Author Note: And here we go then... enjoy, though its mostly exposition rather than dialogue, as I set things up.

xxxx

Living World, Japan, Karakura Town, Karakura Highschool, January 12th, 9:03 am

It was only just barely past 9:00 am on a snowy and blustery day early in the new semester and already Ichigo Kurosaki was ready for the school day to be over with. This was nothing new or particularly strange for him to be feeling... if it wasn't required by law he wouldn't even be here in the first place, and even as things were, he took literally every opportunity he could to not be here. It wasn't the incessant, inane commentary from Asano that pissed him off, nor was it the giggling of Orihime and her friends as they discussed whatever the latest bit of gossip going around the school and the town was. It wasn't Ishida's smug aura of superiority, though that WAS annoying as hell since it wasn't like their grades were that dissimilar despite Ishida putting one hell of a lot more effort into schoolwork than Ichigo usually did. It wasn't even the infrequent but still not infrequent enough efforts by tough guys, both from their school and others nearby, to provoke Chad or even himself into schoolyard brawls. If anything, that was still somewhat relaxing, even if it was generally dreadfully dull. Kinda hard to get worked up about trouncing a bunch of sixteen and seventeen year old punks when you were used to duking it out with Arrancar or renegade Soul Reaper Captains.

Because that was what was really bothering him, life... regular life, the life he'd known before that fateful encounter with Rukia... just seemed so... boring nowadays. It wasn't like he was wishing to be back during the hectic and frightening days of the Winter War, much less the height of the conflict where that bastard Aizen and his goons had kidnapped Orihime and almost destroyed the entire world in way way or another. More than just one world actually, since if the Living World went kaput, it was fairly certain that nothing very good would happen to the Soul Society or any of the other dimensions related to it, though obviously no one actually knew what would happen, since thankfully it had never been quite allowed to occur. There had been some pretty close shaves at times though, Aizen just being the worst and most recent of them. But now Aizen was locked and buried in the deepest, darkest, most forgotten hole in all of Soul Society, or something like that anyway, and so everyone was free to get back to their regular day to day grind. He'd even been happy about that, because right after defeating Aizen, he'd lost all his powers, so it wasn't like he'd had anything else to do with his time.

However, despite the predictions of his father... honestly, why he trusted ANYTHING that guy said to be true, he didn't know... deploying Mugetsu hadn't drained him of all his powers permanently after all, and even only a few months after the formal end of the Winter War, he was back to seeing ghosts and hearing the chilling screams of Hollows in the distance at night. Those last things were especially troublesome, because at that point in time he had his perceptions back, but damned little in the way of abilities to actually defend himself, or more importantly, others, like his friends. Not that most of his friends had needed protection from him by that point in time... even his little sister, Karin, had more offensive spirtual power than he did and she used a freaking soccer ball to kill Hollows! What was that saying from their english literature class? "How the mighty have fallen?" Yeah, that was definitely him back then. Public Enemy number 1 as far as most Hollows were probably concerned, and as helpless to protect himself as a newborn baby... it would almost be better if he didn't have his perceptiosn, at least then he wouldn't have to see it coming!

But Zangetsu and his powers had always responded to his emotions, generally his anger and frustration at not having the power he needed in order to protect the people he cared about, and this proved to be no exception. Of course when Zangetsu had started talking to him again, Ichigo had first thought he was hallucinating or something... he did get smacked around the head fairly often after all, both in wrestling with that insane person who was supposedly his father and interacting with his friends... because his father had been very clear when teaching him how to attain Mugetsu that there was no going back after using it. In retrospect that actually didn't make much sense, given that Zangetsu was supposed to be a part of his soul after all, if he'd really completely used Zangetsu up there should have been bigger problems than just losing his powers... such as losing his life or memories or other important things. No one had ever given him a very clear explanation on just what your soul was and how it connected to your body or divided to become a Zanpukto, but it stood to reason that permanently burning out an entire section of it would not be good for you, in the same way as cutting off an entire healthy limb would not be good for you.

Of course, there hadn't really been too many other people around with the knowledge and expertise of these things to ask besides his father, unless he wanted to go to Urahara, and getting good, understandable advice out of Hat and Clogs was like trying to disarm a minefield with one hand tied behind your back and a blindfold on... you never knew what sort of traps you were going to stumble into and you might very well end up worse off than you were before you even asked. At least his father was SUPPOSEDLY invested in his wellbeing, though Isshin Kurosaki, it was hard to tell at times. Certainly his father had responded more seriously than was usually his norm when Ichigo had admitted that he was hearing Zangetsu's voice again, even if he hadn't quite managed to manifest his Zanpukto yet, forgoing breaking out into a wild, inane yell in favor of a slightly smug upturn of his lips and a knowning nod as he sipped at his morning coffee. Of course, no actual explanation had been forthcoming, not even when he'd put the old goat into a half nelson and almost drowned him in the kitchen sink, but Ichigio just couldn't shake the feeling that his dad was not only not surprised, but had actually been expecting this all along!

