Two weeks before the betrothal, Rukia found herself drawing duties that could be done well even with a distracted mind. She couldn’t decide whether she was amused or annoyed. Today she was on, she thought, a perfectly innocent walk with her captain, escorting him to see Unohana-taichou.
Or she would have thought it was innocent, except that they kept just happening to pass doors and windows in time to hear gossip about her coming engagement. She was starting to wonder about Ukitake-taichou’s apparent taste for eavsdropping. Suspicion, of course, didn’t keep her from listening.
Rangiku-san’s throaty chuckle caught her ear from the window ahead of them. “I never thought I’d be a mother,” she was saying, sounding amused.
“Could be worse,” Hitsugaya answered absently. “They could have chosen one of us to stand as his father, too, and it would almost have had to be Zaraki, and that…” The rest of the sentance was lost in Rangiku-san’s gales of laughter. “Anyway,” he continued, with an edge of irritation that probably meant he was glaring at his vice captain, “the whole thing just drips with politics. I suppose we all could have guessed that Kuchiki would use an adopted sister as a pawn. Probably would have even if she were his blood sister.”
“I don’t think that’s all it is,” Rangiku-san said, slowly, as they passed out of ear-shot.
Rukia fumed over the insult to her brother for another few steps, only to break off in surprise when she caught a glimpse of Ukitake-taichou’s expression. Her captain looked extremely smug.
“Taichou?” she asked, eyeing him.
The smugness vanished instantly into complete innocence, which only made her more suspicious than ever.
“I’m just pleased to know that Matsumoto-san, at least, is aware of your genuine feelings. And Renji-kun’s,” he assured her.
“Of course,” Rukia murmured. It was time, she decided, to start keeping an eye out for hidden motives, lest she get caught up unawares in someone else’s scheme.
Scratching at her window brought Rukia’s gaze up from the… script her brother had given her to read. A quick glance at the clock told her who it probably was, and, sure enough, as soon as she slid the window open, Renji hopped over the sill.
He immediately started pacing.
“Can you believe this?” he asked with hushed outrage, waving a handful of papers. “Little bitty fake trees? A tortise? Yet more sake?!” He thumped down to sit on the floor, glaring at the innocent paper. “With this much sake moving around, why the hell can’t we get more of it to actually drink? I, for one, will need it. Three changes of clothing? I mean… three?” He looked up at her with entreaty. “Are you sure I can’t just stay the third morning?”
Rukia leaned against the sill, grinning. “Sure you can.” She waited for hope to dawn before going on. “As long as you’re the one to go around and tell everyone involved that they’ve planned all this for nothing. Including Nii-sama, of course. Besides,” she added, as he glared, “I have five changes, and all my robes have more layers, so what are you complaining about?”
Renji slumped back, glowering at thin air. “It’s embarrassing,” he growled, at last.
Since they’d already covered the gifts, the salutes, and the clothes, Rukia decided he probably meant the company. “I know Rangiku-san is standing as your mother,” she mused. “Who’s chosen to stand as your father?”
Renji slumped down a little further, and muttered, “The Captain-General.”
Rukia choked back a burst of laughter at the mental image. “Ah,” she managed, voice slightly strained, “well, he is the logical choice to, er, take responsibility for a captain…” Renji growled some more, and she relented, kicking a pillow over beside him to sit down on. “It could be worse,” she offered. “They got Shiba Kuukaku to stand as my mother.” She contemplated the prospect of Shiba-san and Nii-sama sitting side by side for any length of time and shuddered.
When she glaced at Renji, though, he was frowning, more serious than he had been while he was complaining.
“Maybe Kira has a point about the politics thing,” he muttered.
Rukia stilled. If Renji was seeing it, too… “What about it?” she asked, abandoning the scripts and dressing directions.
Renji crossed his legs and leaned forward, elbows on his knees, while he counted off on his fingers. “Kuchiki, head of the first noble family; Shiba, head of the noble family furthest outside, the most rebellious; the Captain-General, the only real authority left to the Court; Rangiku, the most senior commoner officer, if you go by tenure instead of rank.” He looked at Rukia, eyes narrow. “And then there’s you and me. A commoner Captain, and the adopted noble. This thing sounds like the roll call for some diplomatic meeting.”
“Every faction represented,” Rukia agreed, slowly. “For a marriage. An… alliance of factions. And you and I the result of it.” They looked at each other silently for a long time.
“Rukia,” Renji said, at last, quietly, “what is your brother trying to do?”
Nii-sama? No. Rukia smiled, as the question answered itself in her heart. “Nii-sama is finding an excuse for me to be happy. He’d never believe an alliance like that would really be neccessary.”
Renji snorted, relaxing. “You have a point, there.”
Rukia’s voice chilled and hardened. “That doesn’t mean someone else might not be using my brother’s insistence on tradition and appearances to get what they want.”
Renji’s eyes measured her, and he nodded. “Who?” His tone had darkened to match hers, and Rukia smiled.
“We’ll find out.”
“Rukia, are you sure?”
Since Renji didn’t hesitate at all, walking beside her, Rukia thought he might be asking for her sake rather than from any doubts. “I’m sure that Ukitake-taichou and Kyouraku-taichou are the ones I’ve seen looking happiest about the betrothal. Whether they’re happy for us or for themselves… is what we’re here to find out.”
There wasn’t time for anything more. Kyouraku-san strolled out of Ukitake-taichou’s lake rooms and gave them a lazy smile. “Rukia-chan! Here to see your captain?” He cocked his head. “Why don’t Renji-kun and I let you two talk, then?” He sauntered past, heading back toward the shore. “Surely you have time for a cup or two with me, Renji-kun?”
