The Ashes to Ashes to Ashes Remix
Written for Remix 2009. Original story: Phoenix
by Jaina This is in some ways a continuation of the original, and I think it would serve you
well to read it first. Follow the link above to jaina's self-described "short and dirty ficlet."
Warnings: as per the original, much mayhem. Dark themes. Skewed spoilers for the first Soul Society arc.
Players change; tragedy repeats.
Achieving ban kai took Renji decades longer than he expected, and more effort than he would have thought possible. Still, hard as it was to reach, he's satisfied when he finally has the chance to unleash Zabimaru's tremendous power against the man he's always longed to surpass. And even though Renji falls before his captain, it's of little consequence. His ban kai has left a mark upon Captain Kuchiki's flesh and that, Renji finds, is enough.
It will not be enough now.
Renji reaches the execution ground, legs pounding. lungs throbbing. Above and before him Rukia hangs suspended, the fiery horror of the soukyokou closing upon her. Captains and lieutenants shift awkwardly as they watch Rukia await her death. There is an uneasiness among them; curiously none can say for certain what laws Rukia's broken, what she's done to earn this fate. All they know is that it was ordered, and thus not one takes up his sword to end the injustice. Renji realizes he and he alone has the will to save her. And so despite the lingering injuries from his fight with his captain, he summons his reiatsu, channels it, feels his zanpakutou pulse with life. On his shoulders the mantle appears; strength courses down his arm into his blade and Zabimaru explodes.
–a thousand thousand tiny blades pierce him and erupt in a burst of blood and tissue. His ban kai falters, his shi kai evaporates; the joints of his zanpakoutou come apart and the pieces crash down around him. Gasping, bloody, Renji falls to his knees and then face-first into the dust.
"I told you I would stop you," Captain Kuchiki's cold voice says. "Your efforts are futile, Renji, as they were destined to be."
"There is…no destiny…" Renji coughs, draws in an agonizing breath. "…Rukia…I must–"
"She cannot be saved." Byakuya Kuchiki steps into Renji's line of sight, his face expressionless as always. The scar from Zabimaru stands out on his pale cheek, and Renji struggles to find comfort in the sight. "She may not be saved. Not by you, not by anyone. That is the law."
Renji gasps, trying to draw air into his useless lungs. "Roar…Zabi…maru..." His voice is a whisper and there is no response as his hand clutches emptiness. He coughs again, this time bringing up bright blood. He wants to shout his desperation, cry out to Rukia that he has loved her since they ran barefoot together through the Rukongai slums. But he has no breath left, and no time. His reiatsu ebbs and Zabimaru, shattered, begins to dissolve. If only there were someone closer, someone who could reach Rukia in time. Someone, someone, please save her! His desperate pleas remain unvoiced, because he doesn't have enough strength to utter the words aloud.
With the last of his dimming sight Renji sees darkness flick in the corner of his eyes, and thinks he sees a figure silhouetted against the flaming sky – a dark-clad, bright-haired shinigami. Has he come to swoop down and rescue Rukia?
But there's no one – just a trick of the light, or a phantasm of Renji's brain. In this reality Ichigo Kurosaki is a fifteen-year old teenager sleeping soundly in his bed in Karakura Town, and he has never heard of Soul Society or shinigami or Hollows or Rukia Kuchiki. There will be no salvation there.
Darkness falls, but it's only the fading of Renji's sight. The last thing he hears is Rukia's scream. It is a short scream.
And then Renji is dead, and Rukia is ash.
He has had ban kai for many, many years.
Even as a youth, the scion of the most noble of noble houses, he made everyone fear the power of his unleashed reiatsu. No one has ever challenged him – no one who survived.
Except for the Captain Commander's Ryujin Jakka, Senbonzakura is the most powerful zanpakutou in the Seireitei. Byakuya Kuchiki wields it with pride, though he masks his pride in a show of indifference. Senbonzakura and he are so completely in tune with one another that he can summon him without conscious thought; they are bound together more strongly than ever husband was to wife.
In his less guarded moments, Byakuya wonders if perhaps that was where he went wrong with Hisana. He loved Hisana, faced his disapproving family for her, but bound as he was already, there was never enough room within him for a wife. No wonder he failed her.
And Rukia? Has he failed her too?
