I write these author's notes to get my thoughts on the writing process across. It helps, I find, to convey how I come to decisions in order to minimize confusion. Which leads to the major questions settled in this chapter and the answer to the long-running poll on my author's page - who Ichigo ends up with. Ryuko or Satsuki. The answer is below but I would like to discuss my dislike for romance displayed in a large quantity of manga and anime. Where the main character falls in love at first sight with little to no time for the relationship to develop beyond that point.
Sure, I can accept some writers and/or artists don't wish to spend an exorbitant amount of time developing relationships. Time which could be better spent on the actual plot of the story. I get that. And, perhaps, I accept that. But one thing I've tried to keep despite supernatural suits of Life Fibers, swords forged from one's soul and an eldritch creature bent on subsuming humanity as part of its reproductive cycle is a sense of realism when it comes to relationships. Hence, how Ichigo's relationship with Ryuko and Satsuki developed over the course of the story. Where they, over time, opened up more and more. Were more willing to expose their feelings. Etc.
And this realism involves, by necessity, Ryuko and Satsuki's troubled childhoods. The former acting out for attention due to her father sending her to boarding school for most of her childhood and young teens. And the latter due to Ragyo Kiryuin. These things affected how Ryuko and Satsuki's relationship with Ichigo developed.
That being said, whether you like my decision or not, please not that it wasn't easy. I didn't make the choice months - years - in advance. On the contrary, up until writing this chapter, I was prepared to go with either one. In fact, I had outlines for both Ryuko and Satsuki prepared. So, if you're upset, please keep that in mind.
And if you wish to discuss the matter further, please send me a PM. I'll be more than happy to answer any questions.
Chapter 64 – Never Can Say Goodbye
"Oh! Come on!"
As her heels scrapped against the air beyond the edge of the Garganta, Ryuko swore to beat the shit out of Sosuke Aizen. No, she had to kick his ass. And she knew Senketsu was with her every step of the way. They were synchronized on kicking the bastard's ass from Honnou City to Karakura Town! And for a damn good reason! Because, as she fell forward out of the dimensional portal, cursing at the top of her lungs, Ryuko realized the so-called genius forgot to put the Garganta near the ground like a goddamn normal person!
"That goddamn bastard's screwing with us!"
Ryuko considered herself lucky Senketsu was always on top of things. That his quick thinking shifted their balance at the last second, making her stumble instead of falling flat on her ass. Licking the inside of her mouth before spitting on the ground, she glared back and forth across the ruined landscape for the shinigami. The Scissor Blade itching to slice the bastard apart. But once she recovered her bearings, and the adrenaline from fighting the Original Life Fiber faded, Ryuko decided to hold off on kicking Sosuke Aizen's smug ass. And it didn't have anything to do with being too tired to deal with his pompous attitude.
All she needed to see was the empty skies above Honnouji Academy.
"Hah! We pulled it off, Senketsu!"
With a deep, exhausted and utterly content sigh, she collapsed onto her back, the Scissor Blades slipping from her fingers. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear something calling her name. A voice that sounded awfully familiar. But Ryuko was too tired to care. Because they won! The Original Life Fiber wasn't coming back. Not after Satsuki's stunt! That was all that mattered! Grinning at the memory, her breath condensed into a wispy mist as she laughed. But when Senketsu returned to normal in a flash of crimson light, leaving her splayed on the ground in her school uniform, Ryuko discovered she couldn't lift a single finger.
"Shit…I can't move…"
"It's been quite the night, Ryuko."
Senketsu yawned. However, since he lacked the proper anatomy to express his exhaustion, the sound emerged into a visible ripple across his uniform, "Fighting Nui Harime and Ragyo Kiryuin back to back. Not to mention the Original Life Fiber. I cannot remember the last time I've felt so drained of energy. But I've failed you."
"Your father created me purpose of combating Life Fibers. Yet our strength insufficient against Ragyo Kiryuin," Senketsu looked downwards, aware from Ryuko, "Despite working together…pushing ourselves to new heights…we never reached the same level as Junketsu."
Ryuko stared through half-lidded eyes at the moon. After spending months searching for her dad's killer and getting dragged into one thing after another, finally winning didn't feel that normal, "If you're that worried, Senketsu, I'll ask Satsuki about fashion week. And if she doesn't know anything, we'll figure out another way to reach that level of power. Together."
"Yeah," her lips quirked into a smirk. But as Senketsu started blubbering – and tears of joy formed in his eye – she spontaneously, perhaps miraculously, recovered enough strength to lean away, "H-Hey! Don't start crying on me! You're getting all damp and gross!"
"S-Sorry," Senketsu sniffled, an odd sound that echoed more in Ryuko's mind than any physical displacement of air, "It's just…once we figure out fashion week, Mugetsu will have no choice but to admit I'M superior!"
Ryuko's eyebrow twitched as she pieced together her Kamui's answer. Trying to understand what he meant. But when no startling revelations came to mind, she fell back on her normal response whenever Senketsu compared himself to Mugetsu, "THAT'S what you're crying –"
She had no time to react before Mako's arms wrapped around her neck. And then dragged her forward off the ground. Gagging as her best friend's strength and her unnatural exhaustion made breathing painful, Ryuko clawed at the air. Damn it! She didn't help Satsuki kick the Original Life Fiber's ass to die like this! Fire burned in her veins as, with renewed vigor and strength, she managed to breathe. To take big, heaping gulps of air. So, when the vice-like grip returned moments later, Mako snuggling against Senketsu, Ryuko didn't resist. Despite feeling like crap, she blinked, then frowned, before shouting in surprise.
"Mako! You're alright!"
"Everyone made it out safe and sound, Ryuko," Mako didn't stop hugging. Not even for a moment. She was so relieved that she squeezed as hard as humanly possible, "Gamagori and Chad got hurt fighting those super-duper copies! They fought tooth-and-nail to win! I saw it with my own eyes, Ryuko! Those clones were super tough! Nobody danced away without a few cuts and bruises! And that's why after you, Ichigo and Lady Satsuki left, Mr. Aizen suggested we visit Orihime!"
Despite having a decent understanding of Mako's train of thought, it took Ryuko a few seconds to process the information, "You're saying Orihime's fine!?"
Mako nodded. Enthusiastically. Happily. And then Satsuki and Ichigo leapt through the swirly portal leading to the realm of the dead. Which, if she squinted just hard enough, resembled one of those weird, deserts from geography class. But even so, once they landed, and Ichigo collapsed from being super tired just like Ryuko, she pointed over her shoulder at Uryu and Chad. Who were much closer than she remembered, "She's right over there!"
Ichigo couldn't believe his eyes.
Despite the unconscionable things Ragyo Kiryuin did, or might have done, Orihime was fine. She didn't have a scratch on her. He sagged in relief. The tension left his shoulders as the guilt and worry gnawing at his mind dissipated. As Orihime ran across the broken landscape faster than he remembered, Ichigo heard Mugetsu's exhausted groan before she returned to normal, too tired to maintain the transformation. Which left him, or rather them, weak and exhausted. And at Orihime's mercy when she hugged him.
Sending them sprawling to the ground.
And her forehead straight into his nose.
"Oh my god! Ichigo!"
"I'm fine," it was baffling how Orihime's hard head gave him a bloody nose when he tanked punches from Ragyo Kiryuin without trouble. But it wasn't a problem. In fact, he already felt his Life Fibers repairing the damage. Still, Ryuko's snickering wasn't helping. Neither was Satsuki's uncharacteristic smirk. And Orihime's embarrassed blush only helped to make things worse.
"You don't need to worry about it, Orihime," he glared at Mugetsu, daring the Kamui to chuckle at his misfortunate, before standing up with a groan, "I'm already feeling better. So, it seems kind of a waste using your Shun Shun Rikka to –"
"Move it, asshole!"
Sprinting full-tilt out of the Garganta, Emilou Apacci planted her foot against Ichigo Kurosaki's head before vaulting onto the ground. She couldn't give less of a crap about his feelings or injuries. She was pissed. She was angry. But most of all, she hated herself for being scared. For being worthless. How could she let Lady Harribel to fight that thing? She should have done something! Anything! Yet when that monstrous thing arrived in Las Noches, all she could do was run away with her tail between her legs. It didn't matter that Sung-Sun and Mila Rose hadn't fared any better against the horrendous spiritual pressure.
That she, of all arrancar, was forced to leave everything to those humans and their weird clothes wracked her mind with guilt.
It was shameful.
Despite almost shouting, Apacci just wanted to make sure Orihime Inoue got the message. But then, before saying anything else, she paused. Hesitating mid-stomp as anger succumbed to mind-searing terror. She had been ready to beg the human for help. To fall on her hands and knees, throwing pride to the wind, if it meant saving Lady Harribel's life. But the moment she turned towards Orihime, Sung-Sun and Mila Rose exiting the Garganta with the latter carrying Lady Harribel, her words devolved into a strangled gasp. She stiffened, eyes trembling and arms shaking, as Sosuke Aizen slowly marched across the landscape.
Out of instinct, out of self-preservation, she twisted her arms together, fingers gripping the collars around her wrist.
"There's no reason to be alarmed."
Aizen dismissed the arrancar's reaction to his presence. Neither did Ichigo Kurosaki or Satsuki Kiryuin's expression garner sympathy. From Emilou Apacci's posture, she presumed he was upset about their betrayal. Or survival. Which was, in and of itself, an interesting conjecture. He'd believed the Seireitei slaughtered the Espada he painstakingly gathered as pawns for humanity's future. The notion Tier Harribel survived the battle, let alone returned to Las Noches in the ensuing months, hadn't crossed his mind when he sent the Original Life Fiber through the Garganta.
"I won't prevent Orihime Inoue from resuscitating Tier Harribel."
With a soft clack, he sheathed Kyouka Suigetsu, "Neither will I interfere with your efforts to return to Las Noches. You are free to do as you please."
Apacci's hands trembled at the bastard's tone. She sure as hell didn't trust Sosuke Aizen. Not after everything he did to Lady Harribel. And his insufferable, arrogant smirk really pissed her off. But whether she liked it or not, there was nothing she could do. Aizen was too strong. And he knew it. So, with as much reluctance as she could muster, Apacci snapped Cierva back onto her wrists. All the while anticipating whatever complicated scheme Aizen had waiting in the wings. But when the shinigami didn't move an inch, she snorted out the side of her mouth, taking some amusement from his bloodied appearance.
But any remaining semblance of self-composure shattered when she grabbed Orihime's wrist.
It was nearly instantaneous. The moment her fingers touched the teenager, Apacci felt the overwhelming instinct to run back to Hueco Mundo with her tail between her legs. Whatever Orihime Inoue was, she wasn't human. Not anymore. And the terror flooding her soul. It reminded her of the disturbing creature who almost killed Lady Harribel. But with a determined snarl, she pushed through the instincts clouding her judgment. Blood dribbled down her chin as she bit her lower lip, steadying herself before looking into Orihime's eyes.
"I don't care what you do to me! But please…save Lady Harribel!"
Orihime didn't need to hear anything else. She took a deep breath. Focusing her thoughts on the steady, comforting rhythm of her heartbeat, "I understand."
Shun Shun Rikka.
She would never forget the moment the spirits dwelling within her brother's gift awakened. Granting her the strength necessary to protect Tatsuki and Chizuru. Calling the six friendly spirits Shun Shun Rikka had felt right. But she knew, deep within her heart, it wasn't complete. But at the time, with everything going on, she hadn't thought much about it. Considered it nothing more than a strange, fleeting emotion. And then Ragyo Kiryuin pulled her into Shinra Koketsu. And her power blossomed into something beautiful. She couldn't describe it better than that. It was as if she'd been dreaming for years. Constantly walking around in the daze. And only now, after everyone risked their lives saving hers, did she finally awaken.
Nothing had changed. Everything had changed. If she wanted, she could summon the six fairies representing her powers. Ayame. Baigon. Hinagiku. Lily. Shun'o. Tsubaki. They were all still there. Yet her Shun Shun Rikka felt different. Complete. And there was something else. Her spiritual pressure wasn't the same. Becoming part of Shinra Koketsu, even for a few minutes, changed something. She was still the same person. She still liked eating spicy bread and sweets. But Ragyo Kiryuin awakened something deep in her soul.
Yet the darkness clouding her thoughts scattered to the far winds at Ichigo's smile. How he was simply grateful knowing she was alright.
And she returned that smile. Proud of herself as she knelt next to Harribel, unbothered by the blood staining her jeans. With Apacci and the other fracción crowding around her, worried about the person they cared about, Orihime visualized the strength resting in her soul. The ability to help. To heal. To do so much more. Her fingers brushed the plastic hairpins as gold light danced upon her arms. Everything was different. And yet, everything felt the same. This was what her Shun Shun Rikka had always been.
Was always meant to be.
She didn't need to concentrate. Didn't need to focus upon reversing the wound cutting across Harribel's stomach. Not anymore. By the time the oval barrier surrounded the arrancar, all signs of Harribel's confrontation with the Original Life Fiber vanished. As aqua eyes slowly opened, focusing on her before turning to Apacci, Mila Rose and Sung-Sun, Orihime stood back up, watching the heartwarming display with clasped hands.
This was Absolute Domination. The ability to protect everyone. The strength to keep those she loved safe.
The power to make sure someone like Ragyo Kiryuin could never hurt another person.
"You have my gratitude, Orihime."
Satsuki perceived more than a trace of Junketsu's curiosity at Orihime Inoue filtering into her subconscious. But that was expected. From personal experience, she knew how much time Soten Kissun required to heal grievous wounds. To ignore causality. To resurrect the dead. But this was different. Tier Harribel, whose injuries were reminiscent of those she sustained during the Great Culture and Sports Festival, vanished in a fraction of the time. Flesh and bone knitted together, or rather, reversed to a previous state by the time she understood what happened.
Was this the result of Orihime's synchronization with Shinra Koketsu?
Her thoughts soured at the question. The reason behind Orihime Inoue's enhanced technique did not matter. Perhaps becoming one with Shinra Koketsu, even for a few minutes, evolved Orihime's natural abilities beyond their previous limitations. If so, it was possible Orihime could render clothing made from Life Fibers – Kamui or otherwise – powerless. To bend all Life Fibers scattered across the world to her will. Yet she wasn't concerned about such remote, implausible scenarios.
Because Orihime Inoue wasn't their mother.
"Our Kamui might have stalled the Original Life Fiber. But your assistance ensured humanity's survival."
She bowed her head, expressing her deepest, sincerest gratitude, "And for that, Orihime Inoue, I'm immeasurably grateful."
"N-No, I didn't do anything special!"
Orihime desperately waved her hands back and forth, "My Shun Shun Rikka is nothing like your Kamui! I mean, Junketsu's really strong. And she can transform! If Aizen hadn't helped me, I wouldn't have been able to fix anything!"
"Even so, you were the only person capable of reversing the Celestial Cocoon Seed Planet."
Out of the corner of her eye, Satsuki noticed Ryuko grinning at Orihime's innocent comment about Junketsu, "Sosuke Aizen might have known the method. He might have been aware of the steps required to reverse Ragyo Kiryuin's efforts. But you, and you alone, utilized Absolute Domination to save humanity. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise."
"Can we go home? I'm really tired."
