The Spirit Door


1.

You can see for miles around the Shiba house on a clear day, acres of unkempt grass stretching almost to the horizon, with only a bare scattering of trees and scrub here and there to obscure the view.

2.

The first time Ganjuu sees her, the sky is clouded and the day is black. He is a boy sitting in the door, scowling at the world, and the weather is grim enough that he does not see her come. She unfurls from the darkness like a ghost, and he starts.

Brother is his first thought but even shrouded by the mist, the figure is too small, the shoulders too set against the dead weight it carries behind it.

"Sister!" he shouts over his shoulder, then stumbles out of the doorway. The rain drenches him, roots him to the spot, and he is still two feet away from shelter when the shinigami stops before him and turns to lay her burden on the ground.

"What..." he tries to ask, but then he looks at the empty, bloody face and his heart squeezes in his chest, choking him, and his world is suddenly broken and dying, dead like the man lying on the ground before him, brotherbrotherbrother - His world is dead, he has no words.

What...

The shinigami looks at him and he will remember her eyes for the rest of his life.

"I killed him," she says, then turns and walks away to fade into the rain the same way she came out of it. He watches her leave (he cannot look at the body on the ground before him, he just can't), her eyes old and cold and terrible in his heart.

Shinigami, he thinks.

3.

The second time he sees her, she is still a ghost, only white now where she was black before, a broken spirit in a stone tower. She does not recognise him, but he knows her instantly -

Demon's eyes -

He could kill her. He could leave her to die.

He thinks of what Ichigo told him of the shinigami who gave her power to save his life.

He thinks of the people fighting for her. He think of his brother, already dead.

"I killed Shiba Kaien," she tells Hanatarou, and he knows that look in her eyes. She doesn't flinch when he grabs her by the front of her robe.

There's a balance teetering around him, waiting to topple or fall.

He could kill her. He could walk away.

Hanatarou is walking to face his death. Hell, they're all/ going to die here, they've come too fucking far to turn back.

Goddammit.

Of all the shinigami to die for, he thinks.

4.

But he doesn't die.

The third time he sees her, he's back home and too busy getting beaten up by his sister to see her coming. She wears a blue flowered robe and her eyes are heavy, but clear.

I'm sorry, she says.

She says it several times, in fact, until his sister makes her stop with a fist in the face. Ukitake told her everything, his sister tells her, and once is enough. The slate is clean now.

Her smile is small and wary and bright with hope.

The Shibas watch her slight form disappear over the horizon, beside Ichigo and Orihime's taller figures. Ganjuu scratches his head and looks at his sister.

"Her captain came to see you? How come you never to- OW!"

She cracks her knuckles.

"Enough distractions! Back to your training!"

(That damn rescue might kill him after all.)

5.

Maybe a month later, Ganjuu finds himself squinting at two small figures on the horizon, one dressed in a black he'd recognise anywhere as shinigami, the other in a colour too pale to be discernible at this distance.

Hanatarou looks nervous, but that's nothing unusual, and she wears an uncertain mixture of calm almost-arrogance and wariness. Hantarou bows clumsily to his sister; she does not.

Kuukaku looks them over, eyebrows raised. Hanatarou manages not to cower and Rukia meets her gaze squarely enough. "Let one shinigami in, you let them all in, huh?"his sistersays, then grins.

Rukia smiles. "We would have brought gifts, but we didn't know what to bring," she says, respectful but not apologetic. She learns fast.

His sister's grin widens. "Sake," she announces, then reaches out with her good arm to ruffle the other girl's too-smooth hair. "No Shiba says no to good wine." Then, just so Hantarou doesn't feel left out, she kicks him. "Stop looking like we're going to eat you," she orders.

For a moment, Rukia is wide-eyed with something Ganjuu can't name. He blinks and she touches a hand to her now-messy hair. Slowly, she smiles.

"We'll remember that next time," she promises.

She does.

6.

They come every few weeks or so.

There is no fixed date, there has never been an invitation. Sometimes they come together, sometimes she comes alone. After a few months, Hanatarou steels up the guts to come without her company. It does not kill him. Maybe one day he'll even work up the nerve to try it again.

Once, caught by the rain, his sister makes Rukia stay the night.

They just got new gate posts, probably one of their best designs yet, a red-black-gold serpent rising from the ground, tail on one side, head on the other, and Ganjuu curses the weather and the slow-drying paint when he goes to stare out into the gloom just before retiring for bed.

He finds her by the door, staring outside. She turns when he comes up behind her.

"What are you still doing u-" he stops. There's a shadow in her eyes he knows. Right. Stupid question, moving on. Some things are just... harder to move on from.

She studies his discomfiture for a long minute, then turns to look outside again.

"You were that boy, wren't you?" she says.

They both know the answer to that. "Yeah."

"I didn't recognise you. I'd almost... forgotten. I'm sorry," she murmurs.

