A/N: I started this several weeks ago when we thought Byakuya had died. In true Kubo-sensei style, he's pulled a fast one and left the captain hanging onto life by a thread. So instead this has become a "What if" scenario. I haven't forgotten my other stories; I've just been unable to write anything for them. This is the first thing I've completed in who knows how long (partly because of a cold that will not leave me entirely) so I hope you'll take this small peace offering and enjoy it.
Disclaimer: I do not own the Bleach characters, manga, anime, movies, etc. They belong by copyright laws to Tite Kubo et al.
The Consequences of War
Immeasurable Grief and Desperate Need
The sky was lit up like day despite the time being somewhere between midnight and dawn. Funeral pyres had been burning since the early afternoon and more were being created as time went on. Hours had passed in a blur for those still alive, only the desperate need to find survivors keeping them on their feet. The city laid in ruins, both innocents and villains alike casualties of a war that had finally ended.
Amber eyes surveyed the wreckage before dropping to the precious cargo in weary arms. Ichigo Kurosaki felt tears prick his eyes but blinked them away as ash from the nearest fire drifted his way. At least if the woman he was carrying woke, he had a legitimate reason for his watery eyes. Shifting Rukia slightly, he made his way slowly to the Kuchiki estate, unable to do more than glare at the guards when they drew their swords on him.
The front gardens were destroyed, the koi pond drained of its water and a large bucket the only home Byakuya's prized koi had. No doubt the servants not killed in the attack had used the readily available element to put out as much of the fire as possible. He could tell that a large part of the manor had taken damage and hoped that nothing important had been destroyed. He didn't think that his fragile friend could handle losing anything more of her brother's, or her sister's for that matter.
Byakuya's right hand servant made his way slowly towards them, pity and grief in his eyes. The stress had taken its toll on the old man, his shoulders drooped even more than his age had done initially. "This way, Kurosaki-sama," he said quietly so as not to awaken his mistress.
The daiko nodded in acknowledgement, not sure that he could speak without breaking down himself. He hadn't liked the noble but he had respected him as another warrior and for the progress he'd made in being a better big brother to Rukia. In fact, the man had become downright over protective in some cases, although he had let go of the reins enough to allow her to finally become the seated officer she deserved to be.
A few maids limped around the petite Shinigami's room, preparing the futon and covering the shoji doors so that the light from the burning sky would not disturb Rukia's sleep. He knelt next to the futon, hoping that he could set the grief stricken princess down long enough for the trio of women to get her in something other than the hospital issue gi that Captain Unohana had let her borrow.
"Kurosaki-sama…" the servant began softly, unsure of where to start. He knew by things he'd heard that the young man was a close friend of the princess' but it would not do for them to sleep in the same room.
"I'll leave long enough for you guys to change her and get her in bed. Find me some bath water and something to change into, please. She's sleeping now thanks to a sedative but I don't think that's going to last very much longer. Before I couldn't get her to let go of my haori. She has a large gash on her back that is just about healed but be careful anyway. I'll come back after my own bath." Glancing once more at his friend, Ichigo followed the elder out and down the corridor.
"Kuchiki-sama's funeral will be tomorrow. The elders are already gathering to decide who the next head should be. There is a possibility that Rukia-sama will be ejected from the clan," the servant warned, feeling that the young man next to him had the right to know.
Ichigo's anger spiked and he had to hold in his spiritual energy so as not to alarm anyone. "She'll always have a home, regardless."
"I hope so. I have never seen her so distraught. When she came to us nearly fifty years ago, she quickly became quiet and self-contained."
"That's because that's what was expected of her. Byakuya made a mess of things but I'm glad that he finally realized his mistake. She always idolized him and losing another person that she loved has taken its toll. If she wasn't the lieutenant of her division, I'd take her home with me."
"I believe his change of heart was all due to you, Kurosaki-sama." The old man glanced at the giant sword strapped to the daiko's back. The tattered white ribbon concealed the deadly blade but it did nothing to lessen the intimidating aura of the Zanpakutou. He had a feeling that if his mistress' place in the clan was threatened, the elders would find themselves on the sharp end of the spirit sword.
"Yeah, I guess he just needed to hear about the responsibilities of a real older brother." Ichigo rubbed the back of his head slowly, widening his eyes when they came to a part of the building that had been reduced to rubble. "Byakuya would have blown a fuse if he'd seen the mess this place became."
"His lordship often destroyed parts of the manor when he was younger in a fit of anger upon getting his shikai. As a young man, he had quite the temper."