One of these days he really was gonna have to find a way to have a real talk with his dad about the whole Soul Reaper thing, because all this blundering around in the dark was really getting old. He was almost freaking 18 years old now, and he'd already saved the entire world, the entire universe even, at least once... surely he was mature enough to deal with whatever secrets the old man was hiding from him, right? Even if his father was an Ex-Shinigami and former Captain, it in no way really explained why Ichigo's own powers were, to put it mildly, so explosively potent! He'd accomplished in a matter of months what it took most Soul Reapers, even acknowledged geniuses like Toushiro Hitsugaya, decades or more to accomplish! He'd gone from no real combative powers to achieving Bankai in less half a year, even he could tell that this was NOT normal. And then, he'd deployed an attack that had not just defeated but wholly DOMINATED Aizen, something which even Gramps had singularly failed to do, which was supposed to render him powerless forever more, but only a few months later, here he was, about to get his Zanpukto back!

That had been more than a year ago, and while he still didn't feel that he was exactly back up to the razor's keen edge he'd had fighting against the Espada, frequent bouts of training in Urahara's underground lair, assisted off and on by Urahara, Yourichi, Tessai and even Shinji whenever the Vizard leader was in town had seen his powers return in leaps and bounds. Even his Vizard powers, and the negative version of himself that personified them in his inner world. He wasn't precisely happy to see that asshole back and trying to take over his body from within again, but all the same, he was a little bit glad. Things were getting back to normal again. Ichigo could not help but smile a slightly secret and goofy smile as he thought about what else "normal" meant for him, an expression that would have engendered knowing looks from his friends and an irritating outburst of joy from his father. Because there was another benefit to getting his powers and status as a Substitute Soul Reaper back.

Apparently Gramps had once more decreed that though Ichigo was by now a fully recognized Shinigami in all but name... since he wasn't dead yet despite his own best efforts... he still needed an official Shinigami presence in Karakura Town to keep watch over him and make sure he was upholding all the duties and ideals that went with his honorable position, etc, etc, yada, yada. Ichigo was glad he hadn't been there for that announcement... Gramps could really talk your ear... and most of that side of your face... off if he got going, since he was normally a man of few words. And it wasn't like anyone could just tell the Captain-General to put a sock in it either, certainly not even Kenpachi was that, well, crazy. But the ultimate result of this decree was that he once more had a minder from the Soul Society. Quite what sort of arm twisting and blackmail went on behind the scenes to get Rukia Kuchiki reassigned to him despite her brother's wishes, Ichigo did not know and did not WANT to know, though he did make a note to do something very nice for Captain Ukitake the next time they met, he was just glad to be reunited with her!

Of course Rukia, being Rukia, immediately slipped back into her old habits of mooching off him while simultaneously treating him like a servant and an idiot, but since that was normal for their relationship, Ichigo didn't mind, as long as she was with him, she could be as obnoxious as she wanted to be, he'd always forgive her. Sooner or later, though he was really, really starting to get a neurotic twitch in his eye whenever he was forced to buy her more Chappy paraphenelia and products, including an absolutely freaking hideous combination lamp and alarm clock that he desperately wanted to use for target practice for a Getsuga Tensho because of how many times it had woken him up at night while Rukia fiddled with figuring out the digital controls. Honestly, she could use a fricking cellphone just fine, how hard could a digital clock be? Her technical ineptitude aside, Rukia was slowly becoming more accustomed to the rigors and regulations that governed the Living World, which was several centuries ahead of the Soul Society, culturally speaking.

She still didn't see much point to highschool, and spent more time on the roof than even the worst delinquents, but thanks mostly to his own efforts to help her study, she was still managing to squeeze by in terms of grades. Not that failing out of school would be much more than a minor embarassment to her, it would mean that she wouldn't be able to be with him for the majority of each day, and that would violate some of the terms of her actual mission. And while being seen to fail even such a soft, cushy mission as this woould no doubt shame her in her brother's eyes to an unforgivable extent, given that she was only ehre because he had reluctantly given her the permission to do so, she wasn't so much concerned about that as being seperated from Ichigo. Quite exactly why, when or how it had come about, neither of them could say, but sometime in the aftermath of the Winter War and her reassignment to be his minder and tutor in the ways of Soul Reapers, both Rukia and Ichigo had realized that there was more to their relationship than just friendship and professional respect.

Perhaps both of them were merely blind to the obvious, certainly none of their friends, not even Orihime, had seemed surprised when they reluctantly, guiltily even, admitted that they had feelings for each other that went beyond the merely friendly. Orihime had been the one that Ichigo had been most worried about, as he hadn't been so much unaware of her crush on him as unsure as to what to do about it, since while she was a wonderful friend and a beautiful girl, he'd never really thought of her beyond such terms. If anything, she was too important to him to fit into what he felt was proper for a girlfriend, it wouldn't feel like a relationship of equals somehow. Not because he was so much stronger than her or anything, but just because they were so different in character and outlook, one of them would invariably have to sacrifice parts of what they liked to be in order to be with the other peacefully, and he didn't wish to do that nor did her wish her to do so either. Besides, she had Ishida, once he was finally able to man up and be honest about his own feelings for her, which Ichigo supposed he ought not to be the one to be throwing stones about, since he very much lived in a glass house there.

