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Walk Two Lifetimes

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Prologue

Being reincarnated into the Bleach world after dying of cancer- it sounds like the summary to one of those crappy fanfictions you hear about. The girl becomes friends with Ichigo and company early on, gets endowed with awesome powers, amazes everyone with her mad deductive skillz and insights into the future (that totally didn't come from having no social life in a past incarnation and watching way too much anime, really), kicks some bad guy ass and ends up with anywhere from two to seven guys after saving the day.

Unfortunately for me, my luck bailed out right after 'reincarnated into Bleach-verse after dying of cancer', so I didn't get the rest of the nice, convenient Mary-Sue package. Instead of being reborn into twenty-first century Japan with the benefits of modern technology (like flushable toilets, for instance), I was born a little over a hundred and fifty years ago. Far from having Orihime-esque powers, I ended up with no powers besides the ability to see souls and hollows from birth (I suspected my experience with death may have contributed to that), and fuzzy memories of maybe the first two or three Bleach arcs. The worst thing though, was being reborn into possibly the only character in the entire Bleach-verse who had died because of sickness, which, to someone like me who knew her hospital room better than her own bedroom, was like a cruel joke. Dying a slow, drawn-out, painful, hopeless death once was bad enough, but twice? I was beginning to think I was cursed.

Chapter 1

The worst thing about dying of cancer, I decided, wasn't the dying of cancer part, ironically enough. Well, the dying of cancer part sucked balls, but it wasn't the worst part. The absolute, worst fucking part was that I spent four years studying my ass off at undergrad and then another near-decade at medical school, interning and completing my residency, and on top of that had spent a year working as an army medic as part of my contract to pay off med-school and I still hadn't seen the signs. 

To be fair, when you're working in the army, little things like weariness and bruises are easily brushed off when you're dealing with things like gunshot wounds, 3rd degree burns and working eighteen hours a day. As it is, when my body finally gave out on me and I collapsed from exhaustion, I was told that I had stage three acute leukemia and that my chances weren't good. My contract with the government was terminated and I was confined to a hospital bed.

My friends' and family's reactions varied. Mom burst into tears and ran out of the room. My strict, no-nonsense, accept-nothing-less-than-the-absolute-best dad looked like he'd just been told that the world was ending…either that or that American football was canceled forever. Takami Kobe, proud otaku and my best friend since college freshman year, yelled at me for ten minutes straight about how I was an idiot, and what was the point of even going to med school if I couldn't even diagnose myself, before storming away. He came back the next day with an armful of cancer books, a determined look on his face, and my favorite Starbucks drink as an apology. Dave, my asshole older brother, aimed a punch at my face and when I moved to dodge, redirected it at my shoulder and lightly hit it. With a muttered, "Christina, you bitch, you better not die," he then turned away to hide suspiciously red eyes. Henry, my sweetheart 6-year-old nephew and my favorite person in the world, just hugged me before looking up with wide eyes and asking, "You're gonna be okay, right, Aunt Christina?" At the time, I'd just hugged him back before reassuring him that, "Heck yeah, it's going to take more than some rebelling cells to do me in." Looking back, I regret making that promise. In my last few days, I regretted a lot of things about my life, but I think being unable to keep my promise to Henry was my biggest one.

Day One A.D. (After Death)

Well, now I know why people don't remember their births. Being squeezed through your mother's vaginal channel is…fucking traumatizing. No wonder babies come into the world screaming.

While at first I was confused as to why it felt like I was being squeezed painfully through a warm, wet rubber tube when I thought I'd died, it really wasn't that difficult to figure out what was happening after hearing the words, "Congratulations, Yukimura-san. It's a girl!" I wasn't even that surprised by the reincarnation part—I’d found that you tend to contemplate the afterlife a lot more when you only have a few weeks left, at most, to live. I'd thought about heaven, hell, oblivion, reincarnation. So I wasn't all that surprised that I was reincarnated. What I didn't expect, or want, was to still have all my memories from my previous life.

Day Two A.D.

Yukimura Hisana. That's my new name. I suppose as names go, it definitely could have been worse. Hisana sounds pretty. Delicate. Refined and gentle. The only problem is, it doesn't sound like me.

Day Four A.D.

People always say that learning a foreign language is a useful skill. All I can say is, amen to that. Never have I been so grateful that I decided to minor in Japanese language and culture in college. That semester I spent abroad in Japan helped as well. Thank you, thank you Takami for convincing me to learn Japanese. Waking up in the body of a newborn infant was bad enough, I don't even want to think about how nightmarish this ordeal would be if I couldn't understand the language. As it is, from my information gathering, I’ve found out that not only have I been born in a different country, I've been born into a different era entirely. One without the benefits of modern technology. Fuck my life.

Day Fourteen A.D.

I remember thinking sometimes on my bad days, when I was being pumped full of chemo drugs and nauseous from the radiation, that as painful and hopeless dying was, at least I wasn't on the other side of the hospital bed. I'd rather die ten deaths than watch someone I loved wither away slowly as their body gradually killed them. At least I won't have to mourn, I thought. Now, stuck in a different country, a different century, with no way of seeing my family or friends again, I can't help but think that irony is a cruel, cruel bitch.

Day Twenty-One A.D.

It's funny, though at first I was endlessly frustrated at how weak my new body was, now I'm grateful for it. The fact that my body's brain hasn't fully developed yet, that I now require three times as much sleep as I used to—all of it serves as a buffer from reality. I am now physically unable to comprehend as much as I used to in my 32-year-old body, and I am eternally thankful for that.

Day Thirty-One A.D.

I find myself sleeping quite a bit more than I strictly need to. My new parents are worried, I can tell. Selfish as it may seem, I can't bring myself to care. When I'm asleep, I don't think about all the things I've lost. It seems silly-I'm over thirty years old mentally, I should be more independent than this. I shouldn't be so reliant on my family. I should be overjoyed to get a second chance at life after my previous one was cut short. Takami would punch me if he saw how I was behaving and yell at me to quit moping around. Familiarity is just one of those things you only appreciate, I guess, when you're thrown into a place where everything is different.

Day Forty-Two A.D.

I've realized that the Takami-voice in my head is right. Being this angsty really isn't like me. What the hell am I so upset about anyway? It's not like my parents, Dave, Henry, Takami and the others are dead. They're probably way better off than me in any case, by simple virtue of the fact that at least they don't have to get their diapers changed. And while they'll miss me, I know they won't let my death stop them from living. I'll miss them too, and I'll always remember them, but honestly, a month and a half old is really too young to be dealing with depression.

One Year A.D.

Thank god for all the times Dave made me babysit Henry. I wouldn't have a clue how to act like a normal baby otherwise. As it is, I'm timing all of my firsts (first word, first time crawling, first time walking, etc.) to Henry's.

Two Years A.D.

I stared. The ghost—for there was really no other way to describe it—stared back.

"Wha—how—you-dead!" I shriek, reverting back to English in my panic, arms gesticulating wildly, waving between the spirit and its pale, cold and very dead body still lying on the bed. Two years had given me plenty of time to accept my new situation, and I felt that I was adjusting very well to life all things considered, but that this new world I had been born in apparently had ghosts was something I was finding difficult to swallow. It was my first time seeing someone die since being reborn, something that would have happened eventually given the fact that my parents were the only doctors in the village. So far, they had done a fairly good job of shielding my toddler eyes from death. Not that it was the death part that bothered me—I had seen my fair share of people die as a doctor, myself included—but the shade wandering around with a giant chain sticking out of its chest made my head hurt.

"Hisana-chan?" Yukimura Asuka, aka my new mother, asked concernedly, walking towards me. She picked me up and began humming soothingly. Her eyes, though they betrayed her weariness and sadness, gave no sign that she saw the ghost now looking at me curiously. I continued to gape at the spirit, scrutinizing the chain hanging from its chest. Something about that looked familiar.

"Ah, can you see me little one?" The ghost inquired with a smile. He was taking the whole death thing a hell of a lot better than I did, though the fact that he looked to be in his mid-eighties may have had something to do with it. Poor geezer had probably expected to kick the bucket any day now.

"Don't be sad. I've lived a good, long life and I've known that my time was coming for quite a while now, although I must confess this wasn't what I expected the afterlife to be like," he chuckled. Well, that makes two of us. "It's interesting that you seem to be the only one that can see me though," he mused. "Well, since there's really nothing I have to do now, I suppose I'll keep you company for a while."

And he did. I discovered that while Adachi-san—the ghost—could interact with things (J.K. Rowling had been so wrong) and that he could touch living things (i.e. me) with no problems, no one else seemed to have the ability to see or hear him. "Perhaps it is your age that allows you to see me," he theorized, "Children have the ability to see and accept a great number of things that adults cannot."

Perhaps that was true, but considering that I had the mentality of someone in her thirties, I rather doubted that theory applied to me. I personally thought that the fact that I remembered my previous death had a lot to do with it. After all, experiencing death probably made me a lot more sensitive to all things death-related, right?

It was on the third day Adachi-san spent with me that something changed. If he hadn't been telling me a story about his Good Old Days (and if I hadn't felt that it would be rude of me, toddler or not, if I fell asleep in the middle of it), I probably would have missed the entire thing. As it was, I was very much awake when in the middle of the night some random guy dressed in a black robe appeared in my house. I was about to open my mouth to scream and protest this very blatant breaking and entering when the guy pulled out a sharp, very deadly looking katana. I closed my mouth and tried not to whimper. Adachi-san went pale. The possible murderous-psychopath-with-a-sword sighed.

"Look, I'm not going to hurt you. All I'm going to do is send you off to the afterlife, where you belong." The guy gave a reassuring smile. Considering the fact that he still had his sword in hand, it wasn't very reassuring. Apparently Adachi-san thought so too, since he retorted, "What's with the sword, then? I didn't know getting stabbed and dying twice was a requirement for moving on."

Huh. That sounded positively snarky. I didn't think kind, gentle Adachi had it in him. A part of me, the part that wasn't chanting please don't kill me, please don't notice me, I'm too young to die was proud of him.

"I hate doing this," the guy groaned, running a hand through his hair. "Who invented the idea of performing konso using zanpakuto anyway? I'm not going to stab you. All I'm going to do is place the hilt of my zanpakuto against your forehead, I swear. It's going to happen regardless of whether or not you fight, so just agree and we can get this over with." Adachi glanced at me, resigned. Well, I suppose it was hope the guy was telling the truth and let him do his thing or wander around the Earth as a spirit forever. When you thought about it, it really wasn't much of a choice.

"Well, I suppose this is goodbye then, Hisana-chan. May we someday meet again, though hopefully not for a very long time." He smiled at me and I felt a twinge of pain in my chest. I swallowed. Boring stories or not, I'd grown kinda fond of the old man. Adachi turned to the grim reaper, or whatever the hell he was, and I watched as the reaper placed the hilt of the sword against Adachi's forehead. As Adachi faded away, a peaceful look overcoming his features, a wave of déjà vu washed over me. I ignored it, lifting up an arm and giving him one last wave behind the reaper's back. He winked at me just before disappearing. The Japanese grim reaper dude then looked around the room, his eyes settling briefly on me, before vanishing out the door quicker than I could blink.

It was only after my heart settled down and I finished processing the fact that Adachi was dead—and gone for good this time—that it hit me why the scene had looked so familiar. The chain sticking out of Adachi's chest, the black kimono-robe outfit the death god wore, the 'konso' ritual and the 'zanpakuto'—strange, it all reminded me of an anime Takami had once shown me.

Of course, that was ridiculous. I could accept being reincarnated in a different time with all my memories intact. After all, who knew how death worked? And even in my past life, there'd always been those stories of people who claimed to remember a previous life. But being reborn not in a past time, but in a whole different universe? One that existed only as a manga in my home world? That was a bit far-fetched, even for me. Really, the only thing the similarities between what I had just witnessed and Takami's favorite anime—what was it called again? Detergent? Soap? Bleach? Something stupid like that—proved was that some manga artist had gotten a few things right about the afterlife. In no way did it prove that I was actually in a fictional world.

Still, no matter how hard I tried to tell myself that even the very idea was preposterous, an uneasy feeling remained in my gut. Either way, it was too early to tell. In order to prove the I've-been-reincarnated-into-an-anime theory right (or hopefully, wrong), I needed more evidence. In the meantime, I would try to dredge up what little knowledge I had about the Bleach-verse from the one or two arcs Takami had forced me to watch when he'd first met me. Which…easier said than done. Takami could probably list each and every character's abilities, age, birthday and eye color. Me? All I could remember at the moment was that the dorky librarian dude turned out to be some kind of evil mastermind and was after something called the Hoggy-whatsit.

Seven Years A.D.

I found the proof I was looking for, though not the proof I was hoping to find, five years later. It had been a beautiful day. The sun was shining. The birds were chirping. The only thing wrong with the picture was the gigantic butt-ugly monster with a hole in its chest terrorizing the populace like something out of a bad horror movie.

The hollow (for it could only be a hollow, no matter how hard I tried to deny it), suddenly turned, knocking over a fruit-stall in the process. I froze, hoping against hope that it wouldn't notice me. Maybe, like in Jurassic Park, it wouldn't notice me if I didn't move? No such luck. Its eyes latched onto me and it grinned, revealing a mouth full of rows and rows of sharp, jagged teeth. My stomach dropped and I felt nauseous. Run, I urged myself, move, you stupid legs, move!

"Well, well, what do we have here?" It rasped, pincher-like arms shoving a cart full of fish over. "A spiritually-aware human? Today must be my lucky day." Now would be a great time for those soul reapers to show up, I thought faintly. The hollow moved closer. Luckily, this had the effect of shaking off the terror-induced trance I was in.

"Stay back, you stupid over-sized crab!" I shrieked in a moment of panic-induced insanity. Then, pointing to something over the hollow's shoulder, I yelled, "About time you got here, shinigami!" When the hollow turned to look, I bolted. Oldest trick in the book or not, I wasn't going to complain if it worked.

I sprinted for my life, ducking around buildings, stalls, and people confusedly looking around for the invisible being destroying property left and right, ignoring the hollow's calls of "Get back here!" and "That was a dirty trick!"

"Well, you fell for it, dumbass," I yelled back. About ten seconds into my escape, I'd realized that though the hollow was currently fixated on me and ignoring the myriad of people milling about, there was no guarantee that it wouldn't decide to go after someone else instead should it lose sight of me. And, curse my guilty conscience, I couldn't let it chomp on some other poor soul. Though my chances of winning against the hollow were approximately nil, the odds would be even more stacked against someone who couldn't even see it. So instead, I led it through the less populated streets and towards the forest. Hopefully, with the increased cover and without having to worry about someone getting hurt, I could stall until a shinigami finally arrived. That is, if a shinigami arrived. I didn't even want to contemplate what would happen if the shinigami in charge of watching over this village was taking a nap or something.

Thankfully, luck was on my side today, and so a shinigami arrived just as I dove behind some bushes. The hollow, as stupid as it seemed to be, didn't stand a chance as the shinigami was actually kind of competent, and so five minutes later I witnessed it fading away. After dispatching the hollow, the shinigami looked around, frowning briefly. My heart nearly stopped when his eyes landed on the bushes I was hiding in. Don't notice me, I prayed. I had no desire to get my memories erased. Fortunately for me, the shinigami either didn't notice, or didn't care enough to investigate my presence and disappeared shortly after. As soon as I was sure the shinigami wasn't going to come back, I collapsed breathlessly on the ground. My pulse thudded in my ear as I tried to calm my breathing. After a while, I made my way back to my house, trying to ignore the way my legs were shaking.

My father looked up as I entered the house. "Hisana, you're back," he said smiling. "I heard there was some commotion at the marketplace today. I'm glad you weren't caught up in it." A hint of concern crossed over his face when he inspected me more carefully. "You're a bit pale, Hisana. Are you sure you're alright?"

"I'm fine, Otou-san. Just a bit tired today. I'm going to take a nap, okay?" I told him, trying for a reassuring smile. Judging from his expression, I didn't completely succeed, but he didn't argue. Crossing into my room, I pulled out the journal I'd asked my father for when I turned four. He'd bought it for me under the impression I wanted it for drawing on. Instead, I'd filled it with every scrap of knowledge about Bleach that I'd managed to scrounge up from the depths of my memories—a surprising amount. Flipping through the pages, I scanned the notes I'd taken, all in English. Turning to a new page, I scrawled, Theory confirmed by hollow sighting. Am living in an anime world. Situation: FUBAR.

I stared down at the words I'd just written. Funny, they kind of looked like a death sentence. Turning around, I threw the journal at the wall as hard as I could. It didn't make me feel any better.

Nine Years A.D.  

It took another two years for me to realize just who I had been reincarnated in. You see, though I found out I was now in the Bleach-verse, I'd assumed that I was just reborn into some random person with no real importance in the greater scheme of things. That assumption died a rather spectacular death when at dinner, with no warning, my mother blurted out, "I'm pregnant."

I choked on my rice. Dad began coughing on air. Mom had been getting sick a lot lately and she'd been acting nervous all day. Dad and I had begun speculating what was wrong after she spilled water all over a patient. As people who both made a living healing people, we really should have guessed what was up. We didn't, and I was starting to wonder if I was just a failure at diagnosing anyone who had a personal connection to me.

"What?" He spluttered. I pounded him on the back helpfully. "Asuka! This is wonderful! How long have you known?"

"Well, the symptoms are very similar to the ones present when I was pregnant with Hisana," she answered. "I started experiencing nausea a few weeks ago and recently I began developing a bump on my stomach." A worried expression crossed her face as she turned to me. "Hisana? How do you feel about this? I know this is a bit sudden."

"It's great, Kaa-san. I can't wait to be a big sister," I said sincerely. A warm giddy feeling was spreading through my chest and I couldn't help but smile. A younger sibling! "So do you want it to be a girl or a boy?"

"I wouldn't mind a boy," she said sighing, "but I just have a feeling this one is going to be a girl. Call it a mother's intuition."

"Well, I don't mind. I'm going to be a big sister either way," I grinned. "It's a bit early, but do you have any names in mind yet?" My father laughed. "This is all on your mother, kid. The agreement was that I got to name the first kid we had, and she got to name any kids that came after."

"I've been considering a few," Mom said thoughtfully, "In case I'm wrong and it is a boy after all, I was thinking Hikaru—light and brightness. What do you think?"

"It's a good name. I like it," I decided. "And if it's a girl?"

"Rukia. I've always liked that name. It's a lovely name, unique, and I have a good feeling about it," she mused.

"It's perfect! I approve! Should we have a daughter, Rukia she will be!" Dad boomed heartily, leaning forward to embrace her. It was a good thing he did, since it prevented either of them from noticing how I'd frozen.

Rukia. Could it be? What are the chances? How many other Rukias born in Edo Japan are there? I shook my head. No, this wasn't the time to contemplate things. Pasting a smile on my face, I forced myself to finish the rest of my dinner, hoping that I didn't look as sick as I felt. Luckily, both of my parents were too distracted to notice me much and so my quietness was left unquestioned. As soon as dinner was over, I calmly walked to my room and shut the door. As soon as I'd guaranteed myself some privacy (I had no doubt my parents would be too busy 'celebrating' to bother me), I ripped my journal out from under my futon and frantically searched through the pages. I stopped. There, about halfway through the book, I found what I was looking for. Kuchiki H.: Sister to Kuchiki Rukia. Wife to Kuchiki Byakuya. Abandoned Rukia when Rukia was a baby and spent the rest of her life regretting it. Died shortly after marrying Byakuya. Made him promise to find Rukia and take her in.

Honestly, there wasn't much on the person I suspected I'd been reincarnated into. I hadn't even remembered her name; only that it had started with an 'H'. What I did remember was that she'd wasted away because of some unknown illness. Was it even possible for a disease to carry across lifetimes? I asked myself slightly hysterically. Of course, there was always the chance that I was completely wrong and that this Rukia was completely unrelated to Kuchiki Rukia, but…let's face it…my luck wasn't that good. And now that I knew what to look for, I couldn't deny the physical similarities between myself and canon Rukia. The shoulder length hair, the strand of hair that fell over my face, the violet eyes—I hadn't seen it before, simply because the last time I'd seen these features they'd been present in an two-dimensional anime character, but now it was so glaringly obvious I couldn't dismiss it.

And then, as if discovering that I was the older sister of one of the main characters in an anime filled with constant danger, bloodshed and betrayal wasn't enough, I remembered that Rukia and Hisana died in the living world when Rukia was a baby. Which meant that I had little over a year to live. Shit.

Ten Years and Two Months A.D.

"Ahhhhh!" Another piercing scream split the air. I winced. There was a reason I’d never even considered becoming a midwife. Dad had forbidden me from being in the room, so I was saved from having to witness my new sibling being shoved out of my mom's vagina, but the shrieks of pure agony alone were making me cringe in sympathy. The labor seemed to take forever—I'd spent the last couple of hours bravely hiding in my room and covering my ears. Right then and there, I vowed, Never never never am I ever going to give birth. Adoption is looking like a fine course of action right now.

"Just a little more, Asuka!" How Dad could sound so excited when his wife was in unimaginable pain, I didn't know. "I can see its head coming through! Just push a little more!"

"Screw you, Seichi! You have no damn idea how it feels, so wipe that idiotic grin off your face!" Mom snapped back. I might have been shocked at hearing my polite, refined mother swearing at the top of her lungs if she hadn't been doing it for the past six hours now. Finally, finally, after what seemed like another six hours but was probably only about five minutes, I heard the sound of a baby's crying. All of a sudden, I couldn't breathe.

This…Rukia's birth would be the start of everything. While Kurosaki Ichigo may have been the hurricane of revolution that swept through Soul Society and changed everything, Kuchiki Rukia provided the catalyst for it to happen. No matter what occurred from now on, I could kiss my chance of having a normal life goodbye. As Rukia's older sister, my actions would inevitably influence her and by default, have an impact on the future and, well—there was no other way to put it- fate of the world. At that moment, I can't even describe how in over my head I felt. I'd known, of course, ever since I'd figured out exactly who I'd been reborn as, that I would have a lot of responsibility on my shoulders. It just never clicked in how much. While I was having the existentialist crisis of a lifetime, the door opened.

"Hisana! Come meet your new—what are you doing lying on the ground like that?" My dad asked. I blinked, looking around. Huh. In the midst of the mini panic attack I was having, I hadn't even noticed my legs giving out on me.

"Uh, well, I just felt overwhelmed! I mean, I've been an only child all my life and now…I'm not." I winced at my idiotic excuse. My dad gave me a strange look, but luckily was too excited to question it further. "Well, get off the floor and come on in! It was a hard labor"—tell me about it—"but your mother's doing fine and the baby's as healthy as can be! You now have a new sister; as usual, your mother's intuition was correct."

Entering my parents' bedroom, I found Mom sitting up in bed, looking sweaty and tired but radiant nonetheless. And in her arms was…

"Is that her?" I whispered, gaping slightly. Smiling, my mom nodded and motioned for me to come closer. Gently, she placed Rukia in my arms and guided me through how to hold her properly. "Hisana, meet your sister Rukia. Rukia-chan, this is your Hisana-neechan. Say hello, will you?"

Rukia opened her eyes at my mom's voice and peered at me curiously with solemn, indigo eyes so similar to my own. I gazed back, feeling something like awe settle over me. So fragile, so innocent…at that moment it didn't matter what the future held. It didn't matter that she was going to be a key player in a world where danger was the only constant. At that moment, all that mattered was that she was my baby sister and that I was going to do my damned best to keep her safe.

Ten Years and Eight Months A.D.

It's a curious sensation, knowing that in all likelihood you are probably going to die within the year. I'd gone through it once as Christina Dalton and I was going through it again as Yukimura Hisana. With no way of knowing how the original Rukia and Hisana died, I had no way to prevent it from happening (that didn't mean that I wouldn't try though). If my parents noticed that I became much clingier over the last few months, they didn't mention it. I didn't know if they died too, or if I would ever see them again but it didn't matter. Ever since Rukia was born I spent every waking minute with them. I shadowed my mom around the house, studying almost obsessively how she cared for Rukia. She thought it was adorable and would always comment on what a 'wonderful big sister I was'.

I also followed Dad around like a baby duckling, watching and occasionally helping him treat patients and listening as he taught me about the different medicinal plants and herbs he used. Asian medicine was fascinating, and something I'd never really explored in my past life. Dad was thrilled with my interest in healing.

"I swear, you just pick some of this stuff right up," he chuckled. "I think you know more about the human body than I do sometimes." Yeah Dad, having two decades of learning experience behind you will do that to a person. Still, for all my ability to diagnose diseases, setting bones, wrapping wounds and prescribing medicines, it was another thing entirely to make your own remedies with plants found in the marketplace and the nearby forest.

I didn't think about our impending deaths. If there's one thing I've learned, it's to not depress yourself thinking about things you can't change.

4:42 a.m., October 27, 1855

One minute I'm dreaming of chocolate chip cookies (something that was sadly lacking in my new life) and the next moment I'm yanked brutally out of dreamland and into reality. At first I'm confused as to what woke me; the next instant my question is answered when another violent shake knocks me back onto my futon. In the next room, I can hear Rukia start to cry. The door opens and Dad walks in, looking tired but otherwise alright.

"Are you alright?" He asks. I nod and another shake forces him down. After another few minutes of waiting, nothing else happens. "It doesn't appear to be major. Just a few tremors and no one seems to be hurt. Go back to sleep." He tells me, reaching out and ruffling my hair. I drift back into sleep, too tired to pay attention to the sliver of unease in the back of my mind.

8:13 a.m.

"Hey Hisana-chan, look at this!" Takeru, the nine-year-old son of the local butcher calls out excitedly. I look up from where I've been perusing today's selection of fish, idly deciding what I want to have for lunch. Takeru is pointing towards the ocean, or more specifically, the beach where I can see the tide receding leaving behind wide stretches of sand. I frown; shouldn't the low tide have passed already? "Come on, let's go check it out!" He leaves just as I freeze, a terrible, awful realization starting to form in my mind. The fuzzy memories from this morning come back in full force. The earthquake. The receding tide. Living in Japan, a place with more fault lines than California. Oh god, no.

"Tsunami," I whisper out, horrified. The vendor, Ishibashi Kou, looks at me concernedly.

"Hisana-chan? Are you feeling well? You look awfully pale. Perhaps you ought to go home and rest for a bit?" He asks. I swallow hard, looking around. This village, all these people…how much time do I have? How many people will die? The villagers seem to have no concept of what a tsunami is, the way they bustle happily about their normal lives, oblivious to the receding water and what it means. I can't possibly save everyone; my priority is Rukia…Rukia! I balk, startling the vendor, and start running home. Before I've taken five steps, I hesitate and look back at Ishibashi-san, who stares back at me with worry in his kind eyes. Ishibashi-san, who taught me how to catch and prepare a fish. Ishibashi-san, who had given Mom two fish for free when he heard that she was pregnant. Ishibashi-san, who had no clue he was in danger. I made up my mind. Time limit or not, I couldn't just leave him there with no warning.

"Ishibashi-san!" I blurt out. "Listen to me. There's no time to explain, but in a few minutes, a giant wave is going to be heading this way. You need to get yourself and your family to higher ground as soon as possible, and tell anyone you meet to do the same."

"Hisana-chan—what—you can't be serious," he splutters. I can already see him beginning to protest, and I cut him off hurriedly.

"I'm deadly serious. Lives could depend, do depend, on this. I have to go. Ishibashi-san, please," I beg and then I turn around and sprint for home as fast as I can, not turning around to see if he decided to listen or not. By the time I burst through the front door to my house, my lungs are burning and each breath feels like a struggle. Mom looks up from the kitchen counter with a frown.

"Hisana? What's the matter?" She asks.

"Where's Rukia?" I interrupt her. Without waiting for an answer, my eyes scan the room and land on Rukia, where she’s in a makeshift basket/crib one of Dad's friends made. She's sleeping and I quickly pick her up. "Kaa-san, where is Tou-san?"

"He's away at the moment. Asari's father is sick again. Hisana, what is going on?" She demands.

"Look, there's a tsunami—a giant wave—coming our way. I don't know when it'll hit, but we have to be at higher ground by then." I say, urgently. How long has it been since I left Ishibashi-san? How long do I have left until it hits? Minutes? Seconds? Mom's face has turned pale and for a moment, I can only feel relieved that she believes me.

"I'd heard stories, but I didn't think…you're sure about this?" She demands sharply. I nod in confirmation. "I saw the tide receding. And with the earthquake this morning, I don't think that we need any more proof."

"Hisana, take Rukia and run as far as you can, you hear me? And," She grabs me by the arms urgently and looks me in the eye, "Swear to me that you'll do everything in your power to protect her, Hisana."

"I will," I whisper, "I promise." Something in her expression eases and her shoulders relax.

"Good. I'll go find your dad." I turn to run, but hesitate in the doorway. What do you say to someone you love when you know, deep down inside, that it's the last time you'll ever see them? Mom seems to know what I'm thinking because her expression softens and she smiles calmly, as if this is just any other day and I've just told her I'll be out for a short walk. "I'll be fine," she comes forward and embraces me tightly as I breathe deeply and try to memorize her scent. She smells like clean cotton and herbs. "Just remember that no matter what happens, your father and I will always love you both. Now go and be safe. Run."

"I love you too," I choke out, and then I'm running as fast as I can out the door because I know that if I stay a second longer, I'll never be able to leave. The awful thing about our village is that all the buildings are short and it's mostly flat ground. My best chance is to get as far away from the ocean as I can and then scale a tree or something. However, as I look off into the distance and watch the biggest wave I've ever seen in either lifetime approach like the claw of a legendary sea monster, I can't help but think that I'm already too late.

10:36 a.m.

I cling to the tree as tightly as I can, even as I try my best to shield a screaming Rukia with my body, as waves upon waves of seemingly never ending water crash down all around me. I hold on to the tree like it's my only hope for salvation, and indeed it is, the sole lifeline keeping me from being washed away to sea. I'd only managed to reach the edge of the forest before the first wave hit, and I'd promptly thrown myself at the nearest, reasonably sturdy looking tree I could find. It had taken everything I had just to hold on as the wave crashed in, sweeping away everything in its path. The aftermath was the worst part though. As the wave receded, it was near impossible not to get pulled away with it.

Yet as bad as the first wave was, I'm coming to realize that the succeeding wave is much worse. It's only by sheer dumb luck that the tree I'm clinging to hasn't swept away yet. As the water pulls back, a large tree branch bumps into another tree which sends it straight at me. My body is tired and aching, my lungs are half filled with water and I'm bleeding from various cuts caused by debris. With only my legs and one arm (the other holding Rukia) holding on, I don't stand a chance when the branch crashes into me. With a choked yell, I'm knocked loose and I only just manage to hold onto Rukia. The last thing I hear before I go under is my mom's voice, "Protect her, Hisana."

I'm sorry, I think, I failed you, and then the world goes black.

Chapter Text

"Get back here, you dirty piece of shit!" An angry shout came from behind me. It was close. Too close.

Inwardly, I cursed. Usually they weren't this persistent; it was just my luck that I ended up stealing from a guy who wouldn't give up even after chasing me for ten minutes. Clutching my precious cargo, I wove through the streets, ducking behind people and stalls. Hopefully, I would lose him in the crowd soon. At least I didn't have to worry about someone helping him catch me. Altruistic acts of kindness didn't exist here.

First Rule of Rukongai: No one was going to help you. Here, it was every man for himself.

An arm grabbed me roughly around the elbow and shook me violently. I winced; that was going to leave a bruise. The vendor I'd stolen a loaf of bread from turned me around to face him.

"Damn brat," he hissed, face purple with anger and exertion, "Don't you know what happens to filthy thieves like you? Why, I ought to slit your throat. Better whores like you end up dead than cluttering the streets like you do." That was as far as he got before I spit in his eye. His grip loosened as he broke off cursing and seizing the opportunity, I kneed him in the gut as hard as I could. Not waiting for him to recover, I broke free and ran off in the opposite direction.

Second Rule of Rukongai: If you wanted to survive, you had to learn how to defend yourself damn quick.

I wandered around in circles for a good ten minutes to make sure he hadn't managed to follow me, before heading back home. 'Home' was a small, rundown hut located close to the outskirts of town. It was little more than a shack, barely inhabitable, but it kept most of the rain out and was relatively isolated. All I could ask for, really, given the situation we were in.

Rukia and I had been dead for two weeks now (and wasn't that a strange thought?). After the tsunami, I'd only had time to wake up and register that Rukia and I were dead before a shinigami performed konso on us. I'd faded away and had ended up on the outskirts of Inuzuri, the 78th district of South Rukongai, with Rukia a couple of feet away. It hadn't taken me long to figure out that we'd ended up with the short end of the stick when it came to new living arrangements. Inuzuri consisted of seventy percent slums, ten percent semi-well-off merchants and shopkeepers, and twenty percent yakuza and gangs. And for all that the dirt poor people outnumbered them, the yakuza and merchants held one hundred percent of the power.

Third Rule of Rukongai: Don't get on the bad side of anyone with a number of hired thugs under their control, unless you want to wake up one night with your throat cut open. Keep your head down, don't make waves and you might just survive.

Rukia was awake when I got back. She whined plaintively when she caught sight of me and her face scrunched up. Uh oh; warning signs began going off like crazy inside my head. I counted myself lucky that Rukia wasn't one of those fussy babies who wailed nonstop, but she did cry her fair share. Thankfully, she usually calmed down relatively quickly.

Making my way towards her, I picked her up and began hushing her. "Hey there, don't cry. Yeah, I'm sorry I had to leave again, but I can't exactly take you with me when I go out shopping, can I?" Carefully, I took out the wild carrots I'd managed to find yesterday. Picking one up, I took a giant bite out of it, chewed thoroughly and spat it back out with a grimace. One thing I'd noticed was that most people didn't seem to get that hungry here. Oh sure, people still sold food and some people still ate, but they didn't really need to. Something that confused the hell out of me, since I sure as fuck still got hungry. Not as much as I used to—I only needed to eat once every other day, Rukia every three to five days—but I still needed to eat.

Taking the chewed-up carrot pulp, I put some on my finger and held it up. "Hey baby girl, lunch time. Yeah, I know it doesn't look appetizing but dead or not, you still need nutrients. And as long as I'm taking care of you, you're going to get them." It went against all my medical training to feed a baby using only my unwashed fingers (because eww) but silverware and sanitation weren't luxuries I could afford. All I could do was hope that when bacteria died it went to a different afterlife or something.

I bit into the bread Doucheface-san had so kindly 'donated' and shivered as a slight breeze swept through the room. The days were getting colder and the sun set earlier and earlier each night. Sighing, I focused on the way Rukia gurgled happily as she sucked on my finger and tried not to think about how I’d get through this approaching winter. I’d worry about that issue when I got to it.

 


 

"Look, I'm not asking for much. Just a meal and a place to stay for the night! I'm willing to do any work you give me, and I know how to cook and clean. Just please, let me and my sister in!" I pleaded. The woman at the door sneered. "And risk you making off with all the money? I know what your type is like. Trash, all of you. If you really want a place to stay, I'm sure you can find someone's bed to spend the night in." With that, she slammed the door in my face.

"Yeah? Well, screw you too!" I screamed at the closed door. Rukia shivered from where she was huddled against my chest and I smiled ruefully at her. "Looks like attempt twenty three is a bust too, huh?" I began walking down the street again. It was cold enough outside that most people were indoors and my hands had gone numb hours ago.

"At least it isn't as bad as the winters in Connecticut, though," I said to Rukia. "You've never seen one, but Japanese winters are nothing compared to the winters in Northeastern America. At this time of year you'd practically be buried beneath four feet of snow. This? This is nothing." I stopped for a moment to catch my breath as my vision blurred out momentarily. Black spots danced in front of my eyes. "Of course, back then I had a house, heating, and a family to go back to."

"Let's take a break, and then I'll go back to house-hunting, okay?" I turned down an empty alleyway, hoping it would provide some shelter from the wind and slowly sat down against a wall.

Surviving through winter was going to be near impossible. I'd known this peripherally, had known in some back corner of my mind that my current house, with its missing door and thin walls, wasn't going to provide enough shelter during the cold. It wasn't until the days started getting shorter and the temperatures dropped to the point where I couldn't leave Rukia without worrying about her freezing to death that I started to understand how hard it was going to be. I only had a handful of ryo left; enough to last me maybe a week. Staring down at Rukia's peaceful face, I couldn't help but wonder if this was how the original Hisana felt. Had she felt the same hopelessness in the face of such overwhelming odds? The futility of trying to raise a child with no food, no money, no job and no decent shelter? I'd always felt that the original Hisana was weak; surely there had to be a better way than simply abandoning her sister and hoping for the best? I suddenly wasn't so sure anymore.

"Are you really better off with me though?" I murmured. Because what could I offer her, really? I had no real marketable skills (I could offer to treat injured people, but who would trust a ten year old peasant to heal anyone?), no allies, no home…she was doomed to a life of poverty and hardship should she stay with me. Would it really be so bad to leave her here? It would be cowardly, yes, but it would also be unbelievably selfish of me to keep her with me. The original Rukia had turned out fine. Someone had obviously found her and taken her in until she grew old enough to fend for herself. Even if Byakuya never took her in (because the chances of him meeting me in Rukongai and falling in love were laughably small), she'd find friends to stand at her back and would become a shinigami either way. She might find herself in danger, if things went anything like the original timeline, but Kuchiki Rukia had always been one of those people who turned out fine in the end. How could I deny her that future?

Yet at that moment, when I turned to go, all I could think about was a memory from another lifetime, when I was eight and Dave was ten. I'd wanted to play basketball with him and his friends. Dave's friends, understandably, didn't want to play ball with a little girl two years younger than them. When I wouldn't go away, they'd let me play reluctantly. The game was brutal—they'd take turns shoving and tripping me; when I fell down they made fun of my clumsiness. I'd finally left when a basketball was thrown at my face hard enough to almost break my nose. What I remember most however, was when I turned teary, accusing eyes on my brother. He shifted uncomfortably, guiltily, and for a second I was sure he'd say something. Then he turned away, told me to scram and that no one wanted me there.

When my father found out, he was furious. I'd never seen him so angry at Dave. He was grounded for two months, was made to do all the chores, and banned from the T.V. and the computer. Two days after the incident, Dad called me and Dave into his office. With a face like stone, he'd told us, "I don't care if you two get into arguments and fight. I don't care if you get along or if you damn well hate each other. But when it comes down to it, you had better stick by each other, you hear? You're brother and sister; you stand up for each other. Understood?"

A week after his punishment ended, one of Dave's friends called me an "annoying little brat" and told me "not to show my ugly face around anymore." Dave stood up and punched him in the face.

I blinked and the memory faded. When had I stopped walking? At that moment Rukia woke up and upon finding me standing halfway down the alley, she reached up and whined. When I still didn't move, her face scrunched up and she started to cry. With a sigh, I walked back and picked her up. Swallowing hard, I looked down. I'd already broken my promise to my mom once; could I really do so again? Rukia yawned, and then looked at me knowingly, as if to say, It's not that hard, idiot. You've already made your choice.

I smiled ruefully back at her. "You're right," I said quietly. In the end, it was no choice at all. I shook my head and walked out of the alleyway with Rukia on my back. "Fuck canon."

Abandon family? Leave my sister's life in the hands of fate? Not a chance.

 


 

"Hey, you there," a voice came from behind me, "Girl with the short black hair. Yeah, I'm talking to you." I stiffened before turning around.

"Yes?" I asked cautiously. "May I help you with something?" The speaker turned out to be a tall brown-eyed guy with gray hair that fell over his eyes who looked about eighteen, not that physical appearances mattered much in this world. He didn't look angry but something about the easy, confident way he walked put me on guard.

"You've only been here a few months, right?" He asked instead. I nodded in confirmation; it was difficult to keep track of time sometimes but I guessed that I'd died about half a year ago, give or take a few weeks.

"My name's Yamato Tatsuya," he introduced himself. "I've noticed you're pretty good at pick-pocketing. You're smart. Quick. And you've got good instincts, with the way you pick out your targets." I shrugged. If anything, his praise made me more cautious.

"Yukimura Hisana—and I do what I have to. Did you go to the trouble of meeting me just to compliment my talent for thievery?" I asked sarcastically. He grinned at me, lips quirking up in a quick, easygoing smile. I didn't trust it one bit.

"You're a spirited one, huh? You can stop glancing towards the door, you know. I'm not here to hurt you. All I want to do is offer you a job, Hisana-chan."

"A job?" I asked wryly, twitching slightly at the familiar honorific. "One that will utilize my considerable pick-pocketing skills, I assume?"

"Hmm—maybe not so much a job. More like…an opportunity. See, I lead a gang of four other kids and I’ve been watching you for a while now--” Way to reach an eleven on the one-to-ten creepiness scale, there “—and I think you’ll fit right in.”

"And tell me why exactly I should join? I don't know anything about you aside from your name, and even that's a toss-up."

"I've been in this shit-hole for longer than I remember, I like onigiri, and my favorite color is green. There, now you do." His smile dropped and his face became serious.

"I'll be honest with you, Hisana-chan, since I despise liars. You may have been doing alright on your own now, but it won't last for long. It's true that you can't expect anyone to go out of their way to help you and that most people will stab you in the back at the first chance, but you also can't survive without allies. You stick with me, you do what I tell you to say, and I'll look after you. If nothing else, so long as you don't go against me, you can trust me not to hurt you. After all, I protect what's mine. Also," he shrugged, "it's not like you can afford to refuse my offer. I’ve heard that you've got a kid to look after. Isn't that right, Hisana-chan?" His tone turned mocking as he said my name.

My heart seemed to freeze in my chest as he mentioned Rukia and it suddenly hurt to breathe. His eyes possessed no trace of uncertainty or doubt; he knew that I was going to accept. The offer was just a formality—there had never really been any choice. The worst part was, he was right. I did need his help. I'd barely survived the last winter, and that was only because on attempt forty two, I'd finally found someone who was willing to take us in for a few months.

"Looks like you've done your research, Yamato-san," I said hoarsely. He shrugged, that playful, carefree grin slipping back on his face. "What can I say? When I see something I want, I work to get it." As if I was just some interesting curiosity that caught his eye. Nothing more than an object to be acquired.

"Why me?" I wanted to know. "There isn't exactly a shortage of pickpockets in Rukongai, and most of them are more experienced than me."

"I want you because you're strong, Hisana. You're right. There's no lack of thieves in Inuzuri, but not everyone has the drive I'm looking for. Most of them? They're little more than animals, only caring about themselves and how to survive to the next day. You've seen them, begging and whoring themselves out to anyone willing to throw them a handful of ryo," he spat. "And when it gets too much? They break. But you?" His gaze turned considering. "You've managed to retain your dignity. You've still got an honor code. I don't pick people only for their skills; I also want people who won't betray me."

"Save me the flattery," I said flatly. "It's creepy how much you've obviously stalked me. All I want is your word that you'll do your absolute best to protect my sister from harm. If you harm a hair on her head, the deal's over."

"I don't hurt babies," he said lightly, "But you do have my word that I'll do my best to keep her safe. You should lighten up on the paranoia, you know. It can't be good for your health. Don't want any gray hairs now, do we?" I scowled at him, and he laughed, punching me in the arm. "Lighten up! I was just kidding; a healthy dose of paranoia is good in these parts. Keeps you alive and from being fed to the fishes." With another cheerful grin (not even a day into our acquaintance and I was already hating that ever-present smile of his), Tatsuya waved and turned to go.

"Just one more thing!" He called out over his shoulder. "If we're going to be working together from now on, call me Tatsuya!"

Against my will, my lips twitched up and I ducked my head to hide my expression. I still didn't trust Tatsuya as far as I could throw him, and he was an overly-confident, overly-cheerful, manipulative psychopath, but maybe, just maybe, this wouldn't be so bad.

 


 

"Whoa, what's with the baby? Aren't you a bit young to have kids? You're like, seven right? Didn't even know that girls could get pregnant that young." I glared at the annoying idiot in front of me. I'd been right. This wasn't bad. This was awful, horrible, terrible, and I was already regretting agreeing to Tatsuya's demands. Next to me, Tatsuya wasn't even attempting to hide his snickers.

"Rukia is my sister, you brain-dead, retarded waste of space! And I'm ten!" I hissed at the moron in front of me. So much for Tatsuya having high standards. I didn't know people came that stupid.

"Now, now Hisana-chan," Tatsuya chuckled. "Horio may not be the…brightest person in the world but he does have his merits." I stared doubtfully at him. Horio was a short, skinny brat with hair that resembled a rat's nest. "He is exceptionally good at creating distractions."

Let's backtrack a bit. Two days after our meeting, Tatsuya tracked me down again, this time at home (I was right, he was a stalker). Rukia had taken one look at him and had burst into tears. I had to give it to her; the girl had good instincts. After managing to calm her down, Tatsuya had dragged me off, Rukia in hand, to "meet up with the others" at what he deemed "the hangout"—an abandoned building not far from where I lived. Which led me to my current predicament.

"Anyway, time for introductions!" Tatsuya announced cheerfully. "Everyone, this is Hisana-chan and her sister Rukia-chan."

"Oh, is this the girl who you've been stalking for the past couple of weeks?" A boy with spiky black hair and blue eyes asked, grinning. Tatsuya pouted. "I'm Kazuki. Nice to meet you."

"Kaori." A girl who looked about thirteen with black hair tied up in a ponytail and bored gray eyes said disinterestedly. The last guy, a tall serious looking teenager with short black hair, nodded in my direction.

"That's Mitsuo. Don't mind him, he doesn't really talk much," Tatsuya explained. "And you might have noticed, but we all call each other by our first names. No need for formality when we're going to be watching each other's backs, right? You and Rukia can stay here, if you want. It's not much better, but at least you don't have to worry about the roof collapsing in, and there'll always be someone at base to look after her. You'll get an equal share of all the profits we bring in, and help yourself to whatever food you want in the kitchen. If you have any other questions, you can direct them to Kaori. She'll be showing you the ropes for the next few months." I glanced at the blank-faced girl. She didn't exactly look happy, but she didn't look upset either. "Got all that?" I nodded.

"Great!" He clasped me on the shoulder. "Welcome to the family."

 


 

Until now, I'd thought that while I wasn't the most talented thief around, I was good enough at it to be decent. Passable. Seeing Kaori pickpocket, however, made me realize how woefully inadequate my skills really were. She had it down to an art form, from being able to tell from a glance who had the most money, to being able to stroll down the street, casually bumping into people and lifting wallets, all without their owners noticing. She walked back to where I was hiding, smirking at my expression.

"How did you do that?" I demanded. "No one even looked up!"

"Easy," she said, "In order to be a successful thief, you have to be invisible. We have an advantage there, since no one pays attention to street urchins, but it's more than that. You have to be perfectly confident in what you're doing. Nothing gives away guilt more than doubt does, and nothing is more noticeable than someone with an obviously guilty countenance. Learning how to blend into the background is hard and it took me years to do it properly. Human beings have an innate desire to be noticed, to be important. That's why it's so difficult to learn how to be under someone's notice."

"And how do you know who to target? That last guy was dressed in rags!" I asked. She shrugged. "Everyone gives off signs. They're pretty obvious, if you know what to look for—a shift of the eyes, the way they bargain, how they walk. That last guy may have been dressed like a beggar, but when he passed by that stall selling sake, he paused for a moment and his fingers twitched towards his pocket. I can't really explain it. You'll learn with time."


 

"You should be careful around Tatsuya, you know." I glanced at the girl next to me. I'd known Kaori for a week now and this was the first time she'd initiated a conversation beyond simple orders and explanations. I still wasn't sure what to think of my…mentor of sorts. She didn't seem like the type to stab me in the back, but she didn't seem like she'd go out of her way to help me either.

"What do you mean?" I asked. If there's one thing I learned over the past couple of days, it was that every member of Tatsuya's group followed him with unshakeable loyalty. Though Kazuki teased and joked with him, not once had I seen any of them go against his orders. In our little 'family?' Tatsuya's word was law, which is why it was so uncharacteristic of Kaori to warn me against him. She sighed.

"I normally wouldn't bother telling you this, but you're my responsibility and so I guess I should warn you. Tatsuya…as happy-go-lucky as he seems, you don't ever, ever want to cross him. Even Horio, idiot though he is, knows better than to anger him, though whether that's because he's so stupid the idea hasn't even occurred to him, I don't know. Tatsuya is very used to getting his way, and he won't stand for anyone who he sees as under his authority challenge him." I fell silent.

"Don't get me wrong. Tatsuya isn't a bad guy, and I owe a great deal to him. Just…just do what he says and you'll be fine." Kaori shook her head and then grabbed my arm. "Come on. See that woman haggling with the vendor over there? She's your next target. Do what I showed you yesterday and she won't even notice she's been robbed until it's time for her to pay."

(It wasn't until months later when I witnessed him stabbing a man in the gut and leaving him to die before turning to me with a bright smile to ask what was for dinner that I started to understand what Kaori was saying.)


 

It was a month after joining Tatsuya's group that I finally found my niche. I wasn't stupid. Though Kaori was forever polite, Horio talked to me incessantly, Mitsuo always greeted me with a nod and Kazuki never failed to give me a grin, it was clear that in their eyes, until I proved my worth to them, I was nothing more than a burden. I didn't have Tatsuya's charisma or people skills, or Horio's knack for distraction. I wasn't physically strong or good at fighting like Mitsuo, or a conman like Kazuki, and I was a complete amateur at thieving compared to Kaori.

I was, however, good at cooking.

I didn't know if the others needed to eat. All I cared about was that they did eat (and in the case of Kazuki, quite a bit) and thus there was usually something lying around. For the first time since arriving in Rukongai, I had the luxury of being well enough off to experiment a little. And so, early one Saturday morning, I went into the kitchen with the bright idea of introducing French Fries to Edo era Japan.

Humming to myself, I stoked a fire underneath the stove and began cutting some potatoes into strips (even in the afterlife, potatoes were cheap). I poured some oil into the pot hanging over the stove and waited impatiently for it to heat up. I really hoped this would work—there wasn't exactly a McDonalds I could go to.

I'd thought about trying to recreate some of my favorite foods from my previous life for a while now. Unfortunately, my parents didn't let me anywhere near the stove. Once I died, I was too busy trying to find anything to eat to think about what to eat. Here, I noticed that Mitsuo seemed to be assigned the duty of cooking, even though his repertoire appeared to be limited to rice and fish. It would be my first time attempting to cook in this world.

After I deemed the oil hot enough, I threw in the potato strips. I had to refry them about three times before I managed to get their texture to at least slightly resemble the fries I remembered. I was just about to sprinkle them with salt and some seasonings (since I sorely doubted I was going to find any ketchup) when--

"Whatcha doing?" Tatsuya's voice came from right behind me and I jumped.

"Geez, don't scare me like that! You're going to give me a heart attack someday," I grumbled. He grinned.

 "Looks like you've got to work on your situational awareness then. I wasn't even trying to be quiet," he teased, poking me in the shoulder.

"It's not my situational awareness that has a problem; it's you walking like a damn cat. And this is just an idea I got. Fried things taste good and potatoes are the best food ever, so I thought I'd combine the two." I shrugged and began sprinkling on the salt and some red pepper flakes to add spiciness. Why no one in Asia had come up with the idea was beyond me. I bit into one and chewed it slowly. It didn't have quite the same flavor or texture as the ones in fast food restaurants, but all in all it was pretty good. I'd try soaking them in water next time to remove the excess starch and maybe heat the oil up some more. I started sprinkling on more salt.

"Would you like one?" I offered, handing one over to Tatsuya. He took it and stared at it dubiously. "It's not poisoned, you know," I said dryly. He shrugged and popped it into his mouth. I watched smugly as his eyes widened and a look of bliss crossed over his face. He immediately grabbed another three and shoved them into his mouth.

"These are delicious! Hisana! You didn't tell me you could cook! You're a culinary genius! Oi, Kazuki! Horio! Come over here! Try this!" I watched as they experienced their first French fry with much the same reaction as Tatsuya. Mitsuo even graced me with a quiet, "These are good," when he came over. Kaori didn't outwardly react, but I caught her sneaking a plate to her room. By the end of the morning, Tatsuya and dubbed me the gang's official chef and I caught a glimpse of respect in Kaori's eyes for the first time. I beamed. Even in the afterlife, the power of a French fry was undeniable.


 

I'd been with Tatsuya's group for four months that I finally found the answer to why most people didn't seem to get hungry. I'd quickly found out that the group didn't only specialize in thievery and scams. Tatsuya also ran a delivery service of sorts. We'd deliver boxes to all kinds of people and would be rewarded with a few ryo each time. I never asked what it was that I was delivering. I didn't want to know.

I'd just delivered a shipment to one of the seedier bars in the area and was waiting for the bartender to pass me the payment when I overheard a couple men at the table across from me talking.

"Heard lil' Daichi's gone and become a Shinigami," one of them slurred to the other, "He's livin' in the Seireitei now."

"Lucky bastard," the other grunted. "He was always a weird one, always whining about how hungry he was. Man, wish I were him. Those damn shinigami are rich as fuck. Some people got all the luck."

"I don' know," the first speaker said slowly, "I don't trust those guys. You hear some of the stories? They say a shinigami can take out fifty men with his bare hands."

"That ain't nothin'. I know a guy who said he saw a Shinigami take out a whole pack of hollows with just one swing of his sword. Said he saw one of them get injured—by all rights he should have bled to death. Instead, one of his buddies came over and his hands started glowing green, no joke. Cut was gone in minutes."

At that moment the bartender came over with a wad of ryo. I carefully placed it inside my robe and thanked him before quietly making my way back where I found Kazuki playing with Rukia in the main room.

"Hey, welcome home!" He grinned upon seeing me. I waved back, before heading over to join them. Rukia squealed happily upon seeing me and I set her in my lap. She started rambling in that language only babies understood and I smiled fondly at her. She would start talking soon.

"Kazuki?" I said after a few minutes. Rukia had crawled back to him and had started reaching up in an attempt to tug his hair. "Yeah?" He answered, grimacing as she managed to grab onto a handful and pulled it in a way that looked painful.

"What can you tell me about shinigami?" He looked towards me and was quiet for a few moments.

"I keep forgetting, you've only been here for about a year." He sighed and tilted his head backwards. Rukia pouted and let go of her new toy. "I honestly don't know much about them. All I know is that they're crazy powerful, fight hollows, and live in the Seireitei. You don't see them around here often, as far south as Inuzuri is. You're better off asking Tatsuya. He's in the next room right now, if you want to see him." With a quiet 'thanks,' I made my way over to where Tatsuya was lying face up on a tatami matt and repeated my question.

"Hmm? Shinigami? Why do you want to know about them?" He asked.

"I overheard a couple people in a bar mentioning them and I got curious. Plus, they said something about shinigami getting hungry, and since I do too…" I trailed off. Tatsuya opened his eyes and gave me a curious look. "You get hungry? Well, can't say that I'm too surprised. It's uncommon around here, but not unheard of." Tatsuya motioned for me to sit down.

"I don't know too much about them, to be honest. They're a pretty mysterious bunch. See, you can only become a shinigami if you have high spiritual power, which is just as well since otherwise everyone would become one. It's having that higher level of spiritual power that makes you hungry, from what I understand. Their spirit energy, or reiatsu, allows them to do all kinds of seemingly impossible things, from healing fatal wounds to being able to form spells. They also have what they call a zanpakuto, which is basically just a really powerful sword. Their purpose is to keep the balance between worlds, or something. That's pretty much all that I've learned about them." He tilted his head up to look at me, one side of his mouth quirking up. "Well, that and to never, ever get in a fight with one. They're called 'death gods' for a reason, you know."

 


 

That night, I waited until everyone had fallen asleep before attempting to access my reiatsu, as Tatsuya called it. So far, all my spirit energy had done for me was attract hollows and make me susceptible to starvation; it was about time it did something useful. I thought over what I'd learned, and what I knew previously about the Bleach world. It wasn't fighting with reiatsu that interested me. I had no idea how I'd even begin getting a zanpakuto and I didn't know any incantations, so the spells Tatsuya described were completely out of my reach. What did interest me was what I'd heard about healing kido. It didn't sound like it required any incantations and should I learn how to use it, the benefits would be indescribable.

I sat up in a Burmese position (because hey, meditation seemed as good a place to start as any) and focused on calming my breathing. Deep breath in, deep breath out, I thought. Slow and steady, in and out… Ten minutes later, I fell asleep.

On day three of doing the exercise, I finally made some progress. Okay, Hisana, I started giving myself a pep talk. You can do this. You even got a good night's sleep yesterday so you probably won't fall asleep. Again. Yeah, I wasn't that good at giving pep talks.

I was trying a different approach today. Previously, I'd looked through my mind and tried to sense something, anything, out of the ordinary. Tried to find anything that felt like energy of any sort. It's harder than it sounds when you have no idea what you're trying to find, or how to find it. Today, I was going to try a more visual method.

Closing my eyes, I first focused on clearing my mind, entering the first stage of meditation. The only thing that matters, I thought, is the feel of your chest rising, the wind entering your chest, your lungs expanding and contracting, the warm air you breathe out. I don't know how long I sat like that, feeling all my worries and thoughts drift away. Then, I began to paint.

I imagined a ball of light in the center of my mind, lighting up the darkness around it. It was warm, comforting, orange like the sun just before it sets. I imagined streams of bright fire coming from it, blindingly beautiful streams of plasma, arches of liquid brilliance. They danced around, warming my body like the first sip of a perfect cup of hot cocoa, topped with whipped cream and cinnamon. I directed the streams towards my arms, where they flowed down like rivers of light. I imagined the energy flowing from my palms, heating the air, reforming into a tiny sun. And when I opened my eyes there was a ball of light, barely larger than an apple, floating before my eyes gently illuminating the room. I slumped back onto my futon, suddenly exhausted but couldn't help but smile. The ball of energy danced before me and I willed it to fade away. It wasn't much, but it was a start.

It took three more weeks before I could sense and direct my spirit energy with ease. It took two months before I managed to get my hands to emit a soft green light. It took every ounce of focus I had, and I had to be completely, utterly concentrated on the idea of healing, of fixing things broken and helping things regrow for it to work. Focusing it, commanding it, purifying it; none of it was easy. Another two weeks after that, I took a knife and made a small cut across my palm, then called to mind every scrap of knowledge I possessed on wound healing. Directing my reiatsu to the wound, I instructed it to reattach broken capillaries, speed up the rate at which fibroblasts were secreting collagen, and force epithelial cells to multiply at an unbelievable pace. Five minutes later, I stared at the thin scar on my left hand. I laughed, feeling elation rise up uncontrollably in me. The injury was barely more than a paper-cut and had used up more energy than I'd expected but this...this I could work with.


 

 

Omake

"Hi-sa-na," I enunciated slowly and clearly. "Can you say that for me? Heee. Saaa. Naaa." Rukia blew a spit bubble at me.

"Give it up, Hisana," Tatsuya laughed from across the room. "She'll start talking when she's ready. You know people age differently in the spirit world. Don't worry."

"I know," I huffed, "It's silly, but I want her first word to be my name. Well, either that or 'nee –chan'."

"You might have better luck with 'nee-chan'," Tatsuya pointed out. "'Hisana' isn't exactly easy for a baby to say." At that moment, Kazuki entered the room. "Hey guys, what's up—fuck!" He swore as he stubbed his toe on edge of the table. "That damn thing, always getting in my way. Fuck, this hurts!"

Rukia giggled, upon seeing her favorite plaything in pain. Then, to my horror, she opened her mouth and cried out, "Fu—!" Her voice broke off as I hastily slapped a hand over her mouth. Tatsuya choked out something that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. Upon hearing the word that Rukia had—almost—shouted out, Kazuki's eyes widened and he hurriedly started to apologize.

"Fu—I mean, shit—uh, what I mean to say is, Hisana, I swear Kami that I didn't mean for that to happen! It just slipped out! Please don't be mad!" He turned to me with giant puppy-dog eyes. Tatsuya had started howling with laughter. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes for a brief second before opening them again calmly.

"Kazuki-kun," I stated pleasantly. His face paled abruptly. Behind him, Tatsuya suddenly stopped laughing. "Kazuki-kun," I repeated. "You know, I really like you. I admire your skills and respect your contribution to this group. You're a great friend, you've taught me a lot, and I think you could be a wonderful big brother figure to Rukia when she grows up. But," a gentle, understanding, kind smile formed on my lips, "If Rukia's first word is an expletive because you couldn't control your language…" I paused, staring him straight in the eye, "…I will castrate you."

My smile wasn't quite on Unohana's level, I thought. I doubted it would ever be, even if I practiced for a thousand years. However, looking at Kazuki's terrified face and Tatsuya's ash-gray one, something like pride spread through me. But it's a good start.

Chapter Text

15 Years Later

I blocked a punch aimed towards my face and jumped to avoid my opponent's follow up kick. Seizing an opening, I coated my hand with a thin layer of reiatsu and managed to deal a blow to his abdomen hard enough to cause him to stumble back a few steps. Before he could recover, I darted back in with a flurry of punches and kicks. He recovered quickly and a jab to my throat caught me off guard. For a moment, I couldn't breathe and staggered. A hook to my kidney made me double over. The next thing I knew, my arms were pulled roughly behind my back and a knife was at my throat.

"Yield," I croaked out. Immediately, the knife was removed and my hands were released. I grumbled, rubbing at my sore throat. "Annnd…that brings our record to…"

"I believe it's ninety three to zero, in Mitsuo's favor," Tatsuya piped in, grinning, before handing me a cup of water. I gulped it down gratefully.

"Don't feel bad, Hisana," Kazuki added. "You've only started learning, what, a decade ago? And not full time either. Mitsuo's got at least half a century of experience on you."

"You've come a long way, Hisana." Horio said seriously. Then he smirked. "You've gone from being a shrimp who couldn't last two seconds in a fight to a shrimp who can't last two minutes in a fight."

"Hey!" I protested, scowling darkly. "I lasted almost five minutes that time. And don't call me a shrimp! It's not like you can talk. You're barely two inches taller than me!"

"Two inches taller is still taller, though," he taunted. "Midget! If I didn't know better, I'd say you shrunk during the last decade and a half!"

"DON'T CALL ME SHORT!" Having been five foot eight in a past life and not even topping five feet in this one had made height a rather sensitive issue for me.

"Any smaller and we won't be able to see you above the grass!"

"Why…you…" I growled and lunged at him. He blew a raspberry at me and danced away.

"Now, now you two," Tatsuya clucked his tongue admonishingly at us. It did nothing to hide the amused glint in his eyes. "Horio, try not to incense Hisana. Hisana, I'd prefer it if you didn't try to strangle Horio."

"Don't bother, Tatsuya," Kaori drawled. "Something about the other just makes them act like bigger morons than usual." I huffed, trying to ignore the way I suddenly felt like a little kid again. Sometimes, I wondered just how much being in a younger body had affected me mentally. At that moment, the door opened and Rukia peeked outside.

"Nee-chan!" She squealed, running over to me. "Are ya done? Didja kick Horio-baka's butt?"

"Oi!" Horio whined. "I can't believe you taught her to call me that."

"I didn't teach her nothing," I stuck my tongue out at him. "She came up with that all on her own. And no," I turned to face Rukia, "I sparred with your Mitsuo-nii today."

"Oh," she nodded knowingly, "So you got your butt kicked, then?"

"Why, you brat!" I ruffled her hair and she giggled. It was strange how people grew in the Spirit World. Hardly anyone died of old age, and it seemed the older you were, the slower you aged. At the moment, I was physically around thirteen or fourteen (meaning I still had hope that I would reach a decent height by the time puberty ended) and Rukia was around three or four. Mentally, she was closer to five or six.

"Is it almost time for dinner? Can we have pizza?" Rukia asked, turning to me with giant puppy dog eyes. In addition to French fries, I'd also managed to reinvent pizza, fried chicken, and funnel cake (a doctor introducing junk food to the world; there had to be some sort of irony in there).

"Nah, think we'll be sticking to rice and fish. Maybe we can have pizza tomorrow, huh?" I set her down and walked over to where Mitsuo was standing. "Okay, you know the drill now. Strip. Shirt off." I ordered sternly.

Kazuki snorted from behind me. "Hisana, you're the only kid I know that can say that with a straight face."

"Comes with the job. When you're a doctor, modesty is the first thing to go," I retorted, staring straight at Mitsuo. He reluctantly pulled off his shirt and revealed a sizable purpling bruise, causing me to wince.

"Sorry," I whispered, hands already emitting a faint green glow. Brushing my fingers over it, I concentrated on repairing broken capillaries and numbing the pain receptors.

"You're getting better at doing that," he observed.

"Yeah, well, I get a lot of practice," I smiled wryly. He looked at me for a while.

"You are getting better at channeling energy when you attack, as well." I shrugged, uncomfortable with the praise. "Soon you will be at an acceptable level."

"And then I can start teaching her how to use weapons!" Tatsuya grinned, throwing an arm around my shoulders.

"I think I'll stick to patching you guys up for now. I get that I need to be able to defend myself, but sticking sharp objects into people isn't really my thing," I deferred. The thing was, though I was fine with dealing out a few punches and kicks, I still was a bit uneasy with attacking with a knife. Bruises and even broken bones could be recovered from relatively easily; a cut artery was something entirely different.

"Nonsense," Tatsuya waved my protests aside. "Your body type is much more suited for wielding knives. Besides, daggers are awesome! Mitsuo and Horio mostly stick to hand-to-hand, and Kazuki and Kaori both prefer swords. I need someone on my side too!"

I shook my head, walking inside to get started on dinner. "Don't bet on it."


 

 

"Nee-chan?" I felt a small hand tug at mine.

"Hmm?" I mumbled, from where I was preparing a salve that would help with healing bruises. "What is it, imouto?"

"Can you tell me about kaa-san and tou-san?" Rukia asked shyly. I went still, finally looking down. Rukia was avoiding my eyes while biting her lip nervously.

"Why do you want to know?" I asked carefully. To be honest, I should have expected this. It wasn't surprising that Rukia would want to know about her parents and it wasn't like I had any aversion to talking about them. It's just…sometimes it was easier not to bring things up from before the tsunami. The others had never asked, and in turn I'd never asked about their pasts; for most people, life before Rukongai was something of a forbidden topic.

"I was shopping with Kaori-nee-san, an' I saw a pretty lady carryin' a baby while holding hands with a guy. Kaori-nee-san said that the lady and the man were the baby's parents, and I was just wonderin' why we don't have them." I sighed, motioning for Rukia to sit down. Family was different in Rukongai. I'd never even heard of someone giving birth; if a couple wanted a kid, they'd usually just adopt. I assumed it had something to do with spirit energy, though I'd never been able to confirm it. People made their own families; it was rare to find family members who were actually blood related.

"You know that Kaori and your brothers aren't actually related to us right? Of course, they're our family in all the ways that matter, but they were all born to different parents," I started out. Rukia nodded.

"Yup! That's why me an' you look alike, but we don't look anything like Horio." She replied promptly.

"Thank god," I muttered, causing her to giggle.

"Kaori-nee-san tol' me Tatsu-nii found us a long time ago an' in-inmited us to join his family. But she doesn't know what happened to us before that."

"Invited us," I corrected. "And that's right—we weren't always a part of this group. But back to your original question." I paused, hesitating. How do you tell your sister about the parents she had never known? Kaa-san's smile and gentle hands, tou-san's enthusiasm and passion for his job…how do you put those things into words?

"We were born…in a village close to the sea," I began haltingly. "Kaa-san's name was Yukimura Asuka. She—she looked a lot like us. She had the same eyes as us, and long black hair that was always tied into a bun. Kaa-san was a wonderful cook; she could make a delicious meal out of the simplest things." I could almost see her then, welcoming me with a warm smile while chopping carrots and potatoes for dinner.

"Just like you!" Rukia exclaimed excitedly. I smiled sardonically.

"Something like that, though her meals tended to be a lot healthier. She was a doctor too, like me. Both our parents were, and she was brilliant at it. Always calm, soothing; she could make someone feel better just by being there. Tou-san's name was Yukimura Seichi. He taught me all I know about plants, and he was always so devoted to his job. He loved kaa-san more than anything and was the best father ever; he'd tell me a story every night. He could always make me laugh," I trailed off, remembering evenings by the stove and his low, rumbling voice in my ear while kaa-san laughed and sewed next to him. Something wet landed on my hand and I hurriedly wiped it off.

"What happened to them?" Rukia asked, eyes wide. I swallowed heavily before continuing.

"There was a tsunami—a giant wave. One day I woke up to an earthquake; nothing serious. But a few hours later, the sea was receding." Thinking back to that day was painful; I could remember the dawning horror and realization as if it was yesterday, the way I'd seen my death in that monstrously huge wave.

"It came back with a vengeance—a wave as big as twenty buildings stacked on top of one another. Kaa-san ran off to warn tou-san; I don't know what happened to them. I took you and ran as far as I could, but it wasn't enough." Too late, I realized that it probably wasn't the best idea to tell a child how she died and lost her parents, and grimaced. Well, nothing I could do about it now. I looked at a suddenly very quiet Rukia.

"They loved you, you know," I added. She looked up. "Even if you never knew them, they loved you. Kaa-san's last wish was for us to be safe. No matter what happened to them, just know that your kaa-san and tou-san love you very much. As do I." Rukia was silent for a moment.

"I wish I coulda known them," Rukia mumbled, fidgeting. I didn't say anything, just pulled her into a hug and gently started stroking her hair. In minutes, she was asleep.

The door creaked open, and Tatsuya peeked in, an uncharacteristically somber expression on his face.

"Listening in?" I asked, without looking up. "Hasn't anyone ever told you it's not polite to eavesdrop?" He shrugged, not bothering to excuse himself.

"I hadn't realized that you remembered your past. Most people don't," Tatsuya said instead.

"Most people don't want to," I replied. "It's hard, leaving everything behind. The living aren't the only ones who mourn."

"It's easier to forget," Tatsuya agreed, "And Rukongai is, before anything else, a chance for a new life. I'm surprised that you chose to remember—but then again, considering your situation, perhaps it's not such a surprise after all."

"Memories make up who you are," I shrugged, "And how can I hope to raise Rukia if I don't even know myself? I can't afford to forget." Tatsuya stared at me with an unreadable expression on his face.

"I don't remember much of my past life," he said suddenly. "And I never knew my parents. My uncle took me in for a few years before kicking me out, and I grew up in the streets. Funny, isn't it, how little things have changed for me? Street rat, vermin, trash; in life and in death." His voice was unbearably bitter and I swallowed, because Tatsuya was a lot of things, but uncertain wasn't one of them.

"You're more than trash," I said softly. "You told me, when you first met me, that I needed your help to survive. And that was true – I joined you because I needed to. But I stayed because I wanted to. I'm not speaking just for myself here; Horio, Mitsuo, Kazuki and Kaori, we all made the decision to follow you. None of us would choose to follow trash, and you've got a lot of audacity for thinking so." I glared at him. "Wallowing in pity doesn't suit you, Tatsuya. You're better than that." He rubbed at the back of his head, slightly embarrassed.

"Ah, you're right as always, Hisana." His face lightened, regaining its normal cheer. "Besides, with all the good karma I've been gathering over the past few decades, taking in little kids and cute little babies under my wing, I'm bound to be reborn as a king in my next life." I snorted.

"I wouldn't count on it, idiot. If you want to be reborn as a king, you'd better start praying to all the gods you know of now. And shoo—you'll wake Rukia." He smiled, dancing away.

"Sweet dreams; you'll need your rest now. Because in a week, you'll be starting weapons training with me!" With that he walked away whistling, ignoring the way I rolled my eyes. At least he's not moping anymore, I thought. As creepy as his smile was sometimes, he just didn't seem right without it.


 

 

"So, where're the boys?" I asked, glancing towards where Kaori was giving Rukia a stealth lesson via stealing French fries. I smothered a smile; no matter how much she tried to hide it behind stoic faces and stony expressions, when it came to Rukia she was a giant softy. We all were, really. "And put those back; don't think I didn't notice that. Eat too many and you'll turn into a little potato yourself." Rukia pouted, but brightened up once Kaori whispered something in her ear. I didn't want to know.

"They're out at Watanabe's." Kaori replied. "Kazuki was bored, so Tatsuya suggested getting some quick cash." I nodded in understanding. Watanabe Hiruzen owned a casino, one of the more successful ones, and gambling was, ironically, one of the group's steadiest sources of income. It was amazing how good Tatsuya and Kazuki were at getting away with peoples' money without said people noticing. They practically had cheating down to an art.

"It's simple, really," Kazuki had once explained to me, "The trick to not getting caught is not taking too much at one time. Keep your wins relatively small, lose once in a while, and never go to the same place too often. The rest is all sleight of hand."

In the decade and a half I'd known them, Kazuki had only been caught a handful of times, and even then nothing major had come out of it. Hell, most of the gamblers there cheated from time to time, and so long as you didn't try to palm a couple thousand ryo, things rarely got serious. If things did escalate, well, that's what Mitsuo was there for. Kazuki was so good at what he did and he so rarely got caught that the idea that things might go wrong never even crossed my mind- which was why it was such a surprise when Kazuki burst through the door.

"Kazuki?" Kaori asked sharply. Both of us took in his panicked expression, the way he was limping slowly, the cut still bleeding sluggishly over his eye. Her expression hardened. "What happened? Never mind that, where are they?"

"Right around the corner to Watanabe's," he panted, "Horio got careless." I swallowed heavily, hearing the unspoken words he was all but screaming with his body language. A twitch of his hand towards the hilt of his sword; we have to hurry. A glance towards the door; they need me there. The fear on his face; things don't look good.

Kaori was moving before he even finished talking, grabbing her sword and dashing out the door. I was about to follow when a tug on my shirt stopped me.

"Nee-chan?" Rukia asked me with wide eyes. "What's goin' on?" I turned to where Kazuki was.

"I'll catch up. You go." He nodded before running out the door after Kaori.

"Your brothers just got in a bit of trouble," I said to Rukia seriously, "I have to go help them, okay? Listen to me. Until one of us gets back, you have to stay here. Please, Rukia, don't go after me."

"But I wanna help!" I nearly groaned at the stubborn set of her face.

"You can help by keeping yourself safe. If you follow me, then you'll distract all of us and we'll all be in danger. Just…just promise me you won't go anywhere." Rukia bowed her head for a moment before looking up again and grabbing my hand tightly.

"Then—then you gotta promise you'll come back!" She uttered fiercely. I paused stunned, for a moment hearing the echo of another child's voice, another lifetime. You're gonna be okay, right, Aunt Christina? The moment passed and I found myself saying, "Yeah. I promise you I'll come back."


 

The sun was setting by the time I made it to the fight. Sticking to the shadows, I watched unnoticed as the fight progressed and winced internally. Horio just had to go and piss off the leader of a battle-hardened group of thugs who were all easily three times my size, didn't he? And if that wasn't bad enough, we were outnumbered two to one. Two of them were out for the count; judging by their continued breathing they were unconscious but still alive. Even so, they wouldn't be reentering the fight any time soon. Unfortunately, our side wasn't doing so well either. Kazuki's head injury had only gotten worse and was clearly impairing his sight. Horio was also limping and had a broken nose. Both Mitsuo and Kaori were bleeding from various cuts. Even Tatsuya, who was dancing around his two opponents with enviable grace and agility, was beginning to wear down from exhaustion.

In the chaos, I quietly made my way over to where two of the men were ganging up on Horio. Channeling a bit of reiatsu to my fingertips, I snuck up behind one of the men and, jumping up, pressed my fingers to the base of his skull. Within seconds, he joined his two partners in unconsciousness. Using the distraction, Horio punched his other opponent in the jaw before drop-kicking him in the gut.

"Not too bad for a shrimp, huh?" I asked smirking. He gave me the middle finger and went to help Kazuki out with his fight.

In hindsight, I really should have expected it. I had the least bit of fighting experience amongst the group and had the most reluctance to kill. Add in my petite, fragile appearance and all in all, it shouldn't have been a surprise that I would be the most targeted. With all my focus intent on simply keeping up with the gargantuan brute in front of me, I didn't notice myself being slowly led away from the others. Tatsuya noticed first.

"Hisana! Watch out!" He shouted. I faltered, hesitating for a brief second. The next thing I knew, I was being grabbed forcefully from behind and shoved into a painful headlock, thick arms cutting off my air supply. My hands reached automatically for my throat, trying desperately to do something, anything, to free myself. A knife poised straight at my jugular stopped me.

"Stop, before I slit her throat!" My captor barked. It's like a scene out of a bad Wild West movie, I thought hysterically. "Drop your weapons!" And I'm the damsel in distress.

"Why should we? Like we care what you do to her!" Kazuki yelled back. Only the faint tremor of his hands gave away how terrified he was. The knife dug in deeper and a whimper escaped my lips before I could stop it. I hated myself in that moment.

"On second thought," he glanced at me, an odd glint in his eyes. "She's quite a catch, for a street rat." Bile rose up in my throat as revulsion swept through me, sickening and vile. "How about we propose a trade? I'll forget about the…insult you've dealt me tonight. You'll be free to go and you have my word my men won't seek retribution. In exchange…you give me this sweet little thing. You have such pretty eyes," he murmured, now addressing me directly, "I'd love to see what they look like when you're begging me for mercy."

"You sick pedophile!" Horio screamed, breaking away from his position behind Kazuki.

"Horio, no!" My eyes opened wide and for a moment, I saw the world through the eyes of a spectator watching a movie, utterly powerless to prevent the events happening on film. I saw Horio tearing himself away from the group, lunging towards where my captor watched with taunting eyes. I saw Mitsuo reach to stop him, only a second too late. One of the men (monstersfiendsmurderers) intercepted him just before he reached me, grabbing him from behind, reaching up to his head and twisting

It was so quick. One second Horio—idiot, idiot, reckless Horio—was rushing towards me, fury and righteous hatred and fear in his eyes and the next he was on ground, eyes blank, neck tilted at a horrible, unnatural angle, lying like a child's broken marionette.

For a moment, everything was still, the climax of a movie when everything freezes. Then reality rushed back and this was no movie, because no movie could ever, ever cause this kind of pain. I stared dumbly at the body, a part of me still disbelieving, because that couldn't be Horio, how could that be Horio? Horio was the loud, irritating brat who somewhere down the line became the little brother I'd never wanted but couldn't imagine living without anyway. The broken puppet on the ground wasn't Horio. It couldn't be.

But it was and the wall of denial began crumbling away, yielding to the tidal wave of grief and anguish behind it. Channeling my spirit energy had never come so easily to me before. Rage seemed to give me a focus and a determination that I'd previously lacked. Gripping the arm holding the knife to my throat, I sent a wave of energy down it, shutting down nerve receptors and muscles. His arm went limp and the knife he was holding dropped from suddenly numb fingers. I caught the knife before it hit the floor and, enhancing it with a layer of reiatsu, stabbed the man holding me straight in the chest. It slid through his ribs like a hot poker through butter. As he staggered back and collapsed, I stared at the blood covering my hands, stunned. Suddenly, I felt an urge to throw up and I bent over and heaved. It had been so easy, too easy, just a quick jab upwards to the heart.

A shove to my side caught me off hard and I tripped to the side. Looking up, I saw Tatsuya deflect a sword blow with his dagger. "The fight isn't over, Hisana. This is no place to be distracted." His voice was harsh, cold, with only the pain in his eyes giving away his grief.

 I nodded, pushing away my thoughts with the ease only years of meditation had given me. Everything from then on was a blur—stab, duck a punch aimed for my head, kick there, roll to avoid a sword. For a moment, it seemed like we would win. Mitsuo was taking on two of them at once, each move deliberate and utterly without mercy. Kazuki's face was absent of its ever-present grin, and from the corner of my eye I saw him slice his sword through his opponent's neck, nearly beheading him. Kaori's face was even more unreadable than usual and she calmly watched her enemy bleed out with cold eyes. I spun around, ducked in and tripped the guy sneaking up on me behind my back, sending him sprawling forward. And Tatsuya, Tatsuya was—

There was an odd buzzing in my ears. I stared in incomprehension at Tatsuya—Tatsuya who had a knife buried between his ribcage and continued to watch, unmoving, as the hand that knife was attached to ripped it back out, the silver now stained red. For an eternity, Tatsuya just stood there, a stunned expression on his face—and then he was falling, hand clutched to his chest, falling, falling, falling…

Vaguely, I heard a roar of rage coming from my left. Kazuki, I thought distantly, but I didn't glance back, couldn't remove my eyes from the impossible scene in front of me. Kept waiting for Tatsuya to get up again, to leap to his feet and continue fighting with that carefree, wild grin on his face. Get up! I wanted to scream, because there was something wholly wrong with Tatsuya, our protector, teacher and leader lying there helpless, weak.

A fist came towards my face and I blinked, avoiding it more out of reflex than anything else. I looked up to find the guy I'd tripped standing before me, an ugly sneer twisting his face.

"Aw, is the little girl going to cry?" He taunted. "Well, fair's fair. You killed our leader, so we killed yours." When I didn't react, he grinned. "What's wrong? Did you love him? You're a bit young to be spreading your legs, but—

Something inside me snapped and right then, I didn't care about morality, or self-defense, or the promise I'd made as a doctor (do no harm). I lunged forward, tackling him, managing to shove him down solely due to surprise on his part. Then my hands were at his chest, and I was channeling more and more energy, shutting down arteries and veins until there was nothing but silence left. And then I was running to Tatsuya's side, kneeling down and checking frantically for a pulse. Tatsuya grabbed my wrist, smiling slightly.

"Hey Hisana," he said hoarsely as I hurriedly scanned him with my reiatsu. "Guess…I really messed up…this time, didn't I?"

"Don't talk, you idiot," I choked out. It felt like someone poured acid down my throat. I was beginning to panic; healing cuts and bruises were one thing. Broken ribs? Internal bleeding? A punctured lung quickly filling up with blood? I didn't even know where to start.

He coughed, and a trickle of red flowed down from the corner of his mouth. Dimly, I was aware of the sounds of battle slowing down. "Don't…cry," he said softly. I shook my head, wiping away my tears furiously and pressed my hands to his wound, trying desperately to stop the blood.

"You're going to be fine," I said instead. "You hear me? You're going to be alright." He smiled at me through bloody lips.

"Lying…doesn't suit you." He choked slightly, his grip on my wrist loosening. "Pray…for me, will you Hisana?" Tatsuya closed his eyes, and went limp, the minute rise and fall of his chest finally stopping.

"No," I whispered, "NO!" Slamming my hands onto his chest, I sent burst after burst of reiatsu into his heart, trying to do something, anything, to restart it into beating again. When his heart remained stubbornly still, I began pounding my fists on his body. "You idiot!" I shrieked. "You…how dare you give up like that? You promised me that you'd take care of Rukia! You said that we'd be a family! Wake up! You…you can't die." I began pouring spirit energy into Tatsuya's body, hoping, praying that a miracle would occur, that my reiatsu would respond to my wishes and erase his injuries, that Tatsuya would sit up and grin and berate me for ever doubting him. A pair of arms slipped around my waist, dragging me away.

"Hisana!" I recognized Kazuki's voice. "Stop it! He's gone! There's nothing you can do for him now." I ignored him, struggling furiously against the arms restraining me.

"Mitsuo, let go!" I shouted. "You don't understand!"

The sound of flesh striking flesh seemed abnormally loud, like the clap of a bullet being fired. I lifted a hand to my cheek, still stinging from where Kaori's hand had struck it. "Kaori…" I said, stunned.

"You think you're the only one who's hurting? We loved him too! Him and Horio both!" Kaori was shouting, her emotionless veneer completely absent for once. Her eyes were red, and her tears mingled with the blood dripping from an ugly cut on her face. "They were our family too! So don't you dare say that we don't understand!"

"It's not the same," I screamed back. "I'm our doctor! It's my job to heal them and I failed! I failed! I couldn't save them! What use am I if I can't even do that?" I was crying now, eyes blotchy and choking on mucus, throat closing up.

"You're our doctor," Mitsuo spoke up, voice edged with pain but unwavering and steady. "And you failed in saving them. But we failed as well." Kazuki nodded, jaw clenched.

"We're the backup. You've never taken on the role of a fighter, but we…we should have been able to stop them from getting hurt in the first place." He looked away. "I couldn't stop Horio from rushing in and getting himself killed and I should have been there to stop that bastard before…before…" Kaori laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.

"None of us are free from blame," she said, looking me in the eye, "But the fault doesn't lie completely with us either." Her eyes hardened. "And we made sure that their killers paid for it."

"Come on," Mitsuo said softly. "I'll take Tatsuya and Kazuki can take Horio. Let's go home."


 

 

Funerals in the Spirit World were different than funerals in the living world. For one thing, souls were composed of reishi, spirit particles, meaning that after a period of time they would simply…evaporate, and their particles would join the others making up Soul Society. Maybe someday, the spirit particles that had made up Horio and Tatsuya would be reincarnated into new souls. It could be years before they were reincarnated, if ever, but looking into the flames as they devoured the two coffins in their midst, I couldn't help but hope that somewhere in the living world, two new babies were born.

Please, I thought, if anyone’s listening…if there is a god…please let them both have another chance at life. Let them be happy.

"Nee-chan?" I looked down to where Rukia was clutching my hand tightly. She'd hardly let go of it since I'd come back, covered with blood and stumbling in exhaustion. For all her youth, she knew as well as all of us that sometimes people went out and never came back. She'd taken one look at Tatsuya's and Horio's bodies and had known that they'd never wake up again.

"Yes, Rukia?" I asked. "What is it?"

"What—what will happen to Tatsuya-nii and Horio-nii now?" I closed my eyes, suddenly weary. Mature or not, Rukia was still very much a child.

"They'll be reborn someday, given new lives," I answered distantly.

"Do you think we'll ever meet them again?" She questioned, voice small. Pulling Rukia close to me, I bent down and hugged her tightly, burying my face in her hair. "I hope so, imouto. I really hope so."


 

 

"Hey." I looked behind me to see Kazuki leaning against a tree.

"What are you doing here?" I asked, lying back on the ground. It'd been two weeks since we'd lost Tatsuya and Horio and though the sharp pain of loss hadn't dulled, I was starting to get used to it. Sometimes, though, I'd look at Tatsuya's empty futon, or I'd be cooking dinner and automatically turn to yell at Horio to stop stealing food only to find no one there, and the house would just seem so empty without Horio's obnoxiously affectionate teasing and Tatsuya's quick, reassuring smile.

"It's getting late. Rukia was getting worried," he replied, walking over and sitting down next to me.

"I just needed to get away for a while," I answered his unasked question. "The forest—it's peaceful."

"And full of hollows," he returned, giving me a reprimanding look, but didn't protest further. "How are you holding up? And don't say you're fine," he added, shooting me a sharp look. "It's obvious you're not."

"Like you're one to talk, Mr. I'm-going-to-get-completely-smashed," I grumbled. "You're lucky I'm nice, or you would've been suffering from hangovers for a week."

"Ah," he said sheepishly, rubbing at the back of his neck. "Have I ever mentioned that you're the awesomest person ever? And don't avoid the question." I sighed, mentally saying goodbye to my relaxation time.

"It's just…I killed two people that night," I stated, looking down at my hands. Sometimes, I had to reassure myself that they weren't still covered in blood.

"That's right. I'd almost forgotten—that was your first time killing someone, wasn't it?" He said, before giving me a concerned look. "It's tough, I understand, and affects some people worse than others. You know you can talk to us, right? None of us will think any less of you for being bothered by it. A first kill isn't something to be taken lightly."

"I'm not bothered by it." I stated truthfully. Because I wasn't. Not at all.

And that's what really disturbed me.

Because I was a doctor and once upon a time, the idea of killing someone wouldn't have even occurred to me. Of course, in Inuzuri it was only a matter of time, but I'd always imagined that it'd be a last resort, self-defense, and that I'd be wrecked by guilt afterwards. Not once had I imagined that it'd be so easy.

Because in those awful moments of silence after Horio had crumpled to the ground, I hadn't hesitated to strike out with lethal force. And after seeing Tatsuya fall, blood dripping from his mouth, I hadn't hesitated when it came to dealing the killing blow. At that moment, straddling my opponent with my hands on his chest, all I could think about was that these people had taken two comrades, two friends, two brothers from me and I hadn't hesitated in using my reiatsu to stop his heart.

And that scared me, more than anything else. Because I was Yukimura Hisana, once Dr. Christina Dalton, and I was supposed to keep people alive. I wasn't supposed to feel a vindictive sense of satisfaction after seeing the pained expression on my captor's face when I'd stabbed him. I was supposed to feel remorse after stopping someone's heart, not a vague sense of regret that I hadn't made the death more painful. I wasn't supposed to take pleasure in the loss of a life.

"It's just…I hadn't realized how much I'd changed," I said finally. Kazuki looked at me for a long time.

"You know, it's only human to want to take revenge," he said. "You're not a monster just for being happy the people who took away your loved ones are dead." He reached into his yukata, taking out a thin, sharp knife I'd recognize anywhere, and handed it to me. My breath caught and my hand shook as I wrapped my fingers around the dagger's hilt.

"Tatsuya's dagger…why?" I asked, looking up with widened eyes. A bittersweet smile touched his lips, edged with something like pride.

"Keep it. He would have wanted you to have it." He got up and started walking away. "Take care of it, you hear?" I smiled slightly before getting to my feet and following, hearing the unspoken words. Look after yourself. It's what Tatsuya would have wanted.

Chapter Text

Fifty Years Later

I exhaled heavily, wiping my forehead with a piece of cloth, grimacing when it came back damp with sweat. Wearily, I stood up and looked down at the pale, thin form of my patient. Still weak, yes, but at least the fever had broken. Diseases, while much less common than in the living world, still existed among spirits.

“How is she? Will she recover?” The man sitting next to her asked anxiously. Smiling tiredly, I nodded.

 “She’ll be fine, Mori-san.” I handed him a pouch full of herbs I’d collected in the forest. “Take a pinch of that and boil it in water. The herbal tea should soothe her cough. Make sure she drinks it twice a day, every day for at least two weeks. Have her drink lots of fluids and get lots of rest. I know food is sometimes hard to come by, but that’s important too.” Mori rose to his feet in relief.

  “Both myself and my daughter are in your debt, Hisana-sensei. Here, take this.” He handed me a bottle of sake. “My best sake. And of course, everything will be on the house whenever you or your family stop by the bar.”

“You and I both know that I don’t do this for the payment,” I said softly.

 “We may be Rukongai, but we have our pride too. My door is always open to you should you need it.” He replied warmly. “Not everyone would do what you do.”

I smiled, but didn’t protest further. Perhaps, once upon a time, I could afford to turn down peoples’ aid when I knew they were barely struggling to get by themselves. However, as it was, only a fool would turn down favors when they were so freely given.

Walking down the street, I absently twirled Tatsuya’s dagger in one hand. It was rarely needed anymore; no one wanted to attack the only doctor who not only was willing to heal any patient brought to her, but also didn’t ask any questions and kept patient confidentiality.

“What would you think, Tatsuya, Horio, of me now?” I murmured. These past few decades had certainly been unexpected. When I’d first decided to offer my healing services to the general public, Kaori and Kazuki had thought I was crazy. Even Mitsuo had disapproved, worrying that I might attract the attention of some gang who’d try to recruit me for their own purposes.

“Having above average levels of reiatsu is uncommon, but certainly not unheard of. Having your level of control over it? It just attracts attention,” he’d argued. I remained undeterred; the helplessness I’d felt the night we’d lost two of our own wasn’t something easily forgotten. Up until then, I’d gotten by just practicing healing using my reiatsu on the members of my family when they were hurt. Unfortunately, I had next to no idea on how to treat diseases, internal injuries and any of the more serious afflictions…and Tatsuya and Horio had paid for it.

 It had started with a prostitute I’d found who’d had a bad experience with a customer. She’d had deep bruises covering her neck and arms, her right wrist was sprained, and there was blood staining the inside of her thighs. I’d nearly left her there, tossed to the side in a dirty alleyway, but I’d hesitated. Rape and murder wasn’t an uncommon sight and if you wanted to survive Rukongai without breaking, you had to accept that you couldn’t save everyone.

In the early days, before Tatsuya, the only reason I’d managed to keep my mind intact was because I’d been entirely focused on saving Rukia, blocking everything else out. There were those who were broken by their own kindness, unable to stomach the mercilessness of the slums and who slowly wasted away. Then there were those who threw away their hearts, their values, for a chance at survival and power. They became little more than hollows, forged from desperation and a savage determination not to die. And then there were the lucky ones, like me, who found something to cling to, a reason to get up every day. First Rukia, then Tatsuya, then Horio, Kazuki, Kaori and Mitsuo. Two of them were lost to me in a single day, and until then, I hadn’t quite comprehended just how important these six people had become in my life, how central they were to maintaining my sanity. I had failed my family once due to my incompetence, and it’d cost me nearly everything. So when I walked past the pitiful, broken figure huddled in a corner like discarded trash, I hesitated. Then, I’d walked over, pulled her to her feet and walked her back to my house.

 It was supposed to be an opportunity, nothing more. A surefire way of gaining medical experience, since there was definitely no shortage of people with health problems in Inuzuri. At first, everything went as expected. I did my best to lessen the girl, Reiko’s, pain and heal the vaginal tearing. Two days later, she recovered enough to leave and thanked me. A week later, she brought me a second patient: Fumiko, a girl who looked no older than twelve. Soon, I had a steady stream of customers from the red light district, most of them whores, some offering payment in money, others in favors. I didn't really think much of any of it until three months later, when Rukia went missing.

Usually, she was pretty good about behaving, but she was still a curious child and sometimes ‘got lost.’ Kaori, Mitsuo and I ran around frantically for four hours looking for her, while Kazuki (the one watching her at the time) sat around guiltily at home in case she turned up there. Just as the sun was setting, Fumiko showed up bemusedly at our front door, an abashed Rukia in hand, saying that she’d found Rukia playing with some kids by the river. It was after thanking Fumiko profusely and giving Rukia the scolding of her life (who knew Mitsuo had it in him?) that Kazuki first realized the potential of me ‘playing doctor’, as he called it.

And so, Inuzuri’s first and only medical clinic was born. Any form of payment was acceptable, be it in cash, information, food, services, even favors.

At first I was skeptical. But then, as months passed, things began to change. Stealing had turned into more of a hobby for Kaori than a necessity; turns out, giving the old vegetable vendor a salve that soothed arthritic pains ensured a steady supply of fresh vegetables. Treating the butcher’s son when he accidentally cut himself with a knife guaranteed a cut of meat, every week. The seamstress two streets down now greeted me with a smile and an offer to repair my clothes instead of a glare. Not all of my dealings were so innocent though. Since I’d made it a point to be a neutral party, even most of the gangs left me alone.

Maybe some of them would have tried to ‘recruit me for their own purposes’, as Mitsuo put it, but then they risked pissing off every other gang I helped. Sure, I’m certain some of them at least considered forcing me to work solely for a single group, but then they a. risked alienating me, b. risked losing some men to a protective Mitsuo, Kaori and Kazuki, and c. risked getting into a fight with every other group who disagreed with their idea. One of the first things I’d learned was, sometimes the threat of something was more effective than any action. As it was, by the time I’d been offering my medical services for a year, I’d somehow gained sanctuary for myself and my family from nearly every yakuza/criminal group in Inuzuri. They paid me in immunity and protection, and to me that was worth more than any amount of cash or favors. Perhaps it was cold of me, offering my help so freely to people I knew were the scum of the earth, people who had lied, betrayed, raped and killed without hesitation or remorse. But really, all I cared about was that by doing so, I was preventing my people from suffering the same.

Humming to myself, I headed towards the nicer areas of Inuzuri. Five years ago, I’d saved the life of a rich (by Inuzuri standards) merchant and he’d gifted me with one of his many houses in return. Kazuki looked up as I walked in, and his face split into a giant grin at the sight of the bottle in my hands.

“Is that what I think it is?” He asked excitedly, reaching out for it. I smacked his hands away.

“Yep, Mori-san’s best sake. And for god’s sake, have a little shame, will you? It’s six in the morning.” He pouted, and I sighed exasperatedly.

“I’ve told you, not in front of Rukia!”

“Rukia’s not even here! Besides, you can’t shelter her forever! And she’s not stupid, she’s seen us drinking before.”

 “Doesn’t mean I want her to pick up your bad habits, you alcoholic. If you must, go over to Mori-san’s place tomorrow. He’s given us a free pass.” Kazuki stared at me in amazement, before shaking his head wryly.

 “Somehow, I’m going to figure out how you do that.”

“Do what?” I headed towards the kitchen, opening a cabinet to try and find a place to stash the sake.

“Just manipulate people like that!” He demanded.

 “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I replied calmly, shuffling the half empty bottles at the front of the cabinet.

“You don’t even ask them for anything, and they give it to you anyway! They practically pile free stuff on you, and beg you to ask for more!” Kazuki’s voice was incredulous. “Hell, it’s only gotten worse over the years. In the beginning, it was a couple fruits and vegetables, maybe a few ryo. Now it’s an open invite to help yourself to anything they have.”

“Well, saving their loved ones might have had something to do with it,” I replied dryly. “If someone saved Rukia, I’d offer everything I could to them too.”

“You have a point…still, it’s kind of creepy how I get bombarded with free goods every time I walk down the street just because they know I’m close to you. These are the people who I’ve seen walk past a child collapsed in the streets without hesitating, and they practically fall over themselves to offer you help.”

“You’re exaggerating,” I huffed, but couldn’t help remembering the winter before I’d met Tatsuya, the dozens and dozens of people who’d shut their doors in my face when all I’d wanted was a scrap of food and a place to sleep.

“Offering gifts out of gratitude is not falling all over me. Besides, guilt is a powerful emotion. It’s one thing for you to receive help from someone, knowing that the only reason they’re helping is because they’re getting something out of it. It’s another thing entirely for someone to save your life, to spend hours and hours of their own time helping you, all without expecting a single thing in return.” Kazuki was silent for a moment.

“So…by not demanding payment, you’re practically ensuring that you do get something out of it?” He asked. I smiled.

“Exactly. Whenever someone helps another person, it creates a sense of obligation. No one likes the feeling of owing someone, after all; that doesn’t change, whether you’re a noble or a street rat. Most of the time, that obligation is relatively easy to fulfill; you do something for me, I do something for you. By not asking anything in return, that sense of obligation is much harder to get rid of.”

Of course, most of this had only occurred to me later. When I started this whole thing with Reiko, I’d never expected such a turnout. Still, it sounded much more impressive if I made it seem like this was my plan all along.

“Wow, I’m impressed. Even Tatsuya was never this devious.” His voice was briefly wistful. Half a century later and Tatsuya’s death still left a gaping, empty hole in our lives. “’Course, it helps that you’re such a cute, little midget. No one would expect someone as nice-looking as you to be so manipulative.”

Perhaps at one time that comment would have bothered me. However, I understood it to be the compliment it was, coming from Kazuki. After what happened fifty years ago…we’d all changed. At times, without Horio there to lighten the atmosphere, things would be unbearably tense between us. All of us had come to blows at one time or another. Without Tatsuya’s leadership, the year after was hard. We’d all foundered, unsure of what to do, and eventually it settled on Kazuki to step up and take charge, though he’d never quite managed the same level of control as Tatsuya.

 Leadership had…changed him. On the surface, he was the same as ever, with the same lighthearted and cheerful demeanor and constantly cracking jokes. However, he’d gained a ruthlessness that nearly matched Tatsuya’s at his worst. He never let Rukia see any hint of it but as for me…well, Rukia may have missed the blood staining his clothes at times—none of it his-- but I didn’t. Even I didn’t know the extent of what Kazuki did, the things he did to gather information and keep us safe. What I did know was that on the second year anniversary of Horio and Tatsuya’s deaths, Mitsuo, making sure Rukia wasn’t close enough to hear, whispered in my ear, “It’s done. Their souls can finally rest in peace now.”

Looking at the serious but relaxed glint in Kazuki’s eyes that his grin couldn’t quite mask, the subtle way he was supporting his left side, and the dark circles under his eyes, I didn’t have any doubt as to what Kazuki had been doing for the past few months. I didn’t know how, or when, but I knew that there wouldn’t be a single man alive from the group that had taken two brothers away from me. Then, after I started my clinic, I wasn’t naïve enough to think that the risk of angering other people was the only reason I was left relatively alone from the more morally skewed groups. I’d been prepared for some people had come after me, if only because at some time or another I’d probably treated one of their enemies. That they hadn’t…well…that was telling in itself.

