Renji looked up from his reading, stunned and dismayed by what he had just learned.
The words that came next drew him back against his will.
A few days after this event, Yumichika learned that he was one of the people tasked with repaying his debt to the battered Thirteenth division by assisting them to flush out the denizens of Hollow Bog. The idea of picking off a few Hollows sounded rather good at this point, and he went about making preparations for the escapade cheerfully.
"You're awful happy," Ikkaku muttered sourly.
Yumichika threw him a sparkling smile as he donned his orange greave. "Don't be a mope, now. You refused to accompany us to the party, and so you don't get to reap the benefits. We were specifically told no one else from our division could join us on this expedition, and there's no sense questioning the higher-ups. This party is only for scallywags!"
His friend took a belt from a booze gourd. "I'm just saying, you look pretty enthusiastic considering it's only a mop-up operation. You thinking there'll be some real action out there?"
"Not at all!" The Fifth seat dabbed a bottle of scent onto his fingers and patted it under his jaw. "I'm just looking forward to doing my duty today!"
"Huh. Is Renji going to be there?"
"Undoubtedly." A purple scarf was laid against his shoulder, but he dismissed it as inappropriate for the occasion. "Do you want me to keep an eye out for him?"
"Nah." Madarame leaned back against the windowsill and looked at the sky. "He knows the rules by now." Gazing off into the distance, he wrinkled his nose and came back about. "Geez, Yumichika, what's the deal? You're getting dolled up like you're going on a date."
"You never know," the violet-eyed charmer replied while inspecting himself in the mirror. "I might just run into a lovely lady out there, and I want to look my best so she can get used to it."
"If you do, find out if she has a sister."
Satisfied with his appearance, Yumichika grabbed Ruri'iro Kujaku from her stand and trotted out the door, waving goodbye behind him. "Don't wait up, now!"
Yumichika did indeed meet Rukia again that day, and as he had expected, she had no recollection of what took place on the night they first met. In some ways it was an immense relief, but in others a disappointment. Who likes to think themselves forgettable, after all? This also meant he could not easily broach the issues that seemed to have troubled her so deeply that night. But if she harbored any ill effects, they did not show.
In spite of all this, he had resolved to further repay his debt to her by making certain that no harm befell the girl while they were engaged in this exercise together.
To his great pleasure, Ayasegawa found that Rukia was quite a capable presence on the battlefield, despite this being her first time seeing any action. More than that, her form was lovely to behold, speaking of true grace and artistry in its execution.
As the situation turned grim, however, he saw the flaws in her fighting style as well. Undoubtedly courageous in regards to helping others, she still lacked confidence in her abilities. And her swordsmanship, while exhibiting good training, was nowhere near the level he felt necessary to allow her to triumph in a truly desperate situation. Some people could take on a foe that clearly surpassed them in terms of power and still manage to come out on top in the end. But as things stood, Rukia would probably be the one to wind up dead from such an encounter.
She didn't have any natural talent when it came to swords, that much was obvious. But she did have potential in several other areas, coupled with outright fierce determination when you came down to it. And he himself was not a swordsman by nature, having taught himself how to handle such a weapon in order to keep up appearances. Watching Rukia move and fight, he saw a natural expression for battle that occasionally shone through her rigorous Kuchiki-drilled skills. Like him, he suspected she had grown up learning how to make do with her fists and feet to serve as weapons when needed. Were someone to adopt a training regimen with her that incorporated those self-taught inclinations, rather than discounting them in favor of the sword-based tactics recommended by the academy, she might very well blossom into a truly rare and fabulous diamond of a fighter.
They both survived that hellish battle. Yumichika was pleased to find her looking favorably upon him in the aftermath. He told himself that his interest in her opinion was simply a matter of one beautiful and talented fighter appreciating another. It was only natural, after all. He was in no way betraying Renji or Rukia by admitting that.
Time passed, and he had reason to meet her on a few instances. Never anything like before, but he was pleased to see her alive and well, if still not quite flourishing in the manner he had hoped.
Then one day, word went around that Kaien Shiba, lieutenant of the Thirteenth, had been killed by a powerful Hollow the night before. Normally Ayasegawa wouldn't have given a thought to such a matter, but in this case there was an auxiliary issue at heart. He knew Kaien had been training Rukia, and that she was extremely devoted to her fellow noble, who had gone to much trouble to see her welcomed into their fold. Their relationship on and off the field of battle had been the source of several troubling innuendos. Unsubstantiated ones, of course, but troubling all the same.
Now that Shiba was dead, a more credible rumor was whispered that she had been removed from active duty, and no longer could be seen or heard from anywhere in the divisions. Rukia had supposedly retreated into isolation at Kuchiki Manor in the wake of the disaster, which struck so deeply into the power structure of the already sickly Thirteenth division.
Weeks passed, and Yumichika found he was thinking about her off and on. More and more he caught himself wondering how she was doing, and whether she would ever return to fight alongside them again. As before, it was purely an appreciation for what she had to offer in terms of poetry on the battlefield, the sort that would inspire the skalds to sing ravishing songs about her, if there were any skalds to be found in the afterlife.
Beautiful Rukia, wasting away in some lonely castle like a magnificently-begun poem whose creator had never bothered to finish it.
It was this thought that came back to him often, and he grew troubled at its insistence. What could she accomplish, if only given the impetus to succeed? How would she amaze the world by her being in it?
Eventually he couldn't bear not knowing anymore, and so he hied himself off to the palace of the Kuchiki Lord. There Yumichika Ayasegawa offered up his services as a fighting instructor, with the hopes of bringing the princess to her most splendid martial peak.
Captain Kuchiki at last acceded to this request. The very same day, he went and reintroduced himself to Rukia as her new trainer.
It was even a shock to Yumichika at how quickly she recovered her fire, taking his bait and wounding him on the first practice. He had thought something like this would be necessary to snap her out of the doldrums. Therefore he didn't hold back, and was rewarded by a level of bloodthirstiness on her part that would have easily qualified Rukia for a spot in the Eleventh division.
The injury he received from her was one whose scar he would have been proud to bear forever (covered up of course), as testament to his role in bringing this splendid warrior back to the world she belonged in. Instead Rukia insisted on healing him immediately after.
It was while she repaired his arm, worry dancing in her fabulous eyes, concentrating so intently on staunching the flow of blood, that he realized how much he cared for her.
Yumichika looked at this exceptional young maiden of ice and steel as she shared her soul with him, and admitted that he was in love.
Perhaps he had known for a very long time, but it was seeing her like this, both healer and warrior, that let him understand how much she called to him. And how he longed for her. As a shinigami, she had enticing potential. Her skill in all the areas of their arts, from swords to spells, left him afire with the need to see what she could achieve. How far could she rise? To the very top? A captain, even? Oh, it was delicious to think it!
And then, as a woman, she had everything one could ask for. Strength, humor, innocence, wordliness, devotion, intelligence, and affection. There was simply so much to this girl, he found himself doubting anyone could ever be a match for her.
So then. He loved Rukia Kuchiki. But could she ever deign to love him? Could the princess love a pauper just like she had once been? Renji certainly seemed to think so. Of course, that there was a problem in and of itself. Because Abarai was his trusted companion, a person Yumichika valued for his noble qualities as well as his ignoble ones. It was hard enough finding someone you liked in this great big scary world. But if two of you then loved the same person, where would that lead? He knew how Renji felt about Rukia, even if the dolt hardly seemed to recognize it himself. How could it be anything but a betrayal of their friendship if he decided to pursue his own heart in spite of knowing it would cost the other man his own? How could such a thing be anything except… ugly.
But an idea had been circulating inside his head for a while. Perhaps it would be wrong to openly compete for her affections, or even make attempts to steal her away from Renji unawares. What if, however, instead of wooing her and actively seeking her love, he were to present himself in a wholly flattering light that did not involve romance? If Rukia came to view him as a close personal friend, and grew to know his character in that respect, was it madness to think that she might gradually fall in love with him, the way he had come to understand her magnificent qualities and what they made him feel?
This solution, when it came to him, seemed so very plausible and fine, that only one word could possibly describe its virtues.
So he was there for Rukia. When her brother Byakuya treated her coldly for whatever insane reason, he offered her warmth. In the shadow of the staid and unhappy Kuchiki home, Yumichika sought to provide lightness and whimsy, a respite from the enforced drudgery of that wealthy manor.
