"A great and clear mind loves ardently and sees distinctly what it loves." -- Blaise Pascal
An austere silence was his usual demeanor. Only one gifted at reading faces could have seen the near-invisible fear of failure lurking in the eyes of Kuchiki Byakuya.
"You're an idiot, Kuchiki. And I mean that in the nicest possible way."
Byakuya frowned sternly at his friend. "At least I'm not a fool. Like you."
"Huh." Shiba Kaien snorted. "Me? A fool? On what do you base that conclusion?" He leaned back against the tree, his lanky body stretching until his spine gave an audible crack. Byakuya winced at the sound and Kaien snorted again.
"You're a fool, Shiba-kun," Byakuya said imperiously, "because you never take anything seriously. You have responsibilities." The furrow on his brow deepened. "We both do. We're expected to—"
"Aaggh!'Expectations!' There you go again, Kuchiki. That's what makes you an idiot." Kaien pushed away from the tree in a fluid movement and hefted his practice sword. Byakuya followed his every movement; Shiba Kaien was all kinetic energy and wiry grace, and drew the eye like a magnet. "We're young!" Kaien protested. "We should be having fun! We could be out chasing women, like Kyouraku, instead of spending all our time in boring practice."
Byakuya ignored the complaint – after all, it was his friend's nature to grouse about important matters – just as he ignored how Kaien mocked him endlessly for his serious demeanor. Why he endured being the butt of that mockery he'd never know; he'd never have tolerated it from anyone else. "Kyouraku is a wastrel and a drunk," he pointed out in a patient tone, as if dealing with a recalcitrant child.
"Sure…a drunk who achieved bankai in record time." Kaien grinned toothily. "He actually lives his life…unlike Kuchiki Byakuya, who has a pole up his--"
"Spare me your crudeness, please." He narrowed his eyes. "Practice is important. Don't you want to better yourself? Don't you have any goals besides enjoying yourself?"
Kaien shrugged. "Not really."
"Well, I do. I intend to make captain before I'm—"
His words were cut off as Kaien caught him neatly across the backside with the flat of his weapon. "Hah! Kuchiki is slow and an idiot. You'll never make captain before me!"
"Won't I?" Indignant, Byakuya snapped into action, moving with a swiftness that caught his friend off guard and tumbled him to the ground with shout of surprise.
Eyes wide with admiration, Kaien lay there catching his breath. "Damn! You got me good" His tone slid into theatrical deference. "My compliments, Kuchiki-sama. You are the mightiest shinigami of all. I prostrate my unworthy self before your excellence."
Byakuya rolled his eyes. "Baka. Why do I tolerate you?""
"Because you love me." Kaien held up a hand. "Help me up."
He clasped Kaien's arm. Kaien pulled hard and sent Byakuya sprawling on top of him.
"Shiba! You idiot—"
Kaien whooped with amusement and shoved sideways, flinging Byakuya onto his side with a pained oof. And then they were fighting and rolling in the dirt, Byakuya sputtering with indignation, Kaien laughing with impudent joy.
Bruised and dirty, his clothing torn, Byakuya rolled once again and found himself on top. Beneath him Kaien pressed against him, struggling fruitlessly for a moment against Byakuya's greater weight. And then, slowly, Kaien stilled, the laughter in his eyes becoming a gaze of utter gravity.
An odd silence fell between them. Byakuya felt lightheaded; there was a buzzing in his ears, and his hands tingled as he clutched at the sinewy shoulders beneath him. Something was happening, something disturbing, transforming, pleasurable. He looked into Kaien's face and found a mirror of his own startled expression, and a slight flush on the tawny cheeks that echoed the heat suffusing his own skin.
Kaien breathed shallowly, his heart thudding a rapid tattoo against the pounding in Byakuya's breast. "'Kuya?" he rasped, "do you want—"
"Yes," said Byakuya. "Yes. Yes."
