A/N: 2 years after I finish Tag and posted the final chapter on 26/10/2005, guess who's crazy enough to write an extra chapter to try and complicate things, like Byakuya and Kuukaku having something to resolve? This chapter is moving towards dissociation from the previous chapters, in trying to adhere to the manga canon.

This is also to lessen the rustiness, since I owe squidgeesushi Juushiro/Kuukaku at some point and am working towards warming up for that piece. Currently, my mind is blank.

This is set in the time when Yoruichi and co. have returned to the real world, after Aizen Sousuke departed for Las Noches. Oops, uploaded the wrong draft of this chapter -x-facepalms-x- This should be the correct one.

My thanks to all the readers and concrit I have received over the course of this fanfic.

Omake 1: Empty or full?

The sound of breakage was surprisingly not annoying.

Countless ceramic shards lay in the tepid brown liquid that was pooling in numerous gaps between honey-coloured floorboards. It was the only sign of disorder in an otherwise-spotless office. Painted in an unforgiving shade of white, the staggering amount of papers and files kept in cabinets far outnumbered the pieces of furniture and personal touches present. The large, roomy desk was as bare as Yamamoto Genryuusai's scalp, save for the shadow falling across it. A shadow that was cast by an outstretched hand, preserved in the aftermath of enjoying the minor chaos it caused.

The other hand held a letter; a piece of paper that had him yearning to dance and punch something at the same time. The first letter ever since the vagrants had left Soul Society. Between the endearments and the brusqueness, it was one of those unique combination traits of Yoruichi. Her words flowed like honey spiced with vinegar, giving him hope for the future while reminding him of a past unresolved. Her memory was as prevalent as his, and her values equally so. At this point, her main focus in the letter was bringing up a sour taste in his mouth. Mentioning the time after Aizen Sousuke had just been rescued by many Menos Grande was not helping. Two particularly strong women were so similar and so secretively protective of each other, which is why… gngngngngn.

Byakuya was once again seeing that side profile of a woman who had finally deigned to give him more than scant acknowledgement. An eyebrow made more imperious through initial lack of reaction, the graceful curve of her neck highlighted by the caress of carelessly combed hair, the striking contrast of night-black lashes and eyes against smooth skin that carried a hint of the fires she dominated-

Once upon a time, he would have considered this train of thought as allowing too much nonsense. There were more reports to check through and after that, clan matters to handle. These women were the same: a waste of his time.

But now, it was different. Yoruichi was back in his life (no matter how sporadic the exchanges were), not some memory that he mentally hurled stinkbombs at. And she had made some rather good points in this letter, all thanks to a certain sickening senior who mentioned the incident to her. Even with the input from this letter, no matter how much he had once detested the ex-commander of the special covert operations, it could not match up to his memories of... her.

Much was irrelevant at this moment, as the searing agony from being stabbed by Shinsou felt quite the opposite of cold sweat soaking his skin. Vaguely aware of being held by someone and realising that it had gotten rather noisy, Byakuya forced his eyes to open.

A boisterous shout caught everyone's attention; nevermind that the ground shook. There was enough dust to create substantial islands. Something large must have just arrived.

"Yo, Yoruichi!"

Perched on Jidanbou's back, stray sunlight glinted off white teeth in a mischievous grin, as "back-up cavalry" arrived. A spark of pure pleasure seemed to leap from one face to the other, then steady up and blaze brighter to be reflected in unabashed response.


There was something about the confidence in both deviants that was rather inspiring, although Aizen Sousuke probably found their cockiness to be very annoying. After all, it was this type of spirited defiance and strength that empowered the rest of his former colleagues to continue the pseudo-heroic aggravation called "struggle on and preach like banded minnows against the tide, while pitifully unable to understand or aim for true greatness". That egoistic diary he'd left behind (and they'd found later) went on for too long about the subject.

But with time and the Hougyoku finally in his grasp, he had mentioned eventually enlightening them… or using those people as nourishment for his army, as he decimated Soul Society and Earth to become king of the heavens.

