Summary: 50 years after the end of the War, a betrayed warrior is freed from the hellhole she was thrown into after she was framed for murder. In the new Soul Society the war created, Byakuya tries to mend Ichigo's broken heart.
Warnings: AU. OOC. Fem!Ichigo!
« Here you go. » The man, a bored-looking Shinigami in his late thirties, said as he entered the room where all the captains were gathered along with their lieutenants. They had been waiting for the appearance of Kuchiki Byakuya, head of the Kuchiki Clan and leader of the sixth division, who hadn't been able to come earlier due to a meeting with the family elders. As stern-looking as ever, Byakuya nodded briefly to the death gods assembled, expressionless features never wavering, and turned towards the keeper.
"Let's go." He ordered.
The man gestured for them to follow, and they stepped in his tracks, walking deeper in the Maggot's nest and passing by ranks and ranks of dark cells were different noises could be heard, from the insane babbling or screaming of prisoners gone mad to insults to complete silence or mere groans. Though they all felt insecure and ill-at-ease, Byakuya's composure never faltered, and he walked even more steadily than usual if that was even possible.
They went deeper and deeper, walking down flight of stairs after flight of stairs, until they finally reached the highest security level, where only top priority prisoners were held and out of where nobody had ever come. However, the keeper didn't stop before any of the cells doors, and instead walked up to the very end of the corridor, and to an iron door. He slid the key in the keyhole and turned it several times, then put the various Kidô spells off, and finally opened the heavy door… to reveal utter darkness. A glare from Byakuya was enough to wake him up, though, and he quickly lit up a torch and lifted it to enlighten the surroundings. The Shinigamis-except for Byakuya- pulled their haori closer to their body as a breeze of damp, ice-cold air brushed over them, and shivered.
"Well?" Byakuya demanded more than he asked icily.
This seemed to shake the leading keeper, and he stepped forward in the darkness.
"I'd advise you to use Kidô to light the place, for the prisoner you're looking for was locked up even deeper than that."
"Why is that? Surely, she couldn't have been that dangerous, could she?" A woman asked disbelievingly.
"Well, that's what the Captain-Commander and the Central 46 of the time decided anyways. I heard that she was really powerful." He drawled as he walked forward. Behind him, Byakuya's hand lit up at a soft murmur, and soon, they were all walking again, but this time, among complete darkness and hearing water drip from the walls.
"Was she even fed?" The Kuchiki clan head suddenly asked.
"I don't know, my lord. For all I know, nobody has ever gone down there for decades. At least not for all the time I've been at the twelfth."
The noble had to fight not to betray his irritation. "Which means that she could very well have died several years ago?"
Silence. The temperature dropped several degrees as Byakuya reined his temper in: a Kuchiki couldn't afford to throw a tantrum over something as petty as a prisoner's treatment. But then again...
"Here we are." They stopped before high bars preventing anyone from progressing any further. The keeper glanced worriedly up at the looming figure of the noble beside him, and asked: "Are you sure you want to do this? I heard that she was really…"
The tone was so icy that the poor man obeyed immediately and threw the Kidô spells off, before unlocking the gate and stepping back, allowing the captains to enter the cell. Byakuya did, and froze, nose wrinkled in disgust. The stone floor was covered in filth, water dripping from the ceiling and walls and dried blood almost everywhere. The straw was swarming with vermin, and he heard gags behind him, proving that the captains couldn't handle the sickening sight. Somewhere in the middle of the cell, was a mess tin filled with moldy food, and pieces of what must have once been the jar of water were scattered everywhere.
The noble couldn't help a low hiss of anger. Even Kurotsuchi Mayuri had been held captive in better conditions. And Kami knew that his crimes were far worse than anything the poor girl they were fetching could ever have been accused of. Thinking of whom… He rose his hand and intensified the Kidô spell to light the cell better, but saw nothing at first. Frowning, he took a step forward, and that's when he finally noticed what looked vaguely like a human form in the far end of the room, standing along the wall. Walking closer, he could finally see her whole, and gasped, all dignity forgotten.
There she was. But they hadn't even let her, for the whole half-century that she had been detained, move around freely in her cell. No. Her hands were tied up to the wall in manacles high above her head as were her ankles, on the ground, and her head was hanging limply on her chest. Her legs were spread and her feet, bare, and he could see the remains of different bodily fluids on her skin and around her feet. Vermin was crawling all over her infected wounds, and her hair now reached the ground. The rags that had erstwhile been a Shinigami's Shikahushou barely covered her body, exposing her long legs, but there wasn't anything to lust after anymore.
She was meager, bony, nothing like the strong-looking teenager he had become so used to and so fond of, and he struggled to get a grip over himself, for he knew that, being the most experienced person in this room, the others would expect him to act first, and wouldn't be able to handle the situation.
And if, by any chance, she was conscious, she would want to see a known face… Byakuya walked towards the prisoner, and slowly lifted her chin, careful not to touch any wound or bruise, before putting two fingers on her pulse and waiting. Her eyes lightly moved under her closed eyelids, and he whispered, amazed that she could still be conscious after all that she had been through:
"Ichigo… Kurosaki Ichigo… Can you hear me?" There was no answer. The once lively features didn't react, and the eyelids didn't snap open, but that was to be expected. He continued talking nonetheless, knowing that it would help her, in the long run, to awaken. "Kurosaki, we have come to free you. You have finally been found innocent. Can you hear me?" He reached out to the keeper, who gave him the key to the manacles, and freed her ankles, before gesturing for the man to do the same to her bleeding wrists: he was afraid that she would fall forward as soon as the tools wouldn't be holding her up anymore, and was proven right when the girl's body slumped forward and right into his arms.
