Yes, I admit it. I had a huge block. Which was this chapter. Then I got scared because it's been such a long time and I almost felt apologetic about having the gall to update.
To everyone who reviewed, faved, and read this story, I cannot thank you enough.
Note: Just to clear up, canon-wise, I do think Ginrei is dead. However, they don't state it outright so I just made him alive in this story. Therefore, it's not like everyone thinks he's dead or anything. He's just 'retired'… or maybe not so much…
Regret looms over.
Like a blunt executioner's axe
A rust-poisoned chain
A pit dug upon our path.
"Well, well, what do we have here?"
The tall white figure turned slowly at the sound, just in time to catch the sight of another white figure hurtling down from the top of a very tall construction. As soon as he landed, the Hollow smoothly slid into a walk - towards the zanpkuto spirit. The Hollow tapped his shoulder with his own 'shadow' of Zangetsu and nearly hopped the last few steps before thrusting his strange, yellow-black eyes right up to zanpakuto's blue-green ones. The ash-pale mouth slit upwards to reveal a crooked view of paler teeth beyond.
"So, is there any reason why I shouldn't rip you apart?"
The Hollow's face was close enough so that the breathy whisper almost caressed the zanpakuto spirit's face. Muramasa didn't move a muscle save to utter a reply.
"For one thing, it'd be pointless."
"For the same reason why you won't bother the same with Zangetsu."
The Hollow's grin became wider before he drew his face a little away as it drawled.
"Riiiiight… since you're now leeching off my landlord. But just because it's pointless, doesn't mean it can't be entertaining."
"You shall have to find another source of entertainment. I was leaving."
The Hollow cocked an eyebrow.
"What, you don't like the scenery? Sure, compared to your old place, it might seem a bit... cluttered. Personally, yours was a bit too spacious for my tastes - empty-looking, that's what it is. But each to his own, I guess."
Muramasa didn't bother to grace it with a reply. He just turned away and started to walk. The careless manner was almost insulting but the Hollow easily danced into Muramasa's path.
"You won't stay to play – and you didn't even say hi to the old man. What's the rush, hmmm?"
"I was under the impression you did not welcome my presence here."
"I didn't say that. I just said I just wanted to rip you a new one. But now you're in such a hurry…"
The Hollow flicked his chin up. The enormous blade tapped a lazy rhythm against his shoulder, as if marking the thought process that went click-click-click in that inhuman mentality.
"Almost as if you're running away."
The colorless mouth smirked.
"Like someone caught doing something naughty."
Muramasa didn't bat an eye as he spoke. But his tone implied that this conversation was quite worthless as far as he was concerned.
"You do realize I could just move away from you and leave, Hollow?"
The Hollow smacked his lips mockingly.
"This is remarkably disappointing. The last time you barged in here, I remember you actively 'ringing' for me and now you're all scorn and prudish. Like I'm some sort of a pest you'd avoid. Come to that, you do believe that, don't you?"
"You're incorrect. I believe you're more of an awfully spoiled child."
The Hollow blinked, actually taken aback by the comment. If Muramasa was slightly thrown by how human – how like Kurosaki Ichigo – the gesture made the creature look, he didn't show it. The effect was soon ruined as the Hollow threw back his head and laughed – more booming and fuller than his usual cackle.
"Ha-Haa! You're something else! Definitely no Zangetsu, are you! I'll give you that!"
"What you can give me means nothing."
"Aww, that hurts, you know. And here I was, thinking I was special, seeing as how you practically dragged me out the last time."
"I did not say you aren't. Not many Hollows are, or can be, so spoiled. Your… 'landlord' indulges you too much"
For the first time, certain wryness crept into that still voice.
"You're the most…. 'filled' Hollow I've ever seen."
The Hollow tilted his head, one eyebrow rising again. Then he thrust his head forward, stopping just short of head-butting.
"Maybe… you saw something you shouldn't?"
The voice from the ashen mouth was almost sensuous, whispered so, if it weren't for that raspy echo clawing at the ear. Yet the zanpakuto didn't give any reaction. Blue-green gaze looked beyond the scrutiny of black-on-yellow.
The Hollow suddenly whirled a razor-sharp turn and leapt to a nearby building, alighting on the edge of the roof like some monstrous albino crow. The movement was not graceless but nor could it be described as graceful. Every movement about the Hollow – even the barest twitch of the face – was violence personified, ready to erupt at any given time,
"And… in a way, I must admit you're quite 'special', as well. You're emptier than I ever remember being, zanpakuto."
That skewed smile, a jagged edge, thrown over the white shoulder like a shard of broken bone.
"You, zanpakuto, are more hollow than any Hollow."