For now though, retreat was his chosen move. And to allow Soul Society to recover as best as they could so that they could muster up enough resistance later, in order to entertain him in every last desperate second.

Yoruichi sighed. She had failed in Kisuke's objective, but at least Ichigo and his friends were alive. Seeing that everyone was being tended to, or tending to someone/thing/matter, the former general of the Correction Corps looked around for the one person who would most likely try to do the same thing as her: sneak away.

Maybe not, for Juushiro had managed to intercept Kuukaku and was obviously attempting but failing to persuade her to join forces with Soul Society. But at least she hadn't bolted. As long as he did not bring up a certain subject-

"Juushiro-san, shoo! And I need a private moment with you. Now."

It was not until the two women were facing each other, that-

"Shihouin Yoruichi, I get to yell your ears off first, for charging up here without even asking me to cover your ass!"

Smiling, Yoruichi only wiggled her eyebrows in turn, both amusing and exasperating the friend who had taught her how to do that. They could almost be twin peas in a pod, if not for minor differences such as skin tone.

"Kuukaku, it seems Aizen Sousuke managed to retrieve what Kisuke was dreading. This means that we're going to need-"

She trailed off mid-sentence, yellow watchfulness following a steely-eyed gaze… over to the wounded. And stopped at a person who was holding his sister's hand, while the captain of the fourth division meticulously took care of his wounds. From the looks of it, Kuchiki Rukia was extremely distressed, while Unohana Retsu was all bandages and delicate concern. Two women with different stations in life were united by the same anxiety over this man… or was it?

"Anyway, thankfully it wasn't a total loss. Nobody's dead, and why don't you pop over there to greet Unohana-san? Didn't you say she hasn't seen you in ages? Good friends are hard to find, and even more sorely missed."

Steely solemnity flickered back to Yoruichi, and the shift in mood was ominous. Easy-going amiability was gone, arms crossed and rigid, dignified poise emphasised by a ramrod-straight back and unflinching chill piercing enough to make anyone squirm beneath its focus. It was at times like this -when she was unmistakably the fiery leader with a temper to match- Shiba Kuukaku was absolutely insufferable, because everything withered in the path of scorching frankness.

"Don't be ridiculous."

Not when the other was the one being ridiculous. One thing Yoruichi knew was that her friend could not do coldness like Kisuke, and the more detached she appeared, the more affected she actually was. However, that also heightened the urge to be cruel in order to compensate for the inability. Ouch. He'd always teased about how alike the two rebels were, and how easy they were to handle… until one of them flipped the predictability switch.

"Is it so hard to give a simple greeting? Or is it too frightening to chance, with her current company, that-"

Clipped hostility ended the discussion and vanished with rude swiftness.

"Retsu's busy. And I have no patience to be near that arrogant jackass."

It was understandable that not everybody liked Byakuya, but the particular amount of venom in her tone was puzzling. After all, from what Yoruichi knew, Kuukaku barely interacted with him. Smoothing back a loose tuft of hair, an abandoned comrade frowned. A talk with Juushiro was imperative and if it yielded nothing, then she'd have to do an unpleasant confrontation. Besides, it was impossible to determine which Kuchiki was more abhorrent to the Shiba clan leader.

After all these decades, it seemed she hadn't forgiven the girl… or was it something to do with him? It wasn't good for Kuukaku to be such a stubborn nutcase with a grudge, and Kaien wouldn't have approved. Anyway, time to vanish. She was not needed. Stop thinking about Byakuya- Oops, Shunsui was blocking her way, and so was-

On Byakuya's part, he found that being forced into inactivity was somewhat wonderful. But there was always the call to duty and responsibility somewhere in the back of his mind. And he now understood and appreciated his vice-captain even better than before. Despite the extent of his injuries, that Renji had enough enthusiasm and energy to ensure the sixth division was functioning smoothly.

An incapacitated captain however, did not know how to express gratitude. It came in the form of granting receptive politeness to his vice-captain. Then Rukia stopped by, and the two friends got down to healthy bickering.