And it seemed to be working. Rukia sparkled. She shone. Though the weight of her cares could never quite lift fully, Ayasegawa believed that in the time when they were together, he alone was given the opportunity to experience the celestial soul of her womanhood in all its glory.
He was careful in his design. There were no tender caresses which might be written off as innocent, or casual chats about love that might lead elsewhere. This was a most subtle enterprise he was engaged in; the cultivation of her beauty, and the revelation of his own.
There were times, however, seemingly heaven-sent moments that seemed absolutely perfect for declaring his feelings for her.
"Do you consider me… attractive?"
Yumichika looked over at Rukia, sitting there in her black robes amongst the field of blooming gardenia waiting for an answer, and felt the urge to reach out and pull her close to him, kiss her breathless and give her his response that way. But he restrained himself, and drew on his willpower to hide his true feelings from her. He talked around the question in pretty phrases that could be taken any number of ways.
In the end, however, he simply couldn't resist the opportunity, one that she might look back upon years later and see it for what it truly meant.
"…I'm afraid I must disappoint you, my little flower." Since you should know how much you are loved.
"For you see, my heart belongs to another." Another besides myself. And it is you.
"I keep their image with me always." In my mind, and in my camera.
"Would you perchance like to see?"
She nodded eagerly, all guileless charm and inquisitive loveliness. He was flattered to find her so interested in his romantic pursuits. And so with the greatest of care, he withdrew a mirror and handed it to her.
Rukia looked at herself in that frame, and didn't realize she was seeing the person who had captured his heart. Yumichika let her keep it then, as a memento from her cherished friend.
Yes, it was that and so much more.
Decades went by, but to dead spirits like them, time held no great threat. Only what was accomplished in that span mattered.
Yumichika began to believe that Rukia truly loved him. But was she in love with him? That was the question. The idea that he was involved in a fruitless quest was not lost upon her secret admirer. In this way, he understood how Renji must feel.
Unfortunately, someone else proved more privy to his worst fears.
"How's your love life?"
Gin Ichimaru sneered at him following one of his practice sessions with Rukia, and immediately he knew that this man had figured it out. So he sought to kill a captain of the Gotei 13. They might have both died, but the serpent played upon his desire to keep Rukia safe above all else. Thus it was that he agreed to act as this man's agent towards affecting change in their world.
Ayasegawa wasn't truly interested in who came out on top. What mattered was that certain people not be made aware of his feelings for a particular royal lady. Her brother Byakuya, for instance. If that happened, he would have to fight for his life, no doubt. And regardless of what she thought of His Highness, he doubted Rukia would look kindly on the man who killed her adoptive brother and made her take control of that miserable family.
However, if the smirking creep thought he knew everything there was to know about Yumichika and Rukia's relationship, he was sorely mistaken. For there was one other goal in their training together that the teacher never let on to his student.
Namely, he was preparing her to one day kill Gin if necessary.
Anyone who knew her understood that the person who frightened Rukia the most was Ichimaru Gin. Even Byakuya didn't quite compare. Of course, pretty much everybody was wary of the Division Three captain. But there was no denying that he did display an unhealthy interest in Rukia beyond her secret life as an assassin. No way to know for sure what it might be, but Yumichika knew he didn't like it. And so he set out to learn everything he could about the man in terms of his fighting abilities.
Like virtually all captains, Ichimaru was seemingly undefeatable. He knew kidō, was strong, fast, and of course, he had ban-kai. Yumichika got to see more of this last than one might expect. After all, his captain routinely challenged Gin to fight with him, and the creep was unusual among the captains in that he always accepted. Zaraki could never kill his silver-haired sparring partner, mainly because Gin's Hellish Spear seemed perfectly designed to keep its wielder alive despite anything you threw at it.
Ayasegawa watched these fights along with several of his other battle-hungry mates. He watched them all. He questioned. He reasoned. Most importantly, he spoke to people who had faced Makaiso in battle. Only one time had anyone ever managed to triumph with any significance in the face of that ungodly power. That was during one of the lieutenants' trials, when Nemu Kurotsuchi used her zanpakutō to cover the whole thing in blood, breaking the spell. Of course, the fight hadn't ended there, and Gin no doubt would have killed her regardless.
He learned two interesting things that day. One, no ban-kai is perfect. And two…
"You say he hesitated?"
"Yes." Nemu sat across from him, hands folded in her lap. "This was immediately before the arena safety mechanism was activated, cancelling his power. In the moment when Captain Ichimaru was about to swing, I flung my arm up to protect myself on instinct, and I saw him check his attack. Judging by his face, it was as though something had happened to cause him to lose confidence."
"Were you doing anything different at the time than before when he was hurting you?"
"The only differences were that I had lost an arm, my Aka-chan was not aimed at him, and I was holding a mirror."
Yumichika looked up from writing. "A what?"
"A mirror," she repeated, and reached into her robe to produce a similar object. "Used when I do not wish to expose myself directly in order to gauge my surroundings."
The green-eyed lieutenant stood up. "I have no further personal battle data regarding Gin Ichimaru. Mayuri-sama wishes me to remind you that in exchange for this interview, you will inform him of any active Quincy you can find in the performance of your duties."
"Yes, yes, tell your ugly master I'll keep him informed." Highly unlikely he would ever have to make good on that promise. After that last disturbingly coordinated Hollow attack, the Quincy were officially recognized as extinct. Still, had to humor the madman if you wanted to get things done.
From then on, Yumichika insisted Rukia bring her mirror with her to practice, claiming it was necessary to keep them both looking beautiful after bouts. He kept his suspicions to himself, and never once attempted to test them out against Ichimaru. If there was a way to beat his ban-kai without bleeding yourself dry, Gin would never let anyone who knew of it live. So this was something of a pipe-dream. But it was one that made a queer sort of sense, especially to someone who understood the value of a good mirror.
Just covering all the bases.
Rukia Kuchiki was sentenced to death.
He wasn't permitted to visit her. Gin assured him that she would be safe, but even if that did prove true, Yumichika had already resolved to kill Captain Kuchiki for allowing such a travesty to proceed. He changed his mind only upon learning that Byakuya had risked his life to save Rukia, and then admitted the real reason for adopting her. At last Rukia was granted a peaceful life in her own home.
Unfortunately, hot on the heels of this newfound improvement to his beloved's future, Yumichika received a profound punch to the balls in the form of Kurosaki Ichigo.
He listened to her talk about him. He watched her when they were together. He saw how much she had changed in just a few short months. More than he had accomplished in decades of trying. Only one thing could explain it.
Rukia was in love with the human boy.
When he realized this, the deadly duelist considered blowing his cover and just killing the brat in front of everybody. Let them see the true form of his zanpakutō, who cares?
So instead, he resolved to bear this grotesquely unforeseen turn of events with as much fortitude as he could muster. More than that, Yumichika swore that if it didn't turn out to be a momentary infatuation, if Rukia decided for herself that this love was real and worthwhile, then he would do everything in his power up to and including death to see that Kurosaki survived the war that was about to come.
On the day Rukia bloodied his lip and he gave her back her soul power, Ayasegawa felt his heart being wrung dry by how close they really were. But not close enough. He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek then, the only direct evidence of his affection for her he had ever permitted. Afterwards he left her to recover, and went to have a chat with Ichimaru.
"Don't let Kurosaki die."
"Rukia loves him."
"Well, ain't that sweet."
"When the war really starts, I'll take care of him. Just remember that."
"Whatever ya think is best, cowboy. Ichigo won't die on my watch if I can help it."
"All right. Goodbye, then."
"Hey, ain'tcha gonna threaten me? Y'know, 'I'll make you regret it', and all that?"
"I'm not in the mood."
