Summary: Moments in the mind of Kaien, forwards and backwards.
Spoilers: Bleach manga, chapter 262 onwards.
Original Story: Thrust and Parry by aviss
Note: Some translated dialogue has been reproduced in this story. These translations were taken from the various contributers to OneManga, most especially M7.
He didn’t even realize he had lost himself until he came back, and there was a sword in his chest.
He raised a weak head, blurry eyes.
A sword in his chest.
The feeling of receding spirit.
He was dying.
Better say something about that, then.
Captain Ukitake—that wasn’t too hard. He has served him for a long time now. He knew what to say in order to ease his burden.
Poor little Kuchiki.
Even as he thanked her, he wondered if she would understand.
He wondered if she would forgive herself.
But he wouldn’t be himself—in these last moments, himself—if he didn’t give her something to do that with.
‘Course, he knew her well enough to understand that she wouldn’t see it that way just yet. Adopted, but Kuchiki in spirit, after all.
He hoped, though, that one day…
”You shouldn’t have forgotten already, right? I am Shiba Kaien, the ex-13th Division Vice-Captain. Through the fusion of a Hollow and a Soul Body, I’m here now.”
It points at her.
“And. You are Kuchiki Rukia. The woman…who killed me with her own hand.”
Memory washes over her face, and inside, it gives a little chuckle.
It strokes the fire with more words, lets it build…
“I’m asking you…if you’re prepared to give your life in repentance…to the very man you killed.”
Her face goes very serious. When she says the words, there is no stain of doubt nor trace of hesitation upon them.
Within, a swell of delight.
But it is short-lived, too short-lived. For in the next moment, she says, “But not just yet.”
Yet even as the main Hollow mind snarls within him and grasps for its next words, a small spark deeper down, barely a glimmer, laughs.
The best way to learn to dance was practice. That was what he'd been taught. So he drilled her, and drilled with her. He took her through the sword forms from the first to the thirty-fifth. He set her against practice dummies of various sizes, 'cause it wasn't like Hollows always came in the same size, was it? He worked her against forms, and took her through exercises to improve breathing, concentration, refine technique.
But it didn't matter. Kuchiki, no matter how hard she tried or he tried, could never seem to bond with her sword. Oh, her dances advanced--Tsukishirou, Hakuren--as her technique got better, but they were just that: techniques. Forms. Rote movements. She didn't really fight. And she certainly didn't dance.
He racked his brain. He talked it over with Miyako, both as the Vice-Captain and as her husband. He thought about going to the Fourth Divsion to see if he could talk to one of the weirdos in the mental division.
Repairing a soul, he reflected, was hard work.
He was saved, though, by the Captain. He totally should've thought of going to the Captain, but, well...fight for pride thing. He knew Ukitake would understand that. Just as he understood him, Kaien, well enough to call him over at the end of the day and say, "Perhaps you should take her to the training grounds in the Third District. I have heard good things about that area."
Man, the Captain was awesome like that. Cause he could say things like that, so innocuous, so simple, and really mean something as big and complex as, "You need to take her out of the eye of the Division. You need to make this a one on one fight. And you need to make her understand what's at stake when there's no one else around to see it."
At least, he was pretty sure that's what the Captain meant. They'd worked together long enough for them to pick up on that sort of communication with each other.
Besides, he didn't think Ukitake would suggest the other thing he could've meant by that. Miyako would so not approve.
So he took her to the Mountain, and he let her face him, one on one. And in the break between fighting, he told her of her duty as a shinigami. He told he what he fought for. He told her about heart.
And in the spaces between the words, he told her of trust, of friendship. He told her she belonged. He told her about heart, not just the one used in fighting, but the one between friends.
Seemed to go pretty well, too. Afterwards, her fighting style did improve, and the pieces that had seemed so disjointed began to come together. The little mouse took her first steps out onto the floor, and found that she could, indeed, dance.
Then came the news that something strange was going on in the Rukongai.