"In case you're wondering, this is not a trick of your Hollow. We truly are here, and you truly are free." He said as he wrapped her in his captain haori and hoisted her up in his arms, ignoring the protests from the keeper and the disgusted looks from his fellow captains, for the former prisoner was absolutely covered in sweat, filth and vermin.
Not paying any heed to the others, he swiftly walked back to the entrance, trying not to shake her to much and always murmuring to her, before they finally stood in the twelfth barracks. There, they found enough light to actually see her clearly and assess her shape properly, and there were several gasps in the rooms, as the lieutenants saw her for the first time, the captains entered, and Byakuya's features hardened. The former Substitute had obviously been beaten to death, and bore the horrific scars of an experiment subject. Her untreated wounds looked far worse in the light than they had in the cell, which was saying something, since they had already sickened everyone in the vicinity.
One could also see her veins and bones through her skin, since what muscle and fat she had ever had disappeared completely, only leaving a bag of bones behind. The face that had once been so lively, resolute and scowling now looked completely defenseless, and pain, both mental and physical, leaked from her whole body even in unconsciousness, and even as her skin and features were still those of a girl (though dehydrated), she looked like an elderly woman. A red-striped white mask fragment on her left cheek and jaw attested that Kurotsuchi had actually managed to change her into the perfect hybrid without using the Hogyokû. Byakuya's lips tighten to a thin line at the sight of the damage.
This would be irreparable, he thought. How could Kurosaki Ichigo ever be the same after all this? After having been imprisoned in these conditions for so long? After having lost everything she ever held dear, and being betrayed by her loved ones? Unaware of the multiple gazes on him, he ever so slightly shook his head. Never again would the brash Kurosaki he had known be seen after that. Never again. And he was painfully aware that it was because of his own powerlessness. How ironic that he, the almighty head of the Kuchiki clan, considered one of the most powerful death gods in the history of Soul Society, was powerless when confronted to the people who had condemned this innocent girl to hell…
"What should we do with her now, Soutaichou-dono?" The seventh division captain, a woman of average height with brown locks and soft, motherly-looking eyes asked the captain of the first division.
The man, much more younger than Yamamoto, with deep purple eyes and dark hair with silver streaks, looked at what had been a living human and feared warrior whose mere name had the power to arouse terror or respect and love among her allies and enemies. However, he never had the privilege to speak, for a cold voice suddenly spoke up in a tone that accepted no objections:
"She will come with me. I will take care of her. Nobody is to approach her without my permission or hers, and as she currently isn't able to give such approval, then it will be the former."
"I wonder, Kuchiki-taichou, if you will be able to give her the mental support she will no doubt need after her captivity…" A young man with blue eyes and messy jet black hair, said, stepping forward. The Kuchiki snickered inwardly in disdain. The newly appointed captain of the third division had always envied him, and tried, each and every time he found an occasion to, to embarrass him. Which never worked, Byakuya saw to it, of course. The noble looked at the other, not bothering to hide his contempt.
"And what, pray tell, would the likes of you do for her that I could not? You don't know her, and don't know what she lived when she got locked in this hellhole. You don't know her background either. I do. I have known her ever since she was fifteen, and I know what kind of person she was, what her needs were, and I don't doubt that a familiar face will be far better for her than that of an inexperienced captain, thank you for her."
A few captains barely managed to hide their smiles, and he could feel the amusement of a few vice-captains too. Not caring, he looked down at the girl in his arms, and almost started when he stared into two tarnished pools. One of her eyes was its usual amber color, while the other was gold with black sclera. Silence descended upon them as everyone held their breath, and Byakuya couldn't tear his grey eyes from her own.
"Ichigo?" He asked softly. "Can you hear me? If you can, blink once, okay?" She didn't answer immediately and so he went on speaking, but suddenly, a brief spark of intelligence and maybe even recognition flickered in her gaze. The noble captain could feel her small frame tense in his arms, and he instinctively held her closer.
She blinked. Slowly, painfully, but she blinked.
"I'm glad." He said softly. "Do you know who I am?"
He paused to let her answer, and she didn't react for a second. But then, she rose her hand, very slowly, gritted teeth, furrowed eyebrows and tense jaw betraying the effort she put in such a simple gesture, and let her fingers brush the flawless skin of his cheek. He saw, from the corner of his eye, a few individuals flinch when her dirty digits touched his perfect white skin, but didn't budge, entirely focused on the fragile girl in his arms. Her chapped lips trembled as she upturned the corners of her mouth in a grimace that was meant to be a smile, and his gaze softened at the sight. Then, she opened her mouth and tried to speak, but couldn't. Her forehead wrinkled as she tried again, but her throat was too dry and it had been too long since she had last talked, so… The noble put a light hand on her mouth.
"It's okay, don't try to speak. You'll only hurt yourself."
