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  1. let her go (IshiHime day)

    the reward of love

    Inoue-san doesn’t understand how her happiness affects others – how she can change lives. // Ishi <3 Hime. 686-compliant. (Title from this translation of “Here Comes the Bride”.)
  2. (Uryuu) undercover

    altar with ten thousand attendants

    “But the gods had gone away, and the ritual of the religion continued senselessly, uselessly.”  – from the Ray Bradbury short story “There Will Come Soft Rains.” // Uryuu introspection, set during his infiltration. (No warnings beyond pretentiousness and a bit of a power-high. The inside of Uryuu’s head is a weird, weird place.)
  3. (Uryuu) remembering his mother

    coastal geography

    The study of the dynamic interface between the ocean and the land. // Uryuu reminisces about a family trip to the beach. Uryuu- and Kanae-centric, with guest appearances by Ryuuken and Souken. Warnings: a non-detailed description of imagined drowning, loads of angst, and one really lousy pun. (Title and synopsis quoted directly from this Wikipedia article.)
  4. (Uryuu) Father

    Looming Stimulus

    His family's house had been very very quiet, and also very warm. // Uryuu POV. Character study of Ryuuken through his eyes, plus some Ishida family headcanons. Gen, with background RyuuGiri. Warnings: needles, tiny!Uryuu in pain, and Uryuu's backstory.

  5. (Uryuu) Sensei

    awake a hope

    He's growing up a little every day, Sensei says, even if he can't see it happening. // Uryuu POV, the start of a lesson. Uryuu- and Souken- centric, but Ryuuken is there in his thoughts. Title from W. B. Yeats' “The Realists”. (Warnings for past character death and Ishida family dysfunction.)

  6. (Uryuu) Happy Birthday, Uryuu!

    there ever standing still

    So much I ask. // Someone else's family dinner. Uryuu POV. (Warnings: angst, headcanons, and cringe comedy.) Title + synopsis quote from VNV Nation “Standing (Moderato Declamando)”. [The prequel is here.]

  7. (Uryuu) nakama day

    with my face turned to the sun

    I will this moment lasts forever. // A series of surprises. Uryuu POV. (Warnings: awkwardness, angst, and background politicking.) Title + synopsis quote from VNV Nation “Standing (Moderato Declamando)”. [The sequel is here.]

  8. (Kanae) first encounter

    play house

    Kanae is given away. // True drabble, Kanae POV. Warnings: canon-typical background creepy, class divides, and social contracts.
  9. (Kanae) life of a mother

    longshore drift

    A geographical process that consists of the transportation of sediments (clay, silt, sand and shingle) along a coast at an angle to the shoreline. // Kanae reminisces about a family trip to the beach. Kanae- and Uryuu-centric, with a guest appearance by Ryuuken. (Title and synopsis quoted directly from this Wikipedia article.)
    (Warnings: none, other than very-implied allusions to Kanae's backstory.)

  10. (Kanae) his eyes

    do the conversion

    Between my overwhelming sense of inferiority, and the thumping sound of my heartbeat. // Kanae x Ryuuken, mentions of Masaki. Canon-compliant. Warnings: canon-typical class issues.
    (Title and synopsis from this translation of Inaba Cumori ft. Kaai Yuki “Tear Rader”. In-text quotes from canon.)

  11. (Kanae) fashion

    chimerical color

    An imaginary color that can be seen temporarily by looking steadily at a strong color for a while until some of the cone cells become fatigued, temporarily changing their color sensitivities, and then looking at a markedly different color. // Kanae and fashion choices. Kanae/Ryuuken, background Ishida family politics. (Title and synopsis from this Wikipedia article.)
  12. (Kanae) protect

    Erhebung without motion

    Define protection. // Kanae and her relations; background unrequited Kanae/Ryuuken. (Warnings: canon-typical class issues, headcanon but canon-typical corporal punishment of children.) Second person POV. Title and quotations from T.S. Eliot's “Burnt Norton”.

Chapter Text

It’s not that she isn’t aware of how persuasive she is, but she seems to have written off her way of making others listen –

Making him go against everything he knows to be right –

As a sort of simple magnetism: good cheer, good looks – even good food, if one can adapt to the somewhat-odd flavor choices in her cooking. Few people are willing to try.

It would be easier, in some ways, if it were only he who was affected so. Then he could write off the way she breaks him, little by little, every time she deigns to lower her gaze to his. Then it would only be his own weakness –

His own incapability to ever say no to someone so precious. How can he defy her, when she is so desperate to be aided, to be saved, to be loved?

He understands very well why Inoue-san never expects to be saved. She knows this feeling, he thinks –

This feeling of being passed over in favor of some nebulously-defined better person, who is somehow more worthy than one’s own ugly self. Fool’s gold shines well enough to fool the masses, but only just.

A princess must live for the one who saves her. Humility is a virtue, yes?

– no, a good princess does not believe that she will be saved. She must lament her own unworthiness – or else she is too proud, too vain, too self-loving to be good.

How can he not be swayed by her sorrow? Inoue-san’s suffering is as near to his heart as his own.

When she is sad – when he cannot see her –

When she is hurt – when she cannot save him

When she is alone and lonely in the center of a crowded room – when he saves her, who could not protect even a single person’s cracked and lonely heart –

– then his heart must also be broken apart.

When she stands at the center of the room, dressed all in white, white which is trimmed with sunshine gold – warm, warm gold like the color of her smile –

– like fool’s gold flaking away to nothing, to dust, to an empty shell of earth –

She says that she is happy. She says that this is what she has always wanted, to be with him

To be bound to him, utterly, forever and ever –

He’d underestimated the expected pain, as always.

– ‘til death do they part. Amen, and hallelujah.

His eyes wander across the room, glancing over and past her.

Such a dull feeling – the awareness of being passed by, and deliberately turned away from –

Hallelujah and amen! Her dream has finally made itself into reality! If you are pure of heart, and you wish hard enough, and you just keep wishing –

She really did change the world! All praise. God bless the happy couple.

He is searching for the one person who would not be present, not for this.

– the absolute awareness of a simple fact: you are not wanted

He stands witness for her until the end, watching her happiness – his own – heart break.

Chapter Text

Uryuu has found that he can, in fact, grow utterly sick of the color white. White means clean fabric, white means spilled milk, white means breathing in the cold air.

(These statements, as presented, cannot be true and factual: White is all colors of light, emitted or reflected, or else it is no color at all.)

Despite its continued existence in the shadows beneath Soul Society, the Schatten Bereich is constructed entirely of shades of white – if whiteness has shades, if at all. White, like the walls of Seireitei; the chalky sand and the cracked-bone trees of Hueco Mundo; and now, the labyrinthine halls of the Silbern. It's as though its builders believed that as long as every corner is kept perpetually scrubbed-clean, that this erases every drop of blood (innocent or not) that has seeped into the neatly-cut stones and mortared them together.

Yes... Uryuu has learned that he can, in fact, grow utterly sick of the quality of white.

