"I beg your pardon?"
"Would you care for a bun?"
"Oh… yes, thank you."
She took the proffered rice pastry. Partly out of politeness, and mostly to keep from having to make conversation, she took a small nibble.
Her nose wrinkled. Swallowing was an effort. Looking back at her server, she called upon her training and resolutely forced herself to lie.
"That's very good."
"No, it isn't," the young student smiled sadly. "But that's the point." And then she drifted off.
Rukia watched her go.
The black-robed shinigami shifted her legs into a more comfortable position. Before her there fluttered a cloud of serious-faced red and white butterflies. They talked to one another in grave, earnest voices, nodding approvingly at their companions' words before hastily interrupting to showcase their own thoughts and feelings. That was the way of students.
For her part, Rukia kept silent. And watched.
Only a year ago, this had been her world. The shinigami academy. Garbed like all the rest in identical uwagi and hakama, the tiny orphan from the outer reaches of Rukongai had studied and trained, discussed and learned. She was taught to respect her superiors. And obey her teachers. The skills they were striving to imbue in her might mean the difference between survival and slaughter. This was not unlike living with her friends in the ghetto. Except here, Rukia was not in charge. Not by a long shot.
There was always somebody to salute in the academy, an authority figure whom courtesy demanded you bow towards and greet courteously. Rukia wished she could tell these devoted future comrades that things would change once they became shinigami. But that too would have been a lie. In the structured world of the afterlife called Soul Society, being dead did not stop you from being polite.
Her dark violet eyes travelled the room. Even from this seat in the corner, she could still see that hers would not be the only black robe in attendance at this meeting. In spite of being what you might call an underground event, word of mouth still applied. She herself had overheard the topic by casually eavesdropping on two members of the Eighth division, whose squad always seemed to be on top of the local gossip in Seireitei. At least three other fully fledged death gods were in attendance. It was hard to tell, considering how mobbed they were by the white and blue uniforms of the first grade students. Any offending red hakama who dared to approach were firmly blocked from reaching the current idols.
The shinigami did nothing to hinder this. They were not here to socialize. Their presence undoubtedly ran along the same lines as her own: they were off duty, and no one had told them they couldn't come. Granted, Rukia had not specifically inquired about attending. Unlike at the academy, asking questions was frowned upon in the noble Kuchiki household. She was expected to listen, behave, and above all, obey. So it wasn't that dissimilar from her student days.
Except at the academy, she didn't fear for her life every time she saw the headmaster, as was the case whenever her new brother deigned to notice her. Thankfully, this was not very often. Mostly Rukia Kuchiki, as she had now come to know herself, was left alone for the most part.
Perhaps it was this overwhelming isolation that contributed to her current position. Among all the shinigami present, Rukia sat by herself. Oh, a few people had tried to make conversation, to be sure. And it was not that she had met their friendly overtures with rudeness either. She just hadn't followed up on the attempts at conversation. Introduction, exchange of courtesies, followed by uncomfortable silence which she did not break and they were uncertain whether or not they could. A few had drawn back after just hearing her last name. Word had spread. This one was not to be approached.
The tiny noblewoman dropped her eyes to her lap, thinking. Why am I here, if not to talk with anyone? Was it just to get away for a few hours? Escape the echoing, empty manse that had become her home at the cost of her freedom? Here, at least, there was conversation, and life. So then why not join in? It had only been one year since her expedited graduation. Had the Kuchiki beaten her into submission this quickly, with their rules and reprimands and stern admonitions about how she must bear herself as a member of their household? Briefly Rukia wondered if her honored brother Byakuya had gone through this same experience in his youth. Had he ever been carefree once, spirited and happy? Hard to imagine now. The man was cold as ice, unapproachable, untouchable.
Rukia glanced up, and noticed several people hastily avert their eyes.
I'm learning, nii-sama, she thought. Watch how fast I go.
She closed her eyes bitterly. This wasn't helping. She didn't recognize anyone here. No one was forcing her into isolation now, this was entirely her doing. That made it all the more shameful. I've got to get out of here, Rukia decided. I can't take this tonight, I need to get away to think.
It was just as she had decided on a course of action that the conversations in the room came to an abrupt halt. Rukia glanced up sharply. It seemed her chance to escape had passed. The speaker had arrived.
At the front of the room, a figure was emerging from one of the side doors, followed by several students pushing carts. The contents of these implements made little sense to her. At first glance, they seemed to be planks nailed flat together. Nothing really to see. And in truth, she was more engrossed by the appearance of the black-garbed soul at their head.
He was fairly short, and rather broad. Dark hair was kept shoulder length and oddly parted down the middle. His features were round and soft, with deep brown eyes that gave him a very expressive air. Had she met him on the street, Rukia was willing to admit that she would not have looked at this man very closely. Unremarkable might be the best word. But there were two things that distinguished his person.
The first was the reiatsu which marked him as a shinigami. This is what truly set people apart in the afterlife. Since infancy, Rukia had plowed through the days here surrounded by individuals who did not possess even a grain of soul intensity. That was the norm. The vast majority of the dead were not endowed with power, so those who were tended to stand out. Such a manifestation of otherworldly strength would inevitably lead that individual to the doors of the Seireitei, where they could make a bid to escape the districts of Rukongai and seek a better life. Or death. Rukia's existence in the living world had ended in infancy, or so she had guessed. Numerous others she met spoke of living full lives in their previous forms, beset by problems such as disease, starvation, and advanced age, along with the pleasantries of food, love, and hope. They had been told before arriving that this plane would treat them better than the old. Rukia had fled from the area of Soul Society they now inhabited to reside in the Seireitei. If there was a worse place than the one where she grew up, she did not want to see it.
Spirit intensity was nothing exceptional here. The second thing to catch her attention was the way this shinigami was dressed. The standard robes for their profession were not in evidence. Instead he was attired in clothes that looked very… well, tight might be the word. They did not flow and move in the manner of her own apparel. His pants were uniformly narrow through the legs, almost seeming to cling to them. The obi around his waist was ridiculously thin, like rope; you would need the fingers of a mouse to tie it properly, she surmised. Except, it didn't look to be tied. More like hooked through a metal ring at the front. And lastly, there was the haori. This jacket seemed quite stiff in appearance. At least the two sides overlapped in front. But after that things just got weird. The fringe of the coat went over the hem of his pants slightly. And down the front there were small brass knobs.
Perplexed murmurs came from the crowd, and Kuchiki shared their consternation. Was this a new division uniform? How could he even move in it? At least they got the color right.
The host of this evening's discussion turned to face his audience, and bowed.
"Good evening. I am Yoshi Hitsujikai, ninth seat in the Seventh division. Welcome all to this meeting. Please be seated."
The students peered around uncertainly. There were no cushions to rest on. Sitting seiza was no big deal to them, but generally for these events the host would provide something to keep those attending from experiencing muscle cramps. After all, this sort of thing could go on for hours. Everybody wanted to have their say.
An attendant came up to Hitsujikai bearing one of the odd wooden planks. He proceeded to hold it aloft so all could see. Then he took a firm grip on a slightly protruding section, and with a slow, purposeful motion, pulled downward. Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, the flat implement unfolded, settling into what appeared to be a four-legged stool with a back. Yoshi then placed this contraption on the floor, and took a seat on it. As it became clear that this new oddity was clearly holding his weight, a collective rumble of wonder filled the room. More of the attendants began to distribute these new marvels, and the eager young death-gods-in-training began to puzzle over the proper workings.
Then a hush fell over the proceedings. Glancing over, Rukia could see that the other shinigami had been approached with the collapsing seats. Two of them glanced over the heads of their clustered fans towards the third. This one, who seemed to be an authority figure, stared hard at the girl who was offering him the chair. Everyone in the room now had their eyes locked on this decisive showdown.
The shinigami reached down and accepted the proffered object. He proceeded to collapse it as they had been shown, and lowered himself down to sit, crossing his arms decisively.
At this the dam burst. Everyone, especially the two death gods, began to follow suit. Once they had figured out the proper handling of their seats and finished explaining it to their comrades, the students then fell to arranging themselves in the neat rows that they were all accustomed to sitting in. There seemed to be no new method for that.
It was while this was going on that a young man approached Rukia with the new sitting device.
He held it out to her invitingly, and she tensed.
There was no one here to see, or pass judgment. But still, she had been educated long enough to know what would be expected of her in this situation.
Still sitting seiza in the corner, Rukia Kuchiki directed her attention upward and inclined her head in dismissal.
"No, thank you."
He nodded, and withdrew.
A few minutes later, the meeting began.
"Before we begin, I'd like to thank you all for attending this discussion, especially my comrades from the Third and Twelfth divisions." Yoshi craned his head over the small sea of students and gesticulated politely. The intended targets repeated his gesture. "I assume you all have some idea why I arranged for this event. But even if you do not, I would like to start off by asking one simple question. That being, did everyone receive a bun?"
There were several nods and calls of "Yes."
"So then," Yoshi leaned back in his chair. "What did you all think of them?"
Now there was some marked agitation in the room. No one spoke. Suddenly Rukia did not feel quite so alone. Once again, numerous necks twisted to regard the black-robed observers sitting in the back of the room. They were looking for guidance here. Just how did you tell a shinigami host that his refreshments sucked?
The ranking death god took his cue.
"They were poor, Hitsujikai-san."
Nearly a hundred heads snapped around to witness the outcome of this statement.
In response, Yoshi smiled.
"Thank you, sir. That summed up their qualities perfectly." He leaned forward intensely then. "I know many of you have become accustomed to the superior cuisine available to those residing in the Seireitei. And after eating like a shinigami, I can understand why you would give pause at having anything less." He reached into his robe and pulled out another bean-jam bun. "What you tasted here was a confection made outside the walls dividing us from Rukongai. For those who have never ventured out there, it might have come as quite a shock to be served this decidedly mediocre fare. But for the ones who have tasted its like before, I think you will all agree that the difference in quality is partly the reason why you felt continued living outside these grounds was no longer acceptable to you. Am I right?"
