The stars blanketed the evening sky as night descended upon Soul Society. Jinbandou, the gatekeeper that watched over one of the main gateways to the city of Seiretei watched as the lights in the town began to slowly extinguish, allowing only the luminous stars to bring light to the barren roads before him. Yawning deeply, he leaned slightly back and fought not to fall asleep. Ever since the wars had ended, not much had changed or happened that needed attention from him or the other members of the division. Peace had finally came to the city but a part of him could not help but feel bored by having to sit and do nothing nearly every day at his post.
His eyes slowly slipped down, not realizing the two figures in hoods walking up to him. It was not until he felt a hard poke in his ribs that his eyes snapped open, angered at who would dare to disturb him in such a manner. There were two figures standing before him, one of a tall stature that stood a few feet away while the one that had apparently poked him was carrying a rather large bag that the gatekeeper could have sworn had something inside that was moving.
"You better have a very good reason for waking me or I'll make sure you regret it for the rest of your miserable existence. Who are you?" Jinbandou growled, yawning slightly as he stretched his aching muscles. If it came to be, he would need to be prepared to fend off against these new intruders who did not appear to be intimidated by him. The figure in the back even walked forward until he was right in front of the gatekeeper.
The gatekeeper's face turned into astonishment as the cloak fell, revealing a face he did not think he would ever see again. Yet the boy he had met all those years ago now stood before him, bearing the same confidence and stance he had the first time as he declared clearly, "Kurosaki Ichigo. Open the gates."
Jinbandou eyed him curiously before allowing a smile to appear on his face. "Kurosaki Ichigo, it has been many years since we last met."
Ichigo nodded, returning the smile. "Ah. I see you are still here as well."
The giant nodded, motioning towards the towering pristine walls. "Yes, I remained at this post. Things have certainly changed since then, but it seems you still are the same."
Ganju walked over to Ichigo and crossed his arms. "See, I told you. Sis and I agreed that you wouldn't last two minutes here without stirring up some trouble again like last time." He grumbled as he struggled to keep the bag he had in his hands.
Ichigo turned, a scowl appearing on his face. "What? Like you are any better! Last time we were here, you caused more trouble then me!"
A slight cough made them turn to find the gate raised and Renji standing before them, watching them in annoyance. "If you don't mind, I really do not wish to wake up all of Seiretei with you two. It was difficult enough to keep things quiet about you coming and I don't want that all to be a waste."
The two scowled and after bidding the gatekeeper a hasty goodbye, followed Renji quietly into the city. Other then a few shinigamis who were set out for patrol, the city was enveloped in silence. The light scuffling of their shoes were the only sound that echoed through the narrow passageways as they carefully made their way through the maze. Ichigo took the time to allow his attention to wander around.
It had been well over five years since he walked down the streets of Seiretei, yet it seemed nothing had changed since he was last there. The pathways though were unusually barren of life as they moved forward. Ichigo never did see the city so still, what with his earlier presence always causing enough stir to always bring chaos at the oddest hours. The image of Kenpachi immediately came and he remembered always being hunted down for a match. This thought alone made him turn around wearily to make certain that the captain was not lurking anywhere in the shadows. However there was no one but Ganju behind him, scowling as he dragged himself behind them. Ichigo grew annoyed as they slowed down for him but he ignored them completely as he muttered curses under his breath.
Ichigo looked around nervously again. "Eh, Renji, does anyone besides Ukitake-san know I am here right now?"
He heard Renji chuckle. "Don't worry, Kenpachi Taicho was not made aware of your arrival but I'm sure the news will have spread all over. I'd start watching my back tomorrow."
Ichigo groaned and shook his head, making certain to keep his presence hidden for as long as possible. His attention quickly turned to the path they were taking and realized that it was moving further away from the Kuchiki manor and stopped abruptly. "Oye, Renji, its this way, isn't it?"
