AN: It's finally here! Is it odd that I'm excited to post this? :) Well, I'm not gonna make you guys wait because I know that people have probably skipped my long notes anyway. Just FYI, I edited the summary a little bit. So yeah, stuff changed as I was reformulating the plot. =D
Full Summary: Inspired by "Rapture" by ichilover3. Partial AU. The Kurosaki noble family is a house filled with both traditions too old and corrupt counselors abound. Their most prominent custom: a son will inherit the position as the head of the clan. But when Ichigo is killed and Isshin goes missing on a mission for the Gotei Thirteen, Masaki is left in a house full of enemies with her yet-to-be-born twins to protect. Masaki must strike a deal with the Kuchiki House to save them and the future of the Kurosaki name. While one daughter will grow up normally in her own home, the other will be trained under the other family as the next leader. From her mother's sacrifice, Kurosaki Karin is reborn as Kurosaki Kazuto, the 29th head of the Kurosaki House. Hitsugaya/Karin, Ichigo/Rukia and others.
Warnings: I've taken elements of the anime and have fitted them to work into the story. So, if you don't know about Aizen's back story, you'll either be reading some spoilers or find it a little confusing during those parts. That stuff makes up the bulk of this chapter, but if you really don't wanna be confused I suggest finishing the arc. :D
Prologue: Family History
For centuries, tradition delegated that the head of the Kurosaki clan would hold direct ties to the Gotei Thirteen's Fifth Division captaincy. So true to its words, Kurosaki Isshin was a force to be reckoned with in the old-fashioned, aristocratic area of Seireitei. Known as a captain whose strength was considered unparalleled to any of his counterparts, he was a strangely light-hearted fellow who smiled much too happily for a man with such refined power. It would be easy to be intimidated by a noble who was not only influential but entirely too strong, and yet he carried none of the airs that other houses seemed to boast.
At the top of the afterlife's hierarchy, the Kurosaki family sat in good company between the Shihouin and the Kuchiki clans, each group distinctly different from the others but all intertwined by good relations and blood-spilt pasts. And while the Shiba House was no longer considered one of them, the old bonds that tied each group to another was solid, unshakeable by time and space, law and will.
But it was a treacherous thing to sit at the top and pretend that one was content, as it made one look like he was merely lording over those who worked the lands without any personal effort. But that was a common misconception that the outside world held, not knowing that even the strictest of rules had regulations and leaders had others keeping them in check. The in-house politics weren't games that Isshin played well, nor was he one to conform to the ideals that his counselors pushed on him. When he was a much younger soul, it was a careful balancing act, trying to keep afloat when dealing with lower-level workers and warding off unwanted advice from the elders at the same time.
Long before he had even been accepted as leader of his clan, Isshin was just a young man and lieutenant beneath his father, too green and bright eyed to be ready for the perils of inner-house warfare. His father had handled it all so well, diplomatic in a way that he knew he would never be, much too rebellious for the advisers to find him responsible or respectable. But it was both his duty and destiny, to forever butt heads and match wits with these old men who were staunch believers that they were as infallible as their scriptures were old.
It was only a few years after he received the Fifth Division's captaincy that Isshin's father was pulled from the afterlife, meeting his end in a civil war that had raged terror on the unsuspecting inhabitants of both Seireitei and Rukongai. Unceremoniously, he was pushed into the position he'd never wanted, forced to fill his father's great shoes whilst simultaneously dealing with 'helpful' and 'grief-ridden' consultants. During that time, written proposals were handed to him left and right, some about expanding their lands, others about funding new investments in growing areas, and strangely enough more than a couple about arranging to find a wife. Between his inability to politely decline such offers and mourning his father's death, Isshin was at a disadvantage from the start, being walked over by everyone around him and, if he didn't regain his bearings soon, likely to become a puppet for the counselors.
But he learned that from every dark moment, sunlight would always break through.
In what was supposed to be the darkest hour of his weakest moment, a breath of fresh air filled his lungs in the form of a young, auburn-haired woman. While walking down the busy streets of District One, pleased to lose himself and his thoughts as he wandered in his plain shinigami uniform, he stumbled upon a small stall filled with fragrant flowers and well-manicured shrubs. But even among them, the most beautiful sight was the one who stood behind its counter, smiling pleasantly and answering inquiries with a twikle in her eye.
