Deception 25: Finale

Rating: PG

Word Count: 734

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A few hours after the ex-Captains had disappeared in a flash of gold light, and had said their "bitter" farewells, Rukia sat by her brother Byakuya's side, waiting for him to heal.

It had been a combination of luck and madness that drove him to take Ichimaru's killing stroke, Rukia decided. Guilt seemed to have also played a large role, since—to her shock—she had found that Byakuya's deceased wife, Hisana, was also her sister.

That certainly explained something that Ichimaru had once said long ago: "You never know, Rukia dear. You may look…nostalgic to your brother. Perhaps that's why he brought you here, hmm?"

Rukia's thoughts were bitter that evening as she watched over Byakuya's slowly healing body.

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The next few days passed in a blur of activity and healing.

Rukia never left her brother's side, silently watching over him as he slept. Ichigo would often sit by her, on the grounds that "I've already saved you," he had told her, "So I might as well gloat a little". Rukia would just roll her eyes and retreat back into her thoughts, inwardly grateful for the company.

Eventually, on the sixth morning, Byakuya's eyes opened blearily and he whispered:

"Rukia. Are you surprised Ichimaru's stroke missed it's mark?"

Rukia's brow furrowed. "What are you talking about, older brother? Of course he—"

"Ichimaru's killing blow missed…on purpose."

Ichigo blinked in confusion. "Why would he…?" He let the sentence drop.

"I noticed it as I was sleeping, thinking things over," Byakuya continued softly, turning to Ichigo. "The blow was not meant to kill her—it would have punctured her ribs, but not her heart—though she would have bled to death if Captain Unohana had not arrived in time."

Rukia's jaw clenched as Byakuya stared solemnly at her.

"My saving you was, from his perspective, exactly what he intended. It was not pure chance. He did not want to kill you Rukia. Either out of perverse sorrow or genuine affection, I'm not sure… But that fact that he could have killed you and did not, is unavoidable."

Rukia stood up shakily, staring numbly at her brother. In her mind's eye she could see Gin smiling down at her, holding a daisy chain and telling her "I am supposed to be your savior, am I not?"

"Thank you, brother. I…I need time to think on this." Rukia managed to whisper, turning and hurrying from the room—she was of the Noble Kuchiki clan, after all, and her brother would not approve of her "making a scene".

She felt tears coursing down her face, and instantly hated herself for them. She had thought she was through with him. That Gin—no, Ichimaru—would have vanished from her mind by that point, "betrayer" branded on him in her thoughts. She was not Rukia the Harem Girl, but Rukia Kuchiki of the 13th Squad, dependable and brave.

But it seemed she couldn't untangle herself from his poisoned sheets that easily.

She stopped abruptly in front of the garden surrounding the 6th Squad's headquarters, noticing Ichigo's worried presence behind her.

"Rukia? You okay?" Ichigo asked hesitantly, stepping closer.

Rukia turned and stared at her friend, at the way his orange hair—not quite as obnoxious as before, she noted—glinted in the sunlight, and the concerned expression on his face. His black kimono was freshly washed, leaving no bloodstains visible. It was remarkable how much he looked like Kaien.

There was no trace of Ichimaru—save for the "Ichi" in his name—on Ichigo Kurosaki's face. And for that, Rukia was grateful. Scowling was something she was familiar with, something that would ground her in this self-appointed mission she was about to embark on.

"Ichigo." She smiled bravely at him.

"Yeah?" Ichigo's gaze softened.

"In two months, meet me at Urahara's shop. We're going to get some answers."

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That night Rukia found a note on her pillow attached to a daisy chain.

She stared at the slightly-messy calligraphy on the neatly-folded note, feeling as though a knife had stabbed her in the heart, continuously retracting and inserting itself. Over and over.

Rukia dear,

You probably aren't alive by this point, but just in case, I have a little question for you:

In the end, which hurts worse: deception or the journey toward it?

Yours truly,

Gin Ichimaru

END

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To be continued in Snow In The Desert and its companion piece, The Truth Behind The Shepard.

Thank all of you reviewers for your encouragement and your positive and thoughtful reviews. You made my day—and make me want to write more—when I read your reviews. I hope your writing is just as fun and thought-provoking for you as mine is for me.