Buyer's Remorse – Part Nine

The door closes with a final click, and Retsu tucks the key into her pocket. Her hakama dips with the addition. It's only a tiny weight, but it seems heavier.

It's taken days to gather up all of the drug available in Seireitei and store it in a sealed container with only one key. Kurotsuchi-taichou pitched quite a fit when Retsu confiscated his supplies, but the captain-commander's word is law, and he has no choice but to obey.

The chances of anyone getting a hold of it now are next to none unless they acquire it from Retsu herself. That is an impossibility. Retsu refuses to let such a thing happen again. Not under her watch.

The guilt she feels is too much already.

"You're right," Retsu says, staring at her vice-captain, forcing her fingers to unclench where they have wound around Isane's arm. "I don't understand. So why don't you tell me."

Isane snorts, and it's the first time Retsu has ever heard such a bitter sound from her second's mouth. She doesn't resist the binding spell Retsu places on her. In retrospect, it probably isn't even necessary. Isane seems prepared to accept her fate. Not so much as flinching when Retsu informs her that the captain-commander has already decided her punishment.

Not that it hasn't always been obvious.

"You want an answer because not understanding is a failure," Isane retorts, finally lifting her eyes to look at her captain. There's a surprising amount of defiance there.

Retsu stares at her, inwardly choosing her words with great care. "I ask because the woman who is my lieutenant would never do such things. I ask because I do not know what you've become."

"Maybe I am what I've always been and you never noticed."

She tries to hide her wince, but Retsu has a feeling she failed. Something about this entire debacle has ruined her sense of self-control. Isane's words hit a little too close to home.

Retsu sighs, her disappointment echoed on a breath. "Perhaps you're right. Perhaps I'm only looking to ease my own guilt. I'd still like an answer." She lifts her gaze, knowing the full force of it is something few have been able to deny. "Why, Isane. Why?"

For a moment, she thinks that Isane isn't going to answer. That she's merely going to press her lips together, tilt her chin defiantly, and carry the secret to the grave. Just like the other names she refuses to give, possible victims that Retsu will never know about.

Instead, Isane draws in a deep breath and looks up at her captain. Meets her eyes with such a fierce gaze that Retsu is startled by the sheer intensity.

"Because they never noticed me otherwise," she states, and her voice echoes eerily in the silence of Retsu's office. "It was the only chance I'd ever have."

A chill trickles down Retsu's spine. "So you thought taking something without permission was better than nothing?"

And Isane smiles, but it carries no humor, no pleasure. It has none of her true warmth and all the alienness of the stranger who stares back through her eyes.

"Do you understand now, taichou?"

Retsu shakes her head. The memory is still as vivid to her now as it is in her dreams. She pats the key in her pocket, turns away from the cabinet, and then casts a barrier spell over it for good measure.

Isane was right after all.

Retsu doesn't understand. And she never will.

o0o0o

"It's very quiet today," Rukia comments as Ukitake-taichou pours tea into her cup. The wonderful fragrance floats to her nose and makes her mouth water.

Ukitake-taichou chuckles. "Shunsui isn't here," he says, reaching for his own drink as well. The entire set of dishware has already been thoroughly checked for foreign substances, but there's still a second of hesitation before he takes a sip. "Poor Ise-san has finally succeeded in tying him to his desk to finish some much neglected paperwork."

Rukia feels her lips quirk into an amused grin of her own. She knows that her captain probably isn't exaggerating either.

"Poor Kyouraku-taichou," she comments mischievously and eyes the plate of delicious pastries set out.

If anyone else served them, Rukia would be wary. Even months later, she can't shake it. Some might call her paranoid; Rukia prefers to think of it as learning her lesson. She'll never have her security stolen from her again.

Never.

Ukitake-taichou laughs again, and for a moment, they sit in a companionable silence. Sipping at their tea, snacking on lace cookies, and enjoying the soft quiet. It's nice. Rukia quite enjoys it. Of course, she's always enjoyed spending time with her captain, especially outside of her division duties. Something that has occurred a lot more often as of late.

"How have you been sleeping?" Ukitake-taichou asks very softly then.