 Kazuki wasn’t the only one who’d changed. Perhaps my way of coping with what happened was the most obvious, what with the way I’d taken to healing random people. As a consequence of that night, killing to protect my family was also no longer something I hesitated over. But Kaori had withdrawn even further into herself around strangers. Sometimes, I worried that she’d shut us out too, though she was always better around Rukia and Kazuki (and I had my suspicions about the latter; ‘just friends’ really, did they think I was blind?). Mitsuo was constantly worried about us, hovering like a silent, protective shadow; ‘mother-hen syndrome’ as Kazuki put it. He was probably the only one out of us who really knew what Kazuki got into, following him whenever he disappeared, sometimes for days.

Shaking my head to clear it of thoughts, I turned to Kazuki.

“Where is Rukia?” I asked, lying down on my futon. I sighed in contentment, grabbing a blanket and pulling it over myself. Forget boys; my bed was my one true love. Kazuki snorted at my happy expression.

“Honestly, I have never known anyone to love sleep as much as you do. Which makes your choice of profession all the more confusing.” I stuck my tongue out at him.

He sighed, palming his forehead, though I caught a grin forming at the corner of his mouth. “And to think, I just complimented you on your deviousness. Almost seventy years later and your maturity level hasn’t changed.”

 “Only around you guys, Kazuki,” I returned with a bright grin. “Around everyone else I’m gentle, selfless, calm and certainly not childish or manipulative.”

 “That’s the scariest part of it. Anyway, Rukia’s staying over with those friends of hers. You know, the stupid looking kid with the red hair shaped like a spiky pineapple. Ren-something.”

 “Careful, your big brother instincts are showing,” I snorted. “And it’s Renji, dumbass. You’ve only known the kid for, what, a decade now?”

 “Eight years,” he corrected sullenly. “And can you blame me? Have you seen the looks of that kid? The only way things could get any worse would be if he had tattoos or something.” At this, I abruptly started coughing. Kazuki stared at me concernedly. A mental image popped into my head of Kazuki’s expression should he ever meet future-Renji, and I started wheezing, covering my mouth to hide my smirk.

When Rukia had first dragged mini-Renji through the door eight years ago, I’d almost had a heart attack. My memories of the Bleach-verse may have been blurry, despite my best efforts, but there were only one red-haired kid with an awful haircut who was friends with Rukia that I was aware of. After I got over my shock, I’d found that mini-Renji was actually kind of…adorable. I’d always had a bit of a soft spot for kids, only compounded by raising Rukia on my own, so I had to admit even my cold, shriveled, black heart melted a bit at seeing the kid stuttering and shyly avoiding my eyes, trailing after Rukia like a love-struck puppy. From what I remembered, Renji had always stood by and cared for canon-Rukia, so I had no problem with him and Rukia becoming friends. Kaori had the same soft spot for kids that I did, and Mitsuo, after staring intensely at Renji for several minutes during which the poor kid had started shaking and sweating but had stood his ground, also gave his approval.

Kazuki, for some reason, hated the kid on sight.

“I don’t get why you dislike him so much.” I commented, shifting my pillow into a more comfortable position. “And don’t give me that crap about ‘kids like him being after only one thing.’ Sixty five years old or not, they haven’t even reached puberty yet.”

“Yeah, well, excuse me for trying to protect our baby sister’s virtue. Don’t come running to me when a century down the line, you end up with that idiot as a brother-in-law and a herd of new red-haired nieces and nephews.” He grumbled, walking away. I rolled my eyes, pulling my blanket over my head.

Honestly, what a ludicrous idea. As if Renji would be stupid enough to get Rukia pregnant without my express permission.


 

 It felt like I’d slept for all of two minutes when I was rudely awoken.

“Quit shaking me, Mitsuo,” I grumbled. “What’s up? Someone better be dying, I swear.” His lips quirked.

“It’s a definite possibility. Oshiro sent for you. The younger one.”

 “Again?” I groaned. Oshiro Shigeo, the younger of the Oshiro brothers, was one of the most insufferable, stupid, arrogant dicks that I’d ever had the displeasure of meeting. The only reason no one had offed him years ago was because his brother actually had a competent bone in his body and was powerful enough that no one wanted to piss him off by killing his brother. “What’s that idiot want now?” Mitsuo shrugged, and I dragged an arm over my face before sitting up.

“Fine, fine, better get this over with.” Walking over to the door, I paused for a moment, taking a deep breath and centering myself, before I forcibly relaxed my face, corners of my lips turned up in my customary polite smile. My ‘default face #7 for dealing with irritating douchepants,’ as Kazuki had once put it in one of his many moments of drunkenness. Kaori had slapped the back of his head, before nodding approvingly in my direction. “I’m proud of you, Hisana. Every girl needs a smile like that so if someone ever crosses you, they won’t notice the knife in their back until it’s too late.”

 I opened the door right as the person outside of it was about to knock again. Seeing the nine year old—on the surface at least—kid in front of me, my smile softened into a slightly more genuine one.

“Daiki-kun, how are you?” I asked. Daiki rubbed the back of his head nervously.

“Oshiro-sama sent me to get you, Hisana-sensei. Not sure what he wanted, but he seemed kinda angry.”

“Well, let’s not keep him waiting, shall we? No need to worsen his mood when he’s already grumpy.” I grabbed my standard medical basket (bandages, disinfectant, herbs, clean water, etc.) and took the—on the surface at least—9 year old boy’s hand and he began leading me down the street. When he took me down a less populated road and stopped in front of a creepy looking warehouse, I raised my eyebrows.

“Well, this is different,” I murmured, surprised. I’d been sure that Oshiro Junior wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like this.

“Oshiro-sama says to come down to the basement.” He shuffled nervously. “I gotta go, Hisana-sama. Oshiro-sama didn’t want me coming down.”

“That’s fine. I’m sure I’ll find my way.” I reassured him, before heading inside. A growing sense of curiosity made me walk faster. For Oshiro to pick somewhere this far out of the way to meet with me…what was he up to now?

In all honesty, it wasn’t too hard to find the room Oshiro was in. All I had to do was follow the sound of Oshiro’s grating, nasally voice down a flight of stairs and to the end of a hallway. The door he was in was partially open, and I paused for a moment, taking in the scene inside.

The first thing I noticed was the person huddled on the floor, leaning against a wall. I couldn’t see his face completely, but the way his arms were wrapped protectively around his chest and the heavy, labored way he was breathing suggested cracked, possibly broken, ribs. I caught a glimpse of a dilated pupils—a concussion possibly?—and blood dripped down an ugly looking cut on his temple. I stilled when I finally noticed the clothes he was wearing. In the dim light, it wasn’t immediately obvious, but now that I’d had time to take a bit more in, I could see that he was wearing a black shihakusho. Looking around, I confirmed my suspicions by sighting a beautiful katana by Oshiro’s side. What the hell was Oshiro doing with a shinigami? An injured, bound shinigami at that?

Though, I had to concede, finally looking over at Oshiro, that bit probably wasn’t his fault. On the other side of the room were four other injured men. One of them looked like he’d been stabbed; the other three were suffering from blood loss caused by multiple lacerations. Oshiro was currently yelling at the one who looked the least injured.

“The hell were you thinking? Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” I’d never seen Oshiro so furious…or so scared. His face was pasty and there was a gray edge to his skin. Sweat beaded on his forehead.

“We thought we’d take ‘im for ransom! Look at pretty boy over there; ain’t no way he’s poor. His family’s definitely got money, might even be a noble!”

“He’s a shinigami, idiot! You think they’ll let this go? You kidnapped one of their own! We’ll be lucky if we get through the night without our throats being cut!” He began pacing furiously. “How did you worthless idiots even manage to win against him?”

“Found him at the edges of the forest. Looked like a hollow attack. The rest of ‘em were dead. He was alive, barely, and we thought he’d fetch a nice little price. He still managed to put up a hell of a fight before he passed out, though.” The man looked sullen. “Where’s Sensei anyway? These cuts hurt and Ueno over there looks like he’s gonna keel over soon.”

I was actually considering turning back around and leaving those suicidal idiots to bleed to death, professionalism be damned. Who was stupid enough to kidnap and ransom a shinigami, and an important one too, judging by the quality of his clothes? Everyone knew that you didn’t mess with shinigami, because even the most pathetic one could take out ten of the hardest thugs.

“If you didn’t decide to do something so stupid, you wouldn’t be hurt in the first place, so suck it up!” Oshiro barked. “Look at the situation you’ve forced me into! I can’t let him go; the second I do, he’ll lead the rest straight to us. Can’t bribe him, either, since he had more pocket money on him than I see in a month.” Oshiro’s muttering was becoming more and more desperate. “Can’t let him go…but what do I do with him? If I kill him…but what if they come looking for him?”

“If you kill me, my family will never let this go. They will hunt down every last one of you.” A quiet voice came from the corner of the room. I almost jumped; though his words were slightly slurred, the way he spoke—cultured, smooth, with just a touch of arrogance and disdain—instantly eliminated the possibility of him being a member of the working class. Definitely a noble, then. From the way Oshiro’s features twisted, he’d noticed too. Unfortunately, the threat backfired.

“Oh yeah? But the dead have no way of talking, and even the shinigami can’t read minds. They’d never be able to prove I did it.” He tossed back smugly, brandishing a knife under the shinigami’s chin. The shinigami raised his head a fraction of an inch, and in that moment, I didn’t need to be a mind-reader to know what he was thinking. Those cold, gray eyes held the promise of a world of pain, a lifetime of retribution. They said, do you really think proof matters? My people will come for me, they will avenge me, and they will tear Rukongai apart if need be. I believed him, and that decided my next course of action.

“Oshiro-sama,” I said quietly. “You called for me?” I looked him in the eye; dignified, but not challenging; posture respectful, but not submissive. It was something I’d mastered over decades of dealing with drug lords, yakuza bosses, people who could kill me in a heartbeat. Make them feel important, but never let them feel like they have power over you. Most of all, make them address you as an equal. I made a show of quickly glancing around the room, eyes lingering slightly on the injured form of the shinigami, like I hadn’t just spent the past ten minutes eavesdropping. “Is something the matter?”

“Ah, Sensei,” He stood back up. “As you can see, a bit of trouble has come up, but it’s nothing you need to worry your pretty head about.” I smiled placidly, trying not to grit my teeth. “I do apologize for taking up your time, but a few of my members have gotten into a bit of a skirmish. If you don’t mind?”

“No need to apologize, Oshiro-sama. It is always a pleasure to be of help.” I answered, making my way over to the man with the stab wound, hands already glowing green. From the corner of my eye, I saw the shinigami abruptly stiffen, eyes widening. It took about an hour for me to heal everyone to the point that they at least wouldn’t die. Few people knew the extent of my healing ability; as far as the rest of Inuzuri was concerned, I could usually only heal people to the point where the wound would become non-fatal, and I was determined to keep it that way. Why waste reiatsu, after all? After I finished bandaging the last man’s arm, I turned to Oshiro hesitantly.

“What of the shinigami, Oshiro-sama?” I asked.

“Rest assured, Sensei, he will be taken care of. Thank you again for your services,” he said in a clear dismissal. I hesitated, bracing myself.

“If I may offer a suggestion, Oshiro-sama?” I asked, keeping my voice steady. Asking would be a risk; there was nothing men like Oshiro hated more than having someone question their judgment. He narrowed his eyes, but motioned for me to go on.

“Disposing of him as he is might be…unwise.” There was no question of Oshiro deciding to dispose of the shinigami. Even if I hadn’t been listening in, to beat up a shinigami when he was down, kidnap him, tie him up and then let him go would be tantamount to suicide. There was no way Oshiro could let the shinigami go if he wanted to remain living.

“If I may, I have another idea,” I continued, seeing the way Oshiro stiffened in anger. “I presume that your men found him after a hollow attack?” At seeing Oshiro’s nod, I went on. “If he were killed by you, no doubt the shinigami would investigate his disappearance. Should they discover his death, they would most certainly seek retribution. Even if they don’t discover your hand in it, Oshiro-sama, you could be caught in the backlash of his family’s anger. For him to die by the hand of a Rukongai citizen would invite all of Seireitei’s anger.” I took a deep breath and stared him evenly in the eye, showing none of my inner turmoil.

“However, if he were to have died, in, say, a hollow attack, the same hollow attack that killed off the rest of his squad, it’s likely that no one would question it further. After all, while deaths caused by hollows are…unfortunate, they are not uncommon.” At first, Oshiro didn’t understand. Then his eyes widened, and I could practically see the gears turning in his head.

“Are you saying…yes, that could work…it would be much less risky and suspicious.” He turned back to me. “Sensei, could you make it appear as if he was killed by a hollow?”

My smile turned cold, an edge of cruelty tainting it. “My dear Oshiro, I am a professional. To fake the cause of death would be child’s play.”

 


 

Oshiro had two of the men who’d found the shinigami take him with me to the area where they’d found him. Taking in the demolished trees and the blood painting the forest, I raised an eyebrow, but otherwise showed no reaction. Turning to the men who’d dragged the Shinigami around, I instructed them to place him against a fallen tree.

“That will be all, thank you.” I dismissed them. They exchanged startled looks. “Unless you’d like to watch?” I asked sweetly, fingering the hilt of the shinigami’s sword (Oshiro wasn’t happy about having to part with it, but I’d convinced him that it was necessary for the charade to be plausible. Plus I’d seriously doubted the sword would work for him) when they made no move to leave. My smile showed just a bit too much teeth to be classified as friendly. In other words, leave now or the next time I treat you for something I will use a bottle of sake to disinfect each and every one of your wounds.

The two exchanged another glance, gulped, hastily backed away and walked off while trying very hard not to seem like they were running away. The moment they were out of sight and hearing distance, the smile on my face transformed into a disgusted grimace. “Cowardly scum,” I muttered under my breath before turning to the shinigami sitting stone-faced on the ground. He hadn’t spoken since we’d left the warehouse. I had to give it to him; even under threat of impending death, he still managed to maintain his air of you-are-so-far-beneath-me-you-should-be-honored-I-even-glance-your-way-you-plebeian-scum. I glanced at him and my respect went up another two notches. With his concussion, blood loss and the cracked-likely-broken ribs impairing his breathing, he should have been unconscious hours ago. Instead, he was glaring white-hot daggers at me. Sighing inwardly, I pulled out Tatsuya’s dagger.

“You don’t know much about hollows if you think you can recreate hollow-induced injuries with that tiny knife,” he scoffed. I barely resisted rolling my eyes. Barely. He stiffened and a brief flash of panic entered his eyes as I knelt down next to him, raised my knife and…cut through the rope tying his hands together.

The logical course of action, obviously, was to incapacitate me and take my knife away. Instead, he was so stunned that the only thing he could do was gape at me for several seconds. Then he scrambled away, jaw working furiously as he tried and failed to articulate himself. I watched as his aristocratic mask shattered completely with a growing sense of amusement before he managed to compose himself enough to cough some words out.

“What…why…you were just about to kill me!” He shouted.

“Contrary to how it might look, I am not, actually, in the habit of killing people in cold blood.” I said wryly.

“But why? You could have gotten away with it…probably,” he grudgingly admitted.

“It is nice to know that you have a higher opinion of my intelligence than you do of Oshiro’s. And as for why? Why not? I told Oshiro that I’m a professional—well, I’m a healer. I don’t like seeing people get hurt for no reason, especially when I can prevent it.” I shrugged and left it at that. The real reason was that the last thing I wanted was for a bunch of shinigami to come storming Inuzuri looking for revenge on behalf of the person sitting in front of me. They would tear the district apart, with no regard for who got caught in the backlash, and how would I be able to protect Rukia and the others then?

“I could have killed you,” the shinigami pointed out. This time I really did roll my eyes.

“You have a mild concussion, are suffering from blood loss, have seriously damaged ribs, and your breathing is impaired. I seriously doubt you’d go to the effort of trying to harm me when you’re so injured and I just saved your life. And I was right, wasn’t I? We’ve been talking for five minutes and you haven’t reached for your sword once.” I handed his sword back to him and stood up, pretending I didn’t notice the way he instantly relaxed once he had it in his hand. “Anyway, it’s getting late. I can’t do much for your injuries right now, but I’ll leave some of these bandages with you. If I’m correct, you shinigami have your own way of contacting help, correct?” I glanced over to see him nod stiffly.

“I can summon a Jigokucho to get back up. There’s another squad a couple districts away. I…if there’s anything I can do for you…I’m in your debt.” I considered his words for a moment, before fixing him with a serious look.

“If you want to repay me, don’t come back seeking retribution on Oshiro.” He started to protest, and I shook my head firmly. “Don’t. If it got out that I helped you, things could get difficult for me. My neutrality is what keeps me safe most of the time, and it gives me a bit of leeway in dealing with certain people. If anyone finds out that I violated that…” I trailed off. The shinigami hesitated, but then seemed to straighten up, staring me resolutely in the eye.

“I don’t like it—people like Oshiro should be punished. But if that is your wish, I will abide by it.” Once again, I was struck by the utter confidence he portrayed. It was this, more than the well-groomed hair and fine clothes, that gave away his status as a noble—as someone who’d never had to lie, steal, seduce, and kill, someone who’d never lost their honor. Even back in Oshiro’s warehouse, covered in grime, sweat and blood, I’d been able to tell instantly that the man in front of me wasn’t from Rukongai, had never really been tainted with the dirtier aspects of life. I smiled wistfully, feeling a bit sad all of a sudden as I leaned forward to touch his face lightly, sending a burst of healing reiatsu to reduce the swelling in the side of his head as I did so. “Take care of yourself then. Don’t let all my hard work go to waste.”

It didn’t hit me until I got home that night and Rukia launched herself at me excitedly chattering on about her day that I realized why. It was because I’d looked at the shinigami in front of me, and had seen everything I’d ever wanted Rukia to be. Everything I could never have.

Chapter Text

“So, I heard from a little birdie that you are one scary bitch,” Kazuki said strolling into the kitchen. I didn’t bother looking up from the potatoes I was peeling.

“Oh?” I asked, already having an idea of where this was heading.

“Now, I’ve known you for…about seventy years now. While I admit that you can do what needs to be done, you’re not the type of person who’d go out of your way to murder someone who’s never done anything to you.” He said, raising his eyebrows. “What really happened? Spill.”

“Nothing really happened.” When Kazuki continued to stare at me unimpressed, I sighed and continued. He’d get the story out of me one way or another, and really, it wasn’t like it was some big secret. “Some shinigami were sent to deal with some hollows in the area. Most of the shinigami died, but one survived. A couple of Oshiro’s goons found him and wanted to ransom him off. Oshiro was going to kill him, but I decided the potential fallout would be too great, and stepped in. Told Oshiro I was going to kill him and make it look like a hollow did it. Then I let him go. That’s it.”

“And you just let him go? You didn’t worry that he would retaliate against you?” Kazuki’s voice had gone dangerously smooth. I pinned him with a flat stare.

“I’d just saved his life and he was seriously injured. What, you think he was going to just jump up and start beating the crap out of me?” Kazuki still looked mildly doubtful, but seemed mostly appeased.

“At least you didn’t heal him. It makes me nervous, sometimes, that you’ll put your faith in the wrong person, help them, and get stabbed in the back for it.”

“Give me some credit, Kazuki,” I rolled my eyes. “I didn’t think he was going to harm me after I’d just saved his life, but I wasn’t going to take any chances either. And shinigami or not, he wasn’t about to unnecessarily attack someone in the condition he was in.” Healing someone when I wasn’t sure about their intentions towards me would just be stupid. Kazuki relaxed at my words.

“Good. At least you’ve learned something this past half-century.” He said lightly. “Now I’ve just got to find a way to teach this same cautiousness to Rukia. Did you know that Rukia actually had to save that pineapple-idiot from getting beat up when he got caught stealing something? Couldn’t she have chosen someone a bit more intelligent to be her boyfriend? Like, seriously. If he can’t steal properly, he should at least know how to run away, but it seems like he can’t do that either. How the hell does Kaori approve of him?”

“He’s not her boyfriend, you overprotective moron. And I pretty much sucked at stealing too before Kaori came along.”

“But you’d only been in the Spirit World for a couple months!” He shouted indignantly. “And even then, at least you knew how to run away and not get caught! That red-headed baboon can’t even do that! He needs a girl to bail him out!”

“Are you saying there’s something wrong about girls? I do hope you’re not implying that girls are weak.” My smile was saccharine sweet. He shook his head frantically.

“Are you kidding? I’ve lived with you and Kaori for over six decades. Of course I know that girls aren’t weak. Doesn’t mean that real men should need to be bailed out by girls.” I shook my head resignedly, but decided to let it go. I doubted that Kazuki actually believed what he was saying; he was just taking any opportunity he could to bash on Renji.

“How did you find out about that, anyway?” I changed the topic, scowling at him. It was kind of creepy, sometimes, the number of tabs Kazuki had on each of us. I knew it was his way of showing he cared, but even Kaori had to admit Kazuki’s stalker-like tendencies were…disturbing at times.

“Honestly,” I grumbled, “I don’t see why you go on about me having magical people-charming powers when you can get people to spill their every secret in minutes. How do you do that?” Immediately, I regretted asking as a roguish grin lit his face and he stepped forward so his chest was against my back. Wrapping his arms around me, he bent down so that his lips were at my right ear and his breath tickled the hairs at the nape of my neck.

“Wouldn’t you like to know, Hisana-chan? If you like, I could provide a…demonstration.” He murmured, voice low and rumbly. I shoved him off and threw a half-peeled potato at him.

“Shoo. That’s disturbing, you know that? Go bother someone who doesn’t think of you as their brother and who’ll actually appreciate your charms. I hear Kaori’s free.” His face turned blank.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied stonily. I raised my eyebrows, lips slipping into a teasing grin. “Come on, Kazuki-kun. Who are you trying to fool? I could cut the sexual tension between you two with a knife. Everyone’s seen you two eye-fuc—“

The kitchen door opened, and Rukia slipped in. “Nee-chan! You won’t believe what happened to Renji today!”

“—eye-friending each other.” I finished without skipping a beat, smirking. Kazuki looked at me incredulously, mouthing, ‘Eye-friending, really?’ I shrugged in return.

Rukia looked between us, confused. “What are you guys talking about?”

“Nothing. Just how Kazuki and your Kaori-nee-san should get a clue…or a room,” I muttered the last part under my breath. Rukia’s eyes lit up in understanding.

“Oh! You mean how Kazuki-nii-san and Kaori-nee-san are ‘special friends’ but don’t really know it yet?” She asked.

“Exactly,” I beamed, ignoring Kazuki’s sputters in the background.

“What—you—man, I hate it when you two gang up on me like this!” He whined. I turned back to my potatoes, smothering a grin. “Two against one—how is that fair?!”

“Life isn’t fair, you big baby. Get over it.” I shoved some carrots and a knife at him. “Now make yourself useful and start peeling these.” Looking at Kazuki grumbling sullenly as Rukia snuck up behind him holding a spider by a leg and wearing a mischievous grin, I felt a sudden wave of fondness. A lot had changed these past few decades, but we’d always stay a family. That, I decided, would never change.


 

I woke up with a startled jerk, almost tumbling off my bed. It took me another few seconds to realize it was due to the loud banging at the door. Next to me, Rukia mumbled sleepily before opening her eyes blearily.

“Nee-chan? Was’appening?” She asked, still half asleep. I knelt down next to her and gently brushed the hair out of her face.

“Probably just another patient. Don’t worry about it; just go back to sleep.” I said softly.

“Do you haveta go? It’s the middle of the night.” She complained. “You’re always busy these days.”

“Sorry.” A corner of my lips quirked up. “Duty calls. I’ll be back in the morning, ok?” Bending down, I pressed a quick kiss to her forehead before walking swiftly to the door, erasing all traces of sleep from my face as I did so. I didn’t see any of the others as I walked out; by this point, all of them had learned to ignore it when a patient showed up halfway through the night. The person at the other side of the door stopped mid-knock as I opened it.

“Reiko,” I said, pausing at the sight of the woman in front of me. The first patient outside of my family I’d ever treated. Usually she didn’t come to me unless it was serious.

“Sensei,” she replied, grinning, though her tone seemed strained. Though her smile was relaxed, the tension in her shoulders betrayed her worry. “Sorry ta bother you at such an awful hour, but one of the new girls—Miwa—she’s hurt. One of her regular customers gets carried away at times, but she can’t refuse him.” In other words, he was someone too important to risk offending.

I clenched my jaw, but nodded in understanding. Unfortunately, this kind of thing was way too common for me to be surprised anymore. Grabbing my supplies, I followed Reiko down the all-too familiar path to the red-light district. Slipping in the back door, I nodded a greeting to the Mother in charge of the brothel.

“She’s in the second to last room on the right.” She said, ushering me down the hall. “Thank you for doing this, Sensei.”

“Anytime,” I replied, then stiffened when I caught sight of the girl sitting limply on a couch. The girl—Miwa—couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old physically, and judging by the blank, empty look in her eyes and the tear tracks running down her face, hadn’t been in the afterlife long.

“Miwa-chan?” Reiko called softly from next to me. I couldn’t remove my eyes from the frail-looking, thin child with the defeated posture. Like a beautiful porcelain doll with cracks lying just beneath the surface, unable to be repaired. My eyes lingered at the ligature marks at her wrists and neck and the fresh, purple bruise forming under an eye. Over half a century later and I still couldn’t get over the fact that it could have been me lying there broken. If I had been forced to spend another year on my own…if Tatsuya hadn’t found me…

I shook my head, breaking my train of thought. There was no use ruminating on what-ifs or could-have-beens. I was lucky; prostitution was never an avenue I had to turn down, and it would never be something Rukia would be forced to turn to either. All I could do now was do my best to help those who weren’t as fortunate.

“Reiko, can you go get me some warm water please?” I asked quietly. Miwa still hadn’t moved. She nodded, and five minutes later was back with a pail of warm water and some clean towels. Slowly, cautiously, as if approaching a threatened animal, I made my way over to the girl that could have been me in another universe. Making sure to always keep myself in her line of sight, I knelt down next to her.

“Hello, Miwa-chan,” I said gently, making my voice as soothing as I could. “I’m Hisana—I’m a friend of Reiko’s. I promise I won’t hurt you. Won’t you look at me?”

I watched as large brown eyes blinked slowly and Miwa gradually turned her face towards mine. Once she was looking me directly in the face, I smiled comfortingly—the same smile I used whenever Rukia woke up from a nightmare—and made sure to look as unthreateningly as possible. She must have seen something that reassured her, since I saw her relax infinitesimally.

“You know Reiko?” She asked, voice small. From the corner of my eye, I saw Reiko move forward.

“Yes I do. She’s the one who brought me here, and she’s very worried about you.” Very deliberately, I reached out an arm and took one of her hands in my own. I took it as a good sign that she didn’t flinch away. “Will you give me permission to treat you, Miwa?” I asked, leaving out the cutesy chan honorific on purpose as I did so. If there’s one thing I’d learned about rape victims, it was that they needed to feel some semblance of control. For a moment I just looked Miwa in the eye, silently asking her to trust me while doing my best to convey that I would never betray that trust. After what seemed like an eternity, she nodded.

Deciding to start out small, I dipped a small towel into the bucket of warm water, wringing it out so that it was only slightly damp. Raising the warm cloth to Miwa’s cheek, I gently wiped away the tears and sweat coating her face, keeping up a steady conversation as I did so.

“Have you ever seen someone use healing kido?” I asked. She shook her head, looking confused but curious. A vast improvement from the empty, lost expression she had on before.

“No. What’s that?” She asked. Next to me, Reiko grinned.

“It’s the coolest thing ever. You’re in for a treat, Miwa-chan,” she reassured her, “Sensei does some weird conversion thing with her spirit energy that causes her hands to glow green. Then she puts her hands on wherever you’re hurt, and poof! Next thing you know, it’s like you’ve never been hurt at all.” I huffed at hearing the logistics of healing kido being reduced to ‘some weird spirit conversion thing that made injuries go poof’, but had to smile slightly at the fascinated look on Miwa’s face. Not so broken after all, then.

“It’s a bit more complicated, but that’s the gist of it.” I said. Reaching into the by now familiar well of power inside me, I coaxed strands of energy towards my hands, infusing it with thoughts of healing, restoration and regrowth. Within seconds, my hands were glowing a soft green. Reaching out slowly, I touched the tips of my fingers gently to the livid bruise forming on Miwa’s face, and concentrated on mending the broken capillaries and torn tissue inside. A few minutes later, I leaned back and looked at the now-unmarred skin with satisfaction. I always did a much better job healing those I truly wanted to make better. Manipulating spirit energy, whether to heal or to harm, was all about intent. Easing a little of Miwa’s pain certainly made me a lot happier than, say, patching up Oshiro’s thugs, but I didn’t get to choose my patients.

Once I was done with her face—something that took only a few more minutes, the sicko probably wanted her face mostly untouched—I moved on to the rope marks around her neck, trying my best not to grimace. God, I hated those bastards that got off on strangling their partner. Shoving aside the burning anger simmering low in my stomach with practiced ease, I once again coated my hands with green. Infusing Miwa’s body with my reiatsu, I could sense, almost feel, every torn tissue, each hemorrhage in the muscle. It left an uncomfortable phantom itch around my own neck, an imaginary echo of the marks around hers. Thankfully, though ligature marks were difficult, they weren’t actually all that draining to heal. The whip marks on her back, however, were a different story. By the time I finished healing every single scratch—fuck exhaustion, if Miwa had to deal with lashes and near strangulation, I could deal with a bit of weariness—it was well into the early hours of the morning.

“How do you feel?” I asked, sitting back and wiping a towel over my face tiredly. Miwa brought a hand to her neck with something approaching wonder. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.” She sat up abruptly. “It felt so strange! Like my skin was tingling, but warm all at once.” She glanced at me, eyes shining excitedly. “How did you do that? Can you teach me?”

Glancing over to her from where I was gathering up my supplies, I opened my mouth to gently refuse—as much as I hated it, I couldn’t save every girl from prostitution—but paused and looked at Miwa, considering my options. While I was healing Miwa, I’d noticed that she had a higher than average level of reiatsu. Not a whole lot, certainly not as much as me or even Rukia, but enough to be of help when I was treating her. People who had reiatsu always had higher healing rates (made me wonder what it would be like to treat a Shinigami). So instead of shooting her down point blank (something she was expecting judging by the downcast set of her eyes and the way her shoulders had slumped), I asked, “Do you ever feel hungry, Miwa-chan?”

Her head shot up, and she sent a confused, but hopeful, glance my way. Meanwhile, Reiko was staring at me speculatively.

“Huh? Well, I guess, sometimes. Not often—like, maybe once a week?—but I do like eating food. Why?”

“If you want, come over to my house for dinner sometime. Reiko can show you the way. If you’re still interested, and if you show a talent for it, we’ll talk. But for now, just try to get some sleep, okay?” Looking at the way she still tensed whenever I accidentally made a sudden movement and the almost-paranoid way her eyes constantly flickered around the room, I seriously doubted she’d be getting any sleep tonight, or for the next three weeks. From the way Miwa smiled bitterly, she was probably thinking the same thing.

“I’ll try. Thank you so much, Hisana-sensei! I’ll definitely take you up on that offer. Don’t forget!”

“Of course I won’t. I’ll be looking forward to your visit. Try to take care of yourself, alright? I’d prefer it if the next time I see you, it’ll be as a friend, not as a doctor.” Offering a last smile to Miwa, who was looking much happier than when I first saw her, I made my way out. Reiko followed me without a word. Just before I left, she spoke up.

“You’re seriously considering it, aren’t you? Taking her in. You’re not so cruel as to get her hopes up for nothing.” I was silent for a long moment. To be honest, the idea was beginning to seem more and more appealing the longer I thought about it. Training an apprentice would be satisfying, certainly, and reassuring as well to know if something ever happened to me, someone would be ready to take over. After all, though a lot of things had changed, and I was definitely healthier than canon-Hisana had been at this time, there was always the possibility…I shook that train of thought off and turned back to Reiko.

“It’s a definite possibility, yes. These past few years, I’ve only been getting busier, and there’s only so much I can do on my own. And she has the potential to be a great healer.” You didn’t need massive amounts of spirit energy, after all, to be able to do healing kido. Control was much more important than raw power. Rukia had both the control, and the power for it, and she learned a few tricks easily enough but…not the interest. She was a fighter, not a healer, someone who belonged on the front lines of a battlefield. She excelled brilliantly in her lessons with Mitsuo and Kaori, and nowadays could almost match me in a spar. It wouldn’t be long before she surpassed me, surpassed all of us.

“There’s little I can do to protect her. Hell, I can’t even protect myself half of the time. But if you take her in as your assistant…” Reiko turned to me, eyes suddenly pleading. “No one’s gonna risk angering you, Sensei, at least not over some no-name whore. I get that you can’t save all your patients and you can’t give everyone a way out, but…Miwa’s a good girl. She doesn’t deserve this life.” I looked away, swallowing hard.

“I’ll give her the opportunity,” I said finally. “What she decides to do with it is up to her.”

 


 

I gaped at Kaori’s indifferent face, almost dropping the bowl I was washing. After some deliberation, I’d decided to share my thoughts about taking in an assistant with her first. Out of all of us, she was the one who had the hardest time letting new people in, so I thought it was only fair I tell her first. Not only that, but while Tatsuya had been the first person I’d followed unhesitatingly, it was Kaori who’d been my first mentor.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what sort of reaction I’d expected. A blank look of disapproval, maybe. Not a shrug, and a nonchalant, “Sure, fine.”

“You’re really okay with this?” I asked incredulously. This was Kaori, the person practically embodied the word standoffish.

“What are you waiting for, a written approval?” She asked sarcastically. “Hand me that bowl, will you?” Numbly, I handed it over to her.

“I’m just surprised that you’re so…accepting of my idea.” I said. “I mean, you haven’t even met the girl and you’re alright with me practically adopting her?”

“So what if I haven’t met her? I hadn’t met you either when Tatsuya took you and Rukia in. To be honest, when I first met you, I thought you were a useless, ungrateful burden who’d only hold us back, but I trusted Tatsuya, so when he said he saw something in you, I didn’t protest. And he was right, wasn’t he? Look at you now.” She began drying the bowl in her hand. “So if you say you see something in this kid, who am I to complain?” She paused when I laid a hand on her arm.

“Thanks Kaori,” I said softly, “for trusting me.”

“Idiot,” she grumbled ducking her head, though I saw the tint of red forming on her cheeks anyway, “I spent the past few decades drilling everything I know into your head. If I couldn’t trust your judgment after all that, I wouldn’t be much of a mentor or a friend, would I?”

 


 

“I’m going to run outside to stock up on some bandages. I’ve been running low for days. Anything you guys want me to pick up on the way?” I asked.

“Nee-chan, can you get some more sword oil? And maybe another oil cloth?” Rukia asked, perking up. Kaori had finally deemed Rukia competent enough with a sword to get her one of her own, and she’d been obsessively caring for it ever since.

“Of course. But you do know that you don’t need to oil it three times a day, right?” Turning to the boy next to her, I asked, “What about you, Renji-kun? Would you like me to pick up anything?” Renji looked nervously over at where Kazuki was glaring death at him, and swallowed hard. I was hard pressed not to roll my eyes; seriously, Kazuki was around a century old already—shouldn’t he be a bit more mature? And Renji…I vaguely remembered him being a lieutenant, which was apparently a big deal, so where hell was his backbone?

“Uh…no thanks…I mean, I wouldn’t want to be a burden,” he mumbled finally. “I don’t like mooching off of people.”

“Nonsense,” I said warmly, “Kazuki makes you do enough work around here that you’d hardly be mooching. Besides, you’re family at this point—you certainly spend enough time over here to count. But if you insist…well, one of my patients told me there’re some blueberries growing by the river, so there’s a treat waiting for you there. You still have a couple hours before it gets dark, but be home well before that, okay?”

“Sweet! Thanks, Nee-chan! I’ll bring some back for you!” Rukia grabbed Renji’s arm and ran off. I sighed, running a hand through my hair.

“Honestly, Kazuki, you’re going to give the poor kid a heart attack someday,” I scolded, beginning to clear the dishes.

“I’m just trying to toughen him up a little!” He defended himself innocently. I didn’t buy it for a second, but let it go. He had a point, after all, and that guilt complex had to go. I liked the kid too much to want him ending up as someone’s bitch in the future. For some reason, the image of a stupid-looking hat and a creepy smile popped into my head.

“You sure you don’t want one of us to go with you?” Kazuki asked casually. I looked up frowning; anyone else wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but I knew him too well to think that nothing was up. That Mitsuo was watching a bit more closely than he usually would only cemented it.

“I’m fine. It’s only a shopping trip after all,” I said, studying Kazuki thoughtfully. Cautious, but not wary; so he was unsure of something, but didn’t think I was in any real danger? Originally, it had been Kaori who was supposed to do the weekly shopping trip, but the past few days she’d been loaded down with work (a few years ago, since her more…specialized skills were no longer needed, she’d taken up a side job of helping other people manage their affairs and assets—the irony). Kazuki hadn’t seemed at all worried about her, though, so either this was a really recent thing or it was something tied to me specifically. Tired of analyzing the issue, I decided to stop dancing around it and just ask Kazuki directly.

“What is this about? It’s unlike you to be so cautious.” I pointed out. Kazuki and Mitsuo exchanged looks before Kazuki shrugged.

“It’s nothing big. Probably nothing to worry about…it’s just, I’ve gotten a few different reports from various sources about some guy asking around for you. Well, not you specifically—he didn’t seem to know your name, but as far as I know, you’re the only short midget who can use healing kido going by ‘Sensei’ in Inuzuri.”

“And?” I didn’t see what the big deal was. Most of Inuzuri had probably ‘asked around for me’ at one point or another. That he didn’t know my name suggested he wasn’t an inhabitant here, but while somewhat more uncommon, I did get visitors from other districts once in a while.

“He’s not from Rukongai, Hisana,” Mitsuo spoke up. “All the people I’ve heard from have agreed on that. No one’s told him where to find you, as far as I know, but it never hurts to be careful. If he’s a shinigami who’s heard of your abilities and is curious…well, it’s probably for the best if you don’t run into him.”

“I understand,” I said, but my mind was whirling. Someone obviously not from the Rukongai, possibly a shinigami…it’d been over two weeks since the Oshiro incident, but…

“Hisana?” Mitsuo looked vaguely concerned, waving a hand over my face.

“Just thinking,” I dismissed my thoughts with a shake of my head. I didn’t have enough information to make any inferences, anyway. “I should be fine going alone. It’s only six thirty, and I’ll be back by nine at the latest. Thanks for telling me this; I’ll keep an eye out for any suspicious characters. If it does turn out to be serious, well, I bet I know Inuzuri a hell of a lot better than he does. He’ll never find me if I don’t want him to.” The thought that someone might lead him to me crossed my mind briefly, but was abruptly dismissed. No one was going to exchange lifelong reliable medical service for a few pieces of gold.

Both Mitsuo and Kazuki relaxed, looking slightly more reassured. “You’re right about that, at least. Just remember, keep Tatsuya’s dagger on you at all times, okay?”

“Of course. I always do—you know that.”

Heading out the door, I made my way to the still bustling marketplace. Picking up a few new rolls of bandages only took a few minutes, and I headed off to Watanabe’s bookshop. There wasn’t much, but I picked out a book on different martial arts techniques for Mitsuo and a book on rabbits for Rukia (she had some weird obsession with them). We weren’t that low on groceries, since I’d received a basket full of vegetables from a patient a few days ago, so mostly I just browsed around a bit, picking up a few snacks I thought the others would like. At just past eight, I headed off to the fringes of the red-light district to drop off some salves at one of the poorer brothels. I was just about to make my way back, when a commotion at the end of the street made me pause. Quietly making my way over, I stopped under the roof of a nearby building, where the shadows were slightly thicker. The vantage point wasn’t that great, but at least I was mostly concealed from sight.

The scene in front of me made me raise my eyebrows. Mai, one of the…bolder prostitutes I knew, was cornering a hooded figure against a wall. One of her hands had slipped under his robe and her chest was thrust out into his face. That…was pretty normal for Mai actually. The way her chosen target was stuttering and trying to shove her off was new though.

At a second glance, I could see why she’d chosen him. Though the quality of his clothes was poor and he was armed, it wasn’t hard to see from the way he stood and moved that he was well-bred. That his sword was hidden under his robe spoke of his reluctance to hurt anyone, and the way he flinched every time his hands came anywhere close to Mai’s chest screamed ‘virgin.’ Honestly, I thought somewhat amused, he couldn’t have painted a bigger target on himself if he walked down the street naked with the words ‘easy prey’ tattooed on his forehead.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come with me, honey? I promise I’ll make it worth your time,” Mai was cooing. “I’ll teach you so much. Even give you a first-time discount! It’s not every day I see someone as adorable as you.”

“No—I’ve told you, I’m not interested. Miss, please remove your ha—wait, don’t touch there!” He squeaked. That voice…though currently high with embarrassment, I was almost positive it belonged to the Shinigami I’d rescued a few weeks ago. Shifting forwards a bit, I stared harder at him trying to catch a glimpse of his face. It didn’t help—the only thing I noticed was that it was an alarming shade of red. Taking a deep breath, while simultaneously shoving her other hand away from his crotch, he continued.

“I’ve told you, I just want you to help me find this girl.”

“Aww, so you’ve got a crush and you’re looking for someone to help you gain experience? Good choice,” Mai purred, “Chastity is overrated anyway. Every girl wants a man who knows what they’re doing.”

“No! That’s not what I meant! She saved my life, and I just wanted to--” He huffed, giving up on shoving Mai’s hands away. “Look, miss, she has purple eyes, short black hair, and goes around healing people. I’ve been asking around for days and there’s no way none of you have heard of her.”

 Well, there went any chance of him not being the shinigami I’d met. I hesitated before stepping forward. Sure, he didn’t seem like he wanted to hurt Mai, but he was also getting angry and frustrated. Shinigami were dangerous and Mai had been putting herself on the line to protect me. He was looking for me; I couldn’t in good conscience just hide away and let Mai deal with him herself.

“You know,” I spoke up lightly, “I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see you again, but I do admit, I hadn’t envisioned our next meeting happening quite like this.” Both Mai and the shinigami froze.

Mai recovered first and flung herself at me. “Sensei!” She said, squeezing me against her chest. Meanwhile, the shinigami seemed to be in shock. Turning to Mai, I offered her a grateful smile.

“I’ll take it from here, Mai.” She pouted.

“Aww, and he was such a pretty one too! You’re so lucky, Sensei. Are you sure you don’t want me to stay? I don’t mind sharing if it’s with you.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the shinigami shudder and shift so that he was slightly behind me. Hiding my smile, I turned back to Mai. Her eyes were serious and level, and I shook my head, silently acknowledging the message hidden in her words. Are you sure you’ll be okay alone with him? Just say the word and I’ll come with you.

“I’m quite sure.” She held my gaze for another moment before nodding firmly. Then, before either the shinigami or I could react, she flung her arms around his neck and pressed a giant, wet kiss to his cheek before skipping off cackling. “See you around, Sensei! And Pretty Boy! Hope it goes well!” She winked at him before blowing a kiss. He blanched, then began frantically wiping his face with his sleeve.

After watching the Shinigami continue scrubbing at his face for several seconds, I spoke up, careful to keep my growing amusement from showing. “This is the, what, second time I’ve had to rescue you now? Do try to be a bit more careful; I might not be around to save you a third time. What are you doing here anyway?”

Suddenly reminded of my presence, he jumped and winced sheepishly before seeming to remember himself and his face slipped back into its customary aristocratic expression. “My deepest apologies for my rudeness; please forgive my distraction.”  Turning to face me, he then sank into a formal bow. “I came to Inuzuri seeking your audience in order to extend my sincerest thanks for your kind assis--” I leveled a flat stare at him, cutting him off.

“Drop the formalities. I just saw you get groped; I think we’re past that point, don’t you?” Motioning for him to follow me, I began walking back down the street. “I’ve told you before, all I wanted in repayment was your silence on what really happened, particularly my part in the whole affair. As no shinigami have come tearing through Inuzuri demanding retribution, I’m pretty sure you’ve fulfilled your part of the deal. Consider us even, then.” When he looked about to protest, I shook my head. “Don’t. Look, here’s a bit of advice. Sometimes, when someone does something nice for you, just accept it. Don’t try to force repayment on them. Just thank them, remember what they did, and if the day comes when they need help themselves, pay them back then.” I let him think about what I said for a moment, before continuing.

“You said you’ve been here for days, and it’s getting late. Where are you staying?” I asked, looking up towards the sky. The sun had set a while ago; no doubt it was nearing nine, and as I didn’t want Mitsuo and Kazuki organizing a search party for me, I really should be back by then. A flash of embarrassment crossed over his face. “I started off staying in an inn, but after I woke up to find half my money missing after the first night, I’ve, ah…I’ve been camping in the woods using kido barriers as protection.” I stared at him for a long time, before whistling, slightly impressed. At least he didn’t seem to be one of those prissy nobles who could only fall asleep on silk sheets.

“At least you didn’t get all the way robbed. Come on, I’ll find you a decent inn where you can stay at. Don’t worry about getting robbed again; I’ll speak with the innkeeper to make sure you’re well taken care of.” I paused. “You know, I’ve met you twice and I still haven’t introduced myself.”

Sketching a short bow, I continued, “I’m Yukimura Hisana, though feel free to call me by my first name. Most people do.” Giving permission for people to call me by my first name, I’d found, fostered a sense of intimacy and trust between me and my patients. Eventually, it just became habit to ask people to call me Hisana. Next to me, the Shinigami returned my bow with a slight tilt of his own head.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Yukimura Hisana. My name is Kuchiki Byakuya.”

I tripped.  

 


 

Omake (How Kazuki and Renji first met)

As he quickly ducked under a table to prevent his target from sighting him, Kazuki vaguely wondered how he’d came to be in this situation. Honestly, he was hiding under a table while stal—following Kaori around to make sure her date wouldn’t take advantage of her. Like any good big brother would. He didn’t have any ulterior motives at all. Really.

Denial isn’t an attractive quality, a voice in his head that sounded suspiciously like Hisana said. Hiding under a table like a creepy stalker? That’s a new low, even for you. Scowling, Kazuki told the voice to shove it. Like the real Hisana would, the voice ignored him. This wouldn’t be a problem if you’d just grow the balls to ask her out, you know.

“Quiet!” He hissed under his breath. Great, now he was talking to imaginary voices in his head. “They’re talking!” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a couple of kids walk by.

Peeking out from under the tablecloth, he scowled as he saw Kaori’s date—Taki-something, he’d never liked that guy—order a bottle of sake. Was he trying to get her drunk? Who started drinking alcohol this early anyway?

Your hypocrisy is suffocating me, snorted imaginary-Hisana. Kazuki’s scowl deepened.

“Like you can lecture me on responsible behavior,” Kazuki retorted, “You run around at all hours of the night healing random thugs and criminals for free.” Actually, now that he thought about it, it probably wasn’t a good sign that his inner voice of reason was modeled after an annoying, reckless midget who lost her common sense decades ago.

Next to him, one of the kids he’d seen earlier, a red headed brat about Rukia’s age, suddenly bumped into a waiter carrying an arm full of dishes. The kid fell to the floor, causing the red-bean paste cakes he’d hidden under his shirt to fall out. The owner marched over, red-faced with rage while the kid on the ground froze in terror. Inwardly, Kaori scoffed. Kids these days; amateurs, all of them. Even Hisana before Kaori’s lessons had known that when you were caught, the first thing you did was run. Just before the owner reached him, it seemed the kid’s survival instincts finally kicked in and he turned to make a break for it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t looking where he was going and crashed straight into the table Kazuki was hiding under, knocking it over before sprinting off. Kazuki froze as suddenly all eyes turned to him.

“Kazuki? What the hell are you doing here? And under a table?” Kaori asked confused. Next to her, Taki-bastard looked torn between glaring daggers at him or falling on his ass laughing. Sweating, he began chuckling nervously. “Hey, I know this looks pretty bad, but I can explain…honest…”

An excruciatingly awkward conversation with Kaori and an even worse lecture by (real) Hisana on why ‘hiding under tables creeping on people’ was not socially acceptable later, Kazuki laid down on his bed with a pillow held over his face, contemplating how his day had possibly turned out this shitty. Really, there was only one person to blame for all of this.

I promise you, he thought savagely to the red-haired kid who’d single-handedly demolished his dignity, the next time I see you, I will get my revenge. You will pay for this.

Chapter Text

It’d been a while—decades actually—since I’d been caught off guard so completely, and I didn’t miss the feeling at all. For a moment, I could only stare dumbly at the stupidly-pretty figure in front of me. I felt like someone had hit me over the head with a fifty pound mallet.

Long black hair that he could actually pull off. Shinigami noble. Holier-than-thou attitude. How the hell had I not seen this coming?

Okay, granted, in the few moments I had contemplated Kuchiki Byakuya, I had always imagined him to be in his late twenties/early thirties, not as a semi-awkward eighteen year old. And somehow, I’d pictured him to be more…dignified. Not that he wasn’t proud, mind you, but I’d just seen him get molested by a prostitute. And…was he always this girly looking?

“Um,” I said eloquently. Byakuya raised an eyebrow, though I swore I caught a flash of amusement in his eyes. Bastard was enjoying this. “Uh…you…Kuchiki?” I got out finally, wincing internally. Kaori would kill me if she ever learned that I acted this stupid in front of a relative stranger. “As in, member of the aristocracy, Kuchiki?”

“My family is one of the five noble clans, yes,” he answered. “I take it you’ve heard of them then?”

I huffed at his condescending tone. “I think my reaction answered that question, Kuchiki-san.”

“Call me Byakuya. I just saw you almost trip into a wall—I think we’re past the formalities, don’t you?” He asked, a hint of mockery in his voice. I scowled, glancing up and…yup, sure enough there was a smirk playing around the corners of his lips.

“Very well, then, Byakuya-san.” I said, shoving down the brief flare of surprise I’d felt at the request. Even before I’d died a second time, I’d come to learn that the Japanese had a very formal culture, compared to America at least. The bowing, the honorifics…it was less evident in the slums, but calling someone by their first name was supposed to be a Big Deal. I didn’t have a problem with people calling me by my first name—partly due to leftover influence from my first life—but most people only called close relatives and friends by their given names.

“So what did you do to get permission to come here anyway? I somehow doubt your clan would be happy if you suddenly developed a habit for wandering around various shady places of the Rukongai.” Byakuya grimaced, as if reliving a deeply unpleasant memory.

“A…friend of mine managed to convince my grandfather that I needed some experience navigating the more rural areas of Soul Society. After all, there may be a time when it becomes necessary for a mission.”

I eyed him dubiously. “And they let you, a complete stranger to the area, come here alone and without backup?” What were they, mentally impaired? Byakuya may be a perfectly capable warrior and soldier, but there was a difference between being able to defend your life, and being able to defend your money/virtue/dignity. I had no doubt he could do the former, but the latter…well, the evidence spoke for itself. For a moment, Byakuya seemed almost sheepish, before muttering, “They did send me with a guard. Someone who grew up in the twelfth district of North Rukongai, I believe. I…shook him off somewhere in the thirtieth district.”

“Well, he wouldn’t have been much help anyway. The twelfth district is a bit too, shall we say, civilized for a resident from there to be an effective guide,” I mused. Well, this changed things. Originally, I was going to drop him off at a decent inn, reassure him yet again that he didn’t need to repay his debt, and send him off on his merry way. Now that I knew who he was, leaving him on his own in one of the worst districts of Rukongai didn’t sit well with me. At least with me, he’d be relatively safe.

I thought back to what little I remembered of the anime.  From what I recalled, Future-Byakuya was, to put it bluntly, a dick. Jesus fucking Christ, he was perfectly willing to let Rukia die just because she broke some bullshit law. Not to mention his disdain towards anyone from a lower social class…how the hell did he end up marrying the original Hisana anyway?

“Hisana-san? Are you alright?” Byakuya’s voice broke me out of my thoughts. I blinked, realizing that I had been glaring at the ground for the past few minutes and looked up to see Byakuya’s tentative expression, hidden behind a veneer of calm. My shoulders slumped as all the indignation and anger drained out of me. It wasn’t fair to judge him based on who he might become. Though Byakuya had that same pride and arrogance as I’d remembered in his future self, there was also a hint of uncertainty in his stance showing that no matter who he’d become, at the moment he was still a kid. Okay, an incredibly powerful fighter and accomplished heir of one of the top clans in Soul Society, but still a kid. Mostly.

Of course, even if I’d established that he wasn’t who he’d become in the future, that still left what I was going to do with him. The thing was, no matter what I’d said earlier, a debt from the scion of the Kuchiki clan could only come in handy, and I rather doubted he’d leave it alone anyway considering how much effort he’d put into finding me. And…no matter how much I hated to think about it, I knew that Rukia was going to become a shinigami. It was something I’d agonized over ever since Rukia had first shown her aptitude for fighting and her high reiatsu. By becoming a Shinigami, she would be putting herself in incredible danger—no matter how much things changed, there was always a chance that things could go wrong. She could end up a pawn in Aizen’s games, she could be killed by a hollow, and even if she survived everything that happened in the anime, well…the Gotei 13 had closets and closets full of skeletons. Eventually she was going to get caught up in something that she couldn’t handle, and what then?

 If I really wanted to, I probably could talk her out of going to the Seireitei. Rukia was nothing if not loyal, after all—it wouldn’t take too much to persuade her. But even knowing the risks…I couldn’t, wouldn’t, stop her from becoming a shinigami. Despite the danger, becoming a shinigami was the only real chance of getting out of the purgatory that was Rukongai life. She was always meant to leave, I knew that. When she was younger, it wasn’t such a problem; Inuzuri was big and I was always able to find something else to entertain her with. Then she bumped into a visiting shinigami. And ever since then…well, she hadn’t explicitly said anything to any of us. But sometimes, I’d find her staring out in the direction of Soul Society, her gaze riveted to the shining white tower with an expression of longing on her face. Her training with Mitsuo took on a new tone; she was gradually learning how to attack as well as defend herself now. She and Renji would have hushed conversations and their play fights became more serious. And sometimes, late at night, she’d crawl over to my futon and would talk about how someday, she’d like to own a house—a big one, with large gardens and a koi pond and lots of rabbits.

No, I wouldn’t stop her from becoming a shinigami. Part of me wanted her to stay, to protect her. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there are worse things than death. There would be no way that I could protect her if she left the relative safety of Inuzuri. But I would never be able to live with myself if I forced her to stay, where she would only fade away slowly. Taking away her chance at happiness, at living a better life, would be a crime I would never be able to live with.

I shook my thoughts away and smiled brightly at Byakuya. “I’m fine, I was just thinking. You know, I don’t live too far away and I’m sure you’re tired. If you want to, I could clear out a spare room for you to stay the night. The nearest quality inn is still quite a while away.”

“Oh no, I wouldn’t want to impose…” He said, looking startled.

“Nonsense, it’s no trouble at all. Besides, you’d attract less attention by staying with me.” I took a step back and eyed him critically. “I’ll just say something along the lines of you trying to pay off a debt to me—it’s not even really a lie. In the process, I can show you around Rukongai. It’s one of the reasons you came here, right?”

 “I…” He paused guiltily. “This really isn’t necessary, you’ve already done so much for me.”

“It’s fine, really.” I said. “You’d be doing me a favor too. See, I have a little sister who’s interested in becoming a shinigami.” I leaned back and ducked my head a bit, feigning embarrassment. “There’s only so many questions I can answer for her. I thought maybe you could give her a few tips, and in exchange I can show you how to not get robbed the next time you’re outside the Seireitei,” I finished cheekily. “Give and take, yeah?”

As expected, his eyes softened at the mention of my sister.

“I would like that,” he said quietly. In reply, I grabbed hold of his right sleeve and began tugging him in the direction of my house.

If I couldn’t protect Rukia myself when she became a shinigami, I’d just have to have someone else do it for me. In the original Bleach-verse, Byakuya had taken Rukia in due to obligation he felt towards his dead wife (who was me, and wasn’t that disturbing to think about?). I had no delusions that I would marry Byakuya—I wasn’t the Hisana he’d fallen for. Just because I had her face didn’t mean that we were the same person. Which meant that now I had to give Byakuya another reason, a better reason, to look out for Rukia. I mean part of the reason canon-Byakuya had done such a crap job of being a big brother was because he didn’t really know her and didn’t get to know her because he couldn’t bear to look at her face, which, yeah, kind of put a damper on the family bonding. I was hoping that if he got to know Rukia himself, and with the life-debt he owed to me, he’d do a better job of protecting her this time around. And even if this didn’t turn out as well as I hoped it would, well, some protection was better than no protection after all.

 


 

It wasn’t until I got home that I realized there were some aspects of my oh-so-brilliant plan that I hadn’t thought through. Namely, how the rest of my family would react.

“You know, Hisana, when I warned you about the possibly-dangerous shinigami asking around for you, that wasn’t code for oh cool, let’s bring him home!” Kazuki shouted. I winced sheepishly.

“I, too, would like to know the meaning of this,” Mitsuo said quietly. Kaori settled for glaring at Byakuya. His impassive, unimpressed face seemed to only make her angrier.

“Honestly, it’s not a big deal. I got him out of a tight spot a couple weeks ago and he realized just how much he didn’t know about life outside the Seireitei and came back to learn. He offered to teach Rukia some kenjutsu and hand-to-hand combat in exchange for me teaching him a bit about how to get by in these parts. You’re overreacting.” I explained casually. It was the truth. Mostly.

“We don’t need--” Kazuki began, scowling distrustfully at Byakuya but I cut him off sharply.

“He’s a highly ranked Shinigami officer. Not only that, but he comes from a noble family, so he knows the politics and societal rules in the Seireitei. He has knowledge we don’t.” I paused, before letting some of my worry leak into my tone. “We all know that Rukia is going to be a shinigami someday. I just want to give her every advantage possible.”

As expected, Kazuki caved in like a house of straw. “Fine. We’ll continue this discussion later.” Turning to Byakuya, he gave him a grudging nod. “Don’t try anything funny,” he said, before leaving.

 Kaori gave me a hard look. “He’s your responsibility,” she bit out, before following him. Mitsuo lingered by the door.

“I won’t pretend to like this, Hisana. Miwa was one thing, but a shinigami?” He sighed, before giving me a weary smile. “I’ll trust your judgment on this though.” Turning to Byakuya, he bowed slightly.

“I’m Mitsuo. Hisana seems to think you’re a decent guy, so I’ll give you a chance.” He nodded slightly before heading out.

“Well,” I said in the sudden silence, “I think that went well, don’t you?”

“Your family is very…intense,” Byakuya said finally. I appreciated his tact.

“That’s one word for it,” I agreed, smiling wryly. “Would you like any tea?”

“Tea would be lovely, thank you.” Heading into the kitchen, I pulled out the tea leaves I’d gotten as a gift last week from a merchant. It probably wasn’t up to the standard that Byakuya was used to but…fuck it, he spent the last two weeks camping out in the woods. He had no place to judge me.

“I’ll introduce you to Rukia tomorrow.” She was probably sleeping, given that she hadn’t come in and bombarded Byakuya with fifty thousand questions yet.

“Your sister?” He asked, as I began boiling the water.

“Yeah,” I nodded. “Sorry about them. They’re a bit uneasy around outsiders.”

“Understandable. They’re your family, you said?” Byakuya questioned.

“Yeah. Kazuki—the loud, grumpy one—is like a brother to me. Kaori’s a bit scary, but in an awesome way. And Mitsuo’s the most reasonable one out of all of us.”

“Are you all blood related?” He asked curiously.

“God, no.” I laughed. “I get that things are a bit different in the Soul Society, but most people here don’t have enough reiatsu to have a child. Almost all the families here form through adoption. Rukia’s the only one I’m actually related to through blood.” I took the water off the stove. “Blood related families are really rare—it’s pretty hard to find family members after you die. God knows that I haven’t got a clue where my parents are, or how they ended up, and I have more connections than most.”

“How did you find Rukia then, if you don’t mind me asking?”

 I paused, before shrugging and deciding to answer. I’d had over half a century to get over my death and it wasn’t like it was some big secret of mine.

“We died together. Tsunami, you know? I took Rukia and tried to run, but I’d realized what the signs were too late.” I laughed hollowly. “We didn’t stand a chance.”

“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t-I didn’t mean to bring up such an insensitive subject,” he stammered, eyes wide. Shaking my head, I rolled my eyes at him and ducked my head to hide a fond smile. Christ, the man was adorable. Seriously, how the heck did he manage to grow up into such a douchebag?

“Relax, Byakuya-san. It happened decades ago. I’m over it. I’m just thankful that Rukia and I ended up in the same place, really.”

“How do you stand remembering it?” He sounded upset. “How do you remember it? Soul Society is supposed to be a fresh start.”

“You know, I’ve asked that question a few times myself. How do I remember my previous life?” Both times, I thought. “At first, I thought it had something to do with my relatively high reiatsu levels. Don’t look surprised, you know that I can do healing kido. Anyway, after a while I realized that that isn’t it. After dying, everyone wakes up in Soul Society remembering their past lives. Perhaps not perfectly, but well enough. It has nothing to do with reiatsu levels.” I was quiet for a moment. “It’s more…it’s as you said, Soul Society is supposed to be a fresh start. You have to understand, Byakuya-san…when you die, you wake up with nothing. You’re torn away from your family, your friends, your job, your life. It doesn’t matter who you were before; death makes all men equal. Maybe at first you try to look for family members, loved ones, but unless you get really lucky, you don’t succeed. After that, it just becomes easier to…forget, than to remember everything you’ve lost. Human memory isn’t perfect, you know. And as the years pass by, it becomes easier and easier to let go.”

“So how do you stand remembering?” He asked. I was quiet for a moment. Tatsuya…Tatsuya had asked me that once. I gave Byakuya the same answer I gave him.

“Memories make up who you are. Where does the past exist, after all, but in memories?” I fingered the edge of my teacup absentmindedly. “I guess part of the reason I remember is because Rukia deserves someone to tell her stories of our parents, to pass on their love to her. The other part is necessity. I made a choice long ago to take care of Rukia to the best of my ability and to give her the upbringing she deserved. If I don’t even know who I am, how could I possible hope to take care of her?”

“You’re a good sister,” he said after another pause.

“I try,” I said, one side of my lips quirking up. “Besides, don’t be so quick to compliment me. You haven’t even seen me with Rukia yet.” He raised an eyebrow at me.

“From what I’ve seen, somehow I doubt you’re doing too badly.”

“You flatter me, really,” I snorted. “Come on, I’ll get you settled in the guest room. It’s nothing special—none of the silk sheets I’m sure you’re used to—but it beats camping out in the woods.”

 


 

As designated cook of the family, I was usually the first one up in the morning. Which was why, as I quietly made my way to the kitchen to heat up some porridge, I was surprised to see Kaori already there.

“I’m not going to say anything against your decision to bring the shinigami here. I understand your reasons, and even support them to an extent. I want Rukia to succeed just as much as you do. Not to mention that anyone with eyes can tell that the shinigami has no intention of harming you.” She stared at me intently. “That’s not to say that I like it. Rukia was always going to become a shinigami, we’ve all known that for years even though Kazuki still denies it. She’ll become one of them, and will have their protection. You though?” Kaori shook her head. “A civilian getting involved with a shinigami is dangerous. Especially one so politically important.”

I eyed her with confusion. “Kaori, I understand that you distrust shinigami. I don’t exactly trust the majority of them either. But you have no problem with Rukia becoming a shinigami and you already said that you don’t think Byakuya would hurt us. What’s the problem then?” Kaori rolled her eyes in frustration.

“It’s not your pet shinigami that I have a problem with! It’s his family! He’s a goddamn Kuchiki, Hisana! You really think his family is going to be happy about him gallivanting around the slums with some random Rukongai girl?” I flinched, but didn’t back down.

“You’re reading too much into this. God, you make it sound like we’re having some secret illicit affair or something.”

“You think his family is gonna care? Since you told me he didn’t tell anyone about the whole you-saving-his-life thing, all they’re going to see is him making excuses to head out into Rukongai for no good reason.” She asked, but softened her tone. “Just…be careful, alright? Don’t get too close to him.”

“Kaori, relax. It’s not like I’m planning on falling in love with him,” I huffed, crossing my arms. “It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, that’s all. He gets to learn how to function in regular society and gets to work off any lingering obligation he feels towards me. I get a tutor for Rukia and free manual labor for the next few weeks, or however long he’s staying. That’s it. No seduction schemes, long term marriage plans, or whatever else your paranoid head has come up with.” Kaori sent me an unamused look.

“Make sure you keep it that way and we’ll have no issues then.”

 


 

Mitsuo took one look at my scowling face as I handed him his breakfast and raised an eyebrow.

“Well, someone’s in a bad mood today.” He teased gently. When I only glared at him, his expression changed to one of concern.

“Hey,” he said softly, “what’s wrong?”

“It’s just…” I barely resisted pulling my hair in frustration. “Kaori spoke to me earlier.” Understanding diffused over Mitsuo’s face.

“Ah. I’m guessing it didn’t go well?” I smiled wryly.

“Look, I get that bringing a guy home is kind of…abnormal for me,” I began.

“That’s an understatement,” Mitsuo muttered under his breath, causing me to shoot him a glare. He hid his grin behind his teacup, and against my will I felt the corners of my mouth pulling up.

“Shut up, you big jerk.” I grumbled halfheartedly.

“You know I can’t help it. The last time you brought a guy home, it was only because his guts were spilling out and you didn’t think you could get him to the clinic fast enough.”

“Yeah, yeah, rub my abysmal love life in my face. You can’t exactly talk,” I shot back.

“I’ll have you know that I’ve gotten tons of offers. It’s not my fault every time I bring one home, you guys scare them off.” I gave him my best unimpressed look.

“In the decades I’ve known you, you’ve brought home exactly three girls. And if they couldn’t handle a little blood, or Kaori on her period, or Rukia on a sugar rush, or Kazuki being Kazuki, then they don’t deserve you.” Mitsuo stared at me blandly.

“Hisana, when I introduced you to Chie, your hands were still dripping in blood from performing surgery. I’ve known Kaori for over a century, and I still get terrified of her when it’s that time of the month. She was chasing Kazuki around the house with an ax --

“Yeah, having sex with one of his many girlfriends on her bed was a pretty stupid idea. I mean there’s absolute idiocy, and then there’s Kazuki,” I said, wincing at that particular memory.

“ –so yeah, that scared away Fumiko pretty quickly. And Rukia threw adopted bunny #5 at Junko’s face, when Junko was allergic to rabbits.

“Hey, don’t blame Rukia for that!” I said indignantly on Rukia’s behalf. “How was she supposed to know Jun-Jo-Jank—Girlfriend #3 was allergic to rabbits?” Mitsuo leveled me with another unimpressed stare.

“Rukia might not have known…but you did.” He said grumpily.

“Ah…ha…ha,” I chuckled weakly. But hey, it wasn’t like I was the only one who might have participated in a little…friendly sabotage. I knew for a fact that the ax thing was staged, and out of all her pet rabbits Rukia might have chosen, she chose Bunny #5—aka psycho-claw bunny—to chuck at Girlfriend #3’s face. And it wasn’t like Mitsuo was completely innocent either. The second time Kaori brought a boyfriend home, he’d volunteered to help me cook dinner and had ‘accidentally’ dumped a whole can of chili powder into the guy’s soup.

“Anyway, don’t try to deflect the conversation towards me. I know that you said that this was only the second time you met Kuchiki-san, but do you understand now why Kaori might have misinterpreted your relationship with him?”

“Yeah,” I said glumly. Because I did, really. Last night, in my shock at finding out that mystery Shinigami was actually Kuchiki-freaking-Byakuya, I’d forgotten one of the many unsaid rules of our household. Making friends outside of our little group of people was fine, but bringing someone home was tantamount to inviting them into the family—assuming they met everyone’s approval, that is. Either way, it was a pretty serious declaration of commitment for us. By extending a dinner invitation to Miwa, I was offering her a place in my home. When Rukia dragged Renji home and declared him her best friend, she was also saying he’s like a brother to me, treat him as you would me. The rules for romantic partners was a bit different; as proved with Mitsuo, it was like saying Ok, I’m pretty serious about him/her, but for everyone else, it was practically an invitation to test their worth, for lack of a better way to phrase it. My moment of introspection was broken by Rukia heading down the stairs.

“Hey, nee-chan, why is there a strange man sleeping in the guest room?” She asked puzzled. I groaned and slapped a hand to my forehead as Mitsuo smirked and toasted me with his teacup before sauntering out.

“Don’t worry about it,” I grumbled. “He’s someone who owed me a favor and he needed a place to crash.” Rukia still looked confused.

“Yeah, lots of people owe you favors, but why is he staying here?” She asked, emphasizing the ‘here’ meaningfully.

“It’s not what you think,” I began hastily. Seriously, it was awkward enough that a different version of me had been Byakuya’s wife in another universe; I so did not need half of my family thinking we were dating in this one. “Really, it’s just that he’s a shinigami and is absolutely hopeless when it comes to trying to live here. I really did bring him here because he had nowhere else to go.” As expected, Rukia’s eyes lit up at the word shinigami.

“Really? He’s a shinigami? That’s so cool! Do you think he’d answer a few of my questions? Maybe help me out with my swordplay, so that the next time I see Renji-baka I can totally kick his ass, we’ll see who’s a sissy now – “

“Rukia,” I said, halting her train of words, feeling faintly amused. “Slow down now, he’s already agreed to help you out. How did you think he was going to be paying me back?” Her eyes widened and a huge grin broke across her face.

“You got him to agree to teach me?” She squealed. “Oh my god, nee-chan, you’re seriously, like, the best sister ever, just you wait, I’m going to be the best shinigami you’ve ever seen – “ Her words broke off abruptly as she realized what she said. “Uh, I mean, I’m going to be the best swordswoman the world has ever seen, yeah.”

“Calm down, Rukia. You really think we didn’t know about you wanting to be a shinigami?” I rolled my eyes. “Give us some credit here.”

“You don’t mind?” She asked, voice small. “I mean, Kazuki-nii is always going on about how shinigami are giant jerks who overcompensate with their giant swords.”

“I think I’m going to need to have another ‘talk’ with your Kazuki-nii,” I muttered before smiling gently at Rukia. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to become a shinigami. My main issue with you becoming one is that you’ll be in danger. I won’t lie, I hate the thought of you not being safe and being where I can’t protect you. But if that’s what you really want to do, I won’t stop you.” Rukia’s eyes were turning suspiciously shiny, and I coughed uncomfortably. The problem with family, I thought sourly, was that it was really hard to maintain your dignity around people who’d already seen you at your worst. It was a miracle that the calm, collected, reliable, polite persona I adopted amongst most of Inuzuri’s citizens hadn’t died a fiery death years ago. I handed Rukia a bowl of still-hot rice porridge along with some broiled fish and pickles.

“Here, would you mind taking this up to our guest? I’m not quite sure what time he’ll be waking up.”

“There’s no need,” a smooth voice came from behind me. I looked up to see Byakuya looking at me with an unreadable expression. It had to be some kind of hereditary aristocrat talent, I decided, to be able to pull off that cool, prideful aura while dressed in little more than a potato sack. Rukia looked equally as impressed, judging from the landed fish impression she was doing.

I nodded to him. “Byakuya-san. I trust you slept well?” I took away the dishes Rukia was holding before she dropped them, while surreptitiously closing her mouth. “Don’t want you to catch flies, imouto. And don’t gape; it’s not polite to stare.” She blushed, though dropped her gaze.

“I can’t help it, nee-chan!” She whispered fiercely to me. “He’s…he looks like a freaking princess!” There was a long silence, and judging from the intense stare I could feel on the back of my neck, there was no way that Byakuya hadn’t heard that. Rukia looked mortified. I didn’t dare turn around; life debt or no, I had no doubt that if I burst out laughing then, not only would Rukia never forgive me, Byakuya would probably skewer me with his zanpakuto.

After taking several deep breaths, I slowly turned to face Byakuya, carefully not looking at his expression.

“Byakuya-san,” my voice shook slightly-- do not start laughing, he will turn you into a Hisana-kabob, you do not want that on your epitaph—“This is my sister, Rukia. Imouto, this is Kuchiki Byakuya.”

“Nice to meet you,” Rukia mumbled under her breath, sketching a quick bow.

“Pleasure,” he answered back. Both Rukia and I winced at his icy tone.

“Rukia, why don’t you go spend the day with Renji? I’ll show Byakuya-san around town; get him acquainted with the area.” Rukia nodded, glad to have an excuse to escape. As soon as she was out the door, I lifted my head to finally meet his gaze, keeping my own expression carefully neutral. He scowled at me.

“Not another word,” he ground out through gritted teeth. I nodded, handing him his breakfast.

“As you wish,” I said, lips curling up into a gleeful smirk, “Byakuya-hime.”

 


 

Omake: The First Time Tatsuya Saw Hisana

Tatsuya hummed cheerfully to himself as he ducked down a narrow side-street behind a bar, a short cut that would make his trip home ten minutes shorter. Kaori recently had a very successful ‘shopping’ trip, so he could expect her to be in a reasonably good mood for at least a couple days. Maybe she’d even consent to making him onigiri—she was the only one besides Mitsuo who could cook well enough that her food, while not exactly delicious, was at least palatable.

A quiet whimper caught his attention. Turning around, he frowned in irritation at the all-too-familiar sight. A man—probably a member of one of the more minor yakuza gangs—was leering down at the cowering figure of a young woman, who had her back against the wall and was looking up fearfully. Inwardly, Tatsuya scoffed, debating to himself whether or not he should step in. On the one hand, the girl didn’t even look to be in her teens yet. She didn’t have that world-weary, resigned look to her that all Rukongai inhabitants developed sooner or later, so he’d wager that she was new to this life too. On the other, well…

“Please, mister, don’t hurt me! Please…I’ll do anything, just…just leave me alone.” The girl’s voice cracked near the end before trailing off. Even at this distance, Tatsuya could see her shoulders hunching in and he imagined he could see them shaking.

“Aw, come on, little kitten. I promise I’ll be gentle. Here, you’ll need to be broken in sooner or later, and if you please me, I swear that I’ll make it good for you too. Give and take, yeah? I’ll even drop you a bit of cash.” He said, his reassuring grin not quite masking the lustful stare he was giving her body.

Tatsuya turned away with a noise of disgust, averting his eyes from the pitiful sight in front of him. While he didn’t like pedophiles, he hated weakness even more. And the stupid girl was practically inviting him to rape her, with the way she was just standing there shivering, staring up at her attacker with wide eyes, pleading with him, kneeing him in the balls…

Wait, what?

He did a double take, mouth hanging wide open as he watched the petite, delicate-looking child who probably weighed sixty pounds soaking wet viciously jerk up her knee to hit her two-hundred pound assaulter right in the groin. As he doubled over in pain cursing, she reached inside her yukata and withdrew a brick—a brick of all things, what the hell—and brought it down hard on her assaulter’s temple. He crumpled like a sack of rocks. She then began methodically stripping her assaulter-turned-victim of anything valuable on his body, including his coat, money, two daggers and a short sword, and very deliberately stomped on his face before exiting the alley. Tatsuya thought he might have also heard her mutter something along the lines of “Thanks for the loot, you sick, pedophilic, warthog-faced son of a diseased Billy goat,” before leaving.

“What’s up with you?” Horio asked later that night. “What, did one of the girls you were flirting with turn out to be a cross-dressing man in disguise again?” Tatsuya snapped out of his daze long enough to glare at him.

“That was one time!” He squawked, before getting up and moving over to where Mitsuo was sitting. The company would be less irritating there at least. Mitsuo raised an eyebrow, silently questioning Tatsuya on his thoughtful mood. “Horio has a point. You have been strangely…preoccupied all evening.”

“It’s nothing much. Just saw something that surprised me today.” Tatsuya replied, leaning back into his chair. “Say, Mitsuo…what would you think of me adding another member to our group?”

“Oh? He must be something else if he can catch your attention. You’re not one to be easily impressed.” Mitsuo said thoughtfully.

“It’s a she. And yeah, she’s a spirited one. A little spitfire,” Tatsuya grinned, thinking back to the way she’d first duped her attacker before robbing him blind. She’d had even him fooled with her little act, really.

“Well, if you approve, I have no objections.” Mitsuo said before falling silent again.

It might not come to anything, Tatsuya acknowledged to himself. But thinking back to the flash of steel he’d seen in her eyes, he couldn’t help but think that there was potential there. At the very least, it was worth keeping an eye on her. It wasn’t often that he saw such strength in someone of her age, after all. It’d be…interesting, to witness the kind of person she’d grow into.

Chapter Text

Interlude from Chapter 4

He was kidnapped. He, Kuchiki Byakuya, heir and pride of the Kuchiki clan, fourth seat of the 6th division, was freaking kidnapped while his captors were currently debating whether or not to kill him or ransom him off. To add insult to injury, he was being held in the basement of an abandoned warehouse of all places, his captors consisted of a couple low life thugs he should have been able to defeat blindfolded with both hands tied behind his back, and a short, fat pathetic-looking middle aged man who, given the massive amounts of gaudy, poor-quality gold jewelry he was wearing, looked like he was seriously overcompensating for something.

Byakuya didn't think he'd ever been so humiliated in his life.

"Found him at the edges of the forest. Looked like a hollow attack. The rest of 'em were dead. He was alive, barely, and we thought he'd fetch a nice little price. He still managed to put up a hell of a fight, though," one of the men was explaining to Oshiro-something-or-the-other. Byakuya ruthlessly pushed down the wave of grief that swelled inside him and focused on his anger. He hadn't really expected them to survive after they'd gotten separated but…there'd be time for mourning later. Grief wouldn't help anyone right now. "Where's Sensei anyway? These cuts hurt and Ueno over there looks like he's gonna keel over soon."

"If you didn't decide to do something so stupid, you wouldn't be hurt in the first place, so suck it up!" Oshiro yelled. Gods help him, his voice was causing Byakuya more pain than the rest of his injuries put together. "Look at the situation you've forced me into! I can't let him go; the second I do, he'll lead the rest straight to us. Can't bribe him, either, since he had more pocket money on him than I see in a month. Can't let him go…but what do I do with him? If I kill him…but what if they come looking for him?"

This wasn't good. Any shinigami worth their zanpakuto knew that the more desperate an enemy became, the more dangerous they were. Feeling the first stirrings of panic begin to settle in his gut, Byakuya decided to speak up, hoping fervently that a threat would knock some sense back into the idiot.

"If you kill me, my family will never let this go. They will hunt down every last one of you." And then his jii-sama would find some way of resurrecting him and would probably kill him again, painfully, for bringing such shame to the Kuchiki clan. At least he felt some measure of peace in knowing that his family would avenge his death. None of the bastards here would escape their retribution. Oshiro scowled, leaning forward so his face was right in front of Byakuya's. His breath smelled of cheap sake and putrid fish. Byakuya grimaced slightly, doing his best to lean back.

"Oh yeah? But the dead have no way of talking, and even the shinigami can't read minds. They'd never be able to prove I did it." He said, holding a knife just under Byakuya's chin, and there was a savage, cruel satisfaction in his voice. No doubt drunk on the sense of power he felt in having a shinigami, and one of considerably high rank at that, more or less at his mercy. Glaring, Byakuya raised his face higher, refusing to be intimidated by someone of Oshiro's like. Death…was something he could accept. Giving in to this pathetic worm of a man? He could threaten to kill him a million times, and Byakuya still wouldn't fear him.

"Oshiro-sama, you called for me?" a soft voice interrupted from the front of the room. Both Byakuya and Oshiro startled slightly—neither had noticed anyone else come in. Recognition flashed in Oshiro's eyes, and a wide, leering grin split his face as he stood up again. A few seconds later, Byakuya realized it was supposed to be an attempt at a gentlemanly, courteous smile. He closed his eyes briefly in disgust, before turning to study the petite figure standing next to the door.

The first thing he noticed was how…out of place she looked here, in a filthy warehouse surrounded by men who'd lost all honor decades ago. Back straight, posture poised and chin lifted in an almost unconscious gesture of superiority, he'd met nobles who couldn't match her dignity. You can learn a lot about a person just by the way they stand, his grandfather had said once. The girl in front of him wore confidence like a cloak, her manner demanding respect. Which, for someone who looked like she barely topped five feet, weighed about ninety pounds and was barely past her teens, was rather impressive.

"Is something the matter?" She asked, large violet eyes flitting around the room before briefly meeting his own. Her voice was low, cool and faintly detached, lacking any hint of actual curiosity. In fact, he hadn't seen her show any surprise since entering the room. Her calm serenity could almost match Unohana's.

"Ah, Sensei," Oshiro simpered. "As you can see, a bit of trouble has come up, but it's nothing you need to worry your pretty head about. I do apologize for taking up your time, but a few of my members have gotten into a bit of a skirmish. If you don't mind?"

"No need to apologize, Oshiro-sama. It is always a pleasure to be of help." Byakuya had to applaud her control. That smile looked almost genuine. A brief look of concentration crossed her face before her hands lit up with a very familiar green glow. Byakuya jolted, eyes widening. There was no doubt that it was healing kido, he thought as he watched her slowly stitch together a rather deep stab wound on one of his attackers. At least now he knew why she was referred to by such a respectful title, and why she was so at ease with criminals four times her size. Her specialized skill set probably afforded her some measure of protection.

The real question was, how the hell was she able to use it in the first place? You needed more than high levels of reiatsu and control to be able to use it; you also needed an intimate knowledge of the human body and a vivid imagination. Byakuya himself could only manage the most basic of healing kido, so how did a woman in one of the poorest districts of Rukongai learn it?

Though as he watched, it became evident she wasn't quite as skilled as the members of the Fourth Division. Though quite efficient with her use of reiatsu, her use of it leaned more towards 'just-repair-enough-to-keep-someone-alive' than any degree of real sophistication. Most of the wounds would later scar and she used several salves in conjunction with her reiatsu. Several times Byakuya felt himself drifting off into unconsciousness, though each time he stubbornly fought against the wave of dizziness and exhaustion. Now wasn't the time to fall asleep, serious concussion be damned.

For the thousandth time in the last hour, he cursed the hollow that had gotten a lucky hit in, striking him hard in the ribs (likely breaking more than a few in the process) and sending him flying through the air into a tree. He'd briefly blacked out and when he came to, several thugs were rooting through his clothes for money. He'd managed to knock two out, and seriously injure another, but he'd been suffering from a serious concussion and reiatsu depletion at the time, and the fourth had knocked Senbonzakura out of his hand while he'd been fighting nausea and had whacked the back of his already-concussed head with the hilt of his sword—which normally wouldn’t have caused much damage had he not already been wounded there. The next thing he knew, he woke up tightly bound in this godforsaken warehouse with the man who probably inspired the cliché for 'incompetent villain' looming over him.

"What of the shinigami, Oshiro-sama?" The same calm tone asked with mild interest, snapping Byakuya out of his thoughts.

"Rest assured, Sensei, he will be taken care of. Thank you again for your services," Oshiro replied dismissively. To Byakuya's surprise, the girl hesitated.

"If I may offer a suggestion?" She asked. "Disposing of him as he is might be…unwise." The pause between her words was the only sign of her trepidation at speaking out. Without waiting for Oshiro's anger to set in, she added on, "If I may, I have another idea. I presume that your men found him after a hollow attack?" Oshiro nodded and she continued. "If he were killed by you, no doubt the Shinigami would investigate his disappearance. Should they discover his death, they would most certainly seek retribution. Even if they don't discover your hand in it, Oshiro-sama, you could be caught in the backlash of his family's anger. For him to die by the hand of a Rukongai citizen would invite all of Seireitei's anger. However, if he were to have died, in, say, a hollow attack…" she trailed off meaningfully, and Byakuya stopped listening as he grasped the point she was making. The nausea he'd felt from before returned with a vengeance.

It could work, he realized as he watched the deceptively-harmless looking girl plan out his death with the same nonchalance as someone talking about the weather. His family would grieve, but all of the evidence would point towards him being killed by hollows along with the rest of his team. No one would have a reason to question further.

"Sensei, could you make it appear as if he was killed by a hollow?" Byakuya lifted his head at Oshiro's question, his oily voice now tainted with a hint of relief. The girl tilted her chin slightly to the side, an innocent smile crossing her face.

"My dear Oshiro," she chided, cruel amusement flashing through her eyes. For the first time, Byakuya thought he might understand how a slip of a girl with no formal combat training could hold her own against men three times her size. "I am a professional. To fake the cause of death would be child's play."

A wide smile spread over Oshiro's face. "I knew that there was a reason I liked you, Sensei," he said cheerfully.

"You flatter me," she said softly, the dangerous edge to her voice vanishing as if it had never existed. "I only require some help to get the shinigami to the place of the hollow attack, and his sword." When he hesitated, she raised an eyebrow slightly. "Surely you don't expect for his family to believe he died without his sword, do you?" Byakuya watched as Oshiro's mouth twisted, before shoving Senbonzakura roughly into the girl's hands. Turning to two of his goons, he barked out, "Well, you idiots heard her. Take the shinigami to where you found him, and help Sensei out with anything she needs."

With that, Byakuya found himself roughly hauled to his feet, one of the men behind him shoving his head forward harshly. Clenching his teeth, Byakuya barely bit back a gasp as one of his ribs shifted painfully.

"I'll just leave everything to you then, Sensei?" Oshiro asked, clasping a hand on the girl's shoulder, before heading out with his remaining guards. For a moment, something flashed across the girl's face, though it was gone before Byakuya could make out what it was. "I live to serve." She murmured, ducking her head down for a brief second, before gesturing briskly for the men holding Byakuya to proceed.

The walk back to the forest was nothing short of torture. By this point, Byakuya would be happy if he never saw this godforsaken district again…a very real possibility at this point, he conceded. Several times he thought he might have blacked out briefly despite his best efforts and only came back to reality when he was shoved roughly against a fallen tree trunk.

"That will be all, thank you." Byakuya looked up to find the girl watching him with an inscrutable expression, feeling a bit surprised. Severely injured and restrained or not, there weren't many civilians who'd feel comfortable being alone in the presence of an enemy shinigami. If he managed to escape his bounds, his injuries wouldn't prevent him from killing her. His captors seemed to agree, exchanging uneasy looks. When they started to protest, however, she turned to them with a smile just a touch too sharp to be comforting.

"Unless you'd like to watch?" She asked, her voice like the finest silk barely hiding sharp steel. Byakuya found that despite himself, even he couldn't blame them for taking a step back before running away with their tails tucked between their legs.

She watched the two run off with satisfaction coloring her features, before slipping out a small dagger out from inside her yukata. It was a beautiful weapon, meticulously cared for, and she looked at it with an inscrutable expression.

"You don't know much about hollows if you think you can recreate hollow-induced injuries with that tiny knife," Byakuya couldn't resist saying, inserting as much disdain as he could muster into his tone. He wouldn't admit it to anyone, but her silence was unnerving him almost as much as her previous threat to kill him. He'd known since before becoming a shinigami that he could very well die any day, but that didn't mean he wanted it dragged out. Anything was better than this slow, nerve-wracking suspense.

One side of her mouth quirked up, though she maintained her silence. She knelt down next to him, so close that he could feel her breath brushing against her face. Byakuya swallowed and closed his eyes, preparing himself for the slice of steel through his jugular. Somewhat hysterically, he wished fervently that his grandfather wouldn't let Yoruichi speak at his funeral. The damage that would do to his dignity would probably follow him into his next life. He felt more than saw the knife rise up, heard the swish of the blade as it slashed back down…cutting straight through the ropes binding his hands together.

For a moment, Byakuya could only stare dumbly at his now freed hands, the strands of rope falling uselessly to the ground. Then his brain caught up to what was happening and he shoved himself away, mouth gaping like a beached fish. A small voice in the back of his head, one that sounded suspiciously like his grandfather, reprimanded him for his loss of composure. The much larger part of himself, the one still in shock over his continued survival, told that voice to shove it.

"What…why…you were just about to kill me!" He shouted. No, that wasn't quite right. Now that his mind wasn't fogged with panic, he could see the subtle glint of amusement in his captor's?—savior's?—eyes.

"Contrary to how it might look, I am not, actually, in the habit of killing people in cold blood." She said, ironic humor tinting her voice.

"But why? You could have gotten away with it…probably," Byakuya blurted out before he could stop himself.

"It is nice to know that you have a higher opinion of my intelligence than you do of Oshiro's," she answered wryly. Byakuya winced. "And as for why? Why not? I told Oshiro that I'm a professional—well, I'm a healer. I don't like seeing people get hurt for no reason, especially when I can prevent it." He could tell that she wasn't telling him everything, but decided drop it. Her reasons weren't that important to him anyway.

"I could have killed you," Byakuya felt the need to point out. He was still bewildered over the whole potential-killer-turned-savior thing. This time she actually rolled her eyes.

"You have a mild concussion, are suffering from blood loss, have seriously damaged ribs, and your breathing is impaired." Well, there went any of Byakuya's doubt about her being a competent healer. "I seriously doubt you'd go to the effort of trying to harm me when you're so injured and I just saved your life. And I was right, wasn't I? We've been talking for five minutes and you haven't reached for your sword once." With a start, Byakuya tried to sit up, reaching for Senbonzakura, only to have his…savior hand it to him with a knowing look.

"Anyway, it's getting late. I can't do much for your injuries right now, but I'll leave some of these bandages with you. If I'm correct, you shinigami have your own way of contacting help, correct?" She stood up, clearly eager to leave.

Byakuya nodded. "I can summon a Jigokucho to get back up. There’s another squad a couple districts away." It’d take them a few hours to get here, but he could wait.

He hesitated before adding, "I…if there's anything I can do for you…I'm in your debt." And it was true. If it hadn't been for her…well, he doubted he'd still be alive right now. As a Kuchiki, he'd been taught to honor debts of any kind. Life debts even more so. He would honor any request that wouldn't bring harm to either Soul Society or his clan.

"If you want to repay me, don't come back seeking retribution on Oshiro." She said firmly. Seeing Byakuya's involuntary scowl, she held up a hand.

"Don't. If it got out that I helped you, things could get difficult for me. My neutrality is what keeps me safe most of the time, and it gives me a bit of leeway in dealing with certain people. If anyone finds out that I violated that…" Byakuya paused, before deciding to let it go. The last thing he wanted was to cause trouble for someone who went out of her way to help him. It wasn't his place to argue with her about his debt. Judging from the stubborn look in her eyes, she'd view any further attempt to push the matter as charity, or worse, pity.

"I don't like it—people like Oshiro should be punished. But if that is your wish, I will abide by it." Byakuya said finally. She smiled then, the first real smile he'd seen from her. Leaning forward, she brushed his hair back from his face. Byakuya didn't think he imagined the faint tingle of healing kido and the slight lessening of pain in his head as she did so. A touch of wistful melancholy entered her eyes, and Byakuya found himself wanting to erase that expression. Sadness didn't suit her.

With a soft sigh, she leaned away, standing up and turning back towards the village. Just before she reached the edge of the clearing, she paused. "Take care of yourself then, yeah? Don't let all my hard work go to waste."

"I will," he found himself promising.


 

Omake:

Byakuya sat at his desk, frowning down at the report he had to fill out. Every misconduct in the ranks had to be properly documented, of course, so it wasn't the tedium of filling out the paperwork that disturbed him. Earlier this morning, he'd come across two of his men—lower ranked seated officers—harassing one of the new recruits. If he remembered correctly, her name was Nakano Rin, one of the more promising upcoming kido specialists in the 6th division. The soon-to-be-demoted shinigami had her crowded against a wall and Byakuya had stepped in before things could go further. After he'd delivered a stern lecture to the idiots and sent the cowards scurrying away with their tails between their legs, he'd turned to the girl and asked if she was alright. She'd promptly scowled and glared at him, stating firmly that she could've handled it herself, thank you very much. He'd followed her to make sure the morons from before wouldn't come back. She'd taken that about as well as expected. Their conversation went something like this:

"Look, I know you nobles have some twisted sense of chivalry and shit and you all seem to think that women need to be coddled and have no place swinging around a sword, but I assure you, I am fine."

"Not at all. I have spent far too much time with Shihouin-taicho to operate under any such assumptions that women are weak."

"If that is the case, Kuchiki-sama, why are you still following me?! Some might call this stalking." She grumbled, lacing the honorific with a heavy amount of sarcasm.

"Is it so wrong to express concern for one of the shinigami under my command? And are you really one to comment on my manners? Most people would have thanked me."

"Well, it's unlucky for you that I'm not 'most people' then, isn't it?" She sped up, perhaps hoping that would discourage him. When it didn't, Rin spoke up again resignedly. "Look, I appreciate the…concern, I really do. But seriously, I'm fine. I've been through a lot, I can handle it."

"You mean…you've had worse," Byakuya murmured. He felt a chill inside; logically, he knew that sexual assault existed in the ranks and that not every incident was caught but it never became easier hearing about it.

"You think…no, I didn't mean here. God, it's not like I get groped every other day. It's just…I'm from the Rukongai." Rin gave Byakuya a meaningful look. He didn't get it. She must have seen the confusion in his expression because she rolled her eyes.

"Are all nobles this naïve? Seriously, it's like explaining sex to an eight year old. I'm from the Rukongai. Fifty-sixth district to be exact. Practically every woman who's lived there for a couple decades has been, well, if not forced, then coerced into doing something she hasn't fully wanted to do. And don't look at me like that; I'm not going to break down from just talking about it. It's just how things are." She'd turned to face him then, eyes hard and jaw clenched, practically daring him to say something about it. "We're almost at the barracks now. Thank you very much for the escort, but I think it's time we both return to our duties," Rin said curtly, before walking off.

Turning back to his paperwork, Byakuya thought about what truly disturbed him about Rin's words. The way she'd just brushed off a possible sexual assault was…unsettling, and he couldn't stop his thoughts from turning to the stranger who'd risked her own wellbeing to help him. Try as he might, he couldn't stop thinking about the encounter from a week ago. Byakuya was used to people aiding him for a variety of reasons: his lineage, his money, his prestige, hell, half the people did what he wanted because they were too afraid not to. For someone to aid him, and then refuse payment afterward…well, it was unusual to say the least. He wondered if she'd ever had to deal someone forcing himself on her…if perhaps she had to deal with it even now. It didn't sit well with him. Logically, he knew that he couldn't help every woman in the Rukongai. However, from what he'd seen of her skills, she could have a seat in the Fourth Division if she wanted to. Maybe not a very high seat, but undoubtedly better than her current position. Instead, she was reduced to helping out whatever thug knocked on her door in one of the worst parts in Rukongai.

"What are you thinking so hard about, Bya-chan?" A familiar voice called from the doorway. He looked up to see Shihouin Yoruichi leaning against the door with a wide grin on her face. Byakuya automatically scowled; it was turning into a default reaction whenever he saw the stupid were-cat-with-too-much-time-on-her-hands.

"Paperwork, Shihouin-taicho. I realize that this may be a foreign concept to you, but some people actually do something productive with their time." He would have protested the nickname as well, but long experience had taught him that she would only replace it with something worse, like Bya-boo, or, gods forbid, 'chibi-chan'. It was a miracle he hadn't lost all respect around the division years ago.

"Ah, the powers of delegation. You'll understand someday, kiddo," she responded cheerfully. "Besides, I have to give little Soi Fon something to distract her from beating up all the lower seats, don't I? That girl…she's just so adorable. I'm so proud of her." It took every ounce of his Kuchiki pride for Byakuya not to snort. Only Yoruichi would call that tiny little budding psychopath of an angry hornet adorable. "Besides, you can't fool me, Bya-chan. You haven't written down anything or turned a page in the past five minutes. Spill."

"It is nothing that concerns you, Shihouin-taicho. Besides, shouldn't you be getting back to the second division? As their captain and all?" He asked, lips thinning.

"Aww…you're no fun, Byakuya. Over a century old, and you still haven't learned how to relax. Now, let me guess. Was your tea half a degree above its normal temperature? Did some poor miscreant forget to turn in a report? Or…I know! It's a girl that has you so preoccupied, isn't it?"

Byakuya hesitated, then promptly cursed himself as he realized his mistake approximately 0.2 seconds later. In front of him, an unholy gleam lit Yoruichi's eyes and a wicked grin stretched across her face. She looked about half a second away from cackling maniacally.

"Oh…oh dear god, I was right! You're having problems with a girl!" Yoruichi looked absolutely delighted, a stark contrast to Byakuya's sudden depression.

"It's not what you think…" He protested weakly. Yoruichi ignored him completely, still caught up in her euphoria.

"I can't believe this day has finally arrived! After one hundred and forty two years, Kuchiki Byakuya finally shown interest in a girl! To be honest, Kisuke and I had a bet going on whether or not you were gay…he bet that you swung the other way, but were so deep in the closet that it'd take at least another fifty years to realize it. I bet that you were just a late bloomer, and I was right! Ha! He has to do all my paperwork for a month! Take that, Kisuke! Wait 'til I tell him!"

"Tell me what?" Another familiar voice asked from the door, to Byakuya's acute horror.

"Little Byakuya has his first crush!" Yoruichi said triumphantly as Byakuya tried to subtly sink down in his chair.

"Oh? Which gender?" Urahara asked curiously. Byakuya threw his ink-pot at him.

It missed.

 

Chapter Text

“This was a mistake,” a voice said flatly from behind me. I hummed absentmindedly, eying the tunic I was holding up with a critical eye. Rough but firm cotton, decently made and with a simple design—not bad.

“I don’t know what I was thinking coming here. I should just forget the whole thing and head home already. This is a pointless endeav—hey, are you listening to me?” I rolled my eyes at Byakuya’s indignant state.

“Oh, stop whining already. Here, try this on.” I thrust the tunic at him, receiving a glare in return. “If you’re going to be spending any amount of time here, you need some clothes. The ones you’re wearing right now are falling apart, beginning to stink, and I’m burning them as soon as I get you some new clothes.” To be honest, Byakuya’s clothes weren’t that bad, and his hygiene was pretty good for someone who’d spent the past two weeks camping out in the woods. However, if there was one thing I’d kept with me from my previous life, it was my need for good sanitation. I couldn’t do anything about most of my patients’ states of hygiene, but for those I had to spend an extended amount of time with…well, I made sure Rukia, Renji, Kaori, Mitsuo and Kazuki bathed at least once every three days.

“This is hideous.” I sighed, turning around to see that Byakuya had finally tried on the tunic I’d handed him and was currently frowning heavily at it. Who knew the Kuchiki heir was such a drama queen? Miwa—who I’d dragged along on our little shopping trip after bumping into her on our way to the market—giggled. She’d been quiet so far, too nervous to talk much, so I was happy to see her opening up.

“I look ridiculous, Hisana-san.”

“You look a damn sight better in that than in the potato sack I found you in yesterday, and you know it. Now come on, we need to get you a nice big, wide, face-concealing hat. Your pretty face is attracting attention that we really don’t need right now.” I glanced back, expecting a sharp protest to defend his ‘manliness.’ Instead, he had a slight smirk on his face.

“You find me attractive then, Sensei?”

“That wasn’t a compliment, Byakuya-hime.” I retorted, feeling my cheeks heat up slightly and cursed internally. Over fifty years of experimenting with healing kido, and I still couldn’t figure out how to keep myself from blushing. “Now shut up and follow me.”

“Ugh,” I heard Rukia mutter to Miwa from behind me. She was supposed to be in sparring practice with Renji under Kazuki’s supervision right now, but instead was tagging along citing that she “had a headache and so was unfit for heavy exercise.” I had a sneaking suspicion Kazuki was behind her presence; I’d seen them muttering together while Byakuya was eating breakfast, something about ‘chaperoning’, ‘watching out for suspicious activity’ and ‘cockblock them if you need to, Rukia-chan’.