Orihime perked at the unexpected voice. Where had it come from? It sounded like a young child. A girl. And there was something else. She couldn't explain it. Not in words. And not after everything that happened. Not just to her, but to everyone. But the whisper in the back of her mind…the reverberation resonating in her chest…made her look at Junketsu. Thinking for a moment, almost unsure whether she was doing the right thing, Orihime swallowed her nervousness and stared into the Kamui's eyes, "You're tired?"
"Yes, I am."
The Kamui seemed…excited? Happy? Satisfied? She didn't know. But Junketsu wasn't anything like she expected. From the first time Ichigo and Ryuko said their Kamui talked, she'd imagined Satsuki's Kamui as being serious. Maybe without a sense of humor. Just like she thought Mugetsu was like a female Ichigo. Or Senketsu as Ryuko's strict but well-meaning parental substitute. As another two unfamiliar voices grew louder alongside her thoughts, one arguing with Ryuko, she blinked owlishly when Junketsu yawned. Something that seemed impossible since Ichigo explained Kamui don't breathe.
"Satsuki's blood tasted really good tonight. But for some reason, I'm really tired," Junketsu's lapel twitched, "Can you please ask her what's wrong?"
"You can hear Junketsu?"
A frown pulled upon Satsuki's lips. Although their personalities couldn't be further apart, Orihime Inoue was the Grand Couturier's sister. It only made sense. Nui Harime had responded to Senketsu and Mugetsu multiple times. Even Ururu Tsumugiya, from what little surveillance footage Inumuta obtained, could understand Kamui. It seemed becoming one with Shinra Koketsu did more than simply evolve Shun Shun Rikka. And when Orihime explained what Junketsu asked, a task usually delegated to Ichigo or Ryuko, she nodded. Truly grateful for the information. But despite its importance, she focused on the matter at hand.
Allowing herself to smile, an almost wistful expression, Satsuki raised her voice, the stern warning possessing neither arrogance nor authority.
"Did you think you could sneak up on me, Sanageyama?"
"Of course not," Sanageyama didn't bother masking his presence. Not when Lady Satsuki sensed his spiritual pressure coming from a mile away, "Your tenor changed halfway through your conversation with Orihime. So, Ragyo Kiryuin kicked the bucket? No last-minute revivals or transformations?"
"That appears unlikely barring unforeseen developments," Satsuki flicked a strand of hair, knocked loose during the confrontation, behind her ear, "Of course, I would have thought the same before the Original Life Fiber's interference."
Sanageyama scratched the scar tracing down his chin, "I'm sure Kisuke Urahara could find a way to launch whatever's left of Ragyo Kiryuin into the sun. She'd be like a shooting star."
"Enough with the lame puns!"
Her eyebrow quirked when Nonon punched Sanageyama, eliciting an equally-sharp retort from the former Athletic Committee Chair. And as the argument devolved into bickering only disrupted by Gamagori, Satsuki discarded the burden of responsibility. She watched Yoruichi Shihoin approach Orihime, speaking about restoring the arm destroyed by Ragyo Kiryuin in Karakura Town. Her attention drifted towards Tessai Tsukabishi when the shinigami arrived in a rather subdued manner, Heinkel Wolfe under one arm. In the faint, bitter autumn air permeating Honnouji Academy, she nevertheless smirked at Ichigo's argument with Uryu Ishida. A rather heated discussion Yasutora Sado had difficulty moderating.
Judging by Ichigo's expression and her sister's derision, it appeared Uryu found the notion he'd succumb to Xcution's Life Fiber clones laughable.
"For the moment, we shall presume Ragyo Kiryuin dead. Yet the battle isn't over."
That's right," Sanageyama knew exactly what Lady Satsuki was talking about, "We still need to hunt down that coward!"
"Yuu Akiyama is a threat, Sanageyama. But he can wait," Satsuki noticed Heinkel Wolfe stiffen at the mention of her mother's employee. As well as Yoruichi Shihoin's subtle attempts at concealing her interest, "Right now, we must concentrate on apprehending Hououmaru! As commander of Xcution and Ragyo Kiryuin's secretary, she knows every detail about the Celestial Cocoon Seed Planet. Including details Kisuke Urahara might not know! If there's a chance, however remote, she could resurrect the Original Life Fiber, or resume my mother's plans from scratch, we mustn't allow her to flee into the shadows!"
With a single tap, Inumuta booted his laptop, which miraculously survived the climactic battle relatively unscathed, "I took the liberty of regaining administrative control over Honnouji Academy. Including the security and surveillance operating systems. It appears someone beat us to the punch concerning Hououmaru. And made sure to finish the job."
The tension was overwhelming. But none were more surprised by the revelation than Satsuki, "How?"
"Apparently Yuu Akiyama wasn't as loyal as Ragyo Kiryuin believed," Inumuta flicked the bridge of his glasses, "He betrayed Hououmaru before she activated EXCELSUS. And then delivered the coup de grâce using high-yield explosives laced with extremely potent Anti-Life Fiber components."
Satsuki was surprised, to say the least. But Heinkel Wolfe's strange reaction steadied her thoughts. She understood the paladin's suspicions. Yuu Akiyama had been one of her mother's staunchest employees. Someone who could theoretically subdue the Grand Couturier. At least until Nui Harime decided to stop holding back. For him to betray Xcution during Ragyo Kiryuin's moment of triumph, after years of displaying nothing but loyalty, was bewildering. Perhaps it involved Alexander Anderson. But even so, she wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
"However, that may be the least of our concerns, Lady Satsuki."
Inumuta typed several commands, bringing up multiple images displaying every major city in the world, "When Orihime Inoue reversed Absolute Domination, those absorbed into the Celestial Cocoon Seed Planet were released. Unfortunately, most of them are naked. And without Life Fibers devouring unnecessary information, not to mention the death toll reaching into the thousands, people are going to start asking questions."
"Understandable. However, we shall deal with that problem in due time."
As the cold air stung her face, Satsuki involuntarily winced. Something that didn't go unnoticed by the others. She was tired. Exhausted. Not the strongest will, nor the most tempered resolve, could compensate for the immense strain from wearing Kamui. Even with almost perfect synchronization and cooperation, allowing herself to be worn by Junketsu for several hours had pushed her body to its absolute limit, "There is still much to be done. And limited time to do so. Inumuta, what is the status of my mother's remaining COVERS?"
Nui listened to Satsuki.
She stared at Ichigo and Ryuko. Heard everything they told the humans. Their happiness caused her heart to clench. And so, she tucked her knees against her chest.
The disgusting wound blemishing her face, the cross-shaped reminder of what she did to the Original Life Fiber, throbbed. But she didn't care. Blood trickled down her cheek, dripping onto her favorite dress. Yet she couldn't muster the energy to move. Why should she care? Because of her, Ichigo and Ryuko sliced apart Shinra Koketsu. The best, most perfect, outfit that would ever exist. Nothing she made, or would ever make, could ever compare to the ultimate Kamui. A cold dread settled in the pit of her stomach at the thought.
Nothing mattered anymore. Lady Ragyo was dead. Amu wasn't coming back. Ryuko hated her.
And Ichigo never wanted to talk to her again.
Her family was gone.
She was truly alone in the world.
Nui flinched at the voice so similar to her own. And she couldn't understand why. Orihime was her sister. The one meant to be worn by Shinra Koketsu. Ichigo and Ryuko's friend. Yet she was talking to her. For a moment, her remaining eye widened. But she didn't say anything. Even when Orihime steadied herself, seemingly conflicted about whether or not to move closer, Nui couldn't help but notice everything – shinigami, human and even Ichigo – watching them.
Staring at her.
"Please hold still for a moment."
The dejection in Nui Harime's eye bothered Orihime. Far more than she would admit. She knew what Nui could do. What she had done. But even so, knowing how dangerous the Grand Couturier could be, Orihime couldn't stand back and watch her waste away, "If it's alright with you, I want to heal your eye."
She didn't mean to shout. But hearing that question brought back painful, unbearable memories. Her shoulders trembled as she suppressed another wracking sob. Blonde hair fell around her shoulders in disheveled curls as she rested her forehead upon her knees, "Why are you helping me? I don't deserve this! I-I don't deserve anything! Lady Ragyo's dead! Ichigo and Ryuko hate me! A-Amu's never coming back! A-And it's all my fault! There's nothing left. I-I'm all alone. So please, tell me why you're doing this! Why are you being so nice!? Why don't you hate me!?"
"I don't know."
Orihime clasped her hands together. And then, against common sense to anyone else, stepped closer to Nui. Almost to the point where she could grab the Grand Couturier's hand, "You hurt Ryuko. You almost killed Mako. But for some strange reason, and maybe it's silly, I think I understand why you did those terrible things."
She looked away. First at Ichigo. Then Ryuko and Mako. Before settling on Satsuki and her friends. Everyone was relieved Ragyo Kiryuin was dead. Orihime could see the happiness in their eyes. And maybe, for a moment, she was glad everything was over. That everyone didn't need to care about anything but having fun and relaxing. Gripping her sweater between her fingers, Orihime felt her nervousness ebbing with every comforting beat of her heart, "Ragyo Kiryuin hurt a lot of people. She took Sora. She took Ryuko's dad. And I'm sure there are hundreds of other people just as mad. But she was your mom. She was the only family you had, wasn't she?"
"So maybe, just a little bit, I understand why you're sad."
The tear welling in Nui's eye plucked at her heart, "It might be naivety. Or wishful thinking. In fact, it doesn't make sense to me. But still, for some reason, I'm beginning to understand why you always talked to Ichigo. Why you never tried hurting him. Not really. Even when Ragyo Kiryuin asked you to. I'm sure you'll deny it. Or say that I'm lying. You might even shout at me. But that's fine. Maybe I deserve that. Because I think, truly, the only think you ever wanted was a normal family."
Everything Nui wanted to say – to shout, to deny – emerged as painful sobs. She cried. Tears rolled down her cheek as Orihime wrapped her arms around her shoulders. As she sat with her sister pulling her into a hug, Nui didn't know what to do. What to say. Despite everything, Orihime didn't hate her. She cared about her. And knowing that, more than anything else in the world, caused any lingering doubts to fade.
"It's been a long night, Ichigo."
"It sure has, Mugetsu," Ichigo watched Nui awkwardly return Orihime's hug before Mugetsu yawned, something that caused the Kamui to physically ripple, "Tired?"
"I'll be fine! But more importantly, are you certain Nui Harime won't become a problem in the future? There's nothing stopping her from seeking revenge. After all, we were the ones who killed Ragyo Kiryuin."
"Enough about Ragyo!"
Ryuko was sick of hearing about her stupid mom! Glaring at Mugetsu, meeting the Kamui's annoyed gaze with her own, she sat up with a huff, arms folded and Senketsu complaining about pushing her body, "The bitch is dead! End of story! After all the crap she's pulled, I ain't feelin' too bad she's gone!"
"You shouldn't say such horrible things, Ryuko!"
Mako leaned closer to Ryuko before continuing in the same excited, yet mildly chastised, tone, "When we snuck into those movies, the person who bragged about nothing going wrong was the first to die! So, if you say really nice things about Ragyo Kiryuin, even if you don't mean them, when she returns as a zombie, you'll be safe!"
"While a zombie Ragyo Kiryuin would be troubling, there's a more pressing matter we need to deal with, Ryuko."
"Yeah," Ryuko yawned and collapsed onto her back, "I didn't forget, Senketsu. I'll iron you when we get back to Karakura Town. After I take a shower and a nice, long rest."
"We'll need to find someplace with appropriate steam-cleaning technology. Assuming Nui Harime didn't destroy everything, Kisuke Urahara should have the required equipment to fulfill our needs. Of course, going to that shop of horrors should be our last resort."
Senketsu ignored Mugetsu's childish growl. There was no need to lower himself to such inappropriate standards. Not when something else required his attention. A terrifying sensation almost as horrifying as the Original Life Fiber. For as Seras Victoria appeared within the familiar burning darkness that caused his threading to itch, he stared at the woman holding the vampire's hand. Or more specifically, the familiar clothing Kinue Kinagase happened to be wearing.
"So, that's Danketsu's regular appearance. It's…"
"…JUST like Junketsu," Mugetsu laughed. Her threading rippled with every chuckle as she stared at the off-colored Junketsu. It was hilarious! More than enough to make her forget about Senketsu's stupidity, "Ichigo, doesn't Danketsu look just like Junketsu? And she had the nerve to claim she was the better Kamui! At least I'M original!"
"What did you fucking say!?"
"Don't let Mugetsu bother you, Danketsu," Kinue stumbled briefly, which did not go unnoticed by Seras. But she brushed off the vampire's assistance. Without Danketsu stitched into her skin, walking under her own power was a strange experience, "Remember what happened the last time she got under your skin?"
"Only because you REFUSED to take my side!"
It had been so long since Danketsu could remember the freedom of moving under her own power. Only fuzzy memories of her first moments of life – awakening in that disgusting and drab laboratory, her first movements and wrapping herself around Isshin Kurosaki – remained. But with a triumphant flourish, which translated into rustling her sleeve, she glowered at her wearer with all the disgust she could muster, "She mocked my appearance! So, go over there and teach her a lesson! If you don't, I will force you to hit Mugetsu!"
"If you want to fight Mugetsu, why don't you do it yourself?"
Kinue gave Danketsu's sleeve a light tug, "Ragyo Kiryuin separated your Life Fibers from mine. There's nothing stopping you from removing yourself from my body. You finally have the freedom to leave. To not be forced onto 'a human' against your will. So, what are you waiting for?"
Danketsu's sputtering quickly devolved into indignation. And then cursing. But by that point, Ichigo decided to follow Ryuko's example. With a groan, he sat on the ground. The weight of fighting Ragyo Kiryuin and the Original Life Fiber finally taking its toll. Sighing as Mugetsu continued laughing at Danketsu, Ichigo asked, more to himself than anyone, "It's finally over, isn't it?"
"It better be!"
Ryuko growled as her temper, never the best, threatened to snap from exhaustion, "Mom's dead. That stupid ball of yarn is sliced to pieces. And Nui Harime's not going to go batcrap insane any time soon. Wait a second. Where's the old goat?"
"You think I care?"
That was a lie. He actually was curious about his old man's mysterious vanishing act. The guy should have been waiting for them. But since Aizen seemed not to know much, he decided not to worry about it. He was already planning on beating information on Ragyo Kiryuin out of the old goat. A few more minutes wouldn't kill him, "He probably got caught in one of that Yuu guy's traps. Or he's making sure Satsuki's clone doesn't do anything stupid."
A tired yawn escaped her mouth as Ryuko watched Harribel leave through another Garganta alongside her annoying sidekicks. Closing her eyes, she wished, more than anything, for a hot shower. And then, after another few seconds, sat up with a startle.
"Satsuki has a clone? When the hell did that happen!?"
November 12th, 2002
"My offer still stands, you know."
"That's quite the considerate proposition, Kisuke Urahara. Has my participation changed your perception this much?"
Kisuke frowned at the question. Almost absentmindedly, he adjusted his bucket hat, pulling the brim below his eyes. With the pitch-black void of the lowest level of the Central Great Underground Prison pressing upon his soul, deafening his senses and chilling him to the bone, it was difficult getting an accurate read on Aizen. He had to give the guy credit. That was not something easy to pull off, "I wouldn't phrase it so…suspiciously. Try to think of it…"
The steady clomping of his geta stopped, "…as payment for services rendered."
