Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.
Author's note: In case you don't remember, this story takes place ten years after the events in "Saved For You, Kuchiki". It also makes a reference to Ch14 of "Save Me, Kuchiki".
Translator's note: 'Urusai' generally means 'shut up'.
"The first thing you learn when you can raise the dead is that you're better off not doing it."
~ Haru-Isuzu Mia; to Kuchiki Rukia at Kathura Battle
"Even I can be phenomenally stupid sometimes."
~ Kuchiki Rukia, to her son Sado; teaching him about how it's normal and natural to make mistakes
Banzo Tanabi breathed a sigh of relief. It was finally the Sabbath - the one day a week that he was given a reprieve from active torment. One day a week that he was free to contemplate his wrongdoings and his many sins, to pray for Yohana's soul (wherever it might be), to pray for his daughter's success and forgiveness.
He was one of the lucky ones. In his lifetime, he had committed gross violations of personal conduct. He had broken the sins of lust and wrath with great zeal, not to mention greed, envy and pride. Yet Hell had judged him fairly - he had committed many sins but he had also suffered badly in his lifetime; and despite his poor choices and unjust behavior, he had many merits to his name comparative to his fellow sinners. He loved a wife that no one ever could have dreamed he could love, and despite his intense desires, he had always been faithful to her. He earnestly tried to do the best he could for his daughter, despite that he had meager skills in fatherhood. For all his greed and pride and envy and insatiable wrath, his intentions had always been to be the family man, despite his significant failures in so many aspects of that role. As such, his good deeds had been rewarded in his afterlife with the right to rest on the Sabbath.
He sat on the stone bench, free from the pains of fires and needles, and received his Sabbath meal. It was the only time of the week he was given food. It was plain - water with black bread, and a small morsel of meat - but that was far, far better than many others, whose weekly meal consisted of nothing but a sip of brown water and moldy potato peels. The man two seats down from him - Tanabi believed his name was Jonas - was not even given a Sabbath reprieve. Even as he sat, half of his flesh roasted with fire; the other half was eaten alive by locusts and small rodents. He could not even scream, as every time his mouth widened, it was spontaneously filled with steaming horse feces.
"Sir," Tanabi asked of his supervisor. Their handoshi supervisor was not a member with rank, and as such did not have permission to speak to him, but Tanabi respected him anyway. It did not take long for Hell's Sufferers to realize that nearly every servant of hell was incomparably righteous. These were people who were so just and so good in their lifetimes that only they had the proper moral authority to inflict such pain on sinners like him. They had to be respected at all times, no matter what. This particular supervisor's name was Flaggenhaul Skavayeski Denonovitch. For obvious reasons, all of the sufferers just called him Sir. "Thank you for the meal."
The handoshi nodded graciously, and Tanabi began to eat, hoping that his beloved daughter Ichihime had opened her heart enough to give him the slightest bit of forgiveness. He hoped with all of his being that she had learned from his mistakes and failures. He did not want her to know of this place.
~The current existence of Banzo Tanabi, suffering somewhere in the bowels of Hell
Hisako stole a glance at Kohei across the table. As usual, Kohei was boorish; wearing a sneer mixed with a pugnacious scowl to further suit his messy flop of hair. It was dirty, matted, and disgusting - an attempt to make dreadlocks in hair that was simply too fine and too short. His uniform was caked with dirt, grime, hollow scuzz, and most likely blood (never his own); although his odor of dark beer with sweat was the more offensive of the two.
Inexcusable cur, Hisako thought to herself. Such disrespect of decorum for the lieutenant's meeting.
Kohei caught Hisako by the eye, and swiftly sat up straight, ran a hand through his unruly hair, and tried to ply his facial expression into something that could almost be called respectable. His preening efforts, as usual, were not lost on Hisako.
Hisako quickly broke the eye contact with an aloof upwards twist of her nose. The disgust was, no doubt, a jab at his effort. Technically, he was her 'cousin' - a term Hisako did not appreciate, as it implied she shared blood with the vile brute. Nonetheless, she would not sacrifice her social standing to even be seen as tolerating such a goony vulgarian.
As she broke contact to turn up her nose at him, her heart sighed melancholy as she pretended to focus her attention to Hikifune Yoshino's impassioned concern. It was over some training regimen that the 3rd was suggesting replace the 9th division's current routine. As usual, Kanchi-dono and Yoshino-dono were in some proxy sibling rivalry battle for their respective captains; Hisako's Rukia-obasama and her childhood 'brother'-of-sorts, Abarai Taicho. Hisako rarely paid attention them anymore; they took too much of their sparring practice to the lieutenant's meetings. She would read the meeting minutes for the abbreviated version.
