Heart's Desire Chapter 18

By C. LeShay

Genre: Romance, AU

Characters/Pairings: IchiRuki, etc.

Rating: Still a T until further notice!

Disclaimer: Unless my name is Kubo Tite, I do not and will never own BLEACH. Do not sue; I am not getting any money out of this. Heck, I even have to beg my muse to give me this chapter. If you appreciate my efforts, I do not accept cash – reviews will do. Let's just say that if it weren't for those who reviewed, this chapter would have been left to rot.

Hiatus is such a dirty word right now. But, dirt is something we cannot avoid.

***

Summary: They may be unable to deny their attraction for each other, but does the tension between them remain unresolved? Or will the arrival of an old love nip this epic romance in the bud? ('s note: Blame my muse – she is so cheesy today.) But before that can be answered, what has become of those at Seiretei? How do they deal in the aftermath of treachery and murder?

Recap of previous chapter:

Teuchi puts a fatherly hand on Rukia's shoulder. "Welcome to Soul Food. I hope you're ready for lunch hour."

With that, Inoue gives a shriek and jumps to hug her friend as the others offered their congratulations. Teuchi's stamp of approval was the standard for success.

It is because of the celebrations that no one hears the chimes sound as the doors open.

One fortunate soul was able to look and he cries "Boss! We have someone to take over Maki-chan!"

"Oh?" a masculine voice asks in amusement. "If you're all this excited, somebody give me a taste of that."

Everyone is immediately silenced.

As a chorus of 'welcome back, boss' and 'good to see you again, boss' is heard, Rukia's body freezes in surprise. She feels her body go numb and is unable to look up, her eyes remaining fixed on the plate of Okonomiyaki. The fact that Inoue gasps from across her is a sure sign that something unexpected has just happened.

The voice is hauntingly familiar.

There is silence, only punctuated by the sounds of someone walking towards her.

Oh Kami… no!

Rukia swallows nervously before she lifts her head up to look at the owner of Soul Food. It was then she knew why everything about this place unnerved her and why the feeling of unease was persistent.

Her eyes meet a shocked stare.

Dimly, the sound of a bag hitting the floor is heard, but no one pays any attention to this. Everyone is riveted by the fact that their boss, the owner of the Soul Food was looking agape at the newly hired Okonomiyaki chef.

"Kuchiki Rukia?" he asks in disbelief, eyes mysteriously unreadable.

Rukia's heart jumps to her throat as her eyes water. No… No… not him… not here… not now…

"Kaien-dono…"

***

There were not many things that can render a Shiba speechless. As the former head of an illustrious noble clan and the fukutaicho of Gotei 14, Shiba Kaien has seen his fair share of shocking events that could actually immunize one from being caught unaware.

The presence of Kuchiki Rukia in the living world ranked high on the list of 'shocking events'. In fact, Kaien was sure his surprise and disbelief was written clearly in his face.

"Ah… Kaien-san," Teuchi calls out politely; smiling cheerfully, as he wipes his hands on the apron he wore around his waist. "It's good to have you back. This girl will be working with us today. I hope you don't mind, after all, you did ask me to hire someone the soonest as possible."

"Huh?" Kaien asks in confusion, not getting one thing that the older man said. Hire? Who? Now?

He looks at Rukia intently for a moment as if assessing her. Then it hits him all of a sudden. "You? Work?" he asks in a sharp bark, amused disbelief written plainly in his face. What has happened to the world if rich noblewomen were loitering around the Living World, looking for a job? "What the hell, Kuchiki – since when do princesses work in restaurants?"

Rukia's eyes widens as the other employees murmur around them. Apparently, the fact that the owner knows her was surprising for them. Now, they were probably wondering the same thing as well.

It had not been her intention to deceive or play anything. All she wanted was get a job – any job. Obviously, that had been too far of a stretch for her. Because instead of finding work; Rukia unwittingly brought in drama, once again.

Truly, she must have done something terrible in her past life to get this evil karma.

"Ano, Kaien-dono…" Inoue greets him haltingly; unaware of how she could tell the former fukutaicho of the 13th division of their predicament without divulging anything to the humans. "Rukia… Rukia is…"

Coming to the same conclusion, Kaien walks to the counter purposively, his eyes not once leaving the noblewoman's face. "Let's go, Kuchiki – we have a lot to talk about."

Wordlessly, Rukia follows, obviously still in a daze.

Kaien reaches out and grabs Rukia by the arm as he hurriedly leads her to the back part of the restaurant. His office – one that remained close whenever he was away. Ignoring the looks in his employees' eyes, he unlocks the door to his office and ushers the Kuchiki princess inside.

The door closes and the lock is placed with a soft click – and soon, Inoue is the focus of everyone's attention.

"Ehehe – I still haven't finished my food!" she tells them cheerfully as she makes a run back to the table. Scooting back to her seat, Inoue takes hold of the chopsticks and eats the remaining gyoza slowly and carefully.

Oh dear, Inoue thinks worriedly, Kaien-dono was here in Karakura.

Poor Rukia-san…

***

Kaien's office is small and sparsely furnished; but it was clean and orderly, just as his office had been in Seiretei.

A bit nervously, Rukia eyes the room, taking in the modern conveniences like the computer, the television, and the serviceable desk. Finally, she looks up at Shiba Kaien who is likewise staring at her, an unreadable expression on his face. "Good morning, Kaien-dono." She says, greeting him quietly. "It has been a long time, hasn't it?"