Stopping in front of the bathing chamber, Ichigo laughed for the first time since the war began. "They are far more alike than you could ever imagine. Thank you for the bath."
"Any time, Kurosaki-sama. I will bring a change of clothes for you soon. Please take your time. Breakfast will be served when Rukia-sama awakens."
"Yeah, ah, thanks…" Ichigo muttered, although just the thought of food was revolting. He hadn't felt like eating since waking up in the infirmary.
"I'll bid you good night, then." Bowing to the orange haired war hero, the servant left to go look for clothing.
Left by himself, Ichigo went through the motions, leaving Zangetsu to guard the door and Sode no Shirayuki. He'd forgotten that he'd put the other spirit sword in his sash to make it easier to carry Rukia home. The pure white Zanpakutou had never even made it out of her dormant state before her wielder had been struck down from behind. It was too bad as he was sure that the ice sword could have been helpful.
A knock on the door signaled his new clothing and Ichigo opened it just far enough to accept the garments. Wrapping himself in the simple yukata, the daiko picked up the two Zanpakutous and began making his way back to Rukia's room. A muted cry from within quickened his pace and he opened the door to find Rukia huddled in the fetal position. She was trying to muffle her crying but it only made her small body shake violently with grief.
Unable to stand the sight of her so distraught, Ichigo put down the swords near her vanity table and crept to sit next to her on the futon. The sedative had obviously worn off and now the nightmares were intruding into her slumber. "Rukia…" he started, flinching in surprise when her tiny hands grabbed his clothing.
"It's Ichigo," he explained gently, figuring that she'd smelled the soap he'd used and her subconscious mind had associated it with her brother. The daiko had believed that the masculine washing agent had been the captain's but it was either he used that or smell like strawberries and flowers for the rest of his time in the Soul Society. He rather thought Byakuya would have approved of his choice.
"Ichigo…" Violet eyes blinked open slowly before reality interfered and she shot up suddenly, hitting her partner in the chin with the crown of her head. Both Shinigami cursed under their breaths, rubbing the offended part of their bodies. "What are you doing here, you fool? If Nii-sama finds you, he'll…" Abject horror overcame her and she had a hard time not breaking into tears again.
"I know what he'd do. Maybe he'd make an exception in this case though. It's been a rough day, and it's a little too cold to sit outside on the veranda like I did the last time you were hurt this bad."
"There are other bedrooms," Rukia sniffled, thankful for the normality of the conversation. She was hanging on by a thread and knew Ichigo was doing his best to keep her calm.
"Ah, yeah, about that… Well, it seems you grabbed hold and wouldn't let go. Not that I would have left you at a time like this." Fragile fingers were pried loose and tucked under the quilt. Ichigo felt that if he was too rough she would shatter. She always seemed tougher than him and seeing her in this state only proved how much she'd come to adore Byakuya.
"Baka," she muttered, unable to think of anything else to say. Closing her eyes, she tried to rest, only to open them again when the visions of horror greeted her. "I can't sleep. Every time I close my eyes… Senbonzakura's petals were falling…"
"I know," Ichigo agreed, having heard from Renji what had happened. The Squad Six lieutenant was blaming himself for not being able to save his captain. One of the few occasions that he'd been awake, he'd deliriously told anyone who was listening what had happened. The news had gotten to Ichigo as he lay recuperating and the vision of Byakuya's sword falling apart was a vivid video that replayed in his mind.
Lying down next to her, Ichigo hesitantly wrapped an arm around her, unused to comforting any female except his sisters in that manner. Normally he would have been utterly mortified by the mere thought of them on the same bed but after what he had seen in the last couple of days, their close proximity was the least of his worries. "Ichigo," Rukia whispered, pressing her ear against his chest so that the sound of his heartbeat could reassure her.
"Promise me that everyone else is okay. You, Renji, Chad, and Inoue."
"We're going to be fine. Chad and Inoue just need a lot of sleep. Renji's still pretty banged up but he'll recover. I've got some bruising and fading cuts but as you can tell, I'm alive. It'll take a lot more than a deranged Quincy to kill me. Even Goat Chin is still alive and he took quite a beating." Isshin had shown up not long after the Royal Guard had made their entrance and taken down a couple of the enemies who'd already stolen someone's bankai. Thanks to information provided by Ishida on the sly, they'd been able to counteract the effects of the strange Quincy tool that had stolen the power in the first place.
"What about Captain Ukitake?"
Ichigo sighed, and tried to think of a way to get out of telling her the truth. When nothing that wasn't an outright lie came to mind, he caved. "He's in a coma, Rukia. Unohana-san doesn't know if he'll wake up again. I guess it all depends on how strong his will to live is. You know him, though. He's had that disease for centuries and was still able to obtain bankai somewhere along the way. I'm sure he's fighting to come back."