"I admit, when I saw that boy with you, I thought I was seeing things."
"You're certainly of an age to be worrying about such."
After the brief exchange of verbal repartee, the former head of the Kuchiki house and the zanpakuto spirit coolly regarded each other. Then Ginrei closed his eyes as he took a sip of his tea.
"So how is being the Royal Guard to the Spirit King?"
Despite Muramasa's sudden question, Ginrei's expression remained impenetrable as he serenely set the tea down. After a while, he slowly opened his eyes.
"There were times when your perceptiveness was deemed somewhat… inappropriate."
Muramasa gave a slight shrug.
"Your presence here rather dampens the theory of your passing. Yet you've given up your title both as a captain and the head of the family. One cannot imagine you living a life of retirement. It was no great leap of deduction."
"I must disappoint you, though. I am forbidden to speak about my activities as a Royal Guard. As it is, my presence here is strictly for personal reasons."
Muramasa made no comment and the old shinigami did not seem to expect it from him. Ginrei poured himself another cup of tea. His words mixed into the sounds of trickling liquid.
"Truth be told, I expected your reaction to be more hostile."
"You misjudged. I never held you nearly high enough in my regard to hold a grudge."
Muramasa turned his own cup on its saucer, long nails scraping against the fine porcelain edge to echo high, ghostly notes.
"But he did."
A bitter smile dropped onto the green surface inside.
"Something I should have been aware of."
Another short silence descended. Ginrei was too refined a being to actually break such silence. Instead, his utterance seemed to cause a gentle ripple in the atmosphere, floating over the fragile surface.
"It seems we're both here because of an unfinished business."
"So is nearly the whole of Soul Society, whether they're aware of it or not."
"Kouga always remained an unfinished business for me."
When the name sounded from the old man's lips, there was a slight clink from the delicate porcelain cup in front of the zanpakuto spirit. But perhaps the long-nailed fingers chose just that moment to idly shift the cup on its saucer. Seemingly not taking notice, Ginrei continued.
"Indeed, I had believed it would always remain unfinished."
Muramasa's smile gained a little more of its characteristic sarcasm.
"I did think it rather curious that the head of Kuchiki clan would incite one person that Seireitei has no influence over – to take me."
"And you'd be taking too much liberty to even suppose that a head of the Kuchiki clan would be swayed by another's advice."
"No, you're right. I trust he has been advised plenty long before he became the head that he hardly needed any at this point."
Muramasa slightly tilted his head, a peculiar gesture that could be interpreted as both a submissive bow and an insolent jeer.
"Are you concerned that Gotei 13's choice of resurrecting me will come back to sting them in the end, after all? Should I be grateful that you came personally to extend a gracious warning?"
"I will not deny that the thought has crossed my mind. And should the situation become necessary, I will not hesitate to use whatever means in my power to stop you."
"As before, you mean?"
"A rightful accusation. Although I wonder to whom you're actually directing it to."
There was a pause. Again, it just might have been caused by the old man taking a moment to wet his throat with a sip.
"Kouga was a Kuchiki. I took him as my own. He was my responsibility. I owe something to the memory of him. And you are now here. You who are – were – part of him."
Wind blew through the slightly open window, carrying the sweet scent of cherry blossoms. Yet the memory the two shared brought different smells, of blood and steel. Of old wood and dampness of prison, sharp tang of rage and pungent despair of a broken shinigami who was a wielder, a son, and a husband. Ginrei's words seemed to echo from that non-existing dimension.
"A few hundred years, even in Soul Society, is not a short amount of time. Enough for… reflections, changes."
The zanpakuto spirit actually did lift the cup to take a drink from it, at least to feign the action. Ginrei lowered his eyes and seemed to abruptly change the subject.
"I heard that your new wielder is rather protective of you."
To his credit, Muramasa only paused a little with the cup lifted to his face – shielding his expression – before setting it down again.
"He has that tendency towards everyone."
"Yet I sense only a little of your current wielder's reiatsu from you. As if you're... keeping distance from him. So I wonder if that particular tendency is mutual."
There was no reply from the zanpakuto spirit. Ginrei spoke again.
"The last time we really regarded upon each other, you looked at me as one would on something ominous. I confess that I looked at you the same way - an undue influence over my protege. But now I think - if we merely project the fear in ourselves. Kouga's fear was as powerful as he was. And he let fear choose his path. That was his own... decision. "
The green-blue gaze blazed into steely grey eyes – whose owner remained as immobile as an ancient tree. Muramasa slowly uttered:
"He could have been shown other paths."
"Yes. I do not deny that there are regrets."
"I understand that is a lot coming from a Kuchiki."
