Becoming who we were meant to be
18: Different, how?
Rukia knows where she is as soon as she hears the deafening silence. The sky above her head is grey, snowflakes falling like feathers and settling on the ground, white, soft, cold. She rises to her feet, hating how the movement doesn't make any sound, neither the rustling of clothes or the crunching of her weight on snow. The lake is thawed, the water so dark she cannot see within inches of the surface. Rukia shivers as she recalls the times she woke up in those very waters, drowning for hours on end.
Sode no Shirayuki's voice pierces through, as clear as the sound of blades. The echo reverberates inside Rukia's entire body, the overbearing silence evaporating—she can feel her presence in her bones, but the physical apparition of her Zanpakuto is nowhere to be seen.
Until she isn't.
She glides through the trees, unchanged except for the color of her lips. Rather than the usual lilac, they're dusted with a warm pink that Rukia's never seen on her before. She thinks about inquiring, but her Zanpakuto beats her to it.
"You've been happier." Sode no Shirayuki blinks, her eyelashes so long she resembles a porcelain doll.
Rukia keeps quiet. It's easy to forget that her thoughts are simultaneously heard by another without fault. To forget her soul isn't only hers. Sode no Shirayuki offers a melancholic smile.
"Why do you feel guilt, child?"
Rukia's vision shifts. She looks down to study her own palms, so pale, so insignificant, and closes her fists.
"You know why," she whispers back.
Closing her eyes, Rukia finds it all too easily—that familiar weight, ugly, disjointed yet attaching itself to every good thing that's ever happened to her. She wants to turn it to smoke, exhale it, cleanse herself of its memory.
"You're allowed to feel joy," Sode no Shirayuki tells her. "You're allowed to know what life is like when you let go of misery."
"Joy as a result of death?" Rukia says suddenly, hating herself for it—for this whole conversation. "What kind of person would that make me?"
Sode no Shirayuki vanishes before reappearing in front of Rukia, towering over her like Rukia imagines a mother might. She smiles, tilting her head, and runs a hand through Rukia's shorter black hair. Her touch makes the strands shine like crystals.
"The kind that would stop blaming herself in vain."
She opens her eyes to wake up in bed, alone, the covers pushed to the end of the tatami despite the cold morning air that's sifting through the open door. Rukia sighs as she gets up, her muscles still sore from the time spent in Urahara's gigai, even though that was well over three days ago. She walks up to her mirror and studies her own face, touching her lips when she remembers the shade Sode no Shirayuki's wore in her inner world.
Rukia brushes her hair, gets dressed and exits her bedroom, as she would on any other day. She enters the Kuchiki dining room, sits in front of the breakfast that's been prepared for her, and prays before touching any food, sending a thought to Hisana, Karin, Yuzu, Isshin… Ichigo. Their smiles stay with her as she digs in.
Today marks the start of the fourteenth division recruiting ceremony. While Rukia wishes she could be there, she's content knowing Ukitake-taichou will be by Ichigo's side through the entire process. Meanwhile, her squad needs her to pick up the slack. Rukia leaves the manor and heads for the thirteenth, feeling lighter than she did when she went to bed. Rather than chase it away, she allows the feeling to linger.
Maybe there's merit to the advice her soul has to offer.
"Well this is awkward."
The afternoon sun shines a little too bright, drawing ridiculous attention to the painted sign that reads "Fourteenth Division Recruitment — Day 1" at the entrance of the freshly constructed courtyard. Ichigo, Shinji and Ukitake sit facing its emptiness, watching a fly oscillating its wings from point A to point B. Standing in the back, Atsuyo Shiba struggles not to give in to second-hand embarrassment.
"Are you sure the recruiting ceremony was announced, Ukitake?" Shinji asks from his seat, teeth-squared.
"Of course it was… It's all the Seireitei's been talking about lately."
Ichigo pokes his cheek with his tongue. "Che. If no one wants to join us, screw it—we don't want them either."
