Renji saw red—blood red.
Before he could even think to stop himself, the kid who called Rukia his bitch was slammed up against a wall with both of Renji’s fists curled into his kisode. Renji was ready to smash him back into the wall a second time when the sound of his name stopped him.
“Abarai! Ieyoshi-sama! In my office. Now!”
Renji blinked back his fury. An instructor adding a –sama to a student’s name?
Quickly, and as if the kid were on fire, Renji stepped back. He held up his hands in surrender and let the frightened and breathless Ieyoshi slump down the wall. Now that his vision was clearer, Renji could see the depth of his mistake. The princling couldn’t be much more than five foot six and was probably one of those scrawny, undersized shitheads who really couldn’t bear the fact that they couldn’t look down their noses while looking up Renji’s height. Ieyoshi’s white-blond hair, which had been done up in some fancy, delicate Capitol fashion involving braids and curls, now looked to be coming apart at the seams.
Fuck me, Renji thought as he followed the kid into the instructor’s office, look at that thin, pale skin of his, too; no doubt my little ‘love tap’ has already left a huge bruise.
Worse, when they stood in front of the instructor’s desk, Renji instantly recognized the teacher as one of the ones who always made him take a seat at the back and who mercilessly mocked his Inuzuri accent. Her jet black hair was streaked with white and pulled back into a long braid, though she left shoulder-length straight strands drape over each ear. She taught math and was always irritated that numbers seemed to come easily to someone who only just learned, last semester, that arithmetic even existed beyond dividing up stolen food.
“What happened out there?” she demanded, looking at Ieyoshi. Her normally pinched face grew even thinner and more disapproving.
Renji started to open his mouth, but she pinned him under a sharp glare.
“Why are you standing?” she asked him. “Get on your knees.”
“I saw your filthy paws all over Lord Ieyoshi, Abarai,” she snapped. “I don’t need to hear another word from you. Bow your head and get on your knees. While you’re down there, you’d better pray that Lord Ieoyoshi is feeling generous.”
Given that Renji felt as though he’d been sucker punched in the gut, it was surprisingly easy to let his trembling body drop to his knees. Keeping his head bowed meant he could find a section of tatami on which to concentrate all his anger. He picked a spot and tried to focus on keeping his head from exploding with incoherent rage.
“Well?” she demanded of the lord.
“You saw! If you hadn’t interceded, sensei, who knows what that beast would have done! If I were at home, my father would have this cur whipped like the dog he is! I’d have his hands for this insult to my noble person!”
Renji’s jaw flexed. Once you got over the annoying overuse of canine references, it was a serious threat. Unfortunately, if they were anywhere but Academy, Ieyoshi would have every right to demand such insane retribution. Here, they were supposed to be treated equally.
But, Ieyoshi-sama wasn’t the one on his knees.
Renji figured this particular instructor wasn’t going to let him out of her office without a beating or similar sort of humiliation. He could take it. At least, he figured that as long as no one went for anything seriously debilitating, he’d be okay. All the Academy training had toughed his already thick skin. A thrashing he could deal with, the thing he was praying for, instead, was that no one said the word ‘expulsion.’
He was weirdly grateful, then, when she demanded, “Hold out your hands, Abarai.”
Okay, a knuckle wrapping. No big deal. He did as he was told. Renji was only irritated that Ieyoshi would probably mistake the trembling of his muscles as fear.
“Palms up,” she corrected.
Now trepidation did stab at Renji’s guts. His gaze jumped up from the floor to see the sensei handing Ieyoshi a thin, Willow-wood pointer. It looked flexible enough that it would make an effective switch. Even a wimp like Ieyoshi could inflict lasting damage on something as sensitive as his palms. And, bloody fuck, with such an injury, how would he fight? Hold a sword? If he couldn’t hold a sword, he couldn’t stay in school. He wasn’t worth educating for anything other than soldiering. If the kid could hit him hard or long enough, this would be more than the end of his Academy career, it would kill him. Literally. To be thrown back out on the streets unable to defend himself? It was a death sentence.
They wouldn’t go that far, would they?
He was seriously considering tossing aside his pride and begging for mercy, when the instructor grabbed his wrists and turned over his hands. She held them up over his head. Gods forbid the little noble would have to bend down even an inch to strike him. He could feel himself tensing, wanting to pull away, but didn’t have any time to react before the thin wood cut painfully across his palms.
But he stifled as much his reaction as he could. He’d be damned if this asshole got any satisfaction out of this.
He was steeling himself for the next blow when door flew open with the swoosh of rice paper. Every head turned to see who entered. But Renji didn’t need to, he’d felt it instantly, that incredible swell of reistsu that could only be one person.
He’d only felt Byakuya’s spiritual pressure once before, when he’d blundered into Rukia’s interview with the Kuchiki family, but it had bored into Renji, under his skin. He’d never forget the sensation of its touch.
When he heard another set of feet, curiosity got the better of him. He saw Rukia storming in behind her brother, her expression surprisingly haughty, though a pale shadow of the utter cool composure of Byakuya. Renji’s eyes left Rukia to stare surreptitiously at Byakuya. Renji had never known a man to be as equally powerful as he was beautiful, with long, flowing black hair and regal features. In fact something about this man stole the breath from Renji’s lungs. He actually found himself unconsciously dropping his gaze out of… respect?