“Watching adults flirt is gross,” Rukia continued, grumbling. Miwa nodded from where she was making a face at Byakuya. I sighed; well, at least they were getting along. I’d been apprehensive about how Rukia would take to Miwa, but clearly my worries were for naught if they were already bonding over ‘gross adult activities’. A glance towards Byakuya showed that his eyes had narrowed, having obviously heard Rukia’s comment, and was now preparing to deliver a sharp retort. Apparently hoping that Byakuya and Rukia would get along as well had been too much to ask for.

 Ignoring them both, I tiredly rubbed my forehead with my palm, resisting the urge to just ship Byakuya back to the Seireitei. This is for Rukia, you can do it for Rukia, I chanted mentally, Rukia needs this, even if the ungrateful brat doesn’t realize it yet. A shout had me looking up to see that Miwa had grabbed Rukia’s arm to prevent her from throwing her shoe at Byakuya. Apparently whatever awe and apprehension Rukia had felt towards Byakuya upon first meeting him had long since vanished. And it only took about two hours, I thought sardonically, wondering what in the world had changed for my Rukia’s attitude towards the Kuchiki scion to be so different from canon Rukia’s. At this point, Byakuya looked about two seconds away from pulling out Senbonzakura and I groaned. This was going to be a long day.

 


 

“Okay, what do you think? Could he pass for someone from the area?” I asked hopefully an hour later. Byakuya was dressed in a simple tunic, cotton trousers, with a scarf around his face and a large straw hat shading his eyes. Rukia eyed him critically.

“Possibly…if someone was blind and deaf, maybe,” she said finally. I deflated.

“Sorry, Sensei,” Miwa said apologetically. “He…well, he looks like a noble in disguise.”

“Wonderful, so he looks exactly like what he is,” I scowled.

“I do not understand; from what I have observed, this style of clothing is no different from that of the typical Inuzuri resident.” Byakuya stated, a slight frown on his face.

“It’s not the clothing that’s the issue, Byakuya-san,” I said tiredly.

“It’s everything else,” Rukia stated bluntly.

“Look, let’s put it this way. Even if I put on a silk kimono right now and had my hair done up in an elaborate hairstyle, you’d still be able to tell I wasn’t a noble the minute I opened my mouth—hell, maybe even before that. I don’t walk like one, I don’t stand like one, and I definitely don’t speak like one.”

“So where does that leave me?” He asked. I sighed.

“There’s really only one way you’d ever be able to pass yourself off as someone, well…not from the aristocracy. And it’s simple, but it’s gonna take time. Basically…spend more time around people who aren’t rich. Observe how people talk, their accents, how they stand, how they drink their tea and eventually you’ll be able to imitate them.” I shrugged. “Sorry, can’t really help you more than that. I can explain the customs we have, but the little things you’re going to have to learn yourself.”

Honestly, I wasn’t too bothered about people finding out about Byakuya. Despite what I told him about my worries concerning Oshiro, my main reason behind requesting Byakuya’s silence was actually reluctance about the Gotei 13 finding out about my abilities. Even if Oshiro did discover that I disobeyed him that day, there was literally nothing he could do against me without turning all of Inuzuri against him. That was assuming he even got angry—seeing as he suffered no retaliation from the shinigami, as far as I was concerned he had nothing to complain about. He’d probably be more along the lines of indignantly offended than anything serious.

But the shinigami themselves…they were another matter entirely. Even here, in one of the most remote districts, rumors about the shadier aspects of the Gotei 13 traveled through. Whispers about people who became too outspoken in their dislike of the current system disappearing into the night; stories about rogue shinigami and academy dropouts vanishing without a trace—all told in hushed voices with an ever-present undertone of fear. Every couple of years, some shinigami would come through, and would parade around with his newfound wealth and success. The propaganda did have a grain of truth in it—the only way to truly break the cycle of poverty the rest of the Rukongai was stuck in was to become a shinigami, or marry one. And it wasn’t like all shinigami were bad—I wouldn’t trust a member of the Onmitsukido (or the ninja-squad, as I privately referred to them in my head) with one of Rukia’s rabbits, never mind Rukia herself, but there were definitely some decent people in the squads (case in point, Byakuya). That didn’t mean I wanted to attract their attention though.

I had no idea how they would react to someone not in the Gotei 13—and therefore not under their control—knowing healing kido, but I wasn’t exactly eager to find out. I knew that anyone with a modicum of fighting skill and reiatsu became a shinigami sooner or later, though it might take them a while if they came from the outer districts. Best case scenario for me would be that they leave me alone. Best case realistic scenario for me was that they shove me into their academy or into their 4th squad. Worst case scenario…someone from the 2nd squad kills me to prevent me from either passing on my skills to possible enemies or directly aiding possible enemies. Key word ‘possible’ here; a potential threat was as much a death sentence as an actual one.

Maybe I was just being paranoid, but while people died in the districts all the time, people didn’t just vanish into thin air without some outside party being involved.

As for why I wasn’t really worried about Byakuya knowing my skills…well, even two minutes after meeting him I could tell that the teenager was stupidly honorable. He said he would keep my secret and so he would; that’s all there was to it. As a noble, he was well trained in keeping secrets anyway. My only worry was that someone would follow him here; thus the reason I was even bothering with a disguise. But while he’d never be able to fool anyone local, his new look would be more than enough to fool any nosy shinigami who came snooping, if only because no one in the entire Gotei 13 would expect Kuchiki Byakuya, pride and joy of the Kuchiki clan, to walk around in public wearing commoner’s clothing. I was fairly certain the mere idea wouldn’t even pass through their heads, considering the fact that I could barely comprehend the notion and he was standing right in front of me.

Speaking of which…I hid a smile behind my hand as I took in the scene in front of me. Rukia was holding up a bright pink kimono and waving it around in Byakuya’s face. “I’m telling you, this is the latest fashion for men here! Don’t you know? Colors are a sign of wealth, and considering how filthy rich you seem to be, this is perfect for you! Here, look; it says on that sign over there that this is the finest silk you can buy!”

Byakuya somehow managed to give her a look of utter disdain without shifting a single facial muscle. “I assure you that this, whatever it is, is most definitely not silk. Hisana-san, please tell your sister to remove this abomination from my sight.” Inwardly I sighed; and he still wondered why he couldn’t pass for a commoner if his life depended on it?

“I don’t know,” I said lightly, pretending to think about it and tapping a finger against my chin. “I think it would look rather fetching on you.” Fighting not to grin at the exasperated look in his eyes, I got as far as mentally superimposing the pink kimono over his current clothing before my control shattered and I doubled over laughing. “Oh…oh…dear god…I can’t breathe,” I gasped, holding onto a giggling Miwa to steady myself. “I’m…really happy that…you came back, now. I didn’t think you’d provide me with this much entertainment.”

“Glad to see that you find my humiliation so amusing,” he sniffed, though I saw the corner of his mouth reluctantly twitch upwards.

“Glad to see that we understand each other,” I returned, unable to help smiling. For a prissy noble with the world at his feet, Kuchiki Byakuya was…not what I was expecting.

 


 

By five o’clock in the afternoon, I was certain that Rukia would never forgive me.

“He’s a slave driver!” She wailed at the top of her lungs. I rolled my eyes and made my way over to where Renji was slumped over limply on the ground. Upon hearing that Rukia had ‘special training with an actual shinigami’, he’d shown up to Rukia’s planned training session with Byakuya and had refused to leave. He looked to be rather regretting that decision now.

“It’s all ‘Your endurance is pathetic. Run up and down that steep hill for half an hour’ and ‘your technique is almost tolerable. Now run that kata through another twenty times until I am satisfied,’” Rukia continued.

“Yes, yes, I know. I was there,” I said dryly, handing Renji a wet towel. “Though if you still have this much energy left to complain, I don’t think he was tough enough on you.” Both Renji and Rukia gave me identical horrified looks.

“Nee-chan! How can you say that--”

“He’s the devil, Hisana-nee-san, a hollow disguised as a human, no one could possibly be that evil otherwise--”

“Is there a problem here?” A voice asked coolly from behind me. At the sight of Byakuya, both Rukia and Renji shut up faster than Kazuki did when Kaori got that look in her eye, though Rukia did glare mutinously at him. Renji seemed to be fighting the urge to whimper.

“Not at all. I must thank you again for agreeing to do this, Byakuya-san. I’ve never seen my sister try so hard to stab someone in all her life.” He raised an eyebrow at me, though I caught the amused glint in his eye.

“Then I am honored. Though I wouldn’t be much of a teacher if I couldn’t figure out a way to…motivate my students.” He paused for a second, then added, “But you were correct in what you said earlier. If they still have the breath to complain, then I am not pushing them nearly hard enough. You two!” Byakuya addressed the two kids still sitting on the ground, tone abruptly sharpening. Unconsciously, both Rukia and Renji straightened up, backs stiffening, and I could suddenly see exactly why Byakuya deserved his current rank. “Another ten laps around the hill! If you’re not back in fifteen minutes, then it’ll be twenty.”

Rukia groaned, then shot me a meaningful look as if to say, See? He’s EVIL, before taking off. Renji shot off an impressive string of curses, most of them targeting Byakuya’s ancestry.

“Another five laps, Abarai-kun,” Byakuya said mildly. Absently, I wondered if I should be worried that Byakuya’s future lieutenant seemed to hate him with a passion…nah. Renji would get over it.

“Have you always been this sadistic?” I wondered aloud. “That seemed almost unnecessarily cruel.”

“I am only doing him a favor,” Byakuya answered with a completely straight face. “Curbing his tendency towards vulgar language will only help him in the future.”

“Right,” I snorted. “So this has nothing to do with how he mistook you for a girl when he first met you.” Byakuya’s expression didn’t change, but his right hand twitched towards Senbonzakura. I mentally prayed for Renji’s soul.

“I would thank you not to remind me of that.” He said, voice dangerously smooth. I rolled my eyes—an increasingly common occurrence—and flicked him on the forehead. He stepped back, stunned.

“Get used to it, hime. And stop with the ‘scary-shinigami-intimidation-shtick’. You’re not fooling anybody.” With that, I turned around to grab another sandwich from the plate Kaori had prepared for our afternoon out. “You coming?” I asked, right before stuffing half my face with a sandwich. Turning back to look at Byakuya, I paused mid-chew at the decidedly odd expression on his face.

“Hey, what’s up?” I asked, after swallowing with a Herculean effort. He shook his head, mouth tilted up slightly seeming almost bemused.

“Nothing. It’s just…I’m not used to being treated this way.”

“What, like a normal person?” I snorted. “Well, if you were expecting me to call you ‘Kuchiki-sama’ or ‘Byakuya-dono’, you’d better get used to disappointment.” One corner of his lips quirked up.

“No need. Besides, while I understand that our acquaintance has been brief…,” here he paused, seeming a bit hesitant, “Over the time I have known you, I have come to think of you as a…new friend, of sorts. For you to address me in a manner that does not put us as equals…I admit, it does not sit well with me.” Here it was my turn to be a bit stunned. For a while, I floundered, unsure of what to say. While I’d certainly enjoyed our day together more than I’d expected to, for Kuchiki Byakuya to openly declare that he thought of you both as a friend and an equal—what do you say to that?

In the end, it seemed that I’d used up my quota of heartfelt, sappy feelings shit for the day…or possibly the month, and I just shoved roughly at his shoulder.

“Good, because the day I start bowing and curtseying before you is the day I finally go crazy. Now while this heart-to-heart has been…nice, I better check up on Rukia and Renji before they die of exhaustion.” Indeed, as I squinted into the distance, Renji appeared to have collapsed into a twitching heap and Rukia seemed to be clawing herself forward through sheer force of will.

Glancing back, I barely caught the almost imperceptible hurt that flashed across Byakuya’s face for a split second and fought the urge to wince. Byakuya…didn’t seem the type of person to make friends easily. I had no idea what his life as a noble was like, but it probably wasn’t too conducive to making friends who liked him for him and not his status or wealth. He’d taken a risk tonight with me and while we really hadn’t known each other to form any sort of strong foundation for a friendship, I probably shouldn’t have been so dismissive either. He wasn’t yet the strong, confident, self-assured shinigami captain he’d become in the future, I reminded myself. Right now, under that perfectly poised mask was still a teenager—a remarkably competent and capable teenager, but a teenager nonetheless. And no teenager, noble or not, dealt well with rejection.

“Very well,” Byakuya said a bit stiffly, though if I hadn’t seen him genuinely relaxed earlier I’d never be able to tell the difference. “You’re right as always, Hisana-san—it’s time to cut this training session short. They’ve suffered enough.”

“Hey,” I said softly, walking up and bumping my shoulder lightly against his, “Just want you to know, you can call me Hisana if you want. Just Hisana—you don’t need to attach an honorific all the time.”

He looked startled. “Are you sure? This isn’t exactly proper; we’ve known each other for less than a week--”

I sent him a pointed look. “Do I really look like someone who cares all that much about propriety? Besides, none of my friends refer to me by an honorific.” Then, because if I stayed around for much longer I was going to start blushing, I made my way over to Renji to make sure he wasn’t dead yet, determinedly not looking at Byakuya’s face. Someday, I thought grumpily to myself, I will figure out how to stop myself from blushing. Until then, avoiding eye contact it is.

 


 

The next day I had to actually get up early to go to work, because as much as I would have loved to take a week off occasionally, people were stupid and couldn’t get by for two days without showing up at my doorstep with some sort of medical emergency. I’d made it a rule not to bother me on Saturdays unless someone was dying, but otherwise…let’s just say it really sucked being the only halfway-competent doctor in Inuzuri.

Kazuki was still sleeping, since his job as a part-time bouncer/bartender mostly required him to keep night hours. It was a lucky day when he was up by noon though I wasn’t complaining—his current job was far preferable to his past one as a hirable bodyguard/conman. Mitsuo would be up soon; he’d set up a martial arts dojo about a decade back, training anyone from kids to yakuza. While not always…legitimate, I’d never seen him happier. Kaori would also probably wake up in about an hour. Since her job was basically a glorified accountant/financial advisor, her hours were pretty flexible, but she preferred waking up early. Something about “so I don’t sleep half the day away, like a pig,” with a pointed look towards Kazuki. Byakuya, Rukia and Renji would be having an all-day training session today, complete with a basic overview of how the academy was organized, how the Gotei 13 was run, the duties of each squad, how ranks were organized…I almost pitied them. As for the last member of the family…

“Miwa-chan, I see you standing behind the door. As you’re awake, I could use some help over here,” I scolded, tone faintly reprimanding. She flushed but came forward, a sheepish look on her face.

“So,” I said as I began measuring out enough rice for seven people (Kazuki wouldn’t wake up until lunch). “Have you given any thought to my offer?” Miwa looked up startled from where she was whipping up eggs for omelets.

“I have,” She mumbled. “And…I’d like to learn from you.”

“You don’t sound very sure,” I said carefully. “This is a commitment, you understand, and it’ll likely be more difficult than anything you’ve ever done in your life. I won’t take on a student who’ll give up halfway.” Her head shot up.

“That’s not it!” She said fiercely, almost spilling the bowl of eggs she was holding. “I…I know that it’ll be hard, but I’ll definitely try my best! I won’t give up!”

“Then what’s the problem?” Miwa looked back down and didn’t reply. Sighing, I set the pot of rice and water on the stove and turned to face her, kneeling down to look her in the eye. “Look, if we’re going to do this, we need to communicate with each other. I can’t help you with what’s bothering you if you don’t tell me.”

“It’s just…” Her voice trailed off. I waited patiently—she’d talk when she was ready to.  

“Sensei…you’ve given me such a great opportunity. I…I have a chance at a future now,” Miwa finally continued, voice infused with wonder. “You can teach me to help people like Reiko-nee-chan and the others. But…but what if I can’t do it? You’re really smart, Sensei, everyone says so, you figured out how to heal people the same way the shinigami do, and no one around here has been able to do that before. You know so much about how the body works and what plants work well together and how to distract people so that they barely remember the pain and…and you’ve done so much for me, I know you’ve been giving Reiko food every week ever since you found out I get hungry sometimes. I just…I just don’t want to disappoint you.” Her voice died down until I could barely hear her last sentence.

“Hey, come here,” I said softly, pulling her into a hug. Miwa’s shoulders shook and I could feel where the collar of my shirt was growing wet. “I-I’m s-sorry, Sensei, I’m r-ruining your shirt,” she stammered, trying to get up. I tightened my hold.

“Miwa, listen to me. You said that as my student, you’ll try your best?” I asked. She nodded furiously. “Yes, Sensei.”

“You’ll listen to what I have to teach you? You won’t give up?”

“Of course, Sensei.” Her voice became a little firmer, determination hardening her words. I resisted the urge to smile.

“And you won’t hesitate to do what I tell you to do, no matter what it is?” I asked seriously. The willingness to follow orders was just as important as a person’s resolve to learn. When a man’s life was on the line, the efficiency with which an order was carried out could mean the difference between life and death.

“I promise, Sensei. I trust you.” Miwa said, gaze never wavering from mine. This time, there was no hesitation in her answer.

“Good,” I ruffled her hair. “Don’t worry so much, Miwa-chan. So long as you do those things, we won’t have any problems. I could ask for nothing more.”

She smiled shyly, then leaned forward again and wrapped her arms around me in a quick hug, whispering “Thank you, Shishou,” before grabbing a bowl of rice and darting away again. I stood stunned for a moment, before recovering when Kaori entered the room.

“What’s got you so shocked?” She asked, pouring herself a bowl of porridge. I sat down slowly, grabbing a bowl of my own.

“Miwa just called me Shishou. Shishou. She called me master,” I said, awed. While I had offered Miwa a mentorship a while back, it was just hitting me now what that actually meant. Raising an eyebrow disinterestedly, Kaori turned back to her breakfast.

“So? From your expression I thought you’d just found the fountain of youth or something.” I flicked a piece of natto at her. It missed and landed into her bowl.

“Did you have to do that?” She complained, frowning. “You know I hate natto.”

Pay attention,” I hissed. “I’m someone’s Shishou. I’m Miwa’s Shishou. This is important.”

Kaori sighed. “I still don’t get what the big deal is. You’ve known this was coming. So you’re gonna be teaching the brat. A change in her way of addressing you is expected.”

I’m not ready for that kind of responsibility!” I whisper-yelled, keeping an eye on the door in case Miwa came back. Kaori rolled her eyes at me. I was really beginning to hate that expression.

“Now, when I was coming down the stairs, I couldn’t help but overhear part of your conversation,” she began, ignoring my mutter of “Sure you couldn’t, you nosy eavesdropper” with admirable ease. “And I’m pretty certain that this conversation sounds familiar, only now I’m in your shoes and you’re in the brat’s.”

“This is totally different!” I insisted, annoyed that Kaori just wasn’t getting it. “For the foreseeable future, I’m going to be totally responsible for Miwa’s well-being! Her education, her happiness, her actions, her life…”

“Sounds an awful lot like being a parent,” Kaori remarked. “And as much as I hate handing out compliments, you’ve done a pretty good job with Rukia. What makes this so different?”

With a flourish, Kaori finished off the rest of her porridge and set her bowl down in the sink. “Well, I’m off to try and untangle the total mess that moron Aida made of his finances before your pet shinigami wakes up and I actually have to make conversation with him. Think about what I said. I like you much better when you’re not being an insecure idiot.”

Say what you want about Kaori, but she did get her point across. I twirled a piece of natto between my chopsticks, staring at it thoughtfully. When she put it like that…yeah, being a Shishou to Miwa wasn’t so different from raising Rukia. In fact, it’d probably be a lot less stressful, since I wouldn’t be a ten-year old kid desperately trying to keep myself and a baby alive with no means of financial support. So why was I freaking out about this? What made this seem so different?

It was probably, I reflected, because raising Rukia had never been much of a choice for me. Oh, there were definitely moments where it had seemed impossible and there had been that one night, when, at the peak of my desperation, I’d seriously considered giving Rukia up. But even then…Rukia was mine, my sister, my flesh and blood, the last reminder I had of our parents. It didn’t matter how bad things became, leaving her behind had never really been an option.

But Miwa was different, because I didn’t have to take her in. But that night when Reiko brought me in and I saw her lying limply with bruises all over her body and ligature marks on her neck, like a doll that had been through too much and then tossed aside like trash but despite everything still wasn’t broken—that night, I had chosen Miwa and Miwa had chosen me and the fact that it was a choice was what made this so scary.

Rukia and I had always, and would always share a connection that couldn’t be broken and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But Miwa had chosen to trust me, had chosen to look up to me, despite everything she’d been through. And having someone place that kind of trust in me was kind of terrifying.

But while my relationship with Miwa would be completely different than the one I had with Rukia, there were still definite similarities between the two. It all came down to me taking care of them and then preparing them to stand on their own. With Rukia, I’d done everything I could to make sure she was happy, healthy and had a bright future, and for the most part, I succeeded. And if I could do that, well, there was nothing stopping me from doing the same with Miwa.

“Shishou? I’m done with my breakfast. Are you ready to leave?” Miwa’s voice broke me out of my thoughts. I offered her a bright smile and set my bowl down in the sink before holding out my hand.

“I’m ready.”

 


 

“Well,” I said wryly from where I was kneeling in front of Rukia, inspecting her swollen ankle. Luckily, it only seemed to be sprained instead of broken. “I admit, I’m surprised it took you this long to get an injury with how much you’ve been training lately.”

Rukia scowled at me. “Renji got a concussion the second day.” I shrugged dismissively.

“Renji-kun has a hard head. Even without my help, he’d fully recovered in two hours. This, on the other hand…” Gently lifting her ankle, I sent a wave of healing reiatsu down her leg, first numbing the nerve endings. Then, infusing the wounded area with my reiatsu, I began stitching together torn ligaments. Fifteen minutes later, most of the inflammation had gone down and the major tears were fixed.

“It’s still cool seeing you do that,” she said, flexing her ankle experimentally. “Can I go now? Oni-sensei said that we might be learning a new move today.”

“I wish you’d stop calling him that,” I muttered, though I suppose ‘demon-teacher’ was better than ‘stupid-bastard’, which was their initial nickname for Byakuya. Six days into their training, and both of Byakuya’s students had started nursing a grudge the size of Soul Society against him. “Also, no heavy physical activity for the rest of the day. I don’t want you putting any strain on that leg—the last thing I want is for you to come in two hours later but with a broken ankle instead.”

“But nee-chan…” She whined. I firmly pushed her back down on the cot and handed her a cup of cool water. “My final answer is no. You’ll survive missing training for an afternoon. Besides, I thought you’d be glad to get away from your ‘evil teacher’ for a day.”

“Well, yeah, but I don’t want stupid Renji getting ahead. Besides, Oni-sensei’s leaving soon, so I wanna get all the training I can, even if it means I have to put up with sensei’s torture.”

“I’ll miss you too, Rukia-chan,” a voice said sardonically from the doorway, somehow making Rukia’s name sound like ‘brat sent personally from hell to annoy me’. I looked up to see Byakuya leaning casually against the wall, somehow managing to look perfectly composed in ninety degree weather. “I take it today’s afternoon training session will be canceled then?”

“A break won’t hurt anyone,” I said smiling, and pulled up a chair. I hadn’t seen much of Byakuya these past few days, considering he was busy tortur—training the kids and I’d been relatively busy with work. “Oh, you have the herbs I asked for. Thanks so much—you didn’t have any trouble with hollows?”

“Only a few,” he said frowning. “They provided good training practice. Though you shouldn’t be going so far into the woods if hollows showing up are a common occurrence.”

“I haven’t really had many problems with running into them,” I said, waving an arm dismissively. And I had a good enough grasp of my own spirit energy that when I did, I tended to just scale a tree, clamp down on my reiatsu as tightly as I could, and wait for them to go away. To hear that Rukia had been fighting them though…

“You didn’t tell me about this, imouto,” I said curiously. I’d expected it to be the first thing out of her mouth when she saw me. To my surprise, Rukia turned bright red, while Byakuya’s lips twitched. “I’m not surprised she didn’t. You see, when the hollow first appeared, little Rukia-chan here—“

“Nothing happened!” Rukia yelped, jumping up to slam her hand against Byakuya’s mouth. He nimbly dodged her flying tackle, and yeah, he was definitely smirking now. “Nothing happened, nee-chan, I swear! You jerk, stop making up lies!”

“Oh, but Rukia-chan, don’t you want to tell your sister all about how the hollow—“

“Shut up! Not another word! And it wasn’t my fault anyway, if that pineapple-haired idiot hadn’t gotten in my way—“

 I shook my head, ignoring the spectacle in front of me. I didn’t want to know. Children, the both of them—you’d think Byakuya at least would know better, but no, five days in Rukia’s company and his mental age had reverted back at least a century.

An ear-splitting shriek from the next room made me jump in alarm, while Rukia fell off the bed. Byakuya had tensed, one hand already on his sword before Miwa charged out of the room, looking for all the world like she’d just won a life supply of ice cream.

“Shishou! Shishou, look! I did it!” She babbled excitedly, completely ignoring the other two occupants of the room. “I finally managed to focus my reiatsu! Look!” With that, she scrunched up her face in concentration, before a faintly glowing sphere of blue light about the size of a ping pong ball rose up from her hands.

“That’s wonderful, Miwa,” I said warmly, reaching over to hug her. She beamed up at me, clearly thrilled. “I’m really proud of you.” Catching Byakuya’s curious look, I answered his unvoiced question. “I’ve had Miwa start on meditation exercises for the past three days, in addition to watching me interact with my patients and learning about the properties of different plants. We’ll be able to start anatomy lessons soon.”

Wasn’t looking forward to that. I was well aware that it was only my previous background in medicine that made it possible for me to puzzle my way through how to utilize healing kido. The theoretical knowledge alone had taken me over a decade to learn, never mind the many years I spent serving in the army to touch up my practical knowledge. But…unlike in the human world, medicine wasn’t only about the technical knowhow. In fact, it was only about sixty percent skill and knowledge. The other forty percent was all intuition—something I had a feeling Miwa would excel at.

Miwa blushed, finally registering that we weren’t alone. “Sorry, Kuchiki-san, I didn’t see you there. I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything.”

“Don’t worry, Miwa. Oni-sensei was just spouting a bunch of nonsense, as usual. You certainly didn’t interrupt anything important,” Rukia grumbled, sitting up from where she had fallen to the ground in a jumble of sheets, blankets and flailing limbs. I gave her a warning look.

“Remember your manners, Rukia. No matter what your personal opinions of him are, Byakuya is still your teacher.”

“I still can’t believe it’s just ‘Byakuya’ now. You dropped his title, like, halfway through his first day here,” Rukia muttered sulkily.

“Hisana has done me a great favor in the past, offered me a place in her home, and has treated me well these past few days. There is no need for her to address me so formally,” Byakuya answered, looking at her steadily. I could feel my cheeks slowly heat up while both Miwa and Rukia gaped at him.

“Was there anything you needed, Byakuya?” I cut in abruptly, before the conversation could delve into increasingly uncomfortable territory. I understood that saving his life was obviously a big deal, but it made me feel guilty whenever he brought it up. At some level, he still saw me as much of Inuzuri did—as some kind of altruistic, selfless savior, and I wasn’t. Not really.

I could see how it must have looked from Byakuya’s point of view: some tiny, defenseless girl going against a room full of thugs, risking her own health and reputation in order to aid a stranger. But the truth was…up until I found out that Oshiro’s prisoner was a high ranking shinigami, I’d had no intention of helping him out. I may have chosen to rescue Miwa from a lifetime of poverty, but there were a thousand other girls out there I hadn’t saved. Hadn’t helped beyond plastering on a kind (fake) smile and offering to heal some bruises. I wasn’t the person he thought I was…no matter how many masks I plastered on, at my core, I was still Rukongai. And the first rule of Rukongai, as I’d learned so many years before, was that no one was going to help someone without a reason. Behind every act of kindness, there was an ulterior motive. We had compassion—we weren’t monsters—but no one who lived here long enough would freely offer aid to a stranger solely for the sake of compassion. That, if nothing else, tended to get people killed.

“Yes, actually,” Byakuya said, staring intently at my face. “You are going to accompany me to lunch.” I faltered, almost dropping the pitcher of water I was holding. Meanwhile, Rukia had turned red again and was sputtering angrily. She looked rather like an indignant tomato, I thought absently through my shock.

“Kuchiki-san…are you asking Shishou out on a…on a…da- ?!” Miwa asked stunned. I abruptly began choking on air, cutting her off. Forgetting her shock at Byakuya’ statement, she started pounding me on the back. “Shishou, I’m so sorry! Forgive me! Are you okay—you haven’t taught me the Hemling thing yet!”

“Hisana, are you alright?” Byakuya asked, eyeing my purpling face with visible concern. “We can postpone the ramen outing if you’re feeling unwell.”

“It’s the—ack—Heimlich maneuver, not the ‘Hemling thing’, Miwa,” I recovered enough to say, calming down massively with Byakuya’s clarification. “And this is merely an outing between two friends. I promised Byakuya earlier in the week to introduce him to ramen after he mentioned he’d never had it before.”

Two Days Ago

“What do you mean you’ve never had ramen?! Are you even Asian?”

“I do not understand what the big deal is. Though I have not personally tried this dish before, from what I hear, it is merely noodles in some type of broth, correct?”

“…I can’t believe this. That’s it; we’re going out for lunch on Thursday. I can accept your ignorance on some aspects of normal-people life, but this is just pathetic.”

“I’d almost forgotten about it. Thank you for reminding me,” I added. Across from me, Rukia was staring at Byakuya in fascination, as if he’d suddenly morphed into some bizarre extraterrestrial being with six arms.

“You’ve seriously never had ramen before? Man, what is your life?” She asked, before shaking her head in amazement. “No wonder you have such a giant stick up your—

“Rukia,” I cut in sternly before Byakuya finally snapped and murdered her. While I could sympathize, it would be terribly counterproductive to my goal of keeping her relatively happy and well.

“Miwa, while I’m off exposing Byakuya to one of the staples of Japanese cuisine, you can work on the kanji I showed you earlier this morning. Copy each one fifteen times; if I’m not satisfied with them when I come back, you’ll have to repeat them. If a client comes in, I’ll be at Ichiraku’s across the street. Rukia, I have a few books set aside for you in the other room and you can walk around but stay inside. Don’t touch anything besides what’s in the kitchen cupboards; I don’t want a repeat of last time when you spilled a pot of tea and then cleaned it up with bandages that you somehow mistook for paper towels. Patients still ask about the stain that created in the clinic waiting room, you know. I’m pretty sure half of them are convinced that it’s blood.”

“I was only thirty, then nee-chan! Stop bringing it up!” She whined.

“Yeah, well then there was that one time you--” I began, only for Miwa to cut me off, motioning towards where Byakuya was waiting next to the door.

“Ah,” I said sheepishly, walking over. “Sorry to have kept you waiting.”

“Not at all,” his eyes glinted, “hearing about Rukia-chan’s childhood stories is always…entertaining.”

“They provide you blackmail material, you mean,” I scoffed, trying to sound stern and completely failing. “You’re a horrible person, Byakuya.”

“I prefer to think of it as simply being pragmatic,” he said loftily, though the amused tilt of his mouth gave him away. “Now, I believe you were going to introduce me to the wonders of ramen?”

“Prepare to be amazed,” I said grinning, sitting down at one of the tables outside the stall. “Oi Ichiraku-san, bring up one bowl of every flavor!”

“Hungry today Sensei?” Ichiraku asked, coming over with a large smile. No one was sure just how old the famed ramen chef was, though Kazuki swore he’d been around since before Inuzuri was, well, Inuzuri.

“For your cooking? Always,” I replied grinning. “Though this is more for my friend here. He’s never eaten ramen before, can you believe it?”

“Oh?” Ichiraku raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Well then, I’ll be sure to cook my very best then. I would hate to disappoint one of Sensei’s friends.”

Half an hour later and we had to move to a bigger table just to be able to fit all the bowls.

“Hisana,” Byakuya began, then stopped.

“Hmm?” I asked, studying the vast assortment of dishes in front of me. “What do you think you want to try first? Miso is one of my favorites, but beef is good too. If you prefer a lighter kind of broth, you might want to start off with seafood though.”

“Hisana, there has to be at least twenty bowls of ramen in front of us right now. There’s no way we can finish all of this,” Byakuya said flatly. I pouted.

“Oh, ye of little faith. Besides, since this is your first time trying ramen—and Ichiraku’s ramen at that—it’s my duty as a friend to expose you to the widest selection possible! How else are you going to discover what’s your favorite?” I asked. Seeing Byakuya’s hesitant expression, I sighed before picking up the nearest bowl (chicken and pork with bamboo shoots, fishcakes and nori seaweed), taking a pair of chopsticks and lifting a cluster of noodles to Byakuya’s face.

“Look, it’s really not that hard. I’ll even do most of the work for you. Say ‘ahh’,” I teased, waving my chopsticks back and forth slightly. Byakuya glared at me.

“I am perfectly capable of feeding myself, thank you.” With that, he snatched the chopsticks from my hand before practically stuffing the noodles in his mouth.

I could see the exact moment his taste buds registered the flavor of the noodle-broth mixture by the expression of bliss that spread across his face. His eyes widened and he leaned back to stare at the bowl in his hands reverently.

“This…this is…” He gasped, a look of wonder in his eyes. I nodded solemnly and reached over to cover his free hand with my own in a gesture of solidarity and understanding. “I know.”

An hour later, the bowls in front of us were empty and I felt like my stomach had swollen to three times its normal size. I resisted the urge to puke and wondered if this was what pregnant women felt like all the time. Byakuya, the bastard, looked his normal composed self though I noticed even he looked a little green.

“Thank you,” he spoke abruptly.

“What for?” I asked, turning to stare at him in confusion.

“For allowing me this opportunity to stay with you and your family. I have not enjoyed myself this much in a very long time.” Byakuya elaborated, and tilted his head to look at me. His eyes were soft, I noticed, a warm gray like the color of fog in the early morning. “I’m leaving soon; the day after tomorrow at the latest. I just wanted to take this chance to say I’m truly grateful for all that you’ve done for me.”

“I haven’t done that much,” I protested weakly, “and you’ve more than paid me back. I can’t even begin to thank you for the effort you’ve put in training Rukia, and Renji too even though he wasn’t a part of our deal--”

“You know, a wise person once told me that occasionally, it’s better to simply accept a nice gesture from someone without trying to repay them. Sound familiar?” I flushed. “I’m going to repeat that advice to you; stop objecting so much whenever people say nice things about you. I meant every word I just said. I know you’re uncomfortable with being complimented, but by protesting, all you’re doing is insulting my opinion.”

“Huh…so I did teach you something after all,” I muttered wryly. He quirked a smile at me and motioned for Ichiraku to pack up two containers of ramen.

“We’ve should be heading back. I have no doubt Rukia-chan is already planning my murder for allowing her to go hungry for so long. Miwa-chan might be helping her.” Despite the clear exasperation in his voice, there was no mistaking the subtle fondness coating his words. Feeling an odd twinge in my stomach that had nothing to do with the meal I’d just consumed, I reached out to grab Byakuya’s wrist as he stood up.

“Byakuya, wait,” I stammered, feeling oddly nervous. “In case I don’t get a chance to say this to you later, I…I just wanted to let you know that, if you were ever passing nearby and wanted to visit…” Goddamn it, I could feel myself blushing again. “You’re always welcome here. And I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t mind it if you stopped by to say hello.” I looked down, biting my lip furiously to stop the stupid stream of semi-incoherent words currently leaving my mouth without my brain’s permission. A gentle touch on my arm made me look up again. Soft silver eyes practically radiating sincerity. A smile that left me oddly out of breath. My mouth suddenly felt very dry.

“I’d be honored to, Hisana.”

Chapter Text

“Gah! Shishou, did you see that? I swear its leg just twitched!” Miwa shrieked, pointing at the very still, very dead frog lying on the table. I sighed, resisting the urge to massage my temples. Maybe I should have waited another month before starting dissections, but Miwa had insisted that she was ready. And, well, it had been four months since her training had started. Without any access to textbooks or anatomy pictures, there was only so much I could teach her without demonstrating on an actual animal. She was far from the skill level required for me to trust her with an actual person, and it wasn’t like there was an abundance of dead bodies for her to work on, so the best way for her to see and learn how a body worked was to experiment on dead animals—in this case, a frog.

“I promise you, Miwa, that frog is very, very dead. You don’t have to worry about hurting it. Now make an incision at the cloaca, right between its legs just like I showed you.” I pointed to the neat incision I’d made on my own frog, right next to hers. Miwa winced, but picked up a scalpel timidly and slowly cut where I pointed. I eyed her incision critically. It was shallow, barely more than a scratch really, and sloppy from where she’d hesitated before pressing forward.

“Again. You aren’t going to be able to open it up like that,” I said. The second time she showed more confidence—still wasn’t ideal but it’d do.

“Good. Now I want you to make a transverse cut just under the head and another one across the hip region,” I continued, demonstrating on my own frog. “After that, you just reach in…” I resisted the urge to grimace, missing the days when latex-gloves were a thing. I’d brought alcohol to sterilize our hands after, but it just wasn’t the same. “…and fold the flaps back, just like this.”

“That is the grossest thing I have ever seen in my life,” Rukia remarked, looking slightly ill as she observed the frog’s gastrointestinal tract. On the other hand, Miwa seemed to have gotten over most of her reservations and was now leaning in for a closer look.

“Is that really what we look like inside?” She asked, fascinated. I smiled slightly.

“Well…there are some key differences. Our respiratory systems are completely different and a frog heart only has three chambers while we have four. The liver of a frog is also structurally different than a human liver—they have three lobes, we have four. But other than that, most of the major organs are very similar.”

“I can’t believe that I look like a frog on the inside,” Rukia grumbled, making a face. I rolled my eyes at her.

“You’ll find that your internal organs resemble those of quite a few other creatures. Now if you’re just going to sit around and make unnecessary comments, you’re free to leave. No one’s keeping you here,” I said with a pointed look towards the door. Rukia stuck her tongue out at me.

“Fine, I’ll find Renji and some other guys to come play tag, while you two sit around cutting open poor amphibians like a pair of creepy scientists,” she sniffed, before flouncing out the door. I sighed at her antics while next to me, Miwa seemed to have forgotten Rukia’s existence completely and was now in the process of repeating my actions on her own frog.

“Now, look closely. You see this yellow stuff here? Those are fat cells. This large organ on the lateral right side of the body. Across from it, you can see the stomach, and this tiny green organ here is the gallbladder…”


             

“So you’re saying that after this, we can start on cats next?” Miwa asked two hours later, eyes shining.

“Mmhm,” I hummed, eyeing today’s selection of fish and debating whether or not to get salmon or tuna for dinner tonight. “There’s plenty of strays around the district. It won’t be two hard to get one.” Not that I would purposely go out and kill a cat. That was just asking for bad karma. But plenty of cats died from disease or from fights with other animals.

“After that, you should have a pretty good grasp on converting your reiatsu to healing kido and you can work on helping me heal the animals people bring me.” Of course, only the more well-off people actually had pets…but Rukia alone brought me an injured animal about every other week so that wouldn’t be a problem.

“What do I do after that, Shishou?” Miwa asked hesitantly. I looked up in surprise.

“Well, it’ll be a long time before I’m satisfied with your progress on animals. Probably a year or so, maybe longer. But then after that, you’ll start dealing with actual people of course. More specifically, me.” There was a long silence. Turning to Miwa, I saw that her eyes had gone very wide.

“I’m…my first patient is going to be you?” She squeaked, voice high. I still didn’t know why she was reacting like this.

“Well…yeah. This way if you mess up, I’ll be able to fix it. I mean, my first patient was myself.” That…had not been fun. In fact, I still had faint scars and burn marks from my first few attempts at healing my self-inflicted wounds. But it wasn’t like I was going to refine my skills on my family before I was confident enough to use them on myself.

“Don’t worry so much about it. You have a long way to go before you get to that point,” I continued. “And it’s not like I’m going to let you start off with one of my patients. Do you have any idea how much damage that’d to my reputation if you messed up? People aren’t going to keep coming to me if it gets around that I let my clumsy apprentice experiment on them.” She flushed, looking away.

There was another reason why Miwa would refine her skills on me, and not, say, herself. Aside from the obvious that it was so very wrong to let my kid apprentice deliberately hurt herself, using myself as a test patient would motivate her to learn quickly, if nothing else. It was one thing to fail to heal yourself—it was another thing entirely to fail to heal someone you were close to, knowing that they would suffer because of your mistakes.

Nothing had quite motivated me to improve as much as Tatsuya’s and Horio’s deaths had.

“I think I’ll stick with the salmon today, Reo-san,” I said finally to the vender in front of me.

“You got it, Sensei. And who is this?” He asked curiously, looking at Miwa who was half-hiding behind me.

“That’s Miwa-chan. She’s my new apprentice,” I said, a faint hint of satisfaction entering my voice. Next to me, Miwa straightened up subconsciously in pride and I had to hold back a fond smile.

“Oh?” Reo asked curiously. “Well, it’s about damn time, I say. I’ve always thought it was a shame that a nice, young girl like you had to work so hard. Maybe now that you have an apprentice, she can pick up some of the slack, yeah?” Turning to Miwa, he added, “You’re damn lucky to have her as your Shishou, Miwa-chan, so you better work hard, okay?”

“I will,” Miwa murmured determinedly. “I won’t let Shishou down.” He gave her a look of approval, then handed the bag of salmon over to me. “Here, Sensei. Free of charge.” When I started to protest, he added, “Think of it as a congratulatory gift. It’s not every day that you get an apprentice, after all.”

I was just about to thank him again, when two small blurs ran into me, almost toppling me over. I looked down to see both Rukia and Renji looking slightly panicked and out of breath.

“Nee-chan, you have to come quickly--”

“Hisana-nee-san, hurry, come on--”

“Hey, hey, calm down, one at a time,” I said soothingly. “What’s the matter?”

Renji looked at Rukia before whispering urgently, “It’s Oni-sensei. He’s back. And he’s got another shinigami with him, who’s injured.” I felt an odd jolt in my chest at the mention of Byakuya and was already moving by the time the rest of her words registered.

“Where?” I asked sharply, shooting an apologetic look at Reo before turning to go. “Tell me what happened.”

“He’s at the house; Mitsuo got both of them in through the back door. Nee-chan, it looks bad, there was blood everywhere--”

“Oni-sensei was hurt too, he looks like he got burned pretty badly by something—“

“Miwa,” I interrupted her, “run to the clinic and grab bandages, burn paste and any salves that might speed up the coagulation process. Go quickly.” She nodded, seeming a little pale but her eyes were determined. Turning to Rukia and Renji, I snapped out a curt “Let’s go,” before sprinting in the direction of the house. A grim looking Kazuki greeted me at the door.

“Back family room, come on,” he said. Coming into the room, I saw that Byakuya half sitting, half lying on the floor and was leaning over another shinigami who was unconscious on a cot, blood clearly seeping through her clothes. Upon seeing me, a look of both relief and desperate hope flooded his face as he tried to stand up.

“Hisana, thank god—please, there was a mission, we were outnumbered…Nakano-san got hit, I don’t know how bad it is, I think she might be poisoned, and she’s been unconscious for a while--”

“You idiot, sit down!” I hissed as Byakuya staggered, the rest of his words trailing off as what little color he had before left his face. “Mitsuo, could you bring me a basin of warm water here?” I asked, assessing Byakuya’s injuries. Clearly exhausted, suffering from a mild case of reiatsu depletion, a painful looking second-degree burn on his right shoulder as well as bruised, possibly broken ribs…but overall, nothing life threatening. On the other hand, his companion looked like she’d been stabbed almost clean through the abdominal area two times. Removing her black outer robe and gingerly lifting her white undershirt away, I fought to keep a calm expression at the dark red, almost black streaks extending from the wounds.  While shinigami tended to be several times more durable than regular souls, I highly doubted anyone lower than lieutenant level would be able to shake off that injury.

“What is it?” Byakuya asked, worry lacing his voice as he tried to lean in for a closer look.

“It’s nothing,” I lied, my voice perfectly steady. Byakuya’s expression said that he clearly didn’t believe me but before he could try to get up, Miwa entered through the door.

“Sensei! I got the materials you asked for!” She called out gasping, face flushed from exertion. I nodded. “Okay, Miwa, you’re going to help Byakuya to the next room. Get him settled on a bed and treat his burn—you know what to do.”

“What is it? Hisana, what won’t you tell me? Is it really so bad that I can’t even be in the same room as her?” Byakuya asked. Only the slight shaking of his hands gave away his desperation.

“Not at all. But she does require peace and quiet in order to treat your comrade effectively. Something she cannot attain with you in the room,” Kaori said, having just entered the room. She gave Byakuya a pointed look. “If you want your friend to live, I’d suggest you follow her orders.” For a moment I thought Byakuya would refuse, but then he allowed Kazuki to pull him up. Before he left though, he reached over and grabbed my hand. The look in his eyes said everything his pride wouldn’t permit him to. Save her. Please.

I squeezed his hand lightly and nodded.

 


            

“Come on, come on, work with me here,” I nearly growled in frustration. While I’d managed to temporarily slow the bleeding by applying a salve to speed up the clotting process, it wouldn’t be doing me much good if I didn’t get rid of the poison. I’d never seen anything like it before. It seemed to be almost eating away at the shinigami’s spirit energy around the puncture wound. Every time I tried to direct my reiatsu to the area in order to begin the repairing process and seal the wound, the poison would just…dissolve the spirit energy and I’d be left where I started. I’d already tried drawing out the poison, directing it elsewhere, using my own reiatsu to attack it…all with a spectacular lack of success. In fact, after it ate my reiatsu like it was nothing, it seemed to get even stronger. Maybe if the shinigami—Nakano--had higher levels of reiatsu, her own spirit energy would instinctively attack and crush it. Right now though, it was like trying to fight an infection that targeted white blood cells with an already weak immune system. Worst of all, the poison was spreading so even if I managed to stop the bleeding, it would just feed upon her reiryoku and reishi, decaying tissues and cells until nothing was left. It almost seemed alive, like a hungry beast eagerly devouring everything in its reach…

I blinked. If I thought of it as something sentient…like a part of the hollow that had transferred over and was now sustaining itself on the shinigami…well, I already knew that it was attracted to spirit energy. Stupid thing couldn’t get enough of eating mine, for one thing. And everyone knew that hollows preferred eating souls with higher reiatsu…

“So you like bigger meals, huh?” I murmured. It was a long shot, and I had no guarantee this would even work or that it wouldn’t backfire on me…but hey, it wasn’t like I had any other ideas and the shinigami would be dead in a couple hours at the rate the poison was spreading. Maybe normally, my reiatsu levels wouldn’t be high enough to tempt the poison away from the shinigami, but if I condensed it…

Taking a deep breath, I infused my hands with spirit energy and gently sent out probes into the wound. Instead of just layering the injured area with a coat of reiatsu, I compressed my reiatsu into thin, creeping tendrils and tentatively prodded where I could sense the poison seeping. As expected, it attacked and ate away at the tip of the probe…but it also stopped spreading forward. Hesitantly, I sent out another tiny tendril towards the poison. This time I didn’t withdraw the probe, and like luring a bird away with a trail of breadcrumbs, the poison followed my spirit reiatsu, eating away at my improvised trail the entire time, while I prodded it at different points to make sure I drew all of it out. At the same time, I set numerous probes out towards the other puncture wound, creating a makeshift net of spirit energy over her entire abdomen.

Honestly, it was slow exhausting work. I had to constantly replenish my probes as they were eaten away to draw the poison back towards the entry point, make sure my probes were focused enough that they would provide a more attractive food source than Nakano’s own spirit energy but not enough that they would start cutting through tissue, make sure my net reached all areas of the poison…I didn’t think I’d had this much of a challenge since, well, ever. Usually hollow attacks ended with the victim dead and swallowed—few survived to get to me. Most poisons weren’t this complex either, and tended to attack cells, not spirit energy itself. I’m not sure how long it took—an hour? Two? But eventually I managed to lead all the poison back to one area, where I took what remained of my net and commanded my reiatsu to wrap up the poison in a ball. Once the poison was safely contained in a ball of my own spirit energy, I was able to remove it from my patient’s body relatively easily. I scowled at the glowing ball of green floating above my right hand—I could still see the poison inside, a streak of ugly toxic black writhing inside its container, already eating its way out. Taking the basin of water, I released the energy from my hand into it, where the toxin contained within immediately turned the liquid a dark purple.

I leaned back, fighting a wave of sudden dizziness. Now wasn’t the time to pass out from exhaustion though, as much as I would’ve liked to. Even though the poison problem was removed, she still had two gaping holes in her chest. First things first—I had to do something about the damaged internal organs. Shinigami or not, I doubted she could shake off torn intestines. Ignoring the pounding migraine beginning to form around my temples, I reached in again to stitch the smooth muscle back together.

By the time I was satisfied that Nakano was going to live, it was well into nighttime and I’d had to finish suturing up the wounds with thread since I’d ran out of my own spirit energy sometime after hastily repairing the damage done to her spleen. Staggering slightly, I made my way over to the door and just barely caught sight of Kaori’s alarmed expression before stumbling, the edges of my vision blacking out. A pair of steady arms caught me.

“Hey, easy there,” Mitsuo’s soft voice came from somewhere above me and then I felt myself being gently lowered to the ground and maneuvered so that my head lay on his lap. Gentle fingers carded through my hair, massaging my scalp lightly. I sighed in contentment.

“She’ll b’alrigh’,” I slurred, syllables merging together. I struggled to get the words out. “She almo’ died-- stoopi’ poison, bu’ I kill’ it. Tell…tell Bya’ya tha’ she’ll live.” The last thing I heard was Mitsuo’s quiet reassurance before the world faded out on me.

   


          

The first thing I registered upon waking up was a pair of muffled voices yelling in the next room. Well, that was the second thing I registered. The first thing was I noticed was how heavy I felt, like gravity had suddenly quadrupled overnight. I shifted tiredly, already trying to fall back asleep, but the annoying voices in the next room persisted.

“See, this is why I didn’t want her taking you in. You damn shinigami are nothing but trouble!” A voice—Kaori, my still mostly asleep mind registered—was snarling. “For some goddamned reason I still don’t understand, Hisana seems to have taken a liking to you. And now because of some stupid promise you forced on her, and the fact that she doesn’t want to disappoint you, she exerted herself to the point that her life was actually in danger! All you do is take and take, expecting more and more, and now my sister is lying in the next room half dead because of you!”

“Kaori!” Another voice whispered reprovingly. Mitsuo. “I understand your anger, but please try to keep your voice down. Hisana is still sleeping and she needs her rest right now.”

“I…did not intend for Hisana to exert herself so much.” A new voice stated, this one laced with guilt.

“I don’t give a damn what you did or didn’t intend. Fact of the matter is, Hisana has been unconscious for almost two days because of you and your kind,” Kaori spat, uttering the last two words like a curse. “Why are you still here anyway? What do you care? Your little friend is alive and well, right? That’s all that matters to you—it wouldn’t matter even if Hisana died so long as you got what you wanted--”

“Do not,” and I’d never heard Byakuya’s voice sound so cold, “imply that I ever wanted to cause Hisana harm of any kind. Blame me if you must—I admit that I am largely responsible for her current state—but don’t you dare say that I don’t care about her.”

“You’ve got a funny way of showing it then, shinigami-san,” she hissed out, though she lowered her voice. “Come on, tell the truth. Is this the real reason you befriended her? So that you could conveniently have a healer at your beck and call whenever you went out on missions in the area?”

At this point, I finally gave up on getting any more rest and with a massive effort, managed to open my eyes…and stared in bemusement at the wide assortment of fruit baskets, baked goods and flowers filling up the room. For a moment I wondered if I was still dreaming, because the last time I checked my room did not look like the offspring between a Hallmarks store and a candy shop.

Trying my best not to make any noise-- Rukia, Renji and Miwa were lying on a mat next to me, slumped over each other like a pile of puppies—I stood up and took a package of mochi resting on top of what looked like a lifetime supply of pocky. Turning back to the puppy pile in front of me, I had to resist the urge to coo at the sheer cuteness in front of me. Rukia was curled up in a tight ball, clutching about three quarters of the blanket tightly to her chest and guarding it jealously even in her sleep. She always had been a bit of a blanket hog. Next to her, Renji was drooling slightly on his pillow, one arm covering his eyes and his right leg sprawled over Miwa’s. On her part, Miwa was mumbling slightly into her pillow—something about angry frogs, red pineapples and bunnies with swords. After taking my own blanket and draping it over Renji and Miwa (Rukia didn’t need it, the little brat), I took a deep breath, shoved about five mochi balls into my mouth, and prepared myself to face the shitstorm outside.

I entered the living room just in time to hear Byakuya say, “I understand your dislike for me, but please cease your attempts to keep me from Hisana. I have no intention of leaving until I have ascertained for myself that Hisana will make a full recovery and have repaid her to the best of my abilities. Unless Hisana herself insists that she has no desire to see me, I will not be going anywhere.” Next to Byakuya, Nakano—now awake—gaped at him with an incredulous expression.

“Such concern touches me, Byakuya. I’m moved, really.” I said, deciding now was a good time as any to make my grand entrance. Byakuya’s eyes widened and I ducked my head, a bit uncomfortable at the open relief on his features. I’d become used to him opening up a little over his time here, but seeing blatant emotion on his face was still unnerving. To my relief, Kazuki could always be counted on to break the tension.

“Wha—you—when—the hell are you doing up?!” He sputtered, dashing over to my side in less than a second. For a moment he flailed, not seeming to know what to do, before he slammed one hand on my forehead in a poor attempt at checking my temperature while his other hand seemed to be tugging me towards the couch. I swatted him away.

“I don’t know about you, but the last time I checked walking around was a fairly common thing to do,” I said dryly, popping another sticky rice ball into my mouth.

“You should be resting!” He all but shouted. Behind him, Kaori snorted.

“Mother Hen Kazuki strikes again,” she murmured. Mitsuo chuckled. I glared daggers at both of them.

“I’m fine,” I insisted, refusing to sit down due to the principle of the matter, although I internally acknowledged that Kazuki had a point. The couch was looking really comfortable right now. “Byakuya, it’s nice to see you again and under better circumstances this time.” Giving him a quick once over, I hummed in satisfaction, a burst of pride at Miwa’s progress rising up in me. “Miwa did well. You’re almost completely healed. Nakano-san, your condition looks considerably improved—I can probably take those stiches out this afternoon.”

“Your hands are shaking,” Kazuki frowned, completely ignoring my attempt to turn the attention away from myself. “That’s it. Bed. Now. And Mitsuo, bring some more food over will you? She can’t recover if she doesn’t eat.” His tone left no room for disagreement. “Kuchiki, Nakano, leave us for a moment. Hisana needs to relax and she can’t do that if she’s tempted to diagnose you every time she sees you.” For a moment, Byakuya hesitated and looked about to argue.

“Go. I’ll be fine,” I said, shooting him a reassuring smile. Byakuya nodded, still looking rather reluctant. “Very well. We’ll talk later.” A pause, then—

“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Hisana. Your presence was…sorely missed these last few months.” With a final short bow, he exited the room with his normal grace.

A hard tap on my head jolted me out of my thoughts and I looked up to see Kazuki raising an eyebrow at me. “What?” I asked defensively. Kaori looked about two seconds away from banging her head on the wall. “Clueless,” she muttered.

Kazuki stared at me for a long moment before shaking his head in resignation. “It’s nothing. Now march and get your ass on the couch.”

“This is totally unnecessary,” I complained as Kazuki practically forced me to sit down. “It’s not like I’m injured—I’m just suffering from a slight case of reiatsu exhaustion. As you can see, I’m perfectly okay.”

“‘Perfectly okay,’ she says. ‘Slight case of reiatsu exhaustion’, she says,” Kaori scoffed incredulously. “Please, as if we needed any more proof that your mental facilities were irreparably damaged. You were in a unconscious for over a day, Hisana. That is not ‘fine’.”

“Since you seem so convinced that I’m damaged mentally, remind me again—who exactly is the healer here? Oh right…I am,” I grumbled, trying to hide my surprise. Unconscious for that long? That was…unexpected.

“A fact that worries me more every day,” Mitsuo intoned solemnly. “It’s a sad state of affairs when our healer can’t even take care of herself.”

“I get no respect around here. No respect at all,” I sighed mournfully. “Fine. But can someone please explain to me why my room looks like it contains half the food in Inuzuri?”

“You’re Inuzuri’s darling, Hisana. When people heard that their beloved doctor was sick…well, what did you expect?” Mitsuo answered, smiling slightly. I blinked in surprise, looking down at my hands.

“Oh,” I said softly, swallowing. My throat felt oddly dry. “I—

At that moment, the door slammed open as Rukia came bursting through the door. “Kaori-nee-san, Kazuki-nii, come quick! Nee-chan’s missing! I don’t know what happened, oh my god, what if someone came in and kidnapped her while I was sleeping, I’m such a horrible sister-”

“Rukia, calm down. I’m right here,” I said, mildly amused. She blinked and stood still for several seconds before realization dawned. I braced myself.

“Nee-chan, you’re awake!” She shrieked, voice hitting a pitch normally reserved for dog whistles. The next thing I knew, my back was hitting the couch as I was tackled by seventy pounds of emotional, teary-eyed teenager. I gasped for air as she half-strangled me, doing her best impression of a clingy octopus. “Oh my gosh, I was so worried and I don’t care what Oni-sensei said, you just wouldn’t wake up and…and you were so still it was like you were d-d-de-”

“Hey, it’s okay now, I’m okay,” I said softly, stroking her hair gently. “Besides, you know what reiatsu exhaustion is like. You’ve seen me like that before.”

“Yeah, sometimes you pass out for a coupla’ hours, but never for over a day,” she said indignantly. A flash of red at the corner of my vision made me look up. Renji was standing at the doorway with his mouth wide open, Miwa right behind him looking torn between joining Rukia and allowing me to recover. I sighed in resignation and opened up my arms obligingly. Then the breath was knocked out of me yet again as two more teenagers piled on top of me. Looking up, I caught sight of Kaori smirking in the background, Kazuki’s arm around her shoulders. Help me, I mouthed, staring pleadingly at them. Kaori’s smirk just widened, while Kazuki huffed a laugh.

“No way. You brought this on yourself, brat,” he said tone completely unrepentant.

“You scared us half to death, Hisana-nee-san. Rukia was unbearable. So we’re just gonna sit on you until we’re sure you ain’t gonna do somethin’ like that again,” Renji added.

“You can’t do that again, Shishou,” Miwa spoke up, voice uncharacteristically serious. “One of the first things you taught me was that you can’t help other people if you don’t take care of yourself first. You…you can’t tell me that and ignore your own advice!” She said fiercely. I blinked in surprise. Where had my meek, shy apprentice gone?

“I’m sorry,” I said softly. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“Dumbass,” Kaori grumbled. “I don’t want you to say you’re sorry. I want you to say you’ll never do it again.”

“You know I can’t do that,” I answered, shaking my head. I wasn’t willing to make a promise that I might not keep. If any one of my family members was heavily injured…if Rukia’s life was on the line…well, forget a one-day coma. I’d become the next Sleeping Beauty and sleep for a hundred years if it meant they’d be okay. “But…I have a better grasp on my limits now. I do promise that I’ll be a lot more careful.”

“Well, I guess that’s the best I’m going to get,” Kazuki sighed. He reached over and ruffled my hair. “You’re a troublesome, reckless, downright idiotic brat with the self-preservation instincts of a retarded lemming, you know that right?” Ouch. I might be hurt if Kazuki hadn’t been calling me variations of the same thing for over half a century now.

“Takes one to know one, moron,” I muttered over Rukia’s indignant ‘Hey!’

Kaori laughed and nodded in agreement. “Sometimes I think that that’s the only thing we all have in common.”

“A family of common-sense lacking, dysfunctional misfits, huh?” I asked, smiling. “I can live with that.”

 


 

As it turned out, it wasn’t until tomorrow that my family deemed me well enough to give Byakuya and Nakano a final checkup and that was only after an hour straight of wheedling, arguing, and outright demanding. It wasn’t even like I was going to use any healing kido—Byakuya was pretty much completely healed and I just needed to remove Nakano’s stitches.

“I’m sorry for the wait, Nakano-san,” I said, rubbing an alcohol-based antiseptic over the suture marks. "My family has a tendency to…overreact.”

“Just call me Rin, Sensei. I’m not much for formalities,” she answered. “And there’s no need to apologize. I’m in no hurry and their concern is understandable.”

Using a pair of forceps, I picked up the knot of the first stitch and cut it with a pair of small scissors, before using the forceps again to pull the thread from the skin. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, which district are you from?” I continued, simultaneously cutting another suture. By now it was just instinct for me to keep up a conversation with my patients to distract them. While I was sure Rin, being a shinigami, wasn’t too squeamish about pain and needles, keeping her attention on more trivial matters wouldn’t hurt either.

“Fifty-sixth of North Rukongai. I only became a shinigami a few years ago.” She replied. Pausing for a moment, she added, “It’s my first time going so far out. Before this, the furthest I’ve traveled from the Seireitei was the sixty-second district.”

“Not what you were expecting?” I asked.

“It’s a bit more…organized than I thought it’d be,” she answered diplomatically.

“You mean civilized,” I laughed, “We’re not all barbarians, you know. Just because there’s less…regulation here than in other places doesn’t mean that we don’t have our own rules.”

“I didn’t mean to imply…” Rin stuttered, cheeks turning slightly pink.

“I know you didn’t. There’s no need to apologize. Trust me, it takes more than this to offend me.” I was almost done removing the stitches.

“I’m just surprised…I mean, from what I’ve seen, it’s hard to get decent medical care anywhere further out than the tenth district, and even then you have to pay through the nose. I mean, maybe it’s different here in South Rukongai, but…”

“No, you’re right,” I smiled wryly. “I can’t say much for the other districts, but at least here in the 78th, I’m the only healer who provides aid at a reasonable price.” Or any price at all. My services, reasonable or not, wouldn’t have been nearly as valuable if they weren’t in such high demand. In a place where over fifty percent of the population couldn’t even read, doctors, even incompetent ones, were next to nonexistent. “If nothing else, it’s a pretty stable career choice and allows me to gain some much needed experience, so don’t feel bad that I overexerted myself. I can’t improve if I don’t challenge myself after all.”

With a final tug, I pulled the last of her stitches out. “There, all set. You’re free to go, Rin-san. Aside from some scarring, you’ll recover nicely.”

Rin stood up and bowed. “Thank you, Sensei.” She then reached into her shihakusho and pulled out a bag of money. “It’s not much, but I’d like to show my appreciation anyway. And…even if it was just as a favor to Kuchiki-sama, you saved my life. If you ever need anything, as long as it doesn’t go against the Gotei 13, feel free to call upon me.”

“Thanks for the offer,” I said, slightly surprised. “But I’ll tell you the same thing I told Byakuya—the only favor I need right now is for you to keep my involvement quiet.”

“You don’t want the Gotei 13 to know about you.” It wasn’t a question. I grimaced. “Bringing their attention to me would be asking for complications I really don’t need right now.” Rin eyed me for another second before nodding. “I understand. You have my word.”

 I smiled gratefully at her, before adding after a hesitant pause, “Take care of yourself, alright? And even if he is your superior, can you keep an eye on Byakuya for me? I think…having another friend will do him a lot of good.” Rin nodded firmly.

“Of course.” She hesitated before adding, “He was really worried about you, you know. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so scared. I didn’t get why—that Mitsuo guy told me he’d known you for less than six months—but I think I understand now.”

“Well…” I didn’t really know how to respond to that, “I should have a talk with him if he’s still feeling guilty then. Taking responsibility for my actions isn’t going to help either of us.”

“No, that’s not it. I mean, he does regret what happened—but that’s not—what I’m getting at is,” Rin shook her head in frustration. “Look, aside from you, no one but his family is allowed to address him so informally. Anyone who does otherwise is just asking to get shredded by Senbonzakura. And I’ve never seen him as relaxed with anyone as he is around you. Just…think about what that means.”


 

The soft sound of footsteps made me look up. “Hey,” I greeted Byakuya and motioned for him to take a seat by me.

“The roof, Hisana? Really?” He asked arching an eyebrow at me. I shrugged.

“It’s quiet and the view is great.” I nodded towards the sun setting in the distance, enveloping all of Inuzuri in a soft golden light. “Why? Worried that I’ll fall off?” I asked with a teasing smile. He eyed me disapprovingly.

“It’s not safe, and if you do slip, I know exactly who’ll get blamed for it. I’d rather not give your family any more reasons to dislike me if I can help it,” he said dryly. “It does tend to make my stays here rather uncomfortable.”

“Oh, so that’s how it is. You’re worried about your own wellbeing. I’m touched, Byakuya. You’re truly a paragon of virtue and selflessness,” I grumbled in mock offense. He chuckled and sat down next to me. What I really wanted to know was how Byakuya made what basically amounted to ‘flopping down’ look like a freaking ballet act. There was just no fairness in the world.

“Don’t be upset, I was only joking,” he added, his eyes glinting with humor. “You know I’d catch you if you ever fell.”

“Thanks for the reassurance, but it’s unnecessary. Who’d be there to catch you then? You’d have to deal with hitting the ground and my body crushing you.”

He eyed me dubiously. “I don’t think I need to worry about that.”

My eyes narrowed. “Exactly what are you implying there? I could so crush you if I wanted. I’m not that small.”

“That’s debat—um, what I meant was that since I am a shinigami, I don’t have to worry about falling off a roof. I would be a pretty pathetic seated officer if something as small as a jump from a roof defeated me,” he corrected hastily at my darkening expression. I snorted but decided to let it go.

“You know, sometimes I wonder about that. Most of the time I see you you’re injured in some way or another. I have no idea why Rukia and Renji aren’t scared off from becoming shinigami yet.”

“Ah, but see, we know that you’ll always be there to patch us up afterwards,” he said lightly before his tone turned serious. “I don’t think I’ve ever thanked you properly for what you did for Nakano-san, Hisana. You went above and beyond anything I ever expected you to do, and you saved her life. For that, I am truly grateful.”

“You’re welcome. Now stop feeling guilty—don’t deny it, I know you do—you didn’t force me to do anything and you’re not responsible for my…period of unconsciousness. You’re my friend; if pushing myself a bit harder than usual means that you don’t have to mourn for a comrade, then I’m willing to do that.” I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. “If you don’t mind me asking, what happened? You don’t have to answer—I was just curious.” A shadow crossed over his face.

“I suppose if anyone has a right to know, it’s you. I led a team consisting of me, Nakano and two others—an unseated officer, Okamoto-san, and a medic from the Fourth--to investigate a series of reported hollow attacks just outside the 75th district. One of the hollows had the ability to turn invisible; he caught Okamoto off guard while I was dealing with two hollows with the ability to fly and spout fire. Our medic was also killed in the process,” Byakuya grimaced. “I did not know either of the deceased that well, but Okamoto was a friend of Nakano’s. She was…distracted.” I nodded in understanding; it wasn’t too hard to figure out what had happened after.

“You couldn’t lose her too,” I murmured. Byakuya’s jaw clenched. “The other members of my team may have been only acquaintances at best, but they were still my responsibility. I’m a fourth-seat. What use is that rank if I don’t even have the power to protect those under my care?” He asked, self-loathing evident in his tone. I smacked him on the forehead, hard. It was by far the best cure for brooding-itis I’d found yet.

“Things happen. People die, and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s life,” I scowled at his dumbfounded expression. “The only thing you can do is train harder, get better, so that the next time something like this happens you’re strong enough to stop it.” Byakuya stared at me, causing me to shift uncomfortably. “What?” I asked defensively. A strange look passed his face.

“You’re not going to tell me that it wasn’t my fault?” He asked.

 I sighed, leaning back and looking at the sky. “I doubt you’re looking for platitudes right now. Besides, if you believe that you’re responsible, me saying otherwise won’t change your mind.” I pulled out a familiar dagger from inside my yukata and twirled it absentmindedly. “See this?” I asked.

“I didn’t know you fought with knives,” he said curiously. “May I?” I handed it over to him and he flipped it around, testing its sharpness by gently pressing it against one finger. “It’s a fine blade.”

“It’s not mine. Or at least, it wasn’t always mine,” I amended softly. No matter how many decades passed, I would always think of it first and foremost as Tatsuya’s dagger. “It once belonged to one of my closest friends. He’s dead now—was killed years ago in a fight gone wrong, along with another friend of mine.” Byakuya refrained from saying anything, for which I was grateful. A ‘sorry for your loss’ wouldn’t have made anything better. It never did.

“I carry this knife with me everywhere now. As a constant reminder that I couldn’t save them, and to never become complacent with my skills. No matter what, there’s always room for improvement.” After I once spent over fifteen minutes performing CPR on a patient, not giving up even after his ribs had cracked from the force of my compressions, Kazuki had commented that I didn’t deal well with failure. He was partially right, I supposed. The truth was more along the lines of, I didn’t accept failure period.

“I know that nothing will bring them back,” I continued quietly, staring at the dagger in my hands. “But if by constantly honing my skills and challenging myself I can prevent any other members of my family from going the same way, then I can live with that. I can’t change the past—no one can—but I can plan for the future.”

For a moment, neither one of us spoke. Then, a heavy weight dropped abruptly on my lap, causing me to grunt in surprise and look down. “The hell?” I muttered, glancing at Byakuya questioningly. “Books?” They were thick, worn-looking…I flipped through one, eyes widening at the thorough descriptions and diagrams of the human body. There were even annotations written neatly in kanji in the margins.

“Byakuya…what…” I stuttered, eyes wide. Even I could tell that these books were probably worth…well, I didn’t even want to think about it.

 “I’ve been meaning to give these to you for a while now,” Byakuya replied, shrugging lightly. “I brought them along when I heard my mission was in the 75th district in case an opportunity to visit you came up. They’re from my family library—Unohana-taicho recommended them when I mentioned that I was taking a light interest in healing kido.” He looked down, the faintest tinge of pink coloring his cheeks. “The first one delves into anatomy, how souls function, how spirit energy affects the body, and theories of reishi, reiatsu and reiryoku; how they’re related, and the differences between them. The last two focus on healing kido; how to use it, different incantations, theories, along with advice on channeling it most effectively. No one’s looked through them for years. I have a feeling that you’ll put them to better use.”

“I don’t think--” I protested, trying to hand them back. Against my will, my traitorous fingers curled around the books longingly. “I can’t accept this; what if someone notices they’re missing?”

“Hisana.” Byakuya’s hands wrapped around mine and he gently pushed the books back in my direction. “My library contains thousands of books. I doubt anyone is going to notice that three of them have gone missing. Please, just take them. If you must, think of them as a thank-you gift for your hard work.”

“…alright. This means a lot to me, Byakuya. Thank you.” I said gratefully after a short pause and leaned forward, wrapping my arms around him in a brief hug. Byakuya stiffened before relaxing and hesitantly pressing a hand against my back. Absently, I noticed that he smelled nice—like fresh ink on paper with a hint of sandalwood.

A thought suddenly struck me, distracting me from my musings (was it just me, or was his face a hint redder than before?). I narrowed my eyes at him warningly, pulling back. “I’ll accept things as payment, but don’t start bringing me random things for no reason, okay? This is already bordering the edge of overly-extravagant. I don’t want charity.” He frowned, obviously reluctant to agree.

“I do not understand your aversion. From what I understand, exchanging gifts between friends is a relatively common practice, is it not?” Byakuya asked, confused. “It would certainly be of no inconvenience to me; I am more than capable of affording even the most expensive luxuries.”

 I tapped my fingers against my chin, pondering how to put my thoughts into words. “Hmm, how should I explain this…if you want to bring me gifts as a friend, then fine, but tone it down a notch or ten. What I’m trying to get at is, I don’t want you to feel obligated towards me. Just because I helped you doesn’t mean you owe me nice things—that’s not the type of relationship this is. I didn’t do any of this because you’re Kuchiki Byakuya, unbelievably rich heir to the Kuchiki clan, capable of buying pretty much anything under the sun. I’m doing this because you’re Byakuya, the guy who indulges my shopping trips, eats ramen with me, puts up with my overprotective family and enjoys coming up with devilish training regimens in his free time. Do you get it now, idiot?”

For a long moment, Byakuya just stared at me, an odd expression on his face. Then he huffed a laugh, tilting his head to look at me fondly.

“You’re the strangest girl I’ve ever met, you know that?” He murmured softly.

I flushed, getting to my feet. “Don’t go reading too much into my words, hime,” I retorted, holding out a hand to help him up. “All I meant was that I’ll be treating you the same way I treat everyone else; you don’t get any special treatment just because you’re rich. That reminds me, I still need to wash the dishes, take down the laundry, and give Rukia’s rabbits a bath because she probably forgot again and you’ll be helping me. I don’t care if this is your last night here, you can still do your share of the work.”

“Is that any way to treat a guest?” He complained, taking my hand and standing up gracefully. “Someone needs a refresher course on hospitality.” I whacked him on the head again.

Byakuya spent the rest of the night bitching about “commoner cleaning methods” and the “pitifully low thread count” of my cotton sheets as well as squabbling with Rukia (“Rukia-chan, if you do not control your rabid pets I will quadruple your training schedule the next time I come”). Despite all that, however, I got the feeling that he was rather enjoying himself. I shook my head in confusion.

Nobles, I thought exasperatedly. I’ll never understand them.

Chapter Text

Interlude

Two days after Byakuya's return to Seireitei:

"Kuchiki-san." Byakuya turned at the sound of his name, acknowledging the figure standing in the doorway with a nod. "Unohana-taicho," he said neutrally. "What can I do for you?"

"I was wondering if we could have a talk," she answered, stepping inside and taking a seat in front of him. At this, Byakuya straightened, slightly alarmed.

"Is Nakano-san alright?" He asked. Hisana had assured him that Nakano would be fine, and while he trusted her skills, she'd still been recovering from her collapse at the time. It was possible that she'd missed something.

"She'll make a full recovery," Unohana assured him. "In fact, she's due to be cleared for active duty this afternoon. That's what I wanted to talk to you about, actually."

"Oh?" Byakuya asked, a bit uneasily. What exactly was so important that it warranted a visit from the Fourth Division captain herself?

"Kuchiki-san," she eyed him seriously. "Answer me honestly. Who treated Nakano-san?" It took every ounce of his training not to let his alarm show on his face.

"She was treated in your division, of course. If I am not mistaken, she is still there. What exactly is this about, taicho?" Byakuya deflected. At this, Unohana's eyes sharpened.

"Please do not insult me, Kuchiki-san. I have been captain of the Fourth for much longer than you have been alive. I can recognize the work of every shinigami in my division, and I assure you that Nakano-san was not treated by any of them. Or rather, she was treated by someone else first," Unohana amended.

"I’m not sure what you are getting at. Both Nakano-san and I reported in with only minor injuries," Byakuya stated firmly. A faint shadow crossed over Unohana's face and Byakuya manfully resisted the urge to cower under his desk or run away. Hisana, you had better appreciate this, he thought darkly.

"Again, I would thank you not to insult me or my skills by lying to me. Do you really think that I can't recognize puncture wounds when I see them? Whoever healed her did an admirable job of drawing out the poison, I admit. However, although the venom was completely gone there were still signs of the damage it did to the tissue. Likewise, the faint scar caused by the stitches was still visible." At this, Unohana paused and her expression softened.

"I do not mean your friend any harm, Kuchiki-san. I cannot make a detailed assessment of the poison without looking at it personally, but I can make an educated guess as to how it worked. The imagination and innovation required to come up with a technique to treat it, the amount of anatomy knowledge shown, and the precision and skill with which the wound was stitched together…I find myself impressed. I would not have expected anyone below eighth seat to show such capability." Despite himself, Byakuya felt a faint burst of pride for Hisana. Unohana Retsu was not someone who handed out praise lightly, after all.

"I am sorry, Unohana-taicho, but my friend does not wish for her identity to be known." There was really no reason to keep denying Hisana's existence at this point. "I owe her too much to go against her wishes." Unohana stared at him for a long moment.

"Your friend…she is not a shinigami."

It was not a question. Byakuya willed himself not to react as she smiled slightly.

"No need to pretend, Kuchiki-san. Anyone who learns healing kido in the Gotei 13 is taught a very specific way of how to treat the body. Even if we don't have verbal incantations, there are still standardized techniques and ways of manipulating and forming healing kido that every healer is taught. Your friend does not follow any of the usual medical practices and procedures, making it very obvious that she did not learn her skills here in the Seireitei."

Unohana paused slightly before continuing. "You are sure that you will not divulge her identity? I merely wish to meet her, as her techniques are…refreshingly unique. I'd like to know how she came about them."

"I will not." Byakuya's voice was firm.

"Very well," Unohana sighed. "I will not push then. However, if she does ever wish to become a shinigami, please tell her that there will be an opening in the Fourth Division waiting for her."

***

Four Months Later

Byakuya tilted the music box in his hands back and forth, observing it thoughtfully. It really was a beautifully crafted piece of wood. He'd seen it through the shop window of a well-respected antique store. When opened, it played a slightly melancholy tune—a duet between a harp and a flute. Sweet and pretty…Hisana would have liked it. Smiling wryly, he thought back to the stash of romance novels he'd found hidden in her bedroom during his visit six weeks ago.

"…those are Kaori's," Hisana muttered, turning her head away. The faint flush on her cheeks gave her away. At his disbelieving look, she scowled heavily.

"There's nothing wrong with liking romance novels, okay!" Hisana snapped, her face reddening further.

"I never said there was," he said, trying not to grin and anger her by doing so. For such a tiny person, her punches sure hurt. "I just never took you for someone who would be a fan of…hmm, what was it again? Oh, right—'The Samurai's Lost Love'."

"Shut up you," her scowl deepened. "It's surprisingly well-written, alright? Don't judge me."

"It's fine, Hisana. You don't have to justify yourself to me. It's just…aren't those books a little unrealistic?"

She crossed her arms, frowning. "That's exactly why I like them. Because real life doesn't work like that. The characters in these books have the most ridiculous problems and logically should never end up together, but they do anyway. It's…nice to see, even if it's only in fiction. To see these two people go through countless troubles and heartbreak and still get a happy ending in the end."

"Kuchiki-dono?" The voice of the shop owner startled him out of his thoughts. "Is the box to your liking? I have some more in the back room if that one does not suit your tastes."

"That won't be necessary," Byakuya said coolly, "This one will do."

"Of course, Kuchiki-dono, of course. I will get that settled for you right away," the shopkeeper said hastily, dipping into a deep bow. Byakuya bit back a sigh. It was only proper for a commoner to address him so formally of course, but sometimes, just sometimes, it got a bit…tedious. Unbidden, his mind drifted back to his second trip to Inuzuri. Hisana's blatant refusal to tack on a –sama or a –dono to the end of his name had been…unusual, to say the least. Jii-sama would be scandalized, Byakuya thought amusedly. He suddenly had a mental image of his grandfather and Hisana meeting and promptly winced. Maybe not yet.

As the shopkeeper rang up the price, Byakuya made a mental note never to tell Hisana the price of the antique. Last time had been bad enough, and it had only been a box of tea.

Byakuya watched with some worry as all the blood suddenly drained out of Hisana's face. Beside her, Rukia had started choking.

"Wha-what did you say?" Renji sputtered, chin wet after having spewed the tea all over the table. Byakuya eyed his second…student of sorts disdainfully. "Abarai-kun, please control yourself. Your manners are absolutely disgraceful; I have taught you better than this." Renji ignored him completely and Byakuya resigned himself to the fact that his redheaded student would always be an uncultured buffoon.

"I-I don't even see that much money in a year! Hell, even if ya combined the salaries of Kaori-nee-san, Kazuki-nii-san, Mitsuo-nii-san AND Hisana-nee-san, I probably STILL wouldn't see that much money in a year!"

Meanwhile, Rukia had stopped choking and now reached over to poke him on the cheek. Byakuya swatted her hand away irritably. "And what do you think you are doing, Rukia-chan?"

"Just checkin' to make sure you aren't made outta ivory or something. You're certainly pale enough." She seemed rather disappointed that Byakuya was not, in fact, composed of elephant tusk. "Hey Oni-sensei, when you cry, do you cry diamonds? No? How 'bout sapphires then? Or pearls?"

Hisana finally seemed to have recovered somewhat and pulled Rukia into her lap. "Stop that, Rukia, it's rude. And you," she leveled a fierce glare on Byakuya. "Do not, and I repeat, DO NOT bring me something that expensive again. In fact, it's probably better that you don't bring me anything again. Gods, it's like you're trying to give me a heart attack."

"But did you like them?" He interrupted her rant. The bridge of her nose crinkled in confusion, and Byakuya tried really hard not to find that as endearing as he did.

"Like what? My near-heart attacks? Because I really don't," she said crossly.

"Your gifts. Did you like the books I gave you?" She hesitated and Byakuya had to fight down the smug smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth.

"Well…I mean…that is to say…it's true that they were very helpful. And there was that absolutely fascinating chapter about adapting healing techniques for combat use-" Still sitting on Hisana's lap, Rukia suddenly groaned and smacked her forehead.

"And the tea? You did enjoy it, yes?" Byakuya pressed on.

"Um, it was admittedly very, uh, nice," Hisana said, casting a longing look towards the remainder of her tea in her cup.

"Then I don't see what the problem was. So long as it makes you happy, it's worth every cent," Byakuya finished firmly. Hisana huffed, though Byakuya noticed with satisfaction that her cheeks were slightly pink.

"Fine. Just don't bring me something so expensive again, you hear?"

"I promise that I won't spend more than ten percent of my weekly salary on you," he agreed magnanimously, deciding to leave out just how much money he actually earned in a week between his career in the Gotei 13 and being the Kuchiki heir.

"Byakuya-sama!" At hearing the familiar high-pitched voice, Byakuya grimaced and subtly tried to look for an escape route. Finding none, he sighed and braced himself.

"Amano-san," he said monotonously. "I was not expecting to see you here." If he had been, he'd be halfway across the Seireitei by now. Amano Fumiko, the only daughter of the Amano clan head. A medium level noble family, not as prestigious as the Kuchiki clan, but nonetheless known for their fast growing wealth and their influence in the merchant's sector. His grandmother had introduced him to the girl a few days ago and had insisted that they have lunch together. Subtle, his grandmother was not.

It had been one of the most excruciatingly awkward meals of his life…on his side at least. Amano hadn't seemed to notice, chattering away the entire time. By the end of the hour, he'd learned more about Naito Ichiro's affair with Kasada Jun than he'd ever wanted to know. Honestly, he had no idea why she was so happy to see him. He couldn't have been a good conversationalist, having barely said a dozen words the entire time. Money, he mused sardonically, could excuse a lot of faults.

Amano smiled up widely at him. It didn't reach her eyes. "Byakuya-sama, it's so nice to see you again!" She glanced at the music box he was holding. "Oh, that is a lovely piece of art, isn't it? I didn't know you were a fan of music."

"I like to indulge in it from time to time," Byakuya answered stiffly. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a meeting scheduled in half an hour. Duty calls, I'm sure you understand." He bowed politely towards her.

"On a weekend, Byakuya-sama?" She pouted. "How dull. You're always so busy—how do you ever get any free time?"

By hiding away in a small house seventy eight districts away, Byakuya thought dryly. Seemingly oblivious to Byakuya's tense state, Amano reached up to tuck a strand of hair behind one ear, shooting a coy smile at him.

"Where is your meeting taking place, Byakuya-sama? Perhaps I can accompany you there?" She asked. Looking around frantically, Byakuya nearly collapsed in relief at the sight of a familiar head of purple hair. It was quite possibly the only time he'd ever been glad to see the were-cat.

"Shihouin-taicho!" He called out, striding over to her. She looked up confused, before her eyes landed on Amano and comprehension lit her features. "How fortuitous. I was just about to head over to the meeting." He sent her a meaningful look.

"Indeed," she said, lips quirking and obviously entertained. "We had better hurry if we don't want to be late, Byakuya-bou."

Too relieved to even scowl at the nickname, Byakuya turned back to Amano and bowed again. "My apologies, Amano-san. Until next time." With pointed look towards Yoruichi, he turned around and began making his way towards the 6th Division. Yoruichi followed him at a much more sedate pace, looking positively amused. As soon as he was out of sight, Byakuya promptly took off at his fastest shunpo.

He paused on the roof of a building five streets away, Yoruichi stopping right on his heels. A second blur soon followed and Byakuya nearly groaned at the sight of the smaller figure trailing them, dressed in ninja black.

"Oh, Soi Fon!" Yoruichi called out brightly. "Sorry for taking off like that; I was just helping to rescue Byakuya-bou." Soi Fon narrowed her eyes at him.

"Was Kuchiki-san bothering you, Yoruichi-sama?" She asked, hand already twitching towards her zanpakuto. "If you want, I'll take care of him and you can get back to shopping."

"No need, my little bee," Yoruichi laughed. "This is too good to pass up. I think I'm done with shopping for the day. Can you bring my purchases back to the second?"

"Right away, Yoruichi-sama!" Soi-fon said determinedly, before shooting off in a shunpo even Byakuya had trouble following.

"She's getting really good at that," Yoruichi sighed proudly, before reaching out with one hand and snatching the back of Byakuya's shihakusho just as he was about to make his escape. "Nuh-uh, not so fast Byakuya-bou. Explain what I just saw there."

"Not that it is any of your business, but that was Amano-san."

"Amano…owner of the majority of Seireitei's clothing stores, Amano?" She mused. "And I'm guessing yet another one of your love-conquests. She seemed awfully determined to get you alone, Byakuya-bou." Spinning him around, she reached up and pinched his right cheek playfully. "I'm so proud…my little Byakuya, growing up to be such a ladies man!"

Gritting his teeth, Byakuya resisted the urge to release his shikai on the stupid cat-lady. He wasn't a hundred any more. "Let go of me! Do you have any functional brain cells in that demented mind of yours? Did it look like Amano-san and I were romantically involved?"

"Hmm…maybe not," she said, tapping her index finger against her chin thoughtfully. "But that doesn't explain what you have in your hand."

He blinked, looking down at the music box he'd almost forgotten about.

"It's for me," Byakuya said automatically, pushing down the urge to hide it behind his back like a child with his hand caught in the cookie jar. "I am not allowed to enjoy music now, Shihouin-taicho?"

"Mmm," she eyed him skeptically. "I know that your shikai takes the form of cherry blossoms, but I've known you for over a century now and you don't seem the type to purchase a music box with flowers engraved on it. Its design is a bit…feminine, even for you. Try again, kid." Once again, Byakuya was unpleasantly reminded of the fact that despite all appearances, Yoruichi was head of the Omnitsukido for a reason.

"One of my cousin's birthdays is coming up," he deflected. It was true after all, and the best lies were lies of omission. Unfortunately, Yoruichi had been the one to teach him that. She smiled indulgently at him and Byakuya resisted the urge to scowl.

"While pretty, it's not quite expensive enough to be given as a gift to any noble, which narrows down the suspect pool considerably. I would have thought maybe the Nakano girl you've been seen with a few times, but she has a boyfriend and I doubt he'd take too kindly to you giving her gifts. Not to mention I'm pretty sure if you were interested in her romantically, you wouldn't be calling each other 'Nakano-san' and 'Kuchiki-sama'. So that rules out Nakano Rin."

Her gaze sharpened. "The interesting thing is, if you did behave differently with a girl, it would be all over Seireitei by now. So that means…how long have you been seeing someone from the Rukongai, Byakuya-kun?"

"That's ridiculous," Byakuya scoffed. Hisana was only a friend…right? Perhaps his closest friend, but not someone he'd ever looked at in that way. For god's sake, they'd only met each other a few times. This wasn't one of those stupid romance novels Hisana liked to read. Ignoring the uneasy feeling in his stomach, he turned back to Yoruichi. "I admit that this is a gift for someone I met outside of the Seireitei. However, you're mistaken in thinking that I have any romantic intentions towards her."

"Then why the present?" Yoruichi asked, eyes narrowed. "That's a bit out of character for you, kid."

"Is it not customary to bring gifts to friends after spending a period of time apart?" Byakuya retorted. "I am only being polite."

"Right." Yoruichi said, clearly unconvinced. "Just tell me this, Byakuya-kun. Is she forcing you into this? Or are you only doing this out of some sense of guilt?" Her reiatsu abruptly cooled, stilling dangerously. "It doesn't matter what information she has over you, you know. Just say the word, and I'll take care of it."

"What? No!" Byakuya yelped, composure briefly slipping. Yoruichi thought that Hisana was blackmailing him? Or manipulating him? "God, no. She's one of the most infuriatingly selfless people I've ever met. She'd kill me if she knew how much this thing cost." Or at the very least, throw it at his head. Irrational midget, he thought fondly.

Yoruichi stared at him for a long moment before shaking her head. "Clueless moron," she muttered. "Great, now I feel bad for this girl and I've never even met her."

"You won't tell anyone, will you?" Byakuya asked, abruptly anxious. "She's not really the type to like attention drawn to her."

"Relax, Byakuya-bou. Share a secret this good? Nah, I'm going to keep this one for myself," she said grinning. "However, in exchange…you tell me about her. I'm curious what kind of girl managed to befriend the Kuchiki heir." Her tone suddenly turned thoughtful. "Say, this wouldn't be the same girl who had you so preoccupied a few months back, would it?"

"Yes it is—although I do not have a so-called 'crush' on her," Byakuya was quick to add. "I'm not going to tell you her name," he said warningly. "The last thing I want is for you to track her down and bother her."

"Aww…but there are so many great stories I could tell her about you!" Yoruichi pouted. "But don't worry kiddo, I won't ask for any specifics. Just general facts. If it makes you feel better, I'm not speaking as Captain of the 2nd Division right now, but as your Yoruichi-oba-san. No shinigami business, I promise."

"Alright," Byakuya relented. Despite how impossibly frustrating and annoying she could be at times, Shihouin Yoruichi was one of the few people in the Seireitei that he trusted wholeheartedly. If nothing else, he believed that she had his best interests at heart.

"So I met her a little over half a year ago-"

~Fifteen minutes later~

"—and she has this big family too, although I'm fairly convinced most of them dislike me." Dislike probably wasn't a strong enough word. Whenever he was around, Kazuki spent most of his time in plain view sharpening his sword and staring at him meaningfully. Whenever Kaori cooked dinner, his food alternated between overwhelmingly bland and unbearably salty…he'd even tried a bite of Hisana's meal for comparison purposes and hers had been perfectly seasoned. He'd learned not to eat/drink anything Mitsuo handed him period after the first time he caught Mitsuo slipping an unknown powder into his water.

As for Miwa, after the fiasco with Nakano's injury, it was probably for the best that Hisana was the one who always treated him. While always unfailingly polite to him in front of her Shishou, whenever he was injured, Miwa often 'accidentally' handed Hisana the scalpel instead of what she actually asked for along with the most painful disinfectants. As it was, she also tended to mysteriously develop deafness whenever he happened to ask her for something.

The worst, however, were his own students. Whenever he got up in the morning, Renji would rush past him into the bathroom and then refuse to come out for at least half an hour. Both of his students seemed to suddenly become about four times as clumsy whenever he was in the vicinity. Honestly, Byakuya had lost count of the number of times Renji or Rukia would be carrying a heavy object and suddenly 'trip' towards his direction. When Hisana had been…recovering from healing Nakano's injury, Rukia had almost dumped a pot of boiling water on his lap. He'd dodged, of course, and Rukia had received an earful from both Kaori and Mitsuo and a subtle high five from Kazuki later but…he'd never told Hisana about that. If nothing else, at least that one he'd deserved.

"She sounds like a pretty cool girl," Yoruichi commented, a strange smile on her face. "I don't think I've heard you talk this much in years, Byakuya-bou."

Byakuya blinked in surprise, just now noticing how dry his throat was. Nakano-san knew about Hisana, of course, but despite the fact that their relationship had grown closer, she was still his subordinate and he was still her commanding officer. They were friendly, but they weren't…friends. They weren't equals. Yoruichi on the other hand was much closer to his social status and they'd known each other for years. Additionally, despite her position as head of the Shihouin clan, Yoruichi had never really been one for formalities. Hell, she walked around as a male cat half the time and still called him 'Byakuya-bou.' He didn't have to worry about her disapproval.

Talking about Hisana with someone had been…nice, Byakuya supposed. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed her.

"It's hard to believe that I've only known her for a few months," Byakuya agreed. That was the thing with Hisana, though. With her, things just came…naturally. He didn't have to try with her.

"I do have one question however," Yoruichi glanced at him. "If she means so much to you, why let her stay in the Rukongai? It would be easy enough for you to gain her access inside. I'm sure you at least have an idea what life outside the city walls is like—why leave her there?" He blinked in surprise at the question. It wasn't that he hadn't thought about it before—of course he had, since the moment she'd held him helpless at sword-point and had set him free instead—and indeed, his primary purpose for returning had been to offer her a place in the Seireitei. A way out that, in the end, she hadn't needed.

"Because she's never needed a hero," he murmured after a moment of contemplation. "And she'd hate me for making her a damsel in distress." Byakuya smiled at Yoruichi's widened eyes. "She's doing just fine—more than fine—where she is. If she ever needed my help, I would offer it in an instant, but until then…she doesn't need me to rescue her."

***

Another Six Months Later

"Byakuya-bou!" Byakuya resisted the urge to bang his forehead on his desk as Yoruichi charged into the room, eyes bright. You are the heir to the Kuchiki clan, he reminded himself, you have dignity, you have pride…ah, screw it.

"What do you want?" He groaned. Ever since he'd told Yoruichi about Hisana, the damn cat-woman just wouldn't leave him alone. It was always 'So when are you going to see her again?' or 'Hey, are you ever going to invite her to the Seireitei? Just for a short visit?'. After his last visit, she'd hounded him until he'd finally relented and let her help pick out Hisana's next present.

"So? Did she like the necklace?" Yoruichi asked excitedly. "Come on Byakuya-bou, give me something to work with here. Your first close female friend, outside of…well, me." Additionally, she'd also worked out that Hisana lived somewhere in the outer districts of South Rukongai ("It wasn't exactly that hard. No one likes going all the way out there and you've volunteered for practically every mission in that general direction. Frankly, I'm amazed no one else has worked it out."). Byakuya supposed he should count himself lucky that she hadn't narrowed it down to Inuzuri.

"Well, she took it only slightly worse than the music box," Byakuya said dryly.

"The music box…didn't she give you a hug and thank you for about two minutes before punching you in the face?" Yoruichi asked. Byakuya winced, his right eye throbbing at the memory.

"She apologized after," and healed him as well, though Yoruichi still didn't know about Hisana's healing abilities.

"I'm liking this girl more and more already," Yoruichi said smirking. "So tell me, how'd she react?" It had been a beautiful necklace, simple and elegant—a white gold phoenix wrapped around a teardrop shaped jade pendant of the highest quality; against the shine of the phoenix, the pale translucent green had almost seemed to glow with a subtle brilliance. The entire thing lay suspended on an elegant chain, white gold to match the phoenix. It was lovely, something both he and Yoruichi could agree on…and very obviously expensive.

"Oh, she stormed off, ignored me for two hours before calling me 'hopeless' and smacked me on the head. I caught her wearing it when I left though, so I think she liked it."

Yoruichi laughed delightedly. "She sounds like a complete tsundere, Byakuya-kun. It's adorable." Which, Byakuya supposed, had a grain of truth in it. About the only people Hisana wasn't emotionally awkward around were children, her family, and her patients.

"So am I ever going to meet her?" Yoruichi continued. Wonderful, this again. They had repeated this conversation twelve times in the past month.

"As I have already informed you, it is not exactly easy to plan a visit," Byakuya said, his voice cooling a degree. "The travel distance alone is four days using shunpo, and if she entered as my guest, it would attract attention to her that she neither wants nor needs. She would never get a moment's peace. You know that, Shihouin-taicho."

"Mmm, but if she was okay with it?" Yoruichi asked, a speculative look in her eye. "Would you bring her in then?"

"Then I would love to show her around," Byakuya answered. "However, she has never expressed an interest in seeing my home, so this topic is pointless to discuss." His lips turned down a fraction. Most people he came across practically salivated for an opportunity to glimpse the inside of the 'mysterious Kuchiki grounds.' The closest Hisana had come to expressing an interest was saying, "Wait, you have how many ponds on your property? Can you swim in them?" But then again, Hisana could never be accused of being 'most people.'

"You know, there's one thing I've noticed, Byakuya-bou," Yoruichi commented. "Whenever I ask you to bring her over, it's always 'it would be inconvenient for her' or 'I don't want her to have to deal with the attention.' You've never once said that it would be troublesome for you."

"I am more than capable of dealing with any repercussions from my actions," Byakuya answered stiffly.

It wasn't that he hadn't thought of how bringing in an outsider would affect his own reputation. His grandfather would almost certainly disapprove. His grandmother would be furious. And even thinking about the elders' potential reaction made him wince. But somehow, whenever he thought about showing her around the Kuchiki grounds (Would she like the gardens? He'd probably have to keep her from jumping into a pond and trying to pet a fish or something), or showing her around the 13 Court Guard Squads (He'd have to keep her away from Unohana-taicho—the thought of them meeting or gods forbid, becoming friends terrified him a little), or taking her to his family library (He'd probably have to drag her back out), his family's approval didn't seem to matter so much.

It wasn't like he'd be breaking any rules, Byakuya mused, so he'd be keeping his promise to his parents. And really, it wasn't any of his family's business who he decided to be friends with. Besides, it was only natural that he want to bring her here. She had accepted him into her home without asking any questions, her only condition being that he give Rukia and Renji a few lessons; of course he'd want to repay the favor.

"I can think of more than a few people who would be very unhappy about your actions," Yoruichi said mildly. "Your grandmother for one. That Amano girl—as well as the Fujiwara heiress, the Yamato girl and the Minamoto clan's youngest daughter—would be devastated. Your grandfather might be more accepting, but I don't see him being all that happy either. Not that I don't want to meet your mysterious lady friend—I do—but is associating with this girl really worth all that trouble?"

"I couldn't care less what Amano-san and the others thought. They are of no interest to me," Byakuya said coldly. "My grandmother will eventually learn to accept that I am an adult now, and am capable of making my own decisions. Just because my views differ from hers at times, it does not mean that I do not have the Kuchiki clan's best interests at heart. As for my grandfather…I trust that he would come around in time."

"Hmm, just making sure. Your grandparents would want me to caution you further against making rash decisions but…I can see that you've put a lot of thought into this. I'm proud of you, Byakuya," Yoruichi said softly, putting a hand on his arm affectionately—for once leaving out the childish honorific. "This girl, whoever she is, is lucky to have you gained your loyalty." With that, she left Byakuya to his thoughts. Even after Yoruichi was long gone, Byakuya turned her words over in his head thoughtfully.

It was strange. Something was bothering him about Yoruichi's choice of words—she hadn't said Hisana was lucky to have gained his friendship. No, Yoruichi had used the word loyalty instead. It wouldn't have sounded strange to any commoner, but to a noble…well, Shihouin Yoruichi knew better than anyone that among the aristocracy, loyalty was prized above all else. Loyalty to the clan, loyalty to the 13 Court Guard Squads…it was valued over friendship or even love. It was a small detail, but…Byakuya shook his head, choosing to forget about the matter. Shihouin Yoruichi was a woman of many eccentricities; it probably wouldn't do to dwell upon it too much.

***

~Another Three Months Later~

Kuchiki Ginrei looked up as his grandson entered his office, handing in his mission reports for the week. Looking down at the top page, he resisted the urge to sigh.

"Another mission request? It's only been a few days since your last one," he said disapprovingly. "And to the 74th district of South Rukongai as well?"

"There are no other officers currently available that are capable of accomplishing this mission on their own," Byakuya replied. "It would be a waste of resources to send an entire team of shinigami when it would be more efficient to send me."

"If you didn't lead just as many team missions, I would worry about your penchant towards wandering off on your own in the Rukongai for weeks on end," Ginrei commented, voice faintly admonishing.

"The distance alone makes it impractical to send more than one or two shinigami, especially if they are not accomplished in shunpo. As someone who has trained extensively with Shihouin-taicho herself, I am the reasonable choice to send."