No; her attention was not focused on these trivialities at all. She was off in her own world of morose gloominess; wondering why of all people that it had to be Hisagi Kohei who was so doggedly forthcoming about his affections. If only it had been someone worthwhile who would chase her with such determination - a Shihoin, a Kyouraku, perhaps a Nikayui or even a Ryogi - then she would not be so lonely. Hisako was vain but not foolishly so - she was well aware that she was graciously beautiful, to the point where most were envious. (Even her boyish cousin Hikaru-san, who was not even aware of the envy she carried, coveted Hisako's looks.) Yet, despite this, only that... that... that loathsome barbarian would even consider courting her. It was the stinging bite that struck the already dull, spreading ache - what luck she should have to endure his endless display of vaunting swagger.
Curses, she thought. She had been practicing her caligraphy while the 1st division lieutenant, Hitamake Hanzo-san, went through a checklist with Hitsugaya Makahiro-san, the limpid, emotionally handicapped lieutenant of the 8th. Kohei's invasive stare had caused her to misalign the strokes of her brush, and her fine work had been rendered to nothing above a peasant's amateurish attempt at art. Bitter and annoyed, she stared across to the 10th division vice captain, Banzo Vojiro-dono, who as usual, was sitting alongside Hikaru-san. She hoped that he would catch her stare, but he did not.
Hisako receded to her loneliness. She would ask Tousama and Kaasama this evening to see if they had found any other potential suitors, if only to help her escape the tormenting vice captain's meetings.
~ Thoughts of the Head Lieutenant, approximately two centuries from now
"I don't understand - why would someone want to kill me? I'm a nobody!"
"You may think that," Sora answered. "But if you carry that badge, than you are certainly not a nobody. Let me guess, you can probably break concrete with your bare hands, right?"
Tamani looked at him with a mixture of shock and bewilderment. She had been studying martial arts since she was four; her family owned a dojo that had been passed down since her great-great-great-grandmother's time, almost two centuries now. She was a third-degree black belt despite her age; she had been able to break concrete blocks with the palm of her hand since her fourteenth birthday. It was simply a mastery of chi that gave her this ability; extreme focus and skill. Even still, how could he have known this? "How -"
"You can feel the 'flow', the 'Force', the 'ki', or whatever it is you call it, correct?"
How did he -
"It's called reishi," Sora corrected her. "Spirit energy. I can tell. You've definitely got at least two amplicores - twice as much as the average person - and if that's how much you have now, it will probably increase as time goes on. It's amazing that you've never seen hollows before."
Tamani wondered if that was even true. Many times, she thought she had seen things that should never have existed. Things she could never explain. Things that very much matched the description of these 'hollows' that this strange young man had told her about. "How do you know this?"
His face suddenly shifted to distracted caution, as though something startled him. "Like I said earlier, I'll explain everything - but now, we have to move."
"Wait - why?"
Sora grabbed the dark-haired beauty by the arm. It was lean and hard - he could tell she would be a good ally in a fight. "He's here," he said quietly as he began to pull her through the terminal.
"Jonas," Sora answered. Goddamn rabid thing. Hell wasn't enough to straighten him out yet? Damn him.
~Tabaki Tamani (great-great-great-granddaughter of Arisawa Tatsuki) getting sucked into the mission of Ishida Sora (great-great-great-grandson of Ishida Uryu and Inoue Orihime)
The finality of the moment, the vanquishing of Q, left a still silence along the rural zone of upstate New York. Many were still shocked to have witnessed the unfathomable power that had been unleashed upon the battlefield - the effluvient ichor of Kathura compounded into nothing; the roars of dragons silenced; the corpses of the living dead vanished. Vicious hunters of the jurassic age and the terror of flesh-melting wasps; the trauma was still resident. The sudden bright open sky, the chirping birds, the soothing breeze that settled over the swaying grass - it was surreal and unexpected. Each of the many victims of battle were momentarily halted, trying to absorb all that had transpired - much of which had been inexplicably undone by the mythical zotokai.
And then all Hell broke loose.