If only this sky was not an unpainted ceiling – was not only the earth of Soul Society, hollowed out from below – (There is a clear parallel to be made to that hellishly-cramped Forest of Menos; to the Hollows' world itself, with separate-yet-linked mirage-cities of old-bone caves below and white-stone towers above.) – if only this place had any truth to it at all, then maybe that too-pure white would allow itself a tint of black. Then soft rains could come, bearing the weight of a blinding summer storm behind them, and wash all this unbearable and unforgiving whiteness away.

Uryuu treads carefully in the pristine stone halls of the Silbern. No matter how the lack of color burns his eyes, he must not raise a hand against it. Not yet.

He sews up curtains to cover the blank walls of his rooms, to cut the unforgiving light.

Perhaps if the color of the sky – the Earth's sky, the true sky, the sky that is light diffusing into the celestial void – existed here, or anywhere, outside of his too-fallible memories – perhaps then he might remember how it felt to breathe. To breathe in air, without rot.

Wishing will not bring rain. Prayer is a waste of breath. No-

If he ever wants to see the blue (true) sky again, he must break this false heaven open with his own two hands. He will, the moment he can – the very instant he sees his chance to kill this madman of a self-declared king – with his own power. It's all he needs.

Chapter Text

Once (when his mother was still alive, and Ryuuken and Sensei could at least manage to fake civility between them, for her and for Uryuu's sake) the Ishida family had all gone to the beach together.

Sensei had spent the morning sitting under an umbrella, complaining good-naturedly about old bones and cold sea-wind.

Ryuuken, in turn, had wandered off and sat on a rocky outcropping. He tossed stones into the surf, watching them fall.

Mother had taken Uryuu's hand, and walked with him to the shoreline; and, carefully, slowly, coaxed him into putting a hand into the warm Atlantic waters. It had been summer, and it had been hot, and the relative coolness of the water was as surprising as it was pleasant.

Uryuu cannot remember the exact source of this impression, the exact sensation of touching the ocean for the first time; but he remembers how afterward, he had lingered at the water's edge, shrieking and scowling when the spray splashed up onto his glasses and onto his no-longer-so-white shirt.

It had felt a little bit like watching his parents interact, on the occasions his father was home long enough for Uryuu to see him. The sea and the sand would converse, trading loud glances and soft touches, parting with bits of one another kept safe between each others' hands.

Mother was happy then, he thinks. Uryuu is certain that his mother could always find a reason to be happy, even if he does not remember why.

He remembers spitting out bad-tasting water, and climbing up a pebble-strewn slope of wet clinging sand, and damp grit weighing down his light summer shoes.

Uryuu had spent most of that day by the seaside, being periodically called back to have his mother reapply sunscreen or make him sit down to eat. He'd been half-excited, half-terrified. The ocean had a pull all its own, like a great blood-warm current that could wash him away in moments.

He knew about riptides, of course – knew that to escape them, he had to swim crossways as well as against the current – but he was more worried about the undertow. Every beach had one, however weak (it was all tied up in the tides) and if he stayed out at sea too long, he would drown.

Back then, the closest thing Uryuu could imagine to drowning was the idea of breathing too-thin air – his lungs expanding, halting, taking in nothing.

It isn't, he'd learn. Drowning is a little bit like falling asleep, and a little bit more like burning; the edges of his vision going blurrier than usual, choked with bright-dark images that defy definition.

It was survivable, if nothing else. He's still breathing.

Uryuu remembers when he'd had better memories; or, rather, more good memories to help ease the bitterness.

Uryuu remembers his mother wading out into the water with him, the waves washing salt onto their skin. Earlier that day, Sensei had shown him a tidepool and told him the  names of all the sea-stars. In the evening, Ryuuken would pick him up and carry him, chiding him for getting sand on his clothes.

Uryuu remembers his mother telling him how to escape an undertow. Through the years, the words seem distant, as though heard at the other end of a long tunnel. He cannot remember the exact sound of her voice.

You have to look away from the sky, Uryuu-kun. And then look around, all around, until you see land – and then swim for it! As quickly as you can.

What if I can't see land, Mother?

...then call for me, dearie. Or call Ryuuken-sama, or Souken-ojisama. Someone will come and save you.

But, Mother! What if-?

He'd spooked and flailed, knocking his glasses askew, and off, into the water.

This had been his first and only trip to the ocean, but it had not been first time she'd taken him swimming. And just as she had every other time, Mother had caught the light off his lenses and carefully wiped the water away. Scratches on the coating hadn't mattered as much when he'd needed a new prescription every year.

Uryuu remembers building sandcastles in the surf, together. Sensei took pictures, and then left. Father came closer, and watched from the shadow of his and Mother's beach umbrella.

He remembers his mother showing him how to smooth the sides and layer the bucketfuls of damp sand, over and over; until the biggest castle they'd built was as tall as he was, and just as wide around: a mounded tower of crumbling stone, inlaid with broken shells. Glittering in the light.

Mother had pulled him away, protesting. His tiny hands were unable to hold on to anything.

And then the tide came in.

Uryuu has his mother's hands, now. Long, spindly fingers and pale, calloused palms. Gentle hands. Protector's hands.

He is still building sandcastles.

Chapter Text

As a very young child, Uryuu had been terrified of needles.

When it came time for his yearly immunizations and booster shots, he'd tried his hardest to hold still for the nice nurse. He couldn't help it; he flinched from the awareness of pain, like any child. Needles hurt. Getting stabbed with a piece of sharp metal for medicinal purposes, that hurt. More often than not, Mother or Sensei would have to help hold his arm down.

Whether or not he succeeded in behaving like a growing boy who was really too old to be so scared of a few tiny needles, he'd get a colorful band-aid (hopefully blue – he liked (likes) blue) and a hug from Mother.

On those rare times his child self had successfully stayed still through the entire procedure, his father would look down at him with slightly lighter eyes than usual. This was almost as good as a hug, coming from such an undemonstrative man.

His family's house had been very very quiet, and also very warm. It was in the way Father would speak to Mother, and Mother with talk with Sensei, and Mother shared her words freely with everyone. And Uryuu loved them, loved his family, loved them all in the unspoken and unthinking way a child loves the people who give that child life.

Later, Sensei had been there – not to hold Uryuu's hand, because he wasn't a child anymore. He just... he didn't want to go to the doctor's alone. Doctors were bad.

He'd told stories, silly rambling tales of climbing mountains and vanquishing monsters and making new friends all over the world; and, as ever, Uryuu would be too absorbed in the fantasy to remember what was real.

The hardest part came later, when he would come home and the bandage would come off, and there would be a tiny tender spot where the needle had gone in. Not wide enough in area to scab, not properly, but the ache was just weak enough to be distracting only when he looked down and remembered 'oh, yes, that happened'.

The worst pains are the ones he hadn't known to prepare for. After Sensei, he'd had no option but to go alone – to look after his own health, like the grown adult he'd desperately tried to become.

...and succeeded in ways most of his peers never could have, not in middle school. Uryuu managed his own medical record, kept his own house, and balanced his own budget. He did his own grocery shopping, did what small repairs he could manage in his apartment, and calculated and paid the tax on the sparse income he brought in from clothing alterations and commissions. He was fine; he was managing.

He still is.

Ryuuken's house is too cold to live in, anyway. It isn't a home anymore. At best, it's a memorial.

Everything about Ryuuken is cold: his eyes under glass, his sterile-gloved hands, his emotionless speech. His heart, if he has one.

