Rukia walked to cool down, through the streets and lower courts, circling until she caught her breath and her muscles stopped burning. When her hands finally agreed to close firmly again she climbed up to the roof of the Thirteenth Division offices to watch the sunset. It was a familiar thing to do. She couldn’t decide whether it comforted her or just made her feel more alien now, with everything so changed.
The sunset itself was beautiful, though.
“Ah. I wondered if I would find you up here.” Ukitake-taichou settled, soundlessly, beside her.
“Did you need me for something, Taichou?” Rukia unclasped her arms from around her legs and straightened.
“No, no, relax.” Ukitake-taichou smiled down at her. “No need to spoil the sunset; you always did like coming up here to watch.”
Rukia was worn out enough to take him at his word. They watched the sky until the last hint of teal faded away and the stars were out. Finally, though, Rukia sighed and cupped her hands together, whispering the words for light. She released it over their heads and turned to face her captain. “What is it, Taichou?”
Ukitake-taichou gave her a wry look. “Can’t fool you, can I?” He eyed the captured seed of brightness above them. “I forget, sometimes, just how great a volume of kidou you know. Sometimes I wonder if you shouldn’t have gone into the Second Division, where you’d use more of it on a regular basis.”
Second? Rukia felt a cold grue crawl down her spine. The only division she would less want to be in was the Twelfth! She shook her head. “I’m happy here.”
“That’s good to hear.” Ukitake-taichou leaned back on his hands. “You’ve been practicing with Abarai so much, lately, I was starting to wonder if you wanted to transfer to your brother’s Division.”
“No!” Rukia bit her lip as Ukitake-taichou started upright. Less vehemently, but still firmly, she repeated, “No. I’m happy here. And I wouldn’t do that to him.”
Her captain cocked his head. “Which him?”
Rukia blinked. “… either of them,” she answered after a long pause. She tossed her head as if to shake off her thoughts. “I practice with Renji because he’s the only one who doesn’t treat me like either an avatar or an idiot. Well,” she added, “he does still treat me like an idiot, sometimes, but that’s just Renji.”
“He does seem very fond of you,” Ukitake-taichou chuckled.
“It’s like that, is it?” her captain asked, softly.
Rukia looked away. “I won’t ask Nii-sama to break his promise,” she said, trying to keep her voice from shaking. “I won’t put him between his promises again.” If her adoption was the last rule to be broken in the house of Kuchiki… then so be it. Her knuckles whitened.
Ukitake-taichou sighed and reached out to ruffle her hair. “If that’s your choice. Just let me know when you’re ready, then. I’ll clear a court for the day and grab someone from Fourth, for your poor unsuspecting division-mates.”
Rukia stared. Ukitake-taichou laughed out loud. “Oh, come now. It’s obvious what you’ve been training toward.” He smiled at her, gently. “I’m glad to see you’ve finally found the heart to advance seriously.” He stood and stretched. “I’ll look forward to watching.”
“Thank you, Taichou,” Rukia whispered to the breeze he left behind him.
Another day, another walk. This one not to cool down, but to compose herself. She focused on one detail after another, as she walked through the halls of her house. Steps measured. Hands steady. Expression calm. Breathing even. At last she stood at the door of her brother’s room. One more breath.
She knelt and slid the door aside.
Byakuya-nii-sama didn’t move from where he sat looking out into one of the gardens. “You challenged for a higher seat today,” he remarked.
Rukia’s mouth quirked before she schooled her expression again. News had traveled fast. “Yes,” she agreed. “I am now seated third in the Thirteenth Division.” A great ways to advance in a single day. A single, very long, day. She ordered her leg muscles not to start shaking again.
“Good,” her brother stated. “How soon will you rise to fuku-taichou?”
Rukia lifted her head, proudly. “Within two years,” she answered, prompt and firm.
Now, Nii-sama turned his head, brow lifted. Rukia held his gaze, shoulders straight. Perhaps she wasn’t the prodigy that her brother was, and perhaps she hadn’t driven herself as hard as Renji had. At least, she hadn’t used to. But if she had a cause to put her strength toward, she believed she could do it.
A subtle softening passed over her brother’s face. Nothing so overt as a smile, but Rukia brightened to see it. I’ll make our house proud, she assured him silently. I will. I promise.
“Good,” he repeated, voice a shade warmer.
Rukia bowed and withdrew, breaking into a grin as she ran back to her own room.
Rukia was happily off-duty and lying in the grass trying to blow all the fluff off a dandelion when Renji tracked her down.
“So!” he thumped down beside her, cross-legged, sake bottle a smaller thump a second later. “I hear you advanced. About time you got your lazy ass in gear.”
“As if you should talk, Mr. Brow-nosing Social Climber,” she shot back, lazily.