Seeing a vulpine grin tinged with glee as his little sister spluttered for a comeback to a tongue-in-cheek retort about her terrible origami, Byakuya could not hide a smile. With a temperament that complimented the deceptively brash personality, Abarai Renji was definitely destined for great achievements. Not that his captain was about to admit the young man was a compelling presence to deal with, what with radiating a zest for life that was equally magnetic and irritating at times.

For this subordinate, all he required was a bit more time and experience to help temper ballsy cockiness into a finer blade. To eventually witness the flames of impulsiveness glow until they simmered with knowing precision bordering on defiance, yet possessing a hidden gentleness that was even more alluring for its elusive- No.

Once upon a time, that had not been elusive.

It had been freely demonstrated by a young woman whose direct openness was as unlimited as the blue skies. Not forgetting the way she easily wrapped her brothers around her finger (or fist, depending on the scenario); there was one who could have ascended the highest echelons of Soul Society with ease, also due to formidable potential that had supposedly once hooked even Urahara Kisuke's scientific interest. Yes, with talent that threatened to surpass an older brother who had finished the academy in two years instead of six.

And laughter that was not sickly saccharine-sweet or hoarse crudeness, but earnestly roguish and riding an undercurrent of tantalising promises... Byakuya had been felled from the very beginning by her punch.

Not intimidated by his rank or bearing, increasingly annoyed by the confusion he was helping a thirteenth-division captain to inflict on a brother over whether to get married, exasperated by "prissy stuffy shinigami" and spoiling for a spar… that action had forced Ukitake-san to restrain amusement until it became a violent bout of coughing. Byakuya agreed, primarily for indulging the urge to teach her a lesson.

And she was fast, not as quick as Shihouin Yoruichi but just as dangerous. A certain Shiba clan leader had looked horrified at the amount of damage occurring to the surrounding woodlands (or was it the number of times his sister came close to striking the Kuchiki heir?), and finally intervened. That earned the brother a sharp thwack over the head, a cheerful admonition of not knowing when to be heroic and Byakuya an outstretched hand as a conclusion of peace.

He did not have to take a second glance at massive craters, burnt soil, fragmented rock and broken trees for a decision. Amazing, that she did not have any kind of formal training and was still able to... Grasping it, she'd surprised him with a firm handshake and then towed him off towards their house for a short tour of the rooms where she made fireworks. A veritable whirlwind that captivated and puzzled, and she made bearable the guffaws from Ukitake-san about 'inventing the perfectly-frazzled-cross-eyed-deer look'.

She was definitely unforgettable. And realising with the foresight that she had the potential to become a dent in his armour... By the time he'd made up his mind not to allow it, an opportunity popped up for him to do something incredibly stupid and stay safe.

At Kaien's funeral, he merely said one line about 'him being foolish for choosing to die' to Ukitake Juushiro. Rukia hadn't been there, but Kuukaku definitely was and within earshot. The shock on a sickly captain's face was not surprising, but the lack of expression as she turned her head... Clad in white, she spun around and slowly walked towards him.

The resounding smack of her palm connecting with his cheek interrupted what everybody else was doing. She had damaged more than his pride.

"Get. Out."

It hurt. Byakuya instinctively reached up to rub his cheek, even though that had been so many years back.

Shiba Kuukaku had slammed shut the doors quite a long time ago, but in light of what Rukia had told him about her recent visit to that household to make amends… Maybe it was time to try and mend the fences again. Besides, he owed her for that remark.

If Hisana were watching over him from beyond, what would she say?

Funny, how it always took aggravating stimulus to bring everything flooding back.

Fingering a daffodil-yellow piece of paper with random leaf prints scalloped along the border, he closed his eyes. Maybe…

Trying to keep Soul Society functioning without three captains was difficult. But that wasn't on his mind, as the thirteenth division captain used shyunpo to place a package outside a certain door of a house in the middle of lush green fields, knock and vanish just as hastily.