She closed her eyes as a lone tear ran down her dusty cheek, then let her hand fall down, and pulled at Byakuya's to make him take it off her face. The older male obeyed, and she tugged at his sleeve to keep his attention.
"I'm looking." He said. She nodded feebly, and forced her poor lips to move.
"Byakuya." She mouthed. He chuckled inwardly, then asked.
"Ichigo, can you see me?" He had been surprised by her lack of reaction to the light which she had not seen for fifty long years, and which should have hurt her eyes badly when she opened them… This reaction, or rather lack of, could only mean one thing, which she confirmed when she shook her head.
"I see." He turned around, and headed for the door. "I don't know if it will be permanent or not, but I'm taking you home right now, so that my doctors can have a look at you."
Ichigo was settled in the Kuchiki mansion, close to the clan head's quarters, and examined by the best healers in the Soul Society. The noble had indeed adamantly refused any help from the fourth for some reason, and applied any Kidô treatment needed himself. It had appeared that the girl's sight had been destroyed by the fifty long years she had spent in utter darkness, and her infected wounds were carefully treated as soon as Byakuya took her back. No one saw her for a whole month, and when asked, the man would only give vague, curt answers that told all about his lack of desire to go on with the current subject of conversation. Seireitei, however, was of a different opinion, and numerous were the people that would wonder about the mysterious top security prisoner that had been freed after fifty years of wrong imprisonment in, according to the lieutenants that had heard of it by their captain, the most filthy cell one could imagine.
She was, if they were to be believed, an acquaintance of the head of the Kuchiki clan, who had harshly put the captain who had objected to him taking her to his home back to his place, and had smiled, smiled when she had recognized him despite her lack of sight and long imprisonment. The woman who had the power to actually bring the usually emotionless features of the famous captain whom nobody had ever seen display the least bit of a feeling to life thus intrigued the Court of Pure Souls, and the Shinigamis all waited impatiently for the day when they could see her in the flesh.
Katsuki Gouka, vice-captain of the sixth, was the first one to do so. He had been headed to the Kuchiki mansion to meet with his captain, who was on his day off, but had requested to be given a detailed report of the day events in the division. So, the dutiful lieutenant had gathered his courage and went to the enormous mansion, in which he had been allowed. Following a servant, he walked along the long wooden corridors, and was led to the backyard, where the servant left him, saying that master should be here soon, and to feel free to wander around and admire the Sakura trees and the garden. That's how he found himself standing between two trees, looking at the graceful silhouette of an unknown woman holding a katana. The girl was thin, very thin, he immediately noticed. She had a slender, fragile, yet lithe form, and was wearing a dark red yukata with black sandals, and was training with the long blade of an asauchi, executing drills that were these of an experienced warrior, yet were executed hesitantly.
She was soon covered in sweat and panting, and he could see the hands holding the katana shake. However, she didn't give up and went on swinging her blade, jumping around and dueling an unseen opponent. An almost unnoticeable shiver at her feet attracted his attention on her spiritual pressure, and he noticed something strange: while it looked like it had the potential to be insanely powerful and seemed to be bottled up and ready to explode at any moment, her reiatsu felt like it had been forcefully reduced to a ridiculously low amount. Strange, he thought. Finally, she slumped on the ground, light brown hair darkened by sweat and streaked with black and orange, and laid her blade beside her. The sound of rippled fabric made her look up, and Katsuki suddenly saw his captain emerge from the Sakura trees, concern etched on his face, which surprised him. The girl smiled warmly at him as he came closer, and he sat next to her.
"Are you okay?"
"I can feel it. It feels like it's been bottled up, and I can reach it anytime… However, my body doesn't respond like it used to. It feels strange, like my brain and nerves aren't synchronized anymore. And Tsuki hasn't completely awaken yet: she comes and goes, we can't access our full power, it's…" She heaved a long, weary sigh, and ran a tired hand through her hair. "Disconcerting, annoying, I don't know…"
Byakuya chuckled softly, and Katsuki thought his eyes were going to pop out of their sockets. Kuchiki Byakuya, the senior captain of the Seireitei, the man who had never ever displayed the slightest bit of emotion for the whole time since he had known him, had actually chuckled? Unbelievable.
"You never were one to like being powerless. For all I remember, your annoyingly fast growth rate was always due to pressure. First, you learnt to beat that Menos, then I was your stepping stone. After that was the Sexta Espada, Grimmjow Jaggerjaques, and then the fourth, Ulquiorra Cifer. And finally…"
"Aizen Sousûke." She whispered, almost religiously.
He inclined his head in approbation."Yes."
There was a brief silence as they mulled over their thoughts, and Katsuki's brain cogs wheeled at top speed. The mentioned names weren't unknown to him: these were commonly known and taught at the Academy. They referred to protagonists of the infamous Winter War, which had been a terrible blow to the Soul Society. But though the grand lines of the conflict were of common knowledge –the fact, for example, that the Shinigamis had allied themselves to spiritually aware humans and even exiles such as Urahara Kisuke or Shihoin Yoruichi, was well-known- nobody had ever said anything about the humans, who they were, what powers they had, how they had come in contact with the Soul Society, and what had happened to them afterwards. And who exactly had defeated Aizen? This had never been clearly told either…
The conversation he had just heard, however, sounded like that girl had been the one to kill the traitor… But how would that be possible? The only ones to know the truth, however, were Kuchiki-taichou, the only Shinigami to actually have fought the war, and the former captains and vice-captains, but they had disappeared a long time ago… In fact, they had disappeared a short time after the end of the conflict. Katsuki frowned. Before him, Byakuya had bent forward to say something in his companion's ear, and she tensed, before nodding briefly. He stared at her in concern for a brief instant, before his gaze turned cold once more, and he looked up… directly at the spot where his lieutenant was standing.