"Right," Ginrei eyed Byakuya shrewdly. "And am I to also assume that this latest request for a long-term mission has nothing to do with the meeting you have next week with Fujimoto-san?" Byakuya stiffened and Ginrei sighed somewhat exasperatedly.

"You know that your grandmother only has your best interests at heart, Byakuya. And Fujimoto-san is a pleasant young woman—it would not hurt for you to get to know her better."

"Fujimoto-san is…nice enough," Byakuya spoke haltingly. "However, I simply cannot see her in the way that obaa-sama wishes me to. I believe that it would be unfair to both myself and Fujimoto-san to pretend otherwise." Ginrei's expression softened slightly.

"It is not a commitment, grandson, simply a way for you so socialize more with women your own age. Do not look upon your grandmother's actions too harshly, Byakuya. She simply wants to have some grandchildren to dote on in the future. As do I." Despite himself, Byakuya felt his face warming and Ginrei chuckled lightly. "But if you are really so averse to another meeting with Fujimoto-san, I will approve this mission and have a talk with your grandmother about easing up a little. However, answer me honestly. Is there truly no girl who has caught your attention? You are young still and you still have time, but is there really no one who you would not mind taking as a companion? I know that arranged marriages are common in our clan, but I would rather you end up in a match that would make you happy."

For a moment, sparkling blue-violet eyes and a warm smile flashed across his mind. Frustrated, Byakuya pushed the image away roughly and turned to look his grandfather in the eye.

"There is no one," he stated firmly. "May I be dismissed, taicho?"

"Wait a moment, Byakuya. There is something else I'd like to speak to you about," Ginrei said, tone abruptly turning serious. Byakuya paused.

"Is something the matter, taicho?" He asked his grandfather warily. Ginrei smiled slightly, shaking his head. "Not at all, Byakuya. And I have told you, you may call me grandfather here when we are alone."

"Very well, jii-sama," Byakuya acknowledged with a nod. "What was it you wanted to discuss?"

"Take a seat," the elderly head of the Kuchiki Clan motioned with one hand towards the chair in front of him, then poured a cup of tea and handed it to Byakuya.

"You have been serving in this division for almost three decades now," Ginrei began as Byakuya accepted the tea with a faint sound of gratitude. "And you have always been an exemplary example of what a Sixth Division officer should be. These past few months especially, you have taken it upon yourself to accept some of the most challenging missions that have come through, and have managed to complete them with minimal injuries." Looking down at his tea contemplatively, he missed the uncomfortable look that briefly crossed Byakuya's face. "I have been thinking…you are still young, not even a century and a half old yet, but you have shown admirable responsibility and competency for someone of your age. I think…yes, it is about time that I gained a new lieutenant. Your father's old seat has gone empty for long enough, don't you agree?"

At this, Byakuya stilled, unable to prevent the shock from showing on his face. "Jii-sama," he breathed out, "you don't mean…what about Shirogane-san?" At this, Byakuya's grandfather chuckled.

"Shirogane Ginjirou may be my third seat, but he is also getting on in years. I had discussed the matter with him several months back and he adamantly insisted that you were better suited for the position." Ginrei stood up, walking over to Byakuya's side and placed a reassuring hand on to Byakuya's shoulder. "You have done me proud, both as a member of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, and as my grandson. I could not have asked for more," he stated fondly.

"Then, jii-sama…I would be honored to accept the position," Byakuya stated solemnly, inwardly touched. He stood up and dipped into a low bow.

"No need to bow before me, grandson," Ginrei said gently. There was a brief pause. "You've grown up into a fine man. Your parents would be proud if they could see you here today, Byakuya. Never doubt that."

Chapter Text

 

Byakuya stopped by another three times that year—each time bringing me progressively more expensive gifts, I really had to figure out a way to stop that ‘tradition’—though each time he only stayed for three or four days at most. It wasn’t until the beginning of January that things changed.

“You know,” I sighed, patching up his cracked ribs, “I’m beginning to think that we’re simply incapable of meeting under normal circumstances.” Swatting Byakuya’s hand away as he tried to prod at his bandages, I gently tilted his head up and peered into his eyes to check if they were still dilated. They weren’t; good.

“A few cracked ribs isn’t that bad. I get more injuries during sparring,” he sniffed.

“I can see that. A broken leg, a sprained wrist, and a minor skull fracture since I last saw you? Really, Byakuya?”

“How can you tell?” He asked curiously. “I made a full recovery weeks ago.”

“Even the most minor injuries leave signs,” I answered absently, wiping the dirt away from a cut on his arm. “Scar tissue, stretched ligaments, a slight weakness in the bone around a fracture site…granted, unlike in the living world, most of them fade after a while, but I can still tell if you’ve been hurt recently.” Wrapping a bandage around the final cut, I stepped back in satisfaction. “There. How do you feel?”

“Well enough,” he said. “As always, thank you Hisana.”

“You’re welcome,” I answered, before promptly slugging him in the shoulder. “You idiot. What happened to being more careful? What if I wasn’t here? Then you’d be stuck breathing painfully for weeks, you reckless moron.”

“Actually, I probably would have healed in a day or two. Maybe less,” he corrected smugly. Only the little bit of professionalism I had left prevented me from punching him again, in the ribs this time.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Your ‘I’m a fourth-seat, I heal faster than most people due to my stupidly high spirit energy’ spiel, I’ve heard it all before,” I grumbled.

“Actually,” he said, a slow grin spreading over his face, “I’ve been meaning to tell you. I’ve recently been promoted.” I gaped at him and thought back to all the conversations we had about the Gotei 13, Byakuya’s squad in particular—as far as I knew, there was only one open seat below captain rank and above fourth seat in the 6th Division. “You mean…?”

“You’re looking at the 6th Division’s new lieutenant,” he said, trying to look unaffected but failing due to the proud smile that kept tugging at the corners of his mouth. I spent all of another two seconds staring at him with wide eyes before staggering backwards to sit on the bed.

“Oh my god,” I said, mouth open. “I…I don’t know what to say. Oh dear god. Those poor shinigami.”

“What exactly do you mean by that?” Byakuya asked, an expression of such extreme indignation crossing his face that I had to turn away in order to keep from laughing.

“I’m just saying that now that you have the authority of a vice-captain, you’re going to run your officers into the ground.” I explained, trying my best to suppress a smile. “By the time you’re through with them, every shinigami in the division except your grandfather will be cursing your name. I can see it now—‘10th seat-san, I observed your spar the other day and could not help but notice that your technique is completely abominable. In order to rectify this, I have taken the liberty of scheduling for you three consecutive hours of training per day for the next two weeks with the 11th division,” I mocked in a pitiful imitation of Byakuya’s voice.

“I certainly do not sound like that,” Byakuya retorted in an affronted tone. “This is slander.”

I laughed and leaned over to wrap my arms around him in a tight hug, maneuvering my body so that my weight didn’t rest on his ribs. “Rukia and Renji would disagree. But in all seriousness, I am happy for you. You’re going to make a wonderful vice-captain, Byakuya.”

He wrapped an arm around my shoulders, shifting so that I rested more comfortably against his side. “Thank you. Now enough about me—how are the others doing? Have my wayward students been keeping up with their training? And Miwa? Is she well?” I snorted.

“Well, a few days after your last visit some idiot tried to grope Kaori in a bar—the bar Kazuki works at, coincidentally enough—being too drunk to know better. I suppose you can guess how that turned out.”

Byakuya’s eyes glinted with humor. “Truly? Did the man survive?”

“He did…barely. I was tempted not to treat him,” I admitted. Though in the end, rubbing salt into his wounds for ‘disinfecting purposes’ had been too tempting to pass up. “But long story short, before Kaori could even draw her sword, Kazuki had already thrown him against a wall, punched him enough times to shatter his nose and knock most of his teeth out, and then proclaimed to everyone around that the next person who hit on Kaori would receive a sword to the groin. Then Kaori walked up, punched Kazuki in the face, said that she was tired of him ‘being too damn chicken to make a move’ and proceeded to initiate a heavy make out session.” Rukia had gone around repeating the story to anyone who’d listen for weeks with stars in her eyes.

“It was all very romantic,” I added, smiling slightly. “Well, it was when I first heard about it. It became less so when I had to move myself, Mitsuo, Rukia, Renji and Miwa to the clinic for the next month.”

“Why…?” He began, before realization hit. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” I nodded sagely. “They’re very…loud, you could say.” I had learned more about Kazuki and Kaori’s sex lives during their ‘honeymoon-period’ than I’d ever wanted to know. “I thought that Mitsuo was going to snap and murder them the first few days. That, or cut off his own ears.”

“Perfectly understandable,” Byakuya nodded, looking faintly ill. I rolled my eyes, but decided to take pity on him and change the subject.

“Mitsuo’s doing pretty good for himself too. His dojo is doing well and he’s thinking about expanding. Miwa is progressing nicely in her studies. She can now read simple books, and her skill with herbal remedies is almost as good as mine; not to mention, she has a real knack for coming up with new ones,” I smiled proudly. While she didn’t have the same levels of reiatsu that I did, or the same instinctive grasp of it, I had no doubt that her skill with creating salves and poultices would eventually surpass my own.

“She can also heal minor to mildly-serious injuries in animals on her own now. I’ve had her test reiatsu techniques on me for the past few weeks, and she’s getting to the point where she’ll be ready to treat human patients in a few months.”

 My smile faded slightly. “It’ll be nice to have another healer around here. Just in case I’m ever not around.”

“Oh? Are you ever planning to leave?” Byakuya asked, seemingly disinterested. I looked up in surprise, distracted from my increasingly morbid thoughts. “Leave Inuzuri?” To be honest, I’d never really considered it. “And go where? I mean, I know it’s one of the poorest districts, but it’s not a guarantee that life will get better if I go elsewhere. Here, at least, people have gotten used to the idea of me being a healer. It’d take decades to gain that kind of reputation back if I went to another district.”

“Not another district. The Seireitei,” Byakuya corrected, looking at me intently. I gaped at him in disbelief.

 “No way,” I scoffed, pushing him lightly. “I never took you as someone to talk about impossibilities, Byakuya.”

“Why would you think it’s an impossibility?” He asked, brow slightly furrowed.

“Come on, everyone knows how hard it is to get inside. The only way to get into it from Rukongai is by becoming a shinigami, or by entering the academy and then becoming a shinigami. As I have no desire to do either, it’s a moot point. Besides,” I mused thoughtfully, “I could never leave my family. I know Rukia and Renji will be going in a few decades, but I have a responsibility here. Inuzuri may be filled with thieves and thugs and criminals of every kind, but…there are people I’ve come to care for.” Reo, the owner of the fish stand. Ichiraku, who gave me a week’s worth of free ramen every time my birthday came around. Mori, who still gave me free drinks whenever I stopped by. Reiko and Mai, who always shared the latest gossip with me. That wasn’t even including Kazuki, Kaori and Mitsuo.

“It would be pretty cool to see the Seireitei though, at least once,” I added. “I’m curious to see which rumors are true.”

“Rumors?” Byakuya asked curiously.

“Yeah…like the one saying that the doors to the Seireitei are guarded by giants tall enough to touch the sky. Or the one saying that the Captain of the 11th is actually a demon disguised as a human.” I grinned mischievously at him. “And the one saying that the Kuchiki manor is large enough to fit three quarters of the population in Seireitei and is made entirely of silver, diamond and gold.”

“I’ll have you know that the Kuchiki property is large enough to fit the entire population of Seireitei inside. And we would never use something as…gaudy as gold to construct our buildings. No, we use the wood of prized mahogany trees that are carefully cultivated over a series of centuries,” Byakuya sniffed in a tone of faux-indignation.

“The scary thing is, I can’t tell if you’re joking or not, you rich bastard,” I grumbled, leaning back against his chest.

“Would I lie to you, Hisana?” He chuckled, amused. “The other two rumors you mentioned are true enough, however. The Seireitei is guarded by four giants, one on each side. I’m not sure if they’re tall enough to ‘touch the sky’ but they are larger than any other person. And the new Captain of the 11th could definitely be said to be a demon. He fits the description well enough.” Byakuya paused, before hesitantly adding, “I would very much like to take you to see it someday.” I stilled, before sitting up to stare at him in shock.

“Is that even allowed?” I asked cautiously.

“Seated officers are permitted to bring in visitors, although it is not strictly approved of,” he answered, shifting uncomfortably.

“And your family is just okay with that? You bringing in some random girl from one of the poorest areas in the Rukongai? Somehow I don’t see them approving,” I said dubiously. “Don’t get me wrong, Byakuya, I’d love to go with you. Miwa’s getting good enough that she’d be able to handle me being gone for a week or two, and a small vacation definitely sounds nice. But even if I don’t care about your titles or whatever, other people do. Your friendship with me would only hurt your reputation.”

“What, that I’ve made friends with someone not of the aristocracy?” He scoffed. “If anything, it’d only make me seem more approachable. And no one has disapproved of my acquaintance with Nakano Rin despite the fact that she is also from the Rukongai.”

“Yeah, but she’s your subordinate. It’s expected that you be at least on speaking terms with some of the shinigami under your command, former Rukongai resident or not,” I pointed out. “Think about it some more, Byakuya. If you say it’s going to be fine, then I’ll trust your judgment and consider it.”

“Very well then,” Byakuya agreed before a mischievous gleam entered his eyes. “Now, where’s my bag? I brought you the most wonderful gift, wait until you see it--”

Jumping up, I grabbed the nearest pillow and furiously whacked him over the head with it as the sound of his laughter filled the room.

***

“What do you mean, he’s gonna be here for a week?” Rukia demanded, scowling at the futon I’d already cleared for him.

“Exactly what it sounds like, imouto. He finished his mission early, so he has some time before he has to go back,” I sighed. “Rukia, Byakuya has been over numerous times now. I don’t understand why this is such a big issue for you.”

“Because I don’t understand what he wants!” She burst out. “Like, for his past few visits he kept getting you presents. I mean, they’re nice, but what’s he expecting in return?”

“Don’t be silly,” I said fondly, reaching over and pulling her into a hug. “I’m touched by your concern, imouto, but you know Byakuya isn’t like that. And even if he was, there’s nothing he could possibly want from me that he wouldn’t be able to get himself.” I laughed softly to myself, feeling a bit dejected all of a sudden for some reason I couldn’t name. “What could I offer the man who has everything, after all?”

That was another reason (the main reason, if I was being honest) why receiving Byakuya’s gifts made me uneasy. I understood that he meant them in the best possible way, and that he gave me things to make me happy—it wasn’t an act of pity or charity. Not to mention I really did enjoy his presents; he’d obviously put a great deal of thought into each one and they were all lovely. And yet…each one was a reminder that Byakuya came from a world I had never known, in either of my lives—one where money flowed like water, tea smelled as fragrant as the orchards they were grown in, and priceless gems were as common as ordinary rocks. It wasn’t the lifestyle that bothered me, it was the fact that it was so obviously different from my own. Every time I thought about it—something that happened more and more often—I couldn’t help but wonder why the hell Byakuya was spending so much time here, in a small house barely larger than a cabin, in a district so different from the world he was accustomed to it might as well be on another planet.

It made me feel self-conscious. I didn’t like it.

Rukia pulled back frowning. “He doesn’t have everything, nee-chan. He doesn’t have you.”

I paused, one hand stilling in the middle of stroking her hair. “Is that what this is about? You think I’ll like him better if he keeps giving me gifts?” I pulled her tighter against me. “I thought you knew me better than that. Even if someone offered me all the gold and wealth in the world, you’d still be my number one.”

               

 ***

“Hey, you guys have been in there for a while now. There are oranges in the kitchen if any of you wanted a snack…” My voice trailed off as I took in the sight before me. Both Rukia and Renji were frowning deeply in concentration, while Miwa was standing off to the side looking faintly bemused.

“The hell is going on?” I’d say that it was a meditation exercise except…well, I’d certainly never seen anyone look so frustrated while meditating. Rukia’s jaw was clenched and she seemed to be grinding her teeth, and there were deep furrows in Renji’s brow as he scowled fiercely.

“Shh, Shishou,” Miwa whispered, walking up to me, “Kuchiki-san is giving them a lesson right now.”

“What kind of lesson is this? ‘How to Look Constipated 101’? He’s not even in the room!” I muttered.

“Ah…Kuchiki-san had them--” Miwa began, only to be cut off by Rukia’s triumphant shout. “I got it! I finally found him! He’s--”

“Right here,” A voice came dryly from behind me. Miwa flinched back in surprise and I sent a glare towards Byakuya.

“Did you really have to sneak up on us so quietly?” I grumbled. “I’d rather you didn’t give my apprentice a heart attack. They’re rather troublesome to fix.” Byakuya raised an eyebrow at me.              

“It’s an unfortunate, but necessary part of today’s training. This was supposed to be a lesson in sensing reiatsu signatures. One that they failed miserably in, I must say,” he said. Renji growled.

“Maybe it says something about your teaching skills then, Oni-sensei! Ever thought about that? Besides, do you know how hard it is to find someone when they’re surrounded by other people?”

“Kuchiki-san was supposed to go somewhere in a half mile radius, and Rukia and Renji were supposed to find him just by tracking his spirit energy. They had an hour to do so, and, well…they kind of failed,” Miwa finished explaining sheepishly.

“Indeed.” Byakuya remarked, casting an admonishing look at his two students. “The ability to sense reiatsu is an essential skill for a shinigami. Not only to find hollows, but also to keep track of your opponent in a fight. Relying on Denreishinki or other hollow-tracking devices—while convenient—is not always reliable. Today’s task was merely to show you how much room you still have to improve. I did not expect you to be able to sense me from over fifty feet away. Nonetheless, by the end of this week, you should be more than capable of tracking the reiatsu signature of a higher-level shinigami who you are already familiar with in an area surrounded by people with little to no spirit energy. But for now, you may take a break.”

“Huh,” I muttered when it was just me and Byakuya left in the room. “That does sound like a useful skill. If you don’t mind, I think that I’d like to join in on your lessons this week.”

“I’d have thought you already knew how to sense reiatsu signatures. You certainly seem to know where your family is at all times,” Byakuya commented. “Also, don’t think I didn’t notice that you weren’t caught off guard by my appearance earlier.” I rubbed the back of my neck awkwardly.

“I mean…I sort of have it down? There’s definite room to improve though.” At Byakuya’s questioning look, I added, “I can’t do it with everyone, only people I’m pretty familiar with. Rukia’s easy—sometimes I think that I know Rukia’s spirit energy better than my own so as long as she’s within Inuzuri and its surrounding areas, I’ll be able to find her. Renji I’ve known for over a decade now, so I’ve gotten pretty familiar with his too. As for Miwa, I spent the past year or so working with her every day to find and control her reiatsu, so it’s not exactly hard to pick hers out of a crowd either. Mitsuo, Kaori and Kazuki are a lot harder—I can tell when they’re in the same room as me, but I can’t really distinguish between them as well as the others.”

Sensing reiatsu signatures was…weird. There was really no other way of describing it. As corny as it sounded, feeling other peoples’ spirit energy was a bit like…tasting a part of their soul, only instead of flavors there were sensory impressions.

“Your energy is a bit different than theirs though,” I added, sitting down on a tatami mat and motioning for him to join me. I mean, everyone’s signature was subtly different, but there was something a bit…more to Byakuya’s. Even when he was suppressing most of it—I wasn’t stupid, I doubted that I’d ever felt the true extent of his spirit energy—it was pretty difficult to ignore. He nodded, not seeming very surprised.

“As a shinigami, my reiatsu should feel a bit different than that of plus souls, even pluses with above average spirit energy. You’ve probably noticed that hollows feel different as well,” Byakuya continued. I hummed in agreement; I’d learned how to sense hollows relatively early on so that I knew when to get the hell out of dodge.

“Their spirit energy…it’s always so hungry,” I shuddered, thinking of that raw, consuming, voracious edge that hollow reiatsu was tinged with. “It’s like they’re…incomplete and because of that, they’re never full.” Parched throats, hollow stomachs, the emptiness of a broken clock…that was what hollows felt like. 

“Exactly,” Byakuya nodded solemnly. “Like with hollows, pluses and shinigami also feel different. No matter how much spirit energy someone has, a soul with a zanpakuto spirit will always feel a bit more…intense, shall we say. Though each shinigami’s signature is subtly different, the underlying foundation of every shinigami’s reiatsu is still the same. Similarly, the spirit energy of pluses is built upon a different type of foundation.”

“Huh…so that’s why it’s so much easier to tell between different races than it is to tell between individuals of the same race. It’s like shinigami are oranges, regular pluses are apples and hollows are bananas. It’s easy to tell between fruits, but then within each category the fruits are slightly different. Maybe pluses with high spirit energy are like red apples, the ones with medium energy are green, the rest are yellow apples. And then each red apple is slightly different from other red apples…and some of them eventually evolve into oranges?” I mused, turning the concept over in my head. Next to me, Byakuya palmed his face.

“Hisana, I respect you greatly and you have many talents, but making analogies is not one of them.” He cut in, expression faintly pained. I ignored him. He just wasn’t ready for my genius.

“Rukia, of course, is the shiniest, reddest most perfect apple of them all,” I continued, smiling proudly. “Then there’s Renji, who’d make a large bulky apple; a solid brick red, but surprisingly sweet on the inside. Miwa would be a lovely green.”

“What do they feel like to you?” Byakuya asked softly. I leaned back against the wall and tilted my head thoughtfully.

“It’s hard to describe—sun glittering on snow, children laughing during a game of tag, ice melting on the tongue during a hot summer day, feeling the wind blow against your face, stinging your cheeks accompanied by the feeling of being alive—that’s what Rukia feels like to me.  Renji is—I don’t know—the sound of firecrackers going off, the heat of a bonfire in the middle of the night, the soreness that comes from exercising too hard, the bark of a guard dog. Miwa feels like the soothing coolness of a damp towel on a fevered forehead, the sugar in a bitter tea, the scribbles from a child’s first attempt at writing, the sound of rain falling against the windowpanes.” I looked up, suddenly embarrassed at how...maudlin I was sounding. Had I always been this dramatic? “I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me. I normally don’t ramble so much,” I apologized, cheeks warming slightly. “Ignore my babbling, please.”

“No—you did a good job at describing what cannot really be put into words,” he said smiling. “I am curious though as to what you think of mine.” Against my will, I flushed. Stupid pale skin.

“That’s a rather…personal question, don’t you think?” I hedged.

“Why? You had no problems with describing Rukia’s spirit energy. Or Miwa’s and Renji’s for that matter.”

“Well, yeah, but it wasn’t to their face!” I sputtered, feeling my face heat up even more. I probably resembled the world’s most unattractive tomato by now.

“Oh, but now you’ve caught my attention. Indulge a poor man’s curiosity, will you?” He asked, a slight smirk on his face. “Would it make you feel better if I promised not to judge you no matter what you say?” I squinted at him.

“You better not laugh,” I warned. “Or else I’m kicking you out. I’m not joking here.”

“Upon my honor,” he promised solemnly. The effect was rather ruined by his lips twitching though.

“This is going to sound so stupid,” I muttered, but took a deep breath and braced myself. “It’s a very…soothing feel, like the lingering scent of smoke after blowing out a candle. Wet ink drying on paper, a hint of incense, the taste of jasmine tea. The rustling of leaves in autumn, flower petals floating in the wind… the sound of a single violin. And underneath all that, the stillness and heavy anticipation before a storm breaks.” My voice cracked at the end and there was a long silence. I stared down at my hands, fingers twisting together and refused to look at his face.

“You are very good at that,” Byakuya said finally.

“Yeah, well I’m a healer. Analyzing spirit energy is part of my job. At least I know that if being a doctor doesn’t work out, I’ll still have a future as a poet,” I snorted, before bumping his shoulder lightly with mine. “So Byakuya,” I added casually, “What kind of apple do I feel like to you?”

He huffed a startled laugh and shot me a long-suffering look. I ignored it with the expertise of someone who’d spent decades living with Kaori and gazed at him expectantly.

“Well? I answered your question, now it’s your turn.” I prodded when he didn’t answer. Despite myself, I was curious—it wasn’t like I could judge what my own spirit energy felt like, after all. I could feel it, but I didn’t have any specific impression of it. It wasn’t like anything, it just…was.

“A breeze on the hottest day of the year,” he said abruptly. “Sun showers, a bird learning how to fly, sinking into a warm bath, the sound of wind chimes in an abandoned building.” Byakuya looked down at me, and one corner of his mouth quirked up. “A wildflower breaking through the cracks of a sidewalk.”

“Oh,” I answered quietly. For a moment, we just sat in silence. In this position, I was close enough that I could feel the heat emanating from his body and I suddenly felt hyperaware of Byakuya’s spirit energy—warm, content, and utterly impossible to ignore.

Dust motes floated from the ceiling down to where we were sitting, shimmering like glitter in the afternoon light and lending the room an almost surreal quality. I tilted my head up and studied Byakuya’s face—the slight curve of his lips, his relaxed expression, the way his eyelids were slightly lowered over storm gray eyes.

My first thought was, He looks beautiful like this.

My next thought—a slowly dawning realization that usually only accompanied epiphanies of life-shattering magnitudes—was, I might be in trouble here.

***

Because I was a mature adult who was perfectly capable of confronting her own emotions, and because I’d never really been into the whole ‘willfully-blind’ thing, I didn’t lie to myself. Instead, that night I calmly sat down and analyzed my own feelings. Denial wasn’t going to make them go away, so why bother trying?

First things first. Did I love Byakuya? After debating on the matter for approximately ten seconds, I settled on a resounding no. I cared for him, sure, I enjoyed his company, definitely, and I thought he was attractive (who wouldn’t?), but what I felt for him wasn’t love.

It just had the potential to evolve into it.

I don’t know how long I spent just staring at my ceiling, my thoughts a continuous mantra of ohmygod and IprobablyhaveacrushonKuchikiByakuya before I snapped out of my daze, rolled over, and promptly tried to suffocate myself in my pillow. When that didn’t work, I grabbed Tatsuya’s dagger and a frying pan for backup and stormed off into the woods. If nothing else, beating up hollows would provide stress relief. Since Byakuya was going to be staying for the next few days, it wasn’t like I could easily avoid him—and I didn’t have too many appointments set up for the next week, so there went that excuse. Not to mention, according to shoujo manga at least, nothing screamed ‘I have a crush on a guy’ more than suddenly deciding to evade said guy.

Hey, I said that I was mature enough not to lie to myself. I never said that I was ready to deal with it.

~Three hours later~

“How could you be so stupid?!

I winced at Kaori’s livid tone. She hadn’t been that mad at me for years now.

Pacing back and forth furiously, Kaori seemed torn between wringing my neck and whacking me on the head with my own frying pan. “Hisana…just what the hell were you thinking? Going off to fight hollows alone? With only a knife and a fucking frying pan for backup? Are you mentally retarded?! Did your liberal use of healing kido damage your brain somehow?”

“Hey, that frying pan saved my life,” I said sullenly, pressing my ice pack harder against my throbbing head. I’d healed the cut on my temple, but it still hurt. “And don’t bash on Tatsuya’s dagger. If I hadn’t stabbed that hollow’s eye with it…”

THAT’S NOT THE FUCKING POINT!” She shouted. I harrumphed, crossing my arms.

“I don’t get what the big deal is. I’ve fought hollows before. Just because my gut reaction is normally to run in the opposite direction doesn’t mean that I can’t fight them when I need to.”

“Hisana, there’s a large difference between ‘need to fight’ and ‘seeking them out like a suicidal moron’,” Kazuki said icily.

“Oh, so I can’t get some combat practice in too?” I asked indignantly. “I may be a healer; that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be able to fight.” Kazuki gazed up at the ceiling, looking like he was praying for patience. Kaori had moved way past that point and was now fingering the sword at her waist, looking like she was contemplating finishing the hollow’s job.

“But really,” I continued on, “this was a perfectly logical decision. There are a few techniques on how to paralyze and incapacitate an opponent I wanted to try that I can’t exactly test on people and okay, I may have gotten a bit injured--”, a cracked rib and a few cuts wasn’t that bad, right? “—but overall, I think that hollow ended up way worse off than me.”

“I give up,” Kazuki muttered, “There’s just no curing this level of idiocy. Maybe I should call one of the brats over, or even pretty-boy Kuchiki. They might have better luck getting through to her.”

“Hisana,” Mitsuo cut Kauzki off, leveling me with a serious look. “What is this about, really? You may push yourself too hard sometimes when dealing with a patient, but this level of recklessness isn’t you.” When I didn’t answer, he sighed and added, “I can always call Kuchiki-san over--”

“ImayhaveacrushonByakuya,” I blurted out.

Mitsuo stared at me. “What?”

I huffed, glaring sulkily at the floor. “I said, that I may be developing some…feelings,” here I choked on my words before soldiering on, “for Byakuya. Possibly. Maybe. Just a tiny bit.”

“Dear god, you’re only just figuring this out now?” Kazuki muttered.

Next to him, Kaori pinched the bridge of her nose. “What are you, twelve?” Kaori grumbled. “Woman up already and deal with it. This is pathetic.”

“What?” I asked, staring at them incredulously. “You guys knew?

“Hisana, everyone knew. Well, except maybe Kuchiki-san,” he amended.

“The fuck?” I normally wasn’t one to swear, but I figured this situation merited an exception. “Even Miwa and Renji? Even Rukia?

“Why do you think she throws a giant hissy fit every time he comes over?” Kaori stared at me dubiously, as if she couldn’t comprehend the sheer stupidity in front of her. “Rukia actually likes it when training is challenging, so you couldn’t have thought that his hellish training schedules were the only reason for her dislike. The pineapple brat and your apprentice too—the three of them formed a pact on like the third day after meeting him.”

Huh—I guess it was my fault that Rukia and Renji’s relationship with Byakuya was so different this time around. After all, I’d practically conditioned them to hate any boyfriend/girlfriend Mitsuo/Kazuki/Kaori brought home on sight…it only made sense that the same prejudice would transfer over to Byakuya. Then I turned around and stared at Kaori accusingly.

“If it was so obvious, why didn’t you say something?” I asked indignantly. Kazuki snorted.

“It wasn’t for lack of trying, I can tell you that. But no, you were stuck in your blissful bubble of ignorance. Every time one of us tried to bring it up, you were always like, ‘No, no, we’re just friends!’” He paused. “This would be a bad time to say ‘I told you so,’ wouldn’t it?” I leveled a flat glare at him.

“Yes, yes it would be,” I grumbled. “Great. Any advice on how to get rid of feelings?” I asked without much hope.

“Ha, if there was a way to do that, I’d have gotten rid of any feelings towards this buffoon years ago,” Kaori muttered with a pointed look towards Kazuki, ignoring his indignant ‘Hey!’ Mitsuo rolled his eyes at both of them before turning to me.

“Would it really be so bad?” Mitsuo asked softly. “My personal dislike of Kuchiki-san aside, he makes you happy. And unless I am very much mistaken, you make him happy as well.”

“Well, yeah. As a friend. Not as a significant other,” I felt the need to point out. “He’s supposed to fall in love with someone kind, sweet and gentle. And polite.” I thought back to what canon-Hisana was like. “Probably somewhat meek and delicate too. Fragile. Someone he can take care of, you know?”

“Uh…well, I haven’t spent nearly as much time with him as you have, so correct me if I’m wrong…” Kazuki began delicately.

“Have you even met him?” Kaori cut in incredulously. “I’ll admit, I don’t know him very well, but from what I’ve seen he definitely doesn’t want someone bowing before him all the time. If he wanted a meek, obedient wife, well, I’m betting there’s enough of a surplus back in the Seireitei. But instead, he keeps coming back here. God damn it Hisana, why would he return if he didn’t prefer you over anyone back home?”

“But…but he’s never shown even the slightest inclination towards feeling anything but friendship towards me!” I protested weakly. He couldn’t possibly be attracted to two drastically different personalities, right? I mean, we may have shared the same face, but I was about as different from canon-Hisana as you could get. Granted, canon-Byakuya had been quite a bit older when he’d fallen in love with canon-Hisana so there was that, but even so…

Mitsuo glanced meaningfully at the necklace Byakuya had given me the last time he’d come. Involuntarily, my hand reached up to brush against where the jade pendant rested under my shirt, against my chest. “That’s different,” I argued. “Who knows how nobles are? Expensive gifts are probably the norm for them.”

“Okay, new tactic,” Kazuki cut in. “Forget Kuchiki and what he may or may not be feeling. What matters is…how do you feel about him, Hisana? I know that you feel a bit more than friendship towards him, but what are you planning on doing about it?”

“You know we’d support you no matter what you chose to do,” Mitsuo said reassuringly. “Even if you decided to pack up tomorrow and move to the Seireitei with him.” My mind jumped back to the conversation I’d had with Byakuya recently about visiting his home. In light of my recent revelation, it took on a whole different context.

 “I don’t know,” I whispered, shaking my head in frustration. “I don’t know what to do. It’s still too early to tell. I’m not going to risk our friendship for a few feelings that may not even pan out. Maybe someday in the future, if my feelings develop further I might act upon them,” yeah right, “but for now…I’m staying right here.” I smiled at the three members of my family who’d always been there for me, right from the beginning. “No matter what though, regardless of how I might feel or how Byakuya might feel, I won’t forget about you guys. I may care about Byakuya, but you’re my family.”

“And family doesn’t abandon family, no matter what,” Mitsuo finished quietly, before reaching out with one hand to ruffle my hair. “Tatsuya taught us all that. Glad to see the lesson stuck with you.”

“Hmph. Well if you do become the next Lady Kuchiki, I, for one, expect a monthly shipment of chocolates. Some silk kimonos would be nice too. Also some of that tea he got you a while back,” Kaori said, crossing her arms.

“Kaori!” I protested, face heating up. Kazuki cackled at me and I elbowed him in the stomach. “The hell? We were discussing my miniscule crush on him, not becoming his potential wife!”

“Even the most epic of romances start out small. Or in this case, with a dumbass girl finally figuring out she’s attracted to her best guy friend after months of sexual tension,” Kaori taunted before dancing away.

“See if I ever get you anything!” I called out after her, scowling. “Bitch.”

“Yes, she kind of is, isn’t she?” Mitsuo agreed.

“Hey, that’s my girlfriend you’re talking about there!” Kazuki defended her. “I mean, okay yeah, she can be a bit…much sometimes, but have you tasted her cooking? And then there’s that one thing she does with her tongue, and that other thing she does with her hips, and her hands are just beautiful, especially when they’re on my--”

I glanced up at Mitsuo. “Promise me you’ll punch me in the head if I ever start sounding like that?” I asked pleadingly.

“It’s a deal,” Mitsuo agreed, looking slightly ill before walking over and slugging Kazuki in the stomach.

 ***

I hadn’t been able to get back to sleep that night, too worried over how my recent…revelation would affect my friendship with Byakuya. Despite Kaori’s words—“I don’t get why you’re freaking out over this. You were already attracted to his looks and behavior. The only difference is that you actually realize it now”—I’d still been anxious that things would be awkward between us, that I wouldn’t know how to act around him anymore. If our easy camaraderie had been ruined by a few stupid hormones…as much as I hated to admit it, I would have been devastated. I’d even considered adding several additional appointments to this week’s schedule (surely Ito-san’s leg could do with another checkup?) just so I could push off dealing with Byakuya for a bit longer. As it happened though, surprisingly little changed in our interactions.

I scowled down at the paper in front of me. A smudge here, numerous indecipherable scribbles there, ink droplets everywhere, a large stain where I had knocked the ink jar over…

“Well, you can sort of see where I wrote my name,” I said stiffly, inserting as much of my dignity (the few scraps of it I had left anyway) into my voice. Tilting my head to the side and squinting, I amended, “Well, maybe. If you use a bit of imagination.” I’d decided to try my hand at calligraphy after seeing a cheap set on display in the marketplace. It was one of Byakuya’s favorite hobbies after all, and I’d been curious to see if I had any talent in it. Needless to say, the answer to that question was a resounding no.

“It is certainly…impressive,” Byakuya commented, leaning forward to study my failed work of art. I might have been more inclined to believe him if he didn’t sound so damn amused. “Unique as well. I don’t believe I have ever come across this type of kanji before in all my years of study. Congratulations, Hisana, you seem to have invented a new style of calligraphy.”

I groaned and let my forehead smack down onto the table. I would have covered my face with my hands, except they were so covered with ink I’d be able to hold them up to the night sky and they’d blend in perfectly.

 “I don’t get it. I can write perfectly well with a pen, there’s no reason why a brush should be so different! At the very least, the first kanji of my name shouldn’t have come out like this.” I pointed to a fat blob towards the top of the page. “These are worse than Miwa’s scribbles when she was first learning how to write.”

“Well, these brushes are of rather poor quality. As is the paper. Both may have played a factor here,” Byakuya allowed, the corners of his mouth twitching. My scowl deepened.

“Don’t patronize me, you smug jerk. The middle of my name looks like a freaking overgrown hedgehog!” A muscle in Byakuya’s cheek jumped. His expression looked borderline pained now, and I sighed, rolling my eyes at him. “Go on, you can laugh. I can see that you’re dying to.” Apparently that was all the permission he needed, because he suddenly doubled over, shoulders shaking with mirth. Against my will, my mouth curved up reluctantly. Even if it was at my expense, a part of me felt…proud that I could make Kuchiki Byakuya laugh like this.

“The issue isn’t with your knowledge of the language, it’s with the way you hold the brush,” Byakuya explained once he had calmed down. “Here, allow me to demonstrate.”

With that, he grabbed another brush from the table and held it up for me to see. “Don’t hold it the same way you would a pencil or pen. The brush should be held completely vertically, and should be gripped between the thumb and index finger, with the middle finger hooked around the outside of the handle and the ring finger resting on the inside.” Dipping the brush elegantly in the ink, he then proceeded to draw (because it wasn’t simply writing, not the way he did it) a perfectly formed character on a clean sheet of paper. “There. Now you try.”

Hesitantly, I picked up my own brush again, carefully arranging my fingers in the way I had seen Byakuya do. First dipping my brush in the ink, I then gingerly pressed down on the paper before promptly wincing. Well, it was better than before. Instead of a big fat ugly blob of ink, I formed a thin, wavering, shaky line in its place. Still, it was progress…kind of.

Byakuya chuckled at my frustrated glare (it wasn’t a pout, goddamn it), before getting up and walking around the table so that he stood over where I was sitting, chest pressed against my back. He leaned over my shoulder to peer at my handiwork and then reached out with his right hand to grasp my own, hair tickling the side of my face as he did so. It suddenly became very hard to breathe.

“There,” he said quietly, maneuvering my fingers into a slightly different position. It felt awkward and unfamiliar, but somehow more…stable than before? “Move your hand a bit closer to the bristles; if your hand is too far from the paper, you won’t have enough control of the brush. This way, you can create stronger, more defined strokes.” Meanwhile, he extended his other arm and took my empty hand, pressing it down on the paper. The action somehow, impossibly, brought him into even closer proximity with my body. “Use your other hand to flatten and stabilize the paper.”

I’d been pretty proud of how well I was ignoring my emotions up until this point but now…I wasn’t going to survive this. This wasn’t fair. I wanted my obliviousness back, damn it.

“Right,” I said shakily. If my voice came out slightly unsteady, well, I seriously doubted any other girl in my position would have been able to do better. At least my brain cells were still functioning. Mostly.

“Can I dip my brush in the ink now, or is there a special protocol for that too?” I’d never been so thankful that sarcasm was my default response until this moment. That gratefulness vanished a second later when Byakuya chuckled, his breath warm against my face.

“Just be careful not to put too little or too much ink on. A drenched brush in particular is to be avoided, as that can lead to the ink dripping.” I tried valiantly to focus on his words, but it was getting progressively more difficult when I couldn’t even breathe without taking in a lungful of his scent. Sandalwood. God help me, why did he have to smell like sandalwood?

“I’ll try my best not to drown my brush then,” I muttered, dipping it lightly in the ink. My hands were steady and I’d never been as thankful for my decades of medical experience as I was in that moment. I could keep some of my dignity intact, at least. Just as I was about to start my third attempt at calligraphy, he reached out with his right arm again and placed his hand over mine on the brush. Then, fingers still covering mine, he gently lowered my arm so that the tip of the brush touched the paper. His hand guided my movements and ten seconds later, I was staring down at the most perfectly shaped character that had ever been formed by my hand.

“The wrist is the most important component,” he murmured, continuing to write using my hand, “It must be agile and flexible in order to successfully manipulate the tip of the brush. Tilt the brush using your fingers like this,” he pressed down slightly on my middle and index fingers, creating an elegant twist at the end of one radical, “to add some variety to your strokes.”

I looked at the beautiful kanji forming under my brush in fascination. Byakuya manipulating my movements aside, there was something almost mesmerizing about way my hands were used to create art. Absently, I wondered if this was what master painters felt like.

With a final flick of the wrist, Byakuya finished his last character and set the brush back on the brush rest. “Well?” He asked, smiling slightly. “What do you think?”

Byakuya had written down an old Japanese proverb, ‘Continuance is Strength’. In other words, persevering after a setback was its own kind of power. “It’s beautiful, Byakuya,” I answered honestly. “Thank you.”

“It describes you well,” he said, expression warm. He paused briefly before adding, “Calligraphy takes many years to master, but if you have taken an interest in it, I would be more than glad to teach you.”

“Even with my clear lack of natural talent?” I asked dryly. “I’m warning you now, teaching me won’t be easy. You’ll need every last bit of your Kuchiki patience.” Byakuya’s eyes softened.

“Hisana, it doesn’t matter to me how skilled you are. It would be an absolute pleasure for me to aid you in discovering your own calligraphy style,” he said. I don’t know what emotion was showing on my face at that moment, but he reached out and brushed my cheek lightly with the back of one hand. My breath hitched. “Besides, we have years for me to teach you. I’m not planning on going anywhere.”

***

To everyone’s surprise, by the end of the week Rukia actually looked a bit disappointed that Byakuya had to leave. Though I suspected her reasons differed quite a bit from mine.

“I had so much planned too,” she muttered. “Oni-sensei, why do you have to go now? I didn’t even get to do the thing with the frog spawn.”

“Yeah, and we found a pretty cool clearing in the forest the other day. I wanted to show you it,” Renji added.

“This wouldn’t be the same clearing that’s infested by poison ivy, would it?” I asked dryly. “Subtle, you two are not.” Both of them gave me identical pouts and I rolled my eyes. “You do know that once you become shinigami, Byakuya will outrank you? By a large margin too. You should get used to showing him respect now.”

“Indeed,” Byakuya smirked. “As a lieutenant, my authority is large enough that it does not matter which squad you join. You will be expected to follow my orders regardless of whether or not you enter the Sixth.”

Both Rukia and Renji paled, before Renji suddenly turned to me and clung to me like a particularly stubborn barnacle. “Hisana-nee-san, do something! Oni-sensei is gonna kill us,” he whined.

I was actually pretty sure Byakuya was bluffing—they’d be expected to listen to him maybe, but not to the extent that he was implying—and sent a stern look his way. He had a wholly unrepentant look on his face.

“I’m sure you’ll survive,” I said, patting Renji on the head with one hand and gently loosening him from my leg with the other. “As for you, Byakuya…isn’t it time for you to go? I’m sure you have more important things to be doing than frightening children.” 

“More like impertinent, disrespectful little brats,” he muttered. I refrained from rolling my eyes with a Herculean amount of effort.

“Okay kids, say your goodbyes. Be nice,” I added after Rukia opened her mouth with a mulish expression on her face. “His next visit probably won’t be for a while.”

Anywhere from four to six months—I understood, of course. Byakuya needed to settle into his role as lieutenant and his new duties would keep him busy but…it was still hard.

“Hmph. Fine. Oni-sensei, try not to get eaten by a hollow, ok? Nee-chan would be sad, and it’d be troublesome finding another teacher.”

“Yeah, Oni-sensei. We’re the only ones allowed to beat you up, so you better not go around losing any fights.” I sighed, but accepted that that was probably the best response I’d get. Besides, it could be taken as an expression of concern…maybe.

“Take care, Rukia-chan, Abarai-kun. I expect to see large improvements in your skills the next time I come. It would…displease me if I find that they have declined,” he said, leaving out the unspoken and you don’t want to displease me. Despite his ominous tone, however, there was a faint note of pride in his voice that spoke of his confidence in his students.

Giving a final nod to the two, Byakuya then turned face to me. I hesitated for a moment before reaching up and pulling him into a hug. It would probably be several months before I’d be able to see him again after all. He stilled for a moment, a bit surprised, before relaxing and tightening his arms around my back.

“My offer still stands. Anytime you want to visit, just say the word, alright? At the very least, please think about it,” Byakuya murmured into my ear.

“I’ll keep it under consideration,” I smiled, leaning slightly into his chest. “In return, please be careful? I know that you’re a lieutenant and you heal quickly, but I’d still prefer not to see you hurt at all.”

“Of course,” he promised, stepping back. “Until next time then.” A blink of my eyes later, and he was gone.

Chapter Text

I woke up to the sight of a canopy of leaves. Flecks of blue sky peaked through the layer of green, and I sat up to find myself in a forest that seemed strangely familiar, despite the fact that I didn’t recall ever visiting. Apart from the sound of leaves rustling, the place seemed almost eerily silent. No birds, no insects…aside from the plants surrounding me, I was the only living being present. Standing up, I began walking along the narrow dirt path in front of me, staring at the myriad of flora growing along the sides in wonder. Trees of every kind, only some of which were familiar, flowers of every shape and color…it had all the variety of a rainforest without the tropical feeling.

After walking for a period of time—it was impossible to tell exactly how long—a minute, an hour, a day—the dense cover of leaves finally began to thin as more and more light shone through. Finally, I found myself at the shores of a small lake, maybe an eighth mile in diameter. At the center of the lake was a tiny island upon which grew the largest willow tree I’d ever seen. At twenty five meters in height, it towered over everything else and its branches shaded much of the island from view.

The lake itself was a beautiful blue-green color that shimmered in the light. The water lapped at my feet; cool and refreshing. Leading from where I was standing to the island were a series of large stepping stones, worn smooth from the water. Shrugging, I made my way over to the island, pausing every so often to admire the lilies that grew in the water. Just before I reached the shore, a noise coming from above caused me to look up.

The sight of glowing golden eyes partially hidden amidst willow leaves made me gasp and instinctively step back, almost losing my balance.

“So you have finally come, Yukimura Hisana. I was beginning to wonder if you would ever make it here.” The voice was soft, melodious, yet somehow muffled, as if coming from far away. The being shifted and although the willow branches prevented me from getting a good look at it, I still got the impression of…wings?

“Who are you?” I whispered, peering closer to get a better glimpse of the creature hidden in the upper branches of the willow tree. The being shifted again and through the leaves, I saw the flash of one magnificent wing, feathers of brilliant metallic green tipped with luminescent blue.

“My name is--” The being spoke, and then I woke up.

 

I rubbed my eyes blearily, still shaking off my lingering sleepiness. Lately, I’d been having the same dream over and over. It was always the same forest, although this was the first time I’d gotten so close to the island. Honestly, I had no idea what it meant, especially that last bit at the end. Hearing voices probably wasn’t a good sign but…well, it’s not like dreams were supposed to make sense. Just because this was a recurring dream and a bit more realistic than my normal ones didn’t mean it was significant in any way.

“Finally woke up from your nap, sleepyhead?” Kazuki teased as I walked down the stairs.

“Unlike you, some of us actually require sleep,” I scowled. Glancing outside the window, I frowned when I noticed it was already getting dark. “Is Rukia back yet?”

“Nah, she went out to find the pineapple,” Kazuki said casually, biting into an apple. I tensed, and went to grab my coat. “I’m going out to find her.”

“Relax, Hisana,” Kazuki rolled his eyes. “It’s barely six. Plus, everyone from the 76th district onwards knows not to mess with any of the brats.”

“Better safe than sorry,” I answered, already halfway out the door.

Normally I wouldn’t have any problem with Rukia staying out late as long as she came back by nine. With Byakuya’s lessons, she was more than capable of defending herself against most attacks. But for the past two weeks, well…children had been disappearing. I didn’t have any confirmed proof, but Renji had mentioned how a few kids he hung out with seemed to have vanished. They were always orphans, children with no families…people who wouldn’t be missed. Children who had no one to look for them, no one to care.

If it was only a few disappearances, it wouldn’t disturb me so much. Sad as it was, people died all the time here and children were often the first to go. I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it if the missing children didn’t all have one thing in common—they all had above average spiritual energy. Nowhere on the level of Rukia or Renji, but more around Miwa’s level before she started training with me. Still, it was an unsettling trend.

I found Rukia a couple blocks down. She felt me coming, eyes widening at my darkened expression.

“Uh…nee-chan, I can explain,” she said weakly. I grabbed her by one ear and she winced.

“What were you thinking?” I hissed. “You know the rule, I want you back by six.”

I know that, but Renji-baka lost track of time! I was just going to get him and then we would’ve come straight home, I swear!” Rukia whined.

“Still, you know that it might be dangerous for you to be out right now! You should’ve called Kazuki to find him; it’s about time that lazy ass did something useful around here anyway,” I grumbled.

“Now you sound like Kaori-nee-san,” she said before wilting under my stern glare. “I’m sorry, nee-chan. I know you’re just worried.”

I sighed, my anger folding like a house of cards. “You were just trying to look out for Renji, I guess I can’t be too mad at you for that.” I looked up to see Reo, the fish-vender, start packing up his stand to go home.

“Reo-san, I hate to be a bother, but I was wondering if you would mind dropping Rukia off at my house on your way back? I need to locate my other wayward kid,” I said with a sheepish smile. He grinned at me.

“Sure thing, Sensei! C’mon Rukia-chan, let’s get you home,” he said kindly.

“Renji’s probably by the river, nee-chan,” Rukia added.

“Thanks, imouto,” I smiled briefly and gave her a quick hug. “See you at home.”

I’d only just caught sight of the river before a small figure barreled into me, almost knocking me over.

“Wha—Haruki-kun?” I blinked in surprise, recognizing him to be one of Renji’s friends. “You’re injured!” I said alarmed, brushing his face lightly with my fingertips. A nasty gash on his forehead was oozing blood into his left eye.

“Sensei!” He cried out, relief visibly diffusing over his features. “Sensei, thank god you’re here, you gotta come quickly, this creepy dude walked up to Kimi-chan and tried to take her away, so she kicked ‘im in the balls only he got mad an’ I tried to protect her, I did, only he punched me an’…an’ he had a knife and I thought I was gonna be a goner for sure but then Renji showed up and I ran to get help and I’m so happy I ran into you, but I dunno how he’s doin’!”

“Hey, hey, slow down, breathe,” I said gently, waiting a few seconds for him to calm down. “Now, this is very important. Do you think you can take me to where Renji-kun and Kimi-chan were?”

He nodded, grabbing my hand and tugging me forward. A couple hundred meters ahead, I saw Renji holding his sword and standing in a defensive pose, shielding a young blonde girl with his body protectively. A red haze settled over my vision when I noticed the way he was cradling his left arm gingerly and I took a deep breath, swallowing the burning rage that rose up within me. Keeping a clear mind in fights was essential—fury wouldn’t help me now.

One of Renji’s opponents, a heavyset man by the name of Honda, was currently talking to him. The other man I didn’t recognize…not an Inuzuri resident then.

“Look brat, I really don’t want to hurt you too much but I will if I have to. Just let us have the girl and we’ll each be on our way. No need for anyone to get hurt,” Honda was saying.

“Like hell I will! Don’t think I haven’t noticed how none of these kids have come back once they’ve disappeared. I’m not stupid!” Renji yelled. The unknown man next to Honda cursed.

“They’re attracting too much attention. I don’t see why we can’t just grab them both and be done with it. The redheaded brat has more spirit energy anyway.” Honda seemed uncomfortable. Smart man.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to object,” I said, stepping in with an icy smile. “My, my, resorting to kidnapping children now, Honda-san? I’ll admit, I thought better of you.”

He whirled around, panic flashing over his features. “Sensei!”

“And who are you?” The still-unnamed person asked, before shaking his head. “No matter, it’s none of your business. Lady, I’m feeling generous today so I’ll give you a warning—head on home before we have to bash that pretty head of yours in. This has nothing to do with you, so if you’re smart, you’ll scram. Honda, grab the kids and let’s go.” When Honda still didn’t move, he looked over and sneered.

“Fucking fatty, are you really that pathetic? What, scared of a girl a quarter of your size now? Damn, I didn’t know they made them that pitiful.” With that, he reached out with one hand towards Renji, who stiffened and prepared to raise his sword. His hand never made it that far.

“Ah, my apologies, but I can’t let you do that,” I said, my smile still glued to my face. He looked down in shock at where one hand was gripping his wrist, preventing his arm from moving. The other held Tatsuya’s dagger at his throat. “See, you decided to mess with my family, which makes it my business. And that ‘redheaded brat’ has been part of my family for over a decade now. A big sister should always protect her younger siblings, don’t you agree?” My grip on his wrist tightened. Behind me, Renji’s face turned red. “Going after my family…that was your first mistake. Your second mistake,” I said quietly, pressing the knife harder against his throat and drawing a thin line of blood, “was underestimating me.”

With that, I sent an electric shock up his arm. My reiatsu, converted into electricity using a technique usually reserved for reviving people from the dead, traveled up the neurons in his arm to his spinal cord, before finally reaching his brain. My smile widened into a snarl as I amplified the technique, frying nerve cells and brain matter. He convulsed briefly before going still.

Letting the body fall to the ground, I turned to Honda who seemed to have frozen in shock. His eyes kept glancing between me and his fallen comrade, as if deciding whether attacking me would be worth it.

“Careful, Honda-san,” I said softly. My smile showed just a hint of teeth and he took an involuntary step back, eyes wide. “Do you really want to make an enemy out of me?”

He shook his head mutely and my smile turned a touch more genuine. “Then you’ll tell me everything you know about the organization that is abducting these kids.”

***

As it turned out, Honda didn’t know much. After making sure Haruki and Kimi reached a safe shelter, I’d promptly interrogated Honda to get every scrap of information on what was happening to the disappeared kids. However, he had only joined a week ago, and this had been his second job. The only things I gleaned from him were that the pay was good, his employer was targeting kids with higher than usual spiritual energy, and the headquarters of this group were located somewhere beyond the 74th district. His partner had been in charge of most of the technical details; Honda was just there as a guide. So…I was left basically where I started.

“At least it makes for a good story?” Kaori commented. “And the brats might be more inclined to be cautious after this.”

“I don’t like this,” Mitsuo frowned. “I can’t think of any good reason why someone outside of the shinigami would target children with high reiatsu. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“I can’t believe that you let that Honda guy go,” Kazuki grumbled. “What makes you think he ain’t gonna come after you later?” At this, Kaori snorted.

“Kazuki, the idiot’s terrified of her now. He just witnessed her kill his partner by electrocuting him for two straight minutes—with minimal effort too.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” I grimaced. It wasn’t exactly easy to inject straight up electricity into someone’s nervous system for several minutes. Had I been thinking logically, I never would have done it—for one thing, I’d only adapted that technique for combat use once before, during my admittedly reckless stunt with the hollow after my Byakuya-crush-revelation. But I’d just been so angry at the time and he had dared to touch my family-

“Well, at least Renji doesn’t seem to have suffered any trauma from witnessing it,” Kazuki said dryly, motioning towards where Renji was animatedly retelling the story to Rukia and Miwa.

“I can’t believe you weren’t there Rukia, it was so cool. Her hand literally crackled with lightning and then he kinda twitched and dropped like a stone!”

“Should I be worried that he’s so unbothered by the sight of a painful death?” I murmured. Everyone in Inuzuri became at least somewhat desensitized to violence at some point, but I’d just electrocuted someone to death. Hell, sometimes I worried about my own growing detachment over killing people—at least, people I didn’t know.

“It was either you or him, and he knows that. Kill or be killed; one of the first things we taught them,” Mitsuo said quietly.

“I still can’t believe you had to be rescued by nee-chan,” Rukia’s voice, containing more than a modicum of disbelief, distracted me. “We’ve been receiving lessons from Oni-sensei for more than a year, and you still can’t take down two freaking goons! I’m ashamed to call you my rival now. That’s it, I need to find a new sparring partner.”

“Hey! I totally coulda taken them down by myself!” Renji protested, voice full of injured pride. “Hisana-nee-san just took them down before I had a chance to, that’s all.”

“Shishou’s so amazing,” Miwa sighed dreamily. I twitched uncomfortably as Mitsuo lifted a hand to his mouth to hide his laughter.

“Yukimura Hisana, our resident badass,” Kaori added, smirking. I flushed.

“Oh, shut up all of you,” I grumbled, aiming a kick at her halfheartedly. Shock one guy into oblivion and no one ever lets you forget it. Honestly.

***

~Two Weeks Later~

The sound of someone pounding at the door made me jump. Next to me, Rukia almost tipped her bowl of rice over.

“Seriously, can’t they go without you for one day?” Kaori grumbled. “Gods, can’t even enjoy dinner around here anymore without someone interrupting.”

“It might not be for me,” I protested weakly. “Not every visitor is looking for me, you know.” Kazuki and Kaori sent me identical unimpressed looks.

“No, but a solid ninety percent of them are,” Kazuki said pointedly.

“I’ll get it, Shishou,” Miwa said, standing up. Meanwhile, I began shoving as much food in my mouth as possible with the speed of someone who had a lot of practice dealing with interrupted meals.

“Don’t eat so fast, you’ll choke,” Mitsuo said chidingly.

“I’ engee ‘an oo it, s’an I,” I mumbled through a mouthful of food.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t speak gibberish,” Kaori said sarcastically. I glared at her and swallowed with a massive effort.

“I said, if Renji can do it, so can I.” Next to Rukia, Renji let out an indignant huff while Rukia snorted.

“That idiot could shove half the contents of our kitchen in his mouth in one go. So undignified,” Rukia said haughtily, in a tone of voice I was sure she had learned from Byakuya. Of all the traits she had to pick up from him…

“Shishou, it’s for you,” Miwa cut in before Renji could retort. “It’s Aoki-san. Something about a drug overdose?”

I groaned, resisting the urge to bang my forehead on the table. At least taking drugs by injection hadn’t been discovered this far out in the Rukongai yet, but that didn’t prevent people from getting high. It seemed like in every civilization, there just had to be that one guy who decided, “This looks like a pretty leaf. Let’s try smoking it and see what happens.”

“Wonderful. What is it this time? Opium? Diviner’s Sage?” I grumbled, already getting up. “Damn it, this is the third time this week.”

“I can come with you, Shishou. Keep you company,” Miwa offered. I sent her a grateful smile.

“Thank you. That would be appreciated.”  

“Come back soon!” Rukia said, waving at me. “I’ll save some food for you.”

I bent down to kiss her forehead, before grabbing my coat as Miwa offered it to me. “Love you, don’t stay up too late, and finish your broccoli; don’t think I haven’t noticed you hiding pieces away in your napkin.” Giving a nod to the others, I headed out the door where Aoki was waiting for me.

At first glance—well, the following glances too if I was being honest—he looked awful. There were dark circles under his eyes, his pupils were blown wide open, tremors were wracking his thin frame and there was a light sheen of sweat covering his entire body.

“Aoki-san, are you feeling alright?” I asked concerned. “Do you want to come in for a moment? You don’t look so well.”

“Ah Sensei, no need. I- I just haven’t been able to s-smoke for a while now,” he said, avoiding my eyes.

“You know the withdrawal symptoms will only get worse the more you take” I asked him softly. “Opium’s a dangerous drug, Aoki-san. One day I won’t be able to help you.”

He sent me a bitter smile. “Too late fo’ me now, Sensei. Besides, even though it’s hell on the body, it…it allows me to escape. For a while, it lets me be happy.”

“I can’t stop you if that’s your choice,” I said tiredly. “Now, what can I do for you today?”

“Some stupid kid OD’d. Took too much at once, an’ was drunk at the time too. He’s back at my place,” Aoki said. Miwa and I followed him into what was pretty much the poorest part of Inuzuri, which considering it was Inuzuri, was really saying something. The houses were little more than shacks—it was where Rukia and I had lived for a while during our first few months in the afterlife. A couple people were passed out drunk behind street corners; others were sleeping in alleyways, huddled together for warmth. Miwa stepped closer to me, avoiding eye contact with the people on the street. She’d been here with me before once or twice—never alone—but even I still felt uneasy around this part of town. Luckily, Aoki’s house wasn’t too far away and before long, we’d arrived at his front entrance.

“He’s just inside,” Aoki said, holding the door open for me. I paused before stepping inside, a bit surprised at his uncharacteristic display of chivalry. The next thing I knew, a sharp pain blossomed in the back of my head and I collapsed forward, stunned. Behind me, Miwa screamed.

For a while, I just lay on the ground, shell-shocked. It took me a few seconds to even register what had happened—I blamed the dizziness that was spreading through my head, fogging my judgement. Gingerly I touched the back of my head with my hand; it came back wet.

“Let me go!” Miwa shrieked. I looked up dazedly to see her being restrained by someone I didn’t recognize. Another man was guarding the door, and was the one who’d hit me, judging by the heavy wooden club in his hands. Aside from them, there were another three men—all tall, heavily muscled who moved with a lethal sort of purpose…trained fighters. They didn’t possess high reiatsu, but nonetheless…at first glance I’d put them around Mitsuo’s level at the very least. Great. This day was just getting better and better, wasn’t it?

“This is really her?” One of the men toed my side with his shoe, sounding slightly dubious. “This is the famed ‘Angel of Inuzuri?’ I don’t know guys, she looks pretty young.”

“That’s her,” Aoki confirmed, voice unsteady. Realization was slowly dawning on me, along with the first seeds of betrayal.

“Aoki-san,” I said quietly, staring him straight in the eye. “What is the meaning of this?” If my words were slightly slurred, well, I figured I had a good enough excuse.

“Sorry, Miwa-chan, Sensei,” Aoki mumbled. He seemed to be shaking slightly and he looked up towards one of the men—the shortest one, about 30 years of age physically, with honey-brown hair, gold eyes and a lithely muscled body—in terror. “You…you weren’t suppose’ ta hurt her. You said that you wouldn’t hurt her!”

“I said that I meant your precious Sensei no harm, and I was telling the truth,” he answered smoothly. “The…preemptive strike was just to make her a bit more—how should I put it—cooperative. Unfortunate, but ultimately necessary. Reports show that she can put up a bit of a fight when she wants to, and I wouldn’t want anything…tragic to happen. Your concern is touching, but you don’t need to worry. I don’t want to cause her any harm.”

Tell that to the back of my head, you bastard, I thought viciously, trying to get up. God, I hated head injuries. It probably wasn’t as serious as a concussion, but my head was pounding, I couldn’t think straight, and it would likely be a bad idea for me to try and heal myself right now when just staying conscious required every ounce of my concentration.

“Well,” the apparent leader of the group continued. “We got what we came here for.” He nodded towards the man closest to me, who promptly pulled me up roughly. I closed my eyes, fighting the sudden onslaught of dizziness that rushed through me and struggled to stay upright. “Knock the other girl out—we don’t need her. Come on, let’s go. The sooner we get out of this godforsaken district, the better.”

“Wait,” Aoki spoke up, voice quivering, and moved to stand in front of the leader. He held out a hand. “I-I did what you asked. W-We had an a-agreement.”

A cruel smirk spread over the leader’s face. “Ah, that’s right, isn’t it? I’d almost forgotten. Two month’s supply of opium for leading Yukimura Hisana to us, was it?” Abruptly I felt sick and had to resist the urge to throw up. Sold out for a few drugs? I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“Well, let no one say that I’m not a man of my word,” he said chuckling and took out a medium sized bag from inside his jacket. Aoki took it with the feverish desperation of a drowning man gasping for air. As he scrambled greedily to open the bag, the golden-eyed man motioned subtly to one of his men hiding in the shadows…and somehow I knew what was going to happen before it actually did. I opened my mouth to—I don’t know, yell, scream, shout a warning—but before I could, the sword was already sliding through Aoki’s torso. He stared at the blade peeking through his chest in surprise and then looked up. For a moment, our eyes met.

Help me, he mouthed, lips already stained with red. Then the sword slid out again and he slumped to the floor, motionless.

“Well, that’s that!” The leader said cheerfully, brushing some imaginary dirt off his hands. Behind him, Miwa had gone still, staring at Aoki’s body in shock. Her eyes were brimming with tears.

“Was that truly necessary?” I asked, my voice a bit hoarse. It wasn’t like I was close to Aoki, and he had betrayed me, but to see him so callously killed…

The leader glanced up at me. “What? Don’t tell me you’re actually sad,” he scoffed. “That scum there was willing to trade you out just so he could go to his happy-place for a couple days. Good riddance, if you ask me. There’s enough worthless trash out there as it is. Now, first things first. Are you going to come with us willingly?” He asked.

There was really only one thing I could say to that. “Fuck you,” I spat. He smiled. It was not a nice smile.

“Now, I’ve heard that you’re a smart girl, Hisana-chan,” he said, reaching over to stroke my cheek. I smacked his hand away. “You can either do this the easy way, or the hard way. You can either nod your pretty head yes and follow us back to where we need to go, or I can have Hashimoto over there cut your apprentice’s throat open and you can watch her bleed out. Then, we can knock you out, dump you in a sack, and carry you back with us. So what’s it going to be, huh?”

I swallowed, looking towards where the man restraining Miwa now had a knife placed against her throat. There was no way I’d be able to save her in time…

“Shishou, don’t worry about me. Don’t listen to them!” Miwa shouted, before wincing as the knife dug in further against her skin.

“If you’re still not convinced, there’s still the rest of your family to think about,” the leader said mildly. “I understand that you have a sister who likes to run around Inuzuri? I’ve seen her—she’s simply adorable. It would be a terrible shame if anything were to happen to her.”

In the end, there was only one choice I could make.

“If I agree to come with you, you let my apprentice go. Unharmed. None of that bullshit you pulled with Aoki,” I hissed. “And if you cause any of my family members so much as a scratch, the deal’s off.”

He smiled. “Of course, Hisana-chan. As long as you cooperate, I wouldn’t dream of harming your loved ones.”

“Shishou!” Miwa protested, beginning to look panicked now.

“Miwa,” my tone left no room for disagreement. “I want you to go straight home. Tell the others that something came up—that I got a job that’s going to require me going away from home for a while. And most importantly, tell them not to go looking for me. I don’t want any of them, especially Rukia and Renji, looking into this. Tell them...” my voice cracked. “Tell them to trust that I know what I’m doing. I’ll be back. I promise.”

Miwa still looked hesitant. My voice hardened. “That’s an order, Miwa. Go.”

The guy restraining her removed his knife from her throat and released her. Before leaving the hut, she turned back and addressed the leader. “Why?” She asked, voice choked. “Why go to all the trouble of doing this? What do you need my Shishou for?”

He cocked his head to the side, and his smile turned patronizing. “The same reason anyone seeks out your Shishou, of course. For her medical expertise.”

***

“Huh. So you really can manipulate your spirit energy to heal people. I wasn’t sure I believed it at first,” a voice came from behind me. I looked up to see the leader—or Akiyama Daiki, as I’d learned his name was—sit down next to me.

After leaving Inuzuri, we’d traveled through two more districts before settling down in the 75th for the night. After getting a semi-decent night’s sleep, I’d finally felt recovered enough to heal what remained of my head injury. We were currently in the 73rd district, taking a short break.

“Glad I exceeded your expectations then. I would hate for you to have gone all the way out to Inuzuri, only to be disappointed,” I muttered sarcastically. He laughed.

“You’re a spirited one, aren’t you? If I didn’t know better, I’d say you weren’t afraid of me at all,” Akiyama eyed me speculatively. “You don’t seem very worried about what will happen to you.” I shrugged.

“Honestly? Compared to what I felt when you were threatening Miwa, the apprehension I feel now is nothing.” At least for now, I was assured that my family was safe. As long as I had that, I wasn’t too worried about myself.

“Still, you’re taking this whole thing very well,” he observed.

“I wouldn’t say I’m taking it well. But I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I can take on the five of you and win. And although I still believe that you are a douchebag of massive proportions, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve had to work with criminals, although this is the first time I’ve had someone go to such extremes for my help.” It wasn’t that different from the arrangements I’d had with the yakuza in Inuzuri. Basically, my medical services in exchange for leaving my family alone. Simple.

“You didn’t have to blackmail me in exchange for my help, you know,” I added. “Most people would’ve just asked.” Akiyama’s smile turned a bit darker.

“Ah, but see our boss wanted to ensure your cooperation before we you came back with us. This way, you can’t back out. Not to mention, all of Inuzuri seems to be annoyingly protective of you. I didn’t want anyone interfering.”

“Exactly what do you need my help doing?” I asked apprehensively. He paused, seeming to consider whether or not to answer my question before continuing.

“See, our boss has always been very interested in the effects higher spiritual energy has on the body. It’s long been speculated, if not outright confirmed, that those with higher reiatsu levels tend to age slower, heal faster and are more resistant to diseases. He’s especially interested in the manifestation of a zanpakuto spirit.”

“Zanpakuto?” I asked, feigning ignorance.

“You might know them as the swords shinigami have, but they have their own characters. From what I understand, they’re part of a shinigami’s soul but manifest as separate people…perhaps it’s best to think of them as a kind of split personality,” he answered. “Recently, he started wondering, what is it exactly that makes some people different than others? Why do some people have high spiritual energy while others have next to none? How does reiatsu affect our physiology? Not every soul with high reiatsu is able to manifest a zanpakuto. What exactly does it take for an ordinary plus to become a shinigami?” Akiyama’s eyes were feverishly bright as he continued his rant.

“Why are the shinigami the only ones allowed to have zanpakuto? Can you imagine the potential, Hisana-chan? The shinigami guard their secrets jealously, but if we could only discover the reasons behind why some souls are different for ourselves, then we could possibly alter regular souls to the level of a shinigami.”

“Those kids…” I murmured, realization dawning on me.

“Disappointments,” he waved his hand dismissively. “A preliminary experiment and a mistake, trying to get them to manifest zanpakuto spirits before studying shinigami first. They were all failures.” I didn’t want to know what happened to the ‘failures’.

“Again, I still don’t know why I’m needed,” I pointed out. “Unless you want to ‘study’ me too, in which case we’re going to have a difference of opinion.”

“Of course not,” he chuckled. “Although your high reiatsu levels are fascinating, your knowledge is far more useful to me.”

“I have no idea why some souls have higher energy than others, or why some people have a greater capacity for growth. And my knowledge on zanpakuto spirits is pretty much nonexistent. I’ve been studying healing kido for over fifty years now and I still haven’t manifested one,” I said.

“No, no, not that kind of knowledge. I meant what I said when I told your apprentice I needed you for your medical expertise,” he said. “See, after realizing our mistake with studying kids first, we managed to capture a few injured shinigami after a mission. However, although we did gain some valuable insight into their healing abilities and such, they lasted a…disappointingly short time. Only a couple of days, really, not to mention their reiatsu levels weren’t all that high in the first place and none of them had unsealed their zanpakuto. A few days ago however, we got lucky and captured another group of shinigami when they were injured. It’s too troublesome and risky to have to keep replacing specimens so I had to think up a way to make them last longer.”

“So you found me,” I said a bit numbly. Horrified…didn’t even begin to describe what I was feeling.

“Exactly,” he said, beaming at me. I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I would almost certainly die if I tried to attack him, and said bluntly, “You’re insane.”

“Maybe. But there’s a thin line between insanity and genius,” he shrugged, completely unbothered.

“And you crossed that line a long time ago,” I muttered. “But I still don’t get it. Why? Sure, your questions are interesting and I’d like to know the answers to them myself…but why go so far to understand? What’s so great about having high spirit energy, or a zanpakuto spirit? Not every shinigami is strong, and it’s perfectly possible to be powerful without having large spiritual energy reserves.”

“Because everyone has a limit—except maybe the living,” he amended. “Those who have small spiritual energy levels can train to increase them and become more powerful. It’s even truer for those with large reserves. How far you can improve before you reach that limit depends on your energy levels. However, those who lack any spiritual energy are stuck where they are now. They cannot improve themselves.” Akiyama smiled at me. “We all want power, Hisana-chan. I’m just one of the few people willing to take steps to gain it. Other people would have said given up and accepted their fate, but I refuse to accept my current state of being. I refuse to accept that I cannot become something more.”

I stared at him for a moment before shaking my head. Despite his words, I doubted that he was telling me everything. It was unlikely that he was simply the power-hungry madman he portrayed himself to be, but…to be honest, I didn’t really care to find out his true motives. Whatever his reasons, his actions were unforgivable. Even if he was trying to gain power to bring about world peace, what he had done—was planning to do—was still despicable.

What did that say about me? I wondered. I was only playing along to protect my family, but…here I was, condemning his actions when soon enough, I would be helping him.

“I don’t agree with you—in fact I hate what you’re doing—but you probably already knew that,” I said frankly. He shrugged.

“You don’t need to agree with me, so long as you do what you’re told,” he answered. “Now come on, it’s about time to go. We need to be back by nightfall.”

“Just one more thing. When were you planning on telling me that you were in charge of this entire thing? Not just the leader of the group charged with finding me, but the entire organization?” I asked conversationally. He froze, before rubbing the back of his head sheepishly.

“You are a smart little thing, aren’t you?” He murmured.

“Not really,” I shrugged. “You aren’t exactly the king of discreteness, you know. The level of detail you went into…it was a pretty big giveaway. Not too hard to figure out.”

He chuckled. “Modest too. Very well, you caught me. Akiyama Daiki, head of the Imasaki yakuza, at your service.” Akiyama dipped into a theatrical bow.

“You already know who I am,” I replied in lieu of an introduction. He pouted.

“I’m hurt, Hisana-chan. Technically, we’ve never been formally introduced,” he said with mock offense.

“Obviously, or else I never would have given you permission to address me so informally,” I muttered.

“See, this is why I like you,” Akiyama said, laying a hand on my shoulder. “Despite the fact that I’m a clear threat to you, you still don’t act afraid of me. I’m not sure if you’re brave or just stupid, but either way you’re interesting. I wasn’t expecting much when I came to Inuzuri but now…I think I’ll enjoy working with you. Just follow my orders and we’ll get along just fine.” With that, he got up to check on his men, leaving me to my thoughts.

Despite our easy banter, or maybe because of it, something about him just rubbed me in the wrong way. It wasn’t just because he was a near-psychopath. More like, it was just how well I got along with said psychopath. There was a level of understanding between us that I’d only felt around one person—someone who’d died over fifty years ago.

Akiyama…I didn’t like to think about it, but something about him reminded me of Tatsuya. Or to be more precise, Tatsuya’s worst parts. Tatsuya had cared about me—about all of us—of that I had no doubt. But the extent to which he was willing to go in order to get what he wanted scared even me sometimes. The complete lack of empathy he felt towards anyone he didn’t consider ‘his’, the way he felt no hesitation over killing and even torturing those who crossed him, the mocking tone he adopted…Tatsuya wasn’t the same as Akiyama, but there were enough similarities between the two that it made hating Akiyama very difficult.

Hell, they even both had the same slightly unnerving smile. Not to mention the whole ‘I like you’ speech with a side order of blackmail. I shook my head. No matter how alike they were, I just had to remember that Akiyama wasn’t Tatsuya and I would be fine.

 ***

By the time we actually made it to the Imasaki base, I was about 3000 percent done with life, the world, and especially Akiyama’s creepy cheerfulness interspersed with snarky comments.

“My feet,” I groaned. We were somewhere in the 68th district and my feet felt like they were going to fall off. This was actually the furthest from Inuzuri I’d ever been; before, I’d only been as far as the 74th district.

“Aww, Hisana-chan, are you tired?” Akiyama teased me. I glared at him. “I could carry you if you like.”  His eyes trailed down my body, lingering over my subtle curves. “Trust me, it would be no burden.”

That was yet another thing that annoyed me about Akiyama. About halfway through the 72nd district, Akiyama had apparently decided that flirting with me was great fun. When I finally snapped around two hours later, yelling at him to stop being a pervert, he’d only pouted at me and said, “But it’s so much fun! Much more entertaining than hanging around my boring bodyguards. And you’re so cute when you get flustered.”

I doubted he meant anything serious by it—his leers, while irritating, lacked the hunger I’d sometimes seen in the eyes of men lurking around the red light district when they looked at the prostitutes. So it wasn’t like I felt threatened in that way. Still, no one had ever been so blatant about the way they looked at my body before.

“Shut up,” I hissed at him. Normally I wouldn’t speak so disrespectfully to someone who had essentially blackmailed me—despite what Kazuki and Kaori might think, I did have some self-preservation instincts—but Akiyama had made it clear within the first several hours of meeting him that he didn’t mind a bit of attitude. If anything, he seemed entertained by it. “I have just spent the past day and a half walking nonstop, in the company of five testosterone charged men. I am not in the mood to deal with your bullshit, Akiyama-san.

Akiyama held up his hands in mock defense. “Just offering to help, Hisana-chan. No need to get touchy.” His smirk widened. “Are you sure you won’t accept a foot massage, at least? I’ve been told my…technique is impeccable.”

I made a strangled noise of frustration. A couple feet away, one of Akiyama’s guards looked at me in alarm.

“Boss,” he said warily. “Perhaps it would be best if you did not antagonize her so much? That shade of red does not look healthy.” Akiyama waved him off with a chuckle.

You—how is it even possible to insert that much innuendo into a sentence?” I asked incredulously. “Just—do the world a favor and stop talking.”

“I’ll need something—or someone—to occupy my mouth with then. Care to volunteer?” He purred. Somehow, impossibly, my face heated up about another fifteen degrees.

I will strangle you. Slowly. With my bare hands,” I growled.

“Mm, sounds kinky. Normally, I wouldn’t be into erotic asphyxiation but with you darling, I’m willing to give it a try.”

Die in a fire.”

“Now, now, that’s not nice, Hisana-chan. Remember your manners. I would hate to have to punish you for not being a good girl.” I stopped, briefly shocked out of my anger.

“Did…did you just,” I stuttered, at a momentary loss for words.

“Not into BDSM then? Pity,” he sighed wistfully. “Is it the pain that bothers you? It can be such a stimulant and when applied the right way, it can amplify the pleasure wonderfully.”

“Akiyama-dono,” one of his men cut in hastily, just as I was about to kick him in the nuts. See how much he liked pain then. “It’s been a long day. How about I get Yukimura-san settled in her room?”

“Very well then, Morita-san. Make sure to let the men know that none of them are to harm her,” Akiyama said, turning serious again. He turned back to me and leaned down, pressing a lightning fast kiss to my lips. “That shade of red is really quite fetching on you,” he murmured, stepping away before my brain could catch up to his actions.

“You…you…you absolute ASSHOLE!” I screamed. It wasn’t like I was a prude—I had no problems with people engaging in sexual contact (it was hard to be when you were friends with prostitutes; two weeks after turning fifty, Mai had insisted on giving me a few…lessons. It was one of the memories I was still trying to repress). That didn’t mean I was okay with my next kiss coming from Akiyama Daiki. I’d hoped that Byaku—nope, not going there. “You jerk! This is sexual harassment!” I wiped my mouth furiously with one hand. “Take it back! I mean it, bastard! I don’t want your kiss!” Catching sight of his remaining guards gaping at me, I hissed out, “This never happened. Got it?”

“Understood,” the guard that had spoken out before—Morita—answered, mouth twitching. I seethed. “Right this way, Yukimura-san.”

“Is he always like that?” I asked sullenly. If I had to spend the next who-knows-how-long dealing with that, I might as well just commit seppuku now.

“Akiyama-dono? Never. Well, it’s true that he does enjoy--” Here he hesitated, reluctant to criticize his boss.

“Messing with people? Yeah, I got that impression,” I grumbled.

“Well, yes. But it’s also true that he normally doesn’t do it to the extent he does it with you. Of course, your reactions were rather entertaining--” My glare at that moment could have burned a hole through metal. “But he really does seem to have taken a liking to you.” Morita glanced at me. “You’ll be introduced to the prisoners and the rest of the household tomorrow, so get a good night’s sleep. Akiyama-dono…despite his actions today, he would never touch you seriously without your permission. I cannot say the same for all the men in his employ. Be careful, Yukimura-san. Not all men are as honorable regarding women as he is.”

Chapter Text

I’d known that Akiyama wasn’t a good guy. I’d known that what he was doing was despicable and revolting, something no semi-decent man would have ever dreamed of doing. And yet…despite myself, yesterday had erased many of my reservations towards him. It was just hard to think of the annoyingly charming idiot who’d flirted with me all afternoon (who reminded me way too much of Tatsuya, my mind whispered) as the villain. Which was probably his intention all along, the manipulative bastard.

“Yukimura-san? Are you okay?” Morita whispered from behind me, his voice laced with concern. That was another thing. Morita Takeshi, who’d somehow became my appointed guide, was quite possibly one of the most polite, helpful men I’d ever met. And yet…

“How can you stand this?” I said, feeling ill. It took all my willpower just to refrain from gagging. I hadn’t even seen the prisoners yet, but the smell alone was enough to make me stagger. Morita stiffened.

“It is my duty to do as Akiyama-dono commands,” he said haltingly.

“But this?” I asked incredulously, trying to speak without breathing in. Fecal matter, urine, sweat, blood…it all combined to form an overwhelming, unbearable stench of fear and desperation. “…none of those children survived, did they?”

His silence was all the answer I needed.

Why?” I asked wildly, suddenly desperate to understand. “He said that he’s doing this in order to figure out a way to increase his own spiritual energy. But no one wants power this badly without a reason. What’s driving him?”

“That is not for me to say,” he said calmly. “Would you like to take a moment to compose yourself before heading down, Yukimura-san?”

“I’m fine,” I said, steadying myself on the rail. God, I was pathetic. I hadn’t even made it down the stairs to the basement yet. The hell kind of healer was I?

We entered a windowless, dimly lit room. There were two metal doors, each dead bolted shut. Sitting down at a table playing cards were two men. Morita coughed lightly to attract their attention and they looked up.

“This is Yukimura Hisana, the healer that Akiyama-dono appointed. You are to treat her with the utmost respect,” Morita stated coolly. One of the men looked me over and sneered.

“Sure don’ look like much. Dainty lil’ thing, ain’t ya?” He asked. My eyes narrowed.

“Whatever. Hope she’s good at her job, Morita. Those shinigami don’t look like they’re gonna last long.” His partner said, spitting on the floor.

“Pansies, the lot of them. Ya’d think they’d be able ta take a bit of pain, but no, beat them up a little and they’re done for,” the first guard said, getting up and walking over to the door furthest from us. Reaching into his pocket, he withdrew a ring of keys, before selecting one and inserting it into the lock. With a click, the door swung open and he gestured inside with a mocking bow.

“You’re free to head on in,” he said, grinning maliciously. “Enjoy the view.”

I walked inside and had to blink a few times for my eyes to adjust to the lack of light. It was cold inside and the walls were made of stone. There were several operating tables in the center of the room and I had to swallow the bile that rose up in my throat. Along the opposite wall were…

I staggered backwards, suddenly finding it extremely difficult to breathe. In one corner there was a girl slumped on the floor, manacles around her wrists and ankles. Her hair was so dirty (with blood, dear god, it was absolutely soaked in blood) it was hard to tell its original color, but I thought it might have been a dark blonde. A bucket—to function as a makeshift toilet, I guessed—was put beside her. Next to the girl, tied far enough away that they couldn’t touch, was a shinigami with brick red hair. He was leaning against the wall and appeared to be unconscious. His face was a mottled mess of purple and red, one eye swollen so much that I doubted he could even open it anymore. His shihakusho was also ruined; there was barely enough clothing on him to cover his waist and part of his legs.

It was the final member of the trio that caught my attention, however. Black hair that fell to his shoulders, steel gray eyes that glared defiantly at me, unmistakable aristocratic features…I suddenly had a flashback to the first time I’d seen Byakuya. That same arrogance, even when helpless and in chains…the third prisoner could have been Byakuya’s younger brother, appearance wise. Even covered in dirt, sweat, blood and who knows what else, he was undeniably a Kuchiki.

I suddenly felt the urge to curse the entire Kuchiki clan. What was with their penchant for getting kidnapped, anyway?! Was it hereditary? Did they possess a ‘must-get-into-fucked-up-situations-gene’? God damn it, this whole thing was screwed up enough without adding in one of Byakuya’s cousins!

“Yukimura-san? Are you alright? I’m getting you out of here; you clearly need to take a break,” Morita’s worried voice spoke in my ear. It was only then that I realized my knees had collapsed and I was now kneeling on the floor.

“I’m fine, Morita-san. Thank you,” I said, struggling to my feet with an effort. My body was still shaking from shock.

“Come on, let’s go,” he said, offering his arm to me as support. As we left the room, the guard caught my eye and smirked. Weakling, he mouthed. I stiffened and turned away. The worst part was, in that moment, I couldn’t even begin to deny it.

***

“There’s no shame in needing a break, you know,” Morita said, handing me a glass of water. “It can definitely be overwhelming the first time.”

“I know,” I said quietly, accepting the glass with a nod of thanks. “…how long have they been there?”

“The shinigami? Oh, four days,” he answered. Four days. Four days of straight torture, and no chance of receiving help. I turned my face away.

“Can you go over my duties again, Morita-san?” I asked. He nodded.

“Of course, Yukimura-san. The scientists will work on them from morning until two in the afternoon. You need not be present for that.”

“Scientists? They’re no more than butchers,” I spat out bitterly, remembering the scalpel marks crossing every inch of the Kuchiki’s chest. There was a dull ringing in my ears.

“Please, Yukimura-san. I do not like this either, but it is not our place to object.” Morita’s soothing voice did nothing to ease my anger. “Think of your family.”

It felt as if I’d been doused in cold water. “It’s not like I have much of a choice, do I?” I asked dully.

“I’m sorry,” Morita said quietly, before continuing. “You will have until four in the afternoon to make sure they are as recovered as possible for the following day. Akiyama-dono has instructed me to tell you that you are only to heal them enough so that they are not at risk of dying.”

“Of course,” I muttered. That man just had no morals, did he? “How did you capture them anyway? And how the hell are you keeping them docile?”

“They were coming back from a mission and came into an inn owned by the Imasaki to recuperate. Imasaki deals in drug trafficking. One of the drugs we deal with has the fortunate side effect of dulling an individual’s grasp of spirit energy.”

“So…they came into an inn and you drugged them?” I asked incredulously. “So that they’re currently unable to control or use their reiatsu?”

“The drug usually would not have such a strong effect. Under normal conditions, it would only impair their use of reiatsu slightly. However, the drug also makes it rather difficult to think clearly, and combined with their various injuries…” Morita trailed off.

So, a drug that impaired concentration and reiatsu control, along with serious injuries, reiatsu depletion and on top of that, their zanpakuto had been removed. No wonder they hadn’t been able to fight back or summon a jigokucho for reinforcements. “I’m assuming this drug is being administered to them on a regular basis?” I asked dryly.

“It is added to their food and water.” Morita admitted. My headache grew stronger. To be honest, I had no idea what to do. Despite Akiyama claiming to ‘like’ me, I wasn’t stupid enough to believe that I wouldn’t be watched at all times. If he caught the slightest hint of me trying to help the shinigami, he’d send a team of men off to target my family. However, at the same time…they were shinigami. Byakuya’s people. And despite my best efforts, I couldn’t seem to keep from imagining Byakuya in the third shinigami’s place. I didn’t know him but…what kind of friend would I be if I let Byakuya’s cousin be tortured to death? I knew myself well enough that I’d never be able to look Byakuya in the eye again if I let that happen. Hell, I’d never be able to look myself in the mirror again.

Well, all this thinking would be pointless if they died while I was sitting here like an idiot. First things first.

“Morita-san,” I said, voice steady. “Could you please bring me down to the basement again? I’d like to start doing my job now.”

***

“So who are you?” The Kuchiki, or as I’d started calling him in my head, mini-Byakuya asked rudely. I’d asked Morita to bring me a large basin of water and several clean towels, as well as a few rolls of bandages. Unfortunately, he didn’t have any salves so I was stuck using only alcohol for disinfectant.

I gently rubbed some of the grime from the only girl shinigami’s face (or Goldilocks, as I had mentally dubbed her) with a damp towel, before rinsing it clean again.

“I’m the one who’s going to keep you alive,” I said, moving on to her chest area now and barely hid my grimace at the messy sutures stitching her flesh together. A five year old could do better, I thought bitterly, pushing down an increasingly familiar feeling of rage. “But if you’re asking for my name, I’m Yukimura Hisana. I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet you, but I don’t think either of us are enjoying ourselves right now.”

He huffed a surprised laugh, before abruptly cutting himself off with a scowl. “And exactly how are you going to keep us alive? She hasn’t woken up for the past day and a half.”

“Like this,” I said, holding up a hand that started glowing green within seconds. His eyes widened involuntarily.

“Wha—how are you doing that?” He demanded. “You’re not a shinigami.”

“Oh, so only shinigami are allowed to use spiritual energy?” I scoffed, dissolving her stitches with a wave of reiatsu while simultaneously stitching together muscle tissue and re-growing epithelial cells. The previous stitches were really only doing more harm than good at this point. “Please. Just because healing kido is only taught to shinigami doesn’t mean that people can’t figure it out themselves.” For a few moments, I simply focused on healing the long cut that spanned across her entire chest, before moving on to the bruising at the back of her head.

“How is she?” Mini-Byakuya asked quietly.

“Looks like a concussion, two incision marks crisscrossing her chest, and infection’s beginning to set in…just what kind of tests are they doing on you?” I asked, barely able to keep my voice from shaking.

“Like you don’t know,” he said, voice bitter. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?”

“I just got here yesterday, so actually, I don’t,” I retorted. “Care to enlighten me?”

“Oh, the usual stuff. Endurance tests, seeing how much pain we can take before we scream, testing our responses to different drugs…testing how fast we heal from a cut seems to be one of the favorites,” he said, expression darkening with each word. “Not that you care. You may call yourself a healer, but you’re no better than them, are you? Patching us up just enough so that they can play with us another day, making sure we aren’t inconveniently broken beyond repair…it’d be better for all of us if you just let us die!”

“I can’t do that, shinigami-san,” I said quietly, fighting to keep any expression from my face. “I may be your enemy right now but believe me when I say I mean you no harm. Also, please don’t ask me to let you die again. Right now, your situation seems hopeless but if you die, then what little hope you have right now is lost. Think about your family, shinigami-san.” I grabbed the now dirty basin of water and stood up. “I’ll be back shortly to treat your other friend. Please think over what I said.”

With a short bow, I exited the room and made it as far as the kitchen before my knees gave out on me and I collapsed against a wall. His words…they had hit me harder than I liked to admit. I really wasn’t better than any of the other people in this place. But still…what choice did I have?

***

“Yukimura-san?” I looked up to find Morita in the doorway of my room. I was slumped over on the bed, trying to recover mentally from the emotionally draining healing session I’d just had. Healing kido depended on intent. Usually when I converted my reiatsu into healing kido, I was focused entirely on the idea of healing, of recovery and repairing what was damaged and helping people get better. The fact that I was helping someone, that I was making a difference was what made the exhaustion and the headaches that came from such prolonged periods of intense mental focus worth it. Knowing that all my hard work would be undone the very next morning…well, I wondered if this was what Sisyphus felt like, rolling the rock up the hill every day only for it to fall back down again.

“Yes, Morita-san?” I asked. “Did you need something?”

“Akiyama-dono has required your presence for dinner,” he said. Lovely. Just the last person I wanted to see.

“Tell him I’ll be down shortly,” I said, walking over to my wardrobe. It had been fully equipped when I came…if I wasn’t so disturbed by everything else, I’d find the fact that every piece of clothing inside had been my exact size amazingly creepy.

***

Akiyama raised an eyebrow when I entered the room. “Making a statement, Hisana-chan?” He asked, motioning towards my all-black outfit.

“This entire place is freaking depressing. I thought I’d dress to match,” I replied, before looking around. “Just the two of us? How very…Beauty and the Beast of you.” I didn’t quite manage to keep the bite out of my tone and took a deep breath, trying to calm down. No matter how angry (horrified, disgusted, nauseated) I felt, it wouldn’t do anyone any good if I managed to piss him off and landed myself in a body bag.

“Romantic, no?” He chuckled, not seeming at all offended that I had just, for all intents and purposes, compared him to a monster. “I must say, even dressed like you’re about to attend a funeral, you still fit the part of the Beauty very well.”

“This again? You can stop with the pretense, you know. It’s not like I’m going to run off,” I said, brushing off the compliment.

“Who says I’m pretending?” He asked smoothly. I sent him a dubious look.

“I think the real question is, when are you not pretending?” I shot back. “The whole flirting thing doesn’t really go well with the mad-scientist image.”

“I can’t be both?” Akiyama gasped in faux-shock. “Hisana-chan, you wound me. This lack of faith in the complexity of my character just cuts me to the core.”

“I just don’t get why you’re still bothering with the happy-go-lucky façade. I’ve already seen the holding cells; it’s not like I don’t know the type of person you really are.” And if he dropped his mask, I could go back to hating him in peace.

“Oh, Hisana,” he said softly, dropping my honorific for the first time. There was something very predatory in those golden eyes of his and I automatically froze, feeling like a bird trapped in a snake’s gaze. “I would scare you away if I ever fully revealed myself. It would ruin this delightful little repartee we have going on here, and I find myself enjoying your company too much to want that to happen.” Akiyama poured a shot of sake into his cup before leaning back and toasting me lazily.

“You should be flattered, Hisana-chan. Not many people have captured my interest to this extent. Now, Morita tells me that you’ve been down to meet the prisoners already. What did you think?”

“Well, they’ll live to see another day at least,” I said, relaxing slightly now that Akiyama seemed to be back to his carefree self. “How long exactly are you planning on keeping them for?”

“For as long as you can keep them alive, I suppose,” he said, before motioning towards the table. “Eat. You’re probably starving.”

“And then? You can’t just keep kidnapping shinigami, you know. Eventually, someone is going to come and investigate,” I pointed out, spearing a piece of salmon with my chopsticks.

“Of course, I’d wait a period of time before trying again. I’m in no rush,” he answered, before the corner of his mouth quirked up. “Don’t worry. I’ll let you go visit your family after a month. You’re not a prisoner here.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” I mumbled around a mouthful of fish. “This is good,” I couldn’t quite keep the tone of surprise out of my voice.

“Well, the 68th is a bit further inwards than Inuzuri, not to mention I have no shortage of money. That the quality of food is better than what you’re used to is only to be expected,” he said smiling. “You know I’d only provide the best for you, darling.”

“Stop calling me that, it’s creepy.” I scowled rather ineffectively at him. “You’re, like, old. Hitting on young girls is generally frowned upon, you know.” At this, Akiyama briefly lost his composure and gaped indignantly at me.

“I’m in the prime of my life!” He squawked. “And besides, it’s not like you’re a kid. You’re a bit on the younger side, but you’re still a woman. I’m no pedophile.”

“Please,” I scoffed, hiding my grin behind my napkin. So I could get to him. “You’re practically ancient. Any older and you’d be sprouting gray hairs, old man.” He stared at me for another moment before a wicked smirk spread over his features.

“Well, you know what they say about age and experience,” he practically purred. “So how about it, Hisana-chan? Do you want an experienced man to teach you the finer things in life?” I buried my face in my hands in a futile attempt at hiding my blush.

“Stop. Just stop,” I moaned in despair. “You’re impossible.” 

“Don’t lie, I see you hiding a smile,” he said grinning.

“I’m not smiling. This is me baring my teeth. It is a menacing snarl of doom. And death. And other scary things,” I retorted.

“Whatever you say, Hisana-chan. I know that deep down inside, you like me. Deny it all you want, but I know the truth,” he said, a slight smirk on his lips.

I felt as if I’d been abruptly doused with cold water. For a moment, I’d forgotten again what I’d been called here to do. It was just so easy to forget, I wanted to forget…and the worst part was, he was right. I enjoyed the company of a man who had no reservations against experimenting on and torturing both children and adults. So what did that make me?

“I’m going to be reborn as a snail in my next life,” I muttered under my breath. “A snail that gets trampled on. And later ends up in a salt factory and slowly shrivels away to nothing.”

***

My next healing session with the shinigami didn’t go much better. At least all three of them were conscious this time.

“You’re the healer they hired, right?” The redheaded boy asked weakly, after I’d finished healing the worst of his cuts. “Kuchiki-san told us about you.”

“Did he?” I asked, glancing towards the black-haired shinigami. He was pointedly looking away from me. “It’s true that I became acquainted with him yesterday, but I haven’t been introduced to you yet.”

“You can call me Hiro. That’s my cousin Chiyo over there,” he said, nodding towards the still-silent girl who was watching me with wary pale-blue eyes. “You’ve met Eiji already.”

“Murakami-san,” Eiji said sharply, frowning at him. Hiro rolled his eyes.

“If we’re going to die in this place, I want someone here to know our names. I want them to acknowledge us as human. I refuse to be reduced to a specimen,” he said, staring at me with hard eyes.

“It won’t change anything,” I said softly. “How I view you…it won’t change your fates.”

“Maybe not for us,” Hiro acknowledged. “But this way, you won’t be able to ignore what you’re doing. You won’t be able to forget that you helped murder people who did you no harm. When I die, you won’t see Specimen 2, you’ll see me—Hiro—and you’ll know that you played a part in my death.”

***

I couldn’t get to sleep until four in the morning that night. Instead, I sat on my bed and stared at the ceiling for hours. The walls were soundproof. Everyone was asleep. So why did it feel like I could still hear their screams?

When I finally fell asleep, I dreamt of a dead forest, the ground barren and cold beneath my feet, the lake frozen over. I began sleeping a lot less after that.

***

“They’re wasting away,” I stated without preamble the second I saw Akiyama. He paused before turning to face me.

“It’s only been a week,” he said mildly. “I thought your skills were better than this.”

I scowled. “You have your scientists cutting them open every day! Even the most skilled healer would find keeping them alive tough!” Not to mention the continual risk of infection, the constant blood loss… “But this isn’t about that. I can’t heal them if they don’t fucking eat, Akiyama-san. If their spiritual energy isn’t being replenished, there’s not much I can do!”

“Oh? So they’re refusing to eat now?” He asked.

“It’s pretty obvious when I can practically see them losing weight before my eyes! It’s clear that they know they’re being drugged through their food.”

“Hmm, I can see why that’d be a problem. Very well, tell them that if they don’t start eating, I’ll have my men shove their meals down their throats manually. I might just do that anyway to teach them a lesson. After all, I have a healer right here who can step in if one of them starts choking, don’t I?” Akiyama’s voice was tinged with cruel amusement. I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry.

“Let me bring their meals down to them. I-I’ll try to talk some sense into them,” I whispered. Over the past few days, Chiyo had withdrawn almost completely. Even Hiro, with his increasingly desperate attempts at getting through to her, couldn’t get her to respond anymore. Currently, she did little more than stare at the wall with blank eyes, occasionally letting out a pained whimper. Shoving food down her throat in her current state would be beyond inhumane.

Akiyama stared at me for a long moment before sighing. “Fine. You have one chance. But if this doesn’t work, we’re going with my method, okay?”

“Thank you,” I breathed out, relieved. I hadn’t been sure that he was going to grant my request. He nodded shortly. “Don’t disappoint me.”

***

“Oh? This is different. What, reduced to playing housemaid now?” Eiji spoke up sarcastically.

“Seems like it,” I said, not in the mood for any games. “It’s your lucky day, Eiji-san. Vegetable soup is on the menu today. Yum, yum.” More like a thin broth with a few vegetables thrown in, but still.

“Looks delicious. Almost as appetizing as what we feed our pigs back home,” he said.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” I said. Eiji’s face twisted in rage and I winced. Bad choice of words there. Apparently the lack of sleep was getting to me more than I’d previously thought.

“I would never beg you for anything,” he snarled, thrashing against his restraints. Blood trickled down his wrists where the skin was rubbed raw. Yesterday, he’d spat at one of the scientists. As punishment, his arms were now tied tightly above his head and he was forced into an uncomfortable standing position where his feet just barely touched the ground.

“I would never ask you to,” I replied quietly and made my way over to where Hiro was kneeling on the ground, as close to Chiyo as his chains would allow.