Rukia tries not to make a face. Before Unohana-taichou told her who to blame, her nightmares were terrible. Keeping her up at night so that she'd wander into the thirteenth the next day with dark circles under her eyes. She couldn't sleep. Every creak, every soft rustle, jolted her into consciousness.

She hated not knowing who to trust. She hated not feeling safe. But when Unohana-taichou reassured that not only had they caught the perpetrator but that they had been punished, sleep came a lot easier. She doesn't dream anymore for one thing. Those nightmares have drifted away on the wind. Her home is safe again. After all, it was the one place they didn't dare bring her. No one can touch her in the Kuchiki manor.

Nii-sama would kill the next person who'd dare think of touching her wrongly. She's seen the desire for blood in his eyes. Renji and Ichigo, too. Those thoughts comfort her. And even Sode no Shirayuki rattles in her sheath, desperate to wreak vengeance. She's not powerless, not anymore. There's a face to hate, two of them, and Rukia has no trouble loathing them all the same.

Rukia brushes crumbs from her cheek. "Better," she admits, fiddling with her cup. "I actually sleep through the night now."

"I'm glad." Her captain tucks a stray strand of hair behind his ear, but it just slips free again, too short to be held back. "I've always known you to be a woman of great strength."

She feels the blush starting on her ears first, and Rukia hides her reaction behind her teacup. She should be immune to his compliments by now, but he's so sincere that it's hard not to react.

"Thank you," Rukia murmurs.

Her captain smiles at her and reaches forward to pat her hand. His skin is deceptively soft, and if his fingers linger a second too long, neither of them comments.

o0o0o

Swords clash with a clang that rings across the courtyard. Dust rises. And an arc of dark reiatsu cuts through the air to soar upwards and intersect the white clouds.

Ichigo grins as he swipes a hand over the sweat gathered on his forehead. "That all you got?" he asks, setting Zangetsu against his shoulder, sharp edge out.

Byakuya arches one finely manicured eyebrow. He gives a toss of his head that's a tad too telling, but his eyes are what really give him away.

"Are you now reduced to juvenile taunting?" he counters, a streak of grime on one cheek and a noticeable rip in his hakama.

Ichigo, for his part, is no less marked. He's got a bruised jaw and a scorched sleeve. But he's enjoying every second of this. They both are.

"It's working, isn't it?"

The captain snorts. "Hardly."

Chuckling, Ichigo dissolves out of bankai. He lowers his now heavier zanpakutou to the ground and tips his head back to look at the sky.

"So you say," he retorts as his stomach growls, demanding to be fed. "Looks like I'll have to kick your ass some other time."

"I am not the same ignorant man I was that day," Byakuya reminds him, as though still offended by the defeat he suffered at Ichigo's hands years before.

"None of us are," Ichigo comments

And for a minute, both of them are thrust into the present. The recent past still hangs around in the corner like a Huge Hollow in the room no one wants to acknowledge. Heavy and hungering and just a bit frightening.

They've moved on, but there are still times when they can't forget. No matter what they can't remember.

Byakuya refuses to drink or eat anything at his office now. Even if he makes it himself, he doesn't trust the dishware. Ichigo can't count the number of times that he's had to bring the man something before he keels over from hunger. He's still too thin to pull that shit, and at least, Unohana-san agrees with him.

Byakuya might make faces at him about it, but Ichigo knows he's always grateful.

They all have their little hang-ups after all.

Byakuya can't admit things aloud. Ichigo, for his part, still has to fight off feelings of being watched. He also doesn't drink or eat anything unless he's seen it prepared by someone he knows he can trust. Not just an acquaintance who should be an ally but someone he'd trust with his life. And if everyone thought women made him uncomfortable before, they've no idea what it's like now.

He has dreams, too. Sometimes, he thinks they are the memories trying to fight through, but Unohana-san has already explained that as an impossibility. She suspects that they're his mind's attempt to recreate a memory from his own imaginations of what must've happened.

Imaginations. Like Ichigo wants to remember. Knowing the ones who did it doesn't make it any better. It just means he has faces to add to those ghostly hands that haunt his nights and mornings when he wakes up with sticky sheets and curdling shame.

Ichigo knows the psychology. He knows it's only natural and expected and he shouldn't let it bother him. But what the fuck do they know?

"-to lunch then?" Byakuya suggests, effectively pulling Ichigo from his reverie. "Before you become someone who needs to take his own advice."

