Title: Courting Darkness
Disclaimer: I still do not own Bleach.
Warnings: Typos galore! Not historically accurate. Strong language (although I did try to tone it down some), a ridiculous number of sexual situations. Enjoy.
Tokyo City (Edo) – 1890
The name slithered like a wraith through the twilight lit streets of the poorest districts of Tokyo City, spreading like a plague among the peasants huddled in the streets.
Hichigo was back from the dead.
From inside her small inn, Rukia surveyed her patrons while toying with the knife lodged in her sash. Something wasn't quite right. No one was fighting. The clientele here were made up of some of the worst ruffians the Tokyo underworld had ever seen. Usually, you couldn't even hear yourself think at this hour. Yet now, the place was quieter than a shrine and there was no sign of a squabble from any corner of the tavern.
She looked out over the faces.
A few of Gin Ichimaru's men sat drinking in a corner. Across from them a group of freelance samurai sang horribly out of tune. Near the door sat Loly and Menoly, bickering in hissed whispers. Keigo Asano sat counting coins and glancing at them from across the room while his companion Mizuiro Kojima watched him in disdain. In the back booth, Tia Halibel observed the occupants without interest, her flock of petty thieves surrounded her, none of them worth any note.
She frowned in confusion. Loly and Menoly were low class whores, but it was just past dark, there was still plenty of money to be made on the streets. They had come in early. She wondered why.
Rukia tilted her head, looking around again. No matter the individual, every one of them was careful not to be noticed watching the door.
And that was when it opened.
Fog floated in along the ground, candles flickered, and the conversation evaporated. Two figures emerged from the inky night outside…Renji Abarai and Ikkaku Madarame.
She held her breath as she realized the significance of the two of them being together. Rukia flicked her gaze out over the expectant women. They all looked like they were waiting on something. Every eye was on the newcomers.
Then it hit her, what every one of them was waiting for…
She uttered the name like it was a curse.
"Yes?" A sinister voice answered from behind her.
Rukia yelped and spun around, trying to see through the opaque darkness she found there.
"H-Hichigo…?"Her voice trembled. "Hichigo?"
"I don't need help remembering my own name."
The whisper soft voice sent trickles of fear lancing down her spine. She licked her suddenly dry lips and swallowed, realizing her throat had also closed up. "You're back..."
She thought his eyes turned toward her.
"I really hate it, when people feel the need to state the obvious. You know that."
He hadn't moved out of the shadows. It took Rukia a second to revive herself from letting him shake her up so soon.
There were people who said he was a demon.
Against the back wall, he stood tall and lean with the dim yellow light reflected off night dark eyes, shining on hair that was the color of hell's flame. They said he got his coloring from his mother and his disturbing intensity, the feeling of always being on the edge of violence, from his father.
Either way, he was something fierce and lethal, and never someone to be handled lightly.
And now, Rukia was left to question if he really was one of hell's spirits, because here he was… still all wickedness of countenance and viciousness of tongue, seething with dark humor. He was back after vanishing so long ago that everyone thought he was dead.
What else but a demon could do something like that?
She wiped moist hands on her apron, making sure to keep them well away from her knife. "Ichimaru's men are here. They say he wants you dead after—"
"I don't care about Ichimaru …unless I'm holding a blade to his throat or he's holding one to mine."
He finally moved from the wall, and it was as if some magic enchanter had formed an incubus of seduction from the blackest abyss. Rukia's senses focused on him as he walked by. There was an almost magnetic pull that came from him… a charisma that could capture, master, and command all in the length of a breath. It was like her life flashing before her eyes, except with a destructive edge that was almost inviting. A person would be dead before they ever knew it and none the wiser.
Then he had passed and Rukia released her breath, cursing in frustration. How long had she known him, dammit? How many times had he come to herinn? She had no business being turned into a senseless heap just because it was well known how good Hichigo was with a blade.
She watched him drift like a ghost into the room. His name whispered and spread until every eye was fixed to his figure. He slid into a chair by Renji. Loly and Menoly shoved each other back, both of them trying to reach his lap first. In the corner, Ichimaru's men stood up and crept into the back, vanishing.
A few hours later Hichigo untangled himself from the two women and made his way back to the kitchen.
Rukia watched him come toward her. "You want your room?"
He threw her a condescending look that she took as an affirmative.
