Disclaimer belongs to Yume this time around.
Yume: It's about time! I've been waiting twenty-three chapters for this, and it took forever for this last one to come out.
Me: Yes, well...life intervenes. Constantly.
Yume: I like excuses too. They keep people distracted so you can run away.
Yume: Kimsa doesn't own Bleach or its characters. She owned Skinner for a while, but it's over now, thankfully. Me, Setsuna, and Zazie are all figments of her imagination, as are the plot and Gin's and Kurotsuchi-kun's treachery. This IS the last chapter - you realize that?
Me: -sniff- Yeah...and I still can't believe it. It's finally finished!
Yume: Well, don't keep the people waiting! Let 'em read!
Me: Oh, yeah. Enjoy, everyone - and thanks so much for being so faithful through all this story's ups and downs. I hope you've enjoyed reading this 'fic as much as I've enjoyed writing it.
Hello Again, Halcyon Days
Death. It was constantly on his mind, a companion that would never leave him, no matter how many times he was betrayed or rejected. Those who sought to hurt him, he killed without a second thought. Those who betrayed him or turned traitor he was sure to bring to their knees, whether it took a day or a year or a century. Death fit him like a second skin, following in his footsteps like an unshakeable stalker. It would never leave him. That, he could count on.
But it would never touch him. It would never dare.
He was Aizen. He was God.
And nothing, no one, not even the uncontrollable experiments of overly-ambitious subordinates or old men with entirely too much power for their own good, could stop him.
A wave of fire rose up and washed over him. The air boiled and hissed with heat, cement and cold white stone blistering and popping, walls buckling under the tremendous pressure. Aizen remained untouched. On the other side of the room, Yamamoto's wizened face was set in a grim mask of steadfast determination. The Commander-General lifted his zanpakutou once more and struck the ground. Thick ripples ran out from the impact point and lapped at Aizen's feet before forming a circle around him. Fire exploded into existence, a raging inferno that engulfed the man at its center as if he were no more than an insect.
Aizen leaned back and enjoyed the show. The old man honestly, truly believed he would kill him. Maybe Yamamoto thought he would die trying — it was arrogant to even consider otherwise — but he still fully believed that he would be the one to kill Aizen, God and Lord of Las Noches, a man who had managed to fool the entirety of the Seireitei for centuries on end.
Ha. To think that someone like Yamamoto could destroy the barrier that kept him from Death's snapping jaws — it brought a malicious smile to his face.
"Come now, sou-taichou," Aizen said quietly. His voice pervaded the roar of the fire around him, clearer and sharper than any nightmare. "You don't really think that will stop me, do you?"
Yamamoto, as Aizen expected, did not even bother to reply. To the captain's left, the wall began to give out and brought part of the ceiling down with it. Neither Aizen nor Yamamoto showed that they noticed, even when debris landed mere inches from their immobile forms.
Aizen sensed the approaching attack seconds before it hit and easily braced himself. There was an eruption of hot air and flames so strong that it broke momentarily through Aizen's guard. His narrow eyes widened by a fraction and he quickly removed himself from the center of the inferno, appearing at Yamamoto's side. The old man's sword slashed out to greet him. Aizen dodged and moved again, blocking another devastating blow and shattering an adjacent wall with the force of his deflection. The strand of dark hair that hung perpetually in his face had been singed. Aizen frowned and lifted a hand.
It was a simple matter of deflecting and striking. The two men moved through the palace's bone-white interior in a blaze of fire and spiritual pressure, leaving disaster smoking in their path. Yamamoto was holding back by the thinnest of restraints. Aizen knew the minute the old man released his full power, he would have to answer, and Las Noches would be nothing more than a charred pile of rubble. And he would be the victor. He could not possibly be anything else. Victory was as necessary as life. So focused was he that he barely noticed the change in the abomination's reiatsu before it was too late.
He felt the rotting spiritual signature fluctuate in a rage. His instincts warned that something had gone terribly wrong, not at all according to plan, as everything should have been — the old man was striking again and this time he was not holding even the smallest vestige of power back — he had to block now or he would be defeated — the Deity's reiatsu suddenly swarmed around him, suffocating, choking him, silent and cold and completely unexpected.