"Oh my God," Kiyone gasped, realizing it for the first time. Looking upon the shocked and stunted disbelieving face of Shiba Kuukaku, who had recently flashed over to their vicinity, Kiyone's suspicions were confirmed as the white-haired visage seared her retinas with a longing and yearning for the truth. "...Miyako-dono?" she whispered, not willing to believe it. "Is... is - is that you?" Have you come back from the dead? God, tell me that my eyes aren't lying to me. If the hair were black and the eyes were dark brown - if... if... Could it be? Is that really Shiba Miyako? Oh God - I ached so much when she died - dear God -
At the mention of her name, the Handoshi Goddess turned her head to see someone she didn't seem to recognize, yet the voice seemed so familiar. "...Who - "
The eyes, creepy and orange, did not deter Kiyone. "Oh my God," Kiyone began to bawl, running and charging and crashing into the ghost's feet, almost knocking her over. "Miyako-dono!" she sobbed; her eyes and throat a burning mess of happiness and sadness and confusion. "Oh God, oh God," she cried. "It's me," she gasped, choking on air like there was none left of it in all the universe, "Kotetsu Kiyone."
Miyako's eyes lit up. By the Great King of Hell, when did you get so freakishly tall? You were just a little pisher twenty-five years ago! "...Kotetsu-san...?"
"Oh my God, you're alive!" Kiyone sobbed, her words barely intelligble through the bawling.
Hajimata Percival looked to his liegelord. Saya-sama, er, Nanao-sama, was not happy. Glances from Saya-sama gave him a clear indication of the fact that she knew exactly how messy this was going to be. He also knew that there was nothing she could do. There was no escaping the revelation. He himself remembered how Saya-sama herself had reacted when she discovered that Miyako had been taken for Hell's service - it had been quite a lot to absorb. And that was without the trauma that everyone here had just survived through. It was not all that much of a surprise the blond colossus had turned into a gibbering wreck at his sergeant's feet. Hajimata had seen much more dramatic breakdowns many times before.
Byakuya was the one to save face for the crowd at large. "Ise Shosho," he interrupted. "I will report to Soul Society."
The heavy statement fell upon the shinigami, humans, quincy, and arrancar still trying to wrap their heads around the aftermath. Renji was the first to agree, knowing that this was only going to spiral downwards from here. "Hisagi Fukutaicho, come back with us." He knew Shuuhei wanted to stay and question Nanao all about what had been revealed, but an authoritarian glance made sure that Hisagi wouldn't argue. A command was a command.
Shuuhei wanted to protest, but a pained look from Nanao told him that now was not the time. She would explain later. He accepted it begrudgingly, and followed Abarai Taicho and Kuchiki Oujitaicho. Komamura needed no suggestion, he was wise enough to know that this was not where he should be; and so he followed without comment.
Hitsugaya nudged Banzo, who was still in bankai. "Go home," he ordered quietly.
Ichihime was not interested in going home right now. This had been the most insane battle she had ever witnessed. As Head of House, she had long ago since memorized the tale that spoke of zotokai, and she knew that Kuchiki-senpai had summoned it once before; but she never thought she would actually see and experience a being of that awe-rattling power. And if that wasn't enough, to see the Gates of Hell opened up and hundreds of white-haired soldiers pour out of it? Unbelievable. Save for her pumpkin eyes, Ise-senpai looked like her head had been dumped in a vat of bleach; Hisagi's new bankai was out on display; and she herself fought off an entire pack of fucking giant flying lizards. And now she was being told to go home? When the King of Hueco Mundo - an arrancar, for Kami's sake - was still here, helping them? What, are you fucking kidding me? Someone has to explain all of this shit!
"Come," Byakuya reiterated as he passed by.
Ichihime debated protesting, but it was Renji who forced her to capitulate. "Someone's waiting for you at home," Renji added with a serious glance.
It almost broke her heart. Ichihime could see the pain in his voice. It had hurt him to say that to her, and as much as she knew that Renji never could have been Adame, she still felt bad for leaving him so unhappy. She was not willing to break his spirit again by fighting his suggestion. Sighing in exasperation, she let her guns fade back to Shiji's tanto form, and slid it into the lustrous sheath along her back. She waited for Renji and Byakuya to pass by her enough so that she had some space, and then turned to follow.
Hallibel, whose presence was already awkward, looked to Hitsugaya Taicho for some sort of direction. He caught her glance, but then Tia caught Karin's eyes; in haste she turned away. She felt immensely stupid. The King of Hueco Mundo was no stranger to sacrifice, but she had not expected to offer up her dignity on the altar. It was too late for that - she may have contributed to their victory, but she had ultimately arrived to do a subordinate's task. The King need not be present to be a run-of-the-mill heroine; especially not in the presence of so many capable warriors. She wondered if the opportunity to see an old friend had been worth it. (She suspected it hadn't.)
