His servants pestered her with food and drink throughout the following day. Though she ate out of politeness, there were at least two square meals lined up and waiting when he visited her the following evening. She was seated at a low writing desk where she had found paper and ink. The figures she was drawing were clumsy, but the motions of her hand had a soporific effect. She didn't realise she had been waiting for him until he spoke:
"I just came to check – Oh. You did not eat."
She started. He was standing on the threshold of the screen door from the garden. He'd seen no cause to knock. It still felt strange to see him dressed as a shinigami, but it was an even rarer thing that he had allowed a trace of consternation to etch a line on his marble face. She cocked her head on one side:
"I'm sorry. I know it's a luxury and I should be grateful, but I'm not used to it. I eat a few mouthfuls and I can't….."
"Do you drink?" She shrugged. "How often?"
"Every three or four weeks. I don't know why, but I do get hungry sometimes, like I did back on earth."
"I'll tell the serving staff." He looked at her then and she blushed as his eyes fell on her writing: "Do you like calligraphy?"
"Oh no. It looks terrible. It's just been so long since I had cause to practise my letters."
"No-one showed you how to hold a brush," he observed and she set it down, self-conscious. In light of her reaction, he seemed to backtrack: "I mean, I'll show you. We still have a few hours of daylight. I'm just going to change." She watched him leave, her eyes following the sword on his hip. It didn't matter what he said, she didn't think she would ever get used to that.
He met her some minutes later with paper and inks and they went to a place where the lawn sloped smoothly down to a pool of koi carp. A willow tree offered a dappled, ever-moving canopy under which they sat.
He showed her how to hold the brush so that no line required more than one stroke. Then he sat back while she wrote, sometimes watching her and sometimes watching the sun setting in the sky.
"You know," she said at length: "I was worried yesterday. It had been so long since I'd spoken to anyone, really talked; I was worried I mighthave forgotten how."
"Well, I did most of the talking." He smiled and she pretended not to notice: "You could tell me something about yourself, Hisana."
She didn't answer, but, after some time, she dipped her brush into the ink and, carefully removing the excess, she said:
"Do you know why I enjoy this?"
"Because it has no purpose. In Rukongai, you did everything for a reason. You trade, you fight, you keep looking back over your shoulder. Everything is about surviving and this, this has nothing to do with anything. It's nice and pointless."
"It quiets the mind."
She went back to writing in silence and he lay back on the grass, one hand under his chin, watching thin clouds cross the brilliant evening sky: "Hisana," he said after a long time: "Do you remember your life?"
"A little. But in snatches. As if it were a dream. It hasn't faded or anything; it's been that way ever since I came here. Hazy. Does that sound strange?"
"It doesn't sound strange. The higher your reiatsu the less you remember."
She stopped writing:
"You mentioned that word before, as if I should know what it means."
"Reiatsu. It's your spiritual pressure. Every soul has it. In humans, it's contained somewhat in their physical form, but, in this world, we're creatures of pure spirit. The higher a soul's reiatsu, the more capable it is of exerting power over other spirits. Kido, magic. Shinigami are an elite with extremely high reiatsu." He hesitated. She had given him no indication that she was listening and he sighed: "Did you never wonder why you aged so slowly, why you hungered" –
"I was hungry in my lifetime. Almost every day." She turned to look at him over her shoulder: "It wasn't unreasonable to assume it was a memory of sorts."
"And the aging?"
"I don't know."
"You never wondered?"
"It's not as if I had anyone to ask."
She turned back to the page she was writing on. She suddenly felt very hot and sick in her stomach, as if someone had scooped out a hole in her midsection: "So, someone with high reiatsu, they'd be hungry all the time?"
"What would happen if they didn't eat?"
"They'd grow weak: the same way humans do."
"Could they starve? In this world? Is that possible?"
"I don't know."
She hunched over the paper, unable to write anymore. Her memories were falling into place: the little sister she'd left behind, the child's sudden silence as they'd passed the shinigami at the checkpoint, as if she had known something Hisana hadn't; something she could not possible have known: "You can sense others if their reiatsu is high, can't you?"
"That night on the rooftop, I thought I sensed you before you spoke, though you didn't make a sound."
