Chapter 27: display
The boat bore away from the Isle of Memory, less merry now that most of its passengers have been left behind on the island. A dismal atmosphere hung over the air: the Goddess of Love and Fertility was still lost in her grieving silence, and the two Scribes-cum-Cupbearers—mindful of the reason, having had to record the account of the incident when it happened—gave her space. Tenseness had crackled in the air when the God of Death accompanied his bride as she boarded the boat, not lost on Rukia, Renji, and Kisuke as they followed shortly after.
It was an old wound: a crack in Rangiku's heart that millennia hadn't entirely mended. She understood that it was not the Death God who had caused her love to die, and she had been avenged when the God of Death himself was ordered by the Spirit King to eliminate the one who killed the Fox God. But it still stung: to have Death have such power over the gods themselves. For Death not to have the power to give back what she had lost. For the gods themselves to not have the power to negate the past. And, if Kisuke was to be believed regarding Orihime, to have one with such power come forth when it was much too late.
There was nothing of the Gin she had known still remaining in the world. All that was left in the Isle of Memory was a hollow statue for a tomb, a fragment of a long-forgotten past. All the things that had made him who he was to Rangiku—his mind, his feelings, the way he spoke, the way he moved, the ever-present deprecating grin—all of them had long since faded away. She now only had her memories and the Scribes' stories to look to when she needed a moment to remember who he had been.
As the island faded in the distance, she felt the heaviness lift, she felt the warmth of the sun on her skin again, the tingle of a breeze as it wafted on her hair. Rangiku came to herself, attentive now to her surroundings, taking in the murmur of conversations from the other passengers.
"Will you be joining us when we reach wherever we're going?" she heard Orihime ask Ichigo.
"I can't," he answered, sifting her hair through his pale fingers. "There's business for me in Junrinan, where you're going, so it's convenient to simply ride along."
"Oh." The former human tried to mask her disappointment with a sigh.
Seeing this, he amended, "I'll make sure to drop by wherever you are once I've taken care of things there before I leave for the next place I have to visit."
Her gaze dropped to her lap, fingers wringing on the fabric of her skirt. "Oh, you don't have to go out of your way if you're busy."
"I'm not going out of the way at all."
"You don't want me to come?"
Whatever further protests were brewing in her dissipated, hands fluttering, catching what they could of him as though she couldn't bear the thought of being apart once again, even for only a short period of time. "I'd very much like it if you would. If you really don't mind, that is."
"I don't mind at all."
A smile pulled at Rangiku's lips at the sight, feeling her chest expand, and she recognized pride amongst the emotions swirling within her. Love was, after all, under her dominion, no matter the point that it was physical love, and the two before her displaying such high affection for each other was enough to make her feel as though she'd done a great job.
No, she didn't begrudge the Death God finding love for himself. Indeed, she considered it as a mark of accomplishment to see that he himself was capable of falling for someone. She could only hope that it would last longer than her own relationship had been.
The bustling of the lush city of Junrinan amazed Orihime, having been used to the quiet, more sedate and slow village life. While she had been aware that once upon a time she and her brother lived in the faraway city of Inuzuri before he took her and ran away from their parents, she had been much too young to remember what that former life had been like. Even this early in the morning, the streets through the market place en route to the Deities' Quarter were already teeming with people, plying their wares, opening their stalls to sell all kinds of things, from the fresh catch of fish to charms to ward off misfortune. She turned, gazing all around her in delight, gripping the Death God's arm with both of hers, only just a slight bit perturb at the constant traffic of people that passed right through them as though they themselves were merely particles of air.
She recalled yesterday on the return trip from Karakura the God of Knowledge and Invention explaining why they were invisible through the human eye, after having experienced it during her visit to the village: something complicated that had to do with the chemical makeup of gods' skins, something inherent in the cells that housed the gods' powers within their bodies that only the few who had the power of metamorphosis (such as Ichigo, Ulquiorra, Grimmjow, and Neliel) could bypass. Kisuke himself had invented a way that would enable other gods who had no transformative powers, and even the Scribes, to manifest themselves in corporeal form, endowing them with the ability to be able to interact with mortals in person, but as he further explained exactly how this worked, Orihime's head swam in confusion at the complicated terms he used and she could only nod and hum in reply.