But though Orihime had at first seemed slightly sad, though she put on a good face, the behind the scenes asskicking that had finally gotten Uryu to stop being a pussy about things had resulted in her being quite distracted when the usually somber and reserved Quincy had asked her out on a date even before the end of the day when Ichigo and Rukia had announced that they were trying out this "date thing" as Rukia had said. The term "date" didn't really have the same connotations in Soul Society as it did in the Living world, due to cultural differences, as courting rituals, as they were still called, were often much more formalized in Soul Society, especially between people of Rukia's social rank. Even if she wasn't biologically a Kuchiki, she was still accounted as part of the family and thus had to deal with all the expectations and crap that went with being a member of one of the four primary Noble houses of Soul Society. Or at least she did while within the Soul Society... while in the Living World, she could adopt the saying of "when in Rome..." and do as the Living did.

Still, terminology aside, there was only so many ways to describe what young men and women with mutual feelings for each other did when they met up for private time together, and over the months, Ichigo and Rukia had experimented with most of them, tenatively at first, but with increasing confidence as they grew accustomed to a level of personal intimacy with each other. One would have been forgiven for thinking they were already fairly close, what with Rukia literally living at Ichigo's house and sleeping in his bedroom closet, but there was a difference between living together and living WITH each other. Of course, his family was being absolutely insufferable about it too, with Yuzu and his father seeming to compete for the best way to terminally embarass Ichigo in front of Rukia and Karin just throwing up her hands and kicking him in the back of the head whenever he said anything even slightly rude to Rukia, like he was supposed to just bend over and kiss the ground the Midget walked upon just because he liked her in a romantic sense.

Fortunately, Rukia didn't have that expectation, if anything she seemed somewhat flustered and flattered when he did go out of his way to be nice to her, which only invariably made him curse under his breath and wish he could smack Byakuya squarely in the adam's apple with a heavy stick, for giving Rukia such crippling self confidence and self worth issues while she was fostering in his household. She was over some parts of it, no longer did she blindly accept whatever Byakuya said to be right regardless of how she felt about it, but she still got a little teary eyed sometimes even when he was just treating her like anyone would treat their girlfriend whom they cared very much about, acting like he was going hugely far out of his way to be nice to her when she didn't deserve it. He'd tried explaining that she didn't always HAVE to do anything for him to be proud of her or want to do nice things for her, she just had to be Rukia, but she seemed to be slow to get it. Well, Rome wasn't built in a day, and overcoming almost two hundred years of prior conditioning wouldn't happen in even a decade, though Ichigo was certainly going to try his best.

As for the actual relationship, well, they were doing their best not to rush into anything, despite the obnoxious and none too subtle prodding from his father... honestly what kind of idiot father would WANT his son to become a teenage father, Ichigo could not understand, it was like his father was raised in the middle ages or something! Well, that might actually be true... quite how old the old goat actually was, he'd never actually said, though given that he was good pals with Urahara and Yourichi from back in the day when they'd been part of Soul Society, and that had been easily over a century prior, Ichigo was willing to bet that his dad might very well have been born in a time when it was normal to be married at fourteen and have three sets of kids before you were twenty. Still, that didn't make it okay for him to try and pressure his son into acting the same way... in its way, sex and procreation was far more scary than any number of Arrancar's could ever be! Especially because it wasn't like he didn't WANT to do such things with Rukia, he was just afraid of the consequences, in more ways than one.

For example, what would happen if Rukia had to abandon her Gigai to fight a Hollow if she was pregnant, since that basically killed you, it just couldn't be good for a growing baby inside your body. That was even putting aside whether her Gigai COULD get pregnant, though Rukia had confirmed that Urahara had been, as per the norm, rather too good at copying the intricasies of the human biology in his creations and that she was still getting things like a period every month. It wasn't something he was planning on asking Hat and Clogs about, since Urahara and his dad were as thick as thieves and the last thing he needed was for either of them to get the idea that he was really worried about this, especially because he WAS really worried about this! And then of course there was one other little, tiny problem to be concerned about. A tiny problem named Byakuya Kuchiki, and more pressingly, Senbonzakura, his Zanpukto, which Ichigi did not doubt for an instant that Byakuya would hestitate to wield against him should Ichigo "compromise" his adopted sister's purity in such a gauche manner. While sex before marriage was an invention almost as old as sex itself, in all that time, it had never quite managed to become socially acceptable even as it was frantically practiced by each successive generation. There was no overriding biological reason for marriage after all, it was a purely cultural thing.

He had the sneaking supicion that explaining things like hormones and mutual consent even if they were technically underage... though if saving the goddamn universe from evil spirits didn't qualify a guy for bending a few rules now and again, what the hell did... to Byakuya would only last as long as it took for Byakuya to draw his sword and "Scatter..." and then he'd be fighting for his life, or at least his manhood. Which really wasn't very fair, since Byakuya had been young man once, according to Yourichi anyway, who was quite willing to say a big "fuck you" to all the rules of decorum when he took Hisana, Rukia's older sister, to be his wife, against the wishes of his family, but then again, since when could ANYTHING Byakuya had ever done to Ichigo and Rukia be called fair? And the problem was, he couldn't just fight back and take the prissy bastard down a notch either, because would never forgive him if he actually caused, god forbid, her precious Ni-Sama to be injured, not even for her sake! This was one of those damnable situations that force couldn't solve, which meant that he was probably going to get screwed... and not in the way he wanted to be.