Renji stopped him immediately and sighed irritably. "It is, but we aren't going there yet."
Ganju groaned and slumped against the wall as Ichigo crossed his arms. "Why not?"
"It's too late to be barging in there right now. I already checked up on her before I headed here," he added, knowing that Ichigo was about to retort. "Thankfully being the vice captain of Byakuya-san is enough to allow me to enter the Kuchiki manor. Though I am only restricted to going there for dealing with affairs of the division, I still manage to visit Rukia when she isn't being watched."
Ichigo stopped, his brow raised. "She is being watched? She is alright, isn't it?" he asked, looking over his shoulder a few times to where he could sense her lingering reitsu.
Renji nodded as he too looked in the same direction. "I wouldn't let anything happen to her, Ichigo." He stated quietly, and Ichigo could hear the frustration laced into his voice as well and remained silent. "She was fine, though exhausted with everything that has been going on with her brother. I left her with Captain Unohana, who is also keeping an eye out for anything that might be suspicious. Just right now is not a good time to be going there since they are pretty much already aware that you are here and there is no point pissing them off even more by visiting at this time of night."
Ichigo shrugged as he began walking towards the manor. "If they already know that we are in Seiretei, I'm sure they will be expecting us there as well," he added with a smirk. "Wouldn't want to disappoint them, would I?"
Renji sighed in exasperation, staring into the night sky and realizing just why Rukia had forbidden him to bring Ichigo here. He knew he was going to be in for an earful, especially if she had already become aware of his being here. But it was too late for that, and they needed to move more quickly to figure a way out of this mess.
Turning, he scowled when he found Ichigo already walking away without a word.
"Oye, Ichigo, we have to go see Ukitake-san first!"
Ichigo waved his hand dismissively as he continued without stopping. "Ah, after I see Rukia."
Renji tried to call out for him again, but Ichigo disappeared into the darkness. Crossing his arm, he turned and growled in anger when he noticed the other man, Ganju, had also gone missing. "Rukia is going to kill me…" he muttered, rubbing his head as he made his way in their direction.
Rukia woke with a start as a strange feeling coursed through her body. Slightly dazed, she looked around to find her brother still sleeping in his bed. Night had already descended as the candles illuminated the room.
'I can't believe I allowed myself to fall asleep like that,' she thought bitterly as she massaged her temple.
She leaned against the wall, supporting herself as sleep slowly began to subside. Idly, her hands searched for the zanpaktou that she had placed nearby. Her eyes lingered at Byajuya's form as he groaned lightly before falling back into a deep sleep. Captain Unohana had returned a few times since her arrival to check up on him and Rukia was relieved to know that her brother had been recovering from his illness. His eyes had opened momentarily but he could not speak due to the weakness that had still consumed him. Though it pained her to see him in this condition, Unohana had reassured her that he would get better very soon. Yet not one to trust her brother's life once more to anyone else, she had been staying by his side since she had come.
Once she was fully alert, her concentration turned to what was it that woke her in the first place. That strange, yet familiar feeling coursed through her again and she raised herself slightly. It was then that she sensed the reitsu, yet she dared not consider it. He couldn't have been that foolish, could he?
Rukia shook her head at that notion. No, she had already made certain with Renji that he would not allow Ichigo to risk his life in coming here. He wouldn't. Even though he had done it numerous times before even though she told him not to, he had to listen to her now.
"Please tell me he wouldn't…" she murmured, knowing fully well how useless that statement was.
It was then that a deafening noise nearly shook the entire house. Rukia gasped and steadied herself as she stared at the door from where the commotion had come from.
Within moments, there were several urgent footsteps running about in the hallway outside. The door to the room slid open and a panic stricken servant entered. "Kuchiki-sama, it seems an intruder has entered the premises! The guards are heading to where the disturbance was heard but I wanted to make sure everything is alright here."