Back to Junrinan, they finally reached the Deities' Quarter, proudly bearing myriad temples dedicated to the innumerable gods whose duties presided over the daily lives of the common folk. Hither and yon, intricate columns and sculpted spires rose to the sky, flowers and statues lined the cobbled streets, and mosaics and frescoes depicting the various tales of the gods lined the walls. It made her breath catch as she found herself now living among those very figures that her former fellow humans looked up to. Her steps faltered and her expression fell as the ramifications of Rangiku's words suddenly caught up to her: if Rukia was to paint a picture of the Goddess of Love and Fertility within her own temple, and Orihime was to be in that picture, then countless people who visited the temple would see her and she would be known all over the world.
Wasn't that simply preposterous?
And even though she now was one of them, it was still difficult for her to really take the idea in. She just couldn't imagine anyone building a temple to worship her. What would the villagers of Karakura say should they find out that the one they had sacrificed had been made a goddess? Wasn't her rise to godhood unfair to those who suffered from the plague and survived as well as those whose lives had been lost to the capriciousness of the gods that caused them to die? Would she be seen as someone having as volatile and uncaring an attitude as some of the gods were wont to have? Subjected to their whims, prone to victimize the very people who worshiped them? Being a goddess now, even by association due to her marriage to the Death God, would they really see her as such?
And was there any mortal who had been granted godhood other than herself that she could speak to about these matters? The Scribes would know, surely? She couldn't be the only one.
These powers that she was starting to learn about, powers that were beginning to manifest within her, surely there had been another human who was turned into a god who could teach her how to control it? Teach her how to better transition into this new life she had been thrust into. Someone to show she wasn't alone. And as gods were wont to do, she could pay for the company, for the instruction, with her powers, couldn't she? However, she would only use whatever powers she had for good. She couldn't bear the thought of causing tragedy to someone with the powers that were growing within her.
From her periphery, Orihime saw the Death God's questioning gaze. She had, after all, stopped in the middle of the street, and no doubt he had seen her features transform from delight to despondence, and she could only imagine what he must have thought of her mercurial bouts of mood. Mentally shaking her head at herself, she gave him a big smile and tugged at his arm, and led them through the sea of mortals going about their daily lives to catch up to the group of immortals already farther ahead of them.
Pursing her lips, she was struck by a thought that had been niggling at the back of her mind since the Death God's revelation early yesterday morning. Orihime cleared her throat and delicately approached the subject matter. "You never told me, you know."
Golden-on-black eyes turned to her, curious. "Told you what?"
"What you're to give the God of...Despair, was it? Um, Ulquiorra, I think his name was. In exchange for sending a vision to the elders of my village."
Beneath her hands, she felt his arm tense, and his mask didn't betray any change in his expression. He only blinked, and those eyes of his remained impassive, sliding from her gaze to peer straight ahead to where the parade of their company had nearly disappeared among the throng of people.
Alarmed, she could only hope that she somehow hadn't stepped outside of her bounds in making such an inquiry. Throat suddenly dry, she wished she could take back the question, and she scrounged in her mind for something to say to alleviate the darkening atmosphere between them.
"I-I'm sorry—" she began.
"Later," interjected the Death God in an even voice, his other hand rising to gently squeeze her fingers in reassurance. "I'll tell you about it later. And you have nothing to apologize for, Orihime."
Stepping forward, they continued on, following their companions in silence, the air that surrounded them was in that in-between place of tenseness and calm.
Eventually they reached the steps that led to the temple of the Goddess of Love and Fertility. The short flight up was lined on either side with balustrades that Orihime didn't find all that unusual until she actually took the time to look closely. Each marble baluster was carved differently from the other, lending each of them a different silhouette. They were rather detailed sculptures, Orihime was scandalized to discover upon closer inspection, of human figures in various acts of lovemaking.