"Come out here, Katsuki."
The poor lieutenant paled, and walked forward before bowing low and apologizing profusely. The noble, however, didn't seem fazed by it, and raised a hand to shut him up as the woman turned towards him. His breath itched. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Deep amber eyes, smooth, yet resolute features, a gaze that bore so much pain and wisdom at the same time… She didn't look powerful, but everything about her radiated mightiness, and demanded respect from the ones confronted to her.
"It's okay." She said in a warm, yet raspy voice. "But don't spy on me again in the future. I don't bite."
He bowed low in apology and gratitude, but a pale, long-fingered hand stopped him.
"Stop it. I am neither a noble nor more powerful than you. And even if I was, I never was one for formalities. Always got on Byakuya's nerves with my lack of manners." She added with a soft, loving smile as she glanced at said noble, who barely refrained from rolling his eyes. She then turned back to him. "So, what's your name?"
"Katsuki Gouka, lieutenant of the sixth division, my lady."
"Kurosaki Ichigo." She hesitated. "Well, I'm not really anybody anymore, so… You could say I'm a former Substitute Shinigami."
His eyes widened briefly, but he didn't comment, for fear of being disrespectful. The girl, at that moment, coughed, and instantly, Byakuya closed the mouth he had opened to ask his subordinate about the day, and turned to her, laying a soft hand on her back.
"You should head back to the mansion and rest a little. You're still weak."
"Maybe you're right. Sorry for the trouble." She rose to her feet and, with a last nod to the address of the lieutenant and a smile at the captain, she walked away, brushing the latter's shoulder as she passed him.
Later that day, Katsuki told his lieutenant friends about his visit at the Kuchiki's, and couldn't help the dream-like feeling she had left him. That of an old, wise and loving spirit, of a woman who had suffered to lengths that should remain unknown to Man, but still tried to pull herself back together, and enlightened the life of those she was close to. The usually cold noble's smile was proof enough of that. His account made the rumors lively again, and once more, Seireitei couldn't wait for the woman to show up outside of the Kuchiki mansion.
"After the end of the conflict, the humans Soul Society had allied with were sent back to the human world and…"
The teacher looked up, startled, and looked for the student that had dared contradict him.
"Over here. I said no." It was the strange-looking girl that had joined the Academy a few weeks earlier. Her dark, orange and black-streaked hair stood out among the other students', but she had refused to do anything about it, saying that it was her natural color, and nobody had dared criticize it again, for she looked too… strange, too old, and gave off a feeling of power that her low level of reiatsu belied. One couldn't help, despite that, the respect she inspired within them, and so dropped the subject. Nobody knew anything about her: she was a loner, rarely associated with anyone, never talked about herself, and changed subjects quickly when her past was brought up. Today, however, her interruption of the class had been enough to wake up the sleeping students, and everybody was now listening intently, hoping to learn more. What could the strange girl mean?
"What do you mean, 'no'?" The teacher formulated aloud what everybody was wondering inwardly.
"I mean that what you are saying is bullshit. The humans were never sent back to the Living World. Or at least not all of them. The Winter War ended with a trial. The humans, after having dirtied their hands and fought with all they had for the Soul Society, were tried for having illegal powers and condemned. However, one of them managed to convince the Central 46 not to execute them, for she was the one to have given them powers because of the inadvertent but constant leaking of her enormous reiatsu. They agreed not to kill them and to merely seal their reiatsu so that they would only be mere humans again. The mere convict, on the other hand, was to give up her human life and join the Soul Society as a captain."
"What is that…"
"However, a few days later, the humans were found slaughtered in their quarters in Seireitei, and the main convict's blade was there too. She was assumed a traitor and murderer, given a sham of a trial, and condemned to prison. She was then given to the twelfth for imprisonment."
Unfazed, the girl went on.
"But the captain of the time, Kurotsuchi Mayuri, had been looking for a long time for an occasion to experiment on her, for she was a Vizard, a Shinigami with an Inner Hollow. He used her as a test subject for a few years, until he was disposed of, in fact, and then she was thrown into the deepest cell there is in the Maggots' nest. That is what really happened." She concluded darkly.
The silence was deafening. Then, the teacher got a grasp on himself, and snickered poorly.
"Well, you certainly are quite imaginative, Miss. I couldn't have thought up a better story. You must have planned this quite a long time ahead, but I must ask you never to interrupt my class with those fantasies again…"
"Fantasies?" The girl's look was now murderous as she pinned the man to his place with a glare. "You actually think that I made that up? Fool! This is the truth, and what happened! How dare you call the murder of a whole group of innocent humans and the framing and torture by one of your former captains of one of your very allies a fantasy?"
