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Part IV: The Changing of the Guard

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Part IV: Of Family, Friends, and Foes

Bright red

The pitiless sun

Autumn winds

                        –Matsuo Basho


  Approximately 24 years later…


"Bad dirt," Aunt Masuyo murmurs under her breath.

Again?

"Nothing will make it fertile."

Just one more time.

"Nothing will grow in it."

From the top.

"She is like bad dirt, milord."

With feeling, now.

"Milord, are you listening to me?"

Upon hearing the high upward inflection harden the last syllable, Byakuya's writing hand tenses. His fingers curl hard and fast against the handle of the brush. So hard and fast, the bristles bleed their ink. The black dye wets the paper. It spreads quickly, seeping into the fibers and spreading across the page. When the ink ceases its encroachment, the writing is nothing more than an unsightly stain.

The work is ruined. He reaches for another form. This one simply will not do. Not at all.

His thoughts are dark and thick, centered wholly on his work. He has fifty incident reports, and his Vice Captain is about to take an indefinite leave of absence. Yet, despite all of his worries and all of his obligations hovering low in his mind, he hears his aunt's sigh rustle in his ears.

It is a heavy breath—the kind that ends on a nasally whine. The sound unnerves him, and he represses the grimace tugging at his lips. The glower that transmutes his once stony gaze, however, proves too tempting to stifle. And, glowering deeply into his ink well, he finds the color of the ink to match the shade of his mood: Black.

She unnerves him. Always has. Likely, she always will. For eternity and likely beyond.

Part of him thinks she tortures him because he has what she wanted for herself so many long years ago. She, too, had married a soul from the Rukon districts. Her husband had been a strong man. He had great potential. Perhaps, he had too much potential. He had used her, however. He had loved ambition with greater purpose and abandon than he had loved her. Maybe he had never loved her.

Either way, her marriage had ended very poorly.

That must have been painful, Byakuya thinks, has thought, and will sometimes remind himself. But, just before his pity reaches its crest, she always says something disgraceful.

"The family will permit you a second wife. We have discussed this option at length, and we believe it is the best course of action. All things considered."

Like that.

How utterly disgraceful.

He represses the burning urge to acknowledge her, to cast a well deserved glare in her direction. How he wishes to level her with a single look - the type of look that will send her on her way. He wants nothing more than for her to leave him be, but he knows she will not. It is a sixth sense. She will not leave unless he formally dismisses her, and, even then, she will make a scene.

He would prefer to avoid the scene. He has grown weary of scenes. There have been so many as of late.

"I have selected a few noblewomen from branch families. They are—"

Before she can continue, he interrupts her with a pointed question: "Do you know why I spared you during the Scouring?"

He does not look up. He cannot be bothered. Instead, he merely continues filling out his forms. His brush now flows quietly across the page as the tension in his hands melts. Indeed, he feels his heart drum a fierce, strong beat in his chest. The steadiness of his heart's beat combats the dread that consumed him moments prior.

His aunt startles at his question. Her chest juts out. She jolts up. Her back squares until the line of her spinal column is ramrod straight and she is standing as stiff as a board. There is no more fluttering. There is no more pacing. There is no more mindless blabbering.

Part of him feels intense gratification that he has silenced her so soundly. It is no small feat. She is a battleax of a woman, after all.

The sting of icy quietness, however, proves too much for his aunt's nerves to bear. Her face flushes, her fingers curl into balls at her side, and her lips contort into a rictus of cruel malignity. She does not respond formally to his inquiry, but an unmistakable gargle escapes her lips in small bursts. She tries, futilely, to fight back the inelegant sounds, but he hears them all the same.

The once graceful motions of his brush become deft and workmanlike as he begins again, this time with thoughts sharpened. "It wasn't because I found you innocent, and it wasn't because I have a great fondness for you," he states quietly. His words are piercing, and his enunciation is deliberately pointed.

