A/N: Some regulars and some new folk to thank for reviews: Black Sun Upon An Icy Sky, Satan Abraham, gonekrazy3000, curio cherry, KitElizaKing, Carrie96235, Shiso Kitsune, Rukia's Reflection, unstablestar014018, Methrindal, Rake810, BosRonald, Peridot0814, hollownature, Dashita Tichou, Dragon and Sword Master, darklover, Dark Inu Fan, laughingspider, masterbroly, Assault Godzilla, and MugetsuIchigo. And thank you to everyone who put this or its author on their lists. Okay, this is the fifth of my stories to get a new chapter. That would mean all five that are "In Progress" have been updated. I'm not even going to look to see what the date was when I published this. I've been out of the game a while but I hope this mass of new chapters helps my loyal fans/readers to forgive my long absence.
Consequences of War
Unquenchable Anger and Eternal Denial
Ichigo walked silently through the halls of the General Relief Station, a burning sensation in the pit of his stomach threatening the breakfast that he hadn't wanted but had eaten anyway. He felt uneasy walking around without Zangetsu but the sword spirit was in no condition to be used. Twice already he'd had to break up fights between Shinigami who were still angry about what had happened to their comrades. Thankfully one good punch to the jaw had rendered all participants unconscious because he didn't think Unohana-san would have appreciated him adding to her workload.
"Ichii?" a young voice questioned from a doorway he'd passed without acknowledging its occupant.
Turning around, he lowered his gaze when pink locks caught his eye. "Yachiru?" Returning to her side, he squatted down and rested a hand on her head. She had grown while he was away and he couldn't help but give her a crooked grin, strained though it was. The crossed bones clip she had in her hair was falling out and he undid it, putting it back after finger combing her locks. It was something he'd done in the past for his sisters and was glad that he still retained the memory of how to do it. "There, you're all pretty again."
The pink haired ignored his comment. "Ken-chan won't wake up. I've talked and talked and talked but he still won't wake up. Usually he'll crack an eye open to tell me to shut up after a while."
"He's going to need a lot of rest for a while, squirt. Just keep talking. You should tell him about how his men are doing. As the lieutenant, you're in charge for the moment, aren't you?" Honestly, he couldn't see a group of fight loving Shinigami obeying a young girl but this was Yachiru and she had a charm all her own.
"When he's hurt, Ken-chan always puts Baldy or Feathers in charge while I stay with him." Ichigo couldn't help the snicker at her nicknames for Ikkaku and Yumichika.
"But they're just moping around his room too," she continued, pointing behind her. He looked over her head to find the two adjuncts on either side of Kenpachi's bed. They were covered almost head to toe in bandages but had obviously refused to leave their captain's side.
Picking her up, he carried her into the room, surprised when she allowed the closeness. Normally she would have climbed up to sit or jump on his head but her adoptive father's condition had evidently taken a lot of her normal spunk out of her. "Oi, guys, don't you have something better to do than sit around waiting for the big guy to wake up?" he admonished, looking significantly at Yachiru.
"Not really," the third seat answered, looking up. His eyes widened when he saw his lieutenant sitting calmly on Ichigo's hip. "Lieutenant."
"Ken-chan says that when he's not able to, you're supposed to do the paperwork."
"I always do the paperwork," Ikkaku shot back. Actually, their fourth seat did all the paperwork and he just signed most of it. The poor guy was perpetually at a desk and hardly ever saw the light of battle.
Raising a brow, Ichigo turned to Yumichika who was sighing over his appearance. The bandages covering half of his face were doing nothing for his vanity. "Here, fix her hair. You should really get her something to eat and then a nap. She's not an adult, you know." Plopping her down onto the fifth seat's lap, he turned his attention to Kenpachi. The captain was barely recognizable because of the amount of bandaging he had received and it didn't take a genius to figure out why Yachiru was so worried.
"Oh, my, what happened to your hair?" Yumichika finally asked, catching sight of her obvious bed-head. Ichigo had fixed one side but had completely missed the other.
"Ichigo fixed it," she said and made to get down.