There were a few soft expressions of agreement. Rukia's voice was not among them. Though she recalled very clearly subsisting on this or worse in her youth, she was unwilling to share even such a small admission with a crowd of strangers. This habitual wariness was not something she had learned from her new family. It was the mark of someone who recognized early on in life that in this world, you did not give your trust indiscriminately. The more people who knew about you, the less secure you became. They had to earn it. Only a select few were to be let inside. Those chosen then became family.
And when you find your family almost completely gone, then it's time to leave.
Rukia looked down at her fine quality silk hakama, the luxurious fabric far superior to anyone else's in the room.
What did I ever do to earn this? She thought.
But Yoshi was speaking again.
"For many living on the outside, the question of food is not even an issue, much less its quality. Except in cases such as our own, the people of Soul Society are free from that particular want; free from the demands of the living, who in addition to requiring our protection from Hollows, must also contend with the exhausting, ceaseless necessity of providing themselves with food and water. Day in and day out they suffer from the demands that life entails. But not so for us. Am I right?"
More consensus, stronger now, and the strangely-dressed shinigami suddenly stood up.
"Would you say that the living are better off dead?"
That got everyone's undivided attention, Rukia included.
There were no answers this time, not even a few. This had grown disturbing.
Yoshi looked around the hall thoughtfully. "Perhaps I should rephrase myself. Tell me this: what is so good about being dead? Can someone who lived a long life in the living world and Rukongai tell me?"
At first there was no response. Then, a girl towards the middle slowly raised her hand.
"Yes, you," Hitsujikai pointed.
"We're safe here, sir," her voice cracked uncertainly.
"We are safe," the unorthodox death god agreed. "The threat of death has passed from us. There are no warlords rousting us from our homes or pressing us into service, no threat of starvation or disease, as we said. And the shinigami protect all of Soul Society from Hollows, don't they?"
Several loud shouts of agreement came from the first-grade students in back.
"In Soul Society, you can live in peace, am I right?"
There was more vocal commiseration now from the student masses. For some reason Rukia found herself disliking this situation. She got the feeling that Yoshi was taking them on a track the others had not noticed yet. She found herself fingering the hilt of the katana beside her unconsciously.
Yoshi Hitsujikai watched them all clamoring, turning his head from side to side, seeming to study their faces. At length, he lowered his gaze and fixed it to the floor. After a while, the voices died down.
His eyes came back up, and there was something new there. Even on her knees in the back of the room, Rukia could detect anger in his features.
"So then why did you leave?"
The students glanced uneasily about. While they were doing this, Yoshi returned to his seat. He remained there for a time, watching them. When no answers were forthcoming, he spread his arms in a questioning fashion.
"Should I reiterate the question? Come, tell me: if living in the districts of Rukongai is so fine, then what gave you impetus to leave and join the ranks of the academy?" There was some shifting and muttering. Once again, he withdrew the bun from his pocket. "Was it this? Did you hear that you would find better food within these walls? Did something more entice you to leave behind the tranquil afterlife we have agreed is so splendid by comparison? Don't you know what dangers a shinigami's life entails? What would possibly compel you to give up the safety and security of the outer districts to risk being set upon and devoured by Hollows?"
No one wanted to admit it.
Not the shinigami, or the students.
But they all knew, Rukia thought. Just like I do.
And she knew she should say it.
"Because life in the Rukongai is hell."
Her voice came out very softly, such that she wondered if anyone beyond her could hear it at all. But the quiet in this room was so great that even a whisper carried the breadth of the hall.
And Yoshi smiled once more.
"Whoever said that, you have my thanks."
"They're right." He rose again, and began to pace slowly before the front rows, his oddly cut clothes shifting and stirring with every movement. "Those of you with clear memories of your past lives may recall a shinigami informing you before your arrival that Soul Society was a place of peace and tranquility. Indeed, many of us were promised, long before we ever met a death god, that upon dying we would be transported to a paradise devoid of pain, where we could live for eternity in endless bliss and contentment."
The shinigami stopped and crossed his arms, speaking very quietly now.
"Is that what you found?"
This time he did not wait for a response. "No. Instead, you found yourselves in a world not that far removed from the one you left. Oh, to be sure, there was some truth to your beliefs. No hunger. No cold. No need to look for work or a place to live. On face value, there was a lot to recommend it, right?"
"And then what did you find?"
Several members of the audience were shifting uncomfortably, perhaps remembering things they had thought best left behind them. Rukia too briefly recalled her childhood and maturing years. But she dispelled these thoughts in order to pay more attention to Yoshi's words.
"The afterlife was not the paradise which you had been led to believe. And it got progressively worse the farther removed you were from the walls of the Seireitei. Once you stepped beyond, oh, say, the Twentieth district, things began to get a little bleaker, didn't they? The quality of buildings, even the quality of life in general took a sharp downturn from there. People no longer appeared quite so relaxed. Indeed, some of them could be downright dangerous, couldn't they? A threat to you. As it turns out, even as a spirit, you can still feel pain. And that's not all: you realized, perhaps abruptly and graphically, that even here, you could still die."
In many ways, Rukia thought. Quickly, say, from a knife in an alley, bleeding out in the night to be found dead come morning. Or getting caught under the hooves of a stampeding horse; being broken and beaten, lingering on for days in extreme pain that steadily grew worse while your friends sought in vain for someone to come and tend to you. There were many ways to die in Inuzuri, the Seventy-Eighth district. From accidents. Or grief. A chill stole over her, and Rukia now wished that she had not come to this place, dredging up painful memories from the past.
"Some of you might have found yourselves inexplicably living on the street," Yoshi continued. "All of a sudden a group of men came into your home and told you to get out. You might have hung around close by, hoping that they would eventually leave and you could return. But they never did. And no one you turned to would take you in. You hadn't made enough friends in your time here, you see. They had nothing to gain from helping you, and it might have drawn the attention of those who wished to do you harm, for whatever reason. They couldn't risk that. And there was no authority figure you could turn to, out there in the Fifty-Eighth district, or the Seventieth. And certainly not in the last ring called 'Zaraki,' where living might just mean huddling in groups and scattering whenever someone with a sword or a gang came by, hoping that they would chase your neighbors and not you."
No one else was speaking now. From the corner of her eye, Rukia noticed the three shinigami stirring suspiciously, and their admirers watching them closely for instructions.
Yoshi drew to a halt. "But if I'm painting too bleak a picture here, just tell me. After all, life for some here isn't so bad. Just ask the folks living in the First district. They have it better there than anyone else in the Rukongai. Clean clothes, comfortable living arrangements. Death gods who drop in for visits to their families, bringing gifts and news of what's going on in Soul Society. There you can depend on a very comfortable, stable mode of existence. For a long, long time."
"Only after a while, you might start to wonder: is this all there is? You look around and see a world remarkably similar to the one you came from. Wood houses, dirt roads. Animals running loose in the streets. Weren't you supposed to go somewhere more, oh, heavenly? No distinctions and limitations, no fears and worries? Just what are you allowed to do here, anyway? Travel, up to a point? Sounds the same as before. You can talk to as many people as you want. Give the newcomers some pointers about what their new existences might involve. Even listen to their stories about what's going on in the world of the living. Not that we really need to care about that, right? Any loved ones we left behind will join us eventually. Given time, they'll be here. You might not recognize them at first, but those old impressions still remain. And really what does it matter how the living spend their few decades of life, when they could have numerous centuries to perfect themselves here?"
Yoshi Hitsujikai unhooked the sword strapped to his belt and raised it high over his head. The crowd suddenly grew tense.
"Look at what I'm wearing," the speaker said in a firm voice. "It appears strange to most of you, doesn't it? Not the sort of apparel you have come to expect from a shinigami, or anyone else here, for that matter. Those of you who do recognize this uniform might understand the implications. It is the raiment given to enforcers of the law who work in the living world these days. The ones who shepherd the living, much the same way we death gods watch over the dead."
"And now, I would like to explain what my wearing this means."
Of a sudden Yoshi stepped forward and walked into a space between the crowds. Several people started, having to crane their necks to keep him in sight. When he reached the center of the crowd he stopped. Rukia now had a much better view of him. To her mind, he looked very calm and confident. The students were certainly hanging off his every word. What came next should be fairly interesting.
"I am trying to make a point," the seated officer spoke. "That point is this: things have changed. For centuries people in the mortal realm have lived in a system that endured without pause. There were droughts and hurricanes, changes in political order, and the restructuring of territorial boundaries. But ultimately, very little items of significant import occurred. The clothes they wore, the tools they used, the lives they envisioned; had you compared them to their great-great-great-great grandparents, you would not have found much to distinguish one from the other. And that being the case, the same was true once those people passed on and came to Soul Society. They could meet their distant ancestors, and find that they had a great deal in common. So in a way, the land of the dead was like a reflection for that of the living. Only today, that is no longer the case."
"Look at the chairs upon which you are sitting." They all proceeded to do so. "This is a new design that has sprung up recently. It was done in order to save room and provide easier transportation. In the past, it would have taken a greater amount of people a lot more time to bring enough seats into this room to accommodate all of you. Today I only needed six. It is an innovation, and a time-saver. It is something new. Ask any shinigami, and they will tell you that there are new things happening in the world of the living virtually every day. They are advancing themselves, with inventions and knowledge that makes the world I came from seem primitive by comparison. I have walked in three worlds, now. The world of my past life, which is forever gone. The living world of today, one that I hardly recognize but still requires my help. And Soul Society, which from the day I arrived, has hardly changed one bit."
"I arranged this meeting today," he spoke very forcefully now, "because I believe that last part is something that has to stop. And the place to start is with people like you."
"Soul Society needs to change itself." His voice was ringing in the enclosed space. "The institutions that we all live under have done some measure of keeping us safe. But not all of us. Not even the vast majority of us. All of you may aspire to be shinigami today," he spun in a circle, pointing at the silent, thoughtful faces, "but not long ago you were residents of Rukongai, and you have seen the conditions that exist for those souls whom we as death gods promised would find a better life for themselves after death. The shinigami act as their protectors from Hollows. But in many ways, we have become jailors. We set the example for them. And what are they seeing? Indifference. Conformity. Unwillingness to try anything new. Enforcement of archaic rules that serve to prevent any sort of progress or change. You know that this is no longer a fit way to conduct our affairs in Soul Society, if indeed it ever was."