Tears burned in Rukia's eyes and she buried her head in his chest. "I'm going to cry for a little while. If you say anything about this to anyone, I'm going to kick you in the shins so hard they'll break into tiny splinters."
"I won't say a word," Ichigo promised. He wouldn't have to; the evidence would be all over her face in the morning.
"You won't leave?"
"They'll have to knock me unconscious or kill me and take me back to the World of the Living before I willingly step through a Senkaimon," he vowed.
"Idiot," she said again before starting to cry. Alone with Ichigo she could let out her grief for all those she had lost over the years, both here in the Seireitei and in the Rukongai. When she had lost her friends, it had just been a part of life in the far districts of the Soul Society. A simple fact that every kid knew and accepted. As a part of the Gotei Thirteen, she had known that Shinigami could easily lose their lives to Hollows and other enemies. She'd even had to kill her own lieutenant to free him from a blighted soul and although that had torn her up for years, she'd eventually learned to accept it. The Winter War had shown her how easily her own life could be snatched away if she wasn't strong enough and she had struggled to gain enough power to ensure that she would never again be too weak to save herself.
The Quincy invasion though, that was something entirely different. They had not cared whether their opponents were foot soldiers, captains, or civilians. If a person lived in the Seireitei, they had been in danger of being slaughtered. The Vandenreich hadn't even cared if he or she was a Shinigami, a noble, or a simple commoner. Their revenge had known no bounds and mercy had not been in their vocabulary. They had gloried in their superiority and if Ichigo and the Royal Guard hadn't gotten there when they did, no one would have been left.
They had been no better than Aizen and in some cases they had been worse. It was like a war zone in the human world; the kind that left mental scars and waking nightmares for those who somehow managed to survive. Zanpakutous had been damaged and irreparably changed. Physically the Shinigami may have lost limbs but the emotional wounds were far worse and would most likely never disappear.
While Rukia was lost in her grief, Ichigo held her, unable to do anything for her but let her know that he was there for her. It reminded him of the time that the twins died. Her tears poured forth openly, even her Kuchiki training unable to help her maintain her composure. This mourning was so much worse because while she had loved the children she'd named, Rukia had idolized her brother and clung to him as the only connection between her and the sister that she didn't remember.
It tore him apart to see her like this and pushed all thoughts of his own problems away. He was sure that Zangetsu and his Hollow would remind him eventually but right now that didn't matter. Only the small sobbing woman in his arms. Bringing her closer to his chest, he lowered his head and dropped a kiss on the top of her head, hoping that that small show of affection would get through to her and help her calm down enough to sleep. He stroked her hair, much as he'd done with Yuzu when she was younger and still grieving for their mother.
"Ichigo…" Rukia whispered brokenly, lifting one hand to lace her fingers through his. Her appendages were dwarfed by his and again she was reminded that although his chronological age might be seventeen, he was no longer the boy she'd met three years ago. The orange haired daiko lying beside her was a man. A man forged in war and hardened in battle but a man that could still be gentle when the occasion called for it and one who cared about his friends and family so much that he would lay down his life for them without a second thought.
"I know, Rukia," he returned. "You don't have to apologize or explain. I understand completely. This was how I felt when my mother died except that I couldn't cry for days. I just kept wandering back and forth on the river bank looking for her and waiting for her to come back."
"I keep waiting for him to come in that door or send a message to me saying he's going to be late or something. Something besides that he's dead."
"It's hard to believe he's gone and that's okay too."
"Does it get any easier?"
"Did it get any easier for you when your friends from the Rukongai died or your lieutenant?"
Violet eyes widened and filled with tears again. "No," she cried. "No, it doesn't. This hurts so much worse, Ichigo. Why?"
"Byakuya was family. Your brother and the only one who could tell you what your sister was like. It doesn't matter that you don't share any blood. You two were a lot alike."
"No, we weren't."
"Yes, you were," Ichigo shot back, content that he could argue with her again, even though it was about this. He wanted to see that spark in her eye return. "And if you need any proof, just look at your Zanpakutous. Each is elegant and graceful in their own way. Not to mention very deadly. I jeered at Senbonzakura's petal blades a lot but they were deadly and I knew that. Your ice attacks are just as much so. I wouldn't be surprised if your bankai, when you get it, was some kind of blizzard that will swirl around and give its victims hypothermia or something."
"I'm not strong enough for bankai."
"Yes, you are. Renji and I will help you achieve it if you want and we'll be there to support you when you falter but you are strong enough."