Shinji isn't buying it. "Sure, Ichigo. As talented as you and your fetus of a lieutenant are," he turns to Atsuyo. "No offense—I don't think a two-man squad would quite cut it."
Crossing his arms, Ichigo groans under his breath while Atsuyo mutters a delayed, somewhat uncomfortable "none taken."
The sound of sudden footsteps pulls everyone's ears up, taut, waiting for potential recruits to finally show their faces. A hand pushes the swing gates open, and—
Byakuya's constipated face pops in, closely followed by Renji.
Talk about disappointment.
"Wow," Renji whistles, blinking as if to make sure he's not dreaming. "Did someone trigger the evacuation protocol?"
Ichigo frowns, an insult on the tip of his tongue.
"We're aware, Abarai," Shinji bites back. "Thank you for the revelation." Whether it's the Visored glare or the haircut, it successfully shuts Renji up.
Heads turn to Byakuya, waiting for him to offer more than a single word of insight. Before Ichigo can ask what the hell he means by 'rumors', Ukitake hums, a finger to his chin like his lightbulb just flicked on.
"Kuchiki-taichou has a point. After all, word on the street is that low-ranking officers find Kurosaki Ichigo intimidating…"
"Or reckless," Kuchiki finishes. "Untrustworthy. Juvenile."
Shinji leans back in his seat, chuckling. "Quite the reputation you got, Ichigo."
That's it, the last nerve. Ichigo grinds his teeth, rises from his chair and opens his mouth, ready to—
Everyone turns to the newcomers as they barge through, a smug Ikkaku and amused Yumichika followed by a crowd whose coordinated, hurried steps sound akin to an earthquake. The fly on the wall finally stops its hum and flies away to more peaceful lands.
"Sorry, Ichigo," Yumichika says.
"Sorry 'bout what?"
Ikkaku snorts. "Captain threatened to eviscerate anyone who dared try out for recruitment before he could fight you."
"Hence why no one showed up until now."
Ichigo's eyebrow twitches. "What the fuck? Are you kidding me?"
"Kenpachi…" Ukitake sighs as he shakes his head, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"How'd you get him to release the poor bastards?" Shinji asks, laughter spilling through tight teeth.
Yumichika brushes his hair back. "Neat little trick I call 'luring him into a fight with a stronger opponent'."
"Who?" Renji asks.
Ikkaku grins, propping his foot up on the wall as he begins to stretch. "Lips sealed, Abarai."
Renji narrows his eyes, mumbling "bitch move" under his breath.
"Anyway," Yumichika carries on, fanning himself. "We got a couple hours until he figures it out, at which point our asses will be done for. Meanwhile, your recruits have been lining up—poor guys are antsy to prove themselves."
Ikkaku bangs on the wall twice and steps aside, letting the crowd of Shinigamis swarm through the gates, nearly stepping on each other's toes. Within a minute the place is packed, a circle of over a couple hundred soldiers awaiting Ichigo's cue.
Atsuyo's mouth drops open. With the matter solved and into capable hands, Byakuya slips out, leaving his curious lieutenant behind. Ukitake releases a breath of relief. Ichigo pinches himself to make sure this is real. Shinji grins, clapping his hands together.
"Let the ceremony begin."
Karin blinks once, twice.
"Send the next one in," the teacher says without looking up, scribbling on his notepad.
"Uh…" Hesitantly, she bows. "Yes, Hazuko-sensei."
Karin scratches her cheek, a little perplexed, but her questions get cut short as soon as she exits the training yard and enters the hallway where Ana immediately jumps on her.
"So, so, so? How'd it go?"
Shrug. "I passed, apparently. He didn't say anything else, though."
Ana clicks her nails together, cheeks pink with pre-examination jitters. "But did he say it immediately, or did he chew on his mustache for a while and then said it?
Her friend's eyes widen as she whistles. "Nice job, Kurosaki. Hazuko is a strict instructor and an even worse evaluator."
Karin scoffs. "I figured he'd offer a grade, but that might just be my human world expectations."