His attention shifted towards the seals spreading across the ground in a circular fashion. They were etched into the very fabric of the underground prison. A precaution against attempts at inducing discrepancies through overwhelming spiritual pressure. Of course, a cursory examination of the cracks surrounding the seals suggested they wouldn't last another few months under Aizen's presence. Maybe a year. Nevertheless, despite the blatant mockery of his personal craftsmanship, Kisuke hummed, "Nothing to say? Oh well, you can be as enigmatic as you want. But without your knowledge of Life Fibers, defeating Ragyo Kiryuin and the Original Life Fiber would have been difficult. If not impossible."
"The destruction of the Soul King and the Original Life Fiber has always been my objective."
Aizen took the opportunity, with Kisuke Urahara distracted by introspection, to examine his attire. One could not question his former adversary's handiwork. Using nothing more than the scraps of clothing cast aside in Karakura Town, Kisuke stitched an exact replica of the sealing fabric placed upon his body by the Central 46, "Three days ago, you admitted knowing what motivated my actions. And, if memory serves, explained quite a few interesting details on Life Fibers. Such as Kamui."
Kisuke smirked, the mirth never quite reaching his eyes, "From the way you said 'Kamui,' I'm inclined to believe you examined Junketsu when Satsuki wasn't looking."
"That would imply I succeeded," Aizen returned the expression, albeit lacking the underlying sarcasm. If he decided to be truthful on the matter, inspecting a Kamui such as Junketsu had been too good of an opportunity to ignore. Pure Life Fiber clothing? He'd theorized its existence. Contemplated how Life Fibers could have esoteric applications. But the few Life Fibers he'd procured were spent creating his Hogyoku, preventing further experiments.
"It seems collecting useful data on Kamui requires their cooperation," the cursory inspections of Junketsu had given him little he hadn't already known. Nothing more than information available to anyone familiar with Life Fibers, "But rest assured. My interest in Junketsu was nothing more than scientific curiosity. I have no desire to experiment on Junketsu, Mugetsu or any other Kamui."
"Is that so?"
"Well, if there's no chance you'll abscond with a Kamui, I don't need to worry about Mugetsu vanishing in the middle of the night," Kisuke chuckled. It was a wispy, hollow laugh that echoed into the surrounding darkness, "Still, your assistance kept casualties to a minimum. One could even suggest humanity's continued existence rests upon your shoulders."
Aizen stood upon the precipice of the sealing array, smirking, somewhat faintly, at the shopkeeper, "But that's not the reason for your generous offer, is it?"
"Now, why on earth would you think that?"
The exiled captain turned shopkeeper of sugary affections and specialized shinigami merchandise mumbled under his breath, "With the excessive, and somewhat torturous, sentence of twenty thousand years, who knows when someone will bother checking on the Soul Society's most infamous prisoner? After all, Muken is supposedly impenetrable. Nobody can enter or leave the infinite realm without a specialized key. It could be years…centuries…before anyone wonders if the immortal Sosuke Aizen was still locked away!"
"Be that as it may, I must decline your offer."
With a moment for introspection, Aizen took in the familiar prison. The dark void stretching into infinity. The chair crafted by Mayuri Kurotsuchi and Kisuke Urahara with the singular purpose of restricting his movements to an absolute minimum. Something the former announced with arrogance befitting someone granted the position of 'captain' multiple times during his transfer to Muken almost a year ago to the day, "Yet, from your lack of criticism, one might assume you already knew my answer."
"Was it that obvious?"
Aizen stepped beyond the sealing threshold, "The Original Life Fiber's control over the barrier between the World of the Living and the Soul Society began weakening within hours of its death. In a matter of days, perhaps weeks, it will fully dissipate. At that time, the Seireitei will launch an investigation into the dimensional abnormality. And, as I'm certain you've realized, they will discover the existence of Life Fibers."
"You got me there."
The admission came easier than anticipated. Which Kisuke found mildly concerning as he removed from his jacket, which still had a few traces of damage from his confrontation with Nui and Ururu, the duplicate set of nineteen keys to Aizen's prison, "I'm not looking forward to explaining how Life Fibers almost destroyed the World of the Living. That something more dangerous than Alucard existed under their nose. Or, even worse. Why you, of all people, were walking around Karakura Town."
"Oh? Will you though?"
"I might conceal some of the more exotic details," Kisuke didn't bother refuting the accusation. Not when Aizen would throw evidence back in his face at the first opportunity, "Alucard on the other hand? There's no hiding what happened in London. The captain-commander will ask questions. Difficult questions. Such as why three million souls vanished alongside the most dangerous being in the World of the Living. Fortunately, for all involved parties, there's a thick silver lining."
He brushed dust off his pants, "As a consequence of Alucard's overwhelming presence and, shall we say, monstrous abilities, proving whether other spiritual beings, such as shinigami or hybrid, were present around the time of his abduction is just about impossible."
"I suppose Ichigo Kurosaki and Ryuko Matoi can take solace in that fact," Aizen stated matter-of-factly, "Of course, there's still the matter of our other friends."
Kisuke rubbed his stubble-covered chin, "The Wandenreich fought Ragyo Kiryuin out of self-preservation. But if the information on Millennium is accurate, what happened in London was the result of decades of planning. I've asked Ryuken to look into the matter. Yet from what we already know, the two events are connected."
"The Wandenreich have their stated goals. And then they have their actual objectives. The question, Kisuke Urahara, is whether they're mutually exclusive," Aizen chuckled, an almost airy sound as he sat down. Kisuke's suspicions were intriguing. And rather close to his own conclusions, "The only thing we can conclude, with any true certainty, is that Ragyo Kiryuin was one of the few beings Yhwach feared. With her death, it's more than likely he'll accelerate his plans."
"That reminds me…"
Nearly half a minute passed in absolute silence, broken only by the ambient noise of his rustling clothes, as Kisuke carefully fit the keys into their respective slots one by one. Once all nineteen were prepared according to design, even if they didn't accomplish anything besides providing the illusion Aizen remained sealed, including his ability to speak, Kisuke stepped back, "Consider it morbid curiosity. But why did you let Orihime use Absolute Domination on your zanpakuto?"
The subtle narrowing of Aizen's eyes spoke volumes, "Manipulating reality isn't simple. Every change, even trivial alterations, induces proportionally greater repercussions. I presume you've extensively tested your Bankai's limitations. Documented the consequences of altering reality. Understood what you could feasibly accomplish. But the stunt you pulled against the Original Life Fiber? Against Ragyo Kiryuin? If I didn't know better, I'd call that excessively reckless."
"Because your Bankai's effects are temporary."
He stared at the enigmatic shinigami. Or, more specifically, the limb Ryuko claimed Aizen sacrificed casting Ittō Kasō, "I'm going to take a wild guess. Once you deactivate Seirei-no-Makoto Kyouka Suigetsu, every alternation and change 'snaps' back to normal. Including injuries. But magnified tenfold. Even with the Hogyoku granting you a level of regeneration close to that of Life Fibers, the wounds you sustained fighting Ragyo Kiryuin were fatal. At least, not without Absolute Domination overwriting the consequences of your Bankai. Am I in the right ballpark?"
"More or less."
Aizen shrugged as black fabric wrapped around his ankles. And then ignored the two seals restraining his left arm and right leg from moving, "Despite your expectations, I was honest about Seirei-no-Makoto Kyouka Suigetsu's connection with the lunar cycle."
With every additional key twisted into position, the spiritual fabric constraining his movements tightened. First his neck was pulled backwards. Then his waist and shoulders were held taut, unable to move more than an inch. Trivialities easily overcome with the slightest of efforts. But he granted Kisuke Urahara the illusion of believing the seals worked, despite both of them knowing it was simple showmanship, "But that's not what you're wondering, is it? What you're actually asking, Kisuke Urahara, is why I insisted Orihime Inoue use Absolute Domination on my zanpakuto."
"I'll confess my actions have been abhorrent. One might even call them monstrous," Aizen smiled at his former adversary, "Yet given an opportunity, I wouldn't change anything. Why you ask? Because the results speak for themselves. The Original Life Fiber and its prophet were destroyed. The former at the hands of Satsuki Kiryuin, a human it considered little more than an insect. That being said, if one considers the innumerable lives destroyed throughout my pursuit of humanity's survival, I doubt most people would have cared if I died."
"That may be true."
Kisuke conceded the point, "But without your help? Well, I don't think we'd be having this conversation."
"Fair enough. Now, tell me, Kisuke Urahara. What do you plan on doing now?"
The closest emotion Aizen felt towards Kisuke Urahara was mixed resignation. Yet he smirked. An enigmatic, condescending expression that physically strained the black fabric around his chin, "The Seireitei will investigate Ragyo Kiryuin. Once they realize what she was, they'll examine her activities with the subtly of a Hollow. Including anyone associated with her conglomerate. Even someone with your intellect won't be able to completely conceal the truth of Life Fibers."
"And when Genryusai Yamamoto discovers the unvarnished truth?"
Aizen leaned backwards, yet his eyes never strayed from the shopkeeper, "Kamui. Goku Uniform. Life Fiber Hybrid. He'll order their destruction to preserve the false illusion of balance between the World of the Living and the Soul Society. When the Seireitei takes matters into their own hands…when the Onmitsukido determines Kugo Ginjo was working for Revocs and you said nothing…when Mayuri Kurotsuchi discovers that Life Fibers evolve adaptations towards specific threats, including Bankai…what will you do?"
The click when Kisuke activated the final, nineteenth key, the one meant to restrain his mouth, went unnoticed. He was bound head to foot upon the chair, limbs immobilized by restraints designed to withstand his massive spiritual pressure. And yet Aizen continued without batting an eye, "That's alright. You don't need to answer. I'm sure you, of all people, will think of something when the time comes."
A moment passed before Kisuke shook his head, "Boy, you're rather pessimistic."
Aizen frowned, "And you're foolishly optimistic."
"Who me? I'm nothing more than the handsome owner of a small candy-store. Being optimistic is good for business," the exiled shopkeeper brushed aside Aizen's depressingly cautious pessimism. There was not point worrying about the thousands of possible scenarios involving the Seireitei discovering Life Fibers. At least not without additional data. Removing one of the spiritual keys, then another, he continued until all nineteen replicas were secured within the confines of his coat, "As for what you're implying? I understand your reasoning."
His footsteps echoed across the pitch-black void as he began the journey towards the backdoor into Muken. A personal entrance tied to his spiritual energy. Yet, before taking no more than five steps, Kisuke paused, "Yet I disagree with your conclusions. Perhaps the captain-commander will consider Ichigo and the others threats towards the balance of souls. Maybe he'll order them imprisoned. Killed. Or since Ichigo and Ryuko helped destroy the Original Life Fiber, he'll be content with mere observation. There's no 'right' answer. Because, after all, in the real world…"
"…things are never quite black and white."
Aizen allowed the unspoken farewell to carry across the infinite expanse of Muken. He watched Kisuke Urahara retreat until even the faint echoing of his footsteps faded. With his body restrained, at least to the casual observer, by the nineteen seals, he smirked. An arrogant expression befitting one of his stature. And yet, possessing a hint of understanding.
"Well then, I look forward to seeing whether you truly believe those words, Kisuke Urahara."
November 24th, 2002
The spiritual training grounds underneath the Urahara Shop were abandoned. For the first time in months, it wasn't filled with the sounds of nudists preparing for battle. Pieces of debris lay scattered across the battle-marked environment. Trash and burnt husks of vehicles all that remained of the secondary Nudist Beach headquarters. Without Ragyo Kiryuin breathing down their neck, Olivier returned to Osaka. Intent on using the Takarada Conglomerate's resources to rebuild the city following Xcution's invasion.
"I should have known something was wrong."
A faint breeze, produced through means known only to Kisuke Urahara, rustled Ichigo's hair as he swallowed the bitterness rising in his throat. He couldn't look the shopkeeper in the eye. Not when everything was his fault. If he'd listened to Mugetsu, took her concerns a little more seriously, this wouldn't be happening, "She was tired. Hard to wake up. And every day, she got a little worse."
He was grateful Uryu lent him one of his jackets. Even if the Quincy symbol stitched across the back was blatantly obvious. Because without it, there was no way he could have hidden the slight trembling of his hands, "By the end, she didn't have the strength to move on her own."
The silence was uncomfortable. But like everything else, that was his fault. Grimacing from the guilt, he stared at the ground, refusing to look Kisuke in the eye, "Kisuke…what's wrong with Mugetsu?"
"It's difficult to say."
Ichigo all but spat the word. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Hat-and-clogs, the guy who outwitted Ragyo Kiryuin, didn't have an answer? Dirt crunched beneath his sneakers when he rushed forward, grabbing Kisuke's coat before the bastard said anything, "Don't pull that crap! You know something! Tell me, damn it!"
"…Isshin informed me of Mugetsu's condition three days ago."
The tension was overwhelming. Stifling. But that didn't make things simpler. And confessing to Ichigo that his old man knew something was wrong with Mugetsu for days and didn't say anything? Kisuke grunted through his nose. As a scientist, first and foremost, he prided himself on discovering the unknown. In finding answers, no matter how difficult, through a mixture of analytical research and empirical evidence. Everything he'd accomplished, even Mugetsu, was based upon that premise. Yet for the first time in years, perhaps decades, there was no logical explanation. No reason for the circumstances surrounding Mugetsu besides theories and conjectures.
"And for the last sixty-two hours, I've spent every waking moment examining her dress patterns. Inspecting her stitching from hem to collar."
He felt Ichigo's grip slacken. First the right hand and then the left. Dozens of thoughts, excuses and reasons passed through his mind before Ichigo stepped back, almost unsure of what to say and yet determined to speak. And during that uncomfortable silence, his grimace tightened into a frown at the hermetically sealed containers next to his computer. Each constructed from modified soul-synthesized metal and glass. The first of which, immediately to his left, contained Mugetsu. The other three Senketsu, Danketsu and Junketsu.
All of whom weren't moving.
"You see, I kept detailed notes. Something immeasurably useful considering Mugetsu was my third – and only successful – attempt at creating Kamui."
A bead of sweat trickled down his cheek, pooling against the underside of his chin before dripping onto the floor. He sighed, a weary breath that only served to illustrate the mounting tension. This wasn't the optimum environment. Ichigo might be keeping himself together, but it was temporary. After all, Mugetsu was cut from the same cloth. She was, for lack of a better comparison, the Kamui equivalent of a shinigami's zanpakuto. And thinking, even theoretically, of Benihime in a similar condition, existing yet unresponsive, soured his already terrible mood. With another sigh, one containing the depths of his shame, he slowly, almost deliberately, removed his bucket hat while staring over Ichigo's shoulder at Ryuko, Satsuki and Kinue Kinagase.
Who were in his shop for the same reason.
Suggesting, unfortunately, the problem wasn't isolated to Mugetsu.
"Which made things simpler. But not necessarily easier."
He directed the comment at Ryuko but kept his attention on Satsuki. She'd been silent throughout his explanation. Choosing to acknowledge certain answers with a solemn nod, "I spent more than two days examining Mugetsu. I searched for any conceivable changes in her threading, including differences stemming from evolving advanced configurations."
