Swords into Plowshares
A/N: IchiHime fluff for the 2010 FLOL holiday exchange. Gift for Silverjewelkitten at FLOL.
In this universe, the Winter War never happened. There was a negotiated peace between Aizen and Yamamoto just before the war started (somewhere around chapter 249), and the two sides have maintained a truce ever since. It is seven years after the events that happened in canon, and Orihime and Ichigo have gotten married. Ichigo is a medical student and Orihime is a graphic artist for a video game company.
Pairings: Ichigo/Orihime, Gin/Rangiku. Mention of Renji/Rukia.
Summary: "No." Ichigo shook his head, adamant. "No way am I going to let Ichimaru Gin deliver my wife's first baby."
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.
"Ooh, look!" Orihime squealed to Ichigo as they sat together one evening in the living room of their small apartment in Karakura Town. She had been checking her mail on their computer and now had a delighted grin on her face. "I got an email from Rangiku!"
Ichigo looked up from his medical textbook, his interest piqued. "Really? What does she say?" He hadn't heard from Rangiku in years. He had had less and less contact with Soul Society ever since they no longer had need of his military prowess. Indeed, he'd sometimes wondered if they just thought of him as an inconvenient nuisance these days. Not that he minded. His shinigami powers had faded somewhat with time and disuse, and frankly, he was more concerned with events in the world of the living. Medical school was demanding and satisfying. And… he now had a family on the way. Orihime was seven months pregnant and their whole life recently had revolved around baby "stuff:" what was the best model of stroller to buy, should they use cloth or disposable diapers, or what color to paint the second bedroom. All extremely mundane and very different from his dramatic past interactions with Soul Society.
Orihime was eagerly reading the email. "Oh! She's moved up to Las Noches to live with Ichimaru Gin."
Ichigo raised his eyebrows. "I wondered when that would happen." He smirked. "I think we all saw that coming. But why didn't they settle in Soul Society instead? Las Noches has to be pretty boring for someone like Rangiku. Not much of a social life there, I imagine."
Orihime flicked a strand of auburn hair out of her eyes and continued reading. "She says… Soul Society still has a warrant out for his arrest."
Her husband choked on a laugh. "Sounds just like the old man," he said, shaking his head. Despite the truce, there were still some uneasy feelings on both sides, although both groups had clearly decided peace was better than war. "Hasn't he heard of the statute of limitations? I guess Yamamoto's still not ready to forgive and forget."
"Poor Rangiku," Orihime said. "It sounds like she's lonely. She says she's going to have a holiday party in Las Noches, and she's inviting a lot of people from Soul Society and the world of the living."
"Humph," said Ichigo, turning back to his book.
"Ichigo, she's inviting us," his wife said, throwing him a glance.
"Uh, well, I hate to disappoint Rangiku, but that's one invitation we're definitely not taking," Ichigo said with a scowl.
"Oh, Ichigo, why not?" asked Orihime in a beseeching tone.
Ichigo stared at her in astonishment. "Hime, I'm not going because we both have nothing but bad memories of that place. You were imprisoned there, or have you forgotten?" he asked in a mildly sarcastic tone. "I wouldn't force you to relive that."
"But Ichigo," she said, looking over at him with wide gray eyes, "I'd like to go. She says Rukia and Renji will be there."
Ichigo knew how much his wife missed her friendship with Rukia and Rangiku. She didn't have that many female friends any more since Tatsuki had moved out of town, and most of her co-workers were male. Although she had fun discussing with her co-workers the latest robotic attacks, battle moves, and futuristic weaponry that were constantly coming out of their company, it was no substitute for good old fashioned girl talk.
"Orihime, aren't you scared to go back?" he asked point-blank.
"Well," she said, twisting a strand of long auburn hair around her finger, "actually, Ichigo, it wasn't so bad when I was there. Nothing really bad happened to me. I was a bit nervous, that was all."
"What about those two women who attacked you?"
"That wasn't even as bad as the girls who used to beat me up in school because they didn't like my hair. Besides, I felt kind of sorry for Loly and Menoly. I don't think Aizen treated them very well."