Heat crimsoned her face, and she quickly averted her gaze, trying to stop her mind from cataloguing exactly which of the positions depicted in marble she and her husband had already tried out. Vaguely, she wondered if Ichigo was as mortified as she felt, though able to hide it better because of his mask. But she realized as she further thought that he was doubtlessly already used to this place, being already a god who presumably had been around from long before people even thought about building houses of worship dedicated to the gods.
Upon reaching the wide archway that led inside the temple, the God of Death stopped, turning to face her and lifting his mask from his face to perch it atop his head. After running his eyes over her, taking in her still-flushed cheeks, though this time for entirely different reasons, he cupped her chin and tilted her head up to him, giving her a soft kiss, which she returned with great ardour, feeling as though she was melting, her very atoms dissipating with the rush of emotions that encompassed her with every brush of his lips against hers, with every flutter of his fingers as they ran through her hair, her cheek, her neck. As her hands roamed through the strands of the Death God's long hair, each sensation brought an electric spark to her nerve-endings. Both momentarily gasped for air, but were soon submerged in each other again, today's looming separation already a bane that each couldn't comprehend wanting to go through with despite the necessity due to his function as the god of death. Her hands fell to rest on Ichigo's chest, a small nervous flutter making her shiver as she touched the rim of the hole where his heart would have been. Even though she'd touched him in multitudinously intimate ways, this mar always unnerved her, always caused her to be taken aback, if only minutely, something so different and strange, and yet the full proof that her husband was not like what she used to be: not a human, but a god, and the very god whose heart rested in the sky. Beneath his chest, she felt his telltale pulse, the rhythm matching her own heartbeat. She felt the warmth of his skin, the shiver that ran through him as her nails gently scraped along the opening of his robes, as she tenderly pulled at the tufts of fur at his neck, as she traced the black tattoos that seemed to seep out of the hole on his chest.
Finally, they parted. And he, with extreme reluctance as he pulled the mask down over his face once more, bid her farewell and she barely was able to nod in acknowledgement before he was gone in a swirl of white.
Until later then, she thought, already feeling the flutter of anticipatory butterflies in her belly for their next meeting.
She was startled out of her stupor by a black cat jumping onto her shoulder.
"Let's get inside," Yoruichi purred in her ear, and Orihime nodded, complying.
The interior of the temple was airy and wide, letting in plenty of sunlight, with carved columns rising up on either side to bear the stone roof overhead. Busts of Rangiku decorated the niches that lined the walls, to which several early morning worshipers have already supplanted themselves in prayer. The air was redolent with lightly spiced and honeyed incense, the heady smell reminding Orihime of the mead that Rangiku had made her drink a few nights prior that resulted in...well...her present expectant condition.
The Cat Goddess perched on her shoulder directed her further into the building, up towards the stairway where the rest of their company was already congregated. Three new figures had already greeted the others at the top: a stern-looking man with short grey hair, a bespectacled woman with her black hair in braids, and another man that gave off a majestic and flamboyant air, flipping his long, purple curls over his shoulder as he watched Orihime and Yoruichi ascend the steps.
Rangiku turned, clapping her hands as she spied Orihime and quickly ran down to drag the younger woman up to where they convened, with Yoruichi bounding off from Orihime's shoulder to land on Kisuke's with a yelp.
"And here she is! Everyone, this is Orihime, the new bride of the Death God!" exclaimed the Goddess of Love and Fertility, taking charge of the introductions. She pointed to the grey-haired man. "That's my Head Priest, Kensei. He's a Scribe that has been granted the great honour of leading my followers."
He wore loose robes that were parted at the front, and Orihime could make out the same numbers that were tattooed on Hisagi's cheek gracing this man's torso just beneath his pectorals. Orihime couldn't help the blush that arose as she realized the implication of having such numbers displayed proudly, especially to one purported to be Rangiku's Head Priest. Was that the mark of all of the Goddess of Love and Fertility's worshipers?
Back when she was a human, there had been talk that it was the custom for young, unmarried women to journey to Junrinan to visit Rangiku's temple prior to their wedding to receive the goddess's blessing. But in such cases as Karakura or any other smaller towns in remote locations, many women find the city too far and oftentimes the roads were swarmed with bandits that the custom became solely reserved for the city-dwellers and those who lived in neighbouring towns. There had been further talk, especially from the older female villagers, of exactly what kind of mass was held at the temple every night: "fertility rituals" were all they would say whilst giving each other winks and nudges, followed by raucous laughter.