"This is the TRUTH! I know it! I was there!"
A long silence followed her statement as the whole class stared in awe and wonder at the girl who had stood up at some point, eyes flashing with controlled anger and sudden hurt.
"And could you have been there, when the entire Soul Society was wiped out by the war except for the captains, and you currently are in this Academy? The only one that could attest to your story would be Kuchiki-sama, and that's quite clever of you, since he is out of reach!"
Silence. The girl had fisted her hands and engaged in a glaring contest with the teacher, who finally said:
"Sit down now and do not interrupt this class with your absurd tales anymore, miss, or I will have to have you expelled."
Ichigo opened her mouth furiously, but the door sliding prevented her from retaliating, and there was a collective gasp when, on the threshold, stood Kuchiki Byakuya in all his glory. He glanced uninterestedly at the teacher, then stared directly at the standing girl.
"Nobody will be expelled. Natsu, calm down, I could sense your reiatsu from the other side of Seireitei."
She shrugged, not looking the least bit regretful, and bit her lip.
"Sorry, Byakuya, but the bunch of lies they're actually teaching was unbearable."
His gaze softened.
The class gaped openly at the lack of manners she was displaying to the head of the royalty-like family that were the Kuchikis, and at the leniency said head was showing. And did the last sentence actually mean that what the girl had said was the truth? She nodded silently, suddenly perfectly calm, and smiled a little at him. The girl and the noble stared at each other for a second, before the latter turned his attention back to the teacher.
"What she told you is the truth. You will know more later. I think something is being organized for the wrong events related to be publicly made right, and for the memory of the warriors of the Winter War not to be tarnished."
The man could only nod in understanding, before Byakuya turned back to Ichigo, who was trying to discreetly muffle a cough.
She gathered her notes and exited the room silently, following him outside. There, he pulled her against his chest, holding her securely against his chest, and shunpoed to the Kuchiki estate. Once there, she pushed away softly yet firmly, and stood back to him, hands balled into fists, knuckles white, and lithe frame tense. Her reiatsu was simmering around her feet, gradually growing stronger, and he marveled at how powerful she still potentially was.
Then, suddenly, everything disappeared. She turned around, relaxed and tired-looking, her eyes hidden by her bangs, and walked slowly up to where he was standing motionlessly, waiting patiently for her to speak. Slowly, she rose her hands, and laid her palms flat on his chest, looking at her long fingers for a few seconds before raising her head to look him in the eye. Her amber orbs were sorrowful, and he had to struggle and call on to all the self-master he had not to embrace her and kiss her right here and now.
"I'm sorry." She whispered. "I disappointed you. I'm sorry. I should have…"
She paused, obviously looking for the right words to put her feelings into. Byakuya's hands rose to hers, and his elegant fingers wrapped around her palms tenderly, making her snap back into reality.
"Ichigo… Why would you disappoint me?"
"Well, I'm not the girl you used to know… I tried to find her again, but… I couldn't. I… I can't find the strength to act as if nothing had ever happened, and… I can't help but know that not all stories have an happily ever after…"
Lifting her chin with two fingers, he gazed intently into her amber pools, and said passionately.
"It's okay, Ichigo. How could I be disappointed? You always hated lies, and I understand perfectly that you would be upset by hearing your story twisted like that… But…"
Her features hardened a little, and he knew that she was bracing herself for criticism, so he added quickly.
"Why would you doubt me? Do you have so little faith in me?"
Intense surprise, then shame flashed on her face, and she bowed her head.
"I'm sorry." She mumbled. "It's not that. It's just that… As a Kuchiki, you have very high standards… I'm just trying to be up to them…"
"You've been up to my standards, as you call them, for more than fifty years. Just be yourself and act naturally. It'll always be enough to me."
She gaped at him openly, lips ajar, and freed one of her hands to lay her palm on his cheek. The man relished in her touch, the softness of her skin against his, and the gentleness he could make out in her contact.
"Does that mean… that you would be ready to take our relationship back where it was… all these years ago?"
His eyes widened. Then:
She cocked her head to the side like a curious cat.
"Why didn't you say so earlier?" She asked slowly.
"You weren't ready."
"Wasn't I?" She said teasingly as she played with a long black lock.
"Stop playing, please." He demanded, eyes closed and lips ajar as he inhaled her scent. She smiled, even though he couldn't see it, and pulled closer, then… Their lips brushed together as she rose on her toes and pulled at his neck lower his head to her level. Byakuya's eyes snapped open in surprise, but she had closed hers and didn't see it, merely enjoying the feeling. Cupping her face, he pulled away, looking intently at her.
"Are you sure you are ready for this?" He asked, voice dripping with concern.
She opened her eyelids, to reveal strikingly calm amber eyes.
"I am ready. I can't spend my whole new life on the past. I was given a second chance, Byakuya. I can't waste it. This time, I'm going to make sure that our relationship doesn't end up as a disaster." She looked him in the eye. "I love you."
The confession was calm, resolute, and decided. Yet, he knew her enough to know that her fear of being rejected, of disappointing him was simmering deep down within her, and that only her surprising self-mastery allowed her not to shake in terror. Eager to put an end to her suffering, he hugged her tightly and put all his feelings into a simple smile and three little words that could mean the world to someone like her.
