Hi, this is two days late, I do apologize. I have several actually true excuses – one, Fresher's Week is crazy. Even if you don't go to all the parties, you will inevitably return to your room very late and stare at your computer monitor like a zombie, before deciding that either sleep or food or both is more important to your survival. Secondly, I have just gotten my first supervision work for all my subjects. Suffice to say, I will have to read the equivalent of stacks of books a week, plus essays. So this chapter was ground out in little snatches of time, before the real work sets in. AND I'M SORRY that I didn't have time to reply to everyone's reviews. It was reply or write, and I chose to write. I really do appreciate them, I love you guys.
So this is…goodbye :) I thank you all so, so much for coming with me through this amazing experience. I hope you like the chapter.
Thanks to reviewers: , DLC2904, MugetsuIchigo, Azraelean, Debido, Phantom Claire, JTiberiusKirk, Athena SFM, Jeah, Tsuki no Yukihime, vine, uzuki-chan, Snipaush, KJC2025, Darkest Kurogetsu, ilovebks, La Rosa del Desierto, poooy200, IronEclipse, brialees, Kaihaku no Iroke, tragicmat1, BleachFreak16, Lovely Loree, NarutoLuver896, MerryKitten, .330, WarriorofAnime, ImSeriousBro, The10Espada99, Dashita Tichou, Haeye, Darkkiss15, Chirpy Hitomi chan, NobodyEpic, Qwerty321, Rake1810, Kireina-Ame, Mtmeye, Guest, NiceGoingLife, GhibliGirl91, blades of blood488, DeathsLastBreath, Ariana Deralte.
I don't own Bleach except for this story's plot.
The servants of the Kuchiki household are nervous again. There is much scuttling and whispering and hiding around corners that cool afternoon, ever since the master's visitor had left in the morning. They are sure it is horrendous news – according to the servant gossip chain, that is. When one's master is as delicately balanced as Kuchiki Byakuya, no matter how calm he looks usually, one learns to read little signs. That afternoon, the sheer number of signs had been positively glaring.
One white-robed servant guarding the front door shakes her head ruefully. Master is not cruel, and his moods have much improved since his deliberate change of attitude ten years ago. But any new servant is informed on no uncertain terms there are times when he should not, on any account, be disturbed. This is one of those times. The servant crosses her fingers and hopes with all her might that there will be no more visitors to the Kuchiki mansion today.
Oh no, forgot to look periodically down the street.
A quick glance shows Rukia-sama walking sedately up the road towards the front doors, dressed in shinigami shihakushuo and Sode no Shirayuki belted at her side. Although more than a week and a half has passed since her escape from the past, she still moves with a certain careful step, the echo of her ordeal not quite gone. Over her shoulders is a beautifully embroidered amethyst over-robe, too warm for autumn, but one wordlessly pressed upon her by the master one breakfast last week. The fact that Rukia-sama holds the over-robe tightly around her shows she is not yet fully recovered.
The servant girl tsks mentally. Rukia-sama looks cold, and still too thin – better to get her inside quickly, and give her something hot to drink. All the servants are rather protective of Rukia-sama, perhaps because the master is too.
Rukia reaches the gate to the Kuchiki complex, and smiles warmly at the servant girl on guard duty. "Hello," she says.
"Welcome back, Rukia-sama," the girl intones with a quick bow and a smile, opening the door wide. "I'll send for something hot, shall I?"
Rukia breathes a sigh of relief as she ducks inside and out of the wind, the high courtyard wall blocking the worst of the breeze. The training grounds had been freezing, wind rushing through the flat plane of grass like a scythe. "Oh no, I'm fine, thank you. Where is Nii-sama? I haven't seen him since dinner last night."
At the mention of Byakuya, the servant girl changes posture immediately. She bites her lip and twists her fingers, grimacing slightly. "Um…he's in the plum garden…but…" she tries.
Rukia frowns, unsettled by that particular reaction and what it could mean. She puts a hand on Sode no Shirayuki unconsciously. "Is something wrong? Has something happened?" she asks worriedly.
"Er…not really. Everything is…fine. If I may, Rukia-sama, I would suggest to leave him alone for a while…"
"Has he thrown a tantrum?" Rukia sighs briskly. I thought he had grown out of those.
The servant girl's eyes widen. "Oh, no, Rukia-sama! He has been perfectly kind. You see, he had a caller this morning – clan business – and afterwards he tried to hide it but, well, we could tell he wasn't in a good mood."