"What happened? Did that stuck-up Byakuya finally allow you to be posted to the living world?" he asks instantly. "I'm telling you – it's about time. Taicho would have promoted you…"

Wordlessly, Rukia shakes her head. "No. It's not like that…"

Kaien hears the nervousness inflicted in her voice. "Did something bad happen?"

Yet Rukia makes no reply and this causes Kaien to feel a bit apprehensive. Forcing himself to remain calm, he asks again. "What happened… Rukia?"

At his gentle tone, Rukia curses herself for being affected by it. She lets her eyes drop on the shiny floor, unable to bear looking at Kaien-dono and seeing whatever reaction he would have when she tells him the truth. "I… left, Kaien-dono." She tells him, voice soft yet even and strong. "I cannot return… not anymore."

Kaien says nothing and Rukia is forced to think that maybe she stunned him into silence. After all, it would be hard to imagine why someone like Kuchiki Rukia would leave Seiretei and her division so easily. Rukia knew no other life than being a Kuchiki and being a Shinigami – the idea of leaving her home was truly preposterous.

Suddenly, strong arms reach out and Rukia is suddenly pulled into her former superior's arms. Her face is pressed against a broad chest as she is cocooned in familiar strength.

"Did it become too much, Rukia?" he asks her worriedly, though he tries his best to make his tone softer than usual, in order not to spook her. "I'm sorry. I should have known Byakuya wouldn't be able to take care of you. I should have taken you with me, Rukia."

To her horror, Rukia felt tears prickle her eyes. "Kaien-dono…" oh dear… carefully, she extracted herself from his arms. "Please do not worry about me anymore – I am fine, I assure you."

Kaien gives her a fond smile. "I can see that. You are more… aware of your strength and you don't seem to be too closed up anymore. It feels like you've really grown."

"So… do I get the job?" she asks him teasingly as she returns his smile. "I do have to earn money, you know."

He laughs, reaching out once more to muse Rukia's hair. "The job's yours. I remember how you cook, Kuchiki – if you want to work here, I'm probably the luckiest restaurant owner in Karakura."

"Ano… Kaien-dono –

"Kaien. No more formalities here. This is the living world, our ranks and stations in life has no bearing here. So call me Kaien and I'll stop calling you Kuchiki yuki-hime."

Rukia nods, relieved; although still a bit unsettled with his obvious teasing. Kuchiki yuki-hime indeed, it was his favorite nickname for her. "Ano… Shiba-san -

"Shiba-san?" Kaien asks, in scandalized horror, eyes bugging out comically. "What the hell? Still can't call me Kaien, eh? Look here, Rukia, you're no Kuchiki princess here, feel free to call me Kaien."

Wincing at the fact that she really isn't Kuchiki Rukia anymore, she nods carefully. "Ano… Kaien…" she asks, after getting an encouraging smile. "Where did you get your gigai?"

"You know Urahara?"

"That perverted sandal-hat?"

At her indignant tone, Kaien laughs heartily. "You know him then? You got your gigai from him?" Well, unless when running away from Seiretei, she made a dash for the 13th division's gigai stash (and Kaien doubts any of them were remotely human-looking), it was kind of obvious that Urahara Shoten was the first stop.

Rukia nods, quickly taking out a phone and almost shoving it against the man's nose in her haste to show the girly and disgustingly pink contraption that was practically useless for her. "Did he give you something like this?"

Eyeing the phone curiously, kaien shakes his head. "Nope. He gives away free phone now?"

"Its so we can turn into our shinigami forms."

Kaien's amusement disappears immediately. "You're still doing shinigami duties?" he asks, eyes taking over her expression guardedly.

Rukia is aware of what it is he really wanted to ask. As a shinigami defector, Kaien was a wanted man if anyone could prove that he was not dead all these time. Naturally, any shinigami on the run would be wary of fellow shinigamis seeing them. The situation is something Rukia understands perfectly. Because she and the others had been very careful in moving away from jurisdictions any shinigami might potentially be.

Well, technically she was not a shinigami any longer, even if she did her best to help as often as she could… "Well, Karakura is infested with hollows. How do you fight them?"

Surely there must be another way to access spiritual power outside these ridiculous technological contraptions that were more annoying than anything.

There is a flinty glint in his eyes as he looks out of the window. His stance is tensed and guarded, as if he is ready to engage in battle anytime soon. "Haven't been a shinigami since I got here, Rukia. Never have, never will anymore."

"What?" Rukia asks or rather splutters, aghast at this tidbit of information. "But Kaien… we are shinigamis – it is our duty."

Kaien sighs, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand.

Rukia feels a bit pained, seeing the familiar gesture of agitation and annoyance acted out in her presence once again, after many years.

"Rukia, I don't consider myself as shinigami anymore."

As she tended to be honest with herself, Rukia admits that she is stunned beyond belief. Kaien-dono had always been very serious and emphatic about his shinigami duty. It was one of the things that she considered as constant. It was because of Kaien-dono that she discovered her resolve to be a shinigami, and it was because of him that the burden of being a Kuchiki lessened considerably.

"Rukia –

"It is not my position to judge, and it is never my position to ask." She manages to speak in a carefully modulated tone, clenched hands finally loosening and hanging limply against her sides. "Your decision is your own; I know you have thought it over before you decided on this. Forgive me for prying."

He stops for a moment, as if unsure of what to do or what to say. "You have nothing to ask forgiveness for."

