[Bleach] The Butterfly Effect 06

Chapter Six – Where Hollows Fear to Tread

“Who is he?”

The question better resembled a command, cracking sharply through the tense silence like a whip. Were he a lesser man, Byakuya would’ve been intimidated. But it took much more than an irritated captain-commander to unsettle him.

Even if the matter in question did involve his own sister.

“We are still trying to determine that, soutaichou,” Byakuya informed him as he stood stiffly before Yamamoto-soutaichou’s desk.

The old man merely puffed on a pipe, face drawn with perturbation. His eyes were narrowed, almost slits. His demeanor was commanding, harsh and stiff.

“At best,” Byakuya admitted, “we do know that he’s a rogue. No one recognized him for a deserter.”

Or if they did, they weren’t speaking of it. Though he didn’t believe that of any of his fellow Shinigami and most certainly not those in his division. What point would hiding the presence of a deserter serve?

“How did Urahara find him?” The captain-commander’s eyes narrowed further, a stream of grey smoke curling up from the edge of his pipe.

Byakuya could only grit his teeth. “Again, we are still investigating.”

Rising to his feet, the old man gazed at him, most likely finding it hard to believe that no information was available on a Shinigami this powerful. Truthfully, Byakuya was having trouble reconciling that fact himself. He had ideas, thoughts and suspicions, but…

“Although…”

Byakuya hesitated, unsure if he wanted to throw out something so absurd before the captain-commander. The idea alone was absolutely ludicrous. But the pictures clandestinely taken of the boy before Rukia’s retrieval were almost alarming in their similarity. Too much for him to ignore or rationalize away.

Hand lowering, Yamamoto-soutaichou prompted him to continue. “Yes?”

“He has a certain look to him. He is… vaguely familiar,” Byakuya conceded, though it pained him greatly to do so. A part of him felt as if it were a stab of betrayal, but to what, he couldn’t quite discern. It was something he would have to pick apart and examine later.

“What do you mean?” the captain-commander questioned, and again, it was more of a demand than a polite query. There was a crackle of coldness to his tone, a sure sign of concern.

Byakuya refused to fidget; it was against his nature. His Kuchiki pride demanded that he stand forthright.

“The boy has the look of a noble. Almost a Shiba if I did not know better.” He hesitated again, years of friendship clashing against the situation and attempting to restrain his words. “But Shihouin Yoruichi… she is related to the Shiba clan through both sides of her family. Her grandmother, her mother’s mother, was the aunt of the last head. And her father claimed many cousins among the Shiba when they were still numerous.”

He could only watch as the captain-commander turned away from him completely, walking to the window and gazing out. He puffed furiously on his pipe as a black butterfly fluttered up to him, but he ignored it for the moment and stared out at nothing but the deepening twilight sky. Agitation firmed the older man’s shoulders, brow drawn tight with thought. And as much as Byakuya didn’t want to add the next, he knew it was needed.

“And Urahara, though from Rukongai, was a true-born Shinigami. Further, his mother is unknown.” Byakuya felt an odd stab in his chest at revealing such a personal detail of a childhood companion, but he brushed it away. “It is possible that she was a Shiba. They were already dabbling in Rukongai even then. And I know of at least one other unintended child in their number.”

Silence swept through the captain-commander’s chambers as he considered, but even Byakuya believed his assumptions to be rather absurd. And dangerous. A child of the two of them? One exile and a woman known to be a troublemaker? It was a frightening thought to consider, especially since they couldn’t be sure that Urahara didn’t hold a grudge. But as illogical as it sounded, it also seemed to be the best answer. The one most coherent and cohesive with the facts available.

How else could a Shinigami so powerful suddenly appear in the living world when he hadn’t been noticed prior? And the timing itself was suspect. Judging by the boy’s physical age and power levels, he couldn’t be much older than Rukia. Maybe even a bit younger. Which would neatly slot his birth within the timeframe of Urahara’s disappearance. Perhaps the reason Yoruichi had fled with him in the first place. If she had already been with child when he was exiled, it was a reasonable conclusion for her to leave with him. She’d hardly wish to be an unmarried mother bringing the child up herself, even with the help of her clan. She was the head, yes, and that afforded her safety and security. But boys needed their fathers, and she wasn’t exactly the most stable parental figure on her own.