She’s going to fight him.
She’s going to fight HIM?
It is somewhat annoyed. It had been promised an easy kill, and a delicious new form that could be used to torment the others. By resisting, she is going against Aizen-sama’s plans, and the very temerity of that is enough to gall any of his chosen.
On the other hand, it is also somewhat amused. In this form, it knows every facet of her abilities: the strength of her powers, the weakness of her skills. It has not been so long since this form taught her all those things.
In many ways, this is better than her just surrendering herself to its blade.
Now, it can crush her.
It raises the sword, and says the words that bring out its true trident form.
The problem with teaching a rat-turned-mouse to dance
was exactly what was meant by "dancing."
Aside from that one metaphor--
which Miyako would not approve of much--
a shinigami's dance was their fighting skill.
Kuchiki was naturally good at kidou
but her swordplay sucked.
Only natural for someone who'd graduated a few years early.
Only natural for a former street rat.
Why rely on something someone could take away and use against you?
So even though she was past her first release
Kuchiki didn't trust her sword yet.
Not enough, anyways.
Which was why he was out here
under the ridiculously hot sun
yelling at the top of his lungs
while Kuchiki beat the crap out of a straw mannequin.
They'd been doing it for a while now.
So it's probably time to
Kuchiki reflexively brought the blade down before the command seeped the rest of the way into her brain. Her hands clenched, her arms tensed, and the tip of the wooden sword hit the grass with a hard thunk.
"Sorry, sir," she said. She hefted the blade up--not without strain--and turned to face him.
He made a face at her formality, then dropped down onto the grass. He had to hit the ground before she moved to the same position, and even then, she didn't plop. Kuchiki, he had found, simply refused to plop. She would very carefully lower herself into the proper subordinate position, even though he has been drilling her long enough to turn her pale skin pink and soak her clothes in sweat.
He'll just have to lengthen the drill next time. He will make her plop. In a test of Shiba stubborn against Kuchiki will, who always won? The Shiba. But for right now...
"You know why I stopped you?" he asked.
She took a breath, let it out carefully, trying to downplay the physical strain. "I had drilled for the allotted time," she said.
'Cause that's a very Kuchiki thing to say.
He made a noise, and her eyes widened ever so slightly, which made her look even more like some sort of porcelain doll. A sweaty, disheveled porcelain doll, but...
He reached over and poked her in the forehead. "Try again."
She blinked. Her mouth opened, then shut. She blinked again. "In order to correct a mistake in my form?" she said.
"Nope, your form is pretty good."
"In order to correct a mistake in my stance?"
"Your stance is pretty good, too."
"The way I hold the practice blade?"
He gave her a look. "Kuchiki, your form is fine. I didn't stop you because of that."
She looked down. "Then I am not sure why Kaien-dono stopped me."
He resisted the urge to reach over and ruffle her hair. It would only confuse her more.
"Because you're still treating your sword like it's a weapon."
"Is it not a weapon, Kaien-dono?" Her voice, though pitch perfect in its subordinate tone, reminded him slightly of Miyako's when she mocked him.
Fire in the mouse! he thought happily, then did reach over and touch her head, pushing on the back so she lifted her eyes to meet his.
"Of course it is," he said. "But the zanpakutou-sword isn't just a weapon. It's an extension of yourself. Didn't your teachers tell you that when you first began sword training?"
Slowly, she nodded. Her hair was warm and damp beneath his fingers.
"Didn't your sword tell you that, when you met her?"
She nodded again. Strands of her hair tangle around and against his fingers.
"So why do you keep treating it like it's just a thing?" he asked. "It's part of you made whole, Kuchiki. This training you're doing, this isn't to teach you to fight. It's to teach you how to partner your sword. It's to teach you to dance."
Her eyes came up and, as occasionally happened, actually met his.