"Could be," Ana says, undoing her ponytail only to re-tie her blond hair up right away. "I don't actually remember anything about my human life—I just happen to be friends with people who do." She puts her hands to her hips, looking at the ceiling. "Huh, I've never realized that before."
"Makes sense, we got the coolest expressions after all."
Ana laughs, then dries her clammy palms on her uniform. She takes a deep breath in and out, winking at Karin. "Alright, guess I'm up. Wish me luck."
"Break a leg."
Ana does a double-take, frowning.
"Human expression," Karin explains.
"Ahhh, gotcha." She clicks her tongue. "Little strange, but I'll take it."
She disappears through the training yard doors, leaving a chuckling Kurosaki behind. Crouching to arrange her books, Karin overhears the group of students waiting at the end of the hall, those who have yet to pass Hazuko-sensei's test—it's almost impossible to miss them with their bitter, resentful glares and hushed gossip directed at her, but she has no problem ignoring them. If anything, the fact that even an Academy for Shinigamis has its own batch of insecure bullies amuses her.
"Share a tip?"
Karin pauses at Oishi's voice. A smirk makes its way on her face as she stands, swooping her books in one arm and using her hip bone as support.
He shakes his head, jerks it in the direction of the other students. "On making friends."
The sarcasm feels like home, like reuniting with a limited popsicle flavor that fills you with childhood nostalgia. Karin peeks at the group of designated jerks behind Oishi.
"Aahhh, that. Simple—all you need is a famous, world-saving sibling who can let you cheat to get through classes. Classmates will fall right at your feet."
The jerks whip their heads around at the word "cheat," shooting arrows with their gullible, narrowed eyes. Shame they're here; they'd make A-tier Quincies with those archery skills.
Oishi hums and nods. "Makes perfect sense. I can't believe I never thought of it myself."
"Really, Oishi… You disappoint me."
Unable to keep the act for another round, both of them finally crack up. The door comes slamming open in the next moment, a sweating Ana coming through to immediately lean on Karin, trying to control her panting.
"I freaking did it. It took all the energy I had and more, but I managed to create the tiniest ball of Reiryoku known to man, Sensei went—" She suddenly seems to notice Karin isn't alone. "Oh, hey Oishi! I didn't know you guys were friends."
Oishi keeps his smile, but it's such a flagrant change from the genuine laugh of a second ago that Karin suddenly realizes the extent of his introversion. He wasn't lying when he said he isn't good at making friends… Either he doesn't know how to approach people, either he doesn't see the appeal. Knowing his reputation—top of his class in hand-to-hand combat, pulls others to him like a magnet—she's convinced it's the latter.
Someone who doesn't care for popularity despite having it served on a silver platter… huh. Refreshing.
"Did you get your turn on Hazuko's guillotine yet?" Ana asks him, but before Oishi can answer, a group of guys come scabbling in like a walking zoo of chimpanzees, circling Ana.
"How did your exam go?!"
"I can wipe your sweat for you if you want!"
The trio frowns in one communal feeling of annoyance—Ana because of the unwanted male attention, Oishi because of the sudden ruckus and lack of personal space, Karin because she gets a fat elbow thrown in her stomach amidst the outburst of testosterone. They don't simmer down, if anything Ana's silence spurs them on to try even harder. You can't even hear yourself think amidst the cacophony.
Karin needs to get the hell out before she punches someone back, and not by accident.
"Uh, I need to—"
"Yeah. Sorry, Ana, we're outta here."
Call it immunity or supersonic hearing, but Ana manages to make out the goodbye through the crew of raging hormones. She waves at Karin. "Ok, see ya!"
Seems like she's accepted her fate.
Part of Karin feels bad for not chasing those idiots away, or not dragging Ana with her, but if she stays here one more second she's seriously going to explode. She already feels a headache coming on. In one swift motion, Karin pulls Oishi's sleeve, plucking him from the crowd to flee. She doesn't stop until they're safe, the boys' voices muddled into a symphony of growls and oinks. The two of them round the corner without looking back, sprinting outside where Karin finally braces herself against a column, sighing.
