We, my dear readers, have reached 300 reviews. 300—and I am still amazed (and worried about disappointing you all…but that's not the way to go about things, is it?) Thank you all so much for your continued reading, reviews, and comments. We need more fics with these two characters, I tell you!
And speaking of reviews, I know that no one would have received any review responses for the previous chapter. Things have just been a bit more hectic at uni than they have any right to be, with just three weeks left of classes for the semester, and with the sneaky way that assignments and presentations have of sneaking up on you before you know it (cue panicked screams). I barely even had the time to enjoy last week's Bleach chapter, or squeal over our dear Byakuya (who, despite his…changed appearance is still an intriguing mix of cool, badass and awesome when it comes to his words!)
By Thursday this week, though, I should have a small stretch of free time, so rest assured that you will receive your review responses (and answers to the questions asked, where it's possible to give them without spoiling the plot) then. Because your input is very much appreciated.
On to the chapter, then!
Disclaimer: Kubo Tite
Chapter Nineteen: What Have You Done to Me?
Though the table before him was laden with food that was both pleasantly warm and smelled as good as it usually did, the dark haired noble refrained from touching any of it.
Seeing how the girl seated opposite him had not yet been brought her breakfast, it would be quite rude of him to begin his own meal, leaving her to watch. That was certainly not a manner in which a good host should act.
Instead, he had chosen to sit still, allowing one of the serving staff to pour another serving of warm green tea into his bowl—which was less…garish this time—before directing her to do the same for the girl he was, for all intents and purposes, eating with. Though…he was not truly eating with her; he had simply wanted her to be given the opportunity to have her meal away from the confines of her room.
Ah, but whose fault was it that she kept confining herself to her room?
He refused to give in to the feeling of discomfort that attempted to raise its ugly head within him—but his will must have failed him somewhat, for he could feel that same sense of shame burning its way up the back of his neck as he recalled Manabu-san's earlier words.
He did not bother to take the time to wonder if he had truly been the cause of the increased discomfort the girl had had to be put through.
For, although he had briefed Manabu-san and the staff at the Kuchiki estate prior to bringing the girl to his home, he had not exactly told them to welcome her with open arms. Not particularly.
Oh, he had told them that she was a guest—his guest, in fact—which should have been enough on its own.
("Of course, Byakuya-sama, we will make sure that she wants for nothing," they had said)
He had also informed them that there would be consequences if they so much as breathed word of her presence at the estate to anyone not working within its boundaries. Given how divided the opinion on the very presence of the girl in Seireitei, comatose though she had been at the time, was, he did not need for news of her awakening to spread and thereby bring with it another set of problems that he would have to deal with.
("You have our word, Byakuya-sama, we will not speak of this to a single soul," they had said)
And, finally, he had told them that she was not allowed to leave the estate, no matter what the reason. Unless she was accompanied by Unohana-taichou, or himself—which, of course, would not be an issue for them to worry about—they were not to allow her to leave the estate if they were to catch a glimpse of her attempting to do so.
("Rest assured, Byakuya-sama, that we will keep an eye on her and ensure that all goes well," they had said)
He frowned suddenly.
Now that he thought about it, he had not specifically instructed them to…be nice to her, had he? He supposed he could say that he thought the 'be nice' was more or less…included when he informed them all that she was his guest.
After all, whether she was his guest or not, was it not rational to expect that a guest would be treated well no matter who they were or where they were staying?
Excuses, sang a familiar voice in his head, and…it shamed him even more to realise that it was, perhaps, quite right in saying so.
He had never once said 'treat her well', or even indicated that he wished to 'treat her well'…so what else was he to expect? If they were all simply following the example that he set when it came to dealing with her, then it was quite clear where they had gotten the idea that he was displeased with her presence from.
True, he had not interacted with her as often as Unohana-taichou might have liked, but the times that he had seen her, or spoken to her—or attempted to dine with her…no, do not go there, that was days ago—had not shown anything more than his barely civil treatment of her.
He was the head of the household, of the Clan, was he not? It was only natural that the servants would take after him, and do as he did. There was no reason, there could be no reason for him to not have thought about that fact.
So, in the end, it all came back to him.
And this irked him more than it had any right to.
His smoky eyes drifted over the rim of his bowl of tea, flitting towards the girl who—for the love of…!—had her head bowed, staring either at the table, her knees, or the tatami covered floor. He did not particularly feel like guessing which one it was.
But this was getting ridiculous!
And the nagging sensation in his gut that prodded him to say something, anything, to break through the suffocating silence was not very comfortable.
"…" His mouth closed just as quickly as it had dropped open, and he took a longer moment than was necessary to lower his tea back onto the table.
What, exactly, was he meant to say? Was this one of those moments where he was meant to engage in small talk?
He had never really seen much of a point in initiating small talk, much to the chagrin of his stern tutors. It was a waste of time and energy and, quite frankly, one was better off stating exactly what he or she wanted, as opposed to hiding behind unrelated questions about the weather, or about the other's good health or something even more ridiculous.
His grandfather had been inclined to agree with him, though he had been of the opinion that there were likely to be some tricky situations where small talk would prove invaluable. Given his present situation, he might have found himself agreeing with the wise man…if it was not for the fact that something held him back from doing so.
(He could not say what it was, but he had an inkling that it was his pride)
This is not helping, he told himself with a quick shake of the head, blinking once as though to clear away his thoughts. Clearing his throat, he looked to the girl's bowed head again.
"Is…the tea to your liking?"
Was that, asked a suspiciously smug voice in his head, truly the best that he could do?
He ignored this voice in favour of keeping his gaze fixed on the girl, watching as she gave a very visible start, before raising her head just enough so that she could peer at him through the still-damp strands of hair that fell into her eyes.
"Y-Yes, it is," she said with a stutter, "…thank you."
He nodded, not feeling much better than he had before he had spoken.
"That is good," he murmured, forced to lower his gaze to the table when that same, almost oppressive silence fell upon them once more. When had silence been oppressive, like it was now? "Would you like some more?"
She shook her head slowly, gripping the bowl of tea in her hands.
"N-No." There was a moment's pause, "thank you."
"…Are you…sure?" He almost wished he had paid attention to his old tutors and their instructions on how to conduct small talk. Almost.
"Yes, t-thank you."
"There is no need to express your gratitude so often, Inoue-san," he said, before he could quite stop himself, causing him to heave an inward sigh as he saw her shoulders tense, "Not that I am trying, in any way, to…—"
"Nor is there any need for you to apologise every time you—" this time, he stopped himself before he could finish the admonishment, though it did not leave him feeling any better, for he should not have even started it in the first place. Had he not decided that he would at least try and keep himself under control when it came to whatever it was about this girl that irked him so? Particularly after what had happened when he had not managed to do so before? "I do not—"
"—It's not like I…I mean to, Byakuya-san," she said quietly, her eyes fixed on the bowl in her hands, "Apologise, I mean. It just… I just… it just comes out…you know?"
No, he certainly did not know, nor did he wish to, for it served no purpose to him or his life, so if the slow serving woman could just get here with the girl's meal, then he could start on his own, perhaps with a bit less grace than he usually ate with, and then leave.
"…You are implying that it is a reflex, of sorts?"
Oh, how wonderful. His mouth seemed to have gained a mind of its own.
She tilted her head to a side, though her gaze was still fixed on her tea.
"Not really, it just… if I can't think of anything else, then I… the words just...come out, I guess…" She paused there, "Well, I suppose it is a…reflex…"
"So, this would mean that any apologies you stammer out have no real meaning behind them?" Her head snapped up at that, and he arched an eyebrow at the look on her face, before deciding to elaborate, "If you apologise when nothing else comes to mind—thereby making it a reflex—then it is only logical to assume that the words have no value to them."
Grey eyes widened so fast that the dark haired noble wondered if he should not have kept his mouth shut.
"N-No! I didn't mean it like—I do mean it when I… I mean, I don't—I'm not just saying it for the sake of… Oh, well, I suppose sometimes, it may seem like that, but I—I really—" He cringed as she almost tipped over the bowl of tea resting on her lap, in her rather energetic attempt to disagree with him.
"It is fine, I did not mean—"
"-No, Byakuya-san, it's not—I really do mean it when I—"
"-As I said, it is fine, Inoue-san. Inoue-san," he paused, watching as she stopped abruptly, her breath coming fast as she stared at him in something akin to horror, "it is fine. You need not…explain-" he raised a hand as her mouth opened again, "please," he muttered, reluctantly.
Before you manage to burn yourself with your tea, or, even worse, knock the table over.
Silence fell upon them again, as the grey eyes slowly returned back to their normal size.
"A-Ah…sorry, Byakuya-sa—" She trailed off even as he raised his eyebrows. He noted idly that the faint red hue that streaked across her otherwise pale face was definitely a change for the better; if only because it made her look more alive and on-the-mend, as opposed to the usual ghostly pallor that left her looking more like a lifeless doll, "I mean –I meant to say…well, I—"
"Inoue-san," he cut in, unable to stop himself as she lifted a hand to…do…something or the other, he did not know, "you are going to spill your—" he broke off with a heavy inward sigh as the bright haired girl let out a soft gasp, "—tea." He frowned across the table as he found himself unable to see where exactly the hot liquid had splashed, "Have you burned yourself?"
