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20. A Father’s Duty
“It’s not like I don’t get my hands covered in disgusting bodily fluids and excretions all day at work,” Ryuuken was explaining to his father. “There’s absolutely no need for me to change my son’s diaper when I come home.”
“It’s a special skill,” Souken explained. “Not one relegated to only women in the old days. Men knew how to sew, cook, nurture the little ones in the old days.”
Ryuuken’s silence seemed to remind Souken that any talk of the old days was verboten.
“Kanae needs the break,” Souken added. “She’s been changing diapers all day.”
Ryuuken got up from the table to refill his glass of milk. “Then I’ll hire her a maid.”
“You know she wouldn’t hear of that.”
“Well then.” Ryuuken sat down. “Would you like some more fish, Father? Kanae doesn’t have to cook. I send out for breakfast these days. Really, we’re doing just fine. There’s no reason for me to deal with shit to fulfill my paternal obligations.”
Years later, Uryuu asked his grandfather what Ryuuken had been like as a baby. It was difficult to imagine his own father as a baby, but Uryuu was fond of puzzles and stretching his imagination to consider things like this.
“A sensitive little one,” Souken said. “Cried for his mother all the time.”
“Oh once he got on a sleeping schedule, he was better, but those first few weeks were so difficult. The slightest noise would wake him and he would cry for hours. I would pace around the room rocking him after his mother was tired. He had a delicate stomach too. I changed his diapers.”
“You changed father’s DIAPERS?”
“Oh yes. And he had such a sensitive stomach. He threw up constantly for a year. I was always cleaning up after him. But such are the things you do for a baby. Babies are helpless. But they are very delightful.” The old man was smiling widely and appearing a little younger as he remembered his baby son. “Your father’s first words came early. He was pointing to people and objects before he was a year old and pronouncing words clear as a bell.”
“Father was always smart.” Uryuu was steeling himself to the fact that when he himself became a father he would have to change diapers and clean up vomit. Such was a father’s duty, but he would commit himself to it with the pride of the Quincy.
Years after that conversation, long after Masaki passed and after Souken died, and Ryuuken was a shell of a man, wandering around a large house, obsessed with work, always looking up something in the library, never sharing a meal with his own son, Uryuu understood that his own father wasn’t his father anymore. Uryuu had acquired his own bank account at age twelve because Ryuuken had stressed the importance of learning to manage finances if not much else, and now, three years later, there was enough money there to rent an apartment for the duration of high school. A scholarship to a university would be no problem. Other expenses—he would have to do without sometimes, but he could always make cash from tailoring commissions and dolls. In fact, his original dresses were in high demand among girls beyond the neighborhood. He could ask a higher price for the dresses.
He wrote his father a note: “Ryuuken, I’m leaving. I don’t have a phone. I will send you the address when I locate an apartment.”
Uryuu decided that when he himself became a father, his one guiding principle would be to do the exact opposite of what Ryuuken had done with him. He would not be hypercritical; he would not be distant; he would sew plushies for his child and teach the child to cook and sew and how to shoot a bow.
Eleven months after Masaki’s death, Ryuuken’s colleagues decided that the mourning period was over and that Ryuuken, although he still looked wan and less himself, was no longer a widower and now an official bachelor again. Two doctors and the director of the oncology department took him to a nightclub under the pretense of cheering him up.
Ryuuken went; he had nothing else to do. The place was lurid, gaudy, filled with cigarette smoke, and he regretted going the moment he passed the entrance. He stayed for the drinks, which his colleagues bought him. Ryuuken was accustomed to drinking; he had developed a high tolerance for alcohol in the past year.
The women were beautiful. The servers, who wore scanty clothing, and the guests, who were there unaccompanied, approached the table and always leaned too far over so that their cleavage was on display. They spoke in flirty tones. It was plain why the establishment existed; Ryuuken recalled seeing a cheap hotel just down the street.
Ryuuken was filled with contempt for the men who had brought him here and even more disdain for the women who flaunted themselves for men like them. Like he had many times in the past eleven months, he felt like he wanted to die. Seriously die. Vanish from the earth.
He beckoned a server girl over with his finger. She flashed a broad smile as if thrilled to be singled out. Ridiculous.
“What long fingers you have,” she said. “You have the loveliest hands.”
He overlooked her forwardness. “I would like a pack of cigarettes, please.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ve never smoked before.”
“Oh my. Are you sure you want to start? It’s not good for your health.”
“Of course I know it’s not good for my health. I’m a doctor. I just want to try one.”
“You’re a doctor.” Her interest in the man before her amplified. She leaned over the table. The flashing lights in the room cast red and green colors on her ample bosom. “I can suggest a brand. Smooth, expensive. Would look good in your lovely long fingers— “
Ryuuken didn’t let her finish. “Fine.” He gave her a wad of money, more than what any expensive pack of cigarettes could possibly cost and enough of a tip for her help.
“Thank you, Doctor…?”
“You don’t need to know my name.”
When she came back with the cigarettes, she tried to talk to him again, but he waved her off rudely, much to the moans of his colleagues. “She likes you.” “She’s pretty.” “You need the stress relief.”