"It was because I thought death was not a cruel enough fate for you. I wanted to amuse myself at your expense, thinking, perhaps foolishly, that my wife's happiness would prove to be an exquisite exercise in torturing you."

Languidly, he reaches for another page. "I was correct." His well executed elocution descends into menacing boredom, which seemingly raises the unspoken question: 'Why do you continue to bother me?'

The penetrating silence, that follows in the wake of his last syllable, punctures his aunt, stealing her breath and pulling her umbrage. She stands stock still, and he imagines her expression is one of unbridled shock. He relishes the chill of her distress while simultaneously preparing himself for the indignation that surely burns in the pit of her stomach at his pronouncement.

Her indignation, however, never spews forth.

The shock has conquered her wits completely. She hardly moves. He cannot even hear her breathe.

"As you dismiss yourself, please remember that your utility is tied to my amusement. And, I find myself tiring of you." A quiet indifference imbues his meaning. Indeed, he has issued mundane orders with greater enthusiasm and attentiveness, which is the point.

In abject submission, his aunt stalks to the door, where she pauses.

He patiently waits for her to hurl an insult his way, or, at the very least, stomp out of the room. She, however, does neither of those things. Instead, she leaves without a word.


"Please allow me to extend our greatest sympathies for your loss, Lord Konoe." Hisana gracefully descends into seiza on a plush red cushion.

Rukia follows her sister's example. Her descent, however, is less elegant. Her muscles are sore and stiff from training earlier in the day, but she manages not to make a spectacle of herself. And, it's not as if, with Sister in the room, Lord Konoe pays her much heed. Very much aware of how little regard she is given, Rukia indulges her curiosity, allowing her gaze to roam the room without fear of discovery.

With wide probing eyes, she sits in awe among the splendor. Hungrily, she takes in the gilded ceiling before inspecting the walls. Everything glimmers, sparkles, and shines, even the floors. She swears she can see her reflection in every marble pillar or golden surface. It is overwhelming. She simply cannot comprehend the wealth that the Konoe must possess, and, unlike the Kuchiki clan, they are not afraid to bask in the radiant glow of their riches.

At this observation, Rukia feels intensely out of place, and this feeling incites a sudden wave of punishing self-awareness. She is accustomed to feeling diminutive at the Kuchiki estate, where the rooms are capacious and spartanly decorated, but, here, she feels under-prepared, under-dressed, and, perhaps, slightly under-baked.

Even Sister dons a more eye-catching kimono than her usual muted and matronly shades.

Although, as Rukia studies her sister with a keen eye, it is possible Hisana has merely wrapped herself in the Kuchiki finery with a purpose. It would be very in keeping with Hisana's subtle mien to wear layers of silk as a shield or, more likely, as a form of protest. The heat of Lord Konoe's gaze and the warmth of his touch cannot hope to reach her underneath so many luxurious fabrics.

Rukia observes her sister's interactions with the Konoe Lord with great intrigue.

Lord Konoe is handsome in a distinguished-gentleman-sort-of-way. He is older than Brother. Gray hair—emanating from his temples—threads through his otherwise raven tresses. He is tall and lean, like Brother. But, his features are more angular, and his countenance is quick to assume devious expressions.

A particularly devilish sparkle glints in his blue eyes as he speaks in a soft self-possessed cadence. It unnerves Rukia. She sensed it upon meeting him. At the time, however, she had not located the source of her unease. Now, it is all too apparent.

His strange cunning glances perturb her deeply.

"I appreciate your condolences, Lady Hisana." He bows his head out of forced politeness.

Rukia prickles at hearing her sister's given name. Only Brother sometimes teasingly calls Sister, "Lady Hisana." No one else does, and it sounds strange coming from a non-family member.

Instinctively, Rukia's hands untangle from the interlaced ball in her lap, and her arm pulls back. The movement is imperceptible to all but the shrewdest of observers, and neither Sister nor Lord Konoe is paying her any heed. Carefully, her fingers stretch up, and her brain waits to give her the signal…a signal that never manifests. No, the sensation of the coarse wrap of her hilt never licks against her palm.