"I also cannot say I am in possession of the answers I did not have then. Do you, I wonder?"
"You're talking to a zanpakuto who spent hundreds of years in the same place, waiting for a wielder whose voice he couldn't hear."
"A zanpakuto who has now chosen a new wielder, and who faces a different circumstance."
Muramasa turned the cup again, caught himself in the moment of a half-turn, and sighed.
"What do you want from me?"
"I merely wanted see the one who shares the same regret as I have, and desired to express that I do not wish to repeat that regret. I also had hoped to see the same resolve in you. But the last is beyond my power."
Ginrei reached over the lacquered box and lifted the kenseiken. He gently undid the simplistic yet intricate ornament so that the clasp opened to release the red locks held within.
"And a small matter of this."
Ginrei held out the kenseiken towards Muramasa who looked, for the first time, almost startled.
"There's an inscription on the inner surface of every kenseiken – to be read only when one becomes the head of the clan. It is worded by one's predecessor. I had done this one for Kouga."
Muramasa opened his mouth slightly but Ginrei lifted up his head and something flashed in the old man's eyes that might have caused Muramasa to stop. Ginrei continued as if the moment had not transpired.
"As it was, I kept this to myself all this time. I never expected to pass this over to anybody so it remained sealed, much like its original owner. but… it seems that I am to be the one who passes on many things."
The subtle surprise on the zanpakuto spirit turned into a silent question. The wizened hand merely pressed the kenseiken.
"Past need not be a binding. Whether to take this as a remnant of a regretful past or a proof that past is exorcised, is your own choice. But without all that, I merely mean it as a… 'link' between the two who share the same regrets. You may find it… 'helpful'."
The grey gaze bore into the zanpakuto spirit's, communicating something unspoken. Then Muramasa slowly extended his hand and took the ornament. He hesitated a little before he pushed the red locks aside to look at the inner surface hidden underneath. For the last time, the zanpakuto spirit looked at the old shinigami as if ascertain some equally hidden meaning from those steely eyes. Finally, Muramasa replaced the piece – red locks and all – into the lacquered box. He nodded.
"Is that all?"
Ginrei mirrored the zanpakuto's earlier gesture and Muramasa stood up. However, when Muramasa reached for the door, Ginrei said without turning his head.
"Fear is not caution, Muramasa."
The long-nailed fingers did not stir from their perch on the door.
"Your new wielder is not Kouga. The past may not repeat itself, if one has learned."
The fingers firmly gripped the door handle, and the owner of those fingers whispered.
"Exactly, I intend to not let it be repeated."
"True, you were deemed too much of a danger to Soul Society and I had agreed. But I learned that existence itself cannot be a sin."
"I was called a demon. Perhaps they were right. And perhaps the best caution a demon may take is indeed a form of fear."
Muramasa slid the door open. Just before stepping out, he stood at the threshold.
This time, Kuchiki Ginrei did look up towards the back of the zanpakuto spirit.
"Do not delude yourself. He was my responsibility."
The door shut, and the tall blot of a shadow beyond grew smaller until it was gone.
Muramasa stopped just before reaching the door at the end of the hallway. Then he took a step, held the door, and slid it open all at once.
A mop of orange hair spilled in with a yelp.
A pair of brown eyes blinked up at the blue-green ones. After a moment, the substitute shinigami scrambled back up as Rukia, in an exaggeratedly discreet manner, peeked in and quipped:
"You see, he thought it might seem a little nosey to actually sneak inside the mansion and have his ears up by the room. So he just plopped down here and… I'm not sure if he was attempting to somehow awaken his latent ultrasonic abilities or merely nursing his sulk…"
Ichigo whipped his head around towards the younger Kuchiki who shrugged, and also sent a glare towards Renji, who snickered. Ichigo muttered 'I swear Muramasa's rubbing off on you…' before turning again to face the zanpakuto spirit, obviously loading no less ammunition of words to let loose. As soon as he looked at the zanpakuto spirit's face, he paused.
The pause went on.
Before Renji could seize the settling awkwardness, strangle it to near death, and shove it right up to them both - Muramasa broke the spell. Lightly bowing his head to duck under the silence, he moved to stand beside Ichigo and murmured:
"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say anything about the one who summoned me. You'll have to talk to Kuchiki Byakuya for that. I assure you that it was unrelated to the current matter at hand."
Renji was about to shout something but Rukia elbowed him in the ribs. Muramasa looked at Ichigo impassively – but to Rukia, it seemed almost challengingly or -. This time, Ichigo mimicked Muramasa's previous gesture – only he pushed his head up in a more flippant manner.
