It had, Shinji thought, been a pretty good day, so far. The chill of winter was still hanging on, but it was sunny and crisp out. Everyone was pretty much recovered from the battle with Aizen. There was a new volume of manga out for Love and Lisa to argue over, and Rose had been talking about making something ‘experimental’ for dinner which was always good for a laugh or two.
It could have kept on being a good day if they hadn’t gotten a visitor.
Shinji sat very still on one of their salvaged couches, eyes fixed on the dapper First Division vice-captain standing calm and collected in front of him. “He wants us to what?”
Sasakibe didn’t even have the grace to look ashamed of his message. “Yamamoto-soutaichou asks that the captains of the Third, Fifth, and Ninth divisions return to take up their positions again,” he repeated, hands clasped easily behind him. “May I bring him your reply, Hirako-taichou?”
Shinji lifted a brow and looked around at his fellow Visored, perched here and there on the ledges and second-hand furniture of their home in the mortal world, all stopped dead in the middle of reading or cooking or mending to stare down at Sasakibe. They looked about like he felt. “Well, ladies and gentlemen?” he purred. “Do we have an answer for the illustrious Captain-General?”
Predictably, it was Hiyori who first snorted. “Fuck it,” she spat, arms crossed.
“About like that, yeah,” Lisa agreed, turning back to her manga. “Notice he didn’t ask for any of the rest of us; just three to replace the captains his own damn blindness lost. Selfish bastard.”
“And I can’t say I enjoyed the Court’s last reaction when they thought I didn’t fit into a proper division any longer,” Love added, leaning against a pillar, “I don’t really want to see what he’d try to do with a spare captain this time.”
Rose’s eyes were hard, flamboyance left aside for once. “We served Soul Society loyally and were wounded in that service, and your precious Council would have killed us out of hand like mad dogs. Why should we go back to that?”
“They were told who was at fault and all they did was make the bastards captains,” Kensei growled, muscles flexing ominously as he clenched his fists. “Now they want us to clean up their mess?”
Mashiro took another bite of the dumplings she was demolishing and turned a hand palm-up at her captain, shrugging her agreement.
Shinji smiled. “So there you have it,” he told Sasakibe cheerfully. “Our answer is that Yamamoto should fold his offer into corners and shove it. Anything else?”
Sasakibe sighed quietly. “I will take your reply back. May I say, personally, that I would welcome your presence in the Court of Pure Souls, setting things to rights once more. I don’t believe I’m alone in that.” He bowed to them, deep and courteous, before picking his way back to their door.
“Huh.” Lisa squinted after him. “That was kind of half-hearted. I expected him to argue more.”
Shinji frowned to himself, thinking about the way Sasakibe had phrased that last bit. He wasn’t so sure the argument was over.
When their next visitor from Soul Society was Kuchiki Rukia, Shinji figured he’d been right.
“If he thinks he can twist us around to this by sending one of Ichigo’s friends,” he started, low and hard, as Hachi quietly sealed the barrier again behind her. Rukia instantly looked guilty and Shinji nearly growled.
“It isn’t like that,” she insisted, eyes wide and earnest, and Shinji slashed a hand through the air, cutting her off.
“You can tell Yamamoto, we said no and we mean no. He made his damn bed, and now he can sleep in it! Not once in a freaking century did anyone even…” he trailed off because Rukia had stopped looking guilty and was looking puzzled.
“Yamamoto-soutaichou doesn’t even know I’m here.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, her eyes widened and she waved her hands, black sleeves flapping. “I mean…! He approved the project, of course, and Ukitake-taichou knows where I am, so it’s not like…”
Shinji ran the last few minutes through the ‘Juushirou-san or possibly Rukia is putting something over on Yamamoto’ filter instead of the ‘Yamamoto is putting one over on us’ version. “It’s not like you’re sneaking around behind Yamamoto’s back to do something for Ichigo?” he hazarded and laughed when Rukia’s cheeks turned pink. “Well that’s different. All right, what are you here for?” He strolled back to his couch and sprawled out comfortably.
Rukia gathered herself and bowed to him formally. “Hirako-taichou, I’m here to beg a favor on behalf of Kurosaki Ichigo, who you have named your ally.” She pulled a wrapped bundle off her shoulder and knelt down on the concrete to unwrap it at his feet.