The Squad Eleven member scoffed at that. "Lieutenant, a young lady like yourself can't go walking around looking like that."
Seeing that at least one person was acting more like himself, the daiko decided it was time for him to go. He still had to check on the others. "I gotta go but snap out of whatever funk you're in for the moment. Yachiru will lose hope if you two look like you have been."
"Captain Unohana said…" Ikkaku began in protest.
"I know what she said," Ichigo whispered, hoping the little girl was too busy with Yumichika's fussing to hear. "Yachiru doesn't know though, does she? As long as there's even a shred of hope, you can't let her find out that you don't believe he'll wake up. She might be a terror most of the time, but she's still a little girl. Kenpachi's like her dad. Losing a parent before he's really gone would be the worst thing in the world for her. You're adults, act like it."
"Listen to you, all grown up."
"Che, I'll stop by later." Ichigo nodded to the other two and exited the room. Unohana-san had given Kenpachi a very small chance of ever waking from his coma but he couldn't sit by and allow a little girl to lose faith.
"Aa," the third seat murmured, watching him go.
Ichigo smiled to himself grimly when he heard the normal chatter of a child talking to her father. He may have scolded Ikkaku about being pessimistic but he couldn't help sharing the same thoughts. There were a lot of people who were now in the same condition as the normally insane captain and their prognoses were equally as grim.
Lost in his thoughts, he made it to his friends' room without noticing. Chad slumbered in one bed, his right arm in a cast. Renji sat up in another, with Inoue camped out on a cot in between. Her hairpins were clutched in one hand and it appeared that she had healed their friends as much as she could before collapsing herself.
"Yo," Renji greeted weakly, his normally boisterous attitude nowhere in sight.
"Yo," Ichigo returned. "Came to see how you guys were."
"I'll live," the redhead acknowledged. "Inoue exhausted herself just to get me conscious again."
"She's a healer through and through. I just came to check on you before I went back to the manor. Byakuya's funeral is this morning." Normally amber eyes darkened to chocolate brown as Ichigo looked out the window. "She's going to face the elders."
"As the Kuchiki heir?"
"They're not going to like that."
"You know her though, she won't back down. She's determined to show them that just because she's not a Kuchiki by birth; it doesn't mean she can't rule the clan."
"Without the captain, they'll eat her alive as she is now," Renji warned.
"That's why I'm going back. If anyone so much as makes her sniffle…" The threat didn't need to be finished. The elders would be laid flat by the daiko's reiatsu alone if Rukia got upset.
"What time is the funeral?" the red haired lieutenant asked, struggling to get up.
"About an hour from now. Don't push yourself. You stay and rest. I'll go to represent us."
"Forget it. She's going to need all the support she can get."
Ichigo sighed and scratched the back of his head. "Look, if you want to push yourself back into a coma, fine by me but you're going to get Unohana-san mad at you if you try to sneak out of here without her permission. I don't relish what your condition will be then."
Renji paused in his struggles to get up. "You might be right, but maybe I can let her to let me go just for a bit."
"We'll go too," Chad announced quietly, his normally strong voice still weak with pain. One of the Quincy had done a real number on his body. He pushed back the covers, ignoring the twinge of every muscle in protest. His friends needed him.
Orihime rubbed the sleep out of her eyes but nodded in agreement with her large friend. "Kuchiki-san needs us."
"You guys…" Unable to say anything more, the Shinigami daiko sighed. "Fine but don't blame me if she scolds you. Rukia might too when she sees you."
Leaving his friends to make their way to the estate, Ichigo made brief visits to some of his other comrades before returning to Rukia's side. The funeral pyre was set in the middle of the largest garden and several elders and other clan members that he didn't recognize mingled while they waited for the priest. As chief mourner, his partner was hovered over by two maids, her icy control obviously worrying them.
"Hey," he said softly, clenching his fists to keep from folding her into his arms. The servants seemed relieved to see him and they left her in his care just as the priest was announced.
"You were gone longer than I thought you would be," she said, her tone of voice reminding him of the night they'd met.
"Yeah, well, I somehow ended up giving a pep talk to some people and knocking others unconscious. There's a lot of anger out there still."
