I know this is bragging, but I can't help it - I get the BEST reviews! You people are so awesome! Thank you thank you thank you thank you!

So, here we go ... denouement. Once again, the chapter was a little harder than I expected, and it turned out a little awkward in parts. Please feel free to criticize!


Chapter 10

Light

"Pull yourself together, Hisagi-taichou," Koetsu Isane soothed. "You survived. No matter what we have to live with, no matter what we have to face, that is always a good thing."

The young man shook his head, seemingly disoriented. His face was ashen as he leaned against the wall of the fourth division. All around them, nurses and orderlies swarmed, tending to the many wounded. The work was endless, impossible, the hospital smelled of sweat and gore, and yet the fourth division positively hummed with happiness. Kommamura-taichou and Kuchiki-taichou were in bad shape, but they showed every sign of recovering in the long run. Their captain was alive. Their services were needed.

"You don't understand," Hisagi said slowly. "My men and I were trapped against the gate, surrounded, but I wasn't afraid."

Koetsu nodded encouragingly, while she wound a bandage around his arm. It was best to talk these things out, she thought. He didn't even seem to notice his wounds. "Half of my unit fell," he bore on, relentless, "and I rallied the others. I told them death is to be faced on your feet."

"Quite right," the healer answered.

"Another hundred arrancar landed, not too far away. There was one - I swear - fifteen foot tall and covered with blood from head to toe. I took him down personally." Hisagi set his jaw. "Then not one, but three Espada appeared, scattering shinigami like so much straw. But still, I felt no fear. I stood my ground."

There was a long silence. The young Captain swallowed. "Then ..." he whispered, "then those two arrived."

His listener looked confused, trying to remember the reports. Her patient had been fighting off a contingent by the West Gate. He had been rescued, hadn't he? By... She followed his eyes to the opposite corner of the wards, where Zaraki-taichou lay in one of their largest beds. His little vice-captain slept in a chair by his bed, her head cradled in her arms, her arms crossed over her adopted father's knees. In the next bed, a lanky white-haired teenager did not lie down as he was supposed to, but sat against the wall with his eyes closed. "Those two? Hitsugaya-taichou and Kusajika-fukataichou?"

Hisagi shuddered and buried his face in his hands. "I'm going to have nightmares for decades."

ooooooooooooooooooooooooo

"Taichou?" Matsumoto whispered. She leaned forward, her hair spilling over one shoulder. Hitsugaya didn't answer. He was still sitting on the hospital bed, head drooped, arms draped over his knees.

Unohana put one finger to her lips. "He's out," she said. "I'm afraid he used far more energy than he should have." The healer herself was heavily bandaged, and looked spent. She had been working for five hours now without a break. It wasn't over; probably not all of the survivors had yet been found. Still, things were finally starting to calm down, a very little bit. Cold as it sounded, most of the critically wounded had either stabilized or they had died.

The Captain of the fourth sighed, weariness showing even on her smooth features. "Will you take him, Matsumoto-taichou?" she said quietly. "He's in no danger, and we may need the bed."

The blond stooped down over her captain, slipped her arms under his shoulders and his knees, and lifted him as gently as she could. She was conscious of a slight pang; he was too tall, now, to carry curled to her chest like a child.

Renji stood at the foot of the bed, leaning on a crutch. His leg had been set and cast; the healers couldn't spare the reiatsu to do more. But he barely noticed the pain. Instead his attention was fixed on Hitsugaya's still figure. Rukia's revelation about Inoue's death still burned in Renji's memory; he didn't know what to do with the ache in his chest. Certainly he didn't plan on telling anyone, least of all Rangiku. "He looks so young when he sleeps," the redhead said softly. "So innocent."

Unohana caught something in his tone, something between sadness and anger. She wondered fleetingly what it meant, and then decided, on balance, that she didn't want to know. "Innocence," she said, "is just ignorance, at the end of the day." She glanced down at Yachiru, who was snoring almost as loudly as was Zaraki. "It's nice while it lasts, but not worth the grieving when it's lost. We all fall, eventually." She sighed, rubbing her eyes with the palm of her hand. "What matters is where we go from there."

ooooooooooooooooooooooooo

"Ne, Ken-chan,"

"MRghhm?" Zaraki woke to the whispery tickle in his ear, and he found Yachiru perched by his head. Their hospital ward was dark and mostly quiet. A cool, pre-dawn smell seemed to drift into the open windows; it must been a little before five in the morning. A few nurses moved from bed to bed, checking on the patients.