Ryuuken realized he didn’t have a light, but there were matchbooks with the bar logo on the table. His colleagues watched in awe as he slid a cigarette out of the box. Apparently they thought he really wasn’t going to smoke, that he had only been trying to get the server’s attention.
He liked the way the cigarette felt in his hand. Like a tool. Like something to occupy his terrible boredom.
The little flame reminded him of everything that had gone to fucking hell in his life.
He inhaled tentatively at first, allowed the smoke past his palate where it didn’t burn as he expected and had no distinguishable taste. The smoke entered his lungs where he held it, no problem, and he exhaled, no issue there either. He took a longer drag. No coughing. It was like he had been born to smoke. Born to smoke himself to death.
“You do that well,” said the man to his right.
“It’s a sexy look on you,” said the one to his left and chortled, drunkenly, over his glass of gin.
Ryuuken let part of the cigarette burn out before tasting it again. He flicked the ashes into what remained of his last drink. There was hissing sound against the ice. It sounded like how his life was fizzling out.
His gentlemen companions got more intoxicated and began to behave like people he no longer recognized, so he didn’t want to watch that. He announced that he was going to take a cab home. He had already smoked four or five cigarettes before his departure. He put the pack in his jacket pocket, and the next morning took note of the brand. He sent his secretary out for a carton and told her to purchase a high-end cigarette lighter, silver-plated. The look on her face was priceless. It was the most amusement Ryuuken had enjoyed in weeks.
During his lunch break, he ate a vending machine sandwich in his office, leaned back in his office chair, put his feet on his desk, heels smack on his tedious paperwork, and smoked a cigarette. He could taste the flavor now. He could feel the mild stimulant effect. His mood lifted.
“We all die anyway,” he said aloud to no one.
He took another long drag and closed his eyes. He had found his path to his longed-for grave, and it felt good. So good.
22. Quincy Honor
Souken had always said that honor was something that could not be stolen, no matter how beaten down by poverty, humiliation, illness or suffering a person was. He said Quincy honor was a strength developed like the muscles in one’s arms from practice shooting a bow; one needed to learn how to trust oneself and value others, to have compassion for even one’s enemies and that honor would grow stronger than any armor, any weapon, any evil intent.
Uryuu as a young child had believed in Souken’s words. He began to doubt them in Soul Society when he encountered the captain of the 12th division and learned what happened to the 2,661 Quincy souls who fell to his experiments. By Kurotsuchi’s own words, they all said that by their “Quincy honor they would never do such and such,” that they would stop this evil scientist. Kurotsuchi made them burn their own children.
Did Souken, who also fell to Kurotsuchi, who died with Uryuu’s own name on his lips, feel compassion for his tormentor? What did it mean that he called out for his grandson? Can honor be stolen? Surely those Quincy, in the grasp of a madman, were not to blame for actions committed under extreme duress, but how strong exactly was Quincy honor? Souken’s was strong—did he expect his grandson’s to be as strong?
Uryuu was proud. All his life, despite Ryuuken’s constant criticism, he carried with him his mother’s love and his grandfather’s support. Still, he doubted himself. His brief training with his father had been cut short when he went to Hueco Mundo to rescue Inoue Orihime. He didn’t understand the full extent of his powers; he wanted to protect; he improvised. He made a deal with the devil himself by accepting bombs from Kurotsuchi in order to collapse the tower where Inoue-san was being held. It had not been a difficult ethical problem; the honor of the Quincy prioritized his friend. But under Uryuu’s honor and pride, there lurked a fear—not of dying, for he had learned to manage that fear as he fought in battle after battle, but a darker fear.
Hueco Mundo was a strange, terrifying world. Sometimes absurdly comical. Frustrating, even though the annoying Desert brothers were more human-like than Hollow and became allies. The atmosphere seemed to inspire perversion. Cirucci with her sadistic laugh, the way Szayel looked at both him and Abarai-kun in an overtly lustful way as if the Espada wanted to do something unspeakable first before killing them, then there was that unforgettable sight of Kurotsuchi healing his daughter in that way Uryuu had never witnessed, not even in a hentai magazine let alone before his very eyes—
There had been dark stirrings inside Uryuu at that last moment. Darker ones when his enemies confused him with their human-like qualities and yet Uryuu felt drained of compassion for them because he wanted to destroy their Hollow ugliness—he fought the urge to battle to the death because it was a distraction from his sole mission of saving Inoue-san. There was the dark fear of making a fatal mistake. He discovered his ability to navigate his hirenkyaku platform in the Hueco Mundo atmosphere too late; he knew the ability would’ve saved time had he used it earlier. He forged on. Inoue-san asked him to take her closer to a dangerous battle. He made the wrong choice.
There would never be childish ideals of what honor meant anymore. Enemies were no longer the monsters one could shoot at from a distance, the menacing Hollow who were inhuman. Could Uryuu fall to some of his own worst faults in a place like this? Uryuu watched his friend Kurosaki turn into a ravaging beast who could kill anyone in his sight—enemy or friend. A good guy like Kurosaki. If such a transformation was possible in Kurosaki, it was possible in anyone.