At the wedding ceremony, Hisana had felt the disapproval of the Kuchiki family as strongly as if it were a weight pressing down upon her head. And perhaps it had been; the intensity of the reiatsu they'd focused on her made each step through the hall an ordeal. Throughout the long ceremony she'd kept her eyes down, her face a mask of passivity that was no less a lie than their own.
It had been an admirable performance. No one had wanted to see who she really was, the feisty survivor of Rukongai slums, or hear her true voice – that of a woman of inner strength and purpose. Her fragile body and girlish face had deceived them; they'd expected a waif who'd cower, terrified of them, and so she'd played her part. The rest of the family did not matter, after all. She'd married Byakuya, not his relatives; she would endure them as best she could for his sake.
She'd come to know him mostly through his formal wooing. Hisana couldn't have cared less about his wealth or his status, only his character. He was thoughtful, serious, intelligent and honorable, everything expected of the pride of the Kuchikis, and probably nurtured in him from birth. She loved him despite his formality – perhaps it was the utter strangeness of him after the all the ruffians she'd known that had drawn her to him. She'd seen him be generous to the beggars in town, unswerving in his dedication to justice, exceedingly loyal to his friends, few though they might be. All were qualities that made him heroic in her eyes. (The fact that he was handsome hadn't exactly put her off, either, though his desperate lack of a sense of humor was something she'd certainly have to work on.)
And she'd needed him. She'd met him on the streets of Rukongai, returning his piercing gaze with one of her own -- she could be bold when it was required of her. But she needed him for those other times, when her boldness and her strength failed, because surely he had enough strength for both of them.
Though she did wonder what he expected from her.
Clearly he admired her; he'd defied his family to ask for her hand, after all, after an unimaginably brief acquaintance. But other than that one moment of defiance, Byakuya was Tradition personified. Hisana assumed he expected a supportive, helpful wife, someone befitting his station, and she'd gladly be that if it would make him happy. But she'd also assumed he, like all men, would want to be the aggressor, the conqueror. He'd want her to be passive in the bridal chamber, no doubt, blushing prettily as he undressed her.
In that she'd misread him completely. In fact, the reverse was true. Her hands were at the knots of his clothing; her fingers slid the silk off his white shoulders, while he was the one who stood mutely with downcast eyes, letting her take the lead. Byakuya did not protest, nor refuse her attentions, but neither did he participate in divesting them of their garments. A faint pinkish tone colored his skin as each inch of it was revealed. It was the strangest wedding night Hisana could have imagined.
She regarded him again. His usually impassive face revealed an underlying emotion that even he could not mask. She recognized the look. Byakuya felt sadness…or shame.
Hisana knew shame. It dogged her heels, oppressed her heart. She'd committed the crime of betrayal to her sister, a crime for which she'd continue to feel shame and guilt until such time as she could rectify her actions. But what had Byakuya to be ashamed about? Perhaps he really was a virgin -- would he find that shameful? To be inexperienced was not a shameful condition, not like profligacy.
Was it possible? How could he have managed to elude the act of love all this time? Surely there must have been some sort of dalliance along the way, if not a romantic liaison, then at least a courtesan to teach him things, a friend to show him--
Something flitted across her mind, a whisper of a thought. Whatever it was, she let it go. There would be time later to ponder her husband's eccentricities, if she still felt the need to do so. Right now, there were other matters.
Her hands unfastened the last tie of his clothing. She let her own gown fall, the crimson silk pooling at her feet, and stepped towards him. She felt no embarrassment at their nakedness, only a rising surge of anticipation. Byakuya was beautiful, indeed. They were beautiful together.
"My lord." She took his hand again.
"I don't--" Byakuya began, his eyes not meeting hers. "I'm sorry—"
"Hush," she said softly. "This, Hisana knows."
Fingers laced through his hair, combing slowly through the full length of each lock. It was rare for his hair to be unfettered, and he closed his eyes, savoring the sensation.
I love you, he thought, terrified and liberated by the words.
"I'm getting married."
Byakuya started, his eyes snapping open. He started to pull away, but Kaien's fingers tangled in a few long strands, tweaking his scalp. He grimaced and sat up stiffly at the edge of the bed, running fingers through his hair to order it again.