-Renji, this last part here's for you.-
-You and the captains just got back from Hueco Mundo. I saw Ichigo's face. He knows now. Rukia told him. It's real. Which means you and I have a tough choice ahead of us.-
-Either we accept the fact that she's made her decision and go on with our lives, or stand up and face the music, come what may.-
-I'm dead, now, so I have no intention of telling you what I would have done if I had survived. Just understand that if you don't do the same, you will forever be a sorry excuse for a coward, and you deserve to suffer for it. I'm suffering now as I write this. I am going to have a talk with Kurosaki, and get a few things off my chest. Whatever decision you make, it had better be one you can live with. Otherwise… well, I'll see you soon.-
-And one more thing. Don't you dare tell Rukia or anyone else about my feelings for her, understand? This secret I leave in your care.-
-Goodbye, Abarai Renji. Keep shooting for that captaincy, you hear? After today, I think there'll be some spots open.-
-Oh, and if Rukia or Ichigo dies, kill Ichimaru for me, okay? Thanks.-
-Your beautiful and bitter rival in love,
Yumichika Ayasegawa ('5')-
Renji let the last small sheet drop into his lap. He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.
He had been in love with her. That's why Yumichika was always hanging around Rukia. Why didn't I see it before?
You thought he was gay, that's why.
That's right. I did. But now I know differently.
So? What happens next?
Why are you asking me?
Looking up, he found Neliel gazing down at him curiously, the war-paint across her cheeks scrunching up in cogitation.
"Hey!" The lieutenant jumped up, stuffing the pages into his sash. "You all done?"
"I got bored," she said decisively. "And I'm hungry. What do shinigami eat, anyway?"
He blinked. "Well, there's lots of rice, and alcohol…"
"Show me. Now."
Forceful. All the same, there still seemed to be a bit of the childish Nel inside all-grown-up Neliel. To cover his shock at what this day had revealed to him, Renji decided to just go along with whatever his new partner's whims dictated. "Sure. Right this way, they've got really good chow at the barracks."
"Hmm," she murmured.
Then without further ado, Neliel caught him in a headlock and started marching down the lane with his head tucked under her arm.
"Are you… feeling okay?"
She shook her head, sending green hair flying. "No. For some reason being in that room reminded me that Ichigo is shacking up with Rukia. I'm a little upset by that, so I want some male companionship right now." The swordswoman glanced down at him. "You're a good fighter, and your tattoos are nice. So keep me company in my grief."
What is there to say except…?
Quite unexpectedly, Abarai had found a person who might have something helpful to suggest in regards to the decision he was required to make soon.
Not for the first time, Byakuya studied the paper that lay before him. The emotions it raised brought only questions with no clear solutions.
As he perused the contents of that final message, a hell butterfly fluttered through his window and came to rest on his hand.
About to brush it off for later, he was startled by the voice that spoke to him.
-Greetings, Lord Kuchiki! Your humble servant Yumichika Ayasegawa requests an audience. Granted? How very gracious!-
-There are a lot of things I could say to you, but if you are hearing this, it means I'll never get the chance. And such matters are best done in person, perhaps with swords crossed and blood flowing. Like my captain, I always wondered how it would be like were I to battle you. Who knows, by this point I might have actually died by your sword. But even if that is the case, there is something that must be said.-
-You've come a long way in how you treat Rukia. Relatively speaking. That is the only reason you remain alive today. In spite of that, you're a hopeless clod when it comes to knowing her. I have had to assume the role of wonderful and kind older brother that you forsook for whatever stupid reason your shriveled heart concocted. That is what you were actually paying me to do, so you know; not teach her how to fight, but to do what you could not be bothered to understand was a necessary brotherly duty. And that is to not only love your little sister, but to show it.-
-If I am not there to do it, henceforth I expect you to take over the role of kind Aniki now that I am gone. And your first task is very simple: Rukia would like a pet. Since I have no trouble imagining you messing up even such a simple task by buying her a goldfish or possibly even a bonsai tree, I will spell it out for you. Rabbits. Cute and fluffy rabbits. White ones, preferably. Should you feel the need to buy her a whole warren to make up for neglecting that fabulous girl so odiously, obey that instinct.-
-I am leaving her well-being in your hands. If you fail in this matter, I'll come back from the dead and butcher you. And should you find yourself filled with murderous rage the first time she introduces you to her boyfriend, know that Big Brother Yumichika is proud of you. That's all I have to say. Except that I was always better-looking than you.-
Ayasegawa Yumichika ('5')-
To say that Byakuya was unprepared for such news would not have done it justice. The flippancy, the sheer brazen audacity of it left him wondering if the whole world had not taken leave of its senses while he wasn't looking.
What did he mean about Rukia having a 'boyfriend'?
A wealth of suspicion blossomed in his heart.
Who was it?
I believe you already know.
That is absurd.
Did you think she was going to refuse all social contact like you did? That is something we were trying to avoid, if you will recall.
I cannot countenance this. The mere idea of it is an affront to my pride.
Think of it as a matter to be handled in the future. Remember, there are more disturbing tidings yet. This war is not over, regardless of what that buffoon Urahara believes.
At this reminder, Byakuya once more picked up the single sheet of paper that had lain on his desk since he returned from the fighting.
You are correct, Senbonzakura. The future does hold far worse horrors than what you imply.
To assure himself of this, he once more read the letter written in a familiar hand.
-I do not know what has caused me to regain my senses at this stage. I fear there is little time as it is. Though that is the case, I would be remiss in my duties were I not to leave something tangible for you to look back on and hopefully benefit by. At the very least, I must try to warn you of what is taking place in our world-
-This is the last testament of Ginrei Kuchiki, your grandfather. My feeble condition these past few decades was not a natural one. I have been poisoned by someone whom it never occurred to me I should suspect. Though it may strike you as unbelievable, the one responsible for depriving me of my sanity and strength was Retsu Unohana. She came to me after your mother's death, when I learned that one of our own captains was collaborating with the Hollows, and bound me with her power. Aizen Sōsuke is a traitor to Soul Society. I fear that both of them have been engaged in some fiendish plot for many centuries now without our knowledge. By this point you may already have proof of their treachery, but there are things you cannot possibly know, for they have not yet come to pass-
-In the time that I lay bound by the witch's curse, my zanpakuto, Momiji Okami, sought in vain to free me from her enchantments and warn you of the peril. Lost in my memories, Maple Emperor strove to cut through the magic which shackled me to the past and blinded me to the present. He fought so hard that the battle within my soul yielded unexpected consequences. It was not only the veil of days gone by that he managed to pierce, but the impenetrable curtain of what lay ahead. My eyes have been granted visions of things I could not possibly have reason to know of. Whether merely delusions of my fevered brain or something more, I cannot say. But some dread emotion compels me to believe that there is truth to what I have seen, and so I will impart it here-
-Aizen Sōsuke is far more than what he seems. I believe him to be a surviving member of the Takuiyoku clan, whose destruction I myself countenanced in the name of the King. Worse even than this, he bears the vengeance and power of every soul who was slaughtered in the name of justice on that day. He has gathered demons from our world and beyond to help him achieve his vision of overthrowing the King of Soul Society. Vasto lorde are his to control, and members of your own inner circle have fallen under his spell. I have seen your chosen wife, or someone who looks enough like her to be a sister, acting under his direction to achieve the most chilling ends. Heaven shall feel the force of their wrath, and unless I am mistaken, a new dark emperor will be crowned in the aftermath-
-But there is hope. It is not only the faces of monsters who haunt my mind, but heroes as well. For your sake as well as theirs I am willing to endure the ultimate sacrifice on this day. But my generation will not be the one that ends this long-running conflict, nor even yours, I regret to say. The best we can do is hinder and delay the rise of evil, in the hope that when those horrific powers once more find their way back into our world, a new breed of champions will have emerged to ultimately put right the travesties of their foreparents-
- The youth of today and those not even born yet must grow strong and wise, for it falls to them to defend all of creation against our avowed enemies. I cannot tell you their names, but I have seen a boy with hair of frost and emerald eyes astride a dragon made entirely of ice. This child is a legendary guardian, reborn into our time to challenge the King of Deceit himself. Their conflicting destinies are so closely intertwined that I fear some awareness of it may exist hidden in each of them. If that is so, Takuiyoku might already have taken measures to slay the boy who will grow to oppose his reign. Find this child, and see to his protection until his power has matured. Your future depends upon it-
-Other valiant spirits exist elsewhere. In my mind's-eye I watch as a man with hair like orange flame, the heir to the one-eyed God of War, does battle with madness incarnate in the form of a ravening Wolf, to avenge his kin and all the multitudes who died in that beast's jaws. The Trickster God offers up malice and riddles with a smile, but he alone has divined the way to destroy a creature whom even God Himself was unable to kill. One fallen soul shall return from the dead to reclaim his heart and rescue innocents from a Cobra's shadow, while the Bottomless Pit weeps at the knowledge of what she has consumed. There are children of people you trust who will walk in dreams, and come to know the true face of our most dire enemy, the Hollow Queen. And it is with pride that I tell you a child who bears the mark of the Kuchiki shall bring about the Witch's downfall-
-There is nothing more I can reveal at this time. You are your father's son, Byakuya. He had a great heart that saw past his elders' folly, and I know you are the same. The world I defended must come to an end, in favor of a brighter future. If not, the sins of the past will destroy all hope in their quest for vengeance. I offer my blessing to you and all others whom you choose to shelter in our family. Let your eye see clearly their value, and do not let fear deceive you-
-Forgive me for leaving you like this. Believe that you are loved, because you deserve to be-
-Ginrei, 27th Lord of the Kuchiki-
Byakuya settled his grandfather's final account into his lap and sat for a time, pondering the mysteries that had been left to him. Was there any measure of reason he could discern in these vague warnings? How awful must his grandfather have felt, not being able to provide anything clearer than this?
