Title: The Roots of Heaven

Rating: Mature (R) for language, violence and mature themes.
Category/Genre: multi-part, plot; drama, adventure, romance
Characters: Ichigo, Renji, Rukia; their swords; Karakura and Soul Society folks; a few plot-related OCs; for pairings, see A/N #1 below

Dedication: This one is for 'Pea, with great fondness.
: Bleach is (C) Kubo Tite. Profit neither sought nor made.
Timeline/Spoiler Warning
: Futurefic. Follows manga canon until ch. 323, then diverges into creative invention. Spoilers through the Hueco Mundo arc.

Summary: After the year of the Winter War, Renji and Ichigo find themselves on a rescue mission (cum road trip) featuring: parallel worlds, lost friends, wine, women, dead souls, demons, male bonding, mind games, sex, angst, campfires, metaphysics, thrilling heroics, kindly lies, and Rukia.

A/N: 1) This item contains pairing spoilers. At first, it is an adventure romp. The part about who wants to tap whose ass comes later. This story will contain het (IchiRuki, RenRuki), slash (RenIchi), and an eventual threesome. I write all these pairings equal/fluid in their power balance.

2) This story borrows, steals and pilfers from medicine, Chinese language and myth, and the Bleach canon. Being post-series, it assumes some character development. It also makes cosmogonical leaps where the series has left uncharted ground. Lots of poetic licence applied.

3) Jai is love, Ten is faith, and 'Pea is hope and my socio-cultural info hotline. Ashe and Prpl Pen swept in with wonderful beta help. Kas gave me a bit of awesome spec, and Mari lent a sympathetic ear at the right time.

x x x x x x

"One may sever the lotus root, but its fibered threads stay connected."

—Chinese proverb

x x x x x x

Prologue: Fibre

Karakura has changed.

Ichigo turned eighteen today, a veteran of the war that wrought the changes on the town. To his living eye, the streets look the same. To his spirit sight, the twists become plain: the structures brittle as ice on the cusp of spring, the alleys and backyards so thick with echoes of suffering even some Hollows skirt them. Many died here, though few know they did. Sound carries strangely, and eddies of smothering silence linger in isolated spots. The ghosts are subdued, waiting sullenly to be sent on.

Ukitake explained to him how the spiritual currents of a place affected its nature. Karakura nearly became a sacrifice, a shadowland drained of its energies. It needs time to recover.

Then there are the other changes, the ones time can't seem to heal. There's a reason his birthday was just Pop foregoing the morning kickdown in favour of a really unsubtle strawberry cake carried into his room.

He sat with Karin and Yuzu on his bed and had cake for breakfast. Even Karin hugged him quick and hard; Yuzu clung on for almost a minute. Inoue sent him a card by butterfly. She has been staying in Soul Society to help with some of the more complicated casualties. Ikkaku and Yumichika heard he has actually been legal for a whole year now, and promised him a "long overdue tour" of the more "exclusive establishments" in Rukongai. He's sleeping with his badge so Zangetsu is close when he needs to fend off a nighttime abduction.

The war is finally over. This should be the part where they move on.

A star or two winks at him, in the short summer dusk before the street lamps light. The sky isn't black yet, but a shade of blue, what do they call it, indigo, that reminds him, too...

Footsteps patter down the street. Maybe a child, definitely a ghost, judging by the tumbling echoes. He fishes in his pocket for his badge. It won't take a minute. Then a peal of laughter drifts up, not a child's high giggle but still clear, a sound of arch amusement. Again.

He tears free of his body so fast he is likely to come back to some pulled muscles. Gripping the edge of the roof, he heaves himself down over it.

The street is empty. Again.

Ichigo kicks at a crumb of asphalt, rubbing his temples. Maybe he is going mad. No one else is looking any more. This is the second time this week, and the places where it happens aren't so random.

He takes a good stance, closes his eyes, and pictures a sphere. The colour he picks to fill it is a warm, deep red. A shinigami's spirit ribbon is always red, but he has learned that they are as individual as fingerprints. He visualises the path of the footfalls.

The ribbons descend into his sight in a whirl of loops and coils. Carefully, he shrugs through them. The one he can't disturb should lie there, on the brink of the pavement, as if the owner had been dashing along the very edge...

It hangs by a thread as thin as spider silk. A whisper could blow it apart. He has to bend very close to see the hue: a red so dark it courts purple. The texture would feel cool to his fingers, light as fine linen. He doesn't need to touch it to know.

It is there. That is all that matters. The ribbon is worn, but its end is still fastened.

He must get to Soul Society.

x x x x x x

He steps silently into the twilit office. Still, Renji looks up from his papers as soon as he crosses the threshold. "What'd you want? It's the middle of the fucking night."

Ichigo sets his hands on the desk—just to make a point, not like they're shaking any more—and cuts to the chase.

"She's not gone." Funny how dead is a forbidden word even for shinigami.

Something haunted creeps into Renji's face. His timbre is soft under the rough edges. "Captain called off the search weeks ago. Remember?"

