Title: Fallen Star
Rating: T (PG13)
Spoilers: through Soul Society Arc
Warning: character deaths
Word Count: 2700
Dedication: I really wrote this for myself, for a host of reasons including proving that I could. Officially dedicated to Shelagh and Sara, fellow fangirls who support me in many of my OTPs.
A/N: My first 'serious' fic. I can't believe I wrote angst - I hardly ever enjoy angst. And I'm sure it's clear that I'm a dedicated RenRuki fan - so how could I do something like this to them? Not to mention what I did to Ichigo. Hopefully the epilogue takes away some of the sting. I know I'm taking a lot of liberties here, so classify this as AU if that makes you feel better about the discrepancies.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach, I'm just borrowing it for a while.
Distribution: Also posted to my LJ. Please ask if you want to share it :)
When the hole tore wide in the sky it was not entirely unexpected. After all, that was why so many fighters were stationed nearby. The war was over and won, but there were terrible repercussions.
The fabric of reality was torn; the boundary between the living world and the dead had grown weak. In the living world, in places with high concentrations of spirit energy - like Karakura town - the boundary was dangerously thin. Teams of shinigami were stationed at strategic weak spots in the living world to counter incursions by the twisted monsters former captain Aizen left behind, while still others fought to find and destroy them on the other side.
Choosing the team for Karakura town was easy; they had to turn away dozens of volunteers - mostly 11th division - who wanted the chance to work with the human war heroes. As war heroes themselves, however, Kuchiki Rukia and Abarai Renji were able to press their claim and once again join their comrades in the living world. The two of them were sufficient to bolster the already-powerful forces living there – Kurosaki Ichigo, Inoue Orihime, Sado Yasutora, and Ishida Uryuu were all attempting to pick up their sort-of-normal lives where they left off. Even Urahara, though still banned from Soul Society - for the time being; Yoruichi was working on that - continued to reside in the area and joined their efforts to repel any supernatural invaders.
They had made a formidable team during the war - human and shinigami working together seamlessly after weeks of battle. Patrolling Karakura town could have become routine, but they never let their guard down. A two-man team patrolled every night - the monsters never attacked by daylight. The only time the teams separated was at the end of the night when the patrol was done. The creatures never appeared past 5am; no one knew why.
Rukia left Renji at the small flat he'd taken and headed to the park to think. She was always too wound up after a patrol to sleep right away, and she had a lot on her mind.
Se sat on a swing and kicked her feet like a child. She smiled and chuckled at herself. Some things never changed - and that wasn't always a bad thing. It's good to have a simple job again, she thought. No trying to decipher motives or whether your opponent has been tricked by a powerful illusion. Rukia shuddered; facing former comrades had been the hardest, ugliest part of the war.
She shook her head and pushed away the gloomy thoughts to enjoy the fading night. Their patrols had been peaceful and quiet for days - the forces attacking from Soul Society were gaining the upper hand. Soon the damage would be repaired - and she and Renji would return home.
Rukia smiled. Tonight's patrol had been almost like old times. Renji never failed to make her laugh, and their bond of trust never wavered. They knew each other like no others ever could. Why then, were they still so afraid to--
A surge of power knocked Rukia from her thoughts - and the swing. She swung her head groggily, trying to clear the confusion and pinpoint the source of the disturbance.
Twin screams of terror pierced her - there! She struggled to her feet and headed out at top speed. The intersection was dark, but the stars and the moon were still very bright. Rukia could clearly make out the two small figures huddled together in a doorway. Her breath caught in her throat.
"Mae, Sode no Shirayuki!"
She knew they were coming - she had to know; someone less sensitive could have felt the converging forces from miles away. They were broadcasting powerfully, letting their energy loose in an attempt to draw the focus off of her and buy some time.
They were fast - beyond fast. The team had been training and fighting a brutal war for months; when they felt her power flare, they'd reacted instantly.
They were training early this morning when they felt it - Chad simply picked Orihime up and began to run.
The Urahara Shoten was a flurry of activity within seconds, sending a call for help and preparing the gate for reinforcements. Even Ishida, still bruised and nearly broken after the war, sped unhesitatingly toward the threat.
Ichigo launched himself out of his body and his bedroom window at the same time. He raced toward the familiar beacon of power - so strong! She was fighting full out. He nearly collided with Renji, flashing in from across town. Without a word, they fell into step side by side. Just like in the war.
They were fast - beyond fast. There were no mistakes. But they were still too late.
They all seemed to arrive at once; just in time to see her pierced by cruel claws. Blood spurted; Rukia fell.
A wordless roar was the only warning the monster had. It was huge, and strong - far too powerful for one person to take on alone. This was why the team was in place; to fight these creatures left behind after Aizen's defeat.