"So do I. I love you too, Kurosaki Ichigo. I have ever since that day, when you were nineteen, and we had to fight our way through this Arrancar horde. The way you fought, the way you protected me, the way you simply… existed… It was all a soothing balm for me. And I became aware, as the war dragged on, that your presence had become necessary to me. I couldn't bear being away from you, I couldn't bear not knowing what you were up to, the mere thought of you being hurt was terrifying… These last fifty years have been nightmarish to me. Please, Ichigo… will you stay with me?"
He paused. Her eyes had filled up with tears, something that would never have happened fifty years ago, but prison changed people. Ichigo's heart had hardened with the war, but softened too as the numerous miseries inflicted by the fights struck a sensitive chord within her compassionate heart. And the betrayal that she had gone through… The terrible burden of being framed for the murder of her friends, of having her battle comrades turn their back on her with disgusted looks and insults, and of being experimented on, raped repeatedly for who-knows-how-long and then thrown in the deepest and filthiest cell in the Maggots' nest had changed her deeply.
She wasn't the brash, reckless teenager that had once barged into the Seireitei with only Shikaï and a few friends to save a Shinigami she held dear that had been manipulated by a traitor anymore. She had become an experienced warrior, aware of her power and own limits, but who would nonetheless do anything to save and protect her loved ones. And Byakuya had learned, all those years ago, that he was part of said loved ones. The weeks they had spent in Hueco Mundo alone, separated from their respective units and isolated in a hostile environment, had been one turning point for them as their esteem had, at the time, become friendship.
She held him dear to her heart, he finally realized, and he had gradually noticed that the two of them seemed to be closer than she was with anybody else. She would talk to him about things she didn't share with Rukia or Renji, and she would open up slowly, and he would do the same. Though they had started off as enemies, they felt strangely attracted one to the other, as he had discovered one day, when she had confessed being pulled towards him by some unseen force that he had also been feeling.
That discovery, that their attraction was mutual, had been the start to a new level of their relationship, as they understood that it was not friendship anymore. It was something else. Something entirely new that Ichigo had never ever experienced, and that Byakuya had once, but his love for Hisana had never sustained the comparison to the one he had for the Substitute. His relationship with Rukia's sister had been more platonic then anything. But Ichigo's presence had quickly become essential to his very being, and all about her inspired passion within the heart he had enclosed in emotional walls, and thought to be cold and dead for a long time.
That's why the cold-hearted Kuchiki Byakuya kissed her gently on the lips, trying to put all his love and tenderness in that simple gesture, for her to understand that he would never turn his back on her, and leave her behind. And Ichigo, broken hero of a war that had destroyed many, responded hotly to the kiss, and he could feel all her happiness, pain and fear in their embrace. And silently, Byakuya swore to never let go, and make her the trustful girl she had once been, who had a terrifying gift to turn enemies into allies and gaining her most hated enemies' respect by her courage, loyalty and strength. He would gain her full trust and be faithful. And he would make her happy.
Ichigo and Byakuya's relationship went unnoticed by many, if not by all. The girl was very discreet, keeping a low profile, and had never revealed her true name to anyone who knew her, for when the teaching program of the History of Soul Society class had been remade, names had been given, and Kurosaki Ichigo's was now well-known as the framed one's. Thus, it was as Natsu Sakura that she was attending the Academy, even though her outburst a month prior had attracted unwanted attention to her. People were now wondering who she could be to know what had happened all these years ago, for in theory, no Shinigami, apart from the captains, lieutenants and a few lucky survivors, had escaped the final battle, and all of them had actually disappeared a long time ago. Ichigo, however, had refused to talk and shooed the buggers away, saying that they didn't need to pry and could ask their remade history books or their teachers.
Unfortunately, her cover wasn't to hold on for much longer, as one day, the teacher announced a surprise, led them to the conference room already filled with the rest of Seireitei, where the whole bunch of former captains and lieutenants that had survived were introduced by the Academy headmaster. Ichigo was seated at the third rank in the front, alas, and felt very, very exposed, despite Byakuya's comforting gaze. The whole Gotei 13 was indeed there, for it had been deemed necessary that everybody knew the truth about what had truly happened, and not only Kuchiki Byakuya.
The captains and lieutenants each took their turn talking, and the gathered Shinigamis listened with baited breath, as they explained the details of the war and the way Kurosaki Ichigo had killed Aizen Sousûke, thus ending it. How she had been tried, along with her friends, Ishida Uryû, the Quincy, Inoue Orihime, whose powers defied God's law, Sado Yasutora, the human with Hollow-like powers, Tatsuki Arisawa, Asano Keigo and Mizuiro Takuma, for having illegal powers, and had managed to avoid the capital punishment, only to be framed and end up in Kurotschi Mayuri's labs.
Byakuya's gaze remained on Ichigo during the whole narration, and she held it, hands fisted and knuckled white, whole frame tense, as she shook and tried her best not to show any emotion that would make her stand out. He did all he could to comfort her by merely locking gazes with her and trying to transmit all his love and support through it. The conference passed like that, and three long hours after the beginning of the meeting, it finally was question time. Ichigo was, by now, very pale, but held her ground courageously.
"What happened to Kurosaki Ichigo's Zanpakutô?"