Rukia tilts her head. How did you know?
The girl sees the unspoken question, and wriggles uncomfortably. "He's drinking tea in the garden."
The girl twists her fingers into knots. "Uh, he's on his second pot, and it's only been two hours."
Oh. Byakuya doesn't drink sake or lose his worries in alcohol. He drinks tea. In moderation, because he is cultured, and refined. Binging on tea is basically an indication of extreme stress.
Rukia sighs. "It's alright," she says. "I'll go find out what's wrong." It can't be that bad, can it? she thinks as she turns on one heel to head towards the plum blossom garden. She steps lightly through the shadowed corridors, the late autumn scent drifting in the air.
As she silently turns the corner to the plum garden, she stops. The plum trees are not yet flowering – it is too early for that – but the courtyard still possesses a sort of timeless beauty, its gravel paths solemn and dignified under the dappled light sifting through the branches above. Her Nii-sama sits on the edge of the porch, haori flowing behind him, head resting against a wooden pillar to look at where in a few weeks a thousand silver-pink flowers will bloom. One hand rests over a cup of tea, coils of opalescent steam flowing from the surface.
Rukia looks closer, and stares. Is that Hisana-nee's tea set?
Yes it is. Her favourite before her passing, a beautifully engraved white china set with twisting plum blossoms winding around the base and edge. The tea set was never used in Rukia's memory – it always sat in Nii-sama's bedroom on the shelf, lovingly cleaned but never touched.
Rukia shivers in trepidation. The news must be really, really bad. She must have made some small noise, because Byakuya turns his head and locks steel-grey eyes with hers.
"Nii-sama," she says softly, worried.
He sighs, then reaches out a hand. Rukia comes forward immediately with a light patter of feet, and takes it gently, sitting next to him. He smiles faintly, and turns his gaze again on the nonexistent plum blossoms.
Even after decades, she still finds it difficult to read her Nii-sama. His reserve is one of his greatest defenses, and is famed throughout Seireitei for a reason. But now, she thinks his eyes hide some deep sadness. She will wait for him to speak. It is her place, and he will tell her if he wants to.
Then his voice, even, but with a touch of weariness underlying it. "Are you cold, Rukia?" His gaze has not moved from the tree branches.
"I'm fine, Nii-sama." In truth, she is a little cold. Somehow her ordeal in the past had weakened her so that the incoming frost bites a little deeper than before.
A rustle of cloth, and Byakuya's pristine captain's haori drifts to land around her, wrapping her small form in its voluminous folds of white. Rukia colours slightly, but knows the significance of the honour. The haori is not just any piece of cloth – it is the weight of her brother's station, rank, and command. "Thank you," she says reverently.
Byakuya does not answer, but pours out a second cup of steaming hot tea, and hands it to her. Rukia's hands shake slightly as she accepts. It is Hisana's tea cup. The tea leaves inside the brim dance and whirl on a hidden current. The smooth porcelain warms her fingers.
An indeterminable amount of time passes, in which they watch the sky changing colour wordlessly, sipping tea together.
Byakuya reaches out for Rukia's hand, fingers hovering just above her wrists, where there are bandages no more, but mottled scarring, a pattern of reiatsu currents and searing metal, as if part of the sea was imprinted on her skin. "Rukia." His tone is quiet.
"Was I there, when they placed the abominable things on you?"
Rukia frowns slightly, looking up to find Byakuya gazing intently at her. "You were, Nii-sama," she says. She finds no reason to lie.
Byakuya grips his tea cup with clenched fingers. "And I condoned it? I supported their actions towards you?"
Rukia is confused, now. "No! You didn't…" she trails off, turning away. She can still remember the waves of agony that flooded her as the cuffs had snapped into place, the ache for someone to hold her and to comfort her, and feeling her Nii-sama step coldly away from her writhing form. It had hurt, like a knife to the heart. The hard kernel of memory still pains her.
Some of her emotions must have shown on her face, for Byakuya says in a toneless sort of way, "So. I did not condone their reasoning, but I stood by and did nothing." His gaze is far away, in the past.
The concealed self-hatred in those words spurs Rukia to speech. "Nii-sama, it was the law, there was little you could have done –"
That was the wrong thing to say.
A ghost of white-hot pain flashes across her Nii-sama's expression, and his face closes. Many of his past regrets have been due to his determination to follow the law. The last time he had done so, they had both nearly died on Sokyoku Hill.