As if pulled by an intangible force, the large man made his way in front of the booth, eyeing the plants while desperately trying not to be caught staring at their owner. But it was a fruitless task because she noticed him out of the corner of her eye, more than once even, as she handled each potential buyer with grace that fit her pretty face. He would one day make the woman named Masaki his wife, doing so against all the ancient rules and etiquette that the elders cited. And she would accept his proposal with a bright laugh, before walking down the aisle in the same kimono his mother wore, the one every woman of his family put on for their wedding day.
From this new joy, he drew strength and confidence from his newly minted marriage, eventually finding his place in his everlasting power struggle against his own advisers. As he got more and more proficient at dealing with them, he likened their subtle tug-of-war to a peaceful day of fishing. Once he baited one of the geezers, he'd give them a little breathing room, letting the line draw itself out and allowing them to think that they were in control. But, just as every skilled fisherman does, he'd reel them in slowly at first, making slight adjustments to their propositions until it became something else entirely. But by then it would be too late and the elder would be left gasping for breath on the deck of his metaphorical boat, caught and wallowing in despair.
With the entrance of Masaki into his life, Isshin was living as close to heaven as one could get to in death. He'd managed to fill the position he was meant to take, as unexpected and unwilling as it was to be forced there, and had been lucky enough to find the one who was meant to spend his eternal life with. And just when he thought he couldn't be any happier, somehow she managed to prove him wrong.
Because, one hot summer day, Kurosaki Ichigo was brought into the world.
It was a grand moment of pride for Isshin, as he took a hold of the son who would one day inevitably take his place. A small but strong baby boy looked up at him, brown eyes curiously blinking at the lightly bearded stranger with a frown marring his chubby face. From the futon, Masaki's eyes smiled at him, her body tired but visibly overjoyed as every new mother was. And from that moment on, Isshin knew there was no more beautiful moment in one's existence than this.
As the decades flew by, there was bliss in the Kurosaki House. The sound of a young boy's laughter blended into the deep bass of a young shinigami and soon-to-be master of the house. Kurosaki Ichigo was everything that their family needed him to be: strong, intelligent, willful but receptive to criticism and yet so sure of himself. He would be all the things his father was not, someone worthy of taking over the responsibilities of the people who served him and maintaining the reputation the elders so desperately wished to uphold.
If only they knew just how fast their perfect world could break into small, unidentifiable pieces.
"I can't believe… Aizen-fukutaichou…"
Cradling the wound in his right side, the captain-robed shinigami used a bit of kidou to prevent any more bleeding but couldn't do much else. There was a traitor in their midst and he had escaped his captain only moments before, using the element of surprise to prevent the older man from following. With a curse, Isshin knew he had to inform Central 46 and Genryuusai-soutaichou before he put enough distance between them. But with the nearly deadly blow dealt, he could only go so far so fast.
Stumbling onto the threshold of their ancient mansion, he collapsed to his knees as he barked for help. The clear, pale moon was the only source of light present and it shone down on him like a beacon, alerting the caretakers of the home. Soon the entire garden was overrun with the staff, clambering to get their master into the house and nurse that wound of his. In spite of the lightheadedness overtaking his brain, Isshin knew that Masaki was nearby, could feel her and two other presences with her. It comforted him to know she was still safe.
As soon as she was in the room, Masaki was at his side, clutching his hand and holding in tears of both joy and sorrow. He gave her a weak smile that belied his pain, brushing away the salt with the pad of his thumb. No tears, he had once told her. He would never be the one to make her cry, not if he could help it, and if there would ever be a time when he broke that vow, then he was sure to be the one to wipe them away. It was the least he could do, as she let him lead her out of her comfortable life in Rukongai and into the danger that was Soul Society.
"What happened? Where's Ichigo?" Masaki asked, voice cracking when caught it in her throat. As she looked at him with wet eyes, she vaguely noticed how small her hands were as they were held tight by one of his. The way his face fell made her stomach drop in turn, as she bit back a sob, determining the worst kind of truth. It was only the flexing of his fingers that kept her from breaking down, fully and uncontrollably.
"I'm sorry, Masaki. He's… gone," he murmured hoarsely, not sure how he was going to put the situation into things as useless as words. As the Fifth Squad's third seat, Ichigo had been immensely powerful even for his rank and age, likely because of his early training and nearly God-like talent. But that part of their lives was over now, as Isshin had watched his own flesh and blood be cut down right before his eyes, powerless to stop that blade from claiming his soul. Tears gathered at the edges of his vision, trying to prevent the replay of how Aizen had ruthlessly torn into the young man's back, turning his shihakusho blood red and staining it with unforgivable sin.