"Well, hope you're up for a second meeting. You're getting popular. There's another person who's asking to be introduced to you and this time, it's someone we actually know."
Ichigo turned and strode past Muramasa. Rukia counted up to five before Ichigo turned around.
"… If that's okay for you right now?".
"Kurosaki Ichigo, it's not like you need to…"
Muramasa trailed off, settled for a nod, and followed the substitute shinigami.
But Rukia had seen the expression on the zanpakuto spirit's face before Ichigo had turned around. It's just that she herself didn't know what she'd seen.
"... And her name is Rukia. It is regrettable that I could only inform you now of her. And the fact that I have… broken a rule that upholds the name of Kuchiki."
"Perhaps it is an unknown trait that runs in our blood. I, after all, am also here… not as a Royal Guard but simply as man with a… personal agenda"
As stoic as the two Kuchiki family members were, their single syllable and stares were potent with more understanding than any vocal proclamations. After a while, Ginrei said almost conversationally – at least, as much as such a stern being could afford to be conversational.
"As secret as my visit is, I would very much like to meet my new granddaughter."
Most wouldn't have noticed a miniscule amount tension ease out of Kuchiki Byakuya. Ginrei wasn't most people. But he was also more discreet than most could ever hope to be. Kuchiki Byakuya replied.
"Rukia would find it difficult to withhold the fact from her… comrades. The less people know that you're here, the better."
Ginrei nodded. After a while, he stood up from his seat and walked over to the window.
"The apology is long overdue. Mainly because I thought such a thing as hindrance and a contradiction of honor. But yes, there's an apology indebted to you, for bearing my burden regarding Kouga – as well as many thanks."
"Grandfather. It's hardly…"
"I couldn't have done it the second time."
A certain scene drifted into the old man's mind. One word he muttered as he watched the shinigami who was a husband to his daughter, his protégé, screaming as he was being bound. The image of the trembling girl's hands that had picked up the kenseiken cradling red mane of hair.
"I would have also given apology to him. If it would have had any meaning."
"You did what you had to do."
"Yes, I did. Although I sometimes wonder if it merits the same meaning as 'there was nothing else I could do.'"
Powdery sun filtered through the window softly settled on his outline. The old man was a thin silhouette. Had anyone else had entered the room, that one would have walked right past the figure.
"He told me not to delude myself. That Kouga was his responsibility. I believe he meant it… as a way of absolving."
The younger Kuchiki quietly answered.
"I have also learned that past binds. And that binds can be cut. Sometimes it requires more than one pair of hands."
There was another silence – albeit a one between two people who knew each other well, who could communicate with silence.
"That substitute shinigami you spoke about…"
Something in Ginrei's voice prompted Byakuya to walk up to the window as well. The window presented a bird's-eye view of the courtyard. Beneath the gentle flurry of delicate cherry blossoms, four figures could be seen crossing the yard. The shortest figure pointed forward only to bat at its own head when the other red-haired figure gestured in response – and a bright orange-haired figure half-playfuly, half-urgently led a slender white figure by the arm as his other hand kept flicking at his own head. The white figure seemed to make some sort of reply as it absently picked off a few stray petals from both the orange-hair and the shortest figure.
"He does indeed make you see things."
"Shihoin Yoruichi dono. The princess of the Shihoin Family and the former captain of the 2nd division as well as being the former captain of the -"
Rukia's introduction, made in what her friends called – although she chose to ignore it – in her 'Kuchiki' manner, was cut off short by the very subject of her introduction.
"Oh, let's not have any of that formality. I'm now just an overstaying guest of a certain exorbitant shopkeeper and an uninvited guest who makes herself quite at home anywhere. Call me Yoruichi."
Muramasa took the proffered hand – which shook the zanpakuto spirit's briskly. After letting go, Yoruichi beamed at Ichigo.
"What IS this favor that you find yourself in with the Kuchiki? It certainly seems to be a trend… "
The former captain of the 2nd division was not a presence to be deterred at the warning words from an embarrassed teenager. She offered him one of her cat-smiles and flicked it towards Muramasa, as well.
"Well, I can and will bother you both for details later on. But since others have briefed me, we shall get down to business for the moment."
Yoruichi nodded playfully towards Rukia to continue. Rukia cleared her throat and did just that – providing short background for the benefit of Muramasa.
"Yoruichi-dono is currently staying with another former captain named Urahara Kisuke at the Human World under certain circumstances. They have also been recently investigating the sightings of strange shinigami over there."
"So I come to Soul Society to seek information and lo and behold, I find that the information has already been imparted to our resident substitute shinigami by two illustrious members of Gotei 13. Turns out, this is more interesting than Kisuke and I have surmised. I have not forgiven you two either, by the way."