Rukia shakes her head. "Nii-sama. Please don't blame yourself."
Byakuya hardly reacts, face as unreadable as stone. His tea has gone cold, held in white fingers.
Rukia's small fingers grip his hands gently. "Nii-sama," she says softly, although there is a touch of steel in her words.
He still does not respond.
Then she stands fluidly, still holding his hands, stepping off the porch and walking to stand in front of Byakuya, so he is forced to meet her gaze.
Byakuya shifts, and takes her wrists in his own hands, setting his tea aside. "Am I responsible for these scars?" he asks directly, emotionlessly.
Rukia sighs. She knows that her brother pulls that façade on as an automatic defense mechanism, trained into him from his childhood days. If no one can see your heart, you are invulnerable. He had only ever let one person to truly see past that mask. Her sister, Hisana.
But now, Rukia can see the concealed pain hidden away in those grey eyes. "I had forgiven you long ago," she says earnestly.
He still does not answer, but the unspoken question remains. Even after all I have done?
Rukia crouches, so their faces are level. "He was not my Nii-sama yet. You are my Nii-sama." His haori pools about her, making her seem like a violet-eyed flower surrounded by white petals lined with gold.
And something tense and knotted inside Byakuya seems to melt away, as he sighs, dipping his head slightly. Then he gathers himself, wiping the sense of relief into refined restraint as he helps her back to her place next to him, refilling her cup for her. A corner of Rukia's mouth lifts as she shakes her head ruefully. That's her Nii-sama.
They sit calmly, a little closer than the exact distance as required by noble formality, in the almost-sunset serenity that washes over the garden.
After a time, Rukia tilts her head almost teasingly, and says with an undercurrent of laughter, "Nii-sama, who called on you this morning, to put you in such a happy mood?" She had been expecting him to scowl – well, his signature annoyed lift of his eyebrows, anyway – but instead of complaining elegantly about clan politics, Byakuya seems to shiver, and emanates such an atmosphere of sombre seriousness that Rukia is secretly alarmed. "Was it that bad, Nii-sama? Does it endanger the Kuchiki clan?"
Byakuya turns to face her, staring at her and saying nothing. Rukia shifts uncomfortably under his gaze. Then he speaks, slowly, as if carefully picking his words from the recesses of his thoughts. "Rukia, when they fixed the cuffs on you, I wasn't there for you. Was Kurosaki Ichigo?"
The question is so undeniably plucked out from thin air, Rukia is momentarily bewildered. What has that got to do with her question?
Her Nii-sama is still expectantly waiting for an answer, and she fumbles for a reply. "Yes, of course – I mean, he was." She remembers the feeling of arms holding her tight even as the world spun sickeningly. Rooting her in place. She half-smiles despite herself, looking aside.
Byakuya catches her expression, and if possible, he looks even more upset. In fact, his lower lip is suspiciously close to a pout. Rukia frowns at him. She doesn't understand this conversation at all. "Why are we talking about this, Nii-sama?" she asks.
Byakuya says nothing for a while, just looking at her with that expression she can't figure out, something between unhappy and a reserved sort of sulking. Then he seems to shake himself deliberately, and sighs. "Rukia."
"Will you answer me one thing, truthfully?" His long hair rustles in a sudden breeze, hiding his face.
"Of course," she replies, surprised.
Byakuya looks straight into her eyes. "Do you love Kurosaki Ichigo?"
The question hits her like a punch to the chest, winding her for a second and rendering her breathless. Her heart beats wildly, and her cheeks bloom a deeper pink than the plum blossoms that will soon come in winter. Why did Nii-sama suddenly ask that? "I – I – " she stutters. Then a calming rush of peace floods her as she finds her answer, one that has concealed itself long in the archways and hideaways of her heart. She looks back into her Nii-sama's eyes with a singular determination. "I do," she says simply. "I do love him." She doesn't think she has any more words to describe the place Ichigo holds in her soul. If she tries, she thinks her heart might burst.
Her answer seems to pain Byakuya, and he winces as if actually taking a physical blow. He runs a hand over his eyes, and sighs again, deeply, a sigh of resignation. "Fine," he says curtly. "You have my blessing."
What? Rukia thinks, baffled. "What?" she says, echoing her thoughts.
Byakuya takes her fingers with one hand, and the other goes to her cheek. The sudden warmth of the gesture surprises her, but she soon accepts this abrupt sign of affection without complaint.
