Six months have passed since New Year's Eve.
Rukia wakes up at dawn and heads to the east gardens to do her morning warm-ups before breakfast. She pulls out her Zanpakuto, stretching her arm out in front of her. First position. Second. She blanks her mind, counting her breaths. In. Out. In. Thrust. Parry. An image of Orihime rising to her tiptoes to kiss Ichigo enters her mind. She drops her Zanpakuto mid-thrust, cursing as it clatters to the ground of the rock gardens. Emptying her mind again, she raises the sword and goes through her exercises, feeling a soothing calm blanket her.
"My lady." A servant appears, with a tray holding a glass of water and a towel. "Lord Byakuya is summoning you to the receiving hall. You have visitors."
"Who is it? Do I have time to change?" Rukia asks, sheathing Sode No Shirayuki. She uses the towel to mop up the sweat from her exertions.
"You have guests from the world of the living, as well as Abarai Fukutaichou."
A quick shower and hasty toothbrushing later, Rukia flash steps to the doorway of the receiving hall, running her fingers through her dripping hair to dry it.
"Oni-sama." She bows to Byakuya, who eyes her wet hair impassively.
"Rukia. Please have a seat." She sinks gracefully into seiza position, bowing to Urahara, Yoruichi and Renji.
"Kuchiki-chan," Urahara smiles excitedly, gesturing to the box beside him. "We may have found a way to fix Kurosaki."
Rukia blinks, unable to comprehend what she just heard. Byakuya thinks she is exercising excellent self restraint, and nods approvingly. But Rukia is not exactly sure what she is feeling now. "How?" she asks, her gaze dropping to her hands.
"Well..., " Urahara goes into the details of a sword and reiatsu and talking to the Soutaichou. Rukia listens intently, but all she can think of is Ichigo, and how happy he would be. That thought lifts her spirits.
"So, we will need to talk to Yamamoto-dono first, of course," Urahara beams. "Kuchiki-dono, if you could please inform Soutaichou…"
Byakuya nods. "A butterfly was sent as soon as you came in. We should be hearing from them soon."
"There is another matter," Yoruichi's golden eyes gleam. "The first substitute has made contact with Ichigo. Even now he is training him, trying to trigger his Fullbring."
"What does that mean?" Renji asks.
Byakuya steeples his fingers, his brows gathering, before he turns to his sister. "Don't you need to get to your division, Rukia?" Rukia knows a dismissal when she hears it. Still, her face remains expressionless as she rises to her feet and bows to the room.
As she walks away, Yoruichi asks in exasperation, "Oi, Byakuya, are you seriously going to try to keep her out of this?" She does not hear her brother's reply.
She resents his interference, although she knows it is only because he wants her safe. But she is a warrior. Still, Rukia knows he is only trying to protect her. Byakuya is probably the reason she has not been assigned any missions to the world of the living, not since New Year's Eve. Even her promotion to Fukutaichou was a bone of contention between him and her Captain, but he accepted her decision gracefully. There are few things that Byakuya Kuchiki does that are not graceful. He can, however, hold grudges. Up to now, he avoids Ukitake.
It is high summer now, and her Captain does not deal with heat well. She assists the third-seats, ignoring their bickering as they approach the room where their captain lies, laden with pitchers of ice water.
"Taichou." All three of them go on one knee before the bamboo screen. It rolls up slowly, revealing a flushed Ukitake smiling benignly at them.
"Ah yes. Kuchiki-chan. Captain Commander Yamamoto just sent me a message in regards to your friend in the world of the living," he beams, dismissing the other two with a smile. "It seems that someone we have been waiting for has come back and made contact with him."
He brings her up to speed on Kugo Ginjo and the significance of the substitute reaper badge. Rukia absorbs all this information with tight nods.
Even here, she thinks, she cannot escape Ichigo Kurosaki.
It takes a few weeks for Urahara to push through the red tape of the Seiritei bureaucracy. Now it is in the Central 46's hands.
