A thousand springs

"You married.

It's like a death note

From far away."

Takayanagi Shigenobu


Good weather called for a good mood. And most importantly, good food.

Mio was on her way to Sasaya's to purchase enough for an immense sugar rush. The autumn breeze that rustled the veil attached to her round hemp hat cooled her from the long walk. The hemp rim protected her from the sun's rights and the pale veil sewn around the rim hung down to her knees, obscuring her face.

Tomo walked behind her, her face uncovered. Even if it were covered and her mouth gagged, it wouldn't stop her from delivering much needed gossip to Mio. "Apparently, your fiancé insisted on 'working his way up' himself in the Sixth division. He has refused a promotion, instead remaining as the fifth seat."

"How earnest." She didn't see the point in this idea, held by a great many people, that a shinigami needs to be worthy of a higher seat. A promotion was a promotion. Why not accept?

"He received a commendation from the First division for his performance on the last mission, Mio-sama. Are you proud?"

"I guess." She wanted to shrug as her answer, but that was not ladylike.

The two women walked the peaceful streets, until they reached an intersection. Mio stopped in her tracks to marvel at the autumn foliage. She stretched out a hand to catch a falling maple leaf when the sound of carriage wheels carried over as it turned the corner at rapid speed.

Oh no. She turned and met the eyes of the panicked driver. He did nothing to slow down. She recognised the emblem decorating the vehicle. Shibukawa. A noble family she dared not to offend, ranked just under the five noble families.

Was this how she was going to die, being run over by a carriage right before she was supposed to get married? She tried to step back. Her ankle twisted as she put weight on it and she lost balance, she felt herself fall…

Maybe this was for the best—

A hand grabbed the collar of her kimono and pulled her back quickly as the carriage rushed past her. Her face at been so close she could see every gnarled detail of the wood!

"Don't space out." She immediately recognised his voice. Something twisted within her and she strained her face to smile.

"Thank you, Kaien-san."

"S'alright. It's no trouble." Shiba Kaien crossed his arms and stared her down. "But…Shibukawa? Did you do anything to make that guy angry?"

She shook her head. "I have not. His wife, Hatsuyo, is a good friend of mine."

He frowned, unable to recall her face although he must have met her.

"She played the koto during my birthday celebrations…around a decade ago," Mio offered.

"Ah, her."

"Yes. I wonder how she is doing. I haven't been able to see her much recently." Hatsuyo had essentially disappeared from the social scene ever since she was married. She had only caught glimpses of the woman, petite and dark-haired, walking behind her husband like a ghost. Like she was fading away.

"You shouldn't."

Mio was taken aback. "Pardon?" Was he telling her what to do? How dare he.

"I mean…both Shibukawa and his wife. You should keep your distance from them," Kaien said slowly, evidently trying to find the right words. As if he had to censor himself. But why does he need to do that?

His shinigami uniform caught her eye and the answer leapt to her mind. "Shinigami investigation?"

"I can't say." Stingy. Everyone knew that the head of the Shibukawa family was involved in some shady dealings in district forty nine, scandalous rumors ranging from the the pleasure women and drug trafficking to the underground groups. It was an open secret, but the noble families had turned a blind eye, as it all took place far away in the districts. Out of sight, out of mind.

He was as gruff as she remembered him to be. They hadn't parted on good terms the last time they met. However, he hadn't run away at the first opportunity, which was a good start. She looked behind him to see if Tomo was still around, but the servant had hidden herself away to give them privacy.

A mischievous idea struck her. Mio tapped her chin with a slender finger. "Oh? Well, if it is no trouble, won't you escort me to Sasaya's? I'm still so shaken from that close brush with death. I'm terrified."

Kaien sighed. "Stop using that tone, Mio."

"Aww, what tone? This is how that newbie spoke to you last time."

"Miyako doesn't speak like that."

A first-name basis? Mio turned away from him to hide how quickly her smiled dropped.

"I see," she replied coldly.

She hated that woman. She had everything Mio longed for. Wanted. Desired. She touched her face, contorting into something ugly, something she could never show Kaien. Immediately, she relaxed into a passive expression when she turned back to him.

"Won't you join me for tea, for the last time? And congratulations on becoming lieutenant," she smiled, her eyes welling up. Don't cry, you can't cry, do not let the tears fall.

You can't cry. Not now.

"You see, I have something to tell you." Her next words made her feel like she was swallowing charcoal. It was probably the colour of her soul anyway. Impure. Ugly as it was twisted with jealousy.

Mio met his gaze. Taking a long breath, she let the silence draw out for just a little while longer.