"It's not going to disappear any time soon. I'm just glad Ishida's not here. They'd kill him before he had time to draw his bow in self-defense."
"Yeah, I know. I guess telling them that it was because of him that we found out how to release the captains' bankai states would be pointless, huh?"
"It would," Rukia said, moving to stand in front of her brother's funeral pyre. Ichigo stood behind her, giving silent support and ready to catch her if her grief became too much. Her face was currently unreadable but he wasn't sure that was going to last as long as she believed it was going to or that she needed it to last.
One of the funeral attendants handed her a small torch and she slowly held it to the nearest piece of kindling. The piece of wood caught quickly and once again fire lit the sky in the Seireitei. The priest continued his chants and prayers while the nobles stood around in silent respect for the leader that had left them.
Several minutes later, noise from behind him caused Ichigo to turn. Relaxing when he recognized his friends, the orange haired young man sighed and returned to gazing at the small woman in front of him. Renji eventually made his way to his side, his large body crammed into a wheel chair pushed by a nurse from the General Relief Station. Chad hobbled to his other side while Orihime came along side Rukia and took her slim hand in her own. Tears poured down the flower wielder's face as she openly showed the grief Rukia was denying herself.
Eventually the nobles drifted away, their duty complete. Ichigo and the others remained, staying with Rukia until the last flames died. The attendants would take of the rest and the daiko felt that it was time to remove his ravened hair friend from the remnants of her brother's cremation. "Let's go, Rukia."
"I need to stay and…"
"Later. After his ashes are put in an urn you can take them to the family grave. For now, let's get something to eat."
"I'm not hungry." Rukia tried to still the trembling of her hand, wondering when she last ate.
"No one's really hungry, Rukia but you need to have energy if you're going to deal with those elders later." Renji let the nurse push him to the house, intent on making his way inside on his own two feet. Now was not the time to be showing weakness.
"Abarai-kun's right, Kuchiki-san. If you don't eat, you're going to pass out. And then you'll have to be taken to Unohana-san again and she'll scold you." Orihime added, a grimace of her lips telling the others that she'd been on the receiving end of just such a scold.
Chad simply nodded his agreement when Rukia looked at him and she gave in graciously. "Very well." When they entered the reception area, she ordered dinner, ignoring the frowns she received from some of her adopted clansmen.
"Rukia-sama, the elders would like…" One of the lesser Kuchiki's tried to sound officious when he spoke but only ended up making a fool of himself.
"I shall meet with the elders after I have eaten. Tell them to take their meals as well. They'll be summoned when I am ready to meet with them."
"Yes, my lady." The man quickly bowed and left, his contemporaries following.
Rukia turned her gaze on the servants who remained, daring them to argue. None of them were foolish enough to do so and she sighed in relief when they left. "I'm sorry you had to witness that. They are already testing my authority."
"Don't worry, Kuchiki-san. We'll just ignore those meanies. Your brother would just say something like 'They are beneath your notice, Rukia.' Isn't that right, Kurosaki-kun?"
"Sounds like something he'd say." Ichigo gave a sigh of his own when Rukia finally gave them a small smile.
"Thanks for coming, guys. I don't know what I would have done without you."
"Of course we came. We're your friends. I'm sure a lot of others would have been here if they could have gotten out of bed." Renji squeezed her shoulder gently, unsurprised at the small shaking he felt. His childhood friend was holding on by a thread.
"Anytime," Chad added, his quiet assurance doing more for Rukia's mood than anything the others could have said.
She would have said something more but the shoji opened and several maids announced dinner. The young noble kept all expression from her face the entire time they were there and it was only when they were gone that she allowed the sadness to return to her features. Gazing over the food in front of her, she couldn't help the depression that settled over her. "These are some of Nii-sama's favorites. It's like he ordered the meal himself."
"Maybe the chef did it on purpose. As a tribute to him," Ichigo suggested. He didn't know what he'd do if she started to cry.
"Possibly. Eat your fill, everyone, please."