(Uryuu is aware that Ryuuken hadn't always been that way; but he cannot reconcile the image of the petty tyrant he has become, with the memory of the father he'd loved as a young child.)

Uryuu is, legally, an emancipated minor. No one else would take care of him, so he'd done everything himself.

After the wars – in the wake of the realization that he is not quite a hero – returning to the Ishida house feels a great deal like going to see a nurse for his scheduled immunizations: necessary, and all the more tedious and irritating due to the need for it.

It's his house, too, even if he wants nothing to do with it anymore.

Uryuu walks straight up to the door.

He's sick of worrying over how this might go wrong. Fearing the inevitable does nothing to stop it.

Ryuuken isn't home.

He lets himself in.

Chapter Text

It's still early in the morning when Uryuu follows his grandfather out to the training ground behind the house.

The sun is up, but barely, and the trees scattered around the property (thickest around the edges, to keep out trespassers) cast long shadows over the wet grass, cutting across the packed-dirt path between the main house and the outbuildings.

The dojo is this way, and the baths. The rest is all just storage space. Half the doors don't even lock – there's no point. Who'd bother breaking in to steal brooms or archery targets?

Sensei's shadow is as long as the youngest trees', and much more solid. He's in a thick cloak to cut the chill and morning wind. He's always wearing it, though, except for in midsummer when even Sensei has to admit that it's just too hot for that many layers.

Uryuu is wearing a child-sized copy of the same old uniform Sensei wears, as a symbol of their shared Quincy pride. It's his legacy, and his responsibility, too!

(Most humans can't even see Hollows, much less defend themselves from the corrupt souls. He's going to be a great protector someday, just as soon as he gets a bit better with his bow.)

And if he can't manifest his bow for very long, well, that's just because he's still young. He's getting stronger! He's growing up a little every day, Sensei says, even if he can't see it happening.

There are tiny flowers blooming under the trees. There are birds singing somewhere. It's a beautiful morning, it really is.

Sensei leads them into a grass-covered clearing. He sits on the ground, and Uryuu settles down across from him.

He looks down at Uryuu and asks, “Would you like to hear a story about the old days, Uryuu-kun?”

“Yes, sensei.”

Sensei smiles and begins to speak. It's a story Uryuu has heard before, about one of his earliest attempts at negotiating with the shinigami. There was a mishap with a mislaid document, and it very nearly ended in disaster, but he'd straightened the mess out in the end.

Well, of course he did. Grandfather could fix nearly anything.

His hands move through the air in short strikes and gentle arcs, matching the cadence of his speaking voice. It's calming, sitting here, letting the singsong rise-and-fall of a familiar sermon wash over him.

Sometimes, Uryuu feels like these times with Sensei are the only peace he's allowed.

Never mind. Father isn't here to be stern and disapproving, to refuse to meet Uryuu's eyes and just say something.

(To say something, to say anything other than to condemn Sensei's faith and their family's pride. How can Father just turn his back on all of this? How could he ever think Uryuu would want to follow him?)

Uryuu sits quietly in the grass across from his sensei. He watches eagerly, listens with the whole of his attention, and loses himself in the dream of a better world. It doesn't matter if he can't quite see it, not like Sensei does – he's saying it, so it must be true. So the sky is blue, and so the sun is bright.

The lecture winds down, ending with a message on the importance of clear communication.

Uryuu takes that in. He raises his hand. “But, Sensei, what if the other party doesn't want to talk at all?”

Sensei spreads his hands out, palms up.

(Uryuu knows that gesture means 'find the answer yourself,' but he doesn't know – that's why he's asking!)

“You have to try, Uryuu-kun. You should always try to talk things out first.”

“But-”

Sensei shakes his head. “I think that's enough storytime for now, eh? Drink some water and do your warm-up stretches, then we'll get started.”

Uryuu frowns, because Sensei hadn't answered his question. However, the prospect of holy training is as good a distraction as any, and it's something he really truly wants to do.

Uryuu gets up, stretches his legs a bit (sitting seiza for so long is uncomfortable, not that he's going to say anything about it) and pulls a water bottle out of the cooler. There are sandwiches and other snacks in the bottom, for later.

If he's careful, and doesn't let it show when he gets tired, they won't have to go back to the house at all until the sun begins to set.

(It's too bad Sensei isn't so easy to fool, or he might not ever have to go back to his father's house at all.)

Uryuu drinks in slow, careful sips, so he doesn't choke and embarrass himself. No matter how eager he is, going too fast will only make him mess up more. Likewise, he goes through all of his warm-up exercises while Sensei finishes setting up the targets.

Sensei calls him over, and Uryuu rushes to start the lesson.

He's going to be great, he knows it.

Chapter Text

Kurosaki shoves him. “Did you even look at my present, smartass?”

Uryuu sighs. He digs the box out, opens it; he blinks, disbelieving.

There are three envelopes. The top one is so full that the top barely closes over the contents. There's a rubber band around it, keeping it shut. Somehow, Uryuu isn't surprised that Kurosaki's gift-wrapping skills are so stunningly slapdash.

He pulls it open, sticking the rubber bands in a side pocket for later.

It's a series of photographs: of himself, and Sado-san, and Inoue-san, and Kurosaki, and Kuchiki-san, and Abarai, every one. His friends. Everyone.

“How did you get this?” he murmurs.

“Sandal-hat.”

Uryuu looks up sharply. “What?”

Kurosaki rolls his eyes again, in a gesture of fondness which is nearly drowned out by sheer frustration. “You think he doesn't have cameras set up? Most of these are from his store.”

Uryuu wrinkles his nose.

“Yeah, but then I wouldn't have been able to get these, so... enjoy, I guess?"

"You did ask him to destroy the other copies?" Uryuu doesn't expect it to work, of course.

"I tried." Kurosaki sighs. "I know you're going off to college soon, so I got you some good memories.”

After that, he's braced to expect the contents of the second envelope: more pictures, these depicting Kurosaki and his sisters (and his father being loud and audibly irritating in the background) going about their lives. Studying in the kitchen, attending a craft fair, cheering for Karin at a soccer game – there's even one from that Don Kanonji show.

He knows that this isn't everything; it couldn't possibly cover even 0.1% of their shared time as a family. But the fact that they would give him this much of a window into their lives...

“It's too much.”

“No, it isn't.” This from Karin-kun, who has just seated herself on the arm of the couch. “You're our cousin, and we don't have any others-”

Kurosaki doesn't twitch. Karin-kun side-eyes him.

“-in this world, so you're kinda stuck with us.” She shrugs. “Sucks, dude.”

...he really has absolutely no clue how he's meant to respond to that. Is this friendly banter, or were those condolences sincere? He's not certain.

Karin-kun slouches off. Something of her bearing rings of a cat that has gotten into the cream.

He pauses. Actually. ...never mind 'if', he's seen her leaving the premises.

“Ishida? Something wrong?” Kurosaki asks. “Karin didn't scare you off with that whole 'you're stuck with us' speech, did she?”

“No,” he says. It's none of his business what Kurosaki's younger sister does or does not do in her spare time. If she's learning to protect herself from the Hollows that are doubtless drawn to such a powerful young soul, then so much the better.