Her head was lowered as she shook her head quickly, though it did not do anything to vanish his frown, "Inoue-san, I would appreciate it if you were honest with me. I am drinking the same tea that you had in that bowl, therefore I know that it is rather hot. Now, have you burned yourself?"
She shook her head again, causing his frown to deepen. It was too much. He could not, he could not, deal with this. Not at this early hour in the morning and, quite possibly, not ever. "Inoue-san—"
"-It's fine, Byakuya-san, really," she said, "I…I just spilled a little on my clothes. That's all."
Short of either leaning over the table, or standing and moving to her side, he had no way of confirming that—but he found that it would have to do. For the idea of performing either of the two acts did not appeal to him in the slightest.
…It was not as though he cared if she burnt herself with tea while foolishly trying to continue a speech that made no sense whatsoever. Because he did not. Care, that is. (He did not, he did not, he did not, he did not)
It was the sudden arrival of a figure, standing in the door way, that caught the noble's attention. Turning his head, he saw that it was the same dark haired woman who had been escorting the girl back to her room a while ago.
"Forgive me for the delay, Byakuya-sama," she murmured respectfully, as she made her way inside the room, carefully handling the tray in her hands. Kneeling beside the table, she set the tray down on the free space before the bright haired girl, removing the empty bowl that would have had tea poured into it when she saw the bowl already clutched in the girl's hands.
When the extra bowl was set aside, along with the small pot of tea, she moved a respectful distance away from the table, "Was there anything else that you would like, Byakuya-sama?"
The dark haired noble's eyes had narrowed the moment the other woman had entered the room, and it had everything to do with her less than respectful dismissal of the girl's mere presence, than anything else.
Was it not her meal that was being brought in? (It was)
Therefore, should not the apology, concerning the delay, be directed at her, rather than at him? (It should indeed)
And why was it that she was asking him if there was anything else that he wanted, when, ideally, she should be asking that of the girl seated opposite him?
A quick look before him showed that the girl did not seem to be offended by this behaviour, though he should not have been as surprised at this discovery as he turned out to be. What else should he expect from her?
Shaking his head at the dark haired woman, he fixed her with a cool gaze.
"There is nothing that I require," he said coldly, "but…Inoue-san? Is there anything that you would like?" She was uncomfortable with the question, he knew she would be even before he saw her tensed shoulders, but he did not care. This manner of blatant, disrespectful behaviour was not to be condoned, not in his household. "Inoue-san?"
She swallowed, shooting a nervous glance at the dark haired woman before she shook her head.
"N-No, I'm…fine, thanks," she stammered.
"Are you quite certain?" pressed Byakuya, aware that he should not need to do so, "If there is anything that you need, you should not hesitate to ask."
"I- I know, Byakuya-san…"
"Perhaps some more tea?"
"No," she repeated, "th-thank you."
Still not pleased but deciding that there was nothing he could do about it—there was, actually, something that he could do, but the day had only just started, for Senbonzakura's sake; must it already be full of conflict and discomfort and tension?—, the noble nodded.
"Then that is all," he said curtly, turning his attention away from the kimono-clad woman with a slight sneer on his lips. He heard the rustle of fabric as the woman inclined her head at him, before standing up.
"We will be just outside if you need anything, Byakuya-sama," she said quietly, before she moved towards the door once more. Again the noble's eyes narrowed. Did they not see that she was in the room with him? Did they not fully understand that she was his guest?
"Ah, ex…excuse-me…" stammered Orihime, making the noble look up at her and causing the dark haired woman to stop abruptly.
Byakuya bristled at the marginally less than polite undertone in the question.
"Uh, I just… wanted to say thank you. F-For bringing my food h-here…" stammered the bright haired girl, meeting the other woman's gaze only for a moment before she quickly lowered her eyes to the floor, a peculiar flush spreading across her face. "Thank you, M-Michiko-san…"
The dark haired woman stiffened, which the girl must have noted out of the corner of her eye, for a mortified expression flashed across her face, "I'm sorry! I –I thought…since… before, that man called you M-Michiko-san, so I thought –I didn't mean…any disrespect…" Lowering her head so that her chin almost touched her chest, she managed to mumble another, "sorry," before silence reigned once more in the room.
"I was simply doing as I was asked, Inoue-san," said the dark haired woman, bowing at the noble once more before leaving the room.
A few tense moments passed by, during which the noble simply sat where he was, unmoving. His food—now rather colder than it had been before—lay untouched on the table as he stared at the girl's lowered head.
"Why did you do that?" he asked, a touch colder than he would have liked, judging from the way she tensed at the query. He did not receive an answer, but he was coming to realise that sometimes, when dealing with this particular individual, he should expect periods of silence before a word was spoken. Just as he was coming to realise that all he had to do was wait until she felt like speaking, as opposed to forcing it out of her.
But, who was he attempting to fool? He did not have the patience, or the will, to sit before a lifeless doll as she sat, as silent as the dead, before a table laden with both of their breakfasts. It was enough to make him lose his appetite. "Why did you do that?" he repeated, eyes boring holes into her bowed head.
He knew the exact moment when she attempted to speak, for she had to clear her throat once, then twice, before she was successful.
"I didn't…mean to offend her," she said, her voice so soft that, had he not been seated not too far from her, he knew he would have missed it, "Or you," she added, and, when she raised her head to look at him, he could see the shame filling those pale cheeks. "Sorry, Byakuya-san." There was a self-deprecating smile on her lips, "It seems… it seems that no matter what I do, or tell myself, or…or how hard I try, I still end up making things w-worse…"
He watched as she pulled herself to her feet, if awkwardly, and his eyes absently left her face to travel to the dark tea stain on the light-coloured fabric of her yukata. It would not come off easily, he thought idly, before his attention was drawn away from it when she bowed at him.
And when he said bowed, he meant bowed. Not the simply inclining of the head in a form of acknowledgement, but a full, bent-at-the-waist-with-the-head-down bow.
"What are you—"
"—I don't want to…to make your morning unpleasant, Byakuya-san. S-Sorry. I should have had my meal in my room after all…" The smile she directed at him as she straightened was one he would rather she had kept to herself, for it was so utterly insincere, that it sparked a familiar sense of irritation within him yet again. "H…Have a good day, Byakuya-san," she stammered, with another ugly smile, before she turned and hobbled towards the doors.
He stared after her for half a moment, his eyes a fraction wider than they usually were, before the reality of it all settled in, and the smoky eyes hardened.
"Where do you think you are going, Inoue-san?" he asked, his voice low and his irritation growing when she continued to hobble towards the door. "Inoue-san, I believe that I asked you a—" Eyes narrowing even further, the noble directed his attention to his left, where another set of doors were wide open, giving him a good view of the picturesque garden that was accessible from the room. "Yes?" he inquired as the purple-clad figure knelt by the doors.
"Kurotsuchi-taichou is at the gates, Byakuya-sama," said the masked man, "He is requesting to meet with you."
The 6th Division's Captain wondered if the day could possibly get to a more irritating start. If it could, he did not want to know, thank you very much. Clenching his hands into fists under the cover of the table, he nodded at the guard awaiting his orders.
"Has he said why?"
"No, he would not tell us, Byakuya-sama, although…" the masked man trailed off, his shoulders tense, and the noble nodded at him to continue, "he seemed to be in a rather…good mood, Byakuya-sama."
"A good mood?" Now that, Byakuya knew, did not bode well; not for anyone in general, but, given the fact that the Captain was standing outside his gates, it could not bode well for him or for the girl staying with him.
"He was rather insistent on—" The noble raised a hand, stopping the guard.
"Tell him that I will see him shortly. He is not to be let inside the estate, understood?" Nodding, the guard disappeared just as suddenly as he had come, and the dark haired noble only gave the space he had been in previously a moment's glance, before directing his gaze to his right, where the other set of doors were.
She had stopped by the doors, though her head was turned to stare at…him? No, he concluded, her eyes were fixed on something behind him, though, when he turned to look, there was nothing that he could see that could have caught her interest. But from the way her eyes had widened again, he supposed that she had indeed seen something.
But that was not the issue here. "Inoue-san," he said, his voice controlled, much to his relief, "If you would please return to having your breakfast—" Brows twitching, the noble turned his head around again. "Yes?" he hissed, in a voice not quite as controlled.
"Forgive me, Byakuya-sama, but…Kurotsuchi-taichou refuses to leave the gates," said the guard, sounding apologetic, though it did nothing to stem the stronger spike of irritation within the noble.
Of all the—
Taking in a deep breath, the noble willed himself to count to five (for ten would be pushing it, given his current state of mind—and why did his shoulder decide that now was the best time to start throbbing anew? He had not even moved!) before he opened his steely eyes again.
At least the girl had not moved from where she was standing by the doors, eerily still.
"Did he at least say why it was that he must see me?" The moment the guard tensed, he knew that the 12th Division's Captain had indeed done so. Or that he had at least said something. "Did he?"
"He…" the guard trailed off, doing nothing to improve the noble's current mood.
"Be quick with it, if you please."
Still, the guard hesitated, looking up just enough for the noble to catch his eyes drifting to something over his shoulder. What on earth was he looking at?
"What, exactly, did he say?" he asked, wondering if everyone he came across that morning was trying to irritate him.
