Disclaimer: If it seems even vaguely familiar to you, I don't own it. That goes for Bleach, the song titles, and the cultural references here and there.
Well, at long last, fifteen minutes before the deadline, I've FINALLY finished my entry for this years' Tanabata contest at FLOL! Thanks to everyone who supported me and put up with my panic attacks; especially copperheadfightingninja, xNocturnalxShadowx, and everyone else! I'd list you all by name, but I'm running out of time so I'd better just cut to the fic. Hope it's worth the wait!
It was hard to believe that the Winter War had begun yesterday, months earlier than expected. And even harder for him to accept that it had ended only a few hours later.
A week ago, a few days ago even, he had been in Karakura, training and getting drafted into dishwashing duty. It had been common knowledge that the Winter War would, surprisingly enough, take place in the winter. He had only thought about the next day as another day of training, nothing more, nothing less. Looking back, it seemed so surreal.
But the thing that really got him, that he really had trouble understanding, was the fact that he had helped to save a guys life and the jerk didn't even bother to say 'thank you.'
"What an a—"
Before he could finish the sentence, someone stomped on his foot. HARD. He yelped and tried to jump to his feet, unfortunately forgetting that he had been sitting; and fell backwards, still clutching at his throbbing foot. "What was that for?!"
"Shut up!" Rukia, next to him, hissed.
"Why?" The substitute shinigami retorted. "It's not like he's even here to listen, the ba—OW!"
Renji, on her other side, sniggered. Before the substitute shinigami could punch his lights out, however, the redhead let out a cry not unlike the one he had uttered mere moments ago.
Now it was Ichigo's turn to smirk—although not to laugh, of course, since his foot was still throbbing. He was very careful not to mention that little detail, however, knowing full well that could possibly be construed as even the slightest insinuation that they might be almost heavy would be taken as an invitation for a swift, agonizing death by every female in earshot. Growing up with the sisters and childhood sparring partner that he had had would drive lessons like that deep into even the thickest skull.
Speaking of Tatsuki… Ichigo glanced across the table, discretely examining the bright-haired girl seated across from him. Orihime had spent the war fighting in her own way—working alongside the best healers of the Fourth Division to save those who had been struck down.
In the turmoil of the battle, there had been times when he had almost been struck from behind, only to whirl around at the sound of an Arrancar's blade screaming against her shield. But after he had dealt with the attacker, he had turned back to thank her, but all he managed to catch was the briefest glimpse of bright eyes she turned back to whatever limp body she was bent over.
Later, when Aizen had managed to find a single moment of calm in the chaos, the eye of the storm in which he could break into the King's Realm without interruption, it had been her who had figured out how to follow him, despite their lack of the King's Key. He still wasn't sure how, exactly, she had been able to get them through the barrier, but there hadn't been time to question anything. Once they had gotten through, all there was time for was to run and lunge and dodge and fight.
And she had still kept on healing the wounded—and even, if a flash at the corner of his eyes could have been believed…
He resisted the urge to shake his head, to clear the impossible thoughts from his worn mind. He had to have imagined it. The lack of sleep had probably caused it. Before the end of the battle, he hadn't gotten a full night of sleep since—Kami-sama, how long has it been?
The last time he had slept—if he didn't count a nap or being knocked out by Ulquiorra—had been after he had fought Grimmjow for the second time, before he had known that Orihime had been kidnapped. They had gone to Hueco Muendo around midnight the night after and it had to have taken at least six hours to get to Las Noches, during which they had taken turns napping in two-hour shifts. And now that he was thinking about it, they had joined the battle in the Real World during the middle of the afternoon. By the time the fighting had been finished, it had been night again.
And really, the battle had only ended then for him. Orihime, on the other hand, had still been hard at work healing when Unohana had ordered anyone who could still move to crawl to a bed and get some res. There had been many—too many—fighters who were still badly wounded, and only four healers to tend to them.
And, come to think of it, she had been the one to wake them all up the next morning… Ichigo frowned as a less-than-pleasant possibility occurred to him. No way, not even Inoue would…
The girl in question finally glanced up from her cup of tea, and blinked as she saw him watching her. She stared at him for a moment, startled, and then smiled. She was pale, her hair was tangled and matted, and the shadows under her eyes were even worse than they had been last time that Ichigo had actually looked, which had been right after he had defeated Grimmjow. Less than twenty-four hours ago.
