I don't like to be kept waiting. In my division, it's not healthy to keep the Captain waiting. In fact, it's often fatal to do so.
She enters – finally – and bows. "Hisana apologizes; she would have dressed more appropriately had she known she had a visitor." A servant brings a tray and sets it before her. There is silence as she pours, somewhat ungracefully, and hands me a cup. "Hisana has just returned from her duties."
"Oh?" I sniff the cup carefully. Tea, and weak tea, at that, appropriate for such a weak woman. "Kuchiki-san allows you 'duties,' does he?" I put the tea down, untasted. My action is not wasted on her, though her face retains its impassivity. "What sort of duties would be appropriate for someone in your position, Lady Kuchiki?"
If that rattles her, she shows no sign of it. "Hisana's lord has allowed her the grace of continuing with her duties in Rukongai." Her emphasis on "lord" I suppose is meant to be a chastisement for my not using the proper honorific when I spoke of the pretentious prig who is her husband. Of course, she stops short of telling me the details of her so-called duties. I hardly expected she would. She affects the manners of the noble class, but she's nothing but a low-born nobody married to a man who's never even deigned to invite me to his home. He'd probably suffer apoplexy if he knew I was here.
That thought amuses me.
"Rukongai, eh?" What purpose can there be in associating with that excrescence of society? Why set foot in Rukongai under any circumstances, no matter what your "duties?"
I know; I've heard the rumors. There's apparently some story about her and a sister, oh dear me, what a tragedy, blah blah blah. My feeling is, if human trash has been discarded, it should be left in the gutter to rot. It's only natural selection, after all.
She coughs a little, and plucks at the edges of her robe. Perhaps I make her nervous; I have been told I have that effect. "So…your husband. What a chilly specimen! All that highly refined blood." I swear someday I'll find out for myself if Kuchiki's blood does in fact run blue. "Does he treat you well? He doesn't…beat you, or anything?"
Finally! A look of horror crosses her face but it's swiftly gone. Very, very good; I'm impressed by her control. "Hisana assures Taichou-san that her lord is the gentlest of husbands. He is kind, too kind. Hisana realizes that she is very, very lucky, and cannot imagine why her illustrious visitor would think such a thing." At last there's a note of defiance in her tone. Interesting. I wonder how much it would take to whip that defiance out of her.
"Of course he wouldn't beat you," I say soothingly. He's not passionate enough for that.
"How is your daughter?" she inquires mildly.
"Eh? My—" Hmph. An obvious attempt to change the subject. "That useless creature? Well enough, I suppose."
She bows her head and sips her tea. A small repetitive tapping of her foot tells me she's impatient for me to leave.
"You look pale, Lady Kuchiki. I hear you haven't been well."
"Hisana has no complaints."
But her eyes tell me otherwise; despite the lingering defiance they are dull and tired. There are circles under them, and a pallor that isn't at all complimentary to her coloring. There's that cough, and the tremor in her hand when she lifts her cup. So it's true what I've heard; she's contracted some wasting illness that all the medics of the Fourth Division are helpless to cure. Those idiots of the Fourth – what good are they? What I wouldn't give to take her apart, layer by layer, to uncover the source of this malady. I'm certain I could find the answer, and then duplicate the effects in my laboratory… Oh, what I could do with such information!
I allow myself a small, indulgent smile. "No complaints? Really? It's been said you're suffering some sort of infirmity. You know—" I shift closer and have the pleasure of watching her try not to flinch away. "—you know, my dear, if you accompanied me to my division, there are a few experiments we might—"
"Hisana thanks you for your consideration," she says, abruptly rising. "But you must pardon her. She feels quite well enough. And now she must return to her duties."
"Certainly I'm happy you're not unwell. But of course one never knows what the future holds. Should you change your mind—"
"Hisana shall tell her lord of your visit," she says, bowing again, though nowhere near as deeply as before. "He will certainly be most interested."
The interview is over.
She comes in, flushed from running, her clothing disordered. It's good to see her. I was worried about her; she's been sick, I hear.
"You've come!" She flings herself into my arms. "So unprepared…Had Hisana known you were coming so soon… What must you think?"
She still seems as girlish as ever, whereas I'm even more of a tomboy than I used to be. It's been some time since I last saw her – her wedding day – could it have been that long? It's not that she's been a prisoner behind the high walls of the Kuchiki, but she's hasn't exactly been in circulation. My own duties have kept me busy, too. But the moment I touch her, her small, warm presence feels instantly familiar, as if it were yesterday when she first took my hands in her own and smiled that extraordinary smile. I can't help but hug her again. "It's wonderful to see you, Hisana-chan."