Aizen shuddered and, for the first time in what seemed like eternity, faltered. Yamamoto's strike cut into his chest. The scent of blood and boiled flesh sprayed into the air. Swooping over him like a flood, the Deity's control caught up his soul and self and smothered them. One lost instant of control was all it took, and Aizen was brought down. His last thought was of impossibility. He was a god — he was untouchable —
The wall that kept Death at bay broke down.
"Do you feel that?"
Ryuuken pressed his lips into a thin, irritated line and blinked the water out of his eyes. He took aim and fired in one smooth motion. The arrow bit the Arrancar in the chest and a second followed to join its mate. The Hollow fell with a keening wail. Ryuuken knocked another arrow.
"Of course I feel it," he said curtly to the man at his side. His cool gaze flicked to the side, reflecting bright red light. "Cero headed your way."
"Oh." Isshin dodged just in time to avoid the green-eyed Espada's attack. "But you feel it. What is it?"
"I don't know," Ryuuken hissed, "but it's coming this way."
It was true. He could feel it approaching in a rush of power that was cold, putrid, innocent and grieving all at the same time. It was a mockery of all that was balanced, a battle for control that seemed to go four ways and one way at once. Ryuuken could only hope that it was an ally. It was by sheer luck and chance that he and Isshin had lasted this long. He was already bleeding from numerous injuries and Isshin was even worse off, though of course he didn't show it. Several shinigami that had been in the area had joined them in their efforts to protect Karakura, soon followed by a group of rogues who called themselves the Vizard. Ryuuken was unsure of these new allies, but, though he hated to admit it – these men were strangers, after all, and strangers were not to be trusted – since their appearance, the tide of battle had started to lean toward their side.
The shinigami had reassured them that reinforcements would soon be on the way. But this new reiatsu didn't feel like reinforcement. It didn't even feel like it should have been let out of whatever cage they'd kept it in. Whatever it was, the Arrancar seemed to sense it as well; all of a sudden, the attacks lessened in force and frequency. The enemy began to draw back, looking around nervously. Ryuuken felt the alien presence swell up in power and strength without warning.
"Brace yourselves!" Isshin shouted to their allies.
It was as if the world held its breath. Shinigami, Quincy, and Vizard all drew back in a thick group. Even the enemy paused long enough to look around in confusion, feeling the incoming presence for themselves.
One moment, the only sound was the impact of rain and screaming humans running down in the city with all the chaos of fleeing cockroaches. The next, the air was filled with a creeping pressure that snuck across space like a slick snake. A tendril of reiatsu brushed against Ryuuken and he bristled, automatically going for his bow, but…the reiatsu kept on going. It slid past him as if he did not exist. Glancing around, he noticed that most of his allies wore the same expression of relieved bewilderment.
A shriek from the enemy's side said the Hollow were not so lucky. Ryuuken watched in stunned incomprehension as Hollow after Hollow twisted and writhed before going utterly still, as if someone had simply turned on the "off" switch in their wretched bodies. Some went quickly and others didn't. The Espada were the last to go. They fought against the reiatsu as best they could, but the presence had arrived too soon and unannounced for them to fully combat its effects. Soon, they too were standing still with empty, glazed eyes.
Ryuuken and Isshin shared a glance.
"What on earth…?" Isshin said aloud.
"I've no idea," Ryuuken admitted slowly.
The spiritual pressure around them changed. All of a sudden, it was swelling up, pressing on them from everywhere and anywhere. Ryuuken's hair crackled with energy, his Quincy bow picking up on the spiritual electricity and humming loud enough to make his ears twinge. Then, as sudden as it had come, the pressure was gone. Ryuuken could only watch in amazement as his enemies appeared to disintegrate from the inside out, collapsing in on themselves like rotted buildings.
Finally, all that was left of Aizen's greatest warriors was a collection of dried husks. The corpses fell from the sky to the city below, joining the rain in their descent. Ryuuken watched in silence, not understanding, but accepting and silently sending thanks to whatever being had intervened. Their salvation could not have come without a price.
Yume knew when she was no longer in Rukongai.
The ground she tumbled onto was not dusty and unforgiving, but grassy and prickly, and it only hurt her head a little bit when she banged it on the ground. Something heavy landed on top of her, nearly squishing all the air out of her aching lungs, but rolled right off in a smooth motion that could only belong to one person. With the pressure off her chest, Yume was content to lie on her back in the grass forever. Her lower left leg was shrieking with pain, she felt so heavy she feared she might sink into the grass, and her throat was still sore from being clawed at by the Deity, but she was alive. Her starving lungs filled with air, good, clean air that brought life with it. Life. She was alive.