His shoulders fell as the next words struggled to form, "I'm sorry, Ichigo. But there's nothing physically wrong with Mugetsu."
"That's a load of crap!"
Ryuko shoved Ichigo aside. Without giving anyone a chance to think, she grabbed Kisuke by the scruff of his coat. She tried slamming him against the computer, hoping for some damn answers. But the bastard didn't so much as budge an inch, "There's something wrong with Senketsu! So spill it! I don't care if it's good or bad news! I just want…"
The plain, otherwise ordinary, black sweater from Mako's closet felt itchy against her skin. For a moment, she stumbled over her words. Unsure what to say. Before her voice dropped into a whisper, "…I just want to know what's wrong with him."
"There is one theory."
Kisuke observed Ryuko's attention, her desperation, intensify, "After eliminating every other possibility, the only remaining conclusion is that Senketsu's condition directly results from the Original Life Fiber's destruction."
"The Life Fibers in your Kamui. Goku Uniforms. Aizen's Hogyoku. The COVERS. They all came from the Original Life Fiber," his voice hardened despite the magnitude of Ryuko's disbelief, "It's complicated. Something I could spend hours describing without getting to the point. But I'll keep things simple. Senketsu sustained himself through your spiritual energy and blood. But what about Life Fibers not yet woven into clothing? How do you think they survived?"
"Your logic is flawed."
With the hollow clack of her heel, Satsuki stepped forward, brow furrowed into an introspective frown, "The Life Fibers delivered to the Sewing Club were removed from the Original Life Fiber weeks before shipping. If such a connection existed, they wouldn't have survived long enough to be woven into clothing."
"Were you aware Ragyo Kiryuin was communicating with the Original Life Fiber throughout the Great Culture and Sports Festival?"
He took Satsuki's silence at the question as permission to continue, "The Original Life Fiber was, for lack of better terminology, the lynchpin holding everything together. Its existence stabilized the system. There's no other way to describe it. Because, as we speak, Life Fibers are undergoing 'cataclysmic feedback.' In a matter of weeks, maybe days, every Life Fiber throughout the World of the Living will die."
"Are you saying Senketsu's gonna die!?"
Ryuko dragged the bastard down until she was staring into his eyes, "And what about me and Ichigo!? What's gonna happen to us!?"
Not for the first time, and likely not the last, Kisuke watched Ryuko's frustration turn into confusion. A similar reaction to Ichigo and Kinue. But he derived no pleasure from it. In these circumstances, giving comparatively good news didn't necessarily make people feel better, "I've tested your Life Fibers. Examined samples of your blood. For some reason, most likely stemming from your unique physiology, your Life Fibers aren't affected by the Original Life Fiber's destruction."
"So what if I'm fine!?"
More than anything, Ryuko wanted to punch Hat-and-Clogs. Instead, she settled for shouting at the top of her lungs, "That doesn't matter! Because Senketsu's not! And you know what that freaking ball of yarn did to him!"
"Professor Matoi extracted some of your Life Fibers to complete Senketsu. Which explains why his spiritual pressure was identical to your own."
Kisuke noted, more from curiosity than any scientific interest, Satsuki's reaction. It appeared Ragyo Kiryuin never shared the secret behind Kamui. Which made sense. The woman was notoriously paranoid. After all, Nui Harime, someone more than loyal to Life Fibers, hadn't succeeded in weaving Kamui. And if the Grand Couturier of Revocs didn't know the secret behind Kamui, the likelihood Ragyo confessed everything to Satsuki was slim to none, "This created a connection between you two. Or, in Satsuki's case, a connection between Junketsu and Ragyo Kiryuin and Isshin. A synchronization, if you will."
"That doesn't answer the question."
He acknowledged Kinue's legitimate concern by pausing. If only briefly. While Ryuko refused to release his coat, something that grew more concerning with every passing second, he still managed to keep his composure, "This synchronization interfered with their connection to the Original Life Fiber. Enough to ensure Danketsu won't die. Unfortunately, it appears that creature's destruction still had consequences."
Kinue grimaced, her mouth opening and closing before the question spilled forth, "There's nothing you can do?"
"The mere existence of the Original Life Fiber overturned centuries of knowledge," Kisuke didn't move when Ryuko's hands slipped from his coat, "In fact, I can count on both hands what I won't have to reexamine. But this is something I'm going to solve. Not out of curiosity. Or even as a final insult to Ragyo Kiryuin. Rather, after everything you've done, all the sacrifices you've made, this is the least I could do."
Ryuko didn't know what to say.
She was angry. Fuck! She was pissed off. Why the hell did this happen to Senketsu! It wasn't right! She wanted to beat the crap out of Kisuke for not having the answer! But punching the bastard wouldn't solve anything. It wouldn't help Senketsu. Her hands trembled at the echoes of his voice. She remembered his brutal honesty about everything. Even her atrocious diet. She bit her lower lip, almost drawing blood as she remembered the countless times Senketsu complained about her BMI. And how, every time, she argued back, exclaiming he had no right to say stuff like that.
Her heart sank at the memory. The anger bubbling in her chest evaporated, leaving behind nothing but an encroaching emptiness, "Ichigo said you shinigami have living swords. So do you ever…talk…with your zanpakuto?"
"Benihime isn't the 'nicest' zanpakuto," Kisuke motioned toward the sealed zanpakuto leaning innocuously against the computer, "But compared to your relationship with Senketsu, I suppose the correlation is strained at best. Most shinigami don't bother conversing with their zanpakuto outside of training. And even the rare moments they do, it's usually never about something trivial."
"It's just…the silence. Not hearing his voice," Ryuko didn't look at her sweater. Or rather, Mako's sweater. Sure, it was nice even if it was a little tight. And maybe the strange pattern hurt her eyes. But the more she looked at it, the more she felt like she was betraying Senketsu. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she pulled on her sleeves, smoothing the nonexistent wrinkles, "Because without Senketsu, it's like…"
Kinue never intended to finish Ryuko's thoughts. But the question came without prompting. The words spilling forth as if they were her own, "Because it's the same for me."
For the first time in years, she was wearing something other than Danketsu. A long-sleeved, vibrant blue blouse. One of Aikuro's last gifts before the accident. Something he confessed to spending days picking out before asking Olivier for guidance. Which, from Aikuro's bruises in the immediate aftermath, hadn't gone as intended. And yet, at the time, she'd worn it with a smile. But now things were different. After more than ten years wearing Danketsu, having the Kamui share her thoughts and body, without the Kamui, she felt naked. Alone. As if missing part of herself.
"After that day, when I decided to put on Danketsu, Isshin never returned to Osaka."
Her tone softened with every word, "Back then, I was the only one who could hear Danketsu. I knew Life Fibers were alive. But capable of human speech? The thought never occurred to me. For years, I thought the voice in my mind – shouting, yelling, screaming in my ears – was a hallucination. I ignored Danketsu. I ran away from my problems. Refusing to talk to Aikuro. My brother. Anyone. I was terrified what might happen if I lost control. That I would hurt…or worse…the people I love."
"I once believed clothing and humans could coexist. Tsumugu said I was naïve. That Life Fibers couldn't be trusted. And perhaps, to some extent, he was right."
She felt her hands trembling, "But there's nothing wrong with dreams. If I didn't blind myself with self-loathing, maybe things would have turned out different. Perhaps I would have seen the truth."
"It's disgraceful it took meeting Ichigo to realize that."
The beating of her heart didn't stop Kinue from sensing the shifting atmosphere, "After seeing him speak to Mugetsu as friends…as equals…I realized what happened to Danketsu was my fault. And mine alone. Her anger was born from loneliness. The madness from watching, helpless and afraid, the only person who could hear her voice deny her very existence."
Something in her voice cracked, "At that moment, I vowed, no matter the cost, to help Danketsu. To undo everything created through my ignorance. I knew it wouldn't be easy. Perhaps impossible. But towards the end, I believe she was beginning to forgive me."
"So, I want your word, Kisuke Urahara."
Kinue glared at the shinigami, a cold glint shimmering beneath steel blue eyes, "That you'll save Danketsu."
"If that's what it takes…"
Kisuke bowed, not just as Kinue, but at Ichigo, Ryuko and Satsuki. He swept an arm across his body, bucket hat clasped in his fingers, "You have my word. I won't stop working until reversing what happened to Danketsu."
Ichigo stared at the ground in front of Mugetsu. He wanted to look into her eyes. But for some reason, found himself unable to do so. Seeing his Kamui like this wasn't right. He'd seen Mugetsu sleeping. This was different. It reminded him, although not perfectly, of the days before she awakened. When he believed she was something Kisuke created for some ulterior purpose. His jaw clenched, brow furrowing into a frown. This shouldn't have happened. After everything they've been through – dealing with Nui and Ragyo Kiryuin to Alucard – she didn't deserve this.
"It's not your fault."
Despite the ghost white overcoat hugging her body, Satsuki shivered. She wanted nothing more than to speak candidly with Ichigo. To abolish the unnecessary guilt festering within his mind. But she couldn't relate to his sorrow. At least, not to the same extent. Junketsu had been – was – her ally. Her friend. Yet when the Kamui first awakened that night many months ago, she treated Junketsu as nothing more than clothing. Something to be conquered under the necessity of keeping control. A rabid, inhuman creature destined to kneel underneath her iron will and unyielding determination. And perhaps, during those initial weeks, that was closer to the truth than she cared to admit. For Junketsu had sought every advantage to devour her body and soul beneath Life Fibers.
Yet, if Ichigo's recollections were accurate, Ragyo Kiryuin was to blame for Junketsu's original personality.
"I never heard Junketsu. Merely faint whispers on the wind. Intense emotions. Her constant curiosity. In some regards, I'm envious of you and Ryuko."
Without the slightest reluctance, she stared at the patches of fabric representing Junketsu's eyes. The way she originally treated the Kamui as clothing, something Ragyo Kiryuin would have been proud of, could never be forgiven. Even if Junketsu herself thought otherwise. Frowning, almost glowering from disgust, she turned towards Ichigo, "Perhaps that's nothing more than an excuse. But even so, there's no reason to blame yourself. If Mugetsu were here, I'm certain she'd tell you the same thing."
Ryuko backed away from Kisuke, no longer interested in threatening the shopkeeper. Instead, she snorted. A hint of normalcy breaking through the guilt as she nudged an elbow against Ichigo's ribs, "Senketsu wouldn't want me moping like an idiot! And if there's anyone on this freaking planet smart enough to wake him up, it's the smug bastard who tricked my bitch of a mom!"
"Well, that's awfully flattering of you to –"
"But let's get one thing straight."
Kisuke froze when the Scissor Blade hooked around Ryuko's belt expanded to full, lethal size with a metallic clang. He grinned nervously, the corner of his mouth twitching, when that same weapon gently touched the underside of his chin.
"If anything happens to Senketsu," Ryuko twisted the Scissor Blade against the shopkeeper's chin, "I'm gonna tear you apart limb from limb! Got it!?"
"T-There's no reason to act so rashly," Kisuke was keenly aware of the Scissor Blade's sharpness. While he never worked on Professor Matoi's creation, the Scissor Blade and Tournesol were created based upon the same principle, "Senketsu's in capable hands! After all, I created Mugetsu! You can trust me, Ryuko!"
"Oh really? Because now I'm really worried you're gonna –"
"Calm yourself, Ryuko."
Ryuko flinched when someone grabbed her shoulder. But after taking one look at Satsuki, she allowed her sister to approach Hat-and-Clogs. But not without snorting. And making sure to keep an eye on the bastard, "Your fears are unfounded. I'm confident Kisuke Urahara's expertise in Life Fiber manipulation is more than sufficient to help our Kamui."
"I knew you'd see things my –"
"However, as inheritors of our mother's estate, if something does happen to Senketsu or Junketsu," Satsuki interrupted the shopkeeper without regard for social etiquette. Every ounce of her legendary willpower was focused onto a single point, taking the otherwise implacable man off guard, "We have the power and resources to make him disappear."
"T-That's a little excessive, isn't it?"
From the neutral perspective of an outside observer, Kisuke knew Satsuki posed little threat to his wellbeing. While she was frighteningly strong for a human, without Junketsu he was relatively certain he could handle anything she threw in his direction. Yet his heart was beating a mile a minute. Perspiration trickled down his cheeks. And it had nothing to do with the blue-white backdrop of light flickering around the teenager, "To think that I, an entrepreneur of children's delicacies and other products, would damage Junketsu is preposterous! Surely you can trust someone Ragyo Kiryuin despised with every fiber of her being!"
"Perhaps you're correct."
The words sounded positive but Kisuke found the underlying threat very disturbing. In desperation, he turned to Ichigo, looking for support, careful not to prick his skin on the Scissor Blade, "Ichigo! Tell them there's nothing to worry about!"
"Hang on, Satsuki. Threatening Hat-and-Clogs won't solve anything."
Kisuke breathed a sigh of relief. Hearing Ichigo intercede on his behalf against Satsuki and Ryuko was a weight off his shoulders. At least until Ichigo continued speaking in a slightly less friendly tone, "I mean, Uryu's old man has more money than Ragyo Kiryuin ever did. He must have enough cash to make sure nobody asks questions."
"That's right," Ryuko agreed, perhaps a bit too quickly, "Besides, it would be really bad if Satsuki got in trouble."
"Y-You're not serious!"
"A word of warning, Kisuke Urahara."
Kinue found herself experiencing a variety of unexpected emotions. Kisuke Urahara was a renowned expert on Kamui. Something not even the Grand Couturier could claim. There was no questioning his experience. Yet, with subtle nuance, she stepped to the side, placing herself between the shinigami and Karakura Town, "While I haven't researched Life Fibers for years, I'm still considered a world-renowned expert. And I recognize most of your equipment. Life Fiber extraction and manipulation. Weaving threads into clothing based upon a fifty percent purity basis while minimizing catastrophic loss of cohesion. Which is why I can say…"
She paused, considered her words, before adding in a tone brooking no arguments, "If you screw this up, Olivier will be the first to know."
"N-Now, there's no reason to get her involved!"
Kisuke couldn't help but chuckle nervously. He had no intention of incurring that woman's wrath. And while Olivier Mira Armstrong didn't possess the strength nor the power to beat him within an inch of his life, multiple plans were already in motion. Countless scenarios formed in his mind. Hundreds of variables came and went as he dealt with the notion of having the second most terrifying woman he'd had the misfortune of meeting coming for his head.
"I'm sure we can work something out!"
He instinctively raised his hands in a placating gesture. Hoping, perhaps foolishly, to reduce the chances his life would devolve into a veritable hell worse than anything Ragyo Kiryuin's twisted mind could inflict. And yet, when that failed, Kisuke realized, after wondering most of the morning, why Yoruichi decided to take the day off.
December 20th, 2002
"I should have told you."
Her breath emerged in pale whispers as she stared across the grave-marked landscape of Yanaka Cemetery. She'd never visited the infamous location. There was never any desire to do so. Only a few people were meandering through the ancient monuments and weathered memorials, paying their respects to ancestors long gone. Most likely from the inclement weather overtaking Tokyo. She sighed, lightly and with regret hanging onto her expression, not at those who might eavesdrop upon her confession, but at Gamagori. Her former invincible shield had offered her accompany them. A request she'd originally rejected only to change her mind, convinced by Gamagori's unwavering insistence.