"Yes," she sighs, squeezing me tight. After a moment she finally pulls back and I drink in the sight of her again. Her dark hair is messy, falling in her eyes as it always did, but it gleams in the afternoon sunlight. Her eyes look up into mine, and she smiles that same enigmatic smile I remember so clearly. I'm pleased to see she bears the weight of nobility reasonably, if not commendably. But then the Kuchiki name is a heavy burden for someone who started out so humbly. It's difficult to imagine her as a child of the gutter, even more lowly-born than I.
"Hisana has missed you," she sighs.
"And I you." I want to laugh at that quirk she's affected, the habit of referring to herself in the third person. I've only ever heard it from the highest of nobles and the smallest of children. She can be childlike, true, but considering her in-laws, perhaps it's just protective coloration. I hold her at arm's length. She's still so small, so beautiful, in her own way. And yet…she doesn't look well. But I know better than to say so.
"So. I got your message. Of course I'll help you. With anything. What do you need?"
She bows her head. "You have always been most kind to Hisana."
"Don't be silly. We're friends, aren't we?"
"Always." She gestures and we both kneel on the mats while she pours tea. Her hands quiver alarmingly; she's never seemed so frail before. We sip quietly, and I wait. She's always been slow to ask for favors, even while running herself ragged trying to be of use to others. She'll come to her favor in her own time.
Finally she sets down her cup. "Hisana has a sister."
I had not known this, and press her for more details. I learn that her sister's name is Rukia, and that she has been searching for her for some time. "That is why Hisana seeks your help," she confesses. "The problem is that Hisana does not know what Rukia looks like. Children – they grow so fast." Her eyes are downcast. "How could Hisana find someone she does not know?"
"Of course I'll help." I put down my own teacup. "But I'm not sure what use I'd be. My division is more concerned with covert operations…" I laugh. "Well, I suppose that might come in handy."
"Hisana is certain it will. You are very clever. Hisana knows this."
"I hope I am better at locating your sister than I was at locating…" I stop short. All this time, and I can't say that name out loud. How completely idiotic!
Hisana, observant as she is, understands what I'm not saying. "Have you heard from her? Anything? Has anyone…"
"No." I don't mean to speak so sharply, but a stab of bitterness wrings it from me. "She's turned her back on m—" Dammit! "On all of us. Let her disappear forever, for all I care."
She shifts uneasily and reaches out to touch my arm. Her hand is cold. "Hisana did not mean to remind you of unpleasantness. Please forgive—"
"Always," I assure her. "Always."
She coughs again, and takes a sip of tea.
I start to speak and cough. I clear my throat and try to sip my own tea, but another spasm makes me spill it. "Oh dear. I'm so sorry! I—" I cough again.
She looks at me in alarm.
I cough again, desperate wracking coughs that all the tea in the world cannot subdue. I can see it's going to be one of those days. "Sorry," I croak when I can speak again. "Sorry. I—" More coughing. "Perhaps I'd better go."
"Please take care of yourself," she says when I reach the door. "Hisana worries about you."
"Thank you, I—" There are so many things I would say to her, words like you are an extraordinary woman and my old friend Byakuya is lucky to have married you and my own weakness is only a nuisance, whereas I am very concerned about yours but damn my own chest! I cannot even form the words. When my breath allows me a moment's respite, I simply bow and wish her success in her quest.
I do not think she will succeed, however. No doubt the child is dead. And she—
"I doubt Kuchiki-sama knew what hit him. I imagine he must have been quite taken aback when you told him off."
Her laugh is light and musical; she is obviously quite delighted, in her own gentle way, with my remark. "Hisana remembers that well. It was her business alone that she should request a change in districts, and her Captain was not amused."
I laugh with her. "Hard to imagine Kuchiki Byakuya at a loss for words. You must have been quite forceful with him."
"Ah, well, perhaps a little…impertinent. But it was not a first meeting. By that time he was well acquainted with Hisana's stubbornness."
It's hard to imagine her as "stubborn." Still, her will is great; this I can tell even without the proof of determination written on her face. I'm sure it's there, in the set of her jaw, the look in her eyes. I sensed the intensity of her reiatsu the moment I passed through their gate.