Rukia nods once again. A Kuchiki must always remain polite no matter what situation she is faced with. Besides, she thought with a hidden grimace, she had no hold whatsoever on him anyway. She had no right to question him at all. Forcing a smile on her lips, she looked up to face Kaien. "So… when do I start?"

Somewhat relieved that things have steered back into neutral and comfortable territory, Kaien smiles in response. "How does 'now' sound?" At her surprised look, he shrugs, "I'm sure you were told that we have troubles during lunch. We're a chef short so if you can start today -

"Good as any." She tells him confidently, her smile becoming more genuine.

He looks at her again, with the same closed expression on his face as before. Then he nods approvingly. "That's the spirit, Kuchiki!"

As she winces, Kaien mistakes this for disapproval that he was addressing her not as a friend. "I mean… Rukia-chan!" At her blanching reaction, he laughs. "Yeah, you'll have to put up with that again now that you're working here. Come on," he says as he grabs hold of her shoulder to lead her. "You have to meet everyone. Wait – Inoue isn't applying for a job here, right?"

Wordlessly, Rukia shakes her head. She is somewhat in a daze as Kaien shepherds her around, muttering that it was only his luck that the disaster of kitchens decided not to bother his restaurant. His jovial mood only makes Rukia feel guiltier, seeing as she somewhat withheld information regarding her current change in social status.

As she watches Kaien joke with his employees and be friendly with the regular customers, Rukia wonders: why is it that her heart isn't beating that fast enough?

***

Jyuushiro Ukitake carefully walks down the hallway in the Court of Pure Souls. He is aware of the glances the shinigamis send his way, but as a seasoned Taicho who lived through violence and peace, he takes all of it with grace.

It wasn't the first time people talked about him, questioning his abilities to be a leader, and neither will it be the last.

The rumor mills were now churning once more; on how Kuchiki Rukia defected from Seiretei together with Kurosaki Ichigo and his fukutaicho, as well as Rukia's friend, Inoue Orihime. As if that wasn't enough, his subordinate was now the main suspect in the demise of Aizen Sousuke, her fiancée and Taicho of the 5th division.

Due to recent uproar, most of the Taichos who were in Hueco Mundo returned to Seiretei ahead of time in order to assist in the inquiry and investigation on the matter that involved Kurosaki Ichigo Taicho and his wife, Kurosaki Rukia. The defection was a terrible blow to the morale of the shinigami as they lost two Taichos in the process.

To make matters worse, Yamamoto Sou-Taicho just returned today to make sure that this problem was sorted out.

And everyone who lived this long knew just how the Sou-Taicho sorted things out.

Jyuushiro sighs worriedly. Yamamoto was a good teacher and he was a cunning and intelligent shinigami at that; but he was also ruthless when it came to persecuting those that caused trouble for his beloved Seiretei. Despite the older shinigami's fondness for Kurosaki Ichigo-Taicho, to say that he would crush the other if he were found guilty was an understatement.

"Why is it that you're almost always connected to whatever drama that happens in Seiretei, eh Cassanova?" the cheerful tones of his long-time friend and confidant, Kyouraku Shuunsui asked.

"Perhaps that has a lot to do with me."

"Or perhaps we needed livening up. Living all these years tends to make us stuffy stuck-ups."

Shaking his head in disapproval, Ukitake mutters, "Well, this is apparently not among the things Seiretei considers as 'fun.' And don't let Yamamoto Sou-Taicho hear you say that."

"Oh please, Yama-jii knows the truth too well." Kyouraku tells him jovially as he tips back his ridiculous hat slightly to give his friend an amused glance. "He's even more stuck-up than the Kuchikis themselves – and that's saying something."

"Don't let Byakuya-kun hear that." The other admonished, though with amusement. "Or he'll think he's slipping and he'd end up tightening the strings holding him up."

The two walk on in silence, as they passed the street that led to Kurosaki Taicho's 14th division offices in court.

"I wonder how his subordinates would act and feel about this…" muses Ukitake. "They've been through a lot since Ichigo-kun's attack on Kuchiki Taicho's division."

"Oh, I'm sure they'll be fine. You know the people who work for the Kurosakis – they're loyal to the extreme."

Ukitake says nothing in response. Instead, he makes a fervent prayer that Rukia and the others were to be in seclusion for a very long time.

***

"I told you – I dunno where he is!" Keigo shouted for the nth time, crossing his arms in annoyance. "If you have information – well, lucky you!"

From the opposite side of the holding cell, Soi Fon Taicho, of the 2nd division glares darkly. "You would have me believe that your own Taicho did not make you privy to anything? That is ridiculous!"

"Believe it." Mizuiro says cheerfully, giving the female Taicho a charming smile. It was actually nice to be in the 2nd division holding cell and interrogated by the strong-willed and decidedly older Soi Fon Taicho. Mizuiro had been, for a long time, fascinated with her. "Tactics and planning are wasted on him after all. Keigo's brain will shut down automatically if overloaded… and it overloads so easily."

"You're so mean!" Came Keigo's whining. "Like Taicho ever told you anything either, Mizu-kun." He sang. "You were too busy chasing girls to even attend meetings. You even had the gall to hide one in your supply closet!"

Soi Fon feels her head ache with dealing with these spineless morons. "ENOUGH fools!" she shouts, stamping her foot loudly. "Stop it, both of you!" Turning she faces Tatsuki who was in the next cell. "You –

"With all due respect, Taicho; our orders were to go to the 6th and capture Kuchiki Rukia, then bring her to our division. We know nothing else; not of his marriage plans, not of any other plans, and especially not of his escape." The female officer in the 14th division said calmly.