Yoshi had his back to her now. As it was, he could not see the looks that had passed between the three shinigami in attendance. But Rukia did not fail to notice them. Still he continued without pause.
"I have seen the ways of the modern world. They have developed instruments and agendas which, if applied here, could alleviate many of the sufferings that exist without surcease through the various levels of the Rukongai. An improved way of life, not just for the first dozen or so levels, but all the way to the very limits of Zaraki. If we apply ourselves to seeing these enhancements through, we can affect a sweeping revolution of what constitutes death in our eyes."
At the word 'revolution', something immediately happened. A shinigami seated at the back of the room, the one whom the other pair had looked to for guidance, stood up. The junior members surrounding him parted, and without a word to anyone, he strode over to a door and left the room. Soon after the duo from the Twelfth division also made their departures. Now only Rukia and Yoshi remained as representatives of the graduated classes. Well, almost graduated, she thought guiltily.
This event had not gone unnoticed. Many of the seated students turned to watch. After the shinigami abandoned them, they were closely followed by the blue-clad advanced students. Only red hakama were evident now. Yoshi too came about to observe their departure, but if it disturbed him, he gave no sign. His speech continued uninterrupted as he moved to regard his audience.
"Now in all candor, coming to you was not my first inclination. After giving this matter some thought and arriving at the conclusions which I have shared today, I consulted my superiors on how to approach such efforts. To a man, they treated me with respect, and offered constructive criticism of my ideas. But the members of the 13 Division Imperial Guards were not in the position to affect sweeping changes on the management of Soul Society. That is what they told me. So I turned my sights higher. I approached my captain and his lieutenant, both gentlemen of courtesy who are worthy of all the respect they are given and more. They took the time to hear me out, and showed genuine concern for the problems I detailed. But here again it was recommended that I not attempt any such ambitious undertakings without going through proper channels."
By this time Yoshi had moved back to the front of his stage. "They gave me instructions as to how to approach the people in charge. I took the time to complete the necessary paperwork and interviews. As you may have guessed, such an endeavor went on for quite a while."
Rukia couldn't help but smirk at this. Quite a while? From what she knew of the workings of Soul Society and just living with the upper crust, Yoshi Hitsujikai must have been shuttled back and forth from one official to another for months. Maybe even years. That was how the system worked. If you could call it working. At least he didn't let any bitterness show, she thought. That would only serve to drive away his audience.
"In the end, I was rewarded for my patience by an audience with Commander-General Shigekuni Yamamoto-Genryūsai himself. He listened to my concerns, and showed me every possible courtesy. I submitted a written record of summation, and the General assured me that he would give the matter all due consideration. When this was over, just to assure myself that I had tried every option, I asked to be recommended for the chance to speak before the Central 46 Chambers, so that they could judge for themselves whether or not my points had merit. He declined to make a commitment, and I went on my way."
Yoshi now planted the point of his zanpakutō's sheath into the floor, resting his hands on the hilt while spreading his legs apart in a firm stance.
"When I went ahead and submitted a petition for audience with the 46 on my own, I received a notice that it had been denied. Upon seeking to learn why this might be so, I was informed that I was in danger of a breach of protocol, and that I should not pursue the matter any further. At this point, it became clear to me that behind all the protocol and politeness, everyone I spoke to had been quietly telling me not to engage the issue any further. It was most distressing to realize that people whom I admired and respected had been leading me around by the nose. After giving the matter some thought, I determined that if I was to have any impact at all, I was going to have to take my ideas to those who might be more readily susceptible to them. I would have to find people who were in a position not just to potentially agree with me, but who had the power, the personal experience, and concerted effort to bring about change on their own. The next generation. You."
What are you thinking? Rukia sadly shook her head.
"This is the fourth talk I have given. Like the previous three, it is not a sanctioned academy event, but neither is it specifically outlawed. I have the right to speak to all of you, and you possess the very same right to speak back. Some of us have already made their feelings perfectly clear." Yoshi glanced in the direction of the back of the room, and Rukia tried to make herself unobtrusive. He did not seem to notice her there. "For my part, I was told by my superiors that I had not received clearance for this undertaking, to which I replied that I did not need any. After the third such gathering, they informed me that I was being transferred to another division. That was two days ago. By tomorrow, I will no longer be the ninth seat of the Seventh division. Instead I will be in the Third, and no longer a ranked officer. This is my punishment for stepping outside the bounds of protocol. I accept that they can think of no other way to deal with me. Without my rank, I do not have the authority to convene any further meetings of this nature. It is not my intention to flaunt the rules of the Gotei 13. This is my home, and the people who live in it are my friends. But I do intend to continue striving to improve the lot of those who do not have the luxury of death god powers, the ones who look to us for guidance."
He retook his seat. "So now the floor is open. I would be glad to listen to anything you might have to say to me. Please do not hold back. If I have swayed you, all the better. If I have insulted you, then let me know it."
Yoshi gestured, and the attendants began to move through the rows distributing cups of tea. A girl placed a cup before Rukia, and then shrank away. Their host also accepted one, and as he was blowing on it, a young man towards the front stood up.
"Hitsujikai-sama, I have a question for you."
The officer of the Seventh smiled warmly, and gestured for the student to proceed.
For the next hour, a debate was waged, all observed by a pair of deep blue eyes from the shadows in the rear. The residents of the academy who remained were vociferous and curious. They would have to be, to participate in something that could reflect darkly on their future prospects. Not everyone who went to shinigami academy graduated, Rukia knew. Those who didn't were quietly dismissed to never be heard from again. She had known the fear of such a fate herself. That was before the arrival of the Kuchiki, who had spirited her away for reasons known only to them. She was a part of their world now.
But she didn't feel it. No matter how much time passed. That was why she stayed.
The night was growing long. People began to trickle out, singly and in groups. Yoshi Hitsujikai remained to take queries from any who might linger. Eventually, though, by some unspoken agreement, the crowd all rose and started to file out. Their conversations reached her as they moved through the doors, trooping past with hardly a glance in her direction. Discussing what they had heard, what they planned to do tomorrow. Tests to take, butterflies in their stomachs, the thrill of having tried something perilous for a change. They had other things on their minds than the small, quiet shinigami in the corner.
Rukia remained where she was a few minutes longer, then rose with regret. The lecture attendants were mingling among the remaining students, collecting and stacking the wooden seats. She watched them all move about, feeling a pang of separation from these proceedings. Her inclusion had been hardly noticeable. Tomorrow she might thank her lucky stars at not having taken part, if doing so meant the ire of her family would not be aroused. But for now, she felt decidedly glum at remaining so isolated. Still, she had made her choice. Best to leave before anyone could recognize her, or notice her at all.
The diminutive death god slid her zanpakutō into her obi and moved silently towards the door. As she did, she chanced a look back at the lingering residents.
One of the staff, the girl who had offered her refreshments towards the start, was speaking to Hitsujikai. Just as Rukia turned, the attendant raised one arm and pointed straight at her.
Yoshi's liquid brown eyes traveled up to regard her thoughtfully.
The tiny maiden felt her heart begin to pound with anxiety, and she quickly fled.
Not good, not good, not good. Rukia's thoughts were proceeding somewhere along these lines. She had to get away from here, and fast. No matter her reasons for coming tonight, if she actually got drawn into this far-fetched hodgepodge of altruism, there was no way she would not eventually wind up hearing about it from Byakuya. That was something she could live without. It was hard enough to exist in his presence when he was being barely civil. To learn that she had associated the Kuchiki name with a demoted rabble-rouser, from his perspective, could only serve to heighten the animosity with which she was viewed by the members of the household.
Fortunately, Rukia had always been quick. This was clearly demonstrated when, upon rounding a corner to find a large amount of students clustered around the portal leading out of this lecture hall, she was able to step back without anyone even noticing her presence. This many people with reiatsu in one place also served to mask her own. The wary swordswoman peered around the corner swiftly, swore, and then turned her attention to her surroundings.
In front of her, a narrow window high up allowed thin beams of moonlight to enter the hall. Coming to a decision, Rukia stole over to an ornamental banner on the same wall. Bunching its fabric in her tiny fists, she scaled surely and silently up its heights. Small size had its advantages, and while the use of the sword was not her specialty, long practice with the blade had endowed her with more than enough arm strength to achieve this feat. Reaching the window, Rukia caught its lip, hoisted herself over and squeezed into the opening.
The agile maiden dropped the twenty feet to the ground. This alley was deserted. No one else was about to observe her escape. Congratulating herself on having accomplished this much, she slunk away down a narrow street into the night.
The sound of racing feet reached her ears.
She flinched, clenching her jaw. For a few seconds she considered abandoning modesty and fleeing with all due haste back to the family estate. Then Rukia's shoulder's slumped in defeat. She had tried her best. The only thing left to do was accept the consequences and try to make the best of it. So resolved, she turned back about.
Moving swiftly towards her was Yoshi Hitsujikai. As he drew closer, his intended target took note of how he seemed to have no difficulty running in those strange clothes. His soul cutter was buckled securely at his waist once more. The man drew apace with her, and Rukia regarded him steadily.
"Can I help you, sir?" Might as well keep things polite. Couldn't hurt.
Yoshi drew to a halt, and bowed deeply. When he came up, Rukia noticed that his eyes were not far above the level of her own. At least that meant she wouldn't have to crane her neck to address him.
"Please forgive me if I startled you. One of the volunteers at my talk told me that a shinigami seated in the back introduced herself as Rukia Kuchiki. Are you the lady in question?"
Lie! What's he going to do? Call you out? Much too formal and proper for that. You know how to work the system. Just lie, blast it, lie for all you're worth!
No, she decided. I won't lie to this man. It wouldn't be right.
Punch him in the gut, pull that funny jacket over his head and run, then?
Perhaps you weren't listening just now. It wouldn't be right.
"Yes, I am Rukia Kuchiki." She gave him the bow to a superior. "What can I do for you, Officer Hitsujikai?"
Yoshi smiled. "Firstly, let me apologize for just approaching you on the street like this. I meant no offense, I only wanted to speak with you before you left."
"No offense taken, I assure you." No offense. Just inconvenience.
"Thank you, Kuchiki-sama." He paused then, and for the first time that night, looked truly apprehensive. "I don't mean to be intrusive, but I wonder if perhaps you and I might talk for a few minutes. I'm not keeping you from anything pressing, am I?"