Not wanting to be perceived as rude, she figured she should at least say something before she left. Hallibel's deep, throaty voice was abrupt and terse, yet respectful and collegial. "Hitsugaya Taicho," she addressed him. "It is good to draw swords alongside you, rather than against you."
"Aye; Espada Hallibel," Toshiro nodded in agreement. After Hallibel departed via Garganta, he took Karin's hand and began to pull her to the senkai gate. Karin squeezed his hand back, unsure of what had just transpired but nonetheless comforted by his touch. Hana Tsubaki followed after them, gesturing to Ishida to come with them.
The handoshi soldiers saw that they were departing, and formed two rows along each side in a military honor guard. As the shinigami group departed, the handoshi made friendly gestures and overtures, bowing politely and giving cheerful nods of heads, smiling or even waving demurely; although none of them spoke or said anything. Ichihime thought they seemed like pretty nice people, considering that they all came from Hell.
Isane was equally confused but took the cue easily enough. "I'll, uh, help the wounded get to the 4th," she said, knowing full well that none of those departing were in such bad shape anymore. She followed after Hitsugaya Taicho's small group. Boy, was she going to have stories to tell Hanataro.
Morgan, with Momo in his arms and her Soul's Blade still in his hand, remained still and studied what appeared to be a surprise reunion. The female with the blue haori stood off at the edge of the clearing, with the tall lanky male ghost approaching her side. The other female ghost was immobilized, with the blonde colossus still at her feet. Momo's boss was still there, along with the super-short archangel and her orange-headed companion. The weight of reishi in the air was so thick that he couldn't even focus on the fact that he had finally managed to permanently eradicate Q; he couldn't even think at all. His only relief was that none of them bothered him anymore; they let him hold Momo and comfort her. He could feel her shaking and quivering in his arms, tiny exhales of anxiety shedding layer by layer. Her sword radiated in his hand, pulsating with sunlight along its sharp titanium edge. Nothing could hurt him now, but more importantly, nothing could hurt her anymore. His Goddess Hinamori was safe. Ever the religious man, his eyes closed and he held her tight, offering up a prayer. Today, at least for the moment, I am free. Thank you, God, for all that You have allowed me to do in Your Name.
Kuukaku's lip quivered and shook as the rivulets of tears streamed down her face. It was impossible to believe, but Kuukaku had seen that diamond-bladed katana up close. Even if there was someone else with a sword like that - no, it was just impossible. It had to be. It had to be her. "Miyako...san?"
"Kuu-chan," Miyako smiled weakly, unable to hold her balance properly as she had a six-foot-tall woman bawling around her feet.
The one-armed woman was in complete denial. "Miyako...san?"
"Kuu-chan," she repeated.
And then Kuukaku fell to her knees, tears streaming, soul utterly exhausted. "Miko-san... how... what...?"
Admittedly frustrated with her inability to stand in a dignified fashion, Miyako finally put one hand on Clara's hilt and another on Kotetsu's head. "Sleep," she whispered, and Kotetsu fell into slumber like she had a bad case of narcolepsy. However much disbelief she had before, Miyako was now positive that this woman was Kiyone. No one else could have ever matched such ridiculously persistent admiration. Miyako had always been fond of Kiyone, but this was a bit much.
Stepping out of Kiyone's sleeping limbs, Miyako made her way slowly to her sister-in-law, and knelt down before her. She let a somber smile and a tear penetrate her Hell-hardened face. "You're wearing a haori again," she chimed meekly. It wasn't the most sensitive of ice-breakers, but Miyako was proud that her sister-in-law had rejoined the Gotei 13.
Kuukaku had no words. None at all. She just collapsed on top of the handoshi sergeant and cried tears of longing joy and sadness. What she would tell Hisako, she had no idea.
Ichigo pulled Zangetsu from the earth beside its partner, Sode no Shirayuki. Rukia, though, seemed preoccupied; almost anxious. She was slow to return her katana to its sheath. "Rukia, are you okay?"
Her eyes were unfocused, distant. "...I'm fine."
Like hell you are, Ichigo thought. "What's wrong?"
