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Experiments in Eschatology
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Rukia kept careful track of the captains and vice-captains of the Thirteen Court Divisions, the higher echelons of the Demon Arts Brigade, and the most important officials of the Covert Operations and Executive Militia: which persons, not coincidentally, were also some of the most prominent members of the aristocracy.
Not that this mattered to Rukia, who had constructed a hierarchy of her own. Her favour was courted for a variety of reasons, some less noble than others. For a six-year-old she was not capricious, but it would have been demanding too much of human nature to expect her favourites always to be constant. Nevertheless, Ukitake Jyuushirou generally held a secure position high in her affections.
"You make an excellent grandparent," Shunsui said to him. Byakuya's expressions when the child was returned to him sticky-mouthed and ragged were a thing to see.
Ukitake smiled. He spoilt Rukia the way he did largely because he liked her, but also because he liked her adopted brother, as someone very old and kind may like a wayward, difficult, amusing child.
"Children are to be enjoyed," he said. "Besides, honest indignation is good for the young." He did not mean Rukia.
"An educational experience," Shunsui murmured. He himself was regarded with wariness by Rukia, who distrusted his stubble and perpetual smell of sake, but he fed her when he could and teased her when he could not.
She dogged her brother's feet, and came to know his peers and betters better than he bothered to, though she was all Kuchiki when it came to ignoring those beneath her (and she had, of course, adopted her brother's status as her own). She was for a while betrothed to Shiba Kaien, before she threw him over to take up with Miyako – a development that found a broken-hearted Shiba heir prostrate on the steps to the Kuchiki house, clutching at his chest and embarrassing the servants.
"Ah, a tramp," said the head of the house, stepping over the body. His childhood friend howled and cursed him for a callous bastard.
"I may never heal!" he said. When Byakuya showed no inclination to slow his steps, he sat up and poked his head past the door.
"Byakuya! What if Rukia-chan never returns to my bosom?" An even worse thought struck him. "What if Miyako-san likes her better than me?"
Byakuya's impassive back twitched.
"Years of war between our two houses, finally ended," said Kaien mournfully. "Or so we thought. I was looking forward to the marital alliance! Let other men recoil from the prospect of an eternity of rabbit-patterned curtains. The Shiba are made of better stuff than – ow!"
"Vacate my steps, or – " said Byakuya, and proceeded to make his thoughts on drunkards and yobs who were lost to all right feelings clear, while Kaien lay back on the ground and shook like a man in the grip of the palsy.
"And kindly," Byakuya wound up with a terrible sarcasm, "do not speak of my sister in such a manner. If you do not stop laughing, I will cut you!"
Kaien was for a while not capable of speech, though fortunately he could still match his friend step for step in a game of shyunpo.
"Just like old times," he said when he had enough breath to say anything.
"The child has a genius for multiplying indignities," said Byakuya, which was his way of conceding that he had not behaved like this since Kaien and he were both on the scabbier-kneed side of ten years old.
"It's ungracious to blame your relatives for your own dumbassery," said Kaien kindly. Byakuya was silent, which could have meant anything, but as they had been children together – well, that meant nothing. But Kaien could read people better than most. Silence caused him no trouble. Other people's feelings seemed to hang in the air for him like colours or smells.
"Hey, if she's too much of a handful for you, we could use some new blood," he said. The nonchalance, and the underlying seriousness, were quite deliberate. "She'd take to the fireworks, I bet."
"I assure you, you need not strive to offend," said Byakuya, his voice like ice. "You manage well enough in that direction without actively working towards it."
"You don't like that people like you better now you've got the kid around," said Kaien.
This elicited a reaction: Byakuya's lip curled.
"They are more bare-faced in their impudence, if that is what you mean."
"No. They used to whisper," said Kaien. "Now they laugh, but they do it openly, and they're laughing with you more often than not. You're one of us now. Isn't that a good thing?"
There was no response – which was only to be expected. Kaien sighed and stretched and leant back, his hands behind his head.
"The offer stands, by the way," he said. "Guess your missus would never allow it, but if you ask me, Rukia-chan deserves better than to be put up with – "
Byakuya's expression did not change, but Kaien shot upright as if a shock had gone through him, opening his mouth to apologise.
"The child drew blood from Ichimaru Gin the other day," said Byakuya, before he could speak.
"Yeah?" said Kaien, contrite.
"Bite on the left calf," said Byakuya. "He required Fourth Division attention."
"She hisses whenever he comes by the office."
"A habit we are attempting to correct," said Byakuya, and went on: "She has been whipped, and she will be on short commons for the next few days."
Kaien did not say what he thought of the futility of this, but Byakuya said, without even looking at him, "It is the point behind the gesture that counts" – a thing he would never have said in his youth, but now he was ripe in the wisdom that comes from trying to tame a child who has been a proficient thief basically since she had sufficient motor coordination to grasp things and get away with them.
"Can't say I blame her, though," said Kaien. "Guy's kind of a creep."
"She is not being punished for that," said Byakuya, in measured tones, "but for her method. There are better ways to deal with snakes. Rukia's chosen methods soil herself."
"She's only six – " said Kaien, bewildered. Then he looked at Byakuya's face, and enlightenment hit like the pommel of a sword to the back of the neck.
"... ah. But it wouldn't matter to you if she was sixty," he said. "Even if she knew better. Dirt wouldn't stick to her if she waded in mud."
"To others, it would. She must learn," said Byakuya, with what for him was remarkable mildness. "You will recognise her quality in time."
"I already do – I mean, Christ, she's a cute kid, not a way of life," said Kaien, but he saw that this was not the tone to be taking with a man to whom marriage was an earthquake and a child an apocalypse. He said, half-laughing, half-exasperated,
"You could just say she's your kid and you love her no matter what. The way, you know, normal people would."
Byakuya somehow managed to express his disgust at the very thought of being in any way like normal people without saying anything. Kaien laughed and sat up.
"So do I get to see the princess, or are visitors not allowed right now?"
"You may convey your request for an audience by a servant," said Byakuya. "If she wishes to admit your presence, that is her choice."
"Is that a hint of a sense of humour?" said Kaien. "Keep up the good work, Byakuya-bo – I'm going, I'm going!
"Do you think," he added wistfully, "Rukia-chan would take me back if I gave her candy?"
"The servants are under orders to maim anyone who tries," said Byakuya. "She needs to look after her teeth."
"Kuchiki Byakuya does fatherhood: now it's painful for everybody!" hummed Kaien. "Going. Going!"
And he was, indeed, gone.