"…Are you certain you wish to—"
"What, exactly, did he say?" he repeated, his voice low and his limited patience running thin. Again, the other man's eyes moved, but he did not bother with the fact, simply intent on staring him down until he answered his question.
"He—he said that he was here to…" the masked man trailed off again, "Byakuya-sama, I do not think—"
"I asked you a question, and I expect it to be answered," cut in the noble, icily, "And I warn you to speak up quickly, for I am losing my patience with you."
The guard's shoulders hunched before he nodded slowly.
"Forgive me, Byakuya-sama," he said, sounding a touch resigned, "He…he said that he wishes speak with…with the traitor, Inoue Orihime. Her time, he said, is running out, and the sooner someone manages to get the required answers out of her, the better it would be. And he said that he…that he was the best person to…cajole these answers out of her, not you."
The sudden flare of reiatsu was impossible to miss—not that the 6th Division's Captain cared about it, just as he did not care about the tension emanating from the unfortunate guard, or from those standing just outside the room, ready to serve him. "He…he also said that you should be reminded, Byakuya-sama, that…that your orders were not to act in the capacity as a friend to the...traitor. Your main objective was to keep her away from those who would wish to take her out on first sight, and to unearth her loyalty to Aizen Sousuke—"
The loud squeak from behind the noble stopped the guard mid-sentence, and when the dark haired Captain turned around, he saw the girl pulling herself to her feet from where she had tripped over either thin air, or her own feet.
He only managed to glimpse her impossibly widened eyes, before she turned on her heel and fled the room.
An uncomfortable silence descended upon the room, before the noble turned back to the guard, suddenly not at all hungry.
"I see," he said, as he pulled himself to his feet, bending to retrieve his Zanpakutou, which he had placed off to the side. He cringed at the renewed pain that surged through his shoulder as he picked the sword up.
"F-Forgive me, Byakuya-sama, I did not mean to—"
"No. You did nothing wrong." If anything, he thought, he should have realised what the guard had been trying to convey to him with his ever-shifting gaze behind him, and with the way he had stalled for as long as possible. "Kindly make sure that Kurotsuchi-taichou is kept outside for as long as you can. In the mean time, tell him that if he wishes to meet with me in the capacity as a Captain, he should know enough about protocol to know that he should make an appearance at the 6th Division's barracks, as opposed to seeking to enter my home."
With a nod, the guard was gone again, and the noble spun on his heel—though not before his eyes landed on the table of food.
Or, to be more precise, not before his eyes flickered to the tray of food placed on the other end of the table. It was a plain tray, with a bowl of rice—now probably disgustingly cool and too-soggy—followed by a bowl of soup and two…buns of some sort. It was hardly as appetising as the various dishes laid out as a part of his breakfast. In fact, he was beginning to wonder if this was the reason why the girl would not eat—
His head turned towards the doors, though he knew it was no use; for the girl was gone. She was probably stumbling and hobbling her way down the corridors, looking for her room. Or, if someone had had the decency to help her in that endeavour, she was probably already in her room.
Steely eyes flickered back to the untouched tray of food, and—
He had a narrow-minded, irritating fellow Captain at the gates, who should be dealt with quickly if he wanted any peace whatsoever.
His eyes moved towards the tray once more, before he shot a sidelong glance at the doors that led outside. Just as quickly, his gaze moved to the other set of doors, through which the girl had disappeared.
Kurotsuchi-taichou was at the gates. He needed to deal with that issue, before it—
Her eyes had been wide, impossibly wide.
—got out of hand and the 12th Division's Captain somehow attempted to force his way inside the estate.
She had heard the scientist's message.
'Traitor' he had said.
Hissing under his breath and tightening his grip on the sword in his left hand, the noble stalked towards the doors, pausing by the elderly man who stood alongside two serving women.
He ignored the haori that Manabu-san held out to him, it being the final item of clothing that he had left to don.
"Tell the guards to inform Kurotsuchi-taichou to remove himself from the gates to the estate if he does not wish to face any disciplinary action for attempting to breach property that is not his own," he said, coldly, before his eyes drifted to the familiar dark haired woman, "And you. I do not know who you imagine yourself to be, but I would have thought I had made it clear that Inoue Orihime was to be treated in the very same manner in which any other guest at this estate would be treated. If you cannot handle that, as you have shown me quite clearly, then remove yourself from her sight and mine, and have someone else attend to her."
The woman had stiffened at his tone and his words, but he did not spare her, "Do I make myself clear? Michiko?" he queried, almost mockingly. He only waited for her nod, before he stalked down the corridor, not bothering to acknowledge her faint, 'yes, Byakuya-sama.'
He had a person to find.
Meanwhile, at the Relief Station:
The 4th Division's healer looked up from the bag her 7th Seat had left on her desk earlier, a disapproving look on her face as the room's other occupant let out a low whistle.
"Kyouraku-taichou, I do not tolerate whistling or any such loud noise within the walls of the Relief Station," she said, zipping up the bag and picking it up as though it weighed nothing.
"Sorry, sempai, but…" The 8th Division's Captain adjusted the straw hat on his head, "Well, I knew that the two weren't exactly the best of friends, but…I didn't expect Zaraki, of all people, to come out with something like that."
"Oh?" There was a pause, "Is Zaraki-taichou not allowed to be…as honest as he wants to be?"
Kyouraku shook his head with a laugh.
"That man is nothing if not honest, brutally so," he said, "but no, what I meant was that I did not expect him to be the one to attempt to make our dear old Byakuya-kun…uh…change his ways, I suppose."
"Zaraki-taichou has been through quite a bit over the last number of months. I would not be surprised if he has come to the realisation that there are other things in life that might be of some importance; not all of which are about fighting."
"Hah! Sorry sempai, but…I don't think he'll ever lose his thirst for blood. I mean, how many of the injured here are from the 11th Division? And how many do you see from there every day?"
"True. But I suppose it has become…normal for us, here at the Relief Station, strange though it may sound." She sighed. "I am not saying that he was correct in saying what he did to Kuchiki-taichou, but I would not be so hasty as to say that…his words were untruthful," she paused, fiddling with the bag strap, "Kuchiki-taichou has been through quite a number of things, some of which I am aware of, but most of which only he knows. Then there is his current situation as well—one that, I am certain, does nothing to help him. Not yet, at least…"
Kyouraku nodded, his eyes shadowed.
"But he needs to see that he still has his life ahead of him, yes?" He smiled at the look he was sent, "To put it bluntly, he needs to see that he has a life. And that…none of those he loved, and who loved him, would want to see him wasting it in such a manner."
The dark haired healer nodded slowly, almost reluctantly.
"He is more than capable of taking care of himself, of course," she said, "just as he is capable of making his own decisions, and yet…" She trailed off with a sigh, "And yet…"
"Lost for words, sempai? Ah, don't worry. I've heard that it happens to quite a number of the fairer sex, especially when in my presence. There, there, it's okay."
The strange melancholy that had briefly descended upon the healer disappeared as she turned to look at her friend with raised eyebrows.
"Indeed, Shunsui-kun. I am quite certain that they seem to be at a loss for words because of your charm, and not because they do not know how to politely tell you to go away and stop troubling them with your presence…"
"S-S-Sempai! That's harsh!" The brunet sniffed, "You never treat Juu-kun this way, you know…"
"You could learn a lot from Juushirou-kun."
"Gah! That's low. Even for you. And even if he's my best-friend." With a cheery smile on her lips, the healer exited her office, and, for a while, the two Captains walked down the hallways of the Relief Station in a companionable silence. "Ah, that reminds me—I did drop by a few times yesterday and the day before that, sempai, but older Kotetsu-chan said that you were in the Vaults…?"
"Yes, I was. I am sorry that you missed me, but I realised that I had been remiss with my research."
"Research?" The dark haired healer nodded. "About what, if I may ask?" Unohana smiled.
"About a patient of mine."
"…Would it be research into holding insanity at bay?" Though a saddened look crossed her features, the 4th Division's Captain shook her head, "Ah, then it can only be research on a different patient…and perhaps on…finding what was lost…"
"Indeed," said Unohana, "and before you ask, I fear that it has not been going well." She paused to glance around them carefully, before continuing, "I have only managed to find a number of writings based on theories and speculation on what happens to a Zanpakutou and its spirit when its owner passes on—for that is when their powers are lost—but nothing on…cases similar to this one."
"I imagine that this is a particularly rare case," agreed Kyouraku, "especially given the patient's…ah, identity. And by that, I mean that she's not…one of us." Unohana nodded.
"It…frightens me, at times," she admitted, with no audible change in her tone, except for the fact that her voice was quieter than it had been earlier, "For I know that Soutaichou-sama is losing his patience, as is Kurotsuchi-taichou. And with the rumours circulating about sightings of a certain someone in Rukongai…together with the general unrest in almost all the Rukongai districts… I fear that Soutaichou-sama will lose his patience soon, and demand that my patient be…brought before him."
"Either that, or be brought before our lovable scientist friend," stated Kyouraku, dryly, "But as for these rumours, sempai, you know very well that they have been going on since almost right after the war ended. The 2nd Division's scouts have not found any evidence to support these rumours, so…I would not take them too seriously. Not just yet."
His companion nodded slowly, though her lips were pursed in thought. "…Going back to your patient, have you tried speaking to her, sempai? About any of what happened?" The 4th Division's Captain shook her head.