She is without her Zanpakutō.

Immediately, her hand flinches. Her fingers curl into a fist, and she feels her nails sink into the soft pads of her palm. The realization is stark, and it leaves her feeling naked and exposed.

Lord Konoe's low melodic voice only augments Rukia's inner panic, and she lends a distracted ear to the conversation. "My wife was never meant to live long in this world, I am afraid," he says, watching Hisana pour a cup of tea.

"So unfortunate," Hisana murmurs. With an easy grace, she serves him first. "She was a gracious woman."

Rukia drops her head before her expression exposes her.

Hisana barely knew Lady Konoe. No one knew the Lady, really. She was kept locked away at the estate, never to be seen, always suspected of being too ill to be bothered with the company of others. Lord Konoe, however, never seemed particularly perturbed by his wife's absence. He had others to occupy his mind, and, likely, his bed.

Taking the cup from Hisana, a sly smile thins the Lord's lips as their fingers brush. He takes a small sip. "The youthful delicacy of young buds is truly pleasurable." And with that, his eyes, wolfish glints and all, flicker to Rukia.

"Is that so?" Hisana murmurs, a smile hangs thick in her voice. "I always think it is wiser to wait for the snow to melt first." Tenderly, she shoots Rukia a propitiating glance as she serves the tea.

In an instant, Rukia's heart skips a beat. They aren't talking about tea. That much, she knows. Her mind, however, trips over the possible interpretations.

"I know it is very hard to sway the Lady's mind once it is so set, but consider this token of my affection. If not now, then at a later date." Smoothly, he withdraws a small, ornately wrapped box from his silks. "A gift for your lovely sister." Gently, he offers it to Rukia, but his eyes remain locked on Hisana.

Rukia's eyes go wide, and her breath inflates her chest like air rushing into a balloon. What does this mean? Is she supposed to take it? Can she refuse?

Hisana eyes Rukia. Concern darkens her countenance, but she gives Rukia a small nodding look. Her sister is too polite to direct her with words, but Rukia obliges Hisana's unspoken command.

Without hesitation, Rukia receives the Lord's offering, and she musters a demure smile and a gentle, "Thank you."

"How kind, Lord Konoe," Hisana manages, but Rukia can hear the well-hidden strain that resonates in her sister's voice.

"Forgive me if I assumed too much," he observes, staring deeply into Hisana's eyes.

Assumed what? Rukia wonders as she tucks the parcel into a sleeve of her kimono.

The gift clearly carries some meaning or purpose. What is it? Anxiously, Rukia stares down at the cushion upon which she is situated.

"Assumed?" Hisana's voice quavers at the intimacy of Lord Konoe's gaze.

"Your sister's suitability."

Hisana smiles decorously, and her eyes trail to the floor. "The Lord will not allow it."

"I see." Lord Konoe's brows rise at the implication—an implication that Rukia clearly does not understand.

Keeping her eyes glued to the ivory cushion, Rukia tries to discern the meaning of his words. Then, it dawns on her, and her fingers curl around the edges of her pillow with great force. Her knuckles go white, and her hands become numb with cold and tension.

He cannot possibly be inquiring about my marriageability! Could he? Is it possible for me to be married off? I'm not a true noble, after all. Yet….

"My honorable husband insists that she remain unattached at present," Hisana's response is swift and certain.

He has? Rukia's heart goes wild.

How embarrassing.

Suddenly, her mind's eye conjures up images of Byakuya and Hisana discussing her future and prospects as a bartering piece. The very idea drains her of her color. Like a feral animal railing against its captor's nets, her body jerks up. She catches herself just in time, before she can expose her poor manners. The pillow proves to be an adequate tether, but it doesn't change the fact that she wants nothing more than to flee the room.

She certainly did not sign up for this.