Neither of them mentioned the fight on the dome. Ichigo didn't want to bring it up, and Orihime didn't seem to be remembering it.
"Will you be okay with seeing Aizen again? He's certain to be there."
"Aizen was never anything but polite to me. I'm not afraid of him," Orihime said with a determined edge to her voice. "Besides, he doesn't strike me as much of a party-going type. I bet he just stays in his room reading while Rangiku throws the party."
"Humph," Ichigo said noncommittally. He still wasn't sure it was a good idea. "And what about your condition? You shouldn't be traveling so close to your due date."
Orihime put her finger up to the screen. "The party's in four weeks from today, on December 21st. I'll still be almost a month from my due date. And she says they'll set up a special garganta that can take us directly into the palace in just a few steps." She gazed pleadingly at Ichigo. "Please, can we go? I really miss Rangiku and Rukia."
Ichigo gave a heavy sigh. "Well, all right, if you really want to, Hime."
She clapped her hands in delight and threw her arms around him. "That's terrific! I'm sure they'll all be delighted to see you too. I'll just answer her email right away then!"
December 21st was a cold, overcast night. There was a light wind out of the north and a few snow flurries flecked Orihime's and Ichigo's jackets as they walked side by side to the predetermined location of the garganta through the streets of Karakura Town. Orihime was waddling slightly beneath her heavy belly, but she was so bubbly and full of enthusiasm for the party that Ichigo's scowl had almost disappeared. Given that the only other time Orihime had gotten out of the neighborhood in the past few weeks was to attend a video game con full of pimply teenage boys geeking about their latest game acquisitions, Ichigo was almost glad they were going.
They got to the appointed spot, a deserted area in one of the local parks, about five minutes before the designated time, and stood stamping their feet and shivering for a while. Then suddenly there was the familiar rip in space, and beyond it was a large, impressive entrance hall with snow falling gently onto a flagstone terrace. A tall blonde woman in shinigami robes was standing at the other end, waiting to welcome them.
"Rangiku!" shrieked Orihime and she ran forward, tugging Ichigo by the hand. Grimacing, he allowed himself to be led.
As Orihime passed through the garganta, she let out a brief cry of pain, and Ichigo looked at her in concern. Then they were through and into a snowy courtyard under the nighttime sky of Hueco Mundo, and Orihime was falling into Rangiku's arms, apparently completely fine.
The tall, exuberant shinigami grabbed Orihime and held her at arms' length. "Orihime! You didn't tell me you were pregnant!" she said in a tone of delight. She led them in through a large arched doorway inlaid with white marble and into a brightly lit, high-ceilinged entrance hall with a deep red carpet on the white marble floor. Ornate chandeliers hung from the thirty-foot ceiling, and intricate stonework lined the walls.
"No," said Orihime, laughing. "I wanted to surprise you." Rangiku took their coats and gave them to a mild-looking arrancar standing behind a counter in front of a large coatroom where a few hundred winter coats were already hanging.
"Well, wait till you see who's here." Rangiku was glowing as she led them up a wide, imposing marble staircase. Sounds of music and conversation could be heard from the huge carved wooden doors at the top of the stairs. "Pretty much everybody from the 13 Court Guard Squads, plus Urahara and his friends, plus all the Vizards. I'm so happy that everybody decided to put aside their old animosities, at least for a day, and just have fun together." She grinned widely at Orihime. "I've spent weeks planning this party. It's going to be quite a bash!" She reached over to give Ichigo a sisterly hug as they walked up the stairs.
"Hey, it's good to see you too, Ichigo. How's life in the world of the living treating you?"
"Fine," said Ichigo with an attempt at a pleasant smile. "I'm really busy with medical school."
"Ah yes, joining the fourth squad, that's terrific," grinned Rangiku.
