A/N: This is going to be a three-shot in honor of Obon. It is going to be celebrated in Tokyo this year July 13th-15th. As Ichigo's birthday falls within this and according to "Bleach Exile" Karakura is part of Tokyo, I thought it appropriate. Many of the aspects of this festival will be explained within the story but if you have any questions, don't be afraid to ask.
Disclaimer: I do not own the Bleach characters, manga, anime, movies, etc. They belong by copyright laws to Tite Kubo et al.
Obon of the Daiko
July 13th: Guide Me Home
The flame of a candle created shadows on her face, the picture in front of her an older, more refined version of the lighter staring back. "Forgive me, Nee-sama, for not staying for the festival but…"
"She would understand." The baritone voice that startled her was soft and reverent, lacking its usual monotone stoicism.
"You must do your duty, Rukia. Kurosaki is once again up to his reckless neck in danger and as you are the only one he apparently listens to, you are the one the soutaicho is sending to get him out of trouble. Hisana would understand."
"Yes, Nii-sama but Obon…"
"Is about ancestors, not siblings."
"But she is like an ancestor, Nii-sama. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have you, my brother." Rukia saw a flash in grey eyes that might have been amusement on any normal person.
"Indeed, and I give thanks, just as you do. Go, Rukia, I will tend her shrine, as I have always done. There is someone who needs to be guided back to the Living World for their festival. We are sending her with you." Souls weren't often allowed to return to the World of the Living but Rukia did not question her brother. It must be awfully important if a soul was going back.
"As you wish, Nii-sama. I thank you, Nee-sama," Rukia said, bowing to her sister's altar that she shared with Byakuya's parents, and to the captain before leaving.
Byakuya stared at his wife's likeness and finished lighting the candles that surrounded his family's portraits. "You would be proud, too, Hisana. Unfortunately, you would probably also like Ichigo Kurosaki. I have a feeling I am going to be seeing a lot more of that pest in the very near future."
If the boy ever made it out the current mess he was in alive.
The ginger haired woman that was waiting for her at the main Senkaimon gate smiled, giving the young Kuchiki a bow. "So you are my escort," she said, delight in her voice. "I had requested you but I wasn't sure Yamamoto-dono would allow it, considering the circumstances."
"I was surprised to learn of my companion. You must stick close, Kurosaki-san," Rukia said. "We will be taking Hell Butterflies, of course, but once on the other side, you shouldn't wander off. There are still Hollows lurking that would love to eat you."
"I have been a part of one Hollow; I have no desire to be a part of another." Ichigo's mother tapped the Zanpakutou at her side. "Besides, my partner here is not yet ready to share her name. Until then, I don't want to press my luck." The red and white garb of the girls' Academy uniform graced the older woman's frame as they entered the Dangai.
"You're advancement in the Academy is most impressive," the petite Shinigami said, trying to keep the conversation from going where she feared it would. She had met Ichigo's mother by chance a year ago in the Rukongai while patrolling. Recognizing her from the giant poster in her former home and sensing the reiatsu of the other woman, she'd immediately brought her to the Academy and had her enrolled. As the mother of the great hero Ichigo Kurosaki, she had been accepted at once.
"Isshin told me many things so I knew what to expect."
"He was closed mouth to us," Rukia said as the door opened onto the road outside of Urahara's shop.
Masaki Kurosaki smiled once again, laughter in her eyes. "Well, he didn't willingly tell me at first. It was only after I caught him talking to Urahara that he confessed, but that was long before we were married."
"So you knew all along what Ichigo saw that day."
"Yes," she said and wasn't surprised when her husband opened the door to the scientist's shop. "Hello, Isshin," the matron greeted, enjoying the shock on his face.
"Masaki! My beloved wife has returned to me!" Tears ran down his face as he embraced her. Catching the sight of a black haori out of the corner of his eye, he focused on her companion. "And my third daughter! You have both come home!" The sobs were louder and Rukia was pulled into a tight hug.
"Oh, what a joyous Obon this is!"
Masaki chuckled and after several minutes finally managed to free both Rukia and herself. "That's enough, Isshin. You can now tell me what Ichigo's gotten himself into."
"Ichigo?" the ex-captain said as his friend came up behind him. "Ichigo's just a regular teenager at the moment but we have a plan to fix that."
"Yare, yare, Isshin. Don't give the game away," Urahara scolded lightly and bowed to the two women. "It's nice to see you, Kurosaki-san. It's rare that a soul gets to come back."
"Well, it is Obon and I am a student at the Academy. Plus, my baby boy is in trouble so…" she shrugged lightly, figuring that they'd get the picture.
"What's this about Ichigo being in trouble?" Isshin asked, moving so that they could enter.
"Perhaps I should explain," Rukia started, pulling out her sketch pad. She missed the wince Urahara gave at the picture of rabbits and bears that was on the page. "It all started with the attack on Ishida." The Kurosakis paid close attention, Urahara mentally flipping through what he knew of the Fullbringers. Afterwards, Rukia put away her drawings and took a sip from the tea that Tessai had put in front of her.