Mischievous grin from the woman made both Rukia and Renji flinch a little.
"But I am charitable. As a proof of that, I am here to offer some assistance."
"We're grateful for that, Yoruichi-dono. But there aren't many leads-."
"I think you have been… too traditional in your method of research."
Yoruichi winked at the two baffled shinigami.
"I have my ways… and certain contacts. But Kisuke also has some information that he'd like to share and it might be a good idea for you all to see him."
"Actually, I was thinking I needed to return for a while as this matter isn't going to be resolved in a day -."
"Oh, your friends were also at Kisuke's when I left."
The seemingly casual remark immediately froze the substitute shinigami. Ichigo stared at the innocently smiling – as much as Yoruichi could appear innocent – woman as if he received an unsuspecting blow to the back of his head.
"Um. You mean Chad… Ishida and… Inoue. "
"Kisuke was discussing the matter with them since you weren't, you know, in."
"And, er… did they say anything about…?"
Yoruichi let the twinkle in her golden eyes substitute for the answer and Ichigo grimaced. Noticing the teenager's sudden lack of enthusiasm about returning the human world, Rukia tapped Ichigo on the arm.
"Ichigo. You… neglected to tell any of them… of your… visit here. Right?"
"It… kind of slipped off my mind."
Rukia and Renji looked at each other to share the eye-roll. Ichigo opened his mouth but wisely decided that any possible attempt at self-defense would be ineffectual. Muramasa surveyed everyone's reactions and seemed to search his memory.
"Would these… friends be the three I had encountered the last time?"
Ichigo's stiff nod prompted a sigh from the zanpakuto spirit – as well as a light chuckle from Yoruichi.
The Quincy, priding himself in his belief in logic, did not believe in jinxes.
Yet he secretly harbored a suspicion that the owner of Urahara shop was a harbinger of ill bodings. He kept it to himself because it was unfair to begrudge a person for simply being the first to sniff out the smoke in the air. Yet they had met the man just an hour ago, discussing the mysterious sightings of shinigami who were proving to be horrors for both humans and hollows. Now they were facing – this.
The empty-eyed creature didn't seem to feel the blow of El Directo – disconcerting since the blow had dislocated the joint in its left shoulder. The slouching figure lurched like a puppet under clumsy fingers. The jerky movement made Sado and Uryu pull back and shield Orihime– the last still concentrating on the still figure of an unfortunate shinigami. Uryu risked a quick backward glance before facing their opponent again. The shihakusho, the reiatsu -.
There was no doubt that they were facing one of the 'mysterious human-hollow-eating shinigami' that Urahara had warned them about. A flick of that fan and a grinful 'So, best to be careful in case you run into one.' Indeed. Fortunately, there was only one-.
The sound that erupted from the shinigami-thing would haunt the Quincy's nightmares for quite a while.
The shinigami-thing threw itself down on its back, convulsing. Then black aura began to flow up from the thrashing figure. The telltale reiatsu told the teenagers the nature of this aura before it began to take shapes.
Hollows. Tens of them.
Shifting their focus from the now-immobile shinigami to the improbable rain of Hollows, Sado and Uryu let loose their strongest attacks. And yes, it was too much to hope that they'd manage to hit all of them.
Uryu breathed out a curse as he saw one Hollow hurtling towards Orihime. Both Sado and Uryu moved to intercept it but other Hollows were already flanking from both sides–
Wind roared and the two suddenly found themselves devoid of Hollows on either side. At the same time, the Hollow speeding towards Orihime jerked to a halt as if it ran into an invisible wall. Then there was a flash and the Hollow was torn asunder.
Sado and Uryu were aware of familiar reiatsu landing beside them, as well as hints of dark and red hair that flashed by the edge of their vision. Yet they only stared forward. Orihime blinked as the last remaining bit of Hollow disintegrated before her eyes. Then she turned to look behind her, breaking into a smile of welcome –.
"Thank you -"
The girl's words tripped into an ungainly halt. Her eyes widened as she took in the figure behind her. The figure spoke as the orange-haired teen standing behind hefted his unused sword in a sheepish manner.
The zanpakuto spirit lowered his hand.
"No need for thanks. I owe you, after all."
So Ginrei mellowed down during all those hundreds of years….
… or I'm trying to explain myself for writing him in such a way… this was a personally scary chapter to write... (hides in a corner)
Hollow Ichigo wasn't even in the game when I initially started writing this. Now it looks like he'll play a considerable part. I always liked Hollow Ichigo but as of recently, my fondness for the character doubled for seemingly no reason. And I like the picture of him flirting, er, I mean interacting with Muramasa...