I also felt the undertone of something else…sadness? Fear? Fading strength, perhaps, held together by the force of her tremendous will. Exceptional woman.
She serves tea, and we speak of shinigami duties. She is training, she says, and I can't contain my surprise. "But you're not—" No. It's rude to say she's not well, though everyone speaks of it. "Surely you needn't work now."
"Hisana must work. There is much to do."
As I thought. Exceptional. Admirable. "May I ask…what are you training for?"
There is a pause. I'm told that expressions tell much. I wouldn't know. I interpret voices, and spiritual energy, and the evidence provided by touch and taste. It is enough…except in moments like these, where subtleties may be lost.
"To become stronger." I hear the catch in her voice as she continues. "For the one Hisana failed to protect." In her voice there are many layers of emotion: pain, anger, despair, determination. Love. "And for the one Hisana does not wish to fail to protect."
"I see." And I do, I suddenly understand with perfect clarity. Oh, this magnificent woman! The purity of her desire! "You wish to right an injustice."
There is a small, telling catch of breath. "That is exactly correct," she says softly. "An injustice that Hisana herself has committed."
Her words are cut off by a fit of coughing.
I hope she will achieve this justice. I hope she has time. But that thought I keep within. Instead, I smile and say, "You will succeed, Hisana-san. Of that I have no doubt."
"Hisana thanks you. She must succeed." Her voice sounds dry and whispery, like leaves stirred by the wind. But within that whisper I perceive a note of hope.
The wind is cooling, and I rise. "It's late. I have taken too much of your time."
"Never," she demurs. Tiny, cool hands reach out to clutch mine. "Oh, how quickly evening begins to fall at this time of year! The shadows have nearly overtaken us."
"You must learn to embrace the shadows," I reply, "as I have."
The front door is unmanned, and stands ajar.
Such inattention! Something should be done about the servants, something should—
She is waiting in the garden.
Her smile is apologetic. "Hisana did not know to expect you so soon. Please forgive…"
It is I who should apologize, for anger in my expression. It is not toward her, no, never toward her. But perhaps I should not judge the servants so harshly; after all, they are distracted. It is a monumental task to manage this estate, even under normal conditions.
She sits before me, pale, her hands a little unsteady as she pours tea. Late afternoon sun spills into the garden, illuminating her, surrounding her with an aura of gold light. She is ethereal, her skin white and translucent, her delicate hands as fluttery as sakura petals in the wind. I have seen those hands wield a sword with grace and skill. I have seen them as they draw complex patterns in the air, invoking spells and incantations. Her hands no longer have that power, though they have a strange new grace about them.
I long to reach across and take those hands in mine. I cannot.
She speaks, her voice as thready as the wind. Autumn is here; I feel the chill, and smell the sharpness in the air. I hear it in the rustling leaves, watch it creep over the garden in lengthening shadows. Autumn, and then winter. The season of the dead.
Hisana speaks of duties in Rukongai, of visits from other captains. Her voice is gentle and serious, as it always was, though weaker than when she first came into the Sereitei, into this great house. But when she speaks of her sister, that spark of hope yet lingers. How cruel! It's difficult to listen when she says, "Hisana remembers her sister's eyes, a vivid blue that always seemed to question." Her own gaze falls away. "Hisana only hopes Rukia's eyes have not learnt to judge."
I want to tell her that no one who ever knew her could judge Hisana badly. But I do not say so. There is no point, no point at all in answering.
"Hisana thought she did not have space in her life for falling in love," she says suddenly, and lifts her eyes to mine. It is as if she sees inside me, down to the most hidden recesses of my heart. "But all of a sudden, there was. It seemed as if he had always been there, always waiting."
It is too much. With a cry, I reach for her, to clasp her to me, feel her fragile heart beat one more time against my chest.
But of course, I cannot hold her.
My arms close on emptiness. Of course she is not really there. Only her ghost survives, to haunt this garden, and my cold, empty house. Only her ghost, lingering by her monument. Only my memory of her, of her kindness, her gentle ways, her serious demeanor, her tender touches.
Forgive me, Hisana. Forgive me for my faults. Forgive me for my silences. Forgive me for the reserve that would not let me tell you how much you were loved. You were loved, Hisana. Forgive me for never telling you how much.
Forgive me for not being strong enough to save you.
But know this, Hisana: on our vows, on my life, on my sword, on my soul, I swear to you,
Hisana, I will find your Rukia.