Hell, the entire fact that he and Rukia were dating, had kissed and even shared a bed, platonically speaking, was still very much a secret from as many people as Ichigo could manage, including especially his old man, whom would be sure to brag about it to Hat and Clogs, who would then gleefully pass it on to Yourichi, and she would almost certainly tell Soi Fon, and Soi Fon would DELIGHT in informing Byakuya, probably with some creative embellishing of the tale, simply because she had never really liked Ichigo anyway! Of course, they weren't going to be able to keep it a secret forever, if nothing else they WERE escalating towards rather more than just touching and kissing in these past few months and Ichigo really hated keeping secrets from his friends, because it invariably came back to bite him in the ass somehow. Worst of all, it was more or less entirely HIS problem, since Rukia, despite being close to ten times his age, was, for lack of a better word, an innocent when it came to matters like this. If he told her it was normal for people to start having sex on the third date, she'd totally go along with it, because she didn't know any better, so the only one holding them back from becoming fully intimate was Ichigo himself... and he was the one that WANTED the intimacy, because goddamn it, he was 17 and male and he loved her, alright!

Of course that Rukia was totally open to the idea of taking things to the next level didn't help matters either. If anything, she was aggravatingly curious about it, since they didn't tend to teach things like sex ed to young Shinigami, who were either left to figure it out on their own if they were of common classes, or instructed in a very rigid setting shortly before getting married if they were noble class, like Rukia. And with Byakuya watching over her, she hadn't gotten within spitting distance of a boyfriend before her encounter with Ichigo, so it wasn't like she'd had any practice with such relationships in the past. Her exposure to modern TV and the internet hadn't helped matters, especially trashy action movies, which she liked, where the hero always had sex with the leading actress at some point in time during the plot, even though they barely knew each other. People complained about the youth being corrupted by the decadence of the media, but in Rukia's case Ichigo was willing to accept that they might have a point. He truly was caught in an entirely new form of hell, apparently tailored just to fuck with him now that Aizen was defeated... he wanted to, she wanted to, but he couldn't let it happen because much, much worse things would happen in consequence, even more than the pleasure of being together in that way could compensate for!

The gentle slap of a dry erase board eraser against his forehead snapped Ichigo out of his contemplations of the past and his current situation, just as he was beginning to seque into the dread notion that Yuzu and Karin were rapidly approaching the age where they too would begin to show interest in boys and that he was going to have to deal with keeping them safe from the predations of potential boyfriends for at least the next few years, if not much longer... they were his baby sisters after all, it was not only okay but actually EXPECTED for him to be irrational about them that way. The heretical thought that perhaps this excused some of Byakuya's own behavior tried to sneak in, but that was when the eraser had smacked him and he blinked and flushed as he realized he'd been asked a question by the teacher and had just ignored it. Oh well, it wasn't like he couldn't pass this class in his sleep anyway...

xxxx

Soul Society, Sereitei, Kuchiki Family Estate, January 12th, 9:05 am

It was the simplest pleasures in life that Byakuya Kuchiki, leader of that most noble and prestigious clan, found most to his taste. A single cup of well prepared, piping hot tea was the perfect counterpoint to the brisk morning air, graced with just a hint of the snow that was likely to come in the next few days. In the peace and quiet of his own private gardens, which adjoined his sleeping quarters and kept his chambers slightly seperate from the rest of the estate, even as he was surrounded by the main house on all sides at a respectful distance, Byakuya could greet each morning in his own manner, without undue fear of outside interruption or annoyance. Even the hyperactive nuisance that was Vice Captain Kusajishi of 11th squad knew better than to disturb him in his private rooms without express invitation. Bad enough that he had to deal with her invading the grounds of his estate and pestering him for the most inane of things at random intervals, disrupting the very important bueracratic records keeping work that was the Kuchiki family's sacred duty, he was NOT going to deal with her tromping around the places that had always been his and Hisana's alone.

Even such a passing thought of his late wife was enough to make Byakuya pang internally, though not a hint of it would ever be allowed to breach the exterior mask that he had schooled himself into adopting in the wake of her passing. The consolations, well meaning or not, of others had simply been too painful for him to deal with, so he had shut them out by appearing as if her death did not bother him in the slightest, retreating from human contact for decades until the discovery of Rukia, his wife's younger sister, whom she had left behind in the Rukongai shortly before she caught his attention and their relationship began. Controlling himself, Byakuya took another sip of his tea to center himself as he stared out unseeingly across the expanse of bare bushes and trees that fileld his gardens during winter. It was a harsh vista, but not unbeautiful in its way, and still filled with the vibrancy of life if you cared to look close enough. Much like Byakuya himself in many respects. Though unlike his gardens, spring rarely touched upon Byakuya, he was a man forever trapped in the depths of winter now that Hisana was gone.