"At first, I did not wish to even breach the topic," she confessed, "for I believed it to be too soon. I still think it is too soon, particularly since no one knows what exactly she was put through while she was there, but… if I had to choose between her being questioned by either Kurotsuchi-taichou, Soi Fon-taichou or myself…" she trailed off, clearly less than pleased with the situation.
"I'm pretty sure I know who I'd prefer to be doing the questioning," commented Kyouraku, before he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, "but isn't there someone else who can help, sempai? Isn't it with that hope in mind that you eagerly consented to…er, everything that happened?"
Unohana sighed again, rather uncharacteristically for her.
"Yes, you are correct," she started, "but I am beginning to wonder if I was too hasty in my judgements. I should not have forgotten that he has his own concerns, and his own troubles—not all of which are to do with the War and with actual, physical battles and any trauma created from it…"
"Ah, but you never know until you try, right?"
"No, I think I was too hasty in that particular judgement. And after what Isane told me of his battle with Zaraki-taichou…" she shook her head and they continued on in silence for a few moments.
"If I may, sempai, I do not think that you were as hasty as you think you were," said the 8th Division's Captain suddenly, "No, no, don't look at me like that. I am not saying this to make you feel better. Really, sempai, would I do that to you? Ah, never mind. My point is that…well, you never know what might happen. With him."
He paused for a moment, "Why, he could be the most successful of us all when it comes to this issue!"
"-I am being serious, sempai. For, even if it doesn't seem to be so at the moment, and even if he will never really allow it to be shown to us, it is highly unlikely that he is untroubled by the entire issue. It is highly likely that something about the situation has not…snuck through the walls he has so expertly set up around himself. He may not like to think of it too much, but he is a normal person too; a person with emotions, and a person with a heart…even if he goes to almost extreme lengths to hide this from the rest of the world."
He paused as they moved past a group of healers, tipping his hat and winking at them—because, of course, they were all female. When he next turned to his companion, he raised his eyebrows at the look she was sending him, "What? I didn't do anything! It was just a wink, sempai, nothing quite so—"
"-Is there something you are not telling me, Shunsui-kun?"
"Is there something you are not telling me, Shunsui-kun?" The brown haired Captain scratched the back of his head.
"I don't really know what you're implying, sempai, but I'm sure that—"
"Is there something you are not telling me, Shunsui-kun?"
Face paling somewhat, the 8th Division's Captain let out an uneasy chuckle, before stopping halfway and allowing a serious expression to fall across his face.
"There might be, sempai," he said truthfully, knowing not to lie to her, "but I don't think I should tell you just yet." There was a thoughtful expression on the healer's face.
"Is it about a particular patient of mine, Kyouraku-taichou?"
"Yes, it is. The same patient we were just talking about," he said with a nod, "And it's also about someone else…"
The healer's eyes narrowed ever so slightly.
"Would he happen to be a colleague whom we were speaking of a few moments ago?" When her companion nodded, she stared at him for a moment longer, before returning her attention to the corridor ahead of her, vaguely noting that they were almost at the doors, "There is a reason, I suppose, for you to keep this to yourself…" she murmured softly.
There was an apologetic look on her friend's face as he looked at her, noticing for the first time the exhaustion that, though rare, was clearly visible to the eyes of one who knew the healer.
"I would like nothing better than to tell you right now, sempai, but I don't think that I should. Not until I have something concrete to base this on." He scratched his chin, "It's difficult to explain, but it's a…theory, of sorts. You understand, don't you, why it would be best to not say anything more?"
"It would be best not to speculate on any theory lest there is proof to support it…" commented Unohana, and her colleague nodded.
"Exactly." There was a pause, "But…I am sorry, sempai. I don't mean to keep it away from you like this…" She sent him a small smile.
"Do not worry about it, Shunsui-kun. I am sure you will let me know when the time is right. Or when you find your proof." The healer turned back around to smile at her 7th Seat, who was standing by the doors that led outside. "For now, though, let us end all conversation on this topic. There is work that needs to be done."
Watching as the timid, yet no less friendly, Yamada Hanatarou took the medicine-bag from his Captain, Kyouraku put two and two together.
"Ah, you're making your rounds…" He looked at her curiously, "Is it going to be a long morning?"
Unohana shook her head.
"Not quite," she said, before she looked towards him with what he was certain was amusement in her eyes, "Though my second—or third, depending on how things proceed—stop for the day might interest you a great deal."
"Eh? Why would that—" A grin spread across Kyouraku's lips as it dawned on him, "Oh. Oh. Would you mind terribly if I tag along, sempai?"
"So that you can annoy a fellow colleague, Shunsui-kun?"
"What? No, of course not! It's so I can see a fellow colleague. It's been too long since I last saw his happy, cheerful, oh-so-pleasant face, you know. Life is not complete until you run across his-royal-grumpiness. Heck, no one's day is complete without such an encounter. Did you not know that?"
Sighing, the healer stepped out of the building, quickly followed by Hanatarou.
"If you will promise to at least try and refrain from antagonising him, then, yes, you may tag along, Shunsui-kun."
"Antagonise? Sempai, you make it sound like I make it my life's purpose to antagonise such a sweet, delicate, adorable little—ah, alright, sorry. I'll be quiet now."
At the Kuchiki estate:
It did not take him long to find her. He had been almost halfway to her room when he had sensed the fluctuating reiatsu, forcing him to come to an abrupt halt in the middle of the corridor he was striding down.
Though the fluctuation of the reiatsu had not been so bad that it meant she was in pain, it was the mere fact that he could sense her reiatsu at all that had first surprised, and then dismayed him.
For if he could sense it, who else could? Since she had woken from her coma, her reiatsu had not been strong enough to be felt, not like he could sense it now. And though it was still extremely weak, what mattered was there were people in Seireitei who had known the girl, and who would be able to sense this reiatsu if they were in the vicinity.
Cursing in his head, the noble quickly changed direction and headed towards where he sensed the reiatsu from. It did not take him long to find her, as he caught a glimpse of her bright hair upon sharply turning a corner. She was hobbling along, faltering every now and then but—as he spared the briefest of moments to observe her—she did not use the nearest wall for support. It was either pure determination, or sheer foolishness, but he cast the question aside as he strode briskly toward her, reaching out and grabbing her elbow when he was close enough.
Pain flared down his injured shoulder as he reached out first with his left hand, before replacing it with his right when he realised that he held his Zanpakutou in the other's grasp.
But the sharp, prickling sensation was forgotten as the girl turned around, allowing him to see her face.
He could not remember seeing an expression as broken as the one that was displayed on her face.
It is, he thought, an expression that she…that no one should have to wear on their face.
(He refused to contemplate the implications behind that…feeling, for they, along with the statement itself, were a touch ridiculous)
"Inoue-san—" His eyes widened as she attempted to twist her elbow out of his grasp, "Inoue-san," he repeated, keeping his hold in place, "it is—" He tightened the grip his right hand had on her—so very bony—elbow as she continued to struggle, "It—"
"No! No—let…let me go—!" she gasped, bringing her other arm up to grasp his hand even as she tried to pry his fingers apart and off the crook of her arm.
But he did not relinquish his grip on her, especially not when she was behaving in such a manner.
"Inoue-san, you must calm down," he said, in as calm a voice as he could, not showing any indication of noticing how her nails were digging into the flesh of his hand that was not covered by the glove that adorned it, "Please, Inoue-san, you must—"
"Let me…let me go!" she cried out again, trying once more to pry his hand off her arm. He squeezed her arm half in warning and half in a form of what he hoped was reassurance. "I won't –I can't—let me go!"
"Inoue-san, you are acting irrational—" he stopped abruptly as she gave up on his hand, choosing instead to raise her free arm and shove at what she could reach of his chest, "Inoue-san," he said again, injecting some force to the utterance even as he maintained his grip on her elbow, despite the frantic, almost hysterical way that she moved as she attempted to free herself from his grasp.
"No—no. I'm not –I n-never—this was all just an…an act, was…wasn't it? I—I would never t…take that—that—let me go, B-Byakuya-san!"
He refused, regretting instead the fact that he only had one hand free, as the other was in possession of his Zanpakutou. But, though he was not going to let her go, he needed to find a way to calm her down. For her barely-there reiatsu was fluctuating, and he could not take the risk of someone noticing it.
"Calm down. You do not know—" She did not seem to wish to listen to him as she continued to struggle, going as far as to aim a kick at his leg in an attempt to make him step back.
As it turned out, all that it did was cause some form of pain to her foot, if the small, unchecked cry that left her lips was anything to go by. "Inoue-san, you must calm down before you hurt—"
"—And why would you care? I'm a—a—a traitor, aren't I?" she choked out with an amount of venom in her voice that might have caused him to recoil away from her, had he been anyone else. "I—I'm one of…one of his—I—please, please, Byakuya-san, just let—just let me g-go…!"
For someone so apparently fragile, she certainly could pack quite a fair bit of power behind her one-handed shoves at his chest, he mused, still keeping his grip on his elbow even as he attempted to get her to calm down.
"Inoue-san, you are only going to hurt yourself if you keep acting in this manner. I suggest that you calm—" She moved her hand from his chest, lowering it to his hand and he winced as he felt her nails digging in quite deeply into the soft skin left exposed by his glove.