"Rukia," Byakuya says quietly. "The visitor this morning was none other than Kurosaki Ichigo."
Rukia blinks. "But – I thought it was clan business, wasn't it?"
Byakuya scoffs, eyebrows lifting sardonically. "It was clan business."
Rukia doesn't understand. She just waits for her Nii-sama to explain.
Byakuya's hand is gentle against her cheek. "Rukia," he says with a hint of exasperated weariness, "he asked for my permission to court you. Officially. As the heir to the Kurosaki-Shiba clan."
Oh. "Oh," she says, mouse-like, eyes wide.
"Yes, Rukia," Byakuya continues, "I told him that I would first seek out your thoughts on the matter. With this, I have now given him my consent. If he should succeed, I shall – and I wince at the thought – have more than one soul in Seireitei calling me Nii-sama."
"Oh," Rukia says yet again, heart beating rapidly and in a mild state of shock. She grabs onto her Nii-sama's hand like a lifeline.
"I have made it clear to him his responsibility towards you, and my absolute resolve that should he hurt you, there will be consequences. Your safety and happiness are paramount. Kurosaki Ichigo, on the other hand, I care not for." His hands are warm around hers.
Rukia finally finds her speech. "Th-Thank you, Nii-sama," she says breathlessly, stunned. A wild joy rises in her heart.
Byakuya lets go of her hands with a touch of reluctance, and says, "I would hope he cares for you well." He looks away.
Then finally, Rukia laughs, a happy sound of delight. She scrambles to her feet, nearly tripping over his haori. "Nii-sama," she says playfully.
"Yes?" Trying to hide his unhappiness behind a veil of sarcasm.
"Ichigo is Ichigo. But you will be my Nii-sama forever. Thank you." And with those blithe words, she swoops down and kisses his cheek lightly, before handing him his haori and flitting away around the corner.
It is Byakuya's turn to be stunned. He raises trembling fingers to the spot where she kissed him, dumbfounded. Then he places his teacup very firmly back on the tray, and drinks no more. He doesn't need anymore.
Rukia had always had such a way with words.
(BerryBREAK BerryBREAK BerryBREAK BerryBREAK BerryBREAK BerryBREAK)
Everything in the world is glorious, everything wonderful, everything delightful, everything magnified to ten times its own exquisite beauty in the rush of wind that streams past her face and into her hair and whirls past her in her jetstream of shunpo. The afternoon light is decadent, warming her shihakushuo and glinting off her fukutaichou's badge, liquid gold; the growing chill of soon-to-be winter parts before her like a river of silver.
Rukia homes in on Ichigo's reiatsu signature almost reflexively, feet dancing over thin air, Sode no Shirayuki smiling gently inside her consciousness. Her shihakushuo sleeves fly in sweeps as she turns corners and flips over obstacles at breakneck speed.
A bottleneck alley, then a sudden sharp corner, and she comes across an entire squad of the Eleventh Division filling up the street from end to end, war cries and clashes of metal sounding out from training teams. Without enough time to stop, and with a slightly giddy feeling of recklessness bubbling inside of her, Rukia skids elegantly under a crossed pair of zanpakutuos, gloved white hands just nicking the crossguards. The startled shouts of the two shinigami behind trail after a burst of laughter that escapes from her lips. A quick patter of feet, and she flips head over heels in a brilliant arc over the next nest of sword points, her Nii-sama's shunpo mixing seamlessly with Ichigo's hakuda; she ducks her head, flicks out a hand to catch a lamp post, and slips past like a sparrow through a crisscrossed net of branches.
Half the street is pure carnage, now. All the kata forms are thrown into disarray, everything is a messy mass of shihakushuo and zanpakutuo. Rukia smothers a smile behind her gloved hand. Nii-sama would not approve. But she can imagine the hint of a smile that would flit across his face, and the slight twitch of an eyebrow at the annoyance caused to the Eleventh.
Then Ikkaku's bald head looms right ahead, and Yumichika's squeals loudly as he darts out of Rukia's way.
"Crazy pink-headed fukutaichou – wait a sec - Kuchiki!?" Ikkaku roars in surprise. "What are you doing?"
"Sorry!" Rukia laughs over her shoulder, her speech tossed upon the wind, as she flicks her zanpakutuo and vaults over the next building, disappearing over the ledge.
"Now I've seen everything," Ikkaku says disbelievingly, rubbing his eyes.