"Eh... It's been forty years after all," More than enough to grow out of being a snot-nosed little brat; he rubs the back his his neck and tries to shrug. "People change."

But not her. He'd known her, in that prison. And looking at her straight back, she could still be that demon carrying a dead man home to his family, blood on her face and rain in her hair.

She looks at him then, lips curling briefly. "Yes, you've grown a lot."

He opens his mouth at that, and finds himself flushing for no reason. (Maybe a small part of him begins to understand why so many people were willing to fight for this girl, this woman.)

He looks past her, outside. Forty years. Who'd have guessed they'd come this far without Brother? Forty years. That's half a mortal life in the world on the other side. And his brother's memory is a still, quiet thing in him. For years, it was a void, a chasm, a scar, a ghost between him and his sister.

It aches still; he feels a pang, right now, standing here, thinking he should be here too. Things could be different. Better.

"Sister told me what happened," he finally says. "Don't know why she never said before; guess she didn't want to talk about it. It... wasn't really your fault."

She doesn't look at him, only bows her head.

"You didn't... have a choice. And... Brother understood," Ganjuu finds himself saying. "That's why you brought him back, isn't it? Because he asked you to."

Who'd have guessed he'd stand in this door some forty years later and try to comfort the shinigami who killed his brother?

"I..." she says, then stops. "He was a good man. He didn't care that I was Kuchiki, or that I didn't take the exams like everyone else. I... I wanted to save him. Instead-"

Instead.

"Instead I saved myself." she whispered.

"The Hollow-" Ganjuu starts.

"She was dead. I couldn't stand to see him like that."

The words slide from her lips and Ganjuu thinks, she loved him.

And standing in the door, listening to a killer's confession, he thinks: he has never condemned her quite as she has damned herself. And that somewhere between saving Hanatarou and her, and coming home, he has forgiven her already. He thinks she knows that.

His brother's memory is clear and bright within him.

He pauses, then reaches out to touch her shoulder.

"He knew. He understood," he says.

She is still, and he thinks of lifting his heavy, clumsy hand. Then she nods and looks at him.

"I know. Thank you," she says. Her smile does not waver this time.

Maybe one day she will even learn to forgive herself.

7.

His sister is drunk, though not particularly so, when she stops mid-laugh to fix Rukia with a sudden, disapproving eye as she takes a sip of sake.

Rukia returns the look and blinks, then starts when the sake jar in Kuukau's hand thumps the table in front of her and the other woman leans in to give her a beady-eyed stare.

"You," she announces, "drink like a Kuchiki."

Rukia refrains from pointing out that she is, technically, Kuchiki.

"I don't, um, drink well," she says, setting her cup back on the table. Kuukaku thumps her jar on the table again and it jumps, spilling wine onto the table.

"What," Kuukaku demands, "do you mean, 'not drink well'? Can't appreciate a good sake when you taste it?" the jar waves alarmingly in Rukia's face.

Ganjuu considers interfering, but he's still nursing a a dislocated shoulder from complaining about too much fish for dinner. It's not, he reasons, like his sister is trying to beat her jar over the smaller girl's head. Yet.

"No, no, your wine is excellent!" Rukia says, managing not to back away with Kuukaku's face maybe three inches away from her own. "It's just that it's very strong and I get drunk easily. I don't... hold my alcohol very well."

"Huh," Kuukaku says. She subsides enough to settle back in her own seat. "And what's wrong with that?" she inquires.

"Ah?"

"Getting drunk. Won't kill you to try it," his sister announces. A thumb is jerked in Ganjuu's direction. "He can't hold his alcohol either. Hasn't killed him yet."

"I do n-"

"ARE YOU ARGUING WITH ME?" A empty sake jar sails across the room to bounce off the wall by Ganjuu's head (by now, they've learned to get the strongest bottles they can find, even if those usually aren't quite strong enough).

"No!" he yelps from under the table.

Hanatarou looks like he's considering crawling under a table himself. Rukia blinks at the scene, looks at Kuukaku, then the sake bottle before her. She ducks her head, her shoulders begin to shake, and Ganjuu peers up long enough to see that she's laughing.

Hanatarou watches her, amazed, and his sister smirks when she finally subsides.

"You sure you want to be a Kuchiki? Bastards've got no sense of humour. Now we," she tosses a jar of sake across the room. Rukia catches it just in time to avoid a broken nose. "Shibas know how to have a good time. And we got all the best wine too."

Rukia studies the jar with an almost thoughtful look, then looks up. There's an edge to his sister's eyes that a sea full of wine couldn't take away.

"Well. Couldn't hurt to try once," she agrees.

She wakes up the morning after with a hangover the size of Jidanbou. Hanatarou conveniently forgot to bring anything resembling a hangover pill - he is hungover enough himself to probably not find it even if he did have one. Kuukaku is not noticably sympathetic when she finally emerges, green but otherwise composed, from the toilet.

