It was dark outside. A single oil lamp illuminated the upstairs room where Rukia knelt at the bedside of the man who had asked her to call him 'brother.' She had let him continue speaking despite the obvious cost to his strength. His face was flushed now, as if with fever. He tried to sit up and grimaced. At least his pain gave her something to concentrate on in the whorl of her thoughts. She took a pillow from beside the bed; then, with one hand about his shoulders, took his weight to slip it between his head and the rest of the cushions. He sat back, breathing hard through gritted teeth and, without thinking, Rukia took his hand in both her own.
She wasn't used to this: not to seeing him like this, or to knowing the things she now knew. She felt so pummelled and numb from her experiences on the sokyoku, she wasn't yet sure what to do with the information.
"I broke the law when I took Hisana from Rukongai," he said, breaking the silence of a sudden: "I broke it again when I married her, but I promised her that I would find you and protect you with my life. Saving you from Rukongai; it should have been the last time. I swore on my mother's grave that I would never break the law again even if it cost me my life to do so, but when the order came for your execution….. Can you forgive me?"
"You are my brother-in-law, my sister's husband."
His grey eyes widened and he let out a ragged sigh. He needed to sleep. Rukia felt nothing but relief when, moments later, those same eyes closed. This man she had been sure was immortal: did he have any idea what he had done? Within the space of an evening, he had rewritten her life.
He'd had good reason to hate her: the woman who, in his eyes at least, had taken his wife from him. A lot of things were falling into place now. His resentment, yes, but also the way he looked at her. She'd taken it for disappointment and had been too self-aware to look further and notice that he had never been disappointed in the things she was; only in the things she was not. Because she was not Hisana.
Strangest of all was the knowledge that he could love. Yes, she had been wrong about him, just as she had been wrong about Renji who had not despised her for Kaien Shiba's death, as she'd believed. Station, tradition and, in truth, their own pride had kept them apart, but, despite everything, he had not forgotten her.
She had been wrong about them both. And wrong about herself.
She had been human once.
She stood up and went over to the window, which looked out across the labyrinthine streets of the sereitei, her home. A human girl. The thought was strange and precious.
She did not yet feel any sympathy with a baby who had died in a war in a distant world. Nor yet with the child abandoned in a Rukongai street. But she could feel the disparate parts of her life reasserting themselves: shifting, rearanging, forming a pattern. She had existed, from place to place, from time to time, without a context. With no sense of belonging anywhere. Yet, all this time, there had been somebody searching for her. There had been an empty space she had been meant to fill. There had been a family.
"Hisana was right about you," Byakuya said and she turned back to him. She'd been certain he was asleep: "You are stronger than she was. But she was wrong in thinking you would need someone." Rukia didn't answer. She didn't think he was talking about saving her life today. "I didn't understand at first. She loved the house. She loved the garden. In everything, she saw beauty, but you – nothing I gave you made you happy."
"I am sorry," she said softly.
"I was not ungrateful."
"On your first night in my house, you destroyed the room in which you slept."
"Oh. Yes," she said, remembering. In hindsight, she probably hadn't made the best of first impressions. She tried to see it through his eyes. He had let a stranger into his house. He had taken her from nameless poverty into a life of privelege and she had done nothing but sabotage it. She must have seemed delinquent to him.
"You are not her," he said, somewhat unnecessarily.
"No." She turned back to the window and tried to see Rukongai beyond the network of gates and alleys: "But I wish I could have met her. I don't know if we would have seen eye to eye, but I might have learnt something from her."
"Knowing these things, Rukia, would you still have chosen the life of a shinigami?"
"Yes," she said without hesitation.
"Then she was wrong."
Rukia closed the drapes on the deceptively peaceful cityscape, then crossed backt o his bed and knelt down:
"I guess we all make mistakes about people." She pulled the blankets up over the ugly wound on his side. His grey eyes held hers a little too long. He looked as if he had been about to say something, then dismissed it. Rukia leant back against the wall: "What did my sister look like?"
"So much like you," he said softly: "That was never a lie. She was a little taller. Very slight. She smiled often, even if she was sad. There is a picture of her on the shrine in my home. I hid it, fearing that if you saw the resemblence, you would ask questions, but if you wish to see her, it is there."
They sat in silence for a time until he closed his eyes and his breaths became long and deep. There was so much to think about. So much she needed to do, change, say. Tonight had seemed like a moment outside of time: his words, his story and her past still filled the room. But what she wanted, more than anything, was to tell Ichigo what she had learned. That she was human. That she had lived.
She stepped out into the corridor, and it was as silent out here as it had been in Byakuya's hospital room. Ichigo's chamber was three doors down. She counted them and knocked softly. When there was no reply, she tried her weight against the wood and found it unlocked. She would have entered had not a hand landed on her shoulder, making her start.
"Unohana-taichou!" She bowed, remembering herself: "Sorry!"
"Why don't you give him a chance to rest? He's sleeping now."
"Is he" - ?