Rukia wavered in face of his friendly, conversational strong-arming, poised between letting Kyouraku dictate this much and seeing where he was headed, and a more familiar urge to refuse. To balk, and force this dance of secrets and implications over on its side so she could see what it was. Renji’s hand closed on her shoulder, and she glanced up to see a question in his eyes. He would follow her choice, on this.
His trust steadied her confidence. “If you don’t mind, Kyouraku-taichou,” she murmured. “I’m sure you and Renji can entertain each other?”
Renji’s hand tightened before he let go and sauntered to join Kyouraku-san. “Sure we can.”
Rukia nodded and stepped forward into Ukitake-taichou’s rooms, only to pause and blink. Ukitake-taichou was flopped back against a cushion, rubbing his forehead.
“Please forgive Kyouraku, Kuchiki,” he said, a bit muffled. “He doesn’t mean to be infuriating all the time; it’s just habit.”
“This is more serious than just annoying Ise-san because he thinks she’s pretty when she’s mad,” Rukia pointed out, dryly. “Isn’t it?”
Her captain looked up at her, eyes dark but also clear. “Yes,” he agreed soberly, “it is.”
Rukia chewed on her lip for a moment, watching him, before she came inside and sat down across from him. “Taichou. What are you doing?” she asked quietly.
“We are hoping to see you happy,” Ukitake-taichou smiled. There was a faint, crooked edge of sadness to it.
Rukia nodded, and waited.
“And we hope to help you along the path you’ve chosen to walk.” He gave her a slightly rueful look. “I admit it was Kyouraku’s idea at first. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t see it in you until just recently.”
Rukia frowned, puzzled. Didn’t see what? “Taichou, what are you talking about?”
He folded his hands over his knee and leaned back. “Tell me, Kuchiki,” he said, in a tone that echoed of late-night sake-speculation to her ear, “if you were guaranteed all your wishes would be granted, what would you wish, for Soul Society?”
“Um.” Rukia stared at him. “First tell me that there isn’t any way to grant all of anyone’s wishes?” A person never knew, these days.
Her captain’s smile was brilliant. “Good thought. There isn’t.”
“All right,” she said, slowly. “Then… I suppose I would wish… for a little more common sense.” Ukitake-taichou made inquiring sounds and she tried to pull her scattered thoughts together. “Everyone seems so distracted by pointless status games, or political manipulation…” she shot a doubtful look at him, and he smiled and bowed his head. “Or things, like the Research Institute, that are just… evil.” She shivered. “I’d wish for everyone to remember what our duty really is. And pay attention to it again, and stop wasting their time like that.”
“You set a very fine example of that to us all, Kuchiki,” he told her, softly, and Rukia couldn’t stop a faint blush. “All we want,” he continued, “is for your example to be seen as it deserves. Seen by all.”
“Do you think I should train toward becoming a Captain?” Though Rukia couldn’t imagine that such traditional patronage would require all this sneaking around, and what could it possibly have to do with her betrothal?
“More than that.” His smile was sad again. “The Fourty-Six are dead, Kuchiki. Where do you think their replacements will be drawn from?”
Rukia sat frozen for a long moment before she surged to her feet. “No!” She was breathing fast. “Locked away in the innermost Court, making decisions without knowing, never free again… No. I could never live like that.” It would be just like being back in that tower with the weight of stone holding down her spirit.
Ukitake-taichou’s voice was gentle and implacable. “Who but one of the Fourty-Six could change that? One of the Fourty-Six with the backing of all the noble houses from first to last, who knows the needs of the commoners as well? One with the personal loyalty of many of the Court Gardians?”
Rukia sank to the floor again, shaking her head silently, eyes wide.
“Besides,” he added, “they would hardly try to isolate you from your husband, and he can’t be taken from his duties. That’s the best part.”
He was just holding up a hand, probably against the start of a snarl that was curling Rukia’s lips, when he paused with his mouth open, staring at the door. Rukia turned to see a slightly dishevelled Renji standing there with a straw hat impaled on his sword.
“What’s wrong?” Renji asked, sharply, looking back and forth between them. “You shouted.”
“Sorry, Ukitake,” Kyouraku-san put in over his shoulder. “But love conquers all. Including senior captains when their sneaky juniors get the drop on them.”
Renji glowered at him, sword point lifting.
“They want me to be one of the Fourty-Six,” Rukia told him, too stunned to be anything other than blunt.
Renji opened and closed his mouth a few times. He shook the hat off his sword, sheathed it and planted his fists on his hips. “Ok. First, better you than a lot of other people I can think of. Second,” he glared at the other two captains, “no one is locking you up where I can’t get to you.” After another few moments of glaring, though, a wicked smile crept over his face. “Third, if you two want to be the ones to tell Kuchiki-taichou that you want to wreck his plans for his sister and make her unhappy again… it’s been a pleasure to have known you.”
“No, no, no,” Kyouraku-san protested, dusting off his hat. “We’d never want Rukia-chan to be unhappy! Lovely girls being unhappy is a terrible thing.”
The other three all rolled their eyes.
“Rukia,” Ukitake-taichou said, seriously, “surely you see why we said nothing to you about this. Nothing is sure. Aside, perhaps,” he smiled, “from your wedding. We’re only holding the door open, in case you choose to go through it.”
Rukia rose and bowed to both of them silently. She needed to get out of here and think about this. “I will consider what you have said,” she replied, quiet and formal.
Kyouraku-san stood aside from the door with a serene smile of his own, for Rukia to pass. Renji waited until they were on the shore before he cocked his head at her, questioning. She glanced back across the still water of the lake and closed her hand around his, twining their fingers together determinedly.
“Whatever anyone else is making of the circumstances around it,” Rukia said, tightly, “our marriage is exactly that. Ours.”
She stalked away down the shore, hauling a grinning Renji with her since she wasn’t about to let go of him.