Realizing that she is staring intensely at the door, Rukia averts her gaze to Lord Konoe, who stares with great intensity at her sister, not her. Come to think of it, Lord Konoe doesn't seem the least bit interested in her. Indeed, he has hardly given her a second glance.

"My offer remains open should Lord Kuchiki experience a change of heart," he murmurs, pinning Hisana under his look.

"Of course." Hisana, however, does not linger in his gaze. No, she is quite content to throw it away in favor of a diversion. "The project appears to be doing quite well," she notes before taking a sip of tea.

"Yes," he nods, "Come, let me show you the grid we have developed."

Hisana waits for the Lord to stand before she obeys his command.

Rukia watches Hisana with a cautious glance before she takes to her feet.

Lord Konoe's presence has transformed Hisana.

Rukia observed it upon arriving at the manor, but, now, she analyzes it in greater detail.

Hisana never walks so timidly in Brother's presence. Not once. Never. At Brother's side, Sister is calm, poised, and imperturbable. She is strong, transcendent.

Now, Hisana is wraithlike. She is a mere ghost of her usual self, a phantom stalking the august halls of Konoe manor. Hisana escapes into herself, pulling deep into the silks that shield her from Lord Konoe's heated stare. She walks with tentative steps, as if she fears making the faintest of sounds. Her reiatsu is repressed. Perhaps Hisana wishes to leave the estate undisturbed in her wake. Not even a trace of her lingers in the air as she passes.

When they reach a large darkened room, the Lord unveils the "grid." It is quite impressive, Rukia is loath to admit. The grid emanates a glowing hologram map of Soul Society. Colors flicker on the map, with the most intense colors burning in the middle, in Seireitei.

"How fantastic," Hisana murmurs, happily. "It is nice to see the data in real time."

With a flick of his wrist, Lord Konoe expands a portion of the map on the operating device. "The current technology allows for both a bird's eye view and for a more localized view." He makes another motion with his hand, and he dials back the images. "We can also turn back time to see prior disturbances."

"Is it possible to load past data?"

He gives a noncommittal nod of his head. "To an extent. It won't be as thorough because not all the towers were running when we began collecting data."

"Of course," Hisana says softly. "But it is possible to have a model of years past?"

"Yes." Lord Konoe tilts his head to the side as if he is trying to discern the source behind Hisana's line of questioning. Turning up wanting, he digresses. "We will continue to track the number of hostile incidents among residents."

"Yes, of course," Hisana agrees.

"It appears that we will have the most difficulty past the 40th District." Lord Konoe gestures to the hologram, and, indeed, the districts beyond the 40th are lit in various shades of dim blues and greens.

"What do the colors mean?" Rukia asks, taking a timid step forward.

"The dark holes are hollows. The whites and yellows indicate souls with high spiritual power. Moving from yellow to green and blue are souls with moderate to low spiritual power. Red indicates aggressive incidents," Lord Konoe explains. "The spiritual pressure - we can monitor in real time without manual submissions. The incident reports require manual reporting from our affiliates."

Rukia nods. "How interesting."

"Have you found a permanent solution to the signal disruptions?" Hisana asks, folding her arms against her chest. Apparently, she is preparing herself for something disagreeable, Rukia observes to herself.

"After the signal disruptions randomized, we experienced great difficulty locating the source of the problem. We have worked around it by implementing a jamming avoidance response system."

Rukia's brows furrow. The jargon amounts to little more than an impressive-sounding collection of words. Neither she nor her sister knows what it means. Hisana, however, is quick to redress her ignorance. "A jamming avoidance response system?" Hisana repeats.

"Yes. It is quite possible that someone, unintentionally, was emitting a frequency very close to our own. The result was interference of our signal. So, we developed a mechanism for the signal to adjust when it detects a similar frequency to its own. The system appears to be working."

This news seems to perturb Hisana. She presses her lips together, her brows knit, and worriment wrinkles her forehead. "What could be causing the jamming?" she asks after a few tense moments.