Snarling, Soi Fon gives Tatsuki her most severe glare. "Again; do you think me gullible or foolish to believe that? Aside from being his subordinate, you are a friend of the Kurosakis. Are you saying he didn't trust you guys enough?"

"He trusts us enough, which is why he never told us!" the other shouted.

"Tatsuki!" Keigo warns, giving the woman his first serious look of the whole day. "Calm down."

Mizuiro turns to Soi Fon Taicho. "Ichigo Taicho trusts us plenty enough, Soi Fon Taicho. This is exactly why he never made us privy to his plans."

"Because he knows we would go follow him wherever he went." Keigo finishes as he turns away from the fuming Tatsuki to look at the 2nd division Taicho.

Soi Fon finds herself getting enraged at their seditious words. "You all do realize that you just said something that is tantamount to treason, don't you?"

In her cell, Tatsuki huffs. "We are shinigamis of the 14th division. We follow our Taicho with no questions, unless evidences point to the contrary. We are his eyes, his hands, and his feet."

"Ichigo is not an evil man." Keigo adds seriously, standing up straighter and grabbing the bars in a tight grip. "No matter what he does – we believe in him and will follow him."

Mizuiro nods. "Loyalty in the 14th division is earned; and you will find that no one is left doubting of our Taicho. Not now."

"And not ever." The three say in unison.

The Taicho of the 2nd division feels the insane urge to go bankai on all of them and get it over with. After all, it would be a waste of time to deal with these three in a diplomatic manner. Her division was known for persuasive dealing hidden from the eyes of the entire Gotei 14 squads.

"Taicho!" fortunately, one of Soi Fon's elite guards speak out. The doors behind them open, and the limp figure of Sado is seen dragged by two shinigami guards. "We were unable to get anything from him, no matter what we did."

Soi Fon watched as the 14th division ranked shinigami stiffed as they saw their comrade tossed none-too-gently back into his cell. Their body language spoke of fury and their intent to maim, but so far… she wondered if it was an elaborate ploy or were they actually telling the truth.

Without another word, she turned on her heel and left, her guards trailing behind her. She needed time to re-evaluate her strategies.

As well as wonder how the hell Kurosaki was able to get people so damn loyal to him.

Once the doors were closed again and finally there was silence, the three remaining ranked shinigami of Ichigo's division gave collective sighs of relief.

"Man!" Keigo complained as he slid to the floor in a boneless heap of frazzled nerves. "I thought she was going to kill us, for sure. Her hand was twitching so close to her zanpaktuô…"

"Ichigo better be okay, because the moment I find him, he's dead!" Snarled Tatsuki as she punched one fist against her palm; eyes screaming bloody murder. "He better hide real good so I can't find him easily and make his wife a widow."

Mizuiro sighed. "Well… now we've done it for sure." He said softly, as he leaned against the wall. "They're going to execute us now."

"Look at the bright side, man! At least we got to say cool lines before we die!"

Tatsuki and Mizuiro shot Keigo a look.

"Soi Fon Taicho won't have to execute you – because I WILL!" Snarled Tatsuki as she tried to lunge through the bars separating her from Keigo.

***

"Hinamori fukutaicho." Hitsugaya called out. "Why aren't you in your division?"

As Hinamori Momo turned around slightly, Hitsugaya was mollified by his usually cheerful friend looking pale and sickly. It was as if all the reiatsu in her was being drained little by little. "You should not be here." He told her harshly.

But Hinamori said nothing as she sat amongst the roots of a large tree.

It was where they found Aizen Sousuke's body. "He's dead…" she murmured softly, although her hands were trembling as they gripped the fabric of her hakama tightly. "Taicho is… dead…"

From behind one of the surrounding trees, Matsumoto Rangiku leaned against the dry bark with eyes shut tightly.

A maple leaf flutters to the ground, dancing as it spun around. It flitted a few inches from the ground before the wind picked it up completely and blew it far away.

"He was the kindest man I ever knew…" the petite fukutaicho sobbed softly. "He was polite, friendly, and he was understanding. Aizen Taicho… did nothing wrong…"

Hitsugaya was about to reach out for her when Hinamori looked up, eyes ablaze with anger.

"He LOVED her! He loved her and she threw it all away! Kuchiki Rukia was his world and she threw it all away for Kurosaki Ichigo!" gripping her arms to try and stop her body from shaking, Hinamori Momo shook her head vehemently. "Hasn't she caused him enough pain? She already threw his love away – humiliated him – broke him! Wasn't that enough?" Rocking back like a child, tears streamed down her face ceaselessly.

"Why? Why? Why?" she asked over and over again, like a broken record.

"Hinamori… we don't even know if she really did kill Aizen."

Head snapping back, Hinamori glared venomously at her childhood friend. "She killed him! She killed him!"

"Be reasonable, Hinamori!" Hitsugaya barked out authoritatively. "The traces of kidō that was discovered to have killed Aizen was above Kuchiki's capabilities. How in the world would she be able to –

"Aizen Taicho taught her!" She screamed shrilly. "He taught her how to do it!"

Stunned, Hitsugaya stepped aside. "That was a forbidden technique – it's impossible. No one is allowed to train that skill so loosely."

"But he did! Aizen taicho taught her so she could move up the ranks! I overheard – Shiro-kun! She asked him to!"