"Regretting it, huh?" she observes

"Not quite," Rukia admits and even manages to smile. "But maybe not too often."

8.

In August, almost a year after the first visit, his sister stops in the door just as she's leaving to shout, "Hey!"

She stops at the gate amd turns, surprised.

"Next month. Fourteenth. Come for dinner. Don't forget," his sister tells her.

Her mouth opens, then closes. She bows, quickly, deeply. "Thank you," her voice carries on the wind.

She's lucky she's too far away for his sister to kick, Ganjuu thinks.

He watches the grass rustle in her wake, gold in the light of the evening sun.

9.

Night falls and the first firework explodes in a blue black sky. The Shibas did not come by their repuation without damned good reason. It's music to make the dead dance in their graves, a display to make even the most world-weary cynic pay attention and at least stare, if not out-right gape.

Ganjuu and Kuukaku would settle for nothing less.

He wipes a trickle of sweat out of his eyes and looks around. The sky has darkened and the show is spinning into its full, incandescent glory. If he stops to listen and shake the crackle and boom of the charges out of his ears, he could hear the music. But no one dances; not here, not now. There are too few present to call it a party anyway. They'd never invited anyone; you were either here or you weren't.

There are those who'd probably say it doesn't feel like a death anniversary either.

She started when the first firework went up, eyes tracing its path, mouth falling open to snap shut with a clicking of teeth. He looks up to examine their handiwork and wonders what she makes of it.

"It's beautiful," a voice says behind him. He turns, surprised, and she looks at him. "You do this every year?"

"Yeah. Ever since... yeah."

"We can see them from the Seireitei. I remember seeing them, but I never let myself stop to watch..." she says, trailing off as she stares up into the sky.

He stares at her. He'd never thought of that."Did you..."

She finishes his question for him. "Did I do anything? No. I thought... I had no right to."

"You shouldn't talk like that," he mutters without thinking and she blinks, smiles.

"I know. I... won't."

Hands on hips, he waits for the last firework. Orange, because it was his brother's favourite colour, a vast chrysantemum exploding into the night to rainspinning stars. The music winds down with the last fading sparks and for a moment, silence fills the spaces around him.

"The first year, it was just the two of us. And we didn't really know what to do and we didn't want to talk about it either, and then I think Sister just got mad because she dragged a whole barrel of fireworks out of the basement and let them off all at once. Almost got burnt herself. And then... the next year, we just did it again, and then she decided it was too quiet, so she got music, and... I guess..." he doesn't realise he's talking at first, but then the words keep tumbling, every which way. She listens.

"I used to hope that he could see them too," (but hope was too painful to keep carrying) "and then I just thought... he didn't want us moping about him, you know? And he'd always liked the fireworks, even if he decided to be a shinigami in the end. So..."

So.

It'd just seemed like the right thing to do, even that first time, gaping as his sister lit firework after firework, teeth set and the smell of black powder in the air.

"I think... he would have liked them," she says.

He grins. "Yeah, pretty good show, isn't it?"

She laughs. "Yes."

Screw the neighbours, Kuukaku had snapped that first year. Brother would have understood.

And in the end, that was all that mattered.

10.

A small, black figure darkens the horizon.

When he comes out to look, his first thought is Hanatarou, but then he blinks and it isn't. The head is a little to high, the walk too smooth, the hair too long even for a month's absence.

Rukia, he thinks.

Leaving the door, he passes the gate, wades into the long grass. Some ten feet away, he stops to fold his arms across his chest and call, "Yo, shinigami!"

Her smile is almost wide and careless enough to be a grin. She crosses the distance left and he sees that it is one.

"I passed the last tests last week. They declared me fit for active duty again yesterday and reassigned me to the 13th Division," she anounces more than says. Then she grins again.

This shinigami thing really does do things to your head, Ganjuu decides. Brother had turned cartwheeels all the way across the damned field when he passed. He hadn't even done that when he'd gotten married.

"Don't recall you mentioning any... tests last time," he observes.

"They were going to return me to active duty without them. I... chose... to take them," she says.

He looks down at her, takes in the black uniform. Thinks of the only time he's ever seen her in it.

With the hot afternoon sun beating on the back of his neck, that night is one lifetime and several worlds away.

Ganjuu spent forty years standing in the exact same place, tied down by memory and blood and and loss. It's taken him less than ten months (ten days, ten weeks) to find here.

He thinks of how it could be better (Brother could be here, should be here, he can almost see him, even). But it's not a bad place, nonetheless. And the road ahead winds into a distant sun.

"Congratulations," he finally says. "My sister's going to kick your ass."

She laughs. "I know."

He turns to go home. For a moment, she doesn't move, watching his back, framed by a pair of tall, strange trees, long, bare trunks reaching up to end in a crown of even longer, waving leaves. (Palm trees, they will tell her later when she asks about the new gate). The sun glares in her eyes and she closes them for a moment.

Opens them.

Follows.

end

June 2005