Though he shies away from the very thought and certainly would never say the words aloud, Byakuya has grown fond of his adopted sister. Even when he was turning a cold, indifferent eye to her he could not ignore how she warmed the chilly corridors of his house. Even when ordered to fetch her back from the Living World to pay for her crimes, he could not dislodge her from his heart. It wasn't easy to watch her be arrested. It was harder still to hear the sentence of death imposed upon her.
But that is the law, for there must be order in Soul Society, and these are the rules he has sworn to obey. Above all, Byakuya Kuchiki is committed to following rules.
Despite his calm demeanor it's shattering to bear witness to her execution. He steels his nerve and looks again at the soukyokou descending toward his sister's slight form. For a wild moment Byakuya wishes for that brazen young substitute shinigami who challenged the Soul Society's rule of law. Perhaps that impertinent boy could've saved Rukia, swooping in at the last moment to–
No. It's pointless to think such thoughts, because in this reality a final thrust of Senbonzakura dispatched the orange-haired youth and his shaky attempt at ban kai. The youth – Ichigo, was that his name? Byakuya does not remember exactly, because it doesn't matter. The boy is dead now, his body lying not far from where the Captains stand. There will be no rescue from that quarter. There is no use thinking of what might have been.
Byakuya watches his sister die. He does not close his eyes. When she screams a short scream he does not flinch.
The flames recede. A small shining orb falls towards the ground and Byakuya steps forward to catch it in his hands. It's still warm from Rukia's body.
He holds it in hands that have begun to shake, and something snaps inside his heart.
A cry wells up, releasing a flood of emotion, grief and guilt commingled. His face twists and his mouth opens in a wordless scream. Fury is unleashed, directed against the Gotei-13 and Central 46 for all their pointless laws and rules, and against himself for his rigidity in following them. Senbonzakura Kageyoshi comes alive in Byakuya's hand, issuing forth a shock wave of deadly blossoms. "Rukia!" he cries again, his uncontainable reiatsu swirling, razor sharp, slicing through Soi Fon, Komamura and Byakuya's oldest friend Ukitake before anyone has time to react.
Byakuya kills four of the other captains and twelve seated officers before the Captain General brings him down in a searing arc of fire.
In the space of a breath there is nothing left of Byakuya Kuchiki but ash.
The following dawn, what's left of the shredded Gotei-13 is no match for Aizen when he returns to destroy them.
Rukia's expression is peaceful and composed. She has meditated many long hours in her prison cell, and come to accept her fate. She closes her eyes, waits to die. But her mind will not be stilled.
Faces of her comrades, past and present, appear in the darkness behind her eyes, and Rukia feels a swell of regret. I'm sorry, Ukitake-taichou. I failed you. I'm sorry, Kaien-dono. I'll never reach as high as you. I apologize, Byakuya-sama. I'll never even be a seated officer.
There are so many things she'll never do. She will never please her brother. She will never achieve ban kai. She will never–
I'll never know what it feels like to fall in love.
And that, that is the worst of all.
Heat flares, and she knows the soukyokou is descending. She keeps her eyes tightly shut. I am at peace, she tells herself, but there is unrest now, and a pang in her heart as she tries to peer into the future. What would her lover have looked like? Who would it have been? She thinks she knows; in her imagination his features are indistinct but there is familiarity about him, something bright and colorful. Would it have been Renji?. She knows he's always cared for her, though neither of them ever said a word. Or perhaps it might it have been–
Her eyes fly open, her expression no longer serene.
A dark figure in a fluttering cape hovers above her, his hair a bright crest of orange. Oh no, oh no! The fool! "Ichigo! What are you doing! I told you not to—"
"Oi, Rukia," Ichigo chides. "Shut up. I'm rescuing you."
Yes, thinks Rukia. I know now who it would have been.
With eyes wide Rukia watches as Ichigo swoops down in front of her, facing the flaming horror as it descends. "Don't worry," he calls over his shoulder. He's smug, carefree. "I'll take care of this." As Rukia watches, rapt, Ichigo raises a hand to his face, channeling power. A Hollow mask begins to form. Ribbons of reiatsu flare, black and red and terrible to behold. Ichigo rears back his head and roars. "Ban…kai–"
But in this reality, it is too late. Even as Zangetsu jolts into full force, and the mask solidifies, the inferno of the soukyokou turns toward Ichigo and envelops him in its brilliant flame.
Ichigo screams. It is a short scream.