She was mildly surprised to find a hint of concern in the low, elegant voice. The corner of her mouth twitched up and she opened one eye. Byakuya's face appeared high above her, fitted against a bright background of sun, sky, and brilliantly green trees. Trees had never been so green, the sun had never been so bright, the air had never been clearer without the Deity's tainted soul, and the sky…there were no words, even for Yume, on how the sky looked.
Well…there was one.
"Pretty," she said happily, and closed her eye again.
There was a quiet sigh from Byakuya's vicinity. And she probably imagined it, but she detected an undercurrent of fondness in that released breath. "Yamazaki. I presume you are well?"
"Mm-hmm," Yume hummed dreamily. Pain drifted up from her leg and she frowned. "Umm…I think my leg got hit, though. 'S alright. Still works."
Yume opened her eyes with a reluctant whine and lifted herself on her elbows. Her wide-eyed gaze went from Byakuya towering above her to the scorched fabric of his right sleeve. The pain was gone in an instant, pushed back to the recesses of her mind. Yume got to her knees and lifted her hands to Byakuya's arm. He did not pull back like she expected him to. A little thrill of happiness went through her like one of Uryu's arrows.
"You got hit," she said simply, barely brushing the charred skin with the tips of her fingers. Byakuya raised an eyebrow.
"As did you," he said. Yume blinked and peered over her shoulder at her lower left leg. Sure enough, the white cloth surrounding it had been completely burnt away. The skin was not as badly damaged as Byakuya's, but it was still enough to make bile rise in her throat. Yume swallowed, hard.
"Oh," she said in a tiny whisper. "Ow."
Byakuya was kneeling by her side in an instant, his hands easing her back into a sitting position. Yume didn't ask what he was doing; her head was still swirling with dizzy shock, and besides, she trusted the stoic captain.
"Extend your leg," he said, not unkindly, and she obeyed. Byakuya's hands hovered over the seared, blistered skin before coming down to rest lightly. Yume dug her fingers into the grass and shivered at the sudden urge to itch the pain away, but she didn't make a sound.
Byakuya did not betray her trust. He uttered the words to a kidō spell, lifted his hands, and just like that, her leg was healed. Yume gaped at the sudden lack of burning, itching pain, and wiggled her toes experimentally. Silently adding a thousand words of gratitude to her gaze, she looked up and beamed at Byakuya.
"It's all better," she said, feeling very silly with such a wide grin on her face. Byakuya's expression betrayed no exasperation or irritation at her open happiness. He merely turned, uttered the same words as before, and turned back with a newly healed arm. Yume looked back down at her leg and got to her feet, staring at Byakuya with unconcealed wonder.
"How did you do that?" she asked. "Get me away from the Deity, I mean. It had me in its tentacles! Its tentacles!"
Byakuya looked at her quizzically. "I pulled you free and used shun-po to take us here."
Yume leaned back on her heels, tilting her head. "Really? That's just it? Oh. Oh. It's gone! The Deity — Bya-kun, it's finally gone!"
She couldn't help it. Her spirit was bursting with happiness, and she felt so completely, utterly free that she was sure she could just float up, up into the sky and never come down…
"Gone!" She shouted ecstatically to the smiling sky, and threw her arms in the air. "Gone! No more Deity, no more nightmares, no more running and hiding and being scared of dying every second of every day…it's all just… gone!"
Yume paused and lowered her arms, looking around her. "And…where are we?" She turned in a little circle. They were in a clearing toward the edge of a sunny forest. Beyond the trees, the ground sloped into a long hill before taking up more trees and continuing the forest.
"I needed to speak to you without interruption," said Byakuya. Yume's head jerked up in surprise.
"Why? What's the matter?"
Byakuya was looking down at her from a long way up, but there was nothing condescending about his gaze. "I need to speak with you," he said, "about where you will run."
Yume stared at him blankly. "Huh?"
"It is unsafe here," the captain elaborated. "The release of the Deity sealed your fate with the Courts. If you remain here, you will be prosecuted and most likely sentenced to execution. Therefore, you must leave. Immediately."
"Wait, wait!" Yume held up her hands at the panic that came over her. "Slow down. They're gonna…kill me? For something I couldn't even control?"