"It was destroyed." Renji replied, pink hair now loose and framing his tattooed face wildly.
"Who was the true murderer of her friends?"
"Kurotsuchi Mayuri. He was found out after three years of experimentation."
Ichigo dug her nails in her palms until they bled. They had found out? And why the hell had she still been imprisoned? That's exactly what one of the students asked.
"Well, she was still convicted of having illegal powers. After that case, the Central 46 decided that she was a potential threat and would be a candidate for Aizen's succession. So, she was locked up in the Maggots' nest."
"And nobody helped her? Surely, now that she had been proven innocent, her friends would have…?"
"The Central 46 held this information a secret. I wasn't until last year that the case was reopened. The room wasn't indeed replaced before this date, and it's only at that time that we were informed that there was an unfairly condemned prisoner in our cells." The current seventh captain said softly, helping the rapidly paling Matsumoto.
"Was she freed?"
The question aroused a nervous silence. Everybody looked at the current captains, who in turn looked at Byakuya, but the man never answered, leaving them the duty to. Once again, the seventh captain spoke up.
"Yes, she was, three months ago."
Ichigo's neighbor rose his hand, and the girl tried to shrink down on her seat and disappear in a little hole.
"But where is she now?"
The girl thought her heart had stopped when the captain's gaze went to rest on her, and her eyes widened. Then, Rukia, who hadn't said a word up to that moment and had been observing her brother, followed his gaze and saw Ichigo. Midnight blue eyes widened to the size of saucers when two amber orbs looked back, and she opened her mouth… Instantly, Ichigo paled a few shades of white, so much that she looked almost transparent now.
"Ichigo…" She blurted out.
Instantly, all gazes from the men and women sitting around her darted to her.
"What did you say?" Renji asked.
Unfazed by Byakuya's eyes burning holes in her back, she gaped openly at the strange-haired girl sitting at the third front rank, and repeated.
"Ichigo! She's here!"
She pointed a shaking finger at said girl, who had stilled completely, as if hoping to go unnoticed by fading away. But it was to no avail.
"Ichigo!" Renji repeated in utter surprise, for once not yelling around as he used to.
Ichigo's neighbor had turned to her by now, and was looking closely at her.
"Is that you they're pointing at?" He whispered.
She didn't answer, but glanced helplessly at Byakuya, who stared back with a muted question. What did she want him to do? And then, she stood up, signaling herself to the assembly, and spoke up.
"Yes, it is."
She then turned towards Byakuya, and nodded slightly. The noble took it as his cue to intervene, and rose to his feet graciously before shunpoing over to her.
"What are you doing, Byakuya?"
The man wrapped his arms around Ichigo's waist.
"She has no desire to see any of you." And he disappeared, taking her away with him. All hell broke loose in the conference room. Rukia and the rest of the betrayers stared after her, unable to move after they had seen how changed she had been by their defection and her years of suffering. This haunted, hollow look, and the black and orange streaks in now brown hair… They had broken her, and they knew it. But Byakuya was standing by her, as he always had, defending her and trying his best to help her when she was tried. And maybe, just maybe…
He would be able to mend her crushed heart and soul.
"You may kiss the bride."
The two newly-weds kissed passionately, enjoying the lack of assistance. They had decided on a private ceremony for their marriage. Both of them were two famous for people truly interested to come, and they didn't want any unwanted faces to show up at their wedding. Byakuya had proposed to Ichigo a year and a half earlier, when the conference had ended in such a chaotic manner, and he had taken her home in emergency.
She was crying her heart out by the way they had arrived, and, sitting on the veranda under a starry night sky, he had rocked her back and forth, holding her close to his chest, cradling her in his arms and whispering soft nothings to her ear. And then, in the middle of his murmurs, it had come, the proposal. He had told her all about his need of her, his desire to have her by his side for all eternity, his loneliness whenever she was away, his worry when she was out of his sight… And he had finally asked her to stay with him and marry him without even being aware of it.
But when he had realized what he had said, he couldn't doubt the sincerity of his words, for he knew they were perfectly true and he meant it to the very depths of his soul. He wanted her to be his wife, and he wanted to take care of her and share everything that was his with her forever. And she had looked up to him, eyes filled with tears, doubt and yet, trust and happiness, and had said 'yes, but I'll give you time to make sure you really want someone like me to marry you.' He had perfectly caught the underlying meaning that she was unworthy, and a waste of time.
And for the year and a half that they had been engaged, he had done all he could to prove her otherwise. And when he had asked her again, this time, she had agreed without the shadow of a doubt. Fully happy and content to agree to his proposal.
"I love you."
Her voice snapped him back to reality, and he smiled at her, seeing that she was looking up at him. Not caring that they were in the middle of the corridor, he pulled her close and kissed her soundly on the lips, wrapping his arms around her as she locked hers around his neck and tangled her fingers in his long, silky black hair. Hoisting her up with a smile, he kissed her again as he led her to his room and laid her on the bed. The door slid shut behind them.