He supposed some might see it as unreasonable for him to continue to so deeply mourn a woman whom he knew only for a brief time, as time was measured in Soul Society, and whom had passed away almost half a century prior, which was not a small chunk of time even by Soul Society standards, but he had never been able to close up his heart and move past her absence, and he was starting to think he never would. And he was okay with that in some respects... better to have loved only once, but as deeply as the oceans and as expansively as the sky, than loved many times fleetingly and without true feeling. But he was still a man, and a fairly youthful one by the standards of Soul Society, he wasn't going to dismiss out of hand the idea that he might eventually find another woman that could see and love the real him, as Hisana had. But in the meantime, he had many other concerns to fill his time and attention.

His duties as Captain of the 6th division of the Gotei 13 took up an appreciable portion of each day, mostly with administrative type tasks, filing paperwork, writing reports and putting his signature on a variety of documents requiring his perusal and acceptance. He knew many of his fellow Captains regarded paperwork as a personal nemesis, to be fought or avoided at all costs, but to him, who had been raised in the libraries and record vaults of the Kuchiki's, it was both familiar and comforting. Of course there had been a time during his youth when he was more concerned with the art of the sword than that of the pen, but he was past such immaturity now, having recognized that it was with pens, rather than swords, that most major conflicts were fought and won, especially in the Soul Society. Of course there were always notable exceptions, such as the Winter War against Aizen and the other traitors, but that was just that, an exception, not the rule. Previous to the Winter War, the last major open conflict involving the Gotei 13 had been almost eight hundred years in the past, and poor records keeping at the time prevented much sense being made of whatever conflict that was.

Beyond the paperwork there was also seeing to the other needs of his division, training new recruits fresh from the Academy, inventorying supplies, meeting with his fellow Captains to discuss joint exercises or missions, and of course attending to his own personal duties as a Captain, including keeping his own fighting skills up at their usual all but peerless level. Some of these things he could delegate to or be assisted with by his Vice-Captain, Renji, or his other seated officers, but contrary to speculation and outward appearances, Byakuya did like keeping his own hand in, as the saying went. He'd seen what happened to division where the Captain did not keep tabs on the actual day to day operations of the division, and the results were never pretty... the 11th division was a sterling example of this. It wasn't so much a division as it was a mob of outcasts and drunks that weren't welcome anywhere else! He shuddered, internally anyways, to think of the 6th division in such a shambles. Not in HIS lifetime.

And then when he had fully discharged those duties, at least for a day, he had his obligations to his clan to fufill, which involved even more paperwork, legal documents that often put to shame even the worst of documents he dealt with as 6th division Captain, simply because of their convoluted and flowery language that took ten sentences to convey the meaning of a single short phrase! It was all part and parcel of being a nobleman, and Byakuya bore the burden both willingly and graciously, but that didn't mean, in the depths of his own mind, that he had to fully enjoy it. And once he got through the paperwork there was the politics, both dealing with those outside the clan, such as other noble families and other factions within the Sereitei, and those factions within the Kuchiki clan itself. Though technically united under his leadership, the Kuchiki clan was quite large and had many well respected and politically powerful elders, all of whom privately wished for the "young heir", being Byakuya, to listen to their advice and favor their ideas over those of their rivals. They were all important people in their own ways, and he could afford to overtly offend or snub none of them, but the same time, he could not acquiese to some without offending others. It was a delicate dance, but it was one he'd been born to perform.

It amounted to a lot of hidden stress, which amounted to a lot of rather chopped up target dummies at the 6th division headquarters, but there were a few subjects that Byakuya was not willing to bend on with the fracticious elders. One of those was him finding another wife... if such a person did eventually come along, she would come in her own time and Byakuya would never accept a political marriage in the meanwhile. And the other was getting his adopted sister, Hisana's younger sister, Rukia, involved in the house dealings. He had promised Hisana on her deathbed that he would look out for and protect her younger sister, who at that time was a complete unknown to him, and he had never meant any words more seriously than he did those. His execution of this promise had not always been perfectly stellar, Byakuya could admit this, if only to himself, such as the time when he had almost allowed her to be executed for the crime of sharing her Shinigami powers with Kurosaki. He'd been caught in a bit of a vice that time, his promise to Hisana on one hand, his solemnly sworn duty to the Sereitei and the Kuchiki clan... who as records keepers were also tasked with upholding the written codex of laws for Soul Society... on the other.

Fortunately, Kurosaki had spared him having to really make a last minute decision on the problem, and allowed him to satisfy both promises... he engaged Ichigo and fought him with all of his power, if not exactly all of his intent, and when the substitute shinigami's power proved up to the task, it was no hard thing to step back and allow Rukia to be saved. Of course Aizen and his maneuvering and backstabbing had muddled everything up shortly afterwards, but that was another issue entirely. But that minor hiccup aside, he had stood by his word and done everything in his power to keep Rukia from getting tangled up in the politics and conflicting pressures of the Kuchiki clan, allowing her to live a life of privilege and freedom from want. Of course things hadn't gone exactly as planned... her becoming a Shinigami for instance, or becoming tangled up with Kurosaki and his ilk in the first place, but he was still fairly sure that she was happier as she was than she would have been turned into a bartering tool or pawn for the Kuchiki elders.

