The boy watches the Hollow crumble into dust and ash, sways on his feet, and collapses to hit the ground face first. It looks painful, but Rukia has no breath to spare for unnecessary sympathies – he is alive and that is a miracle in itself.
She presses bloody fingers to the gash in her side and pushes herself to her feet to cross the distance between them. Looks down at him for a long moment before she is forced, having no sword to lean on now, to kneel down on the tarmac before she collapses in the same undignified manner he did. She surveys the damage – one damaged house, four unconscious mortals, all of them wounded.
And of course, herself. One wounded, powerless shinigami.
Rukia studies the boy – Ichigo, he said his name was. He is rough and reckless and stupid, but no more stupid than Rukia has been herself. How could she have let herself get this distracted by a mortal? they will ask her when she makes her report. If she knew, she wouldn’t be here, she thinks.
She is, she realises, waiting.
She looks up as sandaled footsteps cross the road to her. The tall, fair-haired man smiles at her, his cane swinging from his arm.
“Miss Kuchiki,” he says, looking down at her with a small smile. “Urahara.”
His eyes shift from her to the scene that surrounds her. It is too dark for her to read their expression, but that is not for her to care about. The less she knows of him the better.
“This certainly looks like… a difficult situation,” he observes.
She snorts. “I’ve lost my powers,” she admits, curt.
He seems surprised for a moment, and looks at the boy beside her “Well. Considering the unorthodox procedure you were using… that is perhaps not a surprise. After all, the both of you are still alive.”
When she does not answer, he grins. “Looking at your success, you seem to have a talent for this sort of thing, Miss Kuchiki.” The name is a mockery, the way he seems to say it. “If you ever think to widen your career options, Urahara-”
“Don’t talk rubbish,” she cuts him off.
“Well, if you look at it that way…”
She reaches into her gi and pulls out the envelope. The paper is blank but for her blood smeared across it, almost artistic in effect. The letter within, she knows, is unsigned and unaddressed.
That is all she knows, and she will not admit to even knowing that much to anyone who asked.
He reaches down to take it, then passes her to kneel by the boy.
“So it’s Kurosaki Ichigo, hm?” he murmurs.
Her head snaps up and she glares. “You know him? You planned this?”
He gives her a startled look of unconvincing innocence. “Of course not. But I’ve been living in the neighbourhood for years now. I notice things, and this boy,” he gestures at Ichigo with a wry smirk, “is not… easy to ignore. As I’m sure you’ve seen for yourself.”
“… You could have mentioned it. And I never noticed his presence before today…” but she trails off.
Urahara was well established by the time she was given jurisdiction over this district and Rukia has never seen any reason to consult him about her duties before. And the district is wide and this neighbourhood small – she has probably not passed this clinic more than a dozen times in the past years. She grinds her teeth. On hindsight, she thinks, she should have made a more thorough inspection. Now, it is much, much too late.
He pays no attention to her silence. Standing, he has strolled over to inspect the damage in the clinic wall.
“Humph. Quite impressive, for a low level Hollow. Most of them can’t pull off this much physcal damage at their level, I’m not surprised you were caught off-guard,” he says, as if she needed the consolation.
“Can you repair it?” she asks.
“Hm. Perhaps. But that’s difficult, with all these people around. They’ll hear the noise. I’m sure Tessai could think of something but…” he gives her a sidelong look, “it might be rather more than you’re… willing to pay, and I always try to save my customers money where I can!”
Her glower stops him just as he’s about to sail into his sales pitch (she’s heard them all – he tries to sell her something new everytime). But this is the first time she’s needed it.
“And of course, always a discount for an old friend…” he smiles.
“I’m not your friend,” she scoffs and pushes herself to her feet because that is no position to bargain from. “And you should be the one who owes me money, considering everything…”
She keeps quiet, she asks no questions, she sees nothing. She does not know who the letters come from, she does not know who they go to, and her loyalty to Ukitake is as absolute as her loyalty to… anything else. Even her loyalty to Kuchiki. Even if it is not Ukitake who gives her the letters or orders, nothing so obvious…
She does not know what games they are playing, and she does not care. She has played the blind pawn for a very long time, she is used to it.
But she knows her value.
She looks him in the eye and folds her arms.
His sudden laugh is a shout in the silence of the deserted street. “And they say that Kuchikis can’t bargain! I’ll call Tessai and the others to come clean up the mess. Come, you can’t drive such a hard deal, Miss Kuchiki, I’ll go bankrupt in a week! I just got a new shipment of tea in yesterday, excellent stuff. I’ll even let you try some for free, that’s how soft-hearted I am…”
His cane arcs in the air as he tucks it under his arm and turns to lead the way.
“I’m sure we’ll have plenty to talk about.”
The door locks behind her with a quiet click. She does not lift her eyes from the floor – she cannot look at her prison yet.
“I’ve been reading up on your reports, and the history of your district,” her brother says. She should not look at him, but she has to.
She cannot read his expression. She has tried, more times than she can count, but it is a blank page, it holds nothing for her to interpret or understand. Perhaps she is afraid of what she will see there, if she could decipher him.
“There used to be a number of rumours about it, but they died long before you were assigned there. I looked into it myself, then.”
She swallows and wonders if this is his anger she feels. But he does not need anger. He is absolute, complete without it.
“What do you know?” he asks.
The question is oblique for him, he who favours the grace of pure precision.
“Nothing,” she whispers. She has no words; she could say nothing else even if she wanted to.
“I do not question orders…” she falters. “I do my duty…”
She has gone so far beyond duty, she fumbles to find her way back to it now.
“Duty. As befits a Kuchiki,” he says, but the words are not for her. “I see. That is all.”
He nods at her and leaves, footsteps echoing long after the door has closed behind him.
Rukia turns and almost trips over the chair. Sitting, back to the bars, she doubles over and leans her head in her arms. Dawn will be a long time coming, but Rukia has a long way to go to remember who she is and must now be.