Grabbing hold of her friend's haori, Hinamori cried out desperately as her body was wracked with grief-ridden convulsions. "He taught her… and she used it to kill him… she killed him…"

***

"Hinamori fukutaicho needs complete bed rest. The stress she endured the day Aizen Taicho was killed has become far too much for her to handle."

Hitsugaya's brows furrow slightly as he stands outside the room where his friend was brought in when she fainted earlier. "Unohana Taicho," he asks quietly, though his hands are clenched tightly "When will she recover?"

There is visible sadness in the eyes of Unohana Retsu, taicho of the 4th division and the head of all the shinigami relief squad. "I'm afraid that it all depends on Hinamori fukutaicho herself. The experience traumatized her enough that she is withdrawing herself from everyone. Hitsugaya Taicho, if this keeps up… she may never recover and would instead retreat inside her mind."

The two stand side by side, a few paces away from Hinamori Momo's worried friends. Abarai Renji and Kira Izuru are both silent and are busying themselves to look at anything and anywhere else.

"What do you suggest then?" Hitsugaya asks wearily, as he gives in to the impulse to wipe his tired eyes faintly. He had been awake for more than two days, busy with mounds of paperwork in the aftermath of Kurosaki Ichigo and Rukia's escape. Matsumoto had persisted that he needed to rest, but Hitsugaya wanted to check on his friend first. "Should Hinamori fukutaicho take a leave of absence? Would she require treatments?"

Nodding, Unohana fixes her eyes on the prone figure of the 5th division fukutaicho as her mind runs on a familiar path to find possibilities. "I find that fresh air, a relaxing environment, and good friends for company are the best balm for a sorrowful soul. There is a place…" she adds slowly, as she appraises Hinamori fukutaicho, "along the 43rd district. It is a retreat house for convalescing shinigamis. I'm sure she'll be comfortable there."

He nods immediately, relieved. "For how long would she need to stay there?"

"The road to recovering is long and hard, Hitsugaya taicho." Unohana said sadly.

"Ano…" Kira Izuru mumbles from behind them. "Taicho…"

"What is it, 3rd division fukutaicho?" Hitsugaya asks curtly.

Kira swallows nervously, as he focuses on a spot beside his foot. "May we ask permission to visit Hinamori-kun often?"

Hitsugaya turns to look at him. "You're a friend of hers, right?"

"Hai, Taicho. We were at the academy together. We – Hinamori-kun, Abarai-kun, and I."

"If it would be possible," Renji adds, a bit uncomfortable. "We'd like to help her."

Unohana smiles gently. "Hinamori fukutaicho is very fortunate to have such caring friends."

"You are aware that Kuchiki Rukia is the prime suspect in murdering Aizen taicho, aren't you, Abarai fukutaicho?"

At the cold tone, Kira flinches. The topic is a sore one, as Renji and Rukia were good friends as well; and the other man often acting as the guard and protector of Byakuya Kuchiki's younger sister before she was inducted into the academy.

Renji, on the other hand, shows no outward reaction to the implied accusation. Hitsugaya Taicho may be a formidable and frightening man, but he had been fukutaicho to the coldest bastard in all of Seiretei – Kuchiki Byakuya himself – and it would take more that the gruffness of the young taicho to ruffle him now. "Kuchiki Rukia is my friend. Hinamori Momo is my friend. The 6th division has not been tasked with retrieving the deserters from the 14th. I have no conflicting loyalties."

"Your permissions must be secured from Unohana Taicho and your respective taichos." Hitsugaya said coolly. "Visit Hinamori if you want. But do not upset her in any way."

"Hai, Hitsugaya Taicho." Both men said, bowing deeply.

Turning around abruptly, Hitsugaya walks through the room intent on showing himself out. It was difficult to see his friend like this – broken and in pain; but there were still many things that were needed to be done. Hopefully, unearthing the mystery behind Aizen's death would give Hinamori the closure she was craving for.

"Hitsugaya Taicho?" Unohana's gentle voice drifted out kindly. "It is important that Hinamori fukutaicho be surrounded by friends. I think she would like it if you visited her from time to time."

***

Only nine people were present for the meeting. Of course, due to the current pressing concerns that was the war at Hueco Mundo as well as the immediate and disturbing new concerns that were the Kurosakis, the small number was expected.

The rest remained silent, standing their ground as they formed two lines of taichos, their ranks broken by the absences of the taichos from the 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, and 14th divisions.

One could say that they were even lucky they had only 5 members missing in the ranks. True, one was dead and the other defected, while the rest were at Hueco Mundo's desert wasteland… but then it could have been much, much worse.

"Thank you for being here on time." Yamamoto Genyurusai Sou-Taicho said as he sat on his chair, eyes shut loosely, though the tension in his shoulders were unmistakable. "We are here to discuss and update the issue regarding Kurosaki Ichigo's treachery and defection as well as Kurosaki Rukia's supposed murder of Aizen Sousuke."

Standing on his customary position to the left of the Sou-Taicho, Kuchiki Byakuya gave no outward reaction to the name of his sister being mentioned.

"Has there been any new developments on the investigation regarding Kurosaki's attack on the 6th?"

Clearing his throat, Hitsugaya stepped forward. "As of the moment there are none. All we have are those we have learned of previously."

"Is there any reason why Kurosaki would attack the 6th division?"

At the Sou-Taicho's question, the other shinigami taichos looked at the head of the 6th Division.