It would be even better if she had options beyond the shady shopkeeper or nothing, but one must work with the resources that are closest to hand.

...although, now that Kurosaki mentions it, he might be a bit intimidated by the prospect of having so many living family members whom he actually rather likes. Just a bit.

Uryuu reminds himself that he has met all of Kurosaki's family already, even if some of those meetings occured under absolutely terrible circumstances.

He has encountered the elder twin before, in passing, at Urahara's shop. And Yuzu-chan has asked him for aid in repairing her toys, which he's gladly given. As for Kurosaki-san...

Uryuu doesn't like to think about the end of the war, when he can avoid it. He'd really rather avoid thinking about it forever. But, if he must remember that ever-more-complex cavalcade of utter catastrophe, then the image of Ryuuken being irritated at someone else is at least a change. Now, Ryuuken being (reportedly, according to Isshin's booming voice announcing it to the world) flummoxed? That would have been worth far more than a thousand words; if only he'd had a camera.

None of that makes Kurosaki's father, being somehow a hundred times more annoying and embarrassing than Kurosaki is on his worst day (and that is saying something) any less of a trial on Uryuu's never-abundant patience.

And then it's time for dinner, so introspection is set aside in favor of trying (and failing) to eat in peace. The envelopes are all set aside in his school bag, right next to Inoue-san's and Sado-san's gifts.

Oh, the food is fine. The mackerel is quite good. He'll have to thank whomever informed Yuzu-chan that this is his favorite dish.

The problem is that this is a Kurosaki family dinner, and the Kurosaki family is... exuberant. There is much yelling and throwing-about of half-serious accusation. He can't quite stop himself from wanting to jump at every noise.

There is a chopstick fight over the fish. He stays out of it.

Kurosaki-san insists on announcing his presence to his dead wife's portrait, and Uryuu is hard-put to not shoot him outright; but, Kurosaki's little sisters are here, and Kurosaki would end him for worrying them.

And then they bring the cake out, complete with two candles shaped like the Arabic numerals for “18”. He thinks he's mortified enough, and then they start singing – loudly, and overall terribly.

Kurosaki cannot quite carry a tune. Kurosaki-san is even worse, and seems to have no volume setting beneath 'at the top of his lungs'. Karin-kun sings in monotone. Yuzu-chan is just plain drowned out by the racket.

Uryuu does his best to disappear into his chair, emerging from behind his hair for exactly long enough to perfunctorily blow out the candles.

He is careful to clear his mind of any stray thoughts that might be considered a wish before he does so. He isn't wishing for anything, right now.

The cake is something like a berry tart: buttery pastry layered with sweet cream, topped with raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries in a light syrup. It's too sweet.

“This is a very nice cake,” he tells an attentive Yuzu-chan.

She beams.

Karin-kun kicks him under the table.

He glares, and she smirks slightly.

He thinks he might be falling into the Kurosakis' mad pace. He isn't as upset about this as he'd thought he should be.

Kurosaki almost-smiles at him. “Happy birthday, Ishida.”

Uryuu nods. “Thank you.”

He means every word.

Last of all, once the dishes have been put in the sink and the crumbs have been wiped off the table, (and Yuzu-chan has threatened him with some dire and unspeakable fate should he attempt to do chores while he's the guest of honor) the twins and Kurosaki-san shove their presents at him.

“...let's get this over with,” he says, and strips the loudly floral packaging off Kurosaki-san's gift.

It's a book – actually, wait, it's... “A joke book.”

Kurosaki punches Kurosaki-san before he can think up a suitable revenge. Uryuu's not certain he's going to leave it at that, until Karin-kun kicks him across the room.

“Good aim,” he says to both of them. And continues, to Kurosaki alone, “I'm rather surprised. Should I be?”

“Why?” Kurosaki replies, completely unsurprised.

Why,” Yuzu complains. It's muffled somewhat by her hands covering her face.

Karin-kun's gift is at least not a joke. The wrapping paper is matte dark blue, and if the wrapping speaks more of enthusiasm and tape than actual skill, the gift itself makes up for it. It's a set of headphones. They're slightly bulky and not at all fashionable, but the note that they are specifically “noise-canceling headphones” entirely outweighs such minor drawbacks.

She taps him on the shoulder. “I also got you some regular foam earplugs, since your tech skills never really left the nineteenth century.”

He takes it back. Kurosaki's little sister is a brat.

She quite literally laughs at his frustration.

Uryuu pointedly moves on to Yuzu-chan's gift. The packaging is white and silver, and it looks as though it's professionally done. Inside is – a notebook?

It's a plain white store-bought notebook, similar to those used in school for taking notes. Really Nice Birthday Recipes is written on the front in bright blue ink, in neat kanji.

He opens it; and there are recipes, clearly written out on nearly every page. There are wide, evenly-spaced margins to either side of Yuzu-chan's neat, bullet-pointed instructions. The last twenty or so pages are blank, presumably so he has the option of filling them in on his own.

He smiles and thanks her. “I look forward to trying these.”

She grins and claps her hands. Such expressive joy is nothing like anything else in his life. He's glad that Yuzu-chan has at least this much of her childhood left to her.

He really does have to go, though. He has to study, he has application forms to complete, and there's a load of clean laundry that should be dry enough to put away. He has to go.

“Come by whenever you want,” Kurosaki says.

Uryuu takes the invitation as it was meant (he hopes) and walks home in the dark. It's early enough in the evening that the streets are crowded, and the buses come by frequently.

He takes to the side-streets as soon as possible.

There's a plain white envelope in his mailbox. It contains a card and a check.

This day isn't quite done yet.

He doesn't bother putting it away, just locks up the mailbox and goes back to his apartment. He leaves it on the table for tomorrow.

While clearing the day's load out of his bag, he finds the last envelope. Inside, there is an index card with a note scrawled on it:

These were with Mom's stuff.

Accompanying three very old photographs, in black-and-white on heavy paper; creased twice down the middle, where they had been folded carelessly, then carefully straightened. Still, he can see the reactive surface cracking and peeling away, as though set in a rain-cracked window frame.

One portrait is of his mother, one of Ryuuken. The last shows both of them, together.

They're wedding photos; he realizes it as soon as he sees them. Mother is in pure white, as is Ryuuken – unsurprising, as it was a Quincy wedding. The silver cross motif in the background is an especially unsubtle clue.

Mother is smiling, blushing, bursting with joy even across the divide of years and memory. Ryuuken seems no less cold than he has always been.

They're extra copies, so no take-backs.

It's a memory of his family, one he'd never expected to see again.

Uryuu isn't quite as upset over the presumption as he feels he should be.

He puts the photographs away, making a note to buy sturdy frames. Ryuuken's gift is left on the table; he knows it's a store-bought card and a check, practical and impersonal. There's no need to court disappointment.

He takes off his uniform jacket and hangs it up carefully, straightening the hems so it won't wrinkle.

The watch Sado-san gave him goes in a storage drawer, next to Kuchiki-san's and Abarai-san's gifts. The cape goes in his linen closet, next to the sewing supplies.