Lord Konoe observes her with a cool glance. "Anything, Lady Hisana. It is nothing to concern yourself with. Allow me to shoulder this particular burden, milady." Comfortingly, he brushes a stray tress from her brow.

The devious glint in his gaze diminishes, and his eyes darken as he studies her in that tenebrious chamber. Only the flashing reds, blues, yellows, and whites of the holographic image illuminate them with their fleeting colors.

He watches her intently.

Too intently.

Rukia's eyes narrow. The embers of her distrust quickly ignite at his penetrating familiarity. For the second time that day, her hand searches her hip for her blade, and, for the second time, she is left clutching cold empty air.

It is little wonder why Hisana detests meeting this man alone.

Hisana lowers her head and takes a polite step back. "Thank you, Lord Konoe. Your talents are second to none. Words cannot express my gratitude."

"But actions..." he begins, insinuatingly. Once again, the impish glimmer sets his eyes aflame.

"Yes, I plan to meet with Lord Shihōin regarding the trade routes. We will offer our protection for the next supply caravan." Hisana is quick to pivot.

Lord Konoe responds with a wry grin.

With utmost delicacy and grace, Hisana and Rukia bid their adieus, and, upon reaching the bucolic trails of the Kuchiki estate, Hisana breaks her meditative state with a sly sidelong glance.

Rukia catches it, and her eyes widen slightly. She has so much to inquire of her sister, but the words don't manifest. Indeed, the sentiments prove rather elusive, turning to vapor in her mouth. Perhaps it is propriety's fault. It does seem gauche to inquire after Lord Konoe's strange behavior. But she really wants to know.

"Have you unwrapped your gift, Rukia?"

"Ugh," Rukia murmurs. She has all but forgotten the present, but, after a few nimble tugs, she releases it from a secret compartment in her robes. Balancing the box in her hands, she takes note of its weight. It is light, and its calibration is uneven. "Should I?" she asks, glancing into her sister's face.

Hisana doesn't have to say a word to encourage her. Just a simple nod of her head suffices.

In a flurry of staccato motions, Rukia peels back the expensive wrapping, exposing the item trapped inside.

Oh, no.

Immediately, her eyes widen, and her chest seizes in icy panic, the tendrils of which climb up the back of her throat and choke her. She, however, stifles the wet gasp expanding in her mouth.

It is a lovely ruby-colored kanzashi.

Rukia searches Hisana's face.

Sister seems displeased. Incredibly so. Hisana drops her head, her jaw clench, and a pained expression etches its way across her visage. Rukia knows Hisana keeps her disgust locked behind a wall of practiced apathy, but she cannot mistake the sound of her sister's short sigh.

Red.

It had to be red.


It is late when Byakuya returns to the estate. As per usual, Hisana greets him with a smile, wraps him in clean silken robes, and offers him tea and food.

It does not take long for the pair to settle. Byakuya sits at his writing desk, where he works on a few last-minute reports. A few paces away, Hisana quietly practices her embroidery.

After a few long silent minutes, Byakuya straightens his back as he feels the stiffening sensation of exhaustion (or listlessness) begin to creep into his bones. His eyes can barely focus; his vision becomes clouded. His neck aches. Even the muscles in his hands cry out in stiff agony.

Pulling his shoulders back slightly to release some of the pressure, Byakuya glimpses his wife out of the corner of his eye. He hasn't said anything. Not yet. And, he feels some pride at his level of restraint. No, he has not spoken a word. He did not mention her strange and sudden absorption in the art of embroidery. He did not note her equally strange and unsettling lack of movement. She sits eerily still with her back ramrod straight. And, yet, he does not say a word.

He merely stares at her.

Usually, it doesn't take long for the heat of his gaze to perturb her.

Still, she makes tiny almost imperceptible movements with her hands. Her needles cross in a rhythmic fashion. It is almost hypnotizing. Almost.

As he watches her, he studies her with an intensity ordinarily reserved for a potentially life-threatening situation. Her lines are stiff. She barely moves. Barely even breathes. She is lost in some strange flight of fancy.