It hurt surprisingly more than it had any right to. "Kindly refrain from doing that," he said, as non-threateningly as he could, but she only dug her nails in deeper as she continued with her struggles, shaking her head from side to side. He raised his left hand reflexively, only to pause as she froze, bringing her struggles to an immediate halt.
What? What was that? Not that he was complaining, but the way she had suddenly stopped struggling was a little…too abrupt…
It was when he saw the plain fear on her face that he guessed at what was probably running through her mind.
Dropping his left hand, he squeezed her arm a little, just so that she would feel it. "No," he said, his voice low as he attempted to swallow against a rather uncomfortable sensation within his throat, one that had him feeling ill, "No, Inoue-san. I am not—I was not going to hurt you. I…I just…" He snapped his mouth shut, unable to find the appropriate words to say, but unwilling to see the continued existence of that expression on her face.
He would not hurt her for something like this! How could she possibly think that he would stoop so low, that he would lower himself to such a degrading, dishonourable level so as to turn his Zanpakutou on her for—
Ah, but his actions thus far had not been ones that would have reassured her, had they…?
He grit his teeth against his rising frustration, before he quickly made up his mind.
Keeping his grip on her elbow, he slowly bent forward. He moved slowly so as not to startle or frighten her any more than she already was, although he was well aware of how he could not allow her to move away.
Slowly, and ignoring the fresh wave of pain in his shoulder, he lowered his Zanpakutou to the ground. It would have been easier had he decided to drop it, but it was his Zanpakutou, and therefore, it was an item that should be treated with respect…even if its spirit was rather disrespectful as of late.
With that done, he straightened once again, his eyes seeking out her own. "I am not going to hurt you, Inoue-san," he said firmly, "I would not—"
"Why?" she asked, an out of place high note in her voice, "I—I'm a traitor aren't I?"
"Inoue-san—" He reached out with his now free left hand, grabbing the hand that shot towards his chest once more, "You are not…" he trailed off for a moment, pondering what he should say.
Could he honestly tell her that she was not a traitor?
It mattered very little whether he thought she was one or not; what remained to be seen was what she could tell him, and prove or disprove.
And if it was shown that she was…a traitor? What then?
"P-Please, I just—I…I c-can't, I can't do th-this anymore. I didn't—I would n-never join him l-like that! He…he hurt K-Kuchiki-san, and…and Kuro…Kurosaki-kun—wh—why would I do that?" She shook her head vehemently, and he cringed at the liquid rolling down her red cheeks, "He t-told me that he wouldn't hurt them. He—he said that they would…would call off the attack, and…and R-Rangiku-san, To…ushiro-kun a-and K-Kurosaki-kun would be…would be unharmed. But only—only if I went with him, and I…I said y-yes, because it…it would help t-them and…and I…I never meant to—I would never have—"
She broke off with a shuddering gasp, even as the tears continued to fall. "I wouldn't—I wouldn't betray them, Bya…kuya-san. I wouldn't betray my f-friends. I'd rather d-die than…than do that, but he…he s-said that I was 'special' a…nd that I-that I…"
When she stopped this time, it was more to do with the fact that she was shaking so violently that her teeth knocked together, quite audibly too. Her breaths were coming in shallow gasps, and her face was flushed somewhat unhealthily as the tears showed no signs of letting up.
Byakuya stared down at her trembling form, the corners of his lips tugged downward in a frown. She had stopped struggling, yes, but he knew that her hysteria was not over yet. He could see the manic gleam in her eyes, so different to the light that he had witnessed within their depths the previous night, and that was enough to alert him to the fact that it was not over.
She had given up on talking in favour of the small half-gasps, half-sobs that left her lips—though that did not mean that he had forgotten what she said. Granted, there had been a lot of stammering, but he was quite certain that she had said something along the lines of being…coerced into…going somewhere with an unknown male.
If he was to rely on the thoughts that had immediately sprung to the forefront of his mind at her words, then…he had an idea of what she could possibly have been speaking of.
Although he would need to check with Ukitake-taichou, to clarify certain details that he had received.
But that was nothing more conjecture on his part. It was not important.
Not at this moment, even though he knew that prodding her to go on and elaborate would mean proving those discussing her allegiances either right, or wrong.
What was important at this very moment was the trembling form before him.
She is hysterical, he reasoned with himself.
(She should not have had to hear that message; it was foolishly unobservant of him to not understand the guard's hesitance)
She needs to calm down before she hurts herself, or someone else, he reasoned with himself.
(Andjust when she seemed to have realised she could not go on like this—that she needed to rely on herself to pull through this and remain sane)
Her reiatsu is—was fluctuating badly…so she needs to be calmed before it gets so out of control that it grabs someone's attention, he reasoned with himself.
(If anyone recognised her reiatsu, there was every chance that she would be…moved, for security purposes)
She is under my…under the care of the Kuchiki clan, so it is natural to ensure that all is well, he reasoned with himself.
(She was meant to be in a position where she could recover; she was ill-suited to the harshness of war and the world it had thrust her into)
(. . .)
Letting out a quiet breath, he dropped the hand he had caught in his own, before moving his now-free left hand to her shoulder. Using both that grip, and the one that he had on her elbow, he pulled her against him.
(. . .)
(I do not wish to see her this br—)
She still shook, even as she buried her tear-stained face against the black material of his kosode, and he made no move to force her away, despite the expected surge of discomfort that rose within him.
He did not release his grip on her elbow, making for a rather awkward position on his part, but there was little he could do about that. If he let go of her, he would be giving her the chance to move away, to escape, and while he did not doubt that he could find her and stop her from going anywhere she should not go, he did not want to take any unnecessary risks.
Not with Kurotsuchi-taichou wanting to see her.
So he had to keep his hold on her. He knew that this could be done whilst moving his arms into a number of more…comfortable positions, yet it was the very positions themselves that had him hesitating.
Shoulders, upper-back, waist—no, they were a touch too personal, too invasive, for his liking. So he continued to keep hold of her elbow while his left arm rested just as uncomfortably on her shoulder.
Her shoulders continued to heave and he could hear the sobs leave her lips, though they were muffled by the material of his kosode.
"I—I'm not… I…I'm not a… a t-traitor…" she whispered as she sobbed, "I'm not, I-I'm not, I'm not, I'm n-not, I'm not, I…I'm n-no…t…"
No, he had to concede, she was not; and the idea that there were those who believed that she could be was ridiculous, really. She did not have the character to hurt a fly—so why would she willingly wish to join forces with a man who hurt her friends and those she knew?
He squeezed both her shoulder and elbow respectively, not quite sure if it would achieve anything. He was not ashamed to admit that he did not quite have any…experience in such happenings. "P-Please, I—I'm n-not…" He nodded silently, staring down at the top of her head of bright hair.
(Her hair truly was bright)
Her reiatsu, he was grateful to note, had fallen to the level it usually was at, ever since she had awakened from her comatose state. He could only hope that it had not happened a little too late.
If Unohana-taichou had felt it—as she would have, given how attuned she was to the reiatsu of all of her patients—it could cause a bit of an awkward situation.
For, though Kurotsuchi-taichou truly was beginning to get on his nerves, he was willing to admit that this was all partially his fault too. "—not, I'm n-not… he just—he was only… I was just a dis—distraction…n-not a…a t-t-traitor…"
"I know, Inoue-san," he said softly, before his eyes widened. What?
No. No, he did not know. What was he talking about?
Since her reiatsu had calmed, it was probably best to…move away and have her…sleep the remaining hysteria and shock off…
After all, his duty was to ensure that she was in a place that could guarantee her the freedom to recuperate, and also to protect her if the need arose.
That was all.
But she was clinging onto the front of his kosode almost desperately, her body still trembling against his.
…Yet this was not his place, nor was he the right person to do anything about this. Though he may be slightly more trustworthy than his household staff when it came to dealing with her, he could not possibly do anything about her as she was now.
It was not his place.
Nor was it something he would feel comfortable with attempting—and who knew how she would feel if her were to do such a thing?
It was not in the least bit logical.
Yet, none of these thoughts were able to explain why the grip he had on her elbow was released, before his slipped down and around her, until it rested on her upper back
Nor was it able to explain why the hand on her shoulder released its grip before making its way upward, slowly, tentatively, until it found its perch on the back of her head.
He could feel the material of his kosode being crumpled as she gripped fistfuls of it, but he supposed that it was nothing the household staff could not take care of.
His left shoulder twitched and cried out in protest as he rested his hand lightly, awkwardly, against her still somewhat damp hair, and he wondered why he had not allowed Manabu-san to call for someone from the 4th Division to see to the gash there.
Or perhaps he should never have allowed the 11th Division's Captain to goad him into a fight.
Perhaps he should not have allowed himself to be so easily wound up and distracted during said fight.
Perhaps he should not have expected things to run smoothly, as they had done before.
Perhaps…perhaps he should tell her the truth.
He stared off into the empty corridor before him, his brows furrowed as he contemplated the thought. It had its disadvantages and advantages. There was every chance that the truth would only hamper her recuperation and yet, did she…not deserve to know the truth?
Did she not deserve the chance to tell her own story, if she so wished it? He was willing to bet that if the newly formed Central 46 was to question her, they would not take too kindly—if at all—to her stammering and her moods. And he was not even going to think of their reaction to her tears. They had, possibly, already deemed her guilty.