"That's so like my boy! Always the protector!"
"Yes, he takes the meaning of his name very seriously." Masaki sipped her tea slowly.
"Now, I'm afraid the Soul Society is a bit confused with what he intends to do with this new power. They don't know much about the Fullbringers and their objectives so they sent me here to investigate."
"I see. I'm afraid I can't be of much help in this case, Kuchiki-san. I've been deep in another project for the last few days and am not aware of what has been going on, my apologies." Urahara sighed and looked back at his notes. "Let me do some research and see what I can come up with."
"Please. In the meantime, I think we should go talk with Ichigo. He is the best source of information at the moment."
Isshin was silent, the seriousness of the situation keeping him from acting the fool. "He was in a foul mood yesterday. Now, the kids are getting the altar ready for Obon. Won't they be surprised? Are you requesting gigais?"
"That won't be necessary. Your family can see us, even Ichigo if my guess is right. If someone were to see Kurosaki-san who knew her in life, it would be a problem."
"Of course, of course. Well, let's get home, my darlings. I'll see you later, Kisuke."
"Certainly. I'll let you know what I find out." Shop owner watched them leave, concern reflected faintly in his eyes. "Tessai, where is Yoruichi?"
"Taking a nap, sir."
"Wake her, please. This job requires stealth."
The taller man looked askance at his employer. You want me to wake her?"
Urahara grimaced and got to his feet. "Good point. Best we wait until she gets hungry. Even in her cat form she's lethal with those claws of hers."
Tessai nodded and picked up the half empty cups of tea. "Not to mention her fangs."
"Sad, but true."
Ichigo dusted his mother's altar, setting the small picture of her smiling face back after he was done. He'd already lit the candles that would supposedly herald her return. Even though they paid homage to the Buddhist festival, both he and his father knew the truth. Once someone went to the Soul Society, that person never came back.
Or it was more like hardly anyone ever came back.
Ignoring his sisters, the former daiko went to light the lanterns hung outside the clinic, another tradition that they didn't really need. If by any chance someone did come back from the other dimension, they didn't need anything to guide them to the Kurosaki residence. The only thing they had to do was focus on the dark and forbidding aura emanating from its residents.
Done with his Yuzu-appointed tasks, he went to his room and opened his closet to stare at the folded futon and blanket that had remained there for almost two years. "Damn midget. Could really use you here right now. No one believes me about that bastard. He did something to them and it's freakishly like Aizen's Zanpakutou. The old man and Urahara are up to something and I don't know who to turn to. The others are already in danger and I don't know whether I can defeat him without the support."
"Ichi-nii?" Karin called, looking at the older teen as he stared at an empty closet. "What are you doing?"
"What do you care? You've lost all faith in your brother."
"Ichi-nii, you've been acting strange for days. First staying out to all hours and then trying to beat up Shuu-chan. Now you're talking to an empty closet." The dark haired twin came into her brother's room and stared at the drawing pad and Chappy plush that was stuck in the corner of the closet shelf. It couldn't be seen from the doorway.
"I'm talking to someone who would believe me. Karin, do you remember me telling you about Aizen?"
"Yes…" Eyes filled with concern narrowed on Ichigo. He never talked about the Soul Society and what had happened. "Ichi-nii, Rukia-nee isn't here."
"I know that."
"Then what does Aizen have to do with the way you've been acting?"
"Another maniac has appeared. He tried to kill Ishida and attacked Chad, Inoue and myself. It looks like he hurt Tatsuki, Keigo, and you girls too. Even my boss has been affected."
"I wasn't attacked!"
"So you say but the funny thing is, when he stabs someone with his sword, they seem to think he's their friend. Or family, as the case may be. Karin, we don't have a cousin named Shuu-chan."
"That's not true. I remember him…" Karin denied vehemently. "Wait, you think he's like Aizen? I don't understand."
"Sit down," he commanded, his tone brooking no argument. She did as he ordered, plopping down onto his bed. Karin watched as he brushed imaginary dust off of the drawing pad and closed the closet door with a thud.
Ichigo took a seat in his desk chair. "Aizen had a Zanpakutou that could cause complete hypnosis. It made you see, hear, and even smell things that weren't there. It controlled the five senses. I'm not sure if it confused the ability to sense reiatsu or not but it probably did."
"Several days ago I was approached by a guy who was what they call a Fullbringer. Fullbringers have powers that are not unlike Inoue's and Chad's, really. It seems that if their parents came into contact with a Hollow before they were born, they got interesting abilities. Anyway, this group, Xcution, wanted to get rid of their powers and according to them, the way to do that is to give me back my Shinigami powers. I've been training with them. I now have a Fullbring of my own." Ichigo took out his Combat Badge, gripping it tightly. He allowed reiatsu to swirl around a bit so that she could see before putting it away. "Before they could go through the process that would give me back Zangetsu, and I guess my Hollow too, a former comrade of theirs used his own to isolate me. That would be your precious 'Shuu-chan.' Now do you understand? If everyone believes that he's a friend…"
"You'll be seen as the bad guy."