"By bringing yourself and your sisters to the Seireitei, you endangered the lives of everyone in Soul Society," Byakuya stated bluntly.
"But I wasn't even going to stay that long! I just…I didn't want to be alone anymore. If I stayed in the Real World, Skinner would have found me and taken me back to Gin. So I came here. I thought I'd be safe here. And now they want to execute me!"
Byakuya maintained his emotionless mask for the duration of her defense. "There is the possibility of using Kurotsuchi in your defense."
"What, Kurotsuchi-kun and his experiments? No! He's long gone, gone far away, probably until this whole thing blows over, or at least for another day or two. But we can't say anything about him or his labs. What will happen to Nemu-chan?"
A thin line appeared between Byakuya's eyebrows. "Yamazaki, in all honesty, your compassion is illogical and blocks the due process of law."
"But you don't have anything against him!"
"I have your word."
Yume drove her fingers into her palms and gave Byakuya the look as closest to a meaningful glare. "I haven't said anything."
The little line got deeper. "I do not understand you," Byakuya said hesitantly. "Kurotsuchi hurt you, performed illegal experiments, and failed to carry out his duty as your guardian. He deserves punishment."
Yume made her eyes very round. "Punishment? For what? I haven't said anything. And when I was attached to the Deity, I adjusted its power just so it would wipe Kurotsuchi-kun's labs free of any evidence when it blew."
Byakuya only stared at her for a long moment. "Illogical child."
Yume grinned at Byakuya's frown and folded her arms. "And I'm not running, just so you know. Not without my sisters, and they're still back there. I won't leave them behind."
"You will be arrested, executed —"
"And if I'm not?" Yume sucked in a long, deep breath and steadied herself. "I'm tired of running, Bya-kun. I've been running all my after life. Hee hee, get it? After…okay, sorry, that was bad. But honestly. I'm tired of being the victim, of always being chased by people convinced I'm something to be used or a criminal. I'm staying. I'll take what I deserve."
Byakuya thought for a moment, studying her determined expression. "With that look on your face, I suppose is no hope of convincing you otherwise," he said.
Yume shook her head. "Nope. Sorry, Bya-kun. You can testify for me if ya want, though. It'd be nice to have some support when everyone turns on me."
"Not everyone," Byakuya contradicted her. "I assume your ryoka friends will want to support you and your siblings."
"Oh!" Yume laced her fingers together with a giddy smile. "That's right! Ishida-kun and Orihime-chan and them, yeah? I have all the support I need. And at least if they do convict me and my sisters, you guys can help persuade them not to execute me, right? Eheh…"
Byakuya inclined his head. "We will do our best."
Yume beamed up at him. "Thanks, Bya-kun. I know you will."
She reached out one hand and took Byakuya's hand, grinning when he did not try to move away.
"Okay," she said, and her voice only trembled a little at the ends. Yume cleared her throat and, lifting a smile that was much more like her onto her lips, threw a finger in the air. "Beam us up, Scottie!"
And in a flash of sound and light, they were gone.
Two months later…
Uryu stared at the door, and the door stared back.
He blinked and leaned away. The stress was driving him crazy, he was sure — what kind of phrase was "the door stared back," anyway?
Orihime's smooth fingers slid up the back of his neck and pressed into the fringe of his hair comfortingly. He looked back and gave her a grateful smile, and her lips curved up in reply.
"It's okay, Ishida-kun," she said. "Take all the time you need."
Uryu nodded and steeled himself one more time.
"I'm not afraid," he said quietly. "We just haven't spoken since…"
"I know." Orihime sighed and leaned her head on his shoulder, closing her eyes. "Kurosaki-kun's father told me he fought for you, though, so he must still care. He'll listen, Ishida-kun."
Uryu remained silent for a moment and simply listened to the house breathe. He could hear clocks ticking away in rooms linked to the hallway he stood in, Orihime's soft breath against his neck, and his own heart beating steadily in his chest. His father's house was as silent and cacophonous as the last time he had visited.
"Inoue-san," he said. Orihime shifted her chin on his shoulder and looked up at him with large grey eyes.
He leaned forward and kissed her. She smiled against his lips and kissed him back. The first time they had kissed, it had been awkward and shy, shared the moment they had stepped back into Karakura and realized with equal rushes of relief that they were home again, and safe. It had been nearly two months since then, and there was nothing shy or nervous in the way they touched each other now; there was only a pure, innocent compassion that would grow as time went on.