'Yes, you are. I was just on my way home to recite my virtues, forget this day ever happened, and go to bed.' SAY IT!
"No, I have time. What is it you would like to discuss with me?"
And down we go for the third time. Too bad you never learned to dog paddle.
Stay out of this.
"I won't require much, I know you must be busy." Rukia almost told him to stop being so deferential, the difference in their status wasn't nearly as great as he thought, and definitely not in her favor. But she bit her tongue in time. "What I have to say shouldn't take long. Shall we walk back to your division while we speak?"
"I don't have a division."
She blurted it out immediately. Maybe it was the strain of having to keep up the pretence of limited equality. Or her lingering shame at the truth of the statement. But one thing she knew for sure was that he should not have to treat her as though she had earned the same accomplishments he had gone through.
Hitsujikai stared at her in surprise.
"What I mean is, I haven't been officially assigned to duty yet," she continued hastily. "My family requires me to complete additional observances and rituals before I'm considered fit to serve in the Gotei 13."
"Ah." This was all he said in that respect. Then, "But you are a member of the noble Kuchiki family, yes? Led by Byakuya Kuchiki, the captain of the Sixth division?"
Just hearing the name caused her mind to go blank for a moment. It was like her adopted brother was standing right behind her, proud scion of an ancient name, glowering down with frigid disapproval and building resentment. She could almost feel his long, pallid fingers rising up to wrap around her neck, choking off any confirmation that they were indeed related, if only in name.
"Kuchiki-sama, are you all right?"
Rukia took a deep breath, and the sensation passed.
"Yes, thank you. And yes, Byakuya-taichou is my elder brother, as you say."
"Well, then," and he smiled briefly once more. "If I could accompany you back to the grounds of your estate, I wonder if we might talk further. Would that be all right?"
The dark-haired aristocrat-in-training took a few seconds to respond. Rules of upper class engagement were flashing through her mind. He was a ranked division officer of no prominent lineage. She was nobility lacking in division attachment. Who was supposed to defer to whom here? What taboos might she be breaking? Was he even permitted to walk with her anywhere? Could he order her to go with him? Looking back into his softly-structured features, Rukia could not say which of them was more uncomfortable right now.
It suddenly occurred to her: what if he has designs that don't involve protocol as she first thought? Maybe he really wants to ask me out on a date. Could she say yes? Could she say no? Had anything in her daily inundation of manners and polish over the last year given her the skills to deal with this situation either way?
Oh, the hell with this. What exactly do I, Rukia, want to do?
"I see no reason why not. I would be most glad if you were to accompany me back to the Kuchiki grounds, Officer Hitsujikai."
The stocky shinigami beamed now, and turning in a westward direction, they proceeded on their way.
It was later in the evening than she had first surmised. But the moon was full that night, more than sufficient to light their path. The other stragglers from the meeting were no doubt returning to the student residences, in the opposite direction. They had the night to themselves, as it were.
Yoshi wasted no time. "I wonder if I might ask your opinion on the topics I laid out before, Kuchiki-sama. Have you ever had cause to note the conditions that exist outside the walls of Seireitei?"
I lived in those conditions, thank you very much.
"Actually, I have spent some time outside the walls, observing the inequalities and deficiencies that you alluded to."
"I see." The modern-looking death god strolled along at her side, seeming to choose his next words carefully. "Then by any chance, are you familiar with the world of the living?"
"No." Very brusque. For her, it might as well not exist.
"No, of course not. The daughter of a noble family, I meant no insult."
"I took none."
There was no conversation between them for a time. Rukia stared straight ahead, not looking at her escort. She was working to defuse this situation, whatever his angle might be. That part had not been made clear to her yet.
"That might change once you join the divisions proper. There are numerous opportunities for ranking officers. I can tell that you would have no trouble in securing such a position."
Was he referring to her level of spirit powers, or her status as nobility? Either way, it did not put her in a better frame of mind. Small-talk time was over.
"Was there anything specific you wanted to discuss with me about tonight, Hitsujikai-sama?"
"Yes, there was." Yoshi drew to a halt. Rukia took a few further steps and then turned as well, preserving the distance between them. He straightened his shoulders, and turned a frank expression on her. "Kuchiki-sama, I was very heartened to learn that someone of your prominence would care to attend this debate, much less stay for the entire duration. I know that it is not the sort of event that draws any particular consideration in Seireitei. But I remember what it was like, before I became a shinigami proper. Even then, I recognized that there was a vast gulf between what Soul Society promised us, and what it actually delivered. I was disappointed to find that there was little real difference between one life and the other. When I realized that I had the potential to be a death god, I thought it might lead to some active efforts to improve the lot of those less fortunate."
It was gradually becoming clear to Rukia that he had harbored no carnal intentions when he approached her. Apparently this was going to be about his reform agenda, not his love life. She could not say for sure which held less appeal right now.
"As you heard, I tried to work within the system to organize some positive results. But there were none. Unless you count my being stripped of rank, which I can't say I do. Still, I don't consider this the end of it. That's why I had to squeeze in one last debate before I left. There are still avenues left to explore in this area, and I think one of them might be with you."
"With me." A flat statement. She made no attempt to disguise the wariness in her tone. Was there anyone who actually liked to be told that they were about to be used?
"Absolutely." His face had a more eager cast now. "The nobility are a powerful force here in Soul Society. That was one alternative I didn't consider taking, because I wasn't familiar with any of its members or its intricacies. I mean you no offense, but this sort of thing just didn't seem like a topic that would garner much interest among the royal houses. Clearly I was mistaken in that assumption. Knowing you were here tonight caused me to reconsider my notions in that regard."
"No one else knew I was coming here," Rukia spoke warningly, trying to preempt any further misreading of her presence. "Certainly not my brother, if that's what you are implying."
"But you did come. That's my point. Even one person can make all the difference. Kuchiki-sama, you said that you were familiar with the inadequacies of life outside the Seireitei."
"What of it?" Running was seeming more and more like a friendly option.
He gave a polite cough. "May I assume that you would never want such conditions to apply to yourself, or anyone else you care about?"
That could have been an insult, or a threat. She was fast losing patience with this man, a trait she was not particularly keen on in the first place. "I think if the situation warranted it, I could apply myself to living in any conditions, no matter how deplorable it might appear to outsiders." She was proving that statement in two different worlds now. It suddenly occurred to Rukia that it was no accident she had survived for so long in the Inuzuri. Or, for that matter, the home of the Kuchiki. She had her faults, and perhaps she was not as confident of her abilities as she had been before joining the shinigami academy. But neither was she the type to knuckle under and admit defeat. She had more going for her than her appearance might let on, and Yoshi would do well to remember that.
He began to speak. "I'm sure you co…"
"Not as sure as I am!" There was frost in Rukia's tone. Anger was building up, fueled by long months of frustration and loneliness. The travails of the nobility, the loss of her only friend left in the entire world; it was all seeping out now, past the porcelain shell of meekness and dignity she had been forced to construct in order to meet the expectations of her new family. It might not have had the same imminent threat as had existed in her surroundings since birth, but the past twelve months of virtual confinement and subjugation were certainly just as wearing on the spirit. Having it all thrown back in her face this night, almost as if it had been designed that way, had served to rekindle some of that fire and stubbornness that had served her so well before.
"I know exactly what it means to live in the Rukongai, Yoshi Hitsujikai. I might never have done a thing in the living world besides die, but it couldn't possibly be any worse there than what I have endured for all my days here! I came into the Seireitei, knowing full well what I was trying to do: escape from a way of life that offered no protection, even to the innocent. A world where might made right, and if you turned to anyone to rescue you, it was just an admission that you were already dead."
Flashing violet eyes now clashed furiously with deep brown ones, and it was the Seventh division officer who first blinked. "I thought you might share my desire to champion a new outlook on the mission we undertook as shinigami."
"Thought?!" She swept her arms up and down like a tiny enraged black butterfly. "No, what you hoped was that I might be able to put in a good word for you with the noble Sixth squad captain! If you had actually thought, you would have realized that sitting in a corner and never saying a word is not a tacit admission of approval, it's a sign that I want to be left alone!"
And with that she spun about and strode off.
"You did speak," Yoshi said softly.
"What?!" Rukia whipped back around.
"You made it clear to us all why we came tonight." His face and words gave no sign that he was angered by her outburst. In truth, he looked almost sad. "I didn't realize it was you until we started speaking. Something about your voice sounded familiar. After a while it came to me. 'Because life in the Rukongai is hell.' That was you. And you were completely right."
Rukia's eyes narrowed mistrustfully on him. "So what?"
"So what?" he repeated. "Everything. What you said means everything!" His arms were crossed, and he had regained a look of authority now, as if he were once again skillfully and purposefully addressing a crowd of students. "Soul Society and its laws have endured for thousands of years. When anything has been around for that long, it starts to forget why some of those rules were made in the first place. Especially if the people in charge of all the rest are the ones who made it happen to start with. The 46 Chambers, the captains, they all stand for something here! But even though they make the rules for the people, they do it without having to live with those people! And after so many centuries, it's not even a rule anymore. It's an institution! Something that no one is allowed to question at all, or else risk being punished. The Seireitei cherishes its rules like prized family heirlooms. Maybe for some people they are. And they don't think about how anyone is really living except themselves. So I'm sorry if I made the same mistake with you, assuming that your being here meant that you were dissatisfied and had come to the same conclusions as me. It was not my intent to use your name like some sword to cut through the bureaucratic red tape. I only wished to confirm for you that getting something to happen inside these walls isn't impossible. That's what I believe. Because deep down, the 13 Imperial Squads are founded on the ideal that caring about and protecting people is good and worthwhile and necessary. We just have to get back to basics in some respects. When I wake up in the morning it's going to be in a way that lets everyone know that I still respect all men's souls, and I intend to work hard at proving it, Kuchiki-sama!"
He stopped talking, clapped his arms to his sides and bowed down low to her, a sign of utmost respect.
Rukia Kuchiki stared.
Then she turned and sprinted away.
Hitsujikai straightened, and made his way off towards the Seventh division barracks.
She ran, not because she didn't believe in what he said. Rukia did believe. Her flight was for a much more obvious reason.