Seeing Byakuya so badly wounded, plus the fight with Yamamoto-sensei had made him remember all over again that life could always be cut short. Yoruichi and Shunsui had encouraged him again, while happily shouting that there was never a right time, but only the time that one was given. Maybe, in time, when Juushiro could work up enough nerve to be more direct instead of silently devoting himself from a distance… In the meantime, he'd have to start somewhere. Even if it was in the lull of an impending war with the Arrancar.

Remembering the contents of the package and how it had been created before his good friend and her merry gang departed, one could not help but smile. Yoruichi was a genius, especially when it came to reluctant helpers changing their tune.

"I can do this by myself, shinigami! There's no need for you to interfere, or your clumsy paws will get dirty fingerprints all over this exquisite material."

"Really, Wincy? Yoruichi-sama requested my input, no doubt with the likelihood of you screwing up the finer details. And do I spot a white hair? Right there-"

"It's Quincy! Don't touch! And I have a name, feathered fop. Is 'Ishida' too difficult for your chattering tongue to pronounce? If you suspect my tailoring skills, I'll have you know that my credentials are-"

"Do I care, when your sulky childishness can't even comprehend impeccable loveliness in the name 'Yumichika'? Do not tread on my territory, and- Watch where you stick those pins! My hand is not a pincushion!"

"Serves you right. Ow!"

"Spoke too soon, you- Ouch!"

"On the pride and honour of the Quincys-"

"By the divine beauty of this Shinigami-"

"I will out-stitch you!"

Sticking the pipe back into her mouth, a weary craftswoman appeared in front of the door. She had sensed a familiar reiatsu. When it came to fireworks, she would rather be the one creating, not receiving. Besides, she was still not certain about helping.

The first time Kuchiki Rukia had showed up for forgiveness after the whole Soul Society mess, Kuukaku had listened, considered what Juushiro had re-mentioned a few days back and decided to tell her the truth. It was clear that the shinigami still suffered, and Kaien wouldn't have wanted that little lady to be blamed for something that wasn't her fault.

Besides, it wasn't hard to realise that being a stubborn grudge-pig was anything but reasonable. To cover up this awkwardness and uncertainty over how to react correctly, she had responded in her usual manner: disruption. A gentle box to the nose was a surefire way of recovery, especially when the person had the ability to make one feel worse through repeatedly sincere remorse. Rukia was too good and easy about apologising, which was quite the opposite of a certain captain. Odd, that remembering something like this brought a strange sense of sorrow, almost advancing into regret?

However, a second visit from the girl (on behalf of that person) had been a lot more trying. The plea for a chance of forgiveness had been almost rude in its shocking abruptness. After a bit of verbal parley, Rukia had made it clear that her older brother did not know what she was doing here, and that the information had come from-

Damn Ukitake Juushiro!

This time, it was the silver-haired captain who received a somewhat incensed visitor. His first answer was annoyingly practical.

"From the significance of Aizen's betrayal, war is brewing and our world is at stake. Before that arises, we will need as much cohesive strength as possible, since we are already greatly weakened."

What did this have to do with telling Kuchiki Rukia about that incident at the funeral?

"What would Kaien have done in my place? If I'm not wrong, some sort of peace has to be made before you'll listen to any appeals. And it won't do any good if either side refuses to consider the option. We need all the help we can get, even if Yamamoto-sensei won't admit it. Rukia was only pointing out the possibility, since she was the most appropriate mediator in this case."

He was good, this blasted friend, who always went on about peace. Deftly evading names and using "mediator" instead of stating the more obvious reason, Soul Society could not have found a more skilful spokesperson. Forgiveness for an adopted sister did not extend to the brother, as they were two entirely different cases.

"What would Kaien say to you in these circumstances, Kuukaku?"

What would he say? He would have been a factual pain-in-the-ass and told her the same thing as Rukia. Except the frankness would always scald, just like that time.