Between his friends' effusion of well-wishes, and the Kurosaki family's collective chaotic cheer, Uryuu is ...is far more tired than he'd expected to be, for all that he was the supposed guest of honor. Such is the burden of being an introvert surrounded by an overwhelmingly extroverted group of people. It's hardly past sunset, and his eyes want to close.

He turns the reading light on, and cracks open his civics textbook.

He wants to read the new watch's manual, and accustom himself to its weight on his wrist. He wants to find a mirror, and find out exactly how he looks in those sunglasses. He wants to break in his new sewing kit.

Despite his tiredness, he doesn't want to sleep.

He wants to memorize each and every spot of light and color in those assembled photographs.

He doesn't want this dream to end yet.

He wants to try on the cape Inoue-san made for him.

Chapter Text

There is a box on the table.

Now, this is nothing too far out of the ordinary – his apartment, (while kept scrupulously clean, and possessed of functioning plumbing, and functional locks) is hardly spacious – but Uryuu is quite certain that box hadn't been on his living room table the last time he saw it.

For one thing, none of the boxes he uses for storage are in anything like that shade of obnoxiously bright purple. ...with rabbits on it.

On second thought, he knows exactly who left it there.

Uryuu sighs and pulls off the ribbon holding it shut. There is a great deal of clear tape underneath that, plastered over a number of surprisingly neat folds.

He peels off the tape, carefully, doing his best to not damage the paper. While it isn't likely that he'll ever find a use for purple bunny-print wrapping paper, the various crafts clubs are always looking for scrap material. Or Inoue-san might be able to find some place for it. And if worst comes to worst, he could always use the blank side as scratch paper.

There is a shoebox under the wrapping paper. ...best to get this over with.

There are two smaller boxes inside the shoebox, along with a card that reads:

Ishida-san,

Happy Birthday! We're friends and you're stuck with me! So, as called for by modern human custom, I got you a present. (The stupid-looking one is from Renji. Just ignore it.)

- Kuchiki Rukia

The signature is accompanied by a drawing of something he thinks might be a dancing rabbit in kimono. Possibly. It might also be a mouse with thyroid problems.

Well, now he's curious. He opens the first box (which itself is dark wood, polished and clean).

...it's a sewing kit. Needles, scissors, pincushions, thread – at least twenty different colors of thread, in various weights and materials. Everything is put away in its own little compartment. It's beautiful.

He is not holding back tears.

Uryuu may lose several minutes just... basking. A useful and well-thought-out gift is always to be appreciated. He'll have to make Kuchiki-san something to show his gratitude – a new hat, perhaps? She's been hinting at something white and fluffy, with a bobble on top.

Yes, he knows he's just been played. The fur-lined hat will take a few days to complete (for one thing, he has no patterns for hats right now) but the needles are sharp, and the scissors are sturdy, and the box itself is high-quality enough to keep long after the thread runs out.

The second box resembles an oversized glasses case, so he's not sure why he's surprised that it contains a pair of sunglasses. Abarai-san's gift, of course.

He holds them up to examine them. Actually...

Aside from how, ah, gaudy they are – blue and white stripes are generally quite tasteful, but not on glasses frames – they're not terrible.

The frames are sturdy, the hinges don't bend out too far, and they look like they're actually sized appropriately. Abarai-san must have gotten the measurements from somewhere. (“Somewhere” meaning Urahara-san. That man has absolutely no notion of privacy.) He's not sure how much use he'll get out of them, though – he can already see that the lenses are simple plastic, with none of the weight or curvature that differentiates prescription lenses.

There's a note in the bottom, wedged in with a cleaning-cloth: Hey, I got you these. And I asked the guy who owns the shop for a pair that works with glasses, so they better fit, or he's gonna hear from me.

...it's worth a shot, he supposes.

They actually do fit, somehow. The bulky frames bite into the cartilage of his ears, but it's a minor discomfort overall. These are actually a practical present. He should write Abarai-san a thank-you letter, at least.

Uryuu shakes his head, takes them off, and puts them away in a storage drawer. The sewing kit goes in the hall closet with the rest of his craft supplies, with the rest of his old uniforms. (He's... still not entirely sure what he's planning to do with them.)

He finishes removing the rest of the wrapping paper, but leaves the shoebox where it is. He can always keep fabric scraps in it, or something.

The rest of his morning goes as per usual, but there's a surprise on his desk at school: another box, wrapped in tastefully blue paper. The hand-illustrated card accompanying it leaves no doubt as to who this gift is from.

Uryuu swallows past the nervous lump in his throat and reads it.

Dear Ishida-kun,

Today is a joyous day, because today is the anniversary of the day one of my very best friends in the world was born! And so, to mark this day, I've baked you a cake (which I'll give you at lunch, since you can't eat it in class) and made you an extra-special gift!

Yours Truly,
Inoue Orihime

...it takes a few attempts to get his thoughts back on track after reading that.

He's doubly careful with the wrappings on this box, of course. It's from Inoue-san. She could give him nothing but packing peanuts, or a cheap convenience-store toy, and it would still be treasure.

He pulls aside the last bit of wrapping paper, and.

And, it's.

It's a cape. It's a cape, white lined with sea-blue; the edges are accented in a brighter blue. It's beautiful.

It's also utterly superfluous, but it's still from Inoue-san, so-.

Uryuu starts mentally drafting plans for a blouse-and-skirt combinations. High necklines, and flowing skirts that must fall no shorter than six centimeters below the knee. (Would she like warm socks, too?) Fall colors: yellows, brick-oranges, warm grays. Green like leaves that have not yet turned, or like the moss that grows on the north side of trees. Something warm and beautiful, in payment for her gift.

He's nearly done burying the evidence in his school bag (very, very carefully) when Sado-san comes in.

Sado-san walks right up to Uryuu's desk, nods meaningfully, and deposits a small box with white-and-blue wrapping paper on the desk. He then returns to his seat.

Uryuu's fingers itch to find out what's inside (Sado-san's gift will at least be well-considered) but the start of class is rapidly approaching, and his sense of social responsibility is pointing out that skipping the first five minutes of class to open a birthday present is not only rude, but childish.

He's restless all through morning classes. None of this shows in his movements, of course (if nothing else, he can act well enough to fool a gaggle of high schoolers) but he feels a little bit as though he's going to scream.

...not that this is uncommon.

Lunch can't come soon enough; but finally, it does. Uryuu takes off for the nearest secluded corner (There are a few spots outside that are rarely used, save by the odd delinquent looking for a place to smoke, or... perform more unsavory activities. He is not hiding from the lunchtime crowd; it's a strategic retreat.) and opens Sado-san's gift.

It's only held shut by a bit of twine, which isn't entirely surprising – Sado-san's lack of financial resources shows in the threadbare cuffs of his pants, and the way his uniform is perpetually either too large or too small. It's likely he can't afford to replace the outgrown sets as often as propriety dictates he should.

It's a watch.

Specifically, a Seiko men's watch with a wide white faux-leather band and chrome accents. It has easily legible numerals, a second hand, and an accompanying instruction manual which Uryuu plans to memorize at the earliest opportunity.

Uryuu is not going to think about how much it must have cost Sado-san. Quartz watches aren't that expensive.

For now, he packs it away carefully, next to the cape.