The roaring continued unabated as the monster was hit repeatedly from all sides. A tiny streak, too small for the eye to follow, stabbed into its eye an instant before a thunderous punch launched it away from Rukia's crumpled form. Zanpakutou, one wide and strong, one serrated and wicked, tore at its body, striking vital spots unerringly. The creature's dying bellow was cut off by the crunch of a final ethereal arrow piercing its skull with deadly accuracy.
Rukia lay still, staring at the stars. Renji's heart skipped a beat when he saw what she had fallen protecting. Two tiny children - ragged and dirty, huddled together terrified of the strange scene slowly coming into their vision. A boy, a girl, no older than eight, sticks clenched in their grubby fists as if to protect each other from the barely seen danger.
They looked nothing alike, but it could have been themselves, all those years ago. She saw another potential Rukia, another potential Renji, and tried to save them, to give them the same chance they'd had to live and fight for a better life. He knew - he would have done the same.
Time seemed to slow. Chad barely caught Ishida as he collapsed from the strain of overexerting his exhausted powers. Renji didn't remember going to her side, he only knew he was kneeling in her blood, cradling her carefully in his arms.
Orihime threw herself at them and began working furiously to stem the flow of blood. She swayed from the effort; Ichigo stood behind her and steadied her with one hand.
Renji looked down into Rukia's eyes. She smiled at him then, that brilliant smile that never failed to make his blood race and the rest of the world seem grey.
"Knew... you'd understand." she coughed. He nodded, blinking away the tears that stung his eyes.
"Don't talk, save your strength," he urged.
Rukia's eyes shifted to Ichigo. "Thank you," she whispered. Ichigo's face softened for a moment. "Yeah." He shared a brief glance with Renji, then pointedly looked away. Orihime, face tight in concentration, didn't hear a word.
The red-haired shinigami was grateful as he bent once more over Rukia's now-trembling body.
"I'm sorry, I should have--" Renji began.
"No... please." Rukia coughed again. "It's alright... only..." her eyes fluttered shut for a single, heart-stopping second before opening fully. Her voice grew stronger as Orihime's efforts momentarily bolstered her.
Rukia smiled again at her lifelong companion, wistfully this time. "I'm only sorry we didn't take the chance to love each other," she breathed. There were tears in both their eyes as he leaned down and kissed her for the first and last time. With a small sigh, Rukia's eyes closed again and she lay very still in Renji's arms.
"No... don't leave us... don't leave me." he pleaded hoarsely.
Ichigo bit back a curse, looking around wildly for the backup he knew should be on the way. Urahara would never get that gate open in time. Orihime toppled, unconscious.
"No... NO!" Renji howled.
His cry tore the night. "RUKIAAAAAAA!"
They held a memorial. There was a general outpouring of grief, but knowing eyes saw the depth of pain in the faces of certain guests. Orihime wept freely for her fallen friend, but Ichigo stood dry-eyed and hard-faced. Shinigami he didn't know eyed him warily; the truth of the orange-haired human's identity was confirmed merely by standing near to him and feeling his reiatsu.
The stoic demeanours of the 6th Division captain Kuchiki Byakuya and lieutenant Abarai Renji were expected behaviour from ranking officers, even in the face of a sister or companion's death. But they expected more of a reaction from a human, one who by all accounts had fought unfailingly by her side. Ichigo could read their thoughts plainly on their faces. He didn't care; he'd do his grieving privately with people who were close to he and Rukia both. He had no time to grieve now, anyway.
No one anticipated the effect Rukia's death would have on Renji.
No one but Ichigo. The only other person to hear Rukia's last words, to witness her final moments. The only one who understood the playful banter between his comrades - no, his friends - that covered their fears and emotions.
Ichigo watched as Byakuya - surprisingly astute - made an uncharacteristically graceless gesture to include his blank-faced lieutenant in the family procession… and he knew.
Renji snapped out of his stupor, his eyes taking on an empty, haunted expression. He trembled once, then set his jaw and took his place, fists clenched tightly at his sides.
Ichigo grimaced. This was going to be a problem.
The next day Ichigo was prepared. He was already waiting at the entrance to the Seireitei when Renji slipped out in the pre-dawn.
"What're you doin' here?" Renji growled.
"Feh. Nice. What's it look like, moron?"
Renji glared. "Don't try and stop me," he warned.
"Don't be stupid, Renji, we don't have time for that." Ichigo's smile was grim. "Let's go find her."
They fell into step, side by side.
several weeks later...
"You guys are really going to owe me for this one, you know."
"Shut up! I didn't ask for your help!"
"You didn't have to, man."
The silence stretched uncomfortably.
"I know," Ichigo said, "you guys can name your first kid after me."