It was done so that he wouldn't see the tears that had formed in her eyes.
Eventually she drew to a halt, panting and gasping. Her face was wet with streaming salt water, and there was a pain in her heart like she hadn't experienced in so many years. Not since she and Renji Abarai had laid the last of their friends to rest. At that moment, standing over the simple monuments, she had looked out over their home from the heights of this unofficial graveyard. Though the sun was setting in all the majesty she had always loved, today she could find no beauty in their world. Instead all she saw were squat, dilapidated houses, and people shuffling warily back and forth down the streets in groups. There was so much suffering here, and trials. She had felt herself growing tired of repeating the same obstacles every single day. Each morning was supposed to bring new promise, she had heard. But nothing ever improved in her world. Only new challenges, as friends died and old enemies were swallowed up and replaced with worse ones. It was at that moment she had decided to leave this place behind forever, and never give it a second thought. Renji had agreed with her. They would go to enlist in the shinigami academy and fight to join the ranks of the elite souls, or die in the attempt.
Rukia had never gone back to her home in the Seventy-Eighth district. There hadn't seemed any need for it.
It had never occurred to her that she might return for the sake of someone else. Especially not for ones she had never even met.
She hadn't become a shinigami to protect anyone. Just to save herself. The Kuchiki were only the latest attempt at self-preservation. It was all done with her own best interest in mind.
And maybe that's why I feel so alone, Kuchiki reflected.
She sank to her knees, trembling with grief. Rukia buried her face in her hands and cried, for herself and all the rest.
The moon shone softly down.
After a few minutes, Rukia's head came upwards, and let subtle celestial radiance wash over her face. The small soul stared at it, finding herself mesmerized. It was almost like a great round mirror, casting its light upon the world. Maybe anyone who looked at that lone giant could see themselves reflected in its solitary position. All alone, forever.
Staring at a setting sun. Observing a rising moon. Making a choice to change her life, hopefully for the better. She no longer felt so aggrieved.
Rukia Kuchiki stood, gripping the hilt of her zanpakutō firmly. She crouched down and sprang upwards, robes flapping loosely, to land on the roof of a nearby guardhouse. Her senses were sharpened by a life on the streets and the finest instructors Soul Society had to offer. She knew in what direction her quarry must have gone, and so she proceeded on her way.
Over the arched peaks of student housing, past patrolling security and along the waterways. Rukia eventually passed beyond the bounds of the academy, and entered the grounds for the second division. From there it was a straight shot to the headquarters of the Seventh. Before she was even halfway there, though, her soul perception had pinpointed a certain shinigami. It had to be him. Yoshi Hitsujikai was only a few blocks away. Her tatami sandals making almost no sound on the ceramic reishi tiles, the driven survivor focused on finding the man who had taken the time to teach her about herself.
There was a rustle of power, like faint smoke on the air. In mid-leap, Rukia felt a shiver go up her spine. Of a sudden she knew herself to be exposed up here, and dropped down to the street.
Up ahead she could feel Hitsujikai's presence. Apparently he had stopped. Had he sensed her coming, or was he too experiencing the faintest inkling of something out of place?
Kuchiki acted on her misgivings, and worked to suppress her own telltale reiatsu. Then stealthily she stole up the alley. The thought of danger was causing her throat to tighten, and Rukia hardly dared breath now. She was almost there.
Up ahead there came a short grunt.
And Yoshi Hitsujikai's presence vanished.
Rukia's eyes widened. Almost imperceptibly, she crept down the alley, coming upon a tiled courtyard.
In the middle of that open space, a strangely garbed body lay face-down in the square. Blood was pooling beneath it to spread over the stones.
Two black-clad figures rose from beside it. No trace of spirit power escaped these forms. Their faces and hands were entirely swathed in ebony coverings. Only the eyes glinted forth. Light reflected also on two long knives they carried, a tiny flash of red gleaming along the black substance dripping off them.
Between the living shadows and Rukia there stood another. The back was turned, and like the others, all sense of spirit power was tightly constrained within it. But clearly noticeable was the long pale haori, adorned with the symbol of a shinigami division. As Kuchiki stared, the silent observer turned their head. Twin white braids swung, and two silver rings clinked together delicately.
Across the blood-stained scene, Rukia Kuchiki found herself staring into the hard gimlet gaze of the head of the Secret Mobile Corps, Captain of the Second division.
The eyes of the shinigami executioner fell upon her, and Rukia found that she could no longer move. She remained frozen in her defensive stance, clutching the scabbard of her soul cutter, free hand locked on its hilt in a thwarted attempt at heroics. Neither of them moved.
The tiny shinigami tried to swallow, tried to blink. Nothing. She could only stare wide-eyed at the incomprehensible slaughter.
A cheerful voice, followed by a hand coming down on her shoulder.
"What brings you by?"
Oh, sweet heaven, no, she prayed, terrified now for a different reason.
Trembling, Rukia looked over her shoulder.
The captain looming at her back gave no indication of noticing her rigid shock. That eternal smile graced his thin lips, and his eyes were practically shut in an expression of foxy amusement. Silver hair gleamed in the moonlight.
Ichimaru Gin gave the small noblewoman's shoulder a squeeze, and turned his occluded orbs over to Soifon.
"Have you two met? Soifon-taichou, this'd be the younger sister of our esteemed compatriot, Byakuya Kuchiki. Rukia-san, I'd like ta introduce you to Captain Soifon, of the Second division."
Soifon's predatory eyes narrowed at the facetious tone. She flicked a dismissal at her two subordinates, who proceeded to hoist the bleeding body between them and vanish in a blur of flash step. Still without turning completely, the slight assassin continued to stare at the mismatched pair.
"Ichimaru-taichou." Her words came out sharp, clipped. Striking daggers of sound. "Can I trust you to handle this matter yourself?"
The implication hit all at once, and Rukia's eyes darted to one side. No! She begged silently. Her previous quivering dread for the murderous female captain was subsumed by a heartfelt agony of fear. Please don't leave me alone with him!
"Now ain't that a silly question," Gin drawled. "Of course you can! No cause to worry, I'll see her done right."
Soifon nodded. And without moving a muscle, she vanished, a slight sonic boom the only sign of her passing.
Ichimaru scratched his head casually. His gaze came down to take in Rukia's clearly agitated form. That knowing smirk grew even wider.
"Wanna take a walk with me, Kuchiki-chan?"
She could not reply, only stood there trembling and staring up at him.
"Guess that's a yes."
He moved off, one hand still clamped firmly around her shoulder, and Rukia had no choice but to follow.
The head of the Third division led her into the now deserted square. Only a small pool of blood remained to mark Yoshi Hitsujikai's presence, now black in the moonlight. His pace took her very close to that innocuous splotch, and Rukia had to draw away to keep from staining the hem of her robes. Doing so brought her even closer to Gin, though, and she almost lurched back into the puddle when she heard him chuckle. The smell of the spilled fluids seemed overwhelming. She was feeling ill with fear and revulsion.
Then the pair of death gods had moved into another of Seireitei's narrow lanes. The silver fox at Rukia's side led her along a curving, turning route. Though her heart was pounding so loud it gave her a headache, she was almost certain that he was trying to mislead her. Not that it was needed. At this point she had no clue if she was even in the confines of Soul Society. More like her own private version of hell.
There was only one time when Rukia Kuchiki was actually glad to be with her brother Byakuya. And that was when they were confronted by the captain of the Third division. It was a rare thing to actually feel safe in her brother's presence. Not that Ichimaru Gin had ever done anything to her. Or anyone else that she knew of. Some people didn't have to hurt you. It was just… looking at them, you knew they could. And more than that, they dearly wanted to. That's how it was with this one. Gin was a pit viper in human form. It wouldn't have surprised her to learn that he had been a snake back in his mortal days. Someone she met before had a favorite phrase that she only recalled now. Every paradise has its serpent. Still didn't really know what it meant. But if Soul Society was heaven, then she wouldn't have to look very far to find its fangs.
"Ever feel like you're gettin' lost walking these roads, Kuchiki-chan?"
Rukia was fighting very hard not to pass out. Or throw up. She was regretting even the small fare she had eaten for dinner. Conversation was not an option at this point.
"They all look alike," Gin smiled worryingly. "I mean if you're not careful, you might wind up turned all around, no idea which way to go. Just wander the avenues 'til you can't go on. Next day those Fourth division flunkies find your body in the street'n gotta haul you off to be buried."
Rukia tore herself away from his bony fingers, ran to a wall and collapsed, heaving up the contents of her stomach.
Ichimaru Gin just stood by patiently, staring up at the moon, a slight twist to his lips.
In about a minute the female death god rose, shaking. She realized that she had her back turned to the enemy, and glanced quickly behind her.
The grinning captain didn't appear to be paying her any attention. But with his eyes perpetually hovering on the verge of closed, how could you tell? Rukia was not so foolish as to believe that this was an opportunity to make her escape. Even if taken by surprise, the insanely powerful shinigami would have no trouble catching up to her if he wanted to. So then what were her options?
The noblewoman's small fingers remained clenched tight around the hilt of her zanpakutō. Briefly she thought about attacking him, but that was crazy. Even if he couldn't overpower her with both hands behind his back, assaulting a captain was grounds for execution. And besides, what had he done? Escorted her away from the scene of an obviously sanctioned crime? The thought abruptly reminded her of what she had just been privy to, and Kuchiki felt her insides clench again.
It was at this moment Gin's gaze undeniably swiveled over to her again.
For the first time since he had arrived, Rukia spoke.
"Good." And he beckoned. "Follow me."
The captain took off, skipping noiselessly down the path. He did not turn to see if she would obey. For just a second, indecision reigned. Then training took over, and she relented, following a respectful and wary several paces behind.
They continued walking for several minutes. Rukia stared at the back of Gin's head. Wonder if he has eyes in back, she thought briefly. Maybe the ones up front are just for show, and if she stole up and pushed away the heft of his metallic hair, she would find the beast's gaze staring hungrily back at her. If ever there was a soul who should have become a Hollow, it was him. She wondered absently whether Ichimaru had always been like this. And if not, just what had happened to make him so. It did not bear further exploration.
