Je Chante Pour Passer le Temps
A Bleach/XXXholic Crossover
Note: Thanks to sache for being a great beta on this, and sophiap for egging me on. This is the first of a possible series called "Butterfly's Web" to be cowritten with Sophia Prester, but is also a standalone fic.
The sun of the mortal world was intense to him, and the buildings impossibly tall. He squinted a bit as his eyes adjusted to their new surroundings. He hadn't visited this world in decades, and was well aware that things had changed. They always did; humans moved forward at a frenetic pace.
He watched as the people surged passed on the streets, all in a hurry to get to wherever they were going. There was a frenzied speed to this kind of life, a haste that he found distasteful. He understood it, though, since all of those in the mortal realm were only allotted a finite amount of time in this world, and none of them had any assurance of life after death. It was pitiful.
Kuchiki Byakuya stepped through the crowd carefully, avoiding the crush of human bodies as he wove his way toward his destination. While they couldn't see him, some of those with higher levels of soul energy might feel him if he brushed against them. It was really too bad that he hadn't been able to open to door right to the shop, but caution made him create one to the usual gateway that shinigami used.
The garb the humans were wearing were strange to his traditional eyes; most wore clothing that clung to their bodies, and there was far more flesh on display than he was comfortable with. Every now and then he caught a glimpse of a woman wearing a proper kimono, but they were few and far between.
It would have suited his mood better to come at night, or under the safe cover of a thunderstorm, but practicality had overridden that melodramatic urge. He'd taken the morning off, knowing that most Hollows preferred to be active at night and there wasn't likely to be any kind of crisis. Not that there had been during his tenure, but a good captain was always vigilant.
Almost as if the higher powers were mocking him, a man turned a corner quickly and walked right into him.
Into, not through. The man staggered backward a step, his mouth dropping for a second before he recovered his poise. Byakuya kept his face blank, although mentally, he winced at the additional problem he'd just stirred up.
While it was never Buyakuya's favorite thing to be walked through by soul-blind humans, having one bump into him and then stare at him was even worse. He'd completely blown the shinigami code for operation in the human world, the first rule of which stated avoid those who might see you. Or, as Zaraki had inelegantly put it, don't fuck with the mortals, since a couple of the bastards aren't blind.
"Excuse me, shinigami-san," the young man murmured. He pushed his glasses higher on his nose, before offering a respectful – although not submissive – bow. He seemed to be waiting for some kind of reaction.
Byakuya would have chosen to ignore him, but loose ends had a way of tangling matters up later. A bit of rudeness here could come back and haunt him at the least opportune time. "Are you not worried about being seen talking to the air?" Byakuya asked, not really interested in the answer.
"They already think I'm peculiar," the man said with a laugh. He had a gentle expression on his face, but Byakuya could feel the strength of this man's soul. It only took him a moment to reach an accurate conclusion.
"There's certainly nothing peculiar about an extinct bloodline, is there, Quincy?" he said in a deadpanned tone. It would be just his luck to encounter one of the shinigami's most bitter enemies, even though the clan was supposed to have been wiped out 150 years ago. A Hollow would be easier to deal with; there were no moral ambiguities.
"It's not extinct if there's still someone alive, is there?" the man asked, chuckling. "Peace, captain. I have no quarrel with you."
"Really. You have no quarrel with the group that exterminated your people?"
"The conflict is over as far as I'm concerned," the man replied. "We both want the same thing in the end; the safety of mankind."
That was not what Byakuya desired, but enlightening the man would serve no purpose. "Perhaps," he said.
"Perhaps," the Quincy echoed, before glancing over his shoulder. "There's no Hollows that way," he said. "Someone who lives there doesn't like them."
"I'm not here for Hollows," Byakuya said stiffly. He moved to step around the man, and terminate their contact, but was stopped by the Quincy's voice.
"I hope you're prepared to pay, then," he said. "The witch may sell everything, but she charges dearly for that service."
Byakuya almost drew his sword in response. This man was too perceptive. "It's none of your business, Quincy," he said shortly. "Stand aside."
The man obeyed, but without humility. He was proud, Byakuya recognized, much too proud to suit Byakuya. "I just offer that warning as a professional courtesy, captain," he returned, before offering Byakuya another smile. Then he set off at a steady walk, in no hurry as he left the shinigami behind.