Orihime drew back and watched as Uryu took one more breath and knocked on the door to his father's study. They waited mere moments, their heartbeats starting to pick up in speed. Then, from inside the room, Uryu's father spoke.
Orihime took Uryu's fingers and gave them a supportive squeeze. "I'll wait out here," she said softly.
He let her fingers fall with reluctance before opening the door and stepping through.
Ryuuken was standing at his desk, staring straight at Uryu when he walked in and closed the door. Uryu paused for a moment, unsure of what he should do, and came forward slowly to the other side of his father's desk. For countless seconds, the only sound in the study was the ticking of a clock on Ryuuken's desk.
"You're back," said Ryuuken. "I was beginning to wonder if you'd ever come."
"You're my father. Like it or not, I can't just ignore you."
Ryuuken lifted an eyebrow and appeared like he wanted to say something about Uryu ignoring him for several years, but held his tongue. "If you're looking for an apology, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. Though I will admit…"
The older man cleared his throat and shifted his gaze to his fingers, which moved restlessly on the desktop. Uryu could not help but stare. It wasn't like his father to fidget.
"I suppose I may have been…harsh in my reaction to your allegiance to the shinigami. And illogical; I cannot simply erase the last Quincy from my lineage. You are my son. It would do well not to push you away."
Once he had gotten over the shock of hearing his father come as close to making an apology as he would, Uryu furrowed his forehead and frowned. "Then why do you try to keep me from my friends?"
"One of them is a shinigami, another a shinigami representative, which is just as bad. Have you forgotten what they did to our people? Have you forgotten your ancestors' suffering?"
"They're different," Uryu insisted. "You don't know them."
Ryuuken leaned back and studied his son. "No, I don't. But I see what trouble they get you into with Soul Society. They have ties to the shinigami, people who have tried to have you killed —"
"They saved our lives when Aizen struck. Don't you remember? You fought with them against the Espada. Don't tell me they're dangerous when they helped save your life, too."
Ryuuken stiffened. "Uryu, everything I do, I do to protect you."
There was nothing Uryu could say to that, nothing to counter with, even if he wanted to. He watched his father sigh, marveling that he had never noticed how weary his father could look.
"I promised your mother and grandfather I would," Ryuuken said, still refusing to look at his son. "I swore that I would keep you safe from any threat that came at you, be it school bully or demon or shinigami. I only do what I do to keep you safe from harm. And you are making it very difficult to look after you when you run off into life-threatening missions every chance you get."
Ryuuken finally met his son's gaze and continued speaking before Uryu could. "I know you are older. I can see that you are more than capable of taking care of yourself. And I've seen that you will ignore my warnings, if only to rebel. If what you wish is for me to leave you be, then I will respect that wish. Call me stranger, and I will gladly become one. Just do not expect me to stop checking in when you, as you eventually will, land yourself in trouble you cannot handle."
Uryu smirked at the veiled slight and shook his head. "I never said I wanted you to be a stranger to me. I'm your son. And I'll hold you to your promise."
Ryuuken nodded in acceptance. Uryu could feel his father's gaze on his back as he turned and walked quietly toward the door, could feel his father watching over him even after he had left the room and closed the door behind him. He let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been keeping prisoner and gave Orihime, who came to him from down the hall, a light smile. She saw his expression and wrapped her arms around him.
"Oh, good," she said, "I'm so happy for you, Ishida-kun."
He returned her embrace and contented himself with breathing in her scent. She leaned back and lifted her chin in a question.
"Where do we go now?"
Uryu smiled and took her hands in his. "How about we take a walk over to Urahara-san's? I'm sure Yamazaki-san would enjoy the company."
Orihime let him lead her out of the house, and it was only then that she tilted her face into the sunlight and breathed in.
"Everything's all right now, isn't it, Ishida-kun?"
Uryu's only reply was to squeeze her hand. Orihime laughed and tugged him down the street, toward Urahara's shop. As they went, basking in the bright morning sunlight, she started to hum a happy tune under her breath.
"Hello again…hello again, halcyon days, I know you're here to stay…"
Byakuya was beginning to get a headache.