"I am getting married."

Just a little longer. Please.

.

.

.

"So? Who's the guy?" Kaien leaned back into the cushions of their usual booth in Sasaya's traditional desserts shop, right at the back next to the window. He propped an arm up on the back of the seat.

Opposite him, Mio perched on her seat with perfect posture. She took a slow sip of her tea.

"Kuchiki Byakuya."

He snorted. "Him? Seriously?"

"Grandfather arranged it himself."

"Your Gramps? That old man?" Kaien tapped his knee rapidly. "Is he going senile?" he muttered under his breath, but she could hear him loud and clear. Rude.

"Byakuya-san is hardworking and passionate. Refined and polite," she paused, trying to find more redeeming points. "An exemplary nobleman."

Everything you're not, was left unsaid. It hung between the two like a blazing lantern during the night.

She avoided his eyes and took another sip of tea. They descended into a pit of silence once again, one drinking her tea and the other staring into his cup. Gradually, the loud lunchtime banter around them quietened into serene afternoon murmurs.

Kaien broke the silence once his tea turned cold. He reached for something hidden within his sleeve and placed it onto the table in front of Mio. It was a familiar folding fan with a delicate blue tassel. From her memory, once opened, there should be a pretty picture of rolling ocean waves…vandalised by her embarrassing calligraphy. She had written something so positively hideous, her ears burned at the thought of Kaien seeing it.

He cleared his throat before speaking. "This is probably…yours."

It was definitely hers, as her name had been carved into the handle years ago. A curious idea popped into her head.

"Did you keep this fan…a possession of a respectable young lady, on your person at all times?"

"What?"

"I mean, that is a little strange, no? Why would you hold onto a young lady's fan for so long?"

Kaien turned pinker than the salmon she had for breakfast. "Well…"

She hid her smile behind a sleeve. "Could you be one of those frightening people who enjoy themselves — oh, how unpleasant! Doing this and that with a young lady's fan?"

"For the love of Soul Society, Mio, don't get started—"

"So it is true! Maybe the hollows you are fighting should be the strange monster that lurks within you after all!" she explained with a dramatic finality, spreading her arms like a star actress accepting applause after a moving soliloquy.

Kaien, despite his spiels on the importance of heart, had inferior imagination, so he was not moved. "What does that even mean."

She sighed. "You know…"

"What. I don't know."

"Aren't you a genius, Kaien-san? You'd be able to figure it out yourself," — Mio smiled faux-sweetly as she caught Tomo approaching from the corner of her eye. "My apologies, but it seems that our time is up."

"Thank you for returning this to me," —she reached for her fan and by force of habit, moved her wrist to snap it open with a flourish…but this was stopped by a panicked Kaien. His hand had shot out to grip hers.

"W-wait! Don't open it yet!"

Unfortunately, it made her even more curious. She thought back to her atrocious writing hidden within the fan's folds. He must have read it already. Her heart quickened. He must have read it!

He let her hand go.

She wanted to force the fan open right then and there, but this was not the place. Nor was it the right time. It never was the right time.

"It hasn't been maintained, so it might break," Kaien said. The words were empty to her ears. Both of them knew it was a terrible excuse. But if both of them accepted it, then even lies could become a fleeting truth.

Looking at the fan in her hand, it did look worn. Fine. He won this round. This last round.

Mio thanked him again and bid him goodbye. It was ever so casual, saying goodbye over her favourite desserts. He had smiled at her as well, one that was much more genuine then her own.

That night, alone in her room, she opened it carefully. On one side, she had written a single question.

Do you ever think of me?

She turned it over. There was a response.

I think of you always.

Mio cried herself to sleep. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.


chapter four: the bell tolls

"It walks the sky, cloudless.

clear: the moon alone"

—Seisensui


"I apologise for the delay."

Mio bowed to Byakuya, not a hair out of place. It was the reason for her lateness to this sudden meeting at the Kuchiki residence. She had been summoned by her grandfather early in the morning, whilst she was still asleep.

He nodded. "It is fine."

She peered at him closely, noting his tight demeanor and the slight furrows between his brows. Grandfather must have gotten under his skin whilst she was taking her sweet time getting ready as part of her petty revenge at being woken up. Mio had purposely ignored the the urgent summons — she took a leisurely bath, washed her hair, ate a delicious breakfast, strolled around the lake, drank tea, called Tomo in to style her hair…there was so much to do.

She could't help it. She was a busy woman and she loved to pamper herself.

Byakuya still wore his hair up with the telltale red hair tie. He probably had a drawer filled with them, somewhere. He felt her stare.