Prophecies often only make sense after they come true. Nonetheless, the overall sentiment is clear.
Indeed. Our battle with the betrayers remains unfinished. We must prepare against the possibility that they might one day find a way to free themselves.
Do not forget to live your own life while you train for the dark times which lie ahead.
You need not fear on that score. I will defend all I cherish from any threats, whether they be of my doing or the fault of my ancestors.
It is a heavy onus of responsibility that your predecessors in the Kuchiki and the Gotei 13 have left you to manage under.
True. But all the same, I am proud of my grandfather. To say nothing of grateful. By his actions he has given me a greater chance for happiness.
I believe your lady recognizes the same.
Then we must not let his sacrifice go to waste.
May you exhibit the same pure valor when Rukia announces her engagement to…
Be silent, you pert blade.
As my lord commands.
"Milady," the servant whispered, as if afraid of disturbing anyone at this late hour, "Lord Kuchiki requests your presence. He is waiting in the reception chamber. Would you like me to help you dress?"
"Thank you. I will see them as I am."
Rukia rose from her bed where she had been unable to sleep for worrying about when they would notice. No reason to ask what this was about. Well, time to face the music.
Thus it was that a few minutes later, she found herself sitting in her nightclothes facing four very unfriendly-looking captains.
Byakuya appeared as grave as if he were challenging an army of vasto lorde, while Yoruichi had adopted an unreadable expression. Tessai Tsukabishi was gazing at her sadly, as though asking how she could do such a thing. Kisuke Urahara looked distinctly intimidating now that he wore the robes of the Twelfth division captain. Perhaps some of Mayuri's presence still resided in that garment. Or maybe it was the way he pressed his lips together so tightly, like he might explode otherwise.
As she had suspected, they were keeping this all in the family.
"Lords and ladies," Rukia greeted them calmly, "How may I help you this evening?"
Her brother took a deep breath. "Where is it, Rukia?"
"I am sorry, Nii-sama, can you be more specific?"
"Don't act cute," Kisuke snapped. Nothing humorous about him now.
"Lady Kuchiki," the bespectacled sorcerer beside him rumbled. "Where is Minazuki?"
She directed a regal look at him. "I cannot say at this time."
"This is serious, Rukia-chan," Yoruichi groaned and rubbed the bridge of her nose. "You took advantage of your status as a Kuchiki. The guards didn't try to stop you from going in, and according to them you didn't leave with anything. But the weapon is still gone. So what did you do with it?"
No sense trying to lie. "I gave it to Ichigo."
"Why?" Byakuya sounded very weary, and the way he looked at her made his sister regret this enterprise for the very first time. Her Nii-sama seemed honestly disappointed with her. And so she gave him an explanation.
"I have my doubts about the intentions of certain people." She kept her violet eyes locked with his gray ones, refusing to look at the other three. "The weapon Minazuki is too dangerous to leave lying around for anyone to pick up. So we decided that while you were all kept busy overseeing the return of Karakura Town to Earth, Ichigo and I would remove Unohana's zanpakutō and hide it somewhere it could do no harm."
"Just have to keep people guessing about your allegiances, don't you, Rukia-sama?" Kisuke drawled, attempting to appear relaxed and failing at it. "You're lucky no one told Soifon about this. She would have been after your head for sure this time."
"Are you threatening me in my own home, sir?" she asked archly.
The scientist crossed his arms. "What if I am?"
"Urahara-san!" Tsukabishi looked at him with disbelief. "She is our ally!"
The retired shopkeeper threw up his arms with a laugh. "Does she know that?"
"That is enough, Urahara-taichou," Byakuya said in a more commanding tone of voice. "Our primary concern is locating Minazuki."
"Your little sister seems to think she can do whatever she pleases!" his counterpart from the Twelfth shot back. "Tell me, is she wearing the pants in this household, or are you?"
"Kisuke…" Yoruichi spoke with a glare.
"NO, I AM NOT WALKING ON EGGSHELLS AROUND THIS!" he shouted, rounding on his ally angrily. "That little girl goes off half-cocked, meddling with things more dangerous than anything we know, and you expect me to just smile and go, 'Pish-posh'? Simply because she's noble? That's not an excuse to do as you please anymore!"
"Neither is being a captain," Rukia said quietly.
His eyes narrowed viciously. "Oh, my dear, my dear, you really are asking to be slapped, aren't you?"
"Try it, Urahara," a voice spoke. "Just try it."
Relief washed over her as she turned to see the door behind her slide open and Ichigo come walking in. Wearing his normal death god robes, he stalked over to join them. Rukia rose, and he came to stand beside her. A questioning look passed between them, and when he smiled, she knew that their plan had been a success.
One less thing to worry about.
"Well, everybody's here." Yoruichi flopped down onto a cushion and rolled her neck around slowly, wincing as she did. "Can you tell us what exactly is going on now?"
"Just trying to keep Soul Society from falling back on bad habits," the teenager asserted firmly. "It's not good for a few select people to make all the decisions, right?"
Kisuke had never looked more furious than he did right now. "You ignorant little…! Do you think you can just waltz into our world whenever you please, strut around and tell us what to do? You're playing with our lives! WHERE DID YOU PUT THAT DAMN SWORD?"
Rukia was proud of the way her champion faced down that irate intellectual. He didn't betray any emotion in the slightest. Very mature.
"Have you looked up your ass, Urahara?"
Ah, there's the man I love.
Before Urahara could respond, Byakuya began to speak.
"Ichigo Kurosaki. The weapon you two stole might conceivably be used to bring its owner out of her captivity. It does not reflect well upon you to treat such a possibility as indiscreetly as you do everything else. Do you doubt our trustworthiness so much you are willing to risk all our lives?"
"I don't question your integrity, Byakuya," he responded. It was a mark of how troubled the captain really was that he did not react to the familiar title in the slightest. Rukia's heart went out to him then.
"We did not take Minazuki to threaten or intimidate any of you," she asserted in the hopes of lessening the dire mood that was increasing with every passing moment. "But I spoke to Tsukabishi-taichou, and he admitted there was little more that could be done to suppress it." Tessai bowed his head forward and shook it from side to side, as if lamenting any part he might have played in leading up to this matter. "With that being decided, the greatest threat lay in how many people knew where to find Minazuki. Such information was dangerous no matter how you looked at it. This way another variable has been restricted to the best of our abilities. Only one person knows its location now, a man who can be trusted implicitly."
"Really?" Urahara spoke coolly. "Is that how it is, Ichigo? Can we trust you not to betray us? Are you completely above reproach?" A very disturbing smile twisted his face. "Even if you are, can you guarantee you will always be that way? There's a side of you some of us have seen that isn't quite so virtuous. What if he decides to take control of you again? Things could get rather more complicated should the world's most dangerous weapon wind up in the hands of your Hollow."
"That's a good point, actually." Yoruichi looked between them both. "Ichigo, if we let things stand, are you certain we might not wind up regretting this decision?"
Kurosaki returned her stare without flinching. "He won't bother you anymore. He's my responsibility. I'll keep him in check."
"Lovely," Kisuke groused sarcastically.