Yachiru was leaning over his pillow, her elbows tucked beneath her, a thoughtful look on her face. "I think I want Snowball to be my boytoy."

Zaraki sighed, throttling back his overpowering rage with effort. It would have to be someone, sometime, he supposed. But he had hoped that he would not have to kill Hitsugaya quite so soon. On the other hand, she was just a mite, as of yet. Be a few years at least before she bludgeoned the boy into seein' things her way.

"Not so fast, 'Chiru," he muttered. "Remember the rules."

Yachiru put a delicate finger to her lips. "He can't touch me till we get married, and we can't get married until after you're dead."

The big man smiled, letting himself sink back into the pillows. "That's my good girl."

ooooooooooooooooooooooooo

"Obliterated," Grimmjaw spat. He struggled to maintain his usual sneer as he addressed the assembly. "Fully half of our forces, gone. We estimate over two hundred and thirty have been captured alive."

A ripple of horror passed through the ranks of the Espada. At least, through the ranks that remained. The operation had been a deep dark secret; even those who had left for the Seireitei had learned of it just an hour before they attacked. Some of those seated at the long table were only now hearing of the offensivem just as they learned of the the defeat.

Strangely, the news did not seem to ruffle either Aizen or Ichimaru, though Tousen looked as if he had been punched in the gut.

"Such a shame," murmured the Aizen. "It seemed like quite a good plan."

Gin flashed his eerie smile. "Ah, well, we still outnumber 'em," he said, stretching where he sat. "And Kankura was a dead loss, anyways. Least we slipped a punch in before quittin' on the city. How many did they lose?"

Grimmjaw narrowed his sharp eyes. "Our spy in the Seireitei couldn't say," he said, "at this point they don't know themselves, I'd bet." He paused a moment, grinding his teeth. "We've lost some good men," he burst out, to his own surprise. He hadn't meant to say that.

Aizen raised one eyebrow. "Ah yes. A pity, as I said. Particularly poor Kuchiki-san, though I doubt that they would kill her. Oh, and Ulquiorra. One of our originals, wasn't he? Such a loyal man."

More than one Espada, including Grimmjaw, turned cold at his words. They took care not to look at each other. Surely ... surely Aizen did not know about the League? Even if he suspected, he couldn't have ... he wouldn't have sacrificed so many soldiers just to flush out Ulquiorra's conspiracy. Grimmjaw allowed himself one glance around the table. Four of the five League's leaders had died in the fighting. It wasn't possible ...?

But Aizen's smiling face, hardened by centuries of hidden power, revealed nothing.

ooooooooooooooooooooooooo

"I refuse."

Unohana continued to gaze serenely out onto her garden. It was still a wreck, of course - one cannot rebuild a thousand years' labor in a week. But it was, yet again, calm. Peaceful.

Yamamoto stirred slightly, shifting his weight form one leg to the next. He was unaccustomed to kneeling. "You cannot refuse, Unohana-taichou," he answered. "There is no one else so qualified."

She regarded him steadily, her hands wrapped loosely around her earthenware cup. The former commander looked, if that were possible, much older than he had last week. Quite aside from his lack of reiatsu and his persistent, shuddering cough, Yamamoto seemed ... delicate. Frail. Broken.

The healer lifted the cup to her lips, savoring the smoky flavor of the green tea. Then she set it down, and faced her former superior officer. "I do not wish to cause offense," she said firmly, "but I have seen first-hand how power corrupts the one who wields it. I have no desire to walk down that road."

The old man did not seem to take offense. "That," he said gravely, "is precisely why you must do it." He coughed, and for a moment his voice seemed to fade. "I cannot pass this burden to someone who does not understand how crushing the burden is."

"You judge me," Yamamoto continued after a pause. "You are right to do so. The enlightened man knows: it is better to die than to do evil.' His voice lowered. "But you know, and I know, that is not a choice available to the ruler. Should he choose to do good even if it means not his death, but the deaths of those entrusted to him? Can he offer his subjects on the alter of his own conscience?"