"Were you relieved to see her unhurt?" That familiar growl echoed across hours that seemed like centuries, like millennia, and yet at the same time like only the briefest of moments. "Even though she might be a little fucked up on the inside?!"
"That girl is already one of us." The substitute shinigami's grip tightened on his mug. "Even if you manage to rescue her, that won't change."
"Stay back!" His gaze lingered over the white shinigami-regulation kosode one of the Squad Zero members had leant to her, in place of the remnants of that monochrome gown. "One step closer and I'll pluck out her eyeball!"
Inoue… He was strong, but this helpless feeling was something that he couldn't fight, with or without his bankai and mask. What happened to you over there?
"Kurosaki-kun?" She resembled nothing so much as a walking corpse—and Ichigo had seen more than enough of those in the last twenty-four hours to know one when he saw one—yet she actually managed to smile. It was an exhausted, flickering and burnt out attempt, but it was a smile nevertheless. "Is something wrong? You're not still hurt, are you? Did I miss something yesterday? I'm sorry, just—"
"I'm fine." He said quickly, clenching his fist slightly. He wished that she wouldn't worry about him, about any of them. He knew it was the type of person she was… but more and more often he was starting to think that she was the one who needed to be worried about the most. "Inoue, when was the last time you slept?"
Orihime blinked again, as did the others around the table. They looked at her—actually looked, for the first time in too long—and saw what Ichigo had seen. And heard it, too, in the way that she hesitated for a heartbeat too long before answering with "not too long."
"How long is a 'not too long'?" Ishida had caught on, and his eyes narrowed behind his glasses.
"Um… there were a lot of injuries, you see, and it took a lo—"
Chad sighed. He didn't look surprised. "You didn't sleep at all last night, did you?"
"Or the night before that," Ichigo guessed before Orihime could say anything, "and probably not the night before that, either."
"Inoue!" Rukia leapt to her feet, and grabbed her human friend by the arm. "I can't believe you!"
"But I'm fine, Kuchiki-san, everyone, really I am!"
"You don't look fine," Renji put in bluntly. The other shinigami smacked him on the head, and he fell forward into the table. As he got up, gingerly touching what he suspected was his broken nose—owowow that was definitely what it was ow—he glared at her. "Rugia! Whad wad dhad bor?"
"You need to ask?" She threw her free hand in the air in disgust. "Men!"
"Don't lump us all in with him!" Ishida protested, pushing his glasses farther up on his nose.
"You're just as bad!" Rukia snapped.
"If you plan on resorting to that childish argument as your defense, then yes, you are." The Kuchiki stuck her nose in the air and her tongue out at the Quincy, who studiously ignored her, before turning back to Orihime. The human had been trying to discretely tug her arm free while Rukia was distracted. "And what did you think you were doing, going into battle while you were exhausted like that? You could have been killed!"
Chad briefly considered pointing out that none of them had slept much—if at all—the night that they stormed Hueco Muendo, as well as that fighting even at full strength wasn't exactly safe, but thought better of it after a few more seconds of watching Renji try in vain to staunch the blood flow from his nose. It wouldn't help their case, and besides, he liked his face the way it was.
"I'm alright, Kuchiki-san, I really am!" Orhime was saying. "Hanatarou-kun gave me this supplement pill—"
"Dode are bade ob blour." Renji, still clutching his nose, blinked at the way everyone stared at him. "Idade-bugudaijou dold be."
"Translation?" Ichigo asked after nearly a full minute of silence. "Anyone?"
"I believe Abarai-san said that they were… made in towers?" Ishida guessed.
The redhead rolled his eyes. "Bade ob blour."
"Made in China?" Chad guessed, earning a few odd glances, which he replied to with a shrug.
"Bade. Ob. Blour." The fukutaichou repeated slowly, carefully, and still utterly undecipherably.
"Made of flowers?" Orihime guessed.
"Ur." Renji was twitching, almost imperceptibly but obvious to all of their group. "Blo-ur."
"Flower?" Rukia blinked. "Wait, flour? They're made of flour?"
"Yed!" Her nakama nodded so fiercely that his ponytail almost found itself unraveling. How it had managed to stay on during a battle that would go down in the history books was a question as unanswerable as one answered by a certain number.