Noticing how his younger sister's friendship with a certain noble had started out so amazingly well, Juushiro's ex-vice-captain liked to indulge in gleeful teasing. In one of those moments, she had playfully asked her beloved brother for an opinion of what the 'good friend' would think about her. But both knew he had been married and was probably still in love with his dead wife. Besides, what interest would he have in her other than friendship?

"You? You're fine as a friend. From what I know, he's probably the type who wants a demure and impeccably sweet lady to run his household without disagreement. You retort back and irritate almost everybody on a somewhat regular basis; you smoke, wear airy skirts instead of long flopping gowns, stride instead of glide, don't really do quiet or meek, indulge troublesome mischief and use swear words when the mood beckons. Me, I love everything about you, sis. Him, though-

"Are you alright? You've gone sort of quiet and uh, hey, I was just kidding! I wouldn't really know!"

Managing to muster up a smile and divert her brother's attention, they then laughed over other matters. However, she couldn't forget, not when his words had almost induced the queer urge to cry. But how could she be angry, when everything Kaien said or did was always in earnest concern about his siblings?

Then the incident at the funeral had happened. A man who cut everything using one line of cold scorn, while betraying the friendship her brother so cheerfully valued. If she had a soul slayer, she'd have lopped off that one's head. She didn't understand why Byakuya would say that, but it didn't matter. As it was, such cruelty meant the end.

It also helped to lessen the recent agony over the double blow of losing her beloved brother and sister-in-law. Having to cope with the terror and pain of a little brother, being thrust into the role of clan leader and… it had been too much. Never would she allow such a thing to happen again. Ganjyu must be protected, and she had to get stronger to do so. This led to their house constantly needing renovations, as she experimented and trained and continued helping Yoruichi and Kisuke, only with one difference. They did not stay in the same place each time renovations were needed.

That was life.

Picking up the package and shaking it, she went back to the giant chimney behind the house. And continued messing around with whatever she had been planning to do to greet the sunset.

A pile of paper was messily stacked on her right, several pages already covered with scribbles and sketches. A pipe, eraser and pencils had been shoved to the other side, so that nothing was in front of her except for a silver tray. On it sat two plain porcelain cups, a small saucer of dried prunes and a little blue teapot spotted with the occasional white cloud amidst three birds floating in serenity.

It was that time of the day when shopkeepers would be packing up, and the delicious fragrance of dinners being cooked would suffuse entire neighbourhoods. But not when one was seated on a raised platform, surrounded by endless fields of wildflowers and grass, far from any town or village and lacking in appetite. She'd given everybody else the day off, by making it clear that she wanted solitude. She missed her brother so much, and was in one of those moods. And by moods, it meant scrunching herself in one corner, instead of the usual central position in front of the towering monument that was also a silent tribute to her brother. No matter how tall the funnel was though, it could never reach him.

Today, Shiba Kuukaku did not appraise the sunset, mourn over her brother or admire the towering funnel crafted from her skill. She had opened the package, and was wearing it. Sort of. She contemplated the garment covering her right arm, which draped over the shoulder to trail down wide steps and onto the grass.

The floor-length robe was breathtaking, for incredibly soft silk had been hemmed with exceedingly fine thread work. Roomy sleeves flared out from the elbows down, and the bottom edge eventually swept the ankles to resemble the resting wings of a crane. A binding sash and glass buttons had been concealed alongside inner earth-white lining. Such workmanship was poetry in colour. The sleeves dripped orange amber that melted up into sunlit blue, then tumbled over into mellow daylight that gradually blossomed outwards into a rosy dawn, and finally pooled in blood.

She had never received something like this before, a gift so luxurious, extravagant and… impractical.

Her best friend would have grinned at her stunned silence and said "one could always find a use for it." How so? Yoruichi would have been far better suited and used to this. Heck, any woman with better grace and wholeness than Kuukaku could have worn this masterpiece. Besides, such beauty was more likely to soften one for all the wrong reasons, and it was a price she couldn't afford.