He had arrived at his office early to complete some of Renji's paperwork (how that boy managed to slack off so much and not get fired, he didn't know) and had been caught by several shinigami with even more paperwork for him to sign before he could leave again. Now he had been in sitting in the same spot for more than four hours, his limbs had lost their feeling a long time ago, and this idiot messenger would not stop blathering at him. To top it all off, Renji was chuckling at his captain's predicament in the corner…with not a page of his overdue paperwork in sight.
"I'm sorry, sir, but these papers must be signed now," the young shinigami said with an apologetic grimace. "Commander-General's orders, sir."
Byakuya gripped his pen irritably and stared accusingly at the stack of papers in the messenger's hands. The shinigami had been trying to convince him of the importance of the matter for nearly five minutes. Seeing that he wouldn't be able to shake off this one, the captain allowed himself an inward sigh and took the papers. The idiot messenger beamed.
"I pity you, you know that?" Renji said fifteen minutes later, once Byakuya had finished signing and the messenger had (finally) departed. Byakuya sent his lieutenant a warning glance.
"Watch your tongue. You grate upon my nerves."
Renji blinked. "I…grate upon your nerves?"
Byakuya narrowed his eyes. Renji cowered.
"Sorry. Anyway, you're done here, right?"
"Oh." Renji watched his captain rise and move quickly for the door. "Oh. You're going there. Alright, I won't keep you."
Byakuya paused at his lieutenant's tone and, deciding he wasn't in a very good mood, pointed to the towering stack of paperwork yet to be signed.
"Those are for the rebuilding of the property damaged in the War. I trust you will have them signed and out of my office by the time I return?"
The look Renji gave him was positively loathsome. Byakuya, as calculating as ever, was already far away from the division by that time and was spared the indignity.
It irritated him, the knowledge that he was late and would most likely be chided on it by a fifteen-year-old girl. For this reason, Byakuya moved as quickly as he could in creating a door the Real World and stepping across the dimensions.
He emerged in Urahara's basement. The captain took a moment to observe the craggy rocks around him and the faux sky above his head. The only thing that offset the quiet atmosphere was the girl moving with dangerous grace as she went through her training movements.
Almost as soon as he was clear of the portal, the girl noticed his presence. She moved fluidly from the middle of one of her positions and swung her zanpakutou into an attack position. The moment her eyes set on his face, though, she lowered her sword to her side, eyes glinting warily.
"Kuchiki," she said coldly. Her jaw worked as if uncertain what words to spit out. "You are late."
Byakuya barely acknowledged the awkward silence between them. The first time he had met this girl, she had tried to kill him. The last time he'd seen her, he had played a significant part in earning her back her freedom. Now, he could care less about Setsuna. He had come here for one reason, and one reason only.
"Where is your sister?"
Setsuna drew back, her spine going rigid as she lifted her eyebrows stiffly at him. "Yume?"
Byakuya inclined his head in agreement. Setsuna sheathed her zanpakutou with a snick-click and folded her arms across her chest. "She is not here. She left for her walk about half an hour ago. She waited, but as I said before, you were late."
He smoothly ignored the jibe aimed at him and lifted his chin the slightest bit. "Do you know where she is?"
Setsuna lowered her eyebrows at him, her frown becoming a vague scowl. "No. I do not often accompany her on her morning walks, and when I do, she changes her path each time."
"I see." Byakuya moved to stride past her without another word. He could feel her prickly glare on his back. The air fairly bristled with her indignation.
The captain paused, tempted to keep walking to teach the unfriendly girl a lesson, but he turned to see her scowling at him with a fresh vigor. Her bright green eyes wandered uneasily from his face to the ground, and then back up to meet his unwavering gaze.
"I know it has been two months since the trial, but...I have yet to thank you for assisting us in escaping execution. When we — Zazie, Yume and I — were in the court…you did not have to aide us. But you did. That was…that was an unusually righteous thing for you to do."
Byakuya hesitated at what sounded suspiciously like half a thank-you from the isolated girl. She was still scowling at him as if challenging him to laugh at her, not that he would ever sink so low. Still…
He dipped his head forward in acknowledgment of Setsuna's unexpected gratitude. Then, without another word, he shun-po'ed up to the rooms above the basement, leaving the eldest triplet alone with her thoughts and attack routines.