Without looking back, he strode through the kitchen to the back stairway. Two minutes later, Renji followed, taking care not to be seen. Then Ikkaku. And as soon as she was sure she wouldn't be missed, she followed after.
In a room at the end of the hall, around a corner that made it hard to see, Hichigo was sprawled on a bed, arms folded behind his head. His gaze locked on the rafters of the ceiling.
She walked in and shut the door behind her. The other two men looked up as she entered. Rukia crossed her arms over her chest and tried to appear undaunted. "Why are you here?"
He didn't even bother looking at her. "Kuchiki-san, subtle as never... I've missed you, too."
"You're only here to make trouble for the rest of us, so I don't see any reason to fake happiness. Last time you were here, a lot of us died."
"They followed me for their own reasons."
Rukia banged a small fist down beside her on the door. "They went with you for the same reason we all do. You twist us… manipulate us, spin things around, until we don't know what's what. Then you use us. You're the worst kind of leader. You use us like you use that sword of yours—"
Hichigo sat up so swiftly that Rukia would have stumbled back if she hadn't already been against the door. He swung long legs off the bed and then he was in front of her, pinning her with an unnerving look. Then, he tilted his head to the side and smiled his trademark smile.
"Usefulness is a virtue." He leaned forward to whisper in her ear. "And since you stand to profit the most from this little venture, I would advise you to keep your complaints to yourself, or I might give you better reasons to hate me."
Rukia's palms began to sweat and she nodded, before registering that he had already turned away. Stupid…Stupid. She should have known not to mention the sword. The relationship he had with that thing, it was unnatural.
"There's money to make, lots of it."
Renji and Ikkaku exchanged glances.
Ikkaku answered. "More than last time?"
Hichigo smacked his bald head and used it to force his head up, grinning. "Much, much more."
He released him.
Renji shifted. "How much?"
Hichigo tilted his head. "A princess's ransom."
They watched him with surprise and confusion warring on their faces.
Rukia narrowed her eyes. "And what kind of work?"
Hichigo reclaimed his place on the bed and favored them all with a look of malicious benevolence. "Easy work. And I already told you, a ransom… for a lady. She's lost somewhere in the slums and all we have to do is find her."
His listeners looked at each other. It was Renji that spoke. "All we have to do is find some woman?"
Rukia shrugged. "If she's been gone for more than a day, she's either dead in a gutter or working in the red-light district."
In one smooth motion, he sat up and gave her a fierce grin. "Not this one."
"What? Why not this one?" Rukia demanded.
"Because. She's an old woman, plain, timid, frail." He waved a dismissive hand. "Count on it. We'll find her in some dark, quiet hole, quivering and whimpering."
Ikkaku snapped his fingers. "Hold up. I heard Ichimaru and his men were looking for some woman. You think this is her?"
"Not likely." Hichigo said. "What would he want with some old lady? He's probably looking for one of his bitches that took her pay without giving him his cut."
Rukia turned a suspicious gaze on the dark thief. "Are you sure about this?"
He gave her a nasty lopsided smile. "Mark my words, carefully. This is going to be easy."
Orihime Inoue scurried down a street nicknamed 'Cut-throat Road' carrying a basket of food. Being cautious not to be seen, she scurried down back alleys, around trash and wastewater. Coming to an intersection, she paused to search the night before deftly flitting across, silent as an apparition.
If it weren't for the dark, floor-length, hooded cloak and the care she took to maintain secrecy, she might have attracted a lot of attention. Because very few women on the streets of Tokyo City, appeared so starry-eyed, almost as if seeing a dream in the waking world, just out of the sight of everyone else.
Fewer still, wore layers of expensive silken kimonos.
If she hadn't been wearing a cloak, her hair would have caught people's interest, the deepest auburn, streaked with gold and burnt orange. Or her eyes, bright and sparkling gray, with the barest hint of a teal ring around their edge. And If she hadn't been hiding in the shadows, they might have noticed her delicate feminine posture and the way it made her seem small and fragile.
No one would have expected what came next.
Coming to a dead end, she sat her basket down and tied the bottom layers of her kimono into her obi, knotting them until her legs were exposed to mid-thigh. She reached down, plucked up her basket and began climbing the bamboo rigging on the side of a building.
The excursion to the rooftops of Tokyo wasn't nearly as intimidating as it had been the first time, when she had just run away. Not that she had meant to run away, but she supposed that was what someone did when they witnessed a murder. Especially, when they were in danger of being next.