However, the captain-commander’s next words drove that line of thought firmly from his mind.

“Are you truly suggesting, Kuchiki-taichou, what I believe you are suggesting?” Yamamoto-soutaichou demanded, pipe lowered from his lip and now forgotten. His voice held no emotion save the barest disbelief. “That this boy, this rogue, is the son of either one or both of them?”

“I am merely… putting forth a possible conjecture about the boy’s origin,” Byakuya explained softly; though in reality, that was exactly what he was suggesting. Unless the captain-commander had a better explanation? “It is exceedingly farfetched-”

“I should think so!” the old man spat, whirling to face Byakuya. His was face filled with a myriad of emotions before they were quickly shuttered behind a mask of composure.

Byakuya inclined his head in a bow. “But I do not wish to discount the possibilities, slim as it might be. He did, after all, defeat a Menos Grande on his own and without any apparent support. That suggests the power of an upper-level seated officer. Perhaps even lieutenant-level.”

Not to mention the fact he had managed to remain hidden his long. Or that he couldn’t be found when Byakuya and his vice-captain had fetched his sister from the living world. Not even a trace of an unfamiliar reiatsu could be located. Which was either Urahara’s doing or the boy was skilled enough on his own to control his reiatsu. Possibly even a combination of both.

Frightening thoughts indeed.

Yamamoto-soutaichou, however, seemed to be taking things in an immediately sour direction. “Which only makes him that much more dangerous.”

“Or a potentially valuable asset and ally,” Byakuya suggested in his most even tone. “Especially if we were to separate him from Urahara’s influence. With the possibility of such a bloodline, we shouldn’t ignore his value.”

With both parents at captain-level, his potential for power was enormous. Even if he claimed only Urahara or Yoruichi, he would still be a force to be reckoned with, and as the data proved he was already quite skilled. It didn’t hurt that Urahara was a certified genius with Yoruichi not far behind. Hopefully, that intellect had passed on to the boy.

“Urahara has undoubtedly filled the boy’s head with all sorts of nonsense, but if he were brought to Soul Society and put under the guiding hand of someone like Ukitake, he could and would be easily swayed to our way of thinking,” Byakuya added logically, unable to abandon a potential asset in their ongoing struggle to find adequate Shinigami to fill positions. Certainly, he wasn’t the only one to notice that strong replacements seemed to be fewer and fewer with the passing decades? And that even fewer recruits were being drawn in from Rukongai?

Besides, if the boy truly were a Shihouin, his position in society would be cemented as the heir to the clan. With them at his back, the boy would have nothing more pressing than his next meal selection to worry about. And surely, the Shihouin would bend over backwards to have him. Especially since Yoruichi was still nominally their head and had no other children in line for succession, legitimate or otherwise. Her own great-grandfather, the head before her father, had been a bastard child himself. A fact often or purposefully forgotten.

This maneuver would very effectively prevent a war within the clan as well, and the fact that the boy was already on friendly terms with one of Kuchiki was an added bonus. Once Rukia had served her sentence, Byakuya could see to their reacquaintance. Perhaps even encourage more if the boy wasn’t a complete idiot or uncultured barbarian. A distinct possibility with all the time he’d undoubtedly spent with Urahara and his ilk.

Nevertheless, Yamamoto-soutaichou was not so easily impressed by all the opportunities. “He needs to be contained. That is our top priority. Right now, that boy is our only connection to the exile Urahara, whom we have only recently learned survived.” His aged fingers curled around the head of his cane tightly, and he crossed the floor, wood rapping with each step back to his desk. “Along with him, we need to learn the location of the former Shinigami and lieutenants that also disappeared. This boy undoubtedly knows their whereabouts. So first and foremost, he is to be brought in for questioning. Nothing else.”

Byakuya could only nod. “I will put together a team immediately.”