"Is there something the matter?"

"No, I was just thinking that you still wear your hair like that."

"Yes. It is convenient."

Shinigami lifestyle must have been hard. It seemed to have mellowed his explosive temper. The boy had become a man in the years he spent in his grandfather's division. Byakuya wore the uniform well, not a stray thread in sight. Her sight fell to his hip, where he carried his sword.

"If I may be so bold to ask you a personal question, Byakuya-san?" she asked softly as she followed him through the maze of corridors.

He nodded, giving her permission to voice her question.

"…What is the name of your zanpaktou?"

"Senbonzakura."

Mio imagined a scene of a thousand cherry blossoms. "Beautiful."

Byakuya's features softened as he smiled. He was much quieter than she had remembered. It made her feel like she was talking to a stranger - did one change so much in their years as a soul reaper? Her thoughts drifted to Kaien, and her mood immediately soured.

Yes. They did.

She didn't like the stretches of silence between them. She missed the chatty youth he had been before. Where had he gone?

"You know, my name is written with 'mi' as the character for beautiful and 'o' as cherry blossom," she said. She winced inside once she said it aloud.

Silly Mio, of course he knows how to write your name!

It wasn't the most intelligent thing she had said, but her husband-to-be was forgiving, bless his fragile heart.

For a split second, the Byakuya of old times resurfaced. "A thousand of you would be great fighting force."

Mio laughed behind her patterned sleeve. She would miss her long, hanging sleeves once she was married. No one would survive a thousand clones of her, not even those humungous hollows!

"…With that much power, I might even be able to slice a single bamboo shoot."

Her smile quickly faded. So he hadn't really changed at all. The nerve of him.

Byakuya walked a few paces in front of her, masking his expression. Amateur.


The conversation between her grandfather and Byakuya could be heard from the next room, where Mio sat, playing Go with his father.

"Wait, I need to rephrase that last sentence. Young Byakuya, write it again."

"Yes. honourable grandfather."

"Ginrei may be comfortable with that, but I would prefer for you to be more…casual with me."

"Of course! I understand, grandfather."

Across from her, Soujun placed a black stone down after much deliberation, capturing one of her white stones. She narrowed her eyes. Good move.

She could counter this and continue with her strategy in the long-run, so it wasn't anything to panic about. He had decimated her in the last Shogi match when she was learning the rules, but this…Go was her turf. Mio had never been as good at studying as Chiharu was, but tea and strategy games? They were much more interesting then reading obscure haikus.

Poems about emotions were a waste of time.

"Don't you think it's ironic?" Soujun asked her as she picked up a few white stones. She didn't quite understand his question.

He gestured to the room next to them with a vague wave of his hand.

Ah. So he was referring to those two. She placed a white stone down.

"The marriage is in a week's time, yet Byakuya is already writing a letter of divorce."

Mio bowed immediately, stammering because of her nerves. "I…I deeply apologise for my grandfather's demands! I, erm…I am sure that your son is a wonderful person, and we would never think of offending you, Byakuya-san, or the Kuchiki family in any way."

She received no response, so she lifted her head to see Soujun's expression, expecting one of his normally gentle smiles. He wasn't smiling. Instead, he was appraising her. Measuring her value, analysing her character, trying to see if she would be a worthwhile addition to the Kuchiki family, she guessed.

He suddenly laughed, a merry sound that brightened the atmosphere in the room immediately.

"…Soujun-sama?"

"Ah, yes," he wiped the corner of his eyes with a handkerchief - the same one she had embroidered for him and Byakuya and Ginrei last year! How lovely of him to do so.

She wondered if Byakuya ever used it.

"There is no need to apologise. Your grandfather treasures you very much and we understand that, do not worry Mio-chan. He wants you to have a place to return to, if you ever feel like leaving. Not many granddaughters are adored as much as you are."

Mio blushed. Drafting divorce letters were common, but in the case of 'marrying up' into the main branch of one of the five noble families, it was extremely rare. Especially when the wedding had not happened yet. Grandfather tended to baby her much more than Chiharu, who tended to have a wild streak. There was also the 'blood-related' part, but it did not mean that he loved Chiharu any less.

She was proud to have a grandfather who valued her so much. It was because he cared so much, that he refused to accept Kaien. But the past was the past. Mio was a woman who looked forwards, not back.

The conversation picked up again as they leapt from topic to topic, the Go game long forgotten.

"Your grandfather has been boasting about your business acumen."

"He is jesting, for sure."

"Not exactly. It was your involvement in the pharmaceuticals factory that helped the project succeed."