Not when she remembered that there was a younger brother's safety to ensure. Knowing Senbonzakura had wounded him had been frightening but oddly enough, Ganjyu had shrugged it off. And the doctor had mentioned that although injuries had been numerous, the flesh wounds did not include vital organs, and the blood loss had been moderate but normal for such an extent of damage.

The dangerous owner of that sword was confusing her, especially when the inferred intent from such an outcome did not correspond with what she had heard about him over the years. Put together with what an exasperated Juushiro had told her in their previous meeting? The recipe was ideal for birthing a headache.

"Kaien insisted on fighting that dangerous Hollow alone to avenge his wife. Being the sister who knows him so well, you would agree: only his pride or his life could be saved. It was my fault for bringing Kuchiki Rukia along, when she was too young and inexperienced. And her fault was being too concerned for her captain and vice-captain, hence defying orders to return and being forced to kill for survival. Despite comprehending the terrible odds against him, he made the choice and we did not interfere… until it could not be avoided. Depending on whoever looks at this, a man can be brave, honourable and foolish at the same time!"

It was as if the often-ailing shinigami had seen into her heart and mind. One man had chosen the infamously stubborn Shiba pride for justice instead of life. And she had accepted the irreversible choice as necessary, but not without cursing and weeping and occasionally lambasting her dead brother as cruelly stupid for that final action, thus leaving behind the siblings who loved him. A mourning sister sometimes wished she could forget the virtue that carried to extremes, could also be a fault. Juushiro had figured out Kaien's character from the very beginning. Byakuya might have had a point.

Glancing at the note accompanying the package, she smirked. 'Secret admirer', her foot. She could recognise Juushiro's handwriting any day.

Tomorrow, they were going to have a talk, whether he would like it or not.

Half-lidded eyes stared at the brilliant blend of colour enveloping her shoulder, but did not see it.

Then the minute ripple was felt. Spiritual pressure had been subdued until it was virtually non-existent, but could not be hidden from one with a sufficiently high standard of training. Although a cooling breeze still lingered, the busy whine of insects had been reduced to almost nothing. The birds were silent. And uncomfortable concentration -from a gaze boring into her bare back- only caused a left hand to reach up and tug rich cloth more securely over the right shoulder, until the artificial limb was obscured. How many captains were going to visit her today? The nearing intruder did not seem hostile, but hesitant.

She did not turn around, choosing to reach for a half-finished sketch instead, followed by a pen.

Had Kuukaku sensed him? She must have, with that pause and the slightly jerky movement that wrinkled a rather magnificent robe. Reaching the circular flatness of elevated cement and wood, he stopped. Then ascended the steps and continued until his shadow fell across the little cluster of stationary. Crumpled brown paper next to the table led him to guess that the cloth might have been a gift from somebody.

He waited. She continued sketching. No reaction from either side.

"About your brother…"

All that answered him was the scratch of a nib across paper.

"I am sorry."

The tip snapped.

"Which one?"

Momentarily looking at his feet, he resisted the urge to scratch his nose.





She rose to stand in one smooth movement, then turned around and stalked over, eyes flashing defiantly and cloth billowing out behind her like a one-winged general. Or perhaps it was the fading sunlight and his courage. One finger jabbed his chest, brazenly/foolishly/amazingly going where no man, woman or child had before.

"Is that all you have to say, jackass?!"

Cool fingers closed around her other wrist, stopping the swing.

"You've hit me often enough. And what else do you expect?"

Good question. What could she expect? And why was he even here, anyway?

"You're right. I wouldn't expect anything from a high-horsed shithead like you. Why you're even here is a mystery. So get lost-"

Fingers immediately tightened, threatening to snap her wrist in his anger.

"You swear like a cesspool, you moved so recklessly without caring that beautiful cloth work might be wrecked, you- You haven't changed."

This prissy boar must be harbouring a death wish to behave with such authority, when he was on her territory- Her temper flared from the muck of too much that could not be forgotten, along with years of buried emotion.

"What nerve! You insulted a dead Kaien, nearly killed Ganjyu, show up uninvited to say one pathetic line without- Only- And then- You're crazy enough to expect forgiveness just like that, you arrogant prick?!"