"I knew it!" The substitute declared, punching the air. "Ganju owes me a thousand yen!"
"Good for you," Rukia retorted, "now if you'll excuse us—"
"Kuchiki-san, that's alright, I can—"
"—We have to be going." The Kuchiki finished above her friends' protests. She fixed the remainder of the group with a glare. "If any of you act like you usually do while I'm gone; I'll make Aizen look like a harmless little bunny and I'll start low. Got it?"
"Got it." They chorused, wincing.
"God id." Renji managed.
"Good boys," she crooned, beaming at them. They made an admirable effort not to feel whipped. It was an exercise in futility, of course, but it was admirable all the same.
And speaking of exercises in futility…
"Nice try," she said as she grabbed hold of the back of Orihime's shirt. The girl had managed to slip out of her grip and had been about to sneak back towards the rest of the group. Her friend firmly in hand, Rukia strode towards the door. "Now let's—"
A split second after opening the door, the adopted member of the Kuchiki clan walked right into something oddly soft and warm. She stayed where she was for exactly five seconds before it hit her: she had just accidentally buried her face in the breasts of one Kirio Hikifune, former Captain of the Twelfth Division and current Captain of the Royal Guard.
Why didn't I update my will? She berated herself as she jumped back. I knew the war was coming, I had hours of doing absolutely nothing before Renji and I went to Hueco Mundo… and even before that, there was the whole execution mess! I can't believe that I had weeks there thinking that I was going to die, and I never even thought of writing a will!
"Sumimasen!" She said, bowing and pulling Orihime down with her. Her brother, the tutors he had hired—even the lowest of the servants had drilled it into her, time and time again, that should she ever find herself in a situation where she was face to face with someone far above the rank of captain, she should err on the side of caution in her etiquette.
The Kuchiki were a proud clan, yes, but not a stupid one.
"It's alright, Kuchiki-san." Hikifune assured her quickly. "We rarely stand on ceremony here, and certainly not with those who did as much to help us as you and your friends have."
Her eyes moved from Rukia to Orihime, and from the human to the rest of the ryoka. Renji was getting up from his kowtow—he had spent too much time with his captain not to have a basic understanding of what to do when in the same room as the captain of the Royal Guard, even if it hadn't been burned into his gray matter as it had been with Rukia's—and the others ranged from looking confused to wearing an admittedly impressive poker faces.
"Would you mind staying here, just for a little longer?" The woman asked the two who were on their feet, a genuine request rather than the order which she had ample authority to give. "There is something that must be discussed as soon as possible, and with all of you present."
"Of course not, Hikifune-sama." Rukia bowed again, and let the relieved Orihime go. While the caramel-haired girl hurried back to her place, her friend returned to her previous location next to Renji. Hikifune herself sat at the end of the low table, shifting slightly so as not to wrinkle the white haori wrapped around her waist like a belt.
"Your actions yesterday are to be commended," she began, rather formally for someone who had just been protesting 'standing on ceremony'. "Without the aid of all of you, it is very likely that Aizen Sousuke's plot would have ended as he had wanted it to, and we would not be having this conversation. The King is in your debt, as are those of us who defend him."
And with that, the woman bowed. It wasn't a slight nod of acknowledgement, nor was it the lower bow of respect that Rukia had given her. No, it was a full-fledged, forehead to the ground kowtow.
Rukia and Renji's jaws hit the floor. Chad and Ishida exchanged startled glances. Orihime was too sleepy to realize that a former captain and current head of the Royal Guard prostrating herself was out of the ordinary, and Ichigo was muttering something that sounded suspiciously similar to "about time".
"You may each ask a boon of the Spirit King," Hikifune continued as she straightened up, "this is a rare incident, but not entirely unprecedented. The last time such a favor was bestowed, it resulted in the creation of the seireitei."
"For instance," she turned her appraising gaze upon Ishida, "you could request the restoration of the Quincy clan. From then on, harming such a human would be among the highest of offences. There would be shinigami dedicated solely to seeking out and watching over those who have the potential to learn your art, and then guiding them to you for instruction when they are old enough. It would take time, possibly centuries, but your clan would be restored. They would be allowed to work alongside shinigami or on their own if they wished, and have all of the same Hollow-fighting rights as any member of the thirteen squads."