"...Nothing," Rukia lied, her eyes downcast. She refused to look at anything but the earth and its verdant clay. Anything but her husband's eyes. With a depressed air, Rukia sat down in the grass, unable to think.
Ichigo sat down next to her, understanding that she didn't want to talk. He didn't understand why, but he sat shoulder to shoulder with her so that she could feel him next to her. It was the right balance of space and closeness - she could lean on him if she wanted, it was up to her. He looked at the heap of tears collapsed on the grass as white-haired woman underneath Auntie K was trying to get out from under her. "Who's that?"
Rukia didn't answer.
Ichigo studied the woman for a moment. He couldn't place it, but she looked reminiscent. Like someone he might have met once before, or seen somewhere. "She looks familiar," Ichigo mused out loud, more out of curiousity than anything else.
His wife looked askance. "...Vaguely," she said evasively.
"What's gotten into you?" Ichigo grumped. "Something's bothering you, I know it. Just tell me already."
Rukia stood up abruptly. "I need to talk to Nanao-san," she said firmly. "Stay here."
"Wait - "
"Stay here, Ichigo."
"Alright, alright! Sheesh," he muttered.
Hinamori felt Morgan's warmth embracing her. He felt wonderful; a comfort like home. Her soul brimmed with hope. There is a future, she thought.
Her katana in his hands was still mercurial - it wasn't the shimmering innocence of what Tobiume had once been. It was if a superficial Tobiume had been superimposed upon her Savior, some new inner consciousness masquerading as her former self. It wasn't genuine, it was an imitation. Although perhaps imitation was a bit harsh. It was, perhaps, simply trying to emulate a better part of her. To become good, one must act good first, she thought. It was a possibility.
"Yoos okay, Momo-san?" he finally asked her.
"...I - I think."
"Yoos mind iffa I's hold yoos a bit longer?"
She smiled. "No." You really are a goody-two-shoes, Morgan. So good, that even I can't help liking you.
Ichigo would have sat still, but the vaguely familiar woman had caught a hold of his gaze, and her eyes - a deeply emotional orange - locked into his with a force that even he couldn't reckon with. She proceeded to extract herself, and Ichigo saw his wife's alarm as the ghostly woman began to approach him - but Ichigo could not remove his stare.
Nanao resented what she had to do, but this had to happen.
"Nanao, let go of me!" Rukia hissed at her.
The handoshi general held her wrist tightly. "No," she said firmly, not looking her younger sister in the eye.
"Nanao, let go!"
"No," Nanao insisted, and cruelly zapped Rukia through the arm with a flash of electric reishi. The kido stunned Rukia into a shocked expression that Rukia immediately turned on Nanao in anger.
"Nanao-san!" she ground her teeth bitterly.
"Urusai, Rukia-chan," Nanao ordered quietly, deliberately putting down Rukia with the diminutive honorific. "This has to happen."
Rukia seethed and smoldered. She was livid with Nanao, for so many reasons. Hundreds of reasons, each one of them a tour de force that Rukia would have swung at Nanao like a club. And Nanao knew it, too. "I can't believe you," Rukia clenched through tightened jaw.
Nanao dismissed her without even so much as taking her eyes off of Miyako's procession. "Jealous?"
Rukia said nothing. Her cold, burning glare was enough.
Nanao's stern face held. She had confidence in her belief. Life changes us. Death changes us. It is the way Fate crafted us. "I wouldn't worry, Rukia-san."
The older-in-years-but-younger-nonetheless of the two sisters huffed in annoyance. Nanao was going to have her way and that was that. "I'm not worried," she lied.
"You couldn't seriously be doubting Kurosaki Ichigo, could you?"
Instantly, Rukia felt stupid, but she was still angry and jealous and mad. "...No," she admitted.
"Then what's your problem?" Nanao asked with a vicious, sadistically confrontational smirk.
Everything, Rukia felt. She hated that Nanao had kept secrets from her. She hated that she felt so conflicted. She hated that she was jealous. She hated the whole situation. This was Miyako-dono - the woman she had most admired, idolized, looked up to. This was someone she should have been elated to see alive. Instead, all she could feel was a fiery anger - that Miyako was going to take her husband away. That someone else could lay claim to him. To Ichigo! Rukia had given Ichigo part of her own soul, and now someone was going to challenge her place? And most of all, it was ridiculous of her to feel this way! Absolutely ludicrous, but she felt that way nonetheless! For her to be so stupid made her even more angry.
"You never struck me as the jealous type," Nanao taunted Rukia.