It was hard for him to be entirely sure on that, since it was imperative for him to keep his emotional distance from her as much as possible. When Hisana had been alive, she was constantly under one threat or another, never of violence but always some form of censure or humiliation, in bids to control him by controlling her, and he knew many of the elders would be only too glad to use Rukia for the exact same purpose if they ever truly believed she was near and dear to his heart. So he was forced to treat her coldly, hurting her what he hoped was only a little in order to spare her much greater pain in the future. It had a few unintended consequences... her problems with self confidence and self worth from never seeming able to measure up to his expectations had indrectly stunted her growth as a Shinigami, and it was only after associating with Kurosaki that she once again began to show the sort of promise and power that she had once had back at the academy. Of course this was actually somewhat to his advantage, because it gave him a reason beyond familial overprotectiveness to demand that she not be allowed to take a seated position in the 13th division, despite Ukitake's oft expressed desire to have her fill in his long empty Vice-Captain's spot. That reason was fading away in the wake of the Winter War, during which Rukia had faced and defeated an Espada solo, which was far more than most serving Vice-Captains could claim to be able to do!

And who was to blame for this sudden escalation in her powers and abilities? Why none other than Ichigo Kurosaki, hailed by some as the Hero of the Winter War, the man who'd defeated Aizen in personal combat, and easily the most talented Shinigami seen in hundreds of years. All very admirable qualities, Byakuya could not deny that. However, he also could not find it in himself to overtly approve of Kurosaki, who was brash, reckless on a good day, overly familiar with his betters if not outright rude and worst of all, entirely too friendly with Rukia, whom Byakuya had not failed to notice was rather caught up in the coarse but still charasimatic Substitute Shinigami's legend. Perhaps this might be because of how he'd all but declared personal war on the entire Sereitei in order to save her life from what he saw as an unjust persecution, and somehow managed to emerge victorious from the attempt, but Byakuya knew it was more than just hero worship. Rukia really liked Kurosaki, on a personal level, as he reminded her in many ways of Kaein Shiba, her late mentor in the 13th division, but unlike Shiba, Kurosaki was not previously married and he was right at around Rukia's physical age, given the differences in aging between the living and Shinigami.

Byakuya had been a teenager for several decades himself after all, and that time wasn't so far in the past that he didn't remember how it felt to be in the grip of the body's biological race towards adulthood. But just because he could remember it, didn't mean he was going to condone it or allow it to go unsupervised either. As far as he was concerned, his promise to Hisana involving Rukia extended to protecting her from unhappiness in matters of the heart as well as pain in the body, and he was all too aware that most first crushes tended to end in eventual heartbreak. That added onto the fact that Kurosaki was an uncouth lout only a few small steps up from barbarians like Zaraki and it was obvious that he was no fit match for his sister, heroics aside. He had NOT been happy with her reassignment to be his minder and tutor in the world of the living, but with the Captain-General himself giving the order, what could he realistically do? Ukitake didn't often call in favors from his association with the founder of the Gotei 13, but when he did, what he wanted, he got. It was sometimes hard to remember, given how laid back and even childish the man acted, that he was almost three times Byakuya's age and had been a serving captain for most of that time!

Byakuya forced himself to be calm and to take another sip of his tea. What was done was done, and there was no use getting worked up about things he couldn't currently change. He had already invested some time and political capital in pressuring the Captain-General from the Kuchiki front, and was poised to call in a few favors from some of the other Captains if need be, especially Captain Fon of the 2nd, for their assistance in righting this untenable situation. In the meantime, he would just have to hope that his sister would remember that she was a Kuchiki and that before attempting even a casual liason of the intimate sort, she had to clear her suitor with him first. Rukia was a sensible... well, perhaps not so sensible... but smart, she was a smart girl. Surely she wouldn't allow something to happen that would require him to intervene for honor's sake against someone she cared about. Byakuya had always been very serious when it came to his pride and the honor of the Kuchiki family, and as far as he was concerned, Rukia was the physical manifestion of both those things. If Kurosaki laid one lecherous finger on that pride then he would be lucky to only pull back a bleeding stump...