“Interrogate our prisoner first as she will hold information as to the rogue’s location, and then capture the boy.” Yamamoto’s face darkened. “We cannot have rogue Shinigami running wild in the living world. Not anymore.” He lowered himself into his seat and reached for the stack of half-finished reports. “You are dismissed.”

Byakuya fought to keep his reaction from his face, covering it with a firm bow. “As you so order, soutaichou.” He whirled on his heels and went for the doors, knowing that the discussion was ended.

For now.

They landed in a tumble that Yoruichi gracefully avoided, snickering at the pile of teenagers that struggled to disentangle themselves. Ichigo squawked from where he had landed in the bottom, someone’s ass squarely on his back and an elbow in his thigh. And damn but Chad was heavy.

“Get off me!” he growled and flailed beneath the combined weight of his four friends, damned certain that it was Ishida’s fucking bony elbow digging into his flesh.

“Oh, my gosh! Sorry, Kurosaki-kun!” Inoue shouted, and Ichigo’s breath left him in a whoosh as she scrambled to remove herself.

One by one, they detangled themselves, with Chad reaching down last and bodily hauling Ichigo to his feet. Scowling, he glared over his shoulder at the spot where the sky had all but spat them out, half-imagining he could see his father’s smirk from the other side of the endless blue.

Ishida was brushing off his clothing like some idiot, frowning over a brief spot of dust on his knee and then getting all red-faced over the tear in his cape-cloak gay thing. Whatever the hell that was. Ichigo wasn’t going to ask.

“Well, that landing was less than stellar,” Tatsuki drawled and turned, making it a point to look around her. “Where are we?”

“Rukongai,” Yoruichi answered, hands solidly planted on her hips as she waited for them to finish recovering from the journey.

Heads were already popping out from the surrounding dilapidated buildings, staring in wonder at the sudden and new arrivals. Ichigo couldn’t blame them. He and his companions were certainly more… colorful then the residents around them. They all looked haggard, oppressed and weary. It certainly didn’t look like any place Ichigo would want to spend his transitory life.

“So we’re not where we need to be?” Inoue asked, obviously confused.

Ichigo shook his head, rolling his shoulders to ease the throbbing where someone had stepped on him. “Not yet. Seireitei is there.” He lifted a hand and pointed to the large wall in the distance, too tall to be scaled. Not that they could do so.

He knew enough from his dad’s lessons that they couldn’t enter Seireitei through normal means. Only through one of the four gates, which were always guarded. And while Ichigo was confident he could probably take down one of the guardians, he couldn’t be sure someone wouldn’t be waiting on the other side. Nope, best to surprise everyone by dropping in somewhere unexpected.

Literally.

“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!” Tatsuki announced, already lifting one foot to do just that.

“I don’t think that’s the plan,” Chad interrupted, one massive hand landing on her shoulder and stopping her from going anywhere.

Thank kami Ichigo had at least one sensible person on his mission… quest… whatever he wanted to call it. Between his aunt, Inoue, Ishida, and Tatsuki, he was sure he was going to lose his mind.

“By the way,” Ishida began, finally over his snit about the cloak-thing. He removed his glasses to wipe off a film of dust. “What is the plan? Or do you even have one?”

“I’m not stupid enough to come here without it,” Ichigo growled, agitation and annoyance merging together, making his shoulders ache with tension.

And Ishida just had to be a snot about things, didn’t he? Well, no one asked him to come.

The Quincy crossed his arms over his chest. “Oh? And what is it then?”

Ichigo glanced at Yoruichi, who merely grinned and titled her head. “We have to get past the sekki-seki stone and its barrier, but the gates will be heavily guarded.” He paused at their sounds of dismay. “But my dad still has friends out in Rukongai, the area we’re in now,” he clarified. “One of them is gonna help us get in.”

“Yeah. Kuukaku,” Yoruichi agreed with a sharp nod. “It’s been awhile, but I’m pretty sure I remember where their house is at.” She motioned them to follow after her. “This way, kids.”

Ishida rolled his eyes, but he squared his shoulders and started after her, while Chad and Ichigo exchanged a look and followed just behind. Inoue trotted along beside the two with a smile, while Tatsuki shot another glance at the gate but was quick to run after them. They hurried through the first district, still attracting some strange looks but fewer the deeper in they went.