Still musing on these thoughts, the young shinigami was surprised to turn a corner and find herself on the edge of a carefully manicured lawn. A canal flowed through this area, bounded by an ornamental bridge that led to a tiny island of green in the stream's center. A single sakura tree sprouted on this idyllic islet, one small granite shrine the only other ornament. She realized that this was one of the relaxation gardens scattered throughout the various divisions of the Seireitei, its upkeep falling as with so many other things to the Fourth division.
Ichimaru Gin passed over the arch of the bridge in a few strides. He took a seat on top of the shrine and looked back at her, still smiling. "C'mon over, Kuchiki-san. Two of us need to have a little chat."
Rukia's eyes flickered about carefully. There didn't seem to be anyone else in the vicinity, whether evident by sight or reiatsu. But the first was not to be trusted, and the latter possibly concealed. The man slouched casually before her was proof of that. If this ruthless person were to allow his spirit power to release at full intensity, it would knock her unconscious, or at least make her feel like the sky was falling. It seemed like it was just her and Gin, though. Not a position she would have wished for anyone, least of all herself.
But as much as she feared him, though his commands and the implied threat beneath did unnerve her, something more had compelled Rukia not to run away this night. It was the memory of blood on the flagstones, and the sight of a person standing there she had never really spoken to, but whom she had regarded as worthy of respect. The thought made her recall Hitsujikai's speech. He had truly admired the leaders of Soul Society, she realized. That had not just been for the sake of keeping the students from turning on him for a few hours. There had been true sincerity behind his words. The thought of that made the scene she had stumbled upon both incongruous and chilling. This was her home too, now. And if she was going to continue living here, then she wanted to hear an explanation for why that had happened.
She only wished it could have come from a different source.
And with that in mind, she moved across the arch separating her and the grinning specter to join him on the island.
Her silver-headed superior beckoned her to be seated, and the raven-haired waif complied, never taking her eyes off him. She sat seiza beneath the boughs of the cherry tree, taking some comfort from the solid, durable presence at her back.
Ichimaru Gin's vulpine features were even more chilling when seen in shadows. The glow of his hair remained, though, casting a sort of halo about his head. One of his hands came up, and he reached into the voluminous confines of his other sleeve. Rukia felt a drop of sweat slide down her spine, and her fists clenched in anticipation of something awful. But when the spider-like fingers reappeared, they were holding a small bottle of saké and two drinking cups. Balancing the bowls on the tips of two fingers, he deftly poured the rice wine into both. He then proffered them to Rukia invitingly.
A child would know what to do here. An infant, even. Refuse. Politely, but firmly.
She caught the look on his face, and decided not to push her luck.
The violet-eyed maiden accepted one of the small plates. She did not drink it right away, though. Ichimaru didn't seem to mind, only brought the shallow dish up to his lips and took a sip.
He gave a sigh of contentment. The flask went back inside his robes.
"So. You're prob'ly wondering what that was all about back there. Just walking in unannounced, guess we can't really blame you. A situation like that, two captains present, stands to reason there must have been something really dangerous underfoot. Right, Kuchiki-san?"
He had another drink of saké, and looked at her speculatively. Rukia found herself unnerved by the sudden silence, and began studying Ichimaru's every movement carefully, trying to see the strike before it came.
Then Gin shrugged.
"Guess it can't really hurt to let you in on it now. To tell the truth," and he leaned forward, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. "That fella you were talkin' with tonight, the one going on about respect and change and love of duty? The right honorable Yoshi Hitsujikai, ninth seat of squad Seven? He was plotting against us, working to betray Soul Society to the Hollows."
"He was a stinkin' traitor, Rukia-chan."
Water rippled quietly by, and the two shinigami stared at one another.
Against her better judgment, Rukia's brow furrowed, eyes narrowing in obvious mistrust and disbelief.
And Gin gave a bark of laughter.
He slapped his shin, then rested one elbow on his knee and let his chin plop into the open palm, not spilling a drop of his drink. A charming smile graced his features, and the half-hidden eyes sparkled with undisguised amusement.
"I'm just kidding with you. He was okay."
Her arm began to shake, wrath building inside of her chest. The words of a destructive kido spell came to mind.
The captain took another sip, and then casually refilled his cup. The bottle disappeared into the confines of his sleeve.
"Have a drink, Kuchiki-chan."
That was an order. Soft-spoken, and gracious, but undeniably deadly. Never had such an innocuous statement held such life-and-death undertones.
All thoughts of recrimination died, and she obeyed the command.
The deceptively slender warrior gave her a nod of approval, and proceeded to chug the contents of his own cup.
"Seriously, I was just funning with ya. Yoshi was a stand-up guy. Ask anybody who knew him in the Seventh. Steadfast and brave, real asset in a fight. Took to command like nobody's business when he had to, but he never tried to second-guess his superiors out in the field. If they were all like him, why, we might never lose a single shinigami in battle. I'm actually kinda sorry to see him go out like this. No martial honors for the family, even. Just burn the official forms and pretend like nothing ever happened. 'Yoshi who? Nah, never heard of him.'"
Gin slipped his dish back into one sleeve, hand reemerging with the bottle. Popping the lid, he took a swig, and looked over at her with a sweet smile on his face.
"Raise your glass, Kuchiki-san. To Yoshi Hitsujikai! A credit to death gods everywhere! May we all be half as brave as he was, and twice as smart."
Beaming, he toasted, and Rukia found herself automatically following suit. The alcohol coursed down her throat, heating her insides. It might have been this that gave her the courage to ask the next question.
"What did he do, then? To deserve this?"
Gin leaned back, gazing contemplatively up at the boughs of the sakura tree. Its blossoms were freshly budding. The night was warm, the breeze was soft. Were anyone to chance upon this scene, they might just see a man having a drink under the moon with a pretty girl.
Abruptly he stood up.
Ichimaru crossed the few steps dividing them, and plopped down at her side. Reaching over, he refilled her cup. Knowing for certain that his lips had touched the contents meant she was now firmly resolved that hers never would, no matter what he threatened her with. Sharing an indirect kiss with this whimsical fox demon was an experience she could live without.
But the man in question hadn't seemed to notice her strained mood. He was talking once again.
"You already know what he did, Rukia-san. He went against the rules. Disobeyed the wishes of the higher-ups. Now, maybe no actual laws were broken, but in this case, it was more the spirit than the letter of the law we're talkin' about."
Gin looked at her then. And she looked back. For just an instant, in her eyes, that enduring smile of his almost seemed forced. Pasted on.
The impression did not linger.
"Yoshi Hitsujikai was given every possible opportunity to salvage his life. He got the gentle discouragement, and the polite refusal. They gave him all the warning paperwork to let him know he was stickin' his neck out here. And just to show how much we all cared about him, he was even afforded the grace and honor of meetin' with Commander-General Yamamoto, who listened to his grievances and assured young Yoshi that there was nothing more for him to do and he should just let the matter drop. But did our hero listen? No, he didn't."
Ichimaru sighed in apparent sympathy. Kuchiki did not buy this act for a second.
"Instead he actually went sniffing around the offices of the Central 46 Chambers. As if they had the time to meet with every shinigami who's got a boo-boo, or needs a favor, or just wants someone to listen to their problems. I tell you, Rukia-chan, if that little mouthpiece had a lick of common sense, he would have sucked it up, gotten a few of his buddies together, and gone out drinking. Just like you and me are doin' right now. Goes to prove it, I guess. Not everybody knows how to deal with the world they live in. And when that's the case, the most humane thing you can do is to just take 'em on out of it. So that's what we did."
It was a very warm night. The weather in the Seireitei was always pleasant, thanks to the manipulation of reishi that made up the atmosphere. Even when it snowed, there was never any real need to bundle up. The fluttering crystals only served to make a cup of saké all the sweeter.
In spite of this, Rukia found herself growing colder than she had ever felt in living memory. Even looking on the dead faces of her childhood friends had not served to imbue her with the same paralyzing horror that was turning her veins to ice at this time.
Beside her, the cold-blooded predator continued to chat good-naturedly, enjoying his drink and life in general.
"The General Genryūsai himself told us, you know. After Yoshi put on the first of his little student-teacher escapades, he said that a line had been crossed. When you're given the title of shinigami, it isn't so that you can swing a sword and look cool wearing black, you know. It's to let you in on a highly structured and carefully planned military organization. The bigwigs didn't just slap on all these rules and procedures to make themselves feel important, right, Kuchiki-san? Well, am I right?"
He gave her a questioning look. But Rukia was still too wrapped up in impending anguish to offer a response. Gin didn't seem to mind, though. He continued as if the attempt had been made.
"Course not. That would be ridiculous, right? What kind of a petty, self-important old fart would go and do a thing like that? So anyway, the first of those lectures came and went. And let me tell you, the Commander-General was gettin' really hot and bothered. Most of the time at captains' meetings you think he's about to fall asleep in his chair. But those last few? Oh, hell, no! He was definitely mad. And just to add wood to the fire, the next week Yoshi goes and does it again! Now Yamamoto's really on the warpath. Still, like I said, there was no actual infraction of the rules to speak of. Officers above tenth seat in their division are specifically endowed with the power to host student seminars. Gives the kids a chance to see what heights they might aspire to, and teaches them about real-world tactics that might only come in more advanced classes. Everybody wins, see? But fostering discontent within the minds of impressionable young academy attendees? That's a no-no."
Gin Ichimaru stretched one leg out, giving the appearance of easing a crick in his neck. In contrast, the petite body beside him was scrunching in on itself, trying to escape what she was hearing without actually leaving. But there was no getting away from the captain's words. They sounded in her ears without mercy. That term simply did not apply to anything Gin did.
"Along comes lecture number three, and Yamamoto's had it. He tells Captain Komamura that this one's out. The masked marvel doesn't put up any kind of resistance. 'Tween you and me, when it comes to the General, he's a whipped dog, that one. Don't go spreading it around, now, Kuchiki-san. Our little secret. The call goes out for another division to accept Hitsujikai, only in a strictly non-officer capacity. Cut the guy's balls off, so to speak. There's really nothin' worse than getting demoted in the 13 Squads. Well, almost nothing, death is a close second. Anyway, like I said before, I kinda feel sorry for our staunch defender of the people. So I volunteer to take him under my wing. Cuz that's just the kinda guy I am. No sooner has the official paperwork been signed and delivered than Yoshi lets everybody know that he will not be silenced. Lecture number four is scheduled for tonight."