Byakuya considered making a report about the Quincy's existence, but that would place him in an awkward position. Since he wasn't here officially, he couldn't bring attention to his activities since it might raise questions he preferred to remain unasked.
He would let the man go, he decided. There wasn't much one Quincy could do.
He was more cautious as he continued down the block, his inherit paranoia raised to levels that had him on a hair trigger. The encounter with the Quincy had unbalanced his usual calm; what were the chances of running into a survivor of the massacre?
Mulling on the situation would get him nowhere. He dismissed the matter from his mind, since he was nearly to his destination. He could feel the presence of the house before he saw it, like numerous insects crawling on the inside of his skin. For a moment, he had second thoughts, considered turning around, but pressed forward. By coming here, he had committed. Kuchiki Byakuya never back down once he made up his mind.
It was not the type of establishment that Byakuya would like to be seen frequenting, but necessity had forced him to do worse. If he could achieve his goal, then it would be worth the time (and loss of dignity should anyone find out).
It was only the passing comment of Kyouraku that had even alerted him that this place existed; it was only because of Hisana that he had decided to make the journey. He rarely went to the human world, and never before had he gone without an assignment from the Soul Society.
He hadn't let himself draw any expectations of what the business would be like, yet he was surprised to find himself satisfied with its outside face. A single traditional Japanese home surrounded by newer, more Western construction was odd; however, his eyes squinted as he realized the slight distortion around the building was actually the place where several planes of existence met. He counted over twenty different layers before deciding it was a waste of time.
Quite intriguing, if he'd been the type to marvel at wonders. He wasn't.
Instead, he stepped to the front door, raising a hand to knock. Before he could, the door swung open, and two girls bid him welcome with exceptional cheer, but he ignored them. His sharp eyes immediately recognized that the twins had no souls, and thus were of no consequence.
He walked without haste toward the main room, his eyes staring straightforward on his goal. The things – he didn't even want to think of them as pseudo-human – proceeded him, and not even his acute hearing caught the sound of their footfalls. Without a word, they drew the doors back for him, standing still as statues as he entered.
He had heard stories about this woman, a woman who could buy and sell the world dozens of times over. Her power was such that the shinigami were warned to have nothing to do with her. Going through the archives, he'd come across tale after tale, warning of the danger this woman possessed.
The woman lounged with a boneless grace that was at distinct odds with his own rigid bearing. He could smell the sake in the air, the remnant of the four bottles that were strewn behind her.
He found her dress just as tasteless as he'd found everything else. The shirt was a wild patterns of colors that were glaring bright to his eye, and her pants tight enough that he wondered how she could move without causing a rip, let alone breathe. Around her long, slender neck draped numerous beaded necklaces.
She didn't bother even looking at the door, her attention caught by a box filled with gray moving images and spouting soft, foreign-sounding words. He supposed it was a new form of art. He'd never been good about keeping up with technology's advances.
"Mistress, there's a customer!" the two things chirped in unison, coming around his sides and stepping forward to come to the woman's feet.
"I know," the woman said, still not turning her attention from her picture box. "I was hoping you'd be ten minutes late," she added, an annoyed expression flitting across her face. "I wanted to watch the end of Gunsmoke," She shook her head, gestured to the thing wearing twin ponytails, who quickly turned the picture off before retreating back to stand by its mistress. "Can't be helped, I suppose. Have a seat, captain."
She turned slightly so she was facing him, and despite the alcohol she'd been imbibing, her eyes were sharp and canny and all too knowing for him to be comfortable. They were the color of dried blood, he thought, the kind of stain that sunk into clothing and never let go.
Her invitation had not been particular gracious, but he accepted it, kneeling down on the tatami without qualm. In this place, her word was law, and he could respect that.
"Would you like something to drink?" she offered.
He wouldn't trust anything this woman served him. "No."
"You won't mind if I do, though," she said, rather than asked. "Moro! Get me some more sake!" she demanded. "Nothing like sake for getting in the mood for business," she added, a wide smile curving her lips as she stretched her arms above her head, drawing attention to her impressive assets. Byakuya noted that, but had no interest in staring.
The other thing darted away to obey the order, and Byakuya struggled to suppress the urge to walk out.
She rearranged herself so that she was facing him directly, her long limbs still splayed across the divan. She looked like a spider, he thought, and was surprised at the comparison. He was a man with little imagination, so for him to be indulging in any fanciful thoughts was an occasion.