“Ano…” Inoue began after a moment. “How is Kuukaku-san going to get us in exactly?”

Yoruichi kept looking straight ahead, which was why they missed her chuckle. “You’ll see. Don’t worry though; it’ll work. We did it before when we were kids.” She grinned at the memory.

Somehow, Ichigo wasn’t reassured. Knowing both his dad and his aunt, that didn’t exactly mean it was a safe way. Rather, that it was particularly dangerous and exciting. Possibly experimental even now. He shuddered as he thought about it. But then, his aunt wouldn’t put him in any immediate danger without reason.

Right?

“You knew him as a child?” Ishida questioned, displaying an unusual interest in something Shinigami. But then, perhaps he was just prodding for information, the little scholarly nerd that he was. “You mean that you once lived here as well.”

“Well, yes and no,” Ichigo’s aunt replied as she took them through a back alley and then out to a grassy area with a dirt road. “I grew up in Seireitei. The city inside the gates. But both Urahara and the Shibas, Kuukaku’s family, had homes in Rukongai. I visited quite often.”

“Wow!” Inoue commented with wonder, eyes nearly shining. “Kurosaki-kun’s dad is from here, too. How did he meet your mother then, Kurosaki-kun? Did she date him knowing he was a ghost?”

Ichigo stiffened. “He… er…”

But Tatsuki, feeling charitable for once, came in for the save. “He was adopted. Don’t you remember, Orihime?”

Once again, Ichigo had someone to thank. The last person he wanted to discuss was Isshin whom Ichigo would rather never mention again. Besides, he didn’t know the answer to that question anyway. Isshin had died before Ichigo was old enough to ask, and he didn’t care enough to ask his dad if he knew.

“Oh… Yeah.” Inoue’s cheeks heated up a bit as she recalled Tatsuki telling her that what had happened to his birth parents. “I’m sorry, Kurosaki-kun.”

He waved her off and quickly cast about his mind for another topic, more embarrassed by her heartfelt apology than angered at her mistake. It had happened before, people thinking that Urahara Kisuke was his birth father, and it would undoubtedly happen again. He just hoped that they stopped thinking Yoruichi was his mother. Aside from eye-color, something entirely coincidental, they looked nothing alike. Well… not really.

“So you spent a lot of time in Rukongai, Yoruichi-san?” he questioned, purposefully using the title she hated.

“It’s oba-san,” she corrected automatically, dropping back a little to walk next to him and giving him a nudge with her elbow. “And yes, I did. Kisuke and I played out here as often as I could sneak away. Kuukaku and Byakuya-bo often joined us.”

“Byakuya-bo?” Tatsuki piped up from the back. “Is that Kuukaku’s brother or something?”

Yoruichi laughed. “Not quite. A cousin more like. He was… someone younger than us who often tagged along. Our families were all friends.”

“Oh, well, that’s nice,” Inoue chimed in, having recovered from her embarrassment. “You must be happy to be seeing Kuukaku-san again then. He must have missed you.”

There was the sound of snicker as they passed by a rock outcropping. “I’m sure that he did.”

Ichigo shot her a look at that sudden emphasis. He didn’t like his aunt’s tone and knowing her mischievous nature, it couldn’t be good. He had the feeling she was out to embarrass him in some way. But he was interrupted before he could form a question.

“What’s he like, Yoruichi-san?” Inoue inquired with a finger tapping at her lip.

“Oh… I don’t want to spoil the surprise,” Yoruichi replied with a smirk.

And Ichigo inwardly groaned. A surprise? That was never good coming from his aunt’s lips. The last time that had happened, she’d randomly shifted from cat to human form, appearing fully nude and unashamed for it. Ichigo couldn’t stop blushing for hours afterward.

Needless to say, he wasn’t looking forward to her surprise.

“Well, it’s certainly… noticeable,” Inoue commented with a giggle, speaking when the rest of their group was left utterly speechless and dumbfounded.