"That's when I get the call. Me and Soifon show up at Genryūsai-taichou's office. He lets us know that Yoshi Hitsujikai is to be officially removed from the rolls of active shinigami, and unofficially removed from Seireitei. An hour ago, when the transfer between divisions was clinched, my subordinate Kira received a notice from Yoshi. Citing personal problems, he was requesting to be removed from active duty for a while. Bein' cognizant of his situation, I concluded that some time off might be just what the doctor ordered, and signed the approval form myself. So when he doesn't show up tomorrow, nobody'll have to act surprised. It's all been taken care of, according to standard procedure. Everything's swept under the rug."
The smirking death god grew thoughtful for a few moments. "I guess the lesson here is, If you're gonna swim with the sharks, don't be a guppy."
He shifted about and regarded Rukia directly through his heavy lashes.
She was staring blankly at him now, face worked in total incomprehension.
"Sorry 'bout that. It's a mortal expression. Didn't mean to talk over your head there, Kuchiki-chan."
And so saying, he reached up and laid a hand atop Rukia's crown.
"What I should've said was, The nail that sticks up gets hammered down."
The spare form gave a violent tremble beneath his fingers.
She turned her gaze away, very slowly, but the sticks continued to caress her scalp.
Please stop touching me.
Hands twisting in her lap, Rukia Kuchiki could not find it in her heart to speak out against this intrusion. She could almost hear the voices of her tutors now. He's not really doing anything wrong. You don't have the authority to refuse him.
You have to obey the rules.
And do the rules say somewhere that he can rape me, gut me, and leave my corpse in the road? Is that what we were going to get around to learning tomorrow?
I should never have come here, Rukia thought.
Where? The inner voice prodded. To the lecture? Or Seireitei?
Before she could decide, Ichimaru was speaking once more.
"So all that leaves us with now is you."
Danger! An alarm was ringing in her ears. The Third division commander continued in a pleasant tone.
"If it was Soifon here, I know she'd recommend something drastic. That's just her way. But she ain't here, now, is she? It's only me. Little old me. And I think that what you really need, Rukia-san, is for someone to explain to you a bit of the history in just what it means to become a shinigami. Here we go."
"Now." Gin was brushing her hair softly, meditatively. "Before the founding of Soul Society, things weren't looking so hot. Hollow populations were scavenging the living ceaselessly. A lot of folks all over the world told stories about demons that would come into your home or pick you up off the street and carry you away, or just eat you right then and there. Even dying wasn't a surefire escape, cuz some powerful Hollows would bust right into Soul Society and take as many as they pleased. It was a good time for them, to be sure."
"And then, a lone man appeared. He had vision. He had strength of will. And most importantly, he had power. Loads of power. Buckets of power. Hell, forget the buckets, this guy was the whole ocean! People came to him with the buckets! He looked out upon the state of affairs at that time, and he decided, this wasn't right. Somebody had to do something. And he was just the right guy for the job. Now Soul Society already had a king, mind you. And being king basically meant that you didn't have to concern yourself with much except staying king. Bottom line, don't get eaten by no Hollows that come busting in. So this super man goes to the king, and makes him an offer. Give him the authority to act in his name, and he'd fashion a military force that would supply the king with the crème-de-la-crème of Soul Society, the mightiest souls the afterlife had to offer, culled from all the reaches of our plane. With them arrayed beneath him, this he-man would beat back the invading Hollows for good and all, and establish order and security not just for the dead, but for the living as well. He laid it all out for the king; a perfectly crafted system which would offer protection to his subjects and, more importantly, to the royal family."
"Our mountain of power was as good as his word. Before you knew it, he had set up an academy to train those who had significant reiatsu in how to make it work for them. Learning the name of your guardian spirit, crafting it into a zanpakutō, and bringing it out for you to be all you could be. Then came kido spells, which few could teach, but nobody shared. That just wouldn't do. He caught them all, one by one, and told them they would be working for him now, teaching his students and learning from one another. And if they didn't like it, he'd just lop off their heads with his flaming sword of justice. Nice trade, huh?"
Gin smiled, sipping his liquor and playing with the unresisting Kuchiki's hair.
"And so, from the ashes of yesterday, there arose the Seireitei. It didn't take the founder long to locate three other spectacularly gifted souls, each nearly as strong as himself. He wooed them to his cause, giving them the opportunity to protect the ones they cared about and fashion a model of the afterlife that they could all be proud of. Once this trio was established, they started laying the ground rules. When things got too big even for them to handle, others were drawn in, carefully selected based on an exacting criteria and their own individual qualities. There were ones to mete out punishment, and others to maintain the upkeep of the surroundings. They chose those with good organizational skills and keen intellects to govern the rules and regulations that were needed to maintain such a sweeping organization. And it worked! The disorganized Hollows were routed by the master and his protégés. Upon seeing their power, the rest of Soul Society was more than willing to forego their old chaotic existence in favor of order and security."
Suddenly Gin's fingers stopped their drumming. He bent down and glared, smiling without humor or mercy, into Rukia's wide, frightened blue eyes.
"Now, having learned all this, waddaya think it means when some joker stands up and questions the society that those great heroes struggled and agonized and sacrificed for in order to bestow on all of us? Do you honestly think they're gonna just look up and go, 'Oh, you're right, young feller! We really didn't do such a good job after all! Why don't you just come on over and tell us what we need to do to improve your stay in Soul Society, and we'll get right on that.' And if you do have a problem with how things are run, just what can you do about it? You gonna take on the legions of shinigami academy graduates, backed up by all their corresponding lieutenants and captains? You gonna risk crossing swords with two insanely powerful top-ranked original captains, and a woman who could disembowel you and heal you in one stroke, just so she could decapitate you afterwards? Are you going to face down the mountain's base himself, a man who, if he really wanted to, could reduce all of Soul Society and everyone in it to ash and bone?"
He grew silent then, studying her face speculatively.
"Have you ever been bullied, Kuchiki-san?"
That last question registered more personally with her, and after a few moments of miserable shaking, Rukia gave the vaguest nod.
"Not a good experience, is it? Makes you feel like you're not good enough to go on living. Am I right?"
Full awareness was slowly returning, and her fine-boned face drew upon a shade of confusion. Was this another example of Gin's sadistic sense of humor?
"Did you ever try to fight back, Kuchiki-san?" Both his voice and his smile were very soft now.
Still clutching her cup, Rukia couldn't bring herself to figure out where this conversation was leading. The only answer she could give was the truth.
"Sometimes." Her response was very faint.
Ichimaru nodded. "When you thought you could win, right? Or when you'd just had enough."
Her confirmation came in a slight nod.
"What about when the bully had a bunch of friends with him? Did you ever think it was smart to try and fight then?"
Slight hesitation. And then, a negative shake of the fair-skinned head.
"Cuz then they'dve hurt you bad. Or worse."
Again the nod of agreement.
"Situation like that, the only thing you can do is run away from what scares you."
Tears were coming now.
"Even though you feel like a coward. Even though you're ashamed and angry with yourself, and always afterwards you dream about going back there and just beatin' the ever-loving shit outta those punks. Even then, should the situation reappear, you always still run away. If you don't you'll get punished. One way or another."
Her beautiful deep violet eyes were shut, and the humiliation was coursing down her cheeks for everyone to read.
"Is that the way you want to live, Kuchiki-san? Lettin' the bullies have their way because they're stronger and faster than you? Never speaking out and trying to change the problems you see, for fear that you'll be stepped on and cast aside, with no one to protect you? Turning a blind eye to the misfortunes of the world that everyone thinks are a necessary and immutable sacrifice for the sake of tranquility?"
Her shoulders were heaving, she was gasping in shuddering breaths. Despite all this, Rukia Kuchiki still managed to shake her head fiercely.
Gin Ichimaru's grin grew very wide, and he rose to his feet.
"Do you think Yoshi Hitsujikai deserved what was done to him?"
"NO!" Stronger this time.
"If a captain were ta hear you say that, waddaya think they'd do to you?"
She grew still, staring up at him fearfully once more.
"Make no mistake, Rukia-chan," the kitsune leered down at her. "Nobility ain't gonna save ya. And certainly not your high-falutin' brother Byakuya. Go against the order of things, an' the next thing you feel is a blade slidin' in here…"
His arm lanced out, fingers touching the spot on her chest where the hakusui rested. Rukia gasped.
Another swift jab, causing pain to blossom briefly in her saketsu. Gin withdrew his hand, leaving a dull throb in her sternum.
"It's part of the rules. If a captain takes offense, the only thing they gotta worry about is cleanin' off their sword and fillin' out the paperwork afterwards."
It was then that Gin reached down and withdrew the tanto-sized weapon at his hip from its sheathe.
"The guys who make the rules and win the battles are the only ones that matter. Rest'a you butterflies don't count. They only keep you around for window dressing. Like that manicured bush behind you."
He held the weapon up horizontally before his face, hooded eyes reflected in the length of steel. His lips peeled back from his teeth, bared in a feral grin.
The blade launched outwards, growing meters in length. It exploded through the trunk of the cherry tree, only inches above Rukia's head. A low boom signaling the plant's destruction was brief and did not travel far.
The tiny girl remained seated in stunned fright. Around her now, pink sakura blossoms began to fall, resting in her lap and on her hair.
Shinso's shaft retracted. Ichimaru moved to sheathe his soul cutter.
"You remember that, Rukia Kuchiki. You division hang-ons are all just ornaments; and if need be, Yamamoto-Genryūsai'll tell his captains to prune ya. You can bet on that."
The smallest whimper emerged from her throat.
The silver-haired demon smiled broadly.
"Say, now that I think about it, you're not really in a division are you, Kuchiki-chan? Haven't even made it that far."
That dangerous mien took on a different shade of threat now, and he stroked his chin, leering at her.
"Y'know, Rukia-chan, when the time does come, I think the Third division might be a good place for you to start, don't you? We're all real friendly there. I know that I, personally, would just love to have you working underneath me."
Against all odds, her skin now grew even more white. Like a sheet.