They swept in through the large doors at the top of the stairs. "Wow," said Orihime, and Ichigo was impressed in spite of himself. The vast room before them was beautiful and looked like it could have come out of an old-style European palace like Versailles. They had emerged on a balcony overlooking a grand ballroom. Huge chandeliers glittered across the high, coved ceiling above them. Baroque paintings swirled across the walls and ceiling. At the far end, an orchestra was playing. Hundreds of humans, shinigami, and arrancar were milling about on the highly polished parquet floor, and long tables heavy with a vast array of eatables lined the walls. A twenty-five foot tall Christmas tree stood at one end of the room, and an array of twinkling lights lined the crown molding along all the walls. Ichigo also noticed a row of menorahs and a Yule log in the fireplace.
"So you're celebrating all the winter festivals?" he asked.
"Yup!" Rangiku said proudly. "Christmas, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa… Well," she admitted, "not that we've got anything more than token symbols for each festival." She grinned at them. "It's really just an excuse for a party."
"It looks like it's some shindig, Rangiku," Ichigo said.
"Thanks!" Rangiku glowed with pleasure. "I think it's going really well."
Ichigo asked, "How come all the walls and floors aren't white? I thought that was the motif in Las Noches."
"Oh," Rangiku said, waving her wrist. "I got Gin to do some redecorating. This is his palace, so he can do whatever he wants with it. It was only all white right after Aizen built it and when they were all concentrating on the war and stuff. Now all the palaces reflect the personalities of their owners. Actually, some of them you don't want to see. Szayel's for example." She shuddered. "Luckily, we don't even have to walk through that one."
"Yeah, Rangiku," asked Ichigo point-blank, "how are you doing here? Las Noches doesn't really seem like your style."
Rangiku looked somewhat taken aback by his directness, but then she laughed lightly. "Oh, it's not so bad. Things have changed a lot since the truce, you know." She gave Ichigo a searching look. "You haven't been around Soul Society much, Ichigo, so you might not be aware of everything. There's a lot more travel between the dimensions now. There's been a decrease in both the number and strength of hollow attacks now that Aizen-sama has stopped sending them against Soul Society and the human world. So there's more shinigami manpower freed up for other activities."
"You call him Aizen-sama now?" asked Ichigo, scowling.
Rangiku grimaced slightly and rolled her eyes. "Well, we all do here. It's all part of keeping the peace." She gave an embarrassed shrug before continuing, shaking her hair out of her eyes. "Anyway, there are all sorts of joint shinigami-hollow committees now, lots of communication back and forth." She laughed airily. "With peace comes bureaucracy! So much more paperwork." She sighed. "It's still not my forte. But they assigned me a liaison-type position with some fancy title, so I get to go back and forth all the time and see all my friends." She smiled happily at them. Apparently satisfied that they had been properly impressed with the view from the balcony, she began leading them down the stairs to the main floor of the ballroom.
Orihime grinned at her as they walked side-by-side down the sweeping curve of the broad, polished hardwood staircase. "And you finally get to be with Gin."
Rangiku smiled back, her face lighting up. "Yes. I can't tell you what a relief it was to finally understand, after all those decades, what was really going on with him. You know," she said, shooting Ichigo a glance under beetled brows, "the real benefit of peace over war is in all these little, everyday stories, like mine. Gin and I can simply be together without tangling with these large questions of loyalty or justice. We can just be two people in love and that's enough. I don't know if warriors like you can really understand the importance of that," she continued, eying Ichigo's scowl.
"Hey," he retorted, "you all in Soul Society were the ones trained as warriors. I just got swept into your battle." He looked at her more closely. "You devoted your whole life to being a warrior. Don't you miss it now?"
"Me?" asked Rangiku in surprise. "Not at all! I was loyal to Soul Society because I believed that way of life was the only right way, and I thought I was fighting to preserve it, to protect the community. But what really matter to me are people. I like my job now; I'm doing the same thing, trying to improve people's lives, but now it mostly involves talking rather than fighting. Sure, I carry my zanpakutou because I sometimes have to go into hostile territory and I have to be able to prove I'm strong, show that being peace-loving doesn't mean you have to be weak." Her mouth firmed. "But I'm done with war. It caused me nothing but heartache."