They ate in silence, feeling no need to talk and not having the words to form a conversation that meant something anyway. Eventually they finished; the plates and bowls not as empty as a medical practitioner would hope for but at least no one was going to pass out from lack of nutrients. Ichigo watched Rukia for several more moments before conceding that it was time to get the rest of the day over with and find out what her fate within the clan was.
"Inoue, you and Chad go back first. Make sure that the others are still okay. Tell Unohana-san that Renji will be back a little later." He stood, offering his hand first to Rukia then to his classmate.
"Will you be all right?" the ginger haired girl worried.
"I'll be fine, Inoue-san. I've been dealing with those old men and women for over forty years. They won't get to me now."
"Okay. I guess we'll see you later, Kuchiki-san, Kurosaki-kun. You too, Abarai-kun." Orihime opened the door for Chad and the two high school students made their way back to the infirmary.
Renji and Ichigo both looked towards Rukia, waiting to see what she wanted to do. "Let's have them come to us. It'll show them that I am not to be commanded anymore."
They didn't have to wait long. As soon as word reached them, a dozen people old enough to be Rukia's grandparents came into the reception room along with a few people around Byakuya's age. The group of elders sat in front of Rukia, completely ignoring the presence of the two gentlemen slightly behind her.
"I am told that you wished to speak to me. It has been a long day and there is still much to do so I hope this is not some trivial matter that could have waited until tomorrow." Rukia was proud of herself for her choice of words. Byakuya would certainly have been pleased.
"My lady, as you know, I have long been an advisor to your brother and it is I that he came to when he wished to make preparations in the event of his death," one man said. His hair was not as grey as the others, and he didn't wear the same colors as them, leading Ichigo to believe he was not a direct member of the Kuchiki clan.
"I am aware. Is there something you would like to share with us now?" Rukia narrowed her eyes briefly in order to study the man before her. She had seen him many times with her brother when they were discussing legal matters so perhaps he had a will of some sort to announce.
"I do, my lady. First, I have three letters I would like to give you and the two men with you. Afterwards, I will explain the small inheritances Kuchiki-sama bequeathed. If that is permissible, Rukia-sama?"
"It is," Rukia answered, wondering what her brother could have wanted to tell her that he hadn't been able to in life.
The three young Shinigami accepted the letters, each taking more time than necessary to open the elegantly scripted missive. They read the words carefully, emotion threatening to choke them. When they were done, they carefully folded the expensive paper back up and tucked it away in their clothing to read again at a later date.
"We understand," Ichigo said.
"And we accept," Renji added.
"I'm so glad. My lord was quite convinced that you could be trusted to carry out his wishes. My lady, can I conclude that you are willing as well?"
"My brother has given me a great responsibility. I am humbled that he chose me as his heir and I will do my utmost to ensure that the clan he loved and ruled with so much wisdom continues and prospers."
Protests arose and the reception room became filled with the discontent of the elders. Ichigo let it continue for a few moments before he stood and allowed his angry reiatsu to wash over them. "Be quiet. Before you complain perhaps you should find out why Byakuya chose Rukia and none of your sniveling brats as the next head."
"As you said, Kurosaki-san. It wasn't just because she was his sister. It was because he wanted the clan to be in the best possible hands. He wanted it to be led by someone who had a compassionate heart and a strong will. Lady Rukia has both. I am sure that there are other qualities that he searched for but those seemed to be the two he found most important."
"Ichigo, you can sit down now. Your spiritual energy is starting to make some of them ill," Rukia said, glad that he didn't fight her. She needed her authority to go uncontested.
"Elders, I wish you to heed me well. My brother made me his heir and anyone who has a problem with that will not only have me to deal with but my friends as well. I do not have to remind you of the power they wield, do I? I will trust in my brother's will and I will count on my friends and allies as I need to. You do not have to like it but I will meter out any punishment I see fit if you try to betray me."
Angry words still floated around but no one tried to naysay her. The advisor cleared his throat, glad that she had two strong men to watch her back. He had a feeling she was going to need all the help she could get. "Excellently put, my lady. I have just a few more things to go over, if you are still up for it. I know that it has been a long day."
"Finish what you need to, Teno-san."