The Head Priest dipped his head in acknowledgment as he simultaneously reached out to kiss Orihime's hand, though she couldn't help but notice the slight roll of eyes that he gave his benefactor. "Welcome to the holy temple, my lady."
"Um, it's very nice to meet you, Kensei," the auburn-haired young woman replied, being careful not to stray her gaze anywhere else beneath the man's gaping garment.
"Don't mind his bad attitude, Orihime," said Rangiku in an amused tone, waving dismissively towards her Head Priest. "He's just grouchy since last night had been a very busy one for the temple, and I don't think he's slept a wink yet." The blue-eyed goddess then drew Orihime to the black-haired woman. "And here's my Head Priestess, Lisa, also a Scribe. She's in charge of giving advice to young women who seek deep and eldritch knowledge regarding the pleasures of the flesh. So if you find me unavailable for certain things when it comes to, you know, your marriage bed, you can just seek her out."
Orihime wondered if she had to simply accept the fact that her face would remain in perpetual blush even as she held out a shy hand to the other woman. "N-nice to meet you, Lisa."
"Likewise, my lady," responded Lisa as she curtseyed, peering almost lewdly at her from beneath her glasses. "As our Lady Goddess said, if there's anything you need when it comes to pleasing your husband, or even just yourself, just come to me. Especially if you require a more, hmm, hands-on instruction."
Er, no, that's okay, thank you anyway, replied Orihime inside her mind while outside she simply gave a nervous chuckle.
The goddess then strung her along to the third figure. "And last but not least—of course, we saved the very best for last—Orihime, this is," and here Rangiku drew a very deep breath, and then, "the sweet, ultra funky, fantastic, dramatic, romantic, sadistic, erotic, exotic, athletic, perfect, stylish, dangerous, psychedelic, valuable, economical, continental, incredible, unbelievable, shining God of Beauty, Charlotte."
"Enchanté," purred the god, leaning down to kiss both of her cheeks. "I must apologize for not being able to greet you properly when you were introduced to our society a few nights ago, my dear. I was just much too busy; there's so many things in this world that needs beautification. But, well, you're here now, so I can give my wedding gift to you at my leisure." He put a finger to his chin as he peered at her closely. "Not that you really need it, girl, you are beautiful, but all of us princesses can still have our pampering and preening regardless of whether we need it or not. Never ever say no to that."
"Alright!" interjected Rukia, clapping her hands to draw the attention to herself. "So now that everyone knows each other, let's get going. Where's the wall I'm going to be painting?"
Kensei stepped forward. "This way, my lady." And he led the group through the archway beyond the stairs.
In this part of the temple were several open doorways. Orihime only had bare seconds to make out moans and groans coming from one room, managing to see flashes of bare writhing bodies through its door before she was whisked away with her group into—she was extremely relieved to see—an empty room. As with the great room at the front of the temple, this one was wide and airy, lacking any windows or doors to the balcony that overlooked the shining lake that bordered the city of Junrinan. Draperies seemed to be the only furnishings, and these were pulled back to let in the light and air.
And here, as though of the same mind, everyone went off to perform their tasks. Already Renji was setting up Rukia's art paraphernalia on one side of the room, going here and there as she directed him, building her easel and chair, and laying out her various types of paper, brushes, paints, and pencils. The Scribes—the temple ones as well as the temporary cupbearers from the boat—on the other hand, were in the midst of arranging a set as instructed by the God of Invention and Knowledge as well as the Goddess of Cats. From somewhere about his person Kisuke had procured a giant clam shell which the Scribes were dragging to the middle of the floor against the backdrop of the lake, fixing the angle just so just as Rukia came over and gave the set a critical eye, nodding as the shell was finally laid out to her satisfaction. This part done, they went to the side of the room that was still covered with drapes, pulling it aside to reveal the particular wall chosen to be her canvas. The Goddess of Snow and the Arts ran her hands along its surface to feel its texture, and gave the temple Scribes a nod of approval.
