepped the blast, as she had expected. Her forefinger was locked on his right shoulder, she would not miss. His brow rose. "Byakur--"
 
Rukia suddenly found herself sprawled on her side, gasping. A thrust spell to the stomach had knocked the wind out of her. A clenched fist pounded the dirt.
 
Amusement flickered across Byakuya's face. "Is that the best you can do?"
 
He was teasing her, batting her around with the most basic of Kido spells, like a cat toying with a dead mouse. It was infuriating, but Rukia refused to let his damnable poise get the better of her. One foot planted itself firmly on the ground, and she launched into the air, flash-stepping in a zigzag pattern around Byakuya--who stood perfectly still, eyes closed, as if he didn't have a care in the world. It took every ounce of her self-control not to kick him in the shin, just once.
 
"Hado number thirty-three." She continued her frenzied dance, hands at the ready. "Sokatsui!"
 
Her right foot landed flush with his left, and Rukia launched a blast of blue spirit energy. For one second, she hung suspended in certainty. She was going to land the deciding blow. Byakuya looked her right in the eye, dragging that single, prolonged moment into eternity, and vanished. Her Sokatsui tore through a flowerbed, laying waste to innocent stems and petals.
 
"As if you could wound me," Byakuya whispered in her ear. He had moved behind her, and was now holding a fiery red sphere of energy to her temple--Shakkaho. It was the only time in her life that Rukia wished it was Renji's pitiful Shakkaho instead.
 
She shot a dirty look at Byakuya. There was more than one way to skin a cat--even a noble one. Her hand shot out, seizing Byakuya's prized scarf. His eyes went wide, and his body tensed, ready to pursue her--but Rukia did not intend to run. She circled around, ducking under his threatening arm and froze, gingerly holding the scarf in her left hand.
Byakuya's lips parted, betraying a silent gasp, as her right hand settled just below his heart, covering the spot where Shinso had pierced him.
"Wound you, nii-sama? I already have."
 
The Shakkaho evaporated. His hands encircled her wrists, bringing them together. Byakuya's larger, more skilled hands remained, covering her fingers, so that they were both holding his scarf.
 
"It is time that you and I came to an understanding."
 
She could not meet his gaze. "Nii...nii-sama--"
 
"Trust that you have my loyalty, Rukia. Not because of any promise, and not because you are a Kuchiki. You have my loyalty because you have earned it. Do you understand?" Too stunned to reply, Rukia stood in silence, waiting for the world to right itself. "I could not have been clearer, Rukia."
 
One acursed tear undermined her resolve. His grip tightened, ever so slightly. "I...I am as grateful to you as am I am indebted to you, Byakuya...nii-sama...you have my loyalty."
 
"You have been wronged," he said. Rukia's head snapped up. Two steely eyes erased all dobut. He was with her. "Aizen has much to answer for, and we will make him answer."
 
And then, his hands were gone--and hers were empty. Byakuya was already walking away, shoulders straight and proud. The scarf settled around his long neck once more, its pristine fibers sullied by her dirty handprint.
 
"And Rukia," he said without sparing a glance in her direction, "if you ever touch any of my belongings without permission again, Chappy will suffer my wrath."
 
She couldn't stifle her pure laugh, which echoed through the manor gardens like a clear bell. The corners of his mouth seemed to shift upwards. It couldn't have been a smile, could it?
 
***
 
Byakuya rose early, moving about the manor like a fleeting dream. He passed the few remaining hours until dawn reading in the library. Echoes reached Byakuya--the reassuring clatter of daily life, the whisper of footsteps and distant murmur of the kitchen fire. Rukia's reiatsu had not waivered during the night. She had not despaired.
 
"Sou ka," he said to himself, running a hand along his set jaw. There was no escaping it now. They were in agreement. He trusted Rukia, and by proxy, must put his faith Abarai and the orange-haired brat. When her actions seemed suspect, he must search out her true motives--and know, without fail, that Rukia would do the same for him in return. Theirs would be an unfailing loyalty.
 
There was a strain in Byakuya's chest, but it was not distressing. In fact, it felt quite a bit...like pride.


 

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