A wail sounds from behind him. "I – I broke a naaail!" Yumichika sobs.
A blazing trail of chaos is left behind in Rukia's steps.
Still suppressing a smile, she runs onwards, darting over rooftops, feet barely brushing brick and wood. And with a rush like an unveiling curtain, the streets open up before her to an expansive training ground, emerald green and rustling in the breeze. There, next to a tall evergreen tree in the center of the field, captain's haori swinging gently, his back to her, is Ichigo. Zangetsu lies propped up on the tree roots.
Rukia dances forward like a pebble skipping over a plane of clear water, shunpo gliding her steps with a scythe of wind. Without giving herself time to ponder exactly how out of character her actions are, she barrels into Ichigo from behind.
"Ooof!" Ichigo is slammed forward, nearly falling over from the force of Rukia's embrace. His hand is almost around Zangetsu's hilt before her laugh, muffled into his haori, reaches his ears. She clings to him, burying her face into the silky white of the haori. The sifted light through the leaves patterns them with dappled jasmine green.
"Errr…Rukia? Is something wrong?" Ichigo says, unsure and a little bit unnerved by Rukia's sudden display of affection. She is not one to openly show her feelings through gestures like this. This is very strange behaviour for her.
Rukia shakes her head, letting go momentarily only to scramble around to glomp him into a proper hug. Ichigo doesn't get it, at all. But his arms come up to hold her anyway.
Rukia finally lifts her face, and her smile is like a ray of sunshine. "Nii-sama said yes, Ichigo. He gave us his consent." She goes pink for a moment. "Thank you for asking him…you could have told me first, you know."
Ichigo grins widely, and holds her tighter. But then his eyes flick suddenly to the side, and a strange apologetic expression comes over his face.
Rukia tilts her head, frowning. "Ichigo?"
A half-embarrassed cough from beside the tree.
Rukia freezes. She knows that cough.
"Renji!" Rukia squeaks, and pushes Ichigo away with a sharp shove, going beetroot red in the space of a second. "I – I didn't see you there!" She wants to sink into the ground and disappear. Rukia knows full well that Renji had used to like her. In fact, she is unsure whether he still does – the subject has always been somehow off-limits for them, especially after Ichigo had come into their lives.
Renji, hair done up in a ponytail and dressed neatly in shihakushuo and badge, shifts awkwardly from foot to foot. He looks mostly embarrassed, but there is a hidden pain and something more like envy in his eyes. "Hello, Rukia," he manages.
Besides her, Ichigo moves to grasp her hand gently. She returns his grip without even thinking, wrapping her fingers around his, before she remembers and shoots him a sharp look. What are you doing? She knows Ichigo, and Ichigo is not cruel. If he knew of Renji's…interest, then why is he rubbing it in? Renji remains her best friend, bar Ichigo, and she would not see him hurt.
But before she can do more than glare at Ichigo, a hand comes to rest on her shoulder. She looks up, to find Renji standing next to her, having silently shunpo-ed to her side.
"It's okay, Rukia," Renji says in a carefully restrained tone. "We were almost done talking, anyway." He flicks a look at Ichigo, who actually inclines his head in a gesture of respect, and thanks. Rukia's eyebrow lifts questioningly at Renji's expression. She doesn't understand. And with that, Renji turns to go in a swift twirl of black and white, hand on Zabimaru's hilt.
I cannot let him go like this. Rukia lets go of Ichigo's hand to grasp at Renji's sleeve, halting him in his tracks. "Renji, I –" she doesn't know what to say. "I'm sorry," she says softly, violet eyes trying to make him understand. Her great happiness is marred by this one fact, that by her joy with Ichigo, she has inevitably hurt her best friend.
But then Renji's face softens into something more real, less hardened. He smiles at her, a smile of sad acceptance. "Don't be," he says quietly. "Please be happy. I wish you well." His hand comes to rest over hers, then pulls her fingers from his sleeve gently. "I will be well, also." His gaze reaches past her to give Ichigo a hard look. You'd better take care of her. There is none of that joking sarcasm that usually laces his tone, now.
Rukia just nods, as he turns and shunpos into the wind, red hair flying behind him.