“Me!” he protested. “Who’s the noble house girl, again?”
She grinned at him with a wicked gleam in her eye. “I’m not the one who acts like a noble house-boy.”
“You little,” he sputtered and swatted at her. She ducked, laughing.
“Yep. Little and fast, not a big, clumsy oaf like some people I could mention.”
Renji flopped back in the grass with a groan. “I forgot what a mouth you’ve got on you, when you’re in a good mood.” He took a swig from the bottle and held it out to her. “Here. Drink up. You’ll be too busy to celebrate soon, I bet.” He leaned up on an elbow and eyed her with an evil grin of his own. “You did remember, didn’t you, that Third Seat in your division gets to do all a vice-captain’s work without any of the advantages?”
Rukia tipped the bottle back for a healthy swallow. “Of course I did.” She shrugged. “Ukitake-taichou deserves a break from those two maniacs.”
Renji’s toothy grin softened. “Always you do it for someone else.” He shook his head and snorted. “Well,” he added in a more normal tone, “I bet Kuchiki-taichou was pleased. Not that he’d have said so. No, I bet the first thing he said was ‘So when are you getting the next level?’ Wasn’t it?”
Rukia drew herself up and looked down her nose at him. “It was not.”
“Oh?” Renji arched a skeptical brow.
“It was the second thing he said,” Rukia informed him with dignity. “The first thing he said was ‘Good.’”
“Wow,” Renji marveled with mock-amazement, “he must be going soft in his old age.”
“Maybe he is.” Rukia brushed her fingertips over the now-uneven fluff of the dandelion. “I used to think he didn’t care. Now,” she paused, “now I think he just tries not to.” She folded up her knees and wrapped her arms around them, a little of her old forlorn feeling trying to creep back. “Knowing the whole story… I’m amazed he doesn’t hate me. Can you imagine? Your wife spends her marriage to you distracted by someone else, and then her dying wish is for you to find that someone and take them in?” She shivered.
“Yeah,” Renji agreed, slowly. “That must have hurt.”
Rukia hugged her knees tighter, words becoming muffled. “Why does it seem like everyone misses love by looking the wrong way? They ignore it while they have it, or they don’t notice it when they find it. Or they find it when it’s too late.”
Renji frowned. “Rukia…”
“You know,” she hurried on, “while I was in the human world… I remembered how much I missed having a friend. Someone I trusted enough to yell at and argue with. A real friend.” She looked up, biting her lip. “I missed you.”
Renji’s face was still. “Yeah, me too,” he answered at last, quietly. He leaned back on his hands, staring up at the sky. “You think Kuchiki-taichou trusts anyone?”
He did understand. Rukia gave him a shaky smile of gratitude. “He’s starting to.” She cleared her throat to dislodge the catch in it. “A little.” Her smile steadied. “Hard for even him to deny it after admitting he cares in front of half the captains and vice-captains.”
“Ha!” Renji’s bark of laughter sounded a little like her throat clearing. “If anyone had the brass balls to deny it, it would be him.”
“Yes,” Rukia said, softly. “Nii-sama believes very much in propriety.” Which did not include another commoner marrying a member of Kuchiki. Even if that member had started as a commoner herself. “Pass that bottle over, Renji. Quit hogging the sake.”
“You’re an idiot,” Renji told her, tossing the bottle to her. “Not as much of an idiot as me, but damn close. You always put everyone but yourself first.”
“You can’t put everyone first,” Rukia whispered. “One person has to come before another.” She took a long swallow, letting the burn of alcohol loosen the knot in her chest. “And who says I’m not as much of an idiot as you?” she managed. “You and your competitive streak.”
“In some things, I am indubitably superior,” Renji enunciated, waving a hand to get the bottle back.
Rukia eyed him measuringly. “I suppose I have to let you have this one,” she allowed. “After all, I’m not enough of an idiot to lie with my hand behind my head right next to someone who knows… ” she grinned evilly, “all my ticklish spots.” She darted a hand between them and tickled his ribs.
Renji squawked and flailed. “Damn it, Rukia! That’s cheating! Cut that out!”
Rukia sprang back out of reach, laughing. Renji glared at her, panting for breath. “Not only,” he growled, “do you pull a sneak attack, but you keep all the sake! This means war!”
“Hmmmm.” She pulled a thoughtful face. “So, if I buy you a bottle of your own, will that mean truce?”
Renji hauled himself to his feet, looking as dignified as he could with grass in his hair and a smile twitching at his mouth. “Always knew you’d be good at diplomacy.”
They walked close, as they turned back toward the city, but Rukia noticed Renji was careful not to even brush against her shoulder.
Maybe she’d get another bottle for herself, too.