Byakuya appeared in the kitchen of Urahara's house. His sudden emergence startled the room's seven occupants half out of their wits; the youngest of the girls squeaked and stared at him with impossibly huge eyes, while the third Yamazaki triplet leapt off her feet with a high shriek and dropped the bowl she had been carrying in her hands. It fell with a clatter and emptied half its contents onto the floor. Zazie seemed unaware that she had let it fall and stared up at him with surprised violet eyes.
"Kuchiki-san," Zazie whispered. "You…I, umm…"
"Oy, don't scare us like that!" Ichigo was propped up against the kitchen counter, a hand over his heart as Rukia gave him a withering glower. Byakuya ignored the boy and scanned the room, spotting Orihime and Chad seated at the table with Uryu and Rukia.
"Rukia," he greeted cordially.
She smiled at her older brother. "Hello, Nii-san."
"Eh? What's going on over here?"
Byakuya turned a fraction at the sound of Urahara's voice and found the shopkeeper standing slouched in the doorway. The man tilted his head up in curiosity at his unexpected visitor and smirked.
"Kuchiki-taichou? What a pleasant surprise. Tell me…what can you possibly be here for?"
The youngest girl huffed a soft sigh and bent to retrieve the fallen bowl. "I'll clean this up. Good morning, Urahara-san."
Urahara gave the soft-spoken girl a bright smile. "Morning, Ururu." Tilting his head to address Byakuya, he said, "The girls were just making breakfast for us. Want some?"
Byakuya shook his head. "Do you know where Yamazaki is?"
Urahara pursed his lips in mock puzzlement and motioned to Zazie, who still had the position of a trapped deer. "I don't know what you mean. She's right behind you."
Byakuya fought back a wave of annoyance. "I meant Yume," he said, using the personal title reluctantly. Urahara's smirk reappeared and he shrugged.
"She went for a walk just before we came," Orihime offered. "Maybe if you hurry, you can catch her before she gets too far."
Giving the seated girl a grateful nod, Byakuya turned to look at Zazie. She clenched her hands in front of her and stared up at him with a somewhat fearful look in her violet eyes. What she said next belied her frightened posture.
"Yume was afraid you wouldn't come," she stated. "She thought she might not see you again for a while. She was worried."
Byakuya blinked and carefully schooled his features.
"I have been otherwise occupied," he said vaguely. Feeling that he should say something else, he questioned, "I trust you are all well?"
"Oh, yeah," Urahara interrupted before Zazie could reply. "We all get along fine. Being banished isn't so bad, is it, Zazie-kun? It's like a three-way trade; they can all stay here, as long as they put in some work. Setsuna's training to guard Karakura from invaders to stave off her debt for wrecking Soul Society, and Zazie, well, she's a great cook and a real help around the house. Yume has a part-time job since she's finally turned fifteen." He let loose a short chuckle. "It's like my house is a required stop for the drifters. I don't know how I get stuck with them."
"Are we a burden, Urahara-san?" Zazie asked quietly. Urahara laughed and moved to ruffle Zazie's raven-black hair.
"No, Zazie-kun, never. Besides, even if you three didn't do something with yourselves, at least I can always say that I housed the former Deity herself!"
Byakuya felt flicker of distaste at the same time Zazie flinched. Ichigo growled and Uryu and Rukia shared twin frowns. Urahara only smiled. "I'm kidding. Relax, Zazie-kun, you're safe here."
For the first time Byakuya could remember since meeting the skittish child, Zazie relaxed and offered a bright smile. She looked so much like Yume that it unnerved him.
"If Yamazaki is not here," he said, drawing his cool façade back around him, "I will be leaving."
"Of course." Urahara dipped his head forward and fully smiled. "Don't be a stranger, Kuchiki-taichou. Feel free to drop by and visit your favorite triplet any time."
Byakuya frowned disapprovingly at the comment. Ichigo's goodbye caught him before he could vanish from the kitchen.
"Yeah. See you later, Byakuya!"
Rukia jumped and swatted the orange-haired boy on the arm. "Ichigo! Treat my brother with some respect."
"I am respectin' him!"
Uryu sighed. "Kurosaki, you are so childish…"
The kitchen erupted into heated chatter. Byakuya very prudently decided to leave.
He caught a snippet of a normal conversation from Urahara before he left, just a simple inquiry that hinted at much happier, carefree times.