"Your spiritual pressure is stronger than most. Not as strong as a shinigami's though. I know that because no shinigami has ever been able to remember a minute of their life and you can remember yours. It's a trade of sorts. I don't think we could do what we do if we remembered."
His words broke through her troubled thoughts and she turned to face him:
"So you don't remember anything?"
"Me? No." He frowned: "But that's because I never lived." Now it was her turn to frown. "I was born in Soul Society," he explained.
"You were never alive?"
"And you never died?"
"How can that be? How can that be when there's meant to be a balance between worlds? How can souls be born into this one that haven't died in the last?"
"Souls die in this one too," he reminded her: "And they don't return to the cycle."
She stared at him, making the connections in her mind. And perhaps she spoke without thinking:
"So people like me have to die so that people like you can live?"
He seemed genuinely shocked:
"I'd never thought of it that way."
"Someone has to die so that someone else can live. Weak souls die; strong souls live."
"Shinigami have great spiritual pressure, but very few live out their natural lives to be reborn in the cycle. We're far more likely to be killed than any of the souls in Rukongai. We live too long."
"That doesn't make it better," she cried.
Even as she spoke though, she realised she could not conceive of a being capable of killing this man. She could not imagine him dying. He seemed as timeless as the garden and the earth and sky: "People die every day on the streets," she said: "The shinigami do nothing to stop it. That's what your father meant when he said we were already condemned; we're the ones who have to die!"
"Will you hold my father's words against me for all eternity?" He got to his feet: "He is the one who is dead. He is the one who will not be reborn. Not you, Hisana!" And, with that, he turned from her and stalked away across the lawns.
She sat there, numb, the papers still spread out across her knees. Then, in a flurry of spilt ink, she went after him.
The sun had almost set, taking with it the colours from the garden. Byakuya was standing between avenues of white flowers turning grey in the falling light. There were clouds gathering in the north and a change in the air that made her skin prickle when she reached him. His face showed only a trace of irritation as she skidded to a halt and bowed:
"I'm sorry. It's just that, the more time I spend here, the more unfair it seems to be."
"One soul lives and another dies. What could be more fair than that?"
"I'm sorry." She wrapped her arms across her chest: "You've shown me nothing but kindness and I've repaid you poorly. The truth is that this is not my world, Byakuya-sama, and it will never be my world. I have outstayed my welcome."
He caught her arm as she turned to go. He'd moved so fast she'd not seen him cross the space between them, but his grip was firm and she froze, recalling instinctively the only other time when anyone had tried to hold her back.
"Where are you going to go?" he asked. She answered him coldly:
"I'm registered in Seventy-ninth."
"You have no home to go back to."
"There are always other places."
She hadn't turned. Hadn't moved. He seemed to sense that he was scaring her and lessened his grip so that she broke free and started to jog across the lawn.
"Hisana," he said. It wasn't a shout nor a command. Nothing suggested he expected her to turn back, but the sound of her name, coloured by such despair, made her stumble to a halt. She felt that same despair, but she was angry too. Did he not understand the courage it took her to leave? To force herself to wake from this dream? Her life was cruel and hostile, but he had given her light and beauty, knowing all the time that she would have to give it back. Well, better to do it now than wait until a time when leaving would be unbearable. "Hisana," he said again and she knew, from his hesitation, that he was searching for the words that would reach her. When he found them, there was no uncertainty in his voice: "You don't belong there," he said.
She remained standing, ankle-deep in the grass, as he approached. When he reached her, he took her wrist and turned her to face him.
"Where do I belong then? You said" –
He kissed her.
She stood rigid as his hands closed over her shoulders. His lips pressed hard against hers. Only for a matter of seconds. Perhaps he had meant it to be more and was disappointed in her reaction, or perhaps it was because they were interrupted by an embarrassed cough.
Byakuya stepped back. He remained composed, though his eyes lingered on her face. It was the first time she had seen anything like doubt behind that grey gaze. If he had expected her to respond in kind to his advances, then she had disappointed him.
For her own part, she stood wide-eyed, her arms wrapped around her chest.
The man who had interruped them was dressed in a close-fitting black uniform. The lower half of his face was covered, but sharp blue eyes nevertheless watched her with open interest.
"Yes?" said Byakuya and the man's blue gaze flickered back to him.