Unruffled at the attention, Kuchiki Byakuya fixed his eyes upon the seated form of the Sou-Taicho. "None at all." He said in a tone that held no infliction.

"Che!" Zaraki Kenpachi, taicho of the 11th sneered. "Kurosaki was spoiling for a fight – he should have picked MY division, not that band of pansies."

"With all due respect." Ukitake said, raising his voice slightly to catch everyone's attention. "We have yet to address the reason that Kurosaki Taicho himself has supplied us regarding why he chose the 6th division."

"Kuchiki Rukia?" Soi Fon asked in disbelief. "Are you really saying that this is about her? It is quite obvious that this is to gain power."

Kyouraku Shunsui smiled at the 2nd division taicho. "A woman's beauty can topple down civilizations; can drive a man to gamble everything; and can force thoughts of honor to depart."

Ukitake sighed at the impromptu – and very loose – reference. It was so like Shunsui to do; especially so if the situation was this grave. "Excuse him, he was re-reading the Iliad two weeks ago..."

"But I speak of the truth!" Kyouraku insisted gamely, smiling his usual smile. "Kuchiki Taicho's sister has long been referred to as a prize among men. She is our version of Helen of Troy."

"Kyouraku Taicho," Unohana Retsu said kindly, though many were sure that her words were that of warning. "You do both Kurosaki-taicho and Kuchiki Rukia-san a disservice with that analogy. I am confident that neither had their minds clouded with desire."

Throughout the debacle, Byakuya showed no outward reaction to what he thought about the theory.

Yamamoto Sou-Taicho slammed his walking stick onto the wood flooring. "If Kurosaki is not addled with lust or thirst for power – then WHAT?"

There was only silence.

Finally, Hitsugaya turned to the sou-taicho. "Aizen Taicho."

"What?"

"When he was detained, Kurosaki Taicho was saying that Aizen Taicho was behind the death of his mother."

"Kurosaki Masaki?"

"That was already dismissed after Aizen Taicho was cleared from the list of suspects." Soi Fon said, as she looked at the younger taicho.

Ukitake looked away, privy as he was to Ichigo's recounting during that fateful night. After all, he and Kyouraku had been among the first to visit Kurosaki Isshin the night his wife was murdered.

He would be unable to forget the heartbroken look on Ichigo's face when 2nd division investigators arrived to inform him that his testimony would not be given to Central 46. The sorrow and disappointment had morphed into rage right before his eyes after Aizen was removed from the roster of suspects.

"Aizen taicho claims that Kurosaki taicho had been addled with grief and that it had been taken advantage of."

Ukitake shares a glance with his friend. Both he and Kyouraku knew that Ichigo had carried that grudge against Aizen fror a very long time. His fanatic belief could only have been brought about by mental instability.

Or a deeply rooted sense of certainty.

"Aizen said that the one who took advantage of Kurosaki's vulnerability was… Urahara Kisuke."

"Urahara."

As the Sou-Taichou mutters this name with obvious distaste, Ukitake stifles a sigh. Now that the former Taicho of the 12th division and the first head of the Technological Research Bureau was mentioned, things for Ichigo had turned from worse to worst.

***

Kuchiki Byakuya walks along the hallways, his sandal-shod feet not making even the smallest noise as they glide along the polished wooden floorboards. His movements are precise, deliberate, almost a slow-motion version of his impressive shuunpo.

In motion, he is grace personified. In stillness, he is marble in nature. To this day, no one can put claim to know what thoughts dwell in Kuchiki Byakuya's head. No one was given the privilege save for his long-departed wife.

The Taicho of the 6th division walks calmly yet with purpose to his destination, aware of just how much scrutiny he is placed under.

Since Rukia's defection, he had been treated as an unjust monster, one who had deliberately ignored and pushed his sibling aside, and ruthlessly enough to drive her to seek the comfort of a loose cannon. However, there are others who merely look at him with pity in their eyes, knowing that the latest scandal would do the Kuchiki name no good.

Kuchiki Byakuya did not want the pity, nor did he relish being painted as the villain. But that was neither here nor there.

The heir of the oldest, most prominent clan in Seiretei ignored everyone. Rukia had made her decision; Rukia knew of the consequences, he had taught her that much.

Kuchiki Byakuya was torn between giving his sister the benefit of the doubt that she could survive in the world of the living; and yet he finds himself wishing that she would be found.

Because Byakuya Kuchiki knows that though Seiretei's punishment for traitors and murderers is harsh, there are a lot of worse things that lie in wait for her outside the realm of the spirits. After all, they were shinigami, and they were never afraid of death – but the thought of their souls being turned inside and out by fright and frustration is enough to make them feel fear.

With the way the Sou-Taicho planned to pursue the traitors, he has no doubt that despair would wound and shatter his sister more than any zanpaktuô would.

"Hey, Kuchiki!" a voice calls out. The sound of his name was rasped and the tone was biting and lacking the formalities of education.

Without a word, he turns and finds Zaraki Taicho leaning against a heavy wall.

Zaraki smiles, or rather bares his fangs in a way a predator would give to its prey before attacking. "So… your sister, huh? Must have been a shock, having an honorable Kuchiki just go crazy and off a guy, eh?"

Byakuya says nothing, merely letting the other say whatever he wanted. Others may not see it, but he could feel something in him coiling like a spring at those words. However, the many centuries of breeding instilled upon him is something the noble had always fallen back to.