Two years after the freeing of Kurosaki Ichigo, the third division was appointed a new captain. The young man who kept trying to humiliate Kuchiki Byakuya had unfortunately been killed in action, and had to be replaced. As there were no candidates among the vice-captains or Shinigamis, the noble came with a candidate that passed the tests with flying colors. Heavy silence had fallen upon the judges when Kurosaki Ichigo, or rather, as she would reveal later, Kuchiki Ichigo, entered the room, and they had taken some time to gather their composure. Her Zanpakutô was an elemental, but its particularity was that it was linked to all fourth elements, lightning and could also trigger her Resurrección form. Kurotsuchi's experiments had indeed changed her into the perfect hybrid without the use of the Hogyôku, and her blade thus had three releases.
"Weep… Princess of the Suffering Souls."
The release had made Byakuya flinch the first time he had heard it. It was too linked to her experiences and scarred heart and soul. But she had smiled reassuringly and carried on the test, demonstrating the full extent of her powers, and though it was scary, they knew better than to make the same mistake the former Central 46 and captains had made: they accepted her and gave her the spot, knowing that she would make a great captain. The conference of two years ago had indeed proven to everyone what a great leader she had been and would be, and her power seemed to have perfectly recovered, a growth rate that had bewildered them.
"Bankaï. Crimson Princess of the Suffering Souls."
If her Shikaï was a blade that could call forth the elements and was composed by all five of them, her Bankaï could also influence the enemy and make them see again the worst moments of their life over and over again. She disliked it, though, and rarely used it. And then, there was her Resurrección form. A full Hollow mask with two long horns pointing forwards, a long mane of hair with fur wrist and ankle bracelets of the same color her hair was. The blade was her Bankaï's, long, thin and a mixture of ever moving black, scarlet, silver, blue, dark green and orange. Her speed and strength when it that form were unequalled, and they knew that with her by their side, the Soul Society would never fall. For Kurosaki Ichigo would always fight for what she loved, and her compassionate and loving heart had allowed her to forgive the Gotei 13 and start anew with them, giving them a second chance.
The people who had condemned her were not here anymore, and the ones that now lived here didn't have anything to do with what had happened to her all this time ago. She knew it, and she acted accordingly. She became one of the most respected and loved captains among the Court of Pure Souls, along with Kuchiki Byakuya.
She had been officially appointed as the captain of the third division a week later, during a captains meeting the lieutenants were attending. She had stepped forward, and received her haori, which was sleeveless and fitting.
"Kurosaki Ichigo, you are hereby appointed as the new captain of the third division. May you lead your men well."
She had risen a mocking finger.
"Not Kurosaki, Soutaichou-dono!"
This had made the captains' eyebrows shot up in surprise. Byakuya had sighed, and inwardly run a weary hand through his silky hair.
"Oh? Then what should I call you?"
She had turned towards Byakuya and smiled, a true smile, filled with happiness and joy and… love?
"Kuchiki. It's Kuchiki Ichigo." Her voice had softened as she said those words, and he couldn't help but let his gaze soften as he looked at her radiating demeanor. He had succeeded in mending her broken heart, and had given her a new future, deprived of any cloud. Lost in their own world, they didn't hear the noise in the meeting hall as the captains and lieutenants took the information in and exclaimed loudly. She walked calmly up to him and stood beside him in the rank, slipping her petite hand in his larger palm, and he squeezed it softly.
"Is this true, Kuchiki-kun?"
Byakuya's head whipped around to look at the bewildered soutaichou.
"Yes." He said in his ever neutral tone.
"When did you marry?" Asked the seventh captain.
Ichigo smiled at her. She liked the woman. She looked nice, and was always caring.
"Sixth months ago."
Again, there was a concert of exclamations, but they didn't hear them. This time, they were truly gone. They didn't care about the outside world. As long as they were together, the rest didn't matter to them. Together, the cold-behaved noble and hot-headed, broken Shinigami that he had mended after the betrayal of her friends, could conquer the world, and were a whole. Nothing could reach them, nothing could hurt them when they were together, for they were a part of each other, and neither could die without the other falling himself. Together, they could nurse the worse wounds, and they could stand back up after tripping. Together, they would overcome every obstacle that would come in their way, and support each other.
Those two unique beings had finally found their other them and become whole. As a single being, they would be the pillar of Soul Society, and fight together until the end of times. And they would be the very incarnation of love and power brought together. They would be the founders of a new line of powerful Shinigamis, and ensure the security of the Soul Society and the preservation of the balance between the three worlds, and the souls traveling between them.
Kuchiki Byakuya and Ichigo exited the meeting hall silently, walking close to each other, hand in hand, and blinked in the sunlight. The sun was already setting, and the day was over at the divisions. Turning to his wife, Byakuya held out his hand.
"Shall we go?"
She didn't answer immediately, looking thoughtful. Then, she looked up.
"Thank you, Byakuya. For everything. For taking me out of this hellhole and mending me. It might have been annoying, to you."
He shook his head.
"Do you remember what I told you when you were taken to the twelfth, back then?"
She thought for a second, then, her features lit up with a wistful smile that soon became a full-fledged laugh. The captains and vice-captains, who were watching the scene in the distance and marveling about the lovers' bubble the two were in which prevented them from noticing anyone, chuckled when the noble squeezed her hand and took off shunpoing, a tender smile on his gorgeous face. Ichigo followed, the words resonating in her head over and over again, full of hope and the promise of a better future.
Wait for me, I'll take you to Heaven!