Though in truth, Byakuya would rather deal with a thousand Ichigo Kurosaki's and their not so honorable intentions towards his sister than ever deal with another conflict like the Winter War. Casualties aside, the sheer volume of paperwork involved in the aftermath of such an event was enough to make even someone like him want to hide under his desk! Though the season might be winter at the moment, the Soul Society was still very much in its summertime of emotions, as people finally once again had the free time and energy to worry about more personal concerns rather than their own lives or the survival of the delicate balance between the living world and the Soul Society. Things were finally getting back to normal again...

xxxx

Soul Society, Sereitei, 2nd Division Compound, Captain's Office, January 12th, 1:15 pm

Captain Soi Fon, leader of the Gotei 13's 2nd division and also commander in chief of the Special Operations squad, sat in her chair behind her desk and considered a recent item of paperwork carefully, hands folded in her lap in a nearly meditative pose as she leaned back and stared at the ceiling, chewing absentmindedly at the back of her pen, flicking it back and forth, up and down as her mind turned over the problem, the cost and the benefit involved in the document that sat on the desk in front of her. It was a proposal, very politely worded and respectful, from Captain Kuchiki of the 6th, for a deployment of Special Operations soldiers to discreetly observe the activities of Rukia Kuchiki and Ichigo Kurosaki in the living world. Thought not expressly stated, it was obvious from the timing of the request and her knowledge of the man himself that Kuchiki was worried that while the cat was away, the mice would start to play, an odd saying Yourichi-sama had brought back from the living world which meant that when authority went away, an environment tended to become more relaxed, even boisterious. In short, he was worried that Kurosaki was fooling around with his precious younger sister, but was forbidden by his duties from going to check up on them himself.

The real question was, what would she get out of it? Though on the surface this was fairly normal for a request involving the Special Operations squad... they kept tabs on hundreds of people throughout the Soul Society all the time after all, it was part of their jobs as the Sereitei's intelligence gathering network... the fact of who was being observed and who was requesting the observation, as well as the fact that the Captain-General had pointedly been excluded from the chain of request made things a bit different. It meant that Byakuya Kuchiki was asking for a personal favor from her, that he wanted this kept between the two of them. Of course she could not just go out and ask what the man was willing to give in return for such a favor, things just weren't done that way, but she could imagine what sort of price she might ask, knowing as she did how irrational Kuchiki could be when it came to matters of his sister, even if he didn't let on visibly. What sort of ninja would she be if she couldn't even figure that much out, after all?

Even just being able to hold a future favor over one such as Byakuya Kuchiki could be extremely worthwhile in the proper circumstances, and Soi Fon knew that she would be granting this request, the only question was, how much could she milk out of it before Byakuya got fed up and decided to send Abarai or someone else instead. She felt no remorse about using her fellow Captain's emotional needs in this regard, it was part of her job description to take advantage of any weakness that might present itself, either in enemies or allies, for the betterment of the Sereitei as a whole. Leaning forward, she stopped chewing on her pen... a bad habit she'd picked up during her time as Yourichi-sama's assistant, as anyone dealing with such a stressful job could not help but pick up a nervous tic or two after a while... and wrote a polite but still firm denial on the document, doing her best to word things so that while her answer was obviously "no", she would still convey that she was open to more negotiation if the deal was to be perceptibly sweetened. This was easier than one might think... as Yourichi-sama's assistant, she had often been forced to deal with correspondence from the Shihoin family, and that wasn't the sort of stuff one could just brush off, verbally or literally.

Satisfied with her wording after several minutes, Soi Fon set the document aside into the "finished" pile and moved on to the next item of business, a series of written reports from covert agents sent to observe the actions of persons of interest around the Sereitei itself, including all the other Captains, their Vice-Captains, and some others. The Winter War had generated some unexpectedly useful fallout in this area, as in the throes of life or death combat for survival, a great many people had revealed depths of hidden power that would normally be justified cause for covert observation, people she ordinarily would never have expected of such things, such as 3rd seat Ikkaku from 11th Division, who had somehow managed to attain Bankai unnoticed by her agents, something for which no few of them had been comprehensively chewed out for. Soi Fon didn't see this covert observation as an invasion of privacy, as she wasn't collecting this information for personal benefit or amusement, nor for further dissemination... not even the Captain-General could see these reports without permission from Central 46.

All the same, she often found the reports to contain details of things that she really would rather not have known, such as the details of Shunsui Kyoraku's most recent drunken misadventures or some of the medical conditions certain Soul Reapers were having treated by Retsu Unohana due to extra curricular activites outside the Sereitei walls, as well as some things she found amusing, such as someone's attempts to keep an eye on the meetings of the SWA, the Shinigami Women's Association, which she very specifically did not remember ordering, meaning Omeada was overstepping his bounds once more. Honestly, was that man only proficient in his job when it was inconvenient to her? He was obnoxiously loud and boorish whenever a situation called for serious work, but the moment she wanted to find him to dump some task, usually unpleasant, upon him, he seemed to become a ghost, beyond even her abilities to find, which was nothing less than impressive, given his size.

There were also reports on the inevitable romantic entanglements between certain persons of interest, the most notable of which at the current time were Captain Hitsugaya of 10th division and Vice-Captain Hinamori of the 5th. Vice-Captain Hinamori especially was under close observation as she was still not fully declared mentally sound and fit for all duties in the wake of the Winter War. As Aizen's Vice-Captain, she had been exposed to his hypnotic tactics and lies more than anyone else, and she had been severey emotionally scarred both by his betrayal and later on his defeat and imprisonment, this all in addition to suffering nearly mortal wounds at the hands of Hitsugaya himself, under the influence of Aizen's hypnosis. But this close brush with death did seem to have brought about one slight positive, as Hitsugaya and Hinamori had finally managed to embark on a romantic relationship that even Soi Fon, who was not known for her romantic sensibilities, had been able to see coming quite a ways back.