"Perhaps you would consent to accepting a precautionary measure," Tessai suggested while stroking his chin thoughtfully. "I could cast a spell on you that would alert us immediately if your Hollow began to assert dominance. It would be completely benign otherwise, of no notice to you in your daily life."
"I got enough of you guys and your 'benign spells' hidden inside me, thank you very much," Ichigo returned in a very suspicious tone, causing Tessai to frown.
"Ichigo-san, this is a very sensitive matter. You need to show our worries some consideration if we're to trust you!"
"Have a little faith in me, Tessai-san. After all, you helped make me this way, right?"
Tsukabishi appeared troubled by this admission and lapsed into silence. It was Byakuya who once more continued the dialogue. "If you would at least consent to share the location of Minazuki with someone else, it could be taken as a sign of good faith."
"Who'd you have in mind?" Trust and faith did not exactly drip from his tongue, Rukia noticed.
"Why not tell Rukia-chan?" Yoruichi supplied. "You can both depend on her, right?"
"That's nonsense!" Urahara practically barked. "Bonnie and Clyde here have already shown how little they think of us, asking one to watch over the other is like giving prisoners the keys to their cells and asking them not to leave!"
"She doesn't have an inner Hollow, does she?" his childhood friend retorted. "And if her association with Aizen is what's troubling you, remember that you and I already agreed once before to overlook that. 'No more following others' bad examples', remember?"
"Don't throw all that back at me, Yoruchi! We didn't work so hard and risk so much to have a teenager start shoving his ideals down our throats! Overwhelming brute power isn't supposed to be the only deciding factor anymore, do you recall that?"
"Anytime you want to see that 'brute power', Urahara-san," Kurosaki declared darkly, "just step right up."
Kisuke turned back to him with an eerie smile. "You've never seen what my ban-kai can do, boy. Trust me, you wouldn't like it. I don't want to have to resort to force in this matter," his hand dropped down to rest on the handle of his prominently displayed soul cutter, "but if you continue to behave badly I'll just have to give you another little demonstration of what I can do."
Ichigo gripped Zangetsu's hilt in return. Several people cried out at this, and Yoruichi sped to stand in between them, shouting at both to simmer down. Rukia's blood ran cold when it looked as though the two of them really were about to go at each other right then and there.
In the midst of the shouting and struggling to hold both men back, there came a sharp crack, like a branch being snapped in half.
Everyone froze, gazing around in puzzlement.
Then Urahara reached up and touched his cheek, where it suddenly became evident blood was flowing down. They all watched as he examined his fingers in astonishment.
A second later his eyes went blank, and he collapsed on the floor.
"What the…?" Yoruichi dropped into a crouch beside him. Her head came up, golden eyes narrowing as she examined everyone in the room.
"Wasn't me!" Ichigo yelped defensively when her gaze came to rest upon him.
Before he could protest his innocence any further, there came a soft crinkling sound from a corner of the room, and a spiritual signature began to leak forth.
Looking in that direction, Rukia was shocked to see the solid wall flaking away before her eyes. More of that seemingly flat surface collapsed into small chunks, and from out of it there stepped a fully-formed figure that she recognized immediately.
"Forgive me for intruding," the artificial life-form bowed to her stupefied hosts as she wound her whip around one arm. "Isane-neesan asked me to inform you that she has completed preparations to seal the memories of select individuals. My captain appeared quite irrational over the theft of Minazuki. I acted to ensure no harm would come to him."
Everyone looked at the prone form of Urahara, then back at her.
"No harm?" Yoruichi repeated. "I don't imagine Mayuri would have ever accepted such treatment from you."
"You are correct, Shihoin-sama. However, I am allowed greater latitude in how I handle myself with a different commander. Mayuri-sama did explicitly state that if I ever came into the possession of Kisuke Urahara, I must be prepared to defend the integrity of Mayuri-sama's research. So he included a chemical in my bloodstream that was uniquely designed to subdue Urahara-taichou should he ever prove… difficult." She cast a glance at her new master. "This seemed to be such a case."
She wasn't certain, but Rukia could have sworn she detected a faint smile on her brother's face as he rose up. If so, Byakuya hid it soon afterwards. "I believe that further discussion at this point would prove fruitless. If there are no objections, we shall conclude the matter for the evening. Sleep might allow a mutually agreeable solution to prevent itself in the morning."
No one spoke out. Tessai moved to assist Urahara, but Yoruichi waved him back.
"No. I'll take him," she said with firm resolve. The kidō master hesitated, then nodded in acquiescence. His longtime associate lifted her unconscious colleague over one shoulder, much in the manner she had done with Ichigo months past. A whisper of sound was all that marked her passing as Yoruichi proceeded to vanish from the room, taking Urahara with her.
Having observed all this, Rukia suddenly felt quite tired, and excused herself to go off to bed.
Izuru's eyes closed, and he was fast asleep.
"That's all of them," Isane Kotetsu declared, rising and inspecting the four sleeping souls. She turned back to Byakuya Kuchiki and Tōshirō Hitsugaya. "When they awake, they'll have no memory of what went on. Someone will have to explain to them everything that took place following the lifting of the spell."
"We will attend to my sister," Byakuya stated, nodding in the direction of Ichigo, who was hovering worriedly beside him and craning his neck to get a glimpse of the slumbering Rukia.
"I'll see to the rest of them, Isane-chan," Rangiku Matsumoto affirmed merrily. A wicked gleam shone from her eyes as she took in the three comatose lieutenants. "Oh, I'm going to have so much fun with this!"
"Are you sure you're well enough to move around?" her captain grumbled.
The luscious lush responded by draping an arm around his shoulder and rubbing her chest against his arm. "Would you like to take me for a test drive, Taichou?"
As they renewed their eternal bickering, Kiyone Kotetsu came trotting up to her sister with a worried expression. In her hands was a memory-eraser. "Nee-san, are you sure about this?"
"Yes," her silver-haired sibling nodded. "Believe me, Kiyone, it's for the best. Please don't ask me why, I have my reasons."
She tried not to let it show how much of a relief this procedure would be. Her grief had not lessened one bit since the moment she first awoke from the sleeping spell Unohana had cast on her. Still, Isane remained proud of the fact that she had come to a decision about what to do almost instantly. Using Itegumo to smash the protective barrier her captain placed around her, she had then gone off to treat Kyōraku and Ukitake. They had convinced her to continue after Retsu to try and stop the madwoman from causing further harm. And while the dutiful lieutenant had agreed to this, the knowledge that somewhere out there now, the woman she had devoted herself to for ages might have already destroyed herself was simply too great a burden.
She was a goddess once, a person of grace, wisdom and humanity. Now all that's left is…
Please do not think of this anymore. It is time to sleep, my darling.
Thank you, my friend.
Attempting to give Kiyone a reassuring smile, she then took out a bottle. "You can do this. I'm glad to have you with me, Kiyone."
"Wait a second, Isane-chan!"
With the flask halfway to her lips, Kotetsu paused as Matsumoto came bounding up to her, grinning from ear-to-ear.
As everyone watched, the buxom bombshell took her tall associate aside and whispered privately between them.
Isane gasped and gave her a shocked look, face going red. "Wh-what? I couldn't do…!"
"Why not?" Matsumoto insisted. "Not like you can be punished afterwards, your memories will be gone. Do something nice for yourself while you can, girl!"
The taller woman's resistance seemed to be crumbling. "Well… if you don't think it would cause much trouble."
"I've got your back, sweetie," and the temptress took the flask from her unsteady hands.
"Matsumoto, what are you scheming?" Hitsugaya frowned warningly.
"Nothing, Taichou!" She flashed an innocent look his way.
While this was happening, Isane took a deep breath before letting it out. She then strode over and stood before Byakuya. The woman fidgeted and wrung her hands together, obviously very uncomfortable, and that imperially perfect god lifted a slender eyebrow up at her. "Yes?"
As if unable to look at his cold beauty any longer, Isane shut her eyes tight and bowed forth quickly, shouting out, "G…GOMEN NASAI, KUCHIKI-SAMA!"
Quick as a flash, she grabbed Byakuya's face and in front of the crowd of shocked spectators, proceeded to kiss him ardently.
Isane kept her eyes closed, concentrating on running her fingers through that silky smooth hair and feeling his lips pressed against hers.