"'Kuya?" Kaien's lazy voice held a note of surprise. "Are you angry?"
"Of course not." He'd expected it – after all, the Shiba clan wanted the marriage, and the girl was lovely, from a good family, and as skilled as Kaien himself. They were the perfect match. He tried to keep the bleakness from his voice. "Congratulations."
"You are angry." There was a rustle of blankets and a dip in the bed as Kaien moved to sit beside him. "The wedding is in a month."
"Yes, well…" Kaien leaned forward, his hands loosely clasped between his knees. "No need to wait, is there?"
"No," Byakuya said. "No need."
Kaien elbowed him gently. "You'll be there, right?"
"I…" He closed his eyes. "Kaien, I don't think…"
"Byakuya. Please." When he opened his eyes, Kaien's face was close. "You have to be there. It'll be an insult to her if you're not."
It will be like death to me. "It might be awkward."
How could Kaien not understand? "I thought, perhaps… I thought we—"
"We what?" There was a petulant note to Kaien's voice. "Surely you didn't expect we'd go on this way forever."
"No," he lied, swallowing bile. "Of course not."
"Well, good," Kaien said, apparently mollified. "Look, I'm not saying it hasn't been great, a lot of fun, but, you know…"
A sword was twisting in his gut, with Kaien's hand on the hilt. "Do you love her?"
"Of course." Kaien frowned slightly. "Stupid question."
"I beg your pardon."
"Hey. No need for that." A wiry arm snaked around his shoulders. "You're still my best friend, you know."
And nothing more, I see. A bitter thought. The sword twisted again, plunging deeper.
"So." Kaien squeezed his arm. "You should get married yourself, 'Kuya. Really. It's past time." He flashed an impudent smile. "It's your responsibility. It's expected."
After, they lay together, but neither slept.
Hisana could tell by her husband's breathing that he was still awake; it was too irregular and shallow for sleep. She did not disturb his pretense; after all, she was pretending, too.
She turned to watch him. His perfect face was perfectly composed – a feat of control, that. She felt no such composure.
This wedding night she'd anticipated as the culmination of happiness had instead been filled with surreal and disturbing elements: a young husband who could not summon pleasure, only sadness at her touch; her own pleasure forgotten in the face of a joyless coupling, as if this were a burden Byakuya must bear, a duty to be endured and dispensed with. And throughout, politeness but no tenderness, no comfort, no loving words -- just shame on his face and unvoiced apologies on his lips.
And then, in the moment of completion, when he could no longer contain his emotions, one word alone. One name, cried out in passion.
Hisana, the new mistress of the Kuchiki clan, that greatest of the Four Families, lay beside her young lord surrounded by the lavish accoutrements of wealth in the very heart of the nobility. A strange place to find herself, indeed. And yet she'd felt greater joy and comfort among the hopeless poor of Rukongai than she felt in this moment.
At least now she knew the name of her rival. And the reason for Byakuya's shame, though she could not summon the will to hate either of them. Well, what could not be changed would have to be endured. If he could not be strong, then she would be strong for him.
She turned towards her husband, noting his stillness, the fine line of his profile, the spill of his black hair across the white sheets like a pool of ink. Her hand reached out to stroke his hair, so gently he could not possibly have felt her touch. This changes nothing, Hisana thought. I love you, no matter to whom your heart belongs.
It was as if he'd heard her speak the words, though she knew she hadn't uttered them aloud. Byakuya turned toward her, his eyes open and filled with despair. For a moment they stayed that way, eye to eye.
"I will be a good wife to you," Hisana promised. "Until the day I die. That is my vow."
"I will always honor you, Hisana," said Byakuya with great solemnity. "I swear it."
She clasped his hand tightly.
"Perhaps," Byakuya continued, haltingly, "in time…"
"Sssh." Hisana gathered him into her arms. "Hush, now."
Byakuya closed his eyes and lay his head against her shoulder with a shuddering sigh.
Perhaps, Hisana thought. Perhaps in time you will love me, too, Byakuya. Even just a little.