"And so," Unohana whispered, "the ruler loses his soul for his people?"

The slightest breeze rippled the pools before them, and stirred the wispy reeds that had survived. "Not all sacrifice," Yamamoto growled, "is as simple as a soldier's. Dying for a country is heroic and noble; living for one is thankless and hard."

Unohana shook her head emphatically. "That is the excuse of every tyrant who has ever lived."

Yamamoto heaved a great sigh. "So, don't be a tyrant." He did not try to hide his exasperation. "Do the best you can. I have no doubt," here he gave a rasping little laugh, "that you will do better than I have done."

They sat a long while in companionable silence, watching the late summer sun glimmer on the white pebble lawn. "I will consider your offer, sir," Unohana said at long last. Her voice was still reluctant.

"Consider well," he answered, "If the job can turn you into a monster, what would it do to Kuchiki, or Kyouraku? Ukitake is too ill, Kommamura too timid, and the others are too young. I will not even mention Zaraki." The ex-commander of the gotei 13 stood and hobbled slowly to the door. "You have responsibilities, healer."

ooooooooooooooooooooooooo

Ichigo and Rukia stared at each other. Between them, the kidou field occasionally rippled and swirled, caught in the clash of their reiatsu.

They had been doing this, it seemed, for a month now. He came every morning just after daybreak, and sat against the far wall of her cell. She knelt in the middle of the floor, hands on her knees. She cut off all of his efforts to make small talk, and he ruthlessly squelched her attempts to talk about anything serious. She repeatedly insisted that he leave her alone, and he repeatedly told her to put a sock in it. He would stay until noon, when his duties could no longer be ignored, but would always return after supper, and stay until she had fallen asleep.

Rukia looked better. The ice crystal had not changed her physically, but it felt as if it had washed away a great store of accumulated anger. Now her emotions fluctuated wildly and painfully. She was secretly happy that Ichigo left during the day; it gave her time to think, and to cry. But she was happier when he came back in the evening. Being rude to Ichigo gave structure to her life.

Perhaps that was why she was so unnerved when, without warning, the Captain of the Fourth Division called at the cell.

"Kurosaki-taichou," Unohana murmured, as he climbed awkwardly to his feet. "Please do not disturb yourself." She knelt on the floor opposite from Rukia. "Kuchiki-san," she continued, "good evening. You look well. I trust you have been taking the medication I gave you?"

The ex-shinigami nodded, wordlessly. Unohana had visited before, often, but always in the afternoon. Somehow Rukia felt threatened by this sudden change in schedule.

"Excellent." The healer folded her arms into her wide sleeves. With her dark hair plaited before her like a long beard, she looked a little like an ancient Chinese mandarin. "I am sorry that you have been left uncertain as to your status, and your future. As you know, Soul Society has been undergoing administrative changes." Once again, Rukia did not reply. "I have accepted to act as soutaichou, at least temporarily," the woman's face took on a distasteful expression, "and I hope that things will become more organized. The charges will be high treason and espionage. We have managed to set your court date for Septe..."

"WHAT?" both women flinched a little before Ichigo's inevitable explosion. "TREASON? Court date?! Why wasn't I told about this?! If you think I'm gonna..."

Unohana's quiet voice cut his away. "Kurosaki-taichou," she said. "Over five hundred shinigami and almost two hundred civilians have died. It is not right that these things should not be answered for."

Rukia's sat with her back straight and her chin up. "At least it will be quick," she said, "with Hitsugaya and the other prisoners of war, you'll have plenty of witnesses."

If Unohana noticed how Rukia's fingers twisted and untwisted, she gave no sign of it. "Many of the other arrancar are to be released," she said, "in a legitimate prisoner exchange that I have negotiated with Los Noches. That is what I wish to speak to you about tonight. Aizen has particularly asked for you, and I have told him that repatriation will only be voluntary. In other words, the choice is yours, Kuchiki-san. Will you remain here, and submit to our justice?" Two pairs of dark eyes locked on each other. "Or will you return to the Hueco Mundo?"

