They both felt the impact as their practice swords collided. Receiving the blow was the younger of the pair; the taller youth delivered it. She was ready for his attack, though, and by bracing against the grass threw him off balance. Once his footing was unstable, it was a simple thing to push upward and bring him tumbling to the ground. He wasn't going to go down alone, and with a sweeping movement of his legs brought hers out from under her. For a moment, they both lay in the lush grass, enjoying a moment of rest after the past half hour of exertion. Her chest was still heaving when he sat up, recovered enough to laugh loudly.
“I've lost again. If the Academy ever decides to admit girls, I'm a goner. Hopefully the boys there aren't as tough as you!” In response to his jest she laughed half-heartedly, blinking her eyes at the brightness of the sky. Lady Rukia Kuchiki was small, even for the tender age of 11; her slender build and delicate arms attested to her noble birth. She was pretty, if she cared to think about it; her dark locks framing a porcelain face. And yet for all of that there was a certain fierceness in the set of her mouth, and a challenge in her eyes to any that might cross her.
Her friend certainly knew not to challenge her. The warm summer breeze rifled through his red hair, the childhood playmate that been a companion for as long as she could remember. Renji Arabai was the son of her estate's head guardsman, so technically she was in authority over him; they'd never cared one way or the other and wouldn't start now. Especially since their time as constant companions would soon be coming to an end, with the fall bringing changes.
“I’m going to miss you, Rukia,” Renji commented. “I don't expect to have any fun without you.”
Rukia rolled onto her stomach to glare at him. “Not any fun? Renji, you get to train to be a Knight! You'll learn to wield a sword and ride a horse, and joust, and carry a shield and protect those you love in battle! While I will be tortured at the Temple of the Goddess with how to become a Lady and run a household.”
“You'll be safe, though. I'll be lucky to return alive next summer,” Renji groused.
“I think I will probably die of boredom before you die in battle.” Renji chuckled at her dry tone, but she wasn't finished. “I don’t understand why I can’t come with you. Why can’t girls be Knights as well? Why can’t I fight to protect those I love? If we ever get invaded here, all I will be able to do is stand by the sidelines, usher women and children into the protection of the castle, and watch the men of the town be slaughtered!”
“Don’t worry, Rukia, if this place ever gets attacked, I will be there to save you,” he said gaily, ducking the slap she sent in his direction. “Besides, everyone knows girls aren’t capable in war. You’re too weak and susceptible to emotion.” His tone was light, but only served to infuriate her further.
“Weak, am I? Have you ever won a sparring match against me?”
“Well, no, but I’ve been going easy on you. Would I really use my full strength on a delicate flower like you?” This time her fist made contact with his head. “Ouch! I’m sorry! I’m just making a point!”
She glared at him, resting her chin in the grass. “I wish I could go to the Academy, just to prove that girls can do it too.”
Their conversation from broken by the call of a young servant boy . “My Lady Rukia, my Lady Rukia!” They quickly stood up and dusted themselves off as the messenger came into view. Halting before them, he bowed low to Rukia and nodded at Renji, who offered a nod in reply. “My Lady Rukia. My Lord Byakuya requests your presence immediately.” With a gasp, Rukia lifted her skirts, and ran as fast as she could towards the castle.
“Thanks, Rikichi,” Renji said to the messenger. He threw him the practice swords and pelted after his friend.
Rukia slowed down as she reached the door to her brother’s study chamber. She smoothed her skirts and hair, catching her breath so that she would look as presentable as possible. Footsteps behind her indicated Renji; she turned to see him beside her. She smiled gratefully at her friend and nodded to the guard at the door, who opened it.
“My Lord Kuchiki, may I present your sister, Lady Rukia.” Rukia glided into the well-carpeted study, followed by the much less graceful Renji. It was a large room, ornate bookshelves covering the paneled wood walls. Wherever there were not shelves, there were tapestries, depicting scenes of battle. Finishing the whole atmosphere was a portrait of Rukia's late sister Hisana, suspended behind Byakuya’s desk.
“You called, my Lord?” Rukia curtsied deeply to the man behind the desk. He was handsome for his thirty-two years, with long black hair falling silkily upon his shoulders. His blue velvet vest was embroidered with silver leaves, complimenting the crispness of his entire ensemble. He was elegant, graceful, and cool as steel, in familial resemblance to Rukia’s own pride and grace.
He raised his hand to them, allowing both Rukia and Renji to rise from their respective bows. “I was under the impression I called for Rukia only, not Rukia and her dog,” he stated, his ice-gray gaze appraising the latter. Renji flushed and bowed again, muttering his apologies. “No matter, seeing as it is your last week here.” He stopped for a moment, his eyes scanning over a piece of parchment. “It seems there has been a mistake, Rukia,” he continued.
She gulped. “Mistake, my Lord?”