It was a sword. A nameless sword, and yet… Shinji frowned and held his fingers close to it, testing that sense of power. He’d never seen a nameless sword that radiated reiatsu like this one. He’d also never felt such a gathering of reiatsu that wasn’t marked with the sense of a single soul. “What’s this?”
Rukia sat back on her knees, hands folded. “Yamamoto-soutaichou ruled that, because Ichigo had lost his shinigami powers in defense of Soul Society, it would be proper to restore them if we could. Many have contributed their reiatsu already.”
Contributed their reiatsu to a sword. Shinji thought about that for a long moment and finally called, without looking up, “Hachi, is this what I think it is?”
Hachigen came and leaned over Rukia’s shoulder, eyeing the sword with interest. “Indeed. As a named zanpakutou can be the channel for a single shinigami’s spirit power, this one could theoretically channel the power of all the contributors into the recipient.”
Shinji caught a glint in Rukia’s eyes before she lowered them demurely, and grinned. “You like the irony?” he asked softly.
That spitfire glint flashed again, along with Rukia’s teeth, before she composed her expression. “It was judged the most stable solution, and the one likeliest to succeed,” she observed coolly.
Shinji laughed out loud. “You convinced them to let you do it, didn’t you?” The very ‘crime’ she’d nearly been destroyed for, and here she was sanctioned to perform it right out in in front of gods and men.
“It was judged Ichigo’s spirit, having accepted my reiatsu once, would most readily accept this infusion from me as well.” Rukia was really bad at looking innocent. Shinji approved.
“Give it here.” He held out a hand, gathering his own strength. In one swoop he could help Ichigo, who had gotten almost as raw a deal as the Visored had, and put a thumb in Yamamoto’s eye. Show the old man he couldn’t control everything and everyone.
Because he might have been wrong about why Rukia was here, but he didn’t think he’d been wrong about what the old bastard was scheming.
When their third visitor arrived, Shinji knew he’d been right, because their third visitor was Hisagi Shuuhei, vice-captain and acting leader of the Ninth Division. The man who had Kensei’s numbers tattooed on his cheek. It didn’t take a genius to spot who must have inspired the kid to become a shinigami, and a dispassionate corner of Shinji’s mind wondered just how badly it had rubbed Tousen the wrong way, that his own vice-captain had a previous loyalty to the captain Tousen had betrayed. Or, hell, maybe he’d been sick-minded enough, by then, he’d thought it was funny.
Kensei was the only one Hisagi had eyes for once Hachi let him in, at any rate. He went straight to Kensei, like he didn’t even notice the rest of them, and after a moment’s hesitation he bowed all the way to the ground. Shinji’s lip curled, because that was exactly the kind of gesture he’d expect from someone on a mission of manipulation, treating Kensei like he was already the kid’s captain. But if that was the case, Shinji didn’t know why the hell the kid was so stiff and awkward about it.
“Muguruma-taichou.” Hisagi’s voice was just as stiff. “The Captain-General sent me to ask that you take up leadership of your division again.”
Shinji propped one foot up on his windowsill perch, considering that phrasing while the other Visored started to slip closer through the concrete and shadows of the building.
Kensei folded his arms with a snort. “So he can betray us twice? I don’t think so.”
Hisagi bent his head. “Your reservations are only sensible,” he agreed quietly.
Shinji pursed his lips. Interesting. If he had to guess, he’d say Hisagi hadn’t wanted to come here, and might just be resenting the way Yamamoto was using him to pressure Kensei, despite wanting Kensei back himself. “So if it’s only logical we refuse, why are you here forking over this steaming crap?” he prodded.
Sure enough, Hisagi’s shoulders tightened, all the more obvious in that sleeveless kosode of his. “The Captain-General sent me,” he repeated flatly.
“The Captain-General can kiss my ass,” Kensei said, rough. “Go back and take the damn division yourself, already.”
Hisagi’s head dipped a little lower. “I’m not qualified as a Captain. It… it will have to be someone else. I’m sorry, Muguruma-taichou.”
Shinji exchanged a long look with Love, brows raised. Love nodded faintly back to him, leaning against the pillar across their ‘entry hall’. This kid had it bad for Kensei, just like Kensei’s whole seated complement always had, except for Mashiro herself and that poisonous bastard Tousen.