“Who dares insult a Kuchiki?” Despite not raising his voice, the distain was clear in Byakuya’s tone. “Who is the fool who cast aspersions upon my sister’s reputation?”
The sensei instantly dropped Renji’s wrists and her head all the way to the floor. “Captain Byakuya Kuchiki,” she breathed as though in deep awe.
Renji dared glanced up again just enough to watch all the blood drain from Ieyoshi’s face. In fact, his hand shook so much that the switch clattered to the floor noisily.
“You,” the captain noted astutely, taking a step toward the quivering Ieyoshi. Renji could see the kid try keep distance between himself and the captain only to stumble against the instructor’s desk, clumsily knocking over a vase of artfully arranged flowers. “What is your name?”
“Kenta Ieyoshi, sir,” he stammered.
“Ieyoshi. A minor family, though not without connections,” the captain mused. “Very well, I’ll hear you out. What do you have to say for yourself, Kenta Ieyoshi?”
“I didn’t know she was your sister,” he babbled. “I swear by my father’s name, I didn’t know, sir. Please, Lord Kuchiki, you have to understand. She…I mean, she came with him…” Renji watched as Ieyoshi glanced into every face, even looking hopefully down at Renji, as though expecting sympathy. “What was I to think? I thought from the way they spoke together….”
The captain seemed to notice Renji for the first time. He could feel the scrutiny of that intense reistsu, crushing the air from him again. Though this time, however, it let up quickly, like a rock skipping over water.
“I see,” the captain said coolly. “Perhaps the mistake is understandable if you’re keeping such rough company, Rukia.”
Rukia was shaking her head. “I merely walked down the hallway with my Academy colleague, nii-sama . Can’t a Kuchiki keep whatever company she pleases? Do you only allow soldiers at your side from good families? You should be honored that anyone would rush to defend a Kuchiki the way Renji did for me.”
When did Rukia learn to talk like that? You could hardly even hear a trace of Inuzuri in her words. Five minutes ago, she’d been as crude as a yakuza boss. Was this something the Kuchikis had taught her how to switch on and off? It was impressive, and kind of daunting. What was she becoming?
Ieyoshi suddenly found his voice, “How can you talk of honor? My honor is the one that’s been abused! This lowlife monster put his hands on me! His hands!”
“And your tongue despoiled a Kuchiki,” Byakuya said without hesitation. “Shall we consider it a fair trade?”
“My lord!” the sensei hissed, horrified. “Please! He’s just a boy, a student!”
Not that you thought of my precious youth when you were ready to disable me, Renji thought ruefully.
Byakuya seemed to consider something for a long moment. Finally, he said, “Very well. Perhaps there were mitigating circumstances this time. But understand this, Kenta Ieyoshi. If I hear of anyone speaking such disrespectful words to my sister again, I’ll not be lenient. I put it on you to spread the word. No more will such talk be tolerated from anyone. If even a whisper reaches my ear, I will come after you first.”
“Yes, my lord,” Ieyoshi sounded utterly defeated and subservient.
Renji assumed that that was it, that Byakuya would sweep out in a swirl of kimono and highly charged reistsu. He was surprised to discover the captain had moved closer to him and seemed to be staring down at where he’d set his hands, still palms up, against his knees.
“Kenta Ieyoshi,” Byakuya said. “If your honor requires that one to be marked for his transgression, you need a proxy to administer the punishment. Your feeble reistsu hasn’t even pinked his skin.”
Renji started in surprise. Following the captain’s gaze, he looked down at his own hands. It was true. Despite the initial sting, the switch hadn’t left a single welt. All of his anger and shame must have protected him, after all. His reistsu rose to his defense.
The captain continued, “You shame your family when one such as this so vastly outshines you.”
“You’re not helping,” Renji muttered into his lap.
“You would speak?” Byakuya sounded affronted.
“I would--” Renji said, looking up into the flashing gray eyes of Byakuya. Then the tremendous force behind that cool gaze made him drop his to his open palms, “—beg you not to provoke him, sir.” Lifting his hands as though to show them to the captain, he said, “I know this is hard for someone like you to understand, but this is it. These hands are the sum total of everything I own, all my worth. If they’re ruined….” Renji couldn’t even finish, the thought was so mortifying.
“Be at peace. I won’t have you lose the use of them in the defense of my family,” Byakuya said. Finally, he turned to leave. As he passed Ieyoshi, he said, “Mark him if you can, but you may not waste him.”
Not exactly the reprieve Renji had hoped for. He reminded himself never to call on Rukia’s brother if he was ever in need of a rescue.
Unsurprisingly, Ieyoshi took Byakuya’s parting words as a challenge. But, no matter how long or how hard he tried, the only mark he could leave on Renji was a bruise. Renji, meanwhile, spent his time experimenting with his reistsu. When the whole, horrible ordeal was finally over, Renji felt a kind of deep satisfaction. He’d learned something critical:
Blood and breeding meant shit; what mattered was the strength of your will.