"So…" Zaraki asks again. "Heard your old men are pissed with the little runt. Maybe I can make it go away." In one fast move via shunpo, he appears behind Kuchiki Byakuya. "You want me to make a hush-hush execution? I can go to the living world with no old shit finding out. I can lob off her head for you – make sure its painless." Zaraki grins with menace. "But I can't make the same guarantees for your brother-in-law. 'Coz Ichigo's death will really hurt."

Byakuya gives the other Taicho a sideways glance, face expressionless. "You presume to understand laws governing nobles?"

The other smiles a feral grin. "There's a problem – eliminate it. Isn't that what you do?"

"You assume you know how I act. We are not on the same level." Byakuya says coolly, reigning in the anger that was slowly bubbling up from inside him. The impudence of Zaraki Kenpachi against his squad and his subordinates was something that he took pains to avoid at all cost, but this barb of his was too personal to ignore anymore.

"Why you piece of shit!" snarled Zaraki. "Do you want me to cut you down?"

"Do you want me to let you try?"

With a howl of anger, Zaraki reaches for his zanpaktuô.

And suddenly, he is no longer there.

"What the fuck!" Zaraki shouts from the rooftops. "You asshole!"

"Oh… but really, Zaraki Taicho, ya wouldn't wanna pick a fight wi' Kuchiki Taicho, do ya?"

From his position on the first level, Kuchiki Byakuya eyes the newcomer.

"Sorry 'bout tha' Kuchiki Taicho! It's all prob'ly a misunderstandin!" Ichimaru Gin, the taicho of division three calls out cheerfully despite being weighed by a squirming bundle of monstrous taicho that he kept wrapped in long rolls of bandages. "Hope ya don't take it outta me. Remember I'm tryin' ta keep 'im in line!"

Byakuya watches the flaxen-haired taicho. Ichimaru Gin. The man whose idea of fun was to make a shinigami piss in his hakama in fear. The man who had been considered as a prodigy like him; who had impressed everyone at the Institute despite being a scavenger of Rukongai.

What was he doing here, anyway? Ichimaru Gin was never the type to be seen having a civilized conversation with any other shinigami outside his division.

"What the fuck Ichimaru!" Roared Zaraki as he strained against the bandages. "Let me have a swipe at him! If you don't let me go, I'll kill you myself!"

"Mou! Zaraki Taicho, don't ya think it's impolite to go on killin' fellow taichos?" Waving one last time at the taicho of division six, Ichimaru Gin grins. "Well, see ya around!"

Byakuya watches the two disappear. Without another word, he turns on his heel gracefully and resumes his walk to his office.

***

In the 2nd division, Soi Fon Taicho stands in the middle of the room; facing the window, with her hands clasped loosely behind her back.

One of her ranked shinigami appears behind her. "Taicho, sir! They are here."

Turning her head slightly, Soi Fon gave the dismissal. As the shinigami disappeared, there was a blur of shadow, and the empty room was soon occupied by twelve black-garbed figures. Unlike the shinigami, they were not wearing the standard outfit; rather they were dressed in close-fitting cloths that covered every inch of them – including ther faces. In fact, all that one would see were their eyes.

They were the squad leaders of the 2nd division's secret police. All were lethal and stealthy; able to move as quickly and silently as the wind, making them the primary choice for spying missions.

And they all answered to Soi Fon herself.

"I want a network established." Soi Fon said curtly, in a quiet voice that she had no doubts reached every single one of them. "Head off to the world of the living – take three others and form separate cells. I don't care how you do it but I want it done and done swiftly."

Glaring, she faced the others with a hard expression on her face. "No disappointments from you all. Visit every small town in every damn country. Leave no stone unturned.

"I want information on Kurosaki Ichigo and Kurosaki Rukia."

The members of the secret police bowed down. "As you wish, taicho, sir!"

***

"Good work today, Kuchiki-san!"

Rukia turns to one of the waitresses, Tsubame Kita, a cheerful college freshman who wore her hair in a shocking color of emerald green. "Thank you, Kita-san! You've been very patient with helping me learn my way." she said, bowing slightly to show her respect.

"We should be thanking you, child." Teuchi chimes in. "We're now back in the game!"

Hiding a wince, Rukia feels bothered by the 'child' reference. After all, she was only a good few years younger than the old cook – she just didn't look like it.

"Is Inoue-san dropping by to pick you up?" Chizuru asks hopefully, making Rukia almost laugh at her eagerness.

Was it a coincidence that back at the Kuchiki compound, they had a servant from Rukongai named Chizuru Honsho as well? That she looked very much like the Chizuru Honsho of Soul Food?

"I'm afraid Inoue needs to work overtime tonight." Rukia tells the waitress as she picks up her things. "Perhaps tomorrow she'll drop by after work."

"You ready to go, Rukia?"

Startled, Rukia looked up. Kaien was already by the door, leaning against the wall and was obviously waiting for her. "Kaien-dono?"

"What?" he asked, giving her a smile, "You think I'd let my prized okonomiyaki chef go home on her own, did you?"

"But," she spluttered in embarrassment, "I can take care of myself – no disrespect meant."

He smiled, "Aw come on! You're gonna ruffle my ego now? I'll walk you home, Rukia. Come on."

Nervously, Rukia grabbed her handbag, aware of the curious looks she got from the rest of the staff.

"Come on, stop dawdling!" Kaien mock-reprimanded her as he took hold of her arm and led her out of the restaurant, waving at the others.