A smile tugs at Ichigo's lips, chasing away the lingering bitterness. He's always bugging Byakuya to eat more.

"Yeah," he agrees. "Let's go."

The past is the past. He's going to make it stay there, just like everything else. Grand Fisher. Ulquiorra. Defeating his Hollow the first time. Losing to Byakuya. Everything that's left its mark on Ichigo, he learns to overcome.

This is only a matter of time.

o0o0o

"It's a shame, isn't it?"

Izuru frowns as he looks up from his drink. The first and only he'll have tonight. He's not going to drink to excess. Not anymore.

"What is?"

Senpai is swirling his finger around the lip of his cup with his forehead pinched from thought. "Kotetsu," he says, sounding thoughtful. "I never really knew her."

He can't fight his wince, so Izuru doesn't bother. Hisagi-san doesn't know the truth, doesn't care to know the truth. That means Izuru is the one stuck with the knowledge. Stuck with the guilt. What can he do but flinch and think of the irony of his senpai's words?

"What do you mean?" Izuru questions, sitting back and wondering if maybe he really should signal their server to bring him something stronger. The urge to blurt out the truth – denial be damned – sits heavy and leaden on his soul.

The fact that they've just come back from Kotetsu Isane's memorial makes this all the more chilling. They attended because she was a fellow vice-captain and because Kiyone-san had asked. They went because Hisagi-san hadn't known any better and Izuru didn't dare correct him.

The older man shrugs. His gaze slips past Izuru as he lifts his cup to his lips.

"I'm just saying... she was cute. I should've tried talking to her."

It takes all of Izuru's self-control to keep his jaw from dropping. He drowns the queasiness in his belly with a swift shot of sake. It's all he's allowing himself; Izuru might as well make it count.

He doesn't say anything to that. Just makes a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat that his senpai takes as agreement. Luckily, Hisagi-san drops the subject, moving on into a talk about how well he and Abarai-kun are shaping up the ninth division. Maybe it's because he noticed Izuru's discomfort, or maybe it's a little something else. Izuru doesn't know, and he's not ever going to ask.

Hisagi-san is better served by his denial, and far be it for Izuru to correct him. So he simply lifts his hand, signals for another round for his senpai but not himself, and laughs when Hisagi-san mentions how strange it is for his former kouhai to be his captain.

But in the back of his mind, Izuru still wonders.

o0o0o

It's something that has to be done.

Shinji's only been putting it off because every time he even thinks about approaching the closed door, his gut churns and the sour taste in his mouth returns. He finds himself overwhelmed by an irrational anger, and Sakanade burns at his side.

But enough's enough. It's time to take out the trash.

He opens the door to Lisa's room and stares at an area so neat it seems a perfect contrast to her sloppy personality. Shelves are nearly but not quite overflowing with her collection of erotic manga, her futon is carefully folded and rolled into the closet, and there is a subtle perfume lingering in the air. That's probably Shinji's fault though; he's kept this door shut since that day.

Shaking his head, Shinji gets to work. He's brought garbage bags with him, and there's nothing to do but start shoving shit inside. If there was anything one of the others wanted to keep, they've had ample time to claim it. At this point, there's nothing in this room Shinji wants anything to do with.

To him, it's all trash.

He's dumping out the contents of Lisa's dresser when he finds it, a picture with a signature on the back that reads Kira Izuru. It takes him a minute, but Shinji vaguely recalls that's the name of that droopy-eyed kid from the third. Shinji highly doubts this was a gift. In fact, he distinctly remembers Retsu-chan mentioning that Kensei's fanboy was missing a picture.

Somehow, he's not surprised that Lisa took it. She always did do that. Taking what didn't belong to her.

He tucks it into his pocket if only because that Hisagi guy probably wants it back. Shinji really doesn't want to know what else Lisa kept as a souvenir, and if he fucking finds any of Ukitake's hair here, he's just going to burn the room and everything in it to the ground.

But Shinji keeps going for the time being and tries not to look at anything too closely. The memory of Lisa's arrogance rings in the back of his head though. She hadn't even had the decency to act ashamed.