"Do you think Nii-sama would be proud of me then?" Her whispered plea broke his heart.
"He was already proud of you. You were his pride. Sometimes I think he thought of you more as a daughter than a sister. More than anything though, I think he'd want you to be happy."
"Hey, he let you become a lieutenant, didn't he? Face it, Rukia, when it came to the big bad Captain Kuchiki, you could have had him twisted around your little finger without batting an eye." He caught the fleeting smile that touched her lips and gave her one of his own. She still had tears to cry but perhaps for the night they were over.
"All right. I will lead this clan as his heir if that's what he wants and I will show the elders that blood has nothing to do with nobility."
"That's my girl," Ichigo cheered and blushed so brightly he swore that she could see it in the dark. She didn't need the kind of pressure that statement brought on her right now. "Ah, maybe you should try to sleep now."
"Sleep is impossible." She would only have nightmares again and that she couldn't deal with yet.
"At least try to rest."
"Talk to me?" she asked softly, laying her against his chest once more.
"About what?" he questioned, unsure about what she wanted exactly. He wasn't much of a conversationalist and didn't know what he could say that would satisfy her.
"Anything. What you did during those seventeen months without your powers, what university you want to go to, I'll even listen to that bard you like so much. It doesn't matter."
"Ah, well… Those seventeen months were 'normal.' I went to school, joined sports teams at the request of the members for money, got a job and tried to save money so that I could move out after I graduated from high school."
Rukia looked up at him, her nose scrunched in mild disgust. "Sounds boring." Violet eyes reflected the questions she wanted to ask but wouldn't. He couldn't see them but knew they were there.
"It was boring. I haven't thought about a university or my future although I should. There was nothing that interested me."
"No need for you to apologize. It's not your fault that I've found my purpose more in death than in life. Hell, I'm half Shinigami to begin with so it's not that surprising." He continued to stroke her hair with his free hand while the one that was laced with hers lowered to rest on her waist. With his thumb he stroked the back of her hand, hoping that the repetitive motions would lull her to sleep.
"No, I suppose it isn't," she mused, her voice slightly slurred with fatigue. "You were at a loss without me to tell you what to do, weren't you?" she tried to tease.
"You could say that," he admitted, his own motions lulling him to slumber. The room grew quiet and for the first time since the invasion, the two warriors willingly slept.
The nightmares returned just before dawn. Ichigo jerked awake with Rukia's first cry, knowing immediately what was happening. Speaking softly in her ear, he tried to get through the horrific images that were going through her mind. When that didn't work, he raised his voice but with the same result. Desperate to save her from her terror, he lifted her higher on the futon so that she was nose to nose with him. Pressing his lips to hers, he hoped that the unfamiliar gesture would reach her subconscious mind. It wasn't gentlemanly of him to force something so intimate on her and knew that if she were feeling like herself, he would be singing soprano for the rest of his supernatural life.
Eventually she responded to his kiss, her tears slowly ceasing as she woke. Watery eyes blinked open before closing on a sigh. Clutching at his clothing, she strained to get closer, needing the human contact to remain calm. "Ichigo…" she breathed when they parted for air, snuggling into his neck while slipping her hands inside his nightwear so that she could feel the beating of his heart and the heat of his skin.
"I'm right here," he whispered into her ear, his cheeks flushed with heat. He'd never thought that his first kiss would be filled with such need or heat. In the back of his mind, Ichigo had always presumed that it would be awkward.
"Don't leave me, anata," Rukia pleaded, hating herself for being so weak. She was a lieutenant of the Gotei Thirteen. She wasn't a feeble little girl. She was the sister of a great noble and his heir. She was a Kuchiki. There was no reason she should be begging Ichigo not to leave her alone.
Except that she was. It made her ashamed that she would even contemplate the need to beg him. He had already said that he wouldn't leave her alone. Ichigo had never lied to her before and he wouldn't start now.
"I won't," he pledged again, knowing that she hated herself for saying what she had. This would be one of the things that they'd never speak of again. An aberration in time, something that had no need for explanations. "Watashi no hikari."
"Hmm?" Rukia murmured, the scar over his heart from where Sode no Shirayuki had pierced his chest catching her attention. She ran her fingers lightly over the pale mark, finding it fascinating that not even Orihime's Shun Shun Rikka had been able to reverse the blemish on his otherwise nearly perfect skin.
"You have always been my ray of light. This time I will be yours." Ichigo didn't care what other burdens he had to carry as long as she would smile again.