He's... not sure about going up to the roof, now. Kurosaki and the others will doubtless be waiting to ambush him, and he's already received more gifts than he'd ever have expected to be given to him. He'd rather just wait it out until the end of the school day; and return to his apartment, and work on his thank-you gifts in peace.

It's at that moment that Kurosaki appears out of bloody nowhere and starts yelling. “Ishida, hurry up! There aren't any Hollows around – yeah, yeah, I did check – so you've got no excuse for skipping lunch.”

“I wasn't planning on skipping lunch, Kurosaki. I simply prefer to eat alone.”

Kurosaki's 'you idiot' look is nowhere near as potent as Ryuuken's, or even Kuchiki-san's. ...that's not to say it's entirely uneffective, however.

And, of course, he manages to make ten kinds of racket going up the stairs. He stomps on every step.

Uryuu follows silently; his shoes make only the slightest scraping sound against the concrete, and his bag weighs twice as much as it had in the morning.

Just before exiting the stairwell, Uryuu asks, “I don't suppose you'd know why Kuchiki-san and Abarai's gifts were left in my apartment this morning, with no trace of either of them having been in there?”

If they'd used a Senkaimon to get inside, it would have left marks. There should have been some lingering traces of their reiatsu, at least.

Kurosaki half-shrugs. “They're crazy-busy right now, so maybe they bribed Sandal-Hat?”

Uryuu suppresses a shudder.

Kurosaki grimaces in commiseration. “Yeah. Creepy.”

There's really nothing more that needs to be said, in response to that.

Uryuu almost misses the box that Kurosaki literally tosses to him. He glares upwards, already prying his nails under the tape.

“...why are there three different colors of I.O.U. notes?”

Kurosaki looks away. “Yeah... those are from my family.”

Uryuu has no idea what that means.

“Karin and Yuzu heard you're our cousin, so they've got gifts for you, but they're at the clinic. Stop by after school, if you get a chance.”

“Of course.”

Kurosaki grins. “Great! You're coming to dinner.”

Before Uryuu has time to construct a reply around the sudden mess of what just happened?! in his head, Kurosaki shoves the door open.

Uryuu stumbles out into daylight after him. He blinks his confusion away, sorting it away for later never, and stows the half-unwrapped present in his bag.

Kurosaki's circle of friends is, indeed, sprawled over at least half of the available rooftop space. Inoue-san is talking to Arisawa-san. Sado-san is patiently waiting for something. Even Kojima-san and Asano-san are present, for some reason.

“I barely know half of these people,” Uryuu points out.

“Keigo wanted free cake,” Kurosaki replies.

Uryuu raises an eyebrow, just slightly. “He doesn't know that Inoue-san baked a cake, does he?”

Kurosaki rolls his eyes.

It is beneath Uryuu's dignity to snicker, but the temptation is certainly there.

There is a call like a clarion bell, and he turns to Inoue-san's voice like leaves follow the sun. “Yes?”

She cheerfully waves him over. “I baked you a cake, come see!”

(Asano-san looks slightly green, and has gone very quiet. Good.)

He sits at Inoue-san's side, across from Arisawa-san. “Thank you.”

“Did you like your surprise?” she asks.

He blinks. “...the gifts?”

“Yes! I left mine on your desk earlier, and – oh, sugar.” She isn't frowning, but her smile has passed behind a cloud. “I should have stayed and given it to you in person.”

“It's all right,” he says. “I know you had to meet with Matsuda-san and the class rep. I don't mind.”

That's a lie, but there's no need to say so.

Arisawa-san kicks him in the shin.

He yelps.

She side-eyes him, and hands him an envelope. There's a store-bought card with standard birthday well-wishes, a scrawled signature, and a 2500-yen gift certificate to a chain art-supply store.

“Why...?”

She shrugs, and grins. “I have, like, zero clue what you like besides sewing. They'll have something you can use, right?”

“Ah!” Inoue exclaims.

They look at her.

She smiles. “I'm glad my friends are getting along.”

He smiles back, almost. Yes, it is good.

“All right, all right,” Kurosaki cuts in. “Let's get the cake out and get this over with, we don't have forever.”

Kurosaki, as usual, has the absolute worst possible timing.

Uryuu sits as he is bid, to share a meal with his friends. They share stories, too.

He will not wish for time to stop.

The cake is actually vanilla sponge cake, fairly light, with white frosting. There's yet another message on top, in blue icing: Happy Birthday, Uryuu!

He wants to laugh.

Chapter Text

Kanae is given away to her master.

He looks down at her, even though he's shorter. She'd dreamed up all sorts of holy magnificence, like an angel in a painting. But, he's no taller than she is!

It could be nice, if he likes her. Not bad like, just like. Just approving of her existence. She's knows that's already lots to wish for, and much too silly for any prayer.

She wants it anyway. Kanae's never been much good at not-wanting anything: sunset colors, words of praise, or just understanding.

Ryuuken-sama looks down on her. She swears herself to him.

Chapter Text

I walk along the sun-bleached asphalt road, beach sandals scraping and sliding on sand. I've never been to the ocean before, though I've seen it in pictures. I learned to swim in a school pool, and the lack of chlorine-scent is strange.

Beach sand is damp and smells like salt and decay; unlike playground sand, which is mostly dry, and smells like dust and rubber.

I hold my son's hand – so small, so much stronger than his thin bones seem to allow – and pull him close against the sharp sea wind.

Fearless, he pulls himself away.

I watch my son take one step out onto the sand, then another. I can see that he doesn't know what to make of this new ground.

Finally, he seems to make up his mind. Uryuu looks up at me, eyes asking even before the words can form: “Mother, can I go? I want to see the waves.”

“You should be able see it from here,” Ryuuken tells him. “Provided your glasses prescription is up-to-date, and your current set is hardly two months old.”

“Yes, but I want to see the water, not just look at it!”

I shake my head and pull Uryuu a bit closer to my side. “We should go find a space before all the good ones are claimed.”

My husband is too dignified to pout, but I can tell he wants to. Uryuu, of course, slips free of my hand and runs ahead.

“Don't go out of sight!” I call out.

He turns and waves to me, smiling in the too-innocent way of a child who has just gotten away with breaking some minor rule. “Let's go!”

Wet sand is more stable footing than dry sand, in the sense that it takes my weight better; it's also rather slippery, and my sandals don't do a thing to keep my feet clean. I follow my child down the slope, mixed sand and pebbles slip-sliding under my feet.

Uryuu is young, so young, careless and clumsy as only a child who has never had to watch his step can allow himself to be. His frowns and put-on seriousness remind me of Ryuuken; his eyes are open, though.

I look at Ryuuken for a moment. “I can go back, if you would rather. I'm sure my colleagues wouldn't turn down an extra set of hands today.”

“Of course not, but I promised you and Uryuu that I would go along with this.” He puts on a slightly disapproving expression. “They can get along without me for one day.”

Ryuuken is not a man who speaks his feelings in words, but I don't care about that. His deeds speak much more clearly.

I watch him memorize the patterns the waves make in the sand, and my heart swells.

Uryuu pokes about in the waves, startling when the water leaves a chill behind on his skin. The salt soaks into everything: the air, my clothes, my skin.