With fear for himself, knowing that his own sense of honor was at stake, Uryuu watched the Thing that had once been Kurosaki lift his weapon to stab an already slain enemy. An image flashed through Uryuu’s mind. His own father mutilating his mother’s body, conducting a frantic autopsy on her for days and days. There was Mayuri too—in the name of science—examining 2,661 Quincy until they were pulp.
Before he knew it, the one hand that he still had left from the recent fighting grasped Kurosaki’s arm. “That’s enough. The fight is over. There’s no need to mangle his corpse.”
And in that moment, Uryuu’s fear vanished, his sense of honor surged, his goal became to save his friend. “Kurosaki, can you hear me?”
The aftermath was violent, tragic, and Uryuu sat with his friend’s sword in his stomach as the slain Hollow revived. Ulquiorra appeared to be reborn with the illumination of true humanity over his frail body before he turned to dust in the wind, Kurosaki healed himself, and Inoue-san cried and cried, ignoring Uryuu’s wounds.
Uryuu sat there, dumbstruck by what he had witnessed, not even grieving yet, feeling no pain, but aware that he was alone, and that his sensei’s words had held true. His Quincy honor could not be taken from him.
He felt alone with it. It was enough. My honor. I did not lose my Quincy honor. The thought had no sooner entered his mind with a hint of pride when it vanished, the pain in his body starting to break through his resolve, and worse, the sadness of his friends deepening with the sound of Inoue-san’s sobbing. Honor or no honor, he was helpless to bring back the dead, nor could he empty Hueco Mundo of its miles and miles of loneliness, the piles of sand that shifted in the wind and blew around those who had once been its Hollow inhabitants. Loneliness everywhere.
He was not a boy anymore.
23. The Wandenreich
Ishida Uryuu was sent for. He was training by the fast creek where he and Souken had often shot arrows, and the only sounds were birds, an occasional frog, the rush of the water. Uryuu could hear his own intake of breath as he drew back his bow, and then there was a peculiar whoosh in the sky above him. He felt the reiatsu right away: Quincy.
The young man standing before him wore a white uniform with a high collar, too many silver buttons, a waist length cape, and knee-high boots. Uryuu instantly recognized him as one of the officers Grandfather had described from what Uryuu had assumed was a long-ago, perhaps mythological place.
“Ishida Uryuu.” The man bowed. “I am Bogart Jung, a member of His Majesty’s Executive Hunting Corps. We have been observing you for many years, and the Quincy kingdom has extensive daten on the last surviving Quincy in the Living World.”
Uryuu lowered his bow. His grandfather had only dropped clues about another place, another time—did it really still exist? Why hadn’t Ryuuken spoken of it?
“Because your family’s strength was so renown in the Wandenreich, despite your grandfather’s exile, and because His Majesty has been made aware of your ability to use ransoutengai and other rare Quincy techniques, you are being honored with a call to return to your true home.”
Think, think. “What purpose am I to serve in the … Wandenreich?”
“You would serve in His Majesty’s army, of course,” Jung said. “You are no doubt despised here. His Majesty will assign your rank in the event you are granted an audience. It’s not my place to assume, but I would not expect less to be offered to a son of the Ishida family.” And here Jung bowed again.
“What if I refuse to go back?” Uryuu already knew what the answer would be.
“I have orders not to harm you, but other elite members of the hunting corps are standing by to take you by force. I did not think it necessary to persuade you to return to a position of power and privilege, but you should know that His Majesty plans on destroying the World of the Living soon. You honestly have no other option.”
The sound of the babbling creek was all that could be heard for a long moment.
“Give me a day to gather some personal items and make an excuse for my leaving. I will not tell anyone the true reason for my departure.”
Jung gave a wave of his hand. “Of course, a day is granted to you. And it makes no difference to us if you tell anyone about the Quincy invasion. People will know of it soon enough, and there is nothing they can do to prepare. The Living World will fall. As will Hueco Mundo. As will Soul Society.”
Uryuu felt his heart clench. He would come up with a plan.
“I will be back for you in twenty-four hours. In this very place.”
Another Quincy appeared in Karakura not long after; at first Ishida mistook the Quincy for an Arrancar—he wore a piece of a mask, and there was definitely Hollow in him. What Quincy would have the scent of a Hollow? Then Kurosaki left to fight the man, and it was plain what this abomination truly was. Quincy reiatsu rang from the battle scene, and Uryuu felt the full darkness of the situation fall over him. The Wandenreich were doing experiments on other beings, recruiting Arrancar in the pursuit to take over all the existing worlds. That they had contacted Kurosaki was no accident either; they wanted something from Kurosaki, just as they wanted something from him.
Jung was waiting for Uryuu by the creek the next day. Uryuu’s knapsack held small packages encased in the reiatsu-hiding silver with which his father had built the secret basement in Karakura hospital. Who knows, maybe somehow Ryuuken had learned to hide his own presence from these people and that’s why they referred to Uryuu as the only remaining Quincy in the Living World.