And maybe that was exactly why he didn’t want to be here pressuring him. Shinji chewed on a nail and frowned. This could be bad; Kensei had a soft spot for earnestness and honesty.
Kensei blew out a breath, running a hand through his hair as he looked down at Hisagi. “Not like it’s your fault.”
“Thank you for saying so.” Hisagi didn’t look up, and Shinji thought he was leaning harder on the hand he had braced on the ground, now; anyone with less of a poker up his spine would have been slumped. “I won’t trouble you further, sir.”
Kensei shifted his shoulders, tapped his fingers on his belt, and finally asked abruptly. “How are they? The Ninth.”
Shinji swore silently at Yamamoto for having the brains to send a messenger who so transparently wanted not to manipulate them that his very earnestness manipulated them. Or at least Kensei.
“Unsettled,” Hisagi admitted, low. “Not as badly as the Fifth, but… no one likes being without a captain’s strength to guide us. Even if Renji or Ikkaku can be pried away from their captains… I worry that it won’t be enough. Renji is still very new to his bankai, and Ikkaku has been holding himself back; neither of them has the confidence that would make me willing to follow them.” Not the way he’d followed the bare memory of Kensei. The thought hung unspoken in the air.
Kensei’s eyes were dark as he glanced over at Shinji, and Shinji’s mouth tightened. “You know the risks,” he said levelly.
“No one knows them better, except maybe you.” Kensei turned away and banged his fist against a cracked support beam. “My people weren’t the ones who fucked us up, though!”
Hisagi’s head came up and he stared at Kensei’s back with wide eyes, suddenly hopeful, suddenly hungry before he got himself back under control and looked down again. Shinji watched the performance and sighed. He knew Kensei would never deny that kind of loyalty and need; it was exactly how he made them so loyal to him in the first place. “Your choice.”
Mashiro rolled onto her stomach on the couch she was sprawled across and dangled her arms over the edge. “Are we going back?”
“I’ll think about it.”
Shinji rolled his eyes. Deny it as he would, Kensei still thought of himself as a captain, and of Mashiro as his vice-captain, someone he had the right and responsibility to direct without a second thought. “You’re too good for that place,” he muttered.
Kensei smiled at that, tight and thin. “Tell me something I don’t know.” He turned back to stand over Hisagi, who looked up at him with fragile calm. “Tell the old man I’ll think about it.”
“Yes, Taichou,” Hisagi answered, husky, and bowed his head almost to his knee. “Thank you.”
Shinji flopped back onto his elbows with a sigh as Hisagi got up to go. He wondered glumly who Yamamoto would find to pry at their resolve next.
“We have another visitor,” Hachi announced from the ramp down to the red stone floor of their cavern and Shinji puffed a soap bubble from the basin of dishes he was washing away from his face.
“Who is it this time?” he called, dunking the next plate in the rinse water and drying it on his red striped apron. Hachi sounded a little weirdly formal, but he got like that sometimes. “Did the old goat send Retsu-san to scold us or something?”
“Nothing that grand, I’m afraid.”
Shinji jerked around, suds dripping off his hands, to stare. No, his ears didn’t deceive him, that was Kyouraku Shunsui stepping down the ramp all right. From the corner of his eye he saw Lisa’s latest manga hit the ground, pages fluttering as the lurid pink cover flapped closed. He tossed the last plate back into the water, snapping the suds off his hands like blood off his blade. “Kyouraku,” he said, low and warning. Lisa had never been one of his division back in Soul Society, but she was one of his people now and he wouldn’t have her hurt by Yamamoto’s damn politicking.
The man held up his hands, looking apologetic. “I would have told Yama-jii to walk off a cliff, really I would have, but I did want to make sure Lisa-chan was okay.” He looked over Shinji’s shoulder, eyes deceptively soft. “And it is true you’d be welcome, if you ever decided to return.”
“You have a vice-captain,” Lisa pointed out, stifled. When Shinji glanced over his shoulder, she was standing still and straight-shouldered, but her hands were fists half hidden in her skirt.
“Nanao-chan would step aside for you,” Shunsui told her gently. “You have to know that. She idolized you.” His mouth tilted wryly. “Still does.”