Ichimaru's heartless gaze flickered slightly, and he cocked his head to one side.
"Want to know how to beat the big bad bullies, Rukia-san?"
He dropped down, staring purposefully into her eyes. Rukia did not even dare to breathe.
"You find someone even stronger than them."
His breath was warm against her face.
"Those who feel the same as you do about how something needs to be done."
And Gin's eyes opened.
Just like that.
Rukia blinked, shock and amazement erasing all else from her features.
She had only a second to register that they were red, before Ichimaru spoke.
"Shatter, Kyōka Suigetsu."
It was like a pane of glass suddenly burst into pieces right in front of her. Ichimaru Gin vanished. In his place stood another white-robed individual. These eyes were warm and dark, supremely engaging even when hidden behind a pair of spectacles. Short curly brown hair fell over his brow. In place of Gin's predatory features there was now kindness, and understanding. The smile on his lips held only a promise of trust and protection for all who might need it. At his hip, a zanpakutō reformed whole within its sheath.
Rukia stared into this saint's beatific visage. Her mouth worked slightly.
Before she could finish he drew closer. Robes rustling faintly, the heat and strength of his reiatsu was palpable now in this intimate space. The startled shinigami detected a scent both sharp and pleasant, like cinnamon.
He then leaned in, and placed a soft kiss on her cheek.
The pale skin flushed crimson. Her heart began to pound violently within her breast.
While she was still trying to come to grips with all that had just happened, the feather-light touch of his mouth traveled along her skin to hover beside her ear. His breath came very faintly.
And he whispered a kido spell.
Inside the dish still clenched in her hand, the saké began to glow. At the same moment she felt warmth spreading through her stomach. Then her eyes were closing, breath slowing, heart rate subsiding. A second later, Rukia Kuchiki was fast asleep.
He caught her as she drifted off to one side, taking the cup before it could spill. Laying the delicate maiden gently to earth, her mysterious attendant stood up. He looked at her, then down at the dish in his hands, and smiled. Had she only taken one sip from the second flask he had poured with, the spell would have been neutralized, as it was for him. But knowing her relationship with Gin as he did, that had not been much of a risk.
There was movement behind him, and he turned.
Ichimaru Gin came across the bridge, smiling.
"You do her right, Aizen-taichou?"
Aizen Sōsuke, captain of the Fifth division, returned the smile. "She won't remember a thing about tonight. Minds are more easily distracted than hearts, after all."
His subordinate pouted. "Now, that's a cryin' shame. I had a lotta fun with her tonight. Really turned on the charm. S'too bad she won't be able to recall a word of it next time we meet."
"I think we both got a few things off our chests." He tucked the cup back into his sleeve. "I only wonder if she noticed any differences in our character whenever we switched places."
"Aw, go on!" his fukutaichou smirked. "You're too good for that. What I wanna know is if Rukia-chan's ever been in a three-way like this before."
Aizen's eyebrows raised slightly.
"Did they dispose of Hitsujikai?"
"Dropped 'im in the Western Rukongai. His old stomping grounds, as it were. Now who says Yamamoto ain't got no heart?"
Sōsuke adjusted his robes, glancing down at Rukia. "Perhaps I was a little too good this time. I only took the time to speak with her to give the crowd a chance to disperse. But Yoshi's words must have really touched something in this girl. Why else would she have come after him?"
"Him?!" Ichimaru smirked. "Don'tcha mean you?"
"What's the difference now?" Aizen ran a hand through his hair. "I'm the only important part of him left. Soifon and her throat-slitters saw to that, and they certainly couldn't tell the difference between us. Not that they would have cared either way. I doubt our dour Second division captain would have made much distinction between a man who dared to engage in dissidence three times and not four. But Yoshi certainly did. He was ready to accept his punishment and go trotting off to join your squad."
"Real sorry to lose that one," the other captain drawled unconvincingly.
"He did the best he could. For a man of his character." Aizen's tone carried admonishment. "I just didn't like to see this story end on such a half-hearted note. So I had him take a nap, and put on a performance that let him go out with some dignity. Though I doubt he had the time to appreciate that after waking, considering that the Mobile Corps dispatched him before he could make it across the courtyard." He turned back to study Gin. "You did well, switching him in without anyone noticing."
"Happy to oblige!" His adjutant looked pleased with himself, but that was nothing new. "I take it Soifon didn't catch on, then."
"She followed you," the elder captain admitted. "But only for a short while. After the two of you came here, she went back to check on the cleanup. They finished sometime in the last ten minutes."
Gin's cheerful features turned now to the girl sprawled at their feet. "What about her? You want that I should…?"
Aizen caught the look, and shook his head. "No, thank you. I'll make sure she gets home safely."
Gin shrugged noncommittally. "Suit yourself. Good evening, Sōsuke-taichou."
"Good evening, Ichimaru-taichou."
Ichimaru flash-stepped away, and Aizen bent to pick up the slumbering girl from the slums of Rukongai. She hardly weighed anything. For a moment he paused to study her face. All the fear and confusion had drained away. This might be the first untroubled night's sleep she had known in years.
Small comforts, he thought to himself, and shot off at lightning speed.
Aizen Sōsuke reached the grounds of the Kuchiki manor in less than a minute. He greeted the guards posted at the gate, who let him by with only looks of mild surprise at seeing their mistress in the arms of a captain. While he was crossing the courtyard, a messenger must have been dispatched. Within moments the head of the family, Byakuya, came out to meet him.
His fellow commander's black eyes usually contained no warmth or human feeling of any kind. It was almost comical then the way they blazed for a moment to find his adopted sister being cradled by another man, even a captain. Aizen wondered briefly what the lord of the Kuchiki was thinking at this moment. Was it Rukia he saw there, or perhaps another?
"Sōsuke-taichou," Byakuya inclined his head formally.
He returned the gesture. "Kuchiki-taichou." Then to preempt further aggravation between them, he held out his charge.
Byakuya took her carefully, either from familial affection or to highlight his ability to accomplish even this with grace. "Would you please explain to me how you came to find her in this state?"
Suspicious, aren't we? "I'm sorry to say Rukia attended an impromptu officer's discourse at the academy tonight. It would seem they were discussing new trends in the modern world, and someone thought it would be funny to spike her tea, just to see what would happen. I was walking by after delivering a few lecture samples, and found her passed out by the hall. She wasn't mistreated in any way, and those responsible have already been disciplined, I assure you."
This time there was no hint of what Byakuya might be feeling. Any retribution he might wish to enact on behalf of his sister had been mitigated by the word of a fellow captain.
"Thank you for taking the time to see her home, Aizen-san. I hope you have not been too inconvenienced."
"Not at all," he waved a hand politely. "If you'll excuse me now, I really must be getting back to division headquarters. Good evening, Kuchiki-taichou."
Aizen turned and strolled casually away. Behind him he could feel the aloof brother taking his sister off to rest. You came personally, of course, your lordship, he smiled to himself. Wouldn't do to have any mere servant touching a member of the royal family, now would it?
That was good to know.
The journey back to his offices was relatively uneventful.
Two years later.
"Kuchiki!" Lieutenant Shiba called. "We're leaving."
"I'll be right there." Rukia slipped her sandals back on, and bowed to the waitress. "It's good to see you're doing well."
"You too, my lady," the girl responded.
She colored slightly. "Thank you. Good day," and proceeded to follow her superior and the four other members of squad Thirteen out of the inn.
They strolled down the dirt road, chatting amiably. Kaien glanced back at her questioningly once, but Rukia only demurred.
"Just someone I met a few times in my youth, that's all."
He nodded briefly, choosing not to engage the matter further.
The group continued their lazy amble through the Forty-ninth district, when a commotion ahead drew their collective attention.
Some of the local youths were apparently having sport with a homeless man. They were shouting and kicking him. When the bedraggled figure tried to run, they chased him down and proceeded to rip his clothes, tearing them with mingled kicks and curses.
Beside Rukia, she could feel Kaien's reiatsu spike.
"HEY!" he bellowed in his drill-sergeant voice. "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, YOU LITTLE SHITS?!"
They all turned at once. No doubt not a one of them had a feel for spirit power, but the black robes and soul cutters confirmed that they were in trouble. To a man, the pack scattered.
"You two!" Kaien pointed at the junior members. "With me! The rest of you, see to that person."
The lieutenant and his appointed attachés took off, leaving Rukia and the other two members with their task.
She was quicker, or possibly more concerned. In a few steps the shinigami aristocrat had reached the indigent's side.
"Sir? Are you injured? Did they hurt you?"
He remained crumpled in a defensive ball, face pressed to the dirt and hands wrapped around his head. Rukia spoke a brief kido, and healing light pulsed about her fingers. She pressed them against the man's naked back. He shuddered, but otherwise remained still. As she sought to undo some of the damage, Rukia's eyes drifted over to a pair of old scars on his upper torso. She frowned to herself. If this man had ever possessed any reiatsu to speak of, such injuries would have ruined him. They looked to be in about the same spots as his hakusui and saketsu.
Soon she had done all she could. Rukia stood back up. One of the other shinigami, a girl, had stopped by a street-side clothing vendor's stall. She now came over with a newly purchased haori. "Here," the death god made her offering. "Please accept this."
At first he did not move. Then slowly, the beggar raised his arm, and took the proffered garment with trembling fingers. Draping the shirt over himself, he then went back to kneeling in the dirt, refusing to look at them.
Their two compatriots returned a brief while later, followed closely by their hot-blooded fukutaichou.
"Justice is served," he said matter-of-factly. Then, cocking a look at their ward, "Is he going to be all right?"
"Sir," Rukia spoke up then. "I think we're scaring him. It might be for the best if we just took our leave."
Kaien grunted. After a final glance to the huddled form, he motioned for them to proceed.
Rukia followed in her lieutenant's stead. After a few paces though, she chanced a look back.
In a rounded face, soft brown eyes that might once have been gentle peered out at her. Now they were filled only with fear. Upon meeting her gaze he broke eye contact swiftly, going back to huddling in the dirt.
She shook her head, feeling pity well up in her heart. But there was little she could do to help him. This was the way of the world, and no one could change that.
Didn't mean she had to like it, though.
Rukia Kuchiki walked away, back to the paradise of the gods of death.