“Indeed. Somehow, the Royal Administration considers you a boy, and has sent me your acceptance into the Royal Academy for Knights.” Rukia barely restrained a gasp, and quickly glanced at Renji; his shrug mirrored her confusion. “I cannot imagine how it happened. Obviously word of your… unladylike habits must have reached them.” Byakuya eyed the stains tainting her dress. “I am presently far too busy to correct this mistake, and as such, I leave it to you to have it fixed; taking it to Sir Abarai will be a good opportunity for you to practice diplomacy. Is that clear?”
Rukia took the letter from her brother, trying to keep her face neutral as she noted her name written as Ruka. “Quite clear, my Lord.”
Byakuya nodded, then sent them from the study, immersing himself in taxes before they'd even left the room. As the door shut behind them, Renji glanced down at his friend, worried at what he would find. The light in her eyes and faint smile were trouble, he knew.
“Renji,” she murmured in a voice he knew only too well.
“No. Absolutely not. No!” he refused, shaking his head and stepping away from her. “We’re going to take that to my father right now!”
Rukia trotted after him, lifting her skirts with a huff. “But Renji, this is perfect! It’s like the Gods were smiling down on me.”
He didn’t slow down. “I’m fairly sure your brother would find out in some way or another; he’s not an idiot.”
Rukia grabbed his arm, pulling him to a window niche in the wall. “Just listen to me. I’ll cut my hair – I said listen,” she snapped as he began to open his mouth, “I have a fairly deep voice for a girl anyway, everyone says so, and we’ll just make sure brother doesn’t find out.”
“Yes, you do have a bit of a manly aura about you, but that won't last. What happens when you start going through,” he stammered a bit, “girl stuff, and you turn into a woman?”
“I’ll take that when it comes,” she deferred stubbornly.
“Right, and what about when the other guys start going through puberty and get deeper voices and become really big and muscular? At least one of them is bound to notice when your voice doesn’t break, and when you start to get curves and-” he broke off as a servant walked past them, bowing as he did so.
Rukia interjected before Renji could start again, “Alright, so what if everyone thinks I’m a late bloomer?” Renji opened his mouth but she cut him off again. “How old am I?”
He glared at her before answering reluctantly, “11… ”
“And how long do we train to become knights?”
He crossed his arms, “4 years.”
“Which will make me?”
“Exactly! There are lots of boys who don’t go through their growth until 16, and I’ll deal with…girl stuff…when it comes,” she concluded triumphantly.
Her friend raised an eyebrow, still unconvinced, “And what if you become a squire, and then a knight? Are you still going to pretend to be a boy, because once you get past 16, people are definitely going to notice.”
Rukia chewed her bottom lip, “Well, I suppose I’ll have to tell my knight and hope he’s an understanding man. And I’ll reveal that I’m a girl once I have my shield, because then they can’t take it away from me.”
Renji sighed. If she went through with this, and she would, there were multitudes of things that could go wrong. Once discovered, she could potentially be executed; it had been done in the past. And not only was she was a girl, plain and simple; she was also a girl who had not worked a single day in her life. Not only did she lack a boy's biological advantages in strength, but she lacked even the strength of having expended regular effort. And even if she survived four years of training, four years as a squire, what would happen when at knighthood she was discovered? Would all those years be for nothing?
Rukia could see the inner debate going on behind his brown eyes. “Renji,” she said quietly, looking up at her friend. “Please. I can’t go to the Temple and become a Lady. I just can’t. You won’t have to miss me now, we can work together. You know I’m good enough, and I promise to work really hard! Please!”
He turned away from the pleading look in her eyes, his cheeks growing warm; it was embarrassing and indecent for his Lady to look at him like that. This didn't deter her in the least; “Do you want me to order you?”
“Ugh, fine!” he threw up his hands in exasperation. “Okay, I will help you!”
“Really?” she exclaimed, flinging her arms around his neck.
“Yes! But you had better know what you are doing, and if you get in trouble, don’t expect me to be there to help you! And get off me!” he grumbled, pushing her arms away from him.
Rukia released him, suddenly remembering her position; she smoothed her dress in an attempt to become calm. Smiling up at him, she said “My thanks for your cooperation, Renji Abarai; when I become Lady Knight of the Kuchiki land, I shall be sure to offer you a token of my appreciation.”
“Yeah, well, it had better be a ruddy big token,” he grumbled.
“Would your own flag suffice?” she asked, making her way down the hallway, her fingers clenched tightly on the paper.
“My own flag?” he exclaimed, jogging after her. “I think I deserve my own castle!”
“Now that’s too much,” she chided gently, side-stepping his half-hearted punch. “How about your own farm house? You can even have a cow.”
“Oh, good, I’ll name it after you.” For the second time that day, he missed the punch to his nose.