As well as Soroi's.
"No. It's…fine," Ryuko spared Satsuki a quick, almost guilty, look through the mist from her breath, "It's fine. This…I don't know…seems better. I guess."
"He deserved something more respectful than a nameless grave in an overgrown cemetery," the words, practiced until memorized, came easily. And yet, even with the cold winter biting at her cheeks, the blue scarf wrapped around her neck fluttering in the wind, Satsuki felt not a trace of the surrounding winter. She had used the Kiryuin name, a phrase that left a bitter taste on her tongue, to remove the bureaucratic tape and silence questions from curious individuals in order to transfer their father to Yanaka Cemetery. A process, for anyone other than herself, that would have taken months.
Perhaps even years.
"This was my decision," she looked downwards, disturbing the snow settled in her hair, "But I believed it was better his grave bore the name he chose for himself. Not the one given by our mother."
The polished granite stone bearing the name 'Isshin Matoi' didn't mean crap. Isshin. Souichiro. Or whatever. The name didn't matter. He was dad. That was all he ever was, "Dad took me from that orphanage. But you know what? The first chance he got, the bastard sent me to a stupid boarding school. I only really spent time with him on Christmas or my birthday. I was angry. I wanted to know why he never talked about mom. Or what he did. Or why he seemed really nervous whenever I came home."
Guilt swelled in her chest, growing until she was forced to look away from the grave, "I was too stupid to realize dad was protecting me. If I hadn't been so immature maybe –"
"Our father made mistakes."
Yanaka Cemetery shimmered with a pale light from the snow-heavy skies. But Satsuki wasn't paying attention to such trivialities. At the moment, all she wished to do – rather, all she could do – was bear her share of the guilt, "Yet he dedicated his life to making amends for those same mistakes. He promoted Life Fibers. Oversaw countless atrocities. And more than likely agreed with our mother's heinous experiments. But he saw the errors of his ways. Alongside likeminded individuals, he established Nudist Beach. Using the knowledge obtained at Revocs, he created the Scissor Blades, Senketsu and Danketsu. They would never have existed if he hadn't betrayed Ragyo Kiryuin."
"He even sacrificed his life protecting you from Nui Harime."
Satsuki stopped, eyes widening in realization, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have –"
"That's the damn problem!"
Ryuko staggered underneath the weight of her own guilt. And she didn't need to see Satsuki to know her sister understood exactly what she meant, "I had her, Satsuki! Senketsu finally kicked Nui's ass! I had the perfect chance to take down Nui! I could have avenged dad's death! But when I had Nui right where I wanted her…"
Her jaw clenched as she trembled, barely able to speak above a whisper, "…I couldn't do it."
"Don't blame yourself, Ryuko."
An excuse formed in her mind. Or perhaps an apology. But Satsuki couldn't say them. She had no right to speak lies veiled as the truth. Ryuko had spent months searching across Japan for the Grand Couturier. Transferring from one academy to another. Tirelessly looking for clues and information on the woman who killed their father. At the same time, she had known Nui Harime killed someone deemed enough of a threat for her personal involvement. A stark departure from their mother's usual approach of leaving Nudist Beach to Xcution. But not any specifics beyond the knowledge Isshin Matoi wounded the Grand Couturier before succumbing to his wounds.
And worsening Nui Harime's already fragile mental stability.
"You spared the Grand Couturier. An act of mercy I never would have considered."
Satsuki crushed the nausea growing in her stomach. An unwelcoming sensation not at the confession, but the implications. Every word she told Ryuko was the truth. If their roles were reversed, if she pursued Shinra Koketsu instead of Ryuko, she wouldn't have hesitated to strike down Nui Harime. It would have been cathartic. Well within her rights to do so. But her death would have been a short-term, pyrrhic victory. One that ensured humanity did not live to see another morning.
"And perhaps that was for the best."
Her gaze settled upon the incense burning in front of the grave, "If Nui Harime hadn't betrayed the Original Life Fiber, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Ryuko bit the inside of her cheek. A shudder trailed down her shoulders as the falling snow muffled everything. Maybe her sister was right. If she hadn't backed down, there was a good chance the stupid ball of yarn would have destroyed the world. But that didn't make her feel better, "Hat-and-Clogs said I was probably born with a lot of spiritual energy. That I should have always been able to see ghosts and shinigami and stuff."
"But I never saw dad's."
Her voice almost broke. When Satsuki didn't say anything, not even an excuse or apology, she stared at the ground, unable to look at the grave, "If I could see ghosts, why didn't I see dad's? I should have seen him, right? I stuck around for hours! He should have been there! Why wasn't he there?"
"I don't know."
Satsuki found herself at a loss for words. Yoruichi Shihoin explained the basic duties of shinigami. But nothing overly specific, "Only those bound through regret and strong emotions cannot pass on without assistance. Perhaps he didn't –"
"Dad was freaking murdered!"
Her voice echoed throughout the graves, briefly earning Gamagori's attention before he returned to his stupid vigil. And almost immediately, Ryuko felt like an idiot. Why the hell was she shouting at Satsuki? Her sister had no way of knowing what happened. In a quieter tone, she looked away, the corner of her mouth trembling, "You think he wouldn't want to stick around to see if I was okay? To see…to see if Nui Harime got me too?"
"What makes you think he didn't?"
Satsuki pulled the scarf downwards, exposing her tight-lipped grimace. Contrary to Ryuko, she possessed nothing more than scant recollections of their father. Faded memories twisted by time. But what she remembered was a man explaining Junketsu's purpose. The truth behind Life Fibers. How Ragyo Kiryuin murdered her little sister, which had been nothing more than a lie. Words that convinced a five-year-old child, ignorant of the cruelty awaiting her, to embark upon the arduous path leading to the Original Life Fiber's demise. A frown, almost imperceptible given the bitter weather, formed upon her brow.
Despite sacrificing her childhood for that, and other, more insidious reasons, she would never forget his smile. Nor the way their father played with her, at times against Ragyo Kiryuin's wishes.
She doubted Isshin Matoi was any different.
The encroaching cold penetrated her coat, forcing her thoughts to hasten. Nudist Beach's objective was victory over Life Fibers. But Isshin Kurosaki was likely the reason their father assumed Ryuko would be safe. If there was anyone their mother feared, whose existence tempered her otherwise unchecked lust for power, it was Ichigo's father. That fact might have been enough for their father to pass on. Believing Isshin Kurosaki would take a more proactive approach against Revocs following his death, ensuring Ryuko discovered, if not through her own actions but Nudist Beach's or his own, Senketsu, might have cleansed any regrets or strong attachments.
Yet the question remained unsettled.
It felt wrong to presume their father would pass over to the Soul Society without bidding farewell to Ryuko.
"You were besides yourself with grief, Ryuko. You had just witnessed Nui Harime escape justice after murdering our father," Satsuki closed her eyes, envisioning the last fond memories of her father, "At the same time, you were unaware of your spiritual abilities. You had never seen a ghost. Or even a Hollow. Perhaps you did see our father. Only, wracked by misplaced guilt over his death, you believed he was nothing more than a figment of your imagination."
A moment passed before Ryuko scoffed, "You really suck at making me feel better."
Satsuki arched an eyebrow at the hint of familiarity, "Am I not succeeding?"
Her shoulders fell alongside a resigned sigh. All of her anger and frustration, built over the last couple of days, was gone. But now she was curious about something else. Most of what she remembered was a blur – finding the front door unlocked, her dad slumped against the wall with the Scissor Blade, chasing Nui outside and then desperately hoping he survived the explosion. But by that point, she'd been crying. That much she remembered. So maybe Satsuki was right. Maybe she did see dad's ghost.
But that didn't make her feel any damn better.
"I wish I could see him again."
Ryuko shivered, but not from the cold, "I want to tell him everything's fine. That we kicked mom's ass and saved the world from that stupid ball of yarn. And after punching him in the nose for dying without telling me anything, that I really miss him."
"You're not alone," Satsuki stared at the grave bearing her father's name, the smell of incense filling her head. It should be possible to visit the Soul Society. Ichigo accomplished such a feat, after all. Perhaps they could locate their father. But she didn't dare give Ryuko hope. If Kisuke Urahara was telling the truth, most souls lose their memories. Not to mention the scope of searching for a single soul of millions, perhaps billions, over the Rukongai.
She would not burden her sister with such devastating news.
"We've come a long way since our first meeting, Ryuko."
"Yeah," Ryuko forced a grin, "When Ichigo embarrassed you in front of everybody, right?"
Satsuki frowned, yet traces of a smile pulled against her lips, "That's not how I remember it."
"Tch! Of course, you'd say –"
"It was worse."
The confession instantly ended her sister's half-formed argument, "Ichigo was the first person to stand against Honnouji Academy. He proved himself my equal in combat. And superior in everything else. I wielded Ragyo Kiryuin's influence to further my own objectives. To create an army to combat Life Fibers, an altruistic goal through selfish means. Yet Ichigo never cared about gaining power. At any time, he could have usurped my position using Mugetsu. Something, giving my relationship with Junketsu, I could do little to prevent. But he did not do so. Ichigo only cared about one thing – protecting his friends and family. You. Mankanshoku. His family. Power meant nothing to him. Means nothing to him."
With every word, she found her smile growing, "I cannot imagine a world where I didn't meet Ichigo. It was through his defiance that I discarded my arrogance. My pride. That I began treating Junketsu as a friend instead of clothing to be worn. And for that, I'm truly grateful."
Ryuko looked at Satsuki, then at their dad's grave, before scratching her nose, "Yeah, I like him too."
The answer was almost impossible to hear. For a moment, Ryuko believed she only imagined Satsuki saying something. But when she saw her sister's expression, the forlorn look that didn't belong anywhere on Satsuki Kiryuin, she found herself speechless. She wanted to laugh about liking Ichigo. That she was just kidding around. But that would only make everything worse.
Instead of lying, or saying anything stupid, Ryuko decided to stand in the snow, the bitterly cold winter pressing against them. As the seconds trickled into minutes, she tucked her chin into her jacket, staring past their dad's grave. And then, as the overcast skies darkened as the oppressive weather grew worse, she reached out, hesitating at the last second, and wrapped her fingers around Satsuki's.
January 4th, 2003
"Having trouble sleeping, Milady?"
"There's no need for formalities between us, Soroi," Satsuki tucked a strand of misplaced hair behind her ear without another word. Leaning her head against the couch, fingers tracing a path along the collar of the form-fitting white robe accentuating her figure, she stared through the frost-covered window at the waxing moon, "How many times must I repeat myself?"
"At least once more."
Mitsuzo Soroi continued stirred the bitter-smelling liquid while replying without the slightest hesitation. Tapping the spoon against the teapot, he held the sterling silver tray delicately in his hands, careful not to disturb the carefully arranged ensemble, before maneuvering across the darkened living room with the dexterity of someone half his age, "In any case, I took the liberty of preparing some tea."
"Thank you, Soroi."
"It's my pleasure, Milady."
Satsuki listened to the man she considered her surrogate father pour the steaming tea with measured precision. Careful not to spill even a single drop. But she didn't speak. Rather, she closed her eyes, allowing what faint wisps of Karakura Town's winter that survived the interior heating to touch her face. She needed to properly thank Ryuken Ishida for his unexpected hospitality. While Karakura town was undergoing reconstruction through cooperation between Revocs and Ishida Pharmaceuticals, he'd graciously allowed both herself and Ichigo's family to stay at his manor.
A courtesy, he called it, for defeating Ragyo Kiryuin and ending the threat posed by Life Fibers.
"Your technique hasn't dulled in the slightest," she accepted the offered cup, nodding curtly before bringing it towards her mouth. After a single taste, the familiar bitterness resting on her tongue, Satsuki added, "Exquisite. I dare say it might have even improved."
"Practice makes perfect. Although, if I may speak freely, I'm certain no one shares your particular palate," Soroi placed the sterling silver tray on the nearby table, careful not to disturb the arrangement, "Just last week, your sister asked if I could make her some tea. Your tea, to be specific. She was quite insistent. Unfortunately, she didn't find the taste to her liking."
She sighed under her breath, "I suspected as much."
"Incidentally, I have news concerning your affairs," Soroi stepped back into place, to the right of his mistress, with practiced expertise, "Nudist Beach attempted to reach you earlier in the evening. While I couldn't understand most of the vernacular, it appears your mother's estate will require extensive decontamination. According to Mister Armstrong, the amount of Life Fibers beneath the manor was 'nightmarishly overwhelming.' In all likelihood, there's little chance you'll have the opportunity to rebuild."
"Do you think I care?"
The scent from the bitter liquid filled her head as Satsuki scowled, "That place means nothing to me."
She stared through the fogged window, brow furrowed into an introspective frown. It was a ridiculous question. One that required no thinking to answer. Her family sustained themselves through barbarity. They sacrificed their souls – their very essence and humanity – to Life Fibers. Despite the countless atrocities committed at her hands, or by those working underneath her authority, Ragyo Kiryuin's actions were nothing more than the logical conclusion of that parasitic relationship. Rebuild the Kiryuin Manor? No. That was unacceptable. She would not take the chance the slightest remnant of the Original Life Fiber survived.
"Inform Alex Louis Armstrong that his organization has permission to destroy everything they believe dangerous," she momentarily paused, contemplating Soroi's subdued reaction to the order, before continuing in the same, commanding tone, "As for my mother? According to the news, Ragyo Kiryuin was one of thousands who perished during the 'cocoon incident' last year. I intend to ensure her legacy remains as such."
"Your mother…was quite different in her youth."
The reminder of Ragyo Kiryuin brought to the forefront of Soroi's mind memories of better times. For a moment, he reminisced about the past, remembering the woman as she used to be instead of the monster who died, "When I first started working for your family, Ragyo was kind. Happy. One of the friendliest people I'd had the pleasure of meeting. Of course, she also had quite the sense of humor."
He sighed heavily, his shoulders slumping forward, "You might have inherited your mother's appearance, but your sister has more of her personality."
An eyebrow quirked at the admission, "You don't say…"
"Perhaps lacking most of Miss Ryuko's colorful language," Soroi quickly corrected himself with a cough, "But when she met that…thing…your mother disappeared, replaced by that monster. To some degree, I'm relieved you never knew Ragyo. If only to spare you from having memories of the woman she used to be."
"…your honesty is appreciated."
Satsuki lowered the cup until it was resting upon her lap, hints of steam wafting from the scalding liquid. As moonlight streamed through the window, casting pale shadows across the living room, her thoughts coalesced around Isshin Kurosaki. Or, more specifically, the dozens of pictures he'd shown not only her, but Ryuko, much to Ichigo's embarrassment. Soroi was correct. Contrary to her personal wishes, she possessed an uncanny resemblance to Ragyo Kiryuin. The similarity was indeed striking. But despite subconscious desires, the woman in the photographs smiling alongside Ichigo's father and her own, who had playfully laughed in the same living room in which she was currently seated, was not her mother.
That woman had long been consumed by Life Fibers, losing whatever remained of her humanity years ago.