"Captain Ukitake of Thirteenth Division requests your company this evening. The –lady would, of course, be most welcome. That is, if she is" –
"Hisana," he said: "Hisana is a guest in my house."
"Of course she is. What I meant was, if it is appropriate for a lady such as" –
"What?" Byakuya's eyes had widened slightly.
"Forgive me," stuttered the messenger.
"She is a guest. And you will apologise to her for insinuating otherwise."
"Humblest apologies, my lady." The man bowed so low that his brow was close to the ground. Hisana stared at him blankly.
"What is the nature of Juushiro's request?" Byakuya asked, gathering himself: "Is this an invitation or an order?"
"A request," said the messenger, unfolding slightly: "Ukitake-taichou is requesting your company at the request of Captain Commander Genryusai Yamamoto."
"Understood. We will join him in an hour's time."
"Who" - ? Hisana began, but the messenger had already nodded his repects. His figure blurred and he seemed to vanish into the air itself. Hisana stared, baffled, at the space where he had been.
"You will need to get changed," Byakuya said. With that, he swept past her, heading back towards the house.
"What? I am no part of this!"
"It was an order from the Captain Commander."
"It was a request!"
"No, it was an order."
"But it has nothing to do with me!"
He hesitated and looked down at her where she was jogging at his side to keep up:
"We've been seen together. Don't you care what they think about you?" he asked.
"No! They're shinigami! Why the hell would I care what they thought of me?"
"I care," he said: "I have a great deal staked on this." He took her by the wrist. This time, she was too angry to be troubled by his touch. He didn't hurt her, but nothing she said or did would make him let go and she was marched back to the house in his stead despite the bemused glances the servants threw in her direction. He took her back to her room and closed the door behind them, then slid back a screen of panelling on the wall to reveal a wardrobe. Her clothes were folded in neat lines. He had purchased, for her, more gowns than she had ever owned in this life or the last one. Standing by the bed, she watched him now as he went through them, still showing no sign of anger. His movements were efficient, but not brisk. It was as if her objections had never reached below the surface. He chose one of the kimonos and shook it out: deep red and purple: "This one. No, too dark. This one then." He put the first back and retrieved another from one side of the cupboard. It was white with a pale blue obi: "Put this on," he said, handing it to her. The material felt heavy.
"I said: put it on."
"And I said no."
He stared at her. There was still no anger. Just curiosity:
"Hisana is stubborn."
"This is just about saving face, isn't it?"
"Of course it is. These men are my superiors," he said calmly and, seeing her expression, added: "Would you prefer I lie to you?"
"Then please change."
"No! I won't!"
But she was talking to his back. He had crossed the room to the screen door. It was dark outside and he turned back to look at her only once:
"You will look very fine, I assure you."
She cursed as the door closed behind him.
The kimono lay on the bed. Hisana stared at it with a mixture of anger and resentment. It was one thing to wear the clothes he had bought her because she had nothing else; quite another to dress in the one gown that, of all of them, was by far the most exquisite: white silk rimed with blue and gold threads as thin as filigree, so that it was only possible to make out their web-like pattern if you looked closely. From a distance of but a few paces, its colours seemed to shift from white to pale blue to gold: irridescent, like a peacock's feather.
If she put that on, she would be someone different. Not a girl from Rukongai dressed up in fine silks, but someone entirely new.
But if she refused, would he be angry?
She could still leave, she realised. It wasn't as if he had locked the doors and set a guard. She could walk out; she could go back to Seventy-ninth and start again as she always did. And that would be better. It would be fairer. She couldn't live in a fantasy forever.
He had kissed her though.
She had known. Well, she had guessed, from the way he watched her whenever he thought she wasn't looking, that he found her charming. But she hadn't really believed it or considered what she should do. He was kind. He had helped her. That was all. Anything else was complicated and, most likely, could be explained away by mere curiosity: the chasm of difference between them, her vulnerability, their chance meetings over the course of so many years, and his own gratitude towards her; these were all things that might make him believe he loved her. Did it matter that it was patently absurd?
"My lady, are you ready?" called a servant from behind the inner door. Hisana started and her eyes fell on the kimono again. "Byakuya-sama has requested that I help you style your hair."
"Oh. One moment, please," she called back and hurriedly began to put on the fine white gown.