Rukia nodded, still calming her breath. She could feel her heart hammering inside her chest as her suspicion was confirmed. She paused for a moment as she looked back at her brother, before turning to the servant in front of her. "Make certain that nisama remains safe. I will return very soon."
The servant began to stutter a protest, but she already had the zanpaktou in her hand and made her way out into the hallway. No one seemed to have noticed, as the entire place seemed to be in an uproar with all the servants and guards running past one another to capture the intruder.
There were screams and shouting everywhere, and once or twice Rukia could have sworn she heard the word "pig", but had no time to get the details from the servants. In the chaos that ensued, she attempted to discern the one reitsu that she was searching for. It was very faint, but she could sense it very close. The path led to the garden that was beyond the manor, where strangely there were no guards there that should have been patrolling the area.
She closed the door leading to the hallway, silencing the the noise that was coming from inside. Looking around suspiciously, she made certain once more that there was no one besides her in the courtyard before pulling her zanpaktou out carefully from the hilt. There was no mistaking who it was this time.
She listened carefully, listening for any movement or sound that seemed out of place. Just then, a light motion within the south side of the garden caught her eye and she quickly made her way to it, only to have a hand grab her and cover her mouth. Her eyes widened as she attempted to release herself from the assailant's hold, but their grip was strong and she could feel herself becoming suffocated. Thoroughly angered, she attempted to fight back and heard a soft grunt as her elbow was able to make contact with his chest, but he continued dragging her to the corner of the wall. Her eyes widened at the bright mop of orange hair that seemed to stand out amongst all the green foliage around them.
His eyes were locked on hers as they remained still while some more muffled voices passed through the hallways. When the garden was silent once more, he removed her hand. Ready to begin the speech he had been planning since he arrived, Ichigo was met instead by a smack on his shoulder and a very angered Rukia. "Baka! You almost suffocated me!"
Ichigo looked at her flushed face and scratched his head. "Ah, sorry about that, but I wanted to make sure you didn't scream or hit me with a kidou."
He waited as she forced her breathing to calm, cringing at the glare she was giving him and knowing fully well how much this was going to hurt after.
"Ichigo, what are you doing here?" she whispered urgently, looking around the garden to make sure no one had heard them.
"To see you, what else?" he muttered, annoyed as she grabbed him by the arm and pulled him deeper into the foliage.
She looked at him with exasperation. "Do you know how dangerous this is, Ichigo? All of the servants are looking for whoever broke in here in the middle of the night. And didn't Renji give you my message about waiting until things settled down first?"
"And let you deal with whoever is trying to kill Byakuya and you? I don't think so, Rukia," he whispered in anger, matching her equally frustrated brow.
"Ichigo…" Rukia stared at him with pleading eyes, unable to find the words that could persuade him. Truth was that while she knew it was dangerous to have him here, there was a surge of relief and comfort knowing he was there with her.
His features softened slightly as he surveyed her expression and his hands touched her cheek lightly. "I'm not leaving, Rukia." He said quietly, his voice calm yet a sense of finality within them that she knew there was no point in arguing.
She smiled as their foreheads touched, "I know you won't."
Their heads quickly turned at the sound of voices near the entrance of the gate and they waited with bated breath until silence filled the night sky once more. They remained silent for a moment before Ichigo took her hand into his, giving it a light reassuring squeeze as she looked at him. "How is Byakuya?"
She shook her head lightly. "I…don't know. He is doing better then when I had first arrived but he still hasn't woken up. Unohana Taicho doesn't know how long it will either. I can't leave him while he's in this state."
Ichigo breathed deeply and nodded. "I know. We'll try to figure something out and I'll see if Renji-"
"Ichigo, if they find out you are here…" she began, but he silenced her.
Grinning, he kissed her softly. "Che, that won't matter soon enough…"
"Are you two love birds done yet?" A voice called out urgently.