"What do you mean? Where is he?" she demanded, trails of water falling down her face without ceremony. Her body shook while she waited for him to explain, feelings of dark rage and unbearable sadness overtaking her, things she'd never harbored before this moment. But this was her son, her little boy who had done nothing but love and protect all that he could, and she would die for him if she had to, pay whatever price anyone demanded. But it wasn't so simple, and deep down she knew that Isshin was breaking this as gently as he could.
In a quiet, pained voice, the ebony-haired Kurosaki told her of his vice captain's experiments, of how he began turning regularly shinigami into hollows to discover a way to evolve beyond both. He had been doing it for a long while now, if his instincts were telling him correctly, and while he had suspected the brown-haired man he hadn't thought his treason had gone this far. And this incident tonight, where he brought down a group of captain-level shinigami and pinned it all on the Twelfth Squad's Urahara-taichou before fleeing with the young genius Ichimaru Gin and Ninth Squad's Kaname Tousen, he told her of Aizen's last experiment, the one that would change their family forever.
He'd killed a weakened Ichigo while he was undergoing hollowfication.
"Yoruichi-taichou has already opened the gate to the real world for Urahara-taichou and the Kidoushu's Tessai-san. Ichigo and the others… I know where they are. I'll send the Fourth to retrieve them." The hitches in his voice gave way to the tumble of emotions, as his pain was relieved by the family doctor but his grief-riddled anxiety mounted with each word. He had lost his only son to a monster, a man he was supposed to trust with his life, someone he knew he could forgive. His own mistake had cost him dearly. And although he had never been the type to demand vengeance, Isshin wanted his retribution, for his family and for himself.
"You'll follow Aizen, won't you?" It was phrased as a question but it sounded more like an accusation. When the Gotei Thirteen and Central 46 got word, they would dispatch a team to go after the traitor. And of course it meant that he would lead them, to bring back his former fukutaichou and have justice served. Or if not that, then return with his head in hand as proof of his death. There was nothing else to offer the treasonous bastard. Lifting his hand to his wife's protruding abdomen, he knew that there was much more riding on this mission than any other before. He had two more little lives to protect and somehow they made all the difference.
When Isshin and his group left days later, Masaki knew that there was something going on in the depths of the noble Kurosaki House. It wasn't so much that any of its inhabitants changed or acted differently, but somehow the atmosphere had, as if something dark and ominous was waiting in the corner of every room, watching her every move. It didn't sit well with her, as she held her stomach and prayed for the safe birth of her children.
While she might have been the lady of the grounds, she wasn't ignorant enough to believe she had any true power without her husband. If she had come from a fellow aristocratic family, then she'd be sure to have a few allies and thus no harm would reach her, not in her own home at least. But she was just a poor soul from the Second District, an average girl if one stripped away her marriage and title, helpless to the ones who had control in this small but affluent society.
So she kept her ears open, as she listened and watched discretely, finding things out from the few people who she could trust. Murmurs of upheaval were coming from certain counselors, discontent with being left by their leader and the loss of their heir. In order to prevent questions, the elders had cited Ichigo's death as lost in combat and so he was honorably discharged from his division. They'd held an extravagant procession, one she knew her conservative son wouldn't have liked or approved of, touting him as a well-loved hero of the Great Noble Houses.
As she sat and watched the coffin be lowered into the ground, she couldn't stop the wave of hopelessness that overtook her. There was no body in that casket, no bodies to be found at all when the Gotei Thirteen arrived at the patch of forest, led by her husband. The news delivered a painful stab to her bleeding heart, knowing she wouldn't even get to say goodbye to Ichigo as she deserved to, needed to. And even more painful was the fact that her son's funeral was a lie, a fabrication to cover up another's misdeeds but keep the facet of the honorable, old house. Listlessly staring as she cried silent tears, she wondered just how many more lies she would have to keep and how many secrets would be revealed before this living nightmare was over.
Unfortunately for Masaki, there would be many, many more to come.