Ichigo opened his mouth to make what he felt was a very clear point about the purpose of war, but Orihime laid her hand on his shoulder. "Ichigo, you agree now that protecting someone doesn't have to mean fighting. It can mean healing or other things." She was giving him the particular look that he had learned meant that he should calm down. He subsided; in the years they had been together, some of Orihime's diplomacy was rubbing off on him. He gave her an acknowledging smile and she nodded at him in return.
Then Ichigo saw who was waiting at the foot of the stairs and stiffened. The tall, silver-haired shinigami still wore the same Las Noches uniform, white robes with wide bell sleeves. His eyes were still nearly closed to slits, the ever-present mocking grin on his lips.
"Ichimaru," Ichigo said shortly, scowling at the man whom he had tried to kill the last time they met.
"Wellll," Gin drawled, "if it ain't the happy couple, Ichigo an' Orihime." He took Orihime's hand and bent over it in a gentlemanly kiss as Ichigo bristled. "So ya finally got him ta see the light. Ya look a lot happier than when I saw ya last." He grinned and brought his face close to Orihime's. "How's it feel ta be back in Las Noches?" he asked her with a sly twist of his lips.
"Gin!" Rangiku was frowning at him.
He raised his hands in apology. "Hey! What's wrong wi' a little teasin' among friends?"
Orihime looked straight at Gin and lifted her chin with a confident smile. "Rangiku, it's fine. Actually, it's great to be back. I can see there have been many improvements here since you've made peace." She narrowed her eyes at Gin. "And you, for one, look a lot happier too."
He laughed. "Touché!" he said. He put his hand on her belly. "An' ya got a bun in the oven! Tha's terrific. Ichigo, ya must be proud. Yer gonna be a great dad, I can tell." He grinned at the orange-haired man, who scowled in return.
"You bet I'm proud of her," he said with a glare. Gin's smile only widened. He looked as if he was about to say something more, but just then there was a sudden loud shriek, and a small, dark-haired woman came hurtling out from the crowd of people in the room, trailed by a much taller, red-haired man covered with tattoos, a slightly rueful look on his face.
Rukia ran full-tilt up to the little group and stopped just short of Orihime. Her already large eyes widened until they seemed to take up her entire face. "Orihime!" she gasped. "You're pregnant!"
Orihime laughed at her friend stating the obvious. She gently guided the other woman's hands to her belly. "Yes, you're right!" she said. Then she threw her arms around her friend. "Rukia! I've missed you so much!"
Renji awkwardly greeted Ichigo as the two women hugged. "Hey. Congratulations," he motioned at Orihime. "You know, on tying the knot, and having a baby on the way. How've you been?"
"Thanks. I'm doing fine. Busy. You?" Renji still looked the same physically, but Ichigo could see that he looked less defensive and more at peace with himself now. "Glad to see you finally got up the courage to ask Rukia out. It must be good for you. You don't look like you're going to go bankai at the drop of a hat anymore." He grinned at his old friend. Marriage was not as common in the Soul Society as it was in the human world, but Ichigo had been pleased to learn that Rukia and Renji were an item.
Then Rukia stepped back from hugging Orihime and walked forward to stand in front of Ichigo. He looked down at the tiny shinigami, a storm of emotions rising in his chest at seeing his dear friend and mentor again after so many years. To his eyes, she hadn't changed at all. Still those determined violet eyes full of fire, her skin still young and smooth despite her age, still wearing the same shinigami uniform.
"Rukia…" he said, suddenly hesitant.
Then he stopped. Rukia was glaring at him. "You idiot!" she berated him. "Why didn't you ever answer my emails?"
"What? I never got any!" he retorted, his affection replaced by anger.
"They all included huge graphics of my drawings; how could you not recognize them?" She put her hands on her hips and glared some more.
"Well, if I'd spotted one of your lousy bunnies, I would have opened it up for sure… but my email system won't accept anything over five megabytes, midget! I guess I never got them!" He glared back, but then started laughing, and after a while she joined in. Then they just looked at each other, comfortable once again with the nonverbal communication that used to pass between them so often. Ichigo found that he was glad, after all, that Orihime had talked him into coming. She wasn't the only one who missed old friends.