"I am not particularly knowledgeable about medicines, so I consulted with Dr. Kurotsuchi."

"With Captain Kurotsuchi?" Soujun tried to imagine the two sitting in a meeting room, or in a laboratory, discussing medicine production. No image came to mind, it was too alien for him to imagine.

Mio smiled. "Yes. I am an official patron for the the Research and Development Institute."

"Oh? Is there a particular reason for your interest?" Usually, noblewomen donated to initiatives such as soup kitchens, shinigami bursaries, winter clothes for children…and the like. Research and Development was a unique one to support. Soujun didn't even know that the institute was accepting donations — even though he had heard of complaints of it being under-funded.

She smiled, as if recalling something. "Giving back, I suppose."

It was only right. Instead of hosting soup kitchens that lasted for a week, innovation could be for the betterment of Soul Society. She touched the device strapped on her forearm, hidden under her wide sleeves. It was only right to pay back your debts.


Farther west, in district forty nine, a woman stepped out in the dead of night. Red lanterns swung overhead in the breeze. The streets were empty, too empty for the district that never slept. Too silent for a place of midnight pleasure.

She cast her eyes around and found a lone carriage lurking in the alleyway across the street. A shadowy hand beckoned her over.

It was an old man, holding a raggedy scroll and a brush. Another figure stood beside him, sword glinting in the night. Her heartbeat quickened and she flinched when they turned away from her. She let out a short breath.

"Name?" the old man asked.

"Hisana."

He peered at the scroll clutched in his wizened hands. Moments passed and her heart was about to fall out of her mouth when he finally spoke again.

"You're on the list. Pay up." He stretched out his hand.

She was not going to be swindled out of her money again.

"If I'm on the list, then I've paid already."

Beady eyes stared back at her. "You're the one who did the detour. Extra fee for extra people. Be grateful for Lady Hatsuyo's bleeding heart…helping wenches like you."

Hisana cast her mind back to her visit to to the cages, where they kept the young girls. She hadn't found her sister. Neither was she able to help any of them. It tore her apart inside, but she couldn't. She had clawed her way out of this hell by herself. Another person would be a burden — but now, now that she was free…

She had to find her. After all this time, she could bear the burden. She couldn't take the guilt anymore.

"There's no extra person. Just me."

He clicked his tongue, and spat at her feet."Get in then, whore."

Not anymore, she thought to herself. I'm free, now.

She ignored his unpleasantness and hopped into the carriage. Several other women stared back at her. In the relative darkness, she couldn't make out their faces. Tentatively, she sat down in the corner closest to the cloth-covered entrance, feeling the whole frame shake as the carriage started moving.

This was it. She did it. Freedom. A better life was waiting for her.

Optimistic thoughts lulled Hisana into a peaceful sleep.

.

.

.

Peace never lasted long.

The jolt of the carriage woke her up. She could smell smoke. Hisana opened her eyes, adjusting to the dim light in the small hours of the morning.

However, it was not morning yet. The other women also crammed in the carriage with her had undone the ragged cloth covering the back and were staring, open-mouthed at something in the distance.

What she had thought was the 'dim light' of morning was actually the light from a blazing inferno. District forty nine, the district that never slept, was on fire. Red flames instead of red lanterns. Her own personal hell was burning to ashes.

Coughing, Hisana wrapped her blanket around herself tighter. She burned the scene in her memory. For now, she had outlived the death and suffering.

For the first time in decades, she smiled. A real smile.

She coughed again. It really was burning.

Good.


notes

Writing young Mio makes me sad at how much she grew up and restrained herself (or became duller) once she realised her 'role' as a noblewoman. I think I'll be exploring themes of freedom and identity a lot throughout this story (on top of family, friendship, etc). I've been listening to the 'Life is like a boat' ending a lot and for some reason it's much sadder than I had thought it was when I first heard it.

And Hisana has entered! It's not revolutionary, but I hope you like how I portray her! I paid attention to nuances of her character and what I gleaned from canon. I'd like to flesh her out in this story and especially Byakuya's transitions from explosive teen to the highly disciplined 'exemplary nobleman' we see in Bleach. So canon does happen - I'm sticking as close as I can but I'm also picking and choosing. Ultimately, though…if you want a little line from a future chapter, do read the summary since I've changed it!

Mio also goes through development — mostly downs, to be honest. She's my character, I can do whatever I want…I might have gone overboard with her flaws, but that is exactly why I feel it is so easy to like her. In terms of fun tidbits… Mio and Hisana are as different as night and day.

(Are people curious about anything? I'm happy to answer any questions you might have).

Let's all cry when the tragedy comes. x