"Welcome, Kurosaki-san. To what do I owe the pleasure?" The baritone of the masculine voice was pure dignity, an in-born trait that had manifested itself as soon as he passed his young, adolescent-esque years. She turned to greet the younger man, as she tried to sit comfortably and prevent her usual fidgeting. It was a habit that annoyed a number of the advisors, who wondered why the Kurosaki-by-marriage couldn't project herself in a way fitting to her position. She usually just smiled blandly in response, as if she didn't hear them in the first place.
"The pleasure is all mine, Byakuya-san. I suppose I can't call you 'Byakuya-kun' anymore. You've grown so much since I last saw you," she tittered sweetly, as if a mother hen to her chick. Although older than Ichigo by half a century, there was something very composed about the other man's aura. Where her son had been loud, brash and forceful, Kuchiki Byakuya was poised and elegant in his manner, two very different types of people but who had once shared the same fate.
"I do not mean to push, but I have a feeling that it is not small talk that has brought you here, Masaki-san." Yes, very wise indeed. Her husband had that same foresight as well, had used it against a number of his peers whenever some sort of venture was placed in front of him. That ability to read people was an uncanny thing that only the upper crust seemed to have.
"You're right, of course," she nodded, fisting her fingers in her light-colored kimono. It was difficult with her belly stretched the way it was, but it wouldn't be much longer. Soon her twins would come into the world, but without a leaf of protection over their heads. While she could afford to give them some, Masaki wasn't naïve. Her children would get in the way of the plans that were being concocted in her own home and it was up to her to defend them, no matter what the consequences might be. Taking a deep breath, she continued as she looked the placid man in the eye. "I've come to make a deal, one that would benefit both of our families greatly and ensure the safety of my twins' futures."
"I believe that it's usually the counselors who have domain over the Kurosaki household's dealings while Kurosaki-taichou is away." She knew that he was testing her, a bit of bait to see if she'd sink or swim under a bit of force. The dark-haired man knew very well that she was doing something out of her capabilities, essentially going against every tradition he had learned so well. But he respected the older woman before him, knew she was neither a wilting flower nor a marionette for show. She had raised Ichigo much the same way, he thought, his mind turning to his little sister-in-law and her one-time childhood friend. Even months after his untimely demise, Byakuya recalled more than a few nights when Rukia cried in the silence of her room, praying for the orange-haired boy to come back, and it did more than break his heart.
"They can't be the ones doing business if I'm the one they're targeting."
He raised a perfect brow in question, but no other gestures gave him away. "Is someone trying to harm you, Masaki-san?"
"Not me," she replied vaguely, but then she gestured to her pregnant belly and Byakuya knew. There had been some influx of gossip amongst the elders of the royal houses and it seemed that the Kurosaki House was especially unstable given the counselors' clashing wills and lack of sovereignty. Without one single ruler to guide the decisions and halt the growing conflict, there was talk of shifting the power away from those with blue blood and more towards its elected officials. Just the thought of it left a bad taste in the young man's mouth.
If such a thing did occur, it would mean Masaki and her children would be in the advisors' way, especially if one was born a boy. As quoted in antiquated but unchanged law, only the males of the Kurosaki House were given the authority to rule, figureheads of strength to the public and brought up to be masters of negotiation to aid the villagers and farmers on their lands. A new heir meant hope for the families' followers, and if one planned revolution, hope needed to be crushed completely before a new system could be fully instilled and accepted.
He nodded slightly to signal that he understood. "What have they done to you?"
"Very little, but not for lack of trying," she spoke softly, a protective hand going over her yet-to-be ripened young. When her first child had been ripped out of her hands, it had been hell. No, that wasn't right, it was still hell, to live every day knowing that Ichigo's childishly mature face would never smile at her again, that his voice would never come home to greet her or wish her good night. Although there was some comfort in knowing that he was at peace elsewhere, it didn't change the fact that he was gone, dead to all that knew him and never to be known by his own siblings. One had to learn that there would always be pain in sacrifice, and now it was her turn to give up both her and her childrens' futures to protect them from terrors still not known.
She explained to him the incidences of almost falling when climbing down stairs, as if pushed by an invisible body. There had also been an attempt to poison her food; she'd been too melancholy to have dinner that night, only to find that it had burned through the bowl a mere fifteen minutes later. And even while she was cautious, Masaki knew there was someone watching her at all times, their eyes searing into her back, almost to the point where she couldn't be alone anymore. She was so close to her due date that it anything happened to her she had no doubt that her children would be harmed as well, and the Kurosaki House would suffer the aftershocks.