"Bitch," Rukia spat back harshly She almost regretted saying it the moment it left her mouth - it was not like her to say such things, especially not to Nanao.
Nanao laughed. "Wow, look who's in a bad mood."
"Shut up," Rukia answered, although it was just the manner in which she relented. Nanao was right. Rukia was in the wrong and didn't want to admit it.
"Watch," Nanao instructed, although this time, her smile was genuinely gentle and more sisterly than anything else.
Rukia looked to her husband, her alarm tentative but still waiting to emerge at any moment. "You're still a bitch," Rukia grumbled.
Nanao snickered. "Yeah, I know. Live with it."
Kuukaku, a mess of tears and confusion, watched with worry as her sister-in-law Miyako approached her nephew Ichigo. Rukia-san was already on edge; only Ise-san had kept Rukia from charging over.
Oh Kami, this is going to be a mess.
"Hi, Ichigo-kun," Miyako said, admittedly a touch nervous. He was still sitting, so she leaned over to let him see her face more clearly. I wonder if he remembers. I wonder if anywhere inside there, he remembers anything - ten years ago, or twenty-five years ago, or fifty years prior to that - I wonder if he remembers any of it.
Ichigo couldn't place her, but she felt... different. Like he was supposed to know who she was. No, even more than that; like he was instinctively supposed to identify her very essence. Like there was supposed to be some sort of eternal, unbreakable bond that could never be shattered. Something he knew he should have been feeling. "...Uh... hi," he stammered, wondering how she knew his name - and even if she did, why she felt that she could refer to him in such a personal way. "...Do I - uh, do I... know you?"
The woman closed her eyes, shook her head with a smile, and withdrew by standing up straight. "Once upon a dream," she replied with a nostalgic inflection. Once upon a whisper's kiss, she wanted to say, but that was too intimate a thing for her to say now.
Ichigo was slightly confounded. "Uh, I - "
Before he could continue, she cut him off by turning around, although she stopped to look over her shoulder. Hand on her hilt, Ichigo felt a strange sensation as the woman whispered to him. "I am nothing more than a dream's memory, Kurosaki Ichigo. A pleasant dream it was, but a dream all the same."
When Ichigo's eyes refocused, he wondered who he had even been talking to. Or if he had even been talking at all.
Morgan's moments of triumph with his Goddess were interrupted by another Goddess of a very different quality. "Congratulations, Morgan."
He bowed his head respectfully. "I's graciously thanks yoos, Mizz - "
"Miyako-dono," Hinamori finished for him, not wanting him to screw up the pronunciation. Momo could barely tolerate it when he butchered her name; she spared Miyako the indignity. It was the least she could do.
"What will you do now, Morgan?" the ghost asked.
Morgan shrugged with his typical lazy, laid-back southern charisma. "Same ol' things, I's guess. Helpin' peeples. S'Good ta doos whats yoos gooddat, tchaknow."
Miyako gave a pained smile. "Yes," she answered reluctantly.
"I's guess I's gots ta waits fer Jones now, eh?" he asked, somehow knowing that Miyako would know the answer.
Miyako's answer was emotionally indecipherable but most definitely evasive. "...You won't need to hunt him down for at least seventy years. Probably more."
Morgan paused. He was going to ask how she knew that, and then he realized it was probably a dumb question. "Oh."
The ghost hesitated for a moment. "Theodore," she began, but then stopped without words. Her expression was hurt, sad, and despondent. "...Excuse me, there's someone here I need to speak with."
"Wait," Momo interrupted. "Miyako-dono?"
"...Thank you - thank you for everything."
Miyako smiled charmingly, but inside she felt so awkward and uncomfortable. She had owed Hinamori a hello, but Morgan was not someone she should have been talking with. In general, this whole situation had not been the way she would have wanted a reunion - her sudden appearance among so many had caused quite a ruckus. There were far too many introductions she would have wanted to do in private - she would have much preferred to sit and talk with Kuu-chan for hours if she could, but with everyone here, it wasn't the time. Nor had she been prepared for Kiyone. (To be fair, it was hard for anyone to be prepared for Kiyone.) Now, Miyako could see the look in Momo's eyes; she could see her thinking and feeling - 'if only you had still been here', was what Momo's eyes had said. 'If only you were still here for us to come to when we didn't know what to do.'
That look was something that Miyako had no good answer for. She hadn't wanted to die, it just happened. I am a Hikifune, after all. Most of us have died in the line of duty. It's practically our family's rite of passage.