Seeing the smiles on their faces, Rukia inwardly blanched, knowing that they were assuming that Kaien seeing her home had a different connotation. She was a married woman, for crying out loud!

"You still have your head stuck amongst the clouds, eh Rukia?"

Startled, Rukia chuckled nervously. "You know me well... Kaien-dono..."

Suddenly, Kaien's arm came up to wrap itself around her shoulders.

At her surprised expression, Kaien smiled. "Next time bring a jacket. You'll turn blue with cold."

"Arigatou." Rukia whispered. Was it due to the cold, or was her voice just husky?

"Its been a while, hasn't it?"

"Decades." Rukia agreed. "I... I... well... I missed you. We all did."

There was a sad, rueful smile on Kaien's face. "Yeah. So did I. I often wondered about everyone."

"Taicho's fine." Rukia told him immediately, guessing what that pensive look on his face meant. "He still works himself too hard. But Kiyone and Sentaro take care of him; as well as Kyouraku Taicho and Unohana Taicho."

"Good." he said in relief. "And you? What rank are you?"

Feeling her face burn, Rukia shook her head.

Kaien's arm tightened around her shoulder. "That Byakuya." he sighed in disappointment. "How long must he persist being an idiot. You're ready to have a rank, Rukia... I know you deserve it."

Well it wasn't possible now, was it? Rukia thought wryly. She was lucky if they never found her, because the moment they did – she was dead.

"So what have you been doing all these years?" Kaien asked, shifting the topic to calmer waters as he noticed her discomfort. "Not cooking all the time?"

Rukia felt herself smile. "Training and honing my skills, Kaien-dono. Social functions. Paperworks." the smile on his face was infectious at hearing her doing paperwork. "Patrol in Rukongai. Wedding preparations. Assisting in academy propaganda. Instructing new shinigami recruits -

"What?" Kaien asked, interrupting her recounts. "Did you just say wedding preparations? Is Byakuya finally getting married again?"

"Err..." Rukia muttered, wincing. "Well... no."

"Who was going to get married?"

"Me." She replied in a small voice.

Kaien paused mid-step, making the shinigami he was holding stop as well. "You were getting married? To whom?" He asked, his eyes narrowing immediately.

"To Aizen Taicho."

There was a glint of something in Kaien's eyes, but it was gone a second later. Now he looked annoyed; "Did that brother of yours put you up to that?"

Rukia raised a brow. "Excuse me? Can I not make my own decisions?"

"You decided to marry Aizen?"

"It wasn't like I could just let them pick a husband for me." she hedged, deciding it was prudent not to mention the exact reason she picked Aizen Taicho. "At least Aizen Taicho would have respected me, instead of treating me like a brood mare and money bag."

No, Aizen would have respected you – but he would have killed you too, a voice that sounded suspiciously like Ichigo sounded in her head.

Ichigo.

Rukia stopped abruptly.

"Rukia? What's wrong?"

Oh hell no. She had forgotten about Ichigo. "Dinner!"

"You want to eat dinner?" Kaien asked skeptically.

Their house was right smack in front of them, and it was only now that Rukia remembered that she failed to call Ichigo and inform him that she got a job. Oh god, did he have lunch already? Did he cook dinner? Was he frantic with worry looking for her?

Right. Like he'd be worried.

Well, he might – after all, who was going to cook for him? If she was caught, they'd trace his location for sure.

"Rukia?" Kaien asked again.

Oh horror! Rukia just realized that she failed to tell Kaien-dono that she was married, why she was married, and why she was in the world of the living. "Kaien dono, I think you can go now." she said in a rush. "I can perfectly take care of myself."

"I said I'd see you home."

"This is my home." she said, pointing quickly to her house. "So," she said as she noded emphatically, "you can -

"Oh great – now you can give me a tour of your house!" he said enthusiastically, as he half-dragged, half-pushed her into the porch. "I won't say no to tea and onigiri too, I remember you make a mean onigiri!"

"Bad time." she said in a rush, as she attempted to dissuade him from coming in. "House not furnished. Floors are dirty." Oh crap, how was she going to tell Kaien-dono that she was already married and was running away from Seiretei. She couldn't just bring him into this mess!

"Oh come on, what's the worse that could happen?"

Suddenly, the door was flung open violently "Rukia! What the hell is wrong with you going out and disappearing like -

Rukia winced as Ichigo's expression (was it a frantic look she just saw?) froze dramatically upon realizing that she was not alone.

Beside her, Rukia could see Kaien's jaw became unhinged as he spotted the orange-haired neanderthal that was her husband.

"YOU!" Both men cried out angrily, pointing accusing finger at each other. "What the hell are you doing here?"

***

C. LeShay's corner:

Meh! Another cliffie. Sorry about that, I just couldn't help myself.

Lemon is still so far away; sorry to disappoint, but I can't just slap it next chapter – so not my style.

Chapter 19 may come out; and with it, the reason why I was injecting Kaien in previous chapters.

Finally:

I'm starting to lose momentum with IchiRuki; bad yeah, but the Sci-Fi geek in me cannot be denied so I'm watching such shows again. Just bought (finally – its not found anywhere where I live, ya know...) the DVD Box set of Star Wars Prequel Trilogy; Wahoo! Now MY SAGA COLLECTION IS FINALLY COMPLETE! Let me just say the special features was so worth the money! *clears throat* So sorry about that fangirling. I don't even KNOW when the next chapter will be written.

Again, thanks to those who are still reading this thing; plus to my betas – we wouldn't reach chapter 18 without you guys.