And when it ends there is nothing to show that Ichigo ever existed.
Rukia shrieks and goes mad.
The Hougyoku within her blazes to life. The limitations on her shinigami powers fail; she transforms, changes, strengthens. A mask begins to form on her face.
Rukia becomes Arrancar.
The shackles that bind her melt away, no longer able to contain the sudden flaring of her power. Could she still think coherently Rukia would know that at last she has achieved her own ban kai, surpassing Kaien-dono and Ukitake-taichou, and yes, her brother, too, and finally Ichigo himself. But she no longer thinks, just reacts, and as her immense fury and despair crests, Sode no Shirayuki destroys the soukyakou, freezing it into a terrible bird of ice which shatters at her wordless command.
But Rukia's not finished. She can no longer control her own power, and Sode no Shirayaki next turns on those closest to the scaffold, among them her brother, her beloved Captain, and even Renji, who has just arrived at the execution ground. And still the wave of devastation moves on, canceling the fire of Ryujin Jakka, annihilating captains and lieutenants alike, churning rocks into dust, leaving nothing in its wake but a frozen wasteland.
And finally, when the execution ground is empty of life, Rukia howls in despair and turns her weapon on herself.
When Aizen returns, he finds nothing left of the Seireitei but a desert of ice, ice and–
Rukia's dead. Flames. I failed–
Ichigo sits up, gasping for breath. Ashes. Rukia. Byakuya. Renji, me, the captains, dead, all dead– "Rukia!"
A hand slides around to rest on his heart. "Ichigo?"
Ichigo jolts awake. "Shit!"
There are arms around him now, warm and reassuring. "Ichigo, what's wrong?"
When he blinks open his eyes, he's looking into Rukia's face. "What happened? What did I do–"
"Honestly, Ichigo!" Rukia lets out a long sigh. "Screaming like that, and then cutting off so abruptly like you were…God, I thought you were dying in your sleep!" She shakes him and frowns. "Meanwhile you almost gave me a heart attack. What on earth were you dreaming about?"
Ichigo blinks, and realizes with relief that he's in bed. "That was…a nightmare?" He scrubs a hand over his face and chuckles with embarrassment. "Wow. It was so real, Rukia. You were back there in Soul Society, up on that scaffold, and the soukyokou was descending, and there was nothing I could do to save you, but then Renji was trying to save you, and he died, and then your brother tried to save you, but he ended up getting killed, too, along with half of the Gotei-13, and it kept happening over and over again, and you kept on dying–"
"Whoa, whoa, hold on – what sort of creepy dream was that?" She smacks him gently on the arm. "I told you not to eat that spicy food before we went to bed."
"Yeah, I shouldn't–" Ichigo blinks again. He's in bed…and so is Rukia. He blushes suddenly to the tips of his ears and grabs at the sheets to cover himself. "Rukia! You – me – bedroom – you mean we finally did it?"
"Idiot. Are you feeling okay?" Her small hand feels his brow. "You're fine. Quit joking, because it's not funny."
"Seriously, Rukia – how did we, you, us – we're in bed?"
"Honestly, Ichigo!" Rukia throws back the covers and walks buck-naked to a dressing gown draped over a chair. He stares; he's imagined her body to be less...womanly than this. "I'm going to make breakfast. You need to get dressed for work."
"Dressed? Work?" Ichigo has stopped staring at Rukia's naked body. "What do you mean? Where are we? Don't we have to get back to Soul Society, or fight Hollows or–"
"Knock it off!" Rukia frowns at him, clearly no longer amused. "I have no idea what you're talking about, 'Soul Society,' 'Hollow,' this 'Gotei-whachamacallit.' Get your ass ready for work while I wake the kids."
Ichigo's head begins to spin. Kids? Work? Where am I? WHEN am I? He turns his head and catches his reflection in a mirror, and time stops. A forty-year old face stares back at him. "Rukia! What happened to me? What happened to us? I don't remember – I don't remember anything!"
"You're not supposed to," says Rukia's voice behind him, and he sees her reflection in the mirror as her face shifts and changes to Aizen's and the room fades away and becomes the halls of Hueco Mundo. "Oh dear," says Aizen. "He's still quite powerful. We'll have to do something about that. Time for another experiment." He holds an instrument before him and points it at Ichigo and the world begins to turn to ash.
Ichigo screams. It is a long scream.