“Why should you care?” Lisa lashed out, fists tightening until they trembled. Shinji fell back a few steps to be in support range. Or range to restrain her if she broke and attacked Shunsui, because it would only piss her off more when she couldn’t even hit him. “You never did anything! You never even looked for us!”
Shunsui sighed and tucked his hands in the sleeves of his extravagantly flowered kimono. “Lisa-chan, we didn’t know. None of us knew what had happened until Yoruichi had already gotten all of you to the mortal world.” His eyes never left Lisa. “If we had known, we would have acted. I swear that to you.”
“He and Ukitake-taichou are the ones who destroyed the Kikou-ou, rather than see Rukia-san destroyed unjustly,” Hachi put in quietly from where he sat on the end of the ramp.
Lisa crossed her arms tightly over her stomach, hands gripping her elbows. Shinji ran a damp hand through his hair with a disgusted huff. Lisa was strong and capable, and as pissed off as any of them about the way they’d been sentenced sight-unseen by the damn Council, the way Yamamoto hadn’t done a single thing to save them. But he also knew she’d spent the past century missing her captain. “Go on, if you can trust him,” he told her quietly.
Lisa worried her lip between her teeth, glaring daggers at Shunsui, but Shinji could see the helpless hurt behind the anger. Obviously Shunsui could too, because he took one step that flashed across the cavern and folded Lisa in his arms. “I’m sorry, Lisa-chan,” he murmured against her hair. “I’m sorry I couldn’t find you sooner.”
Lisa didn’t make a sound, but her hands lifted to close tight on his sleeves.
Love came to prop himself against the washing stand and said quietly to Shinji, “Two to zero?”
“Three, counting Mashiro, as soon as Kensei makes up his mind to go.” Shinji fished out the last plate and scrubbed it viciously. “Shunsui-san will look after Lisa, at least, but what the hell do we do to keep Kensei and Mashiro safe?”
Love considered for a long moment and finally suggested, “Kill Kurotsuchi before he gets too curious for our own good?”
An unwilling smile tugged at Shinji’s mouth. “That’d be a start, yeah.”
He was beginning to have a bad feeling about where this would end, though.
When Hinamori showed up, he went right through ‘bad feeling’ and landed on ‘blazing fury’ instead.
“I am going back to Soul Society after all,” he said, very quietly, “so that I can kill that old bastard with my own two hands.” The edge of concrete under his hand was slowly crumbling and the air was ringing around him. He was aware of the uneasy looks the others were exchanging, the way Hachi’s hands were slowly folding into the form for a restraining kidou, and couldn’t bring himself to care right at the moment. How dare Yamamoto use the girl Aizen broke? How dare he send her here, as if to tell Shinji to take responsibility for the messes his alleged subordinate left behind?
It was Hiyori who stuffed her hands in her pockets and snorted as if she hadn’t noticed the weight of his rage. “Yeah, well, he deserves it. I mean, what kind of moron tries to play the sympathy card on you?”
After a long, taut moment, Shinji let out a breath of harsh laughter and hauled his reiatsu in before he destroyed any more of their home. “No one, you’d think.”
“I asked to come.”
Shinji eyed Hinamori, really seeing her for the first time. The thought wandered through his head that she couldn’t be as delicate as she looked if she was still on her feet after the way he’d just cut loose. “You asked?”
She bobbed her head earnestly, hands clasped in front of her. “After I spoke with Hisagi-san.”
Shinji’s brows rose. “And exactly what did Hisagi say, that made you think coming here was a good idea?” he drawled.
“He ah… well…” Her steady gaze wavered and slid away from his. “You see, Rangiku-san was, er, counseling Kira-kun again, and Hisagi-san said that if he was going to have to take anyone to Fourth afterwards he wanted to at least get some of the sake for himself, and he ah… might have been just a little drunk.”
Shinji crossed his arms and leaned back against a fallen block, still showing the sword-cuts from where Ichigo, or maybe Hiyori, had carved it up during their first fight. Kensei had a hand over his eyes, and Love and Rose were both trying to stifle snickers. “Go on.”
Hinamori cleared her throat, cheeks faintly pink. “Well, he mentioned that, if Muguruma-taichou did decide to return, it would be for the sake of his division. After the story Renji-kun and Rukia-san brought back, about what had happened to you… it seemed to me that was likely the only reason any of you might be willing to come back. And that the best person to make the Fifth’s need clear would be me.” She spread her hands, looking up at him steadily once again.