"Baka," she returned, a tear falling from her eye at his sappy comment but her grief for once not foremost in her mind. His lapse into endearments was so unlike him that it caught her slightly by surprise. He wasn't one to demonstrate his affection so openly. "You're not going to start spouting poetry now, are you?"
"I could, if you wanted me to. Shakespeare has some nice sonnets that I think you'd like."
"If you do, I'll have you committed," Rukia warned, a small smile finally gracing her features.
"Deal." Brushing her hair away from her face, Ichigo leaned down until his mouth was a hair's breath away from hers. He waited for her to close the distance, to make the decision about whether or not to kiss him again.
"Why, Kurosaki-kun, you've become bold," she smirked, her school girl voice a bit weak but enough to bring a brief smile to his own lips.
"Now who's being the idiot?"
Instead of answering, Rukia bridged the gap, allowing his warmth to heat her cold soul while his spiritual energy wrapped around her like a blanket. Never in a million years would she have guessed that he'd be the first to initiate any kind of intimacy but Rukia supposed that their mutual need for human contact had made an exception to the rule. Heated kisses became greedy touches until bodies entwined in a desperate need to prove that they were alive and in no danger of disappearing.
When Ichigo next woke, the shoji door to the veranda was open and the sun was peaking over the horizon. Rukia sat with a blanket around her shoulders and her yukata neatly tied again. Rising onto one elbow he stared at her without saying anything, recognizing the set of her shoulders as she contemplated her brother's garden. "Rukia?" he prompted softly, not wishing to disturb her train of thought.
"I'm ready, Ichigo," she answered, turning so that she could give him her full attention. Her Kuchiki mask was firmly in place, the look in her eyes telling him that she had prepared herself for the future.
"Aa," he said back, understanding her completely. Rising from the futon, he redressed himself, opening the door to the hallway so that he could seek out a maid or the old servant again. Rukia would need food and a bath, both things having been set aside in favor of sleep the night before. He was sure the funeral would begin soon and he wanted her to have all the energy she could possibly store up as well as time to dress herself as befitting a Kuchiki princess.
Rukia remained behind, allowing him to direct the servants in her place. Moving over to her vanity table, she began running a brush through her hair, hoping that by the time the maids came, it wouldn't be quite so obvious as to what had occurred earlier. Glancing down at Sode no Shirayuki, she paused in her ablutions and ran a hand down the blade. "I failed you, Shirayuki. I am sorry."
Do not blame yourself. We both erred that day. I am more worried for Zangetsu-san and Kurosaki-san than I am for myself.
"What's wrong with them?"
Look at his blade. The ice Zanpakutou's voice was tinged with the worry that she had spoken of.
Moving aside the white cloth, Rukia was able to see where the blade had been broken. Normally when a shikai was broken, it could return to normal when the wielder was unconscious. That it was so obviously scarred meant that it had broken while in its bankai form. "That fool. He has his own concerns and yet…"
"Rukia-sama?" a timid voice called from the doorway, interrupting the conversation between Zanpakutou and Shinigami. "Kurosaki-sama asked us to bring you breakfast and ready a bath for you. Are you feeling better?"
"Yes, thank you. Where is Ichigo now?"
"He is bathing himself. He said he'd eat something afterwards and then check on Lieutenant Abarai and your other friends before returning for the funeral. Would you like me to pass on a message?" the maid looked uncomfortable at the thought of disturbing the young Vizard.
"No, that is all right. I will see him later." Rukia accepted the meal put in front of her, a smile tilting her lips at the thought of what he'd do if his bath was interrupted by a female. He might have held her like she was irreplaceable to him during the night and early morning but Rukia rather thought his shyness where women were concerned still existed.
"Is there anything else I can get you, Rukia-sama?"
"Not at the moment, thank you." The petite adjunct began to eat and let her thoughts wander to what she would have to do in the coming hours. Centering herself once more, she was able to detect when Ichigo left the estate and tracked his presence for as long as she could before she had to return her attention to getting ready. The coming hours would be fraught with emotion and most likely clan intrigue. She would have to be at her best despite what she really wanted to do. Regardless of the nearly overwhelming urge to cry and give in to the fury that burned in her heart, there was a spot of light that showed her the way forward. It was all thanks to Ichigo that she would be able to hold it together until she could be alone with her grief once again. She had friends that would lighten her burden and shoulders to lean on. Renji had once told her not to take everything on her own shoulders but to let him and Ichigo carry some of it. For once he'd had a good idea so she'd take him up on the offer. Rukia was going to need all the help she could get because she was about to take on the Kuchiki elders in a struggle for power that she was determined to win.
For her brother, she could do no less.