The question of Ichigo Kurosaki's mental state comes up. Is it even worth reviving his powers? Or will he turn into a power-mad renegade like Kugo? Urahara provides medical and psychological reports from Isshin, and the Quincy Ishida. More testimonials come in, report cards are read, videos are shown.
Everything about Ichigo Kurosaki, after all, is unprecedented, and the Gotei 13 is frankly at a loss on how to deal with him.
Rukia is summoned by the Central 46 to testify about Ichigo's mental state after the battle with Aizen. She enters the enormous dark hall, lit up only by the 46 desks in front of her, and sits at the witness stand. Renji and Rangiku are also summoned, but they are not allowed to enter the hall while she is giving testimony.
"Please state your name and rank."
"Kuchiki Rukia, Fukutaichou for the 13th division."
"You are close to the ryoka from Karakura town, are you not? What is your relationship to him?"
"In the process of completing my assignment as the Shinigami of Karakura Town, I gave Ichigo Kurasaki my powers, causing him to become the substitute Shinigami," Rukia answers as honestly as she can.
A quiet buzz greets her words. She hears snippets of disapproval. "The gall!" "How dare she bring that up here?" "Does she want to be sentenced again?"
Rukia keeps her head held high. "And I take this responsibility seriously. We are close friends, but my duty is first and foremost to the Soul Society. I kept tabs on him for months to make sure he did not abuse the powers I lent him temporarily, even if this, too was against the law."
"You are the shinigami who knows him best." Rukia nods. "What can you tell us of his character?"
"Ichigo Kurosaki is loyal. He will always fight for what he believes is right, and he will fight with every atom of his being. He will always try to protect those weaker than him. In all the months that I have known him, even with his extraordinary levels of reiatsu, never once have I seen him abuse his power, or take his responsibilities less than seriously."
"How do we know that these are not the words of a lovesick girl?" another voice sneers. "After all, you lived with him for months. You could just be saying this to save your lover. Did he not storm the Seiritei to save you from your execution?"
Offended, Rukia draws herself to her full height, and channels Byakuya's 'I am a Kuchiki' stare. "My words are merely words, this is true, but you have all seen his actions. He did come to save me from my execution, yes, but in doing so he exposed the plot that three Captains had hatched to destroy the Seiritei. All of your predecessors paid the price of this plot with their lives."
A whisper runs through the assembly at her words. "And he did it because he thought there was an injustice being committed. If he was trying to save me because he loved me, then should he not have forced me to go with him to the world of the living afterwards? I told him I would remain here, because this is my home, and my duty as a Shinigami. Ichigo Kurosaki walked away from that and from me, knowing that justice had been satisfied. He assisted the Soul Society with the Bount threat, the Vaizards, and the Arrancars. He did the same for Inoue Orihime, in Hueco Mundo, and defeated Aizen Sosuke when we should have. And he has paid a higher price than any of us, physically and mentally.
"You would not all be in your seats right now if Ichigo Kurosaki had not defeated Aizen Sosuke." Silence greets her pronouncement. "He was our strongest hope, and he is not a shinigami. What will you do if one day a stronger enemy comes?"
"Can you guarantee that Kurosaki will not become our enemy?" Another voice counters. Rukia's eyes narrow, but she is interrupted before she can say anything.
"Ichigo Kurosaki will one day regain his reiatsu. If not through this process, he will do it through another way. And he takes his debts seriously," Urahara speaks up from the corner. "Will you risk him owing another this debt of honor?"
"Silence. You are not giving testimony. We will speak with you later." The speaker shuts him down. Rukia thinks Urahara may have winked at her as he is escorted out, and feels better.
"This human," Rukia says thoughtfully, answering the question. "We have known him for years now. Not just myself, but numerous captains and vice captains, Shinigami who are excellent judges of character. As long as the Seiritei does what is just, and right, he will be our ally."
"Thank you, Kuchiki Rukia. You are dismissed," The head judge intones. Rukia rises stiffly, bowing to the room, and follows her escorts out. Her eyes blink at the sudden brightness of the hallway, and then she lets out a small gasp as she realizes she is standing in front of Byakuya, who is staring at her impassively.