It had been during the time she was visiting the orphan children in the Rukongai district that it had happened. Orihime had been walking back from the market stalls with Ururu and Jinta. She had heard a noise in a back alley, not something that was uncommon in the slums, but she was curious … and stupid.
Three people had been in the passageway, two men and a woman. That alone should have told her what was going on, but she had been raised in a privileged home without knowledge of street activity. She watched in morbid fascination as one of the men raised a wakizashi, then the woman's face was twisting. Orihime had to bite the flesh of her hand to keep silent as the sword plunged down.
She froze on the rooftop, once again seeing the agony in the woman's face. Orihime squeezed her eyes shut trying to block out the memories, but behind her lids, she was confronted with the face of the other man.
A man she had never thought she would see in the broken down hovels of Tokyo.
She heard his lightly spoken words, unspeakably cruel in their nonchalance. She heard the deep timbre of that kindly voice, the one she had admired so many times before.
"Do it, Gin."
The words flashed through her head like an echo, like a gunshot.
Why hadn't she just left?
If she had, she would have never seen him give the order to kill. She would have never seen how he watched it with a pleased expression, like an artist gazing at a beloved painting. If she had just left, she wouldn't be worried about her aunt, sitting alone in her sprawling mansion, not knowing what had become of her beloved niece.
She shook her head, trying to clear the ugly memories, because thinking about it wasn't doing any good, it would only distract her. She couldn't afford to be distracted now.
Orihime sized up a beam running across to the next roof before gracefully springing across it. Then, she was on to the next. She had to jump, but after countless nights of vaulting from building to building like this, she had become quite skilled. It was fun even, once she really got going, as long as she wasn't careless enough to tumble over the side. That had only happened once, but she hadn't forgotten it.
Coming up on a harder jump, she paused at the edge to measure the distance and gasped when she saw movement below her.
Down in the alley a foot to her right was Yammy, one of Gin Ichimaru's men, one of many that would like to get their hands on her. They had seen her that night. They had chased her, Jinta, and Ururu through the streets.
Ururu and Jinta were urchins, living life on the street they were used to navigating the slums. They knew every shortcut and back alley. The men chasing them had never had a chance, but now, they had sent their hired thugs to find her… and Yammy was one of the worst.
She shrank back from the edge.
Setting her basket down, she looked over the roof. It was a good roof, made of heavy ceramic tiles. She knelt down and gently wiggled each in turn, until she found a loose one. Taking care not to make noise, she pried it free, suppressing a gasp as it bit into her hand.
Orihime glanced back over the edge and froze, catching movement out of the corner of her eye. She spun, looking hard into the shadows of the roof, but after a moment decided she must have imagined it. Turning back she hefted the tile over her head and aimed.
It hit him dead on and he dropped to his knees, without as much as a shout.
Nodding to herself, Orihime climbed to her feet and dusted her hands, before picking up her basket. Taking a few steps back and measuring the distance, she bent her knees, ran and lept.
It took her a few seconds to realize that she hadn't gone anywhere. Something had snaked around her waist and pulled her back.
Orihime was whipped around before being sat on her feet, but in her panic, she stumbled backwards, tripping on the empty space where she had pried up the tile. She landed gracelessly on her backside, knocking down the hood of her cloak, wrestling with the layers of her kimono and trying to get back to her feet.
Part of her mind registered that her front was still tucked up, leaving her legs exposed to her upper thighs, but she didn't have time to worry about lost modesty.
Scrambling to her feet she backed away from the dark figure standing over her.
"Don't…don't you come near me."
If she had ever imagined the laughter of a demon, it might have sounded something like what she heard. It was all mockery, smooth, sensual, evil. It was the laughter of a fallen angel.
Fear wrapped around her body like a sheet of ice.
He took a step closer, close enough that she could see him in the pale light of the moon. His lips curved into a smile of little boy sweetness that might have given her relief, until she looked up into his eyes. It was like being pulled into a dark sea, merciless, cold, trying to drag her under.
That was when she knew she was going to die.
His arm reached up and over to his side, and she noticed the ebon black katana strapped at his back. She faltered another step, but he only reached into his clothes and pulled out a folded paper.
He looked at it, then at her and scowled.
Then his expression changed again and his smile turned fierce.
"Well, if it isn't the old lady, at last..."