“You forgot where something like that was?” Ichigo felt himself twitch as he threw a finger towards the building and gazed at his aunt accusingly.

Yoruichi shrugged, waving a dismissive hand. “Kuukaku moves it around all the time. How was I supposed to know?”

Ichigo wasn’t convinced. He glanced back at the building with the massive banner stretched up above it and held by even more massive hands made of stone. How could anyone miss this?

Beside him, Ishida drew to a halt, looking a little disturbed. “I refuse.”

Ichigo blinked. “Refuse what?”

“To go in there,” Ishida said, completely serious as he shifted his glasses on his face. “I would look like an idiot if I walked in there.”

The bastard seemed to be completely missing the point that he looked like one with the girly, Robin Hood rip-off he called an outfit. But whatever. Ichigo wasn’t going to argue with him. If Ishida wanted to be an annoying nuisance, let him. Besides, Ichigo agreed. Albeit silently.

“Why is there a chimney?” Tatsuki asked then.

She pushed between both Ichigo and Ishida to follow Yoruichi as she strode boldly to the front door with no hesitance in her step. Inoue trotted along gamely after them, loudly proclaiming at the architectural genius and how much she wished she had one for her apartment. Apparently, it would match the rainbow and frog decorations.

Ichigo’s aunt merely chuckled. “Oh, you’ll see,” she said, practically in a sing-song, only to holler over her shoulder, “Come on, boys! Kuukaku won’t help us if you insult the house!”

“Isn’t it an insult just to exist?” Ishida muttered, but he followed along anyway, tucking in his elbows as if he feared even brushing the walls.

Ichigo sighed. Why was everyone his dad knew in one way or another completely insane? Was it a Shinigami trait or something? Or did people just automatically lose all sense of reason after they died? Or even further, maybe it was true that power corrupted absolutely. Absolutely batshit insane.

“It can’t be any worse than Kanonji-san, can it?” Chad inquired, voice rumbling as he drew up beside Ichigo, the only truly sane one in the group.

Somehow, Ichigo was going to have to thank him for that once they all finally returned to Karakura alive and well. Since Ichigo would be damned if he let any of them die.

“Let’s hope not,” he grumbled, and tapping Zangetsu to assure himself of the zanpakutou’s presence, Ichigo forced one foot in front of the door. He and Chad arrived at the front just in time to witness a pair of burly, bald twins loudly proclaim their greetings to his aunt.

“Yoruichi-dono!” they near-shouted in perfect tandem. “What a pleasure to see you again! It’s truly an honor!”

His aunt grinned, practically preening under the attention, and lifted a hand in greeting. “Yo! Is Kuukaku in?”

“Of course!” they declared, and the one on the left snapped aside to reveal the doorway.

“I’ll take you to her,” the other added, though their gazes slid past Yoruichi to the group of teenagers accompanying her.

“Oh, they’re with me,” Yoruichi assured them nonchalantly, wrapping an arm around her nephew’s shoulder.

Still suspicious, the two guards didn’t argue. Which was a relief to Ichigo, who was already preparing to fight his way through. He didn’t have time to waste on underlings. Who knew how quickly they would decide to complete Rukia’s sentence? His father had hinted that they may strip her of her powers or possibly even do worse. Especially if Aizen was involved.

One of the twins led them inside while the other remained behind, and Ichigo watched as they were taken into a short hallway. And immediately following that was a ridiculously long stairway leading down. He really shouldn’t have been surprised by the strange design with what the outside looked like. But try as he might, he couldn’t remember hearing his dad talk about a Kuukaku either. He might have, but Ichigo was bad with names sometimes. Especially with people he hadn’t met. He couldn’t even remember the name of his dad’s first crush, even though his aunt had gone on about it for weeks after Yuzu had asked. What had it been again? Byakushi? Bakura? Eh… something like that.

The stairs bottomed out into another hallway with a large set of sliding doors instantly visible. The twin – who on the long walk down had identified himself as Koganehiko and his brother as Shiroganehiko – asked them to wait. But before he could even move a step towards the door, a voice poured out from behind it.

“Are those guests?”