Besides, had he not been taught that honesty was imperative in one's attempt to lead a successful, simple life? A life of honour, and a life that one could be proud of?
Yes, yes he had. "Inoue-san?" He received no acknowledgement from her, though she still sobbed against him, "Inoue-san, I understand that this is…shocking and even painful for you, but I think…" he trailed off for a moment, before strengthening his resolve, "I think, Inoue-san, that we need to talk."
She stiffened against him, though he could not guess why, "I think there are some issues that you should know about, so…it would be best for us to talk about them." He paused for a moment, "Can you do that, Inoue-san?"
Of course she can talk, he reprimanded himself with an inward sneer, she has not been robbed of her voice; she is simply in shock.
When she did not respond, the noble moved his hands to her shoulders, pulling her away from him so that he could glimpse her face. He almost regretted it when he saw the mass of tear-stained skin, but did not allow the image to send him turning on his heel and as far away from her as he could get with the use of shunpou.
It did not seem as though she was going to answer him, so, with an inward sigh, the noble turned her around to face the other end of the corridor. "Come. This corridor is not the best place for such a discussion," he murmured, not knowing why he bothered when she showed no sign of having heard him. He urged her to move, hoping that he would not have to carry her.
He did not quite wish to…engage in anything that would require such contact. Not again.
Retrieving his Zanpakutou from its place on the ground, he straightened quickly before gazing upon her unresponsive figure for a moment.
I suppose I should not be surprised, he thought, detachedly.
As he placed a hand tentatively on her back, prodding her forward yet again, he felt a spark of something travel from his hand, and down his arm. Ignoring the foreign sensation, he lowered his eyes to the hand—though his attention was caught when the girl stiffened suddenly.
He immediately withdrew his hand from her back, wondering why he had not thought of the possibility that she did not wish to have any contact with anyone else—much less with someone she hardly knew. "I did not mean to startle you," he said, "but if you would follow me, we can talk in a more private setting," when she tensed again, he found himself moving hastily to elaborate, "Simply because some of what you will be told would be best kept between ourselves, without running the risk of someone overhearing."
Manabu-san, he knew, had already heard most of her outburst, for he had been able to sense his familiar reiatsu a while ago—though he had, thankfully, kept himself from turning into the corridor they were in. And while he trusted him, he could not say the same for anyone else who might comes across this corridor.
('Thank you very much for everything that you have done, Ukitake-san. I hope that I didn't trouble you too much during my stay here!')
Byakuya's eyes narrowed as the cheerful voice filled his head, just as it had done the day before. What was different about it, however, was that it was not the voice of a child; not anymore.
He knew, of course, who the voice belonged to, even if it was more unsettling than he cared to admit, to have the girl stand before him, refusing to speak, and to still hear her voice in his head.
('I'll be careful, I promise. I know that they are Espada, and that they are strong, but I will do my best to—ah, I suppose I should go now. Thank you, again, Ukitake-san! It was nice meeting you.')
Refocusing his attention on her, he nodded, noticing that she had half-turned towards him.
"Forgive me. Let's go—"
('E-Eh? Oh, no, you don't have to come with me! Please, it's okay! I'm sure I can manage—oh. Haha, sorry, I guess I don't know much about procedure when it comes to this kind of thing. Then, please accompany me! I need to get back so that I can help my friends, so…)
Before he could process the kind—too kind—and cheerful—too cheerful—voice and what it had spoken, the touch of cool fingers against his hand startled him into refocusing his attention on the present.
He saw a familiar pair of grey eyes staring at him; a pair of eyes that did not hold the same hysterical gleam that they had held before, though the observation was not much of a comfort to him.
Because it did not explain why he continued to hear her voice in his head.
"—okay?" Blinking, he stared at her for a moment longer, before his mind registered that she had asked him something. Judging from the expression on her face, he could make a good enough guess as to what the question had been.
No, he wanted to say, no, I am not 'okay' and I have not been 'okay' for a while now; not since you were brought here, not since you awakened from your coma…not since you pulled that stunt in Hueco Mundo—and I do not doubt that it will remain this way until something is done about it. And hearing your voice in my head does not do much to make me feel any better.
But he could not say that.
She had already had a traumatising experience that morning, there was no need for him to add to it with his remarks.
The guards at the gates stood to attention after they bowed their heads in greeting to the two Captains before them, even as they nodded at the shorter, more timid Shinigami standing behind the Captains.
"May we enter, gentlemen?" questioned the dark haired healer, smiling pleasantly at them, despite the feeling of wanting to see her patient with her eyes as soon as was possible.
They had been close to the estate when she had sensed the sudden fluctuating of a reiatsu that, though it was far weaker than it should be, was no less unfamiliar. Needless to say, she was worried.
"Of course, Unohana-taichou," the light haired man glanced uneasily at the other Captain, opening his mouth as though to speak, before closing it again.
"Hmm? Something the matter?" questioned Kyouraku, "Byakuya-kun hasn't gone and done something as ridiculous and cruel as ban me from here…has he?"
"N-No, of course not, Kyouraku-taichou."
"Then there shouldn't be a problem, right?"
"It's not…that it's a problem…" spoke up the other, darker haired guard, fidgeting uncomfortably under the combined gazes of the two Captains.
"Is something amiss, then?" The dark haired guard sighed.
"Kurotsuchi-taichou was here earlier," he said, not noting the look of surprise that passed across the 8th Division Captain's face, "and he…well, he passed on a message to Byakuya-sama that he wasn't…very pleased with…"
His companion nodded.
"From the flare of his reiatsu, no, he was not pleased at all…" The two Captains exchanged glances, both with the same concerns, "And Kurotsuchi-taichou looked too…happy. Even after Byakuya-sama passed along the message that he should meet him at the 6th Division's barracks, as opposed to here…"
Before Kyouraku could even begin to splutter his shock at the thought of a happy Kurotsuchi Mayuri, and the trouble it could possibly mean for the rest of the world, Unohana had moved forward, beckoning for Hanatarou to follow her.
"Do not fear," she said, "We will be on our best behaviour and not upset Kuchiki-taichou more than he already is. So, if you do not mind, gentlemen, we really need to be moving. There are some other stops that I must make after this, so…" The guards resisted the urge to grimace at the too pleasant expression on her face.
"O-Of course, Unohana-taichou. We were told to allow you inside at all times, so please, go ahead," said the light haired male, gesturing to the now opened gates.
The healer spared him a tight smile, before she stalked through the gates, setting a brisk pace down the path that led through the gardens and towards the main building.
"…Are you thinking what I am thinking, sempai?" asked Kyouraku, as he matched her pace evenly, even if they could both hear Hanatarou struggling behind them.
"If you are thinking that this cannot be good, Shunsui-kun, then, yes, I suppose we are thinking along the same lines," was the tensed reply he got, as they neared the main building.
Kyouraku nodded, a serious expression flitting across his face. Whatever had…had happened, it had been enough for the dark haired noble's reiatsu to flare. And adding to the mix what his companion had mentioned about the fluctuating of a second reiatsu…
Ah, ah, he thought, I hope Kurotsuchi-taichou has not succeeded in doing something extremely foolish…
"Follow me," he said, his tone sharper than what he had been aiming for, before he tried to step around her. The grip of cold fingers on his hand once more pulled him to a halt.
What was it now, for the—
He could not prevent his eyes from widening at the feeling that shot up his arm. Not because it was a stronger spark than he had felt before, and not because he could now definitely categorise it as something foreign to him; rather, it was because he was sure, he was quite sure, that the prickling sensation had emanated from where the cold fingertips were in contact with his skin.
He stared down at her even as she fixed her gaze on his hand.
As she moved her fingers, almost experimentally, he was reminded of what had happened earlier that morning. He had felt something similar then, and she had been just as fascinated by his hand.
And it had been the same hand from which he had seen that pale yellow light emanating from during his battle with Zaraki-taichou.
…Just as it was that same hand now.
What in the world is this?
He tried pulling his hand away, but that resulted in the tightening of her fingers around it—which in turn sent another prickling sensation shooting up his right arm.
And all of a sudden, it was warm.
It was much too warm for it to be a change in the weather, just as it was much too sudden to dismiss it as an act of nature.
Though he was not wearing his haori, and though the material of his shihakushou was of the finest quality, both durable and comfortable, the warmth that he felt was quite noticeable.
And more than slightly uncomfortable.
There was something…growing within him. He could not for the life of him say what it was, or how he knew it, but he could feel it. He could feel it in the surge of power, in the surge of energy that swelled in his gut, just as he could feel it as it travelled down his spine.
It was too warm, and the girl's fingers were like ice on the suddenly feverish skin of his hand.
His eyes narrowed; what was this abnormality?
He could feel his eyes beginning to water, and it might have horrified him had he not been more concerned with his rising body temperature.
Something was struggling…was clawing to make its way out—out of him—and he had not the slightest idea as to what it was.
Except for the fact that the girl might have caused it, with or without her knowledge.
Or if not that, she must certainly be the reason behind his hearing her voice in his head, and behind his recollection of memories that could only be hers.
He did not like this, not one bit, and so, he roughly jerked his hand out of her grip, not caring at the expression that crossed her face.