"Healed? Yes. No permanent harm done." Unohana reached past her and closed the door: "And you?"
"I – no. No harm done."
"Hm." Unohana's gaze was long and searching: "You should get some rest."
"I will, but I have somewhere I need to be. Thank you." She bowed again and started off down the corridor.
"Rukia!" Unohana stopped her and approached again. Gently, she laid one hand on her throat and the next thing Rukia felt was the cool flow of kido from the woman's fingers, winding round her neck. A sense of release. When she looked, Unohana was holding the red collar she had been wearing since the first day of her imprisonment. Rukia reached up and rubbed the skin of her neck. She'd become so accustomed to the device that she'd forgotten it was there. "Go then," Unohana said, folding the thing up and slipping it inside her robe: "Wherever you need to go."
"Thank you. With respect, thank you." Another bow and she hurried away, feeling lighter on her feet than she had in months.
It was almost a year since she'd slept within the walls of the mansion. Returning to it felt like revisiting a half-forgotten dream. Extraordinary that so much could could change in the space of so little time.
The servants were curious as she entered her brother's quarters, but they did not stop her and, as soon as she was inside, she pulled the screen doors shut behind her and lit the lamps. She had never come here before. She had stood often enough in the doorway to speak with him, but she had never once been invited inside, and so she had never seen the shrine before save from a distance. She had never studied the images of his family, where they stood between piles of fresh flowers. Still fresh, she noticed, which meant he must replace them daily.
She ran her eyes over the pictures and stopped when she found Hisana's. For the first time, it felt real, and a lump caught in her throat. The girl could have been her. She looked only a little older than Rukia, smiling out of the picture with a softness in her eyes that her younger sister never had and never would possess. Swallowing back any feelings of sentimentality, Rukia picked up the image and held it to the light. "So," she said softly, then hesitated. There was really nothing that she could say. She thought back to the kids she had known in Rukongai. She never visited their graves now. She thought back to losing Kaien. It would have felt wrong to keep a picture or even a token. In each of their cases, she had let them pass out of her life afraid of what, if anything, she ought to hold on to. By contrast, Hisana had never been a part of her life, at least in living memory. Yet she was as close to a family as Rukia had ever come. She was her family. She made a soft sound in her throat as she replaced the picture. At least she understood Byakuya's reaction to her now. Her resemblence to Hisana was chilling and she could only imagine how it must feel for him to see her every day in the shape of her sister; a sister who was, in her ways, so similar and yet so different. Her presence must feel, to him, like a mockery of her memory.
She lit a handful of incense and set it to burn in the shrine. "There," she murmured. Respect for traditions might not come naturally to her, but she thought she might learn in time. It was hard to feel alone in the presence of the icons and she found that her curiosity moved on, from Hisana, to the images of Byakuya's parents, his late grandmother, his aunts, uncles. She found it hard to imagine that there had ever been so many people in his life. Did he miss them? Were she to ask, she doubted he would answer, yet she realised that the fresh flowers probably told her everything she needed to know.
She looked past the shrine. There was another room beyond. A short corridor with a partition wall. His bed chamber to the left. Without really intending to, she began to walk through his home.
There was very little to suggest to her that anyone lived here. Certainly nothing that made it into a home. Books. Clothes. A few papers, discarded. The ash in the hearth was the only sign that it had ever been lit. Except for the mural in the main room. She stood and stared at that, feeling a sudden and profound sadness. Someone had started to paint over it, to change the wall back to the pale grey of the rest of the room, but they had stopped and there remained a sokitary tree branch, a squawl of cherry blossoms and two charcoal-coloured cranes ascending into the sky. It was not a well-executed design. It was probably a little garish. But, in a house without a soul, it was the only thing that was warm and bright. On instinct, she approached the wall and scratched at the grey paint, but it did not come off. Whatever had been painted over had been lost.
So why had he stopped? The answer must be that he wanted to keep the painting. Then why begin to cover it at all? A mistake? Or a decision made in the heat of the moment? The need to let go coupled with an unwillingness to forget. She understood that. But, it being him, he would not have done it himself. He would have ordered them to start painting over it and then, perhaps minutes later, he would have returned and told them to stop. He would have offered no explanation. She could imagine the painters' bafflement and she smiled inwardly. Just a whim, he would have said, if asked. Just a moment's sentimentality. So it had remained, the colours fading slightly, the hand that had held the brush just as unaccomplished as it had ever been.
Feeling a sense of imposition, she drifted back to the shrine where the incense had almost burnt itself out. Without really thinking, she brushed her sister's image with the tips of her fingers: "You trouble him still, Ne-san. You trouble him deeply."
All around her, the icons of his family seemed to gaze at her, generation after generation, watching through plumes of blue smoke. His family. Her family.
She had made a decision. It would affect the course of her life from this moment onwards and she had made it without even knowing it, but, now that it was done, it was not so much a choice as a discovery. She would, no doubt, regret it often enough. But, then again, that was just how it was when you stopped running away.