"It's not often I see someone of your profession here, captain," she said, tapping fingernails against a pillow. "Let alone of your rank. The last man – well, that's not your concern," she said dismissively. "What brings you to my humble shop?"
"I was told everything was for sale here."
"Just about," the witch replied. "There's very few things that don't come into my possession, in some way or another." She turned her hand over and inspected her fingernails, displaying a surprising lack of concern for her august company. "The question is if you're able to afford what I have to sell you."
That was insulting in the extreme, since the Kuchiki family was one of the richest on both sides of death. Any attempt he would have made at bargaining was lost as the door swung open and the thing reappeared carrying a heavy bottle. It skittered over to the witch, presenting the bottle to her with amazing deference.
The witch took it, spun the bottle around in her hands, and pointed to the label. "Really a good brew," she said in satisfaction, before opening it with her teeth. It was a strangely sensual gesture, the kind that made a man wish that those lips would wrap around something more intimate. Byakuya wondered fleetingly if she was trying to seduce him, but decided that her allure is unconscious, although not unacknowledged. "Are you sure you wouldn't like some?"
"I don't think I'd care for the cost," he told her flatly.
She tilted her head as she evaluated him. "No, I don't think you would. I don't suppose you plan on introducing yourself?"
"What will I receive for that?" he shot back.
She laughed, a rippling sound that reminded him of the clang of swords in practice. "You're smarter than most of my clients, captain," she returned. " A name is a precious thing, and all too easily mislaid."
"It is," he returned. He was proud of his name, proud of being Kuchiki, but his pride was not a foolish thing.
She took a pull on the sake, and smiled at him. "I'll share my sake with you for your name, captain," she returned, holding the bottle toward him.
He didn't want this, but he understood the implication. He raised a hand to take the bottle. "I'm Kuchiki Byakuya," he told her, "head of the Kuchiki family." He took a sip, his tongue tingling at the taste. The alcohol in it was potent, and it was bitter, but he decided he liked the flavor in spite of that. Quickly he handed the bottle back to her, not willing to indulge.
"A powerful name," the witch murmured in reply. She rolled the bottle around her hands. "You may call me Ichihara Yuuko."
He didn't even bother pointing out it was obviously fake. Both of them knew it. "Yes, Ichihara-san," he agreed. "Now that you've had your drink, can we get down to business?"
She took another long drink before setting the bottle aside and rising to her feet. Byakuya noted with detached interest that her clothing didn't impede her motion at all as she moved, before crouching down in front of him. Leaning forward, she gripped his chin between surprisingly strong fingers.
He had to fight the urge to jerk away from her since the intrusion into his personal space raised his instinct to strike out. He could tell she was powerful; the heady sensuality and indifference she carried could only be owned by a beautiful woman used to control. This was not his place; he had entered her realm and was now bound by her rules.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"Don't you know?"
She smiled, and for a second he was startled by the realization that she entranced him, the same way a lion on the hunt would have interested him. Beautiful, and entrancing for the air of finality. "Maybe. But maybe what I want to sell you is what you need, instead of what you want. Let's see if we can reach some sort of accommodation."
"I need to find someone," he told her. "Someone lost – misplaced - in the Rukongai."
"Oh," she said, and she let his face go. He could still feel the press of her fingers against his chin, the phantom touch as chill as the first moment of death. "I might be able to help you with that, but it will cost you."
"I'm prepared to pay," he told her.
"Are you?" she asked. "Even for me, finding someone in Rukongai is a difficult task. The place exists so people can lose themselves and their former ties of life."
"These are new ties, brought about since death," he replied. "I promised to find her."
"How do you plan to pay for this?"
He touched the kenseikan in his hair, but Yuuko shook her head. "I have no use for those," she derided, fingering her own long black hair, already accentuated with a series of hairpins.
"This, then?" he asked, moving his fingers to the scarf around his neck. The ginpaku kazahana no uzuginu was a family heirloom, and the price of it was enough to have ten fine houses built. He was loathe to part with it, since it was so important to the Kuchiki, but for Hisana's sake ,he would.
"Pretty, but not my style," she derided.
He shut his eyes, sighing slightly. "Very well," he said. He had known that she wouldn't likely be interested in those, but had hoped. What she wanted was dearer to him than mere wealth. He had done the research, and figured out what might satisfy the notoriously difficult Witch of Dimensions. He reached into his robe and pulled out a small box he'd secreted in the sleeve. "I thought this might be to your liking."