Oishi looks ready to blow his brains out.
"That was slightly overwhelming."
Karin guffaws. "Slightly?" She blows a wild lock of hair away from her eyes, walking backwards as Oishi follows. "Freaking high school boys were easier to endur—"
She's interrupted by someone bumping into her, or rather, her bumping into someone, hard enough for both of them to drop their books.
They both straighten after picking up their belongings. Karin's about to offer the stranger a guilty as charged smile and a better apology when she sees the girl's already staring at her, green eyes wide as though she's come face to face with a ghost.
"Uh… you ok?"
The girl, a little shorter than her, suddenly stutters. "Y-yes. I'm sorry."
Without another word she speed-walks down the deck, head down, clutching her books. Both Karin and Oishi watch her until she disappears inside.
"Does my breath smell or something?"
Oishi's frown mirrors hers, but he chuckles. "Must be the oozing confidence that scares them off." Before Karin can ask what that means, he adds, "I wouldn't take it personally, though. I heard she's particularly reserved. Even more than me."
"You know her?"
He shrugs. "Of her. That's Shiba Yui, famous third year."
Karin's blood halts in her veins. "You mean that was… Atsuyo Shiba's sister?"
Ichigo thrusts Zangetsu over his shoulder. He studies the soldier facing him: panting, sword at the ready, sweat dripping down his face. The guy gulps, knowing his fate stands in the hands of a single man and depends on the impression of a single fight.
But Ichigo doesn't need more than an initial gut feeling to get a feel of his recruits, and whether or not he thinks they're a good fit.
Tension breaks when he nods at the soldier. "You're in."
The guy blinks, then in the span of a second sheathes his Zanpakuto, bows lower than ninety and snaps into reaction.
"T-thank you, Kurosaki-taichou!"
Ichigo stifles a scoff. He doesn't know if he'll ever get used to the ring of his new title.
"You can give your name to Ats—Shiba-fukutaichou, he'll give you the official transfer documents."
Yeah, he really sucks with titles.
"Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!"
Ichigo laughs under his breath, watching the poor guy scramble to the back where Atsuyo and Ukitake are busy with paperwork for the transferring recruits.
Turning to the line up, he shouts, "Next!"
By sun down, about half of the recruits who showed up have gone face to face against Ichigo for evaluation, a tenth of which got accepted into the fourteenth division. Ukitake announces the end of Recruitment Day 1, and invites the remaining soldiers to come back tomorrow.
Ichigo plops down on the dusty ground, finally tucking Zangetsu away.
"Tired already?" Renji teases.
"Pfft. I feel like my reiatsu itches to run free."
Renji chuckles. "I'm impressed you were able to restrain yourself so much. It's not easy to match your strength to someone else's, but I still expected you to particularly suck at it."
Ukitake walks up to them, closely followed by Atsuyo whose arms are full of paperwork.
"You did great, Ichigo," Ukitake says, his smile warm. "The turn-up exceeded my expectations, and the recruits you picked are a great match for your division. I think you should be proud."
Ichigo smiles in return, gratitude transcending words. He sees Atsuyo shaking his cramping hand, trying to increase blood flow.
"What do you think, Atsuyo?"
The newly–appointed lieutenant looks up, surprised to have all three officers staring at him. "I—I think… I still can't quite believe I'm here, but I'm glad I am."
Ukitake releases a breath, tapping the boy's back.
"You got yourself a good man, here, Ichigo."
"Don't take this the wrong way," Renji quips. "But we were worried you'd turn out to be this spoiled little asshole."
While Ukitake nearly chokes on his own tongue at Abarai's crude honesty, Atsuyo laughs, tilting his head as though he wants to scratch it, but can't afford to let go of the flurry of paperwork.
"I don't blame you—not like I made the greatest first impression."
Ichigo opens his mouth to ask the question that's been burning his mouth for weeks; about that famous first meeting where Atsuyo's lieutenancy was first announced. Before he utters a sound, he stops himself. This is a conversation best kept between the two of them.