“Ah, I see,” Shinji said lightly, temper simmering again. “So it was your own personal idea to guilt-trip me, not Yamamoto’s.”
“No, sir!” Hinamori started forward a step, chin up, color high. “I would never…!” She stopped, hands clenching tight on each other. When she spoke, her voice was husky, broken around the edges. “I would never try to… to manipulate someone’s heart like that. Never.”
The shadows slinking behind her eyes and turning them dark were painfully familiar, and Shinji’s temper collapsed in a heap. This girl obviously hadn’t even had his own native suspicion and nasty-mindedness to help her understand what Aizen was. “No,” he said a bit more gently, “I can see you wouldn’t.” He propped a foot against his broken perch with a sigh, slumping a little. “It’s true enough; if I came back for anyone it would be for the Fifth. What happened wasn’t their fault. But the Council and Yamamoto are still there, and… Hinamori?” She was staring at him wide-eyed, hands clasped tight against her mouth.
“He got it from you,” she whispered. “That’s how he made everyone believe it, he was pretending to be you…”
“Hinamori!” Shinji straightened up, reaching out as she started to slide down to the ground, wondering what the hell was wrong with her and why Retsu-san had let her out of Fourth’s clutches in this shape. Mashiro was already there, though, easing Hinamori to the floor in a rustle of hakama. Shinji frowned down at them, unsettled. “Hinamori, what are you talking about?”
She gulped and scrubbed her hands over her face. “I wondered how Aizen-taichou could act like he cared, when he obviously didn’t,” she said, nearly whispering. “I couldn’t understand it. It seemed so real! If he could do all those things, to Rukia-san and the people of Rukongai and you and… and me… If he could do that, how could he even understand kindness well enough to fake it?!” She heaved another breath in and out and looked up at Shinji. “But just now… when you spoke more softly, you sounded just like him. I mean, he sounded like you. He’s been acting like you, all this time, that’s how he did it, that’s how he made everyone believe it!” She was shaking in the casual circle of Mashiro’s arm, but her voice had risen, hard and steady, and her eyes were blazing.
Shinji had to take a few breaths himself, swallowing down his gorge at the thought of Aizen using him, or at least his memory, that way. “You still sure you want me to come back?” he finally managed, almost as lightly as usual.
“Yes!” Hinamori leaned forward on her knees, tense and broken and looking more alive than she had since she’s stepped in the door. “The Fifth was under Aizen for too long, believing lies for too long. Help us re-learn what’s real, what that looks like.” She finished softly, “Please, Hirako-taichou.”
Shinji looked down at her, absently damning his own sense of responsibility. Hinamori had a good instinct for the target, that was for sure. The opportunity to reclaim his division from the traitor who’d stolen them beckoned temptingly, and the determined beginnings of trust in the wide brown eyes locked with his promised silently that things would be different this time. Shinji sighed, reminding himself to do something extremely unpleasant to Yamamoto for letting Hinamori come and close this net around him.
He stalked over and held a hand down to Hinamori. “All right, come on, then. Up!” He hauled her to her feet. “Hiyori!” he called without looking around.
“Yeah?” The single word was toneless and Shinji grinned just a little, guessing what she was thinking.
“Didn’t figure you’d want to go back to the Twelfth, so decide which of us you want to stick with. If it’s me, you and Hinamori need to hash things out between you. Can’t have more than one vice-captain, after all.”
Hinamori blinked up at him for a second before a smile broke over her face like sunrise. “Yes, Taichou!”
“What’s to hash?” Hiyori fired up instantly, which had been more or less the idea. “I have seniority!”
Hinamori peered around Shinji with a flash of calculation in her eyes before she folded her hands and smiled, sweet and steely. “If you’d like to decide it that way, I’m sure that will be fine. How long was your tenure as vice-captain, Hiyori-san? And how recent is your administrative experience?”
Shinji faded back to lean against a pillar beside Rose while they watched the show. “So, should we wait for them to send your vice-captain after you, too?” he asked. “Just to have the full set.”
“Since it seems I’ll need to rescue mine from alcohol poisoning, I think we’d better not.” Rose tossed back his hair, looking around at the rest of them. “I suppose this is the best way to take care of everyone in the family.”