“Still no change?” I asked. Hiro glanced at me wryly.

“You might as well take that away. We know that the food’s drugged,” he said.

“The lack of food is killing you faster than the drugs are,” I pointed out.

“At this point, I think it might be a mercy,” Hiro said bleakly. “This is the time of day where we’re the most coherent—right before dinner. It’s bad enough that I can barely even sense my own reiatsu, never mind use it. I’m tired of them taking away my ability to think too.”

“Please,” I begged, lifting up a spoonful of soup. “If you don’t eat willingly, he’ll force you to. I don’t want it to have to come to that.” For a moment, Hiro looked tempted to turn away, if only to spite Akiyama. “Think about Chiyo, Hiro-san. Do you really want them to force feed her?”

Hiro was silent for another moment before nodding, the movement so slight I almost didn’t see it. I brought the spoon to my lips, testing the temperature of the soup. It tasted like ash.

***

I rubbed my temples tiredly, trying to ease my growing headache. It was caused by slight reiatsu exhaustion, so worst of all I couldn’t even treat it. That, and the fact that a week and a half into being recruited as a mad scientist’s unwilling assistant, I was no closer to finding a way out of my situation. There was no way for me to contact the Gotei 13, and I didn’t see any way of helping the shinigami escape that didn’t end with Akiyama sending people after my family. I may have guaranteed us some protection in Inuzuri, but it only took one assassin to succeed…I couldn’t risk it. Hell, even if I did find some way of helping the shinigami escape without alerting Akiyama, they weren’t in any shape to make it far. About the only thing I could do was keep them alive. Which…brought me right back to where I started.

“Are you alright, Yukimura-san?” Morita asked. I smiled slightly at him.

“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”

“Even a blind man could tell that you are not ‘fine,’” Morita said disapprovingly. “Expending so much energy each day is interfering with your health, isn’t it? And I can see that you haven’t been sleeping properly. I’m sure that if you were to ask, Akiyama-dono would give you a day off.”

“No, no,” I said, waving him off. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint him, after all.” If my voice became unbearably bitter, neither of us mentioned it. “I think I’ll head down to the kitchen for some tea. Maybe it’ll clear my mind up a bit.”

As I let the water boil, I couldn’t help thinking back to Eiji, Chiyo and Hiro. Hiro’s words kept haunting me- “I’m tired of them taking away my ability to think too.” I’d never actually seen them when the drugs were at their peak effectiveness since they took roughly an hour to set in, but I couldn’t even imagine…after spending so many years relying on my reiatsu, I couldn’t imagine what it’d feel like to be so cut off from it. Knowing that it was present, that it was still there, but unable to feel or use it. Not to mention the effects the drug had on the brain. It was part of the reason I could never understand drug addicts. My mind, my memories, my ability to think and figure out what to do…they were all I had in the beginning. They were all I had now. What must it feel like to have all of that taken away?

I hesitated before grabbing three more mugs from the shelf in addition to mine, poured tea into all of them, and put them on a tray. Technically it wasn’t against the rules for me to visit the prisoners outside of my scheduled hours…

I paused when I made my way down to the basement. There were no guards sitting at the table, which was unusual, and the door to the holding cells was slightly ajar. Voices coming from the room where the shinigami were chained made me stop and set my tray down.

“The hell do ya think you’re doin’?” One of the voices was saying. “Ya wanna be killed? If the boss finds ya here messin’ around with his prisoners, he’s gonna be pissed.”

“Oh shut up, you coward,” another voice scoffed. “Ya really think the boss gives a shit what happens down here? As long as he gets his results, he’s happy. Besides, the only reason the girl’s still alive is ‘cause of that brat doctor. Even so, she probably won’t live longer than a week. She’s dyin’ anyway, she’s so out of it she probably won’ even notice…now’s the best time to do it. Besides, don’t tell me ya weren’t curious about what it’d be like ta fuck a shinigami?” The last few words hit me like a club to the stomach.

“What about the other two? Won’t they tell?” The first voice asked doubtfully. “Maybe boss won’t care, but I don’ wanna risk it. I don’t wanna ever be on the receiving end of his temper, that’s fo’ sure.”

“They’re drugged up ta their fuckin’ eyeballs. Besides, who’d listen ta them even if they weren’t drugged? C’mon, it’s just a little fun. We deserve it. It’ll be quick—in and out, an hour at most.”

“Don’ touch ‘er!” I recognized Hiro’s voice, slurred as it was. “Ya…y’fuckin’ sickos. Lea’…leave ‘er alo’!”

“If you touch her, I’ll kill you.” Eiji vowed. His words came out slow but I could hear how much effort he was putting in to enunciate clearly. The sound of a fist hitting flesh echoed through the room.

“Shut up, pretty boy. I might give you a go too. It wouldn’t take too much ta pretend ya were a girl.”

“That’s enough,” I said furiously, finally shaking myself out of the horrified daze I was in. I couldn’t do anything about the experiments but this...

One of the guards—I was guessing the second speaker—sneered when he saw me. “What are you even doin’ here right now?”

“Nothing that concerns you,” I said calmly. I felt anything but calm. “What matters is that you are going to stop what you were doing immediately. You are not going to touch any of them. You are not going to ever touch any of them. Is that understood?”

“Why you bitch!” He said, stepping forward. The other guard pulled him back, with a muttered, “Sato, don’t. You know what boss said about her.”

He yanked his arm away roughly. “I don’t know why boss puts up with you, but ya must be a damn good fuck for him to do so.” Behind Sato, Hiro’s face darkened and he glared murderously at him. Eiji’s eyes narrowed.

“I’m sure that I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said flatly.

“Don’t deny it, everyone knows that you’re spreading your legs for him.” He leered at me. “Tell me, does he use that pretty little mouth of yours too?”

“You bastard!” Hiro shouted, yanking at his chains. Ignoring the confusion I felt at both Eiji’s and Hiro’s sudden anger—I understood their hatred towards Sato, but he had stopped threatening to rape Chiyo, hadn’t he?—and instead raised a contemptuous eyebrow at Sato.

“Tell me, Sato-san,” I said softly, mouth curving up into a cruel smile that I’d learned from Tatsuya (that I saw on Akiyama’s face every now and then). “Doesn’t it make you feel…inadequate that you’re resorting to rape because you can’t find a willing participant? Your best chance of getting laid is a poor, drugged girl who can’t say no and can’t fight back. You call me a whore, and yet no whore would be willing to sleep with you. My, my, Sato-san. How…pathetic.” I turned away. “Please refrain from doing anything so unprofessional in the future, Sato-san. I would hate to have to report to Akiyama-san that one of his guards is tampering with his prisoners.”

This time, I was expecting the fist that came at my face. Ducking to the side, I dodged his blow easily and whipped around, kneeing him in the stomach. He doubled over and then froze, feeling the cold steel of Tatsuya’s dagger against his neck.

“Don’t move, Sato-san,” I said quietly. “I would hate for my hand to…slip.” To emphasize my point, I slid the blade forward a tiny bit, drawing a thin line of blood on his neck.

“You’re insane,” he croaked. His comrade seemed to be frozen in shock, uncertain what to do. “You won’t get away with this. Boss’ll kill you if ya do anythin’ to me.”

“You’ll find that I am far less expendable than you are,” I said. Lightly, almost teasingly, I trailed the blade down his chest until it rested just above his groin area. “Touch any of them and you’ll find yourself without the ability to procreate. I’m sure the gene pool wouldn’t mind. Now. Do we have an understanding?” I pressed just a bit deeper, so that the tip of the tanto cut slightly through the seam of his pants.

“I understand, I understand!” He said quickly, voice just a bit higher than normal.

“Good,” I stepped away. “Now both you and your friend over there, remove yourselves from this room. I have to deal with enough ugliness in the world without seeing your faces every day.” They scrambled from the basement hastily and I noticed with some satisfaction that both their faces were pale.

“Thank you.” I looked up to find Hiro staring at me. Despite the slurred quality to his words and the dazed look in his eyes, the gratitude in his voice was unmistakable. “I dunno why y’did it, but thank you all the same.”

“As I told Eiji the first day, I don’t mean any of you any harm,” I said quietly. Walking over to Eiji, I began healing his eye, already bruising from where Sato had hit him.

“Why?” Eiji looked up at me with wild eyes. “When you heal us, you take away our pain even though you’re not required to. You’re always patient when you coax Chiyo to eat, and you sometimes hum lullabies to get her to go to sleep. And you just defended us even though that bastard guard could’ve hurt you. It’s clear that you don’t agree with them. So why are you helping them?” I was silent for a long moment. From his position six feet away, Hiro watched me just as intently.

“You both have a family,” I said quietly. They nodded, Hiro glancing briefly at Chiyo as he did so. “Then you understand that there are some things worth sacrificing even your own morals for.”

When I finally walked outside, I found Morita waiting for me. One look at his face told me that he had heard everything.

“I don’t regret anything,” were the first words out of my mouth. My chin lifted up defiantly. “They have enough to deal with. I won’t let the last pieces of their dignity be taken away from them too.”

“I wasn’t going to disagree with you,” he said lightly before his eyes abruptly turned serious. “But…please be careful, Yukimura-san. Akiyama-dono won’t care if you do this much for them, but don’t forget whose side you’re on.”

***

I’d learned early on that things were better for everyone involved if I was on good terms with Akiyama. I’d tried ignoring him on my third day—the next morning, he’d promptly dragged me to the basement and had forced me to watch as a man in a white mask calmly dragged a scalpel down Eiji’s chest, cutting open skin and tissue like a hot knife through butter. He’d let me go half an hour later after I’d broken down crying. Afterwards, he’d turned to me with eyes curved up into happy little crescents, and had told me that he’d ‘been bored without me around.’ I got the message. Even a week later, I still couldn’t get Eiji’s screams out of my head.

If I got along well with him though, he was happy and more importantly, he was more tolerant of any mildly disobedient actions. To do that however, it meant that I had to, if not forget, then at least make a valiant attempt at ignoring his…darker side. It was easier than I thought it’d be. Paste on a smile, pretend that everything was fine—what was one more mask, after all?

“This is impossible!” I scowled at the goban in front of me. “How do you enjoy this game? You literally just put white and black stones down on a piece of wood.”

“Go is one of the greatest strategy games ever invented. You can learn a lot about a person from how they play go. Assuming that they aren’t just putting stones down in random places like you seem to be doing half the time,” Akiyama said, mouth twitching.

“More like the most frustrating game ever invented. And for your information, just because you can’t comprehend my strategy doesn’t mean that I’m ‘putting stones down in random places’, you bastard. Why can’t we play shogi instead?” I asked. At least shogi was a bit like chess. The pieces had actual names and roles and purposes.

“Because I need an opponent and it’s funny to see the facial expressions you make when something like this happens,” he said, capturing another large group of my stones. My glare darkened about ten shades. Even with my inexperienced eye, I could tell that there was no way I could recover from that.

“I resign,” I muttered with poor grace, before glaring at him challengingly. “Again. I’m not giving up until I win.”

“Really? For someone who claims to hate the game so much, you sure are insistent upon playing it,” he teased. “I think this is the third game this morning? Not that I mind much. You haven’t lasted past half an hour yet.”

“I just don’t want to accept losing to an idiot like you,” I retorted. He rolled his eyes.

“I told you, you’re going about this the wrong way. You have to think of the goban as a battlefield, with you as the general. You use your stones to capture your enemies’ territory, to cut off their escape routes, to corner and crush them.” Akiyama eyed me speculatively. “And like a general, you also have to accept your losses. If you hadn’t spent so much time trying to save your stones in the right corner, you would’ve lasted longer. You should’ve cut your losses there fifteen minutes ago and focused on defending the rest of your territory.” At my stubborn expression, he sighed.

“You can’t save everyone, darling. Your problem is that you care far too easily and far too much.” I didn’t think we were talking about the game anymore. “…Morita told me about what happened with the girl shinigami the other day.” Akiyama’s face hardened. “Don’t get attached, Hisana-chan. It won’t end well for you.”

Most of the time it was relatively easy to ignore the fact that the man who I was, despite my best efforts, beginning to see as a friend of sorts, who enjoyed teasing me, who taught me strategy games, was the same person who’d ordered the murder of dozens of children without flinching and was currently in the process of torturing three innocent people in a mad bid for power. Then he’d say something like this and I’d find myself unable to even look at him.

“Since when has compassion become something to be avoided?” I whispered, looking down at the board. Akiyama paused, something like pity crossing his face when he looked at me.

“In our world, kindness will only be your downfall.” His gaze lingered on the dark shadows forming under my eyes, the way my cheeks had grown increasingly hollow over the past few days. “You would do well to remember that, Hisana.”

***

“Why aren’t you a shinigami?” It took me a while to comprehend the words, Eiji’s voice was so rough.

“I told you not to talk, you idiot. Your vocal cords are still recovering,” I scolded. I’d put both Hiro and Chiyo into an induced sleep—a brief reprieve from the nightmares, at least. They needed to get more rest anyway.

“Answer my question and maybe I won’t,” Eiji said stubbornly as I began gently cleaning the grime from his face. “You certainly have more than enough reiatsu, and your control is better than that of most Academy graduates I’ve seen. Why stay here?”

“Because I’m more needed here. Besides, what do I have to gain by becoming a shinigami? My family lives here. I know the people here. I can help whomever I want—from the poorest child to the starving beggar to the wife being abused by her bastard husband.” I rinsed my towel. “Not to mention, you shinigami seem to be a reckless bunch,” I continued, thinking of Byakuya. “I’d probably go crazy trying to get you guys to stay still and stop fighting when you’re clearly injured.”

“You seem to know us pretty well,” Eiji said, studying me with a bemused expression.

“I’ve discovered it’s a guy thing over my decades doing this. And that the more powerful a guy is, the less likely they are to listen. I just applied that knowledge to shinigami and extrapolated,” I deflected. Eiji snorted.

“Fair enough. There isn’t much I can say to that,” he admitted. “Still though, you could do plenty of good in the Seireitei. And no person would be able to blackmail you like Akiyama is doing.”

“…Akiyama is a rare case. I won’t lie and say that I haven’t considered becoming a shinigami,” I said honestly. “But every time I thought about it…I’ve heard some stuff about what the Gotei 13 gets up to. Only rumors, but isn’t every rumor based in fact? And if I became a shinigami, I wouldn’t have the power to say no, even if I disagreed with the order I was given. Here, I still have some freedom. But once you enter the Gotei 13, there’s no backing out. They own you, up until the point where you aren’t useful to them anymore and they throw you away.”

“That’s a pessimistic way of looking at it,” Eiji said after a moment. “But…you’re not entirely wrong.”

“That’s not to say that I dislike all shinigami. I may have some issues with how the system is run, but I don’t have any problems with shinigami personally,” I said, watching Eiji’s slightly downcast expression. We were both silent for a moment.

“What’s that?” He asked abruptly. I followed his gaze to where I’d been absently fiddling with the necklace Byakuya had given me. “That necklace…it’s very well made.”

“Ah. It was a gift. From a very close friend of mine,” I said awkwardly. I still hadn’t told Eiji about my friendship with Byakuya. How the hell was I supposed to bring it up? ‘Oh yeah, by the way, I know that I work for the people currently cutting you open, but I’m kinda sorta friends with your cousin. Not that this information is going to help you in any way, since Byakuya only comes around once every few months. Oh, and I may have a tiny crush on him too.’

Yeah, no.

“Some friend. He can afford to give you something like that, but he leaves you behind in this kind of environment?” Eiji scoffed.

“Hey, he’s gone a lot,” I said, suddenly defensive. “And he has no idea what I’m dealing with right now.” I paused, before I forced a lighthearted smile on my face. “And what happened to hating my guts? That sounded almost like concern, Eiji-kun. I would have thought you’d be all for dumping me in a forest somewhere for hollows to find.”

Eiji leveled a flat look at me. “Don’t be ridiculous. I forgave you a while ago. After what you did for Chiyo, how could I not?”

***

 

“…so that was how Rukia’s rabbit obsession started. All because of a stupid comic on some cartoon bunny named ‘Chappy.’ The next day, she asked Mitsuo to take her to the forest. The little brat somehow caught two rabbits and pleaded for a week to let her keep them before we finally gave in,” I said, recalling the memory fondly.

Chiyo shifted a bit, a glint of life entering her eyes for the first time since yesterday. As far as I knew, she hadn’t talked since her sixth (my second) day here, but at this point, I’d take anything I could get.

“Kaori wasn’t happy. She’s mildly allergic to them, and couldn’t stop sneezing whenever they were around. Kazuki actually thought they were for dinner when he first saw them. I still don’t think Rukia’s forgiven him completely for that.” I smiled slightly, bandaging up Chiyo’s arm. “Mitsuo pretends to be indifferent, but I catch him sneaking carrots to them every now and then.”

 Gingerly, I placed a hand on the back of Chiyo’s neck and sent a wave of reiatsu down her spinal cord. It was something I’d been experimenting with—normally my techniques required a steady input of energy. I’d been trying to change that, to find a way to make them more permanent and independent, starting with ways to numb the body. The reiatsu I’d infused her spinal cord with wouldn’t do much—I didn’t want to risk screwing up her nervous system—but it would coat her nerve cells, dull the signals being sent to the brain. Best of all, the effects would last for hours and since my reiatsu would fade eventually, there were no permanent effects. Unfortunately, it also affected motor movement, but since it wasn’t like any of them were going anywhere…

“She’s happier when you do that. Tell her stories, I mean,” Hiro spoke up quietly. “She loves animals too, you know. We have a garden back home, and any time she found an injured bird, mouse, or squirrel she’d bring it back home and nurse it back to health herself. I always thought that she’d go into the Fourth Division—that’s the squad in charge of healing—but instead she followed me. Fat lot of good that did her,” he added bitterly.

“You’re her cousin; I’m not surprised that she’d want to be close to you.” I said, before hesitantly asking, “What’s it like living in the Seireitei?” I’d found that keeping them distracted, reminding them that there was a world outside this cell…even if it didn’t exactly give them hope, it did offer a temporary escape. It was part of the reason I’d started sharing stories of my family after all.

“It’s beautiful.” This time it wasn’t Hiro, but Eiji who spoke up. “The entire city is made of white stone, and the entire place glows when the sun sets. The cherry blossoms should be blooming soon,” he said a bit dreamily.

“Eiji’s family owns the best cherry trees in the Seireitei,” Hiro explained to me. 

“My cousin loves them,” Eiji said, shrugging lightly. “He walks through our gardens all the time.” A note of wistfulness entered his voice. “I would’ve liked to see them one last time.”

“Your gardens sound lovely. Do they have any ponds in them?” I asked, carefully redirecting the conversation back into safer territory. I couldn’t deal with thinking about Eiji’s chances of survival right now. Eiji brightened up briefly.

“Of course. Our gardens were designed by the best architects in Soul Society. We have streams, bridges, ponds…my favorite part is watching the koi fish. They’re huge, have been growing for decades, and we have them in every conceivable color.”

I laughed softly. “I have a little brother—Renji—who’s terrified of large fish.”

“He’s scared of fish?” Hiro asked incredulously.

“Mm hm,” I nodded. “See, about a decade or so back, Mitsuo and Kazuki took the kids fishing by the river. Renji was boasting on and on about how he would catch the largest fish. He went upstream and after a little while, he felt a tug on his fishing line. At first he couldn’t reel it in, no matter how hard he pulled. Then, out of nowhere, out jumps this massive fish on the end of his line. It literally smacked him in the face and the next thing we knew, he was screaming about it biting his nose. Rukia didn’t stop laughing for hours.”

“Did that really happen?” Eiji asked, eyes bright with amusement. I nodded, biting my lip to keep from smiling. “He’s still traumatized by the experience.”

“Poor kid,” Hiro said, shaking his head. He was silent for a moment. “Thanks, you know. For trying to cheer us up. And for all that you’ve done for us. I don’t think I’ve ever told you that.”

“You don’t need to thank me for that,” I protested, a bitter note entering my voice. “It’s the least I could do, after all.” The only thing I could do.

“No, but really. You’ve always been kind to us and despite everything…you’re as much a prisoner here as we are. Hell, you don’t look much better than we do right now, and that’s really saying something. Kinda like a half-starved panda, actually,” Hiro said, glancing at the bags under my eyes and how my hair hung limply from where it was tied into a messy ponytail. I hadn’t bathed in a week.

“Shut up, you raccoon,” I retorted, although there was no heat in it. “But if you’re really thankful, repay me by not dying. It’d be really ungrateful of you if you still died despite all the effort I’ve put into keeping you alive.”

“There. Like that. Even when you’re being sarcastic, you still show that you care.” Hiro looked faintly bemused.

“You’ve kept us sane over the past few weeks. If…if we ever escape, we won’t forget that,” Eiji said earnestly. “We’ll get you out too.”

I sighed, reaching over and flicking him on the head. “Worry about yourself, idiot. Your concern is touching, but unnecessary. I’m not the one who needs saving.”

“And even if you did, you wouldn’t accept any help.” Eiji said shrewdly.

“If I can’t even help myself, how can I possibly help the ones I’m responsible for?” I asked, shaking my head. “I…can’t afford to be weak.”

 ***

Omake

“Aha!” Tatsuya jumped out from behind a chair, brandishing a wooden sword. “We have discovered your evil lair, fiend! Now hand over the princess!”

“Curses!” Kazuki cried out, sporting a frankly ridiculous fake mustache. He waved around a wooden sword of his own. “I have been caught! Well, no matter. You’ll never defeat me, you son of a moldy potato!”

“This is so stupid,” Kaori mumbled under her breath. I elbowed her and she sighed heavily.

“Yes, there is no way that you can beat us, for we are the all-powerful evil overlord Kazuki and the mighty dragon Kaori,” she deadpanned.

“Of course we will!” Tatsuya yelled dramatically, bringing a hand up to his chest, a giggling Rukia behind him. “Never fear, Princess Hisana, we will rescue you in no time! Now onward, brave companions!”

“Giddyup! Giddyup!” Rukia cried out from where she was sitting on Horio’s back. She yanked on his hair and I winced. It looked painful. “C’mon Horsy, go! Run! We gotta save nee-chan!”

“Why do I gotta be the horse?” He whined, reaching up to rub his scalp. Rukia apparently didn’t like that because she kicked him roughly in the side. “Baka-Horio, horsies don’t have hands!” I was so proud of her. “Now hurry up and go!”

Deciding it was time for me to jump in, I swooned slightly from my ‘tower’ (a table that I was standing on). “What is that I see yonder? Is that--? It is! The brave warrior Tatsuya and the valiant knight Rukia atop her regal steed! They have come to rescue me! I am saved!” I put on an exaggerated expression of worry, bringing my hands up to my mouth. “But wait! What of the dread villain Kazuki and the horrible dragon Kaori?”

“They are no match for our skills, Princess! Do not fear!” Tatsuya yelled. He nudged Horio with one foot. Horio rolled his eyes but obligingly charged forward at Kazuki.

“You owe me so much for doing this, Hisana,” he growled as he began crawling forward at top speed.

Rukia shrieked with laughter as Horio ran forward and mockingly thrust her own toy sword into Kazuki’s stomach, causing him to collapse with a dramatic wail.

“Sir Rukia has succeeded in defeating her foe! But it appears as if the brave Tatsuya is having some trouble. Will he be beaten by the awful, fire-breathing Kaori? Is this the end?” I gasped dramatically. From his prone position on the ground, Kazuki appeared to be shaking with laughter. Tatsuya’s lips were twitching constantly and I could see him struggling to keep a straight face. “Oh no! Whatever will happen?”

Rukia looked up and her face scrunched up into an adorably determined expression. “Dun’ worry, Tatsuya-nii! I’ll save ya!” With that, she charged towards Kaori, leaping forwards to tackle her around her waist and sending them both flying. Suppressing a grin, Tatsuya picked up his sword and held it at Kaori’s throat.

“Alas. I have been defeated.” Kaori said monotonously. “Good prevails over evil once more.”

Rukia cheered and Tatsuya reached over to give her a high five. “We did it, Rukia-chan!” He crowed, picking her up and spinning her around. “We showed them, didn’t we?”

“You sure did,” I said, smiling fondly at both of them. “You were very brave. You especially, Rukia-chan—I was very impressed by the way you stepped in when your Tatsuya-nii was in danger.” Rukia preened, a blinding smile on her face. I bent down to give her a quick kiss on the forehead before continuing. “As a reward for saving me, I, Princess Hisana, bestow upon you this token of my gratitude.”

 I nodded towards Mitsuo, who’d just entered the living room carrying a plate with a small cake on it. Rukia’s eyes widened, filling with wonder as she took in the sight of the cake before her—a combined effort from me, Kaori and Mitsuo.

“I-it has bunnies on it,” she breathed out softly. “It’s so pretty.”

“Yes it does. Happy birthday, imouto.” Rukia turned to stare at me with watery eyes.

“It’s for me?”

“Of course it is, silly girl,” Kazuki said, ruffling her hair. “Who else would it be for?”

“I—thank you,” she stuttered, still speechless. “Did—did you guys make it?”

“It was mostly Mitsuo. He’s the one who spent the past hour putting finishing touches on it,” Tatsuya said. “Your sister and Kaori just helped a bit.” Rukia stared at it for a bit longer before setting it on the table and tacking Mitsuo in a tight hug.

“Thanks, Mitsuo-nii! Thanks everyone! This is the best birthday ever!” Rukia babbled excitedly.

“Glad you had fun, twerp,” Horio smirked. Kaori flicked him on the forehead before pulling Rukia into a hug. “You’re a decade old now. Be proud.”

“Come on. Let’s go find a knife to cut that cake with, okay?” Mitsuo began gently tugging Rukia towards the kitchen. “I’ll bet you’re hungry after all that playing. And since you’re so grown up, you get to cut the cake.”

“Really?” Rukia asked, bouncing after Mitsuo. “Nee-chan never lets me hold a knife, even though she uses them all the time and I’m not a baby any more…”

***

“Not a fan of cake?” Tatsuya remarked, looking pointedly at my thin slice. I blinked, distracted from my thoughts.

“No, I like it well enough. Bu it’s not like there was much in the first place. And it’s Rukia’s birthday—she should be able to enjoy as much as she wants.” I smiled a bit wistfully, looking towards where Rukia was smearing frosting over Horio’s face. “I can’t believe that she’s ten already. She’s growing up so fast.” When Tatsuya didn’t reply, I looked up to see him staring at me with an odd look on his face.

“You’re kind of weird, you know that?” He said finally. At my indignant expression, he hastily continued, “Not in a bad way! Just…you don’t really act your age, you know? Like today—you acted more like a parent taking care their kid than a kid yourself.”

“I’m almost twenty,” I replied a bit stiffly.

“Yeah, but…you look barely twelve. And although people tend to be more mature than they appear due to our slow aging, even by our standards you’re really young. By all rights, we should be taking care of you as well as Rukia.”

“And instead, you made me an equal. I’d rather have you guys take my opinions into account when making decisions and respect me than being treated as a child any day. Besides, if I acted like any ordinary kid, you never would have taken me in,” I pointed out. Tatsuya smiled wryly.

 “You’re right, as always. Sometimes I forget how young you are…talking to you is like talking to Mitsuo or Kazuki and they have decades on you.” He paused, a fond expression entering his eyes. “It’s great that you’re so mature, Hisana-chan. And despite my words, being a mini-adult isn’t a bad thing. Just…remember that it’s okay to be a kid too sometimes, alright? You don’t have to be so responsible all the time. Let us take care of you the way you take care of us.” He reached over, wiping a smudge of frosting from the corner of my chin. “Don’t be so eager to grow up, Hisana-chan. You’ll develop wrinkles and that’d be an awful shame with how pretty you are,” he teased, voice warm.

I scowled, trying to hide my blush. “Stop being weird.” Stupid Tatsuya with his stupid compliments and his stupid smile. He chuckled and dumped the untouched portion of his own cake onto my plate.

 “Eat up, Hisana-chan,” he said, clasping me on the shoulder with one hand briefly before walking away. I stared down at my plate. Half of a frosted bunny stared back at me. With a heavy sigh, I took a large bite. Maybe Tatsuya had a point. Taking care of Rukia was my responsibility, my promise…but that didn’t mean I had to be an adult all the time either.

Chapter Text

“You’re being awfully quiet today, Hisana-chan. What’s on your mind?” Akiyama asked, sipping a glass of wine.

“Nothing. Just tired,” I answered. It was partially the truth, at least.

“Yes, it doesn’t look like you’ve been sleeping well lately. You know, if you dislike your bed so much, you’re always welcome in mine,” he said smirking. I rolled my eyes at him. About the only good thing that came out of this was that I’d built up some immunity to his flirting.

“I’d rather sleep on the floor.”

“Oh? I don’t know, that seems so uncomfortable. Would you be opposed to a table instead? My desk is rather sturdy as well.”

“If your company is involved, I think I’ll pass,” I grumbled.

“I’m hurt, Hisana-chan. I really thought that we had something special.” He said dramatically, clutching his chest in mock pain.

“Please stop doing that. It’s creepy. I’ve told you, you’re way too old for me.”

“That’s okay, I’m willing to wait for you to catch up. It’s possible that my aging will slow down once I figure out how to increase my spirit energy,” Akiyama said casually. My breath caught. It had become an unspoken rule between us not to bring up anything relating to the experiments at dinner. To be honest, I didn’t want to know. If he did get caught, the less I was involved and the less I knew, the better.

Akiyama glanced at my stiffened posture and sighed. “We really need to do something about those pesky morals of yours, darling. It’s been almost three weeks and you’re still not over it?”

“It’s inhumane,” I said coldly. “You’re making me go against every single one of my values, and I’m supposed to be ‘over it’?!”

“Why do you care so much anyway? You’ve known them for less than a month,” he asked. “As a doctor, you should know how to distance yourself from your patients by now. You must have had patients who’ve died on you before.”

“But in those cases, I knew that I had done my absolute best to save them. I’m a healer, Akiyama-san. And what you’re having me do here isn’t healing them, it’s preparing them for more torture the next day.”

“Torture is such a harsh word. I prefer ‘necessary research in the name of scientific innovation and advancement.’”

“You and I both know that it amounts to the same thing, Akiyama-san,” I spat out. Akiyama’s eyes darkened.

“Careful, Hisana-chan. You are coming very, very close to irritating me. I may find your company entertaining, and you are admittedly the best doctor within fifteen districts of here, but in no way does that mean you aren’t expendable if you anger me,” he murmured. “Besides, I find it terribly hypocritical of you to judge me so harshly. How helpless would you feel, I wonder, if someone slit your sister’s throat in front of you?” My throat constricted, a blind panic rising up within me at the thought. But before I could say anything, Akiyama continued.

“I’ve felt that helplessness before. When I found my brother half naked in a dirty alleyway, blood between his thighs and a knife in his gut. He bled out in front of me, you know. The bastard who did it stabbed me too, but I survived. I made a promise that night to myself that I’d grow strong enough to track down my brother’s murderer and kill him in the most painful way possible.” Akiyama’s tone was almost conversational. “It’s funny. Everyone sees shinigami as ultimate protectors, saving us ordinary souls from hollows. But what do you do when it’s a shinigami you need saving from? Who protects us from them?” He laughed bitterly and glanced at me knowingly.

“Don’t even pretend that if a shinigami raped and killed your sister, you wouldn’t throw all of your so-called morals out of the window. You’d do whatever it took to gain the power to obliterate him. Or at the very least, prevent something like that from happening to someone you cared about again.”

I wasn’t even sure if Akiyama was telling the truth. He could’ve made the entire thing up just to manipulate me, which was probably the more realistic option. Something in his eyes however—perhaps how terribly empty they were—made me think he was being honest. Or maybe there was just a part of me that hoped he was. And if he was…well, we were more alike than I liked to think.

“It still doesn’t excuse your actions,” I whispered.

“No,” he agreed. “But you’d do the same thing, wouldn’t you?”

I couldn’t outright deny it, and my silence said more than any words ever could.

***

Eiji’s condition was worsening. He had reacted…badly to the newest batch of experimental drugs he’d been injected with. After he’d started convulsing, the scientists had moved him to a separate room upstairs and had chained him down to a table.

“Hey,” I said softly, brushing some of his hair back from where it covered his sweaty forehead. He shivered, leaning slightly into my touch. I’d managed to remove most of the drug from his system. Speed up his liver’s metabolizing rate, aid his kidneys in filtering out the drug…who knew that all my practice with sobering Kazuki up would come in so handy?

“Hi—sana? I…I can’t think,” he said blearily, forehead furrowing in frustration. “Where…am I? Hiro? Chiyo? Why…can’t I move?”

“They’re all fine. Relax,” I said soothingly, sending a mild wave of healing reiatsu into his body to disintegrate what drug molecules remained. “See the sunset?” I pointed towards the window. Eiji squinted towards the light. This had probably been the first time he was allowed to see the sky in his time here.

“I’m so…tired, Hisana,” he mumbled, words beginning to slur together. “My head hurts. Everythin’ hurts. Can you just…just talk to me? Like you do with Chiyo? I…I wanna forget, just…just fo’ a moment.” I closed my eyes, swallowing heavily.

“It’s okay. You’re safe now. You can feel the sunlight, can’t you? Warm against your face. See the way the entire sky just blends into orange and yellow and red? The way the sunlight glows off the all the buildings in the Seireitei, how it causes the white tower to shimmer?” Perhaps it was a good thing Eiji was so out of it, since he didn’t seem to notice that there was no way I should have been able to go into this level of detail. I’d heard Byakuya talk about the Seireitei enough that I could almost picture it myself.

“The sakura blossoms are blooming too, shades of pink and white and red. Can you see the way they drift in the wind? Like it’s snowing flower petals, causing the entire city to smell sweet. The ponds have all melted and you can see fish again for the first time in months. Bright flashes of gold and white and black and red in an otherwise dark pond. It’s quiet in the gardens, unlike in the rest of Seireitei. Peaceful. Safe.” My voice trailed off. Eiji stirred slightly.

“Hisana?” He said, voice almost inaudible. “I want to go home.”

I squeezed his hand tightly, fighting back tears.

“I know,” I whispered. “Believe me, I know.”

***

When I finally deemed Eiji’s condition acceptable, I headed straight for my bedroom, ignoring Morita’s concerned glance. Slamming the door shut, I punched the wall as hard as I could.

“Goddamn it!” I screamed, leaning my forehead against the wall and ignoring the blood dripping from my knuckles. That night, a blizzard blazed through my imaginary forest. The trees stood lifeless around the lake’s shore, and the mysterious voice—warm, soothing, always slightly muffled—was nowhere to be heard.

***

“Do you need anything else, Yukimura-san?” Morita asked from behind me. Technically I was allowed to go outside the house, as long as I had someone accompanying me.

“Just some crackers, and I’m good,” I said, checking off the latest item on my shopping list. “Oh, and some candy. I can’t believe Akiyama doesn’t like sweets, it’s practically sacrilege.”

Morita chuckled. “Not everyone is as obsessed with sugar as you are, Yukimura-san. It’s astounding that you’re as thin as you are.”

“Fast metabolism, Morita-san,” I said, scanning the streets for a vendor selling candy. It was then that I felt it. Stiffening, I turned around and found a dark haired man with light green eyes dressed in plain clothes staring straight at me.

That spirit energy…it wasn’t familiar but there was no mistaking it. Despite his clothes, I was absolutely certain that the man behind me was a shinigami. He was suppressing it, I could tell—the way his aura felt muted the way Byakuya’s often was—but the faint thrum of power edging it…I glanced towards his waist. Sure enough, he had a sword attached to his belt.

“Is something the matter, Yukimura-san?” I snapped out of it at the sound of Morita’s voice.

“It’s nothing. Just noticed that the ramen stand over there is having a special today,” I smiled, and very carefully did not react. Inside, my thoughts were racing. Morita chuckled.

“You and your ramen, I swear. Sometimes I find it is hard to believe that you are a doctor, Yukimura-san. Your favorite foods seem to all be high-sodium, high-sugar or deep-fried things.”

“As a doctor, I understand the value of comfort food,” I sniffed, forcing my tone to remain lighthearted and unconcerned, subtly sneaking a glance back towards the shinigami. He was still watching me, observing me curiously. It was probably my spirit energy that had caught his attention. During his last visit, Byakuya had mentioned that in addition to having higher than average reserves, my reiatsu also felt…controlled. Trained. Something that was uncommon to say the least, especially considering the fact that it was clear I wasn’t a shinigami. Now how to make him follow me?

I sighed, blaming Akiyama’s influence for what I was going to do next. When Morita’s head turned away, I quickly looked back towards the shinigami and winked, mouthing follow me and jerking my head towards the ramen shop. With any luck, he wouldn’t think that I was hitting on him…although considering the amused grin forming at his mouth, it was too late. However, it accomplished what I’d hoped it would as I caught him entering the shop a few minutes after Morita and I did.

“Please do not order over five bowls of ramen, Yukimura-san.” Morita said tiredly. I simply grinned in reply.

 “Would I do something like that, Morita-san?”

“Yes,” he said flatly. “And then complain about having a stomachache later.” I pouted.

“Fine. I’ll settle with two and eat a snack later. Happy now?” I watched out of the corner of my eye as the shinigami sat down two tables away, near the entrance.

“I suppose so,” he sighed, reluctantly amused. When my order came, I hurriedly reached for the nearest bowl.

“Careful, the bowl is hot--” The waiter said urgently, reaching out a hand to stop me. Too late. I hissed in pain at the hot temperature and dropped the bowl of ramen into my lap, splattering soup and noodles everywhere.

“Yukimura-san! Are you alright?” Morita asked alarmed. I grimaced as the hot broth burned my legs, but nodded.

“Yeah, it’s just--” I looked towards the shop owner pleadingly. He hurriedly made his way over.

“I have a daughter who’s about your size, I can grab some of her clothes for you to wear. There’s a bathroom upstairs where you can change,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said gratefully. “I’ll be sure to recompense you, of course.” Small shops like this normally didn’t let customers use their bathrooms, which were often private, so I had to get a bit…creative. As soon as I was alone, I quickly cleaned off, changed, and then dug out my earlier shopping list. I’d never been so thankful that it was a habit of mine to carry around a pen and paper whenever I went shopping, in case I suddenly remembered something I needed to buy. On the back of the list, I scribbled a short summary of Akiyama’s actions and the location where Eiji and the others were being kept. I hesitated, before writing one last line.

They won’t last for much longer. Please hurry.

 

Tucking the note into a pocket, I made my way back downstairs. As I’d hoped, the shinigami was still there, halfway through eating his meal.

“I’ve already paid the owner for the clothes,” Morita said, looking at me disapprovingly. “You should be more careful, Yukimura-san.”

“Ahaha, thanks Morita-san,” I said sheepishly, ignoring the rising guilt I felt at what I was about to do. “Maybe I’ll just eat back at headquarters. I’m not really in the mood for ramen anymore.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t be, after having spilled it all over yourself,” he muttered. “Very well. Let’s go.”

As we walked by the entrance, I made sure to bump lightly into the shinigami. When he reached out to steady me, I slipped the note into his sleeve, carefully not looking back. I’d made my choice—had made it from the instant I’d first seen him. If my hands shook slightly…well, no one was around to see.

***

The first sign that something was wrong was the yelling.

I shot up in my bed, staring at the door with wide eyes. Scrambling out of my room, I barely registered the sight of a guard fighting—and losing—against a black clad figure before I was sprinting to the basement. The sight of the two guards slumped over drunk made me pause for an instant, before I grabbed one of their clubs and knocked them both out for good measure. I was in the midst of trying to detach the ring of keys from Guard #1’s belt when quiet footsteps made me look up.

“So it was you. Somehow I’m not surprised,” Akiyama said, an eerie lack of expression on his face. His voice was calm, pleasant even, as though we were talking about something as simple as the weather.  I took an uneasy step back. “How long have you been planning to betray me, Hisana-chan?”

“Not long actually. I saw the opportunity this afternoon and took it.” From the moment I’d registered the shinigami’s reiatsu, I’d seen two possible courses of action play out in front of me. Only one ended with Eiji, Chiyo and Hiro getting home.

“I am curious though as to how you managed to tip them off? I had someone watching you at all times. And no matter how pleasant Morita may seem, his loyalties are to me first and foremost.”

“I slipped one of them a note when Morita wasn’t looking,” I admitted. “I wasn’t always a successful healer, you know. At one point, I had thievery down to an art. It wasn’t too hard to figure out how to reverse-pickpocket someone.” My voice didn’t come out as steady as I’d hoped.

“I see.” Akiyama’s hand drifted towards his sword. “In that case, I have no more to say to you. I can forgive many things, but betrayal is not one of them. I cannot allow you to live.” I stiffened, whipping out my tanto just in time to deflect his blow, my arms buckling from the strain.

“They’ll be down here any moment!” I said, shoving him off.

“That’s true,” he allowed, slashing his sword in a series of movements that I barely managed to keep up with. “And I have no doubt that they’ll kill me when they do. It won’t be before I’ve killed you and disposed of the prisoners, though.”

Fighting a relatively-skilled swordsman with a comparatively tiny dagger was not easy. Nor fun. It was only thanks to my sparring sessions with Mitsuo and Kazuki that I wasn’t dead yet. Even so, I was panting heavily and bleeding from a deep cut on my left shoulder.

“Do you honestly believe that you can defeat me?” He seemed genuinely curious.

“Not with swordsmanship,” I admitted before ducking under his arm and punching him in the stomach, enhancing my fist with reiatsu. He stumbled back, and barely blocked my follow up blow. A flash of rage appeared on his face for the first time.

“You think that just because you have spiritual energy, you can win?” He growled. His sword came down faster than I could block it and slashed across my hip. I couldn’t help it—I cried out in pain.

“You’re such a hypocrite, Hisana. Always going on about the moral high ground, when in truth you’re no better than me. You say that I’m a murderer—what do you think is going to happen to every single person of this household? Men who have wives, children, families…they’re all going to die tonight.” I flinched, lowering my dagger for a split second, and he seized the opening to shove me against the wall by my throat.

“Fifty one people in this household,” he whispered, fingers tightening. I gasped for breath, hands clenching uselessly around the one he was using to hold me off the ground. “Morita Takeshi among them, the man who has been nothing but kind to you these past few weeks. Who argued on your behalf. ‘I’m worried about Yukimura-san, Akiyama-dono, she hasn’t been eating properly. Let her take a break, Akiyama-dono, let her visit her family. She’s been so tired and sad lately,’” Akiyama mocked. “And this is how you repay him? Did you even think of what would happen to him the moment you slipped the shinigami that note?”

My eyes narrowed. “Sometimes sacrifices have to be made. Didn’t you teach me that?” I spat. The truth was, I had considered it. But Eiji, Hiro and Chiyo were my patients—they were my first priority. And the only way to save them while simultaneously ensuring my family’s safety was to make sure none of Akiyama’s men remained.

Triage—one of the first things I’d learned as a doctor in my past life. Sometimes, there was no way to save everybody. It’s for the best, I thought firmly. It sounded hollow, even to myself.

With a final burst of effort I kicked out while simultaneously pressing down on a pressure point on his arm. He cursed, letting me go abruptly. I dropped to the ground and before he could recover, rested the tip of my tanto against his heart. He froze, a wry smile curling his lips.

“Well, it looks like I underestimated you. Going to kill me, darling?” Akiyama asked calmly. For a moment I hesitated, staring at his accepting face. His eyes were…soft. Understanding. Familiar, from almost a month of shared dinners, long conversations, board games, lighthearted banter. My hand loosened the slightest bit.

The next thing I knew, my arm was being yanked up and twisted. An audible crack echoed throughout the room and then the pain hit.

I gasped, barely suppressing a scream of agony as Akiyama leaned in closely, still holding my wrist. He plucked the dagger from my hand and tossed it to the side. “I warned you, didn’t I, that you kindness would be your downfall one day?” He murmured into my ear before throwing me to the ground. I barely had time to register my back hitting the floor when his foot came down, hard, on my ribs. Another two sickening snaps reached my ears and I couldn’t help the strangled sob that forced its way out of my throat. Akiyama looked down at me with an unreadable expression.

“Such a waste,” he sighed. “I just have one last question for you. If you hadn’t tipped off that shinigami, none of this would have happened. You would have been permitted to go home in another week—the prisoners weren’t going to last longer than that anyway. You could have seen your family; you could have lived. Was all of this--” he made an all-encompassing motion with his arm. “—worth it?”

I thought about what my family would say if they knew about Akiyama’s actions. Then I thought about Chiyo, Hiro and Eiji—kids, really—and the many others who came before them. The way Chiyo’s posture relaxed slightly whenever I came to visit. Hiro’s desperate attempts to be brave. The tentative trust in Eiji’s eyes when he looked at me.

“Every last bit,” I said steadily. Something like regret passed over Akiyama’s face for a fraction of a second. “I truly did enjoy your company these last few weeks. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry it had to come down to this, Hisana-chan.”

Are you going to let it end like this? A voice echoed in my head. A voice that up until now, I’d only heard in dreams, that I’d begun to hear less and less of recently. Akiyama told you he made a promise. But so did you. Miwa’s face flashed in my mind. You promised her that you’d be back, didn’t you?

Akiyama’s sword slashed down. At the same time, I rolled to the side, ignoring the sharpflaringagonyohgodithurts, and lashed out with one leg. He stumbled, not expecting my sudden movement. With one hand, I grabbed Tatsuya’s dagger and then lunged forward in a mad, desperate scramble. Akiyama fell backwards from the weight of my tackle, and the knife slid into his chest in one, smooth movement. Skin, muscle, organs…they all offered no more resistance than a slab of warm butter.

For a moment, we both stared down at the blade protruding from Akiyama’s body in shock. My hand, still clutching the hilt, was buried halfway in his torso. Blood—slick, warm and wet—trickled over my fingers.

Akiyama coughed slightly before staggering, dropping his sword and I automatically reached out to steady him in a parody of a lover’s embrace.

“Heh…looks like you win, Hisana-chan,” Akiyama smiled up at me, blood already staining his lips. We both knew the wound was fatal. He had minutes, at most.

“I…I can take away your pain,” I said numbly, still staring at my hands in incomprehension. Red…they were so red. Akiyama shook his head, something like fond exasperation entering his features for a moment.

“Far too easily and far too much, indeed,” he muttered, slumping to the floor. “I never could quite cure you of that, but…I suppose I never really wanted to.

“It’s your fault!” I said angrily, voice rough. My vision was beginning to blur. “Forcing me to spend time with you…and…and all the stupid…stupid comments! K-k-killing y-you was supposed to be easy! Y-you just t-tried to kill me! You weren’t supposed to make me c-care!”

“So you do like me, darling.” He smiled weakly, reaching up with one hand to brush my hair out of my face. “I’m a lucky man, to have such a beautiful girl crying over me.” Blood was beginning to trickle down from the corners of his mouth now, and I caught his hand before it could fall down.

“Charming until t-the end, aren’t y-you?” I laughed brokenly. A drop of saltwater escaped my eye and I hastily rubbed it away. “I never wanted to kill you, you know. I hate you so, so much, but I never wanted to be the one to kill you.”

“That’s what makes us different. I was…wrong. You’re nothing like me.” Akiyama’s breathing grew more labored and he squeezed my hand almost desperately. His eyes—still a striking gold even when clouded with pain and exhaustion—stared intently at my face, taking in my features hungrily. “The Angel of Inuzuri…it’s a fitting title,” he breathed out, before his eyelids drifted shut. For a moment, I just knelt there at Akiyama’s side, clutching his hand to my chest. Even now, I wasn’t sure what to label him. A monster? A man? A friend? A hollow, humorless laugh escaped my throat.

“No one mourns the wicked.” I said to myself, just a touch hysterically. “Except for me, it seems.” I looked down at Tatsuya’s dagger. How strange, that it played such a large role in the lives of two men who reminded me so much of each other. To be wielded by one and used to kill the other. I stared at it for another moment, before deciding to leave it there.

“Sorry, Tatsuya,” I murmured. “I think it’s about time I let go of you now.”

***

When I staggered into the room, I found Eiji, Chiyo and Hiro all awake. Hiro’s relieved expression when he saw me quickly morphed into one of concern.

“Hisana-san! What’s going on?” He glanced at my arm and something a lot like fury entered his eyes. “Who hurt you?”

“Don’t worry about that right now,” I said wearily. I was lucky that Akiyama hadn’t broken my ribs completely—I really didn’t think I could deal with a punctured lung right now. Even so, every breath felt like someone was shoving a red hot poker through my lungs. “Let’s get you out of here.”

I’d just finished letting all three of them out of their restraints when I felt an unfamiliar presence behind me and stiffened. Seconds later, I felt the unforgiving bite of steel against my neck.

“Don’t move, or I slit your throat,” a cold voice demanded. In front of me, I could see comprehension entering Eiji’s eyes.

“Wait!” He shouted, struggling to move forward. “Don’t hurt her! She hasn’t done anything wrong!” I closed my eyes. It would be the height of irony if, after everything, I died at the hands of a shinigami because I helped them.

“Maa, maa,” another voice said bemusedly. “You can remove your sword from her neck, Sasaki-chan. I recognize this one.”

“Shiba-fukutaicho!” Hiro said in surprise. “How…how did you find us?”

“That would be thanks to your friend, here.” I looked up to see the shinigami I’d handed my note to and an unfamiliar girl who was staring at me distrustfully. “She tipped me off about your location. I probably wouldn’t have found you three otherwise, your reiatsu levels are so low.” Eiji and Hiro stared at me with wide eyes.

“My thanks for that, by the way.” The dark haired shinigami turned to me, green eyes warm. “So you’re the healer they mentioned, huh? The one who can use healing kido? I’m Shiba Kaien, vice-captain of the 13th Division. Nice to meet you properly this time. You ran off before I could talk to you the first time I saw you.”

“I’m Yukimura Hisana,” I said. “Nice to see you finally showed up. I was beginning to think you’d gotten lost in the building.”

“Wait, wait, we’re really just going to let her go?” Sasaki interrupted, glaring at me harshly. “Shiba-dono, you know what these monsters were getting up to! You saw the notes, their plans for what they were preparing to do! They killed children!

“She’s the only reason we’re still alive right now!” Eiji snapped, staggering to his feet. “The only thing she’s done is keep us alive! She never participated in the experiments!”

“That you know of,” Sasaki sneered. “My, I never thought I’d see the day when someone of the esteemed Kuchiki clan would defend a commoner so readily. Especially an enemy of the Gotei 13, who’s already proven her relative skill. I guess it just goes to show that anyone can become susceptible to Stockholm syndrome.”

“Oh? So we’re going to reward someone who’s helped us by killing them? It’s a wonder we have any allies then.” Hiro growled. “It’s not like she wanted to help them. They threatened her family.”

“Even if that were true, what’s to stop her from aiding another enemy? All they’d have to do is threaten her family again,” Sasaki argued. “She helped a mad scientist this time. What’s to stop her from helping another criminal again?”

 Meanwhile, Kaien was watching me steadily. One eyebrow quirked up, as if to ask what are you going to do about it?

“No, she’s got a point,” I spoke up quietly. Both Hiro and Eiji turned to face me, aghast.

“Hisana--”

“You didn’t do anything wrong--”

“I’m an outsider with high reiatsu and in-depth knowledge of how to control it. Furthermore, I’m an outsider who’s already shown that I’m willing to aid a hostile party if threatened. That makes me an attractive target to enemies of the Gotei 13, as well as a possible liability to the shinigami. Of course the Gotei 13 isn’t going to leave me alone after this. But if I become a shinigami, none of that is an issue, is it, Shiba-fukutaicho?” I asked, looking straight into sea-green eyes.

I was, as far as I knew, the only person who could heal using reiatsu outside of the Seireitei. It had been…naïve to believe that people would leave me alone forever, and sooner or later my family would get caught up in it. Becoming a shinigami wasn’t something I’d ever wanted to do but if it meant keeping my family from becoming a target, well…

“Shiba-dono,” Sasaki spoke up again, although she seemed more hesitant this time.

“Kuchiki-kun and Murakami-kun are correct. Yukimura did not work directly against any shinigami—we can hardly punish her for keeping our people alive, can we? It wouldn’t be fair, especially since she is also the reason we succeeded in our mission in the first place,” Kaien said mildly. He turned to me with a smile. “Welcome to the Gotei 13, Yukimura Hisana. I look forward to working with you in the future.”

***

As it turned out, there were two more shinigami waiting upstairs. This was a good thing, since Eiji collapsed about halfway up the stairs and Kaien was already carrying Chiyo. Hiro was reluctantly leaning on Sasaki and I was in no condition to help anyone.

“Hisana-san? Are you alright?” Eiji whispered to me. I tore my gaze away from where I could see Morita’s body, lying on the ground and squeezed my eyes shut. I would not cry. I couldn’t afford have a breakdown right now.

“Let’s make our way out of here, shall we?” Kaien said, voice gentle. His eyes were understanding when they looked at me.

“It’s hard to hate people when they are kind to you,” I whispered. He ruffled my hair.

“And it’s okay to mourn him.” Kaien paused for a second. “I sent a message to the Seireitei. Another crew will be sent here to clean the area up.” Code for disposing of the bodies, I guess. “Was there anything else you needed, Yukimura?”

“Just one thing,” I said, gazing southward. “My family is in the 78th district of South Rukongai. Please allow me to say goodbye.” It was not a request. Behind me, Sasaki bristled.

“We don’t have time to go all the way out there!” She snarled. Kaien laid a restraining hand on her shoulder.

“Maa, we would have had to stay a few more days anyway. The others aren’t fit for long-distance travel yet. We can find an inn and stay for the night, and I can take her to Inuzuri tomorrow. It’s only about two hours away with shunpo anyway.”

“Thank you,” I said gratefully. He winked at me. “It’s not like I could have talked you out of it. I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night to find you sneaking out the window.”

***

Hiro, Eiji and Chiyo didn’t take the news of my departure well. Or rather, they didn’t take the news that they weren’t allowed to follow well.

“Idiot!” Sasaki hissed, whacking a scowling Hiro on the head. “You can’t even take walk across the room without collapsing, how do you expect to travel through ten districts? Kaien-dono can’t take both of you!”

“I’m fine! Hisana has a broken arm. And two cracked ribs,” he protested. Chiyo didn’t say anything, merely clutched my sleeve tightly with one hand and refused to let go.

“I just want to meet your family, Hisana-san. You’ve told us so much about them that I’m curious,” Eiji sulked. I sighed at his pouting expression. Kuchiki dignity, my ass.

“It’s only for a few days, Eiji-kun. Then I’ll be back. I want to go home,” I finished quietly. He flinched at my last words.

“What if I get sick and die while you’re gone?” Hiro asked. I shot him an unimpressed look and he winced. Next to him, one of the other two shinigami Kaien had brought—I was pretty sure his name was Kawaguchi-- huffed up indignantly.

“I spent two decades in the Fourth Division! I assure you, I can treat you far better than she can,” he said sounding offended. Eiji sent him a look of such deep disdain that he actually stepped back. I was strongly reminded of Byakuya and the other reason I really didn’t want Eiji coming back with me. Just thinking about how Rukia and Renji would react to meeting Eiji gave me a headache.

“You keep saying we’re not well enough to travel yet. But right now, your reiatsu levels are so low that you can’t even heal yourself completely,” he pointed out.

“There are some benefits to letting things heal naturally, you know,” I sniffed before my expression softened a fraction. “I’ll be fine, Eiji-kun. I kept the three of you alive for almost a month—I think I can keep myself alive for a couple days,” I pointed out dryly. “Just take care of each other, alright? Especially Chiyo-chan.” I looked down fondly at the girl currently sleeping in my lap.

“Of course,” Hiro scoffed. “As if you even needed to ask.” Eiji sighed and sat down next to me.

“Get some rest while you’re home, will you? And I want to see you gain some weight back.” His eyes lingered on my almost-skeletal wrists and I hastily pulled my sleeves down.

“This is nothing. I’ll recover in a couple weeks,” I said, refusing to look at him and ignoring Eiji’s frustrated sigh. As if he was any better, the hypocrite. “I’ll see you later, Eiji-kun. Shiba-fukutaicho, I’m ready to go when you are.”

He nodded, pale green eyes studying me intently. “You know, admitting you need help doesn’t mean you’re weak. No one can stand strong all the time.”

“I’ll keep that in mind when I do need help,” I agreed. “Are you ready to go?” He eyed me for another moment, before visibly relenting.

“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually gone that far in South Inuzuri,” Kaien mused, expression brightening. A mischievous grin lit his face and I took a wary step back. “Let me introduce you to this wonderful thing called hohou.”

“Wait…” I said, only now realizing that I had no idea exactly how Kaien was going to take me there. The next thing I knew, I was staring at the sky, one of his arms wrapped securely around my shoulders and the other supporting my knees. “Shiba, don’t you dare--”

He laughed, eyes bright with humor. “Too late. Hold on tight, this is going to be fun.”

***

Two hours later, I was about ready to throw up.

Never again,” I vowed, staggering forward. “I don’t care if I have to crawl, I am never doing that again. Once was too many.”

“What’s wrong? Can’t take a little speed?” Kaien taunted. I kicked his shin and he hopped away with a curse. “Shut up, you bastard.” I’d seen shunpo before, of course, but experiencing it for myself… “I’m never learning that. I don’t want my gravestone to say ‘Here lies Yukimura Hisana. Died from learning shunpo after crashing headfirst into a tree.’”

“Hohou is one of the four basic Shinigami combat techniques,” he commented, sounding incredibly amused. I glared darkly at him. “You’re going to have to learn it at some point.”

“I’ll make it work. Just you watch, I’ll show you—I’ll show everyone—that that skill should be banned and erased from human memory. Even if I have to invent my own style of transportation, it’ll be worth it.”

“You’re overreacting,” he chuckled, before looking around. “Well, we’re here. So where do we go now?” We were on the outskirts of Inuzuri and I smiled softly. It really had been too long. I’d missed the sounds of people haggling for goods, the familiar smell of Ichiraku’s ramen, the sight of familiar buildings—

I stiffened, feeling two very familiar reiatsu signatures heading towards me at top speed.

“Oh dear,” I muttered, bracing myself. Even now, still nauseous from two hours of insanely dizzying travel, I could sense them without even trying.

“What is it-?” Was all Kaien had time to get out before two blurs burst into sight. Another second and I was slammed into the ground.

“Nee-chan!” I gasped as my torso was squeezed painfully, taking a moment to thank whatever higher deity was up there that I’d had the foresight to wrap my ribs securely last night.

“Ow—ribs—arm,” I struggled to get out. In an instant, the weight on me was lifted. Rukia gaped at my body, how my right arm was in a sling, the bandages peeking through my shirt collar, the way my breathing was slightly labored. I’d really taught her too well. Renji’s face was slowly turning red.

“Nee-chan,” she whispered, looking horrified. “Oh my god…you…and then I just…” Meanwhile, Renji had whirled around to face Kaien.

“Did you do this to her?” He asked, voice uncharacteristically deadly. “Were you the one who hurt my sister?” Kaien looked slightly taken aback at the sheer fury suddenly saturating Renji’s reiatsu. One hand was already drifting towards his sword.

“Stop it, you guys. He did nothing,” I said, struggling to sit up. “Show some respect to Shiba-fukutaicho.” From the twin venomous looks Rukia and Renji simultaneously sent Kaien, my attempt at diffusing the situation backfired. Apparently after meeting Byakuya, the title ‘lieutenant’ meant nothing to either of them.

“What the hell happened?” Rukia shrieked at him, stomping forward. Kaien looked faintly bemused at being threatened by a short girl not even fully in her teens yet.

“Didn’t Miwa tell you?” I asked, walking over to Rukia and subtly grabbing her sword arm. Rukia glared at me, eyes watering at the corners. My stomach suddenly felt very heavy, as if I’d swallowed a stone.

“All I know is that Aoki-bastard sold you out to an outsider and then you went with him after he threatened Miwa and then by the time we found out, you were already gone and I couldn’t sense you anywhere no matter how hard I tried-”

”…and no one knew who took you, even though Kazuki-nii hasn’t slept like at all these past few weeks trying to find out where you’d gone, and all of Inuzuri was freaking out and…and Miwa told us you promised you’d be back, but you were still missing--”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, voice a bit thick. Bending down, I wrapped my good arm around both of them in a tight hug, burying my face into Rukia’s hair. She was here, she was safe…for the first time since Aoki’s betrayal I felt like I could breathe properly, cracked ribs notwithstanding. “But I kept my promise, yeah?”

“What happened?” Rukia demanded. “You—you go missing for three weeks and you come back with a broken arm and don’t think I haven’t noticed how your breathing is shallow.” My smile became strained.

“Ah. A client came to me, who required my medical expertise. Not too different from a normal job actually, but…things went a bit wrong.” More like they’d been screwed up beyond repair before I’d even started. Behind me, Kaien snorted.

“Bullshit. Don’t try to downplay this, Hisana-nee-san,” Renji growled.

“Your sister was kidnapped and blackmailed by a mad-scientist psychopath, who had captured and was experimenting on a group of shinigami. Her job was to keep them alive,” Kaien said bluntly. “She tipped me off when she happened to bump into me two days ago. They weren’t happy—thus, the injuries.”

“You—you--” I sputtered, speechless with rage. My left hand clenched into a fist. “They—they’re children! I can’t believe you--”

“Told them the truth? To be honest, it was beginning to get a bit painful watching you try to brush the entire thing off.”

“Didja kill them?” Renji asked quietly. I whirled around. Renji was staring unflinchingly at Kaien with hard eyes. Kaien offered a single nod and a flash of satisfaction crossed his face. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Rukia relax.

“Come on, you need to come home. The others don’t know you’re back yet,” Rukia said tugging at my hand. Glancing at my face, she added, “Oi, Renji. Give her your sunglasses, or we’ll be swarmed in seconds.”

Renji nodded in understanding, and fished around in his pocket. “There. People’ll just think she’s a blind, injured girl. Combined with the cast, it’s perfect.”

“You guys are silly,” I sighed, but left the glasses on. Rukia took off her jacket and wrapped it around my head to hide my hair. “Lead the way,” I said, smiling slightly. Rukia giggled and tugged my hand forward.

***

“Hey guys! Guess who I found?” Rukia sang out, dragging me into the kitchen.

“Who is--” Was all Mitsuo got out before he caught sight of me. Beside him, Kaori dropped the pot she was holding. Miwa’s eyes widened and she swayed slightly, before steadying herself on the counter.

“Well,” a voice remarked from the living room. “I gotta say, you look like shit, Hisana.”

“Nice to see you again too, Kazuki.” My voice shook slightly, and I cleared my throat. Next to him, Kaori seemed to have recovered from her shock and stormed up to me with a murderous expression, drawing back one arm. I braced myself.

A light tap against my forehead made me peek open one eye and then I was having the life squeezed out of me for the second time that day. “Idiot,” she said, face buried in my shoulder and her voice thick. I swallowed, fighting against the stinging in my eyes. A second pair of arms enveloped me from the back as Mitsuo joined in the hug.

“Careful, she broke her ribs,” Rukia said in alarm.

“She can deal with it,” Kaori retorted, voice muffled. “After all the worry she put us through? She deserves it.” Despite her words, she adjusted her hold so that less pressure was put on my chest.

“Shishou,” Miwa spoke up quietly. I looked up to see her studying my face almost hungrily, wide brown eyes not looking away for a moment.

“Hey,” I said, stepping away and opening my arms. “I swore I’d be back, didn’t I?” She let out a sob and rushed forward.

“Ah…” Kaien said awkwardly from the doorway. I’d almost forgotten about him. “I’ll just come back later then, shall I? Yukimura, you have three days.” With that, he flash-stepped away. I looked back to find Rukia staring at me intently.

“Three days? What did he mean by that?” She demanded. I closed my eyes in resignation—I’d been hoping to put this conversation off a bit longer, but…

“The person who…hired me—Akiyama Daiki, the head of a minor yakuza family-- was someone who had taken an interest in how spirit energy worked. He’d captured multiple shinigami to…conduct some studies on them, but after the first few died, he wanted to find a way to keep them around for a longer period of time.” My voice was clinical. Detached. “That’s where I came in.”

Horrified comprehension was settling in Miwa’s eyes. She, more than anyone, understood just how my healing worked.

“About two days ago, I ran into a shinigami—Shiba-fukutaicho—at the marketplace. It was sheer luck, really. I managed to slip him a note detailing what was going on. That night, a team of shinigami invaded the base where we were staying. I got into an altercation with my employer once he found out what I’d done. That’s where I got my injuries from,” I continued, staring at a stain on the wall. It felt like I was hearing my own words from a long distance away. I felt almost numb. Like what I was describing had happened to someone else.

“However, even though I had not…technically worked against the Gotei 13, I found myself in a difficult situation. My skills were attracting too much attention.” I smiled wanly. “My knowledge could become a possible threat to the Gotei 13 in the future, if something wasn’t done.”

Never let it be said that any member of my family was slow on the uptake.

“Hisana, you--” For once, Kazuki was speechless.

“Shiba-fukutaicho has kindly agreed to arrange my entrance into the Shin’ou Academy. I will be taking the entrance exam in three weeks,” I said, voice even. From what I had gleaned from Kaien, the curriculum was taught over six years. Each year was divided into a spring/summer (the end of March through August) and a fall/winter semester (the end of September through February), with an entrance exam offered at the start of each term.

“So soon?” Miwa spoke up, visibly dismayed.

“They don’t want to chance something like what happened with Akiyama occurring again. Staying here another six months would be risky.” I didn’t tell them the other reason I was leaving so soon. The thing was, part of my value as a healer was due to my skill, yes. But the other reason I was so valuable was because I was willing to treat anyone, so long as they didn’t harm my family. And to do that, a certain level of trust between my patients and myself was required. After Aoki’s betrayal…I didn’t think I’d be able to attain that same level of trust ever again.

“It’s not fair!” Renji burst out, just as I made a mental note to myself to speak to Kazuki and Mitsuo about taking steps to provide Miwa with adequate protection after I left. “That you have to become a shinigami. You’ve never wanted this!”

“I may have never wanted this for myself, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t prepared for the possibility. I’ve always known that I might have to join the Gotei 13 someday,” I said tiredly. Renji opened his mouth to protest but Mitsuo laid a hand on his shoulder, quieting him.

“You’re not going to change your mind, are you?” He asked seriously. My smile turned a bit bitter.

“I started learning healing kido as a way to help this family. When I decided to offer my skills to the public, that goal hadn’t changed,” I said, shaking my head. “Now though, all it’s doing is attracting attention here that I don’t want. My skill set is too…unique. My reputation has spread too far for me to do anything about it, but…Miwa, it’s not too late for you. As far as the outside world knows, you’ve never learned healing kido from me. I’ve never had you treat a patient with it, and it will stay that way, understood?”

“Yes, Shishou,” she agreed, eyes sharp. “My reiatsu levels were too low for you to teach me anything effective. Instead, you focused on teaching me general remedies and the properties of different herbs. In fact, my skills never progressed beyond being your assistant.” I relaxed slightly.

“Good girl,” I murmured.

“Well then,” Kazuki stated, standing up. “If we only have three days before you have to leave, we’re going to make the most of it. First things first—let’s get some food into you. Damn it, you look like you’ve lost fifteen pounds since I last saw you, and you were thin enough then! Then, I’m going to let the rest of Inuzuri know that you’re back so people can stop knocking on our door twenty times a day. After that, I’m going to track down that shinigami who brought you back and I’m going to let him know that if he lets anything happen to you on your way to the Seireitei, I’m going to dump a bottle of sake on him and set him on fire,” he finished cheerfully.

“I’ll help you with that,” Rukia said, standing up and exiting the room. “I gotta do something first, though.”

“Is she going to be okay?” I asked worried. “She’s being unusually quiet.”

“Nah, she’s fine,” Renji said dismissively. “I’m pretty sure I know what she’s up to.” With that, he got up too and followed her.

“You know, I expected a lot more protesting from both of them.” I hadn’t expected either of them to take the news so well, especially after seeing how worried they’d been about my recent absence. Maybe they were calmer because this time, they knew where I’d be going? Kaori snorted.

“And that should be a warning sign. But if you’re too dumb to figure it out for yourself, I’m not going to tell you. Someone needs to keep an eye on you anyway.”

***

“What do you guys think you’re doing?” I gaped. Clothes were strewn everywhere—across the bed, on the floor…pretty much everywhere but the closet and drawers, which was where they should’ve been. Rukia was standing over a half-filled knapsack scowling at Renji with her arms crossed.

“You moron! Stop taking up so much space! Who the hell needs this many jackets, anyway?”

“Shut up! At least jackets are practical! You’d just stuff that giant Chappy stuffed animal of yours in here.”

“Kids,” I interrupted. “Care to explain what you’re doing?” Rukia raised an eyebrow at me.

“Isn’t it obvious? We’re going with you,” she said, tone implying that I should have known this already.

“Yeah. It’s not like we weren’t planning on heading off in a couple of years anyway. Going a bit early won’t hurt,” Renji added. “All we have to do is pass the entrance test thingy and we can start school with you!” I pinched the bridge of my nose.

“Don’t even try telling us that we’re too young, nee-chan. You’re only like, ten years older than me and there’s no age requirement anyway.” Rukia said stubbornly. “And if we can’t even pass the entrance test, then Oni-sensei is more useless than I’d thought.” Of course. When in doubt, blame Byakuya.

“You…you’re not even properly in your teens yet!” I huffed out frustrated. The details of how-things-originally-should-have-gone were becoming fuzzy, but I was fairly sure Rukia and Renji weren’t supposed to enter the academy for another couple of decades. “Your reiatsu levels, while high for your age, aren’t anywhere close to being developed. Some of the students there will be hundreds of years old. I don’t have much of a choice, but you should at least wait until you’re a century old before applying!” I ran a hand through my hair distractedly. “What about Miwa? Kaori, Kazuki and Mitsuo? Once you become a shinigami, that’s it. There’s no going back. Just…I want you to enjoy being on your own for a while longer,” I finished pleadingly. “Adulthood lasts for eternity and I don’t want you to have to grow up quicker because of me.”

“I don’t care about being a kid and all that crap. I just don’t want to be away from you again!” Rukia blurted out. “You just got back and now you’re telling me you have to go away again?! Three weeks was bad enough! How am I supposed to deal with months, or even years? I get that you can’t help leaving this time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t follow!”

“I’m not asking you to stay away forever,” I said softly, pulling her into a hug. “God knows I’d miss you too much for that. Just…appreciate what you have for a bit longer? Once you become a shinigami, you’ll have all the time in the world to spend with me. But you won’t be able come back here as often.”

I already knew that the others wouldn’t move to a closer district. Inuzuri, for all its faults, was home. It was where Mitsuo had his dojo and his students. Where Kaori had grown up with nothing, lacking memories, possessions, even a last name, but had succeeded in carving out a place for herself anyway. Where Kazuki had grown from a conman, a thug, to running his own bar. Where Miwa had first learned that she had a future worth living for. They all had their own lives here. I’d never ask any of them to give that up.

“Fine. But I won’t wait for long,” she said, eyes red. “As soon as fall comes around, I’m heading to the Seireitei, taking that test, and you can’t stop me. I love Mitsuo-nii, Kazuki-nii and Kaori-nee and Miwa is awesome, but this place isn’t home if you aren’t here.”

“I know,” I whispered. Despite how attached I’d become to Inuzuri and its residents, I wasn’t like the others. Home, to me, would always be where Rukia was.

Glancing over Rukia’s head, I made eye contact with Renji. His gaze was steady, confident. An understanding—that no matter what, Renji would go wherever Rukia went—passed between us in that moment and I relaxed.

“It’s so cool, though. Like you’re going to get to school and learn so much! I wonder what the lessons are like?” Rukia asked dreamily. I grimaced. Wonderful. After over seventy years and dying twice, I now had to take classes all over again. Honestly, I’d had enough of school my first lifetime. Twelve years of public school, four years of university, four years of medical school, another five years of residency…and now I was about to start another six years of education.

“Believe me, you don’t want to know,” I muttered darkly.

***

“Can’t sleep?” I looked up from my cup of sake to see Mitsuo taking a seat across from me.

“No. I’ve got a lot on my mind,” I admitted. “A lot has happened these past few weeks.”

“Well, it looks like you’ve finally convinced the kids to stay here for a bit longer,” he commented.

“They shouldn’t have to leave early because of me,” I muttered.

“You’re more than just a sister to Rukia, you know. She may love the rest of us, but you’re also the closest thing she has to a mother. When she heard you were going to leave…well, what did you expect? Of course she wanted to go with you.” Mitsuo was silent for a moment. “She hasn’t been sleeping well, ever since you went missing. Tonight’s the first night she’s managed to go to bed for more than a few hours. You should be sleeping too; you still look like death warmed over.”

“Thanks,” I muttered dryly before running a hand through my hair in frustration. “It’s just…I can’t stop thinking about something Akiyama said. He told me that I was responsible for the deaths of fifty one people that night. And he was right…out of everyone who’d been a part of that project, I was the only one who survived,” I said softly, downing the cup of sake in front of me.

“You can’t blame yourself for that, Hisana,” Mitsuo said intently.

“I know. And I don’t. I knew what I was doing when I handed Shiba that note, and I don’t regret it. It came down to a choice, and I did what I had to do.” I poured myself another glass. “But that night was the only time I ever killed someone that I knew. Someone with a name and a face. Akiyama actually reminded me a bit of Tatsuya, you know. Not his actions, of course, but his personality. He was…charming, when he wanted to be. Incredibly charismatic. The type of person you couldn’t help but like a bit.”

“I’ve noticed that you don’t have Tatsuya’s dagger anymore,” Mitsuo said quietly.

“I figured that I’m carrying around enough guilt without purposefully adding another reminder,” I laughed hollowly. “I hated Akiyama for what he made me do. For what he himself did to the prisoners, and to uncountable others. I’ll never be able to forgive him for that. But at the same time, a part of me saw him as a friend of sorts. Someone I genuinely got along well with, whenever I managed to forget just what he was doing. And…awful as it sounds, I never really wanted him to die.” My voice cracked towards the end and I refused to look up.

“Oh, Hisana,” Mitsuo sighed, pulling me forward into a hug. My breath came out a bit shakily and I clutched desperately at his shirt.

 “The things he did…oh god, you can’t even imagine. Every day it’d be a new form of torture, a new experimental drug, and I’d have to paste a smile to my face and heal them knowing that they’d just be cut open again the next day. And I’d always have to keep calm, because those kids were relying on me and I was their only source of kindness those few weeks, the only thing keeping them sane and if I broke down, what would happen to them? And every night I’d have to eat dinner with him and I’d have to pretend that nothing was wrong, because if I didn’t entertain him enough he’d take it out on the prisoners. I couldn’t do anything to help them because then he might send people after you guys and bringing the subject up always made him angry. And I can’t…I just can’t do that again. Using my healing kido, something meant to help that way…it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. An abomination.” Mitsuo’s arms tightened around me and I took a shuddering breath.

“The worst part though,” I ranted hysterically, “The absolute worst part is that even after all that, I still couldn’t just hate him like any normal person would! Like any sane person would! Even after he tried to kill me, because the way he talked sometimes, it was like speaking to Tatsuya all over again, and I could see some of myself in him too. And there was this other guy, Morita, who was always kind to me…how do you hate people who are kind to you?”

“Listen to me, Hisana,” Mitsuo grabbed me by the shoulders and forced me to look up into his face. “You’re only human. You were caught up in an awful situation and you made the best of it. No one can ask you for more.”

“I felt so out of control,” I whispered. “There wasn’t anything I could do. I…I never want to feel that helpless again.”

“And you’re not,” Mitsuo stated firmly. “You’re one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. But Hisana…even you can’t be strong all the time. What you faced…it’s over. You can let go now.” He wrapped his arms around my shaking shoulders.

Just this once, I thought, burying my face in Mitsuo’s chest. Mitsuo didn’t say anything as my tears began to soak through his shirt, merely adjusted his hold so that I was in a more comfortable position. Just for tonight, I’ll allow myself to cry.  

 

Later that night, I felt a warm body burrow under the covers by my side. I didn’t say anything, merely shifted so that I clutched Rukia tightly to me. For the first time in weeks, I slept without nightmares.

Chapter Text

“Hiding away from your fans?” I whirled around to find Reiko leaning against the wall behind me. “Not that I blame you, Sensei. It seems like all of Inuzuri turned up for your going-away party.”

“I’m not hiding,” I stated indignantly. “I’m just…taking a break, that’s all.”  I had no idea how Kazuki and Kaori had arranged things on such short notice, but thousands of people had showed up. After talking to several hundred people, accepting their thanks/relief that I was alright/congratulations on my impending entrance into the Seireitei/etc., I was ready to drop into bed and forget about the world. The worst were the tearful goodbyes. The reminder that these people had grown to care for me beyond the skills I could provide—that even though Miwa could continue my work to an extent, they would still miss me.

“I’m glad that I got to talk to you, though. I wasn’t sure I’d get the chance to.” She was silent for a moment. “I’m happy for you, you know. I’m not gonna lie, you being gone is going to be tough on a lot of people, including me.” I looked away. “But if anyone deserves to get a chance at a better life, it’s you. Stop blaming yourself; I know that you feel like you have some sort of obligation here, but we were fine before you came along. We’ll survive without you.”

“I know that. I…I just wish I didn’t feel like I was abandoning everyone,” I answered, looking down. A sharp knock on my head made me wince.

“You’re not abandoning anyone. You’re doing what’s best for you and your family. No one can fault you for that,” Reiko said sternly. “You don’t owe anyone anything. You’ve done more for us than anyone else. That being said, if you’re going to leave us to become a shinigami, then you’d better become a damn fine one, you hear? I want to be able to tell future generations that one of the best healers in the Seireitei came from the 78th district of South Rukongai.”

I choked out a laugh. “Of course. You didn’t even have to ask.”

Reiko suddenly pulled me into a tight hug. “I’m really gonna miss you, Sensei, and I speak for everyone when I say that. Don’t forget to visit, you hear? No matter how great and powerful and rich I’m sure you’re going to become, don’t forget about us, yeah?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll never forget where I came from. Inuzuri made me who I am today, and I’m…I’m proud of that,” I said softly, leaning against Reiko’s chest. “I’ll visit as often as I can. Not just for Rukia and the others, but for you guys too.”

“Glad to hear that, Sensei.” Reiko stepped back and I politely pretended not to notice the way she quickly wiped at her eyes with one hand. “Now, enough sappy shit—let’s make the most of your time left. There’s, like, so much free food around; it’d be a shame not to take advantage of that.”

***

It was nearing 11 o’clock at night when the party finally ended. I came home to find Rukia sitting in front of Kaien, sketchbook out, and speaking with an uncharacteristically deadly tone of voice.

“…and that’s what’ll happen if you let anything happen to my sister. Got it?” Rukia asked, jabbing a finger at her drawing.

“You were very clear,” Kaien answered, before squinting at the picture. “…just one question. Is that some kind of beaver? It’s ugly as hell.”

“It’s obviously a rabbit, you moron! Are you blind?” Rukia yelled. I hastily plucked the book out of her hands just as Rukia looked about to whack Kaien on the head with it.

“Rukia, isn’t it almost your bedtime?” I asked. She scowled. “I was waiting for you to get back. Plus, this guy showed up around nine and Kaori-nee-san told me to keep an eye on him. You’re sure you can trust him? He seems pretty sketchy. I mean, anyone who can’t appreciate fine art can’t be too reliable.”

“The hell kind of logic is that?” Kaien asked indignantly. “And I can too appreciate fine art! Don’t blame me just because your artistic skills suck! My baby brother can draw better than you!”

I rubbed my forehead tiredly. “And here we have a shining example of a centuries-old shinigami lieutenant, ladies and gentlemen,” I said sarcastically. “Note the high levels of maturity, people. I’m impressed. Really.”

“Maa, sorry about that,” Kaien said sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head. “The way Rukia-chan talks to me reminds me of my little sister a bit. I guess I just responded instinctively.”

“I…I remind you of your sister?” Rukia looked horrified. “I’m similar to someone you’re related to?”

“Yes, Kukaku likes to yell abuse at me too,” Kaien agreed. Rukia relaxed and I rolled my eyes.

“Stop it, you two. Shiba-fukutaicho, was there something you needed?”

“Just wanted to ask if leaving at noon tomorrow was acceptable for you. I wanted to tell you earlier, but you seemed to be busy,” he said casually. Rukia stiffened and drew closer to me. I nodded, making an effort to keep my face blank. “That is fine. Anything else?”

“Nope!” He sat up cheerfully and ruffled Rukia’s hair, ignoring her glare expertly. “See you tomorrow then, Yukimura!”

Rukia waited until he was gone before speaking up in a small voice. “I can’t believe you’re leaving so soon.”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “It doesn’t seem quite real.”

“Oni-sensei is gonna have a heart attack,” Rukia said smiling faintly. I winced. Yeah, that was one explanation I wasn’t looking forward to. It was almost ironic how I’d always assumed that if I ever did go to the Seireitei, it would be for Rukia, Renji or Byakuya. Instead, I only had myself to blame for this.

“You promise that you’re going to come get me though? In the fall?” Rukia asked looking at me intently. “That’s our deal, right?”

“I still wish that you’d wait a bit longer. You’re still so young…” I murmured, lacing my fingers through Rukia’s. Her hands were so much smaller than mine.

“Promise me,” Rukia said firmly, ignoring my response. I sighed, suddenly feeling about five decades older.

“As you wish.”

***

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Kaien said flatly, staring at the two huge duffel bags (kindly donated at yesterday’s party) sitting in front of the doorway.

“Nope!” I said cheerfully. “Honestly, what did you expect? That I’d only need to pack up two shirts and a pair of pants?” Inwardly, I resisted the urge to cackle. See if he could shunpo carrying two large bags and me.

“Each one of those bags is half your size! What do you need so much stuff for?” He asked incredulously.

“Well, shinigami-san, Hisana did receive a couple hundred gifts yesterday. Be grateful that she only packed this many of them,” Kaori said smirking.

“Yeah, it could have been so much worse. She only packed like four books too,” Renji added. “I thought she would have packed at least eight, but the rest didn’t fit.”

“And she can’t go off to the Seireitei without proper clothes!” Miwa said, hands on her hips. “Do you expect my Shishou to leave with only a few sets of clothes to wear?”

“Not to mention blankets for winter,” Mitsuo agreed. “It would be awful if she caught a cold just because she wasn’t warm enough. Plus enough snacks to make sure she doesn’t get hungry along the way. Which she had better finish,” he added, looking pointedly at me. “You’re little more than skin and bones right now, Hisana.”

“Oh, and I got her a few new blades to replace her old one. A couple throwing knives and another tanto. The quality isn’t quite as good as her old one, but it’s the best I could get on such short notice,” Kazuki stated. “What, did you expect me to let her go off without even a weapon to defend herself with?”

At that moment, Rukia ran out of the house carrying a familiar rabbit stuffed animal, worn ragged from use and age.

“Nee-chan, you can’t forget this!” She exclaimed. My breath caught.

“Rukia, that’s…yours,” I spoke haltingly. It had been a combined gift from Tatsuya and I on her fifteenth birthday—her last birthday with Tatsuya and Horio, actually. It had been sewn back together at least three different times, and Rukia treated it like it was more precious than gold. She beamed up at me, smiling so wide her eyes squinted. I wasn’t fooled—she only smiled that way when she was trying to hide tears.

“I…I wanted to give you something to remember me by, nee-chan. And besides, I’m a big girl now! I don’t need Chappy anymore. So here.” She thrust the bunny into my arms. “Just…just in case you get sad or lonely, Chappy’ll cheer you up, yeah?”

I blinked, suddenly swallowing back tears. “I’ll hold onto it for you. Then when you and Renji join me in the Seireitei, I’ll give it back to you. Deal?”

“It’s a promise,” Rukia said solemnly. A light tap on my back turned my attention to Miwa and Renji.

“I was originally planning on giving you this for your birthday, but…here.” Miwa said, handing me what looked like a square of cloth. “Reiko-san and the others helped me make it. It was supposed to be a scarf—I didn’t manage to finish it—but it can still work as a handkerchief!” It was made out of soft, blue cotton with a few flowers stitched sloppily on and a bird in one corner.

“Thank you. It’s beautiful, Miwa,” I said softly, placing it inside my shirt, against my chest. She blushed slightly, looking down.

“I won’t be around so I’m trusting you to take care of things, ok?” Miwa nodded firmly and I smiled, tucking one strand of hair behind her cheek. “And Miwa? I just wanted to let you know that I’m proud of you. You’ve grown so much…I couldn’t have asked for a better apprentice.”

“Shishou…” she said, eyes wide. Then her face hardened with resolve. “I won’t let you down.”

“Oi, my turn,” Renji said gruffly. He thrust out what looked like a small pineapple plush key chain at me. It was slightly lopsided. “There. It’s for good luck. ‘Cause you’re really bad at staying outta trouble, Hisana-nee-san.” I put a hand up to my mouth to hide my smile. Honestly, he was just too adorable at times.

“Thanks, Renji. It’s perfect,” I said sincerely. He blushed to the roots of his hair and shifted awkwardly. “Whatever,” he muttered, looking away. Well, at least I wasn’t the only one awkward about emotional confrontations at times.

I paused as I turned to Mitsuo, Kazuki and Kaori. These three…they’d been with me almost since the beginning. They’d helped me raise Rukia, had taught me how to survive, how to fight. I owed them more than words could convey...not that I could think of any at the moment. My mouth suddenly felt dry.

As always, Kazuki could be counted on to break the silence. “I’m gonna miss you, brat. Try not to get yourself killed—I’d hate to have to figure out some way of summoning you back from the dead just so I can have Kaori yell at you,” he said, thumping me on the back.

“Don’t even joke about that, moron!” Kaori snapped, whacking him on the back of the head. Turning to me, she added, “But seriously, don’t get yourself killed. As far as sisters go, you’d be irritatingly hard to replace.” I rolled my eyes, unable to keep from smiling.

“Thanks guys. Love you too. The same goes for you two—Kaori, please keep Kazuki from dying of alcohol poisoning someday. I know how dumb he can get when challenged…better yet, keep him away from any drinking contests altogether. Kazuki, please keep Kaori from exploding every time she has to deal with a stupid client. Continual high blood pressure can’t be good for her.” Kazuki grinned, flashing me a thumbs up while Kaori sighed exasperatedly. Her hand drifted down to Kazuki’s though, linking their fingers together, and for the first time today, I felt contentment rise up in me. Yeah, they’d be okay.

“I cannot believe that you’re leaving me to deal with those two by myself,” Mitsuo commented, pulling me lightly into a hug. I looked up questioningly as I felt him slip a small bag into my yukata. “Just a little money as a final farewell gift. All of Inuzuri contributed; it adds up to 200,000 kan. The rest of it is spread out in the bags,” he whispered. My eyes went wide and he shushed me before I could protest. “It’s too late to give it back now. Kaori made sure of that, so just accept it,” Mitsuo said smiling.

“Mitsuo…I…” I began, unsure of what to say. “I don’t know what to do now,” I confessed. It was all starting to hit me—I’d be leaving behind everything I’d ever known. I wouldn’t have my family constantly at my back supporting me anymore. It felt a bit like going away to college again…only a thousand times worse.

“You’re going to do what you’ve always done. You’ll make the best of the situation, kick some ass, and demand everyone’s respect while doing it. Because that’s the kind of person you’ve always been,” he answered.

“Thanks, Mitsuo,” I said, relaxing slightly. “I needed to hear that.”

“Anytime,” he said, squeezing me tightly before letting go. “And just remember…we may not be related by blood, but you’re the best sister anyone could ask for.”

“You ready to go, Yukimura?” Kaien asked, grabbing one of the bags. Renji grabbed the other. “Rukia and I’ll walk you to the edge of Inuzuri,” he said firmly. The normally ten minute walk took half an hour, as I kept getting stopped by various members of Inuzuri. Just as we reached the edge of the district, I paused, turning to Rukia and Renji.

“You’ll look after each other for me?” I asked. Renji scoffed.

“Of course, Hisana-nee-san. Stop worrying ‘bout us. Just make sure you take care of yourself.”

“Yeah, Renji and I’ll be fine. You’ve protected us enough. It’s time for you to protect yourself too,” Rukia added. I pulled them both into a tight hug.

“I feel like you kids are growing up so fast,” I murmured. “When did you get so smart?”

“We learned from the best,” Rukia said cheekily before turning serious. “I love you, nee-chan, and I know that you’re gonna be an awesome soul reaper. Because soul reapers protect people and you’ve never failed in doing that.”

“You’re my sister. And Renji might as well be my little brother. Of course I’ve always done my best to protect you; it’s what people do for the ones they love,” I replied. 

“And someday we’ll be able to protect you too. We’ll keep training every day, Hisana-nee-san. The next time you see us we’ll be strong enough to join you in the Seireitei. I don’t care if the other students are nobles or if they’re older than us; we’ll kick ass,” Renji promised. “We’ll take the Academy by storm.”

“I look forward to it,” I said smiling. I didn’t think I’d ever stop worrying about them, but someday…someday these two would be magnificent.

***

“Six days. We were gone for six days, and you guys somehow broke half the inn?!” Kaien yelled at the six abashed shinigami in front of him. Well, there goes our damage deposit, I thought wryly. It was probably only the fact that most civilians were too intimidated to talk back to shinigami that the others hadn’t been thrown out into the street.

“I wouldn’t say it was half the inn, Shiba-dono. Just a wall or two, and a table. It was merely a…misunderstanding. I believe Murakami-san and Kuchiki-san overreacted when Kawaguchi-san attempted to treat Murakami Chiyo,” Sasaki stated stiffly. Next to her, Arata-something—the other shinigami from Squad 13—shifted uncomfortably.

I felt Kaien’s reiatsu swirl dangerously and I cursed Sasaki for being such an idiot. Who the fuck talked back to a superior officer when said officer was already annoyed? It probably didn’t help that he was already grumpy from me making him carry all my bags due to ‘health reasons.’ I planned on milking my broken arm for as long as I could; it didn’t matter that it had already healed. Kaien didn’t know that.  

A soft gasp from behind me interrupted my thoughts. I looked up to see Chiyo duck behind me and clutch my arm with widened eyes, and the last thread of my patience snapped. God help me, Chiyo had only just started talking again; I wasn’t going to let Kaien undo all of her process in the course of a ten minute dressing-down. Grabbing Chiyo’s hand, I started heading for the door.

“And where do you think you’re going, Yukimura?” Kaien barked. I sighed, resisting the urge to roll my eyes.

“You’re disciplining your subordinates for having no concept of collateral damage, yes? By all means, continue to do so. However, as neither Chiyo-chan nor I were in any way involved, we will be making our way to the nearest ice-cream stall until you get this all sorted out. Do you have any objections, Shiba-fukutaicho?” I asked coolly. Kaien took in Chiyo’s pale face and shaking figure, and his eyes widened, remorse flashing through them.

“I—of course not, Yukimura. You may go,” he said, waving me off.

“Thank you,” I said, dipping into a curt bow and stalking off.

 

“So what kind of ice-cream would you like?” I asked Chiyo fifteen minutes later. I’d finally gotten her to relax somewhat after what seemed like an eternity of prattling on about random topics, ranging from whether she preferred cats or dogs (cats, definitely) to her favorite type of flower (chrysanthemums) to what kind of superpower she wished she could have (invisibility).

Chiyo’s eyes widened and she began to protest, waving her arms. “I-you don’t have to pay for me, Hisana-sama! I’m fine, really!”

“Don’t be silly, Chiyo-chan. Besides, what have I told you about referring to me as –sama? It makes me sound so…boring and stuffy. And old.” I wrinkled my nose and Chiyo giggled.

“No one could think of you as boring or old. You look the same age as me!” She exclaimed. My brow furrowed slightly. Right. After arriving in the Rukongai, no one had ever treated me like a child. I sometimes…forgot that to other people, I looked like someone in my late teens, at most.

“Uh-huh. And you wouldn’t want people to address you by –sama, would you? If you have to, call me Sensei, but nothing like –sama or –dono. Those titles are reserved for sour grumpygamis like Shiba-fukutaicho.” Chiyo gasped, looking scandalized.

“I-I can’t believe you just called Shiba-fukutaicho a ‘grumpygami,’” she whispered, looking around as if afraid that Kaien would pop up behind her.

“He deserves it,” I muttered. “But really Chiyo-chan, pick a flavor. I’m planning on getting two ice-cream cones anyway and if you don’t pick one, I’ll have to eat them both by myself. People will judge me and I will end up being really sad, pathetic and fat and eventually I will swell up like a balloon. Then no one will want to date me and I will end up alone for all of eternity, except for maybe a couple dozen cats and--”

“Okay, okay, I’ll get one!” Chiyo laughed at my over-exaggerated tale of woe. I mentally patted myself on the back. “I’ll get strawberry, I guess.”         

“I knew I could count on you, Chiyo-san. By eating that second ice-cream cone for me, you have saved me from a life of obesity and many related health problems. Truly, you are a wonderful friend,” I sighed dramatically.

“I think growing fat is the last thing you have to worry about, Hisana-sensei.”

I shrugged, signaling for the vendor to hand me one cone with strawberry ice cream and one with vanilla. “You never know.”

“I didn’t think vanilla would be your favorite flavor, Hisana-sensei,” Chiyo remarked a few minutes later. I glanced at her, amused. “What did you peg me as, then?”

“I don’t know. Maybe chocolate?” She asked thoughtfully.

“I do love chocolate,” I admitted. “But I prefer vanilla better. Because it’s such a blank slate, you know? It’s the classic ice cream flavor and it goes with everything. If I want something with chocolate, I just need to add some chocolate sauce to it, or some chocolate chunks and the vanilla balances it out wonderfully. If I want something fruity and refreshing, I can just add in some strawberries, peaches, or whatever fruit I’m in the mood for. And vanilla by itself is awesome too; some may call it bland, but I kind of like that about it. Subtly fragrant, sweet but not overwhelmingly so…it’s the ultimate comfort food.”

“Wow. When you said you were going to get ice-cream, I didn’t expect to come here and find you discussing the psychology behind various flavors,” Kaien remarked from behind me. Chiyo flinched wildly at his sudden appearance, the color draining from her cheeks.

“S-Shi-Shiba-fukutaicho,” she stuttered, voice nearly inaudible. Something like sadness crossed over Kaien’s features. I ignored him and pulled Chiyo close, sending a wave of soothing reiatsu into her body. She relaxed and leaned into my touch.

“Come on, let’s go,” Kaien said softly. None of us said anything more as we made our way back to the inn.

***

The sound of a strangled scream woke me up. I jumped out of bed to find Chiyo thrashing wildly, struggling against Sasaki who was trying to calm her down. The door opened and Kaien, Kawaguchi, Eiji and Hiro rushed in. Chiyo instantly pushed herself to the corner of the bed, as far from the door as possible.

“Let go of her!” I snapped at Sasaki, rushing over to Chiyo’s side. “Okay, I want everyone but me, Eiji and Hiro out of this room! Stat!” Not waiting to see if they obeyed my orders, I turned to Chiyo.

“Hey, Chiyo-chan, it’s me, Hisana. I want you to focus on me, okay? Focus on my voice, that’s it. You’re not in that room anymore, you’re safe. No one’s going to hurt you here. I want you to take deep breaths, can you do that?” Chiyo shook her head, tears streaming down her face. Grabbing her hand, I placed it against my chest.

“Okay, let’s do it together then. In, out. In, and out. Focus on my breathing—when I take in a breath, you take one too, alright? Deep breath in, gentle breath out, that’s it. You’re doing great.” I sent a steady stream of calming reiatsu into her body, relaxing her muscles and soothing her lungs. It was initially a technique I’d come up with to calm Rukia whenever she had a nightmare…I’d never imagined that I would become so proficient at it over the past few weeks. After a few minutes, Chiyo’s breathing evened out and she rested her head against my chest. Her body was still trembling.

“Are you okay now?” I asked quietly. She nodded tiredly.

“Yeah, I…I think I’m fine. Just, can you sleep with me tonight?”

“Of course. If you think it’ll help.” I looked up to see Hiro and Eiji staring at the futon longingly. Judging by Hiro’s red eyes and the dark bags under Eiji’s, neither of them had gotten much sleep either. “You guys can stay too, if you want. There’s an extra mattress right over there.”

“Oh no, we couldn’t do that. It’s not-”

“I swear to god Eiji, if the next word out of your mouth is ‘proper’ I will throw my pillow at you. You guys don’t feel comfortable being away from her, yes? Then fuck being proper and go sleep on the damn bed. It is two in the morning and I do not have the energy to deal with this.” Raising my voice, I called out, “Shiba-fukutaicho, we’re having a sleepover here. Oh, and Sasaki-san, you’re kicked out. Anyone who has a problem with this is getting a glass of ice-cold water dumped on them. Doctor’s orders. Chop, chop.” I took the lack of argument as an agreement.

“You know, you’re kind of scary when you get into healer-mode. In a good way,” I heard Hiro mumble from the other side of the room once things had quieted down again.

“Good. Then I’m doing something right.”

***

“It’s not just you, you know,” I stated early the next morning. Kaien was lying on a futon, facing the ceiling. At my approach, he sat up and motioned for me to sit beside him.

“What isn’t just me?” He asked.

“Chiyo’s reactions. I just wanted you to know that she doesn’t…doesn’t act like that around you specifically,” I clarified. Kaien’s expression warmed a few degrees.

“I already guessed, but thanks for trying to reassure me, Yukimura.” He was silent for a moment. “I heard from Murakami-kun and Kuchiki-kun what happened at the other inn. Apparently Murakami-chan had a panic attack when Kawaguchi-san tried to get close to treat her. One of her wounds had opened and he tried to sedate her with Arata’s and Sasaki’s help. Her cousin and Kuchiki-kun reacted…less than positively.” Kaien turned to face me. “I don’t blame them. After what they went through, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t feel comfortable around others.”

“You’re not…upset that they feel more comfortable around me?” I asked hesitantly. Kaien snorted.

“Of course not. I’d be surprised if they didn’t. It’s…regrettable that they feel so cautious around me, certainly. I am their commanding officer; they should never have to fear me.” His voice turned bitter for a moment. “However, despite being in the same squad, we’ve only spoken to each other a handful of times. I’m passing acquaintances with them at best. You though, from what I understand you were their only source of kindness for almost a month. They know that you risked everything to save them. Of course they’d latch on to you.”

“They’re good kids,” I said softly. “They didn’t deserve to die that way.”

“And it’s thanks to you that they didn’t,” Kaien said, clasping me on the shoulder. He paused for a moment before adding hesitantly, “I’m glad Akiyama chose to recruit you, of all people.”

Kaien’s grip tightened as I stiffened, preventing me from pulling away. “I’m sorry. That came out wrong. I didn’t mean to imply that I wanted you to suffer the hardships you did; I merely meant to say that if he’d chosen anyone else, things would have been very different. If you hadn’t been there…I can’t imagine a single outcome that wouldn’t have ended in tragedy.” Kaien turned me to face him, eyes sincere in their gratitude. “You’ve done so much for those kids—for Squad 13—but we haven’t done anything to repay you. If there’s something—anything—I can do to make your transition to the Seireitei easier, you need only ask.”

“Thank you,” I said. A favor coming from Shiba Kaien, head of one of the five main noble clans and a vice-captain to boot…well, it wasn’t to be taken lightly. Not that I thought I’d ever use it; Kaien had been the one to do most of the work—if anything, I owed him one for giving me the opportunity to get out of that situation. Still, it was the thought that counted. “That means a lot to me.”

Kaien reached over and squeezed my hand. “Meeting you was the only good thing that came out of this mess and the Seireitei will be lucky to have you. Never doubt that.”

***

“Holy shit,” I whispered, staring up at the massive white wall in front of me. I hadn’t seen anything that large since…well, my life as Christina Dalton.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Kaien asked grinning, bouncing in excitement at my side.

“Indeed. I, for one, am glad that we’re back. Spending one week traveling with you idiots was one week too many,” Sasaki said grumpily.

“I second that,” Kawaguchi said.

Next to me, Eiji seemed to have gone mute. I reached over and squeezed his hand.