"O-oni-sama," Rukia stammers out. He gives her a slight nod, then walks away.
The order comes down from Central 46 the next day: Ichigo Kurasaki's reiatsu is to be reinstated with assistance from the Gotei 13.
The Captains meet a day later and are ordered to put their reiatsu into Urahara's magical sword.
Some of them do because an order is an order, but the Captains most vocal about their misgivings are Kurotsuchi (who thinks they should just dissect Ichigo) and Soi Fon (who is paranoid that this is all another plot).
The Captain Commander silences their protests by putting his own reiatsu in the sword. A few of the vice captains also volunteer their own reiatsu, including Renji and Rukia.
The next question that comes is, who should bear this supercharged sword to the world of the living?
Because of its immense power and Urahara's history of volatile inventions, most of Captains volunteer to escort the sword-bearer, but the Captain Commander decides on three Captains. It would not do to leave the Seiritei with too few captains.
As for the choice of the actual person to carry the sword and commit the act of transferring power, Uruhara cautions against using a Captain as if something backfires, Ichigo may drain that person's reiatsu entirely instead.
The matter of who gets to carry the sword takes another few days of discussions and bickering.
Rukia is summoned to the next Captain's meeting. She enters the double doors to find all the Captains staring at her expectantly.
"Because of your relationship with Ichigo Kurosaki," Captain Yamamoto intones, making her wince slightly at the wording, "And at the recommendation of Captains Kenpachi, Hitsugaya and Unohana, you are ordered, Rukia Kuchiki, to bring the sword into the world of the living, and to wield it so that Ichigo Kurosaki shall receive the reiatsu that is stored therein. Once it is spent, you are to return it to Urahara, who shall destroy it immediately."
The words sound like a sentencing; Rukia remembers her own death sentence, intoned by that same voice. She nods obediently, her heart pounding as the significance of this hits home.
"There is a chance you may lose your reiatsu entirely," The Captain Commander says gravely. "With a transfer of reiatsu as unprecedented as this, the ryoka may override the safety measures we have set in place and drain your reiatsu. This is why we cannot hand over the responsibility to a Captain. Are you willing to take the risk, Kuchiki Fukutaichou?"
Rukia does not waver. "Yes, Captain Commander. When must we leave?"
She will see Ichigo again. And he will see her again. And now Rukia is not sure if she is ready. Urahara eases the box into her suddenly sweaty palms. Rukia hopes she has time to figure out what to say when she sees Orihime and Ichigo together.
Captain Commander Yamamoto looks at her, snowy brows set in a straight line. "As soon as possible. I understand that the boy is in a precarious situation right now and it could tip at any moment. You will leave immediately. You understand, Fukutaichou, the importance of your task. This sword cannot be intercepted by anyone else; it cannot fall into the wrong hands. You will keep it safe."
"With my life," Rukia vows.
Renji stepped forward. "I will accompany them through the gates, Soutaichou."
"And I," Madarame smiles in anticipation. Three captains rise to accompany them; Kenpachi, Hitsugaya, and Byakuya.
"Go ahead with Urahara," Captain Commander Yamamoto orders. "Is the Senkaimon ready?"
"Yes," Urahara responds, leading the group out the door. "Isshin Kurosaki and Yoruichi Shihoin are on the other side, ready to meet us."
"Captains- Please stay a moment. I have another matter to discuss with you," Yamamoto turns to the group of vice-captains, addressing them. "They shall join you shortly. Go ahead to the world of the living. And good luck. " Rukia watches the door close behind them as Urahara jams his green-striped bucket hat on.
"Let's go." The group of four sprints to the gates. Rukia holds the sword's box tight in her hands as she steps into the light. Renji catches her eye, and smiles encouragingly.
'It's only Ichigo,' Rukia thinks to herself. 'Even if he is in a relationship now, he is still my friend.' With a look of resolve on her face, she steps through the shoji.