A long silence fell, a silence not of indecision but of sheer fateful power. "I will stay here," Rukia said at last. Through his reiatsu and through the emptiness, she could feel Ichigo's pulse resume; it had, for a moment, completely stopped.

"Thank you, Kuchiki-san," Unohana murmured. Then she straightened, as if getting back to business. "I am sure that your decision will weigh favorably with the jury. We will not seek the death penalty. As for Hitsugaya-taichou," she said calmly, "he has confessed to the murder of Inoue Orihime, and he will face trial later this month."

"You..." Rukia looked stunned. "You're prosecuting him? But he..." She bit her lip, and looked away.

Ichigo shifted his weight uneasily, and Unohana tilted her head a little. "He what?" she asked. "Do you have anything to say in Hitsugaya-taichou's defense?" When the prisoner did not answer, Unohana folded her hands behind her back. "Hitsugaya-taichou," she said quietly, "has offered to speak in yours."

For a long time, Rukia gazed down, trying hiding her eyes from view. A few splashes fell on her knees, to be quietly absorbed in the fabric. "He's a fool," she finally managed to whisper. "He doesn't know anything about my reasons."

"Do you, Kuchiki-san?" The Captain of the Fourth stood, and she slipped noiselessly to the door. "Do you know your reasons?"

ooooooooooooooooooooooooo

For the first time, Rukia allowed herself to melt down in front of Ichigo. She sobbed, bent over at the waist, while he watched helplessly. She wasn't even sure why she was crying. Maybe it was relief, or fear, guilt or sorrow, or any combination of them all; it didn't matter. She couldn't help herself.

When she had enough control to speak, she wiped her eyes and sat up again. "What are you looking at, baka?" she snapped. "For the last time, Ichigo, will you please just go?" This time, he could tell, she meant it. "Stop coming around here with your puppy dog eyes, asking me to be someone I'm not anymore! You don't understand, it's ..."

Ichigo set him jaw. "Shut up," he said. This time, he meant it.

"It's too late for me! I'll never be the same again! I'm so EVIL! Blah, blah blah, blah blah blah... SHUT UP!" Rukia blinked at him, nonplussed. "No one ever gets to be the person they were five years ago! Ever!" he went on, striding around and throwing his hands in the air. "People always change, people always screw up, and life never gets easier!" He paused. "We just get stronger, is all.

"Look, you deserve to be in here, Rukia." Ichigo stopped and looked her in the eye. "Is that what you want to hear? It's true." Then he squatted, and put one hand to the kidou barrier, ignoring the shocks that ran through his body. "So do I, so does Toushirou, so do we all, in one way or another.

"You can wallow all you want to," he continued remorselessly, "but you're going to stand trial, and you will do everything you can to convince them that you're sorry, that you're reformed, and that you'll fight against Aizen harder than ever. I don't care," he said, cutting her off as she tried to speak, "if it's true or not. You're going to get as short and easy a sentence as you possibly can, and you'll do it for me." His brows knit. "Because if it's centuries, if it's millennia - every day you're in prison, I'll be there with you."

He took a deep breath. "And we've got better things to do, you and me."

She lifted one hand to touch the barrier, too overwhelmed to speak. Maybe, she thought, maybe this time I'll let him save me.

Just this once.

ooooooooooooooooooooooooo

The moonlight flooded in through the windows of the tenth division headquarters. It caressed the bare desks and the somber bookshelves, and lingered over the long comfortable couch. Kurosaki hadn't changed the place much, once he was made captain of the tenth. The position had been offered to Matsumoto first, of course, but she had declined. There had been too many memories.

It was an October night, and the wind was high. Dry leaves danced throughout the Seireitei, and their shadows danced in the silent office. In the constantly moving patchy light, it would have been easy to miss the figure that moved like a ghost through the room. He clung to the darkness, in which his black uniform was almost invisible. Only the sparkle of white spiky hair gave him away.

The intruder made his way to the bookshelf behind the main desk. He squatted, and moved his hands in a subtle kidou. A tiny secret door opened in the wall behind the books. Histugaya reached inside, and drew out two satin ribbons. He stared at them for a moment in his open palm. Whatever their original color, they looked jet black in the moonlight. Then he tucked them into the vest of his gi, and walked towards the windows.