Ishida was silent for a moment. His glasses caught the light, hiding his eyes. "…What of the balance between the worlds?"
"The Quincy's developed their abilities for vengeance, to be able to completely destroy the souls of Hollows." Hikifune reminded him. "However, the founders did not use their powers in such a way, rather, they cleansed souls as the shinigami did. Our library has many ancient texts of the Quincy clan, and you are welcome to them."
The dark-haired teen said nothing, and after a moment the leader of Squad Zero nodded in understanding and turned to Rukia. "We could talk to your brother, and relay to him what we have seen during the course of the battle. You more than deserve a promotion."
"That's… very kind of you," the girl replied slowly, "but why speak to my brother, and not my captain?"
"Well, didn't your brother request for you to remain an unseated officer, when you first joined the Thirteenth Division?" Hikifune asked, frowning slightly. "Ukitake mentioned that he had done so…"
"HE WHAT?!" The younger shinigami shrieked. Several people covered their ears, wincing, and Orihime literally fell over. When she righted herself, she looked much closer to being awake than she had previously, and sat a bit farther from her friend.
The captain blinked. "You didn't know?"
"I do now." Rukia growled. There was bloodlust in the air around her, and everyone scooted several inches away. "Thank you, Hikifune-sama, that would be excellent, although I believe that I wish to k—speak to my honored brother beforehand."
"Please don't murder him, we happen to be a bit short on captains at the moment." Hikifune said, only half-jokingly, before moving on to the next ryoka. "Abarai-san, we can grant you ennoblement, to put you on an even footing with those close to you," her eyes flicked briefly to Rukia.
"I'm not that selfish," the redhead snorted. "I'll get there on my own power. I don't need to be adopted into some lesser noble family to—"
"You misunderstand." She cut in with a knowing smile. "When I said that you would be inducted into the nobility, I did not mean as a member of a lesser clan… or even, for that matter, an already-existing clan at all."
The fukutaichou blinked before giving his rather eloquent answer. "Huh?"
"With the fall of the Shiba Clan, the five great noble families of Soul Society have been brought down to four. If you should wish it, you would be the founder of the new fifth family."
Renji blinked. And blinked again. Then he blinked a third time, just to make sure. "…Wow. I… um… really wow."
"I'll give you some time to think it over." The woman told him with a chuckle. She glanced at Rukia again, and noted that the shorter shinigami was looking almost as shocked as her tattooed friend. Better give her some time too…
"And what of the rest of you?" She asked the remaining trio. "You must have something that you have wished for, throughout this War. We will do our best to grant it."
Surprisingly, it was the most taciturn of them who broke the resulting silence. Chad put his mug down, and cleared his throat.
"There's a boy, in Rukongai," he began, "Shibata Yuichi. Could you help him find his mother?"
Everyone blinked and gave him a startled look. They had always known that their friend was truly selfless one, who never raised his fists for his own sake, but to see someone giving away such a gift was a shock.
"No," Hikifune shook her head. Eyes widened and voices started, only to be stalled as she raised one hand and gave them a reassuring smile. "I do not think that alone will suffice. Shinigami will sent out to each district to conduct a census and to collect the names of those who would find their families. They will then be assigned there to keep the peace, while incoming souls will be registered while they are assigned districts."
"Thank you," not only Chad, but Rukia and Renji as well, said. The latter two looked close to tears, and Ichigo was torn between taunting them and asking what the heck was going on. Then he remembered where they had come from and made the wise decision to keep his mouth shut for once.
Somewhere, a pig was soaring happily through the air.
"There is nothing to thank me for." Hikifune gave them a sad smile. "The seireitei was founded to protect souls, and that should not apply only to fighting Hollows. The shinigami have long needed to be reminded of that."
The two former denizens of Inuzuri nodded with weary but wondering eyes, and the woman looked to the orange-haired shinigami. She grinned at him, pushing her sorrow to the side. "Your turn."
Ichigo blinked, and then shrugged. He'd never actually thought about it, even when ranting about the apparently cold treatment that the king had been giving them before the captain of squad zero had arrived. "Just… try not to let it happen again, okay?"