On a corner of the room, a vanity had been set up with Rangiku sitting in front of the mirror while Charlotte stood behind her. He was running a bejeweled comb through her hair, and Orihime was amazed to see that Rangiku's hair seemed to lengthen with each brush. She drew closer to watch, wonderment filling her at the magic happening before her eyes. Pretty soon, the goddess's hair was past her knee, and after receiving an exclamation of approval at the length of her tresses, the God of Beauty brandished a long ribbon to bind her waves at the back of her neck. Afterwards, he proceeded to apply makeup upon the goddess's face, giving her a natural, glowing look. He stepped back after he finished, allowing Rangiku to stand and twirl in front of the mirror, peering over her shoulder as she inspected her hair and her face.
"Perfect!" she proclaimed, winking at her reflection and directing a smile at Orihime as she turned. "Your turn."
"M-me?!" the auburn-haired yelped, stepping back in surprise.
"Of course! You agreed to be in the picture with me, remember?"
"Come on. No need to be afraid. You'll be in good hands with dear Charlotte." The two gods each took hold of her arm and dragged her to sit in front of the vanity. "There! And now I'm off to wardrobe." And then, for some reason, both gods burst out in braying laughter.
"Oh, Rangiku, you're such a joker," the God of Beauty said when he could finally speak, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. "But get going already. I still have work to do here. Make this new goddess shine like the moon!"
And so, after blowing them both a kiss, Rangiku ran off to inspect the set piece where she and Orihime were to pose once the other young woman was made ready.
His ice blue eyes twinkled as Charlotte met the auburn-haired's gaze through the mirror. "Well now, my dear. It's just us princesses. Congratulations, by the way. How's married life treating you?"
Orihime could only give him a strained, awkward grin, to which he released a knowing sigh as he rolled his eyes, reaching out to hold a length of her hair with one hand as he ran his magical comb through it with the other.
"Problems already, huh? Knowing your husband, it's not surprising. But hang in there, baby girl. Having heard the rumours about his stamina and his prowess in bed, I would say it's still worth it to put up with for longer." He winked, and Orihime wished she could hide somewhere where nobody would be able to find her.
How exactly was it that everyone seemed to know about her and the Death God's...erm...nighttime activities?
Seeing her expression, Charlotte patted her shoulder. "Oh, sweetie, no need to be shy about it, especially in this temple. Hang around here every night—and well, during the day too if you still have the energy for it—and you will soon lose all your inhibitions. Why, just last night I had the most fantastic orgas—"
"Er, will my hair be long too?" Orihime felt like a heel for interrupting, but she really had never been all that comfortable regarding talks of this nature, not even with her friends from the village when she was still a human. It was bad enough that all the gods and even the Scribes seemed to know just how often she and Ichigo...performed nightly exercises. And even though she now was a married woman, and had certainly experienced quite a bit of the physical aspects of love, she didn't know if she would ever get used to being blasé about openly discussing such private matters in public.
Sensing her discomfort, he went along with the sudden change of topic. "Oh, don't you worry a thing, honey. I got something else in mind for these gorgeous tresses of yours. Just you wait for magic to happen." Charlotte proceeded to part her hair in the middle, separating the shorter layers at the front from the main length at the back. He tied her hair at the back of her neck and sectioned them into two braids, and brought up the thinner braid to wrap at the top of her head like a band. The layers at the front he brushed with his magical comb until they framed her face in waves. Once finished, he applied the same type of makeup on her face to enhance her natural beauty.
"Alright, my dear. You. Are. Gorgeous." He clasped his hands and pointed to his cheek. "Now, give me some sugar and then off you go."
Orihime reached up to plant a kiss on the proffered cheek, then turned around to find the female Scribe, Lisa, waiting for her.
There was something rather leery about the Head Priestess's expression as she perused Orihime. "This way, my lady. We have a gown ready for you."