“Hey. It’s really there. You made it back home,” I said softly. He squeezed back; a silent acknowledgment and thank you. Meanwhile, Hiro wrapped an arm around Chiyo’s thin shoulders as she stared up with glistening, wet eyes.

“Oi, Higonyudou! We’re back; let us in!” Kaien shouted up to the massive gate keeper I’d somehow only just noticed. I swayed a bit, suddenly feeling a bit faint. Byakuya certainly hadn’t been exaggerating.

“I feel really small all of a sudden,” I mumbled.

“I would have thought you’d be used to the feeling by now. You’re shorter than Chiyo, and she’s only five foot two,” Hiro teased. I stomped on his foot and he cursed, hopping around like a one-legged frog.

“Hiro, you shouldn’t make fun of Hisana-sensei’s height. It’s not nice,” Chiyo said softly, staring disapprovingly at her cousin. She still really only spoke when it was just me, Hiro or Eiji around, but it was still progress. Baby steps.

“Why does she always take your side?” Hiro whined.

“Because I’m more awesome than you. Obviously,” I said. The gate-keeper’s booming voice distracted me from our banter.

“Welcome back, Shiba-fukutaicho! As well as Seventh-seat Sasaki, Seventh-seat Kawaguchi and Eighth-seat Araki! Happy to see your mission was successful!” He nodded towards Hiro, Eiji and Chiyo. “Glad to have you back, Ninth-seat Kuchiki, Tenth-seat Murakami and Twelfth-seat Murakami.” He peered down at me curiously. “Little girl, I have a good memory, but I do not recall your face.”

“Ah,” I said rubbing the back of my neck and reminding myself not to get pissed that he’d just called me a ‘little girl.’ To him, everyone was probably small. “I’m Yukimura Hisana. Potential Shin’ou Academy student.”

“Have you taken the preliminary test?” Higonyudou asked. Preliminary test? What preliminary test?

“It’s okay, Higonyudou-san. I can vouch for her,” Kaien cut in. “She is more than capable of passing it.” Turning to me, he explained, “The preliminary test is just for people from the Rukongai. It’s just to gather a few facts on your background, to make sure that you meet the minimum reiatsu requirements, a brief psychology questionnaire to make sure you aren’t completely bonkers, that kind of thing. Don’t worry about it.”

“Of course, Shiba-fukutaicho. I have absolute faith in your judgment—if you are recommending her personally, then I have no doubt in her abilities.” With a grunt, he began lifting the gates. “Welcome to the Seireitei, Yukimura Hisana.”

***

Of course, it figured that the day we arrived in the Seireitei was the day there had been a massive outbreak of food poisoning. From what it looked like, the majority of the 9th division and a good portion of the 10th were out of commission and the 4th division was being run completely ragged. There was a line stretching from the bathroom at least ten people long and earlier, I’d witnessed one particularly queasy person near the back of the line suddenly double over and vomit on the person in front of him. Kaien had left two hours ago with Sasaki, Kawaguchi and Arata after leading Eiji, Hiro, Chiyo and I to an examination room, heading off with an apologetic, “Sorry guys, gotta go file my report. Unfortunately, none of you are in immediate need of medical assistance, so it may take a while for someone to check on you.” 

“I still don’t get why we’re sitting here,” Hiro complained for approximately the 30th time. I wasn’t sure; I’d stopped counting after the sixth or seventh. “This is a complete waste of time. We’re obviously fine; I mean, we spent the past week getting fussed over by Hisana every night.” I ignored him, turning a page in my book. There was a small bookshelf lining one wall and given the fact that it didn’t look like we were going anywhere anytime soon, I’d started flipping through their selection.

“It’s protocol to report into the 4th after a mission if any injuries are sustained, especially if the mission is as…unconventional as ours was. You know that,” Eiji said coolly. His posture—just a shade too tense—betrayed his uneasiness. I glanced towards the examination table and winced. Although the examination rooms in the 4th division were obviously designed with the patient’s comfort in mind, it wasn’t hard to figure out why all three shinigami with me were less than happy about being here. An examination table was an examination table, after all, even if this one lacked shackles.

If there was one good thing about arriving on such a busy day, I supposed, it was that no one tried to put Chiyo, Hiro and Eiji in separate rooms, as there was absolutely no way any of them would have taken it well. Understandable—for almost a month, their greatest fear was that one of them would be taken away and wouldn’t be coming back.

“Hey, you’re a Kuchiki right? Shouldn’t we be getting—I don’t know—prioritized treatment or something then?” Hiro asked grinning. “They really must be busy if they’re making a Kuchiki wait.”

“I am in no hurry,” Eiji sniffed. “Unlike some people I could name, I do possess a modicum of patience.”

“Wow. Two hours back and you’re already reverting to your prior stick-up-your-ass- attitude. Careful, or you might turn into Sasaki,” Hiro teased.

Chiyo sighed exasperatedly when Eiji’s haughty look slipped as he scowled darkly at Hiro.

“That’s low, Murakami. Real low,” he objected. Distantly, the sound of someone swearing heavily could be heard.

“Not what you were expecting?” Chiyo whispered, leaning into my shoulder as Hiro and Eiji began bickering again.

“Arriving in the Seireitei? Not going to lie, it’s surprisingly less glamorous than I expected,” I admitted. Truth be told, it was kind of…calming, being in this environment. As sad as it sounded, being around miserable, sick men was nothing new to me.

“So much for good first impressions, huh?” She murmured.

“I’ll reserve judgement for now,” I laughed. “At least their literature selection seems decent.”

“What are you reading anyway? You’ve been absorbed in that book for the past hour,” Hiro commented, looking curious. Reaching out, he grabbed the book from me before I could protest. “’A Comprehensive Treatise on the Benefits of Meditative Reflection on Physical and Mental Health.’” He raised an eyebrow. “Seriously, Hisana? I almost fell asleep just reading the title.”

I snatched my book back, holding it against my chest protectively. Damn it, I got no respect around here. And when did Hiro drop the honorific, anyway? “It’s a really good book!” I said defensively. “It’s all about learning how to purposefully enter your soul world, learning how to adjust your mental landscape even, how to begin the process of contacting and understanding your zanpakuto spirit--” Actually, now that I thought about it, that part about soul worlds had seemed awfully familiar. I wasn’t absolutely positive, but…shaking my head, I set the thought aside to investigate later.

“The stuff about soul world psychology was seemed interesting too—I mean, I only had time to skim a couple sentences, but it’s fascinating to think about what your soul world says about your personality. And the thought of meditation helping you become more familiar with your mindscape, thus potentially granting you increased control over it…” Absently, I wondered if it’d be possible to borrow this book from the 4th division. I’d barely even skimmed the surface and already it brought up so many new questions that I wanted to investigate.

“Alright, alright,” Hiro laughed, holding up his hands in surrender. “I get it. It’s a cool book.”

“You’ll have to visit the Kuchiki library sometime,” Eiji murmured, voice fond. “You’d love it.”

“I didn’t know you were so interested in this subject,” Chiyo said questioningly. I shrugged.

“It’s just…this stuff is all new to me. It’s a whole new playground to explore,” I said, tapping my fingertips lightly against the cover of the book. “I mean, becoming a shinigami isn’t something I would have chosen for myself if I had the option, but I can’t deny that part of me is genuinely excited at the prospect. This stuff is normal to you guys since you grew up around it but…I grew up with stories of magnificent dragons that spouted white-hot flames, intelligent, talking animals from faraway lands, knights on white horses that would go on quests and battle monsters, witches and wizards and sorcerers who could cast spells of every kind—spells that could enthrall, bewitch, curse, heal, harm. But they were always just that: stories. Fairytales meant to entertain—they were never reality, no matter how much I sometimes wished they were.”

I smiled wistfully, remembering an asshole of a brother who used to tell me horror stories in secret when Mom and Dad weren’t around and marathoned Harry Potter and Lord of the Ring movies with me, a dorky best friend who never shut up about his favorite characters and shows (“I’m not obsessed with anime, Christina, it’s just that the real world doesn’t offer me awesome element-bending abilities or heroic speeches on how friendship triumphs over everything”), an adorable nephew who I took trick-or-treating every Halloween before I got sick.

“And then I come into a world where giant hideous monsters are real, and there are soldiers who can shoot fireballs and lightning, cut down buildings and move at super speed, where it’s possible to heal an injury that would normally take weeks or months to heal in a few minutes, and where the swords are sentient. This has always been your reality, but to me, it sometimes still feels like I’m living a fantasy. How can I not be amazed by everything?” Even after so many decades, bringing a green glow to my hands still brought me a thrum of warm satisfaction with an undercurrent of awe. I hoped I never lost that.

“I…never really thought about it that way.” Chiyo said quietly. “The way you describe it…it sounds almost magical.”

“Wait…are you sure you weren’t lying when you said that becoming a shinigami wasn’t your top career choice?” Hiro asked after a beat.

I shrugged. “The high mortality rate and chance of losing a limb was kind of a deal breaker for me,” I hedged. To be honest, I’d never really had a problem with the idea of becoming a shinigami itself. Actually, it sounded cool as fuck once you got past the large chance of dying. And although I had some idea of the clusterfuck that would occur in a bit under a century, that wasn’t the main reason I wanted to avoid coming to the Seireitei either. Sure, the thought of Aizen with his insanely powerful godlike abilities made me want to curl up in a ball under my bed but I’d never planned on letting Rukia and Renji face him on their own.

What really bugged me about becoming a shinigami was the current system. What happened with the Visored…from what I understood, Aizen had managed to rid the Gotei 13 of a quarter of their top officers in one swoop. At the very least, that should have rang some alarm bells, but apparently nobody had seen anything wrong with that. And then the Gotei 13 had just…thrown them away, even putting out the order for their execution and completely disregarding what was probably centuries of loyal service. Then there were the…experiments the Gotei 13 had allowed the creepy angry clown captain what’s-his-face to get away with and had even sanctioned which—

I swallowed down the bile that rose up in my throat at the thought of it. Great. Leave one organization that conducted experiments of a highly unethical nature and join a much more powerful one that permitted experiments of the same moral repugnance only on a larger scale…and that wasn’t even getting into the fact that their main governing body had ordered my sister’s execution in an alternate universe (I didn’t care if Aizen was behind the whole thing) for doing her damn job to the best of her ability and everyone had just gone along with it.

“Hisana-sensei?” Chiyo’s concerned voice broke me out of my thoughts. I blinked, realizing that I was gripping the cover of the book so hard that my knuckles had turned white.

“Sorry,” I smiled apologetically. “Just got distracted.” Calm down. It hasn’t happened yet.

“The kido instructors are going to love you at the Academy,” Hiro snorted. “At the rate you’re going, if you don’t get into the First Class by your second year I’ll eat my shoes.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said mildly. “I’ll be happy enough just getting in on my first try. Most of the other students will have grown up in this environment and will have been training for decades.”

“It’s not like you need amazing combat skills to get in,” Eiji interjected, looking slightly amused. “That’s what the Academy is for after all. All you need is to demonstrate some skill in reiatsu manipulation and pass the minimum physical requirements. Which we will be helping you with.”

Hiro smiled widely, casually throwing an arm over my shoulder. “Hell yes. You’ll be running laps around the other recruits in no time.”

“Two weeks is hardly enough time to get me in peak physical shape,” I said, flicking him lightly on the forehead.

“Sure it is! You have that cool muscle-building technique, right? Just use that! You’ll be fit in no time.”

I rolled my eyes. “There’s a reason I only use that technique in rare cases. You guys were suffering from muscle atrophy, so yes, I…sped up the rate at which your muscle fibers grew and divided and increased your body’s muscle protein synthesis. It’s not perfect though—exercise and training is a much better way of growing stronger. For one, you’re actually used to the increased muscle mass and you can grow accustomed to the changes in your body. For another, by exercising you eventually also enhance neural-muscular interaction—the rate at which signals travel from the brain to the body, so you train your reflexes too,” I explained. Technically, I could use reiatsu to affect that too, but the effects weren’t permanent.

“It’s amazing that you can do that though,” Chiyo murmured. She smiled brightly at me. “I think I might start learning a bit of healing kido once I get the chance. I never knew that it had so many applications.”

“It can definitely come in handy,” I agreed, pleased. “Plus, you’ll be able to patch up that idiot cousin of yours.”

“Oi!” Hiro said, looking offended. I flashed him a grin before turning to Eiji. “I don’t suppose you know if the Academy offers healing kido lessons in the first year? I know that shinigami approach healing in a different way than I do, so it’d be nice to get some training in that area as soon as possible.”

“Already so set on the 4th, huh?” Eiji asked, mouth tilted up in a faint smile. “You know, just because you’re a healer doesn’t mean you have to join the Fourth Division. There are plenty of other options—maybe consider joining one of the other squads, get some combat experience first?”

“You aren’t subtle, Kuchiki,” Hiro snorted while Chiyo sent Eiji a chiding look. “Why don’t you just come out and say that you want her to consider the 13th division?” As Eiji scowled at him, Hiro continued, “God, she’s not even in the Academy yet and you’re already trying to recruit her. Although Hisana,” he turned to me, a considering look on his face. “He’s got a point. Are you really sure about joining the Fourth? I have no problems with healers, obviously, but…Squad 4 is the loser squad. People like Kawaguchi go there—it’s the place you go when no other squad wants you. Hell, you spend most of your time in the sewers and half the people there are total wimps, seriously.”

“Is that so?” A new voice said mildly. My head whipped up and I stared wide-eyed at the figure in the doorway. Long black hair tied in a frontal braid, gentle indigo eyes, subtle commanding aura, white haori with the kanji for ‘four’ on the backeven though I’d never seen her in person, I had no doubt that this was the Captain of Squad 4, Unohana Retsu. I hadn’t even sensed her come in. Beside me, Hiro seemed frozen in horror.

“Shit—I m-mean, it’s an honor Unohana-taicho, I swear that I didn’t mean that, it j-just came out wrong, it wasn’t what it sounded like,” Hiro babbled, sounding somewhat desperate. Unohana smiled and I watched with something like terrified awe as Hiro swallowed, abruptly falling silent. Next to me, Chiyo shivered as the temperature in the room seemed to drop suddenly.

“I believe you. After all, I would be most…displeased if you were spreading such unpleasant rumors about my squad,” she said softly, the heavily implied ‘and you don’t want to displease me’ left unspoken. Hiro whimpered something that might have been ‘I’m sorry, please don’t kill me.’ Eiji was studiously avoiding looking at him in the universal gesture of ‘sorry man, but you’re on your own with this one.’

Gathering up my courage, I cleared my throat, ignoring Chiyo’s frantic head shaking and ‘abort, abort’ hand motions.

“Murakami-kun was just trying to give me a…comprehensive detailing of what being a Squad 4 member would entail. All divisions have their own reputation, and he was trying to make sure that, should I choose to become a medic in the future, I was prepared for the good as well as the bad. I’m sure he meant no offense,” I said diplomatically. Unohana turned to face me, oppressive aura vanishing as she did so.

“Ah. You must be the healer that Shiba Kaien mentioned,” she said, expression warming. “Yukimura Hisana, I believe? I am Unohana Retsu, captain of the Fourth Division.”

“That would be me,” I said, bowing politely. While my involvement with Akiyama wouldn’t be public knowledge—hardly any mission details were ‘public knowledge’ and certainly not when the mission was as fucked up as this one was—there were obviously still some people who would be privy to the details. Ukitake Juushiro, the captain of Squad 13 was one. It made sense that Unohana Retsu would be another. Something I was infinitely grateful for—the last thing I wanted was for my name to be associated with Akiyama’s in any way.

“I’m glad to hear that you have an interest in joining Squad 4 in a few years. From what I’ve seen, we’d be lucky to have someone like you.” She paused, eyes lingering on the tight grip Chiyo had on my hand before seeming to come to a decision. “If you would like, you’d be welcome to stay here while I conduct the examination. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes.”

Watching Unohana at work was actually a bit intimidating. I gazed wide-eyed as she performed a full-body diagnostic scan with ease—the hard part wasn’t in performing the scan, it was processing all the information from it and realizing what was wrong. She worked quickly and efficiently, testing reflexes and gently prodding certain areas, checking for pain, occasionally asking me a question (“No, there was no sexual abuse; I’m a bit worried about their appetites; they still haven’t recovered fully”), always calmly saying her next step out loud so that Chiyo wouldn’t be startled.

“Well,” she said finally, stepping back. “There is far less damage than I was expecting, given the reports. I’ll need to prescribe a proper nutritional regimen to get her back to her previous physical state and although some of her bones and muscles are still weaker than they should be, they’re in remarkably good shape—your doing, I suppose?” She asked, glancing at me. I nodded. Although healing kido could do amazing things in speeding up cellular growth, there was still only so much I could do without enough calcium and proteins. I couldn’t build anything if I lacked sufficient building blocks, after all.

After examining Chiyo, she moved onto Hiro and finally Eiji. Eiji was the worst off—as the shinigami with the most reiatsu, he’d been their…preferred subject. Although all the drugs were flushed from his system, his liver still had some residual damage that I hadn’t caught.

“Will he be alright?” Chiyo spoke up for the first time in Unohana’s presence, looking at Eiji concernedly. Eiji managed to smile reassuringly at her.

“I’ll be fine. If liver damage wasn’t possible to heal, half the 11th Division would be out of commission permanently.”

“The scarring won’t be too hard to reverse,” she murmured, holding glowing green hands above Eiji’s abdomen. “It would heal on its own in a few days, but…” Unohana glanced at me, a speculative gleam in her eyes. “Would you mind?”

“Not at all,” I said, a bit embarrassed that I’d missed the damage in the first place. It was relatively minor, but it was the principle of the thing. Swallowing nervously—healing in front of an audience, especially when the audience was the premier healer in the Seireitei was more than a bit nerve-wracking, it turned out. Still, I closed my eyes and channeled reiatsu to my hands until they lit up with a green glow, before guiding it to where I sensed the scar tissue in the liver was densest. Carefully, I infused the cells with my own spirit energy and concentrated on breaking down the collagen tissue while simultaneously stimulating the surrounding cells to regenerate new cells to replace the scarring. After ensuring that no scarring remained, I guided my reiatsu to the perisinusoidal space, and inactivated the hepatic stellate cells found there—easily recognizable by the fat droplets they contained—to stop them from secreting further collagen. Once that was done, I withdrew whatever reiatsu remained.

“Done?” Eiji asked as I looked up. “That was quick.”

“I have a brother who owns a bar, and he doesn’t have the convenient increased healing rate that shinigami do. It’s one of the skills I’m more familiar with,” I explained. Meanwhile, Unohana ran her hand over Eiji’s abdomen in a quick scan and wrote a couple notes on a clipboard before standing up.

“You two should be able to go home later today,” she said to Hiro and Chiyo. “A nurse will come by with a nutritional regimen for the next month that I expect you to follow. Also, I will inform Shiba-fukutaicho that you two are to be given leave of absence for the next two weeks and no heavy exercise for either of you for three to four days.” I really wanted to know how she managed to pull off such a kind motherly expression with undertones of disobey my orders and die.

“Kuchiki-san, I would prefer if you remained under observation for a few days. Some of the drugs you were exposed to may have long term effects—a few members of the retrieval team wrote in their reports that you have the occasional violent mood swings and dizzy spells?”

Eiji glared at the floor. “That wasn’t me having ‘violent mood swings,’ that was Kawaguchi being an idiot,” he muttered darkly. Huh. Apparently Kawaguchi was still holding a grudge from when Eiji had thrown him through a wall. “And I haven’t had any dizzy spells for a week.”

“Nonetheless, I would just like to make sure,” Unohana said gently. I could understand her reasoning—considering how much property damage a reasonably powerful shinigami could do, it was only logical that precautions were taken to prevent any mental breakdowns. Still, I could definitely understand why Eiji was angry.

I reached over and squeezed his hand. “Hey,” I said softly. “Don’t worry. It’s only for a couple days, right? And we’ll visit you—hell, we’ll come by so often you’ll get sick of us.”

“You just want easy access to the books,” he accused, although his lips were tugging up in a reluctant smile.

“You caught me,” I said before yawning involuntarily.

“You should go—get some sleep,” Eiji said softly. “You look exhausted.”

“There’s a few inns close by,” Hiro spoke up. “We’ll be fine without you. Shoo.”

“Well, I can see when I’m not wanted,” I teased as Chiyo handed me one of my bags with an expectant look. “All right, I’ll come see you guys later. Thanks, Chiyo-chan,” I said, grabbing my other bag and giving her a quick kiss on the cheek. Ignoring her startled blink, I followed Unohana out the door.

“A word, please Yukimura-san,” Unohana said just as I was about to leave.

“Yes?” I asked, wondering what she wanted.

“Those three…they aren’t the first shinigami you’ve treated, are they?” She asked, looking at me with a knowing glint in her eyes.

“What makes you say that, taicho?” I asked cautiously.

“Does the name Nakano Rin ring any bells?” She asked in answer. I stilled, before sighing in resignation.

“Byakuya told you, didn’t he?” I said finally.

“Not at all. On the contrary, he was quite insistent on protecting your identity after I asked who had treated Nakano-san on their mission. However, there were too many similarities between your healing technique and the techniques used on Nakano-san for me to ignore.” I looked down, feeling something inside me warm at the confirmation that Byakuya had kept his promise.

“I asked him not to tell anyone about me. I’m not a fan of attention,” I admitted. “How…how is he? I didn’t sense his reiatsu signature anywhere nearby.” It was one of the first things I’d done after entering the Seireitei.

“On a mission, if I’m not mistaken. He should be back in a day or two.” She paused for a moment. “I admit to feeling some curiosity about you, and the way you developed your techniques. Would you be averse to stopping by my office sometime this week?”

“I—what?” I stuttered, taken aback. “I mean, of course not, it’d be an honor, but…why?”

“The way you use healing kido…I’m not sure of the specifics, but it’s very different from the conventional method. In fact, it’s far more difficult than the way most shinigami are taught, and in its own way, more energy consuming.” Well, shit. I knew that my way was different—Byakuya’s books had shown me that much—but I hadn’t known that it was harder. So apparently all these years I was expending far more effort than I needed to? Fantastic. “But at the same time, it seems to be far more versatile.” She paused, scrutinizing me thoughtfully. “There are limits to how much our current medical techniques can do. I’m curious as to how much you can do with yours.”

***

“Eiji-kun, it’s me,” I opened the door with a flourish. “You seemed a bit down about not being able to go home yesterday, so I thought I’d bring you a surpr—oh.” I abruptly cut myself off at the sight of an elderly man with long white hair, a stately countenance and stern eyes. My eyes involuntarily drifted to the kanji for ‘six’ on the back of his white haori and I cursed mentally. Dammit, what were the chances that I’d just happen to bump into two captains in the same number of days? And one of them being Byakuya’s grandfather? That was the last time I entered a room without knocking.

“My deepest apologies, sir,” I said, bowing deeply, while subtly shifting my left hand behind me. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I’ll come back later.”

“Not at all. Come in,” he said, motioning me forward. Fuck. “What is that you have behind your back, child?” Double fuck.

“Ah,” I began, feeling my face heat up. I brought my hand forward to reveal a bouquet of cherry blossoms. “Eiji-san mentioned that he was looking forward to seeing the cherry blossoms in bloom. I figured since he couldn’t go see them personally right now, I would bring them to him instead.” Wow. That sounded so much less corny in my head. Eiji whirled to face me with wide eyes, gaze locked on the intricately arranged bouquet in my hands. His cheeks turned just the faintest shade of pink and I resisted the urge to fidget.

Kuchiki Ginrei’s eyebrows lifted faintly in surprise. “That’s very thoughtful of you, child. I don’t believe that we have met? I do not recall Eiji mentioning you before, although you seem to know him fairly well.”

Eiji cleared his throat. “Kuchiki-dono, may I introduce to you Yukimura Hisana. I actually met her during my mission.” Ginrei’s eyes sharpened. “She…she was the one to treat me and the others, and she, um, alerted Shiba-fukutaicho to our whereabouts. Hisa- I mean, Yukimura-san was the only reason we survived.”

“An honor to meet you, Kuchiki-taicho,” I murmured, dipping into another polite bow.

“Well. It seems that our family owes you a debt then,” he stated. “You have my gratitude for what you did for Eiji. If there is anything I can do for you, you need only ask.” Huh. I could see the family resemblance between him and Byakuya now.

“I am a healer, Kuchiki-taicho. My job is to do the best I can for my patients. There is no need to repay me for simply doing my duty,” I said quietly. Besides…Byakuya had already given me so much. Looking out for his cousin was the least I could do. I didn’t want a reward for that.

Something like approval entered Ginrei’s eyes. “Well spoken, Yukimura Hisana. Nonetheless, I insist that you call upon me should you ever need a favor. So long as it does not interfere with the laws of the Gotei 13 or the laws of my clan, I will do my best to uphold my debt.”

“Thank you for the offer, but the greatest reward for me is seeing Eiji-san and his friends happy and safe. No other prize is necessary,” I deferred politely.

“If that is what you wish, I will accept your answer for now.” He motioned towards the teapot beside him. “Would you care to take some tea? I cannot say much for its quality, but it is tolerable at least.” Like I had any choice. One did not simply refuse a captain.

“Tea would be lovely, thank you, Kuchiki-taicho,” I said, inclining my head forward.

“Eiji, if you would,” Ginrei said, motioning towards his—grand-nephew? I wasn’t sure exactly how they were related.

As Eiji reached forward to pour the tea, I glanced around the room. It was a bit better furnished than the one we’d been in yesterday; I could see a shogi board and a chessboard on the bookshelf across the room, as well as several books. On Eiji’s bedside table, I noticed what looked like a finished game of Go.

“Do you play, Yukimura-kun?” Ginrei asked, noticing my preoccupation with the game.

“Only recently,” I replied. “And not very well, I’m afraid. I was…never very good at cutting my losses.” Akiyama’s words—your problem is that you care far too easily and far too much—echoed in my head and I angrily pushed them away.

“Mmm. Not necessarily a bad trait to have, in moderation. You see, the issue with Eiji is that he acts too rashly at times. Come to think of it, my grandson has the same problem. They both get frustrated quickly and abandon their stones when a more persistent approach would suit them better. I have always advised them to think more carefully before making a move, to be more open to alternatives; it doesn’t do to give up hope before all hope is lost, after all. Perhaps you can practice against Eiji sometime. I believe you two could learn quite a bit from each other.”  

“I have no objections,” I said, carefully not thinking about Akiyama and the way he’d laugh at my awful strategies or the patient way he went over the rules or the amused tilt to his lips whenever he indulged me in another game—I wrenched my thoughts away and smiled a bit wryly. “At this point, my skills can only improve.”

“Even the best must start somewhere,” Ginrei said warmly. His expression turned thoughtful. “You have a sizable amount of spiritual energy. I assume you’ll be taking the upcoming Academy exam?”

“Shiba-fukutaicho was impressed with her skills, and thought that she had the potential to become a shinigami,” Eiji explained. Ginrei nodded, eying me with a speculative look.

 “I can see why. Although—your spiritual energy seems…calm. Contained. Are you able to manipulate reiatsu already?”

“To an extent,” I said a bit awkwardly, resisting the urge to rub the back of my neck sheepishly. “I have some skill in healing kido. It’s how I was able to treat Eiji-san and his friends.” Ginrei’s eyes widened in faint surprise. “Is that right?”

“I could, um, show you, if you like,” I said a bit self-consciously, channeling a bit of reiatsu to my palms. Glancing at Ginrei, who was now staring at my hands with interest, I motioned towards his right arm.

“Your right hand seems a bit stiff. May I?” I asked. In answer, he extended his right hand towards me.

Taking it, I massaged his palm gently while infusing the muscles, tendons and ligaments with healing reiatsu. Under my touch, the muscles in his hand relaxed as I used my reiatsu to erase any lingering tension and stiffness.

“There. Does that feel better?” I asked a few moments later. Ginrei shook his hand experimentally.

“It does.” A pause. “Thank you, Yukimura-kun.”

“Anytime.” I offered him a small smile. “From what I’ve heard, the paperwork of a captain is never-ending. I’m glad to do what I can to help.”

“You heard correctly,” Ginrei said, a bit of wry humor entering his expression.

“Maybe the Fourth Division should start giving out free massages,” Eiji said, staring at Ginrei’s hand a bit jealously. “It might increase their popularity.  

              “Eiji,” Ginrei said sharply, before turning back to me. “Thank you for the demonstration of your skills, Yukimura-kun—if you don’t mind me asking, who taught you? You are from the Rukongai, correct?”

 “She came up with all her techniques all on her own! Even Unohana-taicho was impressed,” Eiji said, sounding a bit like a doting parent. I could feel my cheeks heating up, and I fervently wished there was some way I could kick him without Ginrei noticing.

“Well. That is impressive,” Ginrei commented, the faintest edge of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. “No need to be embarrassed, Yukimura-kun. You should be proud—I know that I, for one, am thankful that you developed those skills.” He glanced at his watch before sighing. “I’m afraid that duty calls and I must return to my office. Eiji, I will visit you again tomorrow; until then, listen to what the healers say and get some rest please. Yukimura-kun, it was a pleasure meeting you. I wish you the best of luck on your entrance exam,” he said before sweeping out of the room.

 

“Are you okay?” Eiji asked, once the sound of Ginrei’s retreating footsteps had faded.

“Hmm?” I asked absently, from where I had slumped over in my chair. Maintaining perfect posture was exhausting. I had no idea how nobles did it every day, 24/7.

“You just met your second captain in as many days. That was stressful for me, and I’m better prepared than you.”

“It actually wasn’t that bad. Your clan head seems pretty cool,” I said. At Eiji’s skeptical look, I relented. “Okay, at first he was pretty intimidating. He’s got a really commanding presence and his spiritual pressure levels…but he’s also a person like anyone else.” I just had to remember that when speaking to him. “Even though he’s a clan head and a captain, he still came in to see you and was clearly worried about you. As far as I’m concerned, that makes him a pretty decent guy.”

“Well, I can’t deny that,” Eiji laughed. “As far as clan heads go, I’m pretty lucky to have Kuchiki-dono as mine. It’s our clan elders that suck; I met them like once, and as far as I’m concerned, that was one time too many.”

“Were they your typical cabbage smelling, nagging, old people?” I asked mischievously. Eiji nodded fervently. “But worse. As far as I’m concerned, they should’ve all re-entered the reincarnation cycle decades ago.”

“You’re awful,” I laughed.

“But at least I’m honest,” Eiji grinned. “But enough about that. I guess I can see why meeting Kuchiki-dono wasn’t too stressful—he’s intimidating, but as long as you remember your manners, you’ll be fine. But Unohana? Come on, you can’t say that you didn’t find her at least a little terrifying.”

“Oh definitely,” I agreed. “But it was still great to meet her—you could just tell how skilled she was, you know?” I sighed a bit wistfully. “I can’t believe I have to wait six years before joining the 4th. There’s so much I could learn from her, I hate that I have to wait so long.

“Your healing skills are already pretty amazing. I understand that you want to improve them, but there’s no rush,” Eiji pointed out.

“Who said anything about healing?” I asked. “I mean sure, learning healing kido from Unohana Retsu would be beyond fantastic and I really hope I get the opportunity someday but nah, that’s not the main reason why I’m in a rush.”

“Oh?” Eiji asked, confused.

“I don’t care if it takes a hundred years, I’m going to learn how to smile like that even if it kills me.”

***

Eiji Interlude

Eiji eyed the bouquet of flowers by the window. One of the nurses had been kind enough to bring over a vase to put them in. It was strange…when he’d first been brought to that godforsaken place, he’d never imagined befriending one of his captors. But, as he was coming to learn, Yukimura Hisana had always been one to defy expectations. But Eiji thought he was starting to understand her. A calm, composed exterior that masked a sharp wit and quick temper. Underneath that, a layer of insecurity and guilt—Eiji couldn’t comprehend why she seemed to blame herself for things that weren’t her fault, but she seemed to be an expert at doing so. Beneath that, a seemingly infinite ability to care; who else risked so much for people they’d only known for a few weeks? Or mourned for a man who’d tortured them emotionally?

Because it didn’t take a genius to see that Akiyama had enjoyed playing with her. Perhaps he had cared for her in his own twisted way, but…Eiji couldn’t forget the time he’d brought her to the basement and made her watch. He’d been especially sadistic that day; Eiji had been doped up on drugs that made everything so much more intense—colors had seemed brighter, sounds had seemed unbearably loud, the pain…unimaginable. Everything had been a blur of unbearable agony, his vocal cords tearing from the strain of screaming so loudly…and through it all, he’d seen a pair of widened blue-violet eyes, shimmering with tears. She’d actually gotten down on her knees and begged that bastard to stop. The sick fuck had merely smiled, and leaned down so that his lips brushed her cheek. She nodded to something Akiyama said—Eiji hadn’t been able to hear what exactly he’d said to her—and Akiyama had pulled her to her feet, bringing her to his body tightly, one hand gently wiping away her tears while the other stroked her hair soothingly. Comfortingly. As if he wasn’t the reason for her tears in the first place.

That had been the moment Eiji realized Yukimura Hisana was as much a victim as he was. He’d forgiven her even before she stood up for Chiyo; after all, how do you hate someone who was never to blame in the first place?

Eiji didn’t know exactly what kind of relationship Hisana and Akiyama had. Given Hisana’s reaction to his death however, it wasn’t too hard to guess that he took advantage of her tendency to care, even towards those who really didn’t deserve it. He probably did everything he could to make her emotionally attached to him; it didn’t matter that a large part of her hated him. So long as he could make her see him as a man, a person, she’d have a much harder time betraying him. The thing was though, he didn’t take one thing into consideration. Because at her core, Hisana was someone who protected others. Her willingness to do anything to protect those she deemed her responsibility was possibly the only thing stronger than her ability to care for those around her. For some reason, Hisana had deemed Eiji, Hiro, and Chiyo worthy of protecting. For that alone, she had Eiji’s unwavering loyalty.

A knock at his door caused Eiji to look up. It couldn’t be Hisana—she’d left not too long ago, along with Hiro and Chiyo. The sight of his cousin caused Eiji to sit up abruptly.

“Byakuya-sama!” He exclaimed, a bit surprised. “Your grandfather said that you weren’t due back until tomorrow!”

“The mission went smoothly, and we were able to finish up early. I heard about what happened.” His gaze lingered on Eiji’s pale figure. “I was worried when your mission ran late, and there was no news from you. I am glad to see that you’re recovering well.” Eiji didn’t understand why most people called his cousin emotionless. To him, Byakuya’s concern was obvious in his whitened face, the clear relief and fear in his slate-gray eyes along with a hint of true anger, his slightly windswept hair (had he flash-stepped here immediately after hearing that Eiji had returned?) and his clenched fists.

“Yeah, Unohana-taicho said that I’ll probably be released tomorrow or the day after. How are things at home? Okaa-san already came to see me, but she took one look at my injuries and cried so I didn’t really want to ask her too many things. Are the cherry trees blooming yet?” Eiji asked lightly, trying to distract his cousin from his mission. Hisana had mentioned that most of the cherry trees weren’t in full bloom yet, so with any luck Eiji wouldn’t be missing out on too much.

“Some of them are. Don’t worry, you’ll get the chance to see the flowers for yourself.” Byakuya’s gaze lingered on the vase by the window. “Although, it seems that you have a few here. Is the Fourth Division now providing flowers to put in each room? If so, I approve.” Eiji resisted the urge to roll his eyes at his cousin’s blatant adoration for anything cherry-blossom related. Obviously, Hisana was rubbing off on him.

“No, they were a gift from a friend,” he said, looking away. A hint of amusement crossed Byakuya’s face.

“Oh? Flowers from a friend, you said? Must be a fairly special one to bring you such a lovely arrangement.” Eiji’s face heated up unwillingly. About a year or so back, Byakuya had become…well okay, he was still extremely reticent but he had loosened up a bit. It was a subtle change—he talked more to the shinigami in his division, generally seemed more relaxed, and had even become friends with Shihouin Yoruichi. Overall, Eiji was pretty happy with new-Byakuya. Then there would come moments like this where Byakuya would lightly tease him about his (nonexistent) love life and Eiji would take it all back.

“S-Shut up! It’s not like that! She’s just a friend!” Although Hisana was very pretty and fun to be around, Eiji didn’t think he’d ever be able to see her as anything more than a friendly big-sister figure with massive mother-hen tendencies.

“She’s pretty cool though,” Eiji’s voice softened. “I’ll have to introduce you to her sometime. I think you’ll like her.” Byakuya grimaced.

“Eiji, you know how I feel about you introducing me to girls—or to any of your friends, really. There are not many people who are not intimidated by me,” he pointed out.

“Maybe if you tried smiling every once in a while, you wouldn’t have this problem,” Eiji muttered. It was true enough however. Byakuya may be slightly more…open nowadays, but to those who didn’t know how to read him, he still had all the emotional expression of a rock. Which made introducing him to new people rather difficult, since pretty much everyone tended to be put off by that kind of thing. The few girls who didn’t just sit around awkwardly in his presence tended to be gold-diggers only interested in his status or money. As far as Eiji knew, the only woman outside their family who Byakuya spoke to familiarly and on a regular basis was the Captain of Squad 2. And Byakuya would rather throw himself into a pit of lava than date her. So Eiji supposed he couldn’t blame Byakuya for growing a bit cynical after a while, especially with the growing pressure the Kuchiki clan was putting on him for being the ‘perfect heir.’

Although, his refusal to spend more than ten minutes willingly talking to a girl outside professional settings was so notorious that there were actual bets flying around the Seireitei. Most of the bets weren’t even about his romantic life, as to many people, the thought of Kuchiki Byakuya actually dating a girl of his own volition was too high a goal to set. Bets ranged from ‘which girl will make him smile’ to ‘which girl can get him to say more than four sentences at one time’. For some reason though, Shihouin Yoruichi had bet a truly extravagant amount of money that he would someday marry a poor girl from the Rukongai. If she actually won that bet, Eiji thought, the Shihouin clan’s fortune would probably double.

“Anyway, this one is different! I don’t think you’ll have to worry about her being too intimidated to talk to you.” Hisana had managed to carry on an entire conversation with the Kuchiki clan head without stammering once. And she regularly yelled at/scolded Shiba-fukutaicho. And somehow got away with it.

There was something…different about her. No, that wasn’t quite the right word. It wasn’t that she didn’t fit in anywhere. It was more that she fit everywhere. Obviously educated, (and Eiji had no idea how since as far as he knew, the Rukongai didn’t have schools), polite, with a delicate build—yet she managed to fit in with thugs, thieves, the scum of the afterlife. Common-born, lacking any hint of an aristocratic accent, untrained in the art of conversation—and she had no problems interacting with nobles, both high and low. Either way, Eiji really didn’t see her having a problem with Byakuya’s reserved demeanor—which was good since as far as Eiji was concerned, his cousin really needed more friends.

“Hisana’s tough—she’s from the Rukongai, you know. And she’s talented and smart, so you don’t have to worry about her boring you. I speak from experience when I say that she’s an awesome friend, and she tells great stories too!” Best not to mention her…sensitivity over being called short. Or her tendency to kick people in the shins when they annoyed her. “Plus, she’s a kickass healer. She taught herself! You can’t say that’s not impressive.” Eiji stopped short as his cousin abruptly started choking on air. There was a rather alarming spike in his reiatsu—Byakuya’s spiritual energy, normally so controlled, lashed out wildly before settling down in an uneasy perturbed state, ready to whip out at the slightest provocation.

“What did you say?” Byakuya asked sharply once he’d recovered somewhat.

“Um…that her skills are impressive?” Eiji asked hesitantly.

“No, the part where she…never mind. How did you come to meet her?” he asked, staring intently at Eiji.

“Please,” he added after Eiji didn’t go on, too busy staring at his cousin in confusion. “I…I need to confirm something.” A bit reluctantly, Eiji began giving an abridged version of how they’d met, briefly mentioning that she was a healer in the Rukongai he met on his mission-gone-wrong, skimming over the details of her previous employment, and emphasizing that she was the only reason Eiji and the others had come back at all. As far as he was concerned, the only thing anyone needed to know about Hisana was that she had done her damnedest best to get Eiji, Chiyo and Hiro home.

After a few minutes, Eiji looked up and almost did a double take at his cousin’s expression. Byakuya looked…stunned. There was no other way to describe it; Eiji didn’t think he’d ever seen his cousin so taken aback. After another split second of silence, Byakuya stood up suddenly.

“I have to go. My deepest apologies, cousin. I’ll visit you tomorrow,” he said hastily, grabbing Senbonzakura from where it rested against the wall.

“Wait! Where are you going?” Eiji called out, slightly panicked. He had no idea why his cousin was reacting this way, or where he was going, only that it had something to do with Hisana. “Dammit, Byakuya! The hell is up with you, anyway? If you hurt her, I don’t care if you’re the clan heir and a lieutenant, I’ll kick your ass!”

Byakuya paused just before he exited the room. “You don’t need to worry about that, Eiji. I merely wish to…meet up with an old friend. That’s all.”

Chapter Text

             

I sighed happily to myself as I browsed the through the stacks of the used bookstore. Inuzuri had a few places that sold books, but I rarely found anything worth reading. In fact, the only halfway-decent reading material there were the romance novels, and those…well, there were only so many times I could read about the forbidden star-crossed romance of girl X with boy Y and their love triangle with Z other boy before it got boring.

Squinting upward, I inwardly cheered as I spotted the book I’d started reading in the Fourth Division a few days ago. Reaching upward, I growled under my breath as my fingers failed to reach it by about a foot. Sadly enough, the thing I missed the most from my past life was my previous height. Forget modern conveniences like smartphones, computers and cars. I just wanted to be over five feet again.

“Fuck being short,” I grumbled, reaching as high as I could while standing on my tippy toes. My fingers barely brushed the bottom of the shelf. “And fuck high shelves. This is discrimination, damn it.” An awkward half-hop half-desperate leap brought me no closer to the book I wanted and almost caused what looked like a dictionary to fall on my head. “I hate my life.”

Just as I started considering climbing one of the lower shelves, a hand covered with a white tekkou reached above me and easily plucked the book I wanted from the shelf, handing it to me.

“Thank y--” Was all I managed before I registered the reiatsu signature behind me and whirled around, eyes widening involuntarily. A familiar figure stared back at me, one eyebrow raised.

“Byakuya,” I said, swallowing heavily. His reiatsu felt ominously calm. Not a good sign.

“Hello Hisana.” I winced at his deceptively mild tone. “Long time no see. I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting to see you here.” The ‘of all places’ remained unspoken.

“Um,” I replied eloquently, clutching the book to my chest. “It’s kind of a long story?”

“What a coincidence. Today’s my day off and I have nothing but time,” Byakuya said, a hint of steel edging his voice now. “My dear cousin seems to hold quite a high opinion of you and while I completely understand the sentiment, I admit to feeling some curiosity over how he was able to come across you in the first place, given the fact that Eiji was detained in the 68th district and you live an entire ten districts away.”

 

***

Despite his words, Byakuya didn’t actually give me a chance to speak until half an hour later after he’d paid for my books (despite my protests), nearly given the shopkeeper a heart attack when he’d all but shoved a handful of kan at him (which probably far exceeded the value of the books), and somehow got us seated in a private room in an upscale expensive looking tea house in under two minutes (giving the waitress a dark glare when she'd given my slightly tattered yukata a contemptuous glance, causing her to pale drastically and scurry away).

“I’m so sorry—if I had any idea that the service here had fallen so low I would’ve never…the way she looked at you!” Byakuya said furiously, still glaring at where the waitress had exited and looking about two seconds away from standing up and demanding that she be fired.

“Byakuya, it’s fine,” I sighed, browsing the menu to avoid looking towards him. The idea of not telling Byakuya the truth never even crossed my mind—if anyone deserved to know, it was him—but I was still trying to find a way to tactfully summarize the past couple of weeks. Somehow, I didn’t think that ‘oh yeah, funny story, I was kidnapped and forced to work for a yakuza group who tortured and experimented on shinigami, here, have some more tea’ was going to cut it. “Don’t be mad at her. I’m not exactly dressed accordingly.”

“That’s no excuse for her to be so unprofessional,” he frowned, though his expression softened slightly when he turned back towards me. “Order whatever you want, alright? Don’t worry about the cost.”

I lowered the menu, one side of my lips quirking up. “What did I say about buying me things?”

“Not to spend more than a tenth of my salary on them. I assure you, anything on that menu will not be a problem,” Byakuya replied promptly. His brow furrowed slightly as he took in the dark circles under my eyes. Chiyo wasn’t the only one having nightmares. “You look tired,” he murmured, reaching out with one hand, before seemingly thinking better of it and withdrawing.

“You can just come out and say that I look awful, Byakuya, I promise I won’t be offended,” I said wryly. With a frustrated sigh, I rubbed my eyes with the palms of my hands. “It’s been a…hectic couple of weeks.”

“We don’t need to talk about it now if you don’t want to,” Byakuya said quietly. “I didn’t mean to push.”

“No, it’s fine. I’d be curious too if I was in your position.” I paused as a waitress—different from the one before, I noticed—entered the room with a teapot and proceeded to pour a cup of tea for both of us. Resisting the urge to roll my eyes at Byakuya’s pointed glance at the menu, I sighed and ordered a slice of plain white cake—the cheapest thing I could find and even that was ridiculously expensive.

“So, what did Eiji tell you about me? I asked a few minutes later, once the waitress arrived with my cake.

“Only that you were a self-taught healer who saved his and his companions’ lives on his ill-fated mission and afterwards decided to become a shinigami,” Byakuya replied. “I assume that’s not all there was to the story.”

I huffed a laugh. “Well, he’s not wrong,” I muttered. “And his mission?”

Byakuya’s grip on his cup tightened. “There was a yakuza group in the 68th district that was performing illicit experiments on shinigami. Eiji was among those captured.” He paused. “I admit, I still do not understand how you became involved.”

I looked down, idly tracing patterns onto the table. “There was something I hadn’t anticipated when I’d first started offering my skills in healing kido to the general public,” I began softly. “And that was just how much attention I’d attract.” Twisting my fingers together, I continued.

“Akiyama Daiki, the leader of the yakuza group that kidnapped Eiji and several others, decided that it was too much trouble to keep replacing shinigami, especially after the previous group died after only a couple of days. So he began looking for ways to ensure that the shinigami under his…care stayed alive for longer. Once he heard of me, well…I was the obvious solution.” Still avoiding Byakuya’s gaze, I let out a shaky, slightly hysterical breath. “And I succeeded. I succeeded beyond his wildest expectations. I was the perfect pawn—he knew that I would do everything in my power to keep those kids alive, because I am a pathetic, soft-hearted fool and he knew that I would never turn against him because otherwise he would hurt my family and I was—am—too weak to protect them. And if I hadn’t just happened to bump into Shiba-fukutaicho on the street and managed to slip him a message, I’d probably still be back there in Akiyama’s employ, and Eiji, Chiyo and Hiro would be dead because despite my b-best efforts they were d-dying, and…and…”

I swallowed heavily, rubbing at my eyes angrily as tears started to well up against my will. God damn it, I’d cried more in the past month than I had in the decade before that put together and I had no idea what was wrong with me since it wasn’t like I was the one who’d been strapped down to a table and cut open every day for weeks. Giving up on the tears as a lost cause, I instead glared angrily down at my hands. “What use is being able to heal, if I’m too fucking weak to protect my own goddamned family from outside threats that I attracted? If I couldn’t even stop one psychopath from hurting other people?” Too weak to protect Miwa when Aoki had set me up, too weak to refuse Akiyama’s offer, too weak to ensure my family’s safety from him, too weak to stop him from hurting Eiji, Chiyo and Hiro…

A hand reached out and firmly grasped my chin, forcing me to look up. Byakuya’s mouth was set in a thin line and there was a hardness in his eyes that I’d never seen before. “Don’t do this. Don’t you dare blame yourself.”

“I--” I began, startled, but Byakuya cut me off. “You’re not perfect. You’re not a god, and frankly, it’s rather arrogant of you to think that you could prevent every bad thing in the world from happening. You were thrust into a situation that you had no control over; it happens to all of us. Bad things happen and you can’t always stop them—that’s life.” He scrutinized my expression closely. “The only thing you can do is learn more, grow stronger, so that the next time something like this happens, you’re able to stop it.”

I huffed out a laugh. “Stealing my lines now, are you?”

“Guilty as charged.” Byakuya looked completely unrepentant. He brushed his thumb across my cheek, wiping away the remnants of my tears before leaning back. “Are you feeling better now?”

“A bit,” I admitted, taking a bit of my cake. After letting Byakuya’s words sink in, I suppose I did feel a bit…lighter, somehow. “You’re right, of course. I’m being ridiculous. Sorry that you had to deal with my breakdown earlier,” I said sheepishly, feeling more than a little embarrassed now. “I’m done wallowing in self-pity now, I promise.”  

“You were upset. Understandably so. Don’t apologize for that,” Byakuya said gently. “If I couldn’t deal with you being angry or sad, then I wouldn’t deserve to be your friend.”

I smiled a bit more genuinely this time. “I didn’t say this before, but I’m so glad to see you again. Less-than-ideal circumstances or not…I really missed you.”

Byakuya reached over and gave my hand a squeeze, but didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to.

***

“What. The. Hell.” I winced at Eiji’s flat tone.

“Um. I can explain?” I tried.

“I can’t believe that you didn’t tell me!” Eiji shrieked. I grimaced and rubbed at one ear.

“You might want to yell louder, Eiji-kun. I don’t think everyone in Soul Society heard you yet,” I muttered sarcastically, before sighing and rubbing my eyes. “Look, I’ve apologized already, haven’t I? And you have to admit that the circumstances under which we met weren’t the most…optimal for telling you. And then I suppose it just became harder and harder to bring up the longer I waited.”

“You almost caused me to have a heart attack! You should’ve seen Byakuya-sama’s reaction when I mentioned your name!” Eiji complained. “You left it up to me to tell him that his secret friend suddenly decided to show up in the Seireitei when I had no idea what was going on!”

“Eiji please, remember your manners. I know for a fact that your mother did not raise you to have such an appalling sense of decorum,” Byakuya stated disapprovingly.

“Byakuya, you’re not helping,” I muttered before looking at Eiji beseechingly. “You’re right—I should have told you earlier and I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?”

“Stop looking at me like that. It’s not fair,” Eiji said grumpily before sighing. “I’m not really angry anyway—just surprised. I suppose Byakuya-sama was the one to give you that necklace you wear all the time?”

“You suppose correctly,” I answered, rolling my eyes at Byakuya. He looked incredibly pleased with himself. “Quit looking so smug. You’re such a weirdo—who the hell has so much fun buying stuff for other people?” I teased lightly.

I’m the strange one? Normally people are happy when they receive presents,” Byakuya retorted. The corner of his mouth twitched. “Careful, Hisana. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you weren’t grateful. My feelings might be hurt.”

“I’m sure your feelings will survive, Byakuya-hime,” I shot back, biting my lip to keep from smiling. Judging by the look on his face, I didn’t think I succeeded.

A spluttering noise turned my attention back to Eiji. He was staring at me in shock, mouth wide open.

“Eiji-kun? Are you all right?” I asked worriedly. He shook his head to clear it, blinking rapidly.

“I—uh—yeah. I’m fine,” he said awkwardly.  His eyes rapidly flitted between me and Byakuya. “So—um—you two are…close, then?” Eiji asked, mouth twisting strangely at the word ‘close’.

“I mean…he eats ramen with me and he lets me play with his hair and I put up with his weird obsession over Admiral Seaweed. Does that count?” I asked hesitantly. Byakuya’s eye twitched.

“As I have told you numerous times, Hisana, I do not have a ‘weird obsession’ over Admiral Seaweed. I merely respect him for being able to attain such a high rank despite the fact that he is only seaweed. Don’t you agree that such dedication should be admired?”

“Yeah, right. ‘Not obsessed’…tell that to the twenty or so pictures of him I have scattered throughout my house,” I muttered. “I’ll never understand why Rukia agrees with you on this.” Of course the one thing she agreed with Byakuya on was that weird lumpy seaweed cartoons were awesome. My smile turned a bit wistful. “I’m really going to miss her and Renji. Miwa too. All of them.” To be honest, I already did. Byakuya shifted his hand down so that his fingers interlaced with mine.

“I’ll visit as soon as another mission there becomes available,” he whispered, squeezing my hand comfortingly. “Just to check up on them, see how they’re doing. I’m sure they’ll be fine. And before you know it, those two troublesome students of mine will be here—running around causing chaos, driving both of us crazy and ruining any dignity I have left.”

One side of my mouth tilted up in a half-smile. “Rukia already has her heart set on either the 6th or the 13th Division.” I wondered if it said something about my parenting skills that the primary reason for her indecision consisted of ‘do I want to annoy Oni-sensei or the spiky-haired-jerk-who-insulted-my-drawings more’.  “Renji is committed to following her either way—although they both seem to be leaning towards the 6th Division.”

“Gods help us,” Byakuya muttered before grimacing slightly. “I do not even want to imagine the reaction my grandfather will have towards them.”

“I don’t think you have to worry too much about them causing trouble if they do decide to enter your squad. Kuchiki-taicho is intimidating enough that they wouldn’t dare do anything too drastic—at least while he’s around,” I said without thinking. “He’s the kind of guy who makes you instinctively sit up ten degrees straighter, you know?”

“And how would you know that?” Byakuya asked, looking at me curiously. “You’ve never met him.”

“Actually…” Eiji piped up, apparently fully recovered from his shock. “She has. Had a short discussion with him on Go tactics and gave him a hand massage and everything. So you don’t have to worry about them getting along.” Eiji’s vindictive smile showed that he was enjoying Byakuya’s surprise way too much. Looking at Byakuya’s stunned expression, I resisted the urge to bang my forehead on the nearest flat surface. It was going to be a long day.

***

“So.” I looked up to see Kaien studying me from behind his bowl of noodles. “You and Kuchiki-fukutaicho are pretty good friends, huh?”

“Wow. Gossip really does travel faster than the speed of light around here,” I muttered, scowling.

“Oh, I only know because I caught Eiji talking to the Murakami cousins about it this morning. It’s not common knowledge yet—though I wouldn’t count on it remaining that way for long,” Kaien explained before eying me thoughtfully. “If you don’t mind me asking, how’d that happen?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, shoving a bunch of noodles into my mouth to avoid answering. Kaien snorted.

“Kid, I’ve known Kuchiki Byakuya since he was a tiny, snot-nosed brat with a temper the size of half of Rukongai. He doesn’t get close to many people easily. I’m curious as to how you managed to befriend the Kuchiki heir of all people.”

“He was injured in a mission just outside Inuzuri and got himself into some trouble with a few local thugs. I helped him out. The end,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I really don’t see what the big deal is. Now are you going to help me out with this stupid test, or not?”

“You’re no fun,” Kaien pouted, before relenting. “Fine. Of course I’ll help you, kid. Besides, I was the one who submitted your name to be entered in the upcoming Academy exams. It’d be hella embarrassing if you didn’t pass.”

“What’s this? A lieutenant actually offering to help train a pre-Academy student? Shiba-fukutaicho, I didn’t know you had it in you.” A voice teased lightly from behind me. I watched with interest as Kaien subconsciously straightened up in his seat, nervously running one hand through his hair.

“Ah…Miyako-san!” He exclaimed, standing up and hastily bowing—almost knocking over his chair as he did so. “Back from your mission, I see? Uh…” Kaien glanced around somewhat desperately before his gaze settled on an empty chair at the table next to us. He grabbed it, ignoring the indignant exclamations from the people at the table. “Would you, um, like to join us? The ramen is really good!” There was a faint flush starting to crawl up his neck, I noted with amusement. Who knew that a flustered Kaien could be so adorable?

“I’m afraid that I only have time to stay for a few moments, although I’d be glad to take you up on your offer some other time,” Miyako—a very pretty woman with long black hair done up in a bun—said, smiling warmly. Kaien seemed to glow at her words, scratching the back of his neck. The tips of his ears were now an endearing shade of red.

“Uh—great! That’d be awesome, yeah! It’s a date!” As soon as the words left his mouth, he seemed to realize what he’d just said. “I mean, not like a date-date, I meant like a friend-date, ‘cause being friends is amazing, unless of course you wanted it to be a date-date, in which case I’d be fine with it--” Kaien babbled. Finally deciding to take pity on the idiot—Christ, he just kept digging himself deeper, didn’t he? His only saving grace was that Miyako appeared to be just as enamored with Kaien as Kaien was with her, if the fond look in her eyes was anything to go by—I pointedly cleared my throat.

“Yukimura!” Kaien said—seemingly surprised, as if he’d forgotten my existence in the presence of his crush. In all likelihood, he probably had. “Um, Miyako-san, this is Yukimura Hisana, an upcoming Academy student that I met in the Rukongai. Yukimura, this is Fukui Miyako, 3rd seat of Squad 13.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I murmured quietly, bowing respectfully.

“You as well.” Miyako replied kindly. “So Shiba-fukutaicho is going to help you prepare for the Academy entrance exam then?”

“He’s kindly allowed me the use of his division’s training grounds to prepare. I’m very grateful for all the trouble he’s taken to ensure that my arrival in the Seireitei has been comfortable,” I said, inserting as much gratitude into my voice as I could.

“And how are you settling in? I know that the transition from Rukongai to the Seireitei isn’t always easy.”

I hesitated, allowing my lips to quiver slightly while widening my eyes. “I was really scared about coming here, you know, because I used to live in the 78th district and everything is so different here and it’s been really hard being away from my family but…but everyone here has been so nice and Shiba-fukutaicho always takes the time to check in on me.” I cast an admiring look at him. He sent a confused what-the-fuck-are-you-doing expression back and I resisted the urge to sigh despairingly. Completely hopeless, that one. “It’s just…I’m really glad that the Gotei 13 has men like him. It makes me feel so much better.”

Upon seeing Miyako’s expression soften and the impressed glance she sent Kaien, I mentally patted myself on the back.

“Well, I’m happy that you’re settling in nicely. If you ever need any advice, don’t be afraid to come to me, alright? Whether it’s help with schoolwork, if there’s someone bothering you, if you just want a girl to talk to…” She winked at me and I smiled shyly back.

“Thank you, Fukui-san,” I murmured.

“No problem. Us girls have to stick together, right?” She glanced at her watch and looked faintly regretful. “I have to go turn my mission report in. Shiba-fukutaicho, I’ll see you later?” Miyako smiled hesitantly, sweet and tentatively hopeful.

“Of course.” Kaien beamed. I mentally pictured Kaien as a black Labrador puppy, tail wagging furiously, and had to suppress a snort. Idiots in love, the both of them.

I allowed Kaien five seconds of dreamily staring after Miyako’s departing figure before speaking up.

“So, when are you going to ask her on a date?” I asked casually. “A proper one, not…whatever the hell that was a moment ago.”

Kaien startled wildly, and almost knocked his bowl of ramen over as he flailed his arms.

“What—I mean—I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said finally, picking up his chopsticks again.

“Yes you do. You like her.” I grinned widely, resisting the urge to cackle.

“Of course I do. She’s a good friend. I like my friends,” Kaien said defensively. It was almost pitiful to watch.

“Uh huh. Suuure. Kaien and Mi-yako, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” I sing-songed.

“Stop it! I don’t..it’s not like tha--”

“First comes looooove. Then comes marriage. Then comes a baby in a baby carria--” I continued gleefully.

“Shut up! Alright, alright! I admit it, okay? Just keep your voice down!” Kaien hissed, making frantic shushing motions at me. I smirked smugly. He glared at me before slumping down in resignation.

“How did you know?” He asked, morosely stirring the ramen broth with his chopsticks. I chose the answer that had the most potential for amusement, waiting until he took a large bite of ramen before replying.

“Honestly? You couldn’t stop staring at her ass,” I stated bluntly, pretending to ignore the way Kaien choked on his noodles and the way he sputtered in protest. I took a sip of my water, nodding sagely before adding, “Plus, feminine intuition.”

“You…you are evil, you know that?” Kaien stated accusingly, pointing his chopsticks at me. “An evil, evil devil hiding behind a sweet, innocent exterior. I don’t know how I didn’t see it sooner.”

“Now, would an evil person help you out by portraying you as a kind, thoughtful senpai in front of your crush?” I pointed out reasonably. “You owe me big time for that, by the way.”

Kaien stilled in thoughtful silence for a moment before a wicked glint entered his eyes. I stared back at him warily.

“You know what? You’re right. I do owe you,” he said cheerfully. “And that’s why I, being the ‘kind, thoughtful sempai’ that I am, am going to take a personal hand in your training. I mean, I was already planning on helping you out by letting you use our training facilities. This will just be taking that one step further.” His grin widened. “Don’t worry Yukimura. By the time I’m done with you, you’ll pass that test with flying colors.”

***

“Has—anyone—ever told you,” I huffed out between panting breaths, “that you—are a—complete and utter bastard?”

Kaien had made good on his promise. The very next day, the hyperactive idiot had come knocking on my hotel door at five in the morning, since apparently the ‘only time he was free’ was from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. Which was complete bullshit in my opinion, and obviously just a part of his plan to get me back for yesterday. He’d then went over the requirements for passing the Academy entrance exam. There was a writing portion (“I’m pretty sure that one’s just to test if you can read and write, so you should have no problems there”), a reiatsu testing portion (“eh, there’s really no preparing for that one—you just imbue your spiritual energy into some kind of orb thing that measures your reiatsu levels”) and a physical portion.

It was the physical portion of the test that we were focusing on. According to Kaien, the minimum requirements for entrance into the Academy were being able to run two miles in fifteen minutes, do thirty pushups in one minute, forty sit-ups in one minute, climb a rock wall in five minutes and a 300-meter run in sixty-five seconds. Kaien’s personal standards were significantly higher—what he was aiming for was to have me run two miles in twelve minutes or less (“preferably ten but I suppose twelve will do”), a 300-meter run in fifty seconds and to be able to climb a rock wall in three and a half minutes.

“I’ll have you know that my parents were married when they had me,” Kaien grinned, glancing down at his watch just as I passed the finishing point. “Aaaand time. 13:54, not bad. Still have room for improvement, but better than I was expecting.”

“What? Do I look slow or something?” I scowled, panting for breath.

“Nah, but considering that you probably have to run two steps for every step a person of normal height takes—ow!” He hissed as I stomped on his foot. Jerk.

“Hisana-sensei?” A familiar voice called from somewhere behind me. Turning around, my eyes widened as I saw Chiyo come out of the nearest building carrying a huge jug of lemonade, Hiro next to her. Chiyo shifted self-consciously as her eyes met mine. “Um, Shiba-fukutaicho said that you were training here today, so I thought I could make you some lemonade…I mean, I know you’re probably tired…”

“Chiyo, you wondrous angel, light of my life, source of my only hope, I am so glad to see you right now,” I breathed, ignoring Kaien’s snort from next to me. Bounding over with newfound energy, I snatched up the glass that Chiyo offered me and promptly downed it in about five seconds. “I would hug you, but I’m super sweaty right now and I don’t want to get you dirty.”

“What, I don’t get a warm welcome?” Hiro teased. I rolled my eyes at him. “Well, if you insist,” I said fondly, giving him a quick hug before reaching up to brush his hair out of his eyes. “Not that I’m not glad to see you two, but what are you doing here? You should be on leave,” I scolded gently. His cheeks were still a bit sunken in and there were faint shadows under his eyes. “The sun hasn’t even risen yet. You need to be resting more.”

“We’re fine, Hisana,” Hiro said, sounding slightly exasperated. “Besides, it’s not like we were getting any sleep anyway,” he muttered afterwards. I stiffened, pulling back.

“How are you? Really?” I asked quietly, looking between him and Chiyo. “If you ever need anyone to talk to, I’m---”

“We’re fine. God, Hisana, you can be really pushy sometimes. Will you let it go?” He snapped. I stepped back, stung. He went through hell. He’s allowed to lash out, I told myself firmly. It still hurt.

“Hey! Don’t speak to her like that,” Chiyo said, glaring at her cousin. “She’s just worried.”

“No, it’s alright, Chiyo. I shouldn’t have pushed. I’m sorry,” I said, forcing a smile onto my face. “It’s great to see you two again. Thanks again for the lemonade.” Handing Chiyo back the cup, I turned to go back towards Kaien, who was watching us with an unreadable expression on his face. Before I could however, Hiro sighed heavily and grabbed my wrist.

“No, I’m the one who should be sorry. It’s just…I really don’t want to talk about it right now, alright?”

My smile turned a touch more genuine. “I understand. Just know that if you ever do want to talk, I’ll always be there for you, ok?”

***

I fidgeted a tad nervously as I stood waiting outside Unohana’s office. The curious looks I was garnering from several nearby shinigami did nothing to calm my nerves. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the door opened and Unohana stepped out with a smile.

“Hello Yukimura-san. I hope that I have not kept you waiting?” She asked warmly.

“Not at all, Unohana-taicho,” I said, bowing politely.

“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me today. I understand that you must be very busy preparing for your upcoming exams, after all.”

“To be perfectly truthful, taicho, I’m a bit relieved,” I said honestly. “Shiba-fukutaicho is a great help to me in my training and I am enormously grateful that he’s taking the time to aid me, but…” I hesitated, smiling a bit sheepishly. “He’s by no means an easy teacher.” Running up and down hills for hours on end was not my idea of fun. Nor was doing push-ups while he had Chiyo sit on my back. If I wasn’t able to speed up my muscle recovery and break down any lactic acid/other waste products at an accelerated rate, I had no doubt that I’d be too sore to move right now. Kaien, the asshole, had of course taken full advantage of my control over my own metabolism and had doubled the intensity of his initial training regimen. At least Unohana’s request to speak with me today had given me an excuse to get out of a day’s training.

“I’d imagine not,” Unohana laughed lightly. She paused for a moment. “I had the opportunity to see the results of your healing techniques on Nakano Rin and I was able to see you demonstrate a small portion of your skill a few days ago on Kuchiki Eiji. While I have some idea of what you can accomplish with your version of healing kido, I admit I would like to conduct a few more tests. Would you mind assisting me around the division today?”

“I—I have no objections.” I said with slightly widened eyes, swallowing. Only decades of practice kept my hands from shaking. Biting my lip, I glanced down, feeling a bit nauseous. The thing was—Unohana actually seemed a bit impressed with me. Fuck, she was taking the time to personally test my skills; the greatest healer in the afterlife, a healer who had centuries of experience more than me, thought that I had potential. And at that moment, I was absolutely, unequivocally terrified of disappointing her.

By the time we reached the patient’s room, I had calmed down a little. I’d healed thousands of people before, had treated injuries of all kinds. I could do this. That calm promptly flew out the window when I actually got a good look at the patient’s injury. The poor guy seemed to have been doused in some kind of chemical—there were angry red burns stretching up his right arm and half his chest alternated between splotches of blistered, reddened skin and patchy, leathery white. One of the healers looked up in relief as Unohana entered the room.

“Oh thank goodness you’re here, taicho. One of the hollows apparently could spray some sort of poison that just ate away at the skin…”

“Did you rinse the affected area with water?” I interrupted sharply, placing a hand on the patient’s forehead. Not clammy although the skin was a bit pale, pulse elevated but not to the point where I had to worry about him going into shock yet; good. Cell coagulation extending into the deep dermal layer; not good. “It’s an acid burn. It’s going to continue causing damage unless the acid is removed completely.” One of the healers looked up startled, before nodding his head.

“It’s protocol to rinse off any potentially poisonous area with running water first,” he told me. I nodded. “Good. Now, this area is completely unsalvageable, so I’m going to need a scalpel,” I said. “Also, if you have any burn salve—preferably ones containing alginate—that would be great, thank you.”

Several surgical excisions, a few makeshift skin grafts (in which I took small patches of skin from other parts of the patient’s body, transplanted them to where the dead tissue used to be and used my reiatsu to stimulate them into multiplying until the injured area was completely covered with a new layer of skin), and multiple dressings on the less damaged areas later, the last of my nerves had vanished. By the time I started working to increase tissue perfusion in the zone of stasis to hopefully prevent the tissue damage from becoming irreversible, I’d all but forgotten Unohana was still there.

“Well done,” Unohana said, watching me carefully finish wrapping the patient’s arm up in bandages. There would most definitely be some scarring, but…it wasn’t nearly as bad as it might have been, since I’d regrown most of the damaged skin. “Burns, particularly ones of that severity, are often one of the hardest injuries to treat. Especially when the patient has a particularly low level of reiatsu—many of my healers could not have handled that as well as you just did.” She nodded to another healer by the door, who was staring at me with wide eyes. “Please bring Yukimura-san something to eat and drink. I’m sure she’s tired.”

A few minutes later, I was sitting in her office sipping a cup of tea and nibbling on a biscuit.

“Unohana-taicho…” I began hesitantly. She nodded encouragingly at me.

“Yes, Yukimura-san?”

“The last time we met, you said something about how the way I heal is more difficult than current conventional healing techniques. Could you explain what you meant by that?” I asked. She took a sip of her tea, considering me carefully before setting her cup back down and standing up.

“Seeing you heal today gave me a better idea of how you go about treating injuries—and someday I would dearly love to know how you came by your knowledge—but until I experience it for myself, I won’t be able to give you a definitive answer,” she replied. “And that’s why I’m afraid that I’m going to have to ask you to perform one more test today.”

“Experience it for yourself--?” I repeated, somewhat confused…before almost dropping my teacup as Unohana withdrew a dagger from inside her haori and promptly stabbed it through her hand. She then calmly pulled it out with a sickening squelch—and, oh god, she hadn’t even so much as flinched this entire time—and extended her mutilated hand towards me. “Yukimura-san, if you would?” She asked politely, ignoring the way her hand was now steadily dripping blood on her office floor.

Her words broke me out of the horrified trance I was in and I gently took her hand in my own, all thoughts of weariness forgotten. Infusing the wounded area with my reiatsu until her hand was positively saturated with my spiritual energy, I quickly numbed the area. I then intertwined strands of my reiatsu with Unohana’s spiritual energy and manipulated the two broken metacarpals and the nearby bone fragments back into place. After stimulating the bone tissue to knit back together, I then focused on reconnecting nerves and stitching together the damaged muscle, dermal tissue and epidermis. By the time I finished, there was only a thin, barely visible line where the knife had entered her body.

“Six minutes,” Unohana stated quietly.

“What?” I asked, too shaken to bother being polite.

“Six minutes to heal two shattered bones and a stab wound. Factoring in the accelerated healing I have as a captain, I estimate that on a person of average reiatsu, it would have taken you between ten to fifteen minutes. Either way, I can safely say that you’ve exceeded my expectations, Yukimura-san.”

I wiped away a thin layer of sweat from my forehead. “Unohana-taicho,” I stated finally, looking up to stare her in the eyes. “Forgive me if I’m overstepping my boundaries, but I must know—was stabbing yourself through the hand really necessary?”

A hint of apology entered her expression. “I do regret any mental distress I may have caused you, but I admit that I wanted to see how you would react when under pressure and exposed to unexpected situations.” Right. ‘Unexpected situations,’ indeed. If she was willing to stab herself just to test the skills of a not-even-Academy-level-shinigami, I never, ever wanted to cross her.

“In either case, I do believe that I have all the information I need to answer your questions,” she continued. “First of all, how much do you know about how healing kido in the Seireitei works?”

“Not very much,” I admitted. “I’ve read a bit about how a person’s natural reiatsu reserves affect their recovery.” Thinking back to what I’d read in the books Byakuya sent me, I added, “Once injured, a person’s reiryoku and reiatsu immediately travels to the wounded area. This speeds up cellular activity and metabolism, which allows the person to heal at an accelerated rate. That’s why when healing a shinigami, often the first step is to replenish the patient’s own spiritual energy reserves by using a reiatsu transfer technique. This allows the body to speed up its healing on its own.” I twisted my fingers slightly. “However, that’s operating under the assumption that the patient has spiritual energy of their own. Most of my patients in the Rukongai, um…”

“Wouldn’t have had spiritual energy to begin with. Of course,” Unohana murmured. I nodded—it was why I hadn’t tried that hard to figure out the reiatsu transfer technique by myself. There wasn’t much of a point, when the technique would have been ineffective for the vast majority of my clients anyway—I couldn’t replenish someone’s spiritual energy reserves if they didn’t have any reserves, after all.

“I can see your point. General healing kido—what you just described—really wouldn’t work too well on the majority of souls.” And didn’t that say something about just how separate the Seireitei was from the rest of Soul Society? “Your description is fairly accurate. General healing kido works by replenishing a shinigami’s spiritual energy—the healer then links their external reiatsu with the patient’s internal energy and guides it as needed to the most vital wounds. As you’ve likely noticed, the soul is remarkably resilient and good at resisting change of any kind—be that aging or recovering from damage. The body will almost always go back to the way it was before after receiving some injury, if given enough time. In general healing kido, a healer only speeds the natural healing process up,” Unohana explained, eying me thoughtfully. “Of course, the more reiatsu a soul has, the more pronounced that effect is, which is why healers almost always find it easier to treat shinigami of captain or lieutenant class.” She took a sip of her tea and smiled at me.

“Of course, while general healing kido does have its advantages—it doesn’t require a high level of reiatsu, and only a very basic understanding of the human anatomy is needed—there are of course injuries that the body cannot recover from naturally. That is why higher level medics, typically fifth seat and above, are able to perform a branch of healing kido spells—known as Chiyudou spells—to deal with injuries that require a more specialized touch. For example,” Unohana made a sweeping motion with her arm, “Chiyudou #23: Awaken is a resuscitation spell that can be used to great effect—if a patient is going into cardiac arrest, a skilled healer can shock the heart into beating again. In some cases, it can even be used to rouse a patient from a coma. Chiyudou #48: Attach allows a healer to reattach a recently severed limb.”

“You can reattach a limb?” I asked with wide eyes. I wasn’t afraid to admit that while I could heal a partially severed limb, putting an arm or a leg back on was completely out of my league. Jesus Christ…well, that was definitely going on my (rather long) list of ‘things to learn.’

“Yes, I can. Impressed?” Unohana asked, smiling faintly.

“Very,” I answered immediately.

“Of course, while Chiyudou spells for the most part don’t require a spoken incantation, they do follow the rules of all kido spells— healing or otherwise. That is to say, they’re very…rigid. Each spell was designed for a specific purpose and cannot accomplish anything outside of its set purpose. That is why you generally cannot use healing kido in combat. Of course, it’s possible to make a mistakes—for example, using too much reiatsu on a numbing spell can result in hours of numbness instead of minutes. But the way healing kido is structured, you wouldn’t be able to destroy a nerve cell by botching a numbing spell. There are a few instances in which you can use healing kido to attack—overpowering a resuscitation spell is the example I typically like to use. However, why bother to do that when there are attack kido specifically designed to cause harm?” Unohana asked, shaking her head. “Anyway, when it comes down to it, every healing spell is designed with the same purpose in mind—to repair. And that is why attack kido will always be more efficient in combat than healing kido.” Made sense, I suppose. “But what you do is different.”

I blinked in surprise. “I…I’m afraid I don’t understand, Unohana-taicho. What you just described is very similar to what I do. I mean, I wouldn’t call my techniques spells but…don’t they accomplish the same thing?”

“But that’s just it,” Unohana said, clasping her fingers together and leaning forward. “Both your techniques and our Chiyudou spells require the healer to personally repair the injury using their own reiatsu, and they both require a relatively high level of knowledge about the human anatomy. However, what a Chiyudou spell can do is limited to the parameters of that spell—from what I can tell, you saturate the injured area with your reiatsu, which allows you to sense what is happening in that region at a cellular level and grants you almost complete control over it. You aren’t limited to just healing—you can speed up cellular activity, slow it down, simultaneously repair skin and muscle and bone, even instigate cell death…in the field of healing kido, what you do is revolutionary. Of course, I imagine that it requires incredible mental focus and is likely very taxing as it lacks the guidelines even the most basic Chiyudou spells have, thus requiring you to be in control of every step. Without those guidelines, it is also far easier to make a mistake. In the hands of someone without sufficient knowledge, it could very easily be deadly,” Unohana said, voice quietly serious.

“I know. I’ve found that intent—not just knowing what you’re doing, but what you want to happen—is key,” I answered softly. When I first started out, I didn’t know…it was only several months later when I tried healing a mouse in a frustrated state of mind and accidentally activated rapid onset cellular breakdown (its entire limb had rotted completely. In the end I’d killed it just to put it out of its mercy) that I realized just how dangerous my skill could be. In retrospect, I’d been incredibly lucky that I hadn’t accidentally given myself cancer or something in the early stages of testing it out. It was the main reason why I had Miwa only test her skills on animals, why I didn’t let her heal more than the most basic cuts and bruises and even then, only when she was completely calm.

“Do you understand now? Your technique is more akin to body manipulation, of which healing is only a subset.” She set down her teacup and stared me in the eye. “It’s far more draining and quite dangerous…but it’s also far more versatile. In terms of healing alone, there is no doubt that the…conventional method is more efficient and easier. It will likely always be that way. But in terms of sheer potential…” She fell silent and an unreadable expression crossed her face. “I have no doubt that you will be a great asset to the Fourth, Yukimura Hisana.”

***

I was choking, the air tasted like salt and rust. Staggering, I sank to my knees, clutching my chest. Something was dripping nearby. Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop. Something wet landed on my cheek, just under my right eye. I wiped it off, then stilled at the smear of red on my hand. A hand reached forward, grasping my chin with unforgiving fingers and yanking my head up harshly. I inhaled sharply as my eyes met cold, gold ones.

“Well, well, Hisana-chan. It has been a while, hasn’t it?” Akiyama grinned abruptly, an oh-so-familiar mocking grin.

“No—you—it can’t be,” I whispered frantically, trying to move away but my legs wouldn’t move. Why wouldn’t they move?

“’Fraid so, darling,” he hummed cheerfully before pouting. “What? Aren’t you happy to see me? Weren’t we friends?” The last word was laced with sarcasm. “Then again, maybe not. After all, you did give me this.” He snarled, an ugly expression crossing his handsome features as he ripped his yukata open to reveal a gaping hole in his chest. I gazed, transfixed, staring at the wound with a sort of nauseated, horrified fascination. The edges were covered in dried blood and I could see maggots writhing around inside, a mass of squirming, disgusting larvae eating away at the decaying flesh. When I finally tore my eyes away and looked back up, it was to find Tatsuya staring back at me. My breath caught in my throat.

“Why Hisana?” He whispered hoarsely. I swallowed. My throat felt tight. “Why did you do this?”

I could only shake my head in answer, unable to speak. It felt like my lungs were collapsing.

“I took care of you, I looked after you.” He looked away in disgust, before withdrawing a familiar dagger from his waist. “Well, no matter. You’ll be with me soon.”

I couldn’t breathe.

Tatsuya turned back to me and smiled. “After all, we both know you’re living on borrowed time.”

My chest felt tight, too tight.

He raised his knife and—

-- I opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out—

-- even as I looked, the flesh on Tatsuya’s face began rotting away, leaving behind only a grinning, white skull--

-- the knife came down.

 

I sat up so quickly my head spun, taking huge, heaving gulps of air. Pulling my knees up, I clutched them tightly to my chest, trying my best to get my shoulders to stop shaking. Distantly I realized I was crying, large, undignified sobs that wracked my entire body with shivers, my face covered in tears and snot. After a while, I mustered the energy to get up and wash my face, before grabbing the nearest shirt and pants I could reach and heading outside. There was no way I was going to get any sleep now.

Running through the empty streets of Seireitei at a slight jog, I decided to make my way over to one of the more distant training grounds Kaien had taken me to. Once I got there, however, I realized that someone was already there.

It only took me a moment to realize that the panting, hunched over figure was Hiro, although what he was doing here so late at night and so far from his family compound, I had no idea. Quietly making my way over, I was just about to call his name when he whirled around and pulled out a knife, pointing it at me with wild eyes.

“Whoa! Hiro, put the knife down!” I said, hastily stepping back with my hands raised in a gesture of surrender. After of moment of squinting at me in the moonlight, he snorted and slipped the knife away again.

“Oh. It’s just you. What are you doing out here so late at night?” He asked listlessly.

“I could ask you the same question. Isn’t your clan compound in the opposite direction?” I asked. My stomach dropped as I saw him visibly stiffen. Just as I was about to apologize for overstepping—again—he sighed and looked up towards the moon. He didn’t talk for several minutes but just as I was about to leave and find another training ground to run in, he spoke up.

“Did you know I pulled a knife on my mother a couple days ago?” Hiro said, before laughing hollowly. “All she did was tap me on the shoulder and I—I almost gutted her. My own mother, Hisana.” He rolled his head to look at me. “She’s been too afraid to come near me since. Some son I am, huh?”

“Oh, Hiro,” I murmured, stepping forward.

“I’ve barely been home since. Because I’m not safe to be around, not even around members of my own family. Hell, I just threatened you, and you’ve been keeping me alive almost since that bastard Akiyama first got his hands on us! Who’s next, huh? Chiyo? She doesn’t need that; she’s got enough on her plate.” There was a kind of desperation in his eyes now, but I found myself unable to speak. “So much for being able to protect her. At this rate, I’ll be the one she needs protecting from. God, I’m pathetic,” Hiro mumbled, running his hands over his face.

“Hiro, you…you can’t…you aren’t…” I fumbled for words, unable to think of anything to say in the face of his overwhelming self-loathing. He looked up at me, a twisted smile crossing his face.

“I’m not what? Pathetic?” He snorted. “Let me tell you something, Hisana. You know that knife I just pulled out? Well, I’m carrying six of them on my body right now because guess what? I don’t feel safe unless I have at least four blades, of varying shapes and sizes, with me at all times. Actually—who am I kidding? I don’t feel secure even then. At least Eiji’s doing a bang-up job of pretending that the whole thing never happened, like it was some kind of fucked up vacation gone wrong. I can’t even enjoy my life now that I’m free again! Because every time my thoughts drift, every time I freaking close my eyes, it’s like I’m back in that place again!” There were tears in his eyes now.

I took a deep breath before gently placing my hands on his shoulders. “Murakami Hiro. Listen to me. I’m not going to tell you that you’re not a bit messed up right now. But anyone would be—hell, I’m messed up and I wasn’t even the one locked away in that basement. I know it may not seem like it right now, but…you’re strong, Hiro. You’ll get through this. You’re so unbelievably, incredibly strong and I know that because even when under the effects of dozens of drugs, even when they hurt you…not once did you ever stop trying to protect Chiyo. And she’s so lucky to have a cousin like you looking out for her.” I hesitated for a moment before adding, “You may have almost hurt me and your mother but you didn’t. You stopped yourself before you did, and I believe that counts for something.”

Hiro exhaled heavily, though his muscles relaxed a bit. “Man, this whole thing just sucks, doesn’t it? You’d think that the hard part would be getting out alive and then we could all just get back to our normal lives but...” He pursed his lips. “I wish that this whole thing never happened in the first place. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Three seated officers…he shouldn’t have been able to get us within a hundred feet of that basement.”

“So get stronger, faster, better, and the next time some bastard tries to hurt you or anyone you love, beat the shit out of him and stab him in the balls,” I said shrugging. “I guarantee that that will put an end to any further kidnapping attempts.” 

Hiro let out a startled laugh. “You make it sound so simple,” he grinned, a bit of his usual humor entering his features. “If only it really was that easy.”

“But it’s not impossible, yeah? And in the end, that’s really all that matters,” I said, reaching down and squeezing his hand gently.

***

“Damn it,” I grumbled as yet another stray cat wobbled over to me with glazed eyes and promptly began licking my hand enthusiastically. “I knew this was a bad idea.” Although I couldn’t see Kaien anywhere, I just knew that he was laughing at me right now.

It was the stupid spiky-haired idiot’s fault that I was in this situation to begin with. With the Academy test date rapidly approaching, he had suggested giving me a ‘final mission’ of sorts, to “test my problem solving skills, stealth, speed and endurance.” He’d then whipped out an impressively realistic looking drawing of a black cat with golden eyes and had told me that when I “managed to capture it, my training would be officially complete,” and that as a reward, he’d “talk to his sister about giving me lessons on how to create fireworks.” When I asked how I’d be able to tell if I’d captured the correct black cat, his eyes had glinted evilly and he’d replied with “Don’t worry, Yukimura, you’ll definitely know it when you see it. After all, it’s the only cat in all of Soul Society with the ability to talk.”

Well, my memories of canon-Bleach may have been incredibly blurry at this point, but even so I had a nagging feeling that I knew exactly which black cat he was talking about. And while I was confident in my own abilities, I wasn’t stupid. My chances of catching Shihouin Yoruichi, Captain of the Second Division, Head of the Stealth Forces, the freaking Goddess of Flash, the fastest shinigami ever in the history of the Gotei 13 were approximately…nonexistent. Nada, zero, zilch.

And Kaien, the freaking bastard, knew that. Hence why he was probably laughing his ass off at me right now. ‘Final skills assessment,’ yeah right—this was for his own amusement and I knew it. However, my pride kept me from turning down the mission—impossible though it may be—without giving it a try first. Not to mention, I technically wasn’t supposed to know that the Shihouin clan head could turn into a cat, so it’d probably be suspicious if I didn’t give it a decent effort. Byakuya had mentioned her, of course, but while he tended to refer to her as ‘that damned cat-lady’, he hadn’t actually said anything about her transforming into an actual cat.

Which brought me to where I was now. Standing between the Third and the Fourth divisions (I would have camped outside the Second Division, but I figured that might be too suspicious), decked in catnip with a variety of relatively high-grade sashimi spread out on several plates before me, in addition to a few paper boxes I’d managed to find (cats liked boxes, right?).

Hey, if I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell at catching Yoruichi with speed, I could at least give bribery a try.

“Here, kitty kitty,” I called out halfheartedly, pointedly ignoring the snickers coming from a pair of shinigami who just came out of the main Third Division building. I’d admittedly miscalculated the degree of attention that I would attract, and just how publicly humiliating this would be. “Not you,” I snapped as Not-Yoruichi Cat #17 leaped up onto my shoulders and started gnawing at my hair. “Goddammit, I’m going to kill Shiba for this.” At least I’d had the foresight to cover my face, so I wouldn’t be recognizable. I comforted myself with the thought that at least no one would know it was me—people would just think that I was some random weird cat lady. Just as I finished thinking that--

“Hisana, is that you?” I stiffened, gritting my teeth. Fuck, so much for hoping that my reiatsu-sensing abilities were skewed today and that it wasn’t Byakuya standing approximately ten feet behind me right now. There were maybe five people in all of Seireitei who could recognize me when I was suppressing my reiatsu to this extent, and one of them just had to show up. Although, I didn’t recognize the signature beside him…

Turning around reluctantly, I was torn between the urge to laugh hysterically or break down into sobs at the sight of a familiar stunningly-attractive woman with distinctive purple hair decked out in a captain’s haori standing next to a bemused-looking Byakuya, eying me curiously. Well, at least I succeeded in attracting her attention, although admittedly not in the way that I’d hoped.

“Byakuya. So nice to see you,” I said, forcing a smile on my face. It probably came out as more of a grimace. “How are you on this fine, fine day?”

“Hisana, what…what are you doing?” He asked, increasingly bewildered, his words containing a strong undertone of have you lost your mind. Inwardly, I admitted that I could see where he was coming from.

In response, I slammed the picture of cat-Yoruichi Kaien had given me down on the table. Both Yoruichi and Byakuya blinked.

“Shiba Kaien…” I said slowly, far past the point where I gave a fuck about anything. Screw manners and image—my dignity was shredded anyway. “Has assigned me a training mission where I am to catch a talking black cat.” Yoruichi abruptly broke out into a coughing fit. “I am 99% sure that he was just fucking with me because first of all? Last time I checked, cats don’t talk. Second of all,” I motioned down towards where five cats were currently snacking on the fish I bought. “Every single cat in the Seireitei has been by at least once, and not a single one matched his description. Conclusion? Said cat doesn’t freaking exist.” I crossed my arms and sat back in my chair, fuming.

“Have…have you tried asking people about this cat?” Byakuya asked, a strange expression on his face. I scoffed.

“Nah. I mean, originally I tried catching it the original way,” yeah, for all of twenty seconds, “but black cats aren’t exactly uncommon, you know. And I had no idea where it would be. So I decided if I couldn’t find it, I would try to get it to come to me instead. Fat lot of good that did.”

“What if I could help you?” Yoruichi asked me, having apparently recovered from her coughing fit. Her eyes were dancing with mirth.

“What?” Byakuya started, staring at Yoruichi. “Shihouin-taicho, you--”

“You mean that it’s actually real?” I asked her dubiously.

“You could say that,” she grinned mischievously.

“Could you then?” I stared up at her hopefully with shining, hopeful eyes. According to Kazuki, no one could resist those. “He said that if I managed to complete the mission, he’d talk to his sister about giving me lessons on how to make fireworks.” Byakuya’s eyes widened in alarm. I ignored him in favor of looking at Yoruichi beseechingly. The fireworks were admittedly a large part in why I tried so hard to begin with—from what Kaien had told me, she’d managed to create a firework in the shape of a freaking dragon, complete with fire-spewing abilities. “Plus, something about giving me a…pet pig? Um…” I paused, feeling my cheeks warm slightly as it suddenly hit me just how informally I was speaking to a captain. I’d somehow managed to forget that fact in the midst of my annoyance caused by two hours of sitting in the sun, attracting cats of every shape and color and watching various shinigami laugh at me. “I can repay you with tuna? There’s still some left.” I winced, ducking my head. So much for making a good first impression.

“Thanks for the offer, but I’d be happy to help. There’s no need to repay me,” Yoruichi said, lips twitching with amusement. “To be fair, you did manage to get your target to come to you. I think such hard work should be rewarded, don’t you Byakuya-bou?”

“Huh?” Was all I managed to get out before there was a small ‘poof’, and standing amidst a pile of Yoruichi’s clothes was the cat I’d been looking for all morning. She meowed and the next thing I knew, she jumped up into my arms and started rubbing her face against some catnip hanging over my shoulder. As I stared at her in wonder (it was one thing to know that human-animal transformations were apparently possible. It was another thing entirely to actually see it), Byakuya palmed his forehead in exasperation.

“That was amazing,” I breathed out, completely awed. Yoruichi purred and sent a smug look over at Byakuya as if to say see? At least someone here appreciates my awesomeness. I suddenly hugged her tightly to my chest, a wide grin spreading across my face. “I can’t wait to show Shiba-fukutaicho.”

***

“You did what?” Kaien yelped, before promptly collapsing into laughter. I scowled, and Yoruichi licked my cheek comfortingly. “Oh dear god, Hisana, you just made my week. Seriously—you’re the best thing that’s happened to Soul Society in decades.” He was actually crying tears of mirth now.

“You owe me fireworks. And a pig,” I stated grumpily. Kaien waved me off, wiping a tear from his eye. “Yeah, yeah, got it. A deal’s a deal—besides, you’ve earned it.” He chuckled to himself. “I can’t wait to tell Ukitake-taicho about this. He’ll love this.”

“Don’t you dare,” I glared at him before letting out a moan of despair. “I was supposed to be incognito. No one was supposed to recognize me. Why does fate hate me?”

“I did apologize,” Byakuya muttered.

“How did you know it was me anyway?” I asked sullenly. “I know that my reiatsu was barely detectable, my back was facing you, and my hair was covered with a hood!” For some reason, a light dusting of red colored Byakuya’s pale features and he looked down, refusing to answer. Too preoccupied to give it any more thought, I collapsed into a chair, absent-mindedly petting Yoruichi’s back. “With my luck, half the captains are going to know me as catnip-girl,” I said numbly, horrified realization dawning on me. “I now have no future as a shinigami.”

“There, there, it won’t be so bad. I have to say, although your idea was ingenious—if only in its unexpectedness—I don’t think the Second Division is in your future. Much too conspicuous,” Yoruichi said, her—his?—nose twitching in humor. I smiled wryly.

“You’re probably right. Besides, I’m aiming for the Fourth anyway.”

“Now, I have to know—how did you and Byakuya meet? I’m assuming from the familiar way that you two address each other that you’re the mysterious Rukongai friend he’s always going on about?” Yoruichi questioned, voice practically dripping with curiosity. “Dear Byakuya-bou was most reticent in divulging the details.”

“I want to know too. Details, Yukimura, I want details,” Kaien chimed in. I considered my options for a moment before coming to a decision, shooting Byakuya an apologetic look.

“Ensure that the knowledge of what happened today never leads this room and I’ll tell you. I’ll even throw in the story of how I had to rescue Byakuya from a prostitute the second time we met,” I stated, voice completely serious. Byakuya groaned, dropping his face in his hands in an uncharacteristic display of emotion while Kaien smirked wickedly. Yoruichi’s eyes gleamed.

“Negotiation and the exchange of blackmail—I like the way you think, girl. Who knows? Maybe we’ll make a ninja out of you yet.”

Chapter Text

“Ready for this?” I looked up to see Kaien leaning against the doorway, eying me carefully.

“Yeah.” I said softly, looking back down at the ragged stuffed animal in my hands. One of its button eyes was lopsided—I’d taught Rukia how to sew using this bunny.

“It’s okay to miss her, you know?” Kaien murmured, stepping into the room and placing a gentle hand on my shoulder. “God knows that I miss my family too whenever I’m on a long mission, even though they drive me crazy sometimes.” I fingered the pineapple keychain next to Rukia’s bunny, currently wrapped in Miwa’s handkerchief.

“It’s just…we’ve never gone so long with so little contact. I don’t even know how she’s doing, how they’re all doing. I’ve always been the one to look after everyone, you know? The one who makes sure Rukia doesn’t do stupid shit like deciding to go swimming right after rain season, the one who makes sure Renji eats all his vegetables and doesn’t ‘accidentally’ drop all of them on the floor, the one Miwa goes to whenever she comes up with a new remedy and…and…and who’s going to do all that if I’m not there?” I hiccupped, glaring at the floor as my eyes started stinging, willing myself not to cry. “I’m sorry, I’m being ungrateful. There are so many people who’d literally kill to be in my position and don’t get me wrong, I’ll definitely try my best during the test but I…” I’d rather be back in Inuzuri, surrounded by Mitsuo’s reassuring presence, Kaori’s dry humor mingled with Kazuki’s cheerful one, Miwa’s soft smile and Renji’s annoying pranks and Rukia’s bright, happy laugh—

“Hey. It’ll be okay. It’s a big transition—you’ve had to deal with a lot of life-changing events in a relatively short amount of time. I’d be surprised if you weren’t feeling a bit overwhelmed,” Kaien said comfortingly.

“I feel so lonely, Kaien,” I whispered, addressing him by his first name for the first time. “And it’s ridiculous because I’m always surrounded by people and I have lunch with Unohana-taicho once a week and I have you, and Eiji and Hiro have been spending almost all their time—time that they’re supposed to be on leave—helping me train for this test and I have more baked goods than I know what to do with from Chiyo and Shihouin-taicho dragged me shopping just the other day and Byakuya’s the best friend anyone could ask for but they’re not…they’re not...”

“There’re not family,” Kaien finished quietly. He knelt down next to me and placed an arm around my shoulders, pulling me close. “And family’s different. I know. Believe me, I know.”

***

“Holy shit,” I whispered as I took in the size of the lecture hall where the Academy exam was to take place. The place could probably fit a thousand people easily. I hadn’t been in a building this big since…well, since going to undergrad as Christina, literally a lifetime ago. I glanced around, estimating that there were currently about six to seven hundred people in it. Due to the size of the applicant pool—roughly two thousand souls, sheesh— we’d been divided into Groups 1, 2 and 3. I was in the second group—we were to complete the writing portion first before moving on to reiatsu and physical portions.

“I know. Impressive, isn’t it?” I looked to my side to find a boy with mousy brown hair and round eyeglasses grinning at me. “You’re Rukongai, am I right?”

“Yes,” I said with a small smile. “Is it that obvious?”

He laughed. “You were doing good until you walked in. Then the wide eyes and open mouth kinda gave you away.” He gave me a considering look. “This your first time?” At my nod, he added, “Don’t worry, I’m from the Rukongai too. I’m Shibuya Mizuki, by the way. Second district, West Rukongai. You?”

“Yukimura Hisana. Seventy-eighth district, South Rukongai,” I answered. He whistled, looking faintly impressed. “Wow. You came a long way, huh? Must be pretty confident that you’ll make it.” I shrugged, feeling a bit uncomfortable.

 “I think I have a decent chance. I mean, a fifth of the applicants make it, don’t they?” According to Kaien, at least. Of that twenty percent, the top 5 percent went on to the First Class.

At my words, Mizuki snorted derisively. “Sure. That’s what they tell you.” At my confused look, he sighed. “Look Yukimura, you’re new, so you don’t know. They tell you that everyone has an equal chance at getting in, that everyone is judged on the same three categories—reiatsu level and control, writing skill, and physical strength. But what they don’t tell you is that there’s a fourth category, and that’s who you know. Look around you,” he made a sweeping motion behind him. “I’d say that the majority of these applicants are from the Rukongai. Makes sense, ya know? The Rukongai makes up most of Soul Society, and we got more reason than anyone else to want to become shinigami. Yet every year, over eighty percent of the accepted applicants are nobles, or are related to a shinigami in some way.”

A small sneer crossed his face. “You can almost guess who’ll pass already, just based on which ones have the biggest sticks up their asses. See?” He nodded towards a black-haired man with delicate features dressed in an expensive-looking kimono. “Don’t look like much, does he? A hundred kan says that he’ll pass just ‘cause mommy and daddy’ll pull some strings to stop their precious son from failing.”

“And yet you’re still here. In spite of their nepotism-based selection process,” I said dryly. He beamed proudly.

“Fourth time! Screw them. I won’t let ‘em beat me. I figure if I keep trying, they’ve got to accept me sometime, right?” He nudged my shoulder lightly. “Don’t get me wrong, Yukimura. I’m not telling you to give up. I ain’t no hypocrite. But I don’t want you to get your hopes up too much either, yeah?” He motioned for me to follow him. “C’mon, let’s go find seats.”

“So, what made you decide to become a shinigami?” Mizuki asked once we both sat down. I fiddled with the ink pen in front of me.

“I decided that my skills could be of better use here,” I answered.

“Nice, a very diplomatic answer,” Mizuki applauded me. “Answering the question without really saying anything at all. Add in a few more words like ‘nepotism’ and maybe you’ll pass after all.”

“Thanks,” I said wryly. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“It was meant as one,” Mizuki assured me, winking. “I’m ‘fraid my answer ain’t nearly so mysterious as yours. I just wanna get rich and be able to swing a kickass sword around.”

“Fair enough,” I said, returning his smile. His face brightened in response and he shifted closer to me.

“Hey Yukimura, I was thinking, maybe after the test d’you maybe wanna catch di--”

Before he could finish his sentence, he was interrupted by an abrupt flaring of reiatsu at the front of the room. Instinctively straightening up in my seat, I turned my attention to the stern looking man at the podium. Dark-skinned and intensely muscular, he commanded respect without trying.

“Now that I have your attention,” he stated in a booming voice, “Welcome, prospective students of Shin’ou Academy. My name is Onabara Gengoro and I am the Chief Instructor of Class 1. Today, you are all here for one reason, and one reason only. That is, to see if you have what it takes to become shinigami. Today’s exam consists of three parts! A two hour writing exam, a one hour reiatsu testing portion and finally, a four hour physical exam. Only the applicants scoring in the top twentieth percentile will be selected—of the many people in this hall right now, you will never see many of them again. The results of the exam will be posted in three days. Your written applications are under your seats and you may begin them when the clock strikes nine.” I reached under my chair and resisted the urge to sigh despairingly at the half-inch thick paper packet in my hands. “May only the best succeed. Good luck.”

I looked down at the first question. Describe the Gotei 13’s main duties and how they are essential in maintaining the balance of souls. I skimmed the packet quickly, pausing briefly on question number eight—Expand on three reasons why it is always important to listen to your commanding officer in battle. Rubbing my head, I resisted the urge to snort. Kaien was right—the written application was a joke, meant only to gauge whether we were the obedient, ask-no-questions soldiers the Gotei 13 wanted us to be. Still, at least I could make a very decent guess as to the responses the administrators were looking for…with a heavy sigh, I drew on the much-underrated skill of completely bullshitting a response while still making it sound sincere a.k.a. the only skill I managed to retain from high school.