Rukia and Ichigo turned and looked around to find the source of the voice, each grabbing their zanpaktou. It was then that something hard hit Ichigo's head and he growled in anger before turning to look upward at the wall that closed off the garden.
Ganju was struggling to get to the top of the wall from the other side as he looked at them impatiently. "I let Bonnie loose, but it's only a matter of time before they catch us. I think some of them caught sight of me heading this way. Are you leaving or not?"
Rukia's mouth was agape. "Ganju? You…" She blinked, realizing what he was saying. "You let Bonnie loose in here? How did you -?"
Before Ganju could answer, his hand seemed to slip off the wall and they heard a loud thud and cursing a moment later. Ichigo rolled his eyes and turned to Rukia. "Are you sure about this, Rukia?"
She nodded and Ichigo could clearly see the exhaustion in her eyes. His hands cupped her face as his thumbs slowly encircled her cheeks, frowning at the dark circles under her eyes. Frustration took over when he realized how powerless he felt at not being able to set everything right for them. He just wanted her to be safe but he knew that she wasn't going to listen to him and it was best to just keep an eye on her from where he could. The sound of the garden doors opening alerted them to the entrance of several guards. Without a word, Ichigo leapt out of view.
Rukia turned quickly to face the guards as they filtered through the garden, staring at her in surprise. "Um, I thought I heard something in the garden, but it seems there isn't anyone here."
The guards stared at her suspiciously, to which she stared back defiantly and grabbed her zanpaktou. "I have searched this entire area. We should use our time to search the rest of the premises," she ordered clearly. The men looked around for a moment before nodding and following her inside.
Ichigo…you better be careful…
Try as she might, Rukia had not been able to sleep the entire night. The thought of Ichigo being discovered lingered in her mind, not allowing her a moment of peace as she finished the remaining stack of paperwork that had needed to be done. She knew he would be fine but she still could not help the feeling of unease in her. Rubbing her tired eyes softly, she turned to look and found it was only noon. After last night, she had not heard a word about Ichigo or Ganju, and she was not able to find Renji either when she went to visit him in the morning. But the fact that there was no news of Ichigo amongst the shinigamis meant that he was able to get out undetected. Or so she hoped.
Annoyed by where her thoughts were going, she stood up and made her way outside to get some much needed fresh air. She breathed in deeply, allowing the cool air to sooth her.
"Ah, Rukia-san, you made it!"
Rukia turned to the jovial voice and smiled. Captain Ukitake walked towards her with his warm smile, followed closely by Kiyone. Nodding, she bowed and motioned towards her office. "Yes, I had some work that had begun piling up so thought it would be best to finish all of this beforehand."
Ukitake nodded. "It is good that you are here. Come, I need your help today."
Rukia followed him out into the field where several of the shinigamis were training. She eyed him curiously as he pointed to a large group that she did not recognize.
"Those are the newest recruits that were accepted into our division. They will need to go through the extensive training before we start having them going on missions…"
Rukia nodded. "I understand, Ukitake-san. Hanatarou came by this morning and said that he will be able to look after nisama, so I'll be able to make certain they have the necessary training."
The captain smiled and walked with her to the group. As they got closer, Rukia stopped momentarily when something caught her eye.
It couldn't be…
She shook her head in disbelief but as she turned to look at the new recruits once more, the large mop of orange hair stood out. The owner of it stood in the middle, staring at her with an all knowing grin as she remained speechless.
To be continued...
A/N: Tun tun tuunnn. (peaks out) To all readers who have been sweet enough to wait two years for this update...I thank you. It has just been a very crazy couple of years and I'm just glad this chapter was able to be complete. Thank you, Ava, my beta, my friend, my forever identical cousin. To whom I don't think I would ever been able to have this chapter see the light of day if you had not been there. Thank you! And thank you everyone who has commented and left such amazingly supportive feedbacks. Your posts are what made me get off my lazy behind and finish this. Hopefully the final few chapters will follow with this very soon. Hopefully...Friday?