She listened to the monotonous ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner of the room before schooling her features. It was pointless dwelling upon things that would never come to pass. But as seconds turned into minutes, and the tea in her cup slowly diminished and cooled, Satsuki heard Soroi's posture shift ever so slightly.
"You needn't my permission to speak, Soroi."
Soroi clasped his arms against the small of his back as the pale, white light from the waxing moon danced strangely across his tuxedo. After a moment to collect his thoughts, his brow furrowing in concentration, he asked, "Forgive my rudeness, but when do you intend on leaving Karakura Town?"
The question gave Satsuki pause. But not enough to arrest her thoughts. She'd expected Soroi would eventually broach that particular subject. Following Ragyo Kiryuin's death and the Original Life Fiber's destruction, Honnouji Academy was no longer necessary. Her objective, the ambition driving her forward all these years, had been fulfilled. She no longer needed an army of students that were resistant to the effects of Life Fibers. Nor her Elite Four. Even Junketsu, should she awaken, would find herself purposeless.
"Within the next few days," she stared through the steam wafting from the tea, eyes slightly narrowed, "Possibly a week."
Jakuzure had been the first to announce her retirement.
Her childhood friend returned to her parents a few days ago, intent on acquiring the necessary skills to inherit control of the Jakuzure Corporation. An objective she'd supported without hesitation. Which, to all those familiar, possessed a certain irony given Ishida Pharmaceuticals bought the business and all related assets during the autumn but had only announced the merger after Christmas. It was a discovery Nonon took with the temperament and serenity of a rather tempestuous hurricane. And while Uryu professed innocence concerning what his father's conglomerate did, that hadn't stopped Jakuzure from chasing him halfway across Karakura Town.
Gamagori, to her muted surprise, was working underneath his father and aunt as the liaison between Nudist Beach and Kisuke Urahara.
Even with the Original Life Fiber destroyed and her mother dead, the enigmatic shopkeeper was combing through her family manor's wreckage. Something Nudist Beach undoubtedly wanted to keep on top of. Thus, explaining Gamagori's passionate resignation from the Elite Four. Where he vowed to return to her side if, or rather when, the need arose. To cast aside the shackles of nudity. But, of course, that was the public reason. The truth of the matter, that which he denied without conviction, was his relationship with Mankanshoku. Something developed at a remarkably steady pace despite Ryuko's mockery of his familial name.
After Iori reversed the surgery upon his eyes, Sanageyama explained he was heading home within the month. Alongside a generous student stipend. Although, if the rumors concerning his behavior were accurate, he'd prostrated himself before Yoruichi Shihoin, begging for further training. Something the shinigami had been more than willing to accommodate due to Kisuke Urahara taking Iori as his understudy in Life Fiber research and manipulation.
According to Inumuta, he intended to pursue an IT specialization at a premiere university in Europe. A laudable career choice. One she expected from the moment her mother's security forces caught him hacking into Revocs and manipulating its stock portfolio.
As for herself?
"Someone must stand atop the Kiryuin Conglomerate."
It was a troublesome fact known only to a handful of people. But despite the standard template of corporate bureaucracy, Ragyo Kiryuin was Revocs. Every aspect of the conglomerate ran through her office. Nothing was changed or altered, approved or denied, without her permission. For all intents and purposes, underneath the cruel façade of a monster that delighted in torturing humanity and committed further unspeakable acts, her mother had been one of the most ruthless businesswomen on the planet.
"But assuming control wasn't particularly difficult."
The corner of her mouth twisted into a disgusted sneer, "Nui Harime and Xcution were my mother's primary means of establishing order amongst those displaying resilience to the Life Fibers in standard Revocs business attire. Without them, all that remains of her authority is the Board of Directors. A group of cowardly men and women more than willing to lick my mother's feet for the slightest scraps of power. Who, time and again, not only looked the other way, but indulged in the horrific atrocities committed at Revocs."
Which explained why they sacrificed themselves to the Original Life Fiber.
"Fortunately, they've stepped down," she craned her head slightly without averting her gaze, "Removing the last significant obstacle preventing me from completely controlling Revocs and the Kiryuin Conglomerate."
When Soroi didn't voice his opinion, Satsuki waited more than was necessary before placing the cup onto the accompanying saucer. His silence was concerning. Despite their relationship as master and servant, he wasn't one to hold his tongue. Not around her. Not anymore, "You disapprove of my decision?"
"Not at all, Milady."
Soroi shook his head, "You've informed your friends. Spoken with Isshin and Ryuken Ishida concerning your desire to inherit your mother's businesses. You even sent a detailed letter to Nudist Beach explaining what you wished to do. It seems you've informed everyone. Everyone, that is, except your sister. A suspicious lapse in judgment. Unless, of course, there is a reason you don't wish to speak with Miss Ryuko at the moment…"
Steam wafted from the teapot as he poured another cup, one that went initially untouched, "…perhaps involving a certain young man."
"…you know me too well."
A faint sigh was her only reaction to the admission, which came with far too much difficulty. Steel blue eyes stared through the frost-covered window at the waning moon, softening at the conflict raging throughout her consciousness. Soroi was correct. But for once, she wished he hadn't confessed the truth. That he reconsidered disturbing her façade of stoicism with the ease afforded by a close acquaintance. Who she considered more a parent than Ragyo Kiryuin. Her attention lingering on Soroi long enough for the tea to settle, she lowered the cup from her mouth, "But what I feel for Ichigo cannot be expressed with words."
Her pulse quickened as a strange bitterness filled her mouth, "Time and again, he threw himself into danger. He risked everything saving Junketsu from my mistakes. Fought the Grand Couturier to protect his friends, knowing full well she possessed the strength to kill him. He never backed down in the face of overwhelming adversity, even when Ragyo Kiryuin proved herself too powerful to stop."
"Ichigo's done so much for me…for Ryuko…when I've done so little for him."
The corners of her mouth twisted into a guilt-filled grimace, expressing the depths of her self-loathing. Worthiness. Happiness. Contentment. Others would believe those explained her affection towards Ichigo. But they would be wrong. There was another reason. One she would never confess, not even to Soroi or Ryuko. Throughout existence, perhaps the entire world as well, he was the only remaining person knowledgeable of Ragyo Kiryuin's depravity. The mere confirmation of which was enough to curl her fingers into fists. Not even Soroi knew more than the slightest traces of the truth. An ignorance she spent years painstakingly cultivating.
Only Ichigo understood what truly transpired between Ragyo Kiryuin and herself.
Yet, that knowledge hadn't changed his opinion. Knowing the horrendous actions Ragyo Kiryuin committed, the deeds she stoically accepted for humanity's survival, hadn't caused his impression to lessen. Ichigo never once looked upon her body with disgust. Pity. Or even disdain. The only thing she saw in those brown eyes was acceptance of who she was alongside attempts at understanding what she endured.
And how he could help.
"With my mother dead and the threat posed by Life Fibers gone, there's nothing standing between Ichigo and myself. If I wished, I could pursue him to the best of my ability," without a trace of the conflict raging in her soul, Satsuki raised the cup to her lips, pausing just before drinking, "But I cannot."
Her voice lowered an octave, "Because Ryuko's feelings are more authentic than my own."
The porcelain cup quivered despite her best efforts. Satsuki watched, a hint of disdain in her eyes, as her fingers trembled. The words – her excuse – to Soroi fading alongside her faint whisper into the surrounding darkness, "She stood alongside Ichigo long before I considered them anything more than stepping stones for my ambition. While I was dedicating my very existence to obtaining the strength necessary to defeating my mother, they were growing closer. They fought side-by-side. Supporting each other. When the Grand Couturier's murder of Mankanshoku caused Ryuko to lose control over Senketsu, Ichigo never stopped trying to save her. While I believed she needed to be put out of her misery."
"So, tell me, Soroi. Why should I place my own wants above Ryuko's?"
She hadn't intended for the question to be anything other than rhetorical. For there was no answer worth considering. Her voice nevertheless faltered towards the end, a weakness quickly suppressed by furrowing her brow. No. She didn't deserve the honor of Ichigo's affection. His kindness and sympathy. No matter how much she wished otherwise.
"Love is insidious, Milady."
An understanding, almost paternal, smile was Soroi's reaction to Satsuki's admission. With a light clink, he placed the teapot back on the tray, any further thoughts of refilling the cup forgotten, "You know it exists. That it's out there. Somewhere. Waiting for you. And, perhaps, like most people, you believed yourself ready. Prepared for whatever might happen. But then it sneaks up on you. In the middle of the night, you wake up and realize you've lost the battle before the war even began. That is love."
He absentmindedly mixed the bitter liquid, "Even the strongest have fallen beneath its sway. Ichigo's father. You mother. Neither could escape its grasp. For better or worse."
Tapping the spoon against the side of the teapot, his smile tightened at the unexpected memories, "Miss Satsuki, I'm certain you already know what needs to be done. The question, to be so bold, is whether you're prepared to deal with the consequences. Whatever they may be."
"Are you speaking from personal experience?"
His hold upon the spoon relaxed at the lighthearted annoyance in the question. It was a welcoming departure hearing Satsuki speak with such emphasis. A reminder of the young woman he'd raised in her father's absence, "Let's just say I was quite popular in my younger –"
The faint creaking of floorboards interrupting Soroi's attempt at regaling Satsuki with stories of his younger days. Turning towards the door, he was curious who could be awake at this time of night. And judging from Miss Satsuki's arched eyebrow, it wasn't an opinion he held alone. Yet his curiosity was sated, replaced by veiled relief, at the young man standing at the entrance to the living room.
"My apologies," he bowed his head, careful not to disturb the arrangement in his hands, "I must have forgotten to close the door."
Ichigo looked at Soroi. And then at Satsuki sitting on the other side of the room. He hadn't intended to eavesdrop on them. But when the old goat wouldn't stop snoring no matter how much he tried smothering the bastard, he decided to stretch his legs. Maybe get something to drink. With an awkward cough, he pivoted on the spot, more than ready to leave, "I should probably get going."
"Are you having trouble sleeping?"
"My old man's been snoring all night," Ichigo snorted under his breath at the question. He'd tried everything short of stabbing the bastard. But the old goat's subconscious strength was more than enough to send him flying across the room, "It's so loud I can hear him through the freaking wall."
"Perhaps some tea would soothe your nerves."
Soroi began preparing another cup of tea despite the young man's insistence to the contrary. But when little more than a light trickle poured from the pot, barely enough to fill a quarter of the cup, a perplexed frown pushed against his brow, "It seems I'll need to prepare another batch of tea. If you'll excuse me, Milady."
"No, it's really not –"
Ichigo reached forward in protest only to sigh, defeated and embarrassed, when Soroi closed the doors to the living room with a soft click. Leaving him alone with Satsuki, who hadn't so much as turned around or spoken. For a moment, the deafening silence was oppressive as he stood there, wearing nothing more than a white shirt and pajamas, with the grandfather clock Uryu claimed was a family heirloom ticking away in the corner. Each second more awkward than the last. But eventually, as he prepared to leave despite whatever consequences awaited on the other side of the door, Satsuki's voice pierced through the darkness.
"How much did you hear, Ichigo?"
"Pretty much everything."
He knew better than to keep secrets from Satsuki, especially when she already knew the answer. But after hearing Satsuki confess her feelings…about him and Ryuko…he really didn't know what to say. Feeling a pang of guilt in his chest, he frowned, mouth tightening into a grimace, "What you said. To Soroi. Did you really –"
"The Kiryuin Conglomerate is interwoven with the world economy."
Satsuki purposely interrupted Ichigo. She deliberately and with great effort pushed aside what she knew he would ask. About Ryuko and herself. She couldn't allow that. So, she decided to focus their conversation upon another matter, "If Revocs were to collapse in the wake of Ragyo Kiryuin's death, there would undoubtedly be a major recession. Millions would lose their homes when the markets crashed. Countless others would suffer."
She heard the unmistakable sound of Ichigo walking across the room. But her gaze never shifted away from the window. Even now, with the city sleeping, she could see the dozens of construction sites littering the cityscape. Yet, at this time of night, everything was quiet. Peaceful. But when Ichigo collapsed next to her on the couch, his body only inches away from her own, she found her hand subconsciously clenching into a fist, "This is something I must do. Yet the thought of leaving Karakura Town feels unconscionable."
A self-loathing scoff passed between her lips when Ichigo remained silent, "I suppose this sounds incomprehensible. That I would consider discarding my responsibility. It must sound pathetic."
"That's not true."
Ichigo tried to think of something, or really anything, to say. But that was all that came to mind. He hadn't expected to talk with Satsuki about this. At least, not yet. But the words came without prompting, "You told me once, back at Honnouji Academy, that you didn't care if you were embarrassed or ashamed as long as you fulfilled your ambitions. That if something stood in your way, you wouldn't hesitate to charge forward without regret. But you're not Ragyo Kiryuin. You're not the woman who tried sacrificing everyone to Life Fibers. You say you want to undo her mistakes. I get that. But what do you want?"
Two days ago, the notion that she, Satsuki Kiryuin, couldn't answer something so blatantly obvious would have been ludicrous. And yet her mouth opened and closed, silence passing between her lips. Her eyes quivered slightly, falling upon the empty cup in her hands. Since her earlier recollections, Ragyo Kiryuin's death had been her sole ambition. The reason she endured that monster's reprehensible depravity. Every second of her existence, from the moment she awakened in the morning to her final thoughts, had been focused on preparing for the day her mother lied dead at her feet.
Yet now her resolve faltered?
For years, she'd known that someone would need to place themselves upon the vacant position of CEO of Revocs. Her mother, whether through arrogance or amusement, had instilled into her consciousness the knowledge necessary to successfully inherit the Kiryuin Conglomerate. After in the immediate aftermath of her mother's death, at her very hands no less, she discovered nothing had changed. From her first steps through the Garganta to recuperating in Karakura Town, she'd prepared to atone for Ragyo Kiryuin's sins. It was her responsibility as a Kiryuin.
So why, sitting next to Ichigo, could she not utter those simple words?
"Since I could remember my father's smile, I've anticipated watching Ragyo Kiryuin's blood leave her dying corpse. Never once did my resolve to see that come to pass waver. Standing victorious over Life Fibers…no matter the cost…was my ambition," she stared into the hazy reflection formed upon the cooling tea. A deep, breathless sigh passed between her lips as she hesitated to look into Ichigo's eyes, anxious at what she might see, "One I was determined to see through. And then accept punishment. I was prepared to accept the burden not only of Ragyo Kiryuin's innumerable sins, but my own as well."
"But that no longer holds validity."
She frowned at the words, unsure whether the emphasis behind them was genuine, "For the first time, I wish nothing more than to cast aside my responsibilities. To allow others to deal with my mother's mistakes. Because sitting here…at your side, Ichigo…alleviates the weight of the world upon my shoulders."
Her voice immediately hardened as a sense of guilt, of self-loathing and disdain towards her selfishness, gave it a sharp edge, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have –"
"You're worried about how Ryuko will feel, aren't you?"
Satsuki wished nothing more than to deny the accusation, but all that emerged was a faint whisper, "…yes."