***

“Time’s up.” Onabara barked gruffly just as I finished the last question—why do you want to be a shinigami—waxing poetic for half a page about how I wanted to be a protector of innocents and how important maintaining the balance of souls and keeping order in the world was and how shinigami were harbingers of peace and justice, yadda, yadda, yadda.

“God, I’m glad that’s over,” Mizuki said from next to me, stretching his arms and yawning. “What a load of bull, huh, Yukimura?”

“Was it the same test as the last one you took?” I asked curiously.

“Pretty much,” he grinned. “Sure hope I pass this time. I never wanna see that test again. This next part’s a lot more interesting though,” Mizuki said, perking up.

“Oh?” I asked curiously.

“Yeah. It’s where they test your reiatsu level and control. Super cool stuff,” Mizuki stated confidently. “Really easy too. You’ll love it.”

***

“Um…” I said blankly, staring at the tiny glass orb in my hand before glancing around at the curtained station I was in. It felt almost exactly like that one time I got my fortune read at a Halloween party, except the ‘crystal ball’ this time was a lot smaller and, well, black.

“Well, go on,” the proctor said impatiently. “We don’t have all day.”

“So I just…channel my reiatsu into here?” I asked, peering uncertainly at the black mist swirling inside the orb “What’s that supposed to do?”

“It’ll change color depending on how much spiritual pressure you have. Not to worry, it’s perfectly harmless,” the proctor said. When I still didn’t do anything, he sighed heavily. “Look, black means that there’s no spiritual energy being channeled into it, all right? Red is the maximum it can reach, which is about the level of a lieutenant, maybe a little under. You don’t have to worry about that—the only people who have even come close to reaching red on an Academy entrance exam in the past couple of centuries are Shiba Kaien and Ichimaru Gin…I suppose Zaraki Kenpachi as well, but shattering the glass just by touching it doesn’t count,” he muttered the last part under his breath. “Your average Rukongai soul will be either black or a dark purple. Typically, new Academy students range between indigo and a medium blue. Happy now?”  The proctor asked sarcastically.

“Very. Thank you for explaining,” I said, taking a deep breath before channeling spiritual energy from my core down my arms, into my hands, infusing the glass sphere with as much of my energy as I could. As I did so, I could feel the glass gently warm up, the sphere quickly turning from black to purple, purple to blue, before finally settling on a gentle green glow that reflected light off the curtained walls. It was a lovely light green, the color of freshly budding leaves, with the occasional fleck of gold shining through.

“6.2,” the proctor said, eying a color scale on the wall. He raised a faintly impressed eyebrow. “Not bad. Not bad at all. You got some experience using reiatsu?”

“You could say that,” I said, cutting off my reiatsu flow and watching as the orb slowly faded back to black. I had been using my reiatsu regularly for the past sixty years or so after all.

“Well, I’d say that you currently have the reiatsu of a lower to mid-ranked seated officer,” he said, making a note on his chart before motioning me forward to a rectangular tower with ten lights spread out in evenly-spaced intervals. To be honest, it kind of reminded me of one of those ‘Test-your-strength’ circus games, just without the hammer. “You put your dominant hand here,” the proctor demonstrated, putting his hand on a hand-shaped groove on the side of the tower. “Then you channel reiatsu until each light starts shining. As you progress, each light will require exponentially more reiatsu control to light up. Like this.” I could sense him channeling reiatsu into his right hand and sure enough, the lights started turning on one by one. This continued until he hit the eighth light or so, which flickered before going out completely.

“See? Easy,” he said, stepping back and motioning for me to go forward. I complied, stepping forward and placing my hand where his just was.

Inhaling deeply, I slowly channeled my reiatsu into the machine until the first light went on. From what I could tell, there was a fairly sizable range for the first light, and as long as you maintained your reiatsu level somewhere within that range, it would light up. The second through fifth lights also lit up without issue, although the range in which I had to keep my reiatsu at got smaller for each one. For the sixth and seventh, I increased my reiatsu output before slowly lowering it until it reached the desired amount. For the eighth light, I allowed my reiatsu to fluctuate slightly to get an idea of how much spiritual energy was needed before painstakingly increasing my energy output drop by drop until the eighth light started shining brightly. By this time, I was starting to get tired. While the amount of reiatsu the machine required was relatively low, it was…mentally draining to input such a steady flow of spiritual energy into it.

A bead of sweat trickled down my face as I glared at the flickering ninth light. I knew how much energy was needed for the stupid thing to light up, but trying to keep my reiatsu levels so steady was like…god, it was like trying to pour water from a bucket into a tiny bottle without spilling a drop. A tiny trickle more…a drop less…and there! It wavered before finally stabilizing.

For a moment, I just stared at the final light, taking a few moments to calm myself.

“Uh…you know you don’t have to get all ten lights, right? Hardly anyone does. You’ve already passed—you only had to get up to six,” the proctor said hesitantly from behind me.

“No. I—I’d like to try. Please,” I said, taking a deep breath before decreasing my reiatsu by the slightest amount. The tenth light didn’t even flicker and the ninth light dimmed for an instant. Wrong direction then. After carefully increasing my reiatsu output until it reached its previous level, I closed my eyes, visualizing the tiny paper cut I’d healed this morning. The amount of energy it took to repair seal up the smallest sort of cut…no, the amount of energy it took to regrow a mere five or six epithelial cells…I opened my eyes and let out a breath of relief at the sight of the tenth light glowing back at me.

Letting my hand fall from the device, I turned to face the proctor. “So. Did I pass?” I asked brightly.

***

“Hey! I see that you made it.” I turned around at the sound of Mizuki’s voice.

“Shibuya-san. It’s good to see you again,” I said warmly.

“The glowy-orb thing was cool, wasn’t it?” He asked enthusiastically, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. I smiled hesitantly at him as he squeezed tightly.

“It was…interesting, I guess.” I hadn’t been sure what to expect when we’d been told to walk outside after the written exam and to line up in front of one of the fifty or so purple tents set up near the Academy entrance, but I suppose as exams went, a wannabe fortune-teller set-up wasn’t too bad. Far better than the written application, at least.

“You’re a hard one to impress, aren’t you?” Mizuki said, amused. “So what color did you get? I got a dark blue—though I think it was a bit lighter than last year’s, so I’ll count that as a win.”

“Green,” I shrugged a bit awkwardly. “I’ve been training my reiatsu for a long time though.” Mizuki’s eyes widened and he let out an impressed whistle. “Huh. I thought only the nobles scored that high,” he said. “Maybe you have a decent chance after all. Keep this up and even the stuffy old geezers in charge won’t be able to deny you a place.”

“Thanks. I can only hope,” I said, moving towards where the head proctor was instructing people to split up into even groups—one for each part of the physical exam. “So which group do you want to join?” I asked.

“Uh…” For the first time, Mizuki’s ever-present confidence slipped a fraction. “I guess the two mile run. Get it over with, and all that.”

“What’s wrong? You nervous?” I teased lightly as we joined the group headed towards the edge of the school grounds, where the two mile run would be taking place. We were the smallest group—there were roughly one hundred people around us.

“You could say that. It’s where I failed the past few times,” he said, smile becoming strained for a second before brightening again. “I’ve been training though. I’ll definitely get through it this time!”

“We can run together. That is, if you’re sure you can keep up,” I challenged, keeping part of my attention on the proctor as he explained the rules. The path we were supposed to take was a wide trail around the Academy that ran through some nearby woods for part of the way. If someone didn’t finish under fifteen minutes, they would automatically fail the exam, although beating the minimum time limit didn’t necessarily guarantee you a spot either. The faster you ran, the better your chances were. Since there were so many people, we split up into five groups of roughly twenty people each. Mizuki and I were in the group running first.

“Of course,” Mizuki smirked at me, although his bravado didn’t match his previous confidence. “With those toothpick legs? You won’t stand a chance, pipsqueak.” I scowled instinctively.

“Says the person who’s the same height as me. What does that make you then?” I grumbled, reaching down to stretch my legs briefly. A quick wave of healing reiatsu—small enough that it was undetectable to the public eye—was enough to relax my leg muscles. “Better run fast or I’ll leave you in the dust.”

“Ha! Like you could, Yukimura. You’re on,” he grinned, crouching down.

“If you’re running, step up. The rest of you, wait over there,” the proctor barked. I took my place at the starting line next to a tall nervous-looking silver haired girl, with Mizuki on my other side. “You have fifteen minutes, everyone. Better make it to the finishing line before then.” He looked down at his watch. “Three…two…one aaand go!”

There was a mad scramble as half the people immediately took off in a mad sprint. I set off at a quick run, carefully regulating my breathing. While I was determined to do well, there was no need to exhaust myself so early in the exam.

“Look—who’s—behind—now,” Mizuki panted out between heavy breaths after roughly a minute or so. I rolled my eyes, easily increasing my speed until I caught up with him. Perhaps the best thing about being technically ‘dead’ was that I was no longer limited by the constraints of a physical human body. I’d never be able to maintain this level of speed otherwise.

“Uh huh. Keep that up and then we’ll talk,” I said, eying the distant tree line in front of us. We’d probably be reaching the forest in around five minutes at our current speed. “Stop running so fast. You should conserve your strength,” I added, eying Mizuki’s red face with some concern. “We have plenty of time.”

He shook his head stubbornly. “Not—if we—wanna get in,” he wheezed. “Gotta—gotta do better than all those—noble—bastards.” Mizuki shot me a tired smile. “Bet—bet that once we—reach—the trees, I’ll get through the forest—before—before you.”

“This isn’t a race, idiot,” I scolded. “But fine. Only if you stop talking though. It wastes energy.” As we reached the trees, I took a moment to catch my breath. I wasn’t doing too badly by my estimation, although my breathing was a bit strained by this point. Still, we were probably halfway done already—I estimated that if I could keep this up, we’d probably finish around the eleven-minute mark or so.

“Tired already, Yukimura?” Mizuki taunted, sprinting ahead of me. “I’ll—definitely win—at this rate.”

“You wish.” Straightening up, I increased my speed until I was jogging alongside him. Panting a bit for breath now—we were currently on an upward slope—I pointed ahead to where the trees were thinning out. “We’re almost—ah—there. Less than a quarter to go,” I gasped out. In answer, Mizuki simply nodded before sprinting ahead. I was just about to follow when he suddenly staggered, clutching at his chest and doubled over coughing.

“No—no, this can’t—this can’t be happening,” he wheezed out between dry coughs. “No…nonono…” His voice trailed off as he gasped for air, breaths becoming increasingly quick and panicked.

“Shibuya-san?” I asked urgently as he fell to his knees.

“Can’t—breathe. You—go,” he rasped, frantically motioning me away before slumping over, grasping his throat with his hands.

Fuck,” I cursed, gently moving him so that his back rested against a nearby tree trunk. I eyed the way his lips were now turning a faint shade of blue with more than a little worry. “Why didn’t you say you had asthma, you idiot?” I muttered. Who the fuck undergoes a physically challenging exam four times when they knew they had trouble breathing at times? And then challenges someone to a fucking race in the middle of said exam just to show off?

Biting my lip angrily, I put my hands—already glowing green—on his chest. To be honest, I was more frustrated at myself. Some healer I was—couldn’t even identify the beginning signs of an asthma attack when it was right in front of me.

The sound of footsteps pausing right in front of me made me look up from where I was channeling my reiatsu through his chest and into his airways.

“Is—is he going to be okay?” The tall silver-haired girl—I vaguely recognized her as the girl who’d been next to me at the starting line—asked timidly.

“I think so. Still, he needs medical attention right now,” I answered briskly, turning my focus back to reducing the inflammation of his bronchial tubes and halting the overproduction of the mucus that was currently coating his airways. Figured that I’d be the only source of ‘medical attention’ around. “You should go. The exam’s still going on.”

She nodded before standing back up. “Don’t worry—I’ll go get help,” she promised before straightening up and running off at a dead sprint.

“It was dumb of me to try again,” Mizuki said quietly. A few other people ran past us, briefly glancing at us but not bothering to stop. “It’s just…I haven’t had an attack in months. And it’s usually not so bad—I thought if I could just run fast enough…get it over with soon enough…”

“Quit talking, dumbass,” I said, instructing my reiatsu to finish relaxing the muscles in his airways. A corner of his mouth tilted up and he reached forward to push my hands away. “You should go,” he offered me a weak smile. “There’s still some time left, I think. Maybe you can still make it.” 

The telltale swooshing sound of shunpo made us both look up to see an unfamiliar proctor standing in front of us. “He’s right. You have over a quarter mile to go, and a bit under a minute left. It’ll be hard, but you should still try to finish the exam. Don’t worry—I’ll get someone from the Fourth to look at him.”

“Fine.” I said standing up, before glaring at Mizuki. “Take it easy, you hear? Wanting to become a shinigami is all fine and good, but it’s no use if you kill yourself trying.” He offered me a weak salute.

“Sure, sure, got it. You better run fast, Yukimura. So that one of us will have a chance, at least.”

***

“Yukimura Hisana,” I mustered the effort to mutter out after half-sprinting, half-stumbling over the finish line.

“14:58—cutting it a bit close there, aren’t you?” The heavyweight proctor sneered at me, marking down my time next to my name. Too tired to care, I made my way over to a relatively secluded spot by a cluster of trees before my legs gave out. In retrospect, flooding my entire body with spiritual energy probably hadn’t been the smartest idea. It had worked—my body had broken down waste products at an incredible rate while cellular respiration had sped up in nearly every cell—but the cost was that I’d expended way more reiatsu than was probably wise by sacrificing finesse and control for speed. That wasn’t even going into the strain it’d placed on my muscles…I bit my lip as another wave of fiery hot agony swept through my legs and directed what little energy I had left to begin repairing torn ligaments and damaged tendons. Still, considering that it had saved my ass from automatic failure, I considered it energy well spent.

“You made it!” For a second, I tried tilting my head up to identify the speaker, but gave it up as a wasted effort when the furthest my gaze could reach at the moment was the speaker’s stomach.

“Too tall,” I mumbled tiredly.

“Ah! I’m sorry,” the speaker said a bit awkwardly before bending down so that her face was right in front of mine. It was the silver-haired girl from before, looking at me with a mixture of genuine happiness and worry. “Here.” She thrust a water bottle at my face.

“Thanks,” I said gratefully, rolling over so that my head was off the ground and promptly downing half the water bottle in a matter of seconds. “For this, and for before too. You were the only one who stopped, you know?”

“It’s no problem. I’m sorry that I couldn’t do more—although it seemed like you had things under control,” she said shyly. “It’s great that you can do healing kido already. And I just wanted to say…what you did for that boy was really kind. You could’ve lost your own chance at passing the exam by stopping to help him.”

“I was the only one nearby who could help,” I said shrugging. “And passing isn’t worth a kid choking half to death, you know?”

“Still, that was an amazing thing to do,” she said, holding out a hand to help me up. “I’m Isane, by the way. Kotetsu Isane. But you can call me Isane—I have a lot of siblings,” she explained, flushing slightly. “So I’m used to people calling me by my first name in order to avoid confusion.”

“Yukimura Hisana,” I said, mustering up a friendly smile. I peered a bit closer at her face. Now that I thought about it, her features looked familiar, somehow…which probably meant that she was somewhat important in canon-Bleach. A third seat or a lieutenant, maybe? I mentally set that thought aside to consider later as fat-proctor started yelling at people to partner up for the push-up and sit-up portions while we waited for the remaining groups to finish. Well, since Shibuya was gone…

“Um…the next part requires a partner, and I don’t have one yet, so I was wondering…” Isane began, apparently having the same thought as me. “I mean, you don’t have to, but…” She wrung her hands together nervously, before taking a deep breath. “Want to be partners, Yukimura-san?”

“I was just about to ask you the same thing,” I said, pulling myself up from the ground with an effort. Thankfully I still had some time to recover before the next portion. Pretending to ignore the way Isane’s shoulders had slumped with relief, I made my way over to where the first people from the second group were just finishing their run. “And call me Hisana, Isane-san. It’s only fair, don’t you think?”

***

“So do you think you’re going to pass?” Isane asked anxiously several hours later as we walked out the Academy doors together, after the test had finally finished. Luckily, the time spent waiting for everyone to finish had given me plenty of time to recover, so the remaining physical portions had passed relatively smoothly. “I mean, I think I did okay, I did pretty well on the reiatsu portions but my writing’s not so great and…and no one in my family has ever become a shinigami before, although one of my sisters will be applying in a year or so, and I almost didn’t make the rock-climbing section--”

“And I almost didn’t make the two mile run. Relax, Isane-san,” I said in my most reassuring voice. “Besides, I’d say that a quarter of the applicants have been eliminated already, so both of us have a pretty decent ch—HOLY SHIT!” I yelped as eight pounds of black, furry something bowled into me, knocking me flat on my back. Looking up, I barely resisted the urge to sigh as I found myself staring at a very familiar cat sitting on my chest, licking one paw smugly. Figures.

“Um, Hisana-san?” Isane asked hesitantly, looking as if she was debating whether or not to help.

“It’s okay,” I reassured her before turning my attention back to Yoruichi. “Shihouin-taicho, that was mean.” Isane’s mouth fell open and she gaped at Yoruichi.

“S-Shihouin? T-taicho?” She muttered, abruptly paling.

“If you knew shunpo, you might have been able to dodge,” Yoruichi stated primly, stepping off my chest with enviable grace. I scoffed, sitting up and brushing my shirt off.

“Uh huh, right. Byakuya still can’t dodge you. What makes you think I could?” I grumbled.

“I don’t, but it would quadruple your chances at least,” Yoruichi flashed me a grin. On her current form, the humanlike expression looked more than a little disturbing.

“Four times zero is still zero,” I retorted. After spending the past couple of days dealing with her surprise attacks (“I’m preparing you for ambushes! You should be thanking me!”), I’d lost a great deal of my initial reverent awe towards her. Apparently she’d heard of my prejudice against learning shunpo and was now using every opportunity to demonstrate why it was the “most useful skill a shinigami could ever learn”. I was going to kill Kaien.

“Don’t you have better things to do than scare the shit out of me on a daily basis? You’re a captain. I hear that has responsibilities,” I snarked.

“But it’s oh so entertaining,” Yoruichi pouted. “And you make the funniest expressions. And since Byakuya-bou got used to me decades ago, you’re the next best choice.”

“I’m honored.” My voice was probably drier than the desert at this point.

“Now you understand my pain,” another familiar voice spoke up. An involuntary smile spread across my face.

“Byakuya!” I said, jumping up and turning to face him. “You came! I thought you were working today.” A small smile lit his features.

“I finished early,” he replied, voice warm. “How was the exam?” I made a face.

“About as fun as that time Shiba-fukutaicho had Hiro and Eiji shoot minor kido spells at me while I was running in order to ‘motivate’ me,” I muttered before brightening up again. “At least I got a new friend out of it though.” I turned to face Isane only to find her staring at Byakuya and Yoruichi with widened eyes, her face dead white.

“This here is Kotetsu Isane,” I said. “Isane-san, this is Kuchiki Byakuya, lieutenant of the Sixth Division. The annoying cat is Shihouin Yoruichi, captain of the Second Division.” My eye twitched as Yoruichi leapt onto my shoulders before casually making herself at home sitting on my head. “And resident menace to society.”

“I had no idea you thought so highly of me, Hisana-chan,” Yoruichi teased. I twitched again at the honorific. She flicked her tail in acknowledgement at Isane, giving her a regal nod. “Nice to meet you, Kotetsu.”

Isane nodded wordlessly, looking like she was torn between wanting to run away and wishing the ground would swallow her whole. I sympathized, remembering what it felt like meeting a captain for the first time. Terrifying didn’t even begin to cover it.

“N-nice to m-meet you too, Shihouin-taicho! Kuchiki-fukutaicho!” Isane finally managed to squeak out, voice high before slipping into a deep bow. “I-it’s an honor! Really!”

“Pleasure,” Byakuya said coolly, inclining his head forward a fraction of a degree. I shot him a glare. Be nice. He seemed to internally sigh with resignation before adding a stilted “I hope your exam went well, Kotetsu Isane?”

“Um…it w-went okay, I guess,” Isane stuttered out, voice small. She refused to meet his eyes. “I, uh, actually have to go…Kiyone’s waiting for me, she’ll be wondering how I did. Hisana-san, I’ll see you later?” She addressed the last part to me before quickly walking off. It looked like she was barely restraining herself from breaking out into a run.

I stared after her in bewilderment before turning around to study Byakuya carefully. “Are you really that scary?” I questioned, tilting my head to the side. Isane had seemed almost more terrified of Byakuya than she was of Yoruichi, although that may have had something to do with the fact that Yoruichi was currently a cat. I honestly didn’t understand her intimidation—maybe if I squinted…yeah, nope. “I don’t see it.”

I heard Yoruichi huff with amusement from where she was still perched on my head. “Yes, well, you’ve always been a special case. Don’t you agree, Byakuya-bou?” I couldn’t see Yoruichi’s expression, but Byakuya’s glare at the moment could probably freeze nitrogen.

“I don’t like what you’re implying, Shihouin-taicho,” he said icily. Yoruichi’s tail brushed against my shoulder and she jumped back to the ground, sending Byakuya a distinctively amused smirk. I was missing something here.

“Oh, calm down Byakuya-bou, I wasn’t implying anything. But even you have to admit that you’ve treated Hisana…differently, from the start.”

Byakuya’s expression turned positively frosty but before he could say anything, my stomach let out a loud gurgle. I could feel my face slowly heating up as both Byakuya and Yoruichi turned to stare at me with identical raised eyebrows. Must be a noble thing, I decided.

“It’s not my fault! I haven’t eaten anything in like eight hours!” I said defensively. Thank god I hadn’t had to do the written exam last, otherwise there probably would have been some strange noises in the lecture hall.

“You don’t need to apologize for being hungry,” Byakuya said, though the corner of his lips curved up by the slightest amount. “Although that reminds me. We should be going—I believe that we are due to eat dinner at the Shiba clan compound?”

“You’re right, Byakuya-bou,” Yoruichi said before a mischievous glint entered her eyes. I was immediately wary. “But it’s all the way on the other side of Seireitei and Kukaku is expecting us in fifteen minutes. It’d really be so much easier if…well, we don’t want to be late, do we? That would just be plain rude.” I caught on as both Yoruichi and Byakuya turned to look at me speculatively.

“Oh, no.” I said immediately, stepping back and making warding off motions with my arms. “I am not going through that again. Once was bad enough. No, no, no, you are not getting anywhere near me--”

“Byakuya, would you care to do the honors?” Yoruichi asked. “I would carry her myself, but in my current form it’d be quite inconvenient…and I don’t have any spare clothes on me right now…”

I looked towards Byakuya desperately. “We’re friends, right? You wouldn’t do that to me, right?” I asked pleadingly. He winced.

“I’ll make it up to you later,” he promised. The next thing I knew, I was held securely against his chest, one arm around my back holding me close and the other under my knees. The familiar smell of sandalwood mixed with ink and tea surrounded me and I could feel his heartbeat thudding steadily against my ear. Burying my face in his chest so that he couldn’t see my reddened cheeks, I muttered, “I swear to god, if you drop me I’ll come back as a ghost and haunt you for all eternity.”

Byakuya chuckled, chest vibrating slightly from his laughter. “All eternity, huh? That doesn’t sound so bad.”

***

Several minutes later, I pushed down the wave of nausea that rose within me and tentatively opened one eye. “Has the world stopped spinning yet?”

In front of me, Yoruichi—in human form again and fully clothed—shook her head in disbelief. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone with such a bad reaction to shunpo. That was Byakuya going slow. I was able to get here and go change by the time you two got here.”

“Yes, well, I like walking. Going at a non-insane speed. Being able to enjoy the world around me,” I retorted as Byakuya gently set me back on my feet. “Not having to worry about running into a brick wall or something.”

“I would never run into a brick wall,” Byakuya protested, looking mildly offended before automatically reaching out to steady me as I took a wobbly step and almost fell over.

“Uh huh. That’s what Shiba-fukutaicho said right before he almost lost his head by running into a tree,” I grumbled, thinking back to my first experience with shunpo.

“Look out for that tree!” I shrieked, digging my nails into Kaien’s arm. “I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, tell my sister that I love her--”

“Relax, kiddo,” Kaien grinned down at me. “I’m a pro at this. Hell, I bet you I could do this with my eyes clos—fuck!” he cursed as an owl swooped down in front of him, almost making him collide headfirst into a tree branch. He swerved nauseatingly to the side, avoiding it by a nanosecond as my voice went up another octave.

I shuddered, remembering the way my life had flashed before my eyes.

“Oh, come on. It wasn’t that bad. I had things perfectly under control,” Kaien complained as he walked out of the weirdest looking house I’d ever seen. “Besides, I don’t see why you’re the victim here. I’m the one who almost had my eardrums shattered by your screaming.”

“You almost dropped me! Twice!” I said indignantly, placing my hands on my hips and glaring at him. “What?” Byakuya demanded, eyes narrowing.

“Well, your expressions were just so entertaining…joking! I was just joking!” Kaien put his hands up in surrender as Byakuya’s reiatsu swirled ominously. “What kind of guy do you take me for, anyway? A jerk who would pretend to drop a helpless girl for his own amusement?”

“He wouldn’t be wrong,” a new voice chimed in dryly. “Nii-san, stop being an idiot.”

“Ah imouto, you wound me,” Kaien said dramatically. I turned to see a black haired girl who bore a remarkable resemblance to Kaien step forward with a deadpan expression.

“Kukaku,” Yoruichi said smiling, stepping forward and giving her a hug. “Haven’t seen you for a while. I see that you’ve changed your house design again.” We all turned to look at the giant snowman statue standing on one side of the main house.

 Kukaku grunted, a faint smile curving her lips. “Hn. Changed it just last week, actually. I’m protesting summer.” I blinked in bemusement. “What do you think?”

“You should build another one,” I blurted out before flushing slightly as Kukaku turned to face me, expression unreadable. One of Yoruichi’s eyebrows shot up. “On the other side of the house. So…so it doesn’t get lonely,” I added, refusing to meet anyone’s eyes. “It’ll add symmetry too, if you build it a twin. There’s a certain kind of beauty in balance, you know? Right now it seems a little lopsided. Uh…that’s just what I think, anyway,” I finished off lamely. Kukaku stared at me for a moment longer before turning to eye the statue critically.

“Huh. You may be right,” she said finally, tilting her head to the side. “Plus, if I add another one, I can maybe have them hold a banner over the house. Add some pizzazz.” Behind her, Kaien groaned.

“You just had to encourage her, didn’t you Yukimura?” He muttered.

“Shut up, nii-san,” Kukaku said sharply, cutting off her brother with a sharp glare. I blinked again—Kaien was supposed to be clan head here? “She obviously has taste, unlike some people here.” She gave me a sharp nod.

“Shiba Kukaku. Nice to meet you.”

“Yukimura Hisana. So you’re Soul Society’s top fireworks and explosives expert?” I asked. A glint of pride entered her eyes.

 “That’s right. You won’t find someone who knows more about pyrotechnics than me.” She eyed me shrewdly. “And you’re the one Kaien agreed to give lessons to on how to make fireworks, huh? Well, if he has some branch house member teach you a few tricks, that’s his business. I won’t interfere. But if you want to learn from me, well,” Kukaku pursed her lips. “Nii-san seems pretty taken with you, so I’ll give you a chance. But you’re gonna have to impress me. And trust me, kid, that’s not an easy thing to do.”

I narrowed my eyes, ignoring the way Byakuya let out an exasperated sigh. “Oh? Try me,” I challenged. She grinned, folding her arms over her chest. “We’ll start after dinner.”

***

“Had enuff?” Kukaku asked, voice slurred. “You should givvup. Imma Shiba. No one outdrinks a Shiba.”

 “Y’wish,” I mumbled out, reaching out towards the closest sake bottle and frowned when my fingers hit nothing but air. Yoruichi helpfully nudged it into my hand and I gave her a nod of thanks. At least I hoped I did—it was getting a bit difficult to distinguish features so I’d just nodded towards the blurry purple blob and hoped for the best. “Keep ‘em comin’. I’m no’ f—finish—done yet!” With that declaration, I tipped the bottle over my saucer and frowned in betrayal when nothing came out.

“Nee-san? She looks like she’s gonna fall over,” a childish voice whispered. My frown deepened.

“I thought he wash upstairs,” I said, making a concentrated effort to enunciate each syllable. Turning towards Kaien’s younger sibling—cute kid, nothing like his asshole of a brother—I added, “Ganju-kun, you shood—you should be in bed. Go to sleep, okay? It’s late.”

“Good lord, even when completely wasted, she’s still a mother hen,” Yoruichi muttered.

“I’ll have someone send him upstairs,” Kaien said, motioning towards a servant. In the meantime, Kukaku poured herself another glass of sake.

“Cheers,” she toasted me, arm shaking slightly. I peered blearily over her shoulder to check if Ganju had left—he really was adorable, kept going on and on about how he was looking forward to raising his own pig in a few years and how he was going to name it Bonnie at dinner—before reaching out and grabbing another sake bottle. “Mmm yeah. This’s good stuff, right here.”

“It should be—that’s the stuff Kyoraku gave me two years ago,” Kaien complained. He stared at the many empty bottles in front of us mournfully. “And now it’s all gone.”

“Shoulda hid it bedder then, nii-san,” Kukaku said smugly before pointing at me triumphantly as I swayed heavily, almost falling over. “Ha! See, you’re done for.”

“Shaddup,” I glared at her. Why were there three of her, now? I focused on the middle one. “Beesides, you’re cheating. There’re tree—no, free—three of you. S’not fair.”

“All right, that’s enough,” Byakuya spoke up suddenly. I clung to my sake bottle stubbornly as he tried to pull it from me.

“Nooooo I don’t wanna.” I hugged the bottle to my chest protectively. “I ain’t no quitter.”

“Listen to reason, Hisana,” he cajoled. “You’ll be in no shape to meet with Unohana-taicho tomorrow if you keep this up.”

“Nuh uh. I’ll be fine. You jus’ wait,” I sniffed, tilting my nose up.

“You’re going to kill yourself through alcohol poisoning,” Byakuya tried.

“No’m not. This ain’t nuthin’,” I said proudly before doubling over and clutching at my stomach as a sudden wave of nausea passed through me. “I feel sick.”

“Me too,” Kukaku agreed, looking more than a bit green. “Draw?”

“Draw,” I agreed before both of us sprinted for the bathroom at the same time. I got to it first, but only because Kukaku tried to use shunpo and promptly ran into a wall. As I knelt over the toilet bowl vomiting up the contents of my stomach, some part of me felt vindicated at that.

***

“I told you,” Byakuya said the next morning without an ounce of sympathy in his voice. “I warned you, didn’t I? This is what happens when you don’t listen to me.”

“Yes, yes, I know. I’m an over-competitive idiot who can never refuse a challenge. Still, a little compassion would be appreciated,” I said half-heartedly from where my head was enveloped in my arms. The pounding inside my head intensified and I let out a low moan. Another problem with my version of healing kido was that it was…difficult to use effectively in circumstances where I didn’t have a clear state of mind. In other words, when I was in any kind of drugged state, suffering from severe pain, experiencing extreme emotional distress or suffering from a head injury.

This will pass, I thought to myself gloomily. Curing a headache isn’t worth accidentally giving yourself a brain tumor or something. You can’t even open your eyes right now without suffering blinding pain.

I heard Byakuya sigh and then the scrape of a chair before there was a tentative pressure against both sides of my forehead. “Wha--” I began before exhaling in relief as a numbing coolness began to spread from where he was gently rubbing circles into my temples, dulling the pain until I could think coherently again.

“You know healing kido!” I couldn’t quite hide the note of surprise in my voice.

“Mm. Only a little bit. Enough to reduce the inflammation in your blood vessels and numb the pain a little. Your reiatsu levels are still a bit low—that’s why your recovery has been slower than usual,” Byakuya replied. “I’m still learning, but I figured I should have at least a basic understanding of it.”

“What brought this on?” I asked curiously. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that you know a bit of healing kido. Everyone should in my opinion, and it’s just plain stupid that it’s only an elective course at the Academy. It’s just…you’ve never taken much of an interest in learning it before.” He was silent for a moment.

“For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always taken care of me when I was injured, offered me help when I needed it,” Byakuya said softly. “Even when you didn’t know who I was. And now…in a few short years, you’ll be a shinigami and going on missions and that’s…that’s…” Byakuya let his hands fall to his sides, fingers curling into fists before relaxing again. Frowning, I tilted my head up to see him clenching his jaw, grey eyes flashing. “I won’t be able to guarantee your safety,” Byakuya said, looking like the admission physically pained him. “But if you’re ever hurt, I refuse to stand around doing nothing.”

Huh. So it looked like the idea of me becoming a shinigami was bothering him more than he’d admit.

“Just because we’re friends, Byakuya, doesn’t mean that you’re responsible for my well-being,” I said softly. “Becoming a shinigami is dangerous, but it’s a choice that I made for myself. I know the risks—I’ll be careful. So don’t worry so much over me; you’ll get stress lines. And what a tragedy that would be,” I teased slightly, cupping his face and gently smoothing out the frown lines around his mouth.

“You say that like I have a choice,” he scoffed lightly, placing the slightest bit of pressure on my palms as he leaned into my touch. The ghost of a smile softened his features and without consciously thinking about it, I let my gaze drift down. There was something incredibly sensual about the curve of his lips, I thought absently. Unable to resist, I swept my thumbs across his lower lip in a feather-light touch.

“What the hell is taking you guys so long? Kuchiki, you went up there to tell Hisana that breakfast was ready half an hour ago! I’m hungry and I want to eat!” Kaien’s irritated voice drifted up the stairs. I blinked, just now realizing exactly how close Byakuya and I were standing.

“Ah,” I said, stepping back quickly and determinedly refusing to think about just how soft Byakuya’s lips were. Inwardly, I cursed myself, panicking—stupid, stupid! What was I doing? Where the hell had my self-restraint gone?

With a massive effort, I managed to clear my expression to resemble something close to normal. “We shouldn’t keep them waiting,” I said with forced nonchalance, as if I hadn’t just been caressing his face. Slipping a casual smile on with practiced ease, I added lightly, “Wouldn’t want Shiba-fukutaicho to faint from hunger, after all.” 

Byakuya stared at me, searching my features intently. Whatever he was looking for, he didn’t seem to find it as his brow furrowed slightly, the barest hint of frustration and—disappointment? – crossing his face before vanishing so quickly I wondered if it had been there at all.

“Indeed,” he said politely, the moment lost.

***

“Dear lord, she’s beautiful,” I breathed out, staring down into soft, trusting glistening black eyes.

“It’s a pig,” Byakuya stated flatly.

My pig,” I corrected, cradling her carefully. She snuffled, burrowing deeper into my arms and my heart melted.

“Well, I’m glad you like it,” Kukaku grunted from where she was nursing a cup of tea. Unsure of how to bring the subject of our bet up, I’d sent her questioning looks all through breakfast until she finally cracked, snapping out a “All right, all right, you’ve got yourself a teacher! Just stop looking at me like that!” She’d then promptly dragged me out to the pigpen and had demanded I pick one. At that moment, one of the piglets wandered away from its mother and made its way towards me curiously. It was small, and had black splotches covering its fuzzy pink body and I’d fallen in love.

“Aww, it’s cute. Do you have a name for it yet?” Yoruichi asked, reaching out to stroke the top of the pig’s snout with one finger.

“I’m thinking about Tonton. A cute name for a cute pig,” I cooed, before turning to face Kaien. “Um…I don’t think the Academy allows pet pigs, so--”

“You can keep it here—we’ll feed it and stuff—but you can visit at any time,” Kaien said smiling, watching the way I brought the pig up to my face and nuzzled it with my nose.

“It’s a pig,” Byakuya repeated before turning back to Kaien. “You couldn’t have promised her a puppy or a rabbit or something?”

“Oh come on, Byakuya. Even you have to admit that she’s too adorable for words,” I said, lifting her up to face Byakuya. He stared back, unimpressed.

“It’s unsanitary,” was all he said. I glared at him before stomping away.

“Don’t listen to him, Tonton,” I cooed, stroking her ears gently. She made a happy snorting noise and I leaned down to press a kiss to her head. “He’s just a nasty, mean grumpypants who doesn’t know anything.” Yoruichi coughed, choking with laughter.

“Ouch, Kuchiki. You just lost to a pig,” Kukaku said sympathetically. “Sorry, man. I didn’t think she’d get this attached,” I heard Kaien mutter apologetically.

“Figures,” Byakuya muttered. “I offer to buy her everything under the sun and she refuses. You give her a pig and she’s over the moon.”

“I can hear you, you know,” I called over my shoulder. “And there’s nothing wrong with being happy about getting a pig. Especially if it’s a pig as awesome as Tonton obviously is.”

“Even after two years of knowing you, you still make no sense,” he said, shaking his head almost wonderingly.

 “A quick lesson about women, Kuchiki,” Kaien said, coming over and clasping a hand on Byakuya’s shoulder. “They don’t make sense. And they never will. That’s the best thing about them, I think. Otherwise, they’d be predictable and boring and where’s the fun in that?”

***

“How was your Academy exam?” Unohana asked me warmly, motioning for me to take a biscuit.

“I think it went well for the most part,” I said, nibbling on a blueberry scone. “The written portion was pretty easy and the proctor said that I definitely passed the reiatsu portion—I hit a snag on the physical part of the test, but overall it didn’t go too badly.” I hesitated before continuing. “There is something I’d like to ask you about though.”

“You are free to ask me anything, Yukimura-san. You know that,” Unohana replied soothingly.

“I, uh, don’t know how much you know about the Academy admittance policies, but…well, one of the other applicants said something about the test being biased towards nobles. I just…it’ll be okay if I don’t get in. But my sister and my brother are applying in a few months. I don’t…they’ll be devastated if they’re refused simply because they aren’t from here.”

“Ah.” Unohana was silent for a moment. “It is…true that the test is designed so that those who have grown up in the Seireitei have a higher chance of getting in, but not in the way that you’re thinking. The Academy would never reject a student solely because of their heritage; a great number of our skilled members are from the Rukongai. However, the unfortunate truth is that the majority of Rukongai applicants are, well, illiterate. Those who do know how to read and write are often eliminated in the reiatsu testing portion of the exam. You have to understand, Yukimura-san, that the majority of applicants from the Seireitei are trained to access and use their reiatsu at a very young age. Combined with the fact that nobles naturally tend to have higher reiatsu than regular souls…” Her voice trailed off. “I suppose if the admittance council were to decide between two students of equal strength, the student with the higher social status would be accepted, but aside from that, I can assure you that birth will not play a factor in their decision.”

“Thank you, Unohana-taicho,” I murmured, feeling a bit relieved.

“Not at all.” She smiled at me. “I wouldn’t think too much on the matter. I have the utmost confidence that you will be accepted.”

I blinked in startled pleasure at the unexpected praise. “I—thank you for the compliment.” She inclined her head in acknowledgement.

“Well then. Now that that’s settled, there’s another matter I’d like to discuss with you.” Unohana leaned forward, eyes intent. “As a first year Academy student, you will be taking courses in reiatsu theory, beginning reiatsu manipulation, meditation, history, and of course, the four basic shinigami combat forms: hohou, kido, zanjutsu and hakuda. As you progress, additional elective courses will be offered, including but not limited to, healing kido, anatomy, and beginning research. As an upper-year student, you will also be offered the option of going on training missions and accompanying various squads to help you determine which divisions to apply for upon your graduation.” She paused, looking at me and I nodded to show that I understood. Her lips quirked briefly before she continued.

“Normally, these options are only offered to students after completion of their third year of training. However, given your current skill, I believe that it would be a waste to have you sitting in beginning reiatsu manipulation lessons. Therefore, if you are amenable, I would propose you taking an internship with the Fourth in place of your reiatsu manipulation and theory classes. If you think you may be interested, I can provide you with more details now and you can think it over later.”

I blinked rapidly before nodding my head. “I—yes. That is, please go on.” I stuttered. Unohana inclined her head regally.

“I have recently spoken with the head of the Academy and both reiatsu theory and manipulation classes are offered on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. In place of this, you would instead report to the Fourth Division headquarters where you would be assigned to the General Emergency Relief Station under a chosen mentor. As you gain experience, you would be rotated through the Advanced Relief Teams on a monthly basis. This would allow you to learn healing kido the way other shinigami are trained while simultaneously learning the inner mechanics of the division. You would also report to me once a month on what you have learned, while we work on testing the limits of your own healing techniques.”

“How long would the shifts be?” I asked.

“Five hours—from 12:30 to 5:30. Your normal class hours would be between 1:00 and 3:30, so this is a little bit more of a time commitment. In exchange, you would be paid the hourly wage of an unseated Fourth Division officer. Furthermore, upon graduation from the Academy, I would be willing to guarantee you a seated position,” Unohana said, searching my features carefully. “I understand if you need more time to thi--”

“Yes,” I blurted out without hesitation. “Definitely. Yes.” Personal sessions with Unohana herself, the chance to get out of two beginners classes, a part-time job, and the opportunity to officially start learning healing kido four years early? I’d have to be insane to give that up. Unohana looked a bit startled at my quick agreement before her features softened, a genuine smile spreading across her face.

“Welcome to the Fourth Division then, Yukimura Hisana.”         

***

Byakuya Interlude

The thing he treasured most about his friendship with Hisana, was that it came so easily. It was simple. Uncomplicated. Although trained in the art of conversing, simply talking was not something that came easily to Byakuya. With Hisana, however, he could talk about everything and nothing for hours simply because she never expected him to be always polite, always educated, always perfect. Touch was also something that came easily with her…although that part was more Hisana’s influence.

Touch came to her as naturally as speech—it was evident in the way she’d ruffle Rukia’s hair proudly, or drop a quick kiss on her forehead or cheek whenever she managed to accomplish a rather difficult task. The way she’d scold Renji while straightening his clothes and brushing the dirt off while he waved her off with a half-hearted scowl that didn’t quite hide his reluctantly pleased expression at having someone to fuss over him. How Hisana would brush Miwa’s hair at night and braid it in the mornings, the way she’d stand at Miwa’s back as she struggled to learn how to read, gently touching Miwa’s shoulder every so often to calm her down and reassure her that she was doing fine.

While initially surprised, he’d eventually dismissed the matter as yet another way families in the Rukongai differed from noble ones. Although he was used to family members showing their care in much more subtle ways, he had to admit that there was something…nice about the way Hisana’s family didn’t bother hiding their affection from each other. Seeing the way Hisana would automatically turn to high-five a smirking Kaori after successfully ganging up on Kazuki, the way she’d gently massage Mitsuo’s muscles after a long day at the dojo and the tender way she’d bandage Kazuki’s wounds whenever he got into fights while simultaneously yelling at him for being an idiot was…Byakuya couldn’t quite describe how he felt upon seeing it. Content, certainly. A little wistful, perhaps (and if he were being completely honest with himself, maybe even a tiny bit envious).

Even among relative strangers though, she never shied away from physical contact. Byakuya remembered one time, the butcher’s wife from two blocks down came to her with a bruises on her throat in the shape of handprints, one eye darkened blue and purple. Hisana had quietly tended to her wounds before setting a blanket around her shoulders and handing her a cup of tea. She’d then taken the woman’s hands in her own, told her she was welcome to stay at the clinic for as long as she wanted and had asked if she’d like to talk (the butcher’s wife had ended up crying into Hisana’s shoulder for the next two hours. Byakuya didn’t quite know what happened after that but he’d heard Kazuki and Kaori gleefully discussing the pale look on the butcher’s face whenever he saw Hisana nowadays).

“It’s how she’s always been,” Kazuki had commented once during Byakuya’s third full day in the Rukongai, gaze following Byakuya’s to where Hisana had a crying child in her arms, the poor boy’s shoulders shaking with sobs. Apparently he and his sister had lost track of time while picking berries in the forest and had the unfortunate luck of having enough spirit energy to attract a hollow. The boy had survived. The girl hadn’t been so lucky. “Ever since I first met her, when she was still a thin, starving slip of a girl with too-serious eyes, a spine of steel and a heart too big for this shitty place. Though that last part hasn’t changed.” Byakuya paused, trying to picture what Hisana must have been like as a child. He couldn’t.

“Hard to imagine, yeah?” Kazuki said wryly. “She looked like a baby bird, all fragile bones and eyes too big for her face. But even back then, she was never really a child. Always fussing over us, making sure we ate enough—even though she and Rukia were the only ones who actually needed to eat, trying so hard to earn her place…” He snorted. “No wonder Tatsuya was so taken with her.”

“Tatsuya?” Byakuya asked.

“Our old leader. Died a while back, along with another one of our members.” Kazuki paused, a hint of tired grief entering his features. “Hisana’s never really forgiven herself for not being able to save him.”

Both of them were silent for a moment as they watched the boy in Hisana’s arms cry himself to sleep, finally succumbing to exhaustion. “There’s something else I’ve been wanting to talk to you about,” Kazuki said, still not facing Byakuya. “I’ve noticed that you and Hisana are already pretty close, which means that at some point or another, if you keep coming around, you’ll be subjected to her extreme version of mother-henning.” He grinned, turning to face Byakuya for the first time. “Figured I’d warn you so you’re not alarmed if hugs you or something. She does that with everyone—it’s just her way of showing that she cares.” He clapped a friendly hand on Byakuya’s shoulder, ignoring the way Byakuya stiffened. “Don’t think too much into it, alright? I’m only telling you this so you don’t get the wrong idea—I know nobles have weird ideas about physical contact, but with Hisana, it’s not like that. Really.” Kazuki snorted. “I mean, the girl loves as easily as breathing—as I’m sure you’ve noticed by now—but she’s never looked at another person in that way. Too busy saving lives and obsessing over Rukia’s safety and all.”

“Thank you for telling me this,” Byakuya said. It was…unexpectedly thoughtful of Hisana’s brother to pull him aside and clarify things.

“I wouldn’t want there to be any awkwardness between you two due to a misunderstanding,” he said casually, offering Byakuya a friendly smile.

And for a while, everything was fine. Byakuya could enjoy her company without worrying that she’d want more, and whenever Hisana gave him a quick hug or punched him playfully in the arm or linked her arm with his, he didn’t have to worry about it being some misguided attempt at seduction. Better yet, he didn’t have to worry about Hisana taking it the wrong way either. The first time Byakuya had touched her instead of the other way around—she had fallen asleep in an awkward position on a chair and he had hesitated before reaching out with one hand to shake her awake—she hadn’t batted an eye.

Physical contact wasn’t the issue. He had never once felt uncomfortable or pressured when Hisana touched him. The problem, Byakuya thought in frustration, glaring at nothing in particular, was that lately, it didn’t seem enough.

Which didn’t make sense. The amount of physical contact they had was already bordering on improper in aristocratic society. The only thing that kept their relationship from becoming outright scandalous was that they had kept their interactions relatively private. And instead of trying to maintain some distance—he only had to speak the word and Hisana would comply—he instead found himself making excuses to see her, timing his schedule so that he would bump into her on the street, running errands to the 13th

Want was not a feeling Kuchiki Byakuya was accustomed to. Yet lately, it seemed to be all he could focus on. The warm glow of her smile...the comforting feel of her reiatsu…how warm and soft her body felt against his…how her fingers had felt, gently cupping his face, eyes lit with something like wonder—

He’d thought with the way Hisana was going to be living in the Seireitei for the foreseeable future, the incessant urge to see her face that had been plaguing him for the past few months would ease. Instead, it seemed to have increased.

It will pass, Byakuya reassured himself. Whatever strange attraction he felt towards his closest friend…it would pass. It had to. The alternative didn’t even bear considering.

Byakuya blinked, stepping back startled as a stick full of dango was thrust under his nose. “Did you know that they’re having a dango sale down the street?” Hisana asked happily, biting off half of a sweet dumpling. “They’re showcasing some kind of mystery new flavor too. Here, I got you a stick. Try it and tell me if it’s good.”

“Using me as a food tester then?” He teased, amused.

“Uh huh,” she said, completely unabashed. “Come on. Put those aristocratic taste buds of yours to use, Byakuya-hime.”

With a put-upon sigh, he complied, wondering if he was crazy to be attracted to this tiny, bossy, emotional, overprotective, short-tempered, absolutely ridiculous girl.

“It’s…good,” Byakuya said, after a contemplative moment. “A mix of red bean paste with…cherry flavoring?”

“Hmm. Not bad,” Hisana mused thoughtfully. “Interesting combination, but why not?” Without hesitation, she proceeded to grab Byakuya’s hand and drag him forward. “Come on, we have to hurry before all the good deals are gone.”

Probably, Byakuya admitted in his head as he stared at their intertwined fingers. But then, there are far worse things to be a bit crazy over.

***

Kaien Interlude

 

“Shiba-dono, what a pleasure it is seeing you again. Being lieutenant suits you well,” Onabara Gengoro commented before leaning forward, crossing his finger together. “What can I do for you today?”

“If I’m not mistaken, the Academy entrance exam took place yesterday, did it not?” Kaien asked, resisting the urge to fidget under his old teacher’s stern gaze. Something about it made him feel like an unruly schoolboy again—the number of times he’d been called into this very room for various misdemeanors probably didn’t help.

“Yes it did. What of it?” Onabara asked.

“I was wondering if I could take a look at the file of one of the applicants, Onabara-sensei,” Kaien answered. Onabara gave him a sharp look.

“You know that the files of potential recruits are kept strictly confidential, Shiba-dono,” he said, voice cooling a degree.

“Ah, but I have a bit of a personal interest in this one,” Kaien wheedled. “Besides, the results will be posted in two days anyway, correct? Surely this would do no harm to anybody.”

To his surprise, Onabara relaxed back in his chair, snorting. “I see you still have to learn patience. Still, I suppose it would only be fair to grant your request considering the fact that I allowed another officer to access the files of an applicant earlier today.” He sent Kaien a shrewd look. “This applicant’s name wouldn’t happen to be Yukimura Hisana, would it?”

“It would,” Kaien answered, wondering who the other officer could be. Who else was interested in Hisana and had the rank and the influence to…oh.

“Her results were…interesting. I’m not surprised that you’ve taken an interest in her,” Onabara continued. “It’s almost a pity that…well, I suppose you’ll see for yourself. The files are in Kita-sensei’s office—I assume you remember where it is.”

“Thank you, Onabara-sensei,” Kaien said distractedly, before taking off in a series of flash-steps. Sure enough, when he got there Byakuya was in the process of taking out a file. He looked up sharply at Kaien’s entrance.

“Shiba-fukutaicho. What are you doing here?” He demanded.

“A bit hypocritical for you to be asking that, don’t you think Kuchiki-fukutaicho?” Kaien motioned towards the file in Byakuya’s hands. “Does Yukimura know that you’re doing this?” Byakuya’s faintly guilty look answered that question. Walking over, Kaien snatched the file out of Byakuya’s hands, ignoring his sound of protest as he did so. “I’m the one who spent the past few weeks training her, so I get first dibs,” Kaien said, smirking at Byakuya’s mutinous expression. “Relax, you’ll get your turn.”

Flipping through the pages, he paused as he came upon Hisana’s written portion of the exam. “Close to full marks on the writing section,” Kaien whistled, feeling faintly impressed. “Not bad for someone with no formal education, huh?”

“Hisana is very good at reading and writing,” Byakuya stated, a hint of pride tinting his voice.

“Curious, that,” Kaien murmured, scanning Hisana’s responses to the questions, kanji written in Hisana’s small, neat handwriting. “I do wonder where she learned…” The last time he checked, the Rukongai didn’t have any schools. More surprising than the fact that Hisana knew how to write, though, was that she knew what to write. “She sounds like she swallowed a handful of recruitment packets filled with propaganda,” Kaien stated, faintly amused. If he hadn’t known any better, even he might have been fooled. “The perfect brainwashed, authority-worshipping soldier.”

“What?” Byakuya blinked.

“She sure knows how to throw terms around, doesn’t she? ‘Peace and order’… ‘duty’ … ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ … ‘maintain the existing political state to prevent chaos’ … ‘obligation’ … ‘upload rules and laws for the greater good, no matter the cost’,” Kaien set down the packet, a bit disturbed. It was very, very subtle but knowing what he did about Hisana’s personality, the essay read like a satirical criticism of the Gotei 13 as a utilitarianism state. Judging from Byakuya’s pensive expression, he felt the same way. Pursing his lips, Kaien decided to flip ahead to the results from Hisana’s reiatsu testing portion.

“Huh. 6.2—not bad. Not bad at all,” Kaien said. Both he and Byakuya were probably quite a bit above a ten, but for a new Academy student? That was definitely above average. “And…” he flipped to the next page, grin widening. “Perfect reiatsu control!”

What?” Byakuya demanded, leaning forward to look. Kaien let him, resisting the urge to cheer. While perfect reiatsu control wasn’t unheard of by any means—Unohana-taicho and a few other upper-level healers definitely had perfect control, and Kaien would be willing to bet quite a few Kido Corps members did as well—it was exceedingly rare to see it in someone with no formal reiatsu training. Kaien didn’t even have perfect reiatsu control.

“She’s just full of surprises, huh? No wonder you like her so much,” Kaien said, ignoring the flustered glare the Kuchiki heir sent his way. He didn’t know how, he didn’t know when, but somewhere down the line Hisana had managed to wrap Kuchiki Byakuya around her finger. Kaien wondered how the Kuchiki elders would take the news of their precious heir crushing on a commoner and had to suppress a sudden onslaught of sniggers as he pictured their enraged expressions.

“Okay, on to the physical portion…” Above average, above average, pretty good, average and…he blinked upon seeing her time for the two mile run, before taking in the proctor’s note at the side.

“Well, the good news is that she passed the minimum requirement for each section,” Kaien said faintly. “The bad news is that she almost failed the two mile run.” Byakuya’s brow furrowed.

“But she should have had no problem with that,” he said, confused.

“Yeah. Normally she wouldn’t have. But apparently she stopped in the middle of the run to administer emergency medical aid to a fellow applicant,” Kaien said, slightly exasperated and yet not at all surprised.

“’Emergency medical aid?’ It was a two mile run! What kind of medical emergency could someone possibly get into during that time?” Byakuya asked in disbelief.

“I don’t know,” Kaien sighed. While there was a ‘minimum requirement’ for each portion of the test, everyone knew that you had to get well above that in order to pass. “Her other scores should make up for that. She’ll pass. However, if she hadn’t stopped during the run, she would have easily made it into the First Class,” Kaien said a bit regretfully. Onabara’s words made a lot more sense now. Only the people who had performed exceptionally in each category were allowed in.

“Mmm. Perhaps it’s for the best,” Byakuya murmured. Kaien looked up in surprise—being chosen for First Class was an honor. To have come so close…he hadn’t expected Byakuya to be relieved that his closest friend hadn’t gotten in.

“She’s from the Rukongai. More than that, she’s from one of the poorest districts of the Rukongai. And so far, she’s made friends with several seated officers, two lieutenants, and two captains. How do you think other people are going to take that?” Byakuya asked rhetorically before shaking his head. “It doesn’t matter how good she is, there are always going to be accusations of favoritism. It’s better to let her start off in the regular class, prove herself beyond all doubt and then move into the First Class.”

“You seem pretty certain that she’s going to make it,” Kaien commented, absently wondering at the faith the Kuchiki heir seemed to have in the elder Yukimura sibling. Byakuya sent him a look of disbelief.

“It’s Hisana. The girl who matched your sister in a drinking contest because she couldn’t stand losing. Of course she’s going to make it.”  

Chapter Text

“You know, I really thought that this moment would be a lot more dramatic,” I said absently, staring down at my acceptance packet. Inside was a thick congratulatory letter and a to-do list. Glancing over it quickly, I saw that orientation/move in would be in a week and that I had to report to the Fourth sometime during the next three days for a physical.

“Not sure what you mean. This moment is plenty dramatic,” Hiro said, motioning towards the hordes of crying/cheering/sobbing people around us.

“It’s a shame that you didn’t make First Class though,” Eiji said, grey eyes scanning the list of accepted applicants on the wall in front of him. 

“It’s okay that you didn’t. There’s always next semester,” Chiyo said comfortingly.

“I’m not too torn up about it, actually,” I said honestly. “I’m just happy that I made it. Plus, I figure that my internship will keep me busy enough without adding in the extra pressure of being in the First Class.”

“That’s the right spirit,” Hiro grinned, slinging an arm around my shoulder. “Besides, it’s full of entitled, stuck-up brats anyway.”

“You do realize that I was in the First Class, right?” Eiji asked dryly.

“Case in point,” Hiro retorted before ducking as Eiji swiped at his head.

“Boys,” Chiyo sighed despairingly as we watched Eiji chase Hiro through the courtyard while Hiro threw taunts behind him.

“Idiots,” I agreed. I took Chiyo’s relaxed posture, the way that Eiji was laughing again and Hiro’s eyes were brighter than I’d ever seen them, and smiled contently. They’d be okay.

***

 I stared at my reflection in the mirror critically, unsure what to think. The Academy uniform consisted of a red undershirt, a white shirt with red stripes that went over it and the Academy emblem on both breasts, and a red hakama. The uniform itself was fine—it fit well and was comfortable enough. Just…something about wearing it made me look about five years younger.

Turning around, I found Byakuya staring at me with an unreadable expression on his face. Deciding that the mood was getting a bit too serious, I struck a pose.

“Well? What do you think?” I asked, cocking one hip to the side and flipping my hair over my shoulder.

He blinked, startled, before chuckling softly, shaking his head with an exasperated look on his face.

“I don’t know why I was worried that you would change,” he murmured under his breath before stepping forward. “You look lovely, Hisana. As always.”

“Always so charming,” I smiled briefly, trying to ignore the fluttery feeling in my stomach. Stupid butterflies.  

“I do try,” Byakuya replied, reaching out and gently fingering the edges of my hair. It was getting long again, now extending several inches past my shoulders. “May I?”

“Go ahead,” I said, struggling to keep my voice even. Reaching into his kimono, he pulled out a red ribbon—the same shade as my hakama, actually—and motioned for me to turn around. I was quiet as he lightly carded his fingers through my hair, nimble fingers gracefully twisting my hair into an elegant braid before tying off the end using the ribbon.

“It’s something my mother taught me,” Byakuya said quietly. He chuckled wistfully, his breath warm on the nape of my neck. I inhaled sharply. “She always believed being able to arrange hair was a skill everyone should have. I used to help her style her hair before formal events. She liked to experiment with different hairstyles.”

“She sounds like an amazing woman,” I said softly.

“She was,” Byakuya agreed, an odd twist to his mouth as he studied me carefully. “I think she would have liked you.”

“Yeah?” I asked, voice small.

Byakuya shrugged minutely, one side of his mouth tilting up. “You make me happy. And seeing her family happy had always been the most important thing to her.”

***

“Hisana-san!” I looked up to see Isane waving her hand at me, about twenty feet away. Running up to me, she bit her lip before adding, “I’m so glad to see you. I was so worried that I wouldn’t know anyone here.”

“Glad to see you too,” I said, returning her smile. “See? I told you that there was nothing to be worried about. We both made it, didn’t we?”

“Yes we did. What class are you in?” She asked.

“Class 2,” I replied. Isane beamed.

“So am I! That means that we’ll be taking classes together!”

“That’s great,” I said sincerely. Glancing to the side, I added, “I gotta run to the bathroom. Catch you later?” In retrospect, drinking about four cups of tea that morning had not been the brightest idea. Still, apparently even death couldn’t break my need for caffeine and in a world without coffee…

“You better hurry. The orientation ceremony’s starting soon,” Isane said, sounding a bit worried. “You don’t want to be late for that. I heard they have a lieutenant coming in to demonstrate his shikai,” she whispered in a hushed voice.

Kaien had mentioned something about that, I remembered absently. Typically, around two captains and two lieutenants attended the ceremony to inspire the new recruits. Kaien would be one of them, although he wouldn’t be the one in charge of the shikai demonstration.

“I won’t. There’s fifteen minutes before it starts; I’ve got plenty of time,” I promised, hurrying off.

***

Five minutes later, I was cursing my need to help other people as I found myself trying to break into a closet.

“Are you still there?” The voice from inside the closet asked nervously. “I’m so glad that you found me, I thought that I was gonna be stuck there for ages.”

“How did you even get locked inside?” I asked incredulously. When I’d went to investigate the weird banging noise coming from down the hall, I had not expected to hear a cry for help coming from inside a cleaning closet.

“I didn’t mean to!” He wailed. “It’s just, I was kind of tired this morning so I wasn’t watching where I was going and I accidentally bumped into this one guy. And then he punched me in the stomach and I threw up on his shoes and…” he broke off sniffling. “And the next thing I knew, I was being shoved in here.”

“Alright, alright, calm down,” I said soothingly. “Now, this door locks from the outside, right? I don’t suppose you know where he put the key?” I glanced upwards. The nail next to the top of the door—where I guessed the key normally went—was empty.

“He took it. Said that he’d come let me out a couple hours later and that maybe missing the orientation ceremony would teach me a lesson,” was the mournful answer. Jesus Christ, I thought stuff like this only happened in cheesy high school movies, I thought grumpily.

“Okay, I’m going to find someone who can let you out,” I said, looking around in hopes that a random janitor might pop up out of nowhere.

“Wait, no, don’t go!” The voice yelped. “Please don’t leave me,” he added pitifully.
“It’s cramped in here and it’s…it’s so dark in here. I can’t see anything. I don’t want to be alone.

I rubbed my forehead tiredly, trying to ward off a budding headache.

“Fine, fine, don’t panic,” I said in exasperation, instead leaning down to examine the lock. The good news was, it was a cleaning closet so the lock was relatively simple. The bad news was, I didn’t have anything useful on me to pick the lock with right now.

Anything can be used as a lock pick if you have enough imagination, Kaori’s voice said in my head. If you can’t find anything, that simply means you’re not trying hard enough.

Glancing down at my braid, I eyed my hair thoughtfully. On the surface, using my hair to pick a lock seemed like an impossible idea. For one, it was too flimsy a material and not nearly hard enough. However…making a mental apology to Byakuya, I pulled the ribbon out before separating a few strands of hair from the rest. Using a small amount of reiatsu, I channeled it down my hair, commanding it to twist the strands together until it formed a thin, rigid, wire-like structure. I prodded it tentatively and when it didn’t bend, I mentally decided it was good enough. After doing the same with another strand of hair, I had my tension wrench and my lock-pick.

“Okay, just stay put, I’m going to try and pick the lock,” I said, manipulating my ‘tension wrench’ into a more desirable shape.

It wasn’t easy. I was almost embarrassingly out of practice and the type of lock wasn’t something I was familiar with. Additionally, my hair may have been coated with a layer of reiatsu to add stiffness, but that didn’t mean that it was ideal to pick locks with. Still…I bit my lip as I applied pressure with the tension wrench to the bottom of the keyhole and tried to depress the pins inside the lock with the pick. The sound of applause came from outside the window—apparently the orientation ceremony had already started, then. I’d been here longer than I thought. God, Kaori would kill me if she saw how inept I’d gotten at this.

“Whatcha’ doin’?” An unfamiliar voice came from behind me. I cursed mentally as I looked behind me to see a teenager with short, silver hair and a foxlike grin. My heart skipped a beat and I turned back to focus on the lock, trying to ignore the sudden feeling of dread pooling in my stomach. “Ya do know that you’re suppose’ ta be at the ceremony right now?”

“Look, in case you didn’t notice—and maybe you didn’t, I can’t tell whether your eyes are open or not--” I jiggled my lock-pick, feeling another pin give. “—but I’m a—bit—busy right now. So if you could just—not talk—that would be much appreciated.” I’d deal with the fact that I was 90% certain the guy behind me was Ichimaru Gin later.

“Are ya usin’ your hair to pick that?” Was the amused reply as he leaned in for a closer look. “Gotta say, haven’t seen that one before.”

“Um…is someone else there?” The person inside the closet asked timidly.

“Almost done,” I said, ignoring both of them. “Just a bit more—and—there!” With a click, the door unlocked. I opened the door only to have about a hundred and twenty pounds of relieved teenage boy come tumbling out on me.

“You did it! You actually did it! Oh thank god. Thank you so much,” the kid said babbling. He glanced to the silver-haired guy behind me and paled dramatically. “Um.”

“Ichimaru Gin,” the teen introduced himself, ever-present grin still on his face. “Third seat of Squad Five.”

“I-i-it’s an h-honor to m-m-meet you, I-Ichimaru-sama,” the boy I’d rescued from the closet stuttered. “I-I’m Y-Yamada H-H-Hanataro.” The poor kid looked like he was about to faint. Gin’s smile widened before he looked towards me expectantly. “A pleasure, I’m sure,” I said blandly. “I’d love to chat more, but as you’ve pointed out, Yamada-san and I are already late. If you’ll excuse us, there’s a rather important ceremony that we really need to be going to.” I made it about two steps before I was stopped by an iron grip on my arm.

“Leaving so soon?” Gin asked slyly. “Just as we were getting to know each other too. Why, my feelings might be hurt.”

“I’m sure you’ll recover,” I said, voice dry before tugging experimentally on my arm. It didn’t budge. “Please let go of me.” I didn’t quite succeed in keeping the bite out of my tone.

He stared at me for a moment longer before releasing his grip and stepping back. “Of course—I didn’t mean ta make you feel uncomfortable.” I twitched at his mocking tone and Gin’s grin shifted into a smirk. He made a waving motion with one hand before turning and walking away in the opposite direction. “I’ll see ya around.”

I stared after his departing figure uneasily. Attracting the attention of Ichimaru Gin was…not something I wanted to do. Just because he’d been secretly aiming to kill Aizen all along didn’t mean that he was any less dangerous. In fact, it probably made him more so. Because aside from hurting Matsumoto, there was nothing, nothing that he wouldn’t do to achieve his goal.

***

“Where have you been?!” Isane hissed out as I slipped into the empty seat beside her, Hanataro tagging along quietly. After Gin had left, it’d taken us another twenty minutes to get here. First because Hanataro had really needed to use the bathroom—apparently he’d been stuck in that closet for over an hour, good lord—and then because we’d hid behind a building wall until we’d seen the crowd stand up and applaud. After that, it was a simple matter of using the crowd’s distraction to slip in unnoticed.

“It’s my fault,” Hanataro mumbled miserably, face downcast. He looked like a kicked puppy. “Yukimura-san was only late because she stopped to help me. If I hadn’t--”

I sighed heavily. “Yamada-san, I’m the one who stopped to help, so stop blaming yourself.” At Isane’s questioning look, I added, “It’s a long story. I’ll tell you later. But enough about that—what’d we miss?”

“A few speeches and the shikai demonstration,” Isane said, looking upset. “I can’t believe you didn’t get to see it. It was…it was…” She shook her head, looking slightly awestruck. “I mean, you hear about how powerful shinigami are, you know? Especially lieutenants and captains…but seeing their power for yourself…” She shook her head. “I can’t describe it.”

I thought back to the first time I met Byakuya. Bruised, battered, grieving for his comrades, suffering from heavy reiatsu depletion, broken ribs and a serious concussion to boot…and he still would’ve won against four of Oshiro’s best trained goons if he hadn’t passed out halfway.

“I think I have a pretty good idea,” I said, turning my attention back to the front of the stage where they were calling up graduates from last year’s class—one from each division, plus one from the Kido Corps and one from the Omnitsukido—to each give a short speech on their experience after graduation and what each squad stood for.

***

I was debating between three different types of mochi at a more secluded reception table when I felt a familiar reiatsu presence approaching.

“Not in the mood for minglin’?” An amused voice drawled, causing me to grit my teeth. Four hundred students here, and I had to be the one he chose to single out.

“Eh. I’m sure the guest speakers are busy enough without having to deal with one more student to talk to,” I answered, mentally deciding screw it and taking all three. I’d need sugar to get through this conversation anyway. “Besides, the fact that everyone’s so busy trying to make connections just means that there’s more food here for me.”

“Mmm. Would be a shame for all this food ta go to waste,” Gin agreed, reaching over my arm to snatch one of the sticky rice balls off my plate. My eye twitched and I smacked his hand away.

“Ouch. Possessive, aren’t ya?”  Gin pouted at me. “Didn’t your mother ever teach ya to share?”

My fingers tightened around the edge of my plate, and I mentally inserted Ichimaru’s neck there instead.

“Didn’t your mother teach you not to take things that aren’t yours?” I retorted grumpily.

“Ah, but where’s the fun in that?” Gin asked cheerfully, reaching out to snatch another mochi ball from me. Snatching my plate out of his reach and resisting the urge to stab him with a chopstick, I grabbed another plate before filling it in record time.

“Here,” I said, shoving the plate roughly at him. “Now you have your own food and you can stop trying to steal mine. And as for me, I’ve decided that you’re right—I should be mingling more, start networking and all that. Orientation doesn’t happen every day after all.” Grabbing my own plate, I spun around and promptly walked head-first into a brick wall.

Or at least it felt like a brick wall. As I stumbled backwards, I felt one hand reaching out to gently steady me and prevent me from falling over.

Ow,” I muttered, cupping my nose. Stupid insanely toned shinigami with their stupid hard muscles. Holy crap, what was his chest made of anyway? Bricks? 

“I’m afraid not,” answered a deep voice tinged with amusement. I glanced up in confusion to see warm brown eyes glinting with laughter behind a pair of glasses, before realization dawned.

“Oh my god,” I said, feeling my face heat up. It was probably a shade of red never before seen in nature at this point. Covering my face with my hands as I tried to ignore Gin’s snickers behind me, I stammered, “I-I didn’t mean to say that…actually, you know what? I’m just going to go. Please forget that this ever happened.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s quite the compliment, actually,” he laughed. Bending down, he handed me my plate. “Here. You dropped this.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, accepting it back. A shift of his arm brought my attention to his lieutenant badge and I frowned. Who…?

“Aizen-fukutaicho!” I blanched, feeling the blood drain from my face.

“Didn’t expect to see you over here. You’re usually surrounded by your adoring fans,” Kaien grinned, walking up to us. His voice sounded faint for some reason, as if it was coming from far away. I struggled to keep my breathing even, trying to push down the sudden crushingpanicterrorfear rising up in me. Bile rose up in my throat and I clamped my lips together tightly, feeling more than a little nauseous.

“Over a hundred years and that still hasn’t changed. You know, you don’t have to volunteer for the shikai demonstration every year. Let the rest of us have some glory, yeah?” Kaien added.

In, out, a familiar voice spoke up urgently in my head, cutting through my panic like a knife through butter. That’s it. Keep your breathing even. Fifteen breaths per minute, evenly spaced. You can do this.

“I decided to check on Gin over here,” Aizen chuckled. He sounded so calm. Genuine. Hard to believe that in under a century, he’d be planning mass murder and develop an army of monsters, all in an attempt to take over the world.

Heart rate even, the same voice commanded sharply. I struggled to obey its directions, but maintaining such control over my basic body functions was difficult enough on a good day. Still, I could feel my heart rate slowly calming down. No more than ninety beats per minute. Remember, you’re excited. A bit nervous to be in the presence of two lieutenants. It’s your orientation ceremony. Panic has no place here.

“And thank you for the offer, but I really don’t mind. It’s a few days out of three hundred and sixty five, after all. Besides, by this point it’s practically tradition. It’d feel strange not to do it,” Aizen continued, a genial smile on his face.

Keep your posture relaxed. Body language is key here. Now is not the time to falter.

He’s the man who planned my sister’s death, I thought back furiously, even as I schooled my expression to something resembling polite interest. How the hell am I supposed to act friendly around him?

And that’s why it’s even more important that you don’t reveal anything that you don’t want them to see. You can do this. Remember, Aizen Sousuke is not the only one who knows how to put on a mask.

“I suppose so,” Kaien said before turning to me. “I see you’ve met Yukimura here!”

“You two know each other?” Gin asked. He regarded me intently, a note of intrigue in his voice that hadn’t been there before, and I forced myself not to stiffen. So he had noticed my reaction to Aizen. Joy.

“Not by choice,” I said, smirking at the wounded noise Kaien let out. “Shiba-fukutaicho is the one who found me in the Rukongai,” I explained. I considered my next words for a moment, before deciding that the potential amusement was too great to pass up. “Also, he’s the one who gave me my child.”

Kaien choked and for the next few seconds, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Gin’s eyes open by a sliver and a flash of startled surprise cross Aizen’s face.

“What the…don’t—don’t say it like that!” Kaien gasped out, looking around frantically to see if anyone else had heard.

“I’m not sure what you mean, Shiba-fukutaicho,” I blinked innocently. “You are the reason why I have Tonton-chan, after all. How is my baby doing, by the way?”

“Ya mean ta say tha’ it’s true?” Gin looked absolutely gleeful.

“In a manner of speaking,” I grinned. Aizen looked vaguely disapproving.

“Shiba-fukutaicho,” he began. Kaien cut him off with a sharp movement, glaring at me darkly.

“It’s not what you think. She’s talking about a pet pig that I gave her because of a bet. She just dotes on the animal like it’s her own child,” he scowled, face slightly red.

The corner of my mouth twitched before I gave up, collapsing in a fit of giggles. “I do apologize, Ichimaru-san, Aizen-fukutaicho. I’m sorry, I really am. I just couldn’t resist and the opportunity was so perfect…” I trailed off, taking a brief moment to compose myself. “It won’t happen again, I promise.”

“No harm was done,” Aizen said lightly, eying me interestedly. “It’s been a long time since anyone has played a prank on me, and I wouldn’t be much of a lieutenant if I couldn’t even take a joke.” He paused for a moment before adding, “I hope that you’re enjoying the ceremony, so far? You only go through this once.”

“How’d ya like the shikai demonstration, Yukimura-chan?” Gin asked, grinning slyly. “Didn’t see it myself this year, but I know the students always love it.”

I forced myself not to stiffen before replying. Gaze steady, breathing even, relaxed shoulders. “Well, the start of the ceremony was certainly…memorable. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”

That’s it. Keep being honest—the best lies are always formed from the truth, the same voice said in my head.

“I haven’t seen a crowd that excited in a long time,” I added. “One of my friends was especially impressed. She’s never seen anything like it before, you know? So it really meant a lot to her.”

“Well, I like to do what I can to help inspire the next generation,” Aizen said, eyes warm. “You’re the foundation of our future. We depend on you as much as you do on us.” Huh. No wonder he had all of Seireitei eating out of the palm of his hand. His compassionate, humble boy-scout act was flawless. Despite myself, I couldn’t help but feel a bit impressed.

“I’ll be sure to let her know you said that,” I said, smiling. Not a chance. The last thing I wanted was for Isane to start developing a crush on Aizen Sousuke of all people. Glancing towards where a group of students were seemingly debating between themselves on whether or not to approach us—well, approach the two lieutenants and the third seat with me—I added, “Well, I don’t want to monopolize your time. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me; it was great meeting you, Ichimaru-san, Aizen-fukutaicho. Shiba-fukutaicho, I’ll see you later?”

“Of course, Yukimura. Don’t forget—Kukaku wanted you to come over tomorrow to start your lessons. I’ll pick you up at ten, okay?”

“I think I’ll find my own transportation, thanks,” I said dryly, ignoring Kaien’s exasperated sigh. Giving them a short bow, I took my plate of food and walked away at a medium pace, keeping my strides calm and steady. It was only when I entered a bathroom stall and locked the doors behind me that I allowed my hands to shake.

Thank you, I murmured in my head. It was getting easier to hear my zanpakuto spirit’s voice (especially during times of stress), although I still couldn’t make out their—her?—name.

Anytime, the voice responded kindly. You did wonderfully. It’s over now. You’re going to be okay.

***

 

“Quite the actress there, aren’t ya?” Gin asked cheerfully as I walked out of the bathroom. My expression slipped into an automatic scowl at the sight of him. So much for thinking that I’d finally managed to get rid of him.

“I’m not quite sure I understand what you’re talking about,” I deflected.

“Don’t play dumb. I’m actually fairly impressed by how ya dodged around my question. Not too shabby at redirectin’ the conversation, are ya?”

“I told the truth. Nothing more,” I said shortly. Well, mostly.

“You’ll notice that I didn’t call ya a liar, just an actress. Which is far more interestin’, in my opinion,” he said. “Weren’t ya scared that I would say somethin’?”

“You seemed to be enjoying yourself too much to do that,” I said. It had been a…gamble, with Gin around, but, well, I had to try. Aizen Sousuke was nothing if not meticulous and even if I was an Academy student and probably registered somewhere between ‘mud’ and ‘a dying hollow’ on his threat scale, I still didn’t want him knowing that I wasn’t under his illusion.

“Besides, what was I supposed to say? ‘Oh, so sorry for missing your presentation, I was too busy trying to break into a closet’?” I continued mockingly. “Hell no. I have some dignity.”

“Dignity? Ya told him that his pectorals were as hard as rock. Ta his face.”

I scowled at the reminder. “Yes, and that was bad enough. I had to at least try not to embarrass myself further.”

“Fair enough,” Gin agreed easily, studying me closely. Something about his expression told me that he wasn’t fully convinced by my explanation.

“Is there anything I can help you with?” I asked pointedly, trying to hide my unease.

“Nah. It’s just…I can’t quite figure ya out,” he said. “Ya put on a good show, I haveta admit, but you’re not quite the open book ya portray yourself as.” Gin tilted his head to the side, smile almost predatory. “What are ya hidin’ behind that innocent smile of yours, Yukimura?”

I pursed my lips, turning away. “We all have our secrets, Ichimaru-san. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t feel up to sharing mine with you.” As I started walking away, I added, “There’s this thing called privacy, Ichimaru-san. I suggest you learn what it means.”

***

It was the first day of class and already I hated it.

“It’s a wonderful day to go out for a run, isn’t it?” Isane asked cheerfully from where she was jogging on my other side. Figured that she was part of that awful race known as ‘morning people.’

“It is six in the morning. I hate my life,” I sulked, already missing my bed. Even if my room was approximately the size of a closet and my futon had the texture of lumpy tocks, at least it was warm. I really couldn’t complain—especially considering that the special housing accommodations the Academy offered for students from the Rukongai were free. “So much for easing us into this, huh?”

Move-in day had been the day after the orientation ceremony, and had also been the day we’d received our schedules. It had taken me approximately 0.2 seconds to realize that the Academy would be very different from college.

Every day, we needed to report to the front courtyard at 6 a.m. sharp for an hour of basic physical training, which basically consisted of sit-ups, push-ups, jumping-jacks, and running—pretty much anything to keep us in shape—before we had an hour long breakfast break. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I had kido lessons from 8-10, and history lessons from 10:30-11:30 before I had to report to the Fourth Division between 12:30 and 5:30. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I had hohou lessons from 8-10, and meditation from 10:30 to 11:30 before I had an hour for lunch. In the afternoons, I had zanjutsu lessons from one to three, and hakuda lessons from four to six.

Just thinking about it made my head hurt.

There was a sudden commotion behind me and I looked over to see one of the other students had stopped, breathing hard. Before he could get back up again, the instructor—Matsushita something—stalked over and kicked him roughly in the side.

“Tch. Weakling. You think some hollow is going to wait for you to catch your breath?” he sneered. “Guess I shouldn’t expect too much from Rukongai scum.” Making a note on his clip board, he yanked the guy up by his hair. The poor kid’s face was red with embarrassment and exertion and he avoided looking any of us in the eye. “Take a look, brats. Here’s a fine example of what not to do.” Giving him another rough shove, Matsushita turned away. “Get up. You’re going into the Third Class before you waste any more of my time. Dunno what the examiners were thinking when they allowed someone of your kind here.” 

“But-!” The kid sputtered. I couldn’t blame him; getting demoted to a lesser class was the biggest dishonor you could undergo as an Academy student, aside from getting kicked out.

It hadn’t taken me long to realize that the Academy had a very hierarchical structure based around which class you were in, and your ranking within that class. First Class was the highest, of course. They were the best of the best, the ones with the most prospects and the best offers after graduation. Insanely difficult to get into, the First Class consisted of the top twenty students in that year—to be accepted into it after the initial placements, you had to demonstrate that you were better than one of its current members.

Second Class, the group Isane and I were in, consisted of rankings twenty-one to sixty (Isane was ranked thirty-six, I was ranked twenty-four). From there, the other classes each consisted of around sixty students, the 400 admitted students neatly divided into a total of six classes (Hanataro was in the Third Class, rank ninety-three). Ranks were analyzed at the end of each week, and the changes were posted in the main Academy building every Monday morning.

Personally, I thought that it was all bullshit—a much more extreme version of class rank way back in high school—but even I had to admit that it did do its job of fostering competition between the students and driving them to work harder.

“Disobeying a direct order…showing blatant disrespect to a superior officer…” There was a nasty smirk on Matsushita’s face as he jotted down notes. His unfortunate target seemed to realize that he was only making things worse for himself because his shoulders slumped and he pressed his lips together tightly before walking away.

Tugging on Isane’s sleeve, I motioned for us to continue running with a jerk of my head. The poor kid was humiliated enough—to continue watching would be cruel.

“That was harsh,” Isane murmured to me once we were far enough away. “He didn’t deserve that.”

I bit my lip, remembering the glint of satisfaction in Matsushita’s eyes. “They needed to make an example. To show that anyone—no matter what your rank is—can be brought low. That any sign of weakness will be pounced upon.” The ranking system was probably hardest on the people in the Second Class, actually. Those in the First Class were mostly secure in their own superiority and rank mattered less in the lower classes…there wasn’t much of a difference between being rank 300 and 350, after all. But for those in the Second Class…we were told that we had a chance to become something more. That we weren’t good enough right now but that could change.

“This isn’t what I thought being a shinigami was about,” Isane muttered, upset. “I joined to help people and I don’t—I don’t want it to be just about getting promotions. This kind of competition, it’s unhealthy. I don’t want to be a part of it.”

“So don’t,” I said simply. “Yeah, if you have a higher rank you might get a better position right out of school, but there’s nothing preventing you from starting at the bottom of a squad and earning your way up from there. This?” I jerked my head back towards where Matsushita was standing. “Believe me, this is not the only way to do things. The system only controls you if you let it, Isane-san,” I said, speeding up. “Work hard and improve for your own sake. Not because some stupid ranking system tells you to.”

***

I stared with wide eyes at the katana on the desk in front of me, feeling a bit like I’d been bludgeoned in the head with a club.

“I—I don’t know what to say,” I stammered. “Are…are you sure?”

“Are you questioning my judgement, Yukimura-san?” Unohana asked. I shook my head frantically.

 “Not at all! But, aren’t zanpakuto normally only handed out upon graduation out of the Academy?”

“Not exactly. Asauchi—unnamed zanpakuto—are given to Academy students when they manage to access their soul world and make contact with their zanpakuto spirit. I have no doubt that some of your peers already possess zanpakuto. However, if a student has not yet accomplished this step by the end of their six years in the Academy—as is often the case—they are given an asauchi upon graduation.”

“How do you know if someone has actually accessed their soul world or not?” I asked dubiously. Unohana smiled, leaning forward slightly.

“As you have no doubt noticed, a shinigami’s reiatsu possesses a certain quality that regular souls—even souls with high reiatsu—do not. It’s most pronounced once a shinigami has learned their zanpakuto spirit’s name, but it is possible for a skilled sensor to detect how close someone is to attaining shikai simply by the feel of their spiritual energy,” she explained. “It’s a very subtle change, but judging by the feel of your reiatsu, you’ve been able to access your spirit world for quite some time—I’d wager since before you arrived to the Seireitei. Am I wrong?”

I stared at her for a moment—holy shit, her sensory abilities bordered on scary—before replying.

“I—only recently. I’ve been having these…dreams for months, but I’ve only been able to access my spirit world once or twice voluntarily,” I admitted. “And I can hear my zanpakuto spirit’s voice sometimes too, but only when I’m stressed or in danger.”

 I bit my lip in frustration, thinking back to my latest visit to my soul world. I’d somehow managed to get lost in my own freaking mindscape, and my zanpakuto spirit had been nowhere to be found. At this point, the only thing I was sure of was that it—she?—had wings. At least the leaves were growing back; the whole thing with Akiyama had caused some of the trees to shed their leaves.

 “Do not be discouraged, Yukimura-san. From what you have told me, you are even further along than I had expected.” Unohana motioned for me to take the sword. “Well? Take a look. It’s yours.”

Reaching out hesitantly, I grasped the hilt—dark blueish purple with a silver-white diamond pattern—and pulled it free from its sheath before inhaling sharply. Acting on instinct, I channeled my reiatsu into it, watching as the silver metal seemed to shimmer slightly in response. Turning back to Unohana who was watching me with an almost proud expression on her face, I slipped my sword back in its sheath and bowed deeply, clasping my hands in front of me.

“Thank you, Unohana-taicho. It’s beautiful,” I murmured.

“Take good care of it,” she smiled. “Remember, a zanpakuto is more than a weapon. In the future, it’ll become your partner as well.”

***

“So you’re the brat taicho asked me to show around?” A tall blonde man greeted me as I walked out of Unohana’s office, peering at me over the top of his glasses. “Yukimura Hisana?”

“That’s me,” I answered uncertainly. I wondered how he got his hair to stay swept back like that…did hair gel exist in the afterlife? There wasn’t any in Inuzuri, but that wasn’t saying much. “Are you Iemura Yasochika?”

“You will address me as Iemura-senpai or ‘sir’ during your time here, understood?” He said in response, making a note on his clipboard. “There is no room for any disrespect here.”

“Yes, Iemura-senpai,” I forced out, feeling one eye start to twitch. This was the guy I’d be following around for the next few months?

“Good.” He looked me over before letting out a derisive snort. “Hn. I thought that you’d be taller. This might be a problem—I’m not certain if they even make uniforms in your size.”

A vein started pulsing on my forehead, and I took a deep breath, reminding myself that strangling my superior probably went against a few rules. First Gin, now this bastard—at this rate, I’d probably get an aneurysm by the end of the month.

***

“Oh no.”

Iemura paused from where he was going over the protocols for filling out paperwork as I suddenly flinched violently.

“Is something the matter?” He asked irritably. I wasn’t paying attention anymore—all my focus was on the door behind him, where I could feel a familiar reiatsu signature fast approaching. It was kind of sad that meeting Ichimaru Gin had done more to motivate me to hone my reiatsu sensing skills than living in the Rukongai ever had. I didn’t know why he was so interested in me—seriously, our interactions basically consisted of us exchanging increasingly insulting remarks—but I was really hoping that he got bored soon. Bumping into him three times a day wasn’t doing anything good to my stress levels.

“Hisana-chaaaan!” As Iemura’s face suddenly grew tight at the sight of the silver-haired third seat, I wondered absently what Gin had done to earn such a fearsome reputation. Actually never mind, just being Gin was probably enough.

“I don’t recall giving you permission to address me so familiarly,” I said, annoyed. Why did I have to be the one to attract all the psychopathic weirdos? “Besides, what are you even doing here? Don’t you have recruits to torment, children to terrify?”

Gin grinned, completely unflustered by my irritated tone, and placed one hand against his chest in a wounded gesture. “My, my, Hisana-chan. Such serious accusations against my character. Be careful now—if I were a lesser man, I might be insulted.”

“I notice that you didn’t deny it,” I retorted without missing a beat. Gin pouted, adopting a mournful expression.

“I’m hurt that ya think I’m capable of such heinous acts, Hisana-chan. I’d never go out of my way to torment those under my control.”

“I doubt that you’d need to ‘go out of your way’ to do that. Seeing your face is probably enough,” I said dryly. Behind me, Iemura made a choking noise. “Now, do you have a health-related issue that needs attending to? I can’t imagine why else you would be here.” Do you actually have a legitimate reason for being here or are you just wasting my time?

Judging by the slight sharpening of his smile he caught my unspoken question, but being Gin, chose to ignore it with his usual aplomb. Typical.

 “What? I’m not allowed to visit my favorite Academy student? Although I see that ya got rid of the schoolgirl look. Shame, that. Though I gotta admit, ya look very…fetchin’ in that nurse’s outfit.” He made a vaguely obscene twirling gesture with one finger, leering at me. Creep. “Quite mature—little schoolgirl all grown up.”

I stared. “Are you saying that I look old?” I asked finally, feeling oddly offended.

Iemura, who’d opened his mouth to say something, suddenly broke out into another coughing fit. Gin let out a startled huff of laughter, the faintest hint of amused exasperation crossing his features.

I scowled, not understanding what was so funny. “You didn’t answer my earlier question, Ichimaru-san,” I grumbled. “Did you have a medical concern that you wanted to address?”

“Hmm...now that you mention it, I’ve been having these headaches lately. In fact, I feel one comin’ on right now,” Gin said, tilting his head. He glanced towards Iemura and an uneasy feeling settled in my stomach as Gin’s focus shifted from me towards the blond. “I’ve been thinkin’ about getting them checked out for a while—they’ve been affecting my work, and I’ve been pretty worried. Today’s the first time I’ve had the chance to, though.”

“Could you describe the severity of the pain you’ve been experiencing, and what part of the head it’s localized in? Also, can you give me an estimate of how frequently these headaches occur?” Iemura asked, voice abruptly turning serious.

“Eh—I’d say abou’ three times a week? Sometimes more, sometimes less,” Gin said with a tiny shrug. “It tends ta happen around here,” he tapped the back of his head. “As for the pain…well, that’s a stupid question. I wouldn’t come to ya if it wasn’t serious now, would I?”

Iemura stilled, faltering for a moment. “O-Of course, Ichimaru-sama. I apologize for my imprudence.” His voice shook slightly. “With your permission, I’d like to run a diagnostic spell on you.”

Gin was silent for a moment, studying Iemura through narrowed eyes. I could see the faintest sheen of sweat beginning to form on Iemura’s forehead.

“Fine,” Gin relented finally, just as I was about to step in. “If I must.”

Iemura nodded shakily, before raising his hands—covered in a green glow—to Gin’s face. Pursing my lips, I decided that learning how to heal without skin-on-skin contact was one of the first things I wanted to do.

After several tense minutes, Iemura stepped back with a frustrated expression on his face. “I-I don’t understand—your brain activity is normal, there are no signs of inflammation, and you’re perfectly healthy…” He trailed off, muttering to himself while flipping through his journal. “Maybe…but no, that can’t be it…I couldn’t find any pain signals…” Gin let out a heavy sigh, cutting him off.

“So what you’re saying is that ya don’t know what’s causin’ it, and ya don’t know how ta treat it,” Gin concluded. “Is that correct?”

Iemura flinched, bowing his head. “Yes, Ichimaru-sama.”

Gin tilted his head to the side, studying Iemura with an air of detached interest. “Tell me, what is your name and rank, officer?”

“Fifth seat, Iemura Yasochika,” Iemura answered immediately. I had to give him credit—at least he’d managed to keep his voice steady.

Gin’s smile widened. It wasn’t friendly in the least.        

“Tell me, Iemura Yasochika…would you say that a Fourth Division fifth seat should be able to treat somethin’ as minor as a headache?”

“Yes, Ichimaru-sama,” Iemura answered. An ugly flush was crawling up the side of his neck. Gin hummed in acknowledgement.

“Now then…can you tell me why ya weren’t able to find a solution to my problem? Or do anythin’ about it? That is what you’re supposed ta do, right?”

“No, Ichimaru-sama. I have no excuse,” Iemura said quietly. A child would have been able to hear the shame in his voice.

Gin leaned forward, his voice laced with the sweetest poison. “So this is the best that the Fourth Division can offer me. A healer of your caliber,” he shook his head mockingly. “Disappointing.”

“There was nothing to find!” Iemura burst out suddenly, before suddenly shrinking back in on himself. “I- I mean…”

It suddenly became difficult to breathe as the air in the room grew thick with the force of Gin’s reiatsu. Something dangerous crossed his features and I swallowed heavily, for the first time able to see exactly why Aizen would one day choose Ichimaru Gin as his second in command. A bead of sweat started trickling down Iemura’s forehead.

“Are you callin’ me a liar now, fifth seat Iemura Yasochika?” Gin asked softly.

“I’d like to try,” I said suddenly, unable to watch any more. Both Gin and Iemura started, as if they’d forgotten that I was there.

“Yukimura?” Iemura asked, blinking. I ignored him, turning to face Gin.

“Ichimaru-san, you wanted an answer to your headache problem, correct? Let me try.”

“Ya believe that ya can do better than a fifth seat?” Gin asked, amused. I tilted my chin up defiantly.

“Iemura-senpai is a better healer than me, that’s true. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t offer a different perspective,” I said firmly.

Gin chuckled, crossing his arms behind his head. The oppressive aura surrounding him lightened, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Iemura slump in relief. “Well, why not? Ain’t like blondie here can do any better.”

“Right. I’m going to ask you some questions—please answer them as honestly as you can,” I began briskly. “First of all, have your sleeping cycles changed at all recently?”

“Not really. Not sleepin’ any more or less than I used ta,” he answered cheerfully, grin back on his face.

I didn’t bother pausing before going on to my next question. “Have you been eating regular meals?”

“Sure.”

“How much water do you drink per day?”

“Eight cups, more or less.”

“Have you been experiencing any stress or anxiety lately?”

“Not any more so than usual.”

This went on for about another five minutes, while I listed off every factor that could possibly cause chronic headaches off the top of my head, while Iemura stared back and forth between us with wide eyes. I could tell the exact moment that Gin got bored, since he sat up and asked, “Not ta be rude, but is there a point ta all these questions? I’m a busy guy, ya know.”

“Of course. I’m sorry for the trouble.” I stepped forward, placing one hand on his forehead and scanning for abnormalities in his brain, strained muscles, unusual substances in the blood, and problems with the major blood vessels, especially the ones concentrated towards the back of his skull. I didn’t find anything unusual, but then again, I didn’t expect to. “There’s just one last thing I want to check.” I leaned forward until my face was right in front of his. “Open your eyes,” I said softly.

Iemura inhaled sharply somewhere behind me. Even Gin seemed a bit taken aback.

“What?”

“You heard me,” I said without pausing. “Some of the first signs of brain abnormalities can be discovered through observation of the eyes, so if I missed something in the diagnostic scan…” I shrugged. “Well, it doesn’t hurt to be thorough. I’m sure you understand.”

“Of course,” he said—the faintest mocking edge to his smile—before his eyes slid open, revealing pale, blue-green irises. I didn’t let myself react, instead checking for abnormalities in pupil sizes or increased intracranial pressure. Letting out a sigh, I stepped away. I’d been 98% sure that Gin had been bluffing just to watch Iemura get more and more flustered about diagnosing a nonexistent condition, but it was nice to have my theory confirmed.

“Thank you for your cooperation, Ichimaru-san,” I said. “I think I see what the problem is now.”

“Oh?” Gin asked interestedly. I nodded seriously.

“You possess a rare factitious disorder known as pseudologia phantastica syndrome,” I said calmly. Otherwise known as pathological lying, but he didn’t need to know that.

 It took all of Kaori and Tatsuya’s training for me to keep a straight face. Absently, I wondered if I was getting in over my head, telling Gin that he was full of shit, albeit in a roundabout way. Oh well, too late now.

“It causes your mind to come up with delusions in place of real events, believing them to be the truth. At times, however, these hallucinations conflict with each other, causing the headaches,” I continued in my best professional voice.

Slipping on my most sympathetic expression, I added soothingly, “It’s quite a debilitating condition and unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge, no cure has been discovered yet. However, it is possible to reduce the symptoms through repeated use of blunt force trauma to the back of the cranium.”

Behind Gin, Iemura was watching with a pained expression and clenched fists. He looked about two steps away from lunging forward to shut me up. I couldn’t blame him—this was probably not the best of times to suddenly grow a pair of balls. Still, it had…frustrated me, to see how easily Gin was able to punch through Iemura’s defenses, effortlessly exploiting his weaknesses and insecurities, pitting his ridiculous trust in authority figures against what his instincts and knowledge were telling him…I may not have liked the authority-worshipping stick-in-the-mud, but he didn’t deserve that.

“So you’re telling me ta get rid of my headaches…by havin’ someone hit me a buncha times in the back of the head,” Gin looked vaguely disbelieving at my audacity. “And also that I’m crazy and that I have a habit of makin’ things up.”

“You are, of course, welcome to take this issue to Unohana-taicho herself—since you seem so uncertain about the competency of the other healers here—if you have any doubts about what I’ve told you,” I said sweetly. “I’m sure that she will corroborate my findings, but you are free to check.” He wouldn’t, of course. Going to Unohana for a made-up headache? Even Gin wasn’t that suicidal.

Your move, I thought, just daring him to call my bluff. A flash of…something crossed his features before he managed to erase it. I wasn’t naïve enough to think that it was respect. But I had caught him off guard—he hadn’t actually expected that I would call him out on his bullshit—and I would take that as a victory.

“I think I’ll take your word for it this time.” Before I could leave, he reached up and grasped my shoulder. “Not bad, Hisana-chan,” he murmured, leaning down so that his lips were right by my ear. “My apologies for doubtin’ ya. I won’t do so again.”

***

“Are you insane?” Iemura hissed as soon as Gin was out of earshot. “What were you thinking? ‘Pseudologia phantastica syndrome?’ Are you trying to get yourself killed?”

“Well, it didn’t look like you were going to call him out on his bullshit,” I muttered sullenly. Iemura ran a hand through his hair agitatedly.

“When a patient comes to you complaining of a medical problem, you do not get to tell them that they’re wrong,” he growled.

“I didn’t say that he was wrong. I said that he was full of shit,” I protested. There was a difference. Really.

Iemura let out a frustrated groan.

“Are you always this stupidly reckless?” He muttered under his breath before continuing. “And if he was telling the truth? If he really was experiencing headaches? What then?”

I leveled an unimpressed look at Iemura. “You don’t believe that, Iemura-senpai,” I said flatly. He let out a deep sigh.

“No. I don’t. But that doesn’t change the fact that we could’ve just missed something. And until Unohana-taicho herself confirms the diagnosis, you are not to doubt the words of a patient ever again,” Iemura said, voice hard. “What do you think would happen if we started dismissing our patients’ concerns just because we couldn’t find anything wrong? Unohana-taicho seems to have faith in your abilities—god knows why—and I’ve been a healer for over fifty years, but no healer knows everything. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Iemura-senpai,” I said, slightly ashamed.

He was right—it had been rather immature of me to do that. And normally, I would have taken a patient’s complaint much more seriously—at the very least, I would have run some deeper tests—but this was Gin. The very fact that Gin had actually mentioned his headaches tipped me off that something wasn’t right. Because Gin didn’t strike me as the type of guy who ever went to someone else for help. For fuck’s sake, he took on Aizen completely alone and left Matsumoto completely in the dark about his plans. He’d never admit a weakness to anyone, let alone one as mundane as a couple headaches. As paradoxical as it might sound…the only health issues I’d be concerned about Gin having were those that he didn’t mention. Something told me that Iemura wouldn’t be impressed by my explanation though.

Iemura’s face relaxed slightly at my response. “Good,” he said gruffly. It didn’t quite hide the hint of concern in his eyes. He hesitated for a moment before adding, “Be careful around Ichimaru, Yukimura. He…he’s not someone you want to get on the bad side of.”

“Oh, you don’t need to worry about me, Iemura-senpai,” I said faux-casually. “Ichimaru-san just wants someone to play with. And besides, he won’t do anything to me until he’s figured me out.” Something that I seriously doubted would happen anytime soon. Ichimaru Gin may be a genius, and he may have seen through the act I’d put up upon meeting Aizen, but even he couldn’t come up with something as fantastically absurd as me remembering my prior life from the future in a different dimension.

For some reason, Iemura didn’t look reassured in the slightest.

***

I twitched as a familiar black cat casually sat down on my essay about the differences between bakudou, hadou, and chiyudo spells.

“Shihouin-taicho. You are sitting on my homework,” I said, voice flat. “You are getting cat hair on my homework.”

“Unohana-taicho said that you were over here,” Yoruichi grinned, completely ignoring me. I sighed, accepting the fact that Shihouin Yoruichi would do anything she wanted, and no amount of complaining, pleading, or glaring would stop her. “Get up, kiddo. Byakuya-bou wanted to show you something and I have twenty minutes to do something about the ink smudges on your face, the mess that is your hair right now, and the fact that you smell like…” She leaned in and took a sniff. “Medicine and cleaning supplies.”