A voice that was decidedly not masculine and well… just a bit bossy if anyone asked Ichigo. Which thankfully no one did.

“Open the door immediately, Koganehiko! Show them in!”

The man scrambled to obey, the voice brooking no argument. That uncertain feeling in Ichigo’s stomach niggled again. Great. Another crazy person. To be expected of the people his aunt and dad knew. She was probably related to them, too. That’d be his luck. All sorts of crazies coming out of the woodwork, and they hadn’t even been here a full day. He could only imagine what Seireitei would be like. Full of sword-wielding maniacs most likely.

The door slid open as their guide gestured Yoruichi and her accompaniment of teenagers inside. Ichigo entered warily, eyes sweeping over a massive empty space that better resembled a dojo until his gaze landed on a person sitting on the other side of the room, propped comfortably in a large pile of pillows and cushions.

A rather under-dressed woman and not a man as Yoruichi had led them to believe.

Clearly, this woman – who he assumed was Kuukaku – had taken the idea of wearing clothes as merely a suggestion. Her limbs were mostly bare, and her shirt dipped alarmingly in the front, highlighting her ample assets. Her hair was wrapped with cloth, and some sort of weapon was strapped to her back. The woman lounged comfortably but perked up when she saw her visitors. A grin that better resembled a leer split her face.

Oh, and the fact that she only had one arm didn’t escape Ichigo’s notice either. He had the strangest feeling that the loss of it had something to do with his aunt, though it was a story he found himself reluctant to request.

“It’s been a while, Yoruichi,” she greeted.

“So it has, Kuukaku,” Ichigo’s aunt returned, much to the shock of pretty much everyone in their group save Ichigo.

“So that is Kuukaku?” Ichigo all but demanded, jerking a thumb in her direction.

His friends echoed the sentiment, all four of them gaping in surprise.

The woman frowned, eyes flickering to him in confusion. “Don’t point. It’s rude, kid,” she chastised, gaze shifting between the teenagers and Yoruichi. “So is there a reason the first time I see you in decades you bring a horde of kids with you, Yoruichi. They aren’t all yours, are they?” She smirked then, amusement flickering across her face.

Ichigo could see the answer to that one coming. And though he tried to escape, Yoruichi caught him anyway. She hooked an arm around his neck and dragged him into her embrace. He squawked as she glomped him, all but pressing his face to her chest.

“Just this one!” she loudly exclaimed, ignoring all of his attempts for freedom. “Isn’t he adorable? Looks just like his tou-chan at that age, doesn’t he?”

“I’m not… your son!” Ichigo growled, voice muffled by cleavage.

But Yoruichi was relentless in her embrace, squashing his face further as she teased him.

“Ano… Yoruichi-san,” Inoue began hesitantly. “Kurosaki-kun needs to breathe…”

The reminder was only halfhearted, as though Inoue didn’t truly dare get between aunt and nephew. Some help she was.

No one seemed to care that Ichigo was flailing for his life.

Kuukaku straightened further, slapping her knee as she laughed. “Really? And here I thought Kisuke had finally gotten over his crush on Byakuya-bo!”

“Oh, he’s his, too!” Yoruichi gleefully declared, finally seeing fit to release Ichigo.

He scrambled away in an undignified fashion, sucking in air as he retreated to the safety of Chad’s presence with heat staining his cheeks. What sin had he committed to deserve an aunt like her? Murder puppies in a past life or something?

“This is the woman who’s going to help us?” Ishida muttered, looking askance at the barely-clad female as she and Yoruichi traded excited chatter back and forth.

“I think she’s nice!” Inoue commented with a giggle. “She and Yoruichi-san get along great.”

“Yeah, like two peas in a pod,” Tatsuki drawled and glanced at Ichigo. “Are you going to interrupt or are you too afraid?” she questioned with a pointed look to his flaming cheeks and his definite proximity to Sado.

“I have the feeling it’s safer for us to leave them be,” Chad rumbled, perfectly neutral as always.

Ichigo, feeling exceedingly frustrated, narrowed his eyes. And just when he was about to turn and say… something – he didn’t know what – the entire house around them gave a violent tremble. It started in the ceiling and worked its way downward, the walls rumbling as something came down the stairs with the force of a stampeding herd of buffalo.