Ichigo didn't know why Satsuki was apologizing. Worrying about Ryuko, how she felt and what she wanted, should have been the normal reason. At least, for most people. And seeing Satsuki flustered? It was completely at odds with what he'd come to expect from the Student Council President of Honnouji Academy. But he didn't say that. For what seemed like an eternity, he sat in silence, listening to the monotonous ticking of the grandfather clock, the words he wanted to confess refusing to form.
It took effort to speak. But that was more than enough to break the tension, "You're worried about hurting her feelings. I get that. I mean, Ryuko's saved my life. And I've rescued her more times than I can count. She's the kind of person that won't let you down. Who will always have your back, no matter what it takes. But the truth is, we're just friends. So, if you're blaming yourself, don't. Because it's not your fault. I spent a lot of time thinking about this. Wondering what to say. If I should say anything. And the only thing that came to mind…the only thing that wouldn't hurt you or Ryuko…was not to say anything."
Her fingers trembled at the strange, unfamiliar tightening in her chest.
A strand of hair fell across her eyes. But Satsuki found herself unbothered. All that mattered were Ichigo's words. Yet she didn't dare broach the only subject on her mind. Asking him whether Ryuko knew of his decision was repugnant. Whatever words they exchanged weren't any of her concern. She did not have the right to know what was said. Whether anything was said. Yet she felt relieved by his reassurance. A sense of contentment that quickly twisted into self-loathing guilt.
How could she think something so callous and cruel about Ryuko? She was her sister. The only family she had left.
To derive satisfaction from winning something so pointless was…
"You were right about one thing."
She almost flinched at the unexpected admission. Eyes widening, she looked at Ichigo, surprised by his faint, almost embarrassed, grin, "Someone needs to run Revocs. And there's no one better than the Student Council President. Just don't ask for my help. The only experience I have with that sort of thing is being your Vice President. And I wasn't very good at it."
"…I suppose you weren't."
Her eyes fell towards the cup clasped between her hands as she returned Ichigo's smile. Promoting him to her Vice President had been a calculated decision. One designed to alleviate his suspicions of her actions while simultaneously protecting Ryuko and him from the Grand Couturier through her unlimited authority as Student Council President. Something Ragyo Kiryuin had agreed superseded Revocs within Honnou City, "But it was a prudent move. One I wouldn't change, even in retrospect. Although, there is one point of contention."
A familiar scowl, possessing neither anger or frustration, formed upon her face, "Your acceptance speech during Parent Student Day could have been expanded. I expected, based upon our former animosity, at least two minutes of insults and complaints."
When Ichigo laughed at the reminder, Satsuki set the cup down on the table. There was more she could say. Wanted to say. She could confess her feelings. Thank Ichigo for everything he's done. Not only for her, but for Junketsu, Ryuko and even Nui Harime. It appeared, coincidentally or not, everyone he befriended found themselves bettered. But she didn't. Instead of wasting time on meaningless words, none of which possessed the ability to convey the depths of her feelings, she simply returned Ichigo's smile while gazing out through the window into the moonlit skies over Karakura Town.
Perfectly content and happy.
March 22nd, 2003
"…you are cordially invited to attend the wedding celebrating the unison between…"
Kisuke's voice devolved into intrigued muttering at the fanciful, almost extravagant, invitation. As the torn envelope fluttered to the ground, scrapping against the dirt as the early spring breeze blew it away from his shop, he blinked owlishly, unsure whether he'd misread the names embossed in golden script. Rereading the invitation with the delicacy of a scientist, and then a third time to be sure, he hummed quietly, "Well, this is quite the pleasant and unexpected surprise!"
"Why'd you stop reading?"
He doubled over when Yoruichi thrust the sharp edge of her elbow between his ribs. She couldn't believe Kisuke, of all people, would purposely stop right before announcing the lucky couple's names. Was he that much of an idiot? Shooting an irritated glare at the incapacitated man clutching his ribs, Yoruichi snatched the invitation from his quivering fingers, amber eyes darting back and forth. The two names written in golden script immediately drawing her attention.
Kinue and Aikuro.
Yoruichi paused at the names. So, they were finally tying the knot. She'd wondered when the exhibitionist would finally propose to Kinue. And it appeared they decided the ceremony will take place in July, right at the peak of summer. Which was fantastic. But it was the venue, sponsored by Revocs with all expenses and accommodations included, that transformed her smirk into a cat-like audacious grin.
At least until she recognized the familiar glint in Kisuke's eyes.
"It's in Paris…"
Leaning forward, purposely positioning herself between the man and the nearest escape route, her eyebrow twitched, "If you're thinking about not going…"
"Who me? Come on, Yoruichi! Would I honestly turn down something like this without a good reason?"
Kisuke laughed nervously at Yoruichi's unflinching – and terrifying – expression. Did she really have such little faith in him? How could she believe, even for a moment, that he would politely turn down attending a wedding at one of the most extravagant churches in Europe? Whipping a paper fan from within the folds of his sleeve, he waved the hand-built accessory in front of his mouth, hiding the bead of sweat slowly trickling down his cheek, "It's a matter of business! July is the busiest month of the year! And with the Soul Society asking about Ragyo Kiryuin, Revocs and Honnouji Academy, I can't simply leave Karakura Town whenever I want…"
"I'll watch over things while you're gone."
The murderous glint in Yoruichi's eyes was recognizable. Usually whenever Kisuke was on the cusp of digging his grave deeper. Which is why Tessai, against his better judgement and instincts, decided to intervene. "It shouldn't be too difficult running things in your absence. If assistance truly is required, I'm certain Iori and Jinta won't mind lending a hand moving the equipment in the basement."
His glasses shimmered opaquely in the sunlight, "Which you promised to dispose of last month."
"Hmm…can't argue with that logic."
Kisuke wisely agreed with the former captain and current assistant manager to his shop, nodding sagely despite the malevolent spiritual pressure, "And you have a point. If Miss Satsuki truly is paying for everything, I don't see why we can't go. After all, without the fate of the world resting on our shoulders, it's not like we have anything better to do."
He collapsed onto the ground when Yoruichi kicked him in the knee.
As the only man to outsmart Sosuke Aizen struggled against the unrelenting pain, Yoruichi snorted under her breath. She didn't buy his excuse for a second. Anything better to do? If they weren't friends, she'd beat the ever-living crap out of him for daring to suggest something so ridiculous. But Kisuke was a man of his word. If he said they were going, the argument was as good as over, "The wedding's in four months! Plenty of time for you to find something nice to wear!"
"Now that's an –"
"And not something by you!"
His mouth snapped shut before he could offer anything more than a feeble protest. She'd seen his work. And while his skills were appreciable, allowing Kisuke to make her something appropriate was a mistake she wouldn't repeat. Not a third time. Glaring harshly in his general direction, a warning against the mischievous thoughts likely circulating in his mind, she stepped into the afternoon, rolling her shoulders to loosen the stiffen muscles, "I'm going to Isshin's to pick something up! Don't even think about making me a dress!"
"Who me? I'm insulted by such a baseless accusation!"
He feigned bewilderment, at least until Yoruichi disappeared in a step of exceedingly slow Shunpo. Once certain Tessai had taken a leave of absence, more like that assured they would attend the wedding without further incentive, Kisuke snapped the paper fan shut. He honestly couldn't blame their annoyance with his longer-than-normal hesitation. Because he didn't have any reason not to watch Kinue and Aikuro declare their undying love for each other. As long as Tessai opened the store in the morning, the Seireitei shouldn't be upset if he took a few days' vacation.
If the investigation hadn't already finished, he was confident Iori was knowledgeable enough to satisfy even Mayuri's most esoteric questions.
Speaking of whom…
Kisuke couldn't help but smirk. The expression on Mayuri's face upon seeing some of the few remaining Life Fibers in the World of the Living suspended within a time-dilating Bakudo had been literally priceless. It wasn't every day the self-proclaimed mad genius was struck speechless, unable to formulate anything more than silent disbelief. Only to immediately ask dozens of questions concerning Life Fibers. Their origins. How they procreate. How they absorb spiritual energy. How they can be woven into clothing. All of which he'd answered per arrangement. Minus a few details, of course. Such as their involvement with Aizen's Hogyoku. And Kamui.
Plus a few lies when Mayuri insisted on transferring the Life Fibers to the Twelfth Division for further study. Honest stretching of details, such as warning that removing the Life Fibers from suspended animation would lead to their destruction. And that the Bakudo keeping them intact was his personal creation. Otherwise, he was certain Mayuri would have attempted to steal the threads from underneath his nose.
But a wedding?
He flipped the invitation, which Yoruichi returned before leaving, between his fingers, "I wonder how much I should give the lucky couple."
His thoughtful humming turned introspective. Almost contemplative. That was the question, wasn't it? According to custom, Kinue and Aikuro would expect shūgi-bukuro of specific demonization. If, of course, they were planning a formal Japanese ceremony. Anything else might not require handing over money. He lowered the fan from his mouth, frowning at the insinuation. On the other hand, different customs might require other forms of gifts. Perhaps personal discounts from his store, completely free without any strings attached, would cover every conceivable base? Nudist Beach was interested in the high-end merchandise and products recently shipped from the Soul Society, some of which were quite dangerous to humans.
Which left one last thing to consider.
Already aware the invitation was no longer in his possession, Kisuke rubbed his chin, feigning ignorance at the situation. Yoruichi said he couldn't make her something nice. And, from her tone, nothing for himself. Luckily there was a third option, "What do you think I should wear?"
"Something stylish shouldn't stand out too much."
Ururu flipped the invitation over in her hands. The gold embossed lettering was a nice touch. It really highlighted the silver leaf pattern along the edges. Tilting her head slightly to the right, she maneuvered around Kisuke, exposing the grey blazer and matching skirt of Karakura High School, "But you know, Mister Urahara, since Satsuki's paying for everything, we should think about giving the lucky couple something very special. This is a once-in-a-lifetime ceremony. If Kinue's willing to hear us out, I'm sure we can make her a beautiful bridal gown."
"You might be onto something, Ururu."
In all likelihood, Kinue probably wouldn't appreciate the magnanimous gesture. Even if it came with no strings attached. This was her wedding, after all, and interfering with a woman's special day, even with the intent of being helpful, would only lead to trouble. And pain. Because although she no longer wore Danketsu, and the Kamui no longer was worn by her, the lucky bride was powerful enough, in her own right, to give him, a humble and handsome shopkeeper, multiple broken bones and lacerations.
"But let's put that into consideration for a rainy day," he brushed some errant dust from his jacket. Giving advice to a bride-to-be who can punch holes through solid rock? Even he was nowhere near that foolish, "I'm more concerned about what I should wear. Although, given my rather busy schedule and general laziness, renting a suit isn't exactly out of the question."
"Gosh! Now why on earth would you say something so incredibly stupid?"
The saccharine smile adorning Nui Harime was practically glowing when she appeared on his right. Sapphire eyes swiveled towards Ururu as her blonde hair, no longer maintained as overly-impressive pigtails but hung down her back in long curl, bobbed alongside her head, "Do you honestly expect us to believe you would rent a cheap, mass-produced suit?"
Her checks puffed out, giving the facsimile of annoyance, as she plucked several threads from his sleeve. But it was her sister who voiced their collective suspicions, "We know you far too well, Mister Urahara."
"I can't get anything past you two, now can I?"
Kisuke snapped the paper fan shut, "Alright, since Yoruichi will likely get annoyed one way or another, I don't see any reason you two can't work together on this little project."
He felt, rather than hear or see, Nui and Ururu's synchronized excitement. It was odd, to say the least. Ever since accepting the Grand Couturier into his lovely abode and allowing the natural Twin Life Fiber Entanglement to form instead of forcing the connection like Ragyo Kiryuin, things had evolved in several unexpected, yet not surprising ways. For starters, he wasn't the only one to notice how personable Ururu was. More out-going and friendly. Less prone to being shy. A complete reversal from her personality before Isshin transferred Ururu to Honnouji Academy.
Nui, on the other hand, was a lot calmer. At first, it had been quite terrifying seeing her behave in such a normal fashion. To not only live underneath his roof but act as if nothing ever happened between them. Of course, bits and pieces of her former personality from her days as the Grand Couturier surfaced every now and then. Usually whenever she became excited over something. But as long as Ururu was around, or Ichigo was willing to head on over, he wasn't particularly worried about waking up in the middle of the night with a Scissor Blade lodged in his chest.
"But I want to see your designs first," he commented with a distinct lack of seriousness, fully aware that Nui and Ururu were already gone, "Yoruichi will be awfully mad if I overshadow the lucky couple!"
Once they disappeared into the darkest depths of his store, more than likely to Iori's personal workshop, which would inevitably lead to another confrontation, Kisuke removed his hat and sighed. This wasn't the life he'd anticipated following Ragyo Kiryuin's defeat. Not by a long shot. Despite her willing participation in the Original Life Fiber's destruction, Olivier Mira Armstrong's desire for Nui Harime to 'suffer the consequences of her actions' hadn't been surprising. As the Grand Couturier, Nui had killed quite a lot of people. Far more than he was comfortable listing.
Including Kugo Ginjo, whose existence as an employee of Revocs had already raised a few questions.
Yet Isshin somehow convinced Nudist Beach he was more than capable of supervising the Grand Couturier.
And then, in the same breath, implored that he, of all people, accept Nui into his humble abode.
However, despite the inanity of the question, it hadn't been an insane request. He was, after all, one of the few people capable of besting the Grand Couturier. But Kisuke was sure that wasn't the reason Isshin asking for his assistance.
"Things are getting quite interesting."
With the buzzing of insects beating against his ears, Kisuke watched the sun momentarily vanish behind a cloud. Take in the Grand Couturier? The same girl who attempted to murder him with passion and determination befitting any member of the Eleventh Division? Sometimes he wondered if Isshin passed responsibility onto his shoulders to escape the consequences of his actions. But whenever that train of thought began, he would remember Ururu's newfound happiness. The confidence she hadn't displayed prior to Honnouji Academy. There was little point worrying about trivial matters. Or, at the very least, concerning himself with Nui Harime.
Palming his bucket hat, Kisuke grimaced, "Still, I have the strangest suspicion Isshin's keeping a few secrets from me."
May 29th, 2003
"Have a good day at school, big brother!"
The dirty plate clanked in the sink as Ichigo grabbed the bag slung over the chair, "Tell dad I'll be back late tonight."
"You joined the Soccer Club after all, huh?"
Karin poked the burnt rice next to her toast, globs of strawberry jelly oozing onto the plate. Propping her hand against her cheek, she arched an eyebrow in mild annoyance. Not at Yuzu or Ichigo, but at the idiot barreling down the stairs, seemingly ignorant of the notion anyone living in the house besides himself, "Or was it the Basketball Club this week?"
"I thought you didn't care?"
"It's not for me," she clarified her frustration in explicit terms. Why her brother chose to hire himself as a free agent for every sports club at school made no sense. He couldn't need the money. Not when Satsuki was more than willing to pay for everything. Which ignored those weird nudists and that disturbing exhibitionist. Leaning back against the chair, Karin rolled her eyes while Yuzu continued cooking, oblivious to the conversation in the background, "The old goat's getting confused. If you keep switching things up, his hair might actually catch on fire."
Ichigo lazily waved over his shoulder, one foot already out the door, "Thanks for the warning. I'll keep that in mind."