The grass whirls in the breeze gathered by his steps, causing Rukia to shiver and draw her haori tighter. Renji…
Then Ichigo's arms are secure around her, holding her safe in the sudden storm inside her heart. Where there is joy, there is always pain. She just rests her head on his haori, hearing his heart beat in a measured, calming rhythm against her ear. She does not need to say anything. After a moment, he presses a kiss on the top of her head. The gesture is like a warm current in her soul. Ichigo understands, and offers all the comfort he can, shielding her from the cold both within and without.
(BerryBREAK BerryBREAK BerryBREAK BerryBREAK BerryBREAK BerryBREAK)
A new day over Seireitei. The shinigami academy shines white and resplendent, stately buildings emanating a sort of towering gravitas that comes from two thousand years of churning out fresh new shinigami recruits. It is just that time of day when the rays of the winter sun have barely burnt off the biting edge of cold that seeps across the sky, almost full noon. It is still bitterly cold, though, and any shinigami instructor with a modicum of mercy would not send the students out into the windswept yard, where gusts of frigid air race across the open space.
But as all students know, the old veteran they secretly call Mustache-san has no mercy. Nobody really knows where his nickname came from, it had just popped into existence about half a century ago. But no matter, the centuries-old mustache had stayed in place, and so had his nefarious nickname.
The first-year students grumble and moan and shiver amongst themselves as they file in their dozens out to the training field under the watchful eye of Mustache-san, clutching at their new asauchis and almost every one pouting.
"It's too coooold…"
"He's torturing us. Is that even allowed?"
"We're first-years, give us a break!"
And then Mustache-san's roar, loud enough (in legend) to have once frightened a Gillian-class hollow into running away, breaks like a crashing tsunami over the crowd of rookies.
"GET IN LINE, YOU SLACK-JAWED IDIOTS! ARE YOU HERE TO BECOME SHINIGAMI OR NOT? AFRAID OF A LITTLE CHILL, ARE YOU? SHOULD I WRAP YOU ALL UP IN BABY BLANKETS AND PUT YOU IN FRONT OF A FIRE?"
That shuts up most of the students, although one or two still grumble in the back.
Mustache-san cracks the scabbard of his zanpakutuo against the ground, finally shocking the rookies into attention. "Since you're all apparently freezing, we'll be doing an intensive houhou training session today! Let's see how cold you lot are after your three hundredth shunpo, eh?"
The students are too dismayed to even groan. But they know the drill, and line up on either side of the courtyard, faces scrunched up in concentration as they prepare to perform a basic shunpo. They sink into the first basic stance, a foot awry here, balance a little off there.
Mustache-san's mustache twitches. Then he takes a breath, and shouts, "One!"
And all hell breaks loose.
Several students fail to even manage a single step, instead flailing their arms wildly before tripping over their asauchi and smacking into the ground. Around a dozen put out a foot and just leap forward really fast, springing comically into the air and looking wonderfully pleased with themselves before the raucous laughter of their peers turns their happiness to embarrassment. A couple students actually fall backwards, having lost their balance before they could even try to shunpo.
Mustache-san sighs, and tries not to walk to the nearest wall and start banging his head against it. Rookies. The best and brightest of all those that applied for the academy. Bright souls.
A single student actually makes a passable shunpo, appearing right next to the instructor with a very surprised look on his face.
"Not bad, Mr –"
The student, unused to the rapid deceleration that comes with a shunpo landing, screams and falls flat on his face, making a human-sized impression in the dust.
Mustache-san grips the bridge of his nose and tries not to cry. Why he has occupied this job for over a century is unknown even to him. He really needs to retire. "AGAIN! IN LINE!" he growls through his teeth at the vaguely abashed students.
The students shuffle into a weak imitation of a line, and try again. And again. And again.
Soon Mustache-san gives up any semblance of order and allows the students to mill over the field, occasionally looking up at a scream or two when someone fails a shunpo. There is no point training them in concert, at the moment. Until they master the basics, it is lunacy to expect them to train as a group.
Then that one student, dust and dirt in streaks across his face, flits forward and completes a small, but perfect, twenty-foot shunpo, landing crouched and tense, eyes closed.
Silence falls on the field, even as the student opens his eyes and spreads his arms in a gesture of unhindered triumph.
Then the students shift as one, and promptly explode. "YAYYYYYYY!" The successful student is mobbed and clapped on the back.
That's it. "IDIOTS!" roars Mustache-san, shaking his fist. "Congratulations! You're all dead, in the hollow attack. Killed instantly. And YOU," here he points at the student, "is going to die equally as painfully as the hollow catches up to you in the next thirty seconds. SO BY ALL MEANS, CELEBRATE!"