“Byakuya’s coming?” I asked, straightening up in my chair. Yoruichi sent me a knowing look and I flushed. “I-I mean--” I cleared my throat. “I do not smell like cleaning supplies, and also, I need to get back to work.”

“Oh no you don’t. I’m tired of seeing Byakuya mope around like a sulking kitten because he hasn’t see you in…oh, two days or so. And to be honest, you look like you could use a break too. Come on—I have under half an hour to make you presentable and I’m not going to waste a second.”

***

This is your compound?” I asked in disbelief, taking in the sight of ponds filled with brightly covered koi, elegantly arched footbridges, and the rows upon rows of cherry blossom trees that filled the air with a pleasant, sweet scent.

“Do you like it?” Byakuya asked, sounding almost…shy?

“It’s beautiful, Byakuya. Everything about this place is beautiful,” I said, tilting my head up towards the sky and inhaling deeply. A gust of wind blew through, ruffling my hair and causing a few pink flower petals to fly through the air. Giving a short laugh, I twirled around with my arms spread out. “God, I never want to leave.”

“You’re welcome here anytime, Hisana,” Byakuya murmured, studying me with warm grey eyes.

Glancing at him, I grinned. “That’s good, because now that you’ve shown me this place, you’re going to have to kick me out in order to get rid of me. Now come on—I want to see the famed Kuchiki fish I’ve heard so much about.”

Grabbing his hand, I began tugging him towards the bridge, ignoring the indulgent smile on his face. So what if I wasn’t acting mature? I was allowed to be childish sometimes. Leaning over the side of the railing, I peered at the sight of brightly patterned fish swimming amongst the water lilies, vibrant flashes of color against dark green water.

“They’re huge,” I said in surprise. Each one was bigger than the size of my head.   

“They should be. Each one is over fifty years old. The oldest are almost two hundred,” Byakuya said, coming to stand beside me. He hesitated before pulling out a piece of bread from inside his kimono. “You may feed them if you like.”

Beneath me, the fish were already starting to swim up, clearly expecting to be fed. I tossed a few crumbs down, feeling a bit of childish delight as I watched the fish compete over the food.

“Do they have names?” I questioned, leaning over the side of the bridge to get a better look.

“Not to my knowledge,” Byakuya admitted.

“Hmm. Well, we can’t have that. Everyone deserves a name,” I stated firmly. Pointing to a brilliantly colored red koi with black streaks down its back, I declared, “I’m naming that one Renji-fish.”

Byakuya coughed. “Renji? What makes you say that?”

“Doesn’t it look like him? It’s the same color as Renji’s hair, plus it’s eating more than all the other fish combined.”

“I can’t argue with you there, although I’m sure that Renji would disagree.” There was a note of quiet amusement in his voice. “And what about the others? What names will you grant them, Hisana?”

“Well, that white fish is obviously a Rukia,” I stated, pointing to a rather dainty looking fish with pure white scales. It promptly stole a breadcrumb from the Renji-fish and I grinned. “Look! There’s even a Miwa fish. See? The silvery blue one.”

The first few names we agreed on. An energetic blue and black fish was dubbed Kaien. Both Byakuya and I agreed that the speckled red and black fish that kept nipping at the Kaien-fish was definitely Kukaku. I named a pale blue fish Mitsuo, and the black-speckled koi that kept subtly sneaking off with the crumbs that the other fish missed was clearly Kaori. By the time we got to Yoruichi however…

“Look! It’s swimming circles around all the other fish! How is that not Shihouin-taicho?”

“You are mistaken. The hellcat is clearly the one lazing under the sun over there. See—it even has whiskers,” Byakuya said stubbornly. In the back of my head, I absently noted how absolutely ridiculous this conversation was. I still had no idea why people were intimidated by Byakuya—the guy was a complete dork. A dork who still sulked every time he was reminded that Yoruichi was faster than him.

“Oh for—fine, I’ll give you that one. But Unohana-fish is obviously the orange and black one. She’s like a tiger—all grace and beauty but if you mess with her she’ll bite your head off,” I argued.

“Do you not see how all the other fish are avoiding the silver one? They’re all terrified of it.”

“No, that one’s Ichimaru Gin. Look, it even has his creepy smile.”

“When did you meet Ichimaru Gin?!”

“At orientation,” I dismissed, before brightening up again at the sight of a previously-unnoticed jet-black koi hiding behind a lily pad. “Oh wait, hey—I think I just found your fish counterpart!”

“The black one?” Byakuya eyed it closely before nodding in approval. “Yes, that fish does have a rather noble demeanor. Simple, classic, reserved...”

“What? No, I just meant that you have the same grumpy, brooding face,” I said, before covering my mouth with one hand to hide my smile at Byakuya’s almost comically offended expression.

“I do not brood,” he protested sullenly.

“It’s okay. You don’t have to deny it—I understand,” I said soothingly. Placing my hands on his shoulders, I looked him dead in the eye and continued in my most serious tone, “Unohana-taicho told me all about how broodingitis, a condition characterized by excessive angst levels as well as an inability to form normal expressions, is hereditary in the Kuchiki clan. It’s genetic—I know you can’t help it and I just want you to know that I don’t care about your condition. I’ll be your friend anyway.” Byakuya jolted back, taking in my solemn expression with wide eyes. My lips twitched.

“Wha—Hisana, you jerk,” he cursed, realization dawning. I suddenly lost my battle to keep a straight face, breaking into peals of delighted laughter.

“Oh my god, your face,” I gasped out, leaning against his side for support.

“You’re horrible,” Byakuya grumbled, although I saw the corners of his mouth twitching.

“I’m sorry. Look—I’ll make it up to you. Or, fish-you at least. Here.” Breaking off a few crumbs, I tossed them over to where Byakuya-fish was. He took one look at the crumbs in front of him before somehow managing to give off an unmistakable impression of disdain and pointedly turning away.

“Okay, wow,” I muttered, staring in disbelief after a long moment of silence. “Fish-you is kind of an asshole.”

“That fish seems to agree,” Byakuya said, pointing to a rather pretty koi with shimmering gold and white scales that swam up and lightly bumped into the Byakuya-fish, as if scolding it. I brightened up again.

“Hey, that can be me!” I said excitedly.

“Hn. Well, the size fits at least,” Byakuya said, a faint smirk settling on his lips.

“Wha—Oi!” I protested hotly, just now realizing that the newly dubbed Hisana-fish was only about half as big as the Byakuya-fish. “Will you stop it with the height jokes already? I’m not that short,” I grumbled, half-heartedly smacking his chest with one hand. “I’m just surrounded by giants.”

“Is that so?” Byakuya asked, an amused glint in his eyes.

“Uh-huh,” I nodded seriously. “I’m the only normal one out of all you weirdos. It’s a tough life.”

“And what’s that like? Being ‘normal’?” Byakuya asked, playing along. I grinned.

“I’ll show you.” I hopped up onto the bridge railing, carefully standing up while sticking my arms out to balance myself. “How’s it feel being shorter than me, Byakuya?” I teased.

Byakuya stepped forward, eyes widening in alarm as I wobbled slightly. “Hisana, be careful, you’re going to fall—”

“Give me some credit,” I scoffed. “I’m not going to fall. Besides, even if I do, I’m not worried. After all, I have you there to catch me, right?” I asked lightly, memories of being on a rooftop watching the sunset crossing my mind. That night seemed so long ago.

Something in Byakuya’s eyes softened and he reached out to grasp my hands in his own. He stared down at our joined hands for a moment before tilting his head up to look at me. My breath caught at the almost reverent expression on his face. “Of course,” he said softly. “I’ll always be there to catch you.”

 It sounded like a promise.                      

***

Gin Interlude

 

“It’s not like you to take an interest in an Academy student, Gin,” Aizen remarked as Gin flicked through the files of newly accepted student Yukimura Hisana. It had been all too easy to nick them from the Academy. Really, Gin thought, shaking his head, the security of this place. Shameful.

“Ya mean Yukimura?” Gin leaned back in his chair. “Wouldn’t call it an interest, per say. It’s just fun messin’ with her.” His smile widened as he recalled the sight of blazing violet eyes, narrowed with defiance. It was always more enjoyable when his toys fought back. They didn’t break as easily then. “Has spirit, that one.”

“Do be careful. She seems to have quite the guard dog in the form of the Shiba clan head,” Aizen said, amused, before pausing thoughtfully. “Still, it might be wise to keep an eye on her. She is obviously fairly close to the 13th Division lieutenant, and, if rumors are to be believed, Kuchiki Byakuya and Shihouin Yoruichi as well. Quite the social butterfly there…she might have some potential,” Aizen mused.

“Will do,” Gin grinned, offering up a mock salute before getting up as he felt a familiar reiatsu signature approaching. “Gotta go. Taicho’s back.”

“What did you do this time?” Aizen asked exasperatedly. Gin shrugged innocently.

“Somethin’ about ‘playin’ around with new recuits bein’ bad for our recruitment drives’. Dunno what he’s so upset about. Taicho should be thankin’ me for weedin’ out the weak,” Gin said lazily, timing his exit just before Hirako Shinji turned the corner.

Whistling to himself as he walked down the division, he thought back to his second meeting with Yukimura Hisana. Her wariness towards him—well-hidden it might have been behind a thick layer of sarcasm and irritation—was perfectly understandable. Gin knew that he came off as a bit…unsettling to some (most) people. Her reaction towards Aizen however…

Aizen might have missed it—the man’s confidence in his act bordered on arrogance, and for good reason. For the past couple hundred years, the only person other than Gin himself who seemed to have sensed something amiss with the Fifth Division lieutenant was Hirako Shinji.

It had been quick, Gin admitted. If he hadn’t been observing Yukimura at the time, he probably wouldn’t have noticed. However, no matter how quickly she recovered or how relaxed she’d seemed throughout the rest of the conversation—that move she’d pulled with the father-of-my-child thing had been genius—he knew what he’d seen.

He thought back to the moment when Shiba had called out Aizen’s name. As Aizen turned away to greet him, Yukimura had staggered almost imperceptibly, her eyes widening—and Gin had seen a flash of pure, unmistakable terror cross her face.

Which was as fascinating as it was inexplicable. A poor, politically insignificant girl from the outer districts of the Rukongai would have no reason to have come into contact with Aizen Sousuke. He’d checked—Inuzuri wasn’t a district Aizen had ever conducted any experiments in. So what was it about learning Aizen’s name that had caused her to react in such a way? What reason could a newly admitted Academy student, who hadn’t even been in the Seireitei for a month, have to fear one of the Gotei 13’s most renowned, respected and admired officers?

Gin stroked the file in his hand with one finger, his smile widening a notch. It was just as well that Aizen had ordered him to keep an eye on her, really. After all, he’d always liked mysteries.

Chapter Text

Almost two weeks into my internship at the Fourth, and I was making absolutely no progress towards mastering the reiatsu transferring technique.

“No, no, you’re still not getting it. Remember, the objective is to give your reiatsu to another person; unless you manage to purify it, their body will reject the foreign energy,” Iemura said in the midst of mopping the floors of the Third Division headquarters. Surprisingly enough, I found that I really didn’t mind the cleaning duties that came with my job. It was a nice time to bombard senpai with questions.

 “That makes no sense! Yes, I get that the reiatsu needs to be pure in order for the transfusion to work, but I can’t just get rid of the properties that make it mine,” I said in frustration, waving my sponge in the air. “It’s like trying to turn Type A blood into Type O blood—you can’t just go around removing all the A-antigens on the surface of the red blood cells…oh, never mind,” I added grumpily upon seeing the incomprehension in Iemura’s eyes.

The problem with being thrown into the past was that I was never entirely sure how advanced the medical knowledge of the time was. Not to mention that there was often a lag between when something was discovered in the living world, and when that information arrived in the afterlife. The technology was even more baffling, a mix between weirdly advanced (just look at Squad 12), and completely ass-backwards (we communicated through butterflies).

“Your issue is, you’re still thinking of your reiatsu as a physical thing and it’s not. What makes your reiatsu yours, as you put it, isn’t anything tangible; it’s your resolve, your emotions, your goals. I understand why this is difficult for you to grasp since from what I’ve seen, you’re used to forcing your reiatsu to do your will. Your way of healing revolves around intent, and this technique involves taking that all away. It’s one of the ways general healing kido is so different from the other branches of kido spells.” Iemura paused, dipping his mop in the bucket. “Despite how simple the technique may sound, it’s not easy. It’ll take time and effort—it usually takes a few months to get the basics down, and years to master. Keep meditating, you’ll get it eventually.”

“I’ve tried!” I exclaimed, scrubbing at the window with one hand. “And I’ve been meditating for decades, but I can’t seem to get my reiatsu to become empty no matter what I do.” Iemura stopped and set his mop against a wall, turning to look at me.

“You’re overthinking it,” he said simply. “You focus too much on what you want to happen—you can hardly purify your reiatsu if you’re subconsciously infusing it with your desire to succeed, or if you’re worrying about whether or not it’s going to work. Don’t try to purify your reiatsu. When you reach that state of calm focus where you’re undistracted by any emotions, just…let your reiatsu flow. It’ll come naturally.”

I took a moment to process his words silently. The reiatsu transferring technique…it wasn’t only about mastering a skill, it was about mastering a mindset. And didn’t that say something about just how different the Fourth was from the other divisions? The other squads taught their members how to channel their resolve, how to focus their feelings into something deadly. The Fourth Division did the opposite, teaching its members how to distance themselves from their emotions. How to be neutral, how to be objective, how to be fair.

I could understand why. A healer couldn’t afford to become overwhelmed by their feelings during times of crisis. And in an organization like the Gotei 13, it would be…dangerous for a healer—someone would be required to see death on a regular basis—to care too much.

Still. I couldn’t imagine not feeling anything towards a patient. If you became too detached, what was left to motivate you to help them?

“We’re just about done here,” Iemura said, interrupting my thoughts. “If you’re ready to go?”

“Sure, senpai,” I agreed, walking over and wringing out my sponge over the bucket of dirty water. “On Thursday we have sewer duty, right?”

I still didn’t know why Iemura looked at me strangely whenever I mentioned wanting to go into the sewers. Like hell I was going to pass up gaining first-hand knowledge on an underground network of tunnels under the Seireitei that only a handful of people were privy to.

“You make no sense, Yukimura,” Iemura sighed, grabbing the bucket and the mop. “Come on. We’re done for today.”

“Wait, really? Are you free now? Because I wanted to ask you some questions—”

“What a surprise,” Iemura muttered under his breath as we started to walk out. “You always have questions.” I grinned cheekily. For all the grouching and complaining that he did about me ‘constantly bothering him’, I knew that he didn’t really mind. He always answered, after all.

“I can’t help it. You’re a really good teacher, senpai,” I said earnestly, watching the tips of his ears turn pink. For all his bluster and apparent arrogance, he was rather painfully insecure at times.

“Che,” Iemura huffed, turning the corner. “Well, I suppose I can spare a few minutes to indulge your incessa—oof!” He grunted as he was shoved to the floor, the bucket clattering to the ground and spilling dirty water everywhere.

“Oops,” a voice said mockingly. Cruel black eyes set in a scarred face glinted. “That’s too bad. Guess you should’ve looked where you were going, huh? Maybe you should get new glasses; those ugly ass ones don’t seem to be doing anything for you.” Iemura flushed an ugly brick red and I bristled.

Next to scar-face, a shinigami with slicked back brown hair and purple framed glasses sighed heavily. “Troublesome,” he muttered under his breath, shaking his head. “Otoribashi-taicho doesn’t need to see this mess.” Turning hard eyes on Iemura, he added, “Well? You heard the man. On your hands and knees—I want this floor to be spotless by the time I get back.”

Iemura slipped into a bow, the resigned expression on his face telling me that this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. “I’ll get this cleaned up right away. My apologies, sir.” He tugged at my arm. I didn’t budge.

“Excuse me?” I said sharply as the second shinigami turned to walk away, ignoring Iemura’s frantic, stop-talking-now motions. “Seeing as your comrade was at fault for this in the first place, would it not be more prudent for him to clean this up?”

The shinigami paused. “What did you say?”

“I’m just saying, it seems rather unfair to expect Iemura-senpai to clean up this mess,” I pointed out reasonably. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

The other shinigami—the one with the scar across his face—laughed harshly. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing—”

“You may want to get that checked out, then,” I cut him off, deliberately misunderstanding his words. “Having hearing problems could be detrimental on the battlefield, I’d suggest a visit to the Fourth.” Turning back to the glasses-wearing shinigami as scar-face gaped at me, I tilted my chin up a fraction. “Well?”

“Is that not his job as a Fourth Division shinigami?” He replied, seeming a bit annoyed now.

“Funny—I don’t recall a slavery clause being listed anywhere in the job description. Must have missed that part,” I said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

The brunet definitely seemed unamused now. “I can’t tell whether you’re stupid or suicidal, girl,” he said, face hardening. “I’m telling him to clean the mess up because that’s all that he’s good for, aside from slapping some bandages onto papercuts. And unless he wants to get hurt, he’ll do what I tell him to.” There was the barest hint of a threat in his tone, warning me to back down. “Do you understand now?”

I smiled pleasantly, a complete contrast to the sudden icy fury I could feel unfurling in my chest. “I must be stupid then, because I don’t. I really, really don’t. For some unfathomable reason, you seem to think that our job is easy, that we’re replaceable—worthless—and that you can treat us like shit because of it. But someday, maybe tomorrow, maybe a century in the future, you’re going to get hurt. You’re going to get hurt really badly, and you’re going to feel yourself bleeding out, and as you suffer in agony trying to keep your innards from falling out, the only thing keeping you from certain death will be a Fourth Division member…and chances are, it’ll be someone you spat on in the past. And unless they’re a freaking saint, they’ll remember every single time you made them feel like something less than human, and when you need them the most…well…” I shrugged, tone still deliberately light, eyes never wavering from the shinigami’s slightly widened yellow ones.

“Please, help me understand, because I’m just not getting it. What could you possibly gain from disrespecting those charged with keeping you alive?” There was a hushed silence as my voice rang out into the corridor. Absently, I noticed that a small crowd had formed.

“I’m so sorry, sir,” Iemura interjected, a note of panic in his voice. “Forgive her, Fifth Seat Kibune, Ninth Seat Shinta, she’s new. Yukimura, apologize,” he said harshly, one hand trying to force my head down. “I said, apologize.”

“Might wanna listen to your senpai there, girl,” the scarred bastard who’d started this whole mess—Shinta—said. “I’m feeling generous today. Say sorry, get down on your knees and start scrubbing, and maybe I won’t cut that tongue of yours out.”

My eyes narrowed, although my cordial smile didn’t waver. “I’m sorry that your mother never taught you how to clean up your own messes, Shinta-san. It must be so difficult being a grown man that has to rely on others to clean up after them. And I’m so sorry for the both of you that the education system failed you so badly that you can’t tell the difference between being a warrior and being a bully. You have my deepest pity.”

The expression of rage that flashed across Shinta’s features was all the warning I received. Reaching up with one hand, I caught Shinta’s wrist in a bruising grip inches before his hand would have hit my face. My reiatsu responded eagerly to my anger as I commanded it to seep under his skin, beneath muscle and into bone, creeping into every miniscule crack and crevice. His arm began to glow a faint, sickly green where my fingers touched his skin.

“Don’t you dare,” I breathed out, voice low, “raise your hand to me.”

As his other hand twitched towards his zanpakuto, I commanded my reiatsu to expand slightly, like ice exerting force on the cracks in pavement. There was the faintest creaking sound as his bones began to fracture under the pressure. A grunt of pain escaped his mouth, and for the first time I saw something resembling fear in his eyes. Before that fear could turn to panic and cause him to lash out, I released his wrist. “This is your only warning. There won’t be another.”

“What is going on here?” A sharp, commanding voice demanded. I looked up to see the blond Third Division captain scanning the room, his eyes lingering on the way Kibune had one hand on his zanpakuto as he eyed me warily, Iemura’s tense posture, the mess on the floor, and the way that half a dozen or so other shinigami were steadfastly avoiding his gaze.

“Nothing, Otoribashi-taicho,” I said, stepping back. “Shinta-san was just cleaning up his mess.” Without another word, I turned and marched out the door.

***

“You idiotic girl!” Iemura yelled as soon as we were safely back in the Fourth Division headquarters. A nearby healer meeped and ran out the door. I wondered how long it would take for half the Fourth Division to come running to eavesdrop. Whatever. Let them listen in—at this point, I was beyond caring.

“You—you!” For once, Iemura seemed at a loss for words, speechless with fury. Despite that, the fear in his eyes was very much real. “Have you no sense of self-preservation? You’ll bring the anger of the entire Third Division down on our heads!” I didn’t respond. I didn’t trust myself to right now. “You immature brat! Do you have nothing better to do than look for trouble? This whole thing could have been avoided!”

Something in me snapped. Maybe it was the casual respect people unthinkingly directed towards medics. Maybe it was the snide comments I got yesterday at the Academy when asked what I did on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons (“You have to work at the Fourth? Wow, who’d you piss off? Tough luck—I’d sooner kill myself than work there.”). Maybe it was the way that being a Fourth Division member seemed to be synonymous with being a failure.

Because healing was something I took pride in, something that I’d worked my ass off to be able to do. And it stung that it was so casually disregarded at times here, even by the other healers themselves.

“Avoided, Iemura-senpai?” I let out a harsh laugh. “How? By bending your neck like always, letting them walk over you? How is that supposed to help?” I fixed him with a sharp look. “I know that the Fourth Division isn’t a combat squad, but fuck if I’m going to let people treat me like dirt because of that. And don’t give me that crap about ‘doing our duty’ or ‘maintaining a respectful professionalism’, because there is a difference between being doing your job and letting someone degrade you, and this entire squad does the latter, and it’s pathetic!” We were arriving at the root of my anger now, because the other reason I was upset wasn’t just what the other squads did. It was what the Fourth Division didn’t do.  

“I get that the world isn’t fair, I’m not stupid. It’s impossible to get everyone’s respect and there are always going to be people who are bastards to you no matter what you do, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not wrong, or that you should just accept it! But that’s what you’re doing, isn’t it? Every time you bow your head, or go along with the flow because it’s the ‘easy way out’ and let them get away with it, you’re telling them that they’re right. That it’s okay for them to treat you this way.”

Staring into Iemura’s slightly shell-shocked eyes, I said coldly, “Maybe you have your own way of doing things, but me? I refuse to give anyone permission to disrespect me.”

***

“This is the greatest day ever,” I said happily, watching yet another stuck-up pompous asshole point his hand towards the target, gather his reiatsu, and then curse as his kido spell blew up in his face. “Kido is the best.” After a month of nothing but memorizing various incantations and spells, we finally got to actually practice (not that I hadn’t been secretly sneaking in kido lessons at the Thirteenth with Eiji and the Murakami cousins, but practicing at the Academy was different. I got to watch the people who sneered condescendingly at me and Isane on a daily basis crash and burn. It was fantastic.)

“I think you may be getting a bit too much enjoyment out of this, Hisana-san,” Isane said exasperatedly, as her spell once again fizzled out harmlessly before reaching her target. She turned towards my mostly-demolished target. “How are you getting it so easily?”

“Well…practice, mainly,” I said, thinking back to how I’d spent the past few weeks bribing various Thirteenth Division members with baked goods to give me tips. “But also, you need to get into the right mindset, Isane-san. For the kido spell to work, you have to have a clear image of what you want it to do. It’s all about intent.” I extended my left hand again. “I’ve found that it sometimes helps me if I put some emotion into the spell. For example, I picture my target as some smiling close-eyed asshole who won’t leave me alone. Then, I think about how much I really, really want to hit that asshole in the face with a bolt of lightning and knock that smirk off his face. And how much I want it to hurt. Then, when I look at the target, I imagine that I’m looking at said asshole and—Hadou #4: Byakurai!” I cried out, a crackling, twisting bolt of electric blue energy snaking from my palm to the target where it impacted with a satisfying explosion, leaving behind a scorching hole the size of my fist.

Isane stared at me for a long moment. “You can be kind of scary, Hisana-san.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling. “Don’t worry—you already have your basics down, like how to shape your reiatsu, and control your energy output,” I explained. “It’s directing the spell that you’re having a bit of trouble with, because you’re still not quite sure what you want it to do—aside from hit the target—or how destructive you want it to be. Make sure to picture your desired result clearly in your mind before letting go of the spell, and you should be fine with a bit of practice.”

Isane huffed softly before resuming her battle-ready stance. Her next attempt—while still a bit unfocused—contained far more force, impacting the wooden target with a sharp clap and causing a few fragments to fly off.

“That was a lot better!” I said encouragingly. “Just wait, you’ll be a kido expert in no time!” She looked down, a faint blush forming on her cheeks.

“I—I pictured Matsushita-sensei that time,” Isane whispered. “H-he made a student cry the other day,” she added, voice abruptly turning fierce. “Just for being a few seconds late, and he’s always so…so mean and if anyone deserves a lightning bolt to the face, it’s him.”

I startled, taken aback by the unexpected ferocity in her soft voice. Isane blinked, apparently just registering her own words. “I—I mean--” She stammered. “I’m sorry, that was disrespectful of me, I shouldn’t be saying such things about a teacher--”

“Disrespectful?” I laughed, an involuntary smile curving my lips. “Isane-san, I couldn’t be more proud.”

I was in the Fourth Division kitchen fixing myself a late dinner when the door opened, revealing an upset looking nurse, face stained with tears and top slightly askew.

“Tsukuda-san?” I asked, after a moment of recalling her name. Tsukuda Ayame, seventh seat of the Fourth Division. “Is something the matter?”

“Oh!” She startled at the sound of my voice, turning to look at me with reddened eyes. “Yukimura-san. I’m fine, why do you ask?”

Because you look like hell, I didn’t say. “Mmm, I suppose you seem a bit stressed right now,” I said gently, observing the way she started pulling out numerous ingredients from the cupboard. “Making something big tonight, are you?” I probed.

“What? Oh, this?” She motioned towards the flour, eggs, and sugar she’d pulled out. “It’s not for me. It’s for Fujimoto-sama—Room Eight,” she added, upon seeing my uncomprehending look. “He—he’s very particular about what he’s willing to eat.” Tsukuda’s voice wavered slightly.

I stilled. “Oh?” I asked, faux-casually. “I take it he wasn’t too happy with the standard meal?”

She swallowed and gave a barely noticeable shake of her head.

I smiled kindly. “Well, maybe I can help. I know a few things about cooking, and between the two of us, I’m sure we can come up with something that Fujimoto-san will be satisfied with.”

Tsukuda sent me a grateful look, hair shifting to the side. My lips thinned as I noticed the fresh, raw-looking, bruise-like mark on the side of her neck, but otherwise gave no reaction. “So what did Fujimoto-san request?” I asked, keeping my voice light.

“He—he said that he wanted cake. For him and his friends,” Tsukuda said, voice small. “It’s to be vanilla-flavored with raspberry filling, and caramel sauce on top.” I paused, fingers tightly gripping the bag of flour I was in the process of opening.

“A cake, huh? He does know that we’re not a hotel service, right?” I asked, unable to keep the faintest bite of sarcasm from my voice. “Does he always make such high demands?”

“I-I know that it seems r-ridiculous,” Tsukuda admitted, fingers adjusting the edge of her skirt. “I’ve been assigned him a few times, and at first I tried telling him no, but then he’d just…” Her hand drifted up, subconsciously lingering on the side of her neck. My eyes sharpened.

“You know what, Tsukuda-san? Don’t worry about the cake; I’ll figure something out. You’re obviously tired,” I said quietly. “Go take a warm bath and go to bed, okay? I’ll take over for you.”

“Oh no, I couldn’t let you--!” She exclaimed. If I’d had any doubts remaining about exactly what had gone on between Fujimoto and Tsukuda, they were erased by the sudden fear in her eyes. “Yukimura-san, you…”

“It’s quite alright, Tsukuda-san. It’s no trouble; I wasn’t busy anyway,” I said, deliberately misunderstanding the worry in her tone. “Just promise me one thing?”

“I—what is it?” she said, hesitantly.

“I know that we’ve all had to deal with difficult patients at some time or another. But if a patient is bothering you or anyone else and he refuses to stop…” My gaze lingered on the rumpled collar of her uniform, before drifting back up to her eyes. Tsukuda stiffened and a moment of understanding crossed between us. “Would you let me know?”

There was a long moment of silence before Tsukuda tilted her head forward in an almost imperceptible nod.

“Thank you,” I said softly.

“You—you won’t tell taicho, will you?” Tsukuda blurted out, looking slightly frantic. “I—she already looks out for us so much, defends us against the other squads and I don’t—I don’t want her to have to worry about this too.” I don’t want her to be ashamed of me.

My gaze softened. “I’ll keep what happened tonight between us,” I promised. “Don’t worry.”

Tsukuda relaxed a fraction, turning to go. Just before she reached the door, she looked back at me. “Be careful, Yukimura-san,” she said, biting her lip. “Don’t—don’t do anything rash.”

“Of course not. All I’m going to do is bake Fujimoto-san a cake. Nothing more, nothing less,” I said, turning back to the ingredients on the counter. Raspberry, huh? I could do that.

I’d bake him a cake he’d never forget.

The Fourth Division kitchen was relatively well-stocked, and had far more ingredients than my kitchen back home, but it didn’t have everything. A pity, I thought, staring down at the squishy red pulp dripping down my hands. The lack of corn syrup had resulted in the raspberry filling being far more fluid than I would’ve liked, but there wasn’t really anything I could do about that. Studying the round yellow cake, I drizzled caramel sauce along the top of the cake in a haphazard fashion. Like that, it almost looked like a mop of brown hair—similar to the straw-like hairstyle I vaguely remembered Fujimoto sporting.

Well, the cake was already in the general shape of a head. Might as well follow through with it. Humming softly to myself, I grabbed two big, round grapes from the refrigerator—never let it be said that I didn’t value healthy foods—and stuck them on top of the cake, under the caramel sauce. Taking a moment to study the cake critically, I shook my head. That wouldn’t do—the grapes would roll right off, and the caramel sauce wasn’t sticky enough to use as a makeshift glue. Grabbing a carving knife from the drawer, I then proceeded to stab the grapes into the cake. Stepping back, I smiled in satisfaction as the ‘eyes’ sunk into the dessert—they’d stay put now.

Of course, I still needed a mouth and nose. If I had more time, I might have been able to come up with something a bit more creative, but as it was…well, I was sure that Fujimoto-san wouldn’t want to be kept waiting for much longer. Taking the knife, I carefully carved out a nose from a piece of pineapple, before cutting a hole in the cake to stick it in. The mouth I messed up on, originally planning to cut a thin line. It was a bit too wide to be called a ‘line’ now, but I suppose as things went, a slightly open ‘mouth’ wasn’t a big deal. Grabbing the pitcher of raspberry sauce, I proceeded to add the final touches—that is, I carefully poured the red liquid into the crevasses making up the eyes, nose and mouth—before setting the plate in a box.

Perfect.

 “Well, it’s about time,” an arrogant voice said as I knocked gently on the door before heading in. There were three other people with Fujimoto, and the man in question looked up from the bed at my approach before frowning. “Who are you?”

“Tsukuda-san wasn’t feeling well and so went home. I offered to cover for her,” I said politely, setting the box with the cake down on the bedside table. “I do hope that it is to your liking,” I added, opening the box with a flourish.

Fujimoto choked as he took in the grape-eyes, ruptured and seeping red liquid, the raspberry sauce overflowing from the nose and mouth, making it look like the face was bleeding from each orifice, the way that the face was twisted in an expression of unimaginable agony. There was a clatter as one of the other shinigami fell back in his chair. A strangled sound came somewhere from my left.

“Wha—what the hell?” Fujimoto sputtered. “What is the meaning of this?”

My brow furrowed in false puzzlement. “It’s the cake you requested, Fujimoto-san,” I said innocently. Inserting a note of distress into my voice, I added, “Is it not made to your specifications?”

“It is rather…unique,” one of the other shinigami commented faintly. I beamed, eyes curving into happy crescents.

“I did add in some personal touches that I thought were fitting. I guess you could say that I was feeling particularly…inspired.” Picking up the carving knife with a flourish—it was a beautiful knife, the steel glinted nicely in the light—I proceeded to cut into the cake. It slid through easily with a wet squelch and Fujimoto’s face paled.

“Eat up,” I said, my voice dangerously soft as I cut Fujimoto a generous slice of cake. The grape rolled off the cake with a soft plunk, revealing punctured skin peeled back to show milky insides doused with red. Fujimoto looked like he was going to be sick.

Turning to the other shinigami in the room, I smiled cheerfully. “Don’t worry, gentlemen, I haven’t forgotten about you!” Thunk went the sound of the knife as I stabbed it viciously into the cake, causing more of the raspberry sauce to flow out. A few drops splattered onto my uniform. “There’s plenty to go around.” The shinigami on my left—the one who’d spoken up before—accepted his cake wordlessly, seemingly unable to tear his eyes away from the crimson goo staining my shihakusho.

Just before I turned to go, I tilted my head to stare Fujimoto dead in the eye. “Oh, and Fujimoto-san? One more thing,” I said mildly. The gentleness in my voice didn’t quite hide the ice layering it. “Place your filthy unwanted hands on Tsukuda Ayame or any other Fourth Division member again, and I will personally ensure that you don’t have the hands to do so a third time.”

Taking in the slightly-terrified, shell-shocked faces of the shinigami in the room with a kind of vicious glee, I slipped into a mocking bow.

“Enjoy your dessert. After all, you deserve every bit of it.”

The soft pitter-patter of red juice dripping from my knife to the floor was the only sound present as I left the room.

***

“Taicho, you wanted to see me?” I asked a bit nervously as I walked into Unohana’s office. Before she had a chance to say anything, I took a deep breath and blurted, “Look, if this is about me using all the raspberries the other day—or using up all the wasabi yesterday—I’m really sorry and I swear that I’ll repla--” I cut myself off sharply as I noticed the blond haired figure on the other side of Unohana’s desk.

“Ah,” I said weakly, slipping into a bow. It was a lot harder to meet his gaze when I wasn’t distracted by blind rage, I was finding. “Otoribashi-taicho. I hope you are well?” In retrospect, threatening a ninth seat in a room full of witnesses may not have been my brightest idea. Not that I regretted it, but I suppose it did seem a bit…excessive.

At the very least, I probably didn’t need to threaten to shatter his arm into itty-bitty pieces. Maybe I should have gone with ‘temporary paralysis’ or something.

“Quite,” he said, expression faintly amused. “And you, Yukimura-kun?” Was it normal for an Academy student to have so many captains know their name? I really hoped that it was normal.

It probably wasn’t normal. Goddammit.

“I’m fine, thank you for asking,” I said politely, before glancing uncertainly at Unohana. She motioned for me to sit down.

“I understand that there was an altercation between you and some Third Division members the other day,” Unohana said. “Seeing as we take interdivision relations very seriously, this was a cause for some concern. Would you like to explain to Otoribashi-taicho what happened?” She looked at me expectantly.

I coughed, wondering if there was a polite way to phrase ‘so your asshole ninth seat shoved Iemura-senpai down which caused him to spill his bucket and then your asshole fifth seat expected us to clean it up and then he implied in a really asshole-ish way that the entire Fourth Division’s sole purpose was to be punching bags of the other squads and honestly, your entire squad is full of assholes and you should do something about that’.

I really needed to work on my public relations skills.

“Ninth seat Shinta bumped into Iemura just as we were about to leave, which caused Iemura to drop his bucket—which was full of dirty water at the time. Fifth seat Kibune ordered Iemura to clean up the mess. I…disagreed,” I said, as diplomatically as I was able to. “Things then escalated slightly.”

Honestly, I had been—mostly—polite, up until the point where that glasses-wearing dick Kibune had said that all we did was ‘slap some bandages onto a few papercuts.’ If he’d said that in front of Unohana, his body probably would have been found in pieces the next morning. In comparison to that, I thought that my response was perfectly justified.

“Escalated is one word for it,” Otoribashi murmured. “You’re quite troublesome, you know that?”

I met his gaze steadily. “He insulted the Fourth Division. Furthermore, he insulted my senpai and my profession, which is something that I take a lot of pride in. I couldn’t let that pass.” I relaxed slightly as a glimmer of something that might have been approval passed through his eyes. It didn’t look like he was angry, thank god. Getting fired would have put a bit of a damper on my resume.  

“Well, I can hardly punish someone for standing up for themselves. Don’t you agree, Otoribashi-taicho?” Unohana said cheerfully. “However, while I understand defending yourself, I would remind you that we do have a professional reputation to maintain. Don’t think that I haven’t heard the stories about you and Ichimaru Gin.”

I flushed, all thoughts of keeping my calm forgotten. “He’s always the one who starts it!” I protested hotly. “He’s always in here trying to fluster me! Did you know that he came here last week requesting that I check him for an STD, of all things? An STD!” There was a slightly hysterical edge to my voice now, but I still hadn’t quite recovered from Ichimaru Gin telling me to inspect his penis. Fortunately, after the tranquilizer incident Iemura had actually banned me from treating Ichimaru unless there was literally no other option, so I’d gotten out of that one. “Like anyone would consent to sleep with that creepy snake-faced bastard in the first place, they’d probably be traumatized for life--”

“Did he really?” There was no mistaking the note of amusement in Unohana’s voice. I scowled.

“You make one comment about how you think he’s overcompensating with that ridiculous shikai of his, and suddenly he’s in your exam room trying to prove you wrong,” I grumbled, folding my arms over my chest. This was what I got for gossiping with the other nurses (apparently one of them had gone to school with him and had been there when he’d activated it). How the hell had he even found out about that conversation, anyway? Creep.

An odd wheezing sound distracted me from my thoughts, and I looked up in concern to see Otoribashi choking on air, face turning red.

“Otoribashi-taicho, are you all right?” I asked. Why did people always seem to have sudden coughing fits around me? Kaien had them, like, twice a week.

“I’m fine, I’m fine. Are your days always so…eventful?” He asked, finally regaining his ability to breathe.

“I have no idea why people think working at the Fourth is boring,” I confessed. “I mean, we don’t go out on missions and fight hollows, but we have to deal with all thirteen divisions.” Honestly, I wasn’t surprised at all that everyone and their grandma would try to destroy us at any costs in the future. I’d been here just over a month and already I wanted to strangle half of these bastards.

Now that I thought about it, it was probably a bad sign when you started sympathizing with your enemies for wanting to kill your own allies.

“You may have a point,” Otoribashi admitted, a wry look on his face. “Well. I should be getting back to my office or else Chikane-san will yell at me again.” He winked at me. “Don’t worry about any retaliation coming from my members. I’ll make sure that they don’t bother you again. They shouldn’t have been treating a lady so rudely in the first place—especially one whose job is to ‘keep them alive,’” he parroted my words back to me.

“Thank you, Otoribashi-taicho,” I murmured. It hadn’t escaped my notice that he’d only promised to do something regarding their treatment of me, but…it was a start. Small steps.

***

“You’ve gotten better,” Byakuya said, observing my rows of semi-neat characters. We probably weren’t supposed to use his private office as a place to continue our calligraphy lessons, but no one had said anything yet. Probably because they hadn’t really noticed—it never failed to amaze me how invisible I became as soon as I put on my Fourth Division uniform.

“See? I told you I’ve been practicing!” I beamed proudly from where I was sitting on his desk, legs swinging back and forth.

“Yes, I see that you’ve mastered legibility. I can even read all the characters now,” Byakuya deadpanned. He chuckled as I smacked him on the arm. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding, Hisana. This is wonderful—you’ve truly improved a lot.”

“That’s more like it,” I grumbled half-heartedly, not quite able to keep the smile off my face.

“I particularly like the ink drawings you added at the bottom.” The approval in Byakuya’s voice was unmistakable as he leaned forward to study them closer. I groaned.

“You’re such a bad influence. I can’t believe that I actually started subconsciously doodling Seaweed Ambassador pictures when you were busy with your paperwork,” I muttered, glaring at the paper. From this angle, they kind of looked like lumpy clouds. Ridiculous-looking lumpy clouds with faces drawn in.

“Well I, for one, am glad to see that you’re finally coming around. An ability to appreciate proper art is something that I require of all my friends,” Byakuya said, mock-solemnly. “Now you just need to work on not getting ink all over yourself. How did you manage to splatter ink all over your face anyway?”

“It’s a talent,” I said, letting out a dramatic sigh. “According to Iemura-senpai, I have the ‘uncanny ability to make a mess no matter what situation I’m in.’”

“Well, I can’t argue against that. It’s part of your charm, I suppose,” Byakuya said, amused, as he reached out with one hand to cup my face. His thumb lightly brushed over my cheekbone, where I could feel ink drying on my skin.

His hand felt so very warm.

There was something…heated in Byakuya’s eyes as he looked at me, the air between us suddenly feeling charged, heavy, as he gently tilted my head closer. I bit my lip harshly, trying to calm my racing pulse.

Steel gray eyes darkened as his gaze drifted down to my mouth. “You shouldn’t do that,” he said softly, thumb swiping down to free my bottom lip. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

His lips were slightly parted. It would be so, so easy to just lean forward and—

I turned my head away, causing Byakuya’s hand to drop from my face.

“Hisana, I—” He spoke up hoarsely, voice almost raw. “I’m sorry, that was improper of me—”

“It’s nothing.” I offered Byakuya a shaky smile. It was all I could manage right now.

He cleared his throat. “You should clean up before the ink dries completely. There’s a bathroom just across the hall,” Byakuya said awkwardly.

“Right,” I answered, feeling as uncomfortable as Byakuya looked right now. Hopping off his desk, I made sure no one was in the hallway before quickly ducking into the bathroom. Heading straight to the sink, I splashed cold water against my face, scrubbing the ink stains off.

“What am I doing?” I whispered to myself, burying my face in my hands. A part of me knew that Byakuya and I should probably talk about the…whatever the hell was going on between us, but just the act of acknowledging it out loud would cause things to change between us. It would require us to do something about it, and right now I…I didn’t think Byakuya was ready for that. I didn’t think I was ready for that.

By the time I felt ready to head back to Byakuya’s office, I had mostly recovered my composure and had slipped on a friendly, entirely-platonic smile. Byakuya looked up as I entered the room, apparently having regained his usual calm demeanor.

“I forgot to mention something earlier,” he said. “I’ll be leaving on a long-distance mission the day after tomorrow.” My composed mask slipped for a second, and I felt eternally relieved that he was too busy focusing on his paperwork to notice the disappointment that flashed across my face.

 “You’re leaving?” I asked, trying to keep my voice casual. It was silly to feel so upset—back when I’d still lived in Inuzuri, Byakuya was often gone for months at a time—but…I’d gotten used to having him around.

“For two weeks,” Byakuya said as his eyes softened, apparently sensing the hidden dismay in my tone. He really was getting to know me too well. “A routine check-up to the outer districts of the Rukongai. South Rukongai, to be more specific.” A faint smile crossed his lips. “It’s about time I checked up on those kids of yours, anyway. I’ll be leaving in three days, so if there’s anything you’d like for me to take there…” I perked up, the disappointment lightening.

“I—yeah,” I said distractedly, thinking about the letters I’d need to write. Rukia and Renji would want to know what the Academy was like; that alone would probably take up several pages. Miwa would want to know about my internship…I should probably slip in some money to help Mitsuo out with his dojo too, as well as ask him how Kazuki and Kaori’s relationship was going.

“Just don’t write too much. I don’t think that I could carry a dozen books with me,” Byakuya lightly teased.

I huffed. “I wouldn’t write that much! Maybe a few dozen pages, but that’s it! And I can see you laughing at me—this is a perfectly acceptable response!”

“I wouldn’t dare laugh at you, Hisana,” he said, expression perfectly serious. “Especially given the stories I’ve heard about you lately. Did you really yell at the Third Division fifth seat? I overheard Otoribashi-taicho talking to Unohana-taicho yesterday about some Fourth Division member who apparently threatened to break a seated officer’s arm for offending her.”

“Why would you think that that was me?” I asked, insulted. I mean sure, it was me, but he didn’t know that.

“He also described the Fourth Division member as sharp-tongued and that she had a bit of an authority problem. Also, he said that she was—how did he put it? Ah yes. ‘Quite diminutive in size, if not temper’,” Byakuya finished, smirking. “It’s not every day that someone from the Fourth yells at a fifth seat from another division…you’re building quite the reputation among certain people, Hisana.”

I groaned. “Just so long as they don’t come up with some stupid nickname for me again,” I grumbled, thinking back to my time in Inuzuri. Seriously, what was up with that ‘Angel of Inuzuri’ stuff? It sounded so pretentious.

“Oh, I wouldn’t be too worried about that. So far, you seem to just be known as ‘that short healer with the even shorter temper’. A fairly accurate description, I must say,” Byakuya said, eyes glinting with humor.

“At least my nickname isn’t hime,” I shot back.

“Only you call me that!”

***

“Guess who!” A voice sang out as cold, dry hands covered my eyes. A second later, Gin stumbled back as I elbowed him in the stomach, hard. With my other hand, I grabbed my plate of dango and set it on my lap, out of reach of any annoying, sneaky, fox-faced thieves.

“Go away,” I grumbled, scowling at him.

“So cold, Hisana-chan,” Gin said, clutching his stomach in exaggerated pain. “You’re particularly grumpy today. Wake up on the wrong side of bed?” A sly edge crept into his voice. “Or are ya just upset ‘cause your boyfriend’s away?”

I tilted my head to the side, slipping a confused expression onto my face. “Boyfriend? The last time I checked, I was still quite single. I’m sure I would have remembered agreeing to date someone.” Rule number one of dealing with Ichimaru Gin: Never, ever show any sign of weakness.

“That’s not what the rumor mill is sayin’. Do tell, because I’m oh so curious—what is going on between you and Kuchiki-fukutaicho?” Gin asked, sliding into the chair across from me. I rolled my eyes, popping another dango into my mouth.

“What always happens between two individuals who like spending time with each other. It’s called ‘becoming friends’. I’m sure even you are aware of the concept, Ichimaru-san,” I said dryly. At this point, I’d given the ‘we’re just friends’ speech so many times I could probably recite it in my sleep. “And if you want to gossip about my nonexistent love life, you can do it somewhere else. Like your own division. Which happens to be several blocks away.”

Gin made a face. “That’s no fun. All the people there are so dull,” he complained.

“Not my problem,” I said, turning back to my notebook. Absently, I doodled a tiny fox being chased by a spider-squid-centipede hybrid hollow with razor sharp teeth. It made me feel better.

The lack of snarky reply from Gin made me look up, frowning. I barely resisted the urge to groan when I saw that he had gone completely still, gaze fixed unerringly on a giggling couple in line at the dango stand.

“You really need to get a better hobby,” I muttered. “What did that poor couple ever do to you?”

“Aww, don’t be like that, Hisana-chan. Where else am I supposed ta get my entertainment?”

I sent him my most unimpressed look. “See, this is why I try to avoid you at all costs. Normal people don’t find psychologically torturing innocents an acceptable pastime.”

Normal people are boring, Hisana-chan,” Gin said, turning back to face me.

 “You don’t find me boring,” I pointed out, raising an eyebrow. “And I’m normal.”

Gin threw back his head and laughed, a note of genuine amusement in his voice. The people sitting at the table next to ours sent him terrified looks, scooching back nervously. I couldn’t blame them.

“Oh, my dear girl,” he chuckled, sounding almost…fond? “Let me assure ya, since your self-awareness is so sadly lacking: you are very far from normal.” I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or not, so I settled on my default reaction of glaring at him. “I told ya the first day we met, didn’t I? Ya put on a good show, but ya ain’t as innocent as ya try to act.” He leaned forward, gaze predatory. “Don’t deny it. Part of you likes seein’ people scared of ya.”

“I like it when people take me seriously enough that they don’t mess with me. There’s a difference,” I insisted. Gin’s gaze turned almost pitying.

“Oh? From what I’ve been hearin’, ya almost crippled a Third Division member. Seems a bit excessive, dontcha think? Half the division’s terrified of ya now.”

“He tried to hit me. Was I just supposed to stand back and let him do that?” I asked sharply. Gin leaned back, a satisfied look on his face.

“That. Right there. Ya don’t back down easily, do ya Hisana-chan? It doesn’t matter if it’s a captain, a lieutenant, or some random guy from another division; if ya see omething’ ya disagree with, you won’t just stand by. You’ll do omething’ about it and damn the consequences.” He tilted his head to the side thoughtfully. “I wonder, what would ya do if someone threatened someone you loved?” My eyes hardened.

“I’d make them regret it,” I said coldly. There was no uncertainty in my voice. Gin’s eyes slid open a fraction, something darkly approving flashing across them.

“You really mean that. I suppose we have that much in common, at least,” he murmured. “You’d do everything in your power to completely destroy them, wouldn’t ya?”

I shifted uncomfortably, not liking this sense of…understanding between us. Because while objectively, I knew that Gin’s plan to protect Matsumoto was rather extreme, there was no telling what I’d do if someone hurt one of my family members in Inuzuri. If someone hurt Byakuya, hurt Rukia.

Maybe Gin had a point. Since the night that Tatsuya and Horio had died, I’d killed multiple times. And while I may have felt ambivalent about killing Akiyama, never once had I regretted any of those deaths. And the thing was, most of those people hadn’t actually gotten close enough to do any harm—I probably could have figured out a way to spare their lives—and yet I’d killed them anyway. But it wasn’t like that was unusual, was it? That had been in Inuzuri—there was little room for mercy that far out in the Rukongai.

“You’d burn the whole world down in order to keep those you truly care about safe,” Gin said softly, almost as if he’d been reading my thoughts, pale blue-green eyes intent on my face. “Hisana-chan, you are anything but normal.”

***

Growing up in Inuzuri had taught me many things. Including how to swear creatively and profusely. Normally I was pretty good about censoring myself, but…

“Goddamn…fucking piece of—argh! Nitwitted son of a multi-tentacled hollow!” I cursed as the reiatsu string extending from my pointer finger blew up again. Putting my poor, burned finger in my mouth, I sucked on it sulkily.

“I still don’t get why you’re so determined to do this. I mean, trying to limit reiatsu output to one finger is hard enough, but trying to form a string of reiatsu thin and flexible enough to be easy to maneuver, yet strong enough to lift up physical objects with ease?” Eiji asked, shaking his head. “Good luck. I don’t even think Byakuya-sama can do that.”

“Oi Eiji, shut up. Please Hisana, do continue. It’s quite inspiring,” Hiro said, jotting something down in a notebook. “Nitwitted son of a multi-tentacled hollow…that’s a good one. My favorite is still ‘gerbil-fucking twatwaffle’ though. Or maybe ‘shit-dwelling fucknugget.’” His voice shook from holding back laughter. “Who would’ve thought that you had such a dirty mouth?”

“Are you writing them down?” I asked incredulously, burn on my hand completely forgotten. Hiro nodded sagely.

“Of course. This is too good to pass up.”

Deciding to ignore him, I instead channeled healing reiatsu to my injured hand, speeding up all cellular activity in the area. It was a bit like watching a sped-up video, and I studied my hand with interest as the dead cells flaked off, new cells taking their place. I still had a bit of trouble using general healing kido on other people, but when it came to myself, I’d found that it required far less concentration than my usual technique.

Once I’d finished, I went back to channeling reiatsu through my finger, focusing on pushing my spiritual pressure out. A thin, barely-visible strand of blue energy extended from my pointer finger about two feet before my control wavered and the string destabilized. At least I didn’t end up with yet another reiatsu burn that time.

“I don’t get it,” I muttered, staring at my hand in frustration. “I mean, Hado #9 does essentially the same thing, but on a larger scale, right? Why is this so much more difficult?”

“Hado #9 forms a thick rope of energy that extends from the user’s hand. It doesn’t require nearly as much finesse as this,” Eiji said, amused. “Come on, Hisana-san, tell us—why are you so determined to get this down?”

“Lots of reasons. To prove to myself that I can. So that in case I lose my sword in battle, I can just extend a reiatsu string and grab it. So that I can subtly trip those who annoy me. Take your pick,” I muttered. Like hell I was going to admit that I’d spent the past few hours working on this technique just in the hopes that someday, I’d have a reliable way of reaching things in tall places.

“You just want a way to reach things in tall places, don’t you?” Eiji asked knowingly. I flushed, looking away as Hiro laughed, loud and bright. See, this was the problem with having friends. They ended up knowing you way too well.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” Hiro said, slinging an arm around my shoulder. No concept of personal space, that one. “If you actually manage to pull it off, it’ll be really cool.”

“Pull what off?” An unfamiliar voice asked. I looked up startled to see Ukitake Juushiro, captain of the Thirteenth Division, enter the room. My eyes narrowed slightly as I took in his appearance. In the anime, aside from periodic coughing/fainting fits, Ukitake had seemed relatively normal in physical appearance. But looking at him now, well…it was obvious that he was suffering from a pretty serious condition. The unhealthy pallor to his face, the faint bags under his eyes, the weariness written all over him, the thinness of his body that his haori couldn’t quite hide…

I’d treated all kinds of people in Inuzuri, of course. But this—this went beyond simple physical injury or malnutrition. He almost reminded me of how I’d looked after first starting chemo. I didn’t like it.

A sharp nudge to my side broke me out of my thoughts, and I found Hiro giving me a pointed glance. Belatedly, I realized that Ukitake was a captain which probably meant that I should’ve been bowing, and not, you know, diagnosing him with my eyes.

“Ah,” I coughed sheepishly, standing up and slipping into a hasty bow. Well, this was off to a great start. “Ukitake-taicho. Um, Eiji-kun and Hiro-kun were just discussing a reiatsu control technique with me. Uh, if we were bothering you, I can leave--”

“I see,” he said, cutting off my nervous babbling. An amused look crossed his face as I bit my lip, feeling my face heat up. Fuck this, he was the—what, fifth?—captain I’d met by now. Shouldn’t this whole ‘meeting freakishly powerful people’ thing be getting easier? “You are a healer?”

“Yes,” I said, startled. “How did you know?”

“That look on your face when I first walked in. Like you were half a second away from demanding that I get into bed with a bowl of hot soup and ordering that I stay there until I started looking healthier. I’ve only seen that look on various healers and my mother,” Ukitake chuckled, shaking his head. Next to me, Hiro let out a muffled cough that did nothing to hide his snigger. If I hadn’t been standing in front of a captain, I would have elbowed him.

“I—I didn’t mean--” I began, completely mortified. If I kept this up, my nickname would probably be ‘the human tomato’, given how hot my face felt right now. “Well, yes, a bowl of hot soup definitely wouldn’t hurt but honestly fresh air and taking a daily walk outside would probably do you more good than a nap, and it would have the added benefits of energy balance, hormone regulation, and improving--” Fuck, this was so not the time to be going into doctor mode. Cutting myself off, I swallowed heavily and promptly debated running out the door. Probably wouldn’t make it far. Dammit.

“Anyway,” I cleared my throat awkwardly. “It was nice to meet you, Ukitake-taicho, and, uh,” I stalled, trying to come up with a way of saying ‘sorry for the word vomit,’ “I know that you didn’t ask for my medical opinion, and I apologize for inflicting that upon you. It’s a bad habit, I’m afraid.”

“Not at all,” Ukitake laughed, waving off my apology. “Relax, you did nothing wrong.” His gaze lingered on Eiji and Hiro. “I assume that you are the healer Kaien has befriended then? The one he met in South Rukongai?”

“Yes?” I answered hesitantly as Eiji nodded in confirmation beside me. Ukitake smiled, the faint lines on his face lessening as he did so.

“I’ve been meaning to meet you for a while now. Kaien talks about you quite often, did you know?”

“Does he?” I didn’t know if that was a good thing.

“Yes, he mentioned that he helped you prepare for the Academy entrance exam. He said that you were quite a diligent student, and that you completed the training mission he’d assigned for you admirably--”

“Anything he tells you about that mission is a complete and utter lie,” I blurted out in sudden panic. That jerk, he’d promised not to say anything! “I failed completely because the task he assigned was impossible and the cat thing never happened because I just gave up and went home, and Shihouin-taicho definitely wasn’t involved, because that day never happened. Really.”

There was a long silence during which everyone just stared at me. Hiro had an interested gleam in his eyes that was faintly unsettling. Eiji looked curious too, but was far better at hiding it, which was somehow even more unsettling. Ukitake…Ukitake just looked like he was trying not to laugh.

“Kaien simply told me that you came up with an impressively creative solution to a difficult problem. Is that incorrect?” Ukitake asked, voice carefully even. There was a definite glint of humor in his eyes. I closed my eyes briefly, wishing that the floor would just swallow me up already. Someone might as well just hand me a shovel at this point, given how I kept managing to dig myself deeper.

“It’s a long story,” I said finally through gritted teeth.

“One that I would dearly love to hear someday,” he chuckled, before taking mercy on me and changing the subject. “But anyway, you were all working on a reiatsu control technique earlier? Which one?”

“Hisana-san came up with it. She saw me perform Hadou #9: Horin during a spar earlier and was inspired by it. She’s been trying to figure out how to create reiatsu strings all morning,” Eiji explained.

“It’s a work in progress,” I admitted. I either ended up with weird inflexible energy rods coming out of my fingers or weak strands that disintegrated upon contact with an object. Or small explosions. That happened a lot too.

“Oh?” Ukitake looked intrigued. “May I see?”

I nodded before directing my reiatsu down my arm, towards my hand, and concentrating it at the tip of my finger. As it began glowing a faint blue, I concentrated on pushing that energy out even as I simultaneously focused on shaping it into a thin string. It wasn’t easy—the energy fought against my control, wanting to expand, to flow freely—but slowly, steadily, a shimmering pale blue thread began extending from my finger. This time, I managed about three feet before it broke.

“It’s harder the longer it gets, because there has to be a steady flow of energy down the entire thread. It’s delicate enough that if one part has more energy than another, the entire thing destabilizes,” I explained, wiping the sweat from my forehead. “I’m currently trying to work on increasing the energy output without sacrificing the maneuverability or thinness of the threads, but I’m having a bit of trouble balancing the concentration it takes to further condense my reiatsu with the focus it takes to maintain an unfluctuating energy flow.”

“You could try taking a break,” Hiro grumbled. “You’ve barely stopped since you’ve started three hours ago.”

I shrugged; taking a break was the last thing on my mind right now. “The technique’s useless if the strings break every time they touch something.”

“Hmm, you’re right about that,” Ukitake murmured, looking at me speculatively. “The technique is mentally taxing because you need to focus on two things at once, correct? Then I would start with some easier control exercises—work on being able to maintain a constant, steady reiatsu flow; once you’ve mastered that to the point where you don’t even need to think about it, you can concentrate on the condensing aspect of the technique.”

I thought about that. He had a point. Still, there was no concrete way of knowing how stable my reiatsu output was, unless…

“At the Academy exam…they had these machines, where the proctors could test our reiatsu control,” I began hesitantly. “Do you…do you know if it would be possible for me to use one of those?” Ukitake hummed thoughtfully.

“I believe that they are normally in the possession of the Kido Corps when they’re not in use by the Academy, but I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to obtain one for practice.”

I brightened, mood lifting. “That’s fantastic! I’ll see if I can submit a request through the Academy or something. Thanks for your help, Ukitake-taicho!” I’d try the technique again once I managed to get a Level 10 in under a minute or so. Last time, it’d taken me around twelve minutes to get there.

I paused for a moment as I considered something else. “And, uh, sorry for blowing up a bunch of your training dummies during kido practice. And for um, accidentally killing a bunch of trees here last week. Shiba-fukutaicho gave me permission to use your training grounds, but I should’ve been more careful,” I apologized sheepishly.

I hardly ever practiced at the Academy anymore outside of official lessons. The instructors were…weird about me experimenting with kido spells. And about me trying out higher level spells that I’d bugged Hiro, Chiyo and Eiji to show me. There were always a few teachers obnoxiously hovering around—something about ‘making sure I didn’t blow myself up.’ Honestly, they had no sense of scientific ambition; how was I supposed to improve if I wasn’t allowed to test the limits of the spells I was working on?

“Don’t worry about it,” Ukitake laughed, brown eyes warm, and yes, I could definitely see why Squad 13 idolized this man. “That’s what they’re there for, and a bit of property damage is expected when training. Feel free to continue using the training grounds, Yukimura-kun—we’d be happy to have you.”

***

This was pathetic.

“You’re pathetic,” Kukaku said flatly, echoing my thoughts as she stared at her brother in disgust. “You disgrace the Shiba name.”

“Shut up and help me out! Miyako finally agreed to a date with me, and I still haven’t decided which flowers to give her!” Kaien wailed, straightening his hair in front of the mirror for the umpteenth time.

“You’ve already been dating, this is just the first time you’ve made it official,” I muttered. “And I still don’t understand why I’m here, or why you had to drag me over at seven in the morning for your date that starts at five in the afternoon. On my one day off, to boot. Don’t you know any other girls you could ask for advice besides me?”

“Well sure, I have a lot of female cousins, but I’m clan head. I can’t let them see me freaking out like this—do you have any idea what that would do to my reputation?” Kaien said, looking at me like this fact should be obvious. “I somehow have the majority of them convinced that I actually know what I’m doing most of the time. Like hell I’m gonna risk that.”

“So you pick me instead. Joy,” I said dryly, resisting the urge to yawn. About the only good thing that came out of this was that I got to visit Tonton. The piglet was currently nestled in my arms, fast asleep. Lucky girl, I thought enviously, thinking back to my warm, comfortable bed in the Fourth.

“What are you worried about anyway? You like her and for some reason she likes you back, and your clan has no laws against you dating a commoner. As far as I’m concerned, you already have the first steps down,” I pointed out. Judging by the sharp look Kukaku sent my way, I didn’t quite manage to keep the hint of wistful envy out of my voice.

“I know that, but this is serious, Yukimura! I can’t afford to mess this up!” Kaien waved his arms, cutting Kukaku off just as she opened her mouth to say something. A genuine note of panic flashed across Kaien’s eyes. “I…I really like her. And it’s not just because she’s incredibly beautiful and kind and smart and--” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kukaku make gagging motions. “—and completely wonderful, but I can really see myself with her, you know? Like I imagine us doing the most boring stuff, like taking long walks and feeding ducks and eating breakfast together and--”

“Oi, idiot,” Kukaku snapped, the last of her patience evaporating. “I’m just going to say this once, so shut the hell up and listen. No relationship is perfect, and no matter how hard you try, you’re going to mess up. Both of you are. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is that neither of you give up on each other. And that you care enough about your relationship to put the effort in to fix things. So stop worrying about making mistakes because screwing up is unavoidable. What you should be focusing on is showing Miyako that you care about her, that you want a relationship to happen, and that you’re willing to try. Besides,” Kukaku added, staring disinterestedly down at her nails as Kaien gaped at her, “you’re not a complete loser—you’re related to me, after all—so you can probably make this work. Maybe.”

Coming from Kukaku, that was practically a glowing endorsement of Kaien’s virtues.

“Imouto…” Kaien said, apparently struck speechless. In response, Kukaku picked up one of the two bouquets of flowers laying on the bed and chucked it at her brother’s head.

“Don’t you dare say anything sappy, moron. Now go out there so that when Miyako comes, you’re ready—it’s not nice to keep a lady waiting, after all.”

“You also don’t want to give her any time to come to her senses and change her mind,” I added, smirking. Kaien huffed, sending a wounded look at the both of us before leaving the room with a dramatic sniff. Drama queen.

Kukaku waited all of five seconds before turning to me. “So,” she began bluntly, “How are things working out with Kuchiki? Still too chicken to make a move, huh?”

I pursed my lips, not bothering to deny it. Shiba Kukaku, I’d found, had the annoying habit of being able to see right through my bullshit. “It’s not that simple.”

“When is it ever?” Kukaku snorted. “Look, I get it. It’s not easy. The Kuchiki clan is made up of a bunch of stuck-up pricks with sticks stuck so far up their asses I’m surprised they’re not choking on them. And if Shiba clan politics are bad, the Kuchiki clan is about a thousand times worse. It’s no surprise that you don’t want to deal with that.” Kukaku paused, green eyes—so much like her brother’s—taking in my expression seriously. “But you love him, and I’d bet my newly-renovated house that he loves you too. And I think that’s worth fighting for, don’t you?”

I inhaled sharply. Although several people had certainly implied that my feelings towards Byakuya were more than simple friendship, this was the first time someone had flat-out stated that it was something as serious as love.

“His clan will never approve of me,” I turned my head away, not quite able to hide the bitterness in my voice. It all came down to that, didn’t it? I wasn’t foolish enough to think that I would ever be good enough for him in their eyes. “His clan may be willing to tolerate his friendship with me, however reluctantly, but a courtship? That’s something else entirely. And I could never ask him to choose between me and his family’s approval.”

The thing was, even that first night in Inuzuri when I’d realized my feelings weren’t quite as platonic as I would’ve liked, I’d never planned on acting on them. And it had been easier then to decide, because I only saw Byakuya once every few months and had no plans to leave Inuzuri anytime soon—such a long distance relationship would never work out. But things had changed, hadn’t they?

“Because you don’t think that he’ll choose you?” Kukaku tilted her head to the side.

“Because it would tear him apart!” I hissed. “I—I have no idea what his decision would be, if it came down to it. If he…rejected my feelings…” I swallowed, pushing down the heavy lump that had formed in my throat. “He would hate himself for hurting me,” I finished softly. At least by not confessing, only one of us would be hurt—he would never have to suffer the guilt of telling me no. I could paste on a smile, continue to be his friend (and whatever happened, that would never change), and if—when—he chose to settle down with a nice, suitable girl that his family would approve of, I would tell him that I was happy for him. In time, I may even come to believe it.

“And if he didn’t? Because I think you’re underestimating just how much you mean to him,” Kukaku said, voice uncharacteristically gentle.

I closed my eyes, trying to hide the sudden sharp pang of sadness that shot through my chest. “Kukaku-san, you don’t understand. His family, his duty, his pride, it means everything to him. And if he chose me, there would always be a part of him wondering if he did the right thing.” And really, wasn’t his internal turmoil over breaking the rules twice for Hisana in the original timeline the primary reason behind why he had pushed so hard for Rukia’s execution in the first place?

“Oh, he would treat me well, I have no doubt,” I continued, smiling wistfully—he had tried his best for the original Hisana, after all. “But I would be asking him to disappoint his grandfather, break the laws of his clan, break his promise to his parents for something that might not even work out, and I can’t—I can’t do that to him. I can’t ask that of him.” There was a long moment of silence.

“You really do love him, don’t you?” Kukaku asked quietly. I shrugged.

“Love him, like him, care for him—it doesn’t matter. They’re just labels. I want him to be happy, that’s all. And if he’s happy with me being his friend, that’s what I’ll be.”

Chapter Text

The first sign that something was wrong was the fact that Iemura met me at the doors of the Fourth Division, looking frazzled, exhausted, and completely wrung out. There was a faintly manic gleam in his eyes as he looked at me, glasses slightly askew.

The second sign that something was wrong was the fact that for the first time ever, he actually looked happy to see me.

“Yukimura. You’re good with kids, right?” He demanded before I had a chance to talk. “And better yet, you have absolutely no problem talking back to people who far outrank you.”

I blinked. “Uh--” I said, taken aback. He ignored me.

“Good. Now listen carefully, because this is an order. If you run across any demon children during your shift today, you are to do everything in your power to get her away from this place. I don’t care what you have to do, just get her out of my hair.” Before I had a chance to ask further questions, he stormed away in the general direction of the barracks.

Feeling slightly nervous now, I took a deep breath before opening the doors to the Fourth Division headquarters. I made it past the front lobby before stopping dead, taking in the scene of complete and utter chaos before me. Overturned tables and chairs, a couple holes in the walls, the sound of sobbing as several Fourth Division members underwent simultaneous mental breakdowns…

“Tsukuda-san,” I said faintly, turning to the nurse who seemed to be doing her best to ignore everything going on around her. Absently, I wondered if I had maybe made something of a mistake accepting this internship. Isane and Hanataro never had to deal with shit like this. “What the hell happened?”

Somewhere in the distance, there was a deafening crash. Someone screamed.

“Ah—there was a fight at the Eleventh Division today,” Tsukuda said meekly, not meeting my eyes.

“And?” I asked, not understanding. Fights at the Eleventh Division were nothing new; saying that a fight broke out there was like saying ‘the sky is blue today’ or ‘Yoruichi is fast.’

“Um…Zaraki-taicho got involved. And, he got in a disagreement with Muguruma-taicho. They’re both being treated right now,” Tsukuda continued nervously.

“What does that have to do with…this?” I motioned towards the scene of destruction around us.

“Uh…you see--” Before she could answer, a pink blur burst through one of the few remaining undamaged walls (through a wall, my mind repeated in disbelief). Next to me, Tsukuda let out a squeak, something that sounded like “Sorrysomethingcameupgottago” and flash-stepped away before I could do anything more than blink. That wasn’t a good sign.

Closer inspection revealed that the pink blur was actually a giggling pink-haired child, who appeared to be having the time of her life. She skidded to a stop in front of me, tilting her head to the side curiously. A quick glance to the lieutenant badge on her arm confirmed her identity. Well, that explained a lot of things.

“Hey! Who’re you?” She asked, bouncing up and down on the soles of her feet.

“I’m Yukimura Hisana,” I said, bending down so that I was at face level with her. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Kusajishi Yachiru, lieutenant of Squad 11!” She announced cheerfully.

“Nice to meet you, Yachiru-chan,” I said, smiling slightly. She kind of reminded me of a younger-Rukia on a sugar rush. “You looked like you were having a lot of fun just now. Were you playing a game?”

“Uh-huh! I was playin’ tag! It’s my favorite. I think I lost them though,” Yachiru pouted briefly. “They’re so slooow. At least Frilly-brows and Baldy can run, even if they can’t catch me.

“How come you don’t play with them, then?” I asked curiously.

“’Cause they’re at home. And welllll….Ret-chan told me ta go back ‘cause Ken-chan is hurt and has ta stay here right now, but I didn’t wanna leave, ya know? So I got some people here ta play with me!”

“Because you go wherever Zaraki-taicho goes, right?” I murmured. She grinned up at me.

“’xactly!” A speculative gleam entered her eyes. “Hey, hey! Ya wanna join? I promise, it’s lotsa fun!”

“I bet,” I laughed. “Tag is one of my favorite games too. But right now, I’m feeling kind of hungry, so I was hoping to go bake some cookies. You’re welcome to come, if you want.” Iemura had better thank me for this.

“You’re making cookies?” Yachiru asked, eyes shining. Glad to see that my knowledge about her obsession with food wasn’t wrong.

“Mmm-hmm. Raspberry and apricot and chocolate ones,” I confirmed. A hint of nostalgia entered my voice. “I used to bake a lot with my little sister, but…well, I haven’t gotten the chance to in a long time.”

“How come?” Yachiru asked, eyes wide.

“Well, she lives pretty far away, you know? In the 78th District. She’ll be coming here in a few months but until then, I could use some company, if you’re up for it,” I said, smiling warmly. “Have you baked cookies before, Yachiru-chan?”

She shook her head. “Nuh-uh. Is it fun?”

“You bet. Especially because you get to eat them at the end.” Leaning in, I winked conspiratorially at her. “I’ll let you in on a secret. Food always tastes better when you’re the one making it.” I offered her my hand. “So what do you say—you wanna help me out?”

There was a moment where Yachiru stared at my hand almost suspiciously, like she wasn’t sure if I was being sincere or making fun of her. The next instant, I felt a small hand grabbing my own. “Okay, Hisa-chan. But after, ya gotta promise ta come play with me, yeah?”

“It’s a deal,” I confirmed, squeezing her hand lightly.

“Hey, don’t eat that, or we won’t have enough for later!” I scolded from where I was letting the raspberry jam simmer, catching Yachiru trying to sneak a bite of cookie dough for the umpteenth time. “Don’t you want to make cookies?”

“But it’s reaaaaally good!” She whined, pouting. I hid my smile behind one hand—she really was very cute. “Can’t I have just a little bit more, Hisa-chan? Just thiiiis much.” She demonstrated by holding her thumb and forefinger about a centimeter apart before staring up at me with beseeching eyes.

Tough luck. Raising Rukia had made me immune to any and all forms of puppy-dog eyes.

“Tell you what. We’re just about done with the jam anyway; how would you like to help me cut the dough into shapes?” I asked.

“We can do that?” Yachiru sounded thrilled.

“Of course.” Taking a rolling pin, I proceeded to flatten the dough into a sheet. Taking a knife, I asked her, “What shape would you like me to cut out?”

Yachiru thought about that for a moment. “Can we make a Ken-chan shaped cookie?” She asked excitedly.

I barely resisted the urge to sigh. Girl certainly didn’t start small. Still—

“I’ve never actually met Zaraki-taicho, so I’m going to need you to describe him for me,” I admitted. “Could you tell me what he looks like, Yachiru-chan?”

Yachiru brightened up. “Sure! Okay, first he’s really tall, which is good ‘cause I can always see a lot when I’m hangin’ onto his back. So ya gotta make sure to make him a really big cookie, bigger than all the others. And he has spiky hair, like a porcupine! And also he has an eyepatch and he wears his captain’s coat all the time and he always carries his sword around—” She babbled, waving her arms around for emphasis.

I let Yachiru’s voice wash over me as I cut out the general shape of the cookie. A layer of dark chocolate sauce was used to color his hair and make him an eyepatch and a shihakusho. Another tiny drop of chocolate was used to make his eye. Splotches of raspberry jam were used to create ‘blood’, since Yachiru insisted that he was never happier than he was during a fight where his opponents were strong enough to actually cut him. As I didn’t have a blender, I had Yachiru smash up some white sugar crystals to make powdered sugar, which was then used to make a ‘haori.’ Several minutes later, we had a pretty decent cookie approximation of the Eleventh Division captain. Yachiru was elated.

“Hisa-chan, look! He looks just like Ken-chan!” She exclaimed, peering down at it from her position on the table and clapping her hands together in delight. Tugging at my sleeve, she added, “Can we make me too? And Frilly-brows and Baldy? Can we? Can we?”

“Why not,” I smiled. “After all, I don’t think that Zaraki-taicho would be Zaraki-taicho if he didn’t have you there with him. And we can’t leave your friends out either. Come on—let’s get started, shall we?”

 ***

Two hours later, we not only had various Zaraki-cookies, Yachiru-cookies, Madarame-cookies and Ayasegawa-cookies, but we also had a multitude of hollow-cookies for them to fight. Halfway through the making of the second hollow-cookie, Yachiru had joined me in cutting them out and decorating them. Given the fact that we only had orange, red, dark brown and white colors to work with, I was kind of impressed by the sheer variety we managed. Even more so if you considered the fact that each and every hollow we came up with was probably based on an actual memory.

“And what about that one?” I asked as we waited for the cookies to cool, pointing towards a multi-eyed hollow with rather intense looking horns. Yachiru had put an impressive amount of detail into that one, and I was curious about the story behind it. She beamed, a proud smile lighting up her features.

“That was my first hollow! It was a lotta fun to fight,” Yachiru said happily. “It was pretty tough. Ken-chan wanted to fight it, but he let me have it ‘cause my ‘first fight should be a good one,’” she recited, before turning to me. “What about you, Hisa-chan? What was your first fight like?”

Well, the first time I’d stood my ground against a hollow (mainly because I’d been in no shape to run away) was actually...four months after I’d arrived in Inuzuri, before I’d met Tatsuya and the others.

“When I was ten, I was cooking dinner for myself and my sister in the woods when a hollow came out of nowhere. I didn’t have a sword, but I did have a fire going, so I grabbed a flaming branch and threw it into the hole in the hollow’s chest. He didn’t survive,” I said distantly, thinking back. Really, I’d been incredibly lucky that it had been such a low level one.

“That’s…so cool,” Yachiru said with widened eyes, something like admiration passing through them for the first time. “Wait til I tell Ken-chan! He keeps sayin’ that the Fourth is made up of a buncha wimps ‘cause ya never kill nuthin’.”

“Never kill anything,” I corrected, trying to ignore the fact that I was having a conversation about killing with someone who physically and mentally resembled a four year old. “And it’s true that generally, the Fourth doesn’t go out and kill hollows. But Yachiru-chan, that doesn’t make us weak. It’s all about what’s important to you. People join the Eleventh because they value fighting, the glory of battle. I joined the Fourth because what’s most important to me is making sure that the idiots I care about can get up and keep on fighting. However, if some jerk tries to push me around, the fact that I’m a medic first and foremost doesn’t change the fact that I’ll punch them in the face. Does that make sense?” When Yachiru nodded, looking uncharacteristically thoughtful, I smiled and handed her a cookie. “They should be cool enough now. Here—you deserve it.”

In retrospect, I may have underestimated the power of Kusajishi Yachiru on a sugar rush. If I thought she was fast before, she was practically bouncing off the walls at light speed now. Iemura-senpai was going to kill me.

On the bright side, after she’d eaten about a dozen and a half cookies, I’d managed to get her to slow down by telling her that if she kept this up, she wouldn’t be able to show Zaraki-taicho her handiwork. On the down side, she took this to mean that she needed to show them to Zaraki-taicho right this instant which normally wouldn’t be too bad, except for fact that she’d decided to take me with her.

Which, well. I mean, I was flattered that she seemed to consider me a new friend of hers—she wouldn’t have insisted on introducing me to her captain otherwise. But if I knew that meeting Kusajishi Yachiru would lead to me meeting Zaraki freakin’ Kenpachi not three hours later, I’d have stayed home in bed today.

To make matters worse, she was dragging me through the halls at dizzying speed (at least she wasn’t running through walls anymore), completely unconcerned by the fact that I was probably at least twice her body weight.

“Ken-chan!” She exclaimed, slamming open a door and coming to a stop so suddenly I almost fell over. I leaned heavily on the doorway, trying to catch my breath. The fact that the air felt heavy with reiatsu really wasn’t helping. Jesus Christ, if that was him with his reiatsu heavily suppressed, what did it feel like when he didn’t have his eyepatch on? I didn’t even want to contemplate it.

“Yukimura-san.” Unohana’s bemused voice caused me to wince as I suddenly felt self-conscious of the fact that for all intents and purposes, I was standing in front of my boss with flour in my hair, jam on my hands, and crumbs on my uniform and that I’d just spent the last few hours baking cookies instead of working. “What are you doing here?”

“Ah. Unohana-taicho, Zaraki-taicho.” Well, when in doubt, resort back to basic manners. “Would you like a cookie?” I asked lamely, voice only slightly higher than normal. Reaching into the basket I was carrying, I randomly selected a cookie and pulled it out.

“Is that shaped like a hollow?” Unohana asked, sounding delighted. She reached out and gently took it from me, turning it over and inspecting it with the air of an art connoisseur. “This is nicely made. I like that you even cut out a little hollow hole, and the use of powdered sugar to make the mask is ingenious.”

“Right?” Yachiru puffed up proudly. “That’s not even the best one though. Here, I saved this one for you.” She held up one of the better Zaraki-cookies directly in front of the real Zaraki’s face. “Look what Hisa-chan helped me make! See, it looks just like you!”

For a long moment, Zaraki didn’t say anything, gaze intent upon his cookie counterpart. Yachiru’s expression turned worried. “Do you like it?” She asked, a trace of uncertainty in her voice…and no matter how powerful and fast she may have been, in that moment she looked like any other child looking to their parent for approval.

“Yachiru-chan worked very hard on that, Zaraki-taicho,” I spoke up quietly, refusing to flinch when olive-green eyes turned towards me. “I’m sure we can all agree that it’s a very nice cookie, don’t you?”

Zaraki stared at me for a moment longer before huffing. Rolling his eyes, he turned back to Yachiru. “Oi, stop lookin’ at me like that, ya dumb brat. Of course it’s good. You helped make it, didn’t ya?” With that, he promptly took a bite out of it. “Tastes alright too.”

I relaxed at his answer, ignoring the amused look Unohana sent my way. Yachiru lit up like the sun, all signs of doubt leaving her face as she grabbed the basket from me and began showing him the various hollow cookies, as well as the ones of ‘Frilly-brows’ and ‘Baldy’.

Meanwhile, I took the opportunity to start concocting escape plans. Eying the door, I wondered what my chances were of reaching it without anyone noticing. Deciding to test the waters, I waited until both Unohana and Zaraki were looking at Yachiru before beginning to inch my way there. I made it all of two centimeters before Yachiru lunged forward and grabbed my wrist. The next thing I knew, I found myself pulled directly in front of the Eleventh Division captain. My heart promptly started beating double-time.

“Ken-chan, this is Hisa-chan. She’s from the Rukongai, too! 78th District,” Yachiru stated excitedly. “Didja know that she once set a hollow on fire for interruptin’ her dinner? When she was only ten years old!”

“It’s less impressive than it sounds,” I said, shifting awkwardly as his eyes turned towards me. “It was just a single hollow and it wasn’t expecting me to fight back. I got lucky.”

 “Hmph. Not too bad for a brat though,” Zaraki grunted. “Woulda expected a pipsqueak like ya to run.” My eye twitched faintly before I reminded myself that given how tall Zaraki was (Yachiru certainly hadn’t been exaggerating), he probably saw everyone as ‘pipsqueaks.’

“Wasn’t in any shape to outrun it, really,” I said, shrugging with forced nonchalance. “So my only choices were to do something, or die.” One side of my lips quirked up. “I chose to live.” And really, with Rukia depending on me to protect her, dying had never been an option.

“Huh. A Fourth Division member with some balls. Never thought I’d see the day,” Zaraki snorted, shaking his head before turning to Unohana. “Oi, woman, I can leave now right? I toldja, I’m fine—a coupla bruised ribs ain’t omethin’ ta stay in bed for.”

“You are free to go, Zaraki-taicho,” Unohana said, sounding faintly exasperated. “I would tell you to spend the rest of the day resting and recovering, but I suspect that it would be a futile effort.”

“Damn straight,” Zaraki grunted. “Ain’t nobody got time for pansy shit like that.” He glanced towards the pink-haired child sitting on his bed. “Oi Yachiru, let’s go.”

Yachiru hesitated for a moment before reaching out and tugging on my sleeve. “Hisa-chan, you’ll still come and play with me later, right?”

“I’d be happy to. If Zaraki-taicho says it’s okay?” I asked, glancing uncertainly at the Eleventh Division captain. He stared bemusedly at me.

“Why’re ya askin’ me? I ain’t her dad. S’not like I control what the brat does,” he said gruffly.

“You may not be her dad, but she’s still your kid, isn’t she?” I pointed out. From what I understood, he took her in, fed her, clothed her, and taught her how to defend herself…as far as I was concerned, that made him her parent, biologically related or not. “It’s only polite to ask permission.”

Zaraki paused, an odd expression crossing his face, and it slowly dawned on me that this may have been the first time someone had come to him asking permission to…well, to set up a playdate of all things. It also went a long way in explaining Yachiru’s initial hesitant attitude towards me. From the looks of it, she was used to dragging people into her games, but—how many times had someone sought her out just to play?

“I’ll take good care of her,” I promised, tilting my chin up so I could look him in the eye. Even sitting down, he was taller than me.

Zaraki was silent for another second before his gaze flickered to where Yachiru was looking at him expectantly. He huffed, rolling his eyes. “Whatever, kid. Ya wanna play babysitter, then sure. Just don’t come complainin’ ta me if she starts doin’ annoyin’ ya or omething’.”

I smiled, reaching down to ruffle Yachiru’s hair. “Wouldn’t dream of it, Zaraki-taicho.”

***

“Otoribashi-taicho is currently finishing up a spar, but you can just drop the reports in his office,” the scary-looking lieutenant of the Third Division said to me. She kind of reminded me of a Japanese version of Minerva McGonagall, with her stern, no-nonsense demeanor. “It’s the room furthest down the hall and to the left—the door should be unlocked.”

“Thank you, Iba-fukutaicho,” I said, bowing politely.

“Just be warned, it’s a bit of a mess,” she said, the faintest note of exasperation in her voice. “Just put the reports on whatever empty spot you can find on his desk.

“Sure thing,” I said, making my way down. Upon entering Otoribashi’s office, I blinked. Well, Iba certainly hadn’t been lying. Papers were strewn everywhere, a music stand stood in one corner of the room, the bookshelves were crammed with a mix of mission reports and sheet music, and on the desk—

“Oh,” I breathed out softly, walking forward to get a better look at the beautifully carved violin resting on the table. It had been…well, it had been a lifetime since the last time I’d seen a violin. Unable to resist, I ran my fingers lightly across the aged rosewood, nostalgia swelling up inside me.

My throat felt tight and I swallowed, faint memories flashing before my eyes; orchestral concerts, the look of pride on my dad’s face when I became concertmistress of my local youth symphony, Christmas jamming sessions with me on the violin, Dave on the cello, Mom on the piano, and Dad singing along, Grandad handing me my first violin when I was six and teaching me how to fiddle because no granddaughter of mine is gonna grow up not knowing music, and this always happened whenever I came across a piece of my old life, it didn’t matter how long it’d been and goddammit, I should be over it by now—

“Would you like to play?” A voice from behind me made me jump back, startled. Swallowing heavily, I turned to see the Third Division captain staring at me, a curious look in his eyes.

“What?” I managed to croak out.

“I asked you if you would like to play,” he repeated, a strange smile playing around the edges of his lips. “You looked like you wanted to, Yukimura-kun.”

“Oh, I don’t—I don’t,” I stuttered out before taking a deep breath to calm myself. “Thank you for the offer, but I don’t play, Otoribashi-taicho.” Not anymore, at least.

Even as Christina it’d been ages since I’d been strong enough to play. Compared to feeling my body slowly kill itself—as if the chemo and radiation hadn’t been doing that already—music took a backseat in my priorities. It had been decades since the last time I’d felt the urge to pick up a violin, and it wasn’t like I could just find one in Inuzuri. But seeing a violin again…and being offered the chance to hold it…I bit down on my lip harshly, turning away. Because the thing was, no matter how much I accepted the fact that I was Hisana now (and I wouldn’t give this life up for anything), there would always be a part of me that missed the life I had as Christina. It was why I worked so hard on recreating the recipes I’d loved once; French fries and cakes and pizza and cookies. Why I had notebooks filled with half-remembered stories, all written in English. My information on the Bleach universe was useful, my medical knowledge even more so, but they’d never been the only things I’d brought with me.

“I should be going,” I said suddenly, the words coming out in a rush. Reaching out, I handed Otoribashi the reports from Unohana. He took them wordlessly. “These are the medical reports for fourth seat Mitarashi and seventh seat Tanaki. Unohana-taicho also wants them to come up for a check-up in two days. That’s all that I wanted to say, so--”

A hand on my forearm stopped me before I could make my escape. “No, stay,” he murmured, that same strange glint in his eyes. “It’s so rare that I come across a shinigami with an interest in music. Especially Western instruments. Most people here, I’ve found, don’t share my preference for them.”

Okay, so I could add ‘music instruments’ on my list of ‘things in the afterlife that hadn’t caught up with modern Japanese culture’. I was almost certain that Western music should have been introduced to Japan by now.

“Iemura-senpai will be expecting me back, and I have work to do,” I deflected.

“I’m sure that the Fourth can spare you for a few minutes,” he dismissed, waving one hand. With that, he reached out and picked up the bow before handing it to me. I took it without thinking, fingers automatically falling into the correct bow-holding position. Purple eyes gleamed, a hint of satisfaction entering his expression.

“Don’t play, huh?” He asked, tone faintly mocking. “You must be a natural then, Yukimura-kun.”

I flushed, feeling my face heat up. “I haven’t played in a very, very long time,” I corrected, looking down at the bow in my right hand. My fingers were trembling slightly.

“All the better to do so now, then,” Otoribashi said, handing his violin to me. I stared at it for a long moment before accepting it from him, placing it under my neck in a half-forgotten movement. It felt awkward and uncomfortable—the chin-rest dug into my skin and the shoulder-rest wasn’t quite adjusted properly—but at the same time, there was something so intensely familiar about it that for a moment, I forgot to breathe. I closed my eyes, almost feeling like I was Christina again, practicing in a suburban home in Connecticut.

Letting out a deep sigh, I reached up and drew the bow across the string in a foreign—but oddly practiced—movement. A clear, vibrant note (an A, my mind whispered, the note that every orchestra was tuned to) rang out into the room.

It had never sounded so beautiful.

***

“Touch my onigiri and die,” I said without looking up as I continued to scribble in my notebook. Why Shihouin Yoruichi found the need to bug me even when Byakuya wasn’t around, I had no idea.

“So rude, Hisana-chan.” Even without looking, I could tell that she was pouting right now. “Is that any way to speak to a captain?”

“When the captain in question is trying to steal food from you? Yes,” I grumbled. There was another reiatsu signature beside her, but I refused to look up. If I didn’t look up, I could ignore it, and my gut feeling was telling me that ignoring it was in the best interest of my mental health right now. “I get enough of that from Ichimaru Gin, I don’t need it from you too.”

“You know, your relationship with that kid still baffles me,” Yoruichi mused, a mystified note in her voice.

“What’s there to understand? He steals my food, I try to stab him, he annoys me, I try to eviscerate him, he messes with some poor guy for fun, I try to pound a sense of common human decency into that thick skull of his. Haven’t succeeded yet, but statistically, if this keeps up…well, it only takes one time,” I shrugged. “It’s simple, really.”

Biting into another onigiri, I added, “I would love to chat some more, but I have a lot of w--” I blinked as my notebook suddenly disappeared before my eyes before whirling around to find some scruffy-looking blond guy flipping through it. Some scruffy-looking blond guy wearing a haori with the kanji for ‘twelve’ on it. Shit.

Still—

“Oi!” Urahara Kisuke blinked as an onigiri hit him right between the eyes. I glared at him, wishing that I could figure out some way to shoot reiatsu laser beams from my eyes. Ah well, something to look into later. “Haven’t you heard of ‘personal privacy’ before? Give that back!”

“Ah, Yukimura-san--” Wow, that made seven captains who knew my name. Wonderful. “—don’t be mad. I was just taking a look.”

To add insult to injury, when I tried to swipe my notebook back, he casually held it at just out of my arms reach before continuing to flip through it. One eyebrow raised in surprise as he scanned my scribbled notes. My eyes narrowed. Well, that only left one option.

“Ouch!” He doubled over as I kicked him viciously in the shin, making sure to enhance my foot with reiatsu as I did so. I didn’t think I could handle the humiliation of the kick hurting me more than it did him.

I sniffed, reaching out to snatch my notebook back before promptly whacking him on the head. “Don’t touch my stuff, Urahara-taicho. It’s rude.”

Urahara sent me a mournful look. It made me want to punch him. “Maa, maa, Yukimura-san. You would hold a poor man’s curiosity against him?”

“Damn right,” I said flatly, holding my notebook protectively to my chest.

Urahara let out a heavy sigh, although there was a hint of reluctant amusement in his eyes. “It’s almost like having another Hiyori around.”

“Don’t mind him; I’ve long since given up trying to instill manners into him,” Yoruichi said, voice exasperated. Like she could talk. As far as I was concerned, both of them needed to attend a few lessons in ‘Respecting Personal Privacy 101’. “What was in that book anyway? I’m feeling rather left out right now.”

“Nothing. Just an extracurricular project of mine,” I tried to deflect.

“Some extracurricular project,” Urahara said, smiling wryly. “Tell me, do you always go around attempting to cure chronically ill captains in your free time, Yukimura-san?” My hands clenched as I resisted the urge to strangle him.

“There’s nothing in here about ‘curing chronically ill captains,’” I said stiffly. “So I’ve developed an interest in pulmonary disorders. Is that a crime now?” From the unconvinced looks on their faces, neither of them bought my excuse.

“Hisana-chan,” Yoruichi’s voice was gentle. “I understand wanting to help, but Ukitake-taicho has been ill for a very long time now.”

“And?” I snapped out defensively. “Yes, he’s sick and yes, there’s no cure right now. Doesn’t mean that there’ll never be one.”

Yoruichi shook her head, an almost pitying look in her eyes. “He’s lived with it since he was very young, and in that time, no one’s been able to do anything aside from relieve his symptoms a bit. Even Unohana-taicho--”

“Unohana-taicho doesn’t know everything,” I cut in sharply. “She’s an amazing and incredibly experienced healer and she’s one of the people I respect most in this world, but she’s not omniscient. And maybe it’s arrogance to think that I could possibly do anything where she couldn’t, but as long as there’s the faintest chance, I’m going to damn well try.” Biting my lip and shoving back old memories (“I’m afraid there’s nothing further we can do, Miss. Dalton. I’m sorry.” “…how long? How long do I have left to live? Tell me, dammit!” “…two weeks at most. I—I’ll give you some time alone.”), I glared fiercely at her. “Please don’t try to dissuade me again, Shihouin-taicho. I can’t—I won’t—give up on this.”

Something seemed to dawn on Yoruichi’s features. “This…this isn’t just medical curiosity or concern for a captain, is it? This is personal for you.” Piercing golden eyes scanned my face intently. “Hisana-chan, you—what happened to you?”

I turned away, closing my eyes and trying to ignore the sting in my throat. The tired, resigned look in Ukitake Juushiro’s eyes…how many times had I seen that same expression reflected back at me when I’d looked in the mirror? Looked in the mirror and seen a ghost; head fragile and bald like a newly born baby bird’s, emaciated wrists, skeletal features, ribs sticking out like daggers.

Worse than that though, were the frightened, agonized, worn out looks of my family as the months passed and I just kept getting worse and worse, knowing as I laid in that hospital bed that I would be killing a part of them when I died, the pained acceptance in their eyes—

“All I know is that Shiba-fukutaicho cares for Ukitake-taicho and it kills him to see his captain sick,” I said finally. “That’s enough reason for me to not give up.”

***

“Gah!” I let out a small shriek as the branch I was napping on shook violently and I almost tumbled out of the tree. Well, almost—the rope I’d tied around my waist to the tree branch prevented me from falling entirely. Seconds later, I found myself hanging awkwardly from the branch, staring down at startled, dark brown eyes in a face mostly hidden by white cloth.

“What the hell?” The stranger blurted out incredulously from where he was perched on the branch beneath me. “What are you doing here?”

Me?” I asked, feeling just as incredulous. And more than a bit ridiculous, considering the fact that I was hanging from a tree branch. “I’m an Academy student! This is the Academy! I’m supposed to be here!”

 “Aren’t you supposed to be practicing right now, and not napping in trees?” He asked, motioning towards where the rest of my class was engaged in bakudo spell practice.  

“I got banned from kido practice for the next month,” I said, shrugging. “I’d sleep in my room, but surprisingly, this tree is more comfortable than my bed, so…”

“Banned from--” The figure—and I could tell he was male, now—trailed off disbelievingly.  

“Long story,” I cut him off, not feeling like going into the details of how I might have accidentally-on-purpose set Matsushita-sensei on fire that one time he’d slapped Isane across the face for talking back to him.

Honestly, the Academy was overreacting—it was only a couple of third-degree burns. It’s not like I hadn’t apologized and offered to treat him afterwards. I thought I’d been very nice about the whole thing.

“Now that we’ve established why I’m here, who are you?” With the weird mask and the weird uniform combined with the fact that he obviously wasn’t an Academy student or instructor, he was hitting an eleven on the creepiness scale and it normally only went up to ten.

When he didn’t answer, I sighed and said, “You know, it’s pretty sketchy of you to be hiding in a tree like this. I mean, some guy in a mask peeping in on a bunch of teenagers? What are you, some kind of pervert? In which case, I have to warn you: I don’t tolerate pedophiles.”

As expected, the stranger sputtered before waving his arms in protest. Too easy. “N-no! O-of course not! I’m from the Kido Corps, you brat!”

I paused thoughtfully. I knew that the Kido Corps sometimes recruited students from the Academy, but I didn’t know that they started watching students this early. Still, if he was telling the truth, and the strange uniform he was wearing supported his story…well, I’d never been one to ignore an opportunity. Untying myself from the tree, I promptly dropped down onto the same branch as the stranger.

“Okay, say that I believe you. You wouldn’t mind me asking you a few questions, would you?”

“And why should I answer?” The figure asked coolly.

“Oh come on. I’m bored, you’re bored, and honestly, it’s the least you could do after waking me up from my nap so rudely,” I pointed out reasonably.

“The affairs of the Kido Corps are conducted in absolute secrecy,” he said, eyes hard. “I will not indulge the petty curiosity of some Academy brat just because she’s bored--”

“Lighten up,” I snorted. “I’m not interested in that stuff. I just had a few questions about spells with incantations versus those without. And you guys are supposed to be the experts on this stuff, right?” I’d ask one of my friends, but…well, for all that they could do kido well enough, few of them were actually interested in the mechanics behind it. Byakuya was probably my best option, but he wasn’t here right now. Kaien was another option, but that’d mean putting up with him going on and on about the various virtues of Fukui Miyako and…no. Just no.

“Can’t you ask your instructors?” The guy asked exasperatedly. I was just going to call him Grumpy-face…not that I could see his face, with the whole mask thing and all, but it was probably grumpy. 

“The same instructors who banned me from practicing here for the foreseeable future?” I asked skeptically, raising an eyebrow. “What’s the big deal? It’s not like you have anything better to do, and this way you can participate in the education of the next generation. Which is a very noble thing to do,” I nodded sagely. Grumpy-face looked unimpressed. “At least hear me out,” I pleaded, widening my eyes beseechingly.

“Very well,” Grumpy-face said grumpily. See, I was so good at coming up with nicknames. “I will listen to you, and assuming that your questions are not completely stupid, I may deign to answer them.” Wow. That was possibly the least gracious concession I’d ever heard. I was almost impressed. Still, that was all the invitation I needed.

“Right, so one of my friends taught me Hadou #31: Shakkaho a few weeks ago; said that if there was any hadou spell I needed to know, it was that one. I’ve been practicing on getting it down without the incantation, because honestly, the spell itself is useful but the incantation is completely impractical.” It was why I preferred the simpler spells—the ones without incantations. All I had to do was channel the proper amount of reiatsu down my arm, focus on what I wanted it to do, and say the name of the spell. Easy.

“You do know that mastering Hadou #31 without an incantation is something most shinigami can’t do until well after they graduate? Your friend may have taught you the spell ahead of your peers, but it’s rather arrogant of you to think you can master it to that extent, don’t you think?” Grumpy-face asked scornfully.

“Doesn’t mean that I can’t try. Like, what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Ask my opponent to wait as I recite some long-ass poem in front of him? That’s just stupid,” I shot back. “But anyway, all shinigami have vents in their wrists to release their internal spiritual energy in the form of reiatsu, right? Like sure, we have this layer of reiatsu covering every inch of our body, but it all comes from the wrists, where you convert internal reiryoku to external reiatsu. When you do a kido spell, you pull your body’s internal reiryoku towards the vents in your wrists where it’s converted into reiatsu and released in the form of a spell.” In other words, reiryoku was potential energy while reiatsu was kinetic (usable) energy. Manipulating cells, healing, controlling my metabolism, any kind of kido spell—that was all reiatsu.

“Yes, I’m glad to see that you’ve apparently paid attention in your classes. Congratulations,” Grumpy-face said dryly. I shot him a glare, before continuing on, undeterred.

“Shut up, I’m getting to the point. So I kept trying to figure out why incantations are even needed, and why some spells have them while others don’t. So after going through like five dozen books, I discovered that there’s a third component to how kido spells are formed. See, in class we went over how intent shapes the spell and how the amount of energy you put in determines its power…but we didn’t cover what determines the inherent properties of the spell. Intent alone can’t explain the wide variety of kido spells. But the origin of the spiritual energy used for spells might,” I said excitedly. “The book didn’t go into detail but apparently reiryoku that comes from the upper chest is different from reiryoku that comes from the abdomen, and so on. I wasn’t sure if the information presented was accurate so I began testing out the spells I was more familiar with, and found that lightning based spells, like Byakurai, tend to use energy that originates from…near the head? I’m not sure, I had some problems identifying exactly where the reiryoku used for the spell was flowing from.”

“You’re correct that the properties of kido spells do depend on the origin of the spiritual energy,” the Kido Corps member said. There was an almost considering light in his eyes now as he turn