"We'll do our best." She told him, grave despite the obvious lack of thought behind the request. Finally, she turned towards Orihime, who gazed down into her tea. "And what of you, Inoue-san? What is it that you wish for?"
The girl said nothing. She didn't even look up at Hikifune. Not that it was surprising, after all… people may dream of finding a genie and getting a wish, but few would be able to immediately make their choice if confronted with the reality. So, they waited…
…and waited some more, until finally…
"She's asleep." Chad declared.
"Huh?" The bright-haired girl raised her head. She looked tired, yes, but there was no doubt that she was awake. Or a very good at appearing to be so when she wasn't. "Oh, I'm awake, don't worry. It's just… can I give my wish to someone else?"
Everyone gaped at her. She went on, either not noticing or feigning ignorance. "It's just, I can't really think of anything I want. Just for all of us to be able to go home again."
"Inoue…" Rukia said softly, smiling. The others felt something within them relax as well; despite whatever had happened before they had rescued her, some things never changed.
The girl glanced at her, with eyes that were far older than they should have been—eyes that she herself had looked at in the mirror, after they had seen the sterile sekki-sekki walls of the Senzaikyū and met the blinding gaze of the Sōkyoku—and then quickly turned away. "I'm sorry, Kuchiki-san, I can't think of anything else… I know it's silly, since we're all going back anyways, but—"
"No, it's not!" Rukia and Ichigo interrupted her, the latter leaping to his feet as he did so.
The dark-haired shinigami blinked up at him for a long moment before turning back to their mutual friend, who was staring up at him in shock as well. She placed her hands on Orihime's shoulders and swiveled her around slightly until their eyes met.
"I know how you feel, Inoue," she told her nakama, "it's a good wish, and one we're all looking forward to seeing come true."
The others nodded, all of them wearing the weary yet revitalized smiles of soldiers who are finally, after too long, going to return to home and peace. Sure, there would still be some fighting, a Hollow here and maybe the occasional Menos there, but they would again be able to—
Hikifune put down her tea with a soft tink that nonetheless managed to draw the ryoka's attention. Perhaps it was the sudden feeling of DOOM in the air, or the way that she gazed down at the table for several seconds too long before meeting their eyes, but each of them found themselves reaching for their weapons.
"No." Ichigo spoke in a quiet tone, but it was the hush of an assassin's blade the instant before it was drawn for it's razor edge. "Whatever you're going to say, don't."
"Unfortunately, I have as little choice in the matter as you do." The Captain of the Royal Guard told him regretfully. "You may return to your homes—"
"I sense a 'but' coming on," Ishida muttered, his eyes narrowed in anger and suspicion behind the thick frames of his glasses. Chad nodded, clenching his fists as he prepared to jump in if the universe went back to its previous sadistic standard of how it treated them.
"—but the Ouken must remain."
Silence ensued. Those ryoka who made their homes in the living world couldn't help but be surprised at the lack of chirping crickets.
"…That's it?" Chad finally asked. Hikifune nodded, surprised at the relief on their faces. It was almost as if—oh.
"You don't know, do you?" She asked, knowing that she had to even though she dreaded the answer. "What the Royal Key truly is."
"It's the key to the Royal Realm." Orihime piped up.
"Yes, but…" She thought for a moment, and then changed tactics. It would be better to lead them to it, rather than say it outright. "Do you know how it was made?"
"One hundred thousand souls," Ichigo said bitterly, remember just how close his friends and family in Karakura had come to being in that number, "and reishi-enriched land. What are you getting at?"
"The Ouken… is not what you think it is." There was no way she could put it delicately, at least not enough to really be able to cushion the blow. "One hundred thousand souls, forged into one force that can manipulate reality itself. Not a what, but a who."
Realization hit the most intelligent of the ryoka rather quickly, reinforcing to her just how different these children were. The rest, still quite smart, were held back not from foolishness, but from the sheer impossibility of it.
It couldn't be. It shouldn't be. They tried to tell themselves it wouldn't be, but those that did so knew that it was as they watched Hikifune look to a pair of bright, weary eyes. She held them with her own, willing a silent apology into them and hoping that it would be heard. They were still children, all of them—but they would understand when they were older, that this was what she had to do.
"You can never see your home again," she said softly, hating each word even as she forced herself to speak it. "You are the Royal Key… Inoue Orihime."