This feels really, really good! Better than I thought it would, under these circumstances!
RUN FOR IT!
The lieutenant abruptly broke away and fled back to where Matsumoto stood, face beet-red and heedless of the amazed looks others were giving her. Grabbing the bottle, she took a swig and swallowed hurriedly. Isane then rushed over to where her sister remained stupefied at what she had just witnessed. Grabbing Kiyone's shoulders, she shook her dazed sibling hurriedly. "C'mon, c'mon, hurry up and do it!"
Glancing back behind her, Isane gave a squeak at the dreadful expression slowly dawning on Byakuya Kuchiki's face. She started to shake Kiyone back and forth like a rag doll. "HURRY, HURRY, GET THE LEAD OUT BEFORE HE KILLS MEEEEEE!"
Snapping back to reality, Kiyone saw the captain stalking towards them with murder in his eyes. Isane hugged her with a wail, hiding away from the approaching anger of a god, and finally Kiyone remembered her role. There was no more room for hesitation, and so she lifted the memory charm to her sister's face and activated it in a small puff of smoke.
As soon as she did, Isane passed out, and she collapsed forward to send the two of them sprawling on the floor. Ukitake's subordinate struggled to extricate herself from under her much heavier relative, but gave up when Byakuya came to loom over them both. Kiyone got the distinct impression that their family tree was about to get pruned.
And then like magic, Matsumoto leapt to their aid.
"Now, Captain, don't get so bent out of shape. She deserved something nice to go out on! Plus you can't punish her when she wakes up, because she won't even remember doing anything. That would be cruel, don't you think? And isn't forgiveness what this whole business was all about?"
Even that stunning woman whose favor was sought after by most of the men in Seireitei felt a little fear for her future at the way the Sixth division captain looked at her then. She swallowed and hoped desperately that her own superior would come rushing to her rescue if things turned ugly. Unfortunately, the silent pleas for help she was sending Tōshirō's way couldn't seem to penetrate that blank shock which held him in its grip. He looked to be reliving something whose provenance was hard to make out.
"It's an epidemic," the boy muttered. Of all times for him to snap!
To Rangiku's immense relief, no blood was spilled. Instead the Lord of the Kuchiki turned slowly to regard everyone else who had borne witness to that event.
"This never leaves the room, and none of you will ever speak of it again. It never happened." He glanced sharply down at Kiyone Kotetsu, who quailed beneath the weight of her peacefully sleeping sister. "And if a single rumor to the contrary ever reaches my ears, I will hold you personally responsible. Is that understood?"
The Fifth seat's eyes were bigger than a frog's, and she nodded to show her acceptance.
Byakuya spoke no more. He spun and swept regally over to where Rukia remained dead to the world. Bending to take her into his arms, he rose and shot a dark look at Ichigo, who flinched and scowled in much the same way.
The nobleman then carried his dearest treasure from the Fourth squad offices. Kurosaki followed closely in his wake. Outside, a light snow was beginning to fall from smooth gray skies. Winter was finally coming to Seireitei. In the human world, it was time for all of nature to lie down and rest in preparation for spring. When the world awoke, it would hopefully be to a better day.
Still, such poetic thoughts could wait. For the time being, they would need all their strength to help Rukia once she recovered. Kurosaki had offered to aid him in this, and he had accepted for her sake. That would be the most trying part, having to impart to his precious sister not only an edited version of what had transpired following her defeat of Ichimaru, but also that she had lost a person she obviously cared for deeply.
But perhaps Byakuya could be of greater help to her with that. They both understood what it meant to grieve for departed loved ones. And surely some measure of the affection that bound them still remained after death.
With that in mind, the Lord of the Kuchiki bent his thoughts on the best methods for procuring some rabbits.
The black cat walked through the Maggot's Nest with little Jinta in the lead. This prison's collection of inmates had been freed days past and transferred to a special center where they could be acclimated back to a normal existence as spirits. In some cases, more extreme measures would have to be taken. The recently-reinstated head of the Onmitsukidō knew full well that several of the people imprisoned in here truly were dangerous to others. But she was also aware that there were far more humane and successful resolutions to their cases than locking them in a pit along with other deviants to never see the light of day again.
Right now, though, Yoruichi was more interested in the single soul left inside this place.
Jinta approached the door and knocked. He seemed ill-at-ease, and she could certainly understand why. The decision to undertake this duty had been his, however. Loyalty and affection truly were wonderful things.
Finally the stone slab slid slightly to one side, and Ururu peeped out timidly.
"He's… not happy," she whispered.
Yoruichi padded past the trembling golem. "Wait here. I need to talk with him privately."
She then entered the passage. Stealing down its length, she finally came upon an open space where the cells for solitary confinement could be found.
Kisuke Urahara looked up at her approach. He did not rise from his seat inside the cage. Still wearing his captain's robe, there was a calm resignation about him that spoke more to her than any violence.
"Did you plan this, Yoruichi?" he asked suddenly. "Was this always what you had in mind for me?"
"No," the divine feline replied in her deep, hoarse voice.
Kisuke gave a chuckle. "Maybe it's just me, then. Waking up in here, I of course recognized my old stomping grounds. And it dawned upon me that there was a certain humorous irony to be found in my situation. I was back in Soul Society, just like I wanted. Except what I wanted doesn't seem quite so good anymore. Exactly like Aizen." And he leaned back on his hands with a sigh, still keeping his eyes trained on her in this position. "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down."
"You're not going to be in here forever," she asserted. "But you do need some time away from it all. Time to reacquaint yourself with what you want out of this world." Yoruichi laid a paw against the bars and tilted her head to one side. "Come on, Kisuke. We both know you're a very bright, talented man. You're also ferociously angry. You've been holding back on it, denying it for so long in order to achieve your objectives. And now that it seems like there isn't a need to restrain yourself anymore you're not bothering to try."
"I lost my temper for a moment," he said, calmly and clearly. "I'm not perfect, Yoruichi. Am I not allowed to make any mistakes or I wind up in here?" He gestured around the bare room lit with a bluish light. "Not exactly the world of justice and promise we envisioned together."
"It will be, if you stop seeing tyrants around every corner." She crouched down and licked her whiskers, regarding him with feral slit eyes. "Everyone who did you wrong has paid for it, and now all that hatred has no one to direct against. Hate doesn't go away just because the target's gone, however. It seeps through to color our interactions with those who never meant us any harm. That's why you overreacted so badly to Ichigo confronting you. You were afraid he was going to do to you what Yamamoto did, brush you aside in favor of doing things his way. But Ichigo isn't like that, and you know it."
He hung his head. "Yoruichi, I don't deserve to be treated like this. I've done nothing wrong."
"That's why you're here." She rose and slipped through the bars. He didn't bother to acknowledge she had joined him in his cell. "Everyone who was imprisoned in the Maggot's Nest was innocent of any actual wrongdoing. It's the reason you and I hated it so much. But they've been set free now, and we're trying to show them a better way to exist where they don't have to live like bullies or conquerors. Soul Society is going to be heaven for its residents from now on. If they can't appreciate that, then this isn't the world for them. And the same goes for you. You don't have to be the gregarious shopkeeper who takes bullshit from mean-spirited customers with a smile, and you certainly don't have to be the bad-ass revolutionary who forces everyone to dance to his tune. There isn't going to be another Yamamoto. We're trying a gentler hand for a new era."
Still Kisuke wouldn't look at her. "So you intend to leave me here until I've learned that lesson?"
"Actually, I plan to stay here 'til you have. Byakuya understands. It took some arm-twisting, but he finally agreed it was necessary. The other shinigami can handle things without me. And since you are my friend, I will not stand by and let you suffer alone for a crime you didn't commit." She turned her velvet muzzle away, golden eyes looking sad and far-off as she stared at the wall. "That much hasn't changed."
There was quiet for a time. Finally his head came up.
"We're still friends, then, my La…?"
Across from him, a nude goddess sat with her back to the bars.
Urahara jumped slightly, and the playful polymorph smirked.
"Never gets old." She settled into a more comfortable position. "You want to talk, that's fine. If you need to vent some hostility, I'm more than willing to spar. Whatever it takes for you to walk out of here a free man, I'll do, Kisuke. That's what we owe you. That's justice."
Yoruichi Shihoin smiled.