With heavy heart and great discomfort, Miyako tried to put on her best face. After mildly succeeding, she returned to where her general was standing.
Rukia was feeling a thousand different emotions all at once. Miyako-dono was approaching, her white hair glistening in the sun's glaring rays and her tatter-edged cloak swaying in the breeze as her graceful figure approached. Her expression was a warm, inviting smile - the same kind that Rukia rememembered when Miyako had still been the 3rd seat of the 13th division - but Rukia found it nerve-wracking rather than disarming. She also wanted to slaughter Nanao for holding her back. She was so pissed - but on the other hand, she wasn't even sure if she had a right to be. At some level, Nanao was right - Rukia wasn't being rational. That didn't mean Rukia wasn't going to stay pissed, though; irrational or not.
Nanao sensed her discomfort, and with a pat of her hand on Rukia's shoulder, she disengaged to give them space. Whatever was to follow would be best shared without her meddling in between. She had meddled enough. Talk about screwups, she thought to herself. This is the last thing I needed - bringing Miyako-dono here when Kurosaki was here. As if my relationship with Rukia-san hasn't been strained enough over the past few weeks.
"Kuchiki-san," Miyako said, taking cue from Nanao's distancing. She had missed the opportunity earlier at Nanao-san's behest, and she was happy to have Nanao give them space this time. "Or, I suppose I should say, Kuchiki Taicho."
"...-Oujotaicho," Rukia absentmindedly corrected. Nii-sama had been first, and the more honorable, standalone -taicho title belonged to him.
Rukia attempted to penetrate Miyako's charm. There was something hiding behind that innocent smile, something that was sorry and struggling. It put Rukia on pins and needles; almost enough to make her feel like she was going to choke on her own tongue. That charm was always something that had put her at ease; now it was putting her stomach in a centrifuge.
"I'm proud of you," Miyako seemed to say genuinenly.
"Miyako-dono..." Rukia stammered. It was hard for her to believe that she was talking to her again. "I - I - " That was all she could get out before she sighed and her throat began to close. What are you doing here? What do you plan to do now that you are here? Why didn't you - why didn't you come back? Why - why did you leave us? How could you have left all of us, so many of us, so many of us that looked up to you? What the hell are you doing in Hell? Why - how - why -
"Kaien-dono wasn't the only one who wanted you to take his place," Miyako said softly.
The reference to Rukia's former lieutenant badge - the one that had Kaien's instruction, Save this for Kuchiki - brought tears to Rukia's eyes. She couldn't speak. The layers of meaning that could have been embedded into that statement left her with so many questions - so many doubts, so many worries, so many begging, begging questions. Was that supposed to mean everything it could have sounded like? How - how could she say that? Did that mean -
"They all look up to you," Miyako explained, a not-so-subtle hint of masking her true meaning evident in her disarming smile. "You are their ideal shinigami now. I don't doubt you'll live up to it."
No, Rukia thought to herself - no, I never could be as good as -
"Selling yourself short, as always," Miyako smiled teasingly, not worried if Rukia knew that she was reading her mind.
"I - "
"Hush, Kuchiki Oujotaicho," Miyako gently suggested. Whatever Kuchiki was going to say, Miyako didn't want to hear it. She may have been a saint, but there was only so much emotional complexity Miyako could handle. At heart, she had always been delicate. Talking to her late husband's new wife - even someone she gladly approved of and thought deserving for both of them - was not something she was ready to do at length right now. This was far too much drama for her. All she wanted was to go back to her little room in the bowels of Hell and take a hot bubble bath with an exceedingly large glass of red wine. (Even in Hell, there were a few perks reserved for those at her rank.) "Nanao-san?"
"Yes?" Nanao answered, a good few paces away and somewhat surprised to be invited back into the conversation so soon.
Miyako looked back and forth between Kuchiki and Nanao, and opted for a touch of humor; lest her own discomfort become noticeable. "Kuchiki-san looks like she wants to punch you."
Nanao laughed smugly. "It's Thursday," she teased.
"Nanao-san!" Rukia protested.
Miyako laughed. "Looks like you two have what to talk about."
Nanao sighed. This had not been anything like she had envisioned these two seeing each other again. "Yeah."