The cheering stops instantly.
"If you want to see a REAL shunpo, I suggest you take a trip into Seireitei and see what your SEATED OFFICERS do, hmm? Or even better, seek out a CAPTAIN, and see how measly and ridiculous your little victory is –"
But he does not finish his sentence, for at that moment, the atmosphere shivers, and the ground trembles under a colossal mass of reiatsu, riding towards them from the east like a brewing storm front, seeming to tremble with shards of ice and frost. Flowing beside the ice is another reiatsu of an even greater magnitude, sharp and black, crackling like liquid lightning, setting the sky afire.
The students barely have time to feel nauseous before the howling whistle of an oncoming gale drowns out all other sound, freezing the air with slivers of frost.
"TAKE COVE –" someone yells, voice stolen by the wind.
And something like a white-clothed angel descends from the clouds, falling as the wind flutters its robes in a long trail after it. Behind, a streak of black lightning tears after it, sable reiatsu twisting across the sky.
Impact, in the very center of the field.
A rush of icy wind, a thousand needles jabbing at faces and hands, followed by a wave of black reiatsu so thick it blocks out the wintry sun. The students are blinded and deafened at the same time, trying to hide behind one another as they shield their faces with the sleeves of their uniforms, squinting at the center of the reiatsu maelstrom.
A whisper of a real breeze, and the vortex of black and white is swept away, revealing two figures.
Kurosaki Ichigo's haori floats about his ankles, rippling in the wind, glowing in the light, and his zanpakutuo gleams long and deadly in his palm. He seems to be trying to hold back laughter as he looks down at the blushing Kuchiki Rukia held gently in his arms, resplendent in her bankai cloak and crown, iridescent colour shimmering in waves of ice and pure white over the liquid fabric.
The entire field is silent, most awed and some a little frightened.
"Are you all right, Rukia?" Ichigo's laughing question breaks the silence, as he smiles down at her.
Rukia uncurls her fingers from his haori, and says in a slightly shaky voice, "Yes. I'm sorry, I lost control of Sode no Shirayuki's winds for a moment. Thanks for catching me." Ichigo's smile widens, and Rukia's blush deepens.
Moustache-san rolls his eyes. Young people in love, deaf to the world. He clears his throat very obviously.
Instead of starting in surprise, Ichigo raises his voice and says clearly, "Sorry, ah," he takes a quick look at the field, "rookies. Bit of a bankai-testing mishap, nothing to worry about. Sorry to disturb your training." At the word bankai, whispers break out all over the field.
Rukia seems to recover herself in a moment, twisting her head around in some alarm to see the entire field of students watching them. "Ichigo," she begins, tugging sharply at his collar.
"Yes, Rukia?" Ichigo says genially, eyes dancing with mirth.
"Put me down, please."
Ichigo tilts his head. "Let's see…no." He is going to laugh any moment.
The next second, Sode no Shirayuki's white-wreathed tip is next to his neck. "Put me down, Ichigo," Rukia says evenly, giving him a level look.
Ichigo reads that look. It is the definitive I-am-politely-asking-but-if-you-cross-me-I-will-ki ll-you Rukia look. After an exceedingly short time of contemptlation, Ichigo decides to comply, and quickly. He crouches and gently lets her down.
"Thank you, Ichigo," Rukia says evenly, as if thanking him for handing her a cup of tea. But Ichigo winces. He knows he will pay for that later. Probably with paperwork.
Around them, the students' whispers float towards them. It's Kurosaki-taichou and Kuchiki-fukutaichou! Bankai? That's amazing… Can you feel how much reiatsu they have? Hey, I heard they're together together now! That is sooo sweet!
Something in the air freezes with a snap. Rukia has not moved, but somehow the spikes on her crown have flared, and the winds are curling about her feet.
The whispering stops immediately.
Ichigo turns, and grins when he sees the instructor across the field. "Mustache-san!" he calls out, waving.
The students choke back shocked laughter. Nobody has ever said it to his face before.
Mustache-san is livid. "What did you call me, Kurosaki-taichou?"
Ichigo seems to disappear from his place, appearing in an eyeblink to where the instructor is. The students take an awed breath as one. Ichigo had weaved through the students like the shadow of lightning, ghosting past them in a whirl blinding white and orange, too fast to be seen, too lightly to be heard. This is shunpo.