"Now, Zazie-kun— about those pancakes…"
Finding Yume's reiatsu signature offered Byakuya no trouble. He pinpointed her location and reappeared at the side of a wide river. The sun could not have been up for more than four hours, he could tell; it glistened along the water with a fresh light that would ripen as the day went on. The morning air still retained the briskness of departing night, and drops of dew clung to his sandaled feet as he stepped forward in the grass. Byakuya surveyed his surroundings. The area he was standing in seemed more secluded than the rest of the river, set at an incline that could be reached by a set of stairs leading from the street. Jogging down those stairs, her long ebony hair pulled back in a taut ponytail, was Yume.
Her breath clouded the air in silver puffs, her blue gaze focused intently on her feet as she passed down each step. She did not notice him until she reached the end of the stairs and looked up. When she did see him, she balked, blinking as if she could not believe her eyes. The moment of hesitation passed quicker than thought. In an instant, a wide smile had overtaken her heart-shaped face and she was bouncing on her heels with joy.
Yume darted forward as if intending to tackle him in a hug. Byakuya remained as still as he possibly could and kept in a sigh of relief when she pulled up short, embarrassment staining her cheeks. She reached up a hand and fiddled with her hair.
"Ahaha," she gasped, refusing to meet his eye. "Sorry about that. I got a little…"
She lifted her head and met his eye. "Aw," she said decisively, "what the heck," and jumped on him.
Byakuya endured the crushing pressure around his middle and remained expressionless the entire time Yume clung to him and squealed with happiness. She released him and took a step back.
"You're late," she pouted.
Byakuya dipped his head, knowing she would take it as an apology. "My condolences. I was held back by office duties."
"Oh yeah." Yume folded her arms and tapped her foot. "How's the old world of the dead fairing, anyway?"
"As well as can be expected. Repairs are going well and the divisions are banding together in an effort to help those in need."
"And how's Nemu-chan doing?"
Byakuya tread carefully, knowing that it was a touchy subject for Yume; though she had taken measures to make sure Mayuri was not blamed, the man had ultimately landed in prison for his crimes. Nemu had become head of her division for the duration of her father's incarceration.
"Better," he said. "She has been able to lead her division adequately for some time now. She receives support from the rest of her division members and seems to be taking to her responsibility."
Yume beamed with relief. "Good. Looks like some independence is just the thing for her, huh?"
Byakuya nodded without comment.
"And what about you?" Yume stood on her tiptoes to look him as closely in the eyes as she could, though she still didn't clear his chin. "How've you been doing, Bya-kun? I've only seen you, what, five times since the trial? Which, I'm gonna say again, you did awesomely in."
"As well as can be expected," Byakuya said again neutrally. He hesitated, sensing that Yume wanted more than that, and resumed speaking. "Yamamoto-soutaichou is planning to send more shinigami to aid the Rukongai citizens in rebuilding their homes. He is considering sending my division along with them, so I may not be able to visit for some time after this."
Yume was alarmingly quiet. Byakuya could see where her thoughts were taking her and said, with only the smallest sign of hesitance, "That does not, however, mean I will stop visiting. I will take the time where I can."
The small girl looked up at him with a fragile smile. "You promise you won't just leave me?"
"…I promise," Byakuya said solemnly. Yume's face lit up with a grin that could have put the sun itself to shame.
"Thanks. Come on, Bya-kun, let's go for a walk!"
She danced away on light bird feet without waiting for him, her face raised into the early morning sky, and began to sing.
"Well, if you want to sing out, sing out. And if you want to be free, be free. 'Cause there's a million things to be, you know that there are…you know that there are…"
Yume had no signing talent whatsoever, but that did not stop her from singing at the top of her lungs. Byakuya watched the dancing girl for a moment, content in silently listening to her happy words. Then, finally, he followed her twirling silhouette, walking in that fresh light that would ripen as the day went on.
A/N: Thank you so much, everyone who has read and reviewed this story. You kept me going when I was at my most discouraged.
- The Ivory Deity had a sequel, for a short while. It centered more around the relationship of Yume and Byakuya, and was rather angsty/whatever. I'd added another OC, as well, within the first draft of the sequel. This is the summary...
Fading Ashes: by Kimsa Ki-Lurria
"Sequel to The Ivory Deity. Gin is reincarnated…as a child. With Yume on the run, Uryu and Orihime return to SS to find Byakuya in shambles, and Kurotsuchi missing. Suspicions abound, villains turned allies, and…Setsuna and Zazie are back? ByaOC, Ishihime."
For the very last time,