For a while there was a hubbub of excited conversation as the friends took each other's measure after so many years apart. But as Renji was making a joking insult about Ichigo's looks, they were interrupted by Orihime suddenly bending over and clutching her abdomen. Instantly, Ichigo was at her side. He placed his hand on her belly, which had become hard as a rock.
"Ohhh," Orihime groaned.
Rangiku exchanged a worried glance with Gin. "Orihime, just how close are you to your due date?" she asked.
Ichigo answered for her, because Orihime didn't seem to be able to speak. "She's got another month to go."
Gin looked at him, his smile gone. "Are ya sure? Cause that baby's reiatsu feels like it's at full term."
Ichigo glared at him. "How would you know?"
Rangiku said with a sidelong glance at the silver-haired shinigami, "Gin used to… uh…work in a, um, house of ill-repute, back when we were kids in the Rukongai, and one of the things he used to do was to help deliver babies. Some of the women, uh, moonlighted as midwives."
Gin, not looking up from where he was carefully examining Orihime's distended belly, sighed and said, "Ran, did ya hafta tell 'em?"
She bristled. "Well, they're going to need to know. It's an emergency, isn't it?" She continued, "Not many people know that he also did an internship in the fourth squad for a few years while he was in the Gotei 13. And lately, he's been heading up one of the traveling medical squads that we've been sending to the poorer areas of Soul Society." At Ichigo's astonished look, she said with a glare, "Everyone still misunderstands Gin. He's always been more than just an assassin, you know. Remember, he's a genius?"
Gin was palpating Orihime's abdomen with practiced hands, his smile completely gone. "How long have ya been in labor, Orihime? It feels ta me like this baby is comin', now."
"Labor?" asked Orihime in confusion. "No, I've been fine. Well, I did feel a little weird earlier today, kind of unreal, you know," she said, not meeting Ichigo's eyes.
"Why didn't you tell me?" shouted Ichigo. "That's one of the early signs of labor they taught us in our maternity rotation! Who knows how long it'll take to get you to the hospital, now?" He glared at her.
Orihime hung her head. "I just… really wanted to come to this party. And I thought that I was still only at eight months…I'm sorry, Ichigo. I know it wasn't very smart."
Ichigo growled, "Well, I don't care about that now. We've just got to get you to the hospital right away." He looked up at the shinigami standing around him. "Can any of you help with that? Open a garganta direct to the hospital?"
Gin straightened and said, "We could, but there's somethin' else. Passage through a garganta can sometimes bring on labor, 'cause o' the energies reactin' with the baby's reiatsu… specially if the baby is spiritually aware." He lifted his gaze to Ichigo and opened his eyes, staring directly at him with his vivid blue-green orbs. "An' I don' know if ya noticed, but this baby o' yours has a helluva lot of spiritual pressure."
Ichigo spluttered, "I don't really notice that kind of stuff, you know. But does it matter? What choice do we have now? What are we doing just standing around?"
"No, you don't understand, Ichigo." Rangiku's hands were on her hips. "It's not safe to take Orihime back through a garganta. She's going to have to have that baby here in Hueco Mundo."
"What?" Ichigo glared at Rangiku. "What kind of facilities do you have here? Are you even equipped to deal with human babies?" he shouted. "This is the world of the hollows, in case you've forgotten!" He was so angry he could hardly see straight. He grabbed Orihime's arm. "We're going home right now!" he demanded. "Now is someone going to open a garganta or am I going to have to break the truce here?"
Suddenly, a tiny fist shot into his face and punched him, hard. Ichigo gasped and rubbed his chin. Rukia was standing in front of him, glaring ferociously. "Ichigo, you idiot! Can't you hear what they're saying? It would endanger Orihime's life to take her back through a garganta." The tiny, dark-haired shinigami scowled at him. "Now shut up and listen. I'm sure human babies get born in Las Noches like they do everywhere else."
Ichigo quieted and looked around at the group. "Well?" he asked Rangiku. "What medical facilities do you have?"
She looked chagrined. "I'm afraid the regular hospital wing is in Szayel's palace."