Shinji’s mouth curled up. “Yeah, I think you’re right.” And he didn’t think Yamamoto had really considered that part of it—that he was taking into Soul Society a group who would never be turned against each other, no matter who ordered it. Not after what they’d been through. Well, too bad for him if the old bastard hadn’t. Yamamoto had asked for this; he’d get it.
The Army of Masks was coming to Soul Society.
Shinji shook his white haori’s sleeve straight with an annoyed twitch of his arm. He hadn’t counted on the uniforms they’d worn for centuries feeling so awkward, though it made sense enough once he thought it through. None of them had had any trouble putting the uniform off, even outside of their gigai—not after the way Soul Society had condemned them to death without a second thought. In face of that betrayal, they’d all taken on the clothing of the mortal world with bitter speed and finality.
But the people who’d condemned them were dead of what Shinji could only think of as the world’s biggest karmic boomerang, and the people who really mattered wanted them to come home. So here they were, gigai packed away, new manga stockpiled, pantry handed over to Tessai, standing in their cavern and looking at each other. Back in uniform. Wondering who was going to be the one to test their welcome and try to open the senkaimon.
“So?” Hiyori crossed her arms, glowering at nothing. “What are we waiting for?” Shinji’s mouth twitched up at the corner.
“For someone to get impatient,” he told her and drew his sword. His tilted smile turned true for a breath at the way everyone else breathed out with relief. When he slid his blade through the edges of the world, he felt it catch at once. The turn to unlock the gates was as smooth as ever, a familiar sense of vastness shifting around that tiny motion, and then the gates were in front of them, silently sliding open one after the other.
When eight butterflies flittered through the light of the gates to hover in front of them it was Shinji’s turn to sigh as relief ran through him in a warm rush. Their reiatsu imprints had been reinstated, and they were recognized. Official. Accepted.
He was still going to flip Yamamoto off the first chance he got. But he couldn’t deny the comfort of having one of those delicate, black messengers hovering at his shoulder, a silent and unmistakable sign of belonging.
“Let’s go, ladies and gentlemen,” he said quietly.
The walk through the passage was silent, so silent the rustle of haori and occasional clink of swords seemed loud. Shinji halted when they came to the bright horizon of the second gate. “Everyone ready?”
“Ready as we’re going to get,” Kensei muttered.
“Let’s go see what our welcome is,” Love agreed, one hand resting on his sword’s hilt.
“They’d better be damn grateful to see us after a hundred years of this shit,” Hiyori growled and hitched her sword up on her hunched shoulders and stomped through the gate. Shinji smiled at her back, far more gently than he’d ever let her see since they shouldn’t really pause in the middle of the passage between worlds to have a brawl.
“Like she said.”
They stepped out of the gate and into the pillared staging plaza of Soul Society.
There were more people waiting than he’d expected.
He’d been sure their vice-captains would be there, because Yamamoto wasn’t the kind to change what was working, and Shunsui-san would be there to pick up Lisa of course. But Juushirou-san and Retsu-san were both standing back among the circle of pillars also, and he spotted the white haired mini-captain lurking back there too. He almost didn’t recognize Kuchiki Byakuya, standing still and poker-faced under another column, and wondered yet again just what had happened to turn Kuchiki House’s mouthy little firebrand into this.
Shunsui-san tipped his hat up, smiling quietly at them. “Welcome back, all of you.”
“We’ll say whether it’s nice to be back once we find out,” Shinji returned dryly and rolled his eyes a little at the dramatically mournful look Shunsui-san gave him. “Lisa.”
She stepped forward, and Shunsui-san’s clowning softened at once into something almost tender. “Lisa-chan.” And then Shunsui-san grinned. “We have a present for you.”
The Ise girl stepped out of his shadow and came forward, holding something clasped against her chest and giving Lisa such a starry-eyed look that Shinji almost laughed. “Welcome back, Yadoumaru-fukutaichou,” she said softly and held out the vice-captain’s badge with both hands.
Sure enough, the stiff line of Lisa’s back eased and she smiled a little. “Are you sure, Nanao-chan?”
“Of course!” Ise was actually blushing. “It will be an honor to serve under you again.” Shinji raised a brow at Shunsui-san, who just looked smug.