Walking along in a scattering of several elementary students on their way to school, Ichigo got a very unpleasant surprise.
"When is Rukia-chan coming back?" Yuzu suddenly asked.
He flinched at the question, coughed self-consciously, and finally tried to answer without sounding too evasive. "Maybe another month. She's trying to convince her family to let her keep going to school here. They're pretty busy with the… relocation."
"I'll bet," Karin murmured.
"Karin-chan, what does that mean?" The youngest Kurosaki sibling regarded her sister anxiously, then rounded on her big brother. "You're hiding something, aren't you? What is it, I want to know! Did you do something bad to make Rukia-chan leave us?"
Panicking at this abrupt interrogation, Ichigo struggled to come up with a reasonable story. It had been two weeks since they were all back home again, and so far, neither he nor his father had been able to come up with a satisfactory explanation for Rukia's disappearance that could convince Yuzu.
"Well, the thing is… Rukia's family is very… traditional, and now that she's with them again…uhhh, they're not really…"
"Actually, the truth is Rukia's brother works for an NGO," Ishida Uryū spoke up smoothly beside him. "Because of this, he's required to be out of the country for long periods of time, which is why he wasn't available to help his poor sister in her time of need. Now that he's back in Japan, she's trying to convince him that your family is not a bunch of freeloaders and that there's no problem with her continuing to live with you. Rest assured, Yuzu-chan, she will return to you. Not even death could keep Rukia away."
"Oh," Yuzu seemed to consider this. She continued walking along, breath misting in the early winter air. After a while, the girl reached out and tugged on her sister's sleeve. "Karin-chan, what's a …"
"Non-Governmental Organization," Karin supplied. "They're for people who don't have anything better to do or can't find work in…"
"No, not that! What's a 'freeloader'?"
As the girls moved further on ahead, absorbed in their discussion, Ichigo leaned over to Uryū and whispered, "Thought Rukia said you suck at lying. That was pretty good."
The Quincy narrowed his eyes behind his glasses. "I don't want to hear such insincere compliments from a mere substitute shinigami."
"Whatever." Then as they continued walking, bundled in heavy coats and gloves, he grudgingly came out with, "Thanks."
"Thanks are not necessary," Ishida announced tersely. "I was only trying to keep myself from having to endure one of your miserable excuses for an explanation. For your information, Orihime cried for four days straight when you tried to 'let her down easy'."
"I know." His schoolmate rubbed at some bruises on his face. "Tatsuki beat me up regularly until she stopped."
"You get injured often enough to make me wonder if some part of you actually enjoys it."
"That's a more stupid idea than I'm used to hearing from you!"
"I'm serious. Are you sure that Hollow inside isn't affecting you on a subconscious level?"
"Like you know anything about it! When I need advice on needlepoint, then I'll look to you."
"Unwarranted hostility. Another bad sign. I should ask Rukia to stick her sword through you again and see if that doesn't purify your heart. Certainly worth the risk."
"It is not 'worth the risk' and don't you give her any ideas! I'm…!"
Ichigo broke off in mid-tirade. Beside him, Ishida had gone stiff, eyes fixed straight ahead. When he followed the Quincy's gaze, he saw Karin and Yuzu up ahead talking to someone. It looked to be a man wearing a brown worsted suit and gray fedora. He was crouching down before them, hidden slightly behind their forms. Of a sudden Karin grabbed her sister's hand and dragged her around the stranger, hauling Yuzu off while she glanced back uncertainly. That figure turned to wave to them, and they heard him speak clearly.
Ichigo tensed, his heart dropping into his stomach. His hand clutched at the place where his shinigami badge had once resided, only to come up empty. He then remembered the soul candy Rukia had given him before he left, and quickly pulled it from his schoolbag, tucking the cylinder up his sleeve in preparation.
"Ishida," he spoke softly. "Go after them. Make sure they get to school all right. I'm going to have a talk with that guy."
Uryū gave him a troubled look, then nodded and hurried to catch up with the girls. As he passed the man, there looked to be a brief exchange of some sorts between them, but it was too faint to hear. Seconds later he had rejoined the innocent elementary students and was hastening them along, apparently explaining why their brother was remaining behind.
As they moved around a corner, Gin Ichimaru turned and smiled at Ichigo.
The young hero walked forward then until he came to within a few feet of him. There was nothing but anger to be found in his eyes as he regarded that vile beast. For his part, Gin kept his own almost completely shut, grinning and relaxed as he had been when they first met in Soul Society.
Under the overcast sky, the two gods of death faced one another. Parents and tiny children walked past this confrontation pretending not to notice, unaware of the true intention which underlay their meeting.
It was Ichigo who spoke first, refusing to be intimidated by the other man's smile or his silence.
"You're dead if you try to get near my sisters again. I don't care what you did or why. I'll kill you."
"I died a long time ago, kiddo," Ichimaru returned, rubbing his black-gloved hands together and breathing into them. "And you ain't got the faintest notion of half the things I've done."
There should have been no question about what to do here. Pop in a gikongan and split that grinning head wide open. But the bastard had planned their meeting to make certain he couldn't do that. Too many children around, too many witnesses. Otherwise…
"What the hell do you want, Gin?"
"Just like Rukia-chan. No sense of courtesy. I tell ya, the two of you were made for each other!" He tilted his gigai's silver head and gave what might have been a wink. "Guess Ayasegawa had it pegged right after all."
Son of a…! Of course, I forgot about that. Byakuya and I agreed to hide what Yumichika did, but this bastard still knows about it. Merciful heavens, I want to kill him! "If you want to go somewhere private, I would be happy to oblige."
A twist of the smirk might have indicated real emotion on the deposed shinigami's part. Difficult to say, really. "Y'know, the cowardly bullies always like to start off with that line. 'Let's take it outside,' they say. They're hopin' you'll back down, and then they'll know it's safe ta walk all over you. Guess some things never change no matter how many centuries go by."
"Why are you here?" Ichigo panted, fighting to resist the urge to go for his throat.
Gin reached up and pulled the brim of his hat down over his eyes. "Just wanted to see how you were doin'. And maybe tease ya a little."
"You saw. Now get out of here before I do something we'll both regret."
And the kitsune took a step towards him, still in the same position.
"How's your love life?"
His hands were fisted in Gin's coat before Kurosaki could stop himself, and he snarled right in that skinny, nasty face.
"You leave her alone, got that? I don't want you coming anywhere near Rukia!"
Neither of them moved. Concerned adults hurried their charges past this display.
"You up to the challenge, then?" Gin spoke through bared teeth.
"Anytime you want to die, just look me up!" Ichigo snarled.
"Not that. I'm talking about taking care of our lil' Kuchiki-chan."
There was a sly suggestion to his words that caused the teen accosting him to study that clownish face. When Ichigo didn't respond right away, Gin continued.
"I bet she hasn't let you in on all the time we spent together. I ain't talkin' 'bout what Aizen did to her, I mean before those two ever met. We go way back, me and her."
Gin's hands were dangling at his sides, but the words he used cut the target truer than any weapon. His vulpine grin belonged more on a fox than a human face.
"Y'know I saved her life? And not just once either. There was the time we first met, and that day in Hollow Bog, and even the night she met Aizen, when Soifon was goin' to kill her without even knowing who she was. I watched that girl fer a real long time, waitin' to see if she'd finally wise up and take charge of her own life. But she never did. Byakuya, Aizen, they all played a tune, and she danced it for 'em. Nobody really knew the truth, 'cept for me."
Ichimaru's voice dropped to a hiss. "The truth is, she belonged to me long before you ever staked yer claim, boy! I decided whether she lived or died."
That had been Aizen's third mistake.
When Gin went to see Rukia on the way to her execution, he did so in order to judge her mental state.
Upon finding that she had decided to give up without a fight, her unofficial watchdog was so pissed off he decided it was time for the girl to die. But not before awakening her to the truth about living.
When Rukia screamed as he walked away, Ichimaru smiled in satisfaction.
That's how you're supposed to feel, little one. Remember it.
"Kill her, Gin," Aizen commanded as they stood atop Sōkyoku Hill.
"No way to avoid it, I guess," his henchman sighed melodramatically, and withdrew Shinsō.