Feeling as though she had fulfilled her obligations to re-meet those present, Miyako was ready to go. She was spent and didn't have the emotional fortitude for any more of this reunion saga. Some other time, she would come back for more one-on-one time, but right now, she needed to go home. Back to the 8th Legion, back to torturing Grimmjaw and Aaroniero and the others, back to figuring out how to let Colonel Haupt know that she really, really, really wasn't interested in another date. Anything to get back to normal. (Saints have their limits, too.) "Ise Shosho, I need to go home."
"Go," Nanao nodded softly, acknowledging that Miyako was leaving behind a mess but that it was very much Nanao's problem. She had been the one to create it, after all.
"Wait!" Rukia called out to Miyako, causing the handoshi elite to turn to the shinigami captain. "Miyako-dono?"
"...It was good to see you," Rukia confessed, albeit not without some internal conflict. She was speaking to Miyako-dono, but her eyes were solidly locked on her husband, still sitting down in the grass, waiting for her. "...Maybe we could... spend some time... talking, or something."
Miyako's charming half smile was radiant - the kind of look that stole men's hearts, the charisma that had made so many women look to her as their vision of the perfect female. "That would be nice."
Surprised for some unknown reason at Miyako's enthusiasm, Rukia's heart stopped in doubt. She was just too overwhelmed to know what she wanted to think anymore.
Nanao looked to both women. "Go, you two. We'll talk later," she said, all business-like and commander-y. It was the best she could do to mask her own frustrated feelings. Nanao had never been fond of spilled secrets, and now she had explaining to do that she would have very much preferred to avoid.
"Goodbye, Kuchiki-oujotaicho," Miyako smiled one last time.
"...Uh, goodbye, Miyako-dono," Rukia answered politely enough, but she was distracted. Ichigo was waiting for her, and she felt so uneasy that she just didn't have her heart in the moment. She felt so disconnected from reality - her whole world had been turned upside down, and not because she had just survived and averted a not-potential-but-actually-actual apocalypse.
Miyako, always one to understand the minds and emotions of others even without her telepathic abilities, took it in stride. With a final wave, she departed for the iron gates of purgatory, her tattered gray cloak flapping in the breeze. The saint soon passed through its threshold, and was then gone from sight.
Rukia rushed over, unable to restrain herself anymore. "Ichigo!"
"Rukia," he replied, shaking his head a bit to scatter the fog that had clouded over him. He hadn't been able to shake it. "What's wrong?"
"Are you okay?" she asked, panicked.
"Yeah, I'm fine," he grumbled with an annoyed look. "What's gotten into you? You're all weird today."
"What did she do?"
Rukia paused. "Ichigo - "
Ichigo put a hand over her mouth. "Rukia, are you hurt? Shake your head yes or no."
Startled by his very unexpected interruption, she shook her head in the negative.
"Good," he said, and then moved his hand from her mouth to her palm. "Then help me up, and then let's go see Hikaru-chan."
Thrown off course, Rukia looked at him, her eyes filled with all sorts of confusion. "Ichigo, I- I - what happened - "
"What are you babbling about? Sheesh, you're all kinds of strange today."
"But she - "
"Yes, she - "
Rukia stammered. "The woman that was just with you."
"The one with the white hair!"
"Who the hell are you talking about? You mean Nanao-san?"
"No, I mean - "
"Rukia, I swear, are you sure you didn't hit your head or something?"
She paused. Her heart was racing and her head was pounding. "Ichigo - I'm just... just - just worried about you," she said, not really sure what she could say that would make sense to him.
"Whoa, look out," Ichigo interrupted, holding her down as a huge gust of wind passed over them. It was the Gate to Hell - the huge gates were beginning to close and the last of the various handoshi soldiers were hurrying to return through the threshold.
"Crazy, huh?" he asked her tiny figure that was cradled up in his larger form. "To think that Hell has their own shinigami."
"...I think they are called handoshi," she answered, sidetracked from her previous anxiety.
"The 'Hands of Death'," Ichigo nodded. "I wonder if any one of them ever did something so strange, like falling in love with a human."
Rukia seized up. "And what if they did?" she asked nervously.
"What of it?" Ichigo shrugged. "Doesn't matter. I bet it could never happen."
"We happened," Rukia suggested meekly.
"Tch," Ichigo laughed, and looked at her with loving eyes. "Some things, not even Hell could get in the way."
Rukia let out a smile as she found herself finally exhaling. I am such an idiot, she thought as her smile widened. "I guess not."
Hey guys, sorry it's been a while. Real life got in the way. It happens. :) Anyway, thanks for sticking through the lean times - please leave some reviews! We're almost at the end. :) -njx