She's smug, too damn smug as Shinji confronts her after Retsu-chan told him the truth. There's a gleam to her eyes that makes his skin crawl. His fingers twitch as he stares at her, but she's just standing there, leaning against the wall, arms crossed.

"I know what you're thinking."

Shinji snorts. "Ya have no idea what's on my mind."

Lisa smirks at him, glasses catching the light in an eerie fashion that's all too similar to Aizen. It makes part of Shinji's soul want to quiver up and die right there. He saw through Aizen, and he knows what Lisa's like, but he didn't quite see this. It makes him wonder what else he's missed. What else about the people in their little family is going to come back to bite them in the ass.

"You're wondering if I ever did anything to you," she says then. And it's so damn smug. Like she's proud of herself for rattling him.

Bitch probably is.

"I don't have any blank spots in my memory," Shinji snaps back, feeling like he's being dragged down to a childish level but unable to stop himself.

Her smirk doesn't fade, only widens. One foot taps the floor.

"That you can remember," she reminds him.

For the first time in his life, Shinji feels the urge to strike a woman. Not the play taps that he and Hiyori sometimes exchange. But to really hit her. To hit and make it hurt. And not just because she hurt him first and it'd be justice.

There's a lot of shit he's done in his life. Most of it was for the Shinigami when he was still one. But he can honestly say that this is beyond him. He's never hit a woman. He's never taken anyone by force. He's never stabbed anyone in the back, much less a friend.

His lips pull back into a snarl as he resists the urge to pick apart his memories of the last few decades. He won't let her bait him like that. He won't.

"Is that so?" Shinji snaps before he can't stop himself. "Then who else, Lisa? What other lives have ya destroyed?" But his voice turns truly nasty then, tit for tat. "Ya like kids, is that it? Ya like the young ones? Like how they can't fight back?"

Her grin falters, and her eyes narrow slightly. "Well, look at that. The intractable Shinji losing his cool. Struck a nerve, did I?" she taunts and then tosses a braid over her shoulder. "It was all in good fun, Shinji. Hardly ruining." She rolls her shoulders. "Besides, I don't kiss and tell."

Paper rustles as Shinji rifles through Lisa's desk, dumping everything into a large trash bag. He pulls out one of the drawers and upends its contents. One paper misses the bag, however, and flutters to the ground.

Shinji pauses, scowls, and scoops it up, fingers poised to crumple it. Until his eyes catch a familiar word. The garbage bag slips to the floor as Shinji straightens out the paper, feeling all the blood drain from his face as he scans the carefully scribed names. Some of them have been crossed out; others haven't.

He's not so stupid that he doesn't know what it is. Their list. Their damn hit list.

And there are still people on it. Familiar people. People Lisa and that Kotetsu chick shouldn't dare fuck over in a million years.

Kensei. Kisuke. Retsu-chan.

Him.

Shinji's stomach threatens to revolt right then and there as his eyes scan over his own damn name. He doesn't know what's worse. The fact that it isn't marked out or the fact that it's there in the first place. That it's so fucking close to the top, too.

The paper crumbles in his hand and then bursts into flames seconds later. It's only a low level kidoh, but it makes Shinji feel better to watch the ashes flit to the floor and scorch the carpet.

There's still half a room to clean. Shinji doesn't know if he'll be able to stand finding any other surprises. He's more than tempted to just let it all burn, but Hiyori'll be on his ass since her room is the one next door. Mashiro's is on the other side, and she probably wouldn't mind if he got it by accident. He has a feeling that she's wondered about Lisa for a long time anyway.

He picks up what bags he's filled and leaves, pulling the door firmly shut behind him. He tosses the full sacks into the large bin outside and washes his hands of it.

Tomorrow, he'll return to Seireitei and give Hisagi back his picture. He'll try not to think of the other names on the list when he does, wondering if any of them know how lucky they are. If any of them have a fucking clue what was waiting for them.

And eventually, he'll scrub his mind of this.

But for now, everything continues to linger. Everything hangs in the back of his head like a stale odor, like bitter ashes.

He'll never understand. But mostly, he's glad for that.


a/n: And that's all there is. I may write some follow-up flash fiction to this piece, but you won't find them here. They'll only be on my livejournal. If you have any questions, feel free to ask and I'll be sure to answer them.

Thanks everyone for reading and feedback is always appreciated!