He tugs at my wrist, in place of my usual skirts. I'd left my overclothes in the car. My swimsuit is bright floral powder-pink over emerald-green. Uryuu had helped pick it out, but I'm still not certain how well it suits me. Of course you look pretty, but isn't the skirt a litle bit short?

I never imagined myself needing to explain the difference between swimwear and other types of day-wear, but there I was. I never imagined needing to explain a thousandth thousandth of the things my Uryuu wants to know – so, every day, I have to find new answers all over again.

Every day, I am learning all of the things I don't know, and that many of these unknowns are only things I don't know yet. Or else, it is an answer that I don't know I know, because I haven't yet been asked the question.

He wants to know how to make a wall of sand stay up. He wants to know why waves break.

He wants to know why people build sandcastles, when they must come down when the tide comes in.

I don't know, I tell him. I am learning.

He nods, as stoically and seriously as a very young child can make himself act. But, you'll tell me when you find out?

You'll be the first to know, dearest. I promise.

I cup my hands over his – around the lightness of bone, and the thinness of our skin – and show him how to shape the sea-soaked sand.

This is how to keep a castle standing, see?

He smiles up at me, careless of sand or salt. Thank you, Mother.

I hold him close – just for now, until he remembers he is too old to hide in his mother's arms. Until he pulls away.

Thank you.

Chapter Text

On that day, Kanae met her lord and master – they had met eyes for the first time – and Kanae had known, right down to her heart, that she could give no less than her all for his sake.

From the day we first set eyes on one another, my life has belonged to you.

She was born to serve, and so she would serve. This was a fact, as true as the sky's color, as her heartbeat thudding against her breastbone.

(she was born to meet him. and he, to look upon her from the height, if and when he wished to)

She was a Gemischt Quincy, a natural-born servant and retainer to the Echt line of Ishida. From the moment the Ishida heir's existence became known to her, she was taught and trained to be his perfect bodyguard.

(she wanted oh-so-badly to be good. she needed to be needed, by someone, anyone)

It was different, after that day. Before, she had only known that she would do as she was taught. After, she knew why:

(blue, blue eyes. lonely eyes, summer-sky eyes without a single cloud in sight)

For the future they he would have someday; for the happiness he was destined for – he must be, or how else would such a loving person exist in this world?

(long days spent guarding him at his school, in his training. her heart leapt every time he hit his target)

Ryuuken-sama was not cold! He was only frozen over; his heart snowed-in, buried under glaciers' worth of duty.

(long nights spent watching over him. carrying his sleeping self, so fine, so light, to his bed.)

She was going to be happy for him. He would marry Masaki-sama and find happiness with her, who deserved it-

(longer nights spent watching over his sleep, dozing off with her eyes half-shut. she would not rest until he did)

-more than Kanae's unworthy self, who wished and dreamed above her station. She could not be a princess.

(sleepy sunlit mornings. ash-white light slipping through the blinds, blue eyes sliding open between moments)

She would serve him in any way that he commanded. She would help him save his beloved Masaki-sama, however many times Masaki-sama threw away her own future. Kanae knew her place.

(two steps behind, one to the side. if only she could stay there forever)

She would not turn aside, no matter how many times his cold words cut her hopes into thread. She would weave new ones, instead, and make herself strong enough to protect her all-important Ryuuken-sama.

(a little boy in white. white, white, noble white, the color of clean-cut reason)

Her armor weighed her down. How odd – she'd thought she'd trained with it enough to be accustomed to its rigidity. She could not move as quickly as she wanted to, needed to. She could not stand with him, not and leave his back exposed.

(the only color on him was in the eyes that had been watching her, seeing her, seeing Katagiri. she had to protect those sky-bright eyes, if only so his light would not be taken away.)

Her strength, her power, what meager crumbs of it she had to herself, for the one life she was graciously permitted – all of it was already Ryuuken-sama's.

(never daring to take that step, never daring to extend her hand. nonetheless, Kanae had never not wanted to be his comfort)

It was selfish of her, then; to have given him the one part of her that was not Katagiri, but Kanae, in truth.

If you feel sorrow, Ryuuken-sama, my heart will be torn apart.

In truth, she would rather die than regret it.

Chapter Text

Kanae is hardly aware of her surroundings. Everything is white, white.

White, and the faint girly-pink of the bridal boutique's wallpaper. Apparently, it's not done for a high-society bride to make her own wedding dress.

If she's to marry into nobility, no matter that the Ishida are fallen nobility, then she needs to look the part.

Well, it is true that she wouldn't be able to make anything anywhere near as complicated as the lace-and-silk confections being (politely, insistently) shoved at you. Kanae's sewing skills are geared toward the necessarily-practical: letting out shirts, taking down hems, patching torn fabric. She could make a dress, given time and practice, but it's simpler and more practical to just buy one.

At least, she'd thought so. The boutique's staff have shown her so many dresses just in the last few minutes. Kanae isn't even entirely used to having the freedom to pick out the clothes she wears. She's always been assigned uniforms: for work, and for school, and for Ryuuken-sama's protection. One for each of her duties, with a change of clothes each. It wasn't until junior high school that she realized it wasn't breaking any important rules, to go out and buy more socks and underwear.

She does appreciate knowing how to sew in pockets, though. Perhaps just a few pairs of trousers would be all right? She can't imagine Ryuuken minding, as he's so in favor of anything and everything practical.

She's jolted out of her imaginings by the prick of a pin. This latest dress is all sheer lace over a sweetheart neckline, short cap sleeves and a many-layered skirt. She can hardly move in this, and the woman doing the fitting wants it tighter?

Kanae reaches around, unzips the dress, and steps out of it. Worried that she's about to get cornered into going along with the next bit of frippery to be shoved in her face, she pulls her skirt and blouse back on and flees the fitting room.

Every single dress here costs more than she'd ever made in her life. Legally, she had been hired on at age 13, after which point the Ishida family had to pay out a wage and assign her time off. It wasn't as though it mattered – where could any of the house-servants have gone? The Ishida were the only remaining Echt among the exiled Quincy, save of course for Kurosaki-san. To leave the family's service would be a sin.

Kanae is painfully aware that she has served Ryuuken-sama first and foremost, for all these years. Even now, were he to undergo a complete turnaround in all of his views on filial duty and strike out on his own, she would follow him without hesitation.

This is all in theory, of course.

Kanae has been told that she is now allowed to request for the house servants to make her a wedding garment, or at least go out and buy it for her, but...

She's a slip of fate, herself, from still being the servant tasked to work until she dies. She hadn't minded, really – she was happy enough – but all the same, she won't ask this of her cousins and kin.

Kanae slips into the back of the shop. Here are yards of expensive fabric, handmade lace, imported silks – white and white and white-on-white; with the odd slice of color meant for an accent, or else a bridesmaid's dress. Western wedding dresses, for Christian weddings.

Close enough for a (former) maidservant, marrying up.

Kanae had once been plucked out of a handful of similar servant-children, like picking a piece of fruit off the tree as it ripened. Kurosaki-san had been Ryuuken-sama's intended.

Kanae knows how she looks, for all she's never much cared: the slimness of her frame, thin shoulders and thin hips and thin skin to go with it. All these frills and flounces and fluff, they don't do anything for Kanae. She looks like a fool, or a little girl playing dress-up.