"Mustache-san, it's good to see you again! I met you last month! Er, fifty years for you…but you've held the years well, so…"
"I don't recall having met you, Kurosaki-taichou."
Ichigo pauses, then laughs. "Of course you don't. Urahara did a good job, then."
Mustache-san and the students stare blankly at the captain, bewildered. Ichigo turns with a deft twist of his haori, and another eyeblink later, he has a hand on Rukia's shoulder.
"How about a race, Rukia?" he says, warm brown eyes sardonic.
Rukia narrows her eyes. "To where?"
"My office door. Whoever gets to the door first wins."
Rukia taps a foot. "No bankai for you," she says, the beginnings of a smile appearing on her face.
"And nothing but Sode no Shirayuki's bankai winds for you – no cheating with shunpo."
"Done," Rukia says, flicking her sword at the ground. A huge gust of white-ice wind gouges out a perfectly straight trench into the dirt, twenty feet long. A starting line.
Ichigo walks gracefully to stand beside her. Although he is taller, the intricate spikes of Rukia's crown amplify her height. His white haori shines just as gloriously as the sunlight glancing off her cape.
The two share a look. To others, it is just a look of affirmation, a handshake before a race. But there is something deeper in that brown gaze, and those violet eyes – an understanding, a closeness, and inseparable confidence.
"A countdown, please, Mustache-san," Ichigo calls nonchalantly over his shoulder, flicking his haori out of Zangetsu's way.
A tic appears on Mustache-san forehead, but this is a captain talking to him. So grudgingly, he starts counting.
The taichou and fukutaichou crouch almost imperceptibly, Ichigo's fingers gripping Zangetsu tighty, eyes fixed on the far distance. A determined shine comes over Rukia's eyes, and a corner of her mouth lifts. Something shifts in Rukia's cape, and it dances upon an unseen wind. The light scattering off her diamond mantle paints the ground and the air around her with shining droplets.
Ichigo's feet are suddenly wreathed in black reiatsu, curling shadows flickering with power. The air whips so violently around Rukia that the tips of her sandaled feet are actually hovering off the ground, and she is held lightly by the wind alone.
The air shifts in a blazing whirl of white, and black lightning flickers into a maelstrom of sable-edged reiatsu.
A gigantic concussion rips open the air as both Rukia and Ichigo tear into the sky, shaking the ground with the pure force of their tandem liftoff and dazing a hundred rookies in an instant. The sky is immediately split into white and black, a beautiful conflagration of power that arcs over the heavens like rippled silk. It is made all the more glorious by the shafts of sunlight that pierce through the reiatsu currents, turning white into silver and black into smooth bronze. A masterpiece of opposites, of contrasts, of perfect balance.
High above Seireitei, where the buildings and shinigami are but matchsticks and dots, touching the base of the windswept clouds, touched warm and golden by the midday light, Ichigo revels in the wind running through his hair and tugging at his lips, pulling them up into a grin. Zangetsu seems alive in his hand, glowing in a bright river of reiatsu.
And beside him, some ways off, training ice and fire and frost, crown resplendent and shining upon her hair, is Rukia, violet eyes smiling. Her small form is like a leaf in the wind, and she dances like an angel on air.
By an unsaid whim, they deviate towards each other, drawing closer and closer as their reiatsus battle for dominance in the jetstream behind them, until they are almost shoulder to shoulder, and she can see the gold flecks in his warm brown irises, and he can see the beautiful shades of lavender and lilac in hers.
Ichigo reaches out a hand. At almost the same moment, Rukia reaches out also. For an instant, their fingertips dance a hairsbreadth from each other, then her small hand latches to his, a gentle warmth in the cold of winter. They pass over the Kuchiki household at a glance, and the scent of that winter's first plum blossoms drift up to them on a column of air.
It is here, adrift between the heavens above and Seireitei below, that Ichigo finally has a profound realisation. He would have thought that loving Rukia would make their relationship…different. That something between them would change, would become altered.
They are still baka and midget, taichou and fukutaichou. Best friend and best friend.
Perhaps it will be like that forever.
Ichigo smiles then, wordless, and across from him, Rukia smiles back. Their joined hands hold tightly, and as their reiatsus trace magnificently over the sky, the scent of the plum blossoms trail the cold winter air after them.
And that's that. Done up and finished. Hope you enjoyed the journey, and see you guys around! I'll try to reply to reviews the best I can between my work :)
Love, Waffles Risa~ :)