The torch is passed to the grumble of Renji's stomach.
"I'm starving," he announces, like it wasn't obvious enough. "What do you say, Ichigo?"
"Nah, I'm good."
"I'll take off as well," Ukitake says. "These documents need your signature, Ichigo, then they can be sent to the other captains for transfer authorization."
Atsuyo squares his shoulders. "I'll drop them off in your office, taichou."
Ichigo nods. "Thank you, Atsuyo. Ukitake."
Hands in his shihakusho pockets, Renji suddenly turns around at the last second. "What about me?"
"You were no help whatsoever."
An amused, dramatic "wow" echoes right before Renji shunpos away. Ukitake and Atsuyo leave the courtyard in turn, leaving Ichigo to his own resources. For the first time today, Ichigo can revel in the quietude of his new division, breathing in the night air. He closes his eyes, lets his thoughts wander to anything and everything, unbound. Speaking of unbound, he finally allows his reiatsu out of the choke hold it's been stuffed in all day. It chimes through his limbs, centers in the middle of his chest and spreads from head to toes. Ichigo sighs, at peace.
Rukia's voice pulls him out of his mind. Ichigo blinks until he can make out her shape through the evening darkness—sitting at the edge of the low slope roof, feet dangling.
"Not exactly." He gets up, brushing the dust off his shihakusho.
"I heard that you had a couple hundred soldiers show up for recruitment today…"
Ichigo arches a brow. "Did you also hear about Kenpachi keeping them away for the first three hours?"
Jumping off the rooftop with a dry thud of her waraji sandals, Rukia laughs. "I suppose we should've seen that coming."
"We really should've, huh?"
After their chuckles die down, Ichigo feels her eyes on him, not just looking but looking, like he's a sight that she needs to take in. It makes his skin prickle. She wears one of those smiles, the ones he can't quite crack, arms crossed over her chest.
"What?" he asks.
Shrug. "Just you. You seem… different."
He scoffs, rubbing his neck. "In a good way I hope."
She tips her head down. "Fishing for compliments?"
He rolls his eyes, teeth showing, and they both know he doesn't need to answer that.
"Your hair, it's longer," Rukia explains. Her eyes follow the auburn locks over his forehead, the gentle sway of his captain haori. Her heart swells, which she dutifully hides with a roguish smirk. "For what it's worth, captaincy suits you." She taps his chest with her knuckles, looking up at him under her eyelashes. "Kurosaki-taichou."
The world snaps out of focus. Ichigo studies her tiny hand, the one touching him, before meeting her eyes. His cheeks flush, which fazes Rukia's playfulness.
It's her turn to ask, "What?"
Without breaking eye contact, he takes her hand in his before she can tuck it away. He's a little too aware of his heartbeat as he intertwines his fingers with hers, letting their hands hang down. Slowly, he leans in.
"Sometimes you talk too much."
It's like that moment of anticipation before jumping in freezing water. The air tenses, time resets, your breathing quickens, then you jump—electrified. The smell of Rukia's skin upturns him, the sight of her lips fill his sight, and then—
Someone clears their throat.
The moment snaps. Rukia pushes Ichigo away with so much force he nearly loses footing, then bows down as low as her anatomy allows; a little more and she's on her knees.
"Ah, erm," Ukitake says, scratching his head. "Ichigo I forgot to give you this, for, eh, tomorrow. I didn't mean to intrude, deepest apologies." He laughs, though it's uncomfortable. "I'll be going now."
"Ukitake-taichou, w-wait!" Rukia cries as she straightens. "It's not what you th—"
The man is already gone.
Ichigo huffs. "What do you mean it's not what he thinks?"
But Rukia doesn't listen. Horrified. Appalled. Petrified. She covers her face with her hands, hoping that if she wants it hard enough, she'll crack the secret to time traveling.
A/N: I never expected so many of you to still be here, thank you for the support! Here's your daily, healthy dose of ichiruki.