"What?" demanded Ichigo. "I'm not letting my wife within a thousand feet of that madman. Aren't any of the fourth squad here?"
Rangiku looked even more upset. "Uh, actually, the fourth squad's holiday party conflicted with mine. I tried to get them to change it, but…" She looked down. "I'm, uh, afraid that none of them are here."
"Not ta worry!" Gin said, his grin back on his face. "I can handle it, no problem. Like Ran said, I've got the experience. All's we need is a clean room wi' a bed and some runnin' water, and we got plenty o' that now wi' the new plumbin' system Aizen-sama jus' installed." He grinned at Rangiku. "Let's take her to corridor fifteen. There's plenty o' room there."
"No." Ichigo shook his head, adamant. "No way am I going to let Ichimaru Gin deliver my wife's first baby, no matter how much experience you had in a whorehouse!"
"Ichigo." Orihime had her hand on his arm again, an intent look on her face. "Haven't you been listening to what everyone is saying? I don't think we have any choice." She looked aside at Gin and gave a small, embarrassed giggle that turned into a groan. "Uhhh, actually, I could really use a bathroom right now."
Gin's smile faltered one more time. "Aw, no, Orihime, don' tell me that. Sounds like yer gettin' the urge ta push. If tha's the case…" He looked at Ichigo. "I gotta get her to the room now. Ya comin' or not?" To Orihime, he said gently, "Ya gotta pant – ya know, breathe really hard an' fast? That'll help prevent ya from pushin' that baby out too soon."
Orihime nodded and complied, opening her mouth and breathing loudly and rapidly. Staring at his wife bent over and panting, Ichigo finally nodded grudgingly. "All right. Let's go."
Gin scooped Orihime up easily and flash-stepped away, the others following. Rangiku looked briefly torn about leaving her party, then flash-stepped after the others as well.
The room was white. The floor appeared to be tiled in white marble, and up against one wall was a single bed, made up with a white coverlet. Several plain chairs lined the walls. Ichigo sighed. It looked like they were back to the basic décor of Las Noches. But at least the room had a small private bathroom, and Orihime finally looked a little better reclining on the bed wearing the hospital gown Rangiku had somehow procured for her.
It was big enough for the small crowd of friends who had followed her to the room, but looking around at the other four, Ichigo asked, "Orihime, are you sure you want all these people here? Don't you want some privacy?"
Orihime looked around at the others and smiled. "No. I want everyone here. These are all my friends, whom I haven't seen for years. I didn't want to miss seeing anyone…" She smiled blissfully. "And now they all get to be here with me on this special day." Rukia reached over and squeezed her hand.
There was a pause while Orihime moaned as another contraction started. Then she said, "I really need to go to the bathroom."
Gin shook his head. "Ya can try, Orihime, but then yer baby is just gonna come out in the toilet. What ya really wanna do is jus' push that baby out here."
"Help me up," Orihime demanded. "I'm going to the bathroom." She sat part way up in the bed. Ichigo rushed to her side and helped her swing her legs over the edge of the bed. He put an arm around her and let her lean on him as she walked to the bathroom. He closed the door behind her gently.
The others heard another moan from inside the bathroom, then a loud splash, followed by Orihime saying, "Oh no!"
Gin jumped up and quickly pushed open the bathroom door, only to see Orihime standing in the middle of the bathroom, legs slightly apart, with a large, spreading puddle of liquid beneath her feet. She looked up, embarrassed.
Gin relaxed. "Eh, tha's jus' yer water breakin'. Tha's normal, Orihime. But I think ya better get back in bed now. Tha's a sign the baby's on its way out now."
Ichigo and Rukia helped Orihime get back into the bed. She had barely lain down again when another contraction hit and she tensed and moaned again. "Uhhhh," she cried. Rangiku and Rukia moved in unison to opposite sides of the bed and sat down beside Orihime, each one reaching out for one of her hands. Rukia began stroking her forehead gently.
Gin sat down at the foot of the bed. "There ya go, Orihime… yer doin' great! Movin' very fast … I see the baby's head crownin' now. Yer almost there, jus' keep pushin'."