And then, above and beyond the matters at hand within the Sereitei, which were mostly harmless though that was certainly no reason to slack off, there were the reports from her agents throughout the Rukongai and even the Living World to consider! Though most of her intelligence on the Living World came either from Kisuke Urahara, whom she did not trust any further than she could hurl Captain Zaraki one handed and probably a great deal less, or Yourichi-sama, whom she trusted implicitly but for all her acumen, didn't tend to be very helpful. One such report had including nothing more than a note attached to a small black plushy cat saying "Lighten up, Shaolin". She had kept the toy cat, as she did all little gifts that Yourichi-sama had deigned to give her over the years of their association, though she did have to admit, the report itself left her feeling a little high and dry on current events of the Living. Not that she would ever overtly criticize Yourichi-sama for lack of attention to detail or for taking her position too lightly, all the same, sometimes she wished her friend and mentor could be a little more serious.

Her keen senses detected someone coming down the short hall that led to her office, and Soi Fon immediately smoothed her face into its public cold scowl, removing her pen from between her lips... the last thing she needed was to be quelling rumors amidst her subordinates about her apparent "oral fixation" or something inane and debasing like that. She had most of her subordinates running very much scared from even a hint of her displeasure, but as was inevitably the case when you ruled with an iron gauntlet over a velvet glove, there was a certain, hardcore group of dissidents within her ranks that seemed to actively enjoy taunting her and shirking their work or using their talents for frivolous purposes. This behavior was only encouraged, unfortunately, by the behavior of her Vice-Captain, Omaeda. Though the man had in fact earned his rank through skill, rather than buying it through his family's great wealth as was commonly believed, that didn't change the fact that as far as being a ninja went, he was a failure in her eyes and always would be. He was just about everything a ninja should not be!

Her office door slide open and a member of the Special Forces glided inside, taking special care to actually make slight noises when he stepped, as a professional courtesy to her, to show that he wasn't attempting to sneak up upon her for some nefarious purpose. It was part of the dichotomy of being a member of the stealth force... most Captains wanted their underlings to be quiet so that they could maintain concentration on one task or another, Soi Fon required hers to make noise so that she didn't feed her paranoia too much and end up executing the lot of them for conspiracy. As was the usual for male members of the Special Operations squad, his head was shaved bald and his facial features half hidden by a black pull up cloth mask, his Zanpakuto sheathed horizontally across his lower back in the same style that she wore hers. He said nothing, merely proferred a sealed note bearing the emblem of the Special Operations forces, the subtle color variations and patterning of the wax seal denoting which of her patrol units it came from, group 23 in this particular case.

If memory served, and for Soi Fon it always did, Patrol Group 23 was assigned to be watching the 56th District of the Rukongai, a poorly developed rural area that was noteworthy only in that it wasn't noteworthy, being a backwater far removed from the civilization to be found in the lower numbered districts, but free of the lawlessness and barbarity that prevaded the districts of 60 to 80. Soul Reapers from various divisions were frequently assigned to patrol the first 60 Districts of the Rukongai, the outer cities and settlements that provided a place for souls to live in after transitioning from the Living World, and even the outer 20 Districts were at least haphazardly visited by members of the 11th Division, but her Patrol Groups were there more for observation purposes than Hollow control or law enforcement duties, sniffing out signs of rebellion or other strange occurences before they became a threat to the Sereitei. Most of the Districts above 40 were more or less wilderness with only a few scattered towns and settlements, Soi Fon had a tough time imagining what could possibly be worth her notice in such boondocks.

Taking the missive, she nodded a curt dismissal of her agent, one of her headquarter's staff... she made a point not to learn any of their names, in an effort to discourage familiarity. One of the guiding principles of the Special Operations squad was the completion of the mission at hand before personal attachments, the death of a friend was only one more opportunity to strike down your foes. Waiting until he retreated from her office and slid the door shut, and further to hear his carefully audible tread in the hall, Soi Fon slit open the message with a throwing star she palmed from her sash and quickly scanned the contents of the message before forcing herself to go back to the top and read it again, this time with all the details. Her fingers crumpled the edges of the waxy paper in annoyance, as Omeada was still off slacking off or feeding his face or whatever it was that he did when she needed him for a job. The wording of the letter was urgent, but not so urgent as to demand a personal response from her. Still, if even half of what was in the report were true, this wasn't something that she could delegate to a simple Patrol Leader either. It was a perfect job for a Vice-Captain, but of course hers wasn't around! She let out a snarling sigh and got up from her desk, hand instinctively grabbing Suzumebachi on the way.

It looked like she was in for a little fresh air. She just hoped that this wasn't all going to be a big waste of time. Then again, with the Winter War now over with, she had been looking for a new challenge to occupy her mind and attention... a little rebellion or discord in the boondocks could be just the sort of task she needed to keep herself sharp through these winter months. Still, she could not help but have her mind catch on the closing words of the message. "Please hurry... the crimson stained snow cries out for vengeance!" What an oddly poetic phrase...