As one, their attention turned to the doorway. Which suddenly thrust itself open with a loud sound.

“Onee-sama!” the burly man in the doorway yelled, covered with sweat and panting noticeably. “I’m sorry for being late. Please forgive me!”

He threw himself on the floor, prostrating himself before Kuukaku as four other men trailed along meekly behind him, murmuring apologies and skulking across the floor. Ichigo and company could merely gawk as they all bowed in supplication, seeking forgiveness.

“Forgive Ganju-sama, Kuukaku-sama,” the four apparent-underlings begged. “It was our fault!”

Ichigo felt his left eye twitch. “Err-”

“Idiot!” Kuukaku roared, swiping the prostrated man across the back of his head. “How hard is it to watch the time?!”

“I’m sorry!” The man – who probably outweighed her by a hundred pounds – trembled.

“Umm, I’d hate to interrupt your comedy routine,” Ichigo inserted loudly, trying to catch the attention of someone – anyone at this point –and get back to the matter at hand. “But we are here for a reason.”

Kuukaku blew air out her mouth, arching one brow as she looked at Yoruichi. “Are you sure he’s Kisuke’s? Boy doesn’t have a bone for fun in his body.”

Laughing, Yoruichi nodded. “He’s just a bit surly because of the… excitement,” she commented. And her voice pitched lower, turning serious. “I’m sure you’ve heard?”

“What? You mean the arrest and imprisonment of a member of one of Seireitei’s four great noble families?” Kuukaku asked, dropping back down into her cushions with a lazy air. “And not only that but dear Kuchiki-taichou’s own sister? Yes, I’ve heard.” She blew out a gust of air. “They haven’t talked this much or openly about the Kuchiki since the disappearance and apparent death of Byakuya-bo’s favorite cousin decades ago. Especially since he was in the running for headship before then.”

And just like that, the atmosphere turned sober. The air sizzled with tension. All eyes were focused on the two women as they spoke, finally getting down to business.

A hand planted on Yoruichi’s hip as she met her dear friend’s teal eyes evenly. “I figured you had. The fact of the matter is, whatever’s going on is a bit fishy. Though that’s not the entire reason we’re here.”

“You’re after the Kuchiki girl? To rescue her I suspect?”

“Yes.” Yoruichi smiled softly, gesturing briefly to her nephew. “Ichigo feels he owes her a debt of honor. She saved his sisters, after all. And who are Kisuke or I to deny him, ne? So we thought we’d ask you for a little help.”

Kuukaku appeared to consider this and hummed in noncommittal thought. “Kuchiki, hmm?” Her eyes narrowed.

“I know how you feel about them,” Yoruichi added quietly, a comment that prompted Ichigo’s curiosity as it was something he knew absolutely nothing about.

Tension sizzled in the air, more like an old sorrow than a rising anger, before Kuukaku drew in a slow breath. Her features lightened, less tense and friendlier.

“Well, if it’s you and Kisuke asking, I can’t exactly say no, can I?” She grinned, face taking on an evil gleam that Ichigo recognized as from his aunt. “So is it complicated?”

“Very,” Yoruichi affirmed with a tilt of her head to the side. She jerked a thumb towards the five teens crowded around behind her. “All six of us need to get into Seireitei, and the conventional means are out.”

Kuukaku studied them for several long moments before throwing her head back and all but guffawing, her one hand slapping the pillow at her side. “You always bring me the best challenges, Yoruichi,” she declared, rising to her feet with a bounce of her ample assets. “Ganju, on your feet!” she barked.

“Yes, nee-chan!” the large man launched himself to his feet, looking rather relieved that his sister had stopped berating him.

Grinning, Kuukaku turned towards a set of double doors opposite to where they had all entered. “I think I’ve just the idea.”

“I knew I could count on you,” Yoruichi returned with a fierce grin.

Ichigo, having watched the exchange with a growing sense of trepidation, groaned inwardly. It didn’t take a genius to figure that this wasn’t going to be good.

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