It was too warm, dammit! It was too warm and the air around them suddenly seemed…too…too thin, and why was she looking at him like that? It was unnerving and uncalled for. He was not going to—
"B…Byakuya-san…" she whispered, her teary eyes wide and her tear-stained face paler than it had been before, "B-Byakuya-san, you… you're…"
"What?" he managed, his eyes narrowed both at her and against the liquid in his eyes. There was a strange prodding sensation in the back of his head, one that told him that someone was coming—and it was with a start that he sensed, vaguely, the two powerful, yet familiar reiatsu.
He knew who they were, who they belonged to, and he could feel them closing in on where they were…
But the girl was gaping at him now, and he did not know why.
"You're…glowing…" He glanced down at once, but whatever retort he had been about to make died a quick death at the tip of his tongue. For she was right; he was…glowing.
Just as it had done before, there was a pale yellow light hovering about his right hand—quite visibly at that. Except this time, the light was stronger, brighter, than it had been the last time it had appeared around the same hand.
Once again he was reminded of the light that he had caught a glimpse of, many months ago, before it had dissipated, leaving him alive and healed while it left his healer slumped and asleep.
And just before, when she had touched his hand—
He glanced up at her, his eyes wide.
"What…" he paused, clenching his jaw against the warmth that was rising within him at an almost unbearable level, "…what have you done to me?"
Her eyes were just as wide as she looked at him.
"I didn't—I didn't do a-anything!" she said quickly, shaking her head vehemently, "What…what have you done?" her eyes were filled with tears again as she looked at him, "Why is he with you and…and not with me? I don't—what did I do? What did I…what did I do wrong?"
"What are you talking about?" he asked, vaguely remembering her saying something about a 'him' earlier that morning, "Inoue-san?" Gritting his teeth and tightening the grip that he had on his Zanpakutou, he reached out to her with his—glowing—hand, regardless of his earlier assumption of her being at fault. "Inoue—"
She grasped his glowing hand and he barely muffled the pained gasp that threatened to leave his lips as the heat within him reached an almost searing peak. He could feel the beads of sweat running down the back of his neck, and the liquid collecting in his eyes.
Whatever this was, it hurt, and—
"N-No…" she whispered, tightening her grasp on his hand, even as the light around it flared, "I can feel…him. But he… why won't he come out? Why is he—why are you—" Her head snapped up as the gasp left his lips, "B-Byakuya…-san?"
He wanted to answer her, he truly did, even if it was to say 'get away from me, and stay away', but he was feeling too much like he was going to combust from within, and his shoulder was throbbing and…and why were there suddenly two…no, three bright haired girls holding his hand and looking at him?
The grip around his hand tightened, "No. No, s-stop it. Stop this, please," he vaguely heard her whisper. He felt something on his chest, just over his furiously beating heart, "Whatever you're d-doing… please, s…stop it. It's hurting him, so please, stop it, Tsubaki-kun."
He wondered, distantly, who else was there…and how he had managed to get there, for he knew of no one named Tsubaki.
But he did not get the chance to contemplate any further, for, just as suddenly as the heat had seared through him, it disappeared.
A wave of blessed coldness replaced it, and he was unable to hold back a sigh of relief. Though that was about all that he was able to do.
The next he knew, his eyes rolled to the back of his head, and he heard a thud of something falling, along with a surprised squeak, before everything turned black.
Orihime's arms shot out reflexively, ignoring the Zanpakutou that had fallen onto the ground. While she was successful in catching the unconscious noble, she had not prepared herself to bear the brunt of the weight of another, and found herself falling rather heavily on her knees, hands gripping the dark haired Captain's arms.
"B-Byakuya-san?" she called softly, almost pushing him backwards from where he was slumped heavily over her, but then remembering that he was still injured, "Bya…kuya-san…?"
"Byakuya-sama!" Her head snapped up at the call, only to see the elderly man that she had seen with the noble making his way hastily towards them. There was a concerned expression on his face as he dropped to his knees beside her.
"Move aside please, Ohayashi-san," directed a calm female voice that Orihime recognised without having to turn around, though she did wonder when the dark haired healer had appeared. Soon, there was another figure kneeling beside them, and Orihime could only watch as a slender, pale hand reached out towards the noble's forehead.
Barely half a moment later, someone was carefully, gently, pulling the noble away from her.
"-oue-chan. Inoue-chan?" It was only when she felt a hand on her own that she looked up, with a start, into the kind eyes of Kyouraku Shunsui. "Yo, Inoue-chan. You can let go of him now... it's okay."
She realised only then that she was still clutching onto the noble's arms. Quickly releasing them, she watched as the brown haired Captain pulled him away fully, before propping him up in a seated position with the other's back resting against his chest.
The 4th Division's Captain was talking to the elderly man crouched beside her, giving him instructions which she didn't pay much attention to. Not when her eyes were fixed on the noble and his now normal hand.
She knew what she had felt, and she had felt it from the noble not once but twice now.
But she didn't understand. Why was he… why was it that she could feel him in Byakuya-san? Was he not hers? Yes, she might not have made the best use out of him, but…but wasn't he a part of her soul?
It didn't matter what they thought of her, or that they thought she would ever, ever, be loyal to that man.
Why could she feel Tsubaki-kun within Kuchiki Byakuya?
A gentle hand on her own clammy forehead had her gazing into the blue eyes of the dark haired healer, who sent her a reassuring smile once their gazes locked.
"Come, Inoue-san," she said, pulling herself to her feet and holding out her hand to her, "Let's go back to your room."
Orihime cast a weak glance at where the noble was still resting, unconscious, against his colleague.
"-Kyouraku-taichou will take him to his room, Inoue-san, just as I will take you to yours. This visit was, as a matter of fact, to check up on you, and see how you were, so…shall we?"
('Come with me, woman. Do not say a word. Come')
And just like that, Orihime allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. As she allowed the healer to lead her down the corridor, she threw a quick glance behind her, watching as the brown haired Captain rose to his feet with the other's help, before carefully picking up the noble's unresponsive form in his arms. The familiar figure of Hanatarou stood anxiously beside them, a worried expression on his face.
Turning back around, she hobbled after the other woman.
A while later:
The expressions on the faces of the two Captains as they bid farewell to the guards were grim ones. For a while, they walked on in silence, walking slowly and occasionally nodding at those Shinigami who paused to greet them.
It had taken a while for the 4th Division's Captain to carry out the check up on her patient's health—and although she had professionally separated from her mind the concern she had for her colleague, she could not help but be disappointed in the way the girl's legs were strengthening.
Having walked with her to her room, Unohana had been witness to how she hobbled and stumbled, even if she tried her best to hide it and to avoid having to lean on anything for support every now and then. Although she had not expected the girl's muscles to strengthen overnight, she had been expecting some gradual progress…and what she had seen and then later noticed, was not good enough.
And she had not been able to complete a full check up either, having noticed the weariness and exhaustion that had been emanating from her very frame. It was just as well that she would have to return to the Kuchiki estate later, to check up on her colleague.
That was another thing that worried her, and coupled together what Ohayashi Manabu had told them of what he had overheard…there was a myriad of thoughts attempting to override each other in her head.
There was anger at Kurotsuchi-taichou, for his message.
There was slight irritation at Kuchiki-taichou himself, for not keeping the…truth of the matter away from her, as he had been supposed to.
But there was also genuine concern for her fellow colleague. She and her brown haired companion had turned the corner just in time to see the noble fall forward like a rag doll, unwittingly taking her patient down with him as she tried to support his weight.
That by itself was worrying enough, for she could not quite remember the young noble collapsing in such a manner before. But listening to what Ohayashi-san had to say about what he had heard…
It raised some…strange questions. Particularly ones that concerned a…glowing right hand.
She could honestly say that she had no idea as to why her colleague's hand would glow. Or why he felt that her patient had had something to do with it.
And what is slightly more worrying, she thought as she glanced at her thus-far silent companion out of the corner of her eye, is Shunsui-kun's silence. Though she had made no mention of it at the time, she had noticed the way he had stiffened during their conversation with the head of the household staff at the Kuchiki estate.
And he had not even attempted to smile, or make some kind of…dubious comment when the other man had mentioned the noble's other interactions with her patient—interactions which he had borne witness to.
Seeing the furrowing of his brows, the healer calmed her thoughts down with practised ease, before allowing a pleasant smile to cross her lips.
"Do not worry, Shunsui-kun. Hanatarou-kun is quite capable, and, should something drastic occur, he knows to send for me," she said, softly, causing her colleague to nod. "With sufficient rest, Kuchiki-taichou will be quite alright. His fever was already abating when we left, so I do not think this will carry on for much longer…"
"I know that sempai," said Kyouraku at last, sending her a wry smile, "It's just…unsettling, I suppose." He shook his head at the questioning look he sent him, "When was the last time our Byakuya-kun…fainted? Or fell ill? When he was a child, yes, but…recently?" He shook his head again, "It is…strange, that is all."
Unohana nodded slowly, understanding his reasoning but not quite agreeing with it—anyone could fall ill at any point in time, no matter how long it had been since it had last happened.
Though, somehow, she got the feeling that what had happened to their younger colleague wasn't to do with any illness.
"I am far more concerned about the…light that Ohayashi-san mentioned. The light that he saw around Kuchiki-taichou's hand," she said quietly, noticing the sidelong glance that her companion sent her but saying nothing of it.