Without another word, he slammed the door just as the old goat shouted something idiotic at the top of his lungs. Scoffing as something crashed inside the house, Ichigo glared over his shoulder. God damn it. What the hell was wrong with his dad? Ever since they moved back home, or into the almost identical reconstruction of their house, the bastard's been far more annoying. And this morning…what kind of sick freak attacks his own son while he's lying asleep? Shifting his bag into a more comfortable position as the pathetic whining through the door ground to a halt, Ichigo walked into the street, one hand stifling a yawn.
"Huh, guess they're not here yet."
He stood outside his house for more than a minute, waiting patiently as the sun crested over the neighborhood. But as the seconds dragged onwards, Ichigo pulled out his phone, a frown slowly forming upon his brow.
"Maybe I missed them."
The excited chirping of birds from the trees lining both sides of the street faded into the background. Was he late? Did the bastard mess with his alarm clock? Groaning, Ichigo rubbed his neck, vowing to punish the bastard at the first available opportunity, "Guess I'll see them in –"
Ryuko nearly tripped over herself as she finished tying the red bow on her uniform. No matter how much time passed, she'd never get used to standard school uniforms. Say what you wanted about Senketsu, but he was custom-made for her body. Not weird bows or unnecessary tying involved! Cursing quietly while Mako enthusiastically jogged at her side, chewing one of her mom's delicious mystery croquettes, bits and pieces of strange meat jutting from the bread roll, she waved at Ichigo, her bag dangling between her fingers, "Ugh! Sorry we're late! But my alarm didn't go off this morning and –"
"What are you talking about, Ryuko?"
A piece of fried chicken stuck out of Mako's mouth alongside something heavily resembling steak as she cocked her head sideways, utterly confused, "Was that today's excuse? Because you can count on me not to tell Ichigo anything super embarrassing! Especially that you threw the alarm clock across your room after you wanted another ten minutes of –"
The blush across her face meant nothing as Ryuko managed to cover Mako's mouth before she could say another word, "That's private! Why are you telling Ichigo?"
"Oh! I totally forgot, Ryuko! My bad!"
Mako attempted to apologize, but with Ryuko's hand suctioned against her mouth, all that emerged were some muffled noises and pieces of partially-chewed croquette. Food that Ryuko wiped away not for the first time this week. Once she was certain nothing remained, not even some of Mako's drool, she turned to Ichigo, who had watched everything without bothering to help. Grumbling – and then scoffing – at his stoic façade, Ryuko smoothed the wrinkles on her skirt, courtesy of spending the last fifteen minutes rushing to get dress, brush her teeth and eat breakfast.
"Tatsuki said Uryu's running for class president."
She didn't give a crap if her attempt at changing the topic was obvious. Not when Mako inadvertently ruined her excuse for being late, "Can you believe the guy?"
"Yeah, he told me the other day," Ichigo shrugged nonchalantly as they began the long march to Karakura High School, "Uryu's talented. And he's organized as hell. I'll give him that much. But I have no idea what he's thinking running for –"
"WHAT'S THIS I HEAR!?"
Ichigo leaned backwards while Ryuko grabbed Mako for safety when his old man leapt out the front door, one foot barely missing his cheek. Undeterred when his perfected technique was avoided, Isshin nevertheless stuck the landing, flipping into a forward summersault while his white lab coat gently fluttered in the beautiful spring morning. Despite playing a major role in Ragyo's ultimate defeat, he hadn't replaced his infamous disguise, leaving him looking decades younger and considerably less rugged and handsome.
"Ryuken's son is running for class president!?"
With his silver hair and accompanying multicolored undertone available for everyone to see – and quite possibly mock – he pointed an accusatory finger at his wayward son, completely ignoring Ryuko and Mako, "Why did you not inform me of this serious matter?"
"Because it's none of your freaking business," Ichigo's eyebrow twitched when the bastard planted himself directly in their way, "So why don't you go back inside and stop embarrassing yourself?"
Isshin couldn't believe the unfiltered rudeness spewing from his son's mouth. To think Ichigo would become a delinquent! It was a miracle Karin and Yuzu were no longer impressionable young girls, "As your father, I demand you run against Uryu by the end of the –"
A punch to the face, courtesy of two fists, sent him crashing head-first into the street.
Ryuko might have beaten him to the punch figuratively but Ichigo gave his old man another kick for good measure. This was freaking pathetic. Who the hell was the bastard trying to fool? Everyone, even Mako and Keigo, knew better than to believe the guy would be taken down by a couple of punches. Especially when the bastard tanked hits from Ragyo Kiryuin without flinching. Which meant he no longer needed to hold back in the mornings…or evenings…or whenever his dad's idiocy acted up.
"It'll be a cold damn in hell before I do anything that stupid," snorting, he grabbed his bag off the ground while Ryuko stepped on the bastard, earning an obviously fake wheeze of pain for her efforts, "If Uryu wants the job, he can have it. Because I really don't care."
"And don't drag me into your perverted fantasies," Ryuko warned, careful to stomp on the old goat's fingers, "Or I'll beat the crap out of you."
Staring at the pathetic figure twitching on the ground, Ichigo turned around as Mako waved at his dad. He had no idea why his old man hadn't dyed his hair or did whatever was needed to make himself look normal. Or, at the very minimum, less of an idiot. After the Soul Society broke through the Original Life Fiber's barrier around the World of the Living, he thought a former captain, one who apparently faked his own death to be with his mom, whose hair changed colors would draw at least a little suspicion. A few strange glances from people that knew him.
But nobody seemed to notice his old man's altered appearance.
Then again, since Ragyo Kiryuin had flaunted her inhuman looks whenever possible, they probably thought it was a fashion statement or something.
"Hey Ryuko, do you think I should maybe join the Math Club?"
Ryuko was baffled by the question, "Math Club? You haven't been talking to strange people again, have you?"
"Well…the other day after lunch, I was walking back to class and got super lost," Mako flicked her lower lip. That day was clear as night. She remembered eating her mom's specially-prepared lunch, waving at Orihime before leaving to find the bathroom, "I made a right turn instead of a left. And after apologizing to those nice people for ruining their super serious talk, I helpfully mentioned they interpreted the Reimann surface incorrectly. It's just silly they thought it was elliptic instead of hyperbolic! And now, for some strange reason Gamagori won't explain, they want me to join the Math Club."
Desperation flicked across Ryuko's eyes while the corner of her mouth twitched. She knew Mako was brilliant. At least, in her own special way. Hell, everyone at Honnouji Academy knew Mako was a genius when it involved boring stuff like math. But when she glanced at Ichigo for help…advice…anything…Ryuko deflated when he shrugged, leaving her without an excuse not to say anything.
"One of those mornings, huh?"
Tatsuki walked around the prone figure lying in a twitching heap outside Ichigo's house. Yawning as she caught up with Ichigo and Ryuko, unaware of the awkward conversation she saved the latter from having, her newly long hair, grown over several months until it extended beyond the small of her back, shifted when she leaned forward, "Hey! Orihime mentioned something about Uryu running for class president. You really think he's going to do it?"
"Depends on whether he can beat Keigo's sister."
Ichigo was confident enough in his own abilities to admit Uryu was qualified for the job. But Mizuho stared down Satsuki without flinching. Not to mention taking on Sanageyama, "If he's serious about winning, Uryu certainly has his work cut out for him."
"I'm considering running myself."
She couldn't help but grin playfully at Ichigo's exasperated groan. Ryuko made sure to tell her everything about his tenure as Satsuki Kiryuin's right-hand man. And what Ryuko didn't know, Gamagori had been more than willing to fill in the details. So, jabbing her elbow into his ribs, Tatsuki chuckled at his annoyance, "If Satsuki Kiryuin thought you were qualified than I sure as hell am!"
"Fine. Go ahead. I certainly won't stop you."
Ichigo ignored Tatsuki's transparent attempt at getting underneath his skin. Scoffing, he looked away, refusing to watch her annoying smile. God damn it. Why did everyone believe he asked Satsuki to be her vice president? The only reason he accepted the stupid offer was to protect Ryuko and Mako from Nui. If he could have accomplished that without working for the Student Council, he never would have embarrassed himself, "But didn't you start working at the dojo? Do you even have time for the job?"
A subtle crack went ignored as Tatsuki's fingers trembled from the urge to deck Ichigo in the face.
It was impossible for anyone to be this dense! Student Council President? Her? She's rather have a rematch against Satsuki Kiryuin with two broken arms than deal with that amount of nonsense. In fact, getting her ass kicked by Sanageyama's stupid Goku Uniform would be less painful. Scoffing out of the side of her mouth, Tatsuki glared at an uninteresting piece of trash in the road Mako told Ryuko about her dad's new job at Karakura General Hospital only to blink when the combat pass dangling from Ichigo's book bag momentarily glimmered.
"What's up with your pass, Ichigo?"
"You got me…"
He pulled the otherwise unassuming piece of wood from the bottom of his bag. Holding the former badge in his hand, Ichigo tapped the skull-like design only to grumble when nothing unexpected happened, "I think it's broken. It should have stopped working after I lost my shinigami powers. On the bright side, at least it's not screaming into my ear every few seconds."
"You should feel more confident, Ichigo!"
Piece of food stuck to Mako's cheeks as she swallowed the last chunk of her mom's mystery croquette, "It's a mystical and magical badge that allowed you to fight super-duper powerful Hollows like a superhero! The Soul Society wouldn't give you something that breaks as easily as the plumbing in our old house! So, if your fancy pass is glowing like the nightlight in my room, that means it must be working as intended!"
"It's a piece of junk!"
Before her best friend could say anything, Ryuko grabbed the combat pass from Ichigo's fingers. With a distinct lack of concern over damaging the damn thing, she tossed it back and forth, glaring at the skull design, "And who the hell thinks something this weird is useful? It has to be that creepy clown always taking to Hat-and-Clogs! And doesn't the Soul Society have phones? Why didn't they give you one of those instead of this stupid thing?"
"I've often wondered that myself…"
Ichigo caught the only evidence of his time as a substitute shinigami when Ryuko tossed it over her shoulder. She had a point. While the badge was useful for leaving his body to fight Hollows, there were several ways it could have been improved. But instead of dwelling on the past, he shrugged, hooking the pass back onto his book bag. Ukitake probably had a good reason to program the damn thing to scream into his ear like a banshee. The guy was odd. And perhaps a little too friendly. But he wasn't stupid. Not in the slightest.
Maybe he should have asked Ginjo whether Ukitake gave him a combat pass.
"That reminds me. Uryu said you helped him fight some Hollows last week."
Ryuko gave her best impression of utter dissatisfaction, "Don't get me wrong, Ichigo! I'm happy to fight those bastards! Because if I didn't…and one of them hurt Mako…I'd never be able to forgive myself."
She folded her arms underneath her chest, angrily glaring in Ichigo's general direction, "But even without Senketsu, none of those masked assholes stood a chance! I kicked all of their asses without breaking a sweat!"
That wasn't an exaggeration. After all those stories about Hollows, including the arrancar that had worked under Aizen, she'd expected badasses like Harribel or her annoyingly bitchy sidekicks. Monsters that could make her break a sweat! Creatures stronger than Satsuki's Elite Four but nowhere close to what Senketsu could pull off! As long as nobody was threatened or put into danger, she wanted to fight Hollows. Just to see what the creatures everyone in the Soul Society feared were made from. Which is why she'd gone to Uryu. The guy fought Hollows every night. Spending hours protecting Karakura Town from them. If anyone could have given her pointers on fighting Hollows, it was him.
"But ya know what's really strange?"
The miniaturized Scissor Blade hooked around her waist jingled, "Every one of the masked bastards ran away the moment they saw me! Like they were scared or something! If Hollows are so badass, why did I have to chase them down?"
"You are super scary when you're serious, Ryuko."
Ryuko smiled at Mako before grumbling under her breath, "There's something else that's bugging me. Who put Uryu in charge of Hollow control? I thought that shinigami…the guy with the weird afro…was supposed to be protecting this place?"
"Eh, Imoyama's too unreliable for the job," Ichigo mumbled without concern for the strange shinigami, "He's so freaking bad that Uryu's been forced to pick up the slack. But I'm sure he appreciates your help a lot more than Nui's."
No matter how much time passed, or what happened after they stopped Ragyo, Ryuko would never get used to Nui Harime. Simply hearing the Grand Couturier's name left a bad taste in her mouth. Tatsuki might be confused about Nui since she never actually 'met' the psychopathic Grand Couturier. And maybe Mako was too carefree to realize the person who almost murdered her was living in the same town. But the entire concept was really fucked up. Nui being her sister was strange enough without having to consider the same about Orihime and Ururu. But Nui wanting to hang around her and Ichigo, as if nothing happened at Honnouji Academy, was insulting. The bitch killed her dad! She killed Mako!
And she had the nerve to act like they're friends or something!?
She spat on the ground, refusing to think about Nui any longer, "Why aren't you helping Uryu?"
"Because I'm not supposed to have powers."
Ichigo shrugged as a truck passed by, forcing them to stop before crossing the street, "Look. I don't like it. But Hat-and-Clogs has a point. The Soul Society doesn't know about Mugetsu and the others. They think Ragyo was taken down by Yoruichi and my old man with Nudist Beach and Satsuki's help. And since Inumuta wiped Honnouji Academy's servers, the Soul Society doesn't even know we were there."
"That doesn't make sense."
Tatsuki looked over her shoulder when Mako stopped walking, distracted by a butterfly flying above the sidewalk, "Can't they sense your power? Ryuko hasn't exactly been subtle."
"Maybe it's because they've never seen anyone like Ryuko," Ichigo rubbed the crick in his neck, courtesy of the old goat kicking him out of bed this morning, "Kisuke believes Mayuri's spiritual detectors aren't calibrated for Life Fibers. Or something. Which means until he thinks of an excuse for me to 'regain my powers' without drawing suspicion, fighting Hollows will only lead to awkward questions. Like who really stopped Ragyo Kiryuin."
"Good morning Ichigo! Ryuko! Mako! Hey Tatsuki!"
Even after years of accepting her friend's awkward peculiarities, Tatsuki was surprised when Orihime immediately started talking about the loaves of cheap bread she ordered last night at one of the refurbished bakeries. As she was forced into participating in a conversation about sweet bread, including whether the price was adequate or Orihime paid too much, Ryuko chuckled at Ichigo.
"You know, I never though school would be so…boring."
She smirked at Orihime's strange enthusiasm, "It's actually kind of nice. Don't get me wrong, Ichigo. Honnouji Academy was exciting. But dealing with Satsuki every freaking day got old real fast. Besides, would you want to go through all that crap again?"
Ichigo crossed his arms in disgust, "I'd rather take mind-numbing boredom than worry about Nui breaking into my room in the middle of the night!"
After finally realizing Orihime was talking to Tatsuki, Mako launched herself through the air, intent on giving her friend a good morning hug. But at the last second, acting purely upon instinct, Orihime ducked, allowing the enthusiastic teenager to sail overhead, outstretched arms missing their target by less than an inch. As she crashed to the ground, rolling head over heels until slamming into a trash can, one of her shoes flying off and almost hitting Tatsuki in the face, Ichigo and Ryuko sighed. The latter covering her eyes as Orihime rushed towards Mako.
"Mako! Are you alright!?"