The sixth division captain could feel the tremors racking her body via his hold on her wrist, as if attempting to reel herself in or about to explode. They were close enough to count the eyelashes each other had. By now, she must have known that he had followed duty but spared Ganjyu at the same time but even then, her purely protective emotions were running high. He couldn't really say anything else, so he went with the truth. Besides, he himself was on the verge of exploding.

"Yes. I expect forgiveness."

Shiba Kuukaku was definitely going to kill Kuchiki Byakuya in a shower of fireworks. Oh yes-

"Because it's been too long, and I want you-"

Blue-green eyes widened.

"-to forgive all the pain I've caused you."

Her ears must be betraying her, even if she'd nearly misinterpreted his words. The earth seemed to sway. This humble-sounding person who might be looking a mite regretful was not the noble who had spoiled their friendship. To use words like- Unbelievable. "You don't need forgiveness! You- Alright, where is Kuchiki Byakuya, and what have you done with him?"

Thin lips curved upwards in amusement, lessening the terse uneasiness between them. His grip relaxed, but did not release. His next words were almost painfully earnest.

"I didn't say 'need'. I hope you will forgive me, Kuukaku. Er. San."

The verbal one-up had her turning her back on him. She stopped halfway, as the other shoulder of Juushiro's gift was pulled up to cover her left bicep, a hand resting there. An expressionless Kuukaku turned back towards him. A certain spark had taken hold inside, and the devil it birthed was-

"Very well."

Her sudden shift into formal speech was oddly familiar and made him pause. Until she kicked his ankle, slipped away so quickly and took off, a radiant mischief-maker beneath the setting sun.

"YOU &#$ BRAT!"

She always had a gift for dissipating tension. Using shyunpo as well, he was hot on her heels, his blood thrumming with the challenge. Seeing her liveliness, remembering her generosity and frank emotions, hearing her cheekily boisterous taunts as she had improved enough to remain ahead of him, Byakuya was reminded of how easily they could both switch roles. And to savour the vividness of colour illuminating the wearer, left arm raised with a tattoo towards the sky, of swift surety in flight… for a moment, the phoenix that blossomed in front of him eclipsed the pink of cherry and purple of plums, to become the sun.

There was only her.

And it shook him to the core. He stopped. His heart was wondering where it lay. His mind took the opportunity to remind him that regardless of the years and whatever he did? Yoruichi was still unable to make up her mind and had always chosen Urahara Kisuke…

Sensing his halt, she stopped as well. Glancing back, the look on his face stumped her. U-turning, she came to a halt three paces from him and holding her hand out, smiled. It was confident, yet marred by a suspicious sheen in her eyes, dampening sea blue into a shiny calm.

"I bet even Kaien missed your friendship, Byakuya. Er. San."

He suddenly wanted to hug her for all the hurt he had caused, but resisted the urge. Striding forward and ignoring her left hand, he took her manufactured right hand and held it firmly for a moment, then let go. They eyed each other, noting the changes the years had wrought.

"I'm sure Kaien also misses his sister."

"Well, Kaien can go on missing me for quite a while! Because right now, I'm starving and not ready to join him!"

Attempting to hide a smile, he was daring enough to yank off the white strip of cloth she used as some misshapen hair band, and coolly walked away while ignoring her mildly affronted squawk.

"Would you like to join us for dinner at the family mansion? Rukia might be tired of seeing only my face at the table everyday."

"Why not? She's so shy!"

Rukia, shy?Ahahahaha- He coughed. Easily catching up to him, she started teasing him about how pretty his hair was, while he nagged her about wearing such an expensive gown properly and how not to ruin it. Questions about her arm and the origins of the robe could wait. Questions about his sudden ability to make jokes and be more emotive, and suddenly seeking her out for forgiveness could wait. All other icky questions about the past and present could wait. They were friends once more.

A simple finish to a simple day was perfect, and what everybody needed once in a while.