His eyes slip down to her hands. When he sees what, exactly, occupies her needles, he can't keep his mouth shut any longer. Not for another moment. In a galling movement, his restraint breaks like chains against a great weight.

"Is there something the matter?" The question seems innocuous, but there is an edge to his voice; one that instantly gives him away.

Hisana startles. Her head bobs up, and her cheeks flush. "Oh, no, milord," she says. She forces her lips into an effervescent smile. "Why would you think that?"

No light shines in her eyes as she speaks. Her feelings burrow deep into her heart like a crab scuttling into the earth. She watches him with a sphinxlike expression.

Oh, how his wife loves her feigns.

He can tell she wanted to abort that question halfway through it. Her voice quakes, and her smile flickers, but her wide-eyed and exaggerated look of cheer remains.

"You are quiet." It is a poor prevarication, but he hopes she will capitulate and come clean.

"Milord is working." She gives the obvious reply.

Last time he springs for optimism.

"What are you making, Hisana?" A stale silence sinks between them, and she stares at him with that tightlipped expression. Clearly, she is begging the question. "It looks like a temari," he observes.

His stare hardens. If his suspicions are correct, this raises a completely different line of inquiry.

Hisana's carefully constructed blithe façade immediately cracks. He swears he can hear the shattering sound that the pieces make as they hit the floor.

"Oh, this?" she asks, her voice rising several octaves on the inflection, "This," she begins, waving her hand as if she needs help grasping for words, "This is not a temari. This is a pincushion. You know. For pins. And needles. For my needlepoint and embroidery. So I won't stick myself. Keeps everything together." In her flustered cadence, all of the syllables, consonants, and vowels slur together. And, what she lacks in coherence, she only makes up for in wild hand gesticulations.

He barely understands anything she just said. Even if he could comprehend her words, he wonders if her meaning made any sense. Likely not.

His head dips down for a moment as he orders his thoughts.

He inhales and exhales a few deep breaths then he meets her gaze. His stare is even, almost leveling her. "It looks like a temari," he pauses and fixes her with a devious look, "You know. It is a toy. Mothers make them for their children. It is a small ball. Children toss it and roll it around," he mocks, deadpan and stone-faced.

Hisana's smile widens, and, for a flicker, he catches a sly glimmer in her eyes. She has been caught. She knows it. He knows it. But, she is an obstinate woman. She will not relent. Her lips pull into a tight smirk, and her brows arch as if he has issued a challenge.

"No, Lord Kuchiki," she insists. "It is a pincushion. See." She gives a demonstration, stabbing a needle through the center of a rather elaborate floral design. "It holds pins." Her smile widens, but it does not reach her eyes or warm her heart. Instead, her expression seemingly asks the question: Did you buy that?

No.

He does not buy any part of that routine. Not a syllable. And, he wonders why she won't bend to his will and tell him. If she is with child, it is good news.

Very good news.

The sort that lifts the heart, and….

In an instant, he strangles on his breath as realization crashes into him with the force of a wrecking ball to the gut.

His wife could be with child.

His child.

They would be parents.

Reflexively, he returns to his writing desk, picks up his brush, and pretends to review an incident report. He doesn't actually read the words. He simply cannot. His mind is too busy soaking up the possibility that he…and she…would be….

He can't even think it. It is too unsettling. The change seems too real. Too horrifying. Then, he suddenly realizes he has no idea what parents even do. What would be expected of him? Of her? Of them, together? With and without. Or, while they were waiting for the arrival.

He would need books. Demonstrations. Proper training.

So would she.

Without hesitation, he turns to his calendar. Does he even have the time? He has a sinking feeling that preparations for something of this magnitude take a great deal of planning and mentorship.

Who would possibly mentor them? His usual sources are either dead or, unfortunately, childless. There is always Shirogane. He has a child, and he trained her well. (Is "training" even the proper word?) But, Shirogane's wife is deceased. Who would mentor Hisana?