She raised an eyebrow as she accepted it, peeking inside. A smile quirked her lips. "A hell butterfly – something only shinigami are allowed to use," she said. "This is not yours to give."
"I am Kuchiki. I take what I need," he said. For Hisana, he would break all the rules. He would do whatever it took to keep the promise he'd made to her. He would become a thief, if that was what was needed. He felt his stomach clench at the idea, knowing he was breaking the rules, but this was more important to him.
The witch smiled and nodded with satisfaction. "I see. This will suit well," she said. She opened the box the rest of the way, and the purple and black butterfly flew to her fingertip. "Truly a beautiful creature," she murmured, before placing it on the end of one of her hairpins. The butterfly froze, like it had been dipped in shellac.
He stared at it for a long moment, then lowered his eyes to her face. "You will help me, then," he stated.
"Indeed. Maru, fetch me some ink and a brush," she ordered, then retrieved her bottle. The servant disappeared almost instantaneously.
They sat silently together, Yuuko enjoying her sake while Byakuya mentally recited Hisana's favorite haiku over and over in his head to keep from thinking anything more consequential. Neither of them took their eyes off the other.
It had just passed the three minute mark when the thing returned, again presenting the item to the witch with a servile gesture. "Thank you, Maru," she murmured, handng the sake bottle over in return.
She opened the ink and dipped the brush into it, covering the tip with the deep jet ink before moving quickly toward him. Byakuya remained still, wondering what she was going to do. He hoped she was about to draw him a map, but somehow doubted that would be the technique she would elect to use.
Her hand reached out and snagged something out of the air in front of him. He tried not to wince as he saw the red ribbon in her hands, the one that showed his life and identity. It was too intimate for a stranger to handle so casually, and he knew his expression was growing pinched.
"Do you recognize this, Byakuya?" she asked, addressing him intimately and offering him no honorific.
"It's my spirit thread," he returned. His spirit power was such that he usually had to make a conscious effort not to see them. For her to force it into his sight spoke of immense power.
"The interesting thing about shinigami is that their spirit threads are much brighter than an ordinary soul or mortal," she said. "I usually can't see them, but yours is nearly blinding."
"Will this help me find the one I seek?" he asked.
"Yes," the witch promised. "These threads of ours twist together with those who are important. If someone had strong enough sight, they wouldn't see these as threads, but rather as an immense tapestry with lives entwining. Someone with even more power might be able to use these threads to manipulate the course of destiny. And if they are threads, then their pattern can be changed."
"You're going to entwine mine with hers," he asked, finding the idea slightly appalling. He didn't even know the girl, Hisana's sister or not. Having his soul entwined with hers was a bit too much; he has just lost his wife, he wasn't ready to welcome another person into his life on that intimate a level.
"I don't have that power, but I can give yours a nudge," she returned. "Maybe someday there will be a person with the ability to control the weaving, but I'm not her. Do you still want me to do this?"
"I've already paid you," he confirmed. "I need to find her."
"Her name," the witch whispered. "Tell me her name."
"Rukia," he said softly. "I'm looking for Rukia, sister of Hisana."
She held his spirit thread in her hands, and he watched – not without concern – as she scrawled something onto the brilliant red of his soul. He couldn't see what she was writing, since the ink didn't leave a visible mark, but he could feel the change. He could feel the presence of someone, someone he hadn't yet met but who would change his life.
She finished whatever she was doing, and handed the brush off to one of the things. Satisfied, she let go of the thread, and the premonition was gone.
"I've made it so you will cross her path within the year. What you do then is entirely up to you," the witch replied.
"I thank you," he said politely, bowing his head in acknowledgment of her skill. "I will be able to handle things from there."
"I'm sure you will, captain," the witch returned before retreating back to her original seat. "But if not, my shop is always open to you."
The invitation made him feel those invisible insects again. He rose to his feet gracefully, and without another word to her, left the shop. He hadn't just broken the rules by seeking the witch's help – he had shattered them into irreparable smithereens – but he couldn't avoid thinking it was worth it. After Rukia joined his family, he would never break the rules again. He would make that promise to the grave of his parents.
But that would be later. For now, Kuchiki Byakuya had someone he couldn't wait to meet.