"So you've given up, too?" He wants to make the words a challenge, but they quiver the slightest bit.

"I got a division to rebuild right here. Remember why they asked you to stay on as a substitute?" Renji points at the strewn papers. The office needs either a small army of Yuzus or a swift release from its misery.

"For fuck's sake, Renji!" Ichigo flares. "This is Rukia."

Renji's teeth grit at the name. Control leaks off every bitten end of his words. "Nothing was found. I don't know why you keep on tearin' at the scab, but leave me the hell outta it."

Ichigo draws a breath; still, his voice almost breaks. "She's still there. We can find her."

"This one o' your hunches again?"

"No." It's a hair of hope, and if he pulls too hard it will unravel. "I... I can feel her."

Renji's writing brush smudges a stripe across his cheek as he leans his face on his hand. "Everybody here lost people they loved. Don't think you're the only one who wakes up thinkin' they heard a voice, a step... damn well anythin'." Renji swipes at his cheek. "It was the last search goin' on. You know it."

"I know what I sensed, damn it!" Control, Ichigo reminds himself, hands clenched. "Your people said I was better at seeing the ribbons than most of them. I..."

"There's going to be a funeral", Renji says.

"What?" He wants to shout, but only manages a rasp. "There—there's no body."

"She was shinigami. There wouldn't be a body, not for long. Captain Kuchiki put the word out yesterday. It's not public yet." He's never heard Renji speak so flatly.

"I'm really gonna kill him this time." It is very nearly a vow.

"Ichigo." Renji leans forward. "Sooner or later, you wanna get on with the grief before it kills ya."

The papers scatter as Ichigo bangs his hands on the desk. "Listen to me, you bastard! See if you get this: Rukia isn't dead. The fucking ribbon is intact. I found it. Followed it."

Renji might snap back at him. Instead, he lowers his eyes. For a long moment, he's quiet and Ichigo holds himself still, too.

"If you're shittin' me, I'll gut you where you stand." That is a vow, if Ichigo knows Renji at all. After the last year, he does.

He straightens his back. "I'm not."

x x x x x x

Renji fights off the absurd rush of feeling as they slip through the spirit door onto a familiar street. The hollow exhaustion that has hounded him seems to have lessened. Maybe the wired energy in the youth is catching on to him.

He lets Ichigo focus. It's easier to pick up a perception with someone to point it out to you. By Ichigo's description, this one is damn fragile. If it is there. Better to only believe what he can see.

Still, his heart misses a beat when Ichigo points. "Here, along the edge."

It takes him a moment to shift his sight. Ichigo has a tighter rein on his reiatsu these days, but he makes a disturbance, drawing in the nearby ribbons like a turning spindle. Renji sweeps them to the side.

There it is, finally, and he doesn't dare breathe. The ribbon lies on the ground as a single thread, fallen and forgotten. He closes his hands to keep from brushing it. It already fades from his sight in places. His grasp of this kidou is proficient, but Ichigo's is consummate, instinctive. He puts his trust in that.

"Rukia", he murmurs.

"It goes all the way to... to the battle site. I think I can follow it even further."

Right then, Renji can only nod. All of Karakura saw some fighting, but the site of the final confrontation was a park on the outskirts of the physical town, the former spiritual nexus of the region. He went back to wander the deathly stillness under the trees over and over. He is willing to bet Ichigo has done the same.

There, the walls between worlds buckled and collapsed. There, they took their worst losses and a final, bitter victory. There, Rukia went missing in action.

He forces himself back to the present. "You are serious, right?"

"Yeah, I am. Believe it or not." Ichigo huffs. "The ribbons trail the people they belong to, you know? You can follow them between worlds, too. Not that it's easy", he admits after a pause.

"Okay. Let's say you're right." Renji cannot see the ribbon at all anymore, but Ichigo keeps walking. "Where's it lead then?"

"You'll see." With that, Ichigo blurs into shunpo. With a sigh, Renji trails after him.

They come out at the gate to the park. Inside, flash-step is a one-way ticket to trouble. The weave of the place is patchy at best, and a chaotic mass of tangled spirit matter at worst. The trees hang heavy with more than their dewy foliage. Sound is stifled into strained whispers, so they move along in silence.

"Here", Ichigo says at last. They stand in a football field, the sky open above them. The vicinity seethes, like they had the one solid foothold amid pits of quicksand. Renji can just make out the dark crimson thread, petering out next to Ichigo's cupped hand. "It doesn't end. It sinks into the air."

"There's an undertow here. It leaks out... elsewhere. Another world." Renji never was the most watchful student, but the nature of reality was a survival subject. You could die for not paying attention, in fucking unpleasant ways.

"How do we get through?" Ichigo glances around. Shit, he'd be gone already if there was the slightest opening. Renji grabs his shoulder.

"Depends how you wanna do it", he says sharply. "Either wait for the place to decide it's time to swallow ya up and spit ya out, or do the smart thing."

"And that is?" To his credit, the boy looks to be listening.

"We go back, an' we wake up the captain."