Perhaps they should've discussed these possibilities in greater detail and with more specificity beforehand. It seems imprudent now, in hindsight. Almost reckless.

"Your hand," Hisana observes casually as she works her needles.

He gives her a quick over-the-shoulder glance. What about his hand? It is functional, quick.

"It is shaking," she finishes, eyes firmly locked on the temari.

He glowers at her. "My hand does not shake," he assures her. When he observes his hand, he finds his wife's assessment correct.

Merely releasing excess ink, he tells himself unconvincingly.

She stares perceptively into her creation, but she does not say a word. A knowing grin lengthens her lips, and her gaze softens as she appraises her work. She turns the ball, viewing it from various angles.

He watches her out of the corner of his eye. His brain lights in amusement, and he suddenly feels very vindicated. If it were a pincushion, she would not inspect it so meaningfully. Why would she? Only she and she alone would ever see it. Additionally, the constant insertion of pins and needles would eventually ruin the lovely floral pattern.

Playfully, she rolls the ball across the floor. Before it can hit his leg, he stops its force with a hand, and he captures it. "A very multifunctional pincushion," he mocks her, and he sets the toy on his desk.

She bites her bottom lip as if she is weighing her words. Her chin dips down, and her eyes fall the tatami. "I," she begins, but her breath stops sharp in her throat.

He turns to her, giving his full attention. His gaze beseeches her to continue. He waits on pins and needles for her to say the words. He wants to hear them.

Apprehensively, she meets his stare, and her lips part. The words, however, never come. She stifles them. She shoves them down her throat, and she swallows. A small smile lingers on her lips. A small bitter smile. "When were you going to tell me that you were considering Rukia for Vice Captain?"

He lifts his head. "Now," he says, icily.

Hisana presses her lips together pensively, and her gaze darts to the floor. "You once said it wouldn't be on your orders that she was sent to her death." Her eyes flit to him. A wry smile tortures her.

"A change of heart," he murmurs, trying his best to discern the darkness residing in his wife's eyes. It is of no use. Her veil is thick and impenetrable when she wishes it.

The pain quickly fades from her expression, and she teases him, "Ah, we are assuming you have a heart now." Her smile broadens as she eyes him.

He narrows his gaze until it becomes piercing. "You are evidence of my heart," he retorts, voice thick with sarcasm.

She chuckles at his forced umbrage. "There is other evidence," she murmurs gently.

"How long?"

Enough waiting and circumlocution, he decides. He wants to know just how long it has been since she found out. How long has she kept him in the dark?

"Rukia and I are scheduled to visit the shrine in a month."

Four months then, he thinks to himself.

She has kept it from him for that long. Surely, he should have noticed the change in her reiatsu. Then, the transformation seems stark, almost distracting. Yet, moments prior, he was just as benighted as he has been for the last four months.

"Rukia knows?" he murmurs. The question falls from his lips before he has the chance to process it or the prickling feeling that comes with the knowledge that his wife felt at greater ease divulging her secret to her sister and not him.

Hisana nods, instantly apprehending the emotional color of his question before proceeding. "Yes. I did not want to lift your hopes until it was certain." Her features bend into a pained expression, but she is quick to smooth out the edges.

He probes her with a look of worriment. The implication is there, drifting under the surface of her reply. She has been with child before. It did not end well. She never told him. She never wanted him to worry.

He reaches for something meaningful or poignant to say, but the words never come. He just stares at her, thunderstruck.

She scoots closer and takes his hand in hers. "This is good news," she encourages him. "The baby is healthy, thriving."

He nods to himself, still sorting through it all. "Of course." He doesn't mean the words or the brusqueness threading through his voice. He chokes on the sensation building in his chest. He thinks she would be relieved to know he feels deeply for their future. She probably desires to hear of such feelings, but sentiments, meaningful and joyous, simply elude him.

He has never been good with expressing grand emotions.

He takes solace in the fact that she knows of his deficiency and loves him despite it.

He squeezes her hand.