Ichigo thought he wouldn't be able to stand it much longer as the minutes ticked by with Orihime crying out in pain. Sweat beaded her forehead and her eyes were clenched shut. Gin kept murmuring words of encouragement and it was all Ichigo could do to keep from shouting at the shinigami to shut up.
Then there was a long-drawn-out cry from Orihime. Her body tensed again and she groaned. And then suddenly there was another cry in the room, a higher-pitched, wailing sound.
The room suddenly seemed much more crowded than it had been, as a tiny, red-haired, red-skinned creature lay wriggling in Gin's arms, screwing up its eyes and waving its little fists and bawling. Ichigo felt too stunned to move as he stared at the tiny new life… his child… his daughter, he realized, looking at her more carefully.
The others were talking and laughing, but all Ichigo could hear were the cries of his new daughter. Gin lifted her gently and placed her on his wife's tummy. Orihime laughed weakly as she gazed at her child, her eyes locking with a peculiar intensity upon the tiny face, as though she could memorize her features for a lifetime in one glance. Orihime's hair was dark with sweat and her face lined with exhaustion, but Ichigo thought she had never looked more beautiful.
The others were clustered around the bed, babbling, but Gin had stood up and was gazing upon the scene, his smile gone. To Ichigo's eyes he looked menacing; he still didn't trust the silver-haired shinigami after all they had gone through. Then to Ichigo's dismay, Gin straightened, opened his eyes, and drew his zanpakutou.
Ichigo gasped. Was the man going to betray them again? Ichigo's instinct to protect Orihime, which had always been so strong, had now extended to cover his wife and daughter. He was reaching for his own sword when Rukia grabbed his hand. "What are you doing, idiot?" she whispered.
Ichigo shrugged her off with an angry gesture. "What the hell are you doing, Ichimaru?" shouted Ichigo.
Gin paused and glanced over at the angry orange-haired man. Then his grin returned to his face. "Jus' cuttin' the cord. I don' have any of the proper tools fer this, but Shinsou can make a nice sterile cut." He grinned broadly at Ichigo and in a flash had brought his sword down and neatly severed the cord emerging from the baby's belly button.
Ichigo let out his breath and collapsed onto one of the chairs. Renji leaned over and gave him a big thump on the back. "Congratulations, Dad."
Ichigo sighed, thinking that he felt as exhausted as Orihime must be.
"What's her name?" Rukia was asking.
Orihime looked over at Ichigo and their eyes met. "We're going to call her Maki," she said softly. "It means 'true hope.'"
Ichigo reached out to embrace Orihime, their child now dozing on her mother's breast. As he held her, the world fell away, and the crowded, strange, white room with its hubbub of conversation disappeared, and there were just the two of them – no, the three of them – alone in their own bubble of the universe full of love and hope.
The world was at peace, and because of it, their child had been born safely in the heart of what was once enemy territory. The tools of death had become tools of life. Ichigo closed his eyes and felt a profound gratitude at the transformation in his life and Orihime's. They had both seen so much sorrow, death, and destruction, but now here was the beginning of a new life, pulsing and wriggling beneath his hands.
Ichigo smiled at Orihime and Maki, and Orihime met his smile with a light in her eyes.
He thought that it was fitting, after all, that Maki had been born on this night, the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. As the long slow wheel of the year turned back towards the sun, so also were the dark times of war in their own lives finally over. Ichigo thought of the celebrants, human, shinigami, and arrancar, all together in the large room downstairs, celebrating the most ancient of human festivals known now by so many names, celebrating the return of the sun, the birth of hope, the dawn of peace.
He reached out to hold Orihime's hand as he heard voices raised in song from the ballroom downstairs. He smiled as he recognized the song. "For Onto Us a Child is Born."
A/N: Happy holidays to everyone, and best wishes for peace on earth to all. Silverjewelkitten, I hope you liked the story!
As always, I very much appreciate hearing from readers; if you enjoyed the story, please leave a review and let me know; if you didn't like it, please let me know how I can improve. Thanks!