Lisa laid her hands over the badge, resting them on Ise’s for a moment. “Well. Thank you, then.” She snugged the badge around her arm with a still-practiced flick and tug and straightened to give Shunsui-san a familiar half-glare. “Well? What are you waiting for? There’s work to do.”
“I’m sure there is, somewhere,” Shunsui-san murmured, probably just to see both of his vice-captains give him matching dark looks. The man definitely had bad hobbies. Well, it wasn’t like anyone nice got to be a captain around here, except possibly Juushirou-san and in his case it just made him more alarming. Why had they thought this was a good idea, again?
Finally, the vice-captains who had been waiting started to come forward, and Shinji’s mouth quirked. Ah, yes. That had been why.
Hisagi stepped up and knelt down at Kensei’s feet, formal and proper, but the husky edge in his voice when he said “Taichou” made Shinji shake his head. Just as well they’d come back, maybe; this one wouldn’t have lasted much longer on his own. The weighing look Kensei gave his vice-captain said he saw it too, and his voice was quiet as he reached down to touch Hisagi’s shoulder. “Yeah. Come on and let’s go see about kicking things back into shape.”
Hisagi took a breath. “Yes, sir.” He stood and gave Mashiro, standing at Kensei’s shoulder, a respectful nod despite the alarmingly thoughtful look she was turning back and forth between him and Kensei. Shinji bit back a snort of amusement, anticipating the volume of Kensei’s arguments with her if she started trying to matchmake.
Even as Hisagi stood, the other vice-captain, a lean blond with a noble-family look to him, stepped up and bowed down to the ground before Rose. “Ohtoribashi-taichou,” he greeted Rose, quiet and contained.
“Kira-kun, yes? Kira Izuru?” Rose smiled with just a hint of mischief. “No hang-overs today, I hope?”
Kira looked up at that, losing his closed expression to a quick blush and a sputter. “Taichou!”
The mini-captain’s curvy, amber haired vice-captain was leaning against a pillar giggling under her own captain’s resigned eye and Kira shot her a slightly harried look.
Rose chuckled and beckoned Kira up with a tilt of his head. “I didn’t have that long with the Third before everything came apart. You know them better, now. Tell me about them.”
Kira composed himself a bit and stood. “Of course.” He answered the silent crook of Rose’s fingers and walked beside him as they stepped away from the gates, and Shinji’s brows lifted. Rose’s gestures were open and welcoming, but he was being very careful not to touch Kira at all.
Was there a single damn division that hadn’t been left broken in the wake of Aizen and his merry psychos?
Certainly not his own. Shinji eyed his own vice-captain ruefully as she came to him. There were still dark smudges under her eyes, and he was pretty sure it would take some serious work before she was truly ready for duty again. Well, that was his job now and he’d do it.
“Hirako-taichou,” she said, low and a little hesitant, starting to kneel formally, head bent.
“Hinamori,” he returned, quietly, hands folded into his sleeves. They’d have to work on her self-confidence when she wasn’t in a blazing temper, for starters. She obviously needed the forms for her own comfort, right now, but he wasn’t about to spend the next hundred years with his vice-captain popping up and down from her knees at every turn. He’d say something once she was a little calmer.
She paused, though, looking up at him. Biting her lip, she slowly straightened. Shinji cocked his head and watched her, keeping his expression neutral, waiting for her to decide what she was going to do. Finally, she nodded, folded her hands in front of her and bowed from the waist. “Welcome home, Taichou,” she said firmly.
Shinji smiled, slow and pleased. “There, now. That’s more like it.” Maybe there wasn’t quite as much work to be done as he’d thought.
Hinamori’s back straightened a little and she nodded back, determined.
“Are we done yet?” Hiyori growled from where she was sprawled out on the steps to the gate.
“Since the old man didn’t show up so I can bawl him out right away, yeah, I think so.” Shinji strolled for the stairs down. “Come on, you two.”
Hinamori and Hiyori closed up at his shoulders as they followed everyone else out into the Court and Shinji grinned. He could practically feel the suspicious looks Hiyori was shooting his new vice-captain behind his back, and he might still be going to regret having made this choice, but right now he was glad he had. Politics and broken divisions and all.
Hinamori was right. They were home.