These dresses would suit Kurosaki-san, she thinks idly. Kurosaki-san has always had the uncanny ability to take up most of the space in a room simply by existing, even to the point of occupying one's thoughts.

Kanae, for herself, is too quiet for such things.

She turns back and politely requests assistance. She asks for simpler dresses; preferably, close-fitted at the waist only. Flowing skirts, draping sleeves. White on white, classic. No frills, no lace.

In the end, she sticks with a high-necked, long-sleeved dress. It gathers in at her waist, with a narrow silver-filigreed belt; the skirt's layers float around her calves when she walks, exposing matching silver-on-white shoes.

Everything is still in too-soft fabric. There are petticoats, plural. It's like wearing a cloud.

There are ribbons, and then there are pins.

Finally, she sees the accompanying veil. It falls to her waist, and it comes attached to a tiny silver tiara-shaped hairpin – or perhaps it's a hairpin with a tiara attached? Silver, with blue stones.

The hairpin alone – never mind the veil, never mind the dress – it costs more than she would have earned with her entire lifetime of service. Kanae promises herself she's leaving it to her children.

She puts in the order. After this, she'll fill her closet with real color.

Chapter Text

 

                                  Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time

You train: Early in the morning, before the sun can catch the sky on fire.

When you were very young, you were sent to the country: to the old strongholds, and hidden places, where your clan's remnants were buried.

You were lost among a dozen-odd children, from the toddlers hardly old enough to be trusted with setting up targets, to the nearly-adults who would trade stories about such distant and far-off things as homework and jobs and group projects – simple stories, in hindsight. Everything looks simpler in hindsight, even though nothing is.

Work was never far, though. You weren't old enough to train unsupervised; your blood too thin to be trusted with anything of real import. You were good enough to be trained as a guard, and a maidservant, and not much else. And there were always chores: cleaning and mending, and sweeping and weeding, and darning socks, and peeling potatoes, and chopping vegetables, and tending fires.

And woe unto you if you slipped and cut yourself. If you were very lucky, your punishment didn't end with dirt getting ground into the wound. There would be soap and water and bandages, later, if you were allowed access to first-aid supplies and the time it took to use them.

There were good times, you're sure of it!

You remember staying out late to clear up the training fields, sweeping porches, washing dishes under the pump outside. You loved those quiet nights with yourself.

You remember trading rumors and silly jokes with the other acolytes, hearing everything and keeping all the really juicy secrets locked up tight behind your teeth.

Proper women never showed their teeth, and you were entirely dead-set on being proper. You wanted to be of use, you want to help, you want to know you can trust someone with your secrets and not receive a knife in the back for your trouble. You remember being encouraged to tattle on your peers: 'Tell your betters, child. It doesn't do for things to be out of place.'

You remember your fellow trainees getting smacked on the wrist with a long thin rod - for speaking out of turn, or disagreeing with the teacher, or even something as simple as having a shirt-cuff buttoned wrong. You only did so once.

You kept your head down and your smile soft, and ever-present. You were happy to serve, and serve well.

There were worse things than the rod.

You have many good memories of childhood. It's only that... well, it's entirely possible for you to be both overcome with joy and terrified for your very existence.

You remember learning to sew. Even the years-distant shadow of your joy at that first even seam – so neat and clean, and wonderful to your child's-eyes – is so bright that it almost hurts to keep your smile soft, as is proper.

You learned your lessons, then, quickly and well. You were taken care of, not ever cared for.

Oh, you'd loved your parents, when you knew them.

Gemischt children are trained communally, as a rule. One would have to perform well enough to impress the teachers, and so advance to the next class – or they would be shuffled out of Quincy training, and end up doing menial labor for the rest of their lives.

...at least, that was the official line.

You remember getting up late at night to use the bathroom and finding dirty handprints and splinters and a forced-open window on the way back to your room, where all had been neat and clean perhaps ten minutes earlier when you'd last walked by. You didn't tell anyone, of course.

Whether Michio-san had actually washed out of training and been kicked out of the clan – a process which was never discussed in detail, nowhere you had heard yourself – or simply run away, you weren't going to pry.

Run away, as if that was so simple. As if taking off into the starless city night with only the clothes on your back is any less risky than staying. You need to stay – for Ryuuken-sama's sake, and Kurosaki-sama's certain future, if for no others. Ryuuken-sama will need someone to guard his heirs, when the time comes.

You remember learning to shoot. Even the years-distant sense-memory of your skin splitting under pressure – the snap of an overdrawn bow-string, so loud in a child's ears – is enough to numb your thick-skinned fingers further.

When the time comes, your children will train and bleed and cry, too. They will learn to hide their tears, in the time you are given to hold them – or they will learn later, and the lesson will be that much harder to learn. That is the way of the Ishida, the way of the samurai, the way of the Quincy.

That is the only future which you are allowed to have.

For now, you have this. You breathe in, and draw your bow. You have the predawn chill, you have light between your hands, and you have the taste of water from the air in your throat.

Exhale, release.

Right now, you have a half-hour before you need to return to the house and begin preparing Ryuuken-sama's meals for the day. You are the only one permitted to prepare his food unsupervised, and you take this as the honor it is. Breathe in, and draw on the inhalation.

You don't need to hold back, not with your meager power, not in this holy training. Exhale and release. Not in the starless light; when you are alone with only your thoughts and memories, dreams and fears, for company.

You are honestly honored to be trusted with Ryuuken-sama's wellbeing in this way, at this time, for his sake. You only wish you could do more for him.

You cannot. Someday, when there is an unguarded window, you might – but, only if you could somehow take Ryuuken-sama with you. You need to do your job.

What you need is Ryuuken-sama's health and well-being, nothing more.

The air is wet and heavy, the chill a pleasant counterpoint to the lighting-strike heat in your right hand. Even before you'd begun, the air had smelled like storms brewing.

You draw and release.

You'll need to take the clean laundry in before you start breakfast, so you should finish up a bit early, if you can afford it. Your training is important, too. You are Ryuuken-sama's family-appointed protector, and you will do all you can to guard him from harm. You have to.

You can survive without happiness. You cannot run from your duty. As though running was any simpler, in any way.

You suppose, sometimes (in the dark and the quiet, when you are alone with your thoughts) that if you plan ahead and prepare carefully enough to not be caught: you might have spare clothing, and hygiene supplies, a set of camper's dishes, new ID papers...

If you're feeling very brash and unconcerned with the idea of being caught, a spare zeichen. There are far more in storage than your masters would ever miss.

Yes, if you really need to run, the option is there. Somewhere.

You draw. The cold morning wind carries a smoke-smell to you. You ignore the pain. Sweat and blood, and dew-damp earth. You do not look away from your target.

Ryuuken-sama will not run. He would not try to escape his duty, and so neither will you. If there is nothing else you can do to ease his burden, then you will stay.

If even your presence, your wishes and your actions, cannot ease his pain?

You know where the hose is, by the storage shed. There is soap, burn-salve, and a roll of bandages tucked into the pocket of your day-uniform. You've put together enough time for yourself to use them before your next task, you've made certain of that. You hope.

You have to stay.

The oncoming light stings your eyes. You cannot run.

You breathe out and fire.