"Then what do you propose, Masaki-san?" Byakuya asked gently, his tone respectful and caring despite his usual aloofness. She had no one to trust in her own home and even fewer allies outside. If she wanted her children to have a chance at life, then she knew that this was it, a bond with another powerful clan to protect her own. Until her twins were strong enough to take care of themselves, they would always be targets just waiting to be picked off by some lowly hired hand.
"My children are both girls," she said, lifting her hand to prevent him from interrupting her. "No, I haven't asked the doctor but a mother knows these things. They will both be girls, as different as night and day, and they will be the only ray of hope in this situation." She patted her abdomen, as if to soothe them through her skin. "But you and I both know that the Kurosaki's only allow male heirs. Until their father returns, they will be powerless in that wretched house, and when that time occurs, who knows how much will have changed?"
"What exactly are you asking of me, Masaki-san?" he demanded again, a feeling of dread coming up and into his gut. He knew that this woman was gutsy, probably more so than even that airheaded husband of hers, but he couldn't see her endgame. As she smiled slyly, the feeling began to morph into what he acknowledged as fear of the one across from him, a devious side he hadn't known existed coming out to play. He would've never pegged the beauty as callous until now.
"You will help raise one of my girls as heir to the Kurosaki House." There was no hesitation, no lilt of pleading, only the sweetness of her voice bathed in command. His eyes narrowed, unused to hearing such a tone from anyone that wasn't his grandfather but then he caught the look in her eyes. The usually calm and complacent woman before him had the eyes of a tiger, fierce and ready to do battle, not unlike her deceased son's. It almost made him back away, but he wouldn't be scared out of his own estate by a mere glare. While a worthy opponent, Kurosaki Masaki was still only a normal soul.
"Let's say I do help you, what would the Kuchiki family get in exchange?" He eyed her with interest, wondering what she could possibly barter for such an outrageous trade. She had no access to the wealth of her family, not without the elders finding out, and had very little to her name even before marriage. He'd never been one to manhandle a woman, but she had to know that business was business, especially with the Kuchiki family's leader.
"An arranged marriage," she replied after a brief pause, though it looked as if it pained her to do so. "Neither of my twins will legally be able to take the position as leader of their house, but one of their sons will. As long as she's not discovered, one of my daughters will keep the counselors at bay and continue family tradition. The other will be raised in our home and will eventually have children, including the next heir. It would strengthen our bonds and you may find that many of our connections are to your liking."
Byakuya couldn't help the frown of concentration, as he weighed his options carefully. While it was certainly an interesting proposition, it wasn't without flaws. He had his eye on a number of resources that the Kurosaki House had access to because he wished to maintain his lands and meet his people's needs as best as he could. But there was also the risk involved, such as if her daughter was exposed before another heir was born or some other unfortunate case. Centuries were a long time, and even the most well hidden secrets came to light in the end. Just how long would he be able to keep up the pretense and, truly, did he even want to?
But then the thought of Kurosaki Ichigo, the young man who had left his little sister behind, came to him and he knew how much Rukia would want this. To care for her best friend's siblings might just heal the void in her heart, the one that was nowhere close to being filled, as it slowly consumed her inside-out. And if nothing else, the broken Kurosaki House deserved a chance as well and he was the only one in the right position to offer the assistance, no matter how unlike him the action was.
Extending his hand to the noblewoman, he took hers as treaty for her word.
AN: Hmm. Not completely satisfied with my writing but I did like the first chapter overall. Maybe I'll do some major editing later. And, yes, I have killed Ichigo but you know I didn't really. Where would the IchiRuki go? :) Not much to say, but if you guys are enjoying please leave a review/favorite it/alert this story.
I won't give anything away plot-wise (except that, yes, we do meet Karin and Toushirou in the next part~) but any critiques about the flow of the story/writing are welcome. It's a little shaky but I'm finding my voice slowly but surely and I appreciate your patience. Also, in case anyone is wondering, I'm gonna put a lid on my HitsuKarin one-shots and short stories for now because I have about seven picking at my brain and I don't think I can work on this and those at the same time. For some reason, my Karin!muse is hyperactive and overly involved in my life so I'm shooting her with an anesthetic and knocking her out for now. LOL
Until next time, everyone!