Bold, blunt eye gaze wasn't a thing nobles did, 'cause it was far too easy to see the layers of lies and half-truths in someone's eyes. Street rats, on the other hand, did it all the time, because showing you had nothing to hide could save your life. So when she looked at him not as a mouse, but as a rat, he let her. Gave him the right to stare right back, after all.
For the first time, he saw understanding dawn. He saw something take hold in her mind and send down roots.
He also saw something else take root.
Well. That was to be expected when you were the coolest Vice-Captain in the 13 Divisions. And she was a lost little mouse who had never had a home.
Miyako would tease him about it for weeks, though.
He pulled his hand from her hair. "Five minutes to get some water," he said, "then we're back here to try again."
When she was gone, he laid back on the grass and thought about nothing. It was nice to have a moment in his own mind.
It would've been more relaxing if he couldn't still feel the touch of her hair under his hand.
But...sometimes, that was the price you paid for being the Most Awesome Vice-Captain in the Gotei 13.
It wounds her with the trident.
She still fights.
It takes away her sword.
She still fights.
It nearly kills her.
She STILL fights!
Hell, she manages to expose its true form. For a second-rate shinigami brat, that’s not too bad.
Too bad that is has run out of patience to continue playing this game.
It is time for Kuchiki Rukia to die. It has no doubt in that.
As it advances on her, released and more powerful than ever, it sees that she knows it, too.
It swings the trident, and finds its mark.
Half her sword falls to the ground.
He went to meet her the first day she joined the Division.
Of course he did, he was the Vice-Captain! It was his job to know the rank and file. Besides, it wasn't like Captain Ukitake was well enough to make an official introduction, so he'd just step in and handle it for him. 'Cause he was a good Vice-Captain.
'Sides, this was the Kuchiki girl, the foundling. Rukongai brat to adopted noble in just a few years! Who wouldn't want to meet her? Sure, some people in the Division could bitch about
He wasn't quite sure what he was expecting going in, but it wasn't someone he'd associate with the word "mouse."
Or the word "cowed."
It bothered him for the rest of the day. He didn't show--he tried not to let it show, but no shinigami is perfect, not even the Vice-Captain. But he didn't give a reason for the small kindnesses or extra punishments he distributed throughout the day. That, the Vice-Captain didn't need to do.
But he couldn't hide it from Miyako.
Not that he really wanted to. They'd been married long enough that it was fun to make her guess, though.
"It's about the Kuchiki girl, isn't it?"
They'd also been married long enough that she usually guessed right away.
When he'd finished, she'd said, "That's not all, is it?"
She continued stroking her fingers through his hair for a moment, then said, "As the Captain often says, new recruits are plants--they need soil to root in, sun and water to grow, time to bloom. It's her first day. What can be bothering you so soon?"
Married long enough for her to see beyond the surface, too. Just one more reason to love her to pieces.
He enjoyed the touch of her fingers on his scalp, the warmth of the edge of her belly against his neck, for a moment longer, then said, "Byakuya's told her nothing."
Her fingers stilled.
"She doesn't know why she's here. She doesn't know why she didn't get a seat. Hell, I bet the poor girl has no clue why she was adopted. Byakuya's said nothing to her about Hisana, just swept her up in this world and expected her to live in it." His hands tighten, not into fists--he and Byakuya would never, could never, fight--but enough to underscore the tension in his words. "She survived in the Rukongai before this. She got into the Academy. She's not meant to be a mouse, Miyako--she's a rat. And she should be proud of it."
"Like you are proud of it," she said.
She laughed softly. "Not every one has your practice, Shiba-dono," she said, words dripping with just-proper-enough condescension.
There was only one way to respond to that.
Later, with her head pillowed on his chest and his fingers in her hair, she said, "So what are you going to do about the little mouse? Convince her to become a rat again?"
"I think," he said tiredly, "I'll teach her to dance."
”What,” it says. “You’re still trying to fight with that broken sword? How annoying.”
”The third…dance,” she whispers. “Shirafune.”