As Uryuu made his way through the corridors of the Silbern, as he met the Sternritter, the Quincy king, learned of their transgressions against everything he had been taught by Souken and witnessed their cruelty firsthand, he learned the truth: Quincy honor can be stolen. The Quincy king himself, this horror of a ruler who could not be called a true Quincy, to whom so many Quincy had pledged their souls, had robbed an entire culture of its honor.
But not Uryuu’s. He told himself over and over as the Quincy king stood next to him, called him “Uryuu” in an odd, mild tone approaching affection, that his own honor would not be stolen by this disgusting despot, that he would die before such a thing could happen. He remembered the words of the Quincy tortured by Kurotsuchi. I will stop you.
He looked at the Quincy king who, strangely enough, unlike the others, seemed to trust Uryuu. It was abhorrent, painful, and insulting that the king had anointed Uryuu as prince and successor. The king’s dark, sharp profile stood out against the gray skies.
I may not be able to stop you, but I will die trying. I will die with my honor.
Uryuu turned his face to the wind and felt no fear. It was a waiting game, his senses more alert to his surroundings than ever before, his purpose never more clear.
Like most men in his family, Souken was not given to revealing much about himself. Like most Ishidas, he had a flair for drama; when he told a story, he would speak softly then with more force, pause for effect, and always leave his audience with a riddle to ponder. He taught the ways of the Quincy by example as well, and not a soul beyond his wife knew personal details of his past in the Wandenreich. His son Ryuuken inherited a similar style of passing along information while concealing vital facts. Ishida Ryuuken’s interns sweated when he entered a room, but they learned to diagnose on their feet and think for themselves. No one had ever known his life from boyhood to manhood like Kanae; his only confidences had been shared with her.
Souken had not lived to see Uryuu claim the Ishida penchant for both presenting himself as a spectacle of overwrought theatre while at the same time managing to stay under the radar of many people around him. In senior year, the boy was top of his class, school president, known for giving eloquent speeches on honor in the cafeteria (to anyone who would listen), for wearing checkered wool slacks and designer shirts that were borderline girly, for skipping class often and for selling dresses to local shops, and yet a solid third of the student body would often ask, “who is that guy with the peculiar haircut?” Uryuu usually snapped that the question was better asked about his friend Kurosaki than himself, but everyone knew Kurosaki Ichigo; Uryuu Ishida, somehow, was a man of mystery.
“Souken would have loved those checkered pants,” Ryuuken muttered the day he heard about them. From Isshin of course; Isshin always brought him the talk of the town.
“He’s not in any trouble, is he?” Ryuuken asked as if he didn’t care, but he did.
“He’s a suspected homosexual, but most of the kids know he’s crushing madly on the Inoue girl.” Here, Isshin made a sweeping gesture with his large hands to signify the swell of significant breasts.
“Stop it now. If you’re going to start with gossip from high school children, or worse, from that perverted shop-keeper— “
“No, no, no, I came to tell you that it looks like the Quincy are back. I guess your father was right.”
“What do you mean?”
“You didn’t feel it? Quincy reiatsu all over the place yesterday. Ichigo messed with one. Another one approached your son. No damage done—they talked maybe. That was all.”
Ryuuken felt a pang of remorse. Like his father before him, he had been in a reiatsu-blind chamber when the shit went down. He had been toying with the silver arrowhead. It was too early for the Quincy king to be fully awake, even according to the myths and lore his father had passed down. This wasn’t happening. For years he’d walked the streets in thin street clothes that were actually armor; the armor made his reiatsu imperceptible to Hollow and Arrancar, probably to all but the most perceptive Quincy, but he was at least alert to any threats to Uryuu. Outside the basement, he could still help--No, not now, this can’t be the real war. He didn’t want to fight. He didn’t want a war. His family, the Echt, had prepared for war; that was what they had lived for; the tension and morbid anticipation of living in that sort of family life had been unbearable.
“What are we supposed to do?” asked Isshin. “This could be the big one.”
“I don’t know.” Ryuuken felt in his pocket for his cigarettes. “Our sons will make their own decisions. They’re full-grown men now.”
“The Shinigami are going to go all out. Kisuke is prepared. You know how he rolls. He’s been inside the game for years.”
“Don’t.” Ryuuken’s lighter shot up fire like a torch. “Don’t talk to me about Kisuke.”
“Ok, ok.” Isshin held up his hands. “But what did your pops tell you? Didn’t he have a plan or something?”
Did Souken have a plan?
Souken, as far back as Ryuuken could remember, had only had dreams. Dreams of a better world. He wanted Shinigami and Quincy to cooperate; he wanted tribunals established to investigate war crimes; he wanted the Quincy in the Living World to practice restraint with their destructive power and focus on the more honorable aspects of their culture.
Souken had not been so naïve as to think that the uniquely spiritually gifted baby born to the spiritually gifted people in an oft-told story was their real god, the god they called Yhwach. That which was called Yhwach, as occasionally mentioned by Mother and Father, was older than time and did not exist in a body, human or otherwise. That god had been the source of everything and what bound together all the planes of existence. That Yhwach was not the Spirit King enslaved by the Shinigami but more like a force field created by the processes of the universe itself. The original Quincy, Souken had said, had been but a clan of humans with unique sensitivities that included the ability to sense this god, the true source of Life and Death.