Gown? thought the auburn-haired, allowing herself to be led out into the hallway to another chamber within the temple. This room seemed to be a bath, with a steaming pool set onto the floor. Off to the side doorway that led into an antechamber, Lisa took her, indicating with a hand the garment that was set aside for her. It was a white gown embroidered with blue flowers, and the sleeves were loose and sheer. Going behind the partition at the corner of the room, Orihime changed, smoothing down the voluminous fabric over her body. As she stepped out, the Head Priestess came over and wrapped a garland of pink flowers under her bust, and another garland of green leaves at her neckline. Once done, the braided Scribe picked up a flower-embroidered cloth and led her back into the room where everyone else was waiting.
Orihime's cheeks coloured as she spied Rangiku already standing on the giant clam shell set in the middle of the room, unabashedly clad in nothing. Her left hand held the tail-end of her vibrant hair over her crotch while her right was splayed on the centre of her chest, hardly able to provide much cover for her bountiful breasts.
"Alright!" shouted Rukia from her perch by her easel, pointing to the Goddess of Love and Fertility's side. "Orihime, take that cloth from Lisa and stand over there on Rangiku's left side. Hold that fabric like you're about to clothe her. And Scribes! Don't forget to wave those giant fans when they're ready."
Orihime did as she was told, trying to avert her gaze from Rangiku's form. I guess it's a good thing I'm about to dress her up in the picture, she thought, holding up the fabric as though she was about to throw it over the goddess. Across from her, Hisagi and Kira were frantically waving their fans, making the models' hair and the fabrics billow.
"Great!" yelled Rukia from behind her easel, ready to begin the preliminary sketches of the piece before working on the final version on the wall. "Now, ladies, hold that pose please. My masterpiece is about to begin."
Rangiku - Goddess of Love and Fertility
Ichigo - God of Death and the Moon (transforms into the black form, Mugetsu, during the new moon, and into the white form during the nights the moon is visible in the sky)
Orihime - formerly a human but was made into a goddess following her marriage to Ichigo
Renji - formerly a Scribe but was made into a god following his marriage to Rukia
Rukia - Goddess of Snow and the Arts
Kisuke - God of Knowledge and Invention
Gin - (deceased) God of Foxes and Snakes
Spirit King - God of the Sun, Ruler of All Gods and the Natural Order of the World
Ulquiorra - God of Despair and Visions (transforms into a half-human, half-bat)
Grimmjow - God of Destruction (transforms into a panther)
Neliel - Goddess of Time, Messenger of the Sun God (transforms into a half-human, half-goat/ibex)
Yoruichi - Goddess of Cats
Kensei Muguruma - a Scribe that has been appointed as the Head Priest in the Temple of the Goddess of Love and Fertility
Lisa Yadomaru - a Scribe that has been appointed as the Head Priestess in the temple of Rangiku
Charlotte - God of Beauty (Rangiku's adjectives when she introduced him are all from his special attacks in the manga XD )
Hisagi Shuuhei - a Scribe serving the gods
Izuru Kira - a Scribe serving the gods
A/N: As can be seen above, starting from chapter 3, each chapter now has appendices that list down the characters that appeared or were mentioned in that chapter, such as the gods and goddesses and what they preside over, and other characters that come straight from the manga or anime that seem obscure.
Also, whilst perusing through the chapters, I've edited the ones where Shunsui appears. He was originally the God of Children's Games, but I've since made him into the God of Summer, so he's solely the latter now.
Thanks to everyone who read/subscribed/favourited/reviewed this fic, and thanks to all the lovely awesome people who've made this story reach over 900 reviews! Really grateful for your wonderful thoughts, questions, and feedback. Without you guys to spur me on to continue writing, I don't think this fic could have gone in the direction it did. So thanks very much to all of you :)
I guess you might be happy to know that the end is coming (finally!). A few more chapters are left, and the issues and foreshadowing will finally come to light and be resolved. Though if it's to anyone's satisfaction will really be up in the air ^^;
So for those curious, the painting that Rukia is about to do is based on Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, with Rangiku as Venus and Orihime as the nymph on the right side of the painting.
Please do let me know what you thought of this chapter ^^
Disclaimer: Bleach belongs to Kubo Tite.
Flashback order: 14, 2, 9, 13, 17, 3, 15, 11, 8, 7, 6, 5, 12, 4, 10, 16.
Thanks for reading :)