The bequeaths were handed out in short order and Rukia dismissed the gathering as soon as everyone was given what they had been left. She watched the elders leave, never taking her eyes off of the ones who had been most vocal in their disapproval. "Ichigo, Renji, you will have to watch your backs while you are here."
"Don't worry, Rukia. A few nobles are nothing compared to what we've already fought. It's you I'm worried about. Renji has to go back to the infirmary and eventually the squad and I'm not going to be here all the time yet. Can we trust that Teno guy to have your back too?"
"Teno-san was trusted by Nii-sama. There are a few others I can go to for advice if I need to but for the most part I am going to have to start raising support in the younger generation. Most of them are not going to like it that their chances of becoming head have just disappeared."
"I'll look after the squad Rukia, so you can concentrate on the clan and your duties as a lieutenant."
"You don't have to worry about your squad either, Rukia. The others and I will help get it back in working order while we're here and I will bring you any paperwork that needs to be signed right away if you want to stay here for a bit."
Rukia turned and looked at them, smiling fully for the first time in a long time. "That's sweet of you and while I will gladly let the Sixth be guided by Renji, I need to return to normality as soon as possible, Ichigo. Normal for me now is being a lieutenant and a clan head so I need to learn how to do that immediately. You'll have to return to Karakura eventually Ichigo so I can't lean on you to always be here when I feel like I have too much to do."
"You don't understand, Rukia. Byakuya asked me to protect your heart." There were several things the noble had outlined in his letter that went along with that but Ichigo wasn't about to let her read it at the moment.
"My heart?" Rukia whispered. Why would her brother have asked Ichigo to do something like that? He must have known that Ichigo would have to go back home eventually.
"Look, like I said, I know I can't be here permanently yet but I'll come as often as I can, alright? I'll get Urahara to give me one of those phones that can go between the two dimensions and you'll be able to call me in case anything comes up. I won't allow you to turn into one of these icy nobles. You have friends who care about you so stop thinking you have to take everything on yourself."
"Told her that once," Renji said remembering what he'd told her the day they'd rescued her from execution.
"Yeah, well, we're going to have to keep telling her that until she finally gets it through her thick skull. It might take a few centuries."
Rukia, as tired as she was, was tempted to hit them over the head when her red haired friend nodded in agreement with her orange haired one. Instead she thought about what her brother had told Ichigo. "Protect my heart…" she whispered again and the dam on her emotions broke. Strong arms folded around her and a large hand was placed gently on her head. This was what her brother had meant. He'd counted on Ichigo to give her emotional support so that she wouldn't try to take the world on her shoulders again.
Uncomfortable with the display of emotion, Ichigo and Renji just stood there while she cried. Their familiar spiritual energies wrapped around her and she was glad that they were with her during this difficult time. After some time, she pulled away, chuckling softly at their twisted facial expressions.
"Are you done crying now, Rukia?" Renji asked.
"Yes, I suppose I am. One can't stay lost in grief forever. Renji, please go back to the General Relief Station before Unohana-taicho comes for you herself. Ichigo will stay here tonight. I'm not sure exactly how to proceed but I promise not to try to do it all by myself. Will that meet with your approval?"
"Yeah, sure." He gave her one last shoulder squeeze before leaving her to his old rival. The nurse was waiting for him, a look of relief on her face when he finally sank into the chair. "Let's go back now."
"As you wish, Lieutenant."
Ichigo closed the door after his friend, turning back to Rukia where she was wiping her face with a small handkerchief. "You ready to call it a night?"
"Yes, actually. Thank you for being with me today, Ichigo."
"There's no need to thank me." He took her by the hand and dragged her out into the hall, leading the way by memory to her room. Hailing a nearby maid, he gave his friend into her keeping before seeking a bath for himself.
When he returned, he didn't think twice about opening the door to her sanctuary and joining her on the futon. Lying on his side he put his arm around her and kept vigilant watch over her sleep. Each time the nightmares came, he whispered the same sweet nothings he'd used before, silently wondering how he could make everything "all right" again. Even if he could lie to her while she slept, he couldn't lie to himself. There was no denying that everything had changed and their "all right" was a long time in coming.
If it ever did.