Of course, he wasn't meant to kill her. That was Aizen's plan. Instead he was only supposed to wound Rukia severely, enough to make it look like he had tried but not enough to actually finish her. Let them all just assume it was a miracle that she lived, patch her up and send her off to fulfill her master's wishes later on in the war.
But there had been a change of plans. When Ichimaru fired his weapon, he aimed not to wound, but to kill. Rukia would die in the rebel captain's grip, and afterwards Gin would claim to have simply made an error in his aim. Nothing to be done for it, oh, well.
She had put her life entirely in someone else's hands, and that offended his sensibilities. So it fell to him to end it. That was where his avowed leader had made another unforgiveable error. He did not decide when Rukia lived or died. Only Gin could do that. Aizen had once again proven that he was not an infallible godlike being.
She's mine. I only let you play with her for a little. Now I'm taking her back.
The soul candy dispenser slipped out of Ichigo's sleeve, but before he could pop a pill, Ichimaru's hand came up lightning quick and clamped over the top of the stick, covering it.
"Wait a minute, Kurosaki-bozu. Lemme tell you something before you go all vasto lorde on me."
Their arms quaked as they struggled against each other. There was sweat on Ichimaru's brow now, but he still never let his cheerful mask slip.
"You got nothin' to worry about. Rukia already did what you couldn't. She ended it 'tween us, or didn't she already tell you that? You think I'm sportin' this untraceable gigai cuz I like being cold and gettin' hungry? Maybe you forgot this, but faux bodies are designed primarily to protect shinigami who've drained their powers or are on the brink of death. Gives 'em a chance to escape and replenish themselves in the natural world."
Ichigo's struggles diminished slightly, and he blinked in sudden comprehension.
"Yeah, that's right," Ichimaru breathed. "Rukia proved she's got what it takes to survive. I saved her three times like I said, but I also tried to kill her twice, and the second time she could've killed me but chose not to. That makes us even. I ain't got no designs on her now. She's your headache, not mine."
When Kurosaki continued to regard him with suspicion, the crazed killer slowly took his hand off the gikongan dispenser and held it out to show he was unarmed.
"I suppose now you're going to tell me you were never on Aizen's side," Ichigo rasped.
"Sure I was. But turned out he didn't stand a chance of givin' me what I wanted. So I backed a new pony. Just have to wait and see if my luck still holds."
The substitute shinigami stared at his toothy nemesis.
Am I crazy for thinking he's actually telling the truth?
His zanpakutō spoke to me. For now, Gin honestly means you no harm.
But that could change.
The same could be said for many people you count as friends.
This guy is nobody's friend, didn't you hear him?
The enemy of your enemy is not your friend?
Didn't Rukia tell you not to engage in unnecessary battles until she returned?
She knows me. She knows what to expect. If I give her Gin's silver scalp, Rukia won't mind.
Women are more complicated than you might think. I advise you not to tempt her wrath.
My family could be in danger from him.
Are you giving in, then? Does fear govern your actions now? You know whose hands that plays into.
Low blow, Jii-san. But I hear you. All right. I'll trust my instincts, then.
And so decided, he let Gin go.
The outcast captain backed off a few paces and arranged his clothes carefully. He removed his hat and dusted it off with great emphasis before replacing it back on his gleaming head.
Ichigo watched this performance, and then said simply, "Stay out of my life, Ichimaru Gin."
"I guess that's the closest to 'Thank you' I'll ever get from your side." Gin shrugged. "Good thing I'm not in it to make friends, right?"
With that, he began walking down the street. The defender of Karakura watched him leave, and felt a chill that had nothing to do with the weather.
Shaking himself to dispel the feeling, Ichigo Kurosaki marched off to school.
The last of the alcohol was gone. Rukia Kuchiki stood up and retrieved her belongings. She paused before the gravestone, looking at her reflection carefully in the mirror.
You look beautiful. He would have told you so.
She read the inscription set into a gold plaque, and once more caught the scent of gardenias.
'Ayasegawa Yumichika. Shinigami and Hero of the Autumn War, who single-handedly defeated a vasto lorde. Adopted post mortem into the House of Kuchiki. Last man to hold the title of Fifth seat in Division Eleven before the post was officially retired in his name. He gave his life in defense of those who were most precious to him. A beautiful person, on and off the field of battle, we celebrate all he had to teach us.'
It always made her want to cry, seeing those words. But she wouldn't do so on his birthday. Instead, Rukia Kuchiki left to continue her duties as a shinigami.
One year after the reconstruction began, the process of transferring the residents of Soul Society into their new more heavenly accommodations was proceeding at a steady pace. The Research and Development Bureau insisted that fashioning of the latest plane, called Elysium, would begin as soon as construction of Olympus was finalized. Until then, many shinigami were kept busy ensuring those souls who were not yet ensconced in their new homes had adequate accommodations in the interim.
Walking through her assigned Oasis, Number 5, Rukia took note of many people chatting in ornamental parks or grabbing something free and tasty to eat. Within the Heavenly Education and Relocation Oases, commonly known as Halos, many souls attired in modern-day clothes or in some cases wearing garments from ancient days rubbed elbows with others who had adopted fashions that would look alien in any time period. The abolition of enforced traditions in clothing and living arrangements had done wonders for improving the outlook of these former residents of the vanished Rukongai. Now no longer required to stay in districts and comport themselves like peasants, there were far more smiles and laughter to be found in Soul Society.
Travel to and from the different places where people officially lived was achieved through the Halos. The education of new souls and reeducation of the old was also conducted there. Rukia was the supervisor of this particular Oasis, and her assignment demanded she keep on top of things.
This was made clear when she detected angry voices off to one side. Homing in on the disturbance, the Lady of Kuchiki found a flustered shinigami from Heron Squad attempting to soothe some irate people waiting in line while at the same time coax a response from a tight-lipped soul at the front of that assembly.
"If you simply tell me your name, I can help you," the young man in black robes begged. His uncooperative charge was a short, skinny fellow who sported a round face and dark, wild hair. What could only be described as rags provided him with minimal modesty. He didn't respond to anything that was being said, not the pleas of the shinigami, or the angry shouts of those who were being held up behind him. Instead he kept his head down and eyes affixed to the marble floor, trembling slightly but offering no harm.
"May I be of assistance?" Rukia asked as she came up.
The shinigami looked immensely relieved to see her. "Kuchiki-sama, thank goodness you're here. I'm having difficulties with getting any information from this individual. I think he must have been from way out in the Rukongai, like 75th or above."
Another shell-shocked, timid spirit who had been forced to live in the hellish conditions of the Outer Rukongai, probably for many years by the look of him. Some poor wretches were hardly capable of carrying on a conversation, used as they were to mistrusting everyone around them. It usually took a little patience to get them to stop fearing the sight of a soul cutter, but Rukia had direct experience with the conditions they had labored under, so it was no trouble to do so.
"Please continue with your duties," she informed her subordinate. "I will see this man is well taken care of."
"Thank you, Kuchiki-sama."
She then took the vagabond's hand and steered him away from the line. He made no move to resist. Probably used to being kicked around his whole life. She certainly knew how that felt. But the time for such atrocities was in her past. And the same was about to prove true for him. That was the way their world worked now.
Seating the hangdog man on a bench, she knelt before him and spoke, keeping her voice soft and nonthreatening. "Would you like something to eat or drink?"
Such small spirits had no need for food, but that didn't mean they couldn't enjoy it. The man made no response to her offer, however.
"You're safe here," the petite death god continued. "No one will take advantage of you. If you do not wish to leave the Oasis at this time, you do not have to. Take all the time you need. There is no rush."
Her quiet voice seemed to have a good effect on him, as the shaking in his limbs had subsided noticeably. Rukia pressed her advantage in the hopes of at least getting him to speak.
"I'll arrange for a room in which you may reside for as long as you like. May I have the honor of knowing your name, sir?"
For a few seconds it looked like he was going to remain dumb to her entreaties. It was possible no one had bothered to ask him for his name in ages. Some people from Zaraki didn't even know they should have one. Those were truly the ones that stirred her to pity.
Still focused on her feet, the man's watery brown eyes blinked furiously. His mouth opened, and a long-disused whisper came out.
"Yoshi." He coughed, then spoke a little louder. "Yoshi Hitsujikai."
Rukia smiled and touched his shoulder.
"My name is Rukia Kuchiki, and I am here to help you."