Fuck that god. Ryuuken had never sensed it. Destiny? The way Isshin always talked about such a thing it was as if his own life might still have some grand purpose beyond getting up, going to work, and oh what else was there? Keeping his promise to Kanae….
“The Wandenreich,” Souken had said once, and only once, while Mother, in those early days before servants served breakfast and she was more doting, poured steaming hot miso soup into her husband’s bowl. “They are worshipping a false god. Everyone does this. There are false gods of pleasure, vanity, unbridled self-interest. There is even the false god of obsessive love.” Here, Mrs. Ishida over-filled the bowl; brown broth with bits of spinach poured on the dish below.
“But the surest sign of a false god is one who razes his enemies before seeking negotiation. The balance of the world does not begin with battling the Shinigami. The balance of the world begins with peace in the home.”
That last remark had been enough to disillusion young Ryuuken. He thought of his father’s remark when he was betrothed to Masaki; he questioned whether such an arrangement would make her happy, whether two such unsuited people could really build a life together. Would the marriage end up with him at work all day and Masaki growing lines of resentment on her pretty face as the years passed—like Mother?
“Souken told you things,” Isshin pressed. “You have a plan. You’ve been working in the basement.”
“How do you know?”
“Do you really think I’m an idiot? I have connections. Kisuke makes portals.”
“Goddammit,” Ryuuken said, although he wasn’t surprised.
“This isn’t a matter of avenging our wives or even saving the world, you know.” Isshin crossed his arms. “You want to see that boy of yours survive this, right? To marry a girl, to have a little bit of the happiness we had once, eh? We sure had some fun, right?”
Isshin was deliberately not thinking about the promise he had made to Kanae. There was a way to do that. It was to take a long drag of a cigarette, fill one’s entire mind with the rush of annihilation and deliberately deny that one had ever been happy or could ever be happy again, that happiness itself was one of those false gods Souken had talked about. In fact—here Ryuuken was holding his breath so the fog of nicotine actually jolted his memory—Souken may have said that very thing about happiness once, how it was not worth pursuing as an end in itself.
Not thinking about Kanae, not thinking about Kanae.
“I’ll be back,” Isshin said. “I’ll help you every step of the way. You’re my friend, after all.”
Damn Isshin. Ryuuken chained-smoked through the pack. Damn Father and every single piece of crap he stole from the Wandenreich. Ishida Souken, philosopher and thief. What a family I come from.
25. Mrs. Ishida
She had given her heart to Souken because of the twinkle in his eye; she told herself that it was for other reasons, though. He would make a good match because of his family status, because he was brilliant and treated her with gentlemanliness that went far beyond what was expected of men his age, and because he was confident; this last trait was important. Of all her suitors, Souken was the only one who never once succumbed to a fit of blushing or stammering.
Amaya herself was a confident girl with no patience for fools. Souken was no fool. Sometimes he pretended to be one in order to expose the fools around him, and that cleverness made her laugh. She did not laugh easily like so many girls—nor did she understand why giggling like a child was a trait that many men found appealing. She did not like to appear vulnerable; Souken, apparently, did not like girls who faked vulnerability, who laughed in bell-like tones too loudly at his jokes.
He asked Amaya to marry him not three months after they met; they were married in an elaborate wedding befitting the joining of two powerful Wandenreich families. The couple passed through two long rows of soldat after being pronounced bound for eternity, and after emerging from the human hallway composed of white-uniformed archers, bows were raised, and blue and white reishi shot into the air a thousand feet above, exploding in soundless blinding light, a symbol of the great Quincy power to alter the universe, to destroy souls.
“It’s a beautiful tradition,” Souken explained later to no one in particular; seated around him were many friends eating grapes and drinking the frigid blue cocktail popular at celebrations. “Even in times of greatest joy, never forget that the Quincy are capable of the greatest destruction.”
He had that way about him. His poetry pleased people. Amaya was pleased that he was popular because she, despite her great beauty, was not, and in order to make the proper social connections, a family needed to exude charm and approachability.
She was never henceforth known as Amaya again, except to her husband; she was Mrs. Ishida. That there would be a family, a large one, was not even a matter of debate between husband and wife. She became pregnant right away, and a few weeks before the birth, something went wrong. Souken himself, a famous healer, detected it first. He placed his hand on her tummy one morning in bed and said simply, without preamble but with great sadness, “there is no heartbeat.”
“Do something!” Her voice was panicked.
But nothing could be done; labor was induced, and a dead baby girl was delivered into Souken’s hands.
“Do you want to hold her?” Souken asked.
Mrs. Ishida did. There seemed only one way to hold a baby, to hold its head in one palm and the small body in the other. The baby looked like her cousin, round-faced, small-nosed.
The next baby was stillborn too, too soon to even determine the gender. Mrs. Ishida began to lose her famous confidence. The future she had planned for herself was slowly collapsing; she found herself taking out her resentments on the servants, on Souken himself. “Ask another healer to examine me. You are obviously not the best if you can’t find out what is wrong with me.”