The silence of that night was broken by loud spluttering and muffled laughter.
More weeks passed. A month. They searched, they hoped, and one unique occasion, got drunk and wept. The final night.
They did not want to give up, had no intention of giving up. But it became clear to them both one achingly empty night that it was time to go home. Not because they were quitting, but because they realized that Rukia had gone ahead.
It wasn't sudden - it was a gradual feeling that overcame them that evening. The sense of her spirit was missing from that world, and had been for several days. She had been reborn.
Ichigo accepted it with difficulty; that the friend he had fought beside had started over with no memory of the life she worked so hard to build... the sadness swelled his throat. He looked at his travelling companion warily. One glance told Ichigo more than enough.
Renji sat, stiff and silent. Head bowed, he was patently refusing to acknowledge Ichigo's stare or the growing knowledge within his own heart.
An hour passed. Another.
Slowly, reluctantly, Renji raised his head. His dark eyes were filled with pain, his face a mask of agony.
"She's gone," he rasped.
"Damn. It hurts."
Ichigo nodded again. "Yeah."
They drank. The liquor didn't dull the pain, only made their fresh grief sharper. They wept - for themselves, for Rukia, but mostly for regret.
In the morning they would head home. In the morning, it would start to get better.
It didn't. Not for Renji.
Three days later, he begged Ichigo to kill him.
"I can't do it alone. She's been my life for over sixty years. I know you might not be able t'understand that, but--"
Ichigo interrupted. "I do. Like a piece of yourself is missin', and only a burnin' hole left where it used to be. But it gets better. You're just freakin' out because it's still fresh."
"It doesn't..." Renji swallowed heavily. "It doesn't get much better for us. Look at Kuchiki-taichou - fifty years an' he's still mourning his wife. That's how it is for us."
Ichigo nodded reluctantly - he'd seen Byakuya's eyes at the memorial, and recognized the old pain beneath the new.
"Please... as... her friend. My friend." Renji managed a weak grin that didn't reach his eyes. "Now's your chance, Kurosaki, to finally defeat me." He captured Ichigo's eyes with his own. "I need to be with her. I need to protect her. That's what I am. She's my guiding star." Renji's stare was intense. Ichigo sighed.
"This is two you owe me now." He drew Zangetsu off his back. "I want a promise from you. No more howling at the star - reach out and grab it, no matter how high it hangs."
Renji smiled, genuinely for the first time in weeks. "Promise." He stood and faced his friend.
"Thank you, Ichigo."
Zangetsu flashed in the moonlight.
It had been a long day. The kids were already in bed, but he was short on sleep thanks to a rash of Hollow activity.
Ichigo got up out of his chair and stood staring out of the window. It was a beautiful evening, and thanks to the arrival of extra shinigami to handle the Hollows, he was officially off-duty. He stretched his arms over his head, wincing at the crack and pop of joints. "I'm getting too old for this," he muttered. He stayed there at the window, watching the sky change with the setting sun, bathing the world in brilliant shades of colour. A flicker down the street caught his eyes, and he turned to see...
Ichigo's heart thumped strangely in his chest. A young couple, twenty years old at most, walked hand in hand down the street, laughing with each step. Ichigo didn't know them, but he recognized them instantly.
She was taller now, but only barely. She smiled easily at her companion as she raised her hand to touch his cheek. His flush was lost in the wash of scarlet sun that swept the street. For a single moment, Ichigo would have sworn the man's hair matched the flames in the sky.
It was wrong - so wrong, but he could not fight the impulse. Ichigo ran outside and stood watching the young lovers approach.
Her short yellow dress was cut lower but still sported a pink bunny on the front. She wore a star-shaped pendant that sparkled in the fading light, and the same star shape decorated the man's bare shoulder in bold black ink. Ichigo smiled politely as they approached, chuckling only inwardly. Some things never changed.
A weight that had been sitting on his chest for twenty years suddenly lifted. His smile grew broader as they passed, and he felt the familiar brush of reiatsu - faint, but almost painfully familiar and unmistakably real.
That touch did him in. Ichigo relaxed the hard-earned controls on his own reiatsu and let it pulse just once in response.
The couple stopped, looking slightly confused. They stared at Ichigo blankly, eyes going wide with an unidentifiable emotion.
"I'm glad to see you kept your promise." Ichigo said softly into the silence.
It was only for an instant - a single moment in time. But Ichigo saw it, a flicker of recognition, the one wordless look that conveyed what a thousand words never could.
Then the veil dropped again as the sun slipped below the horizon, stealing the magic of the night. The laughing couple walked hand in hand down the street, innocent and unaware.
Only after they'd disappeared from his sight and his senses did Ichigo realize his cheeks were wet with tears.
Ichigo smiled. "Yeah."