"Yeah, except that it didn't work on Inoue. You heard the conversation he had with her on the phone when he asked her what she meant about not knowing who he was."
A part of her wanted to deny everything he told her but she had heard that conversation. "Yes…"
"I think it's because of her ability to reject things that it didn't work. Her flower spirits must have worked without her knowing it. I'm not entirely sure how her powers work." Sighing, Ichigo ran his fingers through his hair. "Luckily she was able to reverse the effects on the Xcution group and Chad but my boss and you are still affected. I don't know if Dad and Urahara are as well so I haven't said anything to them yet."
"This is so far fetched." Karin saw memories of her and the man called "Shuu-chan," each as clear as her memories of her brother. It seemed impossible but her brother had never lied to her before. Oh, he'd kept secrets to protect her but keeping quiet was definitely not in her best interests now.
"I know, it's just what he wants. I can sense reiatsu now although not very well. Whether I can see Hollows and souls again is anyone's guess."
Karin leaned back against the wall and looked out the window for several minutes. "This isn't good, Ichi-nii. The Soul Society…"
"Yeah, I know. I doubt they know what's really going on, if they know squat. While I was training, I heard Rukia's voice saying that I wouldn't do something, but I don't know what that is. Most of those guys I met there are my friends. They were then, and they still are, even if I never see them again. I don't want them to think that I've betrayed them. The thing is, another Shinigami daiko has been killed by Tsukishima so it really does concern them."
"I see. I'm sorry, Ichi-nii but it still sounds like a story, even though my instincts are telling me to listen. We should tell Dad, see what he says."
"I would, if he was ever home at the same time I was." Something tingled in the back of his mind, an old, almost forgotten sense. "Karin…"
"Yeah, Dad's headed this way, along with two other spiritual beings. Come on, now's your chance. Just don't say anything to Yuzu. If what you say is true," she paused, seeing the storm gathering again. "And it is, damn this difficult, then he really did a number on her."
"Stop swearing," he said absently and followed her out of the room. She might not be able to completely believe him, but at least he wasn't alone in his own home again.
It was a start.
Rukia came to a stop several meters before the entrance to the clinic, gazing at the lanterns that had been hung outside. Tradition dictated that they be placed and lit so that the souls could find their way home. A soft exhale beside her brought her attention to Masaki. "Yuzu probably had him do it," she murmured.
"He lights one for you too, Rukia-chan," Isshin said, hands in his pocket. "He waits until everyone's asleep and lights it only at night. During the day he keeps it in the closet, with a battery operated one in there to take its place."
"Brat thinks I don't know. He hasn't spoken your name in a year and a half, at least not in my hearing and only a few days ago did he mention the Soul Society."
She felt tears prick her eyes and she blinked rapidly to get rid of them. "Even if I had come back last year, he wouldn't have been able to see me."
"Yeah, but he just wants you to know where home is."
Taking a breath, she smiled at the couple and took a step forward. "I know where home is," she said quietly.
Before she could move forward further, the door to the house burst open and the Kurosaki children ran out to greet their father. Ichigo was the first to come to a halt, his brows furrowing in concentration. Was he seeing her or just sensing her?
The orange haired daiko stared at the two reiatsus on either side of his father and tried to see who it was. While he couldn't recognize the one on the right, he could identify the person on the left even without having known the spiritual pressure. "Well, what do you know, Yuzu, the lanterns can actually guide spirits home."
"I told you," she said. The souls in front of her were blurry.
"I could identify you by your height, midget. Welcome home," he said, a smirk gracing his face.
"Baka!" she shouted and had the pleasure of seeing him wince with anticipated pain. Running to him, she kicked his shin. When he was bending over, she gripped his hair as if to slam his head into her knee. "I'm home," she whispered and all the tension left her.
"Aa," was the equally soft response. The romantic moment was promptly ruined, not by Ichigo which would have been expected, but by Karin who couldn't help blurting,
"Mom?" Karin stared, mouth agape at the woman in some weird uniform. There was no mistaking the face. She looked at a blown up version of it daily.
"Mom?" Ichigo couldn't make out actual faces but he didn't doubt his sister.
"Mom?" Yuzu glanced between her siblings before looking at her father. Isshin nodded, tears of joy running down his face.
Masaki opened her arms and could hold back her own tears. "I'm only here for a visit but here I am." She was rushed and wrapped in her children's arms.
Rukia looked on, content for the moment. There was much to discuss and to figure out, but for the moment she was happy to let this reunion go uninterrupted. The lanterns might not have literally guided them home, but they had certainly welcomed them. What greeted them was everything she had given up hope of ever experiencing again in the material world.