"Indeed," murmured Kyouraku, falling silent for a moment, before he suddenly stopped walking altogether.
"Shunsui-kun?" inquired Unohana, coming to a halt with him and watching as he sent her a sheepish smile.
"Sorry, sempai. I'd love to accompany you on the rest of your rounds—you know I would, for nothing is as pleasurable as spending time in your lovely company…" he paused rather dramatically, "but I have to go somewhere. I just remembered that I told someone that I would join them for some morning tea—and it would be highly rude of me to forget about them just like that."
She was not fooled by the wide smile on his lips, nor was she fooled by his apparently relaxed, cheerful attitude—but she did not press the issue. If he wanted to speak to her about what was troubling him—instinct told her that it had something to do with what had happened a short while ago—then he would do so in his own time.
"Of course," she said, inclining her head, "In any case, I highly doubt that you would have found the rest of my stops interesting…" She smiled at the innocent expression on his face, though it faltered when she saw the slight strain behind the expression, "Give Juushirou-kun my regards, will you?"
"Eh? Eh?" Kyouraku looked surprised, "How did you-?"
"Please, Shunsui-kun, who else would you want to have tea with, when you can always have sake instead?" With a laugh and a final tipping of his hat, the 8th Division's Captain turned on his heel, heading in the opposite direction.
"Oh…and, sempai?" he called suddenly, looking at her over his shoulder.
"About that research you were doing…maybe you could try broadening the subject matter a bit…" The healer stared at him, waiting for him to finish and not showing any of the surprise she was feeling. When he did not speak immediately, she urged him on.
"I do not understand, Shunsui-kun."
"This is only a suggestion, mind you, but…perhaps you could also look for instances where a soul's power has not been lost completely, but instead…has been transferred to someone else…" He smiled at the hard expression she sent him, "It's just a thought, sempai. Have a good day."
With a last nod, he disappeared, leaving a suddenly very concerned healer behind.
Meanwhile, in Karakura:
The bespectacled young man walked briskly down the quickly filling corridors, easily moving around the groups of students that gathered around to discuss their plans for the next weekend, or who they had seen at the local karaoke place last evening.
He did not begrudge them their…lack of knowledge of what truly went on in the world around them. He couldn't begrudge them that, for it afforded them with the luxury of leading normal lives. It afforded them the luxury of not being paranoid at the slightest detection of foreign reiatsu, or the faintest rise in known reiatsu.
He stumbled ever so slightly as he was jostled by a figure running past him, and he turned to frown at them, when he noticed the apologetic look the girl was sending him.
"Ah, sorry about that! I should have been more careful." With a faint smile at him, she continued on her way, and he quickly turned back around and did the same.
Bypassing the classrooms on both sides of the long corridor, he made his way towards the large noticeboard that was usually popular only at this time of the year, as evidenced by the crowd of people gathered around it.
He sighed as he eyed the crowd, having hoped that he would have been able to avoid them by arriving earlier than he usually did. Oh well, there was nothing to it. Standing at the edge of the crowd, he lazily observed the people closest to him, taking in the smiles on some faces, the resignation on some others, and the disappointment and fear on the rest.
If you're going to be afraid, or disappointed, he wondered to himself, would it not be best to work hard well before hand, and not just in the week before?
"Here to check the class standings, Ishida?" He did not need to turn to know who it was, simply choosing to nod as the dark haired girl moved to a halt beside him.
"I'm assuming that you're here for the same thing, Kunieda-san?" he inquired politely.
"I've already seen them. Nothing has changed," was the bored reply that he received, "You've come in first again, and I've come in second. Kurosaki dropped two places to nineteen, and Sado actually up to seventeenth place. Tatsuki came in at twelfth, and Kuchiki managed to rise to the thirty-fourth place. Oh, and Keigo surprisingly came in at thirty-two, with Mizuiro taking up fifteenth place."
The long haired girl sighed, "It's nothing drastically different… Except, perhaps, the person who came in third…"
And just like that, Ishida didn't want to see the list of mid-year class standings anymore. Not when he realised that he would move down the list, taking in his name at the top, then Kunieda-san's name below it…and this time, the different name that would have taken up the third position overall.
Not when that spot had always been occupied by one name.
One name that he might never see on the list again.
He shook his head slightly, before nodding at his classmate.
"Thank you, Kunieda-san. I don't have any need to try and push myself through this jungle anymore," he said, gesturing towards the crowd in front of them. "I will see you in class."
As he moved back down the corridor, he could not help but look down at his hand. As the months passed by, the visions he had of the stump that had been in place of the hand, had slowed in their frequency…though there were still times when he found himself looking at said hand, only to see a bleeding lump of severed flesh.
He could still remember every detail of his awe and surprise as he had watched the bones of his hand, of his fingers, being brought back, before the muscle and flesh and veins returned too, until the process was completed with the reappearance of the skin over it.
It truly was a magnificent power that she had. And it was one that suited her nature quite well, too.
For a while after the end of the war—and after that Shinigami Captain had managed to keep both him and Sado from dying in the confusion that had followed the last, desperate attack made on them all—he had been able to sense traces of her reiatsu around his hand.
For a while, it had been as though she was not…as far away from them as she was. Yes, the lack of her presence in class was glaringly obvious, and the room did not seem as bright and warm as it usually did, but…he had taken comfort in the traces of reiatsu he could sense around the hand she had brought back.
Perhaps he had taken this small blessing for granted, or perhaps time had simply passed by too quickly, but…he could not sense any trace of it anymore.
It had, like many things, faded away with time.
And he despised it.
It wasn't right. Nothing seemed right. Going to the handicrafts clubroom after school had become more and more of a chore, as opposed to an opportunity to relax. Glancing out the window was hard, for there was no bright splash of colour seated beside it. Seeing his friends each day was difficult, for most of them thought that she had simply moved overseas, literally overnight, at the request of some relatives who wished to be "more involved" in her life.
And the rest of his…friends were…not the same as they had been.
Arisawa had somehow managed to eclipse Kurosaki in the category of being the most frightening person at school.
Kuchiki tried to go on as though everything was normal, but he had not missed the pain on her face as she entered and left the classroom each day.
And Kurosaki…he had mellowed down somewhat, though his temper was as quick to rise as it had always been. He seemed more apathetic than anything else, only really coming alive when taking care of any hollows who dared breach their city.
Though Sado was as quiet as he usually was, there was a tension in his shoulders that never seemed to leave. He could relate the most with Sado, for he understood the undercurrent of guilt that he was feeling—simply because he felt it too.
It was the guilt of not being there, when it happened. It was the guilt of knowing that they had been lying down, not too far away from her, not knowing what had happened, and certainly not knowing that the next time they opened their eyes, they would be missing the warmth of their…group.
The warmth that somehow kept them together more than any other.
He was sensible enough to know that this guilt was misplaced. Neither he nor Sado had asked for any of this to happen, and, really, they wouldn't have been anything that they could have done even if they had been standing beside her.
But it did not lessen the pain.
Though, unlike Kurosaki, he did not harbour any hard feelings against the one she had…aided, until she had been unable to do so any longer. Unlike Kurosaki, he knew that she had done what she would have done for anyone else, had they been as injured as the Captain had been.
It was simply the type of person she was, and he knew that Kurosaki knew this, deep down inside of him—but his own frustration at being unable to do anything made him feel the desire to cast the 'blame' elsewhere, and who better to cast it on than someone he did not get along with much?
Shaking his head as he heard the sound of the bell echoing throughout the building, he picked up on his pace as he made his way to his classroom.
It was going to be another empty, cold day inside the room…and that was how it would be, until she woke up and graced them with her presence once again.
And she would, because she was too good to remain in a comatose state, all alone, and away from home. He only wished that they had thought to send the framed photograph of her beloved brother through one of the Shinigami Captains, so that it could be placed by her bedside.
It might well be a silly thought, but he knew that she would have been comforted with the knowledge that her brother continued to watch over her, as he always did.
Extra-long chapter to compensate for the delay in updating!
Can I just say that this chapter pretty much wrote itself? Without a single care in the world as to what I had wanted from it? Because that's what happened. One minute I had started typing, having an idea of where I wanted the chapter to go…and the next, all of that was figuratively thrown out the window (along with poor Renji, who was originally supposed to make an appearance in this chapter).
I wasn't sure if I wanted to publish this the way it was; should I leave it as it was, or should I go back and start it from scratch? Finally, though, after a few changes, I decided that I liked what I had…and here we are.
I suppose the answer to the question of who the 'him' Orihime mentioned in the previous chapter was answered in this. Though, 'his' treatment of poor Byakuya wasn't very nice. I understand that that part is probably a tad confusing at the moment, but it will all be explained, gradually. (The Byakuya of this story is fighting the urge to quiver in fear in a nice, quiet corner as I say this)
Anyway, I hope this was an enjoyable read. As I said at the beginning of the chapter, the lack of review responses doesn't mean that they won't be coming—they will. (Oh, and in two places in this chapter, the first word for each scene was put in bold letters-this wasn't done to highlight any importance, or anything, but the horizontal ruler that separated the scenes didn't look...separate enough to me, so I tried something else. Did it work, or was I imagining things?)
That's it from me for this chapter.
Till' next time,