"Where are you going?"

He knew the voice immediately, and he was not particularly surprised that she would catch him. Matsumoto knew all of his secrets.

She stepped out of the shadows, her arms crossed and her expression dark. "Just acquitted this morning," she said, her voice low and angry, "and off again tonight?"

He did not answer her, but stood with one hand on the window. His green eyes, caught in the half-light, looked sad.

"I'll ask one more time, Taichou," she stepped forward. She sounded as if she was trying not to sound frightened. "Where are you going?"

"You know that already," he said, turning away. It was the first thing he'd said to anyone for over a week. "I'm going to save Hinamori."

Matsumoto shivered. "Rukia said that Aizen still has her in her dreamland. She's happy there; she's married; she has kids..."

"It's a lie," he said to the window, "I don't know why he's kept it up and I don't care. I'm going to stop it."

"Maybe he really loves her, have you thought about that?" She was almost choking now. "Have you thought that you're going to take away her husband and her children in one stroke, even if you do miraculously succeed?

"It's a lie," he repeated heavily, "and lies don't last. She'll lose them eventually anyway."

"Of course she'll lose them!" she protested. "Everyone loses everyone, sooner or later; that's the cost of loving someone. You don't have to make it sooner!"

Hitsugaya wasn't listening. She knew that determined face of his from way back. And he was so much harder than he had been, so much deadlier. He opened the window with one hand.

Suddenly Matsumoto laughed, a hard and chilling sound. "Haven't figured it out yet, l'il taichou?"

Her tone, and even more, her accent, sent an electric shock through Hitsugaya's body. He spun, his eyes unnaturally wide. Matsumoto advanced on him, running her tongue along her lips. "You really think you could just walk out of our prisons, 'Shirou?" she said, putting both hands on her hips. "You think the Court of Serene Souls could really hold out against an attack like that?"

The teenager took a step backwards, but there was no escape for him. "It's an illusion, silly," Matsumoto smirked. "All of it. Yer still back in the pens. Aizen kinda got tired of you all messed up and animal-like. Thought he'd stitch up your mind some." She leaned forward, a wide sick smile on her face. "Yer so much more fun ta torture when yer lucid."

Hitsugaya reached for his sword, but his hands were shaking too wildly, and it clattered onto the tiles. After a second, his knees gave way, and he dropped trembling to the ground.

This time, however, someone caught him. "Sh, sh, Captain, I'm sorry," Matsumoto cried frantically. "I'm sorry; I didn't know how to stop you." She took both of his hand in hers. "Look, I'm real, I'm here. You're here. You're safe."

The blond realized Histugaya was hyperventilating, drawing in rapid terrified gasps of air, too frightened to think clearly. Suddenly his arms reached around her shoulders, and he hugged her, hard, as if to prove to himself that she was solid. His hands clenched around fistfuls of her uniform. Then he buried his face in her shoulder, and he started to cry.

"Shh..." she soothed, stroking his hair. "It's okay. I'm right here; it'll be okay ..."

Eventually the sobbing receded and he pulled away, wiping his face with one sleeve. He kept his head down, though, unable to look Matsumoto in the face.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. Her hands rested lightly on each of his arms still. "I shouldn't have ... I'm sorry. But you're not fully recovered yet, and you know it. I'm not letting you run a suicide mission with your mind in this state. Besides," she hesitated a moment, watching him try to pull himself together, "if this world were a fantasy, and really you were still ... you know, over there... would you want to wake up? Would you want me to rescue you, the way you were going to rescue Hinamori?"

He shook his head, exhausted. "No," he said dully. "I would want to stay in the illusion."

This time she pulled him into an embrace. "Then stay with me, Taichou," she pleaded, tears in her eyes. "We'll find a way to save Hinamori, I promise. Just ... stay with us a little longer."

She kissed him on the forehead and held him close. "And when you go," she murmured, "don't you dare leave me behind."

The End


Whew.

Well, I hope you've had fun.

It's been a roller coaster to write, for sure.

Please let me know what you think! (I especially want to know if I caught anyone with the Hueco Mundo/illusion fake-out ... o.O )