But no one knew what was wrong. Souken himself was examined; there was no reason the two of them could not produce a healthy child. Rest was prescribed; the order only stressed Mrs. Ishida more. When she became pregnant a third time, she prayed for the soul of the first child to return to her. It was a foolish prayer, she realized. She wanted to hold that child in her arms again, to teach her the ways of the Quincy, to mold her into the perfect Quincy wife, the wife that now she herself was falling short of being.
Ishida Ryuuken was born on a spring day, perfectly healthy, bald and blue-eyed, with the elegant toes and fingers her side of the family was known for, and before the boy was even a year old, it was clear that he was a genius like his father.
By that time, there was already unrest among quarreling factions in the Wandenreich. Mrs. Ishida worried about her husband going to battle; she began to fret about Ryuuken growing up and having to fight. Her own battle skills were almost non-existent. She had done poorly in archery in academy; her gifts were in administrative management and planning. Like Souken, she could easily anticipate which way the political winds were blowing, but she was clueless about how to influence people as effectively as he was; she told him what she thought might work best; she was the woman behind the man who spoke at rallies.
One night, her back against the bedrest, her long black hair unbraided, her eyes calm but her mouth pinched with anxiety, she told Souken, “We’re going to be exiled. We may as well start planning a new life in the World of the Living.”
“You’re right,” he agreed. “I’ll need to start packing some artifacts bit by bit so no one notices my movements.”
“Weapons, secrets.” There was that twinkle in his eye again. “Do you think I’d leave my history behind me? We can start a new Quincy clan elsewhere.”
“They’ll kill you if they find out what you’ve done! If the Shinigami don’t first! They massacred Quincy not long ago. It’s not going to be easy, Souken—we’ve got to be very careful.”
“I’ve got this,” he promised.
She believed him, but she was worried. Her brow furrowed, and that was the expression she would wear for most of her remaining years.
Souken had made the mistake for so many years that training his body was more important than training his mind and heart. Like many who are gifted in one area or another, he did not feel the need to study what came naturally to him. He was possessed of a quick wit and a keen intelligence; his compassion came naturally. He trained to excess in his private chamber for much of his early life, neglecting his wife. His mind had not been able to foresee how conflicted and rebellious his son was becoming. By the time Uryuu was old enough, Souken reached out to his grandson with all his heart. The great irony was that Uryuu called Souken “Sensei,” but it was Uryuu who taught the old man more about love than anyone else.
Ryuuken was good at teaching himself to stretch his talents to their limits; he taught himself to be an expert archer, to be an exacting and consummate surgeon, to love Kanae so that she would never doubt his devotion. What he could not do was train his heart to forgive himself after his wife’s death. There was no desire to do that sort of work. He carried on, a cigarette on his lip. He trained himself to disguise his emotions, to kick ash over even the slightest embers of hope and love he felt for his son.
Uryuu worked hard. He knew that he was not the strongest at his school, so he trained at archery by himself before Grandfather even offered to help. He trained after Grandfather’s death until his upper body was pure sleek muscle. He knew he was smart, but he read beyond assigned syllabi, not just for pleasure but out of a sense of obligation that he should understand the world’s history, cultures, and languages. He knew he was given to unsightly spasms of emotion, sometimes easily startled, occasionally brought to tears of sadness, and he trained, as his father had, but without Ryuuken’s perfect achievement, to control his emotions. At the very least, he was able to look intimidating in battle and to give tough looks to anyone who crossed him in high school. His deepest heart? He would do anything for his friends, for he had spent most of his life a loner, and he loved his friends. He also loved a girl, and had spent long years training his heart to be self-less when it came to her.
But the day Yhwach was defeated, the world didn’t end, and yet something else did. Uryuu wasn’t sure what, but it reminded him of the huge sense of nothingness one feels right after finishing a final exam. There was no immediate goal, nothing to work towards, and Uryuu was accustomed to training hard every day of his life. For one moment, when he was alone in the rubble in the Royal Realm, after his father had walked away, and Inoue-san and Sado-kun were helping someone trapped under a fallen wall, and no one could see, he wrapped his arms around his knees, put his head down and wept silent tears.
He was immediately ashamed. He had no idea what had come over him. He imagined that Grandfather would have explained the moment to him. He considered that maybe he needed to vent out his feelings physically somehow, let loose arrows and tire himself out, but he already felt so tired. He wiped his eyes with his sleeve and got up to see if he could help the others.
My father always wanted to help people too. He just trained himself to lie about it.
“Where are our dads?” Kurosaki wondered. A circle of friends was sitting on piles of rocks in the Royal Realm, and some official Soul Society business was going on; the captain commander, now healed of his injuries, was yards away, speaking in private with Renji about recent events. It seemed to Uryuu that everyone was waiting to be interrogated.
Uryuu scanned for reiatsu before he looked over the horizon. There they were, standing together against a wall of what had been the Quincy king’s palace. Ryuuken looked oddly noble in his Quincy uniform, arms crossed, no cigarette. Isshin was gesturing wildly, no doubt annoying the hell out of Ryuuken. Then Uryuu actually saw his father mouth the word idiot.
“I come from one dysfunctional family,” Uryuu muttered, not really intending anyone to respond.
“I’m sorry.” Kurosaki looked like hell. He wasn’t beat up so much as he seemed emotionally exhausted, his eyes wearier than Uryuu had ever seen them. Kurosaki was probably up next for Captain Kyouraku’s questioning. “I grew up with so much family around me, and I know you and your dad…. I mean, I know you were alone …” Was Kurosaki having some kind of brain aneurysm? What the hell was this sputtering apology? “No Quincies to hang out with, I mean.”
“We’re related,” Ishida said curtly. “Your dysfunctional family is part of my dysfunctional family.”
“You know?” Kurosaki’s eyes seemed to come to life for a moment.
“Urahara-san told me. A long time ago. When you lost your powers. During those seventeen months, I was working to keep down the Hollow population, and I trained in that candy shop basement a lot.”
There was a long, not uncomfortable silence as everyone sat, breathing in and out from exhaustion, uncertain of what would happen next.
“I don’t have a family really except for all of you,” Inoue Orihime said. She pulled Ishida Ryuuken’s Quincy coat around her because it was dusk, getting colder, and sharp winds were blowing. “I try to think of people I meet everywhere as family. Aren’t we all a family when you think of it that way? We’re all… connected somehow?”
Kuchiki-san spoke in a soft voice: “That’s a nice way to look at it. When Renji and I were growing up, our friends were our family too.”
Sado-kun was clenching and un-clenching one fist in front of his face. “Abuelo told me never to use my power for personal gain.”
Everyone looked at him expectantly. There might be a story afterwards; there might not be. With Sado-kun, one never knew if the full meaning of anything he said was to be guessed at, like a poem, or if one sentence was supposed to be a stepping stone to some important issue for others to discuss.
Uryuu was on the verge of telling his friend that he had fought bravely for the sake of protecting others, when the large man spoke again.
“Abuelo was my only family. To this day, I’ve always kept my promise to him, but I’ve been thinking…”
All ears were waiting.
“I want to go veterinary school. I’m going to need some cash. Since I’ve been working out, a few coaches have come up and said I could make it in the ring. Championship money. Now, I know it wouldn’t be fair. I’m too strong, and I can beat anyone, but…”
“If you go easy on them,” Kurosaki said.
Uryuu cocked his head to one side. “If you cheat, you mean.”
“It would be to help sick dogs and cats later!” Inoue-san piped up. “I think his abuelo would approve!”
Kuchiki-san smiled the tiniest bit—it was the first smile Uryuu had seen in a long while. She turned her violet eyes to Sado-kun and pronounced, “Look at me, Chad.” The big guy looked in her direction but because of the hair in his eyes, it was impossible to see if he was looking directly at her. “You know in your heart already what you need to do, don’t you? It’s just that you need support and validation … from your family.”
Sado-kun nodded. “You’re a wise woman, Kuchiki-san.”
Kurosaki looked from Sado-kun to Kuchiki-san to each of his friends sitting around him, his eyes still sad and lost, but there was a special tenderness in them now. When his gaze fell on Uryuu, he said, “Not so dysfunctional maybe? Kinda ok.”
“All right, all right,” Uryuu said. “For the record, I weigh in that Sado-kun should choose the path that leads to the most ethical outcome. I myself was wrong to judge so quickly because I have a trust fund and huge scholarships offered to me all the time, and I— “
Everyone was staring.
“I’m sorry; what I mean is that I’m agreeing that Sado-kun should follow his own heart. I just wanted to give the perspective of— “
“You would make a good lawyer,” said Inoue-san.
“A good fashion designer,” offered Sado-kun.
“Doctor?” Kuchiki-san said. “You’re in line to inherit that hospital, aren’t you?”
“I vote for the head of a non-dysfunctional family,” Kurosaki said, his eyes a little less weary. “The kind of dad who dresses all his kids in matching outfits and makes sure they do their homework on time, but isn’t really a dickhead.”
“Not a dickhead,” Uryuu repeated. “That’s a great goal, Kurosaki. I always aim high.”
He wasn’t really joking. Not being a dickhead sounded like an excellent life-plan.
28 Happy Endings
One cold winter night when Uryuu was a little boy, his mother read him a bedtime story, a book that was mostly illustrations, beautiful detailed ink drawings. The story wasn’t much—there was a good knight fighting a dragon, a bad king who held an archery competition in the deep green forest, the prize being marriage to the king’s daughter who was the fairest in the land. The print was large, the vocabulary simple, and it was not at all the sort of story Uryuu liked at all; he preferred little paperbacks with facts about reptiles or rocks or traditional costumes of all nations.
Mother liked the story; her voice rang with pleasure reading it. Uryuu had to admit the pictures were good. The forest gleamed with lush green possibility; the archers’ arrows shot into the air with speed one could see; the eyes of the princess expressed realistic fear. “How do people draw so well?” He asked at one point.
“Some people are talented at it, and they work hard at what they’re good at,” Mother said.
So it was like Father being a doctor or Grandfather being a Quincy.
The story ended with a marriage, and Uryuu said, “That’s it? There isn’t any more?”
“It’s a happy ending,” Mother said.
Uryuu went to bed, but he thought about what Mother had said the next day, and once he had thought and thought himself into a corner, he asked Grandfather about the subject.
The magnolia tree was blooming, and Grandfather was cutting some blossoms with a thick knife to take inside. The pink flowers made Mother happy.
It was so cold that Uryuu had to pull down the scarf covering his mouth. “When will it be warm again?”
“Soon,” Grandfather said.
“Why are seasons a little different every year? I don’t remember it being this cold last year when the magnolias bloomed?”
“Every season is a little bit the same as the one before but always different.”
“Grandfather, what are happy endings?”
The old man stopped looking through the tree branches for the most perfect blossoms and turned his gaze to his grandson. “Honestly, Uryuu, there are no such things.”
“There are in books. Mother read a happy ending to me the other day. It seemed really fake.”
Grandfather laughed. He cut off another magnolia. “Ha, you see, that’s right. That’s because there are no endings. We are always going around in circles. Happiness isn’t really a thing to be pursued; one shouldn’t strive to be happy; one should strive to be good, to be honorable.”
Uryuu was stamping his feet. It was that cold. “Isn’t happiness a good thing, though?”
“Oh of course, of course.”
Uryuu thought that he felt happy at that particular moment, and it was at that particular moment that Grandfather said, “What we are blessed with is life itself, and life has sad moments and happy moments. Remember the happy ones when you can.”
And so Uryuu would do that.
After the defeat of Yhwach, when the end of the world did not happen, and yet there was a sadness in his heart that felt it might stretch out without an end, he lay back on the ground, the skies darkening above him, the reiatsu in the Royal Realm so thick it was hard to literally be still in it without feeling its weight on one’s body, all the worlds of the universe still shuddering from the shock of what had occurred and seeming to breathe in synchronized fear over the great unknowable future—
Uryuu knew that there would be no happy ending soon, so he recalled happy moments.
Helping his mother pick out dresses and her delight when he found just the right golden linen shift her size in the boutique.
Grandfather’s noodles, how the steam from the pot clouded the old man’s glasses so his smiling eyes were no longer visible, and then how Uryuu’s own glasses turned cloudy when his bowl was filled. The warmth was felt, not seen.
Inoue-san, those floral skirts she used to wear in high school, so pretty, and her unwavering faith in him when no one else had it. He lied to her about going to Soul Society for the purpose of saving anyone. She looked at him with those light brown eyes that saw right through him. “I’ll be waiting,” she told him.
The first time Kurosaki paid for lunch. He really paid for it. Sucker.
Training with Sado-kun in the basement of Urahara-san’s candy shop. Sado-kun and he worked well together. They also got to eat a lot of free snacks. Funny how for a big guy Sado did not eat as much as one would guess.
How Abarai had called Uryuu the brains of the two in Hueco Mundo and quit being a smart-ass when it came to real battle. He was a nicer guy than one would ever assume at first. If he wasn’t trying to kill you, he would give you the shirt off his back. No one could ask for a better friend.
Eating dinner at the Kurosaki house and Yuzu-chan serving everyone in her cute little apron. Everyone treated Uryuu like family or at least in that way Uryuu had heard families were supposed to act—familiar, talking over one another’s sentences, curious about one another’s interests, expressing emotions—negative ones even—openly. It was a shock later, not an unpleasant one, to discover that he was indeed related to this noisy, happy bunch.
When Kuchiki-san healed him after he was ambushed by Tsukishima. “Thank you for coming for Ichigo,” she said. “I can tell you weren’t fully healed. You must have left the hospital in pain.” Uryuu wouldn’t acknowledge that, of course, but there was always something reassuring about being in Kuchiki-san’s presence, like one was being graced by exemplary good judgement. “You’re someone Ichigo worries about too much. He would never say so, but he does. I’m not sure why, since you’re very smart and powerful and nowhere NEAR as reckless as he is, but do me a favor and don’t charge into any battles if you’re not at full-strength.” Uryuu planned not to take her advice, but it was good to know she cared. And Kurosaki—what a dope.
Ryuuken appearing out of nowhere and shooting that silver arrowhead at Uryuu’s feet. “You are the one who should shoot this arrow.” It was the one and only time his father had expressed trust in him. It was the moment he understood his father’s love for his mother, all of it. It was the moment when so much sadness took on another context—no, it was not erased—but it made sense, and Uryuu’s heart was full of hope and happiness and purpose.
Not an ending, a will to go on.
“Ishida-kuuuuuuuun,” sang a voice above him as he lay there in the night. “The little Fullbringer boy, Yukio, is bringing a transport. Don’t you want to be with us on the first ride?”
“Yes, yes, of course, Inoue-san.” Uryuu rose and brushed dust off his clothes. “Where are we going?”
She spread her arms wide. His father’s jacket sleeves fluttered like angel wings in the sharp night winds. “I have no idea!”
